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2 Dec 2002 : Column 639—continued

Rev. Ian Paisley: On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. May I correct what the hon. Lady has said? At that stage, I was quoting the Secretary of State and those were not my words, but his. I made that absolutely clear. I do not want her to put the Secretary of State's words in my mouth. I shall talk to her outside the Door and tell her why, if she wants to know.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: The hon. Gentleman has answered the point.

Jane Kennedy: Moving swiftly on, an editorial in the Belfast Telegraph last week said

The political scene in Northern Ireland has already changed almost beyond recognition, and our predecessors in the House may not have believed that much of what has happened would be possible. Having seen so much change, I believe that the House needs to retain an open mind about what may be possible in future. Just because something seems unlikely to any of us as individuals does not mean that it is impossible. We narrow our horizons and limit society's scope for development and progress if we close our minds to such possibilities.

With that in mind, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I concluded that it would be right to show the republican movement in particular, but also the rest of society in Northern Ireland, how we might seek to achieve legislative change in future, in the context of the acts of completion envisaged by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister at the Custom house in Belfast in October.

By publishing the texts in such a way, we can be completely open and transparent with the House and with the people of Northern Ireland. We can open up the debate to focus on what checks and balances would be

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needed to ensure that those changes could take effect without undue risk to policing. These are not easy issues, and without substantive debate with the elected representatives sitting in the House and more generally, we cannot be sure of having explored every avenue and having put in place all the necessary checks.

Only those who fear the change to a truly peaceful and democratic future for Northern Ireland have anything to lose from that debate taking place openly, for, in the current climate, those clauses remain hypothetical proposals. The basis on which they could become reality relates to the context of acts of completion in a situation where the men of violence have turned their back on the past in such a way as to give everyone satisfaction and confidence, as the hon. Member for North Antrim said in respect of his reply from the Prime Minister.

It may be, of course, that such a day never comes, but the people of Northern Ireland have achieved so much in the past few years that pessimism is misplaced and optimism about the future essential. That does not mean that we should either be foolhardy or ignore the risks, but it does mean that we should not shut the door to the possibilities. Therefore, I believe strongly that it is important for the debate on the text to take place.

I welcome the opportunity to discuss these issues today; I know that we shall have many more opportunities in the weeks and months ahead. I hope that the hon. Member for North Antrim accepts that we discount neither the views that he expresses nor, indeed, the views of any of those in his party. We acknowledge the position that they take, and they are perfectly entitled to hold such a view.

I hope that hon. Members take the opportunity to focus on the substance of the proposals rather than use them simply for political point scoring. The hon. Member for North Antrim should not assume that only Northern Ireland Members have an interest in those matters. He well knows that Members representing seats in England and Wales have constituents who were directly affected by the violence of the past. It matters to us all that these big issues are resolved. The future of Northern Ireland's policing is worth our serious consideration, and I know that it will receive serious consideration here today.

5.29 pm

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford): Before I say anything else, let me deal with the issue of Weston Park. The Minister ought to know—but if she does not, let me tell her very straight—that Weston Park, and the so-called agreements that the Government claim to have reached at that meeting, have absolutely no parliamentary or legislative authority or endorsement whatever. The Government did not allow the House to debate those matters or to vote on them; they did not even have the courage or the forthrightness to make a statement about the meeting. There is therefore not the slightest even moral commitment to those agreements on the part of any Member, apart from Ministers if they so will it.

The Minister has revealed that she does not even know whether one of the parties that took part in the Weston Park meeting is a party to one of the so-called agreements. That makes clear beyond peradventure that the word Xagreement" is thoroughly inappropriate in this context, and that the Government are deluding themselves in a way that I find rather troubling.

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Having said that, I want to pay tribute to the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) for initiating a debate on a crucial subject in Government time. The subject is crucial for at least two reasons. Northern Ireland is the part of the United Kingdom in which public order is most at risk, most frequently at risk and most consistently at risk; and, as we all know, the whole issue of policing is a major part of the peace process and of the necessary talks that we all hope will lead to a definitive settlement in Northern Ireland.

I felt that much of what was said by the hon. Member for North Antrim was excessively pessimistic and negative. I agree with the Minister that he suggested that nothing had improved since 1998, which is not warranted by the facts. I also felt, however, that—in the best traditions of the Government over the past few years and months, and certainly over the past few months during which I have played my current role—the Minister was excessively sanguine. I know that she does not want to be complacent. From time to time she says—with, I am sure, complete sincerity—that she has no intention of allowing herself to be complacent. However, by reciting the particularly sanguine mantra that she has recited on many occasions, she puts herself in great danger of inducing unjustified euphoria in herself or in her ministerial colleagues.

The picture is mixed. Some things have gone surprisingly well in Northern Ireland. I entirely agree with what the Minister said about the policing board, which is a shining example of that. I touch wood, as I do of necessity when at the Dispatch Box, but none of us could have expected the board to work as well as it has so far. It is encouraging that it got to work so rapidly and in such a businesslike fashion. It is also encouraging that it was able to resolve issues that, although largely symbolic, were nevertheless difficult—the uniform and cap badge, and the appointment of a new Chief Constable.

Lady Hermon: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is essential for the proposed policing legislation not to undermine the central importance of the board, which is working so well? In particular, does he agree that it should not be undermined by an extension of the police ombudsman's powers?

Mr. Davies: I agree with the general principle. I will not go into the details of the legislation today because this is a consultation period and we are still waiting for the Constantine report, which as far as I know has not yet been completed. It was supposed to be delivered at the beginning of December, but I have not seen it.

I had intended to meet members of a number of relevant organisations in Northern Ireland today, but was unable to do so because of the debate. They include the chief constable, the policing board and the Police Federation. Although I have some ideas about what the hon. Lady has said and what the Government have proposed, I think it would be discourteous to make any pronouncement on behalf of the official Opposition without listening—in confidence and informally, of course—to what those important stakeholders in the whole process might have to say.

Rev. Ian Paisley: Does the hon. Gentleman believe that the Police Ombudsman—who is a woman—will be

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allowed to go backwards, or is she going to move forward? Our worry is that, under the proposals, it seems that she will have powers that can take her back into the past, whereas she should be dealing only with the present and the future.

Mr. Davies: The hon. Gentleman again invites me down a long road, but I will not go down it now. However, I should say, since he has given me the opportunity to do so, that I admire the way in which the Ombudsman has tackled her task. She has already developed a reputation for independence in Northern Ireland. That is a great asset—in fact, it is an indispensable characteristic for the proper discharge of that function.

Mr. John Hume (Foyle): I want to repeat what has been said. The time has come to leave the past behind us, because if we keep on dragging it up, we keep on dragging up the problem. We should therefore look to building a new future together, but in leaving behind the past as it relates to the behaviour of the Unionist parties, and so forth, we should do the same in relation to all behaviour, and build a new future together.

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