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Commons Chamber

Volume 458: debated on Tuesday 27 March 2007

House of Commons

Tuesday 27 March 2007

The House met at half-past Two o’clock

Prayers

[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Private Business

Broads Authority Bill (By Order)

Order for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Wednesday 25 April at Four o’clock.

Oral Answers to Questions

Scotland

The Secretary of State was asked—

International Development Fund

1. What discussions he has had with the First Minister on the Scottish Executive’s international development fund. (128975)

I have regular discussions with the First Minister on a range of subjects. In 2005 the First Minister, in agreement with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development, launched a fund that will provide £12 million over four years to help improve health and education, particularly in Malawi.

I thank the Minister for that reply. In the same year of 2005, the Government signed the Paris declaration, whose stated aim was to eliminate “duplication of efforts” and to rationalise

“donor activity to make it as cost-effective as possible.”

Does the Minister agree that on both counts, the international development fund makes a mockery of the UK’s commitment to the Paris declaration?

No, I do not. If the hon. Gentleman had listened to my answer, he would have heard me say that the First Minister was in agreement with the Secretary of State for International Development. Staff of the Department for International Development sit on the expert group that advises how the fund is used, and that group is working in harmony. We will take lectures on international development from many quarters, but not from the party that cut international development spending year on year.

May I draw to my hon. Friend’s attention the fact that NHS Scotland is providing much expertise and training assistance to Malawi? When the International Development Committee visited last year, it was made clear that there was a real need to address the brain drain from that country, and its total lack of capacity. NHS Scotland and its partners in the rest of the UK are playing an important part in helping in that regard.

My hon. Friend speaks with great authority on the matter, as she is a member of the International Development Committee and has a connection with the all-party group on the great lakes region and genocide prevention. She is right to say that DFID and all the other agencies that we work with are operating in partnership in Malawi. DFID is recognised as being the gold standard when it comes to such work: that is why it is important, even though the fund being administered is small compared with the vast sums of money at DFID’s disposal, to make sure that it does not suffer from duplication of effort. I am confident that it does not.

May I too urge the Minister to ignore anti-Scottish and anti-Malawian Tories, and to acknowledge Scotland’s distinctive relationships and associations with sub-Saharan Africa? Has he seen the opinion poll carried out by the Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund, which shows that 76 per cent. of the Scottish people believe that decisions about Scotland’s share of development funding should be made in Scotland?

The people of Scotland, through the country’s membership of the UK, are making the most fantastic contribution to international development around the world. The policy of the hon. Gentleman’s party is to break up the UK and take Scotland out of it, but that would do nothing to further the cause of international development. It is this Government—led, in this instance, by the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s international leadership—who have led the way in cutting debt and helping the most heavily indebted poor countries. At Gleneagles, we brought together leaders from all over the world to set up an international finance facility. Scots should be proud of the role that Scots in the UK play to help the poorest in the world.

Digital Switchover

The Minister will be aware that people in vast areas of rural Scotland will not be able to receive through their aerials the full range of digital services that are available to the rest of the country. What action will he take to ensure that rural Scotland does not receive a second-tier service for digital terrestrial television?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important matter that I have acknowledged previously from the Dispatch Box. Essentially, this is a matter of engineering. The full suite of programmes can be broadcast from the main transmission masts, but that cannot happen from the relay transmitters because the signal is weaker. That is where the two-tier element comes in. On Thursday, I am due to meet Vicki Nash of Ofcom Scotland at the organisation’s office in Glasgow. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I will raise the matter with her, and that I will get back to him.

I assure the Minister that that issue was raised at the borders digital forum last week—but may I draw his attention to another issue? Digital TV providers are rightly promoting early adoption of the technology required for digital switchover, which means that older people and people in vulnerable groups are already converting their sets ahead of the availability of the financial assistance scheme later in the year. Will he explain why his colleagues in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport do not support the provision of retrospective support for those who convert now and would otherwise have been entitled to that financial assistance?

The whole point about assistance is to help those who are experiencing difficulties converting. Obviously, if people have converted they might not have been eligible for that assistance—and the hon. Gentleman knows that there is always a problem with retrospective payments in such cases. However, I hope that he will be reassured to learn that I will add that particular point to the ever-growing agenda for my meeting with Vicki Nash on Thursday.

Taxation

I hold regular discussions with Cabinet colleagues and members of the business community on a range of matters, including fiscal matters. As part of the United Kingdom, Scotland continues to benefit from this Government’s management of the economy, which has delivered stability, low inflation, low interest rates and high employment.

Does my right hon. Friend agree with Sir Peter Burt of the Burt commission that replacing council tax with a local income tax would be impractical, and that setting up a nationally set tax would cost the Executive £19 million and employers £60 million, and that it would have annual running costs as high as £55 million? If so, will he ensure that such a rise does not happen for Scotland or the Scottish people?

Sir Peter Burt makes a powerful case. It would be very difficult for people to explain, whether at Westminster or from Holyrood, why it would be in Scotland’s interest to become the highest taxed part of the United Kingdom. A recent success of devolved government is the reversal of the brain drain and an historic turnaround in the demographic challenge that we faced in Scotland. It is for others who want to make Scotland the highest taxed part of the United Kingdom to try to make sense of that policy, in the context of the real successes that are being enjoyed at the moment.

Given that the great Budget “tax cut” con trick has been well and truly exposed, the Red Book shows that oil revenues are rising, not falling as claimed by the Chancellor, and the Labour party has committed itself not just to keeping but to revaluing the hated council tax, causing misery to hundreds of thousands of Scottish families, is it any wonder that Cabinet Ministers cannot even remember the name of the First Minister, and that the First Minister has taken to calling the Secretary of State rude names in French? Who is responsible—[Interruption.]

Order. The hon. Gentleman must take his seat. I do not see what the First Minister has to do with his question. It should be a bit more specific, and he must keep it tight. Just a few more words—nothing more.

Who is responsible for the taxation position, and the shambles and negativity in the Labour Cabinet—[Interruption.]

The second intervention was no more worthy of the hon. Gentleman than the first, Mr. Speaker. As for tax con tricks, I am concerned about the suggestion by the Scottish National party that a 3p rise in income tax would be adequate to cover the large financial hole in its income tax proposals. The fact is that it is not the Government’s policy to saddle every Scottish family with an additional tax bill of £5,000. It is not our policy to make the Scottish part of the United Kingdom the highest taxed part of the UK; that is the policy of the SNP.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the consequences of 6p on income tax would be particularly severe in areas where incomes are higher than the Scottish average. Will he consider making an assessment of the impact of local income tax on different parts of Scotland so that we can see the full damage for ourselves?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. It is the SNP whose sums do not add up, not the Government’s figures. I would simply say that the dividing line is now clearer than ever: it is a 2p cut in the basic rate with the Government, or a 3p—or, indeed, 6p—rise with the Scottish National party.

One in five Scots will be hit by tax rises under the Chancellor’s latest Budget—that is 1 million Scots who are already on low incomes. He has proposed increased tax credits to compensate, but take-up among some groups is as low as 20 per cent. How can the Government pretend to create a fairer tax system when the reality is that the Chancellor is acting like Robin Hood in reverse?

With respect, in the middle of a debate about figures adding up, I am not sure that the Liberal Democrats are the most authoritative source. If the hon. Lady seriously wishes to address the issue of child poverty, she will welcome the child benefit rise to £20 a week. Child benefit was £575 a year in 1997, but by 2010 it will be more than £1,000. Before asking her next question, perhaps she should look at the Institute of Fiscal Studies report on the Budget, which stated that when those changes in the tax system and the tax credits system are taken into account, the poorest 20 per cent. will benefit most from the Budget.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that quite apart from the substantial damage that would be done to the people of Scotland by any proposal to increase income tax by 3p, or to introduce a local income tax, such measures are totally unworkable except at tremendous cost? Does he further agree that they would also require the agreement of the Westminster Departments that would have to collect any such taxes?

Of course, some people advocate a position called fiscal autonomy. For example, Crawford Beveridge argues that there should be a shift in the tax powers. Indeed that individual has been quoted a number of times by several Members, so it would be helpful for people to understand the consequences of such a change. On 29 October, Crawford Beveridge stated:

“I advocate the policy that Scotland should raise the money it spends. I know that could potentially plunge the place into recession, because it is unlikely that the total tax take would be as much as Scotland currently receives under the Barnett formula.”

With friends like that, no wonder those people cannot make their figures add up.

Although I might agree with the Secretary of State about the disastrous impact that the SNP’s 3p tax rise might have, did he really think that anyone in Scotland would not see through a Budget that gave with one hand and took with the other? What does he have to say to people about that?

First, may I say what a pleasure it is to welcome the hon. Gentleman to the House—not least because when he has important contributions to make to public debate in Scotland, he is so often busy with constituency events? None the less, the statement he has just offered us evidences the point that he made in his previous work as an MSP, when he stated that there was a “simple lack of thinkers” on the Scottish Conservative Benches.

On the hon. Gentleman’s substantive point about the changes in both income tax and corporation tax, I would have hoped that he would welcome the cut in corporation tax and the cut in the basic rate of income tax. If, as part of the new modern Conservative party, he is seriously concerned with the distributional effects, I again refer him to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which said that the poorest 20 per cent. would benefit most from the Budget.

At least I know the names of my colleagues in Scotland. The Secretary of State is as complacent about poverty in Scotland as he appears to be about the Scottish election campaign, which he is allegedly running. Is he aware that figures released today by the Department for Work and Pensions show that child poverty is increasing, inequality is rising, and the incomes of the poorest fifth are in decline? Is it any wonder that the people of Scotland are so determined to get rid of Labour in May?

The reason why the hon. Gentleman knows the names of his colleagues is that they are all calling for his resignation. Frankly, with a question like that, is it any wonder that he is the only person in history—as far as I am aware—to be rejected as a parliamentary candidate by the Liberal Democrats? The fact is that over the past 10 years child poverty has fallen more rapidly in the United Kingdom than anywhere else in Europe, and child poverty is falling more rapidly in Scotland than in any other part of the UK. Of course there is work to be done, but the party that can be trusted to take it forward is Labour, not the Opposition.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that when we are trying to attract new talent to Scotland because of skills shortages, to have the highest taxation in the UK would not be appropriate?

Ferry Services

4. What recent discussions he has had with the European Commission on the effects of the European maritime cabotage regulations on Scottish ferry services. (128978)

Ferry services within Scotland are a matter for the Scottish Executive. The UK Government supported the Executive in making representations to the European Commission on matters relating to ferry services in Scotland, securing a number of important concessions.

The European rules on subsidised ferry services in Scotland are clearly a piece of useless bureaucratic nonsense. They have already forced the Scottish Executive to waste more than £15 million on a pointless tender exercise, and are putting at risk the future of vehicle-carrying services between Dunoon and Gourock. Will the Secretary of State, who represents the UK on the European Transport Council, go to Brussels, tell the Transport Ministers what nonsense the rules are, and get them altered before the Scottish taxpayer is forced to waste even more money, and vehicle-carrying services between Dunoon and Gourock are brought to an end?

May I begin by declaring that the headquarters of CalMac are in my constituency? That allows me to say that I am aware of the concerns over this protracted tendering exercise, which is, as I have said, a matter for the Scottish Executive. Both the Executive and the UK Government agreed that we had to go through the tendering process, although it has led to some slightly ill-informed speculation, and comparisons with the Paris Metro. There is a different regulatory regime for the Metro system and the maritime system—and as far as I am aware, there are no boats on the Paris Metro. People who want to make that comparison should think twice before doing so.

My hon. Friend is aware that I have the island communities of Arran and Cumbrae within my constituency. Has he given consideration to what more can be done to make the lifeline ferry services in Scotland affordable for Scotland’s island communities?

Yes. I know those communities very well indeed, and I was pleased to be in Stornoway two weeks ago with the First Minister when he announced that, if he is re-elected as First Minister, there will be a ferry discount commitment. [Hon. Members: “What’s his name?”] I understand why Opposition Members do not want to hear about the ferry discount scheme that will benefit the lifeline communities in the islands in the west of Scotland, but they will have to. If re-elected, we are going to introduce a scheme that will give a 40 per cent. discount to inhabitants of the islands—not just the Clyde islands such as Arran and Cumbrae, but the western islands. The move to introduce that important ferry subsidy is due to the intense lobbying and great activity of Alasdair Morrison, the Member of the Scottish Parliament for the Western Isles, who, more than anyone else, has helped to bring this scheme about. Great tribute is due to him.

Can the Minister properly explain why £15 million was wasted in the CalMac tendering? Was it because Scottish Executive Liberal Ministers did not get on with the Department for Transport? Yesterday we saw the reality of Labour’s own co-operation between Westminster and Holyrood, when the Health Secretary did not know the First Minister’s name. Some £15 million has been wasted—enough for three years of free travel to my constituency, and especially Stornoway. My constituents have been kept on tenterhooks. CalMac crews have not known is going on. Would it not have been much better for Scotland to have dealt directly with Europe on this matter, rather than involving imperialist Whitehall Departments—not least, to save money?

It is absolutely astonishing that when we are discussing a 40 per cent. ferry discount proposal that will benefit the hon. Gentleman’s constituents, he does not even have the grace to welcome that announcement or say that he is going to support it. That is because he did nothing whatever to bring the announcement about. That stands in sharp contrast to Alasdair Morrison, the Labour MSP, who worked tirelessly on behalf of his constituents and who has secured this great victory for them.

Unemployment

It is almost as if my hon. Friend had prepared his supplementary question in advance, Mr. Speaker.

The stability generated by this Government's management of the economy has delivered the strongest labour market in decades. Scotland has a higher employment rate than the rest of the United Kingdom and nearly all other countries in Europe. There is, of course, no room for complacency. Last week’s Budget shows that work continues towards the long-term goal of employment opportunity for all.

I apologise, Mr. Speaker. These events are just so exciting that I got carried away.

Does the Minister agree that under the benevolent guidance of the comrade Chancellor, unemployment in my constituency has fallen by over 50 per cent. in the last 10 years, youth unemployment is down by over 80 per cent. and long-term unemployment is down by over 90 per cent.? Is he aware that the major employers in my area are the National Savings bank at Cowglen and the Govan shipyards, both of which depend on customers in England and the rest of the United Kingdom for the vast bulk of their business? Is he aware that if bad people wrench the United Kingdom apart, there will be enormous unemployment in my area?

I certainly am aware of the final point that my hon. Friend makes. I have campaigned on the issue of National Savings in Cowglen and on BAE Systems and the Govan yard and the Scotstoun yard, along with him. Independent research published by the Fraser of Allander Institute on 19 March concluded that the Clyde yards contribute more than £238 million to the Scottish economy and support almost 4,500 jobs across Scotland. The fact is that those yards—and the tradition of shipbuilding on the Clyde—have been sustained because of naval orders placed by the British Government. I leave it to the electors of my hon. Friend’s constituency and across the west of Scotland to reach a judgment on whether, if there were not a United Kingdom, they would see those United Kingdom orders coming to the Clyde.

Is the Secretary of State aware of the impact on unemployment of Ministers’ decisions, especially regarding the loss of jobs in the Department for Work and Pensions and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs because of relocation away from such current offices as Wick? Will he ensure that when Ministers take such decisions, they understand their impact on remote regions?

Of course, I am happy to examine the specific point that is of direct constituency interest to the hon. Gentleman. However, I can assure him that the DWP and other Departments are in the process of increasing the computerisation of systems that are inevitably and appropriately being upgraded in the light of continuing customer demand.

Would my right hon. Friend care to comment on, or respond to, the fact that HMRC employs 1,000-plus people in my constituency, which has a good employment record? What would happen in the event of Scotland being ripped away from the rest of the UK?

My hon. Friend is entirely right to recognise the risks that would be caused to jobs coming through the DWP, Customs and Excise and other Government agencies that employ people in the United Kingdom. Both the public and private sectors have made a contribution to the uplift in employment that we have seen in recent years. While, of course, we have seen more doctors, nurses and teachers, the private sector too is growing. That is why I welcome the recent statement by Andrew McLaughlin, the Royal Bank of Scotland Group’s chief economist, in which he said:

“Growth in private sector job creation hit a new high in February.”

The Secretary of State will be aware of the support employment projects run at Falkirk football club and at Dens and Tannadice in Dundee, which take small groups of people and build them up with confidence, motivation skills and the soft skills that employers need. He might also be aware of the community project in Leith called Working Rite, which takes young unemployed people and gives them, pre-apprenticeship, one-to-one mentoring with journeymen and experienced tradesmen. All those projects have a massive success rate, so does the Secretary of State agree that for that group of people, who have traditionally found it hard to get into employment, such a one-to-one, soft-skill, motivation, mentoring and coaching process might be more applicable than the traditional one-size-fits-all approach on finding employment that Governments have historically taken?

Of course, the challenge that we face on worklessness has evolved. When we were first elected in 1997, there were many people who had found themselves unemployed as a consequence of two recessions in as many decades. Now we are addressing people with specific needs, such as those who are not job-ready because of numeracy or literacy problems, or drug dependency. That is why it is important that a range of providers is working to offer the necessary assistance. In my constituency an organisation called Working Links is undertaking such work, and I welcome the progress that it has made.

Perhaps there is one matter on which the Secretary of State and I can agree: Scotland’s place in the Union has contributed greatly to employment levels in Scotland over the years. The commitment to the Union is absolute among Conservative Members, but does the Secretary of State really believe that bullying and scaremongering is the way to keep Scotland in the United Kingdom? Does he not agree that it is incumbent on all Unionists to make a positive case for the Union?

I hope that there is common ground between us that the way not to make a case for the Union is to have a large group of students turning up with megaphones without batteries in them.

Inward Investment

6. What recent estimate he has made of the level of inward investment in the Scottish economy; and if he will make a statement. (128980)

There are no official estimates of the level of inward investment in Scotland, but the most recent data produced by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development showed that the UK was the world’s largest recipient of inward foreign direct investment in 2005, while Ernst and Young’s inward investment monitor showed that Scotland attracted more of that inward investment than any other part of the UK, apart from the south-east of England.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the level of inward investment to which he referred is due to the United Kingdom’s strong and stable economy? Does he further agree that on 3 May, if Scottish nationalists are given the chance to start divorce proceedings from the United Kingdoms, it will damage our—

I certainly agree that inward investment has a key role to play, and the competitiveness of the British economy and the Scottish economy is essential in attracting that inward investment. That is why I welcome the World Economic Forum’s global competitiveness report of 2006, which ranked the UK 10th in its table of international business competitiveness. It is 11 places above Ireland, and it is above Norway, Iceland, Canada and France.

Communities and Local Government

The Secretary of State was asked—

Affordable Housing (North Yorkshire)

There have been significant increases in the number of home owners in North Yorkshire over the past 10 years. However, house prices have gone up, putting pressure on first-time buyers, and the number of homes being built in Yorkshire still falls short of the number of new households. That is why we are increasing investment in affordable housing in Yorkshire—but we need to build more homes of all kinds.

Does the Minister share my concern that not only is the average cost of housing in North Yorkshire, and Yorkshire and the Humber as a whole, higher than the average price in the rest of England, but average earnings are lower, so there is a double effect? In addition, the impact of council tax increases has been stark, and in 2005 some 10,500 affordable homes were lost through the right-to-buy scheme. What exactly are her Government doing to promote affordable housing in North Yorkshire?

The hon. Lady will be aware that we put in place a series of safeguards on the right to buy—a policy that, as she knows, her party introduced. We are doubling investment in affordable housing in Yorkshire, but she, and councils across Yorkshire, need to realise that we need to build more homes. Local councils can themselves do more, for example through section 106 agreements, which still deliver only a small proportion of the affordable homes across North Yorkshire.

House prices in York have increased faster than house prices across the country as a whole. They used to be lower than the average price nationally but now they are considerably higher, and young working couples are being priced out of their own city. York has built 600 homes under section 106 agreements, and could build more if it got more social housing subsidy from the Government. Will more Government subsidy be coming to York?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. We need more affordable housing across Yorkshire. That is why we have already doubled investment in affordable housing in Yorkshire, as I said. We want to support the provision of more affordable homes through the spending review, but we think that local authorities need to do their bit. Certainly, across the northern regions fewer resources come from section 106 than in other areas, and we believe that by working alongside other programmes, we can do more to get those additional affordable homes.

The Government are, crucially, responsible for key elements of housing supply in North Yorkshire and the wider Yorkshire and the Humber region. One respect in which Ministers are directly responsible for the area is through the millennium community scheme. Ten years ago, in 1997, the Government announced that they were creating seven new millennium villages. One of them, Allerton Bywater, is in Yorkshire. The scheme has so far cost a massive £131,565,732, but in Allerton only 44 houses have been built. Can Ministers explain why the scheme has been such an expensive failure? Where has all the money gone?

I invite the hon. Gentleman to come to Allerton Bywater and see the huge progress that has been made in turning round a derelict pit site that needed considerable investment and remediation. That coalfield community had been abandoned by the Conservative Party for many years, but it is now receiving new investment in new facilities. There are major new programmes, in which homes are being built and new facilities provided for the local community, including community centres and new parks and spaces. He should come and see the impact of new investment, not only in Greenwich millennium village, but in Allerton Bywater millennium village and a series of villages across the country. He knows from reading the answers to his own parliamentary questions that he is utterly misrepresenting the figures. He should recognise the important benefits that are being created for communities, which he would be dishonest to ignore.

Inter-faith Forums

17. What steps her Department is taking to promote inter-faith forums as a means of tackling religious extremism. (129831)

Inter-faith initiatives play a key role in tackling and isolating violent extremist activity. My Department supports the Inter Faith Network, which represents the collective voice of all main faith communities and helps regional and local bodies to contribute to community cohesion. The work of community groups is at the heart of our response to the challenge that we face from violent extremism.

I am aware of the good work done in Portsmouth with Portsmouth Interfaith Forum in building networks in hard to reach communities across the faiths, largely due to a full-time inter-faith co-ordinator. However, because of the vagaries of the faith communities capacity-building funding, what is funded in year 1 cannot be funded in year 2, so the work looks as though it may go to waste. Will my right hon. Friend agree to look into the matter for me?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work that she is doing in championing the needs of her constituents. Clearly, I am not familiar with the particular programme that she mentions, although I am happy to look into that. She is right to draw attention to the work that inter-faith activity can do. The Department has invested £5 million this year, and the same last year, in that work. We are also working extremely closely with the Office of the Third Sector. In its review of voluntary sector activity, including faith communities, we are thinking about how we can ensure the sustainability of funding going forward, which I know is of huge interest to those involved in the field.

Has the Secretary of State filled the post of director general, equality, in her Department, a post that is supposed to be in charge of leading the tackling extremism together strategy? If she has, why did it take over a year and a half, and thousands of pounds worth of advertising, to fill that space?

Yes, we have. The reason we went through a search process was because the community cohesion element of the work that was with the Home Office came to the new Department for Communities and Local Government. It is right that it has done so, because now we are able to think about equalities in the round, taking account of the views of faith groups as we take account of the views of other equalities groups. That give us a huge opportunity, going forward, to think through how we make this country and this society a fairer and better place for people to live. We have a candidate of fantastic calibre in that job to take that work forward.

I welcome all the good work that the Secretary of State and the Minister for Women and Equality are doing on the equality agenda. On inter-faith activity, does my right hon. Friend agree that getting young people together in those forums is particularly important? Bridging the divide at an early age is crucial to tackling it later. What does she see as the role of the new commission in trying to achieve her stated ambition to make sure that the work is continued?

My right hon. Friend is right to say that involving young people in inter-faith work and in joint and shared activity is vital to our future. Evidence shows that young people are particularly prone to the messages from violent extremists. If we are to ensure that they have the defences that they need and that communities are resilient to the threat posed by violent extremists, we need to engage as many young people as possible. The new Commission for Equality and Human Rights, to which my right hon. Friend referred, will have a particular role in making sure that people of all ages and across all faiths are able to have their voices heard. In the Muslim community especially, and also at local authority level, we face a challenge as a Government to make sure that the voices of young people and women are heard in the debate—voices that have for too long been neglected.

Local Democracy

On 8 February, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced the launch of an independent Commission on Local Councillors to consider the incentives and barriers to people serving as councillors and to make recommendations. The commission will consider a range of issues, including encouraging people who are able, qualified and representative to be candidates to serve as councillors. The commission is expected to report in the autumn.

I welcome the Government’s move to establish the commission. I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware of the national census of local authority councillors published recently by the Local Government Association and others, and is therefore also aware of the scale of the task faced by the commission. The census shows that at present councillors are far from fully representative of the communities they serve, that their average age is in the late 50s, and that all parties are struggling to attract and retain council candidates of calibre. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is a challenge for the Government, for local government and for all political parties if those of us who care about the future of local democracy are to see it flourish?

I agree with my hon. Friend, who served with distinction as leader of his city—one of the most diverse cities in our country—for, I believe, 18 years. He is right to draw this matter to our attention. I will not list the figures from the census, but Members will gather that the pattern across the country is that councillors are not as representative of communities as we would all like them to be—although I have to say that some parties start from a better base than others.

Does the Minister agree that one of the biggest disincentives preventing people from becoming involved in local government is the feeling that their role makes no difference? Would not one of the best ways of making people feel they can make a difference as councillors be to give them back more control over local decision making and local spending, perhaps by supporting the Sustainable Communities Bill?

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the ingenuity of his question, which is linked to Question 19. It is for exactly that reason that our proposals in our White Paper and in our Bill will rightly give councillors more powers—particularly in their role as ward councillors, which involves the implementation of measures such as the community call for action.

The Minister will know that the number of councillors aged 45 or less has halved in the past 20 years, from 26 per cent. in 1985 to a paltry 13.5 per cent. last year. Obviously, the introduction of education for citizenship as part of the national curriculum will help, but what other initiatives can we pursue to encourage more young people to become councillors?

I would not want to give my hon. Friend or, indeed, anyone else the impression that I was biased against people over 45—for obvious reasons—but his point is very important. Unless we can involve younger people in representing our communities, local government will not be as healthy as we would all like it to be. As well as the measures outlined in the announcement of the commission, the Government are taking a range of measures, particularly with the Department for Education and Skills, but also with other Departments, to pursue initiatives such as the Youth Parliament and other youth forums, all of which can help.

Should not the Minister acknowledge the role that his Government have played in discouraging councillors over the past 10 years? Is it not the case that too many councillors up and down the land have expressed their despair at the fact that, through their manic culture of targets, quotas and directives, the Government have completely distorted the relationship between national and local government?

In 2005-06, 5,091 circulars and directives were delivered to councils from the Government—50 per working week. The Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill, with which we have dealt recently, offered the Minister more chances to be permissive to councils in terms of their leadership structure, limitations on targets and the forced abolition of patient forums, all of which he turned down. Is it not the case that those standing as councillors and wanting to be free of such wretched Government control still do so more in hope than in expectation?

I do not accept the picture that the hon. Gentleman paints. The comprehensive performance assessment has led to improvement in the quality of public services provided by local councils, but the new arrangements—part-heralded by the Bill on whose Committee the hon. Gentleman served—strip away many of those targets in the new regime and allow for the local decision making that we and the Local Government Association want.

While high standards and probity are important in the lives of local authorities, does the Minister accept that some of the activities of the Standards Board work against councils? Are not the long delays, and the fact that the Standards Board does not tell councillors about an initial complaint, worth investigating?

It is because of such representations that changes have been made to the operation and logistics of the Standards Board and to the code of conduct upon which we consulted recently and which the Committee debated. I think that my hon. Friend will find the outcome to his satisfaction.

Sustainable Communities Bill

The Sustainable Communities Bill is, of course, a private Member’s Bill. I understand that representatives of the Bill’s supporters recently met the Local Government Association to discuss it, as I will shortly.

The Minister will be aware that more than 400 Members from both sides of the House, including not only the whole Conservative party but half the parliamentary Labour party, are supporting the Bill. Can he explain why the Secretary of State is the only Member to have refused to have local meetings in her constituency, having turned down a whole range of possible dates? Is not that very worrying? Can he give the House an absolute assurance that the Government will do nothing to block or impede the Bill when it returns to the House?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has met the supporters of the Bill, as have I. Indeed, last night we had a very interesting and successful rally about the themes of the Bill in Central Hall, Westminster, at which the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) spoke. I was able to point out to him and to others that the Government are supportive of the goals of the Bill, as I told the House when it was debated. However, whatever its virtues, those who claim that it will solve every problem in their constituencies are sadly mistaken.

One of the great attractions of such legislation is that it would give local authorities in the UK the same powers and entitlements that they have in other parts of Europe—in France, Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands and Italy—including the right to set energy generating and water recycling standards so as to exceed national targets rather than follow them. Will the Minister look again at the proposals that are being made for policy planning guidelines to give UK local authorities the same across-the-board entitlements as their counterparts in Europe?

My hon. Friend will know that we have our goal of zero carbon homes. We will indeed be considering the points that he raises. Many of the measures already contained in legislation before the House move towards substantial powers being held locally, particularly through the local area agreement process. I am pleased to tell the House that by the end of this week every local authority in England will have a local area agreement.

Given that the Prime Minister wrote to the Secretary of State on 9 May last year charging her with providing radical devolution to local communities, can the Minister explain why he has such a hang-up about the Sustainable Communities Bill, which would do precisely that? Can he now throw his weight, and get his Department to throw its weight, behind the Bill and set local authorities free to achieve what the Prime Minister wanted the Secretary of State to achieve?

The measures that the Government have brought before the House on sustainable communities strategies, local development frameworks, local area agreements and the new statutory framework move the relationship substantially from the centre to local areas. As regards the Sustainable Communities Bill, my colleagues and I will make it better and make it workable. I would have thought that that would be welcomed by Members, such as the hon. Gentleman, who are supporting it. It would not be right or responsible for a Government to agree to pass a Bill in the knowledge that their legal advisers and parliamentary counsel had pointed out deficiencies in it. That is why I am adopting the approach of tabling amendments, as the hon. Gentleman will know if he is following the debate.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on what he said last night. Does he agree that the best way to scrutinise the Bill properly is to get it into Committee? There have been many negotiations behind the scenes and I greatly appreciate what my hon. Friend has done to make that happen. However, we need the Bill to come into Committee so that we can properly discuss how to move forward with that important measure.

My hon. Friend is right. Of course, the measure is a private Member’s Bill and its promoter, the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd), who cannot be here today, is entering into constructive discussions with the Department and me about the way in which we can ensure that its goals and objectives are met in a manner that improves existing legislation and the measure. However, the Bill is the property of the House.

Last night, we all enjoyed the Minister’s company before a rally of more than 1,000 people. However, the campaigners were disappointed to hear his view that the Sustainable Communities Bill is superfluous because its spirit and letter are covered by other Government measures. Where, in legislation, is the requirement to publish in full all the taxpayers’ money spent in a locality and the discretion for local authorities to spend it as they see fit?

The hon. Lady does not accurately reflect my comments at the rally last night. I did not use the word “superfluous” and it is wrong to try to portray the Government’s attitude in that way. It is also wrong to tell constituents and the public in general that passing the Bill, virtuous though it is, will stop every pub, shop and post office closing and bring nirvana to our constituencies. It will not. It is, frankly, misleading to suggest that. I agreed with one thing—I emphasise “one”—that the right hon. Member for Witney said, which is that it is no good people saying one thing and doing another. I would have thought that the party of the free market wanted a level playing field, not the use of planning laws for centralised control—

High Hedges

20. What guidance her Department gives to councils that impose charges to deal with complaints under the high hedges provisions contained in part 8 of the Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003; and if she will make a statement. (129834)

Our advice on fees under the high hedges legislation is in the guidance document “High Hedges Complaints: Prevention and Cure.” It states that each local authority is responsible for deciding whether, and at what level, to charge for dealing with complaints about high hedges.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. She knows that I have tried to highlight the unfairness associated with the policy for some time. I cannot understand why there should be any difference between investigating a planning violation or a noisy neighbours problem and a high hedges complaint. Yet action on one is free but action on other costs more than £600 in some local authorities. Some of my elderly constituents cannot afford the £320 that it costs in the Bristol area. I have been assured by some of my hon. Friend’s predecessors that the matter is kept under constant review. Does she anticipate any results from that constant scrutiny?

As my hon. Friend will remember, the subject of high hedges was tackled initially in a private Member’s Bill and then taken up by the Government. Essentially, we enabled the existence of a system to deal with private matters, which concern only the individuals directly involved. That is different from antisocial behaviour such as noise nuisance. We have made it clear that local councils are in a position to determine what they should charge. If they so chose, they could charge less for people who are on low incomes or over a certain age.

Has the Minister undertaken an estimate of the total amount of money raised through complaint charges since the Act came into force?

No, we do not collect centrally the data on the operation of high hedges legislation, so that information is not available. To respond further to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-West (Dr. Naysmith) about a review, we consider it too early to reach a conclusion on these matters. We are not receiving a great deal of complaints about how the 2003 Act is operating, so we do not believe that there are many problems with it. We will review it in due course, but not yet.

New Homes

The analysis in the Barker review showed that we should aim to deliver about 200,000 new homes a year to prevent future problems with affordability. The level of house building has increased from around 130,000 to 180,000, but we need to go further.

My constituents want to know that they have a Government who are on their side, helping people who are working hard on limited incomes to get on in life. What more can the Government do to help people earning perhaps £10,000 or £12,000 a year who are keen to start a family, but want to wait until they have got on the housing ladder and can buy or rent a home of their own?

We will be helping 160,000 families into shared ownership programmes by 2010, but, frankly, we also have to get serious about building more homes. My hon. Friend will know that there is continued opposition, including from the Opposition Benches, to building more houses. Early-day motion 519 of the last Session stated that the Government’s housing proposals would

“lead to unacceptable overdevelopment in Surrey and other parts of the South East”.

It was signed by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) and, frankly, that shows an irresponsible attitude towards the first-time buyers of the future.

Will the Minister follow up her comment about irresponsible decisions by estimating how many of those new homes will be built on natural floodplains?

The hon. Gentleman will know that housing developments around natural floodplains have been in place over our history. Many developments in the city of York and elsewhere are in natural floodplains, but he will also know that we have tightened the planning guidance in that area. In particular, we set out new planning policy guidance before Christmas in order to prevent inappropriate development in flood areas and ensure that homes are sustainable for the future.

Do we not need to target more new housing specifically at young people, particularly those who are homeless, or about to be homeless? Will the Government develop a strategy to promote the building of foyer projects in each town throughout the country?

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the good work that foyer projects do. We have set a target to end the use of bed and breakfast for young homeless people, as we think it inappropriate. Foyer schemes are one way of doing things, but there may be other ways of providing supported housing for young people in communities. My hon. Friend is right to say that it should be a priority. We have made great progress helping families out of homelessness and now we want to do more for young people.

Thirty-three years ago, I was vice-chair of housing in Luton when we had a housing waiting list of 4,000 families. We simply built and bought thousands of homes and housed all on that waiting list. Our housing waiting list is even bigger now and the majority of people on it cannot contemplate home ownership, as it is simply beyond them. I suggest that my hon. Friend should look again at what we used to do in the ’70s and perhaps replicate it now.

My hon. Friend will know that the housing market has changed substantially since the 1970s, and that we now have far more home owners than we did then. He will also know that it is right to increase market housing, along with more shared ownership and social housing. I think that councils need to play a stronger role in that process as part of the investment in new housing for the next few years.

Landlords

The mandatory licensing of high-risk houses in multiple occupation and discretionary powers for local authorities to license other private rented accommodation were introduced in April 2006. From 6 April this year, we will introduce a scheme to protect tenancy deposits.

There has certainly been excellent short and medium-term progress at the bottom end of the market in the schemes for HMO licensing and tenancy deposit protection, but does the Secretary of State agree that we need some long-term reforms in this sector—either by licensing rented property or by encouraging landlords to sign up to minimum management standards, greater security of tenure and linking rent rises only to inflation? That would make private sector renting much more attractive and guarantee a lot more tenants decent homes. Does my right hon. Friend agree?

I agree with the thrust of my hon. Friend’s comments. We should have a dual approach. First, we should encourage minimum standards and the spread of good practice across the sector. We are doing that by supporting accreditation schemes, whereby local authorities work with landlords to drive up standards across the sector. Secondly, we should give local authorities the powers that they need where management and landlords are clearly failing in their duties. If we take that two-pronged approach, we will avoid a situation in which hundreds and thousands of tenants throughout the country face the consequences of extraordinarily poor management on occasion, and insecurity in their tenure as well.

Will my right hon. Friend examine the grave situation on Tyneside and further afield, where people who find themselves in debt, such as my constituents Anthony and Gillian McCluskey, are enticed to sell their property at far below its market value to unscrupulous property companies on the assumption that they can rent the property back, only to be given notice to quit very shortly afterwards?

I will certainly look into that issue. I thank my hon. Friend for drawing it to my attention; I understand that he has raised it before in this House. It is vital that anyone who is considering a sale and leaseback arrangement takes good quality legal advice. I know that my hon. Friend is working with his local citizens advice bureau to make sure that potentially vulnerable people are given the best possible advice and steered in the direction of legal advice, so that they can take out appropriate arrangements.

Darfur Asylum Seekers (Removals)

I beg to ask leave to move the Adjournment of the House, under Standing Order No. 24, to discuss a specific and important matter, namely,

“the removal by the Home Office to Khartoum of failed asylum seekers from Darfur.”

The immediate pretext for my request is the fact that the Home Office is minded tomorrow to remove no fewer than three such people on flights to Khartoum, and there are plans for further removals next week. One example that illustrates the argument comes to mind: Mohammed Abdulhaddi Ali is a black African from the Zaghawa tribe who has demonstrated outside the Sudanese embassy in London and who is a known opponent of the Sudanese Government. I submit to the House that he would be at risk of persecution if he were returned to Khartoum.

The Government have signed up to the principle of non-refoulement—they accept that they have a responsibility not to return people to states in which there is a serious risk of those people being subject to the death penalty, torture, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. The burden of the Government and Home Office argument is that it is unsafe to return people to Darfur but safe to do so to Khartoum.

My contention to this House is that there are a number of reasons why it would not be safe to return people to Khartoum. There is sporadic but intense fighting between the Government and a variety of rebel forces. It would not be safe to return people to Khartoum, where the national intelligence and security service is based and where it is constantly on the lookout for returnees. It would not be safe to return people who bear tribal scars and who are immediately identifiable by hostile authorities. It would not be safe to return people when we know from the published evidence of the Aegis Trust of a great many cases of people who have been returned only to be subject to intimidation, harassment or substantially worse.

“Safe as Ghost Houses”, which was published last year by the Aegis Trust and authored by Sarah Maguire, is explicit on the issue. The evidence is on the record, and the Government have not issued an intelligible or coherent response to it. It is unsafe to return people when the Sudanese embassy is hand in glove with the Home Office to get people out, with God knows what consequences for those vulnerable people. It is not safe to return people such as those whom I saw last year. I saw video evidence about a man who was returned from this country and who was then brutally attacked and tortured by the Sudanese authorities.

I put it to the House that we have responsibilities—the country has a responsibility, the Government have a responsibility and this House has a responsibility to very vulnerable people. To kick them out would be wrong and precipitate. The matter must be debated, and debated urgently.

I have listened carefully to what the hon. Gentleman has said. I must give him my decision without stating any reasons. I am afraid that I do not consider that the matter raised is appropriate for discussion under Standing Order No. 24, and I cannot therefore submit the application to the House.

Points of Order

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I seek your advice in respect of an answer that I received during Health questions on 6 February from the Minister of State, Department of Health, the hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint), in response to a question about the activities of and payments to private treatment centres, which are being paid irrespective of whether they complete their work. At column 703, she is recorded as having said:

“the Plymouth and Bodmin treatment centres are on target for up to 100 per cent. capacity.”—[Official Report, 6 February 2007; Vol. 456, c. 703.]

Yet following a freedom of information request to the local PCT, it now appears that the private treatment centre at Bodmin—which is represented by my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Rogerson), who is assiduous in pursuing the issue—has fulfilled only 45 per cent. of its target in the first six months of this year and 65 per cent. in the second six months, not the 100 per cent. claimed. I am sure that the Minister had no intention to mislead me or the House, but I seek your advice as to what sanctions are available to ensure that inaccurate or misleading information is properly and quickly corrected by Ministers on the Floor of the House.

As the hon. Gentleman said, the information given was probably inadvertently misleading. The beauty of being able to table questions is that he can table another question today, which might tie up with the freedom of information answer that his colleague received. That is the way to resolve the matter.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. From listening to and watching the news on television over the past three or four days, it has become clear that almost everybody in Britain has been discussing and worrying about the kidnapping of our soldiers and sailors by the Iranians. So far, we have not had a statement of the official position from Her Majesty’s Government. Have you received a request to make such a statement, as it would be remarkable if the one place in Britain where the matter was not being discussed was this Chamber?

My understanding is that the Leader of the House announced that there would be a statement this week. I hope that that is helpful to the right hon. Gentleman.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I seek your guidance as to how it might be possible to question orally a Minister from the Department for Communities and Local Government on the written statement about local government reorganisation. None of the questions on the Order Paper was appropriate for raising the matter just now. In the county of Bedfordshire, there is confusion and consternation about the written statement. It is not at all clear what will happen to local government, particularly in the middle and southern part of Bedfordshire. Chief executives of local authorities do not know what to tell their staff about whether they will still be in jobs. My constituents deserve better. It is impossible to take forward important local matters when we do not know what councils will exist in future. The House rises in two days, and it is too late for an Adjournment debate. How can I question a Minister orally on the matter?

If the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne) will let me answer the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), he might need not need to raise a point of order. I understand that at least three months of consultation will take place with the community at large, which will allow the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire to make representations. I agree that we are about to enter a recess, but one of the advantages of that is the Easter recess Adjournment debate, in which the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire could raise the matter on the Floor of the House. If the period involved is three months, he will have the opportunity of tabling further questions and of seeking an Adjournment debate, in which the Minister concerned would appear at the Dispatch Box. Does that help, Mr. Dunne?

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. In connection with the announcement in the written statement by the Minister for Local Government today, the allegation was made that there has been a broad cross-section of support in the county of Shropshire for the unitary authority proposals. The Minister seems to have completely ignored the ballot of opinion in Shropshire, which was overwhelmingly opposed to a unitary authority. I seek your guidance as to whether we can get Shropshire struck out from the proposals.

I do not comment on the cases that Ministers make. It is for hon. Members to rebut the case that a Minister has made.

Bill Presented

Northern Ireland (St. Andrews Agreement) (no. 2)

Mr. Secretary Hain, supported by the Prime Minister, Mr. Secretary Prescott, Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer, Secretary John Reid, Secretary Des Browne, Mr. David Hanson, Paul Goggins, Maria Eagle and David Cairns, presented a Bill to modify the effect of the Northern Ireland (St. Andrews Agreement) Act 2006: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time, and to be printed. Explanatory notes to be printed [Bill 84].

Flexible Working

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to extend the right to request to work flexibly to parents of children up to the age of 18; to make provision for the encouragement of employers to offer flexible working arrangements; and for connected purposes.

As Liberal Democrat spokesperson for women and equalities and for small businesses, I often have to balance the needs of both groups when looking at policy. It might be thought that flexible working is a topic that would require such balancing. I introduce this Bill, however, in good conscience that I am serving the interests of equality and good business.

I am indebted to Mrs. Susie Ankrett, who is both a constituent and a small business owner, for suggesting this Bill to me. Mrs. Ankrett runs an award-winning recruitment agency, Plum Personnel, and is well placed to understand the issues from all sides—as indeed am I, having had my own small business and brought up my family at the same time. Even if someone is Superwoman, doing such things while developing a career is tough. That is the dilemma facing so many families today. Women begin their career with roughly equal status with men. I say “roughly”, because women graduates still earn on average 14 per cent. less than men at the start of their careers, and by the time they reach the age of 35 to 40 the gap has widened to 40 per cent.

What happens? It starts when children come along. For me, having my daughter was the most wonderful experience of my life bar nothing, and I am sure that many women feel the same. I am also sure that being a father carries the same sense of privilege for many men. Men want to exercise that privilege, but there is a problem. In many companies there is a long- hours culture—I call it “presentism”—under which someone’s worth is valued more by the number of hours that they are at work than by the economic contribution that they make. So when baby comes along, the option of both parents taking their share in the caring is often not feasible. One partner has to make a career sacrifice and take the lion’s share of the child care. That is often gladly and willingly done, but the trouble is that the parent who makes that sacrifice will pay the price in future career advancement—and, let us face it, that is usually the mother.

The mother will, therefore, often take part-time work far below her skill level to fit in with school hours and holidays, and when she wants to return to work full- time she finds that the boys have raced ahead. She still takes the main responsibility for the children, and she is unattractive to employers as a result. The equalities review published only a few weeks ago found that, in the recruitment stakes, women with children under 11 are 45 per cent. less likely to be employed than men. Employers are, therefore, missing out on a wealth of talent that they could be tapping into for fear that a mother will need time off to exercise her caring responsibilities. She has hit the glass ceiling, and they are losing real ability, loyalty and a much stronger economic contribution to their company.

In the home, the husband often sees too little of the children. He continues to work long hours because the economic responsibilities have fallen to a disproportionate extent on his shoulders. The inequality of the relationship is reinforced by the economic divide, but it does not have to be that way. Flexible working can rescue the situation for the employer and the family.

Research into flexible working by the Department of Trade and Industry in the 2003 work-life balance study discovered that employers who provided flexible working found that that had a positive impact on employee relations, enhanced employee commitment and motivation, reduced labour turnover, and had a positive effect on recruitment, absenteeism and productivity. Two thirds of respondents to a survey by the Work Foundation said that flexible working helped to reduce absenteeism, and research has shown that flexible working practices have enabled small businesses to recruit and retain higher-quality staff. DTI research in 2000 found that some small businesses saved up to £250,000 through reduced staff turnover, simply by adopting flexible working policies.

For businesses small or large, flexible working can bring benefits. Let us consider Microsoft, some 85 per cent. of whose UK employees work flexibly. Need I say more? In fact, I do need to, because there are many situations where flexible working would not work for some employees. There are good business reasons for companies to say no, and everyone understands that. Under the current legislation, no employer is forced to accede to a request for flexible working if there is a business case not to. I know that some small businesses feel that employment legislation puts them at a great disadvantage. Small business people want to put their energies into building their businesses, rather than getting bogged down in worrying about falling foul of Government legislation, or acting as an unpaid revenue collector for the Government.

Maternity leave is a bête noire for many small companies. When one employee constitutes 25 per cent. of the work force, losing them on maternity—or paternity—leave obviously causes a problem. How much better it would therefore be if such an employee could work flexibly, continuing to contribute—albeit in a more limited way—instead of being lost altogether for a period.

Employment legislation should act as a facilitator for a fair business relationship between employee and employer, not as a dictator. Flexibility works both ways; when there is appreciation of the needs of each party, the situation works to mutual advantage. I would therefore like to see more flexibility in the implementation of Government legislation, allowing mutual agreements that are in the spirit of accommodating the needs of both parties.

I have talked about businesses, but let us consider fathers for a moment. Again, research supports what is common sense: the more time a dad spends with his child, the less likely that child is to experience developmental problems. That is a benefit to society, as well as to the father. A more balanced home/work life also means that the father is less likely to suffer the stress that damages productivity and increases absenteeism. For women, flexible working could help to raise that glass ceiling, enabling them to enjoy a career and a family without having to be Superwoman to achieve both.

Existing legislation provides for parents of children up to the age of six to have the right to request flexible working. In my view, there is a business and a social case for extending that right to all workers, which the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Minister for Children and Families, the right hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Beverley Hughes), have called for. I would like to see a definition of flexible working wide enough to accommodate the needs of all parties. However, before such a step is enshrined in legislation, I want to see a full economic impact assessment, and a pilot study to assess the effects post-implementation, as well.

Today, I want simply to pave the way for this enhancement, which extends the right to request flexible working to parents of children up to the age of 18. I submit that parents of children aged between six and 18 have just as important a parenting role, and just as many trials, tribulations and challenges—and triumphs—to face. How much better it would be if mum and dad could still be around, particularly at stressful times such as when their children change school, or at exam time?

I leave the last word to the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), the leader of the Conservative party, who in a recent speech to the Working Families charity said:

“Flexible working is good for families, business and society”.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Lorely Burt, Susan Kramer, Jo Swinson, Annette Brooke, David Haworth, Stephen Williams, Lynne Featherstone, Danny Alexander, Jenny Willott, Sandra Gidley and Dr. Evan Harris.

Flexible Working

Lorely Burt accordingly presented a Bill to extend the right to request to work flexibly to parents of children up to the age of 18; to make provision for the encouragement of employers to offer flexible working arrangements; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 19 October, and to be printed [Bill 85].

Northern Ireland (St. Andrews Agreement) (No. 2) Bill

Ordered,

That the following provisions shall apply to the proceedings on the Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) (No. 2) Bill—

Timetable

1.—(1) Proceedings on Second Reading, in Committee, on consideration and on Third Reading shall be completed at this day’s sitting.

(2) Those proceedings shall be brought to a conclusion, if not previously concluded, three hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Motion for this Order.

Timing of proceedings and Questions to be put

2.—(1) As soon as the proceedings on the Motion for this Order have been concluded, the Order for the Second Reading of the Bill shall be read.

(2) When the Bill has been read a second time—

(a) it shall, notwithstanding Standing Order No. 63 (Committal of bills not subject to a programme order), stand committed to a Committee of the whole House without any Question being put;

(b) the Speaker shall leave the Chair whether or not notice of an Instruction has been given.

3. On the conclusion of proceedings in Committee the Chairman shall report the Bill to the House without putting any Question and, if the Bill is reported with amendments, the House shall proceed to consider the Bill as amended without any Question being put.

4. For the purpose of bringing any proceedings to a conclusion in accordance with paragraph 1 the Speaker or Chairman shall forthwith put the following Questions (but no others)—

(a) any Question already proposed from the Chair;

(b) any Question necessary to bring to a decision a Question so proposed;

(c) the Question on any amendment moved or Motion made by a Minister of the Crown;

(d) any other Question necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded.

5. On a Motion so made for a new Clause or a new Schedule, the Chairman or Speaker shall put only the Question that the Clause or Schedule be added to the Bill.

Consideration of Lords Amendments

6.—(1) Any Lords Amendments to the Bill shall be considered forthwith without any Question being put (and any proceedings interrupted for that purpose shall be suspended accordingly).

(2) Proceedings on consideration of Lords Amendments shall be brought to a conclusion, if not previously concluded, one hour after their commencement; and any proceedings suspended under paragraph 6(1) of this Order shall thereupon be resumed.

7.—(1) This paragraph applies for the purpose of bringing any proceedings to a conclusion in accordance with paragraph 6.

(2) The Speaker shall first put forthwith any Question already proposed from the Chair and not yet decided.

(3) If that Question is for the amendment of a Lords Amendment the Speaker shall then put forthwith—

(a) a single Question on any further Amendments of the Lords Amendment moved by a Minister of the Crown, and

(b) the Question on any Motion made by a Minister of the Crown, That this House agrees or disagrees with the Lords in their Amendment or (as the case may be) in their Amendment as amended.

(4) The Speaker shall then put forthwith—

(a) a single Question on any Amendments moved by a Minister of the Crown to a Lords Amendment, and

(b) the Question on any Motion made by a Minister of the Crown, That this House agrees or disagrees with the Lords in their Amendment or (as the case may be) in their Amendment as amended.

(5) The Speaker shall then put forthwith the Question on any Motion made by a Minister of the Crown, That this House disagrees with the Lords in a Lords Amendment.

(6) The Speaker shall then put forthwith the Question, That this House agrees with the Lords in all the remaining Lords Amendments.

(7) As soon as the House has agreed or disagreed with the Lords in any of their Amendments, or disposed of an Amendment relevant to a Lords Amendment which has been disagreed to, the Speaker shall put forthwith a single Question on any Amendments moved by a Minister of the Crown and relevant to the Lords Amendment.

Subsequent stages

8.—(1) Any further Message from the Lords on the Bill shall be considered forthwith without any Question being put (and any proceedings interrupted for that purpose shall be suspended accordingly).

(2) Proceedings on any further Message from the Lords shall, if not previously concluded, be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement; and any proceedings suspended under paragraph 8(1) of this Order shall thereupon be resumed.

9.—(1) This paragraph applies for the purpose of bringing any proceedings to a conclusion in accordance with paragraph 8.

(2) The Speaker shall first put forthwith any Question which has already been proposed from the Chair and not yet decided.

(3) The Speaker shall then put forthwith the Question on any Motion made by a Minister of the Crown which is related to the Question already proposed from the Chair.

(4) The Speaker shall then put forthwith the Question on any Motion made by a Minister of the Crown on or relevant to any of the remaining items in the Lords Message.

(5) The Speaker shall then put forthwith the Question, That this House agrees with the Lords in all the remaining Lords Proposals.

Reasons Committee

10.—(1) The Speaker shall put forthwith the Question on any Motion made by a Minister of the Crown for the appointment, nomination and quorum of a Committee to draw up Reasons in relation to the Bill and the appointment of its Chairman.

(2) A Committee appointed to draw up Reasons shall report before the conclusion of the sitting at which it is appointed.

(3) Proceedings in the Committee shall, if not previously concluded, be brought to a conclusion 30 minutes after their commencement.

(4) For the purpose of bringing any proceedings to a conclusion in accordance with sub-paragraph (3) the Chairman shall—

(a) first put forthwith any Question which has been proposed from the Chair but not yet decided, and

(b) then put forthwith successively Questions on motions which may be made by a Minister of the Crown for assigning a Reason for disagreeing with the Lords in any of their Amendments.

(5) The proceedings of the Committee shall be reported without any further Question being put.

Miscellaneous

11.—Paragraph (1) of Standing Order No. 15 (Exempted business) shall apply in so far as necessary for the purposes of this Order.

12.—The proceedings on any Motion made by a Minister of the Crown for varying or supplementing the provisions of this Order shall, if not previously concluded, be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement and paragraph (1) of Standing Order No. 15 shall apply to those proceedings.

13.—Standing Order No. 82 (Business Committee) shall not apply in relation to any proceedings to which this Order applies.

14.—No Motion shall be made, except by a Minister of the Crown, to alter the order in which any proceedings on the Bill are taken or to re-commit the Bill; and the Question on any such Motion shall be put forthwith.

15.—No dilatory Motion shall be made in relation to proceedings to which this Order applies except by a Minister of the Crown; and the Question on any such Motion shall be put forthwith.

16.—(1) This paragraph applies if—

(a) a Motion for the Adjournment of the House under Standing Order No. 24 (Adjournment on specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration) has been stood over to Seven o’clock, but

(b) proceedings to which this Order applies have begun before then.

(2) Proceedings on that Motion shall stand postponed until the conclusion of those proceedings.

17.—If the House is adjourned, or the sitting is suspended, before the conclusion of any proceedings to which this Order applies, no notice shall be required of a Motion made at the next sitting by a Minister of the Crown for varying or supplementing the provisions of this Order.

18.—Proceedings to which this Order applies shall not be interrupted under any Standing Order relating to the sittings of the House.

19.—The Speaker shall not adjourn the House until—

(a) any Message from the Lords on the Bill has been received;

(b) he has reported the Royal Assent to any Act agreed upon by both Houses.—[Mr. Hain.]

Northern Ireland (St. Andrews Agreement) (No. 2) Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I thank the House for its indulgence in allowing, at very short notice, planned business to be disrupted. I am especially grateful for the co-operation of the Opposition parties.

I wish to begin by congratulating the leader of the Democratic Unionist party, the right hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley), on his courage and his leadership. When he sat for the very first time alongside the leader of Sinn Fein, the Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Adams), in Parliament buildings at Stormont yesterday, they took Northern Ireland closer to a final political settlement than anyone has ever before thought possible. Their pictures together resonated around the world, a graphic manifestation of the power of politics over intolerance, bitterness and horror.

Those implacable foes have individually and collectively said that now is the time for Northern Ireland to move forward into a new era. They have together taken charge of the process from the British and Irish Governments. As a result, the political settlement that will emerge will be far stronger and more robust than anything imposed by Government, precisely because it is grounded in local agreement. That is where we have wanted to be since before the Good Friday agreement was signed almost nine years ago: locally accountable politicians taking responsibility for the future; locally accountable politicians showing that whatever their differences—and it is hard to imagine two parties with greater differences—they can work for the common good without sacrificing either principle or integrity.

I do not need to remind this House of the tortured history of Northern Ireland over four decades, or of all the attempts by the Government, working closely with our Irish counterparts, to bring peace and stability, or—especially—of the courage of SDLP leaders, such as John Hume, and Ulster Unionist party leaders, such as David Trimble.

We have seen enormous progress, especially since the Good Friday agreement. The security situation has been transformed. The IRA has declared its war over and decommissioned its weapons. It has closed down the criminal activity that used to fund the conflict, because there is no conflict to fund. Sinn Fein has committed to the active support of the police and criminal justice institutions. There has been a new beginning to policing and the rule of law, stretching right across the communities. There is peace, and there are more jobs and more prosperity than ever in Northern Ireland’s history. The final piece in the jigsaw is long-term political stability. That has proved to be elusive.

My right hon. Friend will have encountered the understandable deep caution and occasional cynicism of the people of Northern Ireland, after what they have had to put up with over the past decades. In the vital weeks ahead, what will he do to give them confidence that, at long last, this is a time for them—and us—to hope?

I welcome my hon. Friend’s support. This is a tremendous time for hope and progress, as I shall explain.

There have been numerous attempts by both Governments working together to broker a deal that would stick. In our view, the best—and possibly the last—hope in the foreseeable future to bring about that deal came after the talks at St. Andrews last October.

The Secretary of State will know that thousands of people voted at the ballot box on the understanding that his words had some meaning when he promised that devolution would happen on 26 March—that is, yesterday. What confidence can the people of Northern Ireland have that the right hon. Gentleman will ever keep his word to them again?

I pay tribute to the hon. Lady’s role in the peace process over many years, and I shall explain why the situation has developed as it has.

The St. Andrews agreement, with its twin pillars of support for policing standing alongside the commitment to share power, provided the basis for a lasting settlement. Last November, during the passage of the St. Andrews legislation, I made it clear that, if a power-sharing Assembly and Executive did not result, it would be a considerable time before an opportunity like it ever came round again. That was quite simply because I, and many others, thought that the parties themselves would never agree a way forward on their own. I am delighted to have to revise that view in the light of the extraordinary events of the past few days.

I turn now to the point raised by the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon). The House will recall that the legislation set in statute the date for the restoration of devolved government in Northern Ireland. That date was 26 March— yesterday. The legislation was explicit: if an Executive were not formed on that date, the Assembly would dissolve. As a consequence, Members’ salaries and allowances would stop. Water charges would come into force, academic selection at age 11 would go, and partnership with the Irish Government would deepen.

Everyone knew the position when the election was held on 7 March. I said more than once that 26 March was a deadline that would not move, and that failure to meet it would have consequences. There would only ever be one set of circumstances in which progress outside that framework could be made and that would be if the parties, for the very first time ever, formed a consensus around an agreed way forward.

It is axiomatic in Northern Ireland that there is not a political wire down to which the parties do not go. There were those who said that we were bluffing, that deadlines come and go and that, if we got close enough to a deal, extra time would be claimed. With my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, we made it clear that there would be no extension to the deadline in the absence of an agreed way forward brought to us by the parties. When we were asked by the Democratic Unionist party last Wednesday to grant an extension we said no, because we could not credibly return to this House and ask for more time unless the DUP could persuade the other parties that there was a credible reason for doing so. We were asked again last Friday. Again we said no—unless the DUP managed to get other parties, including Sinn Fein, to agree.

Had we not been resolute, we would not have had the historic agreement yesterday—and the significance of that agreement cannot be overestimated. It is for that reason that this Bill, which will have the effect of moving the date of the restoration of devolution to 8 May, is before the House today. Both the DUP and Sinn Fein have agreed on that date, and both have asked that the introduction of water charging be deferred until the Executive are formed. I have agreed to both requests, and I ask for the support of the House in that.

I know that there will be many victims of the troubles, including Members of the House, who will find this moment especially painful, but we have reached a turning point in the history of Northern Ireland. There are many here and in another place, and from both sides of the House, notably John Major, who have played their part over the years to bring peace and stability to Northern Ireland. That we are where we are today is a tribute to them.

The right hon. Gentleman said that we have reached a turning point, and no doubt that is true. Would it be even more of a turning point if Sinn Fein Members who were elected to the House took their place? Does he agree that one way in which we can facilitate that is to change the Oath so that they can take an oath that is acceptable to them?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman makes an interesting point, but it is not a point for us today.

That we are where we are today is a tribute to all those people, especially my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. He has brought a forensic understanding of the politics of Northern Ireland—and, allied to it a fierce tenacity and a level of commitment—as has no other Prime Minister.

Does the Secretary of State agree that while it is right and proper to praise both John Major and the present Prime Minister, we should praise the ordinary people—in fact, the extraordinary people—on the ground, who did not stop working across sectarian barriers? Trade unionists and public service workers stood through 40 years of the troubles, and never ever gave up on their belief in peace.

I could not agree more strongly with my hon. Friend about the role played by the trade union movement, and the role that it continues to play in bridging the divide between the communities, pressing ahead with a policy of social justice across the divide and making sure that the interests of the people of Northern Ireland, especially the employees of Northern Ireland, are always to the fore. He is absolutely right, and his own trade union—Unison—has done a tremendous job, and continues to do so.

I hope that the Secretary of State does not leave out the people who keep the shops going when they are bombed and destroyed, and who do not shut down—“Business as usual tomorrow”. Those people kept Ulster sane in that time of terrible trial.

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. There have been tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of heroes and heroines over the generations who have stood for decency and justice. I singled out the trade union movement for the remarkable role that it has played, as within its ranks there are people of widely divergent views, from republicans to loyalists, working together for the common good.

May I place on record my appreciation for the work that my right hon. Friend has done in bringing about what is without doubt an historic achievement? In today’s press, we saw the picture to which he referred of the right hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) and the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Adams), who were described in the Irish Independent as the “darling buddies of May”. One hopes that that can continue.

I think that I will leave that description to the newspapers, with my hon. Friend’s assistance. However, I thank him for what he said, and I thank everyone for the way in which they have worked together on the process, particularly my ministerial team: my deputy, my right hon. Friend the Minister of State; the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale, East (Paul Goggins), who is responsible for security; the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle), who is responsible for education; and, of course, the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde (David Cairns), who doubles up as the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland.

I do not want this to sound like a love-in, but the Secretary of State has been described during this process as “Hain the pain”. Has the pain been worth the gain?

I have to say yes. In a republican area of Belfast there is graffiti saying “Hain is insane”. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) raises his thumb to that. In a loyalist area of Belfast, there is graffiti saying “Sinn Hain”, so obviously there is universal support for my work as Secretary of State, just as there is among Government Back Benchers.

It was great to see the politicians come together yesterday, but does my right hon. Friend not agree that the most important thing in Northern Ireland is bringing the communities together?

I very much agree with my hon. Friend. There have been signs of progress in that direction for a number of years, especially over the past nine years. For example, late last year I opened the first integrated housing estate, a social housing project near Enniskillen. That is a sign of progress and there are many others.

One of the achievements of our Labour Government of which my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister should justly be most proud is the way in which we have brought peace, stability and progress to Northern Ireland. The work he has done with Taoiseach Bertie Ahern has been quite simply remarkable. We have been backed up by some of the most dedicated and outstanding civil servants I have ever worked with, from the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, to my own staff in the Northern Ireland Office.

I also want to pay tribute to the political parties in Northern Ireland. I have not always seen eye to eye with them and I have not always agreed with their analysis, but I have never doubted their commitment to work tirelessly for the people they represent. Now they have the opportunity to discharge their responsibilities to their voters, and to do so in their own way. That is as it should be, and to hasten that day I commend the Bill to the House, signifying as it does the triumph of peace over conflict.

On the Conservative Benches we welcome the Bill and it will have our support this afternoon. The Government’s decision for a further delay of just a few weeks was a sensible and pragmatic response to the dramatic events of the past couple of days.

Like the Secretary of State, I congratulate the leaders of all the Northern Ireland parties on a major step forward towards the longed-for enduring political settlement for Northern Ireland. I want in particular to pay tribute to the generous words spoken by the right hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) during his momentous joint press and public statement yesterday. As the Secretary of State said, yesterday’s agreement was the fruit of many years of work by officials and Ministers of various Governments both in this country and the Republic of Ireland, and in the United States of America under successive Administrations.

Today, it is right that I particularly acknowledge from the Conservative Benches the commitment that the Prime Minister has made. He took forward the process begun by John Major and he has invested unprecedented amounts of both time and energy in the pursuit of peace in Northern Ireland. It is no great secret that there have been occasions when we disagreed with the Prime Minister, and even with the Secretary of State—sometimes vehemently—about particular decisions that they had taken. When the history books are written we shall find out who was right. One might say that the earthly reputations of all of us as politicians are, in the last resort, in the hands of history, but it is true to say that without the Prime Minister’s unremitting personal commitment the political process in Northern Ireland would not be within sight of the success that we can see today.

However, although this is an occasion for hope, optimism and looking forward, it is not yet a moment when we can indulge in euphoria, and least of all in complacency. This morning, I noted that a number of newspaper commentators made a comparison between the events at Stormont yesterday morning and the famous meeting between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat on the lawn of the White House—but we know now that the hopes that Prime Minister Rabin and President Arafat held then lie in ashes. Although we should unite in welcoming what was achieved yesterday, we must be unflinching in facing up to the huge problems that still confront Northern Ireland and stand in the way of reconciliation.

On policing, there is no doubt that Sinn Fein’s belated and long-overdue decision to support the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the courts made an agreement yesterday possible, but we will continue to look for demonstrable evidence that that declaration of support is indeed bearing fruit locally. Bogus distinctions between so-called civic and so-called political policing will undermine the credibility on this issue that the Sinn Fein leadership seeks to achieve. It is easier to decommission guns than criminal livelihoods. Support from all the political parties in Northern Ireland is essential if Northern Ireland is finally to be rid of the scourge of organised crime and particularly that run by paramilitary gangs.

I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman. In that respect, I am encouraged by a whole series of initiatives that the Sinn Fein leadership has taken. Following representations by the right hon. Member for North Antrim, after an attack on Councillor Brush, a former Ulster Defence Regiment soldier, the local Sinn Fein Member Michelle Gildernew said that she would encourage anyone with any information on the matter to co-operate with the Police Service of Northern Ireland. That is further progress of the kind we need to see.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State. Like him, I am encouraged by those demonstrations of support. The more of that we see, the better the chance of moving beyond the appalling divisions and violence of the past towards a genuinely shared future in Northern Ireland.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be well aware that his colleague, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), today published a pamphlet—I take it that it is a policy statement from the Tory party—on how to increase confidence in politicians and how to encourage people to vote. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the greatest casualties yesterday was trust in the entire Northern Ireland ministerial team, who gave undertakings and commitments in the House that there would be no emergency legislation to break through the 26 March deadline?

Unlike the hon. Lady, I have not yet had the pleasure of reading the report by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke). It is a treat that I shall look forward to. I can reassure her on one point: it is not a formal policy statement on behalf of my party; it is a report from the vigorous policy commission on the revival of democracy, which my right hon. and learned Friend heads.

In response to the substance of what the hon. Lady said, we expressed doubts about the deadline at the time. To be honest, I suspect—I claim no scientific knowledge—that the general feeling in Northern Ireland will be one of relief at what was achieved yesterday and that there will be a desire to move forward from arguments about deadlines in the House to practical arguments about policies that really matter to people living in Belfast, Bangor and elsewhere in Northern Ireland.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the Democratic Unionist party has been inundated with messages of support from right across Northern Ireland—from every constituency, including that of the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon)? People who are relieved and delighted by what has happened are supporting what we have done. We have had offers of investment from right across the globe, from people who want to have a stake in the future of Northern Ireland.

I suspect that the calls to the DUP’s headquarters are probably a reflection not just of their supporters—who, it has been clearly demonstrated, support what the right hon. Member for North Antrim did yesterday—but of the longing of people in Northern Ireland, whether nationalist or Unionist, to move away from the abnormal situation that we have been in for decades towards what everybody in England, Scotland and Wales would consider to be normal political debate.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) appears to be so hung up on a date that she would prefer academic selection to have been done away with and for bills for water charging to drop on the mat of each constituent throughout the Province?

I hope that the hon. Lady will forgive me if I do not intervene in that particular battle on the Unionist Benches.

All Northern Ireland parties have a responsibility to show that they are there for all the people of Northern Ireland, not just one community or another. One of the most hopeful signs in yesterday’s public statements was the clear commitment by the right hon. Member for North Antrim and the leader of Sinn Fein to work on behalf of everyone in Northern Ireland.

I entirely agree with what my hon. Friend says about the responsibilities of the Northern Ireland parties. May I put to him a point that I made to the Secretary of State? It would be a very good thing if Sinn Fein Members were to take their seats in this place. If there are artificial barriers that stop them, such as the Oath, would we not be wise to see whether we could take reasonable steps to make it easier for them to sit here?

I would be pleased if Sinn Fein Members dropped their policy of abstention. When I made that point to leading members of Sinn Fein, they told me that it is not the Oath that stops Sinn Fein Members from taking their seats, but their belief that this Parliament should have no say in governing any part of the island of Ireland. Until they are prepared to move on from that firm and regrettable ideological position, the sort of proposal that my right hon. and learned Friend makes would be a largely academic exercise.

The sad truth about the situation in Northern Ireland today is that despite all the encouraging signs of movement towards political normality, the so-called peace lines—the high metal fences that divide residential estates in north and west Belfast—are higher and stretch longer today than they did before the IRA ceasefires of the mid-1990s. It is when those divisions start to heal and both the physical and psychological barriers between communities start to come down that we can truly believe that the dreadful conflict that scarred the history of Northern Ireland for much of the 20th century has come to an end. The Bill marks an important milestone along that slow and difficult road.

This is a good day for the House, a good day for our United Kingdom and a good day for the whole of the people of Ireland, whether north or south, for it is a day when there has risen at last in the darkness a star of hope. However, it is only a star of hope, and we must remember that. We are not near across the river, and we have some very hard things to do and great sacrifices to make in order that this start will not be like many other starts. I was accused of not shaking hands with the leader of the Sinn Feiners and I said, “Why should I?” All the people who shook hands with him are gone—do you want me to go, too? I have no intention of going.

We must face up to the fact that the Democratic Unionist party and I are in a strange position today, because we seldom got any credit for what we stood for and what we did. When the first agreement was signed, I remember that they celebrated with songs, handshakes, dancing—and kicking me, for I happened to be there. I was well kicked by them all and cursed as well. Then the Secretary of State at the time, Mo Mowlam, got me wrongly arrested, and the Assistant Chief Constable had to come and get me out. I have been through all that, but people who know me will realise that I am not saying that just to bring back the old bitternesses. Let us get the old bitternesses away. As I said to the leader of Sinn Fein, it is not a love-in but a work-in that we are engaged in, and when the people start to work for the things that they need, we will find a cure for some of the terrible problems that are still there; that is when we will get those bitternesses away.

I agree fully with the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) that many things are not there yet. I trust that they will be put in place, and that we will have full deliverance on policing. I might add that at the meeting, we raised not only the matter of which the House has been informed by the Secretary of State, but a matter concerning a man from Sinn Fein’s own district in Belfast, Mr. McCartney. We raised that issue again, and we said that we felt that it would be a great opportunity for Sinn Fein to do something about Mr McCartney’s death. We got a promise that something would be done, and we look forward to something being done.

I must say that the Secretary of State really brought himself to feel the cane on the matter of the date of 26 March. He was belligerent with us all; he warned us and told us. I said to him, “You can argue with Ulster people, and you can present your arguments strongly. You can even be stern with them, but if you bully them, you’ll get nowhere.” He did not believe me, but he believes me now; the proof of the pudding is in the eating. I do not think that we should rub that in. [Laughter.] Perhaps I have done enough rubbing already. All I am saying is that I am glad that Ulster people, whether they be Sinn Feiners or Unionists, will, at the end of the day, have some say in how they are governed. When that is established, this whole movement will take a leap forward.

I thank the House for what has been said. I trust that it will realise that we do not have a magic wand, and that there will be hard work, difficulties, fights, tough talking and rough riding, but we should keep before us what I said yesterday—that after all, all the elected representatives of Northern Ireland have an onus of responsibility to all the people. I am not here today to say that I will represent Unionists; I am here to say that I want to see achieved whatever is good for the people of the whole of Northern Ireland.

Having listened to the contribution of the right hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley), I think that I can speak for the House when I say that I feel the hand of Paisley on my shoulder, not least because he is sitting right behind me. I have covered Northern Ireland issues for the Liberal Democrats for 10 years now, but I have lived with Northern Ireland politics for 40 years. I remember the feeling of fear and, frankly, hopelessness of the 1970s, when politics in the Province was measured more in lives lost than votes won. Even as a teenager, the hate that I observed seemed as endemic as the violence—and back then, it probably was.

What has changed is that there seems to be a willingness to give peace a chance, and to turn a clichéd but hopeful slogan into a fledgling political partnership, even though we know that partnership needs real proof of good faith to become more than just an act of provisional trust. I congratulate the Government for getting as close as they have done. I have known the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland for many years, and I regard the measures that we are discussing as his greatest political achievement. I share his vision for a stable and sustainable Stormont Assembly and a shared future for the people of Northern Ireland. The right hon. Gentleman has the right to feel a sense of gratification that his endeavours have helped to achieve it.

In regard to the Prime Minister, who may indeed be looking for a legacy, it is true to say that he should reasonably regard the developments in the Northern Ireland peace process as a proud and legitimate element of that legacy.

When we debated the previous emergency legislation in November 2006, I said that I believed the St. Andrews agreement could bind the DUP into a commitment to assume power alongside Sinn Fein. I was optimistic enough to believe it could happen, even though others were not. I am glad to say that it is a testimony to the optimism of the Secretary of State that we have come this far.

When Sinn Fein’s ard fheis and its leaders encouraged supporters to co-operate with the Police Service of Northern Ireland, I said then and I say now that it was a momentous move forward. Again, the optimists were right and I praise the journey that Sinn Fein and the IRA have taken. Others doubted that this would be so, but I never did. My confidence in the republican movement was based on the people I met, and I judged them to be sincere. They have proved that faith in their positive intentions was not misplaced, though of course it must now result in action.

In yesterday’s momentous meeting, the DUP categorically committed to entering a power-sharing Government with Sinn Fein on 8 May. That is six weeks from now. The right hon. Member for North Antrim has taken a very strong position throughout and his conditions have been met. It is important to recognise that. His party said that it was condition-led. He has achieved what he laid out as his goals in the previous two Assembly elections. In large part it is thanks to his contribution that the restoration of devolved government is now just weeks away. So we must recognise the potentially historic significance of the statement yesterday.

However, I am disappointed that the deadline of 26 March, as set down by the emergency legislation passed last November, has not been met. We are faced with yet another delay, yet another piece of legislation on Northern Ireland rushed through Parliament, despite Government assurances that there was no time to do that. I understand the reasons for this. I understand why the Minister has felt the need to let deadlines come and deadlines go, reassuring us almost every time that there was no plan B—and always, of course, there was. The most reliable insurance policy to guarantee that 8 May will be the date for the restoration of the Assembly comes not from the Government, but from Sinn Fein and the DUP. It is their deadline that I choose to believe.

It follows that if for any reason 8 May does not work out, there is no point in the Government pretending that they have any leverage left to threaten anybody in this place, in another place or in Northern Ireland with deadlines again. They have put all their cards on the table, for reasons that I understand. When it comes to deadlines, they have no more cards to play.

I thought that I heard the Secretary of State say earlier—I may be wrong—that he had always been prepared to extend the deadline if the parties could find an agreed way forward together. Did I hear the Secretary of State say that? Is the hon. Gentleman convinced that that was the case?

I will leave the hon. Gentleman to check Hansard with regard to his former question, but on the latter, I am in no doubt at all that the Secretary of State told the House that the deadline was immovable and absolute. As I say, I understand why he has taken this position, and thus I do not condemn him for it. Instead, I make an observation about the future, rather than about the past. The future allows the Government no leverage with regard to deadlines, so we must hope that on this occasion it works.

There are many people who remain sceptical about the ability of the DUP and Sinn Fein to produce genuine power sharing. However, it is those two parties who primarily have been entrusted by the electorate with the mandates and responsibility to govern. It is up to them to rise to the challenge, and it is up to others, including my sister party, the Alliance party, to hold them to account and to provide constructive opposition as and when necessary. I am determined to ensure that the next six weeks are used to their full advantage. There are discussions going on about an entire programme for government, including the Treasury’s financial package. I hope sincerely that the details are hammered out. Unless they are, we will have trouble ahead.

My colleagues in the Alliance party—including David Ford, who I think I can suggest is a First Minister in waiting in Northern Ireland politics—

However long or short a time that may take, I believe it will happen.

My colleagues in the Alliance party say that about £1 billion is wasted in Northern Ireland every year on managing a divided society, through implicitly providing separate services for different sides of the same community. Resources would be much better spent on providing quality public services for the entire community, rather than providing services a few hundred metres and a physical or psychological wall apart in a fashion which, in 2007, is out of date. After all, if Sinn Fein and the DUP can do business together in the dining hall of Stormont, surely Catholics and Protestants can exercise together in the sports halls of Belfast and the Province.

The segregation that is ending in politics must also end in the community, but it will take the expenditure of some resources in the short term to release money. Northern Ireland currently receives a larger subvention than any other region in the United Kingdom—a position that is not sustainable. I hope that the Government will work in the weeks ahead, before 8 May, to ensure that there is a clear programme of economic government to accompany the political changes that are taking place.

The mutual respect that I want to see in the community must also apply to political parties. There are many in Stormont who have been loyalists to the cause of a shared future, a cross-community approach to the governance of the Province. They were shown attention when the Government needed them and ignored when the Government did not. That is disrespectful, thoughtless, and ultimately a betrayal of a decade of good faith.

I want the Government to commit themselves to ensuring that all parties will be involved in the brokerage of solutions in the six weeks ahead, because if anything does go wrong, there will be no good will left for the Government to fall back on from those allies who feel ignored. What plans have the Government to offer briefings to all parties going into government and into opposition, and how will the unique arrangements of statutory committees be reflected in such briefings? It is important for any restored Assembly to be given the chance to make a difference and to prove its worth. We hope that the legislation we are pressing today achieves what we want to see: a stable and long-lasting settlement in Northern Ireland.

I agree with what the hon. Gentleman is saying, and I think that the leadership shown by the right hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) and his party in meeting all the parties yesterday was intended to do precisely that.

The parties are now taking charge of the process. It is not for me to prepare for government; it is for them to prepare for government. That is what they are doing, and that is what has transformed the situation.

I am pleased to hear the Secretary of State’s words, but I can tell him that there are individuals who have acted in good faith for many years and have bailed out the Government and the devolution process on at least one occasion. I am thinking of David Ford and his colleagues in the Alliance party, who have repeatedly felt passed over at times of great importance in Northern Ireland political debate, only to see the Government returning cap in hand and asking for support at times when they have found themselves in a difficult corner.

I think the hon. Gentleman is being a little unrealistic and a little churlish. I also think he should recognise that the Alliance has the number of members it has because people voted for that number of members.

Indeed. Contrary to all predictions in the Chamber—apart from mine—the Alliance increased the number of its seats. I have made that point, and the Minister knows exactly what I mean. It it is to the credit of the DUP at this stage that it has been consulting all parties, but the consultation must be meaningful. It must not consist simply of the relating of decisions made to the exclusion of the minority parties.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that we met all the parties, and have agreements with them on how we will meet and continue the dialogue.

I am encouraged to hear that. It is symptomatic of the positive changes that have taken place this year. I am sure that members of minority parties in Northern Ireland who are listening will accept the right hon. Gentleman’s comments in good faith, and with the positivity that I consider appropriate to the important strategic statement that he has just made.

There has been talk of stopping Stormont Assembly Members’ salaries. While there are those who are still frustrated by many years of paid silence in the corridors of power in Stormont, perhaps we can now leave that aside. I am sure that no reasonable suggestion about future financial arrangements would be refused, but let us be clear about this: if for some reason things do not happen on 8 May, I will sincerely expect the Minister to be true to his word and stop paying individuals for not delivering on devolution.

The Liberal Democrats have always been friends of the process, and I have always sought to be a friend, albeit sometimes a critical friend, to successive Secretaries of State as they have stumbled to find their way through the mire of political quicksand that has sometimes threatened to engulf them. Unlike others, I have never allowed political expediency to get in the way of what is right for the processes of peace. Even when criticised by other parties, we have done our best to support the Government.

Those of us who have helped the Government in good faith expect good faith back in return. The process is not yet over, although I sincerely hope that we are in the endgame. Until we have finished the discussions of the next six weeks, my advice is that the Government had better take care of their friends, because there are many who offer good will, but expect the good will to be returned.

Thankfully, unlike much of the tortuous process of past years, what we have in front of us today is short and simple, in the form of this Bill.

The Secretary of State will recall that some of us predicted that we would be here in late March facing more emergency legislation, probably providing for a date in May. When we honestly offered that as our best surmise about what was likely to happen, we were rubbished by the Secretary of State and others. To that extent, our judgment and assessment has been vindicated, but it included the assumption that we would have the required arrangements at least by May.

Some of us have always believed in power sharing and have stuck with that belief since the 1970s, in the darkest days of the troubles. Stars of hope arose in the past when parties got together and promoted power sharing, but those stars were shouted down and shot down by people in parties such as the DUP and by people in the provisional republican movement. The unswerving belief by parties such as the Social Democratic and Labour party and others that power sharing, partnership, co-operation and shared institutions that deliver a shared future—not only in the north but on a north-south basis—are the way to create a future for forthcoming generations has absolutely been vindicated by recent developments.

I have observed before that our peace process has carried more people on more roads to Damascus than the Syrian bus fleet, and we saw that again yesterday. Not only did the DUP and Sinn Fein agree power sharing—in different ways, they can say that they have previously agreed that—but in meeting as they did, they entered into a sort of political compact. That is very positive. The fact that they were able to present the option of a new date for devolution on 8 May and to make the commitments that they did is a much more hopeful sign of how things are going to work than what we legislated for in this House previously, when we had to remove, at the DUP’s insistence, the provision for the joint election of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister because it was said that they could not be jointly elected under the Good Friday agreement, and that it should be done separately. Now that people are prepared to engage in this sort of compact, we will be able, under the review of the workings of the agreement, to revert to joint election in future.

I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) and to the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Adams) for, as the right hon. Member for North Antrim has said, meeting the other parties yesterday. The president of Sinn Fein met the other parties, not in a series of bilaterals, but at least in order to share some thoughts about certain issues with other parties.

If we are to make things work it is important that we make the most of the next six weeks, and the least of whatever difficulties might arise in that period, so that we can, in turn, make the most of all the devolved institutions when they return.

The hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) referred to some of the comparisons made in the newspapers between yesterday’s meeting and, for example, the Rabin-Arafat meeting. There is a big difference. We do not have two leaders who are setting out on a voyage to try to discover arrangements and devise institutions. We already have agreed institutions, which were previously established and have proved themselves. All parties, whether they voted for them or not, could work well within them. We need to remember that, in the past, those institutions were brought down and destabilised, not because they could not function or suffered from structural problems and procedural and partisan tensions, but because of issues outside. We therefore have cause for more hope and a bit more confidence than some hon. Members suggest.

I hope that the Bill, which has been introduced in emergency mode, is the last Northern Ireland emergency measure that the House has to tackle. We know that we cannot have 100 per cent. confidence in that, but I do not want to join the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) in spreading too much doubt about 8 May. We would do better to leave that aside and concentrate on all the other issues about which we want to create certainty and build confidence.

The developments of recent days have vindicated those of us who always believed in power sharing and consistently believed in the Good Friday agreement. In the aftermath of the agreement, some of us argued that the institutions would allow people to sit down in partnership and co-operation—not only Unionists and nationalists, loyalists and republicans, but those who voted yes and those who voted no. Again, some people doubted that. Yesterday’s events help prove that those of us who argued for that were correct.

Yesterday vindicates not only those of us who stood by the agreement but those of us who helped negotiate it and made specific choices during the negotiations. It vindicates those of us who resisted the pressures from, among others, the Prime Minister and George Mitchell, not to go for an Executive model of power sharing, to duck deciding whether there would be Ministers and an Executive and to abandon the principle of inclusion. We insisted on the principle of inclusion because we wanted to ensure that, when the agreement came to be endorsed nobody would have the excuse for voting against it, because that would have created a form of government that included some parties and excluded others. We therefore succeeded in maximising the endorsement in the referendum, but we also wanted to ensure that even those who voted against the agreement would not, by virtue of that, be excluded from its institutions but could participate in them to the extent that they saw fit. We saw that as part of the healing process and as a means of breaking down barriers. Again, that judgment has been vindicated by the progress that we have made. Although changes have been made to some of the decision-making mechanisms under the agreement, the broad architecture remains essentially the same and I believe that we can make things work.

I want to make it clear that when the right hon. Member for North Antrim and the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster (Mr. McGuinness) take up their responsibilities as joint First Ministers, they can enter that office free from the sort of harassment and hassle to which parties that previously took that course were subjected. I want to assure them that as they undertake work, not in the interests of their parties but—in that office and working with others in the Executive—on behalf of the entire public, they will have my party’s understanding, good will and, every time it is deserved or necessary, our support. That is the only way in which we can take matters forward. I am no less a believer in the institutions of the agreement just because my party is weaker in them than it was. The level of our party support has not determined our judgment.

In yesterday’s statements by the leader of the DUP and the president of Sinn Fein—and in some of the remarks made today—people have rightly referred to the past. As on other occasions when there is much talk in the media of progress and a lot of hype and spin, victims are left with very mixed feelings, as the Secretary of State has rightly said. There is an added twist of futility that adds to the hurt that they have carried when they see people settling for power-sharing institutions, which Sinn Fein previously denounced so many times as equivalent to surrender and a sell-out. Even in the weeks running up to the Good Friday agreement, Sinn Fein was saying, “No return to Stormont,” and was insisting that because we were canvassing models for power-sharing institutions in the north and structures for north-south co-operation, the SDLP was a neo-Unionist party.

Similarly, the DUP and others within Unionism totally opposed power sharing and set their face against any attempts at it in the past. When people see parties that then rejected those concepts settling for and embracing them now, they have to wonder whether we needed to go through the suffering, the hurt, the political stalemate, the stagnation and the divisions that we went through—and the answer is that we did not.

In recent times in this process—perhaps because of our tolerance, patience and generosity—my party has lost seats, but I can live much more comfortably with lost seats than with what other parties have to live with: lost years, lost opportunities and lost lives. We could have been and we should have been where we are now far sooner. If it is our destiny now, it was always our destiny. If it is the only way forward now in circumstances of peace, then surely it was the only way forward in circumstances of difficulty, division, violence and ongoing suffering.

I also want to join the Secretary of State in offering thanks to his predecessors in that office and, of course, to the Prime Minister—and, indeed, the previous Prime Minister, who contributed so much in unlikely circumstances to the process. The Secretary of State knows that we have been frustrated many times about how the process was handled, and we believe that if the Government had been firmer and fairer in the earlier years after the agreement, we would have got further faster. A certain destabilisation of the institutions was allowed and was tolerated—at the expense, we believe, of the long-term process.

The Government could have shown better authority in the immediate years after the agreement by making two things clear: first, that decommissioning was absolutely a requirement of the Good Friday agreement and had to happen by May 2000; and, secondly, that decommissioning was not a precondition of the establishment of the institutions. If the Government had shown good authority on those two basic points, we would not have had the running instability that led to delays in establishing the institutions and then the various suspensions and subsequent difficulties.

I do not want to pretend in the warm glow of expectation that we now feel that those frustrations and criticisms are not still felt, but we have to recognise—and the House has to recognise—that were it not for the Prime Minister, there would not have been a Good Friday agreement. We ensured that it was a better agreement than perhaps he suggested in the faxes that he sent us in the weeks before its negotiation, but if it were not for him and his ministerial colleagues, I do not believe that we would have had the agreement. I believe that we could have had a better agreement, and more from it sooner, if different approaches had been followed, but the agreement is still there and we are essentially returning to it. It is a case of back to the future on 8 May.

An observation was made in the American context—that irony in politics is just hypocrisy with panache. There were ironies in some of what went on yesterday, and, to give credit where it is due, there was certainly panache as well. I will leave it at that. What we have to do now is make the most of the opportunity and the responsibility—and a real sense of responsibility certainly came through yesterday. We want to take things forward: we have to refit our economy, rebuild and renew our public services and completely upgrade our infrastructure. I believe that all the parties will set their faces to that task—not just in the work with the Chancellor, but in the decisions and choices that will be made, some of which, when devolution returns, will be hard. Then we will move from divided grievances to shared government, and complete the journey from paying the price for growing apart to reaping the rewards of growing together in both the north and the south. As we do that, we will build a new country and a new society, and we will restore faith in politics—a new belief. Northern Ireland will be known for positive things. We will start to appear at the right end of the league tables rather than always being at the wrong end. We will no longer be a byword for instability, stagnation, political difficulty and political crisis. This generation will have the chance to write its own history in a very positive light.

I welcome the fact that people have belatedly embraced the point that the only way forward is power sharing and inclusion. We can put up with six weeks. Although I sympathise with some of what the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) has said, the Secretary of State would not have been in a strong position if he had come here today and said, “I have kept my word, but I have lost my marbles.” We know what the deadline was for—it was to ensure an outcome—and I hope and believe that we have that outcome, so let us get on with it.

We can all agree with the last words of the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan).

I have gently chided the Secretary of State about the deadline, and he knows that I would rather that it had been slightly more elastic—for example, it could have been “the end of April”. However, we are here today because he was insistent. I do not want to be churlish—this is not a time for churlish speeches; this is a time for hope and determination. I pay tribute to the Secretary of State, with whom I have always been able to talk confidentially and properly about events in Northern Ireland. In my experience, he has never betrayed a confidence. He has not always done the things that I would have liked him to do, but he has always been determined to see the day that we now see. I pay tribute to him and to the Prime Minister. As my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) said in a splendid speech from the Front Bench, we would not be here today without the Prime Minister. I also pay tribute to John Major, because the personal chemistry between John Major and Albert Reynolds helped to get the show on the road. There are many people whom we can thank, such as previous Secretaries of State and previous Prime Ministers—Baroness Thatcher played her part—but this is a day for Northern Ireland.

I pay particular tribute to the right hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley), the First Minister designate who will soon be First Minister. I hope that he will have many years in office and that he will be able to lead, with the other parties at his side, the people of Northern Ireland to a brighter future. The best memorial that the right hon. Gentleman could have will be the pulling down of those strangely called peace walls in Belfast and Londonderry. If he can lead the people of Northern Ireland towards that consummation devoutly to be wished, then he will earn the undying gratitude of the people of the Province of Northern Ireland.

I wish the right hon. Gentleman well. He spoke with real statesmanship today, as he did yesterday. I remember sitting on the Government Benches in the summer of 1970, when we came to this House as new Members. I literally sat under him, and I almost had to send for earplugs, so resonant was the voice. In a spirit of charity and friendship, I say to him that he has moved a long way since then. He is now the elder statesman of Northern Ireland politics, and so much depends on him. We wish him and all the others, including, although it sticks a little to say it, the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Adams) and his colleagues, well.

I entirely approve of what the right hon. Member for North Antrim said about the handshake. A handshake is a gesture, and there is always a time for gesture, but what he and the hon. Member for Belfast, West must do is work together. They come from different backgrounds and have different legacies, but if they can work together alongside the other political parties in Northern Ireland—the Ulster Unionist party and the SDLP, for which I have a lot of time—there will indeed be true hope, and a real chance of taking Northern Ireland to a condition of real normality alongside the other parts of the United Kingdom.

The right hon. Member for North Antrim is, understandably, a great one for biblical texts, and one thinks of beating spears into ploughshares and lions lying down with lambs, although he is certainly not a lamb. One also thinks of another First Minister, although differently designated, who stood on the steps of a certain house and read the prayer of St. Francis. We all need to remember the context of that prayer, because it applies to Northern Ireland. We need a time of determination and a time without bitterness, which is the most corrosive of all emotions. There is plenty that one can be bitter about: there are those in Northern Ireland who have lost loved ones and suffered, and we have discussed that many times in the House. Like the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan), I wish that we had reached this stage a few years ago, but we are here now, and we must therefore look forward.

Most of all, we must not be euphoric, as my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury said. This is a time for determination, and a time when we must hold in our hearts—and if we so believe, in our prayers—all those who are working for the good of Northern Ireland. We must recognise that the road ahead will not be easy. There will be moments of verbal conflict and raging rows, when people will feel like throwing in the towel, slamming doors and walking out. I say to the right hon. Member for North Antrim and to all my colleagues in Northern Ireland that the temptations to turn their back must not be succumbed to. The greater good of the greater number must be recognised as the goal for all. It matters not whether a man or woman’s background is Protestant or Catholic, or which part of Northern Ireland they come from. Each one is individually important, and each one must be able to look to the power-sharing Executive as representing them, irrespective of their own political views and prejudices, of which we all have both.

There is a yearning in Northern Ireland for true peace and normality. I have had the good fortune to chair the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs for almost the past two years. When we conducted our inquiry into organised crime, we saw the black side. When we conducted our inquiry into tourism, we saw the bright side. We toured Northern Ireland, and saw what an incomparably beautiful part of the United Kingdom and the island of Ireland it is. The people who live there deserve—no less than the people who live in England, Scotland, Wales or the Republic— a bright future. It is my earnest hope that they will have a brighter future now.

We look to the right hon. Member for North Antrim and all his colleagues from all parties to help to deliver that bright future. We in the United Kingdom have a moral responsibility to do all that we can to assist. The Government have a real role. It must be possible for the people of Northern Ireland to determine the future of their education system, as they want it. It must be possible for the people of Northern Ireland to decide how the vexed question of water charges will be worked out. If we truly believe in devolution and in giving responsibility, we must give responsibility to those who have now shown themselves to be willing, and big enough, to take it. When that is done, that part of the United Kingdom will truly be as normal as the rest of it.

I again offer my congratulations to all who have brought us to the point that we have now reached, but most of all I offer my good wishes to those who will lead us into tomorrow.

I add my congratulations to those of other Members for everyone who was involved in the discussions that led to yesterday’s historic agreement at St. Andrews, so that we are now passing emergency legislation to ensure that we consolidate the peace process in Northern Ireland.

My interest in Northern Ireland dates back to when I was first elected to this House. Members will recall that in March 1993 the IRA tried to blow up gas holders in Winwick road in Warrington. That is my home town, and I was Member of Parliament for Warrington, South. Fortunately, the IRA failed on that occasion. I would not like to speculate on how many casualties there would have been if it had succeeded. Sadly, two weeks later on 21 March—the day after mothers’ day—the IRA set off two bombs in Bridge street in Warrington. They immediately killed a young boy called Johnathan Ball, and on 25 March Tim Parry’s ventilator was switched off after he had been injured by the explosions in Bridge street.

Wendy and Colin Parry are very close friends of mine. They have made a unique contribution to the Northern Ireland peace process. They never dwell on the past and on the tragic death of their son. I should add, for the record, that Bronwyn Vickers, who was also injured in the explosion, died some time later. Colin and Wendy Parry never look back. They always look forward and they have striven to contribute to the peace process in Northern Ireland. Through the Tim Parry Johnathan Ball peace centre in Warrington, they have established and developed links with the communities in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic and attempted to take forward the reconciliation process.

Colin Parry said today that he invited the Member for Mid-Ulster (Mr. McGuinness) for dinner at the peace centre in Warrington, but that he found it very difficult to sit opposite Martin McGuinness and to eat food with him. However, he also said that if it was possible for him to do that, it should be possible for the right hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) and the Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Adams) to sit down and play their part in taking forward the peace process in Northern Ireland. He congratulates them both on reaching yesterday’s historic agreement.

My hope for the peace process is that the next six weeks are used positively, that we reach the deadline of 8 May and that power sharing once again takes place in Northern Ireland, so that we can use that and build on the foundations of the peace process that were laid by John Major in a previous Government, and then taken forward by our Prime Minister and by those on all sides of the divides in Northern Ireland who have sought to reconcile their differences. I hope that we consolidate the peace process. To borrow Colin Parry’s words, if that happens, the death of his son Timothy and the death of Johnathan Ball will not have been in vain.

There is one certainty in politics: when there is an historic moment of progress and promise there will be at least two reactions, one of which is that persons and parties attempt to justify the positions that they have adopted, and the other is that there will be those who seek to ensure that no one forgets the role that they played in events. My right hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) and other Democratic Unionist party Members of Parliament care nothing about those issues. The only important factor in any agreement that is reached is the benefit that it will bring to the people of Northern Ireland.

In saying that, I take nothing away from all who have contributed, not least those who have been involved with us in negotiations since we became the largest political party in Northern Ireland in 2003, including the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State and all of their officials. It is proper that that is put on the record. We have spent many hours on this; I cannot imagine how many drafts of sections of legislation we have looked at. It has been a very long road.

I want to make one point. I am told—I did not hear it myself—that the suggestion was made that the Home Secretary had in some way intervened, and that the DUP had made some agreements with him behind the back of the Secretary of State. I have not been asked to make any remarks on this, so my word will, I hope, be all the more sincere and genuine. No such agreements were ever reached with the Home Secretary. He is one of those Cabinet Ministers who would never pass one in the corridor without having a word—I have often had to console him about the defeats of Glasgow Celtic—and he has an abiding interest in Northern Ireland matters. From time to time, of course, we talk about progress that is being made, but at no stage did the Home Secretary interfere in any way in the responsibilities of the Secretary of State. Lest there be any tension between the two Cabinet Ministers, let me put that on the record.

I want to say something about the position of my party. The DUP reached a decision on its own. It decided what the consequences might be. It was not bullied into that position by anybody. No threats from the Secretary of State, the Prime Minister or anyone else would have altered the considered opinion of the DUP. We put our position forward to the Government publicly, as we have in the past, publicly, making it clear that this was what the DUP believed to be the right thing to do. I shall not remind people in any detail of the debate that we had on the Northern Ireland (St. Andrews Agreement) Act 2006 and the amendment that we put forward, which suggested that there should perhaps be some flexibility on the date of 26 March. If our amendment had been passed, we could have saved ourselves some time tonight and got on with the business of the Budget.

The reality is that deadlines are much less important than agreements. Let us consider the reality for Northern Ireland if we had proceeded yesterday to set up an Executive without all the essential preparatory work that is required. We saw that in our meetings with the political parties yesterday, as we stacked up the issues that we had to deal with between now and May, with barely enough time between now and then to complete those preparatory tasks. It was abundantly clear that to do the job properly and to bring the community with us, we needed that additional time. The substance of what will happen in future will be much more robust because we have that additional time, irrespective of the deadlines.

I have heard what the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) has said. She seems to be disappointed that agreement has been reached about the six weeks to a greater extent than she would have been if things had collapsed yesterday. That is sad and disappointing, and she needs to reconsider her position because it certainly is not the position held by her constituents. Indeed, with the same attitude, the leader of her party said yesterday, “Isn’t it a pity—all this could have been done nine years ago.” Of course it could not have been done nine years ago. Nine years ago, the IRA was still killing people. Nine years ago, it still held on to its illegal weapons. Nine years ago, it still continued with its paramilitary activity. Nine years ago, it still continued with its criminal activity. Nine years ago, it gave no support to the police, to the courts, to the rule of law. Nine years ago, there were no accountable structures under which we could operate. Nine years ago, legislation had not gone through this House ensuring a triple lock on the devolution of policing and justice—ensuring that if ever a policing and justice Minister were put forward, he had to be somebody who could command the support of the Assembly.

So, nine years ago this could not have been done. Indeed, nine years ago, without those things being done, some people did enter into government, and it was followed by suspensions, by crisis after crisis and, ultimately, by collapse. It will be no good to the people of Northern Ireland if we simply go for a deadline to get things moving. We need to get things right, and that was the slogan that this party adopted in the elections. However long it took, it was necessary to get things right.

I will be honest with the House: there was no joy in the hearts of members of this party at having to take the step that we took yesterday. There are people on these Benches who have suffered considerably at the hands of Republicans. There are people on these Benches who have lost members of their families—some many members of their families. There are people on these Benches whom the IRA has attempted to kill—and everyone on these Benches has had constituents butchered by the IRA. So there was no joy or enthusiasm in going forward in those circumstances.

It was a difficult decision to take; no doubt it was too difficult for some. I understand that it will be too big a decision to bear for some in the Democratic Unionist party. I accept their decision. I wish that they continued to walk with us. I wish that they could continue to use their talents for the benefit of the community in the only way that they can properly do so now, given the party sizes and structures in Northern Ireland. I am sad that people will leave and I hope that in time they will see that the decision that we have taken has been vindicated, but I recognise that many will find it too long a step to take.

There has been much history in Northern Ireland and the House has seen many events unfold over the years. The responsibility that we have, which was outlined by my party leader yesterday, was to ensure that no matter how great our own personal sadness about, or loathing of, all those events, we did not allow that sadness or loathing to become the stumbling block to ensuring that there is peace and stability in the future.

We have taken a decision based on our own judgment as to how we can move forward, but that is based entirely on all parties keeping the commitments that they have made, including an end to all paramilitary and criminal activity; to exclusively peaceful and democratic means; to the support of the police, the courts and the rule of law in every tangible way; and to demonstrate that in their daily lives and to encourage others to do so as well.

We have given our commitment to enter into an Executive, and when the Democratic Unionist party gives its word, the Democratic Unionist party keeps its word. Therefore, we will move between now and 8 May to ensure that all of the necessary work is completed. In that respect, I say to the Secretary of State that when we were working in the transitional Assembly, in the Programme for Government Committee, the members of that committee sought details from the Departments about the present circumstances on several issues, but the answers were less than forthcoming. If we are to do our job properly in the preparatory period, the Secretary of State must give instructions to ensure an opening up of the inside details of each Department—

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s speech and the eloquence with which he makes his contribution. I wish to give him, from the Floor of the House, an absolute and categorical assurance that I discussed yesterday with the head of the civil service, Nigel Hamilton, exactly the terms that the hon. Gentleman asks, which have also been requested by other parties. We will make our officials available. Whether the parties choose to indicate which individuals might assume ministerial posts or just wish to put individuals forward, they will be able to have access to the Departments so that they may properly prepare for government without hindrance. They will be able to discuss with ministerial colleagues any joint decisions that might come up in the future, so that they are not taken unilaterally by the present Government, but with consensus on them from the incoming ministerial team.

I am very grateful to the Secretary of State, whose intervention will be welcomed by all the parties that will form the Executive. We trust that we can have the unusual relationship that he described in the weeks that lie ahead—although I am not sure whether it means that we will be blamed for some of the decisions that will be taken in the next few weeks. However, it will be helpful to have a greater knowledge of the position in each of the Departments.

I do not want to burst the bubble of enthusiasm in the House and outside it about the events that occurred yesterday. However, my right hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim said that there would not be a love-in—I think that that was his term—but a work-in. Those who know the different backgrounds of the two lead parties in the Executive will recognise that there is a massive difference between them in their ideology and goals, and in how they see the political future of Northern Ireland.

Gerry Adams once said that an Executive with Ian Paisley would be a battle a day. I was attacked during the recent elections for agreeing with him, but that does not mean that we will be thrust into conflict over every issue that arises, as all the parties will be able to agree on many of the matters that come up. However, nothing changed yesterday in Gerry Adams’ desire to bring to an end the Union between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, and neither did anything happen to alter the determination of my right hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim that that link should be retained and strengthened. With two such constitutional opposites in an Executive, there is bound to be tension. If Gerry Adams really believes that there should be a united Ireland, that is what he will work towards. It will be the job of all Unionists in the Executive to ensure that Northern Ireland goes in exactly the opposite direction.

I believe that Northern Ireland’s best interests remain with the UK, and the DUP will continue to put that at the forefront of all its policies and strategy. I recognise that some do not share that view, but the big difference now is that the blood of people who disagree will not be spilled: instead, we can deal with such matters politically and allow the electorate to make their decisions in a democratic fashion.

The hand of history seems to have touched the people of Northern Ireland once again and another historic day has been marked on the calendar. We have had many historic days and, depending on one’s perspective, many times has the hand of history touched us on the shoulder, poked us in the back or walloped us in the ear.

However, the generosity and all-encompassing nature of the statements made yesterday—and again today in this Chamber by people such as my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan), the right hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) and the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson)—are a great ray of hope, both for me and for the people whom I have had the privilege to represent here for the past 20 years.

In fact, my memory goes back even further. Despite my youthful appearance, I have been involved in this process for more than 40 years, as I was first elected in 1961—almost half a century ago. In that time, the transition undergone by the people of Northern Ireland has been slow but remarkable. It may sound like a cliché, but the reality is that they have had to cope with a legacy that is many centuries old. Today, the orange and the green—the men of extreme violence and words—are joining together to promise a future that will embrace all the people in Northern Ireland and the island of Ireland. That is a day that I have long sought and long hoped for, and sometimes even prayed for. The communities of Northern Ireland have suffered greatly—I need not repeat that there have been 3,000-plus deaths, 30,000 maimed, and many, many maimed mentally for life as well, and we are still suffering the consequences of an enormous suicide rate. The divided communities are still there, with high walls between them. It is a huge challenge to translate the good will and the getting together from the hierarchy of political parties into the ghettoes that, unfortunately, are still to be found in some parts of Northern Ireland.

We need not be pessimistic, because the process is ongoing, and it has enabled this momentous occasion to take place. I know—I hope—that the agreement made yesterday between the two primary parties and the other parties will sustain us into a much more peaceful, tolerant and prosperous society than we have ever had in my lifetime. That is a huge dream to fulfil in many ways, and I hope that I will not be disappointed in any respect. I remember many years ago in the House when the first ceasefire was announced, and I know that we cannot expect a sudden switch-off of violence and attitudes of hatred. It will be a slow process and the new arrangements will be tested—perhaps, unfortunately, on the streets on the Northern Ireland. I hope that that does not happen, but the political will of the major parties and all the parties in the Assembly will be hugely tested.

While we have a Government primarily of two parties that were at the extremes—hopefully, they have moved from that position—there is a huge dichotomy in their policies. On 7 March, the people elected combatants rather than Governments, because never before in these islands or, indeed, in Europe, have people gone into an election where the Prime Minister has already been appointed from one party and the Deputy Prime Minister from another. The Governments, the media and everyone have encouraged people to involve themselves in what was a gladiatorial political contest. We have a result—and, yes, the people have spoken—but it was a contest of strength rather of policy.

There is a huge dichotomy in most of the major areas of social and economic development in Northern Ireland. Water rates were used as a weapon by the Government to persuade people that they must move, but in fact, in my constituency, there is a firm belief that water rates were a red herring, as the Government did not have the capability to collect them from 1 April onwards. I am only too happy for those rates to be shelved and used as a carrot for the parties coming into power. They will be shelved for one year, and it is their problem thereafter. There is a huge question, too, about the review of public administration. Sinn Fein wants seven super-councils, and the other parties are roughly united on a figure between 11 and 15. That must be resolved because it directly affects every aspect of life in Northern Ireland, perhaps for the next two decades. In education, one of the major parties supports the concept of selection for secondary education, but other parties do not.

Those huge differences have to be ironed out, hopefully before 8 May—although that may not be possible—so that people who committed themselves to the new partnership have a vision of where they are going and so that their problems can be addressed. It has taken a long, long time to arrive at this point, and if it is the final resolution of our problem it truly is an historic day not only for the north of Ireland, but for Ireland and the UK. Indeed, our diaspora throughout the world is taking solace from what has happened in Northern Ireland; perhaps we can even apply some of the lessons in conflict resolution in other areas. That may be presumptuous, but we have some experience.

I wish the parties involved every success. They will have our support. I want to put on the record my thanks to the Secretary of State, the Prime Minister, the British Government, the Taoiseach and the Irish Government for their unswerving commitment in trying sometimes to knock heads, sometimes to cajole, but more often to bribe. The bribery has been very effective.

I welcome the opportunity to participate in the debate this afternoon. May I say how much we appreciate the words that have been spoken by many in the Chamber, including the remarks just made by the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady)? Whatever our differences across the Chamber, we recognise him as a man of honour who has made a positive contribution to politics in Northern Ireland. Although he is no longer a Member of the Chamber at Stormont, he still has a contribution to make and we thank him for his comments.

What happened yesterday, difficult though it was for many, was a good day for Northern Ireland. It offers the prospect of a better future for all our people and, as my colleague and leader, my right hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) said, what we are trying to do—what we want to do—is for the benefit of all the people in Northern Ireland. It would be easy simply to act in a sectional interest; it would be easy to do what the loudest voices might want us to do, but leadership is about making tough decisions and displaying courage and vision, and my right hon. Friend’s comments yesterday demonstrate that he has done so in the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland.

I am sure my right hon. Friend will not mind me saying that the Democratic Unionist party made a collective decision. Our party executive met on Saturday. We had a good, constructive debate and more than 90 per cent. of the membership of that body backed the resolution proposed by the party officers. I believe their view represents the view in the country. As I said earlier, we have received many messages from across the community and across Northern Ireland supporting the leadership of our party in what we have done.

I am sure that there were people who were disappointed that government did not happen on 26 March, but the overwhelming majority—even those who voted for parties that were committed to 26 March—recognise that it is better to get it right. That is what we stood for in the election. That was our campaign slogan, but it was more than a slogan, more than mere words, more than a façade. We mean it. We want to get this right. The people of Northern Ireland have seen too many false dawns. How many times have we been here before? How many times has there been the prospect of a breakthrough and delivery of the peace for which we hoped, only for those hopes to be dashed? We do not want to do that. We do not want to build up people’s hopes only to see them falter and fall. That is why we want to get it right. We have worked hard to get it right and we are committed to getting it right.

With respect, I say to the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon): surely we have moved beyond the point of getting hung up on dates and allowing our disappointment to override our good judgment about what is best for the people of Northern Ireland?

May I remind the House that in the recent Assembly elections the Democratic Unionist party had only 30 per cent. of the vote on changing the deadline? However, DUP Members were not going to be calendar-led—not until today when they picked the date, and in fact we will be calendar-led, so they have changed that policy. More than 60 per cent. of the electorate voted for parties—including Sinn Fein—on manifestos that committed all the parties to sit in Government yesterday and to be paid yesterday. If Assembly Members are not sitting in a devolved Assembly, people at home are entitled to know why they will be paid for the next six weeks. That question has been raised with me in Northern Ireland, so let us find out.

The hon. Lady has missed the whole momentum and tenor of this debate. Her nit-picking and pettiness do her no good whatsoever. With the news that people will not be getting water charge bills through their door, that academic selection will remain in Northern Ireland—the good grammar schools in North Down will benefit from that—and that we are going to get a Government on 8 May, I do not believe that the people of North Down are sitting wondering whether it is right or wrong that their Assembly Members are getting paid. Those Members will now engage in preparatory work and will be working day and night, as we have been, and as the hon. Lady has not been, on this issue. We have been working long hours—well beyond midnight on many evenings—trying to resolve these issues and to make progress.

I do not think that anyone in my constituency is going to question whether I earn the much-reduced salary that I and my colleagues on these Benches—as both Members of Parliament and Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly—receive. Nor do I believe that the people who were elected in North Down will be any less worthy of the salaries that are paid to them, because we are preparing for the return to government. We are still a condition-led party.

The conditions need to be right. That is why we are continuing the discussions with the Government about the financial package and why we want to ensure that there are commitments on everyone’s part to supporting the police and the rule of law. Our resolution makes that absolutely clear: no one must go back on the commitments that they have given. So conditions are still very important to us, but we believe that by 8 May the conditions will be right, and that is why we have taken this decision. I will give way.

That is very generous indeed of the hon. Gentleman. He has just exemplified the generosity of spirit and the great charm of the DUP that mean that I, and thousands like me, will never vote DUP.

With the greatest respect to the hon. Lady, that is not the message that we are getting from traditional Ulster Unionist voters who have been contacting the Democratic Unionist party in the few hours since yesterday. With that kind of attitude, they will be switching their allegiance—and have been doing so. If she looks at the voting figures in North Down, she will see that the Democratic Unionist party is now the largest party in her constituency. What does that say about her representation when it comes to the people in her constituency? If I was sitting in Lagan Valley and another party was taking over as the leading party, I would not attack that party and make churlish remarks like the ones she has just made. I would try to do something to ensure that this process works, because that is what the people of North Down want.

Is it not a fact that the election is over? The people have made a decision. The party of the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) did not want an election. It fired its arrows into my heart and said, “Imagine him daring to ask for an election.” I asked for the election. I felt that all the people of Northern Ireland had the right to say what they said. They did not say it in the way that she wanted it said, but the election is over. We have to go forward to fulfil the obligations that are put upon us by what the electorate said.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention. He is absolutely right. I believe that the hon. Member for North Down will be eating her words, because the DUP has been consistently increasing its support. One of the reasons why I left the Ulster Unionist party was that it has become so embittered towards fellow Unionists and so tied up in its inward-looking attitude that it cannot see the wood for the trees. I think that traditional Unionists will be glad of what happened yesterday, as are all hon. Members, with the exception of the hon. Member for North Down. She might reflect on why she is alone on this Bench as the only Ulster Unionist Member and wonder whether the attitude that she is displaying today is part of the reason for that.

It is time to look forward. I welcome the Bill because it offers the prospect of real progress. However, I also realise that some people have difficulties with the measure. This morning’s edition of the Belfast News Letter includes comments made by William Harpur, a disabled former police officer who survived four IRA attempts on his life. He is unhappy with what has occurred. I respect Mr. Harpur’s opinion and understand where he is coming from. However, I say to him and many others like him that the reason why we want to build the new future for Northern Ireland is so that no other policeman has to be the subject of terrorist attack and so that there is a genuine end to terrorism.

The date of 12 August 1970 is etched on my mind because it was the day on which the politics of Northern Ireland first came into my life, with the murder of Samuel Donaldson, the first Royal Ulster Constabulary officer to be murdered by the IRA in the troubles. He was my cousin. I can well remember the day that my uncle came to our front door to deliver the news of his death at a place called Crossmaglen in south Armagh. I am glad that we have the prospect that his death and the others that have occurred in Northern Ireland might be the last of the deaths of gallant officers who have stood at the front line to serve and protect the community of Northern Ireland. If the price that I have to pay to ensure that that happens is to swallow hard, look to the future and perhaps face difficult and challenging decisions, I am prepared to pay it, and so are my colleagues. We want to be sure that when people say that they support the police, they actually do support the police, and that when they say that they want to uphold the rule of law, that is precisely what they do. We have taken the extra time—not just the six weeks, but the time since 24 November, when we had the last deadline—because we want to get this right. That is important for everyone in Northern Ireland.

In six years, people will look back at these events. Will those people who feel that an extra six weeks is too high a price to pay really remember those six weeks if we get economic stability in Northern Ireland after years of underinvestment, neglect and the troubles, when our economy has been put under enormous pressure? If we have a peaceful society, will they reflect that it was not worth taking the extra six weeks so that we could secure that future for them and our children? I do not believe that they will. I do not think that anyone will remember much about 26 March as a deadline. They will remember it as a day that offered hope for the future.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim and my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) said, we recognise that the road ahead will not be easy. There are many difficulties and challenges to overcome. There are battles ahead, but at least we have the hope that the differences between us in Northern Ireland will be resolved by peaceful means alone, not by resorting to violence. That is what we have fought for and it is the position in which we have always wanted to be. As the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) commented, we could say that this might have happened several years ago. Perhaps things could have happened sooner, but, unfortunately, the men of violence have taken so long to make the transition that it has taken until now to achieve what we hope is being achieved.

I look to the future with hope, but I recognise that there is still pain in our community. As my right hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim said yesterday at the Parliament building, Stormont, we do not forget those who have lost and the victims who still carry the pain, the hurt and, like Mr. Harpur, the disabilities that are the result of our conflict and the violence. We will not forget those people. They will receive support and the recognition that they deserve. They will not be left behind. We need to bring them with us into the future, just as we need to bring everyone in Northern Ireland with us into the future. That will not be easy. There are people on both sides who have doubts—and why would not they have doubts, after so many years of false dawns and dashed hopes? However, perhaps this time there is a real prospect of moving forward. This House and Parliament have a role to play.

Today, I am proud to be a Member of the Parliament of the United Kingdom, because I believe that my place in the Union is secure. I believe that Northern Ireland has come through the troubles and the worst of times, and has emerged, although perhaps not as a better place. However, we have learned, and I hope that we have learned enough to know that violence is not the way to resolve our differences. Parliament can continue to make a real contribution. Later this evening, we will wind up the debate on the Budget, and as well as looking to the Northern Ireland Office to help us on our way forward with the administrative arrangements, we look to the Treasury to help us with the financial arrangements, but we are not holding out a begging bowl. Our objective is to rebuild our economy so that we can pay our way in the United Kingdom, because we are a proud people, and we do not want to be dependent on others. We want an economy that enables us to be fully part of the UK, and we want to be capable of securing our place by paying our way and playing our full role in this United Kingdom.

A lot of people present in the Chamber have come a long way to get where we are today. I was just thinking about some of the things that I have gone through since I first got involved in Northern Ireland politics. In 1988, a group of 11 parents came across to north-east England to tell us about the children whom they had lost because of plastic bullets. We went with them to Brock’s fireworks factory in Sanquhar in south-west Scotland, where the plastic bullets were made. They were pilloried by local people for going there and for asking, “Will you please stop making these weapons, because they are killing our children?” It was a salutary lesson for me about man’s inhumanity to man, and particularly about inhumanity towards young people.

Later that same year, I attended a demonstration in Glasgow to speak against the restrictions on freedom of speech that had been imposed on Sinn Fein. It was not that I necessarily approved of what Sinn Fein was doing, but I disapproved of silencing people, as that is the wrong thing to do. Again, we were met with howls of protest, and the demonstrators faced real and present danger in the streets of Glasgow. Thankfully, we have come a long way since then, but even so, there have been milestones and setbacks.

In the early 1990s, I was involved with a group called the Agreed Ireland Forum. Its members, who were from virtually every part of Irish society, first came across to this country for a meeting, and then went back to hold meetings in Ireland to try to take things forward. I was pleased to be able to organise a conference in Newcastle, County Down, just a few days after the bombing of Canary Wharf. People from every political party in Northern Ireland bar one—unfortunately, it was the Democratic Unionist party—came to that meeting, as well as people from the ethnic minorities, a growing group whose needs must be taken care of in the new Northern Ireland. The meeting was opened by the President of the Republic of Ireland; that was a very strong statement, all those years ago. It said, “Yes, we can work together.”

In an intervention on the Secretary of State, I mentioned the work of the trade unions. I am proud of the fact that I worked with trade unions in Northern Ireland that tried to ensure normalcy when their members were working in chaos. Their members were threatened every day by people trying to jump queues and abuse public servants and public services. I was convinced and guided by people on both sides, including a branch secretary at a hospital in Belfast, who had served time as a young man for robbing banks to fund the loyalist cause, and civil rights marchers on the Republican side who have carried the flame from the 1960s to the 1990s and beyond, to try to develop peace in Northern Ireland. I was attacked by so-called London Irish representatives of my own union, who said that we should not even be organising in Northern Ireland, despite the fact that we were by far the largest trade union in Northern Ireland, and despite the fact that 30,000 people wanted to be members of my union. I am very glad that we ignored those voices.

We developed structures that crossed sectarian barriers and we said, “If it’s wrong, it’s wrong. It doesn’t matter where you went to school. It doesn’t matter where you go to church. It doesn’t matter what your name is. If you’re being treated badly, the union will stand up and oppose that.” I probably had more problems in the trade union movement with people arguing among themselves than we had in arguments about the country’s politics.

I supported the work of my Government and of my party before it got into government. My union was responsible for funding much of the work that Mo Mowlam did before she went in as Secretary of State. That meant that as a Minister she was able to confront civil servants and wipe them out of the way, so that she could sit down and talk directly with the politicians on the ground who were developing a way forward that was not blocked by the stagnant, cold hand of the civil service in Northern Ireland.

In the short time before April 1998, that helped to move forward the Good Friday agreement. When it was up and running, yes, the first Assembly sat for only 72 days, but in that short time the work of people like the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) showed that despite the opposition from outside the Assembly, there was a chance to make progress. People did get together and work positively. After suspension, the Assembly returned. All the arguments and problems were described earlier by the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson). We went from crisis to crisis to collapse.

There has been much talk today about deadlines. I wish I had a pound for every deadline that has been set and broken. The real worry in the past was that when a deadline failed, a vacuum followed. The history of Northern Ireland is that if a political vacuum occurred, the terrorists filled it. I wish the deadline had not passed yesterday, but there is no vacuum. Instead, people are working their socks off to try and pull things together and make the agreement work. That is a massive change.

Since I entered the House two years ago, there have been enormous frustrations. We have sat down and worked together for hours, and it has been pointless, going forwards, then backwards. We sat for 27 hours on one Bill. The Secretary of State had to come to the House and acknowledge that it was not working. He had egg on his face that day, as well as yesterday. That was frustrating for those who wanted to see the process move forward.

While people in the political world in the House and in Northern Ireland have to some extent been talking to each other, in Northern Ireland the people’s world has moved forward massively. It is unrecognisable, compared with what it was 10, 20 or 30 years ago. In every sense it is a much better place, and we should all be proud of that. The Northern Ireland Assembly is to be led by probably the two most polarised parties anywhere in Europe, if not the world, and there will be ideological problems, but in a democracy that must be accepted.

Since I entered the House, I have worked closely with the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) on the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. Twenty years ago I was ideologically opposed to his Government, and I still am. As a miner, I was ideologically opposed to what his party was trying to do to my community. That has not stopped us, along with other Members with similar experiences, working together for the betterment of the people whom we represent and for the people of Northern Ireland. That demonstrates the possibilities for the people who will take up responsibility.

We now have a date for restoration. The positive things that were said yesterday not only by the DUP, but by Sinn Fein, about being serious and making the agreement work, have set an agenda. Collapse is no longer an option. Yes, there will be crises. That is part and parcel of the democratic process, but walking out, deliberately undermining the process because one group cannot get their own way, is not on. That would be a betrayal of the people whom they represent, of the House and of the trust that the House has placed in them. It would also betray the people of Great Britain, who for 40 years have supported the people of Northern Ireland in every sense and want to continue to do so. I take on board what was said earlier—that nobody in Northern Ireland wants to be the recipient of handouts. I accept that totally, because I know what proud people they are. The fact is, however, that what has happened over the past 40 years has caused economic disadvantage to Great Britain, and that when we get rid of that disadvantage it will be to the benefit of us all.

We will betray the futures of our children and our children’s children if we do not make the system work this time. I am not naïve. I know that it will not be easy, and I know that this is very much a beginning and not an end. Democracy is not easy; it is much easier to move in the other direction. But I plead with all who will run the Assembly in Northern Ireland not to abuse the chance that they have been given.

It is interesting to follow the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson). I am sure that throughout my time in the 1980s and 1990s our views on the position in Northern Ireland would have been diametrically opposed, but we certainly agree today.

I was an Army intelligence officer in Northern Ireland in 1994. I therefore had a unique insight not only into the thinking of the Government of the day and the efforts that they were making towards peace, but into what was going on inside the terrorist organisations. It is right to pay tribute at this time to the men and women of the Royal Ulster Constabulary’s special branch, the military and the security services, who not only worked to achieve justice and catch criminals and terrorists, but had worked towards peace for many years before the 1994 ceasefire. They continue to work towards peace, whatever their titles are today, because we always worked not just to catch members of the IRA or the loyalist paramilitaries but to achieve a settlement.

Ministers will be aware, although they may not be allowed to say it in a public forum, of the work that has taken place, and is taking place today, to ensure that the Government of the United Kingdom are in the best position to use information to achieve peace. There was no great conspiracy to make war and continue conflict; the conspiracy was only to achieve a good resolution for peace.

I must give some credit to a man to whom it is not easy for me to give credit. I must give credit to Gerry Adams, and to Sinn Fein. I know from experience, from members of Gerry Adams’s organisation and indeed from the IRA, how much horror and murder was inflicted by some of those individuals,