Armed Conflict (Parliamentary Approval)

Part of Opposition Day — [11th Allotted Day] – in the House of Commons at 8:34 pm on 15th May 2007.

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Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Education) 8:34 pm, 15th May 2007

Mr. Clarke commented that he was happy to hear all the believers who were speaking in the debate, but that he was even happier that so many unbelievers had repented—presumably before the debate, although we have even heard Members confessing that they have seen the light during it.

I remain one of the doubters. That is not a natural position for me, because knowing that as a member of a minority party I shall always be confined to the Back Benches I obviously have an interest in an increased role for Parliament. Furthermore, my natural distrust of the Executive has been reinforced by some of their decisions and behaviour over the years, so I believe that there is a need to pull power back to Parliament, as Dr. Wright said.

There are two guiding principles. The first is to ensure that whatever decision is made this country always has the ability to defend itself and its security is not impaired. Secondly, when we go to war, the morale of the troops we send should not be undermined in any way. The course of the debate has given me some reason to doubt whether those principles will be upheld.

Members have admitted that it will not always be possible to vote on taking military action. In response to interventions from the Opposition Back Benches, even the proposer of the motion indicated that sometimes circumstances would be thrust upon us and immediate action would be needed, so only an Executive decision could be made. Sometimes, the option to vote will not be available to us.

There could be circumstances in which we would not want to have a vote, because it might escalate the situation. As we intervene in more countries, we realise that although troops may go in with one purpose sometimes things change. Initially, troops may have been sent as peacekeepers or to help in a disaster or a rescue mission, but the situation escalates. When troops are sucked into such situations, must they wait for Parliament's permission before they react, or should military action be taken without Parliament's approval?

It has been suggested that only a substantial deployment should need a vote in Parliament, but it was not clear whether the deployment should be substantial in terms of manpower or firepower. Initially, an intervention might require few troops, but events could escalate. At what stage is the vote to be taken? If such a vote is required by law and military action is taken without it, what will be the legal implications for the people who take part in the action? As Iraq has shown us, lawyers are always happy to intervene and put soldiers through the court system.

Even where it is possible to have a vote, there is still the question of when the vote should be taken and there has been considerable debate in the House about that today. If we take it too early, we are provoking a situation; if we take it too late, it is a fait accompli. It is quite clear that some of those who describe themselves as believers, or as sinners who have come to repentance, still have some doubts about the circumstances in which the vote should be taken, even if they agree on the principle of the vote.

Another doubt that I have is about the basis on which the decision would be made. The right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe quite rightly said that the decision must be taken in full knowledge of all the relevant information. The relevant pieces of information that he suggested included the legal opinion. But even he had to concede that, if the full legal opinion were to be made available, the Attorney-General might well be reticent about giving it. He might draw back when thinking about some of the information he could give. The right hon. and learned Gentleman came to the conclusion that perhaps only the conclusions of the legal opinion should be made available. So, although we started off by saying that we need full knowledge to make a decision, we reached a situation in which we would be given the conclusions of the legal opinion.

Another point that was made was that the decision should be made on the basis of the raw intelligence data. Other Members—even those who support the proposal—have said that at times it will not be possible to have the full intelligence, because it may compromise sources and the work that we are already doing on the ground. Mr. Gray said that the more important the decision, the less willing the Government may be to hand over the intelligence or the more likely it may be that the intelligence will be spun. If a decision is sought simply to get the view of Parliament, rather than to get approval for a war, perhaps there will be less reticence about giving the intelligence. But if we are talking about a crucial decision—a decision to approve a war—it becomes more important that the Government get the right decision and so the intelligence might be spun or curtailed in some way.

There have been a number of suggestions about how that situation might be overcome, but, again, even those who support the principle recognise the massive difficulties that a vote in the House is likely to create when it comes to having the full information. There were also some doubts among the believers about the motion that should be put before the House. Some said that the motion should be as short as possible; others said that the motion should be as long as possible. The longer the motion, the greater the justification that will be contained within it. If one of the reasons given for going to war is shown not to pertain any longer, does that call into question the decision and does it provide a chance for the debate to be rerun?

That brings me to the last point that I want to make. How often should the vote take place? Would it simply take place at the very start, whenever that start happened to be—and at the moment, that is not clear—or, as the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe said, must there be ratification of the approval should circumstances change? What constitutes a change in circumstances could vary. For example, the circumstances might change in relation to the original reasons given in the motion that was put before the House. Of course, the longer the motion, the more justification there will be and the more opportunity there is to say that circumstances have changed. Alternatively, a change in circumstances could mean a change in the pace or the nature of the military intervention. If the change was to the pace or nature of the military intervention, would we be starting to intervene in operational and command decisions, and would that be good for the security of the troops or the execution of the war? Indeed, is the House qualified to make such an intervention?