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Prime Minister's statement on Chilcot

AngelaSmith.jpgAngela Smith speech in the House of Lords on the Iraq Inquiry, 6th July 2016

My Lords, few will have had the opportunity to have read more than the Executive Summary, and seen Sir John Chilcot’s statement and other comments that have been made.  I am grateful to the Government for providing advance access to the executive summary this morning. In the weeks, months and years to come this exhaustive, detailed report will be digested and analysed in greater detail that we are able to do so today.

I first want to pay tribute to our armed forces and also those who service in a civilian capacity. When young men and women take on the responsibility of joining the Army, Navy or RAF, they do so in the knowledge that they are joining one of the highest forms of public service. They become our front line, both in peace time and in conflict.  As a nation we are so very proud of the work that they do, the way in which they do it and the high standards that they set. 

But we must always recognise that in conflicts such as this, lives are lost and others suffer physical and mental injury.  And also that the families that support our service men and women are hugely affected.  In Iraq 179 of our armed forces and 23 civilians lost their lives.  Their families will never be the same.  We mourn their loss and also recognise that this is a traumatic time for them all. And we also must never forget that both in this conflict, and before it, thousands of Iraqi people have lost their lives. The decisions about when our armed forces are deployed, are not theirs. Those decisions are made by politicians, with advice including from senior military and intelligence services. We have a duty to ensure that such decision making is as high a standard as we ask of our military.

When Gordon Brown set up this inquiry, he was clear that it was to ensure that lessons could be learned. I am grateful to Sir John Chilcot and all those that took on the extensive work that was required. It was clearly a greater task than had been anticipated.  When compared with other reports, it has taken a very long time.  Some of those who most wanted to see the outcome are no longer alive. As well as any lessons to be drawn from the Report there may well be lessons to be learned from the process of the inquiry itself. Would it have been of assistance, for example if there had been legal representation on the inquiry team? Also, and this will be something to examine from the Report, but in the past the very process of an inquiry can itself lead to changes.

I appreciate that the Prime Minister in his statement took on board how decision making across Government can be changed and improved.  Some of that may have already come about because of the process of this inquiry and those involved in the machinery of Government considering and reflecting on these issues and identifying deficiencies. The Report makes a number of criticisms that must be addressed.  What it does not do however is either make a case for non-interventionist policy in the future or conclude that anyone acted in bad faith. That is important. What the Report does show is how difficult and often how finely judged such decisions, including the analysis and use of intelligence information is.

And the Report identifies some very real criticisms in process and procedure: in analysis and decision making, planning and preparation, and our relationship with the United States. Sir John provides us with an opportunity to examine these issues, in the light of all the detail in his Report, and take decisions today to ensure that such mistakes are not repeated.

My Lords, it is worth recalling that this was the first time Parliament, the House of Commons, voted on taking military action.  I took part in that vote, so I know how thoughtful and solemn MPs were in taking their decisions. No MP, however they voted, took the decision lightly. And for the most part there was mutual respect for people who took, and still hold, differing views.  Although the decision had to be binary, reasons and views were much more diverse.  Within all political parties there were people that took different views – for honourable reasons.

Sir John’s report is clear that in both the UK and the US, there was  what he calls an “ingrained belief”, a genuinely held view, that Saddam Hussein possessed the ability to use chemical and biological weapons.  Whatever view was taken on the military action, no-one believed that Saddam Hussein was anything other than an evil dictator. Given that he had used chemical weapons before, given that he had been uncooperative with international weapons inspectors and with the intelligence information provided, it was not then unreasonable to conclude that he was seeking to hide these. Sir John identifies this as a failure in the decision making process – the proposition that this was no longer the case in 2003 was not identified and not examined.

The Prime Minister’s comments about the National Security Council are welcome, but if lessons are truly to be learned there’s a broader issue about the role of Ad Hoc Cabinet Committees.  Reading through Sir John’s comments, we should consider, when such major issues are being examined and at some point decisions have to be taken, whether an Ad Hoc Cabinet Committee can be established for that very purpose.  It would include key Secretaries of State, key officials, experts such as in this case military and security intelligence, and possibly legal advisors, be chaired by the Prime Minister with papers circulated beforehand and decisions minuted. That would bring an identifiable rigour and challenge to the decision making process. But that should not preclude less formal consideration as well, but the key decisions would be taken at such meetings. In terms of planning, the Report is critical of both pre- and post- conflict planning, but some of the strongest criticism is of the situation immediately after.

Now, I’ve only read the Summary, and further examination of the full report will allow Government and the military to make a clearer analysis of how this can be improved.  It’s not about equipment and resources only, it’s about the understanding what comes next and how to respond. The Report states that the military on the ground had no instructions on the process for establishing safe and secure areas, and different decisions were made in different places.

My Lords, there are lessons to be learned from other conflicts. What any country needs post any kind of conflict is stable and functioning institutions.  Of administration, of policing, of utilities – the ability to establish and support that safe and secure environment. Sir John’s Report is critical and there are lessons to be learned about assumptions that were made about our role and those of the US and the UN. I have two questions on these points.

Firstly, on the National Security Council, I understand that the Joint Committee of the National Security Strategy expressed their concern more than once, about the lack of regular National Security Council meetings and that they only meet when the House is sitting.  Also, as this is not a body that can take Executive Action, will he ask that the Prime Minister, and his successor, to  reflect on my suggestion about the use of Ad Hoc Cabinet Committee’s – and not just on decisions of military operations, but also on strategic decisions of national importance.

Secondly, in his Report Sir John Chilcot reflects on the lack of effective co-ordination between Government departments. Can I draw his attention to the Report of the Committee chaired by the NL Howell of Guildford ‘Persuasion and Power in the Modern World’.  This was a landmark report on the use of ‘soft power that made the case that military force alone is today insufficient for defending a nation’s interests. They made a key recommendation to the Government about co-operation between the FCO, MoD and DFID, that it should look into this in the context of Afghanistan and report back with a view to learning lessons for any future post-conflict reconstruction. When that report was debated, the Government declined to take that route but would he accept that in the light of the Chilcot Report that decision should be reconsidered.

This Report is difficult and challenging.  But it provides an opportunity to investigate decision making processes about how as a country we should intervene – whether militarily or for humanitarian reasons - though they’re not mutually exclusive. It’s not about whether or not we should intervene, but, when considering whether or not to do so, we should have a superior process that better informs the judgement.

In every case where military intervention has been considered, there are both consequences for intervening – and consequences for not doing so. Interventions in Sierra Leone and Kosovo were widely recognised as being well executed and positive.  These were undertaken under the same processes. And we should never forget the role of military personnel in helping to tackle Ebola in West Africa.  So My Lords, it is right that we also reflect on when there has not been intervention – was that the right thing to do.  Could we have done more?  The Prime Minister referred to Bosnia and Rwanda. We may all have different views, but the principle is sound. It is absolutely right that the tests we set for ourselves about when intervention is right and appropriate should always be high.

The key challenge that Chilcot sets us is how we learn the lessons of the Iraq conflict. As we digest the detail of the Report, more issues will arise and greater consideration and reflection will be needed. And as we go through the process we as parliamentarians have to consider how we will do things differently in future.


Baroness Angela Smith of Basildon is Shadow Leader of the House of Lords. She tweets @LadyBasildon

Published 5th July 2016

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