HC Deb 07 April 2003 vol 403 cc40-59

Lords amendment: No. 48ZA, in Commons amendment No. 48, leave out "or (Belfast)(2)" and insert— ",(Belfast)(2) or (Appointment of constables with special policing skills)(7)".

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The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Jane Kennedy)

I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord)

With this it will be convenient to deal with Lords amendment No. 49A.

Jane Kennedy

The Government tabled amendments 48ZA and 49A in another place in response to a recommendation by the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, under the chairmanship of Lord Dahrendorf. They provide for the affirmative procedure to apply to an order that the Secretary of State might introduce under the new clause that deals with the exceptional arrangements for recruiting constables with specialist skills. Hon. Members will recall that we debated that matter at some length last week.

The exceptional arrangements will be available for two years, starting from the date of the Bill's Royal Assent. The Secretary of State may extend the life of the provision on only one occasion—by order in Parliament, to allow it to operate for a maximum period of four years. At the end of two years, the Secretary of State could consider extending the provision. Any such extension would require the unanimous agreement of the Policing Board. It is important for hon. Members to bear that in mind.

Given the importance of the provisions and the strong views about the 50:50 recruitment arrangements that were expressed forcefully in the House and in the other place, we have agreed that it is appropriate for any order to renew the provisions for a further period of up to two years to be brought before both Houses of Parliament rather than be made by negative procedure.

I commend the amendments to the House.

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford)

We had a good opportunity to deal with the substance of the procedural amendments last week. I do not wish to reiterate those arguments. Clearly, the procedural change from negative to affirmative resolution is welcome. The Opposition therefore second the amendments.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire)

There was considerable criticism of the Government's original proposals. All parties will be pleased that the Government have listened and tabled a late manuscript amendment to provide for a change to an affirmative instrument. Given that policing is so sensitive, that is the right thing to do. The Liberal Democrats wholeheartedly support the good sense that Ministers have shown on the issue.

Lady Hermon (North Down)

I assure hon. Members that my colleagues are with me in spirit, if not in body. However, I could not possibly speak for members of the Democratic Unionist party. I am surprised that none of them has turned up this afternoon, given that we are considering policing.

I should like reassurance from the Minister on one aspect. My views on 50:50 recruitment are well known. The Minister knows that my constituent, Mark Parsons, tested that recruitment procedure last July in the High Court in Belfast. The case will be heard on appeal towards the end of May. I have no quarrel with the special provisions and the recruitment of constables with special policing skills, especially detectives, which we desperately need in Northern Ireland. I voted for the amendment on that when we previously discussed the matter in the House.

Will the Minister assure me that renewal through affirmative resolution, which I support, and extension by order of the Secretary of State initially for two years and possibly for a further four years, will not make inroads into section 46 of the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000? We should bear it in mind that section 46 is due for renewal in spring 2004, that the Mark Parsons case will be heard on appeal, and that its critical point was the temporary nature of the provision that permits the current discriminatory recruitment procedures. Will the Government consider removing that instead of extending it?

Jane Kennedy

The hon. Lady asks a valid question and I know of her acute interest in the matter. The renewal powers for the special arrangements for the 50:50 recruitment of Catholics and non-Catholics for the Police Service of Northern Ireland are sensitive, for the reasons that we debated last week. Their purpose is to address a specific problem that we experience in Northern Ireland. The renewal powers will allow Parliament to consider whether those exceptional circumstances still remain. We are considering a special exemption for the 50:50 powers, and I would not foresee the measure that we are discussing today having an impact on the other arrangements. We shall still consider whether we need these special affirmative recruitment powers—these discriminatory powers, as the hon. Lady describes them—to address the specific problem. We shall still need to consider whether the circumstances exist to justify those powers, at the appropriate time.

The measure before us will deal specifically with the circumstances that we were talking about, in which the Chief Constable has identified a particular shortfall and the Policing Board has agreed that such a shortfall exists. Such a situation should be dealt with using this exemption. The arrangements will not be exactly as the hon. Lady described. I did not wish to imply that the exemption would apply for two years, followed by four years. It would apply for two years for constables with specialist skills. There would then be consideration as to whether it should be extended for a further two years—that is, the exemption itself, not the 50:50 arrangements as such.

I hope that that will reassure the hon. Lady. She asked a very good question. I am grateful for the support that I have received from both sides of the House for this amendment. It is a sensible one that meets the concerns raised in another place, and I hope that the House will agree to it.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendment: No. 48A, in Commons amendment No. 48, at end insert— "(2B) No order may be made under section (Independent members: disqualification)(2) or Belfast)(2) at any time when section 1 of the Northern Ireland Act 2000 (c.1)(suspension of devolved government) is in force."

Jane Kennedy

I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Amendment No. 48A deals with the commencement of the new clauses dealing with disqualification and the Belfast sub-groups. We spent a whole day considering the clauses on Report last week, and, in particular, discussing the context in which they might come into effect. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I made it clear—we certainly sought to make it clear—that neither of these provisions will come into force when the Bill receives Royal Assent. They will be commenced only by means of a subsequent order, which will be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure of both Houses of Parliament.

The Government have consistently made it clear that we would envisage bringing the clauses into effect only in the context of acts of completion. That phrase, which I have used consistently throughout our deliberations, has attracted some criticism, but my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was even more specific on Report when he said of the clauses: "They will not come into effect unless we have agreement that those acts of completion have been dealt with." —[Official Report, 26 March 2003; Vol. 402, c. 361.] I recognise that many hon. Members have concerns about what is meant by the term "acts of completion". This debate was continued in another place when the Bill returned there last week.

My own view, put simply, is that we need a situation in which the brave new world envisaged by the Belfast agreement is working properly and as it should, in which the institutions are working effectively, and in which the basis for politics in Northern Ireland is trust and mutual co-operation, not threats and fear. I sense that Members of both Houses of Parliament are looking to the statute to find a way of summing up those sentiments. Of course, there will be an element of political judgment for the Secretary of State as to when such a point is reached. The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) made that point in his speeches on this issue. I know, however, that Members are concerned that the decision should not be left to the Secretary of State alone.

We have said previously that the clauses would not be commenced without the explicit approval of both Houses, and that no commencement order would be brought forward before acts of completion had been dealt with. I think that I failed to reassure the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) on that point last week. The Lords amendment before us today, which was tabled in another place in the names of Lord Smith of Clifton and Lord Glentoran, provides that the clauses cannot be commenced unless devolution has been restored—that is, unless the institutions are up and functioning. In our different ways, we are each aiming for the same thing.

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For devolution to be restored, trust must first also be restored, and it must be restored sufficiently to enable all the parties to feel that they can come together, once again, in collective government. For that trust to be restored, we must first see that the paramilitaries are serious. We must see acts of completion. The Lords amendment would add another element to the judgment that the Secretary of State would have to make on whether it is appropriate to introduce the commencement order—whether the time is right.

In another place, the Government agreed that the amendment that we are considering would provide helpful clarification of the circumstances in which we might expect those clauses to become effective. I commend it to the House.

Mr. Quentin Davies

Clearly, the Opposition agree with the amendment in the sense that we will not oppose it—indeed, it was introduced in another place by my noble Friend Lord Glentoran—although that is not the end of the story. I have a number of problems with the situation that could result from the amendment, and no others, coming back from the House of Lords, so I want to express them to the Minister, if I may.

We had hoped that the amendment would be replaced by another, which we thought, as a result of the voting last week, would have considerable support in the Lords. Such an amendment would, of course, have removed the provisions in respect of allowing ex-terrorists to be independent members of district policing partnerships and the creation of the sub-groups in Belfast on the ground that it is quite wrong to hold out such concessions at present. We should wait and see whether Sinn Fein-IRA and other paramilitary organisations are indeed serious about decommissioning and disbanding.

On that basis, there was considerable consensus on both sides of the Gangway on this side of the House, but, characteristically and as one could have anticipated—indeed, we did—the Liberal Democrats, who were prepared to use brave language last week, were rapidly rolled over in the Lords. They did not support in another place the amendment that they had supported here.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk)

Surprise, surprise.

Mr. Davies

Of course, none of us in my party is in the least surprised at what happened, nor are Government Members. I am afraid that I have to say to the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) that such behaviour simply reinforces a general impression that the Liberal Democrat party is essentially frivolous, irresponsible and not prepared to stand up in one Chamber of this Parliament for the position that it has taken up in the other. Indeed, we know that in other cases it was not prepared to sustain the same position from one week to the next, even in this Chamber.

David Burnside (South Antrim)

Is the hon. Gentleman prepared to give way to the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik), if he is prepared to intervene, so that he can tell the House why the Liberal Democrats have gone back on their word?

Mr. Davies

The hon. Gentleman asks a pertinent question. No doubt the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire will seek to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Lembit Öpik

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Davies

If the hon. Gentleman wants to answer now, I shall give way.

Lembit Öpik

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. To clarify, I am happy to explain the position, although that would more appropriately be done in my speech, should I catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Davies

Well, at least we now have an assurance that we will get some explanation. No doubt the hon. Gentleman will use the rest of the time that I take up, which will not be very long, to prepare his explanation. An explanation of such a shift is certainly required in any democratic Parliament. Most of us who are elected to this place like to think that we stand for something, and we are prepared to be accountable for it. Indeed, our words are recorded in Hansard, presumably so that we can be held to account. For responsible politicians to behave as the Liberal Democrats regularly behave in this place is to make a mockery of our proceedings. It is extremely sad that that should happen on a matter of such importance.

We do not, however, as a result of the Liberal Democrats' change of mind—that may be the politest way of putting it—have that amendment to consider; we have another one, which is not so satisfactory. It states that the Government would not bring forward a statutory instrument to give effect to the new provisions in the Bill in relation to disqualification of ex-terrorists and the sub-groups, while the devolved institutions have been suspended—while direct rule persists and while there is no Assembly and Executive in Belfast. At first sight, any restriction—which it is—on the Government giving force to those new provisions in present circumstances is welcome. I must say, however, that the restriction is extremely limited [Interruption.] If I may, I shall explain to the lion. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) the main deficiency in the amendment, which will enable her to respond to my view of it as a whole. If I am wrong, perhaps she will want to intervene, and 1 shall be delighted to give way to her so that she can correct me.

The restraint is not very reassuring or adequate, because if the Government are to call elections, as they have said, on 29 May, they must, as I understand it, at least momentarily restore the institutions in order to dissolve the Assembly. If the Government were so minded, therefore, they could take the opportunity at that moment to bring forward the statutory instrument giving effect to these new powers. When the new Assembly is elected, on 29 May, I presume that it will sit whatever happens in terms of the peace process. Under the Northern Ireland Act 1998, which is basically the constitution of Northern Ireland, the Assembly has six weeks to agree on an Executive. During that period of up to six weeks, in which the Assembly is sitting, the circumstances might be that the necessary acts of completion, decommissioning and disbandment have not been carried out, and no real chance would exist of bringing together a power-sharing Executive including Sinn Fein. The Assembly might therefore meet under a considerable cloud, with a general sense of doom.

As I have said many times from this Dispatch Box, in those circumstances, unless all these matters can be resolved, and it is clear that, after a six-week period, no agreement will be reached on an Executive, the only alternatives provided in the 1998 Act would be new elections or the suspension of the institutions and restoration of direct rule. Either of those would be a farce, and would send a clear signal to everybody that the whole Belfast process had failed. That would be very sad. Nevertheless, during that six-week period, the institutions would be working, devolution would be in force, and, under the amendment, the Government, if they so wished, could without further let or hindrance introduce the statutory instrument to give effect to the new powers in the Bill, of which we strongly disapprove in all circumstances except those involving a comprehensive and definitive settlement. Indeed, we have great reservations about those powers even in those circumstances.

Two major lacunae therefore exist in the protections afforded by the Lords amendment, and it is right to draw attention to them.

Lady Hermon

I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way so gracefully. It is a lovely and welcome change, as he is sometimes resistant to taking interventions, so he is in good form this afternoon.

May I ask the hon. Gentleman to address one particular aspect of the proposals? I noticed the words that he used: he said that that he welcomed what he regarded as an additional restriction. If an order were made by the Government lifting suspension, those Ministers who are currently suspended—which is a wonderful description—would go back into office. Two Democratic Unionist party members, however, who are unfortunately not here to speak for themselves—far be it from me to speak for the DUP—resigned before suspension was brought into force in October last year, and would not go back into office. Does not the hon. Gentleman regard that as a problem with the restriction, as he sees it, that we are considering this afternoon?

Mr. Davies

I am grateful to the hon. Lady. I try to give way whenever I can. I did not when she sought to intervene in the debate last week because I had already said that I could not take any more interventions. I know that she will agree that, when there are time constraints, it is important to stand by such a declaration. Rather more notably, I refused to give way to the Minister of State last week because she refused to give way to me. As I said then, reciprocity must apply in these courtesies. It was important to make that point. However, I do not think that the hon. Member for North Down will find that I have ever been reluctant in principle to give way.

The hon. Lady sets out the position with regard to the DUP Ministers. No doubt she is right but she would not expect me, the Opposition spokesman, to give her a legal ruling on that. Whether that adds to my concern about the inadequacies of the amendment I do not know, but it certainly does not detract from it. I think that she will agree that there are those two opportunities at least—others may come out of the debate this afternoon—for the Government to introduce the statutory instrument, without any constraint in the Bill.

As hon. Members know, the Opposition are very worried about that. We are worried about statutory instruments being used for that purpose anyway. The Government know that, with their massive majority, they can always get them through. The problem with a statutory instrument is that one cannot amend it, whatever the circumstances and however they may have changed. Therefore, it is, as I have said before, a blank cheque. Nevertheless, this is a restriction. It does not go very far but it would be illogical, if we oppose a measure, to oppose some restriction on the measure. Therefore, we will not oppose the amendment.

I have, however, two immediate concerns. One has been brought to the fore by some of the remarks by the Minister of State about acts of completion. She recognised, and I am glad that she did, that many of us in the Opposition and in Northern Ireland, which is perhaps even more important, have the gravest doubts about the use of that word and see considerable suspiciousness in the Government's determination to talk about an abstraction when a concrete act is what is required.

As I have pointed out, to talk about acts of completion is a contradiction in terms. It is an oxymoron. One cannot have several acts of completion. If one is completing a process, that is one act. One cannot complete it again a second time the next day, the following Tuesday and the following month. It has either been completed or it has not.

Why are the Government using that oxymoron? Again, that can only excite the gravest suspicions. My first concern is that the Government may still have in mind that they wish to settle for something less than full decommissioning and disbandment of the IRA and of other paramilitary organisations in Northern Ireland. We should not settle for anything less than that.

If the settlement that it is now widely anticipated will be reached on Thursday is based on anything less than full decommissioning and full disbandment, it will not be a definitive settlement. It will not be closure. It will not be completion. Why? Because there will have to be another round and perhaps another after that and another after that. Until the Government say, "We will not settle for anything less than full decommissioning and disbandment," there will always be a paramilitary organisation there that has weapons, there will always be a question of how to negotiate to persuade them to get rid of those weapons and there will always be paramilitary organisations involved in training, procurement, recruitment and all the other things that paramilitary organisations do. There will be a continuing threat to peace in Northern Ireland and to democracy in Northern Ireland and we will continue to have political parties that have a private army at their back. Therefore, we will not have achieved anything.

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If the Government are to be taken remotely seriously, and if there really is a fork in the road—the Prime Minister used that phrase in his speech in Belfast in November—and a choice between peaceful and non'peaceful means, that choice has to be made 100 per cent. this Thursday. This is perhaps the last opportunity before Thursday for me to repeat what the Minister has heard me say countless times before in the past one and a half years: we must settle for nothing less than complete decommissioning and complete disbandment. It is therefore a mistake to suggest that we will settle for anything less. It is wrong to use some other intermediate term or abstraction; we should be using a phrase that is extremely definite, extremely clear and extremely unambiguous. For the Government to introduce an element of ambiguity where there should be none is not tactically clever; actually, it is tactically very foolish.

I turn to my second concern. If, as the media tell us, matters are moving towards the crunch and we may get a settlement on Thursday—perhaps with the help of the honest brokerage of, or pressure from, the President of the United States in Belfast today and tomorrow—and if it really is the balanced, comprehensive and definitive settlement that we Conservatives have called for for a long time, we shall of course welcome it with great enthusiasm. However, we shall naturally examine it with scepticism, to make sure that it really is such a settlement.

Whatever happens, Mr. Deputy Speaker, Parliament, as I know you will agree, will have to take a decision, and it should have the right to do so as soon as the facts are known. It is therefore very important—I hope that the Minister will forgive me for saying now what I have said to her privately—that a statement be made to Parliament on Thursday. If the Taoiseach and the Prime Minister are to make an announcement on Thursday—I hardly think that Mr. Speaker would not consent to interrupt business for such an important matter—we, too, should have a statement, regardless of the time. If the Prime Minister cannot be here himself, my opposite number, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, would be the natural person to make such a statement, in order to explain to Parliament what has happened, and to allow it to take a view. It would be utterly wrong for such a statement to be left until Friday, when everybody else has had their say in the media, and for us still not to have heard from an authoritative and unambiguous source about what happened in Belfast. It would be a crying scandal and an insult to Parliament for such a statement to Parliament to left until after a weekend of speculation.

David Burnside

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that perhaps matters will not move quite as fast as he fears? In terms of deciding on the package and on acts of completion—I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the semantics of "acts of completion"; I would prefer the phrase "complete acts"—the crucial element is the decision of the Ulster Unionist party. We will take the decision as to whether we rejoin an all-inclusive Executive. As our party's leader, my right hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), has said often in this House, we will not be jumping first again, as we have done in the past three or four years. We need some time to see whether disbandment and destruction of illegal weapons and explosives is complete and absolute. Unless that is achieved, we will not enter into an Executive.

Mr. Davies

I am reassured to hear the hon. Gentleman say that, and he is right to do so. He is also right to set out the score in advance, so that there can be no misunderstanding about what needs to be done. He will undoubtedly agree with me that any misunderstanding could be absolutely fatal. Any sense on the part of Sinn Fein, or of anybody else, that something less than the real thing will be settled for—that eventually, if necessary, 85 per cent. will be settled for–would be absolutely disastrous, and could cost us the last real chance to bring to its consummation the peace process launched by the Belfast agreement. We all know that, if we do not grasp this opportunity now, it will be very difficult to continue that process under any circumstances much beyond this summer. I am therefore glad that the hon. Gentleman has made his point so clearly.

I of course understand that the Ulster Unionist party will need to take its time on this issue, and I am sure that we will hear its view, along with those of the other parties in Northern Ireland, in due time, which must be in their time. However, I was talking about the Government. If they publish the Hillsborough document on Thursday, come to some provisional agreement with another Government—I am thinking, of course, of the Government of the Republic of Ireland—and make a statement to the press, a statement must be made to this House at the same time. [Interruption.] I see that the hon. Member for South Antrim (David Burnside) is nodding, and all of us, as parliamentarians, must agree with that principle.

When we are dealing with important matters that have been the subject of detailed negotiation, and when the moment comes for the Government to make a public statement, perhaps jointly with the Government of the Irish Republic, about what agreement has been reached, we cannot allow everyone except the House of Commons to be informed. The parties are told, along with the press, the local media in Northern Ireland, the media in the United States and Australia, but all sorts of speculation, as ever, gets mixed up in the reporting of these matters. The British public might be somewhat confused, but if the Government will not issue an authoritative statement to the House, it leaves us in an impossible position. I trust that the Government will not do that.

Lady Hermon

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for generously taking a second intervention from me this afternoon. In view of what he said earlier, does he agree that when the Secretary of State makes a statement on any agreement coming out of Hillsborough, it is vital to spell out any additional changes to policing in Northern Ireland? The hon. Gentleman will know that after the Police (Northern Ireland) Bill had passed through the House and before it went back to the other place, changes were made to the Belfast sub-groups and further changes were made to allow people with criminal and terrorist convictions to become independent members. At the Ard Fheis in Dublin, Sinn Fein said that that had not gone far enough. It was still unhappy and its spokesman on policing, Gerry Kelly, is reported to have said that "they have not yet achieved the threshold for a new beginning to policing." Clearly, Sinn Fein is looking for still further advances. Does the hon. Gentleman expect the Secretary of State to announce even more changes in his next public statement?

Mr. Davies

I hear what the hon. Lady says. She is always well informed about such matters, and she is right that policing is a sensitive subject for both republicans and Unionists in Northern Ireland. As the hon. Lady knows, in negotiating processes, none of the parties secures 100 per cent. of their desiderata. It would be an unnatural and peculiar negotiation if they did, because no negotiation would have been necessary in the first place. It is perhaps natural at this stage that various parties are saying that they do not like this or that.

The Government have the responsibility to make a success of the peace process. I know that they want to do all that they can, but they must take their own decisions on the basis of their conversations, whether individually or jointly, with the political parties. We have said all along that it is a mistake to think that one can square with one party by giving away some concessions and then try to do the same with the next party. That is not possible because everything is interlinked. Only general and contingent conversations are possible: if we are to secure effective agreement, all the parties have to be taken along with the Government almost simultaneously. The Government must be the judge of their own tactics and they can decide whether they want to listen to us. When they have not done so in the past, they have come adrift, but when they have followed our suggestions, they have secured favourable results on the whole. Let us hope that they have learned their lesson.

The Government must also be the judge of the right time to go public and make a statement about what progress has been achieved, and to clarify how they envisage the future of the process. We are told through the media—not through a statement to the House of Commons—that we are coming to a crunch this week and that a statement may be made on Thursday. I hope so: we all hope that sufficient progress will have been made to warrant such a statement. However, if a public statement is to be made, it must be made—ideally, first—to the House.

I realise that a joint statement with the Irish Government presents greater difficulties, but I see no reason not to make a simultaneous statement—or within just a few hours—to the House, following any joint declaration, whether in Belfast or elsewhere, by the two Governments. That was certainly the procedure adopted by the previous Conservative Government after the Downing street declaration. Indeed, a statement was made to the House within two or three hours of that declaration. I hope that the Government will follow that good precedent. They have not said that they will not, and I trust that they will. As I said, because of the difficulties in the past and in the light of the suspicions in some people's minds, it is right to make the point in public now. I hope that I shall have no further occasion to mention that, except, perhaps, to say on Thursday that I am grateful for such a statement being made as quickly as possible after any intergovernmental declaration.

I hope that that is not controversial. Obviously, if the Minister wishes to respond, I shall listen intently. I hope that the Government's business managers and the Leader of the House have taken note of these feelings. On this, if nothing else, I believe that I speak with the support of a wide range of parliamentarians on both sides of the House.

Lembit Öpik

The amendment was tabled by the Liberal Democrats and supported—grudgingly, I now realise—by the Conservatives. It would introduce an order preventing the powers on ex-prisoners becoming members of district policing partnerships and the Belfast sub-groups from coming into force until the Assembly had been restored.

We all agree that we would not want such powers to be introduced until acts of completion had taken place. Everybody understands that, and it has been debated recently, but the argument is based on whether it is possible specifically to define "acts of completion" to the extent that that could be included in the Bill. Unfortunately, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) does not have a full recollection of what I said, although obviously he can re-read my speech in Hansard. The crucial element was my challenge to Ministers to accept either that they had to include acts of completion in the Bill, or that they had to concede the apparently obvious point that every Secretary of State has chosen to maintain some political flexibility in defining acts of completion.

That was a stark option and, in fairness, the Secretary of State went a long way towards implicitly accepting something that we already knew: that Secretaries of State would maintain that flexibility, which is no greater than that displayed by John Major when he was Prime Minister and by many of his Ministers when they were in charge of Northern Ireland policy.

In the intervening time, I have been persuaded that it is difficult, legally, to define what can be construed as an act of completion. For me, it would need to consist of decommissioning, an end to paramilitary beatings, shootings and intimidation and a statement from paramilitary groups lifting the threats against those exiled from their homes and allowing them to return.

For me to say that I am persuaded that it is hard to define acts of completion is not to suggest that I have changed my view. I never thought that it was easy to define. Had the Secretary of State asked my advice, it would have been for the Government to say that acts of completion were as much symbolic statements as they were measurable in any practical sense. To that extent, following consideration and discussion, it seemed appropriate for us to move forward in line with amendment No. 48A towards something that seemed to be significant progress on how the Bill was laid out.

In my judgment, amendment No. 48A effectively adds considerable responsibility to the Northern Ireland parties in terms of the decision-making process and of how far the paramilitaries have come. The fact that the restoration of the Assembly is an essential element provides us with a creative solution to at least part of the problem.

Disappointingly, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford sought to gain party political capital from the fact that the Liberal Democrats have approached this issue pragmatically. I counsel him to he cautious. It was, after all, the Conservatives who signed the amendment. Clearly, Conservative Members who thought that we might gain a significant victory signed the amendment grudgingly. The hon. Gentleman himself said that the Conservatives were going to vote against some Northern Ireland measures on principle, although we established from his words—it is all there in Hansard—that they disagreed with only two of the 298 clauses of the Bill in question. However, the retreat was sounded and the Conservatives abstained. The Conservatives criticised the suspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly, but were unable, during cross-questioning by me and others, to say what they would have done as an alternative, apart from some bluster about the fact that the Government were punishing the wrong people.

On another occasion, the Conservatives, led by the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford, voted against the extension of an amnesty that they had introduced. That is cynicism; it is an inconsistent approach to Northern Ireland politics. By comparison, the Liberal Democrats try to take an honest, transparent and constructive approach.

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Mr. Quentin Davies

Everything that the hon. Gentleman has said—every allegation that he has—made has been misinformed or fanciful. In parliamentary terms, I cannot put it more strongly than that. The suggestion that we criticised the Government for suspending the institutions without proposing an alternative is absurd. Last July, before the crisis—we expected there to be a further crisis, given the Government's tactics—I set out our alternative, which was to provide the Secretary of State with powers to suspend. All the hon. Gentleman's comments are completely nonsensical. My noble colleagues in another place accepted the amendment, albeit reluctantly—as I rightly and advisedly pointed out—because the more desirable amendment, which, given the assertions of the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues last Thursday, we had every expectation would pass with Liberal support, was not accepted because the Liberal Democrats changed their mind. As always, they simply run away as soon as they hear sound of cannon fire. They only need a telephone call from No. 10 saying, "Please fall back into line" and they fall back into line.

Lembit Öpik

I always enjoy the hon. Gentleman's words, even when they are directed at me. I am smiling only because his retort was so well constructed, but in response may I ask him whether it is beyond his capacity to understand the point that I made? I am sure that it is not, and that he is being mischievous. I remind him of what I said only a few days ago to the same Members to whom I am speaking now, standing in this very spot—or within six inches of it: the Government should either include provisions about acts of completion in the Bill, or accept that they want to maintain political flexibility in defining acts of completion. I should have liked the Secretary of State to admit what every Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has known for the last 20 or 30 years: in such matters, Ministers always want latitude so that they can change their position based on expediency. I stated that if the Government were willing to admit that we would drop the proposal. In effect, that is what the record shows.

The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford is entitled to say that he does not accept my binary alternative—of including provisions about acts of completion in the Bill, or accepting that political flexibility is required and doing something else. However, the Liberal Democrats are comfortable that the Government have implicitly accepted that point and that Ministers have accepted an amendment, proposed by Lord Smith of Clifton, that would reduce the latitude a little more and, crucially, would introduce an element of responsibility for the Northern Ireland parties themselves in the decision about when acts of completion had been fulfilled.

Lady Hermon

When an order lifting suspension is made, only the 10 Ministers who are currently suspended will return to office. The two Democratic Unionist Ministers resigned before suspension, so they will not automatically resume office. The Policing Board is made up of 19 members, 10 of whom are Assembly Members. It would thus be difficult for DUP Members to continue their membership of the Policing Board. That is an important change from our previous policy and I am not at all happy with the amendment. Before the hon. Gentleman welcomes it so enthusiastically, will he address the issue that I raised?

Lembit Öpik

If the hon. Lady will allow me to do so, I would be more inclined to intervene on her speech to respond to that issue in specific terms, because it has more than one element. In strategic terms, she is right. The amendment would introduce other issues, but those are less profoundly worrying, certainly to me, than not having the condition on the restoration of the Assembly in the first place. Any Government can play with legislation to get what they want if they are willing to move away from the spirit of that legislation. Perhaps partly because of the pressures that the hon. Lady describes, there is a genuine cost to Northern Ireland parties if they do not constructively participate in making the decision.

The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford annoyed me a little by suggesting that there is a degree of cynicism among Liberal Democrat Members. He may question my list of criticisms of the Conservatives, but I wonder whether he would really deny that on one occasion he suggested that the IRA had initiated acts of decommissioning because the Conservative party had called an Opposition day debate on Northern Ireland policy. He may say now that that was a joke or that it was fanciful, but he cannot deny that that is what it says in Hansard.

Moving on to the present day, the hon. Gentleman, in criticising the amendment and speaking more generally, said—I paraphrase—that were he Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, he would demand complete disbandment and complete decommissioning. What does he mean by complete disbandment and complete decommissioning? If he can outline a clear process whereby we can understand that those two things have happened, he is not only in the wrong job—he should be the decommissioning commissioner—but he will have gone far further than anyone has so far been able to go in the course of this debate.

Mr. Quentin Davies rose—

Lembit Öpik

The hon. Gentleman is about to give us another pearl of wisdom.

Mr. Davies

I shall take the hon. Gentleman's point seriously because we are dealing with very serious matters. Disbandment means the end of the IRA, or the end of the paramilitary organisation concerned, as a paramilitary organisation—in other words, the end of any structures or activities that are directed towards violence. That must be absolutely plain. I cannot be straighter than that.

As regards decommissioning, one of the great virtues of the Belfast agreement and the peace process is that we have the huge advantage of having an objective mechanism so that we do not have to argue until kingdom come about whether decommissioning has been completed and whether the odd shotgun is stuck up in someone's attic—that is bound to happen—because we have General de Chastelain and the international commission. When General de Chastelain determines that decommissioning has been completed, it has been completed.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. May I say to the hon. Gentleman, who is not alone in this respect, that interventions are getting longer and longer? In fact, they are starting to get longer than the contribution by the hon. Gentleman who has the Floor.

Lembit Öpik

Furthermore, Mr. Deputy Speaker, we are in danger of providing the world with a treatise on Conservative party policy on Northern Ireland, and I am guilty of that.

I will conclude my defence against the Conservative outburst by highlighting the difficulty of the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford, who, in trying to describe full disbandment, simply said the same thing using different words. Would he think that if 10 people in Northern Ireland who used to be IRA members happened to go for a drink together and talk about the good old days, it would mean that they had failed to disband? How would he define the disappearance of structures given that in many ways structures are both attitudinal and a passive, sleeping environment that could be restored at any time? A more serious point is involved. If the hon. Gentleman seeks to portray himself as having great clarity, he needs to be more understanding of the nature of attitudes in the republican movement. For him to demand complete disbandment is not only unmeasurable but counterproductive. By comparison, the proposal in amendment No. 48A is clear, measurable and deliverable, and it would reintroduce the Northern Ireland parties to the loop. I accept that the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) has raised one of the amendment's problems and I do not say that it is perfect. However, we have made progress by convincing the Government that it represents the way forward.

I understand that this week the British and Irish Governments are due to publish the package that was put before the parties at Hillsborough and I shall be interested to see what it contains. All sides will have to consider what the institutions of government are worth and ensure that their actions are sufficient to demonstrate that they are acting in good faith.

The bottom line of the debate is whether we accept amendment No. 48A as a significant improvement to what we had before. The Liberal Democrats actively welcome it and it is, apparently, grudgingly accepted as a long second by the Conservatives. Alternatively, we could reject the amendment and retain the original provision. The Liberal Democrats have a practical approach on Northern Ireland policy. We are honest about what we say and open about what we believe. I am pleased that people in all parties share the same approach much of the time. John Major spoke to terrorists while they were still killing our soldiers, which was to his credit because if it had not happened there would have been no progress. It would be nice to see the Conservative party welcome—just once—a measure of substantial importance in good faith. If it does, when the Liberal Democrats are in government we shall be more sympathetic to its proposals.

Lady Hermon

I apologise for my lengthy intervention on the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit mpik). I shall be delighted to give way to him later, and I look forward to him being in government, although I am not sure whether he will be a member of the Liberal Democrats. He will be a member of the Ulster Unionist party, of course. [Interruption.] He will join the Ulster Unionists before he joins the Conservatives. He has a lot of common sense.

The agreement that I voted for and that I still strongly support is my benchmark. Under the heading "Policing and Justice", it spells out clearly the perceived new beginning for policing. It says that the parties "believe that the agreement provides the opportunity for a new beginning to policing in Northern Ireland with a police service capable of attracting and sustaining support from the community as a whole." The key words are: "from the community as a whole." On Report on 26 and 27 March, we made significant changes to the Bill to allow people with terrorist or criminal convictions to become independent members of district policing partnerships. We also changed the rules on the sub-groups in Belfast.

I shall refresh hon. Members' minds about implications surrounding district policing partnerships. They will operate locally and every one of the 26 district councils in Northern Ireland will have one. Belfast will be divided into four sub-groups. There will be regular interface between a superintendent or chief superintendent and members of the DPPs. It is a matter of great disquiet, to put it mildly, that I regularly hear from constituents who are very concerned that people with criminal convictions, not only terrorist convictions, will be able to join a DPP and tell others how to police the district. That is a very sensitive issue. The Minister was right to open her speech by referring to what she said on Report in March. She consistently maintained that changes would be made and that commencement orders for the sub-groups and DPPs would be introduced only in the context of acts of completion. However, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland was not so consistent. It is worth bearing in mind where we have moved from and where we are today. Early on in that debate, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland said: "We have made it clear that the commencement orders will not come into effect until after the acts of completion." I thought that that was clear. However, later in the day—perhaps he should not have been so generous in taking interventions—he seemed to change his mind. In relation to the commencement orders, he said: "They will not come into effect unless there are acts of completion. They will not come into effect unless we have agreement that those acts of completion have been dealt with."—[Official Report, 26 March 2003; Vol. 402, c. 317–361.] So it was with considerable surprise and huge irritation that I saw the amendment to change the sub-groups and district policing partnerships. The issue of independent members is sensitive and such changes should not be made lightly. It seems that commencement orders can be made if the Secretary of State brings an order before the House to lift suspension. That is a huge change from where we started in column 317 on 26 March.

5.30 pm

I am not happy with the change. I have alluded to the difficulties that the Democratic Unionist party will have with it. In addition, the Ulster Unionist party agreed unanimously—we do that occasionally—on the resolution of the Ulster Unionist Council when we discussed it in our meeting in Belfast on Saturday 21 September 2002. We had a lengthy and detailed discussion on two separate proposals, suggested by right hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) and my colleague, the hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson), and decided to bring them together. The Ulster Unionist Council agreed unanimously last September—I am not inventing this—in paragraph 6 of its resolution that: "The Ulster Unionist Party will oppose further unnecessary changes to the policing legislation and gives notice that it will withdraw from the Policing Board in the event of the government capitulating to the unreasonable demands of Sinn Fein/IRA for further police reform including places for convicted terrorists on district policing partnership boards." Every time that Democratic Unionist party Members have been in the House when we have been discussing policing, I have taken my courage in my hands and intervened on one or other of them to ask what their policy would be if Sinn Fein were to join the Policing Board. They have consistently kept to the same line: that they will follow the Ulster Unionist party members of the Policing Board. They have never said what they will do when they stand alone, but they will come off the Policing Board if Ulster Unionist members leave it.

The Government need to be sensitive to the difficulties that my right hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann has with any changes. He has an Ulster Unionist Council resolution, agreed unanimously last autumn., and members of the council will be sensitive to changes to policing legislation. If the Government were to introduce an order lifting suspension of the Assembly, I repeat that it is a constitutional provision in existing legislation that only suspended Members—only 10 Ministers—will go back into office. The two DUP Members who resigned four days before suspension cannot go back into office; they remain resigned. That will put huge pressure on the Ulster Unionist Ministers: do they stay in the Executive or do they not? My difficulty is that unfair pressure will be put on the Ulster Unionist party—a party that has carried this process and taken risks time and time again.

Lembit Öpik

I thank the hon. Lady for the offer of membership of her party, which I shall put to the good people of Montgomeryshire when I have a moment. The point that the hon. Lady raises is surely exactly why this proposal could work. I accept that it puts huge pressure on the Ulster Unionist party, but it also puts pressure on the Democratic Unionist party, who could be criticised by the people they represent for not participating, and, more than anything, it puts pressure on Ministers to work in partnership with those parties. The hon. Lady has described a mechanism through which all the parties will be tied into making decisions, and through which pressure will be put on Ministers.

Lady Hermon

This point will be helpful and will address the point that the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) has made: the Government must make it clear this afternoon that any order to lift suspension will be made only after acts of completion. To be frank, no order to lift suspension will be worth making unless there have been acts of completion. The Government should also make it clear that the statement of the Secretary of State on 26 March still stands even if we make the changes that we may make this afternoon. The Government must make it clear that commencement orders will not come into effect unless we have agreement that acts of completion have been dealt with. It is hugely important that a clear message is sent out—suspension will be lifted only after acts of completion and, therefore, commencement orders for changes to DPPs and the Belfast sub-groups will be made only after acts of completion. Such a message would be very helpful indeed in clearing away any suspicions that we have given ground too quickly on this issue.

Jane Kennedy

As I said in my opening comments, the amendment that we are considering this afternoon builds into statute the extra consideration that the Secretary of State must give. The institutions in a power-sharing Executive must be functioning before he would consider the changes that the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) has been speaking about. She refers to the pressure that she thinks will be placed on her party. I accept that there is a perception that the Ulster Unionist party would come under particular pressure—indeed, the point was raised by one of the hon. Lady's hon. Friends in the other place. She refers to the party's policy, which would prevent it co-operating in a policing board if Sinn Fein were to join in this context.

I understand the depth of the sensitivities, emotions and feelings on this issue. However, when I have talked to all of the Unionist parties—and not just that of the hon. Lady—and to representatives of the police through the police associations, I have always done so in the context of a Sinn Fein party and a Provisional IRA that are reforming and moving away from paramilitary activity, and that have put paramilitary activity behind them and are prepared to embrace policing as the hon. Lady and I, and you Mr. Deputy Speaker, would understand it. There has been a willingness on the part of, I think, almost everybody, including the Democratic Unionist party, to say that they would consider—in that context—working co-operatively in the interests of the police, of policing and of Northern Ireland. That does not mean that things are any less difficult.

The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) talked about his disappointment that an amendment was not carried in another place. I do not intend to comment on that—I shall restrict my comments to the amendment that we are debating today—but I am grateful to hon. Members representing all parties on both sides of the House for the thoughtful, constructive and detailed consideration given to the Bill. There has been genuine co-operation here and in another place in working together to improve the Bill in a spirit of seeking to assist the process, and the Government are grateful to both Houses for that.

Last week, I met police officers in Dungannon, who police in an extremely difficult security environment, and we discussed such issues in a very open and frank exchange of views. There is no question that trust in the Governments and political parties has to be restored. There is no question that police officers must have confidence if they are to take forward these reforms, as we seek to make this final step that will involve the fullest implementation of the Belfast agreement. That was starkly illustrated to me by those very genuine police officers, who expressed their deeply held views.

It has been one of the greatest privileges of my political career to work with the highly professional, dedicated police officers, who work in that very difficult environment in Northern Ireland and who put aside even these most difficult issues to work together. Indeed, they are prepared to work with those whom they find it very difficult to work with, but they do so in the spirit of working towards the benefit of everyone in Northern Ireland.

The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford talked about the potential for doom and the gloom that may hang over the Assembly. Of course, we may spend time considering that, but he is wrong in the sense that the Secretary of State is not required to restore the institutions before dissolving them. However, it is difficult at this stage to say exactly what will happen. It is important for the House to bear in mind the fact that a great deal of work is still being done and a great deal remains to be completed before we move into the completely new environment that we are seeking to establish.

The date for dissolution was set for 28 April, to give the parties the maximum time possible to reflect on the shared understanding presented by both Governments, and it is important that the parties have as much space as possible to consider the way forward. The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford commented on what may happen. We all spend time considering what may happen and what circumstances may apply. All that we can say at the moment is that we expect the two Prime Ministers to return to Northern Ireland within the next week to publish their proposals. At that time, all those involved can say whether they accept and endorse those proposals.

We do not know what the IRA or any paramilitary group will do, but, obviously, every hon. Member hopes that everyone will engage in the acts of completion that we have struggled to define in considering the Bill.

Lady Hermon

Will the Minister clarify an issue that has also caused considerable disquiet at home? Let us suppose that the suspension is not lifted, that the Assembly is dissolved at the point that she mentions and that the election takes place on 29 May. Is there any point in holding an election at the end of May if we cannot guarantee that the Assembly could work on 30 or 31 May? Will the Government make it absolutely clear that they intend to hold the election on 29 May come what may?

Jane Kennedy

That is absolutely our intention. We have made that commitment and there is agreement that that should happen, but there is no guarantee about what may happen as a result. There is no guarantee about anything that may happen between now and the election date itself.

5.45 pm

As for what we mean by acts of completion, I think the hon. Gentleman was wrong to say that the Government had indicated that they might accept somewhat less than what would be acceptable elsewhere. It is important to remember what the Prime Minister said in his Belfast speech in October. He made it absolutely clear that the paramilitary organisations must end their violence, their preparations for violence and their planning for violence, and that it must be a complete and permanent end. While I accept that there have been a great many questions about that definition, I think it is comprehensive.

Mr. Quentin Davies

This matter is so important that we had better be precise. I did not say that the Government had indicated that they would accept something less than complete decommissioning and complete disbandment. Thank God, they have not said in advance that they would accept something less, and I pray that they never will accept something less. I spoke, in fact, of the danger of not referring to the completion of decommissioning and disbandment and preferring to use some intermediate symbolic term—some abstraction such as "acts of completion", with all the problems of definition that I mentioned. I said that it might give someone the impression—a false impression, I trust—that the Government could settle for something less. Were that danger to materialise—were anyone to suppose that the Government might settle for something less—the chance of securing what we need to complete the settlement would, I am afraid, disappear. I have never suggested—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman has made his point.

Jane Kennedy

I agree with the vast majority of what the hon. Gentleman has said. It is indeed a question of carrying all the parties with us.

The hon. Gentleman pressed me on the issue of a statement to the House. He will appreciate that I have no authority to give him a commitment now, but we have heard his comments. We will talk to colleagues about what has been said today, and I will tell my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State how strongly the hon. Gentleman feels.

I am grateful for the latitude you have allowed, Mr. Deputy Speaker, in letting us deal with issues that are not defined specifically by the amendment. I hope that President Bush will encourage all parties to endorse the way forward proposed by the British and Irish Governments, and that everyone will become involved in the carrying out of acts of completion on all sides. We are taking nothing for granted. The President's stay today and tomorrow shows how important this week is for Northern Ireland, and the influence of the United States Government can never be underestimated.

This is indeed a critical week for Northern Ireland. It is, I think, the most important week since the Good Friday agreement. It gives us our chance to implement the rest of that agreement in one final step, something that not just those of us who represent constituencies in England, Wales and Scotland hope to achieve.

David Burnside (South Antrim)

How can the President of the United States—in Hillsborough, tonight or tomorrow; I believe that the discussion will last for about an hour and a half tomorrow morning—endorse a package that the House has not yet received and at which the Northern Ireland parties have only glanced without being told of the details? How can he do that in the next two days when the House and the parties involved are being asked to look at the package on Thursday, having not seen it previously?

Jane Kennedy

I said that I was sure that the President would encourage all parties to consider the package very carefully, and to endorse it. As the hon. Gentleman will no doubt agree when he has a chance to see the package, it offers the best opportunity for the final move towards the final and fullest implementation of the Belfast agreement. That, I believe, is no less than the people of Northern Ireland deserve.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendment No. 49A agreed to.