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Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): I welcome the statement by the Secretary of State, for whom I have great respect. This is a major change of direction in Government policy in Northern Ireland. By accepting the IMC's report and by taking such action, the Government are accepting the principle, beyond peradventure, that the leadership of Sinn Fein and other paramilitary organisations are directly responsible for the direction of paramilitary violence. I am delighted to hear him say that, because everyone has known that for a very long time.
Will the right hon. Gentleman pursue the logic of that position? Will he enforce all aspects of the Belfast agreement, which came into effect nearly six years ago? Will he ensure that, for instance, there is total decommissioning before we have further negotiations with Sinn Fein and others? Will he ensure that no Adams or McGuinness walks these Corridors and draws parliamentary allowancespublic moneyto further their evil causes? Will he now stand up, as I believe he would wish to, and force the paramilitaries either to accept the Belfast agreement or to be excluded from it altogether?
Mr. Murphy: I do not think that the Government have changed their view on what the report says about paramilitary activity. We have always indicated that we thought that such activity was the great stumbling block to progress. Of course, the hon. Gentleman is also right to point to decommissioning. That, too, is an important issue, which the Belfast agreement addressed, but which had not been addressed properly over the past few months. However, if political partieswhether Sinn Fein or the Progressive Unionist partywish to progress their political ends in a peaceful and democratic manner, those are legitimate aims for which those parties rightly appeal to the electorate in Northern Ireland. Of course, Sinn Fein increased the number of its members of the Assembly, and the Progressive Unionist party still has a representative in the Assembly. By no means do I dismiss the importance of those political parties to the processthey are immensely important, and there must be an inclusive peace process, but that must be divorced from violence in all its forms.
David Burnside (South Antrim) (UUP):
If I was, God forbid, Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness or, more
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appropriately today, Slab Murphy, or a brigadier in the Ulster Volunteer Force or the Ulster Defence Association and I was going over the past 12 months' accounts of the criminal empire that I controlled, I would be laughing. I would have a smirk on my face, and I would say, "The British and the Irish Governmentsmy God, aren't they tough? Haven't they really taken us on?" We are talking about a few thousand pounds for a multi-million pound empire, whether in south Armagh, the UDA or the UVF.
The Government have a choice today: they can use the report and move in one direction; or they can take the report and be laughed and smirked at by the brigadiers and the members of the army council of the IRA. If only a few thousand quid of the Assembly salaries is involved, with no action in Westminster, they will continue to laugh. The Government must take strong measures. The punishment must fit the crime, and the crime and terrorism continue right across all the so-called loyalist bodies and the Provisional IRA. I hope that the Secretary of State will consider moving towards the total expulsion of Sinn Fein and the loyalist paramilitary front organisations from the political process, so that the democrats can move ahead. That is what will frighten the paramilitaries; they are not frightened today, Secretary of State.
Mr. Murphy: I have indicated on more than one occasion, in many ways it is not a financial penalty or sanction which is the important issue. Although that is important, it is not so important as the fact that the independent bodymade up of internationally recognised peoplehas now been able to tell the world what is going on in Northern Ireland in a very special way. All of us as politicians in one form or another over the past few years have said more or less the same thing, but that has now been done formally by an independent commission that was set up by two Parliaments and two Governments, so that the world now knows that these are serious issues that need to be addressed.
Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP): Is not the report a savage indictment of those who as recently as last October were praising the words of Sinn Fein-IRA leaders and getting ready to admit IRA-Sinn Fein to government, not for the first time, not for the second time, not for the third time, but for the fourth time in Northern Ireland, following another so-called decommissioning event? Is not the fundamental lesson that, six years after the Belfast agreement, democracy in Northern Ireland cannot be held to ransom any longer?
The Secretary of State says that, if the Assembly were up and running, other measures would be taken, up to and including the exclusion of Sinn Fein-IRA. Is it not now the time to move ahead with the political process, including the talks, without Sinn Fein-IRA, applying the analogy as though the Assembly were up and running? Let us move forward without them. Let us go forward with those who are committed to exclusively peaceful and democratic means. Let us stop, in the words of the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon), wasting time on laughable fines that will be dismissed out of hand by everyone in Northern Ireland.
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Let us get on with the democratic parties and find a way forward with those who want to make progress in Northern Ireland.
One of the ways forward is to try to stop the activities that are outlined in the report. That has to happen, too. I have given some indication to the House about the way in which the Police Service of Northern Ireland, the Organised Crime Task Force and so on have successfully dealt with those issues. Of course, much still needs to be done and we must carry on along those lines, but there is an important job of work to be done to ensure that we see an end to such activity, so that we can have an inclusive process in Northern Ireland. Now, at the end of the day, if what the hon. Gentleman wants is to come about, it will still have to do so on the basis of an agreement between nationalism and Unionism for it to work.
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[Relevant document: The Sixth Report from the Treasury Committee, Session 200304, on the 2004 Budget, HC 479.]
Order for Second Reading read.
The 2004 Budget set out the next steps of the Government's economic policy making by outlining what we would do to lock the hard-won progress that we have made into this country's economic stability and growth so that it endures, and to equip the country with the means with which to compete in a global knowledge-based economy. The Government have examined the challenges and pressures that face the nation now and will do so in future, and we are determined to take the right steps to meet those challenges.
We are here today for the Second Reading of the Finance Bill and, as I look around the Chamber, I see the cast assembling for the many long hours of debate that lie ahead, under the leadership of my right hon. Friend the Paymaster General. I know that those of us who are graduates of previous Finance Bills feel a sense of anticipation regarding the struggle that is to come.
The Bill reflects the determination on the part of the Government to introduce the measures that will implement the next stage of our economic policya policy that has been and continues to be characterised by stabilityenterprise fairness. In so doing, the modernisation of the tax system and the protection of tax revenues go hand in hand with greater investment in public services and improvements in efficiency. Together, they will lock in the stability that this country has enjoyed during the seven years of the Labour Government's stewardship of the economy.
Our proven macro-economic policies and the tough fiscal decisions that we have taken have already provided us with a sound economic foundation on which to base our policies. The United Kingdom is enjoying the lowest inflation for 30 years, the lowest interest rates since 1955, and the lowest unemployment for a generation. While America, Germany, France, Japan and much of Asia have suffered recessions, the British economy has grown uninterrupted since 1997over 46 consecutive quarters. On that foundation, we shall continue to build an enterprising and knowledge-based culture. In doing so, we shall work to ensure fairness in the tax system and throughout our society, and to strike a balance between economic growth and environmental protection.
Compare and contrast that recordour policy, our programmewith that of the Conservatives. They ruined the economy in the 1990s. Their record shows why they can never again be trusted with the economy
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and why our hard-won economic stability cannot be taken for granted. Their extremist policies do not add up, they would require massive cuts in vital public services, and they show why no one can afford to believe the Conservatives, now or in future. Not only have they failed to learn from their mistakes[Laughter]but their new policies are more extreme than before. Underpinning their smiling and laughing faces is hard-nosed, hard-faced extremism. [Hon. Members: "Oh!"]
I hear a certain amount of incredulity from Conservative Members. It is good to see the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Mr. Flight). When he assumes his place, we know that it is that time of year: he has been let out and will be set loose on the Finance Bill. Well, goodGovernment Members welcome that, because we have some questions for him. We want to ask him about the newsletter that he sent to the Conservative City Circlean interesting body, which receives newsletters from him from time to time. Whenever the Conservative party wishes to disown the hon. Gentleman, it glosses over the fact that he is the shadow Chief Secretary and refers to him as the party's "City expert". Well, the Conservatives' "City expert" has been writing to the Conservative City Circle, and in his letter he states:
"Our medium term expenditure strategy . . . calls for real reductions in areas other than Health, Education, Pensions and Welfare".
"It is outrageous. You cannot possibly go into an election with this pledge."
"If we are to be taken seriously as a party of government which cares about the most vulnerable people on the planet, there has to be a public spending commitment."
Because the cuts must fall on the police and security services as well, the shadow homeland security Secretary hasaccording to The Sunday Telegraph, a journal of record if ever there was one on matters concerning the Conservative party
"protested that the cuts, if implemented, would badly damage their future departments."
"asked for reassurance that the freeze would not lead to cuts in police numbers."
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