Armed Conflict (Parliamentary Approval)

Part of Opposition Day — [11th Allotted Day] – in the House of Commons at 5:31 pm on 15th May 2007.

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Photo of Kenneth Clarke Kenneth Clarke Chair, Tax Law Rewrite Bills (Joint Committee) 5:31 pm, 15th May 2007

I agree that that danger must be avoided in the drafting of a statute. A hugely complex, detailed and prescriptive statute would be a mistake. However, I do not think that it is beyond our abilities to produce a statute setting out firmly the framework of the process that should be followed, leaving adequate discretion to both Government and Parliament to use it as common sense and politics dictate in particular circumstances. That is, of course, something that can be considered during the consultation that the Leader of the House has proposed.

Why do I say that it is not good enough merely to adopt the precedent of the vote that we had? I am grateful for the fact that we had a vote—it was a triumph that we managed to secure one—but why did that vote not constitute an adequate basis on which to proceed? The first and most obvious point is that it was not a timely vote.

I will not repeat what the right hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton has just said, but there was resistance to a vote when it became increasingly obvious that an invasion was being planned. I share the right hon. Gentleman's suspicion that the Prime Minister used the royal prerogative to commit the country to taking part in an invasion early in 2002, long before that information was shared with many people in the country. We did not arrive at the vote that counted until the very eve of war, and when we did vote, it was obvious to anyone who had followed the debate that the invasion would take place within a matter of days. Half the British Army was already in place in the desert, and no doubt the Americans were telephoning the Prime Minister to tell him that he must speed up the process because everyone was going to go.

I know that in recent days the right hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton has been embarrassed by the fact—quite amazing to those who know him—that he has a record of having voted in favour of the invasion, but he is not alone on either side of the House. I well remember from discussions that took place at the time of the debate that many Members on my side of the House—not just the 20 or so who voted against the war at various times—felt that they could not possibly vote against it when the troops were already in the field, and could not understand how on earth Parliament could now be expected to pull them all out and bring them home. It was not a vote in which Parliament was being invited to take part in a timely fashion, and it was not a vote which most Members of Parliament could really believe would have the slightest credible effect on the outcome.

We had had various statements. We had known what was going on. We had had one or two votes. We had had the vote in November 2002 on resolution 1441. I voted in favour of the motion tabled that day; it was skilfully worded. A very high proportion of those who voted in favour of that motion believed that they were voting for the last chance of avoiding war, not in favour of participation and an invasion. Many of us became indignant when it was later claimed that the November vote gave parliamentary authority for what happened. Many people in this country and abroad thought that a second United Nations resolution would be required before it could be turned into a basis for war.

We had a lot of statements, followed only by questions, but no substantive motion. Whenever problems arose we had inquiries, but the inquiries were deliberately set up with very narrow terms of reference. The Hutton report inquired into the death of Dr. Kelly. The Butler report inquired into the use of intelligence; it was very critical, but not sufficiently so to shake the Government. In my opinion, those inquiries were set up to minimise parliamentary debate on those issues and to shift it outside, not to give Parliament a further opportunity to take part in the process.

We had no vote at any relevant time when the debate and vote might have influenced the outcome, so we now have to draft a process. The starting point must be when a significant deployment of troops takes place; that is the time when the law, or strong convention, should require that parliamentary approval for a Government decision be given before it can be acted on. We need a process that lays down rules to establish that.

Wider issues could also arise. The time has come when—as the Modernisation Committee seems to be contemplating—Parliament should have more control than it currently has over its own timetable and agenda, and the subject matter for debate. I welcome what the Modernisation Committee appears to be contemplating if that gives the opportunity for Parliament itself to force motions and substantive debates on substantive questions about the progress of a war and the next steps that should be taken.

I do not believe that once we have gone to war, that should always rule out parliamentary scrutiny on the grounds that any discussion would undermine the troops in the field and be bad for morale. Of course certain types of debates would be very damaging to morale and extremely unpatriotic, but I think that the House can be relied on to treat Members who engage in such debates very roughly indeed. However, on many occasions the troops must be amazed that so little parliamentary attention appears to be paid to what they are engaged in, and they would like to be reassured that somebody back home is debating what is going on, and what is the likely outcome. In a modern democracy it should be impossible to cut out parliamentary scrutiny, and the need for the Government to seek a reaffirmation of their authority. I believe that they did so on a considerable scale in the Crimean war; the case for that in the 21st century is much stronger. We should be allowed to have such scrutiny nowadays.