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Draft Historical Abuse Bill (Northern Ireland)

Volume 663: debated on Wednesday 24 July 2019

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if she will make a statement on the updated draft Bill on historical abuse, and when the legislation will be brought before Parliament.

The historical institutional abuse inquiry looked into the abuse of children under 18 who lived in institutions in Northern Ireland between 1922 and 1995. The Hart report was published in January 2017 and recommended a commissioner for victims of abuse and a redress scheme for victims.

This is a devolved matter in Northern Ireland and, as such, is the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly. However, in the absence of Northern Ireland Ministers, the Northern Ireland civil service launched a public consultation on draft legislation, which closed in March this year. The results of the consultation were provided to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in May. Those results were different from the Hart report in some, but not all, areas, so the Secretary of State asked the Northern Ireland political parties to help resolve them. They did that, and I would like to put on the record our thanks on behalf of not just the Government, but victims, their families and all those who responded to the consultation.

The head of the civil service in Northern Ireland provided the Secretary of State with a redrafted Bill late last week. I am happy to confirm that it would establish a commissioner for survivors of institutional abuse in Northern Ireland and a redress scheme, which reflects a cross-party political consensus on the changes recommended following the consultation. That said, I hope that everyone here will understand that, given that the draft arrived only a few days ago, we will not be able to introduce it by tomorrow, but I am sure that everyone here is extremely keen to move forward on this—there is widespread support for action right across the community in Northern Ireland. I am also happy to reconfirm the commitment, made last week in the House of Lords, that in the absence of a sitting Assembly in Stormont, the Government will introduce primary legislation before the end of the year to set up a scheme.

None of us can undo what was done in the past, but I hope that, by getting a scheme under way, as I have laid out here today, we can at least provide some level of support, and perhaps a little closure, for the victims and their families.

I thank the Minister of State for that answer. I also pay tribute to Judge Hart, whom he mentioned, who recently passed away.

Last night I took a heartbreaking call from Marty Adams of the Survivors Together group. On Friday I took a call from Gerard McCann, another survivor of abuse. Last month the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) and I met a group of survivors in Belfast and their legal representatives. In the past couple of weeks the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee has collectively met a delegation of survivors and victims. These campaign teams are run on a shoestring. The entitlement of these victims is well established, as the Minister of State has now made clear. Indeed, the head of the Northern Ireland civil service has removed every impediment to allow these compensation payments to be made.

Last week, in a day and a half, this Parliament was able to rush through major changes to laws in Northern Ireland that are extremely controversial, and they were waved and cheered on by a packed House, and many of those Members on the Opposition Benches are notable today by their absence. This issue unites political parties—I pay tribute to the shadow Secretary of State, who personally telephoned me and did all he could to ensure that this matter would be raised today—yet still there appears to be this delay.

I do not doubt the sincerity of the Minister of State, the Secretary of State or indeed the team working on this in the Northern Ireland Office, but there can be no further delay. There is nothing to prevent the legislation being introduced this evening and voted on tomorrow and the matter being resolved before we go into recess. If the will is there, it can be done. Will the Minister affirm that there is not one comma outstanding and not jot or tittle out of place in the legislation—that it is ready to go and will be expedited?

I join the hon. Gentleman in his tribute to Sir Anthony Hart. In the past couple of weeks, during the passage of the Bill that he mentioned, tributes were paid to Sir Anthony for his contribution. Sadly he is no longer with us, but I hope he will be looking down and cheering on the progress of the legislation we are talking about today.

The hon. Gentleman is also right to say that the issue unites political parties not just here but in Northern Ireland. I mentioned in my earlier remarks that there have been efforts to get cross-party consensus on the updates to the legislation. He is also right that what happened to what was supposed to be a three-clause Bill is incredibly frustrating. He and others in his party and I at the time all pointed out that it turned into a Christmas tree—I think that was the phrase everyone was using—with other issues added to it. I know that he would therefore not have wanted that Bill to be added to still further.

This important issue has not yet been properly debated in a legislature. It will need primary legislation to be taken through. It is something that is new and it needs to be dealt with carefully. I am afraid that I therefore cannot tell the hon. Gentleman that the Bill is ready to go today. As I said, it arrived with us a couple of days ago. It is being gone through in huge detail. There are also all sorts of supporting documents, explanatory memorandums and so on and so forth that need to be put together. That is being done at pace—I can promise him that—but it will need to be taken forward by the incoming Administration. It may be the two incumbents or others sitting in the Northern Ireland Office who do that, but I do not think there is any shortage of good will, energy or cross-party agreement to take the legislation forward. I therefore hope that we will be able to introduce the legislation at pace and at the very latest by the end of this year.

What estimate has the Minister made of the possibility of meeting the substantial financial costs of the measure by having recourse to the sometimes quite wealthy institutions that perpetrated the abuse in the first place?

The draft legislation that has been sent to us does not go into that level of detail about what might be pursued. What is clear is that in order to ensure that financial probity is maintained, the costs of the scheme will be met from the Northern Ireland block grant. That is important, because the measure should be done, as I mentioned at the start of my remarks, by the devolved Assembly spending the money it is in charge of. It therefore has to be money that the Assembly has control of, and we all obviously hope that it will be back up and running as fast as possible to exercise that control.

I place it on record that I am not a prophet—the Prime Minister has not given me any indication of what the Northern Ireland team will look like—but I thank the Secretary of State and the Minister for their courtesy in our mutual dealings. That said, it is now more than two years since Sir Anthony Hart’s report was made available, and virtually seven years since the Historical Institutional Abuse Act (Northern Ireland) 2013 began going through the Northern Ireland Assembly. Since the Hart inquiry report, 40 of the survivors we are aware of have died. They are people for whom there will never be justice, but even for the existing survivors, every day that goes by is not justice delayed, but injustice continued. I therefore strongly support the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) in his plea for real urgency.

It may be that the House cannot see the Bill in the next two days, but we will come back in September. It seems a perfectly reasonable request to see the Bill on the Floor of the House then. As the Opposition, we will expedite this and we will work with the Government and Back-Bench MPs to ensure that the Bill’s passage is as quick and efficient as possible, but I have one specific request for the Minister. Can he think seriously about whether in the interim it would be possible to give some down payments, almost, of compensation to survivors as evidence of good faith and of real intent that we will at last give some sense of justice to the survivors of things that should simply never have been allowed to happen?

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind comments about the Secretary of State and me, but also for the further evidence of the cross-party support and the shared sense of urgency and determination to move forward as promptly as we can with the legislation. That is welcome, and it increases the chances that under the new regime, whoever is in it and however it will be formulated, we will be able to continue the momentum that has only recently developed.

The hon. Gentleman is also right to say that there is a huge sense of frustration, mainly brought about by the fact that the Hart report came out just as the Northern Ireland Assembly ceased sitting. Something that I suspect would normally have been taken forward promptly by MLAs and the Executive there was therefore not taken forward with anything like the same degree of urgency, because they were not there to do so and the matter is properly devolved. Everyone here will have heard the hon. Gentleman’s kind offer, and I hope that that will make any potential imagined obstacles to introducing legislation during the course of this autumn that much lower in the minds of the business managers when we come back in due course later on this year.

Can I just say I find it unacceptable that we are even thinking the legislation should be done by the end of the year? It should be done immediately. Given that David Sterling redrafted the legislation last week, it could have been tabled and introduced this week. It is unacceptable that that has not happened, but a commitment for that to happen the first week we return should be on the table. Significant periods between the 1920s and the 1990s were under direct rule, so while the issue is a devolved matter, does the Minister not agree that this place has a responsibility to give compensation to those victims? Does the Minister not further agree that, given that this place has previously passed all stages of Northern Ireland legislation in 24 hours, this Bill should be the top priority when we return from summer recess?

I must make it absolutely clear that I have no crystal ball. I was merely aware of the stature of the hon. Gentleman and was mistaken. I call the Minister.

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I will briefly respond to my hon. Friend by saying that I think she is tempting me into what is probably a constitutional impropriety by trying to commit the incoming Government, whoever may be in it, and bind their hands. The comments made by her, the shadow Secretary of State and Members from all parts of the House will have created a helpful political fact, which is that there is clearly a great degree of cross-party consensus about the legislation—not only here, but among the parties in Northern Ireland—and a shared cross-party consensus about pace and urgency too. I am sure that message will be heard loud and clear by the business managers, whoever they may be.

I have to say clearly to the Government Minister that the dithering, procrastination and excuses around the delays in compensating the victims of historical institutional abuse in Northern Ireland have been absolutely shameful. The dithering must stop. Three months ago, the head of the Northern Ireland civil service, David Sterling, said that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland had a moral responsibility to compensate the victims of historical institutional abuse if the Assembly was not up and running by the end of the summer. He was absolutely right: the Government have a moral responsibility to legislate for the issue. I think it would be fitting for the Minister to take a few minutes to explain to the victims of historical institutional abuse, 30 of whom have died in the three years since the Hart report—thank goodness we had someone of the stature of the late Sir Anthony Hart to do that inquiry—the wasted three months since the comments by the head of the Northern Ireland civil service.

The hon. Lady is rightly giving vent to people’s frustrations. She and many people on both sides of the House, including me, feel exactly the same way, as do many of the victims’ groups. I make the point that I made in my opening remarks: when the results of the consultation came out, they were different in some detailed, but very important respects from the initial Hart recommendations. It was important to make sure that we had a solid basis of reconciliation between those proposals and the original Hart report proposals, and to make sure that there genuinely was cross-party agreement. That process is difficult and took some time, but I think that we are there now. It seems, therefore, that we have something with which we can go forward. It would be slower if we did not have cross-party consensus, so it has been sensible to take the time to get there. I agree—I think everybody here is in violent agreement—that now we are there, there are very few obstacles to moving forward at pace, and I think everybody wants to do so.

I wish my hon. Friend and the Secretary of State all the best for the discussions that will happen later today or tomorrow. If we stick to the timetable that gets the Bill through by the end of the year, will he confirm when he thinks payments can start being made to the victims?

I am afraid I cannot give my hon. Friend a precise date. The Bill will have to make its way through Parliament—through this Chamber and the one at the other end of the corridor—and there will be clarity at that point about when the payments scheme should be able to start making payments. I suspect that the appetite for a leisurely process will be very thin. I expect that people will want to crack on with this and it is right that we should want to. We would therefore want to start making preparations as soon as the civil servants constitutionally can—as soon as the direction that Parliament will go is clear—and at that point, we can start doing the preparations at an early stage, as I am sure everybody will want them to.

The Minister alluded to the reasons why the legislation cannot proceed today or tomorrow. Setting that to one side, will he give an undertaking that the legislation will be placed before the House on the first day back in September—we have only two weeks back here then—that payments will be made as soon as possible thereafter, and that the period between now and then will be usefully used to see what institutions will pay where the abuse occurred?

I would love to be able to make the commitments exactly as the hon. Gentleman asks, but I am afraid that I cannot, simply because—as I said in response to earlier questions about tempting me into a constitutional impropriety—doing so would bind the hands of the incoming, new Administration. It is clear, however, that there is widespread appetite to move fast on this. This is an important issue, but of course it is not the only important one—Brexit is looming, and so on—so other things will be making bids for parliamentary time as well. However, Members on the Treasury Bench will have heard the widespread support for prompt movement. I therefore hope that the comments from the hon. Gentleman and others will have struck home.

Abuse of children, including sexual abuse of children, is always despicable, wherever it occurs. Many of the cases in Northern Ireland were particularly horrific. Victims deserve care and compensation, but is this not yet another example of why it is so important that the devolved Government can get back up and running in Northern Ireland? Will work to do that continue over the summer period?

I devoutly hope so. The talks have been ongoing—until last night—and I devoutly hope that they will continue. There is a sense of commitment and determination, but there is still further to go. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out that had there been a Stormont Assembly, most people here would have expected the MLAs in the Assembly and the Executive to have sorted this out long since, given the horrific nature of the abuse that she rightly pointed out, and that that urgency would therefore have resulted in answers and a redress scheme well before now. That is a good example of why getting the Assembly back up and running is so important.

I thank the Minister for his response today and add my voice strongly to the calls for the Bill to be moved forward as swiftly as possible. There is deep frustration about how this matter has been handled over the last number of years. When we look at such processes all over the world—particularly involving redress—we see that there is a significant contribution from the institutions that are found to have liability. That issue has been raised here. There is concern that those conversations have not yet commenced with the institutions, as far as I am aware. A significant number of the bodies mentioned in the report are non-governmental organisations. Will the Minister outline what he is intending to do? All parties and the all-party group on this matter agreed that this process should commence as soon as possible and that there must be a contribution from the other institutions to help to support victims.

I understand the concern around this matter. Given the need to move this process at speed, we have mainly been focusing on getting the commissioner and the redress scheme outline legislation in-house, and we are going through it at speed now. At the moment, therefore, that issue has not been at the front of priorities. I take the point that it will need to be addressed, but perhaps I can write to the hon. Lady to confirm how we might take that forward. I do not want to make any commitments on what might be the right answer for that at this stage, but I hear the concerns that she and my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne) raised. This clearly needs to be thought through.

I thank the Minister for his response and his clear commitment. Will he outline how he believes compensation will in practice be available for victims and the proposed timeline for the Bill’s passage and implementation? Is September the date that this will happen? Further, will the Bill enable those who have reluctantly accepted small compensation sums to be able retrospectively to access and receive compensation that truly reflects the horrific abuse that they were subjected to historically?

Let me take that second and crucial point first. The draft Bill, as it has been sent to us, does allow for people who have already received initial compensation payments from other sources—whatever they may be—to apply to the scheme. That is certainly in the scheme proposals as they have come to us. I think that that has cross-party support from the Northern Ireland parties, so I can confirm that that is—as I suspect the hon. Gentleman has been briefed and told—exactly what it says.

I thank the Minister for his responses and my hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) for raising this urgent question. The Minister will have heard the sense of frustration that we all have around the delay in this process and our earnest desire to find a solution quickly for victims. I am very conscious that Kincora boys’ home was on a site 400 yards from my constituency office and many of those abused were in its care. The Minister specifically mentioned those who were abused in Northern Ireland. Will he confirm that the proposals being brought forward will include children who were born and entered care in Northern Ireland and were then forced emigrants, passed out to care institutions as far away as Australia, and abused both at home and abroad?

I think that the answer to the hon. Gentleman’s detailed and precise question is yes, but if it is not, I will write to him to put the record straight. However, having followed the train of logic, I think that the answer is yes.

Regarding the time delay, I appreciate that two and a half years ago, this report was submitted to the then Northern Ireland Assembly, which was brought down by Sinn Féin. My hon. Friend the Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) alluded to the delay and pointed out that many have passed away while waiting. We are rubbing salt into the wound. It is imperative that we get this Bill across the line as soon as possible. I ask for a commitment that it will be brought back in the first week of September, as a major point of business—as a priority—to get this issue resolved.

I completely sympathise with the hon. Gentleman. He is not the only person to have made that point this afternoon, and I doubt he will be the only person across the communities of Northern Ireland to make it either. There is huge urgency and impatience about this. As I said, I cannot bind the hands of my successors, but I am reassured that the urgency and importance that everyone here attaches to the subject will come across loud and clear to whoever the business managers may be. There are other important issues on the political horizon—he does not need me to tell him that—but that message will come across loud and clear, and I thank him for helping to drive the message home.

I was serving in the Northern Ireland Executive when this issue first came to their attention, and two things were very clear in our discussions. First, perpetrators of abuse should be held culpable for that abuse and for compensation. I hope that over the summer the Minister will have discussions with the civil service in Northern Ireland to ensure that the discussions about contributions from those named in the Hart report can commence. Secondly, any money made available should be made available to those who have suffered; it should not be absorbed by huge legal bills, as often happens in such cases. If that is not explicit in the legislation, I hope that before it comes before the House in September the Minister will ensure that the will of the Executive in that regard is also reflected.

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that where any criminal liability is implied, it will rightly be an independent prosecutorial decision taken not by politicians but by investigators in the correct, normal way at arm’s length from Executives of any kind. He made a parallel but equivalent point about potential compensation contributions that has been made by others on both sides of the House. I want to reflect further on that to make sure I hear the concerns on both sides of the House. Clearly, this will need to be considered carefully.