Sir George questions Prime Minister on Iraq
8 Jul 2003
The following is an extract of the exchanges between Sir George and the Prime Minister:

Q177 Sir George Young: Could I follow up Tony Wright's line of questioning about credibility? Earlier on, in response to a question, you said that if we had walked away from this one we would have been powerless to deal with other threats, and that is absolutely right. But are you not now confronted with a slightly different problem because of the way that this one has been handled? Next time we are confronted with difficult decisions about whether or not to go to war - and you have identified a number of regimes that cause concern - and the Government then tells us there are compelling reasons for doing this, is there not a real risk that people may not believe you? Is there not now a credibility issue underlined by the poll in today's Times, that they will not believe the Government the next time they are told there is a real issue and we have got to go to war?
Mr Blair: That is why I think it is important that we allow the Iraq Survey Group to do its work and that we keep an open mind about the work that they are doing.
Q178 Sir George Young: Will you keep an open mind?
Mr Blair: Of course I will keep an open mind.
Q179 Sir George Young: And they may not find anything.
Mr Blair: Let us wait and see what they do actually find, and in the interviews that they are now beginning to carry out with the scientists and the experts and the witnesses. I simply tell you, my view is that I am very confident they will find the evidence that such programmes existed and that Saddam was developing them but tried to conceal them.
Q180 Sir George Young: You are not prepared to contemplate that they will not?
Mr Blair: If I can just deal with the issue about credibility, let us be clear about this. It is not surprising, when we have had five weeks of being told, in effect, because the public does not get into the detail of a lot of these things and the FAC did get into the detail of it and there was a very detailed report, --- we have had five weeks essentially where a central allegation has been made. This allegation started with the claim that the 45-minute time for Saddam to activate his weapons was inserted into the September dossier on a false basis, that Number 10 Downing Street or myself inserted this into this dossier against the wishes of our intelligence services, knowing it to be untrue. There could not be a more serious allegation against the Government. I do not think a single person around this table believes that to be true, but it has been repeated for five weeks.
Q181 Sir George Young: That was not the question that we were putting. Can we ----
Mr Blair: You were putting the question of credibility, and the question of credibility is obviously governed by the seriousness of that charge. It is an extremely serious charge. I hope people accept that that charge was wrong. I also think it is important to say this: I believe that the British intelligence services, for their size, are the best in the world. I have now had six years of dealing with those intelligence services and intelligence is intelligence. I am not saying there cannot be particular items or particular lines that turn out to be different from what the intelligence says, because intelligence is exactly what it means. In my experience of dealing with the British intelligence services, I have never come across a consistent line of reporting that has turned out to be wrong, and that is why I do not believe that their intelligence reporting that was revealed in the dossier last September was wrong, I believe it will be shown to be right.
Q182 Sir George Young: Prime Minister, when you were here a year ago some of us asked you about your style of government and there is a section in this report about the machinery of government. Does this document not confirm some of the fears that were put to you about a year ago? We read in this document that Parliament is denied access to the papers and the people that it needs to hold the Government to account; we read the Cabinet is sidelined; sensitive documents presented to Parliament without any ministerial oversight; meetings on intelligence chaired by the Government's spin doctor instead of the Chairman of the JIC; the Cabinet's Defence and Overseas Policy Committee has not met for two years; ad hoc unaccountable groups meeting without papers and taking decisions. Does this not reveal systemic failings in government?
Mr Blair: It would if it were true, but it is not. Let me deal with each of those allegations in turn. First of all, in relation to Parliament not being informed, let us be clear, I am the first Prime Minister who has ever appeared before a parliamentary committee of this sort; the first.
Q183 Sir George Young: They asked for access to papers and they were denied them.
Mr Blair: Intelligence papers have never been provided to committees in this way. However, we have provided more than any government before us has ever done. Secondly, in relation to Parliament, I think I am the first Prime Minister who has actually gone to Parliament to seek specific clearance for a decision to take this country to war. So the idea that Parliament never had a chance to debate this, or was not involved, I think is fatuous. As for the suggestion that Cabinet has been sidelined, after I read that allegation I went back through and since March 2002 Iraq started to be debated at Cabinet since it became a live issue; from September 2002 onwards I think at virtually every Cabinet meeting it was debated; during the course of the war 28 separate meetings of the relevant Cabinet Committee were held at which, incidentally, the Deputy Prime Minister, the Chancellor, the Foreign Secretary and the Development Secretary were all present. In relation to the Defence Committee that you mentioned, the reason why it was not meeting was that we had a special committee meeting on the war. I think the notion that Parliament was not involved cannot be sustained. The notion that the Cabinet was not involved is simply contradicted by the meetings that we had both of the Cabinet and of the sub-committee of the Cabinet dealing with the issue to do with the war. In relation to unelected groups of advisors, it is simply not true to say that those groups of advisors ---- Of course I talk to the people who work with me in my office, but the idea that they supplanted the decisions of the Cabinet simply is not right. The Cabinet agreed to take the action in respect of the conflict and once the Cabinet had agreed, we then went to Parliament and Parliament agreed. I look back on this and think we published the September dossier because people demanded the intelligence and for the first time a government actually gave a large amount of its intelligence and put it before the public. We then had massive parliamentary debate for six months over this, we then had a final parliamentary decision that we should go to conflict and we had Cabinet meeting after Cabinet meeting debating this. The idea that this took place and I got together with a couple of people in the office over a cup of coffee and decided to take the country to war is somewhat farfetched, if I can respectfully say so.
Q184 Sir George Young: Finally, can we put to bed the question that Donald raised right at the beginning. Do you accept that inadvertently you misrepresented the status of the document on 3 February and you regret this?
Mr Blair: No, I accept that what we should have done is we should have said that this middle part of the document was actually taken from a reference document. I did not know at the time that if I put it before Parliament it should have been sourced in that way. Can I just make the point, however, that the information in it was actually correct. I accept entirely - for the future we have put in place procedures to make absolutely sure - if we were putting any document in the public domain and actually a source for that document was a reference work or an article or something that was on the Internet, we should have sourced it. The information was correct and the intelligence material in the other two parts of the document was, indeed, intelligence material.
Q185 Sir George Young: But its status was misrepresented.
Mr Blair: I do not think its status was misrepresented. What we should have done was sourced the bit that actually came from a reference document to the reference document.

 
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