Thursday, 25 June 2009

Westminster debate on Iraq inquiry.

I listened to most of the debate on the terms of reference for Sir John Chilcot's inquiry into the Iraq war yesterday and it was one of those intelligent, passionate, occasions that reminds you, after weeks of expenses and botched coups and personality politics - that parliament does sometimes serve as the cockpit of the nation.

The main news line was a concession that the inquiry will be able to apportion "blame" but the anger of most MPs who spoke was about how meaningless that would be if witnesses did not give evidence under oath. Andrew Mackinlay, very volcanic, was best in explaining why the oath was required.

It's one of these debates that's worth reading in full on Hansard (from column 800). I will again to see what Michael Mates was hinting at about dodgy dossiers and for what Clare Short said about cabinet discussions on the issue. They whet your appetite for what the inquiry will eventually reveal. If you don't have time here's a flavour from my notes.

Iraq inquiry debate - Herald 25/06/09

A golden opportunity to drain the poisonous legacy of the Iraq war from the Labour party and British politics has been lost by the government’s handling of the inquiry into the conflict, Gordon Brown was told last night.

Opening an opposition debate on the Chilcot inquiry, shadow Foreign Secretary William Hague, said the government had made a "monumental mess" of the consulting other parties in setting up the inquiry. The original proposal for private hearings, the restricted membership and the timing - the inquiry is due to report back after the next election - was "utterly cynical and politically motivated" said Mr Hague.

Since announcing the closed doors inquiry last week Mr Brown had "engaged in a U-turn executed in stages" and had relied on Sir John to announce changes, rather admit he was "in the wrong", said Mr Hague.

In a further climbdown yesterday the government conceeded the inquiry can now apportion "blame" for the causes of the conflict. Foreign Secretary David Miliband said "The inquiry will have complete freedom to write its own report". Sir John Chilcot’s inquiry and would "deliver for the country an inquiry of insight and value" .

Sir John Chilcot has already said he believes it is "essential" that proceedings are open wherever possible but Mr Miliband angered MPs by leaving it to iquiry whether witnesses be put under some form of oath.

Malcolm Rifikind MP, who obtained a concession from David Miliband over apportioning blame, said it was disgraceful that no one with military experience was sitting on a inquiry into a war. Iain Duncan Smith, the former Tory leader, said MPs should also to be represented. "We are elected, we have to be accountable, why aren’t we on this committee? It is an opportunity to rebuild trust in parliament." Michael Mates MP, who sat on two previous inquiries into Iraq, made the same point.

Bob Marshall Andrews, a Labour anti-war MP, said the Prime Minister’s words on learning lessons from the Iraq war were "sophistry". The real issue, he said, was "whether this House and the British people were misled for the reasons for war."

Former Lib Dem leader Sir Menzies Campbell argued full responsibility for the inquiry should rest with Commons, anything else was a deriliction of duty, and that demand was reflected in other contributions. He wanted to know about the legal advice for the war, the role of the cabinet and whether Tony Blair was, as reported, commited to military action as early as 2002.

David Winnick MP, said the inquiry would change nothing. "Those against, who feel strongly that the decision was wrong, will not change their minds". Glasgow Central MP Mohammed Sarwar intervened to say he had changed his mind. He voted for the war but "what we have learned since then has proved our fears right".

The inquiry was an opportuntiy to correct one of Britain’s biggest foreign policy mistakes and to examine the humanitarian costs, said the Glasgow MP. "The fear is that it will be some kind of whitewash, it must be used to build the trust and respect of the British people and our standing in the international community."

Clair Short, who quit the cabinet in 2003 over Iraq and now sits as an independent MP, said she was "stunned" that the attorney general, Lord Goldsmith, had brought "such a concotted legal opinion" on the war to cabinet. Meetings of the cabinet on Iraq "were little chats rather than proper considerations of the options," she revealed. "I remain deeply shaken by the way the interpretation of international law was manipulated to fit the policy." The British system of government needed an overhaul to make sure the same mistakes were not repeated.

George Galloway, the Respect MP elected on an anti-war platform, said Iraq was a war crime, not just a blunder. He said: "The Labour Party’s membership has halved because of Iraq, millions left them because of the poison that this Iraq question has caused to pulse around the British body politic. If they did they would have used this opportunity for a grand catharsis and to finally leave Blair behind and have the kind of inquiry that is being demanded here tonight."

Andrew Mackinlay, Labour, was one of many MPs who made an angry call for evidence to be heard under oath. He said the government might win the vote but it had lost the debate. In the event the government's majority was cut from 62 to 39.

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