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Business of the House

Volume 486: debated on Tuesday 13 January 2009

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

In the business statement I made to the House on 18 December, I announced that the business of the House for this Thursday, 15 January, would be a topical debate followed by a general debate on armed forces personnel. On Monday this week, I chose Gaza as the subject of the topical debate. That would have been a one and a half hour debate.

Since then, I have become aware that there are many hon. Members who want to contribute to the debate, and representations have been made to me to make it a full day’s debate. I have therefore decided to put back the debate on armed forces personnel to another day and the business of the House this Thursday will be a full day’s debate on Gaza.

I welcome the fact that the Leader of the House is giving the House more time in which to debate the important topic of Gaza; that is entirely appropriate. I do, however, have two questions on that debate and one question on the defence debate that has been moved.

In a topical debate, there are rules on the length of time for Front-Bench speeches and there are no winding-up speeches. Is it the right hon. and learned Lady’s intention that the debate on Gaza will be run under the rules for topical debates or conducted as a general debate, where those rules do not apply? Secondly, will she confirm that the debate will be able to cover a wider remit than merely the immediate situation in Gaza? Will hon. Members be able to explore the implications for wider issues in the middle east?

On the defence debate that has been postponed, the right hon. and learned Lady will recall that in business questions before the recess, questions were asked about the extent to which that debate would cover procurement as well as personnel matters. Will she, first, guarantee that that debate will come to the House in good time and will not be postponed ad infinitum; and, secondly, reconsider the topic of that debate and fulfil the undertaking that she gave the House before Christmas to ensure that hon. Members would be able in that debate to discuss not only the important subject of armed forces personnel, but the subject of procurement, which will enable Members to consider the Government’s decision to delay the procurement of two new aircraft carriers?

I can confirm that the debate on Gaza will be a general debate, not an extended topical debate, and will therefore be run along the usual lines of general debate, with opening and closing speeches from the Front Benches. As for its remit, the topic will be Gaza, but although it is a matter for the Chair, I am sure that it will be possible to raise the wider implications extending beyond Gaza and the region.

The right hon. Lady asks whether the armed forces personnel debate will be held in good time. We intended it to take place this Thursday and we do not want to postpone it too long. I shall make an announcement to the House in due course.

The right hon. Lady knows that, by tradition, there are set defence debates, and the topic of one of them, by custom and practice, is armed forces personnel. The question of the armed forces having the right equipment and the procurement of that equipment could no doubt be raised in that debate, as and when it takes place, which I hope will be in good time.

I, too, welcome the right hon. and learned Lady’s statement. We in this House are often accused of not using our time to best effect, evidenced by the fact that last night Government business finished at 8.30, and tonight we have a further three and a half hours that will not be used; that is five hours that could have been used to debate important matters. Nevertheless, as she knows, I wrote to her last week suggesting that we should have a debate on Gaza. The need for that was clearly shown during yesterday’s statement, when many right hon. and hon. Members who wished to contribute were unable to do so. I therefore wholly welcome what she has proposed today.

I echo the point made by the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May): we need the debate on defence to take place at the earliest possible opportunity, because there are many important matters in that field that the House needs to debate as a matter of urgency.

I welcome the hon. Gentleman back to his position as Liberal Democrat spokesman on Leader of the House matters. The first representation I received from him was a request to extend the topical debate on Gaza to a full day; I am glad that I have been able to respond to his request.

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for characteristically responding so quickly to the strong feelings in the House about the horrifying tragedy that is continuing in Gaza. We on the Labour Benches, whatever view we take, are very grateful indeed for what she has done.

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. I am sure that it will be an extremely important debate.

I join other right hon. and hon. Members in welcoming the debate on Gaza. However, the written defence statement made before Christmas means a substantial cut and delay to elements of the defence equipment programme. It was pretty disgraceful that that only came out in a written statement. It is the abandonment of the—

Order. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware that that is not the matter that we are discussing. He ought to direct his remarks to the fact that we are to have extended time for the debate on Gaza on Thursday.

The casualty of that understandable decision is that there will not be an opportunity to examine, not even in a rather less than timely manner, the serious implications for the defence equipment programme, which the Leader of the House said could be examined in a debate on personnel, strangely enough. I urge her to bring forward a debate on defence, in which that substantial cut to the defence equipment programme can be examined, as soon as possible.

We will find time for the armed forces personnel debate, and to debate questions of procurement, as is custom and practice. Both are important, but what I am telling the House today is that many more people wanted to speak in the debate on Gaza than could have been accommodated in an hour and a half. We are talking about an important issue, and I hope that, generally, people will recognise that it is right to change the business for Thursday.

I fully concur with the reasoning of the Leader of the House on the substitution of debate topics, but when she addresses the issue of reinstating the armed forces personnel debate, will she try to bring forward a date for the armed forces procurement debate, which is normally one of the five annual debates? She did her gallant best to try to square the circle of there not having been an announcement on the Floor of the House about the carriers by saying that we could talk about the subject in a personnel debate, but that is not very satisfactory. We need to talk about the procurement issue in a procurement debate as soon as possible.

There will be an annual debate on procurement, and an annual debate on armed forces personnel. I had not understood the hon. Gentleman to be saying that the two should be put into one debate—