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Northern Ireland

Volume 699: debated on Wednesday 21 July 2021

The Secretary of State was asked—

Legacy Issues

What plans he has to bring forward legislative proposals to address Northern Ireland legacy issues. [R] (902940)

Last week, in this Chamber, I set out proposals for addressing the legacy of the troubles, which will focus on reconciliation, delivering better outcomes for victims, and ending the cycle of investigations that is not working for anyone. These proposals will be considered as part of the ongoing talks process with the Northern Ireland parties, the Irish Government and representatives across Northern Ireland society, further to which we will bring forward legislation.

The Secretary of State denies that these proposals would create a moral equivalence between our veterans and the paramilitaries, but the reality would mean a legal equivalence. Does he accept that many who served during the troubles will feel a deep unease about a blanket amnesty? Can he outline how our veterans community will be consulted over the coming months?

As the hon. Gentleman rightly acknowledges, there is no moral equivalence here. Obviously there is a legal equivalence going back to the Good Friday/Belfast agreement, but there is a distinct legal difference between what he outlines and the statute of limitations that we are looking at. I assure him that not only have we been engaging with veterans groups but we will continue to do so across Northern Ireland and Great Britain, not least through the offices of the Veterans Commissioner, whom we appointed in Northern Ireland. That work will continue, as it already has been this week.

I am sure the Secretary of State was closely following yesterday’s debate on his proposals in the Northern Ireland Assembly. The motion that was passed specifically talks about the process set out in the Stormont House agreement. Could he set out for the House, in a little detail, why that process is not working either for veterans or for victims?

My right hon. Friend is right. I saw some of the comments made in yesterday’s debate and, as I said last week, we recognise the strength of feeling and the concerns that people have. There is, understandably, a range of views on legacy, as it is a complex and sensitive issue. We are committed to further discussions, as I have already said, and we remain committed to many of the key principles laid out in the Stormont House agreement.

To come to the core of my right hon. Friend’s question, the Stormont House agreement was in 2014. We are seven years on, and it has not been deliverable in its current format. Parts of it that were to be delivered by the Executive, such as an oral history by 2016, have not been delivered. We need to move on and get those things working.

We also need to acknowledge the reality that even the investigative body, the Historical Investigations Unit that was envisaged, would take, by a conservative estimate, between 10 and 20 years to complete its workload. On that timescale, many families would be timed out of any prospect of information or justice. We need to be honest about the reality of where we are today.

Does the Secretary of State agree that, in order for any legacy policy proposal to be sustainable and effective, victims must be at the heart of the process? Can he outline what engagement he has had with victims across the UK, including the families of the Birmingham pub bombing victims?

I agree with the hon. Lady that we want to make sure that the outcomes we come to on legacy are able to deliver for victims and the families of victims, particularly those families who want information and understanding, truth and accountability. We are working through that at the moment.

There is a wide range of engagement, both through my Department and through me personally, with a whole range of groups, not just the Northern Ireland parties but the victims’ groups, too. I am always happy to engage with and meet victims’ groups. We have been engaging with them this week, as we did last week and the week before, and we will continue to do so across the whole UK in the weeks ahead.

I am grateful for that answer, and I am grateful that the Secretary of State agrees that victims need to be at the heart of the process. Why have reports suggested that paramilitaries, the victim makers, were made aware of the Government’s plans for an amnesty before the victims were?

They were not. I outlined the proposals here in Parliament last week, and I have not had those kinds of conversations. I saw some reports of such conversations, but I am not sure where they have come from or what the hon. Lady is referring to.

Northern Ireland’s largest cross-community victims group, WAVE, wrote to the Prime Minister opposing any de facto amnesty. Does the Secretary of State recognise that reconciliation is something for individuals and communities to achieve, rather than for the Government to try to impose, and that whatever mechanisms the Secretary of State is successful in bringing forward to promote truth and reconciliation they cannot be allowed to impede the process of justice where there is sufficient evidence and a public interest in pursuing outstanding prosecutions?

WAVE is a strong body representing victims, although the hon. Gentleman’s comment about it being the largest might be challenged by some of the other victims groups. I think they all have an important voice to be heard, whether we are talking about SEFF—the South East Fermanagh Foundation—WAVE or the many others out there. However, I accept his point about reconciliation. We are very keen to work with people, and we will be doing so in the weeks ahead, across civic society, victims groups and veterans groups, and wider society in Northern Ireland to ensure that we are finding a pathway through to see the society of Northern Ireland being able to fully reconcile. There are too many areas where we have not seen that developed in the years that have gone past since the Good Friday/Belfast agreement.

I have said in this House before that I think this is one of the things that unites many of us: we need to see more in areas such as integrated education. It is simply not acceptable in the modern day that so many people in Northern Ireland do not meet a Protestant or a Catholic until they go to work or university. If we want to see an area and a society coming together, education is a key area to work on.

No one wants to move forward more than victims and survivors, but they cannot do that until killers allow them to by telling the truth. However, these proposals protect those vested interests and not victims’ interests.

Fresh forensic evidence has just been found in the investigation into the IRA murder of Tom Oliver, giving a lie to the claim that investigations cannot be advanced. For victims of state violence too, the experience is one of information suppressed and not shared, so I ask: what steps have been taken to ensure that relevant state papers are being prepared for release? Will multi-decade papers on sensitive events be released, if the Government’s aim really is to aid reconciliation through truth?

Actually, the hon. Lady in a way has highlighted the point I was making last week; I think there is a way to do information recovery to get to truth and accountability. Operation Kenova, which is behind the evidence that she outlined, has shown over the past five years that, despite not having prosecutions, for many victims and families it has been able to help them understand and get to the truth. This is another example of that; they have managed to get some evidence to be able to get to what may well be the truth.

But I would just caution the hon. Lady to look carefully at the statement from Operation Kenova about exactly what it has found; Operation Kenova has not yet had any prosecutions. But it is right that we continue to get information. We are clear that we want to make sure that we are getting information to people, and potentially in a way that we have not seen before, to really be able to get to the bottom of what happened and for people to have a true understanding of what happened at that time.

Michael Gallagher, who lost his son in the Omagh bombing, this week said, “Please don’t take away the only hope victims have of ever seeing justice.” I know that the Secretary of State will be struck by what has been said by the victims of terrorism—mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters who have lost loved ones through the troubles. Although I know it is not his wish to see any moral or legal equivalence between vexatious claims against our armed services and those who perpetrated terrorism in our society, he must accept that an unintended consequence of the proposals before the House now is that they will do exactly that: they will aid and abet criminals and allow many on-the-runs to continue to be free. So I ask the Secretary of State: how will he ensure that he will not extinguish the only light and hope that the victims have that they will one day see justice for their loved ones? How will he ensure that for people like Michael Gallagher that hope will not be extinguished?

The hon. Gentleman gives a powerful example of the sensitivity and complexity of this issue. I have met victims with similar scenarios and some very harrowing cases, where we can see why people want to be able to get to the truth and the accountability that comes with that.

We also need to recognise, as I outlined last week, the reality of where we are today, following the decisions, which I think were correct—I am not criticising them at all; they were absolutely the right decisions—to see peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland with the Good Friday/Belfast agreement and, in particular, the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998, which came with it, let alone what then followed, particularly with decommissioning and, as we have seen recently, quite rightly, arguably in effect a statute of limitations on 40,000 crimes coming out of Stormont House. We need to understand where we are and be up front with people about the diminishing reality of the possibility of getting prosecutions and what impact that is having on the criminal justice system and the ability to get to truth and accountability. But that is exactly what we want to be working through with groups across Northern Ireland, including victims groups, having absolutely in our heart an understanding of the trauma that people can face in these situations.

Protecting Veterans from Prosecution

What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on bringing forward legislative proposals to protect veterans from prosecution for actions taken during the troubles. (902941)

The Government have always been clear that they will deliver on their commitments in Northern Ireland to veterans, as part of a wider package to address legacy issues in Northern Ireland that focuses on reconciliation. As part of that work, I continue to hold regular discussions with Cabinet colleagues, including the Prime Minister, as well as with Northern Ireland parties, the Irish Government and society across Northern Ireland, with a view to bringing forward legislation.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer thus far. I welcome the decision of the courts basically to discharge many of the elderly and vulnerable people, particularly the veterans, who were accused of crimes in Northern Ireland. However, many elderly and vulnerable veterans still have hanging over them the threat of prosecution, so will my right hon. Friend expedite his discussions and bring forward legislation urgently to ensure that those people who served our armed forces in Northern Ireland and risked their lives on a daily basis are not threatened with prosecution literally 50 years after the event?

My hon. Friend outlines one of the challenges we see. It cannot be right that, as in the situations we have seen this year, people have to wait 50 years to get information and get to the truth. We are clear that we want to get legislation brought forward. We are working intensively across parties and with partners in Northern Ireland so that we can bring forward legislation that delivers reconciliation and information recovery for Northern Ireland and ends the cycle of investigations for our veterans across the armed forces, the majority of whom served with great honour and put themselves at risk to protect other people’s lives.

I trust that the Secretary of State is aware of the immense hurt, the volume of tears that have been shed and the retraumatised victims in the wake of his statement last week, and has reflected on both its content and the way this matter has been handled so far. One issue that victims have raised is the fear that now, without the threat of justice, terrorists or former terrorists will go out and almost glorify some of the atrocities in which they have been involved, with no sanction, while the victims remain voiceless. How does the Secretary of State respond to that fear?

The hon. Gentleman and his party have been and are strong supporters of the Stormont House agreement, which itself effectively created a statute of limitations on some 40,000 crimes—everything except for murder—following the changes made in the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998 to the justice options for people after the Good Friday/Belfast agreement. The reality is that we need to ensure that, which is why it is important we are clear that there is no moral equivalence. People who went out to do harm to others were acting in a way that was unspeakably horrendous. So many people put their lives at risk to protect others throughout that period. It is important that we continue to do that, which is why is it important that we have an information-recovery process that gets the truth and gets accountability, so that we avoid the very problem the hon. Gentleman outlined. To an extent, this has been happening because of the problems of the criminal justice system not seeing justice for people in the past few years.

Northern Ireland Protocol

What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol. (902942)

What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on reducing delays to trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain during the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol. (902943)

The Secretary of State meets colleagues regularly to discuss matters related to Northern Ireland, including the implementation of the Ireland/Northern Ireland protocol. It is imperative that the protocol is operated in a pragmatic and proportionate way to ensure that it impacts as little as possible on the people of Northern Ireland. The UK is working hard and in good faith to find solutions. We need to find a way forward—a new balance of arrangements adapted to the practical reality of what we have seen since January and based on the common interests that we share.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his answer. We must make the protocol work for the people of Northern Ireland, but we should not make the perfect the enemy of the good. Does my hon. Friend agree that we should press the European Union to take a more common-sense approach, so that we can find practical solutions to the issues the people of Northern Ireland face?

I agree with my hon. Friend. The Northern Ireland protocol is a delicate balance designed to support the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and maintain Northern Ireland’s place in the UK, while protecting the EU single market. It must respect the needs of all Northern Ireland’s people and bear as lightly as possible on the everyday lives of people in Northern Ireland. Unfortunately, that has not been our experience since January this year, and we have seen the costs of doing business and the cost to consumers going up. That is why we want to engage with the EU on this issue.

We warned that the protocol would create a border in the Irish sea, and now, as reality bites, six supermarket retailers, which cover three quarters of the grocery market in Northern Ireland, have written jointly to the UK Government and the European Commission highlighting import issues, higher costs, and fewer options for consumers. Instead of the Minister and Lord Frost rubbishing the deal that they signed and blaming the EU, what will the UK Government do to resolve these trade issues?

The UK Government have already done a great deal through the movement assistance scheme, which was introduced to support and assist traders with new requirements, including meeting the costs of more than 7,000 export health certificates and 2,000 phytosanitary certificates. There is also the Trader Support Service, with more than £200 million of funding, which educates traders on the new customs processes. We have invested in new digital assistance schemes to digitise the process for agrifood movements. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that we should engage in good faith to improve the working of the protocol and make sure that it delivers on what was intended without the implications on everyday life for people in Northern Ireland.

Does the Minister agree that goods moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland within the UK internal market should not be subjected to EU-imposed checks? What steps will he take to protect the economic integrity of the UK?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his question. It was always clear that the protocol was a delicate balance designed to support the peace process in the agreement; if it is to work, it must operate in a pragmatic and proportionate way, balancing its objective to support the peace process. It needs to respect the needs of all Northern Ireland’s people—respecting the fact that Northern Ireland is an integral part of the customs territory of the United Kingdom and that it needs to bear as lightly as possible on the everyday life of Northern Ireland. That means, as he said, that goods that are not at risk of going into the European Union should not be facing checks and should not be facing that disruption. This is one of the issues in which we want to engage, but, of course, I do not want to pre-empt the Secretary of State’s statement later today.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Does he also agree that any new arrangements entered into with the EU that involve Northern Ireland must respect the principle of consent that is at the heart of the Belfast agreement? That means that any new arrangements must protect the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland’s place within the UK.

Yes, I wholeheartedly agree that it is essential that we recognise that the Belfast agreement itself recognised Northern Ireland’s place in the UK by the consent of its people, and that the principle of consent is absolutely central to that.

The Government are working hard and in good faith to find solutions. We have provided many papers to the EU, and we welcome indications that it is looking at further solutions. We are working to find solutions, and the Government will set out further detail on their approach to the protocol later today. I do not want to pre-empt that, but I agree with the right hon. Gentleman on the principle.

Magdalene Laundries

What recent discussions he has had with the Northern Ireland Executive on the research report “Mother and Baby Homes and Magdalene Laundries in Northern Ireland”, published in January 2021. (902944)

What recent discussions he has had with the Northern Ireland Executive on the research report “Mother and Baby Homes and Magdalene Laundries in Northern Ireland”, published in January 2021. (902956)

The Government have enormous sympathy for those who suffered appalling abuse while resident in the institutions covered by the report published in January. Although this is a devolved issue and therefore the responsibility of the Executive, the Government understand that work on an independent investigation promised to victims is under way. We will continue to work closely with the Executive to ensure that the victims of today receive the help and support they need to address the trauma of the past.

The report carried out by the University of Ulster and Queen’s University shone a bright light on the truly heart-wrenching abuse suffered by women and girls over six decades in Northern Ireland. What confidence can the Minister give to those victims, some of whom might be watching, that politicians across these islands will do everything that we can to address the staggering injustice that they suffered?

The hon. Lady is right to highlight the report. The UK Government understand the importance of ensuring that those individuals who suffered appalling abuse while resident in certain institutions in Northern Ireland receive the recognition and answers that they deserve. That is why, for example, in the absence of the Executive, the Government delivered the Historical Institutional Abuse (Northern Ireland) Act 2019 to help secure a redress scheme for victims of other specific institutions. We understand that work on the independent investigation promised by the Executive is under way, with an expert panel appointed in March to establish the terms of reference. While it is right that we wait for the findings of that investigation, the UK Government are committed to working closely with the Executive to help victims and their families get the help and support that they need.

We know that girls as young as 12 were sent to the mother and baby homes and the Magdalene Laundries in Northern Ireland and that the research report revealed the painful neglect and abuse suffered by many. While an expert panel discuss the next steps, what confidence can Ministers provide that the lived experience of victims will be heard loud and clear in the months and years ahead, and that whatever support is necessary is provided from Westminster?

The Government acknowledge the shocking findings of the report published in January around the considerable cross-border movement of women and, as the hon. Gentleman said, children. The Government understand that the Executive have begun work on their independent investigation, with the expert panel appointed in March. We will work with them to ensure that this issue is followed up effectively, but we want to await the outcome of their work in the devolved space.

I thank the Minister for his response. Given the long-lasting impacts that mother and baby homes have had on victims and their families, and still to this day the incredible sense of injustice, can he ensure that all investigations and examinations into the mother and baby homes will include consultation with survivors of the homes, who have experienced real hurt and trauma? Will the Minister clarify that no further action, which is truly critical for closure, should be taken without their full involvement and permission?

The hon. Gentleman rightly recognises the importance of ensuring that victims and survivors are fully involved in any investigative or review processes in order to best ensure that they get the acknowledgement, support and answers that they deserve. Further to the points that I have made previously, I also understand that the Victims and Survivors Service is continuing to work with victims and survivors to identify the support and services they need, with a dedicated website and phone line to enable victims and survivors of the institutions to participate in the co-design process. As I said, we are prepared to work with the Executive on this issue.

In total, more than 14,000 women in Northern Ireland went through these so-called mother and baby homes. As other colleagues have said, a recent landmark report has revealed a shocking culture of neglect and abuse suffered by those vulnerable women over six decades. We know that an expert and widely respected panel is co-designing the next stage of the inquiry into the scandal, so does the Minister agree that the inquiry must be effective, robust and, crucially, meet the needs of victims who have had to wait far too long to receive justice?

I absolutely agree. As the hon. Lady said, a well-respected panel is working on this issue. We want to ensure that any support that we can provide is available and that the work is taken forward in the devolved space. What has been identified in the report is truly shocking. It is important that the panel makes progress swiftly, and we certainly stand ready to support it.

UNESCO World Heritage Sites

What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport on the protection of UNESCO world heritage sites in Northern Ireland. (902947)

I speak with ministerial colleagues regularly about the great potential for Northern Ireland tourism, although not specifically about heritage sites. However, I assure my hon. Friend that the UK Government are a signatory to the world heritage convention and have committed to upholding our commitment to that. Northern Ireland is, of course, home to one of the world’s most famous world heritage sites: the Giant’s Causeway and the Causeway coast, which I have had the pleasure of visiting. Those grand and impressive basalt columns are an incredible sight. I encourage all Members to see these wonders in person.

Northern Ireland is a jewel in the crown of our United Kingdom, boasting stunning land- scapes of great natural and ecological value, and heritage sites of cultural, historical and social significance—from the Derry walls and the Giant’s Causeway to Titanic Quarter and the mountains of Mourne. What steps is my hon. Friend taking to protect and promote Northern Ireland’s heritage sites and areas of outstanding natural beauty? Additionally, what support is he giving to the Northern Ireland Executive and relevant heritage bodies and organisations to do so?

Although tourism is a devolved matter, the Government continue to use every possible opportunity to promote Northern Ireland as a world-class tourist destination, and my hon. Friend is doing an excellent job of that himself. I am delighted to say that I have visited many of the places that he mentioned. I was very pleased to be over in Northern Ireland yesterday, meeting local business owners in Bangor to hear about their High Street Heroes Northern Ireland campaign, which celebrates the local independent retailers who are another fantastic part of Northern Ireland’s offer.

Economic Support: Covid-19

What assessment he has made of trends in the level of economic support for businesses in Northern Ireland during the covid-19 outbreak. (902948)

Levels of support in Northern Ireland are similar to elsewhere in the UK, reflecting the common challenge that public health restrictions have posed to businesses. Government interventions such as the job retention scheme and the enterprise scheme operate UK-wide, and have together protected around one in four jobs. Support is devolved in some areas. The Executive received an additional £5 billion of Barnett funding for covid, funding a range of interventions including business rates holidays and small business grants—all providing crucial support to businesses.

I thank my hon. Friend for his answer and for his support for the tourism sector. I am pleased to say that I have been to the Giant’s Causeway—and the most wonderful place it was. Of course, there is another way to support tourism in Northern Ireland. Treasury and Deloitte estimates show that over a 10-year period, VAT at 5% would deliver £4.6 billion in revenue to the Treasury. As my hon. Friend says, tourism is a key sector in Northern Ireland. In that light, does he agree that maintaining the current, very competitive 5% VAT rate for hospitality beyond the pandemic could create new jobs, add tremendous value and prove to be a powerful UK dividend for businesses in Northern Ireland?

My hon. Friend makes a point that I have certainly heard from a number of businesses in Northern Ireland. The Government have taken unprecedented measures to support the UK economy through the pandemic, including a temporary VAT reduction to 5% for the tourism and hospitality sectors, extended until 30 September. To further help businesses to recover and transition back to the standard rate, an interim rate of 12.5% will apply until 31 March 2022. Raising £130 billion in 2019-20, VAT is an important source of revenue and vital for funding public services such as health, education and defence. The reduced rate is expensive, costing over £7 billion so far, so a permanently reduced or zero rate would further increase costs to UK taxpayers.

Before we move on to Prime Minister’s questions, I would like to inform the House that it has been just over 60 years since the first ever PMQs, which took place on 18 July 1961. On that day, the Speaker at the time was Sir Harry Hylton-Foster, who was the last Speaker to die in post—I hope not to reintroduce that. He introduced PMQs by informing the House that the Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, was

“willing to try this experiment for the remainder of the Session, if that be the wish of the House”.—[Official Report, 18 July 1961; Vol. 644, c. 1052.]

After 60 years and 12 Prime Ministers, PMQs has become one of the most high-profile events of the parliamentary week and is watched by constituents across the country and followers of UK politics all around the world. I think we can say that the experiment has been a success—depending on who was answering.

Today, as we mark its 60th anniversary, the Prime Minister will join the questions via video link, for obvious reasons, demonstrating that Prime Minister’s questions—and the House—can adapt when we need to. I am sure that in this final PMQs before the summer recess we will have robust but orderly exchanges, and hopefully shortish questions and answers.

Finally, before we get under way, I would like to point out that British Sign Language interpretation of Prime Minister’s questions is available to watch on

Please, everyone have a good recess after tomorrow.