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The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, I reject every word of that. What we saw last night was a "go slow" by hereditaries, very many of whom were not even actively participating in our debates. That was self-indulgence of a high order. They compelled those who wanted to work to down tools when they themselves had come in not to work but to close down a House of Parliament.
Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, in that case I wonder whether I may put a question to whoever it is appropriate to put a question to about the statement of the noble Lord, Lord Marsh, when he says that this great bargain was struck between the Government, the Opposition and three leading Cross-Bench Peers. It must be clear that a number of Cross-Benchers did not participate in that secret deal, and as far as I am aware the Opposition certainly never participated in it.
We had a very interesting debate on other things yesterday, including a very sensible alternative to the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill. I have to put it to the noble Lord, Lord Marsh, that his premise is simply inaccurate.
Lord Marsh: My Lords, since my name has been mentioned directly, I crave the indulgence of the House to make one simple point. If there is no agreement, perhaps someone will say so and we can reassess our way of dealing with the Bill.
I was rather hoping that today we would get away from the churlishness of last night. It is not an attitude which sits well on this House. What happened last night was a very unusual circumstance. There was a breakdown in the arrangements which best serve this House, the arrangements that work through the usual channels. The usual channels have worked consistently well, in good times and in bad, over a considerable number of years. It must be infinitely preferable for us to return to that happy state. But we on this side of the House, and those in other parts of the House, who do not support the intentions of the House of Lords Bill cannot be blackmailed with threats that are issued from time to time from the party of government.
My noble friend the Opposition Chief Whip had made it plain that we did not feel that it was right for a Bill of this importance to be taken into the small hours of the night. He offered that we should try to complete the business in another hour, and if that was not possible that we should complete it today. He further said that he would do everything he possibly could, short of a total guarantee, to ensure that all the business that the Government wanted between now and the Recess would be honoured.
That was not acceptable, and a vote ensued. As my noble friend Lord Ferrers said, there was only a nine vote difference between our side and the government side, which must be particularly galling to the government side.
I was saying that what is also particularly surprising is that within a few hours of the House adjourning the Government themselves were planning to adjourn another place under very different circumstances and to muck up their own business. This is a very odd state of affairs.
I say to the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, who has achieved a great statesmanlike attitude towards the Bill, that we should revert to that state, because it is one which best serves the interests of the House.
We are speaking of a five-clause Bill, with a single schedule. It is admittedly of considerable constitutional importance. Let us consider the extent of the debate that we have had on the issues thus far: one day on the Queen's Speech, two days on the White Paper, two days on Second Reading and six-and-a-half days on the Committee stage, including today. The Government have been very reasonable, but I have to say that there must come an end to all debate.
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, no. The noble Lord misunderstood me. I said that it fell mildly short of a guarantee, but what I am trying to say is that we would do everything we possibly could as the Official Opposition to make sure that the Government's business was produced.
Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank: My Lords, I think your Lordships should rise a little above this detail, which can be exchanged between the two sides for an infinite time. Everybody who was here yesterday knows that it was a wasted day. And everybody who was here knows precisely what happened at 11 o'clock. This was very familiar; it is House of Commons politics brought into your Lordships' House.
The point of substance is as follows, and I hope that I shall be forgiven if the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor has already indirectly faced it. As the House knows, we on these Benches were at no time party to the negotiations which led to the Weatherill amendment. As the House also knows, we are against it in principle and we have been against it in detail.
But the realistic fact is that if the deal, however unacceptable to these Benches it may have been, got the business through, then there was an argument that it was worth doing. Plainly, on yesterday's experience it is not getting the business through. In those circumstances, although I would expect no reply from the Government today, I hope that they will consider between now and next Tuesday whether, when the time comes to consider in the House the question whether the clause should stand part, next Tuesday is the time to say "Enough is enough and the Weatherill amendment should stand no longer".
Before turning to the main provisions of the Bill, I should like to outline why the Government are bringing forward this measure. The debates in the other place highlighted the sensitivities surrounding the Bill and the Government recognise fully that there are
This is a short Bill and it is designed to help a small number of families in Northern Ireland. It is right that we should concentrate our minds on those families, but I believe that the Bill has a wider importance. It is indicative of the numerous measures under way to help the victims of violence in Northern Ireland. Indeed, one aspect of the Belfast agreement is a recognition of the need to acknowledge and address the suffering of victims as essential to the process of reconciliation.
I suggest that the Bill is also indicative of the best traditions of this House and the other place as it shows our willingness to take compassionate steps to help a small minority of people when an overwhelming humanitarian issue comes before us.
We should not forget that we are talking about horrendous murders which in some cases took place as long as 30 years ago. As my right honourable friend the Minister of State said in the other place, the people listed in the IRA statement had not been charged with any crime, were not given the right to a fair trial and were probably beaten and tortured before they were killed. In short, they were denied their fundamental human rights.
I recognise that there are concerns that the Bill may never result in information about the disappeared coming forward, because there is no guarantee that those with the information will avail themselves of this opportunity.
The Government have received no guarantees and I can give none to your Lordships' House. But the Government, in bringing forward this Bill, are paving the way for information to be provided and the remains of the victims located. We are prepared to take the risk that it will come to nothing. The Bill is right in principle and it is for others to act on it and to meet their pledges to the nine families of the disappeared which appeared on the IRA list.
I also take this opportunity to call for those with information about the remaining victims to come forward. We should not forget in examining this Bill that there are families who still await news of their loved ones and I can assure them and your Lordships that the Bill is designed with all those victims in mind--not just the nine.
Before turning to the provisions of the Bill, I should just say that there are a number of things that the Bill does not do. It is not appeasement; it is not an amnesty; and it is not an immunity. It is none of those things.
The central core of the Bill is to facilitate the provision of information to an independent commission. The commission will be established by an agreement signed by the Government and the Government of Ireland on 27th April.
The Bill makes further provision about the commission and its commencement. The commission's function will be to facilitate the location of the remains of persons who were killed before the date of the Belfast agreement, on 10th April 1998, as a result of an unlawful act of violence committed on behalf of, or in connection with, a proscribed organisation; that is, a terrorist organisation.
The Bill then contains three provisions to ensure that information does indeed come forward. The starting point is that no one giving information to the commission should be disadvantaged by doing so.
The second provision, in Clause 4, ensures that forensic testing is not carried out unless it is for the purpose of an inquest or unless it is to establish whether the remains can be moved safely. Your Lordships will notice similarities between Clause 4 and the equivalent provision within the decommissioning legislation.
The third provision appears in Clause 5 and it ensures that the commission is not able to disclose information to persons who have no legitimate interest in finding the location of the remains. It may therefore pass information to the RUC to facilitate the location of the remains. The commission may also tell the families that it has received information and where the remains are thought to be located. That will, of course, require very sensitive handling and there may be families who prefer to have no such contact with the commission, but the Bill provides them and their representatives with an opportunity to engage with the commission if they so wish.
The Bill makes one further provision, in Clause 6, to enable the police to obtain a warrant authorising entry and search of private premises should that be necessary to locate the graves of the victims. On a number of occasions, my right honourable friend the Minister of State has met members of the families and their representatives. Of the families with whom we have had contact, we are not aware that any oppose the legislation.
Some of your Lordships have met some of the families concerned. I hope that your Lordships found that as enlightening as the families did helpful. I do not doubt that your Lordships have the best interests of the families in mind, but I am aware that some concerns have been raised about the Bill and it might be helpful if I try to deal with some of those.
First, the Bill does nothing to prevent a post mortem or an inquest from taking place. In fact, Clause 4(2) is on the face of the Bill to ensure that forensic testing can indeed take place if it is to enable an inquest to reach a view on the identity of a person, or how, when or where he died.
I referred earlier to the similarities between this Bill and the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997. The limited protections provided in Clauses 3 and 4 of this Bill, concerning inadmissibility of evidence and restrictions on forensic testing, are there to ensure that relevant information is forthcoming. Those provisions mirror Sections 5 and 6 of the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997. That Act went further, in Section 4, in providing an amnesty for offences committed in respect of anything done in accordance with the decommissioning scheme. There is of course no equivalent amnesty in this Bill.
Parallels with the War Crimes Act have also been drawn. Those parallels appear to be based on the assumption that the Bill is an amnesty or an immunity from prosecution. That is simply not the case. Evidence found as a result of the giving of information to the commission will be inadmissible in criminal proceedings, but prosecutions can still be brought on the basis of other evidence should it be available.
I also ask noble Lords to remember that the purpose is to ensure that information comes forward. If the inadmissibility provision was not in the Bill, I think it most unlikely that any information about the location of the graves would ever see the light of day. For the families, every day of the past 30 years has been a nightmare. I can also tell your Lordships that, having been given a glimmer of hope by the IRA statement on 29th March, the prospect of waiting further has been almost more than some of them could bear.
I am aware that the timing of the various stages of the Bill has caused some concern. It might be argued that the families have already waited so long that allowing the Bill to proceed in the normal way would not make a difference. But I ask noble Lords to consider the compassionate aim of the Bill. The timetable for consideration by both Houses is in line with that aim. I do, of course, recognise the need for full and proper scrutiny by your Lordships' House and I have no wish to cut across that. I hope that the time available to us today and next week will be sufficient to ensure that noble Lords give their usual careful consideration to the provisions of the Bill. For their part, the Government are doing all that they can to ensure that the commission is operational as soon as possible after the legislation is passed. The Minister of State has convened an inter-agency group to examine every eventuality and to ensure co-ordination between the relevant agencies.
I turn now to some concerns about the Bill itself. In another place, there was concern that the Bill did not make explicit provision about what was to be done with information received by the commission. It may be helpful if I outline briefly how the scheme will operate.
We anticipate that the commission will receive information about the location of the remains of the disappeared. That information will be passed to the RUC in the north, and to the Garda in the south, if necessary, to enable the search to begin. Should the RUC be in possession of information, which could be helpful to a defendant in criminal proceedings, it is under the normal duty to bring that fact to the attention of the DPP. Disclosure to the defendant would take its normal course.
There was also concern that the Bill, while enabling a defendant to adduce evidence in criminal proceedings, does not allow the defendant to commission forensic testing in his defence. There are very good reasons for that. The ability to conduct forensic testing may throw up intelligence or information which would be disadvantageous to those giving information to the commission. Allowing forensic testing, other than for the inquest, runs the risk that no information will come forward. Further, there is nothing to prevent a defendant from using the publicly available results of the inquest process to assist his case. That is something that the prosecution will be barred from relying on in the case against him.
Suggestions have also been made about time-limiting the Bill. The aim is to put pressure on those with information about the disappeared to come forward as soon as possible. That is a commendable aim, but the Bill has no time-limiting provisions for very good reasons. First, it is the commission itself which can cease to exist by virtue of an order under Clause 2(6) of the Bill. The remaining provisions of the Bill have to be left in place as it is impossible to say at what point in the future the inadmissibility of provisions and the restrictions on forensic testing might cease to be needed.
Further, the Government intend to let the commission go out of existence after, of course, consultation with the Government of Ireland, as it is a joint international body, if it became clear that no information was likely to come forward. The tragedy is that only nine of the disappeared have been named to date. We urge those with information about the remaining victims to come forward.
The position of their families in unimaginable. As yet they have been given no hope of recovering their loved ones. I should also point out that there is no definitive list of the disappeared. Reports of between 14 and 20 have appeared in the press. The truth is that we do not know for certain. The fact that two of the nine named on 29th March had not been reported missing underpins the need to be flexible about timing. I accept the need to keep the existence of the commission under review, but no provision is needed for that.
Under the agreement with the Irish Government the commission is required to report to the two governments not later than at the end of its first year of operation and annually thereafter. That will be a key indicator of
Finally, I come to the issue of assisting the families at a time when they will be making arrangements for the burial of their loved ones. I am very pleased to say that the Northern Ireland Memorial Fund has written to each of the families of the nine individuals whose graves have been identified by the IRA, offering each family a single payment of £4,000, not as compensation, but by way of assistance to them at a time when they will be making arrangements for the burial of their loved ones. This offer will be extended to all the families of the disappeared at such time as the whereabouts of the remains of their loved ones are identified.
The wider compensation issue is horrendously complex. On advice commissioned specifically by my right honourable friend the Minister of State, it is clear that the families would be time-barred from receiving compensation under the statutory compensation scheme. But in that respect they are not in a unique position. Other groups in society are equally outside the scheme for timing reasons. I take, for example, the case of victims of child sex abuse who do not make a claim until their majority. The courts have held that their claims are time-barred. The Minister of State made a very important point when he said that it would be wrong to take a piecemeal approach to an already complex compensation scheme while Sir Kenneth Bloomfield is conducting a review of the scheme and its fitness for purpose.
Before closing, I return to the families. Most of us cannot imagine what they have gone through, and what they will continue to go through until this episode is over. This Bill is our opportunity to bring that suffering to a close and I commend the Bill to the House.
Viscount Cranborne: My Lords, this Bill is probably one of the most delicate and distressing pieces of legislation that has come before your Lordships during my time as a Member of this House. I certainly pay tribute to the sensitivity with which the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, has always shown during the course of his distinguished tenure as a Northern Ireland Minister. Indeed, one of the factors that makes this Bill so distressing is the very matter to which the noble Lord has addressed himself during the course of his Second Reading introduction of the Bill. One of the most ghastly by-products of any terrorist conflict, as your Lordships know, is the cruelty inflicted by terrorists, all too often on innocent people or on people who are undertaking duties on our behalf and which the Government have asked them to do.
Such cruelty is not senseless, as it is so often described. It is rather the reverse. Some people enjoy inflicting it. It is carefully calculated. After all, the object of terrorism is substantially to terrorise. Terrorists
As the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, made abundantly clear, there can be no one in this House who does not feel the agony of the families of the disappeared. To know that a close relation has been murdered, almost certainly under sadistic circumstances, is bad enough in all conscience. Not to know where the body is buried must, almost by definition, keep the wound permanently open.
I hope that your Lordships will forgive me for the next matter I set out. I believe that it is important in the context of what I wish to say in the remainder of my few remarks. Like very many Members of your Lordships' House, many of whom have a tradition of military service, a number of members of my immediate family have served in the Armed Forces in Northern Ireland. One in particular served in a capacity which probably exposed him to very high risk of capture, torture and death. As it happens, he escaped those dangers in Northern Ireland but was subsequently killed in another continent by another terrorist. We were fortunate in that we got his body back.
I say that because I wish to demonstrate that at least I have some immediate understanding, as do many of your Lordships who have suffered loss, particularly in the last war, of what the families have suffered. But in my case I believe that I have been fortunate that in the crucial respect I have mentioned I have been more fortunate by far than they. However, despite these ghastly matters, governments have to stand back and consider even broader and more compelling issues.
Despite what the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, says, as my right honourable friend Douglas Hogg pointed out on 12th May on consideration of the Bill in another place, this is perhaps not an amnesty in the fullest sense. But it is a partial amnesty. It is an amnesty which is granted at the Provisional IRA's request. That was clear from the debate in another place. And it was granted, as the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, made abundantly clear, with no guarantee that the terrorist organisations would give up the bodies in return for this concession. The record in other closely allied contexts does not give me great cause for optimism. One has only to look at the organisation's record and its temporising over even a token surrender of weapons to see that it is all too much its habit to pocket a concession and give nothing in return; and then to yowl that it is the British Government who are being inflexible. I venture to suggest to your Lordships that this is not the way to peace. It is the way to further conflict--the worst reward for the families who are suffering.
There is, therefore, the danger that the Government will find they have played perhaps the cruellest trick on the families of the disappeared despite what we all know to be the manifest good intentions of the Government. They would have raised their hopes only to dash them when once again the Provisional IRA breaks its word.
I very much fear that there is a broader matter which your Lordships should consider when looking at the Bill with all the sympathy for which your Lordships are rightly famous. Dealing with terrorists in the way that we have increasingly done in the difficult circumstances of Northern Ireland is like becoming hooked on heroin. It is tough at first to take to appeasing them, but it gets easier and more pleasurable, and in the end you like it so much that you take a high moral tone with anyone who takes another view.
I have another difficulty over the Bill. The Minister rightly suggested that those who would benefit from this legislation were not confined to the nine names he mentioned. Others would benefit. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, will understand that there is nothing in the least personal as regards himself or the Government in what I am about to say. It worries me that we tend by implication, by our actions--not by what we say because we constantly pay tribute--to take our own Armed Forces for granted. After all, they have been covered by the provisions of the Bill. The Minister included, for instance, the body of Robert Nirac, as one of the possible beneficiaries of this legislation. However, I venture to suggest that it would have been a tribute for the Government to make it plain that the bodies of the disappeared servants of us, people who put themselves in the front line against terrorism for us and for the people of both communities of Northern Ireland, had been given a rather more prominent part in the Government's rhetoric in discussion of the Bill.
It distresses me to say this. For all its good intentions, the Bill is all too likely to be yet another example of a great many concessions made by us towards the IRA in exchange for very little. It is a protection that has been asked for by the Provisional IRA as part of its successful tactic of getting the British and Irish Governments used to dealing with terrorists as equals. I am highly sceptical that it will lead to the return of any bodies. Like the release of prisoners, under the cover of sympathy which we all feel for the victims' families it takes another step towards the rehabilitation of murder as a weapon of politics without any sign that the murderers have any intention of mending their ways in exchange.
The Prime Minister's rhetoric over the Balkans displays a very different attitude of mind. I should be extremely interested to know why there is one rule for the Kosovars and another for our own fellow citizens in Northern Ireland. I know that this could so easily be taken amiss by the families concerned; and I am conscious of that, but for these reasons I personally want no part of the Bill. With the greatest distress, and with respect to the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, I find myself wholly unable to support it.
Lord Molyneaux of Killead: My Lords, it is a great privilege to follow the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne. I refrained from intervening to ask whether he could give us guidance on the Salisbury document. Presumably this Bill was not even hinted at in the manifesto. Even if the spin doctors who drafted that manifesto over two years ago had been charged to do so, they would have exhibited rather better judgment and shied away from it.
The noble Viscount and I listened carefully to the speech of the Minister. However, on certain occasions such as this I wonder whether the two Governments are locked sometimes in a kind of death wish as regards the effect on the so-called peace process. At a time when desperate attempts are being made to conceal what some of us have been realistic enough to identify as fatal flaws in the Belfast agreement, the latest government blunders are certain to be very destructive.
It was always recognised that compromises would be required, and compromises have been given in large dollops but only by and on behalf of the law-abiding citizens of Northern Ireland and, to a great extent, the law-abiding citizens of the entire United Kingdom. Those concessions were given, sometimes freely and sometimes under duress in particular by the First Minister Mr. Trimble. It is no fault of his. One understands the pressures which can be applied in those kinds of circumstances. For example, last Friday he was betrayed when the two Governments decided to somersault on the principles contained in the recent Hillsborough declaration for the simple reason that such principles were not acceptable to IRA/Sinn Fein.
In an irresponsible fashion, the two Governments responded to terrorist threats and deliberately and shamefully depicted Mr. Trimble as the one who had shown no flexibility whatever, despite the obvious fact, which we must face, that he kept the show on the road for 15 months. In present circumstances, that should be recognised.
Four weeks ago, it was said that the Prime Ministers were frustrated. That was similar to what used to be said by a certain gentleman on the continent in 1939 in slightly different terminology; his patience was exhausted. Exhausted or not, there was talk of the need to bang two heads together, but now, quite unjustly, they have decided to bang only Mr. Trimble's head and crown Mr. Adams' with a halo. That is how all this is seen in Northern Ireland and, I suspect, in the United Kingdom, too.
Against that background, the Government have introduced this nasty, sordid little Bill. Its real objective is not to help the suffering families of the victims, but to grant permanent immunity to terrorists who have tortured, executed and disposed of those victims. Many came from or lived in the constituency of the noble Lord, Lord Fitt. I wish to pay tribute to him for all he did to protect, in so far as it lay in his power, people who had elected him to this Parliament. I want also to pay tribute to him as a neighbour because there was a certain overlap between our two constituencies. I wish to thank him for the understanding and co-operation
Let me make it plain that I, like the noble Viscount, have the deepest sympathy for the relatives of the victims tortured and murdered. I have equally sincere sympathy for the families of 3,000 other victims of terrorism during the past 30 years. How do I forget comrades killed beside me in Normandy in the heat of the battle, not identified, and they, too, have no known graves?
Today, we are being invited to bargain with terrorists to locate the bodies of a dozen people dragged before kangaroo courts, subjected to unspeakable torture and mutilated in the most obscene manner until they died hideous death. Let us remember that these butchers would have claimed to share the same religious faith as their victims.
On 29th March 1999, the IRA announced that it had located the graves of nine people. Having thus raised the hopes of the families, the IRA heartlessly prolonged the anguish by demanding that the British and Irish Governments pass legislation granting immunity from prosecution before the IRA would begin to reveal any further information--
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