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8 pm

Mr. Carmichael: I note that the Minister chose his words with some care when he said that the debate this autumn—and, obviously, any vote—would be taken on the Floor of the House. Would that be the case also with subsequent orders that would appear at intervals of six months thereafter?

Mr. Browne: I am almost certain that it would. However, I am in a position to give the House an undertaking that a debate this autumn would be taken on the Floor of the House. I hope that the House will find that, with these changes, the Bill has been improved.

Lady Hermon (North Down): The Minister is highly respected for his expertise in human rights, and he rightly emphasises those matters whenever an opportunity arises. However, the Bill carries a statement that says that it is compatible with the UK's obligations under the European convention on human rights. The Minister will know that, in the recent Matthews case, the Assembly of Northern Ireland was held to be the relevant legislature, with full legislative powers. Will the Minister assure the House that, if the elections are delayed repeatedly, it will be compatible with human rights obligations to hold elections to the legislature at reasonable intervals?

Mr. Browne: I am in a position to give the hon. Lady that assurance. She would be surprised if I had not considered those very issues, and I have considered them.

Mr. Dodds: The Minister said that the Secretary of State could come to the House in the autumn to extend the power to call an election. Does that also include powers to extend the salaries, allowances and other benefits enjoyed by former Assembly Members?

Mr. Browne: The hon. Gentleman will be familiar with the provisions of the Bill, which allow the Secretary

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of State to make provision for the salaries of Assembly Members. My right hon. Friend indicated on Second Reading that it was still the Government's intention to review that matter after six months. However, it is the Government's intention to consult parties in Northern Ireland, including the hon. Gentleman's party, about that aspect of the Bill and its implementation. I look forward to taking part in those consultations with him and his colleagues.

I know that many hon. Members disagree with the Bill, and I understand the strength of their feelings. I hope that they will also acknowledge that the Government have acted in the way that we consider to be in the best interests of the agreement, and of the development of stable Government and a peaceful future in Northern Ireland.

I commend the amendment to the House.

Mr. Quentin Davies: I thank the Minister for his clear assurance that any debate on renewal of the powers will be taken on the Floor of the House. That is indeed the assurance that we sought, so we shall not oppose the amendment.

This short debate has been rather good. After the disgraceful events of Monday, when the House did not even get to the end of Second Reading on this important Bill, the debate has at least offered us another opportunity for people to express themselves.

It is a pity that the Secretary of State was not able to be here, and that the Prime Minister was unable to be here either on Monday or this evening. On Monday, the Prime Minister would have heard speeches from members of all three parties in Northern Ireland represented in this House—the Social Democratic and Labour party, the Ulster Unionist party and the Democratic Unionist party. This evening's speakers included the hon. Members for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson), for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds) and for South Antrim (David Burnside). Those three hon. Members on the Unionist side all said more or less the same thing—that the decision was fundamentally wrong. The Government would be inconceivably stupid if they did not take careful note of that.

The Minister is good at trying to put a good face on bad news. It made me smile when he said that the report on the Bill produced by the Lords Committee on Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform was helpful. In fact, the Committee said that the Government's proposal to postpone the elections indefinitely was unacceptable. That is extremely strong language for a Lords Select Committee to use about a Government measure; it shows what a disgraceful decision and mistake the Government have made.

The situation has not been improved by the Government giving the House non-credible, even shifty, explanations that no one could believe, which is an insult to the intelligence of any rational person. The idea that the elections are being suspended or postponed to punish Sinn Fein-IRA, when in fact all the democratic parties in Northern Ireland, which object to the measure, are being punished, flies in the face of any notion of justice.

Even more insulting is for the Government to say that the elections are being postponed to punish Sinn Fein-IRA for non-compliance, when, as the hon. Member for

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Belfast, East so eloquently said, and as I said on Monday, there was no suggestion from the Government that the elections could not be held when Sinn Fein had not complied at all and had not even clarified the three essential points. Now that it has clarified two of the three, the Government say that it must be punished. That is completely absurd. It is insulting to the House. The Government cannot be serious; if they were, they would not be acting in this wholly irrational and completely lunatic fashion.

As I have said over and over again, the only way to deal with Sinn Fein-IRA is straightforwardly and in good faith. If they do not comply or if they behave badly, they must be punished and appropriate sanctions must be taken.

Lady Hermon: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Davies: In a moment.

If Sinn Fein-IRA make positive moves, we should make equivalent positive gestures in return. If Gerry Adams made positive comments, it would be utterly ridiculous to respond by saying, "Now we are going to find a new way of punishing you". It would be completely cuckoo.

However, as the hon. Member for Belfast, East said, the IRA has not actually done anything yet. A comprehensive settlement depends on a programme of implementation. Only when everybody is clearly complying in deed as well as in word will it be possible for us to make corresponding moves in deed as well as in word. It is thus crazy for the Government to dismantle the two towers in south Armagh, or to promise to do so. Even if it was possible according to the advice that they have received from the General Officer Commanding or the Chief Constable—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I have given the hon. Gentleman a little latitude, but I must remind him that we are not discussing the Bill in general; we are discussing Lords amendment No. 2.

Mr. Davies: We are indeed, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but as I shall not be trying to catch your eye again this evening I wanted to respond to some of the important points that had been made on both sides of the House.

As I said, we have had a good debate, but—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman must not flout my ruling or indeed the conventions of the House. So far, only one speech has been made in this debate. The hon. Gentleman cannot reply to matters that were dealt with either in the debate on Lords amendment No. 1 or at any previous time. He really must direct his remarks to Lords amendment No. 2.

Mr. Davies: That is absolutely right, Mr. Deputy Speaker. On amendment No. 2, I hope that we do not have to debate this subject again and that the Government are not thinking of again rolling forward the postponement of the elections.

Mr. Dodds: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Davies: I shall give way in a second.

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As I have said before, if there is a further postponement that goes beyond 1 December—the date for review—I fear that will be the end of the agreement and of the peace process that we are working to fulfil. That would be an enormous historical tragedy.

If the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) still wants to intervene, I shall give way first to her and then to the hon. Member for Belfast, East.

Lady Hermon: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman; it is always a pleasure to intervene in his speeches—it is an even greater pleasure when he actually gives way. He knows very well indeed, as do other hon. Members, that the Assembly was suspended last October, so will he please address the constitutional point that, if the elections had gone ahead as scheduled on 29 May, the Assembly could not have met the following day, and that the electorate would have been asked to turn out to vote on a suspended Assembly?

Mr. Davies: No, the hon. Lady is not correct. If the Assembly were elected, it would no longer be suspended—it would be in place, and it would be able to do its job.

Mr. Peter Robinson: I want to put a question to the hon. Gentleman that relates to Lords Amendment No. 2 and, in particular, the new date set by the Government—15 November—by which time they would bring this issue back to the House if no agreement to hold an election had been reached. The Government have said, "Clarity is our friend"—I think that was the term used by the Prime Minister—so do they not owe it to the House to make it abundantly clear before this debate ends what requirement has to be met for an election to place? Are only words from the IRA required? Are there any other factors? We should be clear, up front, about what is required for an election to take place.

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