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Clare Short: One of the very troubling issues about the route to war is the way in which the longer legal opinion was kept secret from everyone, including members of the Cabinet. If such issues had to be brought before Parliament, the legal case would be more thoroughly scrutinised and the machinations and shenanigans, which are so troubling, would not occur. There is a democratic case for the Bill, but there is also the powerful argument that it would make for better decision making and protect our armed forces and our country's reputation.

John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): Does the right hon. Lady agree that one of the critical points about the Bill is that the consideration should happen before the deployment of troops, which means that this House would not get bounced into taking a decision? When the party that forms the Government is backed by only one in five voters—furthermore, some parts of the Labour party do not support the Prime Minister—it creates a dangerous situation in which too much power is concentrated in one individual.

Clare Short: I agree with the hon. Gentleman that having a vote before any troops are deployed would allow the whole issue to be properly considered. Once the troops are on the ground, Parliament is in a very difficult situation. Many hon. Members voted against their better judgment because troops had been committed, and the Bill would ensure that that does not happen again.

The Bill also provides for a situation in which the Prime Minister decides that participation in armed conflict is urgent and that deployment should begin before a report is laid before Parliament. In those circumstances, retrospective approval can be sought as soon as it is practicable to do so. If retrospective approval were denied, the forces would have to be withdrawn within 30 days, or a longer period could be allowed if the Prime Minister considered that it was needed in order to organise a withdrawal. If Parliament were not sitting or immediate action were needed, the Bill would allow the Prime Minister to come to Parliament after troops had been deployed.

John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD): On parliamentary democracy, does the right hon. Lady agree that the backing of Parliament would help not only the Prime Minister of this country but the leader of any country? It would be ridiculous if Iraq's leader had the power to go to war without the backing of its parliamentary democracy, which we supposedly went to war to try to install.

Clare Short: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Neo-conservatives in the United States, who now have some influence in this country, keep making the point that
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democracies do not go to war. Is this a democracy, and is the United States a democracy? That argument is very strange. The fact that the Prime Minister can defy Parliament is an embarrassment to our name as an ancient democracy.

Mr. Sadiq Khan (Tooting) (Lab): Is my right hon. Friend aware that the USA passed the war powers resolution in 1973 because of those concerns? It states that if approval is not obtained within 60 days, the President must withdraw US forces within a further 30 days.

Clare Short: My hon. Friend is right. Those who say that the Bill is not practical and that the US is our great role model and ally seem to be unaware of those constitutional arrangements.

The Bill defines armed conflict as armed conflict to which the Geneva convention and its protocols apply. The Library briefing discusses whether that is the best definition and whether Parliament wants the Bill to apply to peacekeeping operations, but it seems to me that those are points to consider in Committee. The principle behind the Bill is clear, and we can discuss the detail in Committee. In my view, Parliament should approve peacekeeping operations, but we should have a special procedure when rapid deployment is required.

I welcome the formation of the EU rapid deployment force, which will particularly help with peacekeeping in Africa. That force should be capable of rapid deployment, in which case the matter should come before Parliament after deployment. We can discuss the definition and whether it requires modification when we get the help of parliamentary counsel, in order to ensure that we get the handling of peacekeeping operations right.

The accountability of the Executive to Parliament is an important democratic principle that should surely be extended to the making of war. Having recently lived through the decision to go to war in Iraq, we owe it to our armed forces and the reputation of our country to put in place arrangements that will ensure that a decision to go to war is more thoroughly considered.

Mr. David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): Although I respect the right hon. Lady's concerns about parliamentary approval and proper scrutiny, is there not a concern that this Bill and this debate will become a Trojan horse for voicing disapproval about going to war in Iraq? The real problem is not the current constitutional powers, but how the Prime Minister applies them and abuses them.

Clare Short: The issue behind the Bill is wider than Iraq, but we have all had recent experience of the route to war in Iraq. The informality of the way in which the decisions were made, which the Butler report fully documents, is worrying—decisions are not well made when they are made informally. Some things are so important that one needs papers, formal decision making and wide consultation in order to reach the best possible decision.

The hon. Gentleman is wrong to suggest that the Bill does not address the profound constitutional and democratic principle of the accountability of the
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Executive to Parliament. As I have said, we need procedures that will ensure that decisions are better made in future, because we cannot leave it to the personality of an individual Prime Minister to adopt suitable procedures. My experience over the years is that, as power concentrates in No. 10 Downing street and the Prime Minister's office, successive Governments build on that concentration of power. Executives like power to be concentrated in their hands, and it is the duty of Parliament to restrain that. That is the story of Parliaments across the world throughout time, and it is the role that we should ensure that we play today.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): The right hon. Lady says that we owe this measure to the armed forces. I was in Iraq in early March this year, and I was surprised by the number of senior officers who volunteered to tell me that they questioned the legal authority for participation in the war. The Bill would go some distance towards repaying what we owe them.

Clare Short: I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman. I have read in the press—I do not know about it personally—that a decorated soldier, having read the leaked legal opinion, is refusing to serve and is being court-martialled. We should not be putting our troops in such situations; it is appalling that any serving officer should feel so worried that he has to refuse to go back to Iraq and therefore be court-martialled.

It is our duty to put in place arrangements that ensure that the decision to go to war is more thoroughly considered. The requirement for parliamentary approval for the deployment of the armed forces in conflict would improve our democracy and the quality of our decision making.

In conclusion, it is notable that the latest state of the nation poll carried out by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust in 2004 says that 83 per cent. of the people of this country agreed that

and that just 16 per cent. thought that

10.1 am

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I congratulate the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short) on introducing this enormously important Bill. Contrary to what the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes) said, it is not an opportunity to rehash the arguments for and against the war in Iraq—it concerns an important constitutional issue.

The experience of having gone through the decision-making process that led to the conflict in Iraq is bound to colour the views of those Members who were party to that decision. I do not believe that anyone who was in the House during the last Parliament will forget the debate that we had in March 2003 and the level of responsibility that fell on our shoulders in making our decision in the vote that led young men and women to be sent in support of this country on a military expedition. As the right hon. Lady says, no more
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difficult decision can be placed on any politician, whether in Parliament or in the Executive: it is literally a matter of life and death.

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