§ Mr. Ingram
I beg to move amendment No. 83, in page 5, line 41, leave out'(disregarding custody before the sentence was passed)'and insert'(or the start of any period of custody by which the sentence is treated as reduced in accordance with section 26 of the 1968 Act)'.
§ Mr. Ingram
Amendments Nos. 83 and 84 deal with two gaps in the accelerated release provisions. Amendment No. 84 is important because it ensures that prisoners who would benefit from the accelerated release provisions must serve at least two years in custody. In particular, it would ensure that prisoners who spend a period of time unlawfully at large would not have that period overlooked.
As drafted, the Bill would allow a prisoner who had been unlawfully at large, either as a result of an escape or as a result of failure to return from leave, to be released two years after the commencement of the legislation, regardless of the time actually spent in prison. Clearly, it would be unacceptable for such prisoners to benefit in this way.
Amendment No. 83 deals with prisoners who come into custody and are convicted after the legislation has commenced. It will ensure that the time spent in custody awaiting trial counts towards the period that they serve. This is directly in line with established United Kingdom practice in relation to the calculation of sentences. We are therefore ensuring that prisoners' rights are established in terms of UK practice, and amendment No. 84 will ensure that what we intended in the Bill is properly enacted.
§ Mr. William Ross
Will the Minister go further and tell us what would happen if the individual murdered someone while escaping from custody or committed 452 another lesser crime on his way out? What would happen with regard to any further sentence to which he might be liable for that further crime?
§ Mr. Ingram
My understanding of the legislation is that it would depend on what type of prisoner he was. It would depend on the nature of the licence conditions. We are dealing with two different categories of prisoner—life sentence prisoners and the determinate sentence prisoners. If a prisoner murdered someone on his way out of prison or carried out some other heinous act, and this was known to be so, as opposed to it being something that someone merely said had happened, clearly he would be brought to judgment for the completely new crime that he had committed.
§ Amendment agreed to.
§ Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire)
I beg to move amendment No. 6, in page 5, line 43, at end insert'and in particular shall ensure that the accelerated release date for any prisoner is not before the decommissioning of all illegal arms by any organisation of which he is a member or supporter has been verified by any Commission of the kind referred to in section 7 of the Northern Ireland Decommissioning Act 1997.'.
The First Deputy Chairman
With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 14, in clause 17, page 8, leave out lines 22 and 23.
No. 15, in page 8, line 24, at end, insert: '10(7)'.
No. 16, in page 8, line 27, after '3(8)', insert 'or 10(7)'.
No. 17, in page 8, line 36, after '3(8)' insert 'or 10(7)'.
§ Mr. McNamara
It would help the Committee to consider the amendment and to size up the Opposition's attitude if the hon. Gentleman could confirm what is on the tapes, namely:The decision to vote against the bill was tonight confirmed at a meeting of the Tory Shadow Cabinet, although a spokesman for Mr. Hague said that they also reaffirmed their support for the bipartisan approach.
§ Mr. Moss
I was not at the meeting, so I do not know. It is as simple as that.
Amendment No. 6 relates to our amendment No. 1, which the Committee debated on Monday and deals with clause 3, subsections (8) and (9). Subsection (9)(d) contains words that are taken—although not verbatim—more or less from the paragraph on decommissioning in the agreement. Amendment No. 6 relates to amendment No. 1 in dealing with decommissioning of arms by a certain date, which will be verified by the commission.
It is interesting that the Government have continued to ignore the points that have been made by Opposition Members on the accuracy and intent of the wording that was signed up to by all parties to the agreement. Paragraph 3 of the agreement's section on decommissioning states:All participants accordingly reaffirm their commitment to the total disarmament of all paramilitary organisations.453 The wording in our amendment No. 1 simply stated that an organisationis committed to the total disarmament of all paramilitary organisations".Therefore, the wording in the agreement and in our amendment No. 1 is pretty much identical.
The agreement's section on decommissioning goes on to state:They also confirm their intention to continue to work constructively and in good faith with the Independent Commission, and to use any influence they may have, to achieve the decommissioning of all paramilitary arms within two years following endorsement in the referendums North and South of the agreement and in the context of the implementation of the overall settlement.Our amendment No. 1 went on to say:and the achievement of the decommissioning of all paramilitary arms, including any of its own, by 22nd May 2000".That date is, of course, two years after the date of the referendums.
We argue yet again that the words in our previous amendment—to which I have already said that amendment No. 6 is related-were essentially the words of the agreement. Our amendment No. 1 did not seek in any way to go outside the words of the agreement, which have been signed up to by all the parties involved. Even at this stage, we ask the Government again to think carefully about the reasons why we intend to press the matter further on Report, and further if necessary.
In amendment No. 6, we are simply saying that, before any prisoner can be released, confirmation must come from the commission that the principles and intent of the decommissioning section of the agreement have been adhered to by the signatories to the agreement.
Amendments Nos. 14 to 17 deal with clause 17. In those amendments, we are seeking to ensure that, if the Secretary of State uses his or her powers under clause 10(7) to amend any subsection within clause 10, it should not be subject to a negative resolution of the House. We believe that, if a Secretary of State decides to make any changes to the subsections in clause 10, they should be approved by resolution of each House of Parliament, a draft having been laid before both Houses.
If—as we propose in amendment No. 14—we leave out of the Bill clause 17(2) and add—as we propose in amendments Nos. 15, 16 and 17—clause 10(7) in the subsections specified, our objective will be clarified: to ensure that, if the Secretary of State takes a decision or decisions, that decision or decisions should come before both Houses of Parliament for affirmative resolution.
§ Mr. McNamara
Earlier in the debate, I drew the attention of the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) to a press release that you, Mr. Martin, felt had nothing to do with amendment No. 6. I had thought that the press release showed the Opposition's seeking to cherry-pick the provisions they like. I had also thought that it demonstrated something that never happened when the Government were in opposition—seeking to undermine progress in achieving peace. On certain occasions to my knowledge—I could enumerate them—it was necessary to protect the position 454 of the then Secretary of State, who was engaged in negotiations, and to prevent cries for his dismissal for one thing or another.
The amendment does precisely what I feared and to which I referred. The Opposition are seeking yet again to rewrite the agreement so as to have a precise linkage between the release of prisoners and decommissioning. The purpose behind the amendment is to rewrite the agreement and to betray the different parties to it. Those parties entered into the agreement on the basis of what was in it, not on the basis of what the Opposition would like to be in it.
To say that is not to say that one does not want the decommissioning of arms—of course one does—but to suggest that there must be a direct linkage between an individual and the satisfaction demanded in the amendment on decommissioning is unfair on the individual and, I suggest, unfair to the independent commission on decommissioning. If we read it carefully—
§ Mr. McNamara
I shall finish my point and then I shall gladly give way to the hon. Gentleman.
If we read the amendment carefully, we find that it states:and in particular shall ensure that the accelerated release date for any prisoner is not before the decommissioning of all illegal arms".That is what the Opposition are asking for now. They are asking not for a token, not for a substantial amount and not for a bit of Semtex here or a kalashnikov there; they are asking for the decommissioning of all illegal arms. Who knows how many illegal arms are held by any paramilitary organisation?
§ Mr. McNamara
The hon. Gentleman, the hon. and reverend Gentleman who leads for the Democratic Unionist party, says from a sedentary position that the security forces know. If the security forces know the amount of illegal arms that are held, that would suggest their being there with the quartermasters counting the arms as they are put in their concrete bunkers somewhere in County Meath, Kerry or, God help us, perhaps in North Antrim. It is obvious that that is not so and that the security forces could not possibly know.
§ Mr. McNamara
I shall finish my point and then I shall give way, first, to the hon. Member for West Tyrone (Mr. Thompson) and then to the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley).
How can anybody know of all the illegal arms that are held? Who will be satisfied that all illegal arms have been decommissioned? The commission on decommissioning cannot verify that all illegal arms have been decommissioned. It is necessary to depend on information that will necessarily be incomplete.
On the basis of the argument that Opposition Members are advancing, paramilitary organisations will say, "This is a list of what we have. We have 13 pikes from 1798, 455 a few muskets from another occasion, a couple of .303s from 1916," and so on. Is that what they will do? How can we be certain that there is not another pike in the thatch? It is—
§ Mr. McNamara
The commission cannot be certain. The hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) said, I think, "That is what the agreement says," but it does not. Paragraph 4 states:The Independent Commission will monitor, review and verify progress on decommissioning of illegal arms, and will report to both Governments at regular intervals.Is that the point that the hon. Gentleman is raising? It does not make the independent commission, which could not possibly know whether all arms have been handed in, infallible; it refers only to the "decommissioning of illegal arms".
§ Mr. Thompson
The hon. Gentleman claimed initially that there was no direct connection between prisoner release and decommissioning. He should have listened to the Prime Minister this afternoon when he said clearly that there was such a connection and that it is explicit in the Bill. Our argument with the Prime Minister is not the connection but the fact that it is not explicit in the Bill—and it should be.
§ Mr. McNamara
I listened carefully to the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister today. He did not say what the hon. Gentleman alleges. I suggest that he reads the Prime Minister's words very carefully.
§ Rev. Ian Paisley
The agreement says:They also confirm their intention to continue to work constructively and in good faith with the Independent Commission, and to use any influence they may have, to achieve the decommissioning of all paramilitary arms within two years following endorsement in the referendums North and South".We did not put that in the agreement because we were not there. The parties that signed the agreement put that there—including the word "all." What is more, the security forces have already informed the Minister how many arms they believe the IRA has, about the IRA's strike capability and of how many arms other organisations have.
§ Mr. McNamara
The hon. Gentleman makes my case for me. He said that the Minister has been told how many arms the security forces believe the IRA has—they do not know how many arms the IRA holds. That is my first point. Secondly, the agreement states:They … confirm their intention to continue to work constructively and in good faith with the Independent Commission, and to use any influence they may have, to achieve the decommissioning of all paramilitary arms within two years following endorsement in the referendums".That statement is qualified by the reference to working "in good faith" to achieve that aim. The amendment says: 456not before the decommissioning of all illegal arms".It will not matter that the parties have worked in good faith and used such influence as they have because, unless every weapon is put down, nobody will be let out of prison as part of what is surprisingly called accelerated prison release.
The hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire has strengthened his position since the last time we discussed this matter: he is now calling for all arms to be handed in. There is no way that the security forces or many of the organisations, given their diffuse nature, will know precisely how many arms are held. If, as the Opposition claim, there is a quartermaster with the Continuity IRA who hands out arms to dissidents, who is to be held responsible for those arms? Who can be certain how many arms are involved unless we know what the quartermaster has passed out?
The amendment, quite apart from being illogical, asks people to achieve the impossible. We cannot be certain of ever delivering what the amendment calls for. No man or woman who belonged to an organisation would ever be released because the terms of the amendment are not deliverable or achievable. Such linkage between prisoners and arms is not in the agreement. The hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire is seeking to rewrite the amendment. That is not what representatives of the various loyalist and republican paramilitary factions signed up to when they agreed to an unequivocal ceasefire. They signed up to the agreement, not to the interpretation that Her Majesty's Opposition would like to put on it. The Opposition are cherry-picking.
The hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire is putting a danger before the Committee. If one of the signatories does not like some little part of the agreement, will they seek to rewrite it? Some people in the Republic may not like, say, the constitutional clauses, and seek to amend it in legislation. Are they to be allowed to succeed? Will they have the precedent that the Opposition are trying to set? The Opposition are putting the whole agreement at risk by seeking to tamper with what Her Majesty's Government have brought forward.
§ Mr. Donaldson
I support the amendment. The hon. Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) said that to accept the amendment would be to betray the parties that had signed the agreement. I suggest that he read the list of names in which the amendment has been tabled. He will see the name of the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), who I believe is the leader of one of the parties that signed the agreement.
It is vital to emphasise the importance of decommissioning in this process. Decommissioning first came on the scene before the talks got under way—with the report of the international body that was chaired by the former senator, George Mitchell. That international body recommended that the decommissioning of terrorist weapons was an important part of the confidence-building process surrounding political talks. In all the time since that report, not one weapon has been decommissioned by any terrorist organisation. It is important not to lose sight of the fact that we are talking about terrorist organisations, not political parties.
The hon. Member for Hull, North is wrong to say that there is no link between decommissioning and the release 457 of prisoners. One of the Government's criteria concerning eligibility for release of prisoners in clause 3 is that a terrorist organisation must beco-operating fully with any Commissionestablished by the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997. That creates a link between decommissioning and the release of prisoners; the Government themselves have created the link in the Bill. We are simply trying to clarify exactly whatco-operating fully with any Commissionmeans.
Are hon. Members who oppose the amendment suggesting that "co-operating fully" could mean something less than the decommissioning of weapons? If that is so, let them tell us. It is important that we understand what "co-operating fully" with the independent commission means. The Secretary of State will have to judge whether any of the terrorist organisations is "co-operating fully". How can it be argued that a terrorist organisation is "co-operating fully" on the decommissioning of weapons when it is not decommissioning its weapons? In anyone's terms, a failure to decommission weapons represents a failure fully to co-operate with the independent commission.
§ Mr. McNamara
As I understand the situation, there are signatories to the agreement who are said to represent various paramilitary organisations. Let us take the case of signatory X. He tries to use his best efforts to achieve decommissioning by the organisation of which he is supposed to be the political representative, but his fullest and best endeavours fail. What then? He has kept to all the undertakings that he gave in the agreement.
§ Mr. Donaldson
With all due respect to the hon. Gentleman, it is not the political parties but the terrorist organisations that are referred to in clause 3. It does not matter whether Sinn Fein, the Ulster Democratic party or the Progressive Unionist party are using their best endeavours. With regard to the criteria that the Secretary of State must consider, the question is: is the terrorist organisation co-operating fully with the commission? Is the IRA co-operating fully with the independent commission?
Sinn Fein does not have prisoners in the gaols; the IRA does. I happen to believe, as I understand the Government do too, that the IRA and Sinn Fein are inextricably linked—but the question here is whether a prisoner who belongs to a terrorist organisation qualifies for early release under the terms of the Bill.
The Secretary of State is required to consider a number of criteria before she can reach a determination whether the organisation to which the individual prisoner belongs qualifies for accelerated release. With all due respect to the hon. Member for Hull, North, the organisation concerned is not the political party but the terrorist organisation.
Therefore I will continue to argue that the terrorist organisation must fully co-operate with the commission on disarmament—and surely that must require full decommissioning to take place. If the terrorist 458 organisation to which the prisoner belongs is not decommissioning its weapons, how can one possibly argue that it is co-operating fully with the independent commission? It is important to draw the truth out.
I suspect that there is a great deal of ambiguity surrounding the criteria and that when the Secretary of State comes to consider them they will be fudged.
§ Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury)
The hon. Gentleman says that there is a great deal of ambiguity about the Bill, but does he agree that there was no ambiguity when the agreement was sold to the people of Northern Ireland by the Government? They were led to believe that prisoner release—
The First Deputy Chairman
Order. That is beyond the scope of the amendment, which is confined to a particular matter.
§ Mr. Donaldson
Thank you, Mr. Martin. I appreciate the point that the hon. Gentleman is making; the Government need to spell out the details clearly.
During the debate on a previous amendment, I asked the Secretary of State to spell out exactly what she means by co-operating fully with the independent commission, but she failed to do so. No one from the Government Benches has yet told the Committee what the Government's interpretation of that phrase is.
I ask the Minister again to tell us when he responds whether that phrase means that the terrorist organisations are required to decommission their weapons. Does co-operating fully with the commission mean actual decommissioning of terrorist weapons? I think that the people of Northern Ireland are entitled to know.
As for the amendment, we have a scenario in which terrorists may be on remand at the moment or still at large, having committed serious offences but not yet having been sentenced for, or perhaps even charged with, offences that they committed before the cut-off date in the Bill. Such an individual—when apprehended, brought before the courts and found guilty of serious crimes, including murder—will be released after two years. That is also true for some who have committed multiple murder.
The amendment is entirely reasonable, as it requires that individuals convicted of a serious offence in those circumstances cannot be released until there has been decommissioning of terrorist weapons. That is the least that the people of Northern Ireland are entitled to expect. I hope that the Government will reconsider their approach to the amendment and, in particular, that the Minister will spell out—at long last and clearly—what the Government mean by requiring terrorist organisations to co-operate fully with the independent commission.
§ Mr. Peter Robinson
I support the amendment, the central point of which is the requirement for the decommissioning of all paramilitary arms. Decommissioning has been at the core of controversy in Northern Ireland for a long time. It was the position of Her Majesty's Government when the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) was Prime Minister that before anyone could get into a talks process there would be a requirement for them to decommission. That was diluted and the Government then indicated that it would 459 be sufficient, on the basis of Washington 3, for organisations to put forward a significant portion of their weaponry as an indicator of their intent, while agreeing to decommission the rest during the talks process.
That, of course, was diluted as well and the Government accepted that organisations should enter the talks process on the clear understanding that, during the process, the paramilitary organisations would decommission their illegal weapons. That was diluted and organisations were allowed to remain throughout the whole talks process without decommissioning one bullet, one weapon, one ounce of Semtex or one detonator.
We have been told that for the release of prisoners and entry into government, a substantial proportion of weaponry would have to be decommissioned. That was the indication the Prime Minister gave the Leader of the Opposition in the House on 6 May. It is not unreasonable, therefore, that the Opposition might put in the terms of their amendment an undertaking given to them by the Prime Minister at the Dispatch Box. It is hardly odd that the terms of the amendment should be consistent with the Prime Minister's undertaking.
I must agree with the hon. Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara). In the agreement—as I have said consistently—there is no requirement for decommissioning, nor is there any sanction if decommissioning does not take place. It makes it clear that organisations must use their best endeavours—but too bad if they do not succeed. There is no punishment for any of the participants if they fail, having used their best endeavours—unless, of course, one accepts the terminology used in the agreement in the section dealing with prisoners, such as where it says that there must be a complete and unequivocal ceasefire. Does such a ceasefire have to be interpreted as including the decommissioning of weaponry?
One could argue that if people are intending to give up violence, there is no requirement for them to hold on their weaponry. It would not be inconsistent with a total and complete cessation of violence—indeed, it would be a way of demonstrating that they had given up violence for good—if the organisations handed in their illegal weaponry. The people of Northern Ireland were led to believe that that was the Prime Minister's interpretation of the agreement, because that is what he told them.
On that basis, we are entitled to say that the Prime Minister should honour his commitments, not only on the release of prisoners, but on other aspects of the implementation of the agreement, such as the formation of an Executive. The amendment is important, if only as a test of whether the Prime Minister has been as good as his word—it would include in the Bill the very words that he agreed accurately reflected his position. Again, I wait to see whether the Government will include in the Bill the undertakings that the Prime Minister has given to the House.
§ Mr. Ingram
As we have had a detailed debate on this group of amendments, it is worth setting out the background to clause 10. As has been said in previous debates, the purpose of the Bill as a whole is to implement the prisoners section of the Good Friday agreement, as negotiated by the Northern Ireland parties in Belfast and as endorsed overwhelmingly by the people of Northern Ireland. Those are the key facts.
460 Paragraph 3 of that section of the agreement said thatthe intention would be that should the circumstances allow it, any qualifying prisoners who remained in custody two years after the commencement of the scheme would be released at that point.My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State placed in the Library a copy of a memorandum on the release of prisoners, which was circulated to all the parties in the negotiations. Paragraph 7 of the memorandum said:Most eligible prisoners would be released within two years. At that point those prisoners still in custody would be automatically released if otherwise eligible for release under the scheme. This date would be set in legislation. The Secretary of State would have power to bring the date forward or to put it back depending on the circumstances and progress towards the creation of a more peaceful society.Clause 10 reflects those arrangements.
I recognise at the outset that, in what can only be described as an unusual Bill, the clause is exceptional. However, it reflects what was negotiated and accepted by the parties in the negotiations in Belfast and what has now been endorsed by the people of Northern Ireland. It is important that the prisoners element of the agreement, like the agreement as a whole, is set in the clear context of the implementation of the agreement as a whole.
Like my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister, I have said repeatedly that the agreement stands or falls as a package. If there is progress in implementing some elements of the agreement, but no progress in implementing others, the agreement as a whole will not work. It is essential that the arrangement for the release of remaining eligible prisoners after two years, as provided for in the clause, is clearly understood to be in the context of the implementation of the agreement as a whole.
There are important safeguards to ensure that that is so, including the general safeguards in the Bill: the Secretary of State can suspend the release of prisoners generally at any time; she can, under clause 3, exclude from benefit prisoners who support a terrorist organisation; and she is required to keep that under regular review. In addition to those general powers, the Secretary of State has the power under clause 10(7) to move the two-year cut-off point forwards or backwards—the clause provides the Secretary of State with powers to delay the automatic release of prisoners at the two-year point if she considers it necessary.
§ Mr. Ingram
I shall deal with those circumstances, because that is an important element—[Interruption.] I do not see what is so funny about it, and I do not know why the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) finds decommissioning so funny, as it is vitally important.
I have said that the provision is set firmly in the context of the implementation of the agreement as a whole and, as the memorandum that my right hon. Friend placed in the Library of the House said, in the context ofprogress towards the creation of a more peaceful society.461 A number of hon. Members rightly drew attention to the commitments on decommissioning, which the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) mentioned. In particular, paragraph 3 of the section on decommissioning, on page 45 of the agreement, binds anyone who supports itto the total disarmament of all paramilitary organisationsand to usingany influence they may have, to achieve the decommissioning of all paramilitary arms within two years following endorsement in the referendums North and South of the agreement and in the context of the implementation of the overall settlement.
§ Mr. Ingram
The hon. Gentleman had a good run at his argument. If he lets me expand mine, we can move on and deal with the points on which he is dissatisfied—[Interruption.] It is better that we explain the overall context of the debate, so that we can then try to understand the points at issue.
The commitments set out in the agreement and whether they are adhered to are clearly relevant to whether the circumstances exist and whether progress to a normal peaceful society has been sufficient to justify the release of all remaining eligible prisoners in two years' time. Progress on the decommissioning element of the agreement is essential to implementation of the agreement as a whole. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said in his speech at Balmoral on 14 May:These factors provide evidence upon which to base an overall judgement—a judgement which will necessarily become more rigorous over time".
I well understand the arguments that have been advanced for amendment No. 6 and the general thrust of the arguments advanced in the debate. Nothing in the clause as it stands prevents the Secretary of State from taking full account of progress, or the lack of it, in implementation of the decommissioning section of the agreement, in deciding whether to change the two-year cut-off point. Indeed, as again has been repeatedly stressed, progress in implementing all elements of the agreement is critical if the agreement as a whole is to work.
§ Mr. Donaldson
I should like to clarify something. The agreement is binding upon the participants—the signatories—but the Bill relates not to the signatories or the participants in the talks, but to individual prisoners and the terrorist organisations to which they belong. My question for the Minister is: what do the Government mean by those organisations being required to co-operate fully with the independent commission? That is what we are asking. We are interested not in what the participants to the talks are doing in the context of the Bill, but in the terrorist organisations to which the prisoners belong. The question is, how do the Government interpret fully co-operating with the independent commission on the part of the terrorist organisations? That has nothing to do with using one's influence. Does it mean decommissioning taking place?
§ Mr. Ingram
Of course, one of the conditions is a requirement to be co-operating with the decommissioning 462 body. Another is the point that I was just stressing, which the hon. Gentleman has not taken on board—I do not know whether that is because of an unwillingness to listen to the strength of the case that is being advanced by the Prime Minister. The judgment will necessarily become more rigorous in time. The question is, at what point does it happen? As we get closer to the two-year point, those who will be judging whether the agreement is being properly applied will judge whether there has been movement in that period. Therefore, the judgment will become more rigorous, the closer we get to that point. By any definition, that must be the worst scenario.
The best scenario, which all of us want, is progress. The more people talk up the possibility that progress will never happen, the more they give sustenance to those who do not want it. They give support to those who want to wreck what the agreement has set out to achieve.
Language is important to ensuring that we quantify exactly what the agreement says, and the Bill does that. Prisoner releases will be carried on the back of that, and the test to be applied will become more rigorous over time.
§ Mr. Ingram
The hon. Gentleman knows that I am willing to participate in debate with him in the way that he wants, but he has had a good chance to speak. I am trying to set out a structured argument, so that we can have a reasoned debate.
§ Mr. Ingram
I am answering it in my way, and in the way in which it should properly be answered for those who want to see movement towards a peaceful society on the basis of an agreement voted for by 71 per cent. of the people of Northern Ireland.
§ Mr. Ingram
No. Those who want to wreck what we are trying to achieve as we deal with difficult and complex issues to take forward the agreement just weeks after its endorsement by the people of Northern Ireland could, if they gave the right type of support to what we are trying to achieve, help us to move forward in a more structured way.
The agreement used the phrase,should the circumstances allow itrather than establishing a specific precondition. So did the memorandum placed in the Library of the House, which used the phrase,depending on the circumstances and progress towards the creation of a more peaceful society.
§ Mr. Ingram
No, but I shall in a moment.
The hon. Member for Belfast, East constantly goes on about what the Prime Minister has said. The hon. Gentleman says that the Prime Minister has conned the people of Northern Ireland, and he uses the press in Northern Ireland to support that. He does not of course 463 use the Irish News; he probably would not want to quote that paper. Therefore, let me give him a quotation from last night's edition of the Belfast Telegraph, which said:The Conservative Party is going down a dangerous road by warning members will vote against the bill on prisoner releases when it reaches its final stage in the Commons on Thursday.The paper is a substantial voice of opinion within Northern Ireland.
§ Mr. Ingram
Let me remind hon. Members what I have said about the press. I said that we should ignore speculation in the press. The point about the Belfast Telegraph is addressed particularly to the hon. Member for North—East Cambridgeshire, so that he can pass it on to the hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay), who cited The Times to justify his position. The Belfast Telegraph has expressed a quality judgment, and has taken into account what the Prime Minister actually said. The leader goes on to say:Yet Mr. Blair made no explicit linkage between decommissioning and prisoner releases, as the Tories are now demanding.The extensive, well-argued, cogent leader is not without criticism of those engaged in the process, which makes it a healthy read. It concludes:No one likes the Agreement in its entirety, but it still represents Northern Ireland's best chance of securing a lasting peace.I think—indeed, I know—that that is what the people of Northern Ireland voted for on 22 May. That is what they said when they endorsed the agreement.
§ Mr. Moss
I have the memorandum that the Secretary of State placed in the Library and I have read paragraph 7, which deals withprogress towards the creation of a more peaceful society.The Prime Minister has spoken several times of organisations giving up violence for good, and the words "unequivocal ceasefire" in the Bill are important. Will the Minister answer the simple question that I put to him about 20 minutes ago? Under the terms of the Bill, is it possible, at the end of the two years, that all prisoners could be released without any decommissioning having taken place? Yes or no?
§ Mr. Ingram
I wish that the debate were as simple as that. The hon. Gentleman has an extremely responsible position, speaking for a major party that was involved, month after month, year after year, in trying to advance the peace process, through secret dealings with the IRA and a range of other means, with the full support of my party in opposition. We gave him every encouragement to understand the sensitivities and difficulties in a spirit of bipartisanship. It would be nice to think that those of us who genuinely want a peaceful society could simply decide by fiat that decommissioning was to take place tomorrow, but that will not happen. If he does not understand that decommissioning, by its very nature, must be voluntary, he should not hold his position as a spokesperson on this issue.
464 My hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) spoke about how we could attest to the words in the agreement and elsewhere, and the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) mentioned the information that the security forces provide to Ministers and to the Prime Minister on what equipment and arms paramilitary organisations are understood to hold, although we never discuss the level or basis of that knowledge, because to do so would give information to those organisations.
Opposition Members may play fast and loose with the issue, and those who are campaigning against the agreement have the democratic right to try to wreck it. If they do not want to implement the express wish of the people of Northern Ireland, they need not help to do so.
§ Mr. Ingram
There is no argument among any Members of Parliament on that point: that is the objective that we all desire. I hope that that intervention does not imply that the Government do not want weapons to be decommissioned. The question is how to achieve that objective. Conditions on the matter in the legislation are likely to be reflected in subsequent legislation for a settlement and we shall have to take account of the key elements of the Belfast agreement.
We must deal with all those factors in a structured way and relate them one to the other. On our first day in Committee, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said thatit is also true to say that underlying those explicit links are deeper and more fundamental understandings.The Government are in no doubt that a fundamental element of those underlying understandings is that those who seek to benefit from the agreement can do so only on the basis of a genuine and unequivocal commitment to exclusively peaceful means, now and in the future. That is fundamental."—[Official Report, 15 June 1998; Vol. 314, c. 72.]I have endeavoured to make it clear that the Government have much sympathy with the concerns expressed by those who support amendment No. 6 and the thinking underlying it. We can contemplate the operation of the two-year cut-off point only in the context of the implementation of the agreement as a whole. I hope that the subtlety as well as the clarity of that explanation is understood by the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire, who speaks—(Interruption.] From a sedentary position, the hon. Gentleman seek a yes or no answer. Does he want another lecture on what his Government did and the subtleties that they had to be involved in to try to achieve momentum towards peace?
We could be absolutist and approach the debate as a black-and-white argument. If Her Majesty's official Opposition are going down that route, they are moving rapidly into the ranks of those who want to wreck the Belfast agreement. They will be linking up with hon. Members who have no wish to take it forward on a structured and coherent basis, which is what the majority of the people of Northern Ireland–71 per cent.—voted for on 22 May. 465 The electorate knew that there were subtleties in the argument, and they knew what they were doing when they voted in that way. They did not operate on the simplistic notions with which the hon. Gentleman has approached the issue.
§ Mr. Moss
I thank the Minister for giving way, but I did not paint my question in black and white. I asked for a yes or no answer, but I used the word "possible". I did not ask him whether there would definitely be decommissioning; I just asked whether it was possible that, at the end of two years, all prisoners could have been released with no decommissioning having taken place.
In answer to a question from the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev Ian Paisley), the Prime Minister said:Certainly we will give effect to the pledges that have been made prior to the assembly elections. That is absolutely right. As I have made clear throughout and do so again now, the provisions in relation to decommissioning and what I said about it before the referendum campaign stand and must properly be put in the legislation."—[Official Report, 3 June 1998; Vol. 313, c. 366.1The only reference to decommissioning is in clause 3(9), which mentions "co-operating fully" with the commission. There is no mention in the appropriate part of the Bill of the pledges on decommissioning given in the agreement. How does the Minister equate what the Prime Minister said with putting that properly in the Bill?
§ Mr. Ingram
Those who have followed the debate will realise that we are saying, "Oh yes it does," while the hon. Gentleman and hon. Members from other Opposition parties are saying, "Oh no it doesn't." The hon. Gentleman was a Northern Ireland Minister. He understands the difficulties and the complexities of the issue, although when we were debating other legislation, he told me that he was never the Minister with responsibility for security, so I should not ask him difficult questions on such matters. If he brushed up on just how difficult this issue is, he could perhaps represent his once great party properly at the Dispatch Box.
The Bill has been carefully constructed, and it upholds in their entirety the assurances given by the Prime Minister on 14 May in his Balmoral speech and subsequently. Those who say that it does not are those who want to wreck the agreement, not take it forward. That is the important linkage with which we are dealing. We are saying that there are specific powers under the clause and in the Bill for the Secretary of State to make decisions—depending on the circumstances, on the judgment at the time and on how the agreement has been implemented, whether in full or in part.
Let me pose a hypothetical question. What would happen if a judgment that could wreck the agreement was made on a Thursday, without the people who made it knowing that an organisation may have been prepared to change its position on Friday? Hon. Members should think about that carefully. There must be careful consideration and judgment, and we have to move forward on that basis. The Bill is clearly in line with the agreement and clearly in line with the commitments given by the Prime Minister. We have had a detailed debate, but hon. Members may wish to return to parade again their wish to see the Belfast agreement destroyed. That, of course, is the right of a democratic society.
466 The hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire raised issues relating to amendments Nos. 14 to 17. I understand his argument, which was that the power to vary the two-year cut-off point was very significant—not least for the reasons that we have been discussing. I am therefore prepared to accept his amendment and those tabled with it, which would make any order varying the two-year cut-off point subject to affirmative rather than negative resolution in Parliament. Scrutiny of what the Secretary of State does will take place here, in the House. That is where it will be judged whether or not the agreement has been implemented in full.
§ Mr. Peter Robinson
It would be wrong for us to close this part of the debate without giving the Minister a further opportunity to reflect on—and, indeed, put right—something that he may well regret tomorrow morning. On two occasions during his speech, he was given the opportunity to answer a simple question. Many people in Northern Ireland signed up to the agreement—many within the 71 per cent. about whom the Minister continues to talk—because they believed that there would be actual decommissioning before any prisoners would be released, or before their representatives would be in government. They believed that that would happen before prisoners were released.
The question asked by the Opposition spokesman was not whether the Minister believed that that would happen before prisoners were released. The question was whether he believed that, after two years—after all the prisoners had gone—one bullet would have been handed over. The Minister could not answer that question. I am not sure whether the Minister appreciates the impact that that will have in Northern Ireland—the knowledge that not only will no guns, no bullets, no Semtex and no detonators be handed over before the prisoners get out, but they may not be handed over at all.
§ Mr. Ingram
My Secretary of State tells me not to respond to what has just been said, and I will pay due attention to that, once I have made one comment.
What does the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) know about the decommissioning legislation? Does he know when it was passed? Probably not. In fact, it was dealt with on 11 March. I dealt with it in Committee. Since then, I have had meetings with my counterpart in the Republic of Ireland to speed progress, and meetings with the decommissioning body. It should not be said that I, or any of my colleagues, have not been trying to remove the gun, the bomb, the bullet and Semtex from the face of Northern Ireland.
We have, as a Government, 13,500 RUC officers on the estates of Northern Ireland. We have 17,000 members of Her Majesty's forces trying to tackle terrorism. This Government, and, indeed, past Governments, should not be accused of being soft on terrorism. The major point is that we are determined to defeat, as best we can, the scourge of terrorism that has blighted the face of Northern Ireland for the past 30 years. The agreement is a major step towards achieving that.
I only wish that the hon. Gentleman would understand that, rather than living in the past. Let us begin to look towards the future.
§ Mr. Moss
I am grateful to the Minister for accepting amendments Nos.14 to 17. I am glad that we did not need to debate them for three hours; at least the strength of our points has been taken on board. 467 We had a prolonged discussion on amendment No. 6. Twice the Minister was asked a simple question about possibilities, and twice he evaded giving a simple answer. If it is his judgment that he did not give a straight answer, he will have to face the consequences of how that is played in the press tomorrow, here and in Northern Ireland. That is his decision.
The Opposition are not seeking to wreck the agreement. We support the Government on all parts of the agreement, including the section on decommissioning. We would not have supported the Government if there had not been a section on decommissioning. We have never accused the Government of not wanting decommissioning along the lines that we have proposed. There is no accusation that the Government's intent regarding decommissioning is not strong. That is not the question we are posing. We are merely asking whether, under the legislation, prisoners could be released at the end of two years without decommissioning having taken place. The answer is yes, but the Minister will not reply to that simple question.
We shall not pursue this matter tonight, but we may revisit it on another occasion. We thank the Minister for his concessions on amendments Nos. 14 to 17, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Amendment made: No. 84, in page 5, line 43, at end insert—
'(8) Nothing in this section shall permit the release of a prisoner following a declaration under section 3(1) before he has served two years of the sentence to which the declaration relates; and for that purpose any period of custody by which the sentence is treated as reduced in accordance with section 26 of the 1968 Act shall be treated as served as part of the sentence.'.—[Mr. Dowd.]
§ Clause 10, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.