HC Deb 03 February 2004 vol 417 cc625-43 12.30 pm
The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Jack Straw)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement. First, I apologise to the shadow Foreign Secretary, the right hon. and learned Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), and to the Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman, the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell), as the notice of the text of this statement that I was able to give them was slightly shorter than usual, for reasons that I think that they will understand.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has decided to establish a committee to review intelligence on weapons of mass destruction. This committee will be composed of Privy Councillors. It will have the following terms of reference: to investigate the intelligence coverage available in respect of WMD programmes in countries of concern and on the global trade in WMD, taking into account what is now known about these programmes; as part of this work, to investigate the accuracy of intelligence on Iraqi WMD up to March 2003, and to examine any discrepancies between the intelligence gathered, evaluated and used by the Government before the conflict, and between that intelligence and what has been discovered by the Iraq survey group since the end of the conflict; and to make recommendations to the Prime Minister for the future on the gathering, evaluation and use of intelligence on WMD, in the light of the difficulties of operating in countries of concern.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has asked the committee to report before the summer recess.

The committee will follow the precedent in terms of procedures of the Franks committee. It will have access to all intelligence reports and assessments and other relevant Government papers, and will be able to call witnesses to give oral evidence in private. The committee will work closely with the US inquiry and the Iraq survey group.

The committee will submit its final conclusions to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in a form for publication, along with any classified recommendations and material. The Government will, of course, co-operate fully with the committee.

The members of the committee will be Lord Butler of Brockwell, who will be the chairman, Sir John Chilcot, and Field Marshal Lord Inge. It will also include two senior Members of this House, my right hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Ann Taylor), and the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates), who will be made a Privy Councillor [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."].

In settling the terms of the inquiry and its membership, there have of course been discussions with the leaders of the two main Opposition parties. I regret, however, that the leader of the Liberal Democrat party has declined to support the inquiry. That, and that alone, explains why no senior member of the Liberal Democrats is a member of the committee.

As the House will be well aware, there have already been three inquiries into aspects of the Iraq war. The first, established in early May last year, was conducted by the Intelligence and Security Committee. It considered in some detail the intelligence received in London, and its assessment and use, including in the dossier. It reported to Parliament on 9 September.

The second report, by the Foreign Affairs Committee, was established on 3 June last year, against the background of the controversy surrounding the Andrew Gilligan report on the "Today" programme on 29 May. It made its report to this House on 7 July. The third report was the judicial inquiry by Lord Hutton, which was established following the death of Dr. David Kelly. It, of course, reported last Wednesday. Although the terms of reference of the three inquiries varied, a central theme of each was whether the Government had acted improperly or dishonestly in using the intelligence available to them. Echoing the conclusions of the earlier reports and in categorical terms, Lord Hutton was emphatic last week that such allegations were unfounded. The new inquiry, obviously, will not revisit the issues so comprehensively covered by Lord Hutton.

While those inquiries were under way, three proposals were put before the House in June, July and late October on Opposition motions calling for wider inquiries into aspects of the Government's handling of events in the run-up to the Iraq war. At the time, the Government resisted those calls, including on the ground that the inquiries already under way should be allowed to complete their work. Later, both the Prime Minister and I also referred to the continuing activities of the Iraq survey group.

Over the past week, we have seen the publication of the Hutton report and the evidence of Dr. David Kay, former head of the Iraq survey group, to a US congressional committee. It has also emerged that the Iraq survey group may take longer to produce a final report than we had all originally envisaged. All that has led the Government now to judge that it is appropriate to establish this new inquiry of Privy Councillors. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] Lord Hutton dealt conclusively with the grave charge against the Government that we had in some way acted improperly or dishonestly in the preparation of intelligence put before the House and the public. The Government recognise—and always have—that there are wider and entirely legitimate concerns about the reliability of the original intelligence, which have been heightened by Dr. Kay's evidence. When he gave evidence before the US Congress last week, on 28 January, he repeatedly emphasised his continued support for the decision to take military action against Iraq and his belief still today that Iraq was in clear and material violation of United Nations Security Council resolution 1441. He stated also: Prior to the war, my view was that the best evidence that I had seen was that Iraq indeed had weapons of mass destruction. I would also point out that many governments that chose not to support this war—certainly the French President Chirac—referred to Iraq's possession of WMD. The German intelligence certainly believed that there was WMD. Dr. Kay added: It turns out we were all wrong probably, in my judgement, and that is most disturbing. In the intervening period since the Iraq war began, events elsewhere have greatly increased anxieties about the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and of the need for reliable intelligence and effective international action. According to reports over the weekend, an individual has sold nuclear secrets to North Korea. Iran, for a long time, did not report all that it should have reported to the International Atomic Energy Agency under its safeguards agreement. Libya was in breach of its obligations under the nonproliferation treaty—and both countries are now subject to considerable activity by the IAEA.

There are other concerns too, so we have judged it prudent for this inquiry to consider those wider issues—as set out in its terms of reference. But of course a great focus of the committee's work will he on Iraq—rightly so. It is, however, important to remind ourselves of the significance and limits of the use of intelligence in relation to Iraq. The September dossier made a powerful case for the world to take notice of Iraq. It did not make a case for military action. As the record shows, the case for military action was fundamentally based upon Iraq's breach of UNSCR 1441. [Interruption.] Iraq had used WMD against its own people and against its neighbour, Iran. Saddam Hussein had invaded two of Iraq's neighbours, leading to the deaths of 1 million people. For 12 years after the Iraqi army was expelled from Kuwait, Saddam Hussein defied repeated United Nations resolutions calling for him to co-operate with UN weapons inspectors to dismantle WMD programmes. Resolution 1441 unanimously found Iraq in material breach of previous resolutions and offered it a final opportunity to comply fully and immediately with UN inspectors, or to face "serious consequences". The head of the UN inspectors, Dr. Hans Blix, published on 7 March last year a 173-page document listing the unresolved issues in respect of Iraq's WMD programmes—a document that I placed before the House in a Command Paper some days later.

All that painted a compelling picture. As the Prime Minister and I have said repeatedly, it would have been gravely irresponsible not to have acted against this. We took the right decision in agreeing to military action against Iraq and it is still, in my judgment, the right decision today.

For the sake of completeness, it may be helpful to give a more rounded picture of Dr. Kay's evidence to Congress last week. These are some of the things that he said: I think when we have the complete record you're going to discover that after 1998 it"— the Iraqi regime— became a regime that was totally corrupt. Individuals were out for their own protection. And in a world where we know others are seeking WMD, the likelihood at some point in the future of a seller and a buyer meeting up would haw made that a far more dangerous country than even we anticipated with what may turn out not to be a fully accurate estimate. Dr. Kay went on:

All I can say is if you read the total body of intelligence in the last 12 to 15 years that flowed on Iraq, I quite frankly think it would be hard to come to a conclusion other than that Iraq was a gathering, serious threat to the world with a regard to weapons of mass destruction. He continued: I think you will have, when you get the final Iraq Survey Group report, pretty compelling evidence that Saddam had the intention of continuing the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction when the opportunity arose. I will place in the Library of the House a full copy of Dr Kay's evidence.

Let me take this opportunity to pay tribute to the outstanding work of the British intelligence agencies around the world, often in difficult and hostile conditions. This inquiry is emphatically not a challenge to that vital work, nor to the dedication and professionalism of the people who work in those agencies; but what the inquiry should do is to help the Government better to evaluate and assess the information that they provide.

The decision that the House took 10 months ago to go to war was justified given the defiance of a regime that uniquely had used weapons of mass destruction and had refused for so long to comply with obligations unanimously imposed upon it by the United Nations Security Council. That is a decision for which we, as elected representatives in this House, took responsibility and for which we will continue to take responsibility. We cannot subcontract that responsibility to any inquiry, however distinguished, but I believe that Lord Butler and his colleagues will be able to perform a most valuable service to the House and to the country and I express my appreciation to them.

Mr. Michael Ancram(Con) (Devizes)

May I thank the Foreign Secretary for what I can only call his astonishingly defensive statement, and for advance sight of it? I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates) on his appointment to the Privy Council.

We on the Conservative Benches welcome the announcement of the inquiry. We could hardly do otherwise because we have been calling since last June for an inquiry into intelligence on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and into the use made of such intelligence by the Government. Indeed, over the last few days, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has deployed a powerful case for an inquiry, much along the lines of the one that the Foreign Secretary has announced, so we would be churlish not to show our appreciation when our advice is heeded.

It is particularly gratifying in this instance to see that the Prime Minister, who has no reverse gear, can still execute impressive U-turns—there can be few more spectacular examples than this one. Our frequent calls for an inquiry were met with the response from last June onwards that it was unnecessary, that the Foreign Affairs Committee and the Intelligence and Security Committee were enough and that anyway we should wait for the final report of the Iraq survey group.

Even after Lord Hutton reported last week, senior Ministers, including the Lord Chancellor on Sunday, were still insisting that an inquiry was not needed and that we should await the outcome of the ISG, whenever that might come. Then, suddenly, the damascene conversion, which we welcome, even if I am not totally convinced by the Foreign Secretary's explanation. Perish the thought that it had anything to do with the decision of President Bush to hold a similar inquiry. I like to think that it was because the Government have at last seen the light—the light that kicking for the long grass would not make the very serious questions relating to the intelligence on WMD and the Government's use of it go away; the light that the longer a full inquiry into those issues was refused, the more the credibility of both the Government and the intelligence services would be undermined; and the light that the public have a right to have those serious questions answered, not least in view of Dr. Kay's recent evidence to Congress.

So we welcome the announcement of this important inquiry. I am sorry that it will hold its hearings in private. Can the Foreign Secretary assure the House that, when it reports, not only will that report be published in full, subject only to genuine security considerations, but that the evidence that it considered will be published as well? If it is to reassure, the outcome must be as open as possible, even if it is critical of the Government and their agencies.

We accept the terms of reference. However, some fear has been expressed that the inquiry is designed solely to focus the spotlight on our intelligence services, not on the Government. That would be not only unfair, but wrong. Can the Foreign Secretary confirm whether the committee will be able, within those terms of reference, to examine the discrepancies not only between the prewar intelligence and the outcome of the ISG, but between that intelligence and the use made of it by the Government?

Will the committee be able to evaluate the intelligence made available to the Government against the statements and publications from the Government that purported to be based on it—in particular, the two dossiers of 24 September 2002 and 3 February 2003, the Prime Minister's statement at St. Petersburg on 31 May, the Prime Minister's evidence about WMD programmes to the Liaison Committee on 8 July and his spokesman's reference to WMD product on the very next day? Will the inquiry be able to consider whether there was any cherry-picking, or selective or partial use of evaluated intelligence by the Government that might have cast a somewhat different gloss from that which was intended by the intelligence services?

It is an irony of history that, if the Government had set up such an inquiry when we first pressed them in June last year, many difficulties, accusations and counter-accusations might have been avoided and the serious questions might have been already answered. A considerable price has been paid for the Government's obstinacy on this matter, not only with their own reputation, but with that of the dedicated intelligence personnel who serve our country with commitment and distinction. In this age of pre-emption, the inquiry is vital to restore confidence in our intelligence services, which themselves are so central to meeting the challenges of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction that face us all today.

Mr. Straw

May I say first that I am glad to know that the Leader of the Opposition agrees with what I told the House earlier today? I am very happy to take his compliment and that of the right hon. and learned Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) in the spirit in which it was offered.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman asks about the timing of the establishment of the inquiry. Of course the evidence from Dr. Kay and the interim conclusions for which he gave evidence before a congressional committee have been a critical trigger in the establishment of the committee. It was the case that, if we had sought to set up such an inquiry last summer, a large part of the inquiry could not have taken place until after the ISG's work had been completed because everything would have been on a contingent basis— "Well, what is there?" —and, at the time, the question was that we did not know what was there. Since then, we have had an interim report from the ISG, after very considerable inquiries by the ISG that are still not complete. The fact that the time scale will continue for the ISG means that, in our judgment, we should not wait to establish the inquiry. If we had established a committee last summer, I doubt that it could have done its work properly until the ISG had at least reached this interim conclusion.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman asks whether the committee will hold its hearings in private. As the terms of reference indicate, the committee of Privy Councillors will model its work on the review of the Falklands Islands conflict, which was published in January in 1983—Command Paper 8787, which I have here—and which itself met in private.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman asked me about the terms of reference. They are as they state, and say, among other things: as part of this work, to investigate the accuracy of intelligence on Iraqi WMD up to March 2003, and to examine any discrepancies between the intelligence gathered, evaluated and used by the Government before the conflict, and between that intelligence and what has been discovered by the Iraq survey group since the end of the conflict. How those terms of reference are precisely interpreted is a matter for the committee, not for us.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman asked whether the committee's report will be published—I made it clear that it will be published—and asked a question about evidence. That must be a judgment for the committee and the agencies because just as with the Franks inquiry into the Falklands, by definition, a huge amount of evidence is bound to be highly classified. It is my hope, as it always has been with all such inquiries, that the maximum amount that can be made public should be made public.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman went on to make a poor point by suggesting that if the committee has any criticism of the Government, it will be suppressed on the grounds that it is classified. That is utter nonsense. If the committee has criticisms to make of the Government, of course it will make them, and make them public. No member of the inquiry—either Members of the House or distinguished individuals from outside the House—would dream of putting their name to the report unless their criticisms, if they had them, were made public.

Sir Menzies Campbell(LD) (North-East Fife)

Perhaps I, too, may add my congratulations to the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates) on his forthcoming appointment to the Privy Council. May I also be allowed a moment's scepticism about the enthusiasm of the right hon. and learned Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) for an investigation into the reasons why we went to war, given that prior to the publication of the dossier on 24 September 2002, the then leader of the Conservative party told the country that military action was the only option when dealing with Saddam Hussein?

Let me make it clear that I make no criticism of the members of the proposed committee—not of their integrity, competence or independence. However, it is a matter of profound regret that my right hon. and hon. Friends feel unable to endorse the remit announced by the Foreign Secretary or to support the nomination of my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) as a member of the committee. That was not an easy decision and nor is it likely, as events have demonstrated, to be universally popular. However, our objections relate to the remit that the Foreign Secretary announced.

As the Foreign Secretary said in response to the right hon. and learned Member for Devizes, the remit is confined to intelligence and weapons of mass destruction. It deals neither with the workings of government, nor with political decision making based on intelligence. Does the Foreign Secretary understand that following the public response to the Hutton report, an inquiry that excludes politicians from scrutiny is unlikely to command public confidence? Let me put on record once again that we have never doubted the Prime Minister's sincerity in these matters. However, should not the Prime Minister and others, given the special circumstances of this case, be willing to submit to scrutiny of their competence and judgment in the discharge of their responsibilities?

The Foreign Secretary mentioned the Franks report. Does he remember the remit of the Franks committee? It was to review the way in which the responsibilities of Government…were discharged…taking account of all such factors…as are relevant". Why can we not have a remit of that breadth to deal with the matters with which we are concerned? Indeed, why can we not have a remit with sufficient breadth to allow the members of the committee to examine the whole of the Attorney-General's advice?

The Government have performed a welcome volte-face on the principle of an inquiry, for which we must give President Bush some small credit. However, there is still time to give the inquiry a remit that would truly satisfy the public interest, and the Government should take that opportunity.

Mr. Straw

It was the right hon. and learned Gentleman who said that it was not an easy decision—I suspect that it was also a controversial decision among the Liberal Democrats. I believe that it is a decision that the wiser counsels inside the party, especially, will come to regret greatly.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman refers to earlier calls for inquiries. When he spoke in the House on 22 October in support of a motion moved by the shadow Foreign Secretary, he said: The central question remains: did we go to war with Iraq on a prospectus that was flawed, either because the intelligence behind it was inadequate, or because that intelligence was mishandled once it had been obtained?" —[Official Report, 22 October 2003; Vol. 411, c. 686.] As for the latter point, the question of whether intelligence was mishandled in terms of propriety or dishonesty was dealt with comprehensively by Lord Hutton. On the other issue, I fail to see the difference between what he was telling the House in October and what is now apparent in the terms of reference of the inquiry.

As for the precise terms of reference of the Franks inquiry, the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows that the history of what led to the Argentinian invasion was, by definition, different from the history of what led to the war in the Iraq. He somehow believes that the decision that the elected House of Commons made on whether to take military action on 18 March should be subcontracted to a committee of distinguished persons so that they can adjudicate on it, but that is frankly a ludicrous and undemocratic proposition. I draw to his attention the fact that the terms of reference of the Franks committee stopped at the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands and did not include the decision, which was broadly endorsed by the House of Commons, albeit not on a substantive motion, to take military action in respect of the invasion. That was properly a decision for Her Majesty's Government and the House of Commons of that day. People on both sides of the House would have thoroughly objected if Lord Franks had sat in judgment on whether the House of Commons and Her Majesty's Government, on the key issue before any democracy. of war or peace, had got it right or wrong.

Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East) (Lab)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's announcement. Will he confirm that all of us in this country have every reason to be grateful for the information provided by the intelligence services? It all adds to our greater safety. Will he also give a commitment that those who gather that intelligence material, whether at home or abroad, will be properly protected throughout the process?

Mr. Straw

I am grateful for what my hon. Friend says. It is essential that those who provide intelligence, those who work directly for our intelligence agencies and those with whom we co-operate are fully and properly protected. I merely say to the House about many of the crucial issues on which we have made progress in recent months, which have been absolutely critical to the peace of the world—literally—that that could not have happened without the courage and professionalism of members of our intelligence agencies and those with whom they co-operate.

Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling) (Con)

Was not the right hon. Gentleman wrong by implying in his statement that Lord Hutton passed any verdict whatsoever in the course of his inquiry on whether Ministers properly and fully evaluated the intelligence placed before them before going to war in Iraq? Should not that matter be clearly and firmly within the remit of Lord Butler's committee?

Mr. Straw

I think that the right hon. Gentleman might have misheard me. Lord Hutton, in his extremely comprehensive and weighty report, dealt with his terms of reference and especially the "very grave allegation", as he described it, that there had been improper conduct by Ministers. He said that such allegations were "unfounded". I repeat to the House and the right hon. Gentleman that the terms of reference are as they are: to examine any discrepancies between the intelligence gathered, evaluated and used by the Government before the conflict"— as well as other matters that are set out.

Mr. Ernie Ross (Dundee, West) (Lab)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement. I should like to re-emphasise the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), that the protection of those who give evidence is essential, particularly if they come from the middle east. We still have major problems there. There are different ways to gather intelligence, and those who supply it must be assured of absolute protection.

Mr. Straw

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend.

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con)

Do the Government accept the traditional doctrine that Ministers are responsible, including for the advice they take, and so have a duty to probe, question and evaluate that advice and reach the right conclusion, as his right hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook), his predecessor, did? Or are they replacing it with a new doctrine that when things go right Ministers take the credit and when they go wrong they set up a narrowly based inquiry to blame officials for a political decision?

Mr. Straw

Neither I nor my right hon. Friend have ever sought to shy away from our responsibilities, and our responsibilities are to this House. Let that not be forgotten.

Mr. Robin Cook (Livingston) (Lab)

My right hon. Friend is a very intelligent Minister, who has seen a great deal of intelligence in the course of holding his two Cabinet posts. Does he really believe that even such a highly distinguished membership as he has announced today can separate out the intelligence judgment on the threat from the political judgment to go to war on the basis of that threat? Does it not logically follow that if we now have no evidence of an immediate threat from Saddam Hussein we had time to let Hans Blix finish the job and tell us, without any war, that there were no weapons of mass destruction?

Mr. Straw

That distinction is essential. I also point out to my right hon. Friend that, albeit it was in February 2001 and not a few days before we went to war, he wrote in an article in the The Daily Telegraph: UN measures remain in place because of Saddam's determination to retain and rebuild his weapons of mass destruction and threaten the region". So at that date my right hon. Friend believed, and told the public that he believed, that Saddam had retained his weapons of mass destruction.

I have never suggested to my right hon. Friend that it followed, as night follows day, from the view he took then that military action against Iraq was either necessary at that time or subsequently. That is not the case. However, it is the case that my right hon. Friend as at 20 February 2001, along with, as Dr. Kay pointed out, intelligence agencies from around the world as at March 2003, took the view that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction as well as weapons programmes. I believe that even today people would be hard put to it to deny that Saddam was and remained in categorical breach of his obligations under resolution 1441.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke (Rushcliffe) (Con)

Is the Foreign Secretary prepared to accept that while Lord Butler will no doubt do as good a job as Lord Hutton did on the question addressed to him, the terms of reference given to the two inquiries are so narrow as to make them completely irrelevant to the main subject of public interest? Does he accept that many people in the diplomatic and security world, as well as politicians, think that the invasion of Iraq was decided on by the American Administration long before the events we are considering, and that the arguments about weapons of mass destruction and United Nations resolutions were introduced to enable the British Government to try to provide a legal basis for the decision that had already been taken to support the Americans in the invasion?

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that this House cannot debate that adequately, and fulfil the obligation he keeps laying on us, until we have more factual access to the diplomatic exchanges with the Americans and the political workings of the Government, of a kind that a Franks-type public inquiry with broad terms of reference into the origins of the war would undoubtedly provide, but which we obviously shall not have unless President Bush is forced into a similar inquiry on the other side of the Atlantic?

Mr. Straw

I do not accept the basis of what the right hon. and learned Gentleman has said. The case for military action was well rehearsed before the House. It is not a question of whether the House endorsed the decision, because the House made the decision by a substantial majority of all parties on 18 March last year. It did so based on the argument in the motion before the House and the arguments that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I then advanced, as well as the arguments that I and colleagues like Secretary Colin Powell of the United States advanced in repeated Security Council hearings in the weeks leading up to 18 March. Those arguments were about the fact that the whole world—not just President Bush in his closet—had declared Saddam Hussein to be in clear material breach of his obligations. The whole world in November 2002 said that Saddam Hussein posed a threat to international peace and security by reason of Iraq's proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and long-range missile systems and its defiance of the United Nations, and that Saddam Hussein had refused to put himself into compliance with the UN.

There was an issue, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) raised, as to whether it was the right time to take military action. Of course that was an issue. However, what I have described was the heart of the argument. My argument then—and it is still my argument—was that had we, in the middle of March, simply walked away, which was essentially what was on offer from the French, the Russians, the Chinese and others, with just a slap on the wrist for Iraq, the world would have become a far more dangerous place. That is also the view of Dr. David Kay.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab)

Will the inquiry extend to examining the points made by the leader of the Liberal Democrats on 18 March last year, when he said of the previous Administration: They provided him"— Hussein— with anthrax and other chemical weapons, and they approved the construction of dual-use factories in Iraq." —[Official Report, 18 March 2003; Vol. 401, c. 783.]— or are we just to accept the Liberal party's opportunism?

Mr. Straw

That would be entirely a matter for the inquiry, but the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) quite properly put on the record of the House the fact that such a claim was without foundation.

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle) (Con)

Do the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary feel no shame or even regret that as a consequence of their ignoring the advice of many of us on both sides of the House—we expressed grave doubts by voice and vote in the months before the war, suggesting that Iraq no longer possessed weapons of mass destruction, and urged that Hans Blix and the UN inspectors should be given more time before military action—their faulty political judgment caused the deaths of more than 50 British servicemen and thousands of innocent Iraqi citizens?

Mr. Straw

I respect the view that the hon. Gentleman took before military action and subsequently. The advice, as he describes it, was not taken by the overwhelming majority of his own party, still less by us. Many people will want to quote Dr. David Kay. The hon. Gentleman must weigh up the fact that there is overwhelming evidence about the violation of resolution 1441 by Iraq, and I ask him to consider—this is a difficult calculation, but it is one that we must all consider—what would have happened had we allowed Saddam to continue. My judgment is that had we simply sat on our hands, which is all that was on offer from other countries in the Security Council, Saddam would have been re-emboldened and re-empowered. He would have posed an even greater threat to his own people and the whole region, and those mass graves being filled up weekly by Saddam's thugs would have become even fuller.

Sir Stuart Bell

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the entire House feels pleased that Saddam Hussein is no longer able to develop his deadly poison, ricin, his rudimentary nuclear programme and all those weapons of mass destruction programmes that were concealed from Dr. Hans Blix? Given that my right hon. Friend will place in the House of Commons Library the full text of Dr. Kay's statements to the Senate armed services committee, would a proper reading of that not show that it would have been the grossest dereliction of duty of this Government or any Government to have taken any decision other than the one we took in the House on 18 March?

Mr. Straw

I agree with my hon. Friend. Dr. Kay used almost exactly those words in his evidence to the Senate armed services committee.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan) (SNP)

Was it not Lord Butler who, when still Cabinet Secretary in 1997, approved Alastair Campbell's right to issue instructions to civil servants? Might that issue not be germane to the inquiry that Lord Butler has now been asked to chair? How could the Prime Minister this morning and the Foreign Secretary this afternoon claim that Lord Hutton had cleared the Government of any misuse of intelligence material, when Lord Hutton did not even examine the February 2003 dossier—the dodgy dossier, the fabricated dossier, the load of Horlicks, as the Foreign Secretary once described it? How can that possibly be? Finally, given that the minority parties were not consulted about the remit and did not even get the chance to decline to serve, may I say that we certainly would not have served on an inquiry with such a dodgy, restrictive and cover-up remit.

Mr. Straw

The issue of the 7 February dossier—whose process I described in that way, but not its content—was comprehensively dealt with by both the Foreign Affairs Committee and the Intelligence and Security Committee. As to the announcement by the hon. Gentleman that no Scottish nationalist would have served on the Committee, I am sure the House will be deeply shocked and upset by that news.

Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North) (Lab)

Does my right hon. Friend recognise that whatever controversies, there may have been about some of the conclusions, there was overwhelming approval of the openness with which the Hutton inquiry was conducted, including the publication of written evidence? Can we consider the possibility of allowing this new inquiry to follow that example, subject to national security considerations?

Mr. Straw

The problem is in what my hon. Friend said right at the end—subject to national security considerations. This inquiry is significantly about intelligence. The Intelligence and Security Committee of the House does its work in private, but makes its report in public. That is the appropriate way for the inquiry to proceed, as well.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con)

Is it not regrettably clear that the minority who on 18 March last year voted, in effect, to keep Saddam Hussein in power will not be pleased by anything that is said by any committee?

Mr. Straw

That is true. Although none of those who voted for that had that intention, I am in no doubt that that would have been the consequence if their advice had been accepted.

Donald Anderson (Swansea, East) (Lab)

Surely the question of the Government's competence and judgment is a matter for the House and ultimately for the electorate. With regard to timing, the inquiry is asked to report before the summer recess. That means in less than six months, whereas the US inquiry, with somewhat narrower terms of reference, may take more than a year. Should not the inquiry be given whatever time the committee deems necessary for its task?

Mr. Straw

My right hon. Friend is correct in what he first says. The House must be the judge of whether we made the right or wrong decisions, and must be as well informed as it can be, including by the committee's report. As regards time, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has expressed his hope and intention about the time scale, but ultimately it will be a matter for the inquiry.

Mrs. Patsy Calton (Cheadle) (LD)

When can we expect the Government's response to the report that the Foreign Secretary has mentioned twice in his answers today—the report from the Intelligence and Security Committee entitled "Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction—Intelligence and Assessments"? It was published in September 2003. We have yet to hear from the Government.

Mr. Straw

I think the response is due to be published today, but I will make sure.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) (Lab)

My right hon. Friend is right when he says that if Saddam had not been checked, he would have continued to kill. He was responsible for genocide. The United Nations has a responsibility to act in the case of genocide. The House and the Government have a responsibility to act. We signed the genocide convention and we are bound by its terms. It is a disgrace that the United Nations did not act to check Saddam's genocide.

My right hon. Friend speaks of WMD, but it was not my argument that WMD was the ground for toppling the regime of Saddam Hussein. I have made that case many times in the House. A year ago when I was in Kurdistan, before the start of the war, the Kurds were convinced that chemical and biological weapons would be used against them. The Kurds are Iraqis. They too must have had their own intelligence. Will my right hon. Friend bear that in mind when the committee investigates the intelligence that was available before the start of the war?

Mr. Straw

My hon. Friend, who has seen the brutality of Saddam and his regime at starker and closer quarters than ever have I, speaks with huge and poignant authority on the matter. The House needs to take note of what would have happened, had Saddam stayed. That would unquestionably have been the consequence of a decision on 18 March not to take military action.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex)(Con)

May I remind the Foreign Secretary of exactly what the conclusions of the Hutton inquiry were? He stated: The term 'sexed-up' is a slang expression …capable of two … meanings and he concluded about the September dossier that because of the drafting suggestions made by 10 Downing Street for the purpose of making a strong case against Saddam Hussein, it could be said that the Government 'sexed-up' the dossier. Does the right hon. Gentleman understand that that remains a matter of public concern, and of public confidence in the intelligence service? Will he return to the question put by my right hon. and learned Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary, who asked him whether the committee would judge the discrepancies between the intelligence presented to the Government and the way the Government used that intelligence—yes or no?

Mr. Straw

The hon. Gentleman has done himself no service whatever by a shameful parody of the contents of the Hutton report. He knows very well what the conclusion of the Hutton inquiry was in respect of the so-called sexing-up of the dossier: that the allegations were completely unfounded.

Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab)

One of the purposes of an inquiry is surely to restore confidence to a sceptical public who are anxious about, among other things, the competence of our intelligence and security services. My right hon. Friend is right to focus on that, but does he accept that the public still wants answers as to whether there was a clear threat to this country and to international security from Saddam at that time, and whether there was a legal basis for going to war? The inquiry does not seem to address those important questions.

Mr. Straw

It would be hard for any inquiry, however distinguished, to inquire into the state of mind not just of the Governments of the United Kingdom and of the United States, but the Governments of the 13 other members of the Security Council, each of whom, quite independently—and not only on the basis of their own intelligence, but on the basis of what they could see in front of their nose, as could their public—had come to the conclusion that Saddam Hussein and his regime posed a threat to international peace and security by reason of its proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, its long-range missile systems and its defiance of the United Nations. That was the basis on which the UN made its decision about 1441 and it was also a fundamental part of the case for military action put before the House.

Ultimately, the United Nations Security Council has to accept responsibility for the decisions that it took in November 2002, which plainly cannot be the subject of an inquiry by a single Government. We as Ministers, and we as the House of Commons, have to accept our responsibilities before the high court of Parliament—better informed, wherever possible, by such inquiries.

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con)

Will the Foreign Secretary confirm that it would not effectively have been possible for the Government to have gone to war without the opinion of the Attorney-General on the matter? The Foreign Secretary may recall that it was I who asked the Prime Minister to make available that opinion, and that that was done in a truncated form. Of course, the opinion must have been based on certain facts and the evaluation of intelligence questions. Will he make certain that it is made available to the committee?

Mr. Straw

It is for the inquiry to decide whether it wishes to see that opinion. The hon. Gentleman knows very well that, for extremely good reasons, it has been the practice of successive Governments that the detailed legal advice of Law Officers is not made public.

Mr. Doug Henderson (Newcastle upon Tyne, North)(Lab)

I know that my right hon. Friend always has his ear to the ground in terms of the questions that people are asking. At the moment, their question is: "Did the Government act properly when we went to war with Iraq?" In order to answer it, is it not necessary to examine not only what the intelligence was, but how the Government responded to it, and whether sufficient checks and balances and investigations took place before a judgment was reached?

Mr. Straw

One of the central issues before the Hutton inquiry was whether we acted properly in respect of the intelligence that was the subject of the Gilligan report of 29 May. To underline how unreliable was the ability of the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) to read Hutton, he says on page 321 of his report: I consider that the allegation"— of sexing up— was unfounded as it would have been understood by those who heard the broadcasts to mean that the dossier had been embellished with intelligence known or believed to be false or unreliable, which was not the case. The wider issues that my hon. Friend raises may indeed come with the committee's terms of reference, which include the examination of any discrepancies between the intelligence gathered. evaluated and used by the Government before the conflict, and between that intelligence and what has been discovered by the Iraq Survey Group and the making of recommendations to the Prime Minister for the future on the gathering, evaluation and use of intelligence on WMD, in the light of the difficulties of operating in countries of concern. My hon. Friend has been familiar with some of these matters. Speaking as someone who, as Home Secretary, was responsible for the Security Service for four years, and has been responsible for GCHQ and the Secret Intelligence Service for the past two and a half years, it is in everybody's interest that we have the most accurate and reliable intelligence and the best systems for assessing it. That is in the interests of the agencies, of Ministers and of Parliament. I anticipate that if flaws are found in the systems for assessment, the Butler committee will wish to address that [Interruption.]

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con)

It hardly instils confidence in one when the right hon. Member for Dewsbury (Ann Taylor), who is to be part of the Butler committee, is making her own audible responses to questions.

The Foreign Secretary says that the UK inquiry will work closely with the American inquiry, but will the net be cast further afield, not least to Australia, where Andrew Wilkie of the Australian intelligence service resigned a week before the war commenced because of what he called the blatant exaggeration in the UK and United States Governments' use of their intelligence?

Mr. Straw

It is a matter for the committee to decide from whom it seeks evidence. The hon. Lady's suggestion is totally without foundation. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Ann Taylor), to the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates), and to all the members of the Intelligence and Security Committee, of all parties, for their professionalism in the work that they do. Had it been possible, I would have hoped that the ISC would be able to conduct the inquiry, but following discussions with the usual channels, this inquiry, with its distinguished outsiders, has been established to do the job.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab)

As the public greeted Lord Hutton's inquiry with deep scepticism, despite its being conducted in a very open atmosphere, does my right hon. Friend honestly think that this inquiry will be anything more than an establishment stitch-up designed to protect the political judgments that told this House, the world and everybody else that the basis of the war was the existence of weapons of mass destruction? Does he not recognise that the public will accept only an open, public judicial inquiry, not one conducted largely in secret by the Privy Council?

Mr. Straw

I say with great affection to my hon. Friend that if we had the Archangel Gabriel running the inquiry and sitting in public, he would pour cold water on it and say that it was an establishment stitch-up if he disagreed with its findings.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine)(LD)

The Foreign Secretary noted that other countries had access to similar intelligence and concluded that there were concerns to be addressed. However, as the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) suggested, the public want an inquiry that investigates why this country alone, with America, chose to take the action that it did, instead of listening to Hans Blix and taking the time to ensure that the case for war had been made?

Mr. Straw

We were far from alone in the decision that we took. A very large number of countries, in addition to the UK and the US—half the member states of the European Union and many other countries around the world—supported the military action on which we were embarked, and many participated in it.

As for Dr. Blix, he never had the role of telling the Security Council what to do—he laid evidence before it. The evidence that Dr. Blix laid before the Security Council confirmed me in my opinion that we had to take action against Saddam.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op)

I welcome the Foreign Secretary's statement, and I am glad to see the end of Saddam's brutal and genocidal regime. However, can he tell us how the inquiry can link up with intelligence information that is available to other countries, as it was not this country alone, or even with the USA, which decided that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, but the general view throughout the United Nations and Europe?

Mr. Straw

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. That is a matter on which the Butler committee will seek co-operation from the United States Government and other intelligence partners. To underline my hon. Friend's final point, Dr. Kay pointed out that President Chirac believed, even as late as March last year, that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction—a belief that was reflected by German intelligence.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con)

May I press the Foreign Secretary further on the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Mailing (Sir John Stanley) and many others? Before we reach the end of these exchanges, it is right that the inquiry's terms of reference should be made absolutely explicit. Will the Foreign Secretary confirm that members of the committee will be in charge of their own work, and that they will therefore not be required narrowly to consider what intelligence was delivered up by MI6 to the Government, but will be able to examine the relationship between civil servants and Ministers and how Ministers evaluated that intelligence?

Mr. Straw

The terms of reference are clear, and it is for the inquiry, within those terms of reference, to interpret how they should be followed.

Mr. Jon Owen Jones (Cardiff, Central) (Lab/Co-op)

Will the inquiry be able to consider the doctrine of pre-emption, which depends upon there being reliable information and intelligence and rational and unprejudiced selection from it?

Mr. Straw

I had not anticipated that the inquiry would wish to spend its time looking at the doctrine of pre-emption, and nor was pre-emption the issue before the Security Council or the House last March. As far as I can recall, it was never suggested that we should enter into some kind of gratuitously pre-emptive strike. I point out to my hon. Friend that it is not a matter of intelligence that is open to doubt but a matter of historical fact that no other country but Saddam's Iraq has been in such horrendous and continuing breach of chapter VII obligations under the United Nations Security Council for a period of 12 years. He had invaded Iran, he had invaded Kuwait, he had unleashed missiles on three other neighbouring countries, he had gassed 5,000 people in Halabja in a couple of days alone, he had used chemical and biological weapons, he had covertly hidden a nuclear programme and other programmes—and even as late as 7 March last year, Dr. Blix published a 173-page document of unanswered disarmament questions, which I put before the House in Command Paper 5785. If Saddam at any stage, knowing the deadline given to him and the obligations imposed on him by resolution 1441, had wished to answer those 173 pages of questions, he could have done so, and war could have been avoided. He chose not to do so.

Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle) (Con)

The Foreign Secretary has drawn certain fair comparisons with the Franks committee in 1982. There is one stark difference, however: before that committee even sat, following the failure of the intelligence services to warn adequately of the threat to British interests, the Foreign Secretary and his entire Foreign Office ministerial team resigned. At what point can we expect ministerial responsibility to apply, and on what basis would the present Foreign Secretary accept responsibility?

Mr. Straw

I have always made clear my responsibility to the House and to my Privy Council oath. Whatever people may disagree with me about, I have never sought to shirk those responsibilities. I regretted greatly, at the time and subsequently, that Lord Carrington chose to resign. I also say, however, that the circumstances of the Falklands were different from those under consideration today.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow) (Lab)

On Friday 22 October 1982, I was summoned by Lord Franks to appear in front of his committee for one and three quarter hours. Since then I have expressed a great deal of unease, which was endorsed on 16 July, as is recorded in column 302 of Hansard, by the Foreign Secretary, and again endorsed by him on 22 October, in column 682. Does he share a view that the Franks committee may not be a good precedent? Would it not be better for a few straight questions to be answered, such as when did the Prime Minister commit himself to President Bush, on what terms did he commit himself, and when did he tell his Cabinet colleagues that he had done so?

Mr. Straw

I—[Interruption.] I am advised by an Opposition Member from a sedentary position that my answer should be. "I shall write to my hon. Friend shortly." The decision and the lead-up to the decision to take military action was public—it was argued out in this House. There was no way in which the House could have been misinformed or, by implication, misled. If my hon. Friend and other Members who took a different view about going to war read the record, they will see that by the time of the lead-up to the decision to take military action in mid-March, the arguments were not about the dossier, and still less about the 45 minutes. The issue was the breach of resolution 1441 and what we should do about it. As for his point about the Franks committee, in the debate on 22 October I recalled that when Franks published his report in January 1983, some of my hon. Friends were sceptical about it, and used the customary adjective. It was the request and the proposal of the Opposition that we should have a Franks-style committee now, however, and it is important that, as far as is conceivably possible, it should be on a bipartisan basis. I believe that those who have accepted the invitation to serve on the committee will do so with great distinction and independence.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con)

Whereas the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) and many Conservative Members would have supported the Government in going to war with Iraq even if there had not been evidence of weapons of mass destruction, it is clear that a large number of Labour Back Benchers voted with the Government only because they were told that weapons of mass destruction were there. Can I tempt the Foreign Secretary to speculate as to whether he would have won that vote with this evidence?

Mr. Straw

The right hon. Gentleman has greater insights into the state of mind of my hon. Friends on 18 March than I would ever claim. What I look at is the motion before the House, which was all about the breach of resolution 1441, and the arguments put before the House, which again were about the breach of resolution 1441. That was the basis on which people made their decision.

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley) (Lab/Co-op)

May I ask the Foreign Secretary to draw the attention of members of the committee to the whole of the debate on 18 March 2003, in which no one, including the leader of the Liberal party, questioned the existence of weapons of mass destruction? Indeed, arguments were put forward forcibly by the shadow Foreign Secretary: does Saddam Hussein really pose a risk to international peace and security? Well, the UN certainly thinks so, and it has thought so for the past 12 years". He continued: Hans Blix's 7 March report demonstrates the terrifying weapons of mass destruction that are missing, and that must still be assumed to be there."—[Official Report, 18 March 2003; Vol. 401, c. 892.] That was the kind of argument that, along with the arguments of my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), made me vote for the Government, and I would do so again today.[Interruption.]

Mr. Straw

I will indeed draw the Hansard of 18 March to the attention of the leader of the Liberal party. A fat lot of good that will do. however, because Members on both sides of the House are used to the Liberals jumping on to any passing bandwagon and seeking to rewrite their history. This is simply a further episode in the continuing story of why the Liberal Democrats are not taken seriously.