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15 May 2007 : Column 561

My concern about the decision on Iraq was the limited amount of information. I pointed out to the Leader of the House in an intervention that not only the House but the country was misled by the limited amount of information made available. There was too much spin involved. The Alastair Campbells of this world should have no place in changing the advice given by our intelligence and security community. They were not happy with certain documents, which were slid back across the table with the instruction to emphasise other aspects of the reports. That is out of order and should never happen again.

One of the key factors that persuaded many hon. Members to vote in favour was the 45-minute claim and that somehow Cyprus, one of our sovereign bases, may possibly have come under attack. We know that that is not the case. As we move forward with the proposals, I should like to see proposals to ensure that we are never led down that road again. The information that is available to the Cabinet should be made available to other bodies as well.

Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): Napoleon once said that soldiers can do a great deal with bayonets by setting them. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the resolution should deal with not only the practicalities of going to war, but the aftermath?

Mr. Ellwood: The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point, which is the main thrust of my speech. If he waits a moment, I shall come to that.

There was some shameful spinning of the facts in order to justify war. Many will say that we would have gone to war anyway, because it had been decided that there was justification. Either way, we did it in a manner that alienated many of our allies. Again, that is an experience that we should never repeat.

Let us suppose that the vote has taken place and the decision to go to war has been made—I now come to the hon. Gentleman’s point. The actual war with Iraq is only half the story. I was frustrated by some of the comments today that the vote on 18 March 2003 is the cause of the mayhem today. That is absolutely wrong. Our boys, the Americans and all the allies did their job in the fortnight after battle commenced and the country liberated. What followed was four years of a mess being created in a country that is now on the brink of civil war. If we are to make a decision to go to war, may we also have some form of scrutiny of the peacekeeping that follows?

I repeat what I said in an earlier intervention—had we had a suitable plan after the war to lift Iraq off its knees , sorted out the Ba’ath army, dealt with the infrastructure, looked after the oil wells and got them working to provide income for the country, it is possible that we would not be having this debate today. I would even go so far as to say that the Prime Minister would not be forced out of office, as he is. It is not the fault of the military. My regiment, the Royal Green Jackets, now The Rifles, is currently based in Basra and working extremely hard. We should pay tribute to the hard work that all our forces are doing. However, if we ask them what frustrates them, they say that it is their belief that the blueprint for Iraq is questionable. They
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did their job at the beginning by liberating the country, and then we had a blank canvas to do something with. That has been a wasted opportunity. I recommend Bob Woodward’s book, “State of Denial”, which goes through the details of some of the decision making that took place on both sides of the Atlantic and perhaps brought us to the questionable position that we are in today.

We must first be able to scrutinise the decision to go to war, but then, even if we disagree with it, we must accept it, put it behind us, and look at what we are doing to manage the peace. We have alienated our friends and lost hearts and minds because of the manner in which we have gone about our business. Britain is very good at winning over hearts and minds; we have a fantastic reputation around the world for making friends in a peacekeeping role. I cannot say the same for the Americans, who have lots to learn about befriending a nation that they are going into and being seen as liberators, not occupiers. I would like further scrutiny of that issue. Four years after the invasion, we are still debating it endlessly and there are concerns about the direction in which we are going. Most importantly, we are now looking at an exit strategy. Members on both sides of the House have said that we should withdraw. I would be uncomfortable with that because it would deny people the help that we promised them, but we need to look back at the blueprint and ask what we can do to improve the situation. The policy is failing and Parliament needs more scrutiny over why that is so. I am less angry about the decision to go to war than about the failure to keep the peace.

Part of this debate must concern our capacity to help. My hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) has spoken time and again about the problems of overstretch that British forces face. We need to be careful about committing ourselves across the world, sometimes without the support of our NATO or Commonwealth allies, when we simply do not have the troops or the military support. If, as the Prime Minister suggested on 17 January on HMS Albion, we are to stand up and be counted when other nations are reticent in defending democracy, we also need to protect our soldiers, sailors and airmen and invest in the services and support that they need. We are failing to do that, and the consequence is the overstretch and effect on morale in our armed forces. In Iraq, that attitude of going it alone was one of the reasons for the loss of faith among many of our friends in Europe. Had we had a decent resolution in the UN, we would have gone into Iraq with more support, and therefore more help would have been available in the peacekeeping operation afterwards.

On the proposal to change the royal prerogative, there are lessons to be learned from what other countries have been doing. Canada has a very similar system to ours, but the Government have promised to offer a vote whenever troops are committed. In Holland, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter), there is a new requirement to keep Parliament informed, but that has caused huge delays in the commitment of troops to Afghanistan.

There is a debate in the United States arising from the War Powers Act, which followed the engagements in Vietnam and Korea and which has created friction
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between Congress and the President, who is commander-in-chief, over who has the ultimate power to wage war and who holds the purse strings governing the length of time the country can be committed to a particular war. It is not doing the morale of the forces in Iraq any good to see that tension in the Capitol.

France, under its constitution of 1958, can declare war only if authorised by Parliament, but circumnavigates that by getting involved in international operations that have a different label. Germany is a great example that we must consider because there the authority is very much bestowed on the Bundestag—the German Parliament. However, anyone who has visited Afghanistan will realise that the caveats that are imposed on German troops hinder them to the point that we question the reason for their presence from a military perspective. They do some work in provincial reconstruction teams, but they refuse to go out at night because their Parliament has told them that they cannot. How can troops who are part of an international security assistance force have such limitations, which do not apply to the rest of the force, imposed on them? It means that they guard the various bases but never wander out and get involved in operations. On paper, it appears as though there are 36,000 troops in Afghanistan, but only 15,000 are actually committed, with another 20,000 or so bound by so many caveats that their value is questionable.

Parliament must consider the sort of peacekeeping roles on which we would want to vote. Do we want to vote on peace enforcement, conflict resolution or multinational humanitarian relief? Bearing mission creep in mind, we need to be aware of how often we must recall the issues to Parliament to measure our success or ascertain whether things are getting out of control.

Let us consider the example of Afghanistan. In October 2001, the US and Britain began their air strikes. By 7 December, the last Taliban stronghold in Kandahar fell. On 5 December, the Afghan groups agreed a deal in Bonn on an interim Government and all seemed well. By January 2002, the first contingent of foreign peacekeepers—not war-fighters—were in place. At what stage might Parliament vote? Should there be two votes—one on the initial onslaught and another on the peacekeeping? Of course, the story was incomplete because four years later, in 2005, we moved into Helmand province. Should that have required a vote? The Defence Secretary at the time said—words he probably now regrets—that we would probably not fire a shot. Subsequent deployments on the scale of a division have gone to Afghanistan. I fully support that, but the question for Parliament is the stage at which we vote. The mission has expanded comprehensively from the peacekeeping operation that began in January 2002. The same question that we ask about Iraq applies to Afghanistan: have we got it right? Is the blueprint for success in Afghanistan working? There are some serious questions that are beyond the scope of the debate. Parliament should be able to debate such matters. Currently, we do not have the ability to scrutinise what happens.

What parameters might Parliament set? Should we be able to vote yes or no on whether to deploy? Should we vote on the size of the force, budget constraints, length of stay or time frame? Indeed, should we vote on the rules of engagement? I was astonished to learn
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from Defence questions yesterday that the British have different rules of engagement from the US in the Shatt al-Arab waterway. That needs to be rectified. There are legal questions, which could result in soldiers being unsure of where they stand in international law.

We need proper information. There is a concern that we could end up being armchair generals. We like discussing such issues but we rely heavily on the information that the Government provide, what we find out for ourselves or what the media tell us. That is all very well if we are considering hospitals or schools because I can visit my local school or hospital and glean the information for myself. However, it is difficult for Back Benchers to visit the sort of places that we are discussing and fully comprehend what is happening. The information from the Government, especially the intelligence and security services, must be correct, accurate, up to date and unspun. Should the Defence Committee and the Intelligence and Security Committee be allowed to read more detailed reports? A key issue is sharing information so that Parliament can make informed decisions.

I am worried about retrospective decision making. In the case of escalation of conflict and mission creep, how far back do we go to confirm what has happened? Should there be UN approval? There can also be ambiguities about the type of conflict being entered into. How prisoners should be dealt with is another issue. The question can also be put the other way round: if Governments can come to Parliament to confirm that they can go to war, can Parliament go to the Government to request war? If I tabled an early-day motion that called for Mugabe to be taken out with a single bullet, I would doubtless get quite a few signatures. Would the Government then be expected to react to that or would such powers not exist? I think I know the answer to that one, but it is an issue that we need to raise.

In conclusion, life has moved on from the days when wars were reported in The Times or The Daily Telegraph two months after they actually happened. Conflicts are now very much under the microscope and are followed in minute detail. We have 24-hour coverage and the country’s citizens are far more informed and opinionated than ever before. It is important that Governments are held to account. I very much support the motion and I look forward to seeing the detailed proposals that will now follow—whether they be in the form of a convention or a statute. British involvement in international conflicts will, of course, continue—but, I hope, only after better scrutiny by this House.

9.11 pm

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): I very much welcome the debate. I have had a similar experience to that of my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright). When I argued for greater scrutiny and suggested that the Prime Minister should appear before a Select Committee, I got precisely the same reaction as he did. I was told, “You must be off your trolley, Mackinlay, to suggest that the Prime Minister should appear before a Select Committee.” Yet that came about. Over 10 years of the Blair Government, a number of my suggestions have been dismissed by colleagues, only to come about later. This question of
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gaining parliamentary approval and oversight for the deployment of our armed forces is one of them.

I very much welcome the conversion of Government and Opposition Front Benchers. I say that because committing our armed forces, in my view, justifies the full-hearted consent of both Parliament and people. Indeed, the people’s will is expressed through this Parliament. When we take a decision about deployment, we need to do it with full knowledge and full consent because it is such a grave matter. I certainly support the idea of a statute that lays down the ground rules for this House of Commons to approve deployment. Implicit in that is the fact that provision must be made for the continued deployment to be scrutinised and reviewed.

One of the flaws in existing arrangements is that there has been no reaffirming vote for the deployment of our troops in Iraq. I am quite sure that the House would reaffirm it, because, irrespective of our views on the original decision, we all understand the constraints. It seems to me healthy for democracy that that should happen. If, in extreme circumstances, there were a need to withdraw or retreat—heaven forbid, to cut our losses—that too should be done through Parliament.

The hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) made a passing reference from a sedentary position to the Narvik debate of 7 May 1940. That is pertinent, but I would like to draw the House’s attention to the fact that 67 years ago yesterday, there was a vote in this House on the prosecution of a war. We had been at war for a year, but the principle of reaffirming our resolve was upheld here and, indeed, there was a Division of the House. I checked the Official Report and found that the motion was carried by 381 votes to nil—but there was a Division nevertheless. The motion before the House was to confirm the new coalition Government, but it went on to say that this House

It set out the House’s view, demonstrating the will of the country, on what should happen, giving a mandate to Winston Churchill and his coalition Government to prosecute the war with Germany to that victorious conclusion.

I always think that one of the modern-day miracles happened in those critical hours in May 1940 when George VI appointed Churchill rather than Halifax, because Halifax could have used the royal prerogative to come to terms with Germany. It is a matter of fact that he, and many other good people, thought that they might have to cut their losses, and they would have used the royal prerogative to do so. They would not have come to the House of Commons to review the matter. What eventually happened would not have taken place but for Churchill’s initiative of bringing that motion to the House of Commons and getting it ratified by a Division.

Churchill’s speech spelled out the issue. He said:

Churchill was speaking in the House of Commons, and the House supported him in a Division; it gave him a mandate. We should not lose sight of the fact that that was an important occasion, not only giving him legitimacy but helping things on. In contrast, let us consider how King Leopold used the royal prerogative to capitulate without going to the Belgian Parliament. The hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) mentioned the Belgian constitution in his speech earlier. There are good reasons why we should learn from history, because the idea that we are debating tonight has proved a worthwhile tool in promoting our national interests at the most critical times.

I remember, soon after the Labour Government came to office 10 years ago, the deployment of British troops to Sierra Leone. As a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, I thought that it was incumbent on the Committee to ask questions about the ground rules of the deployment, the rules of engagement and the relationship with Sandline and other private military companies—I call them mercenaries. That inquiry was most unwelcome. It is a matter of fact that enormous pressure was put on the Foreign Affairs Committee—including my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) and me—not to inquire into the matter. The Government assumed that if we were making such inquiries, we must be opposed to their policy. It worried me deeply that because we were inquiring about the ground rules and the reasons for the deployment, we were thought to be opposed to them. I just wanted to know what was going on.

I remember that the then Member for Livingston, the late Robin Cook, for whom I had very high regard, was extraordinarily angry. He called me at midnight one Sunday evening and asked, “What the heck”—he actually used a stronger word than that—“are you doing?” I told him that I intended to pursue the matter with vigour. I also remember being away with two colleagues whom I like and respect very much, but when I went on television to say that the matter should go before the House of Commons, they told me that I was completely mad. I shall be interested to see which Division Lobby they go through tonight. Things have now moved on, and it seemed to me that we needed transparency on that occasion.

To the credit of the late Member for Livingston, when the history of the Iraq conflict comes to be written there will be no doubt that it was he who persuaded the Prime Minister that he had to come before the House of Commons and seek a mandate. The flaw in that experience, however, was that the House did not have independent intelligence verification or independent legal advice. In the unlikely event of that happening again while I am in the House of Commons, I shall certainly want to know that the intelligence has been verified by a Committee of
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Parliament—not a committee of parliamentarians, and not the so-called Intelligence and Security Committee, which is not a Committee of Parliament but is appointed by the Prime Minister to judge his own stewardship of such matters, which is wholly unsatisfactory.

As part and parcel of the proposals tonight, we need to ensure that we have a parliamentary Committee, which would be highly responsible, which we will choose, and which realises that its knowledge could be critical to the lives of our service personnel. We should have that high ambition for Parliament: we should judge the verification of intelligence. Equally, we need to know about the legality of any deployment of our armed forces from an authority separate from a Law Officer who is a Minister of the Crown.

Colleagues will recall the great irritation over the Sierra Leone situation, and the phrase—coined by Alastair Campbell, I understand, but attributed to the Prime Minister —“What’s the problem? The good guys won.” I like the good guys to win, too, but we needed to know what the mischief was in the first place, and what the relationship was between our armed forces and Sandline—an unhealthy situation. That was never disclosed, however, to the House of Commons.

I hope that we shall embrace the proposals tonight. As many other Members have said, when we look at the differences between the amendment and the motion we see that we are dancing on the head of a pin. I rejoice in the conversion both of those on the Conservative Front Bench and, more importantly, of the people currently in government, who have stewardship of the principle. I do not, however, want to be deceived. I want to be sure that this is not a way of getting over a particular difficulty. I want written down in tablets of stone the ground rules by which we deploy and protect our armed forces, and by which Parliament reviews their deployment.

Our armed forces can take strength from that, as the House of Commons is a responsible place, which would never put our armed forces in jeopardy. In times of great crisis our Government and our diplomats would have greater strength, and a greater mandate, if they knew that they had the wholehearted consent of Parliament and people. I support the amendment, although it is a little silly—this is occasionally a silly place—that we do not have an agreed motion.

9.23 pm

Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills) (Con): I can think of no greater and more important decision for the national interest than to go to war. It affects the lives of those whom we represent, the young people of this country. It affects the standing of the country in the international arena. It bears on the world’s judgment on us. As the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) and his report pointed out, however, it is a prerogative power.

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