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Iraq Debate

Andrew Mitchell’s speech in the Iraq Debate.

Mr Speaker while the aim of this Debate should be to heal wounds and learn lessons I very much fear that the media debate will be characterised by a discussion of whether Mr Blair is guilty or very guilt. It seems to me that such a discussion would betray the interests of all those whose loved ones were placed in harm’s way and who paid the ultimate price in Iraq, as well as the many thousands of Iraqis who also lost their lives.

It is the whole system of governance which we need to hold to account and not just the Prime Minister if we are to achieve national interest and benefit from this.

I sat over there and heard what the Prime Minister said and supported his judgement. That judgement could not have been reached by the Prime Minister without the active support or at least the passive acquiescence of the machinery of government.

Before we come to the lessons for the future it seems to me that the central allegations boil down to two. Firstly that the intelligence was wrong and secondly that a culture of sofa government – a lack of accountable structures for decision making - and inadequate procedures prevailed.

It is clear with hindsight that the intelligence was wrong and probably over-egged but it is important to recognise that intelligence by its very nature is difficult for Ministers to interrogate. It is for the JIC – the Joint Intelligence Committee – to weigh it up and evaluate its importance.

Having used the product of the three Intelligence Agencies whilst I was on the National Security Council and in Cabinet I yield to no-one in my admiration and respect for those who carry out what is often difficult and dangerous work. There are people working at GCHQ who could deploy their talents in the commercial world for ten times what they are paid by the taxpayer. Yet they choose to serve their country instead and we should honour and respect them for that. I have no hesitation in saying from my own experience that if those who work in the Agencies were asked to do something improper by their political masters they would simply refuse to do so.

Intelligence by its nature is difficult to hold to account. The normal rules of transparency and openness simply do not apply. The sourcing of intelligence is by definition complex and we cannot talk about it in any detail. In one instance while I was Development Secretary intelligence that we received on a particular situation in Africa turned out to be wrong. But the fault for this error did not lie with Britain or British intelligence.

On the issue of sofa government and informality it is clear that there was a lack of Cabinet structure and accountability and a quite extraordinary informality and, let us say, flexibility in the use of the Attorney General and legal opinions. But critical lessons have been learned which resulted in the setting up of the National Security Council. And here I come to the Libyan Campaign.

First of all there was a proper process by which legal advice was given to the Cabinet. Britain’s humanitarian responsibilities in the conflict were made clear at the first Cabinet meeting which authorised military action. The National Security Council met on numerous occasions as well as an inner sub-committee of the National Security Council on which I sat and we discussed the humanitarian situation and preparations for stabilisation on a daily basis. Of course there was no invasion as such but the Defence Secretary took personal responsibility for targeting to ensure that collateral damage was minimised. The loss of civilian life was mercifully extremely limited.

On discharging its humanitarian responsibility Britain frankly did a very good job indeed. We organised planes and ships which successfully transported thousands of migrant workers home to places of safety, as far afield as the Philippines and Bagdad to remove them from harm’s way. The evacuation of 5000 migrants from the quayside at Misrata was a feat greatly assisted by Britain and for which the international community deserve the highest praise as migrants were rescued from the port side. When Tripoli was in danger of running out of water it was DfID and the UN that successfully implemented our plan to prevent an emergency. And the provision of food and medicines to areas of Libya without either, was successfully accomplished.

The point I am making Mr Speaker was that very specific lessons from the failures in Iraq were understood and implemented in respect of our humanitarian responsibilities

But it is on the issue of post-conflict stabilisation which attracts strong criticism in respect of Iraq and in Libya where it is clear today that stabilisation has failed. But I want to make it clear that lessons were learned and immediately military action in Libya started our focus on post-conflict stabilisation was absolute. Britain set up a Stabilisation Unit and worked very closely with the United Nations who were to have lead responsibility for stabilisation when the conflict ended. Britain supplied expertise, officials, funding, drawing on the lessons of Iraq. During the war we gave technical support to the Central Bank and to such organs of the State that existed. Indeed by contrast with Iraq, where the Police and security services were simply abolished, we took significant steps to ensure that the Police in Libya, who had not been engaged in human rights abuses, could be re-assured for example by text messages that they still had a job and should report for duty when the fighting diminished.

We extensively prepared through the support we gave to UN institutions to help stabilise Libya’s future. But the simple problem we faced was that there was no peace to stabilise when the war was over and different factions in a country with very limited structures outside the Gaddafi family fractured and splintered. You can make all the plans you like for post-conflict stabilisation but if there is no peace to stabilise the international community’s non-military options are severely limited.

Lessons learned from Iraq and then applied in Libya have continued in respect of the British efforts in Syria. We have already made a huge commitment in terms of funding to stabilise the country when peace finally comes and this is possible. We have played a more comprehensive role in humanitarian relief in and around Syria than the whole of the EU put together. We were the first country to put significant sums of taxpayers’ money into the Zaatari refugee camp in 2012 when we understood the approach calamity.

The lessons we learn from the Chilcot Report will shape our understanding of our place in the world. Will we continue to support the cause of liberal interventionism as we successfully did in Sierra Leone and Kosovo or will the House turn its back on discretionary intervention even under UN auspices and be prepared to stand idly by if, God forbid, another Rwanda takes place?

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