Iraq (Judicial Inquiry)

- Wednesday, 22nd October 2003

 

. In so doing, they are performing a valuable service. I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright), who raised many salient points about the powers of the House. Personally, I would not mind if the objectives of the motion were achieved by a parliamentary Committee of similar power and authority to that invoked in the motion.

The reason why the Government reject the motion is clear?they are afraid of the outcome of any inquiry, and they probably have good reason to be. However, I submit that, in the long term, they might have more to fear from not having an inquiry and allowing the distrust that has been sown among the British people?by the failure to find the weapons that were held to be the cause and justification of war?to spread from the issue of Iraq to the whole range of their responsibilities, from the Government to politicians in general, and from politicians to the institutions of this country. That will be the consequence if we do not bring light to bear on the inquiry. Distrust is like dry rot: it continues to spread unless and until it is exposed to sunlight. Unless the light of inquiry is brought to bear on the issues underlying the debate, distrust will continue to spread.


I recall that Lenin once said that the key question in politics was "Who? Whom?". At first sight, the key issue here is who misled whom. Did Ministers mislead the public, or were Ministers themselves misled by erroneous intelligence? That is clearly one of the central issues that any inquiry would have to examine.


I suspect that the Government would like to cast off responsibility for the failure to find the weapons that they so confidently asserted were there and stress the misleading and erroneous intelligence. The Government are developing a doctrine of ministerial responsibility to the effect that if advice is wrong, the officials are to blame; if it works out all right, Ministers take the credit. However, the traditional doctrine of ministerial responsibility in this country is that Ministers are responsible full stop. They are responsible for the advice that they take. They are not passive recipients of advice because it is their job to probe, question and evaluate it, and then to bring it to the House and act on it. In doing that task, they should be aware of the bias that may be present?we all have biases and prejudices?and of the vested interests of the institutions and departments that may be advising them. Again, all institutions have vested interests and in-house views. The intelligence services are no different from others in that respect.


There is a sort of law to the effect that no institution whose original purpose declines in importance volunteers to fade away or diminish its responsibilities. Anyone briefed by the intelligence services, as I was as soon as I became a Minister?I imagine that it still goes on?will soon get a whiff of their inherent biases. The briefing took the form of, "Well, Minister, with the decline of communism, you have to be aware that the


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world has not become less risky, but more, as new threats have replaced old threats. The Soviets may no longer be threatening to bury us, but there are threats from terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, instability and so forth." It was manifest that here was an organisation which, like all organisations, had to talk up the threats for which it had responsibility. I am not over-assessing, and nor am I suggesting that those threats do not exist. I do not suggest that officials ever falsify or distort the information and intelligence they give to Ministers, but it is ultimately for Ministers to evaluate those threats. They must probe and question, and see how well founded is any intelligence that they receive.

Could Ministers have known at the time from the intelligence that they received that the Iraqi Government probably did not possess any weapons of mass destruction? We know that the right hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook), the former Foreign Secretary and Leader of the House, reached that judgment on the intelligence that he received. I submit that not only could Ministers have reached that judgment, but that the House?on the basis of the intelligence information that the Government put forward?could have reached a similar conclusion. An inquiry could examine that issue, but we should think about it carefully to see whether we fulfilled our role of scrutiny and holding to account.


Although institutions such as the intelligence services will lean towards not understating the risks and the threats that faced us in Iraq, we can be certain that they would not have told untruths. Officials love to tell the truth, but they do not have an obligation to tell the whole truth or to disabuse people of convenient misunderstandings. So what was important when reading the documents the Government published, including the summary of the UN briefing, was what people did not say. It struck me at the time that none of those documents included any claim that the Government, or any other Government, were in possession of current, direct intelligence that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. That may surprise right hon. and hon. Members because the Government talked in those terms, but the documents did not make the claim?or anything that resembled such a claim?that they had intelligence direct from an agent or through wire tapping or any other means that showed first hand the continuing existence of such weapons.


Instead, the documents talked about "capabilities". On biological weapons, for example, the September dossier gave its conclusions in one succinct sentence. It said:






"The JIC concluded that Iraq had sufficient expertise, equipment and material to produce biological warfare agents within weeks using its legitimate bio-technology facilities."


I cannot recall anybody else?I certainly did not at the time?noticing the word "legitimate". The conclusion was that the Iraqis possessed legitimate equipment that would enable them to produce biochemical agents within weeks. I suspect that that is true of every OECD country in the world. On chemicals, the dossier said that





"the JIC assessed that Iraq retained some chemical warfare agents, precursors . . . These stocks would enable Iraq to produce significant quantities of mustard gas within weeks and of nerve agent within months."


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Overall, the JIC concluded:





"These chemical and biological capabilities represented the most immediate threat from Iraqi weapons of mass destruction."


So the most immediate threat was from something that would take weeks or months to manufacture.

The embarrassing conclusion is that Iraq probably did not possess currently usable weapons of mass destruction. That is why the Government made so much of the 45-minute claim. We know now, but did not know then, that that claim was inserted quite late into the dossier. It was inserted at four different points, and it distracted attention away from the fact that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction and could not make them for weeks or months. It did that by implying that Iraq must have the weapons if it could deploy them in 45 minutes. In fact, deployment would have taken weeks or months, because that is how long it would have taken to make the weapons.


The House possessed information that made it clear that the Government did not have real evidence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Any suggestion otherwise was merely the result of inference and deduction. Why were hon. Members so poor at analysing the situation? The answer is that the Government were quite good at preventing us from examining complex material, and the House‘s procedures are bad at letting us examine such material. Often, we get such material after a statement about it has been made or, at best, coincidentally with such a statement. For example, the Foreign Secretary deployed Hans Blix‘s final report to allay the scepticism that was widespread in the House about the existence of weapons of mass destruction. He told the House that the report set out in






"173 pages of painstaking detail the terrible nature of the weapons that Saddam has sought with such determination to develop."


The Foreign Secretary urged us to read the document and promised to put copies in the Library. He gave one illustration of what it contained when he said that





"the inspectors found evidence of anthrax where Iraq had declared there was none."?[Official Report, 10 March 2003; Vol. 401, c. 21.]


The clear impression was created that the UNMOVIC inspectors had found this evidence hot off the press. I went to the Library and found that there were no documents that we could take away. I had to raise a point of order before we could take a document away. I finally got one, and discovered that the reference was to traces of anthrax found in 1986 or before that date by the previous set of inspectors.

We were all led to believe that there was new evidence, when the truth was that old evidence was being recycled. We had neither the time nor the opportunity to examine it. Once again, the document contained no evidence as to the current intelligence or other information that the weapons existed.





Mr. George Osborne (Tatton): I hate to disagree with my right hon. Friend, as I agree with him on so many other matters, but he seems to be saying that the House would have come to a different decision in respect of military action against Iraq if hon. Members had examined matters more carefully and had had access to more documents. I do not believe that that was the case.


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There was an overwhelming majority in the House for military action, and nothing that we could have been shown before 18 March would have changed that.



22 Oct 2003 : Column 711?continued






Mr. Lilley: In a sense, I agree with my hon. Friend. I must draw my remarks to a close, but the one conclusion to be drawn from the documents made available was that Saddam Hussein had the past form, the current intent and the future capability to use the weapons and destabilise his neighbours. I therefore voted?in the full supposition that there were no actual or current weapons of mass destruction?for pre-emptive military action to change the regime. That was the real reason for the war, but the Government could not admit as much because they could not risk alienating Labour Members.


Another reason for the Government‘s action was, I suspect, that they were bound by the advice of Law Officers. Such advice is always taken as binding, and it stated that a pre-emptive war to secure regime change was not legitimate. We need better ways to hold the Law Officers to account over their advice, because the law is highly subjective when it comes to matters of national defence. It is very unwise, therefore, to ask for advice which, once given, is taken as definitive and cannot be counteracted by the Government.

 

 

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