Mike Penning winds up the debate on the Chilcot Inquiry

30th November 2016

Mike Penning winds up the Parliamentary debate on the Chilcot Inquiry and Parliamentary accountability.

Let me say at the outset, as the Armed Forces Minister and as a former serviceman, that I would like to pay tribute to those who did not come home, to those who came home with injuries that are going to be with them for the rest of their lives, physically as well as mentally, and to their loved ones, who have to live with those memories. It is for us, as parliamentarians, to live with the decisions that we make in this House. At times, these decisions are enormously onerous, but they are not as onerous as those of Prime Ministers and Ministers in Departments such as mine, which send our troops around the world, as we are doing today.

May I say at the outset that there is no perfect answer to the debate that we have had today? I sat in this House in 2003, not in the Chamber as a Member of Parliament, but in the Press Gallery as adviser and head of news and media for the Leader of the Opposition. I went to many briefings, and sat with the Leader of the Opposition for hours on end while we deliberated on what Her Majesty’s Opposition were going to do. Many of my hon. Friends, some of whom are still in the House, made really difficult decisions on that night on how they were going to vote. Some voted with the Government and some voted with their party, but many voted with their conscience. In hindsight, some of the decisions that were made, which have been debated in this House this afternoon, were wrong. If I had been a Member at the time—it was another two years before I was elected—I am sure, based on what I knew, that I would have voted to go to war. We all have to live with our decisions.

We can debate this matter, but many Members made up their minds on it a long time ago. I do not think that there is a huge number of people in the House today who have changed their minds, but this Parliament is doing its job. I will not in any shape or form—either as a Back Bencher, which is what I was and which is what I probably will be in the future, or as a Minister—criticise any party for the motion that they bring forward on their Opposition Day; nor will I criticise a Back Bencher for the subject that they may wish to debate.

I was commenting to the Leader of the House a moment ago about the fact that people from seven different parties signed up to the motion. I said that there could have been more names had the motion not advertently put so much pressure on the Labour party and its previous Prime Minister. At the end of the day, that is what happens when we get motions such as this. Had it been worded differently, we might have had more people going through the Aye Lobby. Who knows?

Some parts of Chilcot have not been discussed. I had the honour of being with the 16 Air Assault Brigade a couple of days before they went into combat on our behalf. We saw in the newspapers some of the real shortfalls in planning that occurred. I was with soldiers who had one magazine of ammunition the day before we sent them to war. We know that we were short of body armour, and that, catastrophically, lives were lost as a result. We all joke that there was not enough toilet paper in the theatre of war. The press made fun of that fact at the time. As a former soldier, I can assure the House that that is one of the most important things. That shortage could have been prevented if we had planned correctly. Chilcot goes into our planning in quite a lot of detail. Some would say, “Well, we had only a short amount of time.” Our armed forces need to be equipped on the basis that they will be doing this sort of thing, so we must ensure that the equipment is in place and that our boys and girls are equipped correctly.

It would be inappropriate for me, in the short amount of time that I have, not to pay tribute to our new colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts), for a simply fantastic maiden speech. I will not be a hypocrite. I have criticised this House on more than one occasion, because we have too many accountants and lawyers—[Interruption]—and a lot of them are around me at the moment. However, this House has been enhanced by his speech and by the way that my hon. Friend delivered it. May I ask him what I should do with all those photographs, posters and literature of him that are in the back of my car? Can they be suitably disposed of in a recycling facility? When I came to Witney to help him—I had never been to parts of Witney before, and my hon. Friend is right: it is absolutely beautiful—I was called back by friendly Whips on more than one occasion, so I did not manage to deliver the several thousand posters that his agent managed to give me.

The truth is that my hon. Friend said something fundamentally important: it is a privilege to be here on behalf of our constituents and to bring issues to the fore that concern them. In this case, SNP Members have decided that the Chilcot inquiry is such an issue. I am not going to be hypocritical and say that they do not have the right to do so, but my postbag is about housing, health and my local community. But that is their decision, and I fully respect that. I am not going to say that I have not had any correspondence on Chilcot; by tomorrow morning, I will have a lot more.

At the end of the day, I do not think that anybody wants to criticise Chilcot, his team or the report. It took a long time, and we can go over and over this. Whether the House decides to recommend to my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) and his Committee that they look into this issue further, as I understand Select Committees, they make their own minds up about what they will do. It will discuss this matter whether the motion is passed or not. During the short time for which I sat on a Select Committee—I am looking around for the former Chairman of the Health Committee—we used to have in-depth discussions on what inquiries to do and how far they needed to go.

 

The Minister is making a very balanced speech. In his opinion, having read what he has read, is there a great contrast between the private commitments that the former Prime Minister gave to President Bush and his public statements and assurances to this House?

 

I started to read the summary of the Chilcot report, but then read the report at great length, and if the right hon. Gentleman comes to my office he will see the markers in it. It took me several weeks. I respect what Chilcot said, and that is where we are today. If the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee or other Committees want to look at that further, fine, but my personal view and the view of the Government is that we do not need any more inquiries, so we will not go through the Lobby with the SNP this evening.