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Wars: Parliamentary Approval

Volume 455: debated on Monday 8 January 2007

20. What representations he has received on proposals for requiring the House’s approval for going to war; and if he will make a statement. (113138)

I receive many informal representations on this matter. In their November response to the Lords Constitution Committee report “Waging War: Parliament’s Role and Responsibility”, the Government said that they were keeping their policy in this area under review. I think the whole House will agree that we have to ensure at all times and in all circumstances the safety of our service personnel, but subject to that and to emergency situations, I cannot conceive of a situation where the Commons should not have a key role to play in decisions in respect of going to war.

The Leader of the House knows that since the beginning of the Iraq war, members of parties in all parts of the House have signed Remaining Orders which highlight the difficult situation facing any Government in consulting any legislature in any democracy about going to war. Will he take it from me that many of us appreciate the thought that he is giving to the matter, and that there must be some sort of formal settlement—some sort of procedure—which involves the Executive having the flexibility and the nimbleness to respond to aggression whenever necessary, and which recognises the needs of a democracy to ensure that a legislature can at least endorse that very important decision to take a country to war?

In return, I thank my hon. Friend for the seriousness and care that he is taking on the matter. When I used that phrase, I was in many respects echoing the words of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister before the Liaison Committee in early February last year, when he said:

“The fact of the matter is that I cannot conceive of a situation in which a Government”


“go to war . . . without a full parliamentary debate.”

That is in practice the convention that we have established. The issue remains whether that convention should be formalised or should be left, as many conventions are, as conventions.

I, too, welcome what the Leader of the House has said. However, will he forgive my saying that it is not a convention yet? We need a formal expression of what he has said either by way of a clear convention in this House or by way of statute.

I think that it is becoming a convention. In a different context, the Joint Committee on Conventions has said that conventions are, by definition, difficult to codify. However, the Lords Constitution Committee has ruled out the possibility of a statutory arrangement and has suggested that the situation should be bedded down by way of a resolution of each House or particularly of the Commons, since it would be for the Commons to make the final decision. We are looking at that matter with care.

I welcome what the Leader of the House has said, but surely it is implicit that as well as there being an affirmative resolution of the House of Commons to deploy troops, there needs after some years of deployment to be a reaffirmation of that decision by a vote in this House. And if we ever have to do this again, there needs to be an institutional mechanism by which this House has direct access to the security and intelligence services, because such information should not be given to us by Ministers.

They are two different things. There has been no military action, approved by this House or not, that has not been subject to the most extensive inquiry afterwards, which is the case with Iraq. Although my hon. Friend is not terribly keen on the Intelligence and Security Committee—

In one sense, it goes one better, because its establishment was agreed by Parliament and was enshrined in an Act. As anyone who has appeared in front of the Intelligence and Security Committee will tell my hon. Friend, the Intelligence and Security Committee operates as least as effectively as a Select Committee.

I, too, welcome the thoughtful way in which the Leader of the House has responded to the question. However, the decision to go to war is just one of the general prerogative powers exercised by Ministers. Will the Leader of the House accept that there is widespread concern that we need to redress the balance of power between Parliament and Government and that the balance of power has tipped too far in the Executive’s favour? If so, why have the Government so far refused to act on the recommendation of the Public Administration Committee, which stated in 2004 that the case for the reform of prerogative powers is “unanswerable”?

Quite rightly, prerogative powers have been reduced over time, because they go back to the period before the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and are, by definition, rather anomalous. There are some areas in which those powers are easy to replace by statute, which has been going on. The powers exercised by prerogative are subject to much greater constraint by statute now. For example, I refer the right hon. Lady to the Human Rights Act 1998, which has made considerable statutory inroads into the previous exercise of discretion by Ministers. The situation happens to be more difficult in other areas. It is important to put the power of this place into proper perspective. In a recently published study, a former parliamentary clerk has pointed out that the powers exercised quite properly by this House over Governments are now far more extensive than they were, for example, 40 or 50 years ago.

We know what the Leader of the House really thinks, because in 1994 he said that

“the royal prerogative has no place in a modern democracy”.

I welcome what he has said, although I shudder to think that the convention is bedding in by there being more wars and therefore more parliamentary approval. Is it not extraordinary that in the United States, which is a democracy with an Executive President, war-making powers must be approved by the legislature, but in this country, where the Prime Minister and his colleagues derive their authority from this House, there is no formal arrangement for our agreement?

First, let me say to the hon. Gentleman that it was this Government and this Prime Minister who ensured for the first time, back in September 2002—when the possibility of military action was there, but by no means a probability or a certainty—that in the event of a Cabinet decision to take military action, that would have to be endorsed by this House before it came into force. This Prime Minister did that; previous practice had been very varied.

Secondly, the hon. Gentleman should not look at the practice in the United States through rose-tinted spectacles. The truth is that it has been the subject of enormous controversy there. It is not the case that what anybody else regards as war has to be, and has been, the subject of prior decision by the United States Congress. As it happens, our practice is consistent with that of, for example, Australia and Canada. When we are moving in this direction, we need to take account of the fact that in Europe, where there is, as we accept, tighter parliamentary control, that has in some cases acted unnecessarily and irresponsibly to restrict the proper discretion of the military. We can move forward on this, but it requires a sensible approach on both sides of the House.