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

If I may, I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman in a moment. I need to make some progress, as I have already been speaking for just under 20 minutes.

When, in 2002, military action against Iraq loomed as a possibility, many inside and outside this House demanded that any decision be subject to a substantive resolution by this place. I pay tribute to my late and much-missed friend Robin Cook for the way in which, as the then Leader of the House, he faithfully represented in government this House's views. I am glad to have worked with him on this, and the Cabinet unanimously agreed his propositions. In the event, alongside many statements, four full-length debates on Iraq were held in this place between September 2002 and March 2003. Three debates were on substantive motions: in November 2002; in February 2003; and then, of course, in the crucial determining debate in March 2003, which confirmed the decision for military action by a majority of 263.

That set of debates on substantive motions established a clear precedent for the future from which I do not believe there will be, or could ever be, a departure. Indeed, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister put it:

"The fact of the matter is that I cannot conceive of a situation in which a going to go to war—except in circumstances where militarily for the security of the country it needs to act immediately—without a full Parliamentary debate".

However, there has of course been an issue about whether these precedents and this clear consensus about the role of Parliament should, as I have indicated, be formalised and made more explicit. As the Government's amendment spells out, we believe that the time has now come to do so. If the amendment is passed, we will make more detailed proposals for consultation—yes, including with the Opposition parties. It is important, if we can, to establish a broad agreement to any new process, precisely because of the gravity of its outcome.

Let me now deal—not with levity—with why there has been some hesitation in government on this issue. Hesitation to make more explicit our procedure has not arisen because of any nostalgia for our system of government before the 1689 Bill of Rights. It has done so because of concern about the adverse impact of any new process on the operational discretion of those in command and on the linked ability to respond to emergency situations and other instances requiring secrecy; and, above all, because of concern about the need not in any way to compromise the security and well-being of our troops or damage their morale. Each of those concerns is very serious and none should be dismissed. Many of them were raised by those who gave evidence to the Constitution Committee inquiry, not least those with military experience. Former Air Marshall Lord Garden and Field Marshall Lord Bramall, himself a former Chief of Defence Staff, both stressed that while they were in favour of greater parliamentary involvement in approving decisions on deployment, they strongly opposed parliamentary adjudication of operational decision making.

Former Air Marshall Lord Garden—now a Liberal Democrat peer—cautioned that:

"What you cannot do is end up with Parliament micro-managing the forces, taking tactical decisions, and you have to set thresholds at a level where this will not happen. On any roulement you get a sudden bulge of numbers and then a decrease in numbers. You do not want Parliament involved in that".

Lord Bramall echoed his warning, stating that

"Under no circumstances must parliamentary approval be allowed into the tactical field or the minute field of the way you carry out the operation".