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Commons Chamber

Volume 505: debated on Monday 8 February 2010

House of Commons

Monday 8 February 2010

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Home Department

The Secretary of State was asked—

Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs

1. What recent advice he has received from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs on drugs which cause so-called legal highs. (315829)

7. What recent advice he has received from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs on drugs that induce so-called legal highs. (315835)

In March last year, my predecessor commissioned the ACMD to provide advice on so-called legal highs or new psychoactive drugs. Following receipt of the council’s advice, we have banned a number of substances, including synthetic cannabinoids, such as Spice, benzylpiperazine and gamma-butyrolactone—BZP and GBL respectively. As a priority, I am now expecting advice from the ACMD on the cathinone group of drugs, including mephedrone.

Does the Home Secretary share my concern that the purveyors of those pernicious preparations can often be one step ahead of the authorities, either by reformulating the molecules slightly or by marketing them as, for example, plant food?

I do. That is why it is very important to get a generic classification, so that we can cover whole areas and not allow the manufacturers of those drugs to shift around. We can actually make illegal a whole range and classification of those drugs.

There is growing concern in north Wales over the increasing use of mephedrone, which as the Secretary of State knows is a substance related to ecstasy, and which is readily available on the internet, where it is marketed as plant food. Children as young as 14 years old are reported to be using it. He mentioned that he is expecting a report from the ACMD on the group of substances that includes mephedrone, but can he say when he expects to receive it?

Yes, I spoke to Professor Les Iversen, the new chair of the ACMD, last week. This is a priority for the council—an absolute priority. It expects to receive the advice on 22 February. Thereafter, it expects to make a decision in early March. It is a priority and the council is moving as quickly as it can, consistent—this is the point I made earlier—with trying to ensure that it deals not only with mephedrone, but the whole generic group, so we will not be fooled by the manufacturers’ shifting around.

As we consider substances in the cathinone group of chemicals—that includes khat, by the way, which is used by people from the horn of Africa—is there not a danger that, as we put more and more substances into the ABC classification, we merely displace the problem? There is an endless list of chemicals and natural products that chemists can supply on to the market. Is there not also a danger of displacing illicit drug users to using products in the legal market?

I accept that there may be a danger. That is why the ACMD is composed not only of scientists, but of others, including police officers, others from law enforcement agencies and so on. It is very important that I take the council’s advice, and its advice will be much wider than just the classification; it will also look at the kind of issues that my hon. Friend raises.

Professor Les Iversen, the interim chairman of the ACMD is quoted this morning as saying:

“It is a quite scary scenario”

that schoolchildren can buy legal highs such as mephedrone over the internet and take them freely. Professor Iversen wrote to the Home Secretary on 22 December advising that the selling of mephedrone in a form for which it is clearly unintended, as we have heard,

“could have serious public health implications”.

What action have the Government taken in response to Professor Iverson’s advice?

Professor Iversen’s advice is in the context of the work of the ACMD. His letter to me on 22 December pointed out that that is why this matter is the council’s priority. We will receive its advice and guidance before we take action. That is the correct sequence of events.

Student Visas (Fraud)

We introduced the points-based system for students in March 2009. We estimate that around 2,000 colleges have ceased offering courses to overseas students as a result. Our review of tier 4 is aimed to close down the consequential attempts to gain entry to the UK for non-student purposes.

Apart from language schools, colleges offering legitimate degree courses and other courses would be expected to have a high proportion of British nationals. The Home Secretary and his Ministers can almost certainly find many dubious, bogus colleges simply by investigating those with a surprisingly high number of foreign national students on their rolls. Why will they not do so?

We have done so, and we continue to do so. As I said, we estimate that around 2,000 colleges have had to withdraw courses for overseas students or close. Previously there was not a sponsored licence system. The great advantage of the points-based system is that we can now hold not just the student to account, but the sponsor too.

My understanding is that across the subcontinent, in places such as Chandigarh, Jalandhar, Nepal and New Delhi, the UK Border Agency has temporarily ceased processing tier 4 student applications because of the huge volume of work. When will reprocessing recommence?

My hon. Friend is right. Precisely because we have the new system, we can monitor where we think there might be abuse. We have had to suspend tier 4 applications in three such posts. We will reopen those posts for applications as soon as possible, and we intend to lay out the findings of the new review as soon as possible.

Back in November, the Minister said:

“We have clamped down on student visas now and we have a much better system.”

What has changed since then?

The hon. Gentleman is quick to criticise the points-based system. It is precisely because we can close down the bogus colleges, by having the sponsored licence system, that people who wish to abuse our hospitality then look for other methods to gain entry into the United Kingdom. He should know that controlling the borders is a constant campaign against those who wish to abuse our system. That is what we are doing, and I would welcome his support in that endeavour.

Three months ago the Minister said that

“we have a much better system.”

There will obviously be a suspicion that the Government are simply delivering pre-election rhetoric in an area where there are widespread concerns. Let me test the Minister on the substance of the proposals. Yesterday he announced that people on student visas will now be allowed to work only 10 hours a week, not 20. Can he tell the House how many students have been prosecuted for working more than 20 hours a week?

It is clear that the hon. Gentleman drafts his questions based on a press cuttings service. What he described is neither what we said nor what the press reported, but let me assume that it is, just for his benefit. The proposals relating to dependencies and work times are for those at sub-degree level, as has been urged on us by some people. However, I repeat: I would seriously ask him to support the Government in this endeavour, otherwise he will rightly be accused of being more interested in criticising us than in providing an immigration system. We closed down the bogus colleges—around 2,000 of them—but there are attempts by some with bad intentions towards our country to get around that, so we have had to review that again.

Criminal Offences (Repeal)

I am most grateful for that thorough answer, but may I point out to the Minister that in the 19 criminal justice Acts introduced since 1997, 68 sections and 25 schedules have not yet been fully implemented, and that of the thousands of new criminal offences that have been introduced, many are ludicrous or unnecessary, such as offering for sale a game bird killed on Christmas day? When are the Government going to stop their knee-jerk reaction every time a problem arises—saying that a new law is required—and have a policy of removing unwanted and unnecessary legislation?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for reminding us of the number of criminal justice Acts that this Government have introduced. Perhaps he would include among the pieces of legislation that he would wish us to review the Criminal Justice Act 2003, which allows new evidence for serious crimes, and introduces new sentences for murder, sexual and violent offences, and DNA fingerprints, bringing 37 killers and 90 rapists to justice, or the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003, which gives the power to close crack houses. The Liberals voted against both Bills at Third Reading. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would find a way to remove many of those provisions, because ultimately the record shows that the Liberals have been soft on crime.

I welcome the fact that in recent years up to 90,000 people have been charged with hate crime—crimes of racism and anti-Semitism, and attacks on gay people—with conviction rates of up to 80 per cent. That is making Britain a more decent and fairer place. I do wish that the Liberal Democrats would stop rubbishing efforts to bring a bit more justice to many areas where we have an unjust society.

Indeed. Every Liberal Democrat Member of the House has lower crime, more police officers and more resources to tackle crime than in 1997. The Bills—now Acts—that we have taken through the House have helped to contribute to that. On balance—on the Criminal Justice Act, on antisocial behaviour and on licensing, and in the Lib Dem freedom Bill—the Lib Dems have voted against all those measures.

Everybody is in favour of updating and modernising the law, but in answer to our parliamentary questions, we learn that the sheer number of new offences under this Government since 1997 is now more than 4,200, which is frankly staggering. Up to 2008, we were churning out 27 new offences a month; under this Prime Minister, the figure has now gone up to 33. Many merely replicate perfectly serviceable offences. What proposals is the Minister making to ensure that new offences do not duplicate those that are already on the statute book?

That is part of our overall general review. We want to see the police using effective legislation—for example, DNA recording for recordable offences, allowing the police to detain people who have been arrested for a recordable offence. That happened under legislation that the hon. Gentleman voted against, through which 37 killers and 90 rapists to date have been brought to court and are in prison as a result. That is the sort of legislation I believe in, but it is the sort of legislation that the Liberal Democrats have voted against.

The Minister really should not be making partisan points when, frankly, the degree of new legislation is plunging police officers, magistrates and other others who are forced to deal with it into considerable confusion. The Home Secretary and the Minister may know of a useful precedent in another common law country of Canada, where they have simplified the criminal law with a penal code. Does the Minister agree that that is a useful initiative for us to follow and will he commit the Government to looking at establishing a simple penal code for England and Wales?

The Government’s priority is cutting crime and making sure that we have sufficient powers to tackle it. I am sure that there is common consent across the House that legislation for parenting orders, fly-tipping, dispersal orders and closing crack houses are all useful. Again, the hon. Gentleman voted against them.

Ports (Security)

My noble Friend the Secretary of State for Transport and I speak regularly about security matters involving port security, as well as wider security issues. My officials also work closely with those in the Department for Transport.

Given that the Government have now given the green light for the privatisation of Dover and the other remaining UK trust ports, does the Home Secretary agree that a port like Milford Haven in my constituency, which controls access to 20 per cent. of the UK’s gas supplies and a quarter of the UK’s remaining oil refineries, is not a suitable candidate for privatisation and that ports that house critical national infrastructure should stay under national control?

I feel like signing up to this campaign. Unfortunately, it is not my responsibility, but that of the Secretary of State for Transport.

I welcome the steps taken by the Government in respect of body scanners at Manchester and Heathrow airport. Does my right hon. Friend agree that what are necessary now are international standards to deal with international terrorism because although we can do the very best we can in this country—and, indeed, within the EU—if countries outside the EU do not raise their game, this will pose a real problem in dealing with international terrorism?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Incidentally, we are introducing scanners at Birmingham airport as well. The issue is an international one. That is why I was pleased at the progress made at Toledo when the EU Interior and Justice Ministers, together with Janet Napolitano, the American Secretary of State for Homeland Security, agreed on a way forward not just in relation to what we do extra-EU, but intra-EU as well. Issues such as providing information on passenger records must be as important for travellers within the EU as for those travelling outside it. That, together with measures on body scanners and other security matters, must be tackled on an international basis.

The Home Secretary always makes a lot, as he has just now, of the importance of embarkation controls on e-Borders when he talks about security at ports and airports. Will he confirm that the previous embarkation controls were dismantled by this Government? Yesterday, the Home Secretary said on the “Andrew Marr Show” that the previous Government “did away” with embarkation controls when, in fact, that happened on 16 March 1998 under the present Government. I have the written answer here with me. Will he confirm that he was misleading viewers yesterday and also that the full replacement system will not cover all our ports until 2014, giving us 16 years of unprotected borders?

The embarkation controls for most medium-sized airports and ports were abolished in 1994 under the previous Government. I believe I also said on the “Andrew Marr Show” that the previous Government were probably right to do so, in the sense that those embarkation controls were worth very little when it came to checking whether people were leaving the country. There was supposed to be a marrying up with the landing cards, but there was horrendous incompetence. What the Conservative Government failed to do was to introduce a replacement, which we have sought to do. As for the hon. Gentleman’s comments about 2014, 95 per cent. of e-Borders will be in place by 2011. The remaining 5 per cent. relate to the small ports and harbours, which will necessarily take longer. However, all air travel will be covered by 2011.

Police Officers (Criminal Records)

Police officers are expected to demonstrate the highest professional standards of behaviour. Information on the number of serving officers who have criminal records is not held centrally. Decisions on whether to employ an individual who has such a record are a matter for each individual force.

My spies tell me that hundreds of serving police officers have a criminal record. My question is about applicants with a criminal record, who can be rejected by the chief constable concerned without the chief constable giving reasons. Is there not a case for an appeal mechanism, perhaps to a police authority, for someone who desperately wants to become a police officer, has turned over a new leaf and is a completely reformed character?

The regulations for police applications are governed by the Police (Conduct) Regulations 2008, which, as I am sure my hon. Friend knows, set out the conduct and standards of professional behaviour expected of police officers. Those hoping to join the service must declare on application whether they have any convictions or cautions, spent or otherwise. As my hon. Friend has said, the matter is one for the chief constable concerned. I am happy for police authorities to have roles on the issue, but ultimately it is for the local force to determine the seriousness of the offence concerned.

Stop-and-Search Powers

8. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of stop-and-search powers under section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000. (315836)

15. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the use of stop-and-search powers under section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000; and if he will make a statement. (315844)

The Home Office and police keep the effectiveness of section 44 under constant review. The noble Lord Carlile, the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, also reviews the operation of section 44 and reports his findings to Parliament. I believe that section 44 remains an important tool in countering the threat of terrorism.

Since the police can use random stop-and-search powers to look for personal items such as cameras, and people can be stopped from photographing public buildings, are we not in danger of going back to what East Germany was like before the wall came down, when people could be arrested for photographing a bridge? As Parliament’s intentions in this respect are being exceeded, will the Government look again at the matter in order to maintain confidence between the public and police?

I believe that Parliament’s intentions are being met. We face a severe threat of potential terrorist activity. Every approval of section 44 powers is by a senior officer in the local police force, and is then subject to my approval as the Minister, and to independent review by the noble Lord Carlile. In London alone over the last year, we have seen a 40 per cent. increase in the use of section 44. It remains an important tool in stop and search, not least because it is a deterrent and can help to foil potential terrorist activity.

The Minister keeps referring to Lord Carlile, who has himself said that

“section 44 is being used far too often on a random basis without any reasoning behind its use”.

Both the Aberystwyth and Lichfield camera clubs have told me that people taking innocent photographs have been stopped in London. It is not good enough; when will it change?

I am sorry, but Lord Carlile, in his report on 2008, published last June, said that section 44 remains

“necessary and proportional to the continuing and serious risk of terrorism.”

This is a matter for operational judgments by the police. In the Crime and Security Bill Committee, the Opposition tabled an amendment to delete the whole of section 44, which would not be sound or viable. Section 44 serves a function and protects the public, and I hope that the Opposition will support its use.

As the Minister knows, the amendment concerned was a probing amendment to encourage debate on the matter. As he also well knows, the stop-and-search powers under section 44 have been falling into disrepute, given that 180,000 searches took place in 2008 under those powers. The Government’s failure to act has meant that Liberty and the judges are now acting for them. Uncertainty about what powers will be available to the police have hindered planning for the Olympic games, for example. That has created a substantial mess. Will the Minister apologise to those who will have to sort out that lamentable inheritance?

I will not apologise for the fact that we have a power that helps to protect people in the city of London—potentially—from severe terrorist activity. In the past year alone, there has been a 40 per cent. reduction in the use of stop-and-search powers in the Greater London area. The powers are strictly monitored, and they are used for a purpose. We will examine the ruling by the European Court of Human Rights, and we are currently considering an appeal, but let us not get away from the fact that this is important legislation. It is being used properly, and I support its continued use.

Firearm and Shotgun Licences

9. How many police (a) officers and (b) civilian staff are employed in the administration and checking of firearm and shotgun licences. (315837)

In March 2009, 62 police officers were employed in the firearms and explosives functions in England and Wales, alongside 582 police staff of whom five were police community support officers.

I am sure that we are all very concerned about the scourge of gun crime in this country, but I wonder whether this expensive, bureaucratic paraphernalia does much to combat it. Can the Minister tell us exactly how many weapons used in crime have been legally registered?

The number of firearms offences has fallen in each of the last five years, partly because we have some of the tightest controls on legally held guns to prevent them from being used by criminals. It is true that legally held weapons are being stolen, and the Association of Chief Police Officers and the British Shooting Sports Council are trying to establish what further advice is necessary.

Immigration System (Tier 4)

10. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the operation of tier 4 of the points-based immigration system. (315838)

12. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the operation of Tier 4 of the points-based immigration system. (315841)

18. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the operation of tier 4 of the points-based immigration system; and if he will make a statement. (315847)

The review of tier 4 has made a number of recommendations, including the setting of a new minimum standard of English for those who wish to study at below degree level—including English language students—and measures to stop short-term students from bringing their dependants to the United Kingdom, to halve the amount of time for which students studying at below degree level can work, and to withdraw their dependants’ permission to work. We will present consequential rules shortly.

A leaked memo revealed that the Government had been warned by an immigration intelligence unit that tier 4 of the points-based system was “significantly weaker” than the system that preceded it. Does the Minister now accept that his Government introduced a system that was far too easy for bogus students and bogus colleges to exploit?

No, I do not, but I understand why the hon. Gentleman is worried if that leak is all that he has to go on. The report was not accurate. We have responded to the concerns expressed by our front-line staff, as we rightly should, but the information gathered by our officers misrepresented the position by suggesting that officers did not have enough powers. We are taking measures to give them more power, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman is reassured to learn that we are able to do that precisely because we established that system. In the past, there were no controls of this nature.

What is the Minister’s best estimate of the number of bogus students who are working more than the permitted number of hours in the black economy?

I take the issue very seriously, which is why we are seeking to tighten the regime, but I hope the hon. Gentleman accepts the logic of my answer. It is not possible to say how many bogus students are working above those limits, because, by definition, they are acting outside the regulations. We have, of course, been given estimates, and the best estimate is that the new tier 4 system prevented about 2,000 colleges from admitting overseas students. The action that we are taking is consequential to that, as we continue to engage in what is in effect a cat-and-mouse game with those who wish to abuse our hospitality.

Dos the Minister agree that points acquired for a course offer or a bank statement are no substitute for the judgment of an experienced immigration officer who has satisfied himself that an applicant is coming to the country only to study, will leave after completing his studies, and is not coming here to work?

I have always admired the hon. Gentleman’s common sense. The answer is yes, I do agree with him, but it is not a case of either/or. Of course the immigration official at port has powers, and we are seeking to enhance them. It is right for there to be checks on the finances—the availability of money for people to support themselves—but it is also right for officers, both in overseas posts and here, to be satisfied that an applicant is genuine. In that context, our biometric fingerprint visas and foreign national identity cards do a superb job.

Will the Minister give my constituents an assurance that their jobs are not under threat from legitimate immigration, and that he will be tough on bogus immigration?

Yes and yes. The system my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has put in place is a fantastic system. It says that we will allow people into the country under tier 2 where there are skills shortages, but also that in those skills shortage areas there must be training programmes for indigenous and local people, so that the jobs are also available to them.

The Minister will recall the debates we had last year about the two Patagonian women who wanted to come to Wales to learn Welsh. How will the imposition of a minimum level of English assist them and other people in their circumstances? Instead, it will make things 10 times worse, will it not?

The Government are fully aware of the importance of the cultural links between Wales and Patagonia. Indeed, if I was not previously aware of that, I am now, but I am afraid I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that however lovely the two girls were—and they were—we cannot waive the immigration rules just because he likes them. We have to have robust rules, and there is a consensus in the House—there was not one five years ago, but there is now—that English language is a desirable requirement for people who wish to immigrate into our country.

I am glad that the Minister has now worked out what he actually did announce yesterday. Let me probe him on that, therefore. The reality is that these announcements will only have any value if they are enforceable, so can he answer this question: how many students have been prosecuted for working more than the current 20-hour-a-week limit?

To be fair to me, I did not announce anything yesterday. Turning to the hon. Gentleman’s serious point, however, I do not have the figures for prosecutions in respect of the number of hours worked, but I will see whether I can provide them to the House as I am sure they are available. I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman does not welcome these policy proposals, however. It is important that the system is not abused. If somebody is coming here to study for a genuine course, that should be facilitated given the importance, which I know he accepts, of overseas students to our economy in the short and long term. That should be the reason for entry, rather than so that, as an indirect consequence, people are in fact coming here to work, which undermines the points-based system that I think both he and I support.

Identity Fraud

11. What steps his Department is taking to reduce the incidence of offences involving identity fraud; and if he will make a statement. (315839)

The Government are working with a number of agencies to tackle identify fraud and advise the public. This is coupled with our continuing roll-out of identity cards and, in future, modern passports, to provide people with a highly secure means of protecting and proving their identity.

I thank my hon. Friend for her answer. A national identity fraud prevention week study found that more than 59,000 criminal acts of impersonation were recorded in the first nine months of 2009, a 36 per cent. increase on the figure for the same period of 2008. Will my hon. Friend take whatever steps are necessary to make the public aware of these fraudsters, and what legislation can she bring forward to ensure that people are protected?

We have no intention of introducing any further legislation because we believe we have the tools in law to deal with this issue, and we already have the identity fraud communications awareness group, a multi-agency group that works to highlight the challenges of identity fraud. I should also reiterate my point that we are rolling out a programme of more secure identity cards and passports, which will enable citizens to protect themselves against this form of crime.

Identity cards will not help people to protect themselves against fraud on the internet. I chair the all-party group on identity fraud, so I am aware that identity fraud is one of the fastest-growing crimes in the world. Does the Minister believe that financial institutions have a responsibility to make their customers aware of phishing attacks, boiler room fraud and other sorts of ID fraud so that they can better protect themselves?

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on leading some of the work on this matter as chair of the all-party group on identity fraud, and I agree with him that online fraud is a big problem. However, I disagree with him on other things, because ID cards can be a major way of tackling such fraud. In Germany and Belgium, ID cards are often used as a way of proving age online, and that in itself can help to prevent certain fraudulent transactions. Proving identity online can be a way of helping to tackle identity fraud in that area.

UK Visas

13. What recent changes have been made to the service provided by the hon. Members’ inquiry line on UK visas. (315842)

The MPs’ visa inquiry line was merged on 4 January with the UK Border Agency’s main MPs’ inquiry line to provide a single point of contact for hon. Members to inquire about constituency cases.

I understand the theory that having a single point of contact is a good idea, but what seems to be happening in practice is that the inquiry line cannot answer any questions about visas so they go to the MP account manager, who then takes the matter up with the visa inquiry line people—and thus we go round in a circle. As a result, it is taking far longer to get replies and far longer for us to be able to respond to inquiries from constituents.

I am aware that a number of hon. Members used to contact posts direct, but that caused some difficulties because not all overseas posts had a dedicated visa inquiry line. That meant that a visa officer might often not have been available to take calls; it diverted visa officers from dealing with the cases in time; and it meant that they might have had to take certain things out of the queue. It is important that we have a fair access system, so I am happy to talk to my hon. Friend about his experiences, as a very assiduous constituency MP, in this matter. I am happy to arrange a meeting with him to discuss any particularly problematic cases.

UK Border Agency

14. What his most recent assessment is of the performance of the UK Border Agency; and if he will make a statement. (315843)

UKBA continues to build on our achievements of the past few years, bringing together customs and immigration functions, as well as visa services, here and overseas. UKBA has made strong progress in improving performance. That has included a significant increase in the number of removals of the most harmful foreign criminals, the speeding up of the rate at which we deal with asylum cases, and the introduction of screening of passenger movements into and out of the UK, which has resulted in more than 5,100 arrests.

Three years ago, the Select Committee on Home Affairs produced a hard-hitting report, containing serious recommendations, on the agency’s predecessor organisation. It is with great dismay that those of us involved in that report have recently learned of 40,000 cases that remain unresolved. In addition, the current Home Affairs Committee has produced a good report stating that

“the agency still has a long way to go before it is operating as efficiently and effectively as it needs to do.”

Why, with these failings still in place, does the agency feel it necessary to pay out nearly £300,000 in bonuses to its employees?

The hon. Gentleman’s point is unfair. As I have explained to the Select Committee, whose Chair is in his place today, the 40,000 cases to which the hon. Gentleman refers are part of the process of getting rid of the backlog and archiving those cases. This is being done precisely to show that we can deal comprehensively with all those backlog cases. As I have said, significant improvements have been made in all the main target areas—asylum processing; removals; border controls; and arrests at the border—as well as in dealing with the legacy cases, with which the Select Committee has been concerned. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will recognise that the big picture is one of significant improvement.

Of course UKBA needs support, so has the Minister considered employing troops who have been injured, thus giving them a purpose in life? Has he considered whether we should have talks about the establishment of a border force regiment to stop our borders being porous?

My hon. Friend has raised this issue before and has written a detailed letter about it, and I see value in his proposal. Of course these people could bring many attributes to not only our border control but our immigration processes, which is why I have agreed to consider his suggestion.

A few moments ago, in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne), the Minister said that he believed in the discretion of immigration officers in dealing with applications for student visas. Will he tell us what proportion of applicants for student visas are seen by an immigration officer before they arrive?

I accept the point behind the hon. Gentleman’s question, but he is confusing two issues. There is the issuing of the visa in the overseas post—of course we see all applicants because we take their fingerprints, and identity fraud is, of course, critical—and there is then the matter, to which his question relates, of the discretion of the border officers at the airport or port. I think the hon. Gentleman agrees that officers should not be able to make a decision without any criteria. There have to be reasonable grounds for suspicion, because the decision could be challenged. We are trying to get the balance right. I think that I and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary have responded to the concerns of the immigration officers.

Under-age Drinking

16. What steps the Government are taking to reduce levels of under-age drinking (a) in Coventry and (b) nationally. (315845)

The number of young people stating that they had consumed alcohol in the previous week is down from 26 per cent. in 2001 to 18 per cent. in 2008. However, those who do drink are consuming much more. The steps we have taken include publishing the youth alcohol action plan, commissioning the chief medical officer’s guidance on alcohol consumption and providing £1.5 million in priority areas to tackle under-age sales and to confiscate alcohol from under-18s. We have also run communication campaigns to tell people what action is being taken to reduce alcohol-related crime and disorder in their local area. The legal requirement on those selling alcohol to seek age verification is an important element of the mandatory code that will come into effect later this year.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Will he say what discussions he has had in order to implement what he has just outlined with licensing authorities or local authorities as regards the licensing of small stores in neighbourhoods where there are large numbers of young people roaming about at night?

We have had discussions with the sector over many months. Of course, we are moving from a voluntary code, which has not worked, to a mandatory code. The views of everyone concerned are being taken into account. A small but significant group of irresponsible corner shop owners and so on thrive on the fact that the responsible part of the sector has age verification rules at the moment and takes action to try to cut down these problems. That can mean that the problem sometimes migrates to the smaller stores. We are talking to the sector, to the industry and to licensees, and that will be shown in the success of the code.

I thank the Government for what they have done in taking this issue seriously. Does the Secretary of State accept that it is always right for the police to involve parents, where possible, when under-age young people are caught in possession of alcohol in public? Does he accept that my private Member’s Bill, which became the Confiscation of Alcohol (Young Persons) Act 1997, makes that a requirement?

I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for pushing for this over a long period of time. Of course, the Policing and Crime Act 2009 will allow the police to confiscate alcohol without having to go through the difficult and convoluted process of having to prove that the youngster concerned intended to drink that alcohol. It can be confiscated without taking those measures. That and a number of other important initiatives that are being introduced as part of that Act will make an enormous contribution.

Alcohol-related Crime

Alcohol-related violent crime has fallen by a third since 1997, and the 2008 review of the Licensing Act 2003 found that serious violent crime at night was down 5 per cent. since its introduction.

The alcohol provisions in the Policing and Crime Act were introduced on 29 January, including greater powers to tackle irresponsible drinking. Our £1.5 million cash injection into priority areas will include funding for an information campaign to tell people what action is being taken to reduce alcohol-related crime and disorder in their local area.

I warmly welcome the implementation of the code to which my right hon. Friend referred in his answer to the previous question. The price of alcohol is going down in Northampton, where it is targeted at students, from £1.50 a pint and 50p a shot, so will my right hon. Friend say whether he will consider the introduction of a minimum price to provide a floor below which the cost of alcohol cannot go?

I see that there is Back-Bench support for this. We have been looking at this issue for some time, and the important first step is to get evidence to show that we can link increasing violence to it, and that we can link health issues to the pricing of alcohol. We know that those things are down to alcohol, but is pricing a mechanism that can be used to help the problem? We commissioned the university of Sheffield to provide the most comprehensive study yet of this issue, and we are still examining that report before coming to a conclusion.

Does the Home Secretary accept that under-age drinking, particularly of alcohol that has been bought in supermarkets and other stores, and antisocial behaviour are rising in market towns such as Thirsk? Will he therefore consider adopting a radical strategy to prevent that sort of under-age drinking from leading to antisocial behaviour?

Such behaviour may well be rising in towns such as Thirsk. I have quoted the British crime survey figures which show that alcohol-fuelled violence is down. Consumption by young people is also down; the problem is binge drinking—the hon. Lady is absolutely right to draw attention to that—and the problems that it can cause. I believe that one of the answers for towns such as Thirsk is the so-called Cardiff model, which can be replicated in smaller towns. Under that model, the police, licensees, the local authority and the national health service get together to tackle these issues. In the first year that the model was used in Cardiff, there was a 60 per cent. reduction in the amount of crime associated with violence on Friday and Saturday nights. Part of that was to do with the introduction of polycarbonate glasses, but there is a whole range of measures that can be brought to bear if the police are helped by local authorities, the NHS and other agencies in tackling these problems.

Topical Questions

In keeping with my departmental responsibilities, I am pleased to announce that, from today, young people aged 16 to 24 who live in Greater London can enrol for a national identity card. Our call centre is taking hundreds of calls a day from members of the public who are keen to get a card, and thousands of application packs have already been requested since the cards were officially launched in November 2009.

On 14 December, here, the Home Secretary pledged to address how plain-clothed police officers should react in public protests. In contrast, the Association of Chief Police Officers’ lead on these matters has said that she will not issue guidance because officers should not be deployed in that way, thereby neglecting the fact that 25 such officers were deployed by the City of London police at the G20 protest. Who leads on this issue: the Home Secretary or ACPO?

We have asked ACPO to produce guidance as part of our response to the White Paper of December last year. ACPO is producing guidance that will come before Ministers shortly, of which a key criterion will be that all officers who take part in such activities should be identified by a number. The guidance will be produced shortly.

T3. My right hon. Friend will be pleased to know that I am applying for an ID card. I want to know the practical effect of abolishing the national identity register. Surely all the information that I must give to get an ID card—my name, address and date and place of birth—has already been given in my passport application. Will not the abolition of one database while the other is left in place make absolutely no difference? (315856)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is one thing for the Conservatives to oppose the ID cards that they supported on Second Reading in December 2004 and that the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) also privately supported in a ten-minute Bill in 2002—it is one thing for them suddenly to flip-flop on that—but it is another thing completely for them to say that one can have a biometric passport, which they support, without a national identity register. That is complete and utter nonsense.

T2. What is the view of the Home Office on the right of prisoners to vote in general elections? I know that there are a number of cases pending on this issue, based on human rights grounds, and I should like to know whether I should ask to go canvassing in Shepton Mallet prison next weekend. (315855)

I am tempted to say it is OK if the prisoners vote Labour. Happily, this is a matter for the Ministry of Justice, on which the Home Office does not yet have a view.

T5. Ever since I raised with the Prime Minister the question of policing distribution in Nottinghamshire in early December, I am pleased to say that 84 police have been permanently redeployed to the north of the county. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that Her Majesty’s inspectorate, which is currently looking at Nottinghamshire police, look long, hard and deep at why it required an intervention on the Floor of the House before those police were properly redeployed? (315859)

My hon. Friend will know that there has been a redeployment of officers to his constituency and there are still record numbers of police officers in Nottinghamshire. The inspectorate is undertaking a capability review, which I expect to be completed within the next four or five weeks. It will give a view on the potential for future policing of Nottinghamshire.

T4. The Home Secretary will be aware that Kent police have accepted that they behaved inappropriately in indiscriminately using section 44 powers at the Kingsnorth power station demonstration, as well as behaving in other ways that are unacceptable, including assaulting peaceful demonstrators, as I witnessed with my own eyes. What lessons is the Home Secretary drawing from that incident to ensure that police tactics do not replicate it in future? (315857)

There are a number of lessons to be learned from the Kingsnorth incident, and Kent police are looking at those. One of the wider issues has been the policing of protests generally. That is why, in the White Paper before Christmas, we indicated strongly that we needed to examine the issue, draw up guidance, and work with ACPO and authorities to do so. We are in the process of completing that guidance, which I hope to bring before the House after the general election.

The Minister will understand that I take a particular interest in the effectiveness and efficiency of the Home Office and its administration. In the light of the recent capability review, may I extend my congratulations to all those in the Home Office who have brought about such improvements in recent years, particularly in immigration, borders and the treatment of asylum cases, including the backlog? Will he extend the congratulations of the House on the efforts that have been made by the staff in the Home Office?

My right hon. Friend makes an important point. For everybody working in the Home Office—all the people who went through a period when, if I remember the description that my right hon. Friend gave, it was probably less than perfect—to come from that capability review, which placed the Home Office, I believe, second from the bottom of all Whitehall Departments to second from the top, is an enormous tribute. I also pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for laying some of the foundations upon which we are now able to build in the Home Office.

T6. On the train this morning I read a document which appeared to suggest that foreign national prisoners who are in prison in the UK are being allowed to leave up to nine months before the halfway point of their sentence, and are being given £5,000 as a present for when they arrive back where they came from. Can the Home Secretary assure me that that document was a malicious forgery and that such a thing could not possibly be happening in Britain today? (315860)

I am glad the hon. Gentleman was reading such a document on the train. I suggest he reads the Daily Mirror in future. He will see in that newspaper this morning that the crime figures are down. Part of the reason for that is the success that we have had in removing foreign national prisoners. We are doing so at record levels. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary reminds me that the hon. Gentleman’s party opposed the measures by which we are doing that, so I hope the hon. Gentleman changes his reading habits.

When my right hon. Friend first took over as Secretary of State for the Home Department, I asked him whether he would consider banning mosquito devices, which send out high-pitched sounds which are very uncomfortable for children and young people. They are so effective and so uncomfortable for children and young people that they are often used to disperse them. If that were any other group, we would cry, “Discrimination!” Now that my right hon. Friend has had a chance to look at mosquito devices, will he ban them?

My hon. Friend is right. I remember well how she stumped me at my first Question Time, because I knew absolutely nothing about what she was saying. That is not uncommon for me, but I have since looked into the matter. There is evidence that shows that such devices can be helpful in the circumstances that the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) described in Thirsk, for instance, where people feel that a congregation of rowdy young people is adversely affecting their quality of life. Where other systems to talk to those young people have not worked, those devices can assist the situation. Of course, there are health and safety aspects and the devices have to be used carefully, but I am afraid I am committed to using any device—or rather, devices that do not involve cruel and unusual punishments, but which bring about the improvement in behaviour that we all seek.

T7. What progress is the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), making in addressing small boat owners’ concerns about the proposals in the e-Borders programme to require them to file journey plans when moving between the UK mainland and Northern Ireland? Why are they necessary when people entering Northern Ireland from the Republic of Ireland will not be listed? (315862)

We are having a lot of discussions with the bodies that represent small yachtsmen, and with yachtsmen themselves. I am dealing with a lot of correspondence on the matter—[Interruption.] I mean people sailing small yachts; I do not mind about the size of the yachtsmen or, indeed, yachtswomen. We continue to look at the matter, because the idea is that e-Borders should not be over-burdensome but do its job and ensure that people meaning harm to this country do not reach our shores.

Police dogs in Yorkshire are entitled to anti-stab vests, yet police community support officers in West Bromwich are not. The Minister knows that procurement is devolved to a regional level, but will he remind the chief constable of the west midlands that the region is now only one of two with police authorities that refuse to issue anti-stab vests to PCSOs?

My hon. Friend has assiduously raised that issue on several occasions, and he will know that ACPO is re-examining the guidance on anti-stab vests for police forces. As he said, only two forces do not issue them. I know that my hon. Friend will continue to look at the matter, and I shall certainly draw his remarks again to the attention of the chief constable.

T8. Can the Home Secretary give an exact figure for the number of asylum seekers who have failed their final appeal but still await deportation? (315863)

With respect, I shall have to write to the hon. Gentleman with the exact figure. The UK Border Agency chief executive is writing to the Home Affairs Committee—this week, I think—about the current situation. We are now dealing with 60 per cent. of asylum claims within six months, and we have the lowest level of asylum applications since 1993, so good progress is being made.

Some foreign nationals in the UK already have to obtain biometric cards and, I think, pay for them. What advice will the Minister give to a constituent of mine who, when her credit card was stolen and she went to the bank to sort it out, was told that her biometric ID card was not proof of identity?

I shall be very keen to look up that case, because we have had the occasional instance of an ID card not being recognised. In every case so far, however, the relevant national body has said that it recognises the card as a matter of policy but an individual member of staff has, unfortunately, not been aware of that fact. We are working to get publicity out there, and we will continue to do so.

What is the result of the Minister’s review of immigration policy, which was promised in the Adjournment debate on the Floor of the House on 7 December? We hope that the review will mean that asylum seekers who want to make further representations will not have to go to Liverpool to make their case, even if they have no money to make their case, but will be able to go to their regional office. The Minister indicated that he was sympathetic to that.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for the question and for his persistence in getting it in just at the end of today’s session. We did have a very important debate, which I have pondered, and we have established exceptional criteria for those unable to travel, while maintaining the integrity of the scheme.

The Forensic Science Service centre in Chorley is proposed for closure. I was led to believe that the chief constable of Lancashire police had been reassured about the decision and was happy with it. That is not the case: the police are very concerned about urgent casework not being solved, and about where the scientists will be when it comes to future crime. So we have been misled. What is the answer?

I do not believe that anyone has been misled in this regard. People were consulted over the transformation programme. It is important that the FSS undergoes this change in order that we secure the remaining sites. The work that will be undertaken on those sites is a very important part of fighting crime. The transformation process is absolutely essential.

Further to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill), some people are stockpiling high levels of “legal high” substances in anticipation of their being banned so that they can sell them on for a profit. What are the Government doing to stop this?

As I said earlier, the first step is to take the advice of the ACMD. The second step is to implement that advice as quickly as we can after consultation. The third step, once those drugs are illegal, and once we have a generic classification, is to deal with the people who are then in breach of the law.

Speaker’s Statement

I wish to make a statement to the House about the application of the sub judice rule.

Once criminal proceedings are active by a charge having been made, cases before the courts shall not be referred to in any motion, debate or question. The House will be aware that charges have been made against three Members of the House and that therefore the sub judice rule applies to their cases. The matter is therefore before the courts, and the House and Members would not wish to interfere with the judicial process, risk affecting the fairness of a criminal trial or, furthermore, prevent such a trial taking place.

Devolution (Northern Ireland)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I wanted to report to the House at the earliest opportunity on the agreement reached at Hillsborough castle between the Democratic Unionist party and Sinn Fein, and which we and the Irish Government fully support. This agreement will lead to the completion of devolution of power in Northern Ireland. I want also to report on the accompanying arrangements that Parliament will need to make to enable devolution to be completed.

I am making this statement conscious that General de Chastelain has today announced that the Irish National Liberation Army—responsible for more than 110 deaths during the troubles—and the official IRA have decommissioned their weapons. I have also just been informed that the last loyalist organisation, the South-East Antrim Ulster Defence Association, has this afternoon just completed its decommissioning. I think that the House will want to record our thanks to the international commission, which has now overseen decommissioning by the UDA, the Ulster Volunteer Force, the Provisional IRA, and now the INLA and the official IRA—a central part of the process of moving Northern Ireland from violence to peace.

In 1998, with the signing of the Good Friday agreement, Northern Ireland opened a new chapter in the peace process. The St. Andrews agreement marked the next step forward. Now, we have reached a significant and defining moment. Each of the Northern Ireland agreements since 1998 has had a different basis on which it was reached. The Good Friday agreement was an agreement between the participants to the talks, including the two Governments. St. Andrews was an agreement between the two Governments, later endorsed by the parties through their participation in the newly elected Assembly. The Hillsborough castle agreement—the final stage of the journey to completing devolution—was reached between the two parties which are the largest in the Assembly following the 2007 elections. The agreement was the outcome of many hours of talks, consultations and plenary meetings involving all the Assembly parties, and we should be in no doubt about its significance. Without this agreement, the work done at St. Andrews and Belfast could not have been moved forward. Without the completion of devolution, the whole process of devolution and the peace process itself would be at risk. So this agreement is essential to securing the future, because in turn it will also bring stability, investment, and jobs.

For decades, conflicts over institutions have dominated the politics of Northern Ireland. Even in the past two years, a failure to agree on the devolution of policing and justice has cast a shadow over Northern Ireland’s politics. When the cross-community vote takes place on 9 March and the parties request the transfer of powers, Northern Ireland’s politicians will, by 12 April, have full control over their Government and be able to focus on the economy, on jobs, housing and public services and, of course, on policing and justice. With this agreement, communities once locked in the most bitter of struggles are choosing to be bound together in a shared future with a common destiny. It must be in a spirit of partnership.

None of that could have been achieved without close working with the Irish Government. I know that the whole House will want to pay tribute to the Taoiseach, Brian Cowen; the Irish Foreign Minister, Michael Martin; and the Taoiseach’s predecessors, Bertie Ahern and Albert Reynolds. Nor could it have been achieved without the continued and unstinting support of the American Government and Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama. I especially thank Secretary of State Clinton for her generous support in the last few months.

The agreement is the conclusion of a process. The House will want to record its thanks to Tony Blair for his work and to John Major before him, as well as to previous Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland, some of whom are with us this afternoon. I want to record my personal thanks to them, to the current Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and to his Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale, East (Paul Goggins) for the time that they spent in detailed negotiations. I thank them all for their patience, resilience and wisdom.

Two weeks ago, the Taoiseach and I joined the parties for part of the negotiations in Hillsborough. There has been comment about the amount of time needed to reach the agreement. We should recognise that the talks were demanding because they went to the very core of Northern Ireland’s shared future, but implicit in the agreement that Sinn Fein and the DUP have now reached and there for all to support is an even greater prize—that the parties seize this opportunity together to build a new trust in a fresh spirit of respect, co-operation and understanding.

It is my view that the agreement represents a reasonable concord to put differences to one side and enter a better shared future in a spirit of good will. Four crucial breakthroughs have been made. First, the parties have resolved the outstanding issues on the transfer of policing and justice powers and agreed a timetable for the completion of the final stage of devolution. Following cross-community consultation, the First and Deputy First Ministers will jointly table a resolution seeking a transfer of policing and justice powers by means of a cross-community vote in the Northern Ireland Assembly four weeks from tomorrow, on 9 March, for devolution to occur on 12 April. This Parliament will then be asked to approve the necessary transfer orders so that devolution can occur on that date.

Secondly, the parties have agreed how the devolution of policing and justice will work in practice and, in particular, how the relationship between the Justice Minister and the Executive will work.

Thirdly, the parties have committed to a new and improved framework for regulating and adjudicating parades, which will maximise cross-community support. At its core is a commitment to ensuring local dialogue, transparency and mediation, as well as specific proposals for dealing with contentious parades. The First and Deputy First Ministers will set up a co-chaired working party to take forward that work, and legislation on the agreed outcomes will be completed in the Northern Ireland Assembly before the end of this year.

Fourthly, the agreement proposes to address how devolved Government could work better in Northern Ireland. In the talks, all parties raised the issue of the need for greater efficiency, transparency and inclusiveness. It is clear from the agreement that that was firmly recognised. The First and Deputy First Ministers have proposed three very important working groups at Executive level, which will begin work immediately. I am pleased that the First Minister is in the House today while we are discussing it.

The first working group will consider how the Executive might function better and how delivery might be improved. The two others will deal with all outstanding Executive business and make recommendations on how progress can be made on all matters outstanding from the St. Andrews agreement.

The House will know that last October, I sent all party leaders in Northern Ireland the proposals for a financial settlement worth an additional £800 million to underpin the new Department of Justice, available only if and when the parties decided to take the historic step of requesting the transfer of policing and justice powers. All the details have been studied by the Assembly and Executive Review Committee. The financial settlement will ensure stability for the new Department, enabling it to deal with the issues outstanding from the troubles and current security needs. I am sure that the House wishes to ensure that in reaching such an agreement, the Department has the stability and resources to complete the Patten proposals on policing and meet the unique pressure of Northern Ireland’s past and present security needs.

Taken together, those parts of the agreement will lead to a better functioning Northern Ireland Executive who are better able to focus on growth, jobs, public services and, of course, law and order. I believe that our duty now is to do all we can to encourage the parties to support and give effect to this agreement. Subject to the cross-community vote on 9 March, the First Minister and Deputy First Minister have now agreed to support an accelerated passage for the budget Bill and any related Assembly steps to ensure devolution of powers by 12 April.

Too many lives have been lost in Northern Ireland. Just a few weeks ago dissident republicans tried to murder a police officer, Constable Heffron. They did not succeed, but he was very badly injured. There have been significantly more attacks in the last 12 months than in any recent year. Indeed, just 12 months ago the House will record with sadness the murders of two brave young soldiers, and on 9 March last year criminals also murdered a brave Police Service of Northern Ireland officer, Stevie Carroll.

The Independent Monitoring Commission report at the end of last year was clear: early devolution would be a potent intervention on the activity of the dissidents. So the decisions made in the last few days are the most powerful signal we can send to those who chose violence over politics. I hope that the whole House will join with me in sending an unequivocal message to those who would defy the will of the people: that the politics of peaceful change must irrevocably succeed in Northern Ireland, and it must overcome whatever obstacles are put in its way.

The next stage is to show that this new stability can bring results in jobs and prosperity. So I am grateful that Secretary of State Clinton has immediately announced her invitation to the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to meet her and the US economic envoy, Declan Kelly, to see how together the UK, Irish and American Governments can together accelerate all options for encouraging new inward investment and jobs into Northern Ireland.

The peace process has taken men and women of courage, who were prepared to set the past aside in the service of the future. The peace of Northern Ireland and its future stability asks that we all put the interests of all its people above the interest of party. We have a proud record in this House of all-party support for the peace process. Today, it is important that we not only support the principle, but the dates in the agreement. Upon all of us falls the responsibility to make this work. Together we should complete the process of giving the government of Northern Ireland to the people of Northern Ireland. For with policing and justice in the hands of the Northern Ireland Executive, the future of Northern Ireland is finally and truly in the hands of its people. I commend this statement to the House.

May I thank the Prime Minister for his statement? We support devolution in Northern Ireland and we welcome the agreement reached between the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein. May I start by congratulating the British and Irish Governments and, in particular, the Prime Minister on their determination in helping to bring that agreement about?

As the Prime Minister will know, we have always been in favour in principle of policing and justice powers being devolved to the power-sharing Administration at Stormont. That is why we backed the legislation last year, that is why we will honour the financial package contained in the agreement, and that is why we released a statement immediately on Friday—a statement welcomed by the Northern Ireland Secretary.

Our overriding objective has always been, and always will be, to create a peaceful, prosperous and stable Northern Ireland in which all parts of the community have a shared future. For however long we have to sit on this side of the House, the Prime Minister will always have our fullest support in securing those objectives.

There has been much talk over the past three days of “a new chapter” and of the political process “coming of age”. Does the Prime Minister agree with the First and Deputy First Ministers that there can be no going back? Does not the evil and cowardly attack on Constable Heffron in Randalstown last month, which the Prime Minister mentioned, more than demonstrate the dangers of that? No one should doubt how far we have come. We stand here with the name of Airey Neave, the first MP I remember, emblazoned above that door. He was murdered by the INLA just yards from where we are standing. As the Prime Minister said, General de Chastelain today announced that the INLA has decommissioned its weapons. That is how far we have come.

While the agreement is welcome, does the Prime Minister agree that there are a number of areas that require clarification? These are the position of the Chief Constable; timetables; parading; and some outstanding issues from St. Andrews. Let me take each of these in turn.

Does the Prime Minister agree that the most fundamental principles in devolving policing and justice are the continued independence of the judiciary and the operational independence of the Chief Constable for policing? Of course, both are already enshrined in the law, and they are reiterated in the agreement. However, the usual formulation, “operational independence”, has become “operational responsibility”. Is there any significance to that change?

On timetables, the agreement proposes the transfer of policing and justice powers, as the Prime Minister said, on 12 April this year. As I understand it, under current legislation the Department of Justice in Northern Ireland, which would of course then be responsible for those matters, is due to be dissolved on 1 May 2012 unless there is an agreement on its replacement. Does that not mean that there is a risk of there being another set of very difficult negotiations unless we can resolve that now?

On parading, the commission established by the First Minister and Deputy First Minister is given just three weeks from 9 February to come forward with agreed proposals. Can the Prime Minister tell us what will happen to the proposed vote on policing and justice powers in the Assembly on 9 March if that deadline is not met, particularly given that there is a linkage between the two issues?

As the Prime Minister said, there is also a working group tasked with looking at improving the way in which the Executive function. I do not believe that there is a timetable for that working group to deliver its recommendations. Can he indicate when that group will be expected to report, and can he tell us whether it has any bearing on the timetable for devolution?

The First and Deputy First Ministers will examine elements of the St. Andrews agreement that have either not been faithfully implemented or not been implemented at all. Can the Prime Minister tell us which issues that will cover?

Last week’s agreement is between the DUP and Sinn Fein, two of the four parties in the Executive in Stormont. On Friday, both the other coalition parties, the Social Democratic and Labour party and the Ulster Unionists, asked for time to study the agreement. Can the Prime Minister tell us what provision there is for that, and what consideration there will be of any reasonable concerns they might have? As the former leader of the SDLP, the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan), has said:

“We will have to take our turn with other parties in proofing what is proposed, not trying to create problems, but pre-empting any possible shortcomings or problems there are with it so we can actually improve it”.

May I commend that, and say how much I believe all other parties should take a similar approach?

We know from reports that a number of other issues were considered at Hillsborough, including the Irish language and the Presbyterian Mutual Society. There are also reports of agreements not included in the formal text. Can the Prime Minister clarify that?

Finally, we welcome the involvement and engagement of the United States and the discussion on greater US investment promised by Hillary Clinton. Can the Prime Minister confirm that that is, of course, contingent on the implementation of the agreement?

The whole House will want to thank the Prime Minister and the Northern Ireland Secretary for their very hard work to help bring this agreement about. Of course, the devolution of policing and justice is something that we have to get right, but is it not important also that the politicians of Northern Ireland now move on and focus on the issues that people on the ground really care about, such as health, housing, schools and tackling social problems? Does the Prime Minister share my hope that that—a return to normal, healthy, democratic devolved politics as part of the United Kingdom—can now really happen in Northern Ireland?

First, may I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his very generous remarks about how people have come together to make this set of agreements possible? I agree with him that the all-party consensus that has existed on this set of challenges for many years is one that we should want to continue, and one that stands us in good stead for backing the agreements that have been made and for ensuring that on 9 March, we can encourage the Northern Ireland Assembly to make the decision to move forward with the devolution of policing and justice.

I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s support for the process and for the investment conference, which will go ahead, but of course only if the agreement is fully implemented with the devolution of policing and justice. I assume from what he said that he also supports the dates that we have set forward—9 March and 21 April—and I am grateful for that, as well. Northern Ireland began to move forward not only when the parties there agreed that they wished to come together to address issues that they had to face in common, but when all parties in this House agreed that it was essential that we worked together as well.

I shall deal with each of the right hon. Gentleman’s specific questions in turn. The continued independence of the judiciary is guaranteed by the agreements. The Chief Constable is independent and will continue to be so, and I would read no significance into the use of the word “responsible”. He has operational independence and reports to the Policing Board. That will remain, and I think everybody in Northern Ireland believes that that system has worked, and continues to work, well.

As for 2012—the point at which people have got to consider again the issue of the Department of Justice—it is true to say that the parties agreed that it should not at this point be changed, and that to do so might have made it more difficult to get the agreement they have. However, I have no doubt that if the devolution of policing and justice works, all parties will want it to move forward in exactly the way that has been designed, including after 2012.

On the working parties, it is true to say that three working parties are dealing the some of the most difficult issues. The Leader of the Opposition asked me about other issues raised at the talks. One of the working parties is going to deal with the issues that are still outstanding from the St. Andrews agreement—and I should tell him that that means all outstanding issues from that agreement. A working party chaired by junior Ministers on both sides will report to the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, and then to the Executive, on the basis of the agreement reached last week.

The issue of the future of the Executive and how they work deserves the views and recommendations of all parties in the Assembly. One point consistently made to me by the leader of the UUP is that it is important that the Executive can work well, and indeed better, in future. One issue that prevented the Executive working as well as they should was the cloud hanging over them before they established a solution to the problem of the devolution of policing and justice. It was perhaps inevitable that the Executive would not work as well as they could until that was resolved.

The proposal that has been put forward—it came from the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister—that a working party to be set up would be chaired by the leaders of the UUP and SDLP is a good one. I hope that they will find it possible to take up that offer, which allows them to participate in shaping how the Executive will work in future. When that working party should report is a matter for the parties to agree on, but I know that people will want to move things forward at the earliest opportunity.

I believe that the UUP is meeting today to consider its response, as is the SDLP. I am pleased that the previous leader of the SDLP, the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan)—he has now given way to Margaret Ritchie, whom I congratulate on her victory in the leadership elections—said that he was in favour of the agreement in principle but that he wanted to be sure of the details. Both those parties will look at the agreement, and I hope they come to the view that it is essential that we move forward with it and support the cross-community vote on 9 March. In my view, that would be the best way of sending a signal not only to those people of violence, but to the rest of the world, that Northern Ireland has resolved the problems that remained; that it is ready to move forward; that it is open to investment from the rest of the world; and, indeed, that it offers a peaceful and secure future.

As the Leader of the Opposition says, discussing housing, health, welfare, social security, education and the other issues that affect the people of Northern Ireland will be the main focus of the Assembly in future. That will be a huge change from the past.

I, too, congratulate the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Minister, the Taoiseach, the Irish Foreign Minister and, as the Prime Minister said, all their predecessors, on the considerable amount of work they put in to everything that led up to this very significant deal between the DUP and Sinn Fein. I also join the Prime Minister in recognising the painstaking work of General de Chastelain and his colleagues on the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning.

The Liberal Democrats have long believed that policing and justice powers should be devolved to the Assembly if and when it wanted such powers. That is a crucial element to devolution, and it will be a momentous achievement if the powers are indeed devolved as early as April, as the agreement has set out.

There is no place for party politics here: the biggest contribution that we in this House can continue to make is to do what we can, on a non-party basis, to ensure that normality returns to Northern Ireland. I am sure that the Prime Minister will recognise—indeed, he already has done—the importance of now bringing on board all the political parties in Northern Ireland, including those that were not directly involved in the negotiations. Will he confirm that he and the Secretary of State will continue to help all the parties in Northern Ireland to work together constructively to avoid any further logjams in the peace process?

Finally, on one specific point, we share the concerns of our colleagues in the Alliance party that there is little in the agreement on how to build progress on community relations on the ground, which is where it counts, on everything from public services to the role of community groups. Perhaps the current agreement is simply not the appropriate place for such a commitment. Yet it is undoubtedly true that a political agreement between the parties will be durable only if it is accompanied by concrete steps towards greater integration between the communities. I spoke with David Ford about that this afternoon, and I know that he has also raised the issue directly with the Prime Minister. Does the Prime Minister agree that improved community relations are crucial to the future of Northern Ireland, and can he assure us today that the parties in Northern Ireland will work together constructively to take forward an agreed and practical community relations strategy?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, first, for his support for the agreement, and secondly, for his desire that all parties can move forward together in unison in supporting what has been agreed. I agree with him about the importance that the Alliance party has given to the talks. It was there from the beginning of the talks, and it was there right to the end. I praise David Ford, the leader of the Alliance party, and all the Alliance Members I talked to for their willingness to enter into discussions about the future of the Executive and, in particular, the programme for the Government. The Executive’s strategy for cohesion sharing and integration is one of the vital foundations of Executive policy for the future. The Alliance party is keen to see that that policy shapes the work of the Department of Justice and other Departments for the future.

I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that the creation of a shared and better future, based on tolerance and respect for cultural diversity, is absolutely essential to what all parties have agreed they wish to see. They are going to bring forward a programme of cohesion and integration for that shared and better future. I thank the Alliance party for its involvement in that, as I thank all the parties for the way in which they have approached the final stage of the negotiations.

It is very difficult for those of us in the House from outside Northern Ireland to understand just how challenging, difficult and sensitive the issues of law and order, and justice are. It is therefore to the credit of all the parties in the Northern Ireland, including the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, who have shown the courage and resilience to carry the process forward. May I also thank the Prime Minister and his Secretary of State? The role of the British Government, as an honest broker and a guarantor of the process and the settlement, is essential. If, after all the decades of mistrust, the Government ever deviate from that role of being an honest broker and become in any way partisan in those agreements, that will be very much to the detriment of the continuation of that process.

First, let me pay tribute to the work that my right hon. Friend did as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and also during his period as Home Secretary, with responsibility for security. He has contributed to the process that has ended today, with the announcement here that the parties wish to support the devolution of policing and justice, and wish for that to happen only a few weeks from now.

I also agree entirely with my right hon. Friend that it has been of great benefit to the peace process that there has been all-party support in this House—all-party support when the Conservative party was in government, with Labour supporting the Conservatives, and all-party support while we have been in government, with the Conservatives, Liberals and other parties supporting what we do. If at any time we had lost that sense that this House was united in seeking to advance the peace process and the security of Northern Ireland, we would all have been the losers from it. I am determined that we work in the role of trying to move agreement forward between the parties.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to mention the important role of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. Without their determination to come to an agreement, without their skills at negotiation and without the patience that they showed when the negotiations were very difficult, we could not have succeeded in reaching an agreement. It is right to commend the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, as I said, for the statesmanship they have shown in bringing their parties together and at the same time bringing Northern Ireland together.

May I join in the thanks to the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the Minister of State for the support and encouragement they have given throughout this process? May I express a firm and unalterable commitment to ensuring that every element of this agreement is faithfully implemented? We all have ways as individual parties of ensuring that the brakes can be put on and that things can be brought down, but only collectively can we ensure that we take them forward and that the process works.

I noticed that the Prime Minister emphasised the word “many” when he referred to the many hours of negotiations that had taken place, but will he accept that there are very special circumstances in respect of these sensitive functions and that the agreement reached acknowledges the independence of the courts and the operational independence of the Chief Constable and ensures that there is no interference in the role carried out by the Police Service of Northern Ireland board? It ensures that we have a Justice Minister, who will be elected by a cross-community vote in the Assembly and will have the support of all sections of our community and that any quasi-judicial decisions will be taken outside the political Executive who would be in power, so that there is an ability for any urgent decisions to be taken prior to the Executive’s having to be consulted. Does he agree that all of these matters will give confidence to the people of Northern Ireland, who will be delighted at the fact that a new way forward is being offered in respect of parading, which has cost so much in the past in Northern Ireland?

Will the Prime Minister therefore accept that the institutions that we already have in Northern Ireland are not the politician’s institutions, as the institutions belong to the people, so any alteration or addition to them belongs to the people as well? It therefore becomes imperative that the institutions being changed have the support of the community and that there is confidence among that community. It can be expressed in two ways—through the consultation process outlined in the agreement and through the support of all the parties in the Assembly, and without that we cannot move forward.

I am very grateful to the First Minister. I was incredibly moved when he said in his speech on Friday that for all parties there must be “no going back”, as there had been too much violence and too much conflict. As he said, there was only one way to go now, and that was forward. I confirm that everything he said about the Department of Justice, its relationship with the Executive, the powers of the Justice Minister and the quasi-judicial decisions that he or she would make is absolutely correct and in the agreement. What is most satisfying is that this agreement is jointly authored by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister—by the Democratic Unionist party and by Sinn Fein working together. In the preliminary or prefix to the agreement, it states that they will address the problems on the basis of trust, “mutual respect and equality”. I believe that that has come out of a long process of negotiation, through which people have had to come together, put aside the differences of the past and reach a solution for the future.

The First Minister is also absolutely right that there is a process of consultation, which he and the Deputy First Minister have inaugurated. On that basis of that consultation, they will put forward what they feel is the right resolution to the Assembly on 9 March. If that resolution is acceptable, we will of course move forward to the devolution of policing and justice by 12 April. I have made it clear that we will do everything in our power here to get the relevant changes put into effect in this Parliament to make that possible, while ensuring that the Department of Justice will be able, with the necessary financial arrangements in place, to start to deal with the problems it faces. I entirely agree that with the right hon. Gentleman that there is no going back. What has come out of these negotiations is the wish of every single party to move forward. I hope that every single party in the Assembly will now assent to the proposals and make them the basis of a very strong vote in the Assembly on 9 March.

May I welcome the Prime Minister’s statement and, more importantly, the positive announcement on Friday of which he and others were part? May I say to him that, based on experience, the public might feel a bit more hope if there was a wee bit less hype? Although some of us might have misgivings about how the Minister is to be appointed, as that departs from the Good Friday agreement—which, unlike all other agreements, was solemnly endorsed overwhelmingly by the people of Ireland, north and south—will he acknowledge that we nevertheless support the firm date for the devolution of policing and justice, and my party will vote for it in the Assembly and for any related measures in this House?

The Prime Minister and others have touched on the relationship between the Minister of Justice and the Executive. Does he recognise that some of us are also concerned about the relationship between the devolved and non-devolved functions? That interface could be sensitive, and we would not want controversies arising in which the Minister of Justice in Northern Ireland is left pleading ignorance and impotence. That would not be good for the integrity and credibility of a devolved justice system.

First, let me thank the hon. Gentleman for his outstanding record as leader of the Social Democratic and Labour party. I first met him 25 years ago, and have seen him work patiently for peace in Northern Ireland over the 25 years. He has an outstanding record in arguing the case not just for peace but for economic justice in Northern Ireland. We thank him for his service as a member of the SDLP.

I am also grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s comments this afternoon. Although he is not a signatory to the agreement, he has not only supported it in principle but said that he will wish to vote for it on 9 March. I hope that is the message that all parties will take up so that we can move forward.

Obviously, the arrangements between the Minister of Justice and the United Kingdom Government will be such that he or she will be kept properly informed about what is happening, and will be able to make the decisions subject to the devolution of policing and justice in Northern Ireland. I believe that the process that is being agreed will work smoothly, so I assure him in that regard. Most of all, however, the House wants to thank him for everything that he has achieved.

On behalf of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, I unreservedly congratulate the Prime Minister, Secretary of State and Minister of State on what they have helped to bring about. I also congratulate the First Minister and Deputy First Minister on their courage and persistence. Will the Prime Minister also recognise, sensitively, that the Ulster Unionist party and SDLP—under Lord Trimble and John Hume, who were jointly awarded the Nobel peace prize for their efforts—showed us how to begin this road within Northern Ireland? Will he impress on them that their continued presence and participation is essential for success? We do not want the current Executive and Assembly to collapse as theirs did, but they have a vital role in ensuring that it will not do so.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his chairmanship of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. He was in Northern Ireland as we were having talks and played a part himself in encouraging the parties to accept that an agreement is absolutely necessary. I value the comments and representations of the UUP and SDLP, and I of course have huge respect for Lord Trimble and John Hume and for what they achieved over the years. However, it is important to recognise that we now have an agreement. Although the parties are right to look at the detail of the agreement, it is important that they make up their minds—in my view, the right decision would be to support the agreement. The former leader of the SDLP has said today that he will support it, and I hope that soon we will have the same answer from the Ulster Unionist party.

In the past, we have succeeded through all parties in the House seeking peace. The importance of this agreement is that it is between the parties in Northern Ireland, and the wider the agreement, the better it will be for the future. I have had talks with the DUP and Sinn Fein, but I have also had talks with the SDLP, the UUP, and, of course, the Progressive Unionist party. All have a big part to play in the future of Northern Ireland, and I hope they will be able to vote yes in the cross-community vote on 9 March, and that they will tell us soon that that is what they wish to do.

I congratulate the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State and the Minister of State, and all who took part in the exceptionally protracted negotiations. Although there has been criticism of the length of time that those negotiations took, I do not think that the people who took part in them should be embarrassed. It is in the nature of things that the most difficult issues are left until the last bit of any negotiations, and these negotiations involved dealing with a couple of issues that no one had managed to address before. I think that the people involved deserve to be congratulated, and I think that the rest of us will wish them well in difficult circumstances.

People in Northern Ireland still think of old, unhappy, far-off things, of battles long ago, and even of battles more recently. Everyone in the country must wish those who took part in the negotiations well, and wish the people of Northern Ireland well as a result of the product of those negotiations.

My right hon. Friend is well respected in the House, and has taken an interest in these issues throughout the time during which I have known him. When he says that this is the time to move forward and that this is the time not only to reach the agreement but to implement it as quickly as possible, I think most Members will agree that the right thing to do is to bring people together, to move forward and put the past behind us, but to ensure that the devolution of policing and justice is intact so that it is in place in only a few weeks’ time.

I strongly endorse what the Prime Minister said about the vital importance of a bipartisan approach in the House throughout the peace process. I also join him in hoping that both the SDLP and the UUP will be able to sign up fully to the agreement. May I gently put to him, however, that those two parties felt somewhat marginalised because they were not as involved in the negotiations as many of us thought that they should be? I hope that lessons can be learned both by the Government and by the First and Deputy First Ministers.

I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s support for the agreement, and also for the support that has come from both the UUP and Sinn Fein. Let me say to him, however, that we held a number of plenary sessions in Hillsborough castle, and invited all the parties to them. I tried to meet all the party leaders individually, not just the First Minister and Deputy First Minister but all the representatives of all the parties. I met representatives of the UUP and the SDLP on a number of occasions to go through the issues that were at stake, and the plenary sessions were an important part of the process.

Of course I understand that the UUP and the SDLP will want to look in detail at what the agreement entails, but I think that the UUP’s main concern—which was about the working of the Executive—will be best addressed by a working party of the Executive, chaired by the leader of the UUP alongside the leader of the SDLP. I hope that, having made their offer, the First Minister and Deputy First Minister will receive a positive response from the leadership of the UUP in particular. We received a positive response from the SDLP today, and I hope that a positive response from the UUP will come soon. I believe that the sooner we see Northern Ireland politics resolved to move ahead with this issue, and the sooner the community sees that the parties are able to reach an agreement, the better it will be for the future of Northern Ireland.

It is a long road that we have taken since the Anglo-Irish agreement of 1985—from violence to peace, as the Prime Minister has said—but does not statesmanship bring peace, does not patience bring peace, and does not peace bring prosperity, as anyone who has visited Northern Ireland will know? The Prime Minister has talked of jobs, stability, growth and inward investment. Can we not build on that statesmanship and that patience to enhance the economy of Northern Ireland and bring prosperity to all?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is always listened to with care in the House. I think he will acknowledge the huge amount of work done by the Secretary of State and the Minister of State—and, previously, by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales when he was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland—in pushing forward Northern Ireland’s economic future.

We know that Northern Ireland is looked to by the rest of the world because of what has been achieved. The statesmanship of those people who came together to reach an agreement is applauded in every part of the world. One of the lessons that Northern Ireland has sent to the world is that if tensions can be reduced and conflict removed, prosperity can result. Northern Ireland has had more jobs and more investment as a result of the decisions that its politicians have made.

Hillary Clinton has offered to meet the parties from Northern Ireland, and she will want to help run and organise an investment conference that will bring more jobs to Northern Ireland. I believe that companies will now look at Northern Ireland and know that, once this agreement is voted through the Northern Ireland Assembly, the future of Northern Ireland will be far more stable and therefore investment will be far more beneficial to them and to Northern Ireland. So this agreement not only brings to an end a long period of conflict about the institutional future of Northern Ireland, but it means that there is the possibility—indeed, the probability—of more jobs coming to Northern Ireland. The economic future of Northern Ireland looks more secure this week than it did last week.

The whole House welcomes the news on decommissioning by the paramilitary groups mentioned by the Prime Minister. As we are nearing the end of that process, can he say when and if an inventory of the various decommissioned arsenals will now be published at its conclusion, as was originally agreed? The agreement is in keeping with the manifesto pledges of my party. There are a number of elements to it, including on better delivery by the Executive and on parades, and we expect everybody to act in good faith. We know that the Government are the guarantor of delivery, so will he accept that if there is bad faith—we sincerely hope there is not in relation to delivery—there are means and devices open to us to ensure that there is delivery on the issues of parades and better functioning of the Executive. We cannot have policing and justice on the one hand without delivery of the other elements on the other, and they cannot be sustained one without the other. Those means must be open to us as a party to deliver, just as Sinn Fein has threatened in the past. Along with this, however, we are also certain that people in Northern Ireland want to move ahead. They do not want to go back. They want to build a better future, and we are all absolutely committed to making that happen.

I am grateful for the terms in which the hon. Gentleman has expressed his hopes for the way forward for Northern Ireland. It is a way ahead in which there is peace and stability, as well as trust. He is absolutely right that we and the Irish Government are guarantors of this agreement and wish to see it work, and, as he said, that means there must be delivery on all the issues—delivery on issues that are difficult for some parties, but delivery on them as they have promised in this agreement. I repeat to him that the working party that has been set up will look at all the issues that are outstanding from the St. Andrews agreement, and it will be able to report on all these issues so we can see what progress has been made and what progress can, if necessary, be made in the future.

The hon. Gentleman is also absolutely right to record our thanks to the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning. When we consider that it has now overseen decommissioning by the UDA, the UVF, PIRA, the INLA and now the Official IRA, we can see that it is a central means by which we have moved from violence to peace. I not only want to thank the international commission, but to confirm that it will conduct a series of reports, and there will be a report in the end on armaments. That will be the concluding work of the commission.

May I join others in congratulating my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on the success in what must have been an incredibly gruelling process of negotiations? May I also welcome the steps in further decommissioning that have been undertaken by bodies in Northern Ireland? Although I recognise that this devolution process will send a very powerful signal to the remaining violent dissidents in Northern Ireland, what assessment has he made in practical terms of the new arrangements in dealing with those who might still wish to pursue the course of violence?

We will never be complacent. We will continue to monitor and pursue those dissident groups that hold to a policy of violence in Northern Ireland. We know that they are a real threat, which is why we have stepped up the resources available to the security services and, as part of the financial agreement, we have made sure that the Executive ministry responsible for justice and policing is properly resourced. So we will do everything we can to take on this terrorist threat. It is important to recognise, however, that in one day the INLA, the Official IRA and the last loyalist organisation, the South-East Antrim UDA, have completed their decommissioning, and that is a move from violence to peace that those in all parts of the House will want to commend. So I remain optimistic that those people who support the political process—who are strengthened by the agreement that has been made in the past few days—will always defeat those people who wish violence to replace politics in Northern Ireland.

As chairman of the all-party group on Northern Ireland, may I also commend my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition for his support for the process of the devolution of policing and justice? I am sure that the Prime Minister agrees with me that continuity of effort and engagement in the process by all political parties will be essential in the highly charged timetable and atmosphere before a general election. Can he confirm that all-party briefings will continue should this Parliament be dissolved during what will be a crucial time for the people of Northern Ireland?

I think the hon. Gentleman wants me to comment on something on which I shall not comment. The one issue I shall comment on is the all-party briefings that have been given, particularly by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to his opposite numbers, which will continue. We will keep people in touch with developments. The outstanding issue that we really must address is our wish to build all-party support in Northern Ireland for this agreement; it is important to recognise that it was an agreement of two parties—it is not an agreement between the Governments—and it will work only, as the First Minister said, if we can secure wider support before the cross-community vote that will take place in Northern Ireland on 9 March. I hope that the hon. Gentleman can use his good offices to persuade any of the parties still looking at this issue and wondering about the right way for them to address the future that it is worth their being unequivocal in their support for moving this process forward and using the working party process to deal with the issues that they have raised.

May I add my congratulations to the Prime Minister and to all the individuals and parties who took part in this very important agreement on justice and policing? May I speak on behalf of some of the people who perhaps were not there except in spirit and who cannot move forward quite as easily as the parties would seem to be able to do? Such people include those whose relatives and family—including my own—were killed in the McGurk’s bar bombing. The people who did it are known to the person who was found guilty of being part of the group, but their names have never been given. Many families wonder where their loved ones are buried but that has never been revealed. Does the Prime Minister assess this move as bringing forward the possibility that these things will be laid to rest and that people in the innocent community of Northern Ireland will genuinely be able to move forward?

There is a need to deal with the issues that arise from the past—of course, the Eames commission has looked at this—but we also know that we must move forward. I appreciate that feelings are still very raw in many communities as a result of what has happened over these past decades, but I hope that having dealt with some of the issues of reconciliation as we have done through the commission that sat to consider this matter, we can now also agree that we must move forward to build that better future.

When responding to my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), the Prime Minister explained that issues outside the formal text of the agreement will be dealt with by a special working party, but I did not hear him tell the House what these issues are. Will he take this opportunity to do so?

They are all the outstanding issues on the St. Andrews agreement that are within the scope of the working party.

Having been involved in Northern Ireland matters for many years, may I express my relief and my congratulations to all those concerned on an achievement of which all parties, this Government, this Prime Minister and his predecessor, Tony Blair, can be truly proud? Could this case study in conflict resolution at home offer lessons for negotiated solutions to apparently intractable conflicts abroad?

I think the important thing is for us to move to 9 March and then to 12 April and show that the process that has been engaged in so determinedly by the political parties in Northern Ireland has definitively worked. We still have to get some people on board to make that happen. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that all around the world people admire what has been achieved in Northern Ireland; it has been the subject of not only Nobel peace prizes, but much examination by people who are in conflict zones. I think that one of the lessons is that if the tension and the conflict can be reduced, people can be shown the benefits of peace and therefore the benefits of not moving back to a position where conflict is endemic in their society. I think that Northern Ireland can show not only the courage of politicians who have reached difficult decisions to get to peace but the benefits that have come from that peace process. Belfast and much of Northern Ireland have been transformed economically as a result of the decisions that have been made and people’s willingness to invest in Northern Ireland for that better future.

The Prime Minister, in his statement, emphasised the importance of American investment for the prosperity of Northern Ireland. Is there also an important role for investment flows within the United Kingdom? One way to do that might be to try to get higher interest in Northern Ireland among the English media. What can the Government and the Northern Ireland Government do to encourage that?

The interest in Northern Ireland will cease to be based on long-standing conflicts and on the issues that are not yet resolved after the agreements that we have seen reached there. It will be based on how Northern Ireland is moving forward and on the talent, genius and potential of the Northern Ireland people, their ability to innovate, their strong universities, the education system, which is improving, and the innovative work of many businesses, some of which receive inward investment but some of which are generated by Northern Ireland talent on its own. The focus in Northern Ireland in future will be on the economic choices and social improvements that are made in that country. When people look at Northern Ireland today, they see a Northern Ireland that is different from a few years ago. In a few years’ time, if the whole focus of the Assembly is on jobs, health, welfare, the environment, tourism and all those issues, that will be how people will wish to look at Northern Ireland—it is a beautiful country with great people, who have come together and confronted and surmounted difficult times.

I congratulate the Prime Minister and the First Minister on their personal work at Hillsborough. How will the Prime Minister ensure the total independence of the Chief Constable in order to retain community support?

The Chief Constable is operationally independent and reports to the Policing Board. That is how we secure the independence of the Chief Constable. I must say that, from my discussions in Northern Ireland, I think that people are satisfied that the Chief Constable has those powers, assumes those responsibilities and is able to act with operational independence. I believe that he and his predecessor are respected for the way in which they are independent of the political process.

Point of Order

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) is seeking to visit my constituency and he has not informed me. He sought the use of a public building, my excellent SEEVIC college, for political campaigning. Might a word from you, Madam Deputy Speaker, help him to act more appropriately? Do I smell further Tory panic?

I am sure that all right hon. and hon. Members in this House are aware of the courtesies when visiting other Members’ constituencies. The hon. Gentleman’s comments are on the record and will no doubt have been noted.

Terrorist Asset-Freezing (Temporary Provisions) Bill (Allocation of Time)

I beg to move,

That the following provisions shall apply to the Terrorist Asset-Freezing (Temporary Provisions) Bill:


1.–(1) Proceedings on Second Reading, in Committee, on consideration and on Third Reading shall be completed at today’s sitting in accordance with the following provisions of this paragraph.

(2) Proceedings on Second Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion four hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Motion for this Order or at 8 pm (whichever is the earlier).

(3) Proceedings in Committee, on consideration and on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at 10 pm.

Timing of proceedings and Questions to be put

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.–(1) On the conclusion of proceedings in Committee, the Chairman shall report the Bill to the House without putting any Question.

(2) 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 Chairman or Speaker 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.

6. If two or more Questions would fall to be put under paragraph 4(d) in relation to successive provisions of the Bill, the Chairman shall instead put a single question in relation to those provisions.

Consideration of Lords Amendments

7.–(1) Any Lords Amendments to the Bill shall be considered forthwith without any Question being put.

(2) Proceedings on consideration of Lords Amendments shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement.

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

(2) The Speaker shall first put forthwith any Question already proposed from the Chair.

(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 to 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 to the Lords Amendment or (as the case may be) to the Lords 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 to the Lords Amendment or (as the case may be) to the Lords 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 to a Lords Amendment.

(6) The Speaker shall then put forthwith the Question that this House agrees to all the remaining Lords Amendments.

(7) As soon as the House has—

(a) agreed or disagreed to a Lords Amendment, or

(b) 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

9.–(1) Any further Message from the Lords on the Bill shall be considered forthwith without any Question being put.

(2) Proceedings on any further Message from the Lords shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement.

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

(2) The Speaker shall first put forthwith any Question which has been proposed from the Chair.

(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

11.–(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 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 (so far as 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, 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.


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

13.–(1) The proceedings on any Motion made by a Minister of the Crown for varying or supplementing the provisions of this Order shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement.

(2) Paragraph (1) of Standing Order No. 15 (Exempted business) shall apply to those proceedings.

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

15.–(1) 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 recommit the Bill.

(2) The Question on any such Motion shall be put forthwith.

16.–(1) No dilatory Motion shall be made in relation to proceedings to which this Order applies except by a Minister of the Crown.

(2) The Question on any such Motion shall be put forthwith.

17. The Speaker may not arrange for a debate to be held in accordance with Standing Order No. 24 (Emergency debates)—

(a) at today’s sitting, or

(b) at any sitting at which Lords Amendments to the Bill are, or any further Message from the Lords is, to be considered, before the conclusion of any proceedings to which this Order applies.

18.–(1) Sub-paragraph (2) applies if the House is adjourned, or the sitting is suspended, before the conclusion of any proceedings to which this Order applies.

(2) 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.

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

20. The Speaker shall not adjourn the House at the sitting on the day on which the Bill is sent back to the House from the Lords 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.

As set out in my written ministerial statement of 5 February, the Terrorist Asset-Freezing (Temporary Provisions) Bill is being introduced as an urgent temporary measure to prevent assets from being unfrozen and returned to terror suspects as a result of the Supreme Court’s decision to quash the 2006 terrorism order without a stay. That decision had effect from 4 February.

The Government have had urgent discussions with the relevant banks following the Supreme Court’s decision not to grant a stay and those banks have confirmed that in the light of the Government’s decision to bring forward immediate legislation providing retrospective legal authority for them to continue existing freezes, no funds will be unfrozen as a result of the Supreme Court’s judgment.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way, but will she be good enough to tell us why, given the reports of the Newton Committee in 2001 and the Joint Committee in 2004, as well as the facts that the relevant litigation started in 2008, was in the Court of Appeal in October 2008 and came before the Supreme Court in October 2009, primary legislation was not put before the House long ago that could have been the subject of proper consultation and debate?

We believe that we had strong grounds in law for introducing the secondary legislation under the United Nations Act 1946—and I should point out that the Court of Appeal agreed with us—so the matter is by no means clear-cut.

National security and public protection are priorities for the Government. We aim to ensure that there is no gap in the asset-freezing regime, that suspected terrorist funds cannot be diverted and used for terrorist purposes and that suspected terrorists do not get free access to the UK’s financial system. That is why we are moving this motion to ensure that there is rapid discussion of the Bill today, and I am sure that hon. Members will contribute to that debate. We consider it necessary for the UK’s national security to act swiftly to restore asset freezing on a temporary basis under primary legislation.

My hon. Friend says that the banks have agreed to continue to freeze assets pending the passage of emergency legislation, so on what legal basis will they be freezing assets in that period?

I take on board my hon. Friend’s point, but I remind him that we are debating a motion to set out the time in which we will discuss the Bill. It would be better to discuss the issue that he raises when we get to Second Reading, or Committee, if the motion is agreed to.

I shall leave the detailed discussion of the Bill’s content to my more expert colleagues. I am concerned about the frequency with which we seem to be allocating time to expediting legislation on an emergency basis. Why do the Government increasingly feel that they have to rush things through? We have had a long time to discuss this issue, as the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) has pointed out, but the Bill seems to have been jammed right up towards the end of the Session.

Again, I take on board the hon. Gentleman’s point, but, obviously, we are not in control of the Supreme Court’s timetable. If we are to debate the issue of proper scrutiny and the length of time given to the Bill, it would be better to get the motion passed so that we can get on with discussions about whether this is the right way of proceeding. The measure is a temporary one that would be used while we introduce permanent measures, with time for Parliament fully to scrutinise our proposals.

Let me be clear from the outset: we shall not oppose the programme motion because the time spent doing so would eat into the time allowed for proper debate of the Bill, but the Minister must accept that the Bill is being rushed through today because the Government have failed to put in place a proper timetable in which proper primary legislation could be produced. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) rightly said that the Government have had plenty of notice regarding this matter: there have been repeated warnings to them about the basis on which the terrorist orders were being issued. Rather than rush through measures this afternoon, the Government could have acted earlier to ensure that there was a proper basis on which to make the orders.

We recognise, however, that the judgment that the Supreme Court issued on Thursday quashing the orders means that terrorists could have access to financial resources and the financial system, and that it is therefore vital that the Bill should complete its Commons stages today and receive Royal Assent as soon as possible. If the Bill is not enacted, terrorist suspects could have access to finances and could use them to facilitate terrorist acts. I think that we all agree that it would be better if we were not in this situation now and if the Government had read the warning signals clearly and introduced primary legislation sooner so that they would not be reduced to rushing through emergency measures today.

I shall be brief and support the Minister in what she is trying to do. It is vital that the matter comes before the House, as it has done, as soon after the Supreme Court judgment as possible. Clearly, it could have been brought before the House on Friday, but it is much better that it should be before the House today in order to allow for proper scrutiny.

The motion deals solely with the allocation of time. If we deal with it quickly, all the proper points that have been raised by the hon. Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban) and others as to why we are in this position can be addressed during the substantive debate. Of course we would like to know why this happened and why Parliament did not have an opportunity to vote on it previously, but I hope that we can make quick progress on the motion and have a proper debate on the substance.

I wish that that argument were more persuasive, and that there was an opportunity during the substantive debate to cover these matters. However, the accelerated procedure is predicated entirely upon the lack of opportunity to deal with these matters earlier, and we must ask the Government why that is the case. I am deeply unhappy with the accelerated procedure unless there are very strong reasons for it.

No one wants criminal terrorists to be able to use money to support terrorist operations, so it is a seductive argument to suggest that we must push the Bill through, whatever its merits, in the shortest possible time in order to fill the lacuna. But the lacuna is of the Government’s making, and that is what they need to recognise.

I am not disputing for one moment that we should scrutinise the Government and question them about why they have reached this position, but we had better get on with agreeing the motion so that we can spend appropriate time on the Bill. If the hon. Gentleman believes that the Bill must be passed today, he must accept that today will end at midnight, unless the Liberal Democrats have a way of extending it beyond midnight, so the quicker we get on to discussing the motion, the better.

The right hon. Gentleman, who has been in the House many years, knows that parliamentary procedure allows us to extend a day indeterminately, if we so choose. Such is the Alice in Wonderland world in which we live. I do not propose to do so, but the Minister must respond to the fact that, as has been pointed out by the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), that there have been a number of occasions when the procedures that underlie the Bill have been thrown into question, when the Government had the opportunity to act and chose not to. They chose not to act in the context of what they claim is an urgent requirement to have the legislation in place. I should have thought that a prudent Government who felt that that was the case would have introduced primary legislation at an earlier stage, as a belt-and-braces measure. They would not have waited for the Supreme Court to deliver its judgment. They would have put in place a properly debated, properly considered Bill in order to put the matter beyond doubt, and they have not done so.

The fast-track legislation justification in the explanatory notes is the key to the allocation of time motion. Under our procedures now, the Government are required to give answers to various questions about why we should accept the proposition. In response to the question,

“What efforts have been made to ensure the amount of time made available for Parliamentary scrutiny has been maximised?”,

the Government simply say that this is the first opportunity since the quashing of the 2006 order. As we have heard, it was possible to address the issue before the Supreme Court made that judgment, but they chose not to do so.

In response to the question,

“To what extent have interested parties and outside groups been given an opportunity to influence the policy proposal?”

the Government state:

“In light of the pressing need to put in place primary legislation . . . the Treasury have not had an opportunity to consult external stakeholders specifically about the Bill.”

What an extraordinary thing not to have done if they knew that there was a possibility of having to introduce legislation.

A further justification is offered. In answer to the question,

“Has an assessment been made as to whether existing legislation is sufficient to deal with any or all of the issues in question?”

the Government state:

“No existing legislation is in place which would have the effect of saving temporarily the UN Terrorism Orders, or providing comparable powers to make asset freezes.”

I accept the first part of that contention—that there is nothing precisely based on the UN terrorism orders; but on the statute book there are certainly comparable powers to make asset freezes, because over the past few years the Government have inundated us with Acts that deal with precisely that problem. There is the Terrorism Act 2000, and the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001, part 2 of which deals specifically with the making of freezing orders.

The Government’s case is undermined irrevocably by one Supreme Court judge, Lord Hope, who, in the judgment of Ahmed against the Government, said:

“Detailed provision is made in Schedule 3 for the content of freezing orders, including a system for the granting of licences authorising funds to be made available. Orders made under the Act are subject to the affirmative resolution procedure…and they cease to have effect after two years… To a large degree, the power to make freezing orders under this Act enables the Treasury to do what paras 1(d) and 2(d) of SCR 1373(2001) require. But it is more precisely worded, and it contains various safeguards.”

That is what the Treasury do not like—the fact that existing legislation contains the safeguards that Parliament felt appropriate. The Treasury therefore chooses not to use that—

Order. Could I remind the hon. Gentleman that we are talking about the allocation of time? I am sure that there will be an opportunity for him to develop those arguments later.

But, Madam Deputy Speaker, my point is precisely about the allocation of time, because it is precisely about the justification for the fast-track procedure that is stated quite clearly in the explanatory memorandum. The case for the fast-track procedure is that no other legislation is in place, yet Lord Hope in the Supreme Court makes it abundantly clear that other legislation is in place. He says:

“Yet the Treasury have, it seems, chosen not to make use of the powers given to them by this Act, preferring to use the general power under section 1 of the 1946 Act.”

He goes on to say:

“In my opinion the rule of law requires that the actions of the Treasury in this context be subjected to judicial scrutiny.”

That is a powerful judgment that fatally undermines the Government’s case that no other legislation will enable them to safeguard the national interest. They simply choose not to use what is already in place.

Is my hon. Friend effectively saying that, when faced with the inconvenience of checks and balances on human rights, this Government prefer to declare an emergency, have a debate and try to sweep them away—in rather the same way that they had three goes at banning Brian Haw, who still happens to live in Parliament square?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right; he has got it in one. That is why the allocation of time motion is before us today. There is one abhorrent point in it, incidentally. Given the difficulties inherent in such legislation, and the Supreme Court’s judgment, I find it extraordinary that, if another place makes suggestions to us about how the legislation might be improved, all those amendments will be dealt with in one hour by this House. These matters strike at the fundamental liberties of citizens: by Executive decision, their assets can be frozen on the basis of suspicion. This House would not be doing its job properly if it were to accept that.

At the end of the day, the legislation is before us because the Government have been found to be acting ultra vires and failing to secure proper parliamentary approval. Other Commonwealth jurisdictions have had no problem in that respect: the Australian and New Zealand Governments had no problem in going back to their Parliaments and asking for their approval properly. However, the arrogance of this Government and, in particular, the Treasury means that they do not understand what Parliament is for, and they do not understand the proper scrutiny of Bills. That is why the motion is before us today, and I invite my right hon. and hon. colleagues to vote against it.

I, too, rise to express my considerable anxiety at what we are doing.

First, I accept that we will have to enact the Bill today. Leaving aside the fact that the Government have a majority, the truth is that the Bill has to go through because we are where we are, but the Government’s conduct in this matter is wholly lamentable, and within the rules of order I wish to spell out why. First, the timetable provides for very brief discussion. All stages of this Bill have to be finished by 10 o’clock tonight. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) made a good point about the Lords amendments as they are provided for in the timetable motion. Given that the Bill was published at the end of last week, those in the other place will have a little more time to reflect on what has happened, and I have no doubt that they will come forward with amendments. However, this House will be given only one hour to consider those amendments. That is wholly lamentable.

Does it strike the right hon. and learned Gentleman as ironic that the Government want to rush this through in such a way that they could build in further failings in the legislation, which could be prevented if we had proper scrutiny? Once again, they are legislating in haste and allowing themselves the risk of repenting at leisure.

Yes, I agree with that. Nor is it necessary, because the provisions of the Bill—I will not expand on those at the moment, Madam Deputy Speaker—enable previous Acts to be validated and declared legal, so we could take a more leisurely approach in the knowledge that if the banks refused to transfer money, they would be protected by the language of the statute that we will pass in due course.

The truth is that this House has had almost negligible time for consideration. The Bill was published on 5 February. It puts into primary legislation the language of the statutory instrument that attracted such serious criticism in the Supreme Court. Lord Hope said, in terms, that it was an affront to democracy—that it struck at the heart of democracy—and this House is being asked to echo those provisions by the end of today’s business. That is a scandal. It is no surprise, either, that Lord Hope should have been so concerned, because the freezing provisions in the 2006 order are very wide in their impact. Furthermore, the designation procedures whereby individuals are designated as persons caught by the provisions are not subject to any proper review. Anybody who supposes that judicial review is a proper remedy in this class of case is making a very serious mistake. Speaking of mistakes, the penalty for infringing the offences in the legislation that we will pass in three hours or so is seven years’ imprisonment, which is a very serious tariff.

One of the problems inherent in the timetable motion is the fact that right hon. and hon. Members have not had a chance to consider amendments. The Bill was published on 5 February—last Friday—and today is Monday. Sensible people do not set about drafting amendments until they have had an opportunity to consult. There can have been no consultations; it is therefore not surprising that there are so few amendments. What is more, none of the amendments deals with the central issue—whether there should be a proper judicial review or appeal process as to the scope of freezing orders or as to designation. That is not because such amendments are not required or justified in law—clearly, the Supreme Court was looking for precisely that class of amendment—but rather because this thing has been so rushed that right hon. and hon. Members have not had an opportunity to formulate them. That shows how dangerous this timetable motion is.

The Minister said, “Well, of course, until the last moment we were confident of winning in another place.” That is a lamentable approach to the matter. First, the issues were very grave and required primary legislation. Secondly, as I said in my intervention on the Minister—if she would be good enough to listen—Lord Newton of Braintree, who has had huge ministerial and other experience in this place and elsewhere, headed a committee that said, in terms, that legislation of this class should be primary legislation. That view was repeated in 2004 by the Joint Committee on Human Rights. Let nobody say that the Government have been caught by surprise. They have known for a long time.

Furthermore, the litigation that gave rise to the Supreme Court judgment began in 2008, entered the Court of Appeal in October 2008 and reached the Supreme Court in October 2009. There was ample time to introduce primary legislation, or at least draft proposals, that could be consulted on among those with an interest in the matter. That was all the more necessary and important because the principal legislation involved is secondary legislation that never went through the parliamentary process. The measures had no Committee stage, Second Reading or Report, yet they will enable the Treasury on “reasonable suspicion” to designate a person, leaving them unable to deal with their financial affairs.

That is lamentable. The timetable motion will pass, I know, and the Bill will pass into the other place. In view of the timetable motion, I suspect that it will be largely unchanged when it returns. True, it has a sunset clause, but that expires at the end of this year, so for nearly 12 months, potentially unjust legislation will be on the statute book. That is the fault of this Government—arrogant, uncaring, undemocratic and smug. Happily, the general election is coming soon.

I have listened with interest to hon. Members’ contributions on the motion. The main thrust of the arguments can be made on Second Reading and during debate on the clauses; I just want to put a couple of points on the record.

Our terrorist freezing Orders in Council were made in good faith. The Court of Appeal agreed with the Government on the matter in October 2008. I point out that one of the Supreme Court judges, Lord Brown, in the minority, considered that the United Nations Act 1946 gave the Treasury wide enough powers to draft the Al-Qaida and Taliban (United Nations Measures) Order 2006 as it did.

I emphasise that the Bill will establish a temporary measure. We have published a longer Bill intended to undergo proper scrutiny; I am sure that one of the arguments that we will have this evening involves how much time people consider is enough for proper scrutiny.

I hesitate to contradict the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), who speaks for the Liberal Democrats, but the powers under the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 are not comparable. They can be used only against threats emanating from outside the UK, not domestic threats such as UK-based terrorists. With that, I hope that I can persuade him not to oppose the motion, which I commend to the House.

Question put.

The House proceeded to a Division.

Terrorist Asset-Freezing (Temporary Provisions) Bill

Second Reading

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

The whole House would wish that today’s provisions were not required, yet we are realists, and we know that the real world demands action of the kind proposed in the Bill. Terrorism continues to pose a threat to the United Kingdom. Indeed, the Home Secretary recently apprised the House of the fact that the terrorist threat is now judged as severe—in other words, highly likely at any time.

As hon. Members know, terrorist organisations, including al-Qaeda, have executed or planned a succession of attacks with the aim of causing mass casualties. Many of our constituents have been affected or caught up or murdered. Yet the economics of that threat are frighteningly simple. The cost of a terrorist attack is low, yet its impact is devastating. The attacks on London on 7 July 2005, for example, cost the perpetrators just £8,000, yet the price paid by the British people was immeasurably greater.

For that reason, we seek to fight back with every appropriate weapon, which must include control of finance, assets and cash. Without resources, terror networks are unable to plan, organise or execute attacks, for which reason the United Nations requires that all states:

“Freeze without delay…assets”


“resources of persons who commit, or attempt to commit, terrorist acts or participate in or facilitate the commission of terrorist acts”.

Our tools therefore must include action against terrorist finance, which is now an important part of the UK’s counter-terrorism strategy.

Before I give way to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, I should make clear that my remarks this afternoon will touch on the background to the Bill, its contents, and some of the safeguards that it is vital for the House and another place to debate.

That is very important and we look forward to hearing what safeguards will be put in place. However, it would be helpful to know why, having had ample time, the Government have never before put the provisions into primary legislation, and have relied always on statutory instruments, which were not subject to proper scrutiny.

That is a fair point, and I will talk about it later in my remarks. Suffice it to say, the United Nations Act 1946 was fairly clear, and it is probably worth reading the relevant clause for the benefit of the House:

“If…the Security Council of the United Nations call upon His Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom to apply any measures to give effect to any decision of that Council, His Majesty may by Order in Council make such provision as appears to Him necessary or expedient for enabling those measures to be effectively applied, including…provision for the apprehension, trial and punishment of persons offending against the Order.”

In the eyes of the Government, that was an effective legal base on which to introduce terrorism legislation.

I am happy that the Government felt that that was the effective legal base. The issue that many of us want to raise is this: if such matters are not debated in Parliament, the disadvantage is that the necessary safeguards are often not put in place. The problem—on both sides of the House—is that the Government seem not to believe that Parliament is the proper place for such decisions.

Parliament is the proper place to debate those safeguards. That is why, alongside this temporary Bill, we published a full Bill that will transpose the relevant orders into statutory legislation. We will debate that question a little later, but it is vital that the House is given a full opportunity to pressure-test the proposals in that second, main Bill.

As we know, the measures are fairly draconian, but what does the Minister think was the original intention? Was the standard that the Government would have only to say that a person was involved in terrorism, or would they have needed a reasonable suspicion or evidence? What was the standard or test originally and what is it today? Could it be that the original test required something higher?

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will intervene again to clarify one point. When he refers to the “original test”, is he referring to the original test in Orders in Council or in the United Nations Act 1946?

I might be wrong, but I think I am referring to the original test not in Orders in Council but in the 1946 Act.

The 1946 Act did not set out any such test; rather, it set out a broad power for the Government to introduce measures, including those for

“the apprehension, trial and punishment of persons offending against the Order.”

That was the legal basis that was tested by the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court’s judgment in taking away the foundation on which the Government had rested was reasonably narrow. The Supreme Court refused to read “expedient” as wide enough to cover reasonable suspicion—that is perhaps the point that the hon. Gentleman was making. Rather, it concluded that it would be wrong to give “expedient” such an expansive meaning where the result is such an interference with individuals’ rights.

That is the crucial point. The Court made its decision because the order undermines fundamental rights. The Court was making the point that the Government should not undermine fundamental rights, and especially not without any parliamentary procedure. The right hon. Gentleman seems to be rearguing his case before the Supreme Court. He does not seem to accept the fact that he lost the case.

The reason why I am here this afternoon is that we lost the case. The point that I was hoping to make is that under the terms of the United Nations Act 1946, which I have read out, it is quite easy to see how the Government proceeded in good faith, because that Act appeared to give quite generous provision for the Government to bring forward proposals giving effect to UN Security Council resolutions.