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I welcome the opportunity to speak as convener on behalf of the Justice Committee, which is the lead committee considering the bill. As members are aware—I remind them for good measure—“on behalf of” means exactly that. I am not speaking in a personal capacity, so I will not veer off piste.
I thank all those who took the time to provide evidence to the committee and in particular those family members who told us about their frustrations with the justice system over the investigations into the tragic deaths of their loved ones. It is not easy to come before a parliamentary committee at any time, and especially not when pain at the death of loved ones is, as always, very near the surface. I also put on record my thanks to hard-working committee members and the hard-working clerking team.
I, too, acknowledge Patricia Ferguson’s on-going and extensive work in the area of FAIs. As part of our consideration of the Government’s bill, we heard evidence on her related bill on FAIs, which has informed the committee’s thinking with regard to the current FAI process. We published a separate stage 1 report on Patricia Ferguson’s bill; I understand that it will be debated next week, so I will not explore it in any detail in my speech today.
I should make clear that our scrutiny of the Government’s bill predated the recent FAI into the tragic events that happened last Christmas, and therefore the issues that were raised in that FAI are not reflected in our report in any way.
The committee unanimously supports the general principles of the bill, which we consider to be essential in updating a law that was enacted almost 40 years ago. We hope that the bill will be used as an opportunity to provide more clarity and understanding around FAIs, especially for those who have lost loved ones in often tragic and unexplained circumstances. It cannot be emphasised enough, however, that an FAI is held by the Crown in the public interest, as indeed are criminal prosecutions under common law.
We have made a number of recommendations that are aimed at improving certain aspects of the bill. In the time available, I will refer to a few of them; no doubt other members will elaborate.