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26 Mar 2003 : Column 341—continued

3.30 pm

That takes me back to a question that I posed to the Secretary of State earlier. I fully accept that the Secretary of State is under constraints: anybody dealing with negotiations to do with the peace process and the reinstitution of the institutions is tramping not just on eggshells but on burning cinders. I again make the point—without, I hope, labouring it—that there are different forms of completion. Because of his knowledge and ability in this area, I will leave the Secretary of State to make his definitions of completion. Completion was defined by the Prime Minister as being total, real and permanent. However, there is another completion, and it took place at Weston Park. It was a completion of the debate in the negotiations about policing. There was a clear understanding at Weston Park that that was the completion of negotiations—that that was the end of things being negotiated, got, wrung out, begged, borrowed or stolen by the two Governments. That was a completion that my party accepted—a party that represents a substantial number of people in the north of Ireland. We honoured that completion. We want that completion of Weston Park to be honoured by others. We want it to be honoured as it was supposed to be honoured—and as I fully expect it will be. I believe that both Governments must insist on that. It must be honoured in the political process here.

Lady Hermon: Will the hon. Gentleman cast his mind back to the debates that led up to the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000, when the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson)—who I am sorry is not here, because he often is for such debates—was the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland? He made a

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clear and important point on the distinction between the political members and the independent members of district policing partnerships. His key distinction was that the political members had an electoral mandate, because they were voted in as councillors. Why does that electoral mandate no longer count in making a distinction between independent and political members?

Mr. Mallon: The distinction exists. However, there will be people who are deemed to be independent and who find themselves as members of DPPs who are anything but independent. That is a reality—whatever the right hon. Member for Hartlepool might imagine, think or decide for himself—and it goes to the heart of this issue. If it were not a reality, would we be having this debate at all? I doubt it, and I hope that I have answered the hon. Lady's point.

I return to the issue of completion. We cannot have completion on unilateral terms. We cannot have completion for some and a lack of completion for others. I look forward in this debate, or very soon, to seeing whether completion will be a consequence of resolving the political problems now. I speak as someone who is not au fait with the details of the negotiations. I therefore have a certain freedom to pose questions that I may not have had previously. If there is to be a completion of the policing issue that involves Sinn Fein's participation in the Policing Board, will that precede the agreement between the political parties and the two Governments that will allow an election to be held and thereby facilitate the reinstitution and reinstatement of the devolutionary arrangements? That is a crucial question.

I invite Members to consider an alternative point of view. Is it conceivable that there could be agreement, followed by an election, then the reinstitution of the administrative arrangements and only then completion of the Policing Board process—or any other permutation of the four? I realise that the Secretary of State is working under constraints but I await guidance on those crucial points.

I have not gone into details because the issue is much wider and more fundamental than how people are chosen for DPPs. However, I want to take issue with the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) on his use of the word "appeasement". I do not often defend the Government, but it is wrong to accuse them of appeasement on this matter. It is wrong to use such an emotive term in that regard, especially at this time. Whatever one's criticism of the handling of some of the issues, there has been the underlying courage to go to the heart of the problems of policing and the political process, which is far removed from appeasement or anything like it.

I support the Government both on new clause 1 and on the measure in general, which is a fairly unique situation for me. I do so mainly because I know that the measure is not appeasement but a genuine attempt to get to the heart of the problem, even though many of us may feel that it is not the right way. Something within us revolts against it, but when we think things out we know in our hearts that if we are to resolve the issues we must do so where it counts—on the ground. There, we shall find that those who make up the DPPs are those who will ultimately create peace in Northern Ireland.

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Mr. Carmichael: : The hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) used one especially telling phrase that has given me cause to ponder. He said that the Bill was about putting violent republicanism "to the test". The more I consider those words, the more appropriate they seem as a metaphor because I think that, regrettably, we are engaged in an exercise whereby we are telling people that they have passed the test before they sit the exam. We are telling them that they already have the grades.

There is a subtext to our debate: the signals that we are sending to those engaged in violent republicanism and to members of the loyalist community. By introducing such provisions at this time and in this way, especially Government new clause 2, we are sending exceptionally poor signals. Those signals will cause significant alarm in the loyalist community and bring considerable optimism to those in the violent republican community who do not deserve to have that sort of optimism.

In an intervention on the Secretary of State's speech, I pressed him about the mechanism by which the Government seek to introduce these new clauses, and I wish to spend some time on that. I apologise to the House for talking about a fairly technical matter, but it is of considerable substance.

Of course undertakings given in the Chamber are exceptionally welcome and very valuable, but they are not binding on anyone. Governments can change their minds. This is the fourth Secretary of State in six years, so clearly they can change their personnel as well. It is perfectly easy for Government to turn round later and say, "That was then, and this is now. The Bill passed by the Commons is clear, and we shall proceed to act as we consider appropriate." That is why Liberal Democrat Members feel that it is so important to include in the Bill a definition of the phrase "acts of completion", or whatever the term of art may be. It is not enough simply to leave that to the Government's judgment in relation to the statutory instrument.

I accept that defining any act of completion will not be easy—of course, that is a difficult exercise—but I am surprised that the Government see that as a reason not to do so. A great deal of the whole process is not easy, but somehow we manage to do it. It must surely be in the competence of the parliamentary draftsman, in consultation with the Government, to construct a definition the last element of which could include a much more general provision, perhaps giving proper discretion to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. An act of completion could be defined as "such other act that shall seem in the view of the Secretary of State to be appropriate", or something of that sort.

Lady Hermon : I greatly welcome the hon. Gentleman's comments, but can he confirm whether his colleagues in another place will follow an identical line on that point when the Bill returns to the other place?

Mr. Carmichael: I would be foolish if I were to be beguiled into going down the road that the hon. Lady tempts me to take. My noble Friends in the other place will, no doubt, speak for themselves. I have little reason to believe that they will take a different approach. Modesty forbids me to say that my approach seems so

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sensible that I cannot envisage any circumstance in which they would not do so. Of course the hon. Lady has her own colleagues in the other place, and she will know as well as I do that it is a foolish Member who tries to bind those in the other place or to give any cast-iron undertaking about the way in which they will conduct themselves.

Lembit Öpik: Does my hon. Friend agree that, of course, the Government have the opportunity to listen, to take note of what happens in the Chamber and to use the intervening time to seek to satisfy the concerns raised here, which are, no doubt, shared by many right hon. and hon. Members of the other place?

Mr. Carmichael: Yes, that is a very valid point. We do not have a massive amount of time before the Bill returns to the other place, but I hope that the Secretary of State and his team will take on board the point that my hon. Friend makes. I am aware that some meetings involving my noble Friends will certainly take place during the next few days, and I hope that the Government will continue to look at this issue with an open mind. It pains me to say that we have reached the point where we feel that Government assurances are simply no longer enough. I would also say—I put this down as a marker, and I do so after careful consideration—that if the Government pursue this course of employing a statutory instrument, which they implement in circumstances that the Liberal Democrats do not consider to be appropriate, we would regard that to be a significant issue of disruption between ourselves and the Government. We have gone out of our way to support the Government throughout this process, and I want to impress on the Secretary of State the importance that we attach to this issue.

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