Mark Oaten: So much for open government

The Opposition View - The British system of government needs vigorous overhaul, not piecemeal reform

Share
Related Topics

The Hutton inquiry has provided us with an unprecedented glimpse into the workings of the Whitehall machine and things will only become more fascinating next week when Tony Blairgives evidence. However, it's worth remembering that, unlike in the United States and Australia where hearings on decisions leading to war are taking place, in this country it took the death of Dr David Kelly for this to happen.

Much of the undue interest caused by the Hutton inquiry could have been avoided if the Government had agreed to calls by the Lib Dems for an inquiry immediately following the war.

The Government refused to investigate the questions that were on the minds of most people: why did we go to war? Did the Prime Minister mislead the House of Commons and the country over Iraq? And, exactly when did he make the decision to commit troops alongside the US?

Not addressing these questions in a straightforward manner means that the purpose of the Hutton inquiry is blurred. The Government will want to insist that it remains focused on the specific events of Dr Kelly's apparent suicide. For everyone else, it is the only chance to find some clues to the burning question of why and how we entered this war.

While Hutton may satisfy its own narrow remit, the shadow agenda will remain half hidden. This suits the Government perfectly, because as long as the press is focussing on who said what to whom, they are not focussing on the dreadful situation in Iraq. Five months after the end of the conflict, there is still no evidence of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and last week's bombing of the United Nations' headquarters in Baghdad showed the peace is far from won.

And as long as the situation there stubbornly refuses to improve, the questioning of the motives for this war will not go away. The danger of Hutton is that it will raise more questions than it answers.

On WMD, the Government would do well to take Robin Cook's advice and simply admit that the intelligence was wrong. There is too much unaccounted for in the dossier for the Prime Minister to blandly assert that weapons will be found. This is the ultimate triumph of hope over experience. We have yet to see any factories, missile test sites, long range missiles; photos of which we were confidently shown only months before.

In fact, damning evidence from Jonathan Powell, the Prime Minister's chief of staff, suggests that No 10 knew Iraq did not present a threat. Powell was concerned that to present Saddam as a threat to his neighbours "let alone the West" would stretch credibility and warned against doing so. And yet a week later, Mr Blair was gravely telling the House of Commons that the threat from Saddam was "serious and current".

It would seem that the main charge against the Government, namely that intelligence was exaggerated, is true. This should be an important question for Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, and Mr Blair this week. However Hutton, maddeningly, has no remit to examine this important question further.

The inquiry has also raised fundamental issues of protection for civil servants in their job, the proper relationship between the intelligence agencies and the Government, the role of select committees and their terms of reference. It is a matter of serious concern that the Defence Secretary can write to the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee and dictate the limits of the questions which the committee is allowed to ask.

New Labour often protests that it is the most open government that Britain has ever had. But this is no great accolade. The British system needs vigorous overhaul, and piecemeal reforms only make the need for wholesale reform all the more urgent. We shouldn't have to wait for an inquiry for the Government to be held to account. If Select Committees had the resources and clout to perform their proper role, good grillings for our increasingly unaccountable executive would become routine.

By this time next week, will we be any the wiser? I doubt it. The Government will need closure on this episode. The Prime Minister will need to move on and that probably means a resignation or two. In the longer term this inquiry marks the beginning of the end for Tony Blair's special relationship with the public. "Trust me I'm Tony", so often his "Get out of jail free" card, can't be played again.

But more worrying is that emerging from Hutton are serious questions about our intelligence services and their relationship with ministers. That means whichever prime minister next invokes intelligence will have an uphill job convincing anyone of his or her case when next this country is faced with the prospect of war.

Mark Oaten is MP for Winchester and the Liberal Democrats' parliamentary party chairman

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

C# Developer (C#, ASP.NET Developer, SQL, MVC, WPF, Real-Time F

£40000 - £48000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: C# Devel...

C# Swift Payment Developer (C#, ASP.NET, .NET, MVC, Authorize.N

£45000 - £60000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: C# Swift...

Front-End Developer (JavaScript, HTML5, CSS3, C#, GUI)

£55000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Front-End Deve...

Graduate C# Developer (.NET, WPF, SQL, Agile, C++) - London

£30000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Graduate C# De...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Would you fork out to spend time on Sting's Tuscan estate?  

Happy to pay for the privilege of picking olives? Then Sting might have a job for you...

John Walsh
Clockwise from top: Zafran Ramzan, Razwan Razaq (main picture), Adil Hussain, Umar Razaq and Mohsin Khan were sentenced for grooming teenage girls for sex in 2010.  

Nothing can make up for the trauma of Rotherham's abused young girls, but many more heads must roll

Jane Merrick
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

What is the appeal of Twitch?

Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

How bosses are making us work harder

As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

A tale of two writers

Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

Should pupils get a lie in?

Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

Prepare for Jewish jokes...

... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

A dream come true for SJ Watson

Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
10 best cycling bags for commuters

10 best cycling bags for commuters

Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

Paul Scholes column

Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

The science of herding is cracked

Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

This tyrant doesn’t rule

It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?