Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Oaths and Blame

Iraq inquiry will attribute blame, says Miliband

Foreign secretary also concedes it would be possible for witnesses to give evidence on oath

Andrew Sparrow and agencies, Wednesday 24 June 2009 15.38 BST

The inquiry into the Iraq war being conducted by Sir John Chilcot will be able to attribute blame, David Miliband said today.

The foreign secretary made the concession in a debate called by the Tories, who are unhappy with the terms of the inquiry announced by Gordon Brown last week.

Miliband also said that he thought it would be possible for witnesses to give evidence to the inquiry on oath.

The prime minister said the inquiry would not apportion blame when he first announced it. He also said that it would take evidence in private and that witnesses would not have to give evidence on oath.

With many Labour MPs threatening to vote with the Tories in today's debate because they want the inquiry to be more open, Brown unveiled a U-turn on Monday when he released a letter from Chilcot saying that as much evidence as possible would be heard in public. Brown welcomed this in a letter he sent to Chilcot that was also released to the media.

Today, when pressed on Brown's decision to tell the inquiry not to apportion blame, Miliband told MPs that members of the inquiry would be "entirely free to write their own report".

He said the inquiry had not been set up "to establish civil or criminal liability". But that would not stop it making judgements.

"Everything beyond that is within its remit: it can praise or blame whoever it likes, it is free to write its own report at every stage," he said.

Miliband also said that Chilcot thought there were ways that he could address the matter of getting witnesses to give evidence on oath. Some MPs said he would not have the power to do this, because the inquiry will not be a statutory inquiry, but Miliband said that this would not be a problem.

"I am reliably informed that you do not need a statutory power to administer an oath," he said.

Opening the debate for the Tories, William Hague urged Miliband to set out detailed terms of reference for the inquiry and called on ministers to apologise for the "monumental mess" that had been made of setting it up.

Hague said Chilcot had been forced to make a number of concessions on behalf of the government since the prime minister's announcement, including the appointment of a military adviser and the belief that much of the evidence should be heard in public.

Hague said that in declaring the inquiry would not report before a general election, the government had chosen timing that was "utterly cynical and politically motivated".

The initial membership was "too narrow", consultation was "inadequate and unnecessarily short" and the only element similar to the Franks inquiry into the Falklands war that had been retained was that it would be behind closed doors, he said.

Today Brown's spokesman said the prime minister would be willing to give evidence in public, provided national security considerations were met.

Hague welcomed the U-turns but called on ministers to set out more detail on what would be expected from the probe.

The shadow foreign secretary said: "The policy on secrecy has been changed. The policy on military expertise has started to be addressed but has not been fully addressed. The chairman of the inquiry has begun a process of consultation suggesting more changes could be on the way and they should be on the way.

"And so now an inquiry that is seriously overdue cannot even get off to a clean start, but will spend an unspecified period of time adjusting its remit – a recipe for confusion rather than clarity.

"We appreciate the efforts of Sir John Chilcot to make up for the deficiencies of the initial announcement, but the government's handling of this issue means that as things currently stand the inquiry starts its work with far less credibility in the eyes of the public or parliament than it should really have had."

Hague called for a debate on the terms of reference, said the committee should have a more diverse membership including military and ministerial experience, asked whether the committee would be able to produce an interim report and access all relevant records of meetings between the British and American governments, and urged ministers to confirm a commitment to openness.

A number of Labour MPs, including Paul Flynn (Newport West), David Winnick (Walsall North) and Gordon Prentice (Pendle) also criticised elements of the inquiry as it was originally established.


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