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David Wright: My hon. Friend might like to reflect on what would have happened when we sank the Belgrano. An exclusion zone was declared around the Falklands. Would he envisage the Prime Minister coming back to the House with a further report saying that the exclusion zone had been extended arbitrarily in order to sink the Belgrano? What procedure would have taken place in those circumstances?
Mr. Gerrard: That is an interesting point. If I remember correctly, the Belgrano was steaming away from the Falklandsan issue that was repeatedly pursued in this House afterwards. If a report to the House under the Bill was couched in terms as narrow as my hon. Friend suggests"This will be the exclusion zone"then that would clearly restrict action that could be taken, but I would be very surprised if it was that restrictive in terms of geographical location.
geography, duration and deployment. In the possible, or likely, event that the Prime Minister considered it inappropriate to give any such information, he would lay himself and others open to subsequent charges such as, "You never said that world war two would take six years", or "You never said that the Scots Guards"or whoever it was"would be deployed in Basra", which led to the unfortunate incident this morning with the roadside bombing. Is not the onus and the expectation being placed on the Prime Minister to release information, which, surely, is of most use to our enemies?
The hon. Gentleman suggests that that would cause problems. Yet whether the Bill exists or not, such questions will be asked of the Prime Minister. I am sure
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that they were asked at the time of the first Gulf war; they were asked during the Iraq war. Including information in a formal report to the House will not fundamentally change that.
Mr. Hoon: Let me give an example of how it would make a fundamental difference. The Bill could be subject to legal proceedings. We have all seen those who objected to military conflicts going to court and taking legal action. If the Bill were passed, the report could be subject to legal proceedings. Instead of the current straightforward position, whereby people accept that circumstances change and the Prime Minister or the Defence Secretary makes a statement on the Floor of the House to explain why they have changed, the Prime Minister would be required, at the risk of legal challenge, to change the terms of the report. Surely my hon. Friend does not advocate that.
Mr. Gordon Prentice: Is not it a fundamental part of our constitution that parliamentary proceedings cannot be challenged in the courts? That means that, if a Prime Minister presents a report along the lines that the Bill sets out, it will not be open to challenge in the courts.
Mr. Dismore: Let us suppose that the Prime Minister's report mentioned a specific geographical area or, perhaps more appropriately, a time limit for the expected duration of the conflict and that the House decided to authorise that. Let us then suppose that the conflict went on for a few days longer. That could be subject to judicial review on the ground that it was an unreasonable action by the Government. Not Parliament's decision, but the Government's interpretation of it, will be challenged. We will end up with judicial stalemate and scrutiny of our armed forces who are in the field.
Mr. Gerrard: It is ludicrous to suggest that such a report would specify a time limit and that there would be a challenge because the time limit had been exceeded by a few days. It is ludicrous to suggest that such reports would be couched in those terms. Nobody would expect a time limit to be specified.
David Lepper (Brighton, Pavilion) (Lab/Co-op):
Does my hon. Friend agree that the sort of points that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) made
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should be raised in Committee? Today, we are dealing with the broad principles of the measure. The detail can be debated in full in Committee. Perhaps some amendment will be needed to take account of the sort of objections that have been raised.
Mr. Gerrard: I do not object to that and, I am sure, neither does my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood. When such Bills are drafted, they are never perfect. It is ludicrous to start picking holes in one clause of a private Member's Bill when the Government table amendment after amendment to Government Bills.
When we are debating Government Bills, we are told time and again that we are supposed to discuss the principle on Second Reading. Those of us who sometimes have objections to some details within such Bills are approached by the party Whips, who say, "Look, that's the sort of thing that can be dealt with in Committee. If it's not put right in Committee, you can think again on Report or Third Reading, but please don't vote against the Bill on Second Reading, because you will destroy the principle of it." That is precisely what I am told by Ministers and Whips every single time I raise a query about the detail of a Government Bill.
Jon Trickett : On that very point, less than 48 hours ago I was approached by a member of the Government who asked me about my intentions on Second Reading of a forthcoming Bill. I said that I cannot possibly agree with people being held in prison for 90 days without judicial scrutiny. The point made was, "That's a matter for the Committee, isn't it, not for Second Reading?" Is not that precisely the same point? Maybe I now ought to say that I must vote against Second Reading, which was not my intention.
Mr. Dismore: My hon. Friend has a reputation in the House for independent thinking. On how many occasions when the Whips have approached him in such a way has he listened to them, and how many times has he ignored them and voted against Second Reading?
The discussion of a Bill on Second Reading very much involves the question of the basic principles, so let us get back to the serious points made earlier by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood and my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle, who talked about the democratic principles involved here.
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That is the key as to what the debate is about: do we want to continue to have no guarantee whatever that this place will even be consulted about troops going into action before that important decision is made, never mind have a vote? That is where we are now. We do not even have any right to be consulted. We ought to be saying that we should have a vote. That is what the Bill is about.
Mr. Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): On behalf of the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru, I first congratulate the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short) on introducing this excellent Bill, which we will certainly support.
Quite why the power to wage war is, in a democracy, vested in the Prime Minister rather than the democratic Parliament is a mystery to me. The Library note on the subject starts by making this admission:
The royal prerogative is very much a throwback to an earlier agethat of the absolute monarch, where the state and the monarch were regarded as much the same thing. Louis XVI said, "I am the state." And we know what happened to him. Perhaps in past centuries, the concept made some sense, but all actions, wars or military matters are very much political. Generally, they are played out not by one state, but by an alliance of states. Thinking back, the only recent example I can recall of the UK going to war on its own is the Falklands conflict. Each and every other conflict came under the auspices of the United Nations, NATO or some other alliance. The royal prerogative is very much a fig leaf for the Government, and it would be much more appropriate for the democratic Parliament to debate and decide such matters.
Indeed, that is not a particularly novel concept. The President of the United States may get his instructions on a direct line to God, but he is none the less required, under the War Powers Act 1973, to take the matter to Congress in a process not unlike what is envisaged under the Bill.
"The War Powers Resolution requires regular consultation with Congress in contemplating military action, written notification within 48 hours of such action, with its 'estimated scope or duration', and congressional consent through either a declaration of war or 'specific statutory authorisation'. If such approval is not granted within 60 days, the President is supposed to withdraw US forces within a further 30 days."
Obviously, that gives Congress, the democratically elected Parliament of the United States, a great deal of power, at least in principle, when the United States goes to war. It is interesting to note that just as the Government seem to oppose giving up the royal prerogative, the American War Powers Act was passed over the veto of President Nixon.
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