Friday, June 19, 2009

Lord Butler

Iraq — Debate

House of Lords debates, 18 June 2009, 2:22 pm

Moved By Lord Fowler

To call attention to the Iraq invasion and lessons for the future; and to move for Papers.


Lord Butler of Brockwell (Crossbench)

My Lords, I join the congratulations and thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, for giving the House the opportunity to hold this very timely debate.

The Government's political interest in an inquiry in the form proposed by the Prime Minister is obvious. The Government have conceded the inquiry which they promised, and the arrangements proposed for it ensure that we will hear no more about it until after the general election. The question is whether the Government have allowed their political interest to overcome the national interest.

There must be two purposes to a further inquiry. One is to learn lessons from the policy decisions taken in connection with the Iraq war. The second is to act as a sort of truth and reconciliation process for those, including the bereaved, who think that they were misled, even deceived, about the Government's reasons for joining the war. I think it possible, indeed probable, that an inquiry on the lines proposed can suggest useful policy lessons from the war. Certainly, I make no criticism in that respect of the distinguished people appointed to the inquiry, particularly its chairman, for whom I have a very high regard. But there is no prospect that an inquiry conducted entirely in private can purge the national feeling of mistrust.

I do not find the national security arguments in favour of an inquiry in private convincing. The review that I chaired published verbatim the Government's intelligence assessments on which the decision to go to war was based. If there is confidential material—for example, about discussions with allies—or if there are witnesses who are prepared to speak openly only in private, it would be possible for the inquiry to hold in camera sessions for that purpose. Nor am I persuaded by the arguments that an open inquiry would be a field day for lawyers. Not every inquiry has to be like the Saville inquiry and, if witnesses need protection from the inquiry, they need protection whether it is in public or in private. So I reluctantly conclude that the form of the inquiry proposed by the Government has been dictated more by their political interest than by the national interest, and that it cannot achieve the purpose of purging mistrust which so many people hope for from it.

There is an additional point for Parliament, as was pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord Fowler. There are many differences from the circumstances in which the Franks inquiry into the Falklands War was established, but there is one crucial difference. That inquiry was set up with the support and participation of all parties in Parliament. In this case it is clear that neither the Official Opposition, nor the Liberal Democrat party, nor many government Back-Benchers, nor many noble Lords who have spoken on this side today are happy about an inquiry conducted entirely in private. It is therefore doubtful whether the form of the inquiry, if submitted to a vote in Parliament, would obtain a majority. The question arises: should the form of an inquiry into the actions of the Government be determined exclusively by the Government?

On 6 July 1982 the then Prime Minister announced the membership and terms of reference of the Franks inquiry. On 8 July 1982, two days later, she moved a motion seeking Parliament's approval and a substantial debate followed before the motion was passed. So I ask the Minister: will the Government similarly seek Parliament's approval for this inquiry, or does the Prime Minister's pledge to return power to Parliament not stretch to giving it the opportunity to approve and, if it wishes, to amend the proposal for the inquiry? If the Prime Minister's decision to return power to Parliament does not stretch to that, it now looks likely that the opposition parties in another place will, next week, take matters into their own hands and pass an amendment seeking that the inquiry should be conducted in public. I suggest that that is not the way in which these things should be done.



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