Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Tories attack Iraq inquiry 'mess'!

William Hague: "The government has performed a U-turn"

Gordon Brown has been accused during a Commons debate of making a "monumental mess" of setting up the Iraq inquiry.

Shadow foreign secretary William Hague said the PM had "set out trying to keep it behind closed doors" and said there were still "serious deficiencies".

But Foreign Secretary David Miliband accused the Tories of "sham outrage" and said the inquiry deserved support.

He said that while it was not a "trial or impeachment" it would be free to "praise or blame whoever it likes".

The Conservatives called the debate after Mr Brown told MPs last week the inquiry would be in private.

Amid much criticism he later said it was up to the inquiry's chairman, Sir John Chilcot, to hold some sessions in public if he chose to.

But opposition parties and some Labour MPs are pressing for further assurances.

MPs will vote at about 1900 BST on a Tory motion demanding it be held "whenever possible" in public and calling for its terms of reference to be put to MPs for scrutiny

Opening the debate shadow foreign secretary Mr Hague said Mr Brown had talked of improving transparency but had produced proposals for a "secretive, behind-closed-doors inquiry".

It needs to be comprehensive, independent, not a trial or an impeachment but an effort to learn for the future
David Miliband
Foreign Secretary

He added the membership was too restricted while the timing of the inquiry - which is due to report back after the next election - was "utterly cynical and politically motivated".

Since then he said the government had "engaged in a series of climbdowns - a U-turn executed in stages" and had relied on Sir John to announce changes, rather "admit that the government were in the wrong".

"Now an inquiry that is seriously overdue can't get off to a clean start but will spend an unspecified period of time adjusting its remit - a recipe for confusion rather than clarity," he said.

The government has pointed out the Conservatives had been asking for a Franks-style inquiry - a reference to the committee that reviewed the Falklands War - which was partly held in private.

But Mr Hague said several important elements of the Franks inquiry were "completely missing" while the government had chosen to continue with the one most people regarded as "no longer appropriate", holding it in private.

He called for MPs to be allowed to approve the inquiry's terms of reference, saying it was "unfair" to Sir John to leave him to clarify all the terms and rules.


Senior Tory Sir Michael Ancram also warned the inquiry's remit could end up being so "open and vague" that Parliament was asking Sir John to "do the impossible".

For the government, Mr Miliband told MPs all parties agreed there was a need for an inquiry adding: "It needs to be comprehensive, independent, not a trial or an impeachment but an effort to learn for the future."

He confirmed it would have access to all Cabinet papers, papers from foreign governments and appeared to confirm it would have access to the original legal advice to cabinet on the legality of the war.

But he said it was "right and proper to leave the discretion" on whether evidence should be given under oath, to Sir John.

However Clare Short, the former cabinet minister who resigned as a Labour MP over the war, and former Lib Dem leader Sir Menzies Campbell said Sir John did not have the power to do so and it would have to be decided by MPs.

Mr Miliband said the inquiry would deliver "insight and value" and would have "complete freedom to write its own report".

David Miliband: "It can praise or blame whoever it likes"

But he said there was a balance to be struck between "speed and confidentiality" and "comprehensiveness and transparency".

Denying reports it was Tony Blair who had pushed for a closed inquiry, Mr Miliband said the former PM had told a question and answer session last night he had "no problem" answering questions in public.

Asked whether, if it wanted to attribute blame, the inquiry should be able to do so, Mr Miliband replied: "It is not an inquiry that has been set up to establish civil or criminal liability, it is not a judicial inquiry.

"Everything beyond that is within its remit, it can praise or blame whoever it likes, it is free to write its own report at every stage."

Labour backbencher Gordon Prentice said he was still unclear about how much of the inquiry would be in public.

He said a briefing note circulated to Labour MPs had said the inquiry would "sit in private with scope for public events and hearings" - he believed it should have been the other way around.

Mr Miliband said Sir John had already said "as much as possible" should be public.

But for the Liberal Democrats, David Heath demanded to know the criteria for closed sessions.

He added: "It suits the government to have us believe that the inquiry will be mostly in public, but I have my doubts."

Tory leader David Cameron says Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Alastair Campbell [Tony Blair's former press secretary] must give evidence in public.

Earlier the prime minister's spokesman said Mr Brown would have "no difficulty in giving evidence in public", if national security considerations are met.

Former Lib Dem leader Sir Menzies Campbell said there should be a "presumption" that Mr Blair and other key figures in the decision to go to war should give evidence in public unless national security interests dictated otherwise.

"The important thing is not to confuse government embarrassment with the national interest," he said.




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