HL Deb 18 May 1999 vol 601 cc153-90

3.20 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office (Lord Dubs)

My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.

Before turning to the main provisions of the Bill, I should like to outline why the Government are bringing forward this measure. The debates in the other place highlighted the sensitivities surrounding the Bill and the Government recognise fully that there are concerns about some of its provisions. But there was total empathy with the families of the victims who have become known as "disappeared" arid this Bill is designed to help those families. Its sole purpose is to bring to an end the suffering they have endured for far too long. They simply want to know what has happened to their loved ones and to give them a decent burial.

This is a short Bill and it is designed to help a small number of families in Northern Ireland. It is right that we should concentrate our minds on those families, but I believe that the Bill has a wider importance. It is indicative of the numerous measures under way to help the victims of violence in Northern Ireland. Indeed, one aspect of the Belfast agreement is a recognition of the need to acknowledge and address the suffering of victims as essential to the process of reconciliation.

I suggest that the Bill is also indicative of the best traditions of this House and the other place as it shows our willingness to take compassionate steps to help a small minority of people when an overwhelming humanitarian issue comes before us.

We should not forget that we are talking about horrendous murders which in some cases took place as long as 30 years ago. As my right honourable friend the Minister of State said in the other place, the people listed in the IRA statement had not been charged with any crime, were not given the right to a fair trial and were probably beaten and tortured before they were killed. In short, they were denied their fundamental human rights.

I recognise that there are concerns that the Bill may never result in information about the disappeared coming forward, because there is no guarantee that those with the information will avail themselves of this opportunity.

The Government have received no guarantees and I can give none to your Lordships' House. But the Government, in bringing forward this Bill, are paving the way for information to be provided and the remains of the victims located. We are prepared to take the risk that it will come to nothing. The Bill is right in principle and it is for others to act on it and to meet their pledges to the nine families of the disappeared which appeared on the IRA list.

I also take this opportunity to call for those with information about the remaining victims to come forward. We should not forget in examining this Bill that there are families who still await news of their loved ones and I can assure them and your Lordships that the Bill is designed with all those victims in mind—not just the nine.

Before turning to the provisions of the Bill, I should just say that there are a number of things that the Bill does not do. It is not appeasement; it is not an amnesty; and it is not an immunity. It is none of those things.

The central core of the Bill is to facilitate the provision of information to an independent commission. The commission will be established by an agreement signed by the Government and the Government of Ireland on 27th April.

The Bill makes further provision about the commission and its commencement. The commission's function will be to facilitate the location of the remains of persons who were killed before the date of the Belfast agreement, on 10th April 1998, as a result of an unlawful act of violence committed on behalf of, or in connection with, a proscribed organisation; that is, a terrorist organisation.

The Bill then contains three provisions to ensure that information does indeed come forward. The starting point is that no one giving information to the commission should be disadvantaged by doing so.

The first of these provisions appears in Clause 3 and it ensures that information given to the commission and anything found as a result will be inadmissible in criminal proceedings.

The second provision, in Clause 4, ensures that forensic testing is not carried out unless it is for the purpose of an inquest or unless it is to establish whether the remains can be moved safely. Your Lordships will notice similarities between Clause 4 and the equivalent provision within the decommissioning legislation.

The third provision appears in Clause 5 and it ensures that the commission is not able to disclose information to persons who have no legitimate interest in finding the location of the remains. It may therefore pass information to the RUC to facilitate the location of the remains. The commission may also tell the families that it has received information and where the remains are thought to be located. That will, of course, require very sensitive handling and there may be families who prefer to have no such contact with the commission, but the Bill provides them and their representatives with an opportunity to engage with the commission if they so wish.

The Bill makes one further provision, in Clause 6, to enable the police to obtain a warrant authorising entry and search of private premises should that be necessary to locate the graves of the victims. On a number of occasions, my right honourable friend the Minister of State has met members of the families and their representatives. Of the families with whom we have had contact, we are not aware that any oppose the legislation.

Some of your Lordships have met some of the families concerned. I hope that your Lordships found that as enlightening as the families did helpful. I do not doubt that your Lordships have the best interests of the families in mind, but I am aware that some concerns have been raised about the Bill and it might be helpful if I try to deal with some of those.

First, the Bill does nothing to prevent a post mortem or an inquest from taking place. In fact, Clause 4(2) is on the face of the Bill to ensure that forensic testing can indeed take place if it is to enable an inquest to reach a view on the identity of a person, or how, when or where he died.

Secondly, I come back to the suggestion that this Bill is designed to appease or give concessions to the IRA. I repeat to your Lordships that the Bill has one sole purpose. It is for the families and it is to ease their suffering. I would just ask any noble Lords who remain concerned to consider the question posed by my right honourable friend the Minister of State: if not by means of this Bill, what suggestion do they have to ensure that the families can give their loved ones a decent burial? I do accept that some of your Lordships have genuine concerns and the Government are acutely aware that this is not an easy, nor a straightforward, issue. It is a delicate balance, but one which I think we have got right.

I referred earlier to the similarities between this Bill and the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997. The limited protections provided in Clauses 3 and 4 of this Bill, concerning inadmissibility of evidence and restrictions on forensic testing, are there to ensure that relevant information is forthcoming. Those provisions mirror Sections 5 and 6 of the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997. That Act went further, in Section 4, in providing an amnesty for offences committed in respect of anything done in accordance with the decommissioning scheme. There is of course no equivalent amnesty in this Bill.

Parallels with the War Crimes Act have also been drawn. Those parallels appear to be based on the assumption that the Bill is an amnesty or an immunity from prosecution. That is simply not the case. Evidence found as a result of the giving of information to the commission will be inadmissible in criminal proceedings, but prosecutions can still be brought on the basis of other evidence should it be available.

I also ask noble Lords to remember that the purpose is to ensure that information comes forward. If the inadmissibility provision was not in the Bill, I think it most unlikely that any information about the location of the graves would ever see the light of day. For the families, every day of the past 30 years has been a nightmare. I can also tell your Lordships that, having been given a glimmer of hope by the IRA statement on 29th March, the prospect of waiting further has been almost more than some of them could bear.

I am aware that the timing of the various stages of the Bill has caused some concern. It might be argued that the families have already waited so long that allowing the Bill to proceed in the normal way would not make a difference. But I ask noble Lords to consider the compassionate aim of the Bill. The timetable for consideration by both Houses is in line with that aim. I do, of course, recognise the need for full and proper scrutiny by your Lordships' House and I have no wish to cut across that. I hope that the time available to us today and next week will be sufficient to ensure that noble Lords give their usual careful consideration to the provisions of the Bill. For their part, the Government are doing all that they can to ensure that the commission is operational as soon as possible after the legislation is passed. The Minister of State has convened an inter-agency group to examine every eventuality and to ensure co-ordination between the relevant agencies.

I turn now to some concerns about the Bill itself. In another place, there was concern that the Bill did not make explicit provision about what was to be done with information received by the commission. It may be helpful if I outline briefly how the scheme will operate.

We anticipate that the commission will receive information about the location of the remains of the disappeared. That information will be passed to the RUC in the north, and to the Garda in the south, if necessary, to enable the search to begin. Should the RUC be in possession of information, which could be helpful to a defendant in criminal proceedings, it is under the normal duty to bring that fact to the attention of the DPP. Disclosure to the defendant would take its normal course.

There was also concern that the Bill, while enabling a defendant to adduce evidence in criminal proceedings, does not allow the defendant to commission forensic testing in his defence. There are very good reasons for that. The ability to conduct forensic testing may throw up intelligence or information which would be disadvantageous to those giving information to the commission. Allowing forensic testing, other than for the inquest, runs the risk that no information will come forward. Further, there is nothing to prevent a defendant from using the publicly available results of the inquest process to assist his case. That is something that the prosecution will be barred from relying on in the case against him.

Suggestions have also been made about time-limiting the Bill. The aim is to put pressure on those with information about the disappeared to come forward as soon as possible. That is a commendable aim, but the Bill has no time-limiting provisions for very good reasons. First, it is the commission itself which can cease to exist by virtue of an order under Clause 2(6) of the Bill. The remaining provisions of the Bill have to be left in place as it is impossible to say at what point in the future the inadmissibility of provisions and the restrictions on forensic testing might cease to be needed.

Further, the Government intend to let the commission go out of existence after, of course, consultation with the Government of Ireland, as it is a joint international body, if it became clear that no information was likely to come forward. The tragedy is that only nine of the disappeared have been named to date. We urge those with information about the remaining victims to come forward.

The position of their families in unimaginable. As yet they have been given no hope of recovering their loved ones. I should also point out that there is no definitive list of the disappeared. Reports of between 14 and 20 have appeared in the press. The truth is that we do not know for certain. The fact that two of the nine named on 29th March had not been reported missing underpins the need to be flexible about timing. I accept the need to keep the existence of the commission under review, but no provision is needed for that.

Under the agreement with the Irish Government the commission is required to report to the two governments not later than at the end of its first year of operation and annually thereafter. That will be a key indicator of whether further information is expected to be received. The two governments will consider carefully that report in deciding whether the commission should remain operational.

Finally, I come to the issue of assisting the families at a time when they will be making arrangements for the burial of their loved ones. I am very pleased to say that the Northern Ireland Memorial Fund has written to each of the families of the nine individuals whose graves have been identified by the IRA, offering each family a single payment of £4,000, not as compensation, but by way of assistance to them at a time when they will be making arrangements for the burial of their loved ones. This offer will be extended to all the families of the disappeared at such time as the whereabouts of the remains of their loved ones are identified.

The wider compensation issue is horrendously complex. On advice commissioned specifically by my right honourable friend the Minister of State, it is clear that the families would be time-barred from receiving compensation under the statutory compensation scheme. But in that respect they are not in a unique position. Other groups in society are equally outside the scheme for timing reasons. I take, for example, the case of victims of child sex abuse who do not make a claim until their majority. The courts have held that their claims are time-barred. The Minister of State made a very important point when he said that it would be wrong to take a piecemeal approach to an already complex compensation scheme while Sir Kenneth Bloomfield is conducting a review of the scheme and its fitness for purpose.

Before closing, I return to the families. Most of us cannot imagine what they have gone through, and what they will continue to go through until this episode is over. This Bill is our opportunity to bring that suffering to a close and I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Dubs.)

3.35 p.m.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, this Bill is probably one of the most delicate and distressing pieces of legislation that has come before your Lordships during my time as a Member of this House. I certainly pay tribute to the sensitivity with which the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, has always shown during the course of his distinguished tenure as a Northern Ireland Minister. Indeed, one of the factors that makes this Bill so distressing is the very matter to which the noble Lord has addressed himself during the course of his Second Reading introduction of the Bill. One of the most ghastly by-products of any terrorist conflict, as your Lordships know, is the cruelty inflicted by terrorists, all too often on innocent people or on people who are undertaking duties on our behalf and which the Government have asked them to do.

Such cruelty is not senseless, as it is so often described. It is rather the reverse. Some people enjoy inflicting it. It is carefully calculated. After all, the object of terrorism is substantially to terrorise. Terrorists not only terrorise their opponents in order to try to obtain their way by non-parliamentary means, which is the way in which we like to do things in this country; they also terrorise their own supporters for, above all, they must maintain control over them if they are to maintain their authority. Therefore, I believe I am right in saying that it is no coincidence that the Provisional IRA has been responsible for murdering a greater number of its own supporters than it has members of the security forces.

As the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, made abundantly clear, there can be no one in this House who does not feel the agony of the families of the disappeared. To know that a close relation has been murdered, almost certainly under sadistic circumstances, is bad enough in all conscience. Not to know where the body is buried must, almost by definition, keep the wound permanently open.

I hope that your Lordships will forgive me for the next matter I set out. I believe that it is important in the context of what I wish to say in the remainder of my few remarks. Like very many Members of your Lordships' House, many of whom have a tradition of military service, a number of members of my immediate family have served in the Armed Forces in Northern Ireland. One in particular served in a capacity which probably exposed him to very high risk of capture, torture and death. As it happens, he escaped those dangers in Northern Ireland but was subsequently killed in another continent by another terrorist. We were fortunate in that we got his body back.

I say that because I wish to demonstrate that at least I have some immediate understanding, as do many of your Lordships who have suffered loss, particularly in the last war, of what the families have suffered. But in my case I believe that I have been fortunate that in the crucial respect I have mentioned I have been more fortunate by far than they. However, despite these ghastly matters, governments have to stand back and consider even broader and more compelling issues.

Despite what the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, says, as my right honourable friend Douglas Hogg pointed out on 12th May on consideration of the Bill in another place, this is perhaps not an amnesty in the fullest sense. But it is a partial amnesty. It is an amnesty which is granted at the Provisional IRA's request. That was clear from the debate in another place. And it was granted, as the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, made abundantly clear, with no guarantee that the terrorist organisations would give up the bodies in return for this concession. The record in other closely allied contexts does not give me great cause for optimism. One has only to look at the organisation's record and its temporising over even a token surrender of weapons to see that it is all too much its habit to pocket a concession and give nothing in return; and then to yowl that it is the British Government who are being inflexible. I venture to suggest to your Lordships that this is not the way to peace. It is the way to further conflict—the worst reward for the families who are suffering.

There is, therefore, the danger that the Government will find they have played perhaps the cruellest trick on the families of the disappeared despite what we all know to be the manifest good intentions of the Government. They would have raised their hopes only to dash them when once again the Provisional IRA breaks its word.

I very much fear that there is a broader matter which your Lordships should consider when looking at the Bill with all the sympathy for which your Lordships are rightly famous. Dealing with terrorists in the way that we have increasingly done in the difficult circumstances of Northern Ireland is like becoming hooked on heroin. It is tough at first to take to appeasing them, but it gets easier and more pleasurable, and in the end you like it so much that you take a high moral tone with anyone who takes another view.

I have another difficulty over the Bill. The Minister rightly suggested that those who would benefit from this legislation were not confined to the nine names he mentioned. Others would benefit. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, will understand that there is nothing in the least personal as regards himself or the Government in what I am about to say. It worries me that we tend by implication, by our actions—not by what we say because we constantly pay tribute—to take our own Armed Forces for granted. After all, they have been covered by the provisions of the Bill. The Minister included, for instance, the body of Robert Nirac, as one of the possible beneficiaries of this legislation. However, I venture to suggest that it would have been a tribute for the Government to make it plain that the bodies of the disappeared servants of us, people who put themselves in the front line against terrorism for us and for the people of both communities of Northern Ireland, had been given a rather more prominent part in the Government's rhetoric in discussion of the Bill.

It distresses me to say this. For all its good intentions, the Bill is all too likely to be yet another example of a great many concessions made by us towards the IRA in exchange for very little. It is a protection that has been asked for by the Provisional IRA as part of its successful tactic of getting the British and Irish Governments used to dealing with terrorists as equals. I am highly sceptical that it will lead to the return of any bodies. Like the release of prisoners, under the cover of sympathy which we all feel for the victims' families it takes another step towards the rehabilitation of murder as a weapon of politics without any sign that the murderers have any intention of mending their ways in exchange.

The Prime Minister's rhetoric over the Balkans displays a very different attitude of mind. I should be extremely interested to know why there is one rule for the Kosovars and another for our own fellow citizens in Northern Ireland. I know that this could so easily be taken amiss by the families concerned; and I am conscious of that, but for these reasons I personally want no part of the Bill. With the greatest distress, and with respect to the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, I find myself wholly unable to support it.

3.46 p.m.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead

My Lords, it is a great privilege to follow the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne. I refrained from intervening to ask whether he could give us guidance on the Salisbury document. Presumably this Bill was not even hinted at in the manifesto. Even if the spin doctors who drafted that manifesto over two years ago had been charged to do so, they would have exhibited rather better judgment and shied away from it.

The noble Viscount and I listened carefully to the speech of the Minister. However, on certain occasions such as this I wonder whether the two Governments are locked sometimes in a kind of death wish as regards the effect on the so-called peace process. At a time when desperate attempts are being made to conceal what some of us have been realistic enough to identify as fatal flaws in the Belfast agreement, the latest government blunders are certain to be very destructive.

It was always recognised that compromises would be required, and compromises have been given in large dollops but only by and on behalf of the law-abiding citizens of Northern Ireland and, to a great extent, the law-abiding citizens of the entire United Kingdom. Those concessions were given, sometimes freely and sometimes under duress in particular by the First Minister Mr. Trimble. It is no fault of his. One understands the pressures which can be applied in those kinds of circumstances. For example, last Friday he was betrayed when the two Governments decided to somersault on the principles contained in the recent Hillsborough declaration for the simple reason that such principles were not acceptable to IRA/Sinn Fein.

In an irresponsible fashion, the two Governments responded to terrorist threats and deliberately and shamefully depicted Mr. Trimble as the one who had shown no flexibility whatever, despite the obvious fact, which we must face, that he kept the show on the road for 15 months. In present circumstances, that should be recognised.

Four weeks ago, it was said that the Prime Ministers were frustrated. That was similar to what used to be said by a certain gentleman on the continent in 1939 in slightly different terminology; his patience was exhausted. Exhausted or not, there was talk of the need to bang two heads together, but now, quite unjustly, they have decided to bang only Mr. Trimble's head and crown Mr. Adams' with a halo. That is how all this is seen in Northern Ireland and, I suspect, in the United Kingdom, too.

Against that background, the Government have introduced this nasty, sordid little Bill. Its real objective is not to help the suffering families of the victims, but to grant permanent immunity to terrorists who have tortured, executed and disposed of those victims. Many came from or lived in the constituency of the noble Lord, Lord Fitt. I wish to pay tribute to him for all he did to protect, in so far as it lay in his power, people who had elected him to this Parliament. I want also to pay tribute to him as a neighbour because there was a certain overlap between our two constituencies. I wish to thank him for the understanding and co-operation which he showed during the time of what we call in Northern Ireland "the march hedge". I like to chink that. we co-operated to the common good of those in West Belfast.

Let me make it plain that I, like the noble Viscount. have the deepest sympathy for the relatives of he victims tortured and murdered. I have equally sincere: sympathy for the families of 3,000 other victims of terrorism during the past 30 years. How do I forget comrades killed beside me in Normandy in the heat of the battle, not identified, and they, too, have no known graves?

Today, we are being invited to bargain with terrorists to locate the bodies of a dozen people dragged before kangaroo courts, subjected to unspeakable torture and mutilated in the most obscene manner until they died hideous death. Let us remember that these butchers would have claimed to share the same religious faith as their victims.

On 29th March 1999, the IRA announced flat it had located the graves of nine people. Having thus raised the hopes of the families, the IRA heartlessly prolonged the anguish by demanding that the British and Irish Governments pass legislation granting immunity from prosecution before the IRA would begin to reveal any further information—

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for giving way. Would the noble Lord apply the same language to the Protestant terrorists who have killed rather more Catholics than the other way round?

Lord Molyneaux of Killead

My Lords, in reply to the noble Earl, I thought I had made it clear chat when I referred to terrorism I was condemning terrorism of every kind, from whatever quarter it conies, just as the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, and I have done throughout our entire time in Parliament. I make no distinction; they are all equally evil men.

So, today we are doing the bidding of the terrorists. It should be remembered that the Bill extends to the whole of the United Kingdom. Those noble Lords learned in the law will be disturbed to see that the core of the Bill, Clauses 3, 4 and 5, totally ignore the grieving families, but concentrates on protection for the murderers, providing for amnesty, immunity from disclosure of facts likely to lead to criminal proceedings anywhere in the United Kingdom. It does the cause of truth no good for anyone to say that these are not amnesties, immunities from disclosures, because the general perception throughout the United Kingdom at all levels and in all classes of people of all political views is that the acts are exactly what those words mean.

Further protection is provided in the cover-up in Clause 3. It places an absolute ban on disclosure of information uncovered in locating the remains and evidence as to where, when and how the victims were executed. It should also be noted that under Clause 3(2), if any person has been charged with that or any other criminal offence the information can he disclosed in his defence. That latter provision illustrates the professionalism of the legal guidance available to terrorists who set down their arrangements with such clarity that I suspect the parliamentary draftsmen found that their work had already been done for them.

The shear fiendishness of the terrorists of all classes and creeds has forced the two Governments into a high risk strategy of extracting yet another concession from the First Minister, Mr. Trimble. Her Majesty's Government are under no obligation to heed me, but I cannot believe that they will disregard all the assessments from the field of deep intelligence, despite the regrettable publication of the names of those who are now put at risk. Therefore, I conclude with a plea to the Government. Think again while there is yet time; time which may be measured in the interval between this Second Reading debate and the Committee stage next week.

3.56 p.m.

Lord Fitt

My Lords, the very title of the Bill fills me with great sadness. It is the Northern Ireland (Location of Victims' Remains) Bill. It is not about the former Soviet Union, or Rwanda or Indonesia, where terrible murders have taken place. This Bill relates to the United Kingdom. Of all the legislation that has passed through both Houses since I came here more than 30 years ago, I find this the most unacceptable. I cannot understand the two democratic Governments, the Irish and British Governments, freely elected on a democratic franchise; a Parliament in Dublin which has one Sinn Feiner and a British Parliament which has two Sinn Feiners who have never taken their seats. Those people are dictating what the two Governments should do in relation to those bodies.

When listening with great interest to my noble friend Lord Dubs, I had vivid recollections of my term as an MP in West Belfast, Northern Ireland, when people went missing and rumours circulated about their murder and abduction. Perhaps I may illustrate one case. A lady called Jean McConville lived in Divis flats. She was a widow with 10 children. Her husband had died four months previously. One evening a gun battle was taking place between the British Army and the IRA outside her home. Some people would say that she foolishly opened her door to see what was happening. She went outside to find a British soldier lying dying where he had been shot by the IRA. She cradled him in her arms until he died. For that act of humanity, the next day the IRA called and took her away. They murdered her. Devastation was brought to that family, where the father had died four months previously. Ten young orphans were then handed out to different charitable societies and homes and lost each other. Helen McKendry, her daughter, who has been so courageous over the past years, tried to bring up what was left of the family.

The IRA took that woman away, as they did so many other people. They not only took them away and murdered them, but they then intimidated their relatives: "Do not say anything or we will murder you." For many years the relatives were unable to speak, until the recent cease-fires. Helen McKendry found the courage, with her husband, Seamus, to speak out against what happened to her when she was a very young girl. The whole of Northern Ireland then became aware of the situation.

I pay tribute to a brilliant young Belfast Telegraph reporter by the name of Gail Walker who wrote a very poignant profile of Helen McKendry. Then the people in Northern Ireland who had been school children when these things happened were able to read the awful circumstances in which those murders took place.

I was in Northern Ireland for the past three weekends, and I have spoken to Protestants and Catholics about the Bill since the announcement was made on 29th March. There is deep and bitter resentment among those who believe in democracy and believe that justice can be obtained through legislation, and that parliaments for which they have voted will take a stand against murderers and gunmen. The people in Northern Ireland are now aware of the awful anguish that was inflicted on those families for far too long.

The Bill has nothing to do with the Belfast agreement; it has nothing to do with the peace process; this Bill is about appeasing the IRA. I cannot anticipate what will be said by noble Lords who follow me, but I am certain that if they are from Northern Ireland they will express the same point of view as the one I am expressing.

I attended last week in the other place and then spent a most depressing weekend reading the reports of the Second Reading and Committee stages of the Bill. Ministers were doing their damnedest to justify having made this further appeasement to the IRA. I found it absolutely sickening. One speaker stated that those who had spoken on the Bill referred to it as being obnoxious, obscene, distasteful and disgusting. That is no exaggeration. I have mentally ransacked Roget's Thesaurus to find other words which convey my detestation of the Bill and its further surrender to demands of the IRA.

The background to the Bill should be understood in the context of the families that have suffered so grievously. I met some of them here last week. They were my constituents, and they told me of some of their experiences. Members of Sinn Fein, which has no connection with the IRA, went to some of those victims and said: "We have good news for you; you can now bank on getting your bodies back". Who gave that information to Sinn Fein? The Minister in the other place stated that there was no contact with the IRA and that it was done through an intermediary. There are intermediaries from Sinn Fein running in and out of Downing Street every day of the week, so they do not have to go very far to know who speaks for and who speaks against the IRA.

The Bill flies in the face of every concept of democracy as we know it in these islands. I repeat that two democratically elected parliaments are now bowing to a demand and a threat by the IRA. Some people in Northern Ireland have asked me whether this is all about keeping bombs out of England. Is that what this blackmail is all about?

My noble friends Lord Merlyn-Rees and Lord Janner and the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, fought tenaciously to ensure that the War Crimes Bill became law, and I supported them because I could see its relevance to Northern Ireland. Two months ago a war criminal was brought before an Old Bailey court and sentenced to life imprisonment for murders he had committed fifty or sixty years ago in Belarus. That case would never have been heard, had it not been for those noble Lords. What is the difference? Why did the British Government go to such expense to bring that man here, to take the jury out to Belarus the place where the executions took place, and yet in Northern Ireland they do a shabby, underhand deal with the people who committed the same crimes?

On 29th March this year the IRA issued a statement, stating that they were prepared to identify the location of nine of the bodies. Some of the relatives contacted me that very evening and said: "Gerry, isn't it great, after all these years; we are going to get our loved ones back?". Within 48 hours the IRA had issued another statement, saying: "There is a pre-condition". This is the party that is always talking about pre-conditions, particularly in relation to decommissioning. They said: "Oh, no, we are not going to identify them until you give us an amnesty".

My noble friends will talk around the words of the Bill, but we all know that this is an amnesty. No-one will be brought before the courts for having committed these murders: otherwise, the IRA would never have agreed. The IRA will not make an agreement whereby their murderers will be brought before the court. They are now prolonging the agony. In answer to repeated questions in the other place, the Minister said he could give no guarantee that the bodies will ever be recovered.

I say with some degree of sadness that there were only two Government Back-Benchers in the other place when these issues were being debated. Roger Stott came in at a later stage for a few minutes. I would like to think that Members, by their absence, were indicating that they could not give wholehearted support to the Bill.

Those people from Northern Ireland feel the injustice of the Bill in their hones, as I do. The Minister asked why, as the Tories had granted some form of immunity on the decommissioning issue, we are so opposed to granting immunity. The two cases are entirely different. Anyone who is going to give information on where to find arms is in a totally different position from the person who is going to give information about a murder that has already been committed. Murder is the greatest crime in the English criminal calendar. It has absolutely nothing to do with decommissioning.

I have found it very difficult over the past two or three weeks to reply to people who have said: "Gerry, what would you do? You are only prolonging the agony of the people who want those bodies back. Please let it go through because the IRA will realise they have been appeased and they will release the bodies". I am not sure that they ever will do so. I want to place on record—although I probably do not need to—that my life in politics, from a Belfast city councillor to my arrival here, will show that I have the greatest and utmost sympathy in every fibre of my being with those who want the return of their loved ones so that they can give them a burial with respect and dignity. In no way can anyone accuse me of trying to hold up the return of those bodies.

Last Friday evening, after a marathon session in Downing Street with the political parties, the Prime Minister issued a statement. He said that he was setting a deadline of 30th June for the culmination of the talks between the political parties in Northern Ireland in relation to the Belfast agreement. That is yet another deadline. However, he said that that deadline will be the final one and that agreement had to be found by 30th June.

If deadlines have to be met, and that is the final deadline, it is all right for the Prime Minister to lay down a deadline again to freely elected representatives from Northern Ireland, no matter how much they may disagree with each other. But he referred to 30th June, the date on which he demands that the political parties find agreement. Perhaps he could also say that those bodies must be returned on that date, so that we would have a date on which those bodies will be returned and that will prove the bona fides of both Governments.

I have spoken at some length and I could go on as this is an issue with which I feel personally involved. This Bill is a shabby deal, in violation of every concept of democracy and humanity as we know them. I could never support this Bill in the Lobbies if there were to be a vote.

4.11 p.m.

Lord Blease

My Lords, I support the Bill for a number of reasons, but largely on the ground of the full support it was accorded in another place, the elected Chamber of the United Kingdom. At Second Reading on 10th May, after four hours of debate, the Bill was agreed on a Division by 289 votes to 10. Only three Northern Ireland Members of the House of Commons opposed the Bill. Two days later, following almost five hours of debate in Committee and on Third Reading, the Bill was approved by 324 votes to 5, only four Northern Ireland Members opposing the measure.

It is understandable, in the existing highly charged political situation in Northern Ireland, that the sensitive and difficult nature of the laws governing terrorism and murder are being challenged. However, issues arising from the experiences and suffering of families who have not been told where their loved ones have been buried must be addressed. In the interests of humanity, reason and justice—by all means let us uphold justice—we must be sensitive enough to distinguish between the vicious and the unfortunate, between the media hype and the real, meaningful, neighbourly actions concerning the families of the disappeared.

The heart-rending stories of the victims of sectarian, bigoted, terrorist actions are distressing and harrowing. That goes for those who received the dead, those who nursed the dying and those who mourn without the bodies. The agonising suffering of the families who have not been told where their loved ones are buried must be given our earnest compassion. We must distinguish between the vicious and the unfortunate.

Noble Lords will have received reading material from organisations representing the families of the disappeared in Northern Ireland. I know that some noble Lords have already promised to visit. Some of the organisations span the Falls Road and Shankill Road areas. Catholics, Protestants, nationalists and unionists are gathered together in the group, not only those who are residents of the Falls Road and Shankill Road areas. Noble Lords are looking forward to meeting some of them.

Perhaps it would be relevant and helpful if I read an extract from one of the group's papers. I shall paraphrase, as the style is different from that which I could use before your Lordships: "As a victims' group we would normally oppose such legislation, an Act that proposes forensic evidence may not be used in relation to a conviction of any terrorist. However, realising there is no other way to obtain the remains of our loved ones, we would plead, in this instance, to dismiss any thoughts for the actual perpetrators. We are acutely aware of our feelings concerning them. We invite noble Lords to concentrate on the loss, the grief and the deep and lasting feelings of the victims."

Another note states, and again I paraphrase: "In our Shankill Stress and Trauma Group we represent 90 per cent of victims where no known perpetrator has ever been brought to justice." I am referring to instances where bodies have already been buried, particularly in circumstances when there was no respectful burial. The note adds: "We all realise that we have gone beyond our sense of personal feelings for such perpetrators."

Such in-depth feelings go beyond the ordinary feelings of human beings who have suffered murder at the hands of terrorists. Those who cannot grieve and do not have a grave by which to remember the victims have an additional suffering. We know what that would mean to most of us in normal circumstances.

The note continues: "However, we have found some relief by bringing into force the special time of mourning with our families, friends and loved ones, the remedial, peaceable, simple act of remembrance." So they come together for an act of remembrance for those whose burial place they do not know.

The note adds: "We invite noble Lords to support the Bill. Focus your attention and sense of humanity on the grief and continuing agony of the families of the disappeared. They need to have the remains of their loved ones buried, not in mud and concrete, but in a consecrated place and a place of eternal rest."

I believe that the Bill, when enacted, will go a long way to meet the needs of the families of the disappeared. I am aware that it is difficult, but so are many acts of justice. We should recognise that justice must follow with a sense of mercy and, above all, those who preach it must walk honourably before God.

4.18 p.m.

Lord Cooke of Islandreagh

My Lords, this is a most unfortunate Bill. It has resurrected memories in many of us which we hoped to have forgotten. The disappeared to whom we refer are all victims of the most ghastly crimes and they all occurred in the 1970s, in a particular way. Unfortunately, they were carried out by the provisional IRA.

The apparent object of this Bill is to facilitate the return of victims' remains to their families in order that they can arrange a Christian burial. But it is not as simple as that and it is important to understand the circumstances.

This was a group of murders that took place in the 1970s. At that time the provisional IRA was determined to control what it called "their areas" and no opposition was tolerated. If anyone was suspected of informing on or opposing the IRA in any way, they were abducted and never seen again. They were tortured and mutilated. If they survived the torture, they were taken in front of a kangaroo court, sentenced to death and shot. The bodies were disposed of, generally believed to be in the most convenient way such as being buried in concrete foundations or under roadworks. I shall be surprised if any of them were buried in a place where the remains can be recovered. With the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, I do not believe that any of them will be found.

All that must be recognised to realise that they were not ordinary murders—if there is such a thing as an "ordinary" murder. They were the vilest of crimes. The terrorists allowed some details of their horrific acts to leak out so that others would know what would happen to them if they did not accept IRA control.

The IRA policy remains in place in 1999 but the methods have changed. IRA/Sinn Fein has mounted a well orchestrated campaign to discredit the RUC and is attempting to ensure that the police service is rearranged in a way which will allow it to organise community policing. IRA/Sinn Fein will then remain in control of "their areas". But it has been embarrassed by the continuing pleas of the families of its victims of murder 20 or more years ago. The way it overcame that embarrassment was to request the Government to give it this amnesty; it will help it to get "Brownie" points from the families of victims, and it will be able to say what it persuaded governments in both parts of Ireland to do to locate victims' remains. It is significant that this Bill deals with location rather than return, which is most unlikely.

Governments are claiming that this Bill and the international agreements they signed are in response to the pleas from the families of the victims. I have no doubt that it is another example of the Government's desire to accede to every request from IRA/Sinn Fein. Why our Government with the Government of the Republic of Ireland signed this agreement in such haste speaks much for what they are doing. Now they seek power to tamper with the criminal law. That is very hard to understand and, like the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne—with my far less experience of Parliament than his—I never thought that I would be faced with a Bill which attempts to tamper with the criminal law to please terrorists.

I respect the wishes of the victims' families, with whom I have every possible sympathy. I remember at the time of these murders how much we felt for those families. They were in their own communities having had their loved ones murdered by the people in those communities. They have suffered more than anyone else. But I cannot accept that it is thoughts for them that has brought about this Bill. The Government have done little for the families of thousands of other victims of terrorism. as was made clear in the excellent report recently made by Sir Kenneth Bloomfield.

I listened to the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, and the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, and in a different way I am saying the same thing. I feel exactly as they do. This is not a Bill to which I can give my support.

4.25 p.m.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, I do not need to come from Northern Ireland to share the feelings of horror and disgust expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Fitt. We are being asked to rush a hateful Bill through the House. The last time we had to rush a Bill through the House happened after Ornagh; it was the Criminal Justice (Terrorism and Conspiracy) Bill. The Prime Minister said, There are few more important challenges to democracy … than terrorism in all its forms. We must fight it vigorously wherever it appears".—[Official Report, Commons, 2/9/98; Col. 696.] I find it difficult to reconcile the two Bills.

The story begins earlier than 20th March 1999. In September 1998 the IRA, after many years of ignoring the most moving pleas from the Families of the Disappeared, suddenly became a caring IRA. On the day that a list of no fewer than 14 of the missing were named by the Families of the Disappeared, the IRA spokesman said that it, sympathised greatly with the families of those whose loved ones disappeared in the course of the conflict", adding that, twenty years ago the Army Council issued a directive that anyone executed by the IRA"— note the effrontery of its word for murder— should he left for their families. Prior to this directive, in the 1970s, the IRA was responsible for the execution and burial of a small number of people". The spokesman went on to say, Last autumn [1997] the IRA established a special unit under the command of one of our most senior officers to ascertain the whereabouts of those graves". He added that the passage of time, changes in leadership and the deaths of some IRA members had made that difficult, but that the work of the unit would continue and when it had established as complete a picture as possible, the relevant families would 'be notified. That was said eight months ago when the unit had already been established for a year and no conditions were then set.

The IRA has had 30 years and more to behave like normal decent human beings, so far as murderers can. We are entitled therefore to ask: why now? What advantage does it see in this? What deal has been done? According to the Minister in another place, The British Government have had no contact with the IRA on this issue, which has been handled through an intermediary with the Irish Government [the Government of the Republic of Ireland]".—[Official Report, Commons, 12/5/99; col. 347.] Who initiated that contact? Who negotiated the terms which were then embodied in a treaty and are now to be enshrined in legislation which ensure that any evidence which might emerge from the coroner's examination of whatever remains may he produced. may not be used in evidence except for the benefit of any future defence?

It may well be that some of the murderers are themselves dead and beyond the reach of any prosecution. It is certainly true that the families passionately wish nothing to prevent the restoration to them of those pitiful remains, and it is hard to oppose that. But we can and must ask the Government about the precedent that will be set, since we are told that there is no time limit and the provisions of the Bill are open-ended. What happens if others now disappear? The IRA is still violently attacking its own nationalist constituency; still sending families into exile. What if more are executed? British subjects have had to live for years under a regime of terror. The families have never dared to speak and when 10 children were left without their mother, as the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, told us, no one in the community dared to help them. They were eventually split up and taken into care by the social services. Those were their own people.

What guarantee is there that this legislation, which utterly flouts the rule of law, will not be used again? Ii is of course a matter of extreme concern that even when the legislation is passed and the murderers are safe, the IRA may decide for tactical reasons and in order to bring pressure to hear, not to find those bodies—and certainly not to find those of any family which talks too much or on whose individual behalf we say anything which the IRA does not want said. What guarantee do the Government have that, having secured this automatic amnesty for all its murderers—I beg your pardon, executioners—the IRA will not be stricken with collective amnesia and find itself unable to remember where the bodies are? What sort of freedom fighters, what kind of national patriots could coolly bargain over the bodies of the dead, and those dead their own people? I hope there will be no words of gratitude or praise for them and that this obscenity among laws will not be described as yet another "confidence-building" measure by our Secretary of State; and above all, that it will not constitute a precedent.

I should add that I found it particularly horrifying, though I realise that it is now a standard preface to all Bills, that the Secretary of State should declare the provisions of the Bill to be compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights, when it is a mockery of the human rights of both the families and the victims that the murderers should be both appeased and protected, and the rule of law flouted and set aside.

It is all the more hateful and reprehensible that it. seems likely to allow the IRA to impose a double standard upon us in this most delicate area of justice On the same day as the Secretary of State signed the treaty which gives complete protection and complete anonymity to IRA murderers, the RUC asked for anonymity for police witnesses at the Bloody Sunday inquiry because of well-grounded fears for their personal safety. But the family of one of the Bloody Sunday victims said, through their barrister: It would negate the very purpose of the enquiry. At its roots, the purpose of the enquiry is to discover and to bring to light who killed their relatives and other citizens, in what circumstances they were killed, and why and how they were killed". That was the nationalist view. I suggest that it would be monstrous for the state to afford the Army and the RUC witnesses (servants of the state who are not even on trial for any crime) less protection than this legislation will assure the IRA's acknowledged, though anonymous, killers. I hope that urgent consideration will be given to this issue.

An issue which greatly concerns many of us emerged in a brief, informal discussion with representatives of the families for which we are greatly indebted to the Minister. I am sad, indeed, to have to speak in these terms about this Bill when such a decent Minister is putting it through the House. It was also raised as a result of the same discussion in the other place last week. I refer to the question of compensation. I understand that applications are entertained only within three years of the report of a death. Of course, the families have never known a date of death. When we come to the Committee stage, I very much hope that it will prove possible for the Government to propose an amendment which would create a special exception to the law as it stands in these cases. If the state cannot give the families justice, it can at least accord them, as of right, a benefit which they have been unable to claim within the required time limit through no fault of their own. I hope, too, that it can be given in such a form as to make it difficult or even impossible for the IRA then to impound the money from them as a "voluntary contribution".

I was glad to hear the Minister speak of the Government's concern for victims. I give him warning that I intend to ask what the Government will now be doing for the many RUC officers and reservists who were blown up, killed or shot over the past years; and who, since their 20s, have been tetraplegics and paraplegics for no other reason than serving their country. They, too, have suffered severely from the present very strict application of the compensation laws. I shall be returning to this issue in the context of the inquiry of Sir Kenneth Bloomfield.

There is one more aspect of this hateful Bill and of the whole question of "The Disappeared". We all know that we cannot even enlarge on what little we know of what goes on behind the iron curtain of silence from the occasional very brave man or woman who speaks out in the nationalist community, without putting them at risk from such grinning hyenas as Gerry Adams. Fortunately there is unimpeachable evidence of what is happening in the Rowe Report on the operation in 1997 of the Northern Ireland Emergency Provisions Act; this was published in June 1998, after the Belfast agreement. It says: There is intimidation of communities, and this is one of the really significant signs that the paramilitary organisations are continuing a high level of activity. Great influence is exerted in this way. Ordinary people feel threatened, they are obliged by extortion to pay money, or they are obliged to close their shops on certain occasions; and they are fearful of giving evidence or serving on a jury". Mr. Rowe then goes on to say: I agree that there is a reduced amount of terrorist activity, and of course there are ceasefires and the April agreement and a "Yes" vote in the referendum of 22 May. But I have heard and seen real evidence of intimidation exerted by paramilitaries and the fear caused by it. I refer to Chapter 3 above where I survey the facts about the present terrorist situation and in my view those facts demonstrate what is the influence, still, of the paramilitaries. Furthermore, where a jury was empanelled to try a case which had paramilitary connections, jurors reported incidents in which they were obviously intimidated and they were made apprehensive and the trial was therefore aborted; and there were several attempts to complete the trial but each failed, and for the same reason. To my mind the case is a clear illustration that juries cannot yet be asked to try cases where there is a paramilitary connection". Isolated as the republican community is, and despite the strong culture of distrust and even hatred of the forces of law and order which has been inculcated in them, the existence of the rule of law remains a vital part of life in a free country. The IRA is waging a powerful and unrelenting campaign to have the RUC abolished as a result of the report of the Patten Commission, and replaced by a so-called "people's police" or "community police". We all know who they would be. It is, incidentally, difficult to conceive how such "police", who would themselves be dealing in drugs and violence and murdering any troublesome rivals, could co-operate with any international force or even with the forces in the rest of Great Britain or in the Irish Republic. If it cannot secure the outright abolition of the RUC, the IRA, in the name of normalisation. wants it disarmed.

The Bill before us sends a terrible message of appeasement, though we all understand the reasons why the Government so wish to help families. It will, in my view, cause a very great loss of confidence in the will of the state to maintain the rule of law, to protect the weak and the innocent. Many will find it difficult to understand that this is being done for a small group of families. However, having met some of them, I fear we all recognise that it may have to be. But we do not have to compromise justice for all, we do not have to allow the IRA to presume to equate their murderers with our policemen and soldiers. We certainly do not have to disarm the forces of law and order as yet another confidence-building measure to encourage the IRA, while it does not give up even an ounce of semtex.

I think that the Government must stop thinking about normalisation in IRA terms. They must recognise that they now need urgently, and have done for many months, to restore the confidence of the good, law abiding majority. If the Bill brings that about it may not have been wholly a disaster, though I have to say that I am not sure, even in the face of the grievous suffering of the families, that I can bring myself not to oppose it should it come to a vote.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, before the noble Baroness sits down, does she accept that this Bill applies only to murders committed before April 1998?

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, if that is so, I am extremely relieved to hear it. However, I shall be very interested to see whether the IRA does not in some way interpret the Bill in the way that I have interpreted it.

4.37 p.m.

Viscount Brookeborough

My Lords, it is difficult for me to welcome this Bill—a Bill to enable the Government to circumvent the democratic judicial system in the United Kingdom. However, I have the greatest sympathy for the families and relatives of "The Disappeared". They have been through hell and anguish during the past 30 years. For that reason, if this Bill achieves the recovery of the bodies and a decent burial, then, I suppose, it must go through. No reasonable person could deny the families that. But, at the moment, I do not know that the Government can persuade me that that will actually occur.

However, there is another matter. As the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, and others have said, this Bill is to appease the terrorists and to help the peace process go forward. I seriously doubt that it will. The Government have been bargaining and dealing with Sinn Fein/IRA for years. The Government think that this Bill is a good deal. If it is, it is the first one that there has ever been. Indeed, there have been no deals up until now and it takes two sides to make any deal. There is only one side giving concessions at present.

I, and the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland—and, perhaps, in the United Kingdom—have supported the peace process from the Belfast agreement, through the release of prisoners, the legislation for decommissioning, the elections, and so on, because we fervently hope that Sinn Fein/IRA will give something in return. Virtually everything that the latter has demanded has been granted or been surrendered by us for nothing. Not one weapon nor an ounce of explosives have been handed in. If this Bill is thought by some to be a little footbridge on the way to peace and compromise by Sinn Fein/IRA, I fear that they will be proved wrong.

The Minister may say that I am ignoring the humanitarian reasons for the Bill. Mr. Ingram said in another place, it is a wholly humanitarian gesture that has been made because the Government genuinely care about the families, who have borne so much grief and hurt over all those years with quiet dignity".".—[Official Report, Commons, 10/5/99; col. 41.] I do not question the Government's intention or sympathy. I have already said that I am extremely sympathetic to that. However, to use the word "wholly" is a contradiction of what Mr. Ingram had said earlier, or it seems to me to be so. He said at col. 39 of Hansard, We have had to introduce a considerable amount of legislation as the peace process has developed, based en the circumstances prevailing at the time. It would have been better if we did not need legislation, but if that is the way in which we achieve the objective, the Government must introduce it". I am sure that the objective was clear to everyone; namely, the future of the peace process. At that stage I do not believe he was talking about the humanitarian aspect.

'Therefore we must consider what the measure will achieve for the Government. Will it achieve a change of heart on the part of Sinn Fein/IRA? I doubt it. The Government are relying on our humanitarian instincts and sympathy for the families of the disappeared to ensure that this concession to terrorism goes through against all democratic and judicial principles. The Government are right; namely, that we may have to swallow a bitter pill. Our dignity and democratic right to fair play are being traded away on the back of our sympathy and humanity.

Let us consider the reasoning of Sinn Fein/IRA on this issue. When it brutally murdered these people that was not enough; it had to hide and dispose of the bodies secretly. It had to add to the intimidation and fear felt among the community. In that it succeeded. It was a card to hold for another time. That card has now been. turned up when there is something to be gained by producing the bodies. In this Bill it is achieving an amnesty for the perpetrators who are perhaps senior members of Sinn Fein/IRA.

The Minister will say—as Mr. Ingram did in another place—that this is not an amnesty. However, the IRA believes that it is. Sunday Life of 11th April states, The revelation comes after the IRA leadership announced they will not reveal the location of the secret graves, until they receive an amnesty from prosecution". This is an amnesty because if the security forces already had evidence there would have been a trial and perhaps a conviction. However, there is none. Therefore the only evidence, or the only evidence that is likely to lead to other evidence, that could be found will concern the locations of the bodies or the bodies themselves.

In addition the IRA is continuing to use the disappeared to further its own terrorist aims. First, it talks about only nine bodies. What about the remaining figure of anywhere between six and 11, including Captain Nairac? I suppose we shall have to await the IRA's "deal" on that one. The IRA also continues to heap misery and sorrow on the families of the disappeared. I again quote from a newspaper. The headline of the News Letter of 12th April states, Bury them in secret, IRA tells families". The article continues, IRA godfathers have ordered nine families of the 'disappeared' to agree to burying their loved ones in secret before the heartless terrorists will reveal where the bodies are hidden. It is the second cruel pre-condition imposed on the families in as many weeks". Another headline states, Provos final insult". Yet another headline states, IRA bars press at victims' funerals". That headline appeared in the Guardian which is not even a Northern Ireland newspaper. I mention that to show that these headlines do not emanate merely from Northern Ireland. These matters are picked up by numerous newspapers. Another headline appeared in the Sunday Life, IRA's final insult". So it goes on. Is this the talk of people who wish to end the misery and who are likely to carry out their side of this bargain to hand over the bodies? I do not think so. That leads me to the ceasefire. How did the IRA wish to stop the families from holding the funerals in public'? As far as I am aware, there is only one way to achieve that; namely, through intimidation, fear, weapons and more shootings. One cannot say that this is a case of a renegade group carrying out a kneecapping last night, tomorrow or any other time. We cannot any longer get away with saying, "This is not the real IRA". Who is giving up the bodies? It is the real IRA. Who has said that they should not be given a public funeral? It is the real IRA. Yet the Government expect the IRA to hand over the bodies. I am not convinced about that.

The terrorists will not produce the bodies out of sympathy. An amnesty is their target and in this Bill they achieve that. In County Fermanagh we have a saying, "I did not come out Lough Erne in a bubble". I and many others are not taken in by this. Are the attitudes of the terrorists changing? I do not think so. The weapons issue is one example and everyone in your Lordships' House knows that all too well. There are other examples. The headline of the News Letter of 15th May states, Every day, 20 people are abused in Ulster". The article continues, Each day in Northern Ireland at least 20 men, women and children suffer one form or other of human rights abuse at the hands of the IRA and loyalist terrorists. These figures are not the rantings of a political propagandist but rather the figures confirmed by both voluntary and statutory agencies".

Those agencies have no axe to grind; in fact those victims are costing them money. Further, has the IRA stopped targeting? No, it has not. It has not stopped smuggling, money laundering and fraud. The godfather of them all—or so it is said—Martin McGuinness is about to receive an honest wage if he becomes a Minister. It will be about £70,000 a year. A journalist asked me the other day whether I thought this measure was a concession by Sinn Fein to walk into Stormont. The facts speak for themselves. They were hammering at the gates for a year trying to get in to get their hands on lucrative jobs. For most of the past year they have done that and now they have got there without a single concession being made. If anything, Sinn Fein is getting more ruthless. The headline of the News Letter of 15th May states, Out of bounds". The article continues, Sinn Fein's anti-RUC campaign plumbed new depths yesterday, when it managed to prevent a handful of schoolgirls from enjoying a day's walking in the Mournes". That walk was sponsored by the RUC.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, I hope I may interrupt the noble Viscount. He referred to IRA and loyalist murders. Is he doing anything in his power to stop the loyalist murders?

Viscount Brookeborough

My Lords, I hope that my 17 years of counter-terrorism service in Northern Ireland have achieved a fair amount to stop terrorism of all kinds wherever it comes from. The article continues, The trigger for the cancellation came in a statement from Belfast City Councillor Tom Hartley, who attacked the school for going along with what he called the RUC's 'latest charm offensive'". The problem is that the Government and Sinn Fein have two entirely different goals: the Government believe that their goal satisfies something that Sinn Fein will be happy with; and Sinn Fein is absolutely sure that what is riding on the back of it is satisfactory.

I wish to make one more point. It is always dangerous to make comparisons with what happens in Great Britain. But if the Government have produced the Bill for wholly humanitarian reasons, as we have been told, perhaps I may ask the Minister what the Government are doing about missing murder victims in Great Britain. I do not know how many there are, but one name is familiar—Suzy Lamplugh. The anguish, misery and sorrow of her family can be no less than that of any one of the families of victims in Northern Ireland. Her murderer might perhaps reveal the whereabouts of her body if the Government were to produce yet another humanitarian Bill to protect him or her.

4.50 p.m.

Lord McConnell

My Lords, I shall not delay your Lordships long in making my contribution to the Second Reading debate on the rather sordid little Bill that is before us today. It has been said on behalf of the Government that the Bill is not appeasement. Anyone who believes that will believe anything. It is as blatant an example of appeasement as I have seen for some time—and we have seen some fairly flagrant examples, such as the release of condemned prisoners with blood on their hands, who were let out without showing any kind of repentance and without anything being done to ensure that they did not carry out any further activities.

I have the greatest sympathy with the families of the victims, as have other noble Lords, but I very much doubt whether they will gain much from the Bill. To say "We must trust the terrorists to carry out their part of the bargain" is not a strong hope to hand out to anyone. It is not justified by what the terrorists have done in the past.

I, too, have thought about non-terrorist criminals who have buried their victims. Some have killed children and buried them and have not said where they have buried them. If a Bill was brought forward which provided that if they said where their victims were buried they would be protected from prosecution, such a Bill would not stand up for very long in this House or anywhere else. It is only when murders are terrorist connected that one can do that kind of thing.

One other aspect of the Bill concerns me. The Government of the Irish Republic are referred to in Clause 1 as the Government of Ireland. Of course they do not have such a claim. That our Government should be colluding with another government who are making claims over a part of the United Kingdom—it is contrary to the spirit of the European Union for one country to start claiming the territory of another—and that the Government should be putting such matters into legislation, shows a lack of self-respect. I think that is the easiest way to put it.

4.54 p.m.

Lord Glentoran

My Lords, at this stage of the debate, I, too, will not detain your Lordships long. We have heard some very moving and excellent speeches against the Bill. I wish to associate myself with the speeches of, in particular, the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, and the noble Lords, Lord Fitt, Lord Molyneaux and Lord Cooke. I, too, was in Northern Ireland for the weekend—it was rather longer than that—where I was carrying out some millennium engagements. I had the opportunity to meet a number of members of the media, councillors, Assembly Members and so on. Knowing that the Bill was coming before the House, I questioned them about attitudes. I did not receive one answer that supported the Bill in any way; I had several answers that condemned it. I also learnt, at rather closer hand than I have in recent times, of the horrendous things that are happening even now, daily and weekly, in the communities and on the streets, in the way of terrorism, thuggery and so on.

In my opinion, the Bill is almost an insult to Parliament. I cannot believe the literature that I have seen on the Bill. It is an unpleasant and cynical little Bill. It undermines and cuts right across the fundamental laws of our society. I would go so far as to suggest that perhaps we have it only because of the Government's PR system. Quite rightly, they have been doing a certain amount to rehabilitate those murderers and terrorists who have been let out of prison. Money has been spent and care and effort has been put into it. But they have not done much for the victims of those terrorists. It became clear to the Government, by one means or another, that it was time they did something. Out of that, among other things, emerged this rather nasty little Bill.

Although I did not hear much of the debate on this matter in the other place, I have read virtually all of the Hansard report. I have to say than I was extremely disappointed that my party sat on its hands and did not go into the Lobby with the Ulster Unionists and the right honourable Mr. Hogg.

I have great respect and sympathy for all the families of the victims of the IRA's fiendish torture and sadism. As most people know, I spent about 12 years in Her Majesty's service and fought terrorism on three continents, sometimes in rather strange ways and remote places, which the noble Viscount will know. It happens in all walks of life—both in war and peace—that we lose our loved ones, either in unpleasant circumstances or even in accidents at sea, and the remains of our loved ones are never returned for burial. I am not condoning anything; I am just saying that it is not a situation in which these families are isolated. Although I have great feeling and sympathy for those who are bereaved and whose loved ones have not had a decent burial, I cannot and do not think that the Bill does anything for the greater good of mankind. I am fairly certain that most of those families would agree. The Bill condones torture and the desecration of human remains by creating a safe haven for those who have perpetrated these awful deeds and by guaranteeing them the right to remain at large.

I understand to some extent the Government's need to try to bring about the return of these remains. I would make one concession that was refused in the other place; namely, that the Government could be persuaded to place a time limit on the effect of the Bill.

If the Government are right and the terrorists are prepared to deliver in exchange for immunity from prosecution—which I doubt; as others have said, I doubt whether it is physically possible to return the remains of most of those for whom we are looking—six months should be more than enough time for them to deliver. In that way, and in that way only, is the Bill plausible. I suggest that a short time limit would help to prevent: serious misuse of the Bill as a political negotiating tool and underline the Government's case that it a credible, humane gesture to help the bereaved.

5 p.m.

Lord Rathcavan

My Lords, I wish to add my voice to those of the majority of speakers in the debate in expressing deep concern about the Bill. No one could have expressed those views more movingly than the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, more eloquently than the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, or with deeper knowledge than the noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth, and the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough.

Many of us who live in Northern Ireland, and who support the Good Friday agreement and yearn for a return to peace and normal life, view the Bill with some nausea. It was rightly described in the other place as a grubby and obnoxious piece of legislation. It is yet another sop to the terrorists following the release of prisoners, the reduction of security forces, relaxations in security and turning a blind eye to punishment beatings. It is another instalment in an appeasement process—an amnesty, however the Minister may wish to phrase it. It is another twist to morality and justice in the cause of political expediency.

Of course, we all have deep sympathy with the families of the disappeared and can identify with the agony they have suffered. But, as the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, so accurately warned, the Bill may provide the cruellest touch of all: to raise their hopes and then dash them. There is no guarantee that the Bill will, or can, deliver what it sets out to do. The Bill's aims on admissibility of evidence and forensic testing are confused, as the Committee stage in another place clearly indicated. I therefore hope that the Minister will reflect deeply on the views expressed in this debate and take into account the strong and passionate feelings of those in this House who are closely involved in Northern Ireland affairs.

5.3 p.m.

Lord Dunleath

My Lords, during the Bill's passage in another place it was described as odious, nasty, obnoxious and outrageous, among other things. In that respect—and that small respect only—I disagree with those in another place and in this Chamber who say it. That is the only point on which I disagree in relation to today's debate. I read with great care the reasoning behind the Bill, given by Mr. Ingram in another place. And, as always, the Minister has introduced the Bill in this House today with the care, courtesy and consideration to which we are all accustomed. It is obvious that the motives behind the Bill are well intentioned and honourable.

However, the Bill is perhaps unfortunate. II: is certainly inopportune and most definitely inappropriate. Like all noble Lords and Members of another place, I totally empathise with the relatives of those who are described as the "disappeared" or, more realistically, those who have lost relatives in the most savage and brutal circumstances as a result of the murderous activities of Sinn Fein/IRA. It is wholly understandable and legitimate that they should wish to recover the remains of their loved ones, to give them the basic and inalienable right to a Christian burial and to have a tangible memorial at which to confer their respects.

However, the concept of families not having a grave to which they can relate is hardly new. I doubt that there are more than a few Members of this House who did not lose relatives in the First World War and for whom there is no known grave. Agreed, there are memorials—headstones and graves known only unto God. Three years ago, I had the privilege of visiting the battlefields of northern France and seeing the memorial to the 36 Ulster Division at Thiepval. My own family was fortunate—if that is the right word. My grandfather's eldest brother was killed at Ypres while serving with the Irish Guards, but his grave is known to us and can be visited.

We then move to the Second World War and the number of allied sailors who were drowned as a result of U-boat attacks and naval warfare initiated by the Axis powers. Those men must have died in circumstances almost too harrowing to contemplate. Their relatives have no fixed point or remains on which to focus their grief. The noble Lord, Lord Fitt, from his distinguished war service, could speak to that more eloquently than I ever could.

In the years since, in peacetime, the sea is no more a forgiving place. Every year, communities, and especially fishing ports, suffer tragedy and loss of life. Small and remote islands can lose most of a male generation.

Those are three examples of individuals or groups who do not have the remains of their relatives over which to grieve properly. There are obviously many, many more.

So the relatives of the "disappeared" are not a unique case. What is unique is that in this instance there are those in Northern Ireland who purport to be able to supply information to identify the location of nine of the 14 or 16 victims who have disappeared over the past 25 years. That responsibility lies fairly and squarely with Sinn Fein/IRA. Having ducked and evaded the issue for many years, Sinn Fein/IRA cynically announced that they would look into the whole issue of the location of these wretched victims' remains, having abducted, tortured and murdered those people in the first place. They then announced that they had discovered the locations of nine but would not reveal that information unless forensic evidence from the remains or their location was declared inadmissible as a tool in the prosecution's armoury.

It is most unfortunate that Her Majesty's Government have once again chosen to accept Sinn Fein/IRA's words at face value. Following on from the Belfast agreement, we have had prisoner releases, a commission of inquiry into the RUC, withdrawal of troops and dismantling of security installations among many other concessions. In return, Sinn Fein/IRA has given precisely nothing—not one Armalite handed in; not a pound of semtex decommissioned; not one bullet destroyed. Why then expect it to be any different now? Why offer it further concessions?

The Bill sets dangerous precedents. It offers a form of immunity—I resist calling it a total amnesty—to terrorist murderers, and with no time limit.

As I said, Sinn Fein/IRA are cynical manipulators. With no time limit they can drip feed information on the location of the remains, one body at a time so to speak, and can clam up at any stage if they seek yet more concessions from Her Majesty's Government.

Surely the desire to locate the victims' remains should not in any way hamper the Royal Ulster Constabulary from using every scrap of evidence available to secure arrests and convictions against those responsible for these most ghastly of murders. It is sickening that the RUC, who have for so long and so courageously defended society in Northern Ireland, should now not only be subject to a systematic campaign to discredit them, but also not be allowed to carry out their duties to the full effect of what is the recognised rule of law.

I assume that even if anyone were arrested and convicted of these dreadful crimes, they would be released in short order—within two years perhaps—as the murders were committed before the date of the Good Friday agreement. I should be grateful for the Minister's confirmation of that. And if that is the case, is it not truly extraordinary that all these efforts have been made to safeguard the perpetrators of these crimes from a short sentence when they meted out the ultimate sentence to their victims?

To conclude, it is a matter of record that I have consistently supported Her Majesty's Government on the Belfast agreement and all the Bills that followed from it. I have no such commitment on this occasion. I am minded to oppose this Bill. I shall listen with great care to the Minister's reply.

5.10 p.m.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, I apologise for speaking in the gap, which is not a habit greatly to be encouraged. I do so as an English person who has been visiting Northern Ireland for more than the past 20 years fairly regularly, and who now happens to have a daughter working in Belfast.

I agree very strongly with what the noble Lord, Lord Blease, said, and I therefore welcome and support the Bill. I do so for three reasons, principally. First, the Bill is yet another example of the two governments, our Government and the Government of the Irish Republic, acting in the closest possible agreement and concert. To my mind, that is essential if we are ever to emerge successfully from the present, I admit, very difficult situation. Some noble Lords have thought that the Bill implies an amnesty. I believe that that is something of an exaggeration.

My second reason for supporting the Bill is that I believe that it will help to break the cycle of violence, which has continued for far too long, over far too many generations. I think it will reduce the temptations to revenge which may understandably be felt among the relatives of the victims. Here I beg to differ from the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne. I am delighted that an independent commission will be involved in receiving the information and passing it on to the security services.

My third reason for supporting the Bill is that I see it from the point of view of the bereaved relatives. The point has already been well made today that they have been prevented from grieving in the normal way and from burying their relatives and other loved ones. In my view, they would not agree with those who oppose the Bill. It so happens that the only communication that I have received from that direction came from an organisation whose office is on the Shankhill Road. That is perhaps a little surprising, in the context of this House, where the nationalist point of view is almost totally unrepresented. There is perhaps a certain degree of self-indulgence among those speakers who have denounced the outrages and violence of the IRA and other terrorist bodies from the safety of this House. I wish the Bill a smooth passage.

5.13 p.m.

Viscount Slim

My Lords, I apologise to the Minister for not being here at the start of his speech. I was unavoidably detained. I thank your Lordships for allowing me a few words in the gap.

Contrary to what has just been said, I find the word "Independent" in "Independent Commission" rather useful for two governments, the Irish Government and the British Government. If something goes wrong, they are not to blame; it is the independent commission. If the Government want to do something like this, they should grip the problem themselves and go forward.

The commission will win only by completely kowtowing to the IRA. There is no other way in which it will succeed, and all the fine words from here and another place do not really matter. I am not accusing the Minister, who, we know, works with great diligence, duty and honesty.

I should like to draw the noble Lord's attention to Clause 4, "Restrictions on forensic testing". Some of us know the IRA quite well. There is nothing in the Bill that says that one gets the body of one's family member. There is no mention of DNA testing. It is quite easy to manufacture old graves.

If one was a terrorist in the IRA, one does not want the bones made public. Torture is apparent to experts from remains. That is well known. I am rather nervous that each of the nine families concerned—lovely families, good families—will get a bag of bones. It is up to the Government to ensure that the testing is such that: they get the remains of the true member of their family.

I do not go along with the idea that with the Bill all will be rosy and lovely and everything will work out. To me, it is a shoddy little piece of legislation, and, like other noble Lords, I am amazed that a government of the day—from these Benches I do not mind which party is in power—can bring forward a Bill like this. It smells of appeasement and it does show amnesty.

5.16 p.m.

Lord Redesdale

My Lords, all noble Lords who have looked at the Bill will have had a problem with it. We on these Benches have certainly had a problem with it, because of the difficulty it imposes on justice and the rule of law.

I shall not use the terms of derision that many noble Lords have used about the Bill, not because I do not feel that they are appropriate, but because it would be unfair to the Minister. I believe that the Government have brought the Bill forward genuinely as a humanitarian Bill. That has to be respected. The families of the victims have a need to bury their dead and to put their suffering to an end.

The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, said that if we asked the families we would find that they want justice. Some noble Lords—the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, the noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth, and I—have met members of the families, and we found that this was an issue that they wanted to be put to the House. They supported the Bill and wanted it passed.

A number of claims have been made. The first that I would like to address is the claim of amnesty made by the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne. I do not believe that this is the case. The murderers—that is what they are—are still liable to prosecution. However, the reality is that without the bodies no murderers will be brought to justice anyway. With the bodies, at least the families can bury the dead, and the murderers' cases are still open. I do not believe there is an amnesty, although, of course, there are problems. Many noble Lords will be aware of the difficulties associated with not using such techniques as those involved in gathering forensic evidence.

The second argument is that of appeasement. When the Bill was first introduced, I believed that: it was a form of appeasement, because it has advantages for the IRA, and it is seen as a concession gained by the IRA. Having talked to the victims' families and to the groups supporting them, I have come to a very different conclusion. I believe that the IRA will find this issue very difficult in the months and years to come. It will be a thorn in the side of the IRA, which declared that it could identify nine of the 14 graves of the murdered bodies for which it claimed responsibility.

This has turned into a public relations disaster for the IRA because questions have to be asked, such as why the IRA did not come forward earlier with information about the location of the bodies. I refer also to some of the proclamations made by the press, to which the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, drew the attention of the House, relating to the IRA's outrageous claims that the victims should be buried at night and without any press coverage. I believe that such statements will come back to haunt the IRA.

In a peace process which I believe will go forward such questions will be asked in the future. I do not believe that this subject will become a closed book. 'The culture of intimidation, which has guaranteed silence on this issue, will come to an end. Indeed, I believe that the Bill will help to bring that about. That culture of silence really should be challenged.

It is always interesting to reply to such debates because that gives one the opportunity to listen to all the Back-Bench contributions. I try not to write speeches in advance of debates because it is difficult to stick to them given that points are often raised which cause one to think again. I was particularly interested by the way in which the noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth, talked about the IRA "claiming responsibility". That is a particularly apt term in this context because in the coming years the IRA will not only have to claim responsibility, but also to consider its guilt for these actions and to answer why it carried out some of the murders which, as the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, pointed out, were particularly barbaric and for which there was no justification.

This is a fairly short Bill and I do not plan to consider it in any great detail now. However, from these Benches I should like to refer to two issues which my honourable friends raised in another place. I refer to the families who have gone through a great deal of suffering because of the intimidation which still continues. My honourable friends referred to the issue of funeral expenses. I was gratified to hear the Minister say that that has been sorted out and that the victims' families are to be awarded grants of more than £4,000 to meet such expenses.

I refer now to compensation, a matter on which I was thinking of tabling an amendment. However, this is an extremely complex and difficult area. Given the amount of time that this Bill will be allowed in this House, an incredibly well drafted amendment would be needed to rewrite a section of the Criminal Injuries and Compensation Act.

I believe that there are several difficulties which will stop many of the victims' families being eligible for compensation, not least the time-barred limitation. I had planned to ask the Minister whether the fact that forensic evidence cannot be used may be applied to record the fact that the time of death has not been revealed, thus meaning that the time-barred limitation may not have effect. However, I believe that that would be open to challenge on a number of grounds.

Am I correct in understanding from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Act that, under Article 9 of the appropriate order, the families will be eligible for bereavement provisions, which would give them a small amount of compensation? I believe that that too may be affected by the time bar. However, I hope that, considering their special situation, some form of compensation may be worked out for the families of the victims.

Many noble Lords have said that they should like to oppose the Bill's Second Reading and that they feel almost honour-bound to do so. However, perhaps I may point out that some cases are almost 30 years-old. I should like to stress the interests of the group to whose wishes we should listen most carefully. I refer to the victims' families and their support groups. They are calling for this Bill to be passed. I believe that this is a humanitarian Bill. I do not have problems with it because I believe that either the bodies will be identified by the IRA or the IRA will have to answer many questions. It is paramount that we support the Bill.

5.25 p.m.

Earl Attlee

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his explanation of the background to the Bill and how it will work. I am equally grateful to other noble Lords who have contributed this afternoon. Like the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, I have some sympathy for the Minister in his task of replying to the debate. We have heard many powerful and effective speeches this afternoon. It would be invidious to single out any particular contribution. Nevertheless, the view of this House is fairly consistent. However, both the noble Lords, Lord Hylton and Lord Blease, made speeches supporting the Bill in the measured and effective way that we have come to expect from them.

I am sure that all other noble Lords find the need for this Bill to be deeply distressing. We are well aware of the extreme ways in which the victims were violated and then disposed of; but so, too, are their relatives, many of whom hope that this Bill will enable them finally to lay their loved ones to rest. We also recognise that we may not be able to locate everyone, not least Captain Robert Nairac, GC.

We on these Benches believe this to be an odious Bill as it is offensive and repugnant. Moreover, the relatives themselves also appreciate the difficulty with this legislation, as was pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord Blease. However, they are also desperate to be able to bury their loved ones properly. There is an understandable concern on their part that this House might delay or stop the legislation. We on these Benches will not do so. My noble friend the Opposition Chief Whip and the usual channels have agreed that we should shorten the usual interval between Second Reading and Committee. In addition, all remaining stages will be taken next week. That is all, of course, subject to your Lordships' agreement. However, I should be surprised if amendments were not debated in Committee. I think that the Minister implied that he expected that to be the case.

The Minister has explained the background to the Bill and the way in which it will operate. Many noble Lords have voiced their strongly held views and given their wise counsel on the Bill. I believe that your Lordships are clear on one point: as the Minister rightly stated, it will still be possible to prosecute someone for these murders if evidence is forthcoming from an alternative source. However, we must be honest and accept that if a terrorist takes advantage of this Bill and gives the commission the information required, there is no realistic prospect of him ever being convicted of that murder.

I must take issue slightly with the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, on this. There must always be a fear in the mind of a terrorist murderer that he may be exposed by an accomplice, that forensic evidence exists which will back up any allegation and that that evidence is located with the buried remains. That fear will disappear under the provisions of this Bill should the terrorist take advantage of it.

The Minister drew parallels between this Bill and the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997. He is right in that they both work in similar ways, but there are significant differences. Arms, ammunition and explosives are by definition designed to kill people and are therefore dangers to society. A large number of people—that is to say, terrorists—may be involved with illegal arms holding. There is every risk of the arms falling into the wrong hands, as has already happened. It is shameful that these people, with one exception, have not even begun the process of decommissioning.

There is another difference in the need for this legislation. There is no doubt that arms will continue to be found for a very long time. Indeed, arms are still appearing from the Larne gun-running period before the First World War. But the need for this legislation arises from the desire to have some information that relates to about 14 victims of the Troubles. The relatives hope to have this information within two or three weeks. I sincerely hope that their aspirations are met. But many noble Lords are not confident.

The agreement between the two governments that underpins this Bill is not very reassuring. Article 3(2)(c) helpfully states that the commission is, to report its activities to both governments no later than one year after the establishment of the commission and annually thereafter". My greatest fear with this Bill is that it will not have the desired effect and that the relatives will continue to be strung along by terrorists who have managed to persuade the Government to introduce this legislation. It is legislation which suits the terrorists, as has been pointed out by my noble friend Lord Cranborne and others, as much as the relatives. But the terrorists either have this information or they do not, which was a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale. I hope that the Minister can convince your Lordships of the desirability of such open-ended legislation.

I accept his view that many of the clauses must remain extant indefinitely. However, an interesting amendment was moved in the other place which well addressed that issue. No doubt something similar will be debated in your Lordships' House in Committee. I also note that the Bill does not create any new offence. So what happens if a terrorist organisation or individual deliberately and inaccurately tells the commission that the remains of a victim are located at a certain point, which happens to be underneath a building or within some item of infrastructure? The noble Lord, Lord Cooke, touched on that possibility. It may be an item that is not so big that it cannot be moved, but big enough to cause major destruction if it were. I stand to be corrected, but as I read the Bill the commission cannot reveal who gave it the maliciously incorrect information. The Bill may even protect the terrorists or troublemakers from prosecution in that case. That may not be a problem now, but it may be later due to the open-endedness of the Bill. I hope that the Minister can allay my fears on that point.

The noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, raised the issue of conditions being made by terrorist organisations as regards funeral arrangements. Can the Minister assure the House that those fears are completely groundless and that no Minister or official has agreed on any restrictions on the funeral arrangements?

Viscount Brookeborough

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl for giving way. I did not say that the Government were party to that at all, but that it was purely a threat made by the terrorists to the families of the disappeared.

Earl Attlee

My Lords, I am grateful for that intervention. I hope that the Minister can still reassure us on that point.

The noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, raised the issue of compensation and funeral costs. That is yet another sensitive issue. I do not find the compensation culture that is developing in society very appealing. However, a burial grant cheque can sometimes be so pitifully small and impersonal that it can actually insult the value and the dignity of the human life to which it relates. I am sure that many will welcome the availability of grants from the Northern Ireland Memorial Fund to which the Minister referred.

We on these Benches have no intention of delaying this Bill any more than proper parliamentary scrutiny requires. I hope for the families that this Bill will be passed next week. I have already pointed out that we have agreed to shorten the time scale for the proceedings. I hope—and I have been expressing a great deal of it this afternoon—that the relatives' long wait to bury their loved ones will soon be over and that they will not be subject to further anguish and the cruellest of tricks from their tormentors.

5.35 p.m.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, I am grateful to those who have taken part in this debate. It has been a sombre and very serious debate. I am grateful to my noble friends Lord Blease, Lord Hylton and the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, for their strong support for this particular measure. I am also grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, for agreeing to the timetable for this Bill, which means that we shall be able to dispose of it rather more quickly than our normal procedures would suggest. On one of the many debates when we discussed matters in Northern Ireland, I remember my noble friend Lord Fitt speaking very passionately about the appalling situation for families whose loved ones had disappeared, the bodies never having been recovered. I believe that he made the whole House aware, if it was not aware before, of the enormity of the issue, the terrible situation for the families and the urgent need for the IRA to reveal where the bodies were. I am sure that the noble Lord will remember very well how the House listened to him with enormous attention.

I am also grateful for the support for the Good Friday agreement given by those noble Lords who perhaps have doubts about this particular legislation. We all agree that terrorism is vile, cruel and absolutely barbaric. Therefore, our concern is properly with the victims. I was asked what the Government had done for them. I believe that they have done quite a lot for the victims of terrorism in Northern Ireland. We have established a new family trauma unit for young people and their families affected by the Troubles. We have supported a fund for community groups and voluntary organisations. We have developed an educational bursary scheme for children and adults whose education has been affected through the Troubles.

I have made reference to the Northern Ireland Memorial Fund established to help victims in a practical and meaningful way. Sir Kenneth Bloomfield initiated a review, which is an important document for victims. He is also reviewing fitness for the purpose of the criminal injuries compensation scheme. Grants have been given to the community and the voluntary sector. We have supported the commissioning of a survey of organisations supporting the bereaved or injured to assist in the development of government policy in that area. We have helped in the establishment of a Touchstone group to facilitate discussions between the Government and the victims in the community. We have tried to do a lot. Of course, one can never do enough for the victims of the Troubles, but certainly as a Government we have taken this matter as a very important responsibility. I believe that we have demonstrated our commitment by what we have done.

I repeat that there is one motive only for this Bill; namely, to help the families of those people whose bodies have never been found. The Bill is to support those families. We have no other agenda and there is no other motive. The Bill is simply and solely for that purpose.

Lord Glentoran

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I criticised the Government's motive. I would like to put on record that I accept entirely the Minister's explanation.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his comment. A question was asked about funerals. When the remains of a victim have been revealed it is for the family to decide what sort of funeral it wishes to have. There is not, and should not be, any pressure on the families to have any specific funeral. If they wish to have one which is high profile that is up to them. If they wish to keep it quiet and discreet for their own reasons, that is up to them. There is no question of the Government conceding to any pressure from outside. I hope that none of the families will feel under pressure to do other than what is best for their loved ones if and when the bodies are revealed.

It has been suggested by many noble Lords and, I regret to say, by my noble friend Lord Fitt that this is a matter of appeasement, that it is a sort of amnesty for the IRA. I should like to ask your Lordships what benefits there are to the IRA in what the Government are doing. Surely this debate can be of no benefit to the IRA. I have said that the Government are not in a position to give guarantees. After the raising of consciousness in particular of the families concerned that the bodies may be revealed, everyone would know what the IRA had done if, having announced the names of some people whose bodies it might reveal it were not to do so. If bodies are revealed, that is no help to the IRA or any other terrorist organisation. If bodies are revealed it simply confirms the tragedy that the families have suffered and shows the enormity of the wrong that the IRA has done to those families and the wider community. I suggest that there is no question of appeasement here; and there is no sense of an amnesty.

If the IRA does not reveal the location of the remains of a body, none of the provisions of the Bill applies. The only way in which the provisions of the Bill apply is if indication is given as to where the body or the remains happen to be. So I do not think that it is possible to argue that on the one hand this is a concession and an amnesty for the IRA, and on the other that the IRA will not reveal the bodies. It seems to me that either one or the other will happen.

Viscount Brookeborough

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for giving way. I was not accusing the Government of intentionally appeasing the IRA. I think that many of us talk of it as a by-product, that the Government do not seem to realise the dangers. If the terrorists do not reveal where the bodies are and there is no Bill such as this, they live continuously in the fear that in the future someone who has an idea of where those bodies are—in the new climate he decides to come clean or pillow-talk, or whatever—might lead the security forces to the bodies and the forensic evidence. The Bill refers to forensic evidence because that is the problem for the organisations. We would not refer to it if it were not a fact that might lead to conviction. Therefore the terrorists have something to gain. Quite simply they are taking that threat out of the book. They are clearing the decks. Provided they can find the body, they have got clean away with it. It will only be the threat of someone breaking his silence in the future that will bring the terrorists to justice.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, it is almost certain that these bodies have been hidden for 10, 15, 20 or 25 years and although in theory it is possible that at some point in the future the bodies might be discovered, I am bound to say that on the face of it that is rather unlikely. Therefore the only way in which the families can have access to the bodies is through this measure. I do not believe that there is any other way in which the family can have any sense that the body may be discovered.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, the advantage to the IRA is that it has demonstrated to its people that it is so strong that it can cause two governments to give what amounts to an amnesty to the people among them who have murdered. That is a message to its whole community of how powerful it continues to be.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, I understand the point, but I doubt that the majority of people in Northern Ireland will take it that way. The families do not take it that way. There is a sense on the part of the community in Northern Ireland that it wants the agony of the families to be lessened. It will be lessened only if they can give their loved ones a decent burial. It is a matter of judgment. The noble Baroness may believe that it works one way. I am satisfied that the outcome is more likely to be as I have suggested.

The noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, referred to the fact that it was an amnesty. That is simply not the case. The Bill provides some limited protection in cases where bodies are revealed. But I would not have thought that it is an amnesty because proceedings can still be brought if other evidence is available to the prosecution. It does not let the perpetrators of these murders off the hook. It simply means that the one piece of evidence that is revealed when the location of the body is identified cannot be used. But in all other respects the individuals who committed the murder are liable to proceedings.

I have mentioned the situation as regards funerals. The noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, raised the issue of compensation. He also asked about time limits. I am grateful to the noble Lord for having drawn to my attention in advance the fact that he would raise the issue. I have told him what is to be made available to the families of the victims.

If there is any doubt as to whether a family is within or outside the time limit for claiming compensation, they can claim for compensation. They probably will not succeed unless they can demonstrate that the claim is within the time limits. It does not stop them claiming, but it is unlikely that it will have a successful outcome.

The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, asked whether the Government could put a time limit on the Bill. I think that I mentioned that in my speech. It is important to understand that the main provisions of the Bill must stay in place. It is impossible to say when those provisions might cease to be needed. I stress this again. We need to be flexible on timing as we hope that those with information about the remaining victims will come forward. I have already said that we shall keep the operation of the commission under review.

One question has not been answered. I throw it open to every Member of the House who spoke in the debate. What would you do? Not a single speech of those critical of the Bill has any solution. The only suggestion is that we do not have the Bill; let the bodies not be found and somehow or other we shall just have to forget the agony of the families. I wait here. Would any one of your Lordships care to suggest what you would do if you were in the Government's place?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, with all the caveats surrounding the sympathy that all of us feel for the victims, which the Minister amply demonstrated in the course of both his speeches, there is an alternative for the reasons that a number of us have suggested: that we do not introduce the Bill, and we do nothing.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, there you have it. Because of the agony of the families, the Government are not prepared to do nothing. It is as simple as that. Our motive for bringing forward the Bill is the agony of the families. It is to lessen that agony so that they can give their loved ones a decent burial.

I appreciate the honesty of the noble Viscount. He said that the alternative is to do nothing. I think that that is the position in which the Government put the House. Having considered the arguments, I hope that the House will support the Bill. I commend it.

Lord Dunleath

My Lords, before the Minister sits down, I listened with great care to what he said. I asked one question to which I do not think he gave an answer. If he can do so I should be grateful. If these people are caught and convicted of these crimes which occurred before the Good Friday agreement, what is the situation with regard to their sentences? Are they eligible for early release? I understand that they are. Perhaps the Minister can confirm that.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, that is not within the Bill, but I understand that the crucial date is 10th April 1998. If they committed offences before that date, they would come within the scope of the legislation. If they committed the offences after that date, they would not come within the scope of the legislation.

Earl Attlee

My Lords, will the Minister answer the question that I raised about what happens if the commission receives a malicious notification of remains?

Lord Dubs

My Lords, it is an independent commission set up to make decisions on the basis of information. If it decides to take action, it will decide how to do so sensitively. Each case must be decided on the basis of the information. The independent commission will decide how to tackle that. I believe that the position is clear and I commend the Bill to the House.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.