Amendment No. 145, in clause 23, page 13, line 5, leave out subsection (2).
Amendment No. 146, in clause 23, page 13, line 10, leave out subsection (3).
New clause 11—Expiry—
‘This Act shall cease to have any effect at the end of the period of five years beginning with the day on which it is brought into force.’.
New clause 12—Suspension of section 3—
‘The Secretary of State shall make an order suspending the operation of section 3 six months after the Act comes into force.’.
Under the Bill as drafted, the scheme can be suspended but later revived. Our amendment would do away with the ability to revive it. As has been discussed, the scheme is extraordinary in nature. It should be given only one chance. There should be no ability to suspend and revive it, time and again.
I suppose the scheme could be suspended for a number of reasons. It might well be that the security situation does not allow it to be carried forward. If there was a return to violence, there might be a desire to suspend it. It would be unacceptable for terrorists to return to violence and for the scheme to be suspended, but for them then to get a second opportunity when they decided to complete their violence or to finish with it.
Another circumstance in which the scheme might be suspended is if the Minister decided that all who were likely to come forward had done so, only for new people to come forward subsequently. The scheme might then be revived to enable them to benefit from it. That would do away with the Minister’s assurance to the Committee that this is not to be a scheme that goes on and on. There is meant to be a time limit to it. Members in all parts of the Committee have said that they want a time limit, but the ability to suspend and revive gives the opportunity for an open-ended scheme.
In one debate, the hon. Member for North Down asked whether we will have this expensive structure in place for 15 years. After a year, the Minister might decide that all the people who will come forward have done so and that the Government do not want the expense, so the scheme will be suspended. A year later, if more people are found or say that they want to benefit from the scheme, it might be revived. That would be nonsensical and it would go against all the indications that have been given that this should be a time-limited scheme.
There is another reason why there might be a desire to suspend the scheme and then revive it. Some people who would have been guilty of terrorist offences before 1998 cannot benefit from the scheme because their organisation is scheduled. At some stage, it might be decided that the Real IRA or the Continuity IRA will no longer be scheduled. That being the case, the scheme might be suspended and then revived to incorporate those people who currently cannot benefit from it.
Those are the only circumstances I can see in which the scheme might be suspended and then revived. Perhaps the Minister can suggest others. Such a provision allows the terrorist to dictate the agenda for the special tribunals and so on. It also makes a mockery of the idea of closure and of the point that there must be an incentive for people to come forward, which the Minister has made time and again. There will be no incentive. When people decide that they want to come forward, their political representatives can put the pressure on to get the scheme revived.
Given that this is an extraordinary arrangement, which we do not want to go on indefinitely, if there is to be a suspension, it should be final. The scheme should be concluded and there should be no chance of resurrecting it.
New clause 11 would ensure that the Bill lapsed after five years. With the benefit of perspective, I now think that we might want to make that period shorter. The one thing I am absolutely certain about is that there has to be an outer limit to this legislation, otherwise those whom we seek to encourage to apply for the provision will have no time incentive to do so. The new clause would also go some way towards mitigating the indefinite get-out-of-jail-free-card problem, which we have already debated on a number of occasions.
I shall speak to amendments Nos. 145 and 146. I agree with what other hon. Members have said about clauses 22 and 23. We are trying to prevent the bizarre situation provided for by the Bill. It is as if the arrangements can come and go, like some macabre Brigadoon, based on whatever deeds are done at the time. If the Government were honest, they would say that the Secretary of State would exercise the powers under clause 23 only if Sinn Fein had agreed that no useful purpose was being served.
The Government have told us that they are bound hand and foot to Sinn Fein in pursuing this Bill and taking it through. The fate of anything that happens in future and any exercise of the Secretary of State’s powers are entirely contingent on the approval and acceptance of Sinn Fein—and nobody else.
I shall try to be quick. The purpose of clause 22 is to give the Secretary of State the facility to shut down the whole scheme in the event of an emergency such as the circumstances that the hon. Member for East Antrim mentioned—the collapse of the political peace process and the return to violence. If that occurred and if the Secretary of State undertook suspension under clause 22, such an order would end the granting of certificates and the effectiveness of any certificates already granted. Certificate holders could be arrested and tried in normal courts and any trials going on would not result in the granting of a licence. The whole scheme would be suspended and collapsed.
The Minister mentioned people who would already have been granted a certificate. Could those who had been granted a certificate and been through a special tribunal trial be brought back and tried in a court system, or would their slate have been wiped clean once they had been through the special tribunal trial?
As I just said, certificate holders could be arrested and tried in the normal courts, and the effectiveness of any certificates already granted would end. Any ongoing trials would not result in the granting of a licence.
The hon. Member for East Antrim is trying to ensure that we do not reverse the shutdown procedure. The lead amendment addresses the concern that an emergency shutdown could be reversed. Emergencies can, of course, end and it is appropriate for the Secretary of State to have such a power, which he could institute if he felt circumstances had changed. I cannot pre-empt what future Secretaries of State will do, but they should have the power to reflect on that issue while the legislation is passed.
The new clause tabled by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire would place a five-year limit on the scheme. I have already indicated that under various schedules the scheme has a two-year minimum. Under clause 23, the
“Secretary of State may by order repeal any provision of the Act” at no time
“earlier than two years after its commencement”.
The new clause would put on a five-year time limit, but the Secretary of State might well be able to close the scheme down earlier. I reject the amendment: if political circumstances moved on, the Secretary of State might require an earlier date.
Amendments Nos. 145 and 146, tabled by the hon. Member for Foyle, would remove the Secretary of State’s power to amend the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998. We have included that power to give the Government the tools to ensure a smooth progression from the scheme to any succeeding scenario. That is a valuable element of the scheme. I commend the proposals as they stand.