War plans

Stuart Weir
12 June 2008

Stuart Weir (Cambridge, Democratic Audit): All right, Gordon Brown and his government are weak and dishonest in their protestations over rebalancing power between the executive and Parliamemt. Their whole agenda is shot through with evasions; their Parliamentary Resolution on war powers is an inglorious hypocrisy. I don't know what angers me most, the dishonesty or the idea that we are too dumb to notice. But we should still take the opportunity to press for real instead of apparent change.

Adam Tomkins, a law professor at the University of Glasgow, has given meticulous evidence setting out precisely (and elegantly) why Gordon Brown's proposal has no clothes. His most valuable contribution is however to have also spelled out with clarity a modest list of what needs to be done to clothe the war powers resolution properly. He points out that wherever there is a clash between constitutional accountability to Parliament and the government's interest in flexibility and control, Brown's proposals come down uncompromisingly in favour of the latter.

The point is that Tomkins's analysis gives those of US who care an agenda around which we can unite in encouraging parliamentarians to reject the Resolution as it now stands, beginning with the Joint Committee, and for lobbying both Houses should the draft Bill enter Parliament unchanged in the next session of Parliament. This is his liitle list:-

a) that retrospective parliamentary approval would always be required if the government has to act without first obtaining parliamentary approval in advance;

b) that regular re-approval of any consent to action should be a routine aspect of the system (to guard against mission creep);

c) that Parliament should be recalled if its approval was needed when it was dissolved or adjourned;

d) that Parliament should have the right to demand any information it required in order to have as full knowledge and understanding as possible of what it was being asked by the government to approve; at the moment, the provision of information would be at the discretion of the Prime Minister. (In a dispute, Tomkins suggests, the Information Commissioner could adjudicate on peculiarly sensitive information, or it could be communicated to senior parliamentarians on Privy Council terms);

e) that while the legal advice of the Attorney General should not normally be disclosed, the decison to commit the armed forces into conflict overseas should be an exception to the general rule;

f) the Speaker of the House, or the chairman of either the Liaison, the Foreign Affairs or the Defence Committee, should determine matters of timing (or this could be negotiated between the Prime Minister and select committee chairs).

This is a list of compromises, but it seems likely that a large body of opinion could be mustered around a joint demand for these improvements to the government's proposal. A large majority of the respondents to the government's consultation exercise on war powers and treaties was in favour of incorporating retrospective approval into the system along with regular re-approval so as to avoid mission creep, of recalling Parliament where necessary, and of requiring the Prime Minister to provide more information than Brown plans (see Governance of Britain - Analysis of Consultations, Cm 7342-III). While you are about it, see also the Public Administration Select Committee report on the draft Bill, HC 499, May 2008).

So, a six-point plan of action for real reform. All togther now.

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