Government have introduced a bill to parliament to address the outstanding and unsolved murders from The Troubles in Northern Ireland.
The problem is that it essentially grants immunity to those who committed acts of terror and diminishes the role of investigations and justice in the rare circumstances where the threshold could be met after all the time that’s passed.
These are incredibly sensitive issues. I’ve made many visits to Northern Ireland since being appointed and I’ve met victims and their representatives on every visit.
With the current legislation I have a simple test: does it give more rights to those who committed crime or their victims? Sadly this bill does the former, so alongside every single political party in Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and every victims group, Labour opposes this bill.
Last week the bill came to the Commons for its committee stage. That means it passed its second reading and now MPs scrutinise the bill in detail and we can table amendments against it.
Normally the committee stage takes place in a room in the upper levels of parliament with about 20 MPs. But in order to allow all MPs from Northern Ireland to participate, this bill has what’s known as a ‘committee of the whole House’. In other words, it all takes place in the main debating chamber and every MP has the right to participate.
I tabled several amendments but only pushed one to a vote. This involves parliamentary tactics because after the Commons, the bill goes to the Lords. By not voting on an amendment and risk losing, it makes it easier for the Lords to take up the issue (as the Commons has primacy, if something is defeated there many peers feel it inappropriate to seal to defeat it there) – almost like a tag team!
But I felt it was extremely important that the Commons had its say on one of Labour’s amendment. The bill states that if someone comes forward and admits their Troubles-era crime and tells a credible version of the truth, they must be given immunity. But no where does the bill exclude sexual violence and rape from being given immunity.
Yes, I was astonished as I’m sure you are. This is what happens when ministers rush legislation or approach drafting in the wrong way. It’s careless, but has terrible consequences. Very sadly sexual violence was committed as part of terror in Northern Ireland, just as it is in most conflicts.
A select committee of the Commons took evidence and every witness that was asked rejected the government’s approach. Legal experts confirmed that they had got this wrong. But ministers didn’t budge and brought the bill to committee unchanged.
Because I now speak for Labour on Northern Ireland the task fell to me to make the argument to MPs. I made my case as directly, whilst trying to be as respectful to the MPs from other parties as possible, as many were coming to this issue for the first time.
It was pretty amazing to see the minutes and hours pass and the debate deepen and more and more MPs wake up to the reality of the situation. You could feel the Tory majority draining away.
Eventually, about an hour before the debate ended and I was due to call the vote, someone from the government made me the offer to accept my amendment in return for working with ministers over the weekend in order to alter the wording slightly, because their lawyers had a couple of issues. I accepted.
So when the time came and I triggered the vote, everyone on my side yelled ‘aye’. When the speaker asked if anyone said no, there was silence from the Tory benches. And that was it, my amendment passed.
As the government has a majority of 80 I can’t tell you how rare it is for this to happen.
Tomorrow the bill committee continues and I’ll be tabling more amendments. I still believe the bill is inappropriate overall, but by working with MPs and experts from across Northern Ireland I’ve been able to have an impact and at least give victims of sexual violence the reassurance that the law is now on their side for crimes committed against them.
For that I left feeling like it was a good day at work!
All the best, Peter