Armed Conflict (Parliamentary Approval)

Part of Opposition Day — [11th Allotted Day] – in the House of Commons at 6:59 pm on 15th May 2007.

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Photo of Nick Palmer Nick Palmer PPS (Malcolm Wicks, Minister of State), Department of Trade and Industry 6:59 pm, 15th May 2007

In response to Mr. Leigh, I do not think that the debate has a great deal to do with Iraq specifically. Indeed, Iraq shows the limitations of what we are doing today. I also do not think that the debate has much to do with Afghanistan. I slightly question the hon. Gentleman's expertise, as he seems to think that Afghanistan is an Arab country. It is not.

I shall explore in my speech the limitations of what we are doing today. To some extent, we have all been in agreement and we have made matters too easy for ourselves. I accept what everybody has said so far, that the issue is extremely important, and that we are making a very important change to the democratic tradition in Britain. It is a good change and it is overdue. I pay tribute to hon. Members such as my hon. Friend Mr. Gerrard and others who are not present. I also draw attention to my near neighbour, my hon. Friend Mr. Allen, who tabled motion 27 on the Order Paper, which I guess he can now withdraw because it is essentially identical to what we are about to approve today.

The background to this debate is the increasing public scepticism over the involvement of Britain in international affairs to anything like the extent to which we have been accustomed in recent years. Sir Malcolm Rifkind, who spoke earlier, is a vigorous supporter of Britain punching above its weight. There was a recent opinion poll that specifically asked, "Are you in favour of Britain punching above its weight?" A substantial majority said, "No, we are not. We are against Britain getting too much involved." That is a serious issue for all of us.

We can all think of conflicts on which we disagree. For some it might be Suez, for some it might be Iraq, for some it might be a number of conflicts. Similarly, unless we are pacifists, we can all think of occasions when we would like Britain to intervene or to have intervened in the past. Many people feel that we ought to be intervening in Darfur. There are some who feel that we should be intervening in Zimbabwe or in Burma. There is always a debate on these topics and there is always a case for intervention. It is sobering that we have come to a point where the public on the whole say, "I don't care if there is a good case for it. We don't want to get involved." In what we are doing today and in subsequent discussions, we need to try to rebuild the process to the point that the public accept that if that process is gone through in the correct way, we will reach a reasonable basis on which to intervene overseas.

I agree with the public that we have tended too often to say, "We are the experts on what the world needs and we are prepared to intervene, whatever it takes and wherever it may be." It is necessary to be able to do that in the right cause to prevent genocide or wholesale slaughter, and we need a process that we can accept. I am in favour of the change and I should like to explore some of the specific details that have been raised during the debate. Patrick Mercer asked what the test should be for substantial involvement, and whether it should be firepower or manpower. The answer is both. If we commit substantial firepower abroad, Britain will become very much part of whatever controversy is involved. That is a matter on which the House of Commons should legitimately be able to express an opinion. If we commit substantial manpower, the likelihood is that British lives will be lost—so even more so should Parliament be involved.

Mr. Clarke and my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow both raised the issue of timing. As we discussed in my exchange with my hon. Friend, there are difficulties both in consulting too early and in consulting too late. If the Prime Minister had come to the House six months before the Iraq war—at a time when I think that he had privately concluded that it was likely that war would be necessary—and if at that stage he had sought the authority of the House to go to war, with the United Nations still debating the issue and a great deal of controversy about Saddam's intentions and about the potential for the weapons inspectors to succeed in their mission, it would have been seen as an extremely provocative act, effectively pre-empting the attempt to find a peaceful outcome. However, by consulting only when the troops were on the border, as my hon. Friends the Members for Walthamstow and for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) said, a great many of us felt that it was very difficult at that stage, with our troops on the border, for us to say, "No, let's all go home."

I suggest that we foresee two separate decisions. One would be taken at the time of a substantial deployment of troops abroad. It would be accepted that that was not a vote to go to war, but a vote to deploy troops with a view to forcing a positive outcome. There would then be a separate decision at the time that it was felt that military force was needed. Those are two quite separate decisions, which should be seen as such. It should be possible to say, "We authorise the dispatch of 50,000 troops"—or whatever the number might be—"for the purpose of advancing a favourable outcome", without that being a commitment to armed conflict, which would necessarily and prematurely inflame the situation.

I am opposed constantly to revisiting the issue once a conflict has started. That was the point that we discussed briefly earlier. If our troops are fighting, it seems to me that we should not have some routine mechanism for Parliament to revisit the issue at regular intervals to discuss whether they should be fighting or whether they should stop. That would be demoralising.