Liam Fox questions the time taken for the Chilcot Enquiry

Liam Fox (North Somerset, Conservative)

By the time we get to see this report, we will be in the third Parliament during which it has been written and considered. Is my right hon. Friend aware of any precedent for that and is there any possible legitimate excuse for the delay?

 

David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden, Conservative)

No, and that is the case that I am going to explore. I will not do what the Father of the House did and go back to the Dardanelles, but even if we went back further than that we would not get to this level of delay.

 

Paul Flynn (Newport West, Labour)

Sir Jeremy Heywood was asked two days ago whether he would approve of this House subpoenaing the evidence to Chilcot and publishing it ourselves. His comment was that he did not want to rush the Chilcot report. Is that a reasonable view?

 

David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden, Conservative)

When the hon. Gentleman listens to what I intend to say shortly, he will realise that Sir Jeremy Heywood certainly does not want to rush the report, and there are some reasons for that of which I do not approve.

I have been asked by a number of colleagues why I believe that the delay has occurred. The truth is that no one in this House knows, not even the Minister. There is not enough information in the public domain, which is why the motion requires an answer to that exact question from Sir John Chilcot. Nevertheless, there are some clues. For clarity, I should say that I do not believe, at this stage at least, that the witnesses are the cause of the delay, and I say that because I think that one of them will be speaking later.

Some of the delay is undoubtedly down to the conflict between the inquiry and Whitehall—Sir Jeremy Heywood and others—about what can and cannot be disclosed. What the inquiry can publish is wrapped up in a series of protocols that have criteria so broad that a veto on publication can virtually be applied at Whitehall’s discretion. Compare this with the Scott inquiry into the Iraqi supergun affair. It also covered issues of incredible sensitivity in terms of national security, international relations, intelligence agency involvement, judicial propriety and ministerial decision making. Sir Richard Scott was allowed to decide himself what he would release into the public domain, unfettered by Whitehall. By contrast, Sir John Chilcot, who is a past Northern Ireland Office permanent secretary, who chaired an incredibly sensitive inquiry into intercept evidence, and who is considered a responsible keeper of Government secrets, is tied up in protocols, subject to the whim of Whitehall.

We know there have been long negotiations between the inquiry and Sir Jeremy Heywood, the CabinetSecretary, and his predecessors over the disclosure of some material, most notably correspondence between ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair and George W. Bush. There is no point whatsoever in the inquiry if it cannot publish the documents that show how the decision to go to war was arrived at. Chilcot himself wrote in a letter to the Cabinet Secretary:

“The question when and how the prime minister made commitments to the US about the UK's involvement in military action in Iraq and subsequent decisions on the UK's continuing involvement, is central to its considerations”.

The negotiations between Chilcot and Jeremy Heywood concluded only in May last year, when it was announced that an agreement had been reached. The process was clearly frustrating for the inquiry: Sir John Chilcot queries why it was that

“individuals may disclose privileged information (without sanction) whilst a committee of privy counsellorsestablished by a former prime minister to review the issues, cannot”.

He was of course referring to Alastair Campbell and Jonathan Powell’s respective diaries, which quoted such information. Sir John stated in his letter that documents

“vital to the public understanding of the inquiry's conclusions”

were being suppressed by Whitehall. That is ridiculous. If that is the approach taken, nothing will be learned and there is little purpose in the inquiry.

The inquiry protocols are symptomatic of a mindset that seems to assume that serving civil servants are the only proper guardians of the public interest. That leads me to a particular problem: if a Minister is asked to make a decision that affects him, his family, his property or even his constituency, he is required to withdraw—in the jargon, to recuse himself—from the decision and have somebody else make it. That does not say that the Minister is corrupt; it simply means that one can avoid the appearance of corruption and any chance of an improper decision, and it removes the risk of unconscious bias. It is a proper procedure. No such rule applies for civil servants.

This inquiry process is littered with people who were central to the very decisions the inquiry is investigating. Sir Jeremy Heywood was principal private secretary to Tony Blair for the entire period, from the 9/11 atrocity through to the first stage of the Gulf war, yet he is Whitehall’s gatekeeper for what can and cannot be published. Even the head of the inquiry secretariat, Margaret Aldred, was deputy head of the foreign and defence policy secretariat and therefore responsible for providing Ministers with advice on defence and policy matters on Iraq, and she was nominated to the inquiry by the Cabinet Secretary of the day.

All of that would matter less if the ridiculous restrictive protocols that Whitehall has imposed on the Chilcot inquiry were not there. Like Scott, Sir John Chilcot should be allowed to publish what he thinks is in the public interest, and not what Whitehall thinks is acceptable.