Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill

– in the House of Commons at 4:45 pm on 23rd November 2005.

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Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.

Photo of Meg Hillier Meg Hillier Labour, Hackney South and Shoreditch 4:52 pm, 23rd November 2005

When we last debated security in Northern Ireland, Rev. Ian Paisley spoke movingly about his hand being placed on the head of a curly-haired child who was weeping at his father's coffin, and this afternoon we heard the passion of Dr. McCrea. I cannot speak with such passion and direct knowledge. I am not a victim of the terror in Northern Ireland, but I grew up knowing the troubles. I was born in 1969, and the terror we have seen in Northern Ireland, the peace process over the past eight years and the subsequent developments have been the backdrop to my entire life.

When I was thinking about today's debate, it occurred to me that when I was a teenager in the 1980s I was studying the history of the current situation in Northern Ireland while still living through it. I am now a mother myself, and despite the fact that my eldest child was born after the Good Friday agreement, we still today, as we debate these measures, have uncertainty and no directly elected Northern Ireland Government. I am sure that all mothers in the United Kingdom want their children to grow up in a world where the violence is at an end for ever, with Northern Ireland living in peace and harmony. Although there are real problems in Northern Ireland—as a member of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, I see and hear about some of them, although I bow to the expertise of hon. Members who represent seats in Northern Ireland—we have gone a long way. I join other hon. Members in paying tribute to Secretaries of State past and present for their work in trying to bring that difficult situation to an end.

The Good Friday agreement marked an historic breakthrough. The subsequent referendum and meeting of the Northern Ireland Assembly showed what enormous progress was made between 10 April and 1 July 1998. Seven years later, however, the Northern Ireland Assembly is suspended and direct rule from Westminster is again in place. We have seen some major milestones and some major slip-ups on the road to lasting peace, which we all want to see. I welcome the fact that the IRA has recently decommissioned its arms and formally announced the end of its armed campaign.

Mr. Lidington criticised the Bill because it was not agreed by the people of Northern Ireland, which goes to the heart of today's debate. All hon. Members share that concern, whether or not they are present in the House. Surely the point of the whole process is that we should return to devolved decision-making, whereby the people of Northern Ireland are ruled by their directly elected representatives and not from Westminster.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Shadow Minister (Transport)

How can this Bill take us towards that objective, when all the democratic parties in Northern Ireland oppose it? Indeed, as Mark Durkan pointed out, the Bill is being pushed through only because the one party that wanted it still had guns.

Photo of Meg Hillier Meg Hillier Labour, Hackney South and Shoreditch

I am trying to address that point. We must deal with the remaining issues in Northern Ireland, whether that involves the Bill as drafted or whether that involves amending the legislation. The people of Northern Ireland deserve a directly elected Government, and they should decide not only matters of security, but all issues. Matters such as water rates or school reform should be dealt with not from Westminster, but from a devolved Northern Ireland Assembly. The issues that the Bill addresses must be tackled one way or another.

The perpetrators of heinous crimes on both sides of the terrorist divide must be brought to justice. My hon. Friend Kate Hoey is right to remind the House that we are discussing not only IRA terrorists but loyalist terrorists. I know that all hon. Members condemn all terrorism, and we must make it clear that the Bill applies to all terrorists, regardless of their background.

I am only a new Member of this Parliament and was not a Member during the negotiations that led to the Good Friday agreement. We all know that negotiations in Northern Ireland are often tortuous, and they are difficult for relative newcomers to this House fully to understand from a distance. However, I understand that we must make unpalatable decisions, and the Government—Conservative or Labour—must take that responsibility.

I have some concerns about the Bill, and for me there are two benchmarks. First, we have seen the pain and pressures that the prisoner release programme created in Northern Ireland, but the prisoners who were released—republican or loyalist—all served time, even if many of them had their sentences cut very short for the crimes that they had committed. Internationally, the most comparable situation occurred in South Africa, where the truth and reconciliation commission meant that the perpetrators of crime had to face their victims.

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace Conservative, Lancaster and Wyre

Does the hon. Lady agree that there are two key differences between the South African truth and reconciliation commission and the prisoner release programme in Northern Ireland: first, in South Africa people had to come forward within a time limit to avoid the risk of getting no amnesty; and, secondly, the people who attended the tribunals had to admit all their crimes, and if they were subsequently found not to have done so they lost the protection of their amnesty? Perhaps such conditions should apply to this Bill.

Photo of Meg Hillier Meg Hillier Labour, Hackney South and Shoreditch

I was just coming to that. I was trying to judge whether the Bill measures up to two important benchmarks. The hon. Member for Aylesbury pointed out that those who did not attend the truth and reconciliation commissions faced a sanction.

Does the Bill measure up to the two criteria that I highlighted? Yes, it does, in the sense that the perpetrators will at least face some justice, but, no, it does not in the important sense that it does not even require them to attend the tribunals in person.

I have some serious questions for the Secretary of State. First, will he consider a requirement that those who are on the run and covered by the provisions of the Bill are required to appear at the tribunal in person?

Secondly, what consideration has been given to requiring that those charged and convicted of murder serve some time, at least equivalent to the time served by those who were released under the prisoner release programme?

Thirdly, what opportunity will victims have to see the evidence and to face the people who killed or maimed their loved ones?

Finally, how will the Secretary of State be sure that those who come back no longer have connections with paramilitary groups? Sir Hugh Orde, the Chief Constable, gave us some reassurance on that in the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, but perhaps the Minister will clarify it when he responds.

I will vote for the Second Reading of the Bill with a heavy heart. I am to serve on the Committee that considers the Bill, and I trust that my Front-Bench colleagues will take seriously the points made in the House this afternoon, particularly as regards people appearing in person before the tribunal.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East 5:02 pm, 23rd November 2005

I am happy to follow Meg Hillier, although I have to say that her conclusions did not exactly arise from the argument that she presented. I hope that she might reconsider her position even before the Division, and that, if that does happen, her expectation of being on the Committee will still be met.

For 40 years, murder and brutality have overshadowed life in Northern Ireland. During the worst of those days, as part of what seemed a numbing ritual, Ministers would emerge after each outrage and passionately pledge that the murderers would be tracked down and punished. Over all that time, Northern Ireland Members of this House have followed the coffins, buried the dead, wept with the families and come to this Chamber calling out in righteous anger for action to be taken. We would hear condemnation, receive understanding and be given sympathy. We would listen to the endless obligatory assurances that, no matter how long it took, the people of our war-torn Province could be sure of one thing: justice would be done.

What value should the victims place on the words of those assurances today? In my time in this House, I have witnessed the passage of some grotesque legislation, but nothing that this House has done before compares to the offence that some Members are about to commit against heaven and earth tonight. Let no Member go into the Lobby unaware of the import of his or her decision. What this House is being asked to do today is against every natural, ethical, moral, spiritual, political and legal principle on which civilisation has been founded.

At the heart of every ordered society lies the rubric that wrong-doing must be punished. At about this time last year, in my constituency of East Belfast, a young Roman Catholic man was murdered following an incident outside a public house. His name was Robert McCartney. Among those involved in his murder were known members of the Provisional IRA. The IRA had not sanctioned his killing, nor had it planned it. It was clearly not in the interests of that organisation to do that. Indeed, I am even prepared to say that, had the IRA known, it would have done everything it could to stop it.

Yet, after it took place, the IRA swung into action. It tried to assist those responsible to get away with murder. Its members meticulously cleaned the scene and removed all the forensic evidence. In effect, they adopted the murder ex post facto. Condemnation was swift and widespread, but the police, the Independent Monitoring Commission and the British and Irish Governments were agreed on one issue. By assisting the murderers to escape punishment, the IRA had become partakers in their crime.

The Government may scantily dress up the provisions of the Bill in whatever legalese they like and attribute to themselves a pretence of worthy motivation in an attempt to cover their moral nakedness. However, in assisting murderers to escape punishment for their heinous crimes, they become partakers in their evil and they will be judged for it.

Through the Bill, the Government may gain legal authority for their shameful proposals, but the provisions will never gain moral authority. They tell us that they are introducing the Bill to keep the peace process alive. I tell them that they will not build peace on injustice. The blood of the innocent cries out against the measure.

Looking decidedly uncomfortable, the Prime Minister attempted to justify the Bill. In a transparently implausible defence, he said:

"Under the Good Friday agreement in 1998, people who were convicted and in prison for terrorist offences pre-1998 got released. How can you possibly say they"— the on-the-runs—

"should be put in prison if the people already convicted have been let out? That is why there is a symmetry if you like about dealing with prisoners and on-the-runs."

Either the Prime Minister does not have a sound recollection of what happened to prisoners under the Belfast agreement or he does not know the meaning of the word "symmetry."

Hon. Members will have held their own views about the prisoner provisions of the Belfast agreement, which were enacted in the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998. I considered them to be morally wrong because they treated terrorists as a favoured class of criminal and accorded them special rights. I considered them to be politically wrong because they were not linked to paramilitary decommissioning and disbandment. I therefore voted against the legislation. However, whatever hon. Members thought of that Bill, it was an early release measure. Prisoners got immediate release only if they had served a third of their sentence, and those who had not were required to serve up to another two years.

Today's Bill is not an early release measure but a terrorist amnesty Bill. Those who benefit from it will not spend one day in prison either on remand or on conviction. The two situations are not alike. I must tell the Prime Minister that there is no symmetry.

The Prime Minister's second explanation is that we have to move forward. If he is moving towards a world that ditches justice and embraces murderers, I shall not go with him. If he regards forward movement as building a society in which victims are shamefully and callously treated and vile terrorists rewarded, he can move forward without the people whom I represent. The loathsome Bill is corrupt not only because its intended outcome is to assist murderers to escape punishment but because of the process used to achieve that goal. It defies reason that, under the Bill, accused terrorists will not even be asked to waste their precious time attending court for the farce of a trial. Moreover, some of them will even be able to maintain their anonymity under the provisions.

Another outrageous provision has been touched on today, but it requires further highlighting. It is the Government's attempt to assist the terrorists to achieve not-guilty verdicts in the poor imitation of a court that the Bill sets up. Clause 7 will exempt a person who holds a certificate issued under the Bill from arrest or detention, from having his or her property searched, and from being fingerprinted. In short, the police will not be allowed to question the accused about the crime that will be brought before the special tribunal. Yet, under clause 3, the certificate will be issued when the police have only

"reasonable grounds for suspecting the applicant to be guilty of an offence".

A case would never be brought before a court at that stage in normal circumstances. It is the stage at which the police would bring a suspect in for questioning, and at which they would build up the final aspects of their case. It is the stage at which they would follow up the leads that flow from questioning, and at which they would tie up and tidy their evidence. But not under this Bill. Under these provisions, the police will be required to produce their evidence even though it is incomplete, without even having an opportunity to question the suspect. Moreover, if they are denied the right to fingerprint the accused, they will not be able to check whether the person might be connected to any other crimes.

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

The hon. Gentleman is right to focus on the asymmetry between the Bill's provisions and those that apply to prisoners released under earlier legislation. Those released under earlier legislation were questioned by the police and fingerprinted, and had to appear in court. None of those requirements will apply to suspects under this Bill.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East

Under previous legislation, those people had been through the courts, been found guilty and convicted, and had been put in prison, where some of them then served a considerable part of their sentence. All of them had a minimum sentence that they had to serve. There is no symmetry between those arrangements and the Bill's proposals. If there is to be symmetry, the Government will have to table an amendment to the effect that people will have to serve a sentence of at least two years.

Under clause 7, the prosecutor will be asked to take half-baked cases into court, and the inevitable upshot of this crackpot scheme will be not-guilty verdicts. I wonder whether that is what the Government want.

I was propelled into active politics after a school friend of mine was murdered by the Provisional IRA. He had just left school and was in his first job. The IRA bombed the premises of the Electricity Board for Northern Ireland, for which he worked. He was just a teenager, and his life was taken from him. No one has ever been found guilty of having planned that operation, but a Member who has not taken his Oath in this House was in charge of the Provisional IRA for the area in which this person was bombed and killed.

One evening in 1978, shortly after I became an elected representative, I was preparing to go out when I heard a very loud bomb explode. The target was close by. As it transpired, it was the La Mon House hotel. I went immediately to the site, and I witnessed the most horrific scenes. The bombers had hung their device on the security grille over the hotel window, and attached a large can of petrol to it. When the bomb was detonated, it sent a huge fireball through the hotel, incinerating all those in its path. Twelve innocent people were burned alive in that attack. Their charred remains were a gruesome image, and all who saw it will carry that image in their minds for the rest of their lives. What was their crime? They were attending an evening dinner with the Irish Collie club, a dog club. Gerry Adams was arrested and questioned about the attack, and was later released. The Bill will ensure that no one spends a single day in prison for those murders.

Photo of Iris Robinson Iris Robinson DUP, Strangford

As my hon. Friend knows, I have been dealing with the victims of the La Mon atrocity for some years, because it happened in my constituency. I asked in the House for a public inquiry, but sadly it was refused. I think that the refusal was based on the fact that, as my hon. Friend said, Gerry Adams's fingerprints were all over that atrocity, and he was arrested in the back hills of Castlereagh some time after it. What rights does my hon. Friend think the victims will receive under the Bill if the Government achieve their objective?

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East

Under the Government's proposals, victims will have very few rights. In certain circumstances, they will have the ability to be informed that the case is being considered by the certification officer and will therefore go before the special tribunal. My hon. Friends and I will table amendments that would insert victims' rights into the Bill. They would allow time-limiting of the use of the application system for the terrorists, and open up the system to victims so that, if necessary, cases could be heard in absentia. That would give victims real closure, and those responsible for the crimes would have to serve their sentences.

I could list a catalogue of cases for which no one has yet been convicted, but I believe that I have made my point. We are not dealing with some tidying-up exercise. We are dealing with lives that have been cruelly and abruptly ended by evil terrorists, and we are dealing with the lives of those who loved them and who are now also victims. We are dealing with people whose hopes and dreams were crushed, and whose lives have been destroyed. We are dealing with decades of hurt and pain.

The Government have not produced the Bill because they think it right, decent or just. They have produced it because in 2001 at Weston Park and in 2003 at Hillsborough castle they made a shabby deal with the IRA. My right hon. Friend Rev. Ian Paisley is not slow to point out to us all that it is never right to do wrong. This Bill is very wrong.

There are those who say that if we do not support the Bill, the IRA will go back to bombing and shooting. Is that where this great nation stands? Are we so craven and unprincipled that we cower before a bunch of corner boys and thugs who make demands of us? Are we cringing into submission because savage murderers demand that we throw out due process and British justice, or they will not co-operate with us?

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East

I am afraid that I cannot. I have very little time left, and I would be allowed no extra time for the hon. Gentleman's intervention.

Justice is a two-way street. It brings punishment to those who cause suffering, and closure to those who have suffered as a consequence. Victims have rights too. Both the European convention on human rights and the United Nations convention against torture require the United Kingdom Government to provide victims with an effective remedy. The Bill is a violation of those rights, and if this House and the other place enact it, the Government can be sure that, as a result of their defiance of those conventions, they will face a challenge in the courts.

Members can complicate the issue if they wish, but tonight's Division will show whether they are on the side of appeasing terrorists or on the side of the victims. It will show whether Members are on the side of due process or on the side of a sleazy deal. It will show whether they believe in the separation of powers, or whether they support the Government usurping the functions of the courts. The Bill is immoral, obscene, cruel and unjust. I urge the House to decline to give it a Second Reading.

Photo of Gordon Banks Gordon Banks Labour, Ochil and South Perthshire 5:20 pm, 23rd November 2005

I would like to set out the background to the Bill as I see it. Since 1997, we have come a long way. In 1998, we had the Good Friday agreement, leading to the early release of 440 prisoners, and we have also had devolved government. With only 14 early releases being returned to jail for breach of the licence conditions—a 97 per cent. success rate—it would appear that the action has been significantly successful.

Even though devolved government has proved to be difficult to uphold, 1998 and 1999 saw the Patten commission producing a raft of proposals relating to crime and policing. Today, of course, we have heard much about Weston Park in 2001, when the commitment was reiterated to move the peace process forward. Consideration of on-the-runs seemed to emerge from that. In 2004, we had the Independent Monitoring Commission and this year saw the IRA statement ending the armed struggle. September then saw the historic act of decommissioning. Even more recently, we have seen the ending of the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Loyalist Volunteer Force feud and the LVF's decision to stand down.

Every one of those matters has been difficult—difficult for the Government, difficult for Northern Ireland political parties and difficult for the people of Northern Ireland—but each has moved the peace process forward and improved the stability and quality of life in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland is, I believe, a better place in 2005 than it was in 1997, and there has been a 40 per cent. reduction in security-related incidents since 1997. In parallel, unemployment has dropped by 54 per cent. Many, both within and outside the House, should feel a good deal of satisfaction and pride for their role in delivering increased prosperity and stability to Northern Ireland. In view of the steps that I have outlined, it is arguably the case that the Bill is, as the Secretary of State has argued, an evolution of everything that has gone on before.

In 2002, the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my right hon. Friend John Reid, said in a written answer to Mr. Donaldson:

"The Government have acknowledged that there is an issue concerning fugitives on the run who would stand to benefit from the early release scheme if they were convicted. As part of the package of measures proposed at Weston Park last July the Government made a commitment to take steps to resolve this issue."—[Hansard, 11 March 2002; Vol. 381, c. 705W.]

What we see today is part of the Government keeping true to that commitment and not hiding from very difficult issues.

The Bill includes a number of challenging areas, which I would like to deal with. First, some people oppose the Bill on points of principle. While I respect that viewpoint, I do not have to agree with it. For real progress to be made, difficult issues have to be faced and tough decisions taken. That certainly applies to the passage of the Bill.

I acknowledge that many victims and their families will have difficulties with the proposals, but I would like to make two points. First, the Bill provides a real opportunity to bring closure to many crimes—not for the victims, but for the crimes—and provides specific obligations, as we have heard, in respect of a certification commissioner and special prosecutor to provide a point of liaison for victims, to keep them informed of relevant cases and to see the concerns of victims as central to the role. Furthermore, the requirement for the certification commissioner to put an annual report before Parliament provides an additional level of scrutiny, which I hope is welcomed by right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House.

Photo of Jeffrey M. Donaldson Jeffrey M. Donaldson Shadow Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow Spokesperson (Transport)

One of my first memories of the troubles was of an horrific incident in which three young Scottish soldiers were lured by women connected to the IRA to a flat in west Belfast, where they were abducted by the IRA, brutally murdered and their bodies left on a road in County Armagh. Is the hon. Gentleman seriously suggesting that the right thing to do is to grant an amnesty to the men who perpetrated that deed? Will he return to his constituency and say that that is the right thing to do? That is what he expects me to tell my constituents in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Gordon Banks Gordon Banks Labour, Ochil and South Perthshire

What I will say is that it is right for Northern Ireland to move on and take advantage of all the benefits that have accrued since 1997.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Leader of the Social Democratic & Labour Party

My hon. Friend says that the Bill is necessary for progress, but what progress necessitates the Bill? Who says that we cannot have the institutions and other provisions set out in the Good Friday agreement unless we have this Bill?

Photo of Gordon Banks Gordon Banks Labour, Ochil and South Perthshire

I have not been party to those discussions, but my answer is very similar to the one that I gave to the previous intervention: it is that I believe that it is necessary to move forward so that there is a reduction—[Interruption.]

Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

Order. We must have one debate, conducted in the correct manner.

Photo of Gordon Banks Gordon Banks Labour, Ochil and South Perthshire

We must ensure that crimes such as have been described today do not occur in the future. I do not want to hear that such things are continuing to happen, and I believe that the Bill will help us to make progress in that regard.

Photo of Gordon Banks Gordon Banks Labour, Ochil and South Perthshire

No, not at the moment.

Secondly, the Bill offers an opportunity to move to a safer and more tolerant Northern Ireland. That Northern Ireland will be able to put violence and prejudice firmly behind it and close the door on the paramilitary past.

Among other requirements, the Bill provides for the appointment of a certification commissioner to determine eligibility, an appeals commissioner to handle appeals, and a special prosecutor with at least 10 years' standing as a barrister or solicitor. The special tribunal, about which much has been said already, is perhaps the most difficult proposal. In it, eligible certificate holders will be tried for the certificated offence.

It is no accident that the tribunal system should be separate from Northern Ireland's existing judicial system. It has been designed to have all the powers of the Crown court, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, but without bottlenecking the existing system. The requirement for special tribunal representatives to have held

"high judicial office or office as a county court judge in Northern Ireland or a circuit judge in England and Wales" is evidence of the serious consideration that the Government have applied to the Bill. It would be inappropriate for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to put forward a Bill that would damage the current judicial system.

Photo of Gordon Banks Gordon Banks Labour, Ochil and South Perthshire

If my right hon. Friend had written the speech for me, I am sure that it would be much better than my version. The Bill attempts to preserve the current system while addressing a situation that could be quite demanding, legally.

In various briefings, much has been made about the absence from the Bill of provisions for trial by jury. However, it is vital to understand that it deals with terrorist trials in the same way as all such trials in Northern Ireland are handled, and in which juries do not take part.

The lack of an end-date to the process has also caused concern for many people.

Photo of Gordon Banks Gordon Banks Labour, Ochil and South Perthshire

I want to finish this point. At this stage, it is difficult to predetermine an end-date, as we are not sure of the numbers of crimes involved. At present, there appear to be between 60 and 160 but, given that there are some 2,000 unsolved murders in Northern Ireland, it is difficult to predict the level of take-up that may emerge in future.

Photo of Iris Robinson Iris Robinson DUP, Strangford

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Photo of Gordon Banks Gordon Banks Labour, Ochil and South Perthshire

No, as I want to finish this point. That the Secretary of State has a power to end the programme is understandable. The Bill allows the decision to be taken at some future date, with a level of evidence and detail that we can only guess at today. However, if during consideration of the Bill we can come up with a proposal for a way to incorporate an end-date, I am sure that I and many other hon. Members would be able to support it.

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace Conservative, Lancaster and Wyre

The hon. Gentleman may not be aware that, since July this year, in west Belfast there have been 21 armed robberies and 37 kneecappings, which have been attributed to paramilitary groups. Does he not agree that, before we reward the terrorist groups with a Bill like this, the paramilitaries should face up to their responsibilities under the Good Friday agreement and make sure that such incidents do not continue to happen?

Photo of Gordon Banks Gordon Banks Labour, Ochil and South Perthshire

I agree wholeheartedly with the hon. Gentleman.

The application of the Bill to members of the security forces, which was raised earlier in the debate, is a reasonable proposal. I have raised the issue with a Minister in the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, and I believe that it would be unacceptable to apply the legislation to former paramilitaries who match the criteria, but not to members of the security forces.

Photo of Iris Robinson Iris Robinson DUP, Strangford

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. So that we may assess his credibility, can he tell us whether he has ever been to Northern Ireland? Has he ever met the victims? I suggest that he reads the book "Ulster—The Facts" by my hon. Friend Mr. Robinson, which shows in graphic detail the extent to which the IRA perpetrated its heinous crimes.

Photo of Gordon Banks Gordon Banks Labour, Ochil and South Perthshire

Yes, I have been to Northern Ireland. My viewpoint as a Member of Parliament is no less valid—and no more valid—than any other Member—[Interruption.]

Photo of Gordon Banks Gordon Banks Labour, Ochil and South Perthshire

The difficulty is whether the Bill is in effect an amnesty, but it sets out a proper judicial process under which individuals will be prosecuted and, if found guilty, will have a criminal record and be on licence for the normal tariff for their conviction. If they break the law, in the terms set out in the Bill, they will be liable to imprisonment both for the new offence and for the certificated one.

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the 2,000 unsolved murders in Northern Ireland. What has he to say about clause 7, which will mean that the police will not be able to interview suspects brought forward under this legislation?

Photo of Gordon Banks Gordon Banks Labour, Ochil and South Perthshire

I understand that point, but if the Bill is enacted, the new process will be what we have, and that is why we are debating it today.

Like many people, I find the provisions on non-appearance in court difficult. If the individuals involved were required to make personal appearances in court, it would go some way to reducing the mistrust of the Bill, as we have already heard today. The ability of the defence to subpoena witnesses sits uneasily in the Bill if personal appearances are not required. I imagine that we will hear a lot more about that in Committee, in this House and in the other place. The lack of a requirement to plead guilty is also a challenge, but we must remember that the normal judicial process does not demand a guilty plea. Surely there should be an opportunity for people entering the process to be proven not guilty if the evidence and argument show that to be the case.

The Bill sets about attempting to move Northern Ireland forward, difficult though that will be—as we have seen today. Northern Ireland has as much right as any other constituent part of these islands to enjoy the economic progress made since 1997, but to enjoy such gains, peace is a vital factor.

Photo of Gordon Banks Gordon Banks Labour, Ochil and South Perthshire

I do not intend to give way.

The last Conservative Government and, since 1997, the Labour Government, made significant strides in delivering peace in the Province. The Bill is designed further to deliver peace as well as to take a step towards closure on a very violent and disturbed past. Each society that moves from violence to a peaceful future has to face difficult and, at times, unpalatable situations in that quest. I believe that that is the case today.

The Bill provides a process to convict terrorists of their heinous crimes, but—the House will be pleased to learn—I consider it to be far from perfect. However, it is not possible to produce a perfect piece of legislation to deal with the issues set out in the Bill. There is always a need for people to give ground, although in a perfect world that would not be necessary. The people of Northern Ireland are being asked a big question, as are we in the House. Are we big enough to recognise the past but not let our entrenchments jeopardise the future? The future should be as positive for the people of Northern Ireland as it is for the people I represent in Ochil and South Perthshire. If we can secure the passage of the Bill, we will take another significant step towards delivering that aim.

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee 5:34 pm, 23rd November 2005

I have real affection for Gordon Banks who sits on the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs, but I do not think that contribution really did him justice. When he reads his speech I hope that he will be not exactly proud of it.

Like my right hon. Friend Mr. Mates, who preceded me as Chairman of the Select Committee, I have never heard a Minister so savaged as the Secretary of State was today. The right hon. Gentleman behaved with great restraint and dignity and I have a regard for him. I am sorry that he is not in the Chamber at present. I know that he went to meet the victims and we are all glad about that. My hon. Friend Mr. Lidington is talking to victims groups at present. As the Secretary of State has already seen the groups—I hope that he was converted by them, if not by us—his place is now in the Chamber and he should be listening to the remainder of the debate.

I have been a Member of the House for 35 years and I have never had to speak in a debate on a piece of legislation that was so illogical, shoddy and base. I understand why the Government are anxious to move, as they see it, the peace process on, but it was clear from the body language, and indeed the language, of the Prime Minister when I questioned him at the Liaison Committee yesterday, and of the Secretary of State this afternoon that their heart is not in the legislation. They know that they cannot justify it.

In many ways, this is the most bizarre day in parliamentary history, because whatever happens in the Lobbies tonight, if the Bill has its Second Reading—I hope it will not, but I suspect that it will—it will have been carried not by a majority of Government Members but by the influence of the hon. Members for Belfast, West (Mr. Adams), for West Tyrone (Mr. Doherty), for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Michelle Gildernew), for Mid-Ulster (Mr. McGuinness) and for Newry and Armagh (Conor Murphy). Five Members who do not take their seats in this place, who play no part in our deliberations and who, despite their recent protestations that they are moving towards democracy, play absolutely no part in the Parliament of the United Kingdom to which they have been elected—

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee

Oh, they take the money and they like the facilities, but they are not prepared to act as Members of the House; yet they have influence—I would even say malign influence. The leader of the Social Democratic and Labour party, Mark Durkan, who made a good speech, quoted what the Prime Minister had said to him about the power of the gun. They were the most chilling words that we have heard in our debate. The hon. Gentleman was honourably elected to lead his party and honourably returned to the House with his friend and colleague, Dr. McDonnell, who plays a valuable part in the Select Committee; yet at Weston Park, the Prime Minister pointed out that their words and their influence did not count for as much as that of people who have not eschewed terrorism, because they had relied not on the power of the bullet but on the power of the ballot. That is disgraceful—utterly disgraceful.

I do not know whether those people are personally implicated in any of the crimes that we are obliquely talking about today, but I know that in spite of the declaration in July, which we all welcomed, and in spite of the act of decommissioning that was real, if not total—none will know how total—there has not, as I said in an intervention on the Secretary of State, been one word of remorse or contrition.

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee

Sadly, that is very likely.

If we are to draw a line, if we are to move forward, as we would all like to do, and if we are to create a United Kingdom where every part of that United Kingdom is as normal as the other parts, Sinn Fein-IRA must make a declaration that they have not just renounced the bullet or not just put away their arms, but that they have indeed entered fully into the democratic process. They need to take their seats and to argue their cause on the Floor of the House. They should take their place on the Select Committee. They should play a full and constructive part in building that Northern Ireland, which we all accept is part of the United Kingdom unless and until a majority of its population decides otherwise. We would respect that verdict, although I hope that that does not happen.

What have the Government done? They have introduced the Bill, which they had no need to introduce. It is not part of the Belfast agreement—nor was it in the Government's manifesto—but it is a gesture of appeasement towards those who have not properly embraced the democratic process. The grotesque juxtaposition of introducing the Bill on the very day that the Government were seeking to pass some of the most draconian legislation that the British Parliament has ever had placed before it is extraordinary, and it is indeed differentiating between terrorists.

The people who caused the atrocities to which hon. Members have referred in moving speeches today are as evil as the people who puts the bombs in the London tube, and let us not pretend otherwise. If those people who, on Remembrance Sunday 1987—this is seared on my memory; I shall never forget it—blew apart a community as it sought to honour its dead and created more dead are not prepared to say that they are sorry for what they have done, they are not really fit to sit down with the rest of us in a democratic forum. [Interruption.]

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman. Sedentary comments of that kind, coming from certain hon. Members, do not assist the debate. These are very grave matters, and they are diminished when that kind of sedentary comment—or sign—is made.

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee

I do not get injury time for your intervention, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but so be it.

I was about to make a point that I have made several times this afternoon: those people who are guilty of those acts should at the very least come into an open court before a judge and be faced with their victims. This business of issuing a certificate and sending it, as was said earlier, to their holiday homes is no way of closing or drawing the line; it is itself yet another grotesque act.

I hope that the Minister will pass on these comments to the Secretary of State, because we all wish him well. Every member of the Select Committee wants to see normality restored, wants to see the peace walls down and wants to see a Northern Ireland in which we can all take pride, but the Bill is not advancing that cause; it is retarding it. It is rewarding those who have caused desperate anguish and have been responsible for some of the worst tragedies in peacetime ever inflicted in our country.

As Kate Hoey was speaking—and how sensibly she spoke, Mr. Deputy Speaker—I thought again about the peculiar double standards by which we operate. She and I campaigned together at the time of the Bosnian atrocities. She and I would love to see Mladic and Karadzic brought to justice. They are on the run, but would anyone in Her Majesty's Government be happy to give them a little certificate because someone had been sent along to The Hague to say, "Well, give them a certificate. They're free now."? Those are the standards that the Government are trying to impose in a part of the United Kingdom for which they are responsible.

I am glad that the Secretary of State has returned—I am grateful to him. I beg him to listen carefully to what is said in the Chamber. Again, I say to him that the Bill is not by any definition emergency or urgent legislation. It is legislation over which we should take our time. The Bill must be subject to the most critical scrutiny and examination if there is to be any chance at all of creating something from it in which any of us can take any pride at all. As it is, the Bill is a shoddy document. It is fit only for ripping in half—as I now do—and nothing else.

The Secretary of State is a reasonable man who, as I said earlier this afternoon, has exercised great restraint. Will he reflect on what I am sure he heard this afternoon from the victims' groups? Will he reflect on the fact that almost every single hon. Member on both sides of the House who has taken part in the debate has said that they do not like the Bill? Will he either take the Bill away, which would be the best thing that he could do, or, at the very least, agree that the Select Committee or a Joint Committee of both Houses should be given six weeks to examine the Bill, go through it, take evidence and come up with something that is a little more worthy of the oldest of Parliaments and the greatest bastion of democracy? We are besmirching our reputation if we give a Second Reading to this Bill today.

Photo of Alasdair McDonnell Alasdair McDonnell Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow Spokesperson (Education), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury) 5:47 pm, 23rd November 2005

I am worried about the Bill because it is extremely far reaching. On the surface, as we have heard, it will affect on-the-runs—members of the provos who may be suspected of serious crimes. However, other elements of the Bill deeply worry me. There are members of loyalist paramilitary groups, and there are renegade members of the special branch police and Army intelligence who colluded with, prompted and handled Ulster Volunteer Force killers and, indeed, a few from the IRA. Cases are ongoing and we shall hear information shortly about some of the activities in north Belfast when members of the UVF conducted operations with the knowledge of the security services in which they killed a number of innocent people—both Protestant and Catholic—just to keep themselves amused. Some of those people will be absolved by the Bill.

There were members of the security forces who acted outside the law. Hon. Members referred earlier to people acting within the laws of engagement, but I shall not go there at the moment. However, there were members of the security forces who acted above and beyond the laws of engagement and the normal instructions to which they operated. Again, some of those people will be wrapped up in the Bill. Hon. Members of all parties feel threatened by the Bill because it is a catch-all measure that will absolve a lot of people from facing justice and accounting to their victims.

I shall make only a couple of quick points because time is running out and other hon. Members wish to speak. It is fairly clear that the Bill does not stem from the agreement. It is an add-on and a side deal. Perhaps it was initiated by Gerry Adams and the provos, but even he dissociates himself from it and denies that he had much to do with it.

The Bill does not deal merely with people who were sought pre-1998, as the Prime Minister said yesterday; it applies to anyone who might be charged, now and in the future, for 2,100 unsolved murders. It is open-ended and limitless. Anyone who is guilty or associated in any way with any one of those 2,100 murders effectively gets cleared of it. That includes 300 state killings that were in some way suspicious.

Not only does the Bill deny the victims justice, but, worse than that, it denies them the very truth that they need for closure. As there is no time limit, those involved in killing those 2,100 people can sit in their living rooms while they wait in comfort to see whether the police ever come knocking on the door. If the police do come knocking, all those people have to do is apply, from the comfort of their homes or, as my hon. Friend Mark Durkan suggested, their holiday homes, for a certificate.

Sinn Fein specifically negotiated that those people do not even have to go to court. Regardless of Mr. Adams's denials, we are well aware of what happened. When the Bill was announced last week, Mr. Conor Murphy, another absent Member of the House, welcomed it before he had fully read it and realised what was in it. The contrast and distress for me—other hon. Members have made the same point, but it cannot be emphasised often enough—is that victims and police officers, under threat of penalty, can be compelled to turn up in court. Yet the perpetrators of some of those heinous crimes will not have to turn up.

My hon. Friend said that the SDLP will table amendments to undo the Bill's worst aspects. If we are talking just about a small number of people who are outside our jurisdiction, let us limit it to that. If that is the bitter pill that we have to swallow, let us swallow it, but let us not make the measure all-dancing, all-embracing and all-inclusive, so that we do not know where it will end up two or three years down the road. It has to be limited, tidy and exact. People have suffered—some for 20 years, some for 25 years, some for 30 years—and I pay tribute to my colleague, Dr. McCrea, who expressed that well. People who have suffered are entitled to some closure, truth and honesty.

We have clarified that the deal was initiated as a separate side deal, starting at Weston Park and continuing at Hillsborough, between Sinn Fein and the Government. They did not involve us. We were often kept negotiating on something on the margins. All other parties were excluded from the discussions. The deal is far too vital for one-to-one negotiations, from which the vast majority of interests were excluded.

We warned of the dangers, but others went ahead. Time and again we made it clear that the deal was way outside the remit of the agreement and what people voted for in 1998. That is a matter of public record. We published different proposals on victims and the truth that is needed for victim satisfaction. We raised our concerns time and again in Downing street and with the two Governments. Our detailed proposals for the truth process for victims are a long way from any attempt to cover up, to exclude or to collude on the past, which is what is happening to a large extent.

Under separate legislation passed to implement the Good Friday agreement, on-the-runs would, at worst, have had to serve a maximum sentence of two years. Even if no one had to go to prison under this Bill, the victims—those who have suffered and whose lives can never be put together again, who are the main people in all this—should not be denied the truth, yet that is precisely what the legislation would do. My colleagues and I intend to propose as many amendments as we can to ensure that the innocent victims—some dead, but some still living and suffering—get a better deal than the Bill as it stands offers them. If we cannot get justice, we will work to ensure that at least they get the truth. To my mind, the Bill offers victims nothing—not even, as was suggested earlier, the limited benefits that victims got through the truth process in South Africa.

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon UUP, North Down 5:55 pm, 23rd November 2005

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on the Second Reading of this Bill, which I regard as so morally wrong, so morally bankrupt, that no amount of amendment—even if the Government wished to amend this wretched Bill—will ever get me to vote for it or support it. Judging by the speeches made this afternoon, I am not alone.

I should, of course, declare a particular interest in the Bill in that I am married to a former Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. If Sir Jack were well, he would be appalled by what the Government—his Government—have presented to the House today. As right hon. and hon. Members—I congratulate Rev. Ian Paisley—probably all know, Sir Jack has Alzheimer's. Today is his birthday. He is not aware that it is his birthday, but it is the reason why I always remember the date on which the George cross was awarded to the Royal Ulster Constabulary. It was rightly, though belatedly, awarded to mark the courage, dedication and sacrifice of 302 dead officers—302 police officers. It grieves me—as I know it would grieve Jack if he were aware of it, but as I said, mercifully he is not—that the Government are proposing that the murderers of policemen and women in Northern Ireland will never have to stand in court or face any tribunal; they will never have to apologise, put their hand up and say, "I'm sorry. I have done wrong." The Bill as it stands will never require them to do that. It must not leave this House without the firm requirement that whoever is guilty of perpetrating the most heinous of crimes, against not only police officers but the innocent people who were in La Mon House and the relatives and friends of Dr. McCrea, be held to account.

All those people deserve the right to life to be respected as much in Northern Ireland as it will be respected in the rest of the United Kingdom. I say that as one who, once upon a time, was proud of the Government, when they made the European convention on human rights part and parcel of our domestic law. I was proud because the Government sent out the message to the world—not just to Northern Ireland or the United Kingdom, but to the world—that they respected human rights, the right to life and the right of everyone within the jurisdiction of the United Kingdom to an effective remedy for breaches of that convention.

The Bill proposes a certification commissioner—a wonderful title. I have no idea what it means, apart from being the title of the person who will recommend an amnesty for people who have committed the most terrible crimes. It also creates a special tribunal, a special appeal and a special prosecutor. My goodness, what an array of new appointments and gimmicks. I apologise to whoever takes up one of those offices for referring to them as gimmicks, but I mean it—it is gimmickry. It is not an adequate and effective remedy for those who have suffered through the years in Northern Ireland. I am ashamed and deeply embarrassed that my Government have introduced the Bill.

I appreciate the fact that the Secretary of State met the widows and families of Royal Ulster Constabulary officers, but with respect, he and his fellow Ministers cannot appreciate the depth of hurt and the enormous trauma experienced by a family when someone's life is taken by terrorist bombing and killing. Having spoken to RUC widows and families, I am sure that they would tell the Secretary of State that the first injury caused by losing a loved one was dreadful. I can tell him with confidence, as I am sure they have already told him, that the second injury is caused by their own Government giving an amnesty to those murderers, which is as deeply affecting and upsetting as the first injury.

I made a rather cross intervention on the Secretary of State—I apologise, but I was annoyed; there is a great deal of anger in the House this afternoon—to emphasise the fact that the Home Secretary and successive Home Secretaries have spoken in the House about increasing and improving public confidence in the criminal justice system. People in Bangor, Belfast and North Down are just as entitled to confidence in the criminal justice system and equality before that system as people in north Wales, north London and Bradford—unfortunately, that city comes to mind, because we collectively have lost another police officer, and I am terribly sorry about the death of that young woman. It is on the record that when the Criminal Justice Bill was proceeding through the House in 2003, the Home Office wrote to all Members serving on the Bill Committee to say that, under its provisions, Northern Ireland should not be perceived as becoming

"a safe haven for individuals who are seeking to avoid retrial".—[Hansard, 19 May 2003; Vol. 405, c. 798.]

Has the Secretary of State discussed the Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill in detail with the Home Office, because the special tribunal, the certification commissioner, the special appeal tribunal and the special prosecutor probably amount, in his mind at least, to a trial? He has been trying to persuade the rest of us of that case without success, bar with a few hon. Members.—[Interruption.] With one hon. Member, in fact. If that is the case, will he confirm that where there is new and compelling evidence against anyone who benefits from the legislation, whether they are loyalist or republican paramilitaries or anyone else, there is joined-up thinking in the Government so that if there is new DNA evidence or if witnesses come forward, the Home Secretary's assurance to me that Northern Ireland would not be a safe haven for criminals means that those people can face another trial at any time in the future? The legislation does not come into force until 2007, and I should like a categorical assurance in the House that the Government will not obstruct the police if they wish to bring before the courts anyone found guilty of any crime in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Peter Hain Peter Hain The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, The Secretary of State for Wales

The hon. Lady is characteristically persuasive. I can give that categorical assurance. Any police investigation will continue, and will be pursued however the police wish to pursue it prior to the implementation of the legislation.

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon UUP, North Down

I am most grateful for that assurance from the Secretary of State. I would like the additional assurance that if, in the Government's mind, the provisions of the Bill amount to a trial, the Criminal Justice Act 2003, which extends to Northern Ireland and drives a coach and horses through the old common law rule against double jeopardy, will apply. The Government legislated for Northern Ireland to assure the people of Northern Ireland that where new and compelling evidence becomes available at a later date, even if there had been a previous trial, as will happen if the Bill goes through, those who escape facing the courts and proper justice under the Bill will still be prosecuted under the Criminal Justice Act. I should be enormously grateful for such an assurance, which would go some way towards alleviating the great annoyance, anger and bitterness created by an unnecessary Bill being driven through the House.

Photo of Peter Hain Peter Hain The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, The Secretary of State for Wales

I probably need to write to the hon. Lady to provide the clarity that she needs in response to her question.

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon UUP, North Down

I am extremely grateful to the Secretary of State. I should be pleased if he would place a copy of his letter in the Library for the benefit of all other hon. Members who need guidance on the matter.

As I said at the beginning, no amount of amendment will ever improve this morally reprehensible Bill. I am ashamed of the Government for bringing it before the House.

Photo of Andrew MacKay Andrew MacKay Deputy Chairman (Candidates), Conservative Party 6:06 pm, 23rd November 2005

It is a pleasure to follow Lady Hermon in a compelling objection to a very bad Bill. It was all the more impressive on what must be a sensitive date for her. She followed Dr. McDonnell who, like her, has immense experience of the Province. They have both reached exactly the same conclusion. I hope that when Members vote tonight, they will bear that in mind.

I welcome the Secretary of State back to the Treasury Bench. It is right that he has been away talking to victims, but may I update him a little on what has been happening in the Chamber? We have been debating the Bill for the best part of five hours and, apart from his predecessor, quite understandably, saying a few words of faint praise for the Bill, no other Member has done so, except for a strange speech from Gordon Banks, who read a handout from the Whips Office. It was a painful experience.

We have had some exceptional speeches from Labour Members—from Kate Hoey and Meg Hillier, who has many objections to the Bill and spoke for the first time, I think, in a Northern Ireland debate with considerable wisdom. It is even more significant for the Secretary of State that every democratic party in Northern Ireland is opposed to his Bill. We had powerful speeches from Rev. Ian Paisley and from the hon. Members for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) and for Foyle (Mark Durkan). Surely they should be listened to.

I watched the Secretary of State carefully, and I agree with my hon. Friend Sir Patrick Cormack that he spoke with patience, allowed us a considerable number of interventions and proved again that he is a proper Member of the House of Commons and a true parliamentarian. However, in the 25 years that I have been in the House, I have never seen a Secretary of State so isolated on Second Reading. I have never seen so few Government Members speaking in support of a Bill. I have never seen the Benches so thin.

It is a sad day and I genuinely feel sorry for the Secretary of State, but I do not believe that it is his fault—the fault lies elsewhere. At this late stage, he needs to consider not just that every party in the House is against the Bill, and not just that every democratic and peace-loving Member from Northern Ireland is against the Bill, but that so are the Police Federation for Northern Ireland and the victims to whom he has just been speaking.

Will the Secretary of State cast his mind back to a little earlier today to Prime Minister's Question Time when we were fortunate—the ballot sometimes works in mysterious ways—that David Simpson had Question 1, which was a very significant question, the Prime Minister's answer to which was deeply inadequate? It will be recalled that a little later during Prime Minister's Question Time there was a moving question from Mr. Singh, who rightly mourned the police officer who was tragically murdered in his city at the weekend. Most of us find it difficult to understand the difference between bringing to justice those who murdered the police officer in Bradford, those who committed awful atrocities on 7 July in this city, and those who will, in effect, have an amnesty under this legislation.

We also find it bizarre—the Secretary of State rather lost his timing—that the Bill was published and received its First Reading two weeks ago, at the same time as the Terrorism Bill was being pursued. Does he not feel that there is something slightly wrong about trying to lock up people for 90 days without charging them on the one hand and giving this complete amnesty on the other hand? Did it not make it worse for the victims in Northern Ireland that that was happening at exactly the same time?As I say, I want to be fair to the Secretary of State because he knows that I have respect for him, but it was deeply insensitive for it to be happening at exactly the same time.

The Secretary of State mentioned closure again and again. I am afraid that that has become a meaningless word—and if he would take a little advice from me, it would be best not to use it again. I am sure that he now regrets saying that the main reason for the legislation is that the courts are log-jammed and it will help. That cannot be a satisfactory reason for bringing forward legislation that will do such harm.

Why is the legislation going ahead? We have established that it is absolutely nothing to do with the Belfast agreement, which the Minister of State and I supported. We have established from the Secretary of State that there has been no threat from Sinn Fein and the IRA that violence will be resumed if the legislation does not go ahead. We have heard from the hon. Member for North Down, who is an expert on human rights, that we could well be in breach of human rights legislation and be taken to the European Court of Human Rights if we proceed. So just why are we going ahead with the Bill at such a pace? Just what happened at Weston Park in private? What deal was done between the Prime Minister and Sinn Fein-IRA? We need to be told before we decide to vote tonight. If no deal was done, there is no sense in proceeding with a Bill that has been so mauled during its Second Reading debate and has so little support. Even at this late hour, I hope that the Minister will withdraw the Bill and consider it further, possibly in a Special Standing Committee, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire suggested.

This is a very bad Bill, but today has been a very good day for Parliament in the way that it has been debated.

Photo of Jeffrey M. Donaldson Jeffrey M. Donaldson Shadow Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow Spokesperson (Transport) 6:13 pm, 23rd November 2005

I welcome the opportunity to participate in this evening's debate. I agree entirely that this has been a debate of a very high standard, and many right hon. and hon. Members have spoken with considerable passion. At a personal level, I should say how much I admire the contribution made by Lembit Öpik—I know how difficult it must be for him to be here today—and say from his many friends in Northern Ireland that we very much appreciate the contribution that he has made to the debate today.

I cannot say the same to Gordon Banks, who will not be surprised by that. Whenever he ascends to the high office to which he undoubtedly aspires, I hope that he realises that some things in life are more important than political ambition. There are high principles in politics and justice that are worth preserving, and his contribution to this debate did nothing to persuade any of us that he understands those principles in the context of the Bill. I hope that he will take the time to come to Northern Ireland and meet some of the victims groups, and I certainly intend to send a copy of his speech to all the victims groups with which I am in contact. The central theme of his speech was, "It is time to move on and get over it." I hope that he will have the courage of his convictions and visit Northern Ireland to tell people that to their faces. I do not think that he has the slightest understanding of the hurt and pain that the Bill is causing in Northern Ireland.

I echo the comments of Lady Hermon, who spoke with considerable passion about the sense of injustice felt by RUC widows. I know that many of the other victims in Northern Ireland, such as the families of police officers and of Ulster Defence Regiment, Royal Irish Regiment and Army soldiers, share that sense of injustice. Indeed, the issue is not confined to Northern Ireland, because the families of soldiers who served in Northern Ireland have been denied justice, too. As my hon. Friend Mr. Robinson reminded us, many hundreds of civilians also lost their lives in the course of the troubles.

As has been said, the issue was not included in the Belfast agreement. I was involved in the negotiations leading up to the agreement, which I voted against for a number of reasons, including the provisions on the early release of terrorist prisoners. Nowhere in the agreement is there a justification for the Bill. Indeed, in an earlier response to an intervention, the Secretary of State acknowledged that the deal that he has done with Sinn Fein does not emanate from the agreement, although the Prime Minister has sought to draw such parallels. The argument has been advanced that the Bill is unfinished business and that we need it to achieve closure, but I respectfully inform the Secretary of State that in my opinion it will not achieve closure for many of the victims in Northern Ireland.

Last Thursday evening, my hon. Friend David Simpson and I met a large number of victims from south Armagh and Fermanagh, which are the areas with the largest number of unsolved murders in Northern Ireland. Hundreds of murders in which the perpetrators have not been brought to justice were committed in south Armagh and Fermanagh.

I do not like to single out individuals, but may I say how much I admire Miss Aileen Quinton's contribution to this debate? She lost her mother in the poppy day massacre in Enniskillen in 1987, which the Chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Sir Patrick Cormack, mentioned earlier. I have heard Aileen conduct radio interviews, and she has shared her views in the national media with considerable dignity. The strength of her argument on this issue is unanswerable: Aileen, like so many of the victims who have suffered as a result of the troubles in Northern Ireland, feels that she will suffer doubly because of the injustice caused by this Bill.

We want a process of healing in Northern Ireland so that we can move forward. I would say to the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire that I want to move forward, but I do not want us to trample over the rights of victims in our haste to do so. We must bring people with us. Dealing with the sense of injustice is part of the process of healing. Peace is not created by injustice.

The problem with the Bill is that it will lead to injustice. Some of the victims—this was expressed to us very clearly when we met victims' groups—will be re-traumatised as a result of this process. There is indignation that the perpetrators can remain anonymous throughout the process and do not have to appear before a tribunal to account for their crimes. It is an aberration to describe that as justice or due process. That simply does not wash with people in Northern Ireland. I am afraid that the legacy of the Bill will be that murder, intimidation and terrorism have proved successful for individuals who have engaged in such activities.

The Secretary of State made it clear that the purpose of the Bill is to meet a demand that has been made by Sinn Fein-IRA. That demand is coming from nowhere else but one source, and one source only. I accept that not only Her Majesty's Government but the Irish Government are party to the agreement that has been reached. The Irish Government are happy to support a deal that permits the murderers of RUC officers to walk free, yet say in their own jurisdiction that the men who murdered Garda Jerry McCabe will not benefit from the process. The hypocrisy of that position shows the extent to which double standards are applied in dealing with Sinn Fein-IRA. Of course, I do not wish the murderers of Jerry McCabe to benefit. I have met Garda McCabe's widow—a fine woman who has shown much courage in highlighting her case in the Irish Republic. Today, we met the widows and family members of RUC officers who were murdered and they cannot understand why that double standard should apply.

Photo of Iris Robinson Iris Robinson DUP, Strangford

Is my hon. Friend aware that the Taoiseach is on record as saying that he would rather be in opposition than share a Government with Sinn Fein?

Photo of Jeffrey M. Donaldson Jeffrey M. Donaldson Shadow Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow Spokesperson (Transport)

Indeed. We have heard Labour Members trumpeting the July statement and the Secretary of State telling us that the totality of IRA weapons have been decommissioned. Yet even now the Irish Prime Minister says that Sinn Fein is still not fit to be considered as coalition partners in the Irish Government in Dublin, who will no doubt press my right hon. Friend Rev. Ian Paisley and my party to form a Government in coalition with Sinn Fein. One standard applies in Stormont and another applies in Dublin.

Photo of David Davies David Davies Conservative, Monmouth

I am sure that many of my hon. Friends agree with every word that the hon. Gentleman is saying. Does he agree that the double standard, whereby British soldiers will now be treated in the same way as IRA murderers, will be hugely detrimental to our ability to recruit high quality men and women such as those who have for 30 years protected Catholic and Protestant civilians alike in the Province of Northern Ireland?

Photo of Jeffrey M. Donaldson Jeffrey M. Donaldson Shadow Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow Spokesperson (Transport)

I agree, and I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Some members of the security forces to whom I have spoken find it insulting to be categorised with terrorist murderers in benefiting from the measure. Let us not try to justify the Bill by saying that members of the security forces will benefit from it. That is not the motivation behind the measure. The motivation is to appease Sinn Fein-IRA—that is clearly the bottom line. The Government do themselves no credit by trying to shelter behind the argument that the Army and the police may benefit from the Bill.

The Bill is a raw deal for the victims. My hon. Friends and I will table amendments in Committee in due course. I agree with the hon. Member for North Down that that will not change my mind about opposing the principle of the Bill—I shall continue to oppose it.

Photo of William McCrea William McCrea Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Will it not also be a raw deal for, and insulting to, the people of Northern Ireland and the victims if Her Majesty's Government order Labour Members to vote for the Bill? That means that they have not listened to the debate or heard the arguments, but will act as fodder for the Government. They simply obey the Whips.

Photo of Jeffrey M. Donaldson Jeffrey M. Donaldson Shadow Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow Spokesperson (Transport)

My hon. Friend makes a telling point. May I say, as a friend and colleague, how much I appreciated his contribution to the debate? It must have been difficult for him to share some of his experiences with the House. I appreciate the passion and the emotion with which he spoke.

Surely, if the process is to go on, the victims must be given some rights. They should have the right to argue the case to the commissioner that a certificate should not be granted to an offender before going to the tribunal. That is a basic right, but the Bill does not afford the victims the right to put a case that the perpetrators should not receive the certificates that they seek. Victims should also have the right to make a statement in the presence of the offenders when they appear before the tribunal—if they appear. As my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East said, when offenders have not come forward, surely victims should have the right to approach the commissioner to establish whether the police have evidence or information about the person or persons responsible for the murder of their loved ones and to ascertain whether there is any intention to pursue tribunal proceedings against those individuals—yet not even that right is accorded them.

The measure contains nothing that enables the victims to receive some form of compensation for the crimes that have been committed against their loved ones. Victims groups ask how the Government are recognising them in the process. Such recognition is not apparent in the Bill. Let me be clear—the victims do not want blood money, but they are entitled to reparation and compensation for their loss. The Government need to deal with that.

FAIRFamilies Acting for Innocent Relatives—in south Armagh recently submitted an application for a memorial centre for victims. As I said earlier, south Armagh is one of those areas where there has been high loss but low detection and conviction of the perpetrators. The Government could not even give the group the money for the memorial centre. They chided the victims group and said that it had to prove that it was engaging in cross-community activities. In south Armagh, that means working with Sinn Fein and republicans—the same Sinn Fein whose councillors on Newry and Mourne council prevented the victims group from hiring a community hall in Newtownhamilton. Thankfully, those councillors have been surcharged and I hope that they will be kicked out of office. The Government expect the victims to work with Sinn Fein in south Armagh, and if they do not they will not get the money for their memorial centre. What an appalling way to treat the innocent victims of terrorist violence. This shows that the Government have double standards. It is time that they gave proper recognition to the victims.

I welcome the appointment of the victims commissioner—the Secretary of State knows that—but the commissioner and other groups must be empowered and given due recognition in this process. There is too much money involved. I wonder how much this process will cost the taxpayer in the United Kingdom. I suspect that it will be millions of pounds. Would it not be better to give that money to the victims of IRA violence in Northern Ireland? Just to build a memorial centre in somewhere like south Armagh would not cost the Government that much, but they cannot even get that right.

Finally, I want to quote again the Superintendents Association. Its members are senior officers in the police service whose job is to uphold the rule of law, and it has looked at this legislation and found it to be deeply flawed. It states that it will be

"injurious to the overall administration of the Criminal Justice Process in Northern Ireland, and public confidence therein."

That is the verdict of senior police officers in Northern Ireland, and it was, after all, this Government who told us that we should listen to senior police officers. Should not the Government listen to these senior police officers and catch on? They should drop this legislation and stand by justice and democracy. That is the only way to achieve real peace in Northern Ireland. Appeasement did not work in 1939 and it will not work now. If the IRA is genuine about peace, it should not need to have injustice.

Photo of Andrew Robathan Andrew Robathan Shadow Minister (Defence) 6:31 pm, 23rd November 2005

This is a shameful Bill. It relates to a deal that was obviously done between the Prime Minister and the leaders of the IRA. Mr. Murphy, who was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland until May, would not introduce the Bill—at least, that is my reading of what happened. He made a good speech today, and he should vote against it, as should Meg Hillier. She pointed out the Bill's deficiencies, and she should vote against it. As the right hon. Member for Torfaen appeared unwilling to introduce it, he was replaced by Mr. Hain, who was much more willing to do so. We know his background with the Troops Out movement, and we know where his real instincts and feelings lie. I believe that he was appointed because he was acceptable to the IRA and Sinn Fein, and that is why he is introducing this disgraceful Bill. I feared that the Belfast agreement might be built on sand, but I hoped otherwise. But as we have seen, Danegeld has been paid, and the thing about Danegeld is that one keeps on having to pay it. Concession after concession has been made. What will be the next one?

In this brief speech, I want to concentrate on the treatment of public servants. The RUC, to which I pay due respect, should certainly be considered, but I particularly wish to talk about the Army, as I served in Northern Ireland with certain hon. Friends sitting around me, and the Bill affects friends of mine. Loyal public servants who were doing the bidding of the Government will be in the firing line as a result of this Bill. What will be the next concession? The Saville inquiry was a concession to the IRA, costing £200 million and rising. I expect that charges against soldiers will result from it, because otherwise there would be no point in making that concession to the IRA. Under this Attorney-General, I expect that the commanding officer will be charged, for he was there, and possibly the adjutant as well. The adjutant was the present Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Mike Jackson.

Photo of Andrew Robathan Andrew Robathan Shadow Minister (Defence)

I am sorry, I have not got time.

The former Chief of the Defence Staff, Admiral Boyce, has said:

"The Armed Forces are under legal siege".—[Hansard, House of Lords, 14 July 2005; Vol. 673, c. 1236.]

We have seen the setting up of the historic investigation team by the 6th Regiment, Royal Military Police in Northern Ireland to help the Police Service of Northern Ireland in its historic investigation. But, of course, it is investigating only soldiers. It will be working with the historic inquiry team of the PSNI. More Danegeld is being paid.

I want to concentrate on two cases that I know a little about. Friends of all ranks were involved. The first was in Gibraltar in 1988. We all remember "Death on the Rock"—what a shocker that was. The Minister will tell us what the next concession will be, but I am sure that there will be an historic investigation into this case. Why? The terrorists were plotting to blow up the changing of the guard at Government House and they would have killed hundreds of people. An outrage was being planned. Actually, it is a moot point whether the soldiers were right when they shot the IRA terrorists, because the bomb was still in Spain. But that is the point. The historic investigation could therefore easily bring charges, although the soldiers were acting in good faith, on instructions from the Government and from their commanders, and prevented a dreadful atrocity. The Government will hang those SAS soldiers out to dry, as they have done to some soldiers in Iraq, to placate the IRA.

The other case is even worse. In May 1987, eight IRA terrorists who were armed to the teeth drove a JCB with a bomb on it into Loughall police station and exploded the device. They were then ambushed by soldiers and police officers who had been so instructed by the Secretary of State. That took place with Government approval. I would say that it was a great success in the battle against the IRA, but I fear that that is not how it strikes this Government and this Secretary of State. This Government passed the Human Rights Act 1998. When the European Court of Human Rights said in May 2001 that the human rights of those poor murdering terrorists had been violated, the Government had to pay £10,000 to each family. Under the Human Rights Act, those soldiers are already guilty. It is no surprise that in a written answer to me on 11 November, the Secretary of State said through the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mr. Woodward, that

"the PSNI has advised us that this incident will be looked at by the Historical Enquiry Team in due course."—[Hansard, 21 November 2005; Vol. 439, c. 1641W.]

What confidence can any soldier or ex-soldier have in this Government? It is a disgrace. More SAS soldiers will be hung out to dry, and there will be another concession to the IRA.

Should Adams and McGuinness—both on the IRA army council, and both have blood all over their hands—appear before the tribunal and should they be released on licence, will they be allowed to sit in the House of Commons as murderers under licence? I make this prediction: I guarantee that, should it happen, this Government will make another concession.

Arguably, this is the worst Bill to come before the House in recent times—certainly while I have been a Member of Parliament. I should like Defence Ministers and senior commanders of the armed forces to stand up and say, "This is a disgrace", because it is a disgrace. The Sun accused me, and my hon. Friends, of being soft of terrorism. Where does it list the people who will vote for this disgraceful Bill tonight?

When we come here we should always know what we are doing, and we should know that what we are doing is right. We should always strive to do what is right. We swear before the House that we will try to do what is right. It is not right to pass this dishonest and corrupt Bill. I hope that all Members who vote for it will hang their heads in shame.

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland) 6:37 pm, 23rd November 2005

When we think about Northern Ireland, many words come to mind—"courage" being one in so many instances. Before I deal with the Bill, perhaps I can be allowed to stray for a moment to speak of the courage of Lembit Öpik. His must have been a very difficult speech to make, but he made it with his usual commitment to the issue. He will take this in the spirit in which I mean it: he has far more friends in this place than his modesty would allow him to think. I know that he will also take this in the spirit in which I mean it. He is a man with a great sense of humour, and his great strength of character will allow him to come through these difficult times. Every Member looks forward to the eventual return of the humour for which he is well known. He is a great Member of Parliament.

This has been a very passionate debate. I have been in the House for only eight years, but I cannot think of a time when I have seen the Government under so much fire from every corner of it. We heard a very effective speech from the former Secretary of State, Mr. Murphy, who says that he hopes the Government will consider serious amendments to the Bill, and will consider other people rather than just republicans. I think that I quote him accurately.

Mark Durkan said that the Bill undermined assurances given about prisoners during the agreement referendum campaign. He also made the important point that loyalist terrorists have not decommissioned, yet they will benefit from the Bill.

Rev. Ian Paisley spoke with his usual passion. He fairly said that the Bill introduces two systems of justice in Northern Ireland, but I suspect that he would accept that one of those systems is not justice at all.

As usual, Kate Hoey spoke extremely well. She pointed out that, in opposition, the Labour party did not always support anti-terrorism legislation. She asked why, if the IRA is no longer a threat, we need the Bill.

My right hon. Friend Mr. Mates said that there are too many concessions in the Bill and that they all point one way. He provided a moving personal account of the difficulties that he had faced in one instance as a Minister. He argued that the Bill might well lead to Ministers having to take more difficult decisions, perhaps compromising victims' rights time and again.

Meg Hillier expressed great concern about the lack of any deadline in the Bill and the absence of any need for the accused to appear in court.

Mr. Robinson spoke about the great injustices of the Bill. He rightly pointed out that, because of the limit on the amount of evidence that can be gathered, it assists in the achievement of non-guilty verdicts by the accused. He spoke movingly about the events that propelled him into politics, which are highly relevant to the issues surrounding the Bill.

Even Gordon Banks—I shall be kinder than others about him—expressed concern about the fact that the accused do not have to appear in court and about the ability of the court to subpoena witnesses, but not those who are accused.

My hon. Friend Sir Patrick Cormack reminded us, in a wide-ranging speech, that the people that we are talking about in the context of the Bill are just as evil as those who bombed London. He provided a good analogy when he said that on-the-run mass murderers and terrorists from Bosnia would not be given a certificate for freedom.

Dr. McDonnell spoke about the need to provide victims with justice and truth. Indeed, he felt that the Bill lets those victims down.

Lady Hermon expressed shame at the Government for introducing the Bill and my right hon. Friend Mr. Mackay appropriately asked exactly what deal was done at Weston Park.

Mr. Donaldson spoke about the real hurt caused in Northern Ireland by the Bill. He pointed out that the Government said only a week ago that Opposition Members should have listened to police officers in respect of proposals for 90 days, yet police officers are clearly being ignored in respect of this Bill.

My hon. Friend Mr. Robathan, who, along with some other colleagues, served in Northern Ireland, made a hard-hitting speech. He condemned the concessions that it seems the Government are making.

It is important to ask why we need the Bill. The Government have not provided the answer to that question. Who is the Bill for? It is certainly not for the victims, who do not want it. The only political party in favour of the Bill is Sinn Fein. It is rather alarming that the Government are prepared to negotiate with Sinn Fein but will not negotiate with constitutional parties about amendments to the Bill. The Secretary of State said that there was an agreement with the Irish Government, but they are certainly not implementing the terms of the Bill.

As hon. Members have already asked, what will result if the Bill is defeated? Let us suppose that it does not get through Parliament: what are the Government afraid will happen? The Government say that they believe the IRA when it says that the war is over. That leads me to the question of why the Bill should be introduced now. If the war is perhaps not over, is not the Bill premature?

We have heard the IRA statement and subsequent confirmation that the IRA has put its arms beyond use, but I am not aware that it has put the proceeds of the bank robbery beyond use. As far as I know, the Government still hold the IRA responsible for that robbery, as do the Irish Government and the police in Northern Ireland. While the IRA has the means to rearm and to pay its volunteers, is not the Bill at least premature?

The Secretary of State spoke about closure—what he described in his article in The Times yesterday as the end game. The Good Friday agreement makes it clear that its participants believe that the aims of the criminal justice system should be to

"have the confidence of all parts of the community".

I do not think that we can say that this Bill has the confidence of all parts of the community when it comes to the so-called justice that it will deliver.

I shall give a very brief analogy. A few years ago, I and some other hon. Members visited Rwanda, where there had been the most awful genocide. I walked through the bones and skulls of some of the victims of that genocide, and then attended one of the court sessions. About 850,000 people had been massacred, and I said to the Justice Minister, "We have all these courts set up, and we are going to send people to prison, yet we are talking about reconciliation. Can we get the reconciliation if we go down that path?"

What a naive question for me to ask. The Justice Minister said, "We have to have the justice before we can have the reconciliation." That is the point that hon. Members of all parties have tried to make today.

The Secretary of State said that we can never bring an end to the victims' hurt. That may be true, but we can make that hurt worse. I suspect that that is what the Bill will do.

The Secretary of State did not help the process with his article in The Times. He wrote that those returning would face the prospect of a "full legal process", but that is untrue, as they will not have to appear in court. He added that they would have to go through a special court before being let out on licence, but let out of where, let out of what? Those people will not have been inside for a single day. What a misleading article it was.

There is not time for me to go through all the Bill's flaws, as I want to give the Minister an appropriate time in which to respond, but I will say that I see the Bill as yet another concession to the IRA. As my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby asked, what will the next concession be? What will provoke it? Will it be that the IRA starts to make threatening noises again? That is unacceptable in a democracy.

I do not mean this as a personal comment to the Minister, but he will not be surprised to hear that we will take this Bill very seriously if it reaches Committee.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office 6:48 pm, 23rd November 2005

I appreciate the tone of today's debate. This is a difficult subject, with lots of raw emotion. I hope that the House will understand if I limit the number of interventions that I take, as I have only a short time in which to respond to a long debate in which very serious issues were raised. However, to show that the Government are not afraid of debate, I point out to the House that the programme motion—which I hope will be approved—allows for a long discussion in Committee. I assure hon. Members that I shall welcome prolonged consideration, and that provision has been made to allow the Committee's deliberations to go beyond the normal period.

I found the speech of Lembit Öpik very moving and honest. I appreciate the effort he made to come to the House in today's difficult circumstances. On behalf of the Government and Labour Members, I want to express to him and his family our condolences at his loss.

I am also grateful to hon. Members of all parties for their efforts in addressing the very difficult issues associated with the Bill. I hope that I will have an opportunity to deal with some of the matters that have been raised, but I shall start with the question of victims. That subject has been at the heart of many of the contributions made today.

No one could have listened to the speeches of the hon. Members for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson), for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) or for Strangford (Mrs. Robinson), or to the very moving contributions from the hon. Members for South Antrim (Dr. McCrea) and for North Down (Lady Hermon), without thinking of the victims of the crimes that are the subject of the Bill before the House. I had the opportunity to meet victims, including Aileen Quinton and Willie Frazer, when the Bill was published two weeks ago. Yesterday, I also looked in the eyes of widows of policemen who had been killed in a brutal and cowardly way by members of the IRA. I have also met the children and parents of people who have been killed and seen the dignity with which they carry themselves. Nobody in this House can understand their pain, and nor can we look those people in the eye without recognising the further pain that this Bill will bring.

Photo of Jeffrey M. Donaldson Jeffrey M. Donaldson Shadow Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow Spokesperson (Transport)

I was with Aileen Quinton when the Minister met her, by accident, in Central Lobby a couple of weeks ago. The Minister undertook to meet Miss Quinton before the Bill today. Did he do so?

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

I have offered to meet victims. I met victims yesterday and I make an offer today to meet with any victims' groups. I also met police victims yesterday and I have said that I will continue to liaise with them. I have offered a meeting to the individuals concerned and will arrange to discuss the issues with them.

One of the reasons my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will introduce the victims commissioner from 1 DecemberBertha McDougall is a victim herself—is to ensure that victims are recognised.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

No, because I have limited time to reply.

In the Bill, there is a duty on both the certification commissioner and the special tribunal to liaise with, support and inform the victims during the new process.

As my right hon. Friend Mark Durkan said, the Bill was the result of discussions not as part of the Good Friday agreement—which some hon. Members genuinely opposed—but after Weston Park in 2001 and 2003. It was not—as my hon. Friend Kate Hoey suggested—published secretly. It was a published document that was made available. It was also indicated at the time what steps the Government would take to bring the matter forward.

Mr. Robertson asked, "Why now?" The Bill has been introduced now because part of the agreement and part of the building blocks for the agreement were to bring the IRA to the position it is now in, where it has made what I hope proves to be its historic statement in July.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

I will not give way at this stage, because I wish to make some important points in limited time. My time to reply is limited because we wanted to give hon. Members an opportunity to make their points about the Bill.

We wanted to ensure that the Independent Monitoring Commission—whose reports are being considered—had the chance to recognise what the IRA has undertaken. As part of the political peace process and as part of the building blocks for that process, this measure has been introduced. And, yes, I do say to Mr. Mates, to the hon. Members for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) and for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) and to my hon. Friends for Ochil and South Perthshire (Gordon Banks) and for Vauxhall, that we introduced the Bill at this time for those reasons.

The Bill, if it passes all its stages, will not come into effect until 2007 and we will have an opportunity to judge how the IRA performs between now and then. As my hon. Friend Meg Hillier said, we need to restore the institutions in Northern Ireland, so that local people can decide local priorities.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Leader of the Social Democratic & Labour Party

If the Minister is as concerned as he says he is about victims, why are the Government stabbing new grievances into victims' grief and calling it closure? In relation to the Minister's last comment that the Bill will pave the way for the restoration of the institutions, I ask what will not happen if the Bill is not passed? What will be denied us, in terms of the institutions and the agreement, if the Bill is not passed?

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

My hon. Friend will be aware that part of the discussions at Weston Park and part of the reason that the Bill has been taken forward is because it was part of the building blocks to get people to make the statement in July in the first place.

I wish to make it clear for hon. Members on both sides of the House that there are tight eligibility criteria for the scheme. People cannot qualify for the scheme if they are members of Continuity IRA, the Real IRA, the UVF, the LVF or any specified organisation. They cannot be involved in terrorism now and qualify for the scheme. They cannot have been involved in offences after 10 April 1998 and qualify for the scheme. They cannot have received a sentence for any further crime and qualify for the scheme. That is an important aspect.

Some Members, including my hon. Friend Rev. Ian Paisley and for East Hampshire, and the hon. Members for Aylesbury, for Foyle and for Montgomeryshire have called the measure an amnesty. That is a debatable point and people will argue about it, but individuals will come before a court, they will be prosecuted and could be found guilty; a situation where individuals could be subject to criminal prosecution and released on licence is not an amnesty as I understand it.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

No, there are only three minutes left. The hon. Gentleman has not been in the Chamber for all of the debate so I certainly will not give way to him.

Several Members referred to non-appearance in court. That is a serious matter and it was raised by Dr. McDonnell, my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen, the hon. Members for North Down and for Montgomeryshire, my hon. Friends the Members for Foyle, for Hackney, South and Shoreditch and for Ochil and South Perthshire and the hon. Member for South Staffordshire. Non-appearance in court is a difficult issue. We have taken a judgment, because we want to get individuals through the scheme. We want them to qualify for the scheme, to come to account and to face justice as a result of a criminal record.

For the reasons that we have outlined we support the Bill as it stands, but as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said we shall examine amendments in Committee, tabled by the hon. Member for South Staffordshire or others. We shall consider what has been said on both sides of the House today, including the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen and others. We shall consider the issue in Committee and in another place, and reflect on the all the points that have been made.

There will be a tight licence under the legislation. If convicted individuals breach the licence, become members of, or involved in supporting, specified organisations get involved in terrorism or are convicted of other crimes, they will face recall and imprisonment. Under the early release scheme that we introduced, individuals have lost their licence and faced the consequences.

My hon. Friends the Members for Ochil and South Perthshire and for Hackney, South and Shoreditch asked about end dates for the scheme. The Secretary of State will have the power to set an end date and we shall consider that in due course unless the scheme comes to a natural end.

I want to mention two further issues. My right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen, the hon. Members for Montgomeryshire and for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) and the right hon. Member for East Hampshire mentioned exile. The Government certainly do not support the process of exiling. It must end and we utterly condemn activities of groups on either side of the community that are aimed at intimidating individuals in Northern Ireland. I understand the concerns that have been expressed today. It is our intention to listen to suggestions during the passage of the Bill to ensure that we tackle the question of exiling and ensure that intimidation does not occur.

The second point relates to interaction with the historical inquiry team. It is not our intention, in any way, shape or form, to undermine the efforts of the Police Service of Northern Ireland in reinvestigating old murders. Those investigations can take place until the Bill comes into effect. The PSNI can continue to pursue them, irrespective of their eligibility for the scheme. The Bill is about seeking justice, to ensure that individuals are given criminal records, that victims know who has committed the crime and that individuals are held on licence if they are convicted after 2007.

We have included the armed forces and security services because we feel that it would be unfair and impractical to hold an individual on a terrorist basis who could be released after 2007, whereas an individual from the military could be charged with a similar offence and find themselves in jail for that period.

This is part of the political peace process. It is the key to getting where we are today. It is the key to the future. It is the key to ensuring that there are no future victims in Northern Ireland. The Government's concern is to ensure that we do not create future victims. That is why I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The House divided: Ayes 258, Noes 313.

Division number 107 Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill

Aye: 259 MPs

No: 313 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Question accordingly negatived.

Main Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 62 (Amendment on Second or Third Reading):—

The House divided: Ayes 310, Noes 262.

Division number 108 Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill

Aye: 310 MPs

No: 262 MPs

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Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Question accordingly agreed to.

Bill read a Second time.