HC Deb 14 January 1991 vol 183 cc615-21 3.31 pm
The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. John MacGregor)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a short business statement.

The business for tomorrow, Tuesday 15 January, will now be a debate on the crisis in the Gulf on a motion for the Adjournment of the House. The Export and Investment Guarantees Bill previously set down for that day will be taken shortly.

Dr. John Cunningham (Copeland)

I thank the Leader of the House for arranging yet another debate on the grave crisis in the Gulf. It will enable us to place on record our emphatic support for the United Nations and for all efforts to find a peaceful solution. If, regrettably, armed conflict occurs—we have never ruled that out—the British forces will have our total support.

We have witnessed deplorable occurrences in Lithuania in the past 24 hours. Will the Leader of the House arrange as soon as is convenient to the House for the Foreign Secretary to make an oral statement on those events? Can that be discussed and agreed through the usual channels?

Mr. MacGregor

Obviously the first matter which the hon. Gentleman raised will be the feature of tomorrow's debate. Every effort has been made to achieve a peaceful outcome, and I am grateful for his support for the British forces.

The whole House will be greatly concerned about events in Lithuania and I well understand why the hon. Gentleman raised that matter. The Government strongly deplore the action of the Soviet forces. We have made our views clearly known to the Soviet authorities. As the House knows, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is in Brussels today at an emergency meeting to discuss the events in Lithuania as well as the situation in the Gulf. Apart from that meeting, the Government are seeking clarification from the Soviet authorities.

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we shall keep the House fully informed as the situation develops in the coming days. We can discuss the appropriate means and timing of that through the usual channels. My right hon. Friend will certainly wish to make some sort of statement.

Mr. Anthony Nelson (Chichester)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that tomorrow's important debate on the Gulf should reflect in its tone as well as in its content the seriousness and gravity of the unwarranted aggression and intransigence of Iraq? Does he also agree that its tone will compare dramatically with the despicable attitude of some parts of the media which seem to treat the growing prospect of war as something akin to a world cup football spectacular?

Mr. MacGregor

I note what my hon. Friend says. I do not want today to go into the substance of tomorrow's debate, but I am sure that such matters will be raised.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

Is the Leader of the House aware that, by choosing to table an Adjournment motion tomorrow, the Government have excluded, by a procedural device, any possibility for amendments to be tabled by those who believe that sanctions should be given more time to work or that there should be further negotiation? The Government's handling of the matter is in marked contrast to that of the American Congress, where the Senate has been allowed to vote, and has voted, as has the House of Representatives.

Is the right hon. Gentleman also aware—I raised this with Mr. Speaker this afternoon—that this is the first time in the history of this country that British troops have been sent into battle under foreign command, using the royal prerogative of war-making to do so, without the House having had an opportunity to express its view on any motion other than that we adjourn? Since such a war could end with the exchange of nuclear weapons, it is an outrage to parliamentary democracy that the Government should have chosen to use this mechanism for giving the House the chance to express its view on such a grave matter for the world and for the people of this country.

Mr. MacGregor

I should have thought that it was clear that the Government had given this House many opportunities to debate the situation in the Gulf and that we are taking the first appropriate opportunity this week to have a debate on it again. The previous debate was on a motion for the Adjournment of the House and we judged that it was appropriate to have the debate tomorrow again on a motion for the Adjournment to enable all shades of view to be expressed and to allow the maximum flexibility for relevant issues to be raised. I think that that is the right way to proceed.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Berkshire, East)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many Conservative Members endorse the request of the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) for a statement by the Foreign Secretary on the disgraceful events in Lithuania so that we can express our hope that economic aid will be cut to the Soviet Union as a sign of our total and utter disgust at what its troops did yesterday?

Mr. MacGregor

As I have already said, I entirely understand my hon. Friend's point. It is right that, at an appropriate time, my right hon. Friend should make a statement to the House. Clearly it was not appropriate for a statement to be made today, given that my right hon. Friend is in Brussels at the Foreign Affairs Council discussing these matters.

Mr. Jim Sillars (Glasgow Govan)

Is the Leader of the House aware that there is a significant difference between the previous debates that terminated on a motion for the Adjournment, which allowed the issues to be examined and ventilated, and tomorrow's debate, which will be on the eve of a possible war? A few moments ago he said that tomorrow's debate should allow all shades of opinion to be registered. But the debate should also allow all shades of opinions to be registered on a vote.

What we really require is for the Government to table a motion of Government policy that is capable of amendment. It is unacceptable for people to be forced to vote for or against the Adjournment and then to have that technical vote interpreted exactly as the Government want.

Mr. MacGregor

There will be an opportunity for hon. Members to raise all sorts of issues and to express their views in the House tomorrow. Last time there was, of course, a vote on the Adjournment and no doubt that could happen again if necessary. This is the right way for a debate of this sort to proceed.

Mr. Robert Hayward (Kingswood)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that on the two previous occasions when we debated this issue there was a serious discussion about the imminence of war? Tomorrow will not be the first occasion on which we shall be confronted by an imminent war but rather the first occasion when a date associated with United Nations sanctions has been identified.

Mr. MacGregor

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I believe that the House wants to debate this matter and that is why I made today's statement and why we took the decision to have that debate at the most sensible earliest opportunity.

Mr. Ken Livingstone (Brent, East)

Does the Leader of the House agree that, by refusing the House of Commons the opportunity to legitimise or reject Government policy, the Government will do nothing other than to reconfirm in many minds the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) that the Government have no right to ask young men to die in the Gulf if they do not have the courage to ask the House to vote on a specific motion?

Mr. MacGregor

I do not believe that that is the case. In tomorrow's debate, the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary will clearly outline the Government's position.

Mr. Roger Gale (Thanet, North)

My right hon. Friend recognises that many hon. Members believe that events in Lithuania threaten world peace every bit as much as events in the Gulf. When my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary makes a statement will the House also have the opportunity to debate that subject fully so that the House can send a clear message to Mr. Gorbachev and the Soviet Government that invasion of Lithuania is no more acceptable than invasion of Kuwait?

Mr. MacGregor

I shall bear in mind what my hon. Friend has said. The views of the House can be expressed in other ways, not simply through debate. The right first step would be for my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary to make a statement to the House or answer a question at the appropriate time.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

We welcome tomorrow's debate. Will the Leader of the House confirm that it has been agreed between the Front-Bench spokesmen that the debate should be on the Adjournment? Will he also confirm that, if there is war during the following days, tomorrow's debate should not be seen as the Government's acceptance of the inevitability of war, even at this late stage, and that procedures for debating matters arising from the conflict in the Gulf should be the subject of immediate consultation among all parties and, if possible, of agreement among all parties?

Mr. MacGregor

I am sure that on this matter, as on subjects such as events in Lithuania at present, there will be the need for continuous parliamentary discussion. I certainly intend to discuss the arrangements for such debates through the usual channels.

Sir Bernard Braine (Castle Point)

Will my right hon. Friend reconsider the answer he gave a moment ago on the subject of Lithuania? Events there may move rapidly and Mr. Gorbachev may not be in complete control. Suggestions have been made today that he is not in complete control and that other elements are insisting on repressing the people of Lithuania. The people of the three Baltic states have been oppressed for a generation. It is not sufficient for the Foreign Secretary merely to make a statement and answer questions. If that were accompanied by the promise of an early debate, the House would be content—at least until the debate took place—and then we could see the shape of things to come.

Mr. MacGregor

I wholly understand my right hon. Friend's concern, which I share. I was simply saying that the first appropriate step would be for my right hon. Friend to make a statement, but clearly, as events unfolded, we would wish to see what other parliamentary opportunities there should be.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Monklands, West)

Does the Leader of the House accept that the fact that the exchanges have inevitably and rightly concentrated on the problems in the Gulf and the Baltic states underlines the serious concern of seven aid agencies that launched a campaign last week to remind the House and the country that people are dying today in large numbers in Ethiopia, Africa, Mozambique and Angola? Does he accept that that is such a serious matter that time should be found for a debate on it?

Mr. MacGregor

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Government made a statement on that issue just before the Christmas recess, recognising the seriousness of the position and indicating the action that we were taking. We made that statement then because we thought it right to inform the House before the recess. Clearly we shall have to see what happens and consider the appropriate way to keep the House informed about the position and the Government's action; but that is not an issue for tomorrow.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

May I remind the House that questions to the Leader of the House—

Mr. Anthony Beaumont-Dark (Birmingham, Selly Oak)

It is an important issue.

Mr. Speaker

Order. It is, of course, important, but questions should be directed to the statement and not to wider issues.

Mr. Derek Conway (Shrewsbury and Atcham)

In tomorrow's debate some hon. Members may wish to refer to the effectiveness of sanctions. Therefore, will my right hon. Friend discuss with my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary placing in the Library a list of those countries that we know have been breaking sanctions so that hon. Members can compare those countries' actions with the amount of aid they receive from British taxpayers?

Mr. MacGregor

I shall pass on my hon. Friend's request to my right hon. Friend.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)

Is the Secretary of State aware that it is very difficult for Back Benchers to be called in short debates such as tomorrow's? Will he grant time for a debate on what is to happen to the thousands of casualties when they come to this country in the event of war breaking out—given the admission by the Secretary of State for Defence yesterday that there would be thousands of casualties? The Under-Secretary of State for Health says that everything is prepared, yet all medical opinion stresses that we are not prepared and that we cannot cope with the number of casualties that might be incurred in the event of a conflict. Is not it a disgrace that a Department of Health document omitted a chapter that warned of the casualties that would be incurred due to gas and other noxious fumes? Should not the public be told what could face our service men and women in the Gulf in the event of this wholly unnecessary, cruel war breaking out?

Mr. MacGregor

I do not want to go into the substance of what the hon. Lady has said, because that is a matter for the debate tomorrow. As you, Mr. Speaker, have said, this statement is about tomorrow's debate and tomorrow's business: we are to hold a full debate on the Gulf tomorrow. That is as far as I can go at this stage. The important point is that we are providing a full day for the debate tomorrow.

Mr. Robert Adley (Christchurch)

Although some of us have had concerns about United States policy in the middle east over the years, is my right hon. Friend aware that, as the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) has rightly said, it would be unthinkable for the House to do anything other than to give its wholehearted support to our forces in the Gulf and, through them, to the Government's decisions? Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the procedure that he has announced has been agreed between the usual channels?

Mr. MacGregor

Yes, I think that the procedure that I have announced is for the convenience of the House and is the right way to proceed tomorrow.

Dr. Dafydd Elis Thomas (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)

Will the Leader of the House accept that my party thinks it totally unacceptable that a major decision on international policy should be taken by the House without a substantive discussion on a substantive motion? If that is good enough for the United States Congress, it should be good enough for the United Kingdom House of Commons.

Will the right hon. Gentleman also accept that it is equally urgent that we debate Lithuania? Many of us are worried that this is yet another unholy carve-up between the great powers—that there is collaboration between sections of the Bush Government and the Soviet Union whereby support for the United States position in the Gulf is traded off for a lack of intervention to defend the human rights of the people of Lithuania?

Mr. MacGregor

Tomorrow's debate will be a substantive debate. As for a debate on Lithuania, we must see how events unfold. I have given the House a clear assurance that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will report to it at the earliest appropriate moment.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I ask hon. Members to bear it in mind that we have another statement after this one and that we shall debate this matter tomorrow. I shall call three more Members from each side and then move on.

Mr. John Marshall (Hendon, South)

I welcome tomorrow's debate, which will give hon. Members a chance to underline to Saddam Hussein, in all his pigheaded obstinacy, the determination of the vast majority of the British people that unprovoked aggression can never be condoned and that appeasement is a path not to peace but to further aggression.

Mr. MacGregor

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend. I am sure that the messages going out from this House tomorrow will be very clear.

Mr. Ted Rowlands (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney)

Will the Leader of the House ensure that before tomorrow's debate the House will be given a substantive assessment of the various issues that will arise if a conflict occurs? Only recently the Prime Minister said that he hoped that the conflict would be short and sharp. Is that a hope or a reasonable expectation? Evidence on oil and on the environment has not been presented to the House in any form, nor have we been told of the economic consequences for the nation of such a conflict. Surely before the debate we ought to be provided with more assessments by Departments and Ministers.

Mr. MacGregor

The point of the debate is to go over much of this ground. That is one of the many reasons why we are holding it tomorrow.

Mr. Beaumont-Dark

Will my right hon. Friend accept that what we are discussing now, and will be discussing tomorrow, is the fact that, for once in 50 years, the whole world has decided that the United Nations is right. It has passed 12 resolutions. The debate tomorrow is not about America or Britain but about the world against one demonic man. Surely the House should say not that there is a need for debate but that that man should know before it is too late that the world—not just Britain or America—is united in its belief that he should get out of Kuwait. If he does not get out of Kuwait, it will be not America's or Britain's fault but his.

Mr. MacGregor

In recent weeks that view has been expressed loudly, clearly and at length. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Tomorrow's debate will provide another opportunity for hon. Members to express my hon. Friend's view.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

While I am sure that there is widespread agreement in the House about the murderous activities of Saddam Hussein, surely there are profound and genuinely sincere differences of view about President Bush's interpretation of resolution 678 and other matters relating to the middle east crisis. It is disgraceful that we are not to have a two-day debate because every hon. Member must have some constituents serving with the military forces in Saudi Arabia. If, because of the sleekit way in which arrangements for the debate have been handled, we cannot have a two-day debate, may we ensure that every speaker in the debate is confined to 10 minutes so that most of us who have constituents out there may at least get a chance to voice our genuinely sincere views on this deeply worrying affair?

Mr. MacGregor

The hon. Gentleman's procedural point about tomorrow's debate is not a matter for me. However, I am sure that his suggestion has been heard. It is important to stress again that the House is, absolutely rightly, being given the opportunity to debate this matter at the earliest convenient opportunity on our return. Obviously, it will not by a long way be the last occasion on which we debate these matters.

Mr. John Biffen (Shropshire, North)

In view of the evident deep feeling about tomorrow's debate, and because historically on such occasions every opportunity is given for minority views to be expressed, will my right hon. Friend at least discuss with the Opposition the suspension of the 10 o'clock rule?

Mr. MacGregor

We can certainly consider that matter through the usual channels.

Ms. Clare Short (Birmingham, Ladywood)

May I ask you, Mr. Speaker, and the Leader of the House to reconsider? This Parliament will be brought into total disrepute if we do not have a vote on the matter of war in the Gulf. We saw what happened in the American Senate where each member had to put his points on the line. Under this procedure, power is concentrated in the Executive and there is no way in which the Executive can be made accountable to our constituents on the question of a war that could mean not just the deaths of our service men but a horrendous war in the middle east. This is not the mother of Parliaments if that is the way in which we conduct our business. It is just a blanket for the Executive to do whatever they wish.

Mr. MacGregor

I have already said that I think that this is the right way to proceed. The very strong majority view was perfectly clear from the debate and the vote on this procedural method that we had before the Christmas recess. What we recommend for tomorrow will enable all views to be expressed and will also enable that message to be made clear.

Dr. Cunningham

It may be for the convenience of the House for me to say that on Wednesday, which is an Opposition Supply day, we have set down for debate the crisis in the hospital service, and the consequences for the British economy and people of electricity privatisation.