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Hallett Report

Volume 585: debated on Tuesday 9 September 2014

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the follow-up to the Hallett report on the on-the-runs administrative scheme, which was laid before the House on 17 July.

In response to the report’s recommendations, and on the basis of the advice I have received and considered, I have decided that the statement I make today is the fairest, promptest and most effective way to reduce the risk to future prosecutions and to provide the clarity called for in the report. I make this statement on behalf of the Government, having consulted the independent police and prosecuting authorities, who have seen this statement and agree that it represents the best way forward.

Lady Justice Hallett emphasised on a number of occasions in her report that the letters, however phrased, were not an amnesty. They were not a commitment by the state that individuals would not be prosecuted, whatever the strength of the case against them. They were only ever meant as statements of the facts, as they were believed to be at the time, as to whether or not an individual was wanted for questioning by the police. They were not intended to preclude investigation or prosecution on the basis of new evidence emerging after they were sent or fresh assessment of the existing evidence. However, in the light of her report, and in the light of the Downey case, it is clear to me that urgent clarification is needed on what comfort, if any, can be derived from those letters now.

There are two key points that it is important that all concerned should be clear about. First, the letters described by the Hallett report, issued in whatever form, or any similar or equivalent statements not made in letters, do not represent any commitment that the recipient would not be investigated or prosecuted if that is considered appropriate on the basis of the evidence available now. Those who received individual or composite letters, or any other form of indication, stating that they were “not wanted” and who derived comfort from that should cease to derive any such comfort. In short, the recipients should cease to place any reliance on those letters.

Secondly, decisions about investigations and prosecutions will be taken simply on the basis of the intelligence and/or evidence relating to whether or not the person concerned committed offences. That means that in any of their cases, and whatever was said in the letters sent to them or in statements made in the past, decisions taken today and in future will be taken on the basis of the views formed about investigation and prosecution by those who now have responsibility for those matters. Their views might be the same as those that led to the letters being sent in the past, or they might be different. It is the views of those who take the decisions now or in future that matter. All the evidence will be taken into account, regardless of whether it was available before the letters were sent or whether it has emerged subsequently.

That does not mean that all those who received “not wanted” statements in the past are now considered “wanted”; it simply means that they are in the same position as any other member of the public. If there is considered to be evidence or intelligence of their involvement in crime, they will be investigated by the police, and if the evidence is sufficient to warrant prosecution they will be prosecuted. That was always the intended status of the scheme, but the issues raised by the Downey case and highlighted in the Hallett report have made today’s clarification necessary.

I regard that as the appropriate position to take, and not an unfair one, for the following general reasons. The implementation of the scheme was highly unsatisfactory and suffered from a series of systemic failings, as the Hallett report set out for the House. It was developed piecemeal and without appropriate direction. There were various different forms of letters, and the content of a number of them was unsatisfactory. We know that errors of fact were made, and it may well be that errors of judgment were also made when cases were considered under the scheme. It is now clear that at least some of the letters were issued on an unreliable basis. The defects in the scheme identified by the report mean that there is a serious risk that that will turn out to be the case in relation to other letters as well.

The public interest in investigating and prosecuting serious crime is too important for there to be a risk of it being undermined by a scheme that, as is now clear, suffered from such significant flaws in its implementation. There is a particularly strong public interest in decisions about investigation and prosecution being taken on the basis of the current views, based on assessment now of all the evidence, of those responsible for investigating and prosecuting serious crime.

The letters have generated a serious degree of confusion about precisely what their legal effects might be, whether alone or when set alongside other facts, as in the John Downey case. It is very important for there to be clarity, particularly in the context of serious crime. It is to be recognised that, correctly or not, some of the recipients will have derived some comfort from a “not wanted” letter. It might be that some “not wanted” letters were issued in error or were based on flawed judgments at the time, and that the recipients of such letters were given a degree of comfort that was in fact unwarranted, even on the basis of the information at the time. That is greatly to be regretted. Such errors should never have occurred.

However, two points are to be noted in any such cases, in addition to the more general points I have just made. First, the public interest in mounting an investigation or prosecution, if the evidence warrants it, would remain very powerful. It should be a rare case indeed in which such an error should prevent such a prosecution—all the more so if the crime in question is a very serious one. Secondly, those who have received such statements now know in clear terms what position the Government take. They now have fair and clear warning that such comfort as they might have derived from the statements can no longer be taken. There is no continuing basis for any reliance on past statements. The scheme is at an end.

All those who sought or received statements through the administrative scheme should take note of today’s statement. I have deliberately made it in the public setting of Parliament, recognising and intending that it should be widely publicised as a result. I will take further steps to disseminate it. I will be drawing it to the attention of each of those who made requests on behalf of named individuals, reflecting the channels through which the communication of the original letters was made. In these ways, I can be confident that fair and proper notice will have been given to those affected by this statement, including those to whom letters were sent under the scheme. I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of her statement. The continued pain of the families and friends of the Hyde park victims should be at the forefront of our minds today, as well as all those in both communities who have never had truth or justice in relation to their own injuries or the loss of loved ones during the troubles. The outcome of the Downey case undoubtedly caused further distress to people who have suffered enough and deserved better. That is why I felt it was right to apologise for the catastrophic error that occurred in this specific case. I repeat that apology today.

However, it is also right to be robust in reminding people of the hard realities and tough choices that faced those striving against the odds to end the violence and secure a historic political agreement. Decisions were made and things done to make possible a peace process that, for all Northern Ireland’s challenges, has stood the test of time, a peace process that ended 30 years of troubles and brought to an end the killings, brutality and fear that destroyed too many lives.

If anyone thinks that it was easy, they have neither studied Northern Ireland’s history, nor reflected on the current political stalemate across a range of issues, a stalemate caused partly by an inability to compromise and partly because some of the issues touch festering sores not healed by the passage of time. In that context, the First Minister’s comments today should be welcomed as a frank acknowledgment that although much progress has been made, the current situation is unsustainable.

As the Secretary of State has repeatedly said, the OTR scheme was neither unlawful nor offered an amnesty to recipients of the letters. Lady Justice Hallett confirmed that to be the case. The clear intent of the scheme was to inform people not being sought by the police or prosecuting authorities that that was their status at the time their letter was sent. It was also clearly the intent of the scheme to make them aware that if any future evidence of a crime became available, they would be subject to appropriate action by the criminal justice system. However, Lady Justice Hallett found that errors had been made in at least two cases in addition to Downey, and identified the possibility that there may have been other examples where the basis or content of letters was questionable. In those circumstances the Government are right to seek to minimise the risk that other victims could be denied justice in the future. All Northern Ireland’s parties accept that the needs of victims must be at the centre of any new approach to dealing with the past. If that commitment is to mean anything, the Government had no option but to issue today’s clarification on the status of the letters.

I have some questions for the Secretary of State. How long does she estimate that it will take for the Police Service of Northern Ireland to assess each case covered by the OTR scheme, and is she satisfied that it has sufficient resources to undertake that work? Does she agree that while there may be circumstances where an agreed truth recovery process could protect people from incriminating themselves, an across-the-board amnesty would fail the non-negotiable test of creating a system to deal with the past that puts the needs of victims at centre stage? Is she willing to accept that there is an urgent need for the UK Government—where appropriate, supported by the Irish Government—to create and facilitate a process in support of the Northern Ireland parties that can seek to end the stalemate on the Haass issues, including the past and welfare reform? I conclude by thanking Lady Justice Hallett once again for her thorough and balanced report.

I thank the shadow Secretary of State for his support for the statement. Like him, I think that the concerns of victims must lie at the heart of our response to the OTR scheme, and I apologise to them for the error that was made and the pain that the Downey case has caused. I am happy to reiterate that apology. As the hon. Gentleman said, I also recognise that the First Minister’s comments today in the Belfast Telegraph are an important statement to which I will give careful thought. It is important that these matters are discussed with care across the Northern Ireland political parties. As I said in a speech to the British-Irish Association last week, it is important that progress is made on welfare reform, as well as on flags, parading and the past.

In response to the last question by the shadow Secretary of State, I say clearly that the Government will continue to do all we can to bring all the parties back to the table on those matters, and facilitate and push for an agreed way forward.

How long it will take the PSNI to assess all the cases processed under the scheme is primarily a matter for it, and it would not be appropriate for me to speak on its behalf. It has indicated, however, that it could take years and will not be done in a matter of months. We also had a recent statement by the Chief Constable that his resources will impact on his ability to deal with legacy issues of this sort, and the resources available to the PSNI are affected by the current debate on welfare reform. It appears that the in-year cuts being made to the PSNI’s budget will have an impact on its ability to deal with legacy cases, so I expect they will also impact on the speed with which it can consider these cases.

I thank the Secretary of State for her statement. On matters to do with OTRs we should always consider the victims, and victims’ families will welcome her statement today, confirming the view of Lady Justice Hallett that the letters could never have been considered in any way to represent an amnesty, and that should fresh evidence come forward those who received letters will be subject to the full force of the law. Will the Secretary of State confirm the Government’s robust view that an amnesty was never appropriate, and that all applications for the royal prerogative of mercy received by the Government have been refused by the Government?

I am happy to confirm what I have said on many occasions: this was not an amnesty, and that has been confirmed by all those who have appeared in front of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. I believe it is confirmed by Lady Justice Hallett, and it was confirmed by Sir Nigel Sweeney in the Downey judgment. The Government have always strongly opposed amnesties, which is why they opposed the Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill. If we had inherited a scheme that involved an amnesty, we would have stopped it immediately. This was not an amnesty, and we will not be introducing an amnesty under any circumstances.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement and the fact that she made it in the House after discussions with the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. I think that is appropriate, and I know a lot of people will appreciate the statement today. I also welcome the clarion certainty of the statement that this shameful episode is now over. Many people in Northern Ireland will welcome the fact that a line has been drawn under this.

Last week at the Select Committee the Secretary of State reiterated her appropriate and contrite apology for this matter—indeed, that was echoed by the Labour Front-Bench spokesman. In the Committee yesterday, however, the former chief of staff of the then Prime Minister, Mr Jonathan Powell, refused to apologise. Does the Secretary of State agree that it would be appropriate of the author of the scheme also to recognise that it was wrong and apologise?

The hon. Gentleman has obviously taken a close interest in this matter, and he is right to view today as drawing a line under it and reaching an end to what has been a painful episode for many people. On the evidence given to NIAC by Jonathan Powell, I think it is a matter for him whether he chooses to apologise. As I said in relation to the scheme, although I would not necessarily have done everything in the same way as the previous Government, or necessarily agreed with their overall approach to OTRs, I recognise that they were striving for a peaceful settlement in Northern Ireland, and dealing with an extremely difficult situation and difficult judgments.

I thank the Secretary of State for her statement. At its start she mentioned that she discussed this issue with the various authorities in Northern Ireland. At the Select Committee last week I asked whether she would consider asking those authorities to make a similar statement, so that we could be sure that the courts in Northern Ireland accept that this status is for the whole of the UK, not just the Secretary of State, given that she has no power over the courts in Northern Ireland. Has she taken that on board and ruled it out?

I did give that suggestion some thought and I discussed it with David Ford. I continue to be of the view that these statements were made by the UK Government—largely by the Northern Ireland Office, and by No. 10 in a couple of instances—so it is for the UK Government to clarify their status. The key factor is that this is the Government’s statement of what the letters now mean. In those circumstances I do not think it is necessary for an additional statement to be published by the Department of Justice or the devolved authorities, but, as I have told the House, they agree that this is the best way forward to do whatever we can to try to remove barriers to prosecution that might be created by the scheme.

Does the Secretary of State agree that in a way her statement confirms what was the case all along: that the letters were not get out of jail free cards, but confirmed what the police and law officers assessed at the time, which was that these people were not wanted—wrongly in the case of Downey, and absolutely and rightly an apology is due for that—but that that did not preclude prosecutions in future should evidence come to light? I realise that that gives deep offence to victims and to my Unionist friends, but the letters were essential building blocks to get the peace settlement to drag Northern Ireland away from the horror, evil and terror of the past. It would be very dangerous and toxic somehow retrospectively to rescind those letters. I know the Secretary of State is not doing that; she is simply confirming their legal status, or lack of it, but I caution people because the scheme was part of getting us from the horror of the past to the peace and stability that we now enjoy.

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that my statement is consistent with how the scheme was always intended to operate. It was intended to be a scheme to establish whether an individual was wanted, not to provide an amnesty or assurance to those who were wanted that they were not wanted. It was also clear from the Hallett report that John Downey should never have received a letter. If the scheme had been properly administered, no such letter would have been issued. It was that serious error that led to the result in the Downey case.

On the legal effect of today’s announcement, as I have said, I do not believe that the words “rescind” or “revoke” are appropriate. It is much better to stick to the fact that these letters should no longer be relied on, and owing to the systemic flaws in the scheme, it might well be that further errors were made. Decisions on the prosecution of recipients of letters will be taken in exactly the same way as they are in relation to every other member of the public: if there is evidence or intelligence to justify arrest, that is what will happen.

I fear the hon. Gentleman toddled into the Chamber slightly late, but I am in a generous mood.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, and I apologise for being a couple of minutes late.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement on the Hallett report. It certainly reassured me, and will reassure a lot of people in Northern Ireland, particularly because the report emphasises that any comfort that recipients would have taken from the letters is misguided. Does she know how many people may not receive comfort and may be further investigated?

The PSNI has told NIAC and the Policing Board that it is looking at all 187 “not wanted” indications. Lady Justice Hallett identified two cases in which she believed a mistake had been made and highlighted a further 36 cases processed by the Operation Rapid team between February 2007 and November 2008 in which she said there was a risk that an inappropriate threshold might have been applied. There might therefore be at least 38 cases where there is reason to question the original conclusions. It will be known whether that is the situation in further cases only once the PSNI completes its investigations, but given the systemic failings, there must be a risk that errors occurred in other cases as well.

The Secretary of State will be aware that some of the names proposed for the scheme came from the Irish authorities. Given former Irish Justice Minister Michael McDowell’s recent comment that the Irish Government were not pursuing those responsible for terrorist actions in their jurisdiction, what is her current understanding of that Government’s position?

I have spoken to Charlie Flanagan, the Irish Foreign Minister, about this matter, and he has given me the clearest assurances that there was no policy to refrain from prosecuting terrorist offences, that the statements and speculation were groundless and that if there was evidence in the Irish justice system to justify arrest and prosecution, that would happen.

As my right hon. Friend knows, yesterday morning, Jonathan Powell, chief of staff to Tony Blair, gave evidence to NIAC and confirmed—inadvertently or advertently—that he might have perverted the course of justice when in April 2000 he told Rita O’Hare, a leading republican politician, not to come to meetings with British officials in Northern Ireland. Will she confirm that Rita O’Hare is still wanted by the PSNI for questioning over terrorist activities?

I thank the Secretary of State for giving an oral statement, not a written statement, on this important matter.

Will the Secretary of State put herself into the mind of one of these people who got a comfort letter and who has been very comforted for the past few years? If they know that they did something appalling that is still being investigated, would she advise them to leave the jurisdiction of the United Kingdom?

My advice to people who have received letters is to read my statement with care and no longer to take comfort from the letters they have received. I emphasise, however, that today’s statement does not mean that those who received “not wanted” letters are now suddenly wanted. It might be that after review of their cases the conclusion turns out to be the same; that many of them are “not wanted”, and that there is no evidence to justify prosecution. It would be a mistake to assume that all the individuals processed by the scheme were terrorists—that has not been established—but it has been established that mistakes were made in some cases, which is one reason that the letters should no longer be relied on.

I commend the Secretary of State for the clarity of her statement. However, a line will finally be drawn under this grubby episode only when somebody who has received a letter is successfully prosecuted for a terrorist-related offence. Like me, would she be disappointed if there were not such a successful prosecution?

These decisions are rightly matters for independent police and prosecuting authorities, and no option is available to me that will give us 100% protection against a successful abuse-of-process defence in the future. This is, however, the most effective and expeditious way I can seek to remove potential barriers and reduce the likelihood of another prosecution collapsing.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement, although the scheme should never have been implemented in the first place. Victims might take some comfort, however, from the fact that not only existing but historical evidence can be taken into consideration. However, does she agree that even though the Hallett report said things were not done in secret, the evidence from all the senior police officers is that they were not informed about the letters until the Downey case?

Clearly, much of the distress caused to victims was the result of the scheme not being transparent. People did not know it was happening and that has caused great distress and contributed to anxiety and misunderstanding about the scheme. It was clear that the PSNI knew that indications were being given to OTRs about their status and it was pretty clear that the Royal Ulster Constabulary knew from the start that indications were being given—though not necessarily how—but there was not enough clarity about how it was being done. A key problem identified by Lady Justice Hallett was that the PSNI did not see the text of the Northern Ireland Office letter until December 2011. The lack of transparency created problems not only for the general public, who did not know what was going on, but internally by making errors in the scheme more likely. With hindsight, that aspect of the scheme should have been handled differently and it is regrettable that it was not dealt with more transparently.

The Secretary of State tells us that the letters are not rescinded, but that they are not to be relied upon. Should it arise that someone finds themselves in a court and seeks to rely on the letter and on the case law, how confident is she that a court would not decide as it did in the Downey case? Does she expect that, in that situation, evidence would again be given by former Secretaries of State and a former adviser to the Government which presents things in a different light from that presented to the House today?

As I have said, while doing everything possible to reduce the risk that an abuse-of-process defence might succeed in future cases, today’s statement cannot eliminate that risk. If a case were brought against an OTR with a letter, it is certainly possible that they could seek to rely on that letter. What I am saying very clearly is that it is no longer safe to rely on those letters. What is more difficult to deal with is reliance that has already taken place. That is certainly something that the courts can and will take into account, but I am confident that this statement does everything possible to try to ensure that an abuse-of-process defence does not succeed in the future. The Government are being completely clear that it is no longer safe to rely on the letters, and such reliance is obviously a key plank of an abuse-of-process defence, as it was a key plank of the Downey judgment.

I thank the Secretary of State most sincerely for her statement and for the strength of purpose with which she delivered it. I am curious—I am sure other right hon. and hon. Members are, too—whether the Secretary of State has received information from the police, or indeed the intelligence services, that would indicate that recipients of comfort letters have already absconded again to the Republic of Ireland. If so, will that information be shared with the newly established oversight board, including with the advisers who will be in attendance in a supervisory capacity?

I am afraid that I do not feel it would be appropriate to comment on individual cases or to share that kind of information. I would emphasise, however, that the oversight board to which the hon. Lady has referred is looking at all matters relating to the OTR scheme. While entirely respecting the independence of the police and prosecuting authorities, we are determined to ensure that we do not make the same mistakes again and that all those who have a role or an interest in these matters are looking carefully at how we take forward the Hallett recommendations. There will be a frank and full sharing of information within that policy board between the police and the Northern Ireland Office.

I thank the Secretary of State for her clear statement today, in which she reiterated that the scheme was never a devolved scheme. She has said in previous statements, too, that this matter was never devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly or to the Department of Justice. Will she therefore explain the justification for transferring the financial burden of the review of the scheme and each of the cases to the devolved budgets, particularly given that the PSNI is already facing considerable pressures on its finances? This was never a devolved scheme; it was never within any budget; no budget line has been set aside for it—yet the costs are simply being passed on to the PSNI. Does the Secretary of State not agree that she should have discussions with the Department of Justice to resolve this matter in a much more fair and equitable manner?

I can assure the hon. Lady that I have had many discussions about their resources with the Department of Justice and the PSNI, and indeed with the Department of Finance and Personnel. It is a difficult situation; the hon. Lady raises a very good point about the allocation of responsibility for funding the ongoing work. The reality is that these are now matters for the criminal justice system, so it is within the remit of the Director of Public Prosecutions and the PSNI. The lines between national security work and the rest of the criminal justice system are always blurred, which is why the Government have provided substantial additional funding to the PSNI to reflect the particular circumstances it faces. We have confirmed that for the current spending review and for 2015-16. This, of course, is an important part of ensuring that the PSNI can do its job both in current policing and on legacy matters.

I thank the Secretary of State for the much improved statement and for the Hallett report, which was very clear about the letters of comfort. As the statement says, “the letter recipients should cease to place any reliance on those letters.” Will the Secretary of State confirm that those in other jurisdictions, such as the Republic of Ireland, should be made aware that if they cross the border into Northern Ireland or appear on a flight at Heathrow or elsewhere in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, they will be detained? Will she indicate the exchange of information between the PSNI and the Garda Siochana in order to catch those responsible wherever they may be?

I assure the hon. Gentleman that individuals coming from whatever part of the world will be treated on the basis of the evidence and the assessment if it is available today. If that evidence justifies arrest, that is what will happen. The relationship between the PSNI and the Garda Siochana is perhaps stronger than it has ever been; levels of co-operation deepen year by year. They work extremely well together on pursing offenders either side of the border. I am sure that that will continue in respect of all individuals, regardless of whether they possess a letter under the scheme.

This is an important and much needed statement, not least for its clarification that those who have come to rely on the letters of comfort should, in the Secretary of State’s words, “cease to derive” any such comfort, and that they will be in the same position as any other member of the public. In the light of the breakdown of the all-party talks on mechanisms to address the issues of the past, what additional support will the Secretary of State put in place to get that going again?

I agree that it is absolutely vital that the parties get round the table again on flags, parading and the past. There is so much to be gained in Northern Ireland from finding an agreed way forward. These issues are hugely difficult, and every day they have the potential to cause real gridlock and disruption to Assembly decision making. We all want the devolved institutions to succeed. They have a big programme of government to deliver. They have achieved a lot, but unless they can find a way to unblock the two issues of flags, parading and the past on the one hand, and welfare reform on the other, their ability to deliver for their electorates will be significantly impaired. I will continue to press all the parties to come together to find a deal and a way forward, as they have successfully done so often in the past.

I apologise to you, Mr Speaker, to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and to the House for not being present at the very beginning of the statement.

Given that the situation regarding the letters has been clarified and that there is no longer a process to be abused, would my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State consider talking to the relevant authorities in the PSNI, the Metropolitan police and perhaps the Garda about whether the case against Mr Downey could be re-opened? As she said in her statement, if the evidence is sufficient to warrant prosecution, people will be prosecuted, and it appears that the Metropolitan police had evidence to pursue an allegation against Mr Downey.

Once a stay of prosecution is granted, it is more or less impossible for it ever to be lifted. That means that I think it is inconceivable that Mr Downey could ever stand trial on a future occasion in relation to the Hyde park bombing. It would, of course, be possible for the police to look at other cases and other evidence in relation to Mr Downey; there would be nothing to stop them doing so.