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Mr. Keetch: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Siobhain McDonagh: The hon. Gentleman has said a great deal, and I want to give other hon. Members an opportunity to join in.

What message would that have sent out to all the men and women who are so brave and have to go through what Alf had gone through?

Vince Romagnuolo joined the RAF in 1977 and spent nearly seven years working for the tactical communications unit, which worked closely with Harrier jets and helicopters to provide landing strips in battle zones such as the Falklands. Those enabled the air force to provide its air cover for our troops in any action and gave the flexibility needed on a modern battlefield. Vince was mainly based in Brize Norton and Germany when the cold war was raging—a time when we had powerful enemies who would very much enjoy knowing more about our military plans. Vince is a strong Labour party supporter. He believes that men and women in the forces might be put in danger if every action had to have a detailed substantive parliamentary vote and the military lost some of its flexibility to make decisions.

Vince said: "We need clear leadership, and I am happy for this to come through the Prime Minister and the Cabinet. It's good to have broad parliamentary approval, but it would be destabilising to the troops if it was not clear who was in charge. It would sow uncertainty in people's minds and could undermine the chain of command." Worst of all, he was worried that troops would feel less safe if their role was not clear. He said: "It could give succour to the enemy if they knew that everything you were going to do was going to be debated from the safety of the House of Commons later. That could lead to more attacks on you and would make you feel less safe."
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When push comes to shove, it is unfair on ordinary people in our armed forces—people such as Bert, Alf and Vince and thousands of others across the country—if there is no clear chain of command. We do not know what the next conflict will be, where it will be, or how it will develop once it is under way. In those situations, we need to give the Government the room to govern. Of course Parliament should always be involved—we should always be consulted whenever possible—and I cannot imagine a time when we are not included in the broad aims of any conflict. However, we cannot allow the Bill to pass. We do not know what the precise specifications of every conflict that ever happens will be, and we certainly cannot know what will happen when those conflicts are under way. We cannot put our troops in the position of not knowing whether they would get retrospective approval for any actions that they had to take beyond what Parliament had already agreed. We cannot undermine them in that way.

We sit here, in the comfort and rarefied atmosphere of these green Benches in this beautiful city. How can we know what it is like on the battlefield? How dare we deign to tell our fighting men and women whether they were right to do what they did after they, in all good faith, have already fought and died?

Yes, some of us feel bad about Iraq; some were even in the Government when that decision was made. I think that deposing a murderous tyrant such as Saddam Hussein and introducing democracy to that part of the world was the right thing to do. I know that some people disagree. However, we cannot start changing the law for every future conflict because we feel guilty about how we behaved in the last one. We cannot constrain our troops by telling them, "You fight now—we'll decide whether you were right to fight later." We cannot tie their hands behind their backs. We have to stop thinking about ourselves and start thinking about the brave men and women in Mitcham and Morden and elsewhere.

1.18 pm

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): My heart is very much behind the sentiments of the Bill but my head tells me that it is an unworkable proposition. It is so badly drafted, from the long title to the commencement clause, as to be fatally flawed and not worthy of receiving a Second Reading. It is a recipe for indecision and parliamentary stalemate, and for judicial intervention in matters that are rightly for the Government. It could endanger the lives of our service personnel and has the potential to criminalise our armed forces under domestic and international law.

We have heard a lot today about the war in Iraq—old arguments that we have debated many times. However, this is not about Iraq—it is about the potential future commitment of our armed forces. It is inconceivable, given the way in which the conventions have developed over the years, that any Prime Minister would willingly commit our country to war without the support of this House expressed in an Adjournment debate or a vote such as that which we had on the war in Iraq. It is inconceivable that our Prime Minister could have continued if that vote had gone against him and—I go further—if a majority of Government Members had not voted for the Government's resolution.
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What difference would the Bill have made to the war in Iraq? It would have made no difference to the way in which the debates have continued in the House. I doubt that the criteria for which clause 2 provides would have made a difference to the information that the Prime Minister and the Government laid before the House. The dossier, whether it was criticised or not, would have been the same. The legal advice from the Attorney-General, brief or full, would have been the same. Exactly the same information would have been presented to the House. In presenting the Bill, I suspect that there is an element of sour grapes on the part of those who lost the vote.

David Howarth: The hon. Gentleman began by saying that the Bill would have all sorts of terrible consequences. Now he appears to argue that it would have no consequences. Which is it?

Mr. Dismore: If the Bill had been in force at the time of the Iraq war, it would have made no difference. I shall go on to elaborate, in some detail, that the Bill could have serious implications for any future conflicts. It would have made no difference to the proceedings in the House on the Iraq war, save that the motion would have had be presented to the House because of the Bill, not because the Government rightly saw fit to do so.

Mr. Llwyd: One difference is that we would have seen the full opinion of the Attorney-General. I gather from many Labour Members that their opinion would have changed if they had read that document.

Mr. Dismore: I take issue with the hon. Gentleman on that. Clause 2(b) provides for presenting

It does not state "the opinion of the Attorney-General". It provides only for the legal basis. The one page—inadequate as it may have been; I was satisfied with it at the time—would have been enough to comply with the requirements of clause 2(b). The Bill gets one no further.

However, the measure could have criminalised the actions of our special forces, who, I am sure, were operating in Iraq before the vote. I believe that was right for two reasons: first, to undertake the reconnaissance and intelligence gathering, which provided part of the information that the House needed to make its decision; secondly, to prepare the ground for any future action. Special forces also ensured that important steps were taken to prevent any pre-emptive action by Saddam Hussein, which would have made things even worse. If the Bill had been in force, our special forces could have been committing criminal acts as individuals because their actions would have been unlawful.

David Wright: My hon. Friend will recall that, in the first Gulf war, SAS troops were deployed in Iraq to intercept Scud missiles that could have been used against Israel and coalition forces before Kuwait was retaken. Examples are found not only in the second Gulf war but in other conflicts of special forces being effective in protecting our troops before the commencement of formal action.

Mr. Dismore: My hon. Friend is right. Let us suppose that Saddam Hussein was preparing to use a chemical
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weapon or even a conventional weapon against Jerusalem. Let us suppose that he had deployed it. What would have been the consequences not only for the Iraq conflict but for the middle east and the world?

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): That is an interesting argument. On that basis, any country that feels under threat from any other country at any time would be justified in taking pre-emptive action. Is not that a recipe for endless war?

Mr. Dismore: Certainly not. It is a recipe for the reality of modern armed conflict. Special forces exist and have to be deployed for intelligence-gathering purposes. Their main role is reconnaissance. Everyone knows that. I therefore find it bizarre that, under the Bill, we could not commit special forces without a resolution from Parliament. That would negate the purpose of sending special forces. However, one would not know whether one wanted to send them in the first place if one had not gathered the intelligence that needed to be presented to the House in order to make the decision. There is an incredible circular argument, which means that special forces become unusable if the Bill is passed.

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