Mr Speaker, with permission I would like to make a statement on the report by Lady Justice Hallett on the scheme dealing with the so-called ‘on-the-runs’.
In February, Mr Justice Sweeney ruled that it would be an abuse of process to proceed with the prosecution of John Downey in connection with the Hyde Park bombing on 20th July 1982 and his trial was stayed.
The Hyde Park atrocity resulted in the brutal murder of 4 members of the Blues and Royals, 7 horses were also killed and just hours later another bomb in Regent’s Park took the lives of 7 members of the Royal Green Jackets.
These were appalling terrorist outrages carried out by the Provisional IRA for which there could never ever be any justification.
So in this House or first thoughts today should be with the families and friends of those murdered that day in July 1982.
The government fully appreciates the deep sense of hurt and anger that the collapse of the Downey trial has caused both to them and victims of terrorism more widely.
And I would like to repeat the apology I gave in March for that.
This government is profoundly sorry for the hurt this case has caused.
The Downey case highlighted the administrative scheme introduced by the previous government to deal with so-called on-the-runs.
These were people who had left Northern Ireland and believed that if they returned to any part of the UK they might be arrested in connection with terrorist offences.
The government responded to the widespread public concern expressed about the OTR scheme by establishing a judge-led independent review of the scheme.
I am grateful to Lady Justice Hallett for taking on this task.
Anybody reading the report will be left in no doubt that she has provided us with a rigorous and comprehensive account of the scheme.
The government accepts the report and all its recommendations in full.
On the central issue of whether the OTR administrative scheme gave suspected terrorists immunity from prosecution Lady Justice Hallett is very clear.
She concludes that:
The administrative scheme did not amount to an amnesty for terrorists. …
… Suspected terrorists were not handed a ‘get out of jail free’ card.
The government has always been clear that if sufficient evidence emerges, then individual OTRs are liable for arrest and prosecution in the normal way.
So I repeat again today to the people holding these letters.
They will not protect you from arrest or prosecution and should the police succeed in gathering sufficient evidence you will be subject to the due process of law.
Lady Justice Hallett sets out the origins, operation and evolution of the scheme.
She agrees with successive Attorneys General that the scheme was lawful.
The last letter sent by the Northern Ireland Office issued in December 2012 and I repeat today that as far as this Government is concerned, the scheme is over.
The report sets out a number of serious criticisms of how the scheme operate including significant systemic failures.
Lady Justice Hallett states that:
The scheme was not designed; it evolved. As a result there was no overall policy and no overall responsibility/accountability for it
[The scheme] “lacked proper lines of responsibility, accountability and safeguards.
… When errors came to light opportunities were missed to rectify them
… “There was no risk assessment”.
In the case of Mr Downey, Lady Justice Hallett concluded, in line with the Sweeney judgement, that it was not the fact that Mr Downey was sent a letter that caused the trial to collapse it was the fact that the letter contained an incorrect and misleading statement on which Mr Downey relied.
The report finds if the scheme had been properly administered:
John Downey would not have received a letter of assurance.
She can find no “logical explanation” of why PSNI officers failed to pass on the fact that Mr Downey was still wanted by the Metropolitan Police, nor why they failed to correct the error once it became known.
Lady Justice Hallett finds that 13 OTRs received the RPM between 2000 and 2002 and that in all cases this was to release people from having to serve some or all of the rest of their sentences.
No pre-conviction pardons were issued.
The report criticises the lack of a “central register of documents recording the use of the RPM”.
While she finds “no evidence of the UK Government actively seeking to obscure the scheme from the public” Lady Justice Hallett states that it “was not given much publicity and that important groups” such as victims and their families “remained unaware” of it.
The report acknowledges the hurt and distress that this has caused to many victims.
Lady Justice Hallett has found two examples of somebody receiving a letter in error, in addition to the Downey case.
She has also identified 36 cases dealt with between February 2007 and November 2008 which should be given priority in the exercise now underway by the PSNI to check whether the change in status from ‘wanted’ to ‘not wanted’ can still be justified.
A key question has arisen as to what the government intends do next to ensure that there are no more failed prosecutions like that of Mr Downey:
The report recommends that we now
seek legal advice, in conjunction with the police and prosecuting authorities, to determine whether [we] should notify any individuals whose status, as communicated to them, has changed or may change in the future …
And that we
consider how to mitigate against further abuse of process arguments, for example by confirming to recipients the factual and contemporaneous nature of their letters…
The government will act on these recommendations and I give the House this assurance.
We will take whatever steps are necessary acting on the basis of legal advice and in conjunction with the police and prosecutors to do everything possible to remove barriers to future prosecutions.
Mr Speaker, the bulk of this report deals with decisions made by the previous government in respect of its handling of the political process in Northern Ireland.
It is not my role to speak for my Labour predecessors as Secretary of State. They are more than capable of speaking for themselves on the role they played and the decisions they took.
Yet I will say this.
I might not agree with every decision they made in relation to the OTR issue.
But whatever differences of emphasis and approach we might have I recognise that they were dealing with very difficult judgments in very difficult circumstances and that they were at all times acting with sincerity in seeking to move the peace process forward.
I would emphasise that Lady Justice Hallett has found no evidence that either politicians or officials ever interfered improperly with due process of law or the operational independence of police or prosecutors.
The report concludes that the scheme did not impact on police investigations into historic terrorist offences.
PSNI and HET files on terrorist crimes were not closed.
There was no chilling effect.
Mr Speaker, it is well known that the current government allowed the checking process to continue after we came to power in May 2010.
But both I and my predecessor are very clear.
Had we at any time been presented with a scheme that we thought amounted to an amnesty, immunity or exemption from prosecution we would have stopped it immediately.
That would have been consistent with the opposition of both Coalition parties to the Northern Ireland Offences Bill introduced by the RHM for Neath in 2005 and which was subsequently abandoned.
This government believes in the rule of law and that applies across the board to everyone, without fear or favour, including those in possession of letters issued under this scheme.
There are many lessons to be learned from this episode, not least of which is the crucial importance of continued efforts to find an agreement on the divisive issues of flags, parading and the past.
On dealing with the painful legacy of Northern Ireland’s past we need a process that is transparent, accountable and balanced, which puts the era of side deals firmly behind us and commands the confidence of all parts of the community.
The government remains fully committed to working with all parties in Northern Ireland in their efforts to deliver that goal and I commend this statement to the House.