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Pensions for Severely Disabled Victims (Northern Ireland)

Volume 663: debated on Monday 22 July 2019

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if she will make a statement on the eligibility criteria for the pension for severely injured victims.

I am delighted to have the opportunity to respond to this urgent question and to clear up some worrying misconceptions that have been circulating over the weekend. Before I do, the more observant here today will have noticed that I am not the Secretary of State. She is at Stormont, where discussions are ongoing. I am sure we all wish those discussions every success.

I am happy to confirm that it remains the Government’s position that, while it is right and proper to provide a pension for victims of troubles-related terrorist incidents, it should not become a pension for terrorists. There is no moral equivalence between a bystander badly injured in a terrorist explosion through no fault of their own, and the people who manufactured the bomb, placed the bomb and detonated the bomb. I therefore happily confirm to the House that under the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill, which we debated last week and the week before that, if the Stormont Executive is not reformed by 21 October we will bring forward regulations to ensure a victims’ payment scheme is in place in Northern Ireland by the end of May next year. The eligibility for the scheme will reflect the basic principle I have just outlined.

There will be many important and sensitive details to work out. We will do that in discussion with the Northern Ireland political parties as the regulations are written and developed, but the foundations will be as I have described. I am delighted to have the opportunity to put that on the record here today.

First, let me thank you, Mr Speaker, for allowing this urgent question—it is very much appreciated. I can, with confidence, extend the thanks of the many, many victims in Northern Ireland, who were deeply distressed by the recommendation over last week and the weekend. It proposed that the person who went out to murder, maim and cause hurt would also be eligible for this pension if in doing so they injured themselves.

Sadly, an appalling moral corruption lies at the heart of victims-related issues in Northern Ireland: the repugnant proposition that equates a victim with their victim makers. The hallmark of any peace process should be how we treat our victims. Sadly, too often—time and again—victims are being asked to compromise; to get much-needed help and support, they have to facilitate and allow those victim makers to get it also. That is fundamentally wrong.

Many challenging and difficult issues relate to the legacy in Northern Ireland, but we must never lose sight of what is right and what is clearly wrong. Therefore, I warmly welcome the clear statement from the Minister today that eligibility for this special pension will not extend to those victim makers—those terrorists who planted the bombs. This has caused deep distress for many, many years, particularly during the last week. Will the Minister outline when those people will be excluded? What immediate next steps is he intending to take to bring in this much-needed pension swiftly, and give those victims and survivors the help they need?

First, I am delighted to hear that we are so strongly on the same wavelength. I refer not just to the hon. Lady and myself; as she rightly pointed out, this is a widely shared view on all sides of the community, both in Northern Ireland and, more broadly, right the way across the UK. I am glad that we are in the same place on this issue.

The hon. Lady asked about the timetable. Their lordships are considering the final stages of the Bill and so, technically, it has not quite cleared Parliament yet. Once it does and it is law, we will, in effect, work backwards from the due date at the end of May—it will then be laid out in statute—with, if necessary, a series of discussions, consultations and whatever it may be to get the necessary regulations in place in time. In the meantime, we will be making sure we have time to have conversations properly and carefully on these extremely sensitive, carefully approached issues, which will need to be addressed to get this right.

Will the Minister confirm that the proposed pension scheme for victims is not and never will be a pension scheme for terrorists?

Yes, I am delighted to say that as often as necessary, as it bears repeating and needs to be put on the record. I am delighted to have the opportunity to say it to my hon. Friend, too.

May I tell the Minister that he did not fool any of us? We recognised the fact that he is not the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. I profoundly hope that he survives what may be something of a Götterdämmerung later this week, because he has been a first-class Minister. I think I speak for the House when I say that we very much hope that he is in place after les évènements of this week.

I do not want to over-congratulate the hon. Member for Belfast South (Emma Little Pengelly)—I do not want to blight her career too much—but, not for the first time, may I say that I thank her for bringing this matter to the attention of the House? I must also thank you, Mr Speaker. As you know, the hon. Lady raised a point of order last week and you indicated, as only you can, that the door was open and had but to be entered. We now see the proof of that. I hope you will allow me in passing to congratulate the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) on the brilliant British Open in his constituency; I also congratulate Shane Lowry. The rain rather reminded me of high summer in Donegal at one stage, but the Open was superb and it showed Northern Ireland in such an excellent light. The more people who realise what a marvellous place it is to visit, the better.

I am very much with the Minister on this: we absolutely have to put down a marker on this issue once and for all. The point is that when we are dealing with issues of victims and the potential duality of some standards, it is almost like being in an egg-and-spoon race: we have to advance very slowly, very delicately and very carefully, because the potential for disaster is very high. I therefore state irrefragably, absolutely undeniably and completely without any possibility of misinterpretation that the Opposition do not wish to see any change in the definition of a victim as outlined in the Victims and Survivors (Northern Ireland) Order 2006—unless, of course, there is agreement from the Northern Ireland political leaders. Legacy issues are decided on in consultation with Northern Ireland political leaders and are legislated for in Westminster.

The Opposition have long been in favour of a pension for seriously injured victims and survivors of troubles-related incidents. We do not believe in compensating the victim makers—it is important that we get that on the record once and for all. The victims and survivors pension hub is intended as recognition of the damage done to lives and livelihoods and not as a service to be accessed. The current definition of a victim was intended for use in application to services—originally for services such as healthcare, and latterly to the victims and survivors service.

If a system could be put in place through legislation in Westminster that provided a pension to those who have been injured—in some cases, as far back as the 1970s—and excluded those who were injured by their own hand, we would support that, and we think that there is a need for more definition. If it does not mean changing the definition of access to services, we, as a civilised society, should provide for all those who are in need. For that reason, the Labour Front-Bench team put forward an amendment that sought legislation but did not prescribe the form that it would take—mainly to try to get the amendment within the scope of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill.

Reference has been made to the House of Lords. The noble Lord Hain, a former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, moved an amendment to the Bill in the upper House that I think defines the issue even more closely. Will the Minister address the four salient points contained in Lord Hain’s amendment? He referred to the regulations under subsection (1), which must make provision as to the eligibility criteria, particularly relating to

“the nature or extent of a person’s injury…how, when or where the injury was sustained…residence or nationality…whether or not a person has been convicted of an offence.”

We are as one on this issue. We want to support and give aid and succour to those who, through no fault of their own, have suffered what are very often life-changing injuries. They deserve better from this House and they will get better from both sides of it. We do not believe in pampering the victim makers.

I am delighted that the Opposition Front-Bench team support the broad principle, which I have just enunciated, and that we are of a very similar mind on this. That is extremely welcome news and I thank them for that.

I confirm that the four criteria that the hon. Gentleman read out from the new clause about victims’ payments are absolutely central to the process of working through the details about how we do the definition of who will be eligible for the new payment scheme. That will be the way we deliver on the central principle, which I hope I outlined very clearly in my opening comments: making sure that this is not a pension for terrorists.

Will the Minister ensure that the “through no fault of their own” principle that he has set out specifically excludes those who were engaged in terrorist acts from receiving support, such as this pension?

Well, one does not want to upset the leader of the Democratic Unionist party—I call Mr Nigel Dodds.

Thank you very much indeed, Mr Speaker—I appreciate that very much. I welcome very warmly what the Minister and the shadow Minister have said in the House today and the consensus that there is on this issue. I pay tribute to the many victims, including Michelle Williamson, who lost both her parents in the Shankhill bombing in October 1993, when nine innocent people were murdered on the Shankhill Road. The bomber who injured himself in planting that bomb would be eligible if this action was not taken to disqualify terrorist perpetrators.

Will the Minister join me in thanking all those victims and victims’ organisations that have worked together to bring about a pension for victims and to make sure that the eligibility criteria are right and proper? Would he also care to comment on the Victims’ Commissioner’s position? While there is a consensus here, she appears out of step with many victims’ groups and victims. Does that call into question her position? In a letter in today’s press in Northern Ireland, many victims’ groups have called into question her position on this issue.

I certainly join the right hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to the unstinting and determined work done by victims’ groups over many years to get us to where we are today. We are not there yet of course—we have to get this done by the end of next May, so there is more work to be done. But we are at least within sight; we are on the final lap, I hope, and I am sure that he and other Northern Ireland politicians will wish to reflect those views very carefully in the upcoming discussions.

On the comments of the Victims’ Commissioner, she has suffered, I think, the full force of many people’s wrath over the last few days. I am pleased that she has issued a clarificatory statement, which is very important, in which she says:

“I am acutely aware of the perception that this scheme is somehow drawing moral equivalence between victims and perpetrators. That is not the case”.

It was vital that she clarified that point. I will leave her to answer her critics herself more broadly, but it was very good to hear her express that central point so clearly.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

One reason we are discussing this issue is that 21 years ago in the Belfast agreement, signed on Good Friday 1998, sadly not enough was done to deal with the legacy of our troubled past. Will the Minister assure us that whatever happens—we hope for a restoration of devolved government as soon as possible—the Government will proceed with implementing the legacy proposals, subject to whatever changes arise from the consultation, so that we can get on with dealing with these issues and so that victims can have access to proper investigations of the murders that occurred during the troubles?

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that the issue of the legacy of the troubles goes much wider than the specific point about the victims’ pension and that therefore there are other issues that have not been dealt with through the EFEF Act. He will be aware, because he and I have spoken about it elsewhere, that the Government have just published a digest of the responses to the rather large consultation—there were 17,000 responses—on the proposals for how the broader legacy issues might be dealt with, and in due course the Government will need to set out their response on how to take that broader canvas forward. He is absolutely right that those other issues are not going away and need to be addressed promptly.

If you had called me earlier, Mr Speaker, and upset the leader, I would not have cared at all.

I thank the Minister for his clarification, which will come as an immense relief to many people in Northern Ireland, but can I push him a little further? Some of those involved in terrorist activity now claim that because of what happened to them—they might have been incarcerated, questioned by the police, had raids on their homes—they have suffered depression and a mental illness that qualifies them for a pension. Can he assure us that not just those who have injured themselves physically as a result of their involvement in terrorist activity but those who claim to have suffered mental illness because of such involvement will not qualify?

The right hon. Gentleman raises a broader and very important point, which is that, for victims who will qualify to begin with, it is important that we agree and understand that there are valid and very serious conditions that can be non-physical. We would not want to exclude victims who have ended up with a mental illness after being injured through no fault of their own. We should not exclude non-physical injuries from our calculation of how severely someone is injured and therefore of whether they are eligible. He is also right about the flipside. When we are working out who to exclude from the definition—in order to prevent this from becoming a pension for terrorists—mental illnesses and non-physical injuries need to be included in that half of the definition as well.

I thank the Minister for his principled and precise words. He has recognised that if the institutions are restored, the amendments will fall. If the institutions are restored, however, the issue will not go away. The principle still needs to run through whatever proposals emerge, be they in Belfast for Northern Ireland-based victims or in Great Britain for Great Britain-based victims. Will the Minister commit himself to ensuring that, come what may, the principle he has outlined—that we will support victims but not victim makers—will hold true?

Let me take the hon. Gentleman back to the point made by the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), who pointed out that there were four criteria under the Act that would apply and which we would need to work through to deliver the central principle that I—and, now, the hon. Gentleman as well—have enunciated. Those four criteria include not just the question of how, when or where the injury was sustained—for example, the question whether we should be including people who were injured in the Canary Wharf bombings in London—but residence or nationality. Both those issues are clearly factors, and they are in the Bill, so, as the hon. Gentleman rightly says, they will not go away. They must be addressed, and they will be addressed as we work through the detailed process between now and the end of May.

Should innocent casualties and far-from-innocent paramilitaries be treated in the same way? The answer is “No, never.” The Minister has said that, and 14 of the victims’ groups have said the very same thing, which is very much at odds with what has been said by the Victims’ Commissioner. One of those groups, Decorum NI, represents many of my constituents.

Will the Minister come with me to meet some of the victims and their families in my constitiency at some time in the future—provided that he is still in place, as I hope he will be? They tell me, and I state today, that a definition that equates victims with perpetrators is tantamount to spitting on the graves of those who were murdered, salting the wounds of those who are living with physical impairments inflicted by terrorists, and mentally torturing those who have emotional scars after being the true victims of convicted murderers and evil terrorists, who can never be viewed on the same level or in the same capacity.

I welcome the Minister’s comments, but I also want to ensure that we keep true to them.

I thank the hon. Gentleman and others who have been kind enough to express a hope that I will continue in my post. I am bathing in the love. It was very kind of the hon. Gentleman, and of course, if I am still in place, I shall be delighted to come and meet the group that he described.