Victims of the Troubles: Payment Scheme

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:08 pm on 4th June 2020.

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Photo of Louise Haigh Louise Haigh Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland 12:08 pm, 4th June 2020

Thank you for granting this urgent question on this important and sensitive topic, Mr Deputy Speaker. I thank the Minister for his response, and the Secretary of State for speaking to me last night and writing to me about the issue this morning. Last year, we were proud to join cross-party efforts to introduce the victims’ payment scheme, as has been laid out by the Minister, to provide a measure of support and, crucially, acknowledgement to those whose lives were devastated by the troubles. I wish to pay a particular tribute to my noble Friend Lord Peter Hain; to the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Julian Smith, who is in his place; and to the many victims and groups in Northern Ireland who have been campaigning for this for so many decades, not least the WAVE Trauma Centre. Clearly, nothing will ever take away a lifetime fundamentally altered by sickening acts of violence, but ensuring victims can live in dignity was and still must be our overriding principle. I know it is one the Minister is deeply committed to, and I do not, for a moment, doubt his personal commitment to making sure those promises made to victims in Northern Ireland are now honoured. However, last Friday the deadline for the payments that victims are entitled to in law came and went.

The legal obligation under that law, passed here in Westminster, to start processing payments was not met, and victims in Northern Ireland and across the rest of the UK have looked on in horror. Many victims have waited a lifetime for some measure of support, and there is simply no excuse for victims to be so cruelly denied that support once again. They are victims such as Alex Bunting, who lost his leg when the IRA planted a bomb in his taxi in 1991, in a case of mistaken identity, and who has since campaigned on behalf of all victims of the troubles, from all communities. They are victims such as Paul Gallagher, whom I have met on two occasions. He was shot by loyalist gunmen who were waiting to attack an ex-republican prisoner who lived nearby but who tired of waiting for their target and fired into the Gallaghers’ living room with a submachine gun, leaving him permanently disabled. Despite that horrifying experience, Paul has described the past week, in which he has seen something he has fought so hard to see achieved not delivered, as the worst week of his life. It is hard to overestimate how re-traumatising this experience has been for many victims. All of us, as politicians, have a moral and legal responsibility now to get this scheme over the line. The legislation has been passed, the debates have been had and no one should be standing in its way. The legislation, as passed, allows a judicial panel to determine on the more controversial cases, so any attempts to frustrate this or reopen questions over eligibility are not only disrespectful to victims, but utterly misplaced.

In that spirit, I would like to ask the Minister a number of questions. He said that funding is not at issue, but the First Minister has said:

“It is unseemly that these deserving people are being let down due to the Government not releasing funding.”

So can he confirm what funding is with the Executive now and in place in order to implement this scheme? Can he further explain to the House whose responsibility it is to issue guidance and whether the Secretary of State will issue draft guidance to a Department when it is designated? It is very welcome to hear that the Department of Justice stands ready to be designated.

Will the Minister further confirm that the regulations are explicitly permissive and allow significant scope for the judicial board to consider cases on an individual basis, and that controversial cases should not be holding up payments to victims as a whole? What discussions have been held with the Lord Chief Justice and the Northern Ireland Judicial Appointments Commissioner to ensure that once a department is designated, victims can have confidence that the payment board and president will be in place very quickly? Finally, does he accept that way victims have been treated, finding out about delays to the scheme almost by accident has, in the words of Judith Thompson, the Commissioner for Victims and Survivors, literally added insult to injury? This cannot be another false dawn for the victims of the troubles. Surely it is now time for all of us, Westminster and Stormont, to meet our moral and legal obligations, and finally to deliver the pension and acknowledgement that so many have waited so long for.