Armed Conflict (Parliamentary Approval)

Part of Opposition Day — [11th Allotted Day] – in the House of Commons at 7:24 pm on 15th May 2007.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Elfyn Llwyd Elfyn Llwyd Shadow Spokesperson (Education and Skills), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Chief Whip (Commons), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Justice) 7:24 pm, 15th May 2007

I am pleased to take a small part in the debate, which has been interesting. Consensus in the Chamber usually means that a debate is as dull as ditchwater, but today's discussion has been interesting and important.

Dr. Palmer, in correcting some hon. Members and advising others, said that the debate had nothing to do with Iraq. I do not believe that for a moment. Given that about 80 per cent. of his speech was about Iraq, I wonder why he bothered to make such a claim.

Let us consider the reason for the sudden U-turn and interesting timing of the debate. It is to do with the Chancellor, who is busily rowing away from the Blair mother ship. The only transparency is the politics behind that. Who was in the Cabinet when the decision was made to invade Iraq? Who paid the cheques? Who is as much an architect of Blairism as the man himself and, therefore, partly responsible for the conflict in Iraq? The answer is the Chancellor. He is now publicly advising that Parliament should play a pivotal role in war-making. Good. On the presumption that the assertion is not mere froth and spin, or part of his strategy to distance himself from the Blair Administration in which he was a central player, and that it can be taken seriously, it is most welcome.

The Leader of the House, in opening the debate, said that there would be consultation with all parties. Let us hope that that will happen. For the record, I believe that the convention route is preferable to a statutory route. Doubtless, that will be discussed in the weeks and months ahead. However, we must apply the lessons of Iraq and examine several matters that must be tackled.

Let us consider intelligence. First, it must be clear, tested and truthful. Unfortunately, that was not the case a couple of years ago. Secondly, it must be placed before Parliament unencumbered by spin or—worse—by being borrowed from a student's thesis. Ms Abbott said that she saw through the various documents. As it happens, so did I. However, other aspects were in play during the votes and they contributed to the general ratcheting up to a position where war would happen. Regardless of wording, those of us who were present at that time knew what was happening. We knew that people were being hauled before the Prime Minister and the Whips and we also knew the real meaning of the motions. Let us not pretend otherwise. The hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington is a redoubtable and tough character. She stood up to it, but others, sadly, did not. Still others were genuinely misled and took the evidence at its face value. I, for one, did not, and would be wary of doing so in future. Let us see whether we can improve the system.

Thirdly, Parliament's involvement at an early stage, not when it is convenient only to the Executive, is crucial. That point has already been made and I shall not dwell on it. However, we know that the decision to invade Iraq was casually agreed in Texas between the Prime Minister and President Bush many months before Parliament voted on the matter. Indeed, the Prime Minister answered questions from various Members of Parliament, including me, in the few weeks before the conflict in Iraq, saying that no decision had been made and that military action could easily be avoided. He said that when 130,000 American troops were massed on the borders of Iraq.

We were badly served by the current system. I could put it another way, but I shall not. Furthermore, we are aware of the misinformation about 45 minutes and the weapons of mass destruction. We also know that the nuclear experts were eager to continue searching and that Dr. Hans Blix, the chemical warfare expert, was keen to carry on for a couple of months. They were not allowed to complete their work, despite their pleas and despite being mandated by the United Nations to complete their respective tasks.

Clearly, in addressing the matter, we must consider prerogative powers. I believe that those powers will have to remain, but that they should be exercisable by this House under strict conditions, whereby full information is supplied and a full debate is possible. I shall quote from the report of the House of Lords Constitution Committee, which is referred to in the motion. It states:

"The exercise of the royal prerogative by the Government to deploy armed forces overseas is outdated and should not be allowed to continue as the basis for legitimate war-making in our 21st century. Parliament's ability to challenge the executive must be protected and strengthened".

That is absolutely right and it is an essential question in this debate. That power is not one that the Executive would relinquish easily, but as I have already said, the Chancellor has indicated a willingness to bring Parliament into the equation. Earlier this year, on a Sunday political programme, the Chancellor made that quite clear to Mr. Andrew Marr. He said that he could not conceive of a situation

"other than an extreme emergency where Parliament would not wish to, and should not, have a role to play in this".

That is all well and good, but it may also be argued by the Government that Parliament did play a similar role in the build-up to the present conflict in Iraq. As I have already intimated, that role was entirely unsatisfactory in its timing and also highly unsatisfactory given the quality of the alleged evidence against Saddam on which Parliament was to rely in reaching its conclusions and voting accordingly. In case anyone has any misgivings or qualms about this, let me say that Saddam was an awful tyrant and that no one in his right mind could ever have said a good word about him. That, however, is beside the point; it is another matter— [Interruption.] Whether that justifies breaking international law is another question. That is my point.

In the debate on the subject in the other place, the noble Lord Lester said that

"the essential elements must be that Government should seek parliamentary approval for military action; provide Parliament with details of any proposed action, including its objectives, legal basis, likely duration, size and so on; be able, in circumstances of emergency, to take action before consulting Parliament, provided that they come back to Parliament to give an account as soon as possible".—[ Hansard, House of Lords, 1 May 2007; Vol. 691, c. 997.]

I think that that is a very sensible proposition indeed and I hope that, ultimately, that kind of thinking can be adopted in the cross-party discussions that will ensue after today's debate.

On the legal basis for military action, I remind the House of the debate on 9 March 2004, which I opened on behalf of Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National party. I called in a motion for the full opinion of the Attorney-General to be disclosed. I still believe that that is right, even though I have heard knowledgeable Members on both sides of the House taking a contrary view. What we must have, at the very least, is more information on the legal opinion. It may be difficult in certain circumstances to supply the whole opinion—though I know not—but one page of A4 is hardly sufficient when there is a 17-page document. There are plenty of authorities in agreement with me. "Erskine May", for example, states:

"The opinions of the Law Officers of the Crown, being confidential, are not usually laid before Parliament or cited in debate... But if a Minister deems it expedient that such opinions should be made known for the information of the House, he is entitled to cite them in debate."

There have been examples of where that has been done, and in questions of war-making it is vital that—consistent with security and so forth—as much information as possible be imparted to this place.

It is crucial that we are told the legal basis for war. I say that because when I was in Iraq two and a half years ago, I spoke to several senior officers who were deeply worried about the legitimacy of the conflict and the role of the troops. They volunteered those opinions; I was not canvassing them. They were unsure and their morale was undoubtedly affected by that issue. Let us get this right: I am not trying to stir up the matter; it was volunteered to me. I am passing on, for what it is worth, the information that many senior officers in Iraq were concerned about the legitimacy of what they were doing. In my view, nothing is more damaging to military morale than a real doubt about the legitimacy of military actions. Indeed, days before the conflict began, Lord Boyce, then Chief of the Defence Staff, demanded what he called "unequivocal legal authority" for the invasion of Iraq. Similarly, I believe that Parliament should have such unequivocal legal authority in any debate on future conflicts; otherwise, such a decision will again be taken on flawed or seriously incomplete information, which cannot be the way forward in matters as serious as these.

There is widespread concern about the way in which the Government acted in the run-up to the Iraq conflict. I suspect that that concern may deepen further as casualties continue and when we see the heart-breaking spectacle of grieving parents asking why their son or daughter died and in what cause. I have nothing but the highest regard for the troops serving there—their bravery and professionalism is beyond doubt and beyond comparison. But it has surely reached the point where it is possible, or at least conceivable, that the presence of those brave men and women is actually contributing to the problem rather than helping to solve it. I put that not in a partisan way, but because I genuinely believe that it may be true.

As politicians, we like to say that lessons have been learned. If so, let us change the procedures to ensure that in future we do not again witness a disastrous and damaging debacle such as the Iraq conflict. Let Parliament assert itself and ensure that it is never again asked to vote on a flawed and discredited prospectus with such horrific and enduring consequences.