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9.32 pm

Mr. Quentin Davies: I wholeheartedly agree with the Secretary of State that the consideration of the Bill in the House and in the Standing Committee has been thorough—as far as it has gone. The debate has been excellent. There have been some distinguished contributions and some lively exchanges of views—as there should be in this place. However, I emphasise the words "as far as it has gone".

I fully share the Secretary of State's regret that we have been unable to do the Bill justice. I know that it is not personally the fault of the right hon. Gentleman and that he did everything possible to ensure that we had slightly more time to consider the Bill. I hope that he will tell his colleagues that the treatment of the Bill during the past few weeks has been a classic example of the appalling damage done to the operation of Parliament by the so-called reforms of the new Labour Government. They are anything but reforms.

It is absurd that more than 30 clauses were not even dealt with in Committee. We have been unable to discuss some of the important youth justice reforms—the youth conferences and so on. At the very last moment, the Government introduced substantial and substantive changes to one of the two most controversial clauses—clause 66—which deals with courtrooms, courthouses and the royal coat of arms, but the House had no chance to discuss it. That is grotesque.

If there is to be any parliamentary scrutiny of the Bill, it will have to be undertaken by the other place. Under new Labour, we are the lower House in name and in substance. That is a most regrettable state of affairs, and I hope that the Secretary of State will pass on to his colleagues the strong feelings experienced by everyone in the House. It is especially grotesque that Members from six parties would have liked to take part in the Third Reading debate, but we have only 45 minutes for it. That is a terrible, terrible way to conduct our affairs.

As we were not able to deal either in Committee or on Report with the Government's new proposals for the royal arms in courthouses and courtrooms, I shall briefly touch on them. In substance, we welcome the Government's reconsideration, even at this late stage, and their decision to make some gesture—albeit inadequate and limited—that will at least recognise the strong feelings among the Unionist population in Northern Ireland, even if it does not mollify them.

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That concession is hopelessly inadequate to redress the balance and undo the damage done by the one-sided stream of concessions in the past few months, almost all of which have been made to Sinn Fein-IRA. And it, of course, would be eclipsed out of existence if the Government committed the folly of announcing an amnesty for on-the-run terrorists.

Nevertheless, I commend the Government for having recognised—for once in deed, as well as in word—the lack of balance in the implementation of the peace process so far. Perhaps the imbalance has not been so much in the implementation of the peace process as in the Government's making all sorts of concessions not required by the Belfast agreement, and making them all in the same direction. The Secretary of State has recognised the damaging impact that that has had on confidence in and commitment to the peace process among the Unionist community. He has at least done something about that, and it would be churlish of me not to recognise it.

The Government's tactics have been pretty shambolic. They have introduced a change at the last minute. They have not assuaged much of the concern, anxiety and opposition that they aroused in the Unionist camp with the original clause 66—and they have now managed to infuriate the nationalist camp, too, by withdrawing some of the concessions that they had made. The Secretary of State smiles, but there is an alternative approach, which I have been urging on him for some months.

The Government should look upon the implementation of the Belfast agreement in terms of a balanced and agreed programmed process, in which everybody knows what they have to do by when, what the full cost will be, what the concessions will be, and how we get to the endgame. Until we have that kind of balance and understanding of the process, the programme and the schedule required, I do not think that either side will be confident that the process can really be implemented.

There are obnoxious issues in the Bill, some of which involve serious matters of principle. I spoke earlier about clause 20, and the judicial oath of allegiance. Given the appalling treatment of Parliament over the allocation of time, and several other issues that have been raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt), we would be thoroughly justified in opposing Third Reading. I dare say many among my colleagues, and perhaps in other parts of the House, too, would have expected us to do that.

However, we will not vote against the Bill, in recognition of small mercies, and of the new element of pragmatism and balance that has crept into the Government's behaviour over the past few days. I welcome that, and I want to make it clear by a gesture of my own that we take it seriously and appreciate it. We want to do what we modestly can, as the Opposition, to encourage the Government to go in the right direction.

The second reason why we will not vote against Third Reading is even more important. The concessions that have been made in the Bill, some of which we find genuinely obnoxious—advisedly, I expressed myself in strong terms about clause 20—have not, for once, been made to Sinn Fein-IRA, but to the Social Democratic and Labour party. As I can see, and as I have heard in the repeated accounts of my hon. Friend the Member for

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Reigate, SDLP Members have done a magnificent job on the Bill, and have already modified it in a number of important ways.

The concession is on an important headline issue by which they clearly set a lot of store. I do not like it, for the reasons that I explained earlier. I do not like having a distinction between the oath of allegiance taken by judges in Northern Ireland and that taken by judges in the rest of the United Kingdom. However, I recognise that the SDLP has made a major positive contribution to the peace process, to law and order and to justice, with its support of the new Police Service and the Policing Board.

For once, the rewards have gone to people who deserve some rewards, and the concessions have been wrung out of the Government by people who deserve some concessions. Again, it would be wrong of us not to recognise that fact. We must swallow very hard, as I am having to do, and ask our right hon. and hon. Friends not to vote against the Bill on Third Reading.

9.39 pm

Mr. Mallon: First, I thank my colleagues on the Standing Committee for their courtesy and help, and for the constructive way in which the Committee carried out its business. I thank those who chaired the Committee for their guidance and for the expertise that they brought to the proceedings.

I congratulate the Under-Secretary on the honest and very competent way in which he dealt with the Committee and with the issues. One could have some reliance on him. He gave nothing easily—nor did one expect him to—but he played with a straight bat, and I thank him for that.

Like the supporters of the English rugby team on Saturday, I feel a touch of déjà vu—a sense of having been here before, done it and got the T-shirt. I am trying to find an easy way of saying that this is the third time that I have stood on the Floor of the House on the Report stage of a Bill when, in effect, a googly has been bowled after a Standing Committee has dealt with things. Whatever position people adopt on an issue, that is not the way to do business; it is not the way in which to treat Parliament; it is not the way in which to encourage and nurture the Standing Committees that are so valuable. One begins to wonder whether, on issues such as this, there is a straight bat left. For that reason, I again thank the Under-Secretary, who proved that it is possible to deal honestly with an issue.

It is important to make that point because for non-lawyers, as many of us are, dealing with legislation is an onerous task. There is nothing easy about it, and it becomes all the more difficult when one knows in one's heart of hearts, as one is battling with detail in the Committee Room, getting expert advice and doing all the things that one should, that somewhere outside a dealing game is taking place which makes no reference whatever to our parliamentary process. It adds to the difficulty when one has experienced that before. However, we are big boys and we will live through it and get over it. It is a lovely thing to be able, as one walks out of the door, to look in any mirror that one passes and say, "Okay." We should all learn that lesson.

I am referring particularly, although not exclusively, to the issue of symbols. I have always tried to be sensitive when I talk about symbols in any context, because I have

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always tried to show respect for the symbols of others, even those with which I disagree. I have done that in this building, in the Assembly and, by and large, everywhere else. However, it is very difficult to maintain that position when, for the third time, the issue of symbols has been used as a bargaining chip by the Government in a unilateral, secretive and partisan way. It is difficult to maintain that position when one sees key principles of the Good Friday agreement and the draft Bill being used as bargaining chips—concessions to be granted to Unionists to build up confidence so that other deals can be done with others.

If I were a Unionist, I would be rather sceptical. I would look at new clause 2 and I would say to myself, "You can hold them or fold them, but don't get over-excited about what's going to happen because this is not being done in the interests of anything but the next bargain and the next deal that will be made." It hurts me to say that because I have supported Labour Governments for my entire time as a Member, including throughout hung Parliaments, day after day, and I will continue to do so. I make an appeal: it is much easier, much better and much more successful in the long run to play things straight, decent and honest than it is to become almost a roulette table for bargaining.

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