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We start from a position that may be slightly different from that of earlier speakers. On matters of such significance, we should have legislation, rather than simply tweaking Standing Orders. That is why we supported the private Member’s Bill in the past. All of us must be prepared to discuss these matters when the Government’s proposals are submitted for consultation. In the private Member’s Bill that was debated 18 months ago, there were sensible proposals that provided a proper starting point for that debate. I
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hope that the Leader of the House will examine those proposals closely as he considers what to bring forward.

The House will not have moved the game on unless any vote that we are asked to take is based on the kind of report envisaged by the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood and many others, which sets out the reasons for the proposed action and the legal authority for it—more like the 13-page opinion from the Attorney-General on 13 March 2003 than the one-pager produced on the day of the debate a few days later. We will also need proper and appropriate detail on the geographical extent, the expected duration and the relevant elements of the armed forces that will be involved. Appropriate detail is an important element. Operational security and the safety of our armed forces must not be jeopardised, so the Prime Minister must have sufficient discretion to determine the amount of detail put in the public domain. Even with this important qualification, the provisions of the Bill would allow a significant advance in the level of parliamentary scrutiny.

We must look at how that scrutiny is maintained appropriately once the conflict has begun, and later when it has finished. If we are to consider new ways in which the Executive explains its reasons for and seeks support for military action, surely we must also find new ways of scrutinising events afterwards. Positions on this have changed and hardened in the light of the Iraq experience, with the Conservatives now also committed to an inquiry, at an appropriate time, into what happened.

A great deal of political energy has been expended on the demands for and rejections of inquiries. Without constraining the Committees of the House in the work that they undertake, we ought to have a clearer system of review which, at the right moment, allows proper investigation of the background to conflicts and our involvement in them. Governments can no longer expect Members of the House or members of the public to accept anything at face value. After Iraq, who will?

During the Second Reading debate on the private Member’s Bill, a range of voices were raised in opposition to it. Legitimate issues were highlighted but, sadly, the clear objective for many on the day was to see the Bill killed off. That it was not even allowed to progress into Committee when ample opportunity was given makes that clear beyond doubt.

Whatever the reasons, we on the Liberal Democrat Benches welcome the fact that the political winds have changed direction. We must quickly return to all the detailed issues at the heart of this debate. Our priority must now be for Parliament to be put at the centre of decision-making and scrutiny, where it belongs.

5.14 pm

Mr. Michael Meacher (Oldham, West and Royton) (Lab): There are two reasons why I enter into this debate. First, we are discussing a hugely important constitutional issue that involves democratic accountability, which I now regard as one of the central issues of our time. Had I had a little more opportunity in the leadership contest, I would certainly have been advancing the arguments for reform very strongly.
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Secondly—the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) had the grace to refer to this at the beginning of his speech—I am currently promoting a private Member’s Bill, the Waging War (Parliament’s Role and Responsibility) Bill.

It is surely one of the most astonishing comments on our so-called—I say that deliberately—British democracy that in this country the decision to go to war, which, as all Members have said, is the gravest decision ever facing a nation, is still taken by one person alone, the Prime Minister, and there is no requirement to seek parliamentary approval. I acknowledge that the Government’s amendment states—I hope that this is correct—that it is “inconceivable” that there would not be a parliamentary vote, in accordance with what happened in 2002 and 2003, in committing this country to war. However, even if that were true—and the fact is that there have been several occasions when it was not—it is, in my view, not sufficient in a parliamentary democracy, on an issue of such gravity, to rely on such assumptions. We do not, of course, have a written constitution—I do not expect that to change at all quickly—but this is a matter that must be clarified explicitly, beyond any conceivable doubt.

That is all the more so given that, as I was amazed to find in my preparations for this debate, even where the Prime Minister of the day does allow a parliamentary vote, and that vote is opposed to war, the Prime Minister still has the absolute power to ignore the result of that vote and to commit the nation to war. That applies both where the vote is taken after the declaration of war, as in the case of the Attlee Government over the Korean war and the Major Government over the 1991 Gulf war, and where the vote is taken shortly before the start of war, as was the case with the Blair Government over Iraq.

Dr. Palmer: Does my right hon. Friend agree that, in practice, if Parliament really had substantial disagreements with the Prime Minister of the day on an issue of war and peace, he would not be able to pursue it because he would be immediately brought down by a vote of confidence?

Mr. Meacher: I understand that point. In practice, that may well be the case. It is extremely difficult to envisage a Prime Minister losing a vote on a matter of such weight and still proceeding. However, my point is that it is simply unacceptable, however unlikely it might be, that the constitutional position remains that he or she would be entitled to take that course. If Parliament has any sense of its own dominance in the final decision, that is not a situation that we can allow to continue.

It is equally true that there is at present no requirement to have a parliamentary vote on a substantive motion to take the country to war. That was the case when Britain went to war in the Balkans in the 1990s. There was lengthy fighting in Bosnia and in Kosovo for which there had been no parliamentary approval. It is also true that even where a vote is called, it can be arranged, as I am sure that all Members remember extremely well, at the last minute when British troops are fully deployed, just before the outbreak of hostilities, as of course happened on
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18 March 2003. It is then extraordinarily difficult for Parliament to abort a build-up to war. Frankly, a pistol is being held to Parliament’s head. In effect, Parliament would humiliate the Prime Minister as well as calling a halt to a process, which, by that stage, is almost unstoppable. That is not acceptable as adequate and proper consultation in a parliamentary democracy on a matter of such gravity.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): The right hon. Gentleman is right that, had the vote in March 2003 been the only one, it would have constituted an unacceptable pistol held to Parliament’s head. However, there were two previous votes on Iraq—one as early as November. Despite amendments—I suspect that the right hon. Gentleman was one of the signatories to them—the House none the less agreed that we would effectively go to war.

Mr. Meacher: The hon. Gentleman says that the House agreed that we would “effectively go to war”. I do not believe that the motions as they were drafted at the time were perceived as being as explicit as that. I shall have to refresh my memory—perhaps that also applies to the hon. Gentleman. They gave an indication of the direction of the Government’s thinking and that of the Prime Minister’s intentions, but they were based on the information that was given to the House at the time. That is an important consideration.

The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Paddy Tipping): Perhaps I could remind the House that my right hon. Friend was then a member of the Government and diligently supported the Government line.

Mr. Meacher: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for reminding me of a fact about which I have been asked on every platform in the past few weeks. I repeat that it is correct: I made that decision, and I continue to regard it as the biggest political mistake of my life. However, my defence is that I believed what I was being told. I have no regrets about that explanation because it is true.

We should not get locked into a discussion about Iraq. The debate is not an argument about the rights and wrongs of going to war over Iraq in the sense that we should introduce a decision-making procedure that would prevent such a result in future. A large majority in the House and the nation now take such a view about Iraq, but that is not the point, which is much wider. Irrespective of the rights or wrongs of particular wars, the decision to go to war is so paramount to the life of the nation that it should be made only by an elected Parliament on a substantive vote, well before events have moved to such a point that Parliament has little or no alternative to ratifying a decision that has already been reached.

The matter, more than any other issue, raises the question of democratic accountability in Britain, which has withered away in the face of a marked centralisation of power in the past 30 years. The power of the Prime Minister under successive Administrations has increased, is increasing and should be cut back. Many of the
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previous checks and balances have been eroded and some of the pre-existing autocratic powers in the hands of successive Prime Ministers, derived from the monarchs of previous ages under a totally different system of governance, have been consolidated further. The right to take a country to war, irrespective of parliamentary or public opinion—that is the actual position, however unlikely it may seem—is the clearest example of that.

Under the royal prerogative over the centuries, the powers of the Crown, exercised by the Prime Minister, without consultation with either the Cabinet or Parliament, include the right to declare war or make peace, to sign or ratify treaties, to confer honours—recent events might suggest that that is another subject that Parliament should further consider—to make appointments, to establish commissions and to grant pardons.

I am pleased that considerable advance has been made inasmuch as the democratisation of those prerogative rights is, it seems, increasingly advocated by all the political parties. Other political parties can speak for themselves, but I am pleased to say that my party, when in opposition, said that it would ensure that

The document particularly emphasised as central areas of concern both going to war and the ratification of treaties. One smarts a little about this, but I have to say that it is rather regrettable that the Government have repeatedly sought to block private Members’ Bills that have tried to provide validity to those aspirations. It would, of course, be very much better if the Government legislated, which is what is needed, so it is essential that, in the light of this debate, the Government now bring forward their proposals to implement that commitment.

In addition to the democratic dimension, strong constitutional arrangements are important. I am pleased that attention has been given to the crucial point that evidence cited to justify such a momentous decision as going to war should be full and transparent—subject to the strict dictates of national security, which is, of course, another problem, as all Governments regrettably use national security as a way of concealing information that might be damaging to themselves. In the case of Iraq, that would mean that the Attorney-General’s full advice on the legality of the war—the 17-page version, not just the one page—would be made available, as would the evidence on the existence and threat of weapons of mass destruction, insofar as it was available to the intelligence services, and the proper reporting of what turned out to be crucial in that case, which is the key French position on the possible use of the veto in the Security Council.

All of that would need to be laid before Parliament. Had all that information been made available in the months running up to March 2003, I think that a very different decision might well have been reached in Parliament. If such full information were provided, all of those matters would be much more thoroughly scrutinised and the manipulation of the evidence would become much more problematic. I might add that this is even more the case in an era of what some have called “sofa Government”. The informality with which even major decisions are taken was devastatingly
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documented in the Butler report. Again, sadly, cross-departmental consultation and negotiation is today much less constant and less systematic.

For all those reasons, as I said, I introduced a Bill in February. Either because of the luck of the draw—I was low down in the order—or for other more mischievous reasons, I have not previously had the opportunity to put my case to the House, so I am grateful to the Opposition for the opportunity to do so now. The Bill requires that the approval of Parliament be sought before British armed forces can be deployed in military action. For that purpose, it also requires the Prime Minister to lay before both Houses of Parliament a report setting out the objectives, the legal basis and the likely duration of the proposed military action.

The Bill also deals with important situations where the Prime Minister may need to determine that deployment is urgently necessary before the approval of the House of Commons can be achieved. We should not in any event seek to prevent that, but in such circumstances—they would, I think, be rare—the Bill requires that the Prime Minister must still lay a report before Parliament within seven days of the commencement of troop deployment. I believe that that is a reasonable compromise.

Those demands are not out of step. There is nothing remarkable about any of the proposals, and it is not as though we would be making any great democratic advance by adopting them. Rather, we would be catching up with what other countries already do. In the United States, for example, the War Powers Resolution of 1973 states that if the approval of Congress for waging war is not secured within 60 days, the President must withdraw US forces within a further 30 days.

The proposals that we are discussing today represent a crucial change whose implementation is long overdue. As we now know from the leaking of the Downing street memo, the Prime Minister apparently committed the UK to war in Iraq in secret in April 2002 by giving his word to President Bush at his ranch in Texas. The fact that, under the present arrangements, he could legitimately argue that he was entitled to do so—I believe that that is the case—is precisely why those arrangements need to be reformed. I submit that it is now our duty in this House to put in place proposals to ensure that that kind of personalised, secretive and undemocratic decision making, reminiscent of a long bygone age and totally unsuitable for a modern constitutional democracy, is brought to an end, and that Parliament takes the role that we all know the nation and the electorate clearly demand.

5.31 pm

Mr. Kenneth Clarke (Rushcliffe) (Con): I have debated many times over the years with the right hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher), but I cannot remember another occasion on which I have agreed almost completely with everything that he has said. For the sake of his left-wing credentials, and of my own position in my party, I will also say that I cannot think of any other subject on which we would get so close to each other’s views. I endorse what he has said today, however, and I particularly agreed with him when said that the motion tabled by my right hon.
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Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) had provided the opportunity for a significant constitutional change. We are not debating a small matter here.

Suddenly, resistance has crumbled to the important assertion of the role of Parliament in a modern democracy, and to the way in which we will establish legitimacy for going to war in future. This is therefore an important occasion. So far, the debate has attracted only what I would call the true believers, and only a few weeks ago they would have found themselves in a small minority. The Leader of the House was able to find a 1994 book, in which he put forward admirable sentiments—which, alas, were not adopted by the Government in which he has served for 10 years. Everyone else who has spoken has form on this issue, including through supporting private Members’ Bills seeking to make this change, which have been flatly opposed by the Government.

It is important that we true believers not only rejoice on seeing the sinners coming to repentance, but take advantage of the occasion to give an indication of what we want to come out of this. The Government’s amendment to the motion is expressed in broad generalities, but we must ensure that the process is changed, so that in some highly controversial future situation of which none of us can yet be aware, some future Government do not try to rely on the wrong bits of the proposals or slip back from where we appear to be going.

This change seems to be one of the few beneficial outcomes of the recent Iraq war. We are not, of course, debating the merits of the war today, but it is the controversy surrounding it that has led to this change. It has revealed how weak our constitutional arrangements for going to war have been, and the dissatisfaction with that process has produced this significant shift in position. The decision to take part in the invasion of Iraq was based on the Prime Minister’s power to advise on the exercise of the royal prerogative, and it is long overdue that we should assert, in contradiction to that, that the Prime Minister and the Government derive their power from Parliament, not from the monarch, and that the arrangements resulting from the Glorious Revolution of 1688 are totally unacceptable to Parliament in 2007. I very much hope that the Lord Chancellor’s defence of the 1688 Glorious Revolution and the royal prerogative on this subject, made only two weeks ago, will be the last defence of that arrangement heard in British politics from any sensible source.

Dr. Palmer: I am not sure that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is entirely correct to say that the Iraq war is a good example of the royal prerogative being inappropriately used. Does not he agree that the Prime Minister’s decision to have a vote on the conflict changed the landscape here, and that we are now seeking to institutionalise such a vote as the norm? Does not he also accept that the controversy that has continued to surround that conflict shows that a parliamentary vote is not the only way of resolving such difficult issues, and that we need to consider the whole question of war making as a process?

Mr. Clarke: Certainly, the Prime Minister and the Government were persuaded that they had to move to a substantive vote. I give credit for that to the
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Government, and particularly to Robin Cook, who, according to the account that we heard from the Leader of the House earlier, persuaded his colleagues that it was not possible to carry on resisting the demand for a substantive motion in the House of Commons. That changed things to a certain extent. I understand why the Leader of the House should have tabled a motion, and should make a speech today, pointing out that that is a precedent on which we will never go back; it is skilful advocacy to take credit for that now, and to claim that that is the basis on which the change is being made.

I urge caution, however. For the reasons given by the right hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton, on which I shall try to expand in my speech, that was not a satisfactory precedent in many ways. The circumstances in which the vote was taken revealed the weakness of not having had a vote before. Although it became impossible for a present-day Government to resist putting a substantive motion to the House of Commons, that was not satisfactory. Indeed, continued dissatisfaction with the recent process led the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short) to table her Bill, which I supported, led the right hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton to table his Bill, and should lead us all to clamour for reform. Now that things have moved, the consultation should lead to our considering in great detail how to enshrine the process to make sure that when Parliament is given its right to vote and scrutinise in future, it can do that properly, without a pistol held at its head, in full knowledge of all the relevant information, and in a position actually to influence the outcome. We are not there yet.

I would adopt as a starting point the recommendations of the House of Lords Constitution Committee. I was pleased that the Leader of the House referred to those recommendations with apparent approval, and I hope that that means that the Government will look to the report of that Select Committee, chaired by Lord Holme, a Liberal peer, as the starting point. It is important that we consider what that Committee eventually recommended, on page 43 of its report. To save time, I shall paraphrase it, but only a little.

That report said that the Government should be required to seek parliamentary approval if they propose the deployment of troops outside the United Kingdom in an area of conflict, and that that decision should probably be subject to scrutiny by a Select Committee and in other appropriate ways. It recommended that prior approval should be required as the trigger for the deployment of troops, and that subsequent ratification of that approval should take place if circumstances change after the deployment is first made. It also said that the Government should be required to put forward the legal basis of the possible warfare or conflict that may arise from the deployment, and that the case for going to war should be set out clearly for parliamentary scrutiny.

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