Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Chilcot sets agenda

Public grilling for Gordon Brown and Tony Blair in Iraq inquiry

Chilcot rules that witnesses will be expected to give evidence in public

Nicholas Watt, chief political correspondent
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 23 June 2009 21.13 BST

Gordon Brown and Tony Blair face being questioned in public over their roles in the run-up to the Iraq war after the chairman of the independent inquiry indicated that he is to summon the prime minister and his predecessor to give evidence.

In a setback for Brown, who had hoped the inquiry would be held in private, Sir John Chilcot has ruled that all witnesses will be expected to give evidence in public. This will apply across the board unless there are "compelling reasons" in a small number of cases for evidence to be heard in private. This would be if evidence could jeopardise national security or upset allies.

The decision by Chilcot opens up the prospect that Blair and Brown will be cross-examined on their roles in the Iraq war during the build-up to the general election that is expected to take place next year. Chilcot is not giving any indication on the timings of his hearings, which means that he could defer politically sensitive appearances by Brown and his predecessor until after the election.

The move to open up his hearings, which came on the eve of a Commons debate tomorrow on the inquiry, shows that a wholesale change of the terms has been carried out since the inquiry was established by the prime minister last week. The decision to summon Brown and Blair for public hearings was disclosed by Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, who met Chilcot today on privy council terms. Chilcott held a separate meeting with David Cameron on the same terms.

In a letter to Chilcot, Clegg wrote: "I was pleased to see how much progress has been made from the initial position set out by the prime minister last week regarding the process of the inquiry … It was also good to hear you confirm that you will be seeking evidence from Tony Blair and others in high office at the time, and would want their evidence to be held in public except in very limited circumstances."

Cameron, who asked Chilcot to summon Brown before the inquiry, was more guarded in his remarks. Tory sources said they were "hopeful" that the prime minister would be summoned before Chilcot.

The prospect of public grillings for Brown and Blair shows how the prime minister's plans for the inquiry have been dramatically changed since it was established last week. On 15 June Brown told MPs that the inquiry would be modelled on the Franks inquiry into the 1982 Falklands war, which met in private. He said: "I believe that that will also ensure that evidence given by serving and former ministers, military officers and officials is as full and candid as possible."

The prime minister announced last week that Chilcot would chair the five-strong committee of non-political privy counsellors. Clegg said that Chilcot had agreed to a series of other changes:

• Expert assessors, including retired senior military officers, public and constitutional law experts and experts on post-war reconstruction, will support the five members of the inquiry. These experts could cross-examine witnesses.

• Chilcot has indicated that he remains open to the idea of publishing an interim report, according to Clegg. The Lib Dems and Tories want an interim report to be published before the general election. Chilcot, whose inquiry is not due to report until July 2010, is expected to be highly cautious about publishing on the eve of the election.

• Witnesses will not, as expected, be required to swear an oath. But Clegg says Chilcot has indicated that he will specify to witnesses in writing and verbally that their evidence must be truthful.

The signals from Chilcot – likely to be accepted by the government, which has given the former Northern Ireland Office permanent secretary a free hand – should reduce the chances of a defeat for No 10 in tomorrow's Commons debate.

Government sources said they were relaxed with Chilcot's plans. "We have always said we would fully co-operate with the inquiry," a senior source said.


Nick Clegg's open letter to Sir John Chilcot:

Dear Sir John,

Thank you for meeting with me earlier regarding your inquiry.

I was pleased to see how much progress has been made from the initial position set out by the Prime Minister last week regarding the process of the inquiry.

In particular, I was pleased to hear that you will hold sessions in public unless there is a “compelling” reason to do otherwise; that your list of those requested to give evidence will be “comprehensive”; that expert assessors will be appointed to the inquiry to give the panel support in the areas of military process, public and constitutional law and development aid; that you remain open to the idea of publishing an interim report; and that you will specify to witnesses in writing and verbally that their evidence must be truthful and complete to the best of their recollection. It was also good to hear you confirm that you will be seeking evidence from Tony Blair and others in high office at the time, and would want their evidence to be held in public except in very limited circumstances.

These changes to the original proposals set out by the Prime Minister clearly improve the inquiry and make it more likely that it will secure public support. However, I still believe there are further steps that should be taken to improve the inquiry further.

First, as it does not seem likely that the membership of the inquiry panel can be changed at this stage, I believe it is vital that you add to your team someone with high level experience of cross-examination. The appointment of a Counsel to the Inquiry to lead the questioning would enable the inquiry to probe witnesses far more effectively.

Second, I would like to restate my belief that an interim report, covering the run-up to the war, would be of enormous benefit and should be published before the next general election.

Third, while I understand that, as this is not a judicial inquiry, you cannot require participants to take a legal oath, I do believe it is essential for witnesses to make a verbal affirmation of their intent to speak the truth.

Finally, there must be a clear, transparent process by which decisions are taken as to what evidence is held in private. You said this morning you would set out published criteria, and I look forward to seeing them, ideally as part of a consultative process before a final decision is taken. My recommendation would be that you put forward very restrictive criteria: only evidence which would have a clear impact on national security should be kept hidden from public scrutiny. Personal embarrassment or inconvenience cannot be a reason to hold evidence behind closed doors.

We talked this morning about a separate group of witnesses: those who come forward of their own volition, rather than being invited to give evidence by the inquiry. This would apply to those who have evidence or experience of which you would not otherwise be aware, likely to be those in more junior roles within the government and its agencies.

I understand your view that some of them might only be willing to come forward if their evidence was confidential and that, therefore, it is fair for you to give them wider scope for privacy. I accept that it may be right to offer preferential treatment to those who would never have come to your attention otherwise. However, this must not occur at the cost of openness for the list of “invited” witnesses, which should remain as full and comprehensive as possible. I would strongly object to any exemption from openness offered to junior officials becoming the wider rule.

You have also expressed some concern that “invited” officials could automatically be entitled to legal representation. This should not be a reason to restrict the openness of the proceedings. Some legal representation is, in my view, a small price to pay for the greater prize of openness and legitimacy. The possibility of opening the door to legal representation must not be used as a reason not to follow through on your commitment to be “comprehensive” in setting out the list of witnesses you intend to hear from.

Thank you for engaging with me in this way on this inquiry.

Nick Clegg



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