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Historical Institutional Abuse (Northern Ireland) Bill [Lords]

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:14 pm on 5th November 2019.

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Photo of Steve Pound Steve Pound Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland) 2:14 pm, 5th November 2019

I have to say that this is not an easy day to be in the House—it is not an easy time to hear the Secretary of State’s words—and I pay wholehearted tribute to him for quite simply one of the most powerful speeches I have ever heard in my 22 years on these Benches. He spoke from the heart and he spoke from a deep humanity. We have to pay tribute to him for those words, which were extraordinary and remarkable. Please God, may they provide a grain of comfort to some people who have suffered for so long.

It is also appropriate that we mention Sir Anthony Hart, who did an extraordinary amount of work. We must pay credit to him. I also pay credit to the Secretary of State’s predecessor, Karen Bradley, who is present. She dedicated a huge amount of energy to this issue, as did her team and the Secretary of State’s team. I also pay credit to the Northern Ireland Office and the Northern Ireland civil service for the amount of work that has been done. How painful and agonising it must have been for them to have had to work in these circumstances. For me, to read the words is almost unimaginable, yet those to whom they refer are suffering a hundred times more than any of us could ever be.

As the Secretary of State said, the First Minister and Deputy First Minister agreed the terms of reference back on 31 May 2012; however, the inquiry goes back nearly 100 years, to 1922. Who can even begin to imagine the cavalcade of agony that has passed in those 100 years? Who can imagine those children whose bodies were broken, but whose hearts and spirits were also broken—who suffered in a way that, please God, we will never, ever have to contemplate again? When the Secretary of State quoted from St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, it made me think about what the victims thought as children. What did those children think of the adult world—the place of safety that they were being taken to? What did those children think? As adults, did they have any trust, faith or belief in the base humanity, having faced that?

Today, we are undertaking a unique piece of legislation. There has never been a Bill like this on the Floor of the House—it has never happened in this way before. It is absolutely right and appropriate that we take extraordinary, unusual steps, because this is such an extraordinary occasion. We must place on record, here and now, our determination that this will never, ever happen again. Every one of us, be we lay, be religious, be we politicians—whomsoever we be, anyone of us who has any contact with children’s services must make absolutely sure and swear in our heart of hearts that we will never, ever walk by on the other side of the road. We should never, ever be those people who turned a blind eye, as we heard in the agonising statement from the priest that was read out earlier.

We cannot make it right—we cannot repair those broken hearts and broken bodies—but by doing what we will today, by offering some form of redress, some form of compensation, we will hopefully allow closure. We will hopefully be able to say that this House has heard. Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson spoke magnificently earlier about the way the House has risen. When we think of some of the activities that take place in this House, today’s statement shows in sharp relief some of the things that happen here that are less noble—that are often ignoble. Today, the House has risen to a higher standard. It is entirely appropriate that is on this occasion that we have risen.

There are many questions still to be asked. This is still a draining emotional occasion. We should pay tribute, once and for all, to the right hon. Secretary of State for the footwork he has shown. It is unheard of for legislation to come through in this way. As recently as last week, we heard that the Whips Office would not allow it and it was not going to happen, yet somehow, with the involvement of the Government, the Opposition, officials, civil servants and even the palace, the Bill has come to the House and will go through.

Let us thank Brendan McAllister, the interim advocate, for the work that he has done. Let us follow up on some of the interventions that have been made already by right hon. and hon. Members representing Northern Ireland parties, and let us take the opportunity to say that this is one of the rare occasions when the House comes together, regardless of our party and of any form of religious, political or social affiliation. We are as one in this House in swearing that this cannot happen again, this must not happen again and the victims must get redress, must get compensation, must get respect and, please God, must get closure on this.

The behaviour of politicians of all parties and of all communities in Northern Ireland has been exemplary. I know how difficult it is. I have met victims groups, as has the Secretary of State. To sit in a room opposite someone describing the most appalling nightmare—a nightmare that is hard for any human being to envisage—is an experience that none of us came into politics to undergo, yet it is right that we came into politics to resolve this horror and this agony. I cannot say too much about how impressed I was by the victims groups that I met. Their courage and bravery is astounding. I hope—I know—that all Members in this House feel the same way and say with one voice how much respect we have for them.

I hope that some of the technical questions that were asked earlier by right hon. and hon. Members from Northern Ireland can be addressed. The question of the speed of the recompense payments is, of course, an issue to be resolved. It would be marvellous if some indication could be given to the victims before Christmas—it would be wonderful if they at least had some idea about what was happening. In addition, we would like to know when the staff will be in place for the redress board. It is important to say that we have to establish the bureaucracy, if it has not already been established.

I noticed that no additional resources were allocated in the recent Budget. Does that mean that they will actually come within the next financial year? Following the question from Paul Girvan, will they come from this year’s budget, or will there be some additional funding mechanism? Those are technical questions. In some ways, they are almost otiose in the context of what we have heard today. Technical questions, compensation and redress are important, but the single most important thing that we in this House do today is to pay credit and tribute to the victims, to their families and to their relatives, and to say that politics in the past may have let them down, but today, politics and this House will not let them down. We will respect them, we will cherish them and we will do everything—everything—we can to ensure that they finally receive the redress that they so deserve.