Armed Conflict (Parliamentary Approval)

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

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

The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point, which is the main thrust of my speech. If he waits a moment, I shall come to that.

There was some shameful spinning of the facts in order to justify war. Many will say that we would have gone to war anyway, because it had been decided that there was justification. Either way, we did it in a manner that alienated many of our allies. Again, that is an experience that we should never repeat.

Let us suppose that the vote has taken place and the decision to go to war has been made—I now come to the hon. Gentleman's point. The actual war with Iraq is only half the story. I was frustrated by some of the comments today that the vote on 18 March 2003 is the cause of the mayhem today. That is absolutely wrong. Our boys, the Americans and all the allies did their job in the fortnight after battle commenced and the country liberated. What followed was four years of a mess being created in a country that is now on the brink of civil war. If we are to make a decision to go to war, may we also have some form of scrutiny of the peacekeeping that follows?

I repeat what I said in an earlier intervention—had we had a suitable plan after the war to lift Iraq off its knees , sorted out the Ba'ath army, dealt with the infrastructure, looked after the oil wells and got them working to provide income for the country, it is possible that we would not be having this debate today. I would even go so far as to say that the Prime Minister would not be forced out of office, as he is. It is not the fault of the military. My regiment, the Royal Green Jackets, now The Rifles, is currently based in Basra and working extremely hard. We should pay tribute to the hard work that all our forces are doing. However, if we ask them what frustrates them, they say that it is their belief that the blueprint for Iraq is questionable. They did their job at the beginning by liberating the country, and then we had a blank canvas to do something with. That has been a wasted opportunity. I recommend Bob Woodward's book, "State of Denial", which goes through the details of some of the decision making that took place on both sides of the Atlantic and perhaps brought us to the questionable position that we are in today.

We must first be able to scrutinise the decision to go to war, but then, even if we disagree with it, we must accept it, put it behind us, and look at what we are doing to manage the peace. We have alienated our friends and lost hearts and minds because of the manner in which we have gone about our business. Britain is very good at winning over hearts and minds; we have a fantastic reputation around the world for making friends in a peacekeeping role. I cannot say the same for the Americans, who have lots to learn about befriending a nation that they are going into and being seen as liberators, not occupiers. I would like further scrutiny of that issue. Four years after the invasion, we are still debating it endlessly and there are concerns about the direction in which we are going. Most importantly, we are now looking at an exit strategy. Members on both sides of the House have said that we should withdraw. I would be uncomfortable with that because it would deny people the help that we promised them, but we need to look back at the blueprint and ask what we can do to improve the situation. The policy is failing and Parliament needs more scrutiny over why that is so. I am less angry about the decision to go to war than about the failure to keep the peace.

Part of this debate must concern our capacity to help. My hon. Friend Dr. Fox has spoken time and again about the problems of overstretch that British forces face. We need to be careful about committing ourselves across the world, sometimes without the support of our NATO or Commonwealth allies, when we simply do not have the troops or the military support. If, as the Prime Minister suggested on 17 January on HMS Albion, we are to stand up and be counted when other nations are reticent in defending democracy, we also need to protect our soldiers, sailors and airmen and invest in the services and support that they need. We are failing to do that, and the consequence is the overstretch and effect on morale in our armed forces. In Iraq, that attitude of going it alone was one of the reasons for the loss of faith among many of our friends in Europe. Had we had a decent resolution in the UN, we would have gone into Iraq with more support, and therefore more help would have been available in the peacekeeping operation afterwards.

On the proposal to change the royal prerogative, there are lessons to be learned from what other countries have been doing. Canada has a very similar system to ours, but the Government have promised to offer a vote whenever troops are committed. In Holland, as we heard from my hon. Friend Mr. Walter, there is a new requirement to keep Parliament informed, but that has caused huge delays in the commitment of troops to Afghanistan.

There is a debate in the United States arising from the War Powers Act, which followed the engagements in Vietnam and Korea and which has created friction between Congress and the President, who is commander-in-chief, over who has the ultimate power to wage war and who holds the purse strings governing the length of time the country can be committed to a particular war. It is not doing the morale of the forces in Iraq any good to see that tension in the Capitol.

France, under its constitution of 1958, can declare war only if authorised by Parliament, but circumnavigates that by getting involved in international operations that have a different label. Germany is a great example that we must consider because there the authority is very much bestowed on the Bundestag—the German Parliament. However, anyone who has visited Afghanistan will realise that the caveats that are imposed on German troops hinder them to the point that we question the reason for their presence from a military perspective. They do some work in provincial reconstruction teams, but they refuse to go out at night because their Parliament has told them that they cannot. How can troops who are part of an international security assistance force have such limitations, which do not apply to the rest of the force, imposed on them? It means that they guard the various bases but never wander out and get involved in operations. On paper, it appears as though there are 36,000 troops in Afghanistan, but only 15,000 are actually committed, with another 20,000 or so bound by so many caveats that their value is questionable.

Parliament must consider the sort of peacekeeping roles on which we would want to vote. Do we want to vote on peace enforcement, conflict resolution or multinational humanitarian relief? Bearing mission creep in mind, we need to be aware of how often we must recall the issues to Parliament to measure our success or ascertain whether things are getting out of control.

Let us consider the example of Afghanistan. In October 2001, the US and Britain began their air strikes. By 7 December, the last Taliban stronghold in Kandahar fell. On 5 December, the Afghan groups agreed a deal in Bonn on an interim Government and all seemed well. By January 2002, the first contingent of foreign peacekeepers—not war-fighters—were in place. At what stage might Parliament vote? Should there be two votes—one on the initial onslaught and another on the peacekeeping? Of course, the story was incomplete because four years later, in 2005, we moved into Helmand province. Should that have required a vote? The Defence Secretary at the time said—words he probably now regrets—that we would probably not fire a shot. Subsequent deployments on the scale of a division have gone to Afghanistan. I fully support that, but the question for Parliament is the stage at which we vote. The mission has expanded comprehensively from the peacekeeping operation that began in January 2002. The same question that we ask about Iraq applies to Afghanistan: have we got it right? Is the blueprint for success in Afghanistan working? There are some serious questions that are beyond the scope of the debate. Parliament should be able to debate such matters. Currently, we do not have the ability to scrutinise what happens.

What parameters might Parliament set? Should we be able to vote yes or no on whether to deploy? Should we vote on the size of the force, budget constraints, length of stay or time frame? Indeed, should we vote on the rules of engagement? I was astonished to learn from Defence questions yesterday that the British have different rules of engagement from the US in the Shatt al-Arab waterway. That needs to be rectified. There are legal questions, which could result in soldiers being unsure of where they stand in international law.

We need proper information. There is a concern that we could end up being armchair generals. We like discussing such issues but we rely heavily on the information that the Government provide, what we find out for ourselves or what the media tell us. That is all very well if we are considering hospitals or schools because I can visit my local school or hospital and glean the information for myself. However, it is difficult for Back Benchers to visit the sort of places that we are discussing and fully comprehend what is happening. The information from the Government, especially the intelligence and security services, must be correct, accurate, up to date and unspun. Should the Defence Committee and the Intelligence and Security Committee be allowed to read more detailed reports? A key issue is sharing information so that Parliament can make informed decisions.

I am worried about retrospective decision making. In the case of escalation of conflict and mission creep, how far back do we go to confirm what has happened? Should there be UN approval? There can also be ambiguities about the type of conflict being entered into. How prisoners should be dealt with is another issue. The question can also be put the other way round: if Governments can come to Parliament to confirm that they can go to war, can Parliament go to the Government to request war? If I tabled an early-day motion that called for Mugabe to be taken out with a single bullet, I would doubtless get quite a few signatures. Would the Government then be expected to react to that or would such powers not exist? I think I know the answer to that one, but it is an issue that we need to raise.

In conclusion, life has moved on from the days when wars were reported in The Times or The Daily Telegraph two months after they actually happened. Conflicts are now very much under the microscope and are followed in minute detail. We have 24-hour coverage and the country's citizens are far more informed and opinionated than ever before. It is important that Governments are held to account. I very much support the motion and I look forward to seeing the detailed proposals that will now follow—whether they be in the form of a convention or a statute. British involvement in international conflicts will, of course, continue—but, I hope, only after better scrutiny by this House.