UK Politics

MPs renew demand for Commons votes on use of war-making powers

A British soldier secures a helicopter landing strip during operation in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan (file pic) Image copyright MOD

The government must enshrine in law its commitment to consult the House of Commons before using its war-making powers, MPs have reiterated.

In 2011, Foreign Secretary William Hague said MPs would formally be given a say over the powers, which remain legally the preserve of the government.

But the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee complained that ministers had since done little to follow through on this pledge.

It is attempting to force the issue.

'No progress'

Committee chairman and Labour MP Graham Allen said: "The decision to take military action is the most momentous a government can make, and so it is crucial that the role of the UK Parliament in conflict decisions be clarified and formalised, and not left to the discretion of the prime minister.

"In 2011 the foreign secretary committed to enshrine in law the necessity of consulting Parliament on military action.

"Since then the government has made no progress on this commitment, nor set out how it intends to do so."

The committee had therefore produced a draft parliamentary resolution, which would "serve to embed the current convention and clearly set out the process that Parliament expects to be followed in the event of a conflict decision being considered", he said.

The committee urged the government to set out how it intended to honour Mr Hague's commitment, and assign a specific minister responsibility for making progress on the matter.

In August 2013, the government sought MPs' approval as it prepared for military intervention in Syria, but lost the vote by 285 to 272.

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Media captionArchive: David Cameron accepts defeat in the Commons over Syria

After the vote, Prime Minister David Cameron said: "I strongly believe in the need for a tough response to the use of chemical weapons, but I also believe in respecting the will of this House of Commons.

"The British Parliament, reflecting the views of the British people, does not want to see British military action. I get that, and the government will act accordingly."

'Anachronism'

The committee welcomed both the the prime minister's decision to hold the Commons debate, which entailed an emergency recall of Parliament, and his response to the vote.

But it added: "The debate also highlighted some respects in which the current convention may not be satisfactory, as there was some confusion as to how Parliament would be consulted on possible military action."

Quoting Prof Nigel White, an expert in international law at the University of Nottingham, it added: "Parliamentary approval for any use of force has become essential primarily because of the anachronism of unregulated prerogative powers.

"Powers that once belonged to monarchs should not be wielded without proper democratic accountability - indeed they should be effectively regulated [or] replaced by clear statutory rules."

Mr Hague had said in 2011, as he sought parliamentary approval for intervention in Libya shortly after forces had been committed: "We will also enshrine in law for the future the necessity of consulting Parliament on military action."

Then Labour Justice Secretary Jack Straw also pledged in 2008 to formalise MPs' role in decisions on war, with some exceptions "in relation to emergencies and operational secrecy".

He said: "These changes, if agreed, would define a clear role for Parliament in the most critical of all decisions to face a nation, whilst ensuring that our nation's security is not compromised."

But the previous Labour government made little progress on this before losing power in 2010.

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