HL Deb 08 July 2003 vol 651 cc130-3

2.53 p.m.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil asked Her Majesty's Government:

To what extent the Joint Intelligence Committee was consulted on the contents of the dossier on weapons of mass destruction.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee was responsible for the production of the September dossier. There was no attempt to override the judgment of the chairman at any point in the process. Intelligence was not inserted; neither was it exaggerated at the instruction of Ministers or special advisers. The Government welcome the Foreign Affairs Committee's conclusion on this point.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, the noble and learned Lord is not quite answering the Question. Did the Joint Intelligence Committee have sight of either version of the dossier? When the noble and learned Lord has answered that, perhaps he will go on to a further underlying question; namely, whether anything has been done to reassure the troops in Iraq, who must be rather upset by the squabble that is going on, which no one is going to win and in which everyone may come off a loser. Not only that, but will he, first, congratulate them on the achievement of getting rid of Saddam and, secondly, will he make sure that they are given some clue as to what they are going to do next and how long they will be in Iraq?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, on the latter point, I could not agree more with the noble Lord. Our troops in Iraq are carrying out their professional duties with their usual skill and calm attachment to duty. Going back to the Question, the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee was responsible for the production of the dossier. I have authority to tell your Lordships that I believe the dossier was published on 24th September. On 23rd September—if we want to go to responsibility for the contents—the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee was actually at the printers checking the proofs.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House recall that some of us questioned whether or not the evidence presented in those dossiers at the time justified the conclusions that were reached? Does he also recall that, after the Falklands War—where there was much less questioning of the intelligence provided to the government beforehand—the government accepted that a judicial inquiry would clear the air? Do we not now need something that will very much clear the air?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, clearing the air is usefully done by attending to fact, not assertion. There has been a vast amount of false assertion put forward here—not necessarily knowing it to be false at the time, but without the grace to recognise that false assertions having been made, an apology might well be in order.

I go, if I may, to one or two conclusions of the FAC: We conclude that Alastair Campbell did not play any role in the inclusion of the 45 minutes claim in the September dossier". We conclude"— this is conclusion 14, found at paragraph 86— that the claims made in the September dossier were in all probability well founded on the basis of the intelligence then available, although as we have already stated we have concerns about the emphasis given to some of them. We further conclude that, in the absence of reliable evidence that intelligence personnel have either complained about or sought to distance themselves from the content of the dossier, allegations of politically inspired meddling cannot credibly be established". So we are waiting, I imagine, for an apology.

Lord Archer of Sandwell

My Lords, will my noble and learned friend confirm that the Intelligence and Security Committee is now conducting an investigation into this matter? Would it not be sensible to await the outcome?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, it is indeed, as my noble and learned friend indicated, considering this matter and it is going to be given the fullest possible assistance at the specific direction of the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister has said that, subject of course to the usual constraints of sensitive intelligence and on a basis to be agreed by that committee, the report will be published. My noble and learned friend of course serves on that committee. It is a committee of absolute integrity, and I do respectfully suggest that those who make unsubstantiated allegations might well attend to the report that is about to be published.

Lady Saltoun of Abernethy

My Lords, when did preparation of the dossier start?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the preparation of the dossier cannot be said to have started at any particular time. The Joint Intelligence Committee, as a number of your Lordships know, produces regular assessments. It was decided that a dossier should be produced. The responsibility for the production of that dossier was with Mr Scarlett, the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee. I repeat: he had such a close involvement that he was actually checking the proofs, the final format and the final content on the day that the printing run was to start. on the day before publication.

Lord King of Bridgwater

My Lords, the Lord President has quoted from the report of the Foreign Affairs Committee—a number of whose members made clear that they could not give a full report because they did not have access to all the material. Endorsing what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, has said—who is a previous colleague of mine on the Intelligence and Security Committee—will the Minister confirm, first, reinforcing what he said, that no reasonable request from the Intelligence and Security Committee will be refused; and that material that was refused to the Foreign Affairs Committee will be made available to the Intelligence and Security Committee? Will he further confirm that, having regard to the fact that virtually all these matters are now history and not subject to acute sensitive intelligence, the Government will raise no objection if, for part of its hearing, the Intelligence and Security Committee decides to sit in public?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I certainly give the assurance for which the noble Lord asks. He and I both had dealings together when he was a distinguished member of the ISC. So far as concerns the committee sitting in public, if the committee, having borne in mind the very sensitive ramifications which the noble Lords knows of as well as I, wished to sit in public, that, it seems to me, would be a matter for its own decision. I do not entirely agree with the noble Lord when he says that this is historic. He will know as well as I that, even if intelligence becomes historic, the danger to sources continues, sometimes for many years.

Lord Saatchi

My Lords, have not the answers that the Leader of the House has given in reply to questions on this subject revealed the weaknesses of the Select Committee system? As the noble and learned Lord has ruled out a judicial inquiry, does he not think that we could learn from the American system of congressional committees? The American constitution, in I believe Articles 1 and 2, confers on those committees what the constitution calls all the necessary powers in order to investigate effectively and to hold the executive to account. If there is not to be a judicial inquiry on controversial matters such as these, does the noble and learned Lord think that we could learn much from the American system when trying to correct the widely perceived imbalance that we have in this country between the power of the executive and the power of Parliament?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, whether we can learn from any other select committees in any part of the world, whatever the jurisdiction, is certainly worthy of consideration. The budgets of congressional committees of inquiry, whether in the House of Representatives or in the Senate, are very substantial and they have the benefit—some would say—of being assisted by qualified cross-examiners.

Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn

My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord share the reported view of the Foreign Secretary in relation to the second, February part of the report that it was a horlicks? In those circumstances does he feel that it was entirely consistent of the Foreign Secretary yesterday publicly to call on the BBC to offer an apology for its rather more circumscribed criticisms of the first September report?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the Question concerns the first dossier and I responded to that. I was never quite sure what an "absolute horlicks" meant and I am still waiting to be told. The important question in relation to the apology is that assertions were made by the BBC that have proved to be wrong. If one looks at what was said in the dossier, to which the Question of the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, referred, the 45-minute issue is dealt with there. Journalistic ethics are an important part of a civil society. With great respect, it seems to me that if the BBC sometimes gets things wrong, it would not be a bad idea to say so.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

My Lords—

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, I believe it is time to move on to the next Question.