Armed Conflict (Parliamentary Approval)

Part of Opposition Day — [11th Allotted Day] – in the House of Commons at 9:42 pm on 15th May 2007.

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Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence, The Secretary of State for Defence 9:42 pm, 15th May 2007

I agree with Dr. Fox that this has been an exceptionally good debate. I welcome all the contributions made by right hon. and hon. Members to this important debate. I apply the same caveat to my remarks as the hon. Gentleman did. My only concern is that in the time available I will not be able to do justice to all the speeches that have been made, but I shall do my best. The contributions reflected the fundamental place that Parliament has in the democratic decision-making process of this country and the priority we all on both sides of the House attach to the men and women of our armed forces, particularly when we ask them to act on our behalf and put their lives at risk, often in harsh and dangerous environments thousands of miles away from their families and their loved ones.

I am grateful to all those who have contributed to the House's understanding of the issues involved. That includes the work of the Public Administration Committee, under the leadership of my hon. Friend Dr. Wright. When I was first elected to this House, I served for some time under his leadership on that Committee and I am grateful for the learning process. It also includes the House of Lords Constitution Committee's report and, indeed, the learned debate in the other place on 1 May. All those were of considerable value and drawn on liberally as we debated the issue today.

At the heart of this debate is the relationship between Parliament and Government. The decision to go to war must always rest with the Prime Minister and his or her Cabinet. But the Government should be accountable to Parliament for their decisions. One of the striking things about this debate, which began with nothing in principle between the Govt and the Opposition, is that it has revealed the complexity of the challenge we have set ourselves in determining a mechanism that gives practical effect to that principle. That mechanism must give a clear mandate for our armed forces that allows them to go into conflict and take on its risks confident that they have the durable support of the country as expressed through its Parliament.

In summing up this debate, I intend to identify some of the complications involved and to explore the nature of the challenge that we have set ourselves. Mr. Hague opened the debate and suggested that there was no difference between his motion and the Government's amendment. He suggested that we sought a distinction without a difference—or, as my hon. Friend Andrew Mackinlay put it, that we were dancing on the head of a pin. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House pointed out a difference that he said was crucial—the imperative to take full account of the paramount need not to compromise the security of UK forces or the operational discretion of those in command.

The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks sought to dismiss that, asserting that no party in the House would seek to undermine our troops in that way and that it was an unnecessary qualification. I do not want to contradict his assertion that no party in the House would wish to undermine our troops in that way, but I just want to say to him and his colleagues that the terms of the motion that this House passes tonight will be pored over by the military—and quite rightly so.

For many reasons, some of which I shall come to later in my speech, we must act in a way that gives the troops whom we deploy into conflicts confidence in our decision making. As we are expressing the nature of the principle that we all now espouse, it is important that the House sends the right message of confidence to our troops.

Those who contributed to this debate included the shadow Foreign Secretary—the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks—Mr. Clarke and my right hon. Friend Mr. Meacher, to name but a few. They all welcomed what they described as the Government's damascene conversion—or volte-face—on this issue. I am grateful to Mr. Moore for reminding the House that the evolutionary process that has brought the Government to this point has had the same effect on Her Majesty's loyal Opposition. No doubt the Opposition can explain why their Leader, who opposed the principle in 2005, now supports it. In contrast, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House reminded the House that the Government undertook to keep our position under review, and that we have been doing so.

For my part, as Secretary of State for Defence, it was the apparently insurmountable challenge of working through the complexities that hon. Members today have identified—in spades, I think—that caused me to maintain and support the position adopted by the Lord Chancellor in the House of Lords on 1 May. That position was entirely consistent with the position that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister held and which he explained to the Liaison Committee. It was contained in both the reports that we have been considering, and has been quoted liberally in the House today.

The position adopted by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was reinforced by this House's history of scrutiny, retrospective review and debate of deployments over the past 10 years. I now accept, however, that the weight of the obvious all-party support for the argument had to be recognised. Government and Parliament must now get down to the difficult task of working through the challenges, which should not be underestimated. The record of today's debate will be a significant quarry of the extent of those challenges.

At the heart of this complexity is a debate about the appropriate mechanism to adopt. With the honourable and consistent exception of the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe—and perhaps of the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk—almost all the contributors to the debate favoured the approach of developing a convention that requires resolutions of both Houses prior to the deployment of forces, or to homologate that deployment. Such a convention, however, must preserve the supremacy of the House of Commons.

Quite rightly, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House did not express a preference at this stage, as the consultation that we have announced has yet to take place. However, the short debate between the right hon. and learned Members for Rushcliffe and for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) highlighted some of the very obvious disadvantages inherent in a statutory framework, particularly the risk of a later legal challenge and all the detrimental effect that that would have on the morale of deployed troops. However, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe countered that point with an impressive argument about the need for a degree of certainty and clarity, based on the fact that he has no confidence in the power of convention. I suspect that that debate will continue, and perhaps over time the right hon. and learned Gentleman will attract a few more supporters to his position than he was able to do today.

Several contributions drew on the words of Lord Bramall, Lord Garden and others who contributed to the Lords debate, pointing out that in exploring the options to formalise Parliament's involvement, we need to be conscious of the need not to undermine the effectiveness or security of our military personnel. It would be remiss of me not to highlight some of the issues we need to bear in mind in trying to achieve that objective; they include not only operational effectiveness but the wider diplomatic and development activity that often accompanies the deployment of our forces.

Mr. Gerrard devoted a considerable amount of time to timing. I am grateful, too, for the contributions of my hon. Friend Dr. Palmer and of Sammy Wilson, who set out the comparative advantages of earlier and later decision making. Patrick Mercer raised an aspect of that issue in an early intervention when he explored the characteristics of major or substantial deployment.

I agree that, as has been said, although the major deployments in respect of the Falklands, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Iraq and Afghanistan clearly lent themselves to a process of parliamentary decision making, we have to recognise the nature of modern warfare. There are practical considerations such as the long lead times needed for military advantage, not to mention military engagements such as aerial bombing and the use of missiles, which in the words of the military are designed to shape the battle space. If we get the timing wrong, there is a danger, in the words of the report of the Lords Constitution Committee, of

"removing the ability of United Kingdom forces to have 'strategic poise' by giving the opponent early notice of intent".

Mr. Ellwood brought to the attention of the House the fact that modern military operations are very different from those we engaged in only 20 years ago. In that respect, we try to adopt what has become known as the "comprehensive approach", integrating all the levers of Government to maximise the effect on the ground—a point to which I shall return later if I have time.

I know that I speak for the House when I say that my first priority is the effectiveness and safety of our armed forces. It is crucial that they remain capable of performing the tasks we ask of them, agile enough to respond quickly to an ever more dynamic operational environment and robust in the face of real threats to our, and their, security. Their morale and safety must remain paramount.

If Parliament is to take an informed view of military deployments, it is only natural that Members should want to satisfy themselves about the nature of the operation and the threat our forces will face and that they will have the equipment, tactics and procedures they need to help them to succeed. Indeed, Members set out a list of the requirements for any such debate, drawing on the report of the Lords Committee. I know of the necessity to satisfy oneself about all those things; as Defence Secretary I ask myself such questions every day in relation to the deployment of our troops in theatre.

The Lords Committee considered those points in its report, which noted the need to restrict some information but acknowledged that it could compromise the ability of Parliament to make informed decisions about a given situation. That is why in that decision-making process I shall resist the sharing of any information that compromises the priority of operational security. This is not a hypothetical debate, or one in which the Government hide behind the smokescreen of security concerns; it is not even about what information the Government proactively put before Parliament. In today's globalised world, where our potential adversaries watch the same television programmes and read the same newspapers and internet sites as we do, operational security can easily be undermined not just by the Government's answers but even by the questions posed; managing that in a way that allows Parliament to take an informed view will be a significant challenge.

We would certainly not release any information that could compromise sensitive intelligence or reveal elements of our operational planning. Indeed, I can conceive of some military operations that the House would not want to debate in public, either because it would risk escalating the conflict or because the mission itself is so sensitive that even acknowledging its existence would risk undermining the effectiveness of deployed forces and the UK's wider interests.