I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The troubles represented a terrible period in Northern Ireland’s past and in these islands as a whole. They claimed the lives of some 3,500 people in Northern Ireland, across Great Britain and in Ireland. They left tens of thousands injured and they impacted all aspects of our society. Many across the whole of our country still bear the scars, both visible and invisible, today. That Northern Ireland in 2022 has come so far in so many ways is a testament to the spirit and strength of its people and to the vision, bravery and determination of those who forged the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. It is also a testament to the sacrifice of those men and women who went out each morning to uphold democracy and save lives, rather than those who went out to take them.
Looking around today, I see many wonderful examples of a transformed, inclusive, peaceful Northern Ireland, yet despite this exceptional progress, the troubles continue to cast a shadow over all those impacted and over wider society. Community tensions and divisive politics can undermine stability. This legacy of the troubles is an issue that successive Governments have attempted but ultimately been unable to resolve, because it concerns one of the most complex, sensitive and difficult periods in our country’s history, but we cannot stand by and do nothing; we cannot let the status quo continue. To do that would be a dereliction of our duty to the people of Northern Ireland and to those who served their country during that dark period. It would be a dereliction of duty to families across the United Kingdom who still seek answers about what happened to their loved ones, in some cases more than 50 years ago.
This Government recognise the huge challenges involved in seeking to address Northern Ireland’s past. We have a responsibility to ensure that future generations do not suffer in the same way as those who have gone before them. With every year that goes by, the opportunity to obtain answers for those who lost loved ones in the troubles diminishes further. We have a responsibility to ensure that children can grow up together, be educated together and understand all aspects of our shared past—a past that, at times, was bitter, difficult and inordinately painful for everyone involved.
The current system is broken. It is delivering neither justice nor information to the vast majority of families. The lengthy, adversarial and complex legal processes do not offer the most effective route to information recovery, nor do they foster understanding, acknowledgment or reconciliation. Faith in the criminal justice model to deal with legacy cases has been undermined. The high standard of proof required to secure a successful prosecution, combined with the passage of time and the difficulty in securing sufficient evidence, means that victims and their families very rarely, if ever, obtain the outcome they seek from the process.
We need to be honest about the limitations of focusing on criminal justice as a means to secure truth and accountability in relation to what happened to those who were killed or injured. It is arguably cruel to perpetuate false hope while presenting no viable alternative to deliver the information that so many families and survivors seek. That is why we are introducing legislation that seeks to address this most difficult and sensitive of issues.
The Secretary of State mentioned those who served in uniform. I remind him gently and kindly, but seriously as well, that my cousin Kenneth Smyth and his friend Daniel McCormick, both in the Ulster Defence Regiment, neither of whom were able to—excuse me. No IRA man was ever made accountable for their murders 51 years ago. Stuart Montgomery, a wee 20-year-old police officer was murdered outside Pomeroy—no IRA man was ever made accountable for his murder. John Birch, Steven Smart, John Bradley and Michael Adams, the four UDR men killed at Ballydugan, four men who served this country in uniform—no one was made accountable for their murders.
Secretary of State, you can understand the angst and the agony that I have on behalf of my constituents. I want to have the justice that they have been denied for over 50 years—in the case of the four UDR men, for 32 years this Sunday past. What are you doing to make sure that happens?
The hon. Gentleman gives a powerful and clear outline of the difficulty and pain that people feel, as he has just shown, in this very complex and sensitive area. He makes that point better than almost anybody else could. He touches on the very challenge we face, as we have seen over the past few decades, with the failure of the current system to bring that accountability, understanding and truth for people. As I will outline over the next few minutes, through this legislation we want to achieve an outcome that means people get the truth, with which comes accountability. He is right to focus on that for his constituents.
Like the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), I have met many victims of the violence and the loved ones of those who died. They still want the Stormont House agreement to be implemented. The Secretary of State has to account for this. The civil proceedings on the Ormeau Road events revealed a lot of detail, as did the Kingsmill and Ballymurphy inquests. They all revealed truths that had not been known. What the Secretary of State describes as an adversarial approach to seeking justice actually works. This will disappear and he has to account for that.
It is not going to disappear. What we are looking to do is to have a full, independent, investigative, article 2-compliant process. I will touch on that in the next few minutes.
Several hon. Members rose—
I will just make a bit of progress and then take some more interventions.
Drawing its core principles from the important work and principles of Stormont House, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, this legislation focuses on effective and timely information recovery, and the answers and accountability that come with it, for both families and survivors, as well as aiding reconciliation and helping society move forward.
The Bill will deliver on our manifesto commitment to the veterans of our armed forces, security services and the Royal Ulster Constabulary by providing the men and women who served to protect life in Northern Ireland with the certainty they also deserve. Many of them, of course, are also victims, or friends and family of victims.
No longer will our veterans, the vast majority of whom served in Northern Ireland with distinction and honour, have to live in perpetual fear of getting a knock at the door for actions taken in the protection of the rule of law many decades ago. With this Bill, our veterans will have the certainty they deserve and we will fulfil our manifesto pledge to end the cycle of investigations that has plagued too many of them for too long.
I acknowledge the many hon. and right hon. Members on both sides of the House, particularly my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) and my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer), as well as my right hon. Friends the Members for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) and for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) and the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), who have campaigned tirelessly and with great dignity on this issue. Indeed, I recognise that many victims and veterans groups more widely across Northern Ireland and Great Britain have campaigned for a long time for better outcomes for victims and survivors.
We were clear when we published our Command Paper last July that we would listen to feedback with an open mind, and my team and I have done just that over the last 10 months. We have heard the pain and perspectives of people from all viewpoints and communities. During those conversations, we repeatedly had to confront the very painful reality that, with more than two thirds of troubles-related cases now 40 years old, the prospect of successful prosecutions is vanishingly small, which is why this legislation marks a definitive shift in focus by having information recovery for families at its core.
Mr Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD)
In all candour, I do not envy the Secretary of State’s task. He describes it as painful, difficult and sensitive. All those words are absolutely correct, but this is not the first time we have been in this situation. Since the days of John Major and Tony Blair, the only way we have been able to make progress is to get everybody together to build consensus and then introduce legislation. It is surely already apparent from today’s debate that the Secretary of State does not have that consensus, so what does he hope to achieve by introducing this legislation?
The right hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable point. As I said, it is widely acknowledged that this is a very difficult and painful area on which there has not been consensus. There was not even full cross-party consensus on Stormont House. That is why there are times like this when, having listened to everybody—the political parties, the victims groups and the veterans groups—it is sometimes for us in Government to take those difficult decisions to find a way forward that can deliver a better outcome for people.
Dr Julian Lewis
I think I heard my name in the list the Secretary of State read out earlier.
As early as April 2017, the Select Committee on Defence recommended a statute of limitation combined with a truth recovery process. One reason we felt able to recommend this is that the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998 meant that no one, no matter how many murders they had committed, could face a jail sentence of longer than two years, which meant being released in one year or 18 months at most. So there is no question of punishment fitting the crime, and there is no question of it not being the same for service personnel and terrorists—the Act has already established that—so the question is, what will stop the process, because the process of trying elderly veterans is the punishment, rather than the sentence.
My right hon. Friend makes an important point. I am very aware that the Defence Committee has published two reports in this area, and they are well worth reading. They recognise the changes that mean the criminal justice system for these cases is not like the criminal justice system for other types of crime across the United Kingdom. The reality is that, after the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, we had the 1998 Act and decommissioning, among other things that I will touch on in a moment, and it means that we in Government are looking at what we can do, based on the reality of where we are, with a very difficult and imperfect situation that has developed through difficult decisions made in the past, to deliver a better outcome in the future.
It is also about understanding that, regrettably, a distorted narrative of the past has developed over time. This legislation will help to ensure that more victims and survivors, some 90% of whom are of course victims of terrorist violence, are able to obtain answers about those who caused it.
The person who killed Lexie Cummings, who was murdered in Strabane, escaped across the border with an on-the-run letter. Where is the justice for Lexie Cummings’ family, when his killer has an on-the-run letter, gets away with it and now has a prominent role in a political party across the border? Where is the justice, Secretary of State?
If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me just a few minutes, I will answer that very question very specifically.
Dr Andrew Murrison (South West Wiltshire) (Con)
I applaud the intent of the Bill and I want to see the end of the harassing of our veterans—people who have served this country well in uniform. My right hon. Friend talks of accountability a lot. Where is the accountability in the granting of immunity to people who have murdered or seriously maimed other people?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. One of the things that has been clear in talking to victims groups, and obviously one of the challenges of this issue is that different people, even within the same family, can have very different views about what they see as a successful outcome for their family, in terms of finding a resolution, or information and understanding.
With that information and understanding, as the Bill will outline, can come accountability. It is right that we have accountability, but as my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East, who was Chairman of the Defence Committee, outlined in his report, we cannot have justice in the sense of the punishment fitting the crime following what was done in the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act. I will touch on that in a few moments.
Sir Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green) (Con)
I am listening carefully to my right hon. Friend. May I ask him a linked question? Is not one of the problems that those who can be pursued through the courts tend to be those who were working on behalf of the Government, because there are records, which are well kept and in huge detail? There is little in the way of records on those who committed terrorist acts, on whichever side of the community. What, in general and specific terms, will happen to the letters of comfort that have caused such chaos in many of those cases?
My right hon. Friend makes the same point, and I will deal with that issue specifically in a few moments.
My message to victims and survivors, many of whom have engaged with us since we published the Command Paper last year, is that we have listened, and carefully. We understand that, no matter how small the prospect of a successful criminal justice outcome, that possibility is something that they do not want to see removed entirely, and I know that, despite the changes we have made, this legislation will none the less remain challenging for some.
I want to say directly to all those individuals and their families that I, and we as a Government, respect the personal tragedies that drive their determination to seek the truth and accountability for the losses that they have suffered. I share that determination. The Government are not asking and would never ask them to forget what they have been through in the name of reconciliation. This is about finding a way to obtain information and provide accountability more quickly and comprehensively than the current system can and in a way that aids reconciliation both for them and for the whole of Northern Ireland.
I am immensely grateful to the many people who have engaged with us, sharing their deeply moving experiences and helping us to understand the sheer frustration and hurt that they feel over the loss of loved ones. Every tragedy remains raw, as we have seen even this afternoon in this Chamber, with the pain of many as strong today as it was on the day it happened.
Stephen Farry (North Down) (Alliance)
I have a question about engagement with the Command Paper. The Secretary of State will know that virtually every victims group and every political party had major concerns about that. With whom have the Secretary of State and his officials engaged on the details of the revised legislation? As far as I can see, not a single victims group in Northern Ireland has been engaged with on the details, never mind supports it. The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, which the Government have a statutory duty to consult, have not been engaged with.
The political parties in Northern Ireland have not been engaged with. So who exactly have the Government engaged with on the Bill before us today specifically?
I do not recognise that description of events from the hon. Gentleman. There has been wide engagement on this, both with the political parties, including his own just last week, and with parties more widely.
The first part of the Bill provides that, for the purposes of this legislation, the period of the troubles is defined as beginning on 1 January 1966 and ending on 10 April 1998—the date of the signing of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. Part 2 provides for the establishment of a new independent commission for information recovery, tasked with carrying out robust, effective and thorough investigations into the deaths and injuries that occurred during the troubles, for the primary purpose of information recovery.
We recognise the importance of the new commission being able to deliver its functions with absolute independence. This will be crucial to gaining the trust of families, survivors and individuals who decide to engage in the information recovery process. That is why the UK Government will have absolutely no involvement in the commission’s decision-making process. The new commission will have all the necessary policing powers to conduct its own thorough investigations, including the ability to compel witnesses and test forensics. The body will be supported for the first time by a legal requirement for full disclosure from UK Government Departments, security services and arm’s length bodies to make sure that it can gather all the evidence that it needs to establish what happened in each case.
Sir Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con)
I recognise that my right hon. Friend and the Government are doing their level best in good faith to deal with a sensitive and intractable situation. Does he recognise that the establishment of the Goldstone commission in South Africa, which is not an exact parallel but has similarities, was itself beset by considerable controversy at the beginning, but its ultimate success was largely due to the stature and integrity of Justice Richard Goldstone as its chair? He was a former Supreme Court judge of South Africa and a former prosecutor for the international tribunals in both Yugoslavia and Rwanda, so a man of impeccable integrity and independence. Will my right hon. Friend make sure that, when we look for someone to be the chief commissioner, that is exactly the sort of person we will seek—someone with experience in these jurisdictions, but not necessarily even from the UK jurisdiction? Having someone of that level of standing will be critical, will it not, for the credibility of the decisions that the commission will be entrusted with?
My hon. Friend is right in the example that he gives. I will reference another one later. Operation Kenova has been successfully led and was also regarded with some scepticism at the beginning. It has shown that a piece of work, if properly done by the right people, can gain credibility, acceptance and understanding. My hon. Friend gives a good outline of exactly how this can be taken forward in a successful way for people.
Richard Drax (South Dorset) (Con)
I commend the Government for doing all they can to deal with this sensitive issue—as we have seen today. Having served in Northern Ireland for three tours, I quite understand where the sensitivity comes from. If this commission is going to find the truth, the likelihood is, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) has said, that on the soldiers’ side the evidence is there but for terrorists on both sides of the divide, it is not. How are the victims going to get the peace that we all want them to have when the truth is unlikely ever to be found?
My hon. Friend makes a good and important point. He is quite right. One of the challenges is the point about balance that I made a few moments ago. As we go forward it is important, first, that records will be made available in a way that they have not been made before, going beyond what we have done before with a legal duty for the first time on Government Departments, agencies and bodies, which will mean that a whole range of information will be available for the commission to look at. Of course, if people come forward with information, particularly in a demand-led process, as I will outline in a few moments, it will provide an opportunity for people to seek the investigation of crimes by an investigatory body with the right kinds of powers. Those crimes were committed in the vast majority, as he has rightly outlined, by terrorists who went out to do harm in Northern Ireland.
We as a Government accept that, as part of this process, information will be released into the public domain that may well be uncomfortable for everyone. It is important that we as a Government acknowledge our shortcomings, as we have done previously in relation to that immensely challenging period. It is also important, as hon. Friends have said this afternoon, that others do the same. Some families have told us that they do not want to revisit the past, and we must respect that. The new commission will therefore be demand-led, taking forward investigations if requested to do so by survivors or the families of those who lost their lives. The Secretary of State will also be able to request a review, ensuring that the Government can fulfil their obligations under the European convention on human rights.
Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP)
The Secretary of State used an interesting phrase when he said that others must play their part. On the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, we have heard evidence of hundreds of people being murdered along the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland but the terrorists having then fled to the safety of the Republic of Ireland for sanctuary and stayed there. What assistance, if any, has the Republic of Ireland given? Will any evidence that is gathered there never be made available to the commission in Northern Ireland? Will we therefore have a blindsided, one-sided process that does not allow the Republic of Ireland to be held to account for its covering over and hiding of terrorists for decades?
I know that the hon. Gentleman and other colleagues have previously raised cases with both me and the Irish Government. One thing that was outlined in the papers that were signed off and agreed by me and the Minister for Foreign Affairs in the Irish Government around a year ago was that the Irish Government also committed to bringing forward legislation in Ireland on information recovery, to deal with that very point
Where is it?
I have not seen it yet, but I hope we will soon see something from the Irish Government to ensure that in both jurisdictions we are working to make sure that people have as much access to information as possible.
Written reports of the commission’s findings will be provided to the families or survivors who request an investigation. The reports will also be made publicly available, to provide accountability by ensuring that wider society can access the commission’s findings and understand and acknowledge the events of the past.
After we published our Command Paper, many individuals and organisations told us that an unconditional statute of limitations for all troubles-related offences was just too painful to accept. They said that we must not close the door on the possibility of prosecutions, however remote the chances might be. We have also heard from those in our veterans community who are uncomfortable with any perceived moral equivalence between those who went out to protect life and uphold the rule of law and terrorists who were intent on causing harm. Of course, there never could be a moral equivalence of that type.
For the reasons I have just set out, we have adjusted our approach to make this a conditional model. To gain immunity, individuals must provide, if asked, an account to the new commission that is true to the best of their knowledge and belief. That condition draws parallels with aspects of the truth and reconciliation commission that was implemented in South Africa, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill) outlined. The commission will require individuals to acknowledge their involvement in serious troubles-related incidents and to reveal what they know.
Let me turn to a point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green and others. The provisions will also apply to individuals who have previously been provided with the so-called on-the-run letters, or letters of comfort. When issued, those letters confirmed whether or not an individual was wanted by the police, based on evidence held at that time. However, I want to be crystal clear that the letters have absolutely no legal standing and cannot be used to prevent prosecution under this new approach.
Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP)
On the OTR letters, some of us stated at the time, and have done since, that the only way that the people of Northern Ireland and across the UK will be able to understand and believe that the OTR letters are null and void is when a person in receipt of such a letter stands in a court of law and the judge says, “Irrelevant. The case will proceed.”
I take the hon. Gentleman’s point. That is why I made the point I just made, which I will repeat because I want to be absolutely clear about this: these letters have no legal standing. They cannot and will not be accepted and they cannot be used to prevent prosecution under this new approach. The new body’s investigations will continue regardless of people holding those kind of letters.
It is crucial that people with the right level of expertise take the important decisions, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst outlined. That is why a judge-led panel will make the decisions about whether immunity should be awarded, aided by guidance that we will publish prior to any such decisions being made.
The introduction of this legislation is firmly in the context of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and the decisions taken as a result of that agreement in the name of peace and reconciliation, outlined by others this afternoon, that have already fundamentally altered the criminal justice model in Northern Ireland for troubles-related offences.
Sir Iain Duncan Smith
Let me ask my right hon. Friend a specific question. If somebody who committed a terrorist act appears before the truth and reconciliation commission and, during that appearance, talks a lot about what happened and names names, including the name of somebody who was involved in such a crime with them but refuses to give evidence to the commission, will the courts use the evidence provided as part of the truth and reconciliation process to prosecute the individual who refuses to testify before the commission?
Yes. I will go further: as we will outline in guidance, people will not be able to benefit if they come forward at the last moment. They have to engage at the point when they are asked. The short answer to my right hon. Friend’s question is yes.
Mr Mark Francois (Rayleigh and Wickford) (Con)
I welcome the fact that after four years and two general election manifestos, the Government have finally brought forward the Bill that they have been promising the House for so long, but will the Secretary of State reassure me and my colleagues on one very important point? There are suggestions that the reconciliation process could take five years or longer. Many of our veterans are in the autumn of their lives, many are in poor health and some may well pass away before we get to that point. Will the Secretary of State reassure me and the House that this legislation, which was advertised as bringing vexatious prosecutions to an end, will not actually institutionalise precisely that problem?
Yes, I can give that assurance. As will be shown throughout the Bill’s passage, we are absolutely determined that it does not institutionalise the kind of problem that we are seeking to resolve, as well as, obviously, looking to deliver for the people of Northern Ireland. I can give my right hon. Friend that reassurance.
I thank the Secretary of State allowing this intervention. On the matter of the on-the-runs, can he confirm that Rita O’Hare is still wanted by the authorities for her deeds in respect of the murder of British personnel? Can he confirm that an elected representative in Northern Ireland holds an OTR letter?
I am sure the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that I am not going to comment on particular cases, but I will say again that the so-called on-the-run letters have no basis in law and will not prevent or play a part in the process that we are outlining in this Bill. If somebody is in possession of one of those letters, they will still be subject to this legislation and, potentially, to prosecution.
As I have outlined, as a country we have already fundamentally altered the criminal justice model in Northern Ireland for troubles-related offences. We have seen the early release of prisoners under the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998 and the process of secretly decommissioning weapons, and of course there is already an effective amnesty for those who provide information to the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims’ Remains. Although the Government believe that the difficult decisions taken at those points were absolutely right for the peace process, the overall approach to addressing legacy issues has not since been adjusted to reflect those very decisions.
We cannot simply pretend that things did not happen or that challenging compromises were not rightly made. As a result, the context in which we approach these issues is fundamentally different from that for any other crime across the country. The Bill strikes a balance between a focus on information recovery through an investigative process that is compliant with international obligations, and ensuring that those who choose not to engage will remain liable to prosecution, should the evidence exist. The provisions will apply to everyone equally.
Part 3 of the Bill details the impact of the proposals on ongoing and future proceedings within the current criminal, civil, inquest and police complaints systems. From the date the Bill comes into force, no other organisation in the UK, apart from the new information recovery commission, will be able to take forward a criminal investigation into a troubles-related incident.
Sir Robert Neill
Will my right hon. Friend give way on the criminal justice point?
Just a moment.
Any existing cases in which a decision has been taken to prosecute will be allowed to continue to their conclusion. Future prosecutions will remain a possibility for those involved in offences connected to a death or serious injury, if they do not actively come forward. We have listened to the concerns expressed, following the publication of our Command Paper, about active civil claims and inquests, which is why we no longer propose to bring them to an immediate end. Civil claims that had already been filed with the courts before the Bill was introduced will be allowed to continue, but new cases will be barred. Inquests that have reached an advanced stage by 1 May next year, or the date on which the new commission becomes operational, will continue. New and existing inquests that have not reached an advanced stage by that point will not continue in the coronial system, but may be referred to the judge-led commission for investigation.
Sir Robert Neill
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way again. Will he help me on two matters? First, will he explain—this harks back to the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for
Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith)—how he envisages the interaction between clause 7, which will set limitations on the admissibility of certain material in criminal prosecutions, and the provision in clause 22 on the commission’s power to refer material? By the sound of it, compelled testimony and other types of material will be excluded, in meeting what I take it will be the full code test that will be applied by the relevant prosecuting authority.
Secondly, has the Secretary of State assessed the risk of satellite litigation by means of legal challenges to the decisions of the commission to make referrals? How will such challenges be dealt with?
My hon. Friend, as ever, makes insightful points. We are cognisant of those things and will go through them in Committee and in the guidance that we will issue. That is why it is important, referring to his earlier point, that this is a judge-led commission, which involves very highly respected investigative individuals in the process.
While addressing the legacy of the past rightly focuses on those most directly affected, it is a sad fact that the troubles have touched the lives of everyone in Northern Ireland, and across the rest of these islands in different ways, including many of those born after the Belfast/Good Friday agreement was signed. It is therefore important that we think of reconciliation and remembering in a societal as well as in an individual context. That is why, under part 4 of the Bill, an expert-led memorialisation strategy will lay the groundwork for inclusive new structures and initiatives to commemorate the tragic events of the past—to help us all collectively remember those lost and ensure that the lessons of the last are not forgotten.
A major new oral history initiative will be launched. We will want to make this one of the most ambitious and comprehensive approaches to oral history that has ever been attempted, drawing on international models and concentrating on collating lived experiences and testimony and setting them within their appropriate historical context. The public, including academics and historians, will have access to more information than ever before. As well as opening up archives in a major digitisation project, rigorous new academic research commissions will allow for a fuller examination of the conflict than has ever been possible. This will be supported by a new official history, led by independent historians with unprecedented access to the UK documentary record. Consistent with the Stormont House agreement, these provisions will create opportunities for people from all backgrounds, particularly those who may not have been heard before, to share their experiences and perspectives relating to the troubles and to learn about those of others.
The legislation we are bringing forward will implement a legally robust and effective information recovery process that will provide answers to families, uphold our commitment to those who serve in Northern Ireland, and help society to look forward, while, importantly, also recognising that those who chose, or do choose, not to reveal what they know should remain indefinitely liable to the threat of prosecution. We must recognise that, notwithstanding the important changes that we have made to the proposals as set out in July last year, this legislation, I accept, will be very challenging for many.
Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley) (DUP)
I thank the Secretary of State for giving way. My hon. Friend the Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) will hone in and focus on this in more detail in his contribution, but there is one point that I want to raise. One of the most difficult aspects of the Belfast agreement was the decision that, if someone was convicted of a terrorist-related offence, they would serve a maximum of two years in prison. Under the proposed Bill, that will now be reduced to zero tariff—no time spent in prison. Where is the incentive in all of this for someone to come forward and to co-operate in a possible prosecution process when they know that, at the end of the day, if they just hunker down for the next five years and say nothing, there is no downside for them because they will never go to prison anyway?
I appreciate the right hon. Gentleman’s point, and I know that it is one that he and his colleagues want to explore over the period ahead, and I look forward to discussing this with them. However, there is a very big difference here with somebody having a criminal prosecution. One thing that has been fed through to us, and one comment that has been made in a number of engagements with different groups and parties, is that it is not necessarily about somebody serving time in prison, which, as a number of colleagues have said this afternoon, no longer necessarily fits some of the heinous crimes that were committed by terrorists during that period. It is about that accountability that comes with a prosecution if one is successful. None the less, I do recognise the point that he has made.
Trust and confidence in the new commission will need to be earned through its actions. As the commendable work of Jon Boutcher and Operation Kenova has proven, this can be done and has been done successfully in that example. As the historic Belfast/ Good Friday agreement approaches its 25th anniversary, now is the moment to move forward in dealing with the terrible legacy left by the troubles, to find answers for families who seek it, to provide accountability for the wrongs done on all sides and, ultimately, to bring understanding to the next generation so that they can move forward in peace in a society that has reconciled itself with the horrors of its past.
This is a hugely significant step towards enabling true reconciliation. In order to enable society to look forward with confidence, letting the status quo continue is just not good enough. Compassion and commitment require honesty about these painful realities and about the difficult compromises that we have already had to make and that we need to make going forward. The moment has come for us all to face these head-on for the sake of the next generation.
The Northern Ireland Office has recently relocated to offices in the centre of Belfast, which is another sign of progress and something that would have perhaps seemed unthinkable 20 years ago. On the building opposite our entrance, there is a quote on the wall that colleagues will have seen as they walk past, or visit, that establishment. It reads:
“A nation that keeps one eye on the past is wise. A nation that keeps two eyes on the past is blind.”
That is our challenge: to see how we can provide families and society with a way to remember and reconcile, but also enable us to look forward and to focus on a better future for all. I commend the Bill to the House.