METHODS OF DECOMMISSIONING (Hansard, 16 January 1997)
HC Deb 16 January 1997 vol 288 cc499-503
Mr. Wilshire

I beg to move amendment No. 1, in page 2, leave out line 10.

I shall try to be brief. The amendment simply seeks to delete one of the four ways in which decommissioning can occur. I support—as I suspect all hon. Members do—the first three methods. I have no difficulty supporting the contention that weapons can be decommissioned by giving them to the commission. That makes enormous sense; we have been arguing for such a handover for a long time.

The second method of decommissioning is to put weapons and explosives somewhere that the commission can find them. It achieves the desired result by putting the weapons and explosives in the hands of the commission, and I support it. The third means of decommissioning is for someone to tell the commission where it can find the weapons and explosives. I have no difficulty with that method, because the arms and explosives will end up in the hands of the commission. Those three methods make sense and achieve the desired result: a party removed from this sorry mess will take possession of the arms and explosives.

However, given the events that have occurred in the interval between the Committee stage and tonight's debate, I am afraid that I cannot support the fourth method of decommissioning, which says that it is acceptable for the terrorists to destroy the weapons and explosives. That cannot be right. Given the lack of faith, the twisting and turning, and the murder and mayhem, how can we swallow the notion that Sinn Fein-IRA may simply ring up and say, "We've got rid of them," and that they will then receive all the protection that the Bill offers? There must be independent verification.

The fourth method of decommissioning represents an enormous loophole. I am not a lawyer, but I can anticipate the defence that will be offered against criminal prosecution. A terrorist who is being pursued and who knows that he will be caught might dismantle his gun or defuse his explosives and say, "I have just decommissioned them. It says in the Act that I have destroyed them, and so you cannot use the weapons that you have caught me with as evidence. You cannot carry out tests on the gun that I have dismantled because the Act says that you cannot do so. There is no evidence and I am immune from prosecution." That is an appalling loophole and I hope that the Minister will at least reassure me about that point if he cannot fix the serious weakness in the Bill.

If we are to have decommissioning, the arms and explosives must end up in the hands of the commission. We cannot, and dare not, rely on the claims of Sinn Fein-IRA as to what they have done with the weapons without seeking proof.

Rev. Ian Paisley

I support the comments of the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire). He has touched on an important point: why should those who unlawfully possess murder weapons have the right to destroy them and then claim amnesty? That is not reasonable. The hon. Gentleman offered a vivid example of a known terrorist, who is about to carry out an act of terrorism or has just committed one, legally destroying his weapons under the Bill. That leaves the door wide open and I believe that the Government should withdraw the paragraph altogether.

We are talking about an unlawful organisation that has carried out some of the vilest murders in the community and has shown no signs of repenting. Why should it be judge and jury and settle its affairs as it likes? That is what the IRA wants to do. The hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney) referred to the blockage in its thinking: the IRA is not prepared to allow a lawful authority to deal with its unlawful possessions and deeds.

Mr. Maginnis

I wish to add to the comments of the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire). My party also has considerable difficulty with the words of clause 3(1)(d), for the reasons that he outlined. It is not for me to put words into the Minister's mouth, but I urge upon him the hon. Gentleman's interpretation. Even if the word "verifiable" were added to the clause, it would not be good enough.

Will the Minister give a firm reassurance that a verifiable process means a structured rather than a spontaneous process? If the paragraph is to remain in the Bill—we would support the hon. Gentleman's amendment in a vote—will the Minister assure us that there will be a proper, well-defined, verifiable process, which is structured rather than spontaneous?

Mr. Robert McCartney

Although I agree entirely with the thrust and intention of the amendment, I am not entirely certain that the amendment and the Government's intention in drafting clause 3(1)(d) are necessarily at odds.

The destruction of weapons by the persons in unlawful possession of them is different from the evidence of such destruction. For example, if terrorists were in possession of a number of kalashnikov rifles, and if those weapons were provided to the commission with their barrels completely bored out or twisted beyond recognition, one could say that they were effectively destroyed, and destroyed by the persons in unlawful possession of them. That is completely different from the evidence of such destruction.

7 pm

I say this off the cuff, as it were, but perhaps clause 3(1)(d) should be amended to read, "destruction by persons in unlawful possession, and such destruction to be evidenced to the satisfaction of the commission". Not only would the weapons have to be destroyed, but evidence of their destruction would have to be such as to satisfy the commission that it had taken place. For example, it might be decided—as was done in Russia—to run a steamroller over certain pieces of equipment and thereby totally destroy them. I do not care who destroys them, provided evidence of their destruction is available to the commission.

I suggest to the Minister that clause 3(1)(d) be amended to read, "destruction by persons in unlawful possession, and such destruction to be evidenced to the satisfaction of the commission or such other verifying body."

Sir John Wheeler

I am again grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) for raising this issue. Allow me to return to the reason for this part of the Bill.

Paragraph 44 of the Mitchell commission report, to which my hon. Friend referred, specifies four possible ways of dealing with firearms, explosives and ammunition. It acknowledges that those ways are by no means exhaustive, but in a desire to reflect the report's recommendations, we may have made clause 3 require a decommissioning scheme to make provision for one or more of those specified ways while still allowing the scheme to make provision for other methods, if required. In practice, a variety of methods might be needed, because the circumstances of where the munitions may come from will vary—the location and so on.

Amendment No. 1, proposed by my hon. Friend, and commented on and supported by others, would remove from the list of methods of decommissioning the one whereby those unlawfully in possession of weapons may destroy them. That method is, the Government believe, the one most likely to encourage terrorist groups to decommission. It is important for the House to remember that for that method not to be included when it was included in the Mitchell report itself would send the wrong signal to those whose confidence we wish to build in the direction of decommissioning.

I sense that the House is really asking me to give an assurance that it is not the Government's intention that that method should be carried out unsupervised. I can give the House that assurance. There would be no point in sending a note to the Northern Ireland Office to say that the Semtex has gone, it has been buried deep in the ground, lost at sea, or anything of that kind. That would not do. There is no question of any disposal under this method being unsupervised.

Mr. Wilshire

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Sir John Wheeler

I shall develop my point a little more, and then see whether my hon. Friend still wants me to give way.

The Government envisage that a member, or members, of the commission to be appointed will be present to verify the destruction of weapons, Semtex and other munitions. It is through that verification process that public confidence in the decommissioning process can be built. The hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis) made the point that the verification must be credible.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann)

We are greatly encouraged by what the Minister has just said, but will he go just a little further and give the House an assurance that any decommissioning scheme that the Government introduce will contain clear, comprehensive provisions for the sort of verification that he has just mentioned, and that it will be clear in the terms of the scheme that such verification will take place?

Sir John Wheeler

I understand what the hon. Gentleman is seeking. I remind the House that, in the event of the decommissioning process succeeding, it will involve the Government of the Republic of Ireland, who are enacting similar legislation to that before the House this evening. Their proposed legislation has had its Second Reading, and I understand that they will continue with the scrutiny of their Bill before the end of this month.

The commission to be appointed must command the support and confidence of both jurisdictions, but I can go so far as to say, to satisfy the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), that there can be no point in this process unless there can be verification. The purpose of establishing the commission, which will operate in two separate jurisdictions—within the territory of the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom—must be to ensure that the decommissioning is genuine, and that it can be publicly ensured.

I am confident that when the commission is established, part of the requirements of its work, to be agreed by the two Governments and no doubt approved by the House, and the talks process, must be that it has firm instructions as to how it will carry out supervision, and report to the public and others with an interest how it has verified the destruction and disposal of the weapons and munitions. I hope that that satisfies the hon. Gentleman and the House as a whole, because it is an important point.

I make one other point. Disposal by that method, if it should occur, would have to be undertaken in a way that was safe to the public interest in either jurisdiction. That burden would also fall to the commission, so it would have a serious task to perform if we were to be at the happy stage of expecting decommissioning to take place.

I hope that I have been able to satisfy the House and that my hon. Friend will feel able to seek the leave of the House to withdraw his amendment.

Mr. Wilshire

It occurs to me that the argument advanced for not deleting the fourth requirement is powerful. If the requirement is in the Mitchell report, its presence in our legislation makes some sense to me.

I listened with some interest to the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis), who offered me one word—"verifiable". I suspect that that is the schoolteacher in him. He wishes to keep it simple. Then I heard the lawyer, the hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney), offer me more words than I could write, because of my lack of shorthand. He offered me those words to achieve the same result, that of qualifying the fourth requirement and guarding against the very thing that worries me.

Would my right hon. Friend the Minister be willing to think further about the wording that has been suggested by the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone and that suggested by the hon. and learned Member for North Down before the Bill goes to another place?

Sir John Wheeler

Yes, of course. I shall take from the debate my hon. Friend's urgings and the sense of the House as I perceive it to be. I shall do my best to ensure that the concepts that have been discussed are built into the process that we shall have to contemplate when and if a commission is established to supervise and verify the destruction of weapons and munitions.

Mr. Wilshire

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. I judge from hon. Members' nods that his response has probably satisfied the House. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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