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Historical Institutional Abuse (Northern Ireland) Bill [Lords]

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:49 pm on 5th November 2019.

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Photo of Julian Smith Julian Smith The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland 1:49 pm, 5th November 2019

We have begun a project management team between the Northern Ireland Office and the Northern Ireland civil service. I know that David Sterling and the Executive Office have spent time this week looking at how things can be accelerated, but I wish both to acknowledge the need to move quickly and to recognise the fact that this will take a bit of time. We need to get this legislation through, and then we need to get on with how we can press forward with this.

I want to pay tribute to the victims groups that I have engaged with over these past few months and that have engaged with my predecessors and other political leaders: Survivors North West, Survivors Together, the Rosetta Trust, and SAVIA—Survivors and Victims of Institutional Abuse. They have campaigned on behalf of the people they represent with strength and dignity. Many victims are old and ill. They have not only had their childhood and lives blighted, but they have had to wait, year after year, for the child abuse and what happened to them to be recognised.

At each meeting with the victims’ groups at Stormont House, I noticed that Jon McCourt from Survivors North West had a small battered copy of the Hart report laid on the table in front of him. There was huge hope and trust in that copy of the report that there might finally be acknowledgement for what he and his friends had had done to them as children. Jon has held that copy of the report close, gripping it tightly for three long years, meeting politician after politician, civil servant after civil servant—anyone who could make a difference in getting redress. The battered cover of Jon’s report, once blue, has now faded. That report contains the grimmest details of the twisted blows laid on the hope and innocence of the children taken into care in Northern Ireland at different times over much of the 20th century. It details how the Kincora hostel in Belfast was completely captured by three child abusers for the same number of decades, leaving them free to anally rape and masturbate at will those boys they were meant to protect.

The report details the impact of the child migrant scheme to Australia. Witness HIA 324 describes his experiences in his statement, as follows:

“My life in institutions has had a profound impact on me. I have always wondered what it would be like to have had a family—a mother and father and brothers and sisters. I never got the chance to find out because I was sent to Australia. We were exported to Australia like little baby convicts. It is hard to understand why they did it…
I still cannot get over the fact that I was taken away from a family I never got the chance to know. I was treated like an object, taken from one place to another…
I have a nightmare every night of my life. I relive my past and am happy when daylight comes.”

HIA 324 was born in 1938 and was 75 when he spoke those words to the inquiries team in Perth in 2013, but he died before he could sign his statement.

The Hart report highlights how the congregations that supported the four Sisters of Nazareth homes were well aware of the physical and emotional abuse happening in those homes, but did nothing to stop it. The report details how the Sisters of Nazareth would regularly conceal or ignore the presence of the sisters or brothers of those children in their care, hiding them from them. The report details the assault of girls in Nazareth House, with one case in which a girl had her head banged against white tiles for not washing properly. She recalled that there was blood all over the white tiles, and she suffered hearing problems afterwards.

The report details how the Norbertine Order, and then diocese after diocese, failed to stop Father Smyth, a known abuser, from travelling the length and breadth of Northern Ireland and Ireland, abusing hundreds of children. The report confirmed that at Rubane House, boys were sexually abused throughout the four decades that the home operated. It was not just sexual abuse; page after page of the report details the bullying, the use of Jeyes fluid and the confidence attacks on menstruating girls and on young children who wet their beds. The report outlines failure after failure by statutory authorities and the Government to ask the right questions, to show basic levels of care, or to follow up on the condition of those children sent thousands of miles away to Australia.

The Bill, which we hope to pass today, cannot undo the acts perpetrated on the victims, and it does not extend to the other areas of the UK that are currently being addressed by the child abuse inquiry here in London and a similar inquiry in Scotland, but it will show to Northern Ireland victims that action has been taken, and I hope that in a short time similar action can be taken, through legislation, for the rest of the UK.

I started off by thanking the number of colleagues who have helped to get this Bill delivered today, those who have worked on the Hart report and those who have worked to support this legislation, but this is not our Bill; it is the Bill of the victims and survivors, and of their representatives, some of whom are present today. For anyone involved at whatever stage, it has been a humbling experience to work with Northern Ireland victims and survivors who suffered child abuse while in care. The resilience and humanity of the victims should drive us all in our daily responsibility to every child, whether through our families, our work, our responsibilities or our communities.

Victims were let down not just by the perpetrators and institutions, but by the Churches, councils and Governments who were meant to look after them—standing by, ignoring, not checking, turning a blind eye. People knew at the time. The De La Salle Order set down guidelines for the physical layout of its buildings to ensure that behaviour could be observed at all times—for example, on how windows should be placed in doors to ensure clear sight of what was going on in rooms:

“The Brother Director shall be careful that the parlour doors have glazed panels without curtains in such a manner that the interior may be easily seen.”

The ultimate legacy of the Northern Ireland victims and all child abuse victims, from the Hart report and from the Bill, must be for us all to ensure that we do everything within our power to protect children.

“When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child;
but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”

Child abuse victims never had their full childhood and were then held hostage by the experiences that they had throughout their lives. I hope that the Bill goes some way towards providing Northern Ireland victims with redress, and for other victims throughout our country, I hope that their time for redress will come very soon. I commend the Bill to the House.