Mr. Gerrard: I think that the hon. Gentleman would acknowledge that the majority of Members who have taken part in the debate so far, and the majority of Members generally, judging by the numbers who have signed early-day motions about the Bill, would agree that there should be substantive votes.
If there are to be such substantive votes, what matters is the mechanism. My hon. Friend the Member for Pendle raised some important issues about the mechanisms by which the decisions were taken on Iraq. If we are to have substantive votes on decisions about armed conflict, it makes all sorts of sense that the mechanism for those substantive votes are laid down in the way that the Bill does, and are not left to be decided by convention or precedent, which can change, when some future Government or Minister decide they do not like it and so adopt a different method. That is the really important function of the Bill. It sets down the mechanism by which those substantive votes have to be taken.
Some of the opposition that I have heard seems to ignore the facts of what has happened in recent years on armed conflicts. Iraq is the only conflict that I can think of that we have been involved in where it could be said that it was intelligence driven. That certainly has not been true of other conflicts in the past 20 years. Kosovo certainly was notand may I say in response to a point made earlier that there was some opposition on action in Kosovo, although there was never a vote on a substantive motion; the debates on Kosovo all took place on motions on the Adjournment of the House, and, by certain recourse, some hon. Members obtained Divisions on such motions artificially to express their opposition to what was happening in Kosovo. I think that there were five debates on the Falklands, all on a motion on the Adjournment of the House. But there have been other cases, going back to 1950 and Korea, and then the first Gulf war, where there were votes on
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substantive motions within a few days of the action commencing. Iraq was unusual in that there was a substantive motion before the action started.
We all talk about going war, but in reality declaration of war does not happen, or certainly seems very unlikely to happen again. There has not been a formal declaration of war for a long, long time by this country or by many other countries. It is important that it is still covered within the Bill, because it could happen, but that is not the reality of the way in which military action generally happens now.
I certainly do not buy arguments that say that that would take away elements of surprise. I am sure that Saddam Hussein was really surprised when military action started, and that it was a surprise when our forces went into Kosovo or Afghanistan.
David Wright: My hon. Friend will recall that I joined him in the Lobby against the war in Iraq, but I am concerned about the geographical context for a conflict. He will remember that in the first Gulf war we did not invade just Kuwait in order to liberate Kuwait. Troops were put into southern Iraq at that time in order to liberate Kuwait. If we are to give a geographical area for parliamentary approval, is not that very dangerous? Would he envisage us giving perhaps a regional perspective in terms of conflict? I just want to clarify the situation.
Mr. Gerrard: I understand my hon. Friend's point, and it is perfectly valid because it is mentioned in the Bill. This is a point that could be explored in Committee if it was felt that the measure was drawn too widely, but I would not expect the report to Parliament that clause 2 demands to be so narrowly drawn as to prevent any flexibility in action. We are all realistic enough to know that we cannot be prescriptive about future military action. The point is valid, and perhaps we can explore it in Committee.
I entered this House in 1992 and can recall debates about Bosnia and Rwanda in which hon. Members suggested that intervention should take place and the Government resisted those suggestions. Perhaps the Bill should be amended in Committee to allow Back Benchers to propose to the Government that military action should take place.
Meg Hillier (Hackney, South and Shoreditch) (Lab/Co-op): Will my hon. Friend outline his thoughts about the definition of self-defence? In an international environment, action against British troops or British civilians might lead to self-defence in another part of the world. The definition is key, and I am keen to hear his thoughts.
Mr. Khan: Is it not the case that if there were a situation in which our troops had to act illegally for operational reasons, we could retrospectively make it lawful by voting in favour of the action taken previously? In the case raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), for example, the force involved might not qualify for legal self-defence under clause 8, in which case this House could retrospectively make the action lawful.
Mr. Gerrard: I am wary of going too far down the retrospective line. Clause 4 covers retrospection when the Executive take an urgent decision. If British forces were attacked, however, they would unquestionably have the right to self-defence under clause 8 without any worries about parliamentary approval.
Mr. Dismore: Clause 8 does not say thatit says that people may defend themselves, but only if the conditions that it sets out are satisfied. If an armed conflict is not lawful in the first place, any orders given would not be lawful commands. Alternatively, the rules of engagement might not be sufficiently broad to deal with a situation in which troops must defend themselves immediately, in which case any action taken in self-defence would not be lawful.
Mr. Hoon: My hon. Friend raises an interesting problem. When a situation is deteriorating, which is not uncommon when troops are deployed for peacekeeping purposes, those troops may then be attacked. I accept that the Bill appears to allow them to defend themselves, but as soon as they do so, are they not engaged in an armed conflict, and would that not involve the Government coming back to the House to seek the kind of resolution that the Bill requires? Surely that is impractical in the context of troops deployed in the field.
Mr. Dismore: I will give my hon. Friend an example. The Dutch troops in Srebrenica were not prepared to defend themselves. They were worried about their rules of engagement and stood aside, allowing the massacre of thousands of people to take place, because they were petrified that under international law they would not be found to be defending themselves lawfully.
Mr. Gerrard: Is not there then all the more reason that before sending troops into the situation there is discussion in this House and support for what happens? In the case of Bosnia, the question of intervention and sending troops was frequently raised in this place.
The situation that the Leader of the House positsa peacekeeping operation where things
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deteriorated and there was a need for soldiers to defend themselvesis covered by clause 8. If they get into a position of military conflict, that would be covered by the Bill's provisions on urgent action. The Government would give instructions and it would be properly done, and it would be brought before the House later. The situation is completely provided for in the Bill.
Members have raised the issues of urgency and self-defence, as well as situations where the two might become conflated. We need to get it right, but I believe that that can be achieved and that there is nothing in the Bill that could not be amended if necessary. Clearly, we would not want to put troops in a position where they feel that they are behaving illegally. The point about the Dutch troops in Srebrenica is very important. We do not want British troops to get into a position where they are standing by as people are being massacred. If there is a clause that would genuinely allow that, we need to amend it.