Greg Mulholland (Leeds, North-West) (LD): Unlike the hon. Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt), I welcome the Bill; in fact I returned to the House especially to support it, having attended a south Asian earthquake fundraising event in Leeds yesterday evening.
If I may start by being so bold, and despite being from a different party, I must confess to having something of a soft spot for the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short).[Interruption.] I am blushing. I believe that she is one of a group of MPs from all parties who show real principle and passion in their parliamentary duties. I also share the right hon. Lady's passion for international development, the brief that I have just taken on for my party. I have to say that despite being from a different political background, I felt disappointment, disillusionment and dismay when she initially came out in favour of the war in Iraq. It was with a sense of relief, reassurance and not a little rejoicing with those of a similar mind on such issues that I greeted the news that she realised that she had been misled, had reached a mistaken conclusion and had the courage to admit that. It is very good to have her back doing what she does best.
I was not an MP at that time; indeed, I am here partly because of the decision to take this country into the disastrous war in Iraq. I shall make a rather surprising point now. To some extent I agree with the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) that the subject of this debate is not the decision to go to war in Iraqa decision that was always immoral, was always illegal and is now so sadly and obviously disastrous. The point underlying the Bill is that in a 21st-century democracy it is grotesque that the Prime Minister can take the nation to war without having to come to this place, the seat of our democracy, for approval.
I take exception to some of the arguments of the hon. Member for High Peak. The first is the idea that when presented with the evidence, which surely is the point, 659 MPs are not capable of making a sensible decision on war. That is an insult to the House. The suggestion that we cannot quickly respond to conflicts such as that in Rwanda is also an insult to the House. Those of us with humanitarian concerns would do so.
Clare Short: Just for the record, there was a UN operation in Rwanda, and the UK position at the Security Council was that the situation there was not genocidethe word was not used. The British Government's policy at that time was to call for a reduction in the size of the UN mission.
The hon. Gentleman suggested that those who are anti-war or pacifist are not valid participants in the proceedings of the House. That is a serious point. It
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suggests that Quakers should not become Members of the House. The hon. Gentleman should rethink those comments. I will now give way and let him answer.
Tom Levitt: Let me correct the record of what the hon. Gentleman said I said but patently did not. I said that the House should, perhaps, have had the power to consider whether we took part in military action in Rwanda alongside others, but we did not have the option because the Government of the day did not provide it. I am suggesting that the Bill should provide that, if it is to make progress.[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman said that I said that we should not have intervened.
Secondly, of course I am not saying that Quakers, pacifists and others should not be Members of the House. I was principally saying that 1 million people on a demonstration should not be cited as evidence in support of the Bill, when half of them may oppose its very principle, which is to control military action in any case, on the grounds that they would argue that there should never be any military action.
On Rwanda, the hon. Gentleman missed my point entirely. What I picked up from his comments was the suggestion that we could not respond quickly enough to such situations, not the question whether we should have a vote on the matter.
Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): I share the hon. Gentleman's admiration for the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short). She is indeed a lady of great principle who should be admired in all parts of the House.
Will the hon. Gentleman reflect on the point that he made a moment ago? Neither the hon. Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt) nor my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) were saying that Members of the House are not capable of understanding intelligence. The point being made is that, by definition, going to war is a decision based on intelligence, the disclosure of which would inevitably put at risk the security forces who gather that intelligence. It is not therefore possible to disclose the evidence that justifies the decision to go to war.
Greg Mulholland: The hon. Gentleman and I probably have different views about what the House should and should not consider. I think that we will have to agree to disagree. I will not be too forceful. I am glad that we are quite a long way apart from each other, should I get on the wrong side of the hon. Gentleman, because I have been advised that that would not be a wise thing to do.
The Prime Minister can take the decision to go to war without consulting this place, but that is not the only issue that arises from the use of the royal prerogative. Charter88 has drawn attention to other abuses of its use. I would not describe it in those terms, but I think that the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) used that word. For example, the country was taken into the Marrakesh agreement, which binds us into the general
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agreement on trades and services in the World Customs Organisation. I think that many of us would be strongly and passionately opposed to that.
I am a new Member. Since I came to the House a few months ago I have asked many times, "Why do we do things like this?" I am sick and tired of hearing the same answers"Because we do" or "Because we always have." That is not good enough in a 21st century democracy. In my opinion, one of the most dangerous things is to defend the use of the royal prerogative in terms of "Because we always have." Of the decisions that involve use of the royal prerogative, surely the decision to take this country to war is the most serious.
If I may widen the discussion, all this shows why we need a written constitution and a Bill of Rights. I ask all Members who feel passionately about this issue and similar issues to engage seriously in that wider discussion. Ultimately, we need a written constitution to stop the excesses of Prime Ministers such as Thatcher and Blair. I am sure that many Members on both sides of the House would agree.
We have all heard of the coalition of the willing. Given that there are principled Members such as the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood and many others who have bothered to be in the Chamber for a Friday sitting, we need to have a coalition of the enlightened. Let us bring the constitution up to date. Let us start by taking away from the Prime Minister the decision to take the country to war and returning it to this place.
Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow) (Lab): I am pleased to take part in the debate and to support my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short). As she said, I introduced an almost identical Bill during the previous Session. Unfortunately, I was not drawn anywhere near as high in the ballot as my right hon. Friend. Then, of course, the general election intervened. As a result, there was no real debate of my Bill. I recall that when I introduced my Bill in January it was assumed by many Members who spoke to me and by many outside the House that the only reason for it was opposition to the war in Iraq, and that no one could possibly support the Bill who had not been in opposition to that war.
That is completely untrue. There was no reason why someone who thought that the war in Iraq was justified should not support the Bill. Its origins were not purely that war. My hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice), who was a member of the Public Administration Committee, conducted an inquiry into the royal prerogative. It was an inquiry not just into the use of the royal prerogative in war, but went much wider than that. However, the use of the royal prerogative in that respect was one example that happened to coincide with others that some of us were concerned about and which we wished to take up.
I make no secret of the fact that my opposition to the war was one of the reasons for my interest in taking forward the Bill, but it was not the only one by a long
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stretch of the imagination. I think that it was in MarchI would have to check the datethat I raised questions arising from the Bill in Prime Minister's Question Time. In responding to me, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said that he could not foresee any future situation where a Prime Minister would go to war without a substantive vote in the House. He cited the vote on Iraq as an example.
I have two comments about that. The fact that the Prime Minister said what he did does not give any guarantees for the future. There will be other Prime Ministers, and maybe Prime Ministers of parties other than Labour. The fact that the current Prime Minister has said that, in his view, it would not be possible to enter into a conflict such as Iraq in future without a substantive vote does not amount to a guarantee.
My hon. Friend the Member for Pendle put his finger on the critical issue about the decision to go to war and the mechanisms used. If the Prime Minister believes that there should be a substantive vote in the future, it is worth noting that I have heard virtually no Members arguing that there should not be such a vote, whether before or after the event.