Scottish Legislative Consent withheld, Northern Ireland Legislative Consent sought.
44K: Giving family members a role in whether immunity should be granted or not would critically undermine the effectiveness of delivering on the principal aim of this legislation.
My Lords, last week your Lordships sent this legislation back to the other place after agreeing an opposition amendment with a majority of 11 votes. This was overturned the following day by the elected House by a majority of 83. It followed the rejection of an earlier amendment passed by this House with a majority of 92. I fully accept that this House has exercised its legitimate constitutional role by asking the other place to reconsider. It has done so and very decisively answered on both occasions with overwhelming majorities. I therefore respectfully hope that your Lordships now agree to this Bill being passed, over one year and two months since I introduced it.
The legacy Bill introduced to the other place at the start of the Session last year took on a very different form to the Bill before us today. The changes brought about by the Government and extensively influenced by your Lordships over the course of the Bill’s passage mean that the Bill that I hope will receive Royal Assent is a more robust piece of legislation, designed to deliver better outcomes for victims and survivors of the Troubles. The current mechanisms for addressing legacy matters work for only a very small number of people rather than the overwhelming majority and where established criminal justice processes are increasingly unlikely to deliver the outcomes that people desire, particularly in respect of prosecutions. This legislation will provide more information to more people in a shorter timeframe than is possible under current mechanisms.
Should this Bill become law, which I hope it will, it is for the commission that it establishes to build on the framework that the legislation provides by developing, independently of the UK Government, clear structures, guidance and protocols regarding how it will work in practice. However, the new commission will need time to do this. While I recognise that this has been a difficult process, I encourage everybody to give Sir Declan Morgan KC and his team a fair wind, to demonstrate that the commission can deliver effectively for families. The UK Government will provide whatever support that they can in this endeavour while of course respecting the operational independence of the commission, which has been significantly strengthened by your Lordships’ House. I hope that others can do the same. I beg to move.
It has been a long time—well over a year, as the Minister said—and I continue to say that I do not blame the Government for one second for trying to resolve what is a hugely difficult issue. Of course they were right to do so, but they do not have the answer.
My right honourable friend the new shadow Secretary for Northern Ireland, Hilary Benn—I welcome him to his post and, incidentally, pay tribute to Peter Kyle, who did a great job over a couple of years—said in the Commons last week, quite rightly, that the Government have made changes that all of us welcome, including this House, but it simply is not enough.
The Minister mentioned the Divisions we have had in the last few weeks. Twice, this House—the majorities might not have been huge, but they were majorities nevertheless—has asked the House of Commons to look again at the central controversial issue of the Bill, which is conditional immunity. He is right, of course, that ultimately we have to give way to the elected House, but that does not alter the fact that this is a friendless Bill. In effect, it has no support in Northern Ireland at all. All my experience of Northern Ireland over the years is that, where there is no support for a Bill such as this, from all communities in Northern Ireland, it will not work. There should have been consensus.
The Government should put the Bill on hold—put it on ice, if you like. Wait until there is a restored Assembly and Executive. When we debate other issues affecting Northern Ireland on Thursday, we will perhaps hear that there has been progress on the possibility of restoration. The right place for this to be debated and discussed is Belfast, not London, so put it on hold. If that does not happen, a future Labour Government will undoubtedly repeal this legislation.
My Lords, I concur with the noble Lord, Lord Murphy. I question the Minister on the wording of the Commons reason, which is very short:
“Giving family members a role in whether immunity should be granted or not would critically undermine the effectiveness of delivering on the principal aim of this legislation”.
Could the Minister explain what the principal aim of this legislation is? Many of us feel that the motivation underlying it is one of the reasons why it has attracted total opposition from all sections of the population and all the political parties in Northern Ireland.
This House was trying to ensure that families and victims have more say in the process. I absolutely concur with the Minister that he has extended his offices, to a very generous degree, with a desire to try to engage people. It is true that the Bill has been substantially improved from what it set out to be, but it does not satisfy anybody any more than it did at the beginning. Serious questions remain as to whether it accords with international human rights. We know that the Government believe it does, but others disagree. Sir Declan himself has said that he would welcome legal challenges. I referred to that the other day, as there is still a concern that the Bill may become an Act and then be subject to legislation or court action that could undermine its effectiveness.
That said, at this stage, we have exercised the debate and stated our view. The Commons has decided to persist and, in these circumstances, we are bound to accept its view.
My Lords, it is very difficult to achieve unanimity in politics in Northern Ireland, yet the Government inadvertently seem to have achieved that through this legislation, in that all political parties, Churches and, as far as I am aware, victims groups in Northern Ireland are opposed to it. We may question the motivation behind some of that opposition, and with good measure, in particular that coming from Sinn Féin, which in its past was the victim maker. For particular selfish reasons, it has a jaundiced view of this and is opposed to it through false motivation. Nevertheless, there is a strong consensus in Northern Ireland that this is the wrong way to go.
The Bill remains fundamentally rotten. There was a good attempt, by the Opposition which put forward this amendment, at least to flag up the role of victims and give them some direct say. As was said in the previous debate, that, in and of itself, would not have made a bad Bill good, but it would at least have been a step in the right direction.
Unfortunately, we are now left with the situation that, despite the voices from all sides of this Chamber, yet again our amendment has been rejected by the House of Commons. It is deeply disappointing that both the Government and a majority of MPs have not listened to what has been said. We are therefore about to pass legislation that, whatever slight improvements have been made to it, fundamentally lets down victims and creates a situation in which justice is corrupted. The reason given for the rejection of this amendment—that it would in some way taint the process and prevent a successful outcome—is a false promise, because we all know that the paramilitary organisations will not simply give up the information. So we are doing all this for no material gain whatever for the victims.
This is a deeply dark day for democracy and for this House. Clearly, we are left with a situation where the Commons remains unconvinced. If the Opposition do not push this to a Division, we will be left with a fait accompli which we will all come to regret.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Weir. Noble Lords have been consistent across the House in their opposition to the contents of this Bill, which I believe are deeply iniquitous. For me, they represent a denial of basic human rights—access to justice and truth, the very things that victims and survivors have yearned for over many years.
I am deeply disappointed that the Commons, on a majority vote, rejected our reasonable amendment, which was supported across this House last week. None the less, I do not think that the issue will be resolved by this Bill. I believe that Sir Declan and his commissioners will meet many legal challenges; in fact, he invited them in his Irish News interview on Monday 28 August, which suggests that he might have doubts about this process.
Notwithstanding that, this House has stood solidly and steadfastly with the victims and survivors. I was disappointed again when I heard the Secretary of State in an interview a few days ago, as he did not seem to reflect on, think about, empathise with or sympathise with the views of victims. He simply dismissed them. This was another denial of their right to justice and human rights. Always remember that victims of the Troubles have suffered immeasurably in many ways, whether physically or mentally, over a long period, through the loss of loved ones.
So, we still disagree with this Bill. I am pleased that my honourable friend the Shadow Secretary of State has indicated that a future Labour Government will repeal the Act. I look forward to that day, because I know where I stand: it is with the victims and survivors, right across the board.
My Lords, I rise to speak in opposition to the Government’s removal of the opportunity for family members of those who died in the Troubles to play a role in the decision as to whether immunity should be granted under the Bill. Accepting your Lordships’ amendment would have given victims the opportunity, at least, to have a role in the decision as to whether to grant murderers immunity for the murder of their loved one.
Today is a terrible day for the people of the United Kingdom and for the rule of law in the United Kingdom. It is a day of shame. It is the day on which Parliament is legislating to remove from people across the UK who were victims of the Troubles access, in accordance with the rule of law and our international legal obligations, to criminal prosecutions, civil actions for damages for loss and injury caused, and to inquests. Moreover, His Majesty’s Government are forcing through not only these restrictions but their immunity clause, despite the fact that, as the Secretary of State said most recently,
“There are no guarantees that the Bill will bring information forward”—[Official Report, Commons, 6/9/23; col. 439.]
How do your Lordships think the people of Northern Ireland and the other victims of the Troubles across Great Britain felt on hearing those words? At least the current system had been gradually providing verifiable and accurate information for victims, despite the best efforts of those who sought to limit access to information. The Secretary of State said yesterday that, despite the widespread opposition to the legacy Bill from politicians and victims, he has not been presented with an alternative option. This is untrue. The Government have been presented with alternatives during the passage of the Bill which included a fully empowered independent commission that would have investigated in compliance with all our legal obligations. Those alternatives have all been rejected by the Government, who have used their parliamentary majority to force through this iniquitous Bill against the wishes of every political party, community group, victims’ group, human rights organisation, et cetera. Nobody in Northern Ireland and nobody among the GB victims’ groups wants this law.
On this day, His Majesty’s Government are using their parliamentary majority to force through a Bill that is already subject to challenge in the courts. There is now tremendous pressure on the party in opposition to live up to its commitment to repeal the Bill if it wins the next election. Even more, there is huge international pressure on the Irish Government to institute legal proceedings in the European Court of Human Rights in respect of the UK’s failure to comply with its legal obligations under the treaty. I very much hope that they will bring those proceedings.
A country which does not respect the rule of law and its international legal obligations loses its legitimacy in the wider world. In passing this Bill, the United Kingdom is not, as His Majesty’s Government have claimed, seeking to provide truth and reconciliation for the people of Northern Ireland and for all the victims of the Troubles across the United Kingdom. The noble Lord, Lord Bruce, asked a very pertinent question, and I hope the Minister will reply to it. The effect of this Bill is to restrict access to legal remedies, which are enjoyed by everybody else in the United Kingdom, for that small and unfortunate group of victims, several thousand in number, who suffered so terribly during the Troubles. I cannot support this amendment.
My Lords, in my years of service to this House I cannot think of an occasion when sadness, disillusionment and indeed anger pressed upon me to the extent they do today. Over the months we have worked to try to improve this Bill, I have listened to many highly technical speeches based on great parliamentary experience. But to that I have to add one other element today which it has been my sad duty to bring to the attention of this House over that period.
It is to tell noble Lords that the word “victimhood” has become so used that we have lost sight of what or who a victim is. A victim exists with a picture on the mantelpiece. A victim exists with frequent visits to a hospital for treatment. A victim exists in the grandmother trying to explain to grandchildren what happened to members of that family. A victim is one who believed at one stage that the mother of Parliaments would understand their dilemma.
I have paid tribute on several occasions to the Minister for his patience in dealing with this issue, but I have to say this afternoon that he has not gone far enough. The feeling of sadness which overwhelms me is based on my many years of service to victims—to the men, women and children who were the real sufferers of our Troubles. I cannot get them out of my mind at this moment: the funerals, the addresses at funerals, the comfort in the hospital ward or beside a bedside. That is the whole background: the human side of “victim”. The human side is an ageing population who have been through the Troubles, and who now, by the passage of time, have looked with some hope to what we were going to pass in Parliament.
Way back, all those years ago, when Denis Bradley and I were asked to make the first attempt at dealing with the combined reconciliation and legacy issue, we set out on a journey which ends at this moment, in your Lordships’ House, so my feelings run very deep. Irrespective of the Opposition’s assurance that they will repeal this legislation one day if they are in power, and irrespective of the politics of it all, I speak of the broken hearts, the broken bodies and the irreconcilable issues that face ordinary decent people. I think of the members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the Ulster Defence Regiment, the civilians, caught up in this. I think of the work in hospital wards by dedicated doctors and nurses, and I can still hear in my mind the drumbeat of the procession to the grave. I say to the Government: surely, they have brought us not to a crossroads but to the edge of a cliff, and Northern Ireland is tottering at the edge.
My Lords, I am grateful, as always, to those who have spoken. I do not intend to follow the current fashion for making yet another Second Reading speech at this stage of the legislation’s proceedings. I will just pick up one point made by the noble Lord, Lord Murphy of Torfaen, when he referred to the role of the Northern Ireland Assembly in all this. He will recall that it was the Northern Ireland Executive, back in 2013, that invited Richard Haass and Meghan O’Sullivan in to try to deal with issues related to past flag parading. Of course, no consensus was forthcoming on that occasion. As I have reminded the House on so many occasions, the reason we ended up dealing with these issues as the UK Government and in Westminster is that after the Stormont House agreement, it was the then First Minister and Deputy First Minister who came to the Secretary of State and said that it was far too difficult for them to do in Stormont and asked us to do it in Westminster.
The noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Bennachie, asked me about the motivation for the legislation and what it is designed to achieve. I touched on this last week and in my comments in moving this Motion. It is primarily to get more information to victims and survivors of the Troubles about what happened to their loved ones, in a far shorter timeframe than we feel is possible under the current legacy mechanisms. It is about information recovery, where people want to access that information. That is the motivation behind the legislation. It is now incumbent on us to pass the Bill and give Sir Declan Morgan and his team the opportunity to make this a reality and to deliver for victims and survivors of the Troubles.
Motion A agreed.