With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
This amendment would require the ICRIR to comprise three other Commissioners, in addition to the Chief Commissioner and the Commissioner for Investigations. It is linked to an amendment to leave out paragraph 6 of Schedule 1.
Amendment 75, page 3, line 22, after “Troubles” insert
“sexual offences linked to conduct forming part of the Troubles”.
Amendment 74, page 3, line 25, at end insert—
“(4A) At least one Commissioner should have significant international experience or expertise.”
This amendment would include in the ICRIR’s functions referring Troubles-related sexual offences to prosecutors.
Amendment 76, page 3, line 41, at end insert
This amendment would require the ICRIR to provide a copy of its annual reports to Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Clause 2 stand part.
Amendment 91, in schedule 1, page 48, line 34, leave out paragraph 6.
This amendment would require the ICRIR to comprise three other Commissioners, in addition to the Chief Commissioner and the Commissioner for Investigations. It is linked to an amendment to Clause 2(3).
Amendment 113, page 48, line 37, at end insert—
‘(1A) The Secretary of State must convene the appointments panel before appointing the Commissioners.
(1B) In this Schedule “appointments panel” means—
(a) the Attorney General for Northern Ireland,
(b) a member of the Commission for Victims and Survivors for Northern Ireland,
(c) the person who is the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, and
(d) a person with experience of managing major criminal investigations, appointed to the panel by the Northern Ireland Justice Minister.
(1C) The appointments panel must make a recommendation in relation to the appointment of a Commissioner.
(1D) Any such recommendation must be made with the agreement of all the members of the appointments panel.
(1E) The Secretary of State must act in accordance with the recommendation of the appointments panel in appointing a person to be a Commissioner.’
This amendment would require the Secretary of State to gain the approval of an appointments panel before appointing a commissioner.
Amendment 92, page 49, line 8, at end insert—
‘(4A) The term of office of a person appointed as a Commissioner under paragraph 7(1) must not begin before—
(a) the person has, in connection with the appointment, appeared before the relevant select committee of the House of Commons, and
(b) the House of Commons has approved the appointment by resolution no earlier than 10 sitting days after the person appeared before the relevant select committee of the House of Commons.
(4B) Sub-paragraph (4A) does not apply if the person is appointed as a Commissioner on an acting basis, pending a further appointment being made.
(4C) The reference to the relevant select committee of the House of Commons—
(b) if the name of a Committee is changed, is a reference to that Committee by its new name, and
(c) if the functions of those Committees (or substantially corresponding functions) become functions of a different Committee or Committees of the House of Commons, is to be treated as a reference to the Committee or Committees by which the functions are exercisable.
(4D) Any question arising under sub-paragraph (4C) is to be determined by the Speaker of the House of Commons.’
This amendment would require the appointment of Commissioners to be subject to parliamentary scrutiny and approval.
That schedule 1 be the First schedule to the Bill.
Clause 3 stand part.
Amendment 77, in clause 4, page 4, line 19, after “would” insert “reasonably”.
Amendment 78, page 4, line 21, after “would” insert “reasonably”.
Amendment 79, page 4, line 23, after “would” insert “reasonably”.
Clause 4 stand part.
Amendment 80, in clause 5, page 4, line 35, leave out “reasonably”.
This amendment would remove a limitation on the material which the Commissioner of Investigations may require a relevant authority to make available to the ICRIR.
Amendment 81, page 4, line 38, leave out “may” and insert “must”.
Amendment 82, page 5, line 1, leave out “, in the view of that authority, may” and insert “are”.
Clauses 5 and 6 stand part.
That schedule 2 be the Second schedule to the Bill.
Clauses 7 and 8 stand part.
Amendment 83, in clause 9, page 7, line 43, leave out from “subsection (1)” to end of line 44.
This amendment would remove the condition of appropriateness for another family member to make a request for a review where there are no close family members of the deceased.
Clause 9 stand part.
That schedule 3 be the Third schedule to the Bill.
Clause 10 stand part.
Amendment 84, in clause 11, page 9, line 35, at end insert—
‘(3A) A request for a review may be re-submitted to accord with the form or manner required by the Commissioner for Investigations.’
Clauses 11 and 12 stand part.
Amendment 111, in clause 13, page 11, line 10, at end insert—
‘(3A) The Commissioner for Investigations must ensure that each review—
(a) has access to all information, documents and other material held by Government Agencies that may be reasonably required for the exercise of the review,
(b) establishes whether any forensic opportunities exist to identify those responsible for a potential Troubles-related offence,
(c) identifies and engages any potential witnesses, members of the security forces or other persons who may be able to assist in identifying who is responsible for the Troubles-related offence,
(d) is conducted with integrity and objectivity, conforming to nationally recognised standards,
(e) does not overlook any investigative opportunities, and
(f) identifies and shares investigative and organisational best practice.’
This amendment would ensure that any review conducted by the ICRIR is carried out in line with the standards for Operation Kenova, the investigation into activities linked to an alleged British Army agent, known as Stakeknife.
Amendment 112, page 11, line 15, at end insert—
‘(4A) When exercising the powers conferred by subsection (4), the Commissioner for Investigations must ensure that each review is carried out in a timely manner.’
See explanatory statement for Amendment 111.
Clauses 13 and 14 stand part.
Amendment 95, in schedule 4, page 62, line 39, leave out “£1,000” and insert “£5,000”.
This amendment would increase the penalty for failure to comply with a notice under section 14 requiring the supply of information to the Commissioner for Investigations.
That schedule 4 be the Fourth schedule to the Bill.
Clauses 15 to 17 stand part.
Amendment 96, in clause 18, page 16, line 10, leave out “A to C” and insert “A to D”.
This is a paving amendment for Amendment 98.
Amendment 97, page 16, line 30, at end insert—
‘(6) If Condition C is not met because P’s account is found by the panel to be not true to the best of P’s knowledge and belief, the Chief Commissioner must direct the Commissioner for Investigations to submit a prosecution file to the Public Prosecution Service for consideration and direction.’
This amendment is intended to reduce the risk of claimants deliberately misleading the panel.
Amendment 98, page 16, line 30, at end insert—
‘(6A) Condition D: P has not fled the jurisdiction of any court in the United Kingdom [or Ireland] after being arrested or charged or being the subject of a warrant issued in connection with any Troubles-related offence.’
This amendment is intended to prevent the grant of immunity to any person subject to active proceedings who has moved abroad to escape prosecution.
Amendment 99, page 16, line 31, leave out “A to C” and insert “A to D”.
This amendment is consequential on Amendment 98.
Amendment 85, page 16, line 37, after “offences” insert “excluding rape and other serious sexual offences”.
This amendment would exclude rape and other serious sexual offences from immunity from prosecution.
Amendment 100, page 16, line 38, leave out subsections (9) to (12).
This probing amendment is one of a series removing general immunity from the Bill.
Amendment 115, page 17, line 7, at end insert—
‘(12A) But certain offences of sexual violence listed in Schedule (Exempt offences) must not be treated as within the scope of immunity from prosecution.’
This amendment is linked to NS1.
Amendment 101, page 17, leave out lines 13 and 14.
This probing amendment is one of a series removing general immunity from the Bill.
Amendment 102, page 17, leave out lines 21 and 22.
This probing amendment is one of a series removing general immunity from the Bill.
Amendment 119, page 17, line 24, at end insert—
‘(16A) Nothing in this Act confers any immunity from prosecution (after immunity has been granted to P) if P commits an offence under section 1 (encouragement of terrorism) of the Terrorism Act 2006 or section (Offence of glorifying terrorism: Northern Ireland) of this Act.’
Clauses 18 and 19 stand part.
Amendment 86, in clause 20, page 19, line 1, leave out subsection (4).
This amendment is intended to remove the possibility of immunity being granted solely on the basis of a perpetrator’s claims made with no corroboration.
Amendment 105, page 19, leave out lines 23 and 24.
This probing amendment is one a series removing general immunity from the Bill.
Amendment 106, page 19, leave out lines 26 and 27.
This probing amendment is one a series removing general immunity from the Bill.
Clause 20 stand part.
Amendment 87, in clause 21, page 19, line 41, at end insert—
‘(2A) The same panel membership must hear the whole of an immunity request.’
Amendment 88, page 20, line 3, at end insert—
‘(3A) Where a panel has been reconstituted in accordance with subsection (3), the reconstituted panel must hear the whole immunity request afresh.’
Clauses 21 and 22 stand part.
Amendment 89, in clause 23, page 21, line 6, leave out “reasonable”.
Amendment 90, page 21, line 16, leave out paragraphs (4) and (5).
Clauses 23 to 25 stand part.
That schedule 5 be the Fifth schedule to the Bill.
That schedule 6 be the Sixth schedule to the Bill.
Clauses 26 and 27 stand part.
That schedule 7 be the Seventh schedule to the Bill.
Clauses 28 to 32 stand part.
New schedule 1—Exempt Offences—
‘1 The following offences are not to be treated as within the scope of immunity from prosecution (see section 18 (12A)).
2 An offence under any provision of the Sexual Offences Act 1956.
3 An offence under section 1 of the Indecency with Children Act 1960 (indecent conduct towards child under 14).
4 An offence under section 54 of the Criminal Law Act 1977 (inciting child under 16 to commit incest).
5 An offence under section 1 of the Protection of Children Act 1978 (indecent photographs of children).
6 An offence under section 160 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 (possession of indecent photograph of a child).
7 An offence under any provision of the Sexual Offences Act 2003.
8 An offence under section 63 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 (possession of extreme pornographic images).
9 An offence under section 62 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 (possession of prohibited images of children).
10 An offence under section 33 of the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015 (disclosing private sexual photographs and films with intent to cause distress).
11 An offence under section 2 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 (human trafficking) committed with a view to exploitation that consists of or includes behaviour within section 3(3) of that Act (sexual exploitation).
12 An offence at common law of outraging public decency.
13 A reference in paragraphs 2 to 14 to an offence (“offence A”) includes—
(a) a reference to an attempt to commit offence A,
(b) a reference to a conspiracy to commit offence A,
(c) a reference to incitement to commit offence A,
(d) a reference to an offence under Part 2 of the Serious Crime Act 2007 in relation to which offence A is the offence (or one of the offences) which the person intended or believed would be committed, and
(e) a reference to aiding and abetting, counselling or procuring the commission of offence A.’
This new schedule would exclude sexual offences from being granted immunity, and is linked to Amendment 115.
It is a humbling experience to come before the Committee to deal with the first of the two days in Committee of the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill.
On Monday evening, I attended an event at Queen’s University Belfast hosted by the vice-chancellor Professor Ian Greer, where we heard video messages from President Clinton, Sir Tony Blair and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, and we heard speeches from me and the former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern. We gathered to pay tribute to my right hon. and noble Friend Lord Trimble, to thank him for his career of service in Northern Ireland and to thank his wife Daphne for her support of him over all those years. In my remarks, I said that we thanked him for his courage to compromise, his conviction to lead and his audacity to dream. I reflected on how much Northern Ireland has changed over the years since the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, of which he was such a key part.
The measure before the Committee is an attempt to try to continue the process of moving Northern Ireland on. I begin by genuinely and humbly saying that these measures are difficult, are a compromise and are contested. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who has had the courage to grapple with this issue when many others in the years since the Belfast/Good Friday agreement simply decided that it was too difficult.
The Minister quite rightly says that the proposals are contested, and he is accurate in that. Does he agree that the most important people in this equation—the innocent victims of many, many terrorist activities—are the ones who find the proposals most contestable, and they are totally and utterly opposed to them?
Where I agree with the hon. Gentleman is on the fact that the victim must be absolutely at the heart of what we are trying to do. It is our contention that the measures are victim-centric, but they also acknowledge that the current system has not been delivering for victims as we think they deserve.
The Minister of State mentioned that he was at Queen’s University. He will know that Edgar Graham was murdered just outside the university, and no one was ever held accountable for that crime. When it comes to settling things, my colleagues, my constituents and I want total accountability in the process. We want accountability for those who murdered Edgar Graham, who murdered the four Ulster Defence Regiment men—my constituents—at Ballydugan, who murdered my cousin Kenneth, who murdered Daniel McCormick and who murdered Lexie Cummings. Will the Minister of State tell me, the Committee and my constituents how there will be any accountability in the process when the people who did that are getting off scot-free and will never be held accountable? That is exactly what the legislation will do.
I understand why the hon. Gentleman makes that point. It is our responsibility to explain in greater detail how the legislation will help to recover information and get knowledge to families and those who are still grieving for profound and unimaginable losses. At the event on Monday, we heard from Professor Lord Bew, who spoke of many memories of hearing bombs and of people being murdered in the vicinity of Queen’s University. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has explained on multiple occasions, however, we are starting from a position where the current mechanisms are not delivering for victims. There was never going to be a perfect way to do that, but this is an attempt to try to get better processes in place.
Is that not precisely the point of what the Government are trying to do—to act in the art of the possible? Everybody would like every single crime to be punished and all perpetrators to be held to account, but that process has been done to death over 25 years and it has not produced results for the victims.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. If the mechanisms currently in place were working and delivering, we would not be bringing this legislation before the House. As my right hon. Friend, who has joined me on the Front Bench, and I have acknowledged on multiple occasions, this is not a piece of legislation that we are heralding; it is an attempt to try to make things better in Northern Ireland by trying to bring a degree of information to those who simply want to know what happened to their loved ones.
The Minister says that he wants to put victims at the centre, that he wants to provide information and transparency, and all that. There were a number of victims on the estate last night. They were families of people—of children, actually—who were murdered during the conflict. One of those children was Julie Livingstone. She was 14 years old in Lenadoon in west Belfast in 1981, and she was shot by the British Army and killed. Her file has been closed until 2064. How can Julie Livingstone’s family believe this Government when they say they want to give accountability, truth and transparency?
The unimaginable tragedy and grief that people in Northern Ireland experienced is understood, as much as it is humanly capable of being understood by those who did not go through it. I am sorry that I could not attend the hon. Gentleman’s meeting last night. I received the email to my parliamentary email address; I was travelling back from Northern Ireland and did not return to Westminster in time to come. I would have been delighted and humbled to come and meet those people who came to Westminster, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have met victims’ families and victims groups across Northern Ireland in the process of getting the Bill to where it is.
One of the reasons why my right hon. Friend and I have taken the time that we have taken, as we have both said, is to get the Bill right, and to make sure that what we are proposing will work. Colum Eastwood is absolutely right that the test of the Bill will be when the information recovery body is up and running and functioning—when people can refer cases to it and when the British state transfers to it the documents that we have at our disposal. The test will be in the delivery of that body for victims and families.
The Minister is outlining to the Committee that he wants to get this right. It is a fundamental part of scrutiny in this House that the Committee is meeting on the Floor of the House today and will meet again on Monday, and that scores of amendments have been tabled to get this right. I had a meeting with the Secretary of State on Monday, and we discussed amendments. He knows from Second Reading that there is no consequence should somebody choose not to engage in this process, and for those who do engage, there is no consequence for lying. Those amendments are before the Committee today, and the Government can engage with them. Will they accept some of them? Is there any update from the meeting on Monday?
The hon. Gentleman makes an incredibly valid point. I will build, if I may, on the points that I made in reply to the hon. Member for Foyle. We have deliberately taken time to get this right. The Bill has evolved from the Command Paper that was published in July 2021. We are determined to get this as right as we can and make sure that it delivers. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said, and as I have said repeatedly, where we think amendments could improve the objectives of delivering for victims and increasing the attractiveness of engaging with the independent commission—and potentially making the sanction for not engaging stronger—we are absolutely up for that.
As Gavin Robinson knows, the other day I was in the primary school that his son goes to. We were unveiling the shortlist for our platinum jubilee rug competition in alliance with Ulster Carpets. Our motivation is to make absolutely sure—as much as we can—that those young people grow up in a society that acknowledges a past but is no longer defined by something called “the past”. We believe that these proposals will edge Northern Ireland society further in that, I hope, noble ambition.
Further to the intervention by Gavin Robinson, the Minister will know that I have expressed my support for the Bill, caveated by the fact that it is by no means perfect. It is far from perfect; it has lots of flaws, and we ought to iron some of them out. However, on Second Reading, I said quite categorically to our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that one of the key issues that victims need to see settled is what happens to those who do not take part and those who are demonstrated to have lied to the commission. At present, they will get a two-year tariff even if they have committed the most heinous murders. Will we move to a position whereby those who play no part in the process, and those who are proven to have lied deliberately, lay themselves open to the normal criminal justice process and a full-life tariff for heinous crimes?
I am incredibly grateful to my right hon. Friend. His contribution on Second Reading impacted powerfully on me and on my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, and we have been having discussions and deliberations internally about how, as we progress the Bill, we can address to his satisfaction some of the points that he makes, which are made sincerely and with conviction and are solid. We believe that his motivation, if carefully enacted, could improve the proposals that are before the Committee today.
My right hon. Friend Sir Iain Duncan Smith has just taken the words out of my mouth; I wanted to ask the question that he asked. As I understand it, if those who we want brought to book—terrorists, in particular—do not come and give evidence when asked to do so, they will still be subject to the full force of the law. However, at the moment, the most that anyone could be jailed for is two years. I, as well as many who served out there, the victims and those who have suffered, want those who are found guilty to go to jail for a very long time indeed.
My hon. Friend echoes the powerful words of my right hon. Friend Sir Iain Duncan Smith. This is exactly what Parliament is for, and this is what Committee stage is for. We do not claim to have a monopoly on wisdom or righteousness in the Northern Ireland Office. We have some incredibly bright officials, who have supported my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in the development of these proposals, but we also want to draw on the collective wisdom and insight of this House as we progress the legislation. I just say to my hon. Friend that I have no doubt that we will return to this and the Government will have more to say on it as the Bill progresses.
As the Minister is aware, victims are incredibly upset and retraumatised by the Bill. Often, they feel uninvolved in the process. As well as consulting the House, what thought have the Government given to reigniting a discussion with victims during proceedings on the Bill?
There has been a significant amount of engagement by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and me, and our officials, with victims groups, families and others, not just in Northern Ireland. As my right hon. Friend Julian Smith will understand from his previous incarnation, a lot of that is not very visible. A lot of it is in private, at the request of some of the organisations and families. That consultation—that listening—is not an event; it is a process, and it is ongoing. In addition to listening to this House, we will listen to those who need to be our motivation for the Bill—the victim is at the heart of this legislation. I cannot pretend for a moment to my right hon. Friend that we would expect an outbreak of consensus among victims and families, because we are seeking to legislate in a contested space, on which there are very strongly held and deeply emotional sentiments. I have consistently been struck by the range of views on what victims and families want to happen. This is not a tax Bill where there is a right or wrong answer. It will be contested, but the Secretary of State and I and officials in the Northern Ireland Office will continue to engage as the Bill progresses through the House.
Let us be blunt about what the Minister has summarised so far. The best that anyone can hope for is to get, from the lips of the people who carried out the crimes, information about what they did—and that is it. The worst scenario could be that the individual who carried out the crime lies through their teeth and has no sanction placed on them. The Bill does not even give people an incentive to tell the truth. Is that not the reason why the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend Gavin Robinson should be accepted—voted on and approved by the Government? At least that would stop people lying or give them a disincentive to lie about their crimes.
The Government welcome the motivation behind the amendments from the hon. Member for Belfast East. We are looking at how that motive could best be translated into the Bill. I do not agree with what Sammy Wilson said about the information recovery body. We talk about reviews and so on, but the body will have full police powers. We are not setting up some sort of seminar. If people do not engage with the body, it will be able to pass information to the prosecutorial services in Northern Ireland and people could go before the courts. This is about trying to find a mechanism to get information to victims and families about what went on.
By the way, another assumption that lies behind a lot of the debate about the Bill is that somehow just agents of the state will be looked at. It is worth remembering that the state holds much intelligence about other actors who were not acting on behalf of the state. That information will also be furnished to the body, which can make inquiries into that.
The Minister is so generous; his days in Ballycastle served him well. He says that he wishes to improve the Bill, and we have to take that at face value. Many cross-party and cross-community amendments have been tabled from across the House and we want to test his sincerity. Will the Government accept amendment 115, for example? It states that
“certain offences of sexual violence listed in Schedule (Exempt offences) must not be treated as within the scope of immunity from prosecution.”
What is the argument against including that in the Bill?
I expect that we will turn to amendment 115 in greater detail throughout the afternoon and into the evening. It is our view, given the scope of the Bill, that sexual offences would not be within the scope of the panel. We do not believe that sexual offences can be defined as being troubles-related. A rape is a rape. It is not a republican rape or a loyalist rape; it is a crime—a hateful, heinous crime. It will absolutely be the right of the House to test that—
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would give me a second. It will absolutely be the right of this House and another place to test that. If the House comes to a conclusion that there needs to be greater clarification, the Government, the Secretary of State and I will listen incredibly closely, because that concern is clearly being expressed. We do not believe, however, that the Bill, as drafted, would see sexual offences fall under the competence or purview of the information recovery body to grant immunity in that space.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. Ian Paisley is right to point to the cross-party nature of proposals. Amendment 85, in my name, addresses this issue, but amendment 115 really should be unarguable. I hear precisely what the Minister says—that the Government believe something—but he recognises the seriousness of the crime and there is a firm belief that sexual intimidation, sexual violence and rape were used as a tool of intimidation and criminality during the troubles. For the sake of clarity and the peace of mind of those who are concerned about this issue, I hope that the Government could move on it. That would provide peace of mind on a point of argument which, frankly, should not be an argument.
I listen very carefully to what my hon. Friend the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee says. The Secretary of State and I were again discussing this issue in detail yesterday, this morning and just now, as we have done many times in recent months. The Government’s view is that sexual offences would be outside the scope of the Bill. If we need to bring greater clarity to that, we are listening and we will find a way to do that, but we believe passionately and sincerely that that is not within the scope of the Bill before the Committee today.
I am very grateful. Let us be absolutely clear: nobody is doubting the sincerity on this issue of either the Minister or the Secretary of State—both are on the Front Bench today. However, belief and certainty are two entirely different things. Would it not be much better to have the provision in the Bill so that belief, certainty or whatever is immaterial? It would be in the Bill and be very clear for everybody to see. This is a very simple ask. I am not asking the Minister to do this today; I am asking for due consideration of the issue in the other place in order to provide certainty and peace of mind, which would not rely on belief or understanding of any Minister at any time. The face of the Bill is the place for the provision.
I hear clearly what my hon. Friend says. We will need to find a way to bring greater clarity to this issue. However, I restate our view that someone coming to the information recovery body and saying that they had committed rape would not be eligible for immunity from the body for that offence. If we need to find greater clarity on that, we will find a way to do that.
I have letters in front of me to rape victims declaring that they are victims of troubles-related activity. Where do the Minister’s words leave victims who have received letters stating clearly that they are troubles-related victims, and how do they avoid their perpetrators being able to seek an amnesty?
I entirely understand my right hon. Friend’s point. This hinges on the definition of “troubles-related” in the Bill. It is our belief that it would not be in the scope of what we are proposing to the Committee.
Perhaps it would be helpful for me to put a case to the Minister. Let us say, for example, that somebody committed a terrorist offence, in the course of which they committed a sexual offence such as rape. They put themselves forward on the basis that they committed a terrorist attack, but the sexual offence is a criminal offence—it should be a criminal offence, not a terrorist offence. My point is that they would get cleared due to the fact that it was locked into the troubles, because it was committed at the same time. The individual who suffered rape would then have no recourse to the courts. Will my right hon. Friend take away a commitment to review the matter and come back categorically, if necessary on Report, with a way in which this issue can be specific, clear and obvious in the Bill?
I am absolutely happy to give that explicit undertaking to my right hon. Friend and the Committee today. The fact of an offence having been committed during the period of the troubles does not make that offence troubles-related. That is key.
I respect the tone that my right hon. Friend is taking on this very sensitive subject, but we know that rape is often used as a weapon of war; it is a subject that we speak about more and more in this place. The Prime Minister recently endorsed from the Dispatch Box the view that rape as a weapon of war is equivalent to the use of chemical weapons in war—it is as serious as that. I understand that there is not a large number of legacy rape claims. Given the Minister’s very strong sentiments about the issue, is there anything to prohibit him from putting the provision in the Bill, just as a matter of simplicity, ease and clarity?
We think that the position is clear in the Bill. However, it is clear that the Committee does not totally think so, so I give the Committee the undertaking that I have given my right hon. Friend Sir Iain Duncan Smith: that we will return explicitly to this specific measure as the Bill progresses.
I would also say to my hon. Friend Laura Farris that Northern Ireland was not at war; Northern Ireland suffered a grievous period of barbarism by terrorist groups. In that sense, the analogy of rape in war does not translate easily across.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving that commitment, but I think he understands very well what we are talking about. We do not need to theorise. We know of individual cases in which members of paramilitary organisations raped members of our community; the rape was investigated by paramilitary organisations and covered up; the victim was victimised further, abused and hounded out of their own community—and what happened then? The perpetrators were moved to other parts of Ireland to work within the community.
These are high-profile cases, which the Minister knows about and which would not have happened in the same way in Liverpool or Manchester. Paramilitary organisations exist in our communities and they coerce and control communities. People have been shifted around our country to rape whoever they want under the protection of the IRA and other organisations.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very powerful point. I think that I am acknowledging the strength of feeling on the issue. I can keep saying the same thing over and over: we will take it away and return to it. We have two days to get the Bill through Committee, and then the other place will take a look at it.
The Secretary of State and I were discussing the issue as the hon. Gentleman was speaking. There is a very clear definition and understanding in the Bill of what “troubles-related” means. The panel will clearly be able to bring a degree of interpretation and flexibility to its approach to the individual circumstances, many of which are very complicated indeed. However, we will return to the issue and seek to give the House the greater assurance that the Committee clearly seeks.
As one of several Members across the House who served during the troubles and saw the losses incurred by both sides, I believe—as I think the Committee does—that the Minister is dealing with the issue sensitively at the Dispatch Box. I thank him for that.
I suggest to the Minister that the perfect should never be the enemy of the good. I am very sympathetic to the amendments tabled by Gavin Robinson, and indeed to amendment 115, but I remind the Committee that since the Good Friday agreement there have been hardly any successful prosecutions on behalf of victims during the troubles. If the Bill can help us to move forward, as I think for a good number of families it will, that has to be a good thing even though we accept that it is not necessarily perfect.
First, may I thank my hon. Friend at this Dispatch Box for his service in the forces? We acknowledge and thank all those who served in Northern Ireland, and we thank the families of those who gave their lives to uphold law and order and fight against the barbaric, evil terrorist campaign that Northern Ireland, and indeed Great Britain, endured over so many years.
As I acknowledged right at the beginning, the Bill is an attempt to help society in Northern Ireland to move forward—to help the next generation not to be defined by things that happened before they were born. Is it perfect? No, by definition, because there is no consensus. There is no binary right or wrong in this area because it is so contested and so difficult. That is why I am saying that there are elements on which we will listen very carefully to the Committee. If Members across the Committee have ideas about how the Bill could be improved, we will absolutely listen.
The Minister’s sincerity in trying to deal with the issue shines through. I did his job in 2014; we came up with something, and it clearly has not worked. I have to tell him that I do not like this approach, because none of us likes bending justice—we once thought that that was an absolute, but that ship sailed in 1998. However, it is being underwritten by victims, as I think we need to acknowledge.
On the subject of serious sexual offences, I agree with the comments that have been made. I really appreciate the Minister’s statement that he will go away and look at the issue. Just to add to the ambiguity, may I draw his attention to the definition of “serious physical or mental harm” in clause 1(6), which lists “severe psychiatric damage” in paragraph (d)? Many of those who have been sexually abused will be suffering severe psychiatric damage. I think the Minister will have to consider that point and the ambiguity that it introduces in dealing with this subset of heinous crime.
My right hon. Friend knows the subject incredibly well; he did the job with distinction and was widely liked and admired in Northern Ireland. He will understand the difficulty of grappling with some of this. As I said earlier, I pay tribute to the Secretary of State for having the courage to pick this up and have a go—there is a reason why Governments have not done a lot.
My right hon. Friend talks about bending justice. Seriously courageous decisions were taken to bring that dreadful period in the history of Northern Ireland and our United Kingdom to an end. People who had been convicted of the most appalling offences were released early. We are operating in a very contested space, but we are absolutely determined to do the right thing by those who need to be at the heart of the matter—those who suffered and those who lost their lives.
The Bill very clearly defines what a troubles-related offence is. It specifies that such an offence
“is ‘serious’ if the offence…is murder, manslaughter or culpable homicide…another offence that was committed by causing the death of a person, or”,
as my right hon. Friend says, if it
“was committed by causing a person to suffer serious physical or mental harm”.
Those are the definitions with which the information recovery body will have to engage to make very finely balanced judgments.
On amendment 115, may I refer to a role that I had in a previous life? My understanding is that the Opposition and the DUP are planning to press the amendment to a vote this evening. I am concerned for my hon. Friends, because voting against the exclusion of rape from the scope of immunity is not a place where they want to be. May I urge the Minister and the Whips Office to look before 7 o’clock at how the amendment can be accepted, even if it needs to be slightly amended later, so that no one in the Conservative party has to vote against the exclusion of rape?
I have great admiration for my right hon. Friend, as he knows. He and I maintained a very warm dialogue when he was Chief Whip in extremely trying political circumstances. He was sitting alongside me when I gave the Committee the commitment that we will take this away and look at it, and will seek to give reassurance and comfort to Members that what we are saying about the provisions and definitions in the Bill is soundly based, and that if we need to consider mechanisms before the House gives final assent to the Bill, we will do that.
I can say to my right hon. Friend that I am confident that we can vote for this measure this evening before it leaves this place for scrutiny in the other place, and I am confident that his fears are not grounded. I will be listening for the rest of the afternoon, and we may want to say something later on, but I am paying very careful attention to the mood of the Committee on this issue.
May I echo what my right hon. Friend Dr Murrison said? No one doubts the sincerity of the Minister. I would say to the shadow Secretary of State that we all know the processes whereby a write-round will have to take place. The Minister is in an invidious position, in that he cannot meet at the Dispatch Box the perfectly legitimate request made by my right hon. Friend Julian Smith. There is, I think, unity in the Committee on this issue.
It may be sensible for the shadow Secretary of State—who, I know, is an honourable and good man—not to press amendment 115 to a vote this evening, but with the absolute caveat that if the Government move away from, effectively, what the Minister has said at the Dispatch Box, an amendment will be tabled on Report, there will be a free-for-all, and the Government will be defeated.
On a point of order, Dame Rosie. For the sake of clarity and for the benefit of all Members, may I ask you to confirm that there will be a Report stage? I have listened to these exchanges, but given the timescale that we have for the Bill’s remaining stages on Monday—given that the second day of the Committee stage will end an hour before the moment of interruption—and given the likelihood of many Divisions, I expect that there will not even be time for a substantive Third Reading, let alone a Report stage.
Just in case people fall into the view that there will be enough time for a Report stage and the opportunity to table further amendments, I must express my view that that will not be the case on Monday. But I ask you, Dame Rosie, for clarification.
Report stage is currently scheduled for Monday. As I understand it, amendments would need to be tabled at the close of Committee stage on Monday, as manuscript amendments. I hope that is helpful.
Further to that point of order, Dame Rosie. In principle there can be a Report stage, but in practice, if the Committee stage runs until an hour before the end of proceedings and there are Divisions—four, potentially—there will be no time whatever for a Report stage or a Third Reading. We cannot predict what will happen with Divisions, but I am asking for confirmation that a set of circumstances could arise whereby no effective Report stage would occur.
Obviously it is difficult to predict what would happen on the day. In such circumstances, Members can all agree that they wish to allow enough time for Report stage by means of shorter speeches or fewer votes. On the other hand, I understand that it is also possible for the business managers and the Government to table a Business of the House motion that could perhaps give specific protected time to a Report stage, but that would be a decision for the Government. Again, I hope that that is helpful.
It was my understanding, Dame Rosie, that the usual channels could alter the programme motion, but could you also confirm that when we reached the stage of what we normally describe as ping-pong, were such an amendment to be passed in the other place, we would debate it here in the context of the Government’s response to the amendment? That would also afford an opportunity for this place to accept an amendment from their lordships that the Government might still be trying to resist, although I doubt that they would. Is that not still open to us as Members of the House of Commons?
This is something that I suggest would lead to ping-pong, as the hon. Gentleman calls it, but, again, the scheduling is not a matter for the Chair; it is a matter for the business managers and the Government.
I have a feeling that the Minister has heard all the points that have been made, and I think we should probably return to the debate.
I am conscious that I have taken a significant number of interventions so far this afternoon, so, if I may, I will make some progress and talk briefly about the actual content of the Bill—
I thank the Minister. I did indicate my wish to intervene earlier.
The Minister will be aware of the victims involved in three cases: the Old Bailey bombing of 1973, the docklands bombing of 1996, and the Manchester bombing of 1996. Victims of those bombings are taking out an action against Gerry Adams—the man who said he was never a member of the IRA, although he clearly was. It is a civilian case and I know that the victims are seeking damages amounting to a nominal £1.
If it is proved that Gerry Adams was responsible for those cases as a commander of the IRA, will the Government make legal aid available to people who take action primarily against him, and also against the IRA and those who were responsible at that time? If the information is there and it is proven, can the Bill make that happen? Will legal aid be available to those people?
The hon. Gentleman probably anticipated my reply before he asked the question. It would be inappropriate for me to comment from the Dispatch Box on something that is, or may be, before the courts. However, the hon. Gentleman has made his point powerfully, and he should address it to a Law Officer.
The reason for my question is quite simple. I understand that the Bill debars that from happening. If that is so, can the Minister indicate to us on these Benches whether those people have any chance of justice in relation to those three events?
What we are talking about today is what is in the Bill, what the Bill will establish and how the body will work, and about the definitions, the powers, the functions, the independence, the appointment process and who will be on it. Those are the things we are discussing today and it will then be for that body to make determinations on cases, on individuals and on evidence that is presented to it—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Foyle is shouting at me from a sedentary position, but this is exactly what the Committee stage is for. It is an opportunity for us to explore these things and to take them on board.
No. I heard the hon. Gentleman clearly when he was sitting down; there is no need for him to stand up to say it again. I want to make a little progress. I am conscious that I have already been on my feet for nearly 45 minutes, and I want to give some time to the Committee.
Clauses 2 to 4, clause 6 and schedules 1 and 2 provide for the formation of the independent commission for reconciliation and information recovery as a body corporate consisting of a chief commissioner, a commissioner of investigations and up to three additional commissioners. We very much agree with the sentiment behind amendment 74, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset, that it would be beneficial for one of the commissioners to have significant international experience or expertise. There is nothing in this legislation that would preclude that; indeed, that would be an ambition of the Government.
The functions of the commission will be, when requested, to carry out reviews into the deaths that resulted from conduct forming part of the troubles and, when requested, to carry out reviews of other harmful conduct, as defined in the Bill, forming part of the troubles. The term review in the Bill provides the commission with the scope to conduct the investigative process as it determines to be appropriate in each case, including the use of police powers where appropriate. Where there is an outstanding article 2 obligation, the body will be able to conduct a review to that standard. The body will produce reports on the findings of each of these reviews, determine whether to grant immunity from prosecution for serious or connected troubles-related offences, refer deaths that were caused by conduct forming part of the troubles and other harmful conduct forming part of the troubles to prosecutors, and produce an historical record of all other deaths that resulted from conduct forming part of the troubles.
May I just check something? I am hoping that the Minister will be able to provide a positive confirmation. I have a constituent, a former serviceman, who was involved in an incident in 1980. He gave evidence then, and he gave evidence later in the decade. The matter was then closed. The Police Service of Northern Ireland’s historical investigations team then got back in contact with him in 2013 and 2018. My constituent feels that he has been hounded, despite the fact that he has been positively involved and engaged in any investigations process. So, for the many UK servicemen who are finding themselves unjustly, repeatedly and legally hounded—as they feel—which makes a parody of natural justice, what reassurance can the Minister give to my constituent and many others who are in the same boat?
I refer my hon. Friend to what I have said about the gratitude that this Government and the whole country feel towards those who served in Northern Ireland. There is no parity of esteem between what those who were upholding law and order and the Queen’s peace, or seeking to, in Northern Ireland did, and those who were waging a barbaric, evil, terrorist campaign against this country. Many of us on the Government Benches know colleagues who suffered grievously at the hands of those murderous thugs. I would say to my hon. Friend that if someone comes forward and engages in good faith with this body and gives an account of something that happened, and if the body accepts that, the person will be eligible for the immunity that this body can grant. The other thing I would say to him is that previous interactions with other bodies will transfer into this body, so someone who has already had a dialogue with different agencies will not be starting all over again.
My constituent has already had a dialogue and was told that the matter was closed, but the matter was then reopened even though he had already had that original dialogue. Does he then have to engage again, as an article of good faith, having already done so for many years, for something that happened 42 years ago?
If my hon. Friend’s constituent has previously engaged in those mechanisms and there is no live inquiry or investigation into him, he has no obligation. If he is not being investigated for anything and there is no threat of prosecution to him, he would not have to come forward to this body. He is living his life without blemish and hopefully enjoying a happy retirement, reflecting on his life of service to our United Kingdom.
I am pleased to hear that my right hon. Friend is putting victims at the centre of this process. Robert, the brother of my constituent Mr Vaughan-Jones, was killed at Warrenpoint some 40 years ago. My constituent has had 40 years of unanswered questions, and he and his family now just want to move on. They want closure. How will this process help Mr Vaughan-Jones and his family eventually receive that closure?
Bear with me.
We have to be humble in acknowledging that the current mechanisms are not delivering. In many of these cases, after so many years, the chance of a successful conviction in a court of law—beyond reasonable doubt—is vanishingly unlikely. That is why, with this Bill, we are moving towards the principle of information recovery.
There are contested views on the right way to do this. Some people still want prosecution, some want information and some want an acknowledgement of what actually happened. We believe the bodies created by this Bill will help people in that ambition.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way.
On people coming before the panel and not acting in good faith, will the Minister explain how the prospect of investigation or prosecution is anything more than purely theoretical? Given that anyone giving an account before the panel would not be under police caution, and therefore their statement could not be used in evidence, who exactly would start an investigation from first principles to take forward any prosecution by giving a file to the Public Prosecution Service?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and the Bill covers how the body will begin work and who can refer a case to it for review—the Secretary of State, a close relative of a victim or the victim themselves may all refer to the body.
On disclosure and how the commission is compelled to interact, we are empowering it to deliver its functions through full disclosure. As detailed in clause 5, the commission will have full access to relevant material by placing an obligation on authorities to provide information that the commission may reasonably require. The commissioner for investigations will be designated as having the powers and privileges of a constable, and they will be able to designate other ICRIR officers with the same powers and privileges when certain conditions are met, which will ensure that officers of the commission, where required, have access to the powers they need to carry out robust article 2-compliant investigations. The commission must ensure that, as far as practicable, its officers include individuals with experience of conducting criminal investigations in Northern Ireland and elsewhere.
I need to make a little more progress, but I will come back to my hon. Friend towards the end. The Committee will then want to hear from other Members.
The Bill also places a duty on the commission not to do anything that would risk prejudicing or would prejudice the national security interests of the United Kingdom, that would risk putting or would put the life and safety of any person at risk, or that would risk having or would have a prejudicial impact on any active or prospective criminal proceedings in the United Kingdom. Members will recognise that these are standard but important protections. Reports will be produced and issued as soon as possible after a review has been carried out, unless the commissioner for investigations refers any conduct of individuals in the final report to a prosecutor.
Clauses 18 to 21 address immunity from prosecution. After we published our Command Paper in July 2021, many individuals and organisations told us that the unconditional statute of limitations for all troubles-related offences is too painful to accept and is not right. We also heard from those in the veterans community who feel uncomfortable with any perceived moral equivalence between those who went out to protect life and uphold the rule of law and the terrorists who were intent on causing harm. Based on what we heard, we adjusted the proposals in the Bill.
Clause 18 establishes that for someone to get immunity from prosecution for a troubles-related offence, that person must request immunity from the commission, provide an account that is true to the best of their “knowledge and belief” and in doing so disclose conduct that would be capable of exposing them to criminal investigation or prosecution. It makes it clear that it is possible for people to rely on previous statements and sets out how the commission can formulate an offer of immunity, and how an individual must be notified about the outcome of an application for immunity. In response to amendments 101 to 105, in making a decision on whether or not to grant immunity the panel must take into account any relevant information that holds or obtains as part of the investigation. That might include information that the commission has obtained as part of the investigation, either from disclosure from relevant authorities, or from biometrics or witness testimony from individuals who engage with the commission.
On this test of the veracity of the witness, will the material that the Minister referred to in his earlier comments—the intelligence material—be made available, completely and totally? Will it be retained afterwards, in case there is a civil trial, or will it be shredded and destroyed? What is going to happen to that great bank of material that he referred to, which could confirm whether a person is telling lies through their teeth or whether they are telling the truth?
The hon. Gentleman asks about an important point. Central within this legislation will be the passing over of the state’s information—the intelligence gathered in the course of the period of the troubles and held by the authorities. That will include information on members of the security forces, the Royal Ulster Constabulary and others. It will also include intelligence that has been gained and retained about terrorist organisations and individual actors within that. The panel will be able to see and make judgement on that. As I explained, there are protections, as there rightly are all the time for those of us who have to deal with this source material, for named individuals who might be at risk by that information coming into the public domain. However, we are of the view here that the widest possible disclosure is the way in which this body can gain credibility, acceptance and authority. It is only on the basis of that credibility, acceptance and authority that the body will have the ability—[Interruption.] There will be no destruction of evidence.
I just ask the Minister to guarantee that. Many people are very concerned that this Bill may pass through these Houses of Parliament but will not stand the test of time when it comes to the courts, because some of us believe it is fundamentally illegal, never mind unjust. Will he give a guarantee that whatever happens in terms of disclosure—we can debate that all day—evidence will not be destroyed after that process is over? Will he guarantee that evidence will be maintained and retained?
The credibility of the body will be determined by its effectiveness and how quickly it can gain the trust of those who engage with it. People engaging with it—coming forward to it—will be a process that will be encouraged by seeing how the body actually works and delivers. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said previously, it is absolutely our determination to provide the body with the effective tools it needs to gain the confidence of victims. It is only in doing that that the body will be successful. If I may, I will return to the hon. Gentleman specifically on the evidence point later in the debate, because I do not want to say something from the Dispatch Box until I am certain it is the correct thing; I would rather delay the answer to that than give him an incorrect answer.
Dame Eleanor, I am conscious that I have been on my feet for more than an hour now and that Members from across the Committee will want to participate in this debate. I will take a couple more final interventions, however.
Clause 18 clearly states:
“The ICRIR must grant a person…immunity from prosecution if conditions A to C are met.”
Condition C is that the person engages
“true to the best of” their “knowledge and belief”. If it is later proven that the information that individual gave the process is false, will immunity be revoked?
My hon. Friend makes an important point, which others have raised in the past. The position in the Bill is that immunity, once given, cannot be revoked. However, I hear the point he and others have made, and I am sure we will return to it later in the debate. This body will have significant latitude in testing an individual’s credibility and sincerity. I would hope that the engagement and professionalism of those appointed to serve on the panel will be such that such cases will rarely, if ever, arise.
I commend my right hon. Friend and the Secretary of State for doing such a difficult job and doing it so well. Can I just clarify something in my own mind? If a soldier is freed from all the appalling hounding and so forth that they have been subjected to and there is then a demand for an inquest, which would be a legal procedure, would that trump the decision of this panel, or would that soldier be free from that point on? Could the panel’s decision be legally challenged by, for example, an inquest court? That worries many soldiers.
We are very clear on this, and the Bill sets out the timetable. Where an inquest is ongoing and has reached a substantive part of its deliberations, that inquest would carry on. New inquests can continue to be opened until the Bill is law and this body is enacted. Once this body is up and running, there would not be new inquests for these cases; this panel would then be the body that dealt with them.
I have one final point about a decision whether to grant immunity. The panel must also take into account any relevant information that it holds or obtains as part of the investigation. That might include information that the commission has obtained as part of its investigation, from disclosure, relevant authorities and so on. Before the ICRIR becomes operational the Secretary of State will publish guidance that sets out how the body should go about deciding whether the conditions for immunity are met when it considers an application for immunity. The Bill is clear that the panel must take that guidance into account when deciding whether an individual should be granted immunity, and we will develop that crucial guidance with key partners.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point, and it has been said repeatedly by myself, the Secretary of State and other members of the Government that there is absolutely no moral equivalence between the actions of those who were in Northern Ireland to uphold the rule of law and those who were engaged in a terrorist campaign. I also agree—I hope I have demonstrated this to some degree today—that language is incredibly important when we are dealing with these highly contested, deeply emotional topics. Often the overriding thing that someone wants is their loved one back, and that is the one thing that none of us can give them. What we can try to do is give them the information and help them to find a way through these processes and a way to deal with and face up to the traumatic events in their past.
I do not wish to detain my right hon. Friend, but I was listening to what he said about inquests, and I am a little concerned or confused—or both—about how this process will work. If somebody goes to the commission, will it be public knowledge that they have gone there on the basis of a set of issues and have been clear about those issues, one of which may relate to a potential inquest? If that individual’s situation is not related to a particular area of crime, can that inquest still not go ahead because they have been in front of the commission? How do we actually define when an inquest cannot go ahead? Will the coroner know that? Who will have the information? My right hon. Friend’s statement was a bold one, but I am not quite sure I understand how the process will work.
Order. The Minister has to answer one question before he can take the next one, even if it is on the same point.
The intention behind the Bill is to have this body as the one to which people will go to recover information and to find out the truth of what happened in the deaths of their loved ones or others. One driver for the creation of the independent information recovery body is that the current complex and competing legal frameworks and routes are not bringing things to a conclusion for people. We have to acknowledge, in humility, how long ago many of these things happened. For many of those who suffered, time is running out—they are becoming very elderly. It is the intention that this is the body and the process for people to go to, not competing inquests and other forms of legal remedy.
I have two points to make before the Minister concludes. This issue of “review” and “investigation” is not just semantics. In the case of Operation Kenova, we have seen that when it has been asked to review cases, it has led to some limits on the information that it could receive, whereas if it had been asked to investigate a case, that has given it much more scope and much more access to material. Can the Minister clarify why we are unable to be use much firmer in the language in the Bill to make it clear that we are talking about investigations?
On the point about inquests, I intervened on the Minister in his closing remarks on Second Reading, and he committed to returning to the House with a revised commitment to look at the pipeline of inquests so that victims who have been promised an inquest can be absolutely certain that they will be heard as part of the programme of inquests that was agreed only a year ago. Can the Minister clarify what his thinking now is on that?
On the very specific question as to why the terminology is “review” rather than “investigate”, there may well be a legal reason for that. I have not actually asked that question—it is a very good question. What I have been interested to look at is the scope and the powers of the body. The fact that it will have full police powers, the ability to cross-examine people and to contest what is put to it, and the ability to see source material looks to me, as I have examined this, very much like investigations. There may be a reason for the choice of word, and I will return to my right hon. Friend if there is a technical reason, but it seems to me that, for all intents and purposes, the body can undertake investigations if it so determines.
On the point about the pipeline of inquests, I am happy to give that commitment again to my right hon. Friend. Nothing will change until this Bill becomes an Act, and that is a little way off. We will certainly want to have a look at those that are in the pipeline before the Bill kicks in. The panel would be appointed, and it would become the alternative mechanism to the inquest route.
I think I have been reasonably generous in giving way, and I have been on my feet for well over an hour now. I am very interested to hear contributions from across the Committee for the remainder of this afternoon, and I can reply to points of detail and information when we conclude this evening’s debate. On that note, I commend this Bill to the Committee.
I am very grateful to you, Dame Eleanor, for calling me to speak. I listened carefully to the Minister’s expansive oration, and I am grateful to him for taking the time to make it. Obviously, the issue that is vexing the Committee the most relates our amendment 115, which I shall come to towards the end of my comments. I look forward to any debate around the amendment and hope that I can answer some of the questions that have arisen on it.
The test of a way forward on legacy issues is that it must provide more benefit for victims than for perpetrators of terror. Labour opposed the Bill on Second Reading because it fails that test. Today in Committee we are dealing with part 1 of the Bill, which defines the troubles, and part 2, which contains clauses on how the independent commission for reconciliation and information recovery will work.
As we consider this legislation, we cannot overstate the importance of the task before us. The legacy we are talking about is the deaths of more than 3,000 people during the troubles in Northern Ireland, across Great Britain and in Ireland, and thousands more who were injured. Among those were 722 service personnel who were killed by terrorist actions. I put on record once again that we cannot forget and we remain grateful for their service.
The hon. Gentleman mentions that victims are at the centre of this, and that is right, but I hear repeatedly that when that is said, veterans do not get mentioned. Can he clarify to the Committee and to me where veterans sit in this and where their concerns are based? Ultimately, that is why we are here. We have reached the point, 25 years down the line, where this process is not working and we must find a way of bringing fairness to it. Where do veterans sit in his thinking on what he would do in this process?
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s intervention, as always. We recognise that service personnel were victims too, including the 722 service personnel killed by terrorist actions during the troubles. I put on the record yet again that we cannot forget the service they provided. They must have justice. Many of them and their families remain without the justice they deserve.
Victims also include service personnel who have been repeatedly pulled up before the courts. We have not made that clear so far in the debate, but I want to do so now. There are many servicemen—and some servicewomen, perhaps—who are still suffering. They are victims too, because things have not been cleared up for them. I hope this Bill will sort that out.
These were issues that dominated the debate on Second Reading. I know there are people here with lived experience, including the right hon. Gentleman himself, an honourable and gallant Member of this place, and that there are speeches to follow from both sides of the Committee that will encompass that. Believe me, among Members on the Opposition Benches our respect for the service of those he mentions is enduring.
I agree with the sentiments that the hon. Gentleman expresses about our servicepeople and the injustices they have suffered. Does he not accept that this Bill is a huge step forward in righting some of those injustices, so that people can retire and live without the fear of being prosecuted and hounded to their dying day?
At the risk of rehearsing the Second Reading debate again, the concern we have always had is that those who served our country so bravely during the troubles are subjected to the same legislation as those who committed acts of terror. They should not be treated the same way, because they are not the same and the motives were not the same. Those are the difficulties and troubles we have had with the approach to this Bill, but these points will be ventilated elsewhere.
We have heard already that many of these events were a long time ago. Well, in August 1971 Kathleen Thompson, a mother of six, was shot by the British Army. Today, in 2022, they finally got the result of an inquest that proved that that shooting was unjustified. Under these proposals, no other family would be entitled to get that truth and justice—it would be barred. They would not get access to the inquest process. Whatever people may say about things being a long time ago, we have a case today proving that inquests work, that they get truth for families and that families who have had to suffer and argue and debate and campaign for 50 years can get at least some truth out of this process. This Government want to bar that. Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that?
Yes, of course. I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for putting that on record and bringing in the experiences of families, many of whom will be watching the proceedings today from home. It is very important that those experiences are brought into this.
As I said at the start of Second Reading, we approached the Bill hoping that we could shape it and that there would be ways of really improving it. For many victims of the troubles, particularly from the early troubles era, the passage of time may mean that this is their last chance for a piece of legislation that can deliver the truth and justice that they deserve. That is why we have, from the outset, tried very hard to engage with Government. Only because the voice of victims has been so fundamentally shut out of the process did we decide that this was simply not good enough for them and they need support.
It is absolutely right and proper that the shadow Secretary of State refers to the victims who will be watching our debate, and probably hanging on every word that is said. It is therefore important that we treat this very sensitively. It is 39 years ago, almost to the day, that Iris Moffitt-Scott’s husband was shot dead for doing no more than his job ploughing a field on their farm—shot dead because he was a UDR part-time soldier. The day he was murdered was his child’s first day at school. In the case of the two officers murdered in Lurgan, just a few days ago their orphaned children gave an interview on our television screens. It is one of the most powerful interviews I think I have ever heard in which the next generation of those who have suffered tell their story. This is not over. The legislation does not end it. This only begins another generation of suffering.
The hon. Gentleman speaks from the heart and puts on record the experience of many, many families across Northern Ireland and across Britain who suffered at the hands of terrorists during that time. He is right; they need to be respected. I am pleased that their experiences are being brought into our proceedings today, and I am grateful for his intervention.
On Second Reading, there were thoughtful contributions from across the House. Members from Northern Ireland demonstrated how the troubles had touched the lives of everyone in their constituencies. Members who had served in the armed forces spoke about their experiences serving our country and the impact of being questioned about their service many years later. In Northern Ireland, as elsewhere, the vast majority of veterans deserve the chance to talk about their experiences and their service with pride. Speeches demonstrated a profound respect for victims’ families and the dignity they have shown.
There was a consensus that this Bill needs substantial changes if it is to begin to make up for the failures of successive Governments on behalf of victims. With victims in mind, the amendment I have tabled would mitigate some of the worst effects of the Bill.
Does the hon. Gentleman not accept, though, that where we are is nowhere close to perfection? We have had 25 years, broadly, since the troubles. To my knowledge—I stand to be corrected—there has not been one successful prosecution—[Interruption.] I do apologise; there have been a few, but they have been pitifully small in number given the scale of the troubles. We need to move the process forward. The Bill allows a step forward in the sense that people are encouraged to co-operate by the prospect of immunity, and if they do not co-operate, they can still be liable to the full force of the law. That has to be a move forward.
We have not made the degree of progress that we should have done, but the progress that has been made is transformative for the families and those impacted by the crimes of the time. The hon. Gentleman keeps saying that it is a small number, as if it is inconsequential, but I urge him to look at two things. For a start, there is the work of the Kenova investigation, undertaken by Jon Boutcher. With the Stakeknife investigation, it is currently looking at 220 murders—220. There is substantial progress. Is the hon. Gentleman going to put his hand up and make the gesture for “small” when we talk about resolving 220 murders?
There will not be justice for everyone, but families and victims are not naive. They know that not everybody will get a prosecution out of this, but they might get the results of an investigation done to criminal standards. This is the kind of thing that gives families a sense of justice and enables them to start healing after the damage that the troubles have inflicted on them. I do not accept the premise that because the numbers are small and do not match the scale of the challenge, this is not consequential.
I am grateful to the shadow Secretary of State for taking that line in response to Mr Baron. Twice now he has said in Committee that we cannot allow perfection to be the enemy of the good, and yet today we have amendments from the shadow Secretary of State and his colleagues, amendments from me and my colleagues, amendments from Colum Eastwood and his colleagues, and amendments from Stephen Farry and those elsewhere in the Chamber. That is the process. We cannot allow perfection to be the enemy of the good, but today is about making the Bill better. Rather than ignoring the amendments because we cannot achieve everything, surely the purpose of Committee is to try to get as much of this right as we can.
To be absolutely clear, in relation to the intervention from Gavin Robinson and what the shadow Minister has said, one is here to try to improve the legislation. I suggested in my previous intervention that I would probably be sympathetic to the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Belfast East, but also to amendment 115. That is the process, but the message one is trying to get across is that opposing this Bill without due consideration of all the amendments will not improve the situation as it stands. We have to try to work together to make sure that we do improve it. I, for one, may support the amendment just to prove a point, but that does not mean that the Opposition should oppose this Bill when we stand a chance of improving it.
I urge the hon. Member not to take the advice of just one or two members of Parliament from Northern Ireland. I suggest that he listens to all of them, and to every victims group and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, because there is unanimity. We are not freelancing to make political points; we are trying very hard to be constructive and to give voice to something that will deliver the justice that we need.
On that note, I am pleased that Sir Iain Duncan Smith is here, and I hope that his need to have a cup of tea at some point will not prevent him from waiting until I address some of the issues that he raised in his interventions. I know that our proceedings are lengthy.
I support amendments 97 and 98, which would raise the bar for immunity; that is something that concerns the Committee. We will also vote with parties that seek to remove clause 18 from the Bill, as there has been no compelling argument for how the proposed immunity will lead to new information.
For the Labour party, the Belfast/Good Friday agreement is one of our proudest political legacies. We did that with many other parties, working constructively through that process. We understand, deeply, that compromise is the only path to progress in Northern Ireland, but we have seen no sign from the Government that they are willing to listen to those who oppose this Bill. I remind the Committee that among the opponents are every one of the Northern Ireland parties, all victims groups and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, which, incidentally, was established as part of the statutory outcomes of the Good Friday agreement.
The Government claim they are seeking to achieve reconciliation in Northern Ireland with this Bill, but the simple, inconvenient truth is that reconciliation cannot be imposed; it is built with painstaking effort, respect and an unwavering commitment to listen to all sides.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. All the parties in Northern Ireland oppose the Bill, and that is respected. I will speak later about the 25 years that have elapsed in which other and better ideas that might have brought happiness could have been implemented. We talk about Tony Blair, his Government and the 1998 agreement, which everybody recognises is a huge piece of work. Jonathan Powell, who had a huge part to play in that, endorses these plans. What, therefore, would the shadow Secretary of State say to Jonathan Powell?
I have spoken to Jonathan Powell, who is, of course, always worth listening to on such issues. The hon. Gentleman says that Jonathan Powell endorses the plans, but I do not think that he endorses the Bill wholesale; he has concerns too. Like Tony Blair and others who participated in the lead-up to and signing of the Good Friday agreement, he is desperately keen for progress. They also recognise that not everybody can be satisfied by the Bill, but I think that more people can be satisfied by it than is currently the case—that is what we aspire to.
Most importantly, the Government need to listen when people tell them that they have got it wrong. In recent weeks, Ministers have gone to great lengths to highlight the necessity of cross-community support in Northern Ireland when it comes to the protocol, yet the Bill has achieved cross-community opposition. The Government cannot have it both ways: either consent matters or it does not.
Since Second Reading, the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee has held evidence sessions. People whom the Government should have consulted on the Bill prior to its publication have had to say that, regrettably, it just does not work. That includes the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and the Northern Ireland victims commissioner. That would force most Governments to reconsider their proposals to address such a sensitive issue, and to look at amendments that could be brought forward to address any concerns. We have seen none of that, however. The Government’s reckless single-mindedness shows its face again.
The Government must be aware that the lack of real prelegislative scrutiny and consultation, and the Bill’s rushed journey from publication to Second Reading, undermines its ultimate aims. The process has damaged trust in the investigative body before it has even been established. Alyson Kilpatrick, the chief commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, does not believe that the Bill can be made compatible with our human rights commitments. On
“I am very sorry to say, because I want to be constructive, that I certainly cannot see a way in which this Bill can be made compatible when taken as a whole. One cannot simply pick out bits and pieces. You have to see it in the context of the whole Bill, what led up to it and the absence of any democratic accountability, public support or political support for it.”
I also put on the record the words of David Clements, whose father was an RUC reserve constable serving in the station at Ballygawley, County Tyrone, in 1985. He was off duty with a colleague and was opening the security gates when IRA gunmen stepped out from the shadows and shot both of them in the head. As David’s father lay dead, the gun was taken from his body. Three years later, three other men were murdered with it. David has actively supported victims and survivors over many years since his father’s murder. About the Bill, he said:
“No one was ever charged for my father’s murder—though I have some reasons to believe that at least some of those responsible for his death were later themselves killed in Troubles related shootings. I recognise that discovering the whole truth about my father’s murder and anyone ever being held to account may now be almost impossible, but what I find hard to swallow is for this process to legislate that slim hope into an…impossibility”.
There is a real fear among victims that the Bill will not deliver them information.
A lot has been said today about closure. The Government have said that they have engaged and listened—I think that was the word—to victims. I know that the shadow Secretary of State has engaged with victims, as have all of us on this side. Can he tell us if he has met any victim who has told him that they support the Bill or that it will give them closure?
I have met victims via their representative bodies and organisations, and directly, on every visit I have made to Northern Ireland since I had the privilege of being appointed to this job in early December. I have not had the opportunity to hear any one of them support the Bill as it is. I have also never met a victim who believes that they are going to get all of the justice that they want. Victims recognise that they will not get everything that they would in an ideal world and they know that the passage of time has changed what is practicable in delivering justice, but they know there are investigative methods that they have a right to expect and they know that there is a right to keep the full judicial process at least on the table as an opportunity should the threshold be met. They also know that the broad agreement there has been in Stormont House has been disbanded and ignored by the current method, and they know that they have been let down over time, with trauma heaped on trauma.
What probably keeps all of us who have lost loved ones going has been that flicker of life, or flicker of a candle, with the opportunity that, possibly some day, someone who has carried out despicable crimes will be made accountable. What keeps us going is that we believe that some day those people who thought they would get away with it will not get away with it. That is what we are all about.
One more time, the hon. Gentleman brings humanity and lived experience to the debate in an extremely powerful way. The first job I had on the Front Bench was as the shadow victims Minister, and everything he has said applies also to victims of other serious crimes in other circumstances, but never more so than it does in the situation we are addressing today. I am very grateful for what he said and how he said it.
There are warnings from the human rights safeguards established by the Belfast/Good Friday agreement that this Bill is not compliant with the European convention on human rights. The Government have failed to convince anyone that the new independent body and the immunity panel, which are at the core of their proposals, will lead to more information for victims and their families. In fact, the Secretary of State has said openly that only “one or two” people might end up giving information to this new body. He said that just last week in an interview for The House magazine. That seems scant compensation for shutting down all coronial, civil or criminal actions. I want to share the words of Julie Hambleton, whose sister Maxine was killed alongside 20 other innocents in the Birmingham pub bombings in 1974. In her words:
“Our loved ones did nothing wrong. They were law abiding, tax paying citizens. There is nothing in this legislation that provides anything for victims’ families or survivors.”
Turning to our amendments, amendment 111 would ensure that any review conducted by the independent body is carried out in line with the standards of Operation Kenova. During debates on legacy, the only process that was praised time and again by members of all parties was the work of Jon Boutcher and Operation Kenova. Crucially, their work has managed to gain the trust and support of victims, families and the security forces. Our amendment is based on a definition of reviews, which Operation Kenova has provided, that would greatly strengthen the reviews in the Bill. It was surprising to hear the Minister’s lack of awareness about a review as compared with an investigation, because both legally and most certainly in practice, there is a very profound difference with a review, which our amendment addresses.
Our amendment would mean that a review must have access to all material relating to the case held by Government agencies. It would establish whether any forensic opportunities exist to identify those responsible for the crime. It would identify potential witnesses, members of the security forces or suspects who may be able to assist with understanding who was responsible for the crime. It would conform to nationally recognised standards, be conducted with integrity and objectivity, not overlook any investigative opportunities, and identify and share investigative and organisational good practice.
Given Operation Kenova’s success in gaining the trust of so many of those affected by legacy issues, we should take every opportunity we can to learn as we seek a way forward. Victims need and deserve to be persuaded that the Commissioner for Investigations is going to carry out more than a desktop review of deaths and serious injury. These standards for review are not exhaustive and could be built on further, but the starting point should be what we have seen work in legacy and Operation Kenova. This is a probing amendment in the hope that Members in the other place will take a fuller and more expansive look at the issue. I think the amendment strikes to the heart of the Bill, but I will not push it to the vote today, in the sincere hope that it is one of the central planks of investigation in the other place.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that this issue is also important for attracting the right people to be chief investigator and lead the unit? If the Government do not confirm that legal commitment to investigations, that will have a net effect on the types and quality of people who will be attracted to come in and do the work that we need them to do.
The former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland makes an incredibly important point, which has been raised with me by investigators in other situations. I say investigators—plural—because there is a lot of intense interest in this role, but if we are to get somebody of calibre interested in it, they will want to know that the work, and the legal framework for their work, is robust, credible, and will provide the foundations for work of which they as individual investigators can be proud.
Amendment 113 would involve Northern Ireland’s actors in the appointment process for the commissioners. The Bill gives vast powers to the Secretary of State. As it stands, it is up to the Secretary of State alone to appoint commissioners who will be in charge of the new body. With the greatest respect to the current Secretary of State, that concentration of power has damaged perceptions of the Bill, and it undermines its chances of support in Northern Ireland. Multiple Governments have failed on legacy issues. Simply put, there is not enough trust in the UK Government within Northern Ireland to give sole power for appointing the commissioners to the Secretary of State. Our amendment would require the Secretary of State to consult with the appointments panel before being able to appoint a commissioner. We have based the panel on the Stormont House agreement proposal. It would contain the Attorney General for Northern Ireland, a member of the Commission for Victims and Survivors for Northern Ireland, the head of the Northern Ireland civil service, and a person with experience of managing major criminal investigations, appointed to the panel by the Northern Ireland Justice Minister.
Reconciliation cannot be imposed. The Government’s proposals are supposedly based on the principles of the Stormont House agreement, but that approach was rooted in Northern Ireland and was supposed to flow from its institutions. The amendment would require those Northern Ireland institutions to approve the Secretary of State’s recommendations for commissioners. It would strengthen the independence of the commission, and provide reassurance that only candidates of the highest calibre could become commissioners.
Finally, amendment 115 would exclude sexual offences from the scope of immunity provisions in the Bill. The need for such an amendment highlights once again how the Bill has come forward without the required consultation or scrutiny. I listened to the debate unfold earlier, which was sparked by friends from the DUP and other Northern Ireland parties asking questions in support of amendment 115, and the discussion that unfolded, and I listened with some frustration. Why frustrated? It is because, for us, this debate has been going on for a very long time. I raised the point on Second Reading, when I was assured multiple times that it was not an issue, and I was reassured that Ministers would go away and consider it. I even intervened on the Minister in his summing up, to recheck whether the issue would be addressed. I was told that it was not a legal problem, and that it would be looked at once again in an open-spirited way.
I listened carefully to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee’s inquiry, where reams of evidence was given by witnesses that criticised and said in no uncertain terms that the Bill did not exclude sexual offences from immunity. Once again, if I as shadow Secretary of State was listening, why could not the real Secretary of State and all his officials have listened too, and realised that there was a problem? I tabled the amendment and have had channels open to people responsible for such things. Nobody could have been in any doubt whatever about my intentions in the Bill, so it cannot be claimed that the problem has just emerged in this debate.
I absolutely concur with the shadow Secretary of State. He points to the weakness that, while Ministers have asserted one thing, too many people for comfort have got a concern about the issue, so the Bill is not clear enough and further work needs to be done. He referenced the exchanges across the Committee. I asked him this through my right hon. Friend the Minister, and I now ask him directly: cannot additional time be found through the usual channels to safeguard extra time for Report, which, to take the point made by Gavin Robinson would ensure that an amendment could be considered? His office and the Secretary of State’s office should be given the space and time to sort this out either through an amendment in the other place or by allowing us time to consider an amendment on Report that he and I know the House will support. However, may I plead with him not to divide the Committee on such an important and sensitive issue this afternoon?
I am always grateful for the hon. Member’s considered and sincere interventions. He will sense my frustration that it has come to this moment in time. In effect, he is asking me to play the role of Government party managers, Front Benchers and Ministers, who should have been considering the issues and discussing and debating them with Front Benchers, Back Benchers and the party way in advance of today. I have been designing solutions to the problem based on the work of the hon. Member’s Committee and involving victims, and it has not been done in secret. I might add that it has involved doing the hard work of going through previous legislation to see how the exact same issue has been overcome in other circumstances. We have several more hours of consideration on the Bill, so I think that we have plenty of time to come to an agreement, but it needs to be rooted in amendment 115.
I will ventilate my argument and then of course give way so that the right hon. Member does not encourage me to say something that I am already about to say—I fear that might be the case.
On Second Reading, I raised the warnings from experts that the Bill would allow immunity to be granted to rapists and other sexual offenders. During the debate, Ministers insisted that that was not the case. Since then, we have had months of Select Committee evidence hearings where multiple witnesses confirmed that the Bill would allow immunity to be granted to perpetrators of sexual offences committed as part of the troubles.
Daniel Holder from the Committee on the Administration of Justice and the model Bill team clearly stated:
“Our interpretation of the Bill as it stands is that it does not exclude sexual offences. They are included in the potential amnesty/ immunities scheme, which, as you will know, is pretty much unheard of in international practice—torture as well. We are aware of the argument that has been made by another Member of Parliament that they are not Troubles-related offences and therefore they would not be included, but that, in itself, is problematic, to deny that sexual violence was part of the Troubles, as it very clearly was.”
I heard that—I was watching—and Ministers and officials would have been watching as well. That needed to be considered before the Bill got to this place.
Other witnesses from the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and the Victims’ Commissioner echoed that exact view. I do not believe for a second that the Minister fails to take this issue incredibly seriously—I know that he does—and I am certain that he wants those who committed acts of sexual violence during the troubles brought to justice as much as I do.
I want to explain for colleagues’ benefit exactly what our amendment 115 would do. It is simple and straightforward. It reads:
“Clause 18, page 17, line 7, at end insert—
‘(12A) But certain offences of sexual violence listed in Schedule (Exempt offences) must not be treated as within the scope of immunity from prosecution.’”
The schedule of offences is based entirely on the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Act 2021. As many Members will know, that Act went through exactly the same kind of debate that we are having now, with the Government refusing to include the amendment and then suddenly, at the last moment, realising there was a problem and tabling the amendment that they wanted themselves.
We are not just repeating the same process but arguing over a fix similar to the one that the Government came up with to the same problem, and now I am being asked to help the Government get over the line. This is the approach that has been used in the past, it is in statute and it works. I simply do not see why I should be asked to take the Government’s word for it that they will find a way to inject this provision at another point. It is there, it is tested and the principle is in statute. We will divide the Committee on amendment 115 today, and I urge Members to support it.
I am listening to the hon. Gentleman with great care—this is what Committee is all about. May I take him back to what he has just said about pressing the amendment to a Division? His point about the overseas operations Act is a powerful one. I was involved in the development of that legislation. There is, I think, a difference between that Act and this Bill, which is the terms in clause 18. He has been striving valiantly to find a solution, and I commend him for that; he knows that there are people on the Government Benches with equally good intentions. I make the gentle plea to him that it would be better to try to resolve the point without a Division today. I undertake to work as hard as I can on my side of the House to achieve the common goal that we share.
I certainly hear the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s gentle plea. I know what a gentle plea is, because I have been making strident pleas to the Government to address this issue for weeks and weeks. I have a way forward. Even by his own admission, amendment 115 is in the ballpark of where we are going to land, whether it is the Government or the Opposition who come up with the solution, so we should allow the amendment to pass tonight. If it can be improved upon, there is a perfect place where that can happen: the House of Lords. That strikes me as a reasonable way forward—indeed, as a compromise, because I can say with absolute assurance that members of my party in the House of Lords stand ready to work with Government Members on this issue.
I am grateful to the shadow Secretary of State. I was very clear in what I said to the Committee earlier, and the Secretary of State was sat behind me when I said it. I want to reiterate the sincerity of what I said earlier—that we are where we are and we want to find a way to resolve this. There is some time to go before we get to the moment of interruption, and I am sure the usual channels are hearing our debate very clearly.
I certainly heard, sensed and felt the mood of the Committee. I do not think it would be in anyone’s interest if we divided the Committee tonight on this very serious and emotive subject, where we share an absolute ambition to achieve the same outcome. We are determined to find a way through, and I just reiterate that to the shadow Secretary of State.
I am grateful for the Minister’s sentiments. After we listened to the esteemed and senior Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee—Simon Hoare, who is from the Minister’s party—I think we got to where we should be aiming for. Other senior Members of this place are nodding along in agreement. In that spirit, I look forward to any conversations that we might have around this place after the Minister and I have finished our opening remarks.
I do not think I could have been stronger in what I said. If needs be, we will vote on the amendment tonight, but if the Government do not oppose it, there will be no vote. Let us see where this takes us; we will find out pretty shortly.
I say to the hon. Member, having sat here for 30 years, that he has every right to press his amendment to a vote. That is what this place is all about. We debate something and decide which side we will take. I will not ask him not to press it to a vote. On the contrary, I say to the Minister: the clock is ticking. Let us get something sorted before we end up in that situation.
I agree; the clock is ticking. Let us get on with it. It feels like it has been 30 years since we started talking about this amendment.
As we consider the amendments, I want to echo the words of my friend, Johnny Mercer—what a shame he is not in the Chamber to hear me heaping praise on his previous oration. He said on Second Reading that
“we have to go further and over-compensate for a past that has failed victims…Families do not have confidence and we must commit to a level of transparency and openness.”—[Official Report,
If the Government are sincere in their desire to deliver reconciliation with the Bill, I hope that they will look at our amendments as a way to begin the process. Victims and their families deserve nothing less.
On a point of order, Dame Eleanor. I wanted some help as to how to explain—[Interruption.] When an hon. Member has had to leave the Chamber for comfort purposes, I wonder how that is to be put on the record. I seek your guidance.
I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for his point of order. I think it would be better if we just glossed over the last minute or so, with the understanding of Opposition Members who were standing to indicate their intention to speak. I will nevertheless turn my gaze back to the Government side of the Committee, as I normally would when the shadow Secretary of State has finished his remarks.
Perhaps that was due to turning 53 yesterday or perhaps it was because I was referred to as “senior” and “esteemed”—it shows that being senior also has some other callings. I am very grateful to the Committee.
Let me make two “Second Reading points”, as I would describe them. Anybody who attended yesterday’s performance of “The Crack in Everything” from the Derry Playhouse, which was organised beautifully by Colum Eastwood, and anybody who saw the final episode of “Derry Girls”—which so reminded us of what we are talking about, notwithstanding the time differential—will know that they serve as two very painful and stirring reminders of the seriousness of these issues, the sadness that they evoke and how we need to deal with them in a very painstaking and clear way.
I am also conscious of the words of Sir Declan Morgan, who recently gave evidence to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee about the Bill. He made a point worth bearing in mind, which is that these are not easy issues. If this issue were easy, previous Governments would have dealt with it by now, but there is not even an “it” to deal with—there are different issues, different people and different responses.
How people respond is entirely individualistic, but given how long things have taken and how there have been patent, clear and demonstrable failures to guarantee and provide the support and closure that people need, Sir Declan made a valid point: it is this Bill, as amended, or nothing. Without the Bill, there will just be a continuation of the very unsatisfactory status quo; it is not as if there is something better out there. It might have been Stormont House. I prayed it would be Stormont House—Stormont House had the agreement—but that has not come to pass, and I think that too many years have elapsed.
Let me say a few words about the amendments in my name. The Committee will be relieved to hear that I do not propose to press them to a Division this evening. As and when the Bill becomes an Act, part of the challenge will be not in trying to garner and maximise support so much as in trying not to maximise questions, opposition and hostility. Ensuring in statute that there are five commissioners will provide the scope for those commissioners to represent a wide constituency of interests and experiences.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I have an amendment to that effect: amendment 74, which is about bringing in one or two people with international experience, an international perspective, no particular skin in the game and a fresh pair of eyes—an honest broker, if you will. The credibility of their international experience could be drawn from the United Nations, from Rwanda or from other conflicts in places such as South Africa, where different sides have been brought together and a path to peace has been found—sometimes with baby steps, halting or retracting along the way, but slowly and surely making the progress that we wish to see.
I agree with my good friend the Chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee that we should have several commissioners, and I agree with their being international. As I understand it, however, the human rights commissioners are all appointed by the Secretary of State and no one seems to object. I do not really see the need for the process to be expanded beyond the Secretary of State, as people seem to accept the appointments that he has already made.
My right hon. and gallant Friend makes a perfectly respectable point that is sustainable under scrutiny. I do not seek to challenge him on it.
Let me set out to the Committee the thinking that underpins my amendment 92. We are aware that all the political parties in Northern Ireland are opposed, in whole or in part, to the proposals before the Committee. We also know that a vast swathe of civil society in Northern Ireland is concerned about the Bill. I know that of itself, amendment 92 will not address all those concerns, but the argument that my right hon. Friend Bob Stewart and I have heard in the Select Committee—and, indeed, as my hon. Friend Fay Jones and other Committee members on both sides of the Chamber have heard—the Secretary of State, by dint of office, is part of Her Majesty’s Government, and state actors representing Her Majesty’s Government, in the armed forces, the security services or the Royal Ulster Constabulary, were part of that “Government machine”. A concern that amendment 92 seeks to address relates to the imprimatur, the democratic imprimatur, of a pre-appointment hearing—I was responding to the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham, but he seems to be about to leave the Chamber.
I was going to say that the imprimatur of a pre-appointment hearing by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee and/or the Justice Committee, along with, possibly, the scope for an affirmative vote of appointment in this place, would provide an element of clear water between the Secretary of State, by dint of his or her office as a representative of the Government, and the commissioners who will be discharging such important duties. If those candidates could secure strong, hopefully unanimous but certainly cross-party and cross-community support, as represented by the parties in this place, that of itself might just provide—although there is no guarantee—a wee crumb of comfort for those who would ask, “Who identified these commissioners, who appointed them, and by what mechanism were they appointed?” In other words, this would not be an appointment arranged behind closed doors; there would be an element of the disinfecting benefits of sunlight, transparency and openness. That is what underpins amendment 92.
Amendments 77 to 82 effectively restrike a balance in suggesting that the authorities from whom information is required for the purposes of an investigation should not be able to deem what is “reasonably” handed over. That is not for them to interpret. They should hand over the whole box file, folder or whatever it might be— it might be a microfiche film—so that the commissioners and those leading the inquiries can see it all. As I have said, I am not pressing the amendments to a vote this evening, but I hope that the Government will consider these proposals as the Bill progresses.
I tabled amendment 83 because I do not think it is for the state to decide who is an “appropriate” member of the family to request a review. The amendment would allow family members to apply for a review, rather than there being a narrowly prescribed list of appropriate family members.
Amendment 84 addresses what I call the cock-up problem. Someone may have completed a form requesting a review, but may not have completed it properly. Those who look at it to see whether it gets over the first hurdle dismiss it, because there has been an administrative error on the part of the person filling it out. That person may not have had access to professional legal advice or guidance. There should be an opportunity for the commissioners to point to errors, not errors of substance but errors relating to boxes not ticked or to the language used, for instance, and to say, “Go away and make these amendments, and the request can then be submitted.” Under the Bill as currently drafted, a person makes a single application which is judged on its merits. According to my reading of the Bill, if the application fails on the basis of a technical aspect, it cannot be resubmitted.
I am not going to spend the time of the Committee rehearsing the approach to rape and sexual offences, which we have been discussing. It is set out very clearly in amendment 115, tabled by Peter Kyle, although my amendment 85 is similar.
For those who are diametrically opposed to the Bill or who wonder about its article 2 compatibility, I think the courts should be able to determine that when it becomes an Act and is under progress. However, I say to the Minister that there is scope here, after a little quiet reflection, to introduce those elements of transparency and sunlight in order to deal with this. Another point relates to the proposal that if a commissioner is rendered incapable, falls ill or is taken off the case, the application for immunity could continue to be heard by that panel, but with a new voice. We would not do that in a court. We would not have a judge suddenly change halfway through. They need to hear all the evidence from beginning to end. To change halfway through would be like trying to watch a film from halfway through and to work out whether you liked it or not. The end might have been great but the start might have been hopeless, or the other way round. I do hope that the Government will give consideration to my amendment on this, which proposes that the same people should hear a review case from start to finish. If, for whatever reason, one of the panel could not do that, there would be a bit of an administrative time lag but a new panel would have to hear the case again. That could involve two of the same people, but having the same three people listen to the whole of the case is important on the ground of natural justice.
A perfect Bill? No. A Bill that has good intentions in it? Yes. I am encouraged by the response and tone not only of my right hon. Friend the Minister of State but of the other parties, and I pay particular tribute to the shadow Secretary of State, Peter Kyle, who has set out his frustration very clearly. It is one that he and I share on this. There are many issues on which the House will almost take pleasure in being on different sides of the debate in a vote, but I say gently to those on the Front Bench—I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister is more than cognisant of this—that the issue of rape is not one on which we want to see political division. It is just too heinous and horrible. I say that as a husband and a father of daughters. One just does not want to be playing politics with that issue, and I think the Committee is probably with me on this.
I hope that, through the usual channels, we can find a way in which the very best of this House can be reflected on this sensitive issue. This is a democratic debate about making this right for people who vote for us, and I look to the business managers—my hon. Friend Michael Tomlinson, my right hon. Friend Christopher Pincher and others—to ensure that we have time in this place for a proper Report stage, perhaps through an amendment to the programme motion, to give those on the two Front Benches a window of opportunity to address this important issue.
I am sure that whatever view each of us here today takes of this Bill, from whichever vantage point, we all feel a great weight of responsibility in dealing with these matters. I am mindful of the time, so I will keep my remarks as brief as I possibly can. The Scottish National party has serious concerns about the Bill and the approach that has been taken to it in terms of its principle. I have been clear throughout, leading on this for my group, that where independent prosecutors consider that there is a sufficiency of evidence and the likelihood of a conviction, and where they judge it to be in the public interest to do so, they should still be able to bring forward these prosecutions. I am sorry to say that this Bill and the general principle behind it utterly squash that prospect. I do not intend to reprise my arguments from the Second Reading debate, except to say that we do not believe that the goal of achieving truth and reconciliation is advanced by closing down the prospect of further investigations that can be conducted to a criminal threshold, or indeed by setting aside the norms of the rule of law and the fundamental rights of individuals to seek recourse through that law.
The SNP has not tabled any amendments. We oppose the fundamental principle behind the Bill, and we do not believe it can be amended into acceptability. I am quite up front in saying that we will continue to oppose the Bill. That said, if the Bill is going to pass, which it certainly will, there are aspects on which we will join others in trying to improve.
In that vein, I place on record our very strong support for amendment 115. I heard all the dialogue with the Minister, and I do not doubt his sincerity on this for one moment. If the wheels are whirring behind the scenes on how a possible compromise might be brokered before we conclude our business tonight, all well and good. If not, I strongly urge him to accept the amendment and, if necessary, improve it elsewhere. We do not want to divide on this, but we cannot go another day without having clarity on how sexual offences will be treated under this Bill.
I listened closely to the arguments advanced for the other amendments, and we will approach the remainder of today’s proceedings on that basis.
I spoke in support of the Bill on Second Reading, although I highlighted several frictions and concerns that may merit further work, which is where we are today.
The people of Northern Ireland, our veterans and those directly affected must be at the heart of this Bill, and I hope to offer a wider perspective that may be of use. On Second Reading, the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, my hon. Friend Simon Hoare, said:
“Is the Bill perfect? No, of course it is not, and no legislation is, but let us not lose the good, or at least the intent to achieve the good, in pursuit of perfection.”—[Official Report,
That is where I think we are today.
We know what the Bill does, as it has been covered a lot over the past few weeks and months: it establishes an independent commission for reconciliation and information recovery; it grants immunity from prosecution to those who engage with the commission—this is a key point—on a case-by-case basis; it ends, in theory, troubles-related criminal investigations and protracted legal proceedings; it commissions a historical record of every troubles-related death; it covers memorialisation; and, importantly for me and for many others, it does not provide moral equivalence, which is an important improvement on the draft Bill.
The lingering concern of many I have spoken to, both here in England, Wales and Scotland and over the water in Northern Ireland, is that perpetrators may now never be brought to justice and the truth may never be known, notwithstanding what the Bill says it does on the tin.
I thank my good friend for allowing me to intervene. One thing the Bill might do, and I hope it does, is ensure the names of those who go before this reconciliation body are made public so that people know who they are and understand who carried out the deed, whatever the result for the person concerned. Victims and families may understand who did it, and I hope that will be considered in the Bill.
Having looked at what the Bill does, and having discussed it on Second Reading, I ask: where can we go from here? Where do we need to go as a Committee? First, I would urge the Government to reconsider the exclusion of rape and sexual offences, which merits further work, although I fully understand the arguments that exist in law. It may be a political point as opposed to a legal point, or it might be both, but it requires extra work.
Secondly, clause 18 currently says that the ICRIR must grant a person immunity from prosecution if conditions A to C are met. Condition B states that a person needs to have engaged and stated the truth to the best of their “knowledge and belief”. That is a very low and subjective expectation of one individual’s account, for which the immunity panel is not required to seek corroboration. What if that individual is not telling the truth?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for the speech he is making. I, too, have concerns, but even if that was ironed out—I stand here to speak for the 21 families of the victims of the Birmingham pub bombings, the biggest mass killing on our streets in this country for which no one has faced justice—does he think that that would be enough for the lives of Maxine Hambleton, Tommy Marsh and Paul Anthony Davies? Would anything we could do today allow the families of those people to feel that an amnesty was enough?
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention and she is not wrong, but the point I would want to make to her is that the Bill provides for a truth and reconciliation process whereby the truth could become known. After 24 years of the Good Friday agreement, and with prosecutions limited so far to date, it is important that we move on and not only offer hope to families wanting the truth but draw a line in law under the endless prosecution of vexatious complaints.
Let me return to the issue of people potentially stating falsehoods to the commission. There are numerous reasons why a perpetrator may give a false account to gain immunity, with the obvious one being to play down their role in an offence. There is also the potential for cynical abuse of the immunity process, perhaps by political elements. We must also address the issue of someone who acquires immunity for pre-1998 offences yet may still have been involved in terrorism post-1998 and still perhaps to this day. A distinction is required in that regard.
I think my hon. Friend is referring to amendment 97, which has been tabled by DUP Members and calls for a file to be passed to the Public Prosecution Service if it becomes clear that lies have been told to the commission. Although that is incredibly well intentioned, does he share my concern that it confers a status on the commission that it has not necessarily asked for and may not even want?
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention, and she is not wrong. My personal view is that we need to do a little more to ascertain that proof. It may be that the word of one individual may not be enough to grant them immunity; independent evidence and independent corroboration over a period of time may be needed to secure that immunity.
First, the panel will already have to make an assessment of whether the information it has been given has been given truthfully, to the best of the person’s knowledge. Amendment 97 simply says what should then happen should it decide that that information was not given truthfully, to the best of the individual’s knowledge. It would not have much to do; it would already have made the assessment, and the file would then just go to the PPS.
I ask the hon. Gentleman to look at the exact provision, in clause 20(4), I believe, which sets out that the panel does not need any information other than that which is given to it by P, and then to have a read of subsections (1), (2) and (3). I think that there lies the answer to the question he is raising—subsection (4) could simply be deleted. An amendment has been tabled by my party and the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee for that precise purpose.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. The Minister is now in his place and I hope he is paying heed to what we are saying, because these are all tweaks to the Bill that I feel we could make.
Let me return to clause 18 and ask, first, what defines an acceptable level of engagement. How do we specify it? Nothing in the Bill defines what level of information someone needs to give in order to qualify for immunity, and I think that needs work.
Secondly, Where a person is deemed a subject of interest, and perhaps is assessed as being a current threat, is there a case for their not being granted immunity? I believe that there is a bit of work to do there, and that this may be possible.
My third point is that we should perhaps legislate so that if a person is convicted of a post-1998 terrorist offence, the offence they were granted immunity for can be taken into consideration for the purpose of sentencing for other offences—I know that that is tricky and divisive, but it is worthy of consideration.
My last point on clause 18 is about what happens if the person’s account is found not to be true to the best of their knowledge and belief. We discussed amendment 97 earlier. If it is proved that the information given is completely false, perhaps immunity could and should be revoked. I know that the Minister will cover this issue later, but I think there needs to be a bit of work on what happens if there is compelling evidence that proves that the information given at the time was not true. In my view, therefore, clause 18 needs work.
That may not be possible, but I have outlined some suggestions to the Minister. My next point relates to clause 20, which is entitled “Determining a request for immunity”. In forming a view on the truth of the person’s account, the immunity requests panel will not currently be required to seek information from a person other than P. I reiterate my previous point that the threshold for the provision of information by the perpetrator is already very low and subjective. What change might we wish to make? Perhaps there should be a requirement that corroboration is sought before any immunity can be granted.
On the issue of prisoner release, the Bill states:
“Schedule 11 makes provision about prisoner release under the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998.”
Paragraph 5 of schedule 11 states:
“If a fixed term prisoner is released on licence under this section, the prisoner’s sentence expires”.
The key point is that the existing early release scheme provides that if a person’s application for early release is successful, they must serve the minimum term under their sentence before being released. Paragraph 5 replaces and repeals several provisions of the 1998 Act, potentially removing any minimum sentence. That virtually removes any incentive for a perpetrator to engage with the process. I therefore urge the Minister to look at that provision.
There are other areas that are not covered in the Bill, and we may come to them later. First, there is no legislation on the glorification of terrorism, or to enable those who flout such legislation to be held accountable. The issue is not provided for at all in the Bill, and that may require further work.
We may also need a better UK-wide definition of a victim or survivor of terrorism. In addition, there is the tricky issue of reparations for the bereaved. I know that that is difficult in law and difficult politically, but perhaps we could look at it in due course as part of the reconciliation process.
Perhaps we could even conduct a review in due course of how this legislation evolves and how it works in practice. Is the truth and reconciliation process working? Are people coming forward? Perhaps we need to build into the Bill a clause whereby we can legally review these issues in due course, with a view to tweaking what goes through Westminster.
This is a very difficult issue and this is a difficult Bill. I commend Ministers and everyone involved, particularly in the Northern Ireland Office, for getting this far. We now have something on the table that needs to go through. Time is short, and I recognise that the Bill will come back to the House on Monday, but I urge the Minister to consider what I have said over the weekend.
It is a privilege to follow James Sunderland, who has engaged continuously with Northern Ireland issues since his entry into the House in 2019. We are grateful that he has shown such an interest. His speech allows me to make an initial point for people outside this place who do not understand how we operate. Today we are dealing with parts 1 and 2 of the Bill, and on Monday we will deal with parts 3 and 4.
The hon. Gentleman hit the nail on the head when it comes to the requirement for an amendment that allows for the revocation of immunity in circumstances where somebody has lied; one on the repeal of the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998 so that there is an inducement for people to engage in the ICRIR process rather than stay outside; and one on the glorification of terrorism. While there is a discrete amendment on the glorification of terrorism today, we will debate new clauses 3, 4 and 5 on Monday, and they deal with all those points. I do hope that, after hearing what the hon. Member for Bracknell has had to say, colleagues throughout the Chamber will not only look at those new clauses and the thrust behind them, but encourage the Government to look on them favourably when we debate them on Monday. They are demonstrable and positive changes that would make this Bill better.
I am delighted that Mr Baron is back in his place. Perhaps I was a little hard on him, especially after he suggested that he was going to support some of my amendments. I genuinely believe that I would not have wasted my time over the past number of weeks, with colleagues from across Northern Ireland, in the preparation of amendments to make this process better if none of those amendments had the prospect of success today.
It is disappointing that, even when we hear positive noises not just on amendment 115 but on a range of issues that have been put before the Committee today to make the Bill better, we really get zero traction. It is very frustrating.
Let me put the hon. Gentleman’s mind at rest. He was not too hard on me. Having served in the Province a few times, I am used to the Belfast way of things. What I would say, though, is that we are all, in good faith, trying to improve the Bill. We must remember that there are further stages, but I hear what he says.
I am grateful to the hon. Member.
This Committee stage highlights the fact that there is a strong body of opinion in Northern Ireland that this Bill is irredeemable, that it should not progress and that it has no support among politicians or victims’ groups in Northern Ireland. The SNP spokesperson right crystallised that opinion, and said that his party had decided not to participate in amendments.
I stand here as a member of a party that has tabled scores of amendments in the hope that we can get this Bill to a better place. But I recognise that, for many at home, this is not a comfortable place to be. Without reiterating the comments made on Second Reading, I say that this Bill, whether it will affect a small number of people or a large number, is a true corruption of justice. The very idea that, under schedule 11, as the hon. Member for Bracknell read out, somebody prosecuted for heinous terrorist offences would serve no time in prison whatsoever for a prosecution arising either because that person has chosen not to give any information to victims’ families and stays outside the process, or because they engage in the process in an untruthful and dishonest way, is an affront to justice.
How would the hon. Member describe the 1998 agreement that let murderers out having served two years? Would that be a corruption of justice? Would that be an affront to justice? And—
Absolutely. I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Let me make this point: we are not going to get unanimity of opinion on that issue from people in Northern Ireland. The Democratic Unionist party did not support the Belfast agreement. One of the strong reasons was the corruption of justice and the denial of rights to victims who saw the perpetrators walk the streets.
I will give way to the hon. Lady, because she will take a different view, and I want to be respectful of that different view. Then I need to move onto the amendments tabled for this Committee stage.
It is fair to say that, over the past couple of years, there have been a lot of new converts to the Good Friday agreement. Will the hon. Member concede that although the issue of prisoner releases was a very difficult pill to take for every single person in Northern Ireland, it was done with democratic legitimacy —in a referendum that more than 70% of the population voted for—and those people were in jail after due legal process?
People were in jail after due legal process. Not only did we have that corruption of justice then, but we have had subsequent corruptions of justice on the provision of on-the-run letters, on letters of comfort, and on attempts to make sure that people get an amnesty or immunity from prosecution. Here we have a further iteration.
I will not give way at this stage if the right hon. Gentleman does not mind, because I am deviating from the amendments and I recognise that we do not have much time.
We should be encouraging people in this process to give information, and we do that not by removing the consequence of avoiding the process, but by ensuring that there is a consequence should they not engage.
My hon. Friend Ian Paisley made reference to Mrs Iris Moffitt-Scott, who gave an interview this morning on “Good Morning Ulster”. She asked that the Government not trample on victims. She said that today, on the 39th anniversary of her husband’s murder. Her husband had no affiliation; he was a farmer cutting hedges, and had just delivered his four-year-old child to the bus for the first day of school when he was murdered in cold blood. There was no reason for his murder other than pure, base sectarianism, and she is just asking today that the Government not trample on her and other victims like her.
I think in my earlier intervention I may have said that he was a part-time member of the UDR, but I was wrong in that. He certainly was not—in fact, reports at the time record his family saying he was a friend for all, a man with friends right across the entire community. There was no justification. His local canon, I think, indicated that the only reason he was murdered was that he was a member of the Protestant community. It was a straightforward, dirty, evil sectarian murder and it must be called out as that. As my hon. Friend will know, for those of us who grew up through those days—I was 17 at the time; he is slightly younger than me—our days were punctuated by the sounds of those bullets and bombs going off. Our news bulletins were punctuated by the soundtrack of the troubles. Unfortunately, this legacy Bill does not bring that soundtrack to an end.
I thank my hon. Friend for that.
I have made reference to some of the substantive amendments that we will consider on Monday. I want to raise a series of amendments that I hope are not controversial, which representatives from across Northern Ireland would be able to accept, and put them forward in the hope that the Minister can offer some positivity. Then we will get on to the substantive amendments that I think will form part of our considerations later on.
An innocent victim: we know what that is. It is somebody who has been injured through the troubles through no fault of their own. They have not engaged in illegality; they have not gone out to damage, to murder, to kill. They have been injured. The Government accepted that definition when they published regulations around troubles pensions. There is an opportunity, which we can come back to on Monday when we talk about memorialisation, for this Government to provide a legal definition of an innocent victim.
There has been a debate about immunity. The legislation talks about its being general immunity, and that has caused concern for victims. The Minister, through engagement and with the NIO, has been very clear that it is immunity specific to an event, but covers the generality of offences during that event. The immunity attaches to the incident and not the person. I think the Minister should take the opportunity to clarify that and look at whether that can be strengthened through amendment.
I had an exchange with the hon. Member for Bracknell on clause 20 subsections (1) to (4). Subsection (4) is unnecessary. It suggests that the panel does not need to take information from anywhere other than the person before it, but subsections (1) to (3) suggest all the relevant information that the panel can and should take into account in making its determination on an individual incident. Clause 20(4) should be removed.
Amendment 97 is one that I hope hon. Members will engage with. An assessment must be made of whether the individual perpetrator who is giving information to the panel has done so truthfully, to the best of their knowledge. If they lie, if they seek immunity and spin the process out, playing with victims and their families, there is no consequence for them whatsoever. At the very least, amendment 97 would see a file issued to the Public Prosecution Service.
Amendment 119, which I referred to, is about the glorification of terrorism. The last thing we should do, if we are truly interested in achieving reconciliation in Northern Ireland, is to offer someone immunity only for them to go out and talk positively or proudly about their heinous exploits. That would be a fundamental outrage. We will never get reconciliation in Northern Ireland if we empower people to rub salt in the wounds of victims and their families there.
Does my hon. Friend accept that the point he is raising is based on evidence that we already have of where, for example, members of Sinn Féin who engaged in a prison break-out in which an officer died went around boasting about the part that they played in that break-out? He is not making a theoretical or an academic point, but a very real point that we have to make sure is addressed.
Yes. It is appalling—sickening—that people organise events and dinners, fundraise, sell books and write scripts for movies, then benefit on the backs of the blood of our neighbours in Northern Ireland. That is not appropriate.
I ask Members to consider amendment 98 very seriously indeed. This process is about providing answers to families who do not know all the circumstances of their loved one’s demise or who was responsible for it. That is a significant subset of legacy cases that are yet to be resolved in Northern Ireland. There are, however, other cases where the family know exactly who was responsible and know all the circumstances, and furthermore the state knows who is responsible and has sought the perpetrator for investigation and prosecution. Then what did the perpetrator do? They stood up and walked across the border and evaded justice. In amendment 98, we ask the Committee to accept that there are no circumstances in which we can provide a process that would grant immunity and allow somebody who has evaded justice, skipped the jurisdiction and made sure that loved ones had no answers the opportunity to come back to Northern Ireland and retire with dignity. That would be an affront to democracy and to justice. I hope that Members will look at accepting amendment 98 on such runaways.
One example of that, as this House already knows because I have said it before, is Lexie Cummings. He was having his lunch out at a shop in Strabane and was murdered—shot in the back of the head. The person who did it was apprehended by the police, who took him to court. They made a mistake in the subpoena that they handed out and got it wrong. While the subpoena was being changed, the person escaped across the border. He is now a very prominent member of Sinn Féin, as my hon. Friend Mr Campbell knows very well. That is an example of where the system has fallen down. My family, who are relatives, want to see justice for him in court. He has an on-the-run letter, which makes it very difficult for us as a family to comprehend and deal with issues, knowing that justice is not seen to be done and because we know who the perpetrator is.
I agree with my hon. Friend and I hope that Members will look on amendment 98 favourably.
Finally, because I recognise that time is short—here we are, three hours in, before we get a Northern Ireland voice, but I appreciate the interest in the Bill—I turn to amendment 115. There has been considerable attention on amendment 115 during the Committee stage. My colleagues drafted our own amendment to exclude sexual offences from immunity. It was not as good or as strong as the Labour amendment, and, in truth, it was in the wrong place in the Bill, so we did not table it and signed amendment 115 and new schedule 1. We did that because we want to get to the end point. We are not interested in the politics, but we want to make sure that on such a wedge issue that engages issues of compassion and controversy, and affects communities right across the board in Northern Ireland, we have our name on that amendment, and we want to see progress on it this evening.
I have already highlighted the frailty of the argument that we could leave this issue until Report. I have heard that we could change the programme motion. Here we are with a programme motion that has already been extended once, at the end of Second Reading for this Committee stage, and I am the first Northern Ireland MP to speak when we have been debating the Bill since 20 minutes to 3.
Can I take the hon. Gentleman back to what he was saying a little bit earlier? We obviously disagree on the Good Friday agreement and the need for prisoner release, but I think we both recognise that those prisoners were released on licence. A licence is capable of being revoked and has been on a number of occasions. If this Bill went through, would that get rid of that, so that those prisoners would then be totally immune from going back even on licence?
I know that some from Northern Ireland did not take technical briefings on this Bill, but sadly I did and had to listen through them. Schedule 11, where we are talking about moving two sentences down to one, could lead to a circumstance where, were somebody prosecuted outside of this process, they would have a conviction on their record and would automatically be on licence for it. It is not that they would not be on licence—they would—but they would serve no time in jail whatever. We need to incentivise this process, and that is why I have talked about new clauses to be debated on Monday, which would ensure real terms and a real-life consequence for not offering truth to victims’ families.
I was talking about amendment 115 just before I was derailed. The Government have a huge opportunity to respond to what has been said this evening. This is a hugely important amendment. We talk about some amendments being inconsequential, and I accept that this one would affect a very narrow subset of legacy cases, but that does not make it any less of a touchstone. It genuinely is, and it has the support of our party. I am sad to say that there is no Northern Ireland Office representation in the Chamber at the moment. They are not here, and I genuinely believe that they had better be outside getting an agreement over this amendment so that it does not need to be pressed to a Division this evening.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman is assured when I say that a number of others are making representations to those on our own Front Bench on a number of the amendments being discussed. One hopes that people are listening, which I suppose reinforces the point that we are trying to move in the same direction here and improve the Bill.
I want to add to the hope of my hon. Friend Mr Baron, if it is of any help. To the best of my knowledge, conversations are taking place within Government and with the official Opposition to try to resolve this issue before we get to the moment of interruption. Principally that is because of the strong case that has been made by Gavin Robinson, by colleagues and by the shadow Secretary of State, which I hope a number of us on the Government Benches have helped to augment.
I do not want to sow discord or break the prospect of agreement, but I will say this to those who are outside talking about an amendment that we have signed, but who are not talking to us about that amendment: it is not just the first signatory who can ensure it proceeds to a Division. I hope there is an agreement on that amendment, but as signatories to it, should there not be an agreement, we think the Committee should divide on it.
Does my hon. Friend not find it rather strange, given the debates in this House over the past week about the lack of response from the police and the courts on rape victims, the way in which so few rape cases are being brought to court, and the commitments that Ministers have made, that there is even a debate or a discussion about those who use their paramilitary positions and power to cover up rape having their crimes overlooked?
I have to give way to seniority, but my right hon. Friend makes the point incredibly well for me, and it needs no further explanation. I am grateful for the time of the Committee.
On a point of order, Dame Eleanor, Gavin Robinson has raised an important question in regard to who can move an amendment. Clearly it does not just have to be the principal signatory. It is my understanding—I am probably wrong, and I would welcome your guidance—that any member of the Committee of the whole House can press an amendment to a Division, even if they are not a signatory to it, so long as the amendment has been selected, which of course it has been. Is my understanding correct?
The hon. Gentleman makes a perfectly good point of order, and he is correct. We are in Committee of the whole House, and it is indeed the case that if the lead name on an amendment does not move the amendment at the appropriate time, any other Member can do so. I note that amendment 115, which is the one to which Gavin Robinson was referring, has five names in addition to the shadow Secretary of State’s, including the hon. Member for Belfast East and some of his colleagues. I have every confidence that if for some reason it was not moved by the shadow Secretary of State on behalf of the official Opposition, plenty of other people could move it.
I am also sure that that matter is being dealt with at this moment—from what I have seen from the debate—in the way that it ought to be dealt with. It is a matter of some satisfaction to see the House working as it should in Committee, which is about not grandstanding or soundbites, but getting the best legislation that we can produce by working together. That is exactly what is happening at this moment.
I am grateful to be called in this incredibly important debate. I had a speech prepared about the usual things that I have bored everyone about for many years, but instead I will address some critical points that have been advanced by hon. Members—particularly on the Opposition side of the Committee, but some on the Government side too—about their concerns with this legislation.
It is important to remember that those who oppose the Bill have genuinely good intentions, as has consistently been the case since the Bill was announced. I understand what has been said, particularly on the issue of rape, which is an incredibly difficult subject to legislate on. It is also difficult to talk about whether it should be on the face of the Bill. When I oversaw the passage of the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Act 2021, we encountered that exact problem. Clearly, everyone finds the use of rape in war, Northern Ireland or wherever it may be completely abhorrent, but the issue is what it looks like politically if the Department does not put it on the face of the Bill. That is where it needs to do a bit of work. I understand why it has not done that, but in my experience it is worth having those conversations to see what can be done to ensure that hon. Members and those who will use the Bill are under absolutely no illusion as to its reach and extent.
The problem that the Department faces is that if rape and then sexual assault are on the face of the Bill, what makes up sexual assault and what was sexual assault in the period of the troubles? It becomes increasingly difficult to define those offences. It is important to have such debates, and I hope that the Government will work to change their position on the legalities of what is in the Bill so that people feel comfortable, but hon. Members should not demonise those who think, as I do, that the Bill should go through to the Lords as it is. We should talk about the amendments when it gets down to that process and send it through unamended today, even though there is a particular issue around this crime that we all agree is abhorrent.
I totally understand why the Northern Ireland parties oppose the Bill, and why the DUP opposed the Good Friday agreement. Nobody on the Government side of the Committee wants anybody who has committed an offence, whether they were in uniform or a paramilitary, to get away with that—nobody wants that at all. If people ask me what I want from the Bill, I say that I want justice, fairness, and anything that brings a degree of peace and an ability to live on past the troubles to come forward.
The problem is that we have to deal with the world as it is, not as we want it to be. My hon. Friend Mr Baron said that we should not make the perfect the enemy of the good, and that was raised as a bad thing, but that is what we are here to do. I totally understand where the Northern Ireland parties are coming from, and this has been an educational journey for me as well. We have had some pretty feisty debates in this place, and I totally understand where those on all sides in the debate are coming from in Northern Ireland. The only problem I have is that, as politicians, we have to be pragmatic and we have to work in the space of what is physically possible.
I would, I suppose, have more time or more understanding for the argument that we have to try these different things if we were not 24 years on from the Good Friday agreement, and individuals such as Dennis Hutchings, who did nothing wrong and was never convicted of any offence, are repeatedly dragged over to Northern Ireland—he eventually died in a hotel room on his own in Belfast—because we have not been pragmatists. We have all been idealists, because we all want the perfection of a clear result in relation to what was an incredibly difficult period in Northern Ireland, but it is just not possible to achieve that.
I thank my good friend very much for allowing me to intervene, and I totally endorse what he has said. Those of us sitting here utterly understand how awful it is, and we totally understand why the parties in Northern Ireland cannot accept allowing people to get away with it. I feel the same, and when I vote tonight I will be using quite a long spoon because I totally understand where they are coming from. It hurts me, too, that anyone might get away with cold-blooded murder.
I thank my right hon. and gallant Friend for his intervention, and I pay tribute to his extraordinary service in Northern Ireland in some of the most appalling atrocities of that conflict.
That is a really important point. We think about the mother of Stephen Restorick, a lance bombardier from one of my regiments, who was the last soldier killed in the troubles in Northern Ireland. He was asking for the driving licence of a lady passing through his checkpoint, and she said, “All I can remember about him was that he was a beautiful boy, and his smiling face as he leant down to the window to take the driving licence”, when he was shot in the back by a sniper. No planet exists where people such as me, from exactly the same organisations, would want an individual who had committed that to be released.
The individual who did it was convicted and sentenced to 490 years, yet was released under the 1998 Good Friday agreement. There is no comparison here. My friends from Northern Ireland live over there in their communities, but the truth is that pragmatism has to win—it has to—because to continue doing the same thing and expect it to be different is a definition of insanity.
I have not seen anybody else in the Committee sit through such trials in Northern Ireland, but I have seen the absolutely ludicrous nature of them. We talk about victims. I know this will make me unpopular in some circles, but I actually feel sorry for a lot of the victims for being dragged down this pathway now. Everybody there knows that we will never reach the threshold for a criminal conviction, but nobody has the courage to say to them, “Do you know what? I’m so sorry, but this is unlikely to be successful so we have to take the next best option. The best option is that we find somebody and we put them in prison. I’m so sorry—and it’s the state’s fault, it’s lots of people’s fault; we didn’t investigate properly—but that is not an option. So you now have to deal in this space, which is the pragmatic space. What are you going to do? Do you want to know what happened to your loved one, and that they mattered, in their final hours—or do you want to continue to progress down this path where you will never get an answer?” That is my experience of dealing with victims, and I totally respect that other people have different experiences.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for giving way. I think he and I are two of the people who have some of these feisty exchanges that he talks about, and I will attempt not to be too feisty with him today. He has made it clear that he believes that there is no prospect of criminal convictions, and that those on this side of the Committee are appalled because people will get away with terrible crimes. Yes, that is one thing.
The other thing is that we do not believe the Bill will provide more truth or more transparency. We recognise that. By the way, we are very open with victims and all that, but we do not have to be because they are grown-ups. They have been doing this for a lot longer than any of us. They know the process, they know how difficult it is, and they would love convictions. In some cases convictions are possible, but in many they are not. But the very process of actually investigating, and having civil cases—that is what gets someone to the truth, and that is what the Bill will bar. That is the real problem behind our issue with the Bill, and the issue that every victims’ group I have met has with it.
There has to be a landing zone. We are never going to reach an agreement that allows us to adhere to those standards. The hon. Gentleman’s point about trust in the state is valid. When it comes first to opening the books—I have experience of this not only as a Minister, but when I served in secret organisations, and I know there is an attitude or appetite to overclassify things and so on. Families have really felt the brunt of that over the years, and if I was part of one of those families, I would be deeply mistrustful of the state. I totally get that, and the Department must work harder to bring that integrity to the process.
However, I do not think we should throw away what is probably the last chance to get this right—well, “right” is not really the word, because we are not going to make it right: we are not going to bring anybody back. But we have to get to a space where we can deliver something for victims and veterans. We talk about prosecutions, but there have been no successful prosecutions of security force personnel since the Good Friday agreement. That is a fact.
What these victims are looking for is not there. If it was there, I would be the first to champion it. People such as my right hon. Friend Bob Stewart are absolutely repulsed by those who think that uniform is a place where they can commit crime. The idea that we would not want people who have done those things to be held to account is for the birds. People who promote that—I see it in Northern Ireland about me all the time, but I never respond to it because it is totally false. Nobody wants those people convicted more than those who served there and adhered to the standards, showing extreme courage.
I would be keen to hear which amendments the hon. Gentleman is supporting. He wants to get this right, but does he understand that one consequence of the Bill at Royal Assent is that, unless a decision has been made to prosecute by the Public Prosecution Service, the prosecutions lapse? There are 32 or 33 actual active files with the PPS as a result of Jon Boutcher’s Operation Kenova. Unless a decision is made now, or before Royal Assent, the prospects of live files will disappear.
That is a good example of technical details in the Bill that need work. Aspects of this do need work. I think I have spoken individually to everybody on the other side of the Committee who opposes the Bill, and I agree with their technical changes to it. The idea that immunity cannot be revoked, or that there is no real compulsion to get involved because of jail sentences—I do not agree with that. At the same time, however, I am not going to say, “Don’t vote for this Bill”, because this is it; this is as good as it gets. There is an opportunity coming down the line, when the Bill goes to the Lords, when things such as that will happen.
I am absolutely not going to give the hon. Gentleman an extraordinarily hard time, and I thank him for taking the intervention. He may be right as a pragmatist—I am a pragmatist myself—to say that this is as good as it will get, but the families affected by terror incidents, including the incident I ran away from myself in Birmingham, do not think that his saying, “What you’ve got is as good as it’s going to get” is enough for 21 people lying dead with no justice. That is not good enough for them. On whether it takes them the rest of their lives, Julie Hambleton is in her fifties now. She has been doing it since she was 13—she is in for the long haul—and the reason she keeps going is that she believes in the British state.
The hon. Member is totally right. If it was my son or daughter, or the son or daughter of any of us, and there was a 0.1% chance that we would find out who did it or what happened, we would keep going down that burrow hole as far as we could.
All I would say is that there is another side to the ledger: people—yes, a lot of them are veterans—who are incredibly adversely affected and have a right not to go through the experiences of those such as my friend Dennis Hutchings. That is why this is such a difficult space.
I am mindful of many incidents in Northern Ireland. I think of La Mon, where on
I have huge sympathy for the hon. Member, whom I am close to and have huge affection for. He can imagine my views on Gerry Adams—thankfully we are in the House, so I will not get sued just for uttering his name—and on the incident that he refers to. However, I would say pragmatically that it has been a long time since that incident and, if that justice were possible, it would have happened. I want that more than anybody else, but it has not happened, so we must deal with the world as we see it, which is incredibly conflicted: evidence was not gathered correctly, the crime scene was a mess, and it is very difficult to reach the threshold of criminal conviction.
Until the previous intervention, I was not entirely clear whether my hon. Friend was going to support the Bill; I am pleased that he will. He talks about seeing the world as it is—we all do that, and we have to deal with reality—but, as politicians, do we not have a responsibility to show some leadership and moral courage as well as appreciate that legislation is not always universally acclaimed? There are tough decisions to be made and, as a soldier, he will appreciate that.
We are here because over many years our predecessors looked at this issue and thought that it was too difficult. I focus on two groups: the victims, who have been dragged down the legal pathway; and veterans, for whom—I am sorry—the experience is equally unacceptable. I have seen 85-year-old men in court who needed a loo break every half-hour—they could not remember what happened yesterday—getting spat at on their way in. They were not guilty of anything. Their cases got thrown out and the judge said, “I can’t believe this has come this far.” So there are two sides to the ledger, and we are here because we have not had the courage to deal with the issue as we find it.
Like the hon. Member, I believe that, had there been action in the past, we may not have needed to be here today. He said that the search for truth by the families of victims is valid, but he also said that little can be done now. We recently had the Ballymurphy inquest, which came to a definitive conclusion and gave some truth to the victims’ families. On that basis, will he at least accept that getting rid of inquests would fly in the face of the interests of victims’ families?
This will be deeply unpopular on the Opposition Benches, but the reason we have inquests and they do not result in criminal convictions is that they do not reach that threshold. Obviously, the evidence is there in the inquests, and I do not decry them—they are very important—but they are not at the criminal threshold, which has driven the experiences of veterans and so on. Yes, inquests have made findings—they have found things around collusive behaviour—but they have never been proved in court. While people will have very strong views—I have seen that across the Committee—we have to go with what is proved in court. That is the lie of the land. Even cases that I cannot believe have not been prosecuted have not been proved in court. It is a desperately sorry situation for everybody—the victims, veterans and so on. While I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern, I just do not see what good end point that achieves.
I understand that we must be open. The Department could be more open with this process than it is with inquests, because of all the legalities included in that. The idea behind this immunity from prosecution is that there could be total transparency. I accept that people think, “They won’t be transparent,” but what do we do? Do we just throw away this last chance—do we let these old guys die in a hotel room in Belfast and let the sectarianism continue, the protests outside the courts continue, the spitting at me when I walk in continue—or do we try to do something just a little bit different?
I have never asked for favours for anybody. All I have asked for is fairness—just fairness. There are some people you will never find me defending, because I have my own thoughts about it. All I have asked for is fairness, and I have been treated in a particular way in Northern Ireland. I just urge colleagues to think about the art of the possible. We all have a duty—to victims and to veterans.
As we all know, my hon. and gallant Friend has been a proud champion for veterans. He has probably accomplished more for veterans in his time than many other parliamentarians. But he is also very keen, when he needs to, to be critical and challenge the Government, so what he is saying this afternoon carries a lot of weight, certainly for me. Does he agree that this is about pragmatism and timing, and that the time is now? Does he agree that we have admired the problem for far too long, that we still have an opportunity, with the Minister in his place, to amend the Bill as we need to over the weekend, and that the Bill does need to pass?
I thank my hon. and gallant Friend for his kind words. I strongly agree with him that the Department needs to reflect on what has been said. I was a lone voice in opposing what came out from the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in August. I pay tribute to him again, because many people—me, certainly, and the Opposition too—were pretty rude about him and rude to him about his proposals. He has had the courage to look at them. He wants to get this right. He has no skin in the game to do something that is going to divide communities and not stand the test of time.
I say to colleagues across the Chamber that there is a way around this rape-on-the-face-of-the-Bill stuff. I had exactly this issue with the overseas operations Bill. There is a way around it. We can deal with the legal language and make it really clear that that is not part of this.
I will keep it very brief. I commend my hon. Friend for his excellent speech, but may I suggest that what has been underplayed in this debate is the fact that for the victims, just knowing answers can help people move on? This is about justice, but it is also about providing and knowing answers, and we have not heard too much about that.
I will sit down, but my hon. Friend is right: it is about truth and knowing answers, and we really need to get there. I just urge pragmatism and courage in this space to get stuff done.
Order. I will call the Minister no later than 10 minutes to 7. You can see how many people are standing, so if you want to get your colleagues in, please show some time discipline—we cannot have speeches of the length that we have had up to now.
I will try to be brief, because I appreciate that there are colleagues who have been working on these issues for years and decades, who understand them fully and who wish to advocate for their constituents. I shall build on the points that we made on Second Reading and speak to some of the amendments in my name and those of my hon. Friend Colum Eastwood and Stephen Farry.
By way of context, we spent Monday discussing the departure from the rule of law and bilateralism that is the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill. This is another day and another treaty breach. People have to understand that many see this Bill in that context—that it is unravelling the culture of lawfulness that we have been working on for many decades. I say that completely without pleasure and I agree with the chief commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, who believes that the Bill is unamendable.
I will focus on the setting up of the ICRIR. It relies on the fiction that is being presented, which is that we are doing the same things over and over again. We are here because things have not been done, because the architecture to enable truth and justice has been suppressed, because files have been locked up, because omertà has been practised by paramilitaries, and not because we have done all these things incorrectly. We are taking this action when there is a live and productive programme of investigations. Hon. Members have referred to Operation Kenova, which is an active programme of investigation and inquest.
The Bill exploits a population who are worn down by discussing legacy. They are tired of these issues, the politicking and the revisionism. Nobody is being false with victims. Everybody knows that the possibility of prosecutions is vanishingly rare, but information can come out of these inquests and investigations. That is what people want and it has absolutely not been demonstrated that that will come out of these bodies in any way. That is why victims oppose this. Nobody wants to move on more than victims, but we have a general amnesty masquerading as a conditional amnesty, with perpetrators walking free. As Members have indicated, they will have no licence, which they would have had under prisoner release. Perhaps the Minister will confirm whether the licences of prisoners who have already been released will go under the Bill as well.
We have examples on the books, such as the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims’ Remains, which existed for years. People could clear their conscience and give information to relieve families and give them the dignity of a burial without any threat of prosecution, but people did not do that. Nothing in the Bill or during these days of debates has indicated why we suddenly believe that people will come forward.
It is fair to say that the amnesty is a variation on a theme. We have been down this road before. My hon. Friend the Member for Foyle asked about files that have been sealed for decades and will be sealed for decades to come. How are people supposed to believe that the same Government who do that are suddenly interested in advancing information to them? As we all know, national security means whatever the security agents want it to mean. We know that they were intimately involved with both loyalist and republican paramilitaries—it is a fact. Although Members may wish to shut down the inquests, court cases and civil actions that establish that, it is a fact, as has been acknowledged by many people. How are people supposed to believe that the same Government who are suppressing that information suddenly want to advance it?
We know that the first motivation is the protection of security force elites, but we can call a spade a spade: this applies equally to paramilitaries. There is a joined-up quid pro quo between the sets of victim makers that keeps all this behind closed doors. Our amendments seek to address that.
The Bill outlines reviews that are not compliant with article 2 of the ECHR. They are a sham and are half-baked. The ruling on “flexibilities” because of reconciliation has been ruled out by a number of witnesses to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. It is also clear that the Secretary of State will be the person who can appoint all the commissioners who will be involved in the process of investigation. I refer to my earlier points about the fact that they have been actors. Essentially, victims are being told, “Move on because Brandon Lewis and Boris Johnson want you to move on, and they will create all the people who will help to facilitate it.”
I want to be very clear: the SDLP does not propose that we do nothing, and we are not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. We have worked with integrity on the issues for many years. We supported Eames-Bradley, which was imperfect; we supported Stormont House, which was imperfect; and we supported Haass-O’Sullivan, which was imperfect. The Government committed to Stormont House in December 2014 and committed to it again two and a half years ago, under this Prime Minister, so they cannot say that it has been done on anybody else’s watch. We are asking for the principles of that agreement to be enacted, which would address the issues with the jurisdiction of the Republic of Ireland. It was a bilateral treaty that had obligations for the Irish Government as well.
In summary, the ICRIR has no requirement for truth, no requirement for any accounts to be corroborated and no capacity for any of those affected, whose lives were completely ruined and derailed by the killings, to have any representation or any voice in the process. The fallacy keeps being repeated that if people do not co-operate, they will face prosecution. How will they face prosecution if there is no investigative body?
Let me briefly address the issue of sexual offences. For many well-documented and distressing reasons, many people do not come forward for years as a result of the long-term effects of their awful experiences. We know that many people have been manipulated into non-disclosure. Rightly, society does not apply a statute of limitations to any sexual offences. We will support amendments on that issue, but we want to be very clear that although we support the categorical exclusion of sexual offences, for which there is precedent in places such as Colombia, we cannot get into the business of parcelling up who should or should not get amnesties or what they should or should not get them for. We have a principled objection to the concept of unfettered amnesty. I caution hon. Members against being sucked into the fiction that the Bill is amendable and that we can improve it. The principle of these amnesties is at stake.
I implore all hon. Members to listen to the voices of the victims—all of the victims. Other hon. Members have mentioned the play at the Derry Playhouse last night about six children—minors—who were killed by loyalist paramilitaries, by republican paramilitaries and by the state. They were different kids from different families in different circumstances, but the impact was exactly the same. People have experienced absolutely the same fetters on their access to justice. The Bill will not give them closure. They have been very clear about. They are not stupid. They are not being duped by us or by anybody else, but really by this Bill.
Let us be clear. In this debate, which overall has been a very good one, there is great sincerity about the issue among all hon. Members. However, I respectfully point out to Opposition Members that I stand by what I said earlier: there have been relatively few successful criminal prosecutions since the troubles. That is a fact, no matter how one cuts and splices it.
I hear from Opposition Members about the quest for justice. We get that. Those of us who support the Bill genuinely get it. I know that time is short, but let me point out that I served in a variety of locations in the Province during the troubles. As a young platoon commander in Crossmaglen, I played billiards with a Royal Ulster Constabulary officer one evening. The following day, I had to put up a cordon because he was caught by an improvised explosive device and he was in pieces. That brought home the cost of the troubles not just to the individual but to the families concerned, and how bloody they were—for both sides, but I can speak only for the side that I was representing.
I say in the nicest possible way that I will not accept any suggestion that Conservative Members do not believe in justice. We firmly do, 100%. I am not suggesting that there is any division on that point, but from what we have heard, one could take away the view that we downgrade the need for justice. That is simply not true.
We must remember what the Bill is trying to do. I have not heard too much in this debate about the fact that the Bill is trying to provide answers to many, many families of victims. Answers help people to move on, but there are too few answers, given the scale of the troubles, the number of lives lost and the number of people injured. I think we need to focus on that, because it is a large part of the purpose of the Bill: to try to move things on in the hope that we can bring about greater reconciliation and provide answers for families, while leaving the door open to prosecutions for those who are not co-operating.
Gavin Robinson is not in the Chamber now, but I have certainly been pressing Ministers on a number of the amendments he mentioned. What we must try to understand about the Bill is that this is not the end of it; there are other stages to come, and some of us, while we support the Bill, will be seeking to firm it up and give it some teeth. I ask Opposition Members to bear that in mind when we vote tonight.
I do not want to speak for much longer, because I know that others want to contribute, but I will say this. Some say that the legal system was not suspended during the Good Friday agreement, but in many ways it was. People who had committed heinous crimes were let out of prison. The Democratic Unionist party may not have agreed with that, and at the time I had trouble swallowing it, but it was put to a referendum in the Province, and 71.1% of the people of Northern Ireland backed the Good Friday agreement. In many respects, the legal process was suspended then. No one could pretend that the rule of law was being enforced, whether I agreed or not. The bottom line is, however, that we have to deal with the art of the possible in trying to help many, many families in Northern Ireland to move on.
The Bill is not perfect, although I hope it will get better as it proceeds through its various stages, but as I said earlier, perfection should not be allowed to be the enemy of the good, especially when we are dealing with such a momentous period in our history as the troubles were. The Bill encourages co-operation, as I have also said, in trying to provide answers for families while also trying to ensure that we do not completely lose sight of the need for justice. I will look very sympathetically at amendments 97, 98 and 115, for example. I have had a chat with the Minister, and I know that the Government are actively engaged in looking at those amendments.
Let me end on this note: we have to see things in the round. Twenty-four years after the Good Friday agreement, there have been relatively few successful criminal prosecutions, but a great many answers are still needed for a great many families. If the Bill helps us to move closer to providing those answers without ruling out the use of the criminal justice system for those who do not co-operate, it still may not be perfect, but it will be better than what we have seen in recent decades, and we will have a chance to improve it beyond the votes tonight.
Order. As I said earlier, I will be calling the Members who will wind up the debate no later than 6.50 pm. In order to accommodate as many Back Benchers as possible, I am now introducing a time limit of seven minutes.
It is a pleasure to follow Mr Baron. I should declare an interest, as a veteran of Operation Banner.
I will speak as briefly as I can, because I want to give as many other Members as possible an opportunity to speak. Let me begin by saying that the Bill is one of the most controversial pieces of legislation that I have been asked to consider during my time in the House. I do not doubt the sincerity of the Government’s intentions, and I completely understand how complex and difficult this issue is, but if passed in its current form the Bill will mean that those who are guilty of kidnap, torture and murder will never see the inside of a courtroom or a prison, or even, for that matter, be subject to a proper investigation. Indeed, they will not even need to say sorry to be granted immunity for their crimes.
Members have rightly focused today on the impact that the Bill will have on victims. As has already been observed, many of the victims were members of our armed forces, and it is this cohort on whose behalf I want to speak, very briefly, this evening. I know that many of their loved ones and comrades will be watching this with great interest. They will know that 722 UK service personnel were killed in paramilitary attacks while serving on Operation Banner. A freedom of information request to the PSNI from the Centre for Military Justice just this month revealed that it still had 202 unsolved cases of victims who were members of the armed forces and a further 23 cases where the victim was a veteran. That is 225 unsolved alleged murders where the victim was someone who had stepped forward and put themselves in harm’s way to serve our country. Behind every one of those 225 cases is a story of enduring pain caused by the absence of truth and justice.
One of those stories began on
“The only thing he belonged to was the British Legion.”
In the words of the coroner:
“He was an entirely innocent man who was indiscriminately shot on the street.”
The inquest at least removed the stain on John’s character, but it is worth noting that under the Government’s proposals, inquests will be brought to an end, meaning that others will not have the same access to the truth as John’s loved ones. After more than 50 years, the McKerr family still do not know who was responsible for his murder. John sacrificed so that we could be free, but he was shot in the head and left in the street to die. The response of the institution he once proudly served was to tarnish him as a terrorist. John McKerr’s family told the inquest that their objective was not punishment but truth. It is in that spirit that I urge the Minister to consider the merits of amendment 115, about which there has been much debate, and also amendment 111. Strengthening reviews in line with the standards set by Operation Kenova will at least provide the families of members of the armed forces killed during the troubles with a degree of truth and justice.
There is deep unease in the service community about the Government’s proposals, not least from the family of Private Tony Harrison, a soldier from 3 Para who was brutally murdered by the IRA in front of his fiancée and his fiancée’s family. One of those involved has admitted his involvement, but no one directly responsible for his killing has been investigated. We owe John McKerr, Tony Harrison and all those who perished a debt. We can start to repay that debt by giving their families the dignity of knowing what happened to their loved ones. As it stands, the Bill will not afford them any comfort. It will only compound their misery, and for that reason I cannot support it.
Today I will be speaking against several of the proposals in part 2, specifically clauses 18, 20, 23 and 24, and in support of amendments 111 and 115. My position on the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee has allowed me to hear a range of views on the legacy of the troubles, and the reality is that victims and survivors groups have been let down for decades with successive Governments preventing them from finding out the truth about their loved ones and failing to investigate the most horrific crimes. It is now a sad reality that there can be no perfect solution to how we address legacy issues. There is simply too much division and too many lives lost for that ever to be possible. We must one day accept that we will have an imperfect solution, but that does not mean we have to accept this bad one.
The solution offered in part 2 is unquestionably a bad one. It fails victims, denies them justice and conceals the truth. It threatens the Good Friday agreement, violates article 2 of the European convention on human rights and breaches both the Stormont House agreement and the New Decade, New Approach commitment made just two years ago.
The Bill has been met with huge disappointment and anger from victims and survivors groups across Northern Ireland. Above all, there is a sense of betrayal that their pain and right to justice have been unilaterally rejected by the British Government. The proposal to create an independent commission for reconciliation and information recovery to review deaths and consider granting immunity from prosecution in relation to the troubles simply does not contain sufficient protections to ensure that information provided by a person seeking immunity is accurate or full.
Under clause 18, the only criteria an individual has to meet to be granted immunity are: first, to apply for immunity; secondly, to give what they believe to be a true account; and thirdly, to give an account that would previously have left them open to investigation for serious troubles-related offences. Essentially, the only criterion for immunity is to provide a true account. This process not only offers immunity; it gives a de facto blanket amnesty.
On amendment 115, I think the Secretary of State has accepted the mood of the Committee that the Bill is not clear on whether sexual offences are excluded. Members of every party, even Conservative Members, have said that we need clarity and absolute certainty on this issue. The Secretary of State should not ask for the amendment to be withdrawn; he should accept it. Sexual assault and rape should never be excused or justified.
There is also no requirement for the information provided to be new or comprehensive. That means someone could provide information that we already know, or that they gleaned from the public domain, and receive immunity from prosecution. They could confess to one murder in order to receive a general immunity covering every serious troubles-related crime they committed, regardless of whether they initially provided a full account. How does that add to the healing process or to the quest for justice?
Furthermore, the Bill offers no thorough verification process to test whether what is said is true. If the information is later proven to be false, the immunity still stands. Shockingly, clause 20 specifically states that there is no requirement to corroborate with any other person what a person seeking immunity says.
On top of that, clauses 23 and 24 talk about a historical record of all remaining deaths, but it is unclear how that can be produced when other measures in the Bill say there will be no further investigation in some cases. What happens in cases where there has not been an investigation? If the Bill passes, there will be no investigation or review, so the historical record will inevitably be inaccurate and/or incomplete. How can this give any comfort to families who have waited for years to find out what happened to their loved ones? How can people have any faith that the accounts given are a true and accurate report? We cannot let down these families and victims again by providing an amnesty to those who killed their loved ones in order to receive a probably inaccurate official history.
Any individual can apply for immunity, and people who have been convicted of murder can apply for immediate release. This Bill causes more problems than it could ever solve. Ultimately, the immunity element of the Bill is perpetrator-focused and denies justice to victims and families.
As I have touched on, there is the question of article 2 compliance to address. In her evidence to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Alyson Kilpatrick was clear that the Bill is not compliant with the European convention on human rights, as it fails in the state’s obligation in respect of an effective investigation. Not only is there no requirement for the families of victims to be involved in the process, but the standard of the review process is nowhere near fit for purpose. Although there is no fixing this awful legislation, at the very least the investigations should meet Operation Kenova standards, and I will therefore be supporting amendment 111.
To finish, I want to say that this Government seem intent on ripping up the rights of people in the UK: our right to take industrial action; our right to protest; and now our human rights—and they are breaking the Good Friday agreement in the process. Rather than giving families the answers that they need and that they have been awaiting for years, this Bill removes all possibility of their ever getting to the truth. I, too, went to the play last night and it was about the murder of those six children. This Bill will not achieve anything for those families. What it does will have a devastating impact on their need to heal, recover and move on.
I will try to be brief, in order to allow colleagues to get in. First, I wish to say that the Bill overall is fundamentally flawed, unworkable and unamendable. That is the strong view we have heard from stakeholders—academics and, most importantly, the victims sector in Northern Ireland. There are alternatives, despite the accusations from many in this House that there is no alternative to this Bill; I appreciate that Stormont House may well not be an option that people currently favour in some regards, but Stormont House with some tweaks, based upon the recent Northern Ireland Office consultation from 2019, is a potential way forward. Indeed, Stormont House implementation was mentioned within New Decade, New Approach as recently as January 2020.
I also say, with a heavy heart, and in the knowledge that this will find opposition from a number of people, that the current status quo in Northern Ireland is messy. It is piecemeal, selective and not a comprehensive approach to legacy, but even that is better than this Bill, because at least there are some mechanisms that are achieving some results for some people. We need to do better, but what is in the Bill takes us down a different avenue. The Bill is not article 2-compliant. The reviews are hard-wired into the entire Bill, rather than investigations. This is more than simply a case of language; we have thought about trying to amend the Bill to change the word “review” to “investigation” but that itself would not make it article 2-compliant. We also need to address serious issues regarding independence; there are step-in powers for the Secretary of State across a very broad front.
I wish to focus particularly on immunity and what is, in effect, a de facto amnesty, as that is a central issue for me. With the support of the Committee, we hope to have a Division on whether clause 18 should stand part of the Bill; we think it is a fundamental point of principle that the Committee should divide on, because the issue of immunity goes right to the heart of why this Bill is viewed as unacceptable by so many people. The test for immunity in the legislation is extremely low; it is inherently subjective; there is a presumption in favour of it being granted; and it is framed around the interests of the perpetrator rather than the victim. Those are the four key reasons why immunity should not be proceeding.
In the rare event that the panel does not grant immunity, the question as to what happens then is still very much up in the air. People talk about investigations happening and potential files going to the Director of Public Prosecutions, but that is very much a theoretical prospect, because there is no investigative arm that will do that work in practice. In addition, any statements given to the panel are not given under caution and so they cannot be the basis of an investigation. An investigation will have to be from first principles. As we know from other examples of the legacy process as it stands, that will seriously complicate the prospects of any prosecution actually happening.
There are quite a few issues with the mechanics of the ICRIR that I could go into, but I want to make a broad point. This body could very much be a white elephant—and an expensive one. There is no real incentive for perpetrators to come forward to it, and they might do so only when there is a genuine risk of action against them, so it is hard to see exactly when and how that will happen.
Equally, victims might not engage with this process, and there is a major question mark as to whether they will see it as legitimate. They might not wish to take the risk of seeing a perpetrator associated with the loss of their family member receiving immunity; that might be a very difficult prospect for them, and that might well deter people from going forward.
The Secretary of State also has the option of arbitrarily closing the process at any point. Again, that gives no confidence about the longevity of the process. The commission is there to create an historical record, but there may well be so many gaps that the process becomes pointless. There are also issues about what are relevant materials and how those are defined, and the definition is seen as incredibly loose.
We look forward to having a Division on clause 18; it sets out a key principle, and it is important that the Committee gives its view on it.
Order. I am going to reduce the time limit, because there are four Members left to speak. If I reduce it to six minutes, by the looks of it, we will hopefully get everybody in. I call Ian Paisley.
Thank you for calling me, Mr Evans. I want to speak first to amendment 98 and then to amendment 115 if I get an opportunity.
Amendment 98 is very specific. It says that those who have previously been arrested and perhaps even charged but who have then fled justice will not be able to benefit from this process. Why are we saying that? It is very simple. The evidential material is there. These people have evaded justice—they have evaded the entire process of law—and they now have the opportunity literally to get out of jail scot-free.
If the amendment were to have a name, it would be the Rita O’Hare amendment. Although she is not the only example, she is a very good example of the sort of person the amendment would encapsulate and capture—there are many other notorious examples, but hers is a specific example. She is now a Sinn Féin employee. She has worked in the United States of America and the Republic of Ireland. She tried to kill Warrant Officer Fraser Patton in October 1971. She was arrested and charged with that and with malicious wounding. When she was on bail, she fled, evaded justice and got sanctuary in the Republic of Ireland, where she continued her dastardly work. Indeed, in 1979, she smuggled more explosives and ammunition and faced a shorter jail sentence. The Republic of Ireland refused to send her to Northern Ireland.
Rita O’Hare then went to the United States of America, where she has had a glowing career. It has been so glowing that if we look her up on Facebook or elsewhere on the internet, we can see her standing with no less a figure than President Biden in one of her most recent posts. We can also see her standing with President Obama in one of her posts. Then there is Mr. Richie Neal, who likes to visit Northern Ireland and lecture people about peace and prosperity—there he is, arms around a person who has evaded justice in Northern Ireland and who should be facing justice.
The amendment would capture that type of person and say, “There's a body of evidence here. You’re not getting away with this. We’re going to put you through due process and get the sort of justice that Warrant Officer Fraser Patton is entitled to.” That is what the amendment would do, and I urge support for it.
I got the Minister into a fairly broad discussion about amendment 115, but I think it was worth while, because we got to the kernel of the issue. There should be nothing preventing the Government from accepting this amendment. I do not accept that it is outside the scope of the Bill. I do not accept the woolly and quite condescending argument that we cannot tie this issue into Protestant and Catholic stuff or Ulster Volunteer Force and IRA stuff. We can—speak to Máiría Cahill; speak to others. If a victim finds that someone could benefit from this legislation—if it is enacted—and the name is sparked off, it will have a trigger effect. They will say that that is the person who abused me. It will have that trigger opportunity. Therefore, if we do not address this sexual offences matter immediately, we do ourselves a gross disservice. I hope that the Minister has been listening—I think that he has—but, more importantly, I hope that we have not just fine words and eager listening, but actual actions that will speak much louder than words.
My hon. Friend Jim Shannon raised the issue of the Docklands bombing. This is an important issue, because cases such as that, civil action cases, will now be prevented. To close down one course of justice—criminal action—is one thing, but to close down civil action is something else. It is a double whammy of injustice for victims. I am glad that the Minister did confirm that the raft of intelligence material would not be destroyed in the future.
There is a little plaque behind you, Mr Evans; it was unveiled a few weeks ago. What this legacy Bill does not address is the hatred that exists all across these islands as a result of terror. The man remembered on that shield is Henry Wilson—an Irish man from Longford serving in the British Army and serving here as an Irish Unionist. He was murdered by two Englishmen, O’Sullivan and Dunne. Such was the hatred of Ireland towards one of its own that, in 1967, it insisted that the bones of the two killers were reinterned in the Republic of Ireland and that those two killers were given a state funeral, to commemorate the killing of an Irish man by two English men.
This Bill does not address that sick hatred and it never will. The only way we will have it addressed is when we have some honesty and justice in the process. I must say that there has been some unity across the parties on these Benches for quite some time. We want to get to the same destination. We might wish to take a slightly diverted journey, but we should be allowed to get there.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Ian Paisley. The issues surrounding this Bill, I suppose, can be traced back to 1994—rather than to 1998, as many people allude to unrepentantly over and again—because that was when paramilitary groups decided, in various ways, to call it a day. Those who had inflicted pain, misery and mayhem on all of us in Northern Ireland said that the game was up and that terror was going to finish. Political negotiations then came about. Four years later, unfortunately, terror was then legitimised. Those were the unfortunate origins of where we are today. We might try to rehearse history or to rewrite it, as others have tried to do, but that is what happened.
We then had a period of diminishing violence. All of us tried to come to terms with what we hoped would be a much better future. I fully understand, accept and share the view that many have on the Conservative Benches: that the problem now is that IRA terrorists, by and large, are not pursued, but there are the soldiers and former police officers caught in very difficult circumstances who, in many instances, had a split second to decide whether their lives were at risk or to take action to try to preserve an innocent life by taking someone else’s—a split second to decide whether a person was a threat to themselves or to their colleagues. Therein lies the difficulty.
Again, I fully understand the views of Conservative Members, especially those who have served, who say that we have to try to draw a line under this, and that this Bill is a way of doing that. Several Conservative Members have alluded to, for example, the late Dennis Hutchings. His case would, I believe, have collapsed, as did those of Soldier F and several others. There are different reasons for each case, but the underlying reason is that the passage of time has meant that even where the Public Prosecution Service thinks there is a possibility of a successful prosecution, it finds that for a variety of reasons it is not able to bring it to a successful conclusion, no matter how much it presses.
The passage of time has occurred and people’s memories are dimmed, and it is almost impossible to get an accurate recollection of what happened on a particular day. For example, I was on the city streets of Londonderry on the very day of Bloody Sunday. I have a reasonably clear recollection of what happened, even though I was a very young teenager at the time, but I could not give a second-by-second, minute-by-minute account of everything that happened on that day. I do remember that three days before two police officers had been gunned down with a machine gun. We will never know whether it was the same machine gun that the Saville inquiry said Martin McGuinness held on Bloody Sunday.
We come to the point now of assessing whether the Bill—even with some of the amendments that we hope, if passed, would make it a less bad Bill—will draw a line under what is happening. My view is that it is unlikely to do so. There are many people in Northern Ireland and a whole range of victims. Some have moved on, while some find it difficult to move on. Some have come to terms with the loss of loved ones, while others continue to grieve. What they all know is that even before this Bill is considered, there is very little likelihood of any successful prosecution.
The problem the Bill presents is that, if it is passed—even in slightly amended form—it slams shut the possibility of any potential prosecution or any justice ever being brought to bear on the cases involving loved ones. For that reason, my colleagues and I will be opposing the Bill.
Like other Northern Irish Members, I live among so many people who, through no fault of their own, are victims of terrorism. Those victims have approached me, while going about their daily business, to express how hurt they are by the Bill and how it extinguishes that glimmer of hope of any form of justice—although they know all too well that justice has already been grossly perverted in Northern Ireland.
We table our amendments in recognition that the Bill is likely to be made law. It will never be good law; it will always be fundamentally flawed and will always represent injustice and pain. However, it can be made to be better law, and we urge hon. Members to give serious consideration to what we believe are measured, constructive and victim-focused amendments. My hon. Friend Gavin Robinson has eloquently outlined the rationale for the amendments in our names and the names of our colleagues, and I wish to reiterate some of the thinking behind some of the amendments.
Much of the public cynicism, certainly within the victim’s community, is based on the belief that if someone is willing to put a gun to a person’s head and take their life, lying about their actions will not disturb their moral compass. Amendment 97 would offer some form of recourse for lying to the panel. It is also, we believe, appropriate that such cases at the very least be directed to the Public Prosecution Service. If this process is to have any semblance of credibility, surely the Committee will agree that making a mockery of the process should come with an appropriate penalty.
We must also consider the situation of those who have deliberately evaded justice. That is our rationale for amendments 96, 98 and 99. The DUP utterly rejects the idea of immunity for any terrorist, but the Bill needs to offer specific provision for cases where those terrorists fled from justice. Whether they have scuttled off to the safe haven of the Irish Republic, the United States or elsewhere, those subject to active proceedings should not be afforded immunity. The thought of such individuals being welcomed through airport terminals by cheering crowds, to be embraced as heroes by leading figures of Sinn Féin, makes me sick to the pit of my stomach, as did similar images at the release of terrorists following the Belfast agreement. To permit such circumstances through this Bill would be wholly wrong. We therefore ask the Committee to support our amendment that addresses that salient point.
Amendments 100, 101, 102 and 199 relate to the whole issue of immunity. My party has always opposed immunity, for one reason—it is wrong. On Second Reading, my hon. Friend Jim Shannon gave numerous examples of terrorist atrocities in a very personal and moving contribution. His story is the story of so many people in Northern Ireland, and indeed here in Great Britain. How anyone could listen to that account of loss, pain and suffering and believe that immunity for the perpetrator is acceptable is beyond comprehension. Members across the Committee seem to think the situation is justified by saying, “It is not perfect and we don’t like it, but we have no other option.” Yet there is always one option, and that is to do what is right. Victims want this Committee to do what is right.
I cannot close my contribution any more powerfully than by using the words of two victims of IRA terror. I urge Members to give their ear to these voices—to listen to these broken hearts speak. Abbie Graham lost her father, Constable John Graham, and Louie Johnston lost his father, Reserve Constable David Johnston, when they were shot dead while on foot patrol in Lurgan in my constituency of Upper Bann on
“The way the law works is that if the killers were caught and jailed they could only do two years. That would be a formal recognition of the wrong that was done. But if this law was to come in and then someone came forward with the information, it’s too late.”
Louie Johnston states:
“We’re 25 years on from and there are always new forensic opportunities becoming available and always the chance someone will come forward. But if the government is going to remove that opportunity it leaves us without any hope. This was the murder of two fathers who said goodbye to their children on a normal school day, the same thing that was happening in every decent human being’s house.”
“We need to look at what is right and wrong and take the politics out of all of this. What is happening now is that we are creating a justice system based on a postcode lottery. You can get justice as long as you don’t live in Northern Ireland. This government is burying justice and Boris Johnson and Secretary of State Brandon Lewis are playing the role of undertaker.”
“How can you say to someone that if their loved one was killed before April 1998 it doesn’t count? How can people be willing to stand for that?”
That is the question for this Committee: how can anyone be willing to stand for that?
Thank you, Mr Evans.
I am not unaware of the Government’s aim. We absolutely need to move forward. We need to investigate processes to be used in proper form instead of the rewriting of history that currently sees us so badly abused, with Sinn Féin being the guilty party. We need our ex-service personnel to be allowed to retire without, at 75 years of age, being questioned about a case that they handled 45 years ago and asked to validate statements or investigations they carried out, and the pressure of that leading to illness. We need soldiers to be allowed to retire and not to be asked the exact wording of an order given to them 40 years previously when under fire and attempting to save their colleagues.
I understand the Government’s objective, but in the time that you have allocated to me, Mr Evans, I want to be very conscious of the victims. I did that at some length in the previous debate, as my hon. Friend Carla Lockhart said. For me, it is all about the victims and all about justice. My hon. Friend Mr Campbell referred to the flicker of light.
I hold on to that flicker of light that someday justice will come for the murderer of Lexie Cummings—he fled across the border. He has an on-the-run letter. He is a prominent Sinn Fein member, and he has not been held accountable for his misdoings or for the murder. Kenneth Smyth and Daniel McCormick were murdered on
I do not see justice for Stuart Montgomery, a young police officer two weeks out of the college, who was murdered. It makes me angry to think about. I do not see the justice for the Irish Collie Club, who were at dinner in La Mon on
I say gently, but firmly to the Minister of State and to all Government Members that the legislation before us tonight does not give us any succour or comfort. I am a very good friend of Raymond McCord, whose son was murdered by the UVF. He seeks justice, and he has not seen justice. I speak for Raymond McCord, who I know is watching this on TV, when I say that the legislation before us does not help that justice to happen either.
I stood at an RUC centenary event in Newtownards a number of weeks ago, and looked at the hundreds of retired RUC officers as we respected and remembered their sacrifice and the lives lost during the troubles. I listened to the rapturous applause that accompanied the remarks made by Stephen White OBE, chair of the RUC George Cross Foundation. He did not write a groundbreaking poem or a history of the RUC; he simply stated that it was time for the demonisation of the RUC to stop, for the systematic abuse of the system to end and for history to be factually accurate. The overwhelming majority of deaths in the troubles were carried out by terrorists—that is a fact. Now is the time for justice. My constituents who grieve and demand justice ask for that.
I very much support our service personnel wholeheartedly, but this Bill is not the way to approach this matter. I am asking the Minister, respectfully but firmly, as we all are on this side of the Committee, to return this Bill with a different approach that fulfils these aims. My constituents wish for accountability for all the perpetrators who carried out vile murders and think they may have got away with it. I want to see them getting justice in this world—I know as a Christian they will get their justice in the next world, and the fires of hell will burn them in eternal damnation, but that is just me speaking out about the way I want to see life for them. I want to see justice in this world.
I supported Dennis Hutchings, and I still do. I will speak for the victims every time, and I will speak for Dennis Hutchings as well. I support him and his cause, but it is all about the victims. Let us focus on the people who have no justice, but who want justice. We should do that—not through this Bill, because this Bill is flawed—but in a different way. Many of my constituents and my people cannot grieve because justice has not been seen to be done. That is the issue for my people, for my constituents and for people on this side of the Chamber. I wish it was an issue for those on the Government Benches.
We have had a very full debate. It has been emotional and emotive. It has lived up to what we said earlier: it has been contested and there has been an absence of consensus—we certainly got that on steroids. We have heard some harrowing and moving accounts of horrible lived experience in Northern Ireland, and individuals have been named who suffered grievously and lost their lives during the troubles.
I express gratitude to everyone who has participated for the tone of the debate. I will address one issue head on, which is amendment 115 in the name of the shadow Secretary of State on behalf of the Opposition. Earlier, I sought to explain the Government’s thinking and why we were sure that the Bill as written would not have the perverse consequence that the shadow Secretary of State feared. However, as I said—the Secretary of State and I discussed it on the Front Bench—we have heard loud and clear the mood of the Committee and its wish to see greater clarity in the Bill. With that intent clear, and our recognition of the mood of the Committee on that, we are willing to accept the amendment on the condition that we will work over the coming days to see if we can find a refined wording that we can bring back to the House on Report.
I am grateful to the Minister for the way that he has approached the issue and the conversations we have had throughout the debate, both across the Dispatch Box and beyond. I accept the offer that he has made and the spirit in which he has made it. The Opposition obviously have an overarching concern about the overall Bill, but I am pleased to be working with him on this. I assure him and the Committee that I will do so on behalf of the Opposition and other parties in an open-hearted and sincere way and in a way that I hope will improve the Bill in time for Report on Monday.
I am hugely grateful to the Minister. Any of us could do it, but on behalf of everyone who has spoken on the issue, I thank the Minister, the Secretary of State and the shadow Secretary of State for the work they have done on it in the last hour or so. Notwithstanding the contested nature of the Bill and some of the outcomes, I hope that, for people who are concerned about these issues, we have been able to show a glimmer of how well the House can work when it pulls together.
I congratulate the Minister on this, but I have a specific question. I want to be absolutely certain and get clarity from the Dispatch Box that a Report stage will be guaranteed in the business motion and that it will not be bumped. That will allow us to rectify and fiddle around with what goes on, so it is settled.
One of the leading business managers is nodding positively from the Bar of the House at my right hon. Friend’s question. That is absolutely our intention. I am pleased by the way we have managed to resolve the issue this afternoon. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who has spent much of the afternoon outside the Chamber trying to help us to reach a resolution that would be agreeable.
I absolutely join my right hon. Friend in paying tribute to Members of parties from across Northern Ireland, who speak so eloquently and passionately for those they were elected to serve. The one thing that unites us across the Chamber is a determination—even if we disagree about the means—to try to do the right thing for the people of Northern Ireland, who it is our pleasure and obligation to serve.
If I may, I want to come specifically to some of the amendments discussed at various points this afternoon. My hon. Friend Simon Hoare and the shadow Secretary of State raised questions about the independence of the commissioner. We are absolutely clear that central to the effective delivery of this legislation is the need for the body to be independent and to carry out robust investigations and reviews. We see the merits of requiring the ICRIR to provide a copy of its annual report to Parliament and to the Northern Ireland Assembly, and we will take that away and consider it further.
On my hon. Friend’s suggestion that one of the commissioners should be someone of international experience, we certainly see advantages in that. We do not necessarily see an advantage in writing that into the Bill, but it is certainly something the Secretary of State will bear in mind when we get to the point of appointment.
On amendments 111 and 112, tabled by the shadow Secretary of State, the commissioner for investigations will be a senior individual with significant experience in conducting criminal investigations and the authority to conduct the commission’s investigative processes as they see fit. There was some conversation about the difference in scope between an inquiry, a review and an investigation. The term “review” represents the scope of the investigative process that can take place. If the body is required to fulfil an article 2 obligation, it can conduct an appropriate investigative process to do so. In other circumstances, a different approach will be required and the commission will have to be flexible in order to do that.
I do not see Jess Phillips in her place, but she talked about the very tragic circumstances in Birmingham and public inquiries. Just to be absolutely clear, the role and power of the commission is comparable to a public inquiry. It will be led by a judicial figure, as chief commissioner, and the investigative process will be supported by full state disclosure. We have continually made the point that we will be passing across state documentation for the body to consider.
When the ICRIR meets and gets evidence, and perhaps gets evidence of the identity of some person who has committed a heinous crime, can the Minister guarantee that the name of that person, who may well then get immunity from prosecution in some way, is made public so that those poor people who have lost someone will actually know who has killed their next of kin?
I am afraid that the answer to my right hon. Friend is conditional. That will be a matter for the panel itself to determine, and it will have all the evidence at its disposal to make the appropriate judgment. In reference to what I said a moment ago about passing over state records, we will obviously have to take precautionary measures to make sure that we do not jeopardise named individuals who may have been involved in different things where their naming could put them at risk of significant harm.
Just to clarify the question from Colum Eastwood about the keeping of evidence, biometrics will be destroyed a reasonable period after the end of an inquiry, but all the records given to the body by other bodies will of course be retained, because they will be with the bodies—the police and others—that supplied the information to the body in the first place.
In response to amendment 83, we think the definition of close family member provided in schedule 3 to the Bill casts a significantly wide net as to who may request an investigation and a review into the death of a loved one. The legislation’s primary focus is on effective information recovery. The ICRIR will conduct investigations for the purposes of providing answers for those who want them. To be absolutely clear, individuals who have moved to a jurisdiction outside the United Kingdom and are subject to ongoing prosecution proceedings initiated prior to the entry into force of this legislation by a UK prosecutor for a troubles-related offence will be unable to avail themselves of immunity in the scope of the Bill before the Committee today.
There was some mention of concern about the glorification of terrorism and granting immunity for those who could go on to glorify terrorism in their communities. The Terrorism Act 2006 already makes it illegal for the encouragement or glorification of terrorism, whether in the past, in the future or generally. Nothing in the Bill would prevent the prosecution of individuals who are deemed to have committed an offence under the Terrorism Act 2006. The Bill is an ambitious attempt to try to move society in Northern Ireland forward. The role of the Committee today, and the role of the other place in days to come, will hopefully improve the Bill further, as we seek to steer it through to the statute book. I commend it to the Committee.
Debate interrupted (Programme Order, this day).
The Chair put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair (
Question agreed to.
Clause 1 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.
I remind the Committee that 10 minutes are allocated for the first Division, with eight minutes for each subsequent Division. I am anticipating at least three Divisions, but—who knows?—there may be more.
The Chair then put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (
Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Schedule 1 agreed to.
Clauses 3 to 6 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Schedule 2 agreed to.
Clauses 7 to 9 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Schedule 3 agreed to.
Clauses 10 to 14 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Schedule 4 agreed to.
Clauses 15 to 17 ordered to stand part of the Bill.