Parliament's role in conflict decisions: an update - Political and Constitutional Reform Contents

Earlier Committee work

1. In May 2011 we published a Report on Parliament's Role in Conflict Decisions.[1] In it we noted the Government's position on this issue:

    the Government believes that it is apparent that since the events leading up to the deployment of troops in Iraq, a convention exists that Parliament will be given the opportunity to debate the decision to commit troops to armed conflict and, except in emergency situations, that debate would take place before they are committed.[2]

2. The Report also welcomed the commitment of the Foreign Secretary, Rt Hon William Hague MP, made in March 2011 in the context of military action in Libya, to "enshrine in law for the future the necessity of consulting Parliament on military action".[3] We concurred with the Foreign Secretary's view. There was and is a need for greater clarity about Parliament's role in decisions to commit British forces to armed conflict abroad. We called on the Government, as a first step, to bring forward a draft parliamentary resolution for consultation with us among others, and for debate and decision by the end of 2011.[4]

3. The Government's response to our Report was published in September 2011.[5] It neither agreed with nor addressed in any detail the recommendations in our Report. In particular, it stated that the Government could not commit to following the Committee's suggested approach or to meeting the timetable we had proposed.[6] Instead, the Government stated that it hoped "to make progress on this matter in a timely and appropriate manner".[7]

4. The Government did accept our third recommendation which called for the Government's Cabinet Manual to be amended to include the convention that Parliament should have the opportunity to debate decisions to commit troops to armed conflict, and that the debate should take place before the troops are committed, except in emergency situations. The Cabinet Manual now summarises previous parliamentary involvement in relation to military action and states that:

    In 2011, the Government acknowledged that a convention had developed in Parliament that before troops were committed the House of Commons should have an opportunity to debate the matter and said that it proposed to observe that convention except when there was an emergency and such action would not be appropriate.[8]

5. However, in the period since the publication of the Government's response to our Report no draft parliamentary resolution has been forthcoming despite the fact that, as we noted in our Report, much of the necessary preparatory work in this respect had already been completed: the previous Government had proposed a draft parliamentary resolution on war powers in a Green Paper in 2007 and a White Paper in 2008 which were subject to extensive Parliamentary scrutiny.[9] However, the House did not have an opportunity to consider such a motion before the general election in May 2010. [10]

6. As part of our commitment to monitor progress on this issue, we wrote to the Foreign Secretary on 10 January 2013 asking for an update on the Government's position and information on what deliberations had taken place between, and within, Government Departments on Parliament's role in conflict decisions.[11] In response, the Foreign Secretary stated:

    My view remains, as I set out in my statement to the House on 21 March 2011: wherever possible, Parliament should have the opportunity to debate, in advance, the commitment of UK forces to military action overseas, unless there is an emergency where such action would not be appropriate. Since my statement, we have declared and formalised this understanding within the Cabinet Manual.

    I have discussed these issues with my Ministerial colleagues. Given the complexities involved we have commissioned work from a number of Departments to help reach agreement on the way ahead. Once this has concluded, the Government will update Parliament on next steps. [...][12]

Our view on recent developments relating to conflict decisions

7. Where Government wishes to consult Parliament before action then drafting is straightforward. However, the task of enshrining Parliament's role in law, while still enabling Government to act quickly and then report afterwards, requires careful drafting. The absence of any apparent urgency on the Government's part to move forward on the matter more generally since 2011, when it made a commitment to "enshrine in law for the future the necessity of consulting Parliament on military action", has given us cause for concern. With the exception of changes to the Cabinet Manual, little, if any, formal progress appears to have been made by the Government in advancing action on this important issue. Now is the moment to deliver on the commitment. We echo the view contained within a timely Report by the House of Lords Constitution Committee on Constitutional arrangements for the use of armed force, published in July 2013, which noted that:

    The decision to use armed force overseas is one of the most momentous a Government can make. At present the role played by Parliament in such decisions varies widely: there is no standard process by which Parliament becomes involved.[13]

8. We have no view on the rights and wrongs of particular decisions, including the recent one on Syria; we are concerned with democratic process only. Hence we welcome the Government's decision to request the recall of Parliament on 29 August 2013 and to place before the House a substantive motion including a commitment that "before any direct British involvement in such action [in Syria] a further vote of the House of Commons will take place". We also note the Prime Minister's statement in response to a question about whether the Government would use the Royal Prerogative to commit UK forces to military action before there was another vote in the House of Commons. The Prime Minister stated:

    Let me say that the House has not voted for either motion tonight. I strongly believe in the need for a tough response to the use of chemical weapons, but I also believe in respecting the will of this House of Commons. It is very clear tonight that, while the House has not passed a motion, the British Parliament, reflecting the views of the British people, does not want to see British military action. I get that, and the Government will act accordingly.[14]

Not only did this serve to highlight the important role of Parliament in conflict decisions, it also showed how the de facto situation on conflict decisions appears to have outpaced the legal position.

Next steps: a new inquiry

9. In light of recent developments, we are launching a new inquiry into 'Parliament's Role in Conflict Decisions'. Since the Government has a clear, positive position on this we do not envisage a long inquiry. In order to inform our deliberations, we recommend that, in its response to our Report, the Government provide a comprehensive, updated statement of its position on the role of Parliament in conflict decisions. In particular, we wish the Government to address what progress had been made in discussions between Government Departments to implement the Foreign Secretary's commitment since he last updated our Committee in February 2013. We also recommend that it precisely details the specific steps which will now be taken to fulfil the strong public commitment to enshrine in law the necessity of consulting Parliament on military action.

1   Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, Eighth Report of Session 2010-12, HC 293 Back

2   Ibid, para 3 Back

3   HC Deb, 21 March 2011, col 799 Back

4   HC 293 (2010-12), para 6 Back

5   Parliament's Role in conflict decisions: Government Response to the Committee's Eighth Report of Session 2010-12, Ninth Report of Session 2010-12, (HC 1477) Back

6   HC 1477, Letter to the Chair dated 21 July 2011 from Mark Harper MP, Minister for Political and Constitutional Reform, Cabinet Office Back

7   HC 1477, (2010-12) para 5 Back

8   The Cabinet Manual: A guide to laws, conventions and rules on the operation of government, 1st edition, October 2011 para 5.38.  Back

9   The Green and White Papers were scrutinised by the Public Administration Select Committee and the House of Lords Constitution Committee as well as by the specially convened Joint Committee on the draft Constitutional Renewal Bill. For further information see HC 932, para 2 Back

10   HC 923 (2010-12), para 6  Back

11   Letter from the Chair to the Foreign Secretary, Rt Hon William Hague MP. See Appendix for full text. Back

12   Letter from the Foreign Secretary, Rt Hon William Hague MP, to the Chair. See Appendix for full text. Back

13   Second Report of Session 2013-14, HL Paper 46, para 1 Back

14   HC Deb, 29 August 2013, col 1556 Back

previous page contents next page

© Parliamentary copyright 2013
Prepared 6 September 2013