Commons Urgent Question
The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given on Thursday 4 June in the House of Commons.
“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 honourable Lady, my honourable 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 honourable and honourable 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.”
My Lords, all of us are deeply disappointed at the delay in compensating victims of the Troubles. Will the Government therefore now urge the Northern Ireland parties to agree to give compensation immediately to the vast majority of victims, many of whom are old and sick, and separately to resolve the problems regarding that small number of people about whom there is disagreement? Also, will the noble Viscount accept that the United Kingdom Government should take their part in sharing the funding of this vital scheme?
The noble Lord is right: we must put the victims of the Troubles at the forefront of what we are trying to do. However, I reiterate that it is up to the Northern Ireland Executive to take matters forward. I also reassure the noble Lord that, since we spoke about this subject last week, further urgent talks have been taking place between the Secretary of State, the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, and all parties. All parties, including Sinn Féin, must work closely together to take the payment processing forward.
The Government say that funding is not the issue, so can the Minister identify what part of the block grant was identified for victims’ compensation? If he is unable to do so, can he urge the Secretary of State to engage constructively with the Northern Ireland Executive to break the deadlock? Given that the scheme applies to victims across the UK, should he not use his authority to ensure that the scheme is started without any further delay or debate about the definition, for which guidance has already been provided, and given that Naomi Long the Justice Minister has indicated that her department is ready to put it into operation?
I agree with the noble Lord that huge efforts must continue to be made to get this on track. I reassure him that funding is not the issue—it is not delaying this—and the UK Government have been very generous in terms of the financial contributions connected to New Decade, New Approach; he will know that £2 billion has been set aside. So the UK Government have done their part, and it is now up to the Northern Ireland Executive, including Sinn Féin, to take the matter forward.
My Lords, as one of the negotiators of the Stormont House agreement, I share the widespread dismay over these delays to victims’ payments. Is this not entirely down to one party seeking to reopen the eligibility criteria for such payments by basing them on the badly flawed definition of a victim in the 2006 order? Does it remain the Government’s view that it would be just wrong for anybody who injured themselves while carrying out an act of terrorism, or who served a prison sentence for a terrorist offence, to receive a single penny of taxpayers’ money?
My noble friend is right, and that is set down in the regulations. We know that Sinn Féin has said that it wants to look at redefining “victim”. However, it will know, and we know, that it is already set out in the legislation. Therefore we urge Sinn Féin to put aside its differences and move forward quickly on this matter.
My Lords, since some Sinn Féin politicians either do not understand or are deliberately misrepresenting the victims payments scheme, will the Minister agree that the only category of people specifically excluded are those whose actions caused the incident in which others were severely injured? Surely only in a parallel universe could anybody seriously argue against that. The refusal of the First and Deputy First Ministers to agree on implementing the scheme, as they are legally obliged to do, is re-traumatising some of the most vulnerable victims and survivors just when, at long last, they thought justice was coming. Surely the only recourse now is for a severely injured victim and survivor to take the Executive Office to court for breaking the law under the 2019 Act?
The noble Lord is right to point out matters on the definition. Of course, it is up to the independent board—it will and must be formed as soon as a department has been designated for it—to take the definitions forward, and it will be up to it to decide the eligibility of those who apply for payments.
Will my noble friend accept that this is a standard Sinn Féin negotiating tactic? Will he give an undertaking on behalf of the Government that nobody who was injured by their own hand will benefit from this scheme and, if the stalemate continues in Belfast, will his department step in and administer the scheme themselves? These people have been subject to the most outrageous abuse and delay.
The noble Lord is right in so many ways, but neither the Northern Ireland Office nor the UK Government will step in, because this is the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Executive. That is why these urgent talks, led by the Secretary of State and including all parties, are being conducted to take this matter forward.
My Lords, I recall the sense of relief when the Government legislated for the compensation scheme for those severely disabled, physically or psychologically, in Troubles-related incidents, and I know that my noble friend and the Government are eager for these payments to start. Are there any other avenues for those who desperately need the money to pursue at this time, especially those for whom there is no doubt that they are entitled to this compensation?
I have every sympathy with what my noble friend has said. We are urgently waiting for the victims who apply for payments to have a so-called acknowledgment payment, which is likely to be decided on a sliding scale relating to the severity of their injuries. To answer my noble friend’s question, some may already have received criminal injuries compensation or money through the Victims & Survivors Service, but we urgently need this acknowledgment payment.
My Lords, post-conflict legacy issues seldom, if ever, allow solutions that satisfy everyone, and this scheme—the joint responsibility of government both in Northern Ireland and in Westminster—is no exception. In matters of legacy, I am afraid I can think of no example where executive politicians in Northern Ireland set aside politics, and I regret that there is no reason to expect them to do so in this case. Other than exhorting them to do so, which this Statement does, do the Government have an alternative plan for payment, to fulfil their responsibility to the victims who, in their own words,
“have waited too long for these payments”?
We urge all parties, where there are any, to set aside their political differences, and one party has been mentioned in this respect. We are quite clear that this is a matter for the Northern Ireland Executive to take forward, and that is because the UK Government have taken forward legislation and done as much as we can, and rightly so, to meet our obligations. It is now up to the Executive.
My Lords, will the Minister confirm whether the discussions that the Secretary of State is having with the political parties of Northern Ireland are nearing completion and the possibility of a result? Will he also confirm that it is Sinn Féin that is blocking the statement?
I cannot tell the noble Baroness how close we are to agreement; in fact I have no information to give the noble Baroness on this. I can only reiterate that the Secretary of State is well exercised over this issue and is working as hard as possible to knock heads together and take the matter forward.
My Lords, I share the expressions of dismay and disappointment of many others that the victims have not received their compensation. Will the Government, acknowledging the plurality of Northern Ireland politics, consult with other parties there that are not members of the Executive as well as with civil society? That would help to ensure that people were informed and aware of what was happening, and that kind of transparency could be useful.
The noble Baroness is right. I am sure there is strong communication about what is going on at the moment; it is very much in the news anyway. It is important that communication comes from the UK Government but also from the Northern Ireland Executive because this is a very important matter and it must be moved quickly forward.
House adjourned at 10.12 pm.