I beg to move,
That this House
supports the principle that parliamentary approval should be required for any substantial deployment of British Armed Forces into situations of war or international armed conflict; and, in the light of the Fourth Report from the Public Administration Committee, Session 2003-04, 'Taming the Prerogative: Strengthening Ministerial Accountability to Parliament', HC 422, and the Fifteenth Report of the House of Lords Constitution Committee, Session 2005-06, 'Waging War: Parliament's role and responsibility', HL 236, calls on the Government to bring forward proposals to give effect to this principle, including mechanisms to ensure that the capability to react rapidly in emergencies is maintained.
Opposition days often—and necessarily—highlight important differences between the parties represented in the House. However, we have chosen for today's debate a subject on which there is gathering consensus in British politics: the need for accepted procedures for giving parliamentary approval for our country's participation in armed conflict.
For years, many hon. Members have given voice to their concerns about the existing arrangements and the need for change. Mr. Gerrard, who is in the Chamber, and Clare Short both introduced private Members' Bills on exactly this theme that enjoyed a good deal of cross-party support. Indeed, the Bill introduced by the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood was sponsored by Labour and Liberal Democrat Members, as well as by my right hon. and learned Friend Mr. Clarke and me, before I rejoined the Opposition Front-Bench team. Mr. Meacher also has a Bill on the subject before the House; I know that the Leader of the House will be pleased that the right hon. Gentleman now has quite a lot of time to pursue that Bill.
In many ways, the fact that we have called this debate has already achieved its objective. It is clear from the Government's amendment that their position is now markedly different from that of only two weeks ago. In a debate in the House of Lords on
"It is the Government's position that the current arrangements reflect the constitutional position. There is more than sufficient parliamentary involvement in that, and it would be both wrong and damaging to change the position."—[ Hansard, House of Lords, 1 May 2007; Vol. 691, c. 1028.]
However, the Government's amendment today proposes a change to the position, which raises the obvious question of whether the Lord Chancellor has been consulted on the matter, or whether his views have simply been ignored. The looks on the faces of Government Front Benchers suggest that his views have been ignored.
Let me make it clear that I welcome the Government's abrupt change of mind, although given that, I have to observe that there is no reason why they could not have simply accepted our motion. One suspects that the only reason why they have not is "not invented here" syndrome. They have tabled an amendment that appears to say much the same as the motion, except that it refers to a "more explicit" role for Parliament, rather than a clear "principle". In respect of emergencies, the amendment has a dig at "some quarters", without saying who those mysterious quarters are, or where they might be lurking. It remarks that it is
"inconceivable that any Government would...depart from this precedent" of voting on military action against Iraq, even though no parliamentary vote has ever taken place on a succession of deployments in Afghanistan. Despite those difficulties, the amendment represents progress, and a major change from the Government's position of two weeks ago. Although we prefer our motion and will vote for it accordingly, if it is defeated we certainly will not oppose the Government's amendment.
It is evident that there has been emerging consensus on the subject in recent years. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has said that
"the time has come to look at those powers exercised by Ministers",
and he said that giving Parliament
"a greater role in the exercise of these powers would be an important and tangible way of making government more accountable".
He said that when he set up the Conservative party's democracy taskforce, which is led by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe. Its interim report states:
"we believe that Parliamentary assent...should be required to commit British troops to any war, international armed conflict or peace-keeping activity."
It goes on to say:
"There will need to be exceptions under conditions of dire emergency, but with a requirement for the Prime Minister then to secure retrospective Parliamentary approval".
The Chancellor of the Exchequer has said something very similar.
May I say how strongly I endorse my right hon. Friend's comments, which reflect what has been said by my right hon. and learned Friend Mr. Clarke? Where a military campaign has run out of constructive purpose, and is being pursued only to satisfy the hubris of a departing Prime Minister and a soon-to-depart American President, would it not be consistent and right for Parliament to have the right to vote to discontinue that campaign, too?
My right hon. and learned Friend is introducing a particular instance into the general argument; I had, conveniently, been pursuing my argument without raising particular instances. However, he raises a legitimate question: if Parliament has the right to hold votes of the kind that we are discussing, how often should the issue be revisited, and in what circumstances would another vote be required? I do not think that it is possible to lay down hard and fast rules about that. It is important to stress that both our motion and the Government amendment call on the Government to produce proposals after consultation—consultation with Opposition parties, I hope—and it is very difficult to lay down rules that cover every eventuality. My right hon. and learned Friend has made his point about the situation in Iraq, but I do not necessarily draw a simple conclusion from it.
Is not one important difference between the motion and the amendment the fact that concern is expressed in the Government's amendment about the security of our armed forces, in the context of the overall point that we are debating? That is missing from the right hon. Gentleman's motion.
No, I do not remotely think that that is a major difference between the motion and the amendment. [Interruption.] Well, it is one textual difference, but there are several textual differences between them. It is not a distinction that makes any tangible difference to the matter on which the House is to decide. The idea that any of us, whether in the official Opposition, the Liberal Democrat party or the nationalist parties, are not concerned with the security and well-being of our forces is pretty fanciful, so that is not a very relevant point.
Will the right hon. Gentleman take this occasion to apologise for the failure of the previous Government to commit our troops to armed conflict in the case of Srebrenica?
I was absolutely right to say that the intervention would not be relevant. I will go on to explain how Governments of both parties have done things in very different ways, in respect of the procedures for armed conflict, but if I were to go into the merits of going into, or not going into, a particular armed conflict, we will be heading way off course. This debate is about the procedures for entering into armed conflict. There are grounds for criticism of all Administrations in that respect, and I want to come on to that point.
Does my right hon. Friend think that the right time to hold the vote is just before a significant number of troops are committed, or should the vote take place before a high-level bombing campaign begins? These days, that is often in advance of the committing of troops.
Again, the conclusion that we come to on such matters must be the result of consultation between the parties. Indeed, there should be consultation outside Parliament, too. My view is that it would be impossible to lay down hard and fast rules that would cover every eventuality. I think that there ought to be a parliamentary debate and a vote before a major deployment of forces overseas, because, of course, there could easily be mission creep that took us from a deployment to actual fighting. As for a bombing campaign, we would have to distinguish between different circumstances. In the case of Kosovo, the international pressure and the build-up of forces were well flagged up before military action took place. In that case it would have been possible to hold a parliamentary debate and a vote. Of course, in a case where bombing is to be carried out as a surprise, it would not be wise to conduct a parliamentary debate beforehand.
I agree with everything that my right hon. Friend has said so far. Does he accept that if the security of this country was urgently and immediately threatened, that would be justification for the Government to commit forces without a debate in Parliament and prior approval of the House? To me, that is essential, and it is one of the reasons why I am concerned about the motion as it stands.
I totally agree with my hon. Friend about that. He need not be worried about the motion as it stands, or indeed about the Government amendment, on those grounds. Our motion refers to
"mechanisms to ensure that the capability to react rapidly in emergencies is maintained."
I shall return to that. The Government amendment respects the need to respond to emergencies.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way; he is being extremely generous. He has stressed several times that we cannot make hard and fast rules for every situation. Does he agree, then, that legislation in this context would be inappropriate, and that what we need is some kind of cross-party consensus, and perhaps a consensus between the two Houses?
I tend to agree that we need some kind of convention, as advocated by the House of Lords Constitution Committee, or changes in the Standing Orders of the House, rather than legislation which has the additional disadvantage that it could be subject to judicial intervention in circumstances of armed conflict. I agree with the thrust of the hon. Gentleman's remarks.
"a case now exists for a further restriction of executive power and a detailed consideration of the role of Parliament in the declaration of peace and war."
Some of us have gone much further than that in the past, and by some of us I mean that I have, and so has the Leader of the House.
In April 2003 the right hon. Tony Benn and I, in what some regarded as a highly unusual alliance, made a joint presentation to the Public Administration Committee, calling for the whole of the royal prerogative now exercised by Ministers, including the power to conclude treaties, the right to reorganise Government Departments, and the administration of the honours system, as well as the power to enter armed conflict, to be brought under parliamentary scrutiny and control. I cannot claim that anything so sweeping is at present the policy of my party or any other party, but the recent splitting of the Home Office with nothing more than a parliamentary statement to accompany it is an illustration of how much vital public business is removed from parliamentary consideration by being conducted under the royal prerogative.
I have always been in good company on that. One Labour politician wrote in 1994:
"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."
That politician was Mr. Straw, now the Leader of the House of Commons, who is anxiously ensuring that he opens the debate for the Government so that he can have his right to move back to the Foreign Office, rather than the Home Office, when the reshuffle is conducted.
The Public Administration Committee came to a clear conclusion in 2004. It conclusions are referred to in both motions. It called on the Government to bring forward specific proposals
"for ensuring full Parliamentary scrutiny of the following Ministerial prerogative actions: decisions on armed conflict; the conclusion and ratification of treaties; the issue and revocation of passports."
The Committee said that
"the prerogative has allowed powers to move from monarch to Ministers without Parliament having a say in how they are exercised. This should no longer be acceptable to Parliament or the people. . . It is now time for this unfinished business to be completed."
The Public Administration Committee considered the royal prerogative as a whole, but the House of Lords Constitution Committee looked into Parliament's role and responsibility on the issue of waging war. Its witnesses included military, academic and diplomatic experts. Its central conclusion was that
"the exercise of the Royal Prerogative by the Government to deploy armed forces overseas is outdated and should not be allowed to continue as the basis for legitimate war-making in our 21st century democracy. Parliament's ability to challenge the executive must be protected and strengthened".
There is a need to set out more precisely the extent of the Government's deployment powers and the role that Parliament can and should play in their exercise.
I am sure that there should be full parliamentary scrutiny. However, one of the issues that concerns me is whether there should be a requirement for a vote in this House and in the second Chamber. If one had two different outcomes in the two different Chambers, that might hamper the Government and the nation in a very serious way. Might not a more sensible approach be to return to the practice of previous centuries whereby this country never went to war unless we had granted supply, which was granted only by this House, not by the two Chambers?
There are various ways of dealing with the problem that the hon. Gentleman describes. The favoured option of the House of Lords Constitution Committee, which was not a bad one, was when time allowed to have a debate in the upper House which would help to inform the debate in this House, but there would be no binding vote on the Government in the House of Lords. In that way, the nation could benefit both from the expertise of the upper House and the democratic legitimacy of the lower House in an appropriate sequence. However, there would be other ways of dealing with the matter.
May I commend to my right hon. Friend the speech by my noble Friend Lord Norton of Louth in response to the report by the House of Lords Constitution Committee, in which he pointed out that to exercise such restraint we need not only mechanisms but the political will? May I take it that the appearance of the name of the Opposition Chief Whip on the motion means that when we are in government he will encourage colleagues to exercise their political will in respect of these matters?
My hon. Friend is right. Our noble Friend Lord Norton of Louth—I was going to refer to him later—made an important speech about the provision of information to Parliament and the political will. My hon. Friend can be assured that the presence on the motion of the name of my right hon. Friend the Opposition Chief Whip means that that will be fully borne in mind in a future Administration. It also means that it is very important to vote for the motion.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that things could change if we have a reform of the upper House, which we are waiting to see whether the new Prime Minister will take through? If we have an upper House that is largely elected, and where no one party has a majority, it might be important to respect that House by having both Houses of Parliament involved in giving approval to the deployment of troops, thereby making Parliament even more effective in its control of these matters.
Although my right hon. and learned Friend and I usually agree automatically on these issues, all I can say is that that must be something that can be borne in mind. It would introduce an additional complexity to matters if the approval of two Houses had to be secured, and one would always have to be sure—at least, most Members of this House would want to be sure—that the supremacy of the House of Commons was guaranteed. However, that is a further matter on which consultation should be held before final proposals are framed.
The House of Lords Constitution Committee argued not for an Act of Parliament, which could subsequently be subject to judicial intervention, but for a parliamentary convention, which could presumably be reflected in the Standing Orders of both Houses, that determined the role that Parliament should play in the deployment of armed forces overseas. It recommended that the Government should seek parliamentary approval if they propose the deployment of British forces outside the United Kingdom into actual or potential armed conflict, and that they should indicate their objectives, the legal basis and the likely duration and size of the operation. It recommended that, if for reasons of emergency and security, prior discussion were impossible, the Government should provide retrospective information in seven days—or as soon as is feasible—and seek approval at that time.
It is not difficult to understand why so many informed and authoritative commentators and Committees of both Houses have concluded that matters need to be changed. In the past 10 years, the UK's armed forces have been deployed in five major military operations overseas—in Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Iraq—and in each case the procedure for parliamentary involvement has differed. The House had a fiercely contested debate and vote about the Iraq war. The Leader of the House subsequently acknowledged that that set an important precedent for the future. On Kosovo, about which there was widespread, cross-party agreement, the debate was held on the Adjournment of the House. We have had many Government statements on Afghanistan, but there has never been an opportunity for a parliamentary vote, despite the fact that it is now the most substantial overseas commitment of the British armed forces, and is likely to remain so for some time.
I draw attention to the variety of procedures not to criticise the current Government but to show that those of us who believe that the accountability of Ministers to Parliament is important to our democracy cannot sit back and think that current procedures are adequate. The number of overseas deployments in recent years has highlighted the problem, as has the controversial nature of at least one, but it is also true that the procedure has similarly varied in previous decades. There was a substantive vote at a late stage on the commitment of troops in the Korean war and the first Gulf war. On the other hand, the debate on the Falklands war took place on the Adjournment of the House. No substantive vote took place on the deployment of forces at Suez.
The arguments for ending the extraordinary variety of procedures, which generally results in the adoption of the one that is least inconvenient to the Government of the day, are strong. There is the case for strengthening Parliament vis-à-vis the Executive across the board. Whether or not the Government in this country have the characteristics of an elective dictatorship, there is widespread concern that the power of Parliament to influence Government decisions has become weaker over the years and that the trend needs to be reversed.
A second and related case is that of democratic legitimacy. In the words of Lord Holme of Cheltenham when he introduced the subject in the Lords on
"The question is: in a modern democracy, not a 15th century monarchy, on whose authority should the young men and women of our armed forces be sent overseas to fight for their country?"—[ Hansard, House of Lords, 1 May 2007; Vol. 691, c. 980.]
A third and related argument is that of reassurance to the nation that, on such momentous matters, debate will, whenever possible, be thorough and informed, and that Ministers must always operate under the constraint of knowing that they will have to explain in the House—prospectively or retrospectively—the basis of their actions.
The former Chief of the Defence Staff, Lord Bramall, put the fourth and crucial argument to the House of Lords Select Committee. He said that the armed forces need to know that the elected representatives of the nation are behind them. As he put it,
"the armed forces need to be reassured... that they have the support of the country... Parliament represents the will of the people and if Parliament supports the action... the armed forces can take heart that constitutionally the country supports it."
Such arguments are compelling, but, of course, we are considering no simple matter. That is why we have given careful thought to the phrasing of our motion, which supports the principle that parliamentary approval should be required and calls on the Government to bring forward proposals to give effect to the principle, so that the practical difficulties that many Departments might raise can be taken fully into consideration. We have called for the principle to apply to "any substantial deployment" of British armed forces, bearing in mind that there is occasionally the need for deployment of special forces or others, in small numbers and in great secrecy, as part of rescue or intelligence missions or anti-terrorist activities.
As I have said to other hon. Friends who have intervened, it is not possible to set out a precise number or quantification, even when we come to Standing Orders or however such matters are embodied. It has to be a matter for the common-sense judgment of the Government and Parliament at the time. Any of the five military deployments of the past 10 years that I referred to—Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Iraq—would count as substantial deployments in the common-sense view of the Government and Parliament. It may not be as difficult to answer my hon. Friend's question on a case-by-case basis as he might think.
We call in our motion for this principle to apply to
"situations of war or international armed conflict", thereby excepting, of course, all domestic and routine military deployments. It is a matter for debate whether peacekeeping operations, which can also involve forces being drawn into danger and conflict, should similarly require parliamentary debate and approval.
We have drawn attention to the work of the Public Administration Committee and the House of Lords Select Committee on the Constitution as the basis of parliamentary consensus because we believe that the latter Committee's recommendation to consider changes by parliamentary convention rather than by Act of Parliament may provide the best way forward.
Finally, we have stressed in our motion that the Government's proposals to give effect to this principle should include
"mechanisms to ensure that the capability to react rapidly in emergencies is maintained."
No parliamentary procedure should stand in the way of the defence of the nation when it is under attack, when coming to the immediate aid of an ally or in meeting our treaty obligations. That is an extremely important point, because in NATO and the European Union we have obligations to take part in rapid reaction forces. Governments should not be constrained in taking action very quickly when necessary, provided that they are confident of being able to justify their actions in Parliament.
May I raise an additional factor: the importance of good intelligence? My right hon. Friend might agree that the key lesson from Iraq was not the issue of parliamentary approval, but of whether the intelligence presented was properly scrutinised and assessed. In that vein, does he agree that parliamentary approval is of secondary importance to good intelligence, because one could easily paint a scenario where, if the intelligence were bad, we would repeat the same mistake that we made in Iraq, irrespective of parliamentary approval to go to war?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point, although I would say that parliamentary approval was not of secondary importance but of parallel and related importance. There should be a formally accepted and generally agreed way of approaching decisions on these matters, but, as on all matters, the quality of those decisions will depend on the quality of the judgment and the available information.
That brings us to questions about how the House should deal with intelligence, which other hon. Members—I have already spoken for half an hour—may wish to pursue in this debate. Relevant issues are the role of the Intelligence and Security Committee, whether it should report to the Prime Minister or the House, whether other Committees should have a role in seeing intelligence under carefully guarded procedures, and the Government's treatment of intelligence, which I shall raise as I reach my conclusion.
I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend, who has been extremely generous in giving way this afternoon. I would like to take up a point arising from what he said before he spoke about intelligence. He said that it would not, in his conception, be necessary to have a parliamentary vote where we were taking military action under treaty obligations. Earlier on, he said that one example of where, in his conception, a parliamentary vote would have been required was Afghanistan. Surely we took military action there as a result of an attack on an ally, which triggered article 5 of the Washington treaty. Does he believe, on reflection, that that was or was not a case requiring a parliamentary vote under his proposals?
It would entirely depend on the speed of the action taken. My point was that where, according to the judgment of the Government of the day, immediate action were required under treaty obligations, they must be able to take it, but they should subsequently come back to Parliament for retrospective information and retrospective approval. Where those treaty obligations lead to a build-up of forces and a plan for a campaign—in the case of Afghanistan, one could argue that there have been three separate stages of deployment over the past six years—there is, of course, a case for prior approval of some deployments. The picture is more complex than my hon. Friend's question allows for and it depends on the speed of the deployments involved.
It must be well within the wit of Ministers to produce the proposals that we are calling for, giving effect through our procedures or conventions to the principle for which I have argued while fully allowing for all the situations that I have just described. I look forward to the Leader of the House saying that they will embark on doing so, and to his accepting our motion in acknowledgement of this gathering consensus. It has to be said, however, that until today the Government have been unwilling to accept that consensus. Their response to the House of Lords Select Committee was thin, to say the least, arguing that
"the Government is not presently persuaded of the case" for establishing a new convention. They also asserted that
"adequate mechanisms for intense Parliamentary scrutiny of executive actions are already in place."
The Lord Chancellor summed up the debate in the Lords two weeks ago—rather forlornly, because all but one of the other speakers endorsed the Select Committee report—by saying that it was a most impressive report but that he disagreed with it. He said that the Committee's proposal was not the right one, yet he declined to make any of his own.
The Prime Minister has also seemed unwilling to establish new and clear procedures. He told the Liaison Committee in January 2003 that he could not think of a set of circumstances in which a Government could go to war without the support of Parliament, side-stepping the large number of occasions on which that support has never been asked for. He went on to say of the royal prerogative:
"I do not see any reason to change it".
However, the Government have never presented any convincing arguments against the conclusions of the Select Committees of this House or of the Lords.
The Lords Committee considered the Government's cursory response to its report to be "inadequate", saying that it failed
"to provide a comprehensive or stand alone outline of the Government's position".
As Lord Mayhew of Twysden put it, the Government's response, promising in a few short paragraphs to keep its policies under review,
"was selected with satisfaction from the office file of reach-me-down brush offs. The Committee, the armed forces and the public deserve better than that."—[ Hansard, House of Lords, 1 May 2007; Vol. 691, c. 993.]
I hope that they are now to get something better than that, although it has taken an Opposition motion on the Floor of the House to achieve it.
I hope that it will not be too much longer before Ministers give further indications of their thinking. I hope that the Leader of the House will say today that they will consult the Opposition parties in drawing up their proposals—I think that he is indicating assent to that. I hope that Ministers will also remember that Parliament can come to sensible decisions on matters of war and peace if it has confidence that the information provided by the Government can be relied on, and that the Cabinet itself has been able to exercise its responsibility to make an informed judgment of the intelligence. That relates to the point raised by my hon. Friend Mr. Baron.
The report of our democracy taskforce, produced by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe, was entitled "An End to Sofa Government", in reference to how the present Prime Minister has run things. In the Lords, my noble Friend Lord Kingsland has drawn attention to the need for Parliament to be able to have confidence that the proper processes of Cabinet government are observed. He drew attention to page 146 of the Butler report, which reads:
"One inescapable consequence"— of the way in which the Government make decisions—
"was to limit wider collective discussion and consideration by the Cabinet to the frequent but unscripted occasions when the Prime Minister, Foreign Secretary and Defence Secretary briefed the Cabinet orally. Excellent quality papers were written by officials, but these were not discussed in Cabinet or in Cabinet Committee. Without papers circulated in advance, it remains possible but is obviously much more difficult for members of the Cabinet outside the small circle directly involved to bring their political judgement and experience to bear on major decisions for which the Cabinet as a whole must carry responsibility. The absence of papers on the Cabinet agenda so that Ministers could obtain briefings in advance from the Cabinet Office, their own departments or from the intelligence agencies plainly reduced their ability to prepare properly for such discussions, while the changes to key posts at the head of the Cabinet Secretariat lessened the support of the machinery of government for the collective responsibility of the Cabinet in the vital matter of war and peace."
If Parliament is to be able to exercise its responsibility, it needs to know that the Cabinet can exercise its responsibility on matters of war and peace, and that Ministers are enabled to do so.
Taken overall, this issue can no longer be brushed away as it was by the Lord Chancellor two weeks ago. The number of conflicts in recent years, the extensive deployments of British armed forces, and the raising of the issue by both the Leader of the Opposition and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, mean that Ministers and their officials must now turn their attention to how the principle of parliamentary approval for participation in armed conflict can be established to the satisfaction of the nation. The acceptance of our motion tonight would supply them with the necessary support and authority, and with a requirement to do so. They seem to be on the verge of making a commitment to doing so, and the Leader of the House should be in doubt that we would hold them to it.
I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:
"welcomes the precedents set by the Government in 2002 and 2003 in seeking and obtaining the approval of the House for its decisions in respect of military action against Iraq;
is of the view that it is inconceivable that any Government would in practice depart from this precedent;
taking note of the reports of the Public Administration Select Committee, HC 422 of Session 2003-04, and of the Lords Committee on the Constitution, HL 236 of Session 2005-06, believes that the time has come for Parliament's role to be made more explicit in approving, or otherwise, decisions of the Government relating to the major, or substantial, deployment of British forces overseas into actual, or potential, armed conflict;
recognises the imperative to take full account of the paramount need not to compromise the security of British forces nor the operational discretion of those in command, including in respect of emergencies and regrets that insufficient weight has been given to this in some quarters; and calls upon the Government, after consultation, to come forward with more detailed proposals for Parliament to consider."
For Parliament and any Government, no issue is of greater gravity and consequence than war: whether to put our servicemen and women in harm's way, in the certain knowledge that some will be injured and some may be killed; and whether to entertain the other two certainties of war—innocent civilian casualties and considerable financial cost—along with the uncertainty of war, of unintended consequences.
Precisely because of the seriousness of such decisions, Parliament, especially this House, has long played a role in holding the Prime Minister and Cabinet of the day fully to account for their decisions. Indeed, there has not been a significant armed conflict overseas since the beginning of the 20th century in which the United Kingdom has been involved where, in one way or another, at the time of decision or in retrospect, this House has not indicated whether, and in what way, it has consented to the Executive decision taken.
The very qualifications in the language that I have just used, however, tell their own story about the question that lies at the heart of today's debate—that the power to make war, and to enter into armed conflict, is currently based on the exercise of the royal prerogative. That, in turn, has meant that Parliament's role, though substantial, is imprecise and less than well defined.
The background of the more general scope of the royal prerogative is set out in two Select Committee reports—one of this House and one of the other place, mentioned in both the motion and our amendment. The first, from the Public Administration Committee, from the 2003-04 Session, is entitled, "Taming the Prerogative". The second, from the Lords' Constitution Committee, from the previous Session, is entitled, "Waging War: Parliament's Role and Responsibility". Each report is, in its own way, a model—well researched, well written and with conclusions that are well argued, even if they have not satisfied all. I say parenthetically that if anyone wants an example of the way in which the Select Committee system has greatly strengthened the role of Parliament in holding Ministers to account and in pushing further reform, those are two.
Mr. Hague generously drew to the House's attention —I would have drawn attention to it had he failed to do so—to the fact that I have never been too enamoured of the royal prerogative as a source of Ministers' decision-making power. As the Public Administration Committee also generously pointed out in its report, I first wrote about the prerogative in some speeches and articles in the 1990s. Many of the major constitutional improvements that the Government have made in the past 10 years have had the effect, direct or indirect, of constraining or removing prerogative powers.
The source of the prerogative is buried in the mists of time—drawn from the period when some claimed that monarchs ruled by divine right and never by the people's will—and predates the English civil war and the 1689 Bill of Rights, so prerogative powers are, as I have indicated, imprecise, as has been Parliament's role in adjudicating on them.
As the Lords report points out, the usual platform for debate on whether to put our troops in harm's way is on a motion for the Adjournment. Let us reflect on how that must look to the public. The question before the House is not whether we go to war but whether we go home: whatever else changes, that must. I disclose no secrets if I tell the House that the Modernisation Committee is likely to recommend a replacement of "debates on the Adjournment" with debates on "subjects of importance", whether or not the debates are subject to a substantive or an open motion.
I have listened to the right hon. Gentleman with total approval so far. It is obvious that his past writings are the reason he is replying on behalf of the Government today. Does he not agree, however, that the Government of whom he remains a member have experienced a conversion as remarkable and rapid as St Paul on the road to Damascus? I can only imagine that that is either because of the drafting of the motion tabled by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and the arguments of the Opposition, or because the Prime Minister has stated his intention of leaving office in the next few weeks. Will the right hon. Gentleman tell me which is the case, and why we are now hearing speeches of this kind when the same propositions have been resisted stoutly for the past two or three years?
No, it is not coincidence; and I think we have taken rather longer than St Paul. We said in response to their lordships' report that we were keeping the matter under review, and that is exactly what we have done.
Let me disabuse the right hon. and learned Gentleman of one notion—that our amendment was drafted in response, literally, to the Opposition motion. Because the Opposition have departed from our practice of tabling Supply day motions early and have been very dilatory, and because I had something else to do yesterday—as the House is well aware—I drafted the amendment on Sunday. Had it been clear that the Leader of the Opposition had used words similar to mine, no doubt we could have agreed on the matter without a Division.
I can tell the hon. Members for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) and for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), and indeed the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks, that if they examine the wording of the amendment they will see that we provide comfort for the Opposition that is absent from the Opposition's own motion. I hope that after further consultation they will accept our amendment without a Division.
Let me answer the hon. Member for Macclesfield by saying, first, that our amendment spells out in more detail why caveats are needed in the exercise of this House of Commons power. It is important to say that, because reports of debates of this kind are read by the military. Secondly, it spells out that there will be consultation, and—as I was going to say later in my speech—of course there will be consultation with the Opposition parties as well as the public. Thirdly, and in many ways most importantly, it is intended to reassure the hon. Member for North Essex in the light of his entirely justified suspicion that those who inhabit the Whips' Offices on either side at all times may just decide to cook something up for their own benefit. What the amendment says and the Opposition motion does not is that we are of the view that the processes adopted in 2002 and 2003 constitute a precedent, and that it is not conceivable that this House would ever depart from that precedent.
As I pointed out and as the Leader of the House has pointed out, the Opposition motion and the Government amendment have a huge amount in common. However, if the Government's response—a response calling on the Government to produce new proposals—was so well prepared in advance of the debate, I wonder why the Lord Chancellor said only two weeks ago that it would be both wrong and damaging to change the position.
The Lord moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform. If I were the right hon. Gentleman I should be pleased that we are arriving at a consensus, and that the House is accepting advice of the kind that I was offering back in 1994.
If the right hon. Gentleman will allow me to make a little more progress, I will give way to him shortly.
As Professor Lawrence Freedman explained in his evidence to the Lords Constitution Committee, since the end of the second world war Britain has been involved in
"more military operations than any other country including the United States".
Some of them were against "anti-colonial independence movements", but
"most were either interstate conflicts or interventions in intrastate wars".
The Lords Committee records that there have been 60 British deployments overseas since 1990, some of them minor, but five major—the Gulf war and the deployments in the Balkans, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Iraq, and, in the 1980s, in the Falklands. In each of the cases before Iraq, Government reported regularly to the House in the form of statements, and the issues were often debated, too.
Let me return to the first occasion in my parliamentary career when war was debated: in April 1982 in respect of the Falklands. There is no question but that Ministers at that time recognised the need to gain—in one way or another—the consent of Parliament. Indeed, Parliament was called to a special sitting on a Saturday. However, the debate was short—it was three hours long—and on the Adjournment, and those that followed were also on the Adjournment. I thought at the time that the Commons should have been able to express whether it consented in a tangible way—by vote. I thought that as a supporter—not an opponent—of military action against Argentina, because I considered that to be the proper role of the Commons. To echo a point made by Lord Bramall in the other place, I also thought that because I believed that our troops, some of whom came back maimed and others of whom never came back at all, deserved to know the level of support that was behind them from the people's representatives in this Chamber.
I quite understand the concern about committing troops on the ground, but what procedures should the House follow prior to a big missile bombardment or aerial bombardment—prior to the exercise of considerable force over a concerted period, not a sudden and extreme raid? I ask that question because when I tabled questions on the amount of bombing in recent years I was not given any answers.
The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks said that the matter we are discussing is not simple, and it is not. The question that Mr. Redwood asks illustrates its complexity The exact circumstances in which this House should in advance have the right to give, or not give, its approval of military conflict decisions must be very carefully considered. Let us look back at the circumstances of the five major wars in which we have been involved and which I just mentioned. Were this new procedure in place, in each case there should have been a debate on a substantive motion, usually in advance—although perhaps, for special reasons, in the case of the Gulf war in retrospect, and an issue might also have been raised in respect of Afghanistan in 2001 to do with our treaty obligations. However, because this is not a simple matter we shall enter into a process of active consideration and consultation to ensure that we get it right and that we do so in a flexible way.
At the time of the Falklands war, the then Government followed precedent, as others before and since have done. Before 2003—the Lords report draws attention to this—there had been only one occasion when the House had voted in advance on a substantive motion: in July 1950 on the Korean war. The motion was agreed without a vote—after, I say to the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks, the then Leader of the House had persuaded the then Leader of the Opposition to withdraw his motion. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman takes note of that.
Again, it depends. In principle, this House cannot bind its successor and that has to be the case, but exactly what should be done in each situation depends on the circumstances. No Member of this House—whether new or antique—would ever wish to put our troops at risk or our crucial national interests in jeopardy. That would have to be taken into account, but in principle if there were a new Administration—not a continuity of an existing one—it would be fully open to, and appropriate for, the Government of the day to propose a motion on such a matter.
What if circumstances change? Given that the justification for that war—that there were weapons of mass destruction that threatened us—was completely different from the present justification, which is that we should try to install a democratic regime, will the Government now allow us a vote on whether our troops should remain in Iraq?
I do not accept that the justification is completely different. Of course I am aware, as all of us are—how could we not be?—of the deficiency of the intelligence in respect of Iraq, but the opinion that Iraq posed a
"threat...to international peace and security" by reason of its proliferation of WMD was the opinion of the whole Security Council, unanimously expressed in resolution 1441 in November 2002. Indeed, I have just quoted its exact words. I know that the hon. Gentleman has taken a consistent and honourable position against the war from the start. The action that we are now taking to sustain a democratically elected Government in Iraq follows directly from a series of United Nations Security Council resolutions that, essentially, give us not just that discretion but that duty to do so.
As I remember, that was a question about which party should be elected —[Interruption.] The issue is that the decision making in our constitution is a matter for the Executive, and whether or not to approve a decision in respect of military action is a matter for this House. Our constitution works on the basis, as most others do, that the Executive propose and Parliament—this House—disposes. We are seeking—I am glad that there is a consensus—to ensure that the role of this House is made more explicit and formal, and that the circumstances in which it is asked by substantive resolution to exercise that role are clearer.
If I may, I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman in a moment. I need to make some progress, as I have already been speaking for just under 20 minutes.
When, in 2002, military action against Iraq loomed as a possibility, many inside and outside this House demanded that any decision be subject to a substantive resolution by this place. I pay tribute to my late and much-missed friend Robin Cook for the way in which, as the then Leader of the House, he faithfully represented in government this House's views. I am glad to have worked with him on this, and the Cabinet unanimously agreed his propositions. In the event, alongside many statements, four full-length debates on Iraq were held in this place between September 2002 and March 2003. Three debates were on substantive motions: in November 2002; in February 2003; and then, of course, in the crucial determining debate in March 2003, which confirmed the decision for military action by a majority of 263.
That set of debates on substantive motions established a clear precedent for the future from which I do not believe there will be, or could ever be, a departure. Indeed, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister put it:
"The fact of the matter is that I cannot conceive of a situation in which a Government...is going to go to war—except in circumstances where militarily for the security of the country it needs to act immediately—without a full Parliamentary debate".
However, there has of course been an issue about whether these precedents and this clear consensus about the role of Parliament should, as I have indicated, be formalised and made more explicit. As the Government's amendment spells out, we believe that the time has now come to do so. If the amendment is passed, we will make more detailed proposals for consultation—yes, including with the Opposition parties. It is important, if we can, to establish a broad agreement to any new process, precisely because of the gravity of its outcome.
Let me now deal—not with levity—with why there has been some hesitation in government on this issue. Hesitation to make more explicit our procedure has not arisen because of any nostalgia for our system of government before the 1689 Bill of Rights. It has done so because of concern about the adverse impact of any new process on the operational discretion of those in command and on the linked ability to respond to emergency situations and other instances requiring secrecy; and, above all, because of concern about the need not in any way to compromise the security and well-being of our troops or damage their morale. Each of those concerns is very serious and none should be dismissed. Many of them were raised by those who gave evidence to the Constitution Committee inquiry, not least those with military experience. Former Air Marshall Lord Garden and Field Marshall Lord Bramall, himself a former Chief of Defence Staff, both stressed that while they were in favour of greater parliamentary involvement in approving decisions on deployment, they strongly opposed parliamentary adjudication of operational decision making.
Former Air Marshall Lord Garden—now a Liberal Democrat peer—cautioned that:
"What you cannot do is end up with Parliament micro-managing the forces, taking tactical decisions, and you have to set thresholds at a level where this will not happen. On any roulement you get a sudden bulge of numbers and then a decrease in numbers. You do not want Parliament involved in that".
Lord Bramall echoed his warning, stating that
"Under no circumstances must parliamentary approval be allowed into the tactical field or the minute field of the way you carry out the operation".
The point that gives me difficulty is the use of the word "substantial". In our current experience, wars do not start with the massing of forces on borders. Instead, they evolve in dribbles. When do we decide that parliamentary permission is needed for a substantial deployment? Does "substantial" refer to firepower or to manpower?
I know that the hon. Gentleman has military experience and I say to him that this is a difficult issue. The motion sets out, as I have, the important caveats to taking a decision in advance of a deployment. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has read the Constitution Committee's report, but if he refreshes his memory on it, he will see the interesting discussion of various conflicts in which we have been involved in which, in the main, we have had the opportunity to consider the matter in advance. Sometimes that has not been the case, but it is significant that it has been the case quite frequently. If we go back through the last 100 years, we see that there has been a build up to every military action that I can think of, and it has been the British Government's decision—to which Parliament consented in one way or another—that has led to the war. I include the second world war, which, yes, turned out to be an existential war involving this country, but the declaration of war was made by us against Hitler, not by Hitler against us.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that although it is likely to increase troop morale if there is solid parliamentary support in advance or at the beginning of an action, it is likely to risk troop morale if the issue is gratuitously reviewed during an action? The suggestions made earlier that the House should regularly return to the issue are therefore perhaps misplaced.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. The House should return to the issue in the sense that regular statements should be made and perhaps debates held, but I can think of nothing more damaging to forces' morale—and many of us have family members in the armed forces—or that would create greater uncertainty and possibly put troops at risk than constant reviewing and the risk that the House would effectively make operational decisions in place of those in command.
The Leader of the House might recall that in March 2004 we had a lengthy debate, which I opened, on the disclosure of the Attorney-General's opinion. Dr. Palmer mentioned troop morale. A major factor in troop morale is knowing that the actions that they take are lawful in international and domestic law. In that regard, will there be a change of emphasis from the Government? In other words, will there be a presumption in favour of disclosure where possible, rather than a presumption against?
For very good reasons, neither I nor my noble Friend the Attorney-General favours having the advice offered to the Prime Minister and the Cabinet by Attorneys-General and Law Officers disclosed publicly, whether to this place or in any other way. In evidence to the Lords, my noble Friend drew a distinction between disclosing the advice and disclosing what amount to his conclusions in respect of that advice—whether, in other words, the conflict was lawful.
That was the practice that the Attorney-General adopted in respect of the Iraq war. He answered a parliamentary question in the other place, which I repeated here, and published a briefing document setting out why he believed—and it was his decision, not the Cabinet's—that the war was lawful. Of course Parliament should be informed about matters such as that, but the arguments against making the legal advice available, as opposed to the conclusions stemming from it, are overwhelming. I hope that the question is not pushed further.
There are two models for making Parliament's role more explicit: one is by statute, the other by resolution of this House, including Standing Orders and convention. When the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks gave evidence to the Public Affairs Committee—and in his speech he slightly slid over this as, unlike some of us, I think he has changed his mind—he said that a more explicit role for Parliament could be laid down in an Act of Parliament or in the Standing Orders of the House. However, the report states that he went on to call
"for a measure that was 'simple and flexible' to ensure that the House was able to discuss whether it should give its approval for military action. He was, however, concerned, that a comprehensive War Powers Act on the American model would find itself 'overtaken by events' because 'an international situation will arise in the next 20 years that is entirely different from anything we have ever experienced—and we would find such an act did not cater for it".
As we proceed with the consultation, we will look at the various ways to achieve the objective that I believe the whole House shares. As it happens, the Constitution Committee came down firmly against the statutory route, and raised a number of objections to it. The Committee said that a statutory requirement could create confusion about the legal status of our armed forces, and added that any challenges to the legality of a deployment could have a negative impact on the morale of the forces involved. Furthermore, it said that the possibility that troops could face prosecution was wholly unacceptable.
Aside from creating legal problems and potentially drawing the courts into the decision-making process, a legislative framework would have to ensure explicitly that it did not have a negative impact on an ability to react to emergencies. Examples of such emergencies might be the hostage rescue mission in Sierra Leone or, more recently, the UK evacuation of civilians from the Lebanon, where secrecy and speed, respectively, were essential.
The deployment of our forces in the modern world will almost always be part of a coalition. Timetables are not necessarily under our control, and flexibility is needed. Our military involvement could be less timely, and therefore less effective, if an inflexible statutory process and legal challenges to a deployment further delayed commitment. However, I make it clear that we will look at and consider both sets of suggestions that have been put before the House.
The alternatives to statute could be a resolution of both Houses, Standing Orders or conventions. As my hon. Friend Chris Bryant noted, that inevitably raises the question of differences between the two Houses and their respective roles. Of course, both Houses have an absolute right to discuss decisions relating to military action, and to be consulted and kept informed by Government. However, in the final analysis, the primacy of the Commons must be upheld—and I believe that that must apply even after the other place has been reformed. I rely on the words of the noble Lord Norton of Louth—
The Leader of the House is having difficulty answering the central question of when a vote would be triggered in the event of mission creep, but he is also having trouble with saying when the House, having held an initial vote, might be able to vote again if circumstances change. For example, let us suppose that the House votes to approve the deployment of forces in a war. If the main reason for going to war changes, should the House vote again?
First, those judgments have to be made in the circumstances of the time. I am not trying to dodge the point—that happens to be true. Secondly, in respect of major conflicts I have been of the view that there should have been substantive motions. Mr. Clarke takes a similar view—I have read what he said. Those examples are clear; they define themselves. Thirdly, there are difficulties in the way of the changes that I think the House wants to agree, but they are not insuperable and should not be a reason for resting at the status quo. With good will and the commitment to our armed forces that we all share, we can overcome those difficulties.
Does the Leader of the House, who chairs the Modernisation Committee on which I sit, accept that we are likely to move towards the very structure that he has proposed to the House, and that there will be debates in the House on substantive or meaningful motions to enable the House to express a view one way or the other? That is likely to be a recommendation of the Modernisation Committee's current inquiries and is—I point out to colleagues on both sides of the House—a result of representations made to us from both sides of the House.
Indeed. It seems as though the recommendations of the Modernisation Committee are moving in that direction. We are certainly proposing to change the title "Adjournment debate"; it is ludicrous and outdated and even in the House no one can understand why we move to go home and then spend six hours discussing not whether we are going home but issues of major importance. The Government have tried to make better use of substantive motions for subject debates as well as for debates on specific issues. Of course, judgments have to be made; for example sometimes—as I have done myself—in foreign policy areas it is better for there to be open debate without a specific resolution, as sometimes there may be, too, in respect of reviewing the progress of military action. Finally, it is always open to the Opposition to table a substantive motion, although neither Opposition has tried to do so in respect of military action during my 28 years in this place.
I am most grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. The advantage of a non-substantive motion is that it can allow the House to air views without necessarily intending to divide the House. Nevertheless, it was just such a motion that led to the downfall of the Chamberlain Government on
I accept that. Some of us were in the Chamber on
If the House is to vote, we must have the right information. The right hon. Gentleman referred to the crucial debate on
This is not the occasion to rehearse all that, but no one sought to mislead the House, or to act in that way. Four successive inquiries found no shred of evidence of any desire by members of the Government, including my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and me, as Foreign Secretary, to mislead the House. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, the then Secretary of State for Defence and I sought to put before the House as much information as possible, including extensive documentation of what the United Nations was deliberating and deciding in respect of its view that Iraq posed that threat to international peace and security. That is the fact of the matter. Yes, there was an argument about whether it was appropriate to take military action, but there was much less argument, internationally and here, about whether, at that stage, on the public and secret information available, Iraq posed a threat to international peace and security.
The vote on Iraq in 2003 set a clear precedent for the need for the substantive involvement of Parliament in decisions on armed conflict, but now is the time to formalise that precedent and to define its scope. The Constitution Committee has provided a helpful starting point, setting out the core characteristics that might define such a process: principally, that Government should seek parliamentary approval in respect of any decisions on the major or substantial deployment of British forces outside the UK, that they should indicate the basic objectives and nature of any such deployment, and that they should keep Parliament informed of progress. We will make more detailed proposals, as I said. It is vital, not just for the House, but for those we represent—particularly, the brave men and women who comprise our armed forces—to get this matter right.
At the end of his speech—the serious part of his speech was sandwiched in the middle—the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks started to have a bit of fun by talking about what he called presidential government. I am glad that he mentioned that the charge is levied—entirely inaccurately—not only against this Government; it has also been levied by the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe against previous Administrations, including a number in which he served, in an interesting document from the democracy taskforce, which he chairs.
However controversial the decision to go to war against Iraq may have been, it was a decision in which senior Ministers—myself included—were actively involved, not just day by day, but hour by hour. It was a decision that was made by Cabinet and explicitly approved by the House on a substantive motion of exactly the kind that we all now want to make standard and to embed within our procedures.
Nor does the evidence support the oft-heard allegation that there was once some golden age in the '50s and '60s when Parliament reigned supreme. All the historical and expert evidence points the other way. It points to an increasingly active, effective Commons—as well as Lords—and to the much greater accountability of Ministers generally. From the establishment of departmental Select Committees by Norman St. John-Stevas—a great reformist Conservative Leader of the House—in 1979 to the many improvements made in the last 10 years, including the Human Rights Act 1998, which has quite properly made Ministers much more judicially accountable for their many decisions, and the recent move to Select Committee-style hearings on Bills, this place has become more effective and Members much more active.
That process has to continue. We have by no means reached a state of grace in the necessary balance of power between the Executive and the legislature. We want to see this place—this Parliament—strengthened. Reforms of the kind set out in our amendment on what should be Parliament's crucial role in approving or withholding consent for the decision to go to war are justified in their own right and are further steps on the road to making a constitution fit for this century, not for the last. I commend our amendment to the House.
This is an important debate, as illustrated by the quality of the opening speech from the Opposition and of the Government's response. National security is surely the most important responsibility of any Government and committing our armed forces is the most serious decision ever taken by a Government. Parliament ought to be central to that decision. As a party, we have long supported the principle of parliamentary approval for participation in armed conflict. On
"no commitment to introduce legislation to clarify the responsibility of the Prime Minister to Parliament, particularly in relation to the prerogative powers and the role of Parliament in matters of war and peace".—[ Hansard, 1 December 2004; Vol. 428, c. 742.]
In October 2005, Liberal Democrat Members were present in significant numbers to support the Armed Forces (Parliamentary Approval for Participation in Armed Conflict) Bill, which was promoted by Clare Short and owed a great deal to Mr. Gerrard. The Bill had significant cross-party support. Accordingly, we will support the Conservative motion in the Lobby.
We are entitled to pause to reflect on the significance of the change of heart that the motion represents. While the Chancellor might have missed the vote in 2004 on our amendment to the Humble Address, Mr. Cameron, who is now the Leader of the Opposition, voted against it. The following year, on Second Reading of the private Member's Bill introduced by the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood, the Conservative spokesman made a speech in which he identified no fewer than six or seven major areas of concern. The motion thus marks quite a turnaround. However, I must give credit to the shadow Foreign Secretary because he was a sponsor of the right hon. Lady's Bill and had gone on record about the matter before the Public Administration Committee as early as March 2004. Even with his famous powers of persuasion, he must be quietly pleased that he has turned Conservative thinking so thoroughly on its head in the period since then, not least in the absence of any significant new developments or tests of principle since his leader voted against the very idea only two and a half years ago.
With a few honourable exceptions, Conservative Members are in the midst of a public U-turn. However, the Government's position is nowhere near as clear cut. Few would be surprised that Labour Members voted against our amendment to the Humble Address in 2004, or would need any reminder that the Minister for Europe, the then Leader of the House, effectively talked out the Armed Forces (Parliamentary Approval for Participation in Armed Conflict) Bill in October 2005. However, something odd has certainly happened. The Government seem to be changing their mind for some strange reason, even though, as the Leader of the House pointed out, his credentials on the matter go back a very long time.
The trouble is that the change is happening in awkward slow motion, which means that the Government amendment is a curious creation. We cannot entirely put that down to the fact that it was drafted on a Sunday, probably somewhere a long way from the House. The Government are edging in the right direction through the amendment, but they cannot quite bring themselves to accept wholeheartedly the principle of parliamentary approval for our forces' participation in armed conflict. The amendment states that following the votes held before the beginning of the conflict in Iraq,
"it is inconceivable that any Government would in practice depart from this precedent".
It also says:
"the time has come for Parliament's role to be made more explicit"— whatever that means. Although, as ever, the Leader of the House made an elegant and entertaining speech, he did not quite spell out what he had in mind. At the risk of being churlish—
If the Leader of the House had spelled that out, would not the hon. Gentleman be criticising him for bringing forward proposals without the necessary consultation?
I do not think that the hon. Gentleman can get away with that. The Leader of the House, in his usual way, was making an elegant attempt to square the Government's very difficult position that the shadow Foreign Secretary exposed, given what the Lord Chancellor and others had said.
I was trying to be churlish—I was almost denied the opportunity. When the Government say that
"it is inconceivable that any Government would in practice depart from" the Iraq precedent, we need to pause for a moment. It was, of course, an important breakthrough that there were votes on different motions. On
As has been said in debates in the House in recent months, we still need a full inquiry into what happened before the disastrous intervention in Iraq. There is an ever more urgent need for consideration in terms of the withdrawal of our armed forces. We will return to those issues on other occasions—or at least we hope that we will, although opportunities to debate, in Government time, what has happened in Iraq since the conflict began have been almost non-existent. If Parliament's role is to become more explicit, it cannot be involved only at the outset of military action; it must have an appropriate role in considering what follows. We welcome the Government's intention to consult and to bring more detailed proposals before Parliament, but we must hope that Ministers intend all those issues to be taken into account.
Whatever lies behind the changed or changing positions of Members on both sides of the House, we appear to be reaching a defining moment in Parliament, in which we assert our position and take on more responsibility for some of the most difficult decisions that a country ever faces, and not before time. In this fiercely uncertain world, the United Kingdom retains a key role in seeking to establish peace and in maintaining order. As previous contributors have mentioned, Britain has more than demonstrated that in the past decade in Kosovo, Sierra Leone and Afghanistan, never mind in countless smaller-scale expeditions. Time and again, our armed forces have demonstrated their bravery, commitment and professionalism.
In Parliament, there have been Adjournment debates, statements and questions aplenty, but, with the exception of Iraq, there have been no votes. That surely has to change. Let us be clear about one thing: the principle of parliamentary approval for the deployment of our armed forces into conflict will not make things easy. Every one of us in the Chamber will be faced with a major responsibility that will never be comfortable. However, given what we ask of our young men and women on the front line, the least that they should expect of us is that we give serious consideration to the matters of life and death that they face. That is also what people across the country now expect. A million people took to the streets in anger and frustration to express their opinions on Iraq. The 21st century media allow people to absorb news from countless sources and to take part in debates online or in the studios, and they find it hard to believe that although the issues and the nature of the debates have moved on, our procedures in Parliament have not.
As the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood, said when she introduced her Bill 18 months ago:
"the distance between public opinion and the power of the Executive is too great in our constitutional system".—[ Hansard, 21 October 2005; Vol. 437, c. 1087.]
When the Government bring forward proposals, as they have pledged to do in their amendment, they must seek to bridge that gap and to create a new balance that gives Parliament a legitimate role, while recognising the legitimate needs of Government to make appropriate, timely decisions about the deployment of our armed forces. The motion recognises that and mentions
"mechanisms to ensure that the capability to react rapidly in emergencies is maintained."
The Government's amendment is right to stress
"the paramount need not to compromise the security of British forces nor the operational discretion of those in command, including in respect of emergencies".
I think that hon. Members on both sides of the House accept that there will be circumstances in which a Government will have to go to war without getting the prior approval of the House, and in which retrospective legislation will need to be sought. Does the hon. Gentleman agree—I hope that the Government agree, too—that if retrospective approval is refused by the House, it is important that that should not de-legitimise the conflict that has taken place up to that time? That would put our armed forces in a very difficult situation and would be intolerable. The effect of a refusal of retrospective approval should only be to require the Government to withdraw from the conflict; it should not de-legitimise what has happened up to that point.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman makes an important point. I am happy to agree with it, and I am sure that it will find support among Members from across the House.
In seeking to strike a new balance between the Executive and Parliament, most of our initial attention must be focused on our deficiencies in respect of parliamentary oversight and Executive accountability. The rag-bag of statutes, powers and conventions that make up what passes for a British constitution gives plenty of scope for unaccountable Executive authority. The very notion of the royal prerogatives, dating from the mists of time, creates an air of mystery, but beneath the colourful, confusing veneer, many of those prerogatives have morphed into modern-day instruments of raw Executive power. Many outside this place find it staggering that the Prime Minister alone can take the decision to enter into armed conflict. The Cabinet's role is not formalised, never mind Parliament's. Although politically it would be hard to ignore a vote in the Chamber that had gone against the Government, there is no explicit constitutional bar on the Prime Minister of the day doing just that. That must change, too.
The way in which government is conducted must also change. As I said before, we have not yet had a full inquiry into the disastrous decision-making processes that led to our participation in the Iraq conflict, but through the Hutton and Butler reports and the work of right hon. and hon. Members on the Committees of the House, we have had a glimpse of the informal and ill-judged way in which the Prime Minister took us to war. Certainly, we have learned more than enough for Parliament to demand more.
We start from a position that may be slightly different from that of earlier speakers. On matters of such significance, we should have legislation, rather than simply tweaking Standing Orders. That is why we supported the private Member's Bill in the past. All of us must be prepared to discuss these matters when the Government's proposals are submitted for consultation. In the private Member's Bill that was debated 18 months ago, there were sensible proposals that provided a proper starting point for that debate. I hope that the Leader of the House will examine those proposals closely as he considers what to bring forward.
The House will not have moved the game on unless any vote that we are asked to take is based on the kind of report envisaged by the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood and many others, which sets out the reasons for the proposed action and the legal authority for it—more like the 13-page opinion from the Attorney-General on
We must look at how that scrutiny is maintained appropriately once the conflict has begun, and later when it has finished. If we are to consider new ways in which the Executive explains its reasons for and seeks support for military action, surely we must also find new ways of scrutinising events afterwards. Positions on this have changed and hardened in the light of the Iraq experience, with the Conservatives now also committed to an inquiry, at an appropriate time, into what happened.
A great deal of political energy has been expended on the demands for and rejections of inquiries. Without constraining the Committees of the House in the work that they undertake, we ought to have a clearer system of review which, at the right moment, allows proper investigation of the background to conflicts and our involvement in them. Governments can no longer expect Members of the House or members of the public to accept anything at face value. After Iraq, who will?
During the Second Reading debate on the private Member's Bill, a range of voices were raised in opposition to it. Legitimate issues were highlighted but, sadly, the clear objective for many on the day was to see the Bill killed off. That it was not even allowed to progress into Committee when ample opportunity was given makes that clear beyond doubt.
Whatever the reasons, we on the Liberal Democrat Benches welcome the fact that the political winds have changed direction. We must quickly return to all the detailed issues at the heart of this debate. Our priority must now be for Parliament to be put at the centre of decision-making and scrutiny, where it belongs.
There are two reasons why I enter into this debate. First, we are discussing a hugely important constitutional issue that involves democratic accountability, which I now regard as one of the central issues of our time. Had I had a little more opportunity in the leadership contest, I would certainly have been advancing the arguments for reform very strongly. Secondly—Mr. Hague had the grace to refer to this at the beginning of his speech—I am currently promoting a private Member's Bill, the Waging War (Parliament's Role and Responsibility) Bill.
It is surely one of the most astonishing comments on our so-called—I say that deliberately—British democracy that in this country the decision to go to war, which, as all Members have said, is the gravest decision ever facing a nation, is still taken by one person alone, the Prime Minister, and there is no requirement to seek parliamentary approval. I acknowledge that the Government's amendment states—I hope that this is correct—that it is "inconceivable" that there would not be a parliamentary vote, in accordance with what happened in 2002 and 2003, in committing this country to war. However, even if that were true—and the fact is that there have been several occasions when it was not—it is, in my view, not sufficient in a parliamentary democracy, on an issue of such gravity, to rely on such assumptions. We do not, of course, have a written constitution—I do not expect that to change at all quickly—but this is a matter that must be clarified explicitly, beyond any conceivable doubt.
That is all the more so given that, as I was amazed to find in my preparations for this debate, even where the Prime Minister of the day does allow a parliamentary vote, and that vote is opposed to war, the Prime Minister still has the absolute power to ignore the result of that vote and to commit the nation to war. That applies both where the vote is taken after the declaration of war, as in the case of the Attlee Government over the Korean war and the Major Government over the 1991 Gulf war, and where the vote is taken shortly before the start of war, as was the case with the Blair Government over Iraq.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that, in practice, if Parliament really had substantial disagreements with the Prime Minister of the day on an issue of war and peace, he would not be able to pursue it because he would be immediately brought down by a vote of confidence?
I understand that point. In practice, that may well be the case. It is extremely difficult to envisage a Prime Minister losing a vote on a matter of such weight and still proceeding. However, my point is that it is simply unacceptable, however unlikely it might be, that the constitutional position remains that he or she would be entitled to take that course. If Parliament has any sense of its own dominance in the final decision, that is not a situation that we can allow to continue.
It is equally true that there is at present no requirement to have a parliamentary vote on a substantive motion to take the country to war. That was the case when Britain went to war in the Balkans in the 1990s. There was lengthy fighting in Bosnia and in Kosovo for which there had been no parliamentary approval. It is also true that even where a vote is called, it can be arranged, as I am sure that all Members remember extremely well, at the last minute when British troops are fully deployed, just before the outbreak of hostilities, as of course happened on
The right hon. Gentleman is right that, had the vote in March 2003 been the only one, it would have constituted an unacceptable pistol held to Parliament's head. However, there were two previous votes on Iraq—one as early as November. Despite amendments—I suspect that the right hon. Gentleman was one of the signatories to them—the House none the less agreed that we would effectively go to war.
The hon. Gentleman says that the House agreed that we would "effectively go to war". I do not believe that the motions as they were drafted at the time were perceived as being as explicit as that. I shall have to refresh my memory—perhaps that also applies to the hon. Gentleman. They gave an indication of the direction of the Government's thinking and that of the Prime Minister's intentions, but they were based on the information that was given to the House at the time. That is an important consideration.
Perhaps I could remind the House that my right hon. Friend was then a member of the Government and diligently supported the Government line.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for reminding me of a fact about which I have been asked on every platform in the past few weeks. I repeat that it is correct: I made that decision, and I continue to regard it as the biggest political mistake of my life. However, my defence is that I believed what I was being told. I have no regrets about that explanation because it is true.
We should not get locked into a discussion about Iraq. The debate is not an argument about the rights and wrongs of going to war over Iraq in the sense that we should introduce a decision-making procedure that would prevent such a result in future. A large majority in the House and the nation now take such a view about Iraq, but that is not the point, which is much wider. Irrespective of the rights or wrongs of particular wars, the decision to go to war is so paramount to the life of the nation that it should be made only by an elected Parliament on a substantive vote, well before events have moved to such a point that Parliament has little or no alternative to ratifying a decision that has already been reached.
The matter, more than any other issue, raises the question of democratic accountability in Britain, which has withered away in the face of a marked centralisation of power in the past 30 years. The power of the Prime Minister under successive Administrations has increased, is increasing and should be cut back. Many of the previous checks and balances have been eroded and some of the pre-existing autocratic powers in the hands of successive Prime Ministers, derived from the monarchs of previous ages under a totally different system of governance, have been consolidated further. The right to take a country to war, irrespective of parliamentary or public opinion—that is the actual position, however unlikely it may seem—is the clearest example of that.
Under the royal prerogative over the centuries, the powers of the Crown, exercised by the Prime Minister, without consultation with either the Cabinet or Parliament, include the right to declare war or make peace, to sign or ratify treaties, to confer honours—recent events might suggest that that is another subject that Parliament should further consider—to make appointments, to establish commissions and to grant pardons.
I am pleased that considerable advance has been made inasmuch as the democratisation of those prerogative rights is, it seems, increasingly advocated by all the political parties. Other political parties can speak for themselves, but I am pleased to say that my party, when in opposition, said that it would 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".
The document particularly emphasised as central areas of concern both going to war and the ratification of treaties. One smarts a little about this, but I have to say that it is rather regrettable that the Government have repeatedly sought to block private Members' Bills that have tried to provide validity to those aspirations. It would, of course, be very much better if the Government legislated, which is what is needed, so it is essential that, in the light of this debate, the Government now bring forward their proposals to implement that commitment.
In addition to the democratic dimension, strong constitutional arrangements are important. I am pleased that attention has been given to the crucial point that evidence cited to justify such a momentous decision as going to war should be full and transparent—subject to the strict dictates of national security, which is, of course, another problem, as all Governments regrettably use national security as a way of concealing information that might be damaging to themselves. In the case of Iraq, that would mean that the Attorney-General's full advice on the legality of the war—the 17-page version, not just the one page—would be made available, as would the evidence on the existence and threat of weapons of mass destruction, insofar as it was available to the intelligence services, and the proper reporting of what turned out to be crucial in that case, which is the key French position on the possible use of the veto in the Security Council.
All of that would need to be laid before Parliament. Had all that information been made available in the months running up to March 2003, I think that a very different decision might well have been reached in Parliament. If such full information were provided, all of those matters would be much more thoroughly scrutinised and the manipulation of the evidence would become much more problematic. I might add that this is even more the case in an era of what some have called "sofa Government". The informality with which even major decisions are taken was devastatingly documented in the Butler report. Again, sadly, cross-departmental consultation and negotiation is today much less constant and less systematic.
For all those reasons, as I said, I introduced a Bill in February. Either because of the luck of the draw—I was low down in the order—or for other more mischievous reasons, I have not previously had the opportunity to put my case to the House, so I am grateful to the Opposition for the opportunity to do so now. The Bill requires that the approval of Parliament be sought before British armed forces can be deployed in military action. For that purpose, it also requires the Prime Minister to lay before both Houses of Parliament a report setting out the objectives, the legal basis and the likely duration of the proposed military action.
The Bill also deals with important situations where the Prime Minister may need to determine that deployment is urgently necessary before the approval of the House of Commons can be achieved. We should not in any event seek to prevent that, but in such circumstances—they would, I think, be rare—the Bill requires that the Prime Minister must still lay a report before Parliament within seven days of the commencement of troop deployment. I believe that that is a reasonable compromise.
Those demands are not out of step. There is nothing remarkable about any of the proposals, and it is not as though we would be making any great democratic advance by adopting them. Rather, we would be catching up with what other countries already do. In the United States, for example, the War Powers Resolution of 1973 states that if the approval of Congress for waging war is not secured within 60 days, the President must withdraw US forces within a further 30 days.
The proposals that we are discussing today represent a crucial change whose implementation is long overdue. As we now know from the leaking of the Downing street memo, the Prime Minister apparently committed the UK to war in Iraq in secret in April 2002 by giving his word to President Bush at his ranch in Texas. The fact that, under the present arrangements, he could legitimately argue that he was entitled to do so—I believe that that is the case—is precisely why those arrangements need to be reformed. I submit that it is now our duty in this House to put in place proposals to ensure that that kind of personalised, secretive and undemocratic decision making, reminiscent of a long bygone age and totally unsuitable for a modern constitutional democracy, is brought to an end, and that Parliament takes the role that we all know the nation and the electorate clearly demand.
I have debated many times over the years with Mr. Meacher, but I cannot remember another occasion on which I have agreed almost completely with everything that he has said. For the sake of his left-wing credentials, and of my own position in my party, I will also say that I cannot think of any other subject on which we would get so close to each other's views. I endorse what he has said today, however, and I particularly agreed with him when said that the motion tabled by my right hon. Friend Mr. Hague had provided the opportunity for a significant constitutional change. We are not debating a small matter here.
Suddenly, resistance has crumbled to the important assertion of the role of Parliament in a modern democracy, and to the way in which we will establish legitimacy for going to war in future. This is therefore an important occasion. So far, the debate has attracted only what I would call the true believers, and only a few weeks ago they would have found themselves in a small minority. The Leader of the House was able to find a 1994 book, in which he put forward admirable sentiments—which, alas, were not adopted by the Government in which he has served for 10 years. Everyone else who has spoken has form on this issue, including through supporting private Members' Bills seeking to make this change, which have been flatly opposed by the Government.
It is important that we true believers not only rejoice on seeing the sinners coming to repentance, but take advantage of the occasion to give an indication of what we want to come out of this. The Government's amendment to the motion is expressed in broad generalities, but we must ensure that the process is changed, so that in some highly controversial future situation of which none of us can yet be aware, some future Government do not try to rely on the wrong bits of the proposals or slip back from where we appear to be going.
This change seems to be one of the few beneficial outcomes of the recent Iraq war. We are not, of course, debating the merits of the war today, but it is the controversy surrounding it that has led to this change. It has revealed how weak our constitutional arrangements for going to war have been, and the dissatisfaction with that process has produced this significant shift in position. The decision to take part in the invasion of Iraq was based on the Prime Minister's power to advise on the exercise of the royal prerogative, and it is long overdue that we should assert, in contradiction to that, that the Prime Minister and the Government derive their power from Parliament, not from the monarch, and that the arrangements resulting from the Glorious Revolution of 1688 are totally unacceptable to Parliament in 2007. I very much hope that the Lord Chancellor's defence of the 1688 Glorious Revolution and the royal prerogative on this subject, made only two weeks ago, will be the last defence of that arrangement heard in British politics from any sensible source.
I am not sure that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is entirely correct to say that the Iraq war is a good example of the royal prerogative being inappropriately used. Does not he agree that the Prime Minister's decision to have a vote on the conflict changed the landscape here, and that we are now seeking to institutionalise such a vote as the norm? Does not he also accept that the controversy that has continued to surround that conflict shows that a parliamentary vote is not the only way of resolving such difficult issues, and that we need to consider the whole question of war making as a process?
Certainly, the Prime Minister and the Government were persuaded that they had to move to a substantive vote. I give credit for that to the Government, and particularly to Robin Cook, who, according to the account that we heard from the Leader of the House earlier, persuaded his colleagues that it was not possible to carry on resisting the demand for a substantive motion in the House of Commons. That changed things to a certain extent. I understand why the Leader of the House should have tabled a motion, and should make a speech today, pointing out that that is a precedent on which we will never go back; it is skilful advocacy to take credit for that now, and to claim that that is the basis on which the change is being made.
I urge caution, however. For the reasons given by the right hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton, on which I shall try to expand in my speech, that was not a satisfactory precedent in many ways. The circumstances in which the vote was taken revealed the weakness of not having had a vote before. Although it became impossible for a present-day Government to resist putting a substantive motion to the House of Commons, that was not satisfactory. Indeed, continued dissatisfaction with the recent process led Clare Short to table her Bill, which I supported, led the right hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton to table his Bill, and should lead us all to clamour for reform. Now that things have moved, the consultation should lead to our considering in great detail how to enshrine the process to make sure that when Parliament is given its right to vote and scrutinise in future, it can do that properly, without a pistol held at its head, in full knowledge of all the relevant information, and in a position actually to influence the outcome. We are not there yet.
I would adopt as a starting point the recommendations of the House of Lords Constitution Committee. I was pleased that the Leader of the House referred to those recommendations with apparent approval, and I hope that that means that the Government will look to the report of that Select Committee, chaired by Lord Holme, a Liberal peer, as the starting point. It is important that we consider what that Committee eventually recommended, on page 43 of its report. To save time, I shall paraphrase it, but only a little.
That report said that the Government should be required to seek parliamentary approval if they propose the deployment of troops outside the United Kingdom in an area of conflict, and that that decision should probably be subject to scrutiny by a Select Committee and in other appropriate ways. It recommended that prior approval should be required as the trigger for the deployment of troops, and that subsequent ratification of that approval should take place if circumstances change after the deployment is first made. It also said that the Government should be required to put forward the legal basis of the possible warfare or conflict that may arise from the deployment, and that the case for going to war should be set out clearly for parliamentary scrutiny.
The one point on which I differ from the Select Committee—and which is open to further argument—is that I would prefer as much of this as possible to be put on a statutory basis, whereas the Committee came down on the side of parliamentary convention. There are enormous difficulties involved in the drafting of a suitable statute. We do not want too rigid an arrangement to cover an infinite variety of circumstances, which may on occasion require some common sense and flexibility. I regret to say, however, that I have declining confidence in the power of convention in the British constitution. I used to be a great supporter of the place of convention in the constitution, because I prefer political sanctions to legal sanctions and intervention wherever possible, but I regret to say that in modern times I have seen more parliamentary conventions laid on one side when expediency determines than I have seen statutes defied or revised. Other countries have found it possible to put similar processes on a statutory foundation, and I do not think it should be beyond proper consultation, and the wit of parliamentary draftsmen, to find an appropriate basis for this process, as long as suitable discretion is allowed not only for emergencies but for all the other myriad circumstances to which Members have already referred today.
My right hon. and learned Friend is correct in saying that other countries have found it possible to adopt a statutory approach, but may I suggest that that may not be a proper comparison? The United Kingdom is one of the very few countries that use their armed forces for a wide range of activities and operations in many parts of the world, including not just conflict but peace enforcement and peacekeeping. What would concern me enormously about a statutory approach is that the problem would be dealt with in a very rigid way that could seriously impede the ability of our armed forces to perform properly the task they had been given. As we have all agreed, circumstances will constantly change, and if it were necessary to refer constantly to some Act of Parliament rather than using the greater flexibility allowed by a convention, we might do a great disservice that we certainly do not intend.
I agree that that danger must be avoided in the drafting of a statute. A hugely complex, detailed and prescriptive statute would be a mistake. However, I do not think that it is beyond our abilities to produce a statute setting out firmly the framework of the process that should be followed, leaving adequate discretion to both Government and Parliament to use it as common sense and politics dictate in particular circumstances. That is, of course, something that can be considered during the consultation that the Leader of the House has proposed.
Why do I say that it is not good enough merely to adopt the precedent of the vote that we had? I am grateful for the fact that we had a vote—it was a triumph that we managed to secure one—but why did that vote not constitute an adequate basis on which to proceed? The first and most obvious point is that it was not a timely vote.
I will not repeat what the right hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton has just said, but there was resistance to a vote when it became increasingly obvious that an invasion was being planned. I share the right hon. Gentleman's suspicion that the Prime Minister used the royal prerogative to commit the country to taking part in an invasion early in 2002, long before that information was shared with many people in the country. We did not arrive at the vote that counted until the very eve of war, and when we did vote, it was obvious to anyone who had followed the debate that the invasion would take place within a matter of days. Half the British Army was already in place in the desert, and no doubt the Americans were telephoning the Prime Minister to tell him that he must speed up the process because everyone was going to go.
I know that in recent days the right hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton has been embarrassed by the fact—quite amazing to those who know him—that he has a record of having voted in favour of the invasion, but he is not alone on either side of the House. I well remember from discussions that took place at the time of the debate that many Members on my side of the House—not just the 20 or so who voted against the war at various times—felt that they could not possibly vote against it when the troops were already in the field, and could not understand how on earth Parliament could now be expected to pull them all out and bring them home. It was not a vote in which Parliament was being invited to take part in a timely fashion, and it was not a vote which most Members of Parliament could really believe would have the slightest credible effect on the outcome.
We had had various statements. We had known what was going on. We had had one or two votes. We had had the vote in November 2002 on resolution 1441. I voted in favour of the motion tabled that day; it was skilfully worded. A very high proportion of those who voted in favour of that motion believed that they were voting for the last chance of avoiding war, not in favour of participation and an invasion. Many of us became indignant when it was later claimed that the November vote gave parliamentary authority for what happened. Many people in this country and abroad thought that a second United Nations resolution would be required before it could be turned into a basis for war.
We had a lot of statements, followed only by questions, but no substantive motion. Whenever problems arose we had inquiries, but the inquiries were deliberately set up with very narrow terms of reference. The Hutton report inquired into the death of Dr. Kelly. The Butler report inquired into the use of intelligence; it was very critical, but not sufficiently so to shake the Government. In my opinion, those inquiries were set up to minimise parliamentary debate on those issues and to shift it outside, not to give Parliament a further opportunity to take part in the process.
We had no vote at any relevant time when the debate and vote might have influenced the outcome, so we now have to draft a process. The starting point must be when a significant deployment of troops takes place; that is the time when the law, or strong convention, should require that parliamentary approval for a Government decision be given before it can be acted on. We need a process that lays down rules to establish that.
Wider issues could also arise. The time has come when—as the Modernisation Committee seems to be contemplating—Parliament should have more control than it currently has over its own timetable and agenda, and the subject matter for debate. I welcome what the Modernisation Committee appears to be contemplating if that gives the opportunity for Parliament itself to force motions and substantive debates on substantive questions about the progress of a war and the next steps that should be taken.
I do not believe that once we have gone to war, that should always rule out parliamentary scrutiny on the grounds that any discussion would undermine the troops in the field and be bad for morale. Of course certain types of debates would be very damaging to morale and extremely unpatriotic, but I think that the House can be relied on to treat Members who engage in such debates very roughly indeed. However, on many occasions the troops must be amazed that so little parliamentary attention appears to be paid to what they are engaged in, and they would like to be reassured that somebody back home is debating what is going on, and what is the likely outcome. In a modern democracy it should be impossible to cut out parliamentary scrutiny, and the need for the Government to seek a reaffirmation of their authority. I believe that they did so on a considerable scale in the Crimean war; the case for that in the 21st century is much stronger. We should be allowed to have such scrutiny nowadays.
My right hon. and learned Friend is making a powerful case, and I fully support what he says. I was not in favour of the war, but I am not in favour of the management of the peace initiative either. Does he agree that it would also be right to scrutinise what we do in the aftermath of war fighting—in the peacekeeping? Had we managed that better, the position would not be as it is now—close to civil war.
I wholly agree. In terms of both Iraq and Afghanistan, we are currently unclear about what the Government believe will happen. We have not had adequate parliamentary scrutiny. I supported the operation in Afghanistan, and I was against that in Iraq. There is no argument against Parliament's considering a serious substantive motion about the future conduct of operations in both places. It would not be remotely unpatriotic for this House to address that. The circumstances in both countries are plainly wholly different from those that we thought we would face when we first intervened.
The second thing wrong with the process was the way in which, at every stage, the Government controlled all the information on which Parliament acted. Of course the Government have to be the principal source of information, but there are certain types of information that our conventions and statutes should require them to lay before the House as a matter of duty, not just of choice. The legal basis for the war should obviously be placed in a clear statement before the House. As it happens, I am not one of those who believe that the Attorney-General's full opinion should ever be made public and placed before the House, because that would get in the way of fearless advice. Moreover, if the whole thing had to be drafted for public consumption, that would alter every nuance of it. Rather, the conclusion should be set out as such, and as a declared statement of the legal basis on which the Government are proceeding. That was done during the Iraq war, but again, not willingly or in a straightforward fashion. It was pretty messy, and arguments continued about the whether the Attorney-General had wavered. It would have been much better to have had straightaway a requirement that the Attorney-General draft the legal basis for proceeding to war and place it before Parliament.
I know that the right hon. and learned Gentleman took a different view on the merits of the Iraq war, but on reflection I do not think that his comments about presenting to this House and the other place legal justification for military action are justified. My right hon. and noble Friend the Attorney-General did come forward at the appropriate time—it needs to be borne in mind that, contrary to what the right hon. and learned Gentleman said, a decision to go to war had not been taken until the last few days before it was put before this House—and did present a legal justification for military action, which is exactly what he said he thought ought to happen when he gave evidence to their lordships' Committee.
I do not agree with that analysis of events at all. The whole point about the invasion of Iraq is that it was not a sudden or quick process. It was a very long process, planned back in 2002, involving a remorseless build-up to an invasion that became ever more inevitable the more that preparations were made. One can see that from Bob Woodward's descriptions of what was going on in the United States. As is usual, we have had far more revelations about what happened day to day in the United States in the run-up to the war than we in this country will get for 30 years.
There came a stage in that process when so many troops had been deployed and so much preparation has taken place for what might lead to an invasion—I would say that it was 90 per cent. likely to lead to warfare—that the time had come for Parliament to be asked to approve that deployment. At that stage, Parliament should have had plainly before it not just a bald statement that the Attorney-General believed the deployment to be lawful, but an adequate, decent legal statement on the legal basis, saying why, on the authority of international law and precedent, the Attorney-General had come to that conclusion. There should, of course, also have been a plain statement of the purpose of the war, and why the British Government thought that there was a British interest that it might prove necessary to defend through the use of military force. That was the key thing in the Iraq war.
When we have the promised inquiry—now promised by a Government who were reluctant to have an inquiry, and who refused one the last time we debated this issue on, I think, a nationalist motion—we will discover whether the reasons given for going to war when we had the final votes were those agreed on by the President of the United States and the Prime Minister many months before. To judge by my many discussions with neo-conservative friends of mine who debated vigorously with me my opposition to their determination to see regime change in Iraq, I very much doubt whether at any stage there was a plain and defensible statement of the real political and diplomatic motives for going to war. Something of that kind must be the starting point, so that we can clarify it in consultation. We need to put it into some firm process that cannot be wriggled out of, so that with future military conflicts, we will not get into that situation again.
I apologise, but I must conclude.
My main concern is of course to improve parliamentary control, and to deal with the problems that the right hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton addressed, such as the ever-growing power of the Executive and the ever-weakening role of Parliament in holding the Executive to account on the public's behalf. However, we must also ask questions about the legitimacy of warfare. We all want to debate what is a just war and what is not. What are those extreme situations where British interests are so threatened that the use of military power is justified? There are few pacifists in this House, and we all accept that such situations do occur. However, they have occurred 60 times—some to a minor extent—in the last 10 years. We need to be satisfied, and our troops, too, need to be satisfied, that they are embarked on a legitimate process that has been authorised by the Parliament of their country, which is upholding the best interests and the best values of their country.
The point was brought home to me most clearly in one of those arguments that I have described with one of my neo-conservative friends—a leading architect of the war. I was debating with him United Nations resolutions and the legality in international law of what was being proposed. I knew very well that he did not take the United Nations or international law very seriously; on the whole, such matters were indulged in by neo-conservatives to assist their European friends in getting their own countries involved, as well. They were not high on the list of priorities so far as leading neo-cons were concerned. However, my neo-con friend was able to answer my question about the legitimacy of his argument: he said, "We have all the legitimacy, as an American Government, that we require. We have large majorities in favour in both Houses of Congress." He thought that far more important than UN resolutions, or some fiction—in his opinion—called international law. I reflected that I could not counter that by saying that such legitimacy would necessarily be required under the curious constitution of the United Kingdom.
What we are advocating, and the change that we are embarked on, will not in my opinion weaken this country as a power able to exercise influence in foreign affairs or defence. My right hon. and learned Friend Sir Malcolm Rifkind, a former Foreign Secretary, is concerned that we might put in place systems that hamper our ability to punch above our weight—to use the Foreign Office phrase of which he is very fond—and to have an influence for good in the world. I would not wish to see that, but nine times out of 10, the process that we are discussing would strengthen a British Government's power to handle a diplomatic incident and to insist that British influence prevail.
There will be cases like Suez, when Ministers lied to Parliament quite substantially—which I have no basis for saying that Ministers in the present Government did in the case of Iraq. There will also be cases like Iraq, in which there was controversy, and eventually it was proved that the whole thing was wrong. But in other cases, if a British Government facing our enemies, or other problems, can say, "We can demonstrate that we have won the support of Parliament"—it would usually be on a cross-party basis—"by explaining the cause and the legal basis and by being frank about the deployment," that Government will be more feared and respected. There will then be less doubt about their ability to take part in military action if our interests are not respected.
I do not think that, in the 21st century, we would weaken a Government by doing that; I think that we would strengthen it. We would get rid of the absurdity whereby it remains the case that the Prime Minister of the day can take to himself the powers of an absolute monarchy. A future Prime Minister would have enhanced authority if there were a process by which he could get the authority of Parliament behind him in defending British interests overseas. The proposed constitutional change would improve, rather than weaken, our ability to conduct foreign policy, and it would be looked back on as a change that it is amazing was not made a century earlier. This system should not have been allowed to drag on until this stage. At last, we have a Government spokesman standing up and defending what future students of politics will regard as obvious common sense.
This debate is on the principle of parliamentary approval for armed conflict. It is an important debate of principle, but it takes place of course in the shadow of a very real armed conflict—the ongoing war in Iraq. I voted against that war and was never more comfortable with a vote in Parliament.
Last week, I attended a production at the Tricycle theatre entitled "Called to Account", which was conceived and directed by Nicolas Kent, in which the Prime Minister is put on trial for war crimes. There can be few armed conflicts in the 20th and 21st centuries that provoke as much bad feeling and anger as the war in Iraq. Even though we had a vote on it, the process by which we went to war has put a focus on the issue of parliamentary approval.
The decision on whether to go to war is the single most important function of Government, and the public do not understand that on that decision a vote in Parliament is strictly optional. In fact, as the Leader of the House pointed out, the public do not understand why, when we do have a vote, it is on the issue of whether we should go home. It makes no sense to have procedures that have no meaning even for relatively well informed members of the public.
The process by which we agree to armed conflict at present reflects the use and abuse of the royal prerogative. Several hon. Members on both sides of the House have made reference to the royal prerogative and how outdated its use is now, but the first person whom I heard speak at length and fluently about the abuse of it was the former right hon. Member for Chesterfield, Tony Benn. On that, as on many other issues, he was both prescient and right. He has been proved correct by events and I am sure that he will be pleased to see that Ministers are catching up with him on the issue.
The other important aspect of the debate, although we are dealing only with one narrow function of the royal prerogative, is that it sheds light on the slide that has taken place under successive Administrations towards a presidential model of government, without the checks and balances that one sees in the US, which has a genuine President. It is interesting that the US is having a lively, constructive and engaged debate, instigated by Congress, about the Iraq war, its progress and whether the US should withdraw. We are having no such debate on the Floor of the House. Here, we have to await the will of whoever is Prime Minister. The comparison with the US, where Congress can have a proper debate about the progress of the war and the possibilities for withdrawal, is most illustrative.
It is especially important that the House reviews the process by which the country goes to war given the rise and rise of the doctrine of liberal interventionism. I am a sceptic on that issue, especially when the intervention occurs without a proper legal framework. If we are to intervene increasingly in other countries for humanitarian or other reasons, we need to have a much firmer framework on which to do so. At the moment, international law on the subject means whatever the last lawyer to speak about it says it means.
Members on both sides of the House have said that we not only need a vote on going to war, but better intelligence and more information. They have said that we did not have enough intelligence last time and that that was the problem. As one of those who voted against the war in Iraq, I wonder whether they read either of the dossiers that were produced. Both were simply assertion piled on assertion and lacked factual information. Having read them, I was never persuaded by them. Perhaps it is my background as a career civil servant that led me actually to read the paperwork, but I was not persuaded by it.
Nor was I persuaded by the assertion in the newspapers that Saddam Hussein had missiles that could hit British territory, or even Cyprus, in 45 minutes. Hon. Members on both sides have said that they did not have enough information, but on the information that was laid before the House—and the speeches and writings of people such as Scott Ritter, one of the last UN weapons inspectors to go to Iraq—I was satisfied that there was no legal basis for the war. Members who unfortunately voted for the war should not hide behind a lack of intelligence or information.
We had a vote on war with Iraq and for that we owe some gratitude to the then Leader of the House and the then Foreign Secretary, who felt it important that if we were to go to war in that instance we should do so after a vote in the House. None the less, it was not mandatory to have a vote. I welcome this debate and what we have heard from at least one of the candidates for the leadership of the Labour party about a willingness to move the procedure on. It is wrong for Parliament, for our armed forces and for the political process that we should continue, in the 21st century, to take our country to war through a process that depends on the norms of the 16th century.
I am glad that we had a vote on the war in Iraq, even though it was held at the very last minute, when many Members felt almost as if a gun were being held to their head. I am also satisfied with the Government's amendment to the motion, which represents a welcome move forward in the thinking on the issue.
In the 21st century—an era of 24-hour news and media punditry; an activity in which I have some part-time interest myself—talking about parliamentary processes and procedures often seems wearisome and old-fashioned. People ask why such things matter. They do not get the point of being exercised about Parliament, its role and procedures. But the truth is that, despite 24-hour news and the increasingly presidential nature of our system, the rights and the powers of Parliament remain the last and best defence of the citizen. On the issue of how and why we go to war as a country, the Government's amendment represents a significant advance. I am glad that we are having this debate and to be able to support the Government's position on the issue.
On the face of it, the debate is about parliamentary approval for this country to go to war, but it is almost as much about the erosion of trust in Government and the Prime Minister that has led to the demand for change. I am perhaps the first to contribute to the debate who is profoundly unenthusiastic about the change. I will support it, for reasons I will come to in a moment, but I take no particular pleasure in doing so. I have in mind not only the continuing controversies over the Iraq war—and the feeling shared by many people that they were let down by the Government in the projection of the case for war to both Parliament and the country—but the Kosovo conflict.
Whatever one's views about the Kosovo conflict, the truth is that we effectively declared war on another country that had not attacked us. We proceeded to bomb that country for six months, but at no time was a vote taken in this House of Commons to give approval to that decision. Three debates took place on the Adjournment, but on no occasion was there an opportunity for a vote on something that was manifestly a war, even though no war had been declared.
The conflict in Kosovo, in combination with the Iraq situation, has led increasingly to a profound mistrust of our arrangements, and to a demand to formalise them. Why do I say that I am unenthusiastic about that change? The answer is that, when one looks at how the royal prerogative has developed over centuries, one sees that what we have now is very different from what existed originally. In the past, the royal prerogative meant that a monarch—or any Prime Minister or chief minister appointed by that monarch—could take decisions regardless of the views of Parliament. Even in those days, however, the need to vote supply meant that Parliament could influence indirectly the monarch's ability to go to war.
In contrast, the circumstances of the 20th century and today are profoundly different. When hon. Members of all parties talk about the need for democratic accountability, they speak as though we did not have an elected Government. Yet the Government are as elected as this House is, and they are the Government only because the Prime Minister and his or her colleagues command a majority in this House. Therefore, there is not the fundamental lack of legitimacy that existed when the royal prerogative was developed and used at an earlier time in our history.
Moreover, the question goes beyond the fact that a Government—any Government—are elected. The comparisons with the US made by my right hon. and learned Friend Mr. Clarke are not entirely appropriate, for the following reason. The US President does not depend for his continuation in office on the support of Congress. If the American legislation did not require a vote in Congress before the US could go to war, a President could take that decision on his own initiative. Short of impeachment—which is incredibly difficult, for all the reasons that we are familiar with—there would be no way in which Congress or the American public could either reverse the decision, or stop it.
A President is elected for a full term of office. He does not need to have a majority in Congress—very often, as at present, he does not have such a majority. It would therefore be intolerable, of course, that an issue as fundamental as peace or war could be determined by the President without anyone being able to do anything about it, short of invoking the ultimate nuclear weapon of impeachment.
In the case of the UK, we all know what the political reality is: a Government who decline to ask for an endorsement by the House of Commons in these matters will not survive unless they command, if not the enthusiasm of the House, then at least its acquiescence. The Government take great pride in the fact that they asked for the House's support when the war in Iraq was determined. That is, of course, historically correct, but I do not think that I will be contradicted when I say that many Labour Members voted for the Government only with enormous reluctance. They did so because they feared that the Government would fall if they failed to carry the day. Similarly, a Government who went to war without a vote would know that the consequence of acting against the wishes of the House and of their own party would be the same.
In an ideal world, therefore, I would prefer that we were not going in the direction in which we are moving. Once constraints such as we are discussing today are introduced by statute—and also, to some degree, by convention—there is a danger that demands for repeated votes during the course of a war could create extraordinary uncertainty and incoherence for our armed forces in the field.
As I say, I take no great pleasure from the direction in which we are moving, but I believe that the Kosovo conflict was hugely important. I make no comment about its merits, but no vote was held in respect of that conflict, and not because the Government believed that not holding a vote would somehow assist our armed forces. No vote was held because the Government were, I suspect, embarrassed by the lack of a mandate from the UN Security Council, and by the fact that we were attacking a country that had not attacked us. The Kosovo mission had broad support on both sides of the House, but the Government found it convenient—for political rather than military reasons—to avoid the House being requested to give its formal approval.
That is now history, and it is important that we go forward. If we are to require in future that the House must give its explicit endorsement when military operations are contemplated or about to take place, it is very important that we are conscious of what the necessary safeguards should be.
The Government and my right hon. Friend Mr. Hague have both suggested that there would be occasions when it would not be possible for the Government to ask the House for approval in advance of a military operation, and that therefore provision should be made for retrospective endorsement. It is true that there might be such occasions, but any such retrospective endorsement would have to be considered very carefully. In an intervention earlier, I made the point that it is hugely important that a failure to grant retrospective endorsement should not render illegitimate a war already begun, as that would place our armed forces in a very difficult and incoherent situation.
Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that that is also an argument against requiring legislation in these circumstances, as that would subject whatever we might decide to judicial review? As a result, a court might decide that our troops were engaging in an illegal activity because of a drafting error in the Act authorising the war.
I broadly agree. It is hugely important that we do not get so involved in our debates in this Chamber that we forget the potential implications for the people doing the actual fighting and risking their lives on the country's behalf.
There is a second aspect to the question of retrospective approval. It is very important that, if that retrospective approval were to be refused, the Government have maximum flexibility in respect of how our troops would be withdrawn. It cannot be demanded that, because the House of Commons has declined to give its support, our troops must be brought home in days or week, regardless of wider implications. I repeat that we must trust the Government to handle such matters in a sensible and flexible fashion. We must not tie their hands too much.
I shall make only two additional points, as I do not want to detain the House much longer. The first is that the motion asking the House to approve the Iraq war was incredibly complex. I have it here: debated on
"recognises that Iraq's weapons of mass destruction...pose a threat to international peace and security"—[ Hansard, 18 March 2003; Vol. 401, c. 760.]
That was accepted in good faith, but we now know that no weapons of mass destruction existed. If the basis on which the House is asked for approval turns out to be totally invalid, what does that do to the legitimacy of a conflict? What message does it send to the armed forces in the field?
If a similar resolution is required in the future, I propose that, far from having 32 lines, it should have only one and a half. Of course, any Government arguing their case from the Dispatch Box will have to explain their views, and of course such matters will be debated on both sides of the House, but I believe that the motion itself—the formal, legal endorsement for going to war or entering into armed conflict—should be kept to the minimum possible length in order to avoid the risk to which I have referred.
My right hon. and learned Friend is making a powerful argument. The vote on the
My hon. Friend is correct; the motion was meant as political justification for the war. It even refers to the need for peace between Israel and Palestine, as if that was part of the justification for going to war in Iraq.
In fact, I was in the House for the debate on
I do not doubt for a moment what the hon. Lady says, but it is not a question simply of what Members of this place believe. The terms of the motion are the public record of the decision taken by the House, so they should be in a form that does not subsequently create more problems than they solve.
I have listened to my right hon. and learned Friend's criticism of the motion, but I am not quite sure why a terse, one-line statement, leaving Ministers free to assert whatever they want from the Dispatch Box, would make it any more legitimate. Does not his criticism make the contrary point, which is that at that stage the Government were obliged to set out as many bases for the war as they could think of? I suspect they were acting on the advice of the Whips who said that the debate must be timed for the last possible moment and that the motion should include reference to this and to that because it would maximise the vote. Is not my right hon. and learned Friend's point that a clear statement of the basis for war should be made earlier, so that it is not as subject to the vagaries of whipping, timing and pressure of imminence? Such a statement would put on the record the reasons for going to war and make it easier to hold the Government to account thereafter.
I agree, but my main concern is the impact on our forces in a theatre of war. It is hugely important that they have a clear understanding that, whatever subsequent political events may demonstrate, the legitimacy of their actions on our behalf is not open to question.
Finally, there is sometimes a tendency to assume that there is a straightforward choice: we are either at war or not at war. However, anyone who has been involved in conflict—even indirectly, in my case, or directly, like some of my hon. and gallant Friends—knows that that is not the case; the spectrum of military activity is huge. I am not referring only to peacekeeping or peace enforcement. I offer an example of the difficulties that we shall have to address.
While I was Defence Secretary and then Foreign Secretary, the UN resolutions on no-fly zones in Iraq were enforced. That did not involve conflict on a day-to-day basis—we were not attacking Iraq every day of the week or every week of the year—but Britain and the United States, the two countries militarily involved, had told the Iraqis that if they breached the UN resolutions and attacked our aircraft or were seen in the air in the no-fly zone, we would take military action to stop them. On several occasions, the Iraqis breached the no-fly zone, so British and US jets took to the air and sometimes shot down Iraqi aircraft and attacked Iraqi radar installations. That was not a declaration of war in any interpretation, but it was armed conflict, which is the term used nowadays. There are rarely declarations of war; they have gone out of fashion as declarations, even if the substance is still with us.
Armed conflict took place, but we cannot seriously suggest that between the Iraqis breaching the no-fly zone and the UK taking action to enforce it we should have had to come to the House to ask for approval. That would be an absurd situation. However, such operational problems can easily arise in the real world, so I say to my hon. Friends as well as to the Government that although, sadly, it is necessary to move towards a formalisation of the role of the House and of Parliament as regards the Government's use of what has formerly been the prerogative, it will be enormously difficult to handle unless we are prepared to sacrifice the flexibility that has until now been an asset. It is sad that erosion of trust in the Government has forced us to make such painful choices.
Normally, when I attend debates and hear agreement between Ministers and Opposition Front Benchers I am immediately suspicious. Today, I shall make an exception, because an important development is taking place along lines for which I and some other Members have been arguing for some time. As I pointed out earlier, I introduced a private Member's Bill on the subject in January 2005. It had cross-party support and in the following year my right hon. Friend Clare Short took the matter up again after the 2005 general election.
Over the past two or three years, there has been a change of opinion and in the degree of support for our views. In late 2004, I tabled an early-day motion that attracted 149 signatures; by 2005, a similar motion received 233 signatures. The shift is continuing. Mr. Hague suggested that it had occurred among only Labour Members, but it has actually occurred on both sides of the House. In 2004, seven Conservative Members signed my early-day motion; by 2005, 36 of the 233 signatures were Conservative. In the opening speeches and in the interventions made on the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks, I still detected unease among some Conservative Back Benchers about not only the Government's proposals but those of their Front-Bench team.
The general mood and general opinion have shifted. Mr. Clarke said that only the converts are in the Chamber, but there has been a significant change and the general view on both sides of the House is that Parliament should be involved in what is probably the most important decision that we can make—sending troops to military conflict.
The differences between the Opposition motion and the Government amendment seem to be of the order of angels dancing on pin heads. Whichever of them is accepted, we shall have reached agreement on an important point of principle—things need to change—although we shall still need discussion and consultation about the detail of how the changes are to happen and whether it is to be through legislation or convention.
There has been much mention of Iraq, but the war in Iraq was not the stimulus for my private Member's Bill, or for the inquiry carried out by the Public Administration Committee, which looked much more broadly at the use of the royal prerogative. The question we are debating was just a part of that. There were three votes on Iraq and I never had any doubt that each of them was about legitimising a forthcoming war. I cannot understand how people in the House at the time could see any of those three votes as anything else.
The first debate was in November 2002, some months before the war, and some Labour Members were not really sure whether they should vote. During the debate, I told them that it might be their only chance to vote before the war and that they should not assume that there would be another chance, although in fact there were subsequent votes. But a precedent was set. The Prime Minister said shortly afterwards that he thought that it was inconceivable now that any Government could try to go to war without a vote—but the fact that the Prime Minister said that is no guarantee for the future. We have to look at the mechanisms involved.
The hon. Gentleman used an interesting word. He correctly said that the three votes "legitimised" a war that would otherwise not have been legitimate. Does he therefore agree that if a procedure such as the one that we are discussing were put in place, there would be a risk that, in future, Prime Ministers would seek to use a vote in this place to legitimise something that, if it were done under the royal prerogative, would not be legitimate?
I think that we are getting into a slightly arcane legal point. Obviously I accept that if it were laid down in legislation what votes should be taken, how they should be taken and in what circumstances, that would open up the possibility of legal challenges—in a way that might not arise if we had a convention. But I was not using the term "legitimising" in its strictly legal sense; I was thinking about the Government's seeking justification for the action that they intended to take.
If we start to look at the detail, we can see that the argument between having legislation and relying on convention is quite difficult. My gut feeling and preference would be for legislation, having introduced a private Member's Bill on the subject a few years ago, but I recognise from that experience the difficulties of drafting and of getting the legislation exactly right. Safeguards are necessary to allow for urgent action and for troops to be able to defend themselves without any fear that that action will create difficulties for them. How do we distinguish between military action and peacekeeping? Is there really a distinction in some cases?
I recall the debate on the Bill introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood and that some of the difficulties that were suggested at that time were somewhat exaggerated. The most important difficulty is one that the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe spoke about in his contribution: the timing of the vote. If Parliament is asked to vote when troops have already been deployed—as it was in the final vote on Iraq—certainly for some people it becomes much more difficult to oppose the war.
Does my hon. Friend agree that timing is vital for two reasons? When the House is asked to vote on military action and the troops are massed at the border, two issues come into play in Members' minds. First, there is the fact that they will be letting down their troops, who have been heavily deployed. Secondly, there is the humiliation that the Prime Minister of the day will suffer if his own MPs do not vote for military action. Timing is key to having a proper and reasoned vote on the subject.
I accept both those arguments. The difficulty is how to get the timing right. If the timing of the vote is left entirely in the control of the Prime Minister, frankly it would be a pretty stupid Prime Minister who could not select when he would have a much better chance of getting the desired outcome. There is no question but that the timing of the vote can affect the outcome. Whether we go down the legislative route or the convention route, we should be looking for some mechanism that gives Parliament more control over the timing and more choice about when votes are called, as was suggested. If all the choices about timing are left to the Executive, it is almost certain that the vote will take place when it is most likely that the Executive will get the result that they are looking for.
Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a genuine difficulty? We have discussed the problems with having a vote very late in the process, but if we have a vote very early in the process a lot of MPs will feel that it is rather premature and that it might inflame the situation. There could be a delicate diplomatic situation and the Prime Minister of the day could have to go to Parliament and say, "Give me a mandate to go to war," when there might still be a chance of peace. Does he agree that there is a genuine objective difficulty that makes it difficult to lay down in statute exactly when the vote should take place?
I accept that point. There are genuine difficulties about the timing. If we look not just at the Iraq war, but at some of the other military actions over the past 10 years, we see that there have been quite long build-up periods. Choosing when there should be a vote is not simple. I would not pretend for one moment that it was. But we ought to give some thought to the mechanisms for determining the timing of the vote. That will be critical in getting a procedure that works properly—if we are going to have parliamentary involvement. I am not suggesting for one minute that I have a simple, easy answer, but it is a key point.
Should not the rights and responsibilities of Parliament extend not just to the resolution to deploy into an area of armed conflict? Should it not have the right to monitor what subsequently happens? Perhaps it could appoint a bespoke Select Committee to monitor what happens in the conflict and post conflict. In situations such as Iraq, when Parliament knows that it is potentially on a countdown to deployment to armed conflict, such a bespoke Select Committee could be formed and could help to determine when parliamentary votes were required and when debates were appropriate.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. That is obviously one possible mechanism. In terms of scrutiny, there seems to be no problem with Select Committees choosing to look at what is happening. The real problem is that debate is not taking place in the House as a whole. We have had relatively little debate in the past two or three years about what is going on within Iraq, when it is clearly of immense importance and when there are many, many Members who are seriously concerned about what is happening. But that is a slightly different issue: it is to do with what happens afterwards, rather than what happens at the point when we are about to take military action.
I was interested to read in the report from the House of Lords Constitution Committee some of its descriptions of what happens and what needs to happen. The Committee talked about wars "of necessity", "of choice" and "of obligation". A war of necessity is self-defence. If one is attacked, quite clearly one expects to defend oneself. As far as this country is concerned, it is difficult to think back to a time when that actually happened—when the trigger for war was a direct attack on this country. The Committee dismissed wars of obligation as not being a reality. It pointed out that none of the international treaties that we are signed up to forces us to take military action. Even perhaps the most obvious example, article 5 of the NATO treaty, which is the core commitment to collective self-defence in NATO, only commits each signatory to take
"such action as it deems necessary" in the event of an attack on another. In the end, the sovereign country still decides whether to take military action.
In every case, the military action that we are involved in, and have been involved in over quite a long period of time, has been the result of choice. It was a political choice to be involved in military action in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Sierra Leone and Iraq—the major military actions over the past 10 years. It cannot be suggested, as some tried when we discussed parliamentary involvement a year or two ago, that if Parliament had been involved, it would have given the game away and alerted the enemy that we would be involved in military action, because every example involved a significant build-up period. In most, although not all, of those cases, military conflict did not involve the UK going it alone because either we were in a coalition, or the action took place under the auspices of UN resolutions.
I am glad that there is recognition that some of the objections that were raised in the past were rather spurious and that we have reached a position in which we will today agree the principle that we need to find a different mechanism. I understand the argument that a convention could be more flexible than legislation and that a workable convention might be easier to achieve. I remember from drafting my private Member's Bill that it is really difficult to get all the detail right and to think of all situations that might arise so that they can be covered. The key issue is that there should be substantive votes. We need a mechanism that will ensure that substantive votes take place in the House and that the House can have a degree of control over the timing of votes. Those are the two things that we should be looking for from the consultation that will take place as a result of this debate.
Supply days usually make very little difference, and I often wonder why we are always on a three-line Whip for such debates because the Opposition always get voted down by the Government and, apparently, very little ever changes. However, this will clearly be an historic occasion—the earth has moved. Governments have declared war, which is arguably the most important thing that they have to do, in a certain way for centuries, but, apparently, as a result of the motion moved by my right hon. Friend Mr. Hague, both sides of the House have had a Damascene conversion this week and decided that Parliament should be allowed to have a say on all future occasions. As several hon. Members have said, there is very little difference between the motion and the amendment. This is an historic occasion, and I hope that, for once, when the newspapers are printed tomorrow, they will note that.
On that bipartisan note, we can all be very pleased, but why has this happened? I do not think that anyone can deny that there has been a massive breakdown in trust in the Government's word to Parliament. We must be very careful about what we say because we do not want to be ruled out of order, but everyone knows that that breakdown has happened.
We have heard a lot of talk about how the historic prerogative of the Crown is rather old-fashioned and how no one believes in it any more, but there was overwhelming public support for what Governments were doing in all wars before the Iraq war, which was declared in March 2003. We only have to think back to the days before the declaration of war in 1914 to recall that there was overwhelming support among the public and in the House and massive demonstrations were held. There was a feeling that we were absolutely right to go to war because the independence and neutrality of Belgium had been violated. The mood in 1939 was much more sombre, but it was absolutely united. We felt that while we had given Germany every opportunity to try to maintain peace, owing to our desperate experience of the first world war and our desire to avoid war, we had to go to war. Although there was some opposition to the Falklands war, there was basically a united House of Commons and united public opinion on that much smaller war, which happened after the sovereignty of part of the United Kingdom was grossly violated by an invasion. While all those wars drew support, there was one important exception: Suez. That rather proves the point.
We should not dismiss what happened in the past as being rather old-fashioned, but accept that before the events of March 2003 the system worked really quite well. Prime Ministers did not act alone irrespective of public opinion. The truth is that they acted in line with public opinion—they almost had no choice. During the events of May 1940, Winston Churchill said that if the Government had tried to resist public opinion, they would have been physically dragged from office.
No, I will not. The hon. Gentleman has made a lot of interventions and he will be able to make his speech in his own way.
We cannot brush aside the serious events of March 2003. The motion for which we voted—I must admit that I voted against it, not for it, and most people were misled by it—made it absolutely clear that we were going to war because there was a direct threat to this nation. The motion cited numerous United Nations resolutions and stated explicitly that the war was a just war. A just war is a war into which a country is forced against its will to defend itself. We were told in March 2003 that we had to go to war because we were faced with a dictator who was out of control, who had the third or fourth biggest army in the world, who had weapons of mass destruction and who was a real and potent threat to the region.
At that time, numerous people—I and many others who were far more knowledgeable than I was about opinion in the Arab world—raised their voices about the risks, while many people with huge experience in our diplomatic service warned the Government that invading a sovereign Arab nation would, far from solving the problems of terrorism, grossly exacerbate the problems. All those voices have been proved right. However, everyone in the House, even those who voted against the war, believed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Those who voted against the war believed in deterrence and thought that as the concept of deterrence had always worked in the past, it would work in this case. We believed that even if he had weapons of mass destruction, he would never dare use them. We need not rehearse all the arguments that were made at the time. We accepted the word of the Government, but that word simply was not right. There were no weapons, which is why we must accept that there has been a massive breakdown in trust.
We can argue that that is now all history. In a sense, this debate has been a rather friendly academic exercise. We have talked about history and while, of course, the Government will never apologise for what happened, they have half-apologised and said that they acted in good faith. However, while we have made progress in that we all apparently accept that the decision was difficult and that votes must take place in the future, as they did then, the terrible aspect of what we are debating is that the situation continues. Fifteen of our soldiers have been killed in the past year alone. As a result of the decision to invade Iraq, tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis have died, yet otherwise they would still be alive. They died yesterday, they are dying today and they will die tomorrow.
Does my hon. Friend agree that scaling back the Crown prerogative by ensuring that parliamentary approval was required before engaging in armed conflicts would help to clarify our war aims from the outset? Clear, unequivocal war aims would ensure that we avoid the sort of mission creep that is taking place in Afghanistan, where a war that started to root out the Taliban is fast becoming a counter-productive campaign to eradicate poppies. Does my hon. Friend agree that, regardless of which party is in office, rolling back Crown prerogative would mean better decision making, greater clarity and less muddle?
Of course I agree with that. To turn briefly to the subject of Afghanistan, apparently everybody assumes that there is broad support for what is going on there, but looking at the history of Afghanistan and our previous involvement there, I have enormous doubts about what is happening in that country. I have doubts about whether we will ever resolve the situation, and whether we will ever defeat the Taliban, their successors, or the successors of their successors, because once again we are being sucked into a vortex of military operations in an Arab country. Of course my hon. Friend is right. Apparently, we are all in agreement on the problem: in future, we must have a resolution before we go to war. However, there are still enormous doubts about how to ensure that that happens.
Where I part company from many people in the House—I apologise to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I have to say this—is that I believe that we need another vote on whether we should stay in Iraq. As I said to the Leader of the House, to the Prime Minister last week and to the Secretary of State for Defence yesterday, although the point was constantly brushed aside, the situation has changed fundamentally. We went into Iraq because we feared for the security of the region, and we believed that the country's Government was a threat to the region. We now justify our continued presence by saying that we are asked to be there by the democratically elected Government, and we say that we will stay there as long as is necessary. However, there has been very little debate in the House about what is actually going on Iraq, and what little debate has taken place has had to be forced on the Government.
We all know that, in reality, the writ of Iraq's ostensibly democratic Government hardly extends beyond the green zone. We face the same situation that we faced in Vietnam and in many other wars: our Government and the American Government are desperately finding an excuse to get out. The excuse will be that we have somehow resolved the security situation, and that the democratically elected Government of Iraq is happy for us to scale down our forces, but we all know that that is simply not true. We all know that there is a complete and desperate mess out there. None of us has any time for what Saddam Hussein did, and we all know that he was a ruthless and desperate tyrant, but we have enormous sympathy for ordinary Iraqi people. When I visited Iraq while Saddam Hussein was in power, those people were going about their business. They were running their little stalls in the marketplace in some semblance of peace and security, but now they are living in a vortex of violence. Our troops are still there, and it appears that no Government Member has the courage to come before the House and say, "It's all over. The mission has failed; it simply has not worked, and we are going to get out."
As I said yesterday to the Secretary of State for Defence—my point was brushed aside—we all know that the incoming Prime Minister will get us out of Iraq before the general election. It is inconceivable that British troops will still be in Iraq at the time of the next general election. Any Government that still had troops in Iraq at the time of a general election would be swept aside by our electorate. Such is the complete breakdown in trust, and such is the opposition of the British people to our continuing presence in Iraq, that whatever happens, and whatever the security situation on the ground, our troops will leave. For that reason, the process is subject to an arbitrary timetable of three, or more probably two, years.
Is there any sensible debate? No. Is any real intelligence coming out of Iraq? We are told, of course, that we are doing terribly well in the southern part of the country, although the Americans are having all sorts of problems, and we are told that we are gradually withdrawing, but we have not actually been told what has been happening in the provinces from which we have withdrawn. We all know that gradually a strong military or political force will take over as we leave. Apparently, we will now withdraw to the airport, but does anyone think that a country can be run from an airport? The reason we are withdrawing to the airport is to try to reduce our casualties. It means that we can maintain the political fiction that we are still in the country and are sustaining the Government, and that everything is all right. We are stuck in the airport. Armies that retreat to airports are armies that are leaving the country.
The only way we can run Iraq is by having many more British troops there. We would need not 5,000, but 10,000, 15,000 or 20,000 troops on the ground throughout the southern part of the country. Is there any real discussion of the subject? Is there a vote? There is nothing. We are deluding ourselves. When we leave, one of two things will happen: either there will be complete chaos and civil war, or some strong man will take charge. We are all apparently agreed that terrible mistakes were made in the aftermath of the invasion, that we should have left the Iraqi army in place, that we should have left Ba'athists in charge of the army, and that we should have got out within three months—and there were all the prison scandals, too. However, that is all said with hindsight. At the end of the day, a strong man will emerge, and it will not be the present bunch of corrupt politicians who are sheltering in the green zone, and who have just awarded themselves a two-month summer recess while American troops are dying in the streets trying to protect them. Incidentally, there is a lot of disquiet in America about that.
Why do we not have the courage to hold another vote, or to start doing what the United States Congress is doing? Ours is now one of the weakest Parliaments in the western world. The United States Congress is applying massive pressure to the American Administration. Negotiations continue daily, and votes are threatened that would cut off President Bush's supply; he is having to negotiate his way out of that impasse. Here, we are brushed aside with soft words. We are told, "The Prime Minister says that we are in Iraq at the behest of its Government", and we are told that we are making progress, but no details are given.
There are no intelligence reports, just as there were no intelligence reports before the war, and I suspect that there is actually very little intelligence. Before the war, we all imagined that the Government were equipped with massive amounts of sophisticated intelligence, and that there were agents on the ground informing the Government what was happening. I do not believe that that sophisticated intelligence is out there at the moment. I think that the Government's intelligence on what is happening in the provinces that we have vacated is very weak indeed. The Government are flying by the seat of their pants, and they have no idea what will happen; they simply want to get out. Why do we not have the courage to have another vote in Parliament, or to do what other self-respecting legislators have had the courage to do and say, "It's all over"?
Iraq is not worth the life of another British soldier. It does not matter whether we get out next month, in a year's time or in two years' time; Iraq will find its own way, and that is the right way. I cannot understand why we have a sort of intellectual imperialism as regards Arab people and the Muslim world, or why we think that we are entitled to impose our ideas of western liberal democracy. Of course, in this House, we all believe that those ideas are superior, but do we have no idea what is going through the mind of ordinary Iraqis, apart from those few politicians sheltering in the green zone? Do we really imagine that we are popular in Iraq? I know that there is a division of opinion on that, and that some people would perhaps like us to stay, but fundamentally, most people are opposed to what we want, and opposed to our way of life. They see violence around them, and they want us to get out. The days of us imposing our views on those people are over.
This is a great debate, and we have made enormous progress. As a result of a massive breakdown in trust, there will be no more wars that commit us in the way Iraq did. However, the time has come for another vote—a vote calling for an immediate, ordered withdrawal of British troops, so that the Iraqi people, and the Iraqi Government, whatever shape or form they take—military, semi-democratic, Shi'a, Sunni or Kurd—can find their own way to peace and justice, according to their own lights. Let us have another vote, and let us get ourselves out of this mess.
In response to Mr. Leigh, I do not think that the debate has a great deal to do with Iraq specifically. Indeed, Iraq shows the limitations of what we are doing today. I also do not think that the debate has much to do with Afghanistan. I slightly question the hon. Gentleman's expertise, as he seems to think that Afghanistan is an Arab country. It is not.
I shall explore in my speech the limitations of what we are doing today. To some extent, we have all been in agreement and we have made matters too easy for ourselves. I accept what everybody has said so far, that the issue is extremely important, and that we are making a very important change to the democratic tradition in Britain. It is a good change and it is overdue. I pay tribute to hon. Members such as my hon. Friend Mr. Gerrard and others who are not present. I also draw attention to my near neighbour, my hon. Friend Mr. Allen, who tabled motion 27 on the Order Paper, which I guess he can now withdraw because it is essentially identical to what we are about to approve today.
The background to this debate is the increasing public scepticism over the involvement of Britain in international affairs to anything like the extent to which we have been accustomed in recent years. Sir Malcolm Rifkind, who spoke earlier, is a vigorous supporter of Britain punching above its weight. There was a recent opinion poll that specifically asked, "Are you in favour of Britain punching above its weight?" A substantial majority said, "No, we are not. We are against Britain getting too much involved." That is a serious issue for all of us.
We can all think of conflicts on which we disagree. For some it might be Suez, for some it might be Iraq, for some it might be a number of conflicts. Similarly, unless we are pacifists, we can all think of occasions when we would like Britain to intervene or to have intervened in the past. Many people feel that we ought to be intervening in Darfur. There are some who feel that we should be intervening in Zimbabwe or in Burma. There is always a debate on these topics and there is always a case for intervention. It is sobering that we have come to a point where the public on the whole say, "I don't care if there is a good case for it. We don't want to get involved." In what we are doing today and in subsequent discussions, we need to try to rebuild the process to the point that the public accept that if that process is gone through in the correct way, we will reach a reasonable basis on which to intervene overseas.
I agree with the public that we have tended too often to say, "We are the experts on what the world needs and we are prepared to intervene, whatever it takes and wherever it may be." It is necessary to be able to do that in the right cause to prevent genocide or wholesale slaughter, and we need a process that we can accept. I am in favour of the change and I should like to explore some of the specific details that have been raised during the debate. Patrick Mercer asked what the test should be for substantial involvement, and whether it should be firepower or manpower. The answer is both. If we commit substantial firepower abroad, Britain will become very much part of whatever controversy is involved. That is a matter on which the House of Commons should legitimately be able to express an opinion. If we commit substantial manpower, the likelihood is that British lives will be lost—so even more so should Parliament be involved.
Mr. Clarke and my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow both raised the issue of timing. As we discussed in my exchange with my hon. Friend, there are difficulties both in consulting too early and in consulting too late. If the Prime Minister had come to the House six months before the Iraq war—at a time when I think that he had privately concluded that it was likely that war would be necessary—and if at that stage he had sought the authority of the House to go to war, with the United Nations still debating the issue and a great deal of controversy about Saddam's intentions and about the potential for the weapons inspectors to succeed in their mission, it would have been seen as an extremely provocative act, effectively pre-empting the attempt to find a peaceful outcome. However, by consulting only when the troops were on the border, as my hon. Friends the Members for Walthamstow and for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) said, a great many of us felt that it was very difficult at that stage, with our troops on the border, for us to say, "No, let's all go home."
I suggest that we foresee two separate decisions. One would be taken at the time of a substantial deployment of troops abroad. It would be accepted that that was not a vote to go to war, but a vote to deploy troops with a view to forcing a positive outcome. There would then be a separate decision at the time that it was felt that military force was needed. Those are two quite separate decisions, which should be seen as such. It should be possible to say, "We authorise the dispatch of 50,000 troops"—or whatever the number might be—"for the purpose of advancing a favourable outcome", without that being a commitment to armed conflict, which would necessarily and prematurely inflame the situation.
I am opposed constantly to revisiting the issue once a conflict has started. That was the point that we discussed briefly earlier. If our troops are fighting, it seems to me that we should not have some routine mechanism for Parliament to revisit the issue at regular intervals to discuss whether they should be fighting or whether they should stop. That would be demoralising.
Surely the hon. Gentleman cannot logically say that it is for Parliament to take a view at the outset, but that however long events go on and however badly they are going, there should be no facility for Parliament to comment. I noticed that he used the word "routine". The German Bundestag has a regular timetabled look at such things. I would not advocate that, but I would want to feel that Parliament could come back if, in the fullness of time, it did not consider that some of the original hopes and expectations were being realised.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I am glad that he picked up on my word "routine". That is the point that I am making. Whereas Parliament should be automatically required to approve deployment and outbreak of war, I do not think that it should be automatically, by some standard mechanism, required to come back to the subject every three months or whatever the interval might be. In that case, the normal parliamentary process would take effect. If one of the political parties comes to the conclusion that a substantial change in strategy or even a complete withdrawal is needed, there are existing procedures in Parliament to allow that political party to raise the matter on one of its Supply days as a substantive motion.
We heard the hon. Member for Gainsborough and one or two others urge that we withdraw from Iraq as soon as possible—virtually immediately. It would be open to the Conservative Opposition to use a Supply day such as today to put forward not a motion in principle about war-making powers but a motion urging immediate withdrawal. They have not done so because, at this point, they do not think that it would be justified or in the interests of our troops or the country. As I understand it, the Liberal Democrats favour an early withdrawal, and it would be open to them to put forward a substantive motion on a Liberal Democrat Supply day. If the Government came to the conclusion that a change of strategy was needed, it would be open to them, in all sorts of ways, to come to Parliament to ask for such approval. However, it should not be an automatic process—the automatic element should relate only to the deployment of troops.
My hon. Friend emphasises the importance of people in this House not wishing to demoralise those who are already deployed in an area of conflict. Surely it would be demoralising to leave the question of parliamentary scrutiny of what takes place to partisan motions and initiatives. What does he think of the idea of forming a bespoke Select Committee each time there was a resolution to deploy, which would then consider and adjudge whether debates or motions in this House were subsequently necessary depending on developments and performance?
We should not underestimate the hesitation that any political party would feel about bringing forward a proposal to change the war strategy or, in effect, to admit defeat and go home. I guess that that is why the Liberal Democrats have not done so, although that is a matter for them. I am not against my hon. Friend's proposal, which is interesting.
That brings me to the more general point that we should not have any illusion that procedural mechanisms will enable us to deal with all the practical problems that arise and all the moral and ethical challenges that we face in these situations. In the case of Iraq, unlike all the previous controversies, we have had not one, not two, but three votes, which effectively decided that Parliament was in favour of going to war as necessary. [ Interruption . ] Mr. Ellwood, who says "No", was not here. My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington, who was against the war, confirmed that she saw all three of those votes as leading very clearly in that direction, as I did.
The hon. Lady may have said that that was the spirit of what was voted on, but if the hon. Gentleman read the text of the various motions he would see that they were not about going to war—they were about quibbling over resolution 1141 and then endorsing resolution 678, which is 12 years old. If we are to move forward and give powers to this Chamber, we must have a clear-cut motion put to us about going into conflict, rather than one that tweaks around with references to something that is more than 10 years old.
I do not want to get too deeply into debate with the hon. Gentleman about the precise wording of previous motions. Frankly, if he had been here he would not have been in any doubt.
We must avoid the illusion that a parliamentary approval mechanism alone would drastically change the outcome of a vote: it would not. Those of us who were here at the time of the Iraq vote will recall that public opinion had swung substantially in favour of voting to go to war. That is always the case. In any example that I can recall, with the possible exception of Suez, public opinion at the time we are about to go to war has been in favour of doing so. We know why that is. The press and the public tend to rally around the Government of the day and say, "Right, if push comes to shove, we are ready to go to war." I cannot conceive of a situation whereby the Government of the day goes to Parliament and says, "We've got this desperate situation and it's necessary to have an armed conflict—do you agree?", and Parliament says no. In practice, that does not happen and will not happen. From that we conclude that it is not just a single vote, or even two votes, on deployment and use of force that is needed, but a well-defined process in the run-up to a potential conflict.
Let me turn to the issue of intelligence. Most of us agree that what happened in the case of Iraq was that the intelligence community was asked, in effect, "Are you able to confirm the suspicion held by many countries around the world that Saddam has weapons of mass destruction?" Intelligence is very much like looking into a fog with little glints of light, and we ask the intelligence community to piece them together and make a pattern. Asked that question, the intelligence community thought, "We are being asked whether we can confirm that Saddam probably has weapons of mass destruction." So it looked at the fog, picked out the elements that seemed to confirm that and delivered them, with the results that we know. That is where the weakness lies. Well before any parliamentary consultation takes place, there is that difficulty in assessing the evidence. I, and others, would suggest that the Intelligence and Security Committee, which generally meets in private and under Privy Council rules, should be given access to the full range of evidence for and against any hypothesis that may be being made as a basis for war and come to a conclusion, which it reports to Parliament, on whether it considers that that evidence was convincing.
Does my hon. Friend accept that Iraq is the example of a war where intelligence, or decisions about intelligence, mattered, but that over the past 10 years that has been the exception rather than the rule? Does he also agree that given the experience of Iraq, it will be incredibly difficult for anybody again to persuade people in this House to support a war purely on the basis of supposed intelligence?
My hon. Friend makes a good point, which I had not altogether considered. He is right that the intelligence issue was very salient on Iraq in a way that it was not, say, on Afghanistan. His second point was also correct. Were we to propose another war on the basis of intelligence, it would require a greater conviction that that intelligence was correct. In that sense, my suggestion of an independent review of the evidence by the Intelligence and Security Committee could help. It is very important to have an element of independent all-party scrutiny at the intelligence stage.
The hon. Gentleman makes a relevant point. We can argue until the cows come home about whether we should go to war, but once we have made that commitment it is important that we continue the process of transition from war to peace. That is where I take issue with what is going on in Iraq and Afghanistan. Parking the question about going to war, in both cases, does he think that the management of the peace has been successful? Had we put up democratic regimes in a short space of time and then exited, I question whether we would be having this debate at all.
Today's debate is healthy in itself, regardless of Iraq. As I have argued, Iraq is an example of a case that would not be solved by what we are trying to do today. If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I shall not go into detail about my view of the peacekeeping operations in Iraq and Afghanistan because other hon. Members want to speak, and it would go beyond the subject that we are discussing.
I am interested in the hon. Gentleman's excellent speech. Before he finishes considering intelligence and his alternative arrangements, does he believe that the problem with the Iraq war lay with gathering and collating or interpreting the intelligence? How would his proposals deal with those three aspects?
There was obviously a problem with gathering intelligence. There is a general problem of having sufficient agents on the ground and so on. My suggestions would not help with that. A problem lay with the intelligence community's interpretation of the available evidence. Like most people, my understanding of all the facts is incomplete, but my impression is that the intelligence community felt that it had been asked to give a yes or no answer to the specific question, "Does Saddam have weapons of mass destruction?" It then examined the available evidence for indications that that might be the case. I believe that an all-party committee could legitimately be asked to scrutinise that element of judgment. Such a committee could get it wrong, too. It could examine the evidence and reach the same conclusion, but at least there would be no corrosive suggestion that one party had over-interpreted the data and the other party would have done things differently. If an all-party, trusted committee, which considered the evidence, said that it appeared convincing, I would feel that that was reasonably persuasive, even if the Government were of a different party from mine.
I conclude by reverting to my original reference to the opinion poll about reluctance to engage overseas. We need to envisage not only consulting Parliament in future conflicts, but making a commitment to consult internationally, on a multilateral basis. I believe that there will still be occasions when most countries in the western world agree that a specific situation is so horrific that collective action is necessary. I note that, in Afghanistan—as opposed to Iraq—there remains a broad consensus among western Governments and, indeed, some non-western Governments that our involvement there is necessary.
Multilateralism is also a test of the validity of the arguments that take us to war. If we conclude that war is justified and we find that several major countries have reached the same conclusion, the decision is more likely to stand the test of time than if we play our traditional role of claiming that we have an almost unique ability to judge the needs of the world.
Yes, let us consult Parliament and do it as a process rather than a one-off action, but let us also try to commit British forces as part of a multilateral effort rather than an heroic lone mission.
I am pleased to take a small part in the debate, which has been interesting. Consensus in the Chamber usually means that a debate is as dull as ditchwater, but today's discussion has been interesting and important.
Dr. Palmer, in correcting some hon. Members and advising others, said that the debate had nothing to do with Iraq. I do not believe that for a moment. Given that about 80 per cent. of his speech was about Iraq, I wonder why he bothered to make such a claim.
Let us consider the reason for the sudden U-turn and interesting timing of the debate. It is to do with the Chancellor, who is busily rowing away from the Blair mother ship. The only transparency is the politics behind that. Who was in the Cabinet when the decision was made to invade Iraq? Who paid the cheques? Who is as much an architect of Blairism as the man himself and, therefore, partly responsible for the conflict in Iraq? The answer is the Chancellor. He is now publicly advising that Parliament should play a pivotal role in war-making. Good. On the presumption that the assertion is not mere froth and spin, or part of his strategy to distance himself from the Blair Administration in which he was a central player, and that it can be taken seriously, it is most welcome.
The Leader of the House, in opening the debate, said that there would be consultation with all parties. Let us hope that that will happen. For the record, I believe that the convention route is preferable to a statutory route. Doubtless, that will be discussed in the weeks and months ahead. However, we must apply the lessons of Iraq and examine several matters that must be tackled.
Let us consider intelligence. First, it must be clear, tested and truthful. Unfortunately, that was not the case a couple of years ago. Secondly, it must be placed before Parliament unencumbered by spin or—worse—by being borrowed from a student's thesis. Ms Abbott said that she saw through the various documents. As it happens, so did I. However, other aspects were in play during the votes and they contributed to the general ratcheting up to a position where war would happen. Regardless of wording, those of us who were present at that time knew what was happening. We knew that people were being hauled before the Prime Minister and the Whips and we also knew the real meaning of the motions. Let us not pretend otherwise. The hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington is a redoubtable and tough character. She stood up to it, but others, sadly, did not. Still others were genuinely misled and took the evidence at its face value. I, for one, did not, and would be wary of doing so in future. Let us see whether we can improve the system.
Thirdly, Parliament's involvement at an early stage, not when it is convenient only to the Executive, is crucial. That point has already been made and I shall not dwell on it. However, we know that the decision to invade Iraq was casually agreed in Texas between the Prime Minister and President Bush many months before Parliament voted on the matter. Indeed, the Prime Minister answered questions from various Members of Parliament, including me, in the few weeks before the conflict in Iraq, saying that no decision had been made and that military action could easily be avoided. He said that when 130,000 American troops were massed on the borders of Iraq.
We were badly served by the current system. I could put it another way, but I shall not. Furthermore, we are aware of the misinformation about 45 minutes and the weapons of mass destruction. We also know that the nuclear experts were eager to continue searching and that Dr. Hans Blix, the chemical warfare expert, was keen to carry on for a couple of months. They were not allowed to complete their work, despite their pleas and despite being mandated by the United Nations to complete their respective tasks.
Clearly, in addressing the matter, we must consider prerogative powers. I believe that those powers will have to remain, but that they should be exercisable by this House under strict conditions, whereby full information is supplied and a full debate is possible. I shall quote from the report of the House of Lords Constitution Committee, which is referred to in the motion. It states:
"The exercise of the royal prerogative by the Government to deploy armed forces overseas is outdated and should not be allowed to continue as the basis for legitimate war-making in our 21st century. Parliament's ability to challenge the executive must be protected and strengthened".
That is absolutely right and it is an essential question in this debate. That power is not one that the Executive would relinquish easily, but as I have already said, the Chancellor has indicated a willingness to bring Parliament into the equation. Earlier this year, on a Sunday political programme, the Chancellor made that quite clear to Mr. Andrew Marr. He said that he could not conceive of a situation
"other than an extreme emergency where Parliament would not wish to, and should not, have a role to play in this".
That is all well and good, but it may also be argued by the Government that Parliament did play a similar role in the build-up to the present conflict in Iraq. As I have already intimated, that role was entirely unsatisfactory in its timing and also highly unsatisfactory given the quality of the alleged evidence against Saddam on which Parliament was to rely in reaching its conclusions and voting accordingly. In case anyone has any misgivings or qualms about this, let me say that Saddam was an awful tyrant and that no one in his right mind could ever have said a good word about him. That, however, is beside the point; it is another matter— [Interruption.] Whether that justifies breaking international law is another question. That is my point.
In the debate on the subject in the other place, the noble Lord Lester said that
"the essential elements must be that Government should seek parliamentary approval for military action; provide Parliament with details of any proposed action, including its objectives, legal basis, likely duration, size and so on; be able, in circumstances of emergency, to take action before consulting Parliament, provided that they come back to Parliament to give an account as soon as possible".—[ Hansard, House of Lords, 1 May 2007; Vol. 691, c. 997.]
I think that that is a very sensible proposition indeed and I hope that, ultimately, that kind of thinking can be adopted in the cross-party discussions that will ensue after today's debate.
On the legal basis for military action, I remind the House of the debate on
"The opinions of the Law Officers of the Crown, being confidential, are not usually laid before Parliament or cited in debate... But if a Minister deems it expedient that such opinions should be made known for the information of the House, he is entitled to cite them in debate."
There have been examples of where that has been done, and in questions of war-making it is vital that—consistent with security and so forth—as much information as possible be imparted to this place.
It is crucial that we are told the legal basis for war. I say that because when I was in Iraq two and a half years ago, I spoke to several senior officers who were deeply worried about the legitimacy of the conflict and the role of the troops. They volunteered those opinions; I was not canvassing them. They were unsure and their morale was undoubtedly affected by that issue. Let us get this right: I am not trying to stir up the matter; it was volunteered to me. I am passing on, for what it is worth, the information that many senior officers in Iraq were concerned about the legitimacy of what they were doing. In my view, nothing is more damaging to military morale than a real doubt about the legitimacy of military actions. Indeed, days before the conflict began, Lord Boyce, then Chief of the Defence Staff, demanded what he called "unequivocal legal authority" for the invasion of Iraq. Similarly, I believe that Parliament should have such unequivocal legal authority in any debate on future conflicts; otherwise, such a decision will again be taken on flawed or seriously incomplete information, which cannot be the way forward in matters as serious as these.
There is widespread concern about the way in which the Government acted in the run-up to the Iraq conflict. I suspect that that concern may deepen further as casualties continue and when we see the heart-breaking spectacle of grieving parents asking why their son or daughter died and in what cause. I have nothing but the highest regard for the troops serving there—their bravery and professionalism is beyond doubt and beyond comparison. But it has surely reached the point where it is possible, or at least conceivable, that the presence of those brave men and women is actually contributing to the problem rather than helping to solve it. I put that not in a partisan way, but because I genuinely believe that it may be true.
As politicians, we like to say that lessons have been learned. If so, let us change the procedures to ensure that in future we do not again witness a disastrous and damaging debacle such as the Iraq conflict. Let Parliament assert itself and ensure that it is never again asked to vote on a flawed and discredited prospectus with such horrific and enduring consequences.
I congratulate my right hon. and hon. Friends on bringing this subject before the House today. I am sure that when they took that decision, they did not expect to see such a consensus across the Chamber, or a Government amendment very similar in its wording to the original motion.
I have a dilemma—very much on the same lines as that of my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Malcolm Rifkind. In my capacity as chairman of the defence committee of the European Security and Defence Assembly of the Western European Union, I have seen the effect of parliamentary approval on the deployment of the forces of a number of our European partners. What concerns me is that in seeking democratic legitimacy for what our armed forces do, we should not allow ourselves to get into a situation where we reduce the flexibility and timely deployment of those forces, or introduce national caveats into our deployment within multinational force deployments.
Mention has been made—I am not going to make a great deal of it—of the Iraq vote in this House. I participated in the debates on Iraq and voted basically against the Iraq invasion, although—for reasons that my right hon. and learned Friend Mr. Clarke put so succinctly—I abstained on the final vote because we were already effectively at war. Our troops were massed on the Kuwait border ready for the invasion and I felt that there was no reason to give comfort to Saddam Hussein by displaying a number of MPs who were not with our troops on that occasion. As I have pointed out several times previously, I also had a personal reason in that my daughter, a surgeon in the Royal Army Medical Corps, was one of the troops on the border, so she was part of the invasion force.
On occasions, the case for military conflict is clear and there is a consensus. A number of hon. Members have mentioned that this evening. I believe that there was a consensus in 1939, for example, or over the Falklands. On other occasions, however, there is not a consensus and the case is not clear. Suez would be the most obvious post-war example. There are also occasions involving threats to sovereign government on which, particularly in this post-colonial era, we have deployed troops in places such as Cyprus, Kenya and Rhodesia for just those reasons.
The world has changed in a number of ways, however. The world of state-on-state conflict is no longer with us. It might come back—who knows?—and we might have to invoke our various article 5 responses. I am referring to article 5 of the Washington treaty and article 5 of the modified Brussels treaty. It is more likely, however, that we shall be involved in military missions under the cover of a United Nations resolution, although such resolutions can be somewhat dubiously interpreted on occasions. I feel that that is what happened with Iraq.
It is also more likely that we shall be involved in the broader tasks that were defined in 1992 as the Petersberg tasks—humanitarian, rescue and peacekeeping tasks, and tasks involving combat forces in crisis management, including peacemaking. In Europe, those tasks are now vested in the EU Council, as well as in NATO. I mention them here because it is rare in modern times for us to deploy our troops outside the framework of an international organisation. We have been involved with NATO in Afghanistan and Kosovo, and with the EU in Bosnia and Macedonia. We are not involved in any major United Nations operations at the moment, but we could have been involved in the recent or ongoing ones in Lebanon and the Congo.
There are lessons to be learned from international comparisons, and I want to examine how some of our European neighbours approach the subject of parliamentary approval. In Belgium, article 167 of the constitution stipulates:
"The King manages international relations...commands the armed forces, and determines the state of war and the cessation of hostilities. He notifies the Chambers as soon as State interests and security permit and he adds those messages deemed appropriate."
As national defence is a matter for the Executive, parliamentary scrutiny is exercised retrospectively.
That contrasts with Denmark, where, according to paragraph 19(3) of the Danish Constitutional Act, the Danish Parliament appoints a foreign policy committee from among its Members, which the Government consult before making any decision of major importance to foreign policy. The Government are, moreover, subject to the same general and specific parliamentary control and possible sanctions as in all other areas.
In Spain, article 63 of the constitution states:
"It is incumbent on the King, after authorisation by the Parliament, to declare war and make peace."
"directs domestic and foreign policy, civil and military administration, and the defence of the state", as provided by article 97.
France is an interesting case. Article 35 of the constitution—the 1958 constitution; France has had quite a few in recent years—states:
"A declaration of war shall be authorised by Parliament".
There has not been a declaration of war since 1939, however. More appropriately—or at least, the late General de Gaulle thought it more appropriate—article 16 states:
"Where the institutions of the Republic, the independence of the Nation, the integrity of its territory or the fulfilment of its international commitments are under serious and immediate threat, and where the proper functioning of the constitutional public authorities is interrupted, the President of the Republic shall take the measures required by these circumstances, after formally consulting the Prime Minister, the Presidents of the assemblies and the Constitutional Council. He shall inform the Nation of these measures in a message."
There might be a lesson to be learned from Luxembourg. According to article 37 of the constitution of the Grand Duchy,
"the Grand Duke commands the armed force; he declares war and the cessation of hostilities after having been authorised by a vote in the Chamber taken under the conditions laid down in Article 114(5)".
The Netherlands changed their provisions in July 2000 with the inclusion of a new article in their constitution. Article 100 states:
"The Government shall provide Parliament with information in advance on the posting or making available of the armed forces for the maintenance or promotion of the international legal order, including information on the posting or making available of the armed forces for the provision of humanitarian assistance in the case of armed conflict."
The Dutch provisions are now the closest to the German provisions, which are considered within NATO to be something of a hindrance to the deployment of armed forces.
I shall come to Germany in a moment, but first I want to consider the case of Sweden, because there might be some lessons to be learned there. Sweden's Instrument of Government states that
"a state of war may not be declared without the consent of the Riksdag"— that is the Swedish Parliament—
"other than in the event of an attack upon the Realm".
The basic provisions are as follows:
"The Government may commit the Realm's armed forces, or any part of them, to battle in order to repel an armed attack upon the Realm. Swedish armed forces may otherwise be committed to battle or despatched abroad only provided:
1. the Riksdag consents thereto;
2. such commitment is permitted under an act of law which sets out the pre-requisites for such action;
3. a commitment to take such action follows from an international agreement or obligation which has been approved by the Riksdag."
I want to finish my comparison by considering the case of Germany, because it forms an essential part of the debate in terms of putting the matter into context and perhaps of trying not to go where Germany has gone. It is also essential to consider this issue in the context of Germany's history. It was not until 1969 that Germany had an army, following the reconstitution of the Bundeswehr. We should also remind ourselves that there are German forces in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Kosovo. Also, last year, the first German-led military mission was deployed to the Congo—it commanded the EUFOR mission that was deployed there for about four months—and, for the first six months of this year, one of the two EU battle groups on call is under German command and dominated by German forces.
The experience of Germany highlights the problems associated with the principle of parliamentary approval. Before each deployment, there is a lengthy debate in the Bundestag and the Bundesrat, and they will decide whether German forces will be deployed, in what operations they will be involved, and what the terms of engagement will be. They also lay down any caveats relating to their forces' operation in the context of a multinational force. They also lay down the conditions that their troops should enjoy. Having visited German troops in a number of theatres, I remember that one provision is that no German soldier should be deployed anywhere in the world unless he has access to exactly the same medical facilities that he would have if he were living at home in Germany. That means that they have some of the most fantastic military field hospitals of any armed forces in the world.
Consequently, in Afghanistan, the German armed forces operate outside the main areas of conflict. They have an excellent field hospital in Kabul and are involved in provincial reconstruction in the northern, peaceful areas of the country. In the Congo mission, although the operation commander was German, and the largest number of troops deployed were German, no German combat troops were involved—the only combat troops were Spanish and French—despite the Bundeswehr having excellent infantry forces, very good equipment and very good armoured vehicles. They did, however, have two marvellous field hospitals, one in Kinshasa and one in Libreville.
We must accept the reality of today. Within NATO, we have a number of rapid reaction commitments, beyond our article 5 commitments. In a year or so, we will command an EU battle group, which must respond within 15 days—five days to a decision and 10 days to a deployment. Recently, in Berlin, I asked both the chairman of the Bundestag's defence committee and the Defence Minister whether, given Germany's previous experience of taking three months to decide whether to deploy to the Congo, that was possible. The answer that I received was along the lines of, "We think it'll be all right on the night."
I agree wholeheartedly with the principle in the motion, but it must not impede or inhibit our ability to defend our country or meet our international obligations. We must have careful definitions of peacekeeping and peacemaking. Let us remember that the initial NATO deployment to Afghanistan was as the international security assistance force, whose mission was provincial reconstruction—a fairly innocent-sounding mission, and it was fairly innocent to start with. Our troops who are now committed in the southern part of that country, however, are in anything but an innocent deployment.
We cannot predict today what tomorrow's conflicts will be, but Parliament must set down our criteria for rapid deployment, which we must never frustrate. On national caveats, if different Parliaments lay down different criteria for their troops to be deployed in multinational missions, that can lead to enormous grievances and problems for military commanders. We must give our commanders in the field the tools to do the job. Parliament must be involved at all stages; its involvement must be essential and not an afterthought.
In international missions, scrutiny at an international level, at which parliamentarians from different countries come together to oversee our common security structures, is also important, within the NATO Parliamentary Assembly and the WEU European Security and Defence Assembly. We must remind the European Parliament that troops are committed by national Governments. There is no European army, and while troops are national, oversight must be provided by national parliamentarians, not MEPs.
That is the essential part of the motion. If we are to expect our young men and women to lay down their lives, we, as elected representatives of the people of this country, must be able to legitimise their deployment. There are those who still see themselves as subjects of the Crown; I believe that most of my electors see themselves as citizens of a democracy. The Crown prerogative is convenient when immediate actions are required. It should, however, be tempered and controlled. I have reservations about the effectiveness of our armed forces in such circumstances, but I would still support the motion.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Mr. Walter, whose knowledge of Europe and its defence forces is extensive. I have drawn two conclusions from his contribution. Although the Luxembourg system, which he mentioned, may be of value, I understand that Luxembourg has only 10 soldiers in Afghanistan; no doubt their presence is welcome. On a more serious point, his contribution shows how much work we have to do before a sensible European response to international crises is possible.
I support my right hon. Friends' motion, although I have serious reservations about it. My first reservation is a purely political one. I echo the comments of Mr. Llwyd that the reason for the sudden change in Government policy, given that the Lord Chancellor was, two or three weeks ago, pouring cold water over the change proposed in the Government's amendment, is that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is clearing out the stables before taking office. He knows perfectly well that what has happened over the Iraq war has driven trust in the Government to the lowest point. Therefore urgent action is needed; hence the amendment, which I assume will be accepted tonight instead of our motion.
My reservation about the amendment is that it
"calls upon the Government, after consultation, to come forward with more detailed proposals for Parliament to consider."
Should we hold our breath? When the Chancellor takes over as Prime Minister, will his advisers come round saying, "Prime Minister, is it wise to give Parliament this important power?" We have to wait and see, with a degree of cynicism, whether anything will come of tonight. Certainly I hope that something does come of it, because that will enhance the reputation of Parliament enormously.
My other reservation, which has been reflected in many other Members' speeches, is whether the proposal will interfere with the ability of this country and its military to operate properly. Will it handicap our armed forces in action? Clearly, the military must have freedom of action, certainly when engaged in a conflict. Tonight, however, we have heard that changing circumstances could result in further votes. How will those further votes square with giving the military the proper discretion to operate in a conflict zone, if they know that such votes might take away the legitimacy of what they are doing? If, as was suggested in the House tonight, we had another vote on Iraq, and the House voted against continuing engagement there, would not our forces have to be pulled back with a degree of urgency, in an undignified retreat? To make the proposal work, a lot of hurdles need to be overcome.
Another hurdle is the intelligence. How will the House come to a properly informed decision unless it is privy to the intelligence? How will it get the intelligence without betraying its source? That seems to be a difficult circle to square, and it is a major problem. People have suggested different ways of dealing with that, such as intelligence committees, but the Opposition will not trust the Government on intelligence, nor will some Labour Members.
Another hurdle is deciding whether to implement the proposal through a convention, as the House of Lords Select Committee recommended, or, as others have suggested, through a statute. If we have a statute, there is again a problem, because if British forces are engaged in a conflict, and then Parliament votes that that engagement should cease, does that mean that whatever has happened up to that point becomes unlawful? That is an interesting question for international and other lawyers, of whom I am not one. Given a chance, I would probably prefer the House of Lords Select Committee's recommendation of a convention, rather than a statute.
Historians divide wars into two categories: wars of choice and wars of necessity. Most of the wars that we fight are wars of choice. World war one and world war two, and possibly the Falklands, would be described as wars of necessity, when we had no option but to fight. All the other wars in which we have been involved—we have been involved in more military action than any other country since the second world war—have been wars of choice. In theory that should give Parliament plenty of time in which to debate the issues in the run-up to its decision on whether to take action, but in reality the position is not nearly as clear-cut.
The war in Sierra Leone, for instance, was initially a war of necessity. We had to go into Sierra Leone to rescue some hostages, including a detachment of our own troops, and we went there with solely that function. Having succeeded in our aim—and we did very well—we stayed on, in order eventually to fight a conventional war with the rebel army and, to a great extent, to pacify Sierra Leone. Thus a war that had begun as a war of necessity ended up as a war of choice.
Andrew Mackinlay shakes his head. My understanding of history may be wrong.
The hon. Gentleman's recollection of the history is not quite sound. I hope to refer later to the pressure that was put on me by the late Member of Parliament for Livingston and by No. 10 Downing street when we tried to probe the reason for deploying our troops in Sierra Leone. If I catch the Speaker's eye, I shall clarify the history.
I shall wait to have my facts corrected, but I was trying to give an example of circumstances in which matters become deeply complicated.
Let us consider other areas of conflict in the world. I think that this was mentioned by Dr. Palmer. If we were ever to intervene in areas such as Darfur and Zimbabwe, the mission could creep and we might again be faced with a rapid escalation, which could mean a second vote in Parliament and a change.
I know that my right hon. Friend Mr. Hague has long opposed all aspects of the royal prerogative. It is a curious animal. When the Bill of Rights removed the royal prerogative from the King and gave it to the Prime Minister, it gave the Prime Minister more power than the monarch. The monarch depended on Parliament to give him the wherewithal to fight a war; once the removal of the royal prerogative had transferred that right to the Prime Minister, the Prime Minister could deliver not only commitment to the war, but the money and equipment that he needed in order to pursue it. It is curious that history has been slightly misinterpreted in that respect.
Several Members have said that too much power is centred on the Prime Minister—I see nods across the Chamber—but are we seriously talking about diminishing that power? The power of the Prime Minister has been built up for various reasons, but not the least, and one of the most crucial, is that the media always want to focus on individuals. They convey politics to a mass audience by personalising the individuals involved. They believe that the grey areas of Parliament such as Committees are of no interest, whereas personality, such as that of the Prime Minister, is important. I consider it most unlikely that we shall ever be able to row back from the presidential era in which we live.
Overshadowing the whole of our debate has been the issue of trust. That, I think, goes to the heart of the debate. Trust in Governments has been declining throughout the world for a long time. At the time of the second world war and the conflicts that followed it, such as the war in Korea, the natural instinct of the British people was to rally around the political leaders and our troops. The Vietnam war changed that hugely, although it did not involve us. It changed the mood in America: people saw the media, and although they were being told that the war was a fight against communism and that the interests of the South Vietnamese Government must be defended, they did not consider that to be a cause worth fighting. They did not think that the South Vietnamese Government were a desirable Government in any case, and trust in what American Presidents were saying to them broke down. That influenced many people here. Over time, we have ceased to believe anything that our leaders tell us as a result of Iraq.
If the motion is passed tonight—if the Government genuinely want to introduce this change, and are able to overcome some of the serious handicaps and reservations that may have existed—I think that it may ultimately be of great benefit to Parliament, and do something to restore the very damaged trust that the electorate have in us.
My hon. Friend Mr. Atkinson always speaks an enormous amount of good sense on matters such as this. I suspect from his remarks that—rather like me, and very much like my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Malcolm Rifkind—he has real reservations about the implications of what we are debating.
Having said that, I find myself in an unenviable position in comparison with many of those who have spoken this evening. There has been a cosy agreement across the Chamber: more or less everyone who has spoken has broadly agreed with everyone else. Those who have advocated the abolition of the royal prerogative for many years—Dr. Wright, the Chairman of the Public Administration Committee, who is present, has done so for many years, as has my right hon. Friend Mr. Hague, who opened the debate with such passion—must be very satisfied by what has been happening in the Chamber today. They have witnessed a huge sea change in opinion in both parties: they have seen views, which as recently as a year or two ago were deeply unpopular with both the Government and the Conservative party, suddenly becoming the flavour of the month.
Indeed, we have heard that only 10 days ago no less a figure than the Lord Chancellor, the second most senior person in the nation, took the view that the abolition of the royal prerogative was a dreadful thing and poured cold water on it. All of a sudden, we read in no less a source than The Observer that the Chancellor of the Exchequer disagrees with his noble Friend the Lord Chancellor, and wants to do away with the royal prerogative and have war-making powers decided in this place.
I find myself in a difficult position. Those who favour abolition of the royal prerogative are very satisfied because the world has gone their way, but I have fought and spoken against abolition as it is proposed today for a long time. In a thesis that I wrote when I was a student at the Royal College of Defence Studies in 2003, at the time of the Iraq war, I went to great lengths to express my view that the royal prerogative was useful—I shall explain why in a moment—and that its abolition in favour of a parliamentary decision to go to war would be altogether retrograde. I advanced the same arguments during a debate about a year ago on the Armed Forces (Parliamentary Approval for Participation in Armed Conflict) Bill, promoted by Clare Short, and that has remained my view.
As recently as this morning, I contacted the Conservative Whips to tell them that I very much regretted that I would be speaking and voting against the Conservative motion. Rather curiously, had that been the case, I should have found myself speaking and voting also against the Labour amendment. I might have ended up in a minority of one—not a position that would give me any great discomfort, but it would have been difficult.
The difficulty that I have encountered is that, having listened carefully to superb speeches by, for instance, my right hon. and learned Friends the Members for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) and for Kensington and Chelsea and my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks, I have increasingly been led by the two central arguments they have advanced to review my dyed-in-the-wool opposition to a parliamentary decision on going to war. The first of those arguments is that the powers of Parliament have been systematically reduced and sidelined by this Government, and that a convention that was introduced to control the over-mighty monarchs of the middle ages has swung so far to the other extreme that we now have an over-mighty Executive.
It has been said that Parliament has been sidelined to a significant degree in a variety of areas, of which that of war-making powers is, perhaps, the most significant. That is the case. I accept that the Chancellor says that he is determined to reinvent the powers of Parliament, but there is a powerful series of arguments about what has happened to the powers of Parliament to decide on a variety of matters and how Parliament has progressively become sidelined in recent years. I am also persuaded by the populist argument that of all the things that we do in this place—and of all the things that the nation does—going to war and committing our boys and girls to risking their lives is the most significant, and that it is increasingly an anomaly that this great House of Commons, which is the mother of Parliaments, has no say over whether that should occur.
Those two central arguments have been expressed by a variety of contributors to the debate. They are powerful arguments, and despite my previous opposition to abolishing the royal prerogative in this area, they are beginning to persuade me not to do what I warned my Whips I would do: vote against the motion.
I am also helped in changing my mind by our discussions on the means by which this step would be taken. I had previously imagined the new measure to be very like the Bill promoted by the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood, in that it would require a decision on any form of military deployment whatever to come before the House. That would be bad for a variety of reasons which I shall explain shortly. However, in all our discussions this evening—whether they have been on some statutory obligation to discuss war-making in Parliament or on the parliamentary convention approach proposed by the House of Lords Constitution Committee—we have been talking about a gradual approach, so that there would be flexibility in the use of parliamentary authority for war-making powers rather than a dictatorial or small-minded approach.
That is a very important change. In all previous debates on this matter it had been suggested that there would be an absolute requirement that any deployment of troops anywhere in the world would require parliamentary authority. Presumably that would also apply to a significant increase in the number of troops—as has happened in Afghanistan—and to a change in the legitimisation or justification for a war resulting in our wanting to consider bringing troops home from that theatre. I would be wholly opposed to that, as it would hamper our generals and our nation, and it would prevent us from punching above our weight in the world. However, given that we have received assurances from both the Government and Opposition Benches that that would not be the case and that instead there would be a convention or a carefully worded statute that allowed some degree of latitude to the Government and the armed services, I begin to be more persuaded.
There are, however, several caveats which we ought to think about extremely carefully. The first is to do with intelligence. There has been considerable debate about the use of intelligence. It is worrying that in the run-up to the vote on the Iraq war significant use of intelligence was made. The Government produced the two dossiers. They were said to be highly secret and intelligent and very important. We now know that much of what was written in them was complete and utter nonsense. Lots of the spin in the newspapers at the time—which came, I understand, not from the Foreign Office or the Ministry of Defence, but from No. 10 Downing street—proved to be completely inaccurate.
Let us contemplate for a moment why the Government had to go to such lengths to spin the intelligence in the run-up to Iraq. It was not so that they could take part in the war. They had to spin and pervert the intelligence in that way because they knew that they had to win a vote in this House. In other words, the very fact that there was to be a vote meant that the intelligence was not straightforward and easy to understand; it was converted into a justification for the war. That is unhealthy. Some of the suggestions made this evening about possibly using the Intelligence and Security Committee to consider the intelligence, or of employing other means to examine it before committing to war such as by means of a committee of Privy Councillors, offer a way out of that difficulty.
However, it should be said that the intelligence that we act on when we go to war is, of course, secret and in most cases if it were revealed to this place or the public we would compromise our intelligence sources, which would be a retrograde step. There must be a way of considering the intelligence, and we must avoid the spinning of it.
Why does the hon. Gentleman have such low ambitions for this place? We could have a committee appointed not by the Prime Minister but by this place that looks into intelligence on behalf of this House, reports to this House and gives a certificate as to the veracity of the intelligence that it has received and studied.
The hon. Gentleman's suggestion is sensible. It might be possible for us to set up some such structure—some form of truly secret committee in this place—to consider the secret intelligence and then to certify the approach to the war. That is a possible approach, although also a difficult one, as it is not easy to imagine how we could construct that. However, we must avoid the spinning and the perversion of intelligence of 2003.
Dr. Palmer suggested that the public were at the time of the vote on Iraq very much in favour of the invasion. That is incorrect: 75 per cent of the people of this country were against an invasion of Iraq on the day on which we voted. That is in contrast to the situation in respect of Afghanistan; 70 per cent. of people were in favour of that deployment. The Government, faced by a difficult vote when they knew that the people were opposed, had to spin the intelligence in order to justify the deployment. In other words, an unpopular war requires greater spinning, particularly if there is to be a vote, but a popular war which is acceptable to the people, such as all the others, did not require that. Therefore, if we are to go down this route, there is an important question to be asked about the way that intelligence is used.
We must also think about the way in which the armed services react to this place. I did not agree with Mr. Llwyd, who suggested that the armed services deployed in the field were significantly questioning the reasoning behind the Iraq war. That is not my experience from talking to the armed services. They say that they are ready to do their jobs and that people cleverer than them in this place have decided that we should carry out such operations. I have not come across generals or regular soldiers saying that they thought that the war was unpopular and that they wished they were not there. They are glad to be there, and to be doing a professional job. However, if every aspect of a deployment to a theatre of war were governed not by the Executive but by this place, and if there were detailed discussions in this place, that would encourage those deployed increasingly to question why they were in that theatre of war. There would be constant debates in this place about the rightness or wrongness of a particular war, which would encourage people to question it. I am concerned about the politicisation of warfare that might result.
Let us imagine that a Government had a majority of one, and that the war in question was unpopular but necessary. It is not right to think that all wars are popular; quite a few are unpopular but necessary. That Government, with a majority of one, would have to get involved in all kinds of political activities to achieve a majority in this place. Individual Back Benchers would demand the saving of particular accident and emergency departments, for example, if the Government were to get their vote. The Whips would be hyperactive and all manner of activities would be going on to achieve approval for the war.
The Opposition in question, behind by only one vote, would surely be strongly tempted to oppose the war because they would believe that they might just embarrass, or even defeat, the Government. If that Government said that they wanted a war, presumably the Opposition would see an opportunity to pick off one or two Government Back Benchers—thereby defeating the Government on the central question of going to war, for goodness' sake—as a highly attractive proposition. In other words, an issue that ought to be dealt with through statesmanship would have been party politicised. That is another extremely difficult problem. We would need to find a way under the proposed procedure of establishing that where reasonable consensus exists on the question of going to war there should be a vote, while recognising that if there is a lack of consensus it might be much more difficult to do that. Reversion to some form of Executive prerogative, rather than royal prerogative, might be necessary.
We have touched briefly on emergencies and of course, if there is an incoming intercontinental ballistic missile, no one would suggest that there should be a vote in the House of Commons on whether we should shoot it down. That is fairly obvious, and the Executive would of course have the authority to shoot it down, but what about less dramatic but none the less important emergencies? There are a variety of situations, such as the no-fly zone in Iraq, on which an immediate decision by the Executive is important for the sake of the peace of the world. A decision by this place, especially if it involved intelligence committees and so forth, would take quite a long time to reach.
The sinking of the Belgrano springs to mind as an illustration of whether it was right for a Prime Minister to take such a decision. The Prime Minister of the day decided to sink the Belgrano and many people think that that was the wrong decision—I believe that it was the right one—but if this place had been asked whether to sink it, the ship would have been at the north pole before we had even begun to discuss the issue. There are many situations that need an urgent decision, and it would not be right to leave them to this place. What would happen, moreover, when we took part in United Nations or NATO operations or—heaven forfend, from my standpoint—if we took part in an EU operation? Might there be circumstances in which the UN or NATO sought to deploy British troops, but this place decided not to? Whom would the generals obey—their NATO commander or this place? That is a difficult issue that needs to be considered carefully.
So, although I am persuaded that the removal of parliamentary powers that we have witnessed in the past 10 years probably ought to lead us to seek to restore them by some reduction in royal prerogative, and although I am persuaded that the worry of committing our people to war is so huge that such a decision ought to be taken in this place, I none the less have very real reservations about the proposal and its operation in practice. I suspect that the risk is that, while we were satisfying ourselves on the democratic side, we would be undermining our capability as a force for good in the world. My hon. Friend Mr. Walter made a powerful point in that regard when he explained how Germany is hampered by its constitution.
Contrary to what I thought this morning, although I am ready to support the Conservative party's motion and, indeed, Labour's amendment, as well—given that they seem to be more or less identical—I do so with significant reservations. The discussions that the Government have promised us in the months that lie ahead are vital. We must get this right if we are to continue to be the force for good in the world that our nation has always prided itself on being.
I apologise again to the Chair, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for being unable to be here for the opening exchanges. I am interested in this issue, and there are two reasons why I was unable to be here, both of which are relevant. First, I had to go earlier today to the military funeral of a young man called Simon Davison, a constituent of mine who was killed in Afghanistan last week. As many Members know, such occasions bring home to us the responsibility that we feel for the circumstances that produce the tragic death of brave young men such as Simon. My feeling that I should share some direct responsibility for such occasions was reinforced by the fact that Simon's family and the local community would expect their political representative to be involved in some way in the decisions that produced the consequences. I felt that I should be involved and that I should be held to account for the things that I had done. That event simply brought home to me the importance of the general issue that we are discussing.
The second reason for an apology is that the Public Administration Committee, which I chair, was meeting this afternoon, so I could not be here earlier. As is stated in the motion and the amendment, it was a report from our Committee in 2004, "Taming the Prerogative", which first systematically drew Parliament's attention to the need to tackle prerogative powers. We identified the areas that we thought needed the most urgent attention, and war-making powers were at the top of our list. They were not the only item. We also talked about, for example, the approval of treaties.
History explains why Parliament has been omitted from the picture in various areas. Mr. Gray put it fairly in explaining his conversion, and it is the central argument for me. What history tells us, and what we tried to say in the report three years ago, is that it is among the peculiarities of our history—in some ways, the blessings of our history—that we have not, in some considerable time, had to sit down and work out what kind of political system we want or what kind of political people we want to be. We have never had to devise a new constitution, or indeed any kind of codified constitution, never having been successfully invaded or having had a successful revolution in modern times. We have never had to undertake the kind of political enterprise that other countries have had to do, so we have never had to confront what has happened in our history, which is—among all the blessings of broad stability and gradual change—that powers that used to reside with monarchs have been transferred lock, stock and barrel to modern Executives. That is the running thread of our history. We come now, late in the day, to try to put Parliament back into the picture. We are doing that on several fronts, with some success.
It was only a little while ago that I made the case that it was a constitutional anomaly that the Prime Minister did not account to a Committee of this House in the way that other Ministers did. Through our Committee, and then through the Liaison Committee, I entered into correspondence with Downing street about that. I used to get letters back—we published them—that told me that it was constitutionally impossible and went against all the conventions for the Prime Minister to attend on a Committee of this House. When Robin Cook was Leader of the House, he memorably asked me to stop going on about the issue, because the Prime Minister would never agree to it. The following week came the announcement that the Prime Minister would attend twice a year to give evidence before the Liaison Committee.
We can see in that process a convention in the making. One day, it was constitutionally impossible and offended against all our traditions; then it happened; and now it is inconceivable that any future Prime Minister would not attend on the Liaison Committee. That is how we make constitutional change, but it is hard because we do not do it from first principles or a blank piece of paper. We come at the problem from this point in history, when we are trying to insert Parliament back into a war-making powers process. That is a process from which it has been excluded, inappropriately, for a long time.
I agree with everyone who has said that the matter requires very careful consideration. We need to get it right. There are arguments about whether it is better to use law or convention, but, in some ways, as long as we get a strong and proper mechanism, that does not matter greatly.
This debate is part of a process that has been going on for some time. We are embracing these matters for particular local and immediate reasons, but my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House was writing about the need to review prerogative powers 20 years ago. In those days, the Labour party was not routinely in government: as we have become so, of course, our interest in these matters has waned. When the PAC report appeared three years ago, neither the House nor the Government was terribly interested in what it said.
In the wake of the Iraq vote, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House was asked, in the House, whether Parliament's vote on the war had created a precedent. I do not remember his exact words, but he said something to the effect that, yes, he agreed that a precedent had been created. My right hon. Friend is a former Foreign Secretary, so when he says that a precedent has been created, we are well on the way to getting either a convention or a law. That is how this place works.
As I was not here earlier, it is only fair that I should be brief, so I shall end by saying that the change that we are discussing is not in Parliament's interest alone. It is constitutionally proper that Parliament should be inserted into the process, and it is good to see support for that general principle, even though people have worries about how it might work.
I have always thought that it is essential for Governments that Parliament has a role. I spoke earlier about attending a funeral this morning, and I believe that it is no longer possible to send people to war without their representative institution having some say in the process. The argument is as fundamental as that: given how contentious the 2003 vote on Iraq was, can anyone imagine what it would have been like if the Government had decided to go to war without a vote in this place?
I voted against the Iraq invasion. People sometimes say to me that I must be very pleased about that, but I am not. What has happened gives me no pleasure: I wanted Iraq to be a stable democracy by now, and I regret hugely the fact that it has all gone so bitterly wrong. However, the vote in the House was crucial to giving that highly contentious war any democratic legitimacy in this country.
In future, Parliament must be involved in the process if any military conflict is to have legitimacy. A hundred or so years ago, Lord Salisbury of all people remarked that the French were always going on about what their chamber would or would not put up with, and that perhaps we should have one like it. In a sense, we are saying that we should have a Chamber like that. It will be good for Parliament, and for Government too.
Mr. Clarke commented that he was happy to hear all the believers who were speaking in the debate, but that he was even happier that so many unbelievers had repented—presumably before the debate, although we have even heard Members confessing that they have seen the light during it.
I remain one of the doubters. That is not a natural position for me, because knowing that as a member of a minority party I shall always be confined to the Back Benches I obviously have an interest in an increased role for Parliament. Furthermore, my natural distrust of the Executive has been reinforced by some of their decisions and behaviour over the years, so I believe that there is a need to pull power back to Parliament, as Dr. Wright said.
There are two guiding principles. The first is to ensure that whatever decision is made this country always has the ability to defend itself and its security is not impaired. Secondly, when we go to war, the morale of the troops we send should not be undermined in any way. The course of the debate has given me some reason to doubt whether those principles will be upheld.
Members have admitted that it will not always be possible to vote on taking military action. In response to interventions from the Opposition Back Benches, even the proposer of the motion indicated that sometimes circumstances would be thrust upon us and immediate action would be needed, so only an Executive decision could be made. Sometimes, the option to vote will not be available to us.
There could be circumstances in which we would not want to have a vote, because it might escalate the situation. As we intervene in more countries, we realise that although troops may go in with one purpose sometimes things change. Initially, troops may have been sent as peacekeepers or to help in a disaster or a rescue mission, but the situation escalates. When troops are sucked into such situations, must they wait for Parliament's permission before they react, or should military action be taken without Parliament's approval?
It has been suggested that only a substantial deployment should need a vote in Parliament, but it was not clear whether the deployment should be substantial in terms of manpower or firepower. Initially, an intervention might require few troops, but events could escalate. At what stage is the vote to be taken? If such a vote is required by law and military action is taken without it, what will be the legal implications for the people who take part in the action? As Iraq has shown us, lawyers are always happy to intervene and put soldiers through the court system.
Even where it is possible to have a vote, there is still the question of when the vote should be taken and there has been considerable debate in the House about that today. If we take it too early, we are provoking a situation; if we take it too late, it is a fait accompli. It is quite clear that some of those who describe themselves as believers, or as sinners who have come to repentance, still have some doubts about the circumstances in which the vote should be taken, even if they agree on the principle of the vote.
Another doubt that I have is about the basis on which the decision would be made. The right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe quite rightly said that the decision must be taken in full knowledge of all the relevant information. The relevant pieces of information that he suggested included the legal opinion. But even he had to concede that, if the full legal opinion were to be made available, the Attorney-General might well be reticent about giving it. He might draw back when thinking about some of the information he could give. The right hon. and learned Gentleman came to the conclusion that perhaps only the conclusions of the legal opinion should be made available. So, although we started off by saying that we need full knowledge to make a decision, we reached a situation in which we would be given the conclusions of the legal opinion.
Another point that was made was that the decision should be made on the basis of the raw intelligence data. Other Members—even those who support the proposal—have said that at times it will not be possible to have the full intelligence, because it may compromise sources and the work that we are already doing on the ground. Mr. Gray said that the more important the decision, the less willing the Government may be to hand over the intelligence or the more likely it may be that the intelligence will be spun. If a decision is sought simply to get the view of Parliament, rather than to get approval for a war, perhaps there will be less reticence about giving the intelligence. But if we are talking about a crucial decision—a decision to approve a war—it becomes more important that the Government get the right decision and so the intelligence might be spun or curtailed in some way.
There have been a number of suggestions about how that situation might be overcome, but, again, even those who support the principle recognise the massive difficulties that a vote in the House is likely to create when it comes to having the full information. There were also some doubts among the believers about the motion that should be put before the House. Some said that the motion should be as short as possible; others said that the motion should be as long as possible. The longer the motion, the greater the justification that will be contained within it. If one of the reasons given for going to war is shown not to pertain any longer, does that call into question the decision and does it provide a chance for the debate to be rerun?
That brings me to the last point that I want to make. How often should the vote take place? Would it simply take place at the very start, whenever that start happened to be—and at the moment, that is not clear—or, as the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe said, must there be ratification of the approval should circumstances change? What constitutes a change in circumstances could vary. For example, the circumstances might change in relation to the original reasons given in the motion that was put before the House. Of course, the longer the motion, the more justification there will be and the more opportunity there is to say that circumstances have changed. Alternatively, a change in circumstances could mean a change in the pace or the nature of the military intervention. If the change was to the pace or nature of the military intervention, would we be starting to intervene in operational and command decisions, and would that be good for the security of the troops or the execution of the war? Indeed, is the House qualified to make such an intervention?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point that has been raised several times during the debate. We accept that we would not need to use the extra powers regularly because the House is able to pass judgment on operations without such a substantive motion. The Chamberlain Government were brought down by a motion that was non-substantive, yet none the less lethal.
I accept the hon. Gentleman's interpretation. However, that is not the universal view of those who have spoken in the debate. This is an aspect of the proposals that will need to be cleared up before an honest doubter can take a firm decision on them.
It is clear that this exercise will go ahead. There is not a great deal of difference between the Opposition motion and the Government amendment, although perhaps the amendment spells out more clearly and fully the meaning of the phrase at the end of the motion that
"calls on the Government to bring forward proposals to give effect to this principle, including mechanisms to ensure that the capability to react rapidly in emergencies is maintained."
While the exercise will be approved, I hope that whatever is decided will come before the House for approval because those of us who have doubts will need to see the exact shape of the proposals that will eventually be adopted. If we are to have only a cynical exercise to get round the unpopularity of the decision on our military involvement in Iraq and, to a lesser extent, Afghanistan, I suppose that it will be buried. However, there probably is a desire in the House to drive this forward.
I will judge the proposals, first, on whether they will affect this country's ability to defend itself; secondly, on whether they will impede the security of forces in the field and be detrimental to them; thirdly, on whether they will curtail the ability of commanders in the field to exercise their operational discretion; and, fourthly, on whether they will have an effect on the morale of our soldiers whom we send out to difficult theatres of war. I will make my judgment, but I remain a doubter. If we are going to have such proposals, all the points that have been made today must be fully investigated and addressed so that we do not finish up with a situation in which simply exercising parliamentary freedom affects the people whom we send out to do our fighting overseas.
It is a pleasure to participate in this historic occasion. We are seeing the genesis of a major change to the decision-making process through which the UK mobilises its armed forces. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have made passionate and powerful speeches, which have generally supported the proposal before us.
I am slightly saddened that the Government tabled an amendment and did not feel that they could support the motion, although I understand the reasons why. I pay tribute to Sammy Wilson, who spoke with passion about the importance of the changes in circumstances that can affect our military forces when they get the go-ahead to represent the United Kingdom abroad. I will touch on that later in my speech.
I fully endorse the proposal. In this day and age, it seems inconceivable that we should have a royal prerogative that is so out of date. Democratic accountability seems to be missing from the Government, so I am pleased that Parliament is being invited to participate in the decision-making process. As we have heard, the issues that we are discussing stem from the Bill of Rights, which was written way back in 1688, and which transferred a number of powers directly from the monarch to Ministers. I am pleased that we are witnessing the beginning of a change that will result in Parliament scrutinising the decision to go to war. While debating the motion, we should consider the detail of the issue. There is now a blur between war-fighting and peacekeeping. Interventions are rarely bilateral; they are multilateral, so we have to ask ourselves detailed questions about the decisions that Parliament might need to take.
The principle that we are discussing has support from all corners of the House. As we have heard, some right hon. and hon. Members introduced private Members' Bills on the subject. I pay tribute to Dr. Wright, who sits on the Labour Benches, and who has, in his own way, promoted the issue through his constant letter writing and by barracking of Members of his own party. He has led us to where we are today. We have heard the Chancellor of the Exchequer endorse the proposal in principle, and the House of Lords Constitution Committee is obviously in favour. The Lord Chancellor has done a U-turn on the issue—perhaps the Prime Minister's grip on him is slowly loosening, and another hand is now grabbing him and turning him a different way.
It is worth reminding ourselves that the term "war", as defined by the Geneva conventions of 1949, is no longer used. The last time that Britain actually went to war was in 1942, against Siam. We no longer use that term simply because of the legalities. War is a state that the nation is in, and it is too complicated for us to go down that route. It involves dealing with diplomats and embassies and that treaties have to be reconsidered. It also raises the issue of enemy aliens and what to do with citizens of an enemy country who are in the UK.
The UK has been involved in a number of operations over the past 10 years. We have made 60 deployments and been involved in five major conflicts. It is worth considering some of those conflicts as they show us that the prevailing tendency has been to seek Parliament's support when deciding whether to commit troops. We heard how, in the case of world war two, a motion was put before the House by Neville Chamberlain, and it was carried. Before the Korean war in 1950, a statement was made in which UK troops were offered to support US troops. That was actually a retrospective debate, but Parliament was nevertheless able to voice its views.
On the Falklands, as has been said, the House was recalled for an Adjournment debate in April 1982. There was no vote, although there were plenty of statements, but it is worth reminding the House that there was no call for a vote. If there had been a call for a vote from any corner of the House, I am sure that the usual channels of the day would have allowed one, but clearly the view of the House was so unified that a vote was not seen as necessary. Hostilities in the Gulf war began on
It is when we come to Iraq that things get a little more confusing. There was a plethora of votes on Iraq, including in September 2002 and in February 2003. There was also the main vote of
At the time, we had 45,000 troops on the border ready to move across when the green light was given. If we are to scrutinise the decision to go to war, there should be a clearer motion endorsing what we intend to do, rather than some ambiguous call leaning on a series of UN resolutions, some of which are more than a decade old. The motion on
My concern about the decision on Iraq was the limited amount of information. I pointed out to the Leader of the House in an intervention that not only the House but the country was misled by the limited amount of information made available. There was too much spin involved. The Alastair Campbells of this world should have no place in changing the advice given by our intelligence and security community. They were not happy with certain documents, which were slid back across the table with the instruction to emphasise other aspects of the reports. That is out of order and should never happen again.
One of the key factors that persuaded many hon. Members to vote in favour was the 45-minute claim and that somehow Cyprus, one of our sovereign bases, may possibly have come under attack. We know that that is not the case. As we move forward with the proposals, I should like to see proposals to ensure that we are never led down that road again. The information that is available to the Cabinet should be made available to other bodies as well.
Napoleon once said that soldiers can do a great deal with bayonets by setting them. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the resolution should deal with not only the practicalities of going to war, but the aftermath?
The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point, which is the main thrust of my speech. If he waits a moment, I shall come to that.
There was some shameful spinning of the facts in order to justify war. Many will say that we would have gone to war anyway, because it had been decided that there was justification. Either way, we did it in a manner that alienated many of our allies. Again, that is an experience that we should never repeat.
Let us suppose that the vote has taken place and the decision to go to war has been made—I now come to the hon. Gentleman's point. The actual war with Iraq is only half the story. I was frustrated by some of the comments today that the vote on
I repeat what I said in an earlier intervention—had we had a suitable plan after the war to lift Iraq off its knees , sorted out the Ba'ath army, dealt with the infrastructure, looked after the oil wells and got them working to provide income for the country, it is possible that we would not be having this debate today. I would even go so far as to say that the Prime Minister would not be forced out of office, as he is. It is not the fault of the military. My regiment, the Royal Green Jackets, now The Rifles, is currently based in Basra and working extremely hard. We should pay tribute to the hard work that all our forces are doing. However, if we ask them what frustrates them, they say that it is their belief that the blueprint for Iraq is questionable. They did their job at the beginning by liberating the country, and then we had a blank canvas to do something with. That has been a wasted opportunity. I recommend Bob Woodward's book, "State of Denial", which goes through the details of some of the decision making that took place on both sides of the Atlantic and perhaps brought us to the questionable position that we are in today.
We must first be able to scrutinise the decision to go to war, but then, even if we disagree with it, we must accept it, put it behind us, and look at what we are doing to manage the peace. We have alienated our friends and lost hearts and minds because of the manner in which we have gone about our business. Britain is very good at winning over hearts and minds; we have a fantastic reputation around the world for making friends in a peacekeeping role. I cannot say the same for the Americans, who have lots to learn about befriending a nation that they are going into and being seen as liberators, not occupiers. I would like further scrutiny of that issue. Four years after the invasion, we are still debating it endlessly and there are concerns about the direction in which we are going. Most importantly, we are now looking at an exit strategy. Members on both sides of the House have said that we should withdraw. I would be uncomfortable with that because it would deny people the help that we promised them, but we need to look back at the blueprint and ask what we can do to improve the situation. The policy is failing and Parliament needs more scrutiny over why that is so. I am less angry about the decision to go to war than about the failure to keep the peace.
Part of this debate must concern our capacity to help. My hon. Friend Dr. Fox has spoken time and again about the problems of overstretch that British forces face. We need to be careful about committing ourselves across the world, sometimes without the support of our NATO or Commonwealth allies, when we simply do not have the troops or the military support. If, as the Prime Minister suggested on
On the proposal to change the royal prerogative, there are lessons to be learned from what other countries have been doing. Canada has a very similar system to ours, but the Government have promised to offer a vote whenever troops are committed. In Holland, as we heard from my hon. Friend Mr. Walter, there is a new requirement to keep Parliament informed, but that has caused huge delays in the commitment of troops to Afghanistan.
There is a debate in the United States arising from the War Powers Act, which followed the engagements in Vietnam and Korea and which has created friction between Congress and the President, who is commander-in-chief, over who has the ultimate power to wage war and who holds the purse strings governing the length of time the country can be committed to a particular war. It is not doing the morale of the forces in Iraq any good to see that tension in the Capitol.
France, under its constitution of 1958, can declare war only if authorised by Parliament, but circumnavigates that by getting involved in international operations that have a different label. Germany is a great example that we must consider because there the authority is very much bestowed on the Bundestag—the German Parliament. However, anyone who has visited Afghanistan will realise that the caveats that are imposed on German troops hinder them to the point that we question the reason for their presence from a military perspective. They do some work in provincial reconstruction teams, but they refuse to go out at night because their Parliament has told them that they cannot. How can troops who are part of an international security assistance force have such limitations, which do not apply to the rest of the force, imposed on them? It means that they guard the various bases but never wander out and get involved in operations. On paper, it appears as though there are 36,000 troops in Afghanistan, but only 15,000 are actually committed, with another 20,000 or so bound by so many caveats that their value is questionable.
Parliament must consider the sort of peacekeeping roles on which we would want to vote. Do we want to vote on peace enforcement, conflict resolution or multinational humanitarian relief? Bearing mission creep in mind, we need to be aware of how often we must recall the issues to Parliament to measure our success or ascertain whether things are getting out of control.
Let us consider the example of Afghanistan. In October 2001, the US and Britain began their air strikes. By
What parameters might Parliament set? Should we be able to vote yes or no on whether to deploy? Should we vote on the size of the force, budget constraints, length of stay or time frame? Indeed, should we vote on the rules of engagement? I was astonished to learn from Defence questions yesterday that the British have different rules of engagement from the US in the Shatt al-Arab waterway. That needs to be rectified. There are legal questions, which could result in soldiers being unsure of where they stand in international law.
We need proper information. There is a concern that we could end up being armchair generals. We like discussing such issues but we rely heavily on the information that the Government provide, what we find out for ourselves or what the media tell us. That is all very well if we are considering hospitals or schools because I can visit my local school or hospital and glean the information for myself. However, it is difficult for Back Benchers to visit the sort of places that we are discussing and fully comprehend what is happening. The information from the Government, especially the intelligence and security services, must be correct, accurate, up to date and unspun. Should the Defence Committee and the Intelligence and Security Committee be allowed to read more detailed reports? A key issue is sharing information so that Parliament can make informed decisions.
I am worried about retrospective decision making. In the case of escalation of conflict and mission creep, how far back do we go to confirm what has happened? Should there be UN approval? There can also be ambiguities about the type of conflict being entered into. How prisoners should be dealt with is another issue. The question can also be put the other way round: if Governments can come to Parliament to confirm that they can go to war, can Parliament go to the Government to request war? If I tabled an early-day motion that called for Mugabe to be taken out with a single bullet, I would doubtless get quite a few signatures. Would the Government then be expected to react to that or would such powers not exist? I think I know the answer to that one, but it is an issue that we need to raise.
In conclusion, life has moved on from the days when wars were reported in The Times or The Daily Telegraph two months after they actually happened. Conflicts are now very much under the microscope and are followed in minute detail. We have 24-hour coverage and the country's citizens are far more informed and opinionated than ever before. It is important that Governments are held to account. I very much support the motion and I look forward to seeing the detailed proposals that will now follow—whether they be in the form of a convention or a statute. British involvement in international conflicts will, of course, continue—but, I hope, only after better scrutiny by this House.
I very much welcome the debate. I have had a similar experience to that of my hon. Friend Dr. Wright. When I argued for greater scrutiny and suggested that the Prime Minister should appear before a Select Committee, I got precisely the same reaction as he did. I was told, "You must be off your trolley, Mackinlay, to suggest that the Prime Minister should appear before a Select Committee." Yet that came about. Over 10 years of the Blair Government, a number of my suggestions have been dismissed by colleagues, only to come about later. This question of gaining parliamentary approval and oversight for the deployment of our armed forces is one of them.
I very much welcome the conversion of Government and Opposition Front Benchers. I say that because committing our armed forces, in my view, justifies the full-hearted consent of both Parliament and people. Indeed, the people's will is expressed through this Parliament. When we take a decision about deployment, we need to do it with full knowledge and full consent because it is such a grave matter. I certainly support the idea of a statute that lays down the ground rules for this House of Commons to approve deployment. Implicit in that is the fact that provision must be made for the continued deployment to be scrutinised and reviewed.
One of the flaws in existing arrangements is that there has been no reaffirming vote for the deployment of our troops in Iraq. I am quite sure that the House would reaffirm it, because, irrespective of our views on the original decision, we all understand the constraints. It seems to me healthy for democracy that that should happen. If, in extreme circumstances, there were a need to withdraw or retreat—heaven forbid, to cut our losses—that too should be done through Parliament.
Dr. Fox made a passing reference from a sedentary position to the Narvik debate of
"welcomes the formation of a Government representing the united and inflexible resolve of the nation to prosecute the war with Germany to a victorious conclusion."
It set out the House's view, demonstrating the will of the country, on what should happen, giving a mandate to Winston Churchill and his coalition Government to prosecute the war with Germany to that victorious conclusion.
I always think that one of the modern-day miracles happened in those critical hours in May 1940 when George VI appointed Churchill rather than Halifax, because Halifax could have used the royal prerogative to come to terms with Germany. It is a matter of fact that he, and many other good people, thought that they might have to cut their losses, and they would have used the royal prerogative to do so. They would not have come to the House of Commons to review the matter. What eventually happened would not have taken place but for Churchill's initiative of bringing that motion to the House of Commons and getting it ratified by a Division.
Churchill's speech spelled out the issue. He said:
"You ask, what is our policy? I will say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival. Let that be realised; no survival for the British Empire, no survival for all that the British Empire has stood for, no survival for the urge and impulse of the ages, that mankind will move forward towards its goal. But I take up my task with buoyancy and hope. I feel sure that our cause will not be suffered to fail among men. At this time I feel entitled to claim the aid of all, and I say, 'Come then, let us go forward together with our united strength.'"—[ Hansard, 13 May 1940; Vol. 360, c. 1502.]
Churchill was speaking in the House of Commons, and the House supported him in a Division; it gave him a mandate. We should not lose sight of the fact that that was an important occasion, not only giving him legitimacy but helping things on. In contrast, let us consider how King Leopold used the royal prerogative to capitulate without going to the Belgian Parliament. Mr. Walter mentioned the Belgian constitution in his speech earlier. There are good reasons why we should learn from history, because the idea that we are debating tonight has proved a worthwhile tool in promoting our national interests at the most critical times.
I remember, soon after the Labour Government came to office 10 years ago, the deployment of British troops to Sierra Leone. As a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, I thought that it was incumbent on the Committee to ask questions about the ground rules of the deployment, the rules of engagement and the relationship with Sandline and other private military companies—I call them mercenaries. That inquiry was most unwelcome. It is a matter of fact that enormous pressure was put on the Foreign Affairs Committee—including my hon. Friend Ms Abbott and me—not to inquire into the matter. The Government assumed that if we were making such inquiries, we must be opposed to their policy. It worried me deeply that because we were inquiring about the ground rules and the reasons for the deployment, we were thought to be opposed to them. I just wanted to know what was going on.
I remember that the then Member for Livingston, the late Robin Cook, for whom I had very high regard, was extraordinarily angry. He called me at midnight one Sunday evening and asked, "What the heck"—he actually used a stronger word than that—"are you doing?" I told him that I intended to pursue the matter with vigour. I also remember being away with two colleagues whom I like and respect very much, but when I went on television to say that the matter should go before the House of Commons, they told me that I was completely mad. I shall be interested to see which Division Lobby they go through tonight. Things have now moved on, and it seemed to me that we needed transparency on that occasion.
To the credit of the late Member for Livingston, when the history of the Iraq conflict comes to be written there will be no doubt that it was he who persuaded the Prime Minister that he had to come before the House of Commons and seek a mandate. The flaw in that experience, however, was that the House did not have independent intelligence verification or independent legal advice. In the unlikely event of that happening again while I am in the House of Commons, I shall certainly want to know that the intelligence has been verified by a Committee of Parliament—not a committee of parliamentarians, and not the so-called Intelligence and Security Committee, which is not a Committee of Parliament but is appointed by the Prime Minister to judge his own stewardship of such matters, which is wholly unsatisfactory.
As part and parcel of the proposals tonight, we need to ensure that we have a parliamentary Committee, which would be highly responsible, which we will choose, and which realises that its knowledge could be critical to the lives of our service personnel. We should have that high ambition for Parliament: we should judge the verification of intelligence. Equally, we need to know about the legality of any deployment of our armed forces from an authority separate from a Law Officer who is a Minister of the Crown.
Colleagues will recall the great irritation over the Sierra Leone situation, and the phrase—coined by Alastair Campbell, I understand, but attributed to the Prime Minister —"What's the problem? The good guys won." I like the good guys to win, too, but we needed to know what the mischief was in the first place, and what the relationship was between our armed forces and Sandline—an unhealthy situation. That was never disclosed, however, to the House of Commons.
I hope that we shall embrace the proposals tonight. As many other Members have said, when we look at the differences between the amendment and the motion we see that we are dancing on the head of a pin. I rejoice in the conversion both of those on the Conservative Front Bench and, more importantly, of the people currently in government, who have stewardship of the principle. I do not, however, want to be deceived. I want to be sure that this is not a way of getting over a particular difficulty. I want written down in tablets of stone the ground rules by which we deploy and protect our armed forces, and by which Parliament reviews their deployment.
Our armed forces can take strength from that, as the House of Commons is a responsible place, which would never put our armed forces in jeopardy. In times of great crisis our Government and our diplomats would have greater strength, and a greater mandate, if they knew that they had the wholehearted consent of Parliament and people. I support the amendment, although it is a little silly—this is occasionally a silly place—that we do not have an agreed motion.
I can think of no greater and more important decision for the national interest than to go to war. It affects the lives of those whom we represent, the young people of this country. It affects the standing of the country in the international arena. It bears on the world's judgment on us. As Dr. Wright and his report pointed out, however, it is a prerogative power.
The struggle of the House has been to capture the Crown. We have never succeeded in that; the Crown just moved from the end of the Mall to reside in Downing street. I do not believe, however, that a decision so fundamental to the well-being of our national life and the unity of a country can be left to the Crown in Downing street. It must be embraced by every one of us who represent those who will provide the men and treasure that take us to war.
I have been in the House a little while, during which time, I suggest, there have been three great conflicts. The first was the Falklands. I remember collecting money from pubs across my constituency and sending cheques to the Ministry of Defence. We knew that that conflict had the assent of the people. The first Gulf war also had the assent of the people. The second Gulf war—the one that has brought us here to discuss this motion today—has been more equivocal.
By and large, Governments in the modern age do not launch wars without being satisfied at the back of their minds that that the nation understands and will support those wars—but who can express that?
I do not have time. Will the hon. Gentleman forgive me, please?
Who gives assent in such circumstances? It can, in truth, only be the representatives of those who sent us here: ourselves, the House of Commons. We must say that we are prepared to go to war, that taxation shall be raised if necessary, and young people shall lose their lives if necessary. Therefore the principle must be a very great one, and the clarity with which we commit the resources of this nation must be affirmed. That is what the motion and the amendment are about.
I commend the speech of my right hon. Friend Mr. Hague. It covered the ground in relation to the difficulties of capturing the prerogative power. The War Powers Act in the United States and the Canadian approach are relevant instances. We seem somehow to be trapped in an imperial past when the very notion of the imperium was itself sufficient to justify any and every war—but we are no longer in that age. As my hon. Friend Mr. Ellwood said, this is a world of instant communication. We know the details now.
We have been reminded of Churchill in the last war. It was inconceivable that Parliament could not debate the conduct of the war—and it did, in closed session. Those were often very bitter and anxious debates, because we knew that we were committing the lives and well-being of the nation. Such action hangs on judgment, and that judgment should not reside in the hands of one person, who knows only what he or she believes. We must reach out and affirm what the House believes is right for our country.
This has been an extremely good debate, throughout which the House has been seen at its most thoughtful. It has involved a number of clear principles. It has been about making Government more accountable, about improving the standard of Parliament, about providing security along with accountability but without tying the hands of the Executive in operational matters, and about ensuring that the armed forces are strengthened by the knowledge that the public, through Parliament, are behind them.
Why did we table the motion? It was for a number of reasons. My right hon. Friend Mr. Hague, the shadow Foreign Secretary, said that in recent history a wide range of parliamentary mechanisms had been used to confer legitimacy on military action, but that what was generally used was the mechanism that was least inconvenient to the Government of the day.
It is merely stating the obvious to say that the process in which we are involved today has been given impetus by the disquiet surrounding the current Government's handling of the run-up to the war in Iraq—a subject mentioned by many Members today—but there have also been positive drivers of that process. Both my right hon. Friend and the Leader of the House spoke of their long-standing personal commitment to improving the standing of Parliament. For my own part, I have long believed that the power to conclude treaties should be exercised ultimately through Parliament, and also that we should find better ways of holding our judges to account.
As was pointed out by my right hon. and learned Friend Mr. Clarke, the debate has given us an opportunity to make a significant constitutional change. What we have witnessed in recent decades is nothing less than the asset-stripping of Parliament. We have seen powers systematically taken to the Executive. We have seen powers taken to Europe. We have seen powers given away under human rights and devolution legislation. Today's debate has been a small, but none the less significant, attempt to start to take powers back to the House of Commons.
That brings me to the motion and the Government's approach. In essence, the Government have already accepted the case presented in the Opposition motion. It is a shame that the Government felt that they needed to table an amendment, in what was a Pavlovian party political step.
I am in a kind and gentle mood, so my hon. Friend should not tempt me to go further. It was amazing, however, to hear the Leader of the House admitting that the Government had written their amendment before they saw the Opposition motion, and saying that the excuse for that was that the Opposition were late tabling the motion. Such creative interpretation of the facts was wonderful, even coming from the Leader of the House whose current job is to unveil the Chancellor's previously unknown waterfall of charm, warmth and humanity.
It is also interesting that the Government have seemingly changed their position so rapidly. Merely two weeks ago the Lord Chancellor said that there was no need to change the Government's position and that it would, in fact, be dangerous to do so. With his usual deftness, the Leader of the House remarked that the Lord works in mysterious ways. Presumably the Lord he was referring to was the Lord Chancellor whose political career under the current Prime Minister has defied gravity, but for whom intimations of mortality beckon under his successor. However, we are witnessing a welcome move towards a new parliamentary consensus on what is a very important issue.
A number of legitimate questions have been raised about the general approach put forward today. Will it weaken or strengthen the country at a time of threat? May we have adequate definitions of terms such as "substantial" in relation to deployments? Will it interfere with the freedom of commanders and the conduct of war? Will it conflict with other treaty obligations? Should there be legislation or convention, and in either case how should it be done? Finally, is the change necessary at all? Let me deal with those questions in turn.
Once Parliament makes a decision, what should happen subsequently? Many Members raised that issue. Should there be a requirement for a compulsory later endorsement of the position? That point was raised by my hon. Friend Mr. Leigh in his powerful and passionate speech. He argued that Parliament needs to be able to revisit our troop deployment in Iraq. Several other Members agreed with that. The question was also dealt with particularly well and in detail by Dr. Palmer in a thoughtful speech. Ultimately, Parliament cannot be stopped from voting on anything that Parliament wants to vote on. We have numerous mechanisms for achieving that. The question is whether Parliament should be able to interfere with operations under way—which would, of course, be very destabilising. The answer to the question was well put in another question asked by my hon. Friend Mr. Jenkin. He pointed out that Chamberlain's Government fell as a result of a non-substantive, but ultimately lethal, motion.
Once a Government have begun to prosecute a military campaign, they require to continue to command a majority in the House of Commons to govern. That is the ultimate safeguard that we have. Any substantive motion suddenly to pull out of Iraq would not command a majority of the House even at this time, and that in itself gives the Government credibility and legitimacy.
Some question whether the changes proposed in the debate would weaken the hand of the Government and the armed forces. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe dealt with that issue. Division is undoubtedly a boost for our enemies, so it can only add strength if it is clear that military action has the support of Parliament and, by inference, of the British people. Moreover, I believe that that would provide our troops with the morale boost of legitimacy that comes with constitutional approval.
Several Members were concerned about specific definitions in relation to deployments, notably of the word "substantial". That is a legitimate and understandable concern. I believe that the strict legal definition of the term is both difficult and unwise. The House of Commons will be able to know what it means by such terms in the particular circumstances at any one time. The term "substantial" will be to do not only with the numbers that it might apply to, but with the nature of any conflict and the intent—whether peacekeeping, policing or defensive. It will also be relevant whether any action is unilateral or multilateral or involves a coalition or a treaty obligation. Any elected House at any time is better able to interpret whether the nature or size of a force deployed in any particular circumstance requires reference to Parliament than is the extremely stark codification of law. That brings me to the next, related question.
Is any change that we decide to make better undertaken by convention or by legislation? I believe, as many Members do, that convention is preferable because it is more flexible and better able to accommodate complex or unforeseen circumstances of the sort mentioned by my right hon. Friend Mr. Redwood. It has been often repeated in this debate that the primacy of the House of Commons and Parliament must be upheld, which in itself leads to the conclusion that we should go down the route of convention, not legislation. Legislation is potentially subject to judicial interpretation, and under our current arrangements such interpretation could well occur outside our borders. The ability of foreign courts to have a say in what was or was not legitimate for the United Kingdom to do in deploying its armed forces would be utterly unacceptable to this House.
My hon. Friend Mr. Davies asked whether these arrangements could conflict with treaty obligations already in force, such as the NATO treaty. Article 5 of that treaty states that an attack against "one or more" countries
"shall be considered an attack against them all",
and that each country will take
"such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force".
So a range of options are available to us, and there is absolutely no reason why that should in any way clash with the decision that we are taking in the House today.
The balance between the Executive and Parliament after the commencement of operations was also discussed. It is clear from the contributions of many Members that the consensus in the House is that it should be Parliament's role to grant approval for military action; it is up to the Government of the day to determine how to carry out that action. That issue was raised by my hon. Friend Sir Peter Tapsell, and the broad consensus in favour of that position has been reflected throughout today's debate. There can be no role for the House in detailed operational matters. We should certainly question the wisdom of what the Government of the day have been doing, as we have done throughout history, but the House has to have appropriate mechanisms for doing so that do not interfere in such operations.
Some powerful speeches were made and I shall refer to just two or three; I hope that Members in all parts of the House will forgive me for not having time to mention them all. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe, in a passionate and extremely well-informed speech that he seemed to have been saving up for this House for a long time, made a number of very valid points. He raised an issue that was echoed throughout the day's debate: the need for information to be placed before the House before it takes a decision on a substantive deployment. He spoke of the need to have the conclusions of legal advice made available to the House, if not the legal advice itself, to give us an indication of the intelligence basis.
The hon. Member for Broxtowe talked about the gathering, collation, interpretation and use of intelligence—issues that were again echoed in all parts of the House. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe also said that we must have clear objectives and an obvious starting-point for any military activities. Such issues reveal the stark contrast between what happens in this country and in other countries. We witnessed the problems that the Netherlands had to deal with in the run-up to the conflict in Afghanistan; no one in this House would like the British Government to be saddled with such problems.
Mr. Moore said that the Liberal Democrats will support our motion, for which we are very grateful. I disagreed with him about the need for a legislative framework, for reasons that I have already set out. It would be inflexible and apply to the House a codification that might not suit some of the varied circumstances that we might face. Mr. Meacher, who is probably helping his colleague with his campaigning, mentioned his private Member's Bill, for which I am happy to give him a little advertisement. He talked about the importance of the timing of any vote, saying that it should not be taken at a point where action had already become inevitable. That is an important lesson that the Secretary of State might want to return to in his winding-up speech.
Chris Bryant discussed the House of Commons basing such a decision on the granting of supply, for which there is of course an historical precedent. In effect, that would mirror the lock that Congress has on the US Government.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe spoke about the role of the House of Lords. What would its role be in the process, depending on any reform? Were we to have an elected House of Lords—as the House of Commons has already decided should be put in place—what would its role be? The Government will need to consider that when making the proposals they will make after this evening.
My hon. Friend Mr. Walter talked about the problems that other Governments face, notably with the caveats and flexibility that their systems apply. My hon. Friend Mr. Atkinson had some reservations, especially on the questions of revision or permission, and my hon. Friend Mr. Gray said that he had changed his mind on the basis of the arguments that he heard in the House of Commons today. Well, I have heard it all now. It was worth waiting the 15 years that I have been a Member of Parliament. My hon. Friend Mr. Ellwood covered so many of the areas that I have already mentioned that I thought that he was practising for a wind-up speech with one eye on the future—as long as it is not my job!
There has been a creeping consensus in the House on this issue today. It is now difficult to imagine any Government in the future attempting to prosecute any military campaign without the support of Parliament, but it must be done with flexibility and by convention, not legislation. Decisions must be made by Parliament, not by courts domestic or foreign. The process must not interfere with operations and it must deal with substantial force deployments—a concept that is better recognised than described.
This is a good day for Parliament. It begins, but only begins, to undo the asset-stripping of the powers of the House of Commons that has been going on for far too long. It is a good day for the strength and standing of our country. It is good for our armed forces to have the guarantee of the support of Parliament and by inference our people. I commend the motion to the House, in the clear understanding that whatever the result of the votes tonight, Parliament is the winner.
I agree with Dr. Fox that this has been an exceptionally good debate. I welcome all the contributions made by right hon. and hon. Members to this important debate. I apply the same caveat to my remarks as the hon. Gentleman did. My only concern is that in the time available I will not be able to do justice to all the speeches that have been made, but I shall do my best. The contributions reflected the fundamental place that Parliament has in the democratic decision-making process of this country and the priority we all on both sides of the House attach to the men and women of our armed forces, particularly when we ask them to act on our behalf and put their lives at risk, often in harsh and dangerous environments thousands of miles away from their families and their loved ones.
I am grateful to all those who have contributed to the House's understanding of the issues involved. That includes the work of the Public Administration Committee, under the leadership of my hon. Friend Dr. Wright. When I was first elected to this House, I served for some time under his leadership on that Committee and I am grateful for the learning process. It also includes the House of Lords Constitution Committee's report and, indeed, the learned debate in the other place on
At the heart of this debate is the relationship between Parliament and Government. The decision to go to war must always rest with the Prime Minister and his or her Cabinet. But the Government should be accountable to Parliament for their decisions. One of the striking things about this debate, which began with nothing in principle between the Govt and the Opposition, is that it has revealed the complexity of the challenge we have set ourselves in determining a mechanism that gives practical effect to that principle. That mechanism must give a clear mandate for our armed forces that allows them to go into conflict and take on its risks confident that they have the durable support of the country as expressed through its Parliament.
In summing up this debate, I intend to identify some of the complications involved and to explore the nature of the challenge that we have set ourselves. Mr. Hague opened the debate and suggested that there was no difference between his motion and the Government's amendment. He suggested that we sought a distinction without a difference—or, as my hon. Friend Andrew Mackinlay put it, that we were dancing on the head of a pin. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House pointed out a difference that he said was crucial—the imperative to take full account of the paramount need not to compromise the security of UK forces or the operational discretion of those in command.
The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks sought to dismiss that, asserting that no party in the House would seek to undermine our troops in that way and that it was an unnecessary qualification. I do not want to contradict his assertion that no party in the House would wish to undermine our troops in that way, but I just want to say to him and his colleagues that the terms of the motion that this House passes tonight will be pored over by the military—and quite rightly so.
For many reasons, some of which I shall come to later in my speech, we must act in a way that gives the troops whom we deploy into conflicts confidence in our decision making. As we are expressing the nature of the principle that we all now espouse, it is important that the House sends the right message of confidence to our troops.
Those who contributed to this debate included the shadow Foreign Secretary—the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks—Mr. Clarke and my right hon. Friend Mr. Meacher, to name but a few. They all welcomed what they described as the Government's damascene conversion—or volte-face—on this issue. I am grateful to Mr. Moore for reminding the House that the evolutionary process that has brought the Government to this point has had the same effect on Her Majesty's loyal Opposition. No doubt the Opposition can explain why their Leader, who opposed the principle in 2005, now supports it. In contrast, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House reminded the House that the Government undertook to keep our position under review, and that we have been doing so.
For my part, as Secretary of State for Defence, it was the apparently insurmountable challenge of working through the complexities that hon. Members today have identified—in spades, I think—that caused me to maintain and support the position adopted by the Lord Chancellor in the House of Lords on
The position adopted by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was reinforced by this House's history of scrutiny, retrospective review and debate of deployments over the past 10 years. I now accept, however, that the weight of the obvious all-party support for the argument had to be recognised. Government and Parliament must now get down to the difficult task of working through the challenges, which should not be underestimated. The record of today's debate will be a significant quarry of the extent of those challenges.
At the heart of this complexity is a debate about the appropriate mechanism to adopt. With the honourable and consistent exception of the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe—and perhaps of the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk—almost all the contributors to the debate favoured the approach of developing a convention that requires resolutions of both Houses prior to the deployment of forces, or to homologate that deployment. Such a convention, however, must preserve the supremacy of the House of Commons.
Quite rightly, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House did not express a preference at this stage, as the consultation that we have announced has yet to take place. However, the short debate between the right hon. and learned Members for Rushcliffe and for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) highlighted some of the very obvious disadvantages inherent in a statutory framework, particularly the risk of a later legal challenge and all the detrimental effect that that would have on the morale of deployed troops. However, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe countered that point with an impressive argument about the need for a degree of certainty and clarity, based on the fact that he has no confidence in the power of convention. I suspect that that debate will continue, and perhaps over time the right hon. and learned Gentleman will attract a few more supporters to his position than he was able to do today.
Several contributions drew on the words of Lord Bramall, Lord Garden and others who contributed to the Lords debate, pointing out that in exploring the options to formalise Parliament's involvement, we need to be conscious of the need not to undermine the effectiveness or security of our military personnel. It would be remiss of me not to highlight some of the issues we need to bear in mind in trying to achieve that objective; they include not only operational effectiveness but the wider diplomatic and development activity that often accompanies the deployment of our forces.
Mr. Gerrard devoted a considerable amount of time to timing. I am grateful, too, for the contributions of my hon. Friend Dr. Palmer and of Sammy Wilson, who set out the comparative advantages of earlier and later decision making. Patrick Mercer raised an aspect of that issue in an early intervention when he explored the characteristics of major or substantial deployment.
I agree that, as has been said, although the major deployments in respect of the Falklands, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Iraq and Afghanistan clearly lent themselves to a process of parliamentary decision making, we have to recognise the nature of modern warfare. There are practical considerations such as the long lead times needed for military advantage, not to mention military engagements such as aerial bombing and the use of missiles, which in the words of the military are designed to shape the battle space. If we get the timing wrong, there is a danger, in the words of the report of the Lords Constitution Committee, of
"removing the ability of United Kingdom forces to have 'strategic poise' by giving the opponent early notice of intent".
Mr. Ellwood brought to the attention of the House the fact that modern military operations are very different from those we engaged in only 20 years ago. In that respect, we try to adopt what has become known as the "comprehensive approach", integrating all the levers of Government to maximise the effect on the ground—a point to which I shall return later if I have time.
I know that I speak for the House when I say that my first priority is the effectiveness and safety of our armed forces. It is crucial that they remain capable of performing the tasks we ask of them, agile enough to respond quickly to an ever more dynamic operational environment and robust in the face of real threats to our, and their, security. Their morale and safety must remain paramount.
If Parliament is to take an informed view of military deployments, it is only natural that Members should want to satisfy themselves about the nature of the operation and the threat our forces will face and that they will have the equipment, tactics and procedures they need to help them to succeed. Indeed, Members set out a list of the requirements for any such debate, drawing on the report of the Lords Committee. I know of the necessity to satisfy oneself about all those things; as Defence Secretary I ask myself such questions every day in relation to the deployment of our troops in theatre.
The Lords Committee considered those points in its report, which noted the need to restrict some information but acknowledged that it could compromise the ability of Parliament to make informed decisions about a given situation. That is why in that decision-making process I shall resist the sharing of any information that compromises the priority of operational security. This is not a hypothetical debate, or one in which the Government hide behind the smokescreen of security concerns; it is not even about what information the Government proactively put before Parliament. In today's globalised world, where our potential adversaries watch the same television programmes and read the same newspapers and internet sites as we do, operational security can easily be undermined not just by the Government's answers but even by the questions posed; managing that in a way that allows Parliament to take an informed view will be a significant challenge.
We would certainly not release any information that could compromise sensitive intelligence or reveal elements of our operational planning. Indeed, I can conceive of some military operations that the House would not want to debate in public, either because it would risk escalating the conflict or because the mission itself is so sensitive that even acknowledging its existence would risk undermining the effectiveness of deployed forces and the UK's wider interests.
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman was not paying attention to the earlier part of my speech. I explained what he asks. Given the few minutes that I have left, I think that it would be inappropriate to repeat it. I am afraid that he will have to read it in the official record.
I have already referred to the need for our forces to be agile in the face of a developing situation and to be quick to deploy when needed. Developments in technology, travel, communications and military capabilities mean that events around the world that challenge our security or international stability often require fast and decisive action. It is vital that we are able to deploy our forces quickly, especially when lives are at stake: for example, as we have debated, in hostage situations or following a dramatic deterioration in the security situation that required us to help evacuate UK citizens. We will have to take account of that as we take our work forward.
That might require an arrangement for some kind of retrospective consideration—as some of the speeches made today suggested. As the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea pointed out, we should recognise that our armed forces deserve the full support of the House, and deploying them into a potentially dangerous situation and asking them to put their lives at risk while holding open the possibility that they may well be recalled some time later would be untenable. Again, that will require careful work, as will the question of what would happen in the event of a change of Government.
Once deployed, our armed forces must also retain the flexibility to adapt to the threats that they face without the constraint of returning to the House at every twist and turn. We must beware of the "long screwdriver" and strike a balance between strategic consideration of the issues and trusting the judgment of our people on the ground, because their lives may depend on it.
We must also consider how a new mechanism might affect the reliability of the UK as an ally. Some hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East, pointed out effectively the different systems of parliamentary decision making among many of our allies and the consequences for the effectiveness of their military as allies when they are deployed in theatres. In the modern world, our forces will almost always be deployed alongside troops from other nations, and timetables imposed by the parliamentary activities of those other nations are not necessarily under our control. Our experience of operating in a multinational environment is that often the overall speed of decision making and deployment is driven by the time scale of the different troop contributors. The UK is valued as a coalition partner by our partners in NATO and the EU because we are reliable and because we deliver what we say we will. That involves not only the eventual deployment of troops, but the campaign planning that is vital to any successful mission. We would not want to inhibit such contingency planning.
Several right hon. and hon. Members drew attention to the need carefully to consider what should fall within the scope of any such arrangement. The right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea— [ Interruption. ]
Order. Perhaps there is too much conversation in the Chamber.
The right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea used the example of the Iraqi no-fly zones. Our armed forces are engaged on a range of operations and activities as we speak. Training teams, liaison officers, attachés and advisers are deployed across the world; ships and submarines—particularly submarines bearing nuclear weapons—are continuously patrolling the oceans; British peacekeepers are supporting UN operations around the globe; and of course the lion's share of our deployed service personnel are currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. It would be unduly burdensome, both for Parliament and the management of the armed forces, to consult—
I ask the Serjeant at Arms to investigate the delay in the Aye Lobby.