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Consultations on Addressing Legacy of Northern Ireland's Past: Victims Groups

Volume 705: debated on Wednesday 8 December 2021

2. What recent representations he has received from victims groups on consultations on addressing the legacy of Northern Ireland's past. (904548)

Since publishing the Command Paper, the Government have engaged with a range of stakeholders, including victims groups, who we have always said must be central to discussions on legacy. Victims groups have provided evidence at sessions that the Government have convened with Northern Ireland parties and in partnership with the Irish Government, in addition to the Government’s own bilateral engagement. The process has been hugely valuable and we are all grateful to those who shared their views on this important and sensitive issue.

The Secretary of State has said that the victims groups are central to all he is doing in this regard, but now that there appears to be total unanimity in opposition to the Government’s amnesty proposals among the people most directly affected in Northern Ireland, how will he reconcile their opinion with his desire to proceed in the face of such opposition?

As I have said before, we are working through the feedback that we received over the summer and autumn following the engagement that we had with a range of parties with an interest in this matter: victims groups, political parties and other stakeholder groups in civic society. We need to be honest about what is achievable, and about the reality that the current system is not working for people. It is not providing the information and it is not getting to the truth. Our focus is on ensuring that we are able to deliver a package that can get to the truth for families who have waited for far too long.

My right hon. Friend is right to say that the current position is not working, and I think we should all congratulate him on trying to grapple once again with an issue that has been left lying there for too long. However, if his proposals are to secure any traction, they will have to be compliant with article 2, and we will have to see a fully fleshed out plan for truth and reconciliation. Can he give me assurances on both points?

Yes, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. One of the key points that we made in the Command Paper—we will be setting out a lot of the work we are doing on this—was about ensuring that people can see that investigations will continue. There will be an information recovery body that will be able to get to the truth and will have access to information in a way that we have not seen before. We are determined to deliver on that, and we are determined to ensure that what we deliver is article 2 compliant.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

The Command Paper was published back in July, and since that time there have been two pauses, or perhaps more. That implies quite directly that the Secretary of State’s thinking is evolving. Can he tell the House, with as much precision as possible: what is the difference between his thinking as it currently stands and his thinking in the paper that was published in July?

I, too, welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new position. I look forward not just to sparring with him at the Dispatch Box, but to working with him for the benefit of Northern Ireland in the period ahead. I am sure we will be able to ensure that, on a range of matters, we are delivering for the people of Northern Ireland, along with his team.

We have not had pauses as such. We said when we published the Command Paper that we wanted to engage with parties, and we agreed at the summer British-Irish intergovernmental conference with the Irish Government to do that in partnership. That work continued over the summer and autumn and just last week we had a meeting of the British-Irish intergovernmental conference which is developing that work. This is a very complicated, complex area, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare). We want to bring forward this package of work and legislate for it to ensure that we deliver for people in Northern Ireland—for victims who have waited too long for information. So there have not been pauses; the work continued throughout the summer and autumn.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his kind comments. I am also grateful for the messages and exchanges that we have had in the run-up to today.

In the spirit of constructive relations, let me share with the Secretary of State a bit of advice that comes from my experience. My last job was as the shadow Victims Minister, and when I was drafting the Victims of Crime and Anti-social Behaviour, Etc (Rights, Entitlements and Related Matters) Bill, I learnt that offering support only works when the victims are in the driving seat. According to the proposals that are currently on the table, the victims are not even in the car. Rather than delaying—the Secretary of State did promise it in the autumn and he did promise it before Christmas, and it has not emerged—can he give a clear assurance, on behalf of the victims, that he has gone back to the drawing board and will only return with proposals once victims are front and centre and in the driving seat? That is what they deserve, and that is what Governments should deliver for them.

Order. I know that the hon. Gentleman is new to this, but we must hear from some other Front Benchers, and I am not going to make it if we do not have shorter questions and answers.

I appreciate that this is a complex issue, and I will be very clear about this. We want to ensure that we are delivering for the people and the whole of Northern Ireland, for the victims, and obviously for all those who served in Northern Ireland as well. This is a complex area, and our programme and the work we are seeking to deliver will deliver for victims. Victims are consistently saying that they want to get to the truth of what happened. The current system is not delivering that. Our Command Paper sets out a plan for a way to do that. We need to be honest about the current system’s failures and look at a new way forward. The Command Paper sets that out. We will look into the feedback we had over the summer and autumn, and we will do that very soon.

On the weekend, I received another call from the media with a briefing from the Northern Ireland Office saying that legislation and a statement would be coming out this week, and so on. This is the seventh deadline to produce this legislation—self-set by the Secretary of State—that he has missed. Does he have any intention at all of honouring his word?

I do not recognise what my hon. Friend just outlined. I said that I would set out to Parliament our intended direction of travel and what we wanted to do before the summer recess, and we did that with the Command Paper. We did have an ambition to legislate this autumn, and I was determined to do that, but we have to ensure that we are delivering and focusing on the work that we have seen over the summer and autumn in the ongoing conversations with victims groups and veterans groups, the Irish Government and the parties in Northern Ireland. This is a complex area, and we have to make sure that when we deliver legislation on this, it is legislation that works for the people of Northern Ireland and for those who served in Northern Ireland as well.