Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill

– in a Public Bill Committee on 13th December 2005.

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[Sir Nicholas Winterton in the Chair]

[Continuation from column 258] 8.45 pm

On resuming—

Photo of Lorely Burt Lorely Burt Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland), Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

I beg to move amendment No. 60, in clause 6, page 5, line 1, after ‘person’, insert

‘or the organisation with which he was associated’.

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 61, in clause 6, page 5, line 2, after ‘him’, insert

‘or the organisation with which he was associated’.

No. 80, in clause 10, page 7, line 8, at end insert

‘in relation to both the person and any organisation that he has at any time supported.’.

Photo of Lorely Burt Lorely Burt Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland), Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

The amendments relate to Liberal Democrat amendments Nos. 48, 49, 51 and 54, which the Committee dealt with previously. Amendment No. 60 would tie the behaviour of the organisation to the fate of the individual. It would allow the Secretary of State to cancel a person’s certificate of eligibility if the conditions in section 3(3) were not met by the organisation at the time when the certificate was issued or, more crucially, if they are no longer being met by that organisation. That would give paramilitary organisations an incentive to cease all illegal activity: if they do not, they put the licences of those who support them at risk.

Although the Bill deals with individuals, it is important to remember that individuals carried out terrible acts of terrorism in Northern Ireland in the name of certain organisations. The behaviour of those organisations must also be considered in relation to the Bill.

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield

I am most grateful to the Conservative Whip for saying that.

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

I thank the hon. Member for Solihull for her eminently short introduction to the amendment. However, the very reason she mentioned is the reason why I cannot accept it: she wishes to tie the certificate to the organisation with which an individual was associated, but the scheme is predicated on an individual fulfilling the eligibility criteria to enter the scheme. The conditions of eligibility refer primarily to the behaviour and activities of the individual; that   naturally includes consideration of the status of the organisation, but only in relation to the individual’s support and actions.

If there were a change in the status of an organisation and it became a specified organisation, that could lead to the loss of the certificate. However, the individual, as we have discussed in relation to previous amendments, may well have changed their behaviour dramatically. The scheme is based on the performance, activities and understanding of the individual, not on the organisation with which any individual may or may not be associated.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

Does the Minister not see a contradiction in the fact that the certificate will depend on the way in which the individual behaves but, according to the discussion that we had on the earlier amendments, whether or not the Secretary of State revokes the certificate will depend on the wider political circumstances?

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

There is no contradiction. The individual and what happens to the individual may well form part of a wider political consideration, but the scheme is designed to assess the performance of the individual, what an individual undertakes in terms of their eligibility for the scheme and whether they meet the criteria for the scheme.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East

If the Minister looks at clause 6(1)(b), he will see that the person’s position is tied directly to what the organisation does.

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

The eligibility criteria relate to whether an individual is a member of a specified organisation and has other associations with that organisation. The point that I am making to the hon. Member for Solihull is that the conditions of eligibility refer primarily to the individual’s performance—whether he meets the criteria for the scheme and his subsequent performance in relation to them. There may be an opportunity at some point for the organisation of which that person was formerly a member to find itself engaged in further discussions with the Government about a range of issues. That organisation will then fall outside the scheme, but the individual will have met the eligibility criteria and ultimately will have worked within the scheme. It is the individual’s behaviour and activities that are judged by the scheme.

Photo of David Anderson David Anderson Labour, Blaydon

Is it not true that, right across Northern Ireland, there are people who were terrorists and who served time in prison either before or after the early release scheme, but who have done sterling work in moving the Northern Ireland peace process forward? If the organisation to which they once belonged was no longer compatible with the peace process, we would not think of saying to them that they should suffer personally. Why should we apply it in the certification scheme?

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

Other clauses provide for a period between the judgments on the performance of the organisation and on the continuance of an individual in the scheme. In my view, the conditions of eligibility   refer primarily to the behaviour or activities of the individual. For that reason, I urge the hon. Member for Solihull not to press the amendment to a Division.

Photo of Lorely Burt Lorely Burt Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland), Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

The Minister says that the amendment is tied to the individual and not to the organisation. However, the hon. Member for East Antrim said that the revoking of the certificate will depend on the wider political circumstances. More specifically, the hon. Member for Belfast, East made the valid point that the individual and the organisation are inextricably connected. I am sorry to disappoint the Minister, but I feel that it is appropriate to press for a vote.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 10, Noes 16.

Division number 29 Nimrod Review — Statement — Clause 6 - Cancellation of certificate

Aye: 9 MPs

No: 15 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

NOES

Question accordingly negatived.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East

I beg to move amendment No. 24, in clause 6, page 5, line 6, at end insert

‘or

(c)without good excuse the person who holds a certificate of eligibility does not attend the Special Tribunal dealing with his case.’.

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 62, in clause 6, page 5, line 6, at end insert

‘or

(c)the person has refused to answer questions from a police officer about the offences notified in the application under section 3.’.

No. 63, in clause 6, page 5, line 6, at end insert

‘or

(c)the person has refused to appear in court.’.

No. 25, in clause 8, page 5, line 34, leave out subsection (3).

No. 70, in clause 8, page 5, line 34, leave out ‘no’ and insert ‘an’.

No. 26, in clause 8, page 5, line 35, leave out subsection (4).

No. 27, in clause 8, page 5, line 37, leave out subsection (5).

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East

Our proceedings might slow down a little now, as amendment No. 24 is a key amendment to the Bill. The ghosts of absent applicants have already passed through the Committee several times, and no doubt they will do so again, given some of the other amendments, particularly new clauses 13 and 18. However, this is the only time when the issue arises in a lead amendment. I suspect that hon. Members will address the purpose and principle of the amendment, rather than its wording.

Amendments Nos. 24 to 27 strike at the credibility of the whole Bill. Their purpose is to require the applicant to attend the special tribunal that is dealing with their case. There is no requirement in the Bill as drafted for an applicant to attend, which makes total nonsense of the notion of justice and is yet another attack on the victims of those before the tribunal.

I recognise that the amendments are not the only way in which to achieve our goal—other hon. Members have suggested alternatives—but the key is to achieve that goal. Whether or not the Minister wants to face up to the issue in this Committee—he has showed no inclination to face up to much so far—he will eventually be confronted with it.

Amendment No. 24 provides that a certificate of eligibility can be revoked if, without good excuse, the person who holds it does not attend the special tribunal dealing with his or her case. Attendance therefore becomes a requirement. The consequential amendments Nos. 25 to 27 would remove from clause 8 the words that ensure that there is currently no obligation on a defendant to appear before the special tribunal.

We should remember the very considerable concern expressed at every level on both sides of the House on Second Reading about the idea that people could be dealt with in absentia. I recall that the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), said:

“the Government should consider seriously some of the amendments that are likely to be proposed. A number have been mentioned this afternoon, including the hugely important one about the victims appearing in court at a time when the person concerned may not have appeared. I hope the Government will listen to the amendments proposed. The difference between now and 1998 is that there has not been a referendum and the context is clearly very different.”—[Official Report, 23 November 2005; Vol. 439, c. 1562.]

The right hon. Gentleman is a former Labour Secretary of State for Northern Ireland who was one of the people most closely involved in the negotiations on this very scheme, so I would have thought that his successor and the Minister would have taken his views more seriously.

Given the inexplicable lack of a requirement to attend a special tribunal in person, it is natural for people to assume that the deal that the Government did with the IRA requires that particular provision. I point out to those people that on Second Reading the present Secretary of State for Northern Ireland denied that that was the case and said:

“I repeat the point that I made and reconfirm that no assurance was given in writing to the IRA about this specific matter ... Of course no such written assurance was given.”—[Official Report, 23 November 2005; Vol. 439, c. 1538.]

Unless the right hon. Gentleman was disingenuously drawing our attention to a written assurance as opposed to one given verbally or in some other way, there is no clear reason why the Minister should feel constrained to hold on to a provision that his right hon. Friend said at the time of the negotiations should be changed. I therefore hope that the hon. Gentleman will consider making a change on this vital issue.

When replying to the Second Reading debate, the Minister could offer no credible justification for the lack of a requirement to attend court, and no justification has been offered thus far. If the provision does not arise from the deal that the Government have done, they will clearly want to make a change. It is absurd that a witness or a victim may be required to attend a special tribunal but the perpetrator of the offence will not be required to do so.

The victims, the police and the special tribunal will all face considerable expense, difficulty and upset, but the person responsible for the offence, whom the scheme is designed to benefit, will not even have to attend and could be off on their holiday. As a result of the absence of a requirement to attend, perpetrators will be allowed to turn the entire process into a farce and a joke. Even while his case is being dealt with, a perpetrator could be walking the streets or lolling around, never having to face a day in jail, never having to face a court, while the victims and their families endure the hardship yet again of having to relive their trauma.

I see no possible justification for decisions being taken in the absence of the person responsible for the offences. It is essential that they face the court and their accusers, that the court has the opportunity to consider the arguments and hear the evidence, and that the victims have the right to see those who are responsible so that they can—I come back to that word again—have some measure of “closure” on the events. Once again, however, it is clear that the Government are on the side of the terrorists, not the victims.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Affairs, Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Welsh Affairs 9:00 pm, 13th December 2005

In supporting the sentiment and intent behind the amendments that the hon. Gentleman has just spoken to, I shall speak to amendments Nos. 62, 63 and 70, which stand in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull.

Amendment No. 62 highlights our concern about the provisions that specify that an applicant cannot be arrested or detained. That presumably means that they cannot be questioned about any offence in their application, or at least that they cannot be made to participate in the questioning process. We are concerned that that could damage the chances of the police and the prosecution of building any kind of credible case against an applicant.

Under the amendment, the refusal to answer questions of an applicant who had been arrested could be drawn to the attention of the tribunal, which could then draw a potentially adverse inference from that silence. More specifically, the amendment would provide applicants with an incentive actively to   participate in the process. Given that their certificates could be cancelled if they refused to answer questions from a police officer, they would, I hope, be more willing to co-operate and to come forward to admit to anything they might have done.

In the same vein, amendment No. 63 would provide the applicant with an incentive to appear before the tribunal. We propose revoking the licence of a person who does not appear before the court. It would give the applicants a motivation to be at their own hearing. Nothing in the Bill encourages an applicant to appear, as the hon. Member for Belfast, East said. The case can be made by a barrister, and applicants will not have to be cross-examined or face the people who have been affected by their actions. It is easy to understand why a person in that position would choose not to appear if they had no reason to do so. The amendment would provide them with a reason to attend the hearing.

Thirdly, amendment No. 70 would make a change that is very simple, but which goes to the heart of the matter. For Liberal Democrats, this is one of the crucial issues in the Bill. The suggestion that a qualifying defendant will not have to appear before the special tribunal to avail himself of the scheme is offensive. Instead, they may be represented by proxy. The Committee should think about that. As a special tribunal will have all the powers of the Crown court, the Bill creates a ridiculous situation, as victims of and witnesses to the offences could be subpoenaed—forced to appear in court to give evidence against an accused person who is not even there.

If the offender is not required to appear in person, the whole process becomes a charade. Relatives of victims and victims themselves will be forced to relive experiences caused by an individual who may not even be in the country.

As I said on Second Reading, appearance in court is essential. It would give a limited sense of relief to some victims. It would be small consolation to many of those who suffered at the hands of the paramilitaries, but it would be a start. It would clearly show that society believes that what the offender did was criminal and continues to be wrong. Although the offender would be released on licence, he or she could not wash their hands of the offences of which they had been found guilty.

The Government have offered absolutely no credible justification for a defendant not being required to appear in court. Meanwhile, in comparison, victims and their representatives have given a cast-iron explanation of why that is necessary in terms of natural justice and as an essential part of any judicial process that is to be taken seriously.

In opposing the amendment, the Minister must explain how on earth trial by proxy can have anything like the same coherence as trial in the orthodox fashion, which one would expect in a court. He must also explain why he can pretend that the Government have considered the matter in the context of victims’ requirements, when everything is weighted towards making it comfortable for the defendant.

So far, I have heard nothing from the Minister, his boss or any other Government spokesperson as to why the measure is in the Bill. We have been assured many times that it is not part of a deal with Sinn Fein. Forgive me for being sceptical, but I see no rational or ethical justification for the exemption of a defendant from attendance in court. However, I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.

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

I want to pick up from where the last two speakers left off. Labour Members have significant concerns about the fact that the Bill places no obligation on the defendant to appear before the special tribunal in person. I echo the sentiments expressed earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, South.

It is particularly difficult when witnesses who may be victims, or the family of victims, can be forced to appear and go through a gruelling, difficult process, but the persons who stand to gain most from that process are spared that moral responsibility. The lack of attendance by the defendant shows no acceptable recognition of the crimes with which they are charged or the procedural process.

I bring to the Minister’s attention comments made by Dave Cox, a former Metropolitan police commander who worked on the Stevens inquiry on security force collusion in killings, about what he called the “extraordinary unfairness” of a situation in which a witness might be required to appear before a tribunal, but the defendant is not required to do so.

I am sympathetic to comments made in relation to clause 4, and the requirement to attend would remove the possibility of false applications. I urge the Minister to give the Committee an understanding that he is prepared to consider, between now and a later stage in the process, the forceful argument that defendants should be compelled to appear.

Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies PPS (Rt Hon Tessa Jowell, Secretary of State), Department for Culture, Media & Sport

I also support the aims of the amendments, and I made my position clear in an intervention on Second Reading. This issue goes to the core of the Bill. Although we may have fundamental disagreements in Committee about the aim of the legislation, there is a cross-party feeling among many Members that one of its effects should be to achieve, to whatever degree of effectiveness is possible, some feeling of justice—a sense that criminal and terrorist activities have been displayed for people to see, that it is right that they are on record and that the person concerned appeared in person to acknowledge them.

I am sure the Minister realises that there is a significant difference between the appearance of a proxy to acknowledge the offences in place of the individual concerned and the appearance of that individual. Later amendments deal with the issue of expressions of remorse—I shall not test your patience by dwelling on that, Sir Nicholas—but those we are considering do not. They simply aim at getting the individual to appear in person so as to hear the roll call of their criminal or terrorist activities.

Photo of Jeremy Hunt Jeremy Hunt Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

The hon. Gentleman speaks most eloquently. Will he this time send the Government a clear message by voting for the amendments?

Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies PPS (Rt Hon Tessa Jowell, Secretary of State), Department for Culture, Media & Sport

The hon. Gentleman tempts me. I shall see, depending on the Minister’s response, but I have progress to make yet.

The amendments go to the core of our discussion, because mention has previously been made—this is very pertinent to the amendments—of the creation of an amnesty under the Bill. It is not an amnesty, because that would wipe the slate completely clean and give a total pardon. Although the Bill does not create an amnesty, we want not only the certificate and the record pertaining to the individual, but the individual himself—standing there, accounting for the things he was responsible for.

Photo of Mark Todd Mark Todd Labour, South Derbyshire

Can my hon. Friend think of any circumstance in which the individual’s non-attendance could be justified? I have attempted throughout consideration of the Bill to think of various hypothetical circumstances—we had a good exercise of that kind earlier—but I cannot for the life of me think why an individual in the relevant circumstances should not attend. Can my hon. Friend throw any light on that?

Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies PPS (Rt Hon Tessa Jowell, Secretary of State), Department for Culture, Media & Sport

My hon. Friend makes a fair point. I struggle to think of such exceptional, rare circumstances, although there may be some.

Photo of Mark Hendrick Mark Hendrick PPS (Rt Hon Margaret Beckett, Secretary of State), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Does my hon. Friend agree that such a case might be one in which a person’s identity could be revealed as a result of a court appearance? Is it reasonable to suggest that, in the same way that undercover police officers are shielded in court, arrangements might be made to allow someone to attend court without being recognised?

Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies PPS (Rt Hon Tessa Jowell, Secretary of State), Department for Culture, Media & Sport

My hon. Friend gives an interesting illustration to try to identify a possible exception, but what he describes would not preclude the individual’s appearing in court, albeit behind a screen or in disguise. That is a fundamental point.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Opposition Whip (Commons) 9:15 pm, 13th December 2005

I am trying to work out when an amnesty is not an amnesty. When it sounds like an amnesty and looks like an amnesty, I think it is an amnesty. The point about informants is a red herring.

Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies PPS (Rt Hon Tessa Jowell, Secretary of State), Department for Culture, Media & Sport

When is an amnesty not an amnesty? When it clearly is not in this Bill. An amnesty has to be complete. I do not have the details on me, but I did some research and will happily forward the results to the hon. Gentleman, which show where amnesties have happened. An amnesty is technically, and clearly legally, a complete wiping clean of the slate.

The hon. Gentleman has talked about truth and reconciliation. I appreciate the analogy, but this is not truth and reconciliation, nor is it akin to the situation in Uganda. There, people involved in the Lord’s Resistance Army came back after murdering their own kinsfolk and stood in front of their tribe and said, “I   am guilty for what I did, I am remorseful. Please accept me back.” This is not that—it is very different legislation.

I am conscious of the time, so I shall conclude. There is a strong feeling that, for families that have lost loved ones to have some sense of justice, however small, there needs to be an appearance in court. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response and ask him seriously to consider the views across the Committee on the issue.

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland)

For the record, we support the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Belfast, East. I do not intend to speak at length, because we are coming to new clause 18, which would go a little further in replacing the tribunal with a court. It would also place on the defendant a duty to appear in front of that court, and make it a criminal offence if he did not.

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

I rise to express our support for amendment No. 24 and to address a number of other amendments.

There are many reasons for opposing the Bill, and many reasons why we in the SDLP oppose it—the absence of a time limit; the inclusion of those who have either killed while acting in the name of the state, or solicited or been complicit in killings by others while they were acting for the state; and the outrageously lax treatment of loyalist terror. Those are all enormous failings, and each is a reason why we have called for the Bill to be dropped. However, for the widest possible cross-section of the public in Northern Ireland, symbolically, the most appalling feature of the Bill is the fact that perpetrators do not have to appear in court to avail themselves of the scheme.

Those people are to be spared even the vague discomfort of possibly having to look their victims in the eye, or even catching their eye. That means that provos on whose behalf the Bill was negotiated can come home with the pleasure of a media opportunity, surrounded by their supporters—“home comes the hero”. That leaves those who were party to collusion able to celebrate in quiet anonymity, as any chance of the emergence of the truth about their misdeeds evaporates under this legislation.

Those are the lengths to which the Government and Sinn Fein have been willing to go in this pact to cover for each other and to deny victims of all kinds the truth. The provision in clause 8(3), for instance, did not appear out of nowhere. It was specifically negotiated into the Hillsborough side deal in 2003. In recent weeks, since the legislation was published, Sinn Fein has been happy to say constantly, “This legislation comes from Weston Park”. It deliberately tries to airbrush Hillsborough 2003. The paper produced by the Government on that occasion provided that nobody would have to appear—so the provision goes right back to that time—but it also provided that the scheme would cover all scheduled offences, which Sinn Fein has been in denial about, saying that it was not aware of it and that it was written in only recently. Even the Government have pretended   that Sinn Fein knew nothing about it, even though the public record shows different and “all scheduled offences” can mean only “all scheduled offences”.

That is why the Government are not proposing any amendments today, in spite of what they have said before. It is also why they will vote down any amendments tabled by the rest of us. That is so that, when they propose any amendments, it will be in the House of Lords, so that they can keep their word to Sinn Fein that they would not let the DUP, the UUP, the SDLP or anybody else lay a finger on the Bill. Only in the House of Lords, which the Government do not control, might they have to make some adjustments. Somehow, they will be released from their compact with Sinn Fein there and will be allowed to dance on their feet a little.

When amendments are tabled, no doubt we will even be treated to Sinn Fein claiming the credit for one or two—not least because some issues on which the Minister has said he will reflect involve tightening the Bill in favour of the perpetrators. A few loose threads were identified in earlier discussions. What does that mean to us as members of the Committee and Members of the House of Commons? We have to ask how this has come to be such an upside down world. We are meant to suspend our democratic parliamentary judgment when the magic words “for the wider good of the peace process” are used and accept that some other unexplained imperative should override the logic that is coming from all Members, including those on the Government side of the Committee, which is that people who avail themselves of the scheme should at least have to participate in the proceedings, or even part of them.

As well as telling us that the Bill is about closure, the Minister has told us that it is about people having to take responsibility for their actions. We know from earlier debates that people will not even have to take responsibility for their own application. Now they will not have to take responsibility even to turn up. We have to ask how we, as democratic parliamentarians, find ourselves in this upside down world. We, the elected Chamber of this Parliament, are to be denied the right to make logical, proper amendments that even the Government have difficulty arguing against—all for that to be done by an unelected Chamber on behalf of people who carried out thoroughly undemocratic and unlawful deeds.

Of course, it is not just we democrats who find ourselves in an upside down world and treated as though we are the subversives for speaking up for the democratic, public and lawful interest. As the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire has said, we also have the extraordinary situation whereby a perpetrator does not have to appear in court, but a victim who is a witness can be compelled to appear, even though that person may, and in all chances will, fundamentally object to the whole proceedings.

What happens if the victim does not appear? He or she risks imprisonment—the very outcome that this whole process is designed to ensure that perpetrators   avoid. That is how devoid of principle the Government and Sinn Fein are in straying and taking forward the Bill.

That may suit the IRA, the UDA, the UVF, members of the force research unit and people in special branch who were up to all sorts of skulduggery, but the rest of us are left with questions. How can anyone stand over such a perverse and unjust outcome? The magic words “for the wider good of the peace process” simply do not wash. Many of us have taken many risks and many stands. Many of us have suffered many costs in standing up for the wider good of the peace process. The Bill has nothing to do with the wider good of the peace process and this provision is about protecting the narrowest possible interest of people who have a lot to hide. The Bill is about accommodating people by hiding those things in the name of closure—closing down the truth in the name of closure.

That is why we stand ready to support amendment No. 24, which at least would give the perpetrator some incentive to turn up in court. I am equally happy to support the other amendments, including those that we have tabled, which would either give perpetrators an incentive to appear in court or oblige them to do so. Those are amendments Nos. 25 to 27, 70 and 62.

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon UUP, North Down

I rise to speak briefly, but strongly, in support of both amendment No. 24, which was tabled by the hon. Member for Belfast, East, and other amendments in the group. The issue of non-appearance in court was touched upon on Second Reading. The Minister, in concluding that debate, said that non-appearance in court is “a difficult issue”—which is an understatement, if I may say so—and that the Government had taken a judgment because they

“want to get individuals through the scheme.” —[Official Report, 23 November 2005; Vol. 439, c. 1617.]

That is the feeble excuse that he offered.

The hon. Member for Foyle is correct that the provision regarding the non-appearance of the defendant was agreed with Sinn Fein, and endorsed by the Irish Government with the British Government, at Hillsborough in 2003. I am ashamed to say that of my own Government. On Second Reading, the Secretary of State confirmed that it was agreed at Hillsborough that

“the applicant would not be required to be present at the trial.” —[Official Report, 23 November 2005; Vol. 439, c. 1563.]

Despite the point being made by the Secretary of State—and repeated by the Minister—on Second Reading that non-appearance of the defendant in court is part of an international agreement between the Irish and British Governments, it is, I think, the unanimous view of the Committee that the British Parliament remains a sovereign Parliament, and therefore this Parliament can amend the Bill to include a provision that requires a defendant to do the minimum to achieve an amnesty—that means a court appearance.

I hope the Minister will be persuaded by voices from right around the Committee that if any amendment is to be accepted it should be one that would require the defendant to appear before a tribunal.

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

As a former journalist, the headline that jumped out at me when I first read the Bill was this issue of non-appearance. Forgive me, I am a new Member of Parliament: I meant to speak on clause 8, but I gather from looking at the amendments and from what my colleagues have said that this is the time to make my point. Therefore, I shall speak not to the amendment, but about the principle of non-appearance.

Whatever may have been discussed at Weston Park, we are in a different place now, so although I find it difficult to vote for this proposal, I will vote with the Government, because I believe in voting with the Government. That is what I was elected to do—[Interruption.] I feel very uncomfortable—[Interruption.]

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

Perhaps I am not expressing myself clearly, Sir Nicholas, because I find this a difficult matter to discuss. There is a real issue about people appearing publicly and declaring what they have done. Perhaps I can explain my reasoning more clearly to the hon. Members who were baying at me from a sedentary position. I do not know what went on at Weston Park, and I do not know the detail of the difficult negotiations that went on to get us to this stage. However, I have some trust in my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench—in this Minister and in previous Ministers. They would not have given things away for no reason.

However, I want some reassurance that the serious concerns shared by me and hon. Members across the Committee will be taken seriously. Perhaps the Minister can give me some of the reassurances that I asked for on Second Reading, but did not really get in the summing up—although I appreciate that it was difficult to cover all the points raised in the time available. I would be glad if the Minister addressed the points that I raised on Second Reading now.

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace Conservative, Lancaster and Wyre 9:30 pm, 13th December 2005

I have spent a lot of time in Northern Ireland, as people probably know. I felt that the Bill was unpalatable and that many of the measures were tough for many people to take—victims, law-abiding citizens, members of the security forces and people from all parts of the political spectrum.

In my time, I have seen mainstream parties such as the SDLP marginalised every time a deal is done with Sinn Fein behind closed doors.

SDLP Members stuck their necks out in south Armagh and struggled for democratic principles and decency. Every time that this Government have moved closer to doing deals they have let others down—they   have abandoned some of the hard principles that political parties in Northern Ireland have fought to defend.

For many years, I have swallowed such measures and lived with them. I have seen on television men whom I arrested. I have seen—

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield

Order. This is an excellent speech, but I hope that it can be more closely allied to the amendment.

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace Conservative, Lancaster and Wyre

Sir Nicholas, it shall be.

The point is that we have all had to compromise on all the measures; we have all found them distasteful throughout. I know from the Minister’s language in Committee that he has felt uncomfortable with some of them, as any democrat would do. This measure—this final part—will allow no one to appear before the tribunal, and no one will be induced or incentivised to apply to it unless he is likely to be caught later. It enforces no time limits and includes nothing to force anyone to face the music out of decency. Let us not forget—we can argue about whether it is an amnesty—that it is a very good deal. No one can argue that the terrorists in Northern Ireland are not getting a very good Christmas present out of the Bill.

It is one step too far to allow people not to turn up. That is why the amendment is so important. The hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) says that she is uncomfortable, but that she will still vote with the Government. I have been uncomfortable for eight or 10 years, or since 1994, with some of the measures, but I have lived with them and have sacrificed my feelings, not to mention those of other people, to get to where we are today.

It is of no comfort to the people of Northern Ireland that the hon. Lady can say that she is uncomfortable with the Government’s position, but will vote for it. This is serious. Men and women in Northern Ireland will have to live with the consequences when they see mass murderers walking up and down their streets having never appeared in court. It is not good enough to try to get out of it by saying, “I am just here to back the Government.” That is more insulting to the people of Northern Ireland than most of the things that I have heard today. If we do not accept the amendment, and the Bill goes through as it is, we will create a bigger injustice for the future, and we will have to unpick it in months or years to come.

I urge members of the Committee, of all parties, to back the amendment out of decency and for the principle that the victims, and the men and women who are democrats, deserve to have their position properly recognised.

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

I have listened carefully to what has been said, and I am delighted that the hon. Members for Ochil and South Perthshire (Gordon Banks), for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), and for Hackney, South and Shoreditch have contributed to the debate. They have expressed strong reservations about this aspect of the Bill. May I ask them, and the rest of the Committee, some questions?

If, as seems to be the case, the Minister resists every amendment that is tabled in Committee, what is the point of the exercise? What is democracy all about? What is the point of being a Member of Parliament and having a strong view on something if one cannot ultimately influence the outcome of legislation? The Bill could get through the Committee and the debates on Report and Third Reading without the House of Commons making a single amendment, despite the strong reservations among Labour Members.

Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies PPS (Rt Hon Tessa Jowell, Secretary of State), Department for Culture, Media & Sport

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point, but he must appreciate that there is more than one way to skin a cat in our democratic process. He might be interested to know that a number of hon. Members have—in addition to what has gone on in Committee—been working elsewhere to negotiate, to exert pressure and to raise concerns to achieve some movement. I am hopeful that what we see in response will move the process on significantly.

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

I appreciate that intervention, which suggests that the Government will not accept amendments so long as they are tabled by Opposition Members. Amendments tabled by Members of Parliament representing Northern Ireland constituencies and the people who will be most affected by the Bill count for nothing. In the end, only deals that are done by the party of government behind the scenes and not on the Floor of the Committee will bring about change.

Of course I want change, and obviously there is more than one way to skin a cat, but does it make the people confident in the democratic process in this place when that is how we do business and when we do not listen to the voice of the people who have a mandate from those who are most directly affected by the Bill? That says something.

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

I have made a point of talking in detail to members of all parties represented in Northern Ireland and to Ministers and others to ensure that I am well briefed on the very concerns that the hon. Gentleman expresses.

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

I thank the hon. Lady for that. We are always willing to talk to her at any time about the issues.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East

What is the benefit of the hon. Lady talking to people from Northern Ireland and all the other parties if, even though she recognises that they are right and her judgment leads her to believe that there should be change, she says, “Well, I am elected to support the Government.” She is elected to exercise her judgment, is she not?

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield

Order. I hesitate to intervene because I am fascinated by the exchanges, but they are not entirely relevant. I do want to make progress, and perhaps hon. Members will speak to the amendments that have been selected if they want to participate further.

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

Thank you, Sir Nicholas. I shall draw my remarks to a close.

The arguments that Opposition Members have advanced so many times today and in previous sittings have been unanswerable. Yet there is no change. I simply urge the Minister to reflect not only on what we have said, but on what some of his hon. Friends have said, and to find it within himself to concede something in the interests of justice and of bringing some accountability back to a process that is, frankly, unaccountable and unjust.

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

I recognise, as I believe the Committee does, that much of the Bill is very difficult. The hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre said that it sometimes seemed as though I found certain issues that we have discussed unpalatable. That observation is correct, but the Government and I have introduced the Bill to ensure that we solve some of the problems and issues in the long term and that we prevent more people from becoming victims in Northern Ireland.

I have reflected on what has been said, and I recognise that my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen, who was the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland until the general election, said on Second Reading that the issue was a matter of concern to him. I should say to the hon. Members for Montgomeryshire and for Belfast, East that trial in absentia is a contentious matter that the Government have covered in the Bill. It was discussed, for the very reasons that I gave, in debates on the legislation and in the proposals that were published in 2001 and 2003 at Hillsborough and at Weston Park, which the UK Government advanced in conjunction with the Irish Government.

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

I want to correct the Minister on the question of non-appearance, which emerged only in the Hillsborough document. That was negotiated exclusively with Sinn Fein. No one else agreed it at or after Hillsborough.

Will the Minister address one point that he made? He said that the Government were including trial by absentia, among other things, to prevent people from becoming victims as in the past. Is someone saying that unless the Bill is passed there will be more victims?

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

May I correct myself? The proposals published at Hillsborough in 2003 stated that trial in absentia would be a significant part of those proposals that have led to the Bill being put before the House now, as a result of IRA acts in July. That is the reason for presenting it now. I have told my hon. Friend several times before today that there is no implicit threat. The reason for our current position is the action that the Government have taken to get us here. The acts of completion relate in part to tackling outstanding issues affecting the people covered by the Bill. [Interruption.] Perhaps I may make some progress before taking further interventions.

It is important to explain why the Government have put the provision in question in the Bill. It is not least because it featured in the published document of 2003. However, I also want to offer to my hon. Friends the Members for Ogmore, for Ochil and South Perthshire,   for Hackney, South and Shoreditch and for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) another justification for us including trial in absentia.

Later clauses—clause 8 in particular—provide that an individual who does not return to the jurisdiction can be tried in his absence. That is not because we do not want individuals to face the court and justice. As some hon. Members said, I do not regard the provision as an amnesty. There will be a criminal charge and conviction, and those concerned will be released on licence under the scheme. We have framed the Bill in the way that we have because trial in absentia must be better than no trial at all. The Government have provided for it because it may still be possible under the Bill, whether we like it or not, for individuals not to return to the jurisdiction but to have their case tried anyway. It is because we want trials to take place that the Government have made trial in absentia possible.

Before I move on to deal with hon. Members’ comments on their amendments, I remind them that I have met victims whose relatives have been shot and murdered by the IRA and other organisations. One of the things has been raised most often is trial in absentia. Indeed, it was raised on Second Reading by my hon. Friends, and they raised it again today. We did not decide lightly to include it. We did it because it was in the published proposals, because it was part of the progress that has brought us to where we are today, and because, difficult though it is for victims and my hon. Friends, we feel that it is the way to make progress with the scheme. We risk failing to bring individuals to trial if trial in absentia is not in the Bill.

I realise how difficult the problem is, and not just for my hon. Friends. I also recognise the power of the arguments that have been brought by the hon. Member for Belfast, East and others. The Government have devised the policy and proposed it, and naturally I want it to be implemented. For the reasons that I have explained, trial in absentia means that trials will take place of some individuals who may not return to the jurisdiction otherwise. There is a balance to be found. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) can shake his head, but we must find the balance. My judgment is that trial in absentia is one way of ensuring that people are brought to trial.

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland) 9:45 pm, 13th December 2005

The Minister has mentioned trial in absentia often enough to convince me that he thinks this is the best provision in the Bill.

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

If the hon. Gentleman thinks that I have presented the Bill to the House and the Committee with any joy in my heart for what the Government are proposing, he is sadly mistaken. He should know that the Government are acting with a heavy heart, but we are taking these measures for a purpose, which is to ensure that people in Northern Ireland have a better life and better prospects than they have in the past—[Interruption.] Let me finish, if I may.

Naturally, we wish to preserve the policy on trial in absentia; we published a draft measure on that in 2003, and it is included in the Bill. However, I acknowledge the strong feelings that have been expressed by victims’ groups and by hon. Members on Second Reading, as well as the strong case put by the hon. Member for Belfast, East and his colleagues on their position and that of their constituents. I acknowledge, too, the strong feelings put to me on this issue not only in Committee today, but privately by my hon. Friends. Because I acknowledge those strong feelings, I am willing to make the following undertaking to the Committee. If the amendment is withdrawn, I will consider what steps I can take while the Bill is in this House—not in the House of Lords, which my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle mentioned. The House of Lords has many qualities—I have not yet come to a conclusion on what they are—but one of them is that it is not elected, whereas the House of Commons has a democratic mandate. If hon. Members wish me to do so, I will take a serious look at the points relating to trial in absentia, and if I am able to bring back proposals, I undertake to do so on Report in the House of Commons in January.

I ask the hon. Member for Belfast, East to withdraw his amendment because it will have consequences for other aspects of the Bill, which I need to reflect on in detail. I need to make sure that I take into account what has been said in Committee, on Second Reading and by victims’ groups. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will reflect on what I have said, register the tone in which I have said it, and acknowledge the points that I am making.

Photo of Jeremy Hunt Jeremy Hunt Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

Would the Minister consider coming to the Committee on Thursday with his proposals, rather than waiting until the legislation is being considered on Report?

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

The Government will need sufficient time to assess the issue and its implications and how we might manage it. I am aware that hon. Members could say, “Well, the Government should have been looking at this matter and making decisions between Second Reading and Committee stage,” but I need sufficient time to reflect on what has been said on Second Reading and in Committee and to consider how best to respond to these genuine concerns at an appropriate time.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

I am confused by the signals that the Minister is sending. He is saying that he wishes to have time to reflect, but prior to that he told us that if we do not have trial in absentia we will—to use his own words—risk failing in this whole venture. He also told us that if we do not have trial in absentia, we will not have any trials at all in many cases. Which message is the Minister sending out: that he wishes to be accommodating, or that he believes that the provision is so essential that the Bill will fail without it?

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

I hope that the hon. Gentleman listened carefully to the points that I made in my preamble. As I have said, it is clear that all members of the Committee have strong feelings, and strong   feelings were also expressed on Second Reading. I need to reflect on them and, potentially, I shall bring forward issues that can be addressed on Report. I say to the hon. Gentleman that the reason why I have made a defence of clause 8, which we will come to later, and the reason why the Government have proposed it—difficult though that has been, difficult though it is and difficult though it will continue to be—is that we want to get individuals through the scheme and to resolve the issue of on-the-runs and individuals covered by the scheme as a matter of some urgency.

I am saying to the hon. Gentleman, and I hope that he is listening very carefully, that I have reflected on the Second Reading debate, on what has been said to me outside this Room and the Committee and on what my hon. Friends say in this Committee. I wish to reflect strongly on those views. I give an undertaking to the Committee that I will reflect between now and Report in the House of Commons on whether to make changes to this aspect of the scheme. I hope that the hon. Gentleman has listened carefully to me, because if he has, he will recognise that there is great merit in what I have said to him and to other hon. Members today in response to the amendments.

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace Conservative, Lancaster and Wyre

Will the Minister please clarify one point? Part of what he said sounded almost like a threat. What is the Minister asking for time to reflect on? Is it purely the technical aspects of the amendments—is the problem that Opposition amendments are not good enough—or does he want to discuss the issues with other parties? What is he asking for? I am not sure. He seems to be saying that if the amendment is withdrawn we might get our way, but if we press it to a vote we certainly will not. Is that correct?

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

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that if the amendment is pressed to a vote, we will potentially be unable to debate it on Report. That will be a matter for the Speaker.

There is a range of issues to be considered. The points made by hon. Members today in Committee, on Second Reading and outside the Committee give me pause to reflect on the issue that has been raised by the hon. Member for Belfast, East. The amendments would have consequential, knock-on effects throughout the Bill and we need to consider them in the context of government. I need also to reflect on the policy issue. However, I have said to the Committee today—I have given the strongest undertaking that I can—that I will reflect on the issues, that I will reflect and bring back issues on Report in the House of Commons.

Hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Belfast, East, will be able to read what I have said and will understand that, when I come back on Report, I will have considered the discussions today in Committee with my hon. Friends and reflected on what happened on Second Reading and on what the hon. Gentleman has said today. When we discuss this on Report, all hon. Members will be able to judge what the Government bring forward at that stage and vote for it or reject it. However, I hope that hon. Members   will listen very carefully and, on the basis of what I have said, withdraw the amendments and allow the Government time for that reflection.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Affairs, Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Welsh Affairs

The Minister contradicted himself again, as the hon. Member for East Antrim said. He is offering us a deal, so far as I can see, but before we look at the deal, we have to look at the contradictions in what he said leading up to it. He said that this measure—the trial in absentia—was introduced as a result of acts of decommissioning by the IRA. Then he told us that trial in absentia was introduced because the alternative was no trial at all. I have been told that often a person with two good reasons has none. [Interruption.] Yes, I thought that it was quite good. I am not sure why the Minister felt that he had to give us two reasons that did not necessarily add up.

The Minister’s second point is that if the hon. Member for Belfast, East withdraws the amendment and does not press it to a vote, and if I do not press amendment No. 70 to a vote, which I had been hoping to do, then he will be willing to reflect on the issue. I think that he is trying to hold us to ransom.

Photo of Tom Harris Tom Harris PPS (Rt Hon Patricia Hewitt, Secretary of State), Department of Health

Will the hon. Gentleman please explain whether he is upset at the Government’s refusing to compromise or at their agreeing to do so?

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Affairs, Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Welsh Affairs

I would love to believe the offer that the Minister is making. I hope that he is sincere, but if he is, he will not hold the Committee to ransom based on whether we press the amendments to a vote. The Minister does not have a responsibility—

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

I am not holding the Committee to ransom. The hon. Gentleman should recognise that, at the end of the day, my colleagues and I will probably have a majority on these matters in the House of Commons. I am making a genuine discussion point for the hon. Gentleman to consider. If he chooses to ignore it, that is a matter for him. I am saying in response to the points raised by the hon. Member for Belfast, East and by my hon. Friends the Members for Hackney, South and Shoreditch, for Ochil and South Perthshire and for Ogmore that I will reflect on these points. That applies also to the points raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen and by the people I have met who are victims of the crimes that we are dealing with. If the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire cannot accept that, that is a matter for him, but I am trying to help the Committee by making these proposals.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Affairs, Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Welsh Affairs

I am determined not to prolong this exchange, but I will say this. The Minister may express irritation at the points that I am making, but that pales into insignificance in comparison with the affront that I feel when he implies that if we press our amendments to a vote, he may reconsider the offer that he has made. As far as I can tell—

Mr. Hansonrose—

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Affairs, Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Welsh Affairs

I will give way in a minute. As far as I can tell—the Minister can confirm in his intervention whether this is correct—he is saying or implying that if we do not press the amendments to a vote to express on the record our strongly held views, so that another place can analyse how strongly we felt those views in Committee, he may consider introducing something on Report. If he is saying that, I welcome it, but I do not welcome it if he says, “However, if members of the Committee force the amendments to a vote, I will not reflect on this matter. I will not introduce an amendment on Report.” Can the Minister confirm that his commitment to reflect on the issue is not conditional on whether we vote on it in Committee?

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

The hon. Gentleman has been a Member of the House of Commons, according to my recollection, for eight and a half years. I have 13 years of experience in the House. Like me, he will know that if the amendment is voted down this evening, Mr. Speaker, in his jurisdiction, may not consider calling an amendment to the same effect at a later date. He may do so, but there is no guarantee. That is the simple point that I am making. I am quite happy if the hon. Gentleman wants to press the amendment. In that case, we will vote and my hon. Friends will vote according to their consciences and views. I am simply trying to put it to the hon. Gentleman that this is an opportunity for me to say, as I am trying to be helpful in Committee, that I will reflect on these matters.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Affairs, Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Welsh Affairs

We are debating process. The points have been pretty well made, but let me say this to the Minister, and he should reflect on it. In the eight and a half years during which I have been representing my party on Northern Ireland issues, the Government have, by acting in bad faith on a number of occasions, persistently eroded the good will that has been extended to them by Opposition parties. My concern is that if we do not make clear in the record now the strength of feeling in Committee, there is a danger that that could influence the interpretation of that strength of feeling when the record is analysed in another place.

Photo of Russell Brown Russell Brown PPS (Rt Hon Alistair Darling, Secretary of State), Scotland Office, PPS (Rt Hon Alistair Darling, Secretary of State), Department for Transport

The hon. Gentleman and I have been in the House of Commons for the same length of time, some eight and a half years, so we both know that it is not uncommon in Committee for a Minister to meet a point by saying that further consideration will be given to an issue if the amendment is withdrawn. I have the greatest respect for the hon. Gentleman, but there is no need to grandstand on this issue. The point has been well made and well recorded by Hansard, and we should move on.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Affairs, Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Welsh Affairs

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman feels that I am grandstanding, but as he obviously knows and as other hon. Members have pointed out, the issue that we are discussing is one of the core issues in the debate. If I feel strongly about it, it is because I am frustrated by what I believe to be an illusory threat by the Minister that the matter may not be debated on Report. I have served on many Committees, as has the hon. Gentleman—I think that all of us are fairly   experienced in these matters—and everyone knows that if the Government want to put in an amendment on Report, there is a pretty good chance that they can do so. The problem is putting the same amendment in twice. However, it is not beyond the wit of the Minister and some of the most impressive civil servants that the country is blessed to be served by—some of whom are here today—to find a way to get the amendment in.

I want to believe that on this occasion the Minister will come up with something that satisfies our needs and, more importantly, the victims’ need to see the defendants in court. Having said that, given everything else that the Minister and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and, by implication, the Prime Minister have said about the need for this in absentia element in the Bill, I am at a loss to understand how we can be optimistic that he will introduce something that will satisfy the requirements of the hon. Members for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) and for Ogmore, the right hon. Member for Torfaen, the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch and just about every other person who is sitting in this room, whether or not they have expressed an opinion.

I am concerned about the question of voting. We must not dwell too long on the process, but I ask the Minister to understand that I do not want to be sitting here in the middle of the night any more than anybody else does. However, I am desperately concerned about letting down the people to whom I give the greatest consideration—the victims—by playing into the hands of the Government, who could then abuse the fact that we did not vote at this stage.

I respect the Minister and what he seeks to do, but on the basis of recent experience of the Government I do not have much faith that they will produce something with which we are satisfied. I am in somewhat of a dilemma, but I still believe, on balance, that I ought to press amendment No. 70 to a vote, bearing in mind that it changes only one word. Instead of stating that there is “no obligation” on a defendant to appear before the Special Tribunal, clause 8 would state that there is “an obligation” to appear. If the Minister is not willing to accept even that change, one has to wonder how dramatic his offer on Report will be.

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield 10:00 pm, 13th December 2005

Order. Before the Minister responds, let me say that if the hon. Gentleman wishes to propose amendment No. 70, I would be happy that he should do so at the appropriate time, but it is not now.

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

The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire is entirely the owner of his own conscience and his own vote. He can do what he wishes. We have had the best part of 12 or 15 hours in Committee during the past week and a half. Members have known when I have fiercely resisted amendments and invited my hon. Friends to vote against them. I have suggested that I shall reflect on the meaning of the amendment of the hon. Member for Belfast, East. I hope that hon. Members will reflect on what I have said and on my approach to the amendment in the light of the victims’ comments that we heard about on   Second Reading and the comments of my hon. Friends in the Committee and the hon. Members who introduced the amendments.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East

Before I deal with my judgment about pressing or withdrawing the amendment, it might be proper to point out that it would have been easier to make that decision had the Minister not commenced with a robust defence of the legislation. He indicated that it had been drafted as it now stands for a purpose—clearly, it was. He said that the intention was to prevent the creation of more victims such as there had been in the past. There then followed an intervention by the hon. Member for Foyle, who wanted to know if there was a threat that there would be more victims if the measure was not approved in its present form. The Minister’s response was that there was no such threat, which seemed to remove the argument that the legislation was intended to prevent the creation of more victims in the future.

However, the nature of this Committee and the mathematics of the House is such that, given the Minister’s assurances, the only thing advanced by pressing the amendment to a Division would be that somewhere, tucked away in the record of this debate, would be the result of a Division. I have been in the House long enough—longer than the years mentioned earlier combined—and I know that if the amendment is pressed to a Division, if we are not satisfied with the Minister, his hon. Friends will be satisfied and I know what the likely outcome of that Division would be. However, even without the Division, there will be a clear record of the dissatisfaction of the Minister’s hon. Friends, and that will rest in the record of the debate. The record of a vote would be likely to convince people in another place, but I think it just as likely that this debate, enhanced as it has been by the contribution made by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire, will do so too.

In exercising my judgment, I have to recognise that we shall simply lose the vote if we press the amendment to a Division. That being the case, logic would have me withdraw the amendment. However, I do so making two points that it is worth the Minister bearing in mind. My withdrawal of the amendment does not allow him to escape the issue, because new clauses 13 and 18, on which there will no doubt be Divisions on Thursday, deal with exactly the same issue.

Cooler counsels might have allowed the Minister the time between now and Thursday to convince the supporter of those new clauses of his genuine intent and the direction of his consultations. Some of us are a little suspicious that the Government cannot agree to any amendments today because they do not control what an amendment might be. They have bought into a deal with Sinn Fein and need Sinn Fein approval before they move from it. The very least that each Committee member can expect from the Minister, to whom I am happy to give way if he wants to give us the assurance, is that he will show the same commitment to fulfilling the undertaking that he has given to this Committee that the Government have shown to Sinn Fein. It seems that he is ready to do battle to keep the Government’s word to Sinn Fein in respect of that   deal. If he genuinely wants the Committee to move on and give him the opportunity to consider these matters on Report, we want a clear commitment not only that he will consider the issue, but that he is leaning towards trying to resolve it.

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

I am in danger of repeating myself, but I say again that I give the Committee an undertaking that between now and Report in the House of Commons the Government will reflect on what changes could be made to this aspect of the scheme. That is the undertaking that I give the hon. Gentleman. I appreciate his comments, because we have an opportunity to reflect on them, both in and outside the Committee. I hope that he will be satisfied with the outcome in due course.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East

It is the outcome that concerns me. I am not going to involve myself in the party politics of trying to score points on this issue. The Bill will never be acceptable to me, but I said at the beginning that it could be made less unacceptable if certain changes were made. On that basis, I am prepared to listen to what the Minister says on Report, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Motion made, andQuestion put, That the clause stand part of the Bill:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 16, Noes 13.

Division number 30 Nimrod Review — Statement — Clause 6 - Cancellation of certificate

Aye: 15 MPs

No: 12 MPs

Nos: A-Z by last name

NOES

Question accordingly agreed to.

Clause 6 ordered to stand part of the Bill.