Clare Short: The hon. Gentleman is right. I am afraid that the morale of the armed forces remains dented, because there is a lot of doubt about the way we got ourselves to war in Iraq. An officer stopped me in Whitehall some months back and said that he was home from Iraq and going back, and that he agreed with many of the arguments that I and others had made about the way in which we went to war in Iraq. He said that it is a terrible thing for an officer to have to meet the families of soldiers who died under their command, but when one's country is not firmly in support of the war, it is unbearable. I am afraid that that is so for many in our armed forces at present. Surely, under any reasonable modern constitutional arrangements, and in any self-respecting Parliamentwe will see what this House of Commons really thinks about itself todaythis old-fashioned set of arrangements should be changed, and Parliament should have the right to approve or not the decision to declare war.
The Bill is part of a larger draft Bill put forward by the Select Committee on Public Administration, following its inquiry into royal prerogatives in March 2004. It has strong all-party support and was previously presented to Parliament by my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard). It is notable that when in opposition Labour promised to ensure that
Mr. Lee Scott (Ilford, North) (Con): Does the right hon. Lady agree that it should be the right of the democratically elected representatives of our countryall of themto approve or not the decision to go to war?
No, I shall get on. I wanted to welcome the hon. Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Scott) to the House. Hon. Members should not be mean to new Members when they seek to intervene to make their points.
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David Wright (Telford) (Lab): I have great sympathy with the Bill in principle, but there are some problems with it, and perhaps my right hon. Friend could detail how she would deal with those. In particular, clause 2 requires the Prime Minister to look at
"the expected geographical extent of the participation . . . the expected duration of the participation, and . . . the particular bodies of Her Majesty's armed forces that are expected to participate."
My concern is that we would be telegraphing from the House how we intended to deploy our troops, exactly where we intended to deploy them and for how long. That would be a real strategic problem for our armed forces. Could my right hon. Friend explain how that would be presented?
The second major argument for the Bill, which deals with some of the points that have just been raised, is that, as the Butler report makes very clear, this personalised power of the Prime Minister to make war has led to a system of very informal and ill-thought-through decision making, which has put our soldiers in harm's way and created a terrible quagmire for the people of Iraq. I believe that if there had been a stronger system of accountability to Parliament it is likely that the decision about the rush to war and the handling of the situation after the military campaign would have been better considered to the benefit of all concerned. This is the second body of very serious arguments. It is for that reason that a group of families who have lost sons in Iraq have come out strongly in support of the Bill. They believe that the decision to go to war was not properly considered or properly scrutinised, and that if it had been, different decisions might well have been made.
Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): Some hon. Members, having voted for the war and encouraged itin fact, having egged on the Government to go to warnow attack the Government, asking why they did not do this and that. Surely those are questions that they should have asked before voting and before encouraging the Government to go to war and egging them on.
The hon. Gentleman is right that many hon. Members who voted for the war, having seen many documents that have come out since as a result of the
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Hutton inquiry and the Butler report, as well as the leaked document, feel that they were duped, and feel angry about it. This is a serious set of issues: the situation that we have in Iraq, how we got there, where we are now and how we get out of it to the benefit of all concerned, the lessons for the constitution and how to improve the quality of our decision making. We should all consider those matters and not throw brickbats at each other.
The Bill is very straightforward in conception. It lays down that Parliament's approval must be sought before the deployment of British forces in military action. It requires that when the Prime Minister proposes military action, he must lay before both House of Parliament a report setting out the reasons for the proposed action, the legal authority for itwould that not be a desirable thing?and, to answer the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (David Wright), any detail that he thinks appropriate on its geographical extent, expected duration and which elements of the armed forces are to be deployed. The Prime Minister would have a lot of discretion on how much detail he provides to the House of Commons.
Mr. Dismore: My right hon. Friend has made great play about the importance of democracy and the right of the elected representatives of the people to make a decision. How does she square that with effectively giving a veto to the other place through her requirement that both Houses approve such a decision? Given her position on reform of the House of Lords, would it not be more appropriate for reform to come before consideration of this Bill?
Clare Short: I think that my hon. Friend will agree that we are committed as a party and as a Government to reform of the House of Lords, so he does not have to worry. When contentious legislation is introduced, many people, including me, hope that it will be properly scrutinised in the Lords, because, although we have an appointed House, it is appointed in proportion to the voting behaviour of the country. The Lords is a better scrutineer of the Executive than this House, and that undermines this House's authority.
If the situation were to change during the course of the armed conflict, would the Prime Minister have to return to the House to obtain a reconfirmation of assent? If so, the Prime Minister could find himself coming back on a weekly basis; if not, the Government would be engaged in armed conflict that had not been approved by Parliament.
Clare Short: If we are allowed to consider this important Bill in Committee, it can be amended if necessary so that the Prime Minister will not need to return to the House once approval has been given.
Sir Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife) (LD):
On the legal case for war, does the right hon. Lady anticipate
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that, before a decision was taken by this House to support the Government's policy, the House of Commons would see an extensive opinion, such as the 13-page document produced by the Attorney-General on 7 March, rather than the one-page response to a question in the other place on the day?