Previous Section Index Home Page

Since 2003, the UK has spent more than £500 million in Iraq—for humanitarian assistance, infrastructure and promoting economic growth. Support to the health sector has included 189 projects in Basra, including the refurbishment of Basra general hospital and the building of the Basra children’s hospital. As a whole, the international
15 Jun 2009 : Column 22
community has rehabilitated more than 5,000 schools, as well as constructing entirely new schools and new classrooms in existing schools. Despite high unemployment and the scale of the global recession, economic growth in Iraq this year is predicted to be nearly 7 per cent.

Significant challenges remain, including that of finding a fair and sustainable solution to the sharing of Iraq’s oil reserves, but Iraq’s future is now in its own hands, in the hands of its people and its politicians. We must pay tribute to the endurance of the Iraqi people; we will pledge to them our continuing support. However, it will be support very different from the kind that we have provided for the last six years. As the House knows, our military mission ended with the last combat patrol in Basra on 30 April. As of today, there are fewer than 500 British troops in Iraq, with more returning home each week.

On the day of that last combat patrol in April, I welcomed Prime Minister Maliki and most of his Cabinet to London. We signed together a declaration of friendship, partnership and co-operation defining the new relationship between our two countries for the future. At the request of the Iraqi Government, a small number of British Navy personnel—no more than 100—will remain in Iraq for long-term training of the Iraqi Army. Royal Navy ships will continue to protect the oil platforms on which Iraq's exports depend, and we will continue to offer training to the Iraqi army as part of a wider NATO mission. We will also offer training opportunities at Sandhurst and elsewhere in the United Kingdom for Iraqi officers of high potential. At the core of our new relationship, however, will be the diplomatic, trading and cultural links that we are building with the Iraqi people, supporting British and other foreign investors who want to play a role in the reconstruction of southern Iraq.

I have discussed with Prime Minister Maliki a plan for British companies to supply expertise to the Iraqi Oil Ministry. Earlier this year, the Mesopotamia Petroleum Company signed a joint venture worth $400 million. Shell is working with the Southern Oil Company to bring to market some of the 700 million cu ft of gas that is currently lost each day by flaring. British companies are now competing for further contracts, and Rolls-Royce and Parsons are currently discussing with the Iraqi Ministry of Electricity proposals for a new power generation infrastructure worth an initial $200 million.

British funding will support lending to 1,000 businesses in southern Iraq, and a youth employment programme that should give training and work permanently to young Basrawis could be rolled out across the whole of Iraq as a result of its success. We are supporting the Iraqi Transport Ministry in the resumption of civilian flights; the Department for International Development and the British Council are working on a major education programme; and Iraq has already identified its first 250 students, an early initiative in Britain’s contribution to Iraq’s plans for 10,000 overseas scholarships for Iraqi students.

Issues in the region still confront us. Iran is an independent nation that deserves our respect, and the Iranian people are a proud people who deserve democracy. That is why the regime must address the serious questions that have been asked about the conduct of the elections. The way in which the regime responds to legitimate protests will have implications for Iran’s relationships with the rest of the world in future.

15 Jun 2009 : Column 23

The House will note the speech made by Prime Minister Netanyahu, in which for the first time he endorsed a two-state solution. His speech was an important step forward, but there remains a long road ahead of us. I will speak to him again later today to impress on him the importance of freezing settlements.

With the last British combat troops about to return home from Iraq, now is the right time to ensure that we have a proper process in place to enable us to learn the lessons of the complex and often controversial events of the last six years. I am today announcing the establishment of an independent Privy Counsellor committee of inquiry which will consider the period from summer 2001, before military operations began in March 2003, and our subsequent involvement in Iraq right up to the end of July this year. The inquiry is essential because it will ensure that, by learning lessons, we strengthen the health of our democracy, our diplomacy and our military.

The inquiry will, I stress, be fully independent of Government. Its scope is unprecedented. It covers an eight-year period, including the run-up to the conflict and the full period of conflict and reconstruction. The committee of inquiry will have access to the fullest range of information, including secret information. In other words, its investigation can range across all papers, all documents and all material. It can ask for any British document to be brought before it, and for any British citizen to appear. No British document and no British witness will be beyond the scope of the inquiry. I have asked the members of the committee to ensure that the final report will be able to disclose all but the most sensitive information—that is, all information except that which is essential to our national security.

The inquiry will receive the full co-operation of the Government. It will have access to all Government papers, and the ability to call any witnesses. The objective is to learn the lessons from the events surrounding the conflict. It is on that basis that I have accepted the Cabinet Secretary’s advice that the Franks inquiry is the best precedent. Like the Franks inquiry, this inquiry will take account of national security considerations—for example, what might damage or reduce our military capability in the future—and evidence will be heard in private. I believe that that will also ensure that evidence given by serving and former ministers, military officers and officials is as full and candid as possible. The committee will publish its findings in as full a form as possible. These findings will then be debated in the House of Commons and the House of Lords. It is in these debates, as well as from the report itself, that we can draw fully upon the lessons learned in Iraq. So while the format is the same as that of the Franks inquiry, we have gone much further in the scope of the inquiry. No inquiry has looked at such a long period, and no inquiry has the powers to look in so much breadth, for while Franks looked only at the run-up to the Falklands conflict, the Iraq inquiry will look at the run-up to conflict, the conflict itself and the reconstruction, so that we can learn lessons in each and every area. The inquiry will take into account evidence submitted to previous inquiries, and I am asking members of the committee to explain the scope, width and breadth of its work to Opposition leaders and the Chairs of the relevant parliamentary Committees.

15 Jun 2009 : Column 24

In order that the committee is as objective and non-partisan as possible, the membership of the committee will consist entirely of non-partisan public figures acknowledged to be experts and leaders in their fields. There will be no representatives of political parties from either side of this House. I can announce that the committee of inquiry will be chaired by Sir John Chilcot and it will include Baroness Usha Prashar, Sir Roderick Lyne, Sir Lawrence Freedman and Sir Martin Gilbert. All are, or will become, Privy Counsellors.

The committee will start work as soon as possible after the end of July. Given the complexity of the issues it will address, I am advised that it will take a year. As I have made clear, the primary objective of the committee will be to identify lessons learned. The committee will not set out to apportion blame or consider issues of civil or criminal liability.

Finally, I am sure the whole House will join me in paying tribute to the courage and dedication of every one of our armed forces, and also our civilian personnel, who have served our country with such distinction in Iraq over six years, and who will continue to do so in Afghanistan and on peacekeeping missions around the world.

At its peak, a force of 46,000 served tours of duty in support of operations in Iraq. In total, 120,000 men and women served over the period of the entire conflict: 179 Britons died and 222 were seriously or very seriously injured, and we remember them all today.

I said in my statement in December that the memorial wall in Basra would be brought home. I can now confirm that it will form part of a new memorial wall to be built at the national arboretum in Staffordshire, and just as it is right that we should pay tribute to the memory of those who have fallen, and to the wounded, so it is right to give thanks for the safe return of their comrades, to show our gratitude to all those who have served, and for us as a nation to celebrate the enduring achievements of all our armed forces. So I can also tell the House that in the autumn of this year a service of thanksgiving and commemoration will be held in Westminster abbey.

We salute our forces today. Through their work, the work of their American and coalition comrades and of the Iraqi security forces, and supported by the courage and vision of those within Iraq led by Prime Minister Maliki, Iraq is emerging from the shadow of 30 years of brutal dictatorship and then conflict. Today, Prime Minister Maliki and his Government can work together for a peaceful and prosperous future. That they can now do so is the ultimate tribute to all who served in Iraq: to their skills, commitment and sheer professionalism; to their great and enduring courage in conflict; and to their immeasurable contribution to reconstruction and to peace.

I commend this statement to the House.

Mr. David Cameron (Witney) (Con): I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Lieutenant Paul Mervis and Private Robert McLaren, who have been killed in Afghanistan in the last few days.

In the course of the Iraq conflict, 179 British servicemen and women lost their lives. They came from all three services: the Army, the Navy and the Air Force, and their number also included one Ministry of Defence
15 Jun 2009 : Column 25
civilian. Of course, the Iraq conflict caused great division in our politics, our Parliament and our country, but we can all unite over the professionalism and bravery of our armed forces, the service they gave to our country, and the debt we owe to all those who lost their lives.

I start with some of the things we agree about in the statement. Yes, we agree about the need for a strong relationship between democratic Iraq and Britain. We absolutely agree about the need for a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine and welcome what Prime Minister Netanyahu has said. Yes, we need answers about the conduct of those Iranian elections. But I want to focus my questions on the inquiry announced by the Prime Minister.

We welcome an inquiry—indeed, we have been calling for it for many months—but I have to say that I am far from convinced that the Prime Minister has got it right. The whole point of having an inquiry is that it has to be able to make clear recommendations, to go wherever the evidence leads, to establish the full truth and to ensure that the right lessons are learned, and it has to do so in a way that builds public confidence. Is there not a danger that what the Prime Minister has announced today will not achieve those objectives? The membership looks quite limited, the terms of reference seem restrictive, the inquiry is not specifically tasked with making recommendations and none of it will be held in public. So will the Prime Minister answer questions about the following four areas: the timing; the membership; the coverage and content; and the openness?

First, on the timing, this inquiry should have started earlier. How can anyone argue that an inquiry starting six months ago, for example, would somehow have undermined British troops? Indeed, the argument that we cannot have any inquiry while troops are still in Iraq has been blown away today by the Prime Minister’s saying that some troops will be staying there even as the inquiry gets under way. As for how long the inquiry takes, the Franks inquiry reported in just six months, yet this inquiry is due to take—surprise, surprise—until July or August 2010. Will delaying the start of the inquiry and prolonging the publication until after the next election not lead everyone to conclude that this inquiry has been fixed to make sure that the Government avoid having to face up to any inconvenient conclusions? At the very least, will the Prime Minister look at the possibility of having an interim report early next year?

Secondly, on the people conducting the inquiry, what is required for an inquiry such as this is a mixture of diplomatic, military and political experience. We welcome the diplomatic experience, but there must be a question mark over the military experience—there are no former chiefs of staff or people with that sort of expertise. In addition, is it not necessary to include, as the Franks inquiry did, senior politicians from all sides of the political divide to look at the political judgments? The inquiry needs to be, and needs to be seen to be, truly independent and not an establishment stitch-up, so will the Prime Minister look at widening the membership in the way that we have suggested?

The third area is the coverage and the content of the inquiry. It is welcome that the inquiry will cover the whole period in the run-up to the war, as well as the conduct of the war, but is it not wrong to try to confine
15 Jun 2009 : Column 26
the inquiry to an arbitrary period of time? Should it not be free to pursue any points that it judges to be relevant? On the specific issue of the terms of reference, is it not extraordinary that the Prime Minister said that it should try to avoid apportioning blame? Should not the inquiry have the ability to apportion blame? If mistakes were made, we need to know who made them and why they were made. The Prime Minister was very clear that the inquiry would have access to all British documents and all British witnesses. Does that mean that the inquiry may not have access to documents from the USA, the coalition provisional authority or the Iraqi Government, even if they are kept in the British archive? That is an important specific question and one to which we need an answer. Will the inquiry be free to invite foreign witnesses to give evidence—written and oral?

On the scope of the inquiry, will the Prime Minister confirm that it will cover relations with the United States; the use of intelligence information; the function of the machinery of government; post-conflict planning; and how the Department for International Development, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the armed forces work together?

I turn now to the issue of openness and transparency. Given that this inquiry is of interest not only to us politicians but to the public and the families of servicemen and women who gave their lives, should there not be some proper public sessions? Is that not what many will want and many will expect, and is it not part of the building of public confidence that is absolutely necessary?

Finally, are not the limitations of this inquiry reflected in the way the House of Commons is being treated by the Government over this issue? Before the Franks inquiry—we are told that this is a Franks-style inquiry—there was a proper debate on the terms of reference of the inquiry on a substantive motion in the House of Commons. This time —[Interruption.] The Prime Minister laughs, but this time there is just a statement and no debate, even though last Wednesday he promised us a new era of parliamentary accountability and democratic renewal. What happened to that? It has not lasted even a week.

A proper inquiry must include a range of members, including senior politicians. It needs to have the freedom to range widely and to speak frankly, and its terms of reference must be debated properly in a democracy such as ours. So when the Prime Minister responds, will he put those failings right?

The Prime Minister: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his comments about our soldiers who have died in Afghanistan and the contribution they have made. I am glad that he also agrees with what I have said about Iran and the behaviour of the Iranian regime, including the need for it to stop any violence against people who are protesting against the election result peacefully. I also agree with him about the support that we want to give to our troops and the need to take into account at all times, especially as we consider this inquiry, the wishes, views and sensitivities of the families of the people who have died or been injured in the fighting in Iraq.

Almost all the points that the right hon. Gentleman raised are dealt with by the remit and scope—the breadth and depth—of the inquiry. The shadow Foreign Secretary and he spent a great deal of time calling for a Franks-style inquiry, and that is exactly what we have— [ Interruption. ]
15 Jun 2009 : Column 27
There are repeated references in Hansard to the shadow Foreign Secretary and the Leader of the Opposition saying that what they wanted was a Franks-style inquiry, which is what we have got.

The right hon. Gentleman says that the remit of the inquiry is restricted, but I cannot think of an inquiry with a more comprehensive, wider or broader remit than the one that I have just announced. Far from being restricted, it will cover eight years, from 2001 to 2009. Far from being restricted, it will have access to any documents that are available, and that will include foreign documents that are available in British archives. As far as we are concerned, it may interview any witnesses, including British witnesses and witnesses it wants to invite, if necessary, from abroad. I do not think there is any fundamental disagreement between us on the nature of the inquiry, its scope and its comprehensiveness.

I remind the right hon. Gentleman about the timing. The Franks inquiry looked only at the run-up to the Falklands war. Incidentally, it was announced in a written answer to the House of Commons, not in an oral statement. This inquiry will deal with the run-up to the conflict, the conflict itself and all issues of reconstruction after the conflict. With such a broad remit, I cannot think of any set of events that can be excluded that are of importance to Iraq and the future of our relationship with Iraq. It is hardly surprising that if we are dealing with that eight-year period—the run-up to the war, the conflict itself and the aftermath—the inquiry will take time to interview witnesses and take evidence. Its report will be detailed.

I have said that the report should be as comprehensive as possible, given the issues of national security that are involved. In other words, all but the most sensitive of information should be reported to the House of Commons. The lessons that will be learned from the Iraq events will be learned not just from the investigation, but from the debates that will take place in this House when we receive the full report from the inquiry.

As for the membership, I think that there is a difference between now and the Franks inquiry. For eight years, we have had politicians commenting on Iraq one way or another in this House and elsewhere. We would do better in these circumstances to draw on the professional and expert advice of people who have not been involved in commenting on this issue over the last few years. That is why we have what I believe can be regarded as a committee of people who can be regarded as both knowledgeable and expert in their field. I defy the Opposition to criticise the individuals who are named in this inquiry as people who are not capable of carrying out an important piece of work. They are suited for that task, and they will do a good job. I hope that people will recognise that they are respected in their own fields and have a great deal to offer in this inquiry.

The events in Iraq are controversial. They have led to heated debate in this House and across the country, but it is possible for us to work together to learn the lessons of this inquiry. I hope that it will not become the subject of partisan in-fighting. It will be carried out by a respectable group of people who have great reputations throughout our country and I hope that it will receive the support of as many hon. Members as possible.

Next Section Index Home Page