Armed Conflict (Parliamentary Approval)

Part of Opposition Day — [11th Allotted Day] – in the House of Commons at 8:48 pm on 15th May 2007.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Opposition Whip (Commons) 8:48 pm, 15th May 2007

It is a pleasure to participate in this historic occasion. We are seeing the genesis of a major change to the decision-making process through which the UK mobilises its armed forces. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have made passionate and powerful speeches, which have generally supported the proposal before us.

I am slightly saddened that the Government tabled an amendment and did not feel that they could support the motion, although I understand the reasons why. I pay tribute to Sammy Wilson, who spoke with passion about the importance of the changes in circumstances that can affect our military forces when they get the go-ahead to represent the United Kingdom abroad. I will touch on that later in my speech.

I fully endorse the proposal. In this day and age, it seems inconceivable that we should have a royal prerogative that is so out of date. Democratic accountability seems to be missing from the Government, so I am pleased that Parliament is being invited to participate in the decision-making process. As we have heard, the issues that we are discussing stem from the Bill of Rights, which was written way back in 1688, and which transferred a number of powers directly from the monarch to Ministers. I am pleased that we are witnessing the beginning of a change that will result in Parliament scrutinising the decision to go to war. While debating the motion, we should consider the detail of the issue. There is now a blur between war-fighting and peacekeeping. Interventions are rarely bilateral; they are multilateral, so we have to ask ourselves detailed questions about the decisions that Parliament might need to take.

The principle that we are discussing has support from all corners of the House. As we have heard, some right hon. and hon. Members introduced private Members' Bills on the subject. I pay tribute to Dr. Wright, who sits on the Labour Benches, and who has, in his own way, promoted the issue through his constant letter writing and by barracking of Members of his own party. He has led us to where we are today. We have heard the Chancellor of the Exchequer endorse the proposal in principle, and the House of Lords Constitution Committee is obviously in favour. The Lord Chancellor has done a U-turn on the issue—perhaps the Prime Minister's grip on him is slowly loosening, and another hand is now grabbing him and turning him a different way.

It is worth reminding ourselves that the term "war", as defined by the Geneva conventions of 1949, is no longer used. The last time that Britain actually went to war was in 1942, against Siam. We no longer use that term simply because of the legalities. War is a state that the nation is in, and it is too complicated for us to go down that route. It involves dealing with diplomats and embassies and that treaties have to be reconsidered. It also raises the issue of enemy aliens and what to do with citizens of an enemy country who are in the UK.

The UK has been involved in a number of operations over the past 10 years. We have made 60 deployments and been involved in five major conflicts. It is worth considering some of those conflicts as they show us that the prevailing tendency has been to seek Parliament's support when deciding whether to commit troops. We heard how, in the case of world war two, a motion was put before the House by Neville Chamberlain, and it was carried. Before the Korean war in 1950, a statement was made in which UK troops were offered to support US troops. That was actually a retrospective debate, but Parliament was nevertheless able to voice its views.

On the Falklands, as has been said, the House was recalled for an Adjournment debate in April 1982. There was no vote, although there were plenty of statements, but it is worth reminding the House that there was no call for a vote. If there had been a call for a vote from any corner of the House, I am sure that the usual channels of the day would have allowed one, but clearly the view of the House was so unified that a vote was not seen as necessary. Hostilities in the Gulf war began on 17 January 1991, but a motion was put to the House four days later. We may be a bit late in getting motions agreed to, but there is certainly a precedent for Parliament commenting on our involvement in armed conflict. Kosovo has also been mentioned today. Hostilities began on 24 March 1999, but again there was no vote, and no vote was requested.

It is when we come to Iraq that things get a little more confusing. There was a plethora of votes on Iraq, including in September 2002 and in February 2003. There was also the main vote of 18 March 2003, which committed the United Kingdom to war with Iraq, and which has been mentioned time and again. I have scrutinised the motion, and what it actually did was endorse the findings of UN resolution 1441. It also mentioned resolution 678. That resolution was written 12 years before the March 2003 motion, so the justification for war went back an awfully long way.

At the time, we had 45,000 troops on the border ready to move across when the green light was given. If we are to scrutinise the decision to go to war, there should be a clearer motion endorsing what we intend to do, rather than some ambiguous call leaning on a series of UN resolutions, some of which are more than a decade old. The motion on 18 March 2003 leaned heavily on out-of-date material. That needs to be rectified. Better crafted motions should be tabled, which look forward rather than back, and state that if conditions do not change within a set period Britain will go into conflict with another nation.

My concern about the decision on Iraq was the limited amount of information. I pointed out to the Leader of the House in an intervention that not only the House but the country was misled by the limited amount of information made available. There was too much spin involved. The Alastair Campbells of this world should have no place in changing the advice given by our intelligence and security community. They were not happy with certain documents, which were slid back across the table with the instruction to emphasise other aspects of the reports. That is out of order and should never happen again.

One of the key factors that persuaded many hon. Members to vote in favour was the 45-minute claim and that somehow Cyprus, one of our sovereign bases, may possibly have come under attack. We know that that is not the case. As we move forward with the proposals, I should like to see proposals to ensure that we are never led down that road again. The information that is available to the Cabinet should be made available to other bodies as well.