Gordon Brown's decision to hold the Iraq inquiry in secret has been reversed after after the chairman of the inquiry, Sir John Chilcot, said that as much of it as possible would be held in public.
Chilcot, a former senior civil servant in Northern Ireland, formally wrote to Brown insisting that it was “essential” to hold much of the inquiry in open session.
“It will be essential to hold as much of the proceedings of the Inquiry possible in public, consistent with the need to protect national security and to ensure and enable complete candour in the oral and written evidence from witnesses,” he said in his letter. He will meet David Cameron and Nick Clegg this morning to discuss their views on the remit and structure of the inquiry.
Brown faced fierce criticism after announcing last week that the inquiry would be held in private and was forced to declare that it was up to Chilcot to decide if inquiry could take place in public.
In his reply to Chilcot, Brown said: “I believe your proposals will manage to meet both the need not to compromise national security but also enable the independent inquiry to hold public sessions helping to build public confidence.”
Chilcot also outlined for the first time the formal structure of the inquiry, which will begin with sessions involving the families of soldiers killed or injured in the Iraq war. He confirmed that the families of victims would have a chance to influence the conduct of the inquiry.
“It will be essential to ensure that the families of those who gave their lives in Iraq, or were seriously affected by the conflict, have an early opportunity to express their views about the nature and procedures of the inquiry, and to express them either in public or in private, as they prefer. That will be important in helping us to decide how to go about the task, and explain what we are going to do,” he said.
The five-strong inquiry panel also includes Sir Martin Gilbert, a senior military historian; Sir Roderick Lyne, the former British ambassador to Moscow; Sir Lawrence Freedman, Professor of War Studies at King's College London and the crossbench peer Baroness Usha Prashar.
Responding to criticism that the panel did not include any senior military figure, Chilcot promsied to appoint senior military advisers. He wrote: "I have concluded that the inquiry will need expert assessors at the highest level, including in military, legal and international development and reconstruction matters, and I have already begun to identify people who may be willing to serve in that capacity."
The inquiry will not report until after the next general election but the prospect of a series of public hearings on the failures of the Iraq war is still likely to prove embarassing for Labour.