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Session 2008 - 09
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General Committee Debates

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. David Wilshire
Atkins, Charlotte (Staffordshire, Moorlands) (Lab)
Austin, John (Erith and Thamesmead) (Lab)
Campbell, Mr. Ronnie (Blyth Valley) (Lab)
Carmichael, Mr. Alistair (Orkney and Shetland) (LD)
Crabb, Mr. Stephen (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Con)
Donaldson, Mr. Jeffrey M. (Lagan Valley) (DUP)
Goggins, Paul (Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office)
Gummer, Mr. John (Suffolk, Coastal) (Con)
McGrady, Mr. Eddie (South Down) (SDLP)
Mactaggart, Fiona (Slough) (Lab)
Marris, Rob (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab)
Rifkind, Sir Malcolm (Kensington and Chelsea) (Con)
Robertson, Mr. Laurence (Tewkesbury) (Con)
Sharma, Mr. Virendra (Ealing, Southall) (Lab)
Slaughter, Mr. Andy (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush) (Lab)
Watts, Mr. Dave (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)
Sara Howe, Anne-Marie Griffiths, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee
The following also attended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(2):
Holloway, Mr. Adam (Gravesham) (Con)

Fourth Delegated Legislation Committee

Thursday 5 February 2009

[Mr. David Wilshire in the Chair]

Draft Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997 (Amnesty Period) Order 2009
8.55 am
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Paul Goggins): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997 (Amnesty Period) Order 2009.
Welcome to the Chair, Mr. Wilshire, for a debate on a very serious issue for the people of Northern Ireland. The order allows for the decommissioning of arms, by which I mean firearms, ammunition and explosives, by arrangement with the International Independent Commission on Decommissioning. It means that weapons can be removed from the legal process, so that there is no forensic testing, and therefore no prosecution either, for those giving up arms or for those who are in receipt of arms.
This is the 12th time that the Government have asked Parliament to renew the decommissioning arrangements for a further year. Indeed, this is the third time that I have made that request and there is no question but that this time it is very different. It is different because this is the very last time that we will be making such a request. The Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997 was amended by the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2006 and names 27 February 2010 as the final day for the decommissioning scheme. To go beyond that date would require fresh primary legislation and I make it clear today, as I have made it clear in the past, that the Government have absolutely no intention of bringing forward such primary legislation.
A second difference is the far greater concern that has been expressed about the decommissioning arrangements and their extension. Those are concerns that have been expressed by political parties, but also by community leaders in Northern Ireland. I hope that, in the next few minutes, I can offer sufficient reassurance to the Committee, so that hon. Members will, as I do, that this is the right thing to do.
Three main concerns have been expressed. The first of those—one hears it quite a lot—is that the Government always say that this is the last time that we are going to do it, but do we mean it, or will we change our minds, come back and ask again? Well, as I have already made clear, to do so would require fresh primary legislation. We have no intention of bringing that forward, so this is the last time that we will seek renewal.
Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): Those of us experienced in Northern Ireland matters will remember two absolutely immovable deadlines in the run-up to the re-establishment of the Assembly. I am going back almost two years now. The then Secretary of State insisted in the House of Commons that the deadlines were absolutely immovable, yet both were moved. How can we accept that this deadline will not be extended, even by primary legislation, because on those occasions primary legislation was needed to extend those deadlines?
Paul Goggins: During difficult negotiations and discussions, it has sometimes been necessary to set deadlines, and to mean them, to get Northern Ireland to where it is today. Circumstances change and, in pursuit of the greater good and progress, it has sometimes been necessary to be flexible. However, in this case, there is absolutely no room for flexibility. Why do I say that? As we move towards complete devolution and normality in Northern Ireland, a free democracy experiencing peace and prosperity has no place for such artificial arrangements to remove guns from the communities.
A practical consideration is that, if we brought forward such primary legislation, we would have to get it through the House of Commons and the House of Lords, which would be a difficult passage indeed, as I am sure Opposition Members will make abundantly clear later in our discussions. I hope that the hon. Member for Tewkesbury accepts my assurance that we will not seek to bring such legislation forward. He knows how difficult it would be if we changed our mind, but we have no intention of doing so.
A second concern is that the order sends out the wrong message—the message that paramilitaries can possess and use weapons with impunity in Northern Ireland. I want to emphasise that that is absolutely not the case. Indeed, repeatedly, the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland has made it clear that, where the PSNI has knowledge of or information about illegal weapons, it will seize them and prosecute the people in possession of them. The decommissioning order is not the only route, but an additional one to the normal course of law enforcement.
Dissident republicans have no intention of using that additional route. Their intention is to attack and, if possible, kill police officers. The dissidents have no support within the community. Indeed, they stand condemned by Gerry Adams and other leading republicans, as well as Church leaders, including Cardinal Brady, who recently said that they
“challenge the very principles of a just and a free society.”
They are therefore condemned by political leaders, by the Church and, indeed, by us all. I condemn without reservation those who left a device in Castlewellan last week, which could have created absolute havoc and taken many lives had it gone off. They stand condemned and have no intention of using the route set out in the order.
Loyalist paramilitaries, however, might use that route, but that leads to a third concern—namely, that loyalists are not really serious about decommissioning. The truth, frankly, is that none of us can say with absolute certainty that loyalist paramilitaries will use the decommissioning route as a way forward, although the IICD has advised the Secretary of State and me that meaningful progress is being made in relation to its contact with loyalist paramilitaries.
The Committee will want to show respect to the IICD for its experience in handling these issues over many years. It oversaw the complete decommissioning of Provisional IRA weapons—an essential move in terms of developing progress in the political settlement in Northern Ireland. We must therefore take the IICD’s advice very seriously.
In heeding that advice and in seeking the Committee’s permission for renewal, I propose to offer further safeguards to ensure that loyalist paramilitaries get the message that their promising words must be turned into actions, and soon. We have therefore requested the IICD to report to the British and Irish Governments on progress made over the six months following renewal. That will take us to around the middle of August, and the Government intend to publish the report in September.
The IICD will not—nor should we expect it to—provide a running commentary on what is happening in terms of any weapons that may be decommissioned. Indeed, we would not expect it to set out in detail, item by item, the weaponry that might be handed over. However, we have made it absolutely clear to the IICD, and it has agreed, that its report will need to make clear whether significant progress has been made, by which we explicitly mean action, not just words.
Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): The Minister speaks of a process that will involve the IICD reporting by the middle of August, but the House will rise on 21 July. Will there be any means to make information available to the House before that time? Otherwise, six months will become eight months, because it will be the middle of October before the House can scrutinise the process. We need to see something before the summer recess starts.
Paul Goggins: It is important to give the IICD a reasonable period to build on the meaningful progress that it has described to us, and we think that six months is a fair period in which to do that. I acknowledge that that means that the commission will report during the summer recess, but, as I said, we will publish that report, and I assure the Committee that we will share and discuss it with Opposition spokespeople when it becomes available.
The hon. Gentleman may find it helpful to know that the Independent Monitoring Commission will issue a report this spring. While its report will not deal explicitly with decommissioning—that is not the IMC’s function—it will none the less give a clear indication of the thinking and activity within loyalist paramilitary organisations. We should therefore get a clear sense of direction from the IMC report, although it will differ from the IICD’s more explicit report.
I acknowledge that the timing may be difficult, but we think that six months is necessary to allow sufficient time for the words to be turned into deeds. However, if that report is negative, and significant progress is not reported by the IICD, immediately after the summer recess, we will bring to a Committee similar to this one a new order to annul today’s order and bring the decommissioning amnesty period to an early end. I hope that that assures the hon. Gentleman that we are taking the process seriously.
It is important that the whole Committee is in one place today, condemning unreservedly and absolutely the ongoing violence and the criminality perpetuated by loyalist paramilitary organisations, but offering them a final chance to use the additional route and translate their warm words with the IICD into practical action.
Mr. Carmichael: The question of the IMC is interesting. In the spring, there will be, as it were, a rain check, which I hope is not that distant. What action will the Government take if the IMC report in spring indicates that we are not seeing any progress? Will Parliament be given an opportunity to discuss that and bring further scrutiny to bear on it before the summer recess?
Paul Goggins: There will undoubtedly be opportunities to discuss the contents of the IMC report, both outside and inside this place. I do not say that we will make a decision based on that report, because the IMC’s brief is not explicitly to report on decommissioning, but it will give us a fair indication of the direction of travel, which adds even more urgency to the message that we send to the loyalist paramilitary organisations: they cannot just wait till five minutes to midnight in the middle of August; they have to start to turn those words into actions now. Now is the moment, not in five or six months’ time. We will have an indication in spring, when the IMC reports whether they have heeded that strong message from Parliament.
I thank those who have engaged with the Government on the issue; there have been considerable exchanges of views over recent weeks. From those discussions, it is clear to me that we all want the same thing—those weapons and guns to be out of the hands of loyalist paramilitary organisations. Those weapons are part of the past; they have no part to play in the future, so they must go.
I thank the Opposition parties for the way that they have engaged on the issue. I also thank the Police Federation for Northern Ireland and, in particular, its chairman, Terry Spence, who has been discussing the issue with a number of hon. Members. Having discussed it with us, he wrote to the Secretary of State on 29 January to say formally and publicly that he agrees with the Government’s approach, which is setting the period of six months, asking for the report and annulling after the summer recess if there is no significant progress.
I put it on the record that the chairman made that agreement conditional on three particular factors. The first is that there will be no pressure on the PSNI to go softly in its efforts to uncover paramilitary arms and munitions. I give the assurance to the Police Federation and the Committee that there will be no going softly—where there are guns and knowledge of weapons, the PSNI will go after them and bring to justice people who have been in possession of those illegal weapons.
Secondly, maximum support will be available from the Government to the PSNI to bring to an end to all paramilitary criminality—again, I give that assurance to the Police Federation and the Committee. I chair the Organised Crime Task Force, and we bear down heavily on all kinds of criminality, perhaps particularly where it relates to paramilitary organisations.
Thirdly, and most importantly, if there were no meaningful or significant developments in decommissioning within the next few months, the Government would immediately annul the legislation and end the amnesty arrangements that permit decommissioning. I have already explained in some detail that that will be the case, and we have pledged to do so.
In many ways, the people in loyalist communities have been the strongest voice here, because they are fed up with the criminality and the violence perpetrated by the paramilitary organisations. The people want the guns out of their communities and the paramilitaries out of their lives, so that they, too, can experience the benefits of a peaceful Northern Ireland.
Since the Provisional IRA decommissioned its weapons in 2005, there has been substantial progress in Northern Ireland. There is now support from all sections of the community for policing, most government is now run from Stormont rather than London, and a process is under way to complete devolution and hand over policing and criminal justice powers. It is vital, therefore, that the Committee speak with one voice today and make it clear that there is no place for illegal weapons in Northern Ireland, that those who have them will be pursued by the police and prosecuted, and that those who want to hand them over have one last chance.
9.11 am
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Prepared 6 February 2009