Liam Walpole

6 August 2019

Liam Walpole, Senior Policy Officer at ORG, provides commentary on the publication of a new parliamentary report on Parliament's role in overseeing executive decisions on defence and security matters.

On Tuesday 6 August 2019, the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) published its report on its latest inquiry: “The Role of Parliament in the UK Constitution: Authorising the Use of Military Force.”

The report's headline conclusion recognises the importance of finding a balance between transparency and accountability, and for Government’s to be able to take decisions in the interests of national security. It argues: 

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

This conclusion was drawn from the committee’s view that “strong parliamentary scrutiny leads to better Government decisions”. The Oxford Research Group strongly supports this argument. In fact, we have long argued that debate and a free exchange of ideas in a liberal democracy are integral to more effective policymaking, a point made in this briefing on the War Powers Convention.

However, ORG also agree with the Committee’s conclusion that attempting to legislate for every conceivable scenario” would be impractical. In fact, we have argued this could potentially be counter-productive – to formalise the War Powers Convention through an Act of Parliament. Our research has found that:

Even if a law was introduced it may only serve to increase the risk of perverse incentives for the Government to exploit the grey zone between combat and non-combat missions to avoid enhanced scrutiny

That is why as part of our submission of written evidence to PACAC we argued that it would be of greater benefit to address accountability gaps – specifically over the deployment of special forces, where there currently exists a policy of blanket opacity over all its activities – by expanding the role parliamentary committees have in overseeing matters related to UK defence and security.

Our argument, included in the PACAC report, reads:

The Oxford Research Group also pointed out that special forces have operated both in countries where no authorisation had been given and where authorisation specifically precluded the deployment of UK ground troops

By expanding the role of either the Intelligence and Security Committee or House of Commons Defence Committee to oversee special forces – with MPs subjected to the Official Secrets Act and bound by law not to leak classified information – parliamentary scrutiny would be strengthened without unnecessarily constraining the government’s ability to deploy this force. At the same time this could also provide a forum for oversight when it is not suitable for it to be raised in either Westminster Hall debates or in the Lords or Commons chambers.

Beyond this specific issue, our research has also made the case for parliamentarians more generally to have greater access to classified information. This would ensure that they are more suitably prepared for fulfilling their role in holding the executive to account on defence and security matters. It was therefore welcome to see that PACAC’s report identified a “lack of education and knowledge amongst MPs when it comes to defence and security”.

Nevertheless, it would be unrealistic to expect all MPs – as we strive for broader representation in the House of Commons – to have a military background, no more than we would expect every MP to have a background as a doctor, an entrepreneur or a teacher etc. Ultimately, Parliament is at its best when it is represented by MPs from different walks of life and a range of backgrounds.

The more practical and efficient way of addressing this knowledge gap is to expand the access that MPs have to sensitive information – as is the norm in other Western democracies. This was acknowledged in the committee’s report, which argued that MPs should have “access to all but the most sensitive information regarding the possible use of military force”. We look forward to seeing how the Government addresses this point when it provides its official response to the committee’s report.

This is not the first time that PACAC has investigated this issue. Indeed, it drew similar conclusions to a previous report published in 2014. However, it is an important time for this discussion to be had when there have been arguments in support of curtailing the convention – even from those who once supported it. For that reason, this will hopefully spark a renewed discussion about Parliament’s role in scrutinising executive decision-making around the use of force – and the merits of this. The government is increasingly choosing to deploy a range of capabilities that fall below the threshold of the War Powers Convention, and are for that reason, scrutinised much less by Parliament. This makes the debate of great importance. 


Image credit: SridharSaraf/Flickr. 

About the author

Liam Walpole is a Senior Policy Officer at the Remote Warfare Programme.