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

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman was not paying attention to the earlier part of my speech. I explained what he asks. Given the few minutes that I have left, I think that it would be inappropriate to repeat it. I am afraid that he will have to read it in the official record.

I have already referred to the need for our forces to be agile in the face of a developing situation and to be quick to deploy when needed. Developments in technology, travel, communications and military capabilities mean that events around the world that challenge our security or international stability often require fast and decisive action. It is vital that we are able to deploy our forces quickly, especially when lives are at stake: for example, as we have debated, in hostage situations or following a dramatic deterioration in the security situation that required us to help evacuate UK citizens. We will have to take account of that as we take our work forward.

That might require an arrangement for some kind of retrospective consideration—as some of the speeches made today suggested. As the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea pointed out, we should recognise that our armed forces deserve the full support of the House, and deploying them into a potentially dangerous situation and asking them to put their lives at risk while holding open the possibility that they may well be recalled some time later would be untenable. Again, that will require careful work, as will the question of what would happen in the event of a change of Government.

Once deployed, our armed forces must also retain the flexibility to adapt to the threats that they face without the constraint of returning to the House at every twist and turn. We must beware of the "long screwdriver" and strike a balance between strategic consideration of the issues and trusting the judgment of our people on the ground, because their lives may depend on it.

We must also consider how a new mechanism might affect the reliability of the UK as an ally. Some hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East, pointed out effectively the different systems of parliamentary decision making among many of our allies and the consequences for the effectiveness of their military as allies when they are deployed in theatres. In the modern world, our forces will almost always be deployed alongside troops from other nations, and timetables imposed by the parliamentary activities of those other nations are not necessarily under our control. Our experience of operating in a multinational environment is that often the overall speed of decision making and deployment is driven by the time scale of the different troop contributors. The UK is valued as a coalition partner by our partners in NATO and the EU because we are reliable and because we deliver what we say we will. That involves not only the eventual deployment of troops, but the campaign planning that is vital to any successful mission. We would not want to inhibit such contingency planning.

Several right hon. and hon. Members drew attention to the need carefully to consider what should fall within the scope of any such arrangement. The right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea— [ Interruption. ]