HC Deb 05 November 2003 vol 412 cc804-54
Mr. Speaker

We now come to the main business. I inform the House that I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

12.48 pm
Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford)

I beg to move, That this House expresses its profound disquiet at the accounts given by the Prime Minister and by General de Chastelain on the issue of whether information on the latest IRA act of decommissioning, additional to that made public, was given by General de Chastelain to the UK and Irish Governments; believes that the credibility of both the Prime Minister and of General de Chastelain are of vital importance in the successful conclusion of the Northern Ireland peace process; and therefore considers it imperative that this matter should be clarified urgently and unambiguously.

Let me start by dealing with the issue of bipartisanship. Over the past two weeks, every time we have raised the issue of the Prime Minister's assurance about the latest IRA act of decommissioning and the conflict between his own statements and those of General de Chastelain, or every time the Government have thought or feared that we were about to do so, a number of Labour Back Benchers, apparently entirely spontaneously, have started to talk about bipartisanship in terms such as "Wouldn't it be a good thing for Northern Ireland if the Opposition could only be bipartisan?"

We have been a responsible Opposition on Northern Ireland, and we hall remain so. We support the Government entirely on their objectives and the Belfast agreement. We have always supported them on tactics when they have done what we thought were the right things. But one thing that the Government and even the Whips and spin doctors in No. 10 surely cannot expect us to do in any circumstances is to be party to a cover-up and acquiesce in a deception of the public. That would be a veritable perversion of bipartisanship. It would be the political class ganging up against the public whom we are all elected to serve. It would be to betray the most fundamental purpose of having a Parliament—to ensure honest and transparent government.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Davies

No, I will not. I am not going to give way to Labour Members at all, for the simple reason that only the Prime Minister can throw light on the questions that I am going to ask. The Prime Minister should be here in person instead of relying on proxies, whether ministerial or from the Back Benches, to try to defend him. Since he alone is in a position to answer these questions, I shall wait until he appears: if he has the courage to do so, I shall certainly give way to him.

The problem that brings us to this debate is simply stated. On 22 October, the Prime Minister, speaking at Prime Minister's questions about the previous day's act of decommissioning by the IRA, said of General de Chastelain: He gives certain information—not the full information, but certain information—to us, as the two Governments. Although we are not at liberty to disclose that in formation without his permission, we are working hard to try to find a way in which we can do so, because I believe, on the basis of what we know, that people would be satisfied if they knew the full details."—[Official Report, 22 October 2003; Vol. 411, c. 634.]

There are two salient points about that answer that the House should note. First, there is the factual, or purportedly factual, statement that General de Chastelain gives, and on this occasion gave, certain information to the two Governments that he did not disclose and that the two Governments are not at liberty to disclose to the public. That is a matter of fact, and on it there was a very clear statement of fact by the Prime Minister. Secondly, there is the assurance, explicitly based on that information, to the effect that, if people knew the details that the Prime Minister knows, they would be satisfied. That is not a factual statement: it is an assurance based on a judgment. But, of course, if no additional information was available to the Prime Minister, that judgment could not in good faith have been made, and the assurance would be worthless, irresponsible and, worst of all, dishonest.

I am afraid that the kernel of the issue that we all have to confront, whether we like it or not, is this: General de Chastelain has said, unambiguously and in every conversation that he has had on the subject over the past two weeks, that he does not give supplementary information to the two Governments and that he did not do so on this occasion. In other words, he has directly contradicted the factual statement made by the Prime Minister in the House on 22 October. He has repeated that at every possible opportunity, including in two extensive conversations with me.

Let me read from a transcript of one such conversation that took place in a meeting in which I was not involved. Several people were present on both sides of the table. There is a formal record of that meeting, which was between General de Chastelain and members of the Democratic Unionist party. "PR" is Peter Robinson, the hon. Member for Belfast, East; "GDC" is General de Chastelain; and "DP" is Dr. Paisley, the hon. Member for North Antrim. With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I shall place a copy of that record in the Library after I have spoken. I quote: PR—Did you go beyond the descriptive terms in report or conference when talking to the PMs? GDC—I gave them no more detail than I have told you. DP—The governments have no more information on the last reports? GDC—Unless they are reading something else into the reports. PR—The 2 governments see certain things. They didn't see it from you? GDC—They have no more information than what was made public. In view of the importance of this matter, I shall repeat that last quotation from General de Chastelain: They have no more information than what was made public. The House will be able to compare those words with the Prime Minister's words of the day before and the Wednesday after—21 and 29 October—which I have already quoted. Let me quote and contrast what the Prime Minister said last Wednesday-29 October—at Prime Minister's questions. He said: certain information was given to us by General de Chastelain and I had very much hoped that it would have been possible to provide the full information to everybody."—[Official Report, 29 November 2003; Vol. 412, c. 300.] One could not have a more stark contrast or a more thoroughly documented conflict of words than that.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk)

My hon. Friend was at Prime Minister's questions today when the Prime Minister said that he had extra duties in this House later today. Does my hon. Friend agree that one of those duties should have been to come here and listen to him? The Prime Minister is the only person who can respond, so surely he should be here now?

Mr. Davies

I thoroughly agree with my hon. Friend. A great many people throughout the country will think exactly the same and draw their own conclusions from the fact that the Prime Minister did not want to face up to the points that he knew that I was going to put to him.

Kevin Brennan

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Although it is the hon. Gentleman's decision whom he gives way to, is it in order for him to accuse Labour Back Benchers of making orchestrated interventions on him, then to give way to a Member on his side of the House having said that he did not intend to give way at all?

Mr. Speaker

I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is trying to draw me into the debate.

Mr. Davies

It is a great shame that Labour Members, in a mistaken attempt to put up a cloud of camouflage, should raise such completely bogus points of order. Every parliamentarian, whatever his party allegiance, should focus on this clear issue that goes to the heart of integrity in Government and truthfulness in this House of Commons. Labour Members are getting agitated because we have got to the kernel of the issue. The plain fact is that the Prime Minister and General de Chastelain cannot, unfortunately, both be speaking the truth. The House urgently needs to discover which one of the two it is.

Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Am I not right in thinking that we have already debated this issue twice: first, in a statement made by the Secretary of State on 22 October; and secondly, on an urgent question, which you allowed almost a week later? We have had two debates, and there is no new material.

Mr. Speaker

Order. This is a debate on a substantive motion before the House: that is very different from a statement. The hon. Gentleman is in order; if he goes out of order, I shall soon tell him so.

Mr. Davies

Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

The Opposition are raising this issue and Government Back Benchers can think of nothing better to do than to try to distract attention with points of order. That speaks for itself. As for the hon. Lady's point of order, it was so spontaneous that she had to read it out.

Kevin Brennan

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Davies

I have already explained why I will not give way to Labour Members on this occasion. The matters that we are discussing are extremely grave, and only the Prime Minister is in a position to answer. When he comes here, as he should, I shall certainly give way to him.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Notwithstanding the undoubted dedication to her duties of the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, the right hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy), is it not regrettable, even if unavoidable, that the Secretary of State is unable to be with us? Does not that underline the importance of the Prime Minister's making an appearance some time between now and the end of this important debate?

Mr. Davies

I think that people will draw their own conclusions from the obvious discomfort of the Prime Minister's Cabinet colleagues and their desire to stay away from the debate. I have some sympathy with them in that regard, given the unpleasant reality that we all have to face.

It is urgent that the House get to the bottom of this matter. It is clear that Labour Members do not wish to do so; that is the last thing they want. I intend to proceed, however. There are three reasons why this is so important, and I would have hoped that they would have been clear to everyone on both sides of the Chamber. First, General de Chastelain is a very distinguished public servant. He is a former chairman of the Canadian chiefs of staff, and a former Canadian ambassador to the United States. He generously agreed to give up what has now been several years of his life to preside over the Decommissioning Commission. As a public servant, he cannot defend himself in the media. It cannot be right that his veracity and reliability should be impugned without the case against him being examined very thoroughly indeed.

The second reason goes right to the heart of the peace process in Northern Ireland, which must, if it is to be successful, include the completion of decommissioning. For that reason, it is very important that the Decommissioning Commission should be able to operate. That means that, like it or not, the paramilitary organisations and the people of Northern Ireland as a whole must have trust in it, and in the veracity of its chairman, General de Chastelain. There will be a considerable crisis if that trust disappears.

The gravest, and by far the most important, aspect of this is a matter of fundamental constitutional moment. It is the issue of whether the House and the British public have been told the truth.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the core problem is that General de Chastelain has now been put in the position of having repeatedly to deny that he has given more information to anyone else, and that there is an air of questioning about whether that is the case? The only person who can put that right is the Prime Minister.

Mr. Davies

I wholeheartedly agree with the hon. Gentleman. He and I share the view that this is an extremely important matter—I think that everyone would agree with that—and that the Prime Minister should have the courage to come to the House to give his own explanation.

None of us needs to be lectured on the importance of telling the truth in the House, and I am certainly not going to do that. None of us needs reminding of the occasions in our lifetime, if not our memory, on which it has been alleged that Ministers have lied to the House. I can think of only two in the last 50 years: John Profumo in 1963 and James Callaghan—now Lord Callaghan—over devaluation in 1967. In both cases, they used ambiguous phrases rather than directly contradicting the truth. Nevertheless, they both resigned. I simply ask the House what precedent we would be establishing if we were to decide here and now, in 2003, that the very issue of veracity was no longer worth getting to the bottom of, or that the penalty for lack of veracity was nothing at all.

Finally, there is the important matter of the assurance that the Prime Minister gave. I shall quote him again: I believe, on the basis of what we know, that people would be satisfied if they knew the full details."—[Official Report, 22 October 2003; Vol. 411, c. 634.] That is a very significant assurance.

Kevin Brennan

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it in order for the hon. Gentleman to question the veracity of the Prime Minister's statements to the House?

Mr. Speaker

It is out of order. I would say to the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) that he is getting very close to the wire. He is beginning to make accusations against the Prime Minister in a roundabout way. The motion does not attack the Prime Minister in the manner that the hon. Gentleman is adopting at the moment. I must tell him to be very careful about what he is saying.

Mr. Davies

The motion, as your Clerks have always advised, Mr. Speaker, had to be phrased in a very neutral way, and I understand the reasons for that. The matter that I am raising is of enormous importance, and I have made it clear to the House on this and other occasions that I do not shy away from that importance. I have been very careful, however, to avoid unparliamentary language—

Mr. Speaker

Order. Of course it is a good thing to go to the Clerks for advice. That is important. The Clerks informed the hon. Gentleman that the motion had to be phrased in a neutral manner, but he must follow the sentiments of that motion. He cannot get away with saying that the motion is phrased in a neutral manner because the Clerks said that it should be, and then going beyond that neutrality.

Mr. Davies

I understand, Mr. Speaker, and I know that you and the House will understand the position in which I find myself. I know that you will share the view of all parliamentarians that issues such as these have to be raised, and that they must be raised in a parliamentary fashion. I am certainly endeavouring to do that. However, the public who send us here would not forgive us if we round some procedural strategy for burying such unpleasant issues permanently under the carpet.

As I was saying, there is the additional, but certainly not unimportant, matter of the assurance that the Prime Minister gave to the House: I believe, on the basis of what we know, that people would be satisfied if they knew the full details."—[Official Report, 22 October 2003; Vol. 411, c. 634.] That is a significant assurance. The whole House will agree that anyone in a position of trust must be very careful about giving assurances; the greater the trust, the greater the responsibility. That applies throughout life, and in the professions. What would we think of a doctor who said, "I have examined this patient. I cannot describe his condition to you because of patient confidentiality, but I can tell you that he has not got an infectious disease", when he had actually never examined the patient at all, the assurance was worthless, and some decision, fatal to others, had been taken on the basis of it?

What would we think of an accountant who said, "I cannot give you the balance sheet and profit-and-loss account of this company, because they are confidential, but I have examined the figures, and if you knew what I know, you would be happy to trade with it or invest in it", when actually he had never seen the figures, and his assurance was entirely bogus? What would we think of such a doctor or accountant? Would we think that they were fit and proper people to work in their chosen professions, and that they ought to remain in them?

What about a Prime Minister who behaved in such a way? Would we think him a fit and proper person for that role? Does it matter whether the British people can trust their Prime Minister? Is it not vital that the House and the country know the truth?

Kevin Brennan

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The hon. Gentleman has just implied that the Prime Minister's statements to the House were entirely bogus. Is that in order?

Mr. Speaker

I do not wish to prevent the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford from speaking openly in the House, but if he wished to say the things that he was saying just now about the Prime Minister, he really should have put a motion of no confidence before the House. He has, however, put this motion before the House, and he is now going beyond the terms of the motion. I say to the hon. Gentleman again—I am giving him good advice—that he must be very careful about what he says from now on.

Mr. Bercow

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Can you guide me, in accordance with precedent and advice that right hon. and hon. Members have received? I am among those who have received such advice. Can you confirm that it remains the case that, whereas to accuse someone of lying is unparliamentary, the suggestion that a right hon. or hon. Member might inadvertently have given credence to an untruth is entirely parliamentary?

Mr. Speaker

There is nothing inadvertent about what the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford is saying before me. That is different, and I must tell him that it might come to the stage where I have to stop him.

Mr. Quentin Davies

Mr. Speaker, I shall continue to endeavour to avoid any unparliamentary language. I am familiar with the difficulty in which you find yourself, and I recall another famous precedent—that of Winston Churchill, who was once allowed to use the words "terminological inexactitude".

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Davies

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not. I have almost reached the end of my remarks.

Does it not go to the heart of our democracy that the British people can always trust the office of the Prime Minister? That is surely a legitimate question for me to ask today, and a question that the public who send us here hope that we continually ask ourselves. The Prime Minister himself needs to clear this matter up. He needs to come before the House without delay to make a personal statement and to answer questions on it, so that we can lay this matter to rest, one way or the other, once and for all.

1.9 pm

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

I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof: notes the importance of confidentiality to effective decommissioning of weapons in Northern Ireland; expresses its gratitude for the professionalism of General de Chastelain and the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning; welcomes the further positive developments in the peace process set out by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in his statement to the House on 22nd October, including the calling of elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly on 26th November; calls on all parties in the House to engage constructively in furthering the peace process in Northern Ireland; and looks forward to further progress after the elections towards the restoration of devolved government in Northern Ireland on a stable and inclusive basis.

Mrs. Jackie Lawrence (Preseli Pembrokeshire)

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Jane Kennedy

I will.

Mrs. Lawrence

In the light of Opposition comments, will my right hon. Friend confirm that the amendment congratulates General de Chastelain on the professional way in which he is handling the issue in Northern Ireland?

Jane Kennedy

My hon. Friend is right. We can all read the amendment.

We are always happy to discuss Northern Ireland issues in this place, but I have serious doubts about the appropriateness of the debate at this point and about what motivated the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) to table the motion. You will recall last week's urgent question, Mr. Speaker, during which you had cause—

Mr. Quentin Davies

Will the Minister give way?

Jane Kennedy

Let me make my point first. Then I shall be happy to give way to the hon. Gentleman.

On that occasion, Mr. Speaker, you had cause gently to chastise the hon. Gentleman for making a speech when he should have been asking a question. I recall the occasion vividly, as I replied to the question.

It is a little like "Groundhog Day". I suppose I can take some comfort from the fact that although the hon. Gentleman has had two opportunities to make the speech we have just heard, it is unlikely—if the newspaper reports are correct—that he will have an opportunity to make the same points again from his current position. Let me add, however, that personally I wish him well in the forthcoming reshuffle.

Members will have their own views on the wisdom—

Mr. Davies

Will the Minister give way?

Jane Kennedy

If the hon. Gentleman will contain himself for a few moments, I will give way to him shortly.

As I was saying, Members will have their own views on the wisdom of initiating such a debate in the middle of an election campaign in Northern Ireland. This is a time when the parties and voters in Northern Ireland should be discussing issues among themselves, and it is a time when many Northern Ireland Members would like to be out campaigning. As we are to have a debate, however, I think it right in principle for us here to show restraint during this period, and to avoid becoming part of the election campaign.

It may interest the House to know that this morning the Conservative party launched its own Northern Ireland election campaign. Let me quote from its party political broadcast. I'm asking you to cast your vote on the 26th November for the Conservative Party. We are the only one of the three national parties in the United Kingdom to take part in elections here".

There we have it. The synthetic indignation to which we have been subjected this afternoon is all about a party political campaign cynically motivated to inspire today's debate.

At this point I am happy to give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Davies

I understand the difficulty in which the Minister finds herself. Hers is the unfortunate role of having to obfuscate and find complete irrelevancies.

The Minister speculated aloud about my motives in raising this issue last week and again this week. Let me put her mind at rest: it has nothing whatever to do with my position in the Conservative party. I would do exactly the same from the Back Benches. I would think it the duty of any Member to raise the issue here if he or she were aware of the facts of which I have become aware as a result of my conversations with General de Chastelain, and of the other evidence I have given the House. That seems to me a fundamental duty. I would be failing in that duty if I suppressed the facts, and did not allow the House to focus on these vital questions.

Jane Kennedy

I suppose we note the hon. Gentleman's comments; but I believe that the great majority of Members hope for a positive and constructive outcome from the election campaign which will lead to the formation of an inclusive Executive in Northern Ireland. Indeed, I think that in principle that is the hon. Gentleman's position, but I must question—not for the first time—the maturity of his judgment in relation to what he seeks to achieve today.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire)

Will the Minister give way?

Jane Kennedy

If the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I will make some progress.

Lembit Öpik


Jane Kennedy

As I have said, I want to make some progress.

The campaign unfolding in Northern Ireland is, in fact, focusing on the future, and I believe that in most respects it is predominantly constructive. From all or at least most quarters, we are hearing imaginative and hopeful comments.

A cheap point was made about the absence of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. He is not here today, which is why I have the privilege of speaking. He is visiting Canada and the United States to communicate the real progress made in Northern Ireland—including the progress made during the last few weeks—and to thank the Governments and people of those countries for their positive contributions to the Northern Ireland peace process. In Canada, my right hon. Friend has seen the Prime Minister and other Ministers. High on the list of points he has made to everyone he has met there is the vital contribution of General de Chastelain, and indeed that of other Canadians who have been involved in the process.

Since the general's name has been dragged into the debate and his credibility questioned in such a regrettable way by the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford, let me make it clear that we regard both him and his colleague Mr. Andrew Sens as men of vast experience and expertise.

Lembit Öpik

Whatever the Minister may feel about the Conservative party's motives on this occasion, I must tell her that the Liberal Democrats share some of its concerns. This is not about the credibility or integrity of General de Chastelain. We need to clarify a point that confused not just politicians but many members of the public, who were given the impression that there was information in the Prime Minister's remit that had not been shared with them.

Jane Kennedy

The hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity to make his points later if he catches your eye, Mr. Speaker. But I will come to them in a moment if he is patient.

Most important of all, we regard the general and Mr. Sens as men of cast-iron integrity. Without that integrity, they would not have gained the trust that has been necessary for us to make the advances we have made in decommissioning. Here, as in other areas of life in Northern Ireland, we can advance only by developing trust and confidence. The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford either has not recognised that or, if he has, thinks that the scoring of cheap party political points in this place is more important than working together to deliver a more peaceful future and greater well-being to a part of the United Kingdom.

Mrs. Lawrence


Mr. Quentin Davies

Will the Minister give way?

Jane Kennedy

I gave way to the hon. Gentleman earlier and ended up regretting it, so I think I will give way to my hon. Friend first.

Mrs. Lawrence

Does my hon. Friend recall that in a debate on Northern Ireland on 22 November 1999 the then right hon. Member for Huntingdon said "It looks as if we are finally looking towards a permanent solution in Northern Ireland. I fervently hope that that is the case"? Does my hon. Friend agree that that demonstrates a mature and bipartisan approach to the Northern Ireland issue, measured in terms of action rather than words?

Jane Kennedy

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I regret what appears to be the Conservative party's present lack of a bipartisan approach.

The hon. Gentleman wanted to intervene. I regretted giving way to him earlier merely because of the longwinded nature of his intervention, and the fact that he did not make any point worth making.

Mr. Davies

I have already dealt with the issue of bipartisanship. As for the issue of confidence and trust, I entirely agree with the Minister. I said the same myself. It is because it is so important to restore confidence and trust, and because of the glaring discrepancy between the Prime Minister's remarks and the statements of General de Chastelain, that we need to clear the matter up. If the Minister wants to restore trust in the Northern Ireland peace process, let alone in this Parliament, she ought to contribute to that clarification by getting her right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to the House as soon as possible.

Jane Kennedy

May I respectfully suggest that the hon. Gentleman might like to take a pill, wrap a wet towel around his head, lie down in a darkened room, contain himself and deal with what are very serious issues without being histrionic.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

The Minister is talking about trust, and the amendment mentions General de Chastelain. The question that we are asking is: can we trust General de Chastelain? It is quite straightforward. Can we trust what he has said? She has to answer that, because either we can or we cannot. The Prime Minister has said that we can, but then General de Chastelain has contradicted him. That is part of a pattern that relates to the dodgy dossier, because Dr. Kelly had something very different to say. Will she answer that?

Jane Kennedy

I am not sure that I would be allowed to follow the hon. Gentleman down that route given the terms of the debate, but I will answer those points shortly if I may make some progress.

The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford did not adequately address the issue of bipartisanship. Moreover, he is wrong, because he does not appreciate Labour Members' disappointment at the breach of the bipartisan approach. Previous Opposition spokesmen, of both parties, have not taken the hon. Gentleman's approach and they have followed, perfectly honourably, a policy of bipartisanship. That is not to say that they have refrained from criticising the Government, or failed in their duty to hold them to account, but they have acted reasonably and with judgment. That was a perfectly honourable role for the Opposition to take.

Kevin Brennan

We do not doubt that the views of the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) on Northern Ireland are sincerely and passionately held, but the real issue is one of tone. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is the tone in which he has raised the subject in recent months that has led many Labour Members, completely independently, not through any orchestration, to question the manner in which he raises his sincerely held views?

Jane Kennedy

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I believe that the approach of previous Opposition spokesmen served both Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom as a whole much better than the approach adopted by the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford.

As for the specific questions that the hon. Gentleman raised, let me make a preliminary point. Of course we do not seek confidentiality in respect of decommissioning. On the contrary, we believe that the greatest possible transparency is preferable. Following the IRA decommissioning of last month, there was constructive engagement on that issue. It did not result in agreement, but real progress was made.

The hon. Gentleman needs to realise, however, that what we are talking about is putting arms beyond use by agreement. If the police find illegal weapons, they will, of course, seize them, and I expect that we would not have any difficulties about transparency, but that is not the situation that we are talking about. The process of decommissioning, which I believe the hon. Gentleman, as a declared supporter of the Good Friday agreement, must support in principle, involves the co-operation of the organisation doing the decommissioning. Strident statements in the Chamber about the terms on which it should be done do not help to bring it about.

Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley)

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that there has been no suggestion that there was no substantial act of decommissioning, which should be able to assist us in the positive process of getting a peaceful resolution in Northern Ireland? Can she confirm what was said and what the attitude was of the Taoiseach after his discussions with General de Chastelain?

Jane Kennedy

My hon. Friend makes two valid points. First, I am not aware of anyone questioning the fact that the act of decommissioning has been described as significant, and that the general's report indicated an event of significance for everyone with the interests of Northern Ireland at heart. Secondly, the Taoiseach confirmed that the sense that he had been given in his conversation with the general about the scale and nature of the event was that it was greater than the description that the general was able to give in his statement and even in the press conference that followed, but I will develop that theme shortly.

May I make some final points about the approach of the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford? Quite apart from the possible impact of the hon. Gentleman's comments on Northern Ireland politics, I believe that he is attempting to drive a wedge between the two Governments, the Government of Britain and the Government of Ireland, and the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning. His attempts are irresponsible in relation to the credibility of the commission, although I do not believe that they will damage it because the commission remains an extremely important part of the machinery that is designed to bring long-term peace to Northern Ireland. With the developments of the past few weeks, we have the prospect of a process that will put all IRA weapons beyond use. The commission would be the instrument of that historic transformation. Undermining General de Chastelain and the commission, which is liable to be the effect of the hon. Gentleman's behaviour, if not his intention, is profoundly damaging to prospects for advancing the peace process.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland)

May I say to the Minister in a spirit of bipartisanship that for the Prime Minister to say that he had been given information that General de Chastelain says he had not been given must inevitably undermine that process?

Jane Kennedy

As I have said, the Government's view is that we would prefer the decommissioning process to be transparent. Therefore, it is a matter of regret that—[Interruption.] Hon. Members may just like to calm down a little and listen to my answer. It is a matter of regret that, because of the lack of transparency surrounding that event, we were not in a position to restore trust and confidence between the parties in Northern Ireland. May I address the point raised by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) by turning to what was said a fortnight ago at Hillsborough? We had an urgent question last week, in which I set all this out, and I will do so again.

At Hillsborough on the afternoon of 21 October, the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach were able to learn more about the decommissioning event than was set out in the statement issued by the decommissioning commission. That is not in the least surprising. The commission's statement was very short: a few lines. However, General de Chastelain and Mr. Sens gave a press conference afterwards. It lasted for about 15 minutes. I think that no one who was at the press conference, who saw it on the television, or who has subsequently read reports of it could deny that it added to their understanding of what was involved in the decommissioning event over and above the brief words of the statement itself.

There were some extremely illuminating passages. For example, General de Chastelain described what might be included in various terms used in his statement. Mr. Sens commented that the material we saw put beyond use this morning could have caused death or destruction on a huge scale if it had been used". There is no doubt that such comments instilled a much greater sense of what was involved in the act of decommissioning than the mere words of the statement alone. In speaking as they did, General de Chastelain and Mr. Sens breached no confidences. They certainly set out no inventories.

As I said, the press conference lasted for about a quarter of an hour. General de Chastelain and Mr. Sens were with the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach, in advance of their press statement, for an hour or more. Therefore, it is perfectly understandable that, in the course of such a meeting, they developed a still clearer understanding than observers of the press conference were able to develop about what was involved in the IRA decommissioning act. As the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach made clear, they were not given the full information in the commission's possession. But they were able, as a result of what they had learned, to indicate with conviction that there had indeed been a substantial act of decommissioning. That was implicit in what the general and Mr. Sens said at the press conference, but it is hardly surprising that the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach had a still greater sense of the importance of the event—even than those who attended or saw the press conference. There is really no more to it than that.



Mr. Quentin Davies

Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Jane Kennedy

No, I shall not. I have given way to the hon. Gentleman several times during this debate, and in that regard I have shown more courtesy than he was prepared to show to my Back-Bench colleagues during his contribution. However, I shall give way to the hon. Member for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs).

Mr. Beggs

I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for giving way. Does she accept that the failure to disclose the detail on, and extent of, the decommissioning that has occurred to date can provoke thoughts of a similarity to the experience of Lord Saville at the Bloody Sunday inquiry? Lord Saville said to the IRA contact on decommissioning, Martin McGuinness: Firstly you are depriving us of the opportunity of discovering the full facts and matters relating to Bloody Sunday, and secondly it will be suggested in due course, that if you are not answering these questions you have something to hide". Is there not the danger that General de Chastelain and the Prime Ministers are currently having similarly frustrating experiences in their contacts with IRA contact on decommissioning, Martin McGuinness? Is that not the reason for the confusion, or, indeed, do they all have something to hide?

Jane Kennedy

The hon. Gentleman makes a very powerful point, and I shall respond in this way. I agree that the lack of transparency surrounding the event has led to the speculation now taking place. That is a matter of regret; however, it is part of the process. What we now want to see is further progress towards complete decommissioning of all weapons by all paramilitary organisations in Northern Ireland.

Attempts to play with words—to imply that people have been misled, in order to stir up distrust and suspicion—are going to advance nothing, and certainly not the prospects for a better future for Northern Ireland. They are highly irresponsible and will impress no one. We need to focus on the future. Real steps forward were achieved on 21 October. A speech by the leader of Sinn Fein referred to the full and final closure of the conflict'". That speech was endorsed by the IRA. A third act of decommissioning by the IRA took place that was considerably larger than its predecessors, and the prospect was opened up of a continuing process of decommissioning to put all arms beyond use.

On a political level, we saw engagement between Sinn Fein and the Ulster Unionist party of a kind never seen before. At least 15 meetings took place between those parties. They did not produce a resolution of the outstanding issues last month, but they are full of promise for the future. That is the advance that has been achieved in Northern Ireland, and the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach have applied themselves to it extremely diligently. The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford, although he professes to be a supporter of the Good Friday agreement, has given the process no assistance at all. He has sought to impede it in various ways, in the hope of gaining some advantage here. Well, I am afraid that he has failed, and failed again today. After the election, we shall seek to advance the political process in Northern Ireland again. It will probably not be an easy road, but I am sure that the Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will put all their effort into it.

Judy Mallaber

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Jane Kennedy

If my hon. Friend will allow me, I am coming to the end of my remarks.

Real gains have been made within recent weeks in the difficult and sometimes painful process of healing divisions in Northern Ireland. There is a constructive spirit abroad in relation to Northern Ireland affairs—in Northern Ireland and beyond. The Opposition have other preoccupations. I urge them to put them aside, and to play their part.

1.35 pm
Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire)

I should begin by making one thing absolutely clear to the Minister. She may question the motives of the Conservative party this afternoon, and speak long and hard about her dissatisfaction with what the h Dn. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) has said in the past about Northern Ireland. She will, of course, know that I have chosen many times to take issue with what I regarded as a cynical approach to Northern Ireland issues. Indeed, on many other occasions I have gone on the record in this Chamber as sticking up for exactly what she proposed; however, this is not one of those occasions. The Minister needs to understand that, regardless of what she thinks the Conservatives' motives are this afternoon, the Liberal Democrats share their concern about what happened in respect of the Prime Ministers' comments and the information that lies behind them. So unless she wants to suggest that we are somehow in league with the Conservatives in order to score cheap political points, she will have to accept that there is a case to answer. I did not hear that answer in what she said.

The issue of decommissioning, particularly decommissioning by the IRA, has been a thorn in the side of the peace process since the Good Friday agreement was signed—there is no question about that. The Independent International Commission on Decommissioning, headed by General John de Chastelain, was set up in 1997 to oversee the destruction of paramilitary weapons. Since then, the general and his colleagues have worked in very difficult circumstances. Contact between the commission and the various paramilitary groups has often been infrequent, with different organisations breaking contact altogether with the commission at various stages in the past six years.

We can all agree that, throughout that time, General de Chastelain and his colleagues in the commission have acted with the utmost integrity. So my first point is that there seems to be universal agreement in this Chamber—certainly among Conservatives, Labour Members and Liberal Democrats—that General de Chastelain has impeccable integrity. That is very important in terms of analysing the situation as a whole. Indeed, such integrity is vital to the success of the commission's role.

My second point is that that integrity must be maintained. Trust in General de Chastelain must be complete in the eyes of the paramilitaries, in order that he can carry out his functions. The IRA views itself as a legitimate army. This is not the place to conduct a long monologue about the IRA, but in trying to understand its relationship with the commission we must recognise how it sees itself, rather than focusing on how others might choose to see it. I should make it clear that my party and I do not condone, and never have condoned, what the IRA or any other paramilitary group has undertaken in terms of violence and intimidation in the Province. However, as I said, it views itself as an army and does not believe that it has been militarily defeated. So, for the IRA, decommissioning its weapons has been a huge psychological step.

For such acts to come about, General de Chastelain has needed to secure the IRA's trust, and I believe that he has acted impeccably in that regard as well. Of course, the commission also needs the trust of the public in Northern Ireland, so we must all recognise—I hope that this is a further point of agreement—that General de Chastelain must never be put in a situation that compromises his apparent integrity in his communications with the paramilitaries and, equally importantly, his integrity in the eyes of the general public.

That leads me to the third, and crucial, element of today's debate. There simply would not be enough public confidence in decommissioning without an independent outside body to confirm that such acts had taken place. It is hugely regrettable that in recent weeks this delicate balance, on which we all seem to agree, has been called into question. In my judgment, the Prime Minister's intervention has added confusion, without doing anything constructive to help to resolve the issues. I listened to the Minister and her liberal criticisms of the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford. On this occasion, however, she is adding fog rather than clarity to events. I was waiting for her to explain precisely what the Prime Minister had in his possession in the way of information—not a guess or a judgment—to give him the extra confidence to make the claims that he did.

Mr. Carmichael

Did my hon. Friend notice, as I did, that the Minister's words today were that the Prime Minister "had a sense" of what had happened, whereas the Prime Minister's own words were that he "had information" about it? Does my hon. Friend agree that those are very different things and that the circle will have to be squared if the Prime Minister's role is to be the subject of public confidence?

Lembit Öpik

My hon. Friend gets to the very heart of the matter. It is not merely playing with words, because what the words imply greatly influences the perceived integrity of General de Chastelain. As my hon. Friend suggests, the Minister needs to explain, perhaps in her summation, why the Prime Minister used the word "information".

It is also worth noting that, according to my recollection, Downing street backtracked to a certain extent towards the end of the week, and issued a statement that the Prime Minister's comments were an "informed guess", which further confused the issue. The Prime Minister has certainly not sought to back down and admit that he over-used the phrase "information" when it was only an informed guess. We therefore find ourselves in this quagmire.

Kevin Brennan

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the intervention of his hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) sums the matter up perfectly: he and his colleagues and Conservative Front Benchers are simply playing with words? The debate is all about semantics rather than about the real politics and the real issues that matter in Northern Ireland.

Lembit Öpik

I have great respect for the hon. Gentleman and I have never questioned his genuine interest in Northern Ireland, but on this occasion he has made an error. I have been the Liberal Democrats' Northern Ireland spokesman since 1997, and one thing that I certainly have learned is that sometimes words are absolutely crucial to the meanings, which then impact on actions taken in the Province.

Kevin Brennan


Lembit Öpik

I would counsel the hon. Gentleman to ponder this question. If it turns out that there is an unresolved difference between what the Prime Minister seems to have said and what General de Chastelain seems to have said, does it not necessarily create instability at the heart of the decommissioning process and cause problems for those politicians in Northern Ireland who have sought to bring their sceptical colleagues along with them? On this occasion, the hon. Gentleman may be sincere in his intentions, but he could not be more wrong. It is not about semantics, but about facts.

Kevin Brennan

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way a second time. If it is not about semantics and it is not simply a matter of playing with words and making a judgment about the Prime Minister's words, does the hon. Gentleman agree with Conservative Front Benchers' calling into question the integrity of the Prime Minister?

Lembit Öpik

The hon. Gentleman is trying to play word games with me. You, Madam Deputy Speaker, will know that Mr. Speaker called the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford to order on several occasions because he felt that he was implying that the Prime Minister had lied. I do not want to get into a debate about whether the, Prime Minister lied. However, I certainly feel misled—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal)

Order. I think that I had better make it clear that I do not believe that any hon. Member is going to use that expression.

Lembit Öpik

I fully respect that, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am bound to tell the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan) that I am not accusing the Prime Minister of lying. It is a side debate and we could perhaps discuss it in a pub on another occasion. I want to stick to the focus of the debate. I hope that it is in order to say that I feel misled. I feel that there is an unresolved confusion between the statements of the Prime Minister and those of General de Chastelain.

Kevin Brennan

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) to say that he feels misled by the remarks that the Prime Minister made to the House?

Madam Deputy Speaker

I believe that the hon. Member is just about within the bounds of order—I put it no more strongly than that.

Lembit Öpik

I am happy to be hauled up if I go beyond those bounds. Attitudinally, I have always regarded the Prim: Minister's intentions with regard to the Northern Ireland peace process as honourable, and I want to emphasise that this is not an effort at character assassination of the Prime Minister—absolutely not: it is an effort to get to the heart of the Northern Ireland peace process.

Several hon. Members


Lembit Öpik

I shall give way in a moment, but let me finish this point, so that we can move on from talking in detail about the Prime Minister. I do feel misled, and if I feel misled others who are involved in the peace process much more closely than I am will also feel it. The practical consequence of the problem could be observed in what the Ulster Unionist party did. My suspicion is that the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) was put in a virtually impossible position. It sounded to me as though the Prime Minister was implying that he had information that made him confident, but that he was not able to share it with anyone else.

The substantial question for the Minister is whether she can clarify the confusion once and for all—[Interruption.] She says from a sedentary position that she has already clarified it, but I am not satisfied that she has. The Liberal Democrats are not putting up any candidates in Northern Ireland and I do not particularly enjoy supporting Conservative Members on their motion, but my commitment to do the right thing causes me to press the Minister to explain once and for all exactly why the Prime Minister used the word "information" when, later in the week, Downing street said that it was only an informed guess.

Angela Watkinson (Upminster)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the exact meaning of words is important in these matters, and that words such as "substantial" and "considerable", when used in statements about the decommissioning of arms, are extremely unhelpful because they are subjective and open to wide interpretation? That led to considerable misunderstanding and unease about what had happened. How can we ever be sure that decommissioning has been complete unless the exact wording is used?

Lembit Öpik

Funnily enough, having criticised the Minister, I am now going to come to the Government's defence. In my judgment, the problem is not the vagueness of the wording on decommissioning. I acknowledge that I differ from the Conservative party on that matter. My view is that if we demanded more specific statistics, the IRA would probably not participate at all.

Mr. Bill Tynan (Hamilton, South)


Lembit Öpik

I shall give way one more time, but then I shall attempt to finish my speech.

Mr. Tynan

I thank the hon. Gentleman, who, as he said, has spoken on Northern Ireland matters since 1997. He has gained a tremendous reputation for fairness in those matters, but does he not accept that it is a major mistake to be involved in discussions on the basis of the Prime Minister making one statement and General de Chastelain making another? How can the problems be resolved when both individuals are saying what they are saying at the present time?

Lembit Öpik

The hon. Gentleman correctly highlights the danger of discussing weapons on the basis of a single source. We have seen the consequences of that problem in debates on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and we can now see it in respect of Northern Ireland. However, there is one difference, which has already been established and which brings me back to my starting-point. General de Chastelain's integrity is not in question here. The Minister went to great lengths to reassure us that the general is telling the truth, and I believe that he is. If that side of the problem has been tidied up—unless the Minister wants to change her statement, I believe that it has—it leaves an unanswered question about the behaviour of Downing street and the Prime Minister.

Various options are open to the Prime Minister to clear the whole thing up. We may have to recognise that General de Chastelain was not the only source from whom the Prime Minister could have acquired more information. Perhaps he got it directly from Sinn Fein, perhaps from Gerry Adams, perhaps from the IRA. He may even have heard it in a pub. Perhaps he was walking through the beautiful fields of County Tyrone, saw some people digging a hole and went over to see what was going on. Perhaps he had an anonymous tip-off, possibly from the security services, or he saw satellite photographs. Perhaps he had a vision. Clearly, he acquired the information in some way.

It would be helpful if the Prime Minister even said, "I did have more information. I cannot tell you from where I got it and I accept that I am asking you to trust me because I am the Prime Minister." That would be better than the present situation, in which we have had no clarification. My appeal to the Minister is to pass on to the Prime Minister a respectful request that he tidies up whether he meant to use the word "information" or not.

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East)

The Prime Minister has already made it clear that he did not get the information in a vision or from the intelligence services. He specifically said in his statement that he got it after his conversation with General de Chastelain. That, therefore, puts all the pressure on him.

Lembit Öpik

That is, sadly, the case, but I am willing to allow the Prime Minister the chance to display human fallibility. After all, he is not a saint, but he is a very decent guy. Even decent people make mistakes, so he could clarify the point without great cost to himself. He might suffer a little embarrassment, but he is big enough to survive that. We have rehearsed the issue enough now. If he meant to say "information", from where did he get it? If he cannot tell us the source, let him at least say so. If he meant General de Chastelain, let him confirm it: if he did not, he needs to explain to all of us that General de Chastelain had nothing to do with the extra information that he claimed to have.

Mr. Carmichael

The Prime Minister's statements have not been satisfactorily explained, and he is the only person who can explain them satisfactorily. All that is needed is for the Prime Minister to come to the House and say, "I made a mistake and I said more than I should have done", or "The sense of what I said was wrong." If it comes to a straight choice between the Prime Minister's dignity and the integrity of the peace process, it must be made in favour of the latter.

Lembit Öpik

My hon. Friend's comments speak for themselves.

The Liberal Democrats tend to get annoyed by the phrase "bipartisan agreement", because we do not feel included. When the Minister regards the Conservatives dolefully, I would remind her that the Liberal Democrats have been good friends of the Government on Northern Ireland policy. I do not make lightly the strong criticisms that I have made today, but the bipartisan agreement seems to have gone one miserable step further. It now seems to exclude everyone except Sinn Fein and the Ulster Unionists from the discussions that took place in Northern Ireland—[Interruption.] Whatever the Minister's protestations from a sedentary position, I know that the Alliance party, the SDLP and others felt that the recent discussions were a two-party show. They feel that if they had been present they might have been able to provide sufficient counterbalance to ensure that the momentum was sustained in the negotiations. I ask the Minister not to make that same mistake again.

To exclude pro-agreement parties, such as the Alliance, from the negotiations was foolish. Those parties could have made a positive contribution and are still willing to do so, but the Government have squandered some good will by including two parties with a collective share of less than 50 per cent. of the poll. I ask the Minister to be much more respectful towards all the people represented by the other parties, because they form a majority of the electorate in Northern Ireland.

Our amendment makes our position clear. On this occasion, we will support the Conservatives' motion, for the reasons that have been stated, but I do not do so lightly. Northern Ireland debates often reside on the periphery of mainstream political discussions covered in the papers, but unless the question that has been raised about the information claimed by the Prime Minister is clarified, there is every reason to believe that the issue will grow and grow, to the discomfort of the Prime Minister and the distraction of all of us who are interested in supporting the peace process in Northern Ireland.

1.54 pm
Mr. Iain Luke (Dundee, East)

I am glad to take part in this debate, and the Opposition are within their rights to have a debate on this matter. We should discuss Northern Ireland and the minutiae of the peace process at every possible opportunity, until lasting peace is achieved to the satisfaction of this House and the people of Northern Ireland. As a member of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, I have just returned from a visit to Northern Ireland with other members of the Committee. We had a successful and calm visit, and it was good to see the ubiquitous fly posting there. We saw plenty of fly posting in east Belfast. I am not sure whether it is illegal there, but it is contrary to a byelaw in my part of the world. However, I was glad to see such activity because it indicates that the electoral process is under way. We should do all that we can to ensure that the election campaign proceeds peacefully and positively.

Today's debate has concentrated on what the Prime Minister said or did not say, and the contribution of the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) was not helpful. He took the opportunity to attack the Prime Minister as part of the United Kingdom political campaign, rather than to do what is best for the peace process in Northern Ireland. I can understand that. Indeed, I have many questions relating to that point, such as a query about the nature of the bipartisan process. I accept that the bipartisan process has collapsed and that we need to work hard on both sides of the House to re-establish it and to set out criteria on which it will work. If we learn anything from this debate, it should be that a bipartisan approach means that all the leaders of the major parties are represented at meetings that discuss issues that may be resolved by confidential, bipartisan and private meetings, rather than on the Floor of the House.

Mr. William Cash (Stone)

The hon. Gentleman said that he is a member of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. Does lie agree that it would be helpful for the Committee to clarify this issue, in the interests of the process, of the facts and of the elections, by having the Prime Minister appear before it to answer its questions in the proper environment?

Mr. Luke

I am a relatively new member of the Committee, and that request should be put to the Chairman. I cannot decide what the Committee does on my own.

Mr. Tony Clarke (Northampton, South)

Given the point made by the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash), does my hon. Friend agree that it would have been helpful if the Opposition had not initiated a debate on Northern Ireland on the afternoon that the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee is meeting, thus restricting participation in the debate? Could not the hon. Gentleman have discussed that with the Chairman, who is a member of his party?

Mr. Luke

We do not live in a perfect world and Northern Ireland is not a perfect issue. The Committee is very concerned by the situation in Northern Ireland and I know that the Chairman and other members have expressed concern about the fact that they cannot participate fully in this debate because of their commitments later today. I hope that the Opposition will consider such issues in future so that members of the Committee may have the opportunity of a fuller involvement, including the Chairman, who has a long history of involvement in the affairs of the Province.

Northern Ireland is an important issue and it saddens me that we are mired in an Irish bog of political partisanship. It is hugely important to return Northern Ireland to peace, prosperity and political normality, allowing its citizens to enjoy the everyday well-being that is accepted as a right by all the other citizens of the United Kingdom. Life can be hard enough for people in the area that I represent. The poorer estates face the same problems as those in Northern Ireland—illness, poor housing, poverty and crime. That is hard enough to cope with, but it is made worse by the fact that the paramilitaries control the culture, while politicians seem to be making no positive or progressive attempt to resolve the problems that people face. I can understand the despair felt by many people in Northern Ireland.

We have a duty not to condemn the ordinary citizen in Northern Ireland to being mired in that bog. Instead of digging in deeper, we must do all that we can to pull people out and move the process forward.

I began visiting Northern Ireland before I became a Member of Parliament. When I became a team leader and senior lecturer in further education, one of my first tasks was to go to Northern Ireland to recruit students to study at Dundee's educational institutions.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann)

The hon. Gentleman must have been desperate to keep those institutions open.

Mr. Luke

I was successful in that endeavour, as Dundee has a strong and healthy Irish population. I have seen a lot of progress in Northern Ireland over the past decade. Fewer people now come to Dundee to study, as they are happier to stay in the Province. The normalisation of the situation there has resulted in freedom from fear, and our hope is that that fear will be dispatched for ever.

We should not be frightened by the peace process, which should be based on a bipartisan approach. The approach adopted by Nelson Mandela and his road to freedom is probably the best, given that reconciliation rather than retribution is the key. The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) spoke about the secretive nature of paramilitary organisations. We should not push them back into their bunkers; instead, we should try to do all that we can to bring them out into the open. In the past, the approach of the International Independent Commission on Decommissioning has been a throwback to the old days of warfare and paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland. We should do all that we can to encourage the commission to speak more openly about what is going on.

At last week's Northern Ireland questions I asked that the Government recommit themselves to two specific matters in relation to establishing a lasting peace settlement and securing positive arms decommissioning. I asked them to ensure that Sinn Fein/IRA made a firm commitment to giving up warlike activity for ever, and that, under the umbrella of the IICD, the Government took steps towards making decommissioning transparent.

People in Northern Ireland fear that arms are not being decommissioned, and I can understand why. Until it can be stated that no more arms are available for use in military activity, people will not believe that decommissioning is complete. They will not accept it until they can see it in black and white.

There is a problem with decommissioning, although the point is not what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister did or did not say. We must get away from that and recreate a bipartisan approach. I commend the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. 'Trimble), who has done a great job despite the problems in his party. Most parties have problems, and what matters in the end is not the journey but the final result. The progress that has been made is shown by the fact that Sinn Fein as a party is becoming increasingly engaged in the political process.

We need to achieve a positive result with decommissioning. A positive result: in the political process will have been achieved when Sinn Fein Members of this House take their seats. I have made that point before. I voted against the motion allowing Sinn Fein Members to use the House's facilities until they took the oath and engaged positively in the political process. When that happens, it will underline the fact that warfare in Northern Ireland has finished.

Sinn Fein's engagement with the political process would be positive even if it pushed for reunification with southern Ireland. That is a legitimate political goal, although its popularity in the Province is debatable. If Sinn Fein Members took their places in this House, we could debate reunification here, and that would be a sure sign of Sinn Fein's commitment to the political process. The Government extended to Sinn Fein the opportunity to use this House's facilities in the hope that that would begin the endgame in the peace process, even if the hon. Members involved did not take the offer up immediately.

I do not want to make partisan or political points. I have visited Northern Ireland and been involved in my own community. I believe that everyone is entitled to a lead a peaceful existence. We have some way to go before that is the birthright of everyone in Northern Ireland. The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire said that he felt left out of the bipartisan approach. As a Back Bencher, I do too, although I suppose that I have more frequent access to Ministers than the hon. Gentleman.

I support the Government amendment, but I hope that Ministers will go away from the debate determined to ensure that issues such as decommissioning are dealt with in a bipartisan manner. Because of their grievances, the Opposition have moved away from that goal, and I urge them to reconsider. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will take the initiative and invite the emerging Conservative leader to meet him and other major leaders to talk about what a bipartisan approach really is. We must make sure that we get the process on the road, with the support of the people.

I accept that General de Chastelain has impeccable intentions. That is beyond question: his is a hard, long job, and we must support him in it. That means that we should not nitpick about the words used by him or by the Prime Minister. He has got something to say, and we must make sure that the senior politicians involved in the matter hear it. In that way, problems can be resolved and the process can keep moving. After 26 November, there will still be a long way to go. I hope that the situation in Northern Ireland will be much more normal at the end of the process, and that people will refrain from trying to make political points in respect of the role played by the Prime Minister in the UK context. We must ensure that, after 26 November, the First Minister is in charge of the Province, and able to make progress towards establishing the sort of civil society that people in Northern Ireland can be proud of.

2.7 pm

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann)

In her opening remarks, the Minister of State referred to the party election broadcast by the Conservative party. Unfortunately, I did not have the pleasure of seeing it, as I travelled over for this debate last night. However, I noted that she referred to a comment in that broadcast to the effect that the Conservatives were the only national party to contest the elections in Northern Ireland.

I have a bit of information—if I dare use that word—for the Minister: among the candidates in the Northern Ireland election are people who are applying for membership of the Labour party. I look forward very much to those people being able, at the next election, to run under the colours that they want to run under, and not having to run under other colours. I hope that the Minister will take that on board.

Jane Kennedy

For the sake of clarity—and in case the right hon. Gentleman misunderstood me—what I said was that it was the Conservative party that claimed that it was the only one of the three main parties to field candidates in the election. The Conservatives were putting that forward as something worthy of support and note.

Mr. Trimble

I take the Minister's point, although she did not dissent from the Conservative claim. I thought that I would be the bearer of information for her, so that she could appreciate the situation more fully.

The Government lost me when I read the first line of their amendment to today's motion. The first line of the amendment states that it notes the importance of confidentiality to effective decommissioning of weapons in Northern Ireland". As I said, the Government lost me with that line. I do not agree with that proposition. Furthermore, unless I am very much mistaken, there is no obligation or requirement of confidentiality in the decommissioning process at all. The legislation as enacted makes no reference to confidentiality as being required or desirable; it simply does not come into the picture.

When we look at decommissioning schemes, which are made under the legislation, we see in the first scheme a reference to confidentiality. The relevant paragraph of that scheme, paragraph 26, states: The Commission shall ensure that all information received by it in relation to the decommissioning process is kept confidential and that any records maintained by the Commission are kept secure. Disclosure of information received by the commission may occur where disclosure is necessary: for reasons of public safety, to confirm the legitimate participation in the decommissioning process by those eligible to do so, to fulfil the Commission's duty to report to the two Governments. One notes the reference to "duty to report" to the Governments. I always thought that such a duty was implicit in the legislation, and it is explicit in that scheme, and I would have thought it perfectly natural for the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning to give information to the Government that was not in the public domain. I would find no reason to quarrel with that.

Mr. Cash

Will the right hon. Gentleman go a little further down this route and say that he would believe that, in the circumstances, there was a statutory duty to report?

Mr. Trimble

The phraseology of the scheme, to fulfil the Commission's duty", seems to imply that, but I do not want to get into an argument about that. The point that I want to develop from that paragraph is that it attaches the confidentiality to all information received by the IICD. The importance of the paragraph therefore depends on what meaning one attributes to the word "received". The question then arises as to whether information that the Commission obtains by its own actions, through supervising or inspecting an act of decommissioning, is "received" within the meaning of paragraph 26. I think not. I make that point—the point could be argued—simply to say that I doubt whether, under paragraph 26, there is any duty of confidentiality on the commission with regard to decommissioning conducted under that scheme.

I turn now to the second scheme, which was made after the conference in 2001 at Weston Park. It has been the general assumption—it is purely an assumption, and it could be wrong—that such decommissioning that has occurred by republicans so far has been under the post-Weston Park scheme, and one assumes that that is why the scheme was made after Weston Park, because that was in the context of the IRA accepting for the first time, as it did in 2000 and 2001, that it had an obligation to decommission. There is no equivalent of paragraph 26 in the second scheme. The only reference to information in the second scheme is in paragraph 5: The Commission may provide to a person who seeks it such information in relation to the making of arms permanently inaccessible or permanently unusable in accordance with this scheme as it considers appropriate. The second scheme therefore makes it absolutely clear that the commission may give such information about what has happened as it considers appropriate. As I suspect—although, as I say, I might be wrong—that the actual decommissioning is done under that scheme, it is clear on that basis that there is no obligation to confidentiality on he IICD at all.

The question then arises: from where does the issue come? My understanding—I am open to be corrected—is that the question of confidentiality arose only in the circumstances leading to the first act of decommissioning. What I think happened on that occasion was that republicans said to the IICD that they would decommission only if the IICD agreed to keep all the details confidential. I suspect that the reason why republicans said that to the IICD was that they were very worried about the effects within their own ranks if it was known that they were engaged in substantial decommissioning of their weapons. That supposition is reinforced by the Fact that republicans have told their members a set of fairy tales about what has happened and what has not happened. One picks up comments from time to time from various sources as to what rank-and-file republicans have been told on that, and if Members wish to explore that matter further, I refer them to some of the articles in, for example, a dissident republican magazine called "The Blanket", which details some of the rumours that have been put about. I mention that simply to make the point that the republican movement is nervous about the impact of decommissioning within its own ranks.

At the time that that first decommissioning occurred, clearly, we welcomed the decommissioning act, because it was something that we were told would never, ever happen, and the mere fact that it had happened and that the republican slogan "Not a bullet, not an ounce" had been discarded was significant. Even if it had only been a bullet or an ounce, it would have been significant and worth welcoming on that basis. In terms of the first event, therefore, the quantities and the methodology were of secondary importance to the fact that it happened. None the less, we expressed to the general our doubts at the time as to the wisdom of him accepting or imposing on himself this obligation of confidentiality. As it turned out, cur doubts were well-founded.

When the second act of decommissioning occurred, its impact on the public, although I believed, and still believe, that it was substantial as well as significant, was nil, for exactly the reasons given by the hon. Member for Dundee, East (M r. Luke) in his comments. People believe what they see, and what they know about, and are sceptical of those things that are referred to only in the most general of terms. A considerable degree of scepticism therefore existed with regard to decommissioning. If my supposition as to what happened with regard to confidentiality is right, I can understand what the IICD was doing. Clearly, it wanted more than one act of decommissioning, and it believed that by agreeing to confidentiality it was making possible a process that would lead to subsequent ones—I understand that.

The point that I would make—and have made—to the IICD is that it underestimates its influence and the strength of its position. We are now in a situation in which those same republicans who, three years ago, were brought to the issue of decommissioning extremely reluctantly and nervously now realise that it is necessary for them to do it, and they want to do it to advance their political project. Their approach to decommissioning is not the same as it was three years ago, so the IICD's approach does not have to be the same either. It would be entirely open to the IICD in the present circumstances to say to republicans, "Look, we agreed to confidentiality then, but when you promised to decommission"—this is a significant: point to bear in mind—"you said that you would do it in a way to maximise public confidence." Building on that, it is perfectly open to the commission to say to republicans that to build public confidence now it must be done in a transparent way, and that it will not co-operate further in secret decommissioning. If it did that, it would be effective.

We should be moving into open, transparent decommissioning to build confidence. Ultimately, the decommissioning process is all about a confidence-building measure. The point has been made repeatedly over the last few years that people can acquire new weapons and that decommissioning is not important. It is important in terms of getting rid of weaponry that otherwise might fall into the wrong hands or be used to harm persons, but its importance beyond that is in building confidence that people have given up violence permanently and are now committed completely and unambiguously to political and only political means. As a confidence-building measure, therefore, it is of no value if it does not create confidence.

We have made that point repeatedly to republicans this year. We did so in the discussions that took place in the abortive attempts to advance matters in April and we have done so again in the past couple of months. On more than one occasion, I said to the republican movement, "If you are thinking of another secret decommissioning event, forget it. You'll only be throwing the guns away." I said it as starkly as that so that there would be no misunderstanding at all about the need for transparency on this occasion.

Republicans agreed that there would be greater transparency—that was the term they used. Hon. Members and citizens of Northern Ireland will have heard Martin McGuinness's radio interview on the BBC more than a month or so ago in which he said that he accepted the points that had been made with regard to greater transparency and that he thought that the points that had been raised with him could be met. Therefore, there was a clear expectation that there would be greater transparency, and I suppose republicans might now claim that there were a few extra words in de Chastelain's report. However, to think that those words amounted to greater transparency is simply plain daft.

Republicans have done themselves and their credibility huge damage by not following through with greater transparency, particularly as we now have—thanks to General de Chastelain's verbal slip at the Hillsborough press conference—the confirmation that the IRA's contact person with the de Chastelain commission is Martin McGuinness. The person who agreed that there was an issue and thought that it could be dealt with is clearly also the person who said to de Chastelain, "No, you cannot say any more." The republican leadership will have to sort out that conflict.

The contradiction between what Mr. McGuinness said to us and the public in Northern Ireland and what we must suppose he said to the IICD is a much greater contradiction than the one we are debating today. I shall come to that latter contradiction later. However, I must underline the fact that, in the background, is something that in terms of confidence, trust and advancing the process is hugely more important. Republicans and Mr. McGuinness will have to face up to that issue and, at this time, speak clearly and honestly and stick to the position that he sets out and not say one thing to us and a different thing to the IICD. That matter has to be resolved.

For the avoidance of doubt—in case anyone thinks that the omission of this point is significant—I must also say that, as well as greater transparency, it is just as vital to us that it is clear that decommissioning is now an act of completion. It should therefore be not just another few steps along a process, but a situation in which the completion of that process is clearly there before us in the immediate future. That is just as important.

I have dealt with the issue of confidentiality, because it is hugely important that the House realises that there is no requirement for confidentiality and that it is undesirable in terms of creating public confidence. We should have gone long past any prudential argument with regard to that. Until we do, we shall face considerable difficulties.

I now want to deal briefly with a point that is contained in the motion. Hon. Members have said that there is a certain amount of confusion between what the Prime Minister and General de Chastelain said. There is confusion, but there is no absolutely necessary contradiction between what has been said. However, that all comes down to the question of what we mean by the word "information" and whether information can include the sort of comments made by Andy Sens in the press conference. We may find that one party is using the word -information" precisely and that the other is using it in a loose sense.

We are all familiar with occasions when the Prime Minister, in his enthusiasm, has used words somewhat loosely and sometimes made commitments without taking full advice and without fully appreciating what he was making commitments to. That is precisely how the Government got themselves into a mess with regard to fugitives from justice, which other people call on-the-runs. The Prime Minister made commitments without precisely understanding what he was doing. I am not suggesting that that is what happened in this case, but it has happened occasionally.

Mr. Carmichael

I commend the right hon. Gentleman on his very fair analysis on the point of confusion. He is absolutely right. However, does he not agree that the person who could resolve the confusion is the Prime Minister himself? If he continues to fail to do so, that could be damaging to the whole process.

Mr. Trimble

I understand that point. As the hon. Gentleman knows, my concern is for the public of Northern Ireland, who are confused. Even if that confusion were mistaken and even if the public did not fully appreciate what had been said, the fact that the public are confused is a good reason why the confusion should be clarified. To that extent, I agree with the hon. Gentleman's comments. However, I am slightly uneasy because, as the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) pointed out, information could have been received from a whole variety of sources, and that is another factor. I know that the Prime Minister said that he had received the information from the commission, but we are on the verge of sensitive issues. Therefore, a degree of care is clearly necessary.

Although I agree that there is a degree of confusion between the general and the Prime Minister, the best way of resolving that is to deal with the much more important issue of transparency. If full details of what had been decommissioned had been coming into the public domain now and if an inventory had indicated what had been decommissioned, I do not think that anyone would have been scratching their head and wondering what the general or the Prime Minister actually meant. That is not an insignificant matter in itself, but the best way to resolve it is by going the whole hog and getting proper transparency on decommissioning. People would then be able to see whether it was significant.

The Minister said that the Government believe in the greatest possible transparency, and I hope that they will be making that point to the IICD and pointing out the need for it. The IICD is the creature of the Government; it reports to them and it is there to see that Government policy, as it were, is carried through successfully. I am therefore quite sure that the IICD would pay close attention to the advice that it receives from the Government and I hope that they will advise it along the lines that I have indicated.

I shall illustrate why I think we need greater information. I have mentioned public confidence and it is quite clear that there will not be public confidence until there is precise information. That is not just a matter of the public being ignorant or adopting an unreasonable attitude. Andy Sens said that the material decommissioned could have caused death and destruction on a huge scale had it been used. I do not demur from that. I am sure that he would not say that if he were not quite satisfied that it was true. However, let us suppose, for example, that what had been decommissioned was a series of home-made IRA mortars that had been manufactured for the purpose of decommissioning. Yes, Mr. Sens's comment would be true, but we would take quite a different attitude to whether the decommissioning was significant if what had been decommissioned had been manufactured in the weeks and months beforehand.

If I applied my mind to it, I could perhaps find other reasons to explain why substantial decommissioning would not build confidence in a commitment to exclusively peaceful means. Because of the way in which things might be arranged, acts of decommissioning will not be significant in building public confidence until they are sufficiently transparent to enable the public to be confident that people have crossed the Rubicon and left behind violence and committed themselves in the future to exclusively peaceful and democratic means. This example shows just how important it is to have full information on these matters.

I conclude with a comment, although hon. Members must not think that it is just an afterthought, because it is highly important. We also need to see decommissioning from loyalist paramilitary organisations. Although there was a small token act of decommissioning by the Loyalist Volunteer Force many years ago, the mainstream loyalist paramilitary organisations need to address the issue. They should not sit back and wait, because as and when people become aware of the extent to which republicans have decommissioned, the anomaly of loyalists' failure to act will become more glaring and the pressure on them to make progress wit consequently increase. There is not the same political pressure on those groups, but I hope that the community at large and the Government and their agencies area putting considerable pressure on them. I simply underline the need for such decommissioning to happen, too.

2.30 pm
Mr. Bill Tynan (Hamilton, South)

I thought at the beginning of the debate that it was going to be bad-natured and bad-tempered, because of the comments emanating from a those on the official Opposition Front Bench. I am delighted that the debate has become realistic and that hon. Members have covered issues that need to be covered. During Question Time today, the Prime Minister told us what was happening in Iraq and paid tribute to a young soldier who lost his life. The soon-to-be former leader of the Conservative party joined in those commiserations with the soldier's family. The fact that we are not talking about Northern Ireland and the peace process but navel gazing to find out what divides us, rather than unites us, epitomises our debates on Northern Ireland.

It is interesting that there are three Scots in the Chamber. That is because we have an affinity with Northern Ireland, we recognise the problems that it has faced over many years and we have been party to finding a solution over those years. However, it is not so long since there was loss of life in Northern Ireland. Before I became a Member, I used to watch television with horror as it showed the bombings and murders that took place, and I wondered why we could not reach a consensus on Northern Ireland. The debate has shown us that the peace process has moved forward a long way. It has not moved forward enough to solve the problems, but there has been a real leap forward. I should have thought that it would be better today for us to discuss how to take the process further.

It is a daunting task to follow the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble). He made arguments for taking the peace process forward and told us what was necessary to achieve that. Transparency on decommissioning in Northern Ireland is absolutely essential and we will have to face that fact if we are to have lasting peace there. I hope that we can unite to concentrate our minds on that, so that all parties in the House can move forward in that direction.

The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) said that he supported bipartisanship. I accept that. He said that responsible support for policies on Northern Ireland was important, and I accept that completely. However, he then spoke about deception and cover-ups. He gave an example o f a doctor who had not examined a patient but said that he had, and compared that to the Prime Minister's actions. That is the wrong way to conduct a debate on Northern Ireland at this time.

The Prime Minister has made his position clear. Opposition Members say that they do not trust the Prime Minister but that they trust de Chastelain. The right hon. Member for Upper Bann spoke about how it is possible for the English language to be used so that information may be conveyed and understandings may be drawn from that, and we can all recognise that.

Lembit Öpik

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the problem goes wider than Northern Ireland? The debate is especially significant because if the Prime Minister cannot clear up this piece of evidence, that has an effect on other questions such as those about Iraq. The answers that we hear today will have a bearing on such questions because we will find out the Prime Minister's modus operandi. The questions need to be cleared up because otherwise knock-on suspicions about other aspects of the Government's work will be created.

Mr. Tynan

If something is to be cleared up, some confusion must exist. I do not think that there is confusion. The Prime Minister has made a statement and I do not think that there is any argument about what he said or about General de Chastelain's comments that he gave full information at his press conference. If one starts with a premise that confusion exists, it must be resolved, but if there is no confusion, there is no need to resolve it.

Mr. Carmichael

May I remind the Eon. Gentleman of the words of the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble)? He said that there clearly was confusion on the streets of Northern Ireland. We cannot blame people in such circumstances, and the Prime Minister could easily clear up that confusion.

Mr. Tynan

I interpreted the comments made by the right hon. Member for Upper Bann about confusion as meaning that we did not have transparency in the decommissioning process and that people were not aware of what had been decommissioned. I thought that he meant that given those circumstances, it was important for the people of Northern Ireland to know exactly the position to which the IRA had moved on the decommissioning process. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) has obviously decided to have his own conversation on the other side of the Chamber. That is my interpretation, and I am not asking for clarification of it from the right hon. Member for Upper Bann.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way, because I have not been able to stay in the Chamber throughout the debate, owing to other business connected with the House. I understand that one of the difficulties surfaced yesterday in the court in Londonderry. The original interlocutor with General de Chastelain, Martin McGuinness, refused to answer certain questions because of an IRA honour code. Is it possible that the arrangements made by Martin McGuinness are casting a long shadow over the overall process, meaning that there is no transparency? There can be no transparency until folk go for the truth rather than the IRA honour code.

Mr. Tynan

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman understands why I shall leave that question hanging in the air. I do not want to intrude on what has been said by Martin McGuinness or any other Northern Ireland politician who is not in the Chamber.

Points have been made about the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs. I am a member of the Committee, although I was not in Belfast over the past two days because I had business in the House. It is unfortunate that this debate is being held on a day during which the Committee is sitting. It is also regrettable that the debate is being held during the run-up to the elections in Northern Ireland on 26 November. Northern Ireland Members could have used their time better in campaigning for their points of view, so that they could retain seats in Northern Ireland.

Neither the motion nor the amendment says, at any point, that we welcome decommissioning and the fact that the Assembly will be restored after 26 November. We need constructive cross-party support for a continuing peace process. It is vital that we join together. Once the debate is over, I hope that we can put it behind us and find solutions in Northern Ireland based on the transparency that is required to give people confidence in the process. We must remember that the people of Northern Ireland are the important consideration, not the political parties that make capital out of the misery in Northern Ireland. It is important that we move forward with a consensus. I hope that we all learn lessons from the debate.

2.40 pm
Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills)

A former Member of the House, long since retired and departed, was charged with a public disorder offence when a student at Oxford and appeared in front of the magistrates. When the magistrate leant over and said "How do you plead?", he said "Not guilty." The magistrate said "So you're saying the police are lying?", to which, with the full confidence that we can marshal only when we are university students, the student addressed the magistrate and said, "Certainly not. You should well know there are five possibilities: I am lying; the policeman is lying; I am genuinely mistaken; the policeman is genuinely mistaken; or, finally, that the two accounts, though seemingly contradictory, can be reconciled." The magistrate was wise in those matters. He said, "Guilty. Ten shillings."

On the information in front of us, I disagree with the hon. Member for Hamilton, South (Mr. Tynan). There is a great difficulty in reconciling the two accounts. That has been the substance of the Opposition's charge on a matter that is of clear importance to Northern Ireland, but is also of great importance to the integrity of our proceedings. That is my first concern. Everything that now happens is questioned. There has to be authority in statements that are given on the Floor of the House of Commons. It would have been simple for the Prime Minister to put beyond doubt the actual situation. The ominous silence on that gives rise to grave suspicions. I do not wish to be derogatory about the Minister who is given the task of responding to the debate, but if she can address none of the central issues raised by every hon. Member who has spoken from the Opposition Benches, it will only act to underline the wider process in respect of the authority of what the Government say. This is an important debate for Northern Ireland, the House and, therefore, the people whom we represent.

A while ago, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) took a courageous decision—I say that easily because I joined him in his decision—to vote against the then Government's conclusions on the Scott inquiry. Central to that were accounts of conduct to the House. In fact, Sir Richard Scott commented that Ministers had failed in their constitutional duty. He relied on the rules and guidance to Ministers that they should be frank, open and truthful to the House. We voted in support of that proposition. In a sense, that is the source of opposition and what we expect.

A great journalist, Richard Norton Taylor, wrote perhaps the most distinguished book on the subject, called "Truth is a Difficult Concept". When the judge asked the civil servant who had been the Ministry of Defence's spokesman during the Falklands war for his evidence, the civil servant said, "Ah. Truth is a very difficult concept." That is what the public now think. That is what I think. The Government's attachment to truth is now so questioned that we cannot have confidence, not just in Northern Ireland matters, but in a much wider sphere. This country was committed to war, no less. That had to be on the basis of the attestation of the only man who could know about the dangers facing us. If that is questioned, as it is now, we are in deep trouble. As it stands, I do not think that there is a person in my constituency who can reconcile the Prime Minister's statements.

2.46 pm
Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland)

It was not my intention to contribute, but I feel compelled to do so. It pains me to say that some of the opening speeches did not show the House at its best. We are, perhaps, ill-served by the terms of the Conservative motion, although that is not necessarily a criticism of the Conservative Front-Bench team. Mr. Speaker told the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) that his speech would have been more appropriate under the terms of a confidence motion. In that, as in all things, Mr. Speaker was correct. However, such a motion is the nuclear option and I understand why the Conservative party chose not to pursue that route. It is unfortunate, to say the least, that the Prime Minister has ensured that the nuclear option is the only one left to the official Opposition and others who oppose the Government.

I can improve little on the speech of the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd), whom I have the pleasure to follow. He was clear and succinct. The point is simple: the words that were used by the Prime Minister have created confusion. That confusion is damaging and needs to be cleared up. I heard what the Minister said today and have read what she said in the House before. It pains me as an admirer of the right hon. Lady that she did not acquit herself, or serve the House, well.

Only the Prime Minister can clear up the confusion. He said previously in the House that he had information. The Minister said that he had a sense of the situation. With all due respect, those are different things. This is not semantics. Our ancestors had a sense that the world was flat. We now have information to prove that it is not. We have danced around the "L" word, as I shall call it in the interests of parliamentary language. I do not believe that the Prime Minister lied. He may have been a victim of some confusion in his mind in a way that he has been when asked about his favourite food or football team, but those are different and less serious matters. He may have used language that he should not have used. That has clearly led to confusion. I say in passing, I only have a sense that that is the case; I have no information to suggest that it is.

Mr. Quentin Davies

I agree with what the hon. Gentleman says about the difference between the force of the words "sense" and "information". Does he agree, however, that it is a matter not only of different words and the different meanings they convey, but of the assurance that was based on them? An assurance based on a sense of something carries a different force from an assurance based on information about something. It was the latter assurance that the Prime Minister gave the House and the British public.

Mr. Carmichael

Yes, I broadly agree with the hon. Gentleman's point which is the same as I explored in my intervention on the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble). He made the important point, of which we in this House must not lose sight, that there is confusion among the general public, on the streets of Northern Ireland. Confusion within the House is no great novelty and is of no massive import; the place where the integrity of the peace process is at its most important is on the streets of Northern Ireland, which is why the confusion must be cleared up.

Mr. Luke

The right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) was making the point that confusion and uncertainty arise less around the process itself, which people accept is under way and there has been significant decommissioning, than around the issue of completion. How do we know that all the weapons have been handed over and thrown away if we do not have at the end of the process completion that is transparent and clear? That is: he question we are all asking.

Mr. Carmichael

I commend the hon. Gentleman on a brave attempt, but it is the same once as his hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton, South (Mr. Tynan) made. When the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. Luke) reads the Official Report tomorrow, he will realise that the right hon. Member for Upper Bann made his comments in the context of a discussion of the Prime Minister's words—in fact he stated clearly that the issue that he was debating during that passage of his speech was the confusion in the Prime Minister's terminology. The right hon. Gentleman rightly devoted a greater part of his speech to the broad issue of transparency, but the Hansard report will show that that was the case.

The Minister of State, making the Government's case, said that the debate about terminology was an irrelevance. I do not think that that is true—confusion in the mind of the public can never be an irrelevance—but even if it is, it is an irrelevance that is having an effect and will not go away, an irrelevance that has given rise to doubt, which will snowball into disbelief if left unresolved. It is not often said that the House is a forgiving place, but I believe that if the Prime Minister came to the House and gave an explanation, in view of the prize to be won—the peace process in Northern Ireland—the House would be forgiving toward the Prime Minister. In the absence of that, the streets of Northern Ireland will be much less forgiving.

We are dealing with a symptom of a far more profound malaise: the difficulties attached to the massive investment of political capital in the concept of decommissioning. The right hon. Member for Upper Bann spoke of the scepticism among the people, saying that people do not necessarily believe what they hear, but they do believe what they see. As long as they hear about decommissioning but continue to see acts of paramilitary beatings on their streets, the scepticism of the people of Northern Ireland will be entirely understandable and justifiable.

Others have spoken of the need for transparency. I agree with them up to a point. It is desirable—indeed, essential—to maximise the transparency of the decommissioning process; however, we cannot hide from the fact that the very nature of the act of decommissioning means that it will always be opaque to a degree, or that to seek total transparency in decommissioning is to set ourselves up for failure. I say that as one who has always taken the view that decommissioning is something of a red herring in the overall process, and that what was always necessary is the sort of statement that we have ad in recent days from the IRA.

Much has been said about bipartisanship—or, as we on the Liberal Democrat Benches see it, multilateral support for the peace process. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik), let me make it clear that we shall continue to support the peace process. However, unless the confusion created by the Prime Minister is resolved, that process will remain damaged, and the damage will have been caused unnecessarily. That is to be deplored, and I believe passionately that it must be urgently remedied.

2.56 pm
Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East)

I well understand why Government Members seek to dilute the importance of this debate, but this debate goes to the heart of a crucial matter in British politics as a whole: the extent to which we are entitled to trust the Prime Minister.

The central issue of the debate relates to decommissioning. Newspapers and others have made attempts to quantify what has to be decommissioned in Northern Ireland. I shall read out a list that was prepared by Jane's Intelligence Review, much of which was repeated in the Daily Mirror, The Guardian, The Irish Times, and Magill Magazine, which indicates the best estimate of what has to be decommissioned, about which the Prime Minister and General de Chastelain were speaking.

It is believed that the Provisional IRA still holds 6,000 lb of Semtex explosive, 588 AKM assault rifles, 400 other assorted rifles, 10 general-purpose machine guns, 17 DShK heavy machine guns, three 0.50-calibre heavy machine guns, nine SAM-7 missiles, 46 RPG-7 missiles, 11 RPG-7 launchers, seven flamethrowers, 115 hand grenades, 600 handguns, 40 machine guns, 31 shotguns and 1.5 million rounds of ammunition. That list does not start to take into account the IRA's capacity to manufacture its own explosives and ordnance. The right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) referred to home-made mortars, and we know of the IRA's use of fertiliser to make explosives. Therefore, when a right hon. or hon. Member says in the House that at least there seems to be no argument but that what was put beyond use—whatever that term means—was "substantial", little definition is provided by the word "substantial". As General de Chastelain said to me, "One man's substantial may well be another man's insignificant." In reality, without an inventory of what has been put beyond use and the way in which it has been put beyond use, the word "substantial" holds little meaning for any of us.

Many speakers have expressed the wish for the process to have been more transparent, but it was this House that passed the legislation—this House that refused to make the process more transparent, even though my colleagues and I asked for it to be more transparent. Indeed, we were vilified for doing so. I remember the right hon. Member for Upper Bann, who is now a great fan of transparency, telling us in the past that we should trust General de Chastelain. The right hon. Gentleman asked, did we not believe that eminent general when he said that items had been decommissioned? Now, the right hon. Gentleman himself does not trust the general sufficiently to leave it to the general's word alone. He now requires a transparency that on earlier occasions we asked for, but he did not.

Of course there should be transparency. I even argue with the term "decommissioning". To me, decommissioning is either a voluntary or a forced act of handing over weapons to be destroyed. The IRA is trading weapons for concessions, which is something very different from decommissioning.

There was a carefully laid plan and there were several steps in the choreography. The first step was that early in the morning the Prime Minister would announce that there was to be an Assembly election. In response to that, Gerry Adams was to appear on our televisions to use some carefully crafted language to tell us that the war was over. We were then to have an IRA endorsement of Adams's statement, followed by General de Chastelain's statement, which was to be followed by the right hon. Member for Upper Bann telling us that he would behave himself in future and would not bring down the institutions if the IRA happened to carry out some terrorist activity. All that was to be followed by a statement from the two Prime Ministers. They were to outline the price that had to be paid for the IRA's endorsement of the process. That price was to be the giving of a free ticket to on-the-run terrorists. It was to be paid by removal of security installations from the border and elsewhere in Northern Ireland. It was to be paid also in that in two years policing and justice powers would be devolved to Northern Ireland to allow people such as Gerry Kelly, a convicted Old Bailey bomber, to become the Minister with responsibility for policing and justice. No doubt he would be the IRA's choice for the post of our justice spokesman.

The Prime Minister played his part and called the election. Mr. Adams appeared on our television screens and with contorted language made it clear that the process would be conditional on the Belfast agreement's being implemented in the way that the IRA wanted. He made it clear also that further implementation was required. That was endorsed, not surprisingly, by the IRA as it was conditional.

It was then that the general took the stage. He was working within the remit given to him by the House, by the Government and by their partner, the Government in the Irish Republic. He was acting within the terms of the arrangement that he had with the organisation with which he was dealing. The result was that he did not give the detail that the public in Northern Ireland wanted. I suspect that if he had given the detail the public in Northern Ireland would not have been satisfied. The sense that I have, to use a word that has already been expressed in the Chamber, after having met the general is that only a small proportion of the weaponry has been destroyed.

Rev. Martin Smyth

I have been listening with care to the hon. Gentleman's argument. Is it not a question of trust also, and the IRA showed that it did not trust the Prime Minister, because it held the general incommunicado? As a result, the decommissioning did not take place on the Monday. Instead, it took place after a statement had been made by the Prime Minister on the Tuesday morning.

Mr. Robinson

I touched on that matter with the general. I think that logistically he had to make himself available somewhere in the Republic of Ireland before the event occurred. I assume that he was held by agreement by the Provisional IRA. It shows the tawdry manner in which the entire process has been undertaken. A covert operation was taking place and the general was put in that position.

As for the issue of substance, I outlined to the general during our meeting with him what amounted to 1 per cent. of the intelligence guesstimate of the IRA's stockpile of weapons. Actually it was slightly less than 1 per cent. of it. I asked him whether he considered that to be substantial, and of course he did. If the IRA still holds 99 per cent. or even a percentage less than that of the weaponry that it had, we can set against that the remarks that have been made by Andrew Sens that the IRA had handed over weaponry that could have caused death and destruction on a huge scale. I asked whether what the IRA still retains could cause death and destruction on a huge scale, and of course the answer was yes. Let us riot get the idea that the IRA has suddenly handed over its weaponry and that it is just a matter of someone publishing the inventory so that we might know the truth.

According to reports from those who were standing outside Cunningham house, the headquarters of the Ulster Unionist party, as the general was on his feet, they were beating the walls in anger that they were not getting the detail that they required. If the community in Northern Ireland is confused about anything, it is about how the leader of the UUP could have 15 meetings with the leadership of Sinn Fein-IRA. One of those meetings lasted for between 12 and 14 hours. Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness were not tied down to the detail of what General de Chastelain would be allowed to say. That is bewildering. It is the most unbelievable folly that star negotiators in the UUP could sit for hour after hour working out all the choreography in the greatest detail, handing over statements one to the other, and not bother to ask what the general would be allowed to say.

The requirements for greater visibility and how the IRA is saying one thing and doing another have little meaning in the community in Northern Ireland. That community just gasped in amazement at the breathtaking incompetence of the leader of the UUP and his fellow negotiators.

For my part, I viewed the Hillsborough press conference and the exchanges that followed it as being of no advantage. I have a transcript of what the Prime Minister said at the press conference. He said: It is deeply frustrating for this reason that obviously we are both privy as the two Governments to what the details"— not just information, and not the sense of it— of the decommissioning were and I think it is, well it is more than a little frustrating frankly they are not able to be put out into the public domain where people can see them and where opinion and particularly unionist opinion here can make an assessment.

Nick Robinson of ITN—no relation—intervened. He asked: Are you saying that if people knew what you know about what the IRA have done in terms of decommissioning, they would have the confidence, and why can't we know what you know, is it because the IRA won't let us know, they won't give permission or is it because the general won't say? The Prime Minister responded: Well that is a very good point and let me explain it. Yes I believe if people knew the information that we have been told then yes they would have been satisfied. He went on to say: It would be more than faintly ludicrous if we were in a situation where a substantial act of decommissioning had taken place, where the details"— again, "the details"— are known by the two Governments and by the body in charge of the decommissioning but the public don't know. That is not a sense of it, not an informed guess and not a vision that he had somewhere on the road to wherever, but the details given to him by the general. The Prime Minister added: We do know a certain amount of the particulars, yes and those are important. When we heard those words I knew immediately that the Prime Minister was bluffing. I knew that because on several previous occasions when I met General de Chastelain he made it abundantly clear that the rules under which he was operating were that he would give only the written reports to the Governments and such general descriptive terms as he would give us, but would not give them the detail—the inventory—until the process of decommissioning had been completed. He had made that clear on the two previous occasions when we met him, and on the occasion to which I am referring he made it clear once again. The Prime Minister was attempting to convey the impression to the people of Northern Ireland, and particularly the Unionist community, that he had the detail of what had been decommissioned, and that if only they knew what he knew they would be satisfied that a major and substantial act had taken place.

Mr. Cash

Is the hon. Gentleman certain that, despite the wording in the enactments on arms and explosives, the matters in question could in fact extend to other materiel that could be of great danger to the public?

Mr. Robinson

The general, in his press conference, gave certain headings for categorising the various items that had been put beyond use. There is extensive weaponry in each of those categories which, as the commissioner Andrew Sens said, could lead to massive destruction and death in Northern Ireland. We are dealing with weapons that have killed thousands and maimed tens of thousands of people in Northern Ireland. This is not a semantic exercise. We are not just dealing with the niceties of the English language—we are dealing with weapons of death that have caused death and destruction in Northern Ireland. This is a serious matter, and if the Opposition had not tabled their motion, they would have been derelict in their duty to the community in the United Kingdom as a whole.

In a meeting with General de Chastelain, the leader of my party, my hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley), other colleagues and I spoke with him for more than an hour and 10 minutes—longer, incidentally, than the time that the Prime Minister, the Taoiseach and the general spent together. The Prime Minister therefore had no time advantage to extract information. The extract from our meeting on our website at www.dup.org.uk gives a contemporaneous note of the issues that were raised, and shows that we dealt rapidly with all the necessary points and, I suspect, in much more detail than the Prime Minister did in the time at his disposal.

When we made our contemporaneous note available, the Prime Minister's spokesman released a statement. Asked for a reaction on the Democratic Unionist party's assertion that General de Chastelain h ad told it that the British and Irish Governments did not have any information about the act of decommissioning further to that which was already in the public domain, the Prime Minister's official spokesman, according to a report, pointed out that the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach had spoken to General de Chastelain for well over an hour—less than the time that we spent with the general. According to the report, the spokesman said: The details of the discussions, as you would expect, were confidential. That said, the Prime Minister had told journalists…that although he might not know all the details about the act of decommissioning, he still had a better idea about it than the public. One can immediately see that, from the starting point of knowing all the details—and "if only the public knew what the Prime Minister knew"—the backtracking is beginning. Now the Prime Minister does not know all the details, but knows sufficient to have a better idea than the public. The weasel words from Downing street continued, but did not stop the public in Northern Ireland questioning the issue and did not stop the press probing it. When pressed overnight, Downing street was forced to make a further statement. A report said: Government officials said that Mr Blair had been offering an `educated guess' and that confidentiality had not been breached. If the Prime Minister had said, "If you knew what my educated guess was, you would be satisfied," that statement might be believable. However, that was not what he said. Pointing to the detail available to him, he said: "If you knew what I knew, then you would be satisfied". We were told more about the educated guess by the Downing street spokesperson, who, according to a report, said that it was possible to imagine a conversation in which the kind of thing which Commissioner Sens had been saying—about the damage potential of what was destroyed—would have allowed an `educated guess' or an 'informed judgment' which amounted to knowledge. That represents further backtracking on the Prime Minister's initial statement.

Were the public misled? I suspect that some people over here may have been, but I do not believe that the public in Northern Ireland were misled by the Prime Minister, not because he did not attempt to mislead them, but because they have been caught by him before. He came to Northern Ireland at the time of the referendum. There was a 20 ft by 10 ft hoarding carrying five pledges to the people of Northern Ireland, and he got out his marker to sign it personally in the presence of the press and the television cameras. There were promises that there would never be anybody from Sinn Fein-IRA in government until violence was given up for good. Since then, we have had Colombia and Florida, as well as murders, shootings and beatings. One of the other pledges was that the prisoners would not get out until decommissioning began and violence was given up for good—that was another broken pledge. I do not believe that the people of Northern Ireland were going to be succoured by what the Prime Minister said, but there can be no doubt that he attempted to embellish the facts so that he could substitute them for information that was not available to him or the general public.

The best that can be said for the Prime Minister in the circumstances is that the events were so choreographed that they resembled a west end stage production. He lost his grip on reality and allowed his stage character to replace facts with lines that better fitted the intended plot but departed dramatically from reality and left the truth lingering far behind. It was a deliberate attempt by the Prime Minister to bluff the public and convey the impression that he had information which, if it was in the public domain, would have an altogether different bearing on people's understanding of what had just taken place.

Our debate has given the Government the opportunity to do one of two things—either to make the Prime Minister's boasts stand up and show that he had the details, so the issue could be passed on to the general, or to retract them. When the Minister opened the debate, she did neither, and the public will reach their own conclusions.

3.17 pm
Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell)

May I gently make an important parliamentary point to the Minister of State, the right hon Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy) and the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Basildon (Angela Smith), and urge them to take it on board? The Opposition strongly support the Belfast agreement, and have done so from day one, but we must always reserve the right, as I did when I was shadow Secretary of State, to speak out when we think that something is wrong, as that is essential to our parliamentary democracy.

I have been distressed because at times the Government give the impression that if my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) and other Front-Bench spokesmen disagree with Government policy or suggest that something is wrong, they are behaving incorrectly. The correct way for an Opposition to behave is to point out when something has gone wrong. We try very hard indeed to ensure that there is a bipartisan policy, but that does not override the Opposition's legitimate duties, and I hope that the Government accept that. It is a bit strange to talk to the noisier Government Members about a bipartisan policy when Members such as you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, who were in Parliament in the 1980s and the mid 1990s, will remember Labour Members voting against the renewal of the prevention of terrorism orders year after year. When the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) took over as Leader of the Opposition and sacked his hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) as shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Labour moved to a position of abstention. That was a step in the right direction, but it was hardly bipartisan.

I make no criticism of the Labour Opposition of those days for reaching a judgment, which I certainly did not share, that the prevention of terrorism orders should not be renewed and, later, for being doubtful about them and abstaining from voting. They should treat us in an equally adult way, but that that has not happened, especially in today's debate. It certainly did not happen when my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford asked an urgent question last week, which is a great pity.

I should like briefly to speak to the motion, which I strongly support. I put it to the Minister that trust is essential in taking the process forward. Without trust, no progress will be made. We all know that trust is a precious commodity that is easily lost and hard to regain. After the Belfast agreement, I campaigned for a yes vote in the referendum in the Province with my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague),who was then Leader of the Opposition, on the very day when the Prime Minister gave his handwritten pledges at the Balmoral show ground. Those pledges were impressive at the time, as they answered virtually every legitimate concern of the Unionist community. They allowed us as an Opposition to support the agreement fully and urge people to vote yes. As the hon. Member for Belfast. East (Mr. Robinson) said—I shall not repeat his comments, which were accurate—all too many of those hand written pledges have since fallen by the wayside. That hardly helps trust and confidence in the Province and it has led to many of the problems that we have subsequently faced.

That makes it all the worse that, after the latest talks collapsed because of the lack of transparency in decommissioning, the Prime Minister should say at the Dispatch Box in Question Time, "If you knew what I've been told privately, you would be very happy that there had been ample decommissioning." It has been confirmed that that is not true. It gives me no comfort to be standing here telling the House that the Prime Minister said something that has turned out not to be true, but I have to say it, because General de Chastelain has confirmed it in conversations with a number of people, including my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford and Mr. Robert McCartney, and in open talks with the Democratic Unionist party. Again, the trust of the British people and, much more importantly and specifically, people living in the Province, has been shattered.

The process will not now move forward until after the Assembly elections later this month, but there will be no progress whatever if there is no trust in what the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State and other Ministers are saying. Equally, Unionist politicians and their supporters in the Province will not be prepared to enter a power-sharing coalition and Executive after the Assembly elections unless there is very substantial decommissioning. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) that decommissioning must be substantial among not only republican paramilitaries, but so-called loyalist paramilitaries. The Opposition have always stressed that those two things run in parallel. We will know that decommissioning is happening only if we can see it happening.

There might have been a case for transparency in the early days; indeed, there probably was one, and we supported the regulations that ensured initial transparency. However, I would have thought that it was plain to everybody, including General de Chastelain and, more importantly, elected Ministers responsible for Northern Ireland, that power sharing could resume only if the new act of decommissioning was absolutely transparent and everybody could see what had been decommissioned. If there had been a substantial act of decommissioning, as I hope and as the Prime Minister led me to believe at the Dispatch Box, I would have urged all Unionist Members and all political parties in the Province to join a power-sharing Executive after the Assembly elections, but I cannot do so at the moment, because I have no more idea than you do, Mr. Deputy Speaker, of just how extensive that decommissioning was.

There is one aspect that I fail to understand, and Ministers have not given me an answer about it. Everything has been very carefully choreographed, and funnily enough, I do not object to that as much as the hon. Member for Belfast, East did in an amusing section of his speech. I do not mind things being choreographed if they have been properly thought through and will lead to a logical conclusion. Everything was very carefully set up. There are two Ministers on the Front Bench, including the right hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree, who is particularly experienced and has dealt with Northern Ireland matters with distinction for several years now, and we also have a most experienced Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and a Prime Minister and advisers who have been taking a keen interest in Northern Ireland. With the help and encouragement of the Opposition arid all good men and women on both sides of the water, they have been trying to get a lasting settlement in Northern Ireland.

I cannot understand, however, why nobody stopped and thought about whether decommissioning would be transparent. If anybody had asked that question, there is no doubt that Ministers would have answered as I would have done and said that, if the act of decommissioning is substantial—the key in deciding whether power sharing takes place—it must be transparent, as it will not be believed otherwise. How have we got into a position in which hopes were raised? Like many other hon. Members, when I watched events unfold on television in my office upstairs, I was excited and thought that Gerry Adams went a lot further in his speech than I had seen him go before. He appeared to come much nearer to saying that the war was over and that only peaceful means would be used in moving forward. I was excited and hopeful, and I expected decommissioning to match. The fact that it was not transparent ruined everything that had been so carefully set up. I am sure that Ministers had done hours of work, along with the Prime Minister, advisers and democratically elected politicians in the Province, but it all suddenly came to nothing.

When the Minister sums up this useful debate, we have a right to an explanation of why nobody noticed the lack of transparency in what appeared to be a hopeful move forward towards a lasting peace and a long-term devolved Administration that would share power after elections. If we do not get an answer to that question, there will be all sorts of rumours and doubts in the Province and elsewhere, and when the elections are over and we are all trying to move forward to a power-sharing Executive and complete decommissioning, there will be no faith and confidence. That is essential today, so let us hope that we get a proper answer from the Minister.

3.28 pm
Mr. William Cash (Stone)

The debate has been immensely important because it deals not only with the motion on the Order Paper, but the whole question of the degree of trust that we can have in the peace process and the prospects for a stable and secure Northern Ireland as it moves towards elections. As many hon. Members said, the context in which the debate takes place is in some ways even more important than the precision of the wording—which is not to say that that is not of vital importance.

There are a vast number of unanswered questions, and it would be a massive misconception to think that the debate will somehow resolve them. Some of the issues at the heart of these discussions correspond in a rather alarming fashion with those that we faced in relation to the tragic death of Dr. Kelly and the evidence that was given before the Hutton inquiry. As I explained in the debate last week, those unresolved questions affect our ability to get to the bottom of what has really been going on.

It would be a vast mistake to underestimate the fact that words matter. In "Through the Looking Glass", Humpty Dumpty says to Alice: "Words mean what you choose them to mean. The question is who is to be master, that is all." The Minister tried to finesse the word "information" by introducing the idea of the sense in which it is used. When one reflects, however, on the distinction between the reality of such words and the confusion and uncertainty that they can generate in relation to Northern Ireland, it puts one in mind of the history of the Irish question and the frequency with which the misuse of words has led to difficulties that could otherwise have been avoided. I say that because for more than 150 years my own family have been directly involved in the Irish question as Members of Parliament. I recall the difficulties that arose over Parnell and the great historic events that have taken place. Much good progress has been made. That is why I pay tribute to Members who recognise that although we have to address this question as a matter of accuracy, so much is at stake that we do not want anything to disturb it.

I do not need to go through wording that has already been exhaustively discussed, but the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) asked several questions that must be answered. The right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) raised issues about precision that require examination, especially his references to scheme 1, scheme 2, paragraph 25 and paragraph 5. Although those are technical points, they lie at the heart of the matter.

A balance has to be struck between confidentiality, specific transparencies and the broader transparency of whether the Prime Minister, in making such statements not only outside but inside the House, finds that his words can be reconciled, not only with his own statements but with those of General de Chastelain. It is also a question of whether we will be able to restore respect for politicians. In the context of Northern Ireland, that has never been more needed than in the past 30 or 40 years.

So what is to be done? Clearly, there is a contradiction—some may call it confusion—that cannot be left to rest. The reality is that there are options open to us. I have heard some hon. Members say that the Prime Minister should come here and make his own statement. I personally think that that is the most appropriate way of dealing with the situation. An alternative, which I mentioned in an intervention on the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. Luke), is that the Prime Minister could appear before the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee and explain the circumstances under cross-examination. Another option is that he could go to the Security and Intelligence Committee. I went through the Intelligence Services Act 1994 this morning: it applies to Northern Ireland. There are procedures in place. There are options, and ways of dealing with this issue.

At the heart of the matter is a sense of the correctness of the motion tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), who set out the case in terms that occasionally caused a little disturbance. Sometimes, however, disturbance is necessary in order to get to the truth. My hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) caught the essence of the parliamentary nature of trust in the House and outside. In the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford, there are questions of integrity and truthfulness that have to be examined in this broad context. I had to ask in our debate last week on the question of a judicial inquiry: who is speaking the truth? Two members of the war Cabinet—I do not need to go any further down that route. The reality is that this is becoming a pattern of behaviour, and it is a matter of grave concern that we clarify matters and get these things straight.

Lembit Öpik

Have we not established, unless the Minister says something different in her summary, that we all accept that General de Chastelain was telling the truth when he said that he had not provided any extra information? If that is the case, does that not beg a conclusion?

Mr. Cash

The logic of the hon. Gentleman's speech and of what he has just said—I pay tribute to both—sums up the position, as did the exceptionally good speech of the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael). That question has to be answered. In fact, not a single person on the Labour Benches has attempted to rebut the substance of any of the points that we have made. They just want to move on; there is no reverse gear. That is the problem. But we cannot stay stuck in a situation in which there are matters of enormous importance not only to the House but to the whole process of obtaining peace and security in Northern Ireland, and then, in the fog of confusion that will arise, have to deal with the election. Imagine what would happen during the election if these issues were turned into soundbites, and we then found that there was no answer, no bottom line, and no ability to determine the truth when the electorate go to vote.

I have in my hand the ministerial code, which is described as A code of conduct and guidance on procedures for ministers. In the foreword, the Prime Minister says: In issuing this Code, I should like to reaffirm my strong personal commitment to the bond of trust between the British people and their Government. We are all here to serve and we must all serve honestly and in the interests of those who gave us our positions of trust…I believe we should be absolutely clear about how Ministers should account, and be held to account, by Parliament and the public. Where is the Prime Minister today? He is not here to answer these questions. If he has a proper and sensible answer—[Interruption.] The fact is that the Prime Minister could clear this up, one way or another. Let us be in no doubt about that. [Interruption.] I hear from the Minister's Parliamentary Private Secretary that the Prime Minister has cleared it up. Is there anybody in the House who believes that? Does any member of the public believe it? The Government Whip nods, so I know it cannot be true.

That same code of conduct states that it is of paramount importance that Ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity. Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the Prime Minister". I look for an answer. I believe there is an answer. But Prime Ministers remain Prime Ministers only for as long as they keep the trust of the people, and therefore on this particular occasion it is a disgrace that the Prime Minister is not in the House to answer our questions.

3.40 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Angela Smith)

I apologise for not being present throughout the debate. I shall write to Members whose speeches I missed. I was at an event for the Tim Parry/Jonathan Ball trust; I am sure Members understand how important that was. I also apologise for the fact that I may not have time to respond to all the Members to whom would like to respond, although I shall do my best.

At the outset of the debate, we doubted the wisdom of holding it at this time. Nevertheless, I am happy to acknowledge that we have heard thoughtful and interesting contributions. I believe that there is a great wish in all parts of the House—or almost all—for the decommissioning process to succeed fully, given that it is a key element of the completion of the transition of Northern Ireland politics to an exclusively peaceful and democratic basis.

We have done the groundwork for that final transition. The progress made in meetings between the parties and with the Governments that preceded 21 October was extremely significant. As has been acknowledged, on that day we did not see the full sequence of events that would have made the extent of the advance clear, and opened the way to resumed devolved government after the election. We should all recognise, however, that the Sinn Fein leader's speech and the IRA's statement, accompanied by the act of decommissioning itself, constitute a clear indication that we are moving forward. We shall need to build on this after the election. But this is the kind of process that requires us to speak and act with judgment and restraint. Some Members recognise that: others, unfortunately, do not.

In the future decommissioning process, we shall depend heavily on the Independent International Commissioning on Decommissioning. As my right hon. Friend the Minister stressed, we all owe a deep debt of gratitude to General de Chastelain, his colleague Mr. Andrew Sens and, indeed, his former colleagues Ambassador Johnston and Brigadier Nieminen. Their diligence and integrity have been manifest, and are a great asset for the future in Northern Ireland.

Some Members have focused on the wider picture. Others—perhaps predictably, but regrettably—have insisted on continuing to play games with words in an attempt to milk for some supposed political advantage the tireless efforts of the Prime Minister, the Taoiseach, General de Chastelain, Mr. Sens and the party leaders in Northern Ireland. We have seen a depressing performance from some quarters, and it was no less depressing for being thoroughly inept. It is not likely to persuade any impartial observer that there is any point of substance in the allegations that have been made.

I consider this the low point of Opposition tactics in Northern Ireland in the present Parliament so far, and I hope it will turn out to have been the low point of the entire Parliament. I hope that the Conservative party will realise how few favours it is doing itself. [Interruption.] Conservative Members would do well to listen occasionally, rather than rattling and prattling on. What upsets my colleagues and me most is the danger posed and the damage caused to the peace process, and to the public interest of Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. [Interruption.] I think that the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) should learn from your earlier rulings on his comments, Mr. Speaker.

The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) referred to issues of inclusiveness. Devolved government was suspended last year because of a lack of confidence between two of the parties. The restoration of confidence between those parties is a key element in moving forward. The Government have facilitated that process. There have been a large number of meetings, which, despite Opposition Members' comments, have been extremely productive. However, we would not have made great advances in recent times without the support of all the pro-agreement parties. We should all pay tribute to all those parties, because their efforts have brought the process to this stage. For example, I highlight the commitment of the Social Democratic and Labour party to the policing process. Without its work, we would not be where we are now.

Issues of transparency were raised by the right hon. Members for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) and for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay), who was late to the debate, although I recognise his commitment to, and work in, Northern Ireland in the past. The statements by the leader of Sinn Fein and by the IRA were major steps forward and confirmed the commitment to exclusively peaceful and democratic means.

The act of decommissioning overseen by the IICD was very welcome but, unfortunately, as the right hon. Member for Upper Bann stressed, it did not achieve the necessary degree of public confidence. The point was made forcefully that, a significant act of decommissioning having been undertaken, such confidence has not been achieved because of the lack of transparency. He said that he did not agree with the confidentiality. I understand his reservations but it has to be said that, without that confidentiality in the past, it would not have been possible to make the progress that has been made to date and that he and every other hon. Member welcomes.

I do not think that it would be relevant now to go into the detail of the two schemes. Suffice it to say that we would want greater transparency. As my right hon. Friend the Minister of State said, the greatest possible transparency is preferable.

The amount of detail that the commission discloses depends on its view of what is necessary in the circumstances to fulfil its duty. That is a judgment for the commission, and it is a difficult judgment for it to make. We must put our trust—even the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford has to do so—in General de Chastelain.

A number of points and semantics were made by the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd). The Prime Minister and the Taoiseach were able to gain from their discussions with General de Chastelain a greater sense of the scale and nature of the decommissioning event than members of the public, who had to rely on the statement and the press conference. I fail to see why Opposition Members do not accept that and do not want to move forward from there.

The hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) argued against confidentiality. He argued against much more as well, but it is election time—

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

rose in his place and claimed to move, That the Question be now put.

Question, That the Question be now put, put and agreed to.

Question put accordingly, That the original words stand part of the Question:—

The House proceeded to a Division.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

I ask the Serjeant at Arms to investigate the delay in the No Lobby.

The House having divided: Ayes 186, Noes 332.

Division No. 350] [3:47 pm
Ainsworth, Peter (E Surrey) Cash, William
Allan, Richard Chapman, Sir Sydney (Chipping Barnet)
Amess, David
Arbuthnot, rh James Chope, Christopher
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham) Clappison, James
Baldry, Tony Clarke, rh Kenneth (Rushcliffe)
Barker, Gregory Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey
Baron, John (Billericay) Collins, Tim
Barrett, John Conway, Derek
Beggs, Roy (E Antrim) Cormack, Sir Patrick
Bellingham, Henry Cotter, Brian
Bercow, John Cran, James (Beverley)
Beresford, Sir Paul Curry, rh David
Blunt, Crispin Davey, Edward (Kingston)
Bottomley, Peter (Worthing W) Davies, Quentin (Grantham & Stamford)
Bottomley, rh Virginia (SW Surrey)
Davis, rh David (Haltemprice & Howden)
Brady, Graham
Brake, Tom (Carshalton) Djanogly, Jonathan
Brazier, Julian Doughty, Sue
Breed, Colin Duncan, Alan (Rutland)
Brooke, Mrs Annette L Duncan, Peter (Galloway)
Bruce, Malcolm Duncan Smith, rh Iain
Burns, Simon Evans, Nigel
Burstow, Paul Fabricant, Michael
Burt, Alistair Fallon, Michael
Butterfill, John Flight, Howard
Cable, Dr. Vincent Flook, Adrian
Calton, Mrs Patsy Forth, rh Eric
Cameron, David Foster, Don (Bath)
Carmichael, Alistair Fox, Dr. Liam
Gale, Roger (N Thanet) Öpik, Lembit
Garnier, Edward Osborne, George (Tatton)
George, Andrew (St. Ives) Ottaway, Richard
Gidley, Sandra Page, Richard
Goodman, Paul Paice, James
Gray, James (N Wilts) Paterson, Owen
Grayling, Chris Pickles, Eric
Green, Damian (Ashford) Portillo, rh Michael
Green, Matthew (Ludlow) Prisk, Mark (Hertford)
Greenway, John Pugh, Dr. John
Grieve, Dominic Randall, John
Gummer, rh John Redwood, rh John
Hague, rh William Reid, Alan (Argyll & Bute)
Hammond, Philip Rendel, David
Hancock, Mike Robathan, Andrew
Harris, Dr. Evan (Oxford W & Abingdon) Robertson, Hugh (Faversham & M-Kent)
Harvey, Nick Robertson, Laurence (Tewk'b'ry)
Hawkins, Nick Robinson, Peter (Belfast E)
Hayes, John (S Holland) Roe, Mrs Marion
Heald, Oliver Rosindell, Andrew
Heath, David Ruffley, David
Heathcoat-Amory, rh David Russell, Bob (Colchester)
Hendry, Charles Sanders, Adrian
Hermon, Lady Sayeed, Jonathan
Hoban, Mark (Fareham) Selous, Andrew
Hogg, rh Douglas Shephard, rh Mrs Gillian
Holmes, Paul Shepherd, Richard
Horam, John (Orpington) Simpson, Keith (M-Norfolk)
Howard, rh Michael Smith, Sir Robert (W Ab'd'ns & Kincardine)
Howarth, Gerald (Aldershot)
Hughes, Simon (Southwark N) Smyth, Rev. Martin (Belfast S)
Jack, rh Michael Soames, Nicholas
Jackson, Robert (Wantage) Spelman, Mrs Caroline
Jenkin, Bernard Spicer, Sir Michael
Johnson, Boris (Henley) Spring, Richard
Jones, Nigel (Cheltenham) Stanley, rh Sir John
Keetch, Paul Steen, Anthony
Key, Robert (Salisbury) Streeter, Gary
Kirkbride, Miss Julie Stunell, Andrew
Kirkwood, Sir Archy Swire, Hugo (E Devon)
Knight, rh Greg (E Yorkshire) Syms, Robert
Lait, Mrs Jacqui Tapsell, Sir Peter
Lamb, Norman Taylor, Ian (Esher)
Lansley, Andrew Taylor, John (Solihull)
Laws, David (Yeovil) Taylor, Sir Teddy
Letwin, rh Oliver Thurso, John
Liddell-Grainger, Ian Tonge, Dr. Jenny
Lidington, David Trimble, rh David
Loughton, Tim Turner, Andrew (Isle of Wight)
Luff, Peter (M-Worcs) Tyler, Paul (N Cornwall)
McIntosh, Miss Anne Tyrie, Andrew
Mackay, rh Andrew Viggers, Peter
Maclean, rh David Waterson, Nigel
McLoughlin, Patrick Webb, Steve (Northavon)
Malins, Humfrey Whittingdale, John
Maples, John Wiggin, Bill
Marsden, Paul (Shrewsbury & Atcham) Willetts, David
Willis, Phil
Maude, rh Francis Wilshire, David
May, Mrs Theresa Winterton, Ann (Congleton)
Mercer, Patrick Winterton, Sir Nicholas (Macclesfield)
Mitchell, Andrew (Sutton Coldfield)
Yeo, Tim (S Suffolk)
Moore, Michael Young, rh Sir George
Moss, Malcolm
Murrison, Dr. Andrew Tellers for the Ayes:
Oaten, Mark (Winchester) Angela Watkinson and
O'Brien, Stephen (Eddisbury) Mr. Mark Field
Adams, Irene(Paisley N) Anderson, Janet (Rossendale & Darwen)
Ainger, Nick
Ainsworth, Bob(Cov'try NE) Armstrong, rh Ms Hilary
Allen, Graham Atkins, Charlotte
Anderson, rh Donald (Swansea E) Austin, John
Bailey, Adrian Davies, Geraint (Croydon C)
Baird, Vera Dawson, Hilton
Banks, Tony Dean, Mrs Janet
Barnes, Harry Denham, rh John
Barron, rh Kevin Dhanda, Parmjit
Battle, John Dismore, Andrew
Bayley, Hugh Dobbin, Jim (Heywood)
Beard, Nigel Dobson, rh Frank
Beckett, rh Margaret Donohoe, Brian H.
Bell, Stuart Doran, Frank
Bennett, Andrew Drew, David (Stroud)
Benton, Joe (Bootle) Eagle, Angela (Wallasey)
Berry, Roger Eagle, Maria (L'pool Garston)
Best, Harold Edwards, Huw
Betts, Clive Efford, Clive
Blackman, Liz Ellman, Mrs Louise
Blears, Ms Hazel Ennis, Jeff (Barnsley E)
Blizzard, Bob Etherington, Bill
Boateng, rh Paul Farrelly, Paul
Borrow, David Field, rh Frank (Birkenhead)
Bradley, rh Keith (Withington) Fisher, Mark
Bradley, Peter (The Wrekin) Fitzpatrick, Jim
Bradshaw, Ben Fitzsimons, Mrs Lorna
Brennan, Kevin Flint, Caroline
Brown, rh Nicholas (Newcastle E Wallsend) Flynn, Paul (Newport W)
Foster, rh Derek
Brown, Russell (Dumfries) Foster, Michael (Worcester)
Browne, Desmond Foulkes, rh George
Bryant, Chris Francis, Dr. Hywel
Buck, Ms Karen Gapes, Mike (Ilford S)
Burden, Richard Gardiner, Barry
Burnham, Andy Gerrard, Neil
Byers, rh Stephen Gilroy, Linda
Cairns, David Goggins, Paul
Campbell, Alan (Tynemouth) Griffiths, Jane (Reading E)
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge) Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)
Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V) Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)
Caplin, Ivor Grogan, John
Casale, Roger Hain, rh Peter
Caton, Martin Hall, Mike (Weaver Vale)
Cawsey, Ian (Brigg) Hall, Patrick (Bedford)
Challen, Colin Hamilton, David (Midlothian)
Chapman, Ben (Wirral S) Hanson, David
Chaytor, David Harris, Tom (Glasgow Cathcart)
Clark, Mrs Helen (Peterborough) Havard, Dai (Merthyr Tydfil & Rhymney)
Clark, Dr. Lynda (Edinburgh Pentlands)
Healey, John
Clark, Paul (Gillingham) Henderson, Doug (Newcastle N)
Clarke, rh Tom (Coatbridge & Chryston) Henderson, Ivan (Harwich)
Hendrick, Mark
Clarke, Tony (Northampton S) Hepburn, Stephen
Clwyd, Ann (Cynon V) Heppell, John
Coaker, Vernon Hesford, Stephen
Coffey, Ms Ann Hewitt, rh Ms Patricia
Cohen, Harry Hill, Keith (Streatham)
Coleman, Iain Hinchliffe, David
Colman, Tony Hood, Jimmy (Clydesdale)
Connarty, Michael Hope, Phil (Corby)
Cook, Frank (Stockton N) Hopkins, Kelvin
Cook, rh Robin (Livingston) Howarth, George (Knowsley N & Sefton E)
Cooper, Yvette
Corbyn, Jeremy Howells, Dr. Kim
Cousins, Jim Hoyle, Lindsay
Cox, Tom (Tooting) Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)
Cranston, Ross Humble, Mrs Joan
Crausby, David Hurst Alan (Braintree)
Cruddas, Jon Hutton, rh John
Cryer, John (Hornchurch) Iddon, Dr. Brian
Cummings, John Illsley, Eric
Cunningham, Jim (Coventry S) Irranca-Davies, Huw
Cunningham, Tony (Workington) Jackson, Helen (Hillsborough)
Dalyell, Tam Johnson, Miss Melanie (Welwyn Hatfield)
Darling, rh Alistair
Davey, Valerie (Bristol W) Jones, Helen (Warrington N)
David, Wayne Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C)
Davies, rh Denzil (Llanelli) Jones, Kevan (N Durham)
Jones, Lynne (Selly Oak) Meale, Alan (Mansfield)
Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S) Merron, Gillian
Kaufman, rh Gerald Michael, rh Alun
Keen, Alan (Feltham) Milburn, rh Alan
Keen, Ann (Brentford) Miliband, David
Kelly, Ruth (Bolton W) Miller, Andrew
Kennedy, Jane (Wavertree) Mitchell, Austin (Gt Grimsby)
Khabra, Piara S. Moffatt, Laura
Kidney, David Mole, Chris
Kilfoyle, Peter Moonie, Dr. Lewis
King, Andy (Rugby) Morgan, Julie
King, Ms Oona (Bethnal Green & Bow) Morley, Elliot
Mountford, Kali
Knight, Jim (S Dorset) Mudie, George
Kumar, Dr. Ashok Munn, Ms Meg
Ladyman, Dr. Stephen Murphy, Denis (Wansbeck)
Lawrence, Mrs Jackie Murphy, Jim (Eastwood)
Laxton, Bob (Derby N) Naysmith, Dr. Doug
Lepper, David O'Brien, Bill (Normanton)
Leslie, Christopher O'Brien, Mike (N Warks)
Levitt, Tom (High Peak) O'Hara, Edward
Lewis, Ivan (Bury S) O'Neill, Martin
Lewis, Terry (Worsley) Organ, Diana
Liddell, rh Mrs Helen Osborne, Sandra (Ayr)
Linton, Martin Owen, Albert
Lloyd, Tony (Manchester C) Palmer, Dr. Nick
Llwyd, Elfyn Perham, Linda
Love, Andrew Picking, Anne
Lucas, Ian (Wrexham) Pickthall, Colin
Luke, Iain (Dundee E) Pike, Peter (Burnley)
Lyons, John (Strathkelvin) Plaskitt, James
McAvoy, Thomas Pollard, Kerry
McCabe, Stephen Pond, Chris (Gravesham)
McCafferty, Chris Pope, Greg (Hyndburn)
McDonagh, Siobhain Pound, Stephen
McDonnell, John Prentice, Gordon (Pendle)
MacDougall, John Prosser, Gwyn
McFall, John Purchase, Ken
McGuire, Mrs Anne Purnell, James
McIsaac, Shona Quin, rh Joyce
McKechin, Ann Quinn, Lawrie
McKenna, Rosemary Rammell, Bill
Mackinlay, Andrew Rapson, Syd (Portsmouth N)
MacShane, Denis Reed, Andy (Loughborough)
Mactaggart, Fiona Reid, rh Dr. John (Hamilton N & Bellshill)
McWilliam, John
Mahmood, Khalid Robertson, Angus (Moray)
Mahon, Mrs Alice Robertson, John (Glasgow Anniesland)
Mallaber, Judy
Marris, Rob (Wolverh'ton SW) Robinson, Geoffrey (Coventry NW)
Marsden, Gordon (Blackpool S)
Marshall, David (Glasgow Shettleston) Roche, Mrs Barbara
Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)
Marshall, Jim (Leicester S) Roy, Frank (Motherwell)
Marshall-Andrews, Robert Ruane, Chris
Martlew, Eric Ruddock, Joan
Meacher, rh Michael Ryan, Joan (Enfield N)
Salter, Martin Timms, Stephen
Sarwar, Mohammad Todd, Mark (S Derbyshire)
Savidge, Malcolm Touhig, Don (Islwyn)
Sawford, Phil Trickett, Jon
Sedgemore, Brian Turner, Dennis (Wolverh'ton SE)
Shaw, Jonathan Turner, Dr. Desmond (Brighton Kemptown)
Sheridan, Jim
Shipley, Ms Debra Turner, Neil (Wigan)
Short, rh Clare Twigg, Derek (Halton)
Simon, Siôn (B'ham Erdington) Tynan, Bill (Hamilton S)
Simpson, Alan (Nottingham S) Vis, Dr. Rudi
Singh, Marsha Walley, Ms Joan
Skinner, Dennis Ward, Claire
Smith, rh Andrew (Oxford E) Wareing, Robert N.
Smith, Angela (Basildon) Watts, David
Smith, rh Chris (Islington S & Finsbury) White, Brian
Whitehead, Dr. Alan
Smith, Jacqui (Redditch) Wicks, Malcolm
Smith Llew (Blaenau Gwent) Williams, rh Alan (Swansea W)
Soley, Clive Williams, Betty (Conwy)
Southworth Helen Williams, Hywel (Caernarfon)
Squire, Rachel Wills, Michael
Starkey, Dr. Phyllis Wilson, Brian
Stevenson, George Winnick, David
Stewart, David (Inverness E & Lochaber) Wood, Mike (Batley)
Woodward, Shaun
Woolas, Phil
Stinchcombe, Paul Worthington, Tony
Stoate, Dr. Howard Wray, James (Glasgow Baillieston)
Straw, rh Jack
Stringer, Graham Wright, Anthony D. (Gt Yarmouth)
Stuart, Ms Gisela
Tami, Mark (Alyn) Wright, David (Telford)
Taylor, rh Ann (Dewsbury) Wright, Tony (Cannock)
Taylor, Dari (Stockton S) Wyatt, Derek
Taylor, David (NW Leics)
Taylor, Dr. Richard (Wyre F) Tellers for the Noes:
Thomas, Gareth (Clwyd W) Mr. Fraser Kemp and
Thomas, Simon (Ceredigion) Ms Bridget Prentice

Question accordingly negatived.

MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.

Resolved, That this House notes the importance of confidentiality to effective decommissioning of weapons in Northern Ireland; expresses its gratitude for the professionalism of General de Chastelain and the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning; welcomes the further positive developments in the peace process set out by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in his statement to the House on 22nd October, including the calling of elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly on 26th November; calls on all parties in the House to engage constructively in furthering the peace process in Northern Ireland; and looks forward to further progress after the elections towards the restoration of devolved government in Northern Ireland on a stable and inclusive basis.