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On-the-Runs Scheme

Volume 591: debated on Tuesday 27 January 2015

Before I call the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) to ask his urgent question, I must remind the House that the inquest into the death of Mr Gareth O’Connor, although stayed, is still sub judice. I have agreed to waive the sub judice resolution in order to allow an issue of national importance to be raised, but I ask Members in all parts of the House to be very careful in making any reference to the inquest. Members should also take care to ensure that their comments do not impede any future prosecution. Questions about the on-the-run scheme and the dates of the crimes concerned would be in order.

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to make a statement about recent developments relating to the on-the-run letters which have permitted a second fugitive to evade justice.

On Monday 26 January, the coroner conducting the inquest into the death of Mr Gareth O’Connor, who disappeared in May 2003, directed that the inquest should be stayed pending an investigation by the Police Service of Northern Ireland into one of the suspects in Mr O’Connor’s murder. The suspect was part of the administrative scheme dealing with so-called on-the-runs, and was in receipt of a letter from the Northern Ireland Office informing him that he was not wanted for arrest by police forces in the United Kingdom. This case is specifically covered on pages 107 and 108 of the Hallett report on the on-the-runs scheme, where it is described as “error 2”. The fact of the error has therefore been in the public domain for some time, and the case is not a new development.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland is investigating the suspect’s case, and will be considering whether charges can be brought against the individual concerned. I spoke to the Chief Constable of the PSNI yesterday, and I understand from him that this is a live police investigation. I also briefed the Justice Minister—in brief—on the case. The police will investigate where the evidence leads them. In the circumstances, it would not be appropriate for me to comment further on the specifics of the case.

As for the OTR administrative scheme, I set out the Government’s position fully in my statement to the House on 9 September. That followed detailed consideration of the report by Lady Justice Hallett, which was published in July. I made clear in my statement that the scheme was at an end, and that there was no basis for any reliance on letters received by so-called OTRs under the scheme. There is no amnesty, immunity or exemption from prosecution. Those who received letters under the scheme should be in no doubt: 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.

I thank the Secretary of State for her answer. The most disturbing aspect of what she has told the House today is the fact that the O’Connor murder relates to a post-1998 murder that occurred in 2003. We have been consistently told that the names of the OTRs were critical to securing a 1998 peace agreement, yet this murder post-dates that. Will the Secretary of State now agree to publish all the names with all the letters? Will she publish correspondence between Baroness Scotland and the right hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Mr Woodward), whom I informed earlier I would be mentioning in the House, in terms of the relationship between that correspondence and the murderer of Mr O’Connor? Will the Secretary of State estimate how many other errors there are in this catalogue of errors and accept that the Government and the Hallett review conclusion that there is a single error is now without foundation?

Will the Secretary of State now consider legislation formally to annul the value of all these letters, to put meat on the bones of what she has said: that these letters are without value? Does she agree that Gerry Kelly must be formally investigated for how these letters have been distributed and for whom these letters have been requested? What compensation is now being considered for the families of those who have suffered as a result of Mr Downey’s activities and as a result of the actions by the murderer of Mr O’Connor, because these people cannot get justice by any other means and must now be entitled to some form of compensation?

As is clear from the conclusions of the Hallett report, this letter should not have been issued; it was issued in error. For a number of reasons I do not think it would be appropriate to make public the names of the individuals who received letters under the scheme, not the least of which is that doing so could prejudice a future prosecution and make it more difficult to secure a conviction.

In relation to the number of errors, Lady Justice Hallett identified in her report two errors in addition to the one made in the case of Mr John Downey. She also identified a further 36 cases considered by Operation Rapid where she believed there was a risk that the wrong test had been applied. She did not conclude that there were actually errors in these cases, but she proposed that they should be a priority for further investigation because the risk of error in those cases was higher than in others.

In relation to legislation, as I briefed the House in September, it is clear to me that the most effective means to guard against future collapses of trials and future abuse of processes defence is to issue a clear statement indicating to anyone who received a letter under the scheme that it is not safe to rely on those letters—that they should not be relied on—and that is what I did. The option of legislating on these matters was carefully considered, but the conclusion is that legislation would not be as effective as a clear statement at the Dispatch Box that the scheme is at an end and these letters should not be relied on, not least because of a risk that errors have been made in other cases.

I thank the Secretary of State for the response to the urgent question. She will be aware that as well as the 36 cases identified by Hallett as being perhaps the most worrying, we were told by the then assistant chief constable, now the deputy chief constable, of the PSNI that 95 people who received letters are connected through intelligence to almost 300 murders. That is a very serious situation indeed. Will the Government ensure that the PSNI has the full resources to look into all those cases not in the period of as long as nine years that the PSNI estimates it may take it, but very quickly so that the Government can decide whether there is a need for legislation to make it absolutely clear that nobody can rely on these letters to protect them from prosecution?

I am grateful to the Chairman of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs for his question. It is of course important that the PSNI has appropriate resources for its investigations under Operation Red Field relating to OTRs, as is the case for all other matters for which it has responsibility. I welcome the fact that the agreement on a final budget for the Northern Ireland Executive for 2015-16 allocated an additional £20 million to the PSNI. There is also the Stormont House agreement, which commits the Government to contributing £150 million to aid Northern Ireland in its treatment of legacy cases. I will look carefully at how that money should be appropriately deployed in the coming weeks.

On the question of legislation, I do not think I can really add to my previous answer. Having considered this carefully, the most effective means to ensure that we do everything we can to remove barriers to justice is a clear statement indicating that this scheme is at an end and these letters should not be relied on. That is what I have done. Legislation would not take us further and, I believe, would not be the right option in this instance.

As the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) suggested, the revelation yesterday regarding the collapse of the inquest into the murder of Gareth O’Connor has caused further concern and anxiety in Northern Ireland. Our thoughts today should be with the O’Connor family. Like so many of those left behind, they sought justice and truth about what happened to Gareth in 2003. They have waited 12 long years for an inquest into the death of their son, and the thought of preparing for a week-long inquest would have been harrowing for the family. This development made a highly stressful situation even worse.

News of another error from the administrative scheme for the on-the-runs is devastating, following the catastrophic error in the Downey case last year. We have apologised for the Downey error, and do so again for the error in the O’Connor case. In the same way as this scheme never offered amnesty, it was also never intended to cover alleged offences committed after the signing of the Good Friday agreement. Doubly troubling is the delay in the coroner and the family being made aware of the error. The Northern Ireland Office and the police knew about the case—indeed, it was referred to in the Hallett report.

I have several questions for the Secretary of State. Why did the Northern Ireland Office not ensure this family were told of the error in the immediate aftermath of the publication of the Hallett report? Secondly, further to the question from the Chairman of the Select Committee, in view of the financial pressures facing the PSNI, how long does the Secretary of State estimate it will take to review all the cases covered by the OTR scheme? I do not believe she has clarified that in her answer to the House today. Finally, on a related matter that has caused similar concerns, can the Secretary of State update the House on investigations into the missing information regarding royal prerogatives issued before 1997?

I thank the shadow Secretary of State for his questions. It is useful to remind the House that this scheme never offered an amnesty, and that it was designed to give individuals who were not wanted an indication that they were not wanted by police, so the letters issued in relation to the Downey case and this one were clearly issued in error.

On the Chairman of the Select Committee’s question about the connection between the 95 individuals and intelligence or indications relating to 300 crimes, these are of course matters for the police to investigate, but I would emphasise that a connection to intelligence or evidence is not necessarily sufficient to justify arrest or prosecution.

I welcome the shadow Secretary of State’s repetition of the apology he gave on behalf of the previous Government for the errors made in these cases, and I, of course, am happy to reiterate the apology I made on behalf of this Government for the pain and hurt caused to all families affected by the OTR scheme. I think there is consensus that the scheme should, at the very least, have been handled in a much more transparent way.

I acknowledge that the way the family in this case found out about the connection to the OTR scheme was very problematic. My understanding is that the PSNI has issued an apology for that, and I join in confirming that apology. It is, of course, as I said in response to the previous question, important that the PSNI is properly resourced for all its functions, which is why the Government have provided extra security funding of £230 million and one reason why we have provided funding for help in investigating the past. Even with those additional resources, it is clear that Operation Red Field, the investigation into all the OTR cases, will take some years.

The Secretary of State is to be congratulated on bringing some transparency to this scheme, via the Hallett inquiry. Such transparency was needed, because the previous Government set up the scheme and kept it under the carpet, if not secret from the nation. Does she agree that it was one of the shabbiest deals they did, notwithstanding the shadow Secretary of State’s apology? Will she further reassure me, the House, the country and the courts that she has taken legal advice on her statement that nobody can rely on one of these letters any more?

I have taken into account a number of factors in deciding how to respond to the Hallett report, and they of course include legal advice on the best way to guard against further trial collapses as a result of abuse of process. My right hon. Friend has referred in clear terms to his view of the scheme. As I said, I think there is agreement that it was deeply unfortunate that the scheme was not handled in a more transparent way. That is something for which I have apologised, but I emphasise once again to the House that it was never an amnesty and it was never a scheme to let people wanted for arrest get off without arrest or prosecution; it was, from the start, intended to be a scheme that merely indicated to those who were not wanted by the police that that was the factual position at the time in question.

The Secretary of State has repeatedly said that individuals should not rely on the OTR letters as the police carry out their duties. Does she agree that the law-abiding community in Northern Ireland would see much greater strength in that reassurance whenever they saw people with an OTR letter in their possession standing in the dock and the judge carrying out his duty, despite their having possession of a letter?

It is, of course, important for all crime to be properly investigated in Northern Ireland and for those guilty of offences to be brought to justice, regardless of whether or not they have an OTR letter.

We all want to see people with a strong case against them standing trial to see whether a jury will convict them. Will the Secretary of State revisit her legal advice on her statement that these letters should not have any great effect on a trial, to make sure that, in the light of this new decision, it remains correct and there is no need for further action by this place?

I am certainly happy to do that, and I discussed the matter with the Chief Constable yesterday. Just to reiterate, the Northern Ireland Office stands ready to take any further steps that might assist in removing barriers to prosecution. My current view is that the best way to guard against future problems in relation to abuse of process is a clear statement that these letters should not be relied on, and that is what I have made and issued to this House in September.

The PSNI has already confirmed that Operation Red Field will take at least three years, so I am glad the Secretary of State is looking directly at how she can assist with the funding. This was a Northern Ireland Office scheme, not a devolved scheme, and so the review should not come from the Northern Ireland budget. Is she in a position to shed any light on the allegations that have been made in the media that this individual was issued with a letter in respect of crimes that predated 1998 but which included a crime for which they were wanted in 2003, and that the tag of “wanted” on their file was then changed subsequent to the issue of that letter to “not wanted”, which would have made this incredibly difficult to detect?

For the reasons I have given, I am reluctant to get into the specifics of this case. As I have mentioned, the hon. Lady will find some further detail on these matters on page 108 of the Hallett report. In particular, there is a real concern that the offence in question was a post-1998 offence.

Having done three operational tours in Northern Ireland, I fully appreciate that some areas are murky and remain so, and these 200 letters were a shabby effort to sign up to the peace deal. Will the Secretary of State tell me how long it will take to investigate these 95 people who have received letters? As we understand it, through intelligence, they are connected to 300 murders, so how long will it take to pursue this and ensure that proper justice is done?

As I have said to the House, it will, unfortunately, take some years to go through all the OTR cases. That is why we will need to give serious consideration as to whether some of the extra funding provided as a result of the Stormont House agreement to deal with matters relating to the past can be used in some way to assist the PSNI in this important work.

In response to the question that my hon. Friend the Member for Bury South (Mr Lewis) asked about why the family and the coroner were not involved in July when Hallett produced the report, the Secretary of State said that it was “problematic”. That is not good enough. We want to know what has been going on since July. We have been told earlier that the police are now investigating this case, but what have they been doing since July? And what has the NIO been doing since July?

The NIO has been involved in a number of matters implementing the conclusions of the Hallett report. They include consideration of this case by the policy board set up as a result of Lady Justice Hallett’s conclusions. We also implemented a number of her conclusions through my statement to the House to provide clarification of the status of the scheme. That also covers the recommendations that she made in relation to removing barriers to prosecution. The PSNI has also made progress on the matters in Lady Justice Hallett’s recommendations on how it deals with police databases and the PSNI’s liaison with other police services in the United Kingdom.

We have to bear in mind that deployment and disclosure of information in relation to these individual cases needs to be handled with the greatest care, because any disclosure presents risks in relation to future prosecutions. That is probably one of the reasons why the information came out at the time that it did. So we need to reflect carefully on these matters. It did come out in an unfortunate way; I reiterate the apology I made earlier to the family for how they learned of this matter, but we all need to take care on the disclosure of information about this scheme, because none of us would want to be responsible for the collapse of a future trial.

I am reflecting and thinking of the O’Connor family from Newry today. Will the Secretary of State confirm, notwithstanding the content of the Hallett report, that no further errors will be revealed?

No, I am afraid that I cannot give that confirmation. The Hallett report was clear in its conclusions about the management of the scheme: it was not properly managed and the risk was not properly managed. Anyone reading the Hallett report must expect that further errors will come to light. As I told the House earlier, Lady Justice Hallett highlighted 36 further cases as ones where the risk of error is higher than in others. That is one reason why nobody should be relying on these letters; because of the errors in the way the scheme was managed, it is likely that other errors will come to light.

The Secretary of State will know that I have raised the position of the victims on a number of occasions, and they are at the core of the whole issue. Many victims will never see justice because of these OTR letters. My hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) made a point about printing the names. Is one reason why the Government will not print the names of those with OTR letters and the royal pardons that they were received by some people who have been elected to this House and are currently elected to the Assembly?

Let me emphasise that the issue of an OTR letter does not necessarily lead to the result that it did in the John Downey case. The judgment is clear: the reason why the trial collapsed was that the letter was incorrect. Mr Downey was wanted, but he was sent a letter indicating that he was not. The issue of an OTR letter does not give immunity from prosecution; it never did and it will not do so in the future. On the disclosure of names, I have said to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee on many occasions that, by disclosing names, there is a risk that I would jeopardise future prosecutions, make them more difficult and increase the risk of an abuse of process. That is why I will not disclose names in relation to this scheme or be drawn on categories of individuals who might have been part of it.

Does the Secretary of State agree that we should not have short memories when it comes to Northern Ireland? The fact is that 3,600 people were killed during the civil war. Rather than condemn the previous Government, we should acknowledge the risks that they took to make Northern Ireland the fantastic place that it is today.

I have certainly always tried to be objective and measured in how I view the actions of the previous Government on these matters. In relation to OTRs generally, there certainly are some differences between the parties, not least of which is the opposition of the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats to the Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill. In relation to this scheme and the way in which Northern Ireland matters were handled generally by the previous Government, I do not doubt their sincerity. They were motivated, I am sure, by a wish to see the process move forward and to secure peace and stability for Northern Ireland. The key problem that was revealed by the Hallett report was that, unfortunately, the scheme was not managed in the way that it should have been, and that gave rise to risks. Errors were made, which, unfortunately, could jeopardise future prosecutions.

At a time when yet another OTR is issued a covert letter to escape jail, British soldiers—funded by legal aid—are being investigated for a shoot-out with terrorists which led to the much-deserved deaths of those terrorists. Does the Secretary of State not accept that the legal system and the rule of law are being undermined by the fact that while some individuals are not being charged for their terrorist activities, British soldiers are being investigated?

For some, confidence in the legal system has been shaken by the OTR scheme. But that is a reason to be very clear that it was not an amnesty; it never was. It was a scheme designed to ensure that individuals who were not wanted by the police were told that that was the case as a matter of fact at a particular point in time. It is important that the scheme is described in such a way to provide as much reassurance as possible to the people who have been understandably distressed by what has happened.

The Secretary of State will recall that much of the negotiations in relation to the Stormont House agreement revolved around concerns to protect the option of the inquest process into the future. Does it not strike her as somewhat disappointing that after parties such as the SDLP and Sinn Fein argued to defend that very process, an inquest has been compromised by what has happened in relation to this discredited OTR scheme? Although we will not join the call for the publication of the names of everyone who received letters, we ask the Secretary of State to assure us that those letters and the details around them will be shared with the new bodies that will be dealing with the past, which were set up as a result of the Stormont House agreement. In that way, no one else can be surprised by events in the way that they were with this twisted and terrible case.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that inquests were a key matter that were considered at great length in the Stormont House agreement talks. Although we could not build a consensus on the way to reform inquests, we did reach a consensus on the fact that the inquest system needs to be reformed because, at the moment, it is not working effectively enough to give proper answers to families. I am working with the Justice Minister and others in the devolved Executive to do everything we can to take that reform process forward; it is vital that we do that. Disclosure was also debated at length, and I can assure the House that the Government are committed to the fullest disclosure in relation to the new bodies to be set up under the Stormont House agreement. But when it comes to onward disclosure, we will of course need to put in place national security measures, which are broadly equivalent to those that apply in respect of current institutions. In conclusion, I wish to pass on my condolences to the O’Connor family, who must have been distressed and upset by recent events.

I am sure that the Secretary of State will understand why the people of Northern Ireland are cynical about her oft-repeated mantra that no one can rely on these letters, when we have already had two people relying on them, and she has indicated today that there could possibly be another 36. Will she tell the House who was responsible for the error, and what the nature of the error was? In that way, we can at least determine whether this was a deliberate action to ensure that a killer was not brought to justice or a genuine mistake.

The Hallett report indicates that the error may well have originated within the PSNI, but we should not rush to judgment on that. As I have said in relation to the John Downey case, wherever the error arose, the problem was that the scheme was not designed to guard against errors or to pick up on them when they were made. The overall responsibility for the errors still rests at ministerial level. There is a consensus on both sides of the House that the Ministers in power at the time need to take responsibility for what happened, even if, at the end of the process, the error may have been made by the PSNI. It is a matter on which we should not rush to judgment. The hon. Gentleman may wish to look at page 108 of the Hallett report to assess how the error occurred.