'(1) Schedule 3 to the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000 (c.32) (district policing partnerships) is amended as follows.
(2) In paragraph 1 (interpretation) after subparagraph (3) insert—
"(3A) In this Schedule a "declaration against terrorism" means a declaration in the form set out in Part 1 of Schedule 2 to the Elected Authorities (Northern Ireland) Act 1989, with the substitution of the words "if appointed" for the words "if elected"."
(3) In paragraph 5 (council's nominations of independent members) in subparagraph (4) after "if" insert "(a)" and after "the DPP" insert—
(b) he has not made a declaration against terrorism".
(4) In paragraph 7 (removal of members from office) in subparagraph (1) after paragraph (a) insert—
"(aa) in the case of an independent member, he has acted in breach of the terms of a declaration against terrorism;".
(5) In paragraph 7 after subparagraph (2) insert—
"(3) Section 6 of the Elected Authorities (Northern Ireland) Act 1989 applies to determine whether an independent member has acted in breach of the terms of a declaration against terrorism as it applies to determine whether a person who has made a declaration required for the purpose of section 3, 4 or 5 of that Act has acted in breach of the terms of the declaration.
(4) As applied by subparagraph (3), section 6 of the Elected Authorities (Northern Ireland) Act 1989 applies with the following modifications—
(a) in subsection (1), for the words from "after" to "the Assembly" substitute "when he is an independent member of a district policing partnership";
(b) omit subsection (4);
(c) in subsection (5), in the definition of "public meeting" after paragraph (c) insert—
"(d) any meeting of a district policing partnership or a committee of a district policing partnership (whether or not a meeting which the public is permitted to attend), and
(e) any meeting of a subgroup established under section 21 of the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000 or a committee of such a subgroup (whether or not a meeting which the public is permitted to attend), and".
(6) Subsections (1) to (5) come into force in accordance with provision made by the Secretary of State by order.'.—[Mr. Paul Murphy.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: Government new clause 2—Independent members: disqualification—and amendments (a) and (b) thereto. New clause 9—Independent members of district policing partnerships—
'(1) Paragraph 4 of Schedule 3 to the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000 (c. 32) (independent members) is amended as set out in subsections (2) and (3).
(2) After subparagraph (1) insert—
"(1A) No person may be appointed an independent member pursuant to subparagraph (1) above unless the Board make a declaration that the Board is satisfied that the person is not involved in any paramilitary organisation or in organised crime."
(3) After subparagraph (1A) insert—
"(1B) Before making a declaration under subparagraph (1A) above the Board must consult the district commander for the local policing district.".'. New clause 10—Political members of district policing partnerships—
'(1) Paragraph 3 of Schedule 3 to the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000 (c. 32) (political members) is amended as set out in subsections (2) and (3).
(2) After subparagraph (1) insert—
"(1A) No person may be appointed a political member pursuant to subparagraph (1) above unless the Board make a declaration that the Board is satisfied that the person is not involved in any paramilitary organisation or in organised crime."
(3) After subparagraph (1A) insert—
"(1B) Before making a declaration under subparagraph (1A) above the Board must consult the district commander for the local policing district.".'. New clause 11—Removal from office of members of district police partnerships—
'(1) Paragraph 7 of Schedule 3 to the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000 (c. 32) (removal of members from office) is amended as set out in subsection (2).
(2) After subparagraph (1) insert—
"(1A) The Board must remove a person from office as an independent member of a DPP if at any time after their appointment the Board is no longer satisfied that the person is not involved in any paramilitary organisation or in organised crime and would not make a declaration pursuant to paragraph 4(1A) in respect of that person.
(1B) The council must remove a person from office as a political member of a DPP if at any time after their appointment the Board recommend to the council that it is no longer satisfied that the person is not involved in any paramilitary organisation or in organised crime and would not make a declaration pursuant to paragraph 3(1A) in respect of that person.".'. New clause 13—Disqualification of independent members of district policing partnerships—
'(1) Paragraph 8 of Schedule 3 to the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000 (c. 32) shall be amended as follows.
(2) In subparagraph (2) the words after "offence" shall be omitted.
(3) After subparagraph (2) there shall be inserted—
"(3) The Secretary of State may exempt a person from disqualification under the provisions of subparagraph (2) if, in the opinion of the Secretary of State, the offence of which the person was convicted was not such as to render the person unsuitable for membership.".'. New clause 18—Disqualification from independent membership of a DPP—
'In paragraph 8 to Schedule 3 of the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000 (c. 32) (disqualification) for subparagraph (2) substitute—
"(2) A person is disqualified from being an independent member of a DPP if he has at any time been convicted in Northern Ireland or elsewhere of any offence and has had passed on him a sentence of imprisonment (whether suspended or not) of more than twelve months.
(2A) A person is disqualified from being an independent member of a DPP if, in the opinion of a police officer of superintendent rank or above, he is connected with a paramilitary organisation listed in Schedule 2 of the Terrorism Act 2000.
(2B) A person is disqualified from being an independent member of a DPP if, in the opinion of a police officer of superintendent rank or above, he is connected with a paramilitary organisation specified under section 3(8) of the Northern Ireland Sentences Act 1998.".' New clause 19—Police consultation over eligibility of independent members of a DPP—
'In paragraph 4 of Schedule 3 to the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000 (c. 32) (independent members) after subparagraph (1) insert—
"(1A) Before approving the appointment of an independent member of a DPP from among persons nominated by the council in accordance with paragraph 5 the Board shall consult a police office of superintendent rank or above as to the eligibility for membership of any individual so nominated.
(1B) If a police officer makes a determination as set out in paragraph 8(2A) or (2B) to Schedule 3 the Board must not approve the nomination.".' New clause 23—Disqualification—
'In paragraph 8 of Schedule 3 to the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000 (c. 32) (disqualification for membership of a district policing partnership), after subparagraph (1) insert—
"(1A) A person removed from office under paragraph 7(1) is disqualified for membership of a DPP for five years following his removal.".'. Amendment No.77, in page 10, line 19, leave out Clause 14. Government amendments Nos. 34 and 35.
We had a flavour of what the debate may be like in points of order—all of us will have become aware of that flavour over the past few months. What we are considering in this batch of new clauses and amendments is nothing new. We talked in the autumn about—ugly phrase—"texts for consideration", and referred to discussions held in August 2001 which resulted in the publication of the implementation plan for the Patten report. If aficionados turn to page 11 of the plan, which deals with recommendations 27 and 28 of the report, they will see that the district policing partnerships and the sub-groups in Belfast have to be considered in detail, as the House is going to do this afternoon.The plan was followed by a review of policing, which was introduced by my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office. Again, reference has been made to those issues. On
The right hon. Gentleman may be under an illusion. He said that clause 14 had been discussed. I was not in Committee any more than he was, but if he reads the record of Committee proceedings, he will see that clause 14 was clearly not discussed—it was one of the victims of the Government's pernicious timetabling system, which prevents important clauses from being discussed. We shall come to clause 14, a foolish and obnoxious provision, later, but it was not discussed. It is revealing that the right hon. Gentleman assumes that it has been, when it has not.
We are debating new clauses, as opposed clause 14. However pernicious, the programming system works, and the hon. Gentleman will be aware that we have two days for Report and Third Reading on the Floor of the House which, bearing in mind the current situation, is particularly generous. Clause 14, which deals with disqualification, was discussed at length in the other place. The hon. Gentleman will have the opportunity—doubtless he will take it—to debate at length in the Commons too the relevant issues.
The Secretary of State is right that the Select Committee considered the Bill, but chose not to deal with additional clauses because of an undertaking given to it by the Minister of State. The Chairman of the Committee said:
"I am not trying to put words into your mouth but you would not be introducing these draft clauses into the Bill as it goes through Parliament in the next two or three months, whatever it is, without the situation having arisen here which would allow for the resumption of the Assembly."
The Minister of State replied: "That is right." That is a clear indication that those clauses would not be introduced, so the Committee did not consider them.
I shall go on to explain to the House in detail why we are considering the clauses today, and what changes have been made to them.
I repeat however that the issues behind the provision on disqualification for membership of district policing partnerships and the provision on the Belfast sub-groups are not new. There was a deliberate procedure and policy on my part to ensure that we are as transparent as possible and give political parties in Northern Ireland, which have now had five months—four months—to discuss those matters, along with Members in the Commons and another place, the opportunity to debate the issues. It is not as if they have come out of the blue—the issues that we are debating today have long been in the public domain, because I made a decision to put them there. I also made a decision to separate them and, when we look at the provisions in detail, I shall explain what that means.
Surely, as the Minister of State suggested in the Select Committee that those matters would not be dealt with until the Assembly was up and running again, people would be left thinking that the matters would not be dealt with until that happened? The Secretary of State said that we have had months to consider them, but we had an assurance from his colleague that those matters would not be dealt with until the Assembly was restored.
As I shall explain in a few moments, there was a need to review the way in which we would present those matters to the House of Commons.
The House will be aware that, some weeks ago in Hillsborough, the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach, together with the pro-agreement parties, met to consider a variety of issues relating to the current state of the peace process and the political situation in Northern Ireland. We met for about 30 hours and came to conclusions which will be published in a few weeks. We also knew that the timetable for the Bill was rapidly progressing. I faced a situation in which the Bill would have to be delayed so that we would have time to reach a position in which we could publish the declaration and, hopefully, have acts of completion made public. At the same time, I realised that delaying the Bill would cause difficulties. Similarly, I realised that if we implemented the relevant provisions later, we would have to introduce a third police Bill, and I was not content with that.
The Secretary of State may feel that his last phrase anticipates my point, but I shall make it nonetheless. If circumstances change and he feels that he can bring the new clauses into operation, they will not take effect for several years because they can only be implemented in relation to the next set of district policing partnerships, which will only be formed after the next local government elections. He could therefore have waited for the next police Bill, because we have had three police Bills in the past six years, and at that rate, we can confidently expect another police Bill long before there is a need to implement the provisions. There is therefore not the urgency that the Secretary of State suggested.
I do not know whether any police Bills will be introduced in the next couple of years, but I think that the right hon. Gentleman knows that I hope that there will not be. However, we faced a clash of timing, so with that particular dilemma in mind, we introduced the new clauses. I want to explain to the House that we have added further safeguards to those provisions.
Hon. Members will know, in respect of the disqualification of members of district policing partnerships, that that matter is already dealt with in respect of members of local authorities, who can indeed become members of district policing partnerships even if they have, in the past, served custodial sentences. I shall deal with it in more detail in a few moments, but there is nothing new about the concept in respect of members of local authorities. That refers to independent members.
The important point is that when we began our consideration of these matters last November, hon. Members who were interested in these matters were made aware that a number of safeguards were built into the clauses, the most important of which is the fact that the clauses cannot come into effect unless I lay an order in the House of Commons and unless the House and the House of Lords consider, by way of affirmative resolution, that these clauses should come into operation. The clause to which I just referred has a commencement order.
Additionally—this was not the case originally—I have decided to place a similar safeguard in the Belfast sub-groups clauses, which will be considered by the House later. They, too, will have a commencement order, so they will not come into operation and will not be implemented unless I decide to lay the order, and unless the House and the other place vote affirmatively for them.
I welcome what the Secretary of State is saying, but there remains in many quarters a deep feeling of unease that the Bill still leaves the Government as the sole judge of when it is appropriate to bring in the commencement order. Undertakings given in the House are all very well, but Governments sometimes change their minds and sometimes even change their Secretaries of State. As the Bill stands, it would be possible to introduce these provisions without acts of completion. It would be necessary only to insert the term "acts of completion" into the subsections that refer to the introduction of commencement orders. It would then be clear that it is for the House to decide that appropriate conditions had been met. Will the Secretary of State consider that?
It would not be particularly helpful to insert "acts of completion" in the Bill, but I will provide more detail about what might be appropriate as we proceed this afternoon. More significantly, it is not just for the Government to decide whether the clauses are implemented: the House of Commons and the House of Lords will decide that, because the order will be subject to affirmative resolution. That means that both this place and the other place will have a say in determining whether the orders are commenced.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way a second time, but I must press him further to make it absolutely clear that neither commencement order will be introduced by the Secretary of State until after acts of completion—not in the context of, or during, such acts of completion, but after acts of completion. We need a very clear statement to that effect from the Secretary of State.
Indeed, as Mr. Trimble said a few moments ago, changing the composition of DPPs to include other parties cannot happen until the next local government elections in Northern Ireland. So there is, inevitably, by the very nature of the process, a time gap. We have made it clear that the commencement orders will not come into effect until after the acts of completion.
It is also important for the House to understand what we mean when we say that these clauses, together with other matters that will be debated in Northern Ireland in the next couple of weeks, are all conditional—this will become clear as we move along—on acts of completion, as the Prime Minister called them, by the Provisional IRA. That is why we made it absolutely clear that the two clauses have commencement orders built into them. There are two further safeguards. One is the pledge that people must take—I shall refer to it again later—and the other is the five-year period that must elapse between the completion of a sentence and the taking up of office.
The Secretary of State will understand that we are dwelling on the matter because it is one of the key issues that we shall debate today and tomorrow. He has just given a clear indication that he assumes that the provisions of the Bill would not be implemented unless there were acts of completion. I hear him agreeing with that. To provide the confidence that we all seek, what is the obstacle to including some definition of an act of completion in the very context that he described—the context of the Bill?
We get into tremendous difficulties if we try to define in the Bill what is essentially a political decision as to whether acts of completion have taken place. I shall define that in a moment, and hon. Gentlemen who have objected may find my reasoning to their liking. If we write into the Bill every single thing that we think is an act of completion or is the cessation of paramilitary activity, difficulties can arise if, in the months ahead, something else occurs that is considered by the Government to be a violation, but it is not in the Bill. We can tie ourselves up into legal knots, knowing full well that everyone understands that there are all sorts of factors that define paramilitary activity. I shall speak about these matters as we go through the afternoon, and they will appear on the record.
The Secretary of State said something very important. He implies that he wants to maintain a degree of political latitude in the interpretation of acts of completion. That may well be the Government's position; I suspect it always has been, but for the record, can he clarify that that is the strategy that he wants to maintain?
Yes, but I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware that we must not mix that up with legal definitions of ceasefires, which do exist in legislation. We must all be careful that we do not tie ourselves down. Something might occur that is not in the Bill but is clearly a measure of paramilitary activity that we have not defined. It can lead to difficulties later, by way of judicial review and so on.
I take it that the Secretary of State is advancing the matter of definition as a genuine difficulty that he envisages, rather than as an excuse. There is a simple way of resolving the difficulty, if it is only a difficulty—that is, to make acts of completion a necessary but not a sufficient condition for bringing the clauses into effect. The Secretary of State would then have the power to bring them into effect by statutory instrument if there are acts of completion, as specified, and if, in addition, his general judgment is that the clauses should be brought into effect. That would be a simple way of resolving the difficulty that he has described.
Nothing is ever simple. One thing that we must always bear in mind is how the implications of acts of completion not being completed, or examples of paramilitary activity, impinge on an Assembly that is up and running, as I hope it will be. The hon. Gentleman knows that in the weeks ahead—not too far ahead, I hope—there will be a vigorous debate on how we view the issues discussed at Hillsborough, in the context of the joint declaration. That has implications for the Assembly. In the Prime Minister's remarks in Belfast before Christmas, he went some way towards defining what he meant by paramilitary activity. He referred to targeting, procurement, punishment beatings, surveillance and training. Anybody who is involved or interested in Northern Ireland politics is aware that those are the matters that we must consider.
Surely the right hon. Gentleman must realise that the sort of fuzzy assurance that he is attempting to give the House today will not add up to a row of beans to the Unionist community when people recognise that whether anything occurs before, during or after acts of completion makes no difference, when the Government have not defined what an act of completion is, and when they can manipulate all their arrangements in order to facilitate the IRA. They had no intention of bringing these provisions before the House until after acts of completion. Now they are doing so, and we are left to rely on the judgment of a Government who are prepared to allow the IRA to manipulate legislation in the House.
Of course we are not allowing the IRA to manipulate legislation. We are introducing legislation that we hope will ensure that we restore the institutions in Northern Ireland. I know that the hon. Gentleman is supportive of those institutions as a Minister in the Executive and a Member of the Assembly. The purpose of what we are doing today is to try to help us move towards restoring trust between the parties and restoring the institutions, as well as an election in Northern Ireland and proper devolution, which I believe is what most people there want. That is the purpose of what we are doing today; it is not about dealing with the IRA in the way that he suggests.
I thank the Secretary of State for giving way. I have a lot of sympathy with what he is saying about the difficulty of defining acts of completion, as some are quantifiable immediately and others will not be quantifiable for some considerable time. However, is there not one act of completion that must surely take place before an election or the reinstitution of the devolved Administration—participation by Sinn Fein in the Policing Board? Will that act of completion be conditional on what follows later, or will the issue proceed in such a way as to allow the political process to be re-established and the other acts of completion insisted upon? Which is the sequence? Is not the participation in the Policing Board the first act of completion that will be necessary in relation to the Bill?
I think that both issues are important. The definition of paramilitary activity particularly exercises people in Northern Ireland—and rightly so. The continuing nature of such activity is a matter of great concern, and our first priority must be to ensure that it stops, including in the political context. I am by no means unsympathetic to the point that my hon. Friend made with regard to the Policing Board—another important matter that is front of us. What the Prime Minister said back in November last year was directed in the first place towards the situation regarding activity by paramilitaries. In the same speech, however, he also referred to the significance of everybody in Northern Ireland accepting a new policing regime that serves everybody, whatever parts of the community or traditions they come from.
I thank the Secretary of State for his comments. Can he conceive of a situation, given the type of negotiations that have taken place, in which an election is held, as I want it to be, and devolution is re-established, as I very much want, without an act of completion being made in relation to the Policing Board? Will that hang over until after the two events—the election and reinstitution of devolution—or it is an act of completion that will facilitate those events?
I think that we will have to see how the next two or three weeks unfold, but I say to my hon. Friend that I believe that the issue of police is a central one and that acceptance of the police by every part of the community, just as his party has accepted policing in the new context, is vital. If it had not been for the SDLP and colleagues in the nationalist community and the Church, the change that we have seen in that regard would not have occurred. This is a vital issue in which I think that he played an important role. I repeat that acceptance of the police by everyone is hugely important.
I do not want to go into the details of what will be available to people in Northern Ireland to consider in a matter of weeks. I simply say to the House that it is important to understand that we have introduced a new safeguard on commencement—a procedure that allows both the House of Commons and the House of Lords to decide the matter when the order is tabled.
I thank the Secretary of State for his generosity to me and other hon. Members in enabling us to probe the issue. May I take him back to the question of acts of completion in relation to the new clauses? Of course, I understand that there are a number of different acts of completion and that, as Mr. Mallon said, some are quantifiable and some are not. However, is it not the case that from the point of view of the new clauses, the relevant act of completion would be the acceptance by the republican movement of the police and its support for policing, as demonstrated by inclusion on the Policing Board? The new clauses relate to district policing partnerships and are designed to facilitate participation in them by Sinn Fein. It would therefore be wrong to bring the provisions into operation simply because some other act of completion, such as decommissioning, had occurred, when the republican movement had not yet accepted and supported policing.
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister also referred in his speech to the fact that he could not envisage Sinn Fein joining the Policing Board without a cessation of paramilitary activity—I think that he used the word "absurd" to describe the suggestion that that would happen. The one thing would follow the other.
I shall deal with the Government new clauses in detail and I hope also to refer to the new clauses tabled by other hon. Members—
I should like to intervene before the Secretary of State leaves that point, which concerns a matter that I have put before him previously. He is aware that I asked the Prime Minister in this House what the definition was for such acts of completion. I asked him whether they would consist merely of a statement or declaration, and he said that he would tell me. On
"It is not merely a statement, a declaration or words. It means giving up violence completely in a way that satisfies everyone"— not only the Secretary of State, who will sign the order and bring it into operation—
"and gives them confidence that the IRA has ceased its campaign, and enables us to move the democratic process forward, with every party that wants to be in government abiding by the same democratic rules."—[Hansard, 27 November 2002; Vol. 395, c. 309.]
Will the Secretary of State give us his assurance that that is the divine statement and that there will be no change in it? Can he assure the House that that word will be kept to the people? I can tell him that I will not be satisfied when he signs the order, and he jolly well knows that.
I am afraid that I can give no assurances as to the Prime Minister's divinity, but I agree with what he said to the hon. Gentleman back in November last year. Indeed, all of us have referred to the cessation of activities being total, real and permanent. That is not simply a question of words; it must also be one of actions.
I should like now to deal in more detail with the new clauses themselves. Government new clause 2 amends the disqualification provisions set out in paragraph 8 of schedule 3 to the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000. At present, the legislation provides that no one who has ever received a custodial sentence should be allowed to serve as an independent member of a district policing partnership, no matter how long ago they were convicted, what offence they were convicted for, or whether the sentence was suspended. The new provisions would change that and instead provide that a period of five years must elapse following a person's discharge in respect of an offence before he or she may be considered for an appointment to a DPP.
As I explained earlier, those provisions bring the rules for independent members into line with the arrangements that already apply to the political members of DPPs, who are drawn from the local authority. Under the terms of the Local Government Act (Northern Ireland) 1972, as amended, candidates wishing to stand for election as local councillors are ineligible to do so for a period of five years following their discharge in respect of an offence that attracted a custodial sentence.
The new clause mirrors those arrangements for independent members, putting them on an equal footing with their fellow DPP members. Similar arrangements apply to appointments to police authorities in England and Wales, where people are disqualified from being appointed as a member of a police authority if, within five years of the date of appointment, they have received a prison sentence of not less than three months.
Amendment (a), which Mr. Davies tabled, would increase the period from five to 10 years. That would mean that the arrangements for independent members were significantly out of line with those for their political local authority counterparts.
Did not the Government accept an amendment in another place to the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000 to make a clear distinction between independent members and elected representatives of district policing partnerships? It disqualified independent members who had a conviction for a terrorist offence. The Government introduced that disqualification in the 2000 Act, yet the Secretary of State now seeks to remove it.
I am unaware of the hon. Gentleman's point and I shall revert to it later. Amendment (a) would put the position between political and independent members seriously out of kilter.
The only change to the wording of new clause 2 since it was published as a "text for consideration" last November is to clarify the status of suspended sentences. I specifically draw hon. Members' attention to the change. In line with the equivalent electoral legislation, suspended sentences will not count for the purposes of the disqualification rules unless they are ordered to take effect.
Amendment (b) proposes to overturn that change. There are two reasons why I regard that as inappropriate. First, I do not understand why it is right for the arrangements to be out of line with those that apply to political members. Secondly, we have made it clear that the reference is only to sentences that remain suspended: that is, when the sentencing judge has seen fit to suspend the sentence unless specific subsequent events trigger its enforcement. The judge will reach that conclusion by taking into account all the relevant factors in a specific case. I do not consider it appropriate for us to second-guess that in framing the statute.
Suspending the sentence will be subject to specific conditions that the judge sets. Obviously, if the individual breaks one of the conditions, the sentence ceases to be suspended and the disqualification provisions would come into play. That is more appropriate.
"An independent appointee who has terrorist baggage is by definition far from independent. Appointing such people devalues the meaning of the word.
More importantly such appointees will deter ordinary decent people, who know what their communities' law and order priorities are, from coming forward."
First, as I said earlier, there is a similarity between political members who serve on local authorities and those who will serve on DPPs. Later, I shall speak at some length about the opportunity for people to change, to be reconciled and make a contribution to society in Northern Ireland. That possibility is inherent in the legislation on membership of a local authority. What is the difference between that and membership of a DPP? We are not considering sentences for only terrorist offences; the ordinance refers to general custodial sentences. The possibility for reform for which local authority legislation provides should surely apply to independent members of DPPs. The changes will apply throughout the United Kingdom, not only to Northern Ireland.
How many times have the relevant provisions in the local government legislation been used? Even in the case of glaring examples such as the lord mayor of Belfast appearing in an IRA calendar with Armalites, Kalashnikovs and attacks on police, they have not been used.
I understand that specific complaints have to be made. We are making law today; we made law when we devised the relevant provision for members of local authorities. There should not be a distinction between the two sorts of legislation. If people are entitled to serve on local authorities after five years' purdah, why cannot they serve on a DPP? Local authorities probably undertake more proper decision making than a DPP ever will.
The Government are extending the provisions of the Elected Authorities (Northern Ireland) Act 1989, which covered councillors, to independent members of DPPs. Surely it would have been reasonable to take account of the clear fact that the enforcement provisions in the 14-year-old Act have proved wholly inadequate. If the Government intend to extend those provisions to independent members of DPPs, they must want them to be effective. Would not it therefore be appropriate to ensure that the enforcement provisions work? They do not currently work.
There are other methods, including the oath, which I shall consider later. As I said earlier, the crucial point is that the provisions will not be implemented until the acts of completion to which the Prime Minister referred have been effected. I hope that circumstances will be wholly different in Northern Ireland when the Bill is implemented. If that does not happen, the provisions will not be effected.
All hon. Members who support the agreement must allow people in Northern Ireland the opportunity in the next few weeks to consider what is on offer. That includes the proposals that we discussed at Hillsborough some weeks ago and those that I hope will emerge from the IRA in the weeks ahead. People must judge accordingly. It would be inappropriate and untimely to scupper the chances of progress at such an early stage, before we know what is on offer.
Rev. Ian Paisley and his colleagues tabled new clause 13, which would extend the existing disqualification provision to cover all offences, irrespective of whether they have attracted a custodial sentence, and provide that I may waive the disqualification if I believe that the offence was not sufficiently serious to render a person unsuitable for membership of a DPP. It implies that I would waive the disqualification in the case of minor offences but retain it in that of more serious offences.
New clause 13 unnecessarily complicates the system. By extending the disqualification to include offences that attract non-custodial sentences, the clause would have to include a range of minor offences. In every instance, the cases of individuals with convictions for minor offences would have to be referred to the Secretary of State so that he could take a view on whether the offence was sufficiently serious to warrant disqualification.
I believed that I had made detailed reference to suspended sentences earlier. I shall revert to that in my winding-up speech if we need to take other points on it into account. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members will make speeches during the afternoon.
On a practical level, new clause 13 would create an enormous administrative burden on both the Department and the relevant local council. Under schedule 3(5)(4) of the 2000 Act, the council is not allowed to nominate an individual for membership of a DPP if he is disqualified from membership. To comply with that, the council would be required to refer every case in which an individual had declared an offence to the Secretary of State for review. The amount of time and effort that that would add to the process seems disproportionate, since the majority of minor offences—for which one might expect the Secretary of State to exercise a waiver—attract non-custodial sentences. The outcome of all that extra work could be expected to be much the same as the present situation, yet a vast amount of additional effort would have been expended in achieving it. To my mind, that is a powerful argument against the new clause, but there is another reason why the House should reject it.
Under the terms of new clause 13, the discretion would rest exclusively with me. That is not consistent with other legislation dealing with the rehabilitation of offenders, in which there are set time limits, specified in law, after which time certain offences become "spent". Secretaries of State are often accused of taking too much power unto themselves. In this case, that would be a justifiable criticism of the new clause. I believe that it is better for the rules governing what is, and what is not, a disqualifiable offence to be set out in the statute, so that all those involved in enforcing them—the local council, the Policing Board and, ultimately, the courts—are clear about whether someone is disqualified. Governments should not have a role in that. For this reason, the Government will not support new clause 13.
New clauses 18 and 19 also deal with disqualification. They suggest that anyone with a custodial sentence of 12 months or more—or who the police believe to have links with a paramilitary organisation—should be permanently debarred from independent membership of a DPP. For the same reasons that I am suggesting that we might, in due course, change the existing blanket disqualification rules, I do not think it appropriate to replace them with another blanket ban. In the circumstances in which such a provision might come into force—namely, in the context of acts of completion—it would be wrong to refuse to recognise that some individuals might be, and, indeed, are, capable of reform and change. To ban them for life from membership of a DPP, taking no account of the willingness of individuals to eschew violence and to follow an exclusively peaceful path, would be wrong.
That is not to say that all ex-prisoners would be suitable for appointments. During the passage of the 2000 Act through the House, my hon. Friend Mr. Howarth, then a Minister at the Northern Ireland Office, set out a number of important safeguards that would apply to appointments to DPPs. Appointments will be made in accordance with a code of practice issued by the Secretary of State, on merit, and by the cross-community Policing Board. The code of practice makes it clear that the board will write to the Chief Constable to ask for confirmation of the criminal records declared by applicants.
New clause 1, tabled in my name, is another part of the changes that the Government propose might be appropriate in the context of changed political circumstances. It would bring the arrangements for independent members into line with those that already apply for political members. Under this new provision, prospective independent members would be required, before their application could be considered by the Policing Board, to make a declaration against terrorism. That declaration would be in the same terms as the declaration that prospective local councillors are required to make.
New clauses 9 and 10, tabled in the name of the right hon. Member for Upper Bann, also deal with declarations. However, instead of proposing that prospective candidates make a declaration against terrorism, the new clauses propose that the board should make a declaration that it is satisfied that the individual is
"not involved in any paramilitary organisation or in organised crime", having first consulted the local district commander. New clauses 18 and 19 would have a similar effect. The Government believe that the new clauses are inappropriate for a number of reasons. First, it seems unnecessary for the board to make a declaration in respect of independent members, since it is the board's own responsibility to select and appoint those members in accordance with paragraph 4 of schedule 3 of the 2000 Act, and with the terms of the code of practice issued under paragraph 6 of that schedule. Clear guidelines for the board are already set out in the code, which sets out a "person-specification"—as they call it these days—with both essential and desirable criteria or competences. Those include a demonstrable interest in the local community, community safety or policing issues, and the ability to exercise sound judgment.
I believe that those guidelines are sufficient to allow the board to exercise its own discretion—which, as Members on both sides of the House have noted, has been sound in all the decisions that the board has been faced with to date—as to which are the most suitable candidates for appointment. This acts both as a safeguard against some of the fears that have been expressed in relation to the changes proposed by my own amendment—new clause 2—and as a reason why the proposals in new clauses 9, 18 and 19 are unnecessary. In the case of political members, which new clause 10 deals with, I believe that the same arguments apply. However, there is an additional dimension when we are dealing with elected representatives. These individuals have been elected through a democratic process. As part of that process, they have been required to make a declaration against terrorism, and, if they breach it, they can be removed from office. As elected representatives, they are members of a council, and it should be for that council—not the board—to appoint them to sit on the DPP, as its representatives. I believe that that continues to be right, in the interests of local democracy.
However, that does not mean that political members—or, indeed, independent members—are immune from subsequent sanctions. My own amendment, new clause 1, entails an important sanction. If an independent member appears to have acted in breach of his or her declaration against terrorism, it will be within the board's power—or the power of the council with the approval of the board—to remove that person from membership of the DPP. In that respect, there is a slight difference from the rules applying to local councillors. In the case of a councillor, the case must go to the courts before he or she can be removed for dishonouring their declaration. We are proposing in new clause 1 that the board—or the council with the approval of the board—should be able to take the decision whether an independent member should be removed from the DPP, without recourse to the courts.
It is true, of course, that it would be possible for an aggrieved individual to seek a judicial review of the board's—or the council's—decision to remove someone, on that or any other ground. It would then be for the court to take a view on the reasonableness of the decision—that is, to ask whether a reasonable organisation, faced with the same circumstances, could have come to the same conclusion. There is still scope, however, for the board to take action in respect of political members. Paragraph 7(1)(e) of schedule 3 of the 2000 Act allows the board to remove someone because
"he is . . . unable or unfit to discharge his functions as a member of the DPP."
There is sufficient scope in this provision, without us needing to pursue the proposal in new clause 11, tabled in the name of the right hon. Member for Upper Bann. Because of the serious nature of a proposal to remove an elected member from office, I believe that it is only right that such a decision should ultimately lie with the courts, rather than with the Policing Board and the police themselves.
Watching this from the outside, I believe that there is a contradiction in the logic. If the boards can decide to remove an independent member, and that member can then go to judicial review, does the Secretary of State see some merit—as I do—in the proposal in new clause 9 that the board should make a base statement at the outset that the person that it is appointing is guaranteed—or at least agreed by the board—not to be involved in paramilitary activities? If such issues can be challenged at the end of the process, they should be able to be challenged at the beginning.
We think that the safeguards in the Bill are sufficient, and I hope that my hon. Friend will be persuaded by the points that I have made. I certainly believe that it is important to ensure that there are safeguards, and we have built in extra safeguards during consideration of this legislation.
I appreciate that new clause 11 deals with removal from a DPP, and not with removal from a council, but there is read-across. If the board genuinely has reason to suspect that a councillor has dishonoured the declaration against terrorism that he or she made when standing for appointment, it is open to the board—one might argue that it is incumbent on it, as a public body with primary responsibility for ensuring that the police are able to maintain law and order in Northern Ireland—to draw this to the attention of the local council, which may then take the case to the High Court to seek a determination that the person has acted in breach of the terms of his or her declaration against terrorism. When the court makes a declaration in those terms, the person will be disqualified from being a member of the local council and would commit an offence if he or she remained a member. Once the person has ceased to be a member of the local council, under the terms of paragraph 3(5)(c) of schedule 3 to the 2000 Act, he or she would automatically cease to be a member of the DPP.
I want to comment briefly on new clause 23 and amendment No. 77, which would replace or remove clause 14. That clause would bring the arrangements for DPP members in line with those that apply to members of the Policing Board by providing that anyone removed from a DPP would be disqualified from reappointment until after the next local council election.
At present, if someone is removed from DPP membership under paragraph 7 of schedule 3 to the 2000 Act, there is nothing to prevent them from applying and being considered for immediate reappointment. By contrast, if anyone is removed in similar circumstances from the Policing Board, they are disqualified from consideration for reappointment until after the next Assembly elections.
The measure is a practical way to ensure that an individual who has been removed is not able to come forward again immediately thereafter. I do not think it appropriate for such people to be out of line with those who apply to the Policing Board, so I do not support new clause 23 or amendment No. 77.
I have some difficulty understanding this particular measure, particularly the phrase "next local general election". To me, a local general election is an oxymoron. Which is it—local elections or general in the sense of Assembly elections? The Secretary of State has given the answer, which is local elections or, in other words, district council elections. Can we be clear about that? Why he does not say so in the Bill I do not know.
On the same question, it may be that I have misunderstood the Secretary of State. Surely the fundamental principle here is that elections have randomness about their timing, which does not stand comparison with simply saying that there will be a five-year ban. Will he either correct my understanding of what he has just said or explain why we cannot in principle provide that there will always be a five-year sanction? I apologise if I have misunderstood him.
I thought that that was what I said, but I shall come back with more detail when I have clarified the technicalities.
Last week, my hon. Friend the Minister of State was at one of two meetings in Belfast to launch DPPs across Northern Ireland. There were more than 300 people in the room. DPPs have an immense contribution to make, and I pay tribute to the Policing Board for the leadership role that it has exercised in Northern Ireland, not just on these issues, but across the board, and the excellent cross-community job that it has done.
I want DPPs to reflect all parts of the community in Northern Ireland and to engage all the people in Northern Ireland in bringing the Police Service closer to everyone, irrespective of their background. These measures will help them to do that, but I repeat that it will happen only in the context of what the Prime Minister has called acts of completion and when we genuinely live in a peaceful, tolerant and democratic Northern Ireland.
We can already conclude from our proceedings that the Government are in some confusion. It seems to me that, within that confusion, they are trying to do the wrong thing. We know that there is confusion because the Secretary of State himself seemed to be under the illusion that clause 14, which is important, had been discussed upstairs in Committee, whereas it is clear, as I suggested in an intervention, that it has not.
The Minister of State appears to have given to the Select Committee an undertaking that is inconsistent with introducing these measures at this time. I am not a member of that Committee, but no doubt it will want to respond to that serious issue. The Secretary of State has made various objections to doing sensible things, and when reasonable suggestions are made as to how those difficulties can be resolved—I have already done that—the Government fall back and say, "Even if that is a way of resolving the difficulty, we're not interested in going down that road." So there is confusion and hastiness involved in introducing these substantial new proposals this afternoon.
A lot of the Government's proposals are inherently obnoxious to any reasonable, law-abiding person, and I should have thought that any civilised society would regard as objectionable the idea of giving persons with serious criminal convictions, including murder, the right under statute to sit on a body to which the police have regularly to make reports, even if they are not formally accountable to it, and the ability to exercise influence over local policing.
I recognise the Secretary of State's point that in England we have a provision under which people with convictions cannot sit on police authorities for five years, although there is no continuance of that at the end of that period. I also accept what he says about the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974. I am a great supporter of that Act; it is part of our Christian heritage to believe in forgiveness and rehabilitation. So, however serious the offence, there may be a respectable argument to be made along those lines, at least philosophically; but we must recognise—the Secretary of State would do so as a matter of practice—that conditions in Northern Ireland are different from those in England.
In practice, it would be inconceivable in England, whatever the legislation might say, for someone with a serious criminal conviction for racketeering or murder to be invited to join a police authority five years and a month, or 10 years, after receiving that conviction. Indeed, that might be the case for any period, and such issues and dilemmas simply would not arise here. However, we know that the purpose of the legislation is to provide an opportunity for exactly such people to serve on, and play a major part in, DPPs in Northern Ireland. In practice, the situation that we confront is different, and we must be clear about that.
We must accept that there may be strong arguments for having tighter, stiffer and more exclusive rules in Northern Ireland than in this country, although I hope that even the Secretary of State will give me credit for being a reasonable man. Moreover, the Opposition are absolutely committed to the success of the Northern Ireland peace process and the implementation of the Belfast agreement.
If the opportunity offers, as I pray God it will, we are prepared to accept exceptional measures to contribute to the successful implementation of that process, so I do not exclude a number of things in Northern Ireland, including the proposals made by the Government this afternoon, if indeed they are regarded as part and parcel of what I have often described from this Dispatch Box as a comprehensive and definitive—I emphasise those words—settlement of the problems of Northern Ireland that achieves normalisation there.
The important issue here is of the essence, although, curiously, it does not involve the substance, however important that substance may be. I shall focus on the Government's tactics, and their tactical decision to introduce these new proposals at this time, giving us great cause for concern and, indeed, alarm. The Secretary of State may recall that as recently as Monday of last week, when speaking on the Northern Ireland Assembly Elections Act 2003, I rehearsed our critique of the Government's tactics over most of the last five years. I also repeated my mantra, which I hope the Secretary of State is now very familiar with, of the three fundamental failures of judgment and perception perpetrated by the Government—admittedly before he had responsibility for these matters.
First, the Government made the great error of supposing that Northern Ireland issues can be considered separately, as well as the error of not recognising that everything is interlinked and that no party in Northern Ireland will make a move unless it knows what others will do in return.
Secondly, the Government made the error of supposing that if concessions are made to one party, that will have no effect on others. I am afraid that I am referring in particular to the failure to recognise in advance the fact that making constant concessions to Sinn Fein-IRA would affect other parties in Northern Ireland, their morale, their commitment to the peace process and their electoral prospects. That goes for the Social Democratic and Labour party as well as the Unionist parties.
The Government also made the fundamental mistake of supposing that republicans, or indeed anyone else with a background of violence in this world, can be effectively concealed and conciliated by unilateral concession.
This is remarkable. When we last debated policing, the hon. Gentleman made a huge point about concessions having been made to our party; now he is making a different point, from a different point of view.
Will the hon. Gentleman consider this point? The Order Paper shows how much prominence this issue has been given, by contrast with important matters that will not be given a quarter of the time allotted to it. Is there not something perverse about allowing a whole day's debate for Members who are not even present to make their political points?
If the hon. Gentleman is an aficionado of my speeches, as he appears to be, he will know that since I have been performing my present role I have been extremely, perhaps boringly, consistent. I am open to the charge of having said the same thing for a year and a half. I fear, however, that all too often events have proved my analysis correct. That is why I have continued to say the same thing.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned concessions. I said that the SDLP was worthy of recognition for its decision to join the Policing Board and to recognise the new Police Service of Northern Ireland. In that context, I accepted a number of things, including the Patten report and the 50:50 system—opposed, for sound human rights reasons which the hon. Gentleman will understand, by predecessors of mine.
The principle of my tactics in Northern Ireland is reciprocity. That means making a positive move when the other party does so, and rewarding virtue and good behaviour. What it does not mean—this is where I appear to disagree fundamentally with the Government—is making concessions to those who do not themselves make an effort, or rewarding bad behaviour or failure to implement obligations entered into under the ceasefire and the Belfast agreement. But that is what the Government have done, over and over again.
Sinn Fein-IRA have not observed their obligations to decommission under the Belfast agreement. The Government, however, have not just made the concessions that they were supposed to make anyway under the agreement, on the assumption that decommissioning would take place—such as the release of prisoners: I said at the time that it was a colossal error to make such a move unilaterally—but dreamt up completely new concessions, not foreseen or required in the agreement. Examples are the amnesties for on-the-run terrorists, which we were fortunately able to oppose successfully, and special status in the House. That is the great error of the Government's tactics, which they have committed consistently. The results have been disastrous, which is why we have gone backwards over the past five years.
The hon. Gentleman has heard me say all that before, and he knows that I am absolutely right to have done so. I hoped that the Government had finally begun to listen. When I spoke on the Northern Ireland Assembly Elections Bill on Monday last week, I said that I would be only too delighted if any signs of recognition by the Government were welcomed. I said that I thought there had indeed been a change since the present Secretary of State had come on board—a decision, perhaps not made explicit for understandable reasons but nevertheless quite visible, to turn over a new leaf. The Government were now talking the language of multilateralism, of some degree of sanction in the case of non-performance, and of interlinkage—words that I had been using, and to which I seemed to have an exclusive right until the Secretary of State appeared on the scene. I went as far as to say that perhaps the gulf between Opposition and Government in regard to tactics was coming to an end.
I would welcome that greatly if it were the case; but I am sorry to say that, contrary to the hopes I expressed so clearly last week, the Government have done the reverse. They have tabled their proposals in the absence of any move by Sinn Fein-IRA to justify the concessions made to them. The Government had said, "This is what you might get if you perform, guys", but Sinn Fein-IRA did not perform and they are getting it anyway.
It is not good enough to say, "We still have the brake of a statutory instrument", because that is hopelessly inadequate. We know perfectly well that statutory instruments are a disgraceful form of legislation—there is no opportunity to modify them: we are not allowed to modify them. We in Parliament cannot make a sensible judgment on what moves are appropriate in such a delicate and difficult area of policing, and on the structure of supervision by the community, without seeing all the other elements of the package.
We cannot sign a blank cheque and hand it to the Government. We cannot allow the Government to fill in the amount when they feel like it, and then send it off to Sinn Fein-IRA. We must look at the package as a whole. Parliament must use its judgment at the time: it must decide what moves are appropriate, and whether it should accept the new clauses as they are or modify them somewhat. We cannot modify statutory instruments, which provide no security and no reassurance. They are hopeless for our present purposes.
The hon. Gentleman does a great injustice to both the House of Commons and the House of Lords by suggesting that a commencement order dealt with by means of an affirmative resolution is worthless. The question of modification would not apply; it is a question of whether the measure should be passed or not. There is only one decision to be made about a commencement order. There is no question of tabling amendments. The only question is "Should this happen?" If the House of Commons and the other place have an opportunity to vote on whether it should happen by way of an affirmative resolution, what is wrong with that?
What is wrong is precisely what the right hon. Gentleman has said. It is irresponsible and absurd to decide this matter on a yes-or-no, black-or-white basis. It may well be appropriate to make some move in response to acts of completion, but we need to decide what move should be made in the light of those acts. We need to be able to see and judge the whole package. The right hon. Gentleman has proved my point, which is that it is impossible to modify any statutory instrument. If we give the new Government their new clauses, we shall have given them a blank cheque: they need only fill in the date and send it off when they please.
Is it not amazing that this of all days should have been chosen for the debate? At the weekend, a cache of arms was found in the Ormeau road area in Belfast. The police are adamant that they are Provisional IRA arms, not dissident arms, and they are not old but brand new. According to experts, they were brought in after the ceasefires rather than before. Now we are having this debate.
As I said in our original debate, it is amazing that we should have a Government Bill on one hand and, on the other hand, the proposals of an armed organisation that has caused mayhem and murder in a part of the United Kingdom. Is this timing not also amazing?
It is indeed amazing—and I am glad that I gave way to the hon. Gentleman, for in doing so I gave him the chance to make a point that I was going to make myself. I agree with him 100 per cent. In fact, I was about to mention the arms cache.
There has been no action whatever from Sinn Fein-IRA to justify the Government's proposals, which are very regrettable. They would have given the wrong signal even had the latest events not occurred. Over the last few days, however, we have seen not just an absence of necessary acts of completion, but prima facie evidence—I put it no more strongly than that, but the hon. Gentleman described it accurately, at least as far as we know from newspaper reports—of a serious breach of the ceasefire and the Belfast agreement. In my view, the Government should respond to such a situation not by offering concessions, half-concessions or conditional concessions—that is how the right hon. Gentleman wants us to understand the situation—but by introducing sanctions, or at least conditional sanctions.
If I were Secretary of State, rather than shadow Secretary of State, I would simply suspend all these clauses, go ahead with the Bill and say that, given this latest arms cache, under no circumstances can we begin to discuss the possibility of including in DPPs people with convictions for serious crimes. Here, we have in mind former terrorists from perhaps both sides; however, given that the Government have introduced this provision as a result of pressure from Sinn Fein-IRA, we are talking about the inclusion of former IRA terrorists in DPPs.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way; in doing so, he proves that he is, as ever, a reasonable man. Does he agree that it is most regrettable that a Government who are so wedded to full implementation of the Patten report are moving away from its clear recommendation that independent members should bring with them an expertise in community safety? The report in no way recommends bringing in independent members who have criminal or terrorist convictions. Why are the Government now cherry-picking their way through the Patten report?
I hope that the hon. Lady manages to ask that question directly of the Secretary of State, because it was really addressed to him. She makes a very good point. She knows the Patten report backwards—indeed, it seems that she must recite it in her bath—and she manages always to quote it pertinently and accurately. She is absolutely right, and I understand that she is introducing proposals along the lines of the Patten report. They involve including in DPPs people with community, trade union and other backgrounds, and they reflect the report in a way that the Government's proposals do not. Apparently, the Government are not interested in appeasing respectable law-abiding, hard-working and devoted community leaders, trade unions or anyone else in Northern Ireland. They are engaged, I am sorry to say, in the appeasement of Sinn Fein-IRA, and that is the only reason why these clauses have been introduced at the moment.
This is appeasement—I do not resile from that word. Not to be prepared to make concessions in the context of an agreed package, and to introduce these proposals in advance, even though the other side is treating one with contempt, constitutes appeasement. What is required, in the light of the discovery in the past few days of an arms cache, is a signal of seriousness and severity—or potential severity—from the Government. Instead, the Government seem to be straining at the leash to offer new concessions, which is quite wrong. They should actually be leaning back at this point and saying to Sinn Fein "This is one more nail in the coffin of the peace process and you are responsible for it. What are you doing to redress the damage that you've done through this new apparent breach of the ceasefire? It is up to you to make a move." Instead, the Government are proposing to make a move.
The process is the wrong way round. I do not know whether I can get this across to the Government, but this is a very serious matter. I thought that they had accepted the general point about the necessity of reciprocity in their tactics. I am sorry to say that this has been a very disappointing case of backsliding away from what I thought was a commitment to a more sensible path.
On the new clauses and related amendments, I can give the right hon. Gentleman one piece of good news, which is that we have no objection to new clause 1 and we are happy for it to proceed. New clause 2, however, we will oppose for all the reasons that I have given. I should emphasise that there are very strong and respectable reasons for opposing it on substance; however, the main issue is the foolishness of the tactic of making this offer now, and the way in which it has been done. We feel particularly strongly about that.
The right hon. Gentleman says that he will implement this new clause and the other clauses to which we object only when he feels that sufficient progress has been made on the peace process, and only via statutory instrument. I am afraid to say that the signal that he sends in introducing the measures through primary legislation is at the moment completely wrong. I do not accept his excuse that there is no alternative because of the way in which the parliamentary calendar works. It is up to him to stand up to the Leader of the House—when we have one—and his Chief Whip, and to make it clear that other ways must be explored. What is at stake is so important that we cannot afford to make tactical errors, even given the excuse of pressure on parliamentary time. It is perfectly possible to put this Bill to one side and to bring it to its conclusion later in the Session, if we feel that it is sensible to do so. Alternatively, we could allow it to proceed as it emerged from Standing Committee, and if necessary introduce emergency legislation—we would support doing so in the circumstances that I have described—to deal with additional matters before the end of the Session. On the other hand, if the peace process takes longer to reach its consummation, I have no doubt that the right hon. Gentleman could persuade his colleagues to find room for a new police Bill in the forthcoming Queen's Speech.
I will give way to the hon. Gentleman, and perhaps he would like to say whether he is prepared to support such emergency legislation, if there is a genuine basis for it, later in the Session, so as to show how unnecessary and unconvincing the right hon. Gentleman's excuse is.
I do indeed want to intervene on that point. It is ironic that, having first intervened to ask a question, I am now answering the hon. Gentleman's question, but the answer is that I am agnostic about the process. Does he agree that, however fast something is done, it must be done right? The issue is one of substance: whether we should include a specific definition of an act of completion, perhaps according to the formulation that he suggested to the Secretary of State in an intervention. It seems to me that the Secretary of State wants to maintain political flexibility in terms of the definition. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if my understanding is correct, that is a cause for some concern to Members?
I am genuinely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the issue of acts of completion. As I have told the House before, this phrase is unnecessary, gratuitous and therefore inherently suspect. Why are we talking about a symbol, rather than the thing itself? Why can we not mention the phrase that we really mean—I hope—which is decommissioning and disbandment? Why do we have to go through this intermediation? Why do we have to obfuscate, when there should be clarity? Why does the right hon. Gentleman not say that what is required of Sinn Fein-IRA—and, indeed, of other paramilitary organisations in Northern Ireland—is completion of decommissioning and disbandment? Only once we have completion of decommissioning, on a set timetable, to the satisfaction of General de Chastelain—when decommissioning and disbandment are equally verified—can we contemplate making corresponding moves that form part of the essential package: the definitive and comprehensive settlement to which, I hope, all of us in this House aspire.
The fault does not lie with the Secretary of State—he is under orders from the Prime Minister. It is the Prime Minister who invented this phrase, and the Secretary of State probably feels that he cannot possibly escape from a phrase that has been imposed on him from on high. Nevertheless, it makes his life a great deal more difficult. If he were prepared to say at the Dispatch Box that he will present a statutory instrument to give effect to these clauses only when there has been 100 per cent. decommissioning and disbandment, that, at least, would be clear, and it would really put us on the spot. However, the phrase that he uses is immediately suspect, and is an unnecessary and apparently voluntary obfuscation of the key issue. That is very much to be regretted.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is strange for the Government to bring forward these proposals even before there has been a report on the Stormontgate fiasco? We discovered then that correspondence from the Northern Ireland Office and from the Prime Minister at Downing street had fallen into the hands of an organisation that was supposed to be on the road to peace.
I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman. The Government must make it clear, by their deeds and words, that they take seriously breaches in the ceasefire and the agreement. They must show that they will respond to such breaches in specific and concrete ways; otherwise, we will never get implementation of the agreement or respect for the ceasefire. It is no use expressing horror and shock if nothing happens. As I have said over and over again—most recently last week—one of the Government's fundamental errors is that they have done absolutely nothing about even the most egregious breaches, such as Florida, Castlereagh, Colombia, Stormontgate, and now this arms cache. The Government's reaction has been the opposite of what it should have been: they have said, "Oh, my God, we'd better offer them something more. What new concession can we dream up to try to appease them and buy them off?"
That is absolutely regrettable, and hopeless. When this phase of Northern Ireland history comes to be written, the Government will bear a terrible responsibility if, as a result of their disastrous tactics, the agreement—sadly—fails to achieve implementation and consummation. I therefore agree very much with Rev. Martin Smyth, and I am grateful for his intervention.
I turn now to the specifics of the new clauses and amendments in this group. As I have explained, we will oppose with all the means in our power new clause 2 and new schedule 2, to which we will come later. We have tabled two amendments to new clause 2. The Secretary of State has courteously responded already to amendment (a). That amendment would extend disqualification from five to 10 years. The right hon. Gentleman understands the reasoning behind the amendment, but it is not a matter of essence. I shall not ask the House to take time to vote on it, as we have so many other important issues to discuss this afternoon.
Amendment (b) to new clause 2 would restore disqualification for those with suspended sentences. I listened to the Secretary of State with a genuinely open mind, to see whether he could dissuade me from my initial inclination to seek to put the matter to a vote. However, he has not persuaded me. He did not choose to mention the fact, but he knows that some very serious offences are followed by sentence suspension in Northern Ireland. I think that the right hon. Gentleman and I agree that there may well be some more suspended sentences for serious crimes if the on-the-run problem can be resolved within the context of the complete and definitive settlement. That would be a judicial resolution, with people required to come before a court and enter a plea of guilty, and the court required to reach a determination and a verdict. I therefore do not believe that we should just set aside people with suspended sentences from eligibility for disqualification, if I may put it that way. I believe that that matter is sufficiently important to ask the House to vote on it.
New clauses 9 to 11 are tabled in the names of Mr. Trimble and Lady Hermon. We strongly agree with them, and we look forward to supporting them in the Lobbies if it is decided to put those proposals to a vote. We feel especially strongly about new clause 11: however short the time, I hope that we have the opportunity to vote on that new clause.
Rev. Ian Paisley and his colleagues have tabled new clause 13. In some ways, I share the Secretary of State's confusion about it. I have read the new clause two or three times, and it seems at certain points to be restrictive, and at others to be rather a weakening proposal. It provides that people may be disqualified for any offence at all. We do not want people to be excluded from serving on DPPs because they have committed a traffic violation or parked in the wrong place. I am not sure that anyone would qualify for any position in public life if that sort of disqualification applied.
The hon. Gentleman should compare the amendment with what it would amend. The idea is that people who may have received a sentence for something with no relation to terrorism or violence should not be barred from sitting on the board. Why should a person who has never been caught up in terrorism or violence be barred from helping in this manner because they have committed some other offence in the past? The amendment is very simple, and the hon. Gentleman should have read both it and the passage in the Bill that it amends.
As I understood it, the first part of new clause 13 would provide for anybody with any offence to be disqualified, but that is relieved in the second part by a provision that the Secretary of State can exempt anyone from disqualification. I can see that the hon. Member for North Antrim expects that people who did not pay Ken Livingstone a rather large amount of money to be able to drive into the capital would be disqualified, but that the Secretary of State would take an indulgent view of that offence and would remove the disqualification. That process seems slightly cumbersome, as I think the Secretary of State remarked.
"if, in the opinion of the Secretary of State, the offence of which the person was convicted was not such as to render the person unsuitable for membership."
That is a reasonable proposition, in the circumstances.
Yes, I see what the hon. Gentleman wants to achieve with the new clause. He takes away something with one hand and provides, with the other, that the Secretary of State will give it back—that is the fair way to describe the proposal. My view accords closely with that of the Secretary of State: I do not like the arbitrary powers that the new clause would vest in the Secretary of State. I trust the Secretary of State immensely, as a human being and parliamentarian, but I am sorry to say that, given the pressures on the Government and the extraordinary weakness of the Prime Minister and previous Secretaries of State in the process, I cannot support Parliament giving the Secretary of State the right simply to lift disqualification, arbitrarily and at his will, without any other process. That is what new clause 13 would achieve.
The hon. Member for North Antrim would probably agree that it would be terrifying if the Government were to have a discussion with Mr. Adams and Mr. McGuinness and, feeling the need to appease them, say, "Oh well, we'll lift the disqualification on some of your chaps. We can do that this afternoon, in five minutes, using the new clause kindly provided by the hon. Member for North Antrim." I would not feel at all happy about giving the Government that sort of power. I am sorry but, if the hon. Member for North Antrim wants the House to decide on new clause 13 later this afternoon, it will be very difficult for me to recommend to my colleagues that they should support it.
Thanks to the excellent offices and exemplary performance of the Northern Ireland Office staff, I have been reading for the first time the code of practice on the appointment of independent members to district policing partnerships, which they kindly provided. I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman has had a chance to look at it, but I suggest that several of the issues raised by new clauses 9, 10 11 and 13 are covered in that document, which requires certain standards of integrity and so forth in applicants. I am not trying to trick the hon. Gentleman, but I invite him to comment on whether that does not already provide sufficient reassurance.
It may; I have not seen the document. The new clauses to which we are both referring are not mine. I thought that as a matter of courtesy to the House it was right for the Opposition spokesman to make a reasoned comment on new clauses tabled by Members of other parties—the UUP and the DUP in this case—but I take no responsibility for them. The hon. Gentleman's remarks will have been heard by the hon. Member for North Antrim and his colleagues, to whom they were properly directed.
I want to move on to our new clauses 18 and 19. I hope that we will have an opportunity to vote on them, because we set some store by them. New clause 18 sets out two disqualifications that we consider very important. The first is a disqualification for anyone who has had a sentence of more than 12 months. The second, which relates to a concept drawn from the Terrorism Act 2000, disqualifies anyone who is, in the opinion of a senior police officer, connected with a paramilitary organisation. For the sake of completeness, we refer to two different definitions of paramilitary organisations that are taken from the Government's own legislation—namely, the Northern Ireland Sentences Act 1998 and the Terrorism Act 2000. To maintain equivalence between independent and councillor members of DPPs, to which the Secretary of State rightly attaches importance, new clause 19 proposes that the board must consult a senior police officer—we define that as chief superintendent or above, which is the normal definition in such cases—before approving independent members of DPPs. It does not make much sense to say that if someone has to be disqualified because he has been revealed to be in breach of his oath or found guilty of a serious criminal offence or of involvement in terrorism, the procedure has to involve going to the police to get an opinion, unless we allow the Policing Board to express a view in advance, ex ante, before its nomination of independent members. The new clause would be a logical and worthwhile change to the Bill.
I have set out our views on the new clauses and amendments, with the exception of one that is purely a drafting amendment, and my comments on subsequent amendments will be informed by the same concern, which we should regard as the acid test. First, will anything that we do this afternoon contribute to, or detract from, the success of the peace process and the chances for normalisation in Northern Ireland? Secondly—as an essential ingredient of the answer to the first question—will anything that we do this afternoon give the Government greater credibility with those who have to perform their obligations under the agreement and the ceasefire? Will it make our seriousness clear, particularly to Sinn Fein-IRA? Will it make it absolutely plain to Sinn Fein-IRA that we require decisive action from it, or will it remove the pressure? Will it make Sinn Fein-IRA feel that all kinds of concessions are coming their way in any case, irrespective of what they do?
The House should turn its attention to that essential second question. If hon. Members look at the matter in that way, they can reach only one conclusion: that we should withhold any concessions of a unilateral nature and make it absolutely plain to Sinn Fein-IRA that we have now reached—to use the Prime Minister's words, although, sadly, in introducing the Bill at this time he has not followed them up with action and decision—the fork in the road. There are only two possibilities, and we must make it absolutely plain that if Sinn Fein-IRA do not go down the road of complete implementation and complete observance of their obligations under the agreement and the ceasefire, the other road will lead to increasing sanctions against them.
First, I want to make one or two points about matters that were raised earlier in the debate. I want to put on record my personal appreciation for the way in which the Secretary of State has very courageously shown transparency in relation to this part of the Bill. It would have been so easy for him to bury it, then to pull it out of the hat at a later stage, rather than to include it for consideration by the Standing Committee. That was the right thing for him to do. It is a great pleasure for me to able to state that the Secretary of State has behaved with great honesty and transparency in relation to policing legislation. As regards the Minister of State, reference was made to the non-consideration of these matters in Standing Committee. In fairness, it was very much the expressed wish of the Chairman that we should proceed in the way that the Secretary of State indicated.
Having got that off my chest, I want briefly to make a few points. I shall not go into the detail of the Bill, because either one accepts the need for it, or one has to face a situation whereby no matter what type of safeguards are put in place, they may ultimately all be ineffective unless the central philosophy is correct. The central thesis of the Bill is the same as that on which the peace process itself was founded. The Secretary of State is right that it is necessary for people to make a declaration against terrorism, as do councillors in local government. Some may say, "So what?" and it is hard to blame them for that, but I know about the abuse that was hurled at my party colleagues on a district council when they appointed members of my party to a district policing partnership; I know about the threats that were made against those people, against their wives and families and against their homes. I want to be able to have a good, strong look straight into the eyes of some of the people who made those threats when they walk on to a district policing partnership themselves.
We should not forget that if we let people off the hook on this or any other issue, we are doing them a service. I know, because of where I live and work, that there is nothing that many would like better than the removal of the chalice of having to make a decision about DPPs and sitting on the Policing Board. I sincerely hope and trust that we as legislators will not facilitate such people. If we are to move forward, it is essential that that nettle be grasped. That will not be easy for those in Sinn Fein who want to move forward, who seriously want an end to violence and who seriously want peace, any more than it was easy for us when we had to make fundamental decisions.
I heartily agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman is saying, particularly about the challenge that supporting policing and participating on DPPs provides for members of Sinn Fein. I understand the relish with which he would look them in the eye if and when certain events occurred, but new clause 1, which deals with independent members, is wholly separate from that matter. The matter to which the hon. Gentleman refers arises primarily with regard to the appointment of political members—the councillors—which is of course already open to Sinn Fein. Although the challenge he identifies is entirely appropriate, it arises not under the new clause but under earlier legislation, which is not being amended.
I very much take the right hon. Gentleman's point. He is right, but there is one thing that I have never discovered while living in the north of Ireland: an independent person. I have never discovered a person who did not have an allegiance of some kind. If we were concerned only with the appointment of independents to DPPs, we would not be having this debate. All of us know that some of the independents who will be appointed to DPPs will be members of political organisations—paramilitary organisations, or whatever they may be. That is a fact of life in Northern Ireland. Whatever our degree of rectitude, that will remain a fact of life.
In many ways, there is a remarkable selfishness about this debate. I do not criticise or imply criticism of the Speaker's selection of amendments, but I would love to be able to take an entire day to discuss amendments in my interest or in that of my party. Indeed, when one thinks of it, this issue, which is not the biggest in relation to policing and will not be, is receiving more time on the Floor of the House than was allocated to the entire Patten report. Who will be pleased about that? I could make a number of guesses—one, to be exact—about who will be entirely pleased that their requirements kept the House of Commons debating for six and a half hours one day and seven hours the next day. Tactics have been mentioned. Might we consider what tactics involve? I make the point, and leave it there.
I emphasise the selfishness. We had to grapple with problems, but our priority was to try to ensure that the accountability of the policing structures was right for all the people of the north of Ireland, not just those in our party whom it might affect. The remarkable selfishness is that one key element of the requirement of the republican movement is in the interests of those who would be its members or supporters, and not in the interests of overall accountability or of good policing in the north of Ireland.
The Secretary of State is right that there is nothing new. These proposals are no shock to me or to any hon. Member. At Weston Park, assurances were given. They were given on the record and they were given off the record. Again, that is a fact of life. I shall deal with what is on the record because it is conclusive enough. Page 11 of the updated implementation plan states:
"the operation, and continued need for, the disqualification provision for independent membership . . . will be considered further as part of the planned review and the Government would be prepared to include any necessary amend (sic) in the subsequent legislation."
That is what came from Weston Park, and for that reason the Secretary of State is absolutely correct that there is nothing new. There is nothing to shock any of us. The proposals are a conclusion to the assurances that were given.
I accept those assurances. As I said, this issue was not a priority for our party. The issues our party prioritises include some of those which, if we are lucky, we will be able to debate for 10 seconds or five minutes tomorrow. However, I support the Government on this matter. I feel that I should say why. I believe that if we are eventually—as we will—to change the face of the quality of life and the way in which we live in the north of Ireland, we must put paramilitarism to the test. In particular, we must put violent republicanism to the test. It is not the British Government or Unionism that should put it to the test, but I, who regard myself as a republican, and the nationalists who should do so. It is we, the members of the nationalist community who abhor violence, who have never had an opportunity to say, "Prove it to us; prove it to the electorate. You probably half conned them in the past and you might wish to con them in the future, so show us—prove you support Patten."
There are two ways and only two ways of achieving the Patten aims. The first is to legislate for it properly and the second is to implement it. The legislation takes place here and I hope and trust that we will implement Patten properly through legislation. The other way to implement it is through decisions that are made on the Policing Board. The more one reads the Patten report, the more one concludes that, in many ways, the real substance will be in the daily decisions that will be, and are, taken by the Policing Board to achieve Patten's objectives. To those in the republican movement who have had the luxury of not making decisions, I say this: "If you wish to have Patten, implement it. There is only one place in which you can implement it. You cannot shirk it. You cannot sit on the fence on this one. You cannot use this issue beyond the point we are at."
That takes me back to a question that I posed to the Secretary of State earlier. I fully accept that the Secretary of State is under constraints: anybody dealing with negotiations to do with the peace process and the reinstitution of the institutions is tramping not just on eggshells but on burning cinders. I again make the point—without, I hope, labouring it—that there are different forms of completion. Because of his knowledge and ability in this area, I will leave the Secretary of State to make his definitions of completion. Completion was defined by the Prime Minister as being total, real and permanent. However, there is another completion, and it took place at Weston Park. It was a completion of the debate in the negotiations about policing. There was a clear understanding at Weston Park that that was the completion of negotiations—that that was the end of things being negotiated, got, wrung out, begged, borrowed or stolen by the two Governments. That was a completion that my party accepted—a party that represents a substantial number of people in the north of Ireland. We honoured that completion. We want that completion of Weston Park to be honoured by others. We want it to be honoured as it was supposed to be honoured—and as I fully expect it will be. I believe that both Governments must insist on that. It must be honoured in the political process here.
Will the hon. Gentleman cast his mind back to the debates that led up to the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000, when Mr. Mandelson—who I am sorry is not here, because he often is for such debates—was the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland? He made a clear and important point on the distinction between the political members and the independent members of district policing partnerships. His key distinction was that the political members had an electoral mandate, because they were voted in as councillors. Why does that electoral mandate no longer count in making a distinction between independent and political members?
The distinction exists. However, there will be people who are deemed to be independent and who find themselves as members of DPPs who are anything but independent. That is a reality—whatever the right hon. Member for Hartlepool might imagine, think or decide for himself—and it goes to the heart of this issue. If it were not a reality, would we be having this debate at all? I doubt it, and I hope that I have answered the hon. Lady's point.
I return to the issue of completion. We cannot have completion on unilateral terms. We cannot have completion for some and a lack of completion for others. I look forward in this debate, or very soon, to seeing whether completion will be a consequence of resolving the political problems now. I speak as someone who is not au fait with the details of the negotiations. I therefore have a certain freedom to pose questions that I may not have had previously. If there is to be a completion of the policing issue that involves Sinn Fein's participation in the Policing Board, will that precede the agreement between the political parties and the two Governments that will allow an election to be held and thereby facilitate the reinstitution and reinstatement of the devolutionary arrangements? That is a crucial question.
I invite Members to consider an alternative point of view. Is it conceivable that there could be agreement, followed by an election, then the reinstitution of the administrative arrangements and only then completion of the Policing Board process—or any other permutation of the four? I realise that the Secretary of State is working under constraints but I await guidance on those crucial points.
I have not gone into details because the issue is much wider and more fundamental than how people are chosen for DPPs. However, I want to take issue with Mr. Davies on his use of the word "appeasement". I do not often defend the Government, but it is wrong to accuse them of appeasement on this matter. It is wrong to use such an emotive term in that regard, especially at this time. Whatever one's criticism of the handling of some of the issues, there has been the underlying courage to go to the heart of the problems of policing and the political process, which is far removed from appeasement or anything like it.
I support the Government both on new clause 1 and on the measure in general, which is a fairly unique situation for me. I do so mainly because I know that the measure is not appeasement but a genuine attempt to get to the heart of the problem, even though many of us may feel that it is not the right way. Something within us revolts against it, but when we think things out we know in our hearts that if we are to resolve the issues we must do so where it counts—on the ground. There, we shall find that those who make up the DPPs are those who will ultimately create peace in Northern Ireland.
Mr. Mallon used one especially telling phrase that has given me cause to ponder. He said that the Bill was about putting violent republicanism "to the test". The more I consider those words, the more appropriate they seem as a metaphor because I think that, regrettably, we are engaged in an exercise whereby we are telling people that they have passed the test before they sit the exam. We are telling them that they already have the grades.
There is a subtext to our debate: the signals that we are sending to those engaged in violent republicanism and to members of the loyalist community. By introducing such provisions at this time and in this way, especially Government new clause 2, we are sending exceptionally poor signals. Those signals will cause significant alarm in the loyalist community and bring considerable optimism to those in the violent republican community who do not deserve to have that sort of optimism.
In an intervention on the Secretary of State's speech, I pressed him about the mechanism by which the Government seek to introduce these new clauses, and I wish to spend some time on that. I apologise to the House for talking about a fairly technical matter, but it is of considerable substance.
Of course undertakings given in the Chamber are exceptionally welcome and very valuable, but they are not binding on anyone. Governments can change their minds. This is the fourth Secretary of State in six years, so clearly they can change their personnel as well. It is perfectly easy for Government to turn round later and say, "That was then, and this is now. The Bill passed by the Commons is clear, and we shall proceed to act as we consider appropriate." That is why Liberal Democrat Members feel that it is so important to include in the Bill a definition of the phrase "acts of completion", or whatever the term of art may be. It is not enough simply to leave that to the Government's judgment in relation to the statutory instrument.
I accept that defining any act of completion will not be easy—of course, that is a difficult exercise—but I am surprised that the Government see that as a reason not to do so. A great deal of the whole process is not easy, but somehow we manage to do it. It must surely be in the competence of the parliamentary draftsman, in consultation with the Government, to construct a definition the last element of which could include a much more general provision, perhaps giving proper discretion to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. An act of completion could be defined as "such other act that shall seem in the view of the Secretary of State to be appropriate", or something of that sort.
I would be foolish if I were to be beguiled into going down the road that the hon. Lady tempts me to take. My noble Friends in the other place will, no doubt, speak for themselves. I have little reason to believe that they will take a different approach. Modesty forbids me to say that my approach seems so sensible that I cannot envisage any circumstance in which they would not do so. Of course the hon. Lady has her own colleagues in the other place, and she will know as well as I do that it is a foolish Member who tries to bind those in the other place or to give any cast-iron undertaking about the way in which they will conduct themselves.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, of course, the Government have the opportunity to listen, to take note of what happens in the Chamber and to use the intervening time to seek to satisfy the concerns raised here, which are, no doubt, shared by many right hon. and hon. Members of the other place?
Yes, that is a very valid point. We do not have a massive amount of time before the Bill returns to the other place, but I hope that the Secretary of State and his team will take on board the point that my hon. Friend makes. I am aware that some meetings involving my noble Friends will certainly take place during the next few days, and I hope that the Government will continue to look at this issue with an open mind. It pains me to say that we have reached the point where we feel that Government assurances are simply no longer enough. I would also say—I put this down as a marker, and I do so after careful consideration—that if the Government pursue this course of employing a statutory instrument, which they implement in circumstances that the Liberal Democrats do not consider to be appropriate, we would regard that to be a significant issue of disruption between ourselves and the Government. We have gone out of our way to support the Government throughout this process, and I want to impress on the Secretary of State the importance that we attach to this issue.
The point may be made that the Secretary of State laid great emphasis on the need for an affirmative resolution of both Houses. I have no doubt that this House will give him that—the arithmetic makes that perfectly clear. It is not so clear, however, that he would get that in the other place. It is also the case, of course, that the other place will not hold out for ever, as it does not have our electoral mandate. Were the Government to insist on that, I have no doubt that the Government could eventually bully the other place into acting as they wish. On reflection, I do not feel that that safeguard is necessarily as effective as we might be encouraged to believe. For that reason, I find that I am unable to support the Government on new clause 2 today.
I turn now to some of the other amendments before the House. Again, I must say that the manner in which they have been grouped, and their number, has made this a rather unwieldy debate. First, I shall deal with amendments (a) and (b) tabled by the Conservatives. Having considered amendment (a), which would substitute the period of 10 years for five years, I feel that the Government have probably got it right with five years—10 years is excessive. I would not therefore be minded to support that amendment.
I am much better disposed towards amendment (b). The parallels with councils and with English policing authorities, which were drawn by the Secretary of State, are interesting, but they only take us so far. I return to my opening point, which relates to the signals that we send. The removal of suspended sentences in this way sends a poor signal. We must remember that a suspended custodial sentence is still a custodial sentence: whether it crystallises should not be the issue. Clearly, in reaching the determination to suspend the sentence, some mitigating factor is in the judge's mind. To remove suspended sentences from the ambit of consideration in the way that the Bill would do, however, demeans the seriousness of the offence being considered.
Turning to new clauses 9 to 11 tabled by Mr. Trimble and Lady Hermon, I have some sympathy for the thinking behind them. I have some reservations in relation to new clause 10, which I will not develop at great length, but I feel that there is confusion in relation to the legitimacy of the appointments made by councils. I will listen with interest to what the right hon. Member for Upper Bann says about those new clauses.
My hon. Friend Lembit Öpik referred to the code of practice. Like him, I saw it for the first time only this afternoon. I am comforted by references to independent scrutiny because that is important, but notwithstanding the code of practice, there are remaining issues to resolve. The code of practice does not cover all the concerns raised by the Ulster Unionist party.
I share several of the Secretary of State's concerns about new clause 13, tabled by Rev. Ian Paisley and his colleagues. It would be an unnecessary complication. I am also worried because if the whole idea behind district policing partnerships is a move toward normal policing, the new clause represents a way of thinking that puts great emphasis on terrorism as a specific species of crime. Although that is understandable, it is not especially helpful for that distinction to be the ultimate goal of the work of the DPPs.
I have some sympathy with new clause 23 and amendment No. 77, which were tabled by Mr. Davies and his colleagues. Clearly, they would have to be accepted together for the Bill to make sense, and they seem to be fairly sensible.
I note what the hon. Gentleman says and we would be minded to support him on new clause 23. I would be absolutely astonished if we could thereafter vote on amendment No. 77, but it is a funny old world and one never knows.
I know that time is precious and I have tried to highlight my concerns as succinctly as possible. It is regrettable that we have addressed these matters so late in the day for a Bill that started in the House of Lords, which is why my hon. Friends and I voted against the programme motion. However, I shall continue to listen to the debate with considerable interest.
My opening comment about the debate is that it should not be taking place. It is quite unnecessary and that was best summed up by Mr. Carmichael when he said that we are effectively sending a signal to the republican movement that the Government consider it to have passed the test before it has sat it. That phrase sums up how wrong it is for the Government to introduce the new clauses at this time. I shall not repeat my intervention on the Secretary of State when I pointed out that it is not necessary to rush forward on this time scale now because we will have years to introduce the measures. If the republican movement were to pass the test that it has been set in the next few weeks and months, I am sure that it would be content to rest on the Government's assurance that the measures would be introduced at an appropriate stage. However, it is wrong to introduce them now.
I add, parenthetically, that the language used by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland was noteworthy. I gently point out to the Secretary of State that when the hon. Gentleman says that a point might be reached at which there would be disruption between him and the Government, he should be aware of the great weight that lies behind the word "disruption". However, that is another matter entirely.
There has been reference to the origin of the provisions at Weston Park. It is important that we reiterate for those who misunderstand the situation, or do not understand it correctly, that at Weston Park the Government conducted a series of parallel negotiations with various parties, and may well have reached agreement with the republican movement. Indeed, it reached an agreement with the Social Democratic and Labour party—Mr. Mallon has declared it a final agreement—on certain policing matters, but they were not discussed or negotiated with us, and were not agreed by us. We do not regard ourselves as bound in any way by those discussions.
Indeed, they were. We opposed them then and we continue to oppose them, and have done so in the House. On the other hand, when the time came to consider whether or not to join the Policing Board, we accepted our responsibilities. To that extent, and to that extent only, can we be regarded as having accepted these arrangements. When there is an opportunity to change them, we shall certainly want to take it.
There has been discussion about what constitutes acts of completion—in other words, the test that the republican movement has been set. As was pointed out earlier, that test includes a number of different parts. Mr. Davies pointed out in blunt language what the test amounted to. However, in relation to the provisions that we are considering, which are designed to enable Sinn Fein, or some Sinn Fein members, to join district policing partnerships, the relevant aspect of the acts of completion concerns a decision and declaration of support for policing. We should have regard to that above all.
I should like to focus on the detail of the provisions, as that is important. The provisions modify a disqualification in the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000. The only reason for doing so is to make it easier for some members of the republican movement to join district policing partnerships. That may have been part of negotiations between the Government and the republican movement, but it does not have anything to do with Patten. That should be made clear from the outset—people who pray Patten in aid in this matter are quite simply wrong.
Will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House: if the provisions are a departure from the 2000 Act, sometimes known as the Mandelson Act, are they going further towards Patten or further away from it?
They are going away from it—that is the point that I wish to make. Before I back up my assertion with argument, I wish to make another assertion—the Secretary of State's reasoning that there should be equality between the political and independent members is irrelevant and, again, contrary to Patten.
Having made those assertions, it is appropriate to draw the attention of the House to what Patten said. There are only two sentences in the Patten report on independent members of district policing partnerships and who they should be. That reflects Patten as a whole, which does not discuss the matters properly but produces bold propositions without giving clear indications of the principles from which they were derived or the way in which they are intended to be worked out—indeed, they are not worked out in detail. The first sentence on independent members is preceded by the phrase,
"As with the Policing Board".
Patten's views on the independent members of district policing partnerships are therefore to be read together with his comments on the appointment of independent members to the Policing Board. We can therefore expand on the two sentences on independent members of DPPs by bringing in a couple of sentences on independent members of the Policing Board. The references to the independent members of the Policing Board are as follows:
"The remaining nine members of the Policing Board"— that is, the independent members—
"should reinforce the credentials and credibility of the Board by bringing solid expertise which would be relevant to the work of the Board."
So the independent members are to reinforce the credentials and credibility and bring solid expertise. Bearing that in mind, we come to the sentence dealing with the independent members of the district policing partnerships, which states:
"As with the Policing Board, the independent members should be selected to represent business and trade union interests and to provide expertise in matters pertaining to community safety."
So the independent members should have credentials, credibility, and solid expertise in business, trade union interests and community safety. Where do former convicted criminals fit into that?
That is what Patten proposed. I am not a great fan of Patten, but on this point he was right, and the Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh and the republican movement collectively are wrong, because they are departing from Patten in a quite pernicious way. The councillors will represent the community as a whole, and it is right that the community as a whole will be represented, but those councillors will come from political parties and will carry with them their political background and political convictions. It is therefore right that they should be balanced by people with credentials, credibility and solid expertise in other areas, such as trade union matters and matters pertaining to community safety. That is sensible.
It is from those propositions that the Government worked out in greater detail the principles that are stated in Patten. They did so in the amendments to the 2000 Act, which are now being watered down. That is a criticism of the general spirit underlying the matter. It is wrong as a matter of principle. That is why we tabled amendments. I could expand further on the basic point, but I think I have made it. The new clauses are wrong in principle and we will oppose them.
I shall touch on new clause 13 tabled by Rev. Ian Paisley. I listened to his arguments and I understand the point that he is trying to make—he wanted to extend the disqualification to persons who had not received custodial sentences, but he did not want to cover all custodial sentences, so he proposed to give the Secretary of State a discretion. I am delighted to see that he reposes such faith in the Secretary of State. No matter; that is not the criticism that I am making.
My criticism is that new clause 13 is drafted in such a way that the discretion of the Secretary of State would be applicable not just to persons who had non-custodial sentences, but to anybody who had been convicted of any offence, so that a person who had been convicted and had received a custodial sentence and who, under the 2000 Act, would be disqualified would have the opportunity of applying to the Secretary of State in order to relieve his disqualification. No matter how heinous the offence that he had committed, he could apply to the Secretary of State, and if the Secretary of State thought he was the sort of person who ought to be on the Policing Board, the Secretary of State would use his discretion to remove the disqualification. The discretion that the hon. Gentleman would give the Secretary of State would apply not to the extension of the disqualification, but to the entire disqualification. His intention may have been worth while, but the drafting of the new clause is seriously defective. Consequently, we would not support it.
We have our own amendments, which were mentioned earlier. I listened with great interest to what the Secretary of State said by way of criticism of them. I will take the opportunity to look further at his explanation of how they have, by the way in which new clause 1 is drafted, extended the enforcement provisions with regard to the declaration. That might be of minor interest, but we none the less prefer the comprehensiveness of our own amendments, which deal with persons who are involved in any paramilitary organisation or in organised crime. It is appropriate in the present circumstances that we deal with such persons.
The problem with regard to disqualifications that relate to persons who have been convicted of offences is that they do not bite on others who have not been convicted. Unfortunately, with regard to paramilitary organisations, that includes a substantial number of active members. The appropriate process would be one that focuses on those engaged in any paramilitary activity or organised crime.
Will my right hon. Friend give some clarification on a reference in the Bill and the new clauses—I am making a non-party political point—and explain why we constantly refer in the House to paramilitary organisations and do not define such bodies by referring to them as terrorist organisations?
I suppose that we could refer to proscribed organisations, as almost all such organisations are proscribed under emergency legislation. Strictly speaking and in legal terms, that would be a more effective way of referring to them. We are in no doubt about what we mean by paramilitary organisations, although the meaning of the term "paramilitary" has changed over the years. I remember that 30 or 40 years ago—oh dear, it is as long as that—the term "paramilitary organisation" included the cadet and youth organisations of Her Majesty's forces. Indeed, I was a proud member of one of those organisations for many years. In those days, I would have been proud to call myself a member of a paramilitary organisation, but today, we would be very reluctant to use that phrase. That shows how the terminology has changed.
Of the new clauses that we have tabled, the one that we regard as the most significant and appropriate in the present context is new clause 11. For that reason, we want to press that new clause when you, Madam Deputy Speaker, consider it appropriate for us to do so.
I do not wish to take up too much of the time of the House. I have said that we consider the Government new clauses wrong in principle. We also endorse the argument that they are wrong in practice and from a tactical point of view. In that respect, we are happy to adopt almost in its entirety the mantra of the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford , although we will spare the House its repetition.
I am sure that Mr. Trimble will forgive me if I do not follow on from him directly on the issue that he raised, although in respect of his reference to the DUP new clause, he may find that my view is not too far from the one that he expressed—a point that I shall explain when I deal with that new clause.
I say to the right hon. Gentleman, however, that he cannot, Pilate-like, attempt to wash his hands of the trend that is evident in policing legislation. It was started by the Belfast agreement. He gave the Patten commission its remit and his party spokesman welcomed the appointment of Chris Patten and said that it represented progress, that Patten was a suitable person to carry out the task, and that a better commission could not have been appointed. After his giving the remit and welcoming the personnel involved, I think that the result was always going to be fairly clear. It would be rather synthetic for anyone to suggest that the outcome in the shape of Patten or what has directly flowed from the report could have been anything of a surprise to him.
I am quite prepared to take on the danger, and I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's giving way. He will know very well that approximately 75 or 80 per cent. of the Patten recommendations were taken from the internal fundamental review of the RUC, which was agreed unanimously by the RUC, as it was then, the Police Authority for Northern Ireland, the Police Federation for Northern Ireland and the other representative bodies. It is therefore mischievous to say that the Patten proposals somehow came out of the blue, as the vast majority of them had the blessing of the RUC's internal fundamental review.
I need hardly specify how facile that argument is. Ninety-nine per cent. of the Patten report could have been perfectly acceptable yet 1 per cent. could corrupt the lot. As it happens, the figure is much greater than 1 per cent. A new training college and better IT for the police does not mean that we should welcome the Patten report. When one considers it "in the round", to use a favourite expression of a previous Secretary of State, it is abundantly clear that its thrust and burden were destructive to the police and ended by destroying the RUC.
If I can feel sorry for a political party, I feel sorry for the SDLP. Mr. Mallon has, as always, put a brave face on matters. He spoke eloquently from the SDLP position. However, let us consider the dilemma that the Government's intention has created for the SDLP. It took a political risk in deciding that, for the good of its community and the community as a whole, its members would take up places on the Policing Board and support the police in Northern Ireland. It was clear that its members would get it in the neck from Sinn Fein-IRA.
I was not privy to the SDLP's discussions with the Government. However, having been in negotiations with the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh, I would be surprised if he did not look a Secretary of State in the eye and say, "Look chap, if we sign up for this, you're not going to sell us out further down the road and make more concessions to the IRA and Sinn Fein, who are holding back. Wouldn't we look silly if, having given our agreement now, you make further concessions to Sinn Fein and show we were wrong to agree to a lesser package?" I should be surprised if the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh and his colleagues had not uttered words to that effect to the Secretary of State or Government representatives.
The SDLP gave its approval and its members performed their role on the Policing Board. Sinn Fein members went around the country, lambasting the SDLP in all the nationalist areas and suggesting that it had betrayed the cause. The SDLP took a stand in its areas for the position that it had adopted. What did the Government do?
The hon. Gentleman misses a central point. We did not make our decision until after Weston Park. I have put statements about the Bill on record in terms of the agreement at Weston Park. The information is in the public domain on page 11 of the implementation plan. We were fully aware of the Bill and the provisions in the next batch of Government amendments and new clauses when we made our decision. That is the fault line in the hon. Gentleman's argument.
It is difficult to get the hon. Gentleman's statement to add up. Given what the Secretary of State describes as his openness and candour with the people of Northern Ireland and hon. Members, he would be in a difficult position if he had agreed the package at Weston Park but waited all this time before apprising them of the Government's intentions.
The package makes concessions to the IRA; nobody in Northern Ireland has any doubt about that. The sensitivity of the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh derives from it. Sinn Fein will undoubtedly gloat, not only because we are focusing on such matters. It is right that hon. Members focus on them, because they clearly show that the Government are prepared to make concessions to the IRA beyond those that they said publicly—in many different contexts, which I shall mention later—that they would make in advance of acts of completion. The Government, however, are prepared to introduce this Bill now, in a headlong rush to facilitate the IRA; they appear to be putty in the hands of the provisional movement.
My hon. Friend Rev. Ian Paisley mentioned that the Government would undoubtedly be embarrassed by the timing of the Bill, because it comes at a time when the Provisional IRA has once again been smoked out. The significant arms find on the Ormeau road shows that it had weapons that were neither hidden deep in its bunkers nor ready to be decommissioned; these were new weapons that it had brought into an area in which it was intending to use them, since its so-called ceasefire. Those guns were not being stored away in a stockpile; they were ready to use. At the same time as this embarrassing revelation has come to light, the Secretary of State is tabling proposals to bring the representatives of that organisation into a role in which they would have authority in policing the community of Northern Ireland. That scenario is so preposterous that even Alice in Wonderland would have had great difficulty in coming to terms with it.
Will the hon. Gentleman further inform the House that the location of the finding of those weapons and explosives in the Lower Ormeau road is one of the most dangerous interfaces in Northern Ireland, during what is now called—I do not like the term—the marching season? Does he agree that, in recent years, there has been deliberate planning by the republican movement to provoke sectarian confrontation, especially when parades by the loyal institutions are coming down that road? It is very worrying to imagine what was being planned for this summer.
I have no doubt that the Secretary of State will understand the message that David Burnside is giving the House. The Ormeau road has been a significant area, in which the Provisional IRA has attempted to exert a grip on the local community. There are dangerous interface areas in that vicinity, and I believe that the Secretary of State will know what the Provisional IRA's intentions were, so far as those weapons are concerned.
We also have to remember the backcloth against which the Secretary of State is introducing the Bill. He is doing so in a post-suspension period. We are told that the suspension was brought about by the bad behaviour of the IRA. We do not need to catalogue the breaches of its ceasefire, but the culmination was the discovery of a spy ring, right inside the office of the Secretary of State. That had such an impact that the institutions were suspended. The natural conclusion that every one of us drew from the suspension was that the momentum to remove the cause of the problem would place a burden on the IRA and Sinn Fein to make some concessions. What we have found out from the Secretary of State, however, is that the onus appears to be on the Government to make concessions to Sinn Fein and the IRA. Will he at least understand that the community that I represent feels a total sense of injustice that, when it is the IRA that should be divvying up, it is the Government who are once again jumping first?
In the new clauses, the Secretary of State is dealing with issues that the Government had clearly said were to be brought to the House only in exceptional circumstances. That is not only my understanding; the Secretary of State also knows it to be true. He knows that it was never the Government's intention to introduce these additional clauses unless there had been acts of completion by the Provisional IRA, after which he would then introduce them. No one in the House was in any doubt that that was to be the sequence of events. Indeed, if anybody was in doubt about that, it must have been the Minister of State, who is sitting beside the Secretary of State. She came to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee and made the Government's position abundantly clear.
I shall quote the Select Committee minutes of evidence from
"Before I finish I ought to say something about what is not in the Bill, namely, the text for consideration that we have published separately . . . When we published them separately it was because it was our express intention to say, 'This is what we might do if the time is right, but we do not believe that the time is right yet'."
Following the Chairman's intervention, she said:
"The ball is now quite clearly in the court of those who we are looking to to make a move, the Republicans, that is. We are serious about our intent. This is what we would do if they were to support policing and we wait to see their response. I think I have said enough."
Again, the sequence and what the Government are saying are clear: the Minister's action would come after the response of Sinn Fein, which, of course, we have not had.
The Chairman then very properly asked this question:
"What are the circumstances in which you think those additional four draft clauses would be added to the Bill during its passage through Parliament?"
The Minister replied:
So the draft clauses would be brought before the House after the Government had seen the acts of completion from the IRA, but again, we have not seen them.
The Chairman, still pursuing the issue, said:
"I am not trying to put words into your mouth but you would not be introducing these draft clauses into the Bill as it goes through Parliament in the next two or three months, whatever it is, without the situation having arisen here which would allow for the resumption of the Assembly."
The Minister said, "That is right." Very clearly, she left the Committee with more than the impression—it was given the explicit understanding—that there was no intention to introduce these new clauses until there had been acts of completion.
Why has that changed? Simply because the IRA has given the Secretary of State a hoop through which he has to jump. Once again, the Government are prepared, up front, to make concessions to the IRA before they see the colour of the IRA's money. The sleight of hand that the Secretary of State is using on this occasion is to say, "Yes, we are putting this in the legislation, but it will come into force only at the foot of an order, which will be placed before the House."
I am sure that the people of Northern Ireland are really impressed by that safeguard, knowing full well that the Government have a significant majority—one so strong that they can pass measures that their own Back Benchers are not happy about. It is abundantly clear that if it is the Secretary of State's will that the House approve the order, the House will approve it. There will be no second-guessing the issue.
I suggest, therefore, that the safeguard that the Secretary of State refers to is meaningless. Indeed, one should read the Prime Minister's statement in response to my hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim. One sees that there is a definition of an act of completion, so why has not the Secretary of State, who must support what the Prime Minister said and who must believe that the Prime Minister's definition is worthy—although it could have gone an awful lot further—included even that in the legislation as the trigger for allowing such a move to take place, instead of the nod from those on the Government Benches for an order that will come before the House?
"in a way that satisfies everyone and gives them confidence".—[Hansard, 27 November 2002; Vol. 395, c. 309.]
I am sure that "everyone" included even the Democratic Unionist party. There was a requirement for all of us to be satisfied—not a majority, but everyone. The Secretary of State, however, is relying on a simple majority in a House in which he knows he can gain it.
The Government say that they will activate their measures only in certain circumstances. They have not defined them, although they had an opportunity to do so in their new clauses and amendments. As for the other safeguard in new clause 1, we have to wonder whether even the Secretary of State's definition of "safeguard" is the same as that of any other Member. To suggest that requiring members of a DPP to sign a declaration will safeguard the community in some way is to bury one's head in the sand, and to forget what has happened in local government in past years. We need only glance at the newspapers relating to those years to be aware of the breaches of the declaration by elected authorities in Northern Ireland. That safeguard has meant nothing in the case of the requirement for council members to commit themselves to non-violence, and it will mean nothing when applied to DPP members.
I have to agree with the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh. I do not believe that DPPs have independent members: I think that in a situation such as that in Northern Ireland, independence does not exist.
I have serious concerns about the composition of the DPPs. The Secretary of State heralded this as a big step, saying that things had gone very well and everyone should be applauded. He seems to have closed his ears to the complaints about composition. Some worthy people—not just in my community, but in the nationalist community—have been bypassed. In my community, it appears to be almost an offence to have been a member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary: certainly a former RUC member of significant standing is unlikely to get through the vetting procedure. Two obvious examples are Jimmy Spratt and Blair Wallace, both of whom would plainly have a contribution to make. When we look at the list of those who have been appointed, we should consider whether it is appropriate to appoint members on the basis of what is effectively a balancing exercise rather than on merit.
Will the hon. Gentleman expand on his point about my constituent Blair Wallace, a former deputy Chief Constable of the RUC? He received 49 votes. He was offering his experience as a resident in the local community to that community: he had lived in an around Ballyclare for 15 years. Given that he was excluded from the process, is there not something seriously wrong with the process?
There is. I do not know where that scoring placed him in relation to the other candidates, but Jimmy Spratt topped the scoring system poll. That system was not simply carried out at the behest of local councillors; it was supervised by independent consultants, who were brought in at the behest of the Policing Board. In the case of Castlereagh borough council and Jimmy Spratt, all the parties concerned—the Ulster Unionist party, the Democratic Unionist party, the Alliance party and the Social Democratic and Labour party—were agreed on what the composition of the membership should be. There was no difficulty as far as the elected representatives were concerned—from either section of the community. Yet the matter was referred to the Policing Board, whose decision was based not on the merits of any of the candidates, but simply on trying to achieve balances that nobody else quite understands, and which have left us with not the best DPP that could have been appointed.
Perhaps the Government might undertake that they do not intend to make an arrangement that would allow the new provisions to be activated before the normal lifespan of the DPP has expired, because such an arrangement would rub salt into the wound. We want them to say simply that these provisions are now law, and they will apply when next we make appointments—in four years' time, say—rather than saying that some further legislative move will also be made to allow changes to be introduced more quickly. We want the Government to make their intentions clear, and to put it on the record that they are not contemplating such action.
When the Secretary of State responds, it might be worth while if he said whether this provision is part of a package. It has been made clear that this matter was considered at Hillsborough, and that the Government are expecting acts of completion. Part of that is clearly the intention, or hope, on the Government's part that Sinn Fein will come on board not just in respect of the DPPs, but of the Policing Board. Again, the Policing Board has a pre-determined lifespan. Will the Government attempt to interrupt the life of the Policing Board, and to insert people for whom there are currently no places, if the Sinn Fein/IRA act of completion is such that it convinces the Secretary of State? The right hon. Member for Upper Bann has made it clear that he does not accept the necessity for the Government to introduce this legislation today. Leaving aside the timing, perhaps the Secretary of State could say whether the nature of the legislation forms part of what has been described by the Prime Minister as the "shared understanding" that exists between the various parties.
On the DUP's new clause, we instructed the Public Bill Office that we wanted a provision that would not disadvantage someone who might have fallen within the scope of existing legislation by virtue of having committed an offence. However, if the offence was not related to terrorism—a traffic offence, for example—they should not be barred on that basis, and scope should be given to enable the Secretary of State to enable such appointments. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim said, that seems a reasonable proposition. However, I agree with the right hon. Member for Upper Bann to the extent that our requirement can be read into the existing wording, so we will not press our new clause to a vote. Nevertheless, we hope that colleagues will recognise that there is an issue that needs to be dealt with, and perhaps the other place can get the Public Bill Office to come up with more effective wording. We want to ensure that those who commit traffic offences will not be debarred from taking a full role in a district policing partnership.
I shall do my best to respond to the various points that have been made in what has been a long but interesting debate.
Mr. Taylor spoke about suspended sentences. As I said earlier, we have made it clear that the reference in the new clause is only to those sentences that remain suspended—that is, where the sentencing judge has seen fit to suspend the sentence unless certain subsequent events trigger its coming into force. It is the judge who will have reached that conclusion, taking into account all the relevant factors. I do not think that it is for us to second-guess judges in the way proposed.
Excellent. I need say no more, then.
Mr. Dodds referred to the question of removal of members. We propose that the board would have the power to remove someone if it felt that that person was not fit to serve on a DPP. We believe that that sanction will be effective.
My hon. Friend Mr. Connarty spoke about dealing with people before they apply to the board, rather than afterwards. However, the board would not appoint someone that it believed to be incapable of fulfilling the role of a DPP member. That is why the additional step proposed seems to me to be unnecessary.
Lady Hermon spoke about community safety and membership of the DPPs. She is right that Patten referred, in paragraph 6, to independent members providing expertise in matters pertaining to community safety, but she is wrong to suggest that we are moving away from that. The current code on the appointment of independent members published by my predecessor last August specifically included, in the essential eligibility criteria, a
"demonstrable interest in local community safety or policing issues."
I have no plans to change the code's requirements. Each application for independent membership is considered on its merits, first by the district council interview panel, and then by the Policing Board panel as well.
I appreciate the Secretary of State's clarification of the current code. I was not aware of that, and his clarification is very helpful.
However, one point still concerns me, and it has to do with the declaration against terrorism in new clause 1. The Secretary of State will be familiar with the narrow definition of terrorism given in the Elected Authorities (Northern Ireland) Act 1989:
"violence for political ends connected with the affairs of Northern Ireland."
Will the right hon. Gentleman clarify whether the new and much more extensive definition of terrorism in the Terrorism Act 2000 is the one used in the declaration against terrorism?
I understand that it is not the same, but I shall write to the hon. Lady in more detail.
As always, I am grateful for the comments from my hon. Friend Mr. Mallon. I say again that I believe that the House and Northern Ireland owe the hon. Gentleman's party a great deal for the support that that party has expressed for the policing process over the past number of years. Without the courageous decisions taken by the hon. Gentleman and his party, I do not believe that we would have succeeded in ensuring that there is a genuine, cross-community Policing Board and police force in Northern Ireland.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newry and Armagh was right to say—and I am grateful that he mentioned it—that transparency was the reason I referred to the texts for consideration. After all, the House and members of political parties in Northern Ireland have had more than four months to consider the contents of those clauses. I suppose that I could have introduced them a few days ago and surprised the House with their contents, but I did not do so. I am glad that my hon. Friend referred to the four months that the clauses have been open for consideration.
As the Secretary of State is extolling the virtues of having published the legislation in draft form and given hon. Members four months to consider it instead of surprising us, will he now publish draft legislation on on-the-run terrorists and on any other proposals that are floating about as a result of the Hillsborough talks? If he believes that that is right way to go, should it not apply to all the proposals, not just certain ones?
If the hon. Gentleman waits for a few weeks, he will indeed have an opportunity to see the outcome of those talks. The practice of draft legislation is, rightly, becoming much more common in the House of Commons, so he will have the opportunity to scrutinise the proposed legislation and to consider the issues that it addresses.
Mr. Carmichael mentioned the role of the other place. Many Members of the other place, from all parties and from none, have enormous experience of Northern Ireland, and I hope that they will be able to ensure that they give the Bill proper scrutiny.
The Secretary of State may be coming to this, but I want to raise two issues that matter to Liberal Democrat Members of the other place. First, I should like him to confirm once and for all something that we already know by observation, but which has been skirted around by previous Secretaries of State— namely, that when it comes to acts of completion, what he really wants is to maintain some political latitude in terms of interpretation. That is understandable, but if he confirmed it we would at least be talking about these matters honestly, rather than pretending that it is not the case.
Secondly, we are vexed by the idea that commencement might be implemented through a statutory instrument in some corner of the House. Will he give an assurance that the whole House and the whole of the other place will have the opportunity to debate these matters before any commencement takes place?
The hon. Gentleman's second point is a good one; I shall come to it later. On his first point, he knows, as does everybody who has been involved in the creation and implementation of the Good Friday Belfast agreement, that it is a political agreement. Of course, it has legal implications because legislation has to be passed to implement it, but ultimately it is a political agreement, and political decisions and judgments have to be taken into account. That is why I said that if we were to tie ourselves down too tightly to legal definitions, we could not properly satisfy people across the political board in Northern Ireland with regard to the definition of paramilitary activity.
The agreement has international legal aspects, which have to be put into international law. Domestic legislation had to be passed in order to introduce various aspects of the agreement. I am saying that it was not an agreement produced by lawyers, although some very distinguished lawyers were involved in its creation; it was essentially a political agreement that had to be voted on by the people of Northern Ireland. I sometimes wonder whether in the years since 1998 people's collective memory has gone, and they have forgotten that people in north and the south voted on the agreement.
Hopefully, the effect is the same. Of course, the agreement referred to the creation of a peaceful society in Northern Ireland, but it also referred to political stability and to prosperity. Politicians created the agreement on which the people of Northern Ireland, and the whole of Ireland, voted. In that context, it is political, with legal implications.
I thank the Secretary of State for his forbearance. To resolve the issue once and for all, is he confirming what we already know? Is he saying, at long last, that the Government want to maintain political latitude in terms of defining acts of completion? I know that it is an uncomfortable admission, but it will make it easier for everyone to take their decisions about where they stand as regards the Bill if we understand that the Secretary of State has made that decision. We can then decide whether to agree with it, but at least we will not be pretending that he is questioning the political content of his own definitions of acts of completion.
I am not trying in any sense to go against the law on the definition of ceasefires. That is specifically in legislation which the House of Commons decided to pass some time ago, and it would not be right for me to say that that was wrong, because it was not. At the same time, it is right to say that we must look at all these issues politically, but it is also important that we do not tie ourselves down. The issues before us relating to paramilitary activity must be defined so that we we know that there is a cessation of activity. That is what produces the trust and confidence.
Does the Secretary of State agree that the surest signal of the cessation of violence and terrorist activity would be the participation on the Policing Board and the fullest support for policing in the north of Ireland from organisations that had previously used violence? Is that not the clearest barometer of movement on acts of completion?
Of course I think that that is an important issue, but it is not the only one. My hon. Friend represents a constituency that has been plagued by these problems over many decades, and he will know that we want an end to the activity—everybody here knows what it is all about in Northern Ireland. That must happen in order to go into a peaceful and democratic society.
I want to address the right hon. Gentleman's point on independent members. He rightly read out the definition of the type of people they might be. I would not disagree with any of that, but people who had served sentences more than five years previously could well be eligible to stand for the independent category, as opposed to the political category on DPPs.
As an exercise, the Secretary of State might like to look through the lists of the independent members who have been appointed to district policing partnerships throughout Northern Ireland, to take advice on the matter and to see how many or how few can fairly be regarded as persons who have expertise in community safety.
I will certainly take the opportunity in the next week or so to do that. I want later to refer to some of the points that Mr. Robinson made with reference to membership.
I wanted to intervene when the Secretary of State was referring to the legal obligations of the ceasefire. Will he confirm that the procurement of arms, explosives or timing devices and the movement of any of those would be inconsistent with the obligations on those who have accepted the ceasefire?
All those matters are hugely important in making the assessment, but the assessment in law at the end of the day, as the hon. Gentleman knows, is about looking at things "in the round".
The hon. Member for Belfast, East made a lot of comments. He knows that the composition of DPPs is a matter for the Policing Board—indeed, the Policing Board on which his party is represented. I am advised that applications were dealt with anonymously so that people would not know from whom they came. Were the hon. Gentleman to have any difficulty with the process, my advice to him would be to raise the matter with the Policing Board.
I am aware that the applications were considered anonymously. Regrettably, they were also considered without seeing the council areas' scoring system. If that had been made available, very different judgments would have been made.
I will certainly look into that, and refer to the Policing Board myself. At the end of the day, it is a matter for the Policing Board.
The hon. Member for Belfast, East made much of the timing of today's debate—and I suppose that the essence of this debate is timing. However, I rather fancy that, whenever this debate had taken place, the hon. Gentleman would have made more or less the same speech, because what he said is what he believes to be right. Whether the debate had been held now, or after acts of completion, or later in the year, or next year, I suspect that he would have made the same speech. He referred to what my hon. Friend the Minister of State said in Select Committee—that the ball was still in the republicans' court. Of course, the ball still is in the republicans' court. What is different is the fact that we are debating these issues today instead of rather later.
Before explaining that point more fully, I want to clarify a small point with Mr. Davies. He said that the Bill referred to a "local general election". I can confirm that that means a local election. Why it is called a local general election, I have not a notion, but it means a local election.
The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford raised two issues that related to the timing, rather than the substance, of the debate when he asked why it was being held now and not later. Earlier, I said—and I hope that the House accepted it—that I am not making an excuse for raising these issues today. Why should I want to do that? Everybody knows that, when the texts for consideration were brought in, back in November, I made it clear that those texts and those clauses were to be considered entirely in the context of acts of completion by the IRA. A cessation of activity on the part of the IRA would mean that this part of the Bill would be enacted. It has so happened that the Bill has gone through its stages in Parliament much more swiftly than I thought that it would; and, on the other side of the coin, that the process in Northern Ireland for the re-establishment and restoration of the institutions has gone more slowly than I had thought. The two processes have not coincided. I suppose that I could have decided, with the House authorities, to move this Report stage debate and the Third Reading much further down the parliamentary programme or down the parliamentary year. I would certainly have preferred the acts of completion to have taken place, and the consideration of what was discussed at Hillsborough to have taken place, before we discussed these matters here, but that was not to be.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newry and Armagh said that this Bill is not simply about the clauses that we are discussing today. The Bill has been debated at length in Committee, it has been debated here, and it has been debated in the other place. It is an important Bill in its own right. It is a very important Bill for the SDLP, because it encapsulates many of the points that the party has made. Other parties also have a considerable interest, as have the people of Northern Ireland, in the Bill as a whole and not just in these particular clauses. Why should we hold up the entire Bill, for weeks or possibly months, in order for these matters to be discussed? Another important point is that the nature of these clauses—and they have been strengthened in the past couple of weeks—is such that the overall effect will be the same. They will not come into effect unless there are acts of completion. They will not come into effect unless we have agreement that those acts of completion have been dealt with.
The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford asked about what he regarded as the inadequacy of the secondary legislation procedure for dealing with these matters. He also said that there would not be an opportunity to modify the clauses; but the opportunity to modify the clauses and to introduce amendments is now, in this Chamber. This is where that is done, using the processes that we already have. Not only is that palpably obvious, but he and other hon. Members and right hon. Members have actually introduced amendments and new clauses, knowing full well that the opportunity for those to be considered was today—and whenever the other place will have the opportunity to consider them. For modifications and amendments to the clauses, this is the time and this is the place.
The right hon. Gentleman is making an absurd argument. We are faced with the Government's proposed new clauses and we have to respond, so we think about them and try to improve them—as we are doing. That has nothing whatever to do with the argument that I and others have been making this afternoon: it is a fundamental error to introduce these new clauses at present. Indeed, the Secretary of State conceded as much when he said in November that he expected there to be acts of completion. Unfortunately, they have taken longer than he hoped but he decided to make the concessions anyway. That is the fatal element in his tactics. None of the arguments that he has been making even begin to address that.
I could not agree less. The hon. Gentleman is deeply wrong to suggest that. He and others have had the opportunity to consider the proposals and table amendments for the past four months if they really thought that their composition was fundamentally flawed. The hon. Gentleman has had the opportunity to think about them for four months. In addition, there has been an opportunity to table amendments since last week.
That is not the issue, however. The hon. Gentleman asks whether this is the right time to introduce the provisions. I have already explained that this is not the ideal time, but that is why we decided to add another commencement order to the provisions, which my hon. Friend the Minister of State will refer to later.
The hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members are also wrong to say that our parliamentary safeguards are meaningless. They think that the procedures of the House are so inadequate that they could not cope with great issues such as those that we have been discussing. I do not agree. The commencement orders are so important that we should be dealing only with one issue: whether the clauses should be introduced—yes or no. They would be introduced on the basis of the acts of completion that we have discussed today.
The provisions were discussed in the other place. I take the valid point made by Lembit Öpik. The issue is so important that it should not go upstairs to a Committee. The hon. Gentleman was right to say that the whole House should have the opportunity to debate and vote on that single issue—whether the matter before us should go through. Such a debate would be meaningful. Indeed, it would be no different in substance from this debate, although it might be in time. Every Member will have the opportunity to make their points in this place and debate whether it is right or wrong to ensure that particular matters are discussed and agreed to.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Members of this and the other place should be given the best possible opportunity to debate such matters. There may be disagreement about timing—I accept the points that have been made about that—but political peace processes are difficult and they take time. None the less, it is wrong to say that there is no opportunity for the discussion of commencement orders.
Can the right hon. Gentleman not envisage the possibility that, depending on what acts of completion take place or on what package, if any, emerges, the answer might not be yes or no—all or nothing—but something but not everything? In other words, we should be able to reconsider the matter in the light of whatever agreements, or actions, he can obtain from Sinn Fein-IRA. My objection to dealing with the matter through the statutory instrument procedure is that we cannot modify or amend anything afterwards. The House can no longer return to matters dealt with in that way. We should be unable to reconsider the substance of the provision in the light of the situation as and when the right hon. Gentleman achieves his package.
I am not sure what could be modified, in the sense that the amendments before us today seem to take things as far as they can go. We can choose a disqualification period of either five or 10 years. We can choose either the amendments tabled by Rev. Ian Paisley, which refer to me doing certain things, or those tabled by the right hon. Member for Upper Bann, which suggest that the board do such things.
Of course the House will have the opportunity to discuss those matters today, but the central issue is whether they should be accepted, and I am saying that we will have the opportunity now not only on the Floor of the House—I give that undertaking—but in the House of Lords to do so, using the affirmative procedure. There will be further debate and, above all, it will give us as parliamentarians the possibility to consider this issue again. When we vote on these clauses in a few minutes, we will not be voting automatically to allow the proposals to go ahead. We are voting for them, but also to ensure that they are held in abeyance until such time as we are satisfied that acts of completion have, indeed, been completed.
Does the Secretary of State accept that a statutory instrument is inherently unsatisfactory as a means of discussing these matters of great import, whether considered in Committee or on the Floor of the House? The virtue of the Bill and our debating process is that all the amendments can be tabled and, yes, hon. Members can choose between five and 10 years, or whatever the various options are. With a statutory instrument, we have to take it or leave it. For affairs of this importance, take it or leave it is not good enough.
I understand the point and, ideally, the hon. Gentleman is right, of course. I repeat that, ideally, I would have preferred the debate to be held on another occasion, but it so happens that the timing has not worked. We have included further safeguards, such as the Belfast sub-groups, and hon. Members now have the opportunity to vote on various amendments and the different methods that they think might have to be used. We shall see how the House votes, but at the end of the day the essential point is whether or not those methods should be accepted.
Will the Secretary of Secretary confirm that, when we finish today, more time will have been given to these parts of the Bill than was given to its entire Second Reading, or to the consideration of the full Patten report?
That is why I do not want another Bill, and why it is so important to ensure that we have the opportunity to deal with this issue now, rather than later, and that the Bill, to which my hon. Friend is so deeply committed, completes its stages and receives Royal Assent. That should happen.
I have listened carefully and the fact that we will have that debate on the Floor of the House is very welcome. We will have time to make a decision, but will the right hon. Gentleman please tell me—as one who suffered for the first 25 years of his life in the House, when the whole government of Northern Ireland was dealt with by such resolutions—whether it will be an hour and a half debate, with 15 minutes for the Government to have their say and 15 minutes for the Opposition to have their say and an hour for the rest of us to do the job? Will the debate be limited to that when the order comes before the House?
I understand that the debate will be longer than that because a number of articles will have to dealt with, but, having said that, I take the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Newry and Armagh—it is a quite proper hint for me to shut up—that there is a limit to how far we can go in discussing these matters because we need to debate other issues. All Members, not just those in Committee, will have a chance to debate the matters. We have debated well for a long time. It is an important issue, and I commend the new clause to the House.
Question put and agreed to.