‘(a) in subsection (1), after paragraph (d) insert—
“(e) between those who are victims and survivors of the conflict and those who are not; and
(f) between those who have been members of Her Majesty’s armed forces and those who are not.”.
(b) after subsection (1) insert—
“(1A) person is excluded from any benefit arising from this Act by virtue of (1)(e) if that person has been convicted of a serious criminal conviction.”
‘(1A) In subsection (5) of that Act insert—
““victim and survivor of the conflict” is defined as—
(a) any person who has suffered harm caused by an act related to the conflict in Northern Ireland, for which they are not wholly or partly responsible, that is in violation of the criminal law,
(b) any person who provides a substantial amount of care on a regular basis for a person as outlined in paragraph (a), where the harm suffered is a physical or psychological injury.
“serious criminal conviction” means a conviction, whether the person was convicted in Northern Ireland or elsewhere, for an offence for which—
(a) a sentence of imprisonment of five years or more was imposed,
(b) a sentence of imprisonment for life was imposed.”.’.
I echo my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry in saying that it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone.
The amendments are important to us. Section 75 is a key provision of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and I would venture to suggest that it is the most often quoted section, because it places a statutory duty on all public authorities in the execution of their duties to give due regard to equality of opportunity to certain specified groups. The Equality Commission for Northern Ireland set it out that the duty places upon public authorities a requirement
“to have due regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity between: persons of different religious belief, political opinion, racial group, age, marital status or sexual orientation; men and women generally; persons with a disability and persons without; and persons with dependants and persons without.”
Amendment 1 would add two further groups to be specified under section 75 of the 1998 Act. The first additional group is the victims and survivors of the troubles in Northern Ireland and the second is those who have served in the armed forces. It is evident from section 75 that the measure is about promoting equality of opportunity, but it is also about identifying groups within society that are deemed potentially vulnerable and therefore merit special protection under the 1998 Act.
We believe, first, that victims and survivors of the conflict in Northern Ireland are deserving of that special protection. Secondly, we believe that, having regard to the military covenant and the desire to afford special support to those who have served our country, section 75 ought to be amended to include those who have served in our armed forces as a specified group.
Clause 22 already provides for some amendment to section 75, and we believe that our amendments merit consideration by the Government. Sadly, tens of thousands of people might be categorised as victims and survivors of the Northern Ireland conflict. Many of them have been disadvantaged through bereavement; that includes financial loss as a result of losing the main earner at a young age. There are many families in Northern Ireland who have suffered as a result of that. Others have a range of needs, particularly with respect to physical and psychological trauma or injury caused by the conflict. Indeed, people who have suffered injuries as a result of the troubles have made the case that their needs are not adequately being provided for.
Recently, the victims’ support group at the WAVE trauma centre produced a report, which I commend to all Members. It identified the great need in Northern Ireland for support for those who have suffered psychological trauma or have physical injuries as a result of conflict-related incidents. Indeed, an international report states that the level of trauma in Northern Ireland is higher even than that in, for example, Lebanon. Given that Northern Ireland has among the highest levels of post-conflict trauma of any region in the world, victims and survivors merit special consideration and protection under section 75 of the 1998 Act.
Amendment 2 defines what is a victim and survivor for the purposes of section 75, and members of the Committee will note that there are two specific exclusions. The first relates to an individual who is a victim as a result of their own act—in other words, someone who injured themselves as a result of being involved in unlawful activity, who cannot, for the purposes of this provision, be considered someone who will benefit from the Bill.
Secondly, there is an exclusion in relation to those who have been convicted of a serious criminal offence. Members of the Committee might ask why we need to define a victim and survivor in such a way. The reality is that under the Victims and Survivors (Northern Ireland) Order 2006 a victim and survivor is defined as anyone who has suffered loss, either through bereavement or through injury or physical or psychological trauma, as a result of the Northern Ireland conflict. That means, in effect, that if someone was a member of a terrorist organisation, proscribed in law, and sustained an injury or loss as a result of the conflict, they can be defined as a victim. For my hon. and right hon. Friends on the Government side of the Committee, that means that, under the current definition, the perpetrators of the attacks that resulted in the murder of their colleagues, Airey Neave and Ian Gow, and the death of the victims of the Brighton bomb, are, if they sustained a loss or injury as a result of the troubles, equated with those whom they sought to kill.
It causes deep hurt and offence in Northern Ireland that perpetrators are equated with innocent victims. We do not believe it is right that special protection and status under section 75 are afforded to those who were engaged in acts of terrorism. Therefore, we have included these two exclusions to make it clear that a victim and survivor for the purposes of section 75 is not someone who was injured or sustained loss as a result of their own act, or someone convicted of a serious criminal offence. We define a serious criminal offence as one where a sentence of imprisonment for five years or more, or a sentence of imprisonment for life, was imposed.
The second group is the armed forces. The Minister will be aware that there is an issue around how Departments in Northern Ireland interpret their statutory duty under section 75 with regard to the implementation of the military covenant. The Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs is undertaking an inquiry on that very subject, and its report is due imminently.
I have had correspondence with Departments in Northern Ireland on behalf of veterans who are my constituents. For example, I have had a response from a Department stating that it is unable to provide my constituent with the support he needs because, under section 75, it is prevented from giving what it deems to be preferential treatment to members of the armed forces or to veterans.
I happen to believe that that is a misinterpretation of the military covenant, but, nevertheless, there is an issue around section 75 and whether it inhibits Departments in Northern Ireland from providing the support and benefits envisaged in the military covenant for those who have served our country. Our amendment would place that beyond doubt and clear the matter up by offering the clarity that Departments need: individuals who have served in the armed forces would be a specified group for the purposes of section 75.
We believe that individuals who serve our country and who come back to live in their homeland of Northern Ireland are entitled to the kind of protection afforded by section 75. That includes people who are not native to Northern Ireland, such as soldiers who served in the armed forces in Northern Ireland, met a local girl, got married and settled down in the Province. There are many of them and I have met them. The amendment would ensure full and proper implementation of the military covenant in Northern Ireland.
I commend the amendments to the Committee; they are worthy of support. People in Northern Ireland will understand why there is a need to afford the protections of section 75 to victims and survivors of the conflict and to those who have served our country in the armed forces.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone.
I would like to make a number of points about what the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley said. For me, the issue of victims and survivors is one of definition. I would suggest that, to some extent, everybody on these islands is a victim of 40 years of state failure. The people in my part of the world are at a financial disadvantage because a lot money from taxpayers is going to fund the failure of the state in Northern Ireland, and it has done for the past 40 years. Therefore, to say that there is a group that is so tightly defined is missing the point altogether and it would be wrong to support that.
It was argued that terrorists should not receive the benefit of section 75, but surely the point is that a terrorist who has been convicted has served their time and therefore been punished. Is the right hon. Gentleman seriously suggesting that we should extend that punishment and exclude them from those rights? Yet again, I would argue that the terrorists on both sides of the argument were doing what they did because of the failings of the state and of us, collectively, in the House. The politicians in Northern Ireland did not resolve things in the political forums, which ended up with the discussions and disputes that we had for 40 years.
As the right hon. Gentleman said, the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee is considering how section 75 applies to the armed forces and the military covenant. I would be delighted if he sent to the Committee the correspondence that he has received from officials in Northern Ireland.
The evidence that we have seen clearly shows that the overwhelming feeling across the piece is that putting the armed forces into section 75 would, if anything, be a disadvantage.
Following the hon. Gentleman’s last point, people who have the interests of military and former military personnel close at heart have indicated to me that they want to leave well alone. They do not believe that such measures are the answer to any problems or inconveniences that they might help their friends or former members of the armed forces with. On the issue that will be the subject of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee report, they have made it clear to me that they see no case for specifically including the military covenant by adding a reference to section 75. In fact, they think that doing so might create more administrative and other difficulties and tensions. They are concerned not only about unforeseen consequences, but about consequences that they consider to be fairly foreseeable and about which those involved are particularly worried.
The deeper issue with amendment 1 is the attempt to redefine victims and survivors and to insert them into section 75. Those associated with the affairs of the armed forces do not believe that including them as a specific group under section 75 will answer their questions, and similar feelings have been expressed to me by people who could unarguably be called victims and survivors. They do not think that the answer to their problems is to include them in section 75, because they are not necessarily convinced that section 75 will do all that it is expected to do.
Victims and survivors want to receive due consideration in much of what the state and public services do, not least when it comes to welfare reform measures. The so-called “karaoke” Bill—the Northern Ireland version of the Welfare Reform Bill—is currently before the Assembly. It has had to stick broadly to the terms of the legislation passed here, with very little room for discretion, although some discretion has been allowed for the different administrative structures in Northern Ireland.
Even as the Welfare Reform Bill was going through Westminster, my party tried to establish a special committee to look at the impact that such legislation would have on victims and survivors in Northern Ireland, but we were voted down. The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley has rightly pointed out the high number of victims and survivors, the high rates of trauma and the issues of mental ill health in Northern Ireland. Precisely to show due consideration of such matters in advance of the Assembly legislation, my party tried to get our proposal discussed at the Assembly, but the DUP voted it down. The DUP did not care about making sure that we duly considered the interests of victims and survivors in the change from disability living allowance to personal independence payments, and in the change to reviewing cases every three years with no exceptions whatsoever, no matter what the conditions and circumstances.
We were trying to say that surely victims and survivors should be treated differently if they were injured as a result of the troubles, rather than insisting that they retell their story afresh to some new official every three years and go through the trauma and difficulty again. Surely there is a way of giving some special and particular consideration to victims and survivors, just as the Prime Minister ensured would be the case for members of the armed forces. Members of the armed forces would not be subject to that sort of review by the Benefits Agency here or wherever; there were separate arrangements and funding lines made to guarantee that they are not subjected to that. We have been trying to say “Let something similar happen in Northern Ireland.” One would think that the people who tabled the amendment would be the first to back and support us in trying to get those sorts of special considerations and measures, but no.
There are other examples of very real issues for victims and survivors that need to be dealt with, whether housing, benefits, access to various services, including council services, all of which have been the subject of different cuts and shortcomings. Some of the measures that have existed to support victims have been reduced in recent years and lost out in funding, or have undergone restructuring in ways that mean that they are less accessible. There are real issues there in terms of how we support and serve the victims and survivors, but the answer to that is consideration in the planning and funding of services, and making those guarantees real, not creating a fig-leaf pretence by saying, “We’re adding you into section 75 after not having done as much for you as we should.”
An additional issue goes across amendments 1 and 2: redefining victims to exclude those who have been guilty of an offence. Of course, that means found guilty of an offence; there are many crimes in Northern Ireland for which no one has been convicted. Therefore, this is not an answer for those people who have gone through bereavement, serious injury and trauma and seen no one prosecuted or convicted. It is no answer for them.
We see things like the de Silva report and other reports from the past—even a police ombudsman report last week about the good samaritan bomb in my constituency back in 1988. Two people coming out of Mass were concerned about a neighbour whom they had not seen for a week, and they went to check the flat. There was a booby-trap bomb in that flat, and the police ombudsman report last week showed that the police knew all along that that bomb was there and that they were staying away from the area for days. They allowed a situation to develop where interested good samaritan neighbours lost their lives, simply for an act of concern or charity.
Three families are involved. Sean Dalton and Sheila Lewis died that day, and Gerard Curran died later of injuries. Their families are finding that, contrary to everything that they were told about no stone being left unturned to find the perpetrators, it turned out that, first, the police already knew in advance and no measures were taken to prevent such an atrocity from happening or to protect the public; and, secondly, according to the police ombudsman, after a flurry of activity at the start, the investigation was essentially switched off and nothing else proceeded. There are many victims who have many grievances, not just about the injury done to them, but around the fact that nobody was particularly pursued, prosecuted or convicted. We have a number of cases where there have been convictions, but the courts have now been overturning those convictions on all sorts of grounds, for example, concern around the circumstances in which the evidence was gained, the nature of interrogation methods, the quality of the confessions that were used, the character of the decisions that were made under the Diplock court and the strictures under which people worked.
Again, in circumstances whereby not only were many people not convicted, but even in many of those cases where there were convictions on the record that are now disposed of, the amendment would do nothing for any of the victims who are so affected. It pretends to solve a problem neatly, but actually it does not. Worse still, it possibly creates more of a problem because, while many victims are deeply concerned and vexed about their situation and that of other victims, many of them have also been working at various levels with other victims. When we addressed clauses last week downstairs, the shadow Secretary of State referred to recently attending the Theatre of Witness event at St Ethelburga’s in London.
That production from the Playhouse in my constituency was powerful. It was not portrayed by actors, but by people who were victims or combatants; they gave their own descriptions of themselves. They included a former British soldier who, as the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley said, has married a local girl, and now lives in my constituency. It also involved a young woman who was in the IRA in her youth, and another woman whose husband had been chained into a van to be a suicide bomber at the border checkpoint at Coshquin simply because he worked as a civilian at the Army base. His family were taken hostage and he was chained and lost his life, along with five British soldiers, when the van was detonated.
Another man spoke as a victim who had been in Belfast in his father’s car when a bomb had been planted in it. There were loyalists, republicans and people of all backgrounds giving very powerful testimony. Victims can define themselves and share their narrative with others without our starting to impose new, clumsy, difficult or arch definitions. It is all part of a wider narrative in that sense.
I have another point about amendment 1. Proposed new section (1A) of the 1998 Act would exclude somebody with a conviction from proposed new section 75(1)(e) but not from proposed new section 75(1)(f). Some might ask whether that is fair. Somebody is entitled to be in section 75 if they are a victim, but not if they have had a previous conviction. However, a conviction does not disqualify somebody from being eligible if they have been a member of the armed forces. Some people might say there is a discrepancy or inconsistency there. In fairness, the case can be made that often there are many people who have served in the armed forces, who, as a result of, for example, post-traumatic stress, find themselves running foul of the law in circumstances no one would have wanted.
If the hon. Gentleman looks at section 75 as it is currently stands, there are already four categories. Someone could have been a soldier serving in Northern Ireland convicted of an offence, but happen to be male or disabled or have a certain sexual orientation or racial background. All that is currently provided for under section 75.
I take the hon. Gentleman’s point. We are seeking simply to ensure that those who have served in the armed forces are not disadvantaged, as they currently are in my opinion, in terms of the full implementation of the military covenant in Northern Ireland. If someone has a conviction, that is a matter that has to be taken into account if it relates to the service or the benefit that the individual is seeking to acquire. That does not invalidate the amendment.
The right hon. Gentleman has contradicted the point here. He has clearly given thought to ensuring that the victims and survivors covered by section 75 would exclude those with a conviction, but that would not be the case for members of the armed forces. He has specifically made the decision in the way in which the amendment is framed that he does not want to exclude former members of the armed forces because of a conviction, but that he wants to exclude victims and survivors because of a conviction.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way again, but I think he misunderstands what I am trying to do. I do not have to define who was or was not a member of the armed forces; that is a matter of fact. People either served in the armed forces or they did not. Therefore, for the purposes of the amendment, it is simply about definitions. It is not about saying, “They are not a person deemed eligible or ineligible by virtue of a conviction.” In an amendment relating to a victim and survivor, that has to defined, because, as we heard in an earlier intervention, everyone who lives in Northern Ireland could be defined as a victim and survivor of the troubles, if they lived through it, unless the definition is tightened up.
We have sought to make it clear in the definition who is and who is not a victim and survivor. The two cannot be equated: someone is either a member of the armed forces or they are not—that is clearly defined—whereas the definition of a victim and survivor has to be further explained, otherwise, as was said, it could be anyone living in, or who lived in, Northern Ireland during the troubles. So we have sought to make it clear who is or is not a victim or a survivor. I do not need to explain whether someone was or was not a soldier. If someone was convicted of an offence, it does not mean that they did not serve in the armed forces.
Again, the right hon. Gentleman and I are not necessarily going to reach agreement on this matter. The fact is that, by virtue of the amendment, he is seeking, first, to extend section 75 and, secondly, to disqualify people with convictions from one of the extensions that his amendment would make. It is clear that he wants to exclude people from being eligible for benefits as victims and survivors, but he does not feel so perturbed, worried, annoyed or aggrieved by someone with convictions who is a former member of the armed forces as to exclude them from a benefit. Again, it is because such invidious arguments end up being generated that many people associated with the armed forces do not want this amendment, or some of the other suggestions that have been made in respect of giving a particular profile to the military covenant in some new, bespoke and possible unworkable way in Northern Ireland. That is not the main issue that I have with the amendment, but I wanted to mention an inconsistency or contradiction.
My main point is that victims and survivors are owed a lot more by way of care, consideration and support. We need to do that daily and encourage those in charge of public services to do that. That was one reason why, when the institutions of the agreement were set up, as well as having the policy responsibility in relation to the past, with victims and survivors still resting strongly with the Secretary of State, the devolved Executive took the initiative to say that victims should be an issue for the devolved Assembly, too. That became part of the policy remit and responsibility of the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, not in terms of overall policy, necessarily, on victims and survivors, or even for the past, but to ensure that devolved services were being duly informed and were duly sensitive to the needs of victims and survivors in all they did: in the policies that they plan and the services that they manage.
We have much more to do in that regard, but it is difficult to claim that an easy short cut to that—the way of achieving all that—is a clumsy and potentially ineffectual change in section 75.
I oppose the amendments. We do not need to go in for such a change in definition. The DUP sought to introduce a Bill in the Assembly to change the definition of a victim and survivor, but it did not get the takers, such as us, that it hoped to get then—and it is not getting us as takers today, either.
I rise to make a few brief comments, principally in relation to amendment 2. As we have seen in recent days, progress in Northern Ireland is somewhat halting. I do not wish to paraphrase a literary genius even more eloquent than the hon. Member for Ealing North, who talked about peace coming dropping slow, but we make progress in a halting way and we are trying to make further progress today during the course of the Bill.
I urge Members to recall that a couple of years ago a report came from Messrs Eames and Bradley. It dealt with the past and with victims. They took evidence and considered it for a long time. The entire project perished on the rock of a single consultation and the suggestion that an amount of money should be paid to those who would be regarded as “victims”, irrespective of who those people were and what they had done. The entire project perished on that single, simple proposal, because it did not differentiate between those who planted a bomb and those who suffered as a result, who were—as someone said in the Northern Ireland Assembly—at the wrong end of the rifle. In other words, they were the person who was shot, rather than the person who was pulling the trigger.
If we as a society do not make a straightforward, fundamental difference, we will for ever be condemned to repeat the defeat of the Eames-Bradley proposals. That is what the amendment is about.
On that point, may I share with the Committee an extract from an unsolicited e-mail that I received yesterday? It is from a victim who is now well known in Northern Ireland: Ann Travers. Her sister was murdered by the IRA and they attempted to murder her father, who was a judge. She got wind of the amendment and sent me an e-mail, which states:
“It is bizarre that we equate the perpetrators of murder along with their victims in Northern Ireland. After our sister’s murder neither my brothers or myself chose to get revenge by joining an illegal organisation. To put it in the simplest terms, imagine the following scenario, my family is attacked by the IRA, the gunman shoots Mary in the back, an RUC Landrover pulls up and a policeman shoots the IRA...man...Is he a victim in the same sense as my unarmed sister? In my opinion, no, by his own free will and choice he created victims in both my family and his own.”
I think Ann Travers puts the point far more clearly than we could.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that very powerful outline by Ann Travers.
We need to re-establish an equilibrium that never should have been unbalanced. No matter what the religious persuasion, political outlook or agenda-setting objective of any proponent of violence is, it is irrelevant. If they were a person who was a victim maker, they cannot under any circumstances, under any criteria, be described as a victim. It is as simple and as blunt as that. That is what the amendment is about.
The hon. Member for Blaydon talked about the universality of victimhood, but if we look at the demise of the Eames-Bradley proposals and at problems that have occurred in recent weeks and months, much of it can be traced back in Northern Ireland to the attempt by wider society not to differentiate between those who have deliberately gone out, whatever their background, to create victims, and those who ended in the coffin as a result of such actions.
The hon. Member for Foyle also mentioned welfare reform and particular issues that may arise as a result of designating certain people in that area. Many of us in the Northern Ireland Assembly were trying to make the number of designated groups as wide as possible, to ensure that as many people as possible would be sheltered from the hardship that some of the welfare reform proposals will bring. If we were to dig down even deeper and try to individualise those who may have been exempt, we would have been open to all sorts of accusations.
The reasoning behind amendment 2 boils down to that fundamental assessment. It is about distinguishing between those who are genuine victim makers—the people who point the gun or plant the bomb—and those others who die as a result of those actions.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I want to make a short contribution to this important debate.
Those of us on the Committee who do not represent constituencies in Northern Ireland need to approach this debate with considerable humility and great care. Those of us who have had the privilege of having an involvement in Northern Ireland will always remember our engagement with the victims of the conflict there. I am thinking of meetings that I had with families of the disappeared or with the widows of police officers who had been murdered. The trauma, pain and heartbreak those people have suffered is beyond the comprehension of many who do not live in Northern Ireland and have not been part of that difficult story. We need to approach this matter with considerable humility.
Frankly, I think that however well-intentioned they are, the amendments give the Committee an almost impossible task. I want to set out why I think that is the case. The right hon. Member—my right hon. Friend—for Lagan Valley wants to make section 75 clearly applicable to the victims of the conflict and to members of the armed services. He has explained his reasons why, but, of course, in doing that, he has to define what is meant by a victim of the troubles. He has put forward what to those of us who are not from Northern Ireland seems to be a very reasonable point of view: he wants to exclude those who have been convicted of terrorism offences and has put that provision in the amendments.
However, my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle has also put forward a very reasonable argument by asking, what of those who, it is well known, were involved in terrorist activity but were never actually convicted of a terrorist offence? Indeed, what of those who were convicted of terrorist offences whose cases have been referred by the Criminal Cases Review Commission to the Court of Appeal and whose convictions have been quashed? That does not mean to say that they have been found innocent of the charges against them; it simply means that the verdict has been declared unsafe by the Court of Appeal.
Suddenly, we see an immediate difficulty for the Committee. The truth is that the issue of who is a victim of the conflict in Northern Ireland cannot be determined in a technical way by a Committee sitting in the House of Commons. It can only be determined as part of a comprehensive process of dealing with the past—a process of reconciliation.
The hon. Member for East Londonderry mentioned the Eames-Bradley report. I well remember its publication: all the headlines and the controversy centred on the issue that he mentioned, which was the recommendation of a payment of £12,000 to the families of anybody who was a victim. That would have included people who were paramilitaries in the past, which was wholly unacceptable to many in the community.
It was unfortunate that that was the only recommendation from the report that received any publicity or consideration. There were other recommendations, including, crucially, that there be no amnesty—a very important recommendation, in my view; there should never be anything of that kind—but also recommendations for a reconciliation forum, a legacy commission, a review and investigation unit, and an annual day of reflection and remembrance. There were some very good recommendations that unfortunately got very little consideration because of the most controversial one. However, that report was an attempt by the previous Government to get a process under way that could assist the people of Northern Ireland in dealing with such difficult, almost intractable problems relating to their past. It was a genuine effort.
That responsibility still remains a crucial, key, core responsibility of Her Majesty’s Government. We now have a different Government, but it is important that they give priority to the need for a process that deals with the past, and that can deal with the victim of the conflict as well as many other issues. I hope that the Minister will deal with such matters in his response. Those who tabled the amendments have done so for legitimate reasons, but such provisions present us with an almost impossible task, a point that I hope will be subject to reflection.
I hope that the Committee will indulge me when I point out that the lead signature on the amendment is that of the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds). We all send our very best wishes to a man who was doing the job of good constituency MP, and who suffered for it. I understand that he is now out of hospital.
In many ways, what happened underscores the sensitivity and the contemporary relevance of what we are discussing. Sometimes, we need to be reminded that more than 3,000 people lost their lives during the troubles. Many more were injured. Some people lost their lives. Some people lost their limbs. All of us with experience of Northern Ireland have met those who have lost something not quite so visibly obvious. Those people have lost hope. They have lost the ability to operate, and to live a decent life. The number of people who suffer psychological damage is immense and terrifying. There cannot be a subject that is more sensitive than the one we are discussing. We have to approach it not only with humility, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East said but, above all, with an awareness of the fact that many of us think we know about life in Northern Ireland, when very few of us do.
Next month, I will have the honour of representing my party in Omagh at the 15th anniversary of the appalling bomb. There can be no doubt as to the nature of the victims who suffered on that day. But victimhood is an intensely difficult subject to analyse and to define precisely. My right hon. Friend referred to the need for a wider examination, a comprehensive and inclusive process to deal with the past. That is still the policy of the Opposition.
Who could not have sympathy with the emotions behind the amendment? Who could not be aware of the subtlety and sensitivity? But were the amendment to be agreed, it would be prescriptive upon any attempt to finally come to terms with that much, much wider issue: the inclusive process of dealing with the past. It is with reluctance that I must place on record the position of Her Majesty’s Opposition. We have immense sympathy with the motives of those who tabled the amendment, but we cannot support it on this occasion.
I shall address the very technical clause 22 first and then respond to the amendments. The amendments would amend the power of the Secretary of State under section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 to designate persons as being subject to the statutory duty to promote equality of opportunity.
I agree with the right hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East that we must understand that those of us who may have visited Northern Ireland or who may have served in Northern Ireland have absolutely no idea of what it is like not only to represent a constituency in Northern Ireland, but to live there now or during the main part of the troubles.
I wish to associate myself with the comments of the hon. Member for Ealing North with regard to the right hon. Member for Belfast North. As someone who got a brick on his head many years ago, I know how enormously painful it is. Perhaps it was less painful for me than it was for the right hon. Gentleman as there is less inside to damage. He was doing his job. He was with his constituents. I also pay tribute to the police force in Northern Ireland, which came under what can only be described as a barrage of attacks, and to the mutual aid officers who came from Great Britain to assist the police force in Northern Ireland, some of whom were seriously injured in the violence, particularly on Friday night.
I completely agree with the hon. Member for Ealing North. Regarding the amendments, I have discussed both issues with the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley and, following Second Reading, I expected that his ingenuity would lead to amendments to some part of the Bill—I was not expecting that it would be clause 22 —regarding victims and section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. I passionately believe, however, that this is not the forum to debate such an important issue.
This is a technical Bill that addresses many of the anomalies within the legislation and tries to normalise legislation in Northern Ireland. That does not mean that there should not be an ongoing debate about victims and the past. It is the Government’s policy to have such a debate, but it must happen in an enormously sensitive way and with the consent of the political parties and people of Northern Ireland. I have meetings on a regular basis with victims in Northern Ireland and many such meetings are not dissimilar to the debate that we have had in Committee today. One side passionately feels that they do not want to raise the issue again; they want to put it behind them and do not want it revisited. Others, however, want to discuss what is meant by “victim”. This debate has shown just how emotive the subject is, but it is a discussion that we need to have, although in both my opinion and that of the Government, outside the context of the Bill.
When I first became Minister—I met the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley at the time—I was convinced by some of the arguments that were put to me, not least by the right hon. Gentleman, that there was an issue to do with the military covenant. Over the past nine months, however, with the permission of the Prime Minister—not permission; in fact, he told me to go and do it—I have investigated extensively whether the military or ex-military in Northern Ireland are being adversely affected by section 75. I will not pre-empt the Select Committee’s report, which I have not seen—although I can take a subtle hint from the earlier comments of the hon. Member for Blaydon, who sits on the Select Committee—but I actually found the covenant to be operating better in Northern Ireland than in my constituency. I said that to the Select Committee and I passionately believe it. The way that charities work together on Northern Ireland is much better than it is in many parts of Great Britain.
I do accept, however, that there is more work to be done, in particular around post-traumatic stress, which we are working on now. I created a specific senior civil servant role in the Northern Ireland Office after I set up the contact group, which is chaired by Brigadier Thompson when I am not there, to ensure that when Members of Parliament who are Members of the Legislative Assembly are written to by constituents who say, “I fell through the net here and I am not being helped,” that can come directly to the Department. We are in the process of writing to all Members of Parliament, MLAs and local councillors in Northern Ireland to provide them with that point of contact through an e-mail address and a phone number, so that we can be the impartial side of the covenant.
I was pleasantly surprised when I met all the political leaders in Northern Ireland by the support that I received from them for the military covenant. There was no indication at all that former or serving servicemen and women had been adversely affected by section 75 and I do not think that it is right to alter it. Sadly, I will be opposing the three amendments.
I thank all hon. Members who have contributed to this discussion. I also thank the hon. Member for Ealing North and others who made reference to my friend and colleague, the right hon. Member for Belfast North. I am pleased to report that he is making a good recovery; I spoke to him yesterday and he is in good spirits.
We all do well to remember that some Members of this House have to cope with circumstances that most do not have to cope with in their day-to-day responsibilities, or even on special occasions. When I read all the negative things that are written about Members of Parliament on an almost daily basis, I wish some of the people who write such things would come and spend a little time in Northern Ireland in order to understand the kind of task that Members of Parliament from all sides have to undertake there in sometimes holding the line in very difficult circumstances. I would be happy to convey the best wishes of the Committee to my right hon. Friend.
The hon. Member for Blaydon sought to explain why young men and women became involved in terrorist activity—we will have to agree to differ on that. I can do no more than refer again to the words of Ann Travers, who said that despite the fact that she witnessed the murder of her sister, that did not inspire her to go out and seek to take other people’s lives. Sometimes, in seeking to understand and explain the actions of those who engaged in terrorism in Northern Ireland, we too easily forget that there were many who in their own mind might have had the same justification for engaging in such activity, but who chose the path of peace.
We must stand with those people who, like Ann Travers, would support an amendment to the current definition of a victim because they find it deeply offensive that they are equated with those who engaged in acts of terrorism. Imagine the outrage there would be in this country if the 7/7 bombers were equated in law, by definition, with their innocent victims in those bombings on London buses and in underground stations. That is what happens in Northern Ireland. The people who exploded bombs in our towns and cities—who engaged in mass murder—are equated with the people who they killed. As I said earlier, and not because I want to score a cheap point on right hon. and hon. Members on the Government Benches, I find it offensive that the man who planted the bomb in Brighton, who sought to murder the Prime Minister of our country, is regarded as a victim in the same way as the people he killed with the bomb he exploded in the Grand hotel. I find it offensive that the people who planted the bombs under Airey Neave and Ian Gow’s cars are regarded as victims.
I hope that the Committee understands why we seek every opportunity to press home this point. I accept and understand the points made by the right hon. Members for Wythenshawe and Sale East and for Torfaen, who I wish to pay tribute to. They both made an invaluable contribution to building peace in Northern Ireland, and they continue to take an interest in and support the peace process. I therefore respect deeply what the right hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East said about the amendment perhaps being pre-emptive or premature, or needing to be part of an overall process. However, the difficulty is that this is the sovereign Parliament. This is the Parliament that defines equality of opportunity in Northern Ireland and applies that to all Departments of the Government in Northern Ireland. It is the Northern Ireland Act 1998 that does that. We are seeking to ensure that protections afforded by section 75 of that Act are extended to two groups that we believe to be particularly vulnerable.
I heard what the Minister said about the military covenant, but I have seen cases where there is evidence of discrimination by officials in Departments of the Government in Northern Ireland against former members of the armed forces. We have made complaints, but unfortunately they are not protected under section 75. Therefore, although I made reference to the military covenant, our desire to afford them protection goes well beyond implementing that. The Minister is entitled to his view that, after investigation, he believes that the military covenant is being fully implemented—
I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman would have clarified this, but, categorically, I did not say, and I have never said, that the military covenant is being fully implemented. It is being implemented in Northern Ireland better, in some cases, than in other parts of the United Kingdom; I have written to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee with evidence that states that about 93% of the covenant is being delivered in the Province.
I fully understand what the right hon. Gentleman said. Such behaviour takes place in other parts of the United Kingdom as well, but where that takes place, we must stamp that out. To do that, however, we need evidence. He said that he has some evidence, so I say to him: send it to me. I am the Minister responsible and the Prime Minister has asked me to deal with that. However, I do not want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, which, unless we are careful, is what will happen with this amendment.
I of course accept the point the Minister made on full implementation, but I do not accept that offering special protection to our armed forces or veterans through section 75 would in any sense throw the baby out with the bathwater or undermine the implementation of the military covenant. To afford additional protection is surely something which we should desire.
I am happy to share with the Minister examples of the difficulties faced by members of the armed forces. Contrary to what the hon. Member for Blaydon said, I wrote to the Select Committee and provided it with evidence; in particular, I provided a letter sent to me by the Department of Health stating clearly, in black and white, that it could not make the provision that I was requesting for my constituent in line with the military covenant because section 75 prevented it from doing so.
What we are merely trying to do through the amendment is provide clarity. It will not alter the law in Northern Ireland or the manner in which we seek to implement the military covenant; it simply ensures that Government Departments understand that section 75 does not in any way inhibit their ability to deliver on the military covenant. I cannot see the difficulty in affording that protection; frankly, if it is right to afford that to gay people, people with disabilities and people with an ethnic or racial background, why is that not appropriate for those who have served our country in the armed forces? I am at a loss to understand why there is a principled objection to affording section 75 protections to those who put themselves on the front line, whether in Northern Ireland or in other parts of the world and why they are less deserving of that level of protection than the other categories already covered. I have not heard an explanation from the Government on why that is the case.
On the hon. Member for Foyle’s comments, I have already had some exchanges with him on the question of a definition and we will have to agree to disagree. I take the point he made on convictions, which was echoed by the right hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East. However, amendment 2 defines clearly who is a victim and who is a survivor. They concentrated on the exclusions. The amendment sets out a broader definition, but we are not talking about anybody and everybody.
Although I am disappointed that both the Government and the Opposition have indicated that they cannot support the amendment, I am especially disappointed that Government Members cannot support the amendment, which defines victims and survivors, and excludes people who are engaged in acts of terrorism. I am at a loss to understand why they are reluctant to do so, so we will press the amendment.
‘(1A) After subsection (2) of section 75 (Statutory duty on public authorities) of that Act insert—
(2A) A public authority shall not interpret its obligations under subsection (2) in a way that is incompatible with measures taken on the basis of objective need.”.
(1B) In subsection (5) of section 75 of that Act insert—
“good relations” shall be interpreted in line with international obligations and, in particular, with regard to—
(a) tackling prejudice, and
(b) promoting understanding.”.’.
We know from the previous debate that the clause makes changes to the Northern Ireland Act 1998. I will give the background that the amendment seeks to address. The Good Friday agreement provided for a statutory equality duty with equality impact assessments. That was translated into section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, which included a good relations limb in the duty. Although the 1998 Act contained a provision for equality impact assessments, it did not contain a provision for good relations impact assessments because there were concerns at the time that equality initiatives based on objective need might be derailed by good relations considerations. Therefore, Parliament subordinated the good relations duty to its equality counterpart in that legislation.
Tribute has already been paid to the right hon. Member for Torfaen. I do not want to pay tribute to him just for his role in the negotiation of the agreement and in chairing the strand 1 talks; I am also conscious of the role he played in piloting the details and provisions of the 1998 Act through Parliament.
The Committee on the Administration of Justice recently published a report called “Unequal relations?” Its research highlights that problems have arisen in the context of impact assessments. It gives examples of good relations considerations being brought forward in ways that stifle and qualify equality and rights-based initiatives.
Since 2007, the Equality Commission has recommended to public authorities that good relations considerations should be part of equality impact assessments. However, in the absence of better definition and more balanced safeguards, there is a risk that impact assessments that take good relations on a par with equality issues will lead to subjective political interpretations of what is needed to maintain good community relations. There is a danger that arguments based on maintaining good community relations can provide a vehicle for blocking initiatives that are based on objective need, because people can argue, “If you meet the objective need in that way in that area, it will lead to community tensions.” People should not be allowed to stifle equality-driven measures on the basis that they jeopardise good relations if their only argument for the prejudice to good relations is based on prejudice against another community. There have been examples of that happening.
I hasten to add that the amendment would not prevent measures that are designed to protect and promote good relations from being taken in an, arguably, unequal way. That would include an example from my constituency, the Fountain estate, which is a small Unionist enclave on the west bank of the river. Elected representatives supported a new school being provided for that estate several years ago. It did not meet any of the objective criteria, but it supported the community, wider shared relations and the wider shared city, so it was supported by all representatives.
I stress that the emphasis on objective need in the amendment would not prevent the sort of special measures that were taken in the Fountain. Measures were taken not only in relation to the location of the school. Another Government Department went beyond its policy remit and continued to provide money to ensure that there was school transport, so that the school could be supported by people from other parts of the city. As someone who supported those special measures for community relations, I want to stress that the amendment would not in any way reduce the capacity for such measures.
Neither the 1998 Act nor the equivalent legislation passed in Great Britain at the time defined good relations. In Great Britain the gap was remedied by the Equality Act 2010, whose section 149 provides for a public sector duty to foster good relations, with particular regard given to tackling prejudice and promoting understanding. The absence of a similar definition of good relations in section 75 of the 1998 Act, to draw out the main intended characteristics of the concept, continues to risk some subjective interpretations, giving rise to contention and frustration in Northern Ireland.
Issues about good relations are raised in objection to policies aimed at tackling disadvantage. A report by the Committee on the Administration of Justice found that the correct good relations response in line with the above definition would be for public authorities to tackle prejudice and to promote understanding of policies and the issues behind them, for example by explaining that they are based on objective need.
Unfortunately there are examples of public authorities being urged to pursue alternative policies to equality-motivated measures on good relations grounds. A high-profile example is the 2011 decision by the Department of Social Development regarding the site of Girdwood barracks. The current Minister cited good relations considerations as a basis for reversing the decision to build around 200 homes on the site. The sensitivity was that, because of the location of the site, it was deemed, on the basis of objective need, that most of the 200 houses would have been allocated to Catholics. Here we had a Minister citing good relations as grounds for trumping an equality-driven measure and a sound extension of social housing in an opportunity site transferred by the Government, as other former military sites have been transferred.
Another example is the response to proposals by the Department of Education in Northern Ireland in 2010 that suggested that entitlement to free school meals could be used as a priority indicator for admissions to post-primary schools. The Department was told that, in the context of higher numbers of Catholic children being in objective need and hence qualifying for free school meals, the Department needed to consider the good relations implication of the proposal and think about alternatives. Again, that is not something that was intended when we created the equality commitments in the Good Friday agreement, or when section 75 was taken through this House.
The good relations duty has regularly been interpreted as being incompatible with treaty commitments that the UK has entered into, for instance those to take steps to support the Irish language. As well as the provisions of the Good Friday agreement, relevant international obligations, for example human rights treaties entered into by the state—in this context I should mention particularly the Council of Europe, the European charter for regional or minority languages and the framework convention for the protection of national minorities—are in effect being frustrated by reference to the good relations duty.
The problem arises even at the level of district councils. Councils trying to promote positive Irish language measures in accordance with the European charter now meet opposition that that will be bad for good relations. Good relations impact assessments can, ironically, block the implementation of treaty-based commitments that the UK has entered into. Therefore, the sound concept of good relations can become a mechanism whereby prejudice against the language becomes the basis of policy, rather than the international obligations and commitments to promote respect, tolerance and understanding in relation to that language.
The Council of Europe bodies that oversee compliance with such treaties have already raised concerns in their reports about good relations being used as a justification for not implementing our proposed policies. I hope that with those examples I have been able to demonstrate that there is a live issue here. This is not a contrived tension or question that I am raising. This Parliament has seen fit to make good the deficit through the changes it made in section 149 of the 2010 Act. My amendment essentially gives the Committee the opportunity to say that the same sort of adjustment and clarification as regards good relations and equality commitments should now be made through section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act.
The hon. Gentleman makes an elegant, comprehensive and compelling case. Most members of the Committee would agree with it in principle. I particularly endorse his reference to the CAJ report, “Unequal Relations?” which should be compulsory reading. We can return to the issue on Report. It should be considered by a wider group of people. The suggestion is significant and positive and one to which the Opposition are extremely sympathetic. We would like to see this achieved. We are not entirely convinced that this is the correct forum for that achievement, but it is certainly something we will return to on Report.
I apologise to the hon. Member for Foyle for saying earlier that I would oppose the amendment. I will, but I was a bit premature. I am not opposed in principle. Like the shadow Minister, I share some frustrations. Before we brought the draft Bill forward and went to pre-legislative scrutiny in the Select Committee, we consulted extensively on the changes to section 75.
Unusually, I disagree with the shadow Minister: I do not think Report would be the right time. We would need to consult with all the parties in Northern Ireland, some of which are not represented in Committee. Even though I share the frustration and understand the objectives of the amendment, because it did not go through pre-legislative scrutiny and because the relevant parties were not consulted, sadly, I have to oppose the amendment.
I do not accept the Minister’s rationale that an amendment of this character—or almost, by that logic, any amendment—could not be accepted because it had to be subject to all sorts of consultation with all the parties. When we discussed the Bill in the Committee of the whole House last week, my colleagues pointed to some clauses that they did not agree with and which our party did not endorse and we were told that 70% of the Assembly is good enough. It seems that in some things we have to have complete consensus before the Government move and on other things if they can grab the agreement of a few parties they can go with it.
I will not respond to those somewhat cynical comments. I was referring to section 75 and the sensitivities of that. That is why I was so specific that we needed to consult on section 75 before we made any further changes.
The Minister’s answer is almost “There’s a hole in the bucket, dear Liza.” The exact reason why there would not be agreement on amending section 75 in the terms I have suggested is that some people want to be able to use the “good relations” argument to trump equality meeting objective need as a basis for policy. That is the problem, so it is almost QED, which suggests that there does need to be an amendment regarding section 75.
Some of these issues will go to court and be subject to judicial review. The courts will question why, when Parliament has been alerted to the issue and passed close to equivalent legislation in Great Britain, it did not do so in Northern Ireland, in circumstances where there is a more compelling case for defining and qualifying the issue of good relations in the interpretation of the 2010 Act.
I do not accept the basis on which the Minister has rejected the amendment. However, I will not press it to a Division. I am heartened by what the hon. Member for Ealing North has said about recognising the issue and the need for further consideration and deliberation—perhaps by the House as a whole, not least given the fact that it was the House that previously legislated with the 2010 Act. I look forward to Report, when I hope to see this or a better version proposed by the Opposition.
I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.