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26 Mar 2003 : Column 327—continued

2.30 pm

I want to comment briefly on new clause 23 and amendment No. 77, which would replace or remove clause 14. That clause would bring the arrangements for DPP members in line with those that apply to members of the Policing Board by providing that anyone removed from a DPP would be disqualified from reappointment until after the next local council election.

At present, if someone is removed from DPP membership under paragraph 7 of schedule 3 to the 2000 Act, there is nothing to prevent them from applying and being considered for immediate reappointment. By contrast, if anyone is removed in similar circumstances from the Policing Board, they are disqualified from consideration for reappointment until after the next Assembly elections.

The measure is a practical way to ensure that an individual who has been removed is not able to come forward again immediately thereafter. I do not think it appropriate for such people to be out of line with those who apply to the Policing Board, so I do not support new clause 23 or amendment No. 77.

Mr. Quentin Davies: I have some difficulty understanding this particular measure, particularly the phrase "next local general election". To me, a local general election is an oxymoron. Which is it—local elections or general in the sense of Assembly elections?

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The Secretary of State has given the answer, which is local elections or, in other words, district council elections. Can we be clear about that? Why he does not say so in the Bill I do not know.

Mr. Murphy: I agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I will say more about that in my winding-up speech.

Lembit Öpik: On the same question, it may be that I have misunderstood the Secretary of State. Surely the fundamental principle here is that elections have randomness about their timing, which does not stand comparison with simply saying that there will be a five-year ban. Will he either correct my understanding of what he has just said or explain why we cannot in principle provide that there will always be a five-year sanction? I apologise if I have misunderstood him.

Mr. Murphy: I thought that that was what I said, but I shall come back with more detail when I have clarified the technicalities.

Last week, my hon. Friend the Minister of State was at one of two meetings in Belfast to launch DPPs across Northern Ireland. There were more than 300 people in the room. DPPs have an immense contribution to make, and I pay tribute to the Policing Board for the leadership role that it has exercised in Northern Ireland, not just on these issues, but across the board, and the excellent cross-community job that it has done.

I want DPPs to reflect all parts of the community in Northern Ireland and to engage all the people in Northern Ireland in bringing the Police Service closer to everyone, irrespective of their background. These measures will help them to do that, but I repeat that it will happen only in the context of what the Prime Minister has called acts of completion and when we genuinely live in a peaceful, tolerant and democratic Northern Ireland.

Mr. Quentin Davies: We can already conclude from our proceedings that the Government are in some confusion. It seems to me that, within that confusion, they are trying to do the wrong thing. We know that there is confusion because the Secretary of State himself seemed to be under the illusion that clause 14, which is important, had been discussed upstairs in Committee, whereas it is clear, as I suggested in an intervention, that it has not.

The Minister of State appears to have given to the Select Committee an undertaking that is inconsistent with introducing these measures at this time. I am not a member of that Committee, but no doubt it will want to respond to that serious issue. The Secretary of State has made various objections to doing sensible things, and when reasonable suggestions are made as to how those difficulties can be resolved—I have already done that—the Government fall back and say, "Even if that is a way of resolving the difficulty, we're not interested in going down that road." So there is confusion and hastiness involved in introducing these substantial new proposals this afternoon.

A lot of the Government's proposals are inherently obnoxious to any reasonable, law-abiding person, and I should have thought that any civilised society would regard as objectionable the idea of giving persons with

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serious criminal convictions, including murder, the right under statute to sit on a body to which the police have regularly to make reports, even if they are not formally accountable to it, and the ability to exercise influence over local policing.

I recognise the Secretary of State's point that in England we have a provision under which people with convictions cannot sit on police authorities for five years, although there is no continuance of that at the end of that period. I also accept what he says about the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974. I am a great supporter of that Act; it is part of our Christian heritage to believe in forgiveness and rehabilitation. So, however serious the offence, there may be a respectable argument to be made along those lines, at least philosophically; but we must recognise—the Secretary of State would do so as a matter of practice—that conditions in Northern Ireland are different from those in England.

In practice, it would be inconceivable in England, whatever the legislation might say, for someone with a serious criminal conviction for racketeering or murder to be invited to join a police authority five years and a month, or 10 years, after receiving that conviction. Indeed, that might be the case for any period, and such issues and dilemmas simply would not arise here. However, we know that the purpose of the legislation is to provide an opportunity for exactly such people to serve on, and play a major part in, DPPs in Northern Ireland. In practice, the situation that we confront is different, and we must be clear about that.

We must accept that there may be strong arguments for having tighter, stiffer and more exclusive rules in Northern Ireland than in this country, although I hope that even the Secretary of State will give me credit for being a reasonable man. Moreover, the Opposition are absolutely committed to the success of the Northern Ireland peace process and the implementation of the Belfast agreement.

If the opportunity offers, as I pray God it will, we are prepared to accept exceptional measures to contribute to the successful implementation of that process, so I do not exclude a number of things in Northern Ireland, including the proposals made by the Government this afternoon, if indeed they are regarded as part and parcel of what I have often described from this Dispatch Box as a comprehensive and definitive—I emphasise those words—settlement of the problems of Northern Ireland that achieves normalisation there.

The important issue here is of the essence, although, curiously, it does not involve the substance, however important that substance may be. I shall focus on the Government's tactics, and their tactical decision to introduce these new proposals at this time, giving us great cause for concern and, indeed, alarm. The Secretary of State may recall that as recently as Monday of last week, when speaking on the Northern Ireland Assembly Elections Act 2003, I rehearsed our critique of the Government's tactics over most of the last five years. I also repeated my mantra, which I hope the Secretary of State is now very familiar with, of the three fundamental failures of judgment and perception perpetrated by the Government—admittedly before he had responsibility for these matters.

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First, the Government made the great error of supposing that Northern Ireland issues can be considered separately, as well as the error of not recognising that everything is interlinked and that no party in Northern Ireland will make a move unless it knows what others will do in return.

Secondly, the Government made the error of supposing that if concessions are made to one party, that will have no effect on others. I am afraid that I am referring in particular to the failure to recognise in advance the fact that making constant concessions to Sinn Fein-IRA would affect other parties in Northern Ireland, their morale, their commitment to the peace process and their electoral prospects. That goes for the Social Democratic and Labour party as well as the Unionist parties.

The Government also made the fundamental mistake of supposing that republicans, or indeed anyone else with a background of violence in this world, can be effectively concealed and conciliated by unilateral concession.

Mr. Mallon: This is remarkable. When we last debated policing, the hon. Gentleman made a huge point about concessions having been made to our party; now he is making a different point, from a different point of view.

Will the hon. Gentleman consider this point? The Order Paper shows how much prominence this issue has been given, by contrast with important matters that will not be given a quarter of the time allotted to it. Is there not something perverse about allowing a whole day's debate for Members who are not even present to make their political points?

Mr. Davies: If the hon. Gentleman is an aficionado of my speeches, as he appears to be, he will know that since I have been performing my present role I have been extremely, perhaps boringly, consistent. I am open to the charge of having said the same thing for a year and a half. I fear, however, that all too often events have proved my analysis correct. That is why I have continued to say the same thing.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned concessions. I said that the SDLP was worthy of recognition for its decision to join the Policing Board and to recognise the new Police Service of Northern Ireland. In that context, I accepted a number of things, including the Patten report and the 50:50 system—opposed, for sound human rights reasons which the hon. Gentleman will understand, by predecessors of mine.

The principle of my tactics in Northern Ireland is reciprocity. That means making a positive move when the other party does so, and rewarding virtue and good behaviour. What it does not mean—this is where I appear to disagree fundamentally with the Government—is making concessions to those who do not themselves make an effort, or rewarding bad behaviour or failure to implement obligations entered into under the ceasefire and the Belfast agreement. But that is what the Government have done, over and over again.

Sinn Fein-IRA have not observed their obligations to decommission under the Belfast agreement. The Government, however, have not just made the

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concessions that they were supposed to make anyway under the agreement, on the assumption that decommissioning would take place—such as the release of prisoners: I said at the time that it was a colossal error to make such a move unilaterally—but dreamt up completely new concessions, not foreseen or required in the agreement. Examples are the amnesties for on-the-run terrorists, which we were fortunately able to oppose successfully, and special status in the House. That is the great error of the Government's tactics, which they have committed consistently. The results have been disastrous, which is why we have gone backwards over the past five years.

The hon. Gentleman has heard me say all that before, and he knows that I am absolutely right to have done so. I hoped that the Government had finally begun to listen. When I spoke on the Northern Ireland Assembly Elections Bill on Monday last week, I said that I would be only too delighted if any signs of recognition by the Government were welcomed. I said that I thought there had indeed been a change since the present Secretary of State had come on board—a decision, perhaps not made explicit for understandable reasons but nevertheless quite visible, to turn over a new leaf. The Government were now talking the language of multilateralism, of some degree of sanction in the case of non-performance, and of interlinkage—words that I had been using, and to which I seemed to have an exclusive right until the Secretary of State appeared on the scene. I went as far as to say that perhaps the gulf between Opposition and Government in regard to tactics was coming to an end.

I would welcome that greatly if it were the case; but I am sorry to say that, contrary to the hopes I expressed so clearly last week, the Government have done the reverse. They have tabled their proposals in the absence of any move by Sinn Fein-IRA to justify the concessions made to them. The Government had said, "This is what you might get if you perform, guys", but Sinn Fein-IRA did not perform and they are getting it anyway.

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