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Victims of Crime (Northern Ireland)

10.30 am

Mr. Jeffrey Donaldson (Lagan Valley): I welcome the opportunity to raise a number of important issues relating to Government funding for victims of crime, especially victims of terrorist violence. It is my opinion, and a widely held opinion in Northern Ireland, that that funding has been inadequate.

There is a clear disparity between the funds provided for groups representing ex-prisoners--ex-paramilitary prisoners, that is--and those provided for groups representing victims of terrorist violence. Ex-prisoners' groups in Northern Ireland have received more than £6 million from the Government and the European Union over the past five years. That is in addition to institutional support given directly to groups representing and including ex-prisoners, in particular by the Northern Ireland Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders. It is clear, if we view the position on a like-for-like basis, that over the years more money has been provided for the care, support and resettlement of ex-prisoners than has been provided for the victims of terrorist violence, even though the tragedy of the past 30 years and more of violence in Northern Ireland is that there are more victims than ex-prisoners.

Sadly, South Armagh is one of the areas where a great deal of violence has occurred. To date, the victims' group known as FAIR--Families Acting for Innocent Relatives--has received £102,000 in Government and European funding, while the republican ex-prisoners' group in Crossmaglen, also in South Armagh, has received £166,000. Yet there are many more victims than ex-prisoners in South Armagh.

South Armagh has been the scene of some of the cruellest atrocities of the past 30 years. The date of 5 January this year marked the 25th anniversary of the Kingsmill massacre. Members of the Provisional IRA, using a name of convenience, stopped a minibus, ordered workers returning from the local mill out of the bus, lined them up at the side of the road and massacred 10 of them, all Protestants.

The so-called Darkley massacre also took place in South Armagh. On 20 November 1983, members of the Provisional IRA, again using a name of convenience, entered Mountain Lodge pentecostal church and opened fire on the worshippers, committing murder and mayhem. I could give many other instances of atrocities in South Armagh, which has also been home to some of the most notorious members of the republican terrorist organisations, particularly the Provisional IRA. Commentators have often described it as bandit country. It is sad, indeed appalling, that victims in that area should be given less support than the ex-prisoners who caused much of the suffering of the people of South Armagh.

There is growing disillusionment among victims' groups, and among victims themselves, about the role of the intermediary funding bodies. I am thinking particularly of the Northern Ireland Voluntary Trust, which has a major responsibility for administering funding for victims' groups. It is little wonder that that is so.

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An article published on 25 March 1999 quotes Avila Kilmurray, director of the Northern Ireland Voluntary Trust, as saying, when addressing a conference held to launch a report entitled "The Cost of Imprisonment",

--as she described them--

I wonder what Ms Kilmurray means by "the struggle"--and who are the prisoners of war? I was not aware that the Government had declared ex-prisoners to be ex-prisoners of war. This lady, however, is the director of the intermediary body responsible for funding victims' groups.

Ms Kilmurray went on to speak of the often hidden cost of imprisonment and of the former prisoners who were unable to come to terms with the brutal treatment they received from the "justice" and jail systems. I wonder what she meant by that. I repeat that those are the comments of a person in charge of the provision of funds for victims' groups. How must the victims feel about such remarks? It is little wonder that they have become disillusioned with the Northern Ireland Voluntary Trust, and the uneven-handed way in which it has approached the issue of funding.

FAIR, which I mentioned earlier, is currently in dispute with the NIVT about funding. FAIR represents a large number of victims in South Armagh. It has given me a copy of its membership list, comprising well over 300 victims in the area. Do not those people deserve a proper share of the funds? Their share contrasts with the generous amounts given to ex-prisoners' groups. Victims' groups feel, rightly in my view, that they are not being treated with parity of esteem, and that there is a lack of understanding of their situation.

Groups established by republican activists, including the families of so-called IRA volunteers who were killed by the security forces, are now masquerading as victims, and attracting funding away from legitimate victims' groups. They include the families of IRA activists shot dead by security forces during an attack on Loughgall RUC station. Provisional IRA members who engaged in an action that meant murder and destruction are nevertheless seeking funds from the Government as victims. There is also evidence that ex-prisoners' groups are using their funding for party-political purposes.

An umbrella group established by republican ex-prisoners' groups has attracted funding from the European special support programme for peace and reconciliation, administered by the Northern Ireland Voluntary Trust. The organisation represents republican ex-prisoners groups who employ 50 full-time workers. It states that its objectives include helping ex-prisoners with freedom of movement and pursuing the arguments in favour of the need for an amnesty for those convicted as a result of the conflict. Such groups are being funded to pursue political agendas. That money could be going to the victims instead.

I welcome the recent publication of the report by John Steele on the establishment of a new police fund. That is a welcome development and a long-overdue recognition of the need to provide support to the families of RUC officers who have made a huge sacrifice in protecting the people of Northern Ireland. Many of the recommendations in the Steele report are commendable. However, I have a number of concerns that I want to put to the Minister.

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The Minister will be aware that John Steele proposed to pay a one-off lump sum to the pre-1982 RUC widows who have had a particularly difficult time financially because of the differential between their compensatory payments and those made to RUC widows post-1982. John Steele describes the proposals to provide the equivalent of £1,000 for each year of widowhood up to the date of the commencement of the new police fund as

I urge the Minister to look again at the proposal because we need to provide more than a token. Those widows are looking for proper and adequate compensation for the significant differential between their financial position and those of the post-1982 widows. The proposal in the Steele report for the one-off payment does not adequately compensate those widows.

Having discussed the matter with the group representing these RUC widows, I know that they object to the proposal for a means-tested fund. These ladies are proud and courageous. They have struggled for many years to bring up their families, in the absence of a husband and breadwinner, in difficult financial circumstances. It is sad that they have to apply to a means-tested fund for support. I urge the Minister to look at this matter again.

I urge the Minister and the Government to intervene on the tax liability for those widows in respect of the one-off payments. It would significantly undermine the value of the payments if they were to be taxable, and I hope that the Government's generosity will extend to a commitment to make the payments tax-free.

The new police fund should also give priority consideration to other police families whose circumstances are slightly different from the pre-1982 widows, but who have suffered due to the loss of a loved one who was murdered while serving with the RUC or as a result of their past service with the RUC. I want to give two examples to the Minister so that he can understand the point.

Recently, I received a letter from Ann Dougherty, who lives in Omagh. Her father, constable Andrew Alfred Woods, was murdered by the Provisional IRA on 2 August 1981 in a land mine explosion at Loughmacrory near Omagh. He left a widow and six children. On 16 August 1982, his wife died of a broken heart; just over one year after her husband's murder. At 21 years of age, Ann was left to provide for two brothers and two sisters. At the time of her mother's death, she was in full-time employment, which she had to terminate to look after her younger siblings who were then all below the age of 12.

Ann struggled to be a "mother" and many other things. At the time, she was paid approximately £25 a week for each child and found it difficult to cope financially. People such as Ann should be given support. Their contribution should be recognised and I hope that the new police fund will do that in recognition of what Ann and others have done in circumstances such as those I have described.

I want to bring to the Minister's attention an excellent article by Gail Walker in the Belfast Telegraph on 5 December last year. The article contains an interview with Anne Anderson who, at the time, was 81 years old. On 18 October 1977, her husband, a retired RUC reservist, was murdered by the Provisional IRA near

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Armagh. As Anne's husband John had retired and had been a reservist, he did not qualify for many of the benefits that would go to serving RUC officers. As a result Anne struggled for many years after her husband's death. She said:

The article continued:

Anne Anderson said:

I hope that the new police fund will be able to do something for Anne Anderson in recognition of her years of struggle and heartbreak.

These are some examples of what I am talking about; the innocent victims of 30 years of conflict and terrorist violence in Northern Ireland. They deserve better than they are getting.

I know that the Government have made efforts and I commend the Minister, who is responsible for victims issues. I do not want this to be a criticism of the Minister, as I hope he understands. I am trying to highlight how the victims feel and I hope that he will take my comments in that spirit. These are difficult issues and there is a perception of a disparity between the treatment of those who were involved in violence and those who were the victims of that violence.

I have a couple of proposals that I hope the Minister will consider. First, the victims' liaison unit, which he established, should be expanded to become a proper victims' commission, with an increased remit and greater resources, to focus specifically on providing funding and support for the victims of terrorist violence in Northern Ireland. This is not just about money, however--it is about much more than that.

Secondly, I urge the Government to make greater assistance available to bona fide victims' groups and to ensure that provision is made for future funding for those groups so that there is continuity of support. My concern, and theirs, is that much of the funding will come to an end--that this is a short-term fix. However, we all know that the hurt, the pain and the needs of the victims go on and on. Therefore, the support must be continuous. I ask the Minister to address the need for continued funding for bona fide victims' groups in Northern Ireland.

I have to say, with some regret, that the NIVT's role as an intermediary funding body for victims' groups should cease, and that the role should be passed to a new victims' commission, dealing specifically with victims. I do not mean to criticise the Minister when I say that it is insensitive that the NIVT, in the light of the remarks made by Avila Kilmurray, deals with funding for both

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ex-prisoners' groups and victims' groups. The victims' groups and the victims deserve specific and particular resources to be made available for them. I believe that that can be achieved through the establishment of a victims' commission. It is important that such a commission should be properly funded and resourced. No money can ever compensate adequately for the pain and suffering of the innocent victims in Northern Ireland.

I do not make a distinction between victims from the Unionist or nationalist communities. Victims on both sides have suffered from terrorist violence. They need support, and I urge the Minister to take steps to improve and increase that support.

10.52 am

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) on securing this important Adjournment debate. He has covered the issue remarkably well.

I want to highlight one or two of the human issues that are sometimes forgotten, especially here in the Palace of Westminster and in Great Britain. People here do not realise that there is still a deep sore within Northern Ireland. I agree with my hon. Friend that we are not dealing with victims from any particular group or in any particular part of our society. However, I have two illustrations, showing something of the barbarity with regard to loyalist terrorists.

A young man--a member of my congregation--was innocently caught up in one of the gang fights that has gone on over the years between two loyalist factions. For three years, he has been in a hospital, and has little recognition of anything. His father and family sit with him as regularly as possible. They have been forgotten, except by the hospital authorities.

I also think of the young man who is doing some work on the windows of my office. He said to my secretary, "It's a wonderful world. Here am I, toiling and grafting, and driving an old banger. I was getting petrol the other morning when I saw a leading ex-prisoner, now a loyalist politician, driving a Mercedes." I wondered what it was all about--so much so that when I attended the opening of the police ombudsman's office, I saw the Chief Constable and the chairman of the police authority, and I said, "Could you give me the name of so-and-so's stockbroker?" They knew what I was getting at, because one ex-prisoner attributed his wealth to the fact that he got £3 a week in prison and, with careful investment, had made his fortune. Those illustrations help us to understand something of the depth of the sore felt by people who have suffered and have been regularly forgotten by the state.

My hon. Friend referred to Mrs. Anderson. It appears that her husband and her family have been completely overlooked by the state. It has happened time and again--servants of the state have suffered not only at the hands of terrorists but at the hands of their employers, who have forgotten them.

I should like to highlight the problem of the court settlements which took place earlier in the conflict. A parishioner of mine, working as a bin man in Belfast,

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was killed in the dastardly bombing in Donegal street. He left a widow and two boys. Compensation had to be pursued in the courts. The solicitor representing the widow said, "They're offering £1,500. It's all you're going to get." Some lawyers are very blunt with their clients, and he actually said to the widow, "You don't have to feed him." That is the way in which the law quite often treats victims. We argued the case, and finally got £2,500.

Thank God there have been those in Northern Ireland who have rallied round and helped such people. However, that does not allow the state to abrogate its responsibilities. Former Ministers over the years did not do the work to discover what was going on. I trust that the issues that have been raised by my hon. Friend will be investigated. When we consider his illustration of the amount of money given to the relatives of the perpetrators of the attack on Loughgall station and compare it with what other families have received, it is an abomination.

A situation is developing in which the state is under siege by paramilitaries seeking compensation. In a case reported last week. Danny McNamee and Liam Coulter, two IRA prisoners, sued for injuries sustained by them when prison officers prevented their attempted jail break. I understand that that happened in Great Britain, not within the Northern Ireland prison services. That is what our state is faced with. Gerry Kelly, who has managed to make a living out of compensation claims, was awarded £9,000 in an out-of-court settlement for an injury received.

People compare the settlement in South Africa with the situation in Northern Ireland, but if we press that comparison further we see the tragedy of the victims of Kingsmill and Bloody Friday and others who will receive no justice. There will not even be transparency through a truth and reconciliation process, because--unlike South Africa--prisoner releases are not conditional. In South Africa, the amnesty was conditional on co-operation with the commission. Our plea to the Government is that they re-examine that matter.

There is no reason why people involved in committing acts of terrorism should be compensated for injuries received therein. I support the law that previously prevented such compensation. However, sometimes, men--from whatever background--who were involved in terrorist activity when they were young, who have served their prison sentence and have begun to redeem their lives and to make positive contributions to society, become the innocent victims of bombs or shooting. I know of one man whose pal received compensation for a graze, but although the man was seriously injured, he was not allowed compensation because he had served a prison sentence years ago. Will the Government re-examine the whole matter?

11.1 am

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury): I congratulate the hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) on securing the debate and on all the work he undertakes to highlight injustice in the compensation of victims in Northern Ireland.

Many people ask me why I take such an interest in the affairs of Northern Ireland. I have never lived there and have no family there, although I make regular visits.

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There are several reasons for my interest, one of which is my sense of injustice over certain matters. It is always a great pleasure to visit Northern Ireland and to see how resilient the people are. However, their resilience should not mean that they suffer injustice--the two should not go together.

We need to create a climate of peace in Northern Ireland. Many people will say that that is what the Belfast agreement was all about. However, it is tragic that, during discussions on the agreement, when we focus on so many things, we tend to forget the victims of the crimes committed from both sides of the divide.

It is difficult to create that climate of peace while the violence continues. We are not talking only of past victims--there continue to be victims in Northern Ireland every day. In answer to my questions, the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office kindly supplies figures about the numbers of murders, shootings, beatings, bombings and explosions in Northern Ireland; that reminds us that the violence has not gone away. It is important to create a climate of peace.

On my most recent visit to Northern Ireland in November, we went to a loyalist area. I was with my daughter and her young daughter, who will soon be starting school. We passed a primary school, surrounded by murals, in the middle of areas controlled by the gun. I shall never forget the looks on people's faces as they saw the atmosphere in which children in Northern Ireland have to grow up. That is not the climate we want to create.

Surely, in order to counter the violence, we must pay more respect to victims. When I speak to victims' groups in Northern Ireland, they tell me that they do not want retribution but justice. Yes, of course, they want the people who commit atrocities to be punished--they are entitled to expect that justice--but they also want decent treatment for themselves and their families. They want compensation.

The recent prisoner releases have not helped to boost the morale or to ease the suffering of victims. The victims will not go away--nor should they; they should never be forgotten. The tragedy of the past 30 years in Northern Ireland is the number of victims who have been created.

During my recent visit, the hon. Member for Lagan Valley and I spoke to members of the group representing RUC widows. Some of their husbands had been murdered many years ago, but the pain remains. The hon. Gentleman drew attention to the pre-1982 situation. Women who were widowed many years ago have suffered greatly; they have struggled financially and personally. When I talked to them, it was obvious that the pain had not eased. The last thing they need is a slap in the face--we must provide help for them. Where is the justice for them?

We should remember that the RUC is not an ordinary police force. The officers do not only counter the type of crimes that are committed in England--bad though those are. We are talking about the IRA: an organisation which not only murders people in Northern Ireland--that is terrible enough--but tried to bring down the whole British Government; indeed, it tries to remove the British Government by force. That is the opposition to peace that members of the RUC try to counter.

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I support the proposals made by the hon. Member for Lagan Valley. I draw attention to the suffering endured by members of the RUC--especially that of widows. It should never be forgotten--certainly not when the Government are reviewing current policing in Northern Ireland. As the hon. Gentleman says, compensation cannot fully make up for that suffering, but I suggest that such compensation--especially when compared to that given to the criminals--should certainly not be an insult.

11.6 am

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Adam Ingram): I congratulate the hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) on his success in securing the debate and on his choice of subject. From our previous correspondence and conversation and from his contributions to debates and to parliamentary questions, I know of the hon. Gentleman's particular interest in this subject; he is not new to the issue. That is also true of the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth); I thank both him and the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) for their contributions.

I welcome the opportunity to speak about the Government's record on this important aspect of public policy and, in particular, about the special attention that has been paid to the victims of the past 30 years of terrorist and paramilitary violence. It has been my privilege--albeit a difficult one--to oversee this matter in my role as Minister with responsibility for victims, and I shall comment further on that aspect of my role in Northern Ireland later in my contribution.

The hon. Member for Lagan Valley makes a serious charge on the funding awarded to victims of terrorist violence. I ask him to bear several points in mind. The Government have been in office for only just over three years. He paid tribute to some of the work that the Government and I, as a Minister, have undertaken. We have tackled the issue with vigour and determination. I shall set out--unfortunately, it will have to be at length--the various, specific funding measures that the Government have undertaken, which I think will rebut the view that he expressed.

Overall, the Government place great emphasis on the needs of all victims of crime. Clearly, we have to cover the wider aspects of support to victims--not only the issues that have been raised this morning. Of course, that touches on the question of funding, which in many ways is central to the delivery of any policy. We have put in place policies and funding to address the needs of victims of crime. We also have partnerships with organisations that work directly with victims to provide appropriate support to those affected by crime in all its manifestations.

The Government are committed to ensuring that victims of crime in Northern Ireland are properly supported, and many direct funding initiatives are in place. For example, we provide core funds to Victim Support (Northern Ireland). Last year, that amounted to £787,000--an increase of 5 per cent. on the previous year. Victim Support handled almost 40,000 referrals last year and had a network of around 300 volunteers. I am considering further support for the organisation in that important work and hope to make an announcement shortly. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to all those who provide such valuable work in a most difficult area.

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There is concern about the problem of sexual abuse in Northern Ireland and how it impacts on the victims and their families. That is why I have taken the initiative to provide support for the Nexus Institute. It is a registered charity offering counselling and other support to a particular category of victims--the victims of sexual abuse and their families. Last summer, I provided a grant of £153,000, over three years, to fund the appointment of two trauma counsellors based in Belfast. That is new funding and it has ensured that an additional 476 counselling sessions for the victims of sexual abuse have been carried out in the past five months alone. During the same period, the waiting list for appointments in Belfast reduced from 16 to eight weeks. In many ways, we are only beginning to touch the surface of that complex problem, and I would anticipate further initiatives in the years ahead.

The Government are also keen to ensure that the victims of crime are kept informed throughout the criminal justice process, and we have funded some initiatives in this area. Several years ago, all organisations in the criminal justice system endorsed a code of practice for the victims of crime, which sets out the minimum standard of service that victims can expect. Leaflets and information packs have been prepared and distributed to provide victims with relevant information on, for example, who to contact and how to seek assistance in dealing with their trauma. That includes the information pack for the families of homicide victims that I launched last year. It is important that the victims should not feel isolated as they work through their problems arising from crime. They should know that help is only a phone call away.

In addition, a review of the criminal justice system has been completed as part of the implementation of the Belfast agreement. The review made 15 recommendations about victims and witnesses, all of which have been endorsed by the Government. We appreciate that victims and witnesses--not least those who are vulnerable and intimidated--have special needs in the criminal justice system, and the Government remain committed to improving access to justice for those people.

The criminal injuries compensation scheme provides compensation for individual victims of crime. Payments are made in respect of criminal injuries and criminal damage. Since the scheme was established, more than £500 million has been paid as a result of criminal injuries, and almost £1 billion for criminal damage. Those figures represent a significant amount of Government funding for the victims of crime.

A review of the criminal injuries compensation scheme in Northern Ireland, led by Sir Kenneth Bloomfield, was established in October 1998. It examined the fitness for purpose of the current arrangements and was asked to make recommendations for improvements in the future. The final report was published in July 1999, and a post-publication review on its recommendations was conducted during the latter half of 1999. In July 2000, the Government published their response to the report and accepted the broad thrust of its recommendations.

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The key change involves the simplification and speeding up of the process of awarding compensation through the introduction of a tariff scheme, with award levels based on recent settlements in Northern Ireland. That will result in tariff payments higher, on average, than under the Great Britain scheme. That change and various others, such as the ability to provide structured payments rather than lump sums, the facility to reopen settled cases in certain circumstances, increases to bereavement awards and some discretion on time limits, will be introduced in April 2002.

We aim to publish draft legislation for the new compensation scheme in April this year. Accepting those recommendations has not been cost neutral. In the 2000 spending review, I successfully bid for an additional £74 million over the next three years to introduce the improved arrangements.

As the hon. Member for Lagan Valley has said, European funding has been an important aspect of the funding route involved in the matters to which he referred. It is undoubtedly an important source of funds for victim support groups under the peace and reconciliation funds. That programme is administered by the Northern Ireland Voluntary Trust, as an intermediary funding body.

The hon. Gentleman made strong allegations about the chairperson of that fund. She is not here to defend herself today. I have taken note of what he has said and, no doubt, that debate will continue between us. However, those who serve on that body have a very difficult task. They are undertaking a role on behalf of the rest of society in Northern Ireland. It is not an easy job, and many politicians have walked away from it in the past. The hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) do not fall into that category, but many politicians have suddenly alighted on the issue of victims. Meanwhile, hard work has been done and difficult decisions have been taken by people such as the chairperson of the NIVT and the others who serve alongside her, but, of course, the handling of such matters is changing anyway.

Negotiations are currently under way on the allocation of peace 2 funds--the latest round of funding from Europe. Policy on the allocation of those funds is now the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Assembly, and I understand that the Executive Committee has agreed that the victims of violence should be specifically identified in that programme as a group requiring continuing support. I welcome that recognition of victims' needs. However, such matters are the exclusive responsibility of the Northern Ireland Assembly; they are not matters for the United Kingdom Government, and it is inappropriate for me to comment further on them.

Rev. Martin Smyth: I realise that such matters are the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Assembly, but criminal justice Bills are dealt with by this House. Can the Assembly retrospectively help those folk who may have been missed in the past?

Mr. Ingram: It is not for me to say what the Assembly can and cannot do, or how it applies the law of the land. If the Assembly decides to spend money from its allocation of funds, that is a matter for it. Of course, it

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has established means by which it can examine victims issues, but I was specifically explaining how the new peace 2 funds will be handled. Such decisions are matters for the Assembly, not central Government.

On the special needs victims of the troubles, one of the Government's early initiatives was to commission Sir Kenneth Bloomfield to

Sir Kenneth's report, entitled "We Will Remember Them", was published in May 1998. The Government immediately accepted its recommendations. I was appointed Minister with responsibility for victims at that time, and I can honestly say that such matters are difficult to deal with because they involve sensitive issues for victims and groups of victims.

The Bloomfield report challenged everyone to begin to consider the trauma that more than 30 years of violence had wrought on the community in Northern Ireland, and further afield. Incredibly, very little recognition had been given to the bereaved and injured in the preceding years. Although some good work had undoubtedly been undertaken by the statutory and community sectors, there was no overarching or systematic approach to the problems faced by individual victims and survivors and their particular needs. That is perhaps understandable.

Victims often felt unable to articulate their views in a society where business as usual was the order of the day. However, the ceasefires and the political progress that led to the Belfast agreement allowed the previously silent voice of victims to be heard. The failures of the past are now being dealt with constructively and meaningfully. The silent voice of the victims has become stronger in recent years, and I attribute that in large measure to the impact of the Bloomfield report, which is one of the most humane and sensitive reports to Government that I have read.

I have met many individuals and have heard their demands and needs, and I have tried to take on board what I heard. I know that the hon. Member for Lagan Valley speaks from deep personal experience--experiences shared by too many families in Northern Ireland and beyond. I also know that grief is grief and that the loss of one person in a single incident long ago that is long forgotten by most people is a daily remembrance for the family left behind.

I understand that the peace process has been difficult for many victims, not least the early release of prisoners which was, and remains, particularly painful for many. Many of those people feel that they have paid the price for peace and that, having paid that price, think that we will abandon them. The Government have not and will not abandon the victims and survivors. We have made a good start, beginning as we did from virtually nothing. I have said before in the House and elsewhere that we effectively inherited a blank sheet when we came into government. We have had to build on that.

The Government allocated an initial £5 million to support the implementation of the Bloomfield report. This was subsequently and quickly increased to £6.25 million. A number of important initiatives have also been put in place to support individual victims and survivors, and the groups that support them. The initiatives include the provision of £700,000 towards the

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establishment of a new family trauma centre in Belfast for young people and their families and the provision of £2 million for the Northern Ireland memorial fund that the Government established in 1997 to provide support to individual victims, to raise awareness of victims issues and to raise funds to support the work of the fund. In addition to that funding, the Government have also allocated staff to help with the fund's running costs.

I am delighted with the progress of the Northern Ireland memorial fund and with the commitment of its chairman, Professor George Bain, the vice-chancellor of Queen's university, Belfast, and the other directors of the fund. The Government are also committed to support further the NI memorial fund.

We have also provided £3 million for the core funding of victims groups over a two-year period. This fund is being administered by the Northern Ireland Voluntary Trust. Despite reports, no victims group has been turned down for funding through this scheme--although a few have been offered capacity building grants before larger core funding grants are approved. The scheme will be evaluated later this year and we will consider how the scheme might be developed further.

I wish to point out that some groups demand funding simply because they are a group. We are talking about public money and those who are charged with responsibility for its disbursement have to evaluate critically the schemes that are suggested to them. When we judge that the schemes do not stack up in terms of what is claimed for them, we usually tackle the problem by offering the group a sum of money so that it can begin to identify in a much more precise manner what it is trying to achieve. That is capacity-building funding, which allows the group to build a business case--although that may not be the best phrase to use. However, that is the way that any group seeking public money must approach the source of funding. I stress that no groups have been refused public funding even though there have been press reports to that effect.

The Government also provided £300,000 to run an educational bursary scheme on a pilot basis. About 350 individual victims received payments to undertake a variety of academic and vocational courses. The Community Relations Council was also given £225,000 to operate a grants scheme for victims groups. This gave small grants for activities that were not applicable under the core grant scheme

The resources so far allocated to victims have been significant. To date, in addition to the £6.25 million provided through the victims liaison unit--which reports to me--£2.2 million has been allocated through European Union peace and reconciliation funds. Victims groups have also been eligible to apply for additional EU funds, which have been distributed by the district partnerships and other funding bodies.

Mr. Donaldson: I seek clarification of one point. The Minister referred earlier to the Northern Ireland Assembly's responsibilities for victims issues. However, he correctly said that the victims liaison unit reports directly to him, and it has a significant responsibility in this regard. Therefore, is he able, as the Minister, to consider my proposal for a victims commission that

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would supersede the victims liaison unit? Is that not properly part of his responsibility, rather than that of the Assembly?

Mr. Ingram: I was going to deal with that point in my concluding remarks, but I shall deal with it now. I am not unsympathetic to that concept, but perhaps not in the way that the hon. Gentleman describes it. However, such a body cannot simply be delivered by me alone. There is now a shared responsibility for victims, and much of the provision for victims is now done through the devolved Administration in the health and education sectors and elsewhere. I cannot direct the Administration on that. Therefore, we must consider in partnership how we evolve the policy.

Sir Kenneth Bloomfield talked about a champion for victims and that phrase struck a chord. If such a person or body were set up, it would have to be resourced. The debate is then about which agency would resource it. However, if the body were resourced, the money for it might not go directly towards victims groups. Judgments must be made. Although I am sympathetic to the hon. Gentleman's proposal, I do not think that we have yet reached the point where we are able to see how best to take it forward.

The Assembly has established its own victims unit under two junior Ministers, and I am in constant discussion with them about how we evolve the relationship between central Government and the devolved Administration. Since I become involved in the issue--and even before the devolved Administration was in place--I have always taken the view that responsibility does not rest just with central Government. The policy must engage the whole community if it is to succeed. Therefore, we need constructive voices to suggest how we can move forward.

Mr. Donaldson: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Ingram: I will, but that may mean that I am not able to respond to all the issues raised.

Mr. Donaldson: Will the Minister at least give a commitment to discuss the possibility of a victims commission with junior Ministers in the Assembly to see whether a joint approach can be developed?

Mr. Ingram: I can give that guarantee. Such matters are on-going, but I would not necessarily like to develop

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the policy in the way that the hon. Gentleman suggests. Sir Kenneth Bloomfield talked about a victims champion. Although this may not be the best place to share my thought processes, my instinct is that such a body should be created at minimum cost. Otherwise, money will be spent on bureaucracy rather than on the distribution of funds. I know that the hon. Gentleman shares my view on that. We must consider how the policy can best be delivered.

In the time remaining, I shall turn to the important issue of RUC widows and widowers. There are too many widows and too many injured RUC officers, and I echo many of the points made by the hon. Gentleman. The Government have no lack of sympathy for, or appreciation of, those people. The Patten report undoubtedly caused particular concern for those members of RUC families, but, in paragraphs 10.20 and 10.21, it recognised their plight. Those paragraphs refer to officers who have not been treated as well as they should have been and they recommended

That is what we have set out to do.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to the Steele report, which was a comprehensive analysis of the situation. It was a difficult issue for John Steele to deal with, because he had to try to square many different points of view. He consulted widely and listened carefully to what members of RUC families said to him. His report was published last November. He proposed that a police fund be set up and said that

and that the fund's role should extend widely. He also said:

He came reluctantly--that is his word--to the conclusion that the fund should be limited to deaths and injuries caused directly by terrorist violence, because that distinguishes the RUC from other United Kingdom police services.

I wanted to make several points about the fund, and I regret that I will not have the opportunity to do so. I shall write to the hon. Gentleman about some of the points that he raised. However, I want to point out that £11 million will be allocated to the support mechanisms, which is substantially more than he said was available to ex-prisoners. We should also add to that figure the £4.5 million that has been given to the Police Rehabilitation and Retraining Trust and all the other figures that I have mentioned. That funding rebuts the hon. Gentleman's core charge that there is an imbalance against victims. That may have been the case, but it is no longer.

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