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Madam Speaker: For the past three or four Thursdays when I have been in the Chair, numerous Members on both sides of the House have put this matter to the Leader of the House, asking for a debate on a substantive motion, which if necessary can be amended, and a vote. The response of the Leader of the House is there for all to see. Right hon. and hon. Members must continue pressing the occupants of the two Front Benches if they are seeking a debate on this matter.

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Northern Ireland (Location of Victims' Remains) Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

4.26 pm

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Adam Ingram): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Before commenting on the Bill, I wish to acknowledge the reason why the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay) is not on the Opposition Front Bench as shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. The right hon. Gentleman is attending his father's funeral. I am sure that the entire House would wish to echo me in offering condolences to him and his family.

It is right to begin by acknowledging the prolonged suffering that has been endured by the families of "The Disappeared". The families and friends of "The Disappeared", as they have become known, have suffered the loss of those they loved and have had to endure many years of agonising uncertainty of not knowing what happened to their loved ones and the pain of not being able to lay their bodies to rest. This is a basic human right.

I have met representatives of a number of these families on several occasions, most recently today, and I have been deeply moved by their stories and by the remarkable courage that they have shown in the face of such adversity. More than anything else, it is their suffering which the Bill seeks to address.

The Bill's overriding purpose is to ensure that the remains of these victims can be located and that, for the sake of these victims and their families, funerals can finally take place.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde): I support the Bill in principle. However, the Bill makes information and evidence inadmissible in criminal proceedings. I can well understand why that is so. The Bill also places restrictions on the forensic testing of human remains. What are those restrictions?

Mr. Ingram: I intend to deal with that later. The Bill is not exactly the same as the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997, but it is not too dissimilar, either. The same type of concepts are contained in that measure.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): I think that we all support the aim that my right hon. Friend has set out. However, has he had an absolute assurance that if the Bill is allowed to go forward, funerals will take place and it will not set rather an unfortunate precedent for the future?

Mr. Ingram: I am sure that my hon. Friend is only too well aware, being a long-standing practitioner of the art of politics, that there are no such things as absolutes. We are dealing with a sensitive and difficult subject which we must address in the best way available to us. As for setting

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precedents, the Bill deals with a specific set of circumstances and it is not for me to determine what may evolve or develop on its back. We do not know what else may arise. At present there is no intention to change or develop the Bill. It is aimed at a specific objective, which I was setting out.

Mr. Ken Maginnis (Fermanagh and South Tyrone) rose--

Mr. Ingram: I have hardly said very much about the Bill. It might be useful to set the scene for it, if I were allowed to do so.

Mr. Maginnis: On that point--

Mr. Ingram: I will give way--

Mr. Maginnis: On that point--

Mr. Ingram: The hon. Gentleman is usually insistent, and he gets his way by shouting and not listening to reasoning such as I was trying to present.

Mr. Maginnis: Let me assure the House that, unlike some people who will be nameless at this stage, I do not let my liver override my brain.

What the Minister has just told us is that he is reacting emotionally to the demands of the IRA, and he has not thought out the consequences of what he is proposing. That is what I gathered from his answer to his hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody).

Mr. Ingram: I do not want to enter into a dialogue on that. We have had to introduce a considerable amount of legislation as the peace process has developed, based on the circumstances prevailing at the time. It would have been better if we did not need legislation, but if that is the way in which we achieve the objective, the Government must introduce it.

For the sake of roundness of argument, may I refer to what the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis) said in relation to similar legislation, the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Bill, in 1996. It would be useful if, having intervened, he would listen. On that Bill, which dealt with armaments, he said:

We are dealing now with a similar piece of legislation, and I should like to hear him welcome it in the same way. He will have that opportunity when he makes his contribution to the debate.

I was saying that we seek to ensure that victims' remains are located so that funerals can take place. This objective is particularly apt as we, the British Government, together with the Irish Government, and the parties seek to implement the Belfast agreement. One of the key aspects of the agreement is a recognition by all parties that we must acknowledge and address the suffering of the victims of violence as a necessary element of reconciliation.

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Action on the issue of "The Disappeared" was specifically mentioned in the report of the international body, the Mitchell report, on page 17, paragraph 52, in the chapter on "Further Confidence Building", which listed the

among the factors that

    "would demonstrate a commitment to peaceful methods and so build trust among other parties and alleviate the fears and anxieties of the general population".

Furthermore, Sir Kenneth Bloomfield, in his report entitled "We shall remember them", on page 38, paragraph 5.38, dedicated a paragraph to "The Disappeared" and "Exiles". Sir Kenneth voiced

    "a fervent appeal, on behalf of those whose loved ones have disappeared without trace, that those who can offer information about their fate and where bodies may lie should do so now".

The Bill provides the most effective and speedy response that the Government can give to this tragic issue.

The background to the Northern Ireland (Location of Victims' Remains) Bill is the tragic disappearance of a number of people during the 1970s and 1980s. It is believed that those people were abducted and killed by terrorist organisations although, to date, none of the bodies have been recovered.

On 29 March this year, the Provisional IRA made a public statement, declaring:

In response, the Government, together with the Irish Government, announced their intention to introduce legislation in both jurisdictions to ensure that any evidence that emerged as a result of information given to help to locate the remains would not be used in subsequent criminal prosecutions. The Bill is the culmination of that commitment.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): Is not the practical effect of that self-denial the granting of an amnesty for those crimes and those criminals? Would not it have been better, and more honest, to create a commission such as that presided over by Archbishop Desmond Tutu rather than to cloak the effect in such a way?

Mr. Ingram: It would have been better if the hon. Gentleman had read the legislation; it is not an amnesty any more than the decommissioning legislation is an amnesty. I say it again: I shall explain the background to the Bill and the purpose underlying it.

Sir Kenneth Bloomfield referred to the concept of a truth and reconciliation commission in his detailed, heavyweight report on the question of how we deal with victims. It is for the whole of society in Northern Ireland--not only for the Governments or, indeed, the political parties--to determine whether it wants to move forward in such a way. The issue belongs to the whole of society and has to be handled in line with its wishes.

Such a commission has not been ruled out, but communities have to come together and define what they seek to achieve. If I read the remarks of the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) correctly, he said that

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we should not be proceeding in this way in respect of the information that the Provisional IRA has said that it is prepared to provide to the Governments, through the commission that will be set up, and that we should leave the issue on one side until such a body is established. It may never be established and, on that basis, the remains of the victims may never be recovered. That would be a matter of great regret.

The Bill is the culmination of the commitments that we gave in response to the Provisional IRA statement. The Irish Government published their equivalent Bill at the end of April. Together, the two Governments have shown their willingness to respond quickly to achieve a resolution of this issue.

The two Governments have recently signed an agreement to establish an independent commission which would facilitate the location of the victims' remains. I can announce this afternoon that Sir Kenneth Bloomfield has agreed to take on that role on behalf of the Government, if the Bill is approved by both Houses of Parliament.

Elements of the longer statement made by the Provisional IRA on 29 March caused further hurt and grief to the families, because of what it said and what it did not reveal. Many families were expecting to be informed that their relatives were on the list given by the Provisional IRA. The fact that they were not caused deeper pain--pain on top of what they have had to endure over the long years since their loved ones were taken from them. The unfounded allegations made against those on the list were a cruel blow to families who had already suffered too much.

It is worth while putting on record the fact that those listed by the Provisional IRA in its statement--Seamus Wright, Kevin McKee, Jean McConville, Columba McVeigh, Brendan Megrew, John McClory, Brian McKinney, Danny McIlhone and Eamon Molloy--had not been charged with any crime, were not judged in a court of law, were not given the right of a fair trial and were not given the right to appeal against the summary injustice served on them. They were probably beaten and tortured before they were killed. In short, they were denied their fundamental human rights.

There is no international call for an independent inquiry into their tragic deaths, the human rights lobby is silent on their treatment and, of course, they have lain in undisclosed sites--some of them for nearly 30 years. I want to make it clear that the measure before us does not condone any of that; it is not a concession to terrorism or barbarism--it is a wholly humanitarian gesture that has been made because the Government genuinely care about the families, who have borne so much grief and hurt over all those years with quiet dignity.

I do not speak for the families, but I know this: it is their right to know where their loved ones are buried and no one with any humanity in his heart has the right to deny the families the right of laying their loved ones to rest with the dignity they deserve. The humanitarian need to introduce this legislation with such urgency is therefore obvious.

The plight of the families of "The Disappeared" is at the forefront of our minds. Their suffering still strikes a deep chord. It has gone on for too long. However, it is not within the Government's gift to deliver the final objective--namely, the location of the remains. That can

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be done only if those who know their whereabouts come forward with the information. I take the opportunity today to call on them to do so as a matter of urgency.

The Provisional IRA must demonstrate its good faith by delivering on its publicly stated pledges to the families. I urge those who have information about the remaining victims to do likewise. Those families have already suffered too much. It is time for this issue to be dealt with once and for all.

I emphasise that the Bill does not grant immunity from prosecution. It is not an amnesty. These were vicious and cowardly crimes and, if evidence is obtained from other sources, it will be used to seek to bring those responsible to justice. However, just as it is absolutely right that the efforts to obtain justice should continue, it is equally important that we consider the needs of the families and do all that we can to alleviate their suffering.

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