New Clause 1 — Independent Members: Declaration Against Terrorism

Part of Police (Northern Ireland) Bill [Lords] – in the House of Commons at 3:30 pm on 26th March 2003.

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Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Shadow Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change) 3:30 pm, 26th March 2003

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.