I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will want to give the House the full picture on the War Powers Act. First, he will know that it is the subject of considerable legal controversy in the United States as to
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the extent of its application. Secondly, American forces have been deployed on several occasions without resort to that legislation.
Mr. Weir: The Leader of the House is correct. There is a great deal of dispute as to the constitutionality of the War Powers Act, partly due to the fact that President Nixon tried to veto it. Nevertheless, in the run-up to the war in Iraq, as I understand it, the President adhered to the War Powers Act, went to Congress and spoke to both parties in Congress prior to doing so. The United States Congress passed the War Powers Act in the first place because the US had got bogged down in undeclared war in Vietnam, which raised a great deal of concern. Many Members of the House, looking at the current situation in Iraq, can also have a great deal of concern.
Mr. Gray: The hon. Gentleman is repeating a point made earlier in the debate about the difference between the United States and the United Kingdom. Does he accept that there is a fundamental, constitutional difference: the President of the United States is not a member of Congress or answerable to Congress, whereas the Prime Minister is a Member of the House, and if he does something wrong, he can be chucked out, whereas the President cannot?
Mr. Weir: That point does not make a great deal of difference. Ultimately, either the President or the Prime Minister can declare war, and under the War Powers Act, the President is answerable to Congress, subject to the dispute about that. As has been rightly pointed out, the President can end up being impeached if he does not do what he is supposed to do.
There has been a great deal of debate about clause 2 on the report relating to proposed participation and the expected geographical extent of that participation. A point was raised as to whether the geographical extent should be more generally stated, but it must be fairly specific, because if the report were to say, "We will take action in the middle east", that could cause an awful lot more problems than it solves. Furthermore, nothing in the Bill says that the duration of the conflict must be stated to the day, as has been suggested. It is the expected duration, such as six months or a year, that is required, and we all accept that the duration might go beyond that. There is no particular problem there.
The most compelling argument that I heard against the Bill is that the flexibility of rapid response and the element of surprise in launching operations would be compromised. As a Member representing a military installation and many servicemen, that gives me some concern. Such arguments are not valid, however. The Bill does not seek to control each and every part of a military operation. It recognises specifically that speed might be essential in certain situations, and that a parliamentary debate will therefore take place after such action has commenced. Again, such provisions are very similar to those of the American War Powers Act.
John Barrett : Does the hon. Gentleman agree that when a war is based on intelligence, time for consideration and reflection is absolutely vital, whereas speed is of the essence when we are under attack?
I agree. Obviously, if the United Kingdom or any part of it were under attack, action would be
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taken. History shows us, however, that the United Kingdom is not normally subject to sudden surprise attacks. The road to war is often long and tortuous.
During the summer of 1939, in the period leading up to the second world war, there were numerous incidents and negotiations before the eventual outbreak of war. The hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) spoke of Mr. Chamberlain coming to the House and making a very brief statement. If I recall my history correctly, before that Chamberlain had given Germany an ultimatum for its withdrawal from Poland. Only after Germany refused to withdraw was war declared, and it was hardly a surprise when it came along.
It was clear for weeks before the Falklands war that the armed forces of the UK would try to retake the islands. Indeed, it took the fleet many weeks to steam south. More recentlyas the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) pointed outafter Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, the build-up of coalition forces took some time, and Saddam can have been in no doubt about what was intended. The same is true even of the current war in Iraq.
It is, perhaps, ironic that the campaign for the Bill was given a lift by opposition to that war. It is one of the few instances in which a vote did take place, but it is worth looking again at the terms of the motion. I draw attention particularly to these words:
I believe that if we are to send our armed forces into conflict, we must do so with the full backing of our democratic institutions, not on the basis of some vague notion of outdated royal prerogative, or an agreement between the President of the United States and the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. The Bill will reassure our armed forces that when they go to war they have the backing of Parliament. I think that that is the right thing to do, and I urge the House to accept the Bill.
Mr. Sadiq Khan (Tooting) (Lab): I rise with some nervousness following the reference by my hon. Friend the. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) to assassins. I am not sure whether the alleged victim would be the Bill, or any Member who spoke in favour of it.
Nevertheless, I think that the debate is important, and I welcomed what was said about trying to avoid party politics. I do not see the Bill as an anti-war bandwagon on to which people are jumping. As I said, I think that this debate is important, and it is important to me for a specific reason. Until recently, I had a proper job. Before I became a parliamentary candidate, I did not understand the public's distrust of politicians. The lack of trust in politicians, and in the legitimacy of the House and Parliament generally, is a real issue. I see the Bill, imperfect though it may be, as a way of reconnecting our constitution with those outside, and helping to restore trust in politics among a sceptical public.
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We hear allegations about Parliament being treated with contempt, or about a blurring of the separation of powers. Ironically, once perfected, the Bill could well help to rebut those allegations. I do not see the Iraq war debates as an excuse for the Bill, but I do think that they set a precedent. The hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) mentioned other precedents. As we heard again a few minutes ago, in 1939 the then Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, reported the declaration of war to Members of Parliament as an accomplished fact. Members have also mentioned the Korean war in the 1950s and the Gulf war of 1992. Having read a Library research paper, I understand that Members had a chance to vote on substantive motions only after troops had been deployed and hostilities begun. There may be some who say things have always been this way and we have always had the royal prerogative, so there is no reason to change it. We had slavery for a while as well, and we abolished that although things had been done that way for a long time. Notwithstanding what people say about our stance on child poverty, the fact that we have always had it is no reason why we should not try to battle it.
I do not necessarily see the Iraq debates and motions as an example of system failure that therefore justifies change, as some have argued. I see the war as an example of how the Bill will, in practice, not stop the Executive going to war if they want to. That is the irony in my contribution. I see in the debates around the war some examples of good practice, and by that I mean that between the recall of Parliament in September 2002 and the commencement of military action on 9 March 2003, there were four debates on Iraq and three substantive motions, although I hear the differences expressed about whether two of those motions were directly related to armed conflict. There were also 11 statements and a general debate on global defence. I do not necessarily say that the decision of the House would have been different had the Bill been passed before then, but the key players would have known at the outset what was required of them, and that clarity would have led to the transparency that the public deserve in the United Kingdom in 2005.
At the moment, there is no requirement on Ministers to let elected Members from all parts of the UK have a say in this House on deciding whether British armed forces should be deployed. The Bill makes explicit what was implicit in the 2003 decision by removing the war-making decision from prerogative powers and vesting the power in Parliament instead. Doing so will, incidentally, have even more legitimacy once we reform the House of Lords, and I ask colleagues on both sides to use their influence to ensure that the Joint Committee to do that is set up as soon as possible.
I accept that the Bill is not perfect, and flaws have already been identified. I am concerned about what will happen when special deployment forces are required. I am concerned about some definitions, about how we
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resolve conflicts between the Executive and the Commons and about the content of the report that will come to Parliament. I believe, with the greatest of respect to my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard), that clause 8 needs to be considered in respect of self-defence issues, because some concerns can be dealt with in Committee.