Dear John… Nick Clegg sets out Iraq inquiry stance

Nick Clegg set out his views on how Sir John Chilcot’s inquiry into the war with Iraq should be conducted on the BBC1 Andrew Marr show this weekend – you can view a 2-minute excerpt from the interview with Nick HERE. Nick has now met with Sir John to discuss his concerns that Gordon Brown’s insistence the inquiry should be private would undermine its effectiveness – fortunately it seems that Sir John largely agrees. Here’s the open letter Nick has written to Sir John:

Dear Sir John,

Thank you for meeting with me earlier regarding your inquiry.

I was pleased to see how much progress has been made from the initial position set out by the Prime Minister last week regarding the process of the inquiry.

In particular, I was pleased to hear that you will hold sessions in public unless there is a “compelling” reason to do otherwise; that your list of those requested to give evidence will be “comprehensive”; that expert assessors will be appointed to the inquiry to give the panel support in the areas of military process, public and constitutional law and development aid; that you remain open to the idea of publishing an interim report; and that you will specify to witnesses in writing and verbally that their evidence must be truthful and complete to the best of their recollection. It was also good to hear you confirm that you will be seeking evidence from Tony Blair and others in high office at the time, and would want their evidence to be held in public except in very limited circumstances.

These changes to the original proposals set out by the Prime Minister clearly improve the inquiry and make it more likely that it will secure public support. However, I still believe there are further steps that should be taken to improve the inquiry further.

First, as it does not seem likely that the membership of the inquiry panel can be changed at this stage, I believe it is vital that you add to your team someone with high level experience of cross-examination. The appointment of a Counsel to the Inquiry to lead the questioning would enable the inquiry to probe witnesses far more effectively.

Second, I would like to restate my belief that an interim report, covering the run-up to the war, would be of enormous benefit and should be published before the next general election.

Third, while I understand that, as this is not a judicial inquiry, you cannot require participants to take a legal oath, I do believe it is essential for witnesses to make a verbal affirmation of their intent to speak the truth.

Finally, there must be a clear, transparent process by which decisions are taken as to what evidence is held in private. You said this morning you would set out published criteria, and I look forward to seeing them, ideally as part of a consultative process before a final decision is taken. My recommendation would be that you put forward very restrictive criteria: only evidence which would have a clear impact on national security should be kept hidden from public scrutiny. Personal embarrassment or inconvenience cannot be a reason to hold evidence behind closed doors.

We talked this morning about a separate group of witnesses: those who come forward of their own volition, rather than being invited to give evidence by the inquiry. This would apply to those who have evidence or experience of which you would not otherwise be aware, likely to be those in more junior roles within the government and its agencies.

I understand your view that some of them might only be willing to come forward if their evidence was confidential and that, therefore, it is fair for you to give them wider scope for privacy. I accept that it may be right to offer preferential treatment to those who would never have come to your attention otherwise. However, this must not occur at the cost of openness for the list of “invited” witnesses, which should remain as full and comprehensive as possible. I would strongly object to any exemption from openness offered to junior officials becoming the wider rule.

You have also expressed some concern that “invited” officials could automatically be entitled to legal representation. This should not be a reason to restrict the openness of the proceedings. Some legal representation is, in my view, a small price to pay for the greater prize of openness and legitimacy. The possibility of opening the door to legal representation must not be used as a reason not to follow through on your commitment to be “comprehensive” in setting out the list of witnesses you intend to hear from.

Thank you for engaging with me in this way on this inquiry.

Nick Clegg

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2 Comments

  • Andrew Duffield 23rd Jun '09 - 9:08pm

    All good stuff.

    Presumably any witnesses bringing in a Brief when they give evidence will be doing so at their own expense and not charging the taxpayer for the privilege?

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