Richard Heller: Chilcot’s Iraq delay is national disgrace

THE British people learnt this week that they will not be able to read the Iraq inquiry report before the General Election.

The chairman, Sir John Chilcot, has told the Prime Minister that the inquiry – which began work in 2009 – will not deliver its report before Parliament is dissolved on March 30.

The long delay is a national disgrace. With a few honourable exceptions, our MPs have done almost nothing to end it.

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They have neglected the interests and feelings of the victims of the Iraq war. They have allowed our forces to be committed to a new war in Iraq without seeing the inquiry’s assessment of the lessons of the last one.

Both the Prime Minister and his deputy, Nick Clegg, have wrung their hands over the delay, but their indignation is synthetic and tasteless.

They and other Government Ministers stood idly by while the inquiry was becalmed for years in arguments with government departments.

Ed Miliband has been equally culpable. He and his front bench have colluded in the long delay. They have not even tried to ascertain its causes, let alone suggest any remedies. This is foolish of Mr Miliband, because it has invited charges of cynical motives. He does not want to be forced during the election campaign to defend Tony Blair and the other Labour Ministers who took Britain into the Iraq war – including his deputy, Harriet Harman.

Significantly, the new Scottish Labour leader, Jim Murphy, has broken with Mr Miliband on this issue, demanding early publication of the report.

Parliament has one last chance. A cross-party group on the inquiry was formed last month by two independent-minded MPs, the Conservative David Davis and the Liberal Democrat, Norman Baker. Mr Davis, the Haltemprice and Howden MP, has secured a Commons debate on the delay next Thursday.

This debate must not be another hand-wringing exercise. MPs should demand concrete steps to get the report published and put before their voters.

They must get to grips with the so-called “Maxwellization process” which Sir John identified as the reason for the delay. Named after the notorious rogue for whom it was invented in 1969, this allows all those facing criticism in a public report to respond to its intended comments in advance of publication.

Parliament should demand to know the total number of Maxwellees, when they each received their warning letters, and how long each has been given to respond.

Unlike Robert Maxwell in 1969, none of these people are threatened with any loss of office or income through the report.

Their right to defend their reputations should not delay the British people’s right to the truth. Parliament should impose its own tight deadline on their responses.

It could achieve this simply by sending for the report as it stands – if necessary, by subpoena. A special committee of Privy Counsellors from both Houses should then arrange for publication of the report as a Parliamentary paper. This should receive all the responses from Maxwellees. In the interests of time and fairness, it should publish these in full as an annex to the inquiry report.

In the present volatile political climate, voters have acquired unprecedented power over all the parties. They should use this to demand publication of the report, and reject any candidate at the next election who makes no effort now to give it to them. The report is essential not only for the victims of Iraq but for the future of government in our country.

Recent years have seen a collapse of responsibility in our ruling class, not only among politicians but among senior public servants, bankers and business leaders. No one admits to error and failure and no one is punished for it, unless there is an obvious scapegoat. This pattern has recurred in many recent disasters, whether the banking crash, or hospital failings, or child abuse.

The Iraq war was such a disaster. It brought no reward to our country, only unnecessary and continuing costs and suffering. Iraq was a failure not just by Tony Blair and his Ministers but by all the institutions which are meant to secure good decisions in government, and the people then in charge of them.

Some of these people are now in more senior positions, making bigger decisions. Tony Blair hawks himself around the world, making eye-watering sums of money. The British people are entitled to know who let them down over Iraq, and how, before they vote for a new set of rulers who could fail them all over again.