Emergency debate (Standing Order No. 24)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Parliament’s rights in relation to the approval of military action by British Forces overseas.
It is great to see you in the Chair, Mr Speaker. All I have to say is that the nation stands in admiration of your constitution and as you were in the Chair yesterday from bell to bell for eight and a half hours we are all now in admiration of your personal constitution as well. I also thank you for granting this debate.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) was right in yesterday’s debate when she said, in quoting the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), that this is a hung Parliament and therefore political power must pass from the Cabinet to the Floor of the House. But I do not totally agree with that analysis; the lack of a majority makes it more urgent, but the principle of accountability to Parliament when it comes to war making was established in 2003, when the Labour party had a large majority, and that principle must now be enshrined in law. Indeed, the tombstone of the former Foreign Secretary, our friend the late Robin Cook, who warned so eloquently in this House against the decision to invade Iraq, records his words:
“I may not have succeeded in halting the war, but I did secure the right of Parliament to decide on war.”
I am sorry to say that the Government are now attempting to overturn that democratic advance.
Does the right hon. Gentleman not agree that protecting the lives of UK servicemen and women will sometimes require the use of surprise and that therefore prior parliamentary approval could on occasion be life-threatening?
I will be dealing with that point during my speech. I do understand the point the hon. Gentleman is making and the need for urgent action at times, and there are provisions for that in the proposals we are putting forward.
During yesterday’s statement, the Father of the House—the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke)— the leader of the Scottish National party and the leader of the Liberal Democrats, as well as of the official Opposition, agreed that Parliament should have been recalled. That is a common position on all sides of the House, absolutely irrespective of our views on the action undertaken in Syria last Saturday morning.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that we should listen not just to voices inside the Chamber, but to voices outside—the great British public? A woman on the doorstep in Ealing said to me this weekend, “Did we just regain the sovereignty of Parliament to hand it over to a Prime Minister with no majority or, worse still, to Trump?” Did she not have a point?
My hon. Friend’s constituent is right that parliamentary sovereignty requires that Parliament holds Government to account.
The Father of the House said that
“once President Trump had announced to the world what he was proposing, a widespread debate was taking place everywhere—including among many Members of Parliament in the media. However, there was no debate in Parliament.”—[Official Report, 16 April 2018; Vol. 639, c. 47.]
It was happening everywhere, except here. The SNP leader put it more succinctly:
“When the Prime Minister called a Cabinet meeting last week, she should have recalled Parliament.”—[Official Report, 16 April 2018; Vol. 639, c. 48.]
The UK Prime Minister and the Executive must be accountable to Parliament, not to any other Government, let alone to the whims of any President or other head of state. The need for an independent British foreign policy, based on human rights and international law, has never been more urgent.
Does my right hon. Friend share my disappointment that we have a Prime Minister who inherited a parliamentary majority that she managed to lose rather clumsily, and rather than responding to her situation by trying to build consensus throughout the House on a whole raft of issues—this is the most important, but I include all Opposition days and so on—she has decided to respond by ignoring Parliament?
My hon. Friend is right that all kinds of debates could have taken place and a consensus reached, or not. Either way, there could have been that opportunity. That is what Parliament exists for. Parliamentary approval can be crucial to ensure the democratic legitimacy of any planned military operation or warlike act, just as it can establish public consent for a Government’s wider strategy.
This is a debate about process. [Interruption.] Could the hon. Gentleman contain his aggression for a moment? I made very clear my concerns about the strike, its legitimacy and the legality behind it, so I should have thought it was pretty obvious what my view on it was. That is not to say, as I pointed out last night—[Interruption.]
Order. The right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) made a very fine speech yesterday. He spoke on his feet with considerable passion and integrity, but he should not now rant from a sedentary position. He used to misbehave 30 years ago, when he stood against me in Conservative student politics. We have both grown up since then.
Are we going to get a video of that debate, Mr Speaker?
Currently, the Government of the day, of whichever hue, can, under the powers of the royal prerogative, deploy our armed forces without obtaining parliamentary consent for that action. It is important that our armed forces know that they have the democratic backing of Parliament and the support of the public for any action that they undertake.
Is not the essential point that the action that the Government have taken goes against the statement they made in 2016, when they prayed in aid action taken in 2013, 2014 and 2015, the nature of which was essentially similar to the action that was taken last week on the Prime Minister’s prerogative? Unless it is clarified and codified in law, the uncertainty will remain as to whether the Government really respect the convention to which they say they still adhere.
Indeed, my hon. Friend is right. There is an established convention, and I fear that the Government were trying to breach that convention with their actions yesterday. I welcome the parliamentary convention that has developed since the Iraq war, whereby the Government are expected to seek the approval of the House before they commit forces to action.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker.
The previous Prime Minister came to the House to seek authority for military action in Libya in 2011 and in Syria in 2015. In 2013, he sought authorisation for military action in Syria that the House denied. I am sorry to say that the Prime Minister’s decision not to recall Parliament and to engage in further military action in Syria last week showed a flagrant disregard for this convention. That was underscored by the Secretary of State for International Development, who said yesterday that
“outsourcing that decision to people who do not have the full picture is, I think, quite wrong. And, the convention that was established, I think is very wrong.”
No, not at the moment.
It seems that the convention that was established in 2003 and that is in the Cabinet manual is being tossed aside as simply inconvenient. It is necessary and urgent that the House has the opportunity to discuss its rights and responsibilities in respect of decisions on UK military intervention.
I am not giving way for the moment.
Those rights and responsibilities are not currently codified by law and, as we have discovered in recent days, cannot be guaranteed by convention alone. The Prime Minister’s actions are a clear demonstration of why Parliament must assert its authority on this subject.
But this is not solely about the actions taken last weekend, although they illustrate the case, or what action the Government might seek to take in the coming weeks and months; this is a principle that I know has long-standing support across the House. No matter on which side of the House Members sit, we all recognise that we are here to represent the interests of the people who elected us and sent us here. This is a parliamentary democracy: the people put us here to take decisions on their behalf.
I am not giving way for the moment.
Enshrining the right of elected MPs to decide on matters of peace and war is an essential, vital development of hundreds of years of democratic development and parliamentary accountability. In effect, 17 countries have the rights of their Parliament to approve military action enshrined in their own laws. It should escape no one that the general public want to see an increased role for Parliament in the decision-making process around planned military action.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is the role of the Government to put our citizens’ safety first, and that the Government therefore have to have the power to act in the national interest for security, and to act swiftly and confidentially, taking into account the safety of our servicemen and our allies’ servicemen?
It is perfectly clear from what I am proposing that Parliament should have the right to hold Government to account, and that Government should seek prior parliamentary approval before they undertake major military actions. The hon. Lady might not agree with me, but that is the joy of a parliamentary democracy. [Interruption.]
Order. I do not know what has happened to the hon. Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare). Decades ago he was a student at the University of Oxford, and my wife always said to me subsequently, “He was a very well-behaved young man.” He seems to have regressed since then. It is very unsatisfactory and he must try to improve his condition. We cannot have people constantly ranting from a sedentary position. Let us be clear that the Leader of the Opposition will be heard, and so will every other speaker.
It should not have escaped anyone that the general public want to see an increased role for Parliament in decision-making processes around military action. Talking to people on the streets of this country last weekend, I found that many said, “Why wasn’t Parliament recalled? Why is Parliament not being consulted? We elected people to Parliament to do just that.” We obviously have a diversity of opinion around this Chamber; that is what a democracy throws up, but I believe both that we have a responsibility to hold the Government to account and that the Government have a responsibility to come to this Chamber before they make those major decisions.
I wish to make progress, so I shall not be giving way again.
Indeed, a recent Survation poll found that 54% of people thought that it was wrong of the Prime Minister to have ordered airstrikes without parliamentary approval. I urge Members of this House not to forget the duty placed on us by the Chilcot inquiry. The Chilcot inquiry was the result of the war in Iraq. It was the last of many inquiries held into that process. It was the most thorough and painstaking inquiry that there had ever been. I would have thought that it provided a salutary lesson to all of us on the importance of there being total scrutiny of what goes on, and of the Government being required to come to the House in advance of major decisions. Many of us opposed that decision, but that is not the point; the point is whether or not Parliament has the right to have a say in it. I urge those Members who are trying to intervene on me at the moment to take a break and read a bit of the Chilcot report while I am finishing my speech.
It is important that the House holds the Government of the day to account on matters of national and of global security. In 2011, William Hague, the then Foreign Secretary, outlined a commitment to enshrine in law for the future the necessity of consulting Parliament on military action. The Cabinet manual, published in 2011, also confirms the acceptance of that convention, so what we are doing is actually going back on an established position. It guarantees that the Government will observe the convention except where there is an emergency and such action would not be appropriate, thereby reserving the right for the Government to act in a matter of emergency. A war powers Act could specify at what point in decision-making processes MPs should be involved as well as retain the right of Ministers to act in an emergency, or in the country’s self-defence. Yet Government policy now seems to have shifted against this process.
I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. He turned in his speech to the question of when such approvals would be required by Parliament; he talked about emergency situations and so forth. If embedded operatives—our armed forces—were to be deployed in other countries, would parliamentary authority be required? Can he just point to where his proposal is, because the motion obviously does not contain that level of detail?
The motion does not contain that level of detail because the draft Bill has not yet been prepared. Obviously, that level of detail is a matter for debate. What I am proposing is that Parliament has a fundamental power over Government to decide on issues of war and peace and the conflict that goes with them. I have made it quite clear that the caveat is in there of an overriding emergency or of a threat to people’s lives.
The Government have failed to accept the case, which was put forward by the Chilcot inquiry,
“for stronger safeguards to ensure proper collective consideration by the Cabinet on decisions of vital national importance”—
most notably the decision to take military action. Those are not my words; they are the conclusions made by the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee’s 2017 publication on the Government response to its report on Chilcot. The Committee’s assessment should alarm us all. This Government have failed to introduce the proper safeguards into their Cabinet decision-making process. Why should we leave it in their hands to make these crucial decisions when they have clearly failed to learn many of the lessons of the past? This report also draws attention to concerns about the ability to ensure that Ministers take proper advice on the provision of evidence and on how decisions based on this evidence are made.
Order. Mr Shelbrooke, be quiet. I know that you feel strongly, and I respect that, but I am not having you shouting out. You either undertake now to be quiet, or I strongly advise you to leave the Chamber for the rest of the debate. Stop it. You are well-intentioned and principled, but you are over-excitable and you need to contain yourself. If it requires you to take some medicament, then so be it.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford East (Imran Hussain) for his intervention. He is quite right: we have to learn the lessons of the past. The Iraq war is seared on the memory of every Member who was in this House at the time, and on the memories of all those millions of people outside this House who expressed the deepest concern about what was going on.
It is for this House to take matters into its own hands and to take back control—as some might put it. I am clear that, as an absolute minimum, Parliament should have enshrined in law the opportunity to ask the following questions before the Government can order planned military action: is it necessary; is it legal; what will it achieve; and what is the long-term strategy? It is difficult to argue that requiring Governments to answer those questions over matters of life and death would be anything other than a positive step. There is no more serious issue than sending our armed forces to war. It is right that Parliament has the power to support, or to stop, the Government taking planned military action.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. He has laid out a test, which he thinks could be met in emergency circumstances. Does that not mean that we may have a situation in which British forces need to be urgently committed, yet court action would end up determining whether or not that could happen? Would it not be wrong that judges, rather than the Cabinet, made those kinds of decisions?
As I was pointing out, there is no more serious issue than sending armed forces into war and what actions we, as Members of Parliament, could or should take. That is why we are elected to this House. That is what our democratic duty requires us to do.
I therefore hope that this motion will command support—
No, that is not a point of order. If the hon. Gentleman does not trust his own exegesis of the law that is his problem not mine, but it is not a matter for the Chair. He has made his own point in his own way, but he has done it in a disorderly fashion and he should not repeat the offence.
I am trying to get past the point where I am saying that there are no more serious issues and decisions made by Parliament than on matters of war and peace, and the Government taking planned military action. That convention was established in 2003 and was enshrined in the Cabinet manual in 2011. The then Foreign Secretary gave every indication that he supported the principle of parliamentary scrutiny and approval of such a major step.
I have outlined the caveats in a case of overriding emergency, but it is very important that the House of Commons—one of the oldest Parliaments in the world—holds the Government to account not just on the immediate decision, but on the longer-term strategy and the implications of the actions that are taken. Going to Afghanistan and Iraq, bombing Libya and many others have long-term consequences. We all need to know what thought process has gone into those long-term consequences by the Government and the officials advising them.
Today I have tried to set out a simple democratic demand. It is not taking an opinion, one way or the other, about what the Government did last week. It is asserting the right of Parliament to assert its view over the Government. The Executive must be the servant of Parliament, not the other way around. I therefore hope that this motion will command support from both sides of the House, as we work to bind this Government and any future Government to this basic democratic principle on one of the most serious and crucial issues of foreign policy that we face. I hope that today’s debate will help us in that process of bringing about a change.
I am not going to give way anymore because I am about to conclude my speech. [Interruption.] I do not know why hon. Members are cheering the end of my speech, if they want to intervene; there is no logic there, but that is their problem, not mine. [Interruption.]
Order. Resume your seat, Mr Harper. You do not stand when I am standing and that is the end of it. You have sought to intervene and your attempt has not been accepted. You will now remain seated. The Leader of the Opposition has made it clear that he is bringing his speech to a conclusion. That is his prerogative and he will do so without being subjected to a concerted effort to stop that conclusion. You are a former Government Chief Whip. You know better than that, you can do better than that and you had better try. And I would not argue the toss with the Chair, if I were you.
It is about democracy, it is about accountability and it is about making very serious decisions. That is what MPs are elected to do. It would bind this Government and future Governments to this basic democratic principle on the most serious and crucial issues of public policy that we are ever asked to take a decision on. As I said earlier, all those who were here during the debates on Iraq in 2003 remember them very well, just as they remember very well the questioning from the public about what they did and how they voted. That is why we are elected to Parliament.
I hope that the House will approve this motion on the principle that it is an assertion of the great tradition of the advancement of democratic accountability of this House on behalf of the people of this country.
Mr Speaker, could you give your ruling at this early stage that the vote must go with the voice? There are rumours that the Opposition are thinking of voting against their own motion, but the Leader of the Opposition has just moved that motion. Would he therefore be entitled, under normal procedures, to do so?
I start by paying tribute to the professionalism, dedication and courage of our armed forces. As I said in the House yesterday, there is no graver decision for a Prime Minister than to commit our servicemen and women to combat operations. Understanding where authority and accountability for their deployment and employment lies is of vital importance.
Let me begin by being absolutely clear about the Government’s policy in relation to the convention that has developed, because there is a fundamental difference between the policy and the perception of it that is conveyed in today’s motion. The Cabinet manual states:
“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 where there was an emergency and such action would not be appropriate.”
More detail on the Government’s position was then set out in 2016 in a written ministerial statement from the then Defence Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Sir Michael Fallon), who wrote:
“The exception to the convention is important to ensure that this and future Governments can use their judgment about how best to protect the security and interests of the UK. In observing the convention, we must ensure that the ability of our armed forces to act quickly and decisively, and to maintain the security of their operations, is not compromised…If we were to attempt to clarify more precisely circumstances in which we would consult Parliament before taking military action, we would constrain the operational flexibility of the armed forces and prejudice the capability, effectiveness or security of those forces”—[Official Report, 18 April 2016; Vol. 608, c. 10WS.]
I am extremely grateful to the Prime Minister for giving way at this stage in her speech. She may know that I raised a point of order with Mr Speaker prior to this debate to ask whether the National Security Adviser has given intelligence briefings to Members of the Labour Opposition who are not Privy Counsellors, but who were selected on the basis that they were sympathetic to the Government’s airstrike policy. Will the Prime Minister confirm whether that is the case?
The Prime Minister has talked about the possibility that the efficiency and security of British armed forces in any military action could be compromised if we were to go down the route suggested by the Leader of the Opposition. Would not that be even further magnified when our military action takes place in co-operation with, for example, the United States of America, France and perhaps several other countries?
When the International Development Secretary gave her interpretation of this to the media recently, she said that it was always wrong to outsource decisions about war to Parliament because parliamentarians would not have, in any cases, sufficient intelligence. Was she representing the position of the Prime Minister and the Government on the convention?
I have just set out the convention. I am very clear that the Government follow that convention, but the assumption that the convention means that no decision can be taken without parliamentary approval is incorrect—it is the wrong interpretation of the convention.
I wish to make the response that I gave to the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) absolutely clear. I believe that a number of briefings have been given. Those who have been given intelligence briefings that would not be made available to Members of this House are Privy Counsellors—that is my understanding of the situation.
I share completely the principle that, in a parliamentary democracy, the elected representatives in this House should be able to debate the deployment of British military forces into combat. As I said—
I am grateful to the Prime Minister. I do not mean to test her patience any more than I feel I have to, despite some prompting behind me. She says that it is her understanding that only Privy Counsellors received intelligence briefings from the National Security Adviser—I see that she is being passed notes along the Bench—but can she say from the Dispatch Box that no Member of Parliament who is not a Privy Counsellor received an intelligence briefing from the National Security Adviser?
We spent half an hour listening to the Leader of the Opposition talking about process. Children who have been gassed in Syria are not interested in process—they are interested in action. Since the Leader of the Opposition refused to take an intervention from me, may I ask the Prime Minister this? Does she recall any time in his 35 years in this House when he has supported any move to countenance military action or legislation to counter terrorism that sends out the clear message that illegal aggression, the likes of which we saw last week, will not be tolerated and has consequences?
My recollection is that the Leader of the Opposition has consistently opposed military action and also consistently opposed us ensuring that our security services and our law enforcement agencies have the powers they need to be able to deal with terrorism.
I thank the Prime Minister for giving way, as I am now on my best behaviour. Is this not surely a matter of degree? For instance, the United States already has a War Powers Act, but I am not aware that anybody in America has sought to invoke it over the strike that took place—[Hon. Members: “They have.”] Well, I do not see that going anywhere at all.
Is it not the case that if we had sought to commit troops into combat to fight a war, as we did in Iraq in 2003, we clearly would have expected a debate and a vote in this House, but that for a targeted military strike designed to uphold international law, the approval of the House would not be necessary as a prerequisite?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his point. Indeed, I said during yesterday’s exchanges in the House that these strikes were of a particular nature. They were targeted, they were about upholding the international norm in relation to the prohibition of the use of chemical weapons, and they were carried out on a legal basis that had been used by Governments previously—I will come on to that later in my speech.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm my understanding that the targets that we and our allies had in our sights were eminently manoeuvrable and that therefore the element of surprise in the attack was clearly required to maximise the opportunity for their destruction?
The Leader of the Opposition said many times that the duty of Members of Parliament is to represent those who elected us. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if that is the limit of our powers, it leaves the many citizens in our overseas territories and dependencies who are not represented in this place very vulnerable? Some people in this place would not have authorised military action to retake the Falkland Islands in 1982. I think, I am afraid, that some would not authorise military action to retake the Isle of Wight if it were invaded.
I was asked this question on a number of occasions yesterday and I answered it on a number of occasions yesterday. Let no one in this House be in any doubt that neither I nor this Government take instructions from any President or any other national Government. When we act, we act in what we believe to be the national interest—that is our only concern. The hon. Lady might give a little more consideration to the national interest and to the importance of upholding the international norms of our rules-based order that have kept us safe over the years.
I know that the Prime Minister supports the conventions of this House and I think that the vast majority in this House will have thought that last week’s action was entirely correct. Does she agree that it would be useful if, after the action has taken place, the House could demonstrate its support for the Prime Minister by having a vote on the issue?
I will come on to the role of the House in more detail, but I think that is absolutely right. The Leader of the Opposition made several references to the importance of the House holding the Government to account. That was why I came to the House at the first opportunity. It was why I answered every single question from Back Benchers yesterday, and it was why I participated in the SO24 debate that was secured by the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern).
I am grateful to the Prime Minister. She has spoken movingly in recent days about the burden that she carries and the responsibility she feels in committing our troops to action—her predecessors have also spoken in such terms. However, it is necessary that we are led by people who have the courage and resolve to take these decisions. What does she think would be the consequences for our national security if a future occupant of her office lacked that resolve?
These are indeed grave and difficult decisions for a Prime Minister and a Government to take, but it is important that anybody in the position of Prime Minister recognises that there will sometimes be times when it is necessary to commit our armed forces into combat in some shape or form, be that in the more direct defence of our land or our interests, in defence of international norms, or for the prevention of humanitarian suffering. It is imperative that the person who occupies this position is able and willing to take such decisions.
I share completely the principle that, in a parliamentary democracy, elected representatives in this House should be able to debate the deployment of British military forces into combat. As I said yesterday, I am deeply conscious of the gravity of these decisions and the way in which they affect all Members of the House. There are situations—not least major deployments like the Iraq war—when the scale of the military build-up requires the movement of military assets over weeks, and when it is absolutely right and appropriate for Parliament to debate military action in advance, but that does not mean that that is always appropriate. This therefore cannot and should not be codified into a parliamentary right to debate every possible overseas mission in advance.
I will make just a little more progress.
As the exception makes clear, there are also situations when coming to Parliament in advance would undermine the security of our operations or constrain our armed forces’ ability to act quickly and decisively. In these situations, it is right for the Prime Minister to take the decision and then to be held accountable to Parliament for it. I give way to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith).
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend; I know she wishes to make progress. I was struck by the intervention by the hon. Member for Nottingham East (Mr Leslie) on his leader when he asked the very specific question about whether, under the motion, any change in embedded forces, for example, would deliver the necessity of a parliamentary vote. May I connect that with the question raised about legislation, because surely it would be the case that had the Government decided not to have a vote, an injunction would almost immediately follow under that legislation, thereby absolutely puncturing a hole through Government action when that was necessary and leaving complete confusion for us and our allies?
I thank the Prime Minister for giving way. Nobody disputes the Prime Minister’s ability to act outwith consultation with Parliament on an issue of national security. However, that is not the case in this instance. The President of the United States tweeted the week before the action to suggest that it would happen, and the Prime Minister’s own Cabinet meeting indicated that the Government would be supportive on Thursday. She could have perfectly well recalled Parliament on Thursday. Is it not the case that she was just afraid of losing a vote, and that is why she did not recall Parliament?
I will come on to the specific issue of the vote that the hon. Gentleman would have preferred to see on the action that took place last week. He says that nobody is in any doubt of the Government’s need to be able to act by themselves and make their own decision on a matter of national security. Having heard the Leader of the Opposition’s speech, I am not sure that that statement flows for every Member of the House. As I understood it, the Leader of the Opposition was saying that it should always be the case that Parliament takes a decision in advance of the Government taking action.
I will make some progress. I want to set out for the House today four fundamental reasons why this exception is right and why it applied in the case of our military action last weekend.
First, coming to Parliament before undertaking military action could compromise the effectiveness of our operations and the safety of British servicemen and women. In the case of our actions last weekend, the Syrian regime has one of the most sophisticated air defence systems in the world today. To counter such a system, it is vital to confuse the enemy as much as possible and to conceal the timing and targets of any planned attack. For example, if they had known even the category of target we had identified—in other words, our narrow focus on chemical weapons—that would have allowed them to concentrate rather than disperse their air defences. They could also have pre-empted our attack by dispersing their chemical weapons stocks, instead of leaving them at the target sites that we had identified.
Our ability to exploit uncertainty was a critical part of the operation, and that uncertainty was also a critical part of its success. We know that the Syrian regime was not aware in advance of our detailed plans. If I had come here to the House to make the case for action in advance, I could not have concealed our plans and retained that uncertainty. I would quite understandably have faced questions about the legality of our action. The only way I could have reassured the House would have been to set out in advance—as I did yesterday after the event—the limited, targeted and proportionate nature of our proposed action. I would have faced questions about what aircraft and weapons we were planning to use, when the operation was going to take place, how long it was going to last and what we were going to do.
All of that would have provided invaluable information that would have put our armed forces at greater risk and greatly increased the likelihood of the regime being able to shoot down our missiles and get their chemical weapons away from our targets. I was not prepared to compromise their safety and the efficacy of the mission. [Interruption.] To the shadow Foreign Secretary, who from a sedentary position is saying that it is nonsense to argue about the security of our armed forces, I say that that should be at the forefront of our thinking.
I am grateful to the Prime Minister for giving way. Nine days have elapsed since the attack on Douma. The President of the United States tweeted about it, and there was a highly publicised Cabinet meeting on the morning of 12 April. On that day, comments of the Prime Minister in that Cabinet meeting were reported in the press. No one here would have asked for secret details of the attacks. We would have asked about the long-term strategy for getting people around the table to discuss the future. She set out yesterday her objective in this attack, but is that attack likely to increase the possibility of getting those people around the table to bring a solution to the problem in Syria? No, it is not.
The hon. Gentleman knows full well that the strikes were undertaken because of the concerns about the use of chemical weapons. They were not about the longer term issues of the resolution of the conflict and civil war in Syria, and they were not about the issue of regime change. They were about degrading a chemical weapons capability and deterring the use of those chemical weapons.
Is the Prime Minister aware that the comments she is making reflect accurately a Ministry of Justice report published under the previous Labour Government in 2009, which stated that any relaxation of prerogative powers would “dangerously” weaken our ability to respond in a crisis?
I am grateful to the Prime Minister for giving way. She knows that the decisions she often has to take are in response to very dynamic security and military situations. Legislating in this place for the mission brings with it an inflexibility that would be very unhelpful when targets change, missions change and rules of engagement sometimes need to be adjusted. She cannot allow her freedom of decision making to be limited in such a way.
No, I am going to make progress. Quite a few Members wish to speak in the debate, and I have taken a lot of interventions.
The second reason is the nature of the information that I see as Prime Minister, along with the National Security Council and the Cabinet. The Government make use of a wide range of sources of information, both those in the public domain and secret intelligence. In this case, drawing on the lessons of the past, we made a rigorous assessment of the available open-source material and intelligence about the Douma attack. Indeed, when my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) looked me in the eye and asked me to tell him that it was the Syrian regime that was responsible, I could do so in part because of the intelligence and assessment I had seen, and because I had discussed that intelligence and assessment with senior security and military officials, the National Security Council and Cabinet.
In the post-Iraq era, it is natural for people to ask questions about the evidence base for our military actions, including when we cite intelligence. They want to see all the information themselves. But we have an obligation to protect the safety and security of our sources. We must maintain secrecy if our intelligence is to be effective now and in the future. We have obligations to our partners to protect the intelligence they share with us, just as they protect intelligence we share with them, and we have to be judicious even in explaining the types of intelligence we use in any given case, or risk giving our adversaries vital clues about where our information comes from.
No, I am going to make some more progress.
The Government have access to all that information, but Parliament does not and cannot. This is not a question of whether we take Parliament into our confidence. It is a question of whether we take our adversaries into our confidence by sharing that material in a public forum. Officials have briefed Opposition leaders on Privy Council terms, and I have set out to the House elements underpinning our assessment, but our intelligence and assessment cannot be shared in full with Parliament. It is my responsibility to decide the way forward based on all the intelligence and information available to Government. I should make the decision as Prime Minister with the support of the Cabinet, and Parliament should hold me to account for that decision.
I am extremely grateful to the Prime Minister for giving way. I found the statement on the evidence for it being Assad’s regime that carried out the chemical attack, on the type of helicopter and the movements, very compelling. Would she have been able to share just that evidence prior to the attack?
No, I am going to make some progress.
The third reason is our need to work together with our closest allies. A year ago, following the despicable sarin attack at Khan Shaykhun, the US immediately sought to deter further chemical weapons attacks by launching 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at the airfield from which the Khan Shaykhun atrocity attack took place. But Assad and his regime have not stopped their use of chemical weapons, so this weekend’s strikes needed to be significantly larger than the US action a year ago and to be specifically designed to have a greater impact on the regime’s capability and willingness to use chemical weapons. That was firmly in the British national interest. Working together with America and France, and doing so at pace, was fundamental to achieving that effect.
If I had come to the House in advance of this operation to set out the totality of our effort, I would also have had to share with Parliament the breadth of our allies’ plans, for this was a combined operation where the totality of our effort was key to delivering the effect. Not only would this have constrained their flexibility to act swiftly, but it would have fundamentally undermined the effectiveness of their action and endangered the security of our American and French allies. In doing so, we would have failed to stand up to Assad in the face of this latest atrocity. We would have failed to alleviate further humanitarian suffering by degrading Assad’s chemical weapons capability and deterring their future use, and we would have failed to uphold and defend the global consensus that says these weapons should never, ever be used.
The fourth reason is that the legal basis for UK action has previously been agreed by Parliament. As the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) said so movingly during the statement yesterday, there is a long tradition on both sides of this House that has considered that military action on an exceptional basis—where necessary and proportionate, and as a last resort—to avert an overwhelming humanitarian catastrophe is permissible under international law. The three criteria that I set out in my statement yesterday are the same three criteria used as the legal justification for the UK’s role in the NATO intervention in Kosovo. As I also explained, our intervention in 1991 with the US and France and in 1992 with the US to create safe havens and enforce the no-fly zones in Iraq following the Gulf war were also justified on the basis of humanitarian intervention.
So it was right for me, as Prime Minister—with the full support of the Cabinet, and drawing on the advice of security and military officials—to take the decision on this military strike last weekend, and for Parliament to be able to hold me to account for it. By contrast, a war powers Act would remove that capability from a Prime Minister and remove the vital flexibility from the convention that has been established, for it would not be possible to enshrine a convention in a way that is strong and meaningful but none the less flexible enough to deal with what are, by definition, unpredictable circumstances.
If consulting Parliament in advance of this military action against the Syrian regime would inevitably have compromised operational details and intelligence in the way the Prime Minister suggests, what was it about the debate that took place in 2013 on possible military action in Syria that would have compromised the same details had the vote gone the other way?
As a former soldier, may I paint a picture in which British hostages are taken and a rescue mission is needed? As I understand it from the Opposition, we would have to come to this place before such a mission was launched—or we might have to—if the law worked in that way, but the best time to rescue them would actually be when we in this place are talking.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. My understanding is that he has understood the potential consequences of what is being proposed by the Opposition.
Let me be absolutely clear what such a war powers Act would mean. It would mean that many smaller scale, timely and targeted interventions—like the action we have taken to alleviate further humanitarian suffering by degrading Syria’s chemical weapons capability and deterring their use—became unviable. They would be unviable because it would significantly reduce the effectiveness of any operations and endanger the safety of our servicemen and women.
As David Cameron stated to the House back in 2014,
“it is important to reserve the right that if there were a critical British national interest at stake or there were the need to act to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe, you could act immediately and explain to the House of Commons afterwards.”—[Official Report, 26 September 2014; Vol. 585, c. 1265.]
Put simply, making it unlawful for Her Majesty’s Government to undertake any such military intervention without a vote would seriously compromise our national security, our national interests and the lives of British citizens at home and abroad—and for as long as I am Prime Minister, that will never be allowed to happen.
Mr Speaker, before I make my concluding remarks, may I apologise to all those participating in this debate? I will have to leave the House after I have spoken in order to have a meeting with Cyril Ramaphosa, who has taken over as the Head of Government in South Africa, but Members will understand that it is important for me to do so.
I realise that for some in this House, and especially for those who have not had to do what I have had to do, the attractive purity of a democratic principle that Parliament should always decide may still appeal more than the practice of how to ensure an effective military operation that delivers in our national interest. Notwithstanding this disagreement, however, I think two things are clear. First, while we may disagree over my decision not to recall Parliament, over my decision to commit our forces in combat on this mission and over the very principle that I should be able to make such a decision, I hope we can agree over this: from the time I spent at the Dispatch Box yesterday, no one can doubt my commitment as Prime Minister to being held to account by this House for the decisions I have taken. Secondly, the mood of the House yesterday was unquestionable: we have the support of the House for the measures that we took to alleviate further humanitarian suffering by degrading the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons capability and deterring its future use. A clear majority of the House believes we did the right thing.
May I suggest to the Government that we need to reflect very carefully on the important matters we are debating? I respectfully suggest that the Government should consider bringing forward a Bill that would provide the protections many of us in the House are arguing for today. I say that because legitimate questions are being raised about what the scope of that Bill or Act should be so that the Government, in exceptional circumstances, still have the power to act. We are not talking about a set of provisions that binds the Government and prevents them from acting in all circumstances; that would be ludicrous, and I do not believe that anybody would support that.
May I say that, as we have this debate, we must keep at the front of our minds the humanitarian situation in Syria? All of us in this House must have a desire to work together, and to work together internationally, to bring the war and the suffering in Syria to an end. May I also say that we ought to commend our armed forces for the way in which they have conducted themselves? We can be grateful that those who engaged in the activity last week, whether or not we agreed with it, returned to their bases in safety.
It is important at this time to reflect on the principles in this debate. This place may have no constitution, but it has long-held conventions that are based on precedent. In 2013, Parliament was recalled to debate the UK’s military response to a chemical attack in Syria. The UK’s political system has been turned upside down since then, and that appears to include parliamentary procedure and parliamentary sovereignty. The timeline of events last week showed our Prime Minister chasing the President’s timetable, rather than planning a recall. Parliament should authorise military action, and it is a disgrace that the Prime Minister appeared beholden to the US President, instead of to the UK Parliament. [Interruption.] I hear some Conservative Members saying “Rubbish”, but it is important that we examine these matters.
Let me say to the House that it is my contention that, if we had not been on recess last week, we would have had such a discussion—the nub of the problem, above all else, was the failure of the Government to recall Parliament—and there is no way that this House would have been able to avoid a debate on what was happening in Syria, particularly in the light of the tweets coming from the US President.
I was out last week in my constituency knocking on doors. As the right hon. Gentleman will be aware, my constituency is Washington and Sunderland West? My constituents asked me, “Why weren’t the views of the constituents of Washington UK taken into consideration, rather than the views of President Trump of Washington DC?”
I find myself in strong agreement with the hon. Lady, because the fact of the matter is that everybody else was discussing the Syrian situation last week; hardly any other subject has been discussed in our media. When all our constituents are rightly concerned about the humanitarian situation, the only people—the only ones—who have not had a voice are Members of this Parliament. That is to be deeply regretted.
Does not the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is not acceptable and not good enough for the Prime Minister not to seek parliamentary approval before getting our brave servicemen and women involved in a military conflict? As he rightly says, thanks to the tweets of the stable genius, hundreds of millions of people were debating the issue in their house, but it seems that this House is the only one where we are not allowed to debate.
I think the hon. Gentleman is correct. Let me say this respectfully: we are living in challenging times; we all agree on that. We had the attack in Salisbury, and it is important that we tried to reach as broad a consensus as we could have done on that matter. I simply say to the House that it is in all our interests that we are able to debate these matters. Nobody is talking about tying the hands of the Prime Minister; all we are asking is that democracy can take place.
First, we should keep it in mind that last week’s action was limited and targeted, not a more general engagement. To the right hon. Gentleman’s specific question on why Parliament was not recalled, let me provide this answer. First, to have provided full justification to the House would have entailed the disclosure of confidential intelligence. Secondly, it would have inhibited our ability to co-ordinate with international allies. Thirdly, it would have given our adversary some sense of the—
I have to say that that is wrong on so many levels. I remind the hon. Gentleman that we met, we discussed and we voted in 2015 to take action against Daesh. Nobody is saying that intelligence matters have to be declared to Members of Parliament— of course not. We are talking about the principles of taking action. Do not hide behind the smokescreen of saying that intelligence information has to be shared. It does not, and nobody would expect that.
The Prime Minister has said that this so-called targeted action would not increase tensions in the region, yet she could not give any guarantees about retaliation from different parties. Does my right hon. Friend not agree that that is exactly the kind of thing we would have debated had this come to Parliament?
Absolutely. I wish to see all of us—the United Kingdom—taking a leadership role in making sure that we can get rid of the scourge of chemical weapons, but, as I mentioned in my introductory remarks, we need to work together in the interests of the Syrian people to break the logjam of the Geneva talks. That should be our biggest priority in order to do—
I must apologise to the House. I know that many Members want to speak and I want to make progress if I can.
I remind the House that the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), the Father of the House, said yesterday that
“once President Trump had announced to the world what he was proposing, a widespread debate was taking place everywhere—including among many Members of Parliament in the media. However, there was no debate in Parliament.”—[Official Report, 16 April 2018; Vol. 639, c. 47.]
We should listen to the wisdom of the Father of the House.
As the President tweeted reckless comments, simply heightening tensions, the Scottish National party immediately called for the Prime Minister to recall Parliament for last Saturday. We have been clear: any proposed change to the role of UK forces in Syria must be subject to a vote in Parliament. Cabinet was recalled. Why wasn’t Parliament?
There is no good answer to that question, because the Prime Minister knows she should have done so. As I have said, precedent has been set. In 2013, the Prime Minister, David Cameron, recalled Parliament for a debate and vote following a suspected chemical attack on Syrian civilians in the suburbs of Damascus. After the 2013 vote, Professor Malcolm Chalmers of the Royal United Services Institute commented:
“It is now hard to see how any UK Government could undertake significant military action without the support of Parliament, or indeed of the wider public.”
We know what a lack of rigorous analysis and thought can lead to. We must—absolutely must—have learned the lessons from the Iraq war, and we must fully endorse the conclusions of the Chilcot report. A full debate in Parliament would have allowed for many questions about the UK’s military action and role to be asked. For example, what is the Government’s long-term strategy for Syria?
Chilcot has been cited a number of times by Opposition Members. The Iraq war was voted on in this place, but on the basis of incomplete information. What intelligence would the right hon. Gentleman propose to compromise to Members of the House so that they could make a better decision and what analysis has he made of the impact of sharing that intelligence on the operational security of those who would prosecute the mission thereafter?
None. How do we— [Interruption.] Well, look. I am trying to be— [Interruption.] I see the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) waving her arms. I have already made the point, as the hon. Member for Wells (James Heappey) would know if he had been listening to what I have been saying, that I do not expect the Government to have to share intelligence information with Members of Parliament. Let me also be clear, for the absence of doubt: I accept the case that has been put that the Syrian regime is responsible for the chemical weapons attack. I am happy with the explanation that has been given, and, in my case, I have been made aware of some of the intelligence information.
Let us not say that Parliament cannot take action on the basis of being told what it can be told. But it does not need to be told what is sensitive intelligence information. That is the way Parliament has worked, and we are asking that parliamentary democracy continues to take place.
Taking military action is not easy; we accept that. Finding a way through the morass in Syria and offering hope to the people is more difficult, but that is an issue that, as part of any plan for military action, has to be discussed.
Is there not this difficulty? If we in the House seek to debate, in anticipation, a military action that is of a high level of specificity, in reality, where the Government cannot explain the specifics, we will be in considerable difficulty having a sensible debate on that subject. Let us look at this realistically. That is in fact one of the issues that has to be addressed. I hope I may have a chance to speak about that later.
I will not take any more interventions because I must move on.
I have already talked about what happened in 2015, when the House voted on taking action against Daesh. Nobody is talking about compromising operational activity; this is about the principle of Parliament giving its consent to military action. That is what we are talking about.
I must make progress. Preparing the groundwork for peace has to be a fundamental part of any proposed military action, as well as developing a clear and coherent plan that addresses the humanitarian crisis. It is a damning tale that the UK spent 13 times as much money on bombing Libya than it did on rebuilding the country at the end of the conflict. We must not be dragged into the reckless rhetoric of the President of the United States when he claims “mission accomplished”.
I call on the Government urgently to tell the House, by means of a statement, what their long-term strategy is for achieving peace in Syria and helping the nation rebuild after the war.
On Saturday, we were presented with the legal advice the Prime Minister relied on to justify Saturday’s airstrikes. I repeat my comments from yesterday: the SNP has grave concerns about the extent of the legal advice. As I noted yesterday, in the absence of a UN resolution or self-defence, the two clear-cut legal grounds for attack, the Prime Minister’s legal reliance is based on averting a humanitarian crisis. Syria is the most besieged and bombed placed on earth right now. It is not easy to see how adding war planes and airstrikes to the Syrian skies averts further humanitarian suffering: thousands dead, millions fleeing for their lives, 400,000 civilians still trapped in appalling conditions, deprived of food, medicine and basic aid, and over 13 million civilians in desperate need of humanitarian aid. I heard the cry about refugees—yes, our responsibility for refugees. We can look back with pride to the Kindertransport in the months leading up to the second world war, when 10,000 children were let into this country. Where is that spirit of humanity to deal with the crisis in Syria today?
It is said that many a true word is spoken in jest. I think it was the comedian Frankie Boyle who said that the UK cares very much about the Syrians until they reach a beach. We have to make sure that we put as much effort into refugees as is being put into dropping bombs.
Absolutely. The situation on the ground in Syria is desperate. We cannot and must not look at Syria through the narrow prism of military action. There are fantastic people, groups and organisations on the ground just getting through each day and they deserve the international community’s full support. I pay tribute in particular to the White Helmets, who have not only saved so many lives but have continuously run into danger to protect civilians.
We must work with the UN and international partners to ensure all action in Syria meets with international law. I have grave concerns that the Prime Minister did not wait for OPCW inspectors to complete their visit and investigations in Douma before taking a decision to respond. Many countries around the world place constitutional controls on the use of military power. The SNP believes in a triple lock on military deployments, based on the principles that military action would need to be: in accordance with the principles of the UN charter; properly agreed by Government; and approved by Parliament. If I may say so, those are principles that any independent Scottish Government would adhere to. Those of us on the SNP Benches believe that the time has come for a war powers Act. A long-standing policy of the SNP, we believe it will stop situations such as that we saw last week, where Parliament is completely bypassed in a reckless fashion.
Parliamentary approval was the Conservative party’s position not so long ago. In 2011, the then Foreign Secretary William Hague stated that the UK Government planned to
“enshrine in law for the future the necessity of consulting Parliament on military action.”—[Official Report, 21 March 2011; Vol. 525, c. 799.]
Then the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee identified
“an urgent need for greater clarity on Parliament’s role in decisions to commit British forces to armed conflict abroad”.
It recommended that the Government should in the first instance bring forward a draft parliamentary resolution for consultation and for decision by the end of 2011. As we all know, that did not happen.
In conclusion, we on the SNP Benches warmly welcome the support of the Leader of the Opposition for bringing forward a war powers Act. I hope that we can work together—indeed, across the House with Government Members, too—to create a war powers Act for this place.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I will endeavour to be as swift as I possibly can.
The right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) has, I think, just punched a hole in his own argument. He responded to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), a former Attorney General, by assuring us that in any debate about some putative military action nobody would ask the Government to reveal specifics. I am sorry, but that is what this place does: we ask about specifics. He expects to debate forthcoming military action when the Government would be reluctant to reveal targets, the objectives of the operation and the nature of the deployment. That is ridiculous. I will come back to that point in a minute.
I rise as Chair of the Parliamentary Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, which covers both the question of strategic thinking in government and the question of the relationship between the Government and Parliament. My predecessor Committee produced three reports on strategic thinking in government and I challenge my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, who is in his place, on this. The Government have listened to the arguments and developed their capacity for strategic thinking, but the published literature of government is way behind the curve in dealing with the situations we now face. That underlines how we have to a large extent been asleep and complacent about the security we enjoy in this world. We are effectively now confronted by two great powers who are intent on subverting the international legal order. The problem in Syria is just a symptom of the superpower conflict that is already taking place, and which is simply not reflected in the 2015 strategic defence and security review or the 2015 national security review. I think we need to attend to those matters with some urgency.
I wish to concentrate on the more immediate question about the relationship between Government and Parliament. It is a complete misconception that there is an established constitutional convention that Parliament votes on the question of foreign deployments. This is a relatively new fashion. The Cabinet manual says that, but the Cabinet manual has no constitutional status whatever. It has no legal force. It is merely the expression of the opinion of a particular Prime Minister at a particular time—it was not even drafted by this Prime Minister—and it is vague.
The basis of the relationship between Government and Parliament is that Parliament controls laws and the supply of money to the Executive. Parliament is required to give its confidence to the Government in office for them to continue in office. It scrutinises Government decisions and holds Ministers accountable. However, I say to the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition that accountability is not the same thing as control. This Parliament does not control the Executive. We do not run the country. We hold the Government accountable. Parliament should not seek to directly control the decisions of Ministers.
Would my hon. Friend not go a little further and agree that if we crossed that boundary and made this into the Executive, we would actually reduce the ability of this place to hold the Government to account because we ourselves are forced, on a three-line Whip, to vote for them?
It is ironic that the decision to go to war in Iraq is continually held up as an example of how these decisions should be made, when in fact the determination of the then Prime Minister to bring the decision to Parliament actually blurred the whole debate. It made the debate about a whole lot of factors that were irrelevant to the question of whether it was a sensible decision to go to war in Iraq. It also seems ironic to hold that up as an example of how decisions should be made when so many Members of that House regret taking that decision. It is easier to hold the Government accountable if we say, “You the Government make the decision and we will judge you on your performance after the event.”
When my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister received her seals of office from Her Majesty, she did not just take on the right to decide when, where and how our armed forces should be deployed. She took on the obligation, intrinsic to her office, to exercise her judgment, on proper advice and in consultation with her Cabinet, on military deployments of this nature and then to bring those decisions to this House when she has made them.
The Chilcot report has been raised. My Committee has considered it, and we made recommendations on how Government procedures might be improved to make sure that legal advice is not concealed from the Cabinet and that proper procedures are followed in Government. In particular, on the basis of a proposal from the Better Government Initiative, we recommended that it would be a good idea if the Cabinet Secretary had some mechanism to call out a Prime Minister who was deliberately bypassing proper procedures in Government. The Government have so far rejected that recommendation, but I hope they will continue to consider how we can be reassured that the proper procedures are being followed in Government. However, my right hon. Friend’s commitment to her sense of accountability and proper procedure seems to be absolutely unchallengeable—
I start by saying from a purely personal point of view that I accept that, on occasions, the use of military force is necessary to achieve humanitarian aims. Regardless of which Benches we sit on, I think most of us in this House accept that that probably has to be correct as a principle. What most of us are now debating are the circumstances in which we take such decisions, and in the few minutes available to me, I will concentrate my remarks on that specific point.
It is worth starting from the perspective—a lot of right hon. and hon. Members have argued this—that the United Nations should be front and centre in the decision-making process. In principle, that sounds like a good thing. My right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) quoted articles 3 and 28 of the universal declaration of human rights, which the UN General Assembly adopted in 1948, and they bear repetition. Article 3 states:
“Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.”
Article 28 states:
“Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.”
They are laudable objectives that all of us could easily subscribe to. The difficulty we have with the United Nations, however, is that the way in which Russia can exercise its veto at the Security Council—as it does regularly and repeatedly—means that the achievement of the high ideals set out by the United Nations in 1948 becomes increasingly difficult when one permanent member of the Security Council effectively prevents those ideals being carried out in practice through the use of a veto.
The right hon. Gentleman is making an extraordinarily central point. Does he agree that the whole structure of the P5 essentially depends on the assumption that all permanent members of the Security Council have it in mind to enforce the international rules-based order? When that breaks down, we have a fundamental problem.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, who I think is just saying what I said using different words. In so far as that is the argument that I am using, I accept what he is saying.
Before I move on to another matter, I want to say a further word about Russia. There is a view in some quarters that Russia is, if not benign, then a neutral force in all these matters—[Interruption.] I said on the part of some people. Although the hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Ms Dorries) is shaking her head, I would never have thought such of her. However, some people do genuinely and sincerely believe that. I spent 11 years as a member of the Intelligence and Security Committee—I resigned because I thought that was long enough—and members of that Committee find out some things they cannot talk openly about. However, one thing I will say is that I have seen in real time how Russia tries repeatedly to interfere with the apparatus of state through cyber-attacks and even in terms of the confidentiality of products in the defence industry. Any idea that Russia is this friendly state that we can all rely on is frankly not borne out by the facts.
I want to conclude with a word about what the Prime Minister had to say earlier. First, she said that she came to the House at the first possible opportunity, but I ask the question: did she? Secondly, she referred to intelligence that cannot be shared with Parliament, and I will deal with each point separately.
Unlike the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin), I accept that the convention that the Prime Minister has relied upon to justify what she did is appropriate. It says, basically, 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.”
I accept that there have to be exceptions, and any legislation or convention would have to allow for that fact. I would argue, however, that the Prime Minister could have recalled Parliament last week. We could have had a debate not about the intelligence that was involved, but about the open-source materials that she referred to, and this Parliament could, on the basis of a general resolution about humanitarian aims, have come to a conclusion, so I reject that assertion on the Prime Minister’s part.
Parliament has done its correct duty—admittedly assisted by you, Mr Speaker—in ensuring that there were six hours of debate yesterday and a further three hours of debate today, but these constitutional issues are not new. Indeed, this matter is at the heart of the Glorious Revolution, and one of the clauses of the Bill of Rights, which is still our law, states that
“the raising or keeping a standing Army within the Kingdome in time of Peace unlesse it be with Consent of Parlyament is against Law.”
That is why every five years an Armed Forces Bill is passed—to ensure that the armed forces that are available to the Executive are approved by Parliament.
This last happened in 2016 when the Armed Forces Act was renewed. On that occasion, the Bill passed Second Reading without a Division, and it passed Third Reading without a Division. There was uniform consent in this House that the armed services should exist on a similar basis to that on which they have existed since 1689. The Leader of the Opposition did not choose to put down an amendment to put any limits on how the armed services could operate. He did not choose to put down an amendment to say that the Government could not act without the specific consent of Parliament. At every stage, the Bill was passed, and it recognised the proper constitutional settlement and the separation of powers. An Executive and a legislature are different things and have different responsibilities.
As hon. Members know, I have the highest respect for the leader of the Scottish National party in this House—the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford)—but I think that he made an error in his speech when he suggested that this House ought to give pre-approval, because the job of the House is to hold the Executive to account, not to try to run the Executive by remote control.
I am very grateful to my neighbour for giving way. Surely this debate is about not a collective decision on the action that has been taken and on putting the armed forces at risk, but a process that we in this House are collectively happy with and agreed on. Clearly the fact that we are having this debate means that there is not a collective agreement about the process.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right, as the Leader of the Opposition was earlier, to say that today’s debate is about process. What I am trying to say is that the process is established, has been established for centuries and is highly effective. The Executive are only the Executive as long as they command the confidence of this House. It would have been open to the Opposition, instead of going for a Standing Order No. 24 debate, to have asked for a vote of confidence in Her Majesty’s Government. I think that that would have been the right thing to do, having listened carefully to the Leader of the Opposition’s speech. The Opposition fundamentally do not have confidence—or their leadership does not—in the making of this decision. We would then have seen whether this House had confidence in the Executive to make the decisions that are the legitimate business of the Executive.
I will not give way again because time is short.
If that were to happen, we would know that the use of force had not been agreed by this House, but it is a retrospective agreement. This is established in our constitution and has been for the longest time, and that is very important, because Executives have the confidential information that allows them to make decisions. The right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber asked why the Cabinet was called when Parliament was not. The obvious reason is that we have Cabinet government in this country. The Prime Minister cannot act on her own; she has to act with the consent of the Cabinet. That is how our constitution functions.
That is not correct. With the bombing raids on Libya, retrospective consent was given by this House; it was not sought in advance. That is the issue that goes to the heart of this matter. Yes, we have a flexible constitution, but it is not right to say that we have no constitution. The flexible constitution allows a Government to come to this House when they are considering certain types of action, when no secret information needs to be given out, and when there might be a long-term plan for an invasion or whatever there is. It also allows the Government the flexibility to act when times are urgent and business is pressing, and when the information is of the greatest sensitivity. That was why I made the point that it was right and inevitable that the Cabinet should be consulted, as that is where power rests, but it is absurd to suggest that the House of Commons could give its consent. In fact, the only way that the House of Commons can consent is by legislation, and then we would need to go to their other end of the Palace and ask their lordships as well. By the time we had passed a law saying that we could engage in conflict, the whole conflict would be over.
The issue is that the Armed Forces Act 2016 already covers this question, and that Bill was passed unanimously. This House gives confidence in the Government and controls supply. The armed forces cannot go to war not only if the Armed Forces Bill has not been passed, but if supply is not voted to allow the Army, Navy and Air Force to go about their business. That is where we have control every year over the actions of our military. We have it quinquennially and we have it annually, and we have confidence or not in the Government.
That is our correct and established constitutional situation. There are ways for the Opposition to deal with a Government of whom they do not approve, and that is through a vote of confidence. That they have not chosen to go down that route shows that the opposition is of a pacifist tone. That might be honourable, and it might be noble, but it is different from upsetting our constitution merely to entrench inaction.
My approach to this question was well captured by some of the independent-minded Labour Back Benchers yesterday, and particularly by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) when she said “If only the Prime Minister had asked it of me, I would have been inclined to support her.” The Prime Minister did not ask, and as a result she missed a significant opportunity to build consensus in this place and support in the country. She has clearly received other advice.
I was very struck in the middle of last week by the avalanche of editorials—notably one by the Prime Minister’s former colleague, the editor of the Evening Standard—saying that of course Parliament must not debate this issue. It had nothing to do with high-minded constitutional principles or military secrecy; the argument was, “We might lose, and if we lose that will be terrible for our prestige vis-à-vis France.” There are of course more serious arguments, which have been aired and which were put by the Prime Minister, on the grounds of secrecy and national security. I respect them. I am a Privy Counsellor and have benefited from the briefings that have been available.
We are here on an issue of trust. I like to think that in this House and in the country we have progressed beyond the poisonous legacy of the Iraq war. We are not in the position of the United States, where the President is at war with his own intelligence agencies. We have trust and should have trust in the advice that is given. If the Prime Minister had any doubt about that, she should have been reassured three to four weeks ago when she came to the House to address the Salisbury question and said, “Look, there are things I cannot explain. There are facts and information.” What happened was that almost everybody on this side of the House—nationalists, Liberal Democrats and Labour—except for those on the Opposition Front Bench, took her word, and that was as it should have been. She could have done that on this occasion, but because she has chosen to ignore a practice established by Mrs Thatcher, Tony Blair and David Cameron—admittedly in difficult circumstances—we are now in the position of having to talk about legislative remedies for something that should have been accepted on the basis of trust.
I do not understand the logic of the right hon. Gentleman’s argument. He has admitted that there are circumstances that would mean that the House could not be fully informed. The House would therefore be having a debate and making a decision that, by definition, would be ill informed. What is the sense in that?
Of course, not all information could be made available. That is why having trust in the Prime Minister, which I do as an individual, and in our security services and military, as I do, are absolutely imperative. If that were in place, the House would have a mature debate on the principle. I think that the Prime Minister would have had a significant majority had she followed that path.
When the right hon. Gentleman was a member of the coalition Government, he made decisions as part of that Government. He is now part of the legislature. Does he not accept that there is a distinction? He says that he trusts the Prime Minister, and surely that is what today’s debate is all about.
I am also well aware that I have had to fight my way back into the legislature and I am no longer a member of the Government. When I was a member of the Government, I supported military intervention in this place. I think that, on that occasion, Parliament got it wrong. I also think that it got it wrong over the Iraq war, but the process was a necessary discipline. It is a pity that we are now having to talk about legislative remedies when there was a perfectly good and sound convention that successive Prime Ministers were following, but this one is not.
That is all I wish to say about the process issues, but I want to raise several specific questions of substance that I do not think were dealt with in yesterday’s debate. The first, which was raised by me and the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), is whether this is a one-off operation, or a continuous series of strikes for which we need to be prepared. That is not an academic question. A lot of open-source material suggests that the number of chemical attacks in Syria is far greater than the number—five, I think—that was cited yesterday. The White Helmets, the Syrian human rights organisation, has come up with the figure of 213 in the last five years. In other words, every week the Syrian armed forces are using chemical weapons. Low-level divisional commanders are using crude chemicals, notably chlorine, and it strikes me as being perfectly plausible that they will do so again.
The question, then, is this: what is the threshold at which we once again intervene? Is it any use of chemical weapons? Is it a certain number of deaths? Is it the indignation of the President of the United States when he has seen something on television? What is the threshold for continuing involvement in this struggle? This is all the more reason why we need parliamentary authorisation for continuing action.
My second question, which relates indirectly to that, is about the role of the President of the United States. I regard the United States as an ally and a friendly country with which we have long and strong bonds, but I think that we all have problems with a President who is erratic, capricious and regarded with open contempt by the public officials who have worked with him, and who even now, in the middle of this crisis, seems to regard President Assad and President Putin as less of a problem than Stormy Daniels and Robert Mueller.
The question is, in our continuing dealings with the major power of the western world, where do we go? We know that in the last few days the President has introduced into his Administration John Bolton, who is absolutely open about the fact that if there are further strikes he will wish to include Iranian targets—we know that will inflame the issue in relation to Israel—and who wants to derail the agreement on nuclear weapons with Iran. I would like some assurance at the end of the debate that the British Government are holding fast with France and the rest of the European Union in honouring and supporting that agreement, and are not being over-influenced by the American Administration.
My third and final question relates to Russia. In her statement, the Prime Minister linked Salisbury with the chemical weapons attack. It is very striking that while we have followed the United States—perhaps rightly—in military action, we have not followed the Americans in imposing penal sanctions on oligarchs and stock market dealings. The impact is blatantly obvious. The Russians must be asking themselves, “Why haven’t they done it? Are they afraid of retaliation? Are there vested interests in the City?” That is the kind of question to which we need an answer.
We should have had answers to all those questions last week. I hope that we will improve the processes of the House to ensure that they are given in future.
I observe that in this debate, for all that it has become heated at times, we agree on much. We all agree that decisions to take military action must be brought to the House and explained to the House in detail as soon as possible after they have been made. We all agree that the Prime Minister and other Ministers must be held to account by the House, as often as the House wants, for the decisions that they have made in regard to that military action. We all, I think, agree that decisions on substantial long-term military engagements—what I would call, borrowing a phrase from President Obama, “wars of choice”—must be brought to the House in advance of the commitment. Although many of us believe that the decision made in 2003 to invade Iraq was a mistake, I do not think that there is anyone here who believes that it was a mistake for the House to debate that decision and be given an opportunity to vote on it. So we agree on that principle as well.
My hon. Friend is making an extremely convincing speech, but he is quite wrong on that point. I think that the great mistake in 2003 was that Tony Blair did come to the House, and did secure political cover for himself by allowing a vote. Had we not had a vote, it would have been much easier for many of us to hold him to account thereafter.
I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. I heard him make it earlier, and I think it is a very interesting point. I suppose my conclusion is that it is simply not realistic to think that a major modern democracy can invade another country where there is no immediate national security threat and where no immediate national interest is at risk without coming to its Parliament, explaining its strategy and receiving approval for it, although I do accept my hon. Friend’s argument that that subsequently limited the power of Parliament to hold the Government to account for their decision.
Let me now briefly focus on what I think are the two points of disagreement. We disagree on the question of which military actions should not require a prior vote in Parliament, and we disagree on the question of what form the convention should take. Should it be statute, or should it be a convention that is unwritten, as so many of our conventions are?
On the first question, I think we would all accept that if troops landed on the beaches of the Isle of Wight, as was mentioned earlier, the Prime Minister should be able to act that very night without a prior vote in Parliament. I suspect that if one of our NATO allies were attacked—let us say that Russian troops rolled into Estonia on a Saturday afternoon—many of us, although I am not sure about the Leader of the Opposition, would accept that fulfilling our duties under the NATO treaty should also not require prior parliamentary authorisation through a vote.
However, I do believe that there are difficult cases. I believe that we saw—and I saw, and I voted—one of the most difficult cases when we were last asked whether we should respond to a chemical weapons attack by President Assad on his own people in Syria. That, of course, was the vote that took place in 2013. My contention is that we made a fundamental error. We should never have held that vote. It is not just that we were wrong to vote, as we did collectively in Parliament, to reject action; the Government, the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary were wrong to bring that issue to Parliament and ask for a vote, for the very reasons that have been laid out so well by Members, particularly those with military experience.
This Parliament did not have the information necessary to make that decision. This Parliament could not share in the intelligence information about what President Assad was up to. As a result, Assad saw that we would not act when he used those chemical weapons, and what did he then do? As the leader of the Liberal Democrats has pointed out, he has used chemical weapons serially—not just on four or five occasions, but on many occasions since then—because he saw that the west would never do anything about it.
The reason the United States did not do anything about it, and the reason France did not do anything about it, was the vote that had taken place in this House. They were all going to act until we were given a vote, which we should not have been given, to question the Prime Minister’s judgment that action should be taken. We rejected his advice, and as a result the Syrian people have suffered much, much more. We made a fundamental error that cost many hundreds of lives of Syrian families and Syrian children. This is not an arcane debate about process; this goes to the heart.
That is why I urge Members to resist the suggestion that we should put these matters into legislation. The genius of our constitution is that it is not written down. The genius is that it is based on convention, and the genius of convention is that convention can evolve in response to actual facts. It is true that it has now become a convention that Parliament has a vote on military action in many circumstances. Through the decision made by this Prime Minister last weekend, that convention is rightly evolving again to re-establish the idea that when a major humanitarian crisis takes place, she should be able to act, and come to Parliament afterwards.
It is a huge privilege to follow the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), and it is great to see him in such fine form. I agree with almost everything that he said, although we can parse the toss on what happened in 2013. I certainly agree with what he said about the principle that our Government have the authority to make the decisions that were made last week. That authority rests with them. They have the authority, they have the justification, they have access to all the intelligence and the evidence, and they are duty bound to defend not only this nation, but national interests and the international standards with which this House agrees. So I agree most fundamentally that the decision rests with Government and that it is one for Government to make.
I am increasingly impressed by the principled position that I hear from the right hon. Member for Twickenham (Sir Vince Cable). I have not had so much contact with him over the many years, but I have listened carefully to his contributions in this Chamber since his return to Parliament. He cited 2013 and the principle of parliamentary approval in 2013, yet decries the fact that this Parliament did not approve of action. The consequence of our Prime Minister—charged with the defence of this nation and our interests and international standards—not seeking the comfort of parliamentary approval should be, some now argue, to put in a process and to remove that decision-making ability from her. That is fundamentally wrong. It would be wrong for this Parliament to remove that power from our Government on the basis of a decision that was the right one to take, and that was constitutionally and legally taken with the best advice available. If we all agree that it was the right thing to do, why should we believe that it is now appropriate to consider this House putting in place a legislative barrier that has the potential to stop the right decision being taken when it needs to be taken?
The title of this motion does not take us very far, and nor does the speech of the Leader of the Opposition. I have learned nothing more about what he actually wants to achieve from a war powers Act, but we should know this: it really matters not what this Parliament passes as a war powers Act, because if our action does not adhere to the seventh article of the UN charter, it is illegal and it would not matter if we had parliamentary approval or not. We either take action that adheres to the UN charter or we do not; we take action that is internationally legally justified, or we do not.
From looking at a brief history of the positions of the Leader of the Opposition, it is clear that the arguments he puts forward would have a much stronger imprimatur if he had ever believed it was appropriate to act against a monster or despot or dictator internationally. He has not done so; he refuses to do so, and a quick glance at history demonstrates that. When UN peacekeepers needed to be rescued from Sierra Leone, the Leader of the Opposition voted against; when we took action in Kosovo and Bosnia, the Leader of the Opposition was against those actions.
The hon. Gentleman talks about dictators and tyrants and events elsewhere in the world, but the UK took no action against Mugabe or Pinochet, and regime change is illegal under international law. The problem is that if we start to flout international law, how we do challenge others?
We have not flouted international law, of course. After Kosovo, there is a clear legal justification for action for humanitarian purposes, as has been clearly outlined. We could even go back to the UN resolution of 2013: articles 1 and 21 specifically provide for military action where there has been a breach of, or failure to adhere to, the chemical weapons prohibition charter. That is there. The UN has been talked about, and everyone knows about the process and the problems we have had in getting Russian approval in the Security Council for a position for action.
The UN did back action for the first Gulf war; it mandated action for that, but the Leader of the Opposition put down motions in this House condemning the UN for giving its approval for such actions. This matters, because the motion before the House is not about a noble justification for the introduction of a legislative barrier on our Government in taking action; this matters because there are those in this place who dress up as noble their position, while all they want to do in each and every instance is frustrate the ability of this Government or the international community to take action against tyrants.
This debate is not about the voting record of the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn). It is about a principle and practice going forward where 650 Members of Parliament representing the people of the United Kingdom make a decision on such matters. It is not about those who might happen to find themselves in certain positions in Government; it is about Parliament having oversight of what they are doing.
I apologise to my good and hon. Friend, but I have taken a number of interventions and have little time left and think I should conclude now.
People have the ability to take a principled decision and stand on each and every occasion that we consider military action internationally. I highlight the Leader of the Opposition’s record because he introduced this motion. He suggests that the Government should be frustrated from taking decisions that are in our national interest or in defence of our nation, or that stand up for international standards and norms. He suggests there is some noble principle behind the position he puts forward; I suggest there is not. It is a cover for impotence and inertia.
It is a privilege to follow such a thoughtful and principled speech by the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson).
Most Members of this House—certainly myself and certainly the Prime Minister—are naturally cautious about deploying members of our armed forces and putting them in harm’s way. There is of course a risk in intervention, which has been well-articulated in the last 24 hours in this House, and we pay the price of past interventions that have been wrong, but there is also a price in not intervening, and we need to understand the dynamics of events when Governments decide whether or not to deploy our troops.
In doing so, we need to understand the nature of conflict. We think too often that conflict is between two opposing armed forces, with one seizing and holding ground. Such conflicts are easy to understand, but we now live in a world where there is hybrid warfare and there are counter-insurgency operations, and we could be talking about an operation to rescue a downed pilot or a drone attack against individuals who present a direct ability to harm our constituents, and decisions have to be taken very quickly. So this comes down to the nature of our leaders and what goes through their minds and how they make decisions at such times.
There is a perfectly honourable tradition in this country of pacifism. There were pacifists with whom, had I been around at the time, I would probably have profoundly disagreed but who had a certain nobility when in 1914 they stood up against an enormous rush to war and said, “No, we think this is wrong,” and many of them paid a huge price for doing that. The Leader of the Opposition has been a frequent visitor to Greenham common in my constituency and has spoken with pride about his mother’s time spent outside the wire there. He has also spoken about visiting the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston. I can both respect and totally disagree with him, and indeed his mother, for the decisions they were taking at that time, but I can respect them. I would respect him more if he came to the House today and said, “Look, this is where I am from. I will not support this country going to war and I will therefore constrain not only this Government but future Governments from doing that.” I would have so much more respect for him if he did that.
I have sat through many debates, and I have participated in many debates in which we have made the wrong decision, as well as those in which we have made the right decision. Too often, those debates come down to arguments about tactics. What this House should do in those circumstances is consider strategy. To me, the strategy in the last few days has been obvious. It is about whether we condone—and, by our inaction, shrug our shoulders and walk away from—the grotesque image of children coughing up blood and spittle because they have been gassed in a cellar by a monster. That is the image. We can talk about process, as hon. Members on both sides have done today, but that is the thought that we have to hold in our minds.
The right hon. Gentleman might be interested to know that a Syrian doctor in Swansea approached me to say that his wife’s family had been involved in a gas attack in which their two-year-old died in front of them. He says that the doctors in Douma have been told by the Syrians at the point of a gun: “Unless you give a testimony that there was not a gas attack, doctor, we will kill your children.”
I think the hon. Gentleman needs to look at a lot more of the open-source material that I have looked at. For example, the other night, the BBC was interviewing the parents of children there. He can follow some of the rather eccentric people who were in Parliament Square yesterday, or he can follow the facts. I strongly suggest that he does the latter—[Interruption.] I am sorry. I am told that I might have misunderstood the hon. Gentleman. If I have made that mistake, I do apologise to him.
The Leader of the Opposition spoke about the Survation poll. I would just ask him to consider whether the 54% of people in that poll were given details of the exact measures that the Government were having to take, and of the complications involved in controlling an operation with two other nation partners. Were they told about the difficulties of trying to put together an operation that sought to minimise the risk of collateral damage? Were they told about the need to ensure the secrecy of the targeting? The measures needed in these events are so complicated that to talk about them in terms of a public opinion poll involving a binary decision, and indeed in the context of debates in this House, is extremely difficult. What sort of debate would we have? I have sat through debates in which people have said, “I will not walk through the Division Lobby with the Government until I have had more details of the operations that are planned, and unless I hear that x, y, and z measures will be taken.” Anyone who has had anything to do with military operations will know that the plan falls apart when the first shot is fired, and that we are then in the hands of events.
When I was a member of the Executive, I found coming to this House or being quizzed in front of a Select Committee quite tiresome at times. I immersed myself in the details of the issues, and being held to account was sometimes not much fun. Now, as a Back Bencher, I find holding the Government to account enormous fun. I find it very invigorating, but that does not preclude us from trying to do what is right. The problem is that there are some elements in this House for whom this has become a vanity operation. This is more serious than that, however, and I hope that we will therefore tread very carefully when it comes to doing this. We have the complication of an article 5 commitment, whereby if a NATO nation is invaded, we are treaty-bound to respond. I therefore urge hon. Members on both sides of the House to think carefully before going down the path presented today by the Leader of the Opposition.
I am very pleased to speak in this debate, and I hope that I would be making this contribution regardless of which party was in power. At a reception in your apartments, Mr Speaker, you were asked who were the best ever orators in Parliament. You said that there had been many, but two that you often quoted were the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke)—who, sadly, is not in his place today—and the now deceased right hon. Robin Cook. My right hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) referred to Robin Cook’s speech this afternoon, and I think it goes to the heart of why we are here today. The role of Parliament is important because there is an element of having to persuade not only one another but the country of our views, our principles and our ideas.
That is an important principle that came out of the very lengthy Chilcot inquiry. I was on the shadow Front Bench during that time, and I had to pinch myself to stop from crying at times because of the pain that was in that report. Today, we have to reflect on what we have learned from the report, not just about the importance of Parliament and our role in scrutinising the Executive, but about two other key elements. One of those involves the need for a plan. My hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) made a fantastic speech yesterday in which she mentioned the cross-party group on Syria and its steadfast commitment to the Syrian people. She spoke about the importance of having a plan, and one of the sticking points over the past week has been the lack of a sense of what we should do next. There has been a sense of “this feels fine for this weekend, but what happens next?”
The second element is the need for high-quality intelligence and evidence. This goes back to what was crudely referred to as the “dodgy dossier”, which has haunted us in our political debates from many years. We still need to ask those questions. Many of us will make no apology for asking questions. That is our job as Back-Bench Members, whatever role we might have.
I often feel that the language used can prevent us from getting to the goal that we want to achieve. That is certainly the case in relation to questions about peace and war.
It has been mentioned that Lord William Hague committed himself and others to enshrining this kind of an idea in law, in exact legal language, but I understand that he has now changed his mind. Due to other commitments, I did not have time to listen to his contribution this morning, but I will go back and listen to it because I am interested to know why he felt this matter to be pressing when he was in this place and why, now that he is no longer in this place, it is no longer so pressing. We carry a certain mantle on our shoulders as parliamentarians in this House, but I do not think that that sense of responsibility applies in the other place to the same degree. There is not that same sense of the ballot box and the sense of our being pushed here. We have to live up to that responsibility.
In conclusion, there was plenty of time last week to recall Parliament, and I wish that we had had yesterday’s debate—perhaps not with every single security detail—at that point. Many of us could have taken losing a vote—or, indeed, winning a vote. Whatever might have happened with that vote, at least we would have done what we always do, which is to debate, to contend, to get cross, to get sad, or to get happy. We would have done what we do in this place and gone through the Lobby to produce a result for the people we represent.
It is an honour to follow the hon. Lady. One of the issues here is that when we debate military intervention, we quite often get things quite wrong on the basis of limited information, the rest of which we are not privy to. In 2013, this House was recalled to debate, discuss and vote on a motion to approve military intervention against Syria on the basis of Assad’s use of chemical weapons in the past. At that time, the chemical used was sarin, and 1,700 people died, and who knows how many of them were children. It was an ever-worsening situation that came after two years of inaction from the UN, and it was backed by evidence from the UN’s weapons inspectors. As we know, that vote was lost. I did not back the action, and I carry a sense of guilt following how I voted.
At the time, many Members on both sides of the House argued that if we did not vote to take action, that would be perceived as a weakness. They argued that no action, in addition to the UN’s intransigence, would mean that Assad would strike again and would use chemical weapons against Syrian civilians and children again in the future. Those Members were absolutely right. We are debating here today after the same thing has happened again.
After the 2013 vote, the first country to say that it welcomed our voting not to bomb Syria was Russia, strangely enough. What happened last week was a necessary one-off strike to attack and disable some of the chemical depositories and bases owned by Assad and to leave him in no doubt that the international community will never accept his breaking of a century-old accord—his crossing of the red line—and his use of chemical weapons on his own civilians. The Prime Minister, along with France, America and our allies, will not accept that, and they have stood by the side of the civilians and children of Syria.
Until recently, my constituency was home to RAF Henlow and is still home to the RAF Chicksands intelligence base. My constituents include many former and existing military service personnel. Launching a one-off, pre-emptive strike with no discussion or vote was the Prime Minister putting the safety of those personnel at the heart of her decision. Let none of us here be so arrogant as to think that we know best, that we know more or that we should always have the final say, because it has already been proven that we do not always get it right, and some would argue that we got it wrong when we voted to go to war in Iraq in 2003. If the Prime Minister was proposing regime change or to go to war or to enter into a sustained campaign, we would of course have a debate, and we would expect the Prime Minister to bring that case to Parliament, perhaps even for a vote. However, she was not.
Before we vote today, I ask every Member to imagine what I am about to say, because this is not about a process and there is no substance to the motion that we will be voting on.
I will not give way.
Imagine that the children of Syria, with their eyes streaming and their bloodstained spittle, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) just described, are stood here in the Chamber with us. Imagine that they are sat among us, listening to us. How would they want us to vote? This is not about process or whether information is brought to the House of Commons.
No, I will not.
Returning to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), how can we cast a vote when we do not have all the information? How can we make such an ill-informed decision, as we have done in the past? Would the children of Syria want us to do that? I know what will happen when I next cast a substantive vote on an issue such as this: I will imagine the hand of one of those Syrian children slipping into mine and guiding me into the right Lobby.
I am pleased to be able to make a short contribution today. In 1996, on the back of outrages in east Africa and the fact that Sudan had not long gotten rid of Osama bin Laden from its territory, the US launched a cruise missile attack on Al-Shifa on the basis that it was the site of a plant for the creation of VX. It later transpired that the Al-Shifa plant was producing pharmaceuticals and that there was no evidence whatsoever that chemicals were being used in any improper way. The Sudanese still refer to the incident, keeping the site as rubble, and, on the occasions that I have been there, have offered to show people, including the Americans, what the plant was. I use that as an example of where things have been found to be wrong. Intelligence is not sacrosanct. I have never been a member of the Intelligence and Security Committee and am never likely to be, but it is right for this Parliament to hold the Government to account, and there is nothing more important than Parliament holding the Government to account on whether it is right to go to war.
The Al-Shifa example is about the Americans and their lack of intelligence in this respect. The strike became known as a wag-the-dog incident, because it was more to do with President Clinton trying to offset some of his own problems at home. I cannot say what the motive behind the thinking of the current President of the United States is, but there are sometimes ulterior motives for why people launch attacks. In our case, we have Afghanistan, when we were told that not a shot would be fired and that it would be a straightforward invasion, and Libya, which we were told was about regime change and evolving a democratic structure.
I am not giving way, because we are short on time.
In our case, however, this is more about Iraq. I was in the House at the time of the Iraq war, and I remember that the Government did not willingly give Back Benchers a vote. We dragged it out of the Government, and there was so much opposition that they had to give us a vote. In a sense, Back Benchers created that precedent, which is an important convention.
It is important that Parliament has a view, and one of the problems is that our constituents have been emailing us and stopping us in the street to ask, “What is your view? Why haven’t we heard what Parliament has to say?” The right hon. Member for Twickenham (Sir Vince Cable) made that point, and I totally agree with him. It is important that Parliament has a say. Parliament can get things right and get things wrong, but so can Governments, and it is right that we exercise our democratic right as elected representatives.
A war powers Act—remember that this is just an SO24 debate—would undergo proper scrutiny, as the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) made quite clear, and go through all the process. He suggested that there could be other ways of doing this, but I strongly believe that this debate should be had, because things are unclear at the moment. The Government have changed the convention. They should have come here for a debate—not a question session, but a debate and a vote. They chose not to, however, so the situation is unclear. A precedent was created on Iraq, but it has now been changed, so I merely say that it is right and proper to have this debate today and that we therefore begin to move towards clarity on what was previously a convention of the House. It no longer exists, and it is about time that Parliament had its view and was able to decide on whether the convention is right or wrong.
Thank you for granting this debate today, Mr Speaker. I think everybody knows my position, but I want to lay it out clearly. I profoundly disagree with many Members when it comes to a potential war powers Act, which would be an act of calamitous insanity for our foreign policy. I am going to make it very clear why I think that and why the Prime Minister has done absolutely the right thing, and I ask Members to hear my remarks in context.
I have done the other side of the veil. I have operated at the highest possible strategic level for this country on operations, and I must be honest: if we are to continue to have the freedom to manoeuvre and the opportunity to keep this country safe, we cannot enshrine these powers of the Prime Minister in a war powers Act.
First, there are the practical reasons. It is absolutely right that some aspects of intelligence in this country will never be made public. Why? Because the way we gather them is a secret, and our opponents do not know how we gather them. If we bring them out into the public domain, we expose that capability and we make this country less safe, simply so we can have a say in this House on foreign policy. That is not right.
I will not give way. I have heard a lot of the arguments in this House.
The speed and secrecy that we try to uphold in military operations cannot be curtailed by decision making. Should Parliament have a say? Should Parliament have a debate? Should MPs be listened to? Are MPs important in this debate? Absolutely, but when it comes to the defence of this nation and the defence of the freedoms and privileges that we in this House live up to and enjoy every day, we cannot retrospectively inhibit the people who fight for them by introducing a war powers Act.
This country has a role to play on the global stage. Think for a moment of the Americans and the French and of how we would look when they ask us in the dead of night, in that last decision-making process, whether or not we will stand shoulder to shoulder with them in some of these highly contentious operations. Do we want our Prime Minister to have in the back of her mind, “I’ve got to go to Parliament and I may lose a vote, so therefore I am not going to do the right thing for the country”? Or do we want to empower her to do the right thing in the British national interest to keep this country safe?
We all accept that the sources of intelligence should never be disclosed to the House of Commons, but surely these are essentially political and foreign policy judgments about whether to use force to defend the national interest. These arguments could be applied to health, education and lots of other areas. The concept that the gentlemen in Whitehall know best has never been allowed to overrule Parliament in any other area of policy, certainly not in modern times.
Picking up on the intervention of the Father of the House, how could this House have possibly taken a decision on the proposed action unless we broadly knew the nature of the action, how limited it would be and what would be targeted? That is exactly the information that would have been of use to the Syrian regime.
My hon. Friend makes a very clear point. Some of the contributions in this House lend weight to why Parliament should not have a say in this. Time and again, the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Defence have stood up in this country and said, “This is a limited action. This is a one-time action. We are targeting chemical weapons.” Yet there is question after question: “Is this part of a greater war? What are you going to do about Russia?” The Prime Minister must have answered those questions 47 times, and they keep coming.
I am afraid that one of the most galling points in all this is how anybody in this House can take it upon themselves to accuse this Prime Minister, either personally or professionally, of being willing to commit UK service personnel to a conflict at the whim of anybody else when it is not in line with British interests. That is offensive and childish. It is the place of student politics, and it is not acceptable.
I respect all Members of this House, and I profoundly respect those who disagree with me. My right hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) mentioned vanity, and everyone got upset about that. This is not a game. This is not a TV show in which we get to make profound speeches and try to make tactical decisions about military operations of which we know nothing. This is not a game. Inaction while Syria burns is not acceptable, and it has been accepted for too long in this country.
I gently say to my Prime Minister—I have sympathy with Opposition Members—that we have to bring the British people with us. It is a fundamental duty of every Member of this House to go out there and advocate for this nation if we are to take it to war. We have to do that in a way that people will support. People have to understand why they are being committed to war, and we can always do better on that, particularly after Iraq.
I went to Afghanistan and fought what were very lonely conflicts, and every single day I tried to motivate young people to do very dangerous things that nobody in this country really knew about, and sometimes did not care about. Every Member on my Front Bench and in this House has a duty to advocate in that regard.
Finally, on Iraq, I was not here in 2003 but if for the next 20 or 30 years we are persistently to consider the foreign policy objectives of this nation of ours through the prism of Iraq and of the profound mistakes that were made in that process, we will not become the Britain that we all know we want to be. It will inhibit our ability to project our interests into what we want to do. Profound mistakes were made in the decision-making process in Iraq, and we have raked over it for generations. The great British people do not want us to do that at such interminable length that we never actually play a role in the world and become the global Britain that we all know we want to be.
My plea is that on this we listen even more intently to the professionals. If anyone can find a security service professional in this country who thinks the war powers Act is a good idea, I will vote for it tonight, but they will not find a single individual with working knowledge of how security works in this country who will support this Act, and that is why I will not support it, either.
This debate today, about how we take decisions on UK military action, is an important one. The Prime Minister’s decision to commit British service personnel to involvement in limited airstrikes against Syrian targets last week has generated strong feelings on both sides.
I have mixed views on the rights and wrongs of that action, and I do not know how I would have voted had the decision been presented to Parliament, but this debate is not about that. It is about the process by which decisions of this nature are taken and the right of the Government, the Executive, to retain flexibility to act without recourse to Parliament. I think the Executive should have that right, and had I been in the Prime Minister’s shoes last week, it is likely that I would have chosen a similar course.
There is an erratic President in the White House upon whom we wish to exercise influence, a UN Security Council rendered powerless by the Russian veto, a hung Parliament and the reuse of chemical weapons in a country that was supposed to have eradicated its stockpile five years ago. I do not have access to the intelligence that the Prime Minister does, but I recognise that the context in which she was acting could not have been more complex.
This debate, though, is not about the specifics of the past week; it is about the nature of the decision-making processes in future and whether we should constrain the hand of government.
My hon. Friend is making some strong points. I believe the Prime Minister should have come here last week and we should have had that debate on whatever the rights and wrongs of this were. Does my hon. Friend share my concern that not only would a very fixed war powers Act be difficult to achieve in debate, because of the wide range of views, as we have seen in this debate, but that in the one example where such an Act does exist, the United States, it has never, as far as I know, been used to prosecute a President and many actions have been taken beyond the 60-day limit? Even in practice these things do not operate in the way it is claimed.
I have great sympathy with what my hon. Friend has said.
Much has been said in recent years about the Syria votes that happened in this place in 2013. Something that is often forgotten is that the two votes that took place on that night five years ago were about two different decision-making processes. One, the Labour motion, was a more rigorous process; the Government motion was less defined. Had either of those motions passed, there would have been another vote—a substantive vote on the question of military involvement—the following week. That vote never happened because the then Prime Minister decided he could not risk it.
I remember the build-up to that vote—I felt sick. I knew I was elected to this place to be part of these decisions, but the responsibility, even as a junior member of the Opposition Whips Office, weighed heavy upon me. The truth is that I spent 48 hours on Google, trying to locate reliable sources in order to educate myself, when I felt I should have been studying it for two years and not two days. What factions were fighting whom and where? What was the objective? What did the responsibility to protect in international humanitarian law mean, and how could one judge the legitimacy of any action? I envied the moral certitude with which some colleagues spoke. It felt enormous and it was.
I do not regret the decisions I took that night; had the outcome of the vote been different it is likely that many thousands of people would still have died as they have done in Syria since—different weapons, different culpability. Nor do I regret the decision to vote for airstrikes against ISIS targets in December 2015. In fact, I am proud of that—different proposals, different decisions. I believe that different circumstances will sometimes require different decision-making processes.
If we are to change the way in which we make decisions about military action in this country, let us do it with cool heads. Let us not start the debate when it will only be seen through the prism of last week’s action. Our attention this week should be on the children of Douma, not the consciences of Westminster MPs. We owe it to those children to come up with real solutions for their country, which has been torn to shreds. Internal retrospection on our part, however well-meaning, will not help them.
I believe that the Government’s argument about the legality of last week’s action is technically correct: the use of military force is part of the royal prerogative; her Majesty invests the Government with that power; the Queen is commander in chief; and this is an important power, which is vital to the effectiveness of our armed forces. So I have no constitutional disagreement with what the Government have done. However, there is a word of warning here. As Chesterton put it:
“To have a right to do a thing is not at all the same as to be right in doing it.”
There is a risk here and a moral to be learned. I do commend the Prime Minister for the limited scope of the intervention. Although it is true that the Government can intervene technically and militarily without consulting Parliament, I believe that the power should be used on as few occasions as possible, if at all. That is where I echo what the Father of the House, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), has said.
I do not accept that we need a war powers Act, because it would be justiciable. I do not believe in referring everything to the UN, where, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve) has said, one power has a permanent right of veto. But I think we should proclaim this afternoon the right of Parliament to debate and vote on military action in the future, unless, as was probably the case here, there is an urgent humanitarian case to be made.
I want to say a word about some of the problems we face in the middle east, one of which is that we are seen to be parti pris in this conflict. We are seen by many people not to be primarily engaged in humanitarian concern for the people of Douma, but to be engaged in a proxy war. I know that that is not a fair point of view but, unfortunately, we have in the past proclaimed our desire to replace the Assad regime. The conflict began in 2011; Assad is still President of the Syrian Arab Republic. The idea that the Americans achieved a great deal by backing the Free Syrian Army—a kind of Lib Dems with guns—has proven to be a complete and total fantasy.