HC Deb 18 June 1998 vol 314 cc559-86
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Adam Ingram)

I beg to move amendment No. 3, in page 13, line 38, at end insert— 'or certificate under paragraph 9 of Schedule 12 to that Act (transitional provisions); ( ) any certificate issued by the Lord Justice General in relation to the prisoner under section 16(2) of the Crime and Punishment (Scotland) Act 1997 or paragraph 6 of Schedule 6 to the Prisoners and Criminal Proceedings (Scotland) Act 1993 (transitional provisions); ( ) any order made in relation to the prisoner under section 2 of the Prisoners and Criminal Proceedings (Scotland) Act 1993 (duty to release designated life prisoners);'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

With this, it will be convenient to discuss Government amendment No. 4.

Mr. Ingram

The amendments are technical, and I hope that I will not need to expound on them at any great length, but I am prepared to do so if hon. Members want to have a debate.

Amendment No. 3 amends paragraph 6. The present effect of the paragraph is that the commissioners must have regard to different information from that set out in clause 7 when they are considering the release of life prisoners transferred to Northern Ireland from Great Britain. In such circumstances, the commissioners must have regard to any direction of the Parole Board for the release of a discretionary life prisoner, any other information that the Secretary of State submits, such as information about the tariff of a mandatory life prisoner—[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The general buzz of conversation is making it difficult to hear the Minister. I would be grateful if hon. Members would listen to him. [Interruption.]

Mr. Ingram

I thought that I heard someone saying, "Thank goodness for that," because it was better not to be able to hear me. I was about to say that the commissioners must have regard to that extra information as well as to their previous decisions.

Amendment No. 3 simply provides the equivalent Scottish provisions to those already referred to in paragraph 6 for England and Wales. That means that the commissioners must have regard to the same sort of information in respect of life prisoners transferred from Scotland to Northern Ireland as for those transferred from England and Wales to Northern Ireland. That is logical and fair and I commend the amendment to the House.

Amendment No. 4 amends clause 12(4), which is an interpretation provision providing that references in the Bill to a sentence of imprisonment for life include references to a sentence of detention at the Secretary of State's pleasure. Amendment No. 4 simply adds the equivalent provision for Scotland.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendment made: No. 4, in page 13, line 47, at end insert 'or detention for life or without limit of time under section 205(2) of the Criminal Procedure (Scotland) Act 1995.'.—[Mr. Ingram.]

Order for Third Reading read.

6.53 pm
Marjorie Mowlam

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

The debate in Committee and on Report clearly showed the genuine concerns of many right hon. and hon. Members about the operation of the scheme. Before the Bill was published, I had meetings with representatives of several parties to discuss issues raised by the Bill. Those discussions were helpful to me and, I hope, to those whom I met.

Many right hon. and hon. Members tabled amendments that were considered in Committee and on Report. In each case, our careful consideration was on the basis that any amendments must be fully consistent with the Good Friday agreement, which was endorsed by 71 per cent. of the people of Northern Ireland. We cannot and should not rewrite that agreement, but when points have been made that are helpful and could improve the terms of the Bill, we have certainly taken them on board. Tonight, we considered on Report a Government amendment that was suggested by the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), who expressed the hope that the legal terms of the Bill might be able to reflect more of the language that the Prime Minister used in his speech at Balmoral on 14 May. I accepted what the right hon. Gentleman said and tabled the amendment. I also tabled a Government amendment in response to arguments that he made on Second Reading about the operation of clause 8. I accepted those arguments and I believe that the Bill has been improved as a consequence of his contribution.

The right hon. Member for Upper Bann said: We must take the Stormont agreement as a whole, and should not pick and choose."—[Official Report, 16 June 1998; Vol. 313, c. 1096–97.] That is right. If we cherry-picked and wrote extra provisions into the Bill that were not in the agreement, we would be departing from that agreement and would lose all moral authority to hold others fully to the commitments that they have made.

I also accepted amendments tabled by members of other parties. For example, Lord Alderdice asked for the Bill to allow victims to ask for information about releases, and the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) spoke on that issue on Second Reading. We added a new clause in Committee to address their concerns.

The hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) spoke in favour of an amendment to require that a lawyer appointed to the sentence review body should have a United Kingdom qualification, and of another to require the procedure for varying the two-year cut-off period to be subject to affirmative resolution. Again, we accepted those amendments on the basis that they improved the Bill and were consistent with the agreement.

Under the Bill, I am given powers to say which organisations have not established, or are not maintaining, complete and unequivocal ceasefires. With the agreement of the House, I can move forward or back the two-year cut-off date. I also have powers to suspend the scheme entirely. Hon. Members have asked about the circumstances in which I might use those powers. As I said, I cannot prejudge such decisions now, but I shall certainly face them squarely in the future.

In Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) asked about the position of prisoners who allege that they have been the subject of miscarriages of justice. As the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride (Mr. Ingram), said, the matter is not covered by the Bill; he has written a letter today covering the other matters that were raised, and a copy has been placed in the Library.

In Committee, the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) asked whether the Bill gave adequate protection to sensitive material. Given the sensitivity of security information and the requirement to protect individuals, that is an important matter, and my hon. Friend the Minister of State undertook to reflect on it. Having considered the issue, I can assure the House that there is no doubt that the requirement in clause 11 for the commissioners to give reasons is qualified by paragraph 5(1)(e) of schedule 2 and that a rule made under the schedule will give protection to sensitive information such as that to which the right hon. Gentleman referred.

Much of our debate has been dominated by assertions that the Bill failed to reflect commitments given by the Government in advance of the referendum on 22 May. As I have said repeatedly, there is not a single shred of truth in that accusation.

As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said in the House yesterday, we have done precisely what we said we would do."—[Official Report, 17 June 1998; Vol. 314, c. 363.] That being so, I want to express my disappointment that the bipartisan approach that has served the process so well for many years may be in doubt tonight. I hope that it will not be ended. As an Opposition, we were always determined to ensure that the search for peace in Northern Ireland was not made even more difficult by arguments and by confusing signals being sent across the Floor of the House. I know how much the previous Government valued the stance that we took, as I did theirs. I am sorry if that approach is on the way out, as we have been constructive and open in our approach to the Bill, particularly on proposals that enhance and improve the Bill within the terms of the Good Friday agreement.

The Bill contains serious provisions and I shall take my responsibilities very seriously in putting them into practice. On 22 May the people of Northern Ireland decided to grasp their future and to shape it. They look now to both sides of the House to see what we can do to support them. I am sure that they will welcome our determination to implement the agreement—their agreement—in full and in good faith.

7 pm

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell)

From my time as the parliamentary private secretary to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in the 1980s through to my present responsibilities as shadow Secretary of State and official Opposition spokesman, I have shared the view of the Secretary of State that there should, wherever possible, be a bipartisan approach to matters concerning Northern Ireland. That is in the interests both of the Province, and of a lasting settlement.

I hope that the House will agree, however, that no Opposition can give a blank cheque to a Government. Certainly, when we were in government, the Opposition did not give us a blank cheque. The House will recall the number of occasions on which the Opposition voted against or failed to support the prevention of terrorism Act. In my view, that was regrettable, and it damaged the peace process at that time.

I do not lightly advise my colleagues to vote against Third Reading. In so doing, therefore, I want to stress to the Secretary of State in particular, and the House in general, that we wish wherever possible to support the Government, and to continue the bipartisan policy. She has that assurance from me across the Floor of the House. Our voting against what we believe to be a fatally flawed Bill tonight will in no way stop our supporting the Government in their search for a lasting settlement.

I want to explain why we believe the Bill to be fundamentally flawed. We have one objection to it, and one objection only. However, it is a fundamental objection that goes to the root of the legislation. As drafted, and without the amendment that I unsuccessfully moved on Monday, the Secretary of State and her successors have only to "take into account" whether paramilitary organisations are decommissioning. In the Bill's words, with which I do not quarrel, the Secretary of State should "take into account" whether they are "co-operating" with the decommissioning commission. That means that prisoners could be released without that co-operation. To put it at its worst—I hope, pray and believe that this would not happen under the present Secretary of State, but it could happen under the Bill—every terrorist prisoner could be released in Northern Ireland without one single gun being decommissioned, and not one ounce of Semtex being handed in.

Our amendment was modest, constructive and moderate. It did not say, as some of our critics would have liked, that there should be decommissioning before any prisoner is released. Instead, we said simply that paramilitary organisations must satisfy the Secretary of State that they are co-operating with the commission before any prisoner is released. That is reasonable and fair, but it was rejected. The only ground that the Secretary of State gave for rejecting that moderate amendment was—she said—that it goes beyond the agreement. If that were so, I, as a supporter of the agreement, would not have moved it. My interpretation of the part of the agreement that concerns the release of prisoners is that there was a direct linkage between early release and total renunciation of violence. I have always maintained that any reasonable person would believe that total renunciation of violence must include decommissioning.

I do not want the House to take my word on that point. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition posed exactly the same question on Wednesday 6 May to the Prime Minister. I shall not dwell on the point of order made by the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson), because Madam Speaker is quite rightly looking into that, and we shall have an urgent report on how there appears to have been a strange change in Hansard.

Mr. Ingram

Only alleged.

Mr. MacKay

The Minister of State speaks from a sedentary position. Let me say to him that I have listened to the recording, because I did not believe that that could possibly have happened. I have listened to and seen the video, and I can tell him that it did happen. Let me quote from another answer given that day by the Prime Minister. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition said: Opposition Members will argue strongly that the IRA cannot have prisoners released if it does not give up its guns and explosives. The Prime Minister replied: Again, I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. It is essential that organisations that want to benefit from the early release of prisoners should give up violence. Decommissioning is part of that".—[Official Report, 6 May 1998; Vol. 311, c. 711.] I agreed with the Prime Minister then, and I agree with him now. The Prime Minister and I believe that that was the correct interpretation of the agreement.

More importantly, what the Prime Minister said on the Floor of the House on 6 May was widely and rightly reported in the Province in every newspaper. It was because of the Prime Minister's welcome assurance that the people of Northern Ireland voted yes in the referendum. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and I were campaigning for a yes vote during the crucial last days of the referendum, and we heard large numbers of ordinary, decent people in both communities say, "Now we have the assurances on decommissioning and prisoner release, we are prepared, at this late stage, to support the referendum and vote yes."

This has become a matter of trust. Politicians should do as they say. In particular, the Prime Minister, when at the Dispatch Box, knowing full well that his words would be very carefully listened to by the people of Northern Ireland, who were about to vote in the referendum, should have given assurances that would be translated into legislation. That did not happen, and the Bill is fundamentally flawed.

Sir Brian Mawhinney (North-West Cambridgeshire)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. He and I have talked formally and informally about these matters on many occasions, and we share an on-the-record support for the agreement and a concern that it is not robust enough on prisoner release and decommissioning. Can he help me with a point about his argument? Is he inviting the Opposition to vote against Third Reading because the Bill accurately reflects the agreement, and he thinks that the agreement is inadequate? Or is he asking us to vote against it because the Bill does not accurately reflect the agreement, and he thinks that it should? In either case, we are being asked to vote against a Bill that puts into law an important part of the agreement—neither he nor I are happy with that part of it—but he says that by voting against it, we will not be voting against a bipartisan approach. Will my hon. Friend clarify the position?

Mr. MacKay

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, whose experience and record in serving his country in Northern Ireland as a Minister and as parliamentary private secretary, like me, to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King)—in fact, I succeeded him in the 1980s in that role—is second to none in the House. I am very happy to answer his question and to put a little more flesh on the bones of my brief speech on Third Reading. My interpretation of the agreement that linked explicitly the earlier release of prisoners, which we are talking about in this legislation, to the complete renunciation of violence was that that included decommissioning. As I have said, that is not just my view; it was the view of the Prime Minister in answer to a series of questions on the Floor of the House on 6 May.

Therefore, I am not asking the House tonight in any shape or form to break the agreement that my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Sir B. Mawhinney) and I strongly support. Nor am I suggesting that, if my amendment were passed, it would be outside the agreement; I believe that it would not be. That is vital.

My right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Cambridgeshire asked a further question about the bipartisan approach. He and I are firm supporters of, wherever possible, maintaining a bipartisan approach on these matters. As I said at the outset of my remarks, wherever possible, we will do so, but we do have a duty to the House as an Opposition and we do have a duty to the people of Northern Ireland. If we believe that the Bill is fundamentally flawed and that there is a breach of trust—I do not like saying this, but I happen to believe that it is true, if we read Hansard, that there has been a breach of trust by the Prime Minister—we are obliged to vote against the Bill. We hope that the other place amends it and that, when it is amended, the Government will have had time to reflect and be able to see that what we are trying to do is constructive and realistic within the agreement and in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland. Therefore, I urge my colleagues to vote against the Bill.

7.11 pm
Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North)

I listened with sadness to the speech of the hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay), who speaks for the Opposition, because I believe two things. First, he is seeking radically to alter, by his attitude and by the amendment that he has tabled in the House, the terms of the agreement that was made on Good Friday. In doing that, it is possible that he is opening a Pandora's box. If he were to be successful, every party to that agreement would be able to say, "It is not robust enough here, it is not strong enough there. We want this concession. We did not really mean this. We really meant that. The Prime Minister said this. The Leader of the Opposition has said that." We are having textual criticism upon textual criticism in attempts to improve the whole situation.

That is a very dangerous thing to do because there are parties that are not represented in the House which are parties to that agreement, which signed it in good faith and which felt that they were able to turn to their supporters and say, "On the basis of this, we can give up involving ourselves in violence. On the basis of this agreement, of what we have been shown and of what we were shown in the briefing paper on this issue at the time, we can give up violence." To seek to alter it now would be a very dangerous thing.

Secondly, I feel sad about the speech of the hon. Member for Bracknell because I remember other occasions when Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland were engaged in very delicate negotiations and things happened that the Opposition could, if they had wished, have had a great deal of fun with; they could have caused much embarrassment to the Government of the day. I can think of at least one occasion involving the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke), who was attacked by the Unionist parties over a particular incident. I got up and said that, as far as we were concerned, this was in no way a resigning matter because the object of those parties' criticism was not the particular thing that had happened, but a desire to delay or to prevent peace talks from going on.

I remember other occasions when the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, now Lord Mayhew, suffered much criticism in this House, particularly when it was revealed that, despite the Prime Minister of the day saying that talks with the IRA would have turned his stomach, he and the then Secretary of State were, in fact, talking with the IRA. On that occasion, we refused again because we felt that the peace process was even more important than that.

The hon. Member for Bracknell will say that we voted against the prevention of terrorism Act. That is true; we did. We voted against it because we did not think that it was helping the peace process, but there is a world of difference between seeking to wreck the Government when they are involved in peace talks and dealing with matters on which this party had had a particular fixed position for well over a decade.

I want to finish on just two points. It is a question of trust. The question is now: can we trust the Leader of the Opposition on this matter? I do not think so, but I want to talk briefly about a situation in which a Conservative Government were engaged because it is a precedent. It concerns Rhodesia.

Following the Rhodesian peace talks, the Zimbabwe Act 1979 contained this statement: No criminal proceedings … shall be instituted … in respect of any act done on or after 11th November 1965 in the conduct or on the orders of any organisation having the purpose of resisting, frustrating or overthrowing the administration purporting to be the Government of Rhodesia or any act done … for the purpose of resisting or combating any such organisation".

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I think that the hon. Gentleman has made his point. He is now straying rather too wide of the Third Reading.

Mr. McNamara

The point that I am seeking to make—I listen carefully to what you say, Mr. Deputy Speaker—is that this Bill places restrictions on the release of prisoners and their acts. When the Opposition were in government, they gave a complete amnesty to all who were concerned in some of the worst atrocities that had been committed in that area. That amnesty also applied to acts helping the rebel regime in this country, and many people from that regime were seeking to break the provisions that had been made by the United Nations and the Government at that time.

Therefore, I make the point that, at that time, there was no criticism from the then Opposition, but every applause and support of the Government of the day in making the peace process. The conduct of the Government when they were in opposition, and the action of the Opposition over Zimbabwe and elsewhere should be emulated because peace is far too important to be put at risk by cherry-picking in this way. If we consider the opinions of the people of Northern Ireland, the thing that they put top of their list is not decommissioning. It is not release of prisoners. It is peace.

7.18 pm
Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough)

Having come to this portfolio fairly recently, it has been most interesting over the three days to hear about the experience in terms of the Bill of so many right hon. and hon. Members.

It is an extremely important Bill, in more ways than one, because this is the first real challenge to the spirit of the Belfast agreement. People in Northern Ireland expected that the agreement would be put into operation by the Government and would be supported, largely with debate, by right hon. and hon. Members.

I must put on record the position of the Liberal Democrat party and speak for our Alliance party partners in Northern Ireland. We whole-heartedly support the Belfast agreement, not simply because our friends were involved in the process but because the people who spent two years arguing to get it supported it, and 71 per cent. of the people supported it in a referendum. We support it on the basis that there is no cherry-picking and that it is a complete document. Hon. Members have made that point time and again. The Secretary of State went to great pains to make it. We support it on that basis, not on that of the Prime Minister's comments at Balmoral or anywhere else. The Prime Minister is right to comment on any legislation or agreement. The people of Northern Ireland expect that. It would have been impossible for him to go to Northern Ireland during the peace process or referendum and keep his mouth closed. To have expected that would have been ludicrous.

The position of some hon. Members and political parties is interesting. Democratic Unionist party Members and some official Unionist Members were honest and honourable throughout the process. They read the documents and the agreement and they opposed it. During the referendum, they went on to the streets, knocked on people's doors and said, "This is our interpretation of the document. Do not support it." They had several reasons for that. I said in an earlier debate that I was in Northern Ireland soon after the referendum and met republicans from the Province and the Republic of Ireland who had voted no. They had done so honourably because they did not believe that the agreement could be put into operation. However, I do not believe that the official Opposition have done themselves justice with the position that they have taken.

The hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay) and the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) campaigned in Northern Ireland during the referendum. I take my hat off to them. They campaigned on the basis of the Belfast agreement. That was what they were telling people to support. That was an honourable position. We must accept that when they campaigned for it, that was what they believed. Understanding the agreement, they realised that that was what would be put into legislation.

We believe that the Belfast agreement is reflected in the Bill. Even those hon. Members who have so vigorously opposed the Bill accept that the Belfast agreement is interpreted accurately in it. If the Conservatives were prepared to campaign for a yes vote—I believe that this is the point that the right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Sir B. Mawhinney) was making—on the basis of the Belfast agreement, why are they threatening bipartisan agreement by telling their Members to vote against it? We must conclude that they have decided, for reasons best known to themselves, to take a hard line on the release of prisoners, linking it inextricably to decommissioning. They must know that demanding full or partial decommissioning before the release of prisoners would stop the peace process in its tracks.

The right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) was right. The word "partial" cannot be interpreted in law because it is impossible to define. Without a known starting point, it is impossible to ascertain who has given up what and whether it is substantial. I earnestly hope, in view of the conciliatory comments made by the hon. Member for Bracknell in his Third Reading speech, that the Opposition will think again. I hope that many Conservative Members will use their conscience on the matter and not follow the leadership.

The key issue for us is not decommissioning. The hon. Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) rightly noted that the statement on prisoners says: Prisoners affiliated to organisations which have not established or are not maintaining a complete and unequivocal ceasefire will not benefit from the arrangements. Without a complete ceasefire being maintained, we do not have a peace. Irrespective of decommissioning and the idea that weapons could all be taken out, if peace breaks down and people return to armed struggle, then as the Chief Constable of Northern Ireland has often said, there could be rearmament within weeks or months, with more sophisticated weaponry than before. It is peace that will make the gun, the bullet and the Semtex redundant. It is the good will of those who signed the agreement and who voted in the referendum that will make them disappear from Northern Ireland. Unless we believe that, this House is merely part of a charade or game and we are deceiving ourselves and the people of Northern Ireland. Some people do not believe it.

Mr. Robathan

Would the hon. Gentleman say that he is not concerned about the possession of illegal weapons, whether on the mainland or in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Willis

With respect, that is one of the most stupid comments that I have heard.

Mr. Robathan

Then answer it.

Mr. Willis

I shall answer straightforwardly. Of course I am concerned.

Mr. Robathan

He said that he was not.

Mr. Willis

No. The hon. Gentleman has had plenty of time to speak today. He is in disagreement with virtually all his colleagues. He should listen to what I am saying. The reason why the bipartisan agreement must not break down is that it is the road to peace that is important. The fact that we have got so many people to rally round the Belfast agreement is important. If the Bill reflects the Belfast agreement, why throw it away?

We are grateful to the Government for including clause 14. There are those who feel that notifying victims is not a good idea. We do not share that belief. There are clearly problems, and we trust that the Government will use the clause sensitively.

The hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney) said: Contrary to what he said, the IRA has not been defeated in any manner—many of us in Northern Ireland suspect that that is because no real effort has ever been made to defeat it."—[Official Report, 15 June 1998; Vol. 314, c. 57.]

I took great exception to that comment, as I am sure do other hon. Members. I see that the hon. and learned Gentleman is in his place. I hope that he will reflect on that in his speech. According to the research paper that we were given for the Bill, 955 members of the RUC or the armed forces have been killed in the struggle and more than 14,600 have been injured. To say that successive Governments have not been determined to defeat terrorism is a slur on their names. I trust that he will reflect and withdraw that remark.

7.28 pm
Mr. Winnick

I am glad that the Government have acted swiftly to implement part of the Good Friday agreement. The Bill was absolutely necessary as a precondition of implementation.

I have no wish to minimise the terrible terrorist crimes committed by those held in prison in Northern Ireland and the rest of Britain. We in the west midlands have also suffered from terrorism. I need not remind the House that, on 21 November 1974, 25 people, around half of them under the age of 25, were butchered there by the IRA. We understand terrorism as well as anyone else—although I concede that Northern Ireland has borne the brunt of the terrible atrocities over the years.

I take the view that the real division, here and in Northern Ireland, is between those who are for the agreement and those who are determined to wreck it. Some hon. Members were against the agreement and against the negotiations—they campaigned in that fashion before the referendum. They have no wish to see the agreement succeed; they think it a bad agreement and they want it destroyed. But I believe that the overwhelming majority in the House, including the official Opposition, take a different view.

Mr. MacKay

indicated assent.

Mr. Winnick

Like us, the Opposition believe that this is the best chance for Northern Ireland for a very long time—I would say, since partition in 1920. The danger in voting against the Bill is that it will send all the wrong signals to the people of Northern Ireland and give encouragement to those who want to wreck the agreement.

The Belfast Telegraph agrees that this is the best chance for peace, even though it finds flaws in the agreement. It warns, too, of the dangers of sending the wrong signals, concluding: Whatever flaws the agreement has, it represents Northern Ireland's best chance of securing a lasting peace.

It goes without saying that the official Opposition are not about to change their minds tonight. Despite that, I continue to hope that the bipartisan approach will not be destroyed. Time and again during our 18 years of opposition, people outside asked us why we always seemed to agree with the Conservative Government on Northern Ireland. We replied that we believed that that Government's policies on Northern Ireland were right: to combat terrorism, just as the previous Labour Government had done, and just as we will continue to do if terrorism returns. We saw the problem as a conflict between democracy and terrorism. There was no doubt where Labour stood—we were on the side of democracy. Even though we may have been misunderstood at times, I have no regrets about our support for the Conservative policies in combating terrorism during those years.

Despite the Conservatives' voting intentions tonight, I hope that, in the days and months ahead, we will remain a largely united House of Commons on these issues. The future will be difficult; however much we favour the agreement, its implementation will be fraught with difficulty. If it is to be successful, we need a continuing bipartisan policy. There are no guarantees that the agreement will work, but we must all do our utmost to bring to Northern Ireland the lasting peace which its people deserve.

7.33 pm
Mr. Donaldson

Like the hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay), my party believes the Bill to be fundamentally flawed. I say that not because I voted against the agreement, as a resident of Northern Ireland, but because the Bill is fundamentally flawed in terms of the agreement that was reached.

I shall confine myself in this speech to decommissioning, which, once again, the Government have fudged. The requirements that the Bill places on the Secretary of State are riddled with ambiguity. Throughout these debates, my party has sought to find out what the Government mean when they say that they will try to determine whether these organisations are "co-operating fully" with the decommissioning body. The Secretary of State and the Minister have failed lamentably to tell the House what that means.

I remind the Government that they are accountable to the House of Commons. The Secretary of State has been charged, under the Bill, with responsibility for ensuring that the terrorist organisations deliver peace. She is thus accountable to the House, and, in the weeks, months and years ahead, we will certainly hold her to account. If she fails in her responsibility to deliver the aims of the Bill, weak as they are, we will ensure that that is brought to the attention of the House. And if, as I suspect will happen, prisoners are released and no guns are handed over, we will bring that to the attention of the House time and again—until the Government live up to their responsibilities to the people of Northern Ireland to ensure that the guns are actually decommissioned.

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead)

What does the hon. Gentleman have in mind—two tonnes of Semtex by Tuesday? That at least would be a lot more specific. The Secretary of State is trying to assess the bona fides of these organisations, not just to examine the material manifestations. She is concerned with whether an organisation ever intends to return to violence, and that can be established only in much more subtle ways.

Mr. Donaldson

I participated in the talks process from beginning to end—

Mr. McNamara

And walked out.

Mr. Donaldson

I did not walk out. The talks had concluded when I left—the hon. Gentleman should get his facts right. 1 did not support the agreement, and I am entitled not to, as were the many in Northern Ireland who shared that view. This is, after all, a democratic society.

When the IRA's representatives were invited to the talks on the basis of a so-called unequivocal ceasefire, it was breached on numerous occasions—even murders took place. It was only when my party brought that to the attention of the Government, and after much delay, that the Government finally decided that Sinn Fein should be put in the sin bin—for a mere two weeks for two murders.

Mr. Robert McCartney

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the first party to be put out of the talks, the UDP, was put out only after the UFF, which it was fronting, had committed three murders, and after the Chief Constable had publicly stated that that organisation was responsible for the murders?

Mr. Donaldson

That is indeed an accurate assessment.

I hope that Members understand why we are extremely dubious about the Government's ability to deliver in terms of holding terrorists to account. Throughout the talks process, the Government's record of holding terrorists to account was lamentable. I repeat that if there is no decommissioning while prisoners continued to be released, we shall return to the House and ask the Secretary of State what, in her opinion, represents full co-operation with the decommissioning body, in the terms of the Bill. I hope that in future the Secretary of State will be able to answer that question because, to date, we have not received an answer.

I hope that hon. Members understand that, in the absence of a definition of what represents full co-operation with the decommissioning body, we have to remain sceptical about the Government's intentions in holding the terrorist organisations to account. We have been told that we cannot cherry-pick the agreement. Well, decommissioning is an integral part of the agreement. The IRA has said publicly that it will not decommission its weapons, yet, by the end of the summer, IRA prisoners will have been released as a result of the Bill, and no weapons will have been handed over. There is an inequity there, and it is the terrorists who will cherry-pick the agreement.

It is the terrorists who will enjoy the benefits, have their prisoners released and get seats in the Government of Northern Ireland. Yet they will renege on their part of the agreement. Will the Government hold them to account? Can the House be sure that the Government will insist that the terrorist organisations deliver on their part of the agreement? Nothing that I have heard from the Government in the past few days convinces me that they will do so. I regret that we have not been able to secure the clear linkages that are necessary.

We hear much talk about peace. I live in Northern Ireland and represent a constituency that, like many in Northern Ireland, has experienced terrorist violence. Indeed, only recently, during the referendum campaign, a large bomb was planted in Lisburn in my constituency. I am grateful to the security forces for defusing it before there was loss of life and damage to property.

The threat of violence remains. The threat of terrorism remains. We need to be convinced that we shall have real peace. Hon. Members argue that what is necessary to obtain real peace is the bona fides of the terrorist organisations. The people of Northern Ireland do not accept the bona fides of terrorists, because terrorists are those who sneak up in the dark and shoot people in the back. How can one take the word of such people?

The House and the Government have a responsibility to the people who live in Northern Ireland, whom they govern and for whom they legislate, to ensure that terrorism is held to account and that when people obtain the benefits of the democratic process, they give up violence for good. That must include the decommissioning of their weapons. My party will watch with interest how the Government, particularly the Secretary of State, fulfil their obligations under the Bill. We shall look to them to hold the terrorists to account, and if they do not, we will hold the Government to account in the House of Commons.

7.42 pm
Mr. Clive Soley (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush)

The first point that I want to make to Tory Members, although it is probably too late, is that they should think again. They are doing themselves no good by giving a slap in the face to the Secretary of State and her team, who have done so much not only to build and deliver an agreement in Northern Ireland, but to build on the work started by the previous Conservative Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major). A number of Back-Bench Conservative Members, including the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke), must know that the Tory party is deeply damaging itself tonight.

The Unionists, in arguing against the Bill tonight and tabling amendment No. 1, which was voted down, have at least consistency on their side. I wonder why Conservative Members did not vote with them, given that the amendment asked for the decommissioning of weapons. They are not even being consistent. The Unionist Members who have spoken tonight spoke, campaigned and voted against the agreement. The tide of history will leave them behind, and people will find it difficult to understand why they could not compromise, but, by God, at least they will not go down as being grossly inconsistent and giving a slap in the face to people who have worked so hard to deliver the agreement that, in no small part, was started by the previous Conservative Secretary of State and Prime Minister.

Mr. MacKay

Let me explain clearly to the hon. Gentleman that we supported the Government on Second Reading on the principle of the Bill, which we assumed would be amended in the modest way that we wanted. It is totally consistent and right for us to have voted for Second Reading and now to vote against Third Reading because our amendment was not accepted. The hon. Gentleman has been in the House long enough to understand that, and I suggest that he does not try to play politics.

Mr. Soley

That is a pathetic playing with words on a matter that is far too important for such comments. I remind the hon. Gentleman that the previous Government were struggling to survive during their last few years in office. As I said on a number of occasions, the previous Prime Minister and Secretary of State made a brave effort to deal with the Northern Ireland problem. My colleagues will remember the leak of the framework document, caused by a Unionist to damage the Conservative Government. What a wonderful opportunity that was for the Labour party. We could have torn into that document, ripped it apart and caused the Tory party a great deal of damage. We did not.

What about the exposure of the secret talks? Hon. Members will remember the great promises by Conservative leaders at the time that they would not talk to the IRA. But they did so again and again. The Labour party could have made hay with that and done enormous damage to the Tory party, but it did not do so.

What about the release of prisoners—the very issue which we are discussing tonight? That was started by the previous Conservative Government and Prime Minister. The peace process came to an end, and the prisoners continued to be released—the very action that Conservative Members tell us they will vote against tonight. The Conservative Government continued to release prisoners and we supported them because we put the people of Northern Ireland before our personal interest, even though, at that time, if there had been an election, we would probably have won it with an even bigger majority than we have now, if that is possible.

Hon. Members have been saying that the people of Northern Ireland have been conned. Every single household in Northern Ireland received a copy of the agreement. I have met people from Northern Ireland over many years. At times, they have been badly led—and badly misled—and significant minorities of both communities, Unionist and republican, have indulged in killing. One point that some hon. Members need to remember about language is that the killing has been almost equal between Unionist and republican paramilitaries. In the past five years, Unionists have been killing significantly more than republicans.

Mr. William Thompson (West Tyrone)


Mr. Soley

Yes, the Unionist paramilitary groups, as they call themselves.

Mr. McWalter

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Soley

Not at the moment. They call themselves Unionist paramilitary groups. [Interruption.] I am content to know that they have killed in the numbers that they describe and that we all know to be true—between 110 and 120 people have been killed by Unionist paramilitary groups in the past five years.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for a Member deliberately to mislead the House? There are no Unionist paramilitary groups.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Hon. Members are responsible for their own speeches.

Mr. Soley

I am content with the words that I am using. About 80 people have been killed by the republican community. That is why we have to be very careful with our language. Every time we condemn terrorism, it is not only—as one or two Conservative Members would like—the IRA that we must condemn, but all killing. If one is killed by a terrorist, the blood one spills is human. We must condemn it all.

We must remember that when the Northern Irish people got the document through their door, they read and understood it and, more importantly, they knew that one of the most difficult issues would be prisoner release. However, they voted for it because they wanted to leap ahead out of the darkness of the past. They did that, and we should support them tonight. The Tories should make it clear that they will support the people of Northern Ireland and stop playing politics with the lives of other people.

7.49 pm
Mr. Hogg

I am afraid that tonight I cannot accept the advice of my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay), and I want to explain why.

I do not oppose the Bill; on the contrary, I support it, because it is a fair reflection of the agreement that was made between many parties, and which was supported in a referendum. I do not agree with the argument that the agreement provides for linkage as between the process of decommissioning and the release of prisoners.

Mr. Donaldson

The Bill does.

Mr. Hogg

The Bill does not provide for an explicit linkage because there is not an explicit linkage. There never was a linkage in the agreement. That may be a pity. It is extremely unpalatable that prisoners who have committed the most odious offences are to be released early. I find that as odious as any other hon. Member, but that is the price that the people of the Province agreed to pay in order to secure the prospect of murder and violence ceasing.

I am reluctant to support any unilateral variation of the agreement. If we do that, others will start to unpick the agreement—in particular, the terrorist organisations—and that will bring about a destruction of the agreement, and thus the end of the prospect of violence and murder ceasing.

I spoke briefly on linkage on Report. It is suggested that we should create an explicit linkage between decommissioning and the release of prisoners. I do not believe that we should do that because, as I said on Report, we cannot verify—

Mr. MacKay

We have not said that.

Mr. Hogg

That is an interpretation that I placed on what my hon. Friend said.

Mr. MacKay

My right hon. and learned Friend is putting the wrong interpretation on what I said and clearly was not listening as attentively as usual. I shall explain exactly what my amendment proposes, because he was not here when I moved it on Monday. The paramilitary organisations will have to satisfy the Secretary of State that they are co-operating with the decommissioning commission. That phrase is taken directly from the Bill. I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend will accept that that is not the same interpretation as he has given, and I am sure that he would want to put that right for the House.

Mr. Hogg

I am being asked today by my hon. Friend to do a different thing, which is to say that because the Bill does not provide explicitly for decommissioning, we should oppose the Bill. According to his construction of paragraph 2 on page 25, the concept of unequivocal ceasefire incorporates within it the process of decommissioning. That is the argument that he advanced to the House. I understand the intellectual process; I simply do not agree with it.

The commitment that is provided for in the agreement, in so far as there is any linkage to the release of prisoners, is the commitment to a ceasefire, not to decommissioning. Paragraph 3 on page 20 deals in greater detail with decommissioning. There, the obligation is on the parties to the agreement to use their best endeavours to bring about a decommissioning within a two-year term—in other words, an extended period—which is quite different from what we are being asked to support.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield)

I have followed the argument of my right hon. and learned Friend carefully. In paragraph 2 on page 25 the word "unequivocal" is used. What does "unequivocal" mean in the context of the agreement? Does he agree that it is at least arguable that, in the context of the agreement, which must be taken as a whole, "unequivocal" must also cover any act that would tend to detract from the validity of the ceasefire, which must include participating in the decommissioning process?

Mr. Hogg

It is not that I do not understand the arguments, and my hon. Friend has advanced his in an extremely attractive manner. I see that if there was an active preparation of the weaponry, there would be no unequivocal ceasefire.

However, the fact that there is an accumulation of weaponry does not, of itself, show that a party is not committed to the ceasefire. The question is whether the weapons are buried under the ground, or are being burnished up for use. If the latter, there is not an unequivocal commitment to a ceasefire.

My argument is, first, that there is no linkage in the agreement, and I am against unilaterally varying the agreement. Secondly, the point that I was making when my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell intervened on me—I make no complaint—is that the concept of decommissioning is impossible to verify. There are intelligence reports about how much weaponry and explosives individual terrorist organisations may have, but it is not possible to determine at any stage whether there has been a substantial or a partial decommissioning. One cannot prove that.

Therefore, such a condition should not be made a condition precedent to the cessation of murder and violence. It may follow. We all hope that peace will be maintained, and decommissioning will follow. The error is to make of the concept of decommissioning a condition precedent, because that is not verifiable; nor will it be delivered.

I hope that, by our vote tonight, we will not do anything that puts at risk the prospect of the people of Northern Ireland seeing an end to murder and violence.

7.56 pm
Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East)

I am delighted to follow the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), because I agree with some of the conclusions that he reached.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman was right to say in his earlier remarks that the people of Northern Ireland received copies of the agreement and that they read it, but he stretched matters a little too far when he suggested that having read it they immediately understood it and voted on that understanding. He may well reach that conclusion with his legal knowledge and his background in the House, but on the doorstep, over and over again, it became apparent that many people did not understand the legalese and Northern Ireland Office-speak in the document.

During the referendum campaign, the interpretation of the document became important. Many hon. Members recognised during the passage of the Bill that a significant feature of the outcome of the referendum was the undertakings given by the Prime Minister to the people of Northern Ireland. I read the document and came to precisely the same conclusions as the right hon. and learned Gentleman and other hon. Members about what it meant. I informed the people of Northern Ireland what I believed the Government meant for their future.

The hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Soley) suggests that those of us who asked people to vote against the agreement will be left behind by history. I owe more to those who elect me than simply to follow the view that 71 per cent. of the people of Northern Ireland may hold. When they elect me, they elect me to exercise my judgment on these matters. My judgment is that the agreement will not provide peace and stability for the people of Northern Ireland.

As a democrat, I have to accept that 71 per cent. of the people in Northern Ireland concluded otherwise, but they concluded otherwise because of assurances given to them by the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. I know that not only because of our doorstep canvassers and the distinct change that took place in the week before the referendum.

The Northern Ireland Office knows that what I am saying is true because its polls and focus groups were telling it precisely the same thing. The very last polls that it received showed that up to 40 per cent. of the population of Northern Ireland might vote against in the referendum because of the issues that we are discussing tonight. The Northern Ireland Office knew that things were moving in that direction. Something had to be done and the Prime Minister was wheeled into Northern Ireland to give assurances to the people of Northern Ireland so that they might vote in favour of the agreement.

What assurances were given? I do not want to tangle with you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, so I shall not go into the detail of the matter that I raised as a point of order earlier. Suffice it to say that press reports make it clear that the Prime Minister, in this House, made a clear and unambiguous statement that before any early release took place there would have to be substantial decommissioning. That is what he said. I have watched the video; that is clearly what the Prime Minister conveyed. Not only was it in the video and in the press report, but the editorial of one of Northern Ireland's leading newspapers used the Prime Minister's remarks to argue in favour of a positive response in the referendum. So, clearly, that was one of the factors that the people of Northern Ireland took into account when they voted.

It simply is not good enough, therefore, to say, "The people had the agreement; they understood it—or should have—so the vote is on the basis of the agreement." They voted on the agreement as it was interpreted to them. As I believe we all know from politics, there are few scripts that cannot be interpreted in different ways by different people, and who else would the people of Northern Ireland have listened to, to discover how the agreement would be implemented, but the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom—the very person who would have to introduce the legislation to implement it? The hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush is right to say that the Bill accurately reflects my interpretation—and his—of the agreement, but it does not accurately reflect the interpretation of the agreement as given to the people of Northern Ireland by the Prime Minister. Therefore, those pledges have been broken. The people of Northern Ireland have a right to believe that they were conned—betrayed—by the Prime Minister. If they have been conned on that first issue arising from the agreement, they have a right to be in fear and trepidation of what will happen when the settlement Bill is introduced to deal with the other issues.

We therefore tabled a series of amendments to test the Government's credentials. We tabled an amendment that asked that terrorists should renounce violence before they were allowed out of gaol. The Government would not allow that amendment to be made. Just imagine it: terrorists are allowed to be released from gaol early, with years of their sentence to be completed, without ever renouncing violence.

We tabled an amendment to make into reality another pledge given by the Prime Minister—the one he signed his name to on a poster hoarding—that violence was over for good. We wanted to include the word "permanent" in relation to the ceasefire. Again, the Government did not accept that amendment.

We advanced the proposition that before anyone was released, actual decommissioning had to be in progress; the Government voted against that. We asked that if a prisoner was released but their organisation returned to violence, they should be recalled to prison; the Government voted against that as well.

What changes have the Government made? Some people—admittedly very few—in Northern Ireland are jumping for joy, spinning it to the people of Northern Ireland that something significant has happened. One newspaper had the audacity to report that there had been an arms coup as far as these people were concerned—that something great had happened; that the Government were making significant changes. The changes that they have made are anaemic, watery and meaningless. They do not go to the key issues of the Bill and will not protect the people of Northern Ireland in any way.

For all those reasons, if it is not already obvious, I shall vote against the Bill's Third Reading.

8.4 pm

Mr. Grieve

The Bill's purpose is to implement one part of the agreement. I subscribe to and support the agreement. As I have said, I have supported it on the basis that it is the best agreement that could be achieved and it might lead to peace. I have also supported it on the basis of the Government's repeated utterances—which have not been challenged or departed from in any way—that the agreement is to be looked at as a whole.

The area of dispute between us is whether we are allowed, in passing the legislation necessary for the release of prisoners, to have regard to the totality of the agreement, starting with the ringing declaration about the abandonment of the use or threat of force, and carrying on through the various sections that include an explicit requirement to carry out a decommissioning process over a two-year period.

In the run-up to the debate, I listened carefully to the Prime Minister's words on a number of occasions about how the agreement might properly be interpreted. I say to the Secretary of State that he left me in no doubt, until yesterday, when he answered a question I asked him at Prime Minister's Question Time, that the interpretation of the agreement that could be used in passing legislation for the release of prisoners included safeguards to link it to decommissioning.

In some ways, the issue is narrow. The Secretary of State retains a discretion—which she has, properly, placed in the Bill—that enables her to look at the totality of the agreement in deciding whether prisoners should be released and whether they qualify for release. It is an important safeguard and I have had every occasion, in the debate and previously, to respect her judgment and integrity on that issue. Nevertheless, ultimately this is a parliamentary matter. The question is, is this a matter for the discretion of the Government through their Ministers, or is this a matter where Parliament, looking at the agreement and interpreting it properly, incorporates the safeguard explicitly itself?

It is a narrow point and I very much hope that, over the next two years, it may turn out to be a point of merely academic interest. I, for myself, shall continue to support the Government along the peace process path, however difficult that may be, in the implementation of the agreement, but when it comes to the narrow issue of whether this Parliament and this House should introduce the safeguard itself, I am fortified, if by nothing else, by the words of the Prime Minister on several occasions and—this is where I disagree with my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg)—by my interpretation of what is possible in the scope of the agreement. We are not in a position to refer the agreement to a judge to decide whether I am being creative or my right hon. and learned Friend is being too narrow, so I must follow my judgment and my conscience.

I am mindful of the fact that the issue has been a key issue in the Northern Ireland referendum campaign. Perhaps surprisingly, it became an important issue and raised its head, toward the end, as the real stumbling block to achieving consensus. It must therefore be especially important for the House to ensure that the safeguards that people expected, and which they were given every indication would be there, are in the Bill if at all possible.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine)

I think I partly understand where the hon. Gentleman is coming from, but whereas he said that it was quite important that Parliament should reflect the agreement, some of his colleagues seem to want Parliament to reflect the Prime Minister's interpretation of the agreement. Surely it is far more important that Parliament reflects the interpretation of the agreement that many hon. Members on both sides of the House seem to think is not in accord with what the Conservative party would like to do tonight.

Mr. Grieve

My interpretation of the agreement, in light of the fact that it was agreed by all parties that it must be considered as a whole, is that it is open to the House to put in the explicit link. The Government tell me that that is not so. All I can say is that, prior to the debate, the Prime Minister gave every indication that it was possible to do that. Whether the Prime Minister was mistaken and has changed his mind or whether some other interpretation may be placed on the issue, I know not. I must follow my own judgment, and I believe that, if the House wished, it could introduce the link without breaking the agreement.

Mr. Robert McCartney

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that in the four days prior to the vote on the agreement, the Government—and the Prime Minister specifically—were acutely aware that the two issues that would change the voting pattern were decommissioning and the release of the prisoners and that those two issues were linked?

Mr. Grieve

Yes, I am aware of that. I listened to the speeches and I read the transcript of debates in the House. I cannot say any more than that: I believe that we may do it if we wish.

At the end of the day, the Opposition's goal may be achieved through the Secretary of State's exercising her discretion in the matter. However, it will be at her discretion and outwith our control. That is the narrow issue of disagreement. The Secretary of State may rely on my support in trying to carry through the peace process. However, as I think that it is my duty to introduce the safeguard in the House, I regret that I cannot support the Government tonight.

8.11 pm
Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury)

I approach the matter from the fundamental position of objecting to the creation of a new category of prisoner in the United Kingdom. That is one of the main reasons why I shall vote against the Bill tonight.

I would have liked the Bill to link decommissioning with the release of prisoners for two reasons. First, I believe that the electorate in Northern Ireland have been misled—I shall not go into that issue more deeply as it has been covered already. Secondly, if we are releasing prisoners, I believe that this is the best opportunity that we shall have of securing decommissioning. The Minister said last night that he hoped to see decommissioning in the future. What will we trade at that point to secure decommissioning—the Government will have surrendered their ace without receiving anything in return?

The Government may claim that they are getting something in return: ceasefires and peace, but they are of value only if they are genuine and permanent. I invite hon. Members to cast their minds back to an earlier IRA ceasefire when the Sinn Fein president reminded a crowd who had gathered that the IRA had not gone away. Would he have said that, and would his remarks have been relevant, if the IRA had decommissioned at that point? I suggest that if the IRA had decommissioned, the ground would have been swept from under him and he would not have been able to make statements such as that.

Why would any organisation want to retain arms? There can be only two reasons: either it wants to use the weapons again in the future or it intends to use them as a threat to move Northern Ireland further down the road to a united Ireland—which I believe this agreement takes us some way towards.

8.13 pm
Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

I oppose the Bill and I am pleased to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) in so doing. I had not intended to speak, but I believe that some of the remarks that have been made cannot go unchallenged. I refer to the suggestion, made by several Labour Members, that those who oppose the Bill are attempting to seek some party advantage. That is the most disgraceful allegation that they could make.

I am proud that the Conservative party intends to vote against the Bill tonight, but I would not vote for the Bill even if my party was. That is not a position that I adopt lightly. The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) challenged Conservative Members to vote according to their consciences. That is what I shall do. In all conscience, I cannot vote for a Bill that will lead to the release of some of the most evil murderers—from either side of the divide—who have committed appalling crimes. I would find it difficult to vote for the Bill even if it linked their release to the decommissioning of weapons. I cannot, in conscience, vote for a Bill that will allow such people back on the streets of the United Kingdom when the weapons are still available for them to use.

Many hon. Members have implied that there is only one side to the issue. I ask them to consider carefully, as I believe this is the most important Bill to be debated in my short time in this place. If I am here for a great many years, I dare say that it will still be the most important matter that we have debated.

Tonight we are considering whether we should release people who live in a free, open and democratic country but who, instead of resorting to democracy, have chosen to resort to murder and to torture. The hon. Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) was quite mistaken to draw an analogy with the situation in Rhodesia, where people were not living in an open and free democracy. We are talking about people who had a choice to participate in our democracy, but turned their back on it. I have no confidence that if they are released following the passage of this Bill—when there are still many tonnes of weapons hidden in Northern Ireland and available for their use—they will not return to that path of murder and torture.

8.16 pm
Mr. Ingram

We have had a very detailed debate following a series of detailed discussions about specific amendments. I shall deal with the fundamental point at issue, which was raised by the hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay), the official Opposition spokesman on Northern Ireland. He told us that he is calling upon his party to vote against the Bill. In so doing, the Opposition are voting against the implementation of the element of the agreement with which the Bill deals—despite the fact that the agreement was negotiated by the Northern Ireland parties and endorsed by 71 per cent. of the people of Northern Ireland.

The official Opposition will be joined today only by those Northern Ireland Members who have consistently opposed the agreement. Those Northern Ireland Members are entitled to carry their opposition into the House—they, at least, have been consistent. The official Opposition claim to support the agreement yet, in voting against implementing this part of it, they will not be supported by a single Northern Ireland Member who supports the agreement. Mark this, Mr. Deputy Speaker: those who negotiated the agreement and who campaigned in Northern Ireland for its endorsement are not opposing the measure tonight. The official Opposition have isolated themselves from those who support the agreement. Tonight they will share the Lobby only with those who voted no.

The hon. Member for Bracknell also raised the spectre of every prisoner being released before any weapons are decommissioned. We are talking about a two-year period. Other hon. Members have referred to 1995, when the Conservative Government introduced legislation as part of the process of moving forward the peace package. That legislation has resulted in the release of 240 terrorist prisoners, but not one ounce of Semtex or one bullet was handed in and not one gun was decommissioned. The Conservative Government continued with that legislation when the ceasefire had broken down and when they had the power, under the legislation, to rescind the order. They did not do so. Did the Labour party in opposition criticise them? No, we did not, because we understood the sensitivity, difficulties and complexities of moving the peace process forward.

The thrust of the Opposition spokesman's argument and the position that he and his party now adopt are based on naked political opportunism and a blatant attack on the Prime Minister. The hon. Gentleman puts party interest before the interests of peace; whenever he has risen to speak from the Dispatch Box—to move amendments or on Third Reading—he has attacked a Prime Minister who has given untold time and energy to putting together a peace package, who has assisted in brokering that peace package, and whose efforts brought about a massive yes vote on 22 May.

Those who campaigned for a no vote in the referendum have said that the Prime Minister conned the people of Northern Ireland. Are they saying that their constituents are easily conned and do not understand that we are dealing with a very difficult issue? Is the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) the only person who can pick up the document and explain it on the doorstep to all the simple people who seem unable to read it for themselves? I have been a Northern Ireland Minister for more than a year now, and I have met many intelligent, ordinary working people. I understand what they are saying, and I know that they understand what the Government are trying to achieve. I think that they also understood that the previous Prime Minister gave his support during the referendum, and campaigned for a yes vote alongside the present Prime Minister. That was important in achieving the overwhelming yes vote on 22 May.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) set out his background—the dealings that he had when he was Opposition spokesman on Northern Ireland. He knows the depth and level of support that the Labour party gave previous Administrations during his time in office. That applied also to previous shadow Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland. All those who have been engaged in the process know how difficult it is. They know that difficult decisions have had to be taken, and that if the wrong word is said or the wrong action taken, everything could be thrown off the rails. Everyone who has ever been engaged in these matters knows that peace is not an event but a complex process. It is not just about people voting in a referendum, or just about an agreement being signed by the parties. It is about trying to implement aspects of the agreement, taking it forward bit by bit, and linking together parts that must be linked together.

We are at the very first step of dealing with the agreement. In many ways, this Bill is the most complex piece of legislation because it strikes an essential chord in the minds and hearts of the people of Northern Ireland. We all recognise that. No one thinks that the Bill is easy. It is incredibly complex and difficult, but it rests on the integrity of Ministers to take it forward. That may be challenged by some in the House, but I doubt whether it would be challenged by the official Opposition—they have not yet stooped to that level in their criticism of Ministers.

However, another important key element is the fact that we live in a democracy where accountability applies. The Bill gives the Secretary of State the power and discretion to interpret those aspects that are set forth, and to make the decisions. In dealing with the issues on which she has made a judgment, she will be held accountable to the House of Commons. Accountability comes into play once the whole package has been implemented—not just the Bill but the agreement as a whole.

I am sorry that hon. Members from Northern Ireland have made it their determined wish and will to stop the agreement.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

Does the Minister accept that the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) voted against the Bill on Second Reading? What does he think has happened between Second Reading and Third Reading which would have induced the right hon. Gentleman, who supported the agreement and campaigned valiantly for it, to change his mind?

Mr. Ingram

I have attended all the debates on the Bill and I have not noticed the hon. Gentleman's presence very often. If he were genuinely interested in the flow of the debate, he would know that some of the amendments that have been debated were important. He would also know that some of the amendments had been brokered with the Ulster Unionist party and its leadership to deal with the difficulties that they highlighted in the Bill, and that those amendments resulted in changes to the Bill. In her opening remarks, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State set out the changes. I do not recall the hon. Gentleman's presence in the Chamber when the opening speech was made. I may be wrong; if the hon. Gentleman was here, clearly he has not been listening.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North told the House about the support that the Labour party in opposition gave to the Conservative Government. I highlighted one good example—the 1995 Act on the early release of prisoners.

May I deal with some of the other comments that have been made in the debate? I thank the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) for his continued interest, and that of his party. He articulated some of the arguments advanced by the Liberal Democrats to try to bring about changes to the Bill. We have made a major change to the Bill to deal with the sensitive issue of victims.

I also thank my hon. Friends the Members for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) and for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Soley). Because of their long-standing interest in Northern Ireland affairs, they made telling contributions to the debate.

The hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) was supposed to be the main spokesperson for the Ulster Unionist party in opposition to the Bill. As the debate progressed, however, other hon. Members tried to take on that mantle. He, too, seems to want to play politics with peace. He has set himself up as a "no" man, and his party decided to say no to him over the assembly. Thus his own party has cast judgment on him.

I pay tribute to the reasoned and powerful case advanced by the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), who pointed out the deep dangers of cherry-picking from the agreement. He also pointed out the fundamentally flawed reasoning of the Opposition spokesman. I only hope that other right hon. and hon. Members listened to his reasoned arguments. Clearly, those who have experience in the House and deep knowledge of what has happened and can happen in Northern Ireland have listened carefully to the debate, and I am sure that the hon. Member for Bracknell will not get all his right hon. and hon. Friends into his Lobby this evening. He already knows one of his very experienced colleagues who has decided not to join him.

Mr. MacKay

How did the Minister vote on the prevention of terrorism Act?

Mr. Ingram

I have been asked that before. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman looks at the voting records—[Interruption.] I shall not debate with hon. Members who call from a sedentary position. I have discussed the matter in previous debates. The right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham has put peace first and said that on this occasion his party must come second.

The hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) asked who makes the judgments in this matter. As I said earlier, the initial judgment rests solely with the Secretary of State, based on the detailed advice that she will receive from a variety of sources. Clearly, we are talking about matters that cannot always be easily shared at the time with the House, or, indeed, with any hon. Members who may be interested, but, at the end of the day, once the judgment has been taken and the die is cast, the House has a right to hold the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister to account for their actions. Neither of my right hon. Friends has ever shirked that. We have held ourselves accountable at the Dispatch Box on the agreement and in taking forward this Bill.

I believe that the hon. Member for Beaconsfield is a genuine seeker after truth. He has probed and pushed as the Bill has progressed. I am sorry that he has not accepted the reasoning behind the legislation and what we are trying to do through it, but I hope that he will listen to the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham and that, before he enters the Lobby, he may just change his mind. If he is a genuine seeker after truth, he still has time to identify what the truth is and what the right judgment is.

The Bill has been debated in the House four times in eight days. Many right hon. and hon. Members have been present throughout and have spoken many times. Each time those opposed to the provisions of the Bill have set out their arguments, either my right hon. Friend or I have responded. We have sought to give full answers to the questions put to us, and we have sought to explain the Bill in full. We have never ducked any question. The answers that we have given may not have been acceptable, but we have set out the reasoning behind the legislation and the difficulties associated with it.

We have accepted Opposition amendments and tabled our own amendments, based on the arguments that have been advanced. In a sense, that is not what the debate has been about. It has been about whether the British Government should seek to implement in full the Good Friday agreement. Let me leave the House in no doubt that it is my intention and that of the Government that the agreement will be implemented in full. The agreement was negotiated in good faith and will be implemented in good faith. The people of Northern Ireland voted on a complete document, and we shall implement the complete document.

I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put, That the Bill be now read the Third time:—

The House divided: Ayes 215, Noes 116.

Division No. 310] [8.31 pm
Ainger, Nick Corbett, Robin
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE) Corbyn, Jeremy
Alexander, Douglas Cotter, Brian
Allan, Richard Cox, Tom
Allen, Graham Cranston, Ross
Anderson, Janet (Rossendale) Cryer, Mrs Ann (Keighley)
Armstrong, Ms Hilary Cryer, John (Hornchurch)
Atherton, Ms Candy Cummings, John
Banks, Tony Dalyell, Tam
Barron, Kevin Darvill, Keith
Bayley, Hugh Davey, Edward (Kingston)
Beard, Nigel Denham, John
Beith, Rt Hon A J Dismore, Andrew
Bell, Martin (Tatton) Doran, Frank
Bell, Stuart (Middlesbrough) Dowd, Jim
Bennett, Andrew F Drew, David
Betts, Clive Eagle, Angela (Wallasey)
Blair, Rt Hon Tony Edwards, Huw
Blears, Ms Hazel Efford, Clive
Borrow, David Fisher, Mark
Brake, Tom Fitzpatrick, Jim
Brinton, Mrs Helen Fitzsimons, Lorna
Brown, Rt Hon Nick (Newcastle E) Flynn, Paul
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon) Follett, Barbara
Burden, Richard Foster, Michael J (Worcester)
Burnett, John Galloway, George
Butler, Mrs Christine Gapes, Mike
Byers, Stephen Gardiner, Barry
Cable, Dr Vincent Gerrard, Neil
Campbell, Menzies (NE Fife) Gibson, Dr Ian
Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V) Godsiff, Roger
Caplin, Ivor Gordon, Mrs Eileen
Casale, Roger Grocott, Bruce
Caton, Martin Grogan, John
Chapman, Ben (Wirral S) Hall, Mike (Weaver Vale)
Chaytor, David Hall, Patrick (Bedford)
Chidgey, David Hancock, Mike
Chisholm, Malcolm Hanson, David
Clark, Rt Hon Dr David (S Shields) Harris, Dr Evan
Clarke, Tony (Northampton S) Heal, Mrs Sylvia
Clelland, David Hepburn, Stephen
Coffey, Ms Ann Heppell, John
Colman, Tony Hesford, Stephen
Cooper, Yvette Hewitt, Ms Patricia
Hoey, Kate Pearson, Ian
Hogg, Rt Hon Douglas Pendry, Tom
Hoon, Geoffrey Perham, Ms Linda
Hopkins, Kelvin Pickthall, Colin
Howarth, Alan (Newport E) Pike, Peter L
Howarth, George (Knowsley N) Plaskitt, James
Howells, Dr Kim Pollard, Kerry
Humble, Mrs Joan Pond, Chris
Hurst, Alan Pound, Stephen
Hutton, John Prentice, Gordon (Pendle)
Ingram, Adam Primarolo, Dawn
Jackson, Helen (Hillsborough) Purchase, Ken
Jamieson, David Rendel, David
Johnson, Miss Melanie Roche, Mrs Barbara
(Welwyn Hatfield) Rogers, Allan
Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S) Rooker, Jeff
Jones, Nigel (Cheltenham) Rooney, Terry
Jowell, Ms Tessa Ruane, Chris
Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald Ruddock, Ms Joan
Keeble, Ms Sally Russell, Bob (Colchester)
Keen, Alan (Feltham & Heston) Salter, Martin
Kemp, Fraser Savidge, Malcolm
Kennedy, Jane (Wavertree) Sawford, Phil
Kilfoyle, Peter Sedgemore, Brian
King, Andy (Rugby & Kenilworth) Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert
King, Ms Oona (Bethnal Green) Simpson, Alan (Nottingham S)
Kingham, Ms Tess Skinner, Dennis
Ladyman, Dr Stephen Smith, Miss Geraldine
Lawrence, Ms Jackie (Morecambe & Lunesdale)
Laxton, Bob Smith, John (Glamorgan)
Leslie, Christopher Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)
Levitt, Tom Smith, Sir Robert (W Ab'd'ns)
Linton, Martin Soley, Clive
Livingstone, Ken Speller, John
Lloyd, Tony (Manchester C) Starkey, Dr Phyllis
Lock, David Stewart, David (Inverness E)
Love, Andrew Stewart, Ian (Eccles)
McAvoy, Thomas Stinchcombe, Paul
McCabe, Steve Stuart, Ms Gisela
McCartney, Ian (Makerfield) Stunell, Andrew
McDonnell, John Taylor, David (NW Leics)
Mackinlay, Andrew Thomas, Gareth (Clwyd W)
McNamara, Kevin Timms, Stephen
McNulty, Tony Tipping, Paddy
Mactaggart, Fiona Todd, Mark
McWalter, Tony Touhig, Don
McWilliam, John Twigg, Stephen (Enfield)
Mallaber, Judy Vaz, Keith
Marsden, Gordon (Blackpool S) Ward, Ms Claire
Marshall, David (Shettleston) Wareing, Robert N
Marshall-Andrews, Robert Watts, David
Martlew, Eric White, Brian
Merron, Gillian Whitehead, Dr Alan
Michael, Alun Wicks, Malcolm
Michie, Mrs Ray (Argyll & Bute) Williams, Alan W (E Carmarthen)
Milburn, Alan Willis, Phil
Mitchell, Austin Wills, Michael
Moffatt, Laura Winnick, David
Moonie, Dr Lewis Winterton, Ms Rosie (Doncaster C)
Moran, Ms Margaret Woolas, Phil
Mowlam, Rt Hon Marjorie Wright, Dr Tony (Cannock)
Mudie, George Wyatt, Derek
Murphy, Paul (Torfaen)
Norris, Dan
Olner, Bill Tellers for the Ayes:
O'Neill, Martin Mr. Greg Pope and
Organ, Mrs Diana Ms Bridget Prentice.
Ainsworth, Peter (E Surrey) Lait, Mrs Jacqui
Amess, David Leigh, Edward
Ancram, Rt Hon Michael Letwin, Oliver
Arbuthnot, James Lewis, Dr Julian (New Forest E)
Atkinson, David (Bour'mth E) Lidington, David
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham) Lloyd, Rt Hon Sir Peter (Fareham)
Beggs, Roy Loughton, Tim
Bercow, John Luff, Peter
Blunt, Crispin McCartney, Robert (N Down)
Boswell, Tim MacGregor, Rt Hon John
Brady, Graham McIntosh, Miss Anne
Brazier, Julian MacKay, Andrew
Brooke, Rt Hon Peter Maclean, Rt Hon David
Browning, Mrs Angela Malins, Humfrey
Bruce, Ian (S Dorset) May, Mrs Theresa
Burns, Simon Moss, Malcolm
Butterfill, John Nicholls, Patrick
Chapman, Sir Sydney Page, Richard
(Chipping Barnet) Paice, James
Chope, Christopher Paisley, Rev Ian
Clappison, James Paterson, Owen
Clark, Rt Hon Alan (Kensington) Pickles, Eric
Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey Prior, David
Cormack, Sir Patrick Randall, John
Cran, James Redwood, Rt Hon John
Davis, Rt Hon David (Haltemprice) Robathan, Andrew
Day, Stephen Robertson, Laurence (Tewk'b'ry)
Donaldson, Jeffrey Robinson, Peter (Belfast E)
Duncan, Alan Roe, Mrs Marion (Broxbourne)
Duncan Smith, Iain Ross, William (E Lond'y)
Evans, Nigel Ruffley, David
Faber, David Sayeed, Jonathan
Fabricant, Michael Shephard, Rt Hon Mrs Gillian
Flight, Howard Simpson, Keith (Mid-Norfolk)
Forsythe, Clifford Smyth, Rev Martin (Belfast S)
Forth, Rt Hon Eric Spelman, Mrs Caroline
Fraser, Christopher Spicer, Sir Michael
Gale, Roger Spring, Richard
Garnier, Edward Swayne, Desmond
Gibb, Nick Tapsell, Sir Peter
Gill, Christopher Taylor, Ian (Esher & Walton)
Gillan, Mrs Cheryl Taylor, John M (Solihull)
Gorman, Mrs Teresa Taylor, Sir Teddy
Green, Damian Thompson, William
Greenway, John Tredinnick, David
Grieve, Dominic Tyrie, Andrew
Hamilton, Rt Hon Sir Archie Viggers, Peter
Hammond, Philip Wardle, Charles
Hawkins, Nick Waterson, Nigel
Hayes, John Wells, Bowen
Heathcoat-Amory, Rt Hon David Whittingdale, John
Horam, John Wilkinson, John
Howard, Rt Hon Michael Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)
Howarth, Gerald (Aldershot) Winterton, Nicholas (Macclesfield)
Hunter, Andrew Woodward, Shaun
Jack, Rt Hon Michael Yeo, Tim
Jenkin, Bernard Young, Rt Hon Sir George
Johnson Smith,
Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey Tellers for the Noes:
Kirkbride, Miss Julie Mr. Oliver Heald and
Laing, Mrs Eleanor Mr. Tim Collins.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Bill read the Third time, and passed.