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Mr. Barnes: It is not that that role was given over entirely, but there was agreement that it would be part of the mechanism of the procedures. People had many ideas about what they were signing up to, and that is what is important. We are trying to hold people together. I accept that the hon. Gentleman is, and always has been, implacably opposed to the agreement, and that it is legitimate for him to use anything that affects Northern Ireland which is brought before the House to advance his case. However, some of us stand on different, and not easy, ground. We try to draw different people together in difficult circumstances. The logic of the argument of the hon. Gentleman and people who think like him is not given great consideration by us.
Let me say something in favour of the words "credible" and "significant" as used by de Chastelain. One set of people that they upset considerably, and who it is worth while upsetting, are members of the Provisional IRA and Sinn Fein. The more they think that there has been a reasonable and important handing over or destruction of weaponry, the more that affects their traditional feelings and attitudes, and the more they are disenchanted by the process and by those who are involved in the political process. If it were spelled out that massive decommissioning was taking place, they would be even more disenchanted. The act of decommissioning might not be as significant as some of us would wish, but it is a reasonable avenue to pursue. The perceptions of people within the Provisional IRA and Sinn Fein are important in how we advance the process.
Mr. Barnes: I was not arguing that. I was saying that the hon. Members for Spelthorne and for Belfast, East and some other hon. Members want to go beyond what is contained in the new clause. That reflects their initial disagreement and current disenchantment with the Belfast agreement and the developments since it was reached, although it is not the position of those on the Conservative Front Bench. That is why I described the new clause as a halfway house. It tries to get better information and greater clarity into the process and to put a bit of pressure on the commission, but it does not deliver what some Opposition Members hoped it would.
I am not saying that what the new clause attempts to achieve is inconsistent. However, it is legitimate for those of us who support the Belfast agreement now to debate the reasonable way forward in the circumstances. How decommissioning is interpreted by certain republican forces and people within Northern Ireland is an important consideration.
The hon. Member for Belfast, East made an interesting point about the distinction between the words "significant" and "credible". He engaged in a good piece of language analysis. He showed that "significant" could be used to describe a significant move to which the commission might respond. However, there is another use of "significant". Was the decommissioning itself significant and credible? De Chastelain tells us in the report that the amount of decommissioning was significant; he does not say that it was merely a significant act.
Mr. Peter Robinson: That is precisely what the general does not say in the report. He says that the event was significant, not the amount of weaponry, and he confirmed that both to the Ulster Unionist party and to the Democratic Unionist party delegations that went to see him.
Jane Kennedy: This is the first chance that I have had to listen to the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) in a debate. He advanced an eloquent argument in support of the new clause. He almost persuaded me until I re-read it and was struck by the thought that we were not reading the same thing. He described the new clause as important and as something that offered a check and balance on the process. The hon. Member for Cheadle (Mrs. Calton) described it as a wrecking measure. The hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter) said that that was not so and that it was a strengthening measure. A number of other Conservative Members made that same case.
I understand the thirst for information felt by the hon. Member for Belfast, East. Several contributors to the debate have described their dissatisfaction with the lack of information about the act of decommissioning described by General de Chastelain. I accept that that position is not merely born out of the hon. Gentleman's party's opposition to the Belfast agreement. It has been genuinely expressed by hon. Members from other parties too.
I say again to the hon. Member for Belfast, East, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) and others who have spoken in the debate what I said earlier in interventions: by describing the act of decommissioning as credible, I meant that if it satisfies those whom we have charged with ensuring that arms are dealt with in accordance with the scheme, we accept that it is credible. Hon. Members have the right to disagree with that assessment, but that is our firmly held view.
It must be remembered that General de Chastelain has said publicly that if he thought that progress was not possible, he would say so. We must therefore have confidence in his assessment when he says that an act is significant, or when he says that he believes that further progress is possible.
The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford speaks of the rationale for the report, but there is currently nothing to prevent the general from issuing a report making an assessment of the decommissioning process over the past five years. However, we should leave to him and his colleagues the decision about whether to do so. I do not see how requiring him to do so before the Bill can be commenced serves any useful purpose in ensuring further decommissioning.
As drafted, the new clause would confer on the commission a power to lay before Parliament a report, while imposing on it no obligation to do so, thereby leaving the commencement of the Bill entirely at the commission's discretion. The new clause is clearly intended to secure for parliamentary scrutiny information not currently in the public domain. However, the commission would be at liberty to submit a report saying nothing new. Even if it were accepted, the clause would not achieve the desired effect. The hon. Members for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) and for Basingstoke and others accepted that in the debate.
Mr. Quentin Davies: The hon. Lady's arguments do not carry conviction. Clearly, if the commission decided that there was no purpose in continuing with the process, and no merit in enabling the Bill to come into effect, on the hon. Lady's own criteria there would be no point in continuing with decommissioning. I do not see that her argument works at all.
The House entrusted to General de Chastelain and his colleagues the business of ensuring that arms are put permanently beyond use in accordance with the decommissioning schemes. Having given them that task, we must respect their considered view on how best to achieve it. It is absolutely right that we should want to have periodic reports from the decommissioning commission. We all want to see an end to the use of illegally held weapons and explosives on the streets of Northern Ireland, and we look to the commission to provide us with news of progress.
The new clause would unfairly restrict the commission; it is constitutionally questionable; and it would harm the prospects for further decommissioning by imposing an unhelpful deadline. Since July 1999, the decommissioning commission has issued 12 reports. That averages out at about one every two to three months. The last report was published in October. I have every confidence that we can look forward to another report some time in the near future, but at the right time. That must be for the commission to decide on the basis of its work.
Making the commencement of the Act dependent on the publication of a report takes the power to legislate out of the hands of elected Members in this place and gives it to an unelected body. I find that highly questionable, and I am surprised that the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford got the new clause past the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth). I do not doubt the commission's integrity and I do not suggest that it would not act wisely, but I find the principle suspect.
In addition, making the commencement date conditional in that way would impose further artificial deadlines on the process. It would impose a deadline on the commission to produce a report by a set time, whereas the House agreed that the commission should be allowed to decide such matters for itself. It would impose a deadline on decommissioning, because, as hon Members know, if the Act does not come into force on the day specified there is no indemnity in place for those who do want to engage in the decommissioning process.
As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said on Second Reading, we do not believe that the pressure of the 26 February deadline was a factor that influenced the IRA's decision to decommission. That decision was more likely to have been influenced, as we have said, by the persistent application of pressure by Governments in the UK, in Ireland and in the United States, and also by the events of 11 September and the resignation of the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble).
As I said, we have made it clear on numerous occasions that we do not believe that the imposition of deadlines is helpful. Indeed, our view is quite the contrary. They damage the process, instil distrust and undermine confidence. I explained during the earlier stages of the Bill why deadlines do not put pressure on others to act, but in fact remove it. They give to those who want one an excuse to walk away and an opportunity to blame others for a