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Mr. Joyce: I am happy to intervene and I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. The point I was making is that Lord Hurd was in government for many years, but restrained himself from making that very point. Lord Hurd's point, if he had continued it, would be to put it in brackets at the end that he would be happy to have those powers as long as there was a Labour Government.

Mr. Prentice: I am trying to get away from all this tribal stuff.—[Laughter.] I find it very difficult, but I am doing my best. The Member for Richmond, Yorks—I see eye to eye with him as well—spoke to the Public Administration Committee on the royal prerogative.

The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): My hon. Friend has just quoted Lord Hurd with
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approval, saying that there should be a convention that there should be a vote. Does he support Lord Hurd saying that there should be a convention or does he support the Bill?

Mr. Prentice: I am coming on to the point about a convention.—[Interruption.] I am answering the Member's point. I am coming to whether the vote that we took on 17 March 2003 establishes a convention that renders the Bill introduced by the Member for Ladywood redundant or otiose.

The Member for Richmond, Yorks said that it

That is a former Conservative Leader of the Opposition. The fact is that parliamentary approval for military action is not required by law. That needs to change.

On the constitutional convention, an eminent person, Professor Rodney Brazier, advised the Public Administration Committee when we produced our report on ministerial prerogative, and he said something important:

He continued:

That is the reality.

Mr. Llwyd: May I support the hon. Gentleman's argument by saying that, allegedly, according to the Government, there was a convention that the Attorney-General's full opinion should not be disclosed, although that was proved to be wrong? This Bill would make sure that that opinion was also produced.

Mr. Prentice: That is a very powerful point. There are many good reasons for trying to get this Bill into Committee and on to the statute book. I have made my position clear, and I am sorry that I strayed out of order. This is an important issue, and it is too important for the arguments to descend to party political point scoring—I am not interested in that at all. I hope that the Bill is approved today, given a fair wind in Committee, and that it gets on to the statute book.

10.31 am

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet) (Con): May I echo immediately the sentiments expressed by the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice)—this is far too important an issue for party political point scoring. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short) on using her success in the ballot to bring forward such an important measure, which I shall certainly support for reasons that will quickly become clear.

When we come to this place, we are told, and should be told and reminded, that the first duty of government is the defence of the realm. That has always been
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paramount in the mind of the Government and the monarch, the Government and the constitutional democracy and of Parliament. This Bill changes none of that. The first duty of Parliament is also to hold the Prime Minister and the Government to account. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) reminded the House that the loyalty of our armed forces must be to Crown and country, not to the Prime Minister of the day. It is also right to remind ourselves that the Prime Minister of the day—of any day—is not our commander-in-chief or Head of State, as is the President of the United States of America. Today happens to be the 200th anniversary of the battle of Trafalgar, and the message that has echoed down the centuries from Admiral Lord Nelson that every man shall do his duty is not affected one iota by this Bill or any of its contents.

The right hon. Lady has brought forward the Bill at this time because of the circumstances surrounding the commencement of the most recent war in Iraq and because of the manner in which Parliament and the Government handled that issue. Parliament has been disturbed by the timing of the decision, which was not, many of us believe, even really taken by the British Government, and certainly not by the British Parliament, but most probably at a meeting at Camp David, some nine months before, between the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and the President of the United States. Parliament only found out about it later.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) said that Parliament debated the issue before troops were deployed. I do not wish to contradict him, but Parliament did not. The troops were deployed, although not committed to battle, well before Parliament had any say in the issue, and clearly, the timing of the manner in which this House and the other place are allowed to consider these issues is crucial.

Mr. Gray: My hon. Friend is right to pick me up in that troops were of course deployed in Kuwait prior to 18 March when the substantive debate took place in this House. There were, however, substantive debates on 25 November and 26 February, and on both occasions there were substantive votes in this place, the loss of either of which would have prevented the Prime Minister, politically, from taking us to war. He is therefore right that the third vote was after the deployment of troops, but the first two were not.

Mr. Gale: I stand mildly, but only mildly, corrected, because the fact is, as the right hon. Lady pointed out in her opening remarks, that under the royal prerogative, as it is currently abused—I use that word advisedly—the Prime Minister does not have to pay any attention to us. He or she can do what he or she likes, and clearly he did in this case. The timing of the information to Parliament is crucial.

Jon Trickett (Hemsworth) (Lab): Neither of the two motions on 25 November 2002 and 26 February 2003 refers to deployment or armed conflict; they both refer to United Nations resolutions. Does not that invalidate the point that the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) was making?

Mr. Gale: With respect to the hon. Gentleman, what matters is how and when Parliament, in both its Houses,
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is consulted. This Bill makes provision for urgency. Clearly, nothing can be allowed to fetter the Government of the day in their urgent need to offer immediate response to a threat to the security of the United Kingdom's shores. There is provision in the Bill for a swift but nevertheless retrospective discussion of any such deployment or commitment to action. We must all understand that those responsible for such decisions need to be able to respond in time rather than too late, under certain circumstances—they cannot hang around waiting for us to take a vote.

The information that was given to the House was, shall we say, less than adequate, and perhaps slightly misinformed. As a result, the House was misinformed. A number of Conservative Members, prior to the vote on the Iraq war, were deeply concerned, as I am sure all hon. Members were. We asked to see the then leader of our party, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith), and the then shadow Foreign Secretary, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram). Some 15 or 20 Members were present in the shadow Cabinet room, and we were told in terms by a soldier, the leader of our party and an entirely honourable man that he had been satisfied, on Privy Council terms, by the information given to him by the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, that the security of our country was at 45 minutes' risk and that there were weapons of mass destruction. That was the information that he had been given, we had to trust him, and we did, because we had no other recourse. It turns out that not only the information that we were given but that he had been given was mildly inaccurate.

This is about the royal prerogative—the abuse of the royal prerogative. There are those outside this place who do not really understand the system, any more than some of us did before we began to look into this issue, and who believe that to trample over the royal prerogative is somehow to be rude to Her Majesty the Queen. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Her Majesty has nothing to do with this. This is about whether, in this day and age—as the right hon. Lady said in her opening remarks—the manner in which the royal prerogative can be used and abused by any Government and any Prime Minister is appropriate; and the answer has to be no.

What we seek, and what the Bill seeks, is a clear system that lays down in statutory terms—not by convention, if I may use the word employed by the Leader of the House—the right of Parliament to be informed and to hold the Government to account. As the hon. Member for Pendle said, if the Prime Minister or the Government—any Prime Minister or any Government—must come to the House and make the case, you can bet your sweet bippy that the work will be done properly in advance, and the real argument will be given to the House because the House will have to be persuaded.

I have a personal interest in this matter, on behalf of a constituent. On Wednesday, the right hon. Lady gave a number of bereaved families an opportunity to call at Downing street to present a letter, and to make their views known. One of the ladies there was Ann Lawrence, whose son Lieutenant Marc Lawrence, a naval aviator—my young constituent—was one of the first of our serving men to be killed in the conflict, when
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two helicopters collided in the Gulf. She and her family have felt passionately since that happened that they deserve, and are being denied, answers.

When, as has been the case more than once in the House—I would guess that this is true of all Members—I am required to vote on whether to send our finest young men, and sometimes women, into battle, to face the possibility and in some instances the inevitability of death, I do not do so lightly. I am blessed with three children. Not one of them is in the armed forces, but all three are of military age. Before I vote on such an issue, I ask myself whether I would be prepared to allow my daughter or my sons to go into that conflict for that cause. Is it just? Is it legal? Is it right? I must be satisfied that the answer is yes; and I am dismayed to find that in the case of the most recent conflict—with hindsight—the answer is probably no.

Parliament must be given the right to determine "just" and "legal". That is in the interests of our armed forces, the men and women whom we send into battle to do our dirty work for us—for that is what it is—and in the interests of the bereaved families. It ensures that the people whom they loved can rest in peace, and that they themselves can rest in peace.

It will, I am sure, be said by Ministers, and possibly by some of my hon. Friends, that the Bill is imperfect. Of course it is: it is a private Member's Bill. But as you know, Madam Deputy Speaker, I have on occasion worn another hat and presided over legislation in Committee, as you have done in the past. Over the last seven years, I have presided over a number of Government Bills that have been subject to, shall we say, modest amendment—to the tune of 300, 400 or 500 clauses. So do not let any Minister come to the House this morning and say that the Bill is flawed, and must therefore not be passed. The Bill needs and deserves a Second Reading. I believe that the country wants it, and I hope that the country gets it.

10.44 am

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