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Historical Inquiries

Volume 463: debated on Wednesday 25 July 2007

3. How much has been spent on ongoing historical inquiries in Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement. (151124)

6. How much has been spent on ongoing historical inquiries in Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement. (151127)

7. What estimate he has made of the cost to the public purse of ongoing historical inquiries in Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement. (151128)

The Bloody Sunday inquiry, the Robert Hamill, Rosemary Nelson and Billy Wright inquiries and the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s historical inquiries team were established to address specific issues arising from Northern Ireland’s past. The total cost of the four public inquiries, as at April 2007, is £211 million. The estimated expenditure of the historical inquiries team at end March 2007 is £9.9 million. I have placed a more detailed breakdown of expenditure in the Library today for the benefit of right hon. and hon. Members.

Has the Secretary of State made any assessment of how many of the 3,268 murders related to the security situation that are being investigated by the historical inquiry team are likely to lead to the establishment of a separate public inquiry?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the historical inquiries team was specifically set up by the Chief Constable to focus on providing resolution, where possible, for the families affected by those deaths in a way that would command the confidence of the wider community. There is no question but that it has been successful, particularly in its specific purpose of engaging with families. As for prosecutions, that is, of course, a matter for the Chief Constable.

Does the Secretary of State accept that those of us who supported setting up the Bloody Sunday inquiry would not have done so if we had known that, by now, it would cost £180 million? It has not yet concluded, and it almost certainly has not brought the closure that we all desired.

Undoubtedly, the costs of the Bloody Sunday inquiry are higher than many people would like. Of course, the Government are committed to ensuring not only that the inquiry has the resources to do the job, but that we can bring about best value for money for the public purse. The fact of the matter is that, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, justice must take its course. The inquiry has had to interview more than 900 witnesses. There have been endless judicial review proceedings. None the less, it is now proceeding towards its end, and we expect and hope that its resolution will come soon.

I apologise for not have heard all the answer, Mr. Speaker.

The Secretary of State has been helpful in what he has said, but will he tell me whether he in the Department or someone in the devolved Administration decides which inquiry will take place and determines the extent of the investigation and the budgetary parameters? Who decides whether it is appropriate to hold an inquiry and on what terms?

The conduct of most of the inquiries that are taking place is already set out, and they are already proceeding along their courses. A number of inquiries are under way. I am not quite sure which inquiry the hon. Gentleman is referring to, but I am happy to discuss that with him or to pursue it by letter. Of course, inquiry matters are for me to set out, but once under way, they are matters for the chairman or the judge involved.

The Secretary of State says that justice must take its course, but does he accept that many of the innocent victims in Northern Ireland see no justice? What they see is hundreds of millions of pounds being spent for political purposes by the Government and others to pursue a vendetta against the security forces and those who work to defeat terrorism. I welcome the Secretary of State to his new position, but will he do something to redress the balance in favour of the victims and against the terrorists and those who would seek to rewrite history?

There is no question in anybody’s mind of inquiries being confused with vendettas. The inquiries are there precisely to establish the truth, and it is absolutely right that they continue to do so. However, the hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the future of inquiries and how we handle the past. That is why my predecessor—I pay tribute to the work that he did not only in this area, but during his entire time as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland over the previous two years—set up the consultative group. Its purpose, under Robin Eames and Denis Bradley, is to see whether, across the entire community of Northern Ireland, we can find a consensus on how to deal with the past. There is no question but that we must continue to discover the truth about the past. That will never be sacrificed. However, we also have to find a way to deal with the past that does not leave us in a divided past, but allows us to use our inquiries as a way of healing for the future.

I welcome the Secretary of State and the Minister of State to their new positions and offer the best wishes of my party to them in doing what remains, potentially, a very difficult job. I share many of the concerns about the price of the inquiries, but we should never lose sight of their value. The Secretary of State just referred to the Bradley and Eames commission on the past. Does he accept that that is an inquiry of a different order? Will he ensure that its deliberations are properly resourced and that any recommendations it makes will be properly implemented?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his post and I am sure that he will be extremely successful. I also welcome the co-operation that he has already offered me in my job. I agree with most of what he said, but, on the other hand, I cannot second-guess the outcome of the work of Lord Eames and Denis Bradley. I have every confidence that if a consensus can be found on how to deal with the past for the future, they are the people who will help to find it from within the community. It is my intention to publish the findings of their report, but that will be based on consultation with them.

I welcome the new Secretary of State to his office and wish him well. We were both elected as Conservative MPs in 1997 and it is an interesting reflection on the different ways in which we have spent the past 10 years that we hold our current posts. I intend to build on the sterling work of my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington), who supported the Government through the current process, but did not offer them a blank cheque. On the question of cheques, will the Secretary of State estimate the total cost of all the current and future inquires, and say when he thinks they may be completed?

Since the hon. Gentleman invites me to look at the past, and the time when we were both elected, I will say to him that it took me two years to realise that the Conservatives were the party of the past and that Labour remains and will be the party of the future. Even though he has remained in the Conservative party for eight years longer than I did, if he wants to come across now, I am sure that we can always find a place for him here.

In relation to the hon. Gentleman’s question about the cost of future inquiries, in the case of the four public inquiries currently under way, we anticipate further expenditure of about £60 million. We have set aside for the historical inquiries team £34 million, of which £10 million has already been spent, leaving a further £24 million, which we expect to be spent by the various agencies in Northern Ireland in looking at the past.

That was a helpful reply. The Secretary of State knows that the Chief Constable has stated that retrospective work is absorbing 40 per cent. of police time. Can he confirm whether, in his opinion, the time may come when, in the interests of current police priorities, it will be sensible to draw a line under further historical inquiries?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new post. I believe that he has already taken the opportunity of discussing some of the issues with the Chief Constable. There is no question but that investigations into the past are a considerable burden for the Chief Constable, in terms of resources, manpower and time, but we should recognise that the investigations and inquiries have played a critical role in allowing us to get to where we are with devolution, the Assembly and the Executive in Northern Ireland. Crucially, as was said earlier by my hon. Friend the Minister of State who has responsibility for security, there are unparalleled levels of confidence in policing in Northern Ireland. The way in which the Chief Constable has dealt with the past is exemplary, and that has been crucial to ensuring those levels of police confidence. As for the future, we have asked the consultative group to consider the issues and find a consensus. I will not second-guess what it will find, but I will pay very close attention to the work that it produces.