31 Jul 1998 : Column 631

House of Commons

Friday 31 July 1998

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock


[Madam Speaker in the Chair]


Moray Health Trust

9.34 am

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray): I present a petition that has been signed by more than 16,000 of my constituents. It relates to the reconfiguration of health trusts in the Grampian area and the desire to retain a unitary trust in the Moray area. It reads:

To lie upon the Table.

Genetically Modified Organisms

Mr. John Austin (Erith and Thamesmead): I have a petition that has been signed by several of my constituents from Erith and Thamesmead, from Greenwich and Woolwich, from Eltham and elsewhere. It expresses mounting concern at the impact of genetically modified organisms on the environment and at the fact that the risks to public health from those organisms have not been clearly established, and expresses the belief that it is crucial to safeguard the British landscape and its diverse flora and fauna. The petition states:

To lie upon the Table.

Hunting (Wild Mammals)

Mr. Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye): It is perhaps an opportune moment, on the last day before the summer recess, to present this petition, which calls for the abolition of hunting with dogs, an issue which will not go away simply because the Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster), my namesake, has not been successful this Session. The petition states:

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    which sought to outlaw the practice but which Bill had insufficient time to pass through Parliament albeit attracting the free support of the overwhelming majority of Members in the House.

    The Petitioners hereby request that the House of Commons in recognising the widespread public support for the measure shall call upon the Government to allocate sufficient time in the next session of Parliament for such measures to pass through the House.

Nearly 10,000 residents in or around my constituency have signed the petition, and it has my full support.

To lie upon the Table.


Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): It is obviously a week for petitions on matters ethical and related. In that context, I present a petition of 26,000-plus people--members and supporters of the Society of Doctors and Lawyers for Responsible Medicine--on the subject of transgenic transplant experiments. The petition

To lie upon the Table.

Concessionary Travel

Mr. Patrick Hall (Bedford): I am pleased to present this petition of more than 600 signatures from residents of Bedfordshire, in particular Bedford and Kempston, who declare

May I quickly add that I recognise and welcome the significant measures that were announced in the recent transport White Paper to establish a national minimum standard for concessionary travel? This petition can be seen as a contribution to that debate. The White Paper is an important first step towards the free travel that is sought by the petitioners.

To lie upon the Table.

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Orders of the Day

Northern Ireland Bill

Order for Third Reading read.

9.39 am

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Marjorie Mowlam): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

We are grateful for the overwhelming support that the House has shown for the Bill, following the substantial backing for the agreement in Northern Ireland itself. Once the Bill is finally approved, the requirement of the triple lock, which successive Governments have agreed should apply to any settlement, will be satisfied.

The Bill is the culmination of a great deal of work in Northern Ireland. We have put a number of Bills before the House this year. The key developments show how much the Northern Ireland political landscape, which is the context in which this Bill will operate, if passed, has changed in the past 12 months.

It is instructive to remember that this time last year the talks participants were still deadlocked on the decommissioning question. They had not addressed their substantive agenda; they began that only in October. Once they did begin, the pace accelerated, culminating in the Good Friday agreement on 10 April. Since then, we have had a referendum, an election, an Assembly, a policing commission, a criminal justice review and a decommissioning body, as well as passing the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act. We have also acted on our commitments on the Irish language.

Now the House is considering and, I hope, will shortly pass this Bill. It is major piece of constitutional legislation, which has been prepared in record time. We have been happy to acknowledge that further changes may be necessary, while still taking some pride in the Bill as it stands. It is, we believe, an essentially sound framework for the agreement institutions to operate within.

I crave the indulgence of the House for a moment as I want to thank the civil servants. The list that I have just given shows how much work has been done by Northern Ireland civil servants over past months. I also pay tribute to the many political party leaders, to the Prime Minister, to the Taoiseach and, above all, to the people of Northern Ireland who have given their support and encouragement to making progress with the Bill.

Of course, we respect the doubts that have been expressed about the agreement within the House and outside it. Those who doubt have often shown courage, too. However, I believe that people are ever more widely coming to the view, whatever their original reservations, that the agreement must be made to work. The Government will continue to do all that they can to ensure that the agreement comes fully into operation, in all its aspects. In doing that, we will listen to all shades of opinion, for the agreement or against it. We will work closely with the new authorities established in Northern Ireland. Those comments apply especially to the Bill, just as they do to other aspects of the agreement. We are anxious that the Bill should reflect the agreement as faithfully as possible and, within its terms, provide the most effective and flexible machinery possible.

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We have always declared our willingness to look again at the provisions of the Bill to achieve those objectives. As a result, we made changes before its introduction on the basis of consultation, and we have made further substantial changes in Committee and on Report. For example, we have omitted a number of sections in the consultation draft that were questioned, such as the default powers of the Secretary of State; we have made the criteria for exclusion of Ministers and parties tighter, consistent with the agreement; we have sharpened many of the human rights provisions, so that, for example, all Assembly Bills will now go to the Human Rights Commission; the commission will advise the Assembly as well as the Secretary of State; the appointment criteria for commissioners better reflect the agreement text; and we have made clearer the scrutiny role of Assembly Committees, in line with the agreement.

While the debate has continued in the House, we have continued to listen. We shall reflect over the summer on a number of the points made in the House. In particular, we will look at the human rights provisions to see whether there are further ways in which the Bill can be strengthened, consistent with the agreement; we will look again at the criteria for early dissolution and for prorogation of the Assembly; and we will look again at some of the Order in Council-making powers. We will also consider audit arrangements. We cannot promise anything, but we will look at those and other areas carefully and with an open mind. My hon. Friend the Minister of State is already arranging further meetings in September with the parties to discuss their views. We shall then introduce any necessary amendments in another place.

I thank colleagues for their forbearance in accommodating the lengthy discussion of the Bill at such a late stage, and for the hard work they have put into it. It has been a civilised debate, for which I thank hon. Members--I know how strongly some of them feel. I hope that that bodes well for the future. On this last day of the Session, and after the intensive work of recent months, we all feel the need for a period of rest. I hope that hon. Members get a couple of weeks--but after that there is a great deal of work ahead both for the parties in the Assembly and for their lordships, who are to consider the Bill further.

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