Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con): We have just heard two distinguished contributions from the right hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley), but I hope that they will forgive me if I refer back to an earlier contribution by the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) who was much maligned and vilified for his questioning on the Foreign Affairs Committee at the time. I am poles apart from him politically, but I want to place on record the fact that I greatly respect what he did then, and does every day, as a parliamentarian. He deserves our respect, and he should know that he has support across the House.
I want to focus on key questions that were left unanswered by Hutton and which I hope will be answered by the next inquiry?and if not, by the Government. First, however, I shall put on record the fact that I voted for war on 18 March despite the fact that after carefully reading the dossier and the Blix report, I had come to the conclusion that there almost certainly were no weapons of mass destruction in the hands of Saddam Hussein, and certainly none that constituted a current and serious threat to this country.
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Close reading of those documents also made it clear to me that Saddam had in the past possessed and used those weapons, he had the current intention to possess them, and if we withdrew and sanctions collapsed, he would in future, in all likelihood, get them and become a danger. So I voted, knowing that there were no weapons but believing that it was possible to justify war to change the regime and pre-empt a future threat. I think that the Prime Minister was doing the right thing but giving the wrong reason, and it is important that we hold him to account for the reasons that he gave, lest a Government in future feel free to do whatever they like for the wrong reason.
The first question that we ought to ask is why the Government placed such enormous reliance on the alleged existence of weapons of mass destruction. It is clear that the decision to go to war did not follow from a study of the evidence of the existence of those weapons. The right hon. Member for Livingston said that it was the other way round: the decision came first and then the evidence was assembled to justify it. We know that because the key piece of evidence on which the Government relied so much that they put it in the dossier four times?the 45-minute claim?was not available to them when the decision was made but only at the last minute after they decided to produce the dossier.
The reason why the Government based the case for war on Saddam?s supposed possession of weapons of mass destruction was, as so often with this Government, presentational. They chose the argument that they believed would maximise support, particularly among their Back Benchers and in the United Nations. They chose it not because they believed it to be true but because it would maximise support. They thought that war to disarm Saddam of weapons of mass destruction would play well with the many Labour Members who have belonged to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and could be expected to support disarmament of all kinds. We know that that did not work: so many of those Members opposed their Government?s decision that if this party had not joined the Government in the Lobby they would have been defeated and would have fallen.
The second question that we have to ask is whether, if the Government had known or been willing to accept at the time that there were no weapons of mass destruction available to Saddam, the war would have been legal. I made it clear that I voted for it as a war of regime change and pre-emptive action?a contentious position. Some argue that any war to change a regime is forbidden by international law. That seems a rather odd argument, given that we had already changed the regime of one third of the country. When we did that in Kurdistan and the Marsh Arab areas by military action and overflying, no one seemed to challenge it. If it was right to do that in a third of the country, I cannot see why it should be wrong in the other two thirds.
Others argued that one could not take military action to pre-empt a future threat, as if we should sit here and wait until Tel Aviv had been nuked or Portsmouth poisoned. If we have the power and can take pre-emptive action, there may be occasions when it is justified. The issues need to be established clearly,
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because the same arguments may be deployed again with respect to other rogue states in apparent possession of, or threatening to possess, weapons of mass destruction.
Mr. Calum MacDonald (Western Isles) (Lab): When we discussed authorising the war in March, I cannot recollect anything being said about regime change or pre-emptive action. The motion simply said that Iraq was in repeated breach of UN resolutions, notably 1441, and Dr. Kay?s assessment of the work of the survey group was:
“In my judgement, based on the work that has been done to this point of the Iraq Survey Group . . . Iraq was in clear violation of the terms of resolution 1441.”
That was the whole legal and moral basis of the war.
Mr. Lilley: The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue, which concerns the role of the Law Officers, who I suspect played an important part. We have seen their truncated conclusion, but we have never seen the full opinion or the submission on which it was based, and we do not know the extent to which they relied on that submission. That information should be available to the new inquiry, to establish whether the existence of weapons of mass destruction was relied on in their analysis.
We have to question the accountability of the Law Officers. They are very powerful, and once they have opined, a Cabinet is bound by that opinion. No Cabinet could afford to go against such an opinion for fear that it would be found to have done something that its own Law Officers said was illegal. In many cases that is all right, but international law is highly fluid, uncertain and subjective. In asking for an opinion, one is effectively making the Law Officers? subjective assessment binding on Government. We have to ask whether that is the right way to reach conclusions in such uncertain areas.
We need to ask whether Ministers or the intelligence services were to blame if intelligence was wrong. Ministers are responsible even for the advice that they take, so they have a duty to probe, question and evaluate that advice and get it right, as the right hon. Member for Livingston did?and even I, in my humble way, outside, could reach the same correct conclusion. In my experience, the worst decisions in Government are made when Ministers fail to question things because they are as enthusiastic as the officials, and officials fail to draw their attention to the problems, because they perhaps have an interest in heightening the appreciation of a certain risk or threat.
The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): Will the right hon. Gentleman inform the House of his view of the proper limits of ministerial responsibility? Does he judge, in fact, that Ministers are responsible for operational decisions?
Mr. Lilley: That is probably a trick question, and does not strike me as terribly worthy. It depends on the Ministry?I took decisions that affected the operations of my Department, which would not have been appropriate in other Departments.
We need to ask whether the intelligence was as much at fault as everyone has assumed. I believe that it was far less at fault than most people suppose. It was presented
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in a very sexed-up fashion, not so much in the preparation of the document as in its presentation to the House and the public. The document said:
“The JIC concluded that Iraq had sufficient expertise, equipment and materials to produce biological warfare agents within weeks using its legitimate biotechnology facilities.”
In the case of chemicals, the document said that Iraq could
“produce significant quantities of mustard gas within weeks, and of nerve agents within months”
and that the JIC concluded that
“these chemical and biological capabilities represented the most immediate threat from Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.”
In other words, it was not that Iraq possessed such weapons but that it had the ability to produce them within weeks or months.
The 45-minute claim was used so frequently not because it could be linked to the threat of missiles reaching here but because it was the only information in the document that implied that Iraq must already have the weapons, because it could get them to an unstated location 45 minutes later. That was the only evidence, and it contradicted the actual conclusions of the JIC, which is why so much was made of that claim.
The new inquiry should not start from the presumption that its task is to attach blame to the intelligence services. It should question how Ministers assessed the intelligence and presented it to the country. It should also ask whether the actual justification?a pre-emptive regime change?was justified in law, and whether we should be bound by the subjective opinion of the Law Officers.
Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): Lord Hutton judged the BBC to be culpable. As a consequence, Gavyn Davies has gone, rightly and with dignity, and Greg Dyke has gone, unwillingly and behaving like a buffoon. However, it is clear that those directly implicated in the Gilligan story, which Lord Hutton judged to be unfounded, remain active in the BBC.
On 6 July last year, the BBC governors issued a statement endorsing the Gilligan story. The statement said that the story was in the public interest and that BBC journalists had good contacts in the security services. Four weeks after the Gilligan report, Richard Sambrook, the director of news, said in an interview on the “Today” programme:
“we have nothing to apologise for . . . we had one senior and credible source in the intelligence services”.
He continued deceptively to imply that the Gilligan story was based on a security or intelligence source. What is more, having learned that the source was not an intelligence official, he deliberately withheld that information from the board of governors, leading it to claim that there was an intelligence source. On that basis, the governors negligently and culpably endorsed the story and did not do their job.
Richard Sambrook was involved not only in that but, along with Kevin Marsh, in Gilligan?s suborning of members of the Foreign Affairs Committee. That is demonstrated by an e-mail?oh that mine enemy should
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send an e-mail?that Gilligan sent to Mark Damazer, Richard Sambrook and Kevin Marsh in which, among other things, he said:
“Spoke to Ottaway again and he?s happy”.
He also discussed briefing members of the Foreign Affairs Committee and suggested more briefing and suborning of members of that Committee?that is all in the Hutton evidence.
The situation is worse than that. Downing street concentrated on The Mail on Sunday article of 1 June written by Gilligan, but he wrote two articles for the paper, the second one of which was published on 8 June. It said, among other things, that the Prime Minister
“is charged with exaggeration, distortion, over-emphasis.”
Kevin Marsh cleared that article. He read it, endorsed it and said, “It seems fine.” That was the editor of the “Today” programme endorsing a contentious political article in a newspaper, and not seeing anything wrong in doing so. Indeed, far from it; the day after the Gilligan report on the “Today” programme that started this whole train of events, Marsh e-mailed Gilligan to say:
“Great week; great stories, well handled and well told.”
Those two, Sambrook and Marsh, are clinging to their jobs when it is clear that any sort of BBC journalistic probity demands that they go. A leading article in The Economist at the weekend said that the Gilligan report
“was typical of much of modern British journalism: twisting or falsifying the supposed news to fit a journalist?s opinion”.
It went on to say that this action had been committed by
“a public-service broadcaster, whose reputation for reliability and authority gave the report its very credibility.”
Yet those people are still there. We do not simply have those executives; we also have a situation in which a publicly funded, public service broadcasting organisation has revealed its governance to be unacceptable. That was said in relation to this issue by Lord Hutton.
I had a long correspondence with Gavyn Davies, which began long before the Gilligan affair, in which he insisted that the BBC?s
“system of governance is a critical protection for the BBC?s editorial independence from politicians”.
As a member of the National Union of Journalists for 49 years, I am strongly in favour of the BBC and, indeed, the printed press, being totally independent of any interference by politicians. However, if that is to happen, there has to be a converse. The converse is that the BBC, above all, has a duty to behave with responsibility and with a great respect for truth.