Select Committee on Liaison Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness(Questions 120-139)



  120. I have one final question. Each time we do this we have to leave behind a nation-building exercise—Kosovo, 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 already processed?
  (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.

Tony Wright

  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 that—I 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 talk—and we have had some today—of 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 that"?

  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 situation tenable?
  (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 have—let us leave aside what the constitutional position is, but should you have to have—a vote before troops go into action. What I have said—and I think that this is in line with what other Prime Ministers have said since time immemorial—is 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 Parliament?
  (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.

Mr Kaufman

  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.

Mr Leigh

  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 in England?
  (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 NHS cover.

  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 not concerned?
  (Mr Blair) Of course.

  137. This must be a major problem which the Government must address as a matter of great priority, must it not?
  (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.

Mr Hinchcliffe

  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 this morning?
  (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 future.

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