Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Nothing to hide: nothing to fear. Iraq; Dr. Kelly and Lord Hutton

In July 2003, Tony Blair received standing ovations when he addressed the United States Congress. He flew on to Tokyo and the news broke of the death of the scientist Dr David Kelly who had, for a decade, advised both the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence on Iraq, its weapons of mass destruction and the United Nations' inspection approach towards disarmament and monitoring. “Have you got blood on your hands …”, was the famous and unanswered question which was thrown at an obviously shaken and nervous Mr. Blair. It was immediately announced that there would be an inquiry to be chaired by Lord Hutton.

Dr Kelly had appeared before the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee on 15th July 2003 when it was put to Dr. Kelly that he was “chaff” thrown up to divert the committee’s probing and when he was pompously told by Andrew Mackinlay MP that this “is the high court of Parliament and I want you to tell the Committee who you met.”

The Hutton Inquiry reported in January 2004.

The Oxfordshire Coroner opened an inquest into Dr Kelly’s death but it was adjourned pending the outcome of the Hutton Inquiry. Hutton declared – “I am satisfied that Dr Kelly took his own life and that the principal cause of death was bleeding from incised wounds to his left wrist which Dr Kelly had inflicted on himself with the knife found beside his body. It is probable that the ingestion of an excess amount of Coproxamol tablets coupled with apparently clinically silent coronary artery disease would have played a part in bringing about death more certainly and more rapidly than it would have otherwise been the case. I am further satisfied that no other person was involved in the death of Dr Kelly and that Dr Kelly was not suffering from any significant mental illness at the time he took his own life.” After this finding was announced the Oxfordshire Coroner decided not to resume the inquest.

A group of doctors are seeking material on which to base a challenge to the finding of Hutton. It appears that they have been informed that Lord Hutton ruled in 2003 that medical reports and photographs should remain closed for 70 years – see The Guardian 26th January 2010.

The exact legal basis for this seems somewhat obscure. The Hutton Inquiry was held at the request of the Lord Chancellor of the day (Lord Falconer) and it was set up under the prerogative power of the Secretary of State to convene an inquiry – see Review of Executive Royal Prerogative Powers

(An interesting report on inquiries is that of the Parliamentary Public Administration Select Committee 2004 “Government by Inquiry”) This report preceded the Inquiries Act 2005 which would now govern any statutory inquiry and which, interestingly, retains the power of the Secretary of State to set up an inquiry - section 44(4).

It would therefore appear that the inquiry material is subject to governmental discretion as to whether it will be released and, if so, when. In 1997 the government published the Open Government Code of Practice on Access to Government Information. However, this made it clear that some categories of information could remain confidential and would do so if “the harm likely to arise from disclosure would outweigh the public interest in making the information available.” Of course, Ministers would be the judge of that! One of the key categories of information which could remain confidential was – “Information relating to legal proceedings or the proceedings of any tribunal, public inquiry or other formal investigation which have been completed or terminated, or relating to investigations which have or might have resulted in proceedings.” From the beginning of 2005, the Access to Government Information Code came to an end. However, in itself, this would not alter any "closure" decisions already taken.

It is rather difficult to see what interest there is in keeping this matter under wraps. If Lord Hutton got it right then there should be nothing to fear.

Additional information – 26th January 2010 – A report on the BBC website indicated that Lord Hutton did not mind the post-mortem report being released for the purposes of any legal proceedings but he would wish to see conditions restricting the use and publication of the report to such proceedings.


  1. Obiter : Two observations. 1. This is an excellent post and as you rightly say "If Lord Hutton got it right.....". But did he? It is wrong that we do not have the chance to form our own view.

    2. You quote here and in the previous post from the Grauniad. That paper is less well known for its objectivity than some other broadsheets, so I do hope this is not your only source of input!

  2. Rex_Imperator - thanks. Hutton has been criticised in may ways and one criticism was that he was not an experienced coroner. He sat alone and so did not have appropriately qualified assessors with him. However, arguments put to the Oxfordshire Coroner that he resume his inquest did not succeed.

    I try to look at several news items and on the 70 years point they were all similar. On the Kenyan matter, I only saw it in The Guardian and I could not see the story elsewhere apart from the solicitors. I chose to start with the link to the solicitors. It would not be in the interests of the solicitors to "spin" anything.