The Prime Minister
This morning, Sir John Chilcot has published the report of the independent Iraq inquiry. This is a difficult day for all the families of those who lost loved ones. They have waited for this report for too long, and our first thoughts today must be with them. In their grief and anger, I hope they can draw at least some solace from the depth and rigour of this report and, above all, some comfort from knowing that we will never forget the incredible service and sacrifice of their sons, daughters, husbands and wives—179 British servicemen and women and 23 British civilians who gave everything for our country. We must also never forget the thousands more who suffered life-changing injuries, and we must pledge today to look after them for the rest of their lives.
This report would have been produced sooner if it had been begun when Conservative Members and others first called for it back in 2006, but I am sure that the House will join me in thanking Sir John and his Privy Counsellors, including the late Sir Martin Gilbert, who sadly passed away during the work on this report.
This has been a fully independent inquiry. Government Ministers did not even see it until yesterday morning. The Cabinet Secretary led a process that gave Sir John full access to Government papers. This has meant an unprecedented public declassification of Joint Intelligence Committee papers, key Cabinet minutes, records of meetings and conversations between the UK Prime Minister and the American President, and 31 personal memos from the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, to President George W. Bush. The inquiry also took evidence from more than 150 witnesses, and its report runs to 2.6 million words, in 13 volumes. It cost over £10 million to produce. Clearly the House will want the chance to study and debate it in depth, and I am making provision for two full days of debate next week.
There are a number of key questions that are rightly asked about Iraq. Did we go to war on a false premise? Were decisions taken properly, including the consideration of legal advice? Was the operation properly planned? Were we properly prepared for the aftermath of the initial conflict? Did our forces have adequate funding and equipment? I will try to summarise the key findings on these questions before turning to the lessons that I believe should be learned.
A number of reasons were put forward for going to war in Iraq, including the danger that Saddam posed to his people and to the region, and the need to uphold United Nations resolutions. However, as everyone in this House will remember, central to the Government’s case was the issue of weapons of mass destruction. Sir John finds that there was an “ingrained belief” genuinely held in both the UK and US Governments that Saddam Hussein possessed chemical and biological capabilities, and that he wanted to redevelop his nuclear capabilities and was pursuing an active policy of deceit and concealment.
There were some good reasons for this belief. Saddam had built up chemical weapons in the past and he had used them against Kurdish civilians and the Iranian military. He had given international weapons inspectors the run-around for years. The report clearly reflects that the advice given to the Government by the intelligence and policy community was that Saddam did indeed continue to possess and seek to develop these capabilities.
However, as we now know, by 2003 this long-held belief no longer reflected the reality. Sir John says:
“At no stage was the proposition that Iraq might no longer have chemical, biological or nuclear weapons or programmes identified and examined by either the”
Joint Intelligence Committee
“or the policy community.”
And as the report notes, the late Robin Cook had shown that it was possible to come to a different conclusion from an examination of the same intelligence.
In the wake of 9/11, the Americans were also understandably concerned about the risk of weapons of mass destruction finding their way into the hands of terrorists. Sir John finds that while it was reasonable to be concerned about the potential fusion of proliferation and terrorism, there was
“no basis in the JIC Assessments to suggest that Iraq itself represented such a threat.”
On the question of intelligence, Sir John finds no evidence that intelligence was improperly included, or that No. 10—or Mr Blair personally—improperly influenced the text of the September 2002 dossier, but he does find that the use of Joint Intelligence Committee material in public presentation did not make clear enough the limitations or the subtleties of assessment. He says that the assessed intelligence
“had not established beyond doubt either that Saddam Hussein had continued to produce chemical and biological weapons or that efforts to develop nuclear weapons continued”,
and he says that the Joint Intelligence Committee
“should have made that clear to Mr Blair.”
Sir John also finds that public statements from the Government conveyed more certainty than the Joint Intelligence Committee assessments. There was a lack of clarity about the distinction between what the JIC assessed and what Mr Blair believed. Referring to the text in Mr Blair’s foreword to the September 2002 dossier, he finds
“a distinction between”
“beliefs and the JIC’s actual judgements.”
But in his words Sir John does not question Mr Blair’s belief or his legitimate role in advocating Government policy.
Turning to the question of legality, the inquiry has “not expressed a view as to whether or not the UK’s participation in the war was legal.” However, it does quote the legal advice which the Attorney General gave at the time and on which the Government acted—namely, that there was a legal basis for action. Nevertheless, Sir John is highly critical of the processes by which the legal advice was arrived at and discussed. He says:
“The circumstances in which it was ultimately decided that there was a legal basis for UK participation were far from satisfactory.”
I am sure hon. Members will want to study that part of the report carefully.
Sir John also finds that the diplomatic options had not at that stage been exhausted, and that
“Military action was therefore not a last resort.”
Sir John says that when the second resolution at the UN became unachievable, the UK should have done more to exhaust all diplomatic options, including allowing the inspectors longer to complete their job.
Turning to the decision making, the report documents carefully the processes that were followed. There was a Cabinet discussion before the decision to go to war. A number of Ministers, including the Foreign and Defence Secretaries, were involved in much of the decision making. However, the report makes some specific criticisms of the process of decision making. In particular, when it came to the options for military action, it is clear that these were never discussed properly by a Cabinet Committee or Cabinet. Arrangements were often informal and sporadic, and frequently involved a small group of Ministers and advisers, sometimes without formal records.
Sir John finds that, at crucial points, Mr Blair sent personal notes and made important commitments to Mr Bush that had not been discussed or agreed with Cabinet colleagues. However, while Sir John makes many criticisms of process, including the way information was handled and presented, at no stage does he explicitly say that there was a deliberate attempt to mislead people.
Turning to operational planning, the initial invasion proceeded relatively rapidly, and we should be proud of what our armed forces managed to achieve so quickly. This was despite the fact that the military did not really have time to plan properly for an invasion from the south, because they had been focused on the north until a late decision from the Turkish Government to refuse entry through their territory. It was also in spite of issues over equipment, which I will turn to later.
But a bigger question was around the planning for what might happen after the initial operation, and we mentioned this briefly at Prime Minister’s questions. Sir John finds that
“when the invasion began, the UK government was not in a position to conclude that satisfactory plans had been drawn up and preparations made to meet known post-conflict challenges and risks in Iraq.”
He adds that the Government
“lacked clear Ministerial oversight of post-conflict strategy, planning and preparation and effective co-ordination between government departments”
“failed to analyse or manage those risks adequately.”
The Government—and here I mean officials and the military, as well as Ministers—remained too fixed on assumptions that the Americans had a plan, that the UN would play a significant role, with the international community sharing the burden, and that the UK role would be over three to four months after the conflict had ended. Sir John concludes that the Government’s failure to prepare properly for the aftermath of the conflict
“reduced the likelihood of achieving the UK’s strategic objectives in Iraq.”
And Sir John concludes that anticipating these post-conflict problems—and I quote, as I did at Prime Minister’s questions—
“did not require the benefit of hindsight.”
Turning to equipment and troops, Sir John is clear that the UK failed to match resources to the objectives. Sir John says categorically that
“delays in providing adequate medium weight Protected Patrol Vehicles and the failure to meet the needs of UK forces…for ISTAR and helicopters should not have been tolerated”,
and he says that
“the MOD was slow in responding to the developing threat in Iraq from Improvised Explosive Devices.”
The inquiry also identified a number of moments when it would have been possible to conduct a substantial reappraisal of our approach to the whole situation in Iraq and the level of resources required. But despite a series of warnings from commanders in the field, Sir John finds that no such reappraisal took place. Furthermore, during the first four years, there was
“no clear statement of policy setting out the acceptable level of risk to UK forces and who was responsible for managing that risk.”
Sir John also finds that the Government—and in particular the military—were too focused on withdrawing from Iraq and planning for an Afghan deployment in 2006, and that further drew effort away.
Sir John concludes that although Tony Blair succeeded in persuading America to go back to the UN in 2002, he was unsuccessful in changing the US position on other critical decisions, and that
“in the absence of a majority in the Security Council in support of military action at that point, the UK was undermining the authority of the Security Council”.
While it is right for a UK Prime Minister to weigh up carefully the damage to the special relationship that would be done by failing to support the US, Sir John says that it is questionable whether not participating militarily on this occasion would have broken the partnership. He says there was a substantial gap from the outset between the ambitious UK objectives and the resources that Government were prepared to commit, and that even with more resources, the circumstances surrounding the invasion made it difficult to deliver substantive outcomes.
While the territorial integrity of Iraq remained, deep sectarian divisions opened, and thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians lost their lives. While these divisions were not created by the international coalition, Sir John believes they were exacerbated, including through the extent of de-Ba’athification, and they were not addressed by an effective programme of reconciliation. Overall, Sir John finds that the policy of Her Majesty’s Government fell far short of meeting its strategic objectives and helped to create a space for al-Qaeda.
Of course, the decision to go to war came to a vote in this House, and Members on all sides who voted for military action will have to take our fair share of the responsibility. We cannot turn the clock back, but we can ensure that lessons are learned and acted on. I will turn to these in a moment and cover all the issues around machinery of government, proper processes, culture and planning, some of which we discussed in Prime Minister’s questions, but let me be the first to say that getting all of these things right does not guarantee the success of a military intervention.
For example, on Libya, I believe it was right to intervene to stop Gaddafi slaughtering his people. In that case, we did have a United Nations Security Council resolution. We did have proper processes. We did have comprehensive advice on all the key issues. And we did not put our forces on the ground. Instead we worked with a transitional Libyan Government. But getting these things right does not make the challenges of intervention any less formidable. The difficulties in Libya are plain for everyone to see today.
As the Prime Minister for the last six years, reading this report, I believe there are some lessons that we do need to learn and, frankly, keep on learning. First, taking the country to war should always be a last resort and should only be done if all credible alternatives have been exhausted.
Secondly, the machinery of government does matter. That is why, on my first day in office, I established the National Security Council to ensure proper co-ordinated decision making across the whole of government, including those responsible for domestic security. This council is not just a meeting of Ministers; it has the right breadth of expertise in the room, with the Chief of the Defence Staff, the Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, the heads of the intelligence services, and relevant senior officials. The Attorney General is now a member of the National Security Council.
I also appointed the UK’s first national security adviser, with a properly constituted team in the Cabinet Office to ensure that all the key parts of our national security apparatus are joined up. The national security machinery also taps the experience and knowledge of experts from outside Government. This helps us to constantly challenge conventional wisdom within the system and avoid, hopefully, group-think. It is inconceivable today that we could take a premeditated decision to commit combat troops without a full and challenging discussion in the National Security Council, on the basis of full papers, including written legal advice, prepared and stress-tested by all relevant departments, with decisions formally minuted.
Thirdly, I would argue also that the culture established by Prime Ministers matters too. It is crucial to good decision making that a Prime Minister establishes a climate in which it is safe for officials and other experts to challenge existing policy and question the views of Ministers, and the Prime Minister, without fear or favour. There is no question today but that everyone sat around the NSC table is genuinely free to speak their mind.
Fourthly, if we are to take the difficult decisions to intervene in other countries, proper planning for what follows is vital. We know that the task of rebuilding effective governance is enormous. That is why we created a conflict, stability and stabilisation fund, and beefed up the cross-government stabilisation unit, so that experts are able to deploy in post-conflict situations anywhere in the world at short notice. Frankly, none of this would be possible without the historic decision that we have taken to commit 0.7% of our gross national income on overseas aid. A lot of that money is spent on conflict-affected and fragile states, not only assisting with post-conflict planning but also trying to prevent conflicts in the first place.
Fifthly, we must ensure that our armed forces are always properly equipped and resourced. That is why we now conduct a regular strategic defence and security review to ensure that the resources we have meet the ambitions of the national security strategy. We are meeting our NATO commitment to spend 2% of our GDP on defence, and planning to invest at least £178 billion on new military equipment over the next decade. We have also enshrined the armed forces covenant in law to ensure that our armed forces and their families receive the treatment and respect they deserve. Sending our brave troops on to the battlefield without the right equipment was unacceptable, and whatever else we learn from this conflict, we must all pledge that this will never happen again.
There will be further lessons to learn from studying this report, and I commit today that that is exactly what we will do, but in reflecting on this report, and my own experience, there are also some lessons here that I do not think we should draw. First, it would be wrong to conclude that we should not stand with our American allies when our common security interests are threatened. We must never be afraid to speak frankly and honestly, as best friends always should. And where we commit our troops together, there must be a structure through which our views can be properly conveyed and any differences worked through. But it remains the case that Britain and America share the same fundamental values, that Britain has no greater friend or ally in the world than America, and that our partnership remains as important for our security and prosperity today as it has ever been.
Secondly, I think it would be wrong to conclude that we cannot rely on the judgments of our brilliant and hard-working intelligence agencies. We know the debt we owe them in helping to keep us safe every day of the year. Since November 2014, they have enabled us to foil seven different planned terrorist attacks on the streets of the UK. What this report shows is that there needs to be a proper separation between the process of assessing intelligence and the policy making that flows from it. And as a result of the reforms since the Butler report, that is what we have in place.
Thirdly, it would be completely wrong to conclude that our military is not capable of intervening successfully around the world. Many of the failures in this report were not directly about the conduct of the armed forces as they went into Iraq, but rather the failures of planning before a shot was fired. There is no question but that Britain’s armed forces remain the envy of the world, and the decisions we have taken to ensure that they are properly resourced will ensure they stay that way.
Finally, we should not conclude that intervention is always wrong. There are unquestionably times when it is right to intervene, as this country did successfully in Sierra Leone and Kosovo. I am sure that many in this House would agree that there have been times in the recent past when we should have intervened but did not, such as in failing to prevent the genocides in Rwanda and Srebrenica.
Intervention is hard. War fighting is not always the most difficult part. Often, the state-building that follows is a much more complex challenge. We should not be naive to think that just because we have the best prepared plans, in the real world things cannot go wrong. Equally, just because intervention is difficult, it does not mean that there are not times when it is right and necessary.
Yes, Britain has to, and will continue to, learn the lessons of this report. But as with our intervention against Daesh in Iraq and Syria today, Britain must not and will not shrink from its role on the world stage or fail to protect its people. I commend this statement to the House.
Before addressing the issues raised in the Iraq inquiry report, I would like to remember and honour the 179 British servicemen and women who were killed and the thousands maimed and injured during the Iraq war, and their families, as well as the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who have died as a result of the invasion and occupation launched by the US and British Governments 13 years ago.
Yesterday, I had a private meeting with some of the families of the British dead, as I have continued to do over the past dozen years. It is always a humbling experience to witness the resolve and resilience of those families and their unwavering commitment to seek truth and justice for those whom they lost in Iraq. They have waited seven years for Sir John Chilcot’s report. It was right that the inquiry heard evidence from such a wide range of people and that the origins, conduct and aftermath of the war were examined in such detail. However, the extraordinary length of time that it has taken for the report to see the light of day is, frankly, clearly a matter of regret.
I should add that the scale of the report, running to 6,275 pages, to which I was given access only at 8 o’clock this morning, means that today’s response, by all of us, can only be a provisional one.
The decision to invade and occupy Iraq in March 2003 was the most significant foreign policy decision taken by a British Government in modern times. It divided this House and set the Government of the day against a majority of the British people, as well as against the weight of global opinion. As Sir John Chilcot says, the war was not in any way a “last resort”. Frankly, it was an act of military aggression launched on a false pretext, as the inquiry accepts, and has long been regarded as illegal by the overwhelming weight of international legal opinion. It led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and the displacement of millions of refugees. It devastated Iraq’s infrastructure and society. As the report indicates, the occupation fostered a lethal sectarianism that turned into a civil war. Instead of protecting security at home or abroad, the war fuelled and spread terrorism across the region. Sunday’s suicide bomb attack in Baghdad that killed over 250 people, the deadliest so far, was carried out by a group whose origins lie in the aftermath of the invasion. By any measure, the invasion and occupation of Iraq have been, for many, a catastrophe.
The decision to invade Iraq in 2003 on the basis of what the Chilcot report calls “flawed intelligence” about weapons of mass destruction has had a far-reaching impact on us all. It has led to a fundamental breakdown in trust in politics and in our institutions of government. The tragedy is that while the governing class got it so horrifically wrong, many of our people actually got it right. On 15 February 2003, 1.5 million people here, spanning the entire political spectrum, and tens of millions of others across the world, marched against the impending war. That was the biggest demonstration in British history.
It was not that those of us who opposed the war underestimated the brutality or the crimes of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. Indeed, many of us campaigned against the Iraqi regime during its most bloody period, when the British Government and the US Administration were supporting that regime, as was confirmed by the 1996 Scott inquiry. But we could see that this state, broken by sanctions and war, posed no military threat, and that the WMD evidence was flimsy and confected. We could see that going to war without United Nations’ authorisation was profoundly dangerous, and that foreign invasion and occupation would be resisted by force, and would set off a series of uncontrollable and destructive events.
If only this House had been able to listen to the wisdom of many of our own people when it voted on 18 March 2003 against waiting for UN authorisation for a second resolution, the course of events might have been different. All but 16 Members of the official Opposition at that time supported the war, while many in my party voted against it, as did others in other opposition parties. There are Members here today on all Benches, including dozens of my Labour colleagues, who voted against the war. But none of us should take any satisfaction from this report. Instead, I believe that all of us.
Order. We cannot have a running commentary on the statements made from the Front Bench. Members of this House know me well enough to know that I will allow all opinions to be expressed. If that means that the Prime Minister has to be here for quite a long time, he is accustomed to that. The right hon. Gentleman is entitled to be heard with courtesy. If people want to witter away, they should leave the Chamber. It is boring and we do not need you.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
We have to be saddened at what has been revealed, and we must now reflect on it. In addition to all those British servicepeople and Iraqis, civilians and combatants, who lost their lives in the conflict, many members of this House who voted to stop the war have not lived to see themselves vindicated by this report. First and foremost, it would do us well to remember Robin Cook, who stood over there, 13 years ago, and said in a few hundred words, in advance of the tragedy to come, what has been confirmed by this report in more than 2 million words.
The Chilcot report has rightly dug deep into the litany of failures of planning for the occupation, and the calamitous decision to stand down the Iraqi army and to dissolve the entire Iraqi state as a process of de-Ba’athification. However, the reality is that it was the original decision, to follow the US President into this war in the most volatile region of the world and impose a colonial-style occupation, that led to every other disaster. The Government’s September 2002 dossier, with its claim that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction that could be deployed in 45 minutes, was only the most notorious of many deceptions. As Major General Michael Laurie told the inquiry:
“We knew at the time that the purpose of the dossier was precisely to make a case for war, rather than setting out the available intelligence”.
Military action in Iraq not only turned a humanitarian crisis into a disaster, but it also convulsed the entire region, just as intervention in Libya in 2011 has sadly left the country in the grip of warring militias and terror groups. The Iraq war increased the threat of terrorism in our own country, as Baroness Manningham-Buller, former head of MI5, made clear to the inquiry.
There are many lessons that need to be drawn from the Iraq war and the investigation carried out by Sir John Chilcot in his inquiry; lessons for our Government, our country and this Parliament, as well as for my party and every other party. They include the need for a more open and independent relationship with the United States, and for a foreign policy based on upholding international law and the authority of the United Nations, which always seeks peaceful solutions to international disputes. We also need, and the Prime Minister indicated this, much stronger oversight of security and intelligence services. We need the full restoration of proper Cabinet government and to give Parliament the decisive say over any future decisions to go to war—based on objective information, not just through Government discretion but through a war powers Act, which I hope this Parliament will pass. As, in the wake of Iraq, our own Government and other western Governments increasingly resort to hybrid warfare based on the use of drones and special forces, our democracy crucially needs to ensure that their use is subject to proper parliamentary scrutiny.
There are no more important decisions a Member of Parliament ever gets asked to make than those relating to peace and war. The very least that Members of Parliament and the country should be able to expect is rigorous and objective evidence on which to base their crucial decisions. We now know that the House was misled in the run-up to the war, and the House must now decide how to deal with it 13 years later, just as all those who took the decisions laid bare in the Chilcot report must face up to the consequences of their actions, whatever they may be.
Later today, I will be meeting a group of families of military servicemen and women who lost loved ones, as well as Iraq war veterans and Iraqi citizens who have lost family members as a result of the war that the US and British Governments launched in 2003. I will be discussing with them, our public and the Iraqi people the decisions taken by our then Government that led the country into war, with terrible consequences.
Quite bluntly, there are huge lessons for every single one of us here today. We make decisions that have consequences that go on not just for the immediate years, but for decades and decades afterwards. We need to reflect very seriously before we take any decisions again to take military action. We should realise that the consequences of those decisions will live with all of us for many decades to come, and will often be incalculable.
The Prime Minister
Let me briefly respond to that, because I want to leave as much time as I can for colleagues to make their points. I think the right hon. Gentleman is right to praise the families for the dignity that they have shown. I understand the regret over the time taken, and I think we all feel that. The only point I would make is that when you have an independent report, you have to allow it to be independent and you have to allow the chairman to make his or her own decisions in their own way. While it has been frustrating, I think that frustration has probably been better than intervention.
In terms of the time the right hon. Gentleman was given to read the report, I did not want politicians, including the former Prime Minister, to be given more time than the families themselves. That is why the 8 o’clock deadline was set. On the report itself, I think the right hon. Gentleman is right to say, and the report finds, that the intervention did create space for al-Qaeda. The only point I would make is that it is important to remember that violent Islamist extremism—al-Qaeda and all of that—started long before the Iraq war. It started long before 9/11, which was several years before the Iraq invasion. It is important to remember that.
In terms of the litany of failures, I have been able to read the executive summary and some other bits and pieces, as I am sure colleagues will. The right hon. Gentleman is right that there is a litany of failures: the disbanding of the army, the de-Ba’athification, the way the Coalition Provisional Authority worked and the failure to plan for the aftermath. There were very powerful points made by Sir John Chilcot.
In terms of the lessons to learn, many of the points the right hon. Gentleman made we have already put in place: proper Cabinet discussions, National Security Council discussions, parliamentary votes and the oversight of the intelligence agencies. Before coming up with even more ways to oversee our intelligence agencies, I would urge colleagues from right around the House to look at the way the beefed-up Intelligence and Security Committee works and at the other things that we have done, not least in the legislation going through both Houses. We do need to leave our intelligence services with a clear set of instructions and oversight arrangements, rather than changing them every five minutes.
A war powers Act can be discussed in the two-day debate. I have looked at it very carefully, and I have come to the conclusion that it is not the right thing to do. I think we would get ourselves into a legal mess. But the House should clearly debate it, as it will when it considers the report.
On the issue of the United States, the right hon. Gentleman calls for an open partnership. I do not believe that the United States is always right about everything, but I do believe that our partnership with the United States is vital for our national security. I rather fear that his approach is that the United States is always wrong. I do not think that they are always right, but I think that they are always our best partner, and we should work with them.
I urge the right hon. Gentleman and others to take the time to read the report—not in its entirety; I do not think any of us will have time for 3.8 million words—because it is very carefully judged and very carefully thought through. We should read it in conjunction with the statement that Sir John has given today, which is a very articulate distillation of what he says in his 200-page summary. I think that that is what we should be guided by.