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Mrs. Patsy Calton (Cheadle): I commend the comments made by the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes). He demonstrated conclusively that the new clause has all the potential of a wrecking amendment that would halt the peace process. That should not be allowed to happen. We wish to make progress with the peace process as my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) said earlier when he quoted the words of the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) about the need for a series of small steps and an increase in the use of the democratic process.

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I welcome the Minister's confirmation that the IICD reports are all in the public domain and will presumably remain so. We need to move forwards and it is useful to know what is happening, but the future of the Bill—or of the peace process—should not depend on that.

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If we were given a report that gave the impression that not much progress on decommissioning had been made, that could be used by the Opposition to reject the Bill, and by IRA and loyalist paramilitary groups to say that they need not do anything to further the process. We cannot allow that position to arise.

Most of the debate on decommissioning focuses on the IRA, as Sinn Fein members have positions in the Northern Ireland Executive. However, we cannot forget that loyalist paramilitary violence has been the most prevalent in recent months. At every stage, we must remind ourselves of loyalist violence. Those groups must also feel pressurised into decommissioning their weapons.

On behalf of my party, I oppose the new clause.

Mr. Hunter: I am amazed by the contribution from the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mrs. Calton). She began by saying that she objected to the new clause because it was a wrecking amendment. In fact, it is the very opposite. It is a strengthening measure, and an effort to breathe life into the decommissioning process. To present the new clause as an attempt to wreck the process of decommissioning beggars belief.

The hon. Member for Cheadle said that the decommissioning process should be a series of small steps. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), who moved new clause 1, would argue that the new clause is indeed one of those small steps. It is a way to inject confidence into the decommissioning process

Mr. Beggs: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, for the overwhelming majority of Unionists in Northern Ireland, confidence will be found not in the presentation of reports but in the visual demonstration of the destruction of weapons and explosives? Does he also agree that the hope and confidence engendered initially when the Loyalist Volunteer Force first visibly destroyed illegal weapons is what is required? Unionists need to see something being decommissioned to believe that the process is going ahead. After all, nationalists see observation towers being demolished.

Mr. Hunter: I strongly agree. My hon. Friend is surely right to say that the real test of confidence ultimately will be the visible and practical process of on-going decommissioning. I do not quarrel with that argument at all. Indeed, I endorse it, but I ask my hon. Friend to bear with me while I develop my own argument, which is that, on the way to that ultimate objective, there is a place for reports that are more detailed and substantial than those submitted by the general.

The hon. Member for Cheadle opposed the new clause, and appeared to argue that it would be dreadful if a report were negative and indicated that not much progress had been made. However, do we want the process to continue on the basis of a lie, or of ignorance? If no substantial progress has been made with decommissioning, it is

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imperative that we know about it. I am appalled that a serious argument can be built on the basis that it is better to be ignorant than to know that something is going wrong.

Lembit Öpik: Does not the hon. Gentleman accept that the symbolism associated with the first step towards decommissioning is the core point here? I have heard Conservative Members say that they are satisfied that the IRA took a landmark decision to begin the decommissioning process. Does not the hon. Gentleman accept that that, more than the numbers of bullets or ounces of explosives involved, is the core point that we are discussing?

Mr. Hunter: I do not accept that argument, although I wish that I could. I might be able to accept it if I knew precisely what happened that day in the autumn when the decommissioning event took place. However, as I do not know that I cannot agree with the hon. Gentleman's proposition. That is the heart of the matter. My hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford was right to argue that a defect in the 1997 Act is that it imposed insufficient specific requirements on the person whose role in due course was taken over by General de Chastelain.

I remember the deliberations, when the 1997 Act was going through the House, about what should be included in it. At the time, it was believed that the provisions of the Act would prove sufficient. The advantage of hindsight and the experience of the intervening four years show that the provisions were inadequate.

The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) makes my argument for me. If we knew in detail what the IRA had done in the autumn, we could join the Government in saying that it had been a credible event. I think that "credible" was the word that we finally homed in on, but other words that might apply would be "significant" and "important". Yet we do not know what happened, so I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford that it is essential that fuller and more detailed reports should be given to the Government, and then to Parliament and the Dail. That would allow us to make a considered and rational judgment about whether the actions of the Provisionals—and, one hopes, of the loyalist organisations in due course—can command confidence.

For those reasons, I feel strongly that the new clause should be supported.

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne): I shall come to the Minister's rescue. I wrote down what she said when she said it, as I wanted to comment. I can therefore confirm that she said that the IRA had performed a "credible" act of decommissioning. I wanted to ask what that meant. I hoped that she was going to tell the Committee but, when goaded, she added that the Government knew nothing else.

Jane Kennedy: Perhaps it will help the debate if I were to say that an act of decommissioning would be deemed to be credible if it satisfied those specifically charged with ensuring that arms were dealt with in accordance with the scheme that had been laid down.

Mr. Wilshire: That is fascinating, and a perfectly reasonable point. I would go along with it, if the Minister

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could say what had been decommissioned. That would allow us to judge whether the act had been credible. If we knew what had been decommissioned I would go along with the Minister, but she cannot tell us, as she also said that the Government know nothing else. I therefore do not know how we can decide whether the action in the autumn was credible.

I should like to be able to decide that the act was credible. I have been one of those who have maintained that the agreement will not work. I have always said, when I have intervened on this matter in the House, that I would be happy to stand up one day and say that I got it wrong. I really would like to do that, but I will not be in a position to say that I got it wrong until the Minister or someone else can tell me what has been decommissioned.

A credible act of decommissioning is the key to this matter. My hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) made a point that I very much wanted to make when he said that in some people's opinion one bullet, 1 g of Semtex or one gun would be important. Historically, the weaponry and explosives that were held in sacred trust for the cause were not for Sinn Fein-IRA to give away, but one gun would be. However, that does not lead us to the Minister's view that one gun will be significant; rather that has led to a group of people who still subscribe to the belief of no surrender and no decommissioning breaking away from the IRA. Therefore, it is not enough to say that such a move on decommissioning is credible because some IRA members are prepared to go along with something.

The Minister also said that this measure was reasonable because decommissioning was a long-term process. For it to be a long-term process, a lot of material must be decommissioned. There is not much else to do, and what there is will not take five minutes. If the Minister can justify the Bill by saying that decommissioning is a long-term process, I assume that she knows that there is a large amount of material to be decommissioned; otherwise, how can it be a long process? Yet she has told us that she does not know more than we do. The argument that decommissioning is a long-term process and that all our concerns are unreasonable falls on the Minister's admission that she does not know any more than we do.

I hope that, even at this stage, the Minister will consider accepting the new clause.

Jane Kennedy: I think that I said that implementing the Belfast agreement is a long process. We have seen the start of decommissioning, which is when the debate about what is credible, significant and important started. The start of decommissioning is important and should be acknowledged.

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