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 Robin Walker Robin Walker The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office 12:08 pm, 4th June 2020

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for the chance to answer this urgent question, and it is an area on which the Government and Opposition have worked closely and constructively in the past. I share the sense of frustration that is palpable in her question, as does the Secretary of State, and she gave powerful examples of some of the victims who have been affected by the process. We want this scheme to be in place as soon as possible, and to ensure that people begin to see some acknowledgement of the suffering they have undergone.

The UK Government have complied fully with their legal duties by establishing a victims payment scheme in January. We welcomed the opportunity to do so, as we wanted progress on the scheme that has been delayed by political disagreements for too long. It is important to remember that this is a devolved matter, which the Executive were to take forward under the Stormont House agreement, and which they are legally obliged to implement under the provisions of the 2020 regulations.

We take the recent delays in the implementation of the scheme extremely seriously. As I said, the Secretary of State has spoken to the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to express his concern, and there have been multiple discussions with the parties in Northern Ireland. He will continue to raise this issue in his regular engagements with them, until such time as all parties, including Sinn Féin, have agreed a way forward.

We will continue to prioritise supporting the Executive in their delivery of the scheme for victims who have already waited too long. Officials from the Northern Ireland Office already provide support to the Executive Office on implementation, by advising officials about the intended effect of policy thinking behind the regulations. We stand ready to provide that guidance to the relevant Northern Ireland Department as soon as it is designated—this is a matter that that designation issue will unlock.

I appreciate the points that were raised about funding, but I wish to be clear that funding for the scheme is, and always was, to come from the block grant. This is a devolved matter, and devolved matters are traditionally funded from the block grant. Northern Ireland receives a generous financial settlement each year from the UK Government. It receives £12.6 billion for the block grant, and since January it has received £2 billion for the “New Decade, New Approach” programme, £1.2 billion in covid-19 support, and £216 million in the March Budget.

The Executive have tried to rely on a technical funding argument that because the UK Government decided the shape of the scheme, they should fund it. They also argued that it is our responsibility because the incidents took place largely during periods of direct rule. We are clear, however, that the Executive committed to establishing a scheme like this one in 2014, and the UK Government acted exceptionally in the absence of the Executive to legislate for it. Those were unprecedented times.

In the 2014 Stormont House agreement, the parties in Northern Ireland agreed that further work should be undertaken to seek an acceptable way forward and deliver on a scheme such as this. In the absence of an Executive, the UK Government consulted widely on our approach, including with the Northern Ireland parties, and in January we legislated to establish the scheme. We acted in a devolved area in exceptional circumstances—we have already heard about that today—and it is for the devolved Administration to fund the scheme. I agree with the hon. Lady that any attempt to reopen questions that have already been settled about the definition of victims, or the role of the independent panel, are totally unnecessary and would upset the vast majority of victims who we want to help with this scheme.

In conclusion, I reiterate the Secretary of State’s total commitment to seeing the Executive make progress on opening this scheme. The Executive are responsible for delivering this much needed scheme, and they must communicate a timetable for opening it urgently. The current delay and lack of clarity cannot be allowed to continue. Victims and survivors have waited too long, and the scheme must open as soon as reasonably practical.