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15 Jan 2009 : Column 151WH—continued

That is £16.77 million. The project will cost more than double the amount originally forecast by the NIO. Do the Government intend funding the project at the new estimated cost? That is an important question.

The Committee’s report notes that the chairman of the Northern Ireland Retired Police Officers Association referred to the process of historical inquiries as a “Rolls-Royce industry”. We should not forget those other inquiries. The Saville inquiry is costing upwards of £200 million—nearly a fifth of a billion pounds. Without revisiting the arguments about whether that inquiry should have been set up, I wonder what people in all communities in Northern Ireland think of that. The vast majority in those communities would think today how much better that money could have been spent; and they would say that it should have been spent on civic projects.

The Police Federation for Northern Ireland expressed its view to the Committee that the project had gone beyond its scope and original intention. What was supposed to be a straightforward information-sharing exercise with the families’ victims has grown to be much more.

The HET has been reviewing cases chronologically, beginning in 1968, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire said. I do not see how that is a good use of resources. Taking such a broad approach is labour-intensive and costly, especially when it is highly unlikely that any prosecutions will take place, which is a view expressed even by the Chief Constable. He said in the report that “prosecutions would be limited”. There is very little evidence going back as far as 1968. There are no computer records for the earliest years and, as has been said, the forensic laboratories were destroyed twice during the troubles.

I have discussed the report with a learned colleague in this House—my neighbour and right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), who knows a thing or two about Northern Ireland and criminal law. He said that he had known people give evidence, with the best will in the world, in trials that related to events that took place just six months before. Through no intention to deceive, they gave a completely different view of proceedings—who was where, what happened and so on—from that of another person with
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similarly honest motives. It is difficult to see how we will get a clear view of what happened way back in the mists of time.

Surely, if we are to have historical inquiries, they must form part of an efficient system with prudent financial management and targeting of resources. It does not seem to be constructive to open every case since 1968, even those with little or no evidence and those, as the Select Committee Chairman said, with no apparent next of kin or people interested in finding out what happened to the victims. As we have heard, some families do not even want a case to be reopened or examined, but the HET does so anyway. I do not see how funding can continue if that approach is to be used. The cost is mounting. As suggested by the Police Federation of Northern Ireland in the Committee findings, would it not be better for families who want their cases investigated to approach the HET or another body and for it to be done on that basis with that form of prioritisation? I hope that the Minister will respond to that in his remarks.

There needs to be a cap on how much money and time is spent investigating the past. Resources are finite and could be used elsewhere. As I suggested earlier in relation to the Saville inquiry, much of the money could be spent better, whether on schools, hospitals or community cohesion projects, rather than on raking up the past. Do these inquiries serve a purpose? They are dredging up horrific histories at great financial and human cost. Historical inquiries are also skewed in that they show only one side of the picture—I am picking my words carefully here. The report mentions that the security forces are being investigated when they caused only—I say “only”, but it is still a tragically high number—365 out of 3,600-plus deaths. The republican paramilitaries are said to have caused 2,158 deaths and the loyalist paramilitaries 1,099 deaths. The paramilitary groups, both republican and loyalist, destroyed evidence and covered their tracks, making it difficult to investigate their crimes or to hold them to account.

The most alarming point highlighted by the Committee report was that inquiries into the past were having an impact on the effectiveness of policing in Northern Ireland. The Committee states:

The overriding goal for any police force is to prevent crime and to protect the public; anything other than that should be secondary. Policing the past should not get in the way of policing the present. The Chief Constable mentioned in the report that he has had to move key staff experienced in working in intelligence from their current policing priorities to historical work. The PSNI is under constant threat from terrorism. That threat is stark in the current climate; the police have been specifically targeted by paramilitary groups. Bombs have been planted by paramilitary groups with the intention to hurt and kill police officers in Northern Ireland. Society has also been affected by paramilitary crime. If Northern Ireland is to move forward, it needs stability, which can be achieved only through effective policing and stamping out the paramilitaries who are still able to break the law today.

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Another important issue raised by the report is that the HET has been referring cases to the police ombudsman’s office, which has increased significantly its work load. The police ombudsman has been taking on historical cases where complaints have been made against the former Royal Ulster Constabulary office. That has been described as

The ombudsman carries out important functions, and its work should not be compromised by mounting historical inquiries. However, the Committee’s findings appear to show that the resources of both the PSNI and the ombudsman are being stretched as a result of the inquiries.

Highly sensitive information and intelligence is used during a historical inquiry. During the troubles the police relied on informants, because paramilitaries were well practised at removing evidence from a crime scene. Those informants put their lives at risk. The police are concerned about this information coming out in a public inquiry or being mismanaged in such a way that it is leaked. As the Committee Chairman said, the report reminds us that, during the Rosemary Nelson inquiry, a disk containing sensitive information was lost. Informants would no longer come forward if they were not offered any protection or anonymity. That is not just specific to Northern Ireland, but has wider-reaching implications in the battle against current terrorist threats. For example, in the case of the terrorist threat from Islamic extremists, if informants think that the British state will name them, even one day way in the future, they will not come forward. The nature of terrorism requires Governments to use informers and other covert sources. We should be able to protect such individuals. The report states:

Although legal provisions are in place regarding the protection of people who have given information, staff working on inquiries must be well trained and careful in their handling of information of this nature. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that the people and bodies involved in historical inquiries are handling intelligence in the appropriate way and according to legal obligations? What procedures are in place to safeguard against losing intelligence data?

The report dealt lastly with inquests and their costs. A number of inquests have taken place into deaths that occurred during the troubles. The PSNI has had an increased work load in supporting the inquests and supplying information, but the Committee noted that no extra funding had been supplied to the PSNI and that money from the main policing budget was being used to pay for the additional cost of the inquests. It expressed concern that such additional work was compromising

That is a very serious statement.

The Committee report highlighted a number of concerns, some of which we were already aware of. The financial cost of historical inquiries is huge and rising; the Northern Ireland Office has gone beyond its budget and the costs
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keep mounting; prosecutions in historical inquiries are highly unlikely, which even the Chief Constable admitted, and PSNI resources continue to be diverted. That poses the question: are we getting this right? Are historical inquiries constructive to the future of Northern Ireland? I am deeply concerned by the Committee’s assertion that such inquiries are getting in the way of effective policing in present-day Northern Ireland. A police force exists to prevent crime and protect the public. It is crucial that Northern Ireland has a society based on law and order—it is the most basic tenet of a civilised democracy.

Historical inquiries are dredging up the past, and preventing normality and stability by looking back to a troubled time. It is important to look forward and concentrate on current threats rather than past ones. The report alluded to not only the PSNI but the police ombudsman being stretched, as historical inquiries are now spilling over into that office, too. Perhaps there needs to be some sort of consolidation, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland. Resources are stretched and the primary focus should be on the present, not the past. It is important that the offices carry out their responsibilities without being compromised by competing priorities. The current system is inefficient and needs to be reviewed. The HET has gone beyond its budget. The resources are not there, and it seems incredible that every single case is being opened, beginning, as I said, in 1968. What do the Government propose to do about such problems? I understand that they may be waiting for the Eames-Bradley group report. In that respect, it is unfortunate that we are meeting before the report is available.

Although I have been very critical about the processes and some of the unfortunate aspects that have been dragged up by such inquiries, I understand the reasons for them. If I was a victim, or a family that had suffered a murder, I should want to know so that I could bury the past. However, we must accept—that is what I did when I was in Northern Ireland—that every single atrocity, death and victim had different circumstances. To impose one feature of historical tribunals over the whole lot of them will not work. I hope that we can prioritise and work towards a better future, rather than raking up a past that we should all like to forget.

3.41 pm

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Paul Goggins): It is very good to see you in the Chair this afternoon, Mr. Bercow. We have had two significant and memorable debates on Northern Ireland. Yesterday, we had a statutory instrument on a matter of electoral reform. That was the day when time stood still in Westminster—the clock was stuck on 2.29 pm. If it had not been for the bravery and foresight of the Chairman who took us fearlessly beyond 2.30 pm irrespective of what it said on the clock, we might still be sitting there. Today, the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) lost his voice in Parliament. That is something that none of us thought that we would live to see. It is very good that he has been here with others to contribute to today’s debate.

I want to thank the Committee—particularly its Chairman, the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack)—for the assiduous work that it
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has done in relation to this inquiry and for all the other work that it does. Too many people in Parliament think that the problem of Northern Ireland has now been resolved and that everything is running smoothly. Things have improved enormously for all the reasons that have been mentioned, but there are still issues to resolve. It is important that a group of hon. Members continue to pay close attention to such issues, to hold Ministers and officials to account, to report back to Parliament and to ensure that the issues that relate to Northern Ireland—part of the United Kingdom—are given a proper airing here. Again, I thank the Chairman of the Committee. We understand that a number of its members have prior engagements and commitments in Northern Ireland and in the main Chamber and so are unable to be here. None the less, we thank them for the tremendous job that they do.

I am very grateful to the Chairman of the Committee and others, particularly the hon. Member for Upper Bann, for the very nice things that they said about me. In all truth, any contribution that I have made over the recent past is extraordinarily modest compared with those who have led the process of change in Northern Ireland. People have had to swallow hard, grit their teeth and move forward. It is tremendous to have worked with some of those people and to see the brave way in which they are prepared to take decisions and work together. It is a great hope for us all and for those beyond the shores of these islands that that process has happened. Others have led that process in a quite remarkable way.

Although policing and justice powers are still to be devolved—we are working closely with the parties in Northern Ireland to achieve that shared objective—it is tremendous to see local politicians and local Ministers dealing with the economic downturn, housing and social exclusion. Just the other day, the Health Minister—I say this with a little feeling, because I was once the Health Minister in Northern Ireland—was completing his first major Bill in relation to health reform. That and other such issues are now being driven locally, and it is tremendous to see some of the early fruits of that.

This excellent report deals with a very difficult issue. I shall try to address and answer some of the questions and comments that have been made in the debate this afternoon. Many have pleaded the Eames-Bradley amendment, and I will probably have to do so as well. When I was giving evidence to the Committee, I said that we had to wait on a number of points. Like other hon. Members, I have to say the same again today, which places an enormous burden of expectation on the Eames-Bradley group, which is dealing with complex issues. Any contribution that it can make to help us to think more deeply and to move us forward in the right direction will be welcome, but we have to wait and see what it says.

It is worth recording that the core task of the Consultative Group on the Past, which was established in June 2007, is to consult across the community on how Northern Ireland society can best approach the legacy of the events of the past 40 years and to make recommendations, as appropriate, on any steps that might be taken to support Northern Ireland society in building a shared future that is not overshadowed by the past. That is a
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huge challenge. Those involved have had extensive meetings and discussions, and we look forward to their recommendations.

David Simpson: Does the Minister agree that, if the Eames-Bradley consultative group recommends that the troubles in Northern Ireland be reclassified as a war—we do not know what the report will say—it would have serious repercussions for the investigation of the past, because we would no longer be dealing with the murder or maiming of security forces, but with the issues of warfare? Moreover, those who have confessed to being the commanders of the IRA—I name the hon. Members for Belfast, West (Mr. Adams) and for Mid-Ulster (Mr. McGuinness)—would be guilty of war crimes and should be charged in accordance with that.

Paul Goggins: The hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not say what I think the group should or should not put in its report. However, I have never described it as a war, nor would I ever do so, but we will see what the group has to say about that and many other things.

Sir Patrick Cormack: What the Minister has just said would be a view echoed throughout the Committee.

Paul Goggins: I am sure that that is the case. We wait to see what the group recommends. Burdened as it is with such expectations, we need to give some time and careful consideration to the points that it makes. Our objectives—whether we are Committee members, Ministers or members of the consultative group—are those articulated by the Chairman of the Committee, who said that we are working together for a society in which young people can hand over something that is worth while to their grandchildren. Moreover, he quoted from the widow of a police officer, who said, “I want to move on.” Enabling people to move on is the business in which we are all engaged. I am talking not about burying the past in the sense of pretending that it never happened, but about moving forward in a way that can build a positive future for the next generation and the generation beyond that.

All hon. Members who contributed to the debate mentioned the work of the Historical Enquiries Team. I was pleased, as the team will be, with the affirmation that the Committee gave to their very difficult work. Some 3,268 deaths occurred as a result of the troubles, each a story and tragedy in its own right—as the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon) said, each is different. The HET is trying to bring explanation and resolution to people by uncovering as much information as possible. The Chief Constable was clear in his evidence, as he always is with me, that he does not expect many prosecutions, let alone convictions, but if stories are told, if information is recovered and if resolution is delivered, it is a worthwhile project.

It will not be possible to complete the task within the time frame or budget that was originally envisaged, but the project is a world first, so how could we know absolutely at the outset what would be required? The £38.3 million that we have given to the HET’s work is over and above the core budget for policing or any of the other services. Set against the cost of other processes, we could describe it as good value for money if it brings resolution to the families of the 3,268 people who died.
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To update hon. Members: 1,422 cases have been opened so far, and 509 cases have been completed; and on current projections, it is expected that 1,048 will have been completed by 2011, which is the end of the first six years of the project.

I vividly recall that the Committee subjected me to a fair degree of questioning on the procedure for dealing chronologically with cases. There is a discussion to be had about whether that is the best and fairest way of considering cases, but the HET has always maintained that it is. As the team told the Committee—they have since confirmed this—some two thirds of the families whom they approach want to engage, and of those who do not want to engage initially, 30 per cent. later want to do so. Therefore, nearly 80 per cent. of families say that they want to engage with the process, which is a very encouraging sign indeed.

One or two hon. Members expressed concern about the additional burden on the ombudsman’s office. The police ombudsman receives additional funding for the work, but he has made a strong argument that he wants to focus on today’s work, and I understand that. He has proposed a business case for dealing with legacy cases, and we have it with us. However, because of the Eames-Bradley group, we must give the business case consideration after the delivery of its report, rather than more immediately. Again, the £38.3 million that has been given to the HET is in addition to the core funding. Of course, the considerable amount of time and effort that it takes for the police to provide detailed information to inquests or public inquiries comes out of the core rather than the HET budget, but it is none the less important to say on record that the £38.3 million is in addition.

This was not mentioned in the debate, but it is important to update the Committee and hon. Members on the work now in hand to improve and make more effective the workings of the HET. It is changing the shape of the organisation: in future, there will be seven teams, and a senior investigating officer will take charge of each case, so that it is investigated in the same way as any other murder. The intention is to ensure that they do not simply open cases but close them, because people want resolution. They certainly hope that with the new structure, they will be able to close more cases, more quickly. Even given the necessary due consideration to the families concerned, they will make more rapid progress. Therefore, the number of staff in the HET will be reduced as a result of the process, not because of cost-cutting, but because it has found more effective ways of working, which is to be welcomed.

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