Heath on the Iraq inquiry

by Stephen Tall on June 24, 2009

Here’s Lib Dem shadow leader of the House David Heath speaking on behalf of the party in today’s debate on the terms of reference set by Gordon Brown for Sir John Chilcot’s Iraq inquiry:

I welcome the debate; it is both timely and valuable. I also accept right from the start that it is fair criticism of me and my colleagues to say that we approach this issue with a particular mindset. We opposed the war in Iraq and none of us have changed our minds on that. I and my party have never faltered in expressing our enormous respect for the courage and professionalism of the armed forces who are deployed in Iraq, and it is precisely because we are concerned about that deployment and the equipping of those armed forces that we think this inquiry is so important. I and my party have repeatedly and regularly argued for an open, independent and thorough inquiry. What we want is not a closed, Franks-style inquiry, nor an inquiry designed to protect the former Prime Minister—or, indeed, anybody else—but one that is capable of arriving at the facts and displaying them openly. Every time we have argued for that—which has been over many years now—we have been met with a degree of prevarication from the Government; there has always been one reason after another why the time was not right to have this inquiry. Possibly the most disingenuous was that, in the very latter stages of British troop involvement in Iraq, it would somehow cause a massive diversion of military attention if we were to hold an inquiry in this country into the causes and conduct of the conflict in Iraq. It was argued that that would distract the military authorities from their role in Iraq. However, at the same time, we were massively increasing our involvement in Afghanistan. That, apparently, was not any sort of distraction at all. …

We finally reached the end of this stonewalling period, however, and the Prime Minister came to the House on 16 June to announce the terms of the inquiry. I think it is fair to say that Members in all parts of the House were less than impressed with what they heard from him, because he seemed at pains to stress—almost over any other consideration—how little of the inquiry would be held in public. …

… if it had been possible to hold none of it in public, I think that would have been exactly the position the Prime Minister would have adopted. That is why I found it a bit rich to hear the Foreign Secretary’s contribution today. He suggested that the Prime Minister, after having told the House that the inquiry would be held in private, immediately on returning to his office wrote to Sir John Chilcot to say, “Well, of course I want you to make this as open as possible, and not the other way round.” Had we had proper consultation on the way in which this inquiry would be conducted in advance of the Prime Minister’s statement, that would have made him look a little less foolish, and it would also have been for the good of the House. He has clearly had his mind changed for him—that is more accurate than “changed his mind”, I think. Had we had the early consultation that I think most people in his position would have undertaken, we would not have been in that position, but it is clear that the consultation was vestigial and inadequate.

What we had is what we always have from this Prime Minister: he develops an idea, he writes it down on a sheet of paper in big black felt-tip, and he then announces it and demands consensus support from all Members on both sides of the House—and, in this instance, an independent chairman of a public inquiry. When he does not get that support and he has to backtrack on the position he has taken, he does not do so openly; he does not make an announcement … he does not do that here. He just allows it to be known that the Government have changed their position. Well that is not good enough and, in this instance, it puts Sir John Chilcot in the almost impossible situation of having to undertake an exercise in post facto consultation and then to derive different terms of reference for the inquiry from those that were set out by the Prime Minister.

You can read the Hansard text in full HERE.