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 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.

I was attempting to say several minutes ago that the Chancellor of the Exchequer had said something similar to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, saying in January last year that

"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.