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The question is: in a modern democracy, not a 15th century monarchy, on whose authority should the young men and women of our armed forces be sent overseas to fight for their country?[ Official Report, House of Lords, 1 May 2007; Vol. 691, c. 980.]
A third and related argument is that of reassurance to the nation that, on such momentous matters, debate
will, whenever possible, be thorough and informed, and that Ministers must always operate under the constraint of knowing that they will have to explain in the Houseprospectively or retrospectivelythe basis of their actions.
The former Chief of the Defence Staff, Lord Bramall, put the fourth and crucial argument to the House of Lords Select Committee. He said that the armed forces need to know that the elected representatives of the nation are behind them. As he put it,
the armed forces need to be reassured... that they have the support of the country... Parliament represents the will of the people and if Parliament supports the action... the armed forces can take heart that constitutionally the country supports it.
Such arguments are compelling, but, of course, we are considering no simple matter. That is why we have given careful thought to the phrasing of our motion, which supports the principle that parliamentary approval should be required and calls on the Government to bring forward proposals to give effect to the principle, so that the practical difficulties that many Departments might raise can be taken fully into consideration. We have called for the principle to apply to any substantial deployment of British armed forces, bearing in mind that there is occasionally the need for deployment of special forces or others, in small numbers and in great secrecy, as part of rescue or intelligence missions or anti-terrorist activities.
Mr. Hague: As I have said to other hon. Friends who have intervened, it is not possible to set out a precise number or quantification, even when we come to Standing Orders or however such matters are embodied. It has to be a matter for the common-sense judgment of the Government and Parliament at the time. Any of the five military deployments of the past 10 years that I referred toBosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Iraqwould count as substantial deployments in the common-sense view of the Government and Parliament. It may not be as difficult to answer my hon. Friends question on a case-by-case basis as he might think.
situations of war or international armed conflict,
thereby excepting, of course, all domestic and routine military deployments. It is a matter for debate whether peacekeeping operations, which can also involve forces being drawn into danger and conflict, should similarly require parliamentary debate and approval.
We have drawn attention to the work of the Public Administration Committee and the House of Lords Select Committee on the Constitution as the basis of parliamentary consensus because we believe that the latter Committees recommendation to consider changes by parliamentary convention rather than by Act of Parliament may provide the best way forward.
mechanisms to ensure that the capability to react rapidly in emergencies is maintained.
No parliamentary procedure should stand in the way of the defence of the nation when it is under attack, when coming to the immediate aid of an ally or in meeting our treaty obligations. That is an extremely important point, because in NATO and the European Union we have obligations to take part in rapid reaction forces. Governments should not be constrained in taking action very quickly when necessary, provided that they are confident of being able to justify their actions in Parliament.
Mr. John Baron (Billericay) (Con): May I raise an additional factor: the importance of good intelligence? My right hon. Friend might agree that the key lesson from Iraq was not the issue of parliamentary approval, but of whether the intelligence presented was properly scrutinised and assessed. In that vein, does he agree that parliamentary approval is of secondary importance to good intelligence, because one could easily paint a scenario where, if the intelligence were bad, we would repeat the same mistake that we made in Iraq, irrespective of parliamentary approval to go to war?
Mr. Hague: My hon. Friend makes a very important point, although I would say that parliamentary approval was not of secondary importance but of parallel and related importance. There should be a formally accepted and generally agreed way of approaching decisions on these matters, but, as on all matters, the quality of those decisions will depend on the quality of the judgment and the available information.
That brings us to questions about how the House should deal with intelligence, which other hon. MembersI have already spoken for half an hourmay wish to pursue in this debate. Relevant issues are the role of the Intelligence and Security Committee, whether it should report to the Prime Minister or the House, whether other Committees should have a role in seeing intelligence under carefully guarded procedures, and the Governments treatment of intelligence, which I shall raise as I reach my conclusion.
Mr. Davies: I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend, who has been extremely generous in giving way this afternoon. I would like to take up a point arising from what he said before he spoke about intelligence. He said that it would not, in his conception, be necessary to have a parliamentary vote where we were taking military action under treaty obligations. Earlier on, he said that one example of where, in his conception, a parliamentary vote would have been required was Afghanistan. Surely we took military action there as a result of an attack on an ally, which triggered article 5 of the Washington treaty. Does he believe, on reflection, that that was or was not a case requiring a parliamentary vote under his proposals?
Mr. Hague: It would entirely depend on the speed of the action taken. My point was that where, according to the judgment of the Government of the day, immediate action were required under treaty obligations, they must be able to take it, but they should subsequently come back to Parliament for retrospective information and retrospective approval. Where those treaty obligations lead to a build-up of forces and a plan for a campaignin the case of Afghanistan, one could argue that there have been three separate stages of deployment over the past six yearsthere is, of course, a case for prior approval of some deployments. The picture is more complex than my hon. Friends question allows for and it depends on the speed of the deployments involved.
It must be well within the wit of Ministers to produce the proposals that we are calling for, giving effect through our procedures or conventions to the principle for which I have argued while fully allowing for all the situations that I have just described. I look forward to the Leader of the House saying that they will embark on doing so, and to his accepting our motion in acknowledgement of this gathering consensus. It has to be said, however, that until today the Government have been unwilling to accept that consensus. Their response to the House of Lords Select Committee was thin, to say the least, arguing that
the Government is not presently persuaded of the case
adequate mechanisms for intense Parliamentary scrutiny of executive actions are already in place.
The Lord Chancellor summed up the debate in the Lords two weeks agorather forlornly, because all but one of the other speakers endorsed the Select Committee reportby saying that it was a most impressive report but that he disagreed with it. He said that the Committees proposal was not the right one, yet he declined to make any of his own.
The Prime Minister has also seemed unwilling to establish new and clear procedures. He told the Liaison Committee in January 2003 that he could not think of a set of circumstances in which a Government could go to war without the support of Parliament, side-stepping the large number of occasions on which that support has never been asked for. He went on to say of the royal prerogative:
I do not see any reason to change it.
to provide a comprehensive or stand alone outline of the Governments position.
was selected with satisfaction from the office file of reach-me-down brush offs. The Committee, the armed forces and the public deserve better than that.[ Official Report, House of Lords, 1 May 2007; Vol. 691, c. 993.]
I hope that it will not be too much longer before Ministers give further indications of their thinking. I hope that the Leader of the House will say today that they will consult the Opposition parties in drawing up their proposalsI think that he is indicating assent to that. I hope that Ministers will also remember that Parliament can come to sensible decisions on matters of war and peace if it has confidence that the information provided by the Government can be relied on, and that the Cabinet itself has been able to exercise its responsibility to make an informed judgment of the intelligence. That relates to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron).
The report of our democracy taskforce, produced by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe, was entitled An End to Sofa Government, in reference to how the present Prime Minister has run things. In the Lords, my noble Friend Lord Kingsland has drawn attention to the need for Parliament to be able to have confidence that the proper processes of Cabinet government are observed. He drew attention to page 146 of the Butler report, which reads:
One inescapable consequence
was to limit wider collective discussion and consideration by the Cabinet to the frequent but unscripted occasions when the Prime Minister, Foreign Secretary and Defence Secretary briefed the Cabinet orally. Excellent quality papers were written by officials, but these were not discussed in Cabinet or in Cabinet Committee. Without papers circulated in advance, it remains possible but is obviously much more difficult for members of the Cabinet outside the small circle directly involved to bring their political judgement and experience to bear on major decisions for which the Cabinet as a whole must carry responsibility. The absence of papers on the Cabinet agenda so that Ministers could obtain briefings in advance from the Cabinet Office, their own departments or from the intelligence agencies plainly reduced their ability to prepare properly for such discussions, while the changes to key posts at the head of the Cabinet Secretariat lessened the support of the machinery of government for the collective responsibility of the Cabinet in the vital matter of war and peace.
Taken overall, this issue can no longer be brushed away as it was by the Lord Chancellor two weeks ago. The number of conflicts in recent years, the extensive deployments of British armed forces, and the raising of the issue by both the Leader of the Opposition and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, mean that Ministers and their officials must now turn their attention to how the principle of parliamentary approval for participation in armed conflict can be established to the satisfaction of the nation. The acceptance of our motion tonight would supply them with the necessary support and authority, and with a requirement to do so. They seem to be on the verge of making a commitment to doing so, and the Leader of the House should be in doubt that we would hold them to it.
welcomes the precedents set by the Government in 2002 and 2003 in seeking and obtaining the approval of the House for its decisions in respect of military action against Iraq; is of the view that it is inconceivable that any Government would in practice depart from this precedent; taking note of the reports of the Public Administration Select Committee, HC 422 of Session 2003-04, and of the Lords Committee on the Constitution, HL 236 of Session 2005-06, believes that the time has come for Parliaments role to be made more explicit in approving, or otherwise, decisions of the Government relating to the major, or substantial, deployment of British forces overseas into actual, or potential, armed conflict; recognises the imperative to take full account of the paramount need not to compromise the security of British forces nor the operational discretion of those in command, including in respect of emergencies and regrets that insufficient weight has been given to this in some quarters; and calls upon the Government, after consultation, to come forward with more detailed proposals for Parliament to consider.
For Parliament and any Government, no issue is of greater gravity and consequence than war: whether to put our servicemen and women in harms way, in the certain knowledge that some will be injured and some may be killed; and whether to entertain the other two certainties of warinnocent civilian casualties and considerable financial costalong with the uncertainty of war, of unintended consequences.
Precisely because of the seriousness of such decisions, Parliament, especially this House, has long played a role in holding the Prime Minister and Cabinet of the day fully to account for their decisions. Indeed, there has not been a significant armed conflict overseas since the beginning of the 20th century in which the United Kingdom has been involved where, in one way or another, at the time of decision or in retrospect, this House has not indicated whether, and in what way, it has consented to the Executive decision taken.
The very qualifications in the language that I have just used, however, tell their own story about the question that lies at the heart of todays debatethat the power to make war, and to enter into armed conflict, is currently based on the exercise of the royal prerogative. That, in turn, has meant that Parliaments role, though substantial, is imprecise and less than well defined.
The background of the more general scope of the royal prerogative is set out in two Select Committee reportsone of this House and one of the other place, mentioned in both the motion and our amendment. The first, from the Public Administration Committee, from the 2003-04 Session, is entitled, Taming the Prerogative. The second, from the Lords Constitution Committee, from the previous Session, is entitled, Waging War: Parliaments Role and Responsibility. Each report is, in its own way, a modelwell researched, well written and with conclusions that are well argued, even if they have not satisfied all. I say parenthetically that if anyone wants an example of the way in which the Select Committee system has greatly strengthened the role of Parliament in holding Ministers to account and in pushing further reform, those are two.
The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) generously drew to the Houses attention I would have drawn attention to it had he failed to do
soto the fact that I have never been too enamoured of the royal prerogative as a source of Ministers decision-making power. As the Public Administration Committee also generously pointed out in its report, I first wrote about the prerogative in some speeches and articles in the 1990s. Many of the major constitutional improvements that the Government have made in the past 10 years have had the effect, direct or indirect, of constraining or removing prerogative powers.
The source of the prerogative is buried in the mists of timedrawn from the period when some claimed that monarchs ruled by divine right and never by the peoples willand predates the English civil war and the 1689 Bill of Rights, so prerogative powers are, as I have indicated, imprecise, as has been Parliaments role in adjudicating on them.
As the Lords report points out, the usual platform for debate on whether to put our troops in harms way is on a motion for the Adjournment. Let us reflect on how that must look to the public. The question before the House is not whether we go to war but whether we go home: whatever else changes, that must. I disclose no secrets if I tell the House that the Modernisation Committee is likely to recommend a replacement of debates on the Adjournment with debates on subjects of importance, whether or not the debates are subject to a substantive or an open motion.
Mr. Kenneth Clarke: I have listened to the right hon. Gentleman with total approval so far. It is obvious that his past writings are the reason he is replying on behalf of the Government today. Does he not agree, however, that the Government of whom he remains a member have experienced a conversion as remarkable and rapid as St Paul on the road to Damascus? I can only imagine that that is either because of the drafting of the motion tabled by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and the arguments of the Opposition, or because the Prime Minister has stated his intention of leaving office in the next few weeks. Will the right hon. Gentleman tell me which is the case, and why we are now hearing speeches of this kind when the same propositions have been resisted stoutly for the past two or three years?
Mr. Straw: No, it is not coincidence; and I think we have taken rather longer than St Paul. We said in response to their lordships report that we were keeping the matter under review, and that is exactly what we have done.
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