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28 Oct 2002 : Column 556—continued

The Prime Minister: We will continue to discuss that important issue at every level. One thing is clear: those groups are operating anywhere and everywhere in the world and they will stop at nothing. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East): As a major part of the CAP is spent on dumping surplus food production, and as the EU is still increasing its food production and as east Europe has fantastic potential for increasing food production, how on earth can the Germans and the French propose that spending increases be restricted to 1 per cent.? Does that not remind the Prime Minister of the accountancy principles used by Enron? Seriously, is he not beginning to find, like all his predecessors did, that the policy of co-operation and reform in Europe simply does not work?

The Prime Minister: Actually, for once, the hon. Gentleman has rather effectively made the point that I was trying to make to his colleagues. He is absolutely

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right to say that by, for the first time, limiting spending after 2006—in other words, limiting overall spending, including for the accession countries—a squeeze will be put on agriculture spending. That has now been agreed—

Sir Teddy Taylor: It will not happen.

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman says it will not happen, but instead of trying to predict the future, let us both agree—unlike his party's Front Benchers—that it would be a very good thing if we did manage to achieve that limit. That is the very point that I am making, and I am glad that he has come to my assistance in educating his party's Front Benchers.

The part of the French-German agreement that is right and should be supported is the limit on common agricultural spending. The hon. Gentleman is saying that we have to ensure that that is achieved, and I agree. However, one of the things that people wanted to do in return for that is to abandon any idea of delinking subsidy from production—delinking the two being part of the Fischler proposals from the European Commission. It is for precisely that reason that we rejected the idea that we should abandon reform and abandon those proposals, and that is what was secured at the summit. For once, in a European debate, I thank the hon. Gentleman.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. We must move on.

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Points of Order

4.28 pm

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have in my hand the 22nd edition of XErskine May", and I seek your guidance. Many of our constituents would consider it extraordinary that tomorrow the Commons is to discuss whether we close down at 7 o'clock or 10 o'clock on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, rather than Colin Powell's statement that this is a key week and that there would be no difficulty in forming a coalition against Iraq.

My point of order is this, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Can you advise me where in XErskine May" the parliamentary rules suggest that there is any rule to prevent an hon. Member raising an issue of urgent public importance under what used to be Standing Order 9 and then 10, and which is now 24?

As I understand it, pages 309 and 310 suggest that it is practice and custom rather than rules that prevent an hon. Member who is determined to do so from raising an issue under Standing Order No. 24. If it is custom and practice, it is one thing; if it is rules, it is another. Were it not so important a subject, I would not be difficult about custom and practice. However, the issue that I wish to raise—war and peace—should surely take precedence over tomorrow's business, which, however important it is to Members of Parliament, can surely wait.

Will you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, allow me to move as a matter of urgency that the House discuss Colin Powell's statement at the weekend that this was a key week and that there would be no difficulty in finding a coalition? If that is so, the only coalition that one can think of is the British Prime Minister and Ariel Sharon. When Secretary Powell spoke about there being no difficulty in getting a coalition—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, who has long experience as a Member of Parliament, which we all respect. However, he is in danger of turning a point of order into a point of debate. I must advise him that, within the powers given to Mr. Speaker to interpret the Standing Orders, Mr. Speaker has already ruled that he cannot accept the hon. Gentleman's subject for debate. I certainly cannot alter the ruling that the Speaker has made in that respect.

Mr. Dalyell: Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Will you confirm whether the ruling existed before Madam Speaker Boothroyd and whether it is enshrined in the rules of the House of Commons? Perhaps there could be reflection on that subject, because custom and practice is one thing; rules are another.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: It has been the custom and practice of this House for 10 years, as was established during the time of Mr. Speaker Weatherill.

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. On the Order Paper, the Government propose to move two orders tomorrow suspending the devolved Administration—the Executive and Assembly—in Stormont. You would

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not want me to go into the substance of that issue, and I will certainly not do so. However, the proposal involves the suspension of the constitution of part of our country and imposing, essentially, a form of colonial rule on Northern Ireland. This is an important and controversial matter. Obviously, the Government do not want the arguments to be aired too publicly and the issues to be exposed to public view, so they have decided to take the orders in Committee, rather than on the Floor of the House—where, self-evidently, they belong. Is there any power open to you to enable us to debate that controversial procedural decision?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: The short answer is no. This is a matter for the Government to decide, as is laid down in the Standing Orders, and is not a matter that the Chair can determine.

Mr. Dalyell: Further to my previous point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. At your convenience, could we have the reference for when Mr. Speaker Weatherill made such a ruling? Mr. Speaker Weatherill was a very benign Speaker in these matters, and I am curious about when the ruling was made.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: It was 16 October 1991. I should say to the hon. Gentleman and to the House that all Speakers are benevolent.

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Opposition Day

[20th Allotted Day]

Access To Facilities Of The House

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): We now come to the first Opposition motion. I have to advise the House that Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

4.34 pm

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford): I beg to move,

I should like to take this opportunity to welcome, very sincerely, the Secretary of State to his new responsibilities. He comes to this delicate task with a distinguished record of service in Northern Ireland and knows the position well, which is encouraging for all of us.

Although we shall no doubt disagree from time to time, I hope that I shall be able to co-operate constructively with him in tackling an issue that both our parties agree is of great importance.

Let me try to dispose of a rather unattractive, although I fear all too characteristic, piece of cant and spin doctoring that this issue has suffered from over the past couple of weeks. The Government know perfectly well that the special status conferred on Sinn Fein Members last December has not worked. They know that it was a mistake: a part of at least four sets of crucial mistakes in their Northern Ireland policy. They know that we were right to oppose it, and they are now trying surreptitiously to distance themselves from it and imply that the resolution last December was not their fault. They want to make it sound as though the House spontaneously decided that the creation of a special status—what Baroness Boothroyd called an associate status—would in itself be a desirable reform, and that if it was a mistake, that is nothing to do with them.

When questioned on the special status by my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack), the former Secretary of State said:

He simply dismissed the question and evaded all responsibility. The Prime Minister used the same formula last Wednesday, when he said: XI understand"—what a wonderful way of distancing oneself—

In fact, that is mere eyewash—I might have been tempted to use a less parliamentary expression. The decision to confer the special status and override

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Baroness Boothroyd's ruling in 1997, as well as the ruling in 1924, was taken solely and exclusively at the Government's behest, purely and simply as part and parcel of their misconceived Northern Ireland policy. Before it was even revealed to, or discussed in, the House, it had been discussed with, and offered to, Sinn Fein. I do not say that the changing of our parliamentary rules was bartered or sold to Sinn Fein, as that would hardly be the appropriate word, given that nothing was received in return, but it was secretly and squalidly promised to them by the Government, who must take full responsibility for that act, about which they now evidently feel guilty enough to wish to dissociate themselves from it.

I said that the decision was part of four grave sets of errors in the Government's Northern Ireland policy. The first mistake was the decision to release all the terrorist prisoners without any decommissioning having occurred. That was a fundamental error—I should perhaps say a foundational error, as it is the origin of the other mistakes. It sent the wrong signal from the start about how the Government intended to manage the peace process and may well have sacrificed the best opportunity that we had to get decommissioning concluded within the time scale set out in the Belfast agreement.

The second mistake was not to respond at all to successive Sinn Fein-IRA breaches of the agreement and the ceasefire. We all know what they were: Florida; Colombia; the evidence of active targeting in March this year; the Castlereagh break-in in April; and the spy ring in the Northern Ireland Office, which the Government have apparently known about for some time. In short, we are talking about the Government's whole policy of turning a blind eye. No wonder those in the republican movement who are least committed to the peace process were encouraged to believe that they could get away with almost anything. The Government had given them an irresistible argument to use against their colleagues in the army council who might genuinely have wanted to take their obligations seriously and move towards adopting an exclusively democratic and peaceful course.

The third error—an egregious and unpardonable one—was not merely to fail to respond with any sanction or penalty to those breaches, but to offer new concessions, going beyond the agreement, to Sinn Fein-IRA during that period. There were several such concessions, but the worst were the promise to give an amnesty to on-the-run terrorists—so far we have succeeded in resisting the implementation of that—and the special status for Sinn Fein MPs, which unfortunately we did not succeed in resisting.

The fourth error was the suspension of devolution, rather than the exclusion of Sinn Fein from the Executive, as a result of the latest crisis. That was an error in two senses: it was a moral and political error because it penalised the innocent—indeed, the whole peace process—rather than the guilty alone; and it was a pragmatic error because, although it is easy to suspend institutions, it is very much less easy to envisage, still less to bring about, the circumstances in which they can be restored. It is generally a mistake, in politics as elsewhere, to walk into a problematic situation when one cannot see the exit on the other side.

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There was another way; we spelt it out for the Government in the debate in Opposition time last July. It was not to propose an exclusion motion in the Assembly—although that is what the previous Secretary of State promised, but failed, to do. We explained in July why that procedure would not work. We said that it was unfair and unreasonable to expect one party in the nationalist camp to bear the main onus of the exclusion of the other. We therefore offered to support the Government in taking the powers here in Westminster, and permitting the Secretary of State to exclude from the power-sharing Executive any party in breach, or associated with persons in breach, of the ceasefire or the agreement.

Of course the Government, with their vast majority, did not take the slightest notice and, when the crisis came, that power was not even in the Government's armoury; that option was not available to be considered. Government policy has now brought us to this regrettable and worrying impasse. However, the Opposition do not intend to satisfy ourselves simply by pointing out the Government's errors. We have an obligation to say what we would do if we had those responsibilities now.

We would do two things. First, we would pass the Opposition motion tonight. Let me make our position on special status clear. In case anyone needs reminding, let me repeat that we wholeheartedly support the Belfast agreement—[Interruption.] We support the Belfast agreement, and that concession was never required by the agreement—[Interruption.] Perhaps the Leader of the House wishes to quarrel with that idea, but the concession never had anything to do with the agreement itself.

Secondly, we find special status obnoxious in principle, and I am surprised that the Leader of the House and the rest of the Labour party do not feel the same. Anyone elected to a democratic Assembly or Parliament should take his or her seat on the same basis as everybody else who has been duly elected, or not at all.

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