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A third and related argument is that of reassurance to the nation that, on such momentous matters, debate
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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 House—prospectively or retrospectively—the 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,

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.

Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): Will my right hon. Friend help me to define “substantial”? Does it refer to firepower, manpower or both?

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 to—Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Iraq—would count as substantial deployments in the common-sense view of the Government and Parliament. It may not be as difficult to answer my hon. Friend’s question on a case-by-case basis as he might think.

We call in our motion for this principle to apply to

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 Committee’s recommendation to consider changes by parliamentary convention rather than by Act of Parliament may provide the best way forward.

Finally, we have stressed in our motion that the Government’s proposals to give effect to this principle should include

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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. Members—I have already spoken for half an hour—may 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 Government’s treatment of intelligence, which I shall raise as I reach my conclusion.

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford) (Con) rose—

Mr. Hague: I shall give way, but for the last time, as other hon. Members want to speak.

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?

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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 campaign—in the case of Afghanistan, one could argue that there have been three separate stages of deployment over the past six years—there is, of course, a case for prior approval of some deployments. The picture is more complex than my hon. Friend’s 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

for establishing a new convention. They also asserted that

The Lord Chancellor summed up the debate in the Lords two weeks ago—rather forlornly, because all but one of the other speakers endorsed the Select Committee report—by saying that it was a most impressive report but that he disagreed with it. He said that the Committee’s 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:

However, the Government have never presented any convincing arguments against the conclusions of the Select Committees of this House or of the Lords.

The Lords Committee considered the Government’s cursory response to its report to be “inadequate”, saying that it failed

As Lord Mayhew of Twysden put it, the Government’s response, promising in a few short paragraphs to keep its policies under review,

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I hope that they are now to get something better than that, although it has taken an Opposition motion on the Floor of the House to achieve it.

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 proposals—I 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:

of the way in which the Government make decisions—

If Parliament is to be able to exercise its responsibility, it needs to know that the Cabinet can exercise its responsibility on matters of war and peace, and that Ministers are enabled to do so.

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.

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4.19 pm

The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Jack Straw): I beg to move, To leave out from “House” to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

For Parliament and any Government, no issue is of greater gravity and consequence than war: whether to put our servicemen and women in harm’s way, in the certain knowledge that some will be injured and some may be killed; and whether to entertain the other two certainties of war—innocent civilian casualties and considerable financial cost—along 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 today’s debate—that 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 Parliament’s 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 reports—one 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: Parliament’s Role and Responsibility”. Each report is, in its own way, a model—well 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 House’s attention —I would have drawn attention to it had he failed to do
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so—to 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 time—drawn from the period when some claimed that monarchs ruled by divine right and never by the people’s will—and predates the English civil war and the 1689 Bill of Rights, so prerogative powers are, as I have indicated, imprecise, as has been Parliament’s role in adjudicating on them.

As the Lords report points out, the usual platform for debate on whether to put our troops in harm’s 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: Neither is the case.

Mr. Hague: Perhaps it is coincidence.

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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