Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton):
A month ago, I wrote to the Prime Minister because of the answer that he gave me when I questioned him about the provenance of the dodgy document on the Floor of the House in February. Is my right hon. Friend surprised that, although the Foreign Secretary has apologised for the document, those of us who have questioned the Prime Minister on the Floor of the House have yet to see his own ministerial code implemented and to receive an appropriate apology, correcting the record?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and it is not for want of our asking for an apology that the
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Prime Minister has failed to give one. It is yet another indication of the Prime Minister's arrogance and his contempt not only for the House, but for his own rules in relation to his Ministers that he has not seen fit to come to the House to apologise. The Committee did not and could not, however, give the Government, the Prime Minister or Mr. Alastair Campbell a totally clean bill of health, hence our motion today.
We stand by our support for the action that was taken in Iraq. Like the Committee, we have no doubt, to quote paragraph 41 of the report, that
"the threat posed to UK forces was perceived as a real and present danger".
We believe that the development of weapons of mass destruction in the hands of Saddam Hussein and his refusal to comply with 18 UN Security Council resolutions justified action. That is why we supported the Government in the vote in the House on 18 March. Let me make it clear: we did not sustain the Government in office that night for fun or out of a sense of friendship. We did so because we believed that the threat to our national interest was real and that the Prime Minister was acting in the national interest.
That, however, is not the main issue of today's debate, which is about the way that the Government handled information in the run-up to that vote. The existence of weapons of mass destruction was not the sole justification for action, but they were certainly a part of it. The Prime Minister conceded that before the Liaison Committee on 8 July when he said:
"I accept entirely the legal basis for action was through weapons of mass destruction."
That brings me to the central purpose of today's debate. The Foreign Secretary rightly stated yesterday that the ability of the House to vote for or against war was a constitutional change. Not only was it a change but it carries grave responsibilities, which none of us on the night of the vote took lightly. Decisions of life and death can and must be taken only on the best information available. In the case of Iraq and Saddam Hussein, much of that information was bound to be intelligence-based and intelligence-provided. The House has no direct access to such intelligence but only what it is told by Ministers. The House must therefore be able to have total confidence not only in the intelligence information vouchsafed to it by the Prime Minister and his colleagues but in knowing what is intelligence-sourced and what is not. If that confidence is lacking or has been breached, the House cannot be responsibly asked to take on such grave matters.
The Prime Minister and the Government have an overriding duty to be scrupulous and consistent in the way that they provide intelligence material to Parliament. Over these last months, that has clearly not been the case. Two key areas exist, which are inevitably linked but nevertheless distinct: first, the status of the evidence on weapons of mass destruction, and secondly, the way in which the Government have handled and made public intelligence material. At the moment, the theme that links those more than anything else is that of confusion and inconsistency. In this area in which clarity is essential and consistency is vital, we have all found ourselves enmeshed in an increasingly tangled web that has been totally of the Government's weaving.
Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham):
Would my right hon. Friend consider this proposition:
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the Government's difficulty really stems from the fact that they decided to go to war to support the American alliance? They knew that that explanation would never be acceptable to Labour Members, and consequently they had to place on weapons of mass destruction a weight that it would not bear, as that was the only kind of argument that they could put to their hon. Friends.
I know that that is my right hon. and learned Friend's view, and as I said on an earlier occasion, I respect him for it. I cannot say that I agree. What I can say is that the Opposition supported the Government because we believed that it was in the national interest to do so and that the situation provided a threat, and a current threat, to our national interests.
Let me start with the matter of weapons of mass destruction. I accepted, and I believe that I was justified in accepting, the Prime Minister's assertions that such weapons existed, not just before the war but since. On 28 April, he said in his monthly press conference that he remained confident that weapons of mass destruction "will be found". I also listened when, in St. Petersburg on 31 May, he reiterated his belief in the existence of weapons of mass destruction and told us that he was waiting to publish a complete picture, including material that was "not yet public" and evidence that he was going to assemble and "present properly". If I may say so, we are still waiting for that evidence.
I took seriously the Secretary of State for Defence when, on 7 April, he told the House:
"we will find weapons of mass destruction."[Official Report, 7 April 2003; Vol. 403, c. 29.]
On 13 April, on Radio 4, he said:
"I'm absolutely convinced that they are there."
The tune then began to changesubtly at first. The Prime Minister told the Liaison Committee that he had no doubt that
"those weapons of mass destruction programmes existed".
He said that he had
"absolutely no doubt that we will find evidence of weapons of mass destruction programmes, no doubt at all."
There was no doubt either about the introduction of the word "programmes". The Prime Minister's official spokesman qualified the use of the word when he said:
"we will find evidence not only of weapons of mass destruction programmes but concrete evidence of the product of those programmes as well".
So, we have talk of programmes and their products, the result of which is increasing confusion.
Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough):
I questioned the Prime Minister in the Liaison Committee and raised the subtle change of language. My right hon. Friend is on to an absolutely vital point. Surely the reason why we went to war was that Saddam Hussein posed a direct military threat to the region and the west. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the House is fully aware of that point and respond to a further specific point? Why did the Government simply stop talking about the 45-minute threat after September? They did not talk about it in March, so they must have known then that the information was no longer reliable.
If I may, I shall come on to the 45-minute claim a little later in my remarks. We must be
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cautious not to get caught up on that point because I think that that was the intention of Mr. Alastair Campbell. He raised it before the Foreign Affairs Committee because he hoped to divert attention from more serious matters.
On my hon. Friend's first point, I say again that we need clarity on the Government's position on weapons of mass destruction because it has varied over the past few weeks. We need to know their clear position today. For example, on 9 July, the BBC political editor, Andrew Marr, said that senior sources
"at the top of Whitehall"
had told him that the Government now accepted that they would not find the weapons. I do not know who those senior sources were, but I would be interested to hear from the Foreign Secretary, who met Mr. Andrew Marr that afternoon, whether, by any chance, he agreed with those senior sources. I offer him the opportunity to respond now, although he might be keeping his head down.
Immediately after that, the story began to change again. Downing street disowned the senior source only to be outdone by a senior Foreign Office adviser who was reported in The Herald on 11 July as saying:
"We remain confident that weapons of mass destruction and products will be found and nobody at the Foreign Office takes the view that we no longer believe we will find them".
The situation is completely circular. There are those who say that the weapons will not be found and those who say that they will be found. Some people make attributable comments and some make non-attributable comments. Once again, we have confusion. The only thing that remains clear about the Government's position on weapons of mass destruction is that it is totally confused. We need today an unambiguous statement from the Foreign Secretary on where the Government stand on weapons of mass destruction.
That is only part of the tangled web in which the Government are foundering. The other part is how they have handled intelligence material. For example, there was a claim about uranium from Niger going to Iraq. The claim was stated as a fact in the September dossier but was subsequently shown to have been partially based on forged documents. There was no explanation of who forged them and why. There is no mention of CIA concerns in the Government's response. We now have a belated explanation that there were other sources of intelligence that apparently cannot be disclosed. Even more unusually, we are told that such sources cannot be shared with the United States. There are again more unanswered questions, and further confusion and suspicion.
I have never thought that the 45-minutes claim was key. I believe that Alastair Campbell decided to make that the smokescreen behind which to conceal the Government's other shortcomings. He believed that war with the BBC was preferable to war with Labour Back Benchers. The smoke has blown back in his face. In the farcical charade of who non-attributably told whom what and when on the provenance of the 45-minute claim, the Government last week suddenly offered up their official, Dr. David Kelly. Yesterday, Dr. Kelly made it clear, contrary to what the Government had suggested, that he was not Mr. Andrew Gilligan's
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unnamed source, and I understand that the Foreign Affairs Committee has supported him. There has been more inaccurate spin and confusion.