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Dr. John Reid rose

David Burnside: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Mallon: I shall give way to the Secretary of State.

Dr. Reid: My hon. Friend speaks with great passion, conviction and sincerity. He is absolutely right to say that this was not the Under-Secretary's decision; it was my decision. I would like to correct the hon. Gentleman on one thing: the decision was not taken late. I could have taken it two or three months ago. I did not take it then precisely because what he likes to call "little deals" and what I like to call "discussions between parties" were taking place between his party and others to try to discover whether there was a way in which we could reach agreement. I thought it better to wait until absolutely the last moment to take a decision which I would have much preferred to be taken by the parties in Northern Ireland.

Mr. John Hume (Foyle): Why did the right hon. Gentleman not discuss it with us?

Dr. Reid: Precisely because I was advised by both parties, including by representatives of my hon. Friend's party, to stay out of the issue while the discussions continued. So I take full responsibility for the decision, but I would not like the hon. Gentleman to believe, having spent many hours discussing such issues with him, that the decision to wait until late was taken for any other reason than to try to allow the parties to reach the decision—a situation that I would much have preferred.

Mr. Mallon: I note what the Secretary of State says. It is right that he makes it clear that the decision was his, but I regret to say that there is no doubt that today's actions by the Government will have negative repercussions. I very much regret that, in the long term, they will outweigh any

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temporary, one-sided benefits that might accrue. I believe that the devolution of justice powers will now be more difficult to achieve and implement.

In short, this is no way to proceed. It is no way to legislate. It is no way to implement the Good Friday agreement, which requires the two sovereign Governments to show parity of esteem to every section of the community in Northern Ireland. Above all, it is no way to manage a peace process and no way to create the new beginning that we all want to achieve.

9.48 pm

Lembit Öpik: As I said in Committee, because of the way we were sitting, the light shone all around the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) and bathed him in an angelic aura every time he stood up to speak in Committee. I was hesitant to tussle with that saintly light, as the Minister was cast into the heart of darkness in the Room. Although I was joking then, what the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh has just said underlines the genuine sincerity and honesty with which he has sought to represent the people whom he was elected to represent. We must take very seriously the frustrations that he describes because, at the end of the day, he is one of the people who has to sell these proposals to his part of the community.

I was frustrated to some extent by the Government's apparent lack of flexibility in the Standing Committee. They have made some amendments on Report, but difficulties arise when the whole process appears to the public eye to show that deals are being done outside the Chamber and that changes are being slipped through at the last minute. Even if that is not what Ministers intend, such impressions make it more difficult in practical terms for individuals—especially those on the nationalist side, on this occasion—to sell the proposals.

In addition, Ministers gave very strong reasons why they refused to do something on a number of occasions, only to change their position later—even though, if there is a clear example of a subject area in which one benefits by showing genuine openness and flexibility at all times, it is surely Northern Ireland. Examples of such an approach include resistance to the word "reflective" in place of "representation", which was discussed earlier when it was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Mrs. Calton). A more recent example arose in the last debate on Report, when the Under-Secretary sought to give an extreme example of circumstances in which new clauses 3 and 4, which related to information for victims and next of kin, should not automatically come into play, even though new clause 4 clearly allowed an exception to be made when the public interest would not have been served.

Mr. Browne: I do not want the hon. Gentleman to be in any doubt about reflectiveness and the judiciary, on which I have argued from principle. I have sought to enunciate my position in many different ways and I will not abandon that principle at any stage. I do not want there to be any suggestion that I was arguing one position and taking another. On his other example, there is a distinction between the effect of new clause 3 and that of new clauses 4 and 5. As we ran out of time on Report, I did not have the chance to explain that distinction, so I

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do not think it appropriate for him accidentally to misrepresent my position by anticipating what he did not hear.

Lembit Öpik: I would not seek to misrepresent the Minister, and there is no time to enter into detailed discussions on that matter now; I am aware that at least two hon. Members on the Benches behind me want to speak.

None the less, in relation to that point, as the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) pointed out, I supported the timetabling motion. I still hold the view that it might have provided enough time for the Committee stage in certain circumstances, but with the benefit of hindsight, I must say reluctantly that I probably was not right to be sympathetic in terms of the time allowed for Report and Third Reading. I make that comment with some humility; we have had discussions outside the Chamber, and I have to say that Conservative Front Benchers were probably right. We could have had the very discussions to which the Minister just referred, but we no longer have the chance to do so.

We have covered many specifics, including flag and emblems, and the inclusion of human rights legislation in the Bill. It goes far in that regard, but as hon. Members know, the Liberal Democrats would have taken it further. We also discussed the independence of advocacy and crucial issues relating to youth justice. In my view, the latter involved many important principles, and we did not take advantage of the opportunity to handle youth offending differently, as organisations such as Youth at Risk, which seeks to get down to the motives of offending rather than trying to prevent reoffending in a more superficial way, seek to do.

Given that we do not have time to debate those matters in more detail, the question on my mind is: what happens next? I guess that the answer will be based on the degree to which those who are in a position to make the Bill work will make the decision to do so. Some individuals in the Chamber will have a heavy influence on the degree to which the nationalist and Unionist communities take the Bill on. I hope that they accept that, even with its flaws, it is a huge step forward and most of it was uncontentious.

In that context, the Liberal Democrats are very happy to offer our assistance and to help if there is any way in which we can do so, although we are realistic and recognise that many people in the communities of Northern Ireland are already doing that work. I sincerely hope that Sinn Fein, which is, sadly, not represented in the Chamber, will regard the Bill as a step forward and not act as a dog in a manger by saying that, because not everything was exactly how the party wanted it, it will stand by and refuse to co-operate with what the Government seriously intend to be steps forward. In a few years' time we shall see if the Bill has worked.

I am pleased with the Bill in principle, and I think that all parties can accept that an overwhelming majority of its 294 proposals represent a step forward for justice in Northern Ireland.

9.55 pm

Mr. McNamara: I shall be as quick as I can to allow other hon. Members to speak.

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In the past, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said that the Unionists feel that they are in a cold house. Generally speaking, for the nationalist community the issue of the administration of justice and the Police Service has been not only a cold house, but an igloo. They therefore regard the implementation of the review as at least a considerable thaw. That is why, on Second Reading, I welcomed the Bill in what, for me, were rather generous terms. In the light of how the Bill has emerged on Report, I would not make the same comments. I feel that it is like Patten all over again, and that we will have to have something like a Weston House agreement to reconsider the issues and rectify the faults.

On Second Reading, I posed three questions. Can the new structures make the criminal justice system accountable to the community that it serves? Can equality measures make the system representative of the community from which it seeks accord? Can we create a new ethos and a new beginning? I am not certain that the Bill meets those tests. On accountability, the review called for a new and independent Public Prosecution Service, but it is not there. If one looks at the history, accountability was not there because the same Director of Public Prosecutions and the same department made the decisions on all the contentious cases. Although I welcome what the European Court of Human Rights forced and persuaded the Government to do—they announced their decision when the Bill was in Committee—I am sceptical about whether the DPP would have given the same response were it not for that judgment by the court.

I find it extraordinary that the equality principle and the representative principle are not to be mandated through the judicial system, the prosecution system and the Attorney-General. As I said on Report, it is incredible that the people who will enforce the equality legislation and be responsible for making judicial decisions on fair employment and human rights will not themselves be subject to such restrictions. I am attacking not the merit principle, but the concept of an old boys' network that thinks it is above the law because it administers the law.

My final point concerns the coat of arms. I respect the argument about the architectural vandalism of taking down coats of arms from historic courthouses. However, there is no argument against curtailing those symbols when the court is in session to create the neutral environment to which my hon. Friend the Under- Secretary referred when he spoke so positively of these matters in Committee. If we were able to find a non-contentious symbol suitable for the Police Service of Northern Ireland, I am sure that we could have found one equally non-contentious for the courts. I regret that that was not dealt with. I was not party to any of the discussions that went on; I can only see what emerged from them. It will not lead to the resounding success that I thought we might achieve at the start of the Bill's passage and on Second Reading.

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