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Regulatory Impact Assessments (Audits) Bill

Mr. Archie Norman accordingly presented a Bill to make provision in respect of the audits of regulatory impact assessments: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 18 June, and to be printed [Bill 54].

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Northern Ireland

2.17 pm

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Jane Kennedy): I beg to move,

The order appoints 25 February 2005 as the date before which the amnesty period must end. The amnesty period is the time during which firearms, ammunition and explosives can be decommissioned in accordance with the scheme. The amnesty provides immunity from prosecution for the offences that might be committed during the decommissioning process. Most of the offences set out in the 1997 Act relate to possession, but others concern offences which may stem from a person's participation in decommissioning, not necessarily centred on the weapons involved, but on the behaviour which may accompany participation, such as the withholding of information, or making arrangements with terrorists.

Section 2 of the 1997 Act, as amended by the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning (Amendment) Act 2002, requires that a scheme must identify the amnesty period and that it must end before 27 February 2007. The purpose of this order is to extend that period until midnight on 24 February next year. The Government want to see the decommissioning of all paramilitary weapons as soon as possible. This order is a vital part of the process of delivering on that.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): We have been sitting here since 1997 waiting for the decommissioning of arms. Will the Minister explain exactly why we now need another year? Is there any evidence of good faith from any terrorist organisation, be it loyalist or republican?

Jane Kennedy: The decommissioning process was established under the hon. Gentleman's Government in 1995. Indeed, General de Chastelain has been committed to working on it all through that time. It is clear that we must continue to encourage decommissioning. If we are serious about paramilitaries giving up their weapons, we need to will the means to make that happen. The order does that.

Since the amnesty provisions were renewed last spring, there has been a further act of decommissioning by the provisional IRA. We debated at length the veracity of that act. On 21 October last year, the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning reported witnessing that third IRA decommissioning event, in which weapons were put beyond use. The commission reported that the arms comprised light, medium and heavy ordnance and associated munitions, and included automatic weapons, ammunition, explosives and explosive matériel. It also stated that the quantity of arms involved was larger than what was put beyond use in the previous event. That would not have been possible without these amnesty provisions.

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David Burnside (South Antrim) (UUP): At the time of that act of decommissioning, the Prime Minister appeared to have information about the amount of arms, ammunition and explosives that was handed over. Will the Minister tell the House what that information was?

Jane Kennedy: I dealt with that repeatedly at the time. I shall not go back over old ground—we have had that debate. The fact is that arms were put aside, and General de Chastelain and Andrew Sens made it clear that the weapons that were decommissioned were significant, and that many lives were saved when they were put aside. That is important, and it is something that the House should encourage.

Naturally, the Government regret that it is necessary to continue to have such provisions at all. We understand the concerns that have been raised, but it is absolutely clear that, without them, the process of decommissioning that we all want would not be possible.

Lady Hermon (North Down) (UUP): I am most grateful to the Minister for taking another intervention so quickly. Would she accept that no matter how often General de Chastelain tells the community in Northern Ireland how significant an act of decommissioning is, such acts are rendered meaningless for many people by the anonymity and confidentiality clauses? What can she say about ensuring that no confidentiality provision should be invoked for a further act of decommissioning? [Interruption.] I apologise for the interruptions from the sidelines on this Bench.

Jane Kennedy: I acknowledged at the time of the previous decommissioning event that it was not sufficient to sustain confidence that the provisional IRA was committed to entirely peaceful means. In a way, we have almost moved beyond the question of arms decommissioning. We now demand of paramilitary organisations that they must put an end to many other activities. Those activities have been listed many times, and the hon. Lady will be aware of them. Training, the procurement of weapons and the targeting of individuals still go on, as do so-called paramilitary-style beatings and shootings of young men in and around Northern Ireland. People continue to be exiled by paramilitary organisations. All those activities must come to an end, and it is right to say that the debate has moved on and now focuses on them.

As I have said, the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons is only one element—although a vital one—in the process of taking violence out of politics in Northern Ireland for good. The Government remain committed to securing genuine acts of completion from all paramilitary organisations, so that we can see the restoration of confidence, and thereby of stable and inclusive Government in Northern Ireland, as soon as possible.

I emphasise that we want decommissioning to be undertaken by all paramilitary groups, both loyalist and republican. We also call on those groups outside the peace process to engage with the decommissioning body

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to bring about full decommissioning, because we want to see an end to all paramilitary activity and to stem the rise of the mafia-like culture that threatens to replace it.

Several hon. Members rose—

Jane Kennedy: I thought that that might prompt one or two responses. I give way first to the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael).

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): Does the Minister agree that, at this stage of the process, it might be useful to establish some sort of hierarchy of acts of completion? Would not decommissioning be pretty near the bottom of that hierarchy, compared with the beatings and exiles enforced by paramilitaries?

Jane Kennedy: It would be difficult to draw up a hierarchy such as that, and to tell people targeted by a paramilitary organisation that that was less unacceptable than any other form of paramilitary activity. The fact is that all paramilitary organisations should desist and disband: there is no room for them in a democratic Northern Ireland.

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP): The Minister said that paramilitary and terrorist groups should engage with the international decommissioning body. Will she say which paramilitary organisations are engaged with that body at the moment?

Jane Kennedy: I do not want to give the wrong figures on this. The decommissioning body is engaged with some paramilitary organisations, but not all—or enough—of them. However, I shall come back to the question later, as I do not want to get the details wrong.

Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon) (Con): Decommissioning is one half of the equation, and the other is commissioning. Does the Minister have any evidence that the acquisition of weapons from other countries by paramilitary organisations has ceased totally? Have she or her colleagues had any discussions with the Libyan Government about the traditional link between that country and the IRA?

Jane Kennedy: First, it is clear that paramilitary organisations continue to arm themselves. They do so by a variety of means, and they use the weapons that they procure for a range of activities—for terrorist purposes, for controlling their communities, and for criminal activity. There is therefore evidence that they continue to be well armed.

On the second point raised by the hon. Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire), I refer him to the answer that I gave at Northern Ireland questions earlier. I said that I expected that the discussions between the British and Libyan Governments would touch on the supply in the past of weapons to the IRA. I am sure that any information that we were able to obtain from that source would be enormously helpful to all of us.

I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the commitment, perseverance and integrity of General John de Chastelain and his colleagues at the IICD. It is sobering to note that the general's personal commitment

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to the process dates back to 1995, when the original group was established under the previous, Conservative Government. I want to express my thanks to them all for what they have achieved in the process to date.

The decommissioning process has begun. It may not be swift enough, but it has begun. We want it to continue and we want it to be completed, so it is essential that we continue to provide immunity from prosecution for those involved.

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