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Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I am sorry to interrupt the right hon. Gentleman. This is a Second Reading debate and there are far too many extraneous discussions. It is no courtesy to the Minister if that is happening.
Mr. Hoon: Both the Netherlands and the United Kingdom have the same treaty obligations for NATO deployments, and it would be strange if, because of the arrangements available under the Netherlands' constitution, its marines could deploy, but because of this Bill, our Royal Marines could not in respect of an operation that clearly required their particular expertise.
To give other illustrations, for many of our key effective allies, including such countries as Australia, Canada, France and Poland, the position is broadly similar to that in this country today: their Parliament or its counterpart has no prior right, enshrined in legislation or constitutional obligation, of authorisation. To some extent, the position of the United Kingdom reflects our position as a founder member of NATO and a member of the UN Security Council. The reality is that there are more situations in which deployment is likely to be appropriate for us than for many other nations. These deployments have made a significant contribution, both to international security and to the vital national interests of the United Kingdom.
Adam Price: At the core of this debate is public trust in the democratic process. What does the right hon. Gentleman believe the public reaction will be to what we have just seen: the Bill being killed off by a back-door parliamentary tactic by the Government?
Mr. Hoon: The hon. Gentleman should be careful about his choice of language. There has been no back-door parliamentary manoeuvring and the simple proposition that there should be a closure was put to the House. Those who move a closure motion under the rules of Parliament, which I am sure that he supports, are required to have 100 votes in favour. That procedure is well established and well known, and it should not surprise anyone who attends business on a Friday morning. It has not necessarily been my practice to attend business on a Friday morning, but I have enjoyed the experience, although I hope that it will not be repeated too often. A closure motion is well known to all experts on the rules of procedure, so the suggestion that parliamentary manoeuvring has taken place is unfortunate given the circumstances.
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): I am shocked by what the Leader of the House has just said. As he knows, we legislate on 13 Fridays of every year, when we do or do not make law, as the case may be. How can he explain to his constituents or parliamentary colleagues that it is not his duty as Leader of the House to be here when the House legislates on a Friday?
I know that the right hon. Gentleman strongly supports this important propositionas a
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member of the Executive and the Government, I recognise that Fridays are devoted to private Members' business. It is obviously important that private Members' business should be debated and discussed in the spirit of the rules, which have operated for very many years. Since he is something of an expert, I am happy to make that observation in his presence.
In the debate, hon. Members referred to the Public Administration Committee report on prerogative powers. The Government gave careful consideration to the report and the appended paper from the Committee's specialist adviser, Professor Rodney Brazier. They noted that the Committee itself was cautious in its recommendation. Indeed, paragraph 50 of the report states:
"The prerogative offers much-needed flexibility to government and is a well-established part of the constitution. Ministers need executive powers. They must be able to do most of the things set out in paragraph 9".
"some of those things have to be done quickly in a complex and dangerous world. It would, therefore, be absurd to suggest that the prerogative should be abolished as an historical anachronism and not be replaced. Parliamentary scrutiny of prerogative powers must not unduly hamper the operation of government, and indeed of Parliament itself."
Mr. Hoon: The Government and Parliament have always been circumspect about the deployment of special forces. The hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch) has reminded Parliament on many occasions that he represents many of that fine body of men. Given my experience, I recognise the difficulties that would be involved in apprising Parliament in detail of special forces operations. I am confident that he did not vote in a way that might place those remarkable soldiers in any kind of difficulty.
Jeremy Corbyn: The Leader of the House is making a very interesting point. Will he help us by saying where sending special forces into action in another country is authorised in international law? How can that be legal, if an invasion is not? The UN charter does not make special mention of something called, "special forces".
Mr. Hoon: That is not my point and I do not know whether my hon. Friend has deliberately misunderstood me. I was referring to the deployment of special forces in the context of the Bill introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short). If special forces were deployed as a preliminary to a further, larger deployment, which is often the case, the Bill would require a resolution to be passed within 10 days. Would those 10 days start from the moment when special forces were deployed or from the moment when the main force was deployed? I anticipate that that matter would cause considerable difficulty.
I had an inkling that the Leader of the House would raise this matter, because he was kind
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enough to mention it to me in the corridor. The Bill relates to the notification of armed conflict, but he has accepted that special forces operations are not matters of armed conflict. He has said that the Prime Minister always comes to this House and he quoted the Prime Minister as saying that he cannot think of a circumstance in which he would not come to the House and report an armed conflict. As has been said, Robin Cook also said that he would always come to the House to discuss armed conflicts. We agree that special forces operations are not armed conflicts as defined by the Geneva convention and that they would not therefore be subject to this Bill.
Mr. Hoon: I always admired the hon. Gentleman's ability to speak on defence matters on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, which struck me as a remarkably difficult task. If he genuinely believes that special forces are not from time to time engaged in armed conflict, I wonder what he does in Hereford. Perhaps he should check that they are not engaged in basket making. I assure him that special forces are engaged in armed conflict on a regular basis, and it is necessary that they should be.
Clare Short: My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) gave the impression that special forces roam around the world spying and are not deployed as part of armed action. Will the Leader of the House confirm that my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) is correct that deploying special forces is part of armed conflict? They often go in at an early stage, for example. If they go in as a matter of urgency, it would be possible under the Bill to ascertain the position of the House thereafter. But we do not use them as spies all over the world all the time; that would not be permitted.
Mr. Hoon: I have studiously refrained from referring precisely to what they do or do not do. I have used them as an illustration of the problem that could arise. It could arise in relation to any pre-deployment of our forcesfor example, an agreement to give permission to an ally to use a British base. The ally might be engaged in armed conflict, the United Kingdom might not. In those circumstances, at what point does the 10-day time frame begin to run? Such practical issues cannot be addressed by legislation of this kind. However much it is attempted, it is not possible to produce legislation that can define and prescribe all the various circumstances, particularly in the modern world. Perhaps it would have been possible in the days when generals arranged a certain date on which a battle might take place, but that is a very 19th-century approach to the 21st-century problems faced by our armed forces.
Jeremy Corbyn: The Minister is being led into talking about the role of special forces and obviously does not want to get drawn too far into that. If special forces are operating outside a time of war, on what legal basis do they operate in any other country?
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