Sunday, June 21, 2009

Straw - "no problem" with openness

Page last updated at 10:25 GMT, Sunday, 21 June 2009 11:25 UK

Straw relaxed on open Iraq probe

Justice Secretary Jack Straw has said he has "no problem" giving evidence to the Iraq war inquiry in public.

Mr Straw, foreign secretary during the 2003 invasion, said he believed then-Prime Minster Tony Blair would also be ready to testify in an open hearing.

The government has been criticised for its decision to conduct the inquiry, which begins in July, in private.

Downing Street and Mr Blair's spokesman dismissed claims it was prompted by pressure from the ex-prime minister.

'Grand cover-up'

Mr Straw told BBC One's Andrew Marr Show that Sir John Chilcot - who will lead the inquiry - had indicated that it would be "mixed" between public and private sessions.

The justice secretary said he would be prepared to testify publicly on matters that did not relate to sensitive intelligence or that put the lives of British forces at risk.

Mr Straw said: "As foreign secretary at the time I have no problem with giving most of the evidence I have got to give in public.

"In fairness to Tony, he has given the equivalent of evidence in public scores and scores of time.

"I'm completely comfortable giving most of my evidence in public and I'm sure he is."

He added that the government had set up the probe along the lines of the Franks inquiry into the Falklands war in response to calls from the Conservatives.

But BBC political correspondent Vicky Young said pressure was building for the probe to be conducted publicly.

The Observer newspaper says Mr Blair urged Gordon Brown not to hold a public inquiry because he feared being subjected to a "show trial".

Before the inquiry was announced Mr Blair - who took Britain into the war in 2003 - is said by the paper to have put pressure on the prime minister via the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus O'Donnell.

The paper alleges Mr Blair did not want to give evidence in public, and under oath, about the use of intelligence and secret discussions held with ex-US president George W Bush during the run-up to the conflict.

Responding to the claims, a spokesman for Mr Blair said: "This is a decision for the current prime minister, not the former one."

A Downing Street spokesman said the report was "just plain wrong".

He added: "We have always been clear that we consulted a number of people before announcing the commencement of the inquiry, including former government figures.

"We are not going to get into the nature of those discussions."

But Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg told BBC One's Andrew Marr Show that it appeared Mr Brown had been "dictated to by his predecessor".

Mr Clegg added: "If the inquiry is to have any legitimacy, the prime architect of the decision to go to war in Iraq alongside George Bush should give his evidence in public under oath.

"I think anything less will make people feel this is just a grand cover-up for, after all, what was the biggest foreign policy mistake this country has made since Suez."

The inquiry will start next month and aims to indentify "lessons learned".

When he announced it on Monday the prime minister said the inquiry would hear evidence in private so witnesses could be "as candid as possible".

But following widespread criticism Mr Brown later appeared to backtrack, saying it would be up to Sir John to decide which session of the inquiry could be held in public.

On Wednesday the prime minister is due to face a Commons vote on a Conservative motion that evidence given to the Iraq inquiry should be heard in public "whenever possible".


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