Skip to main content

Northern Ireland: Payments to Victims of the Troubles

Volume 806: debated on Tuesday 6 October 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress they have made in the delivery of payments to victims of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

My Lords, the UK Government brought forward legislation establishing a victims’ payment scheme in January. They did so both to fulfil their legal obligation and because they are committed to doing what they can to progress a scheme that acknowledges the harm caused to those people injured through no fault of their own during the Troubles. Implementation of the scheme is a matter for the Northern Ireland Executive. We will continue to prioritise supporting the Executive’s delivery of this scheme because victims have waited too long already.

My Lords, I am conscious that, during this pandemic, these individuals will be shielding. Money should be in their hands by now and it is not. When I was pushing forward this legislation in this House, two things were clear—one, there should be backdated payments and, secondly, there should be interim payments based on a simple, basic formula. Can my noble friend confirm that these elements have not been lost sight of during this particular stage and that progress will be made in real time? Otherwise, there will be nobody to pay the money to.

My noble friend is absolutely right. Speed is of the essence, as I and other noble Lords said back in June. Now that the designation of the department has taken place, what matters is moving as quickly as possible to deliver for the victims. The Justice Minister has set out a potential timeframe and highlighted key deliverables, such as appointing members to the board and developing the IT systems and application forms.

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Duncan of Springbank was immensely energetic on this issue when he held this portfolio. It is an absolute scandal that people who deserve this money are dying by the week. Soon many more will be dead. Will my noble friend ensure that he tells the Secretary of State that he should immediately summon a meeting with the leaders of the Northern Ireland Executive to ensure that these payments are made well before Christmas?

Perhaps I can reassure my noble friend and play straight into his question. The Secretary of State is and always has been firmly committed to seeing that this scheme is introduced as speedily as possible and payments made to victims who have waited too long. He meets regularly with the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to discuss a range of important issues—and particularly this scheme as a priority.

My Lords, as noble Lords are aware, the anticipated timescale for beginning payments to the victims is spring 2021. Can the Minister tell us if the Government are committed to shortening this time? If so, how are they aiming to work with the Minister of Justice in Northern Ireland to expedite matters to achieve a quicker resolution so that victims are not waiting longer than necessary for recompense?

The Northern Ireland Office is doing its best to support the Executive in speeding up this process. I gave some indication earlier as to what is required and what has started to be done. We all very much hope that the March date can be brought forward. The Secretary of State is leading the push for greater speed.

My Lords, the Minister knows my particular interest in this issue, as a former Northern Ireland victims’ Minister. I, too, pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Duncan, who has really pushed this and shown a real commitment. Let us be clear what is happening. The reason why the Department of Justice is dealing with this issue is because the High Court said that the Northern Ireland Executive was acting unlawfully in delaying implementation of the scheme. The Minister of Justice, Naomi Long, has outlined the operational steps that need to be undertaken, but she says that not all of them are in her department’s control. There would seem to be a role for the NIO in asking for updates of what is happening and providing support to her, to try to make these other operational areas happen. What steps is the NIO taking and when was the last meeting with Naomi Long to discuss this?

The noble Baroness is right when she talks about the review. The judge made a clear ruling that the Executive Office was acting unlawfully in not designating a department. This is now happening—this process is now taking place. I cannot tell the noble Baroness precisely what is happening at this moment, but I reassure her and the House that the Northern Ireland Office continues to regard this as a priority. It is doing its best to work with the parties to take this forward and to get the payments made at the earliest opportunity.

My Lords, as the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, has pointed out, Naomi Long, the Northern Ireland Justice Minister has—to her great credit—volunteered her department for this challenging task. She says that she is determined, if possible, to progress this by an earlier date than March. But surely the Governments need to work together to overcome these challenges. This is a UK scheme. Does the Minister recognise that UK Ministers cannot walk away from either the funding or the delivery of the scheme? They will be held accountable. If funding or operation are not adequate, they will not escape the blame.

The noble Lord’s question is unnecessary. The funding is there; it has never been a block. It comes through the block grant. In the background to the funding through the block grant, the UK Government have provided very generous financial support to the Northern Ireland Executive since the start of this calendar year. This has included an additional £2 billion through the NDNA financial package and £260 million from the Budget.

My Lords, both the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, and the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, referred to meetings. My information is that the Northern Ireland Executive is seeking meetings with both the Secretary of State and the Treasury. Have those meetings taken placed or are they planned? Of course, the Treasury is reflecting on the issue of funding, the point just raised by the noble Lord, Lord Bruce. My information is that the Northern Ireland perspective is that this cannot go ahead without funding from Westminster.

In his supplementary question, the noble Lord, Lord Duncan, said that this money, in backdated and interim payments, is urgently needed. Could Westminster not find some money to at least cover some payments now to ensure that people get the compensation they desperately need?

The noble Baroness is putting cart before horse. As I said earlier, the money is there; it has never been a block. The point that I made earlier is that certain systems need to be expedited and set up by the Ministry of Justice, and we are giving it every support. Payments cannot be made until those things are done, but it is not a matter of the money not being there.

My noble friend will be aware that, during the Troubles, 1,441 brave men and women of the British Armed Forces and the Ulster Defence Regiment were murdered, as well as 319 men and women of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. They were among the bravest of the brave. Collectively, more than 20,000 of these people were injured and their families traumatised. Can my noble friend assure me that the injured and the relatives of these servicemen and women and police officers will be in the front line for any payments? After all, they were in the front line defending this country.

We should always remember all those who were caught up in the Troubles. The Northern Ireland Executive are responsible for the delivery of the scheme and for processing applications. This will be a matter for the independent board, which will consider applications carefully before expediting payments.

My Lords, the debate about the funding of the victims’ payments scheme is clearly frustrating its progress. In September, there seemed to be a suggestion that it was up to the board to assess the number of victims that will be supported by the scheme—and therefore its cost. Do the Government have their own assessment of the cost of the scheme? If so, how does the Minister know whether the funding that the UK Government have supplied is adequate?

I can give a little more detail. The noble Baroness is right: we do not know precisely the number of people caught up in the Troubles. A figure of 40,000 has come my way. Therefore, she is right that we do not have the exact figure. A figure of £800 million has been bandied about, but we believe that it is wholly in excess of what will be required. This needs to be taken forward by the board, which will make the decisions.