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Northern Ireland: Victims Payment Scheme

Volume 803: debated on Wednesday 3 June 2020

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to ensure the implementation of the Victims Payments Scheme in Northern Ireland following the passage of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Act 2019.

The Question was considered in a Virtual Proceeding via video call.

The Government take this matter most seriously and we are extremely disappointed by the current delay. The Secretary of State has written to and had meetings with the First Minister and Deputy First Minister on this issue and we have been offering and providing all appropriate support to help progress this scheme. Victims have waited too long for these payments. The Government provided a legislative framework for this, and the Executive must deliver.

The Victims Commissioner for Northern Ireland wrote to the Prime Minister and the First and Deputy First Ministers yesterday, urging a resolution. Many of these victims have felt immeasurable pain, trauma and grief over many years. I know some of them, and they felt a sense of relief last year when the legislation was enacted in Parliament for the victims pension scheme. But their hopes were dashed again last week when the scheme was not implemented on 29 May. Can the Minister say when it will be implemented? Will he use his good offices with the Secretary of State, the Prime Minister and the First and Deputy First Ministers to ensure that that happens? Will he also ensure that the funding will become available from the British Government, that the timescale for the regulations and the scheme will be published, and that relief will be brought at long last to these long-suffering victims, whom I entirely support?

I am totally in line with the frustrations expressed by the noble Baroness. This delay is extremely disappointing, which is why the Secretary of State, the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister and parties are working with a great degree of urgency to take things forward.

My Lords, victims and survivors who have campaigned for so long and with such dignity will be rightly angry and devastated by the latest setback. Does my noble friend agree that, going right back to the 2014 Stormont House agreement, it was always envisaged that any scheme for victims’ payments would be administered by the Northern Ireland Executive and financed through the substantial block grant that they receive? Will he now ask our right honourable friend the Secretary of State to meet again with the First and Deputy First Ministers as a matter of urgency, so that this issue can be resolved without any further delay?

Indeed. My noble friend is right that the funding of the scheme is to come from the block grant, to be “Barnettised”; this is a devolved matter, and devolved matters are funded through the block grant. He is also right that the Northern Ireland Executive committed to finding a way forward on this matter as far back as 2014. I will certainly pass on the message about the meetings, but I reassure my noble friend that they are happening at different levels, particularly the most senior ones; one happened only yesterday between the Secretary of State and the First Minister and Deputy First Minister.

My Lords, what is needed is for the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland urgently to break the deadlock with Northern Ireland’s First and Deputy First Ministers over their shameful failure by last Friday, 29 May, as required under the 2019 Act, to begin processing and paying pensions quickly to savagely disabled victims of terrorist attacks. Surely it will be a terrible failure of politics if these elderly, vulnerable victims are forced to judicial review to make Northern Ireland’s Ministers honour their legal obligations.

I certainly acknowledge the role that the noble Lord played in this process in bringing forward Section 10(2) of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act. I repeat: this delay is extremely disappointing, and we are doing our utmost to move this forward. I can reassure the noble Lord that the Secretary of State has it at the top of his priority list. He is dealing with it, with the Ministers, with a great degree of urgency.

My Lords, addressing the funding for the pension remains the immediate and fundamental issue, but will the Minister acknowledge and welcome the indication from the Northern Ireland Justice Minister, Naomi Long, that she is willing to administer the scheme subject to the Executive Office agreeing to designate her department?

Yes, I take note of that. Part of the disappointment alluded to by the noble Lord was the fact that a department has not been designated to deliver the scheme. Of course, from that come issues such as staffing, premises, resources and, frankly, getting the payments to the most important people in this matter: the victims themselves.

Will the Minister accept from me that the current stalemate is not only causing great hardship to victims but raises serious questions about the nature of a devolved settlement? On the basis of my years of experience working with victims in Northern Ireland, will the Minister agree with me that Her Majesty’s Government have a moral obligation to ensure an end to this stalemate as soon as possible?

Yes, the noble and right reverend Lord is right. I am in no doubt and it is clear that the hurt and the suffering caused by decades of terrible violence have had a profound and deep-rooted impact on individuals and generations of families in Northern Ireland. As regards morality, the moral duty is implicit on all who are involved. Again—I know the Secretary of State would be nodding as I say this—I urge all parties to get together as soon as possible and expedite these payments.

Noble Lords will recall the great efforts we went to in order to ensure that the payments could be made at the very earliest date. That date has now passed, and frankly that is shameful. We knew how much it was going to cost and the cost of administering it, and we have let the ball slip through our fingers. It is imperative now that the Secretary of State meets them urgently. This should be resolvable this week. Every single day is a day too long for those poor victims.

That is right; my noble friend echoes what I have been saying. To clarify, the UK Government made the legislation establishing a victims payments scheme in January. They did so both to fulfil their legal obligation under the Act and because they are committed to doing what they can to progress the scheme, which has been delayed by political disagreements for too long. We must put those political disagreements to one side and go ahead as soon as possible and make these payments.

My Lords, I have listened carefully to the Minister—I assume that the victims in Northern Ireland are also listening—and he does not give me any great confidence that next week, all the processes will be in place, a Minister will be in place to deal with this, and it will happen. It is all very well saying that it is the fault of the Northern Ireland Executive; they say it is the fault of the UK Government. If I were a victim, I would want to bang their heads together to get a solution. Even though the Minister is not the Northern Ireland Minister himself, can he listen to the noble Lord, Lord Duncan, a former Northern Ireland Minister in the House of Lords, and do everything possible—not just warm words—to make this happen?

Yes, of course. I acknowledge the noble Baroness’s role in past matters dealing with victims. She will know that I am giving as much reassurance as I possibly can. This is being dealt with now, as a matter of urgency. I say again: it is not just disappointing but very frustrating for all concerned, particularly the victims, that these payments have been delayed.

My noble friend will be aware that the blame for this lies with the Northern Ireland Executive Office. On 24 February, it failed to appoint a department or board, and concealed this fact from victims until just over a week ago. Sinn Féin is trying to link the payments to include those injured by their own hand. That is the reality. Will the Government guarantee that if this obfuscation continues, Westminster will take over responsibility and make appropriate deductions from the block grant as required to ensure that the scheme proceeds immediately?

I acknowledge the noble Lord’s experience in these matters. I am not in a position to give any guarantees but, again, I wish to assure all concerned that this is a matter of great urgency.

In January, the then Secretary of State, Julian Smith, said that the

“discussions and delay of the past few years have gone on long enough … The time has come to get this done and deliver for those people who will benefit most.”

Yet here we are. This House has a real stake in this issue. Does the Minister recognise that this is a UK-wide issue, as the commissioner pointed out today, because terrorists have murdered and maimed people right across the UK? Surely that reinforces the need for the UK Government to take a lead on funding, to break the deadlock and to ensure that compensation is delivered at the earliest opportunity in the next few days.

The noble Lord is right. Different parties have been involved in this. I want to make it clear that the UK Government have played a strong role in taking this forward, and I reiterate that the Northern Ireland Executive made certain pledges back in 2014. I also reiterate that it is now up to the Northern Ireland Executive to take this matter forward.

My Lords, the Explanatory Memorandum to the Victims’ Payments Regulations states:

“The scheme will take a victim-centred approach”.

We must ensure that that is the case. The Explanatory Memorandum also states that the scheme

“will assist applicants by sourcing relevant evidence”.

That is also important. Further, it is important that the scheme has clear guiding principles and that staff maintain a fair, proportionate and transparent victim-centred approach to meet the needs of victims and survivors effectively. Have these principles been formulated? If so, where can one find them? Finally, what staff, if any, have been recruited so that the funding payments can be issued as soon as this is resolved?

The noble Baroness hits directly on the frustrations that we have at the moment. As we know, there is an obligation to set up a board, which, with the individuals appointed to it, will make judgments on the victims and get into the details. However, until we have a designated department and there is a chain reaction to set up these important processes —again, this must be done as a matter of urgency—we will not go forward quickly. We must do so.

My Lords, the Minister will have detected the unanimous view that this situation must be resolved—and resolved quickly. Indeed, he may have read my noble friend Lord Hain’s speech on the Northern Ireland banknote order from last night, which put the case very powerfully and persuasively. I have two questions. Will Citizens Advice or a similar independent agency be set up to assist people in making applications and following through with the provision of medical evidence? Secondly, will the Government or the Northern Ireland Executive make legal aid available for applicants in Northern Ireland?

Those two questions were precise. I happened to listen to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Hain, last night; like today, I was left in no doubt about the strength of feeling. I will need to write to the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, with the specific detail on Citizens Advice and his second question.

My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has elapsed. The Virtual Proceedings will now adjourn until a convenient point after 12.30 pm for the Motion in the name of the noble Viscount, Lord Younger of Leckie.

Virtual Proceeding suspended.