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Victims of the Troubles: Payment Scheme

Volume 676: debated on Thursday 4 June 2020

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the implementation of the payment scheme for victims of the troubles.

The Secretary of State has asked me to pass on his apologies for not being able to answer this urgent question in person, as he is currently in Northern Ireland engaging in discussion on these and other matters and was unable to return to the House in time for it. I hope that the House will not mind, therefore, if I answer on his behalf. He has written to the hon. Lady, my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare), the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, and the Victims’ Commissioner on this matter today.

Last summer, the House agreed that in the continuing absence of an Executive, the Government should make regulations establishing a troubles victims payment scheme. There was cross-party support for establishing the scheme, which was intended to provide much needed acknowledgement and a measure of additional financial support to those most seriously injured during the troubles. We made regulations establishing a victims payment scheme in January and did so, yes, to fulfil our legal obligation under the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019, but also because we are committed to doing what we can to progress a scheme that has been too long delayed by political disagreements. Having spoken personally to a number of victims’ groups and the Victims’ Commissioner in recent weeks, I am very aware of how long many people have waited for an acknowledgement of the physical distress and emotional trauma caused by injuries to themselves or loved ones during the troubles.

Much has been made in the media of the suggestion that funding is holding up the establishment of this scheme, but that is not the case. Funding is not preventing the Executive from being able to take the vital steps to unlock implementation; rather, the key step to unblocking the process is the designation of a Northern Ireland Executive Department to provide administrative support to the Victims’ Payments Board. I am afraid to say that despite this decision being the subject of discussion by Executive Ministers for some time and one on which the Secretary of State is currently engaging them in Northern Ireland, they have not yet designated a Department to lead on the implementation of this scheme. The Justice Minister is prepared to lead on the scheme, but Sinn Féin has been clear that it wants to reopen the criteria by which eligibility for the scheme will be determined. That is already set in legislation and provides a fair basis for helping those who suffered most throughout the troubles. It is therefore imperative that Sinn Féin, along with all the parties, enables the scheme to move forward, as the time for delay is gone.

The Government take this matter very seriously, and we are extremely disappointed by the current delay. It is because of the high priority we place on this issue that the Secretary of State has written to and had meetings with the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. We have been offering and providing all appropriate support to help progress the implementation of this scheme. I assure all right hon. and hon. Members that the UK Government are committed to seeing this matter progress; victims have waited too long for these payments. The Northern Ireland Executive committed to finding a way forward on this issue in 2014. The UK Government have provided that way forward, through the regulations made in January, following public consultation. The Executive must now set aside their political differences and deliver for victims.

Thank you for granting this urgent question on this important and sensitive topic, Mr Deputy Speaker. I thank the Minister for his response, and the Secretary of State for speaking to me last night and writing to me about the issue this morning. Last year, we were proud to join cross-party efforts to introduce the victims’ payment scheme, as has been laid out by the Minister, to provide a measure of support and, crucially, acknowledgement to those whose lives were devastated by the troubles. I wish to pay a particular tribute to my noble Friend Lord Peter Hain; to the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith), who is in his place; and to the many victims and groups in Northern Ireland who have been campaigning for this for so many decades, not least the WAVE Trauma Centre. Clearly, nothing will ever take away a lifetime fundamentally altered by sickening acts of violence, but ensuring victims can live in dignity was and still must be our overriding principle. I know it is one the Minister is deeply committed to, and I do not, for a moment, doubt his personal commitment to making sure those promises made to victims in Northern Ireland are now honoured. However, last Friday the deadline for the payments that victims are entitled to in law came and went.

The legal obligation under that law, passed here in Westminster, to start processing payments was not met, and victims in Northern Ireland and across the rest of the UK have looked on in horror. Many victims have waited a lifetime for some measure of support, and there is simply no excuse for victims to be so cruelly denied that support once again. They are victims such as Alex Bunting, who lost his leg when the IRA planted a bomb in his taxi in 1991, in a case of mistaken identity, and who has since campaigned on behalf of all victims of the troubles, from all communities. They are victims such as Paul Gallagher, whom I have met on two occasions. He was shot by loyalist gunmen who were waiting to attack an ex-republican prisoner who lived nearby but who tired of waiting for their target and fired into the Gallaghers’ living room with a submachine gun, leaving him permanently disabled. Despite that horrifying experience, Paul has described the past week, in which he has seen something he has fought so hard to see achieved not delivered, as the worst week of his life. It is hard to overestimate how re-traumatising this experience has been for many victims. All of us, as politicians, have a moral and legal responsibility now to get this scheme over the line. The legislation has been passed, the debates have been had and no one should be standing in its way. The legislation, as passed, allows a judicial panel to determine on the more controversial cases, so any attempts to frustrate this or reopen questions over eligibility are not only disrespectful to victims, but utterly misplaced.

In that spirit, I would like to ask the Minister a number of questions. He said that funding is not at issue, but the First Minister has said:

“It is unseemly that these deserving people are being let down due to the Government not releasing funding.”

So can he confirm what funding is with the Executive now and in place in order to implement this scheme? Can he further explain to the House whose responsibility it is to issue guidance and whether the Secretary of State will issue draft guidance to a Department when it is designated? It is very welcome to hear that the Department of Justice stands ready to be designated.

Will the Minister further confirm that the regulations are explicitly permissive and allow significant scope for the judicial board to consider cases on an individual basis, and that controversial cases should not be holding up payments to victims as a whole? What discussions have been held with the Lord Chief Justice and the Northern Ireland Judicial Appointments Commissioner to ensure that once a department is designated, victims can have confidence that the payment board and president will be in place very quickly? Finally, does he accept that way victims have been treated, finding out about delays to the scheme almost by accident has, in the words of Judith Thompson, the Commissioner for Victims and Survivors, literally added insult to injury? This cannot be another false dawn for the victims of the troubles. Surely it is now time for all of us, Westminster and Stormont, to meet our moral and legal obligations, and finally to deliver the pension and acknowledgement that so many have waited so long for.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for the chance to answer this urgent question, and it is an area on which the Government and Opposition have worked closely and constructively in the past. I share the sense of frustration that is palpable in her question, as does the Secretary of State, and she gave powerful examples of some of the victims who have been affected by the process. We want this scheme to be in place as soon as possible, and to ensure that people begin to see some acknowledgement of the suffering they have undergone.

The UK Government have complied fully with their legal duties by establishing a victims payment scheme in January. We welcomed the opportunity to do so, as we wanted progress on the scheme that has been delayed by political disagreements for too long. It is important to remember that this is a devolved matter, which the Executive were to take forward under the Stormont House agreement, and which they are legally obliged to implement under the provisions of the 2020 regulations.

We take the recent delays in the implementation of the scheme extremely seriously. As I said, the Secretary of State has spoken to the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to express his concern, and there have been multiple discussions with the parties in Northern Ireland. He will continue to raise this issue in his regular engagements with them, until such time as all parties, including Sinn Féin, have agreed a way forward.

We will continue to prioritise supporting the Executive in their delivery of the scheme for victims who have already waited too long. Officials from the Northern Ireland Office already provide support to the Executive Office on implementation, by advising officials about the intended effect of policy thinking behind the regulations. We stand ready to provide that guidance to the relevant Northern Ireland Department as soon as it is designated—this is a matter that that designation issue will unlock.

I appreciate the points that were raised about funding, but I wish to be clear that funding for the scheme is, and always was, to come from the block grant. This is a devolved matter, and devolved matters are traditionally funded from the block grant. Northern Ireland receives a generous financial settlement each year from the UK Government. It receives £12.6 billion for the block grant, and since January it has received £2 billion for the “New Decade, New Approach” programme, £1.2 billion in covid-19 support, and £216 million in the March Budget.

The Executive have tried to rely on a technical funding argument that because the UK Government decided the shape of the scheme, they should fund it. They also argued that it is our responsibility because the incidents took place largely during periods of direct rule. We are clear, however, that the Executive committed to establishing a scheme like this one in 2014, and the UK Government acted exceptionally in the absence of the Executive to legislate for it. Those were unprecedented times.

In the 2014 Stormont House agreement, the parties in Northern Ireland agreed that further work should be undertaken to seek an acceptable way forward and deliver on a scheme such as this. In the absence of an Executive, the UK Government consulted widely on our approach, including with the Northern Ireland parties, and in January we legislated to establish the scheme. We acted in a devolved area in exceptional circumstances—we have already heard about that today—and it is for the devolved Administration to fund the scheme. I agree with the hon. Lady that any attempt to reopen questions that have already been settled about the definition of victims, or the role of the independent panel, are totally unnecessary and would upset the vast majority of victims who we want to help with this scheme.

In conclusion, I reiterate the Secretary of State’s total commitment to seeing the Executive make progress on opening this scheme. The Executive are responsible for delivering this much needed scheme, and they must communicate a timetable for opening it urgently. The current delay and lack of clarity cannot be allowed to continue. Victims and survivors have waited too long, and the scheme must open as soon as reasonably practical.

Order. I ask Members to keep their questions as concise as they can, because we have a lot of business today.

I commend the Government for the progress that they have made on this matter. I draw the Minister’s attention to the forthcoming report by Mr William Shawcross. Can he say how much tax has been received by Her Majesty’s Government on transactions involving Gaddafi-related frozen assets? Does he agree that it is morally questionable for the Treasury to be benefiting from those assets while Northern Ireland’s victims of Gaddafi-sponsored terrorism are being short-changed?

I pay tribute to the work that my right hon. Friend did on this as a Minister. The Government take this issue extremely seriously, which is why the Foreign Secretary appointed William Shawcross as special representative on UK victims of Gaddafi-sponsored terrorism. Mr Shawcross’s role will help to inform the Government’s approach to this issue. His report was recently received by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and is currently under consideration. I do not have the answer to the detailed question that my right hon. Friend asks, but I think this will be a matter for the Foreign Office to take forward.

I congratulate my hon. Friend and the Secretary of State on sorting out this problem of victims’ compensation, but may I ask my hon. Friend whether he is applying equal vigour to veterans who are still subject to vexatious claims from courts in Northern Ireland?

My hon. and gallant Friend makes a very important point. Of course we are pressing forward with legacy proposals to make sure that veterans and victims alike can have certainty. We should focus on getting information for victims and make sure that people do have certainty, and we should not see vexatious claims of any nature. He is absolutely right that, as we move forward in providing proper treatment and support for victims, we must also take into account the position of those who served so well to protect many more people from becoming victims.

I welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) to her role on the Front Bench and pay tribute to her predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd), who did such a wonderful job in that position. I am sure she will do an excellent job too.

May I follow up on what the right hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) said? The Minister says that a technical funding argument is an excuse for holding up justice for victims in this instance. That sounds particularly empty as an excuse. Can he not be more specific about when we can expect to see the scheme opened?

If I may correct the hon. Gentleman, I do not think I said it was an excuse. I think I made it very clear that it is not an excuse. This is a case of the Executive needing to get on and designate the Department, and then this can go ahead. There is no technical reason why any discussions about funding should hold this up. We need to move forward with the process. We have put the legislation in place, and it is in the hands of the Executive to nominate a Department to take that forward so that we can get on and do it.

I join the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) in paying tribute both to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) in her new role and to her predecessor, the hon. Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd), who in my time as Secretary of State provided fair, reasonable and very constructive scrutiny of the work that I was doing. He was particularly keen that we should see progress in this area, and he raised it on a regular basis. I agreed with him that we needed to see progress made, and I commend my right hon. and hon. Friends the Minister and the Secretary of State for making that progress. However, does the Minister agree that too much time has been wasted arguing over small technicalities when, actually, the politicians need to put first the humanity of those victims—entirely innocent victims—who suffered? They have waited far too long for this money. They need it now.

My right hon. Friend obviously speaks with considerable experience. She is absolutely right. We need to get on with this. We need to make sure that this is delivered as soon as possible. The kinds of arguments that she refers to have held this process up for far too long and have been settled. They are settled in the legislation. We now need to get on and make sure that the money starts flowing.

It is not just frustrating; it is scandalous that the scheme and its implementation are being held up by Sinn Féin, who were so often responsible for the injuries that many victims experienced. Many of them have been left not just physically scarred but financially impoverished as a result of the damage that was done to them. But it is not just the designation that Sinn Féin is holding up; the financing of the scheme will be equally important. Despite what the Minister said, there was always an understanding that this would be financed outside the block grant. The scheme was widened by his predecessor, which made it more expensive, and there are many people outside Northern Ireland who will be able to qualify for the payments. It stands to reason that historical commitments and the financial obligations that are now in the scheme should result in at least some additional financial support being given to the Executive to ensure that payments can be made.

I welcome the right hon. Gentleman’s call for these issues to be resolved and for the Executive to move forward on this. I recognise that the First Minister has made it absolutely clear that she is determined to move forward on this issue, so I think that is also welcome. With regard to the commitment to a victims payment scheme, it came out of the Stormont House agreement and was a commitment from the parties. The UK Government will absolutely meet their obligations with regard to financial support to the Executive which were made in New Decade, New Approach, and we continue to provide funding to the Executive on a range of issues, including legacy issues. Where he and I will perhaps part company is on the issue of it having been previously established that there would be a Treasury contribution. I think it is very clear that this is a devolved responsibility to take forward. It is vital that we build consensus on the way forward so that the Executive can deliver on that.

The Minister made mention of attempts to re-designate who would be classified as victims. Do such attempts include the likes of Gerry Adams, whose convictions for trying to escape from the Maze prison have recently been controversially quashed by the Supreme Court on the basis of a dubious technicality?

My right hon. Friend tempts me to comment on individual cases, which of course I cannot. Let me take this opportunity to reiterate the point made by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh). To reopen this question, which has been settled through consultation and legislation, would be a huge retrograde step. The issue is settled. We should now move forward and make sure we get on with providing compensation.

Again, I am speaking on behalf of and in agreement with the hon. Member for North Down (Stephen Farry), who is unable to be here today. I thank the Minister for acknowledging the position of the Northern Ireland Justice Minister, Naomi Long, and her willingness to designate and administer the scheme. Does the Minister agree that the ongoing controversy around a victims’ pension illustrates the need for a comprehensive approach to legacy that promotes reconciliation?

Yes, the hon. Lady is absolutely right. I think it is agreed on all sides of the debate in Northern Ireland that we need to get on and address legacy issues. I welcome the fact that Ministers from a range of parties have already indicated their willingness to move forward with this. We need to make sure that the last obstacles are removed.

The Department of Justice stands ready to administer the scheme. The panel that has been set up will look at each case in its entirety and make an all-round judgment on it. My big worry is the victims who are, in many cases, in ill health and a difficult mental health situation. They are desperate for this to be resolved. I urge my hon. Friend to continue to press the Executive, to tell the Justice Department to get on with it, get the scheme going—the money will come—and get this thing started.

Again, my right hon. Friend speaks with huge experience and is one of the people who has contributed most to this issue being as advanced as it is. I totally share his frustration and desire to see it resolved, and to see it move forward. I agree with him that by far the most important people in all this are the victims themselves.

Will the Minister outline exactly how he intends to operate the scheme, regardless of the machinations of Sinn Féin? How will he ensure that a scheme that is designated to acknowledge and support those who suffered innocently during the troubles is not used to traumatise them yet again through the despicable abuse of office by Sinn Féin? Will the Minister of State commit to take steps to rectify that abuse immediately?

As I said in my statement, the Secretary of State is out there meeting with the parties and talking to the party leaders to address that very issue. I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the huge importance of moving forward with this issue, addressing it and removing any blockages. It is absolutely essential that we get on and deliver it in the interests of the victims. The last remaining hurdle is the issue of designation, which we need to make sure is crossed. It requires the Executive to reach an agreement, but I think it is very clear where the challenges to reaching the agreement lie.

Does my hon. Friend agree that while we rightly remember those who lost their lives in the troubles, we perhaps do not talk enough about or remember those who were injured during the troubles and those who continue to live with the impact of those incidents every day?

My hon. Friend makes a really important point, and it is one of the points that we were seeking to address in the way we approached the victims’ payment scheme when it was consulted on and when it was set out. It is so true that there are so many people who suffered injuries, both physical and psychological, during the troubles who deserve our acknowledgement and support. That is one of the reasons why we want to get this scheme active as soon as possible.

In my constituency of Upper Bann, hundreds of homes still bear the scars of the terrorist campaign that brought much needless bloodshed and loss of life to our community. The suffering of those victims of terrorism cannot continue amidst this wrangle. I welcome the Minister’s recognition that Sinn Féin is the stumbling block on this matter, but does he recognise that the legislation passed in this House enables victims throughout the UK to receive this pension? Has he done any costings for the full implementation of the scheme, and will he expect the Northern Ireland Executive to pay for those outside Northern Ireland and across the UK?

The hon. Lady is right that the response to the consultation set out that this would cover victims across the UK, and that is built into the approach. She will recognise that the vast majority of victims—I think she made the point herself in terms of her own constituency—will be in Northern Ireland or from Northern Ireland. The basis of this scheme was what was agreed in the 2014 Stormont House agreement, and it was on that basis that it was something for the Executive to take forward. Of course, the UK Government want to support the Executive with that process, and we will continue to work closely with them to make sure it is delivered as effectively as possible across the whole of the UK.

I commend the Government for the positive work they have done in this area, particularly my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith). As a former special adviser at the Ministry of Defence, I am very aware of the difficulties involved in the discussions relating to Northern Ireland. Does the Minister agree that it is right that we support all victims from all sides of the troubles, particularly as they approach old age, and does he share my hope that this will enable families and communities in Northern Ireland to move on from this difficult time?

My hon. Friend is spot on, and it is really important to recognise that the way in which this scheme has been set out has taken account of all shades of opinion. It has engaged with all communities and with victims’ groups on all sides, and our response to the consultation reflects that. It is one of the reasons why any hurdle at this stage is really unacceptable, and we should be getting on and delivering it.

I congratulate the shadow Secretary of State on getting this important matter on to the Floor of the House today. There was no Northern Ireland Government from 1972 until 1998. These victims were made during a period of extended direct rule, and these victims were made all across the United Kingdom. I welcome the letter today that the Minister has referred to: it blames Sinn Féin. For the first time, the Government have called Sinn Féin out on an issue. I welcome them doing that, but it would be completely incompatible with reality if—as I understand Mr Shawcross has recommended—payments were made to victims of Gaddafi-sponsored terrorism and yet our victims, who have a piece of legislation made in this place, cannot have money drawn down to them that they are completely entitled to. So I plead with the Minister to stop using Sinn Féin as an excuse now, break the logjam, push Sinn Féin out of the way and administer this money to victims all across the United Kingdom immediately.

As always, the hon. Gentleman makes his case very powerfully, but he will recognise that the Executive committed to delivering a scheme of this nature six years ago and received a generous financial contribution connected to New Decade, New Approach and other provisions. It has revenue-raising capabilities, and it must make funding available for this scheme, which everyone agrees should exist. As I said earlier, the Shawcross report is being analysed by my colleagues at the Foreign Office, and I cannot go into any detail on its contents at this stage. But we all agree that we want to move this forward, and we all agree that the money should be made available as quickly as possible. That money can be made available as soon as the designated Department is sorted.

In media interviews this morning, I think Sinn Fein seemed to accept that this is its responsibility, but tried to blame what it calls “discriminatory” rules. I have looked at the regulations, and the only thing that is ruled out in statute, as the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) has suggested, is if you yourself were involved in committing the terrorist offence that led to you being injured, and I think everyone would accept that that is reasonable. All other cases of convictions are for a judicially appointed panel to decide. That probably goes further than many would like, but it is necessary, I suspect, for reconciliation purposes. Therefore, is it not right that Sinn Fein recognises that this is a balanced settlement and that it should get out of the way and facilitate payments to victims on both sides of the communities in Northern Ireland for everyone’s benefit?

Yes, my right hon. Friend is spot on, as he so often is. He is very much echoing the point made by those on the Opposition Front Bench that we should not be reopening arguments that have been settled and settled with great impartiality—settled with a really serious consultation process to look at how this could be done in as fair and impartial way as possible, and with a judicial element to that which protects the independence of decision making. I think we have found a way forward here, which is sensible and which can command support of all communities, and we should take it.

Thank you, Minister.

We now come to the potter’s wheel moment—for those of us of a certain age, and I am looking at Julian Lewis. For the safe exit and the safe arrival of Members, and also for any necessary hygiene, I am suspending the session for five minutes.

Sitting suspended.