HC Deb 10 May 1999 vol 331 cc38-83

Order for Second Reading read.

4.26 pm
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Adam Ingram)

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

Before commenting on the Bill, I wish to acknowledge the reason why the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay) is not on the Opposition Front Bench as shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. The right hon. Gentleman is attending his father's funeral. I am sure that the entire House would wish to echo me in offering condolences to him and his family.

It is right to begin by acknowledging the prolonged suffering that has been endured by the families of "The Disappeared". The families and friends of "The Disappeared", as they have become known, have suffered the loss of those they loved and have had to endure many years of agonising uncertainty of not knowing what happened to their loved ones and the pain of not being able to lay their bodies to rest. This is a basic human right.

I have met representatives of a number of these families on several occasions, most recently today, and I have been deeply moved by their stories and by the remarkable courage that they have shown in the face of such adversity. More than anything else, it is their suffering which the Bill seeks to address.

The Bill's overriding purpose is to ensure that the remains of these victims can be located and that, for the sake of these victims and their families, funerals can finally take place.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde)

I support the Bill in principle. However, the Bill makes information and evidence inadmissible in criminal proceedings. I can well understand why that is so. The Bill also places restrictions on the forensic testing of human remains. What are those restrictions?

Mr. Ingram

I intend to deal with that later. The Bill is not exactly the same as the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997, but it is not too dissimilar, either. The same type of concepts are contained in that measure.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

I think that we all support the aim that my right hon. Friend has set out. However, has he had an absolute assurance that if the Bill is allowed to go forward, funerals will take place and it will not set rather an unfortunate precedent for the future?

Mr. Ingram

I am sure that my hon. Friend is only too well aware, being a long-standing practitioner of the art of politics, that there are no such things as absolutes. We are dealing with a sensitive and difficult subject which we must address in the best way available to us. As for setting

precedents, the Bill deals with a specific set of circumstances and it is not for me to determine what may evolve or develop on its back. We do not know what else may arise. At present there is no intention to change or develop the Bill. It is aimed at a specific objective, which I was setting out.

Mr. Ken Maginnis (Fermanagh and South Tyrone)


Mr. Ingram

I have hardly said very much about the Bill. It might be useful to set the scene for it, if I were allowed to do so.

Mr. Maginnis

On that point—

Mr. Ingram

I will give way—

Mr. Maginnis

On that point—

Mr. Ingram

The hon. Gentleman is usually insistent, and he gets his way by shouting and not listening to reasoning such as I was trying to present.

Mr. Maginnis

Let me assure the House that, unlike some people who will be nameless at this stage, I do not let my liver override my brain.

What the Minister has just told us is that he is reacting emotionally to the demands of the IRA, and he has not thought out the consequences of what he is proposing. That is what I gathered from his answer to his hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody).

Mr. Ingram

I do not want to enter into a dialogue on that. We have had to introduce a considerable amount of legislation as the peace process has developed, based on the circumstances prevailing at the time. It would have been better if we did not need legislation, but if that is the way in which we achieve the objective, the Government must introduce it.

For the sake of roundness of argument, may I refer to what the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis) said in relation to similar legislation, the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Bill, in 1996. It would be useful if, having intervened, he would listen. On that Bill, which dealt with armaments, he said: I welcome the Bill and I shall explain why it is essential."—[Official Report, 9 December 1996;Vol.287,c.66.]

We are dealing now with a similar piece of legislation, and I should like to hear him welcome it in the same way. He will have that opportunity when he makes his contribution to the debate.

I was saying that we seek to ensure that victims' remains are located so that funerals can take place. This objective is particularly apt as we, the British Government, together with the Irish Government, and the parties seek to implement the Belfast agreement. One of the key aspects of the agreement is a recognition by all parties that we must acknowledge and address the suffering of the victims of violence as a necessary element of reconciliation.

Action on the issue of "The Disappeared" was specifically mentioned in the report of the international body, the Mitchell report, on page 17, paragraph 52, in the chapter on "Further Confidence Building", which listed the provision of information on the status of missing persons among the factors that would demonstrate a commitment to peaceful methods and so build trust among other parties and alleviate the fears and anxieties of the general population". Furthermore, Sir Kenneth Bloomfield, in his report entitled "We shall remember them", on page 38, paragraph 5.38, dedicated a paragraph to "The Disappeared" and "Exiles". Sir Kenneth voiced a fervent appeal, on behalf of those whose loved ones have disappeared without trace, that those who can offer information about their fate and where bodies may lie should do so now". The Bill provides the most effective and speedy response that the Government can give to this tragic issue.

The background to the Northern Ireland (Location of Victims' Remains) Bill is the tragic disappearance of a number of people during the 1970s and 1980s. It is believed that those people were abducted and killed by terrorist organisations although, to date, none of the bodies have been recovered.

On 29 March this year, the Provisional IRA made a public statement, declaring: We believe we have established the whereabouts of the graves of nine people … information regarding the location of these graves is now being processed and will hopefully result in the speedy retrieval of the bodies".

In response, the Government, together with the Irish Government, announced their intention to introduce legislation in both jurisdictions to ensure that any evidence that emerged as a result of information given to help to locate the remains would not be used in subsequent criminal prosecutions. T0he Bill is the culmination of that commitment.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

Is not the practical effect of that self-denial the granting of an amnesty for those crimes and those criminals? Would not it have been better, and more honest, to create a commission such as that presided over by Archbishop Desmond Tutu rather than to cloak the effect in such a way?

Mr. Ingram

It would have been better if the hon. Gentleman had read the legislation; it is not an amnesty any more than the decommissioning legislation is an amnesty. I say it again: I shall explain the background to the Bill and the purpose underlying it.

Sir Kenneth Bloomfield referred to the concept of a truth and reconciliation commission in his detailed, heavyweight report on the question of how we deal with victims. It is for the whole of society in Northern Ireland—not only for the Governments or, indeed, the political parties—to determine whether it wants to move forward in such a way. The issue belongs to the whole of society and has to be handled in line with its wishes.

Such a conmiission has not been ruled out, but communities have to come together and define what they seek to achieve. If I read the remarks of the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) correctly, he said that we should not be proceeding in this way in respect of the information that the Provisional IRA has said that it is prepared to provide to the Governments, through the commission that will be set up, and that we should leave the issue on one side until such a body is established. It may never be established and, on that basis, the remains of the victims may never be recovered. That would be a matter of great regret.

The Bill is the culmination of the commitments that we gave in response to the Provisional IRA statement. The Irish Government published their equivalent Bill at the end of April. Together, the two Governments have shown their willingness to respond quickly to achieve a resolution of this issue.

The two Governments have recently signed an agreement to establish an independent commission which would facilitate the location of the victims' remains. I can announce this afternoon that Sir Kenneth Bloomfield has agreed to take on that role on behalf of the Government, if the Bill is approved by both Houses of Parliament.

Elements of the longer statement made by the Provisional IRA on 29 March caused further hurt and grief to the families, because of what it said and what it did not reveal. Many families were expecting to be informed that their relatives were on the list given by the Provisional IRA. The fact that they were not caused deeper pain—pain on top of what they have had to endure over the long years since their loved ones were taken from them. The unfounded allegations made against those on the list were a cruel blow to families who had already suffered too much.

It is worth while putting on record the fact that those listed by the Provisional IRA in its statement—Seamus Wright, Kevin McKee, Jean McConville, Columba McVeigh, Brendan Megrew, John McClory, Brian McKinney, Danny Mcllhone and Eamon Molloy—had not been charged with any crime, were not judged in a court of law, were not given the right of a fair trial and were not given the right to appeal against the summary injustice served on them. They were probably beaten and tortured before they were killed. In short, they were denied their fundamental human rights.

There is no international call for an independent inquiry into their tragic deaths, the human rights lobby is silent on their treatment and, of course, they have lain in undisclosed sites—some of them for nearly 30 years. I want to make it clear that the measure before us does not condone any of that; it is not a concession to terrorism or barbarism—it is a wholly humanitarian gesture that has been made because the Government genuinely care about the families, who have borne so much grief and hurt over all those years with quiet dignity.

I do not speak for the families, but I know this: it is their right to know where their loved ones are buried and no one with any humanity in his heart has the right to deny the families the right of laying their loved ones to rest with the dignity they deserve. The humanitarian need to introduce this legislation with such urgency is therefore obvious.

The plight of the families of "The Disappeared" is at the forefront of our minds. Their suffering still strikes a deep chord. It has gone on for too long. However, it is not within the Government's gift to deliver the final objective—namely, the location of the remains. That can be done only if those who know their whereabouts come forward with the information. I take the opportunity today to call on them to do so as a matter of urgency.

The Provisional IRA must demonstrate its good faith by delivering on its publicly stated pledges to the families. I urge those who have information about the remaining victims to do likewise. Those families have already suffered too much. It is time for this issue to be dealt with once and for all.

I emphasise that the Bill does not grant immunity from prosecution. It is not an amnesty. These were vicious and cowardly crimes and, if evidence is obtained from other sources, it will be used to seek to bring those responsible to justice. However, just as it is absolutely right that the efforts to obtain justice should continue, it is equally important that we consider the needs of the families and do all that we can to alleviate their suffering.

Mr. Ernie Ross (Dundee, West)

The Minister named the various civilians who were tortured and murdered by the IRA and whose remains are covered by this legislation. What about the body of Captain Robert Nairac? Is that also covered, and is there any indication from the Provisionals that they will surrender those remains?

Mr. Ingram

We have no information on that. Once this legislation is in place, it will hopefully remain in place after the remains of the nine who have been listed by the Provisional IRA have been located and given a burial by their families. Thus the legislation could be used for any further information that is brought forward. Hopefully, it may encourage those who have those details to give it to us.

It is not just Captain Nairac; others are on the list of known victims who have disappeared over the years. The total number is not precise—a figure of 20 has been quoted. It is about collating information from a variety of sources, and the best estimate on which we are working is in the region of 16. Only nine victims have been identified, so there is still some way to go to deal with all the families who have lost their loved ones in this way over the years.

As I said, this measure is about alleviating suffering. It is a humanitarian gesture. That is why the two Governments have decided to proceed with legislation enabling those with information to come forward and the location of the bodies to be disclosed. Like so many issues in Northern Ireland, this is a difficult one. However, I believe that the Bill succeeds in striking the right balance between taking vital steps to alleviate some of the suffering that has afflicted many families in Northern Ireland for many years and ensuring that the scheme is workable in practice.

Before I deal with the detailed provisions of the Bill, I should like to acknowledge the difficulties that the Bill's timing has posed for a number of right hon. and hon. Members who had intended to travel to north America with the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has written to the Committee on this issue. It is unfortunate that the two dates clashed because some hon. Members would have wished to participate in this debate. I am grateful to those who have taken the opportunity to be here today. Their presence is noted, and I look forward to their contributions to the debate.

I am also grateful that the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke) was able to travel to the United States, albeit with a somewhat depleted delegation, on what should prove to be a very worthwhile venture. What the delegation is investigating and examining is of importance to Northern Ireland.

The Bill provides the legislative framework for a commission, which will be an independent organisation established by the agreement signed on 27 April by the British and Irish Governments. The agreement was laid before the House on 5 May in accordance with the practice known as the Ponsonby rule. It is hoped that today's debate will give hon. Members an opportunity to express views on the agreement if they so wish.

Both Governments are doing all they can to ensure that the commission can begin its work as soon as possible. We are confident that in proposing to agree with the Government of Ireland on an early date for the agreement to enter into force—before the 21 days required by the Ponsonby rule have elapsed—we are acting with the will of the House.

The Bill makes supplementary provision for the commission and the commencement and duration of the provisions relating to the commission, and enables certain immunities and privileges to be conferred on it. The commission will facilitate the location of the remains of persons killed before 10 April 1998 as a result of an unlawful act of violence committed on behalf of, or in connection with, a proscribed organisation.

The Bill further provides three types of protection for information provided to the commission about the whereabouts of the remains of the victims. First, clause 3 provides that relevant information provided to the commission, or evidence that comes to light as a result of that information, shall not be admissible in evidence in any criminal proceedings, except if that evidence might, in some circumstances, be helpful to the defence of an accused person.

Secondly, clause 4 places prohibitions on the forensic testing of the remains or other items found, subject to limited exceptions, in particular for the purposes of determining the identity of the deceased persons and how, when and where they died.

Thirdly, clause 5 provides that information provided to the commission will not be disclosed except for the purpose of facilitating the location of the remains. However, the Bill leaves the commission with a discretion to pass certain information to the family of the victim.

Finally, the Bill makes provision for the grant of warrants authorising entry and search of private premises in the special circumstances to which the Bill relates.

I shall return to the theme with which I began: the pain and suffering of the victims' families, which we can only begin to imagine. The Bill will not lessen their loss, but in some small measure the location of their loved ones' remains and the opportunity to lay them to rest will at least enable them finally to close this chapter of their lives and to begin to move on. We must afford them that opportunity. I commend the Bill to the House.

4.47 pm
Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire)

I should like to begin by passing on the apologies of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay), the shadow Secretary of State, who is unable to be here today to open the debate for the official Opposition as he is attending his father's funeral, as the Minister graciously acknowledged. We thank the Minister for his expression of condolence.

I am grateful to the Minister for setting out the main provisions of the legislation and some of the background to it, which includes some of the most gruesome events that have occurred anywhere in these islands in the past 30 years. The Bill deals with some of the most callous acts of barbarism imaginable: acts of almost unspeakable evil. They are a deep stain on the history of Ireland.

I should state at the outset that Conservative Members believe this to be an odious Bill, and we deeply deplore the fact that it is necessary to introduce it. Frankly, it sticks in the throat that we should have to bargain with terrorists to locate the bodies of people whom they have killed. The fact that we have to introduce the Bill tells us a great deal about the real nature of terrorist groups in Northern Ireland—in this instance, the Provisional IRA. The Bill shows once again the depths of depravity to which they have so often stooped in terrorising the people of Northern Ireland.

I should like to pay tribute to Seamus McKendry, whose organisation Families of "The Disappeared" has been bravely campaigning on this issue for the past five years, to Church leaders and cross-party groups such as New Dialogue, and to Sir Kenneth Bloomfield's victims' commission. They have made a huge contribution by drawing political and public attention to the plight of the victims' families. They have put pressure on terrorists to come clean and identify the burial sites of "The Disappeared", and to show, for once, an ounce of humanity.

The facts about "The Disappeared" speak for themselves. Between the early 1970s and the early 1980s, about 14 people were abducted, tortured and then murdered, mainly—although not necessarily exclusively—by the IRA. Some of the bodies were then dumped in unmarked graves on both sides of the border, and some, it is rumoured, in Scotland. It is widely believed that others suffered an even more gruesome fate.

The victims were people like Jean McConville, a 37-year-old widowed mother of 10 from the Divis flats in Belfast, who disappeared from her home on 7 December 1972, never to be seen again; people such as Kevin McKee and Seamus Wright from Andersonstown, who were abducted and murdered in October 1972; people like Brendan Megrew, who was taken from his home in Twinbrook, Belfast, in 1975 by a nine-member IRA gang, and Columba McVeigh, aged 17, from Dungannon, who in the same year was abducted and killed, again by the IRA. And let us not forget Captain Robert Nairac, who was dragged from a pub in South Armagh in 1977, tortured and killed. Like the others, his body has never been found.

Imagine the anguish, imagine the heartache, imagine the desolation of simply not knowing what happened or where those bodies are. Imagine also the anger of people who, in many cases, live in the same districts as the killers of their loved ones, and who in many cases see the suspected killers day after day. Imagine the anger of knowing people whose information, while not necessarily wiping away the pain, could at least have eased it.

Let us take the case of Margaret McKinney, whose son Brian was abducted in 1978. I had the privilege of meeting her in the House at lunchtime today. She describes the past 21 years as

Hell; the darkest corner of hell".

She has suffered heart attacks, and for years would sleep in her son's bed wrapped in his coat. Frequently she would see the men who had taken Brian, but remained powerless to do anything, such is the fear and intimidation endemic in the communities that the IRA controls.

For years, relatives have pleaded with the terrorists to give them the information that would allow them to give the victims decent, dignified, Christian burials; for years the terrorists and their supporters have flatly refused. Indeed, for nearly 20 years the IRA denied that it was responsible. For its own vile ends, it has chosen to remain silent for all that time. That puts in stark perspective the IRA's hollow claims to be the defender of its community. In fact its members are the terrorisers, the intimidators and the real enemies of the communities that they claim to represent.

Nothing illustrated the sickening nature of the IRA more graphically than the announcement of the results of its so-called 18-month investigation of the whereabouts of "The Disappeared", for which we were all supposed to be grateful. On 29 March, the IRA said that it had been able to locate nine people's graves—as if they are not aware of the fate of the others—stating: We are sorry that this has taken so long to resolve and for the prolonged anguish caused to the families".

Having made its announcement and raised the hopes of the families, the IRA then prolonged the anguish by demanding that the British and Irish Governments pass legislation granting immunity from prosecution before it would reveal any further information. Helen McKendry, the daughter of Jean McConville, said: I am really, really angry with the IRA. I thought when they made their statement a fortnight ago, all our suffering was over. They raised our hopes, knowing full well they had no immediate intention of delivering the bodies".

Mr. Swayne

Will the suffering and anger to which my hon. Friend has referred be expiated by the Bill, the effect of which is to make it more difficult to secure a conviction against the perpetrators of those awful deeds?

Mr. Moss

I hear what my hon. Friend says. It was a question that he put to the Minister of State. I will come to it a little later, if he will be patient.

In reality, the announcement had precious little to do with the victims' families. It was a propaganda stunt that was aimed at boosting Sinn Fein during the Hillsborough talks in the week before Easter, taking the pressure off the organisation over its refusal to decommission its illegally held arms and explosives. As Mr. Seamus McKendry of Families of "The Disappeared" said: I'm an out and out nationalist, but I feel terribly ashamed to call myself Irish tonight. We're being used as pawns here". Then there was the staggering hypocrisy of Sinn Fein's chief negotiator, Martin McGuinness, who stated that he hoped that an end was in sight to the "misery" being suffered and that we are hopeful that the plight of these families can now be alleviated". Does he expect anyone in Northern Ireland, or elsewhere for that matter, to believe that the organisation responsible for that misery is any other than the one to which his party is inextricably linked: the Provisional IRA? What organisation could seek to gain credit and gratitude for finally disclosing the whereabouts of people whom it has murdered other than the Provisional IRA? That is a disgraceful state of affairs, but one, sadly, with which we are going to have to live.

That rather sums up our attitude to the Bill: it is a necessary evil. There should be no need for such a Bill. If we were dealing with reasonable people who were truly committed to peaceful and democratic means, there would not be such a need—but then, that is not the IRA's way.

As the Minister of State has explained, the Bill covers three main areas: to make provision concerning the commission established by the agreement between the British and Irish Governments on 27 April; to provide various protections for information provided to the commission and any evidence that might come to light as a result about the whereabouts of the remains of the victims of violence; and to make provision in relation to the entry and search of premises where remains are likely to be found.

The most controversial parts of the Bill are clause 3, dealing with admissibility of evidence in criminal proceedings, and clause 4, which deals with restrictions on forensic testing. I hope to come soon to the section of my speech that answers the important question put by my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne).

On admissibility, having studied the Bill, we are satisfied legally that it does not amount to a general amnesty, or immunity from prosecution in connection with the original offence of murder. If any other evidence comes to light other than that covered in the Bill, it could be used in a criminal proceeding. I note, however, a distinction between the Bill as drafted and the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997. That legislation contains a much more explicit reference. As section 11 states: Nothing in this Act shall prejudice any power or discretion exercisable apart from this Act in relation to the institution or conduct of criminal proceedings. That makes it clear, as Lord Mayhew said at the time, that apart from the Bill's provisions, the institution or conduct of criminal proceedings is unaffected."—[Official Report, 9 December 1996;Vol.287,c.27.] We would have liked an equally clear statement in the Bill. We ask the Minister, between now and Committee and Report stages on Wednesday, to ask his people to look at that section.

Whatever the legal position, in practice it is difficult to see how any prosecution in such cases could be successful without the ability to carry out a forensic test on a body. In such circumstances, the reality is that the Bill does, in effect, amount to an amnesty for people who have committed the most appalling and savage acts of murder.

If a prosecution for any of those crimes were successful, the individuals concerned would be eligible for the accelerated release scheme and would, under the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998, therefore serve only a few months. Most right-thinking people would find that totally unacceptable.

We have carefully examined the restrictions on forensic testing, which are very wide in their application. We believe that clause 4(2) just about satisfies the legitimate concerns about post mortems, and enables the relatives to establish not only an individual's identity but how, when and where he or she died.

The Bill seeks to bring some belated comfort to grieving families and relatives of "The Disappeared", and to encourage the IRA—having announced that it has located nine graves—finally, and after many years of waiting, to tell the families. Whatever our misgivings about the Bill, the families' wishes guide our approach to it—their wishes must be paramount. They want no more delay. As one family member recently put it:

We have been making funeral arrangements for three decades". On that basis, despite our deep reservations about the Bill, we shall do nothing today to impede its passage.

5.1 pm

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde)

I promise that I shall be brief.

Last week, I was told by a man in Northern Ireland whom I regard highly that one consequence of the Bill, intended or unintended, would be to give some protection to a senior IRA member who was involved in some of the killings and who is still active.

I agree with much of what the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) said. He was absolutely right to say that the victims suffered the most horrendous torture and callous murder by brutal murderers claiming to be freedom fighters or defenders of the Union. Those freedom fighters and defenders were and are terrorists, because they conduct their so-called military campaigns in a mature and parliamentary democracy.

This afternoon, together with the hon. Gentleman, I met Mrs. Margaret McKinney and another lady, whose father was brutally abducted and murdered and whose remains may well be located somewhere south of the border. If I had any doubts about the Bill—here is where I part company with the hon.

Gentleman—they were dispelled when I met those two ladies. The Bill's objective, as the hon. Gentleman said, is to help families to give their loved ones a Christian burial.

I told Mrs. McKinney that, as I come from a fishing family that has lost at sea family members whose bodies were never recovered, I have a glimmer—but only a glimmer—of their heartfelt wish to recover the bodies of their loved ones, so that they may provide them with a Christian burial. They want to place their loved ones in a family plot, so that they may visit the graves. I have some understanding of that supreme wish.

I said that I would speak only briefly, and I shall honour that promise. However, I want to ask my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State a couple of questions. On the Bill's financial effects, the explanatory notes state that the commission will be allowed an upper limit of £100,000 for its members to pursue their laudable objectives. I tell the Minister—my hon. and old Friend from the other side of the Clyde—that I should not want any type of financial restriction to be placed on the commission's activities.

The hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire repeated an allegation, which I have heard back home, that more than one victim is buried in Scotland. Can any credence be given to that? If so, I hope that the commission will receive every co-operation and assistance from the Scottish Office and others who may be able to help.

In some ways, I find it difficult to support the Bill, but I remember what I heard at the meeting this afternoon about the needs and wishes of the people directly concerned. We have an obligation to those poor distressed people. We honour that obligation by passing the Bill.

5.6 pm

Mr. Ken Maginnis (Fermanagh and South Tyrone)

I wonder whom the Bill is meant to benefit. I have the greatest sympathy for those who have lost loved ones and who, for two or three decades, have failed to discover the whereabouts of the bodies. I should very much like them to have their minds put at rest.

To echo what the hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) said, people in my family have been killed in time of war and the bodies have never found their way back to the local churchyard, but they are not forgotten. "The Disappeared" will not be forgotten either, but I have deep reservations that we are compromising the fundamental law, which is meant to protect society as a whole, to deal with a specific and tragic problem. I am even more concerned that those who will benefit most are those who have held society to ransom for the past 30 years.

This is a moment to take stock. We are not considering the IRA exclusively, but it has the people with the information on the location of the bodies of "The Disappeared". We should look at their performance and response to all that society has tried to do over the past four years in particular. First, we had the Mitchell commission, which lasted for a year and produced a report. That was followed by two years of negotiations. Since the Stormont agreement was signed on 10 April 1998, another year has elapsed. Do Ministers believe that the measures that we are being asked to endorse will bring us one step closer to stability in Northern Ireland?

I am not the only one to have grave reservations. Monsignor Denis Faul—a member of the Catholic community for whom I have the highest regard and to whom I refer not infrequently in the House—suggested at the time that he was not convinced of the sincerity of the announcement that nine bodies had been located. The activities of Sinn Fein-IRA since then make me suspect that he was probably wise to have had those deep reservations. With virtually everything that Sinn Fein-IRA have promised, or intimated, that they might deliver over the past four years, little has come to fruition. That deeply concerns me, and society as a whole in Northern Ireland.

It is no secret that I am a wholehearted supporter of the Stormont agreement. If it is implemented in the spirit in which it was derived, Northern Ireland ultimately will be a better place. However, I must acknowledge that many of my friends do not believe that, as I do. Many of us who believe and support the agreement have sacrificed the support and sometimes even the friendship of those who have been colleagues in the past. That is why I view what is happening here today with such gravity. If we are to pass a Bill which, in political terms, benefits exclusively Sinn Fein-IRA, we should examine the performance of that organisation—both the terrorist, active side and the paramilitary-linked political party, Sinn Fein.

When George Mitchell examined the likelihood of peace being brought to Northern Ireland, he looked at the question of disarmament and posed a question that reflected his concern about republican and loyalist paramilitaries. He asked whether there was a clear commitment on the part of those in possession of such arms to work constructively to achieve —he did not use the word "address"— full and verifiable decommissioning. He answered his own question by saying that he was convinced that that was the case, and that it was conditional only upon it being part of the process of all-party negotiations. That report was available for everybody to see and there was no misunderstanding of the meaning. Sinn Fein-IRA knew exactly what Senator Mitchell meant. However, nobody could have given him that assurance about the paramilitaries except the paramilitary-linked political parties, Sinn Fein, and the various loyalist parties such as the Progressive Unionist party and the Ulster Democratic party. It was on that basis that those people sat within the negotiating process and were tolerated by those of us who found their presence disturbing, to put it mildly. However, we got an agreement.

I do not believe that Senator Mitchell would have indulged in the nonsense of proposing that any party should commit itself to achieving disarmament or any other matter that was beyond the competence of that party. Yet from the time the agreement was signed a year ago, we have been through the mill again and again, trying to convince people nationally and internationally that disarmament was an integral part of the agreement.

Members of Sinn Fein, who expect to put the godfather of godfathers—Martin McGuinness—in an Executive position, do not agree; they have argued that there was no obligation to disarm. In fact, a year ago they implied that they would disarm by 22 May 2000—two years after the referendum. We are halfway there now, but they are careful not to mention that date at present. Instead, they tell us that they were led to believe that all they had to do was to call a ceasefire and they would be admitted to Executive authority in the Government of Northern Ireland. They certainly were not led to believe that by any Member whom I have heard speaking in this House. That is not the case; it has never been the case—it was made clear, not only by Members of this House, but by people in the Irish Government and elsewhere, that guns could not be on the table, under the table or outside the door of the chamber of democracy.

Through this Bill, we are pandering to Sinn Fein. Let me tell the House what the attitude of Sinn Fein was yesterday at its conference in Dublin. Francie Molloy, a district councillor and senior Sinn Fein negotiator, gave a warning that republicans would not accept exclusion and would not hand over their weapons. He said: If the SDLP, Dublin government and the Unionists think they can go about this"—

that is the government of Northern Ireland— without us, then we will make the six-county statelet ungovernable.

Mr. Andrew Hunter (Basingstoke)


Mr. Maginnis

Francie Molloy is the same person who told us that, if members of the IRA did not get their way, they would go back to doing what they do best. I give way to the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter).

Mr. Hunter

The hon. Gentleman has just made the point I had intended to make.

Mr. Maginnis

It is always good to know that I answer questions before they are asked.

The reality today is that we must consider whether to make a deal, even though its conditions are not properly defined, with the IRA. Have the Government received a total and unequivocal commitment from the IRA that, when this legislation is passed, those nine bodies will be delivered to their families? I do not believe that the Minister can give me an unequivocal assurance on that point.

At present, many things are happening in Northern Ireland. We have a commission—led by Chris Patten, a former Member of the House—to consider the future of policing in Northern Ireland based on normality. His original mandate was based on what policing in Northern Ireland would be if normality were achieved. What has that been changed into? It has been changed into a demand by Sinn Fein-IRA that dominates our press: that the RUC should be disbanded. Everything we have heard from the IRA supports that view, including the ultimate of all statements from Father Desmond Wilson, who said that if one existing member of the RUC was recruited to a new police force, that police force would be unacceptable. What sort of accommodation, realism or concern for society as a whole does that display? None; nothing.

I went to one of the public hearings of the Patten commission and I listened to the families of those who had committed the sort of atrocities that led to the deaths of "The Disappeared", and I heard them tell how their family members had been murdered—people who were killed carrying out a bomb and gun attack on Loughgall police station. I began to wonder whether I lived on the same plane as those people—I probably do not. They wondered why the police, if they knew that Loughgall was to be attacked, had not walked up, tapped the attackers on the shoulder and taken them into custody for their own safety. In effect, that was the view expressed. We all know what happens to our soldiers when they confront terrorists, because so many have died as a result of doing so.

However, I suppose there was some virtue in all that, for during those hearings, the IRA overplayed its hand and revealed the nonsense of its arguments, not prior to the agreement but in its wake, when people were supposed to accommodate one another for the good of society. Society's interests had been discarded within the short

few months between the signing of the agreement and those public hearings. Sinn Fein-IRA recognised that they had oversold themselves and pleaded for the commission to hear them in private. Speaking on behalf of the Ulster Unionist party, I did not require or request a private hearing, but gave my evidence to the commission in public and made myself available to be questioned by the commissioners in public. Why did Sinn Fein-IRA need those private hearings? That must be carefully considered when Patten finally reports.

Having oversold themselves, did Sinn Fein-IRA go away and rethink their obligation to society—not to Ken Maginnis or the Ulster Unionist party, but to the society they claim to represent and care for? On that subject let me ask, is there any evidence that Sinn Fein-IRA care even for their own tradition? I discovered quite recently that during the troubles, 190 IRA activists had been murdered—not killed carrying out illegal acts, but assassinated. Having heard a great deal about collusion, I expected most of them to have been killed by loyalist paramilitaries. Surprise, surprise, I found that although loyalist paramilitaries were responsible for murdering 26 of them, other IRA members were responsible for murdering 164 of those 190 IRA activists.

Let us look at other figures that are available. Of the 1,543 Roman Catholics killed—I am ashamed that many were killed by people from my tradition who call themselves "loyalists"—381 were killed by republican paramilitaries. The combined total—which comprises the innocent and the guilty—killed by the RUC, the Ulster Defence Regiment, the Royal Irish Regiment and other Regular Army units was 316. In other words, more Roman Catholics were killed by republican paramilitaries than by the Army, the RUC and other legitimate forces combined. As we know, most were killed by the legitimate forces in their actions against terrorists.

Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry)

Is my hon. Friend aware that Brendan "Speedy" Fegan, who was shot dead in Newry yesterday, would appear to be another addition to that total? As he lay dying, the alleged drug dealer said, "It was the Provies, it was the Provies."

Mr. Maginnis

My hon. Friend is probably right: very few illegal activities in Newry are not controlled by the Provisional IRA. While I do not want to jump to conclusions, I have no doubt that Mr. Fegan would have known and been able to identify his attackers.

I mention these issues, which are not related directly to the Bill, because of the specific understanding that somehow, those who are connected with militant republicanism can behave normally and can assimilate back into society. Many of us wish that such people were willing to do that and that we could move towards the new millennium in the way in which we have dreamed about for the past three decades. However, I hear nothing but propaganda from Sinn Fein-IRA. Having tried recently to pervert the work of the Patten commission—I am confident that they will not succeed—those same people are now claiming that the RUC and others are in collusion.

I have been associated with the Royal Ulster Constabulary since about 1958, and I know that it is, and has been, in possession of very specific details about militant terrorist activists on both sides of the community. If the RUC had colluded even half-effectively with one terrorist group or another, one might expect to have seen the top terrorists removed from society. We would have expected to see many terrorist leaders killed in the past 30 years. However, the figures that I have cited show that that is not so: in fact, few top terrorist leaders have been assassinated by the opposing side. The same is true of loyalist paramilitaries. About 30 per cent. of loyalist activists were killed by republicans and two thirds by their own loyalist paramilitary colleagues.

One case that is receiving a great deal of publicity at the moment is that of a solicitor, Pat Finucane. I have dealt very publicly outside the House with Pat Finucane and the implications of all the activities of the Finucane family. Rather than go over that ground, I want to draw to the attention of the House the fact that during the terrorist period in Northern Ireland, a considerable number of people in the judiciary and the legal profession have been murdered.

Three judges have been killed: Lord Justice Gibson, Judge Rory Conaghan and Judge William Doyle. Three resident magistrates have been attacked: William Staunton and William McBirnie were killed, and Mary Travers was killed while protecting her resident magistrate father, Tom Travers. Rory O' Kelly, a constituent of mine and a Crown prosecutor, was murdered, as was Edgar Graham, who was a friend of mine, a law lecturer and a very active member of my party. Last, but not least, solicitor John Donaldson was killed. I know that Rosemary Nelson was horrifically murdered recently, but I am referring to past murders, the last of which occurred in about 1987.

Those nine murders were carried out by the IRA, yet I have not heard any of that band of professional, middle-class solicitors, who are now highlighting the Finucane case, ask whether there was any collusion when Lord Justice Gibson was killed on the very border while crossing from the Irish Republic into Northern Ireland. I have not heard any cry about whether Superintendents Breen or Buchanan, returning from a conference with the Garda Siochana, were killed as a result of collusion. In neither case am I questioning the integrity of the Garda Siochana—and just as I exercise that discretion, so I believe society must exercise discretion and judgment when people point the finger, in an organised and malicious way, at the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

Those matters concern me when we propose to introduce a Bill that is tantamount to, if not technically, an amnesty for those who have committed murder. It is understandable that, in our sympathy for those who have suffered, we seek a solution, but we must do that not emotionally or in isolation, but while considering the interests of society as a whole.

There will be those who will say to me after I have spoken, "Well, you agreed to the release of prisoners." Reluctantly, I did so, but those prisoners have been brought before the courts and convicted, their sentences have been determined and those who are released early will serve the outstanding part of their sentence on licence. Murderers are on licence for the rest of their lives. That is an accommodation. I believe that the Bill is a travesty and it would be wrong of me not to point out those facts to right hon. and hon. Members.

I remember that in that past, we heard a great clamour to get Sinn Fein-IRA back on our television screens. People told us that if only they were back on the air, the presenters, the interlocutors and those who produce programmes would put Sinn Fein-IRA to the sword, would test them and would reveal the true nature of terrorism. Where have all the people who said that gone? The terrorists are treated by Ministers in the Northern Ireland Office with greater courtesy than elected Members of Parliament, and the same is true of presenters on television. There is no reality attached to the enormity of the crimes that those terrorists have committed.

There is no real need for the Bill except that Sinn Fein-IRA have the knife into society in Northern Ireland and further afield, and if they can twist it further they will do so. [Interruption.] The Minister will excuse me if I tell him that I would prefer it if he did not mutter his obscenities under his breath. If he wants to intervene, he may do so.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is an experienced Member and he knows that we do not tolerate that sort of thing in the House. There was no question of obscenities.

Mr. Maginnis

I think it is obscene when a Minister thinks more of those who have committed crimes against society than of his colleagues in this House, who are elected and who seek to represent the views of their constituents. Muttering under the breath is irksome, to say the least, but I take your point, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

We are none of us experts in forensic science, but hon. Members know enough to know that if the IRA were genuine in wanting to meet the needs of those families who have suffered, we would not require this legislation. What possible forensic evidence could be gleaned after 30 years? Well, we might get some details about the extent to which the victims were tortured, their limbs broken and their bodies disfigured before they were disposed of.

Dr. Godman

I have listened to the hon. Gentleman in silence and I have not been muttering. Does he intend to divide the House on the Bill? He mentioned all those terrible murders of legal representatives by members of the IRA, but does he accept that there are profound differences in the circumstances surrounding the murder of Robert Hamill and the dreadful murders of those legal representatives?

Mr. Maginnis

My apologies; I am not sure that I picked up everything that the hon. Gentleman said to me. I shall try to answer him in so far as I heard what he said.

I believe that every killing is wrong. I believe that murders often take place in widely differing circumstances. The death of Robert Hamill—about which I shall provide the hon. Gentleman with a great deal of detail in the not too distant future—had nothing to do with neglect by the RUC of its duties. The RUC extricated Robert Hamill from where he was being beaten by a mob of loyalist thugs and saw him off to hospital, where his injuries—I need to be fairly careful what I say—would not have led to his death if they had been properly diagnosed and treated. I do not want to enlarge on that now, but that is the reality, because on the same night, a son of a councillor colleague of mine was beaten up and much more severely injured and, thanks to good medical care in the same hospital—

Mr. William Ross

At the same time.

Mr. Maginnis

Indeed, at the same time. Thankfully, he survived. Therefore, we need to be very cautious about believing the republicans' propaganda tales. I believe that if someone—the Minister could do it—obtained and made public the radio messages that were passed by the police that night, a great deal of light would be shed on Mr. Hamill's tragic death.

I am not sure whether the hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde touched on the points that I made about lawyers who were clamouring for an inquiry.

Dr. Godman

One question that I asked was whether the hon. Gentleman intended to divide the House on the Bill.

Mr. Maginnis

I do not intend, if but a handful of Members are prepared to vote against the Bill, to divide the House. In fact, I certainly do not intend to do so. I gather from what the Conservative spokesman has said that the Conservatives intend to abstain. I had hoped, in so far as they have quite vociferously condemned the release of prisoners, that they would give us a lead on this—I believe much more serious—issue. If they gave us a lead, I would be happy to vote against the Bill, but, as the hon. Gentleman knows, there is not much point in the small number of Northern Ireland Members of Parliament pitting themselves against the serried ranks of Labour Members.

I had hoped that there might have been a little bit of sympathy for society as a whole, instead of the self-satisfied looks on the face of one or two members of the Government. The Government know that they can force the Bill through Parliament by weight of numbers, without any serious opposition. I had hoped that they would have considered the implications of what is being enacted as carefully as I am trying to consider them.

I have made my feelings clear. For 30 years the House has sought to make accommodation with those who cannot and will not be accommodated. I sought to do that as a publicly elected representative. I have hoped against hope that at some time people would realise the futility of it all. However, I believe that we won part of the argument. There is now little doubt that the Irish Government have on many issues, including disarmament, a conviction not far removed from mine. On this issue, however, I believe that they are wrong. They are creating an accommodation for Sinn Fein-IRA that will be hurled back in their teeth.

I will be delighted if the victims of violence, the families of "The Disappeared", are able to give a Christian burial to their family members as a result of the Bill. However, I must caution again and again that accommodation with those who will not accept accommodation is a futile exercise and merely brings demands for more and more, which is not in the interests of society as a whole. Further demands merely help those involved to keep their evil grip on areas within Northern Ireland where they have dominated by gun, bomb and threat for three decades.

5.46 pm
Mr. John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington)

In the short time that I have been a Member of this place and listened to debates on Northern Ireland, I have become accustomed to the wide circuit of issues that we go through despite whatever we are debating. I understand that. It is part of the process of coming to terms with the

future and part of the process of coming to terms with the past and securing peace. However, sometimes I wish that we were not reliving every day the vendettas of the past.

I shall refer specifically to the Bill and to its implementation, and especially to clause 5. I shall be brief. I am concerned to hear from my hon. Friend the Minister concretely what he envisages as the next steps in the implementation of the Bill. Sometimes these debates become not heated, but perhaps angry. Throughout debates on Northern Ireland over the past two years, and especially during the most difficult period, the Minister and the ministerial team, far from muttering obscenities, have been courtesy itself to right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House and to all sections of the communities of the Six Counties. As a result of that skilled diplomacy and courtesy, we have been able to weld together the peace process so far.

On clause 5, and with regard to the next stages, who will be the agents of the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims' Remains? We are to establish it, as my right hon. Friend the Minister has said, with a budget of about £100,000. We need to consider carefully who will be responsible for the detailed undertaking of the implementation of the commission's wishes.

The hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis) has raised allegations of collusion in the past, allegations which have some currency and in some instances some accuracy. It is important that, as we implement the proposed legislation, we guard against any potential for even an allegation of collusion that may put lives at risk.

What powers will the commission have over its agents, the staff who will be implementing the detail of the legislation, and what security will be in place, particularly for the protection of information that will be supplied as a result of this measure? I am concerned about clause 5 because the security of the information given is important. The providing of information may put further lives at risk on all sides. I am anxious under clause 5 because, there are no penalties for those who disseminate information who have no authority to do so, or who may wish to undermine the process on which we are embarking. This is not a sectarian point, because information may be forthcoming from all sides of the different traditions within the Six Counties. Therefore it is important that we give security to those who provide information. We must ensure that those who are charged with implementing the legislation are properly controlled and managed, and that, where necessary, penalties are levied against them. On all sides there is the danger of collusion.

It is important that we put aside recriminations and past vendettas. The question has been asked about the prime motivation for the Bill. As my right hon. Friend the Minister said, the prime motivation is to ensure that those people who have lost loved ones will now be able to bury them, further come to terms with their grief and their loss, and move forward in their communities. Those families are the prime beneficiaries, and there may well be secondary beneficiaries, as we have heard.

I support the Bill and wish it good speed. It is an important step forward in the peace process, and one of the confidence-building measures to which we have looked forward for so long. However, it is critical that we hear from my right hon. Friend in detail how security will be provided to all sides when the Bill is implemented.

5.51 pm
Mr. Andrew Hunter (Basingstoke)

I profoundly disagree with the conclusion of the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. McDonnell). I shall return to that in a moment.

I listened with interest to the contribution of the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis). I regret that he and I have not entirely agreed on every aspect of Northern Ireland affairs in recent months, but on this issue we can find appreciable common ground.

I appreciated the Minister's comments on the fact that the debate clashed with the visit of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs to the United States. That was most unfortunate. I was one of the members of the Committee, and the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) is another, who decided to be present for this debate, rather than go to the United States. The Committee understands that the Government felt obliged to keep to a strict timetable. I do not agree with that, but I accept that it is a legitimate position for the Government to take and acknowledge the reason for the Government proceeding with the debate at this time.

I listened carefully to the Minister introducing the Bill. He said that the Government were motivated with good intention and that the Bill was a wholly humanitarian gesture. With respect, I disagree with the right hon. Gentleman. I believe that his intentions are misdirected, mistaken and misplaced. I fear that this is an obnoxious and dangerous Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) used the word "odious". I would not quarrel with him in that respect.

The Bill is the antithesis of many of the values that the House exists to protect and promote. Under the provisions of the Bill, the political wish of the Executive further compromises and undermines the independent operation of the judicial process. The House should not accept that. Moreover, the fact that the Government are introducing the measure and that the Government of the Republic of Ireland are shortly to introduce a similar measure is a stark and gruesome illustration of the truth that the process of appeasement corrupts the appeasers.

Civilised society is underpinned by core values, which we compromise or abandon at our peril. We are doing so with the Bill. Those values include the absolute rule of law, a judicial process that is free from political interference, and genuinely accountable democratic structures. Each of those values has been compromised in Northern Ireland as a direct consequence of Government policy and is being further compromised by the Bill. With the Bill, I fear, we plumb new depths.

Northern Ireland is now a society in which morality and justice are twisted in the cause of political expediency. We delude ourselves if we think that a stable society can be built on such foundations. The Bill draws us deeper into the moral vacuum that we have created in Northern Ireland. It marks further inroads by the state into what should be the independence of the judicial process.

Mr. Ingram

The hon. Gentleman is expressing his strong opposition to the Bill. If not through the Bill, how would he bring about the return of the victims' bodies to their families? What measures would he prefer to be put in place, if not this measure?

Mr. Hunter

I gave way to the Minister because of his Front-Bench position, and I note what he says. If I had a say in the matter, we would not be where we now are. My answer is that the process of law must operate independently of political interference, and in no case should politicians create circumstances that diminish the likelihood of prosecution. That is what the Bill, as I see it, achieves.

Mr. Ingram

Can the hon. Gentleman then tell the House why he did not oppose the Bill on the decommissioning of illegally held weapons? That was a similar measure containing similar precepts. He did not oppose that Bill, but he is arguing strongly against this one. If I remember correctly, he supported the then Government—his Government—on that measure.

Mr. Hunter

The Minister's observation is factually correct, but he may not be aware of the internal debate that accompanied that Bill—the attempts to dissuade that I and a number of my colleagues made. However, that Bill passed, and as the right hon. Gentleman correctly says, I did not vote against it. He will also acknowledge that on other measures, I did. Perhaps he is aware of the complexities of trying to influence Government.

Let me make a comparative and illustrative point. Some of us have consistently argued that there is no justification whatever for the early release of terrorist prisoners. We maintain that it is morally wrong for others to argue that acts of violence are less serious if they are committed with political motives, and their perpetrators therefore can be treated more leniently. Early release, we maintain, has undermined and continues to undermine the rule of law, the bedrock of civilised society.

Terrorism triumphed when the two Governments advocated early release and the political parties signed up to it. With this Bill, as the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone said, the Government are trying to go a stage further. Until now, they have asked us to accept only that terrorists who have been convicted of murder and other hideous crimes should be released early. Now the Government ask us to accept that in specified circumstances use will not be made of certain evidence that might help to secure the conviction of terrorist murderers.

With this Bill, the Executive seek to acquire further powers to tamper with the judicial process. The Executive—in addition to the powers that they already have to disregard, for political reasons, sentences passed by the courts—now, also for political reasons, want powers to ensure that, in specified circumstances, incriminating evidence, which might secure the conviction of terrorist murderers, cannot be used. That is an intolerable intrusion by the Government and one that the House should resist. Parliament should not grant the Executive such powers.

I see the Bill as merely the latest obscene landmark that the Government have placed in the way of a process that was publicly launched with the Downing street declaration in December 1993—a process that I supported under the Conservative Government. After the then Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), had made his statement on the Downing street declaration to the House, I asked him, with precisely such developments as the Bill in mind, for an assurance that there would be no let-up in the hunt for those that perpetrated terrorism".—/,[Official Report, 15 December 1993; Vol. 234, c. 1080.]

He gave such an assurance. The Bill is yet another example of how the present Government's policies towards Northern Ireland have departed from those of the previous Government and why some of us have little, if any, confidence in their handling of Northern Ireland affairs.

I, too, have the deepest sympathy for the families, relations and close friends of "The Disappeared". I understand their grief. I certainly understand the wish of many of those people that the remains of "The Disappeared" should be transferred to consecrated ground and reburied with religious rites, but that desirable end does not justify these means.

In Northern Ireland, democracy, decency and justice have been sacrificed for an agreement that does not remotely excise from society the belief in violence or the practice of violence. This measure corrodes and corrupts further; it further undermines the rule of law; it further extends political intervention in the judicial process; and it goes some way towards absolving murder and thereby diminishes the value of human life. That is not the route to follow if we want to establish stability and lasting peace in the Province.

6.2 pm

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East)

The hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter) referred to the Downing street declaration. My views on it are on the record of the proceedings of this House, but I have often contended publicly that one aspect of that agreement made common sense: if terrorists want to be part of the democratic process, it is up to them to leave violence behind, to enter the democratic process on the same basis as everyone else, to be exclusively committed to peaceful and democratic means and to end their violence permanently.

That is what paragraph 10 of the Downing street declaration said, but, in the months and years that have passed, the terrorist has not come to play by the rules of democracy. The democrats have had to lower their standards to the level of the terrorists. Today, the House once again finds itself introducing unprincipled, dangerous and —as the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) said —odious legislation.

May I enter part of the discussion that has been taking place? I do not think that the Minister is taking a giant leap from the release of prisoners and decommissioning legislation with this Bill. Its underlying principles are very much the same and, if one only looks at the short-term outcomes, one could even argue that it might be less problematic than the others, to the extent that there could be an upside —the long agony of those who have been waiting to hear something about the discovery of the remains of their loved ones might be lifted.

Each of us would find it difficult to understand the anguish of people in such a situation, but I ask the Minister to think again about the long-term danger of this kind of appeasing legislation. The Bill clearly sets a precedent, though I know that people will say, "Only for Northern Ireland." There will be a precedent none the less within Northern Ireland. Effectively, we are saying that there will be an amnesty —albeit in this limited area —for those who have carried out offences that have resulted in the death of individuals in the Province.

I remember the signing of the Belfast agreement in April 1998. When pressed about the long list of concessions that were being made to Sinn Fein-IRA, the Prime Minister told us that the concession process was at an end, but, ever since, the concession process has been prominent in this so-called peace process. We are told by the Government that they are creating the necessary conditions for peace, and the Minister has told us that again today. Much of the apologia in the documentation handed out by the Government —the notes on clauses and so on —says that all the concessions may be hard for us to stomach, but they are necessary if we are to build a credible peace process.

Can anybody show me where is the reciprocity within this process? What has Provisional IRA —and its fellow traveller, Provisional Sinn Fein —given to this process? Are we to thank them because, in name, they have called a ceasefire? As the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) said earlier, the dying words of a man last night identified the Provisional IRA as his killer.

The Provisional IRA clearly has not lived up to what was expected by its fellow signatories to the Belfast agreement. The Government are creating evidence of the success of the terrorist organisations within Northern Ireland —effectively, they have been rewarded for their violence and can get away with murder. We have a terrible situation in which all we need to hear is a threat from the leader of a terror gang or one of his political spokespersons and the Government are running to appease them.

Churchill was right when he said that an appeaser is a person who feeds a crocodile in the vain hope that it will eat him last. Over the past number of days, the Prime Minister has seen the teeth of that crocodile as it begins to move towards his hind quarters. His concessions to the IRA are appeasement of the worst possible kind —short-term payments to the ransom demands of the IRA. They will not build real and lasting peace, they cannot buy peace and they are destroying the genuine hopes of Ulster people for a peaceful future.

Look at what has happened in Northern Ireland over the past 12 months: the Government have sought to create the conditions for peace by letting terrorist killers and bombers out of jail, by reducing the number of British troops in Northern Ireland and by turning a blind eye to the callous and multiple punishment beatings in Northern Ireland carried out by the terrorist organisations —and turn a blind eye they have. The Secretary of State has a power to stop prisoner releases if she considers that any of the organisations that the Chief Constable has publicly said are carrying out those punishment beatings are guilty of such crimes.

The Government have also been establishing an international policing commission, which has effectively demoralised RUC members and will undoubtedly undermine the RUC when it eventually gives the results of its findings. They have established a human rights commission, which consists of nationalists, their political representatives and those sympathetic to the republican and nationalist cause. None of its members represent the Unionist community.

The Government have never insisted that the IRA decommission in order to be part of a Northern Ireland Government. I understand that today, a German magazine quotes the Prime Minister as reassuring republicans that words alone will be enough to satisfy him of their commitment to peace. Last year, the Prime Minister pledged that he would not let armed gunmen into the Northern Ireland Government. At the weekend, we were told that it is expected that the leader of the Provisional IRA, its supremo, who sat around a table while many of the odious deeds referred to in the Bill were carried out —everybody knows that he was the commander of the IRA —will be a Minister if Sinn Fein find entry into the Northern Ireland Government. He will be a Minister without ever having apologised for the Provisional IRA's deeds under his leadership, and without the least apology to the people of Northern Ireland for the decades of mayhem that they have had to endure.

Today, we have before us another act of appeasement to the IRA. It is being bandied about as another confidence-building measure, a necessity on the road to peace. However, the Bill is nothing less than an up-front payment of another instalment in the IRA's ransom demand.

The Belfast agreement promised us a "new beginning" and told us that peace was on the way. We were told that concessions to the IRA had all been worth it because the promised peace was here at last, yet just a year later, the British Government are engaged in another round of concessions to the IRA. The Belfast agreement is no doubt the master, but like all masters, it has slaves. The Prime Minister is undoubtedly one of those, slavishly devoted to a master plan that is not bringing about peace, but is capable only of bringing about IRA demands for a united Ireland.

The Government must stop the pretence that they have a peace deal and face the reality that they must cease the endless conveyor belt of concessions to terrorism. Whether the Minister wants to face up to it or not, the Bill is an amnesty for those terrorists who were never caught, whose files remain open and who want accreditation from the Government that they will never face prosecution for their terrible crimes against humanity. Indeed, I note from paragraph 9 of the notes on clauses that the Government talk about the Bill providing protection for those people. Thus, this is a Bill to provide protection to terrorists, murderers and those guilty of the heinous crimes that we have seen throughout the decades of troubles.

The irony of the Bill is that it comes at a time when this nation is engaged in a war in the Balkans. The Government tell us that we are there for "humanitarian purposes". The Prime Minister says that those who have breached the human rights of the Kosovo refugees face prosecution, yet in his own back yard, he asks us to agree to legislation that will expunge the guilt of those who murdered men, women and children in Northern Ireland, who kidnapped and who destroyed life, and who unceremoniously dumped bodies in unmarked graves, perpetrating an anguish untold on the families of so many in Northern Ireland.

How often have we been told over the years from the Dispatch Box that the Government will make every possible effort to ensure that people are brought to justice? They have said that terrorists will be hunted down. It is now abundantly clear that they have changed their minds.

Mr. Ingram

The hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter) did not answer the question that I posed to him about how we could recover those bodies and help those families if not by means of this Bill. Can the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) address his mind to that point? If not by means of this Bill, how, other than by his rhetoric, will he recover those bodies?

Mr. Robinson

That question shows the moral decline of the Government. It assumes that it is society's responsibility to put right the wrongs of the terrorists. It is the terrorists who are responsible for "The Disappeared", so it is for them to say where the graves are. It is not for society to make concessions to the terrorists in order that they might do so. The question shows how the Government have declined over the past years and are now pandering to terrorists —give the terrorists what they want in order that they might give something back to society.

Mr. Ingram

Is the hon. Gentleman saying that we should just continue to hope that the people who carried out those murders will eventually own up to their crimes? They have not done so for 30 years and they are unlikely to do so now. It is also unlikely that we could make them amenable to their crimes because we do not have the evidence. If the hon. Gentleman has evidence that would allow those people to be made amenable, he can, of course, pass it to the RUC. It does not stop any one of those who have carried out those acts being brought to justice. I urge the hon. Gentleman to address his mind to that. This measure deals with limited immunity; it is not an amnesty.

Mr. Robinson

That is the same nonsensical principle that the Minister enunciated in terms of decommissioning. He argued that we could not get the guns off those people unless we had this kind of legislation. The reality is that we did not require the terrorists to give up their guns. If the terrorists wanted to enter the democratic process, they should have abided by the rules of democracy, otherwise they should have been left outside the process and should not have had it both ways.

Again, the Minister asks what we are to do to discover the graves of "The Disappeared". The finger of responsibility points directly and only at the terrorist organisations that are responsible. It does not point towards the rest of society. The rest of society has a duty, if it has information that could lead the security forces to the unmarked graves, to pass it on. Indeed, the Minister must accept that even if the Bill is passed, even after the knee-jerk reaction, we shall still need information in order to discover the location of the bodies of "The Disappeared". After its so-called 18-month investigation, the IRA has been able to indicate only a limited number, and time alone will tell whether information comes forward.

However, there is no guarantee and this is a futile stab in the dark. The Government are acting like a puppet on a string, being pulled and pushed this way and that by the IRA, while the IRA laughs and guffaws at the Government's weakness and ineptitude. Look at the lies that the IRA has already told. One moment it claims to have divulged information and the next it retracts it. This legislation exonerates the terrorists. It contains no punitive measure, no condemnation and no punishment for their now sanitised "unlawful acts". The commission that will be established is just a sop to the Provisional IRA. The lawful security forces are not even to be entrusted with, or given control of, these matters. Another so-called independent agency is to be established that will cost taxpayers thousands of pounds for endless searches and blindfolded goose chases. Look at the millions of pounds of taxpayers' money that has already been wasted on the arms decommissioning body, and for no tangible benefit. The Government are throwing good money after bad.

The spokesman for the official Opposition, the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire, said earlier in our debate that the Bill tells us much about the inhumanity of the terrorists. I have to say that it also tells us a lot about the depths to which the Government are sinking in terms of appeasing the provisional IRA.

It is exceedingly difficult truly to understand the torment of the families of "The Disappeared". They should never have been put in that position. Let the House be very clear: it is the IRA's responsibility to undo the evil that it has done —it is not the responsibility of the House or of society.

6.20 pm
Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire)

I apologise for my slightly late arrival for the debate. A certain little local difficulty in Cardiff has been occupying my mind, and it continues to be a labour of love.

The Liberal Democrats cautiously support the Bill. Like many hon. Members, we have some reservations about it. I am uncomfortable about some of the restrictions that the Bill will impose. Its approach is similar to that taken on forensic testing for decommissioned weapons, so a precedent exists. Many people did not like that approach, but it was required to move the peace process on, and the work on decommissioning is still in progress.

It is paramount that the remains of the victims are found and returned to their relatives. That is what the families want, and it is the humane thing to do. The fact that the legislation is needed shows how cynical the paramilitaries have been about "The Disappeared", and about the peace process in Northern Ireland as a whole. The location of the graves should have been divulged long ago without any need for legislation. That would have ended many decades of anguish, pain and heartache for the families, and would have been seen as a confidence-building measure by the paramilitaries.

The IRA showed its contempt by releasing a statement at the end of March in which it said that it had located the graves of nine people who had been murdered by the organisation, but did not reveal the location of the remains. It seems to think that its cause is more important than the feelings of people in Northern Ireland. It was a bitter and cruel blow for the families to have their hopes built up and then dashed again.

We are not trying to appease the terrorists: we are trying to do something for the families. The paramilitaries could have ended their suffering if they had wanted to. The fact that the British and Irish Governments found it necessary to introduce this legislation is a sad and damning indictment of the cynical attitude of the paramilitaries.

Mr. Swayne

Does not the hon. Gentleman realise the contradiction inherent in his position? He accuses the terrorists of being cynical, yet he supports a measure that rewards their cynicism. He said that the return of the bodies was paramount. However hard a truth it may be to accept, does he not realise that the rule of law and righteousness is paramount?

Mr. Öpik

The hon. Gentleman's point is at the heart of the argument about which side one takes. We are not granting a victory to the paramilitaries. We are trying to right a terrible wrong and to alleviate the continuing suffering of people who want to know where their deceased relatives have been buried or where their remains are located. We could take the intransigent position described by the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) that this is solely about whether the paramilitaries gain a victory. I choose not to take that position. As the Minister explained in his introductory comments, the Bill focuses on the victims rather than on the paramilitaries.

The hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis) questioned the sense of hoping for any act of good faith from the paramilitaries. I understand his scepticism, not least because he is well versed in the feelings of people who have experienced loss and unbelievable suffering at the hands of the paramilitaries. I do not belittle his position, but I beg the House to remember that the people at the centre of this issue have given the strong impression that they support what we are trying to do.

It is my understanding that the families of "The Disappeared" have welcomed the Bill. They have said that they would agree to a great deal to get the victims' remains back. It depends on what one thinks is more important: the return of victims' remains to their families so that they can be given a proper burial and the long suffering can be put to an end, or the potential for a conviction and the avoidance of any hint of a precedent being set. My judgment is that the families of the victims are more important than the tenuous justification of not setting a precedent. Other hon. Members are entitled to take a different view: I am expressing the view of my party. I ask those who take a different view to consider seriously whether they have understood the feelings of the families who want the return of the victims' remains.

The hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter) said that appeasement corrupts the appeasers. I am not sure whether I agree with that in general terms, but I do not think that the Bill constitutes appeasement. It could more accurately be said of the Bill that the process of conciliation empowers the conciliators. The Bill is not about appeasement; it is about compassion. It is not about the killers, but about the victims.

I take issue with the hon. Member for Basingstoke, because, as other hon. Members have implied, the approach that he is taking is different from that taken by the Bill. The evidence suggests that his negative attitude towards the peace process has not been vindicated. Although enormous difficulties are still ahead of us, there has been some degree of success. Some of the doubts expressed in the House have not been borne out in practice.

The hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) said that the Bill was unprincipled and dangerous. I doubt whether it is easy to characterise it as unprincipled. I have to believe in the Government's good intentions. I do not see what unprincipled motive could be ascribed to them in introducing the Bill. Perhaps it is a little dangerous and perhaps there is a risk, but we must recognise that there are risks for both sides as we move forward with such measures.

There must be some give on both sides. I agree with the hon. Member for Belfast, East that there has been precious little give by the paramilitaries. The Bill provides them with an important opportunity to show a modicum of humanity by releasing the information so desperately wanted by the families of the victims. We may be proved wrong, and if no action is taken as a result of the Bill, hon. Members who doubt that the Bill will do any good will have been proved right. We must let history decide, and I am willing to take a risk and lay the responsibility entirely at the door of the paramilitaries.

The IRA has kept the locations of the victims' remains to itself and has disregarded the human rights of the relatives. The Families of "The Disappeared" group has welcomed the Bill, because it hopes that it will bring an end to the great suffering. The families have suffered a terrible injustice. Not knowing where one's relatives are buried is something that I would not wish on anyone. I can hardly believe that there are people who think that that promoted their cause or did anything other than condemn the organisations that carried out the killings. Let us remember that we are doing this for the families of "The Disappeared". They have been clear that they want us to respect their wishes.

The Bill is not the ideal outcome, but nothing is ideal about the subject that we are debating. I should have liked the paramilitaries to act without any pressure and any conditions. The Bill should not be necessary, but we must deal with the real world and take the opportunity that we have before us. Without some movement by us, there will not be much chance of movement by the IRA, which will continue to hold the victims' families to ransom. That cannot be allowed to happen.

The Minister said that this was a "wholly humanitarian gesture", and that is probably a genuine and correct aspiration on the Government's part. I do not think that there is anything for us to celebrate in the Bill, which we debate to the distant beat of a funeral drum; but I feel that a grief that, perhaps, we must all merely say we respect without being able to appreciate it fully is sufficient justification for us to act, even if that involves the small risk of a precedent that could prove problematic in the future.

As the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) rightly said, we are discussing gruesome acts, and what tragedies and crimes are concealed in the soil of Northern Ireland hardly bear thinking about. What a step it would be, however —albeit a small step —for us to pass the Bill, if it will end so much suffering in Northern Ireland. Another small step would be taken if, following the Bill's passage, the paramilitaries responded in kind and ended that great suffering. In effect, they have robbed people of the opportunity to grieve. I accept that risks are involved, but perhaps after this debate the paramilitaries will find the decency to give them back that opportunity.

6.31 pm
Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry)

The divisions of opinion in the House, which are widespread, have already been made fairly clear.

The Minister said that the Bill's purpose was to facilitate location of the remains of people who have been tortured and murdered by the IRA and buried in secret, and to restore them to their relatives so that their concern might be alleviated. My hon. Friend the Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis) said that that was the responsibility of IRA-Sinn Fein in any event. He also said that the IRA was simply twisting the knife. I note that the IRA is twisting the knife and being well paid for it —rather better paid than the soldiers and members of the RUC who were active in Londonderry on 30 January 1972, to whom no prospect of immunity will be available should they give evidence against allegations that are now widespread.

Bereavement is, of course, always a painful experience, and those who are closest to the deceased always experience a sense of emptiness and desolation. That is what happens when a loved one passes away. The misery is multiplied when the death is unexpected, and there is no time to prepare for the loss of a family member or close friend. Most of us must come to terms with such an event at some time in our lives, but, when the unexpected tragedy is the consequence of an accident —and, above all, when murder has been the means of removing a family member —bitter anger is added to the grief. Such horrors have been visited on literally thousands of families in Northern Ireland and, indeed, Great Britain during the past 30 years by terrorist organisations which, in the pursuit of political and constitutional change with the aim of dismembering the kingdom, have used murder as the principal means of intimidation.

Those of us who have the honour of representing Northern Ireland constituencies have visited many homes that have been torn apart by this wickedness, and have observed —indeed, on occasion have partaken in —the suffering of the families concerned. We are, therefore, not unaware of the feelings of men, women and children in such circumstances. The misery that has confronted us in such homes will live with us for the rest of our lives. Following our visits, bereaved relatives have come to us for help with compensation and other payments, and with numerous problems that have flowed directly from the murders that have torn their families apart.

When I came to consider the Bill, I had those experiences —gained over 25 years as a Member of Parliament —to guide me to my conclusions. Furthermore, I have always lived in an area that is predominantly Roman Catholic, and, over the years, I have visited the homes of adherents of that religion as well as my own when friends and neighbours have died. The House will know —and, given your background, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you will know better than most —that Irish wakes, in Great Britain and further afield, have acquired the music-hall image of alcohol-imbibing parties; but that is far from the truth. Such events provide an opportunity for neighbours and friends to express sympathy and regret to the family, and, in the homes of deceased Roman Catholics, to offer prayers. It is the religious element that pervades those dwellings between the death and the funeral, no matter what caused the death.

I am also well aware of the importance that the Roman Catholic population attaches to the attendance of a priest at the time of death. When I read that the family of one of the unfortunates who have been tortured and murdered by the IRA are desperate for the remains to be returned so that they can give them a decent burial, I feel sure that the lack of the rites of the Church at the time of death is one of the factors that weigh most heavily with those relatives. To members of the Roman Catholic Church, that is an important aspect of their religion. As a member of the reformed tradition, I would attach much less importance to the attendance of a churchman at the death bed.

It is against that background that I come to the Bill: a background of knowledge of members of the faith, many of whom have been employers and employees of my family in the past with whom I have grieved over the death of a loved one. I must say immediately that I consider this to be, in many respects, the most offensive Bill that I have ever seen.

I ask the House to consider the circumstances in which the people now known as "The Disappeared" died. The term "Disappeared" is, I believe, of South American origin, and refers to the victims of regimes there. The root of the term is that those who died were killed by the Government and their agents, and that those killed and buried secretly in unknown graves were democrats seeking relief from the excesses of South American regimes.

That does not apply to the victims of the IRA. Indeed, nothing could be further from the truth in their case. With the exception of Captain Robert Nairac, they have all been civilians who angered the IRA for one reason or another. The IRA, of course, is a terrorist organisation committed to the destruction of the United Kingdom, and to using violence to achieve that. According to the IRA, all those victims were arrested, questioned, tried and executed for crimes allegedly committed against the IRA and its objectives. The first three terms, however, are simply euphemisms for being kidnapped, being tortured in the most foul and brutal fashion—in some cases, until death —and being brought before a kangaroo group of vile thugs, and at best being informed that they were guilty of crimes against the Irish nation. There was no defence lawyer and no independent jury, and there were no independent witnesses. Fourthly, the victims were sentenced to death without appeal, then taken out and murdered, or possibly simply shot on the spot. When that was over, their mutilated bodies were taken away and buried.

Those are the vilest of crimes, which deserve the condemnation of every citizen —and, indeed, have been condemned by every citizen except members of the IRA and their apologists. Moreover, I believe that those who committed such crimes should be pursued to the end of their days in an effort to bring them to trial and impose just punishment. That is the normal standard in this country, and in every civilised state. If such crimes were committed in the United States, it would not be a question of Congress passing legislation to get the perpetrators off; they would be on death row, and would stay there until they were executed. Not only is that the normal standard in this country but the House of Commons, with the

enthusiastic support of the Labour party, created a law which allows us, 50 years after the event, to bring before the courts those who butchered the unfortunates who dared to oppose Hitler.

The present Government are co-operating with Spain over the detention and extradition of General Pinochet. We have listened to the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister on the subjects of Kosovo and Brick lane. The Prime Minister drew a parallel between the fight to defeat "injustice and intolerance" at home and NATO's battle against ethnic cleansing in Kosovo: The values we are fighting for are the same values: the right to live in freedom from fear, whatever your race or religion."

He said: When defenceless people are butchered by Milosevic in Kosovo, young men murdered, women violated, it is an outrage against the very values of humanity which are the world's only salvation. We must act to stop it. He went on to say: This is not a battle for NATO, this is not a battle for territory, this is a battle for humanity. It is a just cause".

He said later: As far as the eye could see, a queue of humanity stretches through no man's land to Kosovo. I felt an anger, a loathing, of what Milosevic's policy stands for, so powerful, that I pledged to them as I pledge to you now: Milosevic and his hideous racial genocide will be defeated. With regard to the nail bombing in Brick lane and elsewhere in London, the Home Secretary told us: This is a terrible outrage committed by people with no humanity. I know that the police are devoting huge efforts to find the perpetrators. The Prime Minister delivered a powerful condemnation of the same bombing, declaring that an attack on a single community was an attack on Britain as a whole: when the gay community is attacked and innocent people are murdered, all the good people of Britain, whatever their race, their lifestyle, their class, unite in revulsion and determination to bring evil people to justice. He called for the decent majority in society to take a stand against prejudice and bigotry. He said: On the face of it, it is a long way from Soho, Brick Lane and Brixton to Kosovo. But they are linked by the battle against bigotry and hatred —a battle of values. That is what the Bill comes down to.

In all those instances, the nation claims, through our top Ministers, to believe in the rule of law, and expresses its determination to see it applied despite the costs in trade, the blood of our fighting men and the treasure involved, yet the Bill continues down the path of undermining the rule of law, which was so well begun by the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998 and the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997.

The latter Act is costing £90,000 per month —the total cost so far is, I think, £2 million —for no weapons. It introduced the abhorrent principle —and it is abhorrent —that evidence as to the identity of murderers and other criminals that is uncovered in the operation of the Act could not be used in evidence in court. Clause 3 builds on that hideous principle. It prohibits the admissibility of evidence that is found during the recovery of a body where such evidence would be useful to the prosecution.

It does not stop there. Any evidence that would help the defence of such people could be used in court. In other words, half truths —a fancy name for lies —are now legal tender to protect the most vile and brutal of thugs, who have tortured and murdered citizens whom the Government, the police and courts have a duty to defend. It is, of course, a sickening fact that, even if detailed and assiduous police work managed to secure a conviction for any of those murders, the persons convicted would be out of prison in a maximum of two years.

The Bill is the product of a Government who, in opposition, accused others of a lack of morality. This is a question of morality —of simple right and wrong and nothing else. The Bill should never have seen the light of day. It should be opposed for the idea that easing the pain of victims' families is a good reason to forget the sobs, screams and pleas for mercy that were uttered to the merciless.

The Bill is a foul, odious besmirching not only of the House, but of the nation. In passing it, we become defenders of those same torturers and murderers, and accessories to the crimes that they commit. The Under-Secretary may smile at what I say, but at least I believe what I say. I wonder: does he believe what he is putting before the House?

6.45 pm
Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

I apologise to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to the House for arriving so late and then wishing to contribute to the debate. My excuse is that the issue that we are dealing with is a matter that I have raised on numerous occasions in the House and elsewhere.

In fact, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland was usually aware of what I was going to say. Time and again, I had pushed forward the issues of intimidation, terror, people being placed in exile and the bodies of "The Disappeared" so much that she knew where the question was coming from. She would then produce the answer, and we would see what the latest stage of that particular game was.

My reason for being late is that, suddenly, a constituency issue of some considerable importance emerged. a matter that may form part of the Adjournment debate that I have on Thursday night.

I support the Bill, but I realise that it has many of the problems that hon. Members have stressed. Moral and legal dilemmas are involved in a such measure, which have been strongly stressed by certain Members.

The hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) said that it was a simple matter of right and wrong. The problem is that matters of right and wrong are seldom simple. This is a complex matter of right and wrong. Arguments on one side outweigh legalistic and constitutional considerations about how we should handle matters of law and order —they are overruled by other considerations.

It seems that the overwhelming argument why we have this unfortunate legislation is that it is for the benefit of the families of "The Disappeared". They have been through horrendous experiences, which have gone on for years and years. Not only have they not been able to lay to rest their loved ones and to grieve. Often, they have been unable to express in the communities in which they have lived their concerns and their condemnation of those who have not allowed the bodies of their loved ones to be returned to them.

Initially, after their loved ones were murdered, those people may have sought justice. As time has gone on, what they have wanted is some concern, some compassion, and the ability to bury their loved ones and to complete the grief that they have had for years and years. That must be a strong consideration. The issue of right and wrong must be weighed against that consideration. It has tremendous weight.

We are talking about potentially, we believe, 14 bodies. It might seem that, in the weight of things, and with all the terrors that have occurred in Northern Ireland, it is a minor and small problem, but it is not for the people who have been consumed by the experience of losing loved ones in such circumstances. It is right that we should be concerned with such a matter in the House, and consider legislation to help them to overcome the considerable problems that they have faced.

The second reason why the Bill deserves support is that it will help in furthering the peace process. I have always argued that we have to address the issues of recovering the bodies of "The Disappeared" —so that they may receive a Christian burial —and of stopping intimidation and violence. Recent debate has helped to address the latter issue. Although violence and intimidation have not stopped, they —especially IRA intimidation and violence —have been reduced. I am sure that the attention paid by legislators to the issues has helped.

We have yet to address the issue of those who have been sent into exile and are not allowed to return to Northern Ireland. We should never forget those people, or allow the IRA to forget them.

I believe that if progress is made on the three issues —recovering the bodies of "The Disappeared"; stopping violence and intimidation; and enabling the exiles' return to Northern Ireland —the IRA will have demonstrated a shift in its horizons, attitudes and approach.

I condemn the IRA as much as any other hon. Member speaking in the debate, but we have to seek a shift in the IRA's position. We need to encourage the creation of shifting sands—the ultimate aim of which will be an arrangement on decommissioning. If the IRA takes a step in the resolution of one problem, it should be able to take another step, until we reach the big prize —thereby firmly establishing the peace agreement and the Assembly. Addressing the three issues will not solve all Northern Ireland's problems —that will take a considerable time —but the most intractable problem of all will almost have been cracked.

The Bill will assist us in starting that process. I grant that it would have been better if the IRA, in response to all the arguments and pleas that have been made, had readily announced the locations of the bodies and allowed access to them, so that "The Disappeared" could be returned to their loved ones. It would have been better if there were no need for the Bill. But no one was able to find the bodies. Given the IRA's position on the issue, we have been pushed into passing this legislation.

I accept that the IRA has helped to shape the legislation; but circumstances often shape our legislation. We have to respond to circumstances, and do so in a way in which our moral case is advanced, and in which the least possible damage is done to legal and constitutional principles. The Bill is not without problems, but I believe that it advances our moral case.

Mr. Maginnis

The hon. Gentleman has always been positive, and most tangibly so when addressing Northern Ireland issues. However, does he agree that his very honourable objective will be frustrated if the obligation does not fall fairly and squarely on the shoulders of IRA-Sinn Fein, and if not remorse, but reward motivates the actions of IRA-Sinn Fein? That is the point that I have tried to make in the debate. We are not seeing any sign of remorse from IRA-Sinn Fein, but we are offering reward.

Mr. Barnes

I agree that the IRA's position on the issue is disgraceful and that it has shown no remorse. However, I do not believe that the IRA will be rewarded by the legislation. I also believe that, at long last, the families of "The Disappeared" will not be given a reward, but be shown the decency that they should have been shown years ago. Although their relatives should never have been the victims of any organisation, once they had been, their bodies should have been returned. As the IRA —for various reasons —did not want to accept responsibility, that was not done.

I should say what I believe is wrong about the IRA's position on the issue, so that there is no doubt about it. Although we may disagree on this particular legislation, our attitude and approach to the issue may be the same.

Mr. Hunter

The hon. Gentleman mentioned "reward" in relation to the families. Does he accept that —using his own terminology —if a "reward" is the Bill's desirable end product, it extends to absolving murder?

Mr. Barnes

"Absolving murder" is a rather grand description of the Bill's provisions, as it suggests that we shall be able to catch the criminals involved and properly to pass sentence on them. We know that that will not happen. Without such legislation, there will be no possibility that the bodies will be returned.

The Bill may allow people to get off the hook, but I do not think that that hook will catch anyone anyway. Moreover, we do not have any other means of achieving our objective. Although the Bill deals with a complicated issue and is not entirely good, concern and compassion for the victims and their families should lead us to support it.

It took the IRA far too long to move on the issue. When it did make a move —at a delicate stage in the negotiations on establishing the Assembly —it was more like a ploy, as if the IRA was not genuinely moved and concerned by the issue. The IRA's action seemed to be only a cynical concession, for which it expected something in return. However, its concession must have gained it no advantage among any "audience" in Northern Ireland or Great Britain.

Subsequently, the IRA said that it knew the location of only nine of the 14 victims. It has yet to make any provision for the other five victims. We also have no guarantee —but only the possibility —that, when the legislation is passed, the bodies will be returned.

Worst of all, the IRA listed the "crimes" of those whom it had so ruthlessly murdered. Even then, the IRA had it wrong. The family members tell us of the obnoxious claims made about the "crimes" of their loved ones.

The Bill is not really about the IRA; it is about the families of "The Disappeared" and how we may assist them. If the Bill also encourages the IRA in making what it considers —in its own terminology and chopped logic, not ours —to be "a concession", it may be easier to make subsequent progress, getting us a little further down the road. However, it has taken us ages to get this far. The IRA should have taken its limited action —and we should have been considering this type of legislation —ages ago. The IRA should at least have made that limited move to allow us to produce such a Bill before.

I hope that the Bill is supported. We understand the problems, but it is justified by the circumstances and the opportunity that it will give to the families to bury their loved ones and overcome some of the massive traumas that they have suffered year after year. For some, being able to visit the graves of their loved ones in their last few years of retirement would be more important than it is to anyone else who has buried a relative. For most people, visiting the grave of a loved one is a ritual because they have a regular opportunity to do so. For the families of "The Disappeared", it will never be a ritual.

7.1 pm

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield)

This has been a sombre debate. It has reminded all of us who have been listening of the horror that has been visited on the people of Northern Ireland over the past 30 years. It has allowed us to focus on the activities of the Provisional IRA and the way in which it has treated sections of its own population, whom it said it would protect. IRA members have murdered people, concealed their bodies and refused to give any information about their fate or their whereabouts.

We are all united in believing that it offends every tenet of human decency for the IRA to act in that way after murdering someone. For many years, one of the most characteristic views of Northern Ireland on our television screens has been of funerals. Often, they have been the funerals of terrorists —members of the Provisional IRA —who have been lawfully killed in the course of carrying out their murderous enterprise. At no time in the past 30 years has it been suggested that, as happens in certain countries, the state should deny burial to those who have perpetrated such crimes or the opportunity to mourn them, because we stand by human rights and human decency. Even if we try to see some rightness in the cause of the Provisional IRA and to apply its selective morality, it is impossible to find a shred of justification for what has happened. The IRA has offended every tenet of human decency. The debate has provided an opportunity for hon. Members to express their contempt for that behaviour.

Two mutually irreconcilable views have been expressed during the debate. We have heard powerful and eloquent speeches from the hon. Members for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes), for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik), for Greenock and lnverclyde (Dr. Godman) and for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. McDonnell). They all pointed to the need for constructive measures to give those who mourn the opportunity to bury their loved ones. That is a powerful argument, which the House should not lightly disregard.

Equally, it has been impossible not to have considerable respect for the views of the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis), my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter) and the hon. Members for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) and for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross). We cannot minimise the step that we are taking with legislation that invites immunity from prosecution —or at least disallows any forensic evidence that might accompany the discovery of the remains of those who have been murdered from being brought in any prosecution.

Comparisons have been made during the debate between this Bill and the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997. I accept that the same tests were applied. Any forensic evidence that is gleaned from weapons that are handed in will not be used against anyone. There is a powerful argument that the mere removal of weapons from circulation is an important step in preventing their further use. It is highly unusual for a prosecution for murder to take place without direct forensic evidence relating to the remains of the deceased. It has happened, but it is very unusual and very difficult. I fully accept that the Bill does not provide an amnesty to those who perpetrated the offences, but it is right to acknowledge that its practical effect must be to make it most improbable that anyone will ever stand trial for the murders, unless someone confesses or provides evidence so powerful that it would convict those responsible without forensic evidence.

There are two matters on which I should like assurances from the Minister. We very much hope that if the Bill is passed, remains will be disclosed and discovered. If that happens, it is essential that in the forensic examinations that take place with a view to the inquest, the full facts and circumstances, in so far as they can be found, should come to light. The Bill should not result in those facts being brushed under the carpet for the convenience of those who perpetrated the offences. It has been pointed out during the debate that there are powerful grounds for suspecting that those who were murdered were also tortured and treated in the most abominable fashion. It is right that those facts should not be concealed from the public if they come to light when remains are found. I hope that the Minister will reassure the House that, although the evidence will not be admissible in a prosecution, it will be available through the inquest procedure so that people will know what happened.

Mr. McDonnell

I should like clarification on that from the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Minister. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that the further dissemination of information should be at the behest of the family, or should it be determined by the commission? Members of the family may wish to be aware of some of the information, but they may not want it to be disseminated more widely.

Mr. Grieve

Some clarification from the Minister on that would be helpful. Clause 4 clearly does not prohibit a test or procedure the purpose of which is to discover information in relation to an item where the information is sought for the purpose of establishing, for the purposes of an inquest, the identity of a deceased person, or how, when and where he died. I infer from that that there will be inquests if remains are found and that the usual consequence will flow from an inquest: the public will be made aware of how the people died. However unpalatable some of the facts that emerge as a result may be, those matters should be made public. I see no reason why they cannot be made public, even if the main thrust of the Bill were to go through.

Mr. Swayne

I agree entirely with the thrust of what my hon. Friend is saying, but does he not believe that he is raising the idea of increasing the public demand for justice while the Bill removes the possibility?

Mr. Grieve

I take my hon. Friend's point, and that was a matter to which I was going to refer in a moment. When the full facts emerge, it is likely that they will cast considerable doubt on some of the comments made by the IRA in its mealy-mouthed responses to the events of the past 30 years, and they may well excite a great deal of public comment. However, we should bear in mind the fact that there is powerful evidence that the relatives of the deceased support the Bill. That is an important consideration; although, as has been said in the debate, it is clearly not the overwhelming consideration.

In the same way, from time to time, people may ask in a court of law that malefactors should not be punished, even though they themselves have been affected personally. However, the law is there to be upheld, and generally the views of victims —although they will be listened to politely —are not necessarily given priority over what is regarded as the public interest. The public interest aspect of the Bill is of paramount importance.

Another matter on which I seek clarification is this; the point has been made that we are dealing with the possible location of the remains of nine murdered people, as alluded to by the Provisional IRA. Yet there is a general public suspicion that there are a number of others who were victims of the Provisional IRA, although it is possible that some may have been the victims of other paramilitary organisations. It is clearly desirable that, in so far as it is possible, an explanation should be forthcoming as to why the locations cannot be divulged. There may be a number of unpalatable reasons. One may be that the locations are wholly inaccessible. Another may be that, as a result of the ruthlessness of the killers, the remains of the murdered have been effectively destroyed.

I ask the Minister to clarify why, under the Bill, there would not be immunity for a person who cared to give the commission details of how someone met his end as a victim of the Provisional IRA and an explanation of why there was no possibility of recovering the remains. If such a provision is not in the Bill, we might wish to reconsider the matter. It is clearly desirable that, in so far as it is an informant's information, he should be protected if we are to get an explanation of what happened. That goes hand in hand with the question of finding remains. I hope that the Minister will address that point. When I read the Bill, I felt that it was inherent —or at least implicit —that such information would be covered by it. I would be grateful for the Minister's comments.

We must consider also some ironies in the situation. It has been said that the measure should be proposed as part of a general pattern of reconciliation; something that may be desirable. However, I am sorry that if we are coming to this point, it should not be at a time where there is clear evidence that reconciliation has taken place. If we were confronted with the Bill at a time when the Executive had been set up, when decommissioning was under way, when Sinn Fein was participating and when there were clear signs that democracy was beginning to thrive, it would be easier for hon. Members —particularly those who represent constituencies in Northern Ireland —to accept the need for the Bill, notwithstanding the problems that it poses.

I can well understand the fears expressed that the Bill is seen merely as another ratchet by which concessions are made to terrorists who have no intention of giving anything in return. It may be that terrorists, or those who wish to give the information, should beware. If some of the victims were tortured, it seems to me that the immunity that we may provide them with in terms of evidence in relation to the findings of the bodies may be limited, if recent court decisions in this country in respect of international conventions are accepted.

One can foresee a situation where, in 10 years' time, someone might find that their best remedy, if they wished to see prosecuted a terrorist of whose guilt there was clear evidence, but for whom evidence in relation to the remains was also required, was to go abroad and seek extradition from a third country, in exactly the same way as this country has faced problems in terms of General Pinochet. It is important that we remind ourselves of that. We are going down a similar road of making concessions, as was done in Chile, for the sake of achieving limited amnesties and some degree of reconciliation.

It seems to me that there are a number of clear and possible benefits from what the Government are seeking and —notwithstanding our reservations —it is for that reason that we will abstain tonight. First, I wish to refer to the families. Clearly, their views are not paramount, but they are entitled to great consideration. That must be weighed against the likelihood of remains ever being found so that they could be used in evidence in criminal proceedings in any event.

In many cases, we are talking about episodes —dark and horrible episodes —that are now many years old. Others are far more recent. However, the inability to detect the remains of those murdered up to now does not suggest a great likelihood of that happening in future. If it were to happen in future, it is more likely than not that it would happen in circumstances either of denunciation or of confession, which would, in all probability, get round some of the problems in terms of the amnesty element of the Bill. The question of the families' wishes merits great consideration.

Another matter has not been addressed fully in the debate. It has been suggested that, in this case, a concession is being made to terrorists. It is true that —strictly speaking, and in purely legal terms —such a concession is being made. However, the fact that we have debated this matter for some three and a half hours —and the fact that if the remains of those murdered are discovered, there will be massive attendant publicity about what the IRA did over this period —seems to me scarcely a victory for the IRA's cause.

If anything was likely to expose the hollow rhetoric of that organisation and the underlying nastiness that has characterised its operations, it must be the public exposure of what they did to those victims. There was never any justification for that, and the best weapon that the IRA ever had in the matter was the silence that it brought to the matter. The IRA was silent about what it had done. The IRA denied it year after year, and it has been forced in the peace process —however imperfect it may be—to accept and admit its actions. If it honours its commitments as a result of the Bill, the IRA will be forced down a road which, over time, will be shaming to it; and it will deserve every ounce of shame that it receives.

I do not see the Bill as a victory for terrorism. If the Bill works—I very much hope that it does work in the way in which the Government desire —the cause of democracy, freedom and those who believe in human rights can be enhanced.

Mr. Maginnis

The hon. Gentleman made the point that the legislation was in the interests of the families. Taking into consideration the point he made about how it would reflect on the IRA, is there not a possibility that the legislation will go through, but that members of the IRA will drag their feet and the bodies will still not be revealed? Does he see any merit in at least time limiting the Bill, so that it facilitates, within a specified period, what the Government intend? I am still not in favour of the Bill, but would there be some merit in that course, in terms of what we want to achieve?

Mr. Grieve

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, although I wonder if, in reality, it will be of any advantage to the IRA if their members do drag their feet. Let us consider the following scenario. The IRA have given several assurances. Legislation passed not only in this House, but in Ireland, is designed to facilitate the honouring of their pledge, but they then decide to do nothing. I should have thought that nothing could be more damaging to them —especially in view of the public disquiet that exists in the communities from which, over the years, they have claimed to derive their support —than to be seen to be unable and unwilling to honour their commitment. In those circumstances, the only possible conclusion that could be drawn would be that they were so frightened or ashamed of what they had done that they were unable to face up to it. That is not likely to do their cause much good at all.

In the meantime, if the IRA did not divulge the information, there would be nothing to prevent anyone from being prosecuted if remains were found by some other means. In those circumstances, the benefit to the IRA would seem to be slight. We could time limit the Bill; the Minister may want to comment on that matter. However, once the measure is up and running, there must be an argument that there is no need to time limit it. However, I should be grateful if the Minister would address that question, because it might be argued that, if nothing has happened after a year, there was no point in introducing the measure in the first place. That might be a proper time to say enough is enough.

I do not wish to take up much more of the House's time in concluding this debate on behalf of the official Opposition.

Mr. McDonnell

I do not want to be confrontational in any way, but I should like to be clear about the views of the Opposition. If Opposition Members are to abstain in the vote on Second Reading tonight, is that because they are abstaining until they hear the response from the Minister on the detail of the Bill or because they oppose the Bill in principle —or, perhaps, a better form of words would be that they cannot support the. Bill? If the latter — that they cannot support the Bill —reiterate what my right hon. Friend the Minister said earlier: the onus is on those who cannot support the Bill to offer an alternative that will allow those families who have lost their loved ones to discover their bodies and bury them, and put that part of their lives behind them.

Mr. Grieve

The hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable point, but it seems to me that he might be missing one aspect of the case. He and other hon. Members have laid great stress on the need to help to satisfy —in so far as we can —the perfectly understandable desires of the relatives of those who have been murdered. I sympathise with that. However, as I said, there was nothing wrong with the point made by some Opposition Members that it is not the job of the Government or of the House to alter the law, or the way in which the law should normally operate, in order to satisfy that need. The answer to the hon. Gentleman's question must be that we could tell people, "We cannot do that for you." If we were to say that, it would not be inherently wrong in any way, but at the same time, I say to the Government and to the Minister that I am sympathetic to what they are trying to achieve.

The Government have a primary responsibility to carry through their business and to take policy decisions that are often difficult. That is why it appears to Opposition Members that the correct course of action, in this particular circumstance, is to abstain. We shall of course participate in the Committee, in so far as we are able to do so. If we can make a sensible contribution at that stage, we shall do so.

What it comes down to is that the Government hold out the hope that the legislation might be constructive for the families and for the peace process, and constructive in making those who have perpetrated these crimes face up to their actions. There are legitimate grounds for that hope, but that must be set against what appears to Opposition Members to be the proper repugnance of right-thinking people to indulge those who have committed such offences by even going to the extent that we propose for the purpose of achieving that result. That appears to us to be a legitimate reason for abstaining on the Bill. We share the Government's hope and wish them every success in implementing the measure. We hope that it fulfils the Government's expectations for it, but we shall take the course that I have outlined.

7.26 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. John McFall)

As the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) said, this has been a sombre debate. However, it has also been moving, and for me it has been educative. We have heard many contributions from Members who have had experience in Northern Ireland during the past 20 to 30 years. We might be travelling along different paths, but we all want to achieve the end result of ensuring that there is comfort for the families of "The Disappeared".

The House has realised that the Bill has a humanitarian purpose —that is a core issue of the Bill. I share in the moving tributes that have been paid to the families of "The Disappeared". Several hon. Members referred to some of the families who were in the House today. Members on both sides of the House met members of those families. Margaret McKinney, whose son Brian was killed, was in the House today, as was Anna Macshane, whose father, Charles Armstrong, was abducted from Crossmaglen. One group has not been mentioned today, but it deserves to be recorded —WAVE, or Widows Against Violence Empowered. Members of that group have played a positive and constructive role —they were represented here today by Sandra Peake, and I pay tribute to them.

I shall try to deal with the points that were made in chronological order. My hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) made a number of points. He asked about the financial provisions of the Bill. The explanatory notes give a figure of approximately £100,000 for the commission, but, in giving that figure, we do not suggest that there will be any financial restrictions. Those resources will be shared when the commission comes into being as a joint international body, but we do not want to limit its work. If extra commitments are envisaged, we shall consider sympathetically any representations from the commissioners.

My hon. Friend also asked if credence could be given to stories of victims being buried in Scotland. He expressed the wish that the Scottish authorities should co-operate with the measure. I know that distressing comments have been made about the disappearance of the victims. The problem is that the lack of firm information has given rise to rumours, and the sad fact is that, until information is forthcoming, we cannot know for sure. However, the Bill is drafted so as to cover all possibilities and I have every confidence that the Scottish authorities would co-operate fully if that was deemed necessary.

I welcome the positive comments made by the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss). He drew to our attention section 11(2) of the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997, which states: Nothing in this Act shall prejudice any power or discretion exercisable"

and so on. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we shall consider that issue and report back before Committee stage.

The hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis) made a lengthy speech. He asked about the deal with the IRA without a guarantee of nine bodies. I cannot stand here and say with conviction that nine bodies or their location will be forthcoming. However, we have the evidence received from the families and others who are willing us to act and the statement made by the IRA on 29 March, to which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the Irish Government responded. We are legislating on the basis of that information and in the sincere hope that the agony of the families will end.

I acknowledge that the statements made by the IRA and others gave families hope in the short term, and that some of those hopes have since been dashed. We do not want that hope to be lost, which is why we are legislating —so that the sorrow of the families can be ameliorated to some extent. We are acting in a positive spirit. I acknowledge the hon. Gentleman's comments, but I hope that he accepts the sentiments I have expressed.

The hon. Gentleman also said that the legislation was needed and that Sinn Fein and the IRA were twisting the knife. He said that the only danger posed by forensic testing is that it might reveal the degree of torture employed. However, the British and Irish Governments believe that, without the legislation, there is no chance of information emerging. We want that information for the benefit of the families, which is why in the Bill we propose that there should be limits on forensic testing.

The hon. Gentleman said that we need to examine the activities of both the IRA and Sinn Fein in respect of decommissioning —a point made eloquently by other hon. Members. I believe that the sole beneficiaries of the Bill will be the families of the victims. As the hon. Member for Beaconsfield said, it will do the IRA and Sinn Fein no credit at all if there is no movement. No credit will be given to those who disclose information, for it is they who have shown great cruelty and inhumanity by prolonging the families' suffering for so long; nor, I believe, will there be any political credit associated with the paramilitaries.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act, and I looked up the speech he made on that legislation in December 1996, in which he paid tribute to Monsignor Denis Faul, as he did tonight. Monsignor Faul has been extremely helpful in acting as an intermediary between the families. He sees the merit in this process, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be comforted by the role that Monsignor Faul is playing, for over the years there has been no greater critic of the IRA's activities than that courageous man.

The hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter) called the Bill an obnoxious and dangerous Bill. I shall not indulge in party politicking tonight, because that would be inappropriate, but I looked up the hon. Gentleman's 1996 comments on what became the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act. He said then that he would support the Government. At that time, the hon. Gentleman was a Government Back Bencher and although that legislation exercised his mind greatly and he had considerable doubts about it, he gave the then Government the benefit of the doubt —I paraphrase, but I think those are the sentiments he expressed.

On the face of it, none of us here tonight would want anything to do with the Bill, but we have to acknowledge the reality of 30 horrendous years in Northern Ireland and the continued grief and suffering of individuals. We have to respond to that humanitarian plea from the families by going some way toward helping them. We do not agree with the Bill from first principles, but we are proposing it because it deals with reality.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the judicial process, and I can state clearly that the Bill does not affect the judicial process, only the admissibility of certain criminal evidence, and the limited guarantee extends only to information given to the commission. If any other criminal evidence is found elsewhere, the case can be prosecuted on that basis. The provision is included for a specific reason, which is to enable the bodies to be located.

The hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone referred to Sinn Fein's allegations of collusion by security forces. I note his points and recognise his sincerity, but to comment on them would be to stray from the Bill.

The hon. Member for Basingstoke said that the Government have departed from the principles underlying the previous Government's policies in Northern Ireland, adding that the end, although desirable, does not justify the means. The Bill does nothing to undermine such principles —yes, it gives limited protection in limited

circumstances, but it does so for humanitarian reasons. It does not undermine a principled approach to Northern Ireland matters, nor does it condone or lessen our disapproval of any of the crimes committed. The crimes were horrendous, and that the whole House shares that disapproval should be a matter of public record.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. McDonnell) mentioned article 5 of the agreement between the British and Irish Governments and asked about the next steps in the implementation of the Bill. He asked who will act as the commission's agents, and who will guard against the danger of collusion. If the Bill becomes law and the treaty comes into effect, the commission is established. The staff will be appointed by the commission, and it will be for the commission to ensure that the staff are aware of their obligation of confidentiality under clause 5 of the Bill.

My hon. Friend also asked about penalties. Because the families are in receipt of confidential information, it is difficult to legislate comprehensively. However, if there were a breach of confidentiality, I understand that the individual involved could be subject to dismissal and would certainly be subject to the full disciplinary process.

The hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) said that legislation would expunge the guilt of the murderers. Nothing will expunge their guilt, and their crimes can be prosecuted if other evidence is available. We are at one on that point: nothing will expunge their guilt. The hon. Gentleman also claimed that the Bill sets a dangerous precedent by giving limited amnesty and that concession is a prominent part of the peace process. He said that the Government are giving concessions to the Provisional IRA and Sinn Fein without reciprocity.

This process is not about concessions. It is about an agreed way forward in Northern Ireland, starting with the Belfast agreement. It is about an agreed way forward that is endorsed by the people, and that involves the British and Irish Governments and political parties from both sides of the community. I recognise that the process makes difficult demands of people on all sides. However, tonight we are replicating the courage and determination displayed by the politicians and the people of Northern Ireland. We have one aim: to achieve peace, stability and a normal democratic society in Northern Ireland.

The hon. Member for Belfast, East asked whether the lawful security forces will be allowed to conduct searches. The searches will be conducted by the security forces —that is, the RUC or the Garda Siochana —on the basis of information provided to the commission. I assure the hon. Gentleman that it was never intended to replace the security forces with the commission, and that information will be passed to the security forces.

The hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) asked about the read-across to Bloody Sunday. The Attorney-General has provided an undertaking that persons giving evidence to the Bloody Sunday inquiry will not do so to their own detriment in respect of possible criminal proceedings. However, neither this Bill nor the Attorney-General's undertaking will prevent criminal proceedings being brought. The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik) made several positive points that focused precisely on why we are debating this issue tonight. I can do no more than commend him for that approach. This debate is about the families and their pain and about minimising their suffering if possible.

Mr. Maginnis

The Minister referred to the soldiers in Londonderry. He said that the Attorney-General has given certain guarantees, but he said also that the soldiers will have to be identified. We know that, however innocent they may be, identification will blight their lives and leave them vulnerable to threats, and perhaps violence, from illegal organisations. Will he not reconsider the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) and perhaps view it in the context of this Bill?

Mr. McFall

The hon. Gentleman's point about Bloody Sunday is a judicial matter and will be referred to the Saville inquiry. The Attorney-General has made a clear public statement in that regard.

The hon. Member for East Londonderry referred to the horrendous nature of the crimes and said that those responsible must be pursued. The Government agree: the crimes are horrendous and the perpetrators can expect to pay for their actions. However, that issue is separate from this Bill, which has an humanitarian purpose.

It is nice to see my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) back in the House after a long illness. He has a long-running interest in and dedication to Northern Ireland issues, and he made some very potent and moving points, focusing on the families and on the genuine desire for peace. I congratulate my hon. Friend on his speech and on his commitment to Northern Ireland issues.

In summing up for the Opposition, the hon. Member for Beaconsfield raised several issues. We agree that the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997 is quite similar to the Bill before us tonight, and I welcome the hon. Gentleman's comments in that regard. He raised several questions about remains that are found and asked whether the full facts will come to light at an inquest. I assure the hon. Gentleman that a full post mortem and inquest will take place, as is usual with any murder. The findings will be made known in the usual way and the same amount of information will be made public. For example, the coroner might ask for evidence from a pathologist, and that will be given in public. As with any other inquest, the coroner will have full powers.

The hon. Gentleman asked why someone giving evidence only about the cause of death will have no immunity. The Bill is about locating the remains of victims. The provision of relevant information by the commission will trigger the protection that is mentioned in clauses 3, 4 and 5.

By way of intervention, the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone asked about time-limiting the Bill. The Government are not keen to close the door to the provision of information about "The Disappeared" either from the IRA or any other organisation. The hon. Gentleman knows that the IRA produced a list of nine names at the end of March. Some people —such as the individuals who came to the Palace of Westminster today —have expressed dismay that their relatives' names were not on the list. The families of those who were not on the list hope that, in time, details of the location of their loved ones' remains will be provided. That is why we are not time-limiting the Bill.

I hope that I have responded to most of the points raised today. This has been a very moving experience for us all. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, who has met family members and others in Northern Ireland on many occasions. He knows more than anyone about the pain and the anguish, but we have seen it for ourselves today. We have spoken to the mothers who lost sons under the age of 21. Those mothers brought their sons into the world full of hope and joy for the future, but that hope and joy were cruelly extinguished. Those mothers and their families want to retrieve the remains of their loved ones so that they can celebrate their lives in a dignified and a Christian manner. We owe it to them to do everything possible to effect that outcome. If we can, we must ease their pain, not continue it.

That is why the Government have introduced this Bill. We welcome hon. Members' comments, but we remain focused on its humanitarian purpose. We hope that the passage of this Bill will bring some comfort to those who have waited for it for far too long.

Question put, That the Bill be now read a Second time:

The House divided: Ayes 289, Noes 10.

Division No. 168] [7.50 pm
Ainger, Nick Clark, Dr Lynda
Alexander, Douglas (Edinburgh Pentlands)
Allan, Richard Clark, Paul(Gilligham)
Allen, Graham Clarke, Charles(Norwich S)
Ashton, Joe Clarke, Eric (Midlopthian)
Atherton, Ms Candy Clarke, Tony (Northampton S)
Atkins, Charlotte Clelland, David
Ballard, Jackie Clwyd, Ann
Barnes, Harry Coaker, Vernon
Barron, Kevin Coffey, Ms Ann
Bayley, Hugh Colman, Tony
Beckett, Rt Hon Mrs Margaret Connarty, Michael
Beith, Rt Hon A J Cook, Frank (Stokton N)
Benn, Rt Hon Tony Corbett, Robin
Bennett, Andrew F Cotter, Brain
Benton, Joe Cousins, Jim
Bermingham, Gerald Crausby, David
Berry, Roger Cryer, Mrs Ann (Keighley)
Betts, Clive Cummings, John
Blizzard, Bob Cunliffe, Lawrence
Borrow, David Cunningham, Jim (Cov'try S)
Bradley, Keith (Withington) Dalyell, Tam
Bradley, Peter (The Wrekin) Darling, Rt Hon Alistair
Bradshaw, Ben Darvil, Keith
Brinton, Mrs Helen Davey, Valerie (Bristol W)
Brown, Rt Hon Nick (Newcastle E) Davidson, Ian
Brown, Russell (Dumfries) Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)
Browne, Desmond Davies, Geraint (Croydon C)
Burden, Richard Dawson, Hilton
Burgon, Colin Dean, Mrs Janet
Butler, Mrs Christine Dobbin, Jim
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge) Doran, Frank
Campbell, Rt Hon Menzies Dowd, Jim
(NE Fife) Drown, Ms Julia
Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V) Eagle, Angela (Wallasey)
Campbell-Savours, Dale Eagle, Maria (L'pool Garston)
Cann, Jamie Edwards,Huw
Caplin, Ivor Ellman, Mrs Louise
Caton, Martin Ennis, Jeff
Cawsey, Ian Field, Rt Hon Frank
Chapman, Ben (Wirral S) Fisher, Mark
Chaytor, David Fitzpatrick, Jim
Chidgey, David Fitzsimons, Lorna
Clapham, Michael Flint, Caroline
Clark, Rt Hon Dr David (S Shields) Follett, Barbara
Foster, Rt Hon Derek Lewis, Ivan (Bury S)
Foster, Don (Bath) Lewis, Teryy (Worsley)
Foster, Michael Jabez (Hastings) Linton, Martin
Foster, Michael J (Worcester) McAvoy, Thomas
Foulkes, George McDonagh, Siobhain
Fyfe, Maria McDonnell, John
Galloway, George McFall, John
Gapes, Mike McIsaac, Shona
George, Bruce (Walsall S) Mackinlay, Andrew
Gibson, Dr Ian McNulty, Tony
Gilroy, Mrs Linda MacShane, Denis
Godman, Dr Norman A Mactaggart, Fiona
Godsiff, Roger McWilliam,John
Goggins, Paul Mahon, Mrs Alice
Griffiths, Jane (Reading E) Mallaber, Judy
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend) Marsden, Gordon (Blackpool S)
Grogan, John Marsden, Paul (Shrewsbury)
Hain, Peter Marshall, David (Shettleston)
Hall, Patrick (Bedford) Marshall-Andrews, Robert
Hamilton, Fabian (Leeds NE) Martlew, Eric
Hanson, David Maxton, John
Harvey, Nick Meacher, Rt Hon Michael
Heal, Mrs Sylvia Michie, Bill (Shef'ld Heeley)
Healey, John Michie, Mrs Ray (Argyll & Bute)
Henderson, Ivan (Harwich) Miller, Andrew
Hepburn, Stephen Moffatt, Laura
Heppell, John Moonie, Dr Lewis
Hewitt, Ms Patricia Moran, Ms Margaret
Hill, Keith Morgan Ms Estelle (Cardiff N)
Hinchliffe, David Morris, Ms Estelle B'ham Yardley)
Hoey, Kate Mudie, George
Home Robertson, John Mullin, Chris
Hood, Jimmy Murphy, Denis(Wansbeck)
Hoon, Geoffrey Naysmith, Dr Doug
Hope, Phil O'Brien, Bill (Normanton)
Hopkins, Kelvin O'Brein, Mike (N Warks)
Howarth, Alan (Newport E) Olner, Bill
Howarth, George (Knowsley N) O'Neill, Martin
Howells, Dr Kim Öpik, Lembit
Hoyle, Lindsay Organ, Mrs Diana
Hughes, Ms Beverley (Stretford) Palmer, Dr Nick
Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N) Pearson, Ian
Humble, Mrs Joan Pickthall, Colin
Hurst, Alan Pike, Peter L
Hutton, John Plaskitt, James
Iddon, Dr Brian Pollard, Kerry
Illsley, Eric Pond, Chris
Ingram, Rt Hon Adam Pope, Greg
Jackson, Ms Glenda (Hampstead) Pound, Stephen
Jackson, Helen (Hillsborough) Powell, Sir Raymond
Jenkins, Brian Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E)
Johnson, Alan (Hull W & Hessle) prentice, Gordon (Pendle)
Johnson, Miss Melanie Primarolo, Dawn
(Welwyn Hatfield) Prosser, Gwyn
Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside) Purchase, Ken
Jones, Helen (Warrington N) Quinn, Lawrie
Jones, Ms Jenny Rammell, Bill
(Wolverh'ton SW) Raynsford, Nick
Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C) Reed, Andrew Loughborough)
Jones, Dr Lynne (Selly Oak) Rendel, David
Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S) Rouche, Mrs Barbara
Keeble, Ms Sally Rooker, Jeff
Keen, Alan (Feltham & Heston) Rooney, Terry
Kemp, Fraser Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)
Kennedy, Jane (Wavertree) Roy, Frank
Khabra, Piara S Rauane, Chris
Kidney, David Ruddock, Joan
Kilfoyle, Peter Russell, Bob (Colchester)
King, Andy (Rugby & Kenilworth) Russell, Ms Christine (Chester)
Kingham, Ms Tess Sarwar, Mohammad
Kirkwood, Archy Savidge, Malcolm
Kumar, Dr Ashok Sawford, Phil
Ladyman, Dr Stephen Shaw, Jonathan
Laxton, Bob Sheerman, Barry
Leslie, Christopher Simpson. Alan (Nottingham S)
Levitt, Tom Skinner, Dennis
Smith, Rt Hon Andrew (Oxford E) Todd, Mark
Smith, Angela (Basildon) Touhig, Don
Smith, Miss Geraldine Trickett, Jon
(Morecambe & Lunesdale) Truswell, Paul
Smith, Jacqui (Redditch) Turner, Dennis (Wolverh'ton SE)
Smith, John (Glamorgan) Turner, Dr George(NW Norfolk)
Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent) Twigg, Derek Halton)
Southworth, Ms Helen Twigg, Stephen (Enfield)
Spellar, John Ward, Ms Clarie
Squire, Ms Rachel Watts, David
Starkey, Dr Phyllis White, Brian
Steinberg, Gerry Whitehead, Dr Alan
Stevenson, George Wighley, Rt Hon Dafydd
Stewart, Ian (Eccles) Williams, Alan W (E Carmarthen)
Stinchcombe, Paul Williams, Mrs Betty (Conwy)
Stoate, Dr Howard Willis, Phil
Strang, Rt Hon Dr Gavin Winterton, Ms Rosie (Doncaster C)
Stringer, Graham Wise, Audrey
Stuart, Ms Gisela Wood, Mike
Stunell, Andrew Woolas, Phil
Sutcliffe, Gerry Worthington, Tony
Taylor, Ms Dari (Stockton S) Wright, Anthony D (Gt Yarmouth)
Taylor, David (NW Leics) Wright, Dr Tony (Cannock)
Taylor, Matthew (Truro) Wyatt, Derek
Temple-Morris, Peter
Thomas, Gareth (Clwyd W) Tellers for the Ayes:
Timms, Stephen Mr. Robert Ainsworth and
Tipping, Paddy Mr. David Jamieson.
Clark, Rt Hon Alan (Kensington) Maginnis, Ken
Colvin, Michael Robathan, Andrew
Garnier, Edward Robinson, Peter (Belfast E)
Hogg, Rt Hon Douglas
Howarth, Gerald (Aldershot) Tellers for the Noes:
Hunter, Andrew Mr. William Ross and
Jenkin, Bernard Mr. Desmond Swayne.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Bill read a Second time.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 63 (Committal of Bills),

That the Bill be committed to a Committee of the whole House.—[Mr. McFall.]

Question agreed to.

Committee tomorrow.