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We cannot postpone an inquiry until a time that is politically convenient for the Government. We need to make a decision in principle now, and to assemble a wise and experienced panel of eminent persons who can consider the lead-up to the war, the use and
interpretation of intelligence, the war itself and the post-conflict reconstruction. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples) said, we can do that perfectly well without inflicting any problems on those engaged in war-fighting operations.
The reason for the relative urgency is that, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks said, while the events are fresh in peoples minds and the e-mails have not been destroyed, we need to learn whatever lessons we can from the background to operations in Iraq so far, and to apply them to Afghanistan before it is too late.
The hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) made the point that Parliament needs to assert its authority over the Executivea point that was also made by the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright). I strongly support that, and I hope that the House will support our motion and the principle that an inquiry should be established, even if the precise format proposed on the Order Paper is not exactly what some right hon. and hon. Members would like. The point is the principle of the matter, and we owe it to the nation to be able to establish that.
Inquiry is the proper duty and function of the House of Commons...Inquiry is, indeed, the root of the powers of the House of Commons. Upon the result of the inquiry must depend the due exercise of those powers.[ Official Report, 16 November 1966; Vol. 736, c. 442.]
The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): In opening the debate, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary set out why the Governments view has not changed since we last debated the issue, not the least of which is that nothing has happened in that time that would require us to change our view.
When we considered the issue in October last year, the motion was proposed by the nationalist partiesPlaid Cymru and the Scottish National party. I well understand the motivation of those political parties in that and all other matters involving the United Kingdom: they have a visceral dislike of all things British. They do not want to be part of this united country. They want to engender disharmony, disillusionment and division in all that we do as a nation. They are driven not by what is right for our armed forces in the difficult tasks that they face in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, but by cheap political posturingno more than naked populism dressed up as principle.
Although it is tempting, I would not ascribe such motives to the Conservative party. I fully accept that the role of Her Majestys loyal Opposition is to find grounds of substance on which to hold the Government to account. Like many of my hon. Friends, I spent too many years10 yearson the Opposition Benches, and I know only too well the difficulties that that poses for party interest versus national interest.
On this occasion, no matter how well argued the caseI pay tribute to the eloquence of the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), who opened the debatethe Opposition have it wrong. A telling intervention by the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) made it clear that he thought so too. He made a specific point, and although the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks is not usually flummoxed or stumped, he paused momentarily before he dealt with the issue.
This is always a question of judgment. To undertake such an inquiry now would divert effort and attention from our prime task, which is to improve the condition of Iraq and find a more peaceful and stable future for its people.
Mr. Ingram: Not at the moment. If the motion was passed, regardless of the fact that the Opposition claim that it is about establishing the principle of an inquiry, the media in this country would go into hyper-overdrive. We would have endless weeks and months of corrosive speculation about who would serve on the inquiry, what they would examine and even what their conclusions would be. I believe that it would be less of an inquiry and more of an inquisition.
Many in this House and beyond have already come to their conclusions, yet at the same time they are calling for an inquiry. The hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Moore) made it clear that he already knows what the outcome of the inquiry should be. He carefully avoided the earlier view of his party that we should withdraw our forces by the autumn of this year. He did not mention whether that is still the policy of his party or not, irrespective of the conditions on the ground or the consequences. If there were such an inquiry, and those who have come to their conclusions already did not agree with its outcome, they would simply dismiss it as a whitewash and continue their assertions. I am reminded of former Prime Minister Jim Callaghans comments about the Franks report on the Falklands conflict:
for 338 paragraphs, the Franks Report painted a splendid picture, delineating the light and shade. The glowing colours came out. When Franks got to paragraph 339, he got fed up with the canvas that he was painting and chucked a bucket of whitewash over it.
Richard Younger-Ross: The Minister argues that we should not have an inquiry now because that might be difficult in terms of the media. How long do we have to wait for such an inquiry? If the war went on for another four years, would we have to wait four years? If it was the hundred years warI know that that is an absurd example, Mr. Deputy Speakerwould we wait 100 years?
I did not put forward that view just because of what would happen in the media, although I think that that would be corrosive. Let me make a serious point: we know from this debatefrom speaker
after speakerthe previous debate and each time that we have discussed Iraq that people have already reached their conclusions and firm positions. They want an inquiry to confirm those positions, but that would not be the purpose of any such inquest. The hon. Gentlemans earlier intervention showed that he had reached a conclusion. He has made the firm statement that he opposed the mission from the outset and voted against it. If he were to give evidence, it would be on that basis, although I guess that no one would really be interested in the evidence that he might wish to give. However, would he accept the outcome of the inquiry if it did not stack up with his perceived position?
Mr. Ellwood: On 20 March, I asked a Foreign Ministerthe Minister for the Middle Eastwhether he thought Iraq was in a state of civil war. Since 20 March, about 8,000 Iraqis have met a violent death. Does a Defence Minister believe that Iraq is in a state of civil war?
Mr. Ingram: The hon. Gentleman should remember from his military training the definition of what constitutes a civil war. An elected Government are in place in Iraq and are working assiduously to find solutions to complex problems. We and many other countries are assisting them. Yes, many lives have been lost, some of which, sadly, have been those of individuals serving alongside the Iraqi people to try to find peace and stability. However, that in itself does not constitute civil war.
Some of the sectarian groupings and factions are beginning to talk about the need to find at least a point of contact with the Government of Iraq and coalition forces. There are thus glimmers of hope while the carnage goes on, which, as the hon. Gentleman knows only too well, is being perpetrated not by coalition forces, but by other forces, many of which are internal to Iraq but some of which are being stoked up and manipulated by external forces. Incidentally, if those forces were not in Iraq, they would be attacking us by other means. That is the harsh reality of the world in which we live.
While this is a question of judgment, I do not believe that now is the time to set a date for a review or to reach a final decision on the best way to conduct such a review. This is a time to keep a focus on what is happening in Iraq in the here and now. Like my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, I make no excuses for saying again that the situation in Iraq is too grave for us to divert our attentions from the immediate task of best supporting the Iraqi people as they begin taking control of their future.
I honestly think that the hon. Gentleman has not listened to the answers that have already been given on that point. That inquiry examined not the past, but how to deal with the present [ Interruption. ] Does the hon. Gentleman want an answer, or does he want to heckle? The inquiry was carried out to try to find solutions to some of the difficulties that we have to
address. However, the motion calls for a different inquiry. I listened attentively to hon. Members speeches. They talked about the past and some indeed argued that we should go beyond the immediate past and further back [ Interruption. ] This is a multifaceted debate. The motion calls for an inquiry on the past to learn lessons for the future, but the future is here and now. Baker-Hamilton sought to address what is in front of us.
Our policy of focusing our efforts on the vital task of helping to develop the capacity and capability of the Iraqi authorities remains unchanged. That support is valued by the Government of Iraq. Iraqi Ministers have publicly stated their appreciation of the help and support that we provide. We would be doing them a disservice if we were to allow our attention and efforts to be diverted from supporting them, even in part.
We are not alone in giving support to Iraq. As hon. Members will know, we are one of the 25 countries that contribute to the multinational force in Iraq. I have little doubt that they, too, would not want our attention and efforts to be diverted from the vital task in hand. I make no apologies for saying that we must continue to give our armed forces our undivided attention and support as they help Iraqs security institutions. I earnestly believe that an inquiry would do nothing to assist them and, at worst, that it could undermine their efforts. This is a question of undermining not their moralethat charge has been madebut their efforts. If senior military personnel were called away from the front or other deployments so that they could be dedicated to revisiting the part that they played in the past when they had important jobs to do, it would take them away from the vital task in hand.
As I have indicated, I think that we are making progress in Iraq. The transfer of Maysan province in southern Iraq to the Iraqi authorities and the handover of bases in Basra city to the Iraqi security forces are ample evidence of the sterling work done by UK forces and our coalition partners, especially on training and supporting the 10th division of the Iraqi army.
I have heard nothing in this debate that would change the Governments position that it would be wrong to launch an inquiry on our experiences in Iraq at this time. There have been several independent committees of inquiry, including those of Lord Butler and Lord Hutton. Reports have been published by the Defence and Foreign Affairs Committees of the House of Commons, while Ministry of Defence lessons-learned reports have also been produced. The questions of what happened at the time and what we have to do militarily have been well trodden over, as has the wider reach of what we are trying to do by giving humanitarian, governmental, social and economic support to the people of Iraq.
We have had many opportunities to discuss the issue; we have done so time and again. I urge the House to support the amendment proposed by the Government for one very good reason: I believe it to be correct, and I believe the motion proposed by Her Majestys loyal Opposition to be wrong at this time. It would not in any way help the people of Iraq.
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