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15 Jan 2009 : Column 157WH—continued

The hon. Members for Newbury and for South Staffordshire mentioned the loss of data by the Rosemary Nelson inquiry. That was a matter of considerable concern when I gave evidence to the Committee, which I was able to tell that we had appointed an independent security consultant to look into the data loss. I should emphasise that the data were lost rather than stolen, and as far as we are able to tell, there is no indication of any adverse impact, which is welcome. Rightly, the Committee and the whole House will want to be assured that such information is properly looked after. The consultant confirmed in his report that a satisfactory level of security was applied in the inquiries, although he made a number of recommendations. We asked him
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to go back and look again at the inquiry procedures towards the end of 2008, and he conducted a follow-up review from 24 November to 12 December. He reported that significant progress had been made on his original recommendations. The hon. Gentlemen will understand that I do not want to go into too much detail about the procedures this afternoon, but I will be happy to write to the Chairman of the Committee, so that he can share the information with his colleagues.

All hon. Members who spoke mentioned the delay and costs involved in the Saville inquiry. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and I regret the further delay in the delivery of the Saville report, but the inquiry is independent, and we are very much in its hands. Hon. Members mentioned their concerns about the costs, and I can confirm that the cost to the end of December stands at £185.7 million. However, because of the further delay, officials from the Northern Ireland Office have been in very close contact with the secretariat of the Saville inquiry to find out how costs can be reduced, especially regarding accommodation, IT, consultancy and other service contracts. I cannot give a precise figure this afternoon, because the work is in progress, but I hope to be able to confirm the details of what could amount to several hundreds of thousands of pounds of savings in the immediate future, even in the short time that the inquiry has left. I am sure that hon. Members will be pleased to hear that.

There is a debate about the expenditure on public inquiries, but I should like gently to point out that public inquiries have been essential in building confidence in the peace process in Northern Ireland. Although we may baulk at the size of the bill, we must understand the benefits that come from a greater confidence in the peace process, which we see all around us—I am talking about the end of the conflict and the progress on devolution—and that must always be weighed in the balance.

At the beginning of the debate, I believe that the Chairman of the Committee spoke about balancing the financial against the human cost. We must always do that, but it can sometimes be difficult in Northern Ireland. The hon. Member for Newbury twice mentioned raking up the past, but others might describe it as resolving the past. There is a debate to be had about that; but one way or another, we must work through things, and public inquiries have played a significant role.

I am sure that the Chairman of the Committee and other hon. Members will be happy to learn that we have no plans for any further public inquiries other than those that we already know about. Although Her Majesty’s Government will not run away from their responsibility for taking the final decision on public inquiries that relate to the past, we will consult closely on any future suggestions.

I am pleased to see the hon. Member for Upper Bann and thank him for his contribution, and I hope that he feels better soon. Policing is important to every Member of Parliament, because we all want the difficult behaviour and criminality in our neighbourhoods dealt with, but I have learned that there is an added importance and significance to policing in Northern Ireland. I perhaps understand that dimension more acutely now than I did before.

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That is why the Government have prioritised investment in policing in Northern Ireland this year and next year: around £1.1 billion will be available for policing. I accept that some of those costs, as the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) made clear in his contribution, relate to pension contributions and other commitments that have to be met, but it is a significant amount of money. The Secretary of State battled very hard for those resources in the context of the comprehensive spending review, and I am delighted that we have been able to deliver them.

None of that detracts from the fact that there are pressures within any public service budget, and that is true in Northern Ireland. I seek to work with the Policing Board, the Chief Constable and others to try to resolve those difficulties as they occur. I agree with the sentiment that every pound we spend on the past is a pound we cannot spend on the present, and that should be in the minds of everyone involved in politics and public administration in Northern Ireland. It is important that we resolve the past, but we also have to focus on today’s needs.

The hon. Gentleman raised an interesting point on resolving the past. It is true that the conflict is over, but there are still signs of its legacy. The threat from dissident republicans is still present, and attacks on police officers still occur. Regrettably, we have had such attacks over the past year, but mercifully none of them resulted in fatalities. We know that that is a serious threat, that sectarian violence still exists and that physical barriers still separate communities. Until those barriers come down and the sectarian violence and hatred have gone, we will still have a legacy to deal with. The hon. Gentleman is right to suggest that that will take time and the attention and commitment of everyone. It can be assisted from the top down through priority and initiative, but the drive has to come from the bottom up as communities regenerate and rebuild with a positive view towards the future. That was an important point that the hon. Gentleman made.

The hon. Gentleman asked for an update on the Chilcot group’s work on the use of intercept as evidence. I can confirm that the group is still working on that difficult issue, one that it is rather easier to agree with in principle than in regard to how it works out in practice. I will be happy to write to him to give a more detailed answer on precisely where the work is up to, and I hope that he will be happy with that.

The hon. Gentleman made the point, and it was echoed strongly by the hon. Member for Newbury, who speaks with considerable understanding of the matter, that human intelligence is very important in safeguarding the citizen. It is the best information we can get, and we need to continue to get it and ensure that we offer the right protection to those who provide it. We have serious article 2 obligations in that regard that need to be fulfilled, so it is important to create that balance between trying to move forward on the one hand while safeguarding people on the other.

I thank the hon. Member for Newbury for conveying the apologies of the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson), who is an assiduous attendee of all our debates. Yesterday we were discussing other matters, and today he is in Northern Ireland. He is very committed. The hon. Member for Newbury made a thoughtful contribution that drew on his own experience. His point
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about the military in Northern Ireland, and elsewhere, was absolutely right: it cannot solve the problem, but only contain the situation. The military did that in Northern Ireland, and for that we should all be grateful. It was tremendous to be able to go to St. Paul’s cathedral last September with others to celebrate and be thankful for the work and commitment of the armed services over the years of the troubles. Operation Banner is now over, but there were thanks to be expressed, and that was an important and appropriate thing to do.

The hon. Gentleman is right that that job could go on for only so long and take us so far. In the end, the most effective result comes when the political and civic leaders, civil society and the community take a lead and build their own solutions. In a very personal way, he stated that, notwithstanding all the remarks and questions, were he a victim or a relative of a victim, he would want to know the answer. He asked several perfectly legitimate questions, and I will answer some of them in a moment, but it is important to remember that, were we in that position, we, too, would want answers.

The hon. Gentleman asked how much had been spent so far by the HET. By the end of the last financial year, 2007-08, the total spent was £17.6 million, by the end of November 2008 that was £23.2 million and the projection for the end of 2010-11 is £38.3 million. He described the costs as large and pointed out that they would not fund the whole project as originally envisaged, but as I have said, it is a world first. We made the best estimates we could, but some of the work has been painstaking and taken longer than anticipated. The inquiry team is looking at more than 3,000 deaths, and we must not forget that it is complex work. If information and explanations are given that were not available in the past and help to resolve problems and emotional difficulties for families, that is well worth it.

I emphasise again that the expectation was always for explanation, rather than prosecution, but if evidence leads to prosecution, that is all well and good. Some of the work that came out of the police ombudsman’s report on Operation Ballast has been investigated by the HET, and four people have been arrested and charged with serious offences as a result: two with murder and two with other offences, including aiding and abetting murder. The involvement of the HET in that work is a welcome development. Even the Chief Constable, whose idea it was and who is its great champion, would admit that it is not a perfect solution, but he rightly says that, pound for pound, it is as good as anything devised so far and rather better than many other attempts.

Mr. Benyon: I would like to clarify something. I do not believe that anyone should have the right to all of the answers at any cost, and I add that as an important caveat. Whatever we as individuals would feel in those circumstances—it is almost impossible to predict how we would feel, even though we think we know—this could be a real burden on the resources of the PSNI and all the other bodies that I described earlier, so ultimately it cannot be allowed to continue without some form of cap.

Paul Goggins: A decision will of course have to be made in 2010-11 when the current HET funding runs out, and not all of the families concerned have had the cases of their loved ones investigated. A decision will
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have to be made about how much longer those investigations will be carried out, how much more money will be spent on them and under what arrangements that will be done. The hon. Gentleman’s question is perfectly legitimate. What is the right amount of money to spend to complete that task? We all have an obligation to make resources available for that kind of investigation, but it certainly cannot be unlimited.

I absolutely agree with the argument that simply using public inquiry as a way of resolving historical difficulties is not the most effective way to spend a large amount of money. We have made commitments that have been important in building confidence and the peace process and in getting answers for some people about certain events, but we have to begin to look forward. My argument is that in order to look forward with confidence we have to resolve some of those difficulties from the past. That has to be done not only by the whole society, but by individuals who have suffered the most in those tragic events.

In conclusion, I return to the remarks that the hon. Member for South Staffordshire made about the widow of the police officer who wants to move on, even though she has suffered more than most and had to live with that in the years since. We must balance looking backwards and paying for the costs of looking backwards with moving forward and investing in the future, and that balance is constantly under the microscope. I am grateful to the Committee for drawing our attention to those issues once again. In the end, of course, the full answer to that balance and to getting the equation right will be so much better when we have completely devolved policing and justice powers, as well as other Government responsibilities, to the local level.

4.10 pm

Sir Patrick Cormack: I thank all who have taken part in this debate for their thoughtful, constructive and helpful contributions. The Minister made a significant remark and gave some extremely important information when he told us that, by the year 2011, more than 1,000 cases will have been completed by the Historical Enquiries Team. However, that will leave 2,500 or more still to be completed. It underlines the validity and importance of the exchange between him and my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon). It cannot be open-ended. One must recognise that, among those 2,500 people, are some who will be sorely grieved if they feel that their case will not be dealt with, yet somehow and at some stage, if we are to move on, we must come to an end.

As one of the people whom we met on a visit last year pointed out to me, we must also recognise that the Historical Enquiries Team investigates deaths. There are many families in Northern Ireland whose future was destroyed not by death, but by the complete incapacitation of a breadwinner, the scarring of a mother for life or the mutilation of a child. Such people did not die, but their families’ hopes died when they were injured. In many ways, they are as much victims of the troubles as the bereaved, and we must recognise that as well.

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It is difficult. We are all looking forward with eager anticipation to hearing what Eames and Bradley will say. I hope very much to be present at the press conference when they launch their report in a couple of weeks’ time. I shall certainly want to talk to the Minister about it, and I know that my Committee will want to consider carefully what Eames and Bradley say. I hope that, collectively, we can make recommendations that make sense and enable us to look forward.

Each of us, whether we sit for a constituency in England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, is constantly reminded that there are people who cannot have life-prolonging drugs because of their cost. If we are to have a society in Northern Ireland that is totally normal, we must achieve balance. Is it right to continue spending money indefinitely, when other people are in true need? How many people could have been given life-saving drugs from the £200 million that will have been spent on the Saville inquiry? Such questions are awkward, but we must have them at the back of our mind. I am glad to see that Members present agree.

I end not on a gloomy note but on a positive one that underlines what enormous progress has been made in Northern Ireland in recent years. The first major report of the Select Committee under my chairmanship was on organised crime, and it was unanimous. It is quite remarkable that people from various parties should be able to produce a unanimous report on organised crime. It was also remarkable that we launched it not in a Committee Room in Westminster, nor even in Belfast city hall, but in Armagh. That was considered quite a brave thing to do. We sat on the platform together, but ever-present, although not obtrusive, was a fairly massive police presence. That was in July 2006.

In October 2008, the Committee went to Crossmaglen, not in an escorted convoy but in a little bus. There was no protection as such. I addressed a meeting there of supporters of the family of the late Paul Quinn. The reason for the meeting was to consider one of the most despicable crimes in Northern Ireland in recent years. In a community that a few years ago would not necessarily have welcomed with open arms a Select Committee of the House of Commons from Westminster, we were greeted with enormous warmth and kindness, and we had an extremely positive meeting.

That is a measure of how far things have moved in recent years. To the political leaders who have made it possible, particularly the successive leaders of the party represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson), we owe an enormous debt of gratitude. We need to assist Northern Ireland’s political leaders as they come to the final decisions—it must be they who come to those decisions—about how to move on from the past, learn the lessons and be inspired by the bravery but not obsessed by the misery. If we have made a slight move this afternoon towards helping those in Northern Ireland do so, I shall be well content.

Question put and agreed to.

4.17 pm

Sitting adjourned.

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