Call for Commons vote on public inquiries rejected

  • 10 January 2018

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Calls for MPs to be given a binding vote on the remit and length of future public inquiries have been rejected.

A committee of MPs wanted Parliament to have a “meaningful” say over the terms of reference of inquiries similar to the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war.

This followed anger over the seven years it took the inquiry to report.

While MPs should be able to debate inquiries in advance “where possible”, Downing Street said flexibility was needed to establish them quickly.

Although Parliament had an “important role” to play, No 10 suggested calls for MPs to consider evidence on the timetable, duration and cost of inquiries before deciding whether to approve them was not practical.

The length of time it took the Chilcot inquiry to conclude its work – it was set up in 2009 and published its report in July 2016 – was met with anger by politicians and the families of those who lost loved ones in Iraq.

The Public Administration Select Committee said there was “clear evidence” that the way inquiries were constituted could be improved by MPs having a proper say on their “precise terms of reference, estimated timeframe and proposed budget” – and it was “disappointed” by the government’s stance.

No 10 has also dismissed the committee’s suggestions that it has not done enough to strengthen decision-making, both within cabinet and in government in general, in light of the inquiry’s criticism of how the then Prime Minister Tony Blair took the UK to war in 2003.

The inquiry concluded Mr Blair had overstated the threat posed by Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, sent ill-prepared troops into battle and had “wholly inadequate” plans for the aftermath.

Mr Blair was also criticised for not sharing information with his cabinet in the run-up to the war, including private correspondence with US President George Bush.

The cross-party committee, led by Tory MP Bernard Jenkin, warned that despite improvements since 2009 there was a continuing “absence of safeguards” when decisions of national importance were taken and there was still a risk of key ministers or even the entire cabinet being “sidelined”.

Proper collective consideration by cabinet was needed, it said, while there should be a formal mechanism for the cabinet secretary, the top civil servant in the country, to object to a prime minister’s actions if they felt official decision-making processes were being ignored.

‘Chilcot champions’

No 10 said it was committed to ensuring the lessons of the report were fully “embedded” in the formal procedures and culture of Whitehall, via a network of “Chilcot champions”.

It said the system in place since 2010 – with the prime minister chairing a National Security Council attended by relevant ministers, defence and intelligence chiefs – was working effectively while the rest of the national security apparatus now drew on a broader range of advice to “challenge conventional thinking”.

“It is inconceivable today that we could take a premeditated decision to commit combat troops without a full and challenging discussion in the National Security Council on the basis of full papers, including written legal advice, prepared and stress-tested by all relevant departments, with decisions formally minuted,” it said.

Introducing new checks and balances risked causing “a degree of unnecessary antagonism between officials and the prime minister”, it argued.

“Neither the cabinet nor the National Security Council has been bypassed in the decision-making process since the establishment of the NSC in 2010.

“In particular, when decisions on military intervention have been taken, the NSC and its sub-committees and official groups have prepared decisions fully and there has been a full discussion of the issue in cabinet before decisions were taken.”

While sustaining change “would continue to be hard”, it said the National Security Council would continue to review progress and provide an update as part of the next defence and security review.

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