Clegg backtracks after declaring Iraq war illegal

Nick Clegg used his first appearance standing in for David Cameron at Prime Minister's Questions yesterday to declare that the Iraq war was "illegal", and demand that Labour explain why they dragged Britain into it. What appeared to have escaped the Deputy Prime Minister in the heat of the moment was that most senior Conservatives also voted for the war, including the Chancellor George Osborne and Foreign Secretary William Hague, who were sitting alongside Mr Clegg as he spoke, and Mr Cameron, who was in Washington.

He also seemingly forgot that he was speaking in Parliament as the acting head of government, and that his words could be interpreted as an official admission by the UK that the military action undertaken seven years ago was illegal. As the implications of his remarks sank in, Mr Clegg's office hurriedly issued a statement insisting that he was speaking personally, not expressing an official view.

The Liberal Democrat leader snapped back after his Labour opponent, Jack Straw, taunted him about having to defend Government policies which he had opposed before he went into coalition with the Conservatives.

Mr Clegg replied he was happy to "account for everything we are doing in this coalition Government", adding: "Maybe he one day could account for his role in the most disastrous decision of all, which is the illegal invasion of Iraq."

Later, his office put out a statement saying: "The Deputy Prime Minister was expressing his long-held view about the legality of the Iraq conflict. With regards to the coalition Government's official position on the legal basis for the Iraq conflict, it awaits the outcome of the inquiry being led by Sir John Chilcot."

But this attempt to backtrack was rejected by a spokesman for the inquiry, which said that it would not make a judgment on the legality of war, merely the legal issues in the run-up to the invasion.

The remark overshadowed the good news that Mr Clegg brought to the Commons, that the controversial family detention unit at Yarl's Wood immigration removal centre in Bedfordshire is to close, an announcement welcomed yesterday by those who have campaigned to end what they see as a blot on Britain's international reputation. Mr Clegg caused some confusion by implying that the entire Yarl's Wood centre is to be closed, but the Home Office later made clear that the adult detention will stay, but the family unit will go.

Mr Clegg told MPs in the Commons that it was "simply a moral outrage that last year the Labour government imprisoned behind bars 1,000 children who were innocent of any wrongdoing whatsoever".

Last week Anne Owers, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, told The Independent that children were "damaged" by detention at immigration removal centres and it was an issue which she had continually raised.

Maggie Atkinson, Children's Commissioner for England, said: "I am absolutely delighted that the coalition Government has followed through on its commitment to end the detention of children for immigration purposes.

"The closure of the family unit at Yarl's Wood will mean children in the asylum system will no longer be subject to 'prison-like' conditions. We have worked long and hard to stop this kind of detention because of the detrimental impact it has on children's mental health and physical well being."

Emma Ginn, a spokesman for Medical Justice, the charity that has campaigned against the detention of children, said: "We agree... that detaining children at Yarl's Wood is a 'moral outrage'. So too is the continued detention of vulnerable women at Yarl's Wood, including torture survivors, pregnant women, victims of trafficking and women with serious medical conditions, some of whom are denied adequate medical care."

A Home Office spokesperson said: "We are working to find an alternative that protects children's welfare, without undermining our immigration laws."

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