With permission, I would like to make a statement on the report by Lady Justice Hallett, which is being published today, on the scheme dealing with the so-called “on-the-runs”.
In February, Mr Justice Sweeney ruled that it would be an abuse of process to proceed with the prosecution of John Downey in connection with the Hyde park bombing on
The Downey case highlighted the administrative scheme introduced by the previous Government to deal with so-called on-the-runs. These were people who had left Northern Ireland and believed that if they returned to any part of the UK, they might be arrested in connection with terrorist offences. The Government responded to the widespread public concern expressed about the OTR scheme by establishing a judge-led, independent review of it. I am very grateful to Lady Justice Hallett for taking on that task. Anybody reading the report will be left in no doubt that she has provided us with a rigorous and comprehensive account of the scheme. The Government accept the report and all its recommendations in full.
On the central issue of whether the OTR administrative scheme gave suspected terrorists immunity from prosecution, Lady Justice Hallett is very clear. She concludes:
“The administrative scheme did not amount to an amnesty for terrorists…Suspected terrorists were not handed a ‘get out of jail free’ card”.
The Government have always been clear that if sufficient evidence emerges, individual OTRs are liable for arrest and prosecution in the normal way. So I repeat today to the people holding those letters: they will not protect you from arrest or prosecution, and should the police succeed in gathering sufficient evidence, you will be subject to the due process of law. Lady Justice Hallett sets out the origins, operation and evolution of the scheme. She agrees with successive Attorneys-General that the scheme was lawful. The last letter sent by the Northern Ireland Office was issued in December 2012, and I repeat today that, as far as this Government are concerned, the scheme is over.
The report sets out a number of serious criticisms of how the scheme operated, including significant systemic failures. Lady Justice Hallett states:
“The scheme was not designed; it evolved. As a result there was no overall policy and no overall responsibility/accountability for it”.
She says that the scheme
“lacked proper lines of responsibility, accountability and safeguards…When errors came to light opportunities were missed to rectify them…There was no risk assessment”.
In the case of Mr Downey, Lady Justice Hallett concluded, in line with the Sweeney judgment, that it was not the fact that Mr Downey was sent a letter that caused the trial to collapse, but the fact that the letter contained an incorrect and misleading statement, on which Mr Downey then relied. The report finds that if the scheme had been properly administered,
“John Downey would not have received a letter of assurance”.
She concludes that she can find no “logical explanation” of why Police Service of Northern Ireland officers failed to pass on the fact that Mr Downey was still wanted by the Metropolitan police or why they failed to correct the error once it became known.
Lady Justice Hallett finds that 13 OTRs received the royal prerogative of mercy between 2000 and 2002, and that in all cases this was to release people from having to serve some or all of the rest of their sentences. No pre-conviction pardons were issued. The report criticises the lack of a
“central register of documents recording the use of the RPM”.
While she finds
“no evidence of the UK Government actively seeking to obscure the scheme from the public,”
Lady Justice Hallett states that it
“was not given much publicity and that important groups” such as victims and their families “remained unaware” of it. The report acknowledges the great hurt and distress that this has caused to many victims. Lady Justice Hallett has found two examples of somebody receiving a letter in error, in addition to the Downey case. She has also identified 36 cases dealt with between February 2007 and November 2008 that she believes should be given priority in the exercise now under way by the PSNI to check whether the change in status from wanted to not wanted can still be justified.
The key question that has arisen is what the Government intend to do next to ensure that there are no more failed prosecutions like that of Mr Downey.
The report recommends that we now
“seek legal advice, in conjunction with the police and prosecuting authorities, to determine whether” we
“should notify any individuals whose status, as communicated to them, has changed or may change in the future” and that we
“consider how to mitigate against further abuse of process arguments, for example by confirming to recipients the factual and contemporaneous nature of their letters”.
The Government will act on these and all Lady Justice Hallett’s recommendations, and I give the House this assurance: we will take whatever steps are necessary, acting on the basis of legal advice and in conjunction with the police and prosecutors, to do everything possible to remove barriers to future prosecutions. In taking that forward, I propose to work closely with the devolved Minister of Justice.
The bulk of the report deals with decisions made by the previous Government in respect of their handling of the political process in Northern Ireland. It is not my role to speak for my Labour predecessors as Secretary of State; they are more than capable of speaking for themselves on the role they played and the decisions they took, and they have addressed the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee on these matters. But I will say this: I might not agree with every decision they made in relation to the OTR issue, but whatever differences of emphasis and approach we might have, I recognise that they were dealing with very difficult judgments in very difficult circumstances and that they were at all times acting with sincerity in seeking to move the peace process forward. I emphasise very clearly that Lady Justice Hallett has found no evidence that either politicians or officials ever interfered improperly with the due process of law or the operational independence of police or prosecutors.
The report concludes that the scheme did not impact on police investigations into historic terrorist offences. Police Service of Northern Ireland and Historical Enquiries Team files were not closed. There was no chilling effect.
It is well known that the current Government allowed the checking process to continue after we came to power in May 2010, but both I and my predecessor have been very clear: had we at any time been presented with a scheme that we thought amounted to an amnesty, immunity or exemption from prosecution, we would have stopped it immediately. That would have been consistent with the opposition of both coalition partners to the Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill, introduced by Mr Hain in 2005, which was subsequently abandoned.
This Government believe in the rule of law, and that applies across the board to everyone, without fear or favour, including those in possession of letters issued under the scheme. There are many lessons to be learned from this episode, not least of which is the crucial importance of continued efforts to find an agreement on the divisive issues of flags, parading and the past.
On dealing with the painful legacy of Northern Ireland’s past, we need a process that is transparent, accountable and balanced, puts the era of side deals firmly behind us and commands the confidence of all parts of the community in Northern Ireland. The Government remain fully committed to working with all parties in Northern Ireland in their efforts to deliver that important goal, and I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of her statement and the tone of her response. Today, as we reflect on the findings of Lady Justice Hallett’s report, it is important above all else that we remember the soldiers who lost their lives in Hyde park on that dreadful day in July 1982 and the suffering that their families continue to endure. That act was heinous and, like all terrorist atrocities, totally unjustifiable. The fact that those families are less likely to get either truth or justice will make that suffering worse. That is why the report was necessary. We have apologised for the catastrophic mistakes made specifically in the Downey case.
This inquiry is incredibly important for victims of the troubles and also for the wider public, so that we can address both legitimate concerns and frequently repeated falsehoods as we strive to build a better and shared future for Northern Ireland. We welcome Lady Hallett’s report today and accept her findings in full. Lady Hallett had limited time in which to complete her inquiry, but despite the time constraints she met more than 40 individuals and reviewed thousands of documents to prepare today’s report. We acknowledge her findings, including those that made it clear that there should have been a more systematic approach to the operation and ongoing review of the scheme.
There are lessons to be learned by both the Northern Ireland Office and the Police Service of Northern Ireland. We are of course concerned that there appear to be two other cases in which errors in letters have been identified, and Lady Hallett’s assertion that the PSNI review of cases will take years is also a source of concern. I will return to these points in my questions to the Secretary of State.
We are pleased that Lady Hallett shattered a number of myths. She makes it clear that the scheme was not unlawful, that files on terrorist offences were not closed by the PSNI and, most importantly, she states categorically on the very first page of her report that this administrative scheme was not an amnesty and nor did it ever amount to a get- out-of-jail-free card. We do not believe amnesty is the right approach to dealing with the past in Northern Ireland.
On legality, while Lady Hallett questions the structure of the scheme, she makes it clear on page 144 of the report that the administrative scheme was not unlawful. Furthermore, she goes on to say that
“the Downey ruling is confined to its own facts and is not binding on any other judge.”
On amnesty, Lady Hallett makes it clear on page 28
“that there was no question of the administrative scheme granting an alleged offender an amnesty or immunity from prosecution. It is clear from the views expressed at the time that the Attorney-General would not have agreed to the process had that been the intention or the effect. It is also clear that successive Attorneys-General maintained the same position throughout the life of the scheme.”
Finally, while Justice Hallett is right to conclude that the scheme was not secret, I acknowledge the concern of politicians and others who feel they should have been given more information about the nature and application of the scheme. This includes the First Minister and Justice Minister after the devolution of policing and justice in 2010.
I have a number of questions for the Secretary of State. On page 142, Lady Hallett identifies two further cases where letters issued might have contained errors. Can she update the House on these two cases and inform us what steps have been taken on each? Can she update us on the other inquiries commissioned back in February: the police ombudsman inquiry and the PSNI inquiry? Lady Hallett mentions these in her report and she expects the PSNI review to take “years”. Can the Secretary of State reassure us that the PSNI will be provided with the necessary resources to deliver a full and thorough process that can be concluded in a much shorter time scale?
The Secretary of State will agree that this issue of on-the-runs has opened up wider questions surrounding the use of the royal prerogative of mercy. Lady Hallett mentions on page 143 that she has
“identified no cases where the RPM was used as a pre-conviction pardon for an OTR” on the lists that she held. Can the Secretary of State update the House on the ongoing investigation about those records that have gone missing from her Department pre-1997?
Finally, and perhaps most crucially, does the Secretary of State now accept that this report reinforces rather than undermines the urgent need for a robust, transparent and comprehensive process to deal with Northern Ireland’s past? It is now clear that the UK and Irish Governments must take a far more hands-on role in supporting Northern Ireland’s political parties to reach agreement both on the past and on parades. Until this happens, one can conclude only that stalemate will prevail, leaving a dangerous vacuum that is being filled by those who seek to undermine the peace process either through political means or, worse still, a return to violence.
As the Prime Minister has said, it would be wrong to be retrospectively selective about key elements of an historic peace process that ended 30 years of violence and terror. It was an extraordinary period, which demanded historic and difficult compromises. However, as a result of that momentous agreement, Northern Ireland has been transformed, and at grassroots level, there are numerous heart-warming examples of reconciliation and normalisation across communities. These changes should never be underestimated or taken for granted.
This remarkable progress did not happen by accident or simply through the passage of time. It would never have been possible without the courageous and visionary leadership of people like David Trimble and John Hume, without the huge risks taken by Gerry Adams and Martin McGuiness in renouncing violence and accepting that the constitutional status of Northern Ireland would only ever change with the consent of the people, or without Ian Paisley Senior’s willingness to reconcile long-standing, deeply held convictions with the democratic will of the people—a position that has been taken forward by Peter Robinson. It never would have happened, of course, without the contributions of many others in Northern Ireland, including right hon. and hon. Members in their places in this Chamber today, who allowed hope to triumph over fear.
I have to say that it would never have happened without the intensive engagement of the UK and Irish Governments working together. In a UK context, John Major deserves credit for starting the process, but what was decisive was Tony Blair’s decision to expend unprecedented prime ministerial capital on achieving peace in Northern Ireland. He was supported, of course, by the extraordinary Mo Mowlam and ultra-professional Jonathan Powell, not to mention successive Secretaries of State and junior Ministers such as the late Paul Goggins, whose memorial service last night was a truly fitting tribute to a very special parliamentarian.
I have to make this point because some would like to use the controversy generated by the on-the-runs as a stick with which to beat Tony Blair and to allow legitimate public concern to distort the truth about a peace process lauded around the world. This peace process, of course, was not a perfect one—there is no such thing—but it is a peace process of which I and my party remain incredibly proud. It has saved lives and allowed the current younger generation in Northern Ireland to grow up largely free from the fear and reality of violence. Let me be clear, Mr Speaker, that this is unlikely to have happened without Tony Blair and his Government. I end by echoing the Secretary of State’s thanks to Lady Justice Hallett for her comprehensive report.
I agree with the shadow Secretary of State that this is an important opportunity to remember the victims of the Hyde Park bomb. I think it would be appropriate to read out their names. Those murdered were Lieutenant Anthony Daly, aged 23; Trooper Simon Tipper, aged 19 who died at the scene; Lance-Corporal Geoffrey Young, aged 19 who died the following day; and Squadron Quartermaster Corporal Raymond Bright, aged 36 who died two days after that. A total of 31 other people were injured, a number of them very seriously.
I welcome much of what the shadow Secretary of State said. I think it was appropriate for him to issue the apology that he did. I, too, apologise in clear terms to the Justice Minister and the First Minister for not briefing them on the scheme. It is a concern that the scheme operated in a way that was not as transparent as it should have been, which is one reason why the hurt was caused and why there has been such a great deal of misunderstanding about what the scheme actually involved. That is why I offered that apology, which I repeat today, for not briefing Ministers in the Executive on these matters.
I welcome the fact that the Hallett report shatters myths, as Mr Lewis said. It emphasises that the scheme was not an amnesty and points out that the Downey ruling depends on its facts and would not necessarily provide a precedent for other cases.
The hon. Gentleman asked me to comment on the two cases in which errors occurred. I reiterate that the Government will follow the advice of the recommendations and work with the police, the prosecuting authorities and the Department of Justice to do everything we can to ensure that errors are corrected and that any barriers to future prosecution are removed. In that regard, I draw attention to paragraph 10.72 in which Lady Justice Hallett comments on the gravity of the mistake and the serious consequences it had for the Hyde Park families. She goes on to say:
“Other mistakes have been made and need correcting. But this can be done in a measured and proportionate way.”
At this stage, it would probably be unwise to comment on the specifics of the cases because it would be the worst possible outcome if anything were said in Parliament to jeopardise future prosecutions in these cases.
PSNI is very much aware of the content of the Hallett report and the mistakes identified. I know, too, that it is taking very seriously the exercise of checking all the cases that went through the scheme. In Northern Ireland questions we discussed concerns about the resources available to the PSNI. I hope these matters will be given the priority they deserve.
The shadow Secretary of State asked wider questions about the RPM. I can confirm that no pre-conviction pardons were issued. The investigation of the records for 1987 to 1997 is continuing. Our conclusion is that, in all likelihood, no central list of RPMs issued during that period was compiled. I am afraid that it may be a case not of a missing document, but of the fact that a document was not compiled in the first place, and that records of the RPMs were kept in the individual cases of the prisoners concerned and were destroyed according to normal routine records management.
I agree with the shadow Secretary of State that this episode reinforces the need for progress on agreeing a process for dealing with Northern Ireland’s past. I hope that the Hallett report will provide an opportunity for all the parties to return to the table and the debates on flags, parading and the past, and that an agreed way forward on these important matters can be found.
I welcome both the statement and Lady Justice Hallett’s report. I confirm emphatically, as did Lady Justice Hallett, that if we had felt when we took power in May 2010 that there was a whiff or a hint that an amnesty might have been involved, we would have stopped the scheme immediately. A small number of cases remained, and I was content that there was no question at all of an amnesty. I am very pleased to learn that Lady Justice Hallett has confirmed that.
I think that today is the day on which we should remember the victims. More than 3,500 people were killed. Will the Secretary of State please confirm that police and law enforcement authorities throughout the United Kingdom will continue to pursue the perpetrators of many of these terrible crimes, in order to bring some satisfaction to the relatives of the victims that they will be brought to justice?
I commend my right hon. Friend for all the brilliant work that he did as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. What he has said is absolutely right.
I hope that Lady Justice Hallett’s report will reassure victims of terrorism that there were no get-out-of-jail-free cards. This was not an amnesty, and if we had inherited a scheme that involved such an amnesty, we would of course have rejected it, as we rejected the Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill. It is, indeed, crucial that police services the length and breadth of the land are rigorous in their pursuit of terrorists, and rigorous in their pursuit of justice for all who have suffered at their hands.
Does the Secretary of State agree that this exemplary report demonstrates to the victims who have suffered, and continue to suffer so much, that the scheme was not unlawful, was not an amnesty, and was not a get-out-of-jail-free card, that it did not offer immunity from prosecution, that no Minister involved misled anyone, and that although the scheme was sensitive, it was not secret?
May I put it directly to the Secretary of State that she has a responsibility to take this process forward, to learn from the report, and to bring all the parties together? That cannot be left simply to the Northern Ireland parties. Both the British Government and the Irish Government need to move forward, together with the parties, and address this past which continues to haunt Northern Ireland and all the victims who have suffered.
I welcome the right hon. Gentleman’s praise for the report. As I have said, I think that there are concerns about the disclosure relating to the scheme; I think that it would have been far better if I, and my predecessors, had been more transparent about the way in which it operated. However, I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that it is important for us to revive the all-party talks, and for the parties to get round the table again to discuss the crucial issues of flags, parading and the past. We need to learn from the report.
I can, of course, give the right hon. Gentleman a complete assurance that the United Kingdom Government remain committed to doing all that they can to support the Northern Ireland parties in their efforts on these matters, and that we are working closely with our colleagues in Dublin, who share our determination to do everything possible to facilitate and support an agreement on the past.
I thank the Secretary of State for giving me early sight of the report. When we look below the headlines, we see that it is very critical of what went on. Lady Justice Hallett refers to evidence given to the Select Committee by Assistant Chief Constable Drew Harris, who said that “95 of these individuals”—those who had received letters—
“are linked in some way or other to 200 murder investigations.”
He later corrected that figure to 295. He added:
“But that linkage may only be intelligence.”
Given the possibility that that intelligence could turn into evidence relating to any of those people, it is rather worrying that Lady Justice Hallett says:
“It is not clear to me…what would happen if fresh evidence should come to light. It is arguable…that this does not sufficiently provide for a change in circumstances.”
Have not this scheme and the way in which it has been run created a very worrying situation in Northern Ireland in respect of bringing people to justice and bringing closure to the victims whom we rightly remember today?
The Chairman of the Select Committee is absolutely right. The report makes some very serious criticisms of the way in which the scheme was operated, and those will have difficult consequences that will need to be dealt with. However, I assure the House that the Government are determined that they will be dealt with. Lady Justice Hallett concluded that the errors could be corrected, and we will do everything in our power to ensure that they are corrected, acting on the basis of advice from lawyers, prosecutors and police.
My hon. Friend has drawn attention to concern about the terms of the caveats that were placed in the letters. Lady Justice Hallett is very clear about the fact that insufficient consideration was given to them. In some cases, they were left out altogether. My colleagues and I will be looking into that carefully to establish what, if anything, needs to be done to ensure that the errors that my hon. Friend has highlighted are corrected.
I, too, thank the right hon. Lady for advance sight of the report, and join her in remembering not only the victims of the Hyde Park bombing, but all the people to whom Mr Paterson referred who lost their lives in the course of the troubles. I also thank Lady Justice Hallett for a very comprehensive report. As a former Secretary of State, I accept all the findings, observations and criticisms contained in it.
There are important things that we need to learn. I have three brief questions to ask the right hon. Lady, in the light of chapter 9 of the report. First, does she accept that the Northern Ireland Office still has responsibility for the scheme, and that it was not devolved? Secondly, does her statement that the scheme is now closed mean that the letters—as Lady Justice Hallett asked—have been rescinded or have not been rescinded? Thirdly, given that the right hon. Lady has made clear today that the scheme has been closed—which I do not think Lady Justice Hallett fully appreciated—will she now tell us where that leaves the cases that were still under review?
The right hon. Gentleman asked whether the scheme was devolved. As I have said in the House on many occasions, in August 2012 my predecessor and the then Attorney-General decided that it would not be appropriate for the Northern Ireland Office to accept any new cases, and that any fresh cases should be referred by Sinn Fein to devolved police and prosecuting authorities.
A debate has raged on the exact position of the scheme in terms of devolution. I discussed the matter with the Secretary of State for Justice this morning. I think that the best way of putting it is that the Northern Ireland Office will not shirk its responsibilities in learning from these mistakes, correcting any errors, and taking any appropriate action that is needed to remove barriers to prosecution. We will do that in partnership with the Ministry of Justice, and respecting the devolution settlement. Exactly who does what and how it is done will be a matter for reflection in the coming days, and I will undoubtedly update the House in due course.
As for the closure of the scheme, I announced some months ago that it was closed. The Government will not be issuing any fresh “not wanted” indications. As I have made clear today, what we will do is play our part in correcting any mistakes and ensuring that everything that possibly can be done is done to remove any future barriers to prosecutions in other cases.
On a personal note, I knew Anthony Daly. One can only imagine the pain that the Downey case has caused his family, and the families of the others who were murdered in Hyde park and Regent’s park. I very much regret the judgment of Mr Justice Sweeney, and I join those such as Lord Pannick, the distinguished jurist, who believe that the interests of justice should have trumped the mistake made by the police. Indeed, the allegations made against Downey were so serious that to all laymen such as myself, the judgment was extraordinary. On the subject of the OTR scheme, does my right hon. Friend believe that although the scheme was not secret, it was nevertheless deliberately obscured from public view and kept out of the public domain by the previous Government?
Lady Justice Hallett found no evidence that it was deliberately obscured but, as I have said, it would have been far better if both Governments involved in the scheme had been more transparent about the way in which it operated. If we had been, we would not have faced the misunderstanding, the hurt and the upset that have been triggered as a result of the Downey judgment. It is important that we learn lessons from that lack of transparency and ensure that any future process on the past that is agreed is transparent and accountable.
I want to thank Lady Justice Hallett for her work on producing the report, which was asked for by the First Minister of Northern Ireland. With this statement being made in Parliament, our thoughts should be with the victims of the Hyde park bombing, first and foremost, and with the families of the victims of all terrorism in Northern Ireland. This was a shameful episode in the history of the so-called peace process. The grubby deal that was done between the Blair Government and Sinn Fein, the republican movement, is one of the worst examples of political chicanery that we have come across. There was no parliamentary or public approval, and at times Parliament was deliberately misled.
Lady Justice Hallett has concluded that there was no general amnesty. Certainly as far as our party and the other parties in Northern Ireland are concerned, there is no question of any amnesty, immunity or exemption from prosecution being acceptable, whether through legislation or by the back door. However, for John Downey—and, it now appears, two others—the fact was that there was an amnesty. The question now arises as to what the Government are going to do. I welcome the fact that the Secretary of State has said that the Government “will take whatever steps are necessary, acting on the basis of legal advice…to do everything possible to remove barriers to future prosecutions.” That is in line with her statement on
“We will take whatever steps that are necessary to make clear…that any letters issued cannot be relied upon to avoid questioning or prosecution”.—[Hansard, 28 February 2014; Vol. 576, c. 39WS.]
Can she give us a timetable, and will she assure us that if legislation is necessary, she will introduce it? Will she tell us whether there will be opportunities to question the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, on his role in this? Will she also tell us what further steps can be taken on transparency in regard to the names of those who received a royal prerogative of mercy and of those who received comfort letters?
I welcome the right hon. Gentleman’s offer of sympathy to all the victims of terrorism. As the representative of a constituency that was, sadly, the site of many horrific murders during the troubles, he is well placed to understand the pain that has been caused to those victims. I acknowledge that his party has always made it extremely clear that no amnesty would ever be acceptable, and I entirely support that position. As I have said, Heather Hallett’s report has confirmed today that there was no “get out of jail free” card. We will act as swiftly as we can to remove barriers to prosecution but, reflecting on the report’s findings, we should be under no illusions as to the legal complexities and sensitivities involved. We certainly do not want to repeat the mistakes of the past by acting in an over-hasty manner. We will keep in close touch with the Police Service of Northern Ireland on these matters, while always respecting its operational independence.
The right hon. Gentleman asked whether there would be an opportunity to question the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, on these matters. That is really a matter for him and for the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. On the publication of names, I have said throughout the debate on OTRs that I did not believe that such publication would be appropriate. There are many legal and privacy concerns involved, as well as questions relating to article 2, which is why I am not proposing to publish any names relating to either RPMs or OTRs.
In her statement, the Secretary of State said that we needed a process that is “transparent, accountable and balanced”. I hope that she would agree that this scheme was none of those. We have an open justice system and we generally know who is being arrested, charged, prosecuted and acquitted. It is not clear to me why we should not know who felt the need to seek one of those letters. If we believe in a transparent system, we should be able to find out who has received one.
I understand my hon. Friend’s perspective. There are probably many reasons why people put their names forward. Something that comes across clearly in the report is that a number of the individuals concerned were not known to the PSNI at all. I will reflect on what he has said, but I continue to believe that it would not be helpful to name the individuals who were processed through the scheme. In all other respects, however, we need to be as transparent as we can about the steps we will take to remedy the serious errors identified by Heather Hallett, and we need to do all we can to learn from them.
This whole sad Downey saga is riddled with ambiguity, limited information and half-truths, with no thought or respect for the victims. We built a hard-won peace process on truth and honesty, and a very welcome political process flowed from it. All parallel issues and discussions need to be open and transparent. This sad saga brings us back to one salient point that must be made again and again: we have neglected to deal adequately with the past and with the many issues that arise from our difficult history between 1970 and 1998. We are all guilty in this regard. The legacy of the past—the mistakes, the crimes, the murders and the maimings—hangs over us like a massive alpine glacier, and it leaves behind thousands of victims.
Does the Secretary of State accept that, unless the problems of the past are faced up to honestly and transparently and in an accountable and balanced way, they will continue to break off bit by bit and threaten us on a regular basis, month by month, disrupting lives and reopening old wounds? Will she and the Government commit to helping those of us who are working to complete the Haass process, in which dealing with the past is a major issue? Will they commit to ensuring honestly and transparently, and in a balanced way, that we deal with the past and, having dealt with it honourably, we begin to face the future with confidence? Will they ensure that the past is properly and completely finished with and put behind us?
The hon. Gentleman puts the case for an attempt to resolve the issues of the past with great clarity. I fully agree that the legacy of Northern Ireland’s past is a recurrent issue that has the capacity to poison the political debate and to create a block to genuine reconciliation. I therefore strongly agree that, for the sake of peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland, it is essential that we find an agreed way forward and come to terms with the legacy of the past. I can give him the same assurance that he received from the Prime Minister in his meeting with him yesterday—namely, that this Government are fully committed to doing that and that we will play our part in any agreement between the Northern Ireland parties. We will continue to do everything we can to facilitate an agreement between those parties on these important matters.
Presumably Lady Justice Hallett’s report will be discussed at tomorrow’s Cabinet. This whole on-the-run episode is deeply troubling, but it is also an extraordinary and exceptional set of circumstances. Given the horrific nature of the Hyde park bombing, and the subsequent publication of the report, the question my constituents will want me to ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is this: in the light of the report, is there now no chance at all that the stay on the prosecution of John Downey can be lifted?
I am afraid the legal advice is that it is almost impossible for circumstances to arise where that stay could be lifted, so I am afraid that decision is irreversible. My hon. Friend is right to characterise this as an extraordinary scheme—that is how it was characterised by Lady Hallett. What I would emphasise is the point made by almost all hon. Members: this was not an amnesty. In describing what it was, I could do no better than use the terms summarised by Lord Reid, who said that this was a scheme to inform
“people who were not wanted”— for arrest by the police—
“that they were not wanted” for arrest by the police. It was not a scheme to send letters of comfort to people who genuinely were wanted.
Does the Secretary of State agree that it would be a travesty heaped upon an injustice if a single police officer was to be made a scapegoat for this error while Tony Blair was to be elevated to near sainthood by some people? Does she agree that the systemic failures identified in this report clearly show that the Northern Ireland Office made significant errors in the management of all this? Will she go further and recognise that the entire OTR scheme was a gross insult to victims? Pages 204 and 210 of the report contain two lists with redacted names on them. Given that Gerry Adams’ personal solicitor was not able to confirm or deny whether Gerry Adams is in receipt of one of these letters, does the Secretary of State consider it appropriate that if a political leader is in receipt of one of these letters, she should inform this House?
On the last point, I only reiterate that I have no plans to publish the names of the individuals concerned, for the reasons I gave before. I have a lot of sympathy with the hon. Gentleman’s characterisation of the position of the PSNI officers. The report is very clear that there were significant systemic failings in the way the NIO at the time ran the scheme. It was certainly well intentioned, and I think civil servants made strenuous efforts to act appropriately, but the reality is that at a senior level—Ministers at the time will of course take responsibility for this—as the Hallett report makes clear, the scheme was not gripped properly, the risks were not assessed properly, and there were opportunities to identify errors and correct them but those were not taken. All of that means it would be wrong to characterise the result of the Downey case as just being down to the actions of an individual PSNI officer. If the scheme had been run in an appropriate way, it is highly likely that those facts would never have arisen in the first place. That of course is a matter for which all those Ministers in office at the time will take responsibility.
The Hallett report is, of course, comprehensive, but there is something wrong with it: everything was held in secret. Once again, the victims really do not know what people said; they do not know what Gerry Kelly said or what Gerry Adams said, and they are left in the dark. The Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs is carrying out its own inquiry and we took interesting evidence, given in public, about the push for and the pressure on the police to get these letters out—that came from somewhere. Lady Justice Hallett says that the scheme
“lacked proper lines of responsibility, accountability and safeguards”.
Surely the real responsibility for all this—whatever he did in terms of getting the peace process—must lie at the very heart of government, with the letters that were coming from the then Prime Minister to Gerry Adams saying, “We are going to sort this.”
As I say, the ultimate responsibility for the scheme has to lie at a political level; civil servants, at all times, were working to a remit approved by Secretaries of State. That is very clear from the report, and it is important that responsibility is taken. On the public taking of evidence, the hon. Lady is a member of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, which has had a number of hearings on these matters. They have been helpful in throwing further light on the matters set out in the Hallett report, and indeed it is clear from the report that Justice Hallett has relied on a number of the NIAC evidence sessions.
The judge has said in her report that the letters were not an amnesty or a “get out of jail free” card, but she fails to call this what it was. My right hon. Friend Mr Dodds hit on it: it was a dirty, grubby deal to place republicans, with total disregard for victims. No matter how we paint this up, that is exactly what it was. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is a travesty of justice that, according to evidence that NIAC has received, 95 of those letters went out to individuals responsible for more than 295 murders? The victims are left weeping because, in all honesty, they probably will not get any justice.
I am of course aware of Drew Harris’s evidence to NIAC, but what he said was that there was an intelligence connection between these individuals and a number of terrorist crimes. That of course is not the same as saying that there was evidence sufficient to arrest and it is certainly not the same as saying that there was evidence sufficient to mount a prosecution. So it is important for victims to understand that in these cases where the scheme was operating correctly it was only sending letters to people about whom there was insufficient evidence to justify an arrest. I suppose the other reassurance I can try to give the hon. Gentleman—he and his party are very clear on their views about this scheme—is that the report is very clear that this did not stop police investigations, files were not closed as a result of the OTR scheme and the boundaries were not crossed in relation to political interference; neither politicians nor officials interfered inappropriately with the administration of justice.
Order. I am very keen to ensure that all hon. Members get to participate in this statement. I appreciate that the Secretary of State is giving very full answers. May I gently suggest slightly clipped and crisp questions, and crisp answers, as we do have quite a lot of business that we need to move on to?
Does the Secretary of State recognise that although Lady Justice Hallett makes it clear at the start of her report that it is not a whitewash, it does leave a couple of black boxes in respect of Operation Rapid, not least the fact that there is little explanation as to why during that period so many cases on the list went from being “wanted” to being “not wanted”? Justice Hallett gave an assurance that there was no chilling effect, but why then the frozen response on the part of the PSNI whenever it clearly realised that mistakes were made in respect to the Downey letter and why the frozen response whenever the Historical Enquiries Team indicated that it had identified possible evidence in relation to Mr Downey and offences in Northern Ireland?
The hon. Gentleman rightly says that there is further work to be done—there is no doubt about that. One important aspect of that work is the police investigation of all of these cases to check whether the “not wanted” judgment was the correct one. The reason Justice Hallett has selected 36 cases as a priority for that investigation is that she believes the police might have been applying the wrong threshold to decide whether an individual was wanted or not wanted. Clearly, therefore, it will be very important to look carefully at those cases, and I am sure the PSNI will do so.
The dirty deal done between the previous Government and Sinn Fein was underhand, and an insult to victims and to all democrats in Northern Ireland. Does the Secretary of State therefore accept that a deep hurt is felt by victims and that the only way to ensure it does not continue is by ensuring that these letters are withdrawn?
I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I will take whatever steps are necessary to remove barriers to prosecution, based on the advice I am given by police and prosecutors. We will do everything possible to ensure that we do not see a repeat of the collapse of the Downey trial in another instance.
The report makes it quite clear on the cover-up of this scheme that the authors and indeed the former Prime Minister and Secretary of State—appallingly—made representations about murderers not being prosecuted. The least we could have expected from the shadow Secretary of State today was an apology, instead of which we got a brazen defence. The Minister has at least apologised for the way in which the scheme was administered, for the ambiguity, and for the fact that the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive were not informed. Will she now go further and assure us not only that will cases be left open but that she will be request from the police that everyone who has been issued with a letter will have their case reinvestigated, that new intelligence will be sought and that new investigative channels will be looked at so at least the victims can be sure that those who have received these letters will not be able to live in comfort for the rest of their lives?
Let me take this opportunity to repeat the apology that I gave for the lack of transparency and the failure to discuss this scheme. I repeat my concerns about the way in which this scheme as a whole was run, including under my predecessors. I think that has been the cause of much of the distress to victims. The hon. Gentleman asks about the exact steps that will be taken to ensure that errors are corrected and problematic cases dealt with. I counsel against statements of that sort at this stage. We need to be careful to ensure that there is nothing that could be said in haste, which might end up hindering rather than helping a future prosecution. As soon as I am able, I will give further information on how we intend to implement the recommendations. Today, we need to be careful about commenting on specific cases and how they will be dealt with.
I thank the Secretary of State for her statement. We must never forget the victims and the survivors who have suffered. This whole sorry debacle has left a sour taste in the mouths of many people throughout Northern Ireland. Will the Secretary of State confirm that there must be a redoubling of efforts to get back to the talks table to discuss those outstanding issues of the past—parading and flags—and will she confirm that she will come back to this House to explain how she intends to implement those recommendations from Hallett?
I am certainly happy to come back to the House to discuss the implementation of the Hallett recommendations. The hon. Lady will know that I fully support the all-party talks and agree on the importance of their resumption. She will also know that the Prime Minister shares that view, because she will have heard that in her conversation with him yesterday.
Three of the people proposed for this scheme were proposed by the Garda Siochana. Will the Secretary of State explain how the Irish police service was aware of this scheme, yet Ministers in the Northern Ireland Government were not? Secondly, I understand that up to 15 names were proposed by the Northern Ireland Prison Service. Will she explain the role of the prison service in relation to this scheme, what officials were involved and how they will be held to account?
As regards the names that came from the Irish Government, the Irish Government were involved at various points in the peace process on a number of matters, including this one. As I have said, I regret that Executive Ministers were not briefed at the time. On the prison service, it is not entirely clear how that came about, but it seems that the prison service had a number of individuals on its files who had escaped from prison, and the reason they ended up on the OTR scheme was to establish whether they needed to be sought for a return to prison. It was to clarify the position for the prison service.
I thank the Secretary of State for her statement and her comments that she would have stopped it immediately if she had known. I am conscious of the victims; those are the people I think about. Kenneth Smith, an Ulster Defence Regiment sergeant, was killed on
The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that, contrary to the position in the past, decisions on extradition are now taken by independent police and prosecuting authorities. On that basis, it would be inappropriate of me to raise specific cases with the Government of the Republic of Ireland.