Hallett Report

Mr Peter Hain (Neath) (Lab): Does the Secretary of State agree that in a way her statement confirms what was the case all along: that the letters were not get out of jail free cards, but confirmed what the police and law officers assessed at the time, which was that these people were not wanted—wrongly in the case of Downey, and absolutely and rightly an apology is due for that—but that that did not preclude prosecutions in future should evidence come to light? I realise that that gives deep offence to victims and to my Unionist friends, but the letters were essential building blocks to get the peace settlement to drag Northern Ireland away from the horror, evil and terror of the past. It would be very dangerous and toxic somehow retrospectively to rescind those letters. I know the Secretary of State is not doing that; she is simply confirming their legal status, or lack of it, but I caution people because the scheme was part of getting us from the horror of the past to the peace and stability that we now enjoy.

Mrs Villiers: I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that my statement is consistent with how the scheme was always intended to operate. It was intended to be a scheme to establish whether an individual was wanted, not to provide an amnesty or assurance to those who were wanted that they were not wanted. It was also clear from the Hallett report that John Downey should never have received a letter. If the scheme had been properly administered, no such letter would have been issued. It was that serious error that led to the result in the Downey case.

On the legal effect of today’s announcement, as I have said, I do not believe that the words “rescind” or “revoke” are appropriate. It is much better to stick to the fact that these letters should no longer be relied on, and owing to the systemic flaws in the scheme, it might well be that further errors were made. Decisions on the prosecution of recipients of letters will be taken in exactly the same way as they are in relation to every other member of the public: if there is evidence or intelligence to justify arrest, that is what will happen.