James Sunderland speaks in Committee Stage debate of the Northern Ireland (Legacy & Reconciliation) Bill

James Sunderland speaks in the Committee Stage of the Bill which aims to address the legacy of the Northern Ireland Troubles, and raises a number of questions about the details of the Bill, most notably the conditions required before granting a person immunity and the level of proof and need for independent evidence and corroboration of that person’s account.

James Sunderland 

I spoke in support of the Bill on Second Reading, although I highlighted several frictions and concerns that may merit further work, which is where we are today.

The people of Northern Ireland, our veterans and those directly affected must be at the heart of this Bill, and I hope to offer a wider perspective that may be of use. On Second Reading, the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare), said:

“Is the Bill perfect? No, of course it is not, and no legislation is, but let us not lose the good, or at least the intent to achieve the good, in pursuit of perfection.”—[Official Report, 24 May 2022; Vol. 715, c. 195.]

That is where I think we are today.

We know what the Bill does, as it has been covered a lot over the past few weeks and months: it establishes an independent commission for reconciliation and information recovery; it grants immunity from prosecution to those who engage with the commission—this is a key point—on a case-by-case basis; it ends, in theory, troubles-related criminal investigations and protracted legal proceedings; it commissions a historical record of every troubles-related death; it covers memorialisation; and, importantly for me and for many others, it does not provide moral equivalence, which is an important improvement on the draft Bill.

The lingering concern of many I have spoken to, both here in England, Wales and Scotland and over the water in Northern Ireland, is that perpetrators may now never be brought to justice and the truth may never be known, notwithstanding what the Bill says it does on the tin.

Bob Stewart 

I thank my good friend for allowing me to intervene. One thing the Bill might do, and I hope it does, is ensure the names of those who go before this reconciliation body are made public so that people know who they are and understand who carried out the deed, whatever the result for the person concerned. Victims and families may understand who did it, and I hope that will be considered in the Bill.

James Sunderland 

I thank my right hon. and gallant Friend for his intervention. He is absolutely right, and I hope the Minister heeds his point.

Having looked at what the Bill does, and having discussed it on Second Reading, I ask: where can we go from here? Where do we need to go as a Committee? First, I would urge the Government to reconsider the exclusion of rape and sexual offences, which merits further work, although I fully understand the arguments that exist in law. It may be a political point as opposed to a legal point, or it might be both, but it requires extra work.

Secondly, clause 18 currently says that the ICRIR must grant a person immunity from prosecution if conditions A to C are met. Condition B states that a person needs to have engaged and stated the truth to the best of their “knowledge and belief”. That is a very low and subjective expectation of one individual’s account, for which the immunity panel is not required to seek corroboration. What if that individual is not telling the truth?

Jess Phillips (Birmingham, Yardley) (Lab)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for the speech he is making. I, too, have concerns, but even if that was ironed out—I stand here to speak for the 21 families of the victims of the Birmingham pub bombings, the biggest mass killing on our streets in this country for which no one has faced justice—does he think that that would be enough for the lives of Maxine Hambleton, Tommy Marsh and Paul Anthony Davies? Would anything we could do today allow the families of those people to feel that an amnesty was enough?


James Sunderland 

I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention and she is not wrong, but the point I would want to make to her is that the Bill provides for a truth and reconciliation process whereby the truth could become known. After 24 years of the Good Friday agreement, and with prosecutions limited so far to date, it is important that we move on and not only offer hope to families wanting the truth but draw a line in law under the endless prosecution of vexatious complaints.

Let me return to the issue of people potentially stating falsehoods to the commission. There are numerous reasons why a perpetrator may give a false account to gain immunity, with the obvious one being to play down their role in an offence. There is also the potential for cynical abuse of the immunity process, perhaps by political elements. We must also address the issue of someone who acquires immunity for pre-1998 offences yet may still have been involved in terrorism post-1998 and still perhaps to this day. A distinction is required in that regard.

Fay Jones 

I think my hon. Friend is referring to amendment 97, which has been tabled by DUP Members and calls for a file to be passed to the Public Prosecution Service if it becomes clear that lies have been told to the commission. Although that is incredibly well intentioned, does he share my concern that it confers a status on the commission that it has not necessarily asked for and may not even want?

James Sunderland 

I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention, and she is not wrong. My personal view is that we need to do a little more to ascertain that proof. It may be that the word of one individual may not be enough to grant them immunity; independent evidence and independent corroboration over a period of time may be needed to secure that immunity.

Gavin Robinson 

First, the panel will already have to make an assessment of whether the information it has been given has been given truthfully, to the best of the person’s knowledge. Amendment 97 simply says what should then happen should it decide that that information was not given truthfully, to the best of the individual’s knowledge. It would not have much to do; it would already have made the assessment, and the file would then just go to the PPS.

I ask the hon. Gentleman to look at the exact provision, in clause 20(4), I believe, which sets out that the panel does not need any information other than that which is given to it by P, and then to have a read of subsections (1), (2) and (3). I think that there lies the answer to the question he is raising—subsection (4) could simply be deleted. An amendment has been tabled by my party and the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee for that precise purpose.

James Sunderland 

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. The Minister is now in his place and I hope he is paying heed to what we are saying, because these are all tweaks to the Bill that I feel we could make.

Let me return to clause 18 and ask, first, what defines an acceptable level of engagement. How do we specify it? Nothing in the Bill defines what level of information someone needs to give in order to qualify for immunity, and I think that needs work.

Secondly, Where a person is deemed a subject of interest, and perhaps is assessed as being a current threat, is there a case for their not being granted immunity? I believe that there is a bit of work to do there, and that this may be possible.

My third point is that we should perhaps legislate so that if a person is convicted of a post-1998 terrorist offence, the offence they were granted immunity for can be taken into consideration for the purpose of sentencing for other offences—I know that that is tricky and divisive, but it is worthy of consideration.

My last point on clause 18 is about what happens if the person’s account is found not to be true to the best of their knowledge and belief. We discussed amendment 97 earlier. If it is proved that the information given is completely false, perhaps immunity could and should be revoked. I know that the Minister will cover this issue later, but I think there needs to be a bit of work on what happens if there is compelling evidence that proves that the information given at the time was not true. In my view, therefore, clause 18 needs work.

That may not be possible, but I have outlined some suggestions to the Minister. My next point relates to clause 20, which is entitled “Determining a request for immunity”. In forming a view on the truth of the person’s account, the immunity requests panel will not currently be required to seek information from a person other than P. I reiterate my previous point that the threshold for the provision of information by the perpetrator is already very low and subjective. What change might we wish to make? Perhaps there should be a requirement that corroboration is sought before any immunity can be granted.

On the issue of prisoner release, the Bill states:

“Schedule 11 makes provision about prisoner release under the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998.”

Paragraph 5 of schedule 11 states:

“If a fixed term prisoner is released on licence under this section, the prisoner’s sentence expires”.

The key point is that the existing early release scheme provides that if a person’s application for early release is successful, they must serve the minimum term under their sentence before being released. Paragraph 5 replaces and repeals several provisions of the 1998 Act, potentially removing any minimum sentence. That virtually removes any incentive for a perpetrator to engage with the process. I therefore urge the Minister to look at that provision.

There are other areas that are not covered in the Bill, and we may come to them later. First, there is no legislation on the glorification of terrorism, or to enable those who flout such legislation to be held accountable. The issue is not provided for at all in the Bill, and that may require further work.

We may also need a better UK-wide definition of a victim or survivor of terrorism. In addition, there is the tricky issue of reparations for the bereaved. I know that that is difficult in law and difficult politically, but perhaps we could look at it in due course as part of the reconciliation process.

Perhaps we could even conduct a review in due course of how this legislation evolves and how it works in practice. Is the truth and reconciliation process working? Are people coming forward? Perhaps we need to build into the Bill a clause whereby we can legally review these issues in due course, with a view to tweaking what goes through Westminster.

This is a very difficult issue and this is a difficult Bill. I commend Ministers and everyone involved, particularly in the Northern Ireland Office, for getting this far. We now have something on the table that needs to go through. Time is short, and I recognise that the Bill will come back to the House on Monday, but I urge the Minister to consider what I have said over the weekend.


Earlier intervention on the Minister in the same debate

James Sunderland (Bracknell) (Con)

Clause 18 clearly states:

“The ICRIR must grant a person…immunity from prosecution if conditions A to C are met.”

Condition C is that the person engages

“true to the best of”

their “knowledge and belief”. If it is later proven that the information that individual gave the process is false, will immunity be revoked?

Conor Burns (The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office)

My hon. Friend makes an important point, which others have raised in the past. The position in the Bill is that immunity, once given, cannot be revoked. However, I hear the point he and others have made, and I am sure we will return to it later in the debate. This body will have significant latitude in testing an individual’s credibility and sincerity. I would hope that the engagement and professionalism of those appointed to serve on the panel will be such that such cases will rarely, if ever, arise.


Later intervention in the same debate

James Sunderland 

As we all know, my hon. and gallant Friend has been a proud champion for veterans. He has probably accomplished more for veterans in his time than many other parliamentarians. But he is also very keen, when he needs to, to be critical and challenge the Government, so what he is saying this afternoon carries a lot of weight, certainly for me. Does he agree that this is about pragmatism and timing, and that the time is now? Does he agree that we have admired the problem for far too long, that we still have an opportunity, with the Minister in his place, to amend the Bill as we need to over the weekend, and that the Bill does need to pass?

Johnny Mercer 

I thank my hon. and gallant Friend for his kind words. I strongly agree with him that the Department needs to reflect on what has been said. I was a lone voice in opposing what came out from the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in August. I pay tribute to him again, because many people—me, certainly, and the Opposition too—were pretty rude about him and rude to him about his proposals. He has had the courage to look at them. He wants to get this right. He has no skin in the game to do something that is going to divide communities and not stand the test of time.