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Syria: Legality of Airstrikes

Volume 602: debated on Thursday 26 November 2015

1. If he will publish his legal advice on the legality of the UK carrying out airstrikes in Syria in the absence of a UN Security Council resolution on that matter. (902342)

9. If he will publish his legal advice on the legality of the UK carrying out airstrikes in Syria in the absence of a UN Security Council resolution on that matter. (902350)

It is a long-standing convention that Law Officers’ advice is not published. However, as hon. Members will know, the Prime Minister is setting out today the case for taking further action in Syria, and he will also set out the legal basis for doing do.

I thank the Attorney General for that answer, and I hope that the Scottish media are listening on this issue of the publication of legal advice with respect to the Scottish Parliament. I welcome the fact that there will be some disclosure later on. I understand convention, but I still think full disclosure of legal advice should be given rather than made a part of the Prime Minister’s statement. We need to learn the lessons from Iraq, when the Government of the day went backwards and forwards on legal advice until they got the answer they wanted. I therefore ask again for full disclosure.

As I say, the hon. Gentleman will see that the legal basis for action is, in the Government’s view, set out in what the Prime Minister intends to say. Indeed, he has responded as he said he would to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee report, and that response has been published this morning for all Members to see. As for the legal advice that the Law Officers give, it can be argued that the convention is there for very good reason. There are essentially two reasons. The first is to enable legal advice to be given to Government in a frank and open way, which is best done when advice is not published; and secondly, of course, the legal advice the Law Officers give is part of the collective responsibility of Cabinet decision-making. Again, there are good reasons for not publishing it on those grounds.

Does the Attorney General not realise that in an open and transparent democracy, it is really not good enough to rely on convention? For the House to understand the legal basis on which bombing may begin, it is vital for Members to be trusted with this information, so I appeal to the Attorney General to reverse his decision.

As I say, Members on both sides will have the chance to understand what the legal basis for the Government’s proposals will be, but there is a distinction to be made between the Government’s legal basis for action and the precise advice that Law Officers give. For the reasons I have explained, I do not think it sensible in what is undoubtedly an open and transparent democracy to publish that advice.

In the absence of United Nations Security Council resolution 2249, there are still arguments that airstrikes are legal. Does the Attorney General agree that, in the light of that resolution, the legal case has been strengthened?

I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that there were legal grounds for action in the absence of a Security Council resolution. Such a resolution is not necessary, in my view, to justify action of this kind. It is, of course, extremely useful that what the UN Security Council resolution clearly does is underline the logic for action in the way that we are setting out today. I agree with my hon. Friend.

The Attorney General may say it is not necessary, but does he think it would be better if a chapter 7 resolution explicitly endorsing military action against ISIS was passed at the United Nations? Have the Government made any attempts to achieve such a resolution, and which countries do the Government believe would block it?

My hon. Friend will realise, of course, that that particular resolution was secured with the unanimous support of the Security Council. What it indicates is that all necessary measures should be taken in order to counter ISIL. As I have said, it is important to recognise that the legal basis for action here, which the Prime Minister will set out today, is not dependent on the presence of a Security Council resolution, but I think that what has been agreed in the Security Council underlines the case that we are making, which is that action should be taken and that there is a lawful basis for doing so.

President Hollande has said that France is at war with Daesh, but my understanding is that no one has formally declared war on anyone. Will the Attorney General advise the House on the merits and demerits of a formal declaration of war?

I think we must be very careful not to dignify Daesh with a status it does not deserve. It seems to me very clear that what we are doing here is setting out a basis under which this country is entitled to defend itself from what constitutes an armed attack, or the threat of such, not just from other states, but from terrorist organisations. In my view, Daesh falls firmly into the latter camp.