HC Deb 12 May 1999 vol 331 cc334-47
Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry)

I beg to move amendment No. 11, in page 2, line 30, leave out from "effect" to end of line 34 and insert "on 30th September 1999".

The amendment deserves a fair amount of consideration in light of what the Under-Secretary said in his winding-up speech on Monday night. It is intended to time-limit the life of the Bill's provisions. He said on Monday night that the Government were not all that anxious to do that, but I believe that a time provision is embodied in the words that the amendment seeks to remove. The full subsection reads: This section shall cease to have effect at the end of such day as the Secretary of State, after consulting the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform of the Government of Ireland, may by order made by statutory instrument appoint; and an order under this subsection may include such transitional provisions as appear to the Secretary of State to be expedient. Therefore the Government at least envisage that, at some point in time, they would by order annul the Bill, and it would be swept away.

It seems to me that, as the Bill stands, it could endure for years. It could sit on the statute book until people had forgotten its existence. It could be there for 100 years before a Secretary of State decided to sweep it away. I therefore believe that it should be time-limited, to a precise date.

On Monday night, the Under-Secretary said: By way of intervention, the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone"— my honourable colleague, who has been speaking— 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 individual 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."—[Official Report, 10 May 1999;Vol.331,c.80.] If that is the Government's reason, it is a mighty poor one.

I believe that, by leaving the Bill in its present condition, we are leaving the door open to the IRA to twist and turn, and to seek publicity time after time. We are leaving the IRA absolutely free to manipulate—we know how good it is at manipulation—the whole community. We should not give the WA that freedom of action. We need a clear cut-off date to stop its nonsense in its tracks. If members of the IRA really want to help, all the information that they have as to the remains of those nine people, and possibly others, can be provided by the end of September.

In my view, I have been more than generous. The Minister knows that I do not like the Bill. I believe that it is an abomination and should never have been produced because it undermines the rule of law. As everyone else in this place should be, I am familiar with the old saying, "Hard cases make bad law"; the Bill is a classic illustration of the truth of that. There are hard cases here. As I said on Monday night, people's emotions and religious practices are involved. In going down that road, we have made a grave error of judgment. If members of the IRA really want to help, they can.

We must realise that some of the people who carried out these atrocious crimes are probably dead and buried. They carried their secrets to the grave with them, so there is no chance whatever of recovering the remains of some of the people buried. In other cases, the people who went out and buried the bodies do not know where they are buried. They have forgotten. Many of the bodies were disposed of in the middle of the night. Some, we are told, were destroyed in the most horrific manner.

All those rumours circulate in Northern Ireland. It matters not which rumours are true and which are not. We can be certain that some bodies are not retrievable. It is likely that some are under road works or buried in the face of a tip of a road embankment and covered over the next day. No one can be sure where such a body may be; it could be anywhere along half a mile of road. We are not going to dig up a road in order to find it.

There could be bodies under major buildings. Some could be under the Waterfront hall, for all we know. There is no way of finding them. They could be under other building sites. They could be buried in open mountain, in bogs or in any one of a thousand places. The folk who put them there cannot recall where they put them in the dark of night and in their excitement and concern to get rid of them as quickly as possible. Someone carrying a mutilated body around the countryside does not want to run into a bunch of soldiers or policemen.

The people concerned got rid of the bodies as swiftly as they could. A body may have been buried in the bottom of an open grave in a cemetery somewhere, and a coffin placed on top of it the next day. No one knows where the bodies are, but representatives of the IRA, out of the goodness of their little murderous hearts, have kindly told the Government that they know where nine bodies are. The amendment is intended to ensure that the IRA gives up that information within a short time. It ties the IRA down, which is the one thing that that terrorist organisation does not want. It leaves the IRA no room to come back seeking concessions. If the Bill is left as it is, the IRA will be back for further concessions. Anyone who has anything to do with Northern Ireland knows that those people do not go away. They look for all the room that they can get, and there is far too much room left. Let us pin them into a corner and, if they are genuine, they will come forward with the information.

I fear that the IRA has no real intention of giving up the bodies. The whole thing is largely, if not wholly, a cruel deception. If the IRA is indeed involved in a cruel deception, the sooner we expose the nature of the people with whom we are dealing, the better. If all the known bodies can be produced, let us have them within the next few weeks. With regard to those that are irretrievable, as some probably are, we will have to be clear that no progress can be made.

At the very best, we shall recover only a small proportion of the bodies of those who were tortured, in some cases to death, by the IRA, brutally murdered and buried secretly. I have scant regard for murderers. I have scant regard for those who carried out those crimes. If we deal with them, we should be sharp and clear as to what we are about and why we are trying to do it. We should time-limit them firmly, and at the end of that time, the Bill should die. The sun should go down on it on 30 September at the latest. If I had my way, I would have made the time scale rather shorter, but, against my better judgment, I wanted to be generous.

That is the background to the amendment.

Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire)

The Bill is a little unusual in comparison with related Northern Ireland legislation in that there is no time limit on the life of the commission. The prevention of terrorism Act, for example, has to be renewed every year.

Would there be any benefit in prescribing the need to renew the commission's existence annually? The default position would then be that the commission would cease to exist and the terms of the Bill would be terminated, rather than the current situation in which the Bill will continue indefinitely unless some other measure comes before the House. I should be interested to hear the Government's reasoning as to why a renewal provision has not been included in the Bill. Perhaps they might want to consider such a provision.

Dr. Godman

I might have had some sympathy for the amendment moved by the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) if it had read "30 September 2000". This is not a helpful amendment, although I listened with a good deal of sympathy to what the hon. Gentleman had to say. These murderous people—these highly skilful negotiators—may deliberately procrastinate and prevaricate in any discussions concerning the location of the remains of those people; nevertheless, I believe that the clause makes much better sense unamended.

On the other hand, I have a good deal of sympathy for what the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik) said about assessing the work of the commission over six months or a year. The hon. Member for East Londonderry is right that such legislation should not be allowed to continue indefinitely.

I can assure the right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Sir B. Mawhinney) that I expressed some reservations about the Bill on Second Reading, but the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire has come up with a useful suggestion here—an assessment or review should be undertaken and we, as Members of this House, should be allowed to assess the effectiveness of and the progress made by the commissioners in this deeply difficult work. I say that because there have been some allegations that one or more of the bodies may be buried in Scotland. It may take time to carry out effective searches in Scotland if those allegations have any substance, so I urge my right hon. Friend the Minister to take on board what the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire said.

Sir Brian Mawhinney

The cement that holds debates in this Chamber together is our acceptance of the good intentions and the good will of other Members, even if we doubt their judgment. We are in grave danger of attributing to the IRA the same sort of generosity of spirit that normally characterises our debates.

As the Minister has made clear, the Bill stems from a statement by the IRA that it thinks that it has found nine bodies and it would not mind, under certain circumstances, doing the decent thing. History is replete with examples of people of honesty and integrity being misled by terrorists. That is because those of us who are normal have such difficulty in getting our minds around the idea that there are people out there whose raison d'être is to terrorise. If they are willing to murder and maim and kill, telling the odd lie, even to the Press Association, is not a problem. It is our responsibility to be careful that we do not attribute more strength and importance to the potential lie and to the real lie than it warrants.

4.45 pm

Perhaps I may trade on my accent for a moment. What is extremely clear to me from Irish history is the inability of the English to get inside the minds of the Irish. Had they been better able to do so—and vice versa—the history of the past 800 years would be very different, and we probably would not be having this debate.

A promise has been made by people whose whole purpose in life was to terrorise the whole of Northern Ireland by whatever despicable means they could lay their hands on. They thought not a jot about killing, barbarism, multiple murder—whatever it was, they turned their hands to it with gusto and without a thought for the victims and the victims' families.

Now those people are saying that they might let us have nine bodies back, but they want us to jump through a number of hoops before that can be achieved. Fine. We are critically examining the Bill—the Government have thus far got their Bill without any Division in Committee. The hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) was right to say that this open-ended commitment provides multiple opportunities for propaganda over the months and, for all we know, over the years ahead. The instinctive reaction to that comment in the House is, "Don't be silly, Brian, it couldn't be years. That would be too awful for the families of the victims to contemplate."

That is our decent way of thinking, but those people are terrorists, and they do not think the way we think. The Bill provides at least the opportunity for more and more propaganda. That is not in the Minister's best interests as he seeks to govern in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Barnes

If the Bill is to be an opportunity for propaganda by the IRA, it will have to do better than it did when it issued the initial statement to the Press Association, because it was a public relations disaster for the IRA. It referred to nine bodies, rather than the 14 that we think are buried, and it listed what it claimed were the crimes that it believed those people had committed. I am sure that that badly backfired on them in Northern Ireland and throughout the rest of the United Kingdom. The IRA does not have public relations experts who are able to make use of this new opportunity.

Sir Brian Mawhinney

One of the nice things about the hon. Gentleman and I is that we go back a long way. When he was in opposition and I was in government we, by and large, saw eye to eye on security matters. I understand his point, but if he will forgive me for saying so, he is thinking about this matter as normal, decent people would. According to the Minister—I believe him, I am not questioning him—the IRA statement produced the Bill, which produced this debate, which will produce a debate in the Dail and which will produce open-ended legislation. That powerful message is ringing out around the world. Although I instinctively buy the hon. Gentleman's decent analysis, these people march to the beat of a different drum, and the House must understand that.

I have some sympathy with the amendment of the hon. Member for East Londonderry because I do not trust terrorists not to pocket what decent people offer them and then look for something more. I suspect—although I do not expect them to say so here—that the Government have already decided that the IRA does not like deadlines, because deadlines mean that what the IRA does or does not do can be measured and assessed in the context of a formal framework. As all hon. Members know, we are currently exploring that very issue in relation to the difficulties over decommissioning.

It might benefit the Government, acting on behalf of us all, to fix a date. If these people are serious, there is no advantage in stringing out the process. If it were done, 'twere well it were done quickly—and if it is not done quickly, we must ask why not, and what is coming next. A deadline would help to concentrate minds, and would enable the Government to say that they had acted in an humanitarian way on behalf of families, that there was benefit for the IRA, but that there was a line beyond which there was no reasonable excuse for going.

The Minister may say that we know of only nine graves, and that we should hold out an opportunity in regard to the other five. I could understand that argument if I were still involved in such issues, and I shall not vote for the amendment; but I shall ask the Minister to consider something else.

Dr. Godman

Does the right hon. Gentleman think that there should be a deadline for a review of the legislation, and an assessment by the House of Commons, or does he think that a deadline such as that suggested by the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) should operate?

Sir Brian Mawhinney

I was coming to that. First, I was going to ask the Minister to consider the arguments, and then return to them in another place.

The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik) said that there should be a review. That is one option; another is for the Minister to set a deadline, and to add a clause allowing the Secretary of State to return to the House at some future date to reactivate the legislation if he or she was satisfied, for perfectly legitimate reasons, that some years later information had come to light that had not come to light now.

I am not trying to bind the Minister to a specific date, because there is an element of uncertainty; but he is being too open-ended, thus allowing for the possibility of manipulation. The people with whom he is dealing are not like him, or like me: they are people who have spent their lives terrorising the community. I hope that while—presumably—rejecting the amendment, the Minister will tell us that the Government will at least consider the issues again, with a view to acting when the Bill is in another place.

Mr. Thompson

I support the amendment, and the imposition of a time limit. I understand that the IRA has announced that it has found, or knows the whereabouts of, these bodies, and is not revealing the whereabouts only because it fears that it might be liable to prosecution were it to do so—or that those who carried out the act would be liable to prosecution. The aim of the Bill is to prevent the prosecution of such people, and the prosecution of those who might be prosecuted as a result of evidence obtained from the bodies.

It seems to me that, if the people concerned know where the bodies are, once the Bill has been passed there is no reason why they cannot immediately say where the bodies are. Therefore, it will be only a short time before it can be discovered whether the IRA's statement is correct. After the bodies are then exhumed or found, there is no necessity for the Bill to continue. If, at a future date, terrorist organisations indicate that they have discovered other bodies, there will be no reason why the Government cannot bring a fresh Bill to the Commons, to be passed just as quickly as, no doubt, the current one will be.

Of course, I do not expect the Government to agree to that because although de jure, Northern Ireland is governed by the United Kingdom, there is joint authority. Almost all the major decisions that are taken in Northern Ireland have to be agreed and supported by the Republic of Ireland.

That is confirmed by the agreement that has been reached between the Government of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the Government of Ireland. It says: The agreement shall continue in force until terminated by mutual agreement of the two Governments and shall thereafter cease to have effect in so far and to the extent necessary for meeting any liabilities or disposing in an orderly manner of any remaining assets of the commission. The Bill says: This section shall cease to have effect at the end of such day as the Secretary of State, after consulting the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform of the Government of Ireland may appoint. The agreement means that termination has to be by mutual agreement. A member of a Government of a foreign state—the Republic of Ireland—has a veto over the affairs of this part of the United Kingdom, contrary to what is mentioned in the Bill. The Minister should perhaps address that point when he comes to the Dispatch Box. I certainly support the amendment.

Rev. Martin Smyth

The debate has been useful. It has teased out some of the issues. The thrust of the debate is that there should be a time limit to concentrate minds.

I recognise what my hon. Friend the Member for West Tyrone (Mr. Thompson) has said. He mentioned that the clause relates to the Government of the Republic of Ireland as well. That might be one reason why the Minister is not necessarily able today to accede to the request by the Conservative party spokesman. It is joint legislation, possibly because, among other reasons, some of the bodies will be found in the Republic itself.

The Minister is aware that I have been concerned about the matter for some time. For far too long, the terrorist has been playing ducks and drakes with us. Is it possible to know how much money has been spent already? After information was given, for example, in west Belfast that bodies were buried in such-and-such a place, for days, there was a search to try to find them and nothing was uncovered. I understand that it has been alleged that there are bodies in Paris. Has that been followed through?

It would be much better if the Minister, having listened to the debate, could assure us that the Government will take on board the points that that have been made by hon. Members on both sides of the Committee. The hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) has made some accurate observations, just as the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik) has. Together, we might find some way forward that would impose a time limit. That could be done by review after so many months, but it will not be open ended.

There is an interesting side effect, in that, if anyone is to be brought to justice when a body is discovered and a murder is confirmed with evidence from another source, the longer the process is spun out, the less time the perpetrators will spend inside because, under an earlier agreement, as I understand it, they will have to be released by June next year.

5 pm

Mr. Ingram

The debate has centred on the usefulness of the legislation and how we can give it proper effect. Clearly, the Government had to consult the Irish Government on the parallel legislation going through the Dail and to consider the question of time limitation.

We are faced with the reality alluded to by the right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Sir B. Mawhinney), that only nine of "The Disappeared" have been identified. There are certainly more, and it is interesting to note that two of those listed by the IRA were not on the RUC list. There is always a possibility of more names coming forward, and the legislation encourages people to realise that they can provide information, because it offers some limited protection. That helps the victims' families.

The Bill would be better without a defined time scale because people might not feel ready to admit their crimes by 30 September 1999. People take a bit of time to own up to terrible crimes. People may be prepared to say that they committed murder and know where the bodies are, but that may not happen within the suggested time scale. If we can encourage more co-operation, to help us to discover the names and locations of others who have disappeared, that would be helpful.

The core of our debate has been about the need to have an element of review in the legislation. It has been argued that, to ensure that it has an effect, the House should have the opportunity to scrutinise it again. In one sense, that is envisaged by the Government in any case, because clause 2(6) says that the two Governments will consider when it is appropriate to terminate the legislation.

I refer hon. Members to a document that has not yet been mentioned: the agreement signed on 27 April. It is a document to the treaty between the two Governments that gives effect to the legislation. Article 3, paragraph 2(c), says that the commission will report on its activities to both Governments no later than one year after its establishment, and annually thereafter. We have already taken account of that. Normal practice, given that the commission is to present an annual report to the Government, would be for the Government to communicate that to the House by parliamentary written answer or by some other means. Scrutiny would be allowed in that way.

Sir Brian Mawhinney

The Minister and I both know that some reports to Government are more sensitive than others. Officials sometimes say that a report is too sensitive to put in the public domain, so at the very least there would be pressure to produce a safer version. If the Minister is making a commitment to publish the report in full and to make his best endeavours, on behalf of Government, to persuade the Leader of the House to have an annual debate on that report, he has moved some way towards what has been urged on him, and that would be helpful.

Mr. Ingram

I am not taking criticism of this Government for sanitising reports, although that may have been the practice in the past. The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that the report could include some very sensitive information that it might not be desirable to bring into the public domain in the interests of the victim. We can speculate what that might be, but I would not wish to try to define it because we might enter a debate about whether it would be a real possibility.

The agreement is an international treaty and contains a commitment for the commission to report to the Government. That is in the public domain. The Government will also be obliged to review the efficacy of the legislation—has it achieved the desired effect and, if so, should it be removed from the statute book—so it will not be retained indefinitely. The report will be considered by the Government and we will be obliged to report to the House. However, I would not wish to give a commitment to a full debate on the issue, because I cannot tell the business managers what to do. As the right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Sir B. Mawhinney) knows, Ministers may want time on the Floor of the House, but it is not always easily obtained if other Departments have pressing demands for legislative time.

We are willing to be open about the issue and to try to observe the sensitivities of the victims, which is the overriding concern.

Mr. Öpik

Will the Minister give an assurance that one element in the report will be an assessment of whether the provisions in the Bill are still required?

Mr. Ingram

That is implicit anyway and would be part of the Government's thought process. We would have to take into account what the legislation had achieved. We hope that it achieves early identification—that is why I used the word "urgency" on Second Reading—of the location of the victims' remains. We hope that others will come forward with information on the same basis at an early stage.

I believe that within a year—probably within an even shorter time—we will have a good idea of whether the Bill has achieved those objectives. We might not have to come to the House with an annual report, because we might be able to tell the House earlier that we had achieved our objectives and the legislation was no longer required. I do not know whether the possibilities will turn into probabilities. The Bill is a new approach for the Government, as was highlighted on Second Reading. It is a departure from the normal process, like the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997.

While the commission—which will be the main channel for any information that people might wish to supply—could be disbanded, the remaining provisions need to stay to keep the protections in place in the criminal justice process. I hope that the provisions that facilitate the supply of information will not be required for very long.

Rev. Martin Smyth

I sympathise with what the Minister said about not always getting enough time on the Floor of the House, but Back Benchers get even less. However, I was concerned when he read out the provision that the agreement would be reviewed in a year's time. We are talking about the bodies of those who disappeared before April 1998. If we are really determined to help the relatives, should not the agreement be reviewed, and a report made to Parliament, every six months? That would keep the pressure on.

The Minister's example was of a person suffering from a guilt-stricken conscience who needed to relieve himself of that guilt. However, no legislation is required for that, and such a person would come forward in due course. If we are trying to maintain pressure on behalf of families who want to bury their loved ones decently and lay them to rest, we must keep up the pressure on the terrorists. I hope that the Minister will consider a requirement—even if it is not in the Bill—that the commission report every six months, rather than every year.

Mr. Ingram

Even if I were sympathetic to the proposition, I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that the agreement is an international treaty, for which the time scale of a year was considered a reasonable period. It was not envisaged that it would necessarily run for that period, but it gave us the opportunity to review it annually.

It would be very difficult to change the agreement. However, my approach would be to ensure that the maximum amount of information possible is placed in the public domain. We have to prove the effectiveness of the Bill in helping the victims, and thereby encourage people to come forward with information about other victims who have not been identified. Therefore, I do not want time scales to be stipulated in the way suggested: I do not think that my thought processes and my approach would be changed as a result.

In any event, hon. Members have the right to raise questions at any time to determine the Bill's effectiveness. Developments might take place within a week of the Bill being enacted that might invite such questions, and Ministers will be only too ready to respond. We must try to find the best way to communicate the information, rather than impose arbitrary time scales. For that reason, I cannot support the amendment, which I hope, given the assurances that I have given, will be withdrawn.

Mr. William Ross

I listened to what the Minister said with some interest. I was also interested in the time limits suggested by the hon. Members for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) and for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik), and my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) has expressed his desire for a six-monthly report. I should not be unhappy with any of those proposals.

5.15 pm

The Government have made many concessions to the IRA over this matter. They have even allowed the rule of law and evidence to be overthrown—a serious abomination in my view. All the conditions set out by the IRA have been met, and every concession that it has sought has been agreed. What concessions has the IRA made? There has not been a single dotted i or crossed t, merely a few empty words.

When we are dealing with such people, the right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Sir Brian Mawhinney) should be listened to. He is a former Minister in the Northern Ireland Office, who grew up in Northern Ireland although he has been away from the Province for a long time. He set out the position clearly and adequately: we are dealing with people who do not think as ordinary, law-abiding men and women think. They are prepared to use violence and murder to further their ends, and lies fall lightly from their lips.

The Minister said that he believes that he is giving some concessions in an attempt to deal with the matter in a certain way. However, my problem with subsection (6) is that, far from having to be kept alive in a year—or five, 10 or 50 years—the provision has to be killed in that time. If the Government had followed the path set out by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire, I should have been content and the amendment probably would not have been tabled. If there had been a provision that an order—preferably one that could be prayed against—would be placed before the House so that the matter could be discussed, I should have been content and said that the Government really were prepared to put some further pressure on the IRA.

We let the IRA off the hook far too easily every time. The Minister must go further than he has so far. Subsection (6) is not really concerned with the review. It is concerned with keeping the measure alive until an indeterminate date in the future, when it can be killed. I want a provision that the Bill has to be renewed, after discussion in the House.

Questions to Ministers very often are met with non-answers. We need to be able to ask the Minister exactly what has happened, to secure facts and figures, and to determine whether the IRA is only playing with us or whether it is prepared to come up with the bones of the unfortunate people whom it murdered. Their bones are probably all that is now left of them.

Can the Minister go further than he has so far? Can he meet a point that enjoys cross-party support? It is evident from what has been said that a genuine concern exists that we are handing the matter to the IRA on a plate. The IRA does not have to give anything in return, and we are making it easy for it to play with us and practise what has already been called a cruel deception. We should not do so: we should put pressure on the IRA. Can the Minister go any further?

Mr. Ingram

I do not think that we are making it easy for the IRA. The hon. Member does not have to take my word for that: he should read the closing Second Reading speeches by Opposition Front Bench spokesmen on Monday night. They said that there would be no easy publicity for the IRA, which did not win the publicity battle with the announcement that it made, nor with the details announced about the individuals involved.

I share the views expressed on Monday night that, once the inquest process has been conducted and the information about how people were murdered and their remains disposed of has emerged, the people responsible are unlikely to achieve a publicity coup. However, my opinion is less important than the impact that the Bill will have on the families. Will the Bill help those families? My answer to that question is yes: the approach has been agreed by the two Governments because of the jurisdiction interest that they share in the matter.

It is important to review the process after a reasonable period, but I do not accept the limit suggested for that period. Again, I ask the hon. Member for East Londonderry to withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Ross

I listened to what the Minister said, but I am rather disappointed, as I believe that a fair point has been made about the review period. However, I shall read with great care what the Minister has said today. We shall not complete proceedings tonight on the Bill, as it must go to the House of Lords before returning to this House. In the light of that, I shall withdraw the amendment, although I hope to return to the matter if the Bill is not amended in accordance with what has been expressed today.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Sir Brian Mawhinney

The Bill has been subject to much discussion between the two Governments and within our Government. None of the major decisions was taken arbitrarily or capriciously. There were reasons for each of them in the minds of Ministers and of the officials who advised them. I am happy to accept that without the Minister's having to stress it.

I was somewhat surprised, however, by the Minister's response to the short debate that we have just concluded. He was not as convincing as he might have been, given the amount of private discussion that must have taken place before the Bill was produced. We are told that nine bodies have been found and that the remains can be identified. Presumably, when the Bill is enacted, that information will be handed over. The longer that it is delayed, the more suspicious people will become that what 1 said earlier may turn out to be true.

The Minister is right to say that there may be some doubt about some bodies that have not been found. What surprised me was his statement that some people may take time to bring themselves to the point of giving information to the commission. They have had 20 or 30 years to bring themselves to that point, and I am not sure of the added value of another three, six or 12 months.

The thrust of the Minister's argument was that to give extra time would encourage people. I hope the Committee will forgive me, but my mind went to Treasury matters. I will go home and check this, but my memory suggests that when the Chancellor of the Exchequer, through the Inland Revenue, sends me a note about self-assessment on taxation, he does not say, "By the way, Brian, you can have as much time as you like to think about it, because, the longer you have, the more you may be inclined to send me some money." The note in fact names a certain date by which one must pay, and if one does not pay, consequences follow.

I was surprised by what the Minister said. Will he reflect further on this matter? I do not make a partisan point, and I have tried to show my understanding of the problems with which the Minister must wrestle. However, there is a mood in the Committee that, whether by review or bi-annual or annual debate, the process should not be open ended in the way that the Bill suggests that it might be.

I ask the Minister to reflect the spirit as well as the substance of this debate to the Secretary of State and other members of the Government. If he does, when the Bill arrives at the other place, that issue can be addressed. I have been a Minister and I appreciate that it is difficult spontaneously to reply to serious and on-going points raised in mid-debate. By the time that the Bill reaches the other place, the Government will have had time fully to consider those points, and I hope that we might then hear a slightly more definitive response from them.

Mr. William Ross

Anyone who reads the Bill will note that clause 2 deals with the commission. The commission is created as a body corporate, with all the resulting legal capacities. Clause 2(1)(b) will confer on the Commission, in such cases, to such an extent and with such modifications as the order may specify, any of the privileges and immunities set out in … the International Organisations Act 1968". What sort of modifications do the Government intend? What is the extent of the commission's powers?

What is meant by paragraph (c), which will confer on members and servants of the Commission and members of their families who form part of their households, in such cases, to such extent and with such modifications as the order may specify, any of the privileges and immunities set out in Parts II, III and V of that Schedule"? And what is meant by paragraph (d), which will make provision about the waiver of privileges and immunities"? We seem to be setting up a body with a wide range of privileges, immunities and powers. The Committee needs to be told more than the Bill tells us.

The final sentence of subsection (1) tells us that 'servants of the Commission' includes agents of, and persons carrying out work for or giving advice to, the Commission. I can think of circumstances in which that provision would have very wide application. The Government must tell us what sort of agents they are considering. Who are they? How will they be chosen? How will they be remunerated? How will persons who carry out the commission's work be chosen, and how will they be paid? What will their duties be? The Bill contains a hedgehog of problems, and we have not been told all that we need to know. The order referred to in subsection (1) will make different provisions for different cases, including different provisions for different persons. We seem to be moving towards making different provisions for each individual. That is most unusual. The Minister cannot expect simply to get away with doing that. If he cannot answer these points tonight, we shall have to come back to them on Report. We need to know the position.

Will the commission be an all-Ireland body? As I recall from the treaty, it could be comprised of as few as two persons, or could seat a good many more. I do not recall whether any upper limit was specified. The Committee would like to know the nature of the commission. Is it a cross-border body or an all-Ireland body? Where will it be based? What sort of people do we seek to serve on it? What premises and equipment are needed? Is it a big operation or a small one?

The Secretary of State will make various payments. Will the commission be funded by the United Kingdom Exchequer or by the Northern Ireland Office alone? Will it be jointly funded with the Irish Republic as it sits between the two Governments? Who pays? Those questions require answers.

I assume that the Government have in mind a date on which the Bill can come into effect. When is it? Is it the end of May, June, or July? If there is such a rush to enact the Bill, the Government must have made up their mind on that. When will the commissioners be appointed? When will they start work? Where will their offices be? All those details must have been sorted out, so may we have the answers to our questions?

5.30 pm
Mr. Ingram

Let me deal first with the point made by the right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Sir B. Mawhinney) on open-endedness. I thought that we had debated that. We have no guarantee that what we would like to happen will happen, but the strong probability is that it will, and quickly. I do not want to suggest the likely time scale, because that would build up the hopes of the families, which have been built up so many times before and dashed.

The hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) talked about a recent extensive dig in west Belfast. I did not answer his point, but perhaps I should now. I do not have information on the cost, but if remains had been recovered, the cost would have been worth it for that family and for everyone in Northern Ireland because it would have been a release.

We do not know whether the process will happen, but the probability is that it will, and quickly. I do not want to set a time scale that would terminate it when we might be encouraging information to come forward. I also distinguished between the information that we now have to hand—the nine listed by the IRA—and the five to seven more that may fall in the same category but have not yet been owned up to by any group or individual. We hope that, if the first movement happens, it will encourage others to come forward.

On what the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) asked, the order-making power is similar to that relating to decommissioning and protects those who carry out the actions on behalf of the two Governments. It can involve small, detailed issues relating to liability to income tax. It can relate to members of those persons' families and give immunities against tort. I could go through the whole of part I of schedule 1 of the International Organisations Act 1968. It is possible that not all of that will be required. We do not envisage an international aspect to the commission. It is likely that there will be two commissioners because we have to act quickly. I announced on Monday the name of the commissioner that the British Government will put forward. I understand that the Irish Government are in the process of identifying theirs. The time scale is determined by getting the business through both Houses. On that basis, I cannot say with certainty when it will be activated because the measure has not yet been passed. We have been telling families, and saying publicly, that it will be in a few weeks.

As I said on Second Reading, I hope that, once the legislation is on the statute book, both here and in the Republic of Ireland, the information will emerge quickly. We are planning for that eventuality. We have also put in place a detailed approach to handling the matter on an inter-agency basis to bring into play all the Departments that may be involved, together with the RUC and the Churches. We anticipate that the Roman Catholic Church will have the main interest. Our detailed and comprehensive approach will mean that everyone is aware of what they have to do so that we can move immediately the information is given.

Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire)

The Minister has said more than once, both on Second Reading and tonight, that there is no guarantee that information will be forthcoming. Could he share with the Committee any indication that he or other Ministers have had from the IRA that, once the legislation is in place, it will move in a short time scale? He mentioned weeks.

Mr. Ingram

The British Government have had no contact with the IRA on this issue, which has been handled through an intermediary with the Irish Government. I do not want to divulge or discuss what has passed between two sovereign Governments. I have said that we expect this to happen early, but we are not speaking only to those in the Chamber; our words go elsewhere. I do not want to dash the hopes of families. That is why, when I meet them, I will have to say that we cannot control whether the information that they need will emerge. We hope that it will, which is why we have advanced legislation to encourage it. I do not want raise false hopes on their part, but such hopes are more realistic than any for the past 30 years.

If the organisation with the information decides not to bring it forward, I know what statements I will make. I am sure that they would be echoed in the Dail and internationally. It is bad enough that the murders were carried out, but to do that to families would be unforgivable. We are not negotiating in the Committee on this. These are sensitive issues. I am encouraged that we have taken the matter down this road. We hope that what we are trying to achieve will be achieved, but, ultimately, it is not in our hands.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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