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Mr. Thompson: Is it not a fact that under the legislation by which General de Chastelain is operating, the arms have to be destroyed? Hiding them in bunkers will not satisfy that law.

Mr. MacKay: The hon. Gentleman and I were both sitting in the House when that legislation was passed in July 1998. I would need to double check the detail of that legislation before answering. I was asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby whether I would be satisfied with decommissioning if it turned out to be, as he would put it, merely sealing the weapons in bunkers. I said it was vitally important that we had decommissioning in full and, provided that it is properly policed by the general and his staff, I could live with that. If my hon. Friend the

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Member for Sevenoaks is asking whether I would prefer the weapons just to be sealed, of course the answer has to be no. My preferred option is obviously to have them destroyed in front of General de Chastelain's staff.

My hon. Friend the Member for Blaby was trying to tease out of me whether I could live with the weapons being sealed. The answer is yes. What is vitally important is that decommissioning takes place, so that the process can move forward and the Executive can continue to function. That is absolutely what the overwhelming majority of both communities in Northern Ireland want and I believe the majority of right hon. and hon. Members want that.

6.15 pm

Mr. Andrew Hunter (Basingstoke): Is not the essential point that the so-called paramilitaries hold weapons illegally? There are no circumstances in which they can hold those weapons legally. The ceasing of all holding of those weapons is decommissioning. I beg my right hon. Friend not to allow a grey area into the debate at this stage. We cannot accept anything other than paramilitaries no longer having illegal weapons in their physical possession--even if policed for the time being by General de Chastelain's officers.

The Chairman: Order. Perhaps I may be of assistance. I begin to see in my mind some limitation on the extent to which one can define the word "decommissioning". As I read the amendments and new clause, it is a matter of the belief of the Secretary of State in one case and, in the other, of the belief of the commission. Those are the matters being debated and it would be out of order if the Committee attempts to make fresh definitions. The definitions required are explicit in the amendments.

Mr. William Ross: On a point of order, Sir Alan. Surely the term "decommissioning" is only defined, so far as the law of the United Kingdom is concerned, in the Act that creates the decommissioning process. The definition in that Act should matter, not anything that people might wish to introduce by any side wind during this debate. We are dealing with decommissioning as already legally defined--as being the destruction of the weaponry.

The Chairman: Order. Nothing I have said implies any detraction from what is said in the original Act. I merely repeat my advice to the Committee that the amendments deal with the opinions of certain other stated persons or bodies, as to whether or not decommissioning as defined is being fulfilled.

Mr. MacKay: I naturally accept your advice, Sir Alan, and will proceed accordingly. My hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter) has immense experience in this field and is joint vice-chairman with my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby of the Conservative Back-Bench Committee and has taken great interest in these matters.

The Chairman: Order. Notwithstanding the experience of the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter), which I acknowledge, that does not altogether debar him from sometimes stepping aside from the amendment being discussed.

Mr. MacKay: Therefore, Sir Alan, it is worth reminding my hon. Friend that I have stressed to you the

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phrase, "illegally held arms and explosives" every time that I have discussed the matter. I think you will confirm, Sir Alan, that I have used the word "illegal" every time. There is no question that persons could retain the weapons in bunkers themselves; those bunkers would not be under their control but would be overseen by the commission. As you rightly say, Sir Alan, that moves us away from the amendment, although I might add that that movement is not of my own making, but has been caused by interventions.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): I hesitate to intervene on that cue, but will my right hon. Friend elucidate for my benefit? Does the earlier legislation define "substantial progress"? If not, surely it is necessary to debate what constitutes substantial progress towards decommissioning for these purposes.

The Chairman: Order. If the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay) is, by his own admission, having difficulty in determining whether he is straying out of order as a result of interventions rather than anything he has said himself, I might help him by saying that he would be unwise to answer.

Mr. MacKay: May I answer briefly? No, and wisely so. New clause 1 quite rightly refers to "substantial" decommissioning and, although we had little time due to the speed at which the Bill was foisted on the Committee, we took some trouble to draft it carefully. We believe that General de Chastelain can say in his report whether substantial decommissioning has taken place. In other words, token decommissioning will not satisfy the House. Substantial decommissioning, heading towards full decommissioning by the appointed day in May, appears to us to be quite reasonable and it is well within the scope of the amendment, and within the House's understanding of decommissioning, to allow him to define whether that has taken place. We need substantial decommissioning and substantial decommissioning we must have.

I return to the Bill in general and why we have tabled the amendment and new clause 1, which, with respect, are the most important and substantial of those before the Committee. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) will disagree, although you, Sir Alan, may consider them to be the most important. The Bill does not in any way flow from the Belfast agreement. It is not urgent, as the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department and the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland have more or less confirmed from the Dispatch Box and in sedentary interventions, and, so far as I can see, not many people have asked for such a measure.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) deeply believes the Bill to be to be a constitutional outrage--as do my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst and the hon. Member for East Londonderry, who is much respected--but we on the Conservative Front Bench are fairly agnostic. We think that it is not anywhere near the constitutional outrage that they suggest, although we would be happy to give it fair wind if only we felt confident that it would be enacted only as and when General de Chastelain made it clear that there had been substantial decommissioning. I shall tell the Committee why, because that is the key issue.

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The process has been all take by the paramilitaries, and absolutely no give. The British and Irish Governments and the peace-loving constitutional parties--Unionist, Alliance or nationalist--have jumped every hurdle that they have been asked to jump. The Assembly elections have taken place. The Executive has been set up--with two Sinn Fein Ministers--as was correct under the legislation. Terrorist prisoners have been released early from jail and are back on the streets--more than 300 hundred already.

North-south bodies have been set up. The Patten report on policing in the Province has been completed and the Government are shortly to introduce legislation to make changes. That is all give by the Government and all take by the paramilitaries, republicans and so-called loyalists. Some of us might say that we have had precious little in return so far.

I fundamentally disagree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst. Although I do not believe that the Bill is important, why should we pass unimportant legislation and give a bit more when we are getting nothing in return? Is not it time for the House and the Government to draw a line in the sand and say, "This far and no further. We will agree to the Bill going through only if there is substantial decommissioning as defined by General de Chastelain."? That is why I commend the amendment and the consequent new clause to the Committee.

Mr. Forth: Following directly from what my right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay) has said, it is interesting that in yesterday's debate the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department said:

That clearly establishes a link in his mind between the Good Friday agreement and the measure before us. It can do none other. The Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland said that

    "the arrangements between Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and this House--and the Government--are unique and different. Our response to the agreement must reflect that. The argument is about context rather than precise linkage."--[Official Report, 24 January 2000; Vol. 343, c. 73.]

Two Ministers said in the debate on Second Reading that there is a connection--a link--between the Good Friday agreement and the Bill. I do not see how they can deny that, because their own words, which appear in Hansard, illustrate the point all too directly. We have an answer to the question that we all struggled with yesterday. Given the benefit of reflection--how valuable it is during parliamentary proceedings--we are beginning to detect a link in the minds of Ministers. That is helpful and puts the amendment in context.

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