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Westminster Hall

Volume 486: debated on Thursday 15 January 2009

Westminster Hall

Thursday 15 January 2009

[John Bercow in the Chair]

Policing and Criminal Justice (Northern Ireland)

[Relevant documents: Third Report from the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Session 2007-08, Policing and Criminal Justice in Northern Ireland: The Cost of Policing the Past, HC 333, and the Government response, HC 1084.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Ian Lucas.)

Before we begin the debate, I have a brief statement to make. Members are reminded that four current inquiries into historical events—the Bloody Sunday inquiry and inquiries into the deaths of Rosemary Nelson, Robert Hamill and Billy Wright—are covered by the House’s sub judice rules. Therefore, references to matters such as the cost of the inquiries are admissible, but references to the substance of what is being considered are not. I would be grateful to hon. Members for their co-operation. To open the debate, I call the Chairman of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs.

Thank you very much indeed, Mr. Bercow. It is a great delight to speak under your chairmanship, and I entirely accept what you have just said. The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee’s report is consistent with those remarks. We talk about the cost of inquiries, we have subsequently corresponded with Lord Saville about the length of his inquiry, and I may well refer again to both those aspects, but, as to the substance, it would be entirely wrong of me, or of anyone else, to make any comment. Thank you for reminding the Chamber of that.

I ought to give a collective apology for my Committee, whose members are conspicuous by their almost total absence from the Chamber, with the exception of my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson), who is here although afflicted. He has lost his voice and, therefore, will not be in a position to speak at his normal length, or with his normal fluency and beguiling articulacy. I am, however, grateful to him for being here.

Other Committee members are unwell, some are in Northern Ireland and some are in the House, taking part in the debate about Gaza. Indeed, perhaps you will allow me to say in parenthesis, Mr. Bercow, that that illustrates the difficulties of Westminster Hall sitting at precisely the same time as the House. Without wanting to cast any aspersions on the importance of this subject, because I should be the last to do that, I think that we would all like to be in the House discussing Gaza, which is a matter of such enormous importance. I hope that the appropriate House authorities will have another look at the issue, because effectively to prevent Members from being in the House when a major debate is taking place is unfortunate, to put it mildly.

This is a very important issue, and I am delighted to say that my Committee was able to produce, yet again, a unanimous report. It is worth putting it on the record that the Committee consists of seven Government Members, another Member from the official Opposition apart from me—I try not to be at all party political in my role as Chairman—and four Members from the Province: two from the majority Democratic Unionist party, one from the Social Democratic and Labour party, and the sole remaining Ulster Unionist Member. For us all to be able to work as we do, amicably, and to produce unanimous reports is not without significance.

We are talking today about a sensitive issue—policing the past and its cost—and I would not want anyone in the Chamber to think that by cost we are referring merely to the financial cost, real and important as that is. There is a real, human cost, and after a period of 30 years, there can be no sane and sensible person who is not delighted at the progress that has been made, particularly in the past two years. It would be appropriate to pay tribute, yet again, to the former First Minister, the current First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, all of whom have helped to make the settlement. Every one of us wishes it continued success, conscious as we are of the difficulties.

Almost everything has been devolved to the Assembly, and rightly so, but policing and justice remain the concern of the Secretary of State and the Minister of State. I am delighted that the Minister is present, and, as I am handing out a few bouquets, perhaps I might pass him one, because he has made a remarkable contribution during his time in Northern Ireland. He is universally respected, even by those who do not always agree with what he says, because he has shown himself totally committed to Northern Ireland, absolutely even-handed and without prejudice or bias. He has made a very real contribution, and I am extremely grateful for it.

The Committee decided that it wanted to look into the cost of policing the past. We made the decision at a time when, yes, that was the right subject for us to look at, although the consultative group under the joint chairmanship of Denis Bradley, former deputy chairman of the Northern Ireland Policing Board, and Lord Eames, former Primate of All Ireland, was conducting its inquiries. When I put in a bid for this debate, I and most of us thought that the consultative group would have made its report by now. Indeed, when the Committee was last in Northern Ireland, a few weeks before Christmas, we met Lord Eames and members of his group, with whom we have had continual contact, and their report was virtually concluded. They thought that they would publish it either shortly before Christmas or shortly after. There has been slippage—I make no criticism of that, because I do not know all the reasons—and the report will be published on 28 January.

When we put in for this debate, however, we thought that it would be against the background not only of the Committee’s report, but of the Eames-Bradley report. It is a pity that we do not have the benefit of its conclusions and recommendations, because we were diffident about making recommendations in certain areas ourselves and did not want to appear to pre-empt what Eames-Bradley were doing. Theirs was essentially a complementary but different exercise from ours: they travelled the length and breadth of the Province, meeting all manner of people from all communities and walks of life, amassing an enormous amount of information and taking considerable time—quite rightly—to do so. We await with great interest what the group has to say, but that does not prevent us from making a few points today.

I shall not give a series of votes of thanks today, but I am absolutely delighted, as I am sure most people are, that one of the international assessors, Marti Ahtisaari, former President of Finland, has just been awarded the Nobel peace prize. I can think of no more appropriate recipient. When the Committee was in Northern Ireland last summer for a full meeting with the Eames-Bradley consultative group, Marti Ahtisaari was there and took a real part in our discussions. He is a truly remarkable man.

Our report looks at how the past is being dealt with, and we must remember that we are doing so against a background of more than 30 years of real tragedy in part of the United Kingdom. More than 3,000 people lost their lives and countless thousands more were injured, some of them grievously. Most of those people were victims of terrorist violence; some were terrorists themselves. Even when a terrorist is killed, be he or she from the republican community or the so-called loyalist community—it is an insult to the rest of that community to call any terrorist a loyalist—they still leave families behind, often families who did not approve of their nefarious activities.

How does one come to terms with the fact that many of those people were slain at the hands of those who had not been brought to justice? The Historical Enquiries Team, which was the brainchild of Sir Hugh Orde, Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, was established to look into the killings, stretching back over a period of more than 30 years.

During a visit in the summer, which was one of several made last year, we went to see the HET at work. We met its members, examined their methods and had the moving benefit of meeting the relatives of some of the victims from both communities. What struck us was that those victims’ families whom we met were all very complimentary about the manner and sensitivity with which the HET had worked. One was conscious, however, of a number of things that one had to bring to the attention of Parliament. For instance, every single case is being investigated, regardless of when it happened, the circumstances in which it happened and the evidence available to investigate it. We must remember that there were many attacks on police stations during the troubles. There were two devastating attacks on the forensic science laboratory, which virtually destroyed it. In some cases there are reams—indeed, rooms—of evidence, and we saw some of it; in others, the evidence is scant.

In some cases, there is a grieving family who want an opportunity to come to terms with the past, but in others people do not particularly want an investigation. In some cases, no one knows whether people want an investigation or not. I was talking to the police officer in charge of a case concerning a bachelor in his late 60s or early 70s, who was killed in 1972 or 1973, with, so far as the police knew, no next of kin or anyone to whom they could refer.

One begins to wonder whether all that is absolutely necessary, which is why paragraph 26 of the Committee’s report states:

“We were surprised to find that all cases are automatically reviewed by the HET. We accept that there are benefits in building a complete picture of often interconnected events. We also accept that a family which initially chooses not to participate in a case review may later change this view; and that there will be occasions where a family member (such as a grandchild) might only feel able to participate once an older relative has come to terms with the re-examination of painful past events, or has died. In such circumstances, the fact that the HET has carried out a comprehensive review of all cases will enable it to help families at a time that is right for them. Nevertheless, we conclude that in some cases scarce resources are being used to investigate historic cases where there is little likelihood of helping a family and limited opportunity of securing a conviction.”

That has to be taken on board seriously.

The Minister’s reply to the Committee’s report, which on the whole was positive, does not sufficiently tackle that point and perhaps he will say something about it this afternoon. Perhaps, too, he will want to await the comments of Eames-Bradley, and I shall understand if he does, but this is an issue that one has to address.

What also came across in many of our evidence sessions and private meetings—we had both, with victims and families and so on—was the range of difference. On the one hand, the widow of a police officer, married for 40 years, whose life was devastated when he was killed, said “I want to move on. I don’t want to rake up the past. What happened, happened. It was terrible, others suffered too, but if Northern Ireland is going to have real normality in the future, we cannot go on living in the past.” She was a most persuasive lady. That was part of a private session, so I will not give any indication of her identity. In a public session, we had the widower of a young woman who was killed in an atrocity on the Shankill road. One of the talks was on memorials, and when I asked him whether he would be prepared to see the name of the person who killed his wife on the same memorial as his wife, which is a difficult question, he paused and said, very simply but quietly, “Yes.” That is a degree of forgiveness that I personally do not think I could emulate, and I know that many others could not.

Another young man came to see us, whose father and grandfather were both killed. All he is interested in—I do not say this accusingly—is seeing the perpetrators brought to justice. There is a range of feelings and responses: some who never want to let go, others who want to let go; some who are prepared to see every victim commemorated and all commemorated together, and others for whom that solution is utter anathema. The difficulty is that one can understand them all and, to a degree, relate with them. That is one of the things that makes it so very difficult. Of course, although it is not easy for any of us, it is easier for those of us who do not and have not lived in the Province of Northern Ireland to talk objectively than it is for those who do.

I have been a Member for a long time and have lost colleagues to IRA violence. The late Robert Bradford, who was a Methodist minister and MP for a Northern Ireland constituency, had an office next to mine. I said to him, “Goodbye, see you next week” one Thursday and, over the weekend, he was gunned down in his surgery—killed. I was friendly with the late Ian Gow. The late Airey Neave was the brother-in-law of a constituent, and he became a close friend. My wife and I were toasting the defeat of the Callaghan Government in the House on, I believe, a Wednesday night. On the Friday, as Airey Neave was driving out of the car park here, he was killed. I was briefly on a hit list, because the IRA had several targets in Staffordshire.

One has had some experience, but it does not begin to compare with what the people of Northern Ireland have been through. It does not even begin to compare with the detailed, intimate knowledge of tragedy that my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann has. There can be few of us who have listened to our colleagues from Northern Ireland in the Chamber who have not felt moved by their accounts of relatives slain, and families absolutely devastated as a result.

All that has to be taken into account. However, we have to move on. We will have to see what the Eames-Bradley consultative group’s report says and recommends, but, whatever the difficulty, we cannot go on indefinitely—our report makes that plain—because of the cost, not just the financial cost, which, as I have said, is real and significant, but because of the human cost of keeping wounds open. When is the right time to stop? I do not know, but I do know that it has to come. I am glad that my hon. Friend is indicating his assent to that proposition.

We made several significant recommendations in our report, to one of which I have already alluded. With your permission, Mr. Bercow, let me refer to one or two more. We recommended that

“alternative ways of prioritising cases should be identified so that resources may be focused on cases in which the next of kin of the deceased specifically request investigation or where the existence of forensics or other exhibits provides investigative opportunities that could contribute to a successful prosecution.”

We also recommended a mid-term project review.

We had conversations, both formal and informal, with the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland. The ombudsman’s office was established to give the people of Northern Ireland confidence in the policing of the present, but it is in danger of being overwhelmed with its responsibilities of investigating the policing of the past. The ombudsman himself, in evidence to our Committee, said that he wanted the role to be divided. We concluded that

“the extension of the Ombudsman’s remit to include historic cases was having a damaging effect on the efficiency of that Office.”

We also called on those running the statutory inquiries to recognise that the future safety of certain people—indeed, possibly their lives—who supplied sensitive information could well depend on their decisions. We called for a review of the inquiry information management procedures—rather a mouthful—particularly because, even as we were deliberating on our report, a sensitive disc was stolen from the Rosemary Nelson inquiry. We must remember that some people will always fear for their safety, because of their bravery in giving and sharing information in the past. I refer not only to those whom one would normally call informers, although they played an important role.

On the subject of inquiries—but not, indeed, on their substance—we felt that because they are so time-consuming and costly, no more should be established unless there was real consensus among the political parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly that they should be established. That is eminently sensible.

We were concerned to learn after the publication of our report and just before Christmas that Lord Saville wanted another year. I wrote to him on behalf of the Committee and invited him to come to talk to the Committee, not about the substance of the inquiry but about why an extra year was necessary. I received a firm, polite refusal. Of course, no Select Committee, although it can send for persons and papers, can compel the attendance of a Member of the other place, so he was entirely within his rights in refusing to come before us, but I felt that it was a pity that he did not come and put on the record some of the reasons for the extra year.

The inquiry has gone on for a very long time. The earliest we can now expect the report is the end of this year. The event took place well over 30 years ago, and, by the time the report is delivered, public expenditure will have reached some £200 million. The costs are running at well over £180 million at present. Those are big sums. Obviously, one cannot pre-empt the report—one does not know at all what it will say—but one wonders what its value will be when, by the time that it is published, so many of the principals will not only be long retired but several, including the then Prime Minister, will be long dead. Those issues must be addressed.

I hope the Minister agrees that we should have no more inquiries unless there really is a consensual demand from within Northern Ireland, in which case, of course, that would be different. I believe that he has indicated that he does more or less agree with that.

It is crucial—this was another of our conclusions—that the Northern Ireland Office

“must continue to ensure that the PSNI has a budget sufficient to fulfil its operational remit and to meet its legal obligations with regard to servicing the statutory inquiries.”

Sir Hugh Orde made it plain to us both publicly and privately that the time of some of his most experienced officers that is devoted to providing evidence and giving assistance to inquiries is prodigious and that that has an effect on the efficiency with which he can give Northern Ireland the police service that it deserves.

I shall conclude, because it would be interesting to hear what other hon. Members have to say. I hope that the report, limited as it inevitably is because we are waiting for Eames-Bradley, gives a few pointers. I hope that it serves to underline the fact that we understand the sensitivities of the issue and that we are unanimous in more than the report and its conclusions. We are unanimous in wanting Northern Ireland to be a normal part of the United Kingdom in the same way that England, Scotland and Wales are normal parts of the UK. We want it to be freed from the burden of its recent past, which has been bloody and tragic, and we want its people from all communities—I resist using the term “both communities”—to look forward to a bright future.

In particular, we want the young people of Northern Ireland not to be obsessed by what happened to their parents and grandparents, but rather to concentrate on living and working together to create a harmonious society for their children and grandchildren. If, in what we have said in the report, we have assisted in the development of that thought process, we will be well content.

Welcome to the Chair, Mr. Bercow. As you can hear, my voice is not what it should be, although I am sure that many hon. Members will say that that is a blessing in disguise.

I echo many of the sentiments outlined by the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) and congratulate him on his chairmanship of the Committee, as I congratulate all members of the Committee. The Committee had not the luxury of my input to the report, because I was not a member until recently.

The hon. Gentleman sang the praises of the Minister, which I echo. I would like to say, without trying to keep in with him, that he has played a constructive part in all the work on Northern Ireland. He is held in very high esteem—I mean this sincerely—by the political parties and by a lot of the general public with whom he has come into contact. I thank him for that.

Whenever we speak about policing in Northern Ireland, we are aware that it is an emotive issue, whether we are dealing with the past or with the future. Many of us from the Province could speak of the atrocities. The hon. Member for South Staffordshire mentioned Reverend Bradford, who was a Member of Parliament. I remember attending his funeral as a much younger man. I had never seen as many people at a funeral—I did not see so many people at a funeral for many years—as I walked behind the family that day. A lot of memories can be brought to bear, but it is important that we look to the future in Northern Ireland. It is important that, as the hon. Gentleman outlined in relation to policing, we get it right, that there is adequate funding for policing and that the atrocities of the past can be left to the past.

I am aware that we cannot go into the detail of the current inquiries, as you mentioned, Mr. Bercow, and I appreciate that. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Bloody Sunday inquiry. Putting millions of pounds into that inquiry is totally wrong. I have to question the motives of those who called for that inquiry and ask whether they were politically motivated. There are those of us who, at the start, warned that this inquiry would go on for many years and that it was as if the Government were putting millions of pounds into a bucket full of holes. That is exactly what has happened; that is where we are today. We still have no outcome and we are now told that it could take another year before we have one.

We also have other inquiries, such as the Billy Wright inquiry, which you also mentioned, Mr. Bercow. Mr. Wright’s father has fought a long and lonely battle, trying to get answers to questions about his son’s death. Irrespective of what his son was or what he was guilty of, or what he was serving time for, his father and the family still deserve answers and conclusions about why he died the way he did.

There are many issues to deal with, but as you can hear, Mr. Bercow, my voice will not sustain. I thank all who were involved in producing the report. I say to the hon. Gentleman that I enjoyed being part of the Committee under his chairmanship and alongside all the other members of the Committee, whom I congratulate on the report.

I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak this afternoon, Mr. Bercow, and I, too, congratulate the Committee and its Chairman, the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack). The hon. Gentleman dispensed a remarkable range of bouquets, which, had they been real rather than virtual, would have rendered the Chamber injurious to a hay fever sufferer such as me. Since these are virtual rather than real bouquets, another one should be given to the hon. Gentleman, who performs one of the more challenging jobs in the House with remarkable skill and dexterity.

The report has dealt with an important and, some might say, controversial issue with remarkable thoroughness and sensitivity. The Committee Chairman reminded us of some of the limitations on the Committee’s deliberations, particularly in respect of the existence of the Eames-Bradley commission. The Government response has trodden a delicate line very skilfully. We Liberal Democrats agree with the Minister’s comment in the report that it is pertinent to wait until the publication of the report of the Consultative Group on the Past, chaired by Lord Eames and Denis Bradley, as their recommendations will undoubtedly impact on the issues considered in the Committee’s report.

Dealing with the past and its legacy is by no means a straightforward process. Some may even suggest that to do so is counter-productive, in that it prevents people from moving on and keeps old wounds open. I have little sympathy with that view. In my experience, until there is proper closure and a proper examination of the past, there will be no prospect of this generation’s moving on or of subsequent generations moving on. Without that closure and an open, transparent process, there will be no moving on. We have to be realistic about what we can expect of the current generation, who are human—they are flesh and blood, like the rest of us—with human foibles. But if the succeeding generations are able to put the past behind them, we will have achieved something worth while.

The Select Committee report reflects clearly how important it is for those who have lost loved ones during the troubles to have their stories heard and their concerns taken seriously, and how there needs to be a holistic means to address the legacy of violence and division in Northern Ireland. It was put to me recently that, for many people, the war is not over because it is still being fought in their minds, day after day. I am reminded of E. P. Thompson’s remark that peace is more than simply an absence of war. It is a fact that, many people in Northern Ireland today, although the bombings and shootings have finished, are still certainly not at peace.

The Historical Enquiries Team has been directly involved with this process, as it is charged with assisting in bringing a measure of resolution to those families of victims who are affected by deaths attributable to the troubles. Paragraph 16 of the report quotes the director of WAVE, an organisation that provides support and training services to people who have been bereaved, traumatised or injured as a result of the troubles:

“From speaking to a number of people who have come through that process from the early 1970s, the fact that someone is sitting down, listening, coming back with answers, adhering to promises and undertakings they have given, has validity. Even to record at the time that an investigation was not adequate or things were overlooked… is something very positive for families in relation to having that process.”

One of the major absences from the Good Friday agreement and its subsequent implementation was any holistic and comprehensive approach to transitional justice. Many other conflict resolution processes have involved some type of tribunal, domestic or international, to punish those responsible for serious offences. Others have established commissions to address truth and reconciliation issues. In some international cases, justice in the form of the conviction and punishment of those responsible for atrocities is deemed an essential pre-condition for reconciliation, while in other cases a process of truth recovery and apology is deemed appropriate as the basis for reconciliation. We might debate whether either course of action by itself can deliver reconciliation, but Northern Ireland has not yet been placed on either course and reconciliation remains an elusive goal.

To date, efforts to deal with the past and its legacy have been handled piecemeal. Those matters have been allowed to create further division. They include the early release programme, the work of the Historical Enquiries Team, the work of the police ombudsman, the Bloody Sunday inquiry and other statutory inquiries and inquests. I sincerely hope that the recommendations of Lord Eames and Denis Bradley will present us with a comprehensive approach to dealing with the past that counters the piecemeal tendency that has been the hallmark of the process hitherto.

I might add in parentheses that having met Lord Eames and taken a close interest in the working of his commission, I am fairly optimistic that he will offer us a road map that takes us to that destination.

The hon. Gentleman mentions the Eames-Bradley report. Does he agree that if the report, when published, redefines the difficulties of Northern Ireland as a war, that will be the wrong step to take?

It is difficult to answer the hon. Gentleman’s question without second-guessing what Lord Eames and Mr. Bradley will say, but he does us a service in highlighting the sensitivity of the language in these cases. I anticipate that from Eames and Bradley we will get not answers to questions such as that, but perhaps a process that allows those in Northern Ireland who are most closely involved to arrive at answers for themselves.

One remarkable feature of Northern Ireland politics, which I see as an interested outsider, is that it is easy for us sitting here to come up with answers. As the hon. Member for South Staffordshire said, there is not the same immediacy of impact in what we see. It is pointless for us to bring up answers, because the problem is not ours; the problem is for people in Northern Ireland. If we go too far towards producing answers, whatever they are, we encourage a process that prevents people in Northern Ireland from taking responsibility for their destiny.

Let me return to the somewhat piecemeal nature of the process to date. All those actions have been constructive in their own right, but they have also involved their own difficulties. One of the most pressing, which the report highlights, is the financial cost involved and the resourcing implications that that has had for the organisations at the forefront of investigating the past. It is no doubt reassuring to the families involved that the Chief Constable is committed to keeping the Historical Enquiries Team project going for as long as it is needed, but it is worrying that the demands of running that project might compromise the ability of the PSNI to fulfil its primary role of policing the present.

The Chief Constable accepts that if no additional funding were to be made available for the HET, it would have an impact on the resources available for current policing activities. The report quotes him as saying that

“the reality of course, is if there is no more additional money, that, like everything else will be drawn out of my current budget”.

It is clear from the report that that experience is shared by the police ombudsman. The ombudsman has seen a significant increase in the number of historical complaints made to his office since the HET began operations in 2006. He has had difficulties in securing sufficient additional funding to resource the additional work, and some staff have been reassigned from current investigations to assist with historical work. The report states:

“The pressure on the Office is compounded by the limited availability of skilled, experienced and appropriate staff, to manage, lead and undertake such investigations… The complexity of the cases and the gravity of the issues immediately necessitate significant managerial involvement.”

People always talk about normalisation in dealing with Northern Ireland. The role of the police ombudsman ought to be to deal with policing issues arising from current policing. In fact, it is pretty clear that for as long as the service remains bogged down with the inquiries of the past, it will not be in a position to say that it is dealing with a normalised situation. It is in the interests of the efficient and effective working of the ombudsman service itself that it should be allowed to devote its resources to dealing with the primary purpose for which it was set up by the House.

I shall make one observation on the question of the finances, because this will be crucial. The debate is timely for many reasons, not least because we are, we hope, fairly soon to embark on a process of devolving criminal justice and policing to the Northern Ireland Assembly. I hope that the preparatory discussions relating to that will involve the cost of what we are discussing.

I hope, too, that there will be an understanding in the Treasury that significant financial legacies related to policing requirements are involved here, not least in respect of the payment of pensions to those who were part of policing in Northern Ireland through the troubled years when we needed much greater policing activity. That cost cannot be avoided; we cannot walk away from it now. I fear that if the Treasury regards the devolution of policing and criminal justice as an opportunity for cost cutting, we could do profound damage to the significant progress that we have made so far in Northern Ireland.

The cost, of course, is not just financial; there is a human cost as well. The disclosure of intelligence information to inquiries clearly presents challenges to the police and other organisations that are required to provide sensitive information, but which also have an obligation under article 2 of the European convention on human rights to protect the life of covert intelligence sources.

I am mindful of the work of the Privy Council review of intercept evidence and the ongoing work of the Chilcot review on how to take forward the recommendations in the report. That is obviously a complicated area of work, but there are a number of pressing cases that the work of the review could help to resolve, and not just in Northern Ireland—those cases are pressing. It would be helpful if the Minister said today how that work is progressing.

There are clear and significant financial cost implications from the piecemeal approach of dealing with the past through selective inquiries. Once established, inquiries become a law unto themselves, with no accountability in respect of costs or assessment of value for money. It is bewildering to me, as it is to other hon. Members, that the Bloody Sunday inquiry has still not reported almost 11 years on from its creation. I shall say no more on that issue, but having embarked on the process and having devoted such resources to it, we should recognise that there will be plenty of time to pass judgment on its worth once we have seen the fruit of its labours.

I am more than happy to say that we need to learn from the experience of that inquiry, but we cannot form a judgment until we know exactly what we are going to get for the money that we have spent on it.

Fundamentally, there are trade-offs to be made in any society on how scarce resources should be allocated. Major opportunity costs will arise as a result of the course on which Northern Ireland has been set. The mounting cost of inquiries could go a long way to addressing other long-standing social, economic and environmental costs—and indeed policing costs. Looming on the horizon is a tightening by the UK Treasury of Northern Ireland’s policing and security budget. Any new Minister for Justice in the Northern Ireland Assembly will have a difficult task in reconciling those issues unless the Government make a financial settlement at the point of devolution of policing and justice powers.

The sobering financial realities should embolden society across the political spectrum to give serious consideration to the forthcoming recommendations of the Consultative Group on the Past, and to aim for a cost-effective and all-embracing means to address the legacy of violence and division in a manner consistent with a shared future.

I apologise, Mr. Bercow, for perhaps having laboured the financial aspects of the process. It will be apparent to those who read the Committee’s report and the Government’s response to it that this is a complex area—one that requires a great deal of sensitivity to enable us to dance around many of the human considerations involved. Those considerations must be uppermost in our approach.

For that reason, the report and the Government response are much to be welcomed as part of a process. Liberal Democrat Members look forward to seeing the next stage of that process, which we believe to be the Eames-Bradley report.

It is a great pleasure, Mr. Bercow, to serve under your chairmanship. I start by apologising on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson), who very much regrets that he cannot be here to take part in the debate. He had a long-standing arrangement in Northern Ireland today; I hope that the House and the Committee will think it no discourtesy to have to put up with me instead.

It is a great pleasure to respond to the report on behalf of the Opposition. I spent a number of my most formative years—I was in my early 20s—in Northern Ireland as a member of the security forces. I saw at first hand the misery of terrorism and its effect on the victims. Coupled with the grinding poverty that I saw in certain parts of Belfast and other parts of the Province, my experiences in Northern Ireland inform my politics today. After a few years as a member of the armed forces, I realised that I was like the Dutch boy with his finger in the dyke; I was not solving the problem, but I might have been containing it.

It was ultimately for political and civic leadership to solve the problem, which has now happened. Northern Ireland has now moved on to a much better phase. That is not to decry the great sacrifices made by so many in the police and armed forces—sacrifices of which the House is well aware. However, that understanding informs a wider debate; elsewhere today, the House is discussing Gaza. It is not for the military wing of Hamas or the Israeli defence forces to solve their problems. It will ultimately be for big politicians—I mean big-minded, broad-minded people—to be prepared to do what was done in Northern Ireland in order to make that society better.

I congratulate those from so many walks of life in Northern Ireland who were prepared to make difficult and heart-searching decisions in order to achieve what has been achieved so far—and what must continue to be achieved. I pay tribute to the Committee and its Chairman, my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack). What my hon. Friend said should be underlined. He said that Northern Ireland must be freed from the burden of its past—an elegant way of approaching the problem. My hon. Friend also mentioned Rev. Robert Bradford, as did the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson). Robert Bradford was murdered during my first week in the Province. It was a pivotal moment, and I remember it clearly. Indeed, my father was a Member of the House and knew him well. I suddenly realised that all sorts of strands were being drawn together by a tragic act and the death of a remarkable person.

Despite the fast ball bowled to me today—the reason why I am responding to the debate—I have had a good opportunity to read the Committee’s report. I congratulate the Committee on an excellent piece of work; it has raised some important issues and some pertinent questions. It would be nice to get a response to them today or in the near future.

I pay tribute to the contribution, made in difficult circumstances, by the hon. Member for Upper Bann. He made an elegant contribution, saying that the atrocities of the past should be left to the past. I hope that they can, but we must find a better way of delivering that end. The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the cost of the Saville inquiry. I shall touch on that point later. I worry that with these inquiries we have created an industry in Northern Ireland. That is to be regretted. One wonders who will benefit—with the ultimate exception of some wealthy lawyers.

Northern Ireland has moved on enormously since the troubles. Stability is required in order for the Province to move towards fulfilling its undoubtedly promising future. The Assembly is up and running successfully, and all but one competency has been devolved.

One of the main problems—it was mentioned also by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael)—is the cost of historical inquiries. It is more than a question of pounds, shillings and pence. The Government’s projected budget for the inquiry has been exceeded by a wide margin. The Northern Ireland Office stated that it would provide £34 million over six years to fund the project. That was to go primarily to the Police Service of Northern Ireland, but small allocations were given to the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland, Forensic Science Northern Ireland and Northern Ireland’s Public Prosecution Service.

The Historical Enquiries Team became operational in 2006; by the end of October 2007 it had spent £13.7 million. Will the Minister give us the most recent figures for how much has been spent to date? The Committee’s report states that

“the project will overspend its original budget allocation by 60 per cent.”

That is £16.77 million. The project will cost more than double the amount originally forecast by the NIO. Do the Government intend funding the project at the new estimated cost? That is an important question.

The Committee’s report notes that the chairman of the Northern Ireland Retired Police Officers Association referred to the process of historical inquiries as a “Rolls-Royce industry”. We should not forget those other inquiries. The Saville inquiry is costing upwards of £200 million—nearly a fifth of a billion pounds. Without revisiting the arguments about whether that inquiry should have been set up, I wonder what people in all communities in Northern Ireland think of that. The vast majority in those communities would think today how much better that money could have been spent; and they would say that it should have been spent on civic projects.

The Police Federation for Northern Ireland expressed its view to the Committee that the project had gone beyond its scope and original intention. What was supposed to be a straightforward information-sharing exercise with the families’ victims has grown to be much more.

The HET has been reviewing cases chronologically, beginning in 1968, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire said. I do not see how that is a good use of resources. Taking such a broad approach is labour-intensive and costly, especially when it is highly unlikely that any prosecutions will take place, which is a view expressed even by the Chief Constable. He said in the report that “prosecutions would be limited”. There is very little evidence going back as far as 1968. There are no computer records for the earliest years and, as has been said, the forensic laboratories were destroyed twice during the troubles.

I have discussed the report with a learned colleague in this House—my neighbour and right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), who knows a thing or two about Northern Ireland and criminal law. He said that he had known people give evidence, with the best will in the world, in trials that related to events that took place just six months before. Through no intention to deceive, they gave a completely different view of proceedings—who was where, what happened and so on—from that of another person with similarly honest motives. It is difficult to see how we will get a clear view of what happened way back in the mists of time.

Surely, if we are to have historical inquiries, they must form part of an efficient system with prudent financial management and targeting of resources. It does not seem to be constructive to open every case since 1968, even those with little or no evidence and those, as the Select Committee Chairman said, with no apparent next of kin or people interested in finding out what happened to the victims. As we have heard, some families do not even want a case to be reopened or examined, but the HET does so anyway. I do not see how funding can continue if that approach is to be used. The cost is mounting. As suggested by the Police Federation of Northern Ireland in the Committee findings, would it not be better for families who want their cases investigated to approach the HET or another body and for it to be done on that basis with that form of prioritisation? I hope that the Minister will respond to that in his remarks.

There needs to be a cap on how much money and time is spent investigating the past. Resources are finite and could be used elsewhere. As I suggested earlier in relation to the Saville inquiry, much of the money could be spent better, whether on schools, hospitals or community cohesion projects, rather than on raking up the past. Do these inquiries serve a purpose? They are dredging up horrific histories at great financial and human cost. Historical inquiries are also skewed in that they show only one side of the picture—I am picking my words carefully here. The report mentions that the security forces are being investigated when they caused only—I say “only”, but it is still a tragically high number—365 out of 3,600-plus deaths. The republican paramilitaries are said to have caused 2,158 deaths and the loyalist paramilitaries 1,099 deaths. The paramilitary groups, both republican and loyalist, destroyed evidence and covered their tracks, making it difficult to investigate their crimes or to hold them to account.

The most alarming point highlighted by the Committee report was that inquiries into the past were having an impact on the effectiveness of policing in Northern Ireland. The Committee states:

“'We are concerned that the demands of running the HET project, and the likely overspend, might compromise the ability of the PSNI to fulfil its primary role of policing the present… The more police resources that are committed to servicing the needs of the various historic inquiries, the fewer resources are available for crime prevention measures or for apprehending present-day criminals”.

The overriding goal for any police force is to prevent crime and to protect the public; anything other than that should be secondary. Policing the past should not get in the way of policing the present. The Chief Constable mentioned in the report that he has had to move key staff experienced in working in intelligence from their current policing priorities to historical work. The PSNI is under constant threat from terrorism. That threat is stark in the current climate; the police have been specifically targeted by paramilitary groups. Bombs have been planted by paramilitary groups with the intention to hurt and kill police officers in Northern Ireland. Society has also been affected by paramilitary crime. If Northern Ireland is to move forward, it needs stability, which can be achieved only through effective policing and stamping out the paramilitaries who are still able to break the law today.

Another important issue raised by the report is that the HET has been referring cases to the police ombudsman’s office, which has increased significantly its work load. The police ombudsman has been taking on historical cases where complaints have been made against the former Royal Ulster Constabulary office. That has been described as

“damaging public confidence in policing”.

The ombudsman carries out important functions, and its work should not be compromised by mounting historical inquiries. However, the Committee’s findings appear to show that the resources of both the PSNI and the ombudsman are being stretched as a result of the inquiries.

Highly sensitive information and intelligence is used during a historical inquiry. During the troubles the police relied on informants, because paramilitaries were well practised at removing evidence from a crime scene. Those informants put their lives at risk. The police are concerned about this information coming out in a public inquiry or being mismanaged in such a way that it is leaked. As the Committee Chairman said, the report reminds us that, during the Rosemary Nelson inquiry, a disk containing sensitive information was lost. Informants would no longer come forward if they were not offered any protection or anonymity. That is not just specific to Northern Ireland, but has wider-reaching implications in the battle against current terrorist threats. For example, in the case of the terrorist threat from Islamic extremists, if informants think that the British state will name them, even one day way in the future, they will not come forward. The nature of terrorism requires Governments to use informers and other covert sources. We should be able to protect such individuals. The report states:

“The loss or inadvertent disclosure of sensitive intelligence information by an inquiry or panel or its staff could have serious consequences, including the risk to life.”

Although legal provisions are in place regarding the protection of people who have given information, staff working on inquiries must be well trained and careful in their handling of information of this nature. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that the people and bodies involved in historical inquiries are handling intelligence in the appropriate way and according to legal obligations? What procedures are in place to safeguard against losing intelligence data?

The report dealt lastly with inquests and their costs. A number of inquests have taken place into deaths that occurred during the troubles. The PSNI has had an increased work load in supporting the inquests and supplying information, but the Committee noted that no extra funding had been supplied to the PSNI and that money from the main policing budget was being used to pay for the additional cost of the inquests. It expressed concern that such additional work was compromising

“the PSNI's ability to direct adequate resources to other high priority areas of policing”.

That is a very serious statement.

The Committee report highlighted a number of concerns, some of which we were already aware of. The financial cost of historical inquiries is huge and rising; the Northern Ireland Office has gone beyond its budget and the costs keep mounting; prosecutions in historical inquiries are highly unlikely, which even the Chief Constable admitted, and PSNI resources continue to be diverted. That poses the question: are we getting this right? Are historical inquiries constructive to the future of Northern Ireland? I am deeply concerned by the Committee’s assertion that such inquiries are getting in the way of effective policing in present-day Northern Ireland. A police force exists to prevent crime and protect the public. It is crucial that Northern Ireland has a society based on law and order—it is the most basic tenet of a civilised democracy.

Historical inquiries are dredging up the past, and preventing normality and stability by looking back to a troubled time. It is important to look forward and concentrate on current threats rather than past ones. The report alluded to not only the PSNI but the police ombudsman being stretched, as historical inquiries are now spilling over into that office, too. Perhaps there needs to be some sort of consolidation, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland. Resources are stretched and the primary focus should be on the present, not the past. It is important that the offices carry out their responsibilities without being compromised by competing priorities. The current system is inefficient and needs to be reviewed. The HET has gone beyond its budget. The resources are not there, and it seems incredible that every single case is being opened, beginning, as I said, in 1968. What do the Government propose to do about such problems? I understand that they may be waiting for the Eames-Bradley group report. In that respect, it is unfortunate that we are meeting before the report is available.

Although I have been very critical about the processes and some of the unfortunate aspects that have been dragged up by such inquiries, I understand the reasons for them. If I was a victim, or a family that had suffered a murder, I should want to know so that I could bury the past. However, we must accept—that is what I did when I was in Northern Ireland—that every single atrocity, death and victim had different circumstances. To impose one feature of historical tribunals over the whole lot of them will not work. I hope that we can prioritise and work towards a better future, rather than raking up a past that we should all like to forget.

It is very good to see you in the Chair this afternoon, Mr. Bercow. We have had two significant and memorable debates on Northern Ireland. Yesterday, we had a statutory instrument on a matter of electoral reform. That was the day when time stood still in Westminster—the clock was stuck on 2.29 pm. If it had not been for the bravery and foresight of the Chairman who took us fearlessly beyond 2.30 pm irrespective of what it said on the clock, we might still be sitting there. Today, the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) lost his voice in Parliament. That is something that none of us thought that we would live to see. It is very good that he has been here with others to contribute to today’s debate.

I want to thank the Committee—particularly its Chairman, the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack)—for the assiduous work that it has done in relation to this inquiry and for all the other work that it does. Too many people in Parliament think that the problem of Northern Ireland has now been resolved and that everything is running smoothly. Things have improved enormously for all the reasons that have been mentioned, but there are still issues to resolve. It is important that a group of hon. Members continue to pay close attention to such issues, to hold Ministers and officials to account, to report back to Parliament and to ensure that the issues that relate to Northern Ireland—part of the United Kingdom—are given a proper airing here. Again, I thank the Chairman of the Committee. We understand that a number of its members have prior engagements and commitments in Northern Ireland and in the main Chamber and so are unable to be here. None the less, we thank them for the tremendous job that they do.

I am very grateful to the Chairman of the Committee and others, particularly the hon. Member for Upper Bann, for the very nice things that they said about me. In all truth, any contribution that I have made over the recent past is extraordinarily modest compared with those who have led the process of change in Northern Ireland. People have had to swallow hard, grit their teeth and move forward. It is tremendous to have worked with some of those people and to see the brave way in which they are prepared to take decisions and work together. It is a great hope for us all and for those beyond the shores of these islands that that process has happened. Others have led that process in a quite remarkable way.

Although policing and justice powers are still to be devolved—we are working closely with the parties in Northern Ireland to achieve that shared objective—it is tremendous to see local politicians and local Ministers dealing with the economic downturn, housing and social exclusion. Just the other day, the Health Minister—I say this with a little feeling, because I was once the Health Minister in Northern Ireland—was completing his first major Bill in relation to health reform. That and other such issues are now being driven locally, and it is tremendous to see some of the early fruits of that.

This excellent report deals with a very difficult issue. I shall try to address and answer some of the questions and comments that have been made in the debate this afternoon. Many have pleaded the Eames-Bradley amendment, and I will probably have to do so as well. When I was giving evidence to the Committee, I said that we had to wait on a number of points. Like other hon. Members, I have to say the same again today, which places an enormous burden of expectation on the Eames-Bradley group, which is dealing with complex issues. Any contribution that it can make to help us to think more deeply and to move us forward in the right direction will be welcome, but we have to wait and see what it says.

It is worth recording that the core task of the Consultative Group on the Past, which was established in June 2007, is to consult across the community on how Northern Ireland society can best approach the legacy of the events of the past 40 years and to make recommendations, as appropriate, on any steps that might be taken to support Northern Ireland society in building a shared future that is not overshadowed by the past. That is a huge challenge. Those involved have had extensive meetings and discussions, and we look forward to their recommendations.

Does the Minister agree that, if the Eames-Bradley consultative group recommends that the troubles in Northern Ireland be reclassified as a war—we do not know what the report will say—it would have serious repercussions for the investigation of the past, because we would no longer be dealing with the murder or maiming of security forces, but with the issues of warfare? Moreover, those who have confessed to being the commanders of the IRA—I name the hon. Members for Belfast, West (Mr. Adams) and for Mid-Ulster (Mr. McGuinness)—would be guilty of war crimes and should be charged in accordance with that.

The hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not say what I think the group should or should not put in its report. However, I have never described it as a war, nor would I ever do so, but we will see what the group has to say about that and many other things.

I am sure that that is the case. We wait to see what the group recommends. Burdened as it is with such expectations, we need to give some time and careful consideration to the points that it makes. Our objectives—whether we are Committee members, Ministers or members of the consultative group—are those articulated by the Chairman of the Committee, who said that we are working together for a society in which young people can hand over something that is worth while to their grandchildren. Moreover, he quoted from the widow of a police officer, who said, “I want to move on.” Enabling people to move on is the business in which we are all engaged. I am talking not about burying the past in the sense of pretending that it never happened, but about moving forward in a way that can build a positive future for the next generation and the generation beyond that.

All hon. Members who contributed to the debate mentioned the work of the Historical Enquiries Team. I was pleased, as the team will be, with the affirmation that the Committee gave to their very difficult work. Some 3,268 deaths occurred as a result of the troubles, each a story and tragedy in its own right—as the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon) said, each is different. The HET is trying to bring explanation and resolution to people by uncovering as much information as possible. The Chief Constable was clear in his evidence, as he always is with me, that he does not expect many prosecutions, let alone convictions, but if stories are told, if information is recovered and if resolution is delivered, it is a worthwhile project.

It will not be possible to complete the task within the time frame or budget that was originally envisaged, but the project is a world first, so how could we know absolutely at the outset what would be required? The £38.3 million that we have given to the HET’s work is over and above the core budget for policing or any of the other services. Set against the cost of other processes, we could describe it as good value for money if it brings resolution to the families of the 3,268 people who died. To update hon. Members: 1,422 cases have been opened so far, and 509 cases have been completed; and on current projections, it is expected that 1,048 will have been completed by 2011, which is the end of the first six years of the project.

I vividly recall that the Committee subjected me to a fair degree of questioning on the procedure for dealing chronologically with cases. There is a discussion to be had about whether that is the best and fairest way of considering cases, but the HET has always maintained that it is. As the team told the Committee—they have since confirmed this—some two thirds of the families whom they approach want to engage, and of those who do not want to engage initially, 30 per cent. later want to do so. Therefore, nearly 80 per cent. of families say that they want to engage with the process, which is a very encouraging sign indeed.

One or two hon. Members expressed concern about the additional burden on the ombudsman’s office. The police ombudsman receives additional funding for the work, but he has made a strong argument that he wants to focus on today’s work, and I understand that. He has proposed a business case for dealing with legacy cases, and we have it with us. However, because of the Eames-Bradley group, we must give the business case consideration after the delivery of its report, rather than more immediately. Again, the £38.3 million that has been given to the HET is in addition to the core funding. Of course, the considerable amount of time and effort that it takes for the police to provide detailed information to inquests or public inquiries comes out of the core rather than the HET budget, but it is none the less important to say on record that the £38.3 million is in addition.

This was not mentioned in the debate, but it is important to update the Committee and hon. Members on the work now in hand to improve and make more effective the workings of the HET. It is changing the shape of the organisation: in future, there will be seven teams, and a senior investigating officer will take charge of each case, so that it is investigated in the same way as any other murder. The intention is to ensure that they do not simply open cases but close them, because people want resolution. They certainly hope that with the new structure, they will be able to close more cases, more quickly. Even given the necessary due consideration to the families concerned, they will make more rapid progress. Therefore, the number of staff in the HET will be reduced as a result of the process, not because of cost-cutting, but because it has found more effective ways of working, which is to be welcomed.

The hon. Members for Newbury and for South Staffordshire mentioned the loss of data by the Rosemary Nelson inquiry. That was a matter of considerable concern when I gave evidence to the Committee, which I was able to tell that we had appointed an independent security consultant to look into the data loss. I should emphasise that the data were lost rather than stolen, and as far as we are able to tell, there is no indication of any adverse impact, which is welcome. Rightly, the Committee and the whole House will want to be assured that such information is properly looked after. The consultant confirmed in his report that a satisfactory level of security was applied in the inquiries, although he made a number of recommendations. We asked him to go back and look again at the inquiry procedures towards the end of 2008, and he conducted a follow-up review from 24 November to 12 December. He reported that significant progress had been made on his original recommendations. The hon. Gentlemen will understand that I do not want to go into too much detail about the procedures this afternoon, but I will be happy to write to the Chairman of the Committee, so that he can share the information with his colleagues.

All hon. Members who spoke mentioned the delay and costs involved in the Saville inquiry. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and I regret the further delay in the delivery of the Saville report, but the inquiry is independent, and we are very much in its hands. Hon. Members mentioned their concerns about the costs, and I can confirm that the cost to the end of December stands at £185.7 million. However, because of the further delay, officials from the Northern Ireland Office have been in very close contact with the secretariat of the Saville inquiry to find out how costs can be reduced, especially regarding accommodation, IT, consultancy and other service contracts. I cannot give a precise figure this afternoon, because the work is in progress, but I hope to be able to confirm the details of what could amount to several hundreds of thousands of pounds of savings in the immediate future, even in the short time that the inquiry has left. I am sure that hon. Members will be pleased to hear that.

There is a debate about the expenditure on public inquiries, but I should like gently to point out that public inquiries have been essential in building confidence in the peace process in Northern Ireland. Although we may baulk at the size of the bill, we must understand the benefits that come from a greater confidence in the peace process, which we see all around us—I am talking about the end of the conflict and the progress on devolution—and that must always be weighed in the balance.

At the beginning of the debate, I believe that the Chairman of the Committee spoke about balancing the financial against the human cost. We must always do that, but it can sometimes be difficult in Northern Ireland. The hon. Member for Newbury twice mentioned raking up the past, but others might describe it as resolving the past. There is a debate to be had about that; but one way or another, we must work through things, and public inquiries have played a significant role.

I am sure that the Chairman of the Committee and other hon. Members will be happy to learn that we have no plans for any further public inquiries other than those that we already know about. Although Her Majesty’s Government will not run away from their responsibility for taking the final decision on public inquiries that relate to the past, we will consult closely on any future suggestions.

I am pleased to see the hon. Member for Upper Bann and thank him for his contribution, and I hope that he feels better soon. Policing is important to every Member of Parliament, because we all want the difficult behaviour and criminality in our neighbourhoods dealt with, but I have learned that there is an added importance and significance to policing in Northern Ireland. I perhaps understand that dimension more acutely now than I did before.

That is why the Government have prioritised investment in policing in Northern Ireland this year and next year: around £1.1 billion will be available for policing. I accept that some of those costs, as the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) made clear in his contribution, relate to pension contributions and other commitments that have to be met, but it is a significant amount of money. The Secretary of State battled very hard for those resources in the context of the comprehensive spending review, and I am delighted that we have been able to deliver them.

None of that detracts from the fact that there are pressures within any public service budget, and that is true in Northern Ireland. I seek to work with the Policing Board, the Chief Constable and others to try to resolve those difficulties as they occur. I agree with the sentiment that every pound we spend on the past is a pound we cannot spend on the present, and that should be in the minds of everyone involved in politics and public administration in Northern Ireland. It is important that we resolve the past, but we also have to focus on today’s needs.

The hon. Gentleman raised an interesting point on resolving the past. It is true that the conflict is over, but there are still signs of its legacy. The threat from dissident republicans is still present, and attacks on police officers still occur. Regrettably, we have had such attacks over the past year, but mercifully none of them resulted in fatalities. We know that that is a serious threat, that sectarian violence still exists and that physical barriers still separate communities. Until those barriers come down and the sectarian violence and hatred have gone, we will still have a legacy to deal with. The hon. Gentleman is right to suggest that that will take time and the attention and commitment of everyone. It can be assisted from the top down through priority and initiative, but the drive has to come from the bottom up as communities regenerate and rebuild with a positive view towards the future. That was an important point that the hon. Gentleman made.

The hon. Gentleman asked for an update on the Chilcot group’s work on the use of intercept as evidence. I can confirm that the group is still working on that difficult issue, one that it is rather easier to agree with in principle than in regard to how it works out in practice. I will be happy to write to him to give a more detailed answer on precisely where the work is up to, and I hope that he will be happy with that.

The hon. Gentleman made the point, and it was echoed strongly by the hon. Member for Newbury, who speaks with considerable understanding of the matter, that human intelligence is very important in safeguarding the citizen. It is the best information we can get, and we need to continue to get it and ensure that we offer the right protection to those who provide it. We have serious article 2 obligations in that regard that need to be fulfilled, so it is important to create that balance between trying to move forward on the one hand while safeguarding people on the other.

I thank the hon. Member for Newbury for conveying the apologies of the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson), who is an assiduous attendee of all our debates. Yesterday we were discussing other matters, and today he is in Northern Ireland. He is very committed. The hon. Member for Newbury made a thoughtful contribution that drew on his own experience. His point about the military in Northern Ireland, and elsewhere, was absolutely right: it cannot solve the problem, but only contain the situation. The military did that in Northern Ireland, and for that we should all be grateful. It was tremendous to be able to go to St. Paul’s cathedral last September with others to celebrate and be thankful for the work and commitment of the armed services over the years of the troubles. Operation Banner is now over, but there were thanks to be expressed, and that was an important and appropriate thing to do.

The hon. Gentleman is right that that job could go on for only so long and take us so far. In the end, the most effective result comes when the political and civic leaders, civil society and the community take a lead and build their own solutions. In a very personal way, he stated that, notwithstanding all the remarks and questions, were he a victim or a relative of a victim, he would want to know the answer. He asked several perfectly legitimate questions, and I will answer some of them in a moment, but it is important to remember that, were we in that position, we, too, would want answers.

The hon. Gentleman asked how much had been spent so far by the HET. By the end of the last financial year, 2007-08, the total spent was £17.6 million, by the end of November 2008 that was £23.2 million and the projection for the end of 2010-11 is £38.3 million. He described the costs as large and pointed out that they would not fund the whole project as originally envisaged, but as I have said, it is a world first. We made the best estimates we could, but some of the work has been painstaking and taken longer than anticipated. The inquiry team is looking at more than 3,000 deaths, and we must not forget that it is complex work. If information and explanations are given that were not available in the past and help to resolve problems and emotional difficulties for families, that is well worth it.

I emphasise again that the expectation was always for explanation, rather than prosecution, but if evidence leads to prosecution, that is all well and good. Some of the work that came out of the police ombudsman’s report on Operation Ballast has been investigated by the HET, and four people have been arrested and charged with serious offences as a result: two with murder and two with other offences, including aiding and abetting murder. The involvement of the HET in that work is a welcome development. Even the Chief Constable, whose idea it was and who is its great champion, would admit that it is not a perfect solution, but he rightly says that, pound for pound, it is as good as anything devised so far and rather better than many other attempts.

I would like to clarify something. I do not believe that anyone should have the right to all of the answers at any cost, and I add that as an important caveat. Whatever we as individuals would feel in those circumstances—it is almost impossible to predict how we would feel, even though we think we know—this could be a real burden on the resources of the PSNI and all the other bodies that I described earlier, so ultimately it cannot be allowed to continue without some form of cap.

A decision will of course have to be made in 2010-11 when the current HET funding runs out, and not all of the families concerned have had the cases of their loved ones investigated. A decision will have to be made about how much longer those investigations will be carried out, how much more money will be spent on them and under what arrangements that will be done. The hon. Gentleman’s question is perfectly legitimate. What is the right amount of money to spend to complete that task? We all have an obligation to make resources available for that kind of investigation, but it certainly cannot be unlimited.

I absolutely agree with the argument that simply using public inquiry as a way of resolving historical difficulties is not the most effective way to spend a large amount of money. We have made commitments that have been important in building confidence and the peace process and in getting answers for some people about certain events, but we have to begin to look forward. My argument is that in order to look forward with confidence we have to resolve some of those difficulties from the past. That has to be done not only by the whole society, but by individuals who have suffered the most in those tragic events.

In conclusion, I return to the remarks that the hon. Member for South Staffordshire made about the widow of the police officer who wants to move on, even though she has suffered more than most and had to live with that in the years since. We must balance looking backwards and paying for the costs of looking backwards with moving forward and investing in the future, and that balance is constantly under the microscope. I am grateful to the Committee for drawing our attention to those issues once again. In the end, of course, the full answer to that balance and to getting the equation right will be so much better when we have completely devolved policing and justice powers, as well as other Government responsibilities, to the local level.

I thank all who have taken part in this debate for their thoughtful, constructive and helpful contributions. The Minister made a significant remark and gave some extremely important information when he told us that, by the year 2011, more than 1,000 cases will have been completed by the Historical Enquiries Team. However, that will leave 2,500 or more still to be completed. It underlines the validity and importance of the exchange between him and my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon). It cannot be open-ended. One must recognise that, among those 2,500 people, are some who will be sorely grieved if they feel that their case will not be dealt with, yet somehow and at some stage, if we are to move on, we must come to an end.

As one of the people whom we met on a visit last year pointed out to me, we must also recognise that the Historical Enquiries Team investigates deaths. There are many families in Northern Ireland whose future was destroyed not by death, but by the complete incapacitation of a breadwinner, the scarring of a mother for life or the mutilation of a child. Such people did not die, but their families’ hopes died when they were injured. In many ways, they are as much victims of the troubles as the bereaved, and we must recognise that as well.

It is difficult. We are all looking forward with eager anticipation to hearing what Eames and Bradley will say. I hope very much to be present at the press conference when they launch their report in a couple of weeks’ time. I shall certainly want to talk to the Minister about it, and I know that my Committee will want to consider carefully what Eames and Bradley say. I hope that, collectively, we can make recommendations that make sense and enable us to look forward.

Each of us, whether we sit for a constituency in England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, is constantly reminded that there are people who cannot have life-prolonging drugs because of their cost. If we are to have a society in Northern Ireland that is totally normal, we must achieve balance. Is it right to continue spending money indefinitely, when other people are in true need? How many people could have been given life-saving drugs from the £200 million that will have been spent on the Saville inquiry? Such questions are awkward, but we must have them at the back of our mind. I am glad to see that Members present agree.

I end not on a gloomy note but on a positive one that underlines what enormous progress has been made in Northern Ireland in recent years. The first major report of the Select Committee under my chairmanship was on organised crime, and it was unanimous. It is quite remarkable that people from various parties should be able to produce a unanimous report on organised crime. It was also remarkable that we launched it not in a Committee Room in Westminster, nor even in Belfast city hall, but in Armagh. That was considered quite a brave thing to do. We sat on the platform together, but ever-present, although not obtrusive, was a fairly massive police presence. That was in July 2006.

In October 2008, the Committee went to Crossmaglen, not in an escorted convoy but in a little bus. There was no protection as such. I addressed a meeting there of supporters of the family of the late Paul Quinn. The reason for the meeting was to consider one of the most despicable crimes in Northern Ireland in recent years. In a community that a few years ago would not necessarily have welcomed with open arms a Select Committee of the House of Commons from Westminster, we were greeted with enormous warmth and kindness, and we had an extremely positive meeting.

That is a measure of how far things have moved in recent years. To the political leaders who have made it possible, particularly the successive leaders of the party represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson), we owe an enormous debt of gratitude. We need to assist Northern Ireland’s political leaders as they come to the final decisions—it must be they who come to those decisions—about how to move on from the past, learn the lessons and be inspired by the bravery but not obsessed by the misery. If we have made a slight move this afternoon towards helping those in Northern Ireland do so, I shall be well content.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.