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17 Mar 2003 : Column 671—continued

Mr. Dodds: In light of the process that my hon. Friend rightly described, which is the subject of speculation and leaks and has not been denied by the Government at all, is it not all the more incredible that the leader of the Ulster Unionist party should describe that process as a deal breaker, rather than things such as on-the-run terrorists, destruction of security along the border and elsewhere for innocent citizens, and other similar matters?

Mr. Robinson: My hon. Friend's point stands without me having to make any further comment. If that was the only deal breaker, the prospect now facing everybody in Northern Ireland in the devolution of policing and justice powers fills Unionists with dread. On the back page of the UUP manifesto was a picture of a clock, showing what the leader of the UUP considered to be the progress made under the Belfast agreement and what the next steps would be. One of those steps was the devolution of policing powers. Again, that is one of the proposals to be introduced under the Hillsborough deal—perhaps not immediately, but no doubt after the election, powers over policing and justice matters will be devolved to Northern Ireland, but only in certain circumstances. My understanding of the 28-page document that I have got from parties that were there—not Sinn Fein, I must immediately tell the House—is that that will happen in only one set of circumstances, where there is a division of those responsibilities between Unionists and nationalists. Whether Unionists get the policing portfolio and nationalists the justice portfolio, or whether they hold them jointly, those proposals have been considered, and are included in the document that the Secretary of State will not let the world see.

The bottom line is that if the Sinn Fein organisation becomes the largest nationalist party, not only will one of its members become Deputy First Minister if the UUP leader can command a majority in the Assembly, but the policing and justice post will be held jointly by a Sinn Fein representative. The obvious person to get it is Sinn Fein's policing and justice spokesman, Gerry Kelly who, of course, has a wide knowledge of justice and policing matters. He has a wide knowledge of justice matters because he was found guilty of being responsible for blowing up the Old Bailey, when 200 people were injured. His wide knowledge of policing issues comes

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from the fact that he attempted to blow up Scotland Yard. This is the man who is being canvassed as the Minister with responsibility for policing and justice in Northern Ireland. When he was caught and put in prison, he escaped. A prison warder was killed when a screwdriver was gouged into his head during the escape bid by the Sinn Fein representative who will become the Minister with responsibility for policing and justice under the proposals being acquiesced in, if not agreed, by the leader of the Ulster Unionist party. People in Northern Ireland are rightly not pleased about that prospect. However, it is part of the deal that was cobbled together.

At Hillsborough, only one party canvassed for a delay in the elections, and did so publicly for a long time. An article headed, "Postpone Assembly poll urges Trimble advisor" says:

The UUP leader refined his argument as he spoke to people from London and Dublin, suggesting that extra time was needed because time had been lost over the Assembly's life as a result of postponements and suspensions. The fact is, that was built into the legislation—the Assembly's first term was for five years, not four years, as every other term should be under the legislation. The UUP advanced the argument that there should be a delay in the poll, and that there should be a one-year postponement of the election. The morning of the first day, the UUP leader went in and argued for a one-year postponement of the elections. By the end of the day, he was falling back on an argument to put them off until October—he would have been satisfied with a delay over the summer. By the time that the meeting finished, and he left early, he was satisfied with a delay of four weeks. Some people say that if had stayed any longer we would be out campaigning now.

The right hon. Gentleman was the one demanding the delay in the elections, and his was the only party demanding such a delay. All the other parties had openly said that they opposed a delay. On leaving the United Kingdom on his way to the United States, the right hon. Gentleman had the audacity to make a statement—again, the subject of a headline in the Belfast Telegraph—on Tuesday 11 March: "Trimble warns: don't postpone poll again". The man who had begged and pleaded, who had worn the knees out of his trousers pleading with the Secretary of State to postpone the elections, ends up warning the Secretary of State not to do so again—the very person who had been responsible for the delay.

There is nothing unusual about the right hon. Gentleman's attempt to wash his hands of the decision that had been taken. I remember the occasion in the House when he stood up to berate the then Secretary of State about allowing facilities in the House to be made available to Sinn Fein-IRA. The Secretary of State put his hand into his inside pocket and asked the right hon. Gentleman whether he wanted to reconsider what he was saying. Eventually the Secretary of State pulled out a piece of paper that turned out to be a letter from the leader of the Ulster Unionist party advocating that facilities in the House should be given to Sinn Fein-IRA

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in circumstances that then pertained. He was changing his position to one that was more attractive to the electorate. The delay comes as a direct result of an on-the-run politician, afraid to face the electorate, attempting to avoid the decision of the electorate at the ballot box.

It would appear from the debate that there was only one element to the Bill. There has been no discussion about its other element. Even the explanatory notes do not give away what the other element is. Leaving aside the issue of the postponement and delay of the election, there is a key provision in the Bill that allows the Government to delay the return of an Assembly after an election. As a consequence of delaying the first occasion when the Assembly meets, clause 1(2)(c) states:

The effect of that subsection is to ensure that the requirements laid down in section 16(1) of the 1998 Act, whereby a First Minister must be elected within a six-week period, will no longer apply. The six weeks will drift with the suspension. If the first meeting of the Assembly is not held within eight days, the six-week period is not triggered.

In case the Minister tenses himself at this stage, I should tell him that I support the provision. It is a sensible provision. The Government will not admit it, but the reason for it is that they recognise that things will change after the election. Negotiations will be required after the election. This is the negotiations clause in the Bill. It is, perhaps, the real purpose of the Bill.

Mr. Browne rose—

Mr. Robinson: Yes, confession is coming.

Mr. Browne: Having listened to the hon. Gentleman for some considerable time and found something on which we agree, I hate to spoil it. The provision is a restatement of the state of the law as a consequence of section 1 of the 2000 Act. It is in the Bill only for the avoidance of doubt. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman would have any doubt, as I know how carefully he studies such matters, but it is there in case anyone else had any doubt. It is not a new provision at all.

Mr. Robinson: The House might be prepared to swallow that one, were it not for the fact that this is the second time that the Minister has indicated that there was no requirement for a provision in the Bill. On the first occasion, we were told that the revocation of the 2001 order was not required. Now we are told that the provision in clause 1(2)(c) is not required. If that is the case, we do not need the Bill at all.

There is no requirement for a Bill because, if we simply revoke the 2001 order, we fall back on the provisions of section 31 of the 1998 Act. That allows the Government to have the flexibility provided by section 31, which gives them two months before or two months after for the calling of an election.

Mr. Browne: I fear the hon. Gentleman misunderstands. The provision relates to section 1 of the 2000 Act, not any subsequent order. The point that I

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was making about the previous order was that the Bill effectively repealed that order. That is why it is necessary to restate it.

Mr. Robinson: The Minister confirms that in his view the Bill is unnecessary legislation. Both subsection (2)(c) and the one to which he previously referred are a belt-and-braces operation, restating what has already been stated elsewhere. However, no parliamentary draftsman would put into a Bill a provision that was already the law. The purpose of a Bill is to change the law, not to confirm the law as it stands. The Government are clearly making a provision. There is a legal requirement in the 1998 Act that is not interfered with by the 2000 Act—the suspension Act. The 2000 legislation deals with circumstances of an existing Assembly. It has no provision for the first day of a new Assembly. That is why the Bill was considered by the parliamentary draftsmen to be necessary.

It is clear that the Government had the alternative simply to revoke the 2001 order, which would have removed the section 32 provisions, and the Secretary of State could have fallen back on the section 31 provisions. The only change is the new suggestion that the Government can stay the hand of the new Assembly for a period beyond the eight days, thereby obviating the requirement for the section 16(1) provision to come into play.

Again, the Government are attempting to manipulate the democratic process for their own political benefit. The electorate were entitled to have their say on these matters. That was required four years ago, and the Government avoided it. It was required when redesignation took place, and again the Government avoided that consequence. They have avoided it several times with the suspension legislation. On this occasion, there should have been an election on 1 May. Once again, the Government put it off because it is not politically timely.

There is no reason why the election could not proceed and agreements be reached with people who will have a mandate after an election. What is the purpose of delaying the election for a further four weeks in order to reach agreement with people who do not have a mandate and who, after an election, will be seen not to be representative? It is clearly an attempt once again by the Government to present new circumstances that might give a leg up to one particular political party.

Several hon. Members have raised the issue of voter identification. I have serious concerns that hundreds of thousands of people will lose their vote as a result of voter identification. In a letter to me the Minister stated that 243,000 people had ticked the requisite box on the registration form to indicate that they required voter photo ID. He told me in a letter that only 45,000 people had returned such applications. Today he updated the figure to bring it up to 55,000. That still means that there are 200,000 people who stated that they required the ID and have not got it. Can anyone imagine what will happen at the polling stations if 200,000 people come along to vote and are told that they cannot do so because they do not have the requisite photo identification? There will be riots in the street. In one of the most middle-class areas of Northern Ireland, where legislation previously passed by the House meant that there were queues and people felt they would not be able

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to vote, the police had to be brought in and there were all sorts of problems. That happened in one small area and involved a few dozen people. What will happen when the Minister's legislation is introduced and 100,000 or 200,000 people end up unable to vote? It is not good enough for him to say that people will realise after the event that they had other photo identification. The form that they ticked indicated very clearly that they did not have alternative photo identification and those people will lose their vote.

I hope that I may have the Minister's attention for one final moment. Several references have been made to the question whether the Government will attempt once more to postpone the date of the election. Personally, I do not see how they could do so under the Bill—the Secretary of State has waived any ability to change the date—but what they can do is scrub elections all together. They could determine that they will not proceed because they do not like the potential outcome of the election. Will the Minister assure us from the Dispatch Box that he has set the course for an election come what may and whether or not parties act and perform as he expects as a result of Hillsborough? Can we have the undertaking that there will be an election on 29 May whatever the fallout from the Hillsborough discussions might be?

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