Richard Heller: Chilcot delays and Iraq undermine trust in our ruling elite

THE Government is publicly furious at the long delay in publication of the Iraq inquiry report.

However, according to several media sources, the Government has offered the services of its own lawyers to every single one of those subject to criticism in the draft report. They are being helped to prepare their responses in the protracted “Maxwellization” process, invented for the old rogue over 40 years ago when he was investigated by the then Department of Trade.

Taxpayers, especially the many victims of Iraq, have already waited far too long to see this report. Now they are being asked to support efforts to delay it and weaken it.

The story has so far produced little indignation. Perhaps the British people are already so cynical about their chances of ever learning the full truth about Iraq that they are no longer surprised by anything to do with this inquiry.

The so-called “Maxwellees” eligible for this special form of legal aid include ex-Ministers and others out of public office are making good money in the private sector. Even Tony Blair has been offered a Government lawyer.

Mr Blair has been doing so well in the private sector that he is currently enjoying a holiday off Sicily in a super-yacht which costs £22,000 a week – and paying for it himself.

In fairness, there is no indication that Mr Blair has accepted the offer. He may well be paying his own legal expenses. But it is still astonishing that the offer was made at all.

Have Government lawyers so little to do in the present that they can be spared to help others prepare their account of the past?

It is hard to see why any of the Maxwellees need or deserve any legal help from the taxpayer.

Unlike Robert Maxwell, who faced disqualification as a company director, they are not threatened with any penalty from the Iraq inquiry report. It is not even a statutory inquiry – just a panel of eminent people asking questions (one of whom sadly died before its work was finished).

Unpleasant things might happen to the Maxwellees after the report is published – an appearance in the International Criminal Court, or civil or criminal proceedings in our domestic courts. If the inquiry report were really damning, it could expose some people to a charge of manslaughter – causing death by gross negligence to British service personnel or Iraqi civilians to whom they had a duty of care.

However, no such unpleasantness will happen to anyone because of the inquiry. That would require new decisions and new procedures from different authorities. The inquiry will not indict anyone, or recommend any kind of sanction. At most, it will judge some people harshly and lead others to share that opinion.

So why should anyone get taxpayer support to stop the public thinking badly of them?

Needless to say, there is no taxpayer support for the group of bereaved families seeking to take the inquiry to court to speed up publication of the report.

The Government evidently thinks that the death of a reputation is more important than the death of a son.

It may seem arcane, but there is an important constitutional principle at stake.

Government lawyers are not servants of individual Ministers or officials, past and present. They are servants of the Crown – the symbol of the permanent and enduring interests of the British state. Government lawyers face a potential conflict of interest if they are put to the service of Maxwellees.

The Iraq inquiry was set up by the previous government and maintained by its two successors – all of course Ministers of the Crown. It was set up for an essential public purpose, learning the lessons of Iraq, and has been paid out of public funds.

It was clearly in the interest of the British state for the inquiry to present its analysis of those lessons at the earliest possible time. This priority is all the stronger now that Britain has become embroiled in a new war in Iraq. Government lawyers cannot simultaneously serve the Crown – as commissioner of the Iraq inquiry – and help the Maxwellees to delay it.

Worse still, this episode could reinforce the collapse of trust in our public life. One of the prime contributors to this is the growing belief that no one in our ruling Establishment ever gets punished for error and failure.

The Government has now redoubled that message for those criticised in the Iraq inquiry: whoever is in power, the Establishment will defend itself, and any of its members, automatically and make taxpayers contribute to that defence.

Needless to say, we will never know which “Maxwellees” accepted the services of a Government lawyer and how much influence they brought to bear on the timing and final content of the published Iraq inquiry report.

It would be pleasant to think that some of them – even one of them – declined the services of any lawyer and simply accepted the criticisms of the inquiry team.

By admitting their share of any failings in Iraq, they would help the British people to believe that these will not be repeated.

Richard Heller was formerly chief of staff to Denis Healey.