HC Deb 24 February 2003 vol 400 cc21-5 3.31 pm
The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Robin Cook)

Mr. Speaker, with permission, I should like to make a short business statement. The business for Wednesday 26 February 2003 will now be:

Debate on Iraq on a Government motion.

The business for Thursday 27 February will be consideration of a motion to approve the Third Report of the Committee on Standards and Privileges followed by consideration of motions relating to the Draft Social Security Benefits Up-rating Order 2003 and the draft guaranteed Minimum Pensions Increase Order 2003.

The debate on Welsh Affairs is provisionally planned for the week commencing 10 March and I hope to make an announcement on an alternative date for the debate on flood and coastal defence policy in due course.

I will of course make my usual business statement on Thursday.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

I am grateful for that statement. When will the text of the motion for Wednesday be available to the House?

Mr. Cook

The motion will be available during the course of the evening, when it will be tabled. It will, of course, be available to all hon. Members in the Order Paper for tomorrow. Given that we have just returned from a recess, there is no quicker way of getting it on the Order Paper. I understand the interest of the House in this matter. Perhaps I can help the House by saying that Wednesday's motion will confirm the commitment of the Government and the House to our strategy of handling the Iraq crisis through the United Nations. It will repeat our support for resolution 1441, which the House overwhelmingly endorsed on 25 November.

The motion will not be a trap. No Member need fear that support for it will be interpreted as support for any specific action. The House will have other opportunities in future to debate Iraq, and if necessary another specific opportunity to vote on military action.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

We warmly welcome this timely motion. We welcome also the assurance that the Leader of the House has just given us that the text of the motion will be available shortly. Further, we welcome the fact that this will be an opportunity not only for the House to debate in clear terms a substantive motion, but to vote in clear terms on that motion. We hope that there will be no fudge—no parliamentary subterfuge—so that we can see clearly that the House is representing considerable concern among the public at large at what is happening and what is being done in our name. We look to you, Mr. Speaker, to ensure that the division of opinion in the country can be fully reflected in the way in which the House votes on Wednesday night.

Mr. Cook

I have already given an assurance that the motion will not be a trap. Nor will it be a fudge. It is not an attempt to secure by subterfuge any approval for, military action.

I think that it is right that the House should debate Iraq. It plainly is a matter of considerable political interest outside the House, and our constituents would be perplexed if this week went by without our setting aside a date to explore the matter. That is why I think that it was right for the Government to come forward and volunteer this time.

Mr. Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central)

My right hon. Friend always tries to be candid with the House. The House will welcome his assurance that the motion will not be a trap and that there will be a further opportunity to debate and, if necessary, to vote. Will he make it clear that it is his intention that there will be the opportunity for a substantive vote after any resolution goes to the United Nations and before this country goes to war? Can he advise the House now whether the motion to be debated on Wednesday will be amendable?

Mr. Cook

Any motion that goes on the Order Paper will be open to amendment. Whether an amendment is chosen is, I am grateful and thankful to say, not a matter for me. However, the motion will certainly be amendable. On the question of bringing a second resolution to the House, the House will recall that that is precisely what we did with the first resolution, 1441, and there would be obvious sense in our bringing to the House any further resolution and seeking the endorsement of the House for that resolution, in the same way as the House endorsed 1441.

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion)

It is right and proper that the traditional Welsh day debate should give way on this occasion to the important debate on Iraq. We hope that the motion to be tabled tonight will enable those of us who oppose war in the current circumstances to make our views clearly known. On the re-tabled Welsh day debate, events may require the House to debate Iraq another time and may not allow for an Adjournment debate on Welsh matters. As an alternative, will the Leader of the House consider allowing Welsh Members who wish to raise constituency matters to raise them on the Floor of the House or in a meeting of the Welsh Grand Committee before very long?

Mr. Cook

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for being understanding of the need to postpone the debate on Welsh affairs in the present circumstances. If I can carry him with me on that point, I am sure I will carry the rest of the House with me on it. Yes, we will consider whether any further action is required to make sure that the interests of Welsh electors are protected, and we will make sure that the debate on Welsh affairs proceeds.

I note what the hon. Gentleman said about wishing to oppose any military action. Let us be clear. At the present time, we are pursuing a strategy through the United Nations. We wish to see the matter resolved through that United Nations process. For it to be resolved will require the co-operation of Saddam Hussein, and require him to accept his obligation to disarm under the resolution that has already been passed by the United Nations and endorsed by the House.

Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

Naturally, I accept the good faith of my right hon. Friend, but he will recall that concern was expressed after the vote on 25 November—a vote that effectively only endorsed resolution 1441—that the Government were seeking to put too much weight on that general expression of opinion. Since he has properly said that this is only an interim stage and that there will be an opportunity for a substantive vote later, is there any reason at all to have a vote after the important debate on Wednesday?

Mr. Cook

Whenever I have proposed a debate on Iraq on a motion for the Adjournment, I have tended to he criticised in the House for not providing a substantive motion. I will take it rather ill if I am now criticised for bringing a substantive motion before the House. It is absolutely right that the House should debate the matter. People outside would find it rather strange if we debated it for a full day, with no product at the end. Therefore to assert the support of the House for the present strategy through the United Nations seems to me entirely appropriate in the present circumstances. Should it be necessary for that strategy to develop as a result of the failure of Saddam Hussein to co-operate, there will be another opportunity for the House to debate the matter and to express a view on it.

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire)

Can the Leader of the House make it clear whether, if the Government decide that our troops should be committed to war, the House will be able to vote on that specific subject prior to their going to war?

Mr. Cook

When the Foreign Secretary spoke in the House on the matter, he said that he hoped it would be possible for us to have such a motion before there was any military action. That would certainly be our intention and our preference. Of course, as Ministers have repeatedly said, in any specific circumstances we have to weigh how we conduct the proceedings of the House against the safety of our troops who may be committed to action. That must be a proper consideration, and I do not think that any hon. Member would argue against it, but that should not be taken as some kind of underhand plan in order to proceed with action without the authority of the House. That would not be our wish and it is not my expectation of what will happen.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Forgive my curiosity, but when the Leader of the House mentioned that there could be a trap—that was spontaneous—what trap did he have in mind?

Mr. Cook

I am happy to assure my hon. Friend that I said that there was no trap.

Mr. David Cameron (Witney)

Given that the debate on Wednesday might be our last opportunity to discuss this matter before hostilities begin, and given the fact that many constituency MPs have had huge mailbags about this important subject and will want to question the Government as well as explain their own position, would it be possible to get rid of the 7 o'clock rule for the debate and to allow it to run on?

Mr. Cook

There will be a full day's debate, and it will commence earlier than it would have done before the change in the hours. I hope that it will therefore attract even more support from the Gallery above us. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that there will be as much time to debate this matter as there would have been under the previous hours. I also fully understand that Members will wish to question the Government—to use the hon. Gentleman's own phrase—as well as expressing their own views, and it is for that reason that the Prime Minister will be making a statement to the House tomorrow, in addition to the debate on Wednesday.

Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate)

But will a future substantive motion be on the issue of whether—not when, or if—British troops will be deployed? My right hon. Friend referred to the remarks of the Foreign Secretary, but if I remember correctly, the Foreign Secretary warned the House against such a substantive motion on the ground that it could put British troops in danger by taking away the element of surprise. I reiterate: is it now the Government's policy that decisions on whether to deploy British troops are taken by our Government, our House of Commons and our people? Two Cabinet Ministers have revoked the words of the Prime Minister on that issue.

Mr. Cook

I re-read the Foreign Secretary's speech only this morning, so it is quite fresh in my mind precisely what he said to the House. He has always been quite open with the House—and, if I recall rightly, with the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs—that it was the Government's wish that there should be a substantive vote in the House. I have often said, both in the House and outside it, that it is inconceivable that British troops could be committed into action without support from within the House of Commons. That would plainly not be politically acceptable, and it would not be something that this Government would contemplate.

On the question of timing, I have already said that the Foreign Secretary has said that his hope is that such a motion would take place before action, and that would certainly be our intention. As I said earlier to the House, however, we have to bear in mind the safety of our troops and not take any action in specific circumstances that would compromise that safety. I would hope that no hon. Member would disagree with that.

David Burnside (South Antrim)

I welcome the statement by the Leader of the House, and I look forward to the Prime Minister's statement tomorrow and to the debate on Wednesday on an important subject on which we need as much public, parliamentary, governmental and national unity as possible if we are going to war. The Leader of the House will no doubt be aware that the Prime Minister's chief of staff has been in Ulster over the last week, informing people that the deadline for putting together a Belfast deal between the Provisional IRA, the British Government and other parties is the beginning of next week. Will the Leader of the House give the House a commitment that there will be a statement by the Prime Minister and a full day's debate if the deadline in Northern Ireland is indeed planned for the beginning of next week?

Mr. Cook

I am well aware of the interest in all quarters of the House—not simply from those who represent Northern Ireland—in the peace process and in the efforts to restore it to sufficient health to re-establish the Northern Ireland Assembly. I can assure hon. Members that, if there are developments, we will ensure that the House is kept fully informed and has a full opportunity to ask Ministers questions and to pursue the matter.

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell)

The subject of Wednesday's debate is clearly a matter of critical importance both for the House and for the nation. Will the Leader of the House give us an assurance that the debate will be led by the Prime Minister, and that the Prime Minister will spend the full period of time in the Chamber, so that he can hear the views of hon. Members?

Mr. Cook

I am quite confident that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister would welcome the opportunity to spend six hours in the Chamber or, indeed, on any other single activity, but it is in the nature of government at the best of times—and especially now—that the luxury of time is not available to him. I think that most mature Members would recognise that he may have more important things to do over six hours than simply to sit in this place.