Armed Conflict (Parliamentary Approval)

Part of Opposition Day — [11th Allotted Day] – in the House of Commons at 4:58 pm on 15th May 2007.

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Photo of Michael Moore Michael Moore Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs) 4:58 pm, 15th May 2007

I do not think that the hon. Gentleman can get away with that. The Leader of the House, in his usual way, was making an elegant attempt to square the Government's very difficult position that the shadow Foreign Secretary exposed, given what the Lord Chancellor and others had said.

I was trying to be churlish—I was almost denied the opportunity. When the Government say that

"it is inconceivable that any Government would in practice depart from" the Iraq precedent, we need to pause for a moment. It was, of course, an important breakthrough that there were votes on different motions. On 18 March 2003, the Liberal Democrats were united in voting against the invasion of Iraq. However, the manner in which the Government sought and obtained the House's approval did not create good precedents. Few will forget the dossiers of dubious distinction, the discredited manner in which the legal advice was obtained and then disclosed, or the flouting of international law. While the votes were of paramount importance, in every other respect the build-up to the Iraq conflict did not create any welcome kind of precedent at all.

As has been said in debates in the House in recent months, we still need a full inquiry into what happened before the disastrous intervention in Iraq. There is an ever more urgent need for consideration in terms of the withdrawal of our armed forces. We will return to those issues on other occasions—or at least we hope that we will, although opportunities to debate, in Government time, what has happened in Iraq since the conflict began have been almost non-existent. If Parliament's role is to become more explicit, it cannot be involved only at the outset of military action; it must have an appropriate role in considering what follows. We welcome the Government's intention to consult and to bring more detailed proposals before Parliament, but we must hope that Ministers intend all those issues to be taken into account.

Whatever lies behind the changed or changing positions of Members on both sides of the House, we appear to be reaching a defining moment in Parliament, in which we assert our position and take on more responsibility for some of the most difficult decisions that a country ever faces, and not before time. In this fiercely uncertain world, the United Kingdom retains a key role in seeking to establish peace and in maintaining order. As previous contributors have mentioned, Britain has more than demonstrated that in the past decade in Kosovo, Sierra Leone and Afghanistan, never mind in countless smaller-scale expeditions. Time and again, our armed forces have demonstrated their bravery, commitment and professionalism.

In Parliament, there have been Adjournment debates, statements and questions aplenty, but, with the exception of Iraq, there have been no votes. That surely has to change. Let us be clear about one thing: the principle of parliamentary approval for the deployment of our armed forces into conflict will not make things easy. Every one of us in the Chamber will be faced with a major responsibility that will never be comfortable. However, given what we ask of our young men and women on the front line, the least that they should expect of us is that we give serious consideration to the matters of life and death that they face. That is also what people across the country now expect. A million people took to the streets in anger and frustration to express their opinions on Iraq. The 21st century media allow people to absorb news from countless sources and to take part in debates online or in the studios, and they find it hard to believe that although the issues and the nature of the debates have moved on, our procedures in Parliament have not.

As the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood, said when she introduced her Bill 18 months ago:

"the distance between public opinion and the power of the Executive is too great in our constitutional system".—[ Hansard, 21 October 2005; Vol. 437, c. 1087.]

When the Government bring forward proposals, as they have pledged to do in their amendment, they must seek to bridge that gap and to create a new balance that gives Parliament a legitimate role, while recognising the legitimate needs of Government to make appropriate, timely decisions about the deployment of our armed forces. The motion recognises that and mentions

"mechanisms to ensure that the capability to react rapidly in emergencies is maintained."

The Government's amendment is right to stress

"the paramount need not to compromise the security of British forces nor the operational discretion of those in command, including in respect of emergencies".