Sir John Chilcot, opening statement 18 January 2011

18 January 2011

Good afternoon and welcome. The Iraq Inquiry begins a short round of public hearings today.

The Inquiry has spent the last few months analysing many thousands of documents. We have visited Baghdad, Basra and Erbil to hear from Iraqis themselves who told us how they feel about the UK involvement in their country. We were able to see for ourselves the consequences of the US and UK led invasion of 2003. These visits have made a profound impression on my colleagues and me, which we will reflect in our report.

In the last few weeks, the Committee has taken further evidence in private from Sir David Pepper (former Head of GCHQ), Sir Tony Brenton who served in the British Embassy in Washington between 2001 and 2004 and Emma Sky who has worked extensively for the British and American governments in Iraq.

As we begin to write our report, there are a few remaining areas where we need to clarify exactly what happened. It is that which has determined the witnesses in this round. The majority of the 12 witnesses we will see in public hearings over the next three weeks will be new witnesses.

We have also sought statements from a number of witnesses. We have begun to publish witness statements that we have received. There will be more in the coming days.

I want to reiterate that I am satisfied that the government has met, and continues to meet, its undertaking to give the Iraq Inquiry full access to all the relevant documents. In a few cases, it has not yet been possible to find every document. We will address that in our report, if we think it is significant. I must stress that we attribute this to administrative shortcomings, and not the deliberate withholding of information. If that were to change, we would say so.

The Inquiry will always seek to take evidence in public unless there are specific grounds under our protocols why it cannot do so. The Inquiry is determined to be as transparent as possible in its work. I thought that was important when I took on the role of Chairman and our commitment to make public as much as possible continues. Yesterday we published the transcripts of five of our private evidence sessions on the Inquiry website. In places, extracts have been redacted in accordance with the protocol with the government. We are pleased that we have been able to make so much public. We will continue to publish further transcripts and declassified documents in the coming weeks to assist the public understanding of our work.

There is one area where, I am sorry to say, it has not been possible to reach agreement with the government.

The papers we hold include the notes which Prime Minister Blair sent to President Bush and the records of their discussions. The Inquiry recognises the privileged nature of those exchanges but, exceptionally, we sought disclosure of key extracts which illuminate Prime Minister Blair’s positions at critical points. The Cabinet Office did not agree this disclosure. On 10 December last year, in accordance with the Protocol, I asked the Cabinet Secretary to review that decision. I also made it clear that, if we could not reach agreement, I would publish the correspondence between us. I am doing so today.

The Inquiry is disappointed that the Cabinet Secretary was not willing to accede to its request. This means that in a narrow but important area the Inquiry may not always be able to publish as fully as it would wish the evidential basis for some of its comments and conclusions.

The Inquiry is free to say what it thinks. We shall complete our task and make our own independent judgements about the UK’s involvement in Iraq.

The Inquiry is now drawing together the evidence it has received and this round of public hearings will be a vital element of that. The Inquiry looks forward to producing its report as soon as it is able.