Mark Oaten: So much for open government

The Opposition View - The British system of government needs vigorous overhaul, not piecemeal reform
Click to follow
The Independent Online

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