I beg to move,
That this House
takes note of and approves the Report pursuant to Section 3(14) of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019 - Historical Institutional Abuse, which was laid before this House on Wednesday
The reports emphasise what colleagues on both sides of the House have known for some time: the restoration of the Executive and the Assembly is of vital importance to the people of Northern Ireland. That is my top priority and I will continue to work with the Northern Ireland parties to meet that objective.
Without an Executive, the people of Northern Ireland have seen the quality of their public services decline and decisions that affect their day-to-day lives kicked into the long grass.
Given that the current political situation in Northern Ireland is preventing the children’s funeral fund from being introduced, can I ask that the Secretary of State consider acting directly to allow that to happen, so that bereaved parents there may benefit from the fund like the rest of the United Kingdom?
My understanding is that a number of councils in Northern Ireland have put in place measures to deal with the issue, but as with many other issues that we are debating today, the absence of an Executive at Stormont is affecting all sorts of decisions, including that one.
I want to support Carolyn Harris, whose campaign has been hugely encouraging and personal to her. It has had a huge impact across the United Kingdom, and there is the prize of financial assistance for those who have been bereaved of young loved ones, of children in their family. I know that she has engaged with the permanent secretary in the Department for Communities, and rightly so. I know that the response has been positive, but that they look for political agreement through all the parties in Northern Ireland. Perhaps that is something that the Secretary of State could do. As he will outline regarding this historical institutional abuse report, where there is a need for political agreement, the will is there. He could bring the local parties together and indicate to the Department for Communities that there is full support for the roll-out of this much-needed scheme.
Normally there is another contingent in this House that is very interested in a one dimensional aspect of things to do with Northern Ireland. The Secretary of State must be aware of the 850 medical practitioners—doctors, nurses and midwives—who have written publicly about their absolute outcry at the failure regarding the decision of this House to impose abortion regulations in Northern Ireland, abortion regulations that cannot be met. That has put undue pressure on GP services, nursing staff and doctors’ staff. What is he going to do about that to protect our doctors and nurses in Northern Ireland?
If I can, I will come to my hon. Friend’s point slightly later in my remarks.
Since my appointment in July, I have met public servants from a range of sectors who are doing an incredible job in the absence of support from local political leaders at Stormont, but they cannot of course take the proactive decisions that are needed on public services, the economy or the areas that we have already heard about in today’s debate. If we cannot secure the restoration of an Executive, we will pursue the decision-making powers that are needed at the earliest opportunity. In addition to the reporting requirements, the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019 requires the UK Parliament to introduce laws on same-sex marriage and opposite-sex civil partnerships, abortion and victims payments. This House has spoken, and the duty to legislate will come into effect if the Executive are not back up and running before
I recognise that these are sensitive issues, and this Government’s preference is that they are taken forward by a restored Assembly and Executive, but to those who now lobby me and others in Government to somehow change the law I say that the only way for these laws to be changed and shaped in the best interests of Northern Ireland is for the Northern Ireland party leaders to form an Executive and get back into government. To that end, following the frustratingly slow pace over the summer caused by a range of factors, I will this week work urgently with the Northern Ireland parties and the Irish Government to do everything I can to break the logjam and to get Stormont up and running. The time for that is now. The party leaders need to show leadership and do the right thing for the people of Northern Ireland.
Already, frustratingly, the Secretary of State has fallen into the trap that so many others have fallen into by spreading the blame for the non-existence of the Executive in Northern Ireland across all the party leaders. Will he accept and publicly state in this House today that the only party leader opposing and stopping the formation of the Executive in Northern Ireland is the leader of Sinn Féin?
I honestly do not think that it is productive for me to get involved in pointing any fingers. I think I stated earlier in my speech that I view the lack of progress as being down to a variety of factors, and I now want to be as proactive as possible in moving back to getting the Assembly up and running, as do the Irish Government and many parties, including the Democratic Unionist party and others.
The Secretary of State must know that his words, as they are spoken from the Dispatch Box today, sound like a punishment to every single party in Northern Ireland except Sinn Féin. That is the only party holding us up in getting back into the Assembly, yet we are all being punished, even by what he says.
I am happy to restate that I do not think that any one party or any particular issue has held things up, but it is time that we move on. I call on each party to play its part in getting Stormont up and running, and I hope and expect that they will.
On the matter of historical institutional abuse, I want to say first that victims in Northern Ireland have shown incredible courage and dignity through their engagement with the Hart inquiry and their campaign for redress. Without their willingness to speak up about the trauma of what happened to them, we would not have been able to forge a path from the inquiry to the consultation on the draft legislation, and to the present position where there is a commitment to introducing a historical institutional abuse Bill in Westminster by the end of the year in the absence of a Northern Ireland Executive. I know that colleagues will join me in restating today our collective determination to see progress made in delivering redress to the victims as soon as possible.
Since the Prime Minister has refused to rule out proroguing Parliament again and seems hellbent on a swift general election, it would help the victims of historical institutional abuse in Northern Ireland, who will be particularly interested in this debate, if the Secretary of State were to lay out a realistic timetable for the legislation to go through all stages, so that compensation can be paid to them. They have been enormously patient. They have suffered too long, they have waited too long and they deserve compensation. When will that be?
I will talk in my speech about how we hope to make progress.
On the Floor of the House in July, the Government made plain their commitment to introducing legislation in the absence of a Northern Ireland Executive. Much progress has been made by my officials, working together with the Northern Ireland civil service to prepare all the necessary materials to do just that. On
We should take a moment to remember that during his work on this very considerable report Sir Anthony Hart, who sadly passed away in July, showed immense compassion, empathy and determination to make a difference to the lives of victims. The inquiry he led uncovered evidence of systematic physical, sexual and emotional abuse of children in institutional care, as well as neglect and unacceptable practices in children’s homes. Thanks to Sir Anthony’s commitment, focus and sensitivity, victims finally had a voice after so many years of suffering. As one of the prominent campaigners for redress remarked,
“It was Sir Anthony who believed in victims and it was Sir Anthony who delivered the truth when others failed.”
The Executive Office is to be commended for the progress made in the absence of Northern Ireland Ministers. It prepared draft legislation in 2018 and undertook a consultation exercise which concluded in March 2019. It was with the benefit of that progress that the Northern Ireland political parties were able to discuss in detail the implementation proposals for a commissioner for survivors of institutional child abuse and a redress scheme. It is worth noting that all political parties in Northern Ireland have been supportive of the Bill. The discussions between the Northern Ireland parties on the legislation and the policy decisions required to finalise it demonstrate that there is a genuine will to reach agreement. The resulting Bill was provided by the Northern Ireland Office on
The UK Government commitment to introducing the Bill by the end of the year in the absence of a restored Northern Ireland Executive remains resolute. To answer directly the question from my hon. Friend Lady Hermon, I hope that we will have a resolution in the coming weeks.
Does the Secretary of State recognise the frustration and distress that victims will feel when they see the Chamber so empty today, given that previous Northern Irish legislation has been rushed through all its stages in one day, and given that the last time the Executive Bill was in this place the House was packed with Members hellbent on using it as a tool for delaying Brexit? Will he commit, when he gets a date for the Bill, to rushing it through in the same manner as other pieces of Northern Irish legislation earlier this year?
There are some complex issues that need debate. I know that my hon. Friend has stood up steadfastly and consistently for victims of child abuse in Northern Ireland, and I hope that we will be able to introduce the Bill in short order.
The Secretary of State has just said that he hopes the Bill will be introduced “in short order”. I do not know quite what that translates to. Have he and his very hard-working and diligent officials given any thought to introducing a statutory instrument, rather than going through all the stages of a Bill, to establish an administrative scheme whereby an initial payment of compensation—let us say of £10,000 or £7,000—could be awarded to victims? They cannot be asked to wait any longer. They are dying, they are most unwell, and the anxiety and the waiting are not helping them. Will he commit to that?
I commit to introducing the Bill in the coming weeks, and I am confident that we can do that. I accept my hon. Friend’s point that the age and the wellbeing of many victims means that we also have to consider how we get money to them at the earliest opportunity.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his commitment to trying to move this forward. I entirely agree with what Maria Caulfield said about there being no reason why this legislation cannot be passed very quickly, given the way Brexit legislation is now being put through in a matter of hours and given the way abortion law has been changed in a matter of hours without consultation. Why can we not do this Bill in a matter of hours, since there is cross-party support and unanimity across the board? I gently say to him: we have heard a lot about the absence of the Executive, but he knows from conversations he has had with us and other Ministers that the Government are also responsible for the lack of progress. They could have taken action themselves in the House but they refused to do so, for political reasons. They may have been well-intentioned reasons, but a deliberate policy decision was taken to stymy all the things that needed to be done in Northern Ireland. He is perfectly within his rights to share some of the blame among the political parties in Northern Ireland, but he also has to take some responsibility himself for the failure of the Government to take action over two years of doing nothing.
My right hon. Friend knows that the Government, like the previous Government, view taking more decisions from Westminster with great caution. We respect the Good Friday agreement and want to encourage local institutions to take the decisions required.
Can I gently remind the Secretary of State that periods of this abuse—between 1922 and 1995—were periods of direct rule, when this place was responsible for those children, and so while there is not an Assembly in place, this place also has some responsibility to ensure that those victims get compensation?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Again, we need to encourage Stormont to get up and running and we need to deliver on this legislation, and I believe that we can achieve both.
I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way; he is being generous with his time. We want this legislation to progress as quickly as possible, but it has to be watertight and robust, and it has to have proper scrutiny, because otherwise it will be challenged. The quickest way to get redress for the victims is to have proper, robust legislation that has been properly scrutinised.
I thank my predecessor for those remarks, and I will take this opportunity to pay tribute to her for her relentless work to get the legislation to this stage. I am acutely aware that she has played a really important part in getting us where we are. She is right; we need to move things on, but we need to be as careful as possible in how we do so.
This House is well aware of the stain of child abuse that shames our country. It took place in every corner and it went unchecked for decades. The Hart report outlines starkly the degrading acts perpetrated by those responsible for caring for vulnerable children at Kincora boys home, Nazareth House and Lissue Hospital. In fact, there were only two institutions across Northern Ireland where evidence of systemic abuse was not found. In most instances it was the poorest and most vulnerable young people who were affected, and in some instances the same vulnerable children were then sent to unsuitable homes in Australia, with their whereabouts unknown to their family members.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for allowing me to intervene once again. He mentioned Kincora boys home, which is in my constituency. Although the report that he has laid before us today highlights the recommendation that there should be a suitable memorial to those who suffered abuse, Kincora boys home remains a sepulchral reminder of the tragedy that occurred in my constituency and in institutions across Northern Ireland. Five years ago I stood in Kincora boys home with victims, and they have continually called for it to be razed to the ground, yet just last week Belfast City Council felt it appropriate to say that the building should be retained because of its townscape character. Does he understand the anguish of abuse victims? One of the victims I stood with back then has since died. They want to see this tragic reminder of their horrible past razed to the ground once and for all.
My hon. Friend speaks powerfully of the symbolism of the buildings, and it is important that we recognise that in this debate. I would be interested in discussing his proposals further in due course.
We can ask no more of victims. We can ask no more of the inquiry. The policy officials have prepared the policy and the lawyers have prepared the draft law. Now it is time for us, as political representatives, to act. It is therefore my sincere hope and belief that colleagues across the House will support us as we seek to deliver this legislation in the coming weeks.
I thank all colleagues for the debate that we have had so far, and I look forward to hearing further contributions. Obviously we are debating some of the most sensitive issues that this House can scrutinise. I will do everything I can as Secretary of State to deliver the Bill and address many of the issues that we have heard about today.
May I begin by repeating what the Secretary of State has just said, because we can ask no more of the victims, and obviously we can ask no more of Lord Justice Hart. The report before us includes this telling sentence:
“There is no doubt that victims of abuse have shown incredible dignity throughout the inquiry and that an apology is long overdue.”
In fact, the victims have shown incredible dignity over the many years they have suffered as a result of the abuse and as a result of the delay and obfuscation by the political system, which failed to address the record of the past and the needs of those individuals. I share with the Secretary of State and with his predecessor, Karen Bradley, the view that that there is a sense of urgency, as we have heard in the Chamber. Maria Caulfield is right, and made the valid point that between 1922 and 1995, the period covered by the Hart inquiry, there were significant amounts of time under direct rule, when the responsibility for the governance of Northern Ireland lay with Whitehall and Westminster. We should bear that in mind, because it gives us all the sense that we need to bring this to a credible conclusion.
The Secretary of State will know that the shock that was experienced when Parliament was prorogued several weeks ago was felt across the whole of Northern Ireland and across the whole nation, and by no one more than the victims of institutional abuse, who thought that that the probability that at last they were seeing some resolution of their suffering was about to be truncated. I hope that today we can give some comfort to those victims that all is now back on track.
We are here today because the Prime Minister prorogued Parliament illegally and tampered with our timetable for debates and discussion. Does my hon. Friend, like me, recognise the importance of all the nations—England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and, of course, Wales—that make up our United Kingdom? Does he share my grave concern about the downgrading of the important issues we are discussing that affect people across Northern Ireland? Those issues should not be an afterthought to fill the agenda, but today they very much feel like they are.
That puts into context the unfortunate remarks last week of the Attorney General, who told us that this Parliament had no moral basis. This Parliament has enormous moral compass, no more so than when we examine the kind of issues that we are now examining. This is the message that ought to go out. There can never be a time when the House of Commons is irrelevant, and that is certainly not the case when we are debating the justice and urgency that victims are entitled to have. Members of the House of Commons must be here to do that.
There are things in the report that I strongly welcome. I strongly welcome, for example, the appointment of Brendan McAllister as the interim advocate, as that is an important step forward. From
I do not need to speak for an awful lot longer, as I simply want to make one point. Lady Hermon is absolutely right that we need a firm timeline. I would strongly welcome the return of devolved governance in Stormont. Every Member of the House ought to want that. If it can be done and the legislation can expeditiously be put through that Stormont process, we welcome that. However, in the absence of Stormont we need a definitive view that this can be completed in the House of Commons.
I share the absolute commitment of the shadow Secretary of State—let us see the Assembly back up and running. Would he therefore make a request on behalf of Her Majesty’s Opposition to the Secretary of State to call a meeting of the Northern Ireland Assembly tomorrow at 10 am, and see who turns up and wants to do business?
I think that, regrettably, things are more complicated than that. I will say to the hon. Gentleman, however, that if the commitment is there to see Stormont back in operation, we will all, like him, do everything we can to support the process. One of the interesting aspects of the report is a recognition that all parties come together in agreement on this important issue. That is a lesson that ought to be taken back: when there is the will to move things on, there is political agreement, even between parties that are otherwise divided.
Does the hon. Gentleman share my disappointment at the tone and the content of what the Secretary of State has said this afternoon? He has been, rightly, enormously sympathetic to the victims, and has rightly praised Lord Justice Hart for his report—sadly, Lord Justice Hart died before he could see this legislation on the statute book—but my colleagues and I are unanimous in our disappointment that there is no sense of urgency.
The Secretary of State needs to be aware that, under the European convention on human rights, there must be an effective remedy for any breaches of the human rights guaranteed in that convention, and that includes the guarantee that everyone should be free of degrading treatment. The victims of historical institutional abuse were certainly not free of degrading treatment in those homes as children. Will the Secretary of State, when he winds up the debate, show some sense of urgency about getting this legislation on the statute book? All of us here will support him in that tone and in that effort.
The hon. Lady has made a powerful point. I share her regret—I suppose that that is the right word—that Lord Justice Hart is not around to see the conclusion of his work, but we should nevertheless pay tribute to it.
This matter is urgent—there can be no doubt about that—and we now look to the Secretary of State to map out for us what kind of timetable is possible and practical in the absence of a Stormont Government. Let me say to him, on behalf of the official Opposition, that this is not the kind of legislation that we would seek to delay. It is not the kind of legislation that we would seek to deliberate on to make life difficult for the Government. In the end, this is about justice: it is about justice for people who suffered, and whose suffering was continued by the failure of all our institutions to recognise their plight. In that context, we will work with the Secretary of State, and we will work across the House of Commons and, no doubt, in the other place, to ensure that if legislation can be introduced at an early stage, it can go through this House.
Let me also say to the Secretary of State that, just as with other legislation that is conditional on the return of Stormont—Ian Paisley, for example, referred to legislation on abortion—if it is the appropriate way of moving things forward here, we will of course avail the Secretary of State in taking legislation through this Parliament.
I join Northern Ireland Members, but I also join Members throughout the United Kingdom, because the abuse of our young people—whether it took place in England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland—is a stain on our nation. If we can now secure an adequate system of redress that is not simply financial but involves all the other matters in the Hart report, it will serve as a template for the entire United Kingdom. It is something that we should welcome not only across the whole of the House of Commons, but across the whole of this nation of ours.
May I thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the tone he adopted in his opening remarks? Like him, I will divide my remarks into two parts. First, I will make a few casual, general observations. I have seen the video clip that the Northern Ireland Office has put on Twitter today, marking nearly 1,000 days since there was last an Executive at Stormont. Clearly, that is a running sore and it just goes on. Although I usually travel in an optimistic frame of mind, Brexit is clearly the elephant in the Chamber and in Northern Ireland. It is hard, if not impossible, to see how Stormont could get up and running prior to
I say to Opposition Members and, indeed, to all political parties in Northern Ireland that from talking and listening to people and from reading what they say, my hunch is that we seem to have got incredibly hung up on process, whereas real people in the real world who are concerned about the delivery of vital local public services just want to see them delivered. Whether the issue is Brexit or the restoration of Stormont, the public have a limited reservoir of patience. When it is drained, that will be it—there will be no more reservoir on which to draw. That patience is running thin and people are not necessarily interested in the blame game politics of “He said, I said, they said, we would, they might, we didn’t”. The message is clear, just as it is on other things in this topsy-turvy political age: “Either make progress or get out of the way and let those who are interested in making progress have a go.” I think we are close to that point.
I thank the Chairman of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs for giving way. He makes a valid point. The question is: who do we give way to? As currently constituted, the institutions cannot have a power-sharing Government without their being cross-community and representing a majority of both nationalists and Unionists. That implies that direct rule is the only other option. May I connect Brexit with the absence of Stormont and suggest to the hon. Gentleman that if we leave the European Union on
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for those observations. I made that point in a radio interview in Northern Ireland last week. He may have heard me take my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to task last week. As we get closer to
Let us be frank: there could well be, with or without a deal post
I turn briefly to the subject of the motion and the report tabled by the Secretary State: historical institutional abuse. I concur with and underscore entirely the comments of my hon. Friend Maria Caulfield, a fellow member of the Committee, and of Lady Hermon and Nigel Dodds. Had this scale and range of abuse, over such a period of time, happened in North Dorset or anywhere else in England, it would have been rectified and sorted out by now.
I share the concerns expressed specifically, although not exclusively, by the hon. Member for North Down. Opaque language may have been the order of the day in the Secretary of State’s recent job as Government Chief Whip, but a Bill dealing with this issue, this running sore, must be announced in the Queen’s Speech and enacted before Christmas—not introduced before the end of the year but done and dealt with by the end of the year, subject to Stormont not being back up and running.
I make this wager with my right hon Friend, and luckily it is for somebody else to take cognisance of this point: unless a Bill is announced in the Queen’s Speech, my hunch is that some of us would find great difficulty in voting for the Gracious Speech when the vote is called. We do not want to add to the catalogue of Government defeats—well, not all of us do—and I am heartened by what Tony Lloyd said. This is not a contentious piece of legislation.
My right hon. Friend Karen Bradley is right that the devil will be in the detail, and that getting the process and the rubric correct and beyond challenge is important, but people should listen, as the Committee has, to Mr Jon McCourt or Margaret McGuckin talk about these issues and the people they represent. I know my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has certainly met Margaret, and I believe she calls him Mr Darcy—I do not know whether that elates him or not, but it is the only light moment in this sad and sorry episode.
In great part, it was organs of the state that put these young children in those institutions where they were abused. Some had mothers who, for a whole variety of reasons—many of which we have heard and which do not need going over again today—put their children and young babies in what they thought was a place of safety that would provide a gateway to a better life. If they had known what we now know, they would not have taken that route.
Officialdom did not know but, beyond the tight kernel of my right hon. and hon. Friends who are Ministers in the Department, I am not certain whether that historical social and special responsibility has been taken into account. I hope that the business managers and others have heard the very strong sense of feeling and the drive for justice. Many of these people are elderly, and many of them are vulnerable. They feel as though they are being slightly brushed under the carpet and ignored, like an eccentric great aunt at a wedding: there but not really engaged, and hoping they will go home before the reception finishes.
These victims of abuse are going nowhere until justice is delivered in full, and neither are their champions in this place, because to do anything other would be a failure in our duty.
Order. Quite a few colleagues want to get in. There is not enormous pressure on time, but if colleagues stick to about eight minutes, we will be able to get everyone in comfortably.
I will endeavour to be as pithy as I can be, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I thank the House for bringing this debate forward today. I expressed my concern just before the break—the adjournment or whatever we are calling it—that the Northern Ireland report debates had been contracted into a short period. It was woefully short, given the important issues we need to raise and discuss, so I welcome the fact that the Government have brought the debates back to the House today.
I am disappointed by the lack of representation across the Chamber, particularly on the Benches in front of me, as many people come to this House to talk about Northern Ireland in relation to Brexit and other matters. These are incredibly important issues, which, as Members from across the House have highlighted, touch on the most vulnerable in our society.
Many years ago, I sat in a room where I first heard the plea from victims and survivors of historical abuse for an investigation and inquiry into what had happened to them. Everybody in that room—there were senior politicians from across the parties, including Martin McGuinness and the right hon. Peter Robinson and officials and politicians—was struck by the pain and anguish of the victims and survivors of that abuse. The thing that stood out most in that discussion was the key line repeated by many victims: “We have not been listened to.” Some of the abuse took place many decades beforehand. They told the politicians and civil servants on that occasion, as they have many times since, that as children and young people they were not believed. They told them that as adults, first when they were struggling through the many challenges of their early adulthood and now, when many of them are older and facing a number of challenges with the ageing they are experiencing, they were not listened to or believed—this happened throughout their lifetime. They told them that they were demeaned, not just as children, but throughout their lives, in terms of the painful stories and experiences they needed to tell.
I knew from that first meeting that the then First Minister and the then Deputy First Minister genuinely felt an empathy with those victims. I was a policy adviser at that time, and they turned to me and the other civil servants and advisers in the room and tasked us with going away to do something to help and support the victims as swiftly as possible. During that period, despite all the other discussions, arguments and differences we may have had, all the political parties worked hard together—quickly—to put in the terms of reference. A lot of work went into that. I was part of the original project board, with civil servants, and we looked at many of the different experiences of inquiries from all over the world.
We owe a huge debt of gratitude to the late Sir Anthony Hart, the first judge I appeared before when he was the recorder of Belfast. He was a fearsome individual with a fearsome reputation, but he was keen on two things—he wanted things to be done effectively and efficiently. He was hard on the young solicitors and barristers who appeared before him, but for good reason, because at the heart of every case that he looked at was a victim who was going through a court system. He hated delay and unnecessary bureaucracy, and he brought those values with him. He was absolutely the right man for that job and I pay tribute to the incredible work he has done. When I have spoken to the many victims and survivors, they have all said the same: “Sir Anthony Hart listened to me. He made me feel valued and vindicated. He genuinely made this a victim-centred process, and that is exactly what we wanted.”
May I also pay tribute to the incredible team of officials, many of whom I worked with throughout that period and many of whom worked on after I left that policy adviser/special adviser role? They worked incredibly hard to get this inquiry up and going, and it was conducted incredibly efficiently and effectively by all the civil servants involved, led by the chair and the team around that. It will be a model for people to look at internationally.
One thing we did was to introduce, in legislation, a time limit for the inquiry, which is rare in these inquiries. We suggested it should be two and a half years, but with a possible extension of a further 12 months. Sir Anthony Hart said clearly that he was up for that challenge, and he fulfilled it. It was a time-limited inquiry and he produced the report on time, which is incredible.
What happened after that is deeply disappointing. As I have said in this House before, we always knew when the report was due, because of the time-limited nature of the inquiry. Sinn Féin knew when the report was due. We liaised periodically with the chair, who made it clear that there would not be delay and that he would be giving the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister the report. I pleaded with Sinn Féin colleagues. I said, “Look, if you have to collapse the Assembly, we need to do two things before you do that.” They were going to make that decision, with the resignation of the late Martin McGuiness. The first thing was to pass a budget for Northern Ireland. The second thing was to wait two weeks to allow this report to be received and agreed by the Executive, as that would have facilitated the recommendations being brought forward. They were not prepared to wait.
The serious question that needs to be asked is: what was accomplished by pulling down the Assembly two weeks earlier than it could have been brought down? Those two weeks could have transformed many of the issues in Northern Ireland. I say that without going into all the reasons or justifications for bringing the Assembly down, but I firmly believe that bringing it down two weeks before this report was due— Sinn Féin knew from the beginning of this inquiry when it was due—was wrong, and it left victims in a very vulnerable state.
Today, however, I want this contribution to be about the victims: like the inquiry, which was victim-centred, I want this contribution to be about them and not about the other parties and what happened in the past. I respectfully ask the Secretary of State to be brave, make a decision, and go ahead and do this swiftly, because the people who are missing out and suffering are the genuine victims and survivors, who were incredibly brave. They stood up and contributed to the inquiry. They told their stories, despite all the legacy of the decades of hurt from not being believed. We know, from all the evidence and from talking to people, that, for those individuals, telling their stories is incredibly painful, as it brings back everything they have been through. It is so hard for them to go into that institutional setting; despite all the things that the late Sir Anthony Hart did to make them feel comfortable, it must have been a challenging and difficult experience for them, and we must recognise that. After going through that—after their bravery—they have been left out there without the much-needed help and support that they require.
May I say, Secretary of State, that when we think about what happened, we see that these were young children? I listen to many, many of their stories. Many of them came from very challenging backgrounds. When they came into these institutions what they needed was love, dignity, comfort and support, but instead, as we see when we read that report, they got harshness and pain. They were demeaned and demoralised, starved and beaten.
Who in the House could not feel a genuine empathy for and desire to help those victims and survivors? This House has the power to do that. It has broken the convention in respect of legislating on devolved matters. I respectfully say to the Secretary of State that this is an important issue on which we are all in agreement, so please be brave. Please bring forward the legislation—and do it swiftly, because victims are suffering.
As we all know, the inquiry looked into the abuse of children in 22 homes and institutions between 1922 and 1995, but abuse happened in around 76 institutions: the inquiry touched on the tip of the iceberg in respect of the children affected.
I agree with Emma Little Pengelly: the poorest of poor children and the most vulnerable children were put in these homes and had no voice to speak out when they faced abuse, sexual abuse, starvation and neglect. I serve on the Select Committee and have heard grown men in tears, recalling what happened to them as children and feeling voiceless and helpless once again. It was bad enough to be a child abandoned in a home with no one to look out for them and to have to face what they faced, but it is heartbreaking for them to reach adulthood and still be in a situation where no one seems to want to listen to what they have been through.
As I have said previously to the Secretary of State, many of the cases of abuse took place during a period of direct rule, when this place was responsible for those children. From an administration point of view, the Assembly should be responsible for a compensation scheme, but this place has a responsibility to look after those adults now and pay them compensation, which will in no way take away the pain they endured but will at least be recognition of what happened to them.
It is heartbreaking that Sir Anthony Hart, who led the inquiry—who was the only voice that many victims had for years—has not lived to see the victims get compensation. Tribute should be paid to the head of the Northern Ireland civil service, David Stirling, who has taken up the mantle, prepared the legislation, put it before the Secretary of State and asked the Secretary of State and his predecessor to bring it forward in this place so that people can get the compensation they deserve.
I agree with my hon. Friend Simon Hoare: I will be deeply upset—I cannot emphasise enough how upset I will be—if the legislation is not in the Queen’s Speech. It is just not good enough to say that it will be passed by the end of the year; it needs to be passed by the end of October. We in this place sat for one day to pass legislation on the renewable heat incentive and the Northern Ireland budget, and to pass the Executive formation Bill. If we can do those measures in a day, why cannot both Houses do this legislation in a day?
When the Executive formation Bill went through the other place in a day, an amendment to bring forward the legislation for institutional abuse victims was dropped. I do not decry the importance of equal marriage or abortion—I do not want to get into those debates—but the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019 allowed the introduction of legislation and gave that legislation a date, but that was not the case for historical institutional abuse. Why? I feel that, under the radar, historical institutional abuse was being used as a tool in the talks about getting the Executive back up and running, such that if other parties came back to the table legislation would be passed pretty quickly. It is outrageous if that was the case.
These victims should be our No. 1 priority—way ahead of the renewable heat incentive, budgets and Executive formation. These people have lived for 70 years with the abuse that they suffered at the hands of institutions. The legislation has cross-party support, both in this place and in Northern Ireland. It is our duty to make sure that legislation happens. Thirty victims have died already. Nearly every day another victim dies.
It is very much welcome that an interim advocate is now in place, but survivor groups have done much of the work on their own for years, without funding and administrative support. Many survivors have travelled to inquiries and had to pay their fares themselves. They have travelled a number of times to Select Committee hearings and paid their air fares. They have supported other victims. Some have never disclosed to family and friends the rape, abuse and torture that they experienced as children. Fellow survivors are the only support they have and we are providing no funds and no administration for people to carry on their essential work. A small amount of funding is provided by the Executive Office, but that runs out in March. Even if we pass the legislation tomorrow, it will take years to compensate all the victims. So far, only 500 victims have come forward as part of the inquiry; it is estimated that there are at least 2,500 victims, and that could be just the start of things. The only support they have is the victims groups. We need to support them properly. It is not fair to ask fellow survivors to be doing the heavy lifting when it comes to getting compensation for all those affected.
I have three asks of the Secretary of State. First, although the interim advocate is welcome, we need to fund the survivor groups properly and give them the support that they need. Secondly, we need a legislation date in the Queen’s Speech and, even though it is mentioned in the Queen’s Speech, we need legislation delivered by the end of October. There is no rhyme or reason why that cannot happen. If there is a general election in November or December, the legislation will fall. How much longer will these people have to wait? If we are serious and want to work together across party lines, we need the legislation to be delivered by the end of October. If we do not set a date, it will never happen.
Finally, we need to look at the support for all the victims. Many have not come forward, and many who do come forward will relive the horrific experiences that they went through as children. We cannot expect them just to apply to an administration fund and ask for some compensation, and then leave them with the consequences of having to disclose to friends and family what they have been through. We have let these victims down. Even if we act now, there is still a legacy. They will have to live with the incompetence of this place and of the Assembly. We have to take up the mantle. We are all that is blocking people getting their compensation. We need to take that responsibility seriously.
Where are they, Madam Deputy Speaker? Why is the House empty? Where are they? Where is the choir of people who are normally so interested in Northern Ireland and who wish to introduce the most damaging legislation in the history of Northern Ireland? Where are they today? They are hardly at the Tory party conference. They tell us that they want the House back and sitting because they need to hold the Government to account. Where are they? Where are their probing questions about the protection of vulnerable lives? They are quick to be here when they want to destroy the unborn life, but they are absent today, when we want to ask questions and scrutinise the Government on the protection of innocent victims in institutional care in Northern Ireland. It is a disgrace that they are not here. Their absence speaks thousands of words to the people of Northern Ireland about how much they really care. Are they even really interested in abortion rights in Northern Ireland and the rights of woman in Northern Ireland? No, they are interested in one thing: pursuing their own agenda. They use this House and abuse this House to get those things done.
Order. I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware that there has been a lot of discussion about the use of language and the tone that we are setting. I do hope that he will bear that in mind.
I will bear it in mind, Madam Deputy Speaker—I will take your ruling—but I think people are right to be angry. People are right to be angry on behalf of the unborn and on behalf of the innocent victims of institutional abuse, whose rights are brushed under the carpet every moment. When someone dares to speak up for them, they are told that they have to calm things down—“Don’t say things about the victims. Don’t upset people who have challenged the lives of innocent victims or the lives of the unborn.” Oh no, we cannot have anything rough said; it might upset their sensitivities. It might be awful for them. No, Madam Deputy Speaker, it is about time that people did speak up for the voiceless and for the abused—for those who see this place, which should be a champion of their rights, being silenced on their rights, because that is effectively what has happened.
I reiterate my challenge to the Secretary of State. He really needs to do more when it comes to the issues that have been brought to the attention of the House. Last week, on
“The concept of taking human life at any stage is inimical to us, and the concept of taking a human life in the womb especially so.”
They went on to make demands of the Government here, saying:
“Healthcare in Northern Ireland is in such a parlous state, due to chronic underfunding, understaffing, and the lack of a sitting Government. Imposing abortion on our healthcare system risks destabilising our GP service, many of whom are contemplating retiring… It risks burdening our hospitals with unnecessary procedures, extra complications, divisions within departments and lengthening of waiting lists—all of which will likely have a negative effect on the population of Northern Ireland who rely on healthcare services from medical problems.”
That is the problem that is being impacted on Northern Ireland. That is the problem that the Secretary of State needs to address. If he really wants the Assembly back to deal with this issue before
Order. There is a very specific subject of discussion here, which I am sure the hon. Gentleman will be returning to as quickly as possible—by which I mean now.
I understand that we are speaking about the Northern Ireland Executive formation and the reports flowing from that. The Secretary of State introduced his comments tonight by referring to the lack of an Assembly. The Chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee emphasised that issue as well. I am trying to get the Assembly back, and I am outlining the way in which the Secretary of State could take active measures this evening by phoning the 90 Members of the Assembly and getting them back in the Assembly tomorrow morning. That could bring about the changes that the Secretary of State wants to see—that I want to see and that people in this place want to see—but I fear that that call will land on deaf ears. I hope that he decides to do that, and I hope that he takes up that chance.
I welcome what the Secretary of State said in his remarks. I believe that he is passionate and that he does care about the victims of institutional abuse. Indeed, I know, following on from the meetings that he had with them in August, that many of them meet regularly with Government Members, and they reported back to us the enthusiasm and the genuine concern that he has. I happen to think that it is important that we put that on the record, but it is also right and proper that he is pushed on a few areas. I ask him to give us a time, to give us a specific date and to tell us when this will happen. He should not let this slip any further. My hon. Friend Emma Little Pengelly made the point in her excellent speech that we cannot allow this slippage to continue. These people are dying. These victims need immediate help and there is nothing to stop the Secretary of State from providing that.
I wish to leave some very specific questions with the Secretary of State: who is ultimately going to pay the compensation? Maria Caulfield made the crucial point that this abuse was carried out vastly during a period of direct rule. Therefore, the responsibility and the onus must fall on this place to come up with the compensation. The Northern Ireland budget could not cope with—probably—the extent of that payment.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way on that important point. It is undoubtedly the case, when one reads that report, that there is a direct rule implication—an implication for this place. Does he agree that there is also a significant obligation on the institutions, including the Roman Catholic Church? They have contributed to compensation schemes in relation to these inquiries in all other jurisdictions as far as I am aware, so does he agree that the Secretary of State should engage in those early conversations with the institutions to ensure that that contribution is made?
I am more than happy with that. Indeed, I have spoken in this House in the past about that very point. One of the ways that this could be addressed expeditiously is by the institutions actually making amends—by way of payment, by way of apology and by way of an actual practical measure. I think that, without doubt, that is the case. There should be something that the Secretary of State can do to facilitate such a process. I know that there are ways that he can facilitate that, and I encourage him to take them up. There is a crucial point here. Ultimately, if the Government pay money in compensation, they may, later on, get that money back through the institutions. They should be pursuing those institutions for the abuse inflicted on those innocent victims.
Professor Patricia Lundy, who gave evidence to our Northern Ireland Affairs Committee on these issues, spelled out what she believed the costs could run to, and they are staggering. It is essential that the Government grapple with this issue immediately. There should be no surprises when they come to legislating. We do not want to have to delay legislation further, because we have now discovered what the costs are. The costs are mammoth. The costs will have to be dealt with.
May I also speak for some of the survivor groups? All of those who have given us evidence and spoken to us directly have said that they run their organisations on a shoestring. Clearly, they will have to keep up the momentum by informing their people, encouraging their people and being a shoulder for their people. Therefore, some sort of assistance in the interim period—until the legislation is actually enacted—would be very beneficial indeed. Finally, it would be brilliant if the Secretary of State published the Bill, put it out there and brought it into this place so that we had the opportunity to enact it without any further delay.
I will try to be as brief as possible so that other Members get the opportunity to speak in this debate.
I welcome the fact that we are debating this issue today, although we have grave reservations about the way in which what was to be a fairly narrow and innocuous Bill was hijacked by the Labour party. I know that Labour Members do not like Bills being called by the effect that they have—I am talking about their attitude to the Prime Minister when he refers to the surrender Bill. The anger that there is from these Benches is a good indication of that. If we were to give this Bill a name according to its effect, it would either be the prevention of the formation of the Executive in Northern Ireland Bill, or, as some people in Northern Ireland who have protested in the streets in recent weeks about the most controversial part of this Bill see it, the kill babies in Northern Ireland Bill. That is the kind of anger that the Bill has generated.
I wish to refer to a particular aspect of the motion that we are discussing tonight. My hon. Friend Emma Little Pengelly has given us very detailed background information to this Bill. I can remember, because I was a Member of the Executive at the time, when Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson came to the Executive after having met the victims and were very passionate that the Executive had to take hold of this issue and drive it through. I was Finance Minister at the time. There were proper reservations within the Government, because we had seen inquiries in Northern Ireland that had gone on for years and that had benefited only lawyers who had run away with hundreds of millions of pounds in fees. The people whom the issue was meant to address found that they were not getting the answers or the outcome that they wanted, so there were reservations. It was agreed that the inquiry should be designed in such a way that it would not be long and protracted, that it would not give opportunities for lawyers to debate it, adjourn it and to rack up huge fees. By and large, as has been described by my hon. Friend, the project board, the inquiry’s terms of reference and, indeed, the action of Lord Justice Hart ensured that that did not happen.
We all read the evidence given to the historical institutional abuse inquiry because the newspapers carried it almost daily—harrowing stories and feature articles about what had happened—but there is one memory that burns in my mind. I was walking out the back of Belfast City Hall one afternoon, when a man stopped me. I did not even know him. He was fairly down at heel and everything else, and he said to me, “I know you. You’re in Stormont. I was a victim of abuse.” He then told me a story that would have brought tears to anybody’s eyes. As a wee boy, without any family—or anyone—to turn to, he was put in a home where he was physically abused, sexually abused and mentally tortured.
The man told me, “Eventually, I came out of the home when I became a teenager but the legacy has lived with me ever since.” I do not know how old he was when he spoke to me, but he looked to be in his 50s. He said, “I have never been able to have proper relationships. I have had to live with all the flashbacks, the memories, the hurt, the anger and the frustration.” I think he was taken to that home as an orphan. As a society, we put people in that position; there was no proper supervision and no opportunities for people to be taken away from the dangerous situation they were put in. We therefore have an obligation to them, and of course there ought to be some recompense as they get older and have to live with the consequences of those experiences.
Two things stand out when I look at the report. The first is that it indicates that the Government have already started working on legislation, and there is a commitment that all the costs will be met by the Northern Ireland block grant. Now, I have to say that given the wealth of some of the institutions that allowed this abuse to go on, this cannot be allowed. Lord Justice Hart said that there should be a public apology, and so there should. There should be some kind of memorial to remind us what happened in those institutions and to ensure that, as a society, we do not allow it to happen again. But there should also be a responsibility on those who put young people and children through that kind of experience—a requirement that they also make a contribution to making good.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that in all the discussions at the time of the inquiry—when we looked at the inquiry in the Republic of Ireland and inquiries elsewhere, where the institutions made a significant contribution—it was the clear understanding of all parties that the institutions would be requested and required to give their contribution as well?
My hon. Friend is quite right. Indeed, that was always the understanding. I note that the report says that research is being undertaken into how the issue has been handled elsewhere. I would like the Secretary of State not just to research, but to tell us what approaches have been made to the bodies at which the finger of blame was pointed for this abuse. Is it simply that there will be an academic study of what is to be done, or have approaches actually been made? If they have, what has the response been?
The report says that there will be a mediation mechanism to decide how much should be paid by the various institutions and that the parties will have to submit themselves to a final arbitration. All that is fine—of course we have to have a mechanism—but there is no indication that civil servants in Northern Ireland are making approaches to the institutions, knowing what the view of the Executive was on this matter; and it is important that that is done.
I have one final point, which has been made time and again today. I do not believe that the Northern Ireland Assembly will be up and running on
The Assembly will not be up and running because, for those who wanted the changes to abortion and gay marriage legislation, there is every incentive not to have it up and running. They are showing no indication that they will even engage in talks. It is important that the Secretary of State recognises that and ignores any evidence he might be getting from the Northern Ireland Office about what might annoy Sinn Féin. He should be bringing to this House legislation that compensates and gives some redress—as much as money ever can give redress—to that individual who met me in a street in Belfast and told me how, as a boy, he was abandoned, he was not listened to and he was hurt, and how he still carries that hurt today.
Order. There is pressure on time, and I want the Secretary of State to be able to speak for a couple of minutes towards the end of the debate because certain points have been raised. May I say once again, though, that the use of inflammatory language is absolutely unacceptable? We have had a lot of discussion about this over the past few days, so I urge Members to be very careful about the language they use. I hope that the remaining speakers will stick to that.
I want to speak about this report for several reasons, so I thank you for calling me, Madam Deputy Speaker. The main reason I am here is that I believe in the Union of our United Kingdom. I am fiercely proud of Wales and, of course, Newport West, but I also respect England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. In the absence of a devolved Administration in Northern Ireland, I think it is important for all of us in this House to speak up loudly and proudly for all the good people of Northern Ireland.
The lack of a devolved Government in Northern Ireland worries me. It also worries the shadow Secretary of State, Lady Hermon and many other colleagues on the Opposition Benches. Thanks to the strong and active Labour Government in Wales, I see the transformative impact that a devolved Government have on my constituents every day, and it is important that the people of Northern Ireland can share in the same.
The report gives a round-up of progress, but it is very light on next steps. I want to see a timeframe for the legislation, as do the people affected in Northern Ireland—and we all want to see it now. It is frankly disgraceful for the Government to play games with the people of Northern Ireland, and to try to prorogue this Parliament rather than get to grips with such long-standing and important issues. We have so much of the people’s business to do, as was evidenced by the urgent question of Ian Paisley this afternoon. I would like the Minister to confirm that the legislation in relation to historical institutional abuse will feature in the Queen’s Speech; we need to know if it is a priority for this Government. I will leave my remarks there, but I want to place on record how disappointed I am sure that Northern Ireland-related business appears to be an afterthought to this Government. They need to change their approach, and do it fast.
This issue is a difficult one to speak about. It is heartbreaking when we hear of the scale of abuse and the ramifications of that abuse for entire families throughout the Province. However, it is clear that, no matter how difficult it is, we must do more than just speak; we must act. That has been said unanimously in this House today, and the Secretary of State and the Government have to respond accordingly. One constituent put it to me like this:
“You may already be aware of this high-profile issue, which has come to symbolise the pain afflicted onto some of the most vulnerable people in Northern Ireland in the absence of government.”
The Secretary of State referred to two places—Kincora and Nazareth House. I would add De La Salle in Kircubbin, where physical and sexual abuse took place of young boys in that establishment. Some of the people who have come to speak to us in the groups and have come to my office to meet me have also addressed the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. We have heard at length their deputations and submissions to that as well.
This is yet another group of people who have been affected by the intransigence of Sinn Féin and its refusal to do its job and take its place—another group of people who have been further traumatised by the stalemate that has taken place. Can I say very respectfully to the Secretary of State that he cannot ignore the fact that Sinn Féin is the obstacle in this process? This is partly why I have been calling for direct rule in this place: it is time to consider that honestly.
The Bill was hijacked by hon. Members—with respect, again—on the Opposition Benches to introduce legislation that was not discussed, vetted or done by the proper process. Vulnerable groups like this have no showing in the priorities of Stella Creasy, but it is one of my priorities, and that is why I am speaking on this issue today. I speak for the unborn: those who are alive in the womb. One hundred thousand people live today because of the current abortion legislation we have in Northern Ireland, yet that would change—
I think it is important that we have that issue on record, as that has been abuse as well.
By way of quick summary, the independent inquiry by Sir Anthony Hart that was commissioned by the Northern Ireland Executive in 2013 reported on a series of recommendations in January 2017 that sought to deliver justice to victims and survivors of historical institutional abuse. The delivery of the findings of that inquiry coincided with the collapse of the Assembly and Executive. In the two and a half years since that point, victims and survivors have been left without any of the redress and justice that was promised to them. That is really obvious to every one of us who is aware of the situation. There was a crystal clear need to introduce the legislation required to establish a redress board and commissioner to advocate on behalf of victims and survivors. As my constituent said to me:
“It has not been easy and it has retraumatised many victims”— including himself—
“some of whom have been extraordinarily brave in sharing their story in the media with the public to try and convince those in power to act.”
What we are seeking today is simple. I thank the Secretary of State for what he has done so far, and his team as well. We may have been a bit harsh with him in some of the things we have said today, but he should not take it personally. He has done exceptional work. However, we now need to see the delivery of what he has stated, and then everyone on these Benches, and indeed across the whole House, will rise up and say, “Well done.” In the midst of all the Brexit chaos, we must do right by these people. In the absence of local institutions, the head of the civil service in Northern Ireland has presided over talks on this issue that have seen consensus reached on the contents of the legislation, which has the support of victims and survivors. This is not a political issue. I speak, and we all speak, on behalf of every victim, whether their vote is cast for my party—the DUP—or not, because the people who come to see us are from all political persuasions and all religious persuasions. Today in the press the Churches were united on what they will want to see and on the legislative change on the 21st that they are worried about.
We should know right from wrong. This is our opportunity to set right what has been wrong, and to do so with no further delay—30 of those who came forward to tell their story at the inquiry have died since the Assembly collapsed in 2017. Now is the time to act. I urge every right-minded person to support these victims and to use this opportunity simply to do right by them. The least that we can do is do right for the victims, and the onus is on the Government to do just that.
I thank the House for what has been an exceptionally moving debate. I pay specific tribute to the survivors’ groups—SAVIA, Survivors (North West), the Rosetta Trust and Survivors Together, among others—who will be watching tonight and I think will be clear about the priorities of this House and the people who have attended this debate to move things forward. I have heard the desire to get this Bill introduced at the earliest opportunity. As I have mentioned, I really hope and expect that we can get it into the Queen’s Speech. I really want to get it in as soon as possible. I heard the points made by my hon. Friend Maria Caulfield and others about the need for speed in getting this moving as quickly as possible, and I want to ensure that we do that.
Emma Little Pengelly spoke passionately about the role of officials—David Sterling and the civil service—in getting us this far. I again pay tribute to them. Ian Paisley and Sammy Wilson spoke about getting money from the institutions that have played their part in these horrendous crimes. I would say, go after them and get the money—let us go after them hard.
The hon. Member for North Antrim, among others, spoke about the need to get the Assembly up and running, and expressed his concerns about that. We all have to do everything we can to get things up and running in the coming days and weeks. That is important for the issue of abortion, which I believe is best dealt with by the Executive in Northern Ireland for the people of Northern Ireland, but it is also in the best interests of all citizens across Northern Ireland to get decisions done and political decisions made.
Will the Secretary of State reply to one specific question? For the victims of historical institutional abuse, will he give a commitment—a clear guarantee—that the legislation to compensate them for the dreadful abuse that they suffered as children in Northern Ireland will be on the statute book before
I think I have given an indication on timing. I am no longer a business manager. I am concerned, in this whole debate, to ensure that I do not make commitments that I cannot deliver. The commitment I have made is that I have written to business managers. I hope that this Bill will be in the Queen’s Speech. I do not want to go further than that, but I will continue to do everything I can to push my colleagues to get it introduced in the coming days and weeks.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
takes note of and approves the Report pursuant to Section 3(14) of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019—Historical Institutional Abuse, which was laid before this House on Wednesday