I welcome all hon. Members to the first sitting of the Committee on the Justice and Security (Northern Ireland) Bill. I am totally confident that it will be a workmanlike, constructive and agreeable Committee throughout the whole of this stage of the Bill. I am a traditionalist but I also believe in comfort, so if, because of the temperature in the room or their own temperature, hon. Members wish to remove their jackets discreetly and to put them on the rear of their chair, I am happy for them to do so. Those are the domestic matters, as it were.
I remind the Committee that there is a money resolution in connection with the Bill. Copies are available in the Committee Room. I would like also to remind hon. Members that as a general rule adequate notice must be given of amendments. My co-Chairman, Janet Anderson, and I do not intend to call starred amendments.
Will hon. Members please ensure that mobile phones and all other electronic devices, pagers and so on are turned off or are put on silent mode? That is something that I personally feel strongly about.
We come first to the programme motion. Debate on the motion may continue for up to half an hour.
I beg to move,
(1) the Committee shall (in addition to its first meeting at 10.30 a.m. on Tuesday 16th January) meet—
(a) at 4.30 p.m. on Tuesday 16th January;
(b) at 9.00 a.m. and 1.00 p.m. on Thursday 18th January;
(c) at 10.30 a.m. and 4.30 p.m. on Tuesday 23rd January;
(d) at 9.00 a.m. and 1.00 p.m. on Thursday 25th January;
(2) the proceedings shall be taken in the following order: Clauses 1 to 8; Schedule 1; Clause 9; Schedule 2; Clauses 10 to 23; Schedule 3; Clauses 24 to 37; Schedule 4; Clauses 38 to 45; Schedule 5; Clauses 46 and 47; Schedule 6; Clauses 48 to 51; new Clauses; new Schedules; remaining proceedings on the Bill;
(3) the proceedings shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at 4.00 p.m. on Thursday 25th January.
I shall not detain the Committee for long. We look forward to the prospect of hard work and comfort under your guidance in the Chair, Sir Nicholas. We certainly look forward to having you in the Chair for our deliberations.
I thank all the Opposition parties for our constructive discussions on the motion and the support that they have shown for it. As members of the Committee will see, we are scheduled to deliberate on the Bill over a period of four days. That will be ample time for us to deliberate in full on all that is before us. There are certainly no knives planned, which I know you will strongly approve of, Sir Nicholas.
The way that I have always approached deliberations in Committee is to listen carefully to all the arguments, to explain clearly the Government’s position as best as I can and, if there is merit in the arguments, to consider always whether there are things that we can do to improve the Bill. That is the correct spirit of deliberation, I think, and the way in which I shall proceed.
I want to make two further points. First, there is a starting point of consensus in the Committee about the fact that we are moving towards more normal times in Northern Ireland. Indeed, the fact that we are bringing this Bill before the Committee is an indication of the progress that is being made. It is also an indication that some risks remain in Northern Ireland, not least from dissident groups. That is why some of the proposals are necessary.
Secondly, we are having our deliberations in Committee at an extraordinarily important time for the people of Northern Ireland. As we have our discussions, other discussions will continue in Northern Ireland with a view to the restoration of devolution. Within a few days of the end of our deliberations, assuming that we accept the programme motion, the Assembly will be dissolved, we will move into an election period and there will be an election on 7 March. An Executive must be restored by 26 March. I believe that that timetable can work, but I reiterate what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland said yesterday in a letter to all parties. The date of 26 March is not negotiable, and nothing will come before the House, in this Bill or any other legislation, to change that date.
It is an important time. The context is very real for Northern Ireland. I am sure that we will give proper consideration to such an important Bill.
I welcome you to the Chair, Sir Nicholas. Having served under your chairmanship before, I know exactly what delights await us.
As the Minister said, four days should be ample time to consider the Bill. I certainly hope so, although one can never be certain with Northern Ireland legislation. Although the Opposition officially oppose such guillotine motions, I believe that on this occasion we should have enough time.
Like the Minister, I hope that the Assembly will be up and running shortly, not because important issues have to be dealt with in Bills such as the one before us, but because, as all hon. Members know, much Northern Ireland legislation is enacted through the many statutory instruments that come before Committee. Indeed, one was debated last week, one is being debated tomorrow, and I believe that there are two next week. It is a most unsatisfactory way to govern a part of the United Kingdom. I hope that the parties in Northern Ireland can find their way forward.
The Minister says that the deadline of 26 March is not negotiable. I remind him that that was said about 24 November, but given the Prime Minister’s shortening tenure of office, I think that 26 March will be a definite date on this occasion.
I look forward to debating the Bill. In general, we do not have a problem with it, although we shall want to explore one or two issues and to seek the Minister’s guidance on one or two matters. In general, however, I am sure that our debates will be constructive. I am heartened by the fact that the Minister said that he will take on board what is said in Committee. It is typical of him to listen to the debate, as do all Northern Ireland Ministers, and their officials are accommodating to the Opposition. That usually leads to a high standard of debate.
May I be the next, Sir Nicholas, to welcome you the Chair? I thank you for taking the time to preside over our discussions. I know from past experience that you are an ambassador for constructive deliberation, and I shall do my best to live up to your expectations for positive engagement with the Government and others.
I thank the Minister for saying that he will listen to our suggestions. I have no doubt that on this occasion at least the Government will accept some Opposition amendments. Ultimately, that will be the best proof that the Minister has broken the mould of the monolith that we have come to know as the Northern Ireland ministerial team.
Finally, I have no problem with the timetable. I may not always share the Minister’s optimism about Government timetables being cast in stone. The good news is that if we are not able to complete our activities in the time allocated, the Minister merely has to say that all the conditions for an extension have been met and we can continue for up to eight further years, as happened with the peace process itself.
I hope that we can finish our work within the eight sittings available. The Bill is not profoundly controversial. I therefore hope that the relatively minor suggestions that the Liberal Democrats wish to make will be regarded in a positive light, as we intend.
I join other hon. Members, Sir Nicholas, in welcoming you to the Chair. Unlike the hon. Member for Tewkesbury, my party and I have deep misgivings about a number of the Bill’s provisions, because they reverse clear and unambiguous commitments made by the British and Irish Governments in the joint declaration of 2003. Nevertheless, the depth of those misgivings is not related in any way to the time that we will take to consider the Bill, so there is no issue with the fact that we have eight sittings. I am sure that our concerns will be no more persuasive to hon. Members if we had more sittings. We all know the Government’s form on such occasions.
The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire said that he hopes that the Government will be more accommodating to reasonable amendments from other parties. With previous Bills, the Government, in Committee Rooms and with the support of their Back Benchers, have resisted all sorts of reasonable amendments to unreasonable legislation, most typically with the Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill. Hon. Members witnessed the Government withdrawing the legislation that they said was absolutely essential and without which the sky would fall in. They did so not because of what hon. Members said in this House and in the proceedings of this House, but because Sinn Fein finally caught on about the implications of the Bill and withdrew its support, and so the Government’s case collapsed.
There is the possibility that in days to come Sinn Fein will wake up to the implications of this Bill, because it will remove things that they claim that they have—such as the repeal of emergency provisions—and reverses commitments given by the British Government in the joint declaration of 2003. The question for many of us is whether Sinn Fein was in on the provision of the new measures or whether it has slept in. If it has just slept in, when it wakes up will we find the Government coming to the House and telling us all a different story? That has been their form before.
I beg to move,
That, subject to the discretion of the Chairman, any written evidence received by the Committee shall be reported to the House for publication.
This is the first time that I have moved such a motion, but I am delighted to do so. Hon. Members will be familiar with receiving copious briefings from organisations and other outside bodies on the matters before us. The opportunity to place those formally on the record and for that evidence to be published is a sensible step forward. It helps to open democracy and I warmly welcome it.