HL Deb 18 July 2002 vol 637 cc1399-401

3.30 p.m.

Lord Gilbert:

My Lords, with the leave of the House, perhaps I may ask the Leader of the House a question of which I have given notice; namely, whether or not the extremely important Statement on defence expenditure made earlier today at the other end of this corridor is to be repeated in this House; and if not, why not?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I think the noble Lord knows the position. It is not intended that the Statement on defence should be repeated. The usual procedures were followed. The Statement was offered to the Conservative Opposition, and they did not wish to take it. It was offered in the usual way to the Liberal Democrats. They did not wish it to be taken. There is nothing different about this. Exactly the same set of circumstances obtained as recently as last Friday, when there was a Statement on Gibraltar which was offered, and the usual channels decided to decline, as they are perfectly entitled to do.

Lord Gilbert

My Lords, that shows the wisdom of never asking a question unless you know the answer in advance—which, of course, I did. It is very sad that Her Majesty's Government have not sought to repeat the Statement in this House, as it is open to them to do. It lays out fair and square that this is the first time that there will be real increases in defence expenditure for five consecutive years.

I wonder whether my noble and learned friend can help us as to the motives of the Opposition. I do not normally rise to my feet on partisan matters in this House, but I think it quite extraordinary. Are they frightened to examine a Statement which contains such good news from the Government on defence expenditure; or do they lack the self-confidence—this applies to the Liberal Democrats as well—to find fault with it?

Unfortunately, I shall be at Farnborough next Wednesday and shall not be present for the debate on procedures. It is deplorable that the Cross-Benchers are not consulted on these matters. They include five former Chiefs of Defence Staff and many other senior experts in defence matters. The whole process of consultation in this House with respect to Statements is sadly lacking. I very much hope that my noble and learned friend can promise us a debate on this important Statement very soon after we return from the Summer Recess.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, it is not for me to intrude into private grief. I do not know what exercised the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats, but this is the procedure that we have. We have honoured the procedure; so have the Opposition, and so have the Liberal Democrats.

Lord King of Bridgwater

My Lords, I am not sure whether the procedures of the House allow me to intervene. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, was allowed to get away with a statement, perhaps I may make this point. Anyone who has listened to the Chancellor's recent announcements will know that it is a very wise thing to look at them carefully, then read the small print, then study the actual results. The suggestion that this represents a massive increase in defence expenditure is very much open to doubt.

The matter will not be resolved by a Statement and exchange of this kind. I hope that it will be possible—I ask the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House, those in my party who are responsible for these matters, and the usual channels—when this House returns for the overspill, to have a serious and considered debate on the real issues of defence, and that we shall be much better informed than the Chancellor has made us so far as to the actual figures for defence spending.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, I strongly echo the words of the noble Lord, Lord King. That is precisely why we thought that on this occasion it was not sensible to take the Statement. We also recognised that the House had an obligation of scrutiny in regard to a Bill going through this House which is of a serious nature and contains a number of controversial matters. I refer to the Enterprise Bill. We therefore felt that it was more appropriate to give what limited time the House still had to that, while fully recognising the importance of defence and the opportunity to discuss it further at a later stage.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, every point that has been made will be faithfully transmitted through the usual channels.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, as my party has been mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, I thought to intervene briefly. However, my noble friend Lord King set out some of the reasons that lay behind our decision this morning. It is sometimes difficult to decide the priorities that this House should follow in its discussions. We were offered two Statements. We are taking one of them and not the other. That is not necessarily a judgment on which is the more important in the long term. Nevertheless, that is the decision that we took.

At present, this House is under great pressure of legislative business. It will be extremely difficult to finish the Enterprise Bill and the other Bills before the House in the time that the Government have currently allocated. That makes these decisions quite difficult to take. Like the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, I hope that we can have a debate on defence when we have had time to consider this and other matters relating to defence in due course, but not before the Recess.