Lessons still to be learned from the Chilcot Inquiry

On 15 March 2017 the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) of the House of Commons issued a report containing a clear warning:

“[…] the Cabinet Secretary does not have any formal recourse to object to a Prime Minister’s chosen course of action in the event that the Prime Minister of the day wishes to disregard the procedures for decision-making set out in the Cabinet Manual. We are in no doubt whatsoever that this absence of safeguards cannot persist.”

The lack of safeguards and security provisions to prevent what happened with the decision to wage war in Iraq in 2003 from occurring again is probably the strongest recommendation given by the Commission chaired by Conservative MP Bernard Jenkin.

In addition, as The Independent underlines, it remains “too easy for a Prime minister to disregard cabinet procedures” because “there is simply nothing even a cabinet secretary can do to stop a Prime minister from doing this again at some time in the future”.

The application of adequate safeguards would bring about greater accountability and collegiality in the government and would realize the citizens’ right to know under what circumstances crucial decisions are made.

Matteo Angioli

 

Summary of the Report
 Lessons still to be learned from the Chilcot Inquiry

The decision to invade Iraq has left an indelible scar on British politics. The consequences of that decision remain profound for the domestic politics of the UK and the US, and for our relations with other countries, as well as for the stability of the region. The continuing loss of life of Iraqis underlines the failure of the post-conflict strategy. The Iraq Inquiry Report (Chilcot) was published on 6 July 2016. The Chilcot Inquiry was set up in order to provide some closure to the controversy but, for many, it has failed to do so and the seven-year inquiry itself has been controversial. The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) therefore launched a short inquiry into lessons for the conduct of inquiries and for the machinery of government.

The length of the inquiry process is a matter for regret. It has undermined both the very public confidence that the Inquiry was established to strengthen, as well as the confidence in the Inquiry itself. PACAC agrees that in the future, there must be a much clearer setting of expectations at the outset of an inquiry. PACAC has concluded that further lessons can and must be learned about how to prevent such unacceptable delays in future inquiries. In relation to these points, PACAC recommends that the Government must assess, as a matter of urgency, how the Iraq Inquiry could have been carried out more quickly and must report its findings to Parliament.

In line with previous recommendations by The Public Administration Select Committee (PASC), our predecessor Committee, we conclude that Parliament should have been much more actively involved in establishing and setting up the Iraq Inquiry. In future there should be a full debate and a vote on an amendable motion, setting out the precise terms of reference, an estimated time-frame and a proposed budget for the inquiry. Before such a debate, Parliament should establish an ad-hoc Select Committee to scrutinise the terms under which the proposed inquiry is to be established, so that Parliament can act on the considered recommendations of the Select Committee.

On the substantive conclusions of the Iraq Inquiry itself, the Government is conducting a ‘lessons learned’ investigation across Whitehall coordinated by the National Security Adviser. The Government must provide the date when this exercise will be completed and report the findings to Parliament for scrutiny.

Our predecessor Committee, PASC, published three reports in the 2010-2015 Parliament on strategic thinking in government. In this report we again press for the National Security Council to have far more of its own capability for cross-government strategic analysis and assessment. Discussion in the National Security Council is still far too limited to the competing perspectives of different departmental briefs.

PACAC looked in particular at the role of the Cabinet Secretary and senior officials, and their ability to ensure Ministers take proper advice on the provision of evidence and on how decisions should be made. Beyond making representations to Ministers and to the Prime Minister, short of resignation, the Cabinet Secretary does not have any formal recourse to object to a Prime Minister’s chosen course of action in the event that the Prime Minister of the day wishes to disregard the procedures for decision-making set out in the Cabinet Manual. We are in no doubt whatsoever that this absence of safeguards cannot persist. We recommend, in line with a proposal from the Better Government Initiative, that there should be a mechanism of written Ministerial direction, similar to that used by Departmental Accounting Officers.

We have also considered the implications of Chilcot’s findings both around the handling of legal advice, as well as presentation of intelligence to Parliament. On the quality of collective decision-making, it is welcome that the Government recognises that a culture and spirit of challenge is essential for good decision-making in government. However, this means not only having the right meetings and the right people in the meetings, but making sure that meetings are effective. The National Security Adviser should conduct an analysis of meetings of, and around, the National Security Council, to establish what makes meetings effective. PACAC also concludes that Parliament must reflect upon how it could have been more critical and challenging of the Government at the time. The question of whether Parliament was misled is constantly raised. We do not pass over this matter at all lightly, but after taking advice, we do not feel that Chilcot or any other inquiries provide a sufficient basis for PACAC to conduct such an inquiry. However, we think Parliament should be prepared to establish such an inquiry into the matter if any new and relevant material or facts emerge.

Chilcot found that Government cross-departmental coordination for the delivery of complex policies was insufficient. We note the growth of permanent cross-departmental ‘joint units’ in Whitehall with approval. However, we agree with the recommendation of the Iraq Inquiry that a senior Minister with lead responsibility should be appointed to manage cross-departmental issues when they are of a scale and importance comparable to UK post-conflict engagement in Iraq. The present Government can be seen to have done exactly this by appointing a lead Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union. The Government must also set out how it is going to encourage a positive attitude amongst officials towards joint departmental working, to promote the right behaviours that support cross-departmental coordination.

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