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The Royal Prerogative - a question of accountability

INLAP information sheet published in June 2002



March 2002: Letter from Rt. Hon Adam Ingram, Minister of State for the Armed Forces (extract: "the right of Her Majesty’s Government to prosecute military operations abroad … is exercised under the Royal Prerogative …The prior authority of Parliament is not required …this has been the position of successive Governments for generations").

June 2002: INLAP’s response (published in information sheet no2)


March 2002: From Rt. Hon Adam Ingram Minister of State for the Armed Forces in response to a request for a view on parliamentary accountability for the deployment of UK forces:

"...Finally, I should like to make a few points on the legal basis for the deployment of UK military forces overseas. The right of her Majesty's Government to prosecute military operations abroad is not derived from statute but from the common law, and is exercised under the Royal Prerogative. Powers under the Royal prerogative are those uniquely enjoyed by the Crown and exercised on its behalf by Ministers. The conduct of foreign affairs, including the commitment of forces for military operations, is carried out in reliance on the prerogative.

As a matter of constitutional law and practice the prior authority of Parliament for the prosecution of such operations is not required. Nor should it be, because that would unacceptably constrain the ability of the Government of the day to use force in support of its foreign policy aims or, in extremis, to defend the country.

This has been the position of successive Governments for generations. The Government is entirely clear that there are no grounds for changing this long established and essential constitutional principle."



INLAP’S response, published in June 2002

The above letter makes it quite clear that the Government can send troops overseas, or bomb somebody, where and when it likes. The Royal Prerogative provides it with carte blanche.

Parliament is treated as an interested bystander. It does not vote a specific budget for particular operations; they are financed from the Government's resources .

It would be impossible for a Government to act against the wishes of a majority of the House of Commons. However, with a tame majority at its disposal, this presents no problem. The 1999 Kosovo engagement provides a good example of what actually happens

23 March: the Prime Minister announced a readiness for NATO to take action in a statement to the House of Commons.
24 March: the Deputy Prime Minister made a statement informing the House that action was taking place. In general, Parliamentary involvement consisted mainly of such statements.
25 March: there was a full adjournment debate in the Commons. This is a procedural move which effectively prevents serious debate because the motion cannot be amended. Even a proper debate ending in a formal vote which defeated the Government would not have been binding.
Further debates were held on the crisis on motions for the adjournment on 19 April and 18 May.
Other than these exchanges, Members of Parliament put down a large number of questions for both oral and written answers.
A number of the House of Commons Select Committees also undertook enquiries into different aspects of the crisis. Formal evidence was taken from Ministers and others, and the International Development Committee visited the Macedonian border and refugee camps in Albania during the crisis.

Many MPs are clearly willing to take a responsible interest on these occasions. They find, however, that the Royal Prerogative thwarts effective oversight of Government.

This information derives from a Western European Assembly (WEA) analysis of "National parliamentary scrutiny of intervention abroad by armed forces engaged in international missions" in the European Countries.

The WEA concludes that Parliamentary scrutiny of armed conflict is weak across Europe but that the UK system is especially so.

The response to the terror attacks of 11 September 2001 shows how Parliament is often by-passed.

the Prime Minister met the party leaders for emergency consultations well before Parliament was convened.
in September he addressed the Labour Party Conference in Brighton, at the same time releasing confidential information to opposition leaders.
Only on 4 October did he inform the Commons about the UK's imminent involvement in a military operation and no vote was taken in the ensuing debate.

The constitutional changes that have brought this country towards a full democracy - votes for women and for 18 year-olds, the reforms to the House of Lords - have left the prerogative untouched. The government can still, by Order in Council, do anything it chooses in time of emergency.



Suggested questions readers might ask their MPs (June 2002)

Readers were asked to consider sending the above to their MPs, asking for comment and sending any replies to INLAP. They were also asked to consider asking their MP whether:

if something is time-honoured does that mean it is beyond criticism?
Government powers under the Royal Prerogative should be seriously examined?



*1. The Western European Assembly report is available from Vijay Mehta, 12-14 Cavell St, London E1 2HP, 020 7702 7633,

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