Mark Oaten: So much for open government

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

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

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive / Digital Marketing Executive

£26000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A luxury beauty house with a nu...

Recruitment Genius: Housekeepers - Immediate Start

£8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This company are currently recruiting new exp...

Recruitment Genius: Head Concierge

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This award winning Property Man...

Recruitment Genius: Content, SEO and PPC Executive

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has ari...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Clean energy should be our mission to the moon

Martin Rees
Angela Merkel and David Cameron say goodbye in the Bundeskanzleramt after their meeting in Berlin, Germany, 29 May 2015  

The complacency of Europhiles could lose them the referendum

Steve Richards
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific
In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

Dame Colette Bowe - interview
When do the creative juices dry up?

When do the creative juices dry up?

David Lodge thinks he knows
The 'Cher moment' happening across fashion just now

Fashion's Cher moment

Ageing beauty will always be more classy than all that booty
Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

Health fears over school cancer jab

Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

Weather warning

Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

High hopes for LSD

Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
German soldier who died fighting for UK in Battle of Waterloo should be removed from museum display and given dignified funeral, say historians

Saving Private Brandt

A Belgian museum's display of the skeleton of a soldier killed at Waterloo prompts calls for him to be given a dignified funeral