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Mr. Hanson: My hon. Friend has highlighted that very clearly, and I support him in his objective. In the meantime, despite the fact that the IRA is moving in the right direction, we as a Government will not tolerate criminality or paramilitary activity in any way, shape or form, whether from the loyalist or the republican side.

Sir Patrick Cormack: I entirely accept what the Minister says. As a logical consequence of that, should not he convey clearly and unambiguously to Sinn Fein-IRA that the Government have a limit to their patience, and that if conditions have not been met by November, the obvious alternative is to work for a coalition between the three democratic parties whose credentials are not in doubt?

Mr. Hanson: Let us see what happens. I believe that progress is being made and will continue to be made, and that the IMC will back that up.

The Government will not tolerate criminality and paramilitary activity. On the republican side, in March we undertook operations resulting in 100,000 litres of fuel being seized, with the Criminal Assets Bureau freezing £1 million in cash and cheques found during that search. This week alone, the Assets Recovery Agency secured £140,000 from alleged fuel smuggling, as was mentioned by the hon. Members for East Londonderry, for South Antrim and for Lagan Valley. On the loyalist side, in December the Assets Recovery Agency froze £400,000 from alleged loyalist paramilitaries, and assets of £200,000 were frozen after the murder of the alleged loyalist brigadier, Jim Gray. The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee is currently examining how we deal with such issues. Criminality and paramilitary activity will not be tolerated, and the Government will work towards that end, but I believe that the conditions that Members are seeking will be achieved in due course through movements by the Provisional IRA.

We have to face reality and look to the significant challenges that will ensue. The Bill provides the framework whereby we can facilitate the dialogue for the future. As the hon. Member for Foyle said, individuals have worked together to do things that would have been unthinkable a few years ago. They did not abandon their beliefs in a united Ireland or in an Ireland that has relationships, through Northern
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Ireland, with the British Government as part of the United Kingdom, but they worked together on issues to do with the economics and day-to-day life of their communities. More than anything else, I want that to happen now.

Through the Bill, we have set up the Assembly. I know that the hon. Member for North Down has concerns about that, but I say to her and to others that we want it to be able to discuss real issues as well as to elect a First Minister and Deputy First Minister and an Executive, and as soon as possible, I hope, optimistic as I am, to form a Government and return to the full Assembly that the hon. Lady so desires. In the meantime, we have given it the opportunity to discuss and express views on education, the review of public administration, and water charges.

There has been a serious debate about how the Government will take account of those views in this Chamber. We will listen to what is said and consider the issues that are put to us, but we still have a duty as a Government to govern Northern Ireland in the best interests of its population. Whatever the Assembly that is set up in a fortnight's time may be, it will not be an Executive Assembly until it elects an Executive. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my fellow Ministers have a duty to this House to govern Northern Ireland responsibly, and it would be constitutionally wrong for us to say that we will automatically defer to another body while doing so. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch observed, we have a job to do in Northern Ireland until such time as the Assembly forms an Executive to do that job.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State clearly set out the cost of maintaining the Assembly that has been unable to function. I pay tribute to the Members of the Assembly for the work that they do at the moment.

I receive delegations on housing, culture, sport and the range of issues for which I am responsible from Members of the Legislative Assembly who are now doing a constituency job. They write letters to me, visit, press us on a range of subjects and publicly comment on issues. They are doing a job but not the job that we are doing today—holding the Executive to account in a Chamber and legislating. I hope and pray that they will do that in due course in the Assembly. However, in the event of that not happening, we have to consider the costs of the Assembly and the way in which we hold elections to a future Assembly. That is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has set the deadline of 24 November for progress.

The deadline is not a threat—it is simply an embodiment of a political reality. We cannot go on as we have done. We cannot finance a non-functioning Assembly indefinitely or go through the motions of an election next May to an Assembly that does not meet, legislate or hold the Executive to account.

The process creates the potential for an Assembly to meet on 15 May and elect an Executive, but, if it cannot do that, to discuss some of the issues and reflect the opinions of the 108 elected Members of the Legislative Assembly to my right hon. Friend and me. That is important.
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Some hon. Members rightly asked about Orders in Council. I have said to the hon. Members for Aylesbury, for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson), for Montgomeryshire and others that we do not find that procedure especially satisfactory. There are difficulties with it and my right hon. Friend has written to hon. Members to ask for their views on how we can improve the process. However, we have to govern. We have to make decisions and determine how we make progress in future. We have to run Departments. When my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, the Taoiseach and I met business people in Armagh about some of issues on which we govern, they welcomed aspects of what we did. They welcomed some of the changes that we are making in, for example, the review of public administration.

We will have to listen and we will take representations. There will be an opportunity for the Assembly to present its opinions. However, we are accountable to the House for billions of pounds of public money that my right hon. Friend and I are spending on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland in the absence of the Assembly.

I hope that the Bill is about success, not failure. We believe that it is the best vehicle for success that can be constructed at the moment. We need the Assembly to be back in place and we must examine how we can make it work for the future. The challenge to all hon. Members is how we do that.

The hon. Member for North Down mentioned the delay in holding the election. We will discuss that when we consider the amendments tomorrow. We believe that the delay is necessary for the simple reason that, if we get the Assembly operational by October or November, it will work for only a few months before the rigours of an election.

Lady Hermon: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Hanson: I cannot because of lack of time. We have delayed the election for one year, not to meddle with democracy, as has been alleged, but to give the Assembly the opportunity to bed in, if it is formed, and to be stable and satisfactory for going into an election in future.

The Government are trying to get the Assembly back up and running. We are setting the framework for it to work. However, the prime movers must be the political parties that represent the people of Northern Ireland. We must move forward on the basis of an accommodation between people in Northern Ireland represented by their political leaders in the Assembly. If the House approves the Bill, the message to the people of Northern Ireland is that we have confidence in them and believe that they can run the affairs of their Province. We will support them in doing that, hand them billions of pounds of Government money to expend on their priorities and give an opportunity locally for them to determine their priorities, so that people who represent constituencies in Neath and north Wales do not choose them on their behalf.

There is an opportunity for the Assembly to be reformed and to make progress. I hope that, on 15 May, the Assembly will elect an Executive and commence that process. We look forward to considering amendments
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tomorrow. In the meantime, for the reason that democracy is exercised best when exercised locally by locally accountable people, I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time, and committed to a Committee of the whole House, pursuant to Order [this day].

Committee tomorrow.


Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation),

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