Examination of Witness(Questions 120-139)|
TUESDAY 21 JANUARY 2003
120. I have one final question. Each time we
do this we have to leave behind a nation-building exerciseKosovo,
Afghanistan, possibly Iraq. Does it not then become more difficult
to deal with some of the other "rogue" states, because
you are increasingly tied up with managing the ones that you have
(Mr Blair) Except that you can then withdraw over
time. For example, we have reduced our troop deployments in Bosnia
significantly. Obviously we do far less in Afghanistan than we
were when we were heading up the security force. So I think in
terms of our capability, we can do it, but, you know, you choose
what you do very carefully, and we try to.
121. Prime Minister, can I bring us now to the
role of Parliament in all of this, which may not be unrelated
to the question of public opinion. Do you accept that the House
of Commons has not yet approved any military action?
(Mr Blair) Yes, the Commons has not taken a vote in
the context of military action.
122. Right. Will you give an undertaking that
there will be a vote in the Commons in the event of military action
being decided upon?
(Mr Blair) I have got absolutely no doubt at all that
in the event of us having military action there will be a vote
in the House of Commons. What I am not promising is that you can
necessarily do that in all sets of circumstances before the action
is taken, for the reasons again that we have gone through a thousand
times. But, you know, again in the conflicts we have been involved
in in Kosovo and Afghanistan, Parliament has been consulted at
every opportunity, and we will continue to do that. It is unthinkable
thatI mean, no government could engage in a conflict if
Parliament was against it, as the Leader of the House was saying
a couple of months ago. That is why of course there will be ample
opportunity for the House to make its view clear. But I believe
that if we take action in the circumstances that I have outlined,
we will have support.
123. So even if, as you say, there may not be
a vote before military action, then, very much like the Major
Government at the time of the Gulf War in 1991, there would be
a vote within days of military action taking place?
(Mr Blair) Do not tie me down to an absolute, specific
time, but I have got no doubt that as soon as possible it is right
that Parliament expresses its view. As I say, I have never had
any difficulty at all with Parliament either being consulted and
informed or expressing its view. The only reason I put in a caveat
on this in relation to when exactly is that if you had a situation
where you had to take action fairly quickly for any reason, the
security of the troops obviously comes first, but I think that
is accepted by people.
124. There is much talkand we have had
some todayof this country following America, but of course
in one crucial respect constitutionally we do not follow the United
States. President Bush has to go to Congress before he can wage
war. We have this mysterious thing called the Royal Prerogative
which enables Prime Ministers and Governments to wage war without
Parliament. Is it not time that we had a War Powers Act as well?
(Mr Blair) I think we are about to get to one of these
areas where we may have a disagreement with the United States.
I think we have different systems, and I do not really see any
reason to change the present system.
125. Well you say that, but you do not think
it is constitutionally bizarre that the House of Commons can have
endless votes on whether it wants to kill foxes, but has no right
at all to have a vote on whether we kill people?
(Mr Blair) Well, as I said to you a moment or two
ago, I cannot think of a set of circumstances in which a Government
can go to war without the support of Parliament, so I do not think
it is real. I think you can get into a great constitutional argument
about this, but the reality is that Governments are in the end
accountable to Parliament, and they are, and they are accountable
for any war that they engage in, as they are for anything else.
126. Let me just try this one more time from
a different angle, which is that Winston Churchill in 1950, in
the context of Korea, argued that much better than having just
a debate, where sometimes you can get a misrepresentative slice
of opinion expressed in the House of Commons, if you have a vote
then it can give authority to Governments in acting. Is it not
both right for Parliament that it should vote and good for Government
that there should be a right to vote too?
(Mr Blair) Yes, and there is a right to vote. The
question is, do you take that one step further and get rid of
the Royal Prerogative? I do not see any reason to change it, but
I do really think that in the end it is more theoretical than
real, this issue, because the truth is, if Parliament were to
say to any Government Supposing in relation to any conflict
Parliament voted down the Government over the conflict, as I say,
it is just not thinkable that the Government would then continue
the conflict. That has been the case all the way through. So I
think that even though it may be strictly true to say that the
Royal Prerogative means you do it and in strict theory Parliament
is not the authority, in the end Parliament is the authority for
any Government, and I cannot I mean, can you honestly imagine
a set of circumstances in which the Government is defeated by
Parliament over a conflict and says, "Well, I'm just ignoring
127. No, but the fact is that if you go through
post-war conflicts you will find endless instances of demands
for votes in Parliament which may or may not have been granted.
It is a question of Government. It is surely much better to turn
it round and make sure that Parliament simply has the right to
vote on any military action taken by its Government?
(Mr Blair) There always are constant votes. I hear
what you are saying, Tony, but I do not really have very much
to add to what I have said.
Sir Nicholas Winterton
128. The Procedure Committee which I chair is
very interested in the matter that Tony Wright has just raised,
namely the Royal Prerogative, because the deployment of troops
and the issuing of orders to engage in hostilities are matters
of the Royal Prerogative which are exercisable by you, sir, as
Prime Minister and by your Ministers. The Government of the day
has liberty of action in this field, and Parliament in reality
does not need to give approval to any action. You have just said
that you cannot foresee any situation in which the Government
would continue with action if Parliament voted against it, but
that would place this country, if action had been taken to commit
troops to Iraq, in a very difficult situation. Is the current
(Mr Blair) I think it is in reality. First of all,
there is the issue, do you have to have, or should you have to
havelet us leave aside what the constitutional position
is, but should you have to havea vote before troops go
into action. What I have saidand I think that this is in
line with what other Prime Ministers have said since time immemorialis
that there may be circumstances in which, for the safety and security
of your troops, you have to act immediately, you do not go to
Parliament. But certainly any Government that has been involved
in a conflict has always come to Parliament as soon as is possible
and said, "This is why we've taken this action", and
then a motion goes down. Of course, once you start the conflict
you are in a new situation, and I do not believe realistically
that a Government is going to commit troops unless it is pretty
sure it has got Parliament with it.
129. But would you not agree, Prime Minister,
that it is absolutely critical to our armed forces that they believe
that not only is Parliament behind what they are doing, but the
people of the country are as well? Is there any way in which the
exercise of Royal Prerogative might be adjusted or amended to
ensure that troops are not committed and then might have to be
subsequently withdrawn, if what you say is correct, that you cannot
see a Government of the day actually going against the vote of
(Mr Blair) I cannot think of an instance in which
in a conflict a Government has ever done that. I say that with
hesitation, since there are a lot of constitutional experts around
the table, but I cannot think of a situation in which they ever
have. I think this is a perfectly interesting debate, and obviously
we will hear carefully how your Procedure Committee is going to
deal with this specific issue.
130. This matter may well form part of an entirely
different kind of inquiry.
(Mr Blair) Obviously I will study carefully what is
said. All I am saying is, I am just giving my honest assessment.
I cannot think of a set of circumstances in which a Government
is going to do this without going to Parliament.
131. In following up this question then, and
wanting a fairly succinct reply to this, if the proposals which
are likely to be contained in the results of the Convention on
the Future of Europe are implemented, and that the Intergovernmental
Pillars, particularly relating to foreign affairs and defence,
disappear, as they will disappear, if the results are accepted
by our Government, how will we be in a position to do what we
are now doing in respect of Iraq and our support for America,
if other countries within Europe are not in support of us?
(Mr Blair) There will be no change to that position
at all. It is a succinct answer.
132. You say Article 14 is not going to be abolished?
(Mr Blair) There is no way that will alter.
Chairman: Gerald, you indicated you wanted to
add something on the Royal Prerogative.
133. Would it be useful, Prime Minister, to
clarify the situation with regard to Parliament and use of troops
definitively on this occasion? If one looks at when British troops
went into action on January 15 1991, Parliament voted after the
troops were already in action and did not have a substantive motion
before it before that. Is it not a fact that when war broke out
in 1939 Parliament was not asked to approve that until after the
war broke out? That being so, are not efforts being made to create
some new constitutional convention with regard to the use of British
troops, which is completely unnecessary because we had got along
with this way of doing this and remained a democracy throughout?
(Mr Blair) I agree with that and only wish I had said
it myself. So take that. Score under the record all previous answers
and adopt that one.
134. Could I now turn to the specific domestic
fight against terrorism, because you will be aware, Prime Minister,
that many people in this country are worried that an attack against
a Muslim country in the absence of a negotiated peace settlement
would increase the risk of terrorism. You deny that, but we have
had that discussion already. Let us deal with our ability to meet
a terrorist attack, if we may. A recent National Audit Office
report coming to the Public Accounts Committee showed and gave
strong evidence to prove that the ability of the NHS to deal with
a terrorist attack, particularly in London, is worryingly patchy.
Are you instituting a top-to-bottom review of NHS emergency planning
(Mr Blair) First of all, the NAO report also said
there had been significant improvements made. But yes, as a result
of what that report said, and in any event as a result of the
continuing work, we are looking to see how we can improve the
135. Thank you very much. On a scale of one
to ten, how would you assess the ability of the NHS to deal with
a terrorist attack in London particularly?
(Mr Blair) If you will forgive me, I do not think
I will get into a scale of one to ten as to how one should assess
their ability. I believe they are as equipped as we can be against
the risks that we can foresee. I would just like to make this
point to you. We are spending hundreds of millions of pounds on
trying to prepare ourselves adequately for any potential threat,
in relation to vaccines, in relation to protective clothing, in
relation to new procedures and so on, but I want to say this to
you very, very bluntly. We could spend billions of pounds doing
it, we could spend tens of billions of pounds doing it, and we
could still not identify where the attack actually is going to
come from. So what we need to do is to make every preparation
that we reasonably can, but there are no limits to the potential
threat that you could imagine, and that is why I think that the
other part of this, which I think is in the end going to give
us a better guarantee of success, to be frank, is that we make
every aspect of our security and intelligence information service
work as effectively as possible, and I am pleased to say that
I think they are doing that.
136. Yes, I have no doubt about the effectiveness
of our intelligence services, but it must worry you that if you
just look, for instances at ambulance trusts, the NAO report showed
that only 4% of them thought they were well prepared to deal with
radioactive attack, 8% with biological attack, 30% with chemical
attack. If we are looking at health authorities, you see that
20% of health authorities thought the advice coming from Central
Government was poor or very poor; there were comments that the
advice was disjointed, confusing and uncoordinated. You must be
worried, are you not, that there is this degree of concern amongst
ambulance trusts, health authorities and acute trusts? Are you
(Mr Blair) Of course.
137. This must be a major problem which the
Government must address as a matter of great priority, must it
(Mr Blair) Of course, and I entirely accept that.
That is the reason why, for example, we are employing regional
coordinators in each of the regions, to try to make sure that
whatever we are doing at the centre is properly explained and
worked with throughout the regions as well; why the Civil Contingencies
Committee and the two sub-committees that meet under it are the
whole time reassessing the measures that we are taking. All I
am saying to you in the end is that there is a limit to what you
can do to prepare yourself, but we have to do everything we possibly
can and reasonably can, and we will do. When these reports come
out, we then immediately act on the findings of those reports
and take them very seriously.
Mr Leigh: Good, you are going to act on the
report. Thank you.
138. The whole direction of travel on health
policy, Prime Minister, is towards devolution and localised decision-making
and power being devolved, for example, to PCTs. I generally support
that direction. How do you square up that broad thrust of policy
with the need to have a clear national direction and control in
dealing with some of these issues that we have been discussing
(Mr Blair) I just think that they fit into two different
categories. I think what you need is certain national decisions
based on expert advice and evidence as to what is necessary throughout
different parts of the country, and then you need the regional
capability to deliver that. That is why we have been looking at
how you have emergency planning groups actually in the regions,
the coordinators I mentioned just a moment or two ago, to try
to make sure that this is done. I guess you have just got to accept
that there are certain things that have got to be at least centrally
decided and locally implemented.
139. I think you will be aware that the public
health functions now located within primary care teams as opposed
to the public health authorities are crucial in the circumstances
we are possibly facing at the present time. One of the areas of
concern about PCTs is the strength of the public health function
currently. Certainly in many areas I have had expressed to me
worries about whether it is appropriately located. What are your
views on the current strength of the public health function and
whether it is appropriately located in primary care teams as opposed,
for example, to local authorities?
(Mr Blair) I think that because the PCTs are still
bedding down it is right to give them the chance to work. I have
got an open mind on whatever lessons we learn, but I think there
will be a time to evaluate that properly on the basis of the PCTs
being given some time to work and having a track record upon which
we can make a judgement. But I'd be keen to have the PCTs focus
on public health as well. For example, I was talking to a group
of GPs the other day who, through the collaborative that they
have had, which has tried to spread best practice, as a result
of certain of the practices going out into their communities and
educating people about coronary heart disease, calling in potential
suspects for coronary heart disease and actually trying to make
sure that they are given the right drugs and treatment, have reduced
really significantly the incidence of severe heart attacks in
their area. So I think there is a big public health function that
they can carry out. Whether that is the best way to carry out
all public health functions I think is an open matter for the