Page last updated at 20:00 GMT, Wednesday, 24 June 2009 21:00 UK

Government wins Iraq inquiry vote

William Hague: "The government has performed a U-turn"

A Tory attempt to change arrangements for the Iraq war inquiry has been defeated in the Commons.

But the government's majority was cut to 39 votes as MPs rejected the motion, after the government said the inquiry would be able to apportion blame.

Some Labour MPs joined criticism of the way Gordon Brown initially announced it would be held in private.

The Tories had called for assurances on how much would be public and for MPs to decide its terms of reference.

They and the Lib Dems also want changes to the inquiry panel - to include people with military and ministerial experience.

Nineteen Labour MPs voted for the Tory motion which was defeated by 299 votes to 260. A government amendment, welcoming its announcement of the "wide ranging and independent" inquiry, was passed by 305 votes to 251.

Terms of reference

The Conservatives called the Commons debate after Mr Brown told MPs last week the inquiry would be in private.

Since then, and amid much criticism, he has said it is up to the inquiry's chairman, Sir John Chilcot, to hold some sessions in public if he chooses.

BBC political correspondent Carole Walker said the vote's result was not surprising because Gordon Brown had made some concessions.

It needs to be comprehensive, independent, not a trial or an impeachment but an effort to learn for the future
David Miliband
Foreign Secretary

But during the six-hour debate many Labour backbenchers criticised the government's handling of the affair and several MPs said they were still not clear about how much would be held in private.

Senior Labour MP Tony Wright described it as an "object lesson in how not to set up an inquiry".

Many MPs also argued against leaving the terms of reference - and issue of whether witnesses should give evidence under oath - to Sir John to decide.

Speaking after the vote former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith said late vague concessions from the government were "no good" and it should be for the House of Commons, not Sir John, to decide on the inquiry's remit.

'Made a mess'

During the debate shadow foreign secretary William Hague said Mr Brown had made a "mess" of announcing the inquiry by producing proposals for a "secretive, behind-closed-doors inquiry".

He added the membership was too restricted while the timing of the inquiry - which is due to report back after the next election - was "utterly cynical and politically motivated".

It suits the government to have us believe that the inquiry will be mostly in public, but I have my doubts
David Heath
Liberal Democrats

Since then he said the government had "engaged in a series of climbdowns - a U-turn executed in stages" and had relied on Sir John to announce changes, rather than "admit that the government were in the wrong".

He said MPs should be asked to scrutinise and vote on all the terms and rules for the inquiry and it was "unfair" to leave it all to Sir John.

Foreign Secretary David Miliband said all parties agreed there was a need for an inquiry adding: "It needs to be comprehensive, independent, not a trial or an impeachment but an effort to learn for the future."

He confirmed it would have access to all cabinet papers, papers from foreign governments and appeared to confirm it would have access to the original legal advice to cabinet on the legality of the war.

Under oath

But he said it was "right and proper to leave the discretion" on whether evidence should be given under oath, to Sir John.

However Clare Short, the former cabinet minister who resigned as a Labour MP over the war, and former Lib Dem leader Sir Menzies Campbell said the issue should be decided by MPs.

But, in what opposition parties say is a further concession from the government, the foreign secretary also said the inquiry would be free to "praise or blame whoever it likes".

David Miliband: "It can praise or blame whoever it likes"

The prime minster had told MPs last week the inquiry would "not set out to apportion blame".

Labour backbencher Gordon Prentice said he was still unclear about how much of the inquiry would be in public.

He said a briefing note circulated to Labour MPs had said the inquiry would "sit in private with scope for public events and hearings" - he believed it should have been the other way around.

Mr Miliband said Sir John had already said "as much as possible" should be public.

But for the Liberal Democrats, David Heath demanded to know the criteria for closed sessions.

He added: "It suits the government to have us believe that the inquiry will be mostly in public, but I have my doubts."

Labour MPs Bob Marshall-Andrews and Paul Flynn both said the key question for the inquiry was whether Britain was "deceived" into going to war in Iraq.

Tory leader David Cameron says Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Alastair Campbell [Tony Blair's former press secretary] must give evidence in public.

Earlier the prime minister's spokesman said Mr Brown would have "no difficulty in giving evidence in public", if national security considerations were met.

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