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Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, it is always very easy to be wise after the event. The remarks to which the noble Earl refers were made on 15th April, before the new, and much worse, phase in the fighting. Therefore, I understand why the spokesman for the Labour Party seeks to make fun out of the issue. For me, it is far too serious. The Government have worked, and will continue to work, under the leadership of the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary to make sure that all is done to bring this issue to a peaceful end through diplomatic efforts as soon as possible.

Lord Mayhew: My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that by the time Mr. Portillo made the statement

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supporting the operation and calling it proportionate retaliation, civilians in Lebanon were being killed as a result of the operation? Would the Minister not have done better, if he had to be in Israel--the visit was not well timed--to warn the Israelis that the operation was unlikely to succeed; that it would be widely condemned in the world and that the British Government opposed it?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, it would be useful for the House to look at what the Defence Secretary said. He said that the United Kingdom looked to the Israelis to make their response measured and proportionate. But he also said that the problems of the area could not be solved militarily. He made that absolutely clear. He said that the United Kingdom was looking for a diplomatic solution and a return to the peace process and would take whatever steps necessary to achieve that. There is no getting away from the fact that the Israelis were facing a substantial terrorist threat from Hizbollah. I know that two wrongs do not make a right, but Israel does have a right to self-defence. We should not forget that.

Noble Lords: Next Question!

Viscount Cranborne: My Lords, I know that this matter is of enormous interest to your Lordships' House. I have no doubt that there will be an opportunity to return to it. There is another equally important Question on the Order Paper and we have only six minutes in which to deal with it. I wonder whether your Lordships feel it right to continue.

Unclaimed Benefits: Campaign

3.31 p.m.

Lord Stallard asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What response they have made to the current week's campaign by Age Concern on unclaimed benefits.

The Minister of State, Department of Social Security (Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish): My Lords, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary with responsibility for pensions (Mr. Oliver Heald) recently met Age Concern to discuss (among other things) unclaimed benefits and ways of improving benefit take-up. In 1994-95 the Government spent over £26 million on publication and information about the benefits available.

Information and leaflets about which benefits to claim are widely displayed, not only in local benefit offices, but also in many other locations such as post offices, doctors' surgeries and citizens advice bureaux.

Lord Stallard: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply, especially the part about the response in another place, of which I was well aware. However, does the Minister realise that in 1993-94, the latest year for which figures are available, up to £1.25 billion was unclaimed by one-third of all pensioners who were eligible to claim the benefits? There is also the question of expenditure on fraud. Can the Minister say whether

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the new benefit cards, which will contain an element to try to prevent fraud, will have any information on them that will help people to be identified as eligible for benefit?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, it is difficult to know how much faith to place in the accuracy of such surveys. They ask about people who do not claim benefit and obviously they do not come forward to say, "I do not claim benefit". One must bear in mind the broad margins of error that they may contain. The noble Lord ought to know, before he goes any further, that an average take-up of around 75 per cent. of income support among pensioners has been reported in surveys over quite a few years, including in the 1970s when the party opposite was in power.

We try to ensure that pensioners realise that they are eligible for benefits; for example, the reverse side of the pension book contains a little entry which asks them if they can manage and whether they are entitled to income support and/or housing benefit. It suggests where they can go to find out more about those benefits. In relation to the card, we are still working on that. It is too early to say how much information one can reasonably put on a plastic card.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, does the Minister recognise that if elderly people fail to claim the income support to which they are entitled, they will be living below income support levels, possibly unable to afford heating and food? Why then has the Benefits Agency cut its benefits advertising budget in real terms from £8.5 million in 1994-95 to £6.9 million in 1995-96? Equally importantly, why are the Government threatening to cut the free benefit helpline used by 3 million people, mainly pensioners? We have cuts in advertising budgets and cuts in helpline advice. Is that how the Government plan to cap social security expenditure--by discouraging the old and the poor from claiming that to which they are entitled?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, as usual the noble Baroness goes over the top. It is a pity that she did not listen to my answer when I pointed out that the figures were pretty similar for the three years of the surveys during the government of the party opposite in the late 1970s. The histrionics about the motivation behind what we are doing is totally uncalled for. We are spending £26 million, as I said.

In relation to the helpline, the position is that we are examining the scheme with some care. We sent out questionnaires to individual branches and are looking at who uses it and how it is used. I am afraid that the noble Baroness has no evidence at all that it is largely used by pensioners because I do not have any evidence of that either. We do not break down the inquiries into categories. If I do not know, the noble Baroness certainly does not know. The important point is that pensioners are considerably better off today than they were when the party opposite left power.

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Lord Brabazon of Tara: My Lords, can my noble friend give me some figures on the number of claims for child benefit for 16 and 17 year-old children still at school? Is that well claimed? Is it a popular benefit?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, one of the important aspects of child benefit is that the uptake is extremely high. That covers the whole sphere, including the child benefit which we pay to 16 and 17 year-olds. As my noble friend will know, the party opposite intends to remove that benefit from those parents and families who keep their children on at school. It sounds to me very much like taxing the poor for sending their children to school.

Business of the House: Whitsun Recess

3.36 p.m.

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, it may be for the convenience of the House to know that, subject to the progress of business, the House will rise for the Whitsun Recess on Thursday 23rd May and return on Monday 3rd June. The House will sit at 11 a.m. on Thursday 23rd May.

Business

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, at a convenient moment after 3.30 p.m. my noble friend Lord Lucas will, with the leave of the House, repeat in the form of a Statement an Answer to a Private Notice Question in another place on the proposals submitted to the European Union on BSE. Since that Statement has yet to be cleared and we are about to start the Second Reading of the Northern Ireland (Entry to Negotiations, etc) Bill, I suggest that that convenient moment should take place after the Front Bench speakers and therefore after the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, and before the noble Lord, Lord McConnell.

Australia and New Zealand Banking Group Bill [H.L.]

Read a third time, and passed, and sent to the Commons.

Northern Ireland (Entry to Negotiations, etc) Bill

3.38 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office (Baroness Denton of Wakefield): My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

This Bill is a means to an end; and that end is the launch of all-party negotiations on 10th June intended to lead to a comprehensive political settlement in relation to Northern Ireland. I am grateful to your Lordships for allowing all stages to be dealt with today. It is an important step on the path to peace; the ballot box instead of bombs and bullets.

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The Government acknowledge a duty to all the people of Northern Ireland to defeat terrorism, promote political stability and encourage social and economic development. Those goals are intertwined.

This Bill and this debate focus on the search for political stability. They reflect the analysis that such stability can best emerge from discussion and negotiation involving as wide a spread of political opinion in Northern Ireland as possible. But the sources of tensions within the divided community of Northern Ireland reach out beyond the boundaries of Northern Ireland. The nature of the relationships between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and between the two Governments can fundamentally affect the political situation within Northern Ireland. The search for political stability in Northern Ireland must therefore extend to a consideration of these wider relationships and the way in which they are, or might be, given institutional expression.

Since 1990 the Government have sought to promote political talks in relation to Northern Ireland which would address all the relevant relationships: those internal to Northern Ireland and those I have mentioned which reach out beyond the borders of Northern Ireland. Self-evidently, such discussions must involve--at relevant points--both the British and Irish Governments and representatives of political opinion in Northern Ireland. I believe there is in fact general support, within Northern Ireland, in your Lordships' House and in another place and among the political parties in the Republic of Ireland for the view that the best hope of achieving a comprehensive and lasting political accommodation in relation to Northern Ireland lies in addressing all those relationships as part of the same process of dialogue; and producing a comprehensive package of agreements which balances the varying interests of all the parties to those relationships in a mutually satisfactory way.

The talks which took place in 1991 and in 1992 were based on that analysis. They made considerable progress and certainly illustrated the correctness and utility of the analysis. Unfortunately, it did not prove possible to bring those talks to a conclusion. This Bill signals a new phase of the talks process.

The decision, announced on 28th February, to proceed to the talks by way of an elective process in Northern Ireland provides a means for the Northern Ireland political parties to secure fresh electoral mandates for the talks. The ground rules for the negotiations were published as Command Paper 3232 on 16th April. These are broadly similar to those which applied in 1991-92 and certainly retain all their key features. But we have taken the opportunity to learn from previous experience and the new ground rules should facilitate an effective negotiating process. In discussing the draft ground rules with the parties my right honourable friend was able to incorporate a number of constructive comments and suggestions.

It is also, of course, helpful that the issues to be covered in the negotiations have already received a preliminary airing at the previous talks and in

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subsequent exchanges. It may not be possible simply to pick up where the previous talks left off, but the participants in those talks were able to conclude that they had discussed most, if not all, of the elements of a potential accommodation. The frameworks for the future, published by the British and Irish Governments a year ago, pulled those elements together and illustrate the range of issues which the participants in fresh talks are likely to wish to address.

Another significant development since the 1992 talks has been the development of a broad consensus across political opinion in both Britain and Ireland on the constitutional issue. The Downing Street Declaration and the frameworks document both reflected the total commitment of both Governments to the principle that there can be no change in the constitutional status of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom without the consent of a majority of the people who live there. That principle was also reflected in the recent report of the Dublin Forum for Peace and Reconciliation, which was endorsed by the whole spectrum of political opinion in the Republic of Ireland, except Sinn Fein. Such a breadth of common understanding on such a key issue bodes well for the success of further talks.

Another advantage which the talks commencing on 10th June will enjoy is that they will be as inclusive as possible compatible with democratic principles. The election method announced by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister on 21st March will ensure that at least the 10 largest political parties in Northern Ireland will be eligible to be represented. Sinn Fein's eligibility will of course be totally dependent on whether or not the IRA ceasefire has been unequivocally restored.

I should make clear to your Lordships that the talks process will not be held hostage by the unrepresentative and faceless figures on the IRA's so-called Army Council. The talks will proceed--with or without Sinn Fein. I hope the IRA leadership will make it possible for Sinn Fein to participate in the talks. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State has made it clear that he believes the prospects for a lasting agreement would be immeasurably improved if they were included in the negotiations. But it is a fundamental ground rule for negotiations in a democracy that violence or the threat of violence can play no part in affecting the outcome of the negotiations.

If Sinn Fein secures a sufficient electoral mandate in the forthcoming elections the door will be open to its participation in the negotiations. The choice as to whether it steps through it is for the republican movement to make.

As to the course of the negotiations, concerns have been expressed that they will not be truly comprehensive or that one issue--the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons--will be given such a high priority that it could be used to prevent progress being made on any other issue. Others have expressed the opposite concern, that decommissioning will not be adequately addressed until the very end of the negotiations.

The views of the two Governments were set out clearly in the joint communique of 28th February. We believe that at the beginning of discussions the

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participants must make clear their total and absolute commitment to the Mitchell principles of democracy and non-violence and, at the same time, address the Mitchell Report's proposals on arms decommissioning. We also agree that there must be reassurance to all concerned that a meaningful and inclusive process of negotiations is genuinely being offered to address the legitimate concerns of all traditions and to address the need for new political arrangements with which all can identify.

The principles, which my right honourable friend the Prime Minister accepted on behalf of the Government on the day that the Mitchell Report was published, are not preconditions. They add up to a statement of the fundamental principles for negotiating in a democracy. Any party which cannot accept them would forfeit the right to join in negotiations with democratic political parties.

As to the Mitchell proposals on decommissioning, these cannot be ducked or left to the end of negotiations. There is a substantial agenda to work through, including the Mitchell Report's proposals on the modalities of decommissioning and the suggestion in paragraph 34 of the report that:


    "The parties should consider an approach under which some decommissioning would take place during the process of all-party negotiations, rather than before or after as the parties now urge".
Progress must be achieved in parallel with progress on the substantive political issues covered in the "three strands". There will need to be agreement on a format which can achieve this. When the parties come, at the beginning of the negotiations, to "address" the decommissioning issue there will be no question of "merely" addressing the issue, as one Irish columnist put it. There will need to be a serious engagement on the issue and some indication of good intent on the part of those parties which have influence with paramilitary organisations.

At the same time, all the participants, including both Governments, will need to confirm, in adopting a comprehensive agenda, that they will constructively address, fully and seriously, in good faith, and with every effort being made to reach agreement, all the items on the agenda. This will include, but not exclusively, the difficult issue of decommissioning.

Such commitments, carried through, will be the key to a successful negotiating process. In the nature of things no party will concede its negotiating position in advance of the negotiations, but equally it will not be possible to bring the negotiations to a conclusion unless the participants show themselves genuinely ready to engage on all the issues and to move towards a broadly acceptable outcome.

Ultimately, of course, any outcome from the talks will need to be acceptable to the political parties in Northern Ireland, to the people of Northern Ireland voting in a referendum and to Parliament. That "triple-lock" remains.

Besides the negotiations, the forthcoming elections will lead to the establishment of an elected forum in Northern Ireland, which could provide an important and valuable complement to the negotiations.

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The elections themselves will provide an opportunity for the people of Northern Ireland to express their views on who they want to represent them in the negotiations. The establishment of a forum will, I hope, provide an ongoing mechanism for securing and channelling the views of the ordinary people of Northern Ireland throughout the life of the forum on the issues which will be under consideration in the negotiations. I have to say that I have yet to meet an ordinary person in Northern Ireland. We envisage that a primary function of the forum will be to conduct hearings at which public submissions could be made by community, voluntary, women's and youth groups, trades unions, business and professional organisations, the Churches, academics and others. These submissions and any subsequent consideration of them within the forum will inform those members of the forum who are their parties' delegates to the negotiations. The experience of the Dublin Forum for Peace and Reconciliation suggests that a programme of submissions, public hearings and subsequent deliberations can have a very positive impact on attitudes and analyses.

There will, as I say, inevitably be a relationship between the forum and the negotiations because many delegates will be participating in both. To facilitate that, the Bill provides that the forum will not sit when negotiations are in progress. This might mean, for example, that negotiations would take place largely--as they did in 1992--on the first three days of each week with the forum sitting on a regular day at the end of each week. The discussions of the forum and any studies or reports it may produce would inform the negotiating process. There are concerns about giving the forum an explicit role in relation to the negotiations. The Bill fully addresses these concerns; the forum will be deliberative only. It will not include two of the negotiating participants--the two Governments; and some areas of developing consensus within the negotiations might not benefit from public debate before a conclusion is reached. However, it will be open to the participants in the negotiating process to agree that certain issues should be formally referred to the forum to assist in the process of developing agreement.

I shall now turn to the detail of the Bill. Clause 1 and Schedule 1 make provisions for the holding of elections. They will be for delegates who will be drawn from constituency and regional lists submitted by a nominating representative on behalf of a party. An order to be laid before your Lordships for approval next week will name polling day as 30th May.

Five delegates will be elected from the party lists in each of the 18 new parliamentary constituencies and a further 20 from the regional lists of the 10 parties with the highest aggregate votes in Northern Ireland as a whole.

As a necessary corollary of the constituency list system, the second part of Schedule 1 sets out those parties which may participate. This list has been drawn up following intensive consultation in Northern Ireland. We have taken account of the representations made to us and have sought to achieve as inclusive a system as is practicable.

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The nominating representative of each party which wishes to participate in the election will submit to the chief electoral officer a list of between two and five candidates for any or all of the constituencies of Northern Ireland; and they may also, if their party has submitted lists in at least three constituencies, submit a regional list of up to 10 candidates, at least two of whom would be names not on any constituency list. Regional seat allocation will help small parties which secure considerable Province-wide support but which might fail to secure a seat in a constituency to have a chance to be represented. The Secretary of State is required, by Clause 5 of the Bill, to identify these nominating representatives. This will be done with very thorough consultation.

For the voter, the system is very simple: he or she casts a single vote for a single party. Lists of candidates will be on display. Ballot papers will show parties' names.

Various systems are used for apportioning seats in countries that regularly conduct elections by party list. After consultation and research we have decided on the system set out in paragraphs 8 to 13 of the schedule, which is well recognised and has been employed in several European countries over the years.

In addition, the votes of the parties which have submitted regional lists will be aggregated over Northern Ireland. The 10 highest scoring will each receive two additional delegates.

The disqualification provisions for candidates are, in our view, the minimum necessary. Offenders in prison, people detained on account of mental illness and those not of voting age are, by paragraph 17 of Schedule 1, disqualified. The franchise is the same as that for local government elections in Northern Ireland.

Returning to the main provisions of the Bill, Clause 2 provides for the selection, from among delegates returned, of teams to participate in the negotiations. The proposed ground rules for those negotiations are available to your Lordships in Command Paper 3232, The Ground Rules. The Bill defines these by reference to that paper.

In principle we wish to see involved in the negotiations all parties that have shown they have sufficient electoral support. Nevertheless, Her Majesty's Government, as well as the Irish Government, have consistently made clear that whether Sinn Fein takes its place in the negotiations is for the Republican movement to decide. So that the position is beyond doubt, the Bill provides that the Secretary of State shall refrain from inviting nominations from any party where he considers the requirements in paragraphs 8 and 9 of the ground rules are not met.

Clause 3 of the Bill, with Schedule 2, provides for the forum. It will be composed of all the delegates elected, and have the purpose of discussing issues relevant to promoting dialogue and understanding within Northern Ireland.

The Bill makes very clear that the forum is a deliberative body; it has no legislative, executive or administrative functions. Nor has it power to determine

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the conduct, course or outcome of the negotiations. But it may, by agreement among the negotiators as determined by their rules of procedures, consider matters referred to it by them.

The forum has potentially a role of great value. It does not threaten and does not favour any particular part of the community. It offers a new opportunity for people from differing political backgrounds to talk and to listen to the views of others whom it may invite to address it, in order to promote dialogue and understanding.

Schedule 2 sets out a number of points about forum procedure. It will meet after the negotiations have begun. We intend that there should not be a long delay. We believe that it should proceed by broad consensus. At the start it will have a set of rules of procedure provided by the Secretary of State. It will later be able to propose its own rules. These must be agreed by at least 75 per cent. of those participating in any vote and they will then require the Secretary of State's approval.

In providing the initial set of rules for the forum, and approving those decided by the members, the Secretary of State is required to make every effort to secure that they facilitate promotion of dialogue, understanding and consensus across the communities in Northern Ireland. The forum is also to elect its own chairman. There again, a 75 per cent. majority will be required. Until the forum has made its choice, the chairman will be a member nominated by the Secretary of State.

Clause 4 provides for referenda. Its provisions are broadly cast, sufficiently to permit consultation on any arrangements emerging from the negotiations. Any such proposals for a referendum would need to be approved by Parliament. We have concluded, after the most thorough consideration, that the case has not been made for a referendum to be held at the same time as the elections.

Clause 6 of the Bill provides for payment of allowances to delegates for their participation in the negotiations for the forum.

By Clause 7, the forum is given a life of a year, but may be continued in effect for a further year by order. It may also be suspended and the Bill obliges the Secretary of State to provide for the forum to cease if negotiations are concluded or suspended, although it could be brought back into being if they subsequently resume.

This afternoon we are examining a Bill which brings great hope and new opportunity to Northern Ireland. I hope that your Lordships will be able to give it fair passage. I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.--(Baroness Denton of Wakefield.)

4.2 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister for her compendious introduction. Our stance is well known and I repeat it. First, we wish to assist, as far as we possibly can, in the process of a negotiated settlement of the areas of dispute in Northern Ireland. Secondly, we have adopted, and we shall continue to adopt, a bipartisan approach. It is not

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slavish adherence to the Government's line--no one could sensibly expect that--but it is a determined refusal to take any party or partisan advantage from any area of disagreement or shade of emphasis, between the Government and us.

The voting system proposed is unusual, but that is because the purpose of the election is unusual. The forum is to have no legislative, executive or administrative functions and, most important of all, the forum can never acquire them. So election to the forum is simply the passport to the negotiating place. The purpose is to provide the opportunity for significant areas of opinion to be represented. Therefore, the process, in a sense, works backwards to produce the desired consequences.

We entirely support the Government in their view that it is essential that the smaller groups--for instance, those on the loyalist political side--be represented. The negotiations would utterly fail without their presence. Therefore, the mechanism, though rather crude and strange, is in our judgment likely to produce, by and large, what is wanted in terms of who is to be at the negotiating place. I hope that the Minister will be able to indicate that there will be resources by way of publicity and advertising to encourage all those in Northern Ireland to vote in these elections.

I have to sound a note of caution, which derives from the 18th Report from the Select Committee on the Scrutiny of Delegated Powers. I am most grateful to my noble friend Lord Shepherd, as always, for his guidance on this. The report is dated 24th April. It sets out this principle which is worth reflection:


    "As a general principle we believe that primary legislation and not secondary legislation is the appropriate tool by which to establish electoral rights ... The House may therefore wish to seek an explanation from the Minister as to why the bill deals with entitlement to vote by way of secondary rather than primary legislation".
I hope that that is not a lawyer's cavil. Before we broke at Easter, I asked the Leader of the House, bearing in mind that constitutional issues are involved, whether we might have the legislation as soon as possible. Unfortunately--I make no criticism--the Bill was published rather late for informed reflection.

I now turn to the forum. I would welcome from the Minister an assurance, which I believe that she may well be able to give, that the forum will not meet before negotiations begin and to confirm that it cannot lawfully take to itself anything other than deliberative functions.

Perhaps I may now deal with one or two specifics which have caused a degree of unhappiness in another place. Why, in Schedule 1 (Part II), are the names of the parties set out as they are? I believe that there are 29 in all, including such parties as the Natural Law Party and No Going Back. Is it not the case that the Secretary of State in another place undertook to review the party nomenclature? For instance, the Reverend Paisley may well be reasonably aggrieved--from a study of what was said in another place I believe that he is--that his party is nominated as the "Democratic Unionist--DUP", without his surname, but when one comes to the UK Unionist Party, it is specified as "UK Unionist Party--Robert McCartney". Ought there not to be some

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consistency of approach because lack of consistency brings about mistrust which itself tends to militate against successful negotiations?

I want to deal with the negotiations themselves. They are required to begin without the prior decommissioning of a single stick, stone or weapon. There must be no doubt about that at all. What is required is set out in Paragraph 13 of Command Paper 3232 to which the noble Baroness referred and which states:


    "All participants would need to make clear at the beginning of the discussions their total and absolute commitment to the principles of democracy and non-violence set out in the report of the International Body"--
that is, therefore, the six Mitchell principles.


    "They would also need to address, at that stage, its proposals on decommissioning".

There is no doubt at all, therefore, that negotiations are to begin without prior decommissioning. I believe that we need to distinguish between the six principles and the Mitchell proposals for parallel decommissioning. Our belief is that this matter is one of the utmost urgency. Sinn Fein's purpose, announced yesterday, is to stand in the elections. The SDLP has indicated that that is its view also. But we need to recall that that is the first step. The second is participation in the forum and the third is the negotiating table. In our view, it is vital that the Government should have some alternative mechanisms concerning the decommissioning of weapons to offer at the negotiations on 10th June. Failure to do that may well abort the negotiations. I entirely agree with the Minister that it is preferable for Sinn Fein to be present at the negotiating table.

Is Mitchell to be reconvened as Mitchell 2? Have the Government other alternatives to offer? Has Senator Mitchell been asked whether he can serve further? Has any alternative avenue been explored? If 10th June approaches without the most diligent consideration of alternatives, there may be a catastrophe. If alternatives are available, my best information, which I believe on past experience to be reliable, is that such a step will be of enormous assistance in getting the parties to the negotiating table in order to negotiate with a serious moral purpose.

I turn next to the position of Patrick Kelly. No one can doubt that he is seriously ill. He has applied for transfer to a prison in the Republic. He is presently held in Northern Ireland. The Irish Government and Her Majesty's Government have both ratified the relevant convention for the transfer of prisoners. I appreciate that Her Majesty's Government would not wish to run the risk of an inappropriate early release of a convicted criminal who is not, and never has been, a prisoner of any war. However, if his condition further weakened or he died in prison, it would be a severe blow to the prospects of successful negotiations. I understand that this is a matter of real concern to the Dublin Government and to large sections of nationalist opinion in Northern Ireland.

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Sometimes we forget the importance of perception and disregard as relatively minor questions that have a significance in Northern Ireland beyond what some may regard as their appropriate position in thought and political approach.

I have not tabled any amendments--although I dare say that there is scope for them, as there always is in a Bill of this kind--because I do not believe that it is responsible to do so. The critical theme that I put forward in a spirit of bipartisanship is that Her Majesty's Government must seek to shape events, not simply drift upon the tide of circumstance: 10th June is very close and 30th May is closer. This is an opportunity for a new beginning. If it is lost there may be little scope for further opportunity. Therefore, the more preparation there is as to the detail and the alternatives for decommissioning, the better the prospects of an ultimately successful outcome.

Therefore, on this side of your Lordships' House we shall support the Bill, although we recognise, first, that there may be blemishes in it and, secondly, that other things being equal, it would have been better if your Lordships had had more time to consider various aspects of it than has presently been agreed.

4.14 p.m.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her customary clarity in presenting a very complex Bill. I dare say that many Members of your Lordships' House, considering the interrelationship of talks, fora and elections, are somewhat bemused. As someone who closely follows Northern Ireland matters from these Benches, in my mind there are great lacunae and matters of confusion to be resolved. Perhaps that is always the way in Northern Irish affairs; perhaps a degree of ambiguity is essential on the long and tortuous road forward.

I put the noble Baroness out of the suspense in which she no doubt finds herself as to whether or not she will receive support from these Benches. We shall support the Bill. We intend to support it in much the same spirit as that outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Williams. That is not to say that we are uncritical. I believe that at Second Reading it is as well if I voice some of our reservations.

The noble Lord, Lord Williams, referred to the way in which the Bill has been brought before your Lordships' House. On Tuesday my noble friend Lord Harris of Greenwich took up that matter with the Government. That we should deal with all three stages in one day is an extraordinarily accelerated process. I am by no means convinced that your Lordships' House needs to be treated in this fashion. It creates a most undesirable precedent, and it should be considered in conjunction with the speed at which the terrorism legislation was recently pushed through your Lordships' House. This is a complicated matter that deserves careful consideration. To put it no higher, it is a shame that we are presented with a collapsed and condensed schedule.

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I refer next to a constitutional point. Clause 4 of the Bill, which provides for referenda, is the most extraordinary constitutional innovation in a parliamentary democracy that I have ever seen. Subsection (1) recites:


    "The Secretary of State may from time to time by order direct the holding of a referendum for the purpose of obtaining ... views".
Subsection (3) goes on to say that an order under subsection (1) may include provision for such trivial details as what question is to be put, who is entitled to vote and so on. Why must there be this kind of blank cheque? Why should there be a referendum by order whenever the Secretary of State thinks there might be one? I understand well the reality. The Government know that on 30th May they may want to have a referendum, although I understand that opinion is moving away from that. I also understand that the framework document envisages that there will be a referendum in Northern Ireland at the end of what we all hope will be a successful process and the people of Northern Ireland will say whether or not they like what has been arrived at. But why does it have to be dealt with in such an extraordinary way--by orders to which Parliament can either assent or dissent, rather than the referenda being the subject of normal parliamentary legislation?

The key issue is that many people are dubious that elections are the way to produce negotiating teams at talks. However, the Government have set their hand to this plough. It is with very great pleasure that I hear that the SDLP has decided to contest the elections. We also hear that Sinn Fein (about whom I will say a word or two in a moment) will also contest the elections. All of the horses are at the starting gate. The crucial task is to make sure that the elections, whatever the reservations expressed on the way to them, are a resounding success.

I refer to one matter that I have taken up with the noble Baroness, her right honourable friend the Secretary of State and the Leader of this House. I should like to hear an explicit commitment from the Government that they will do everything in their power, including use of television advertising, to rekindle the spirit that surrounded the framework document. One recalls that people queued outside post offices for copies of the document. There was the spirit that attended the visit of President Clinton; tens of thousands of people turned out. The Government must recognise that this is not an ordinary election. If we are to have one it must be a success. Every resource of government communication must be put behind it to make sure that people know about it, that there is a high turnout, and that people see the connection between their votes and a successful peace process.

On a slightly less happy but related topic, I should be interested to hear from the noble Baroness what the Government propose to do--perhaps we shall see it in the election order--about the endemic evils of Northern Irish politics, including electoral fraud, personation and even intimidation. If these elections are to be popular it is extremely important that they are seen to be fair and that it is worthwhile people participating in them.

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I hope that there will be no mistaken meanness on the question of popularising the election. For instance, the drink-drive campaign on television in Northern Ireland at Christmas cost £328,000. I believe that it had a considerable effect. It is a powerful medium. The Government must not penny-pinch on making a success of the elections to which they have set their hands.

When we come to the election system, I am afraid that I cannot agree with the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, that it is somehow irresponsible to put down amendments. From these Benches we have put down an amendment on the electoral system. It is an amendment to which we shall come in Committee. Its purpose is to substitute in the 18 five-member constituencies the single transferable vote--the system used in Northern Ireland with which people are familiar--for the rather complicated list system that the Government have spent page after page of the schedule trying to describe. I believe that it is a thoroughly responsible amendment. I believe that system to be a great deal more popular in Northern Ireland as well, but we shall return to that issue later.

I wish to address the question of the participation of Sinn Fein in this whole process. I do not know how many noble Lords saw the Channel 4 programme "Dispatches" last night. I thought that it was an extraordinarily one-sided programme. It clearly had heroes and villains. Mr. Peter Brooke, who, I believe, laid the foundations for a great deal of the progress we are now making, was rightly singled out; otherwise it appeared that the British Government had played an entirely negative role. I do not accept that. There was a great deal of disingenuousness in the programme about the representations made on behalf of Sinn Fein.

Even had there not been the programme, the fact that there was a large quantity of semtex in Hammersmith last night--it is only by the greatest good fortune that the detonator went off rather than that a major explosion occurred--means that that was not some, as it were, low-key event, meant merely to demonstrate that Sinn Fein and its friends in the IRA could damage us in London. It was potentially much more dangerous. We have to couple that with the statement made by Mr. Martin McGuinness that Sinn Fein does not propose to have a ceasefire. The Minister has been clear about this, and I thoroughly support what the Government are saying. There can be no question of Sinn Fein's participation in the talks unless there is a prior ceasefire. The more often and the more clearly that is understood, the better.

As I understand it, in the earlier stages of the talks there will have to be a commitment to the Mitchell principles by those participating in them. The Mitchell principles include non-violence. If, in the first day or two of talks, Sinn Fein, in the context of an IRA ceasefire, makes it plain that it does not agree with the Mitchell principles, can we hear from the Minister, in unambiguous terms, that it will then no longer be part of the talks? There can be no misunderstanding about this. Sinn Fein and the IRA do stand together. That came out clearly in the "Dispatches" programme last night. Although Mr. McGuinness now talks about making representations to the IRA, in that programme he was

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happy to speak for the IRA. If he is in that position, he and Mr. Adams must be clear that they cannot have their cake and eat it; that they either commit unambiguously to the Mitchell principles or they do not remain part of the talks.

I am one of those who thinks that perhaps in this difficult process--it is easy to be critical--there were many over-elaborate conditions early in the process. But now, after the horror of the Docklands bomb and the clear bad faith that that represented, there can be no ambiguity about the next stage. I am relieved to read in this morning's newspapers that the White House, the American Administration and President Clinton himself are making it plain to Sinn Fein that if the IRA persists in this course it will be, and should be, an international pariah. Let us hope that the good sense that attended the original ceasefire comes back into its deliberations.

Finally, whatever reservations we on these Benches have, it is extremely important that the Bill goes through and that the elections are a success. In that sense, we wish the Government well.


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