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Volume 639: debated on Monday 16 April 2018

I rise to propose that the House should debate a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration—namely, the current situation in Syria and the UK Government’s approach.

The need for this debate first arose last week, during recess. As we know, on Saturday 7 April, two incidents were reported of bombs filled with toxic chemicals being dropped on Douma in Syria. The hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) and I agreed during the recess that, on the House’s return, we would seek an emergency opportunity for the House to discuss the atrocity. The need for such a debate is all the stronger now, given the Government’s action in response. Members will have different views on the Government’s action. However, whatever their view, it is pretty clear that the House ought to have the opportunity to debate the matter.

On the basis of that principle, and no other, I have been pleased to receive support for this SO24 application from the following Members: the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), the Father of the House; my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), the Mother of the House; the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis); my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper); the hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling, as I mentioned earlier; the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell); my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty); and a whole host of Back Benchers who hold various different views on the situation in Syria and what the Government’s actions ought to be but none the less agree that we ought to discuss it in this House, whatever the Government’s attitude to process in Parliament. To quote the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield in a previous debate:

“In a hung Parliament, political power tends to pass from the Cabinet Room to the Floor of this House”.—[Official Report, 21 June 2017; Vol. 626, c. 109.]

As I said, on Saturday 7 April two incidents were reported of bombs filled with toxic chemicals being dropped on Douma. Children suffocated in the street, frothing at the mouth as the chemical became acid in their lungs, and the powerful smell of chlorine was in the air—a vicious and disgusting chemical that tears into pieces the airways of those who breathe it in and the skin of those who touch it. This House, with 19 coats of arms commemorating MPs who died in the first world war, should know better than most about the devastating impact of the use of chemical weapons in war. In the 1920s, Britain was at the forefront of efforts to ban these vile weapons. Our country’s role in containing the devastation they cause is clear.

We have heard the Prime Minister’s statement on the action the Government took over the weekend. However, I remain of the view that what is required is a much wider debate in this House on the UK’s strategy for protecting civilians, including the need for much greater action on refugees than we have so far heard. Syria as a whole must be on the agenda, not just chemical weapons. That is why this debate should proceed urgently.

In the words of Jo Cox, whose coat of arms is on the wall of this Chamber, right behind me,

“despite all of the dangers and difficult judgements that lie ahead, burying our head in the sand is not an option. We must face up to this crisis and do all that we can to resolve it.”

Her words, Mr Speaker, still stand.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady, to whose application I have listened carefully. Colleagues, I am satisfied that the matter raised is proper to be discussed under Standing Order No. 24. Has the hon. Lady the leave of the House?

Application agreed to (not fewer than 40 Members standing in support).

Very clearly, the hon. Lady does have the leave of the House, and to her debate, colleagues, you will be pleased to know, we will proceed momentarily. That debate will take place today for up to three hours.

Before I invite the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) to move her motion, it might perhaps be helpful if I explain the timing. Standing Orders do not expressly provide that a debate granted under Standing Order No. 24 is exempt from interruption at 10 o’clock on a Monday. They do, however, allow for business delayed as a result of such a debate to have injury time, if necessary beyond the moment of interruption at 10 o’clock. I have taken advice and benefited from the contents of the scholarly cranium of the Clerk of the House. On the strength of that, I am ruling that the debate can continue despite the moment of interruption because I am interpreting the power given to me under subsection (2) of Standing Order No. 24 to determine the length of a debate as embracing the power to permit the debate to continue beyond the moment of interruption. It will therefore continue for up to three hours. We now come to that emergency debate on the current situation in Syria and the UK Government’s approach.