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I agree with the public that we have tended too often to say, “We are the experts on what the world needs and we are prepared to intervene, whatever it takes and wherever it may be.” It is necessary to be able to do that in the right cause to prevent genocide or wholesale
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slaughter, and we need a process that we can accept. I am in favour of the change and I should like to explore some of the specific details that have been raised during the debate. The hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) asked what the test should be for substantial involvement, and whether it should be firepower or manpower. The answer is both. If we commit substantial firepower abroad, Britain will become very much part of whatever controversy is involved. That is a matter on which the House of Commons should legitimately be able to express an opinion. If we commit substantial manpower, the likelihood is that British lives will be lost—so even more so should Parliament be involved.

The right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) and my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow both raised the issue of timing. As we discussed in my exchange with my hon. Friend, there are difficulties both in consulting too early and in consulting too late. If the Prime Minister had come to the House six months before the Iraq war—at a time when I think that he had privately concluded that it was likely that war would be necessary—and if at that stage he had sought the authority of the House to go to war, with the United Nations still debating the issue and a great deal of controversy about Saddam’s intentions and about the potential for the weapons inspectors to succeed in their mission, it would have been seen as an extremely provocative act, effectively pre-empting the attempt to find a peaceful outcome. However, by consulting only when the troops were on the border, as my hon. Friends the Members for Walthamstow and for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) said, a great many of us felt that it was very difficult at that stage, with our troops on the border, for us to say, “No, let’s all go home.”

I suggest that we foresee two separate decisions. One would be taken at the time of a substantial deployment of troops abroad. It would be accepted that that was not a vote to go to war, but a vote to deploy troops with a view to forcing a positive outcome. There would then be a separate decision at the time that it was felt that military force was needed. Those are two quite separate decisions, which should be seen as such. It should be possible to say, “We authorise the dispatch of 50,000 troops”—or whatever the number might be—“for the purpose of advancing a favourable outcome”, without that being a commitment to armed conflict, which would necessarily and prematurely inflame the situation.

I am opposed constantly to revisiting the issue once a conflict has started. That was the point that we discussed briefly earlier. If our troops are fighting, it seems to me that we should not have some routine mechanism for Parliament to revisit the issue at regular intervals to discuss whether they should be fighting or whether they should stop. That would be demoralising.

Nick Harvey (North Devon) (LD): Surely the hon. Gentleman cannot logically say that it is for Parliament to take a view at the outset, but that however long events go on and however badly they are going, there should be no facility for Parliament to comment. I noticed that he used the word “routine”. The German Bundestag has a regular timetabled look at such things. I would not advocate that, but I would want to feel that
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Parliament could come back if, in the fullness of time, it did not consider that some of the original hopes and expectations were being realised.

Dr. Palmer: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I am glad that he picked up on my word “routine”. That is the point that I am making. Whereas Parliament should be automatically required to approve deployment and outbreak of war, I do not think that it should be automatically, by some standard mechanism, required to come back to the subject every three months or whatever the interval might be. In that case, the normal parliamentary process would take effect. If one of the political parties comes to the conclusion that a substantial change in strategy or even a complete withdrawal is needed, there are existing procedures in Parliament to allow that political party to raise the matter on one of its Supply days as a substantive motion.

We heard the hon. Member for Gainsborough and one or two others urge that we withdraw from Iraq as soon as possible—virtually immediately. It would be open to the Conservative Opposition to use a Supply day such as today to put forward not a motion in principle about war-making powers but a motion urging immediate withdrawal. They have not done so because, at this point, they do not think that it would be justified or in the interests of our troops or the country. As I understand it, the Liberal Democrats favour an early withdrawal, and it would be open to them to put forward a substantive motion on a Liberal Democrat Supply day. If the Government came to the conclusion that a change of strategy was needed, it would be open to them, in all sorts of ways, to come to Parliament to ask for such approval. However, it should not be an automatic process—the automatic element should relate only to the deployment of troops.

Mark Durkan: My hon. Friend emphasises the importance of people in this House not wishing to demoralise those who are already deployed in an area of conflict. Surely it would be demoralising to leave the question of parliamentary scrutiny of what takes place to partisan motions and initiatives. What does he think of the idea of forming a bespoke Select Committee each time there was a resolution to deploy, which would then consider and adjudge whether debates or motions in this House were subsequently necessary depending on developments and performance?

Dr. Palmer: We should not underestimate the hesitation that any political party would feel about bringing forward a proposal to change the war strategy or, in effect, to admit defeat and go home. I guess that that is why the Liberal Democrats have not done so, although that is a matter for them. I am not against my hon. Friend’s proposal, which is interesting.

That brings me to the more general point that we should not have any illusion that procedural mechanisms will enable us to deal with all the practical problems that arise and all the moral and ethical challenges that we face in these situations. In the case of Iraq, unlike all the previous controversies, we have had not one, not two, but three votes, which effectively decided that Parliament was in favour of going to war as necessary. [ Interruption . ] The hon. Member for
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Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood), who says “No”, was not here. My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington, who was against the war, confirmed that she saw all three of those votes as leading very clearly in that direction, as I did.

Mr. Ellwood: The hon. Lady may have said that that was the spirit of what was voted on, but if the hon. Gentleman read the text of the various motions he would see that they were not about going to war—they were about quibbling over resolution 1141 and then endorsing resolution 678, which is 12 years old. If we are to move forward and give powers to this Chamber, we must have a clear-cut motion put to us about going into conflict, rather than one that tweaks around with references to something that is more than 10 years old.

Dr. Palmer: I do not want to get too deeply into debate with the hon. Gentleman about the precise wording of previous motions. Frankly, if he had been here he would not have been in any doubt.

We must avoid the illusion that a parliamentary approval mechanism alone would drastically change the outcome of a vote: it would not. Those of us who were here at the time of the Iraq vote will recall that public opinion had swung substantially in favour of voting to go to war. That is always the case. In any example that I can recall, with the possible exception of Suez, public opinion at the time we are about to go to war has been in favour of doing so. We know why that is. The press and the public tend to rally around the Government of the day and say, “Right, if push comes to shove, we are ready to go to war.” I cannot conceive of a situation whereby the Government of the day goes to Parliament and says, “We’ve got this desperate situation and it’s necessary to have an armed conflict—do you agree?”, and Parliament says no. In practice, that does not happen and will not happen. From that we conclude that it is not just a single vote, or even two votes, on deployment and use of force that is needed, but a well-defined process in the run-up to a potential conflict.

Let me turn to the issue of intelligence. Most of us agree that what happened in the case of Iraq was that the intelligence community was asked, in effect, “Are you able to confirm the suspicion held by many countries around the world that Saddam has weapons of mass destruction?” Intelligence is very much like looking into a fog with little glints of light, and we ask the intelligence community to piece them together and make a pattern. Asked that question, the intelligence community thought, “We are being asked whether we can confirm that Saddam probably has weapons of mass destruction.” So it looked at the fog, picked out the elements that seemed to confirm that and delivered them, with the results that we know. That is where the weakness lies. Well before any parliamentary consultation takes place, there is that difficulty in assessing the evidence. I, and others, would suggest that the Intelligence and Security Committee, which generally meets in private and under Privy Council rules, should be given access to the full range of evidence for and against any hypothesis that may be
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being made as a basis for war and come to a conclusion, which it reports to Parliament, on whether it considers that that evidence was convincing.

Mr. Gerrard: Does my hon. Friend accept that Iraq is the example of a war where intelligence, or decisions about intelligence, mattered, but that over the past 10 years that has been the exception rather than the rule? Does he also agree that given the experience of Iraq, it will be incredibly difficult for anybody again to persuade people in this House to support a war purely on the basis of supposed intelligence?

Dr. Palmer: My hon. Friend makes a good point, which I had not altogether considered. He is right that the intelligence issue was very salient on Iraq in a way that it was not, say, on Afghanistan. His second point was also correct. Were we to propose another war on the basis of intelligence, it would require a greater conviction that that intelligence was correct. In that sense, my suggestion of an independent review of the evidence by the Intelligence and Security Committee could help. It is very important to have an element of independent all-party scrutiny at the intelligence stage.

Mr. Ellwood: The hon. Gentleman makes a relevant point. We can argue until the cows come home about whether we should go to war, but once we have made that commitment it is important that we continue the process of transition from war to peace. That is where I take issue with what is going on in Iraq and Afghanistan. Parking the question about going to war, in both cases, does he think that the management of the peace has been successful? Had we put up democratic regimes in a short space of time and then exited, I question whether we would be having this debate at all.

Dr. Palmer: Today’s debate is healthy in itself, regardless of Iraq. As I have argued, Iraq is an example of a case that would not be solved by what we are trying to do today. If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I shall not go into detail about my view of the peacekeeping operations in Iraq and Afghanistan because other hon. Members want to speak, and it would go beyond the subject that we are discussing.

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring) (Con): I am interested in the hon. Gentleman’s excellent speech. Before he finishes considering intelligence and his alternative arrangements, does he believe that the problem with the Iraq war lay with gathering and collating or interpreting the intelligence? How would his proposals deal with those three aspects?

Dr. Palmer: There was obviously a problem with gathering intelligence. There is a general problem of having sufficient agents on the ground and so on. My suggestions would not help with that. A problem lay with the intelligence community’s interpretation of the available evidence. Like most people, my understanding of all the facts is incomplete, but my impression is that the intelligence community felt that it had been asked to give a yes or no answer to the specific question, “Does Saddam have weapons of mass destruction?” It then examined the available evidence for indications that that might be the case. I believe that an all-party
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committee could legitimately be asked to scrutinise that element of judgment. Such a committee could get it wrong, too. It could examine the evidence and reach the same conclusion, but at least there would be no corrosive suggestion that one party had over-interpreted the data and the other party would have done things differently. If an all-party, trusted committee, which considered the evidence, said that it appeared convincing, I would feel that that was reasonably persuasive, even if the Government were of a different party from mine.

I conclude by reverting to my original reference to the opinion poll about reluctance to engage overseas. We need to envisage not only consulting Parliament in future conflicts, but making a commitment to consult internationally, on a multilateral basis. I believe that there will still be occasions when most countries in the western world agree that a specific situation is so horrific that collective action is necessary. I note that, in Afghanistan—as opposed to Iraq—there remains a broad consensus among western Governments and, indeed, some non-western Governments that our involvement there is necessary.

Multilateralism is also a test of the validity of the arguments that take us to war. If we conclude that war is justified and we find that several major countries have reached the same conclusion, the decision is more likely to stand the test of time than if we play our traditional role of claiming that we have an almost unique ability to judge the needs of the world.

Yes, let us consult Parliament and do it as a process rather than a one-off action, but let us also try to commit British forces as part of a multilateral effort rather than an heroic lone mission.

7.24 pm

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): I am pleased to take a small part in the debate, which has been interesting. Consensus in the Chamber usually means that a debate is as dull as ditchwater, but today’s discussion has been interesting and important.

The hon. Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer), in correcting some hon. Members and advising others, said that the debate had nothing to do with Iraq. I do not believe that for a moment. Given that about 80 per cent. of his speech was about Iraq, I wonder why he bothered to make such a claim.

Let us consider the reason for the sudden U-turn and interesting timing of the debate. It is to do with the Chancellor, who is busily rowing away from the Blair mother ship. The only transparency is the politics behind that. Who was in the Cabinet when the decision was made to invade Iraq? Who paid the cheques? Who is as much an architect of Blairism as the man himself and, therefore, partly responsible for the conflict in Iraq? The answer is the Chancellor. He is now publicly advising that Parliament should play a pivotal role in war-making. Good. On the presumption that the assertion is not mere froth and spin, or part of his strategy to distance himself from the Blair Administration in which he was a central player, and that it can be taken seriously, it is most welcome.

The Leader of the House, in opening the debate, said that there would be consultation with all parties. Let us hope that that will happen. For the record, I believe
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that the convention route is preferable to a statutory route. Doubtless, that will be discussed in the weeks and months ahead. However, we must apply the lessons of Iraq and examine several matters that must be tackled.

Let us consider intelligence. First, it must be clear, tested and truthful. Unfortunately, that was not the case a couple of years ago. Secondly, it must be placed before Parliament unencumbered by spin or—worse—by being borrowed from a student’s thesis. The hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) said that she saw through the various documents. As it happens, so did I. However, other aspects were in play during the votes and they contributed to the general ratcheting up to a position where war would happen. Regardless of wording, those of us who were present at that time knew what was happening. We knew that people were being hauled before the Prime Minister and the Whips and we also knew the real meaning of the motions. Let us not pretend otherwise. The hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington is a redoubtable and tough character. She stood up to it, but others, sadly, did not. Still others were genuinely misled and took the evidence at its face value. I, for one, did not, and would be wary of doing so in future. Let us see whether we can improve the system.

Thirdly, Parliament’s involvement at an early stage, not when it is convenient only to the Executive, is crucial. That point has already been made and I shall not dwell on it. However, we know that the decision to invade Iraq was casually agreed in Texas between the Prime Minister and President Bush many months before Parliament voted on the matter. Indeed, the Prime Minister answered questions from various Members of Parliament, including me, in the few weeks before the conflict in Iraq, saying that no decision had been made and that military action could easily be avoided. He said that when 130,000 American troops were massed on the borders of Iraq.

We were badly served by the current system. I could put it another way, but I shall not. Furthermore, we are aware of the misinformation about 45 minutes and the weapons of mass destruction. We also know that the nuclear experts were eager to continue searching and that Dr. Hans Blix, the chemical warfare expert, was keen to carry on for a couple of months. They were not allowed to complete their work, despite their pleas and despite being mandated by the United Nations to complete their respective tasks.

Clearly, in addressing the matter, we must consider prerogative powers. I believe that those powers will have to remain, but that they should be exercisable by this House under strict conditions, whereby full information is supplied and a full debate is possible. I shall quote from the report of the House of Lords Constitution Committee, which is referred to in the motion. It states:

That is absolutely right and it is an essential question in this debate. That power is not one that the Executive would relinquish easily, but as I have already said, the
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Chancellor has indicated a willingness to bring Parliament into the equation. Earlier this year, on a Sunday political programme, the Chancellor made that quite clear to Mr. Andrew Marr. He said that he could not conceive of a situation

That is all well and good, but it may also be argued by the Government that Parliament did play a similar role in the build-up to the present conflict in Iraq. As I have already intimated, that role was entirely unsatisfactory in its timing and also highly unsatisfactory given the quality of the alleged evidence against Saddam on which Parliament was to rely in reaching its conclusions and voting accordingly. In case anyone has any misgivings or qualms about this, let me say that Saddam was an awful tyrant and that no one in his right mind could ever have said a good word about him. That, however, is beside the point; it is another matter— [Interruption.] Whether that justifies breaking international law is another question. That is my point.

In the debate on the subject in the other place, the noble Lord Lester said that

I think that that is a very sensible proposition indeed and I hope that, ultimately, that kind of thinking can be adopted in the cross-party discussions that will ensue after today’s debate.

On the legal basis for military action, I remind the House of the debate on 9 March 2004, which I opened on behalf of Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National party. I called in a motion for the full opinion of the Attorney-General to be disclosed. I still believe that that is right, even though I have heard knowledgeable Members on both sides of the House taking a contrary view. What we must have, at the very least, is more information on the legal opinion. It may be difficult in certain circumstances to supply the whole opinion—though I know not—but one page of A4 is hardly sufficient when there is a 17-page document. There are plenty of authorities in agreement with me. “Erskine May”, for example, states:

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