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Parliament's role in authorising the use of military force should be strengthened, but the Government's ability to act should not be compromised, says PACAC report

6 August 2019

The post-Iraq consensus that Government should seek Parliament's prior approval for military action is today strengthened by a report from the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC). It sets out what should be done, and by whom, when the use of military force is being considered, providing clarification for both Members of Parliament and the public.

Fundamental shift in interaction needed between Government and Parliament

The report calls for a fundamental shift in the interaction between Government and Parliament on these critical issues, highlighting a need for regular information sharing, rather than ad hoc, selective disclosure.

 At the same time, it underlines the seriousness with which Parliament must take this responsibility and sets out a duty for all MPs to ensure they are up-to-date on defence and foreign affairs matters.

It also makes clear that “nothing should compromise the ability of governments to use military force when our national or global security is threatened.”

The report argues that without this knowledge MPs will be unable to effectively scrutinise and analyse Government policies and decisions, particularly in such a complex and rapidly-evolving area. 

Chair's comments

Commenting on the report, the Chair of the Committee Sir Bernard Jenkin MP said:

“The decision to embark upon military action is the most serious that a country can take, and the ability to do so rapidly and with discretion when our national security is judged to be under threat should never be compromised.

“However, our report recognises that the landscape has shifted in the wake of the Iraq war, creating new expectations for both Government and Parliament. It is beyond dispute that the legitimacy of the Government's decisions to use military force comes from its ability to command the confidence of the elected House of Commons. This should be reflected in a new Commons Resolution.

“Governments must ensure that MPs are able to make an informed decision when scrutinising and ultimately deciding whether to approve or reject the use of military force: this means access to documents and sensitive information, and a beefed-up role for parliamentary Committees. 

“For their part, every Member of Parliament must keep themselves fully informed of defence and foreign affairs matters with the utmost seriousness. It should be viewed a central part of the job we were elected to do. The ever-changing nature of modern warfare, and the grave consequences of approving or rejecting the deployment of force, demands nothing less.”

Key conclusions and recommendations

The royal war prerogative

The report argues that the power to deploy the UK's armed forces should continue to reside with Government, under the royal prerogative. The Government's ability to exercise the royal prerogative depends in turn on its ability to command the confidence of the elected House of Commons. 

War power conventions

Following the 2003 decision by the Labour Government to seek prior Commons approval for military action in Iraq – an undeniable evolution in existing convention – there is now a clear expectation, both within Parliament and throughout the country, that wherever possible Government should take a similar approach in the future. This was strengthened by subsequent votes relating to Libya (2011) and Syria (2013). 

The report fully accepts the need for nimble, discreet decision-making, and acknowledges concerns expressed by military personnel about the impact of protracted deliberations on preparations. When circumstances prevent prior approval from being secured, Government must take the earliest opportunity to make itself available to Parliament to be held to account. It highlights a lack of clarity in the Cabinet Manual and recommends an update to better reflect development of the conventions.

Formalising the convention: legislation and resolution

The report cautions against attempting to legislate for every conceivable scenario, citing the likelihood of unintended and unforeseen consequences. It nevertheless argues that the principles of Government accountability and effective Parliamentary scrutiny should be reinforced via a Resolution of the House, which clearly sets out the rights and responsibilities of both Government and the Commons. The report includes a draft Resolution to be considered and approved by the House of Commons. 

Parliamentary scrutiny 

The report argues that strong parliamentary scrutiny leads to better Government decisions and provides Ministers with the assurance that they are acting with the confidence of the Commons. But it also raises a wider concern: a lack of education and knowledge amongst MPs when it comes to defence and foreign affairs. This must be addressed as a matter of urgency. 

The report recommends that MPs have access to all but the most sensitive information regarding the possible use of military force, to ensure effective scrutiny of Government decision-making and policy. The Committee makes clear that it expects concrete proposals from the Government on how it intends to provide such information in its response and cites the provision of information to appropriate Commons Committees as one possible way of achieving this. 

Further information

Image: © Crown Copyright 2014 / Photograph Corporal Andrew Morris RAF