Before we start the debate, I will issue a reminder to hon. Members that under the terms of the House resolution on the matter of sub judice, they should not refer to specific cases that are currently subject to legal proceedings. Hon. Members may, of course, speak on general issues. The Clerk will be advising and prompting me and I will rule accordingly.
I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the role of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland in legacy cases.
I will say at the outset that this is a matter that rightly requires the attention of this Parliament, not a parochial issue for Northern Ireland MPs alone. Although the appointment of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland is a matter for the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the finance is overseen by the Department of Justice, a devolved Department in Northern Ireland, legacy matters form a significant part of the work of the police ombudsman’s office, a significant part of which relates to national security, which of course is not a devolved issue. Therefore, I believe it is entirely appropriate that we consider these matters.
Hon. Members will be aware that there is currently an ongoing judicial review of one particular case investigated by the police ombudsman, which relates to a report on killings in 1994 in Loughinisland. I will not go into the detail of the judicial review, but I will refer to the case in general terms and give my view, as a public representative, on where I think the police ombudsman’s report was deficient in the context of the debate. This is not about the legal issues that are the subject of the judicial review, but if you feel I am straying at any stage, Mr Owen, you will of course bring me back into line.
It is worth recalling that the primary role of the police ombudsman in Northern Ireland is to investigate complaints by the public against police officers. That includes complaints linked to cases that are part of the legacy of our troubled past. Unlike most, if not all, types of—
Order. If I may just help the right hon. Member, this is a live case and there is a sense that this might prejudice it in some way, so I would be very careful in how he proceeds on this one. That is the advice I have been given and I ask him to take that on board now.
Of course, Mr Owen, but since the ombudsman’s report is a matter of public record, it is entirely appropriate that public representatives comment on that report and its findings, and that is what I intend to do. I will of course be open to advice on this subject.
Just for clarification, it is important that we do not stray, and if hon. Members go further than discussing principles and policies, I will have to ask them to resume their seat.
Thank you, Mr Owen.
As I was saying, unlike most, if not all, other types of ombudsman in the UK, the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland has significant powers that include powers of arrest, detention, interview and conducting searches on property. Indeed, the powers are similar to those of the police. Those functions must be carried out under both the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, and the police ombudsman must comply with the requirements of that legislation. Nevertheless, I think many people would be of the view that using “ombudsman” to describe the work of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland might be a misnomer, given the wide, sweeping police powers that the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland has—unlike, I believe, any other ombudsman.
My comments today will focus on the making of section 62 public statements on findings arising from reports by the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland on legacy cases involving complaints that have been subjected to an investigation by the police ombudsman. Although I note that the police ombudsman has the right in principle to make such statements, I have significant concerns about the content of some of those statements and that the ombudsman may be exceeding their remit in that regard.
In relation to current or contemporary investigations regarding complaints against police officers that are post the troubles, yes, the police ombudsman may require serving police officers to be interviewed and has the powers of arrest and detention of serving police officers. My focus today, nevertheless, is on—
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
Before the Division, I was about to speak about a couple of cases that have given rise to concerns on my part and the part of others about the manner in which the police ombudsman’s office conducts its investigations.
I was going to talk about Loughinisland in a little detail, from the perspective of a public representative, but I will not now go into the detail, because of your advice, Mr Owen, that we may stray into areas covered by the judicial review. I shall merely say that, to date, the findings of court proceedings have not eased my concern about the manner of the report, the findings that arise from the report and, in particular, how evidence was gathered and those conclusions were drawn. I will not go into any further detail about the Loughinisland case, save to say, of course, that we must not lose sight of the fact that in each of these cases there are human tragedies.
In relation to Loughinisland, the murder of six Catholics by the Ulster Volunteer Force in 1994, in the Heights Bar, while they were watching a World cup game, is to be condemned without reservation. The issue for me is not that justice should be done for those six men—because it should—and that the perpetrators should be brought to justice; the issue for me is the police ombudsman’s findings in relation to the case.
I shall focus, perhaps a little more than I had expected to, on another case. It involved the killing of two people in the Creggan estate in Londonderry on
The Provisional IRA held the resident for a number of days, and the police in Northern Ireland became aware, through intelligence, that there was going to be an attempt to kill police officers. Although they were not given a precise location, the Creggan estate was identified as the general area. The police immediately introduced an exclusion zone for members of the security forces, because the intelligence that they had suggested that the device was aimed at the security forces, but they did not have any more detail than that.
As the days went by, other elements occurred that were linked to this incident. The IRA, becoming increasingly desperate because the security forces had not entered the area, never mind the property, tried a number of ruses to attract the police into the area so that they might trigger the device. That did not happen, and sadly, on the morning of
Of course the IRA apologised for the killings, admitting that they had been a mistake, but to his credit, Dr Edward Daly, the then Bishop of Derry, presiding at the funeral mass of the two victims, said that the explosion did not go tragically wrong; it did what it was designed to do—kill people who went to the flat out of concern for the missing occupant.
Six years later, the relatives of Sean Dalton, one of the deceased, made a complaint to the police ombudsman’s office. They claimed that the police in Londonderry had been negligent in allowing civilians to approach the flat, and alleged that the Royal Ulster Constabulary was aware that the flat had been booby-trapped and therefore had failed in its duty, under article 2 of the European convention on human rights, to uphold the right to life of Mr Dalton.
The police ombudsman took eight years to investigate the case and, at the end of the investigation, concluded that, on the balance of probabilities, the police had been negligent and had failed to uphold Mr Dalton’s right to life. However, when we examine the police ombudsman’s report, we see that that conclusion is not based on hard evidence or facts; it is based on the balance of probabilities.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this very timely debate. Does he agree that in relation to this case, like so many others, we and the police ombudsman’s office have to ensure, that however intensive and comprehensive its investigations are, it must never allow the emphasis to depart from those who carried out the atrocity by allowing an investigation to stray into areas where more criticism is made of those whose job it is to try to deal with the aftermath rather than dealing with the people who perpetrated the act in the first place?
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct in his assertion. Of course the appalling deaths of Sean Dalton and Sheila Lewis are to be condemned by us all. As has so often been the case in Northern Ireland, the actions of terrorists resulted in the tragic death—murder—of innocent people. The IRA cannot escape the disapprobation, the condemnation, of all of us for that heinous crime.
May I make one comment? I bet the police had no idea that the gentleman was missing. And may I ask one question? I know the area under discussion. How can the police, who always do what they can to save lives, be blamed in any way for what happened? As Mr Campbell said, it is definitely something to be laid at the door of the Provisional IRA and the people who actually did it. Have they been brought to trial?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Any reasonable person who read the police ombudsman’s report would conclude that the police did not know the precise location where the explosive device had been left by the Provisional IRA, did not know all the circumstances surrounding the incident—the kidnapping and so on—and had only broad general intelligence about an imminent attack on the security forces. However, the ombudsman concluded that the police failed to uphold Mr Dalton’s right to life. His death is tragic, and our hearts go out to his family; I understand their anger and their concern, but in the end it is the Provisional IRA who are to blame for that death, not the Royal Ulster Constabulary. I do not believe that the RUC had information available to it that could have prevented Mr Dalton’s death. There is no evidence in the police ombudsman’s report to support any other conclusion, yet he is able to say that, on the balance of probabilities, the police failed in their duty to uphold Mr Dalton’s right to life. And he says that against a background where he has the power to arrest, detain, interview and search.
This is an opportunity that is being used by those who want to rewrite history and try to imply that there is collusion in incidents that have happened. There might well be in a small number, but to try to paint it on every incident that ever happened in which someone was killed is to try to rewrite history. It is an attempt by republicanism to influence a Government-run body to bring forward those sorts of messages.
My hon. Friend makes a broad point that is of concern to many of us regarding how the legacy process is addressing the totality of what happened in Northern Ireland during those tragic 30 years and more. The Osman test, which is often used in such cases, is very clear about what matters need to be considered when coming to conclusions about article 2—about the failure of the state to uphold the right to life. I do not believe that a conclusion reached on the balance of probabilities meets the threshold set out in the Osman test, and consequently I believe that the decision of the ombudsman is wrong.
I know that my right hon. Friend has met with many of the families —as I have—including those who have been going through and are on the list to go through investigations by the ombudsman and the coroner’s court.
Due to the stalling of the Historical Enquiries Team process—the investigations into criminal offences by the police—and because many families are not happy with the result of that HET process, and because there is no funding for those criminal investigations, many genuine families who recognise that the perpetrator was the terrorist organisation do not have any options for an investigation or further investigation other than what is available, which tends to be either an ombudsman’s investigation or an inquest through the coroner’s court.
That means that we are ending up in a situation with a disproportionate push between those two aspects, where allegations of collusion are the grounds to try to get that re-investigation. That is not doing anybody any justice, not least by letting those who actually perpetrated the crimes get away with their criminal acts.
I will add nothing to what my hon. Friend has said, because she said it very eloquently and summarises the concern for us. I know the Minister will talk about the proposals to bring a more balanced, fair and proportionate system for dealing with the legacy of our troubled past. I am dealing with one aspect of that today.
To be clear, my concern is that, even though the police ombudsman has the power to arrest, detain, interview and search properties, in this report on the “Good Neighbour” bombing not a single police officer has been recommended for discipline or criminal prosecution, and no claim of wrongdoing has been brought against any police officers, yet the conclusion remains that the police failed in their duty to protect the life of Mr Dalton. I think that is unfair, unreasonable and irrational, and it is an example of the ombudsman exceeding his remit and powers, despite the fact that he has many powers available to him, to go after the evidence and bring forward that evidence. The evidence is not there to support the conclusion. Therefore, with all the powers available to him, to conclude, on the balance of probabilities, in his opinion—not on an opinion based on evidence—that the police breached their article 2 obligations, shows that there is something seriously wrong when this is the outcome in such a case.
This case is not alone—I could give other examples. The main example I wanted to bring today, apart from this case, was Loughinisland. In light of your concern, Mr Owen, I will not pursue the matter further, but I encourage hon. Members to read some of the commentary and findings in court in relation to the report by the police ombudsman on the Loughinisland case. I think they will find that those conclusions support the contentions I am making today about the ombudsman and how he approaches investigations of this nature.
I am also concerned about the manner in which the police ombudsman’s office treats those who have served our country in the police—retired police officers who stood on the frontline in Northern Ireland. The Royal Ulster Constabulary lost over 300 officers and countless hundreds more were seriously injured in the conduct of their duty. They held the line and protected the entire community in Northern Ireland, yet at times one is left wondering whether there is an understanding of the contribution that the police in Northern Ireland made towards bringing peace. We would not have the peace that we enjoy today in Northern Ireland if it had not been for the courage and bravery of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Her Majesty the Queen recognised that with the award of the George Cross to that fine police service. In her citation, she spoke of the courage and outstanding bravery of the RUC.
When it comes to the ombudsman and how it deals with those retired police officers, the Salmon principles are very important. The Salmon principles were introduced some years ago, after the inquiry into the Profumo affair. They were designed to protect participants in such public tribunals of inquiry. The police ombudsman for Northern Ireland ought to be complying with the Salmon principles.
There are six Salmon principles—they were devised by Lord Justice Salmon—of fair procedure under the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921. Those principles require that any person who is the subject of an inquiry
“must be satisfied that there are circumstances which affect them and which the tribunal proposes to investigate.”
I guess that the ombudsman would argue that it complies, but I am concerned the ombudsman is not complying fully with other elements. For example, a retired officer who is the subject of an investigation should be given an adequate opportunity to prepare their case, and of being assessed by legal advisers, and their legal expenses should normally be met out of public funds. They should be informed of any allegations made against them and the substance of the evidence in support of those allegations. They should be able to call material witnesses. They should have the opportunity of testing by cross-examination conducted by their own solicitor any evidence which may affect them.
Retired police officers who are the subject of investigations by the police ombudsman’s office are not afforded the opportunity of doing that. Indeed, often they are not even interviewed by the police ombudsman, yet they read a report concerning an investigation in which they were involved when they served, which criticises their conduct, and they have not even been afforded the opportunity to present their side of the story and put their point of view across to the ombudsman. That is simply unfair, and it is not compliant with the Salmon principles. It needs to be given closer examination.
Another major deficit in relation to the police ombudsman and how it operates is that there is no independent complaints procedure, whereby someone who is the subject of an investigation by the ombudsman may make a complaint about the manner of that investigation. Again, it is highly unfair that there is no recourse to complaint. People must either complain to the ombudsman himself or, I guess, raise the matter with the Secretary of State, but that does not constitute a proper independent process for dealing with a complaint. I believe that that is in breach of article 13 of the European convention on human rights, which the ombudsman seems to be quite keen on.
I do not believe that what the ombudsman, as currently constituted, offers is compliant with article 13, which requires an independent complaints mechanism for those who are the subject of investigations by the ombudsman’s office. The Northern Ireland Retired Police Officers Association has pressed the Secretary of State and others to make provision for such an independent complaints procedure, and it has not been done. That is most unfair —there is no recourse for people who feel they have been treated unjustly by the police ombudsman, which is a public body.
The schedule of bodies that are required to be subject to independent scrutiny and investigation of complaints made against them excludes the ombudsman, despite the fact that the offices of other ombudsmen are subject to independent complaints processes. That is another area where there is a deficiency in the manner in which the police ombudsman’s office operates. There ought to be an independent complaints procedure, so that those who are subjected to investigations by the ombudsman have the right to make a complaint if they feel they have been treated unfairly, and so that that complaint is properly examined and investigated.
For some time, my hon. Friends and I have been raising concerns about the operation of the police ombudsman’s office and about its reports’ findings, which are often the subject of banner headlines. Behind those headlines, however, there is little or no evidence to support the conclusions that have been reached. That is simply untenable, because, as some of my hon. Friends have said, it lends itself to the efforts of others who are seeking to denigrate the forces of the state, to paint them as the bad guys in the troubles, and to somehow justify the actions of those whose actions are completely unjustifiable.
We welcome the Government’s proposals to remove the role of investigating legacy complaint cases from the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland and to transfer that role to a new independent investigative body. In supporting that, I say to the Minister that, when the legislation is being drawn up, and when the terms of reference and the remit for the new investigative body are being set, we need to address those concerns. We need to ensure that the manner in which the police ombudsman’s office has acted in dealing with legacy cases is not repeated in the future; that there is fairness; that there is a balanced and proportionate approach; that people are afforded the opportunity, if they feel aggrieved, to pursue a complaint against the ombudsman, or in this case, the new investigative body, to an independent body; and that the investigative body complies with the requirements of the Salmon principles in relation to the rights of those who are the subject of an inquiry.
I say to the Minister that it is important to right those wrongs. It is important that police officers, or retired police officers, who are the subject of investigations, are treated fairly and properly, and that the investigative body is restricted in its remit to what ought to have been the remit of the police ombudsman’s office, which is to send its findings to the Chief Constable if there is evidence of disciplinary malpractice, or to the Director of Public Prosecutions if there is evidence of criminal wrongdoing. That is what the police ombudsman is required to do.
The police ombudsman should not make statements that imply guilt and wrongdoing when the evidence is not there to support them, and when he is not bringing any charges against any police officers in those cases on matters of discipline or of criminal wrongdoing. That is unfair. The system is unjust and needs to change. I hope that in the new independent investigative body that will be established, those steps and wrongdoings will not be revisited on retired police officers. It is simply wrong.
I was tempted not to speak, but I will be short. I want to say two things.
I served with the Royal Ulster Constabulary. I watched how it worked for three and a half years. I know 38 Kildrum Gardens in the Creggan. I was the intelligence officer in Londonderry in 1978. I watched Royal Ulster Constabulary officers go forward, while we gave them cover, to knock on doors and investigate suspicious activity. I find it absolutely appalling if there is any suspicion that the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland is not fair in dealing with those incredibly gallant men and women. The whole service thoroughly deserved the George Cross, but most of them actually deserved additional decorations. I am absolutely dismayed by what I have heard. I did not realise it was as bad as that. I will take an increased interest in the matter from now on as part of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs.
I am personally indebted to the way the Royal Ulster Constabulary and its officers protected my soldiers and acted when we were out there with them. It was not them and us, and “them” were not Catholics, Protestants, Jews or Buddhists. The Royal Ulster Constabulary did not give a damn who it was going to help—all it wanted to do was help. It is absolutely tragic if there is suspicion that the ombudsman is not giving credit to those extremely gallant men and women.
I treasure the thought of being able to speak until five to six—I know you did not say that, Mr Owen—but I am not going to do that today. I will be careful with my comments in the light of that advice.
I thank my right hon. Friend Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson for presenting a good case, as he always does, and Bob Stewart for putting the case as well. I also thank the Speaker’s Office for giving us the opportunity to highlight the issues in Westminster Hall. My right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley and I are not just colleagues but good friends, and I also have an interest in the issues that he talks about. We always listen to his comments, which are well put.
My comments come from a personal perspective. In recognition of my role as an elected representative of the people of Strangford, I fully support what my right hon. Friend has put forward. As well as being the most beautiful constituency in the world—I have to say that, but I say it honestly—Strangford is home to a large number of veterans of the armed forces, the Royal Ulster Constabulary and now the Police Service of Northern Ireland, as well as prison officers and other service personnel.
My constituency has a tradition of service and I am always pleased to represent it. It is a wonderful place to retire, and historically, it has been viewed as a safe place in terms of the troubles for serving and retired personnel to live. For that reason, I am confident that I speak on my constituents’ behalf when I say that the role that has been played by the police ombudsman when it comes to legacy issues is simply not acceptable, and that the direction of his office must be quickly and completely changed. My right hon. Friend outlined that in an exceptional way.
Just over 17 months ago, I joined my hon. Friends and other right-thinking people in calling for the reconsideration of Dr Maguire’s position as the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland. That is on record. I also join my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley in condemning the despicable murders that took place at Loughinisland. Those responsible, whoever and wherever, need to be held accountable for their actions.
My hon. Friend knows that some of us in this House had loved ones and families who served in the Royal Ulster Constabulary and were butchered by the provos. Those families have never had justice. The people who committed the murders have never been brought to justice. It is disgraceful and totally wrong that the ombudsman is treating certain cases in a certain way—he should be impartial. Everybody is equal under the law. It is hurtful for those of us who have lost family members who served, and it is hurtful for those families who have to relive it.
Along with my hon. Friend and others, I would be concerned if any landmark reports that are available to the general public, or in the public domain, should in any way throw any slight on the determination of police. I believe that would exceed the ombudsman’s statutory powers.
Very often whenever these issues are reported, there is some suggestion that in some way those who have done wrong should get away with it because they are in a particular category. May I put on the record—I am sure that my hon. Friend agrees with this—and echo the words of my right hon. Friend Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson that any murder was wrong, and that any criminal act, by terrorists or others, or wrongful murder, must be condemned and fully investigated? We absolutely agree with our right hon. Friend on that.
However, there must also be fairness within that system and the concerns that are being articulated are very much about the lack of consistency, and the apparent absence of guidelines in terms of the adjudication and reporting of these cases. That is leading to inequality and to concern for many.
With my hon. Friend’s legal mind, she obviously succinctly focuses on the issues that we need to be aware of.
I believe that police officers involved in any case, wherever that may be, and who have not been afforded the protection of due process, should not be subjected to destructive and withering condemnations by any person who has a position of power. I believe that the ombudsman’s office has lost credibility and respectability, not simply among those who designate themselves as Unionists but among all who are right-thinking.
When I was sitting here and listening to my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley, I thought the release of a report that gave no right of reply, and that was ambiguous and condemning of officers at any time, was an indication of the intent of the ombudsman, as we sit by and see more and more focus on alleged state collusion. The allegations are made willy-nilly and without proof or evidence.
I can think of many atrocities during my lifetime. My right hon. Friend referred to atrocities, but not specifically. I can remember them from when I was a young man to the age that I am now. I think of Bloody Friday, when the IRA murdered innocent men, women and children across the whole of Belfast. In the Abercorn restaurant, where I used to eat as a young man, people were murdered while they were there having a meal—children and women butchered and destroyed.
There was the La Mon Hotel in my constituency, where again those who were in high positions of IRA leadership and who are now in positions of political leadership seem to have got away with what they have done. There are also the murders at Kingsmill. We all know the story about Kingsmill and the massacre there, and we know that there have been clear allegations of collusion by some members of the Garda Síochána in relation to that massacre—that is well-known. When we look to an ombudsman to investigate issues, those are the sorts of issues that they should investigate.
There was the Darkley massacre of men and women who were worshipping their God in their church. In my own family, there was the murder of my cousin, Kenneth Smyth, outside of Clady. Lexie Cummings was murdered outside Strabane. Four Ulster Defence Regiment men, three of whom I knew personally, who were murdered in Ballydugan: John Birch; Steven Smart; Michael Adams; and Lance Corporal John Bradley. They were four young men who were murdered in the prime of their life.
I am coming to the end of them.
All of these things tell me that the ombudsman’s time could be better spent. I see constituents referring deserving issues to the police ombudsman regularly. All experience a refusal due to a lack of resources to investigate every complaint. Perhaps if the ombudsman was more determined to leave legacy issues to the designated body and if it investigated what was needed today, my constituents, who I represent, might find resolution and justice.
The time has passed for the Secretary of State, or for the Minister of State, who will respond to this debate, to intervene and appoint someone who has knowledge of Northern Ireland and of what the ombudsman’s role is—someone who at least has the grace to admit what that role is—and someone who will forgo what has been described as personal ambition of retribution. Instead of retraumatising officers who have seen what we cannot imagine, who have paid their dues to this country and who do not deserve to be accused of collusion at any stage to satisfy a republican rewrite of history, that individual should do his job as it is understood by all right-thinking people.
This has been most certainly an interesting debate, although possibly not the one that either Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson or I thought it might turn out to be.
Let me say this: the role of the ombudsman is vital. The problem is that it has been constructed in the wrong way. The ombudsman has responsibility for the investigation of contemporary irregularities by the police service, mirroring what I had some responsibility for as the police and crime commissioner in Greater Manchester, although more generally they were dealt with by the then Independent Police Complaints Commission, which is now under a different guise. There is no doubt that there needs to be that contemporary role, but the problem has come because that that role has been mixed with the role of historic investigators. Quite honestly, neither the ombudsman nor the victims nor the Police Service of Northern Ireland nor politicians think that is a satisfactory process.
I will begin by asking the Minister whether he can throw any light on an issue. One of the things that I welcome is the recent announcement from the Department of Justice in Northern Ireland of a further £55 million for coronial investigations. However, that will put pressure on both the PSNI and whoever is the investigating authority, whether that is the ombudsman or another body; I will come on to that later. Can the Minister tell us whether there will be extra resources for those other investigatory bodies and of course for the prosecuting bodies, including the Crown Prosecution Service, because it is important that we see resourcing for them within the package?
I echo the words of the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley, who said that we are talking about human tragedies, and about victims. Right hon. and hon. Members have mentioned a number of particular atrocities. Let me make it clear that victims, whether they are victims of republican terror, of loyalist terror or of state actors, are entitled to have resolution of their cases, as their loved ones are loved ones, their mothers and their children are the same, whatever the background of the perpetrator. We must establish that because there cannot be some sense in which there is differential justice, but at the moment we have differential justice, particularly when we have different agencies involved at different times. We have ad-hockery.
In the case of Pat Finucane, it was only because of the intervention of the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, that there was an inquiry. For 30 years, the family had been fighting for a process of justice. They have had a partial victory recently at the Supreme Court, but there now needs to be a continuation with proper investigation of the murder of Pat Finucane.
That brings me on to another case—that of Edgar Graham, the Ulster Unionist Member of the Legislative Assembly at Stormont. He was a young man who was murdered in the most public of ways on the campus of Queen’s University of Belfast, when he was stood next to one of his Ulster Unionist colleagues. That brutal murder has not been brought to any satisfactory conclusion. In fact, when the then Historical Enquiries Team process took it up, all that the family got was a letter saying why there would be no report into that particular atrocity.
Let us make it clear that we now have to move to a situation where there is proper and uniform treatment, whatever the authorship of a crime, and I say this advisedly: whether it be republican or loyalist paramilitaries or state actors —
Of course my point brings us to the very important role of the Historical Investigations Unit. I have to say to the Minister that it is now five years since the Stormont House agreement concluded that that was needed. It is now more than six months since the consultation on that body finished. We need to see that body up and running, because, and I say this to David Simpson, if we are to see equity the ombudsman cannot investigate things other than where the police are involved. In the future, he or she will have no locus beyond that. If we are to see equity, we have to see the HIU in operation, investigating across the piece whatever the authorship, whatever the body. Minister, we need progress on that. We need to see the HIU’s terms of reference, and see it established, so that it can begin that vital work, which is so long overdue.
It is good to be under your capable hand, Mr Owen, because it ensures that we stay just on the right side of any court case rules and do not prejudice anything. You have been carefully doing that and steering us aright.
I start, as others have, by congratulating Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson not only on securing the debate but on setting out such a properly considered and careful exposition of his concerns, which are shared, I think, by many of the other Members from whom we have heard. Although the right hon. Gentleman had to steer a careful course around the sub judice rules, he was right to make the central point that behind every single one of the legacy cases that have been cited in the debate and mentioned elsewhere, there is invariably a human tragedy. We have heard some examples today, but it is essential to remember that there are many, many others that could be mentioned, on all sides of the community in Northern Ireland, and they all deserve justice and to be treated equally and fairly.
The right hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out the Salmon principles—I will not try to do a legal job on them, but broadly speaking they are the central points that many people would naturally reach for—of fairness, due process and equality before the law. It is essential, no matter what processes and institutions we apply, that those central principles are front and centre and are adhered to, otherwise the family and friends of the victims of the troubles will never get the justice that everyone here has called for.
Other Members contributed strongly to the debate. My hon. Friend Bob Stewart has personal experience, as he rightly pointed out, of operating during the troubles in Northern Ireland. We also had cogent input from Jim Shannon. The only remark of his with which I disagree was his description of his constituency as the most beautiful in the world, when clearly that applies to my own constituency of Weston-super-Mare. Beyond that, I suspect everyone agreed with many of the points he made. It was also good to hear from the Labour spokesman, Tony Lloyd, a high degree of cross-party unanimity and consensus.
That brings me neatly on to a point that I think everyone agrees on: it is essential that we all mark our support for the principle behind the office of the police ombudsman. If there is to be confidence in the operation of the police on all sides of the community in Northern Ireland, it is essential to have an ombudsman with the powers necessary to investigate current concerns and cases regarding the operation of the Police Service of Northern Ireland. Without that office, it would be much more difficult to maintain confidence across communities in the working of the PSNI. I am sure that everyone here supports the operation of that office, its continued existence, and its ability, where necessary, to investigate fearlessly and even-handedly.
However, the point has been made on both sides of the debate that in Northern Ireland that role is much broader, applying also to some of the most difficult and sensitive issues surrounding legacy cases from the troubles. That is a very unusual position. It is, inevitably, unique, because the position in Northern Ireland is, for many understandable but tragic reasons, also unique. That is one of the most important reasons why people have said that the current arrangements for dealing with legacy cases from the troubles are not passing the test for many people, on all sides of the community and the debate in Northern Ireland. The arrangements clearly need to be upgraded and improved. It is not just about the operation of the police ombudsman’s breadth of current responsibilities; it is also to do with something that I think the Labour spokesman mentioned: the coronial system, some of the legacy cases going through the courts and the inquest process. There are many other examples, too, which is why we are currently working through the 17,000 responses to the public inquiry into how to take forward the proposals for upgrading and improving the legacy process.
The hon. Member for Rochdale rightly mentioned the historical investigations unit, but there are other proposals to round out a potential solution for the legacy process, including proposals for an independent commission on information retrieval, an oral history archive, and implementation and reconciliation groups. There are many different possible elements to getting this right and doing it better for all sides. However, it is essential that we listen to the 17,000 proposals because, as the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley pointed out, behind many of them is a grieving family, a victim and a case of personal tragedy.
I recently looked around the door of the team who are going through the 17,000 responses to the legacy consultation. On one side of the room, against the wall, was a very large pile of boxes of submissions that they had already gone through. They had to do so with enormous care and respect, because of the tragedies that lie behind many of the proposals. On the other side of the room, I am happy to say, was a much smaller pile of boxes of submissions that the team had not yet gone through. They are working through the submissions as fast as they reasonably and decently can, given the sensitivity and importance of the material.
Once the team are through, we will not simply be able to issue the Government’s response. We will be able to say that the proposals for the historical investigations unit and the other new institutions are a starting point that we need to overlay with the results from the 17,000 proposals and ask, “What is the final answer? What will allow a settlement, a conclusion and, perhaps, peace and justice, and what will allow us to draw a line under an awful moment in Northern Ireland’s history in a way that provides justice for all sides?” Only then will Northern Ireland be able, perhaps, to begin to put this awful moment of its history a little further behind it and continue the process of healing.
At that point, it will be fairly straightforward for many of us to say that the role of the Northern Ireland police ombudsman will, sensibly, become rather more normal. The responsibility for the legacy cases will rightly be passed to the new institutions and processes, and the ombudsman role will become much more akin to ones that we see elsewhere in the United Kingdom, dealing mainly with current cases.
To leave a little time for the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley to respond, I finish by saying that I am very reassured to have heard that everyone here understands, salutes and agrees with the principle that justice must be done, that fairness must be achieved—no matter who, and no matter what—and that everyone should be equal before the law. The difficulty, of course, is that these legacy cases are incredibly difficult and sensitive—perhaps more difficult than many other kinds of justice that we have to administer in the UK. I therefore hope that when we have finished with the 17,000 submissions to the consultation, we will come up with a set of proposals for which there is cross-party and cross-community support, which will allow us to move forward at long last and make progress in this incredibly important and sensitive area.
I thank all who took part in this afternoon’s debate, including Bob Stewart. I thank him on behalf of my colleagues for his service to the people of Northern Ireland, and the enormous courage that he displayed in leading his men and women at that very difficult time. There are many in Northern Ireland today—the great majority—who truly appreciate that service and the sacrifice that accompanies it, and will not forget what was done for our country and for the people of Northern Ireland.
I thank my colleagues, including my hon. Friend Jim Shannon, for their contributions and interventions. My hon. Friend Emma Little Pengelly summed it up well when she said that often, because of the lack of a proper process to deal with the legacy of a troubled past, people go to the police ombudsman as a means of pursuing a grievance. As I have already referred to, I wonder about the extent to which that puts pressure on the ombudsman to come to conclusions and make findings that should not normally be part of its remit, and lead to the ombudsman exceeding that remit. I continue to be concerned about the conduct of the ombudsman’s office in dealing with these investigations.
I refer to the case of R (Chief Constable of West Yorkshire Police) v. Independent Police Complaints Commission, which found that it is the job of a police ombudsman to gather evidence and report breaches of discipline to the relevant chief constable, and breaches of the criminal law to the Director of Public Prosecutions. The Court of Appeal in London confirmed that only a properly constituted court can find guilt. The difficulty I have is that, in report after report, the police ombudsman is inferring guilt, implying guilt, and in some cases openly stating that police are guilty. However, it does not bring forward evidence to substantiate those claims or go after police officers for disciplinary or criminal wrongdoing, because the evidence to support the claims is not there. I therefore think there is a problem here that needs to be addressed. We welcome the prospect of new legacy institutions replacing the work of the police ombudsman in respect of legacy cases, but we must be mindful of the need to ensure that the new arrangements take care of the concerns I have referred to.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (