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

The right hon. and learned Gentleman makes an important point. I am happy to agree with it, and I am sure that it will find support among Members from across the House.

In seeking to strike a new balance between the Executive and Parliament, most of our initial attention must be focused on our deficiencies in respect of parliamentary oversight and Executive accountability. The rag-bag of statutes, powers and conventions that make up what passes for a British constitution gives plenty of scope for unaccountable Executive authority. The very notion of the royal prerogatives, dating from the mists of time, creates an air of mystery, but beneath the colourful, confusing veneer, many of those prerogatives have morphed into modern-day instruments of raw Executive power. Many outside this place find it staggering that the Prime Minister alone can take the decision to enter into armed conflict. The Cabinet's role is not formalised, never mind Parliament's. Although politically it would be hard to ignore a vote in the Chamber that had gone against the Government, there is no explicit constitutional bar on the Prime Minister of the day doing just that. That must change, too.

The way in which government is conducted must also change. As I said before, we have not yet had a full inquiry into the disastrous decision-making processes that led to our participation in the Iraq conflict, but through the Hutton and Butler reports and the work of right hon. and hon. Members on the Committees of the House, we have had a glimpse of the informal and ill-judged way in which the Prime Minister took us to war. Certainly, we have learned more than enough for Parliament to demand more.

We start from a position that may be slightly different from that of earlier speakers. On matters of such significance, we should have legislation, rather than simply tweaking Standing Orders. That is why we supported the private Member's Bill in the past. All of us must be prepared to discuss these matters when the Government's proposals are submitted for consultation. In the private Member's Bill that was debated 18 months ago, there were sensible proposals that provided a proper starting point for that debate. I hope that the Leader of the House will examine those proposals closely as he considers what to bring forward.

The House will not have moved the game on unless any vote that we are asked to take is based on the kind of report envisaged by the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood and many others, which sets out the reasons for the proposed action and the legal authority for it—more like the 13-page opinion from the Attorney-General on 13 March 2003 than the one-pager produced on the day of the debate a few days later. We will also need proper and appropriate detail on the geographical extent, the expected duration and the relevant elements of the armed forces that will be involved. Appropriate detail is an important element. Operational security and the safety of our armed forces must not be jeopardised, so the Prime Minister must have sufficient discretion to determine the amount of detail put in the public domain. Even with this important qualification, the provisions of the Bill would allow a significant advance in the level of parliamentary scrutiny.

We must look at how that scrutiny is maintained appropriately once the conflict has begun, and later when it has finished. If we are to consider new ways in which the Executive explains its reasons for and seeks support for military action, surely we must also find new ways of scrutinising events afterwards. Positions on this have changed and hardened in the light of the Iraq experience, with the Conservatives now also committed to an inquiry, at an appropriate time, into what happened.

A great deal of political energy has been expended on the demands for and rejections of inquiries. Without constraining the Committees of the House in the work that they undertake, we ought to have a clearer system of review which, at the right moment, allows proper investigation of the background to conflicts and our involvement in them. Governments can no longer expect Members of the House or members of the public to accept anything at face value. After Iraq, who will?

During the Second Reading debate on the private Member's Bill, a range of voices were raised in opposition to it. Legitimate issues were highlighted but, sadly, the clear objective for many on the day was to see the Bill killed off. That it was not even allowed to progress into Committee when ample opportunity was given makes that clear beyond doubt.

Whatever the reasons, we on the Liberal Democrat Benches welcome the fact that the political winds have changed direction. We must quickly return to all the detailed issues at the heart of this debate. Our priority must now be for Parliament to be put at the centre of decision-making and scrutiny, where it belongs.

Annotations

Fenton Robb
Posted on 16 May 2007 12:50 pm (Report this annotation)

This was an excellent contribution, but I question whether 'the Prime Minister must have sufficient discretion to determine the amount of detail put in the public domain' as suggested. This seems to give the whole game back to the PM and invites even more dodgy dossiers. If the House cannot be trusted with secret intelligence then some other respected body, independent of party interests, should endorse what the government offers and assert that nothing is being offered that is not consistent with such secret intelligence as cannot be revealed to the House. Is not this a proper duty of the Privy Council?

I feel that the other point, about the House 'overseeing' conflicts should have been made even more firmly. The House, or the 'respected body', should have regular opportunities to review progress of any deployment of armed forces and these opportunities should be prescribed by the House from the outset.

Mark Bestford
Posted on 16 May 2007 1:24 pm (Report this annotation)

The Privy Council serves many purposes, but it is truly politically independent and answers only to the Monarch. Tony Blair has in effect abolished the Privy Council by absorbing it's duties into various Cabinet offices. This was due to many things.

1. By removing the role of the Privy Council from scrutinsing Honours the role of issuing Honours now lies within the Department of Constitutional Affairs. This in effect means that as a Cabinet office the PM has final say in who gets a peerage. This makes patronage a de facto norm.

2. By removing the Privy Council's role in arbitrating debates between parties this means that the PM now has final say on how any investigations may occur. In this manner we can expect to see more reports like the Butler and Hutton reports where the scope of the report has been limited by those who have the most to lose and the Chair of the report has been chosen for their ties to the PM.

Each year of this Government has seen a drift further and further from representative democracy and a slide towards elective dictatorship. One in power the PM can in effect do whatever he likes without regard to the reasons he was elected in the first place. This has been seen repeatedly with abuses of power by the Labour leadership where the most gross incompetence is blamed on everyone but the person responsible and figures are spun in a way to make them meaningless.