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I beg to move,
That this House
takes note of and approves the Report pursuant to Section 3(13) of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019—Victims’
Payments, which was laid before this House on Wednesday
We do not seem to agree on much in Parliament these days but, on the subject of this specific debate, I hope and believe that there is enough common ground to move forward on what we should see as a moral imperative to turn words into action, and to turn the idea of a victims payment or pension into a reality that does something powerful in acknowledging the unacceptable harm done to those seriously injured in the troubles and the deep trauma that many still live with, and makes a meaningful difference to the dignity and quality of life of those severely injured through no fault of their own.
Those last six words are important, because it is clear to me from the debate in both Houses of Parliament that consensus in this Parliament exists only if the guiding principle of our work is that this payment is not designed as a pension for terrorists and those injured by their own actions.
The important words, as the Minister says, are, “Those who have been injured through no fault of their own.” I have noticed a discrepancy between the explanatory notes to the Bill and the report that has been presented. The explanatory notes state that that compensation will be paid where injury sustained is through no fault of the individual and whether or not the individual has been convicted of an offence. When it comes to the report, the only exclusion is where the individual has not been convicted of an offence. That is important because with some it is their own fault but they have never been convicted. Can he give us an assurance that anyone who has been engaged in terrorist activity, whether they have been convicted or not, will still be regarded, in any injury, whether mental or physical, as being at fault?
I understand the point that the right hon. Gentleman is making. I can assure him that, as we work towards the regulations and consult on their detail, the guiding principle—fundamental to the Government, and which we believe is the basis of consensus on which to proceed—is that we see this as a pension that is not designed for terrorists or those injured at their own hand. We will have to work through the detail of how it works and the burden of proof in those situations, but I am clear—as I am sure he is, because I have heard him speak passionately on this subject before—that I do not believe there is consensus in this place to move forward without that guiding principle. I do not think that this Parliament, under any Government, would seriously propose making payments to terrorists or those injured by their own actions. That principle needs to guide us as we get into the detail.
We are clear that what we are considering is a payment in recognition of the suffering of those severely injured through no fault of their own. The victims’ pension is the right thing to do, and I genuinely congratulate those, such as the WAVE Trauma Centre, who have made the case with such tenacity and resilience over the years. Like many Ministers and shadow Ministers before me—Conservative and Labour—I have listened to and been deeply moved by the stories of those whose lives have been profoundly affected by the terrorist atrocities of the troubles. When we read the stories of people such as Paul Gallagher, Jennifer McNern or Peter Heathwood, it is frankly impossible not to be moved by their courage and resilience. The reality is that there has been widespread criticism of compensation schemes in the past. Many of those who would benefit from the payments feel that they were not treated well or supported in the right way, and it is surely time that we do more to support those individuals.
I can give the hon. Gentleman a commitment that the Government absolutely accept the case for victims’ pensions and payments and recognise, as I just said, that we need to do more to support individuals and families affected in that way. We are determined, as I hope I will persuade him, to move forward, not just through the sense of moral obligation that we feel, but because this Parliament now obliges us to, as a result of legislation passed in the summer.
I thank the Minister for what he said, but what I am trying to get to is that £3,500 was paltry compensation for a wife and three children. What we need for that family, going back as far as December ’71, is compensation that equates to what would be given today to people who are innocent victims. This was a Roman Catholic part-time soldier who had resigned from the UDR and was murdered because he served his country.
We are talking about innocent victims and a victims’ payment scheme which is not about restitution or compensation; it is about recognition and acknowledgment and doing more to improve the dignity and quality of life of those who are eligible. As I have acknowledged, there have been criticisms in the past about the effectiveness, fairness and efficiency of compensation processes, and it is, in part, in acceptance of that that the Government, with cross-party support, are extremely committed to moving forward on this matter.
As the House would expect me to point out, this is a devolved matter. It will, of course, always be our strong preference that the establishment of a payment scheme to acknowledge the harm done to victims of the troubles in Northern Ireland be led by Northern Ireland political parties within an established Executive. That is the first priority for us. The Secretary of State has left the Chamber, but I commend him for his active support of that process and hear the observations of the elected representatives of the DUP on that point. One thousand days on, we recognise that, not least due to the advancing years of many of those who could benefit from a victims’ pensions scheme, we must draw this matter to an acceptable resolution without delay.
The previous Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend Karen Bradley, who was in her place but has left, asked the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Victims and Survivors to provide comprehensive advice on how a scheme of payments to those seriously injured in the troubles could be progressed, so that the issue was not indefinitely stalled in the absence of an Executive. That advice has been received. The UK Government are now committed, under the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019, if there is no Executive in place by
I thank the Minister for giving way on that point. Although the amendment puts an obligation on the Government to bring forward regulations, I suspect that such a change in the law and such a scheme would benefit hugely from being based in primary legislation, as opposed to regulation. What consideration have the Government given to discharging the duty to make payments to victims by bringing forward primary legislation, rather than regulation?
We are 100% genuine in our commitment to deliver on the moral and legal obligation to come forward with those regulations. Our intention at the moment is to come forward with regulations but to do so through a process that genuinely engages stakeholders and gives people the opportunity to express their view on the fairness and practicality of what is being proposed. But I hear what the hon. Lady says, and I am more than happy to follow up with her personally if she is interested.
I echo the call for this to be done through primary legislation. I think the nervousness on both sides of the House is about the definition of a victim, because there are victims out there who will refuse to take any compensation if they feel that terrorists will benefit from this. Given the lack of clarity from the Victims’ Commissioner, it is incumbent on us to ensure that the definition is watertight in legislation.
I understand the point made by both Emma Little Pengelly and my hon. Friend, and I have a feeling—new as I am to this post—about the underlying sensitivity of this issue. I will come on to the definition of victims, which I know is an extremely controversial issue but one which we see as being distinct from eligibility for payments under the scheme that we are working through.
As set out in the update report, to meet this commitment we have been undertaking work to develop the detailed arrangements for the scheme, with factual input from the Northern Ireland civil service. As the House would expect, that has included consideration of other relevant schemes, detailed design work, discussion with certain key stakeholders and making plans for future engagement, and preparing detailed advice on the proposed architecture of the scheme: its purpose and principles, levels and methods of payments, eligibility—critically—and other technical considerations, the assessment process and wider support arrangements for scheme applicants.
During the passage of the 2019 Act through Parliament, Ministers were clear that “through no fault of their own” would be the guiding principle as we develop the regulations required by the Act. The current Administration and I share that conviction, and I have heard the Prime Minister express it from the Dispatch Box. We must ensure that the scheme gets to those who need it most, but not at the expense of paying a pension to terrorists injured by their own hand. We are clear that any legal duty imposed by the Victims and Survivors (Northern Ireland) Order 2006 relates to the appointment and functions of the Commissioner for Victims and Survivors for Northern Ireland, and not to wider issues such as the provision of a victims’ payment scheme. It is our view that any change to that definition—a hotly contested matter—is a matter for the Northern Ireland parties, and we believe that it is a separate discussion from those about regular payments to victims. We do intend to deliver on our obligations within the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019, and we do propose to engage widely on the details of this scheme ahead of the date by which the regulations must be made. The views received on our proposed approach will help to inform final decisions on how that scheme will be implemented.
In conclusion, more than 20 years on from the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, while Northern Ireland is clearly a different place in many positive ways, the legacy of the troubles—as many in this House know much better than I ever will—casts a long shadow over many aspects of life in the here and now. We must never forget that over 40,000 people were injured during a 30-year period, and those still living carry a significant burden. We know in this House that it is difficult to move on and secure a better future for Northern Ireland without dealing with the past. The Stormont House agreement provides a framework for doing so, with much detail that needs to be worked through and discussed further, but surely we should not let those discussions hold up or divert a pragmatic determination across all parties to deliver, at pace, a fair victims’ payments scheme that those most seriously affected by the troubles need and deserve, and this Government are committed to work with all parties and stakeholders to deliver just that.
Before I respond to the Minister, may I refer to some earlier remarks from Emma Little Pengelly in relation to Justice Hart? I would like to associate myself and all my colleagues with the comments she made. I was interested to hear that she learned much when she appeared before him. I trust it was professionally, rather than as a respondent, but in any case we certainly support her in those comments.
Before turning to the Minister, may I also pay tribute to John Penrose, his predecessor? He was a good, decent and committed Minister, who brought a great deal of energy and commitment to his role. We miss him, and we understand that he has gone to better places—who knows?—but I hope that the House can record its appreciation.
May I particularly welcome my parliamentary neighbour, Mr Hurd? Many neighbours are divided politically; we are in fact divided by the A40 Western Avenue, and no more than that. I do welcome him, and also note that he is a man of such extraordinary qualities that he is not just the Minister for London, but the Minister of State for Northern Ireland. Any man who can actually combine the briefs of London and Londonderry has to be a person of extraordinary qualities, and I have absolutely no doubt that the right hon. Gentleman is that person. I was, however, slightly perturbed to note that as soon as he was appointed, he gave it a great deal of thought and announced that he would not be standing at the next election. I trust that that is completely coincidental.
May I thank the Minister for the work he has already done? His visit to the South East Fermanagh Foundation was widely appreciated. I know that my hon. Friend Karin Smyth has visited it. I think the fact that the Minister is actually taking the time and trouble to visit some of the victims groups is very important.
Throughout everything we have discussed this afternoon, the leitmotif has consisted of two strands. One, quite clearly and obviously, is the absence of the Assembly and Executive, but the other is the sheer, almost unimaginable horror of the situation and circumstances of the innocent victims. The Minister has visited these people; most Augusts, I visit the Omagh Support & Self Help Group, and I pay tribute to Michael Gallagher, his daughter and all those people. It is almost impossible for us to imagine what it must have been like that August day when a bomb just ripped through that city—that peaceful market town—and the repercussions are being felt to this day.
On the point the hon. Gentleman made a moment ago about the importance of the Minister and others visiting the border and speaking to people who have first-hand knowledge and experience of some of the violence down through the years, does he agree with me that it is absolutely essential that every Minister and every Member of this House who does not have first-hand experience in Northern Ireland should avail themselves of that and that it would make them much better prepared to deal with the matters before us tonight?
I do. I think it is quite important to place on record the fact that when I have visited all of the constituencies in Northern Ireland, I have always been welcomed by the Members of Parliament for those areas, whether or not they take their seats here, and have had the opportunity to visit particularly the border areas and the areas that, in all honesty, very few of us on this side of the water can fully understand unless we have actually seen them—unless we have actually walked those roads and those boreens, and seen those fields—and, more importantly, looked into the eyes of the families, because those families will carry that agony, pain and sense of loss with them to their dying day. It is important and it is crucial that we actually do that, and I entirely agree, not for the first time, with the hon. Gentleman.
The problem we have here is one of delay. As we know, the Stormont House agreement was in 2014, which was when the process started. If hon. Members remember, the Stormont House implementation group was established by all five of the major parties back in 2015, but the work has not been completed. I think it was only this year that the previous Secretary of State for Northern Ireland provided an updated and comprehensive advice note on how the matter can be proceeded with. I really think that we have waited long enough, and we simply must—must—move forward on this.
My questions will therefore be fairly prosaic, relating to the timetable and where we stand at the present time, and I will also have a specific question in a moment. We need to know the current situation on the initial scoping of how best to deliver the regulations—it is as simple as that: we have got to do it—while reviewing the international models where relevant, and perhaps developing engagement and communication plans, ready for implementation when the duty comes into effect. I am sure officials of the Northern Ireland Office have done this, but I think we should hear that this process is in work. We need to know the timeframe—we have to know the timeframe—and, unfortunately, we also need to know how Prorogation will affect this work, as I am sure it will. An update on the initial scoping of how best to deliver the regulations would be extremely helpful.
I would also like to ask a question about overseas nationals. As we know, the Omagh bomb killed two people who were Spanish nationals. A number of overseas nationals have been impacted by the troubles. What is the situation regarding overseas citizens when it comes to payment or pensions—presumably payment, rather than pensions?
Finally, as I appreciate that we have much business to go through, may I welcome the reappointment of Victims’ Commissioner Judith Thompson? I had the pleasure of meeting Commissioner Thompson in Northern Ireland, and she is a woman of great integrity, great passion and great commitment. I think the House should place on record our appreciation of the work she has done to date and our anticipation of the work she will do in the future. I offer my congratulations to the Government on reappointing her.
In conclusion, there can be few more pressing, important, emotional and also painful issues than those we have discussed this afternoon, not just under section 7 of the Act but under section 6. We have a duty—a bounden duty, a duty of honour—to those people who have suffered, as the Minister so rightly says, through no fault of their own. I think the hon. Member for Belfast South once said, “We speak for the victims, not for the victim makers”. That is a very powerful statement, and it must inform all our decisions. Above all, we must think of humanity, justice and some form of compensation. The money will never, ever be enough, but let us show by our words, and most of all by our actions from now on, that we will never, ever forget and fail to support those innocent victims of the troubles. I entirely support the points that were made, and I agree with the Minister when he says that this is not an issue for us to divide on. This, above all, is an issue for us to unite on in the names of the victims.
I will make three very quick points, if I may. First, I underscore the point made, not least by my hon. Friend Maria Caulfield, that this issue is much better dealt with by legislation, not by regulation. It is absolutely crucial that there is proper debate on and scrutiny of the terminology to ensure that all quarters of the House are happy.
Secondly, the definition of a victim is clearly imperative, and no terrorist should benefit. That would undermine entirely the credibility of the scheme, and doubtless would put off an awful lot of people from applying to it, so distasteful would they find it to be associated in drawing something from a fund from which those not entitled to it, at least in a moral sense, will also seek to draw.
My third and final point is that we always think of victims in the narrow definition of those who live in Northern Ireland itself. It is a point always made to me by Lady Hermon: some of the victims of the troubles live on the mainland and we should never forget them in our deliberations. While events were more sporadic and dispelled than the troubles in Northern Ireland, their suffering is none the less serious, and we would dishonour them if we did not include them in our thinking.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I say that with some trepidation because I may have called you Madam Deputy Secretary on the last occasion and now it is constantly in my head whenever I see you in the Chair.
As I did in the previous debate, I welcome the fact that we are now debating this issue in the House of Commons. On the last occasion, I indicated my concern about the lack of debate on these very important matters. I am particularly concerned today because of the confirmation of the Government position that many policy issues arising from this important and detailed measure may be dealt with by regulation. I want to add my strong support to other Members who have said that this issue would be much more appropriately addressed by primary legislation for a range of reasons.
The motion is technical, but the report does not contain a significant amount of detail about what will be done. What is referenced is the basic amount that we would expect to be done in terms of consultation with the stakeholder group—the project group being put together to bring this forward. I shall touch on the context for the motion and then some of the details of the proposal.
First, I have mentioned in the House before that I believe the measure of any process is how it treats our most vulnerable. The measure and test of the peace process in Northern Ireland should always have been how we treated our victims and survivors. It was the innocent victims and survivors of the many decades of the troubles who suffered the most in their loss and pain. They are also suffering today in 2019.
As I said in my maiden speech, I am always conscious when I stand in the Chamber that if I look to my left I can see the coat of arms of Rev. Robert Bradford and others who lost their lives to terrorism. Rev. Robert Bradford was the Member of Parliament for South Belfast. He served the constituency with honour and dedication, and he was cut down for purely sectarian reasons—because he was a Unionist politician. He was cut down while conducting a constituency surgery in a community hall in Finaghy. The caretaker was also killed. It was an appalling attack by the Irish Republican Army, not just on Rev. Robert Bradford, with the legacy of pain and loss for his family, but on democracy through the killing of a sitting Member of Parliament.
My challenge to this Chamber—albeit a relatively empty one tonight—is how many Members of Parliament remember what happened to Rev. Robert Bradford, or do they think that it is an inconvenient truth? I never walk through the doors without looking over and remembering the service that he gave and the life that he lost for his constituents. Frankly speaking, there is a party in Northern Ireland today that has never issued any statement of remorse, regret or condemnation for his murder. In the last few weeks, we have talked about the hate, bile and abuse that can happen in this Chamber, but we must always remember that that has been the case for some considerable time. Most of all, we must remember the consequences of such hate.
From speaking to many thousands of the victims and survivors of Northern Ireland over the years, I know —as do my colleagues—the pain and anguish that they continue to go through. I pay tribute to the WAVE Injured Group in particular, and to the many victims and survivors who have campaigned for many years on the proposal for a special pension. That proposal came about because many of the severely injured victims and survivors are now reaching pensionable and retirement age, but many of them do not have an employment-related pension because of the scale of their injuries in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. The reality of the world at the time was that workplaces were different from today and it was difficult for people with severe disabilities to maintain and retain their employment. As they reach retirement, they therefore have to rely on the state pension, the disability living allowance or some small amounts periodically from the Victims and Survivors Service. The vast majority of those people are in that position through no fault of their own. They wanted to work, and they had had jobs. Some of them were young soldiers, in the Royal Ulster Constabulary or in the Ulster Defence Regiment. Many of them were just innocent victims going about their business, having coffee in a coffee shop or walking down the street. Some were severely injured in attacks targeting someone else; they were innocent bystanders and their lives were changed dramatically.
Those victims and survivors have told me that they suffer incredible and increasing pain, with new challenges as they age, as well as financial hardship. It is a travesty that despite a campaign over many years they have not yet received special support from this proposal being put into action.
Mention has been made of those with physical injuries that we can actually see, but many have suffered mental trauma and have not been able to work since. I ask that we include the mental trauma that many people have experienced alongside those with physical injuries when trying to address the issue in the future.
I thank my hon. Friend for that valuable contribution. One of the interesting aspects of the proposal is that it has been so long in gestation that the debate, knowledge and evidence of the impact of the psychological injuries has grown. The original proposal was for the severely physically disabled victims, but I welcome the recommendation in the commissioner’s report that both physical and psychological injuries should be covered. The key point is the impact on the ability to gain employment and thus an employment-related pension.
On the Victims Commissioners’ advice, I was vocal at the time about my deep disappointment that it did not reflect the strong feeling among many thousands of people across Northern Ireland that the pension should not go to victim-makers. Throughout the many years I have been involved in this project it has been clear that that was a significant view among the victims and in the wider population. I have spoken with the commissioner on many occasions and I have huge respect for her. She does many things well, and I know that many victims have respect for her. I met her monthly or bi-monthly over several years and repeatedly raised with her my concerns that if the victims pension included the victim-makers, many people would be deeply hurt by that. What I said was that surely we have a responsibility first of all to do no harm. In this case, the issue is to do no further harm and cause no further hurt to the very genuine victims who are desperately in need of this proposal. I acknowledge that this tricky issue has held up discussions for some time, but the biggest impact on progress has been the lack of a Northern Ireland Assembly. I strongly welcome the Government’s commitment to ensure that this pension does not go to those who were victim-makers.
The Commissioner for Victims and Survivors has defended her report and said that she is caught by and operates under the definition of the 2006 order, but I find it unacceptable and I was deeply disappointed that the report made no reference to the existence of those other views. If I were a Minister or the Secretary of State and I was asking for this advice, I would want the advice to be clear: “There are these views on this matter, but also be aware there are that a significant number of other views, and if you progress down this recommended path hurt will be caused, victims will come out and say that they will not receive it, and that they are deeply upset by it.” That exists as a view and it should have been reflected in the commissioner’s report.
I find the fact that that was missing from the commissioner’s report deeply disappointing. I genuinely feel that it has led to her losing the confidence of a huge number of victims across Northern Ireland and that her position is unsustainable. That is the position that I have outlined to the Secretary of State, and I was therefore disappointed to see that the commissioner’s term was extended. It is key that any commissioner should have the support and confidence of the people she is supposed to speak about, and in this case what has happened has led to her losing that.
I want to move on to the specifics of the proposal in the report, which is the special pension for victims and survivors, and to touch on a number of very technical issues. As I mentioned, I am concerned about the proposal to introduce this through regulations because there were a number of aspects that need to be debated and aired for potential amendment. The proposal from the Victims’ Commissioner deals with the method by which people will be assessed, and she has asked very strongly that this is done in a way that is victim-centred. I asked the Minister and the Secretary of State to look carefully at the Victims and Survivors Service process. I was involved in the setting up of that new institution, and there was a lot of genuine intent about some of the mechanisms to assess the level of need of the victims and survivors, but within a very short period of time it became absolutely clear that victims and survivors were being re-traumatised or troubled by the process of questioning and assessment. They felt that this was a test that they either failed or succeeded at.
In due course, we have to change that process, so I ask the Secretary of State and the Minister to look very carefully at it and to ensure that however people submit their applications and however the assessment is done, it takes account of the types of evidence and documentation already in the system—perhaps with the Victims and Survivors Service—to avoid victims and survivors having to go through the process again. It should be a victim-centred, sympathetic and empathetic environment, not a questioning environment or one in which people feel they are in the witness box giving evidence.
The Minister and the Secretary of State should also ensure that it is done swiftly. One of the big challenges with the Victims and Survivors Service was that the assessments take time, and dealing with hundreds or thousands of applications could risk people waiting six or 12 months before getting their assessment. Perhaps the Secretary of State or the Minister could put their mind to how that can be done in a way that ensures victims and survivors can get financial help quickly while they are going through the process and waiting for it to end.
The Minister referred to the fact that we have had 1,000 days without devolution, and that to me is an absolute travesty. It comes back to the point that I raised in the earlier debate: this House has broken the precedent that it does not legislate on devolved matters. This House has legislated on devolved matters. Victims and survivors of the troubles—and the survivors of historical institutional abuse, those who are sitting on waiting lists, those who are dying on waiting lists, people who are waiting for their child to get an autism assessment, and people who are in desperate need of public services—ask me why those issues were picked for this House to decide to legislate on, despite the convention. Why pick those issues on which to break precedent and the convention of this House by legislating on them, while in this case the victims and survivors are suffering pain every hour of every day, and they have done so since they got their injuries 20 or 30 years ago?
These are victims in pain saying, “Why do we have to wait? Why are we being told, ‘No, no, this House doesn’t deal with that’? This House can only do that by regulation. This House does not legislate on that.” This House has legislated. It has legislated on cases that are considerably less urgent, where people are not in pain, where people are not in real financial need. As I said about the historical institutional abuse inquiry, I urge the Minister and the Secretary of State to take swift action. This House and its legislative timetable, whatever is announced in the Queen’s Speech, could all fall. Who knows what will happen in the next few months? But this is the important point: the Minister can do this. He can introduce this provision as a piece of legislation. He can get the time to do that and he can do it very quickly. The message needs to go out to people in Northern Ireland—the victims and survivors who are suffering—that this is not a case of can’t; it is a case of won’t. I ask the Minister to make a promise to this House and those victims and survivors that he will decide to no longer go with “won’t” but to move to “I will”. I ask that he introduce it as quickly as possible to ensure that those victims get a special pension by and before
May I echo the hon. Lady’s point? I think there is a nervousness in the Government caused by a fear that if this place legislates it is offending the nationalist community, but members of the nationalist community were victims of institutional abuse or victims of terrorism and they all want compensation and need pensions and to have justice for what they have suffered. We need to be bold and brave about this. We will do no favours for the nationalist community by not legislating on either historical institutional abuse or victims compensation.
I thank the hon. Lady for that very valuable contribution and I absolutely agree. This is so difficult to explain to victims and survivors. I know that the Minister will have found himself in this position as well—it is so difficult to explain to people a point of constitutional theory or purity. Quite frankly, given what has happened in this place over the course of the past few weeks and months, people have no time for that. What people want is action and what victims and survivors need is help to support them in their pain. They need financial security as they get into their older age and they need the Government to act. They can act, and I am asking the Government today to please commit to doing so as quickly as possible.
I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to this very interesting debate, and I thank my friend and parliamentary neighbour, Stephen Pound, for a typically generous welcome and a generous tribute to my predecessor, my hon. Friend John Penrose. I know my hon. Friend will appreciate that, and it is typical of the hon. Gentleman to take the time to express his appreciation of my hon. Friend’s work.
The hon. Member for Ealing North pressed me on the scope and timing of this, and what I will say is that the work on the architecture is relatively advanced. The debate has also thrown up some extremely complex issues that need to be worked through, not least in an environment where almost anything we do will be subject to quite robust challenge. He will appreciate the need to sweat things through.
Paul Girvan pressed me about the scope—physical, psychological and geographical. That work is relatively well advanced, and he will be aware that we have a backstop—if I am allowed to use that word—in the end of January deadline for producing regulation. That focuses minds in the system, as he will appreciate.
One of the most important questions to arise from the debate is that of legislation versus regulation. A powerful coalition has formed, comprising the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Emma Little Pengelly and my hon. Friend Maria Caulfield. I respect their view. A balance needs to be struck between recognising the need to engage, discuss, debate and build trust in whatever is proposed and the need to get on with things, but given the messages registered in the debate, I undertake to discuss that properly with the Secretary of State.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Belfast South on her truly interesting speech. I thank her for reminding us of the murder of Reverend Robert Bradford and all it represented in terms of affront to our democracy. I thank her also for reminding the House of the genesis of this long-standing campaign and the reality—the uncomfortable truth, as she described it—that we are talking about a period in which attitudes to disability were completely different from attitudes now. Attitudes to disability in the world of work and access to pensions were completely different then, and it is absolutely right that we respond to that change.
I wholly appreciate the hon. Lady’s point about the need for a victim-centred approach. One of the things that has struck me most during my engagement with victims —something I find unacceptable and uncomfortable—is how forgotten they feel and how disrespected for all this time. It is incumbent on us to do something about that.
I have listened carefully to the debate. There is one issue that the Minister has not touched on. The shadow Minister, Stephen Pound, referred in fulsome terms to the Northern Ireland Victims’ Commissioner and paid her a very warm tribute. Emma Little Pengelly was quite different; she was highly critical of the commissioner. I think that the Northern Ireland Office cannot remain silent on this issue. The Minister has the opportunity to state on the record that he and his colleagues in the Northern Ireland Office have full confidence in the Victims’ Commissioner. They have renewed her appointment for a year, so will the Minister do that?
I did not feel it needed to be said, because actions speak louder than words. The commissioner has been confirmed for another period of 12 months. I think the Secretary of State’s instinct is to ensure some continuity while making it clear that future decisions must be for the devolved institutions.
Does the Minister accept that this is not a question of whether he, the Secretary of State or indeed Members of this House have confidence in the Victims’ Commissioner? The commissioner, as my hon. Friend Emma Little Pengelly pointed out, is there to represent victims. If she does not have the confidence of victims, how can she possibly fulfil her role?
I understand the right hon. Gentleman’s point, and it is possible that the hon. Member for Belfast South intended to make a similar one, but I was pressed to clarify the Department’s position, which I have done. Let me be candid: in my meetings with victims groups, I have been struck by the strength of the expressions of precisely that lack of trust and confidence. When I meet the commissioner, I will press her to respond to those concerns, because if I were in that position and people were expressing those views, I would be worried. It is incumbent on her to respond appropriately.
To reach the coda will be welcome. I thought I addressed that point when I said that, as we finalise the architecture, a number of big issues—the biggest being eligibility, of course—need to be resolved. No decision on that has been taken and finalised, but as we finalise our proposals, we will go through proper processes of engagement, not least with the Labour party.
Regarding the earlier point, I emphasise again that my personal opinion does not matter; I was articulating the opinion of victims and survivors and that is why I said the commissioner’s position is unsustainable.
We are talking about overseas nationals, but there is another point on which I have yet to get clarity. It concerns the many soldiers in particular—there are others—from Scotland, Wales and England who served in Northern Ireland and who sustained injuries but are now living in mainland UK who may want to access the pension. Previously, it was thought that this would be funded through the Northern Ireland block grant, but of course there are citizens from outside Northern Ireland and who are currently living outside Northern Ireland who may need to benefit. Has the Minister considered that technical point and how to resolve it?
It is more than a technical point; it is a point of fairness. Both of those lines of inquiry reflect the fact that what was discussed through the Stormont House agreement, as I understand it, was relatively narrow in scope. We are discussing widening the scope and thinking through the consequences of doing so. I would not even be entertaining this conversation if our minds were not open to doing that, but it reinforces the need to think through the consequences, including the financial consequences, and the ability to defend any proposals.
My hon. Friend Emma Little Pengelly referred to people from Scotland, Wales and England who served in the Army. The same question applies to those from the Republic of Ireland who served in the British Army, of whom there is quite a number—sometimes, how many is underestimated. Will the same levels of compensation and pension apply to them, too?
The word “compensation” has come up several times. I think I should clarify that we are not talking about a compensation scheme. The victims payment scheme was originally crafted and designed to acknowledge the damage, harm and suffering that have occurred, and hopefully through those payments to make a difference to the dignity and quality of people’s lives. The hon. Gentleman presses me on the scope of a proposal that is wider than the one considered as part of the Stormont House agreement. We have to think it through and determine the degree to which we can hold a consensus.
To bring this to a close—I sense your approval, Madam Deputy Speaker—I wholly concur with the hon. Member for Belfast South on taking a victim-centred approach. I have been shocked by the way in which victims of the troubles have been left to feel neglected and disrespected. I feel strongly that we need to move forward on this agenda. One of the clear messages from the debate was the support for the guiding principle that we should constitute this scheme only as payments for those injured through no fault of her own. The hon. Lady pressed me for a commitment, and she is right: we can act, because this Parliament has rightly obliged us to so, and we will act, not just because the law requires us to do so if the Assembly is not up and running by
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
takes note of and approves the Report pursuant to Section 3(13) of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019—Victims’
Payments, which was laid before this House on Wednesday