Voters’ right to know trumps reputations

By Chris Ames - Last updated: Thursday, December 18, 2014

by Chris Ames

In a comment piece in the Telegraph, my colleague Peter Oborne criticises David Cameron for supporting Tony Blair in general and particulaly over the suppression of details of Blair’s contacts with George Bush. To make matters worse:

Now comes word of a fresh delay. Those criticised by Chilcot have hired (at taxpayers’ expense) hugely expensive lawyers to challenge the conclusions of the inquiry. Bear in mind that Chilcot is the first major investigation into a political/military fiasco since the Gallipoli disaster 99 years ago. Its purpose is not to protect reputations, but to get at the truth and enable lessons to be learnt for the future.

Meanwhile, a letter to the Times (paywall) returns to the paper’s story yesterday:

Your front-page story (“Whitehall shockwaves over Chilcot draft report”, Dec 17) clearly indicates that the outcome of this important but inordinately protracted inquiry will not be known before the general election. That represents a disservice both to democracy generally and specifically to voters’ right to know, in what will inevitably prove a finely balanced election result.

While it remains speculation that the report might not be published before the election – something will initially depend on how long the lawyers drag it out – it is hard to agree with the sentiment. Any talk of deliberately withholding information from voters is profoundly undemocratic.

 

 

Filed in Coverage, Opinion, Process

Ministers not paying attention to Chilcot

By Chris Ames - Last updated: Wednesday, December 17, 2014

by Chris Ames

Writing on the New Statesman’s Staggers blog, Anoosh Chakelian picks up on today’s Times story that the Inquiry’s draft report is (currently) “much more punchy than people thought it was going to be” and says that:

Although the PM has emphasised the importance of hearing the inquiry’s findings, it is clear that the report remains an afterthought behind the scenes. And not just because of the repeated delays and prevarication over when we can expect it to be published.

I hear from a well-placed MP that it was only very shortly before a Westminster Hall debate on the Chilcot inquiry was called in October this year that the Cabinet Office minister for civil society, Rob Wilson MP, discovered that the Chilcot inquiry was even part of his brief. This low priority suggests No 10 not only sees the report as being very far off on the political horizon, but also reveals the lack of significance it lends the inquiry.

This appears to be a reference to this debate on 29 October. If the story is true, it would explain why Wilson told the Commons that:

technically it can be published right up to the end of February if publication is to be before the May general election.

This is incorrect. There is no technical reason why the report cannot be published after the end of February, as long as it is published before Parliament is dissolved on 30 March.

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Draft report “causes shockwaves in Whitehall”

By Chris Ames - Last updated: Wednesday, December 17, 2014

by Chris Ames

Today’s Times (paywall) reports that:

Draft reports of the official inquiry into the Iraq war have sent shockwaves through Whitehall, with key players fighting to tone down or even delete the criticism contained in them.

Extracts from the much delayed report by Sir John Chilcot, which in some cases run to hundreds of pages, have been sent in recent weeks to those criticised for their conduct, to give them a chance to respond before the report is finally published.

“The lawyers are getting called in all over the shop,” one well-placed figure said. “It’s much more punchy than people thought it was going to be.”

There is said to be particular consternation among former military personnel who were involved in the planning and operation of the Iraq invasion in March 2003.

It’s worth unpicking the story to see what would be new – and significant – if it were true. In the first place, although there is almost certainly a draft report, there are not “draft reports” and it is unlikely that people outside the inquiry have seen the draft report. The “Maxwellisation” process, which does appear to be in process, involves people who are criticised in the draft report being shown the draft sections in which they are criticised.

Undoubtedly they will then fight to have those criticisms toned down or deleted and will use their lawyers, although it’s not clear what the lawyers can do. The job of the Inquiry is to stand up to pressure and not revert to an establishment compromise. Of course “It’s much more punchy than people thought it was going to be,” depends on your perspective and could be spin.

The story does not of course say that military personnel are particularly in the firing line, so to speak, but does imply that they are more surprised than others to be there.

A lot of the story actually rehashes quotes from Lord Wallace in the debate that I reproduced here. But it also reports that the illness that has kept Martin Gilbert away from the inquiry was a stroke.

 

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Don’t delay report until after the election – Fallon

By Chris Ames - Last updated: Sunday, December 14, 2014

by Chris Ames

As he announced the return of hundreds more British troops to Iraq, defence Secretary Michael Fallon gave an interview to the Telegraph in which he made a couple of significant comments about the Inquiry.

Mr Fallon is also impatient to see the results of the Chilcot Inquiry into the 2003 Iraq war. There is certainly no case, in his view, for delaying the publication of the report, which many expect to criticise Mr Blair and Mr Straw, until after May’s general election.

“It has been delayed long enough. Let’s see it,” Mr Fallon says. “Chilcot was about one central issue: whether our country was taken to war on a false prospectus. That needs to be resolved. If it turns out it was done on a false prospectus then that’s a very serious charge that Blair and his ministers will have to answer.”

In saying that there is no case for delaying the report until after the election, Fallon is contradicting other ministers, including Lord Wallace, who says that this is what should happen if the report is not published by the end of February.

And Fallon seems to be off-message on the purpose of the Inquiry, albeit that he has it absolutely right. There’s been no talk of people having to answer very serious charges about a false prospectus. It’s all about lessons learned, surely? Or are the Conservatives repositioning themselves?

The SNP are also lining up against any plan to delay the report until after the election. In a press release demanding answers about the involvement of Scottish airports in rendition, their Westminster Leader and Defence Spokesperson Angus Robertson MP said:

we are still waiting on the conclusions of the judicial inquiry into the Iraq war. The Chilcot Inquiry report has now been delayed for four years and senior Tory MPs have now said that it may be “delayed until after the general election”.

Conversely, former foreign secretary and current Intelligence and Security Committee chairman Malcolm Rifkind is using the delay in the Iraq Inquiry as cover for the slowness of his own “full inquiry” into Britain’s involvement in CIA torture.

All inquiries take time to reach conclusions and to publish them, as we are seeing with the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war. We expect much of our work to be completed by the end of next year and we will publish our findings without fear or favour.

 

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Cameron: don’t ask me

By Chris Ames - Last updated: Wednesday, December 10, 2014

by Chris Ames

The Guardian (and others) reports that:

David Cameron has conceded he has no control over when the Chilcot report into the Iraq war will appear after previously urging the inquiry to publish before Christmas.

The prime minister was asked when the long-running inquiry would finally return its conclusions on the day a US report found the CIA used ineffective and brutal methods of torture in the aftermath of 9/11.

Cameron has been facing questions about delays and redactions to the Chilcot report as US and UK intelligence agencies come under increasing scrutiny over the methods they use to prevent terrorism.

In May, the prime minister said: “I want to see [the report] published soon. My understanding is that they will be able to publish before the end of the year and I very much hope they can deliver on that timetable. The public wants to see the answers of the inquiry and I think we shouldn’t have to wait too much longer.”

After the CIA report emerged on Tuesday, Cameron was asked again whether Chilcot will be published before the end of the year as the British public needs answers. He said: “On the Chilcot inquiry nothing has changed in terms of my view but I am not in control of when this report is published. It is an independent report, it is very important in our system that these sort of reports are not controlled or timed by the government. They are controlled and timed by the independent inquiry board that has carried out that vital work. And when they publish is a matter for them.”

Cameron’s refusal to express confidence that the inquiry will meet the timetable he requested will fuel speculation that the report will not now be published until after the general election. Whitehall sources have previously conceded this may be the most likely outcome.

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Enough is enough

By Chris Ames - Last updated: Thursday, December 4, 2014

by Chris Ames

Writing on Politics.co.uk, Richard Heller also says that voters should be able to see the Inquiry report before the election.

The public are left to imagine a stately game of bureaucratic ping-pong as drafts of “gists and quotes” are batted back and forth.

The first simple step to speed publication of the Iraq inquiry report is to call time on this ping-pong match.  Chilcot and his colleagues should abandon any further pursuit of agreement on “gists and quotes”, or any other form of reduced citations for any outstanding documents. Where it has reached agreement the inquiry should make use of the resulting formula in its report. Otherwise, it should make a bare citation of a relevant piece of material (as it might be, “the record of the telephone conversation between the president and the prime minister at 1900 BST on 31 April 2003″) and tell readers that it has not been able to agree any means of quoting from it.

Such a power is expressly given to the inquiry by the protocol. Its use might disappoint a number of readers, particularly scholars and experts. But the overwhelming majority of the public, especially victims of Iraq, simply want to know what conclusions the inquiry has reached. They will be satisfied by the knowledge of the evidence it considered, even if some of this evidence is withheld from them.

I disagree with this suggestion. I do not want the Inquiry’s conclusions so much as to see the key evidence. Given the history of establishment inquiries siding with the establishment, I am not prepared to trust an establishment inquiry’s assertions about evidence I have not seen. I do not want to be told, for example, that what Tony Blair told George Bush in July 2002 did not, as has been alleged, amount to a blank cheque without seeing the words that Blair actually used.

Heller is however spot on when disputing the government’s seemingly arbitrary February deadline for publication of the report.

Withholding the report in a general election campaign would reflect a profound contempt by Britain’s ruling establishment for the democratic process and for the good sense of British voters. It would be a gift to all the anti-establishment parties in the campaign – Ukip, the nationalist parties, the Greens. It might well backfire on those criticised in the report, and on the establishment generally, by allowing the public to imagine that the report is much fiercer than is actually the case.

The report must be presented to parliament and the last possible date for this would be March 30th next year, when parliament will be dissolved.

If David Cameron receives the completed report, he should lay it before parliament and have it published at any time up to the last legal minute. That may well allow him no time to prepare a government response to it or arrange any parliamentary debate. Too bad. The British people have waited too long for this report. Our politicians should trust them to read it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Filed in Opinion, Process

Don’t hide the report from the voters – Plaid Cymru

By Chris Ames - Last updated: Monday, November 24, 2014

by Chris Ames

Wales Online reports that:

On the fifth anniversary of the first session of Sir John Chilcot’s Iraq Inquiry, politicians have condemned the fact that the report into the lessons of the conflict has yet to be published.

There are fears that the public will now not see the report ahead of the May 2015 election.

The party’s parliamentary leader, Elfyn LLywd said:

The delay in publishing its report only adds fuel to speculations as to its credibility. The report must be published without delay, and certainly before the general election in May.

This is now the most important point of contention around the Inquiry – not who may have been responsible for the delay so far but whether it is right for the government deliberately to hide it from the electorate in case it should influence how they vote. Government ministers have previously talked about an arbitrary deadline of Febuary, after which the report will have to be delayed until after the election.

It’s hard to believe that in a supposedly mature democracy in the 21st century anyone thinks it’s a good idea to keep information from voters.

 

 

 

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Salmon letters sent out “some time ago” – Daily Mail

By Chris Ames - Last updated: Tuesday, November 18, 2014

by Chris Ames

The Mail reports that:

Letters containing the detailed conclusions of the public inquiry into the Iraq War have been sent to the main participants, the Daily Mail understands.

The revelation will increase speculation that the conclusions of the long-delayed inquiry could be made public in the coming months.

Tony Blair and Jack Straw are among those thought to have received letters in recent weeks warning them of any criticisms to be made by Sir John Chilcot.

Whitehall sources have told the Mail the letters were sent out ‘some time ago’.

 

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Lord Wallace: I want books for Christmas

By Chris Ames - Last updated: Tuesday, November 4, 2014

by Chris Ames

The Inquiry is in the news again today, with further discussion about the delay, whether the report will be published before the election, and the cost, which is likely to go over £10m.

Here is the whole of yesterday’s debate in the Lords.

 

Asked by Lord Dykes

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to expedite the publication of the report by the Chilcot Inquiry.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire (LD): My Lords, the inquiry is completely independent of government. However, Sir John Chilcot has said that it is the inquiry’s intention to submit its report to the Prime Minister as soon as possible. I very much hope that its conclusions will shortly be available for all to read.

Lord Dykes (LD): I express sympathy to my noble friend that HMG appear to be at the mercy of pressures from outside to connive in a delay in this report possibly to help Mr Bush and Mr Blair. Will he please come back to the Prime Minister’s exhortation in May that the report should be published by the end of this year at the latest and say when the date will be?

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, I refute that there is in any sense a conspiracy connected to the former Prime Minister or the former American president. It has taken a good deal longer than was anticipated to clear the many thousands of documents that have been examined and which will be published on the website with a number of redactions. That process is now virtually complete. The Maxwellisation letters,

3 Nov 2014 : Column 1424

which were sent out as a warning last year, should now be going out and we hope that that process will be completed. As soon as those who are to be criticised in the report have responded, the report will be ready for submission to the Prime Minister.

Lord Morgan (Lab): My Lords, is this not a scandal following on a scandal? Is it not a public disgrace? In other countries—for example, the Netherlands—there were far more competent professional inquiries, full of lawyers who could comment on international law, which replied very swiftly. We have had this endless delay. Does it not indicate that perhaps the Government as well as the Civil Service have ceased to believe in open government?

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: No, my Lords, I do not think that it does. It has taken longer than we had hoped or expected. This is an entirely new sort of inquiry. I suppose it is comparable to the Saville inquiry, which also took a great deal longer than we had anticipated. We underestimated the complexity before we started, but we are encouraging the committee as rapidly as possible to complete and we are anxious to have the report published.

The Lord Bishop of Norwich: My Lords, does the Minister accept that repeated press reports of rows between the Cabinet Office and the inquiry over the declassification of documents are deeply hurtful to the families most affected by the Iraq conflict? Does he agree that until the inquiry is completed, many bereaved and grieving families will not be able to move on?

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, I appreciate that many have been affected by the issues studied by this inquiry. I am not aware of any rows between the Cabinet Office and the inquiry. I am aware of a long series of complex discussions within the British Government, between the British Government and our allies and with the inquiry about the exact nature of what should be published. I am conscious that what will be published includes notes from more than 200 Cabinet meetings, for example, including some extracts from Cabinet minutes.

Lord Dobbs (Con): My Lords, does my noble friend remember that, before the war broke out, 1 million ordinary people marched in the streets of London telling us not to go to war, yet we politicians did a pretty miserable job in waving that war on willy-nilly? While no one underestimates the difficulties that Sir John Chilcot faces, does my noble friend not accept that any further delay, after all this time, can only increase the sense of injustice that so many people feel about that war?

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, I remember that march very well: I was one of the marchers. We are very conscious that we now need to bring this to a close. I deeply regret that it has taken three years since the end of the interview phase of the inquiry to get as far as we have. We are all anxious to complete the next stage which, as I stress, is showing to those who will be criticised in the report what it says about them and giving them a chance to reply. As soon as that is

3 Nov 2014 : Column 1425

completed—so we are a little dependent on them, I am afraid to say, and on their lawyers—the report will be submitted to the Prime Minister and published.

Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall (Lab): My Lords, does the Minister regard “as soon as possible” as nearer or further off than “in due course”?

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, I very much hope nearer. In the debate in the House of Commons last week, my colleague the Minister for Civil Society commented that they very much hoped to have this published before the end of February. We are all conscious that we do not want to have this published in the middle of an election campaign.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon (Ind Lab): My Lords, could we have the report as a Christmas present?

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: There are many things that the noble Lord might like as a Christmas present. I am not sure that I would prefer to read this report, with all its appendices, rather than the novels that I hope my wife will give me for Christmas.

Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne (LD): Does the Minister agree that sometimes in these enormous investigations it might be wise to set a time limit with an understanding that there are some things that simply can never be found out?

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, I think one of the lessons we will have learnt from this inquiry is that time limits are highly desirable. I stress again that the review of thousands of documents, which were at high levels of classification, was unprecedented and did unavoidably take a great deal of time.

Lord West of Spithead (Lab): My Lords, how much has the Chilcot inquiry cost so far? Is it rather like building work in one’s own house that “as soon as possible” ends up costing an awful lot more?

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, the inquiry has cost £9 million so far. We estimate that by the time it is completed it will have cost £10 million. By comparison, the Saville inquiry cost £100 million.

Lord Avebury (LD): My Lords, how far will the extra £1 million take us? Can my noble friend give an assurance that it will not be within the pre-election period before the next general election when silence is observed?

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, that is the assurance that the Minister for Civil Society gave last week. We are all anxious that if it is not published by the end of February it would be inappropriate to publish it during the campaign period.

Lord Mawhinney (Con): My Lords, I declare an interest as I had the privilege of working very closely with Sir John Chilcot when he was the Permanent Secretary in Northern Ireland. Is my noble friend concerned that the backstage manoeuvring and perhaps even bickering going on as people allegedly seek to protect their reputations could over time start to have

3 Nov 2014 : Column 1426

a damaging effect on the reputation of Sir John Chilcot? It would be a disgrace were that to be allowed to happen.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, I am not sure about backstairs manoeuvring. I would say that the members of the Chilcot inquiry would not pass the necessary test as all being members of the establishment. Indeed, one of the members of the Chilcot inquiry disrupted the first lecture I gave as a university teacher when he was himself a rebellious student. The inquiry does have to consult those whom it will criticise and allow them to provide a defence. That is the process that now remains to be completed before we publish. We all have to accept that in natural justice that has to be allowed to go ahead even if there are lawyers involved.

Lord Richard (Lab): My Lords, the process referred to by the noble Lord could take months. It could take a very long time. If criticisms are made in the report they then have to go to the people who have been criticised. They have the right to comment. It then comes back to Sir John Chilcot. He has to consider those representations and then, if necessary, reflect them by amending the report. That is a recipe for a delay that will go on and on and on.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, I hope that will not be the case, but I am sure the noble Lord will accept that this is a necessary part of the process. There will be criticisms of people who served in the previous Labour Government and they are entitled to see them before publication.

Lord Woolf (CB): My Lords, the question of what happens in the course of inquiries was reported on by the committee, of which I have the privilege to be a member, headed by the noble Lord, Lord Shutt. One of its recommendations was that we should look again at the process of writing to those who may be affected. Many of those who have conducted inquiries said that it led to additional expense and waste of time. The Government were not sympathetic to what we recommended. Does the noble Lord think that the Government should look at the matter again?

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, when the inquiry is complete and published, it might well be appropriate for some body of government or House of Parliament to look at that question again.

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Hague hopes for report before the election

By Chris Ames - Last updated: Thursday, October 16, 2014

by Chris Ames

The BBC reports that

William Hague has said he “hopes” the Iraq Inquiry report will be published before the 2015 general election.

Hague was speaking as leader of the House of Commons  and reminded people that as shadow foreign secretary he led debates calling for an Iraq inquiry, which the Labour government resisted for as long as it could. Hague pointed out that it would all be over by now without the delay setting it up.

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