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

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 1 May:

"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.