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8.16 pm

Mr. Ingram: We have had a very detailed debate following a series of detailed discussions about specific amendments. I shall deal with the fundamental point at issue, which was raised by the hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay), the official Opposition spokesman on Northern Ireland. He told us that he is calling upon his party to vote against the Bill. In so doing, the Opposition are voting against the implementation of the element of the agreement with which the Bill deals--despite the fact that the agreement was negotiated by the Northern Ireland parties and endorsed by 71 per cent. of the people of Northern Ireland.

The official Opposition will be joined today only by those Northern Ireland Members who have consistently opposed the agreement. Those Northern Ireland Members are entitled to carry their opposition into the House--they, at least, have been consistent. The official Opposition claim to support the agreement yet, in voting against implementing this part of it, they will not be supported by a single Northern Ireland Member who supports the agreement. Mark this, Mr. Deputy Speaker: those who negotiated the agreement and who campaigned in Northern Ireland for its endorsement are not opposing the

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measure tonight. The official Opposition have isolated themselves from those who support the agreement. Tonight they will share the Lobby only with those who voted no.

The hon. Member for Bracknell also raised the spectre of every prisoner being released before any weapons are decommissioned. We are talking about a two-year period. Other hon. Members have referred to 1995, when the Conservative Government introduced legislation as part of the process of moving forward the peace package. That legislation has resulted in the release of 240 terrorist prisoners, but not one ounce of Semtex or one bullet was handed in and not one gun was decommissioned. The Conservative Government continued with that legislation when the ceasefire had broken down and when they had the power, under the legislation, to rescind the order. They did not do so. Did the Labour party in opposition criticise them? No, we did not, because we understood the sensitivity, difficulties and complexities of moving the peace process forward.

The thrust of the Opposition spokesman's argument and the position that he and his party now adopt are based on naked political opportunism and a blatant attack on the Prime Minister. The hon. Gentleman puts party interest before the interests of peace; whenever he has risen to speak from the Dispatch Box--to move amendments or on Third Reading--he has attacked a Prime Minister who has given untold time and energy to putting together a peace package, who has assisted in brokering that peace package, and whose efforts brought about a massive yes vote on 22 May.

Those who campaigned for a no vote in the referendum have said that the Prime Minister conned the people of Northern Ireland. Are they saying that their constituents are easily conned and do not understand that we are dealing with a very difficult issue? Is the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) the only person who can pick up the document and explain it on the doorstep to all the simple people who seem unable to read it for themselves? I have been a Northern Ireland Minister for more than a year now, and I have met many intelligent, ordinary working people. I understand what they are saying, and I know that they understand what the Government are trying to achieve. I think that they also understood that the previous Prime Minister gave his support during the referendum, and campaigned for a yes vote alongside the present Prime Minister. That was important in achieving the overwhelming yes vote on 22 May.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) set out his background--the dealings that he had when he was Opposition spokesman on Northern Ireland. He knows the depth and level of support that the Labour party gave previous Administrations during his time in office. That applied also to previous shadow Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland. All those who have been engaged in the process know how difficult it is. They know that difficult decisions have had to be taken, and that if the wrong word is said or the wrong action taken, everything could be thrown off the rails. Everyone who has ever been engaged in these matters knows that peace is not an event but a complex process. It is not just about people voting in a referendum, or just about an agreement being signed by the parties. It is about trying to implement aspects of the agreement, taking it forward bit by bit, and linking together parts that must be linked together.

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We are at the very first step of dealing with the agreement. In many ways, this Bill is the most complex piece of legislation because it strikes an essential chord in the minds and hearts of the people of Northern Ireland. We all recognise that. No one thinks that the Bill is easy. It is incredibly complex and difficult, but it rests on the integrity of Ministers to take it forward. That may be challenged by some in the House, but I doubt whether it would be challenged by the official Opposition--they have not yet stooped to that level in their criticism of Ministers.

However, another important key element is the fact that we live in a democracy where accountability applies. The Bill gives the Secretary of State the power and discretion to interpret those aspects that are set forth, and to make the decisions. In dealing with the issues on which she has made a judgment, she will be held accountable to the House of Commons. Accountability comes into play once the whole package has been implemented--not just the Bill but the agreement as a whole.

I am sorry that hon. Members from Northern Ireland have made it their determined wish and will to stop the agreement.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): Does the Minister accept that the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) voted against the Bill on Second Reading? What does he think has happened between Second Reading and Third Reading which would have induced the right hon. Gentleman, who supported the agreement and campaigned valiantly for it, to change his mind?

Mr. Ingram: I have attended all the debates on the Bill and I have not noticed the hon. Gentleman's presence very often. If he were genuinely interested in the flow of the debate, he would know that some of the amendments that have been debated were important. He would also know that some of the amendments had been brokered with the Ulster Unionist party and its leadership to deal with the difficulties that they highlighted in the Bill, and that those amendments resulted in changes to the Bill. In her opening remarks, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State set out the changes. I do not recall the hon. Gentleman's presence in the Chamber when the opening speech was made. I may be wrong; if the hon. Gentleman was here, clearly he has not been listening.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North told the House about the support that the Labour party in opposition gave to the Conservative Government. I highlighted one good example--the 1995 Act on the early release of prisoners.

May I deal with some of the other comments that have been made in the debate? I thank the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) for his continued interest, and that of his party. He articulated some of the arguments advanced by the Liberal Democrats to try to bring about changes to the Bill. We have made a major change to the Bill to deal with the sensitive issue of victims.

I also thank my hon. Friends the Members for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) and for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Soley). Because of their

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long-standing interest in Northern Ireland affairs, they made telling contributions to the debate.

The hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) was supposed to be the main spokesperson for the Ulster Unionist party in opposition to the Bill. As the debate progressed, however, other hon. Members tried to take on that mantle. He, too, seems to want to play politics with peace. He has set himself up as a "no" man, and his party decided to say no to him over the assembly. Thus his own party has cast judgment on him.

I pay tribute to the reasoned and powerful case advanced by the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), who pointed out the deep dangers of cherry-picking from the agreement. He also pointed out the fundamentally flawed reasoning of the Opposition spokesman. I only hope that other right hon. and hon. Members listened to his reasoned arguments. Clearly, those who have experience in the House and deep knowledge of what has happened and can happen in Northern Ireland have listened carefully to the debate, and I am sure that the hon. Member for Bracknell will not get all his right hon. and hon. Friends into his Lobby this evening. He already knows one of his very experienced colleagues who has decided not to join him.

Mr. MacKay: How did the Minister vote on the prevention of terrorism Act?

Mr. Ingram: I have been asked that before. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman looks at the voting records--[Interruption.] I shall not debate with hon. Members who call from a sedentary position. I have discussed the matter in previous debates. The right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham has put peace first and said that on this occasion his party must come second.

The hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) asked who makes the judgments in this matter. As I said earlier, the initial judgment rests solely with the Secretary of State, based on the detailed advice that she will receive from a variety of sources. Clearly, we are talking about matters that cannot always be easily shared at the time with the House, or, indeed, with any hon. Members who may be interested, but, at the end of the day, once the judgment has been taken and the die is cast, the House has a right to hold the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister to account for their actions. Neither of my right hon. Friends has ever shirked that. We have held ourselves accountable at the Dispatch Box on the agreement and in taking forward this Bill.

I believe that the hon. Member for Beaconsfield is a genuine seeker after truth. He has probed and pushed as the Bill has progressed. I am sorry that he has not accepted the reasoning behind the legislation and what we are trying to do through it, but I hope that he will listen to the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham and that, before he enters the Lobby, he may just change his mind. If he is a genuine seeker after truth, he still has time to identify what the truth is and what the right judgment is.

The Bill has been debated in the House four times in eight days. Many right hon. and hon. Members have been present throughout and have spoken many times.

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Each time those opposed to the provisions of the Bill have set out their arguments, either my right hon. Friend or I have responded. We have sought to give full answers to the questions put to us, and we have sought to explain the Bill in full. We have never ducked any question. The answers that we have given may not have been acceptable, but we have set out the reasoning behind the legislation and the difficulties associated with it.

We have accepted Opposition amendments and tabled our own amendments, based on the arguments that have been advanced. In a sense, that is not what the debate has been about. It has been about whether the British Government should seek to implement in full the Good Friday agreement. Let me leave the House in no doubt that it is my intention and that of the Government that the agreement will be implemented in full. The agreement was negotiated in good faith and will be implemented in good faith. The people of Northern Ireland voted on a complete document, and we shall implement the complete document.

I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put, That the Bill be now read the Third time:--

The House divided: Ayes 215, Noes 116.

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