|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
In summing up this debate, I intend to identify some of the complications involved and to explore the nature
of the challenge that we have set ourselves. The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) opened the debate and suggested that there was no difference between his motion and the Governments amendment. He suggested that we sought a distinction without a differenceor, as my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) put it, that we were dancing on the head of a pin. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House pointed out a difference that he said was crucialthe imperative to take full account of the paramount need not to compromise the security of UK forces or the operational discretion of those in command.
The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks sought to dismiss that, asserting that no party in the House would seek to undermine our troops in that way and that it was an unnecessary qualification. I do not want to contradict his assertion that no party in the House would wish to undermine our troops in that way, but I just want to say to him and his colleagues that the terms of the motion that this House passes tonight will be pored over by the militaryand quite rightly so.
For many reasons, some of which I shall come to later in my speech, we must act in a way that gives the troops whom we deploy into conflicts confidence in our decision making. As we are expressing the nature of the principle that we all now espouse, it is important that the House sends the right message of confidence to our troops.
Those who contributed to this debate included the shadow Foreign Secretarythe right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorksthe right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher), to name but a few. They all welcomed what they described as the Governments damascene conversionor volte-faceon this issue. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Moore) for reminding the House that the evolutionary process that has brought the Government to this point has had the same effect on Her Majestys loyal Opposition. No doubt the Opposition can explain why their Leader, who opposed the principle in 2005, now supports it. In contrast, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House reminded the House that the Government undertook to keep our position under review, and that we have been doing so.
For my part, as Secretary of State for Defence, it was the apparently insurmountable challenge of working through the complexities that hon. Members today have identifiedin spades, I thinkthat caused me to maintain and support the position adopted by the Lord Chancellor in the House of Lords on 1 May. That position was entirely consistent with the position that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister held and which he explained to the Liaison Committee. It was contained in both the reports that we have been considering, and has been quoted liberally in the House today.
The position adopted by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was reinforced by this Houses history of scrutiny, retrospective review and debate of deployments over the past 10 years. I now accept, however, that the weight of the obvious all-party support for the argument had to be recognised. Government and Parliament must now get down to the
difficult task of working through the challenges, which should not be underestimated. The record of todays debate will be a significant quarry of the extent of those challenges.
At the heart of this complexity is a debate about the appropriate mechanism to adopt. With the honourable and consistent exception of the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffeand perhaps of the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirkalmost all the contributors to the debate favoured the approach of developing a convention that requires resolutions of both Houses prior to the deployment of forces, or to homologate that deployment. Such a convention, however, must preserve the supremacy of the House of Commons.
Quite rightly, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House did not express a preference at this stage, as the consultation that we have announced has yet to take place. However, the short debate between the right hon. and learned Members for Rushcliffe and for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) highlighted some of the very obvious disadvantages inherent in a statutory framework, particularly the risk of a later legal challenge and all the detrimental effect that that would have on the morale of deployed troops. However, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe countered that point with an impressive argument about the need for a degree of certainty and clarity, based on the fact that he has no confidence in the power of convention. I suspect that that debate will continue, and perhaps over time the right hon. and learned Gentleman will attract a few more supporters to his position than he was able to do today.
Several contributions drew on the words of Lord Bramall, Lord Garden and others who contributed to the Lords debate, pointing out that in exploring the options to formalise Parliaments involvement, we need to be conscious of the need not to undermine the effectiveness or security of our military personnel. It would be remiss of me not to highlight some of the issues we need to bear in mind in trying to achieve that objective; they include not only operational effectiveness but the wider diplomatic and development activity that often accompanies the deployment of our forces.
The right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe and my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) devoted a considerable amount of time to timing. I am grateful, too, for the contributions of my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer) and of the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson), who set out the comparative advantages of earlier and later decision making. The hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) raised an aspect of that issue in an early intervention when he explored the characteristics of major or substantial deployment.
I agree that, as has been said, although the major deployments in respect of the Falklands, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Iraq and Afghanistan clearly lent themselves to a process of parliamentary decision making, we have to recognise the nature of modern warfare. There are practical considerations such as the long lead times needed for military advantage, not to mention military engagements such as aerial bombing and the use of missiles, which in the words of the military are designed to shape the battle space. If we
get the timing wrong, there is a danger, in the words of the report of the Lords Constitution Committee, of
removing the ability of United Kingdom forces to have strategic poise by giving the opponent early notice of intent.
The hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) brought to the attention of the House the fact that modern military operations are very different from those we engaged in only 20 years ago. In that respect, we try to adopt what has become known as the comprehensive approach, integrating all the levers of Government to maximise the effect on the grounda point to which I shall return later if I have time.
I know that I speak for the House when I say that my first priority is the effectiveness and safety of our armed forces. It is crucial that they remain capable of performing the tasks we ask of them, agile enough to respond quickly to an ever more dynamic operational environment and robust in the face of real threats to our, and their, security. Their morale and safety must remain paramount.
If Parliament is to take an informed view of military deployments, it is only natural that Members should want to satisfy themselves about the nature of the operation and the threat our forces will face and that they will have the equipment, tactics and procedures they need to help them to succeed. Indeed, Members set out a list of the requirements for any such debate, drawing on the report of the Lords Committee. I know of the necessity to satisfy oneself about all those things; as Defence Secretary I ask myself such questions every day in relation to the deployment of our troops in theatre.
The Lords Committee considered those points in its report, which noted the need to restrict some information but acknowledged that it could compromise the ability of Parliament to make informed decisions about a given situation. That is why in that decision-making process I shall resist the sharing of any information that compromises the priority of operational security. This is not a hypothetical debate, or one in which the Government hide behind the smokescreen of security concerns; it is not even about what information the Government proactively put before Parliament. In todays globalised world, where our potential adversaries watch the same television programmes and read the same newspapers and internet sites as we do, operational security can easily be undermined not just by the Governments answers but even by the questions posed; managing that in a way that allows Parliament to take an informed view will be a significant challenge.
We would certainly not release any information that could compromise sensitive intelligence or reveal elements of our operational planning. Indeed, I can conceive of some military operations that the House would not want to debate in public, either because it would risk escalating the conflict or because the mission itself is so sensitive that even acknowledging its existence would risk undermining the effectiveness of deployed forces and the UKs wider interests.
Des Browne: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman was not paying attention to the earlier part of my speech. I explained what he asks. Given the few minutes that I have left, I think that it would be inappropriate to repeat it. I am afraid that he will have to read it in the official record.
I have already referred to the need for our forces to be agile in the face of a developing situation and to be quick to deploy when needed. Developments in technology, travel, communications and military capabilities mean that events around the world that challenge our security or international stability often require fast and decisive action. It is vital that we are able to deploy our forces quickly, especially when lives are at stake: for example, as we have debated, in hostage situations or following a dramatic deterioration in the security situation that required us to help evacuate UK citizens. We will have to take account of that as we take our work forward.
That might require an arrangement for some kind of retrospective considerationas some of the speeches made today suggested. As the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea pointed out, we should recognise that our armed forces deserve the full support of the House, and deploying them into a potentially dangerous situation and asking them to put their lives at risk while holding open the possibility that they may well be recalled some time later would be untenable. Again, that will require careful work, as will the question of what would happen in the event of a change of Government.
Once deployed, our armed forces must also retain the flexibility to adapt to the threats that they face without the constraint of returning to the House at every twist and turn. We must beware of the long screwdriver and strike a balance between strategic consideration of the issues and trusting the judgment of our people on the ground, because their lives may depend on it.
We must also consider how a new mechanism might affect the reliability of the UK as an ally. Some hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East, pointed out effectively the different systems of parliamentary decision making among many of our allies and the consequences for the effectiveness of their military as allies when they are deployed in theatres. In the modern world, our forces will almost always be deployed alongside troops from other nations, and timetables imposed by the parliamentary activities of those other nations are not necessarily under our control. Our experience of operating in a multinational environment is that often the overall speed of decision making and deployment is driven by the time scale of the different troop contributors. The UK is valued as a coalition partner by our partners in NATO and the EU because we are reliable and because we deliver what we say we will. That involves not only the eventual deployment of troops, but the campaign planning that is vital to any successful mission. We would not want to inhibit such contingency planning.
Several right hon. and hon. Members drew attention to the need carefully to consider what should fall within the scope of any such arrangement. The right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea [ Interruption. ]
Des Browne: The right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea used the example of the Iraqi no-fly zones. Our armed forces are engaged on a range of operations and activities as we speak. Training teams, liaison officers, attachés and advisers are deployed across the world; ships and submarinesparticularly submarines bearing nuclear weaponsare continuously patrolling the oceans; British peacekeepers are supporting UN operations around the globe; and of course the lions share of our deployed service personnel are currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. It would be unduly burdensome, both for Parliament and the management of the armed forces, to consult
|Next Section||Index||Home Page|