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

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.