Armed Conflict (Parliamentary Approval)

Part of Opposition Day — [11th Allotted Day] – in the House of Commons at 9:27 pm on 15th May 2007.

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Photo of Liam Fox Liam Fox Shadow Secretary of State for Defence 9:27 pm, 15th May 2007

I am in a kind and gentle mood, so my hon. Friend should not tempt me to go further. It was amazing, however, to hear the Leader of the House admitting that the Government had written their amendment before they saw the Opposition motion, and saying that the excuse for that was that the Opposition were late tabling the motion. Such creative interpretation of the facts was wonderful, even coming from the Leader of the House whose current job is to unveil the Chancellor's previously unknown waterfall of charm, warmth and humanity.

It is also interesting that the Government have seemingly changed their position so rapidly. Merely two weeks ago the Lord Chancellor said that there was no need to change the Government's position and that it would, in fact, be dangerous to do so. With his usual deftness, the Leader of the House remarked that the Lord works in mysterious ways. Presumably the Lord he was referring to was the Lord Chancellor whose political career under the current Prime Minister has defied gravity, but for whom intimations of mortality beckon under his successor. However, we are witnessing a welcome move towards a new parliamentary consensus on what is a very important issue.

A number of legitimate questions have been raised about the general approach put forward today. Will it weaken or strengthen the country at a time of threat? May we have adequate definitions of terms such as "substantial" in relation to deployments? Will it interfere with the freedom of commanders and the conduct of war? Will it conflict with other treaty obligations? Should there be legislation or convention, and in either case how should it be done? Finally, is the change necessary at all? Let me deal with those questions in turn.

Once Parliament makes a decision, what should happen subsequently? Many Members raised that issue. Should there be a requirement for a compulsory later endorsement of the position? That point was raised by my hon. Friend Mr. Leigh in his powerful and passionate speech. He argued that Parliament needs to be able to revisit our troop deployment in Iraq. Several other Members agreed with that. The question was also dealt with particularly well and in detail by Dr. Palmer in a thoughtful speech. Ultimately, Parliament cannot be stopped from voting on anything that Parliament wants to vote on. We have numerous mechanisms for achieving that. The question is whether Parliament should be able to interfere with operations under way—which would, of course, be very destabilising. The answer to the question was well put in another question asked by my hon. Friend Mr. Jenkin. He pointed out that Chamberlain's Government fell as a result of a non-substantive, but ultimately lethal, motion.

Once a Government have begun to prosecute a military campaign, they require to continue to command a majority in the House of Commons to govern. That is the ultimate safeguard that we have. Any substantive motion suddenly to pull out of Iraq would not command a majority of the House even at this time, and that in itself gives the Government credibility and legitimacy.

Some question whether the changes proposed in the debate would weaken the hand of the Government and the armed forces. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe dealt with that issue. Division is undoubtedly a boost for our enemies, so it can only add strength if it is clear that military action has the support of Parliament and, by inference, of the British people. Moreover, I believe that that would provide our troops with the morale boost of legitimacy that comes with constitutional approval.

Several Members were concerned about specific definitions in relation to deployments, notably of the word "substantial". That is a legitimate and understandable concern. I believe that the strict legal definition of the term is both difficult and unwise. The House of Commons will be able to know what it means by such terms in the particular circumstances at any one time. The term "substantial" will be to do not only with the numbers that it might apply to, but with the nature of any conflict and the intent—whether peacekeeping, policing or defensive. It will also be relevant whether any action is unilateral or multilateral or involves a coalition or a treaty obligation. Any elected House at any time is better able to interpret whether the nature or size of a force deployed in any particular circumstance requires reference to Parliament than is the extremely stark codification of law. That brings me to the next, related question.

Is any change that we decide to make better undertaken by convention or by legislation? I believe, as many Members do, that convention is preferable because it is more flexible and better able to accommodate complex or unforeseen circumstances of the sort mentioned by my right hon. Friend Mr. Redwood. It has been often repeated in this debate that the primacy of the House of Commons and Parliament must be upheld, which in itself leads to the conclusion that we should go down the route of convention, not legislation. Legislation is potentially subject to judicial interpretation, and under our current arrangements such interpretation could well occur outside our borders. The ability of foreign courts to have a say in what was or was not legitimate for the United Kingdom to do in deploying its armed forces would be utterly unacceptable to this House.

My hon. Friend Mr. Davies asked whether these arrangements could conflict with treaty obligations already in force, such as the NATO treaty. Article 5 of that treaty states that an attack against "one or more" countries

"shall be considered an attack against them all", and that each country will take

"such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force".

So a range of options are available to us, and there is absolutely no reason why that should in any way clash with the decision that we are taking in the House today.

The balance between the Executive and Parliament after the commencement of operations was also discussed. It is clear from the contributions of many Members that the consensus in the House is that it should be Parliament's role to grant approval for military action; it is up to the Government of the day to determine how to carry out that action. That issue was raised by my hon. Friend Sir Peter Tapsell, and the broad consensus in favour of that position has been reflected throughout today's debate. There can be no role for the House in detailed operational matters. We should certainly question the wisdom of what the Government of the day have been doing, as we have done throughout history, but the House has to have appropriate mechanisms for doing so that do not interfere in such operations.

Some powerful speeches were made and I shall refer to just two or three; I hope that Members in all parts of the House will forgive me for not having time to mention them all. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe, in a passionate and extremely well-informed speech that he seemed to have been saving up for this House for a long time, made a number of very valid points. He raised an issue that was echoed throughout the day's debate: the need for information to be placed before the House before it takes a decision on a substantive deployment. He spoke of the need to have the conclusions of legal advice made available to the House, if not the legal advice itself, to give us an indication of the intelligence basis.

The hon. Member for Broxtowe talked about the gathering, collation, interpretation and use of intelligence—issues that were again echoed in all parts of the House. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe also said that we must have clear objectives and an obvious starting-point for any military activities. Such issues reveal the stark contrast between what happens in this country and in other countries. We witnessed the problems that the Netherlands had to deal with in the run-up to the conflict in Afghanistan; no one in this House would like the British Government to be saddled with such problems.

Mr. Moore said that the Liberal Democrats will support our motion, for which we are very grateful. I disagreed with him about the need for a legislative framework, for reasons that I have already set out. It would be inflexible and apply to the House a codification that might not suit some of the varied circumstances that we might face. Mr. Meacher, who is probably helping his colleague with his campaigning, mentioned his private Member's Bill, for which I am happy to give him a little advertisement. He talked about the importance of the timing of any vote, saying that it should not be taken at a point where action had already become inevitable. That is an important lesson that the Secretary of State might want to return to in his winding-up speech.

Chris Bryant discussed the House of Commons basing such a decision on the granting of supply, for which there is of course an historical precedent. In effect, that would mirror the lock that Congress has on the US Government.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe spoke about the role of the House of Lords. What would its role be in the process, depending on any reform? Were we to have an elected House of Lords—as the House of Commons has already decided should be put in place—what would its role be? The Government will need to consider that when making the proposals they will make after this evening.

My hon. Friend Mr. Walter talked about the problems that other Governments face, notably with the caveats and flexibility that their systems apply. My hon. Friend Mr. Atkinson had some reservations, especially on the questions of revision or permission, and my hon. Friend Mr. Gray said that he had changed his mind on the basis of the arguments that he heard in the House of Commons today. Well, I have heard it all now. It was worth waiting the 15 years that I have been a Member of Parliament. My hon. Friend Mr. Ellwood covered so many of the areas that I have already mentioned that I thought that he was practising for a wind-up speech with one eye on the future—as long as it is not my job!

There has been a creeping consensus in the House on this issue today. It is now difficult to imagine any Government in the future attempting to prosecute any military campaign without the support of Parliament, but it must be done with flexibility and by convention, not legislation. Decisions must be made by Parliament, not by courts domestic or foreign. The process must not interfere with operations and it must deal with substantial force deployments—a concept that is better recognised than described.

This is a good day for Parliament. It begins, but only begins, to undo the asset-stripping of the powers of the House of Commons that has been going on for far too long. It is a good day for the strength and standing of our country. It is good for our armed forces to have the guarantee of the support of Parliament and by inference our people. I commend the motion to the House, in the clear understanding that whatever the result of the votes tonight, Parliament is the winner.