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Military Action Overseas: Parliamentary Approval

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:14 pm on 17th April 2018.

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Photo of Bernard Jenkin Bernard Jenkin Chair, Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, Chair, Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee 2:14 pm, 17th April 2018

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I will endeavour to be as swift as I possibly can.

Ian Blackford has, I think, just punched a hole in his own argument. He responded to my right hon. and learned Friend Mr Grieve, a former Attorney General, by assuring us that in any debate about some putative military action nobody would ask the Government to reveal specifics. I am sorry, but that is what this place does: we ask about specifics. He expects to debate forthcoming military action when the Government would be reluctant to reveal targets, the objectives of the operation and the nature of the deployment. That is ridiculous. I will come back to that point in a minute.

I rise as Chair of the Parliamentary Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, which covers both the question of strategic thinking in government and the question of the relationship between the Government and Parliament. My predecessor Committee produced three reports on strategic thinking in government and I challenge my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, who is in his place, on this. The Government have listened to the arguments and developed their capacity for strategic thinking, but the published literature of government is way behind the curve in dealing with the situations we now face. That underlines how we have to a large extent been asleep and complacent about the security we enjoy in this world. We are effectively now confronted by two great powers who are intent on subverting the international legal order. The problem in Syria is just a symptom of the superpower conflict that is already taking place, and which is simply not reflected in the 2015 strategic defence and security review or the 2015 national security review. I think we need to attend to those matters with some urgency.

I wish to concentrate on the more immediate question about the relationship between Government and Parliament. It is a complete misconception that there is an established constitutional convention that Parliament votes on the question of foreign deployments. This is a relatively new fashion. The Cabinet manual says that, but the Cabinet manual has no constitutional status whatever. It has no legal force. It is merely the expression of the opinion of a particular Prime Minister at a particular time—it was not even drafted by this Prime Minister—and it is vague.

The basis of the relationship between Government and Parliament is that Parliament controls laws and the supply of money to the Executive. Parliament is required to give its confidence to the Government in office for them to continue in office. It scrutinises Government decisions and holds Ministers accountable. However, I say to the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition that accountability is not the same thing as control. This Parliament does not control the Executive. We do not run the country. We hold the Government accountable. Parliament should not seek to directly control the decisions of Ministers.