I beg to move,
That the Bill be now read a Second time.
There are two important reasons why this Bill should become law and why the House should strongly support it. The first is an argument for democracy. In our system, the power to declare war or commit troops to military action belongs to the Prime Minister. The reason for this is that it used to be a power of the monarch and therefore is still a royal prerogative, and the royal prerogative these days is exercised by the Prime Minister, with Parliament having no right to control the way in which he uses the power.
As we all know, the United Kingdom has no written constitution. The powers of Parliament were built up over a long period of history through Parliament using its power to raise taxes to insist that the monarch was made accountable to Parliament in the exercise of his and, occasionally, her powers. However, Parliament did not manage to make the monarch accountable over the right to make war. In the Act of Settlement of 1700, however, which laid down who was to succeed to the Crown after the death of Mary, wife of William of Orange, Parliament did say:
"If the Crown and imperial dignity of this realm shall hereafter come to any person not being a native of the Kingdom of England, this nation be not obliged to engage in any war for the defence of any dominions or territories which do not belong to the Crown of England without the consent of Parliament."
It would seem that that section is still in effect today. So Parliament has in the past restricted the royal prerogative to make war, but as there is little prospect currently of the Crown passing to a person who is not a native of this country, perhaps it is time for Parliament to update its control over the power to go to war.
I have been shocked to discover, through reading the Library's briefing on the Bill, that the current powers of Parliament are even less than most of us had thought. Thus, even when the Prime Minister decides that he wishes to allow Parliament to vote on a substantive motion on whether to support a war, which happened, for example, under the Attlee Government over the Korean war, under the Major Government over the 1991 Gulf war and under the Blair Government more recently, just before the Iraq war, he has the constitutional right to ignore a defeat on a parliamentary vote if he so wishes.
I think that the right hon. Lady is slightly incorrect. As for Attlee and the Korean war, the votes were after the deployment of troops. The first time—the only time in the history of Parliament—that there was a substantive vote before the deployment of troops was in respect of the Iraq war of 2003. My understanding is that, had that vote been lost, the Prime Minister would not have been able to commit troops. Is my understanding correct?
No, the hon. Gentleman is not correct. He is right in the case of the Korean war and the 1991 Gulf war. In those instances, the vote was taken shortly after the declaration of war. The Library briefing is absolutely clear that the Prime Minister decides whether to allow a vote and has the absolute power to ignore the result of that vote. If the vote had gone against the recent Iraq war, the Prime Minister could still have gone on with the war. That is a remarkable and extraordinary state of affairs.
The more that I thought about this situation, the more I concluded that, given the Prime Minister's powers under the royal prerogative, he could argue that he was entitled secretly to commit us to war in April 2002 by giving his word to President Bush, as has been revealed by the leaking of the Downing street memo. Similarly, the Prime Minister could insist that he was entitled to exaggerate the intelligence on the threat of weapons of mass destruction, manipulate legal advice and misreport the French position on the possible use of its veto in the Security Council. If the power to make war belongs to the Prime Minister and requires no approval from Parliament, he was entitled to do what he thought was right and then set out to persuade, in the way that he found best, the Cabinet, Parliament and country to support the decision that he had already made.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the history is even more complicated? She and I were both members of the Government when Britain went to war in the Balkans. As it happens, I was very supportive of that military action. Nevertheless, at that time there was no requirement for approval and no approval was given by Parliament. That cannot be a sustainable case. In the case of Iraq, with which I did not agree, the Prime Minister did come before Parliament. The worry is that the Prime Minister's freedom of action is not circumscribed. If he or she so chooses in future, Parliament can be ignored entirely. That cannot be sustainable.
My hon. Friend is right. It is for the Prime Minister to decide whether to bring the issue before Parliament. He or she can do so or not do so; in the case of the Kosovo war, there was no vote in Parliament. There is the argument that there was a vote before the Iraq war. At the last minute, when the troops were on the ground and when arms were being twisted, the Prime Minister was saying, "Please do not humiliate me in this situation." I do not think that that is adequate consultation of Parliament. It is not the way to make good decisions to protect our armed forces and the dignity and authority of our country.
As most Members of Parliament are aware, many people in Britain are very disillusioned with our constitutional arrangements and the weakness of our democracy. An elderly Iraqi engineer who had spent most of his life in the UK summarised the situation to me some time ago. He said that this is the freest country in the world; we can buy any book, arrange any meeting, organise any demonstration and have any discussion—the only problem is that the Government do not take a blind bit of notice of what the people are thinking. It is a very free country, in the sense of freedom of discussion, although there are proposals that might curtail that, but the distance between public opinion and the power of the Executive is too great in our constitutional system, and it is causing disgruntlement across the land.
It was Lord Hailsham in 1976 who said that we have an elective dictatorship, and power has centralised in the office of the Prime Minister very much further since then. I know many people who went on the march against the Iraq war on
No, I will get on a little, if I may.
Politicians are increasingly held in contempt and a declining percentage of people feel that there is any point in voting. We should be worried about that, and many Members of the House are. Given that there is no more serious decision that politicians can make than the taking and sacrificing of human life in war and the unleashing of the ugliness of war, which no matter how justified is always an ugly thing, our democracy is surely deeply flawed when the people whom the public elect have no power to approve or disapprove the deployment of our armed forces.
The right hon. Lady is giving some very good constitutional reasons for the proposed power, but is not there a very good practical reason as well—for the morale of our armed forces? There was a huge debate in this country, to which she referred, about the recent Iraq war, and there was a debate in the armed forces as well—they were discussing these issues—and the mere fact that there was a vote in the House that went one way, although not the way that I wanted, gave them the confidence to go on and do what they did. Had there not been a vote, and had the Prime Minister ignored a vote that went the wrong way, the morale of our armed forces would certainly have been severely dented.
The hon. Gentleman is right. I am afraid that the morale of the armed forces remains dented, because there is a lot of doubt about the way we got ourselves to war in Iraq. An officer stopped me in Whitehall some months back and said that he was home from Iraq and going back, and that he agreed with many of the arguments that I and others had made about the way in which we went to war in Iraq. He said that it is a terrible thing for an officer to have to meet the families of soldiers who died under their command, but when one's country is not firmly in support of the war, it is unbearable. I am afraid that that is so for many in our armed forces at present. Surely, under any reasonable modern constitutional arrangements, and in any self-respecting Parliament—we will see what this House of Commons really thinks about itself today—this old-fashioned set of arrangements should be changed, and Parliament should have the right to approve or not the decision to declare war.
The Bill is part of a larger draft Bill put forward by the Select Committee on Public Administration, following its inquiry into royal prerogatives in March 2004. It has strong all-party support and was previously presented to Parliament by my hon. Friend Mr. Gerrard. It is notable that when in opposition Labour promised to ensure that
"all actions of Government are subject to political and parliamentary control, including those actions now governed by the arbitrary use of the royal prerogative", and highlighted the ratification of treaties and going to war as key areas of special concern.
Does the right hon. Lady agree that it should be the right of the democratically elected representatives of our country—all of them—to approve or not the decision to go to war?
I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman, both for democratic reasons and for the quality of the decision-making process, which is a point that I shall come to in a minute.
No, I shall get on. I wanted to welcome Mr. Scott to the House. Hon. Members should not be mean to new Members when they seek to intervene to make their points.
"the royal prerogative has no place in a modern democracy".
How quickly views change when the Executive power is in the hands of people who were previously in opposition.
I have great sympathy with the Bill in principle, but there are some problems with it, and perhaps my right hon. Friend could detail how she would deal with those. In particular, clause 2 requires the Prime Minister to look at
"the expected geographical extent of the participation . . . the expected duration of the participation, and . . . the particular bodies of Her Majesty's armed forces that are expected to participate."
My concern is that we would be telegraphing from the House how we intended to deploy our troops, exactly where we intended to deploy them and for how long. That would be a real strategic problem for our armed forces. Could my right hon. Friend explain how that would be presented?
No. Let me get on a bit.
I submit that the democratic argument is overwhelmingly strong and that it is the duty of Parliament to insist on it.
The second major argument for the Bill, which deals with some of the points that have just been raised, is that, as the Butler report makes very clear, this personalised power of the Prime Minister to make war has led to a system of very informal and ill-thought-through decision making, which has put our soldiers in harm's way and created a terrible quagmire for the people of Iraq. I believe that if there had been a stronger system of accountability to Parliament it is likely that the decision about the rush to war and the handling of the situation after the military campaign would have been better considered to the benefit of all concerned. This is the second body of very serious arguments. It is for that reason that a group of families who have lost sons in Iraq have come out strongly in support of the Bill. They believe that the decision to go to war was not properly considered or properly scrutinised, and that if it had been, different decisions might well have been made.
Some hon. Members, having voted for the war and encouraged it—in fact, having egged on the Government to go to war—now attack the Government, asking why they did not do this and that. Surely those are questions that they should have asked before voting and before encouraging the Government to go to war and egging them on.
The hon. Gentleman is right that many hon. Members who voted for the war, having seen many documents that have come out since as a result of the Hutton inquiry and the Butler report, as well as the leaked document, feel that they were duped, and feel angry about it. This is a serious set of issues: the situation that we have in Iraq, how we got there, where we are now and how we get out of it to the benefit of all concerned, the lessons for the constitution and how to improve the quality of our decision making. We should all consider those matters and not throw brickbats at each other.
The Bill is very straightforward in conception. It lays down that Parliament's approval must be sought before the deployment of British forces in military action. It requires that when the Prime Minister proposes military action, he must lay before both House of Parliament a report setting out the reasons for the proposed action, the legal authority for it—would that not be a desirable thing?—and, to answer the point made by my hon. Friend David Wright, any detail that he thinks appropriate on its geographical extent, expected duration and which elements of the armed forces are to be deployed. The Prime Minister would have a lot of discretion on how much detail he provides to the House of Commons.
My right hon. Friend has made great play about the importance of democracy and the right of the elected representatives of the people to make a decision. How does she square that with effectively giving a veto to the other place through her requirement that both Houses approve such a decision? Given her position on reform of the House of Lords, would it not be more appropriate for reform to come before consideration of this Bill?
I think that my hon. Friend will agree that we are committed as a party and as a Government to reform of the House of Lords, so he does not have to worry. When contentious legislation is introduced, many people, including me, hope that it will be properly scrutinised in the Lords, because, although we have an appointed House, it is appointed in proportion to the voting behaviour of the country. The Lords is a better scrutineer of the Executive than this House, and that undermines this House's authority.
"the particular bodies of . . . armed forces that are expected to participate".
If the situation were to change during the course of the armed conflict, would the Prime Minister have to return to the House to obtain a reconfirmation of assent? If so, the Prime Minister could find himself coming back on a weekly basis; if not, the Government would be engaged in armed conflict that had not been approved by Parliament.
On the legal case for war, does the right hon. Lady anticipate that, before a decision was taken by this House to support the Government's policy, the House of Commons would see an extensive opinion, such as the 13-page document produced by the Attorney-General on
One of the very troubling issues about the route to war is the way in which the longer legal opinion was kept secret from everyone, including members of the Cabinet. If such issues had to be brought before Parliament, the legal case would be more thoroughly scrutinised and the machinations and shenanigans, which are so troubling, would not occur. There is a democratic case for the Bill, but there is also the powerful argument that it would make for better decision making and protect our armed forces and our country's reputation.
Does the right hon. Lady agree that one of the critical points about the Bill is that the consideration should happen before the deployment of troops, which means that this House would not get bounced into taking a decision? When the party that forms the Government is backed by only one in five voters—furthermore, some parts of the Labour party do not support the Prime Minister—it creates a dangerous situation in which too much power is concentrated in one individual.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that having a vote before any troops are deployed would allow the whole issue to be properly considered. Once the troops are on the ground, Parliament is in a very difficult situation. Many hon. Members voted against their better judgment because troops had been committed, and the Bill would ensure that that does not happen again.
The Bill also provides for a situation in which the Prime Minister decides that participation in armed conflict is urgent and that deployment should begin before a report is laid before Parliament. In those circumstances, retrospective approval can be sought as soon as it is practicable to do so. If retrospective approval were denied, the forces would have to be withdrawn within 30 days, or a longer period could be allowed if the Prime Minister considered that it was needed in order to organise a withdrawal. If Parliament were not sitting or immediate action were needed, the Bill would allow the Prime Minister to come to Parliament after troops had been deployed.
On parliamentary democracy, does the right hon. Lady agree that the backing of Parliament would help not only the Prime Minister of this country but the leader of any country? It would be ridiculous if Iraq's leader had the power to go to war without the backing of its parliamentary democracy, which we supposedly went to war to try to install.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Neo-conservatives in the United States, who now have some influence in this country, keep making the point that democracies do not go to war. Is this a democracy, and is the United States a democracy? That argument is very strange. The fact that the Prime Minister can defy Parliament is an embarrassment to our name as an ancient democracy.
My hon. Friend is right. Those who say that the Bill is not practical and that the US is our great role model and ally seem to be unaware of those constitutional arrangements.
The Bill defines armed conflict as armed conflict to which the Geneva convention and its protocols apply. The Library briefing discusses whether that is the best definition and whether Parliament wants the Bill to apply to peacekeeping operations, but it seems to me that those are points to consider in Committee. The principle behind the Bill is clear, and we can discuss the detail in Committee. In my view, Parliament should approve peacekeeping operations, but we should have a special procedure when rapid deployment is required.
I welcome the formation of the EU rapid deployment force, which will particularly help with peacekeeping in Africa. That force should be capable of rapid deployment, in which case the matter should come before Parliament after deployment. We can discuss the definition and whether it requires modification when we get the help of parliamentary counsel, in order to ensure that we get the handling of peacekeeping operations right.
The accountability of the Executive to Parliament is an important democratic principle that should surely be extended to the making of war. Having recently lived through the decision to go to war in Iraq, we owe it to our armed forces and the reputation of our country to put in place arrangements that will ensure that a decision to go to war is more thoroughly considered.
Although I respect the right hon. Lady's concerns about parliamentary approval and proper scrutiny, is there not a concern that this Bill and this debate will become a Trojan horse for voicing disapproval about going to war in Iraq? The real problem is not the current constitutional powers, but how the Prime Minister applies them and abuses them.
The issue behind the Bill is wider than Iraq, but we have all had recent experience of the route to war in Iraq. The informality of the way in which the decisions were made, which the Butler report fully documents, is worrying—decisions are not well made when they are made informally. Some things are so important that one needs papers, formal decision making and wide consultation in order to reach the best possible decision.
The hon. Gentleman is wrong to suggest that the Bill does not address the profound constitutional and democratic principle of the accountability of the Executive to Parliament. As I have said, we need procedures that will ensure that decisions are better made in future, because we cannot leave it to the personality of an individual Prime Minister to adopt suitable procedures. My experience over the years is that, as power concentrates in No. 10 Downing street and the Prime Minister's office, successive Governments build on that concentration of power. Executives like power to be concentrated in their hands, and it is the duty of Parliament to restrain that. That is the story of Parliaments across the world throughout time, and it is the role that we should ensure that we play today.
The right hon. Lady says that we owe this measure to the armed forces. I was in Iraq in early March this year, and I was surprised by the number of senior officers who volunteered to tell me that they questioned the legal authority for participation in the war. The Bill would go some distance towards repaying what we owe them.
I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman. I have read in the press—I do not know about it personally—that a decorated soldier, having read the leaked legal opinion, is refusing to serve and is being court-martialled. We should not be putting our troops in such situations; it is appalling that any serving officer should feel so worried that he has to refuse to go back to Iraq and therefore be court-martialled.
It is our duty to put in place arrangements that ensure that the decision to go to war is more thoroughly considered. The requirement for parliamentary approval for the deployment of the armed forces in conflict would improve our democracy and the quality of our decision making.
In conclusion, it is notable that the latest state of the nation poll carried out by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust in 2004 says that 83 per cent. of the people of this country agreed that
"the Prime Minister should be bound by law to seek approval from parliament before committing Britain to war or other military action" and that just 16 per cent. thought that
"as now the Prime Minister should retain the power to decide whether or not to commit Britain to war or other military action."
I congratulate Clare Short on introducing this enormously important Bill. Contrary to what Mr. Burrowes said, it is not an opportunity to rehash the arguments for and against the war in Iraq—it concerns an important constitutional issue.
The experience of having gone through the decision-making process that led to the conflict in Iraq is bound to colour the views of those Members who were party to that decision. I do not believe that anyone who was in the House during the last Parliament will forget the debate that we had in March 2003 and the level of responsibility that fell on our shoulders in making our decision in the vote that led young men and women to be sent in support of this country on a military expedition. As the right hon. Lady says, no more difficult decision can be placed on any politician, whether in Parliament or in the Executive: it is literally a matter of life and death.
The hon. Gentleman implies that he supports the Bill. There were three substantive votes on the matter, one as early as the previous November. Will he explain what would have been different in the run-up to the Iraq war had the right hon. Lady's Bill been law at that time?
It might have more sensible for the hon. Gentleman to allow me to make my speech instead of intervening during the opening sentences. The legal advice states a very clear position that would have made a difference—[Interruption.] If the hon. Gentleman would stop chuntering from a sedentary position he would hear my answer. I am told that the legal advice would have changed the views of several of his hon. Friends, quite apart from anybody else. It would not have changed the views of any Liberal Democrat Members because, from the start, we were united in our opposition to the war.
I am a Member of Parliament who represents a military establishment—royal naval air station Yeovilton, which I frequently visit to speak to the people stationed there. I have 40 Commando very nearby, and many of those Royal Marines live in my constituency. The infantry at Warminster are also very close. The serving forces personnel and their families who expressed their concerns to me expected that their Member of Parliament would have some influence, albeit small, on what was going to happen in relation to their futures. The same should go for every Member of this House, as I am sure that we all have service family constituents. I hope that some of us feel that before we commit young men and women to conflict we should, at least metaphorically, walk a mile in their boots in order to understand what we are asking them to do in our name.
The phrase, "in our name", is also a factor for the wider population, because when we enter a conflict, we do so in the name of the people of the United Kingdom, who believe that their democratic systems have some influence on that decision. The right hon. Lady is right to say that this is a matter of democracy—it is about democratic renewal and making our democracy fit for the circumstances of a modern country. If one wants to find a reason for the apparent disengagement of the public from the political process, one need look no further than the fact that it appears that the people whom they elect do not have the capacity to play a part in the most important decision that comes before the body politic. Why on earth should they rely on the ballot box if their elected representatives have no say in such a crucial matter?
I am slightly puzzled by more than one dimension of the hon. Gentleman's argument, but one in particular. There was a vote—in fact, there were three, as Mr. Gray said—before taking military action in Iraq. Why does that vote not affect his view of the legitimacy of that conflict? [Interruption.]
The hon. Gentleman asks why that vote did not fit my requirements, but I have to say that in large part it did. I am saddened by the fact that the House was not in full possession of the facts at the time, or was sometimes in possession of facts that later proved illusory, shall we say. The decision to put the matter before the House was right. If the hon. Gentleman agrees, he should support the Bill, because it would make it a matter of course for such decisions be put before the House.
At some stage in the future, a Prime Minister will need to return to this House wanting to deploy armed forces again. The concerns that we and many other people had about the run-up to the last war make it necessary to establish correct procedures as to how that is done, so that the House, the country and our armed forces can have confidence in that decision.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. The genie is out of the bottle now that the precedent has been set. It would be extremely difficult for an Executive not to bring such a matter before the House in future, so why not make it a matter of statute rather than subject to the discretion of the Government of the day, which might be abused?
In constitutional terms, we are talking about what one academic has described as a relic of fiscal feudalism—the old prerogativa regis. It is extraordinary that that should persist in a modern, parliamentary democracy. I am indebted to Martin Kettle of The Guardian for drawing attention to A.J.P. Taylor's "English History 1914–1945 (The Oxford History of England)", in which he describes the declaration of war in the first world war as being,
That remains the case, with one exception. The Crown has rather less of a part to play than King George V played in the first world war because the decision is now taken by the Prime Minister and the Defence Council, not necessarily with the support of the Prime Minister's Cabinet colleagues. Indeed, there is no requirement to consult the Cabinet on something so important.
In constitutional terms, there is the concept of royal prerogative and the Crown in Council, but there is also the concept of the Crown in Parliament, which is equally or more important. When we take such essential decisions, we are talking about the Crown in Parliament: the view of the elected Chamber along with the Crown. It does not mean the views of a small number of members of the Executive who may or may not have access to the relevant material in support of the decision taken.
What are the possible arguments against the Bill? The first is simple constitutional intertia: "because that is the way it is, that is the way it shall be". That does not merit a moment's consideration. I hope that the Government remain a reforming Government—they claim to be, although, in constitutional terms, they are mired. However, I hope that some of the sentiments that the Foreign Secretary expressed about reform, as quoted by the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood, still hold true.
The second, perverse argument against the Bill is its supposed impact on military morale; the Leader of the House was cited in one newspaper as suggesting that a debate in Parliament on whether to send forces into battle would damage military morale. Exactly the opposite is true, as my hon. Friend Mr. Keetch made clear. I have spent some time with the Royal Marines in the past year. They owe their loyalty to the Crown and to the country, not to the Prime Minister of the day.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, in commitment to the rule of law, Parliament is responsible for ensuring that military action is lawful before troops are employed? Does he also agree that it is rather sad that so few—I count about seven—Conservative Members are present, thus showing their lack of commitment to ensuring that military action is lawful before troops are employed?
I hear what my hon. Friend says but I am not sure that that is a conclusion that one can necessarily draw. However, legality of action is critical to military morale. We live in an increasingly complex world, where increasingly complex rules apply to conflict. The declaration of war of the old days is a thing of the past. Nowadays, that is not a basis for the legitimacy of military action. It is therefore even more important that the members of Her Majesty's forces understand the legality and legitimacy of their actions and that they have the support of the representatives of the people.
The hon. Gentleman is being incredibly generous, as he says.
When I intervened on my right hon. Friend Clare Short earlier, I was trying to deal with morale. When troops are committed, their conduct is clearly governed by international law. However, if the Bill were passed, they would be bound not only by international law but by the terms of the motion that the House passed prior to their engagement. That would mean the possibility, because of changing circumstances, of their having to operate outside the terms that the House had determined. They would not therefore know the legal status of their further action if the situation developed unless the matter came back to the House. Would not that undermine the morale of troops in theatre?
I must say to the hon. Gentleman, in all gentleness, that that is a rather preposterous suggestion. I do not expect Parliament to vote on the precise terms of engagement and deployment of Her Majesty's forces before the commencement of conflict.—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman may point at the Bill, but that is not within its terms and nothing will persuade me that it is.
I am sorry but I shall not take a further intervention on that point.
There are questions about definition, which need to be considered seriously in Committee and on Report. As I said earlier, we no longer have simple declarations of war. Things have moved on a little since Henry VIII. Many academics argue that there will never be a declaration of war again and that we now engage in conflict within the parameters of United Nations resolutions—or otherwise. The same goes for peacekeeping or peacemaking expeditions. Many conflicts fall short of a declaration of war by one state on another, so we must therefore explore the required definition in Committee, but that is no reason for opposing Second Reading.
The worst argument against the Bill is that the House might disagree with the Executive. That is our right as a Parliament. If the Executive cannot command the support of the House, they have no business sending forces into conflict. It is inconceivable that that should happen.
There is much to be said for the Bill. It brings our constitution up to date and sets down what will increasingly, and necessarily, be the practice. It has the huge advantage of conferring legitimacy on actions that Her Majesty's forces take and would ensure that the legal advice on which action is taken came before the House. The latter is controversial in the context of the Iraq conflict, but there is a deficiency in the Attorney-General's job description. I believe that the Attorney-General has a duty to the country as well as to the Executive in providing advice, and especially to the Crown in Parliament. That means giving advice to the elected House.
It is important to forces in the field that they have a prior indication of support from the House. Support after the beginning of a conflict is different. Those of us who strongly oppose the deployment of our forces will not oppose the interests of our troops in the field because they are our sons and daughters, our families and our friends who are in danger, acting on behalf of this country. Of course we support them in the field but we may have grave doubts about the wisdom and the correctness of their being deployed.
The measure is supported by a wide range of hon. Members, including senior members of the Government and previous members of the Government. One only wishes that Robin Cook were here to lend his support in person.
I am in a pleasant position because the Bill reflects my party's policy. Although it is a private Member's Bill, I have no hesitation in asking my hon. Friends to support it. I hope that all hon. Members will support it because it concerns Parliament asserting its rights in a democracy and affirming the fact that it speaks for the people of Britain. If Parliament is not prepared to make that assertion, one wonders what it is for.
I promise not to take long, but I want to put on the record my thanks to Clare Short for bringing forward this Bill, which is long overdue. I want to pick up where Mr. Heath left off: who wants the Bill? The former Leader of the Opposition, Mr. Hague, wants it. Lord Hurd, the former Conservative Foreign Secretary, wants it. Our friend and former colleague, the late Robin Cook, wants it. The Foreign Secretary, I suspect, wants it, because my friend from Ladywood quoted his remarks from way back in 1994. He said that the
"royal prerogative has no place in a modern western democracy" and that it
"has been used as a smoke-screen by Ministers to obfuscate the use of power for which they are insufficiently accountable".
To his credit, he argued for a vote in this place before the Government took the nation to war.
Who else is for the Bill and the principles behind it? Mr. Brown, who could become the next Prime Minister, is in favour. So who is against? The Prime Minister is against the Bill. Iraq is like a ball and chain round his ankle, and he cannot bear the thought of prime ministerial powers being fettered in this way, but it will happen.
I want to put the Government's position on the record. We discussed the issue of the royal prerogative in the Public Administration Committee in 2004, producing a good, considered report and spending a long time on it. It bears reading and re-reading. The Government responded to our report, which recommended that parliamentary approval should be sought, if possible, in advance of armed conflict, but if that were not possible, as soon afterwards as may be, by saying this:
"The Government's view is that the pragmatic approach, allowing the circumstances of Parliamentary scrutiny to reflect the circumstances of the armed conflict, continues to be the more effective approach."
That is just pathetic. It is Mr. Blair who believes this, not many others on the Labour Benches.
Why is this Bill needed? I will tell the House why. Because of the chaotic system of decision making in the run-up to the war. If parliamentary approval had been necessary, members of the Cabinet would have got involved, rather than acting as a kind of stage army—wheeled into No. 10, given a few PowerPoint presentations and being told by the Prime Minister, no doubt, "If you knew what I know; if you could see what comes across my desk." All that kind of stuff.
If members of the Cabinet had insisted that the papers that had been prepared by the civil service be circulated in advance, that would have made a difference. Instead—I do not want to be offensive—it was like turnips round the table, with no one asking the simple, obvious questions. I think we still have a Minister without Portfolio. Have we? Well, the Minister without Portfolio should be charged with the task of asking simple and obvious questions in Cabinet. We need that.
My friend from Ladywood famously told the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Andrew Turnbull, that he allowed the decision-making structures to crumble on his watch. I am not going to rerun the history of Iraq, but this is relevant: she went on to say that the Cabinet Sub-Committee that deals with defence and foreign policy did not meet in the run-up to the war.
Now, we had Sir Andrew Turnbull in front of the Select Committee and I put that to him. I said, "Clare Short alleges that the defence and foreign policy Committee did not meet in the run-up to the war in Iraq. Is that true?" He said, "No, not really." He was very economical with the truth. He went on to say, "But the Cabinet discussed it on 24 occasions." Of course they did not discuss it; there were no papers circulated. It was the Prime Minister just giving a little update on what he thought was relevant.
So, that is why we need the Bill. I have no confidence at all in the Cabinet being fully engaged if there was a problem in Iran, for example. Of course, there are some things about this that I still find absolutely incredible. The Prime Minister was famously ignorant of whether the weapons of mass destruction were strategic or battlefield. That is absolutely, literally incredible.
I would like to speak about what the Public Administration Committee said about the prerogative powers. I mentioned earlier that the former Foreign Secretary, Lord Hurd, wanted a change. He told us that
"modern conditions demanded that any major military action should have explicit parliamentary approval" and added that
"'there should at least be a convention' that 'where there is a substantial exercise involving sending people to kill and be killed on behalf of the country, then that should be with the consent, prior or at any rate immediate, of the House of Commons'."
I am happy to intervene and I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. The point I was making is that Lord Hurd was in government for many years, but restrained himself from making that very point. Lord Hurd's point, if he had continued it, would be to put it in brackets at the end that he would be happy to have those powers as long as there was a Labour Government.
I am coming on to the point about a convention.—[Interruption.] I am answering the Member's point. I am coming to whether the vote that we took on
The Member for Richmond, Yorks said that it
"should be laid down in an Act of Parliament or in the Standing Orders of the House . . . the power to commit troops to action needs codifying, so that parliamentary approval is required before it takes place or as soon as possible thereafter if the circumstances do not permit such a vote to be taken beforehand".
That is a former Conservative Leader of the Opposition. The fact is that parliamentary approval for military action is not required by law. That needs to change.
On the constitutional convention, an eminent person, Professor Rodney Brazier, advised the Public Administration Committee when we produced our report on ministerial prerogative, and he said something important:
"It has been argued that because the Government obtained prior parliamentary approval for the war in Iraq in 2003, a constitutional convention now requires any Government to obtain parliamentary consent for any future armed conflict, expressed through substantive motions in each House."
"As with any constitutional convention, however, such a rule would be open to interpretation, and there would, of course, be no legal obligation behind it."
That is the reality.
May I support the hon. Gentleman's argument by saying that, allegedly, according to the Government, there was a convention that the Attorney-General's full opinion should not be disclosed, although that was proved to be wrong? This Bill would make sure that that opinion was also produced.
That is a very powerful point. There are many good reasons for trying to get this Bill into Committee and on to the statute book. I have made my position clear, and I am sorry that I strayed out of order. This is an important issue, and it is too important for the arguments to descend to party political point scoring—I am not interested in that at all. I hope that the Bill is approved today, given a fair wind in Committee, and that it gets on to the statute book.
May I echo immediately the sentiments expressed by Mr. Prentice—this is far too important an issue for party political point scoring. I congratulate Clare Short on using her success in the ballot to bring forward such an important measure, which I shall certainly support for reasons that will quickly become clear.
When we come to this place, we are told, and should be told and reminded, that the first duty of government is the defence of the realm. That has always been paramount in the mind of the Government and the monarch, the Government and the constitutional democracy and of Parliament. This Bill changes none of that. The first duty of Parliament is also to hold the Prime Minister and the Government to account. Mr. Heath reminded the House that the loyalty of our armed forces must be to Crown and country, not to the Prime Minister of the day. It is also right to remind ourselves that the Prime Minister of the day—of any day—is not our commander-in-chief or Head of State, as is the President of the United States of America. Today happens to be the 200th anniversary of the battle of Trafalgar, and the message that has echoed down the centuries from Admiral Lord Nelson that every man shall do his duty is not affected one iota by this Bill or any of its contents.
The right hon. Lady has brought forward the Bill at this time because of the circumstances surrounding the commencement of the most recent war in Iraq and because of the manner in which Parliament and the Government handled that issue. Parliament has been disturbed by the timing of the decision, which was not, many of us believe, even really taken by the British Government, and certainly not by the British Parliament, but most probably at a meeting at Camp David, some nine months before, between the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and the President of the United States. Parliament only found out about it later.
My hon. Friend Mr. Gray said that Parliament debated the issue before troops were deployed. I do not wish to contradict him, but Parliament did not. The troops were deployed, although not committed to battle, well before Parliament had any say in the issue, and clearly, the timing of the manner in which this House and the other place are allowed to consider these issues is crucial.
My hon. Friend is right to pick me up in that troops were of course deployed in Kuwait prior to
I stand mildly, but only mildly, corrected, because the fact is, as the right hon. Lady pointed out in her opening remarks, that under the royal prerogative, as it is currently abused—I use that word advisedly—the Prime Minister does not have to pay any attention to us. He or she can do what he or she likes, and clearly he did in this case. The timing of the information to Parliament is crucial.
With respect to the hon. Gentleman, what matters is how and when Parliament, in both its Houses, is consulted. This Bill makes provision for urgency. Clearly, nothing can be allowed to fetter the Government of the day in their urgent need to offer immediate response to a threat to the security of the United Kingdom's shores. There is provision in the Bill for a swift but nevertheless retrospective discussion of any such deployment or commitment to action. We must all understand that those responsible for such decisions need to be able to respond in time rather than too late, under certain circumstances—they cannot hang around waiting for us to take a vote.
The information that was given to the House was, shall we say, less than adequate, and perhaps slightly misinformed. As a result, the House was misinformed. A number of Conservative Members, prior to the vote on the Iraq war, were deeply concerned, as I am sure all hon. Members were. We asked to see the then leader of our party, my right hon. Friend Mr. Duncan Smith, and the then shadow Foreign Secretary, my right hon. and learned Friend Mr. Ancram. Some 15 or 20 Members were present in the shadow Cabinet room, and we were told in terms by a soldier, the leader of our party and an entirely honourable man that he had been satisfied, on Privy Council terms, by the information given to him by the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, that the security of our country was at 45 minutes' risk and that there were weapons of mass destruction. That was the information that he had been given, we had to trust him, and we did, because we had no other recourse. It turns out that not only the information that we were given but that he had been given was mildly inaccurate.
This is about the royal prerogative—the abuse of the royal prerogative. There are those outside this place who do not really understand the system, any more than some of us did before we began to look into this issue, and who believe that to trample over the royal prerogative is somehow to be rude to Her Majesty the Queen. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Her Majesty has nothing to do with this. This is about whether, in this day and age—as the right hon. Lady said in her opening remarks—the manner in which the royal prerogative can be used and abused by any Government and any Prime Minister is appropriate; and the answer has to be no.
What we seek, and what the Bill seeks, is a clear system that lays down in statutory terms—not by convention, if I may use the word employed by the Leader of the House—the right of Parliament to be informed and to hold the Government to account. As the hon. Member for Pendle said, if the Prime Minister or the Government—any Prime Minister or any Government—must come to the House and make the case, you can bet your sweet bippy that the work will be done properly in advance, and the real argument will be given to the House because the House will have to be persuaded.
I have a personal interest in this matter, on behalf of a constituent. On Wednesday, the right hon. Lady gave a number of bereaved families an opportunity to call at Downing street to present a letter, and to make their views known. One of the ladies there was Ann Lawrence, whose son Lieutenant Marc Lawrence, a naval aviator—my young constituent—was one of the first of our serving men to be killed in the conflict, when two helicopters collided in the Gulf. She and her family have felt passionately since that happened that they deserve, and are being denied, answers.
When, as has been the case more than once in the House—I would guess that this is true of all Members—I am required to vote on whether to send our finest young men, and sometimes women, into battle, to face the possibility and in some instances the inevitability of death, I do not do so lightly. I am blessed with three children. Not one of them is in the armed forces, but all three are of military age. Before I vote on such an issue, I ask myself whether I would be prepared to allow my daughter or my sons to go into that conflict for that cause. Is it just? Is it legal? Is it right? I must be satisfied that the answer is yes; and I am dismayed to find that in the case of the most recent conflict—with hindsight—the answer is probably no.
Parliament must be given the right to determine "just" and "legal". That is in the interests of our armed forces, the men and women whom we send into battle to do our dirty work for us—for that is what it is—and in the interests of the bereaved families. It ensures that the people whom they loved can rest in peace, and that they themselves can rest in peace.
It will, I am sure, be said by Ministers, and possibly by some of my hon. Friends, that the Bill is imperfect. Of course it is: it is a private Member's Bill. But as you know, Madam Deputy Speaker, I have on occasion worn another hat and presided over legislation in Committee, as you have done in the past. Over the last seven years, I have presided over a number of Government Bills that have been subject to, shall we say, modest amendment—to the tune of 300, 400 or 500 clauses. So do not let any Minister come to the House this morning and say that the Bill is flawed, and must therefore not be passed. The Bill needs and deserves a Second Reading. I believe that the country wants it, and I hope that the country gets it.
It is a pleasure to follow Mr. Gale. I agree with almost every word of his speech. It is good that the speeches we have heard so far have been serious speeches about the issue that faces us. We all know the reality of this place: we know that there are assassins of Friday morning Bills who turn up regularly. They are often the same people, with the same briefing from the Whips Office. I have not received any briefing about the Bill from the Whips Office this morning; it must be an oversight. I appeal, however, to Members who may have such misinformation about their persons to ignore it, listen to the serious debate on the Bill, and look to their role as parliamentarians.
Only twice in my lifetime has my country gone to war without the wholehearted support of the entire nation. Those occasions were Suez and the second war in Iraq. At the time of Suez, we were given a good deal of propaganda about this great attempt to liberate the world and stand up for western civilisation, but we all know now that it was actually a squalid conspiracy between Britain, France and Israel. It was an entirely unjustified war, which resulted in loss of life.
It worries me greatly that, as the hon. Member for North Thanet pointed out, we did not vote on the first Iraq war, but in the Adjournment debate that took place I voiced my support for the invasion because of Iraq's action against Kuwait. There were very few casualties in that war, but one was a young man from a family who were well known, and who lived on the edge of my constituency. I have often thought about how I would justify my action to the parents and the brothers and sisters of that young man. Could my action in supporting the war justify the loss of his life? It is the most serious question that we, as parliamentarians, must ask ourselves. Can we say that a person died in a cause that was noble and worthwhile?
I believe that our troops, particularly in their peacekeeping role, have performed a splendid task in Kosovo, Bosnia, Sierra Leone and other parts of the world, and that we are doing a job that is worthy of their courage and their sacrifice. But the war in Iraq—
I think my hon. Friend is about to talk about the second Iraq war, but earlier he mentioned the first. He made an important point about his role as a Member of Parliament, and his duty to be accountable to his constituents and our public. He also said, however, that there were very few casualties in the first Iraq war. In fact, there were a number of Iraqi casualties. Every Member of Parliament, in making war, has a duty to consider not just the effect on our own population—devastatingly important though that is—but the impact on, in that instance, Iraqi victims, and on the situation more generally.
We have never been told how many casualties there were, but the number is believed to be 200,000.
I took up an issue with the Government at the time. Following what had been done by one of our allies, I asked whether we could classify bulldozers as inhumane weapons under the convention against inhumane weapons, which was designed to reduce the use of, for example, the gas that was used in the first world war. In the Iraq war, in our name—in the name of the coalition—Iraqi soldiers were buried alive on the orders of an American general. Dreadful things took place in that war.
May I take the hon. Gentleman back to the first Gulf war? He will recall that the military action in that case was authorised by a specific resolution of the United Nations Security Council, and that a coalition was formed from countries all over the world that were members of the United Nations. Middle eastern countries were prominent members of the coalition. Indeed, I believe that troops from Saudi Arabia crossed the starting line first when the military action began to expel Iraq from Kuwait.
I agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman. A case was made based on international law and the best instincts of the world to justify that war and to resist wars of aggression by Saddam Hussein. Many will speak here as long opponents of Saddam Hussein. We have no friendship for Saddam Hussein. I prize an answer I had five months before the first Iraq war when I asked the then Conservative Government to beef up the International Atomic Energy Agency's inspections of Saddam Hussein's nuclear weapons programme. William Waldegrave replied that I should know that Saddam Hussein had signed the non-proliferation treaty and, as such, the Government had full confidence that Iraq would not develop nuclear weapons. Iraq, in fact, was developing three programmes for nuclear weapons at that time.
When it came to the second Iraq war, our argument was not that we should stop the war. We could not do that, and most observers knew that the decision to go to war had been taken many months, or possibly many years, before in America. The question, and the decision that we should have had to take in this House was whether Britain should be involved. The outcome had we not been there would have been precisely the same, even if the war might have been a day longer or shorter or lasted hours less.
I am not sure that I agree with that. It is true that the American plans for the war were well advanced before it was ever brought before the House. However, American public opinion, which was misled into thinking that the attack on the twin towers had been organised out of Iraq, was showing 80 per cent. in favour of war in a coalition but a majority against going it alone. The tragedy is that if Britain had used its influence better, the whole crisis might have been handled better and the whole middle east might be in a better position.
I take that point, but my right hon. Friend is aware that the document "Project for the New American Century", which was produced by a right-wing think tank in America before Bush was elected, foresaw the takeover of the middle east. The reasons given were the state of the world and its power structures for the rest of the century, and the emergence of China as the second world power. The Americans wanted to ensure that China did not have a source of oil in the middle east, and the necessity was to ensure American dominance not just of Iraq but of the whole middle east. That is what was behind the war.
This Parliament should have taken a decision. I disagree with Mr. Gale that having the Bill would have made no difference. It would have made a huge difference. Public anger was aroused by the war, but the public did not concentrate their anger on MPs because it was very late in the day, as a result of many business questions and early-day motions, that a decision was taken to allow the House a vote. That was resisted for a long time, and one might say cynically that it was resisted until the point when the Government were certain they would win.
Next week a book will be published presenting a picture of that process, which strikes me as surprising even though I lived through it. Philip Cowley's book "The Rebels: How Blair Mislaid His Majority" lists the Labour MPs who opposed the war. It was quite a surprise to see that although 139 voted against it in the only key vote, almost 80 more signed motions and EDMs against the war. Those people were very troubled by the war but convinced by untruths that it was essential. We have had no proper investigation or inquiry into the war. Neither of the dossiers has been corrected, but they were full of propaganda and packed with untruths. I shall give just one, from page 34 of one, where an illustration showed the size of the Iraq presidential sites in comparison with the bijou size of Buckingham Palace. This vast sub-continent of a presidential palace was shown, and the opposite page explained that the UNSCOM inspectors had never been allowed to inspect it. That was completely untrue: they had inspected the palaces, and more than once. The dossiers were full of untruths, and we all know now the mythology of weapons of mass destruction. We know that decisions were made on the basis of untruths.
Many of those Labour Members who were persuaded against their better judgment to vote for the war feel embittered about how they were treated and how their role as Members of Parliament was undermined. I have sympathy with them when they have to talk to casualties and their families now. The father of one victim of the war stood at the general election and received a sizeable vote, which represents the unhappiness of the country.
I support the Bill and ask that we pass it, not just for the reasons I have given but because of our own position as parliamentarians. We have an anachronistic piece of law that says we have the royal prerogative, but no one really understands it and it is not precisely defined. We had a splendid report from the Public Administration Committee pointing out that if we wish to modernise our democracy and bring ourselves into the 21st century, we need procedures in parliament that are reputable. We need to be accountable to the population and to represent our constituents' views.
If we come again to the position in which there is a disputed war, the whole architecture of disagreement will be changed if the Bill is passed. It is not necessary for 1 million or perhaps 2 million people to go on the streets, as people did, if they can come to us as Members of Parliament so that we may do our proper job and act as the channel for public disquiet about wars. If that had happened in the past, and if the war had never taken place, 97 brave British soldiers would be alive today, and we would have saved a huge amount of money. We might well also have improved the situation in Iraq, which we all pray will turn out to have a peaceful solution. Iraq is still in great flux, which might result in a terrible civil war.
The Bill deals with one of our basic roles as parliamentarians, and we should vote for it today, imperfect as it is. I am sure that we shall hear speeches about its various imperfections, but there are those in every Bill that comes through the House. The principle is absolutely right, and goes to the heart of our duty as parliamentarians.
I have in common with all the speakers in the debate so far a deep, principled and fundamental unhappiness about the war in Iraq. I expressed that view in my own party when I was shadow Defence Minister and sought to persuade it not to support the Government in their march towards war with Iraq. As a result, I was shifted from the shadow defence team to become shadow minister for rural affairs. I continue to have that unhappiness. I abstained on the substantive vote on
I have that in common with all who have spoken this morning but, without seeking to be controversial, I am not in accord with them in concluding that the Bill would solve the problems about which I was so very unhappy. There has been an unnerving aspect to the debate so far: most people have said that they disliked the Iraq war and how we went to war, so they must therefore support the Bill. My argument will come to precisely the opposite conclusion.
Paul Flynn talked about modernising things. It is easy to say how awful it is that we have this 17th-century royal prerogative, that it is disgraceful, that we must have 20th-century democracy and that it is terrible because our boys are going to war. I am scarred by the fact that I stood on the windblown tarmac at RAF Lyneham in my constituency and watched 11 flag-draped coffins being taken off a Hercules—casualties from Iraq. I spent the rest of the day with the families. I am scarred by that experience, but that does not lead me simply— simplistically, or perhaps, populistically—to say that I want to change the way in which we went to war. I opposed the war, but the method by which we were taken to war does not necessarily for that reason need to be examined.
I am uneasy about the Bill because of its populist nature. It is terribly simple to say that we did not like Iraq, so we must do away with this awful thing called the royal prerogative. I had the useful experience of spending last year at the Royal College of Defence Studies, whose tie I am proud to wear this morning, where I produced a 10,000-word thesis on the way we went to war. I am pleased to say that it was published by the RCDS as part of the Seaford House papers, which are available in the Library.
I undertook significant research into the way in which we were taken to war in each conflict since the second world war. Mr. Chamberlain came to the House to make what he described as a brief statement at the beginning of the second world war. He announced that we were at war with Germany and asked Members to forgive him as he had a great deal of work to do so it would be wrong for him to spend too much time in this place discussing the war. He curtailed the debate for that reason. He said, "We can't waste time discussing it here. I must go and get on with some work elsewhere."
In Suez, Korea, the Falklands, the first Gulf war and as recently as the Afghanistan war, there was no substantive debate in this place before the deployment of troops. There were umpteen statements and Adjournment debates but not a single substantive debate that might have resulted in a vote against the Government's position.
I know of the hon. Gentleman's interest in the subject. Does he remember the vote taken on
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point in support of my argument. At the time, the ships were steaming towards Norway and it would have been impossible to turn them around. The debate in March 1940 was not about whether we should go to war or whether we should go into Norway. Deployment had already occurred. The debate was about whether it had been done properly. That is the importance of the hon. Gentleman's point.
The Prime Minister and the Government are of course accountable to the House. If they took us into some absurd war that did not have popular support, or did not have the support of the House, the Government would without question fall. That is the point about parliamentary scrutiny of the Executive: it is not about telling the Executive in advance what we want them to do but about examining what they have done and if it was unreasonable—as was, apparently, the case with regard to Norway—it would result in the resignation of a Minister, or ultimately the fall of the Government. That is the nature of parliamentary democracy. The whole reason for having an Executive is that the Executive carry things out. They do things and this place scrutinises why they have done them. The Bill would remove the ability to be an Executive from the Government and make it this place that made decisions about what the Government should do.
If we had seen unfettered use of the royal prerogative in the run-up to the second Iraq war in 2003, the Prime Minister would have said, "I have the royal prerogative. I don't care what you people think in Parliament—I believe I have the Labour party with me. I intend to go to war." That is precisely what happened in every war until then. That is what happened in Afghanistan. With no vote here, the Prime Minister announced that he was sending troops to Afghanistan and that he would inform the House about what he had done. Had that been the case in the second Iraq war—had the royal prerogative been used in that way—we would have been justified in saying that it was disgraceful. We could have come to this debate and said that it was a scandal for the Prime Minister to take us into a war that was wrong and that, because we disliked that war, we should sort out the royal prerogative. However, that is precisely what did not happen in the run-up to the Iraq war. In fact, there were three substantive debates, the first of which was in November 2002.
I will in a moment, but I want to answer the point made earlier by Jon Trickett. He said that the motion in November 2002 was not about war. The motion stated that we supported UN resolution 1441 and that this was Iraq's last opportunity to conform to it. There was a strong implication that the consequences for Iraq would be dire if it did not comply and, if the hon. Gentleman consults Hansard, he will see that every speech in the debate, from Government and Conservative Front-Benchers, and especially from the Liberal Democrats, was about whether we should go to war. The debate in November was about whether it was justified for us to go to war with Iraq. Had the vote been lost, the Prime Minister would presumably have had to say, "The House of Commons has concluded that we should not go to war with Iraq, therefore we won't."
The debate on
The hon. Gentleman is not quite right. The debate on
The hon. Gentleman suggested that those of us who spoke earlier in the debate supported the Bill because of our views about the war in Iraq. That is factually inaccurate, as many of us had argued for removal of the royal prerogative in its present form before that war. He now says that his reasons for supporting the Bill are because of the conduct of the Government during the run-up to the war in Iraq, which seems remarkably inconsistent.
I fear that I fail to understand some parts of the hon. Gentleman's remarks, but I shall draw a blind on that and move on to the substantive part of my speech.
Some people took the view that containment was working and there should not be war at any price. Many other people thought that we should back up the authority of the UN with the threat of military action to get sanctions lifted, Saddam Hussein indicted and Iraq transformed. Anyone taking that position would have supported the earlier motions. Of course, we now know that Blix was reporting that Iraq had complied and I am afraid that the House was misled about that.
I am sure, Madam Deputy Speaker, that you would pick me up quickly if I allowed the debate to become a substantive debate as to whether going to war with Iraq was the right thing to do. I was making the point that simply to say that because we did not like the process of going to war we must thus support the Bill is flawed logic. However, I am now about to make the most substantive point of the morning—[Laughter.] Hon. Ladies and Gentlemen on the Liberal Benches find that funny; I do not—it is a serious matter.
These are the questions we should be asking. Why did the Prime Minister produce his two dodgy dossiers? Why was there a whole series of episodes of lies, spin and deception of one sort or another across the nation? Why did the Prime Minister feel that he had to go to those great lengths to justify the war? Because he knew that he would have to come to this place and justify it to Back Benchers. That is why he had to go to those lengths. We only have to glance at previous wars as recent as the Afghanistan war. The Prime Minister put the justification for going to war with Afghanistan in the Library and in a famous footnote stated that most of the information available to him was available on Privy Council terms. He said that it was secret information and that he had shared it with the Leader of the Opposition on Privy Council terms. It would be entirely bad for our intelligence services and the defence of the realm if the Prime Minister were to make such information available to the House, so he would choose not to do so.
In other words, those who disliked the spin, the dossiers and the rest of it should remember that we had three substantive votes in the run-up to the war with Iraq, and that it was because of those votes, not despite them, that we had all that nonsense. All we need do is glance at the run-up to any previous war to discover that there was no such nonsense, no such misleading of the nation and no such dossiers. That simply did not exist in previous wars because the Prime Minister did not have to make that justification.
The hon. Gentleman is making an intelligent speech, although I profoundly disagree with his conclusions, but may I take him back to a different conflict? I was personally involved as a Minister when Britain went to war with the then Yugoslavia over Kosovo. He is right to suggest that one of the differences is that there was a widely held view that military action was morally justified and it therefore obtained a fair amount of public support. However, there are some fundamental issues even in such a war. For example, there were some difficult legal issues about the legitimacy of the military campaign. There was a fundamental difference of opinion between the British and French Governments. Even though we both concluded that there was a legal base for action, it was a different legal base.
It is fundamental that any Government must come before the House of Commons and be forced to justify the decision to go to war because it is of such profound importance. The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point and I understand what he is saying, but I ask him to consider that the convoluted political process that we went through in the months before the second Iraq war was not just a straightforward series of decisions. A lot of other political issues were involved. A simple decision about going to war is better taken if it has an absolute statutory base, so that we know why we are voting and what we are voting for on the day that that vote takes place.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point about our deployment in Kosovo, which is particularly relevant because, of course, that was the only other armed conflict in which we have taken part in recent years that did not have the support of the United Nations. Kosovo and the second Iraq war were the same in that respect. The Prime Minister took part in what many people believe to be an illegal war for that reason in Kosovo, but no fuss was made about that in the House. No one asked for debates or votes. We went into Kosovo because such action was believed necessary for humanitarian reasons. Many people who have argued that the Iraq war was illegal because it did not have the support of the UN could make precisely the same point with regard to Kosovo, but we thought that the Kosovo action was a good thing that was done for humanitarian reasons, so we did not make a fuss about it.
I was following the hon. Gentleman's argument before the last intervention. Am I to understand that the basis of his opposition to the Bill is that, if it were to pass into law, there would be a risk that the Prime Minister would be encouraged to come to the House and mislead it about the basis on which he wanted to take military action?
The right hon. and learned Gentleman makes an interesting point. Of course that is the precise implication of what I am saying. He is right. If the Prime Minister had to come to the House to justify every military deployment of any kind, there would be a temptation to seek to justify what he was doing. Let us imagine that the Government's majority was not large. Let us imagine that the House was evenly split and the Government had a majority of one. Let us imagine that one party—the Liberal Democrats, for example—was opposed to a war. The Prime Minister would have to go to endless lengths—he would spin like mad—to try to justify something that might well be a perfectly justifiable war in its own right, but he would have to get immensely carried away.
I hope that the right hon. and learned Gentleman will forgive me, but I am seeking to answer his point. I am sure that he would be happy for me to try to do so before he jumps to his feet again.
When the House is evenly divided, as it is, the decision to go to war becomes politicised. The great advantage of the royal prerogative is that the Prime Minister decides what is right for the nation's security. He bases that decision on secret intelligence, which should not be available generally. He takes a grave and difficult decision to go to war, to provide troops or whatever it might be. He must then justify that decision to the House subsequently. Mr. Keetch was making that point—a very good point indeed.
Of course, the Prime Minister is answerable to the House. He must justify what he has done. That is quite different from justifying what he is doing in advance. If he had to justify his actions in advance, as Sir Menzies Campbell just said, he would be tempted into seeking to persuade the House of something in a way that he would not otherwise have to do if he simply took the decision himself. In other words, there is a perverse logic— [Interruption.] One might have thought that Clare Short, who has introduced an interesting Bill that is capable of interpretation in two ways, would be interested in listening to complicated theoretical arguments about it. She and I start from the same position of opposing the decision on Iraq, and we are simply taking part in a rather academic discussion about whether the Bill would necessarily put things right.
I have listened to every word that the hon. Gentleman has said, but the logic of his argument is that we should not have Parliament: if Parliament has powers over the Executive, they might be tempted to mislead Parliament, so let us not consult Parliament. That is an extraordinary argument.
The right hon. Lady might be guilty of reductio ad absurdum—if she is familiar with that phrase. I do not think that she is quite right, and that was certainly not what I was arguing.
My argument is that the grave matter of taking the nation to war is surely something—there are other matters of a similar nature such as treaties and various appointments—that the Prime Minister could be expected to undertake in his role. Of course, he is answerable to the House. That is what Prime Minister's Question Time is all about—or should be all about if the thing were run properly. It should be an opportunity for the House to question the Prime Minister about what he has been doing. If he did something that was not popular in the House or in the nation—if, for some reason, he engaged in some bizarre war that everyone totally opposed—not only would he fall, but the Government would fall. That is the whole nature of parliamentary democracy: it is precisely the way that the House works.
We do not decide on the precise person who will be appointed as the bishop of every see in England. That is done under the royal prerogative. We do not decide which ambassador will go to which embassy around the world. Such things and thousands of others are matters for the royal prerogative. However, if we found that the Prime Minister was appointing his mates as bishops or ambassadors, my goodness me, he would have a hard time.
I hope that the right hon. and learned Gentleman will forgive me, but I am trying to make progress. Other hon. Members are seeking to speak, but he is a very distinguished gentleman and so long as he makes a more substantive point than the last one, of course, I will happily give way.
I am afraid that I cannot guarantee that, and the hon. Gentleman will understand, as an occasional Presbyterian, why I do not follow him into the appointment of bishops in the Anglican communion. The logic of what he is saying is that the House should not be given more extensive powers of scrutiny and control over the Executive lest they be tempted into misleading the House. That extraordinary proposition flies in the face of the fact that misleading the House is the cardinal sin in the House of Commons.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman makes the same point. He and I come from the same school—Hillhead school in Glasgow—and my father was the Moderator of the Church of Scotland, so I know nothing about bishops either. That does not necessarily stop me having a view on the subject.
Certain decisions are so grave and important that the Prime Minister must take them himself. He must not compromise the intelligence that he uses to do it. If he did, he would compromise our sources in the field and undermine a variety of things that he needs to do. He must not give warning to the enemy. Indeed, one or two hon. Members seem to suggest that we ought to have a substantive debate on the deployment for war perhaps some months or years ahead of that deployment. They suggest that we should not send troops to Kuwait in the possibility of going to war with Iraq, that we should decide months and months in advance and that we must state precisely to the House how many troops will go where and what they will do when they get there. That would compromise the security of our troops on the ground. The element of surprise is often important and going to war by Executive decision may well be the right thing to do.
I wholeheartedly support the principle that lies behind the Bill, but simply doubt whether it would work in practice. If it were passed, only wars that that were popular with the people and popular in the House would be waged. Wars that were necessary and correct, yet unpopular, would never be waged. If the House was evenly balanced, especially, going to war would become extremely politicised.
Hon. Members have talked about the morale of our troops on the ground, but I suspect that morale has been undermined—in so far as that has occurred—not because we went to war with Iraq, but because of the parliamentary process that led up to it. It has come about because our troops know that half the people in this House were not in favour of the war and because they feel let down by the elected representatives in this place. If we had done what we did for previous wars and trusted the Prime Minister's use of the royal prerogative and wished our troops on the ground well, morale would be higher. However, the fact of the matter is that we did not trust the Executive or the Prime Minister. We were misled by the Prime Minister. We had three substantive votes—
As I said the word, I knew that I was out of order, so I shall happily rephrase my comment.
We were taken to war on something that was a false prospectus by most standards. However, if the Bill had been in force, I do not believe that the process would have been any better. Indeed, it would probably have been worse because the Prime Minister would have known that he would have to do such a thing.
If hon. Members believe in parliamentary democracy, the proper use of our intelligence to take us to war and the defence of the realm, they will oppose the Bill because it would fundamentally undermine all three things.
I rise perhaps a little like a lion in a den of Daniels, but nevertheless hope that as I speak against the Bill I will be able to convince some hon. Members that it is unnecessary, rather than wholly wrong in principle. The principle behind the Bill, as Mr. Gray intimated, is, in fact, not bad. If we believe in parliamentary democracy, there should of course be the utmost scrutiny. The question is whether we should lay down exactly what type of scrutiny should occur in what time scale and the sort of detail that should be given about a proposed military intervention.
It saddens me greatly, as I am sure it does every hon. Member, that more people have died in wars since world war two than during that war. A war has been going on somewhere in the world on every single day since the second world war. Having said that, however, I believe that behind the Bill lies an attempt to keep our hands clean by not engaging in war instead of making decisions to commit our troops to dangerous situations, which are unfortunately necessary from time to time. Although the Bill is superficially attractive from a democratic point of view, it is, on reflection, both impractical and unnecessary.
The Government have a good record on parliamentary consultation. Indeed, we must go back to Suez to find the last time that there was no parliamentary consultation whatever on war. Of course it is best that such consultation takes place through debates on substantive motions, as was the case with the Iraq conflict in 2003, but we would tie the Government's hands as they were making difficult decisions if we said that such debates had to be on substantive motions and be held prior to the event, unless absolutely unavoidable.
When my hon. Friend Mr. Prentice talked about some of the luminaries who could be cited as being in favour of the Bill, he made reference to the Chancellor. I must put the record straight, because if he was talking about the Chancellor's interview in April in The Daily Telegraph, there was no suggestion that my right hon. Friend was in favour of a statutory obligation on the Government to come before the House—the same is true of things that the Foreign Secretary has said. Both my right hon. Friends said, as I would argue, that it would be right for the Government to do such a thing when possible, but that we should not tie their hands unnecessarily, especially if difficult decisions must be taken in a short time.
I was worried when my right hon. Friend Clare Short made the dangerous suggestion that the march against the war was a reason why the House should have voted against the war. If we were to judge the way in which we vote on the number of people in the streets, it would certainly mean that we should give the same credence to the Countryside Alliance's march—I am sure that the hon. Member for North Wiltshire would have sympathy with that idea. Another argument against the suggestion made by my right hon. Friend is the fact that an awful lot of people on the march against the Iraq war would not support her Bill on the grounds that they would oppose any military action at any time under any circumstances. It would thus be dangerous to pray in aid those people in support of the Bill.
I have a problem with the meaning of the phrase "armed conflict" in the Bill. If we were to send a humanitarian mission to a place such as Sudan, for example, and things went wrong resulting in forces coming under attack, would the act of defending themselves be defined as armed conflict? There would have been no declaration of war in such circumstances, but military action would have become necessary. Would even mild escalation mean that we would have to have a debate in the House under the Bill?
Circumstances could change for an existing deployment in the theatre of war. If they were to change radically from the circumstances that under the Bill would have been set out by the Government in debate, surely we would have to come back to the House—perhaps every few days—to legitimise the military action and reassert that it was right under the new circumstances. If that were not the case, the House would be able to endorse military action under the Bill according to the circumstances pertaining at the start of the action, but it would be assumed that the action remained legitimate throughout any changed circumstances. That appears to be a contradiction in the Bill.
The hon. Gentleman talks about changing circumstances, but is it not the case that future wars are more likely to be fought on the basis of intelligence than on the basis of circumstances that can be seen? We have already had one war based on flawed intelligence. Would not the Bill oblige the Government to produce the beef and show us the intelligence so that we could make up our own minds about the circumstances that existed?
The intelligence to which the hon. Gentleman refers is not only that which existed in 2003, but that which informed United Nations resolutions over 12 years. There are differences of opinion about the intelligence. We can find out in retrospect that intelligence was wrong, but any decision on military action must be based on the best possible intelligence available at the time.
As an interesting adjunct to the Bill, my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood might like to consider what would happen if the House thought that military action was justified, but the Government of the day did not. Should not that situation be addressed in the Bill? Let us consider the situation in Rwanda in 1994, for example. There might have been a majority in the House at the time in favour of military action or some kind of support for international military action to end the genocide in the country, but there was no mechanism—no mechanism exists at present or is proposed in the Bill—to allow the House to tell the Government that they should consider military action.
I am enjoying my hon. Friend's speech. Will he comment on what would occur if peacekeeping or peace-enforcement operations were to be affected by mission creep and we found ourselves involved in armed conflict? What would happen if Parliament were required to give retrospective approval, and what would the consequences be if that approval were denied?
I am coming on to that point, but mission creep is almost inevitable under the Bill because of the way that circumstances in which military action can take place are prescribed. The question of what happens when orders are given under changed circumstances is an interesting one. The legitimacy of military orders is clearly based on instructions given through the proper channels to commanders in the field. Under the Bill, however, it would be based on information presented to Parliament, preferably prior to the engagement. I therefore envisage a number of difficulties when circumstances change, and they include the example that my hon. Friend gave of a peacekeeping operation going wrong and soldiers having to defend themselves and take out hostile forces that were not active at the time of the original commission.
I am afraid that my hon. Friend is misinformed, as there is nothing in the Bill that would prevent our armed forces from defending themselves if they were in danger.
I accept that defensive action may be taken as my right hon. Friend describes, but there may be situations in which a short period of escalation is necessary to eliminate a threat.
I disagree with my right hon. Friend Clare Short. If I construe clause 8 accurately, several conditions apply before self-defence is legitimate and permitted. Lawful command, for example, could be unlawful without a vote in the House, and rules of engagement may be inadequate to cover all eventualities facing the troops. One of those conditions must be satisfied as well as the condition of self-defence, so it is possible that people would be put in a difficult position.
I could not have put it better myself.
In all recent conflicts in which the United Kingdom has been involved, we have taken part in concert with other countries. How would we make preparations for joint action with our allies if we had to apply a brake but they did not have to do so?
If memory serves, in the overwhelming majority of military actions in which the nation has been involved in recent years we have participated with the United States, which has the same kind of power that my right hon. Friend Clare Short wishes to introduce. Why does that power not operate as a constraint against the US taking military action but would do so for the UK?
It is interesting to hear Labour Members suggest that we adopt an American model. Every country is different. For example, 31 countries were involved in military action in Iraq. Indeed, in the Balkans, the Americans arrived late and were not involved from the beginning. I accept that there is such a power in the United States, but that is the case only in a minority of countries. The fact that America has that power should not necessarily be a guiding light for us.
If I participated in a debate that arose under the Bill I am not sure that I would feel competent to take on the responsibility that it imposes on Members. Members who took part in such a debate, preferably before military action, would be obliged to keep themselves fully informed of rapidly changing military situations and would have to be able to make decisions that were both militarily and politically sound. They would have to make objective judgments that were not clouded by political prejudices. As I said, some hon. Members would vote against war under any circumstances, irrespective of the arguments for and against. They would have to have the skills to analyse necessarily sensitive intelligence material. They would be party to discussions with our allies, and they would have to make assessments of legal opinions.
Without wishing to start a debate on the precedence of legal opinions, we all know that lawyers tell people exactly what they want to hear. They would give the case for intervention and they would give the case against it. I am happy to be informed by people I trust and to whom we pay an awful lot of money to come to the House and explain those issues, as happened in the run-up to the Iraq conflict. However, the Bill takes responsibilities away from Cabinet members, particularly the Secretary of State for Defence and the Prime Minister, when they should be called to account and should advise us of what the distillation of all those arguments leads them to believe.
I understand the challenges that would face Members if they had to hold the Executive to account in a debate on whether or not we were going to war. Does the hon. Gentleman believe that members of the Executive, who are civilians too, are higher beings and therefore not so susceptible in the face of such challenges?
To be gentle to the hon. Gentleman, that is a parody of my argument. Ministers by definition have access to intelligence and information that it would not be possible to release to 659 Members, who would be unable to make the judgments made on our behalf by highly paid Ministers and their advisers. I accept that we can make a judgment on what we are told, and I believe that the right precedent was set in the debate before the Iraq war. Wherever possible, there should be a substantive motion, but I do not want to tie the hands of the Executive and make it compulsory in all circumstances with all the conditions that the Bill would attach.
That should certainly be considered and discussed.
United Nations Security Council resolutions are not mentioned in the Bill, but there are circumstances in which proposed military action is sanctioned under those resolutions. Such action should be treated differently by the legislation if it completes its passage through the House.
Intelligence is often gathered by special forces deployed well in advance. How would the Bill apply to the deployment of special forces, bearing in mind the need for them to be deployed in complete secrecy to do their job, obviously without parliamentary approval? It would be self-defeating if they could not collect intelligence evidence in the first place to inform Parliament.
No, I want to draw my remarks to a close; plenty of other people want to speak.
Every time that troops have been deployed by this Government—whether in Kosovo in 1999, Sierra Leone in May 2000, Afghanistan in October 2001 and even Iraq in March 2003—the purpose has been to reduce the risk of death and the overall death rate. That may sound odd when one considers the fact that military action tends to increase those things, but in all those circumstances our intervention has aimed, over a period, to end injustice, genocide and mass murder. On that basis, I would argue that every one of those deployments has been justified.
It is extremely unlikely that the House would ever decide, after military deployment had taken place, to pull troops out on the grounds that their safety in those circumstances is paramount. I do not see that happening, even if the facility to do so is provided by the Bill.
There should be scrutiny of decisions on military action, as with anything else in this House, and that scrutiny should be timely. There should be a substantive vote wherever possible, but that should not be compulsory. It should not be put into law and it should not tie the Government's hands, as I believe the Bill would. The debate has been very interesting, but the Bill should not reach the statute book. It could, in some circumstances, be used as an indulgence to feed a bandwagon of anti-war sentiment, with no practical purpose. It might even be used by some to try to justify their support for military action in Iraq at one point, followed by a change of heart after the event.
Unlike Tom Levitt, I welcome the Bill; in fact I returned to the House especially to support it, having attended a south Asian earthquake fundraising event in Leeds yesterday evening.
If I may start by being so bold, and despite being from a different party, I must confess to having something of a soft spot for Clare Short.—[Interruption.] I am blushing. I believe that she is one of a group of MPs from all parties who show real principle and passion in their parliamentary duties. I also share the right hon. Lady's passion for international development, the brief that I have just taken on for my party. I have to say that despite being from a different political background, I felt disappointment, disillusionment and dismay when she initially came out in favour of the war in Iraq. It was with a sense of relief, reassurance and not a little rejoicing with those of a similar mind on such issues that I greeted the news that she realised that she had been misled, had reached a mistaken conclusion and had the courage to admit that. It is very good to have her back doing what she does best.
I was not an MP at that time; indeed, I am here partly because of the decision to take this country into the disastrous war in Iraq. I shall make a rather surprising point now. To some extent I agree with Mr. Gray that the subject of this debate is not the decision to go to war in Iraq—a decision that was always immoral, was always illegal and is now so sadly and obviously disastrous. The point underlying the Bill is that in a 21st-century democracy it is grotesque that the Prime Minister can take the nation to war without having to come to this place, the seat of our democracy, for approval.
I take exception to some of the arguments of the hon. Member for High Peak. The first is the idea that when presented with the evidence, which surely is the point, 659 MPs are not capable of making a sensible decision on war. That is an insult to the House. The suggestion that we cannot quickly respond to conflicts such as that in Rwanda is also an insult to the House. Those of us with humanitarian concerns would do so.
May I finish my assault? I will then let the hon. Gentleman respond to all my points. That would be sensible for both of us.
The hon. Gentleman suggested that those who are anti-war or pacifist are not valid participants in the proceedings of the House. That is a serious point. It suggests that Quakers should not become Members of the House. The hon. Gentleman should rethink those comments. I will now give way and let him answer.
Let me correct the record of what the hon. Gentleman said I said but patently did not. I said that the House should, perhaps, have had the power to consider whether we took part in military action in Rwanda alongside others, but we did not have the option because the Government of the day did not provide it. I am suggesting that the Bill should provide that, if it is to make progress.—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman said that I said that we should not have intervened.
Secondly, of course I am not saying that Quakers, pacifists and others should not be Members of the House. I was principally saying that 1 million people on a demonstration should not be cited as evidence in support of the Bill, when half of them may oppose its very principle, which is to control military action in any case, on the grounds that they would argue that there should never be any military action.
I inferred something else from the hon. Gentleman's remarks, and if he reads Hansard he may see why I did so and many other people would too.
On Rwanda, the hon. Gentleman missed my point entirely. What I picked up from his comments was the suggestion that we could not respond quickly enough to such situations, not the question whether we should have a vote on the matter.
I share the hon. Gentleman's admiration for Clare Short. She is indeed a lady of great principle who should be admired in all parts of the House.
Will the hon. Gentleman reflect on the point that he made a moment ago? Neither Tom Levitt nor my hon. Friend Mr. Gray were saying that Members of the House are not capable of understanding intelligence. The point being made is that, by definition, going to war is a decision based on intelligence, the disclosure of which would inevitably put at risk the security forces who gather that intelligence. It is not therefore possible to disclose the evidence that justifies the decision to go to war.
The hon. Gentleman and I probably have different views about what the House should and should not consider. I think that we will have to agree to disagree. I will not be too forceful. I am glad that we are quite a long way apart from each other, should I get on the wrong side of the hon. Gentleman, because I have been advised that that would not be a wise thing to do.
The Prime Minister can take the decision to go to war without consulting this place, but that is not the only issue that arises from the use of the royal prerogative. Charter88 has drawn attention to other abuses of its use. I would not describe it in those terms, but I think that Mr. Gray used that word. For example, the country was taken into the Marrakesh agreement, which binds us into the general agreement on trades and services in the World Customs Organisation. I think that many of us would be strongly and passionately opposed to that.
I am a new Member. Since I came to the House a few months ago I have asked many times, "Why do we do things like this?" I am sick and tired of hearing the same answers—"Because we do" or "Because we always have." That is not good enough in a 21st century democracy. In my opinion, one of the most dangerous things is to defend the use of the royal prerogative in terms of "Because we always have." Of the decisions that involve use of the royal prerogative, surely the decision to take this country to war is the most serious.
If I may widen the discussion, all this shows why we need a written constitution and a Bill of Rights. I ask all Members who feel passionately about this issue and similar issues to engage seriously in that wider discussion. Ultimately, we need a written constitution to stop the excesses of Prime Ministers such as Thatcher and Blair. I am sure that many Members on both sides of the House would agree.
No, I am about to conclude.
We have all heard of the coalition of the willing. Given that there are principled Members such as the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood and many others who have bothered to be in the Chamber for a Friday sitting, we need to have a coalition of the enlightened. Let us bring the constitution up to date. Let us start by taking away from the Prime Minister the decision to take the country to war and returning it to this place.
I am pleased to take part in the debate and to support my right hon. Friend Clare Short. As she said, I introduced an almost identical Bill during the previous Session. Unfortunately, I was not drawn anywhere near as high in the ballot as my right hon. Friend. Then, of course, the general election intervened. As a result, there was no real debate of my Bill. I recall that when I introduced my Bill in January it was assumed by many Members who spoke to me and by many outside the House that the only reason for it was opposition to the war in Iraq, and that no one could possibly support the Bill who had not been in opposition to that war.
That is completely untrue. There was no reason why someone who thought that the war in Iraq was justified should not support the Bill. Its origins were not purely that war. My hon. Friend Mr. Prentice, who was a member of the Public Administration Committee, conducted an inquiry into the royal prerogative. It was an inquiry not just into the use of the royal prerogative in war, but went much wider than that. However, the use of the royal prerogative in that respect was one example that happened to coincide with others that some of us were concerned about and which we wished to take up.
I make no secret of the fact that my opposition to the war was one of the reasons for my interest in taking forward the Bill, but it was not the only one by a long stretch of the imagination. I think that it was in March—I would have to check the date—that I raised questions arising from the Bill in Prime Minister's Question Time. In responding to me, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said that he could not foresee any future situation where a Prime Minister would go to war without a substantive vote in the House. He cited the vote on Iraq as an example.
I have two comments about that. The fact that the Prime Minister said what he did does not give any guarantees for the future. There will be other Prime Ministers, and maybe Prime Ministers of parties other than Labour. The fact that the current Prime Minister has said that, in his view, it would not be possible to enter into a conflict such as Iraq in future without a substantive vote does not amount to a guarantee.
My hon. Friend the Member for Pendle put his finger on the critical issue about the decision to go to war and the mechanisms used. If the Prime Minister believes that there should be a substantive vote in the future, it is worth noting that I have heard virtually no Members arguing that there should not be such a vote, whether before or after the event.
I think that the hon. Gentleman would acknowledge that the majority of Members who have taken part in the debate so far, and the majority of Members generally, judging by the numbers who have signed early-day motions about the Bill, would agree that there should be substantive votes.
If there are to be such substantive votes, what matters is the mechanism. My hon. Friend the Member for Pendle raised some important issues about the mechanisms by which the decisions were taken on Iraq. If we are to have substantive votes on decisions about armed conflict, it makes all sorts of sense that the mechanism for those substantive votes are laid down in the way that the Bill does, and are not left to be decided by convention or precedent, which can change, when some future Government or Minister decide they do not like it and so adopt a different method. That is the really important function of the Bill. It sets down the mechanism by which those substantive votes have to be taken.
Some of the opposition that I have heard seems to ignore the facts of what has happened in recent years on armed conflicts. Iraq is the only conflict that I can think of that we have been involved in where it could be said that it was intelligence driven. That certainly has not been true of other conflicts in the past 20 years. Kosovo certainly was not—and may I say in response to a point made earlier that there was some opposition on action in Kosovo, although there was never a vote on a substantive motion; the debates on Kosovo all took place on motions on the Adjournment of the House, and, by certain recourse, some hon. Members obtained Divisions on such motions artificially to express their opposition to what was happening in Kosovo. I think that there were five debates on the Falklands, all on a motion on the Adjournment of the House. But there have been other cases, going back to 1950 and Korea, and then the first Gulf war, where there were votes on substantive motions within a few days of the action commencing. Iraq was unusual in that there was a substantive motion before the action started.
We all talk about going war, but in reality declaration of war does not happen, or certainly seems very unlikely to happen again. There has not been a formal declaration of war for a long, long time by this country or by many other countries. It is important that it is still covered within the Bill, because it could happen, but that is not the reality of the way in which military action generally happens now.
I certainly do not buy arguments that say that that would take away elements of surprise. I am sure that Saddam Hussein was really surprised when military action started, and that it was a surprise when our forces went into Kosovo or Afghanistan.
My hon. Friend will recall that I joined him in the Lobby against the war in Iraq, but I am concerned about the geographical context for a conflict. He will remember that in the first Gulf war we did not invade just Kuwait in order to liberate Kuwait. Troops were put into southern Iraq at that time in order to liberate Kuwait. If we are to give a geographical area for parliamentary approval, is not that very dangerous? Would he envisage us giving perhaps a regional perspective in terms of conflict? I just want to clarify the situation.
I understand my hon. Friend's point, and it is perfectly valid because it is mentioned in the Bill. This is a point that could be explored in Committee if it was felt that the measure was drawn too widely, but I would not expect the report to Parliament that clause 2 demands to be so narrowly drawn as to prevent any flexibility in action. We are all realistic enough to know that we cannot be prescriptive about future military action. The point is valid, and perhaps we can explore it in Committee.
I cannot believe the argument that the element of surprise would be taken away, and the Bill would not stop troops acting in self-defence.
I entered this House in 1992 and can recall debates about Bosnia and Rwanda in which hon. Members suggested that intervention should take place and the Government resisted those suggestions. Perhaps the Bill should be amended in Committee to allow Back Benchers to propose to the Government that military action should take place.
Will my hon. Friend outline his thoughts about the definition of self-defence? In an international environment, action against British troops or British civilians might lead to self-defence in another part of the world. The definition is key, and I am keen to hear his thoughts.
Clause 8 covers that point, and the conditions that action must be taken
"following a lawful command, or in accordance with lawful rules of engagement" may be over-prescriptive. It is clearly intended to provide for a situation in which members of the armed forces act in self-defence, and it does not include a geographical restriction.
Is it not the case that if there were a situation in which our troops had to act illegally for operational reasons, we could retrospectively make it lawful by voting in favour of the action taken previously? In the case raised by my hon. Friend Meg Hillier, for example, the force involved might not qualify for legal self-defence under clause 8, in which case this House could retrospectively make the action lawful.
I am wary of going too far down the retrospective line. Clause 4 covers retrospection when the Executive take an urgent decision. If British forces were attacked, however, they would unquestionably have the right to self-defence under clause 8 without any worries about parliamentary approval.
Clause 8 does not say that—it says that people may defend themselves, but only if the conditions that it sets out are satisfied. If an armed conflict is not lawful in the first place, any orders given would not be lawful commands. Alternatively, the rules of engagement might not be sufficiently broad to deal with a situation in which troops must defend themselves immediately, in which case any action taken in self-defence would not be lawful.
My hon. Friend raises an interesting problem. When a situation is deteriorating, which is not uncommon when troops are deployed for peacekeeping purposes, those troops may then be attacked. I accept that the Bill appears to allow them to defend themselves, but as soon as they do so, are they not engaged in an armed conflict, and would that not involve the Government coming back to the House to seek the kind of resolution that the Bill requires? Surely that is impractical in the context of troops deployed in the field.
I will give my hon. Friend an example. The Dutch troops in Srebrenica were not prepared to defend themselves. They were worried about their rules of engagement and stood aside, allowing the massacre of thousands of people to take place, because they were petrified that under international law they would not be found to be defending themselves lawfully.
The situation that the Leader of the House posits—a peacekeeping operation where things deteriorated and there was a need for soldiers to defend themselves—is covered by clause 8. If they get into a position of military conflict, that would be covered by the Bill's provisions on urgent action. The Government would give instructions and it would be properly done, and it would be brought before the House later. The situation is completely provided for in the Bill.
I think that we are getting into areas that should be dealt with in Committee.
Members have raised the issues of urgency and self-defence, as well as situations where the two might become conflated. We need to get it right, but I believe that that can be achieved and that there is nothing in the Bill that could not be amended if necessary. Clearly, we would not want to put troops in a position where they feel that they are behaving illegally. The point about the Dutch troops in Srebrenica is very important. We do not want British troops to get into a position where they are standing by as people are being massacred. If there is a clause that would genuinely allow that, we need to amend it.
My hon. Friend might like to reflect on what would have happened when we sank the Belgrano. An exclusion zone was declared around the Falklands. Would he envisage the Prime Minister coming back to the House with a further report saying that the exclusion zone had been extended arbitrarily in order to sink the Belgrano? What procedure would have taken place in those circumstances?
That is an interesting point. If I remember correctly, the Belgrano was steaming away from the Falklands—an issue that was repeatedly pursued in this House afterwards. If a report to the House under the Bill was couched in terms as narrow as my hon. Friend suggests—"This will be the exclusion zone"—then that would clearly restrict action that could be taken, but I would be very surprised if it was that restrictive in terms of geographical location.
I should like to explore this a little further. The Bill says:
"the Prime Minister shall lay before each House of Parliament a report setting out . . . such information as he considers it appropriate to make public about" geography, duration and deployment. In the possible, or likely, event that the Prime Minister considered it inappropriate to give any such information, he would lay himself and others open to subsequent charges such as, "You never said that world war two would take six years", or "You never said that the Scots Guards"—or whoever it was—"would be deployed in Basra", which led to the unfortunate incident this morning with the roadside bombing. Is not the onus and the expectation being placed on the Prime Minister to release information, which, surely, is of most use to our enemies?
The Bill makes it clear that the Prime Minister would make available
"such information as he considers . . . appropriate".
The hon. Gentleman suggests that that would cause problems. Yet whether the Bill exists or not, such questions will be asked of the Prime Minister. I am sure that they were asked at the time of the first Gulf war; they were asked during the Iraq war. Including information in a formal report to the House will not fundamentally change that.
Let me give an example of how it would make a fundamental difference. The Bill could be subject to legal proceedings. We have all seen those who objected to military conflicts going to court and taking legal action. If the Bill were passed, the report could be subject to legal proceedings. Instead of the current straightforward position, whereby people accept that circumstances change and the Prime Minister or the Defence Secretary makes a statement on the Floor of the House to explain why they have changed, the Prime Minister would be required, at the risk of legal challenge, to change the terms of the report. Surely my hon. Friend does not advocate that.
Let us suppose that the Prime Minister's report mentioned a specific geographical area or, perhaps more appropriately, a time limit for the expected duration of the conflict and that the House decided to authorise that. Let us then suppose that the conflict went on for a few days longer. That could be subject to judicial review on the ground that it was an unreasonable action by the Government. Not Parliament's decision, but the Government's interpretation of it, will be challenged. We will end up with judicial stalemate and scrutiny of our armed forces who are in the field.
It is ludicrous to suggest that such a report would specify a time limit and that there would be a challenge because the time limit had been exceeded by a few days. It is ludicrous to suggest that such reports would be couched in those terms. Nobody would expect a time limit to be specified.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the sort of points that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and my hon. Friend Mr. Dismore made should be raised in Committee? Today, we are dealing with the broad principles of the measure. The detail can be debated in full in Committee. Perhaps some amendment will be needed to take account of the sort of objections that have been raised.
I do not object to that and, I am sure, neither does my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood. When such Bills are drafted, they are never perfect. It is ludicrous to start picking holes in one clause of a private Member's Bill when the Government table amendment after amendment to Government Bills.
When we are debating Government Bills, we are told time and again that we are supposed to discuss the principle on Second Reading. Those of us who sometimes have objections to some details within such Bills are approached by the party Whips, who say, "Look, that's the sort of thing that can be dealt with in Committee. If it's not put right in Committee, you can think again on Report or Third Reading, but please don't vote against the Bill on Second Reading, because you will destroy the principle of it." That is precisely what I am told by Ministers and Whips every single time I raise a query about the detail of a Government Bill.
On that very point, less than 48 hours ago I was approached by a member of the Government who asked me about my intentions on Second Reading of a forthcoming Bill. I said that I cannot possibly agree with people being held in prison for 90 days without judicial scrutiny. The point made was, "That's a matter for the Committee, isn't it, not for Second Reading?" Is not that precisely the same point? Maybe I now ought to say that I must vote against Second Reading, which was not my intention.
That is precisely the logic of this argument and of trying to pretend that if there are problems with the detail of this Bill they cannot be put right at some point in Committee.
I take the point, Madam Deputy Speaker, but may I say that there have been times when I have listened?
The discussion of a Bill on Second Reading very much involves the question of the basic principles, so let us get back to the serious points made earlier by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood and my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle, who talked about the democratic principles involved here.
That is the key as to what the debate is about: do we want to continue to have no guarantee whatever that this place will even be consulted about troops going into action before that important decision is made, never mind have a vote? That is where we are now. We do not even have any right to be consulted. We ought to be saying that we should have a vote. That is what the Bill is about.
Quite why the power to wage war is, in a democracy, vested in the Prime Minister rather than the democratic Parliament is a mystery to me. The Library note on the subject starts by making this admission:
"It is widely accepted that the Royal Prerogative is a concept which is both difficult to explain and to define".
That very fact should surely cause us all a great deal of concern.
The royal prerogative is very much a throwback to an earlier age—that of the absolute monarch, where the state and the monarch were regarded as much the same thing. Louis XVI said, "I am the state." And we know what happened to him. Perhaps in past centuries, the concept made some sense, but all actions, wars or military matters are very much political. Generally, they are played out not by one state, but by an alliance of states. Thinking back, the only recent example I can recall of the UK going to war on its own is the Falklands conflict. Each and every other conflict came under the auspices of the United Nations, NATO or some other alliance. The royal prerogative is very much a fig leaf for the Government, and it would be much more appropriate for the democratic Parliament to debate and decide such matters.
Indeed, that is not a particularly novel concept. The President of the United States may get his instructions on a direct line to God, but he is none the less required, under the War Powers Act 1973, to take the matter to Congress in a process not unlike what is envisaged under the Bill.
The research paper on the matter says specifically:
"The War Powers Resolution requires regular consultation with Congress in contemplating military action, written notification within 48 hours of such action, with its 'estimated scope or duration', and congressional consent through either a declaration of war or 'specific statutory authorisation'. If such approval is not granted within 60 days, the President is supposed to withdraw US forces within a further 30 days."
Obviously, that gives Congress, the democratically elected Parliament of the United States, a great deal of power, at least in principle, when the United States goes to war. It is interesting to note that just as the Government seem to oppose giving up the royal prerogative, the American War Powers Act was passed over the veto of President Nixon.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will want to give the House the full picture on the War Powers Act. First, he will know that it is the subject of considerable legal controversy in the United States as to the extent of its application. Secondly, American forces have been deployed on several occasions without resort to that legislation.
The Leader of the House is correct. There is a great deal of dispute as to the constitutionality of the War Powers Act, partly due to the fact that President Nixon tried to veto it. Nevertheless, in the run-up to the war in Iraq, as I understand it, the President adhered to the War Powers Act, went to Congress and spoke to both parties in Congress prior to doing so. The United States Congress passed the War Powers Act in the first place because the US had got bogged down in undeclared war in Vietnam, which raised a great deal of concern. Many Members of the House, looking at the current situation in Iraq, can also have a great deal of concern.
The hon. Gentleman is repeating a point made earlier in the debate about the difference between the United States and the United Kingdom. Does he accept that there is a fundamental, constitutional difference: the President of the United States is not a member of Congress or answerable to Congress, whereas the Prime Minister is a Member of the House, and if he does something wrong, he can be chucked out, whereas the President cannot?
That point does not make a great deal of difference. Ultimately, either the President or the Prime Minister can declare war, and under the War Powers Act, the President is answerable to Congress, subject to the dispute about that. As has been rightly pointed out, the President can end up being impeached if he does not do what he is supposed to do.
There has been a great deal of debate about clause 2 on the report relating to proposed participation and the expected geographical extent of that participation. A point was raised as to whether the geographical extent should be more generally stated, but it must be fairly specific, because if the report were to say, "We will take action in the middle east", that could cause an awful lot more problems than it solves. Furthermore, nothing in the Bill says that the duration of the conflict must be stated to the day, as has been suggested. It is the expected duration, such as six months or a year, that is required, and we all accept that the duration might go beyond that. There is no particular problem there.
The most compelling argument that I heard against the Bill is that the flexibility of rapid response and the element of surprise in launching operations would be compromised. As a Member representing a military installation and many servicemen, that gives me some concern. Such arguments are not valid, however. The Bill does not seek to control each and every part of a military operation. It recognises specifically that speed might be essential in certain situations, and that a parliamentary debate will therefore take place after such action has commenced. Again, such provisions are very similar to those of the American War Powers Act.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that when a war is based on intelligence, time for consideration and reflection is absolutely vital, whereas speed is of the essence when we are under attack?
I agree. Obviously, if the United Kingdom or any part of it were under attack, action would be taken. History shows us, however, that the United Kingdom is not normally subject to sudden surprise attacks. The road to war is often long and tortuous.
During the summer of 1939, in the period leading up to the second world war, there were numerous incidents and negotiations before the eventual outbreak of war. Mr. Gray spoke of Mr. Chamberlain coming to the House and making a very brief statement. If I recall my history correctly, before that Chamberlain had given Germany an ultimatum for its withdrawal from Poland. Only after Germany refused to withdraw was war declared, and it was hardly a surprise when it came along.
It was clear for weeks before the Falklands war that the armed forces of the UK would try to retake the islands. Indeed, it took the fleet many weeks to steam south. More recently—as Mr. Gerrard pointed out—after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, the build-up of coalition forces took some time, and Saddam can have been in no doubt about what was intended. The same is true even of the current war in Iraq.
It is, perhaps, ironic that the campaign for the Bill was given a lift by opposition to that war. It is one of the few instances in which a vote did take place, but it is worth looking again at the terms of the motion. I draw attention particularly to these words:
"the United Kingdom must uphold the authority of the United Nations as set out in Resolution 1441 and many Resolutions preceding it, and therefore supports"— the House supports, that is—
"the decision of Her Majesty's Government that the United Kingdom should use all means necessary to ensure the disarmament of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction".
What a crock that turned out to be.
I believe that if we are to send our armed forces into conflict, we must do so with the full backing of our democratic institutions, not on the basis of some vague notion of outdated royal prerogative, or an agreement between the President of the United States and the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. The Bill will reassure our armed forces that when they go to war they have the backing of Parliament. I think that that is the right thing to do, and I urge the House to accept the Bill.
I rise with some nervousness following the reference by my hon. Friend Paul Flynn to assassins. I am not sure whether the alleged victim would be the Bill, or any Member who spoke in favour of it.
Nevertheless, I think that the debate is important, and I welcomed what was said about trying to avoid party politics. I do not see the Bill as an anti-war bandwagon on to which people are jumping. As I said, I think that this debate is important, and it is important to me for a specific reason. Until recently, I had a proper job. Before I became a parliamentary candidate, I did not understand the public's distrust of politicians. The lack of trust in politicians, and in the legitimacy of the House and Parliament generally, is a real issue. I see the Bill, imperfect though it may be, as a way of reconnecting our constitution with those outside, and helping to restore trust in politics among a sceptical public.
We hear allegations about Parliament being treated with contempt, or about a blurring of the separation of powers. Ironically, once perfected, the Bill could well help to rebut those allegations. I do not see the Iraq war debates as an excuse for the Bill, but I do think that they set a precedent. Mr. Gray mentioned other precedents. As we heard again a few minutes ago, in 1939 the then Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, reported the declaration of war to Members of Parliament as an accomplished fact. Members have also mentioned the Korean war in the 1950s and the Gulf war of 1992. Having read a Library research paper, I understand that Members had a chance to vote on substantive motions only after troops had been deployed and hostilities begun. There may be some who say things have always been this way and we have always had the royal prerogative, so there is no reason to change it. We had slavery for a while as well, and we abolished that although things had been done that way for a long time. Notwithstanding what people say about our stance on child poverty, the fact that we have always had it is no reason why we should not try to battle it.
I will later, but I want to make some progress first.
I do not necessarily see the Iraq debates and motions as an example of system failure that therefore justifies change, as some have argued. I see the war as an example of how the Bill will, in practice, not stop the Executive going to war if they want to. That is the irony in my contribution. I see in the debates around the war some examples of good practice, and by that I mean that between the recall of Parliament in September 2002 and the commencement of military action on
At the moment, there is no requirement on Ministers to let elected Members from all parts of the UK have a say in this House on deciding whether British armed forces should be deployed. The Bill makes explicit what was implicit in the 2003 decision by removing the war-making decision from prerogative powers and vesting the power in Parliament instead. Doing so will, incidentally, have even more legitimacy once we reform the House of Lords, and I ask colleagues on both sides to use their influence to ensure that the Joint Committee to do that is set up as soon as possible.
I accept that the Bill is not perfect, and flaws have already been identified. I am concerned about what will happen when special deployment forces are required. I am concerned about some definitions, about how we resolve conflicts between the Executive and the Commons and about the content of the report that will come to Parliament. I believe, with the greatest of respect to my hon. Friend Mr. Gerrard, that clause 8 needs to be considered in respect of self-defence issues, because some concerns can be dealt with in Committee.
Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to think about other areas, such as our commitment to fellow NATO countries? The NATO stipulation is that if one of us is attacked, we are all attacked. That was the basis on which we took action against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan—one of our NATO allies was attacked by a group of terrorists sponsored by the regime in power in Afghanistan. There are difficult technical issues around what constitutes self-defence, particularly in the NATO context.
My hon. Friend makes a good point, and I draw his attention to clause 10, dealing with interpretation, which seeks to define armed conflict. I agree that clause 8 is worthy of more discussion and debate in Committee because there is real concern, not just about multinational forces, such as NATO, but about peacekeeping forces and the role that they play. That will be worth considering in Committee once the Bill's drafters have the expert advice that has been so useful on other Bills.
The objection has been made that we will lose the element of surprise. I hope that that has been rebutted by examples of previous conflicts in which there clearly has been no element of surprise, but it is also rebutted by the Bill's retrospective provisions. Other concerns have been expressed by colleagues. I hope that as a new Member I am not being too arrogant by making this point, but I do not accept that the House of Commons is not equipped to make decisions as important as whether we should go to war.
The third main objection to the Bill, with which I disagree profoundly, is that it might encourage our Prime Minister or a Secretary of State to mislead the House because they would have to come here to justify their actions. Another objection to the Bill was that it could have an impact on advice given by an Attorney-General.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree with the broad principle that the distrust and disaffection in the political process that he described earlier has come about as a result of the activities leading up to the Iraq war—the dossier and all the misleading that occurred—when there was a vote, but that in previous wars such as Afghanistan, nobody distrusted what the Prime Minister was doing? They trusted him, or her, and went along with the decision. It is only because the Prime Minister had to come to the House and ask for a vote that he got involved in the dossiers, the spinning and deceit that have led to the disaffection that the hon. Gentleman described.
No, I do not agree at all. The public question the role of the House and they question what the people they elect to Parliament do. If they see their elected representatives deciding how the armed forces are to be deployed, that may help to make us more legitimate.
A fifth objection to the Bill relates to self-defence. I agree with my hon. Friend David Wright that the issue needs to be considered in Committee.
Recently, I had the joy of re-reading Robin Cook's diary, "The Point of Departure". One of the reasons that it is crucial for statutory force to be given to the precedent established by the Iraq war is that, although on that occasion members of the Cabinet and a principled Leader of the House were determined to allow democratically elected representatives an active role in deciding whether our armed forces should be involved in the conflict, that may not always be the case. The Bill would enshrine constitutional safeguards leading to transparency, which would mean that we would not need to be dependent on the generosity or beliefs of those occupying the top positions in the Executive, but that irrespective of their personalities and beliefs, we and the other place—to be reformed, I hope, before too long—would have the right to debate and decide on the declaration of war and the use of our armed forces in an armed conflict. That must be a good thing, which is why I shall support Second Reading.
I congratulate Clare Short on bringing this well thought-out and straightforward Bill to the House. Too much that comes before us is too complicated, but this measure hits the nail on the head. It is a matter of life and death: it is about who takes the decision to take this country to war.
I have listened closely to all the speeches, but I am still waiting to hear a substantial argument against the principle of the Bill. There has been much concern about the fine detail but, as Mr. Khan said, that can be dealt with in Committee.
One of the arguments against the Bill was that it would encourage the Prime Minister to produce dodgy dossiers. We need to hear a stronger argument against the Bill than that if the measure is to fall.
As several hon. Members said, we missed the participation of the late Member for Livingston, Robin Cook. He would have been pleased about the Bill and I am sure that, if he is looking down on us, he will have been impressed by many of the speeches made in favour of it, although some of the content of the speeches against it might have brought that quizzical look to his face.
The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood mentioned public engagement and the opinion polls, including the Rowntree poll that found that 83 per cent. of people were against the Prime Minister taking such decisions on his own. At that time, I was speaking to the political society of Fettes college in my constituency, the Prime Minister's old school. On that evening, I launched an opinion poll in my constituency that asked, "Do you agree that the entire British Parliament, rather than the Prime Minister alone, should have the final say on whether our country goes to war?" The answers were, "Don't know", 2.4 per cent.; no, 6.4 per cent.; and yes, 91.2 per cent.
Indeed it is.
The details can be considered in Committee, but I want to mention one of them: the expected geographical extent of participation, which is important for a number of reasons. We have heard a number of comments about the position in the United States. I spoke to a number of Congressmen in Washington after the war had started. They were told that they would not be given the fine detail of the information and intelligence that was available, but that the President knew and they should trust him that war was about to break out. They told me that they thought that they were going to invade Syria.
Is not one reason for being specific in parliamentary resolutions precisely to avoid the kind of mission creep that has afflicted many of those military adventures?
I agree that it is vital to be specific, but I refer back to my intervention on Mr. Weir. When we are dealing with possible conflicts based on intelligence, there is time for reflection. The question of surprise has long since gone when the troops are amassing. However, the Bill deals with the fact that an immediate response would be necessary if we were under attack.
How would the hon. Gentleman respond to the point about the geographical context that I made in an earlier intervention? He may recall that I made the point about the first Gulf war. When we liberated Kuwait, certainly US paratroops and, I think, some British forces were dropped into southern Iraq to ensure that forces could not come through Iraq into Kuwait to strengthen the Iraqis that were there and to cut off the lines of retreat. Is he suggesting that we should have had a specific resolution in the House that troops would only go into Kuwait and not deploy themselves strategically across the region?
I am not suggesting that at all. It is obvious that, when refuelling and other stops on the way to the conflict are needed, other parts of the world will be involved. However, the broad principle of the decision should be made in the House, not by the Prime Minister on his own, and three groups of people would benefit: first, the British public; secondly, our servicemen and women; and, thirdly, Parliament itself. I shall return to that point in more detail.
On the benefit to service personnel, if we were to make a retrospective agreement or legislation that an action had authority and was therefore legal, troops could carry out actions in positions where it was not necessarily legal for them to be when they were doing them. We can imagine Tommy Atkins getting to the end of his fight and asking his platoon sergeant, "Is this a legal action?" and his platoon sergeant saying, "Not yet, mate, but don't worry—they'll probably legislate to make it legal in a few weeks' time."
That is a vacuous point. Several hon. Members gave examples of speaking to service personnel in their constituencies who say that they would rather have the reassurance that the decision was taken not just by one man or woman, but by the entire Parliament. We are looking back to the Iraq war, but we should look forward to future Prime Ministers and future wars. The hon. Gentleman cannot honestly believe that our service personnel would rather take part in a conflict in the knowledge that one individual had made the decision, rather than the entire Parliament.
My point is that troops could be carrying out action at a time at which it would not be legal. Is the hon. Gentleman trying to say that troops would be happy to carry out action that could subsequently be determined as unlawful?
I simply disagree with the point that the hon. Gentleman makes.
Servicemen and women would prefer the backing of Parliament to that of the Prime Minister on his own, and the British public expect their elected representatives to be able to stand up and be counted. It might be that people on the anti-war march had different reasons for being there. I was one of the people who marched and, as a member of the general public, I would expect any elected representative to be able to take a decision on the major issues of the day. Nothing is more important than sending our troops to war, and many civilians and troops have died in Iraq. It does Prime Ministers no good if they feel that they cannot argue and win their case in Parliament. Parliament could suffer in the long term. There will be wars in the future, so we have the opportunity today to look forward and say what should happen next time a similar event arises.
My hon. Friend is touching on an important point. There will be a time when a Prime Minister will come to the House to seek permission to carry out military action and it would be appalling if his position was justified, but he was unable or unprepared to carry out action because there was no procedure for the House to check and authorise the decision. Such a situation could put the country in a worse position. We need the Bill not because of what happened with Iraq, but because of what will unfortunately and inevitably happen in the future.
My hon. Friend is exactly right.
We must try to increase public trust in elected representatives and Parliament. We do a disservice to the public if we say that we are not prepared to debate the substantive issues of the day in the House. I accept that there will sometimes be intelligence material that cannot be shared on the Floor of the House, but there must be Committees, such as the Intelligence and Security Committee, with which such information could be shared so that hon. Members would be more inclined to trust the process. The debate is a question of trust. The people of this country did not trust what the Prime Minister said in the House. Whether we were misled or there was a dodgy dossier, the information that we were given was not correct.
Earlier this week, several of my colleagues and I had the good fortune to meet Hans Blix, who gave us some inside information on what actually happened during the search for weapons of mass destruction. He and his team were out there searching for weapons of mass destruction and hon. Members will remember that Saddam Hussein was told that, if he were to hand over his weapons of mass destruction, there would be no invasion. We now know that those weapons did not exist then and do not exist now, so there was no way out. People do not trust what they hear from the Prime Minister on the issue.
I do not wish to labour this point, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that the reason why people distrusted the information that we were given in this place was because the Prime Minister had to come here to give us that information? If he had simply said, "I have decided on the information that I have available to me privately to go ahead with this war", and had not been required to come here, he would not have had to mislead the House.
With respect to the hon. Gentleman, that is the most bizarre argument against the Bill that we have heard today. Is he suggesting that the Bill should be defeated because it would mean that the Prime Minister would be forced to come to the House and tell the truth? The hon. Gentleman alleges that the Prime Minister was forced to come to the House, to spin and to produce dodgy dossiers and says that a similar situation would be the result of the Bill. If that is the best argument against the Bill, I shall stop now and rest my case.
Those of us who believe that the Bill is correct should be happy with the debate so far. With one possible exception, no one has argued against the principle of parliamentary votes on going to war or against votes taking place in advance. The objections concern issues of detail. People who argue that, because the detail is not correct in clauses 2 and 8, the legislation itself is fundamentally flawed must answer two questions. First, why do no other western Government apart from France have a Head of Government with the extraordinary powers that our Head of Government has? All other western Governments have legislation similar to the Bill. If the problematic details in the Bill were such that the legislation undermined its own principles it would not have been possible to frame legislation that worked elsewhere because, as has been suggested, no democracy would put its troops at risk.
Secondly, on the general principles of the Bill, some hon. Members have implied that they would result in the legislature becoming a second Executive power, but that is to fundamentally misunderstand the roles of the legislature and the Executive. It is the job of the Government and the armed forces to execute the decisions of the House and the legislature. It is for the legislature to agree issues in principle and scrutinise the Executive's actions. It would be inappropriate for the legislation to detail precisely the way in which the armed forces conduct their business, nor does it seek to do so. It is simply saying that the legislature should take its rightful place alongside the Executive. It should scrutinise the Executive and give general authority to their actions, but it should not take on the role of the Executive themselves. There is nothing in the legislation to suggest otherwise. Some provisions may need to be refined, and we have already debated whether we should do so on Second Reading or in Committee. It is appropriate to raise such matters, but they do not provide sufficient reason to vote against the Bill.
If the legislature had had the power to operate alongside the Executive in the Iraqi war, a number of matters would have been debated in more detail, and it is inconceivable that we would have held a substantive vote in March. What precisely had the UN inspectors found? What was the nature of the international coalition that had started to fall apart? What was the legality of the war? Clearly, a report would have been presented to the House giving the opinions of Government lawyers on the legality of the war. What would be the position of Iraq after the war? That was not debated, and the allies clearly failed to take it fully into account. If Parliament had debated the relevant issues, it is inconceivable that it would not have debated a post-conflict Iraq. Similarly, the lack of thorough consideration on the part of the Government about what would happen after a war would have emerged.
The legislature would also have been able to discuss in detail the implications of the conflict for international terrorism. The rise of such terrorism has been fuelled by the conflict. Finally, the nature of the intelligence, which turned out to be wholly flawed, would have been subject to scrutiny. It would have been the proper role of the legislature to debate all those matters, but that does not mean that it would have passed a resolution giving detailed and precise instructions to the Executive about how they should execute a decision to go to war or how troops should be deployed. Nothing in the Bill or the principles behind it implies otherwise. For all those reasons the Bill is appropriate.
The Iraq war has been mentioned many times this morning. If we look back, we see that the key decision that led to war was taken in December, when the troops were deployed in Iraq. Almost immediately, there was a debate about how long we could wait before the war was waged because of the extremes of temperature and the climate. The drumbeat of war had become strong at the time of the deployment, and the time scale was effectively known then because the troops were on the ground and it would not have been possible, because of the logistics and other factors, to wage a war much later than March.
Those people who say that we do not need the Bill because a substantive vote took place that March mistake what happened and have not thought clearly about the history of the dispute. The relevant substantive motion is the one that was debated in the November before the troops were deployed. The terms of the Government resolution are clear. That debate—I had an exchange with Mr. Gray about this—was about international diplomacy, the role of the United Nations and the construction of a coalition. At no time then was a resolution proposed that envisaged no alternative but to go to war. Yet, after the vote, that motion was cited as justification for placing troops in Iraq, which, as I said, committed us irrevocably to the conflict that took place in March.
I voted for the rebel amendment, but many hon. Members did not vote for it because they took seriously the words of the Government motion, which clearly envisaged the construction of a worldwide alliance centred on United Nations action. That was why the rebel amendment did not secure as much support as it might have done.
In retrospect, it is clear that the die was cast by the time of the December deployment: we were in a state of preparedness for war and the time scale had been determined. There had been no appropriate debate in the House that permitted us to proceed with the conflict.
Does my hon. Friend accept the principle that it is legitimate for our country to deploy troops as a mechanism to try to force the hand of another nation to comply with United Nations resolutions? I fully accept and agree with his point that, in Iraq, the deployment led on to conflict that would have been difficult to stop, but the principle of deploying troops to try to provoke a positive reaction from a nation must surely be an option available to the Government, possibly without their having to come to the House.
I entirely accept that that may be the case, but, as we now know, it was not the case at the time because, some months beforehand, on that fateful day at Camp David or on somebody's ranch somewhere, the Prime Minister had committed himself to war. The Government's real intention in deploying the troops was not, as was being said in the House, part of international diplomacy, but the first act of war. That is the point of the December deployment.
Those who rest their case on the argument that a good practice was established in the run-up to Iraq because there was a vote on a substantive motion in March fundamentally misunderstand what was happening in October, November and December of the previous year. That illustrates the need for a statutory framework that does not impinge on the capacity of the Executive to operate as a true Executive, nor on our armed forces to be able to defend themselves or to act in urgent circumstances. We need a statutory framework within which we are all locked.
I shall make two confessions to the House. First—this will probably not be too much of a shock for those who know me—I have never knowingly allowed the word "new" to come between my surname and the word "Labour". Secondly, I have many good friends who are new Labour. I have studied the Prime Minister's words in his change maker speech. As an hilarious aside, someone moved next to me when my right hon. Friend was making his speech, and I thought he said that he was a rainmaker. I thought, "Why do we need rainmakers when it always rains at party conferences?" However, he was saying that he was a change maker and that that was what new Labour was about.
What is the change for? Is it change for its own sake? [Interruption.] That may be so. A second word comes in, and that is modernisation. We are here to modernise the country. What is modernity? Surely that does not mean resting our case or our powers on a mediaeval legal framework that resides in the idea of absolute power and the notion of the divine right of monarchs to rule, to wage war and to do anything else with the country. Modernity surely implies a modern Parliament.
There are other buzz words in the change maker's speech, such as accountability, transparency and democracy. That is the language of new Labour. I might well aspire one day to become a member of new Labour because I can use all of those words. I say to new Labour friends who are perhaps considering not voting with the progressive consensus in the House that includes Conservative, nationalist and Liberal Democrat Members and others, thinking that this is not quite the right thing to do, to examine the words of the Prime Minister, the chief architect of new Labour.
Here is a piece of legislation that proposes modernisation, change, transparency, accountability and democracy. Come and join us in the Lobby. Come and join the progressive consensus that is clearly emerging this afternoon.
It is significant that, with a couple of notable eccentric exceptions, the majority of Members who have spoken against the Bill have done so not on the basis of principle—parliamentary scrutiny and approval of proposed armed conflicts—but on the two themes of necessity and the problems associated with implementation. I shall deal with those themes one at a time.
On necessity, it is argued that following the events in the run-up to the Iraq war a convention has been established or the principles have been set, or the promises have been made, that make any future move towards armed conflicts a matter that will inevitably come before the House for a substantive vote. That may be the case. It may be that it is inevitable, now that the precedent has been set and perhaps a convention established. However, that is not the point.
It is not the point because such conventions and such principles would not provide for a proper legal framework for consideration. They would not provide for reliable information to be in front of the House on which it could base its consideration and its decision; they would not allow for proper scrutiny; and they would not guarantee approval in advance. It is important that we have a proper legal framework. Perhaps it is even more important that that framework is established to ensure proper consideration not only in the Houses of Parliament but in the Government. If one thing is evident from the way that we went into the conflict in Iraq it is that such proper consideration did not take place. The House should support the Bill for the sake of the Government's democratic accountability and proper consideration within Government.
The Bill is not just about Iraq, although many of us still feel very bitterly the anger and betrayal of that appalling blunder, and are reminded of it with every suicide bomb that explodes and every day's newspapers that we open in which we read of events there. As my hon. Friend Mr. Gerrard pointed out earlier, we should support the Bill not just because of our opposition to the war in Iraq, but because of our experience of the way in which we went into that war. Hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber who have spoken today in support of the Bill may take very different views on the armed conflict, but they want to ensure that any future potential armed conflict is given proper consideration in the House and by the Government.
The other criticism of the Bill has related to problems associated with it. Inevitably, some legitimate issues have been raised about the Bill's implementation, but all are matters that can be sorted out in Committee. In my very limited experience, the problems with the Bill are no greater than those with many other Bills making their first appearance in the House.
When we were moving inexorably, as it seemed, towards the Iraq war, many inside and outside the House campaigned under the banner "Not in our name". The Bill gives us an opportunity to say that, in future, without proper consideration, information and consent, it will be never again in our name.
I feel very uncomfortable about the Bill. I make no great claims for myself as a lawyer or a constitutional expert—I am sure that there are many such people here today, but I am definitely not one of them—but even I can see that there are major problems with the Bill.
As a Back-Bench Member of Parliament, of course I would always want Parliament to be involved in deciding in which conflicts our troops did and did not take part, but I have been happy with the way in which Parliament has been consulted on the conflicts that have taken place in the eight years that I have been in the House. I do not feel that we have been excluded, and I am pleased that the Government say that they cannot envisage a time when Members of Parliament are not involved in these decisions. I cannot even imagine a time when another Government would not involve us.
However, the Bill is not about involving us in the decision; it is about Parliament making the decision. It means that we could have to define the exact nature of what our troops can do, where they can do it and who they can do it against. That is completely unreasonable, and everyone knows that it is completely unreasonable—even the Bill's sponsors—as the Bill goes on to say that if we do not know those precise details, the military can go ahead anyway and come back to us later to check that what has been done is okay with us.
I think that that is ridiculous, but this is not about me. This is about the people who are brave enough to fight on behalf of the country; it is about the people whom I really care about—the people in my constituency who joined the armed services. So I have spoken to a number of people who have done precisely that. I wanted to find out from them how they would feel if the Bill became law, and doing so helped me to make up my mind for sure not to support it.
First, I spoke to Bert Wells of St. Helier avenue on the St. Helier estate. Bert is in his 70s, and still sees active service as one of the hardest working envelope-stuffers for Mitcham and Morden Labour party. In 1946, Bert joined the Army. He spent three years with the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers and served in north Africa and the middle east. He was sent to Palestine following the UN decision on partition into Jewish and Arab states. As we know only too well, that part of the middle east is extremely volatile, and some groups could not accept partition and engaged in a series of terrorist attacks. That was a frightening time, and Bert said that "troops were being attacked night after night".
The UN arbitrator, Count Bernadotte, was assassinated, and six of Bert's Army colleagues were killed in action—Bert acted as a pall bearer for one of them. For Bert and for many other British soldiers Palestine was a distant place, so I asked him how he felt about a Prime Minister having the power to send troops to fight and die for causes many miles away. He has told me that he did not want to go to war and that nobody ever wants to do so, but that in his view, "If you have to go to war, you must."
Bert said that the Prime Minister must make a decision, that the military must provide advice and that the Cabinet must be involved. However, he does not want the details to be advertised in Parliament: "If you embark on active duty, you don't really want people to know. When we were allowed home on leave, we could not tell people what we were going to be doing when we got back in case it put you in danger. It is a bit like the Queen—you wouldn't necessarily want your enemies to know where she was going in case she was ambushed. I wouldn't like it if our enemies knew where I was going."
Bert feels strongly that if the Government asked troops to fight in a conflict and Parliament second-guessed their orders later, it would put more pressure on the troops. He is worried that his officers would have been unable to react when suddenly attacked if they were unclear about how their response would go down in a parliamentary debate. He said, "I don't think something like that should be debated in Parliament. It would be very worrying."
Alf Jones lives in the Ravensbury ward and is another Labour party stalwart. By trade, he is a butcher, and he joined up on
Alf also told me about the time when he had been in hospital for two months and then went back to headquarters to wait for his next assignment. Suddenly, his unit came under attack, and 40 men took a direct hit just yards from him. He said that he saw those men blown into a thousand pieces. "I've seen things I never want to see again", he said. We expect a lot from our troops; I feel that I have heard only a fraction of what he has been through. He said that he has been to hell and back, and that he feels like he has also been to heaven and back five times, because that is how many times he cheated death. He now says that if anyone ever asked him to go to war again, he would say, "No." We must always try to find a better way, but Alf admits that sometimes we must go to war. Like many hon. Members in the Chamber today, he did not agree with the war in Iraq, but he told me that now he has found out what Saddam Hussein was doing, we probably had no choice.
Alf also said that when he was about to start fighting, he was "thrilled"—a shocking word. He said that a lot of the people with him were scared and frightened, but that he was genuinely thrilled. The only time that he was scared was when he was in the thick of it. He told me, "No one's got the forethought to know what's just about to happen. You just don't know. Things happen so quickly and you have to respond."
I asked Alf what he would have thought if he had not received final approval for what he was doing. What if he had not had the backing of his military commanders because Parliament had not yet given its approval? What would he have thought if he had had to go ahead and hope that Parliament would retrospectively give its approval? He said, "That is ridiculous. You've got to defend yourself. You've got to do what you've go to do. It'd be like fighting with one hand behind your back. I wouldn't say it would be an easy thing for Parliament. How would they know what we had to do?" I hate to think how people such as Alf would feel if he put his life on the line and then, a few days on, MPs stood up in this hallowed Chamber and said, "No. You should not have done that." I did not have the heart to ask him that question, but I know what he would think.
The hon. Gentleman has said a great deal, and I want to give other hon. Members an opportunity to join in.
What message would that have sent out to all the men and women who are so brave and have to go through what Alf had gone through?
Vince Romagnuolo joined the RAF in 1977 and spent nearly seven years working for the tactical communications unit, which worked closely with Harrier jets and helicopters to provide landing strips in battle zones such as the Falklands. Those enabled the air force to provide its air cover for our troops in any action and gave the flexibility needed on a modern battlefield. Vince was mainly based in Brize Norton and Germany when the cold war was raging—a time when we had powerful enemies who would very much enjoy knowing more about our military plans. Vince is a strong Labour party supporter. He believes that men and women in the forces might be put in danger if every action had to have a detailed substantive parliamentary vote and the military lost some of its flexibility to make decisions.
Vince said: "We need clear leadership, and I am happy for this to come through the Prime Minister and the Cabinet. It's good to have broad parliamentary approval, but it would be destabilising to the troops if it was not clear who was in charge. It would sow uncertainty in people's minds and could undermine the chain of command." Worst of all, he was worried that troops would feel less safe if their role was not clear. He said: "It could give succour to the enemy if they knew that everything you were going to do was going to be debated from the safety of the House of Commons later. That could lead to more attacks on you and would make you feel less safe."
When push comes to shove, it is unfair on ordinary people in our armed forces—people such as Bert, Alf and Vince and thousands of others across the country—if there is no clear chain of command. We do not know what the next conflict will be, where it will be, or how it will develop once it is under way. In those situations, we need to give the Government the room to govern. Of course Parliament should always be involved—we should always be consulted whenever possible—and I cannot imagine a time when we are not included in the broad aims of any conflict. However, we cannot allow the Bill to pass. We do not know what the precise specifications of every conflict that ever happens will be, and we certainly cannot know what will happen when those conflicts are under way. We cannot put our troops in the position of not knowing whether they would get retrospective approval for any actions that they had to take beyond what Parliament had already agreed. We cannot undermine them in that way.
We sit here, in the comfort and rarefied atmosphere of these green Benches in this beautiful city. How can we know what it is like on the battlefield? How dare we deign to tell our fighting men and women whether they were right to do what they did after they, in all good faith, have already fought and died?
Yes, some of us feel bad about Iraq; some were even in the Government when that decision was made. I think that deposing a murderous tyrant such as Saddam Hussein and introducing democracy to that part of the world was the right thing to do. I know that some people disagree. However, we cannot start changing the law for every future conflict because we feel guilty about how we behaved in the last one. We cannot constrain our troops by telling them, "You fight now—we'll decide whether you were right to fight later." We cannot tie their hands behind their backs. We have to stop thinking about ourselves and start thinking about the brave men and women in Mitcham and Morden and elsewhere.
My heart is very much behind the sentiments of the Bill but my head tells me that it is an unworkable proposition. It is so badly drafted, from the long title to the commencement clause, as to be fatally flawed and not worthy of receiving a Second Reading. It is a recipe for indecision and parliamentary stalemate, and for judicial intervention in matters that are rightly for the Government. It could endanger the lives of our service personnel and has the potential to criminalise our armed forces under domestic and international law.
We have heard a lot today about the war in Iraq—old arguments that we have debated many times. However, this is not about Iraq—it is about the potential future commitment of our armed forces. It is inconceivable, given the way in which the conventions have developed over the years, that any Prime Minister would willingly commit our country to war without the support of this House expressed in an Adjournment debate or a vote such as that which we had on the war in Iraq. It is inconceivable that our Prime Minister could have continued if that vote had gone against him and—I go further—if a majority of Government Members had not voted for the Government's resolution.
What difference would the Bill have made to the war in Iraq? It would have made no difference to the way in which the debates have continued in the House. I doubt that the criteria for which clause 2 provides would have made a difference to the information that the Prime Minister and the Government laid before the House. The dossier, whether it was criticised or not, would have been the same. The legal advice from the Attorney-General, brief or full, would have been the same. Exactly the same information would have been presented to the House. In presenting the Bill, I suspect that there is an element of sour grapes on the part of those who lost the vote.
The hon. Gentleman began by saying that the Bill would have all sorts of terrible consequences. Now he appears to argue that it would have no consequences. Which is it?
If the Bill had been in force at the time of the Iraq war, it would have made no difference. I shall go on to elaborate, in some detail, that the Bill could have serious implications for any future conflicts. It would have made no difference to the proceedings in the House on the Iraq war, save that the motion would have had be presented to the House because of the Bill, not because the Government rightly saw fit to do so.
One difference is that we would have seen the full opinion of the Attorney-General. I gather from many Labour Members that their opinion would have changed if they had read that document.
I take issue with the hon. Gentleman on that. Clause 2(b) provides for presenting
"the legal authority for proposed participation".
It does not state "the opinion of the Attorney-General". It provides only for the legal basis. The one page—inadequate as it may have been; I was satisfied with it at the time—would have been enough to comply with the requirements of clause 2(b). The Bill gets one no further.
However, the measure could have criminalised the actions of our special forces, who, I am sure, were operating in Iraq before the vote. I believe that was right for two reasons: first, to undertake the reconnaissance and intelligence gathering, which provided part of the information that the House needed to make its decision; secondly, to prepare the ground for any future action. Special forces also ensured that important steps were taken to prevent any pre-emptive action by Saddam Hussein, which would have made things even worse. If the Bill had been in force, our special forces could have been committing criminal acts as individuals because their actions would have been unlawful.
My hon. Friend will recall that, in the first Gulf war, SAS troops were deployed in Iraq to intercept Scud missiles that could have been used against Israel and coalition forces before Kuwait was retaken. Examples are found not only in the second Gulf war but in other conflicts of special forces being effective in protecting our troops before the commencement of formal action.
My hon. Friend is right. Let us suppose that Saddam Hussein was preparing to use a chemical weapon or even a conventional weapon against Jerusalem. Let us suppose that he had deployed it. What would have been the consequences not only for the Iraq conflict but for the middle east and the world?
That is an interesting argument. On that basis, any country that feels under threat from any other country at any time would be justified in taking pre-emptive action. Is not that a recipe for endless war?
Certainly not. It is a recipe for the reality of modern armed conflict. Special forces exist and have to be deployed for intelligence-gathering purposes. Their main role is reconnaissance. Everyone knows that. I therefore find it bizarre that, under the Bill, we could not commit special forces without a resolution from Parliament. That would negate the purpose of sending special forces. However, one would not know whether one wanted to send them in the first place if one had not gathered the intelligence that needed to be presented to the House in order to make the decision. There is an incredible circular argument, which means that special forces become unusable if the Bill is passed.
I am sure that no Member of the House would want our special forces to be made redundant, but this matter hinges on the definition of armed conflict, which is not what the normal special forces operation would be considered. Indeed, if the hon. Gentleman is saying that special forces operations ought to be dealt with under Geneva conventions and treated as armed conflict—that that is his position and that of his colleagues on the Front Bench—he is extending the legal quagmire in which existing special forces operations may well be undertaken.
That is entirely the point. The next argument, which I was coming on to, involves the definition of armed conflict in the long title and throughout the Bill. The problem is that armed conflict is defined by referring back to Geneva conventions. It would be illustrative for the House if we considered the Ministry of Defence definitions in relation to some activities that the armed forces get up to. On peacekeeping, the definitions refer to
"operations carried out with the general consent of the disputing parties".
They add this:
"In general terms force may be used only in self-defence."
That is what the MOD guidance, entitled "The Application of Force", says. Peace enforcement is
"Given past experience, one real possibility is that the same forces may be required to employ warfighting techniques, to conduct" the support operations
"and to provide humanitarian assistance all in the same area at the same time."
The problem is that the definitions in the Geneva conventions simply do not provide the focus, definitions or explanations for this dynamic.
Dr. Rachel Kerr, who is referred to in the Library brief, makes it very clear, saying that
"the Bill as it stands does not offer any guidance on this issue".
She goes on to say that
"it is a serious difficulty for the armed forces and something that contributes to the uncertainty surrounding questions of legitimacy, both of the action itself, and what can, or cannot be done in the course of that action".
"leave the interpretation of . . . 'armed conflict' to common sense."
When one's armed forces, Ministers and generals could face a court of law, I think the question of common sense is rather vague. Indeed, I believe that this would infringe their human rights under the Human Rights Act 1998, because the certainty one needs when looking at the definition of criminal law in those circumstances would not be provided.
I have been listening with interest—all this is indeed very interesting—but my hon. Friend has not really answered on his first point, which was that it was right for the Prime Minister to go to war in 2003. Could it be that it was considered right only because the Prime Minister knew in advance that he had the support of the Opposition and would therefore win the vote?
I do not think that that consideration is relevant to our debate today. We are considering the question of potential votes in the future. People voted in the debate on Iraq based on what they were told at the time. My point is that I suspect they would have been told nothing different had the Bill been in force, although that is not the issue before us, which is participation in armed conflict. All the evidence from the academics—and indeed common sense, if I might quote Professor Brazier's own argument against him—tells us that the definition of armed conflict is fluid and difficult, particularly in the context of mission creep.
In an intervention on my hon. Friend Mr. Gerrard, who is no longer in the Chamber, I referred to what happened in Bosnia and Srebrenica. There, the Dutch armed forces were faced with a very difficult situation. The net result was that they stood aside because they did not know where they stood in international law and allowed appalling atrocities to take place.
Without a clear and absolute definition of armed conflict and without proper protection, which the certainty of a clear definition would give, we could, to return to my original point, criminalise not only our Ministers and generals, but our squaddies.
The hon. Gentleman has made the Srebrenica point a number of times, and I have not read the full report to the Dutch Parliament on that terrible matter, but if British troops were deployed to protect people in a UN safe city, our military have the capacity to give them the right orders so that they would be able to protect people if they were under attack.
That presages my arguments under clause 8. I am not sure that that was necessarily the case. As I recall, one of the arguments in relation to Srebrenica concerned the rules of engagement under which the UN was operating at the time. Part of the problem was that they were restrictive and ambiguous, and, facing that, the Dutch troops did not feel willing to commit themselves. As my right hon. Friend's requirement under clause 8 is that action must be either "following a lawful command" or
"in accordance with lawful rules of engagement", those troops are left in an ambiguous position. They do not have time to phone up the Prime Minister to ask him to apply retrospectively for a motion in Parliament, or to wait for a vote in Parliament to decide whether they are allowed to shoot back. I shall return to those arguments later.
I presaged my concerns about clause 2 when I intervened on the question of judicial intervention. It is a question not of the courts overruling Parliament, but of the courts interpreting and ruling on whether the Government's interpretation of what Parliament has decided is lawful and reasonable. Let me give an example. One of the matters that the Government must lay before Parliament is the expected duration of the participation in armed conflict. Let us suppose that the Government say that the war will be over by Christmas—it has been known before—and that the war is still going on at Easter. There is nothing to stop somebody going to the courts to seek judicial review, saying, "The Government are continuing a war without lawful authority, because Parliament debated it on the general understanding that the war would be over by Christmas. It hasn't happened that way. Please, judge, give me an injunction to require the Government to withdraw their troops."
In that case, what is the point of the Bill? The whole point of the Bill is to ensure that Parliament is informed as far as it possibly can be, or as far as the Prime Minister believes that he can go. If it is being suggested that the Prime Minister either tells Parliament nothing or tells it something so vague and wishy-washy that it is utterly meaningless, what is the point of having the debate and the report in the first place?
The fact remains that if a Government go way beyond what is set out in the report to Parliament, they lay themselves at risk of judicial review, of the courts intervening, and of arguments about retrospectivity and what was being done in the intervening time. The next thing will be that our British soldiers are facing war crimes trials here.
My hon. Friend is right. There is no obligation on the Government to come back should the duration of participation stretch from Christmas to Easter, but there is nothing to stop the courts intervening and overruling what the Government are doing in those circumstances. That is a major problem.
In relation to the geographical extent of the participation, let us suppose that our Government said, "Okay, we're going to intervene in Iraq." That would stop any hot pursuit into Syria and Iran, but the border with Iran is somewhat fluid. What would happen to our sailors who were caught on a ship in the Shatt al-Arab waterway by the Iranians and held, allegedly for being on their side of the frontier? If the Iranians are correct about that, those soldiers have committed an offence in international law, and in domestic law under the Bill as it stands, as they have engaged in unlawful military action, because it has not been approved by Parliament. That is not to decry in any way the arguments that others have advanced about the value of such intelligence to our potential enemies.
I asked earlier what difference the Bill would have made if it had been in force at the time of the Iraq war. It would have made one important difference: the decision would not have been taken in this House; it would also have required a vote in the other place. I am a great democrat. I would like to see an elected House of Lords. At present, however, the House of Lords could vote the opposite way from the House of Commons. We could end up with a parliamentary stand-off. Our armed forces could be left in an impossible position in the middle, while we played parliamentary ping-pong with the House of Lords over whether or not the country should go to war. That is not the right way in which to proceed, particularly as their lordships do not have a democratic mandate.
That is a very good argument for reform of the House of Lords to make it a more democratic establishment. But are there not many countries around the world whose Governments would find themselves in a seriously illegal position if they went to war without parliamentary approval? Why should this country be any different, and why does my hon. Friend defend those mediaeval powers? I thought that he was a man of progress.
It is because I am a man of progress that I recognise that the Bill imposes so many constraints on the potential future of our armed forces—along with the potential risk, as international law develops, of our soldiers being put on trial—that I regard this as an extremely dangerous measure. Of course it is imperative for these decisions to be made in Parliament, but in recent years a convention has developed for them to be made in the House of Commons, where they belong, by elected representatives of the people, not by unelected people in the other place.
I know that the Front-Bench spokesmen wish to wind up the debate. I should have liked to have time to deal with, in particular, the question of self-defence. I think that clause 8 is fundamentally flawed, and significantly restricts our soldiers' ability to defend themselves. However, I said something about that briefly in interventions, and I give notice that should the Bill have the misfortune to return to us on Report, I shall table a series of amendments for the purpose of further clarification.