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Lord Phillips of Sudbury: My Lords, I am disappointed that the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor will not incorporate this amendment because, as I endeavoured to explain, the present wording of Clause 29, in so far as it introduces new Section 18A(2)(a) into the 1990 Act, does not extend to a compulsory duty on the part of the panel to give the advice.
The noble Earl, Lord Dartmouth, made an extremely good speech on a point that I had not made. I was not arguing whether conditional fee arrangements are good or bad. We have them and that is a fact. The only issue is whether we have regard to the potential for their undermining the probity of the litigious process. If he wants to harp on America, I think that would be one's most vivid concern as to what contingency fees or conditional fees can do to the whole process. Over a million contingency fee cases were started in America last year. The level of reward for the lawyers is such that the American Bar Association and the American Trial Lawyers' Association go into rabid overdrive when, as occasionally occurs, an American citizen seeks to bring a referendum to strike down contingency fees, as happened in California two years ago. It is precisely because these conditional fees will prove to be extremely popular with my profession, for whom I repeat I have the highest regard, that I know that there is an acute public interest in the maintenance of the honesty of the litigious process. It is extremely easy for a few rotten apples to become a greater number of rotten apples.
I say again to the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor that I am disappointed. I am mildly comforted by the fact that he will instruct the panel to look at these matters. I would like to think that his prognostication was right. However, I suspect we shall find that conditional fees will grow and grow as a proportion of our total legal workload. Indeed, I hazard a guess now that contingency fees, full and unabated, will be before this House before five years are out. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, I beg to move that further consideration on Report be now adjourned. In moving this Motion, I suggest that the Report stage begins again not before 8.42 p.m.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, first, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, on his appointment to the Liberal Democrat Front Bench. I had excellent co-operation with the noble Lord, Lord Holme, and I trust that there will be a similar level of co-operation with the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, even though I expect that his comments on government policy will at times be robust and forthright.
The amnesty period is the time during which firearms, ammunition and explosives can be decommissioned in accordance with the scheme, thereby attracting both the amnesty and prohibitions on evidential use and forensic testing of decommissioned items provided by the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997.
Section 2 of the 1997 Act requires that a scheme must set out the amnesty period and that it must end before 27th February 1998 (the first anniversary of the Act's passing) unless the Secretary of State, by order, appoints a later day. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State made such an order last year and, under that order, the amnesty period will expire at midnight on 26th February this year.
The day appointed in any order must not be more than a year after the making of the order or more than five years after the passing of the 1997 Act. The day appointed by the present order is 24th February 2000.
Since last year's order was made, a great deal has happened in Northern Ireland. More political progress has been achieved than many people would have thought possible a year ago. This culminated in the Belfast agreement which was reached by the Northern Ireland parties on 10th April last year. All the parties to that agreement reaffirmed their commitment to the total disarmament of all paramilitary organisations. They also confirmed their intention to work constructively and in good faith with the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning, and to use any influence they may have to achieve the decommissioning of all paramilitary arms within two years of the agreement being endorsed, that is by May 2000.
In the agreement, the two governments undertook to take all necessary steps to facilitate the decommissioning process, including bringing the relevant schemes into force by the end of June last year, which we duly did. If we are to fulfil our commitment under the agreement it is essential that we extend, by this order, the period during which the scheme may declare an amnesty.
In December 1998, the Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF) became the first paramilitary group to make use of the scheme, decommissioning what the independent commission described as a "small but significant" quantity of weapons. The Government welcomed this positive gesture: it represented another step towards a peaceful long-term future for Northern Ireland. The bulk of the weapons, however, remain in the hands of the paramilitaries. This is clearly unacceptable.
The Government have made clear to Sinn Fein and to the Loyalist parties that decommissioning is an obligation under the agreement and that it must happen. It is time for violence and the threat of violence to be taken out of politics for ever and for all sides to demonstrate that they are totally committed to peaceful and democratic means. That is what the people of Northern Ireland voted for; that is what the people long for.
We are now entering a crucial phase in the political process leading up to the transfer of powers to locally elected politicians in the Northern Ireland Assembly. Decommissioning, more than any other single step, would help to build the confidence necessary for these new institutions to operate. The way to achieve that objective, of course, is for the agreement to be implemented in full and for all the parties to live up to their obligations.
That is what the Government have been doing since last May. In that time, we have accomplished much: the assembly has been established; the reviews of policing and criminal justice have begun; the Northern Ireland Act has been passed; the Human Rights Commission and the Equality Commission are being set up; the accelerated release of paramilitary prisoners is being taken forward and there has been a steady but prudent normalisation of security measures.
Taken together, this represents a tremendous amount of progress, demonstrating beyond doubt the two governments' commitment to implement all aspects of the agreement. It is now essential that all parties move quickly to fulfil their commitments. That will mean a start to decommissioning; it will mean the executive committee being set up; it will mean early meetings of the North-South Ministerial Council and the British-Irish Council. None of this is going to be easy. Difficult decisions will have to be made, but I have no doubt that the will of the people is for these difficulties to be tackled and tackled now.
As I said, the Government remain totally committed to the full implementation of the Belfast agreement. As part of that commitment, it is essential that we continue to provide the means by which terrorist weapons can be taken out of circulation. This amnesty period order is central to those arrangements. I commend it to the House. I beg to move.
Lord Mayhew of Twysden: My Lords, everyone who wishes to see the destruction of illegally held arms under the scheme provided by the Act to which the Minister has referred must surely wish to agree to this order, because unless the order is approved the scheme will lapse and there can be no means by which decommissioning--that is to say, the destruction and the taking out of use of these weapons--can take place. To that extent there is, of course, no contest.
However, for my part, I do not think that this occasion should be a pure formality. I suggest to your Lordships that there are two matters at any rate that ought to be referred to. The first, of course, has already been mentioned by the Minister, and that is that with one exception--welcome, but small, in the case of the LVF--no decommissioning has taken place at all. As we all know, this is undermining confidence. It is immensely serious. It cannot be claimed that the terms of the scheme are other than very generous and very comprehensive. The safeguards which the scheme provides go further than could reasonably be expected by anybody who had signed up to the agreement in good faith.
The retention of these arms is in conflict with the dominating theme of the Good Friday agreement, which appears on the very first page on the declaration of support. The theme is that all participants commit themselves, totally and absolutely, to peaceful means of resolving issues of political import. That is the dominating theme. It ran through all the discussions and is really the core of the agreement. You cannot claim that you are subscribing to that and fulfilling that commitment if you are, at the same time, retaining arsenals of weapons to fortify yourself.
I appreciate that the agreement is silent upon any specific date by which decommissioning has to begin. But, 10 months later, what prospect do the Government see of securing further decommissioning--in other words, what answer do the Government foresee to their repeated question of not whether, but when? Is it not a fundamental principle of the agreement that decommissioning shall take place? What is the remedy if it does not take place? Alternatively, put another way, what is the sanction if it does not take place? I have good reason to realise how difficult these judgments are and tonight does not give scope to the noble Lord to provide comprehensive answers. But the need for answers is burgeoning and cannot much longer be postponed if confidence is to be saved.
One other matter should be mentioned. It is surely right to salute this evening the dedicated, impartial and resolute efforts of General John de Chastelain, the chairman of the international independent commission set up under this scheme for the purpose of decommissioning. He has spared no effort over all this time in meeting the sensitivities of all those who hold these weapons and in getting decommissioning started. It is no fault of his that his efforts have been almost entirely spurned. I suggest that he deserves the greatest
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