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Jeremy Corbyn : That is a very good argument for reform of the House of Lords to make it a more democratic establishment. But are there not many countries around the world whose Governments would find themselves in a seriously illegal position if they went to war without parliamentary approval? Why should this country be any different, and why does my hon. Friend defend those mediaeval powers? I thought that he was a man of progress.
Mr. Dismore: It is because I am a man of progress that I recognise that the Bill imposes so many constraints on the potential future of our armed forcesalong with the potential risk, as international law develops, of our soldiers being put on trialthat I regard this as an extremely dangerous measure. Of course it is imperative for these decisions to be made in Parliament, but in recent years a convention has developed for them to be made in the House of Commons, where they belong, by elected representatives of the people, not by unelected people in the other place.
I know that the Front-Bench spokesmen wish to wind up the debate. I should have liked to have time to deal with, in particular, the question of self-defence. I think that clause 8 is fundamentally flawed, and significantly
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restricts our soldiers' ability to defend themselves. However, I said something about that briefly in interventions, and I give notice that should the Bill have the misfortune to return to us on Report, I shall table a series of amendments for the purpose of further clarification.
Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell) (Con): I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore). We were not denied his Friday thoughts, as I thought we might be for a while. It is part of the Friday tradition in this place to hear a long contribution from him, albeit usually somewhat longer than today's.
This has been a high-quality debate. Whatever our views may be on the pros and cons of the Bill, no one can deny that it concerns an issue of great significance and seriousness. We have heard a series of speeches that reflected that, and did credit to the House.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short) on securing the slot, and on making her case so well. We heard impassioned speeches in defence of her view from the hon. Members for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) and for Newport, West (Paul Flynn), from my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale), and from the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath). We also heard strong voices against the Bill: the hon. Members for High Peak (Tom Levitt) and for Hendon, and my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray), who explained why, although he opposed the Iraq war, he felt that the Bill was wrong. He expressed a fear that it was populist, and concerned with the arguments over Iraq rather than what was right for the future. He also spoke of the powers that Parliament already has. It is important to remember that the House of Commons always has sanction over the Prime Minister. It can remove the Prime Minister, and in 1940 it effectively did so. It must never be thought that this House is without power, and without the ability to intervene if it thinks fit.
There is no doubt that behind the Bill lies a very real issue. Many Members, whether or not they voted in favour of the Iraq war, feel that the process of decision-making that led to it was fundamentally flawed, that the information given to the House was not correct, and that the Prime Minister should not have done the things that he did. One can say that safely without arguing about whether the actual intervention was right or wrong. There is no question in my mind that we as a House were given information that was not of the standard that we had a right to expect, and that should not happen again.
However, I think that the real failing thenthis is one of the reasons why I do not necessarily believe that the Bill is the right way in which to deal with the problemwas the failure of Cabinet Government. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the decision-making in this place, it is the job of Cabinet Ministers to hold the Prime Minister to account. We have a Cabinet who are supposed to work together and to reach collective decisions. There is no doubt, as we look back from outside, that it cannot be said that that happened as clearly and effectively as it should have.
The hon. Gentleman is clearly in the early stages of a thoughtful speech, but his indication is that
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he will not support the Bill. I note that among its sponsors are the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) and the right hon. and learned Members for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) and for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), all of whom held senior office in a Cabinet. If they believe that the Bill is necessary, has the hon. Gentleman had the opportunity to discuss with them why they hold that belief and why they think that this Bill is the right Bill on the right occasion?
Chris Grayling: The hon. Gentleman rather anticipates my remarks and is putting words into my mouth before I have uttered them. If he will be patient, I shall explain what I really think. I understand the motivation for the Bill and the sentiments behind it. I have misgivings and shall set some of them out before I set out my and my colleagues' approach.
My most fundamental misgiving is anxiety about introducing a legal framework to what is always an extremely difficult area of political life and national leadership. Difficult decisions have to be taken quite quickly, and it worries me that we may end up putting our national leaders into a position in which they have to look over their shoulders and worry about the legal implications of what they do when we trust them to take quick decisions on behalf of the nation. We can hold them to account if they take the wrong decisions, but if we stop trusting them to take those decisions and start to put in place a legal framework that constrains them from doing so, I fear that there may be unintended consequences.
Let me draw a parallel that throws light on that. I have been extremely anxious about the way in which serving soldiersnot when there have been clear abuses in military prisons, but in front-line situations where young soldiers take snap decisionsfind themselves facing a court case over their conduct. We send young soldiers on to the battlefield with little experience of what they will face, and increasingly we seem ready to use the force of law to challenge difficult and sometimes wrong decisions that they make in the heat of battle.
The same applies equally to politicians. Nobody believes that any politician goes into conflict lightly. Nobody believes that it is not the most difficult decision any political leader can take. We have to leave them the freedom to take that decision. If we wrap them in a legal framework that constrains them from doing what they think right, we may ultimately come to regret it.
The important thing to remember is that the royal prerogative was not used over Iraq. What happened in the run-up to the Iraq war was pretty much exactly the process that the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood is asking for. We cannot end up jeopardising decision making by putting in place impediments in situations that we cannot anticipate. The example of Srebrenica has been given. The right hon. Lady said that she had not looked into reports on that case, and nor have I. I always fear, however, that laws can have unintended consequences, and I should not want that to happen.
I am concerned about the implications for the morale of our soldiers. What happens if we have a vote in the House on a conflict that is carried by a majority of one? Is that really a clear mandate for our troops? Can they honestly go into battle knowing that they have the full confidence of Parliament?
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but the political pressures will be such that the Prime Minister will be forced to provide perhaps more information than is strategically sensible in an attempt to win consent for the action that he has taken. That causes me concern as well.
I am equally concerned about the provisions that require a vote in both Houses. What would happen if the two Houses did not agreeif the motion was passed in one but not the other? There is an issue about the relationship between the two Houses. I do not want to get into a great debate about whether the other place should be elected, appointed or whatever. The reality is that this place is the democratically elected House. It thus seems illogical to try to achieve balance between both Houses in making a decision, and we need to understand clearly why the right hon. Lady has included that provision before we press ahead with a measure such as this.
I also have anxieties about the publication of legal advice, although not because it is wrong to do so. Looking back at the run-up to the Iraq war, it is clear that the issue of the Attorney-General's advice was of great significance. The leaks of that advice and the information revealed since then have given rise to concern about the decision-making process and how the Prime Minister approached his decision to intervene in Iraq. There is no question about that. However, I do not want us to be in a position where published legal advice leads to court cases about the legitimacy or otherwise of political decisions. In issues such as that, we cannot be governed by our judges; we must be governed by our sovereign Parliamentby the democratically elected representatives of the nation. I have a significant reservation about laying on the table legal justification and legal opinion, using that as a reference point and opening ourselves up to court cases that challenge the sovereignty of Parliament.
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