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Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): I was going to start by saying that I hesitate to intervene in a matter in which the hon. Gentleman has such expertise, but as you know, Mr. Speaker, I rarely hesitate to do any such thing.

I want to say a few words because I have been contacted by a registration officer, who has expressed some concern about the process that the hon. Gentleman has described and the way in which it has been conducted. My reservations are more about process than about content, although I must say that when I see a Government paper that begins with, "The modernisation of", my blood runs cold and I have serious reservations.

I acknowledge the hon. Gentleman's long-standing interest in the subject and his expertise, and I defer to them. I am glad to see that the Financial Secretary is on the Front Bench, because the Bill that the hon. Gentleman is introducing has two problems.

First, I suspect that he is trying to implement what should be Government policy by using the private Member's Bill route. I say to him in all friendliness that if he thinks that that will be a method of quickly delivering the solution that he seeks, he could not be more mistaken. Whatever date he selects for his Bill, it will already be some way down the order because most of the primary slots have already been taken. There is therefore little chance of its being debated and agreed by the House. I hope that he does not raise too many expectations about his Bill, because choosing this route is naturally hazardous.

Secondly, the Bill is at cross purposes with the very consultation process that the hon. Gentleman openly describes. As recently as 16 November, the Financial Secretary said:

He went on to say that the consultation paper, "Registration Modernisation", had been published on the same day. That paper gives a deadline for reply to the consultation in February.

My question is therefore this: is it reasonable to expect the House to agree to the hon. Gentleman's Bill, which deals with matters in the consultation paper, when the consultation has hardly started and before the end period for the consultation in February? That strikes me as being a somewhat bizarre way of going about things and, to put it mildly, puts carts before horses. I appeal to the House not to approve the Bill today but to wait until the consultation process has been completed. There is some unease among registration officers about the speed with which this has been done, about whether full consultation has been allowed, and about whether individual officers have been able to express their point of view fully.
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I hope that the hon. Gentleman will have a quiet word with his colleague, the Financial Secretary, so that they can sort out exactly what they are trying to do—the Government on the one hand and the hon. Gentleman on the other—and try to match more closely the consultation process with the suggested track of the Bill. If it survives today, some of us will be keeping a very close eye on it in the hope that it does not ultimately conflict with the consultation process or with the unease that is being expressed by registration officers outside the House.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 23 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of public business), and agreed to.

Bill ordered to brought in by Dr. Brian Iddon, Mr.   David Anderson, Mary Creagh, Jim Dobbin, Kelvin Hopkins and Mr. David Kidney.

Registration Service

Dr. Brian Iddon accordingly presented a Bill to make provision about certain offices under the Registration Service Act 1953; to make provision about the holders of certain offices under that Act and the appointment of persons to such offices; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 2 December, and to be printed [Bill 78].

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I tabled two questions to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland with a named date of reply of 17 November. They related to the Bill that we are about to consider. I have as yet received no reply to those questions. Can you advise hon. Members what action they should take when such replies are not received?

Mr. Speaker: I have taken some advice to help the hon. Gentleman out. He has put the matter on the record, and he should follow that up with further questions. Perhaps he should make another visit to the Table Office. That is the piece of advice that I would give him at the moment.

Mr. Forth: A nod is as good as a wink.

Mr. Speaker: The right hon. Gentleman is right.
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Orders of the Day

Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

Mr. Speaker: I inform the House that I have selected the amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition and the Liberal Democrats.

1.15 pm

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Peter Hain): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I am sure that the whole House will join me in expressing our sympathies and condolences to the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) on the sudden and shocking death of his brother, Endel. All our concerns are with him and with the family. I know that it must be a terrible strain for him to be in the Chamber today. It is a mark of the duty that he gives to this House, and always has done, on this important issue that he is here. Will he please accept our sympathies?

Because I realise that this is a controversial Bill, not least among victims in Northern Ireland, I shall be especially generous with interventions, but if the House will allow me I would prefer to resist them until I have had a chance to set the context for six or seven minutes. I shall then be happy to take as many as possible.

Northern Ireland and Irish terrorism have, over the generations, presented unique challenges to this House, to Governments of both parties, to the forces of law and order, and to society, particularly in Northern Ireland but also in the rest of the United Kingdom. This House, and successive Governments of both parties, have been faced with difficult—often exceptional—problems to deal with. As a result, Ministers have had to adopt exceptional policies—and, in recent times, abnormal measures—to normalise Northern Ireland, so that today it enjoys more peace, stability and prosperity than ever.

I believe that the proposals in the Bill should be considered in that light. It sets out to deal with one of the most difficult and sensitive issues that the Government have faced in the long and complex process of taking Northern Ireland forward—that is, those terrorist suspects who are "on the run" outside the reach of our police or our courts.

Anyone who is, or has been, involved in trying to make political progress in Northern Ireland will know that having to take difficult decisions is no new experience. The former Prime Minister, John Major, knew that only too well when he took the decision to begin the engagement that would ultimately lead to the Good Friday agreement. That engagement with the IRA at that time was difficult—very difficult. It was unpalatable to many people, not least in this House, but it was right. And because it was right, it had the support of the then Labour Opposition. John Major and his colleagues, Lord Mayhew, Lord Brooke, and the right hon. and learned Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) paved the way for the Good Friday agreement signed under our Government in 1998. Their role was as crucial as it was courageous. It was attacked and criticised just as our Government are today, but it had the support of the then Labour Opposition.
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The agreement required all sides to compromise and meant taking immensely difficult decisions, not least that on the early release of prisoners, which was completed in 2000. Victims of the troubles were, understandably, in uproar at the sight of murderers or former terrorists walking free, but it was the right thing to do to seal the agreement. However, it left unresolved an equally difficult matter: the issue of what to do about those who had committed terrorist offences before 10 April 1998 and who, had they been in prison at the material time, would have been part of that early-release scheme.

It is important that the House recalls that this has not suddenly materialised. I remind the House that it was raised with the British and Irish Governments at Weston Park in July 2001, but, rightly, was not dealt with then because not enough progress had been made on bringing an end to paramilitary activity. It was raised again in April 2003 in the talks that led to the joint declaration between the British and Irish Governments in May 2003, and a statement for the record was published at that time. It was not dealt with then—again, rightly—because not enough progress had been made on bringing an end to paramilitary activity.

It is not disputed that the IRA statement of 28 July, ending its violent campaign was of great, indeed historic, significance. That statement, with the subsequent decommissioning of the totality of its weaponry, verified   by General de Chastelain's Decommissioning Commission and the two independent clergymen in September, has fundamentally changed the political landscape. So now is the appropriate time to deal with this difficult issue.

I know that many people will find the Bill very hard to bear. I understand that. If I had not known it before, I was left in no doubt when I attended with the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) the annual prison officers' memorial service at Millisle on Remembrance day and spoke to widows of prison officers murdered by the IRA.

I also spoke to a man who, as a seven-year-old, had seen his dad gunned down next to him more than 20 years ago. I could still feel the pain and misery of a family torn apart. The decent and dignified people to whom I spoke on Remembrance day, together with the thousands of victims of over three decades of conflict in Northern Ireland and beyond, have suffered grievously. That is why one of Mo Mowlam's first actions in 1997 was to ask Sir Ken Bloomfield to look at practical suggestions about how the Government could best recognise the suffering endured by the victims of violence and their families.

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