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Historical Enquiries Team

Volume 536: debated on Wednesday 30 November 2011

Following the devolution of policing and justice in April 2010, matters relating to the Historical Enquiries Team are the responsibility of the devolved Administration in Northern Ireland and the Minister of Justice.

I much appreciate the Minister’s response and the content of it. I welcome the progress made by the Historical Enquiries Team. May I be reassured that its case work will be completed by 2014?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s question. I spoke to the Chief Constable this morning, who confirmed that the team is investigating 3,268 deaths and that it is on target to finish as planned.

The HET investigated the murder of my cousin, Kenneth Smyth, on 10 December 1971—those on the street knew who committed the murder—and Lexie Cummings was murdered on 15 June 1982. HET investigations into both cases concluded that no action should be taken. The concern is that the investigations might not have been thorough, so does the Secretary of State accept that confidence needs to be instilled in the Unionist community and that the HET therefore has considerable work to do?

I am grateful for that question. I do not entirely agree. The HET is impartial, and the latest polling commissioned on the reaction of the families is extraordinarily high: 90.5% said they were very satisfied or satisfied with the performance of the HET.

The former Northern Ireland Secretary, the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr Hain), rightly set up the Historical Enquiries Team, but disturbing allegations were made yesterday that his computer might have been hacked. Does my right hon. Friend share those concerns, and will he assure the House that the Northern Ireland Office—

Order. The difficulty with that question, notwithstanding its notable ingenuity, is that it does not relate to the work of the Historical Enquiries Team, so we had better leave it there.

Historical inquiries into police officers are conducted by the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland. Given that that is a Crown appointment, what recent discussions has the Secretary of State held with the Minister of Justice, David Ford, on the appointment of a successor to the current ombudsman, Al Hutchinson, who has made it clear that he intends to leave his post at the end of January?

The appointment of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland is a devolved matter. I spoke to the Minister of Justice, David Ford, this morning, and we agreed to meet shortly to discuss Al Hutchinson’s replacement.

Does the Secretary of State agree that it is not for Westminster to set the agenda but that the people of Northern Ireland should decide how and when they look back, and what they look at?

Yes, my hon. Friend makes a good point. The Government and Westminster do not own the past. Contentious, difficult and fraught issues must be handled with the consensus of local people in Northern Ireland.

Notwithstanding some of the limitations and differentials that attach to the task of the HET, it has done much good work. In the context of dealing with the past more widely, does the Secretary of State believe that more could be done to draw out the issues, patterns and lessons that can be learned from the HET’s work, which at present has gone only to the families and not to the wider public?

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. The HET is building up an extraordinary archive of knowledge. As he knows, I am interested in opening up Government archives so that they may be assessed by professionals. Down the road, this might be a matter that is well worth discussing with the devolved Executive to see whether the HET can form the basis of an archive for historians.