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17 Mar 2003 : Column 693—continued

Mr. Donaldson: Is the Minister aware of a report in The Irish Times that stated that the Government were considering a variety of models for the devolution of justice, including

If that is not the case, will he deny it, and will he show a willingness to share the proposals with those of us who have not seen them?

Mr. Browne: I am aware of that report. But the fact that something was reported in The Irish Times does not mean that it is correct. What I have said is—[Interruption.] If the hon. Gentleman and others will wait a moment, I may answer the question. What I have said is that it has long been the Government's intention in the right circumstances to devolve responsibility for policing and justice, so no one should represent that to the House as something that emerged from the Hillsborough discussions. It is not. Indeed, it is an aspiration of the hon. Gentleman's party that policing and justice be devolved to Ministers in Northern Ireland in the context of devolution. He knows that fine well and if he is trying to pretend otherwise—[Interruption.] Let me finish. The point is that it cannot be devolved to Northern Ireland unless it is devolved into some ministerial structure. He will accept that, so we agree that it is the hon. Gentleman's party's policy to see devolution in the right circumstances. We agree that there will need to be a ministerial structure into which it should be devolved. We must, therefore, agree that it is sensible for the Government to consider what that structure will be.

At the moment, the Government have reached no decision as to what that structure will be and that structure cannot be agreed unless it is agreed with the parties that form the devolved Assembly. I cannot make it any clearer than that. People may take from that that we must be considering models and then seek to set them out in a newspaper article, but that will not be Government policy and it is not likely to be the way in which Government policy is fixed.

Mr. Peter Robinson: The Minister's evasion in answering the question of the hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) seems to suggest that the report is right—that that is one of the options being considered. The Minister still has not told us that it is not one of the options. If it is one of the options being considered, everything that I said stands and I was perfectly entitled to make my comments.

Mr. Browne: I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. I have just made the Government's position clear. The Government's position on devolution of policing and justice has been clear for some considerable time. It would have been remiss of the Government in the time since they have made that position clear—urged to do so by, among others, the Ulster Unionist party—not to consider what structures could be put in place to receive devolution, but no decisions have been made and there is no policy.

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I want to refer to my hon. Friends the Members for South Dorset (Jim Knight) and for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan), who contributed to the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset told us that it was his first contribution to a Northern Ireland debate. I feel for him. I know from my time on the Back Benches in the early years of the previous Parliament how daunting it can be to enter these debates. Often, the first contribution in response, although not this time, is a Northern Ireland Member telling the hon. Member that their contribution is worthless because they do not live in Northern Ireland. The irony is that it normally comes from a party that puts itself forward as a Unionist party and in every other context wishes to identify itself with the rest of the United Kingdom.

The fact that that did not happen tonight is a credit to both my hon. Friends, who spoke well. Their advocacy of the restoration of devolution was strong and augurs well for how much can be learned in a comparatively short time in visiting Northern Ireland. Frankly, in many aspects, Northern Ireland is not that much different from the rest of these islands. Members should not be daunted from entering these debates just because Northern Ireland politicians can sometimes be a little over-aggressive in responding to honest contributions.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) for his contribution, which was characteristically comprehensive, and multilateral and understated. I am also grateful for his qualified support for the Government. He will forgive me if I do not respond in detail to his analysis of the past months and years. Whether his prescriptions would have led to greater political progress than we have seen is perhaps for other Members to judge, but I am grateful to him for his praise for the wisdom of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, and for his support. It would be churlish of me to enter into a critique of his analysis at this stage. I am grateful for his current position in supporting Government policy in Northern Ireland, and I hope to keep him there.

I am also grateful to the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire for his support, even if that, too, was conditional. I hope that my earlier answer about the election date has matured the conditionality of his contribution. He raised a number of interesting issues, as he usually does in such debates. He asked whether we can expect continued round table talks. What I can offer him is that we will continue to stay in touch with the parties in Northern Ireland, but whether those talks will be round table, bilateral, multilateral, quadrilateral or any other "lateral" I cannot say at this stage; it depends on whether people ask for them. If the talks involve the hon. Member for Belfast, East and his party, I suspect that they will be simply bilateral. However, talks will take place, and we will continue to stay in touch.

More importantly, the parties in Northern Ireland need to talk to each other, because what matters is the future of politics in Northern Ireland, and of the parties. This agreement is not a series of bilateral agreements with the British Government, or of trilateral agreements with the British Government and the Irish Government; it is a multilateral agreement, and the parties need to understand that, and to talk to each other about it. It would sometimes be better if they spoke to each other before coming to either Government to talk about the issues that they wish to address.

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The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire asked for an assurance that the letter written by the Leader of the House of Lords to some of his colleagues in the other place would be honoured, and I have no difficulty in giving him that. The proper place for discussing issues relating to the Police (Northern Ireland) Bill is during the remaining stages of that Bill, which the House should consider shortly.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the important issue of justice and victims, in the context of on-the-runs. He will accept that the Government's stated position since Weston Park is a logical extension of the Good Friday agreement. It has never been the Government's intention to treat this as an amnesty. We have always intended to deal with this issue, but I can assure him that it can be dealt with only as one step in the context of acts of completion. I think that that is the assurance that he was looking for, and I hope that he accepts it.

Lembit Öpik: I also seek the Minister's reassurance that the Government are still looking at some form of licensing scheme, or, to be more exact, that they are not intending to push through a blanket amnesty.

Mr. Browne: The Government have made it clear that amnesty is not part of their thinking. There will have to be a system that respects the issues of justice, and the question of victims is also important in that regard.

On victims, the hon. Gentleman also raised the question of exiles and punishment beatings. He can rest assured that exiles and punishment beatings fit in with the Government's definition of acts of completion. In his speech in Belfast on 17 October last year, and in a statement in the House in November, the Prime Minister made it clear that violence must be given up completely in a way that satisfies everyone, and which gives them confidence that the Provisional IRA has ceased its campaign, thereby enabling us to move the democratic process forward, with every party that wants to be in government abiding by the same democratic rules. That means acts of completion, which manifestly must include some response to the issue of exiles, and an end to punishment beatings, among other forms of behaviour.

Several hon. Members mentioned electoral fraud and the electoral identity card. The exact provenance of a letter—a copy of which I have in front of me—that purports to come from the Democratic Unionist party's leader, the hon. Member for North Antrim, and which approves the implementation of measures to remove all forms of electoral identity other than those involving photographic identification, may need to be resolved without delay to ensure that these measures are in place before the next election in Northern Ireland. I am confident that the letter will prove to have come from his office.

I should point out that every party in Northern Ireland that is represented in this House agreed at the end of February, or thereabouts, to that legislation. As I undertook to do in this House, I wrote to all those parties asking for their comments on whether we should take that step, recognising its significance in terms of what was required from electors in Northern Ireland,

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and recognising that if the process was mishandled, it could accidentally disfranchise a lot of innocent, good voters. All the parties in Northern Ireland that are represented in this House wrote back in a positive fashion, saying that we should go ahead, and it was on that basis alone that I decided to do so.

With respect, issues are now being raised with me that ought to have been raised at that time. I am told that there is evidence to suggest that people are being turned away in their efforts to obtain these cards. I should point out that I have no such evidence, but if the parties do have it, they should bring it to my attention as quickly as possible. [Interruption.] I note that some assent is coming from a sedentary position, and I should be happy to receive that information.

Some people tell me that the system is being gummed up, but that is not the case. As research continues, evidence is emerging to suggest that in excess of 900,000 people in Northern Ireland have photographic driving licences. Given that it is not possible to drive until one is over 17, by far the majority of those people will be voters, or at least entitled to be registered. We also know that, thanks to the policy of the hon. Member for Belfast, East, a significant number of people—in excess of 140,000—have other photographic identification.

For example, in Northern Ireland there are 150,000 holders of passports issued by the Irish Government, and about 75 per cent. of adults across the UK have UK passports, all of which will be accepted. It does not take a genius to work out that although the number of people on the electoral register is increasing, the likelihood is that almost every one of the 1.1 million, or thereabouts, on the register has the appropriate type of electoral identification. Having said that, 50,000 applications for electoral ID cards are being processed, only 3,500 of which had to be rejected because of the way in which the forms had been completed. The issuing of those cards by post is increasing daily, and the chief electoral officer has given an undertaking that anybody who applies before 16 May will have an electoral ID card for the election on 29 May.

On the absence of advertising, the Electoral Commission, which has accepted responsibility for advertising, is spending more than £500,000 in Northern Ireland on advertising the electoral identity card. I understand that advertisements have been placed during peak-time television programmes, including episodes of "Coronation Street", which are watched by more than 50 per cent. of the adult population of Northern Ireland. Daily advertisements are also placed in the press. The advertising campaign, which is being conducted through television, the press and billboards—I have seen the press and billboard advertisements—is extensive and very expensive. I do not understand why it has been suggested that the campaign is inadequate.

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