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Lord Carlile expressed concern about delays in the processing of scheduled offences. In his last report he said that that was taking longer in 2004 than in 2000, even though there were significantly fewer such cases to be processed. I hope that the Minister will be able to say whether the situation has now improved and, if not, whether the Government are considering the use of powers under sections 72 and 73 of part VII to make statutory regulations to impose time limits on those cases.
I have a question about the private security industry. In England and Wales, the system relies on enhanced criminal records checks, which include not just information about convictions but details of police intelligence about the individuals concerned. The reason for the different approach in Northern Ireland, and as seen in the Bill, is that successive Governments have worried about the prospect of people from a paramilitary background being in receipt of evidence about police intelligence held against them, including, obviously, details of the informer who may have provided the police with that intelligence.
Do the Government think it likely, or even possible, that in the foreseeable future we will be in a position where we could allow the disclosure of police intelligence to people being vetted for a post in the private security industry in Northern Ireland? Does not that again suggest that some type of arrangement unique to Northern Ireland will continue to be needed after 2008?
Do we need the powers brought in after the Omagh bombing under which the opinion of a senior police officer is admissible as evidence in respect of membership of a specified organisation? My understanding is that, in practice, this power has never been used. As the Secretary of State knows, my party has always been uneasy about the idea of specification, whereby we have two categories of illegal terrorist organisations. In one category, specified organisations, the word of the police counts as evidence of membership. In the other category, non-specified but proscribed organisations, police evidence does not count in the same way. I hope that the Minister will say a word or two about that.
I want to finish by touching briefly on an issue that was raised earlier in interventions: this Bill's relationship to the Government's policy on terrorists on the run. I hope, as others have expressed the hope, that we will get the opportunity to discuss the Government's proposals fairly soon, and before we have to decide on the content of such legislation, as the Chairman of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack), said in an intervention. Frankly, I find it frustrating that members
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of Sinn Fein have seen, so they tell me, the Government's proposals and are happy with them, but that my party and, I think, the Liberal Democrats, have not had access to the details of what the Government have in mind.
Lembit Öpik: Indeed. Does the hon. Gentleman not sometimes feel that it is by being stroppy and naughty that one gets the Minister's attention? Would it not be more helpful if, at those times when various parties and supportive organisations are not "kicking up", they still felt included in the process; otherwise, the Government merely store up future problems for themselves?
The Government have shown good sense and proper caution in introducing this Bill today to renew part VII powers. I hope that they will show the same good sense and proper caution when they approach the question of people who are on the run from justice. But for the purposes of today's debate, we believe that this Bill is necessary and it has our support.
Mr. Tom Harris (Glasgow, South) (Lab): It is more than two years since I was given the opportunity to speak on Northern Ireland matters before the House. My silence has been caused not by any reticence on my part, but by the fact that between July 2003 and May 2005 I served as Parliamentary Private Secretary to my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (Mr. Spellar), who was Minister of State in the Northern Ireland Office. I pay tribute to the excellent job that he did and to the commitment that he brought to all his ministerial posts. I also pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy). He was an excellent Secretary of State who was respected by Members in all parts of this House, and by all parties involved in Northern Ireland.
This is a cautious Billand rightly so, as the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) saidand I was certainly reassured by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State's commitment that his priority must always be the safety and security of the people of Northern Ireland. I am sure that he has the whole House's support in saying that.
This could well be an historic moment. I say that cautiously, because historic moments in Northern Ireland history often turn out to be no more than a footnote. In this regard, I think of the great example of the Sunningdale agreement; none the less, this could prove to be such a moment. The measures contained in the Bill and in part VII of the Terrorism Act 2000 have been renewed annually since the early 1970s, and today
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could be the very last time that we renew such powers in a debate on the Floor of the House. If so, everyone involved in Northern Ireland matters, and everyone in Northern Ireland, should celebrate. Of course, it remains to be seen whether primary legislation will have to be introduced in 2008 to enact further measures. I share the Government's hope that that will not be necessary.
I hope that the IRA statement of 28 July announcing the end of its armed campaign will turn out to be an historic moment rather than a footnote. I fully understand why the Unionist parties and their supporters are cynical and sceptical about such announcements, but if in 1995 the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) had foreseen that the IRA would make such an announcement, with an international body overseeing and verifying that decommissioning had taken place, I cannot believe that his reaction would have been anything other than euphoric. Some suspicion arises from the fact that the 1998 Belfast agreement committed the IRA to decommissioning entirely by May 2000. If what has taken place over the summer and in the past month had happened in April and May 2000, a great deal of the understandable cynicism and suspicion in the Unionist community would have been prevented. We all expected and hoped that the IRA would decommission to the extent that it seems to have nowunfortunately, five years too late.
Lady Hermon : May I firmly but gently remind the hon. Gentleman that great offence was caused by the long-awaited statement on 28 July, in which the IRA claimed that its campaign was legitimate? There was no word of apology at all, which caused great offence not just across the Unionist Protestant community but among all families, whether Catholic or of no faith at all, whose relatives had been murdered by members of the IRA. There was not a word of regret, so if the hon. Gentleman thought that we would all jump up and down on 28 July we certainly did not.
Mr. Harris: The hon. Lady is quite correct. She has been present in the House when I have said on more than one occasion that the decommissioning of weapons should not be regarded as a concession but as a basic minimum requirement of any party that hopes to be taken seriously in the democratic process. I agree with what she said.
Throughout the debate, especially since 1997 to 1998, there has been an almost unspoken threat or intimidation when dealing with paramilitaries on both sides. The suggestion was that we ought to make political progress because if we did not X, Y and Z might return to violence. I do not accept that any of the so-called concessions by the Government are based on that threat but, nevertheless, the debate on Northern Ireland has been conducted under a thinly veiled threat of a return to violence by the main paramilitaries. If that is indeed the case, it must end now. There is no longer any excuse for suggesting that political progress must be achieved at the end of a barrel. The hon. Member for Aylesbury referred to the possible disbandment of the
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IRA, and I sympathise with his concerns. He will understand that the demand for the IRA to disband was not included in the Belfast agreement.
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