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24 Jun 2009 : Column 795

Mr. Speaker: Order. The Prime Minister does not have to concern himself with Opposition policy.

The Prime Minister: We have shown our commitment to our armed forces by increasing expenditure on them every year. We have made extra money available for all the additional responsibilities that they have had to discharge in Iraq and Afghanistan. We want a spending path for the armed forces that is completely consistent with their responsibilities. It would not make sense—regardless of need and what has happened to the economy—to announce 10 per cent. cuts in the defence budget now.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): Will the Prime Minister tell the House whether he has received advice from the Chief of the Defence Staff calling for sustained and substantial reinforcement for our hard-pressed armed forces in Afghanistan?

The Prime Minister: If the hon. Gentleman was here yesterday, he would know that I answered exactly that question. I said that we had raised the number of forces in Afghanistan for the period of the election campaign from 8,100 to 9,000. For that period, which takes us right through to the autumn, we are meeting additional responsibilities to ensure that the democracy of Afghanistan is maintained and that elections can happen with greater security and safety. Of course, we maintain our ongoing campaign against the Afghanistan Taliban.

Q12. [281817] Phil Wilson (Sedgefield) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend believe that it is the role of mainstream UK political parties to associate with Latvia’s For
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Fatherland and Freedom party, which honours veterans of the Waffen-SS, or does he believe that that should be left to the British National party?

The Prime Minister: Is it not remarkable that the Conservatives have formed an alliance in Europe that excludes the German Christian Democrats, excludes the French party of President Sarkozy, excludes the Italian party of Prime Minister Berlusconi— [Interruption. ] —excludes all reputable political parties in Europe— [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order.

The Prime Minister: The Conservatives are now isolated on the fringes of Europe.

Susan Kramer (Richmond Park) (LD): Would the Prime Minister agree with me that both the Tamil and Sinhalese people of Sri Lanka deserve an investigation into alleged war crimes committed during the civil war in Sri Lanka? Given the cowardly decision by the United Nations Human Rights Council to resist any such inquiry, what steps can he take to make sure that the issue is not abandoned and forgotten?

The Prime Minister: As the hon. Lady may know, I have spoken to the President of Sri Lanka, and I have urged him to ensure reconciliation with the Tamil community. It is very important, after the events that we have seen happen, that those people who have been displaced are given urgent humanitarian help, that the regime itself recognises that it has to make peace with the Tamil members of the community, and that action is taken as quickly as possible for that purpose. What we need is not violence in Sri Lanka but reconciliation.

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Speaker’s Statement

12.31 pm

Mr. Speaker: Just before we move on to the main business, I want to make a brief statement of just three points. First, as I said on Monday, when Ministers have key policy statements to make, the House must be the first to hear them, and they should not be released beforehand. Secondly, in statements, I ask the Front Benchers to stick to their allotted times. I also ask that the Back-Bench Members taking part each confine themselves to one, brief supplementary question. In the same vein, I hope that Ministers’ replies will be kept to a reasonable length. Finally, I always expect that those speaking in this Chamber will be heard, so that an atmosphere of calm, reasoned debate is maintained.

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Points of Order

12.32 pm

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. This is really further to your statement, and particularly the first point in it. It was remarkable to read in The Independent today that

A civil servant is then named:

Cyber-security is a very important issue, and the cyber-threat to the United Kingdom is extremely severe. I understand that there are no plans for an oral statement to this House tomorrow, quite apart from the fact that there is no record that there will be any written or oral statements to the House today on the issue. Would it be as well for the Government to prepare an oral statement of some kind for tomorrow?

Mr. Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what he has just said, which seems to underline the merit of my having made the statement that I did. On the specifics of the question, of which I did not have any advance notice, I can only say to him and to the House that I will certainly look into the matter.

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Does your first ruling extend to Ministers commenting on the publication of Bills, and to cases in which no Member of this House has had an opportunity to see a Bill before they hear the relevant Secretary of State telling the world what is in it on the “Today” programme?

Mr. Speaker: Certainly, Ministers ought to make key statements to the House before they are made elsewhere. I should have thought that that was pretty clear. I note that the Leader of the House and other senior Ministers are present on the Treasury Bench. I say to the hon. Gentleman: let us see how it goes, but I hope that the thrust of what I have said is pretty clear.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. It relates to a matter about which I wrote to you this morning. Tomorrow we are debating a motion to set up a Select Committee to make recommendations about how the House can better hold the Government to account through procedural changes. One of the main issues at stake is the way in which the House is able to scrutinise public Bills on Report, which has been appalling, and which many senior Members on both sides of the House—including yourself, sir, while you held such public opinions as a Back Bencher—agree has not been satisfactory. We assumed that the Wright Committee would be able to consider that, but its terms of reference say only that it will be able to look at procedures relating to non-Government business. To help with how we settle this, could you clarify whether you would agree that the way in which the House scrutinises Bills, even those introduced
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by the Government, is the very essence of House business, because it is the job of the House to scrutinise legislation? It is not the job of the Government to scrutinise legislation.

Mr. Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. Unfortunately, I do not have the advantage of having seen his letter, though I do not doubt that it has been sent to me. Of course, he has tabled an amendment, of which I am aware and with which other Members of the House will be familiar.

Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will be aware that following the recent Government reshuffle, an increasing number of Ministers of the Crown find themselves in the other place, rather than in this place, including two Secretaries of State. Given your welcome determination to introduce reform in the House, what consideration will you give to holding those Ministers and particularly Secretaries of State accountable to this House, perhaps by their giving statements in this House?

Mr. Speaker: That would certainly require a change in the rules of the House, but it is something that the Procedure Committee might wish to consider, and I have just a sense that the hon. Gentleman will encourage the Committee to do just that.

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Opposition Day

[14th allotted day]

Iraq Inquiry

Mr. Speaker: I advise the House that I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

12.37 pm

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks) (Con): I beg to move,

On a matter related to the motion, but before discussing it, may I express again the condolences of the Opposition to the families and friends of the two British hostages in Iraq, Jason Swindlehurst and Jason Creswell, whose remains were returned to the care of this country at the weekend. Their tragic deaths are a reminder that the lives of many British citizens are still painfully bound up with developments in Iraq, and that there are still three families waiting anxiously for news.

This is the fourth debate that I have opened on the subject during this Parliament, and when I heard that the Prime Minister was set to announce the long awaited and much delayed inquiry, I honestly did not expect to have to do so again. This debate is different from the previous ones, in that hitherto we have been pressing on the Government the need to establish an inquiry; our debate today is in direct consequence of the Government’s decision, welcome in itself and in principle, to hold an inquiry.

The need for the debate has arisen from the fact that nine days ago the Prime Minister stood here and announced proposals for the Iraq inquiry which betrayed both poor advance preparation and inadequate consultation, and which as a result received severe and sincere criticism from all quarters of the House—criticism that was reflected in the reaction of people throughout the country. There was genuine disappointment that the Prime Minister had produced proposals for such a secretive, behind-closed-doors inquiry, despite the fact that both of the main Opposition parties had made representations to the Government that the proceedings of the inquiry should be much more open to public view, and it was accentuated by the fact that only the previous week the Prime Minister had talked of improving accountability and transparency.

Hon. Members on the Government Benches were among those who said that they were extremely disappointed that the inquiry would be limited in its remit or that they had hoped for a new politics of openness. The points were made that the membership was too restricted, quite apart from the timing being so utterly cynical and politically motivated, and that the response of the Prime Minister to important questions such as whether evidence would be given to the inquiry
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on oath was, to say the least, unsure. It was the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), who is in his place, who put it to the Prime Minister, politely on that occasion, that he should regard his statement as

Since then, the Government have engaged in a series of climbdowns—a U-turn that was executed in stages as painful to watch as those of a learner driver doing a six-point turn having started off the wrong way down a motorway. The Government have performed that U-turn by getting the inquiry chairman himself, Sir John Chilcot, to announce the changes that we have all demanded, so that no Minister has had to return to the House and admit that the Government were in the wrong. Indeed, Sir John is now busily engaged in the very process of consultation with Opposition parties and others which a Prime Minister who was doing his job properly would have carried out beforehand.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that one reason why the public and right hon. and hon. Members are so sceptical about the chances of openness and transparency is the very attitude that he has outlined, whereby the Government have to be dragged kicking and screaming, unwilling to achieve such transparency from the outset? It suggests that they will do the very minimum necessary to get the inquiry through, rather than as much as possible to ensure that it is genuinely transparent and genuinely independent.

Mr. Hague: The hon. Gentleman is quite right, because such a beginning to the processes of the inquiry damages its credibility in the eyes of the public and makes it all the more important that that damage be now put right.

Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes) (Con): My right hon. Friend referred to the politically cynical timing of the inquiry. Is he aware that, on 23 October 2003, on a motion that I proposed from that Dispatch Box calling for a public inquiry, one reason given for not acceding to it by the present Justice Secretary, who was then the Foreign Secretary, was that it could not report before the general election?

Mr. Hague: Yes, I am aware that my right hon. and learned Friend proposed an inquiry and has, therefore, been proposing one for six years now. That tells us something about the extent of the delay and the Government’s ability to pluck out any convenient reason for changing the timing—even from one Parliament to another. However, the uncertainty and confusion that all that has produced is the reason why we are proceeding with today’s motion and debate.

Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South) (Lab): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hague: Let me just finish this point, and then I shall certainly give way to the hon. Lady.

In one important sense, we have already achieved the central objective of tabling the motion for debate, which is that it has now been announced, albeit by Sir John Chilcot and not by Ministers, that

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It should not have been necessary to table the motion in order to produce that result, but it was and so be it. It is of course a welcome development, but, given the uncertainty—

Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hague: No, I shall not give way at the moment, because I am just explaining why we have moved the motion.

Given the uncertainty that preceded that concession, the need for the Government in the form of the Foreign Secretary to make it clear that the Government’s position has changed; the need for Ministers also to make it clear, in the light of weekend speculation, that they see no problem in this new approach to the inquiry—of evidence being given in public wherever possible—applying to the evidence to be given by the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair; and, given the number of other inconsistencies and clearly inaccurate statements—

Clive Efford: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hague: I have explained when I shall give way, and I am in the middle of an admittedly long sentence.

Given the number of other inconsistencies and clearly inaccurate statements produced by Ministers during the process of establishing the inquiry, combined with a continuing refusal to put the terms of reference of the inquiry to the House on a substantive motion, it is clearly necessary for the House to have a more detailed debate for the will of Parliament to be clear, and this motion provides the vehicle for those things to happen. [Hon. Members: “Full stop!”]

Now, first in the queue for an intervention was the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor).

Ms Taylor: I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, who is speaking to the House with considerable gusto this afternoon. I totally appreciate that; it is time that we all said as we think. However, is he suggesting to the House that, in any way, shape or form, he has evidence that the Government will not co-operate fully and factually with the inquiry? We need to hear from the right hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Hague: I am glad that the hon. Lady appreciates the gusto, although if she has been listening to my speech she will know that I have not said anything of the kind. My contention is that, although the Government set out to try to keep the inquiry behind closed doors and Sir John Chilcot’s statement may now have rectified that, there are other serious deficiencies in the arrangements for the inquiry, and I am about to turn to them. First, however, I give way to the hon. Member for Eltham (Clive Efford).

Clive Efford: I agree with the right hon. Gentleman; the people, on both sides of the House, who were responsible for taking us into the war should not be able to hide behind the cloak of secrecy when they give evidence to the inquiry. However, will he explain how Sir John Chilcot’s powers to expand the breadth of what is held in public have changed since the announcement last week? If what the right hon. Gentleman is putting forward is true, the Government must at some time have altered the powers given to Sir John Chilcot to set up the inquiry that he wants to set up.

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