Armed Conflict (Parliamentary Approval)

Part of Opposition Day — [11th Allotted Day] – in the House of Commons at 4:19 pm on 15th May 2007.

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Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Leader of the House of Commons and Lord Privy Seal 4:19 pm, 15th May 2007

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.