BUSINESS QUESTION – CDS & OVERSTRETCH – 21 November 2002

Dr Julian Lewis: I wonder if you noticed, Mr. Deputy Speaker, how untypical it was of the Leader of the House to fail to look in the eye my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Keith Simpson) or my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) when they raised their points about the Secretary of State for Defence and the Chief of the Defence Staff's extreme concern about the state of the armed forces under this Government. May we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Defence about whether he still has confidence – as he should have – in the Chief of the Defence Staff, even though the Chief of the Defence Staff evidently has no confidence in him?

[Robin Cook: This story is now spiralling out into the stratosphere. At no point did the Chief of the Defence Staff say that he had no confidence in the Secretary of State for Defence. If I may say so, the hon. Gentleman has no right to so misrepresent the Chief of the Defence Staff, whose words should be treated with greater respect than he is showing for them. Nor did the Chief of the Defence Staff say anything about this Administration's neglect of the armed forces, probably because, as he also served under the previous Conservative Government, he is aware that this Government is the first for 20 years to start to increase defence spending, unlike the massive cuts that he witnessed under the Conservative Administration.]

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[Mr Cook (in answer to final Conservative questioner): … Let me put a question to Conservative Members. If they are really saying that they believe that the conclusion of the Chief of the Defence Staff is that he cannot sustain a military action in Iraq and also handle the fire dispute if that disputes proceeds – is that what they are claiming he said? – will they tell the House which of the two they would jettison and not carry out?]

Dr Lewis: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for the Leader of the House to ask Opposition Members to respond to a question when they have no opportunity to do so under the procedures of the House? It is clear that the response that we would be able to give is perfectly capable of coping with his question, because we would point out that the extreme concern expressed by the Chief of the Defence Staff is about a matter of overstretch that the Government have consistently and wrongly denied is taking place.