Friday 19 June 2009

How to do the Iraq inquiry

Andrew Sparrow has a useful post on the range of pro-openness political pressures over the Iraq inquiry.

Especially as it flags up the very good report 'The Iraq inquiry' of the Public Administration Select Committee, published yesterday, which deserves to be widely read.

It would be difficult to think of a more effective and timely piece of Committee advocacy, drawing on several previous reports on inquiries, and on a recent expert seminar to consider Iraq specifically.

While we welcome the government's announcement that an inquiry into Iraq will be held, that it will have a broad scope, and that it will aim to learn lessons from the decision to go to war, the conflict and its aftermath, there is a strong risk that the inquiry as currently constituted will not be able to pursue what should be its fundamental purpose: to identify the truth and ensure that the executive can be held properly accountable for its decisions and conduct in relation to Iraq.

The proposals it makes to address this would command broad support across all parties in the House of Commons. There is still time for the government to adopt them or (perhaps even better still) to allow a free vote of MPs to decide on key process questions, as the report recommends.

I am hopeful that we may well now get to the right place on a more open - and so more effective - Iraq inquiry by the end of next week. That matters more than the untidiness of how we would get there. And if this episode has not been the beacon for more openness that many would like to see, the positive bit of light at the end of the tunnel is that Tony Wright MP (who chairs the PASC) is also to report on how to make Parliament more effective.

It is a very good role for one of the most informed reformers in the House - and the PASC publishing this punchy and constructive report so soon after the announcement of that other role is another auspicious sign. (Wright is a former Fabian Executive member, also closely involved with many other sources of political intelligence and reform, such as Political Quarterly).

As Sparrow reports, Wright said of the Iraq annoucement: "It is also crucial that the inquiry be conducted openly and in public, and that Parliament has a role in establishing it. Only an open, legitimate and credible process of this kind will satisfy a sceptical public that this inquiry is not a whitewash".

There are many ways to strengthen Committees and backbench scrutiny and agenda-setting to make this sort of thing the rule as much as the exception.

Cloning Dr Wright a few times might help too, but is probably beyond the remit.

PS: I don't want to bang on endlessly about the Iraq inquiry, though it is obviously a subject I have tried to follow closely and which we have been pushing for some considerable time. But it is worth stressing that there is pressure from the government's own side on this (and from many Labour MPs and Ministers too privately) as otherwise the impression that the Labour government had been outflanked on openness by the military top brass and the spooks might stick. A quick about turn can now resolve that.

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