Lembit Öpik: The Under-Secretary makes a reasonable point and he is right to be cautious. Will he agree to hold a substantial discussion about the matter in Committee, subject to Lord Carlile's furnishing us with more information in the interim and in advance of the Committee stage?
Mr. Woodward: That will be decided by leave of the Chair, but we would welcome such discussion, not only in Committee but in the future. We want to ensure that all arrangements that we put in place for the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland are robust and appropriate for the future of Northern Ireland and its security system.
The hon. Member for Aylesbury asked about time limits on cases. The option of introducing statutory limits remains open to Ministers. However, the Government have introduced several initiatives recentlyfor example, the roll-out of the new public prosecution system. He also asked about the security industry and vetting arrangements. We are undertaking a thorough review of the regulatory regime for the private security industry in Northern Ireland. It will focus not only on criminal activity but on good governance, putting in place a comprehensive framework for the future.
The hon. Members for Aylesbury, for Montgomeryshire and for Leeds, North-West asked about section 108. We disagree with Lord Carlile. We believe that the provision
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continues to have some utility in the current climate. The convictions of Real IRA members in the Irish Republic with the assistance of a similar provision reinforces that view buta crucial "but"if an enabling environment is maintained, section 108 will cease to have effect, along with the rest of part VII, on 31 July 2007. The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire asked about the number of cases that involved section 108. Several cases are pending in which it could be used.
My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris) made several supportive comments for which we are grateful. Priority is being given to the safety of people throughout Northern Ireland and he is right to emphasise that we are at an historic moment. Decommissioning weapons is not about concessions; it is essential if progress is to be made. I stress that we are making progress in Northern Ireland.
The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire rightly praised his noble Friend Lord Carlile. His reports are exemplary and important in shaping the debate about the legislation. We may not agree with every single word, but weand, I believe, all hon. Membersare in deep debt to his work.
The hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) raised several issues, not least intimidation. We are especially worried about the intimidation of witnesses. We need the criminal justice system to work effectively now and in future. We will actively consult to get a system that works best for everybody in Northern Ireland. He and the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds), who cannot currently be in his place, referred to community restorative justice systems. I said in the House last week that we are aware of concerns about and potential difficulties with the role of those systems. That is why we shall proceed cautiously and issue guidelines on their operation. It is important to remind hon. Members that they are not a substitute for or an alternative to policing. The schemes will deal with low-level cases of criminal behaviour, which have been referred by statutory agencies. The Police Service of Northern Ireland will be informed of all referrals. The schemes are not an alternative, but part of the criminal justice system, in conjunction with the PSNI.
The hon. Member for Foyle asked what would happen to the forum for victims. I remind him of the statement that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made only last week about the appointment of the interim commissioner for victims. My right hon. Friend has asked her to
I add my congratulations to the soon-to-be right hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley). In answer to his comments, of course people have a right to state their convictions. He was right to remind the House of the deep feelings that must be reconciled to achieve lasting peace. His memorable depiction of the children whom he has personally comforted at funerals, whose fathers have been cruelly taken away from them, is a reminder to every hon. Member of the responsibilities that we all bear in bringing about lasting peace. He is right that we ask a great deal of people in Northern Ireland in the process, but we do that to deliver the greater deal of lasting peace for them.
The Chairman of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs, the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) made several
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comments about the need for even-handedness. We shall endeavour to ensure that all our work reflects that approach. We are grateful for his characteristic and energetic start as Chairman.
The hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mr. Fraser), who is a member of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs, raised several issues and we look forward to working with him. We are taking all the steps that we can on normalisation. We take full advice on security matters from the Chief Constable and the General Officer Commanding.
Mr. Donaldson: The Minister referred a moment ago to the need for even-handedness and sensitivity. He might not be aware that, tomorrow evening in New York, the National Committee on American Foreign Policy is hosting a dinner at which it plans to give a peace award to Gerry Adams for his work with the IRA. Will the Minister assure me that no representative of Her Majesty's Government will attend that event? Were they to do so, it would demonstrate insensitivity and a lack of even-handedness.
Mr. Woodward: I was unaware of the dinner tomorrow night. I believe that such an issue would be a matter for Capitol Hill and not for this Government. However, if I can ascertain anything more for the hon. Gentleman in the next 24 hours, I will.
I would like to thank the hon. Member for Belfast, North for his support for the Bill, which he described as "sensible". He rightly spoke of the need for caution, as did other Members, including the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Campbell). We share that need for caution; we do not want to go ahead in a headlong rush. The hon. Member for Belfast, North and I disagree about the interpretation of the speed of the process. However, we do not disagree about the desire to secure peace in Northern Ireland.
The hon. Member for East Londonderry raised a number of other issues, including policing in Northern Ireland. He was right to say that policing was central to the future there. Huge progress has been made, and there is more to be made. I agree with him that there is absolutely no place for paramilitaries to take up a place in the PSNI. That position was also firmly set out by Chris Patten in his report a few years ago.
The hon. Member for South Antrim raised a number of issues, and I listened carefully to his impassioned speech. I respect him deeply, and I respect his sincerely held views, although I do not agree with his every interpretation. However, I certainly share his admiration and concern for the McCartney family. Let us be clear that intimidation and the crimes associated with it have no place in the future of Northern Ireland. That is the case irrespective of the quarter from which the intimidation comes, be it dissident republicans or the criminal behaviour of a small but significant number of so-called loyalists.
The hon. Member for Lagan Valley made a deeply important speech, particularly referring to the Royal Irish Regiment. We should all recognise that the settlement that I believe and hope we shall be able to announce in conjunction with the Ministry of Defence in the months to come will owe a great deal to the hon. Gentleman's relentless work on the regiment's behalf.
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A number of issues have been raised in this debate. One that I have not yet referred to concerns the on-the-runs legislation that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will bring to the House at a later stage. On that, let me say simply one thing. A number of hon. Members have suggested that it might be a form of amnesty. That legislation will in no shape or form be an amnesty.
We have to look ahead. The Government are mindful of their responsibilities for the future, but also for the present. The UK has some of the strongest and most effective counter-terrorism legislation in the world. That permanent framework protects the public against all forms of terrorism. It applies, and will continue to apply, equally to Northern Ireland and to the rest of the UK. In contrast, the part VII provisions remain a necessary and proportionate response to the particular security situation that has existed in Northern Ireland for more than 30 years.
As the Secretary of State made clear when he opened this debate, there have been significant and historic developments in the past few months. These give rise to a realistic expectation that, within two years, a return to a normalised security environment might be achieved. At such a stage, the rationale for special security provisions for Northern Ireland would disappear. The Bill enables them to be repealed. However, we are not yet at that point. The initial signs are promising, but the Government will not take risks with the safety of the people of Northern Ireland. It is therefore prudent to retain the part VII provisions until security normalisation has been realised. The Bill allows for that, and I commend it to the House.