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26 Mar 2003 : Column 334—continued

Lembit Öpik: I do indeed want to intervene on that point. It is ironic that, having first intervened to ask a question, I am now answering the hon. Gentleman's question, but the answer is that I am agnostic about the process. Does he agree that, however fast something is done, it must be done right? The issue is one of substance: whether we should include a specific definition of an act of completion, perhaps according to the formulation that he suggested to the Secretary of State in an intervention. It seems to me that the Secretary of State wants to maintain political flexibility in terms of the definition. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if my understanding is correct, that is a cause for some concern to Members?

Mr. Davies: I am genuinely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the issue of acts of completion. As I have told the House before, this phrase is unnecessary, gratuitous and therefore inherently suspect. Why are we talking about a symbol, rather than the thing itself? Why can we not mention the phrase that we really mean—I hope—which is decommissioning and disbandment? Why do we have to go through this intermediation? Why do we have to obfuscate, when there should be clarity? Why does the right hon. Gentleman not say that what is required of Sinn Fein-IRA—and, indeed, of

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other paramilitary organisations in Northern Ireland—is completion of decommissioning and disbandment? Only once we have completion of decommissioning, on a set timetable, to the satisfaction of General de Chastelain—when decommissioning and disbandment are equally verified—can we contemplate making corresponding moves that form part of the essential package: the definitive and comprehensive settlement to which, I hope, all of us in this House aspire.

The fault does not lie with the Secretary of State—he is under orders from the Prime Minister. It is the Prime Minister who invented this phrase, and the Secretary of State probably feels that he cannot possibly escape from a phrase that has been imposed on him from on high. Nevertheless, it makes his life a great deal more difficult. If he were prepared to say at the Dispatch Box that he will present a statutory instrument to give effect to these clauses only when there has been 100 per cent. decommissioning and disbandment, that, at least, would be clear, and it would really put us on the spot. However, the phrase that he uses is immediately suspect, and is an unnecessary and apparently voluntary obfuscation of the key issue. That is very much to be regretted.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is strange for the Government to bring forward these proposals even before there has been a report on the Stormontgate fiasco? We discovered then that correspondence from the Northern Ireland Office and from the Prime Minister at Downing street had fallen into the hands of an organisation that was supposed to be on the road to peace.

3 pm

Mr. Davies: I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman. The Government must make it clear, by their deeds and words, that they take seriously breaches in the ceasefire and the agreement. They must show that they will respond to such breaches in specific and concrete ways; otherwise, we will never get implementation of the agreement or respect for the ceasefire. It is no use expressing horror and shock if nothing happens. As I have said over and over again—most recently last week—one of the Government's fundamental errors is that they have done absolutely nothing about even the most egregious breaches, such as Florida, Castlereagh, Colombia, Stormontgate, and now this arms cache. The Government's reaction has been the opposite of what it should have been: they have said, "Oh, my God, we'd better offer them something more. What new concession can we dream up to try to appease them and buy them off?"

That is absolutely regrettable, and hopeless. When this phase of Northern Ireland history comes to be written, the Government will bear a terrible responsibility if, as a result of their disastrous tactics, the agreement—sadly—fails to achieve implementation and consummation. I therefore agree very much with the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth), and I am grateful for his intervention.

I turn now to the specifics of the new clauses and amendments in this group. As I have explained, we will oppose with all the means in our power new clause 2 and new schedule 2, to which we will come later. We have

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tabled two amendments to new clause 2. The Secretary of State has courteously responded already to amendment (a). That amendment would extend disqualification from five to 10 years. The right hon. Gentleman understands the reasoning behind the amendment, but it is not a matter of essence. I shall not ask the House to take time to vote on it, as we have so many other important issues to discuss this afternoon.

Amendment (b) to new clause 2 would restore disqualification for those with suspended sentences. I listened to the Secretary of State with a genuinely open mind, to see whether he could dissuade me from my initial inclination to seek to put the matter to a vote. However, he has not persuaded me. He did not choose to mention the fact, but he knows that some very serious offences are followed by sentence suspension in Northern Ireland. I think that the right hon. Gentleman and I agree that there may well be some more suspended sentences for serious crimes if the on-the-run problem can be resolved within the context of the complete and definitive settlement. That would be a judicial resolution, with people required to come before a court and enter a plea of guilty, and the court required to reach a determination and a verdict. I therefore do not believe that we should just set aside people with suspended sentences from eligibility for disqualification, if I may put it that way. I believe that that matter is sufficiently important to ask the House to vote on it.

New clauses 9 to 11 are tabled in the names of the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) and the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon). We strongly agree with them, and we look forward to supporting them in the Lobbies if it is decided to put those proposals to a vote. We feel especially strongly about new clause 11: however short the time, I hope that we have the opportunity to vote on that new clause.

The hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) and his colleagues have tabled new clause 13. In some ways, I share the Secretary of State's confusion about it. I have read the new clause two or three times, and it seems at certain points to be restrictive, and at others to be rather a weakening proposal. It provides that people may be disqualified for any offence at all. We do not want people to be excluded from serving on DPPs because they have committed a traffic violation or parked in the wrong place. I am not sure that anyone would qualify for any position in public life if that sort of disqualification applied.

Rev. Ian Paisley: The hon. Gentleman should compare the amendment with what it would amend. The idea is that people who may have received a sentence for something with no relation to terrorism or violence should not be barred from sitting on the board. Why should a person who has never been caught up in terrorism or violence be barred from helping in this manner because they have committed some other offence in the past? The amendment is very simple, and the hon. Gentleman should have read both it and the passage in the Bill that it amends.

Mr. Davies: As I understood it, the first part of new clause 13 would provide for anybody with any offence to be disqualified, but that is relieved in the second part by a provision that the Secretary of State can exempt anyone from disqualification. I can see that the hon.

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Member for North Antrim expects that people who did not pay Ken Livingstone a rather large amount of money to be able to drive into the capital would be disqualified, but that the Secretary of State would take an indulgent view of that offence and would remove the disqualification. That process seems slightly cumbersome, as I think the Secretary of State remarked.

Rev. Ian Paisley: It is not that we want a Secretary of State with a large heart, but that we want him to do what is right. New clause 13 states that the Secretary of State may exempt a person from disqualification

That is a reasonable proposition, in the circumstances.

Mr. Davies: Yes, I see what the hon. Gentleman wants to achieve with the new clause. He takes away something with one hand and provides, with the other, that the Secretary of State will give it back—that is the fair way to describe the proposal. My view accords closely with that of the Secretary of State: I do not like the arbitrary powers that the new clause would vest in the Secretary of State. I trust the Secretary of State immensely, as a human being and parliamentarian, but I am sorry to say that, given the pressures on the Government and the extraordinary weakness of the Prime Minister and previous Secretaries of State in the process, I cannot support Parliament giving the Secretary of State the right simply to lift disqualification, arbitrarily and at his will, without any other process. That is what new clause 13 would achieve.

The hon. Member for North Antrim would probably agree that it would be terrifying if the Government were to have a discussion with Mr. Adams and Mr. McGuinness and, feeling the need to appease them, say, "Oh well, we'll lift the disqualification on some of your chaps. We can do that this afternoon, in five minutes, using the new clause kindly provided by the hon. Member for North Antrim." I would not feel at all happy about giving the Government that sort of power. I am sorry but, if the hon. Member for North Antrim wants the House to decide on new clause 13 later this afternoon, it will be very difficult for me to recommend to my colleagues that they should support it.

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