HC Deb 08 February 2000 vol 344 cc185-96

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

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe)

I begin my contribution by returning to a matter that was raised earlier. I deplore the fact that we have had to consider the Bill without having available to us the de Chastelain report. The Secretary of State has come to Parliament to ask us to approve this legislation on an emergency basis. The only reason that he has done so is the de Chastelain report. Astonishingly, when one of my hon. Friends made that point earlier, the Secretary of State rebuked him and told him that he ought to be talking about something more significant than the de Chastelain report. In this context there could hardly be anything more significant than the report.

We in the House are not to be shown the report. That is an outrage. The Government proclaim themselves devoted to open government. One could hardly have a more eloquent example of their failure in that respect and of their arrogant contempt for Parliament than their failure to allow us to see the report.

8.15 pm

Having looked at "Erskine May", I find that the attitude of the Secretary of State and the Government appears to be clearly in breach of the statement on page 387, which says: A Minister of the Crown may not read or quote from a despatch or other State paper not before the House, unless he is prepared to lay it upon the Table. I ask you, Mr. Lord, for a considered ruling on whether the Secretary of State has complied with his obligations.

The Second Deputy Chairman

As far as I am aware, the Secretary of State has neither read nor quoted directly from the report in question, but I understand that the right hon. and learned Gentleman's point is very important and I will undertake to ensure that it is given further consideration.

Mr. Howard

I am most grateful to you, Mr. Lord. I asked for a considered ruling, rather than an immediate one, because you and Madam Speaker will have carefully to read Hansard from today and last Thursday to find out to what extent the Secretary of State quoted from the report. My impression is that a careful reading of what he said today and on Thursday will disclose that he quoted from the report.

The Secretary of State did not improve matters with the explanation that he gave when we raised the matter earlier today. He appeared to rely on the fact that the report was made to the Irish Government as well as to the UK Government as a reason for not disclosing it. The clear implication was that pressure from the Irish Government was the reason why the report was not to be made available to the House. I do not know whether the Secretary of State had thought through that justification and its implications, but it seems to me that it has most unfortunate consequences.

There are many areas in which it would be desirable for the UK Government to co-operate closely with the Government of the Irish Republic, and such co-operation would have the enthusiastic support of the House, but if the consequence of that co-operation is that the Irish Government will be able to exercise a veto on the disclosure of information to the House, that will inevitably give hon. Members pause before they support such co-operation in future.

I have no doubt that, when the House was originally told that the de Chastelain report would be submitted jointly to the Irish Government and the UK Government, no one thought that it was a matter of concern. That would have been regarded as an entirely appropriate step, and so far as I am aware, no one in the House registered an objection to that course. Had we known, however, that it meant that the Irish Government would have a veto on whether or not the content of the report could be disclosed to the House, even when the House is being asked to approve emergency legislation on the basis of the report, the attitude of many hon. Members would have been different. That would have been unfortunate.

The explanation that was, in the end, dragged out of the Secretary of State earlier today has unfortunate, far-reaching implications. I hope that he will reflect on those implications when he considers the course that he has taken and the way in which he has kept from the House the contents of that report.

Mr. Hunter

I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend. His argument is strengthened if he shares my understanding that the decommissioning commission was established by legislation from this place and is accountable to this place. There was no corresponding legislation in the Parliament of the Republic of Ireland.

Mr. Howard

My hon. Friend makes a valuable point, which reinforces mine. It is a serious argument, on which I hope the Secretary of State will reflect.

I proceed to a more general point on clause 1 stand part. Clause 1 sets out the effects of the suspension of devolution, if and when the Bill comes into force. I support the Bill and share the regret which has been widely expressed that it has become necessary.

When we debated affairs in the Province in July, I posed two questions. If the IRA and other terrorist organisations have indeed given up violence for good—the basic assumption on which the entire peace process rests—why should they need to keep their guns and their bombs? If at some point they will be prepared to give up their guns and their bombs, why not now? I do not believe that there is any answer to those questions, which is why I find it difficult to be optimistic about the process, much though I should like it to succeed.

I shall refer to one aspect of that process, which the Bill directly calls into question. It was touched on earlier, during Second Reading—the release of terrorist prisoners. Many of us found that the most difficult and painful provision in the Belfast agreement. It raises and, indeed, breaches principles that are very dear to us. The provision impinges directly on my constituents, who would have been victims of the seaside bombing plot in 1984—a plot prevented only by effective action by the police. The release of those responsible for that plot and for terrible deeds of violence which they did commit was a bitter pill to swallow.

We were, however reluctantly, prepared to go along with the provision. In my case at least, the decisive argument was that the prisoners would be the most powerful promoters of the peace. They, we were told, would be the most persuasive advocates within their movements for the abandonment of violence, for the end of terrorism and—an essential part of the process and the agreement—for giving up the guns and the bombs with which such enormous suffering had been inflicted. We were in part persuaded to take that step because the legislation that put the agreement into effect identified with some precision the factors that the Secretary of State must take into account in deciding whether prisoners should be released. Under the existing legislation, one of those factors is the extent to which the organisation to which the prisoners belong is prepared to co-operate in decommissioning.

It is, alas, now clear that our expectations have not been fulfilled, and that calls into question in the most direct way the continuing release of prisoners under the existing legislation.

Dr. Godman

I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for showing his characteristic courtesy to me. Can he confirm that more than 200 prisoners were released under 1995 legislation when he was a member of that Administration?

Mr. Howard

The prisoners were released, but the circumstances were entirely different. What happened on that occasion was not some arbitrary shortening of the sentence, as is provided for under the current legislation. I take it that the hon. Gentleman is referring to what happened in Northern Ireland. Is that right?

Dr. Godman

indicated assent.

Mr. Howard

What happened then was that the provisions that existed at that time in Northern Ireland were brought into line with the provisions that existed in England and Wales. There had been a difference between the provisions for remission in Northern Ireland and those that existed in England and Wales, and on that occasion they were made consistent with each other. That was a set of circumstances far removed from those that exist under the current legislation.

Rev. Martin Smyth

I appreciate the right hon. and learned Gentleman giving way. There are those who will find his argument hard to follow, but is it not summed up by what happened in the courts last week, when two people were convicted of murdering a Roman Catholic and a Protestant, and they showed contempt for the judgment, because they know that they will walk out in July?

Mr. Howard

Yes, the hon. Gentleman is right. I am sorry to hear that he thinks that my argument will be hard to follow. I thought that the argument that I was putting was simple, clear and easy to follow, but we must all be disabused of our pretensions. However, I agree that the example that he cited illustrates my point.

If, as we were told, the prisoners are the most powerful promoters of the peace, an announcement by the Secretary of State under the existing legislation that the release of those who remain in custody will cease until progress is made on decommissioning would put clear pressure on them to do what we were told they would do—to promote the peace. If they cannot or choose not to influence the process, the original justification for their release will not exist.

Either way, prisoner releases should not continue, and I hope that we will have a clear statement from the Minister this evening to that effect.

Dr. Godman

I shall be brief. My contribution to the clause stand part debate centres on my concern for those who are employed in any of the institutions that may face suspension. When my hon. Friend the Minister responds to the debate, can he confirm that the interests of those employees—I have no idea how many people there are in the employment of the Assembly or the Executive, for example—will be protected in accordance with their terms and conditions of employment?

Mr. Hunter

As we know, clause 1 lies at the heart of the Bill and provides for the suspension of devolved government in Northern Ireland. My approach to the Bill is generally supportive, but I have one point of genuine concern, which I hope the Minister can address when he replies.

The House spent tens of hours scrutinising and deliberating on the Northern Ireland Act 1998, and a not inappreciable amount of time considering what became section 30. I do not understand why the Government are introducing the Bill at all. Section 30 of the 1998 Act allows for the exclusion from ministerial office of members of a political party that is not committed to non-violence and exclusively peaceful and democratic means". Many hon. Members opposite understandably said that they wanted the structures and institutions of devolved Government to continue. The 1998 Act provides for that. I do not understand why the Government are introducing the Bill when they can exclude under existing legislation those who are deemed not to be committed to non-violence and exclusively peaceful and democratic methods.

8.30 pm
Mr. Opik

I reiterate the point that I made in the previous short debate on the amendments. Perhaps it was a bit naughty of me to raise the matter then, because I should have waited until the stand part debate.

Clause 1(4) states: No person is to continue to hold office or be elected, nominated or appointed as a Minister or junior Minister, or as a chairman or deputy chairman of a statutory committee. The provision should read, "statutory or standing committee". Will the Minister clarify whether, technically, the Chairs for the Standing Committees on Standards and Privileges, on Procedure, on Audit, on Public Accounts and the Committee of the Centre can continue to carry out their functions when those Committee cannot meet? If the Bill is used, the Minister must be absolutely clear about whether it affects Standing Committees. If it does not, does he intend to include a provision to correct that as the Bill proceeds?

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down)

On Second Reading, my hon. Friend the Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) expressed our party's opposition to the Bill and to dismantling a delicate edifice of political institutions, which will be extremely difficult to restore.

I apologise to earlier speakers for my absence, but I have just left what, sadly, may be the last meeting of the Northern Ireland Assembly. I want to stress to the House, and especially to the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter), that this morning's Order Paper in the Assembly included a motion to exclude Sinn Fein and that it did not receive the necessary number of votes—which is only 30 out of 108—to support it. The Assembly is a cross-party body, and Unionist parties, extreme and moderate, and nationalist parties, extreme and moderate, do not support the exclusion of Sinn Fein at the moment.

That is a lesson to the House about how carefully we handle our delicate political institutions. That is why my party opposes the whole concept of the Bill, the contents of which are mainly embodied in clause 1. We cannot enforce decommissioning by such a measure, which is a slap on the wrists of Northern Ireland politicians. It penalises elected Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly, the vast majority of whom are not culpable through failing to decommission. It is therefore important to put on record that the Assembly, no later than a few hours ago, did not believe it proper to exclude representatives of the IRA from their number. In that case, why should this House do it?

Mr. Peter Robinson

Before we consider clause 1 stand part, I express our sympathy to the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady). All of us have known him for a long time, and we respect his courage in being here today following the recent tragic murder of his niece. I am sure that he has the sympathy of all hon. Members.

I suppose that I am required to declare an interest when considering clause 1. Several hon. Members who have spoken also have an interest. I am a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly, and a Minister with responsibility for a Department in that Government. I want to speak against what might be perceived as my interest. I have been a convinced devolutionist for a long time. For the past 21 years in the House, I have frequently argued, from both sides of the House, for devolution in Northern Ireland and for decentralisation of powers. I believe without qualification that no matter how well intentioned Ministers who went from Great Britain to Northern Ireland may have been, in the time that they were there they could not have had the same feel for the needs of people in Northern Ireland. Given their number, it was asking a lot of each Minister, or of any human being, to take charge of what would be four Departments under the present system.

I am not against devolution in principle—I support it—but when I read the Belfast agreement I realised that the price that the people of Northern Ireland were being asked to pay for it was too high. The four principal features of the agreement were the release of terrorist prisoners before their due dates, the destruction of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the setting up of apparatus that leaned towards a united Ireland—including unaccountable all-Ireland bodies with executive powers—and placing in government those who were still unrepentant and have clear terrorist connections and relationships. To me, that corrupted the democratic process. One might have expected, in a fair and reasonable world, that somebody holding those views might not have been thought unreasonable, but holding them when the Government hold a contrary view can become very unreasonable.

We have been accused of many things over the past months and years, but we made it clear at the beginning that corrupting the democratic process in such a way had sown the seeds of the agreement's destruction. Day by day, it becomes more apparent that having terrorists in a democratic Government is a contradiction in terms. Sooner or later, the leaders of political parties had to recognise that conflict. The right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) has attempted over and over and over again to put off the evil day, hoping beyond hope that Sinn Fein-IRA would perhaps be prepared to decommission. There were many to advise him that everything they knew about that organisation's behaviour was such that that would not happen. He has learned the hard way in his party and in his constituency, where he can barely walk the streets. That is the reality of life in Northern Ireland.

If the price of devolution was too high, the Government's suspension of the institutions is hardly the appropriate response, which is the proper exclusion of those who are not committed to exclusively peaceful and democratic means". The hon. Member for South Down responded in some measure to my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter). The answer is yes: section 30 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 contains a power allowing the exclusion of political parties if, for one reason or another, they do not measure up to the standards laid down in the Act, but it can be triggered only by a cross-community vote. Indeed, such a proposal can be put before the Assembly only if 30 people are prepared to stand in their places or sign a motion support it. In the Assembly this morning, 29 people were prepared to support that motion, but in the absence of the 30th it was not even debated. Even if it had been, it is abundantly clear from the comments of members of the Social Democratic and Labour party that it would not have received the cross-community support necessary to exclude Sinn Fein-IRA. In those circumstances, it was a weapon that could not be used.

When the 1998 Act was going through Parliament, many of us on this side of the House argued that it was an ineffective weapon that would not be appropriate when the circumstances required it to be so. It would be far better and more honest if the Government said, "If people are not prepared to play by the rules of democracy, out they go until they are prepared to pay the membership fees of this club." Instead, their answer is to suspend everything and democrats will be punished alongside the terrorists. Indeed, it must be said that the central feature of the failure of the agreement to work has been the issue of decommissioning.

The hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) referred to the silence of the guns. I suspect that if I had pranced across the Floor, put a Smith and Wesson to his ear and asked him to sit down, he would not have been saying to himself "At least the gun is silent. I needn't worry too much about it." I think he would have sat down, and he would have done it very quickly, because the reality is that if one puts a gun to somebody's head it does not matter whether it is silent. It is always silent before it goes off.

The threat is there, and it is that threat which Sinn Fein-IRA rely on to give them their negotiating strength. It is that threat which they rely on to give them a status well beyond that of political parties in Northern Ireland which have greater electoral strength than they have. It is that strength which ultimately Sinn Fein-IRA recognise is their ace card in any negotiations about the future of Northern Ireland.

Many people talk about Sinn Fein and the IRA being inextricably linked. So they are, but it does not quite indicate the nature of their relationship. Sinn Fein is subservient in that relationship; it does what the IRA tells it to do. The IRA does not follow the leadership or instruction of Sinn Fein, which is the junior partner in that relationship.

Mr. Robathan

The hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) said something that I do not think I have heard said before in the House. He referred to the representatives of Sinn Fein in the Assembly in Northern Ireland as the representatives of the IRA, which we all know is so, but I do not think I have heard it said before.

Mr. Robinson

I often look across the Assembly Chamber at the ranks of Sinn Fein. I see among its membership members of the army council of the IRA—present-day members of the army council of the IRA. With the exception of two Members, every one of them has served in the ranks of the IRA. Most of them have gone through the educational process of the prison system. It is very clear that all of them are supporters of the IRA. All of them come under the whip of the IRA, and when it is cracked they jump. No one should get away with the idea that Sinn Fein can lead the IRA by the nose and require it to do one thing or the other. As my friend the hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney) indicated, the fact that four of the seven members of the IRA army council are also leading Sinn Fein members indicates a close relationship and the fact that there is no division between the views of Sinn Fein and the IRA.

Rev. Martin Smyth

Is not that a significant difference from what happened in the past, when at Sinn Fein conferences a messenger came from the army council? There no longer needs to be a messenger from the army council, because it is at the head of the Sinn Fein movement.

Mr. Robinson

Yes, and I do not need to go into the names. We all know the leading members of Sinn Fein who are members of the IRA army council.

The injustice of the clause is that it does not contain the freezing of certain other elements of the Belfast agreement. The Government's argument is that they have suspended a number of the operations under the clause because they believe that institutions should be frozen because they cannot proceed as a result of the IRA's failure to decommission.

The reality is that if there was ever a linkage in the agreement, the clearest was between prison release and the decommissioning of illegal weaponry. Both were intended to be within a two-year time scale. Neither had an absolute starting date set down, but it was very clear that as soon as the Government proceeded helter-skelter to release prisoners it took the pressure off the IRA to meet its bargain on decommissioning. If the Government simply continue releasing prisoners, it is a win-win situation for the IRA. It will be doing away with Stormont and at the same time continuing to get its prisoners out of jail. It can be disobedient, but be rewarded with the freeing of its prisoners.

8.45 pm

Was it a betrayal to which the Secretary of State referred last week? What kind of situation is this, in which those whom the Government believe to be responsible for a betrayal will be rewarded with the release of prisoners, while the democrats will be punished with the removal of institutions? It strikes me as a topsy-turvy, Alice in Wonderland situation. Moreover, the Government have not indicated so far that they are prepared to suspend any action that they may take to implement the Patten recommendations for the destruction of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. That is another plus for the IRA—another reward for not doing what the community would have it do and decommission its weapons.

The Secretary of State should think long and hard about this. Under the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998, he has powers to stop the release of prisoners; he should exercise those powers.

Mr. William Ross

Does the hon. Gentleman recall what was said on Thursday during questions to the Secretary of State on his statement? The right hon. Gentleman said: We will not be suspending the Good Friday agreement; therefore, we are not going to put into reverse all those gains and all those changes that have flowed from its implementation."—[Official Report, 3 February 2000; Vol. 343, c. 1325.]. In other words, the Secretary of State was telling the IRA, at the very moment that he was announcing the possibility of suspension, that he would continue to reward it.

Mr. Robinson

The hon. Gentleman has drawn attention to an unfortunate message which, no doubt, was picked up by the Provisional IRA.

As the Secretary of State will see, the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act expressly states that he has the power to stop the release of prisoners if there is not a clear continuation of the commitment of an organisation to exclusively peaceful and democratic means. The Act specifies four areas for the Secretary of State to take into account when judging whether that continuation is taking place, one of which relates to decommissioning. I wonder whether one of the reasons for our not having the report from the decommissioning body is that if the report says that the Provisional IRA has not been complying with the conditions, the 1998 Act requires the Secretary of State to stop any release of terrorist prisoners. It will be interesting to see what happens when the information eventually surfaces—and the Secretary of State will discover that, in Northern Ireland, these things do eventually surface, in one way or another.

I believe that the Secretary of State should have taken the alternative course of excluding those who were not committed to exclusively peaceful and democratic means. I believe that he should also have suspended the implementation of the Patten recommendations and acted differently in regard to prison releases. However, given the limited nature of the Bill, I have no choice but to go for the second-best option that the Government are offering: the suspension of the institutions.

Mr. George Howarth

Along with, I am sure, the rest of the Committee, I join the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) in expressing our condolences to the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady). I have already expressed my condolences privately, but I think it would benefit the hon. Gentleman's family to know that we have expressed ours across the board.

Let me say to the hon. Member for Belfast, East that I suppose my right hon. Friend the Minister of State and I should declare an interest: if the suspension goes ahead, one or other of us will be doing his job next week, although we do not expect to receive any extra pay.

My hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) talked about the people who are employed in the institutions. As the Secretary of State and I have said repeatedly, our hope is that the institutions will not need to be suspended, but if they are, as my hon. Friend rightly points out, many of the detailed arrangements will need careful consideration. I assure the Committee that proper regard will be given to the circumstances of people who are employed in any of the bodies. Obviously, we are not at the point where we can give precise details of that, but if suspension goes ahead we will quickly have to turn our attention to my hon. Friend's point.

In an exchange with the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter) raised a question about the status—in terms of agreements between ourselves and the Irish Government—of the decommissioning commission. As he will be aware, the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning was established by an international agreement between the British and Irish Governments. That agreement was followed by parallel legislation in both jurisdictions, so it is from that that the relationship in respect of the commission derives. Therefore, when the Secretary of State refers to the report being the joint property of both Governments, it is because of the parallel legislation in both jurisdictions which led to the establishment of the commission.

The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik) raised a point on which I think I can give some reassurance. Subsection (3) makes it clear that no Committee of the Assembly can meet or conduct any business during a suspension. That includes statutory and all other Committees. All Committees will cease to function for the duration of suspension.

Subsection (4) deals with those individuals who hold statutory office under the Northern Ireland Act 1998, just as clause 3 deals with their reappointment in line with the provisions in that Act. The Bill does not address the various non-statutory appointments, such as chairmen of Standing Committees. Nevertheless, they too will cease to exercise any of their functions during a suspension. Their committee cannot meet or conduct any business. The Secretary of State, who, under the Bill, takes responsibility for salaries and allowances, will ensure that they are treated on a par with the chairmen of statutory committees.

The right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe took issue with the Secretary of State's explanation of why he did not feel it was appropriate at this time to publish the General de Chastelain commission's report of a week ago Monday. He went on to discuss precisely what terms the Secretary of State might have used this afternoon. In his observations on the content of General de Chastelain's report, the Secretary of State made it clear that he was summarising what was said.

As regards publication, the right hon. and learned Gentleman has held high office; he was Home Secretary. He knows that, on some occasions, certain issues are highly sensitive and delicately balanced in terms of the relationships between different bodies—in this case, the relationships between ourselves and the Irish Government. I hope that he will accept that it is because of the delicacy of the situation that, at this time, the Secretary of State does not think it appropriate to publish that report. I hope that he will also accept that the Secretary of State has made it clear that, if and when a further report is published, he will undertake to ensure that both are published at the same time.

Mr. Howard

The form of words that the Minister has just used—it was not an explanation; it was simply a form of words—is no more convincing than the very similar form of words used earlier today by the Secretary of State. Will the Minister not recognise that we are here today because of the de Chastelain report? How in those circumstances can he justify not making that report available to the House? When General de Chastelain came forth with a report that contained some relatively good news, the Government were quick to publish it. Surely the Minister should recognise that the Government should be equally quick to publish a report that, most regrettably, contains bad news.

Mr. Howarth

Forgive me, but I think that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is engaging in a little bit of sophistry—he knows the precise situation. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has made no secret of the fact that we are considering the Bill today because the progress on decommissioning that everyone rightly expected to be made has not been made—[Interruption.] I repeat that insufficient progress has been made.

My right hon. Friend also made it clear that progress is ultimately a matter for General de Chastelain, who will subsequently report on it. However, as I said, at this stage it does no good for us to pore over the entrails of precisely what has happened.

We want decommissioning to occur, so that suspension will never have to be imposed. However, if it is imposed, we want to ensure that we all have confidence—this is about confidence-building—that, at that time, the suspension could be lifted.

Several hon. Members


Dr. Godman

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Howarth

I shall give way to my hon. Friend, and then I must make some progress, as we are running short of time.

Dr. Godman

A moment ago, I sought assurances for those who are employed in the institutions. However, what will happen to the Bills that were presented to the Assembly at the beginning of last week? One was a fisheries Bill, and another was on social work administration. Presumably those will be taken on board by Ministers?

Mr. Howarth

During a suspension, the Assembly would have no powers to pass any legislation. Progress on legislation during a suspension would have to be made by my right hon. Friend the Minister of State or me. If we decided that passage of the legislation was not appropriate at that time, we would not make progress on it. It is one of the unfortunate consequences of the situation that we are in.

Mr. Nick St. Aubyn (Guildford)

Will the Minister give the House an assurance?

Mr. Howarth

I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman, but then really must move towards a conclusion. He must realise that time is limited.

Mr. St. Aubyn

Given that the Secretary of State has told us that he will release both the de Chastelain report and the successor to it, will the Minister assure the House that such release would not at any point depend on the agreement of the Government of southern Ireland, and that they do not effectively hold a veto over the release of such a report—which we are now told will precede re-establishment of the Northern Ireland Assembly?

Mr. Howarth

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has made the position as clear as he can. I stand by what he said, and he will stand by what he said.

Mr. St. Aubyn

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Howarth

I shall not give way. I allowed the hon. Gentleman to intervene—for which he did not have the courtesy to thank me—and he will forgive me if I reply to that intervention in my own way. The situation is precisely as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has described it, and the hon. Gentleman should not try playing games to get me to say something different from what my right hon. Friend has said. If he is trying to do that, he will not succeed. We are in a difficult situation. What my right hon. Friend said stands and it is neither useful nor necessary for me to add anything.

9 pm

Clause 1 suspends the operation of the Northern Ireland Assembly for as long as the clause is in force. While it is in force there can be no meetings of the Assembly or any of its committees, nor can any legislation be passed by the Assembly. All Ministers and junior Ministers of the Northern Ireland Executive, including the hon. Member for Belfast, East, will cease to hold office, as will the chairmen and deputy chairmen of statutory committees.

The clause also provides that the powers under section 52 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 to nominate Ministers to attend the North-South Ministerial Council and the British-Irish Council cannot be exercised during the suspension. Our intention is to suspend those institutions by means of an international agreement with the Irish Government.

Mr. Robathan

I was not going to speak in this debate, but I was moved to do so by the Minister's tortuous and very unconvincing arguments.

The issues covered by the Bill, particularly clause 1, hang on the de Chastelain report. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) has made that point particularly well. The Minister failed to explain how it was possible to publish the first de Chastelain report, and why it is not possible to publish the second report if it is possible to publish a subsequent report, should one be produced.

The Minister talks about confidence-building and trust. I agree that we need confidence and trust. He and the Government—and the Government of the Irish Republic if they have anything to do with the publication of the report, although I do not see why they should—ought to take the House into their confidence and trust the British people by publishing the de Chastelain report so that we know all the gruesome details. I fear that the reason for the Government's unwillingness to publish the report is that some of its comments about the attitude of the IRA and Sinn Fein are unpalatable to the Government.

The Secretary of State has the right to stop prisoner releases if parties to the Good Friday agreement are not complying with it. If the de Chastelain report were published, the Minister might have to decide that the IRA—or Sinn Fein; whatever they like to be called—were not complying with the agreement and that prisoner releases should therefore be suspended.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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