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Although other Members may not believe it, I am an optimist. I think that half a loaf is a good deal better than no bread, and I am grateful for the partial consultation that took place. Once the Bill had been published, the UnderSecretary of State for Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Mr. Browne), kindly gave me an opportunity to go through it with his civil servants and put our points to them. The civil servants were very able, and took us through the Bill clearly and thoroughly. We expressed our views candidly, for what they were worth; so if the Bill is given a Second Reading, which I rather hope it is not, a number of the detailed amendments that we may table in Committee will not be unfamiliar to the Under-Secretary of State.
To some extent, then, we put our cards on the table as well. We played fairly. What we did not have was consultation of any kind before the Bill's publication. The Government did not suggest taking us into their confidence in regard to measures that might or might not be in the Bill, or the rationale for its presentationor its presentation at this particular time. Had such an invitation been issued I would have accepted it on the Opposition's behalf, on the same basis. If the discussion was to be confidential, we would have respected that confidentiality; if not, we would have played by whatever rules of the game the Government proposed. What we had, however, was "half-consultation"although, as I have said, we are extremely grateful for that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) made a reasonable point when he said that the process had been rushed. During an extraordinarily long periodabout 20 months, between March 2000 and November last
Suddenly the Bill was produced, following a consultation process that was far too rapid. To give him his due, the Under-Secretary of State recognised that and extended the consultation over Christmas. I pay tribute to him for that, but the process was still rather rushed. By contrast, for 20 months nothing apparently happened. We could have had some pre-publication consultation during that time.
I wholeheartedly endorse the complaint about the timetable motion. The whole House will be aware of our objections in principle to that system. The imposition of a timetable motion is particularly damaging when fundamental constitutional issues are raised.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Desmond Browne): I am grateful that the hon. Gentleman has put on record the level of co-operation that he has had from civil servants in the Northern Ireland Office, from me and from my fellow Ministers. I say unequivocally that in my experience, although it is limited, the degree of access to civil servants that he and his colleagues were given was unprecedented, but before March 2000, when the review was published, there was a period of consultation by the review itself. The Conservative party took part in that consultation and submitted an extensive memorandum. Following the consultation on the review, my predecessor engaged on a consultation, which I know the Conservative party took part in for a period. Given that there have been effectively 20 months of consultation since the review was published, and given how consistent the Bill and the implementation plan are with the provisions of the review, which part of the Bill came as a surprise to the hon. Gentleman?
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I have allowed the Minister to make a very long intervention. I think that the matter has been thoroughly aired. I will allow the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) to respond to the point, but we should then get on to the content of the Bill.
Mr. Davies: I am grateful to the Minister. In fact, we did not know what the Government were going to do about restorative justice and about some of the more technical penal aspects. We hoped that they would not take on board the recommendations relating to the royal coat of arms and the oath of allegiance. I will come to those matters in a second.
Today has been a memorably bad day for Parliament and for Northern Ireland. Not content with the dubious initiative by the Government before Christmas, using their majority to introduce a motion in the House to create a
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman should now come to the content of the Bill. He must not pursue lines that are outside the limits of the Bill; otherwise, he may have seriously to curtail his speech.
Mr. Davies: I hope to persuade the House that the Bill and the concessions in it are part and parcel of a general policy that has been pursued by the Government with increasing intensity over the past few months. Today's rather disreputable charade in Downing street was part and parcel of that.
May I be permitted to comment on the fact that no one will be taken in by the theory, which I gather has been put about by the Government, that the press conference in Downing street and meeting with the Prime Minister have nothing to do with Sinn Fein-IRA Members arriving here for the first time to claim their new privileges? It is claimed that it was just a routine meeting. One talent that all of us would concede to the Government is that of great sophistication in manipulating the media. The idea that it had never occurred to them that, if they had a meeting in Downing street, there would be a press conference, and if they had that on the day when those Members were coming to claim new privileges, that would greatly enhance the propaganda victory of Sinn Fein-IRA, seems so naive
Dr. Reid: I would have thought that reforming the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland was an important enough subject not to have to spend a lot of time on what is a bit of a cheap soundbite, but since it has been brought up to catch the news, let me make it absolutely plain that the Prime Minister's meeting with Sinn Fein today was arranged weeks ago and is a normal meeting exactly like our meetings with the leaders of the Ulster Unionist party or other parties at their request. This may not have struck the hon. Gentleman, but it is not beyond the capabilities of any political party, when it has a meeting with the Prime Minister, to choreograph other events to maximum advantage. That would have been done had the meeting been last week, next week, next month or whenever.
If the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that we should not meet Sinn Fein in case the press might be interested, I suggest that he is unable to distinguish between the great project of trying to bring peace to Northern Ireland and his own petty assessment of what is real politics. I assure him that the meeting was arranged weeks ago. On the decision itself
Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West): Does not the hon. Gentleman realise how disappointing it is to listen to his statement? I know that he has abandoned the bipartisan approach, but when we are debating a Bill that contains more than 200 measures to improve the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland, it is sad that he confines himself to partisan issues. Does he not have anything to say about the Bill's actual content?