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Armed Forces Update

Volume 608: debated on Monday 18 April 2016

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.”

The Prime Minister repeated this commitment in relation to Libya in Parliament on 16 March 2016. The convention relates to conflict decisions rather than routine deployments of the UK armed forces around the world. 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. The Prime Minister, the Attorney General and I have set out the Government’s interpretation of the convention on a number of occasions.

We cannot predict the situations that the UK and its armed forces may face in future. 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, or be accused of acting in bad faith if unexpected developments were to require us to act differently. This Government have demonstrated their commitment to the convention by the debates they have held in 2013, 2014 and 2015, and their respect for the will of Parliament on each occasion.

The convention does not apply to British military personnel embedded in the armed forces of other nations as they operate as if they were the host nation’s personnel, under that nation’s chain of command, while remaining subject to UK domestic, international and host nation law. This is in line with international practice. To do otherwise would risk undermining the usefulness and viability of these exchanges. I have committed to increased transparency by publishing an annual update to the House on embedded personnel, the last of which was on 17 December 2015.

After careful consideration, the Government have decided that it will not be codifying the convention in law or by resolution of the House in order to retain the ability of this and future Governments and the armed forces to protect the security and interests of the UK in circumstances that we cannot predict, and to avoid such decisions becoming subject to legal action.

We will continue to ensure that Parliament is kept informed of significant major operations and deployments of the armed forces.