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There are questions about definition, which need to be considered seriously in Committee and on Report. As I said earlier, we no longer have simple declarations of war. Things have moved on a little since Henry VIII. Many academics argue that there will never be a declaration of war again and that we now engage in conflict within the parameters of United Nations resolutionsor otherwise. The same goes for peacekeeping or peacemaking expeditions. Many conflicts fall short of a declaration of war by one state on another, so we must therefore explore the required definition in Committee, but that is no reason for opposing Second Reading.
The worst argument against the Bill is that the House might disagree with the Executive. That is our right as a Parliament. If the Executive cannot command the support of the House, they have no business sending forces into conflict. It is inconceivable that that should happen.
There is much to be said for the Bill. It brings our constitution up to date and sets down what will increasingly, and necessarily, be the practice. It has the huge advantage of conferring legitimacy on actions that Her Majesty's forces take and would ensure that the legal advice on which action is taken came before the House. The latter is controversial in the context of the Iraq conflict, but there is a deficiency in the Attorney-General's job description. I believe that the Attorney-General has a duty to the country as well as to the Executive in providing advice, and especially to the Crown in Parliament. That means giving advice to the elected House.
It is important to forces in the field that they have a prior indication of support from the House. Support after the beginning of a conflict is different. Those of us who strongly oppose the deployment of our forces will not oppose the interests of our troops in the field because they are our sons and daughters, our families and our friends who are in danger, acting on behalf of this country. Of course we support them in the field but we may have grave doubts about the wisdom and the correctness of their being deployed.
The measure is supported by a wide range of hon. Members, including senior members of the Government and previous members of the Government. One only wishes that Robin Cook were here to lend his support in person.
I am in a pleasant position because the Bill reflects my party's policy. Although it is a private Member's Bill, I have no hesitation in asking my hon. Friends to support it. I hope that all hon. Members will support it because it concerns Parliament asserting its rights in a democracy and affirming the fact that it speaks for the people of Britain. If Parliament is not prepared to make that assertion, one wonders what it is for.
Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab):
I promise not to take long, but I want to put on the record my thanks to the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short) for bringing forward this Bill, which is long overdue. I want to pick up where the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) left off: who wants the Bill? The former Leader of the Opposition, the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), wants it. Lord Hurd,
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the former Conservative Foreign Secretary, wants it. Our friend and former colleague, the late Robin Cook, wants it. The Foreign Secretary, I suspect, wants it, because my friend from Ladywood quoted his remarks from way back in 1994. He said that the
Who else is for the Bill and the principles behind it? The Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr. Brown), who could become the next Prime Minister, is in favour. So who is against? The Prime Minister is against the Bill. Iraq is like a ball and chain round his ankle, and he cannot bear the thought of prime ministerial powers being fettered in this way, but it will happen.
I want to put the Government's position on the record. We discussed the issue of the royal prerogative in the Public Administration Committee in 2004, producing a good, considered report and spending a long time on it. It bears reading and re-reading. The Government responded to our report, which recommended that parliamentary approval should be sought, if possible, in advance of armed conflict, but if that were not possible, as soon afterwards as may be, by saying this:
"The Government's view is that the pragmatic approach, allowing the circumstances of Parliamentary scrutiny to reflect the circumstances of the armed conflict, continues to be the more effective approach."
Why is this Bill needed? I will tell the House why. Because of the chaotic system of decision making in the run-up to the war. If parliamentary approval had been necessary, members of the Cabinet would have got involved, rather than acting as a kind of stage armywheeled into No. 10, given a few PowerPoint presentations and being told by the Prime Minister, no doubt, "If you knew what I know; if you could see what comes across my desk." All that kind of stuff.
If members of the Cabinet had insisted that the papers that had been prepared by the civil service be circulated in advance, that would have made a difference. InsteadI do not want to be offensiveit was like turnips round the table, with no one asking the simple, obvious questions. I think we still have a Minister without Portfolio. Have we? Well, the Minister without Portfolio should be charged with the task of asking simple and obvious questions in Cabinet. We need that.
My friend from Ladywood famously told the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Andrew Turnbull, that he allowed the decision-making structures to crumble on his watch. I am not going to rerun the history of Iraq, but this is relevant: she went on to say that the Cabinet Sub-Committee that deals with defence and foreign policy did not meet in the run-up to the war.
Now, we had Sir Andrew Turnbull in front of the Select Committee and I put that to him. I said, "Clare Short alleges that the defence and foreign policy
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Committee did not meet in the run-up to the war in Iraq. Is that true?" He said, "No, not really." He was very economical with the truth. He went on to say, "But the Cabinet discussed it on 24 occasions." Of course they did not discuss it; there were no papers circulated. It was the Prime Minister just giving a little update on what he thought was relevant.
So, that is why we need the Bill. I have no confidence at all in the Cabinet being fully engaged if there was a problem in Iran, for example. Of course, there are some things about this that I still find absolutely incredible. The Prime Minister was famously ignorant of whether the weapons of mass destruction were strategic or battlefield. That is absolutely, literally incredible.
Mr. Prentice: I am coming on to that. I just want to say that I asked the current Cabinet Secretary whether the decision-making procedures that lie behind thisreasons for introducing the Bill, including the paper trails and the papers circulated to Cabinet Ministers beforehand
Mr. Prentice: I would like to speak about what the Public Administration Committee said about the prerogative powers. I mentioned earlier that the former Foreign Secretary, Lord Hurd, wanted a change. He told us that
"'there should at least be a convention' that 'where there is a substantial exercise involving sending people to kill and be killed on behalf of the country, then that should be with the consent, prior or at any rate immediate, of the House of Commons'."
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