British Secretary of State for Justice Jack Straw hit back today at claims that he ignored legal advice that the Iraq war would be unlawful without further United Nations backing.
He insisted he gave serious attention to a warning from his former senior legal adviser, Michael Wood, that the conflict would be a "crime of aggression" unless Britain achieved another UN Security Council resolution.
The Chilcot Inquiry into the war has heard that Mr Straw, who was foreign secretary at the time of the 2003 invasion, rejected Wood's advice.
However, Mr Straw said in a statement to the inquiry today that it would be a "fundamentally flawed" system if ministers were obliged to accept all the legal advice they received.
He wrote: "Far from 'ignoring' this advice, as has been suggested publicly, I read Sir Michael [Wood]'s minute with great care and gave it the serious attention it deserved.
"So much so that I thought I owed him a formal and personal written response rather than simply having a conversation with him."
The inquiry has heard that Sir Michael, former senior legal adviser at the Foreign Office, took issue with Mr Straw in January 2003 over his assertion in a meeting with US vice-president Dick Cheney that Britain would still be ``OK'' if it failed to get a second resolution.
He wrote to the then-foreign secretary in a memo: “To use force without Security Council authority would amount to a crime of aggression.”
Mr Straw replied: “I note your advice but I do not accept it.”
Sir Michael told the inquiry: “He took the view that I was being very dogmatic and that international law was pretty vague and that he wasn’t used to people taking such a firm position.
“When he had been at the Home Office, he had often been advised things were unlawful but he had gone ahead anyway and won in the courts.”
Sir Michael’s deputy, Elizabeth Wilmshurst, who resigned in protest at the war, said the Foreign Office lawyers were united in their belief of the need for a second resolution.
Mr Straw today took issue with Sir Michael’s claim in his memo that there was “no doubt” that the UK could not lawfully use force against Iraq without a further Security Council decision.
He wrote in his statement: “There was of course no doubt about the illegality of self-defence, overwhelming humanitarian necessity, or regime change per se, as a basis for military action and no one was suggesting the contrary.
“But there was doubt about the position ... This was at the heart of the debate on lawfulness.”
He went on: “It would surely be a novel, and fundamentally flawed, constitutional doctrine that a minister was bound to accept any advice offered to him/her by a department’s legal adviser as determinative of an issue if there were reasonable grounds for taking a contrary view.
“Such a doctrine would wholly undermine the principle of personal ministerial responsibility and give inappropriate power to a department’s legal advisers.”
Mr Straw also acknowledged none of the matters he dealt with while home secretary compared to the “potential gravity” of the decision about whether to take military action against Iraq.