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David Wright : Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to think about other areas, such as our commitment to fellow NATO countries? The NATO stipulation is that if one of us is attacked, we are all attacked. That was the basis on which we took action against the Taliban regime in Afghanistanone of our NATO allies was attacked by a group of terrorists sponsored by the regime in power in Afghanistan. There are difficult technical issues around what constitutes self-defence, particularly in the NATO context.
Mr. Khan: My hon. Friend makes a good point, and I draw his attention to clause 10, dealing with interpretation, which seeks to define armed conflict. I agree that clause 8 is worthy of more discussion and debate in Committee because there is real concern, not just about multinational forces, such as NATO, but about peacekeeping forces and the role that they play. That will be worth considering in Committee once the Bill's drafters have the expert advice that has been so useful on other Bills.
The objection has been made that we will lose the element of surprise. I hope that that has been rebutted by examples of previous conflicts in which there clearly has been no element of surprise, but it is also rebutted by the Bill's retrospective provisions. Other concerns have been expressed by colleagues. I hope that as a new Member I am not being too arrogant by making this point, but I do not accept that the House of Commons is not equipped to make decisions as important as whether we should go to war.
The third main objection to the Bill, with which I disagree profoundly, is that it might encourage our Prime Minister or a Secretary of State to mislead the House because they would have to come here to justify their actions. Another objection to the Bill was that it could have an impact on advice given by an Attorney-General.
Mr. Gray: Does the hon. Gentleman agree with the broad principle that the distrust and disaffection in the political process that he described earlier has come about as a result of the activities leading up to the Iraq warthe dossier and all the misleading that occurredwhen there was a vote, but that in previous wars such as Afghanistan, nobody distrusted what the Prime Minister was doing? They trusted him, or her, and went along with the decision. It is only because the Prime Minister had to come to the House and ask for a vote that he got involved in the dossiers, the spinning and deceit that have led to the disaffection that the hon. Gentleman described.
No, I do not agree at all. The public question the role of the House and they question what the people they elect to Parliament do. If they see their elected representatives deciding how the armed forces are to be deployed, that may help to make us more legitimate.
21 Oct 2005 : Column 1133
Recently, I had the joy of re-reading Robin Cook's diary, "The Point of Departure". One of the reasons that it is crucial for statutory force to be given to the precedent established by the Iraq war is that, although on that occasion members of the Cabinet and a principled Leader of the House were determined to allow democratically elected representatives an active role in deciding whether our armed forces should be involved in the conflict, that may not always be the case. The Bill would enshrine constitutional safeguards leading to transparency, which would mean that we would not need to be dependent on the generosity or beliefs of those occupying the top positions in the Executive, but that irrespective of their personalities and beliefs, we and the other placeto be reformed, I hope, before too longwould have the right to debate and decide on the declaration of war and the use of our armed forces in an armed conflict. That must be a good thing, which is why I shall support Second Reading.
John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD): I congratulate the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short) on bringing this well thought-out and straightforward Bill to the House. Too much that comes before us is too complicated, but this measure hits the nail on the head. It is a matter of life and death: it is about who takes the decision to take this country to war.
I have listened closely to all the speeches, but I am still waiting to hear a substantial argument against the principle of the Bill. There has been much concern about the fine detail but, as the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan) said, that can be dealt with in Committee.
One of the arguments against the Bill was that it would encourage the Prime Minister to produce dodgy dossiers. We need to hear a stronger argument against the Bill than that if the measure is to fall.
As several hon. Members said, we missed the participation of the late Member for Livingston, Robin Cook. He would have been pleased about the Bill and I am sure that, if he is looking down on us, he will have been impressed by many of the speeches made in favour of it, although some of the content of the speeches against it might have brought that quizzical look to his face.
The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood mentioned public engagement and the opinion polls, including the Rowntree poll that found that 83 per cent. of people were against the Prime Minister taking such decisions on his own. At that time, I was speaking to the political society of Fettes college in my constituency, the Prime Minister's old school. On that evening, I launched an opinion poll in my constituency that asked, "Do you agree that the entire British Parliament, rather than the Prime Minister alone, should have the final say on whether our country goes to war?" The answers were, "Don't know", 2.4 per cent.; no, 6.4 per cent.; and yes, 91.2 per cent.
The details can be considered in Committee, but I want to mention one of them: the expected geographical extent of participation, which is important for a number of reasons. We have heard a number of comments about the position in the United States. I spoke to a number of Congressmen in Washington after the war had started. They were told that they would not be given the fine detail of the information and intelligence that was available, but that the President knew and they should trust him that war was about to break out. They told me that they thought that they were going to invade Syria.
Adam Price (Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr) (PC): Is not one reason for being specific in parliamentary resolutions precisely to avoid the kind of mission creep that has afflicted many of those military adventures?
John Barrett: I agree that it is vital to be specific, but I refer back to my intervention on the hon. Member for Angus (Mr. Weir). When we are dealing with possible conflicts based on intelligence, there is time for reflection. The question of surprise has long since gone when the troops are amassing. However, the Bill deals with the fact that an immediate response would be necessary if we were under attack.
David Wright: How would the hon. Gentleman respond to the point about the geographical context that I made in an earlier intervention? He may recall that I made the point about the first Gulf war. When we liberated Kuwait, certainly US paratroops and, I think, some British forces were dropped into southern Iraq to ensure that forces could not come through Iraq into Kuwait to strengthen the Iraqis that were there and to cut off the lines of retreat. Is he suggesting that we should have had a specific resolution in the House that troops would only go into Kuwait and not deploy themselves strategically across the region?
John Barrett: I am not suggesting that at all. It is obvious that, when refuelling and other stops on the way to the conflict are needed, other parts of the world will be involved. However, the broad principle of the decision should be made in the House, not by the Prime Minister on his own, and three groups of people would benefit: first, the British public; secondly, our servicemen and women; and, thirdly, Parliament itself. I shall return to that point in more detail.
Mr. Joyce: On the benefit to service personnel, if we were to make a retrospective agreement or legislation that an action had authority and was therefore legal, troops could carry out actions in positions where it was not necessarily legal for them to be when they were doing them. We can imagine Tommy Atkins getting to the end of his fight and asking his platoon sergeant, "Is this a legal action?" and his platoon sergeant saying, "Not yet, mate, but don't worrythey'll probably legislate to make it legal in a few weeks' time."
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