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Mr. Hogg: If the hon. Gentleman is right in supposing that the measure is linked to decommissioning, would he not be wise to defer voting in favour of it until we see whether decommissioning takes place?

Mr. Hughes: The right hon. and learned Gentleman asks a good question. We had a debate earlier about whether the Bill and decommissioning should be formally linked, and my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) made it clear that we did not think that they should. We said that the Bill was about the rights and liberties of people and that that ought not to be linked to an on-going, part-public, part-private process.

Like the right hon. and learned Gentleman, I hope that decommissioning works. The Bill may be the trigger to make it work better. We do not know, but we do not believe that we ought to withhold our support on the ground that only if decommissioning happens will it be right to implement the Bill. If the Bill is right on the face of it--the right hon. and learned Gentleman is a lawyer and he understands the point--we believe that we ought to vote for the Bill, even if some reasons for it have not been shared with the House.

In my almost 17 years in this place, it has often been the short Bills and those introduced with least warning that have been the most controversial and the least satisfactory.

Sir Patrick Cormack: Dogs.

Mr. Hughes: On a minor matter, the legislation to deal with dangerous dogs was unsatisfactory. On a more severe matter, the emergency legislation introduced the summer before last was unsatisfactory. I was not here at the time, but I understand that the Bill dealing with the Official Secrets Act 1911 was a two-clauser. It was certainly a one-page Bill.

Dan Norris (Wansdyke): It was introduced by a Liberal Government.

Mr. Hughes: Indeed, it was. It was pushed through the House in one day without the scrutiny that it should have had. We believe that the shorter the Bill, the more the House needs the explanation and justification for it and the more the Government need to carry their colleagues with them. That is why I say to the hon. Member for Walsall, North and the hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas) that, when the Government control the timetable, to suggest that it is wrong for hon. Members to question, argue, and, if necessary, vote and delay progress, is to undermine the only basis that we have in this place for making sure that when the Government propose something, Parliament has a chance to do at least a half-decent job.

Mr. Winnick: The hon. Gentleman should be careful. I started my remarks by saying that the Opposition have every right to explore and use every opportunity to exploit the parliamentary situation. I then went on to say why, on this occasion, they were wrong. I in no way included the Liberal Democrats. Therefore, please let it not be said that

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I in any way deny the Opposition's right at any given time to use whatever parliamentary opportunities there are. In my judgment, they were wrong on this occasion.

Mr. Hughes: I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, and if that is his position I accept it.

We have had an extended debate because the Bill has never been explained and the proper procedures of the House have not been followed. If we have taken more than 24 hours on the Bill, approaching a record sitting since the war, it is because the Government should not behave in the way in which they have, whatever the legislation's merits. When we are talking about peace in Northern Ireland, they should be more sensitive and have greater respect for all hon. Members.

6.41 pm

Mr. Forth: Unfortunately, this is a bad Bill which has been badly handled by the Government. The Government have only themselves to blame for the mess that they have got themselves into, if that is the way in which they see it.

If the Bill illustrates nothing else, it is that yet again even a Government with a gigantic majority cannot treat the House with contempt and arrogance, that they must respect the traditions and procedures of the House, and that they must expect that their Bills, long or short, large or small, will and should be properly scrutinised by due process in the House.

That has not been the case with the Bill because the Government thought that they could slip a bad and controversial Bill through without proper scrutiny and, as a result, they have received a bloody nose. I hope that the House will be able to demonstrate again and again that, if the Government are not prepared to allow their Bills to be scrutinised in the proper way, that, or something similar, is likely to be the result.

I opposed the Bill on Second Reading and I will oppose it on Third Reading because it does something that is unnecessary and dangerous, which undermines my concept of nationhood, of national identity and of the role of a legislature in an independent sovereign nation state. It may be a small Bill, but it manages to do all that in just two substantive clauses.

Worse than that is that after more than 24 hours of debate we have failed to get to the bottom of the Government's motives in bringing the Bill to the House at this time. On the one hand, on 24 January the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), who has played a distinguished and responsible role in our proceedings, said:

Yet towards the end of our Committee proceedings, we dragged from the Government the admission that the real motive behind the Bill was that the Government had felt compelled to do a deal with the Irish Government and Sinn Fein.

Mr. Hogg: Will my right hon. Friend consider the proposition that one reason why the Government have put

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forward two Under-Secretaries to advance the Bill through the House is that they do not know the deal that lies behind the Bill, and that had the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland been on the Front Bench, he might have found it embarrassing to answer the kind of questions that my right hon. Friend and I have asked.

Mr. Forth: My right hon. and learned Friend is typically more generous than I am prepared to be on this occasion. I cannot contemplate or conceive of two Ministers, be they Under-Secretaries, Ministers of State or whatever, taking a Bill through the House without properly knowing its background and provenance. If my right hon. and learned Friend is correct, we can partially exonerate the Ministers who have taken the Bill through. I am not prepared to believe that. It is a sad day when Ministers in a Government who profess to believe in open government, honesty, accountability, transparency--call it what one will--are prepared to sit through this length of proceedings without telling the House why they have introduced the Bill, its provenance and why it has to be pushed through in such a hurry.

Those are the reasons why I am angry about the Bill, why I have been against it, and why I still believe that, although we have been able to give it some degree of scrutiny, the Government have been less than honest with the House and the people of this country, and will live to regret it.

6.45 pm

Mr. Cash: I will, of course, vote against Third Reading. I voted against the Bill on Second Reading, and I am glad to note the change of heart by my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench who, I understand, are now going to vote with us on Third Reading.

It is a pity that my amendment did not receive the support that I expected. [Interruption.] I did not hear what the shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland said from a sedentary position, but perhaps that is just as well. In any event, I strongly believe that the Committee should have supported my amendment, which would have required anyone, before taking a seat in this place or, indeed, in the Northern Ireland Assembly, to disavow terrorism. I remain firmly of that opinion.

As a number of speakers have eloquently pointed out, we have been given no answers, and we do not know who is behind the measure. I personally believe that the Secretary of State is not present because he would have found it impossible to answer some of the questions that have been posed--not because he could not have answered them, but because he would not have wanted to do so. To be pressed continuously would, I think, have been a source of considerable embarrassment.

I suggest that the appropriate Select Committee--the Home Affairs Committee or, indeed, the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee--summon the Secretary of State and, in the course of formal proceedings, put questions to him that these junior Ministers have neglected to answer during the past 24 hours. I trust that the members of those Select Committees will take up my suggestion with the appropriate Chairmen, and put it on the agenda.

The passing of the Bill to the House of Lords will give that House, in its present form, an opportunity to prove its worth. The question of whether the House of Lords is prepared to act on behalf of the country as a whole--

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given the electoral dictatorship that we have witnessed during today's proceedings--provides that House with an ample opportunity to prove whether it really has constitutional spine. If it is prepared at short notice, following all the arguments that we have rehearsed, to improve on those arguments, to examine the Bill's implications and to demonstrate that, as a second Chamber, it is worthy of the opportunities offered to it, I for one will give it my full support.

Much as I like the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes), I disagree with his reasons for supporting the Bill. The hon. Gentleman represents a great party--a party which, with some leapfrogging and some diversionary tactics, goes back to the origins of this home rule question. It was, after all, Gladstone himself who, in November 1886, defeated the Conservative Government and introduced a Bill whose object was to exclude Irish Members. I found it ironic, to say the least, that the hon. Gentleman argued exactly the opposite case.

Having said that, I must add that the real questions that lie at the heart of the Bill have not been answered. Whether the Bill can be linked to decommissioning is, in my view, a bit of a red herring; I think that the real issue is the substantive question whether it would be right and proper for us to pass a Bill of this kind, on this notice, with this apparent urgency, without being given any explanation. There are means open to the House to ensure that those questions are put and to insist that they are answered.

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