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Mr. Maginnis: The hon. Gentleman made the point that the legislation was in the interests of the families. Taking into consideration the point he made about how it would reflect on the IRA, is there not a possibility that the legislation will go through, but that members of the IRA will drag their feet and the bodies will still not be revealed? Does he see any merit in at least time limiting the Bill, so that it facilitates, within a specified period, what the Government intend? I am still not in favour of the Bill, but would there be some merit in that course, in terms of what we want to achieve?

Mr. Grieve: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, although I wonder if, in reality, it will be of any advantage to the IRA if their members do drag their feet. Let us consider the following scenario. The IRA have given several assurances. Legislation passed not only in this House, but in Ireland, is designed to facilitate the honouring of their pledge, but they then decide to do nothing. I should have thought that nothing could be more damaging to them--especially in view of the public disquiet that exists in the communities from which, over the years, they have claimed to derive their support--than to be seen to be unable and unwilling to honour their commitment. In those circumstances, the only possible conclusion that could be drawn would be that they were so frightened or ashamed of what they had done that they were unable to face up to it. That is not likely to do their cause much good at all.

In the meantime, if the IRA did not divulge the information, there would be nothing to prevent anyone from being prosecuted if remains were found by some other means. In those circumstances, the benefit to the IRA would seem to be slight. We could time limit the Bill; the Minister may want to comment on that matter. However, once the measure is up and running, there must be an argument that there is no need to time limit it. However, I should be grateful if the Minister would address that question, because it might be argued that, if nothing has happened after a year, there was no point in introducing the measure in the first place. That might be a proper time to say enough is enough.

I do not wish to take up much more of the House's time in concluding this debate on behalf of the official Opposition.

Mr. McDonnell: I do not want to be confrontational in any way, but I should like to be clear about the views of the Opposition. If Opposition Members are to abstain in the vote on Second Reading tonight, is that because they are abstaining until they hear the response from the Minister on the detail of the Bill or because they oppose the Bill in principle--or, perhaps, a better form of words would be that they cannot support the Bill? If the latter--

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that they cannot support the Bill--I reiterate what my right hon. Friend the Minister said earlier: the onus is on those who cannot support the Bill to offer an alternative that will allow those families who have lost their loved ones to discover their bodies and bury them, and put that part of their lives behind them.

Mr. Grieve: The hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable point, but it seems to me that he might be missing one aspect of the case. He and other hon. Members have laid great stress on the need to help to satisfy--in so far as we can--the perfectly understandable desires of the relatives of those who have been murdered. I sympathise with that. However, as I said, there was nothing wrong with the point made by some Opposition Members that it is not the job of the Government or of the House to alter the law, or the way in which the law should normally operate, in order to satisfy that need. The answer to the hon. Gentleman's question must be that we could tell people, "We cannot do that for you." If we were to say that, it would not be inherently wrong in any way, but at the same time, I say to the Government and to the Minister that I am sympathetic to what they are trying to achieve.

The Government have a primary responsibility to carry through their business and to take policy decisions that are often difficult. That is why it appears to Opposition Members that the correct course of action, in this particular circumstance, is to abstain. We shall of course participate in the Committee, in so far as we are able to do so. If we can make a sensible contribution at that stage, we shall do so.

What it comes down to is that the Government hold out the hope that the legislation might be constructive for the families and for the peace process, and constructive in making those who have perpetrated these crimes face up to their actions. There are legitimate grounds for that hope, but that must be set against what appears to Opposition Members to be the proper repugnance of right-thinking people to indulge those who have committed such offences by even going to the extent that we propose for the purpose of achieving that result. That appears to us to be a legitimate reason for abstaining on the Bill. We share the Government's hope and wish them every success in implementing the measure. We hope that it fulfils the Government's expectations for it, but we shall take the course that I have outlined.

7.26 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. John McFall): As the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) said, this has been a sombre debate. However, it has also been moving, and for me it has been educative. We have heard many contributions from Members who have had experience in Northern Ireland during the past 20 to 30 years. We might be travelling along different paths, but we all want to achieve the end result of ensuring that there is comfort for the families of "The Disappeared".

The House has realised that the Bill has a humanitarian purpose--that is a core issue of the Bill. I share in the moving tributes that have been paid to the families of "The Disappeared". Several hon. Members referred to some of the families who were in the House today. Members on both sides of the House met members of those families. Margaret McKinney, whose son Brian was

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killed, was in the House today, as was Anna Macshane, whose father, Charles Armstrong, was abducted from Crossmaglen. One group has not been mentioned today, but it deserves to be recorded--WAVE, or Widows Against Violence Empowered. Members of that group have played a positive and constructive role--they were represented here today by Sandra Peake, and I pay tribute to them.

I shall try to deal with the points that were made in chronological order. My hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) made a number of points. He asked about the financial provisions of the Bill. The explanatory notes give a figure of approximately £100,000 for the commission, but, in giving that figure, we do not suggest that there will be any financial restrictions. Those resources will be shared when the commission comes into being as a joint international body, but we do not want to limit its work. If extra commitments are envisaged, we shall consider sympathetically any representations from the commissioners.

My hon. Friend also asked if credence could be given to stories of victims being buried in Scotland. He expressed the wish that the Scottish authorities should co-operate with the measure. I know that distressing comments have been made about the disappearance of the victims. The problem is that the lack of firm information has given rise to rumours, and the sad fact is that, until information is forthcoming, we cannot know for sure. However, the Bill is drafted so as to cover all possibilities and I have every confidence that the Scottish authorities would co-operate fully if that was deemed necessary.

I welcome the positive comments made by the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss). He drew to our attention section 11(2) of the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997, which states:

and so on. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we shall consider that issue and report back before Committee stage.

The hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis) made a lengthy speech. He asked about the deal with the IRA without a guarantee of nine bodies. I cannot stand here and say with conviction that nine bodies or their location will be forthcoming. However, we have the evidence received from the families and others who are willing us to act and the statement made by the IRA on 29 March, to which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the Irish Government responded. We are legislating on the basis of that information and in the sincere hope that the agony of the families will end.

I acknowledge that the statements made by the IRA and others gave families hope in the short term, and that some of those hopes have since been dashed. We do not want that hope to be lost, which is why we are legislating--so that the sorrow of the families can be ameliorated to some extent. We are acting in a positive spirit. I acknowledge the hon. Gentleman's comments, but I hope that he accepts the sentiments I have expressed.

The hon. Gentleman also said that the legislation was needed and that Sinn Fein and the IRA were twisting the knife. He said that the only danger posed by forensic testing is that it might reveal the degree of torture employed. However, the British and Irish Governments

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believe that, without the legislation, there is no chance of information emerging. We want that information for the benefit of the families, which is why in the Bill we propose that there should be limits on forensic testing.

The hon. Gentleman said that we need to examine the activities of both the IRA and Sinn Fein in respect of decommissioning--a point made eloquently by other hon. Members. I believe that the sole beneficiaries of the Bill will be the families of the victims. As the hon. Member for Beaconsfield said, it will do the IRA and Sinn Fein no credit at all if there is no movement. No credit will be given to those who disclose information, for it is they who have shown great cruelty and inhumanity by prolonging the families' suffering for so long; nor, I believe, will there be any political credit associated with the paramilitaries.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act, and I looked up the speech he made on that legislation in December 1996, in which he paid tribute to Monsignor Denis Faul, as he did tonight. Monsignor Faul has been extremely helpful in acting as an intermediary between the families. He sees the merit in this process, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be comforted by the role that Monsignor Faul is playing, for over the years there has been no greater critic of the IRA's activities than that courageous man.

The hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter) called the Bill an obnoxious and dangerous Bill. I shall not indulge in party politicking tonight, because that would be inappropriate, but I looked up the hon. Gentleman's 1996 comments on what became the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act. He said then that he would support the Government. At that time, the hon. Gentleman was a Government Back Bencher and although that legislation exercised his mind greatly and he had considerable doubts about it, he gave the then Government the benefit of the doubt--I paraphrase, but I think those are the sentiments he expressed.

On the face of it, none of us here tonight would want anything to do with the Bill, but we have to acknowledge the reality of 30 horrendous years in Northern Ireland and the continued grief and suffering of individuals. We have to respond to that humanitarian plea from the families by going some way toward helping them. We do not agree with the Bill from first principles, but we are proposing it because it deals with reality.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the judicial process, and I can state clearly that the Bill does not affect the judicial process, only the admissibility of certain criminal evidence, and the limited guarantee extends only to information given to the commission. If any other criminal evidence is found elsewhere, the case can be prosecuted on that basis. The provision is included for a specific reason, which is to enable the bodies to be located.

The hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone referred to Sinn Fein's allegations of collusion by security forces. I note his points and recognise his sincerity, but to comment on them would be to stray from the Bill.

The hon. Member for Basingstoke said that the Government have departed from the principles underlying the previous Government's policies in Northern Ireland, adding that the end, although desirable, does not justify the means. The Bill does nothing to undermine such principles--yes, it gives limited protection in limited

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circumstances, but it does so for humanitarian reasons. It does not undermine a principled approach to Northern Ireland matters, nor does it condone or lessen our disapproval of any of the crimes committed. The crimes were horrendous, and that the whole House shares that disapproval should be a matter of public record.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. McDonnell) mentioned article 5 of the agreement between the British and Irish Governments and asked about the next steps in the implementation of the Bill. He asked who will act as the commission's agents, and who will guard against the danger of collusion. If the Bill becomes law and the treaty comes into effect, the commission is established. The staff will be appointed by the commission, and it will be for the commission to ensure that the staff are aware of their obligation of confidentiality under clause 5 of the Bill.

My hon. Friend also asked about penalties. Because the families are in receipt of confidential information, it is difficult to legislate comprehensively. However, if there were a breach of confidentiality, I understand that the individual involved could be subject to dismissal and would certainly be subject to the full disciplinary process.

The hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) said that legislation would expunge the guilt of the murderers. Nothing will expunge their guilt, and their crimes can be prosecuted if other evidence is available. We are at one on that point: nothing will expunge their guilt. The hon. Gentleman also claimed that the Bill sets a dangerous precedent by giving limited amnesty and that concession is a prominent part of the peace process. He said that the Government are giving concessions to the Provisional IRA and Sinn Fein without reciprocity.

This process is not about concessions. It is about an agreed way forward in Northern Ireland, starting with the Belfast agreement. It is about an agreed way forward that is endorsed by the people, and that involves the British and Irish Governments and political parties from both sides of the community. I recognise that the process makes difficult demands of people on all sides. However, tonight we are replicating the courage and determination displayed by the politicians and the people of Northern Ireland. We have one aim: to achieve peace, stability and a normal democratic society in Northern Ireland.

The hon. Member for Belfast, East asked whether the lawful security forces will be allowed to conduct searches. The searches will be conducted by the security forces--that is, the RUC or the Garda Siochana--on the basis of information provided to the commission. I assure the hon. Gentleman that it was never intended to replace the security forces with the commission, and that information will be passed to the security forces.

The hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) asked about the read-across to Bloody Sunday. The Attorney-General has provided an undertaking that persons giving evidence to the Bloody Sunday inquiry will not do so to their own detriment in respect of possible criminal proceedings. However, neither this Bill nor the Attorney-General's undertaking will prevent criminal proceedings being brought. The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik) made several positive points that focused precisely on why we are debating this issue

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tonight. I can do no more than commend him for that approach. This debate is about the families and their pain and about minimising their suffering if possible.

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