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

This is not the occasion to rehearse all that, but no one sought to mislead the House, or to act in that way. Four successive inquiries found no shred of evidence of any desire by members of the Government, including my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and me, as Foreign Secretary, to mislead the House. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, the then Secretary of State for Defence and I sought to put before the House as much information as possible, including extensive documentation of what the United Nations was deliberating and deciding in respect of its view that Iraq posed that threat to international peace and security. That is the fact of the matter. Yes, there was an argument about whether it was appropriate to take military action, but there was much less argument, internationally and here, about whether, at that stage, on the public and secret information available, Iraq posed a threat to international peace and security.

The vote on Iraq in 2003 set a clear precedent for the need for the substantive involvement of Parliament in decisions on armed conflict, but now is the time to formalise that precedent and to define its scope. The Constitution Committee has provided a helpful starting point, setting out the core characteristics that might define such a process: principally, that Government should seek parliamentary approval in respect of any decisions on the major or substantial deployment of British forces outside the UK, that they should indicate the basic objectives and nature of any such deployment, and that they should keep Parliament informed of progress. We will make more detailed proposals, as I said. It is vital, not just for the House, but for those we represent—particularly, the brave men and women who comprise our armed forces—to get this matter right.

At the end of his speech—the serious part of his speech was sandwiched in the middle—the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks started to have a bit of fun by talking about what he called presidential government. I am glad that he mentioned that the charge is levied—entirely inaccurately—not only against this Government; it has also been levied by the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe against previous Administrations, including a number in which he served, in an interesting document from the democracy taskforce, which he chairs.

However controversial the decision to go to war against Iraq may have been, it was a decision in which senior Ministers—myself included—were actively involved, not just day by day, but hour by hour. It was a decision that was made by Cabinet and explicitly approved by the House on a substantive motion of exactly the kind that we all now want to make standard and to embed within our procedures.

Nor does the evidence support the oft-heard allegation that there was once some golden age in the '50s and '60s when Parliament reigned supreme. All the historical and expert evidence points the other way. It points to an increasingly active, effective Commons—as well as Lords—and to the much greater accountability of Ministers generally. From the establishment of departmental Select Committees by Norman St. John-Stevas—a great reformist Conservative Leader of the House—in 1979 to the many improvements made in the last 10 years, including the Human Rights Act 1998, which has quite properly made Ministers much more judicially accountable for their many decisions, and the recent move to Select Committee-style hearings on Bills, this place has become more effective and Members much more active.

That process has to continue. We have by no means reached a state of grace in the necessary balance of power between the Executive and the legislature. We want to see this place—this Parliament—strengthened. Reforms of the kind set out in our amendment on what should be Parliament's crucial role in approving or withholding consent for the decision to go to war are justified in their own right and are further steps on the road to making a constitution fit for this century, not for the last. I commend our amendment to the House.