HC Deb 08 February 2000 vol 344 cc122-7

9.—(1) This paragraph applies if—

  1. (a) a Motion for the Adjournment of the House under Standing Order No. 24 (Adjournment on specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration) has been stood over to Seven o'clock; but
  2. (b) proceedings to which this Order applies have begun before then.

(2) Proceedings on that Motion shall stand postponed until the conclusion of those proceedings.

10.—(1) No Motion shall be made to alter the order in which any proceedings on the Bill are taken.

(2) No dilatory Motion with respect to, or in the course of, proceedings to which this Order applies shall be made except by a Minister of the Crown; and the Question on any such Motion shall be put forthwith.

(3) No debate shall be permitted on any Motion to recommit the Bill (whether as a whole or otherwise), and the Speaker shall put forthwith any Question necessary to dispose of the Motion, including the Question on any Amendment.

11. Standing Order No. 82 (Business Committee) shall not apply to this Order.

12.—(1) The Question on any Motion made by a Minister of the Crown for varying or supplementing the provisions of this Order shall be put forthwith.

(2) Standing Order No. 15(1) (Exempted business) shall apply to the proceedings to which this Order applies.

(3) If the House is adjourned, or the sitting is suspended, before the time at which any proceedings are to be brought to a conclusion under paragraph 1, 4 or 6, no notice shall be required of a Motion made by a Minister of the Crown for varying or supplementing the provisions of this Order.

13. Proceedings to which this Order applies shall not be interrupted under any Standing Order relating to the sittings of the House.

I am grateful for the co-operation of the Opposition and other parties in taking the Bill through its Commons stages today. The whole House will appreciate the reasons for the urgency with which the Government are acting. We are dealing with a serious situation. Over the next two days or so, critical decisions will need to be taken about the immediate future of devolved government in Northern Ireland. Without a substantive change in the situation, there may in a very short time be insufficient cross-community basis and support to sustain the institutions of devolved government in Northern Ireland, which is why we are bringing forward the Bill.

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe)

Would not the House have an even greater appreciation of the urgency of the legislation if it had sight of the de Chastelain report? Why will not the Secretary of State make it available to the House?

Mr. Mandelson

As I explained to the House in my statement last Thursday, when I described the de Chastelain report in full terms, it is the property not simply of the British Government, but of both the Irish and British Governments. It is reasonable for me to repeat the assurance that I have already given the House that, in the event of a further report being issued by General de Chastelain and his colleagues, I shall ensure that the original report is published alongside it so that right hon. and hon. Members may draw any comparison that they wish.

Mr. Howard

If the Secretary of State is in a position to ensure that the de Chastelain report is published in the circumstances that he just identified, why on earth is he not in a position to ensure that report is made available to the House now?

Mr. Mandelson

For this reason: the report's usefulness to the House—bearing in mind that it is a report to the two Governments, not simply the British Government—would arise in the event of a further report being issued by General de Chastelain's decommissioning body. In those circumstances, I would judge that it would be appropriate and necessary to publish both the original and further report, so that the House could see them.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)


Mr. Mandelson

I think that I have dealt with the issue to most people's satisfaction. [HON. MEMBERS: "No!"] Certainly to my own satisfaction. [Interruption.] If hon. Members will excuse me, I will complete my remarks about the programme motion.

In these circumstances, the Government must act, and possibly act very quickly if conditions demand. Through the Bill, we are seeking to take power to suspend the operation of the Executive and all the associated institutions that were set up following the implementation of the Good Friday agreement. It is essential that the Government have that power and should be in a position to exercise it, if necessary, by the end of this week.

That provides the essential reason for the urgency, should circumstances demand that I act quickly—in two or three days. I hope that hon. Members will use the time that we have available today for a full and thorough debate of the important issues at stake. The terms of the programme motion—which have been agreed through the usual channels—are such that there is generous time available at each stage of our proceedings for full and thorough consideration of every aspect of the Bill.

3.47 pm
Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell)

You will be aware, Madam Speaker, that, for some weeks, as decommissioning has increasingly seemed unlikely, my colleagues and I have called for the suspension of the Executive and the Assembly. We believe that it is essential that that happens by the end of this week. To suspend, there has to be legislation that brings back direct rule. In those circumstances, we very much support the Secretary of State's business motion.

Without wishing to trespass unduly on your time, Madam Speaker, and reiterating my point of order, I emphasise the point made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard). It is difficult for the House properly to consider the merits of decommissioning and whether it is right—as I believe—to suspend the Executive unless we know what is said in the general's report. If not an abuse of the House, it is certainly riding roughshod over the House for that report not to be available.

If the Secretary of State were to say that there are security-sensitive matters in the report, it would be wrong to insist that the whole report be published. If he were to say that, I would fall back on the argument that at least the report's conclusions should be published. We want them published now, while the House is debating these matters. When we pass the timetable motion, the Bill will go through all its stages during the course of today. On the assumption that it is not amended in the other place, there will be no other chance for us to deliberate on these matters. We have to do so without all the facts being available to us, and that is an unsatisfactory state of affairs.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

Some of us are concerned that the Government are not prepared to publish the de Chastelain report because it is so damning of terrorist organisations. Would my right hon. Friend care to comment on that?

Mr. MacKay

No, I would not, as it is unhelpful to speculate. However, if the Secretary of State does not publish the report, inevitably there will be speculation in a variety of quarters, which could be damaging. It is precisely for that reason that I am urging him to publish the report in full if he feels able, but, if it is security-sensitive, at least its conclusions. We can then reach our own conclusions, as it is important for the House to do. Even at this late stage, I call upon the right hon. Gentleman to place in the Vote Office this report or its conclusions so that we can deliberate properly.

3.50 pm
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

As the Secretary of State will be aware, this is the first programme motion agreed this Session. I regret that it takes an emergency of this sort for us to be able to handle our business in this sensible way, and that we do not have more such motions.

We support the motion, but a serious point, to which the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay) has just referred, must be addressed. Clearly, it is not just a question of dealing with an emergency in a vacuum. We are dealing with an emergency in a complicated context. The more the House can be informed about that context, the better our deliberations on the measure will be. I hope that, in the discussions that will continue and in terms of any further back-up information that may be available, the Secretary of State will bear that in mind.

It is important that we do not have a knee-jerk reaction, and we must think carefully about what will happen next. I am sure that that is uppermost in the Secretary of State's mind. However, it is important for the whole House to be as fully informed as possible in taking decisions. We must have a measured timing of our debate, and it must be as fully informed as possible.

We hope that the debate will be as well balanced as it can be. We support the motion, and hope that it will go through without dissent.

3.52 pm
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

Since the Secretary of State was so coy about giving way and giving us the full story behind this matter, it might help the House enormously, in deciding whether we want to approve this timetable motion, if he would tell us more about the role of the Irish Government. As far as I know, this is the first time that reference has been made to the role of the Irish Government at this stage in these proceedings. The Secretary of State has rather teasingly said that the de Chastelain report belongs jointly to Her Majesty's Government and the Government of Ireland.

What is not clear is whether the Secretary of State is bursting to share the report with the House, but has been prevented from doing so by the Irish Government. We do not know whether he has asked the Irish Government if they would agree to the publication of the report. We do not know what response the Irish Government might have given him. It is not unreasonable for us to get some more information from the Secretary of State, either to let himself off the hook—so that we would not dream of accusing him of withholding information from the House—or to establish the relationship between Her Majesty's Government and the Irish Government in the crucial matter of what most of us regard as vital information not being shared with the House.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

During the Secretary of State's statement last week, my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples) asked him whether the Irish Government supported the proposed actions of the British Government. The answer was somewhat opaque. In reinforcing the point that my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) is making, we need to be clear on the attitude of the Irish Government to not only the publication of the de Chastelain report but the process on which we are embarking this afternoon.

Mr. Forth

My hon. Friend is quite right. One of the reasons why the House needs to know this in the context of a timetable motion—which is urging us to allow this matter to be dealt with expeditiously—must be the availability of required information to the House at this point in our proceedings. Our decision will have to be whether we feel that we can agree to this expedited procedure without having available vital information. All I am asking the Secretary of State is to tell us more about why he feels unable to bring the contents of the report forward—or, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay) said, even the summary of the report. We are not asking for all sorts of confidential security information—we simply believe that, to make a judgment about whether we agree to the timetable and then the substance of the Bill, we must have available all relevant information. The de Chastelain report is a key part of that.

I hope that the Secretary of State will feel able, when he replies to this brief debate on the timetable motion, to tell us much more than he has hitherto. Simply saying in his charming way, "Trust me, it will all be all right and there might be another report in the future," is not good enough.

3.55 pm
Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim)

When the Minister made his statement last week, I asked him whether we would have the report before this debate, because this debate would not be taking place if the general's report had not been issued. It seems to me unfair and unjust that some people in a part of Ireland who are not under the United Kingdom can have knowledge of the report, while the Parliament of the United Kingdom is having a debate in which none of us, except the Government, are privy to what is in it. That is outrageous. I wonder how the people of Scotland, Wales or England would like that to happen to them. It is behaviour that could not be tolerated in a proper democracy.

The people of Northern Ireland should know why we are in the House today and why this debate is taking place. We do not know the real reason, because the real reason is the report. As was said earlier, it is important to know the attitude of the southern Government to the issue. Do they not want the people of Northern Ireland to know what is in the report? Is it being withheld because the Minister is not free to give the information to the House? If, as was suggested earlier, the report contains sensitive security matters, we do not need to have them, but we do need the end of the report, including the main reasons for certain findings. The people of Northern Ireland deserve to have those made known so that we can debate the issue in the House today.

3.57 pm
Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills)

Even more curious is the fact that the Secretary of State invokes the fact that the report has gone to two Governments and then tells us that, should there be another report, he will ensure that it is made available to the House. There is a profound contradiction somewhere in that. In truth, we are asked to accept what would be—in ordinary circumstances—a draconian guillotine motion, which includes reducing to one hour the consideration of Lords amendments, should there be any. That would roll up the entire production into a debate that could reduce consideration to three hours.

The Secretary of State should bring the de Chastelain report to the House. Some hon. Members have speculated about what the report might contain, but my right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay) said that he did not wish to do so. However, the Secretary of State is creating the circumstances in which the wildest speculations accrue around his proposition. To carry this motion with the confidence of the House, the Secretary of State should ensure that the de Chastelain report is made available to the House. If he cannot, he should tell us whether it is because the Irish Government have expressed a wish that it should not be revealed.

It is not only a question of the people of Ulster being informed, as the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) has just said, because it is also a question of the House of Commons being informed. Today, we will undo that which we have made only recently, so, at this late stage, I urge the Secretary of State to place the de Chastelain report in the Library.

Question put and agreed to.