The Secretary of State has asked me to pass on his apologies for not being able to answer this urgent question in person, as he is currently in Northern Ireland engaging in discussion on these and other matters and was unable to return to the House in time for it. I hope that the House will not mind, therefore, if I answer on his behalf. He has written to the hon. Lady, my hon. Friend Simon Hoare, the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, and the Victims’ Commissioner on this matter today.
Last summer, the House agreed that in the continuing absence of an Executive, the Government should make regulations establishing a troubles victims payment scheme. There was cross-party support for establishing the scheme, which was intended to provide much needed acknowledgement and a measure of additional financial support to those most seriously injured during the troubles. We made regulations establishing a victims payment scheme in January and did so, yes, to fulfil our legal obligation under the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019, but also because we are committed to doing what we can to progress a scheme that has been too long delayed by political disagreements. Having spoken personally to a number of victims’ groups and the Victims’ Commissioner in recent weeks, I am very aware of how long many people have waited for an acknowledgement of the physical distress and emotional trauma caused by injuries to themselves or loved ones during the troubles.
Much has been made in the media of the suggestion that funding is holding up the establishment of this scheme, but that is not the case. Funding is not preventing the Executive from being able to take the vital steps to unlock implementation; rather, the key step to unblocking the process is the designation of a Northern Ireland Executive Department to provide administrative support to the Victims’ Payments Board. I am afraid to say that despite this decision being the subject of discussion by Executive Ministers for some time and one on which the Secretary of State is currently engaging them in Northern Ireland, they have not yet designated a Department to lead on the implementation of this scheme. The Justice Minister is prepared to lead on the scheme, but Sinn Féin has been clear that it wants to reopen the criteria by which eligibility for the scheme will be determined. That is already set in legislation and provides a fair basis for helping those who suffered most throughout the troubles. It is therefore imperative that Sinn Féin, along with all the parties, enables the scheme to move forward, as the time for delay is gone.
The Government take this matter very seriously, and we are extremely disappointed by the current delay. It is because of the high priority we place on this issue that the Secretary of State has written to and had meetings with the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. We have been offering and providing all appropriate support to help progress the implementation of this scheme. I assure all right hon. and hon. Members that the UK Government are committed to seeing this matter progress; victims have waited too long for these payments. The Northern Ireland Executive committed to finding a way forward on this issue in 2014. The UK Government have provided that way forward, through the regulations made in January, following public consultation. The Executive must now set aside their political differences and deliver for victims.