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Mr. Baron: The Leader of the House is having difficulty answering the central question of when a vote would be triggered in the event of mission creep, but he is also having trouble with saying when the House, having held an initial vote, might be able to vote again if circumstances change. For example, let us suppose that the House votes to approve the deployment of forces in a war. If the main reason for going to war changes, should the House vote again?

Mr. Straw: First, those judgments have to be made in the circumstances of the time. I am not trying to dodge the point—that happens to be true. Secondly, in respect of major conflicts I have been of the view that there should have been substantive motions. The right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) takes a similar view—I have read what he said. Those examples are clear; they define themselves. Thirdly, there are difficulties in the way of the changes that I think the House wants to agree, but they are not insuperable and should not be a reason for resting at the status quo. With good will and the commitment to our armed forces that we all share, we can overcome those difficulties.

Sir Nicholas Winterton: Does the Leader of the House, who chairs the Modernisation Committee on which I sit, accept that we are likely to move towards
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the very structure that he has proposed to the House, and that there will be debates in the House on substantive or meaningful motions to enable the House to express a view one way or the other? That is likely to be a recommendation of the Modernisation Committee’s current inquiries and is—I point out to colleagues on both sides of the House—a result of representations made to us from both sides of the House.

Mr. Straw: Indeed. It seems as though the recommendations of the Modernisation Committee are moving in that direction. We are certainly proposing to change the title “Adjournment debate”; it is ludicrous and outdated and even in the House no one can understand why we move to go home and then spend six hours discussing not whether we are going home but issues of major importance. The Government have tried to make better use of substantive motions for subject debates as well as for debates on specific issues. Of course, judgments have to be made; for example sometimes—as I have done myself—in foreign policy areas it is better for there to be open debate without a specific resolution, as sometimes there may be, too, in respect of reviewing the progress of military action. Finally, it is always open to the Opposition to table a substantive motion, although neither Opposition has tried to do so in respect of military action during my 28 years in this place.

Mr. Jenkin rose—

Mr. Straw: I have quoted the hon. Gentleman a couple of times, so I shall give way to him.

Mr. Jenkin: I am most grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. The advantage of a non-substantive motion is that it can allow the House to air views without necessarily intending to divide the House. Nevertheless, it was just such a motion that led to the downfall of the Chamberlain Government on 6 May 1940, so it is not exactly a blunt instrument.

Mr. Straw: I accept that. Some of us were in the Chamber on 3 April 1982 for a short debate on a motion for the Adjournment, which had a disastrous effect on one member of the Cabinet and framed the rest of the conduct of that war. I am not dismissing debates on the Adjournment, but we need to think about what is appropriate for today rather than for 60 years ago.

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): If the House is to vote, we must have the right information. The right hon. Gentleman referred to the crucial debate on 18 March 2003 that led us to war. Many people inside and outside the House believe that we were misled about the information that took us to war. What changes will the Leader of the House introduce to make sure that we have correct, unspun information so that we can accurately vote on the case, rather than what happened in 2003?

Mr. Straw: This is not the occasion to rehearse all that, but no one sought to mislead the House, or to act in that way. Four successive inquiries found no shred of
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evidence of any desire by members of the Government, including my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and me, as Foreign Secretary, to mislead the House. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, the then Secretary of State for Defence and I sought to put before the House as much information as possible, including extensive documentation of what the United Nations was deliberating and deciding in respect of its view that Iraq posed that threat to international peace and security. That is the fact of the matter. Yes, there was an argument about whether it was appropriate to take military action, but there was much less argument, internationally and here, about whether, at that stage, on the public and secret information available, Iraq posed a threat to international peace and security.

The vote on Iraq in 2003 set a clear precedent for the need for the substantive involvement of Parliament in decisions on armed conflict, but now is the time to formalise that precedent and to define its scope. The Constitution Committee has provided a helpful starting point, setting out the core characteristics that might define such a process: principally, that Government should seek parliamentary approval in respect of any decisions on the major or substantial deployment of British forces outside the UK, that they should indicate the basic objectives and nature of any such deployment, and that they should keep Parliament informed of progress. We will make more detailed proposals, as I said. It is vital, not just for the House, but for those we represent—particularly, the brave men and women who comprise our armed forces—to get this matter right.

At the end of his speech—the serious part of his speech was sandwiched in the middle—the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks started to have a bit of fun by talking about what he called presidential government. I am glad that he mentioned that the charge is levied—entirely inaccurately—not only against this Government; it has also been levied by the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe against previous Administrations, including a number in which he served, in an interesting document from the democracy taskforce, which he chairs.

However controversial the decision to go to war against Iraq may have been, it was a decision in which senior Ministers—myself included—were actively involved, not just day by day, but hour by hour. It was a decision that was made by Cabinet and explicitly approved by the House on a substantive motion of exactly the kind that we all now want to make standard and to embed within our procedures.

Nor does the evidence support the oft-heard allegation that there was once some golden age in the ’50s and ’60s when Parliament reigned supreme. All the historical and expert evidence points the other way. It points to an increasingly active, effective Commons—as well as Lords—and to the much greater accountability of Ministers generally. From the establishment of departmental Select Committees by Norman St. John-Stevas—a great reformist Conservative Leader of the House—in 1979 to the many improvements made in the last 10 years, including the Human Rights Act 1998, which has quite properly made Ministers much more judicially accountable for their many decisions, and the recent move to Select Committee-style hearings on Bills, this place has become more effective and Members much more active.

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That process has to continue. We have by no means reached a state of grace in the necessary balance of power between the Executive and the legislature. We want to see this place—this Parliament—strengthened. Reforms of the kind set out in our amendment on what should be Parliament’s crucial role in approving or withholding consent for the decision to go to war are justified in their own right and are further steps on the road to making a constitution fit for this century, not for the last. I commend our amendment to the House.

4.58 pm

Mr. Michael Moore (Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk) (LD): This is an important debate, as illustrated by the quality of the opening speech from the Opposition and of the Government’s response. National security is surely the most important responsibility of any Government and committing our armed forces is the most serious decision ever taken by a Government. Parliament ought to be central to that decision. As a party, we have long supported the principle of parliamentary approval for participation in armed conflict. On 1 December 2004, we tabled an amendment to the Humble Address in which we proposed a special Select Committee to address that issue, because we regretted that the legislative programme contained

In October 2005, Liberal Democrat Members were present in significant numbers to support the Armed Forces (Parliamentary Approval for Participation in Armed Conflict) Bill, which was promoted by the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short) and owed a great deal to the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard). The Bill had significant cross-party support. Accordingly, we will support the Conservative motion in the Lobby.

We are entitled to pause to reflect on the significance of the change of heart that the motion represents. While the Chancellor might have missed the vote in 2004 on our amendment to the Humble Address, the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), who is now the Leader of the Opposition, voted against it. The following year, on Second Reading of the private Member’s Bill introduced by the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood, the Conservative spokesman made a speech in which he identified no fewer than six or seven major areas of concern. The motion thus marks quite a turnaround. However, I must give credit to the shadow Foreign Secretary because he was a sponsor of the right hon. Lady’s Bill and had gone on record about the matter before the Public Administration Committee as early as March 2004. Even with his famous powers of persuasion, he must be quietly pleased that he has turned Conservative thinking so thoroughly on its head in the period since then, not least in the absence of any significant new developments or tests of principle since his leader voted against the very idea only two and a half years ago.

With a few honourable exceptions, Conservative Members are in the midst of a public U-turn. However, the Government’s position is nowhere near as clear cut.
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Few would be surprised that Labour Members voted against our amendment to the Humble Address in 2004, or would need any reminder that the Minister for Europe, the then Leader of the House, effectively talked out the Armed Forces (Parliamentary Approval for Participation in Armed Conflict) Bill in October 2005. However, something odd has certainly happened. The Government seem to be changing their mind for some strange reason, even though, as the Leader of the House pointed out, his credentials on the matter go back a very long time.

The trouble is that the change is happening in awkward slow motion, which means that the Government amendment is a curious creation. We cannot entirely put that down to the fact that it was drafted on a Sunday, probably somewhere a long way from the House. The Government are edging in the right direction through the amendment, but they cannot quite bring themselves to accept wholeheartedly the principle of parliamentary approval for our forces’ participation in armed conflict. The amendment states that following the votes held before the beginning of the conflict in Iraq,

It also says:

whatever that means. Although, as ever, the Leader of the House made an elegant and entertaining speech, he did not quite spell out what he had in mind. At the risk of being churlish—

Dr. Palmer: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Moore: I am happy to give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Dr. Palmer: If the Leader of the House had spelled that out, would not the hon. Gentleman be criticising him for bringing forward proposals without the necessary consultation?

Mr. Moore: I do not think that the hon. Gentleman can get away with that. The Leader of the House, in his usual way, was making an elegant attempt to square the Government’s very difficult position that the shadow Foreign Secretary exposed, given what the Lord Chancellor and others had said.

I was trying to be churlish—I was almost denied the opportunity. When the Government say that

the Iraq precedent, we need to pause for a moment. It was, of course, an important breakthrough that there were votes on different motions. On 18 March 2003, the Liberal Democrats were united in voting against the invasion of Iraq. However, the manner in which the Government sought and obtained the House’s approval did not create good precedents. Few will forget the dossiers of dubious distinction, the discredited manner in which the legal advice was obtained and then disclosed, or the flouting of international law. While the votes were of paramount importance, in every other respect the build-up to the Iraq conflict did not create any welcome kind of precedent at all.

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As has been said in debates in the House in recent months, we still need a full inquiry into what happened before the disastrous intervention in Iraq. There is an ever more urgent need for consideration in terms of the withdrawal of our armed forces. We will return to those issues on other occasions—or at least we hope that we will, although opportunities to debate, in Government time, what has happened in Iraq since the conflict began have been almost non-existent. If Parliament’s role is to become more explicit, it cannot be involved only at the outset of military action; it must have an appropriate role in considering what follows. We welcome the Government’s intention to consult and to bring more detailed proposals before Parliament, but we must hope that Ministers intend all those issues to be taken into account.

Whatever lies behind the changed or changing positions of Members on both sides of the House, we appear to be reaching a defining moment in Parliament, in which we assert our position and take on more responsibility for some of the most difficult decisions that a country ever faces, and not before time. In this fiercely uncertain world, the United Kingdom retains a key role in seeking to establish peace and in maintaining order. As previous contributors have mentioned, Britain has more than demonstrated that in the past decade in Kosovo, Sierra Leone and Afghanistan, never mind in countless smaller-scale expeditions. Time and again, our armed forces have demonstrated their bravery, commitment and professionalism.

In Parliament, there have been Adjournment debates, statements and questions aplenty, but, with the exception of Iraq, there have been no votes. That surely has to change. Let us be clear about one thing: the principle of parliamentary approval for the deployment of our armed forces into conflict will not make things easy. Every one of us in the Chamber will be faced with a major responsibility that will never be comfortable. However, given what we ask of our young men and women on the front line, the least that they should expect of us is that we give serious consideration to the matters of life and death that they face. That is also what people across the country now expect. A million people took to the streets in anger and frustration to express their opinions on Iraq. The 21st century media allow people to absorb news from countless sources and to take part in debates online or in the studios, and they find it hard to believe that although the issues and the nature of the debates have moved on, our procedures in Parliament have not.

As the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood, said when she introduced her Bill 18 months ago:

When the Government bring forward proposals, as they have pledged to do in their amendment, they must seek to bridge that gap and to create a new balance that gives Parliament a legitimate role, while recognising the legitimate needs of Government to make appropriate, timely decisions about the deployment of our armed forces. The motion recognises that and mentions

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The Government’s amendment is right to stress

Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Kensington and Chelsea) (Con): I think that hon. Members on both sides of the House accept that there will be circumstances in which a Government will have to go to war without getting the prior approval of the House, and in which retrospective legislation will need to be sought. Does the hon. Gentleman agree—I hope that the Government agree, too—that if retrospective approval is refused by the House, it is important that that should not de-legitimise the conflict that has taken place up to that time? That would put our armed forces in a very difficult situation and would be intolerable. The effect of a refusal of retrospective approval should only be to require the Government to withdraw from the conflict; it should not de-legitimise what has happened up to that point.

Mr. Moore: The right hon. and learned Gentleman makes an important point. I am happy to agree with it, and I am sure that it will find support among Members from across the House.

In seeking to strike a new balance between the Executive and Parliament, most of our initial attention must be focused on our deficiencies in respect of parliamentary oversight and Executive accountability. The rag-bag of statutes, powers and conventions that make up what passes for a British constitution gives plenty of scope for unaccountable Executive authority. The very notion of the royal prerogatives, dating from the mists of time, creates an air of mystery, but beneath the colourful, confusing veneer, many of those prerogatives have morphed into modern-day instruments of raw Executive power. Many outside this place find it staggering that the Prime Minister alone can take the decision to enter into armed conflict. The Cabinet’s role is not formalised, never mind Parliament’s. Although politically it would be hard to ignore a vote in the Chamber that had gone against the Government, there is no explicit constitutional bar on the Prime Minister of the day doing just that. That must change, too.

The way in which government is conducted must also change. As I said before, we have not yet had a full inquiry into the disastrous decision-making processes that led to our participation in the Iraq conflict, but through the Hutton and Butler reports and the work of right hon. and hon. Members on the Committees of the House, we have had a glimpse of the informal and ill-judged way in which the Prime Minister took us to war. Certainly, we have learned more than enough for Parliament to demand more.

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