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Northern Ireland: Victims Payment Scheme

Volume 805: debated on Thursday 24 September 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what recent engagements they have had with victim groups in Northern Ireland on the Troubles-related incident victims payment scheme.

My Lords, it is clear, through engagement with victims and survivors, that the hurt and suffering caused by decades of terrible violence have had a profound and deep-rooted impact on individuals and generations of families in Northern Ireland. Ministerial and official-level engagement with victims’ groups took place throughout the consultation period for the victims payment scheme and has continued throughout this year, since the publication of the regulations in January and the publication of guidance on 14 August.

Given that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland changed the victims’ pension scheme, expanding eligibility to potentially thousands more victims than originally anticipated, and that the NIO made the regulations and guidance, surely the Treasury rule that the department responsible for the policy is responsible for funding should apply. In view of standing by victims, when will Government provide the funding?

My Lords, the Executive committed to delivering such a scheme six years ago, and the UK Government have provided generous financial support to the Northern Ireland Executive. The funding of the scheme, as the noble Baroness will know, is to come from the block grant. It is a devolved matter, and devolved matters are traditionally funded from this particular part.

My Lords, the victims payment scheme must be implemented without further delay or obstacles, but the seriously injured victims themselves must be fully involved in the process. It is now almost a year since the scheme was established, and it was supposed to have opened over four months ago. Many of the victims are now elderly. They must not be denied financial security; the wait must now be over.

Absolutely, the noble Baroness makes a very good point. That is why it is up to the Northern Ireland Executive to move forward as fast as they can to honour the payments that should be made to the victims; that is for the Executive, not the UK Government.

My Lords, it was deplorable that Sinn Féin was allowed to hold this pensions scheme up for so long, and some victims have suffered serious financial loss because of the long delay in establishing the scheme. For many victims, the worry is that the scheme could be further frustrated by the lack of funding. The major part of the funding, of course, will come from the Northern Ireland Executive. However, let me say to the Minister that the Northern Ireland Executive will not have all the funding for this scheme. As the scheme will apply right across the United Kingdom, will the Treasury also provide some funding? I think it is the Treasury’s duty to part-fund this particular scheme, because it goes right across this United Kingdom.

As I said earlier, we believe that the funding is adequate, and the funding of the scheme, as I say, comes from the block grant. Of course, I should make the point that we are not entirely sure yet how much is required. That is a matter for the board to take forward and understand: the number of victims and how much is required.

My Lords, would not the Government be widely applauded if they made the money required available? It is not a colossal sum, compared with recent increases in public spending in Northern Ireland. This would put pressure on the Northern Ireland Executive and earn the gratitude of truly heroic people who have been waiting for their pensions for far too long.

My noble friend is right; they have been waiting for far too long. I reiterate—again—that the funding is there, and it always was there. The delay was entirely up to the parties that had failed, up until recently, to agree the way forward. Now we are making some progress with the designation of the department. Funding is there, and that has never been—and is not now—a block.

My Lords, I add my voice from these Benches to the issue of long-term funding. As other noble Lords have said, victims have waited far too long for this scheme to come into being, and the non-designation of a department caused unnecessary delay to victims. I press the Minister one more time: will he commit to securing the long-term funding that is so desperately needed to move forward?

I think this must be the third or fourth question on this matter; I believe I have answered that. The funding is there, and there are other ways in which this goes forward, but the funding is not a block.

My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Hay of Ballyore, I deplore the way in which Sinn Féin has frustrated this scheme. Does my noble friend agree that Sinn Féin’s obstructionism of victims’ payments is part of a broader narrative on its part that seeks to rewrite the history of the Troubles and legitimise the activities of the Provisional IRA? Will he confirm that this Government will always resist any such attempts to rewrite history in this way, and will never accept any kind of equivalence between the victims and perpetrators of terrorism, and indeed the perpetrators of terrorism and the security forces?

I believe my noble friend is alluding to the guidance we have published recently. The guidance will support the independent board, whose job it is to decide on what payments are made and to whom. I reiterate to my noble friend that the UK is, and remains, fundamentally opposed to the notion of terrorists receiving compensation. We have clarified that the guidance does not apply to people injured by their own hand.

My Lords, the payments scheme was due to open in May this year, and it is now September. With the judge’s scathing ruling regarding the Executive’s delay of the scheme, and with the Justice Minister estimating—even before the new swathes of Covid restrictions now in place—that it will take until March 2021 for the administration of the scheme to be set up, can the Minister say if victims will be compensated for payments lost during the delay period?

The noble Lord raises a very important point about timing, and the Justice Minister said recently, as the noble Lord may know, that it is anticipated that the scheme could be open for applications by early March 2021. The noble Lord and I would say, “Let us see whether we can do better than that.” What needs to be done, beyond the designation of the department, is to set up the independent board—which is beginning—the processes and IT systems, and the staffing and resources leading to the application process. Some work has been done on this latter point, but much work needs to be done. We hope that it is sooner than March.

My Lords, funding from the Government is, of course, vital to the success of this new scheme, but so is funding for the wonderful Warrington peace centre, set up to help victims of terrorism. Tim Parry, who was killed by the IRA in 1993, would have been 40 this year, and it would be tragic to see this very important service ended. Can the Minister assure the House that the Prime Minister’s promise, made in March, to help this centre will now be honoured?

I remember the tragic story of Tim Parry. I remember it very clearly; we all do. I will need to write to the noble Lord about that, but I see no reason at all to say that things have changed. I would like to just confirm in writing that the honour of this funding will be there.

I now call the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Bennachie. Lord Bruce, you need to switch your thing on—I think we will go to the next questioner, and come back to you, Lord Bruce. I now call the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Ladyton.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that in circumstances where there is no Victims’ Commissioner, and where politics and politicians have failed these victims for a long period of time, the UK Government have a duty to amplify the voices of victims so that they are heard above the partisan political point-scoring that goes on around their issues? One way to achieve this would be for the relevant Ministers to meet publicly with victims to call for the quickest possible payment of their entitlement, while privately advocating for the necessary funding that the payment demands.

I remember that I answered a Question in June, and I made the point that every effort was being made by the Secretary of State to get the parties together to make progress on this particularly important matter. That has now begun to happen; I, and others, would say that it is too slow, but we are now at the point where a department has been designated, and I am pleased to say that progress is being made.

My Lords, I am afraid the time allowed for this Question has elapsed. We now move to the third Oral Question.