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There have been examples of where that has been done, and in questions of war-making it is vital that—consistent with security and so forth—as much information as possible be imparted to this place.

It is crucial that we are told the legal basis for war. I say that because when I was in Iraq two and a half years ago, I spoke to several senior officers who were deeply worried about the legitimacy of the conflict and the role of the troops. They volunteered those opinions;
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I was not canvassing them. They were unsure and their morale was undoubtedly affected by that issue. Let us get this right: I am not trying to stir up the matter; it was volunteered to me. I am passing on, for what it is worth, the information that many senior officers in Iraq were concerned about the legitimacy of what they were doing. In my view, nothing is more damaging to military morale than a real doubt about the legitimacy of military actions. Indeed, days before the conflict began, Lord Boyce, then Chief of the Defence Staff, demanded what he called “unequivocal legal authority” for the invasion of Iraq. Similarly, I believe that Parliament should have such unequivocal legal authority in any debate on future conflicts; otherwise, such a decision will again be taken on flawed or seriously incomplete information, which cannot be the way forward in matters as serious as these.

There is widespread concern about the way in which the Government acted in the run-up to the Iraq conflict. I suspect that that concern may deepen further as casualties continue and when we see the heart-breaking spectacle of grieving parents asking why their son or daughter died and in what cause. I have nothing but the highest regard for the troops serving there—their bravery and professionalism is beyond doubt and beyond comparison. But it has surely reached the point where it is possible, or at least conceivable, that the presence of those brave men and women is actually contributing to the problem rather than helping to solve it. I put that not in a partisan way, but because I genuinely believe that it may be true.

As politicians, we like to say that lessons have been learned. If so, let us change the procedures to ensure that in future we do not again witness a disastrous and damaging debacle such as the Iraq conflict. Let Parliament assert itself and ensure that it is never again asked to vote on a flawed and discredited prospectus with such horrific and enduring consequences.

7.36 pm

Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset) (Con): I congratulate my right hon. and hon. Friends on bringing this subject before the House today. I am sure that when they took that decision, they did not expect to see such a consensus across the Chamber, or a Government amendment very similar in its wording to the original motion.

I have a dilemma—very much on the same lines as that of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind). In my capacity as chairman of the defence committee of the European Security and Defence Assembly of the Western European Union, I have seen the effect of parliamentary approval on the deployment of the forces of a number of our European partners. What concerns me is that in seeking democratic legitimacy for what our armed forces do, we should not allow ourselves to get into a situation where we reduce the flexibility and timely deployment of those forces, or introduce national caveats into our deployment within multinational force deployments.

Mention has been made—I am not going to make a great deal of it—of the Iraq vote in this House. I participated in the debates on Iraq and voted basically against the Iraq invasion, although—for reasons that
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my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) put so succinctly—I abstained on the final vote because we were already effectively at war. Our troops were massed on the Kuwait border ready for the invasion and I felt that there was no reason to give comfort to Saddam Hussein by displaying a number of MPs who were not with our troops on that occasion. As I have pointed out several times previously, I also had a personal reason in that my daughter, a surgeon in the Royal Army Medical Corps, was one of the troops on the border, so she was part of the invasion force.

On occasions, the case for military conflict is clear and there is a consensus. A number of hon. Members have mentioned that this evening. I believe that there was a consensus in 1939, for example, or over the Falklands. On other occasions, however, there is not a consensus and the case is not clear. Suez would be the most obvious post-war example. There are also occasions involving threats to sovereign government on which, particularly in this post-colonial era, we have deployed troops in places such as Cyprus, Kenya and Rhodesia for just those reasons.

The world has changed in a number of ways, however. The world of state-on-state conflict is no longer with us. It might come back—who knows?—and we might have to invoke our various article 5 responses. I am referring to article 5 of the Washington treaty and article 5 of the modified Brussels treaty. It is more likely, however, that we shall be involved in military missions under the cover of a United Nations resolution, although such resolutions can be somewhat dubiously interpreted on occasions. I feel that that is what happened with Iraq.

It is also more likely that we shall be involved in the broader tasks that were defined in 1992 as the Petersberg tasks—humanitarian, rescue and peacekeeping tasks, and tasks involving combat forces in crisis management, including peacemaking. In Europe, those tasks are now vested in the EU Council, as well as in NATO. I mention them here because it is rare in modern times for us to deploy our troops outside the framework of an international organisation. We have been involved with NATO in Afghanistan and Kosovo, and with the EU in Bosnia and Macedonia. We are not involved in any major United Nations operations at the moment, but we could have been involved in the recent or ongoing ones in Lebanon and the Congo.

There are lessons to be learned from international comparisons, and I want to examine how some of our European neighbours approach the subject of parliamentary approval. In Belgium, article 167 of the constitution stipulates:

As national defence is a matter for the Executive, parliamentary scrutiny is exercised retrospectively.

That contrasts with Denmark, where, according to paragraph 19(3) of the Danish Constitutional Act, the Danish Parliament appoints a foreign policy committee from among its Members, which the Government consult before making any decision of major importance to
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foreign policy. The Government are, moreover, subject to the same general and specific parliamentary control and possible sanctions as in all other areas.

In Spain, article 63 of the constitution states:

Article 64 provides that all acts by the King shall be countersigned by the Prime Minister, so it can fairly be stated that this responsibility rests with the Head of Government, who

as provided by article 97.

France is an interesting case. Article 35 of the constitution—the 1958 constitution; France has had quite a few in recent years—states:

There has not been a declaration of war since 1939, however. More appropriately—or at least, the late General de Gaulle thought it more appropriate—article 16 states:

There might be a lesson to be learned from Luxembourg. According to article 37 of the constitution of the Grand Duchy,

The Netherlands changed their provisions in July 2000 with the inclusion of a new article in their constitution. Article 100 states:

The Dutch provisions are now the closest to the German provisions, which are considered within NATO to be something of a hindrance to the deployment of armed forces.

I shall come to Germany in a moment, but first I want to consider the case of Sweden, because there might be some lessons to be learned there. Sweden’s Instrument of Government states that

that is the Swedish Parliament—

The basic provisions are as follows:

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I want to finish my comparison by considering the case of Germany, because it forms an essential part of the debate in terms of putting the matter into context and perhaps of trying not to go where Germany has gone. It is also essential to consider this issue in the context of Germany’s history. It was not until 1969 that Germany had an army, following the reconstitution of the Bundeswehr. We should also remind ourselves that there are German forces in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Kosovo. Also, last year, the first German-led military mission was deployed to the Congo—it commanded the EUFOR mission that was deployed there for about four months—and, for the first six months of this year, one of the two EU battle groups on call is under German command and dominated by German forces.

The experience of Germany highlights the problems associated with the principle of parliamentary approval. Before each deployment, there is a lengthy debate in the Bundestag and the Bundesrat, and they will decide whether German forces will be deployed, in what operations they will be involved, and what the terms of engagement will be. They also lay down any caveats relating to their forces’ operation in the context of a multinational force. They also lay down the conditions that their troops should enjoy. Having visited German troops in a number of theatres, I remember that one provision is that no German soldier should be deployed anywhere in the world unless he has access to exactly the same medical facilities that he would have if he were living at home in Germany. That means that they have some of the most fantastic military field hospitals of any armed forces in the world.

Consequently, in Afghanistan, the German armed forces operate outside the main areas of conflict. They have an excellent field hospital in Kabul and are involved in provincial reconstruction in the northern, peaceful areas of the country. In the Congo mission, although the operation commander was German, and the largest number of troops deployed were German, no German combat troops were involved—the only combat troops were Spanish and French—despite the Bundeswehr having excellent infantry forces, very good equipment and very good armoured vehicles. They did, however, have two marvellous field hospitals, one in Kinshasa and one in Libreville.

We must accept the reality of today. Within NATO, we have a number of rapid reaction commitments, beyond our article 5 commitments. In a year or so, we will command an EU battle group, which must respond within 15 days—five days to a decision and 10 days to a deployment. Recently, in Berlin, I asked both the chairman of the Bundestag’s defence committee and the Defence Minister whether, given Germany’s previous experience of taking three months to decide whether to deploy to the Congo, that was possible. The answer that I received was along the lines of, “We think it’ll be all right on the night.”

I agree wholeheartedly with the principle in the motion, but it must not impede or inhibit our ability to defend
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our country or meet our international obligations. We must have careful definitions of peacekeeping and peacemaking. Let us remember that the initial NATO deployment to Afghanistan was as the international security assistance force, whose mission was provincial reconstruction—a fairly innocent-sounding mission, and it was fairly innocent to start with. Our troops who are now committed in the southern part of that country, however, are in anything but an innocent deployment.

We cannot predict today what tomorrow’s conflicts will be, but Parliament must set down our criteria for rapid deployment, which we must never frustrate. On national caveats, if different Parliaments lay down different criteria for their troops to be deployed in multinational missions, that can lead to enormous grievances and problems for military commanders. We must give our commanders in the field the tools to do the job. Parliament must be involved at all stages; its involvement must be essential and not an afterthought.

In international missions, scrutiny at an international level, at which parliamentarians from different countries come together to oversee our common security structures, is also important, within the NATO Parliamentary Assembly and the WEU European Security and Defence Assembly. We must remind the European Parliament that troops are committed by national Governments. There is no European army, and while troops are national, oversight must be provided by national parliamentarians, not MEPs.

That is the essential part of the motion. If we are to expect our young men and women to lay down their lives, we, as elected representatives of the people of this country, must be able to legitimise their deployment. There are those who still see themselves as subjects of the Crown; I believe that most of my electors see themselves as citizens of a democracy. The Crown prerogative is convenient when immediate actions are required. It should, however, be tempered and controlled. I have reservations about the effectiveness of our armed forces in such circumstances, but I would still support the motion.

7.54 pm

Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter), whose knowledge of Europe and its defence forces is extensive. I have drawn two conclusions from his contribution. Although the Luxembourg system, which he mentioned, may be of value, I understand that Luxembourg has only 10 soldiers in Afghanistan; no doubt their presence is welcome. On a more serious point, his contribution shows how much work we have to do before a sensible European response to international crises is possible.

I support my right hon. Friends’ motion, although I have serious reservations about it. My first reservation is a purely political one. I echo the comments of the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) that the reason for the sudden change in Government policy, given that the Lord Chancellor was, two or three weeks ago, pouring cold water over the change proposed in the Government’s amendment, is that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is clearing out the stables before taking office. He knows perfectly well that what has happened over the Iraq war has driven
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trust in the Government to the lowest point. Therefore urgent action is needed; hence the amendment, which I assume will be accepted tonight instead of our motion.

My reservation about the amendment is that it

Should we hold our breath? When the Chancellor takes over as Prime Minister, will his advisers come round saying, “Prime Minister, is it wise to give Parliament this important power?” We have to wait and see, with a degree of cynicism, whether anything will come of tonight. Certainly I hope that something does come of it, because that will enhance the reputation of Parliament enormously.

My other reservation, which has been reflected in many other Members’ speeches, is whether the proposal will interfere with the ability of this country and its military to operate properly. Will it handicap our armed forces in action? Clearly, the military must have freedom of action, certainly when engaged in a conflict. Tonight, however, we have heard that changing circumstances could result in further votes. How will those further votes square with giving the military the proper discretion to operate in a conflict zone, if they know that such votes might take away the legitimacy of what they are doing? If, as was suggested in the House tonight, we had another vote on Iraq, and the House voted against continuing engagement there, would not our forces have to be pulled back with a degree of urgency, in an undignified retreat? To make the proposal work, a lot of hurdles need to be overcome.

Another hurdle is the intelligence. How will the House come to a properly informed decision unless it is privy to the intelligence? How will it get the intelligence without betraying its source? That seems to be a difficult circle to square, and it is a major problem. People have suggested different ways of dealing with that, such as intelligence committees, but the Opposition will not trust the Government on intelligence, nor will some Labour Members.

Another hurdle is deciding whether to implement the proposal through a convention, as the House of Lords Select Committee recommended, or, as others have suggested, through a statute. If we have a statute, there is again a problem, because if British forces are engaged in a conflict, and then Parliament votes that that engagement should cease, does that mean that whatever has happened up to that point becomes unlawful? That is an interesting question for international and other lawyers, of whom I am not one. Given a chance, I would probably prefer the House of Lords Select Committee’s recommendation of a convention, rather than a statute.

Historians divide wars into two categories: wars of choice and wars of necessity. Most of the wars that we fight are wars of choice. World war one and world war two, and possibly the Falklands, would be described as wars of necessity, when we had no option but to fight. All the other wars in which we have been involved—we have been involved in more military action than any other country since the second world war—have been wars of choice. In theory that should give Parliament plenty of time in which to debate the issues in the run-up to its decision on whether to take action, but in reality the position is not nearly as clear-cut.

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