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Victims and Survivors (Northern Ireland) (Order) 2006

Volume 685: debated on Wednesday 25 October 2006

rose to move, That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the draft Victims and Survivors (Northern Ireland) Order 2006.

The noble Lord said: The broad purpose of the draft Victims and Survivors (Northern Ireland) Order 2006 is to help those who have suffered so much as a result of the Troubles in the Northern Ireland over the last 40 years. The Troubles have extended over many years and had profound consequences for many thousands of people in terms of trauma, injury and the pain of bereavement. For many, the pain and suffering remain a present and daily reality.

The Government believe that victims and survivors deserve a strong voice that will draw attention to their needs and which will help to inform the future of government policy. Giving victims and survivors a strong voice is the substance of the draft order. It provides for the establishment of the position of Commissioner for Victims and Survivors. The commissioner will have a general role in promoting the interest of victims and survivors and the draft order sets out various ways in which this will be done.

The commissioner will keep under review the adequacy and effectiveness of services provided for victims and survivors by statutory and voluntary organisations. He or she will have a duty to provide advice to the Secretary of State, the Executive Committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly and any person or organisation involved in the provision of services. The commissioner will also be there to provide advice and information on any matters concerning the interests of victims and survivors.

The draft order provides for the appointment of the commissioner to be made by the First Minister and Deputy First Minister acting jointly, and for the commissioner to work in accordance with a detailed work programme agreed by the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. To ensure that the work of the commissioner helps to inform future policy, provision is made for the work of the commissioner to be carried out under work programmes which will be agreed by the First Minister and Deputy First Minister acting jointly.

The commissioner will be under a duty to take into account the views of victims and survivors in carrying out his or her functions. Furthermore, and to ensure that their voices are heard, the commissioner will be tasked to take forward a victims and survivors forum. The commissioner will also be under a duty to publish an annual report on his or her work, and a copy of this will be laid before the Northern Ireland Assembly. A copy will be sent also to the Secretary of State.

The proposal for a draft order has been the subject of consultation and there is clear support in Northern Ireland for the concept of a commissioner. Many individuals have found the support of Mrs Bertha McDougall, who was appointed as the interim Commissioner for Victims and Survivors, to have been invaluable. I pay tribute to her work.

In broad terms, the draft order refers to those who have suffered bereavement or injury as a consequence of the Troubles since 1966. There is some divergence of view as to when the Troubles began, and this date has been chosen to ensure that we cover all the relevant period. I know that some concern has been expressed that the definition of “victims” should not include those involved in acts of violence. We understand these feelings and the deep hurt that many feel. The matter will no doubt resurface in today’s debate. However, having considered the issue with great care, the Government are of the view that the definition of “victims” should be as inclusive as possible if we are to move to a better future for all the people of Northern Ireland.

We wish to provide the basis for a longer-term appointment of a Commissioner for Victims and Survivors. The introduction of the order demonstrates the Government’s clear intention that victims and survivors must not be forgotten but should have a strong voice in the future. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the draft Victims and Survivors (Northern Ireland) Order 2006.—(Lord Rooker.)

I thank the Minister for bringing this order before the Committee. In principle, we support it: it is a good thing to be doing. I understand that the order is designed to be very inclusive. I, too, feel that there will be some challenges to its inclusivity and to who may or may not be considered victims and survivors, as the Minister anticipated. If that is the case, will there be a form of arbitration? How would such challenges be resolved? I do not wish to be pessimistic about a proposal that is as good as this and about a matter such as victims and survivors, but I am just trying to be realistic.

I understand that the commissioner will set up a forum at some stage, which is a good idea. Will the Minister tell us, if I am not jumping the gun, what form it is expected to take, when it is expected to be set up, how it might be funded and from where the people will come to form it? I know that a report is due shortly—probably around Christmas. If I am pre-empting something, I am quite happy for the Minister to write to me.

Will the commissioner have the power to make grants? I read in the order some of the things that they will be expected to do. Will they be able to make grants to victims organisations or to victims’ families?

I sense from the legislation that the management of the commissioner by the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister or the Secretary of State will take place through the work programmes and agreement, which is almost a substitute for regulation. Will that be the case? On this occasion, it may well be better than legislation. In principle, however, my party supports the order.

It is perhaps appropriate that this Grand Committee on Northern Ireland should meet in the enhanced surroundings of the Moses Room. I hope that this augurs well for the new beginning for Northern Ireland. We on the Liberal Democrat Benches welcome the order. At the meeting of the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body in Northern Ireland this week, some concern was expressed by the people of Northern Ireland about the process of the selection of the Commissioner for Victims and Survivors—not the person, but the process. Perhaps other noble Lords will mention this later. However, I put on record our support for the order.

Victims organisations have grown greatly in Northern Ireland. There is now almost a victims industry, which may not, for a number of reasons, improve its clients’ lives in any way. There is a lot of cynicism about the value and the work of government initiatives. There is a feeling that there is too much bureaucracy and perhaps not enough feeling about the concerns of these desperate people.

We on the Liberal Democrat Benches support an overarching strategic approach to providing services to victims and survivors. That approach must be focused on victims and survivors and led by them, so that services are seen to be delivered and needs are seen to be met.

We very much support the appointment of the Commissioner for Victims and Survivors. As I have said, it has been very useful to have Mrs Bertha McDougall in post as an interim commissioner since December last year. We welcome the clarification given in the Explanatory Memorandum to the order that the position of commissioner will be advertised and that the appointment will fall within the remit of the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments in Northern Ireland. However, that does not appear to have taken place, as I understand it.

We believe that the commissioner should be independent of Government. An independent commissioner would help to improve communication and minimise formality, so that services can be effectively and sensitively delivered. The commissioner should be similar, in relation to independence and autonomy, to the Commissioner for Children and Young People and should be able to undertake, commission or provide financial support for research into all matters relating to victims and survivors.

I should like to make a few broader points about victims and survivors in general. I am still concerned about funding generally for victims groups. It is vital that all funding sources, processes and procedures are carefully examined and sustained. Can the Minister reassure the Committee that efforts will be made to ensure that victims groups are made aware of all sources of funding and that procedures for applying for such funding will not be overcomplicated? That is an important point.

One-to-one counselling has proved very worth while to all concerned, including those most unsure about coming forward for help and support. This whole area of training and counselling must be sustained and there must be absolute confidence that adequate funding will be there to sustain it well into the future so that someone benefiting from one-to-one counselling does not suddenly find that it ceases when he or she is in most need. This is a sensitive aid and it is vital that it is targeted properly. Time-limiting these groups is totally unacceptable and could greatly set back those in need.

This service cannot be measured. Many children and young people who have suffered in the Troubles are now, for the first time, showing the effects of the disruption and the terror that they suffered at an earlier age. The effects of losing parents or siblings, being awakened late at night, being caught in violent situations and so many other experiences have often been bottled up in self-defence and are now causing disruption and distress in a wide range of ways. How can one guess the length of counselling and support necessary for them?

Will the Minister inform the Committee whether any progress has been made on the proposal for a study to be carried out into the needs of carers who look after victims and survivors? Carers have been largely left to themselves, often in difficult circumstances. It is high time that they were provided with greater assistance.

Have the Government given any thought to the proposals made by the Alliance Party to the St Andrews talks that the British and Irish Governments should appoint an independent commission, composed of domestic and international experts, to consult, deliberate and make a series of recommendations to address outstanding issues relating to the past and its legacy and their linkage to the promotion of reconciliation? Addressing the past and its legacy is fundamental to the process of reconciliation and building a shared future. The failure to do this in a comprehensive and holistic manner is, I believe, a barrier to political progress.

Like other noble Lords who have spoken, I generally welcome this order. Before dealing with it, I should declare a possible interest, as my wife is a member of the Northern Ireland Memorial Fund, which is deeply involved in the work of supporting victims.

When the Minister replies, I would like him to go into a couple of points in a little more detail. He mentioned that the legislation provides that the commissioner is to work in accordance with the detailed work programme and that the work programme is to be drawn up and agreed with the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. Failing the existence of a First Minister and Deputy First Minister, the detailed work programme is to be drawn up in consultation with the Secretary of State, which is the position at the moment. Therefore, I imagine that the Secretary of State and those who advise him have some ideas about what might be in a work programme. I notice that there are references to a detailed work programme, which implies that through it there will be fairly close control of the programme of the commissioner. I would be surprised if there are not already some ideas on that matter in the system. I am sure that the Committee would be interested to hear from the Minister on those matters.

It would be helpful if we had more detail on the proposal for a victims and survivors forum. It has been difficult for some victims and victims groups to find themselves in close proximity to others. A forum could be problematic and might be divisive, so we need to think and consult about it more carefully. I will be grateful if the Minister can give us some insight into the thinking on that matter.

The general question of funding has been mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Harris of Richmond. It is a sensitive matter, and I know from my former role that victims groups in my own patch had genuine reasons for feeling that they were not getting a fair deal under the present arrangements. Instead of finding officialdom helpful, they found that it was unhelpful and that it put obstacles in their path. Those may have been isolated examples, but we must be aware that some groups have reasonable grounds for feeling that they did not get a fair deal. We would not want to see that situation continue.

There is also the question of policy in general. This is not the first time that there has been a victims commissioner. Many years ago, Sir Kenneth Bloomfield was appointed to consider the question of provision for victims. He produced a report that, until now, has provided the bedrock for policy on these matters. This should have been explored further in the exposition of policy. Do the Government intend to reopen the issues that Bloomfield considered and advised on and to recast policy in these matters, or does Bloomfield continue to be the basis on which we approach these matters? Is the new provision for a commissioner to be supplemental to the existing arrangements, or does it presage a process by which they are overturned and something totally different is put in their place? It is important that the underlying issue is dealt with.

As I said at the outset, however, we generally welcome the order. We hope that it will help. This is an important issue. From my experience, victims want, first, to know that their story, experience, suffering and sacrifice are not forgotten, and, secondly, to be reassured that it was not in vain. Those are the important things. Of course there are questions of support. At the end of the day, however, remembrance and the feeling that a purpose was served are more important than support. That is not to say that support is not important—it is. But we must get it into perspective.

I want to make a brief comment on this order and put it on the record that Mrs McDougall’s appointment was highly irregular and threw the office of the commissioner into dispute. We have a strong public appointments policy in Northern Ireland, and I would like an assurance from the Minister that this appointment will be done in line with all other public appointments.

That is not to detract from what Bertha McDougall has done. She has done a good job over the past year. To take up the point of the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, I would hate to see the commissioner and their staff be made responsible for grants. That would start to unravel the whole thing. The Government should take that on board.

If I appear somewhat more sceptical than previous speakers, it is perhaps because I have slightly more experience at the coalface of what has happened in Northern Ireland over the years. I do not want to inhibit progress or to suggest for a moment that a Commissioner for Victims and Survivors is not necessary—it certainly is. I do not want to give the impression that I am somehow looking a gift horse in the mouth.

Sadly, however, my experience over the years has been that Government tend to use an occasion like this for their own narrow and selfish political ends. The noble Baronesses, Lady Harris of Richmond and Lady Blood, have both mentioned how public appointments are made in Northern Ireland. I can virtually guarantee that when the appointment of commissioner is made in this case, it will be with both eyes firmly on Dublin and no real regard for the victims. I wait to be proved wrong.

The noble Baroness, Lady Harris, quite rightly mentioned sources of funding. I am of course concerned that victims should be aware of all sources of funding. I am also concerned, however, that sources of funding associated with the victims commissioner may be of the same dubious nature as that which came from the United States and has been used to fund restorative justice—totally divorced from anything to do with the police, courts and so on. I am not going to stray, but the Minister will know exactly what I am talking about; he will know exactly how the Government have turned a blind eye to that dubious source of funding. I hope that those who will benefit from a victims commissioner will perhaps ensure that the Government do not allow this sort of dubious, doubtful money to be used in this way.

I am obviously concerned—I am trying to find exactly what the Minister said—about the fact that the main criterion on which a judgment will be made will be whether bodies and organisations provide services. Among the most effective bodies providing services in Northern Ireland are the prisoners organisations. Will they have equal status to those who are concerned with victims from the Ulster Defence Regiment or the Royal Ulster Constabulary, which are no longer in existence, or the Royal Irish Regiment, part-time, which is soon to be no longer in existence? Because they have been victims, the real victims and survivors tend to want to distance themselves from the circumstances that caused them to be victims. Hence, they do not have the degree of organisation and cohesiveness of those who were involved and may consider themselves—I do not—to be victims; that is, those who come from the terrorist, whether that be the loyalist or republican, side of the equation.

I hope that the Minister will assure us that he is not saying that everyone, regardless of whether he gave a service or created mayhem, is to be considered equal when we deal with victims and survivors. If we get that assurance, like others who have spoken today, I will be grateful and supportive. But if we do not get that assurance, my attitude will be reflected 100,000 times over by people in Northern Ireland who have seen their victimhood diminished and the elevation in public of those who created the mayhem of more than 30 years.

I am grateful for all the contributions. I do not want to start another debate, but they were not all as helpful as each other to the settlement of a good future for the people of Northern Ireland. I will stick to the order because I would go into dangerous territory if I deviated from it. As I have made clear, the order involves a lot of sensitive issues, but I have been asked some questions that go way beyond the order and, if I can respond to those points with a degree of comfort, I will.

Give that we have the order, it would be difficult to open up a debate on who is more of a victim than anyone else or who is an innocent victim. Should the partners or families of people who have been involved in the Troubles be classified as victims or survivors or be excluded even though they are ordinary citizens but, nevertheless, have been tied up in the Troubles because of the actions of partners or other members of the family?

I realise that there are problems of legal definitions anyway; if people are really upset about them, they can always resort to going to court if they are so minded. If we exclude categories of people because they, let us say, have served a term of imprisonment, some might even want to exclude their partners and families in future. I fully accept that there are some dodgy issues here. We cannot completely rewrite the order. There would be substantial difficulties in pursuing that.

A lot of voluntary groups, some cross-community, are involved in this. It would in no way be a good idea to open up legal niceties that stopped even cross-community approaches. To answer one point, nobody is going to be forced to sit in a room with people they do not want to sit in a room with. There is no idea of specific performance here. The remit of the commissioner is set out. It may not be as powerful as some would wish. For example, there is no facility for the victims commissioner to be involved in giving grants. However, if anything, that would create far more scope for hundreds, if not thousands, of pounds spent on parliamentary Answers to Questions about the grants—as, indeed, happens now with the voluntary sector.

Let us get this absolutely clear. The funding of the victims commissioner is effectively by the Government of Northern Ireland: the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. In other words, it is taxpayers’ money. Let us leave aside direct rule for the moment, because that does not change the funding mechanism. The victims commissioner is funded by public funds. There is no voluntary sector funding issue, or overseas funding. It will be part of the budget for Northern Ireland, which will be clear for everyone to see.

A good number of bodies and organisations provide services. I do not have a full list, although I came across many of them in my year in Northern Ireland as one of the Ministers. I have seen many more lists, as answering parliamentary Questions requires. The provisions of the order relate to the commissioner looking at services for victims and survivors provided by all bodies. We should not try to second-guess the commissioner, whoever he or she may be following an appointment. We will ask them to do a specific, professional job, and we should let them get on with it. They will be accountable in the court of public opinion in any event.

The noble Baroness, Lady Harris, asked me a specific question about the Alliance proposals in the recent discussions. We are grateful for the Alliance’s paper, and careful consideration is being given to the ideas in it. However, no decisions have been taken yet.

I am grateful for the welcome of the noble Lord, Lord Trimble. I am unaware of a plan of work set up by the Secretary of State. To be honest, given how we have gone with the order over the summer, the reasonable assumption of the Secretary of State’s office is that he would not be doing this after 24 November anyway. In that sense, there is no plan. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, that our intention is—as I have said, and will say in relation to other orders—to progress what it is in the pot at the moment.

We sincerely hope, however, with advertisements and public consultations through the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments, that by the time a victims commissioner is appointed in 2007, the work would be done by the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, actually there and responsible in Northern Ireland. It would not be done by the Secretary of State, subject to the vagaries of fate—it takes quite a while to advertise. I am not saying that this would happen, but it is our sincere hope that it does—people in Northern Ireland should be making these decisions, not direct rule Ministers.

In the absence of that, however, we are making progress. We now have an interim commissioner, and we want to put the commissioner on a statutory footing. That requires going through due process, which is what we intend to do.

Perhaps the Minister would clarify that further. The officials who are notionally working for the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister are working to Ministers in the Northern Ireland Office. My question was whether there are in official circles proposals developing, or some sort of idea, about the work plan. I am sure that that work is going on and is available to the Northern Ireland Office.

Of course those officials are working to the Ministers. I suspect that we are trying not to second-guess the appointment of a commissioner. The work plan would have to be discussed. If the Assembly and Executive are not back, a work plan will have to be drawn up by the Secretary of State and the Ministers who are responsible for the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister—those are currently my right honourable friend Peter Hain and my honourable friend David Hanson. I am not saying that no thought has been given to the issue. Our expectation would have been that Northern Ireland politicians would be running the show from 25 November. Clearly, that will not happen, but we certainly hope that it will be the case from next March. It would probably be quite counterproductive to act too soon. At present, the process is to get a commissioner in post in early 2007. We have to liaise with the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments so that the process is open, transparent and not subject to any complaints. That is the way to do it. The public process will apply.

The commissioner certainly will be able to revisit issues from the past, particularly those covered by Sir Kenneth Bloomfield, so there is no problem with that. We want the commissioner to look at services and provision for victims and survivors. There will be some areas where we do not know what the work programme will cover, but the work done by Sir Kenneth certainly can be looked at and taken into account by the commissioner. We want the commissioner to be appointed before we start deploying the work programme. As I say, our sincere hope is that the work programme is drawn up by the First Minister and Deputy First Minister.

On the question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, efforts have been made regarding the provision of counselling, but much more effort is required. In a way, an assessment of need is necessary, which we hope the interim commissioner will draw attention to in her report. The role of the victims and survivors forum will depend on the outcome of work taking place by the interim commissioner. It is likely that the forum will have an influential voice for victims and survivors, but its form is yet to be decided. There is nothing hard and fast about it. It is important that we get the statutory footing right.

I am well aware that there are gaps in funding. I came across this in the peace programme. Certain sections of society have not been too good at knowing what is available, filling in the forms and all that rigmarole. I regret the amount of form filling that people have to do in order to obtain services and sometimes funding. Nevertheless, special efforts have been made with regard to the Europe-funded peace programme to make sure that we can reach those areas from where we did not get enough applications. There are certainly gaps in the process and it is important that more work is done to provide information.

As I say, Mrs McDougall is carrying out a review of how well current funding arrangements are addressing need. It is not our plan that the commissioner should give grants. Knowing what I know—and I would listen to others’ voices as well—I do not think that it would be a good idea. I will say no more than that. There is no question but that it certainly would interfere with the main job.

It would be nice if I could report back that this was the unanimous feeling of the Committee. But I do not want to put words into colleagues’ mouths.

The commissioner must look into areas of funding, including funding from the Government and the voluntary sector, as well as, as the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, said, dodgy funding. As part of the work programme, if there is any dodgy funding that results in unfairness, the commissioner should be able to comment on it—so he or she will have to find out about it. The commissioner is funded by the public but not funding the public, if I may put it that way. There are other means of funding the public.

The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, asked about forms of arbitration. We expect that to be a matter for the commissioner, but we wish the provisions of the order to work in an inclusive manner for all affected by the Troubles. That is a sensitive and global way of putting it—to work in an inclusive manner. I realise that that means working with groups that people might want to work together with but not physically work together with. It is not for me to say, but I understand that it is quite the norm in Northern Ireland to have discussions in different rooms. People still come to a conclusion that they can agree to. That is fine, but it is best that we do not second-guess what the commissioner appointed under this order would do.

I do not want to open up a debate. I think that I have answered most of the points that the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, made. I can assure him that the United Kingdom Government—the direct rule Ministers—have no political or ulterior motives at all. I repeat “no”. We want to get out of there. We enjoy serving our fellow citizens, as I did, but the fact is that we want out. We want Northern Ireland politicians to do it. So we have no ulterior motive as the UK Government. The noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, mentioned narrow political ends. We have no political agenda, in that sense.

As the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, said, this is not the first time that someone has had responsibility for looking at what happens to victims and survivors, how they are treated and how the public services treat them. It is not only a question of the voluntary sector. The Government have no narrow political ends in introducing this order today.

The point that I want to make concerns the fact that here we have an Order in Council, coming forward at this stage. That is fine; I recognise that there is some urgency. But when the question is asked about a work plan, it appears that no serious thought has been given to why we are bringing forward this legislation in this form—an Order in Council—at this time, without having anything substantive that the Government, if things do not happen and we do not get an Assembly, or a new Assembly can build on.

I got that in a nutshell. We bring this forward but we do not bring it all forward because we want to have a commissioner appointed in a public and transparent way, with the help of the Commissioner for Public Appointments. The agreement of the commissioner on a work plan is not something that can be imposed. If I came forward with a work plan, first I would be accused by people saying, “Well, you don’t expect the Northern Ireland Executive to be back, for a start”. We do—it is their duty to be back. Secondly, we would have pre-empted the appointment of the commissioner.

I am not saying that no thought has been given to those issues. We have got to the stage in the process of bringing the order forward to put the victims commissioner on a statutory basis. The order is a case of what you see is what you get. We would prefer it to be operated and implemented by the Northern Ireland Assembly—that is our choice. But the absence of the Northern Ireland Assembly is not an excuse for not introducing the legislation. That mantra will be repeated later this afternoon, because that is the way of the world. The reform process carries on. We want the Assembly to take it over but, if it does not, we will still carry on.

On Question, Motion agreed to.