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History explains why Parliament has been omitted from the picture in various areas. The hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) put it fairly in explaining his conversion, and it is the central argument for me. What history tells us, and what we tried to say in the report three years ago, is that it is among the peculiarities of our history—in some ways, the blessings of our history—that we have not, in some considerable time, had to sit down and work out what kind of political system we want or what kind of political people we want to be. We have never had to devise a new constitution, or indeed any kind of codified constitution, never having been successfully invaded or having had a successful revolution in modern times. We have never had to undertake the kind of political enterprise that other countries have had to do, so we have never had to confront what has happened in our history, which is—among all the
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blessings of broad stability and gradual change—that powers that used to reside with monarchs have been transferred lock, stock and barrel to modern Executives. That is the running thread of our history. We come now, late in the day, to try to put Parliament back into the picture. We are doing that on several fronts, with some success.

It was only a little while ago that I made the case that it was a constitutional anomaly that the Prime Minister did not account to a Committee of this House in the way that other Ministers did. Through our Committee, and then through the Liaison Committee, I entered into correspondence with Downing street about that. I used to get letters back—we published them—that told me that it was constitutionally impossible and went against all the conventions for the Prime Minister to attend on a Committee of this House. When Robin Cook was Leader of the House, he memorably asked me to stop going on about the issue, because the Prime Minister would never agree to it. The following week came the announcement that the Prime Minister would attend twice a year to give evidence before the Liaison Committee.

We can see in that process a convention in the making. One day, it was constitutionally impossible and offended against all our traditions; then it happened; and now it is inconceivable that any future Prime Minister would not attend on the Liaison Committee. That is how we make constitutional change, but it is hard because we do not do it from first principles or a blank piece of paper. We come at the problem from this point in history, when we are trying to insert Parliament back into a war-making powers process. That is a process from which it has been excluded, inappropriately, for a long time.

I agree with everyone who has said that the matter requires very careful consideration. We need to get it right. There are arguments about whether it is better to use law or convention, but, in some ways, as long as we get a strong and proper mechanism, that does not matter greatly.

This debate is part of a process that has been going on for some time. We are embracing these matters for particular local and immediate reasons, but my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House was writing about the need to review prerogative powers 20 years ago. In those days, the Labour party was not routinely in government: as we have become so, of course, our interest in these matters has waned. When the PAC report appeared three years ago, neither the House nor the Government was terribly interested in what it said.

In the wake of the Iraq vote, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House was asked, in the House, whether Parliament’s vote on the war had created a precedent. I do not remember his exact words, but he said something to the effect that, yes, he agreed that a precedent had been created. My right hon. Friend is a former Foreign Secretary, so when he says that a precedent has been created, we are well on the way to getting either a convention or a law. That is how this place works.

As I was not here earlier, it is only fair that I should be brief, so I shall end by saying that the change that we are discussing is not in Parliament’s interest alone. It is constitutionally proper that Parliament should be inserted into the process, and it is good to see support for that general principle, even though people have worries about how it might work.

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I have always thought that it is essential for Governments that Parliament has a role. I spoke earlier about attending a funeral this morning, and I believe that it is no longer possible to send people to war without their representative institution having some say in the process. The argument is as fundamental as that: given how contentious the 2003 vote on Iraq was, can anyone imagine what it would have been like if the Government had decided to go to war without a vote in this place?

I voted against the Iraq invasion. People sometimes say to me that I must be very pleased about that, but I am not. What has happened gives me no pleasure: I wanted Iraq to be a stable democracy by now, and I regret hugely the fact that it has all gone so bitterly wrong. However, the vote in the House was crucial to giving that highly contentious war any democratic legitimacy in this country.

In future, Parliament must be involved in the process if any military conflict is to have legitimacy. A hundred or so years ago, Lord Salisbury of all people remarked that the French were always going on about what their chamber would or would not put up with, and that perhaps we should have one like it. In a sense, we are saying that we should have a Chamber like that. It will be good for Parliament, and for Government too.

8.34 pm

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): The right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) commented that he was happy to hear all the believers who were speaking in the debate, but that he was even happier that so many unbelievers had repented—presumably before the debate, although we have even heard Members confessing that they have seen the light during it.

I remain one of the doubters. That is not a natural position for me, because knowing that as a member of a minority party I shall always be confined to the Back Benches I obviously have an interest in an increased role for Parliament. Furthermore, my natural distrust of the Executive has been reinforced by some of their decisions and behaviour over the years, so I believe that there is a need to pull power back to Parliament, as the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) said.

There are two guiding principles. The first is to ensure that whatever decision is made this country always has the ability to defend itself and its security is not impaired. Secondly, when we go to war, the morale of the troops we send should not be undermined in any way. The course of the debate has given me some reason to doubt whether those principles will be upheld.

Members have admitted that it will not always be possible to vote on taking military action. In response to interventions from the Opposition Back Benches, even the proposer of the motion indicated that sometimes circumstances would be thrust upon us and immediate action would be needed, so only an Executive decision could be made. Sometimes, the option to vote will not be available to us.

There could be circumstances in which we would not want to have a vote, because it might escalate the situation. As we intervene in more countries, we realise that although troops may go in with one purpose
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sometimes things change. Initially, troops may have been sent as peacekeepers or to help in a disaster or a rescue mission, but the situation escalates. When troops are sucked into such situations, must they wait for Parliament’s permission before they react, or should military action be taken without Parliament’s approval?

It has been suggested that only a substantial deployment should need a vote in Parliament, but it was not clear whether the deployment should be substantial in terms of manpower or firepower. Initially, an intervention might require few troops, but events could escalate. At what stage is the vote to be taken? If such a vote is required by law and military action is taken without it, what will be the legal implications for the people who take part in the action? As Iraq has shown us, lawyers are always happy to intervene and put soldiers through the court system.

Even where it is possible to have a vote, there is still the question of when the vote should be taken and there has been considerable debate in the House about that today. If we take it too early, we are provoking a situation; if we take it too late, it is a fait accompli. It is quite clear that some of those who describe themselves as believers, or as sinners who have come to repentance, still have some doubts about the circumstances in which the vote should be taken, even if they agree on the principle of the vote.

Another doubt that I have is about the basis on which the decision would be made. The right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe quite rightly said that the decision must be taken in full knowledge of all the relevant information. The relevant pieces of information that he suggested included the legal opinion. But even he had to concede that, if the full legal opinion were to be made available, the Attorney-General might well be reticent about giving it. He might draw back when thinking about some of the information he could give. The right hon. and learned Gentleman came to the conclusion that perhaps only the conclusions of the legal opinion should be made available. So, although we started off by saying that we need full knowledge to make a decision, we reached a situation in which we would be given the conclusions of the legal opinion.

Another point that was made was that the decision should be made on the basis of the raw intelligence data. Other Members—even those who support the proposal—have said that at times it will not be possible to have the full intelligence, because it may compromise sources and the work that we are already doing on the ground. The hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) said that the more important the decision, the less willing the Government may be to hand over the intelligence or the more likely it may be that the intelligence will be spun. If a decision is sought simply to get the view of Parliament, rather than to get approval for a war, perhaps there will be less reticence about giving the intelligence. But if we are talking about a crucial decision—a decision to approve a war—it becomes more important that the Government get the right decision and so the intelligence might be spun or curtailed in some way.

There have been a number of suggestions about how that situation might be overcome, but, again, even those who support the principle recognise the massive
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difficulties that a vote in the House is likely to create when it comes to having the full information. There were also some doubts among the believers about the motion that should be put before the House. Some said that the motion should be as short as possible; others said that the motion should be as long as possible. The longer the motion, the greater the justification that will be contained within it. If one of the reasons given for going to war is shown not to pertain any longer, does that call into question the decision and does it provide a chance for the debate to be rerun?

That brings me to the last point that I want to make. How often should the vote take place? Would it simply take place at the very start, whenever that start happened to be—and at the moment, that is not clear—or, as the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe said, must there be ratification of the approval should circumstances change? What constitutes a change in circumstances could vary. For example, the circumstances might change in relation to the original reasons given in the motion that was put before the House. Of course, the longer the motion, the more justification there will be and the more opportunity there is to say that circumstances have changed. Alternatively, a change in circumstances could mean a change in the pace or the nature of the military intervention. If the change was to the pace or nature of the military intervention, would we be starting to intervene in operational and command decisions, and would that be good for the security of the troops or the execution of the war? Indeed, is the House qualified to make such an intervention?

Dr. Fox: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point that has been raised several times during the debate. We accept that we would not need to use the extra powers regularly because the House is able to pass judgment on operations without such a substantive motion. The Chamberlain Government were brought down by a motion that was non-substantive, yet none the less lethal.

Sammy Wilson: I accept the hon. Gentleman’s interpretation. However, that is not the universal view of those who have spoken in the debate. This is an aspect of the proposals that will need to be cleared up before an honest doubter can take a firm decision on them.

It is clear that this exercise will go ahead. There is not a great deal of difference between the Opposition motion and the Government amendment, although perhaps the amendment spells out more clearly and fully the meaning of the phrase at the end of the motion that

While the exercise will be approved, I hope that whatever is decided will come before the House for approval because those of us who have doubts will need to see the exact shape of the proposals that will eventually be adopted. If we are to have only a cynical exercise to get round the unpopularity of the decision on our military involvement in Iraq and, to a lesser extent, Afghanistan, I suppose that it will be buried. However, there probably is a desire in the House to drive this forward.

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I will judge the proposals, first, on whether they will affect this country’s ability to defend itself; secondly, on whether they will impede the security of forces in the field and be detrimental to them; thirdly, on whether they will curtail the ability of commanders in the field to exercise their operational discretion; and, fourthly, on whether they will have an effect on the morale of our soldiers whom we send out to difficult theatres of war. I will make my judgment, but I remain a doubter. If we are going to have such proposals, all the points that have been made today must be fully investigated and addressed so that we do not finish up with a situation in which simply exercising parliamentary freedom affects the people whom we send out to do our fighting overseas.

8.48 pm

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): It is a pleasure to participate in this historic occasion. We are seeing the genesis of a major change to the decision-making process through which the UK mobilises its armed forces. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have made passionate and powerful speeches, which have generally supported the proposal before us.

I am slightly saddened that the Government tabled an amendment and did not feel that they could support the motion, although I understand the reasons why. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson), who spoke with passion about the importance of the changes in circumstances that can affect our military forces when they get the go-ahead to represent the United Kingdom abroad. I will touch on that later in my speech.

I fully endorse the proposal. In this day and age, it seems inconceivable that we should have a royal prerogative that is so out of date. Democratic accountability seems to be missing from the Government, so I am pleased that Parliament is being invited to participate in the decision-making process. As we have heard, the issues that we are discussing stem from the Bill of Rights, which was written way back in 1688, and which transferred a number of powers directly from the monarch to Ministers. I am pleased that we are witnessing the beginning of a change that will result in Parliament scrutinising the decision to go to war. While debating the motion, we should consider the detail of the issue. There is now a blur between war-fighting and peacekeeping. Interventions are rarely bilateral; they are multilateral, so we have to ask ourselves detailed questions about the decisions that Parliament might need to take.

The principle that we are discussing has support from all corners of the House. As we have heard, some right hon. and hon. Members introduced private Members’ Bills on the subject. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), who sits on the Labour Benches, and who has, in his own way, promoted the issue through his constant letter writing and by barracking of Members of his own party. He has led us to where we are today. We have heard the Chancellor of the Exchequer endorse the proposal in principle, and the House of Lords Constitution Committee is obviously in favour. The Lord Chancellor has done a U-turn on the issue—perhaps the Prime
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Minister’s grip on him is slowly loosening, and another hand is now grabbing him and turning him a different way.

It is worth reminding ourselves that the term “war”, as defined by the Geneva conventions of 1949, is no longer used. The last time that Britain actually went to war was in 1942, against Siam. We no longer use that term simply because of the legalities. War is a state that the nation is in, and it is too complicated for us to go down that route. It involves dealing with diplomats and embassies and that treaties have to be reconsidered. It also raises the issue of enemy aliens and what to do with citizens of an enemy country who are in the UK.

The UK has been involved in a number of operations over the past 10 years. We have made 60 deployments and been involved in five major conflicts. It is worth considering some of those conflicts as they show us that the prevailing tendency has been to seek Parliament’s support when deciding whether to commit troops. We heard how, in the case of world war two, a motion was put before the House by Neville Chamberlain, and it was carried. Before the Korean war in 1950, a statement was made in which UK troops were offered to support US troops. That was actually a retrospective debate, but Parliament was nevertheless able to voice its views.

On the Falklands, as has been said, the House was recalled for an Adjournment debate in April 1982. There was no vote, although there were plenty of statements, but it is worth reminding the House that there was no call for a vote. If there had been a call for a vote from any corner of the House, I am sure that the usual channels of the day would have allowed one, but clearly the view of the House was so unified that a vote was not seen as necessary. Hostilities in the Gulf war began on 17 January 1991, but a motion was put to the House four days later. We may be a bit late in getting motions agreed to, but there is certainly a precedent for Parliament commenting on our involvement in armed conflict. Kosovo has also been mentioned today. Hostilities began on 24 March 1999, but again there was no vote, and no vote was requested.

It is when we come to Iraq that things get a little more confusing. There was a plethora of votes on Iraq, including in September 2002 and in February 2003. There was also the main vote of 18 March 2003, which committed the United Kingdom to war with Iraq, and which has been mentioned time and again. I have scrutinised the motion, and what it actually did was endorse the findings of UN resolution 1441. It also mentioned resolution 678. That resolution was written 12 years before the March 2003 motion, so the justification for war went back an awfully long way.

At the time, we had 45,000 troops on the border ready to move across when the green light was given. If we are to scrutinise the decision to go to war, there should be a clearer motion endorsing what we intend to do, rather than some ambiguous call leaning on a series of UN resolutions, some of which are more than a decade old. The motion on 18 March 2003 leaned heavily on out-of-date material. That needs to be rectified. Better crafted motions should be tabled, which look forward rather than back, and state that if conditions do not change within a set period Britain will go into conflict with another nation.

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