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15 Jan 2009 : Column 144WH—continued

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3 pm

David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): Welcome to the Chair, Mr. Bercow. As you can hear, my voice is not what it should be, although I am sure that many hon. Members will say that that is a blessing in disguise.

I echo many of the sentiments outlined by the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) and congratulate him on his chairmanship of the Committee, as I congratulate all members of the Committee. The Committee had not the luxury of my input to the report, because I was not a member until recently.

The hon. Gentleman sang the praises of the Minister, which I echo. I would like to say, without trying to keep in with him, that he has played a constructive part in all the work on Northern Ireland. He is held in very high esteem—I mean this sincerely—by the political parties and by a lot of the general public with whom he has come into contact. I thank him for that.

Whenever we speak about policing in Northern Ireland, we are aware that it is an emotive issue, whether we are dealing with the past or with the future. Many of us from the Province could speak of the atrocities. The hon. Member for South Staffordshire mentioned Reverend Bradford, who was a Member of Parliament. I remember attending his funeral as a much younger man. I had never seen as many people at a funeral—I did not see so many people at a funeral for many years—as I walked behind the family that day. A lot of memories can be brought to bear, but it is important that we look to the future in Northern Ireland. It is important that, as the hon. Gentleman outlined in relation to policing, we get it right, that there is adequate funding for policing and that the atrocities of the past can be left to the past.

I am aware that we cannot go into the detail of the current inquiries, as you mentioned, Mr. Bercow, and I appreciate that. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Bloody Sunday inquiry. Putting millions of pounds into that inquiry is totally wrong. I have to question the motives of those who called for that inquiry and ask whether they were politically motivated. There are those of us who, at the start, warned that this inquiry would go on for many years and that it was as if the Government were putting millions of pounds into a bucket full of holes. That is exactly what has happened; that is where we are today. We still have no outcome and we are now told that it could take another year before we have one.

We also have other inquiries, such as the Billy Wright inquiry, which you also mentioned, Mr. Bercow. Mr. Wright’s father has fought a long and lonely battle, trying to get answers to questions about his son’s death. Irrespective of what his son was or what he was guilty of, or what he was serving time for, his father and the family still deserve answers and conclusions about why he died the way he did.

There are many issues to deal with, but as you can hear, Mr. Bercow, my voice will not sustain. I thank all who were involved in producing the report. I say to the hon. Gentleman that I enjoyed being part of the Committee under his chairmanship and alongside all the other members of the Committee, whom I congratulate on the report.

3.5 pm

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak this afternoon, Mr. Bercow, and I, too, congratulate the
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Committee and its Chairman, the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack). The hon. Gentleman dispensed a remarkable range of bouquets, which, had they been real rather than virtual, would have rendered the Chamber injurious to a hay fever sufferer such as me. Since these are virtual rather than real bouquets, another one should be given to the hon. Gentleman, who performs one of the more challenging jobs in the House with remarkable skill and dexterity.

The report has dealt with an important and, some might say, controversial issue with remarkable thoroughness and sensitivity. The Committee Chairman reminded us of some of the limitations on the Committee’s deliberations, particularly in respect of the existence of the Eames-Bradley commission. The Government response has trodden a delicate line very skilfully. We Liberal Democrats agree with the Minister’s comment in the report that it is pertinent to wait until the publication of the report of the Consultative Group on the Past, chaired by Lord Eames and Denis Bradley, as their recommendations will undoubtedly impact on the issues considered in the Committee’s report.

Dealing with the past and its legacy is by no means a straightforward process. Some may even suggest that to do so is counter-productive, in that it prevents people from moving on and keeps old wounds open. I have little sympathy with that view. In my experience, until there is proper closure and a proper examination of the past, there will be no prospect of this generation’s moving on or of subsequent generations moving on. Without that closure and an open, transparent process, there will be no moving on. We have to be realistic about what we can expect of the current generation, who are human—they are flesh and blood, like the rest of us—with human foibles. But if the succeeding generations are able to put the past behind them, we will have achieved something worth while.

The Select Committee report reflects clearly how important it is for those who have lost loved ones during the troubles to have their stories heard and their concerns taken seriously, and how there needs to be a holistic means to address the legacy of violence and division in Northern Ireland. It was put to me recently that, for many people, the war is not over because it is still being fought in their minds, day after day. I am reminded of E. P. Thompson’s remark that peace is more than simply an absence of war. It is a fact that, many people in Northern Ireland today, although the bombings and shootings have finished, are still certainly not at peace.

The Historical Enquiries Team has been directly involved with this process, as it is charged with assisting in bringing a measure of resolution to those families of victims who are affected by deaths attributable to the troubles. Paragraph 16 of the report quotes the director of WAVE, an organisation that provides support and training services to people who have been bereaved, traumatised or injured as a result of the troubles:

One of the major absences from the Good Friday agreement and its subsequent implementation was any holistic and comprehensive approach to transitional
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justice. Many other conflict resolution processes have involved some type of tribunal, domestic or international, to punish those responsible for serious offences. Others have established commissions to address truth and reconciliation issues. In some international cases, justice in the form of the conviction and punishment of those responsible for atrocities is deemed an essential pre-condition for reconciliation, while in other cases a process of truth recovery and apology is deemed appropriate as the basis for reconciliation. We might debate whether either course of action by itself can deliver reconciliation, but Northern Ireland has not yet been placed on either course and reconciliation remains an elusive goal.

To date, efforts to deal with the past and its legacy have been handled piecemeal. Those matters have been allowed to create further division. They include the early release programme, the work of the Historical Enquiries Team, the work of the police ombudsman, the Bloody Sunday inquiry and other statutory inquiries and inquests. I sincerely hope that the recommendations of Lord Eames and Denis Bradley will present us with a comprehensive approach to dealing with the past that counters the piecemeal tendency that has been the hallmark of the process hitherto.

I might add in parentheses that having met Lord Eames and taken a close interest in the working of his commission, I am fairly optimistic that he will offer us a road map that takes us to that destination.

David Simpson: The hon. Gentleman mentions the Eames-Bradley report. Does he agree that if the report, when published, redefines the difficulties of Northern Ireland as a war, that will be the wrong step to take?

Mr. Carmichael: It is difficult to answer the hon. Gentleman’s question without second-guessing what Lord Eames and Mr. Bradley will say, but he does us a service in highlighting the sensitivity of the language in these cases. I anticipate that from Eames and Bradley we will get not answers to questions such as that, but perhaps a process that allows those in Northern Ireland who are most closely involved to arrive at answers for themselves.

One remarkable feature of Northern Ireland politics, which I see as an interested outsider, is that it is easy for us sitting here to come up with answers. As the hon. Member for South Staffordshire said, there is not the same immediacy of impact in what we see. It is pointless for us to bring up answers, because the problem is not ours; the problem is for people in Northern Ireland. If we go too far towards producing answers, whatever they are, we encourage a process that prevents people in Northern Ireland from taking responsibility for their destiny.

Let me return to the somewhat piecemeal nature of the process to date. All those actions have been constructive in their own right, but they have also involved their own difficulties. One of the most pressing, which the report highlights, is the financial cost involved and the resourcing implications that that has had for the organisations at the forefront of investigating the past. It is no doubt reassuring to the families involved that the Chief Constable is committed to keeping the Historical Enquiries Team project going for as long as it is needed, but it is worrying that the demands of running that project might compromise the ability of the PSNI to fulfil its primary role of policing the present.

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The Chief Constable accepts that if no additional funding were to be made available for the HET, it would have an impact on the resources available for current policing activities. The report quotes him as saying that

It is clear from the report that that experience is shared by the police ombudsman. The ombudsman has seen a significant increase in the number of historical complaints made to his office since the HET began operations in 2006. He has had difficulties in securing sufficient additional funding to resource the additional work, and some staff have been reassigned from current investigations to assist with historical work. The report states:

People always talk about normalisation in dealing with Northern Ireland. The role of the police ombudsman ought to be to deal with policing issues arising from current policing. In fact, it is pretty clear that for as long as the service remains bogged down with the inquiries of the past, it will not be in a position to say that it is dealing with a normalised situation. It is in the interests of the efficient and effective working of the ombudsman service itself that it should be allowed to devote its resources to dealing with the primary purpose for which it was set up by the House.

I shall make one observation on the question of the finances, because this will be crucial. The debate is timely for many reasons, not least because we are, we hope, fairly soon to embark on a process of devolving criminal justice and policing to the Northern Ireland Assembly. I hope that the preparatory discussions relating to that will involve the cost of what we are discussing.

I hope, too, that there will be an understanding in the Treasury that significant financial legacies related to policing requirements are involved here, not least in respect of the payment of pensions to those who were part of policing in Northern Ireland through the troubled years when we needed much greater policing activity. That cost cannot be avoided; we cannot walk away from it now. I fear that if the Treasury regards the devolution of policing and criminal justice as an opportunity for cost cutting, we could do profound damage to the significant progress that we have made so far in Northern Ireland.

The cost, of course, is not just financial; there is a human cost as well. The disclosure of intelligence information to inquiries clearly presents challenges to the police and other organisations that are required to provide sensitive information, but which also have an obligation under article 2 of the European convention on human rights to protect the life of covert intelligence sources.

I am mindful of the work of the Privy Council review of intercept evidence and the ongoing work of the Chilcot review on how to take forward the recommendations in the report. That is obviously a complicated area of work, but there are a number of pressing cases that the work of the review could help to
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resolve, and not just in Northern Ireland—those cases are pressing. It would be helpful if the Minister said today how that work is progressing.

There are clear and significant financial cost implications from the piecemeal approach of dealing with the past through selective inquiries. Once established, inquiries become a law unto themselves, with no accountability in respect of costs or assessment of value for money. It is bewildering to me, as it is to other hon. Members, that the Bloody Sunday inquiry has still not reported almost 11 years on from its creation. I shall say no more on that issue, but having embarked on the process and having devoted such resources to it, we should recognise that there will be plenty of time to pass judgment on its worth once we have seen the fruit of its labours.

I am more than happy to say that we need to learn from the experience of that inquiry, but we cannot form a judgment until we know exactly what we are going to get for the money that we have spent on it.

Fundamentally, there are trade-offs to be made in any society on how scarce resources should be allocated. Major opportunity costs will arise as a result of the course on which Northern Ireland has been set. The mounting cost of inquiries could go a long way to addressing other long-standing social, economic and environmental costs—and indeed policing costs. Looming on the horizon is a tightening by the UK Treasury of Northern Ireland’s policing and security budget. Any new Minister for Justice in the Northern Ireland Assembly will have a difficult task in reconciling those issues unless the Government make a financial settlement at the point of devolution of policing and justice powers.

The sobering financial realities should embolden society across the political spectrum to give serious consideration to the forthcoming recommendations of the Consultative Group on the Past, and to aim for a cost-effective and all-embracing means to address the legacy of violence and division in a manner consistent with a shared future.

I apologise, Mr. Bercow, for perhaps having laboured the financial aspects of the process. It will be apparent to those who read the Committee’s report and the Government’s response to it that this is a complex area—one that requires a great deal of sensitivity to enable us to dance around many of the human considerations involved. Those considerations must be uppermost in our approach.

For that reason, the report and the Government response are much to be welcomed as part of a process. Liberal Democrat Members look forward to seeing the next stage of that process, which we believe to be the Eames-Bradley report.

3.22 pm

Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): It is a great pleasure, Mr. Bercow, to serve under your chairmanship. I start by apologising on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson), who very much regrets that he cannot be here to take part in the debate. He had a long-standing arrangement in Northern Ireland today; I hope that the House and the Committee will think it no discourtesy to have to put up with me instead.

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It is a great pleasure to respond to the report on behalf of the Opposition. I spent a number of my most formative years—I was in my early 20s—in Northern Ireland as a member of the security forces. I saw at first hand the misery of terrorism and its effect on the victims. Coupled with the grinding poverty that I saw in certain parts of Belfast and other parts of the Province, my experiences in Northern Ireland inform my politics today. After a few years as a member of the armed forces, I realised that I was like the Dutch boy with his finger in the dyke; I was not solving the problem, but I might have been containing it.

It was ultimately for political and civic leadership to solve the problem, which has now happened. Northern Ireland has now moved on to a much better phase. That is not to decry the great sacrifices made by so many in the police and armed forces—sacrifices of which the House is well aware. However, that understanding informs a wider debate; elsewhere today, the House is discussing Gaza. It is not for the military wing of Hamas or the Israeli defence forces to solve their problems. It will ultimately be for big politicians—I mean big-minded, broad-minded people—to be prepared to do what was done in Northern Ireland in order to make that society better.

I congratulate those from so many walks of life in Northern Ireland who were prepared to make difficult and heart-searching decisions in order to achieve what has been achieved so far—and what must continue to be achieved. I pay tribute to the Committee and its Chairman, my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack). What my hon. Friend said should be underlined. He said that Northern Ireland must be freed from the burden of its past—an elegant way of approaching the problem. My hon. Friend also mentioned Rev. Robert Bradford, as did the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson). Robert Bradford was murdered during my first week in the Province. It was a pivotal moment, and I remember it clearly. Indeed, my father was a Member of the House and knew him well. I suddenly realised that all sorts of strands were being drawn together by a tragic act and the death of a remarkable person.

Despite the fast ball bowled to me today—the reason why I am responding to the debate—I have had a good opportunity to read the Committee’s report. I congratulate the Committee on an excellent piece of work; it has raised some important issues and some pertinent questions. It would be nice to get a response to them today or in the near future.

I pay tribute to the contribution, made in difficult circumstances, by the hon. Member for Upper Bann. He made an elegant contribution, saying that the atrocities of the past should be left to the past. I hope that they can, but we must find a better way of delivering that end. The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the cost of the Saville inquiry. I shall touch on that point later. I worry that with these inquiries we have created an industry in Northern Ireland. That is to be regretted. One wonders who will benefit—with the ultimate exception of some wealthy lawyers.

Northern Ireland has moved on enormously since the troubles. Stability is required in order for the Province to move towards fulfilling its undoubtedly promising future. The Assembly is up and running successfully, and all but one competency has been devolved.

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One of the main problems—it was mentioned also by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael)—is the cost of historical inquiries. It is more than a question of pounds, shillings and pence. The Government’s projected budget for the inquiry has been exceeded by a wide margin. The Northern Ireland Office stated that it would provide £34 million over six years to fund the project. That was to go primarily to the Police Service of Northern Ireland, but small allocations were given to the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland, Forensic Science Northern Ireland and Northern Ireland’s Public Prosecution Service.

The Historical Enquiries Team became operational in 2006; by the end of October 2007 it had spent £13.7 million. Will the Minister give us the most recent figures for how much has been spent to date? The Committee’s report states that

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