The Royal Prerogative - a question of accountabilityINLAP 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 Majestys 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").
"...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."
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
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 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.
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:
*1. The Western European Assembly report is available from Vijay Mehta, 12-14 Cavell St, London E1 2HP, 020 7702 7633, firstname.lastname@example.org