Armed Conflict (Parliamentary Approval)

Part of Opposition Day — [11th Allotted Day] – in the House of Commons at 3:46 pm on 15th May 2007.

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Photo of William Hague William Hague Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs) 3:46 pm, 15th May 2007

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 1 May—two weeks ago today—the Lord Chancellor said:

"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.