Armed Conflict (Parliamentary Approval)

Part of Opposition Day — [11th Allotted Day] – in the House of Commons at 6:25 pm on 15th May 2007.

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Photo of Neil Gerrard Neil Gerrard Labour, Walthamstow 6:25 pm, 15th May 2007

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. That is obviously one possible mechanism. In terms of scrutiny, there seems to be no problem with Select Committees choosing to look at what is happening. The real problem is that debate is not taking place in the House as a whole. We have had relatively little debate in the past two or three years about what is going on within Iraq, when it is clearly of immense importance and when there are many, many Members who are seriously concerned about what is happening. But that is a slightly different issue: it is to do with what happens afterwards, rather than what happens at the point when we are about to take military action.

I was interested to read in the report from the House of Lords Constitution Committee some of its descriptions of what happens and what needs to happen. The Committee talked about wars "of necessity", "of choice" and "of obligation". A war of necessity is self-defence. If one is attacked, quite clearly one expects to defend oneself. As far as this country is concerned, it is difficult to think back to a time when that actually happened—when the trigger for war was a direct attack on this country. The Committee dismissed wars of obligation as not being a reality. It pointed out that none of the international treaties that we are signed up to forces us to take military action. Even perhaps the most obvious example, article 5 of the NATO treaty, which is the core commitment to collective self-defence in NATO, only commits each signatory to take

"such action as it deems necessary" in the event of an attack on another. In the end, the sovereign country still decides whether to take military action.

In every case, the military action that we are involved in, and have been involved in over quite a long period of time, has been the result of choice. It was a political choice to be involved in military action in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Sierra Leone and Iraq—the major military actions over the past 10 years. It cannot be suggested, as some tried when we discussed parliamentary involvement a year or two ago, that if Parliament had been involved, it would have given the game away and alerted the enemy that we would be involved in military action, because every example involved a significant build-up period. In most, although not all, of those cases, military conflict did not involve the UK going it alone because either we were in a coalition, or the action took place under the auspices of UN resolutions.

I am glad that there is recognition that some of the objections that were raised in the past were rather spurious and that we have reached a position in which we will today agree the principle that we need to find a different mechanism. I understand the argument that a convention could be more flexible than legislation and that a workable convention might be easier to achieve. I remember from drafting my private Member's Bill that it is really difficult to get all the detail right and to think of all situations that might arise so that they can be covered. The key issue is that there should be substantive votes. We need a mechanism that will ensure that substantive votes take place in the House and that the House can have a degree of control over the timing of votes. Those are the two things that we should be looking for from the consultation that will take place as a result of this debate.