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Northern Ireland: Victims’ Payment Scheme

Volume 809: debated on Wednesday 20 January 2021

Private Notice Question

Tabled by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure that payments are made to victims of the Troubles in Northern Ireland under the Victims’ Payment Scheme; and what discussions they have had with the Northern Ireland Executive about the delivery of the Scheme.

My Lords, the Secretary of State has made clear the high priority that he places on having the victims’ payment scheme open and receiving applications as soon as possible. He has committed to continuing to engage with Executive Ministers to this end. Officials also continue to support the Northern Ireland Executive on delivery of the scheme, which victims have waited too long for. The UK Government have always been clear that the devolved funding settlement means that the Executive is funded through the block grant, together with its own revenue-raising capabilities, to deliver its statutory responsibilities, including this scheme.

My Lords, on Monday, the Sinn Féin Finance Minister at Stormont produced a draft budget for the next financial year. In that budget, there was nil provision for payment of these pensions. I know that Sinn Féin is opposed to this scheme and had to be dragged kicking and screaming through the courts, but the main people we must focus on are the victims, whose trauma has been exacerbated throughout the struggle over the payment of these pensions. They have had to go to court once already; they may very well have to do so again. The situation is intolerable.

Having passed the legislation to ensure that these people are recompensed for these life-changing events over many years, surely we have a national responsibility to ensure that this pension is paid, and paid on time. Applications are due to start in March, yet there is no provision and no agreement. We are playing political football here. Can the Minister assure the House that these pensions will be paid in the next financial year; that applications will be accepted in March; and that this nonsense will come to an end before more people are traumatised?

Indeed. I listened carefully to the noble Lord’s comments. As he knows, the UK Government made legislation to establish a victims’ payment scheme, both to fulfil their legal obligation and because they are committed to doing what they can to progress a scheme that has for too long been delayed by political disagreements, as the noble Lord alluded to.

On the amount, it is not clear how much money is required. That is something for Naomi Long and the justice board to work through. I know that she has been working extremely hard to gain an estimate of the figures—that is, the numbers involved and the amounts that might need to be paid out.

My Lords, does the Secretary of State not understand that, by refusing seriously to discuss with the Northern Ireland Executive the funding of the Troubles permanent disablement payment scheme —so far, the only piece of successful legislation on legacy passed by this Government and which originated in this House—the scheme could be stillborn, and the shameful failure to deliver payments to which those severely injured through no fault of their own are legally entitled will cast a toxic cloud over any future efforts to deal with other legacy aspects of Northern Ireland’s violent past?

Again, the noble Lord makes a good point. It is hugely frustrating that the formal designation of a department to lead on delivering the scheme took so long; in fact, as he will know, it took a court case to get that designation in 2020. However, we have that now and the Department of Justice is working very hard to put the systems in place to do what the noble Lord said: to get the payments to victims.

My Lords, the current very public stalemate is causing great distress and anxiety to many of the victims who hoped to benefit from this scheme. Does the Minister agree with what the Northern Ireland Justice Minister, Naomi Long, said yesterday:

“I will leave no stone unturned in terms of trying to get a resolution to this … We do not want to let the victims down at this late stage, given the good progress that has been made”?

Does he therefore acknowledge that engaging with the Northern Ireland Executive and holding the joint meeting requested by them would do much to help make progress?

I agree with the noble Baroness’s comments in terms of the comments made by Naomi Long, who, again, is working extremely hard to put systems in place, establish the necessary resources and hire the appropriate experienced people. This is what is required to get to the right point. We hope that the month of March will be the launch pad from which payments can be made to victims.

My Lords, what is the current understanding between the UK Government and the Northern Ireland Executive as to who is responsible for funding this scheme? During my time in the Northern Ireland Office, it was clearly a devolved competence. Does my noble friend agree that, out of a block grant of some £15 billion, it ought to be perfectly realistic to expect the Sinn Féin Finance Minister to find the money for these long-overdue payments?

I touched on this earlier. As my noble friend will know, the funding for the scheme is to come from the block grant. The regulations provide for the Executive Office to provide funding to the department responsible for supporting the victims’ payments board. The devolved funding settlement means that the Executive are funded through the block grant—which, by the way, is £14.1 billion for 2020-21—together with Northern Ireland’s own revenue-raising capabilities to fund their statutory responsibilities.

My Lords, victims’ uncertainty must be removed as soon as possible. I am glad that the Government, working with us in the last Parliament, put the legislation in place for these pensions and ensured that they would go only to innocent victims, because terrorists and their victims should never be equated. Since many people throughout the United Kingdom are eligible under this scheme, not just those based in Northern Ireland, does the Minister agree that the Government have a national duty in relation to its financing because of the recipients, who are likely to be in receipt of benefits and pensions? Does he also agree that the Sinn Féin Finance Minister in Northern Ireland needs to step up and work constructively to find solutions so that the victims get the compensation that they deserve?

I agree with the noble Lord. The victims, some of whom have suffered horrific injuries and endured great trauma, have been waiting for too long. As he will know, it will be up to Naomi Long and her board to decide on eligibility for payments. I have no doubt that she has in mind those who will apply from not just Northern Ireland but Great Britain.

My Lords, we all understand that the pandemic is dominating everything in Northern Ireland, including affecting the victims of the Troubles, but time is running out for many of these men and women. This matter is now very urgent. Will the Minister go back to the Secretary of State and ask him personally to deal with it—especially the issue of finance—including through a meeting with the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister?

I take the noble Lord’s point but I see no need to do that because the Secretary of State is fully engaged on this matter. As the noble Lord will know, he regards this as a key priority. He continues to do what he can to support the Northern Ireland Executive to be sure that the money is paid to victims as soon as possible.

My Lords, first, I must declare an interest, having been a victim of an assassination attempt in Northern Ireland. I will not be seeking any benefit from this scheme.

People have been waiting far too long to benefit from this scheme. Many lost limbs or their eyesight, and they are getting older. Time is running out, and this should be a matter of urgency for the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and for the Northern Ireland Executive. It seems to me that the Minister of Finance in Northern Ireland is delaying action because he wants those who were terrorists and were victims in the campaign in Northern Ireland also to benefit. It is a political gesture by the Minister of Finance. That must not be the way to make progress. When the Secretary of State says, “Stop this nonsense”, he is really saying that it is a matter for the block grant and the Stormont Executive. Will the block grant be increased accordingly because of this scheme? Alternatively, can the Secretary of State take control of this scheme and issue the benefits from Westminster, which originally passed the legislation?

First, I am very well aware that the noble Lord was caught up in the Troubles. I will not be drawn on some of the comments he made, but as I said earlier in response to the question from my noble friend Lord Cain, Northern Ireland received a block grant of £14.1 billion for 2021-22 and the Northern Ireland Executive will receive an additional £918 million on top of the Northern Ireland baseline, so the funding is there. Of course, as the noble Lord will know, however much is required to respond to applications from victims, that is spread over more than a decade.

My Lords, should not both the Northern Ireland Office and the Northern Ireland Executive hang their heads in shame at the unconscionable delay in implementing a scheme for which both Houses of Parliament have repeatedly called? Is it not disgraceful that while Ministers squabble, people are dying without the compensation that is their due? If the new UK Government/Northern Ireland Executive board cannot sort out problems such as this, what is it for?

I can only repeat to my noble friend that, as he well knows, it is up to the Northern Ireland Executive to take this forward. The Secretary of State is, and always has been, firmly committed to seeing the introduction of this scheme and payments being made to victims who have waited far too long, as I have said. We will continue to prioritise the Executive’s delivery of them. Finally, I hope I have given reassurance that Naomi Long and her team are working hard and fast and are making very good progress.

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that there is an important vacancy, namely that of the Victims Commissioner for Northern Ireland, so there is nobody to speak out on behalf of victims or to apply pressure to the Executive or whoever is holding this up? What will the Minister do to ensure that the Victims Commissioner is appointed as soon as possible?

I am aware that a Victims Commissioner has not yet been appointed. That process is under way, but I reassure the noble Lord that that is not delaying any process to pay out money to victims.

My Lords, the Minister said that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is fully engaged in this matter. Will the Minister ensure that the Secretary of State accelerates that level of engagement and has an immediate meeting with the First and Deputy First Ministers, the Minister of Finance and the Minister for Justice to find a solution —perhaps a hybrid solution whereby the Government provide the up-front initial funding, with the Northern Ireland Executive providing for the ongoing annual costs?

I am sure that the Secretary of State will be listening and I will certainly pass that on. However, I again reassure the noble Baroness that the Secretary of State has regular meetings with the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister and, where necessary, the Irish Government on many matters, including this one. That is ongoing. It is important that he does his bit, which he is doing, to encourage the Northern Ireland Executive, whose responsibility it is, to take things forward.

My Lords, I do not doubt for a moment the integrity or determination of the Secretary of State, having spoken to him last week, but this is a scandal. The people in Northern Ireland have prevaricated and procrastinated and while that has been going on, people have been dying. For many, it is too late already. Has the time not come for prime ministerial involvement here? Will my noble friend please pass on that suggestion because we need to break this logjam immediately?

I take note of my noble friend’s comment, but what counts is what is happening on the ground. Naomi Long and her board are taking forward the necessary processes to ensure that applications are made available to those victims who wish to apply.