I beg to move, That this House disagrees with Lords amendments 44D, 44E, 44F, 44G, 44H and 44J.
Let me begin by reminding the House that the Government have sought to make a realistic assessment of what we can best deliver for families more than a quarter of a century after the 1998 Belfast/Good Friday agreement, nearly 30 years since the first ceasefires, and well over 50 years since the troubles began. The backdrop is that current mechanisms for addressing legacy matters work for only a very small number of people, rather than the overwhelming majority, and established criminal justice processes are increasingly unlikely to deliver outcomes that people desire, especially in respect of prosecutions.
We have only one issue left to debate today: conditional immunity. The purpose of this legislation is to give people more information in a shorter timeframe than is possible with the current mechanisms. We do that by creating an effective information recovery process that relies on a conditional immunity model. I attended a decent chunk of the debate in the House of Lords yesterday, and although I am sympathetic to the intent behind Lords amendment 44E, which is to give family members a role in deciding whether immunity should or should not be granted, immunity risks undermining the effectiveness of these provisions and the principal aim of information recovery. For example, the “public interest” consideration element in condition D would lead to uncertainty about the circumstances in which immunity will be granted, undermining the clear and transparent approach that we have developed over time. If we are to ensure that the Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery can obtain as much information for families as possible, we need to ensure that the right incentives are in place for individuals to come forward to provide that information.
I appreciate that the Secretary of State—whom, by the way, I greatly respect—has come here to try to deliver the Bill as it is, but may I make this point to him? A great many people out there have lost loved ones over the years—we all know who they are—and on every occasion, they seek justice. As I said to my hon. Friend Mr Campbell, even if there is only a candle of light of a possibility that someday, those who had murdered someone’s loved one would be held accountable for it, that is what we need. Let me say, with respect, that today the Government are extinguishing that light for all those who have lost loved ones. There are many people in the Chamber today, and in the Public Gallery, who have lost loved ones. On behalf of all those families, I implore the Secretary of State and the Government to think very carefully about the direction that they are taking, because the families’ right to justice is being extinguished, and that cannot bode well for the future.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point, for the way he has raised it, and indeed for the numerous conversations we have had on these matters outside this place and within it. He knows the answer that I am going to give him. I will never, and can never, put myself in the shoes of the people who have lost someone. I just cannot. However, I can see a process that has worked for only a very few people, considering the quantum of people who were affected by the troubles and who lost people. Indeed, the chances of getting justice for them are dwindling all the time.
The Government have come to the conclusion that this is the right way forward because we hope that we can, in good time, at least get some information recovered for those families that ask for it, and also through other elements of the Bill that are not the subject of this package of amendments. If someone misleads the Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery, there are criminal processes involving perjury and a whole host of criminal investigations that can take place. A whole host of things have changed that I hope will allow lots of information to be recovered in quick time for families.
The Secretary of State says he cannot put himself in the shoes of the victims, but he could listen to them. Can he tell us how many or what percentage of the victims he has met have shown support for this piece of legislation?
Very few have shown support for this legislation, but I have met many, as has my Lords Minister, Lord Caine. In fact, part of the process of changing the Bill has come from those conversations. I understand that lots of families do not want this Bill, but the question then is: if not this Bill, then what? [Interruption.] Colum Eastwood says “Stormont House”, but he knows that Stormont House did not have cross-party agreement at the time and that the Ulster Unionist party did not agree to it—
The Minister made this very point at an event that I was at at the weekend, but it was Chatham House rules so I am not allowed to talk about it. He puts forward the argument that the parties just could not agree, but I was involved in many of those discussions and I can tell him that the British Government dragged their feet month after month around the issue of onward disclosure. That is what happened, and it is important to put that on the record. The vast majority of political parties and victims’ groups in Northern Ireland supported Stormont House but the British Government just did not want to do it. That is why it did not get delivered.
I am afraid I do not quite believe that that is the case. However, the British Government have committed to full disclosure to the ICRIR, which allows for a huge amount of information to be put forward in those circumstances and the possibility of ensuring that the commissioner can obtain as much information as possible from families.
The Minister said that if families were to have a say on whether immunity should be granted, it would undermine the whole thrust of the Bill, but the point of the Bill is to ensure that people and families who have been hurt, traumatised and damaged by what happened as a result of terrorist activity in Northern Ireland over 30 years have their say. Surely the best way of giving them justice, after they have heard what the circumstances of the case were, what the attitude of the individual is and what can be disclosed, is to at least let them have the final say on whether they feel that the individual concerned should be granted immunity.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his point. The many amendments to this Bill throughout the last year have included measures on how families should be engaged with and how their views should be heard throughout the process. To ensure that the commission can obtain as much information for families as possible, we need to ensure that the right incentives are in place for individuals to come forward and provide that information. The possibility that eligible individuals who co-operate fully with the commission could then be prevented from obtaining immunity from prosecution is highly likely to act as a significant disincentive for individuals to disclose that information.
This was never going to be an easy issue, or an easy Bill. If it was easy, it would have been done many years ago. What the Government are proposing may be right, or it may be part right and part wrong. I certainly think that giving those survivors and their families a right to veto would be the wrong step to take, so the Government are right on that. However, I think the House will find comfort in the fact that the Secretary of State will keep the progress of the enactment under review, and if there is abuse or things that are wrong, we can revisit it, tidy it up and make it work better. This cannot be seen as a closed chapter, job done. Rather, it is the start of a new process—quite experimental in some ways—of learning from other people’s experiences. If we have that comfort that this is amendable and reviewable, it might help to assuage some, if not all, the concerns.
I thank the Chairman of the Select Committee for his point. He will know that other amendments I have tabled have tried to make this body as independent as it can possibly be. I am sure he will have taken great heart from the appointment of the chief commissioner designate, Sir Declan Morgan, and from the comments he has been making about how he intends to go about his business. He is engaging widely, even at this point, and will do so even further when the Bill gets Royal Assent and becomes an Act. Just in the practice of Sir Declan in putting the flesh on the framework that we are building here for the commission, I think my hon. Friend will see that there are lots of opportunities for it to do exactly what he wishes it to do.
This is understandably an emotional and difficult topic, and it is one that means a lot to me, having served as a Parliamentary Private Secretary to the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my right hon. Friend Sir Brandon Lewis, and also having loved ones who lived through the troubles on either side of the border. The discussions were difficult and I want to give my support to the Secretary of State on this. If there is a threat of prosecution down the line, it will be the families of British soldiers and the families particularly in Unionist communities who will not get the answers they rightly deserve. It will disincentivise people from coming forward and presenting evidence.
Even though justice might not be served in a court, there will at least be answers to the questions that family members have been asking for a long time. It will offer some small hope of reconciliation for those families if they can finally get the truth about what happened and who was involved, in order to allow Northern Ireland to heal and move on. I have engaged regularly with members of the Northern Irish community, and they want to talk about education and about creating more high-skilled, high-wage jobs. They are desperate to see prosperity for their great country, and those are the things that that nation wants to move on to look forward to, rather than continuously looking backwards.
I thank my hon. Friend for his point and for his committed work in my Department. I was not there at the time, but I know of it. I understand the point that he makes. Over the past year, we have endeavoured through amendments to make the Bill very much focused on all victims of the troubles, so that all victims can, if they choose to do so, contact the commission and start a process that will hopefully get them some information in relatively quick time.
We have recently had an example of a Roman Catholic priest who was involved in IRA activities. When talking about his role, he said that his only regret was that his efforts were not more effective in killing people. If that kind of evidence is elicited—if people come forward and show no remorse and no regret, and offer no comfort to victims—does the Secretary of State really think victims will feel any better? Would not giving them the opportunity to say, “In the light of that man’s attitude, I do not believe he should be granted immunity,” be a better way of ensuring that justice is at least seen to be done for those people?
Unbelievably evil things were done in the course of the troubles. Unbelievably hideous acts were committed, and none of us can change that. As I said at the beginning of my contribution, it has not been possible to give justice to a huge number of those families even today, even after the passage of all that time and even after numerous investigations in some cases. This Bill tries to get some information to families who contact the commission to request it, so they can better understand the situation. It will not change anything that happened in the past—it simply cannot.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way again. The premise of his argument and some of the arguments we have heard from Members on those Benches, which are sometimes extremely condescending to victims who have been going through this for many decades, is that people will come forward with the truth if we grant immunity. Well, there is one glaring example that proves that is totally wrong. During the Bloody Sunday inquiry, the soldiers were granted immunity within the context of the inquiry. One after another, they lied through their teeth, and that has been proven by an international public inquiry. With the disappeared, again, IRA people were provided immunity within the context of the organisation that was looking to find those bodies, and we still have bodies out there that have not been found because those people did not come forward and tell the truth even when they were granted immunity.
The lie that is being used to sell this Bill is just that: a lie. It is patently untrue and it will not do anything to give people the truth and justice they desire.
The hon. Gentleman characterises it completely incorrectly. There are no guarantees that the Bill will bring information forward but, as I tried to outline, very little new information has come to light that has led to new cases. Very few people have been able to receive justice. He mentions the point that, in the past, some people might have misled a judge-led inquiry. Well, that is perjury, and perjury is now part of this Bill. The Bill has changed a huge amount over the past year, and it is worthy of support.
This may well be our last chance to discuss the Bill in this Chamber. May I ask the Secretary of State to reflect on the fact that virtually every independent human rights expert including, most notably, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, which has statutory functions, does not believe that the Bill is human rights compliant? Even Sir Declan Morgan, who has been appointed to head up the ICRIR, could not give a categorical answer to that question in a recent newspaper interview. Indeed, it is anticipated that a whole series of cases will need to be brought forward to clear up the issues around human rights compliance.
I understand that point and, again, that is the purpose of all the amendments we have made. The hon. Gentleman will know that I was not comfortable with the Bill that I inherited because, as there would be a gap in investigations, I did not believe it could be article 2 compliant. Amendments have been introduced that completely change that and I believe that the Bill is now compliant, but that will undoubtedly be tested. Only when it is tested and the results come forward can anybody actually say that the Bill is article 2 compliant, as Government lawyers truly believe it is.
The Secretary of State was unhappy with the Bill he inherited, which is the context of the amendments and changes that have been made to this Bill. Has he consulted with the chief commissioner-designate on the Lords amendments he is rejecting today? If the chief commissioner-designate was consulted, did he agree to reject the amendments?
I determined not to speak to the chief commissioner-designate, so that I could maintain his independence when the Bill is enacted.
In several of the Secretary of State’s answers to questions from Opposition Members, he has said, “If there is extra evidence”. Has he or the British Government had the opportunity to speak to the Irish Republic Government about their role? I believe the Irish Republic Government, through the Garda Síochána, have an evidence base on the murders that were carried out by the IRA along the border. I am very conscious of Chief Superintendent Harry Breen and Bob Buchanan in 1989, Lexie Cummings in 1982 and Ian Sproule in 1991. The people who did that escaped across the border, and the Garda Síochána has indicated—
Order. I am very conscious of time. You are down to speak, and you have made your speech already. Other people need to get in. This is a very important issue, and I want to make sure that people can make their speeches.
I know. We all know that Mr Shannon is very good, but it is the amount of time. Interventions have to be short and punchy, not speeches. He is going to make a speech later.
The commission will grant immunity from prosecution only if an individual provides an account that is true to the best of their knowledge and belief. We have developed a robust test for immunity, in which their account must be tested against any information that the commission holds. If an individual does not provide a truthful account of their actions that could be passed to families, or if they do not participate in the immunity process at all, immunity will not be granted and they would remain liable to prosecution should evidence exist. Where a prosecution takes place, and should a conviction be secured, an individual will not be eligible for the early release scheme under the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998. Again, that is a result of amendments made in this House.
Similarly, although I acknowledge the sentiment behind introducing licence conditions under Lords amendment 44E, I respectfully suggest that the Government have sought to address these issues through amendments that were adopted on Report in the other place. These amendments send a clear message that, once immunity is granted, individuals who are convicted of offences that could impede reconciliation will lose that immunity. In the Government’s view, this approach strikes the right balance between providing sufficient certainty as to the effect of a grant of immunity necessary to encourage participation and ensuring that there are appropriate consequences for those whose behaviour after being granted immunity is not compatible with the fundamental aims of the Bill.
The alternative proposed by the Opposition would not support an effective information recovery process, and I therefore ask that the House joins me in disagreeing to amendments 44D, 44E, 44F, 44G, 44H and 44J.
May I take this opportunity to welcome my hon. Friend Fleur Anderson to the Front-Bench team, and to express my thanks to my hon. Friend Tonia Antoniazzi for all the service she gave during her time as part of the shadow Northern Ireland team?
As the House will be aware, we do not support this Bill, but I do not understand why the Secretary of State is seeking to overturn the amendments tabled by Lord Murphy and passed in the other place yesterday. I listened very carefully to the arguments advanced by the Secretary of State, but I do not think they stand up, because the Lords amendments would not take away the commission’s ability to issue immunity to an individual who comes forward and gives truthful evidence about what happened. Lords amendment 44E is not a veto, but it would allow the families of those who were killed or seriously injured in the troubles to have some voice in the process—I understand that relatives of those who were murdered are with us in the Gallery, and they are still seeking justice.
Let me turn to the other provisions, relating to licence conditions that would apply to the person seeking immunity. I acknowledge what the Secretary of State just said about other changes having been made to the Bill, but these provisions seem very sensible and reasonable to me. I include in that the requirement that the individual in question should not approach or otherwise communicate with a victim, in the case of an injury, or with a victim’s family, in the case of a death, unless they consent. So we will vote against the Government’s motion to disagree with the Lords amendments today.
The Secretary of State has talked quite a bit about a disincentive to people coming forward, but I say to him that it is not entirely clear that immunity will achieve the purpose that the Government have for it. Given that every other means of justice is to be closed down, and given that the commission appears to have a lifespan of only five years, those who have committed dreadful crimes only need to sit it out. I say to the Secretary of State that if that were to happen and after the five years are over those individuals start to talk about, boast about or write books about what they have done, how will he explain to the families of those they murdered why the Government allowed that situation to arise? That would be the consequence of taking away from people, as this Bill does, the means of justice, however hard, however long, however uncertain. I acknowledge the point that the Secretary of State made about that.
This is the last occasion on which we will debate this highly controversial legislation, which concerns how we come to terms with the terrible legacy of violence and brutality during the troubles in a way that enables those most affected—the families—finally to know what happened to the person they loved and to ensure that justice is done; to hold those responsible to account. This is the first time I have talked about this, given that I was appointed only on Monday, but I recognise how hard this is and I acknowledge the changes that the Secretary of State has made to the Bill during its passage, including his comment that when he inherited it he was not happy with it. However, he must accept that this legislation does not command the confidence of the people to whom he is trying to offer reassurance and comfort.
The most important word in the title of this Bill is “reconciliation”. We all want that to happen, but the Bill has self-evidently not achieved its aim, because all the communities in Northern Ireland are clearly not reconciled to its contents. It is so striking to see the extent to which the Government have failed to win support for their approach. The list of people and organisations opposed to this Bill is frankly astonishing: all of the political parties in Northern Ireland; the Churches in Northern Ireland; victims’ groups; the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission; the former Victims’ Commissioner; the Irish Government; the Council of Europe; and the United Nations. Most extraordinary of all, it is reported that the person who has been appointed as the commissioner-designate, the highly respected Sir Declan Morgan, said recently that he would expect legal action by the families of victims of the troubles to try to challenge the Bill on whether it is compliant with the European convention on human rights.
That is the scale of the coalition that the Government have managed to range against themselves, but instead of reflecting on that, their approach has been to put their head down and plough on regardless. That is why, for all the Government’s good intentions, they have failed to win public confidence, even though the Government said in 2018:
“In order to build consensus on workable proposals that have widespread support we must listen to the concerns of victims, survivors and other interested parties.”
Doing the wrong thing is not a justification for this Bill, and if there is one lesson we must by now have learned about how to make progress in Northern Ireland, it is that it can only be achieved patiently, slowly and carefully, so as to build a consensus. I am sorry to say that the Bill does not do that and it will not achieve the purpose Ministers claim for it. That is why we are committed, as the Opposition, to repeal it, if we get the opportunity.
I call the Scottish National party spokesperson.
I am well aware that time is limited; you will be pleased to hear, Mr Speaker, that so too is my capacity for repeating arguments that I have made many times previously. My party believes that this Bill is wrong in principle and that in practice it will not achieve the aims that the Secretary of State believes, no doubt with great sincerity, that it will. We will therefore be joining the official Opposition in voting to support the Lords amendments.
I am grateful for the contributions made by Opposition Members thus far. A number of comments have been made this afternoon that relate more to Second Reading than to the stage we are at. It should come as no surprise to those in the Chamber to hear that to us this is an irredeemable piece of legislation. Even though we were highlighting in this Chamber on Second Reading and so on the areas where significant flaws were ultimately going to prove fatal to support for this Bill, the Government entrenched themselves. On a number of discrete issues, they committed in this democratically elected Chamber, where they ignored our requests, that they would proceed with such amendments in the Lords. I find that unsatisfactory, although I recognise that my colleagues in the Lords continue to push on those issues. With Lords Dodds principally among them, they have ensured that some of the commitments given have been honoured. However, that does not change the fact that this is a fundamental assault on justice, with the erosion of hope for victims and of the opportunity to get the answers they seek and the outcome they desire. Those things have been snuffed out by a Government who have entrenched themselves, and I greatly regret that.
This afternoon we have an opportunity, with discrete and sensible amendments before us, as the shadow Secretary of State has said. They were tabled by the Labour party in the House of Lords, and were advocated and supported by Members across the other place yesterday afternoon. This is an opportunity for the Government to salvage at least some appropriate involvement for victims, whereby they can have their say and a sense of the outcome that they seek.
A contribution was made yesterday by Lord Eames, and it is worth repeating. He said:
“Yes, there have been attempts to bring the concept of victimhood into the legislation that is proposed, and yes, the Government can claim that they have made efforts, but, in God’s name, I ask your Lordships to consider the overall impetus of what changes have been made to try to recognise the needs of victims and their families, and of those who, in years to come, when they read what has been said, attempted and failed to be produced, will find it incredulous to understand that the Mother of Parliaments has ignored their crying.”—[Official Report, House of Lords,
Vol. 832, c. 343.]
Those words were worth repeating this afternoon because Lord Eames is somebody who has led the Church of Ireland but is in this Parliament as a peacemaker, and who went through an ill-fated attempt to reconcile issues of legacy in the past, in a consultative report with Denis Bradley in 2009. Within this Parliament and within our society, he is somebody who probably buried more people in Northern Ireland during the troubles than anyone else. When he exhorts in such clear terms that there is an opportunity finally for the Government, at this last gasp, to show some recognition of the pain, trauma, harm and pursuit of justice that victims show, the fact that this Government would not accept it is a great shame.
The list of organisations has been given—it was given by a former Secretary of State, Lord Murphy, yesterday in the House of Lords and by the shadow Secretary of State here today—showing the lack of support for the legislation. We will go through the Lobby this afternoon to register yet again our disappointment at a failed opportunity by this Government, who are more focused on what they can get out of this Bill as they campaign for the forthcoming election than on solving the intractable issues that have plagued our society for so long.
To start with the specific amendments before us, the Government’s approach, right to this eleventh hour—five minutes to midnight in terms of the Bill—reinforces the premise behind the Bill. Immunity is the central foundation stone on which this flawed Bill has been designed and taken forward, and the immunity clause goes to the heart of why there is no confidence in the legislation and why it has been rejected by so many stakeholders, most notably victims groups. That opposition spans the entire political spectrum in Northern Ireland.
Reference has been made to the history around this issue. I do not want to dwell on that overly, but there is a notion that the Stormont House agreement was not agreed to and was in some way flawed, and that we needed an alternative. Stormont House was agreed by virtually every political party and there were efforts made to implement it, but beyond the political parties it had the confidence of victims groups and the approval of independent human rights experts, so it was the basis of moving forward.
As has been said, as recently as “New Decade, New Approach”, Stormont House has explicitly been the policy of this Government. Within three months from the launch of “New Decade, New Approach”, we had, in effect, a handbrake turn, with a written ministerial statement by one of the Secretary of State’s predecessors, Sir Brandon Lewis. It was very clear that the immunity concept, alongside the Conservative party manifesto, was driving that, so the whole premise of the Bill is driven by the politics of the Conversative party, not the needs of Northern Ireland. That is the fundamental reason why the Bill will never be seen as legitimate in any sense in Northern Ireland. Further, I do not understand the logic of a Secretary of State saying that Stormont House does not have full support, so we cannot proceed on that basis, and then, by extension, introducing a Bill that has no support from any political party or victims group in Northern Ireland. That seems utterly nonsensical to me.
I will not reiterate the point I made about human rights compliance, but I acknowledge that the shadow Secretary of State, Hilary Benn echoed and reinforced the point that we will see legal challenges to the legislation.
Finally, I welcome what the shadow Secretary of State said about the repeal of the legislation. If we see a change of Government after the next election, I hope that will be a priority for the incoming Government.
There are a lot of things that get me angry in this job, but this has got me more angry than anything I have ever had to deal with. The people sitting on the Benches occupied by Members representing Northern Ireland’s constituencies have had to deal with, get to know and work with the victims of our terrible past for decades. Frankly, I am embarrassed today, as I do not know what I am going to say to them when I speak to them after the debate, because as a whole—as a body politic—we have failed them.
We have a peace process, we have peace and lots of us have been able to move on, but we have left a very significant cohort of people behind, and we are rubber stamping that today. Some people will walk through the Lobby coldly, without having the names of the victims ringing in their heads. I have their names going around my head right now—I have put many of them on record in this Chamber during the passage of the Bill. I am deeply ashamed that we are doing this today.
There is a pretence in the proposal for the Bill that somehow the British Government were not an actor at all in the conflict in Northern Ireland. That is patently untrue. They say that local political parties in Northern Ireland are just squabbling, cannot come up with any answers or deal with the problem. That is patently untrue. We came up with the answer, which was Stormont House. The reason it was not delivered is that the British Government dragged their feet and changed their policy after “New Decade, New Approach”. That is a fact.
I really hope that the Irish Government listen to the calls by some of us to take this UK Government to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, because the Bill is an affront to human rights and article 2. Every single expert I have spoken to agrees with me on that, and every single victim agrees with me on that as well.
The Secretary of State used the phrase “effective information recovery process” a lot of times. “Effective information recovery process”? I can take him to families today whose children—14 and 15 years old— were shot in the troubles and their cases have been closed by this Government until 2064 and 2065. Those people tell us they want an “effective information recovery process”, but the Government are denying victims “effective information recovery”, so that tells me that the Bill is based on a lie. It is an attempt by this Government and dark forces within the security apparatus of this Government to close down access to truth and justice.
We all understand that justice will be hard to get for many families, but most of those families have not even had any truth. The process of investigation gets them truths. I can take Members to loads of families today who never once even met a police officer, even though a loved one was murdered. Does anybody here believe that the IRA are going to come forward and tell us who bombed a particular pub or who shot a particular person? It is utter nonsense.
This is an attempt to close down access to the truth and it is an affront to democracy. Immunity? It is impunity, giving people a licence to murder people on the streets of Derry, Belfast, Newry and across Northern Ireland, and also on the streets of London. I do not understand how any politician can stand and look at the faces of crying victims and tell them that this is the right thing to do. I am ashamed that this is happening today.
Let me say one thing to end: I know these people. They have had to struggle for decade after decade. This will not be the end for them and we will be with them in support, right to the end.
I wish to add a few words. I will not be labouring too long in the Chamber, but it is important to make some comments in relation to where we are, as I again find myself in a position where I cannot support what the Government have put forward. While some Members on the Government Benches try to apologise and condition their support for the Bill, Members on these Benches, including those from my party and our spokesperson, my hon. Friend Gavin Robinson, as well as Members representing other parties, including the hon. Members for Foyle (Colum Eastwood) and for North Down (Stephen Farry), have put forward their comments very clearly.
I have many concerns over the processes in place for victims and the fact that there are not enough answers. There will be ongoing investigations, but will any of those investigations be into collusion over the border? In my intervention on the Secretary of State earlier I referred to discussions that the Secretary of State and the United Kingdom Government may have had with the Republic of Ireland in relation to collusion in investigations, which in some cases involved some members of the Garda Síochána, and to the fact that the Republic of Ireland gave sanctuary to IRA murderers who escaped across the borders. Those are issues that some of my constituents wish to know about.
In his reply, the Secretary of State said that he has had discussions with the Republic of Ireland in relation to those matters, but has the Republic of Ireland responded, given evidence or investigated in the way it should have done?
The Government of the Irish Republic, again interfering in the affairs of Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom, have threatened to go to the European court on this issue. Does my hon. Friend agree with me, given how tarnished they are in regard to legacy, that whether we agree or disagree with the legislation that is being brought forward, this is an internal UK matter and should be dealt with internally, through the processes within the UK, not by an interfering Irish Government?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his intervention. He has put on record very clearly his point of view, and it is one to which many of us here subscribe.
Let me return to the points that I was trying to make about the Secretary of State’s reply. Have those discussions taken place? Has the evidential base been gathered? Have the accusations of collusion between the Garda Síochána and the IRA been considered? There was the murder of Chief Superintendent Harry Breen and Superintendent Bob Buchanan in a car bomb on the border in 1989. The information that we have been made aware of indicates that details were passed to the IRA on what time they would be crossing the border. That is collusion. That is an evidential base for what happened. That information should be brought forward by the Republic of Ireland Government and conveyed to the Secretary of State and the Government here. There are many other such cases. For example, the murderers of Lexie Cummings in 1982 escaped across the border. The murderers of Ian Sproule in 1981 escaped across the border, and, again, the murderers of my own cousin, Kenneth Smyth, escaped across the border.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. As this was raised in an earlier intervention, it would be interesting to say to the House that someone came forward and volunteered information, saying that they had been involved in the IRA campaign, and yet they have never served one day either in court or in prison for that. They were questioned in 1988 and denied the allegation, but as recently as 2019 they made a full admission of their involvement in IRA activities. The case of the Hyde Park bomb, which saw 11 people killed and 51 injured, was never brought to court in relation to that. That was somebody who came forward recently and made that admission.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising that matter. He has clearly outlined an evidential base, which has to be part of this process. Unfortunately, though, with this Bill that process does not continue in the way that we hoped it would.
I wish very quickly to speak to the Lords amendments. They have established minimum criminal justice standards for a “review” along the lines of Operation Kenova. The amendments would require the Secretary of State to make regulations prescribing the standards to which reviews by the Independent Commission for Reconciliation & Information Recovery are carried out, including what measures should be used to ensure that reviews comply sufficiently with the obligations under the European convention on human rights. The shadow Secretary of State, whom I welcome to his place, referred to that specifically in his contribution. I was very encouraged by his comments here today—I think we all were—and look forward to constructive engagement with him as we move forward. What is also covered is whether as much information as possible should be gathered by reviews in relation to death or harmful conduct, and whether all evidential opportunities should be explored by reviews. Victims must be consulted, and regulations can be changed if reviews are conducted in a way not envisaged.
That is what the Lords amendments were hoping to achieve. It is disappointing to me personally and to all of us who represent Northern Ireland that that has not been fully considered by the Government. It is regrettable that the Government have resisted efforts to embed minimum criminal justice standards at the heart of how the ICRIR conducts reviews. They seem intent not only on narrowing the legal routes, but weakening investigative standards in those aspects that remain. It is hard not to reach the conclusion that the distinction made between “review” and “investigation” in the context of the Bill is more about drawing a line under the past with minimal fuss in the shortest timeframe possible, than about actually securing the answers and information that the victims and their families deserve and crave.
In conclusion, it grieves me to stand against the Government on these issues, but, on behalf of the victims, I wish to say very clearly that those in the Public Gallery today expect to see all those who perpetrated and carried out crimes to be held accountable. That is not happening. The unfortunate thing for all of us here—those in the Public Gallery who have lost loved ones, we in this Chamber who have lost loved ones and for all of us who represent Northern Ireland—is that this is a retrograde step. It extinguishes very clearly the hope for justice that we all want for those people who lost their lives to the troubles.
With the leave of the House, I will answer a couple of the points that have been raised. I am grateful to all hon. Members for their contributions in the debate today. I know that the time that I have is relatively short, so I shall try to keep to it.
As Jim Shannon was just speaking I was reminded of a question that I received from my hon. Friend Jane Stevenson in the second but last Northern Ireland Office questions. She was approached by a constituent who was after information about what had happened to one of their loved ones. So there are people out there who will try to find, and do find, information about their loved one if it can possibly be done. The fact is that if people do not co-operate, they will not be granted immunity and therefore they will remain liable to prosecution, and that will mean using all the police powers at the new body’s disposal. The Government’s position is that we still feel that the prospect of successful prosecutions is increasingly unlikely, but, none the less, that prospect remains.
If I may, I will correct one thing that Hilary Benn said—it is a straightforward correction and is not meant in any political way. It is not correct to state that the ICRIR has a lifespan of five years. The commission will be wound up by the Secretary of State at the time via affirmative resolution only once it has discharged all its functions as set out under clause 2, so its lifespan could be quite a bit longer than five years. I just thought that I would share that.
I do recognise that this is a hugely difficult Bill and a hugely difficult task—an unbelievably difficult task—which is reflected in the number of valiant attempts made to address the issue since the Good Friday agreement.
The Secretary of State is outlining the difficulty surrounding this entire process. Given the convoluted, protracted nature of this for such a long time and given what inevitably will happen when this passes as it will, it will end up in the High Court. Does he understand that this will be an entirely convoluted, academic process that will end up nowhere?
I am afraid that I do not.
I was saying that a number of valiant attempts have been made to address this issue since the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. As I have reminded the House in the past, in one debate that I attended with some of the women who were behind the Good Friday agreement, one was asked what was her biggest regret about the time. The regret was that nothing was done for victims.
A number of these attempts were undertaken when the right hon. Member for Leeds Central was a Minister in Government. Indeed, I slightly worry about his brilliant academic mind and his recall for any of our future exchanges, but I know that he will remember all too well the difficulties and complexities involved in these issues. None the less, it is incumbent on us to ensure that any process for dealing with the past focuses on measures that can deliver positive outcomes for as many of those directly affected by the troubles as possible.
That comes—it really does—with finely balanced political and moral choices, including a conditional immunity process, which I acknowledge is difficult for very many, but we must be honest about what we can realistically deliver for people in circumstances where the prospects of achieving justice in the traditional sense are so vanishingly small. That is why the Government are unable to support the Opposition and will be disagreeing to Lords amendments 44D, 44E, 44F, 44G, 44H and 44J.
I will close my comments by recognising that the right hon. Member for Leeds Central has come to this debate with a fresh pair of eyes. Quite understandably, he has not had much more than 48 hours to go through what is a very detailed piece of legislation, but I know that he has followed these debates in great detail from the Back Benches. I know that in due course he will look at this and reach his own conclusions. I encourage him when doing so to reflect on the immense difficulty of this task, and to consider how the Government have genuinely sought to strengthen the legislation with encouragement from his party. He may also want to consider the toughest of all questions: if not this Bill, then what? I hope that upon Royal Assent the Opposition will engage constructively with the chief commissioner to help to ensure that the new commission can deliver the better outcomes for all those affected by the troubles that everyone across this House would like to achieve.
The House divided: Ayes 288, Noes 205.
Question accordingly agreed to.
Lords amendments 44D, 44E, 44F, 44G, 44H and 44J disagreed to.
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (
That Chris Heaton-Harris, Robert Largan, Alexander Stafford, Tom Hunt, Chris Elmore, Tonia Antoniazzi and Richard Thomson be members of the Committee;
That Chris Heaton-Harris be the Chair of the Committee;
That three be the quorum of the Committee.
That the Committee do withdraw immediately.—(Mike Wood.)
Question agreed to.
Committee to withdraw immediately; reasons to be reported and communicated to the Lords.