The Minister offered hope for the severely injured after I moved this amendment
Amendment 3, Moved by Lord Hain
3: Clause 3, page 3, line 7, at end insert—
“( ) The guidance must direct senior officers of Northern Ireland departments, giving due regard to advice from the Northern Ireland Commission for Victims and Survivors, to prepare a scheme to provide a pension to those who are regarded as seriously-injured arising from an incident associated from the conflict in Northern Ireland.
My Lords, Amendment 3 is in my name and that of the noble Lords, Lord Bruce and Lord Cormack, and, I think, the noble Lord, Lord Bew, indicating Cross-Bench support. I will also speak to Amendment 13A in my name and that of the noble Lord, Lord Bruce.
When I spoke in March, I raised the plight of the 500 or so people severely injured because of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. The overwhelming majority were injured through no fault of their own, and face growing into old age desperately unsure about what the future holds for them. Because of their injuries, most of them were unable to build the kind of occupational pensions that they would otherwise have had. Just recently, one of the WAVE Trauma Centre’s injured group, which has been campaigning for a special pension, received a final settlement on her pension contributions in the form of a lump sum. It was taxed at 20%. She received a magnificent £25.39, which, frankly, is an insult to somebody in her situation.
Jennifer had her legs blown off in a no-warning IRA bomb in 1972, when she was 21 years of age. Paul, who was 21 when loyalists shot him six times because their target who lived next door did not turn up, is paralysed from the waist down. He describes the constant pain he lives with as like,
“sitting in a pool of lava”.
Every two days his carers—his wife and his brother—have to use a colonic irrigation system to empty his bowels into a bucket. That is Paul’s reality.
This especially vulnerable group of victims have had to deal with much more than the physical damage inflicted upon them. Peter was 26 when he was shot and paralysed in a case of mistaken identity in 1979. His wife, his childhood sweetheart, was tormented by misplaced guilt because she opened the door and,
“let evil into their home”,
as she described it. Peter had to watch her drink herself to death by the age of 51.
Mary was 17 when she was paralysed in a drive-by sectarian shooting. She was told that a realistic life expectancy was that she would not see her 32nd birthday. More than 40 years on, she is still here. She has had three shoulder replacements because of the strain on her upper body, being confined in a wheelchair. She has had to pay for these privately because if she joined an NHS waiting list she would be immobile.
Those who suffered severe physical injuries during the Troubles in Northern Ireland are, in many ways, the forgotten victims of the conflict. Perhaps there was an assumption that they had been looked after at the material time with generous compensation payments that would see them financially secure for the rest of their lives, but that simply did not happen. Many of the severely injured have lived much longer than the life expectancy assumptions made at the time. Most of the severely injured sustained their injuries during the 1970s and 1980s. Many predated disability discrimination legislation so, even if they could have found work, the chances that the workplace would have been adapted to their needs—for example, for those confined to wheelchairs—were more than remote. All they want is a degree of modest financial security so that they—and in many cases their carers—can live the rest of their lives with as much independence and dignity as possible.
To that end, I urge the Government to act swiftly to address this cruel legacy of Northern Ireland’s violent past and provide support for the severely injured through the provision of a special pension. Getting the Government both to recognise and to act upon that obligation is the purpose of these two amendments. In terms of the level of pension, the then Victims Commissioner for Northern Ireland suggested a figure of £150 per week or around the current state pension provision. Given the age profile, a lump sum for those aged over 75 would probably be more appropriate.
In any event the cost, including the administration of the pension, either by the Northern Ireland Civil Service or through the DWP, would not be prohibitive. This total cost has been authoritatively estimated to be between £3 million and £5 million annually. These figures clearly indicate that the pension commitment will diminish through the passage of time, even allowing for some provision for a proportion of the pension to go to the carer when the injured person dies. But for the pension to make a real difference to those who need it, it cannot be counted as income for the purposes of qualifying for existing benefits. That is a very important point. It must be “as well as” and not “instead of”, and be in addition to any other pensions and/or benefits that the injured person either is, or will be, in receipt of.
There is a subsidiary issue to be dealt with in relation to the relatively very small number of people who were severely injured by their own hand, but it is quite wrong that the vast majority who were injured through no fault of their own should be denied support because of a specific political blockage that could and should be resolved. These were not people in the wrong place at the wrong time. They were at work. They were at home with their family. They were having a coffee in a café. They were walking home after an evening at the cinema. They were in the right place, where they should have expected to be safe and secure.
Now is the time for the Government to act swiftly, with I hope wide parliamentary backing, after years and years of this case having no response. That is why I speak to this amendment, which simply seeks that the guidance referred to in Clause 3(3) must direct or, as Amendment 13A puts it, provide for,
“senior officers of Northern Ireland departments, giving due regard to advice from the Northern Ireland Commission for Victims and Survivors, to prepare a scheme to provide a pension to those who are regarded as seriously-injured arising from an incident associated from the conflict in Northern Ireland”,
and for that to be backdated, as Amendment 13A requires, to 1 January 2018. I say that because, if this takes some time to implement—if it requires legislation, as I understand may be the case—there must be certainty that this will happen and that, however long it takes to process, it will be backdated so that at least these victims can have something to look forward to.
This is an opportunity for the Government to show some real compassion for those who have suffered most. I know from conversations that I have had with the Minister that he is on the side of the angels on this matter. I respect him for that. I think that he is trying to do his best, and I hope that in his response he can take this matter forward. I do not want to make his life more difficult by anticipating and rebutting the Government’s likely official response, at least so far as it has been stated in the other place and elsewhere.
However, we have been told that this is a devolved matter and that the Government cannot undermine the devolution settlement by interfering or, as I would prefer to describe it, intervening. I will come back to the question of whether the plight of the severely injured is in fact a devolved matter or whether it should properly be treated as a reserved matter for the UK Government, like other legacy issues. However, there are precedents for the Government intervening in devolved areas because it has been the right thing to do. Health is devolved to Northern Ireland. Thanks to the amazing work of Charlotte Caldwell, literally arguing for the life of her son Billy, who suffers from life-threatening epilepsy, the Home Office was forced to move on the use of medical cannabis, which is absolutely essential for his and other sufferers’ treatment. The use of medical cannabis is now permitted in Northern Ireland. Did that interfere with the devolution settlement? Presumably not or it would not have happened.
Recently, the Independent Reporting Commission, set up to bring an end to paramilitary activity and to tackle organised crime in Northern Ireland, reported for the first time. Twenty-five million pounds to back the IRC came from the British Government, not from devolved budgets, to pave the way for those involved in paramilitary activity to make the transition from mafia-style gangsterism to being ordinary law-abiding citizens. Apart from a small but highly dangerous number of dissident republicans, the paramilitary activity that the IRC is focused on is pure gangsterism. Indeed, the highly respected former assistant chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland and now chief executive of Co-operation Ireland, Peter Sheridan, argued that these groups should be called paramilitary no longer, but criminal gangs, and I agree. However, this is not a national security issue. Primarily it is a matter for the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland. It is a devolved matter. Criminal justice is devolved yet the Government intervene—absolutely rightly, in my view—to the tune of £25 million. Did that interfere with the devolution settlement? Presumably not.
Injured victims recognise that the paramilitaries who so grievously damaged them have to leave the stage and they do not begrudge this money being used to help Northern Ireland transition, but they wonder how the Government could find this money so quickly when they are told in effect, “Your case is nothing to do with us. Wait for the local politicians to finally bring themselves to discharge the responsibilities for which they were elected, whenever that is—next year, the following year, maybe whenever, if ever”. The reality is that the Government already intervene in devolved matters when it is the right thing to do in the absence of functioning devolved government and a functioning Assembly, and that is as it should be. Indeed, this Bill is a form of intervention.
The Secretary of State made a welcome move in May when she asked the Victims Commissioner to revisit and update her advice on this claim for a pension, and I thank the Minister for his role in that. I have absolutely no doubt that the Victims Commissioner will produce advice that is rigorous, objective, costed and workable, and I hope she produces it soon. No one will be plucking figures out of the air. There will be a template that can and should be speedily implemented.
When the Bill was debated in the other place last week, the Secretary of State said that the Victims Commissioner’s advice would sit on a shelf until devolution was restored. That is, in effect, telling those injured victims that they will not be assisted. Instead, they will be abandoned, as they have been for a very long time. An unarguable case for recognition and reparations has been made for nearly eight years now. For most of that time, there has been devolution in Northern Ireland, and all they have got is tea and sympathy because the question of eligibility in relation to the very small number of those “injured by their own hand” is just too difficult for the local parties to resolve. That is why it should and must be done by this Parliament.
We rightly praise politicians in Northern Ireland who are trying to take it to a better place than it was in when I and other noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Murphy, were charged with building new political foundations out of the wreckage of a violent past. At the same time, we have to call them out when they dig in behind their entrenched or sectarian positions and refuse to compromise for the greater good of victims, such as those severely injured. So far, the DUP and Sinn Féin remain deadlocked on this issue, and nothing has moved. That is why we must do it for them, so that justice for this most vulnerable and desperate group of citizens can prevail, and when I speak about them I mean the vast majority who were not “injured by their own hand”. The latter can be dealt with separately.
Nevertheless, I firmly believe that the Government’s insistence that this is solely a devolved issue is misplaced and simply wrong. Those campaigning for a pension who were injured through no fault of their own are as much a part of the legacy of Northern Ireland’s violent past as anything else, and the Government are trying to address this. Indeed, it would be hard to find a more physical manifestation of that legacy than Margaret, who has no eyes, pushing the wheelchair of Jennifer, who has no legs. Has the Secretary of State so little compassion for her plight that she will not put the local parties to shame by providing a pension, and quickly? The Government have an overarching responsibility for legacy issues. That is why they are considering responses to their recent consultation paper on legacy issues, for which they have set aside £150 million. It would be absolutely shameful if the people who have suffered so much were told, “We feel sorry for you, but not sorry enough to do anything about it”.
Finally, I wish to say something about the Bill before us that relates directly to the amendment but has wider and deeply worrying implications. I could have made this point at Second Reading, but I make it now. The Government want us to focus on the narrow issue of the supposed clarity given to civil servants in Northern Ireland, in relation to their capacity to maintain public services and keep the business of government ticking over in the absence of an Executive and Assembly. What is seriously concerning is how long the Government envisage this democratic void persisting before anything happens. They do not envisage any movement before March next year, and then an additional five months is built in. It is shocking that the Government do not seem to realise that hoping something will turn up is nothing approaching a coherent political strategy to restore devolution. Sadly, while the Government procrastinate, the condition of severely injured victims deteriorates daily, and many fear that they will die before their plight is acknowledged and support given. Time is not on their side. The Government must show that they are prepared to act in the name of justice and decency, and I appeal for support for this amendment if the Minister resists it.