Baroness Goldie (Con)
My Lords, once again I thank your Lordships for contributions to an important issue which is, for obvious reasons, very much to the forefront of our minds at the moment.
Amendment 18 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, seeks to create a new condition that must be satisfied before the provisions in the Bill can be commenced. That condition is for the Government to publish a report on the progress made in relation to legislation addressing the legacy of the Troubles. I thank the noble Baroness for her eloquent address, to which I know we all listened with both respect and interest, but I think she will understand that the Government cannot accept an amendment, no matter how well intentioned, that puts conditions on the timing of the implementation of provisions that seek to provide certainty and reassurance to our service personnel and veterans who have served on overseas operations, which is a different issue from the position of Northern Ireland.
I understand the concerns that sit behind this amendment, so I reassure noble Lords that the Government remain committed to making progress on legacy issues and we will not allow our brave service personnel who served in Northern Ireland to be forgotten. In order to make further progress, the Northern Ireland Office must continue to engage with the Irish Government, the Northern Ireland parties, and civic society, including victims’ groups. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the UK Government recognise the importance of working with all parts of the community as part of this process.
I hope noble Lords will recognise that, sadly, the pandemic has had an impact in causing a loss of momentum, but I reassure your Lordships—in particular with regard to what the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, said just a few minutes ago—that this Government will bring forward legislation to address the legacy of the Troubles that focuses on reconciliation, delivers for victims, and ends the cycle of investigations. The Government—in particular, the Northern Ireland Office —are committed to making progress on this important issue as quickly as possible. In these circumstances, I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, will be minded to not move her amendment.
The other amendments in this group, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, seek either to remove references to Northern Ireland in parts of the Bill or to stop certain provisions extending to Northern Ireland. The Bill extends to England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland for a reason. Defence is a United Kingdom competence and our Armed Forces personnel are drawn from all parts of the United Kingdom, in whose name they serve. That is why the effects of the provisions in the Bill are substantively the same throughout the entire United Kingdom. It is right and desirable that the objectives of the Bill should apply throughout the United Kingdom; my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern made that point well.
However, as different pieces of legislation in the different nations of the UK are impacted by the Bill, to ensure technical compliance and drafting accuracy the necessary amendments have been effected in respect of the relevant law in England and Wales, in Scotland and in Northern Ireland. I say gently to the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, that the Bill is not a de facto immunity, and I think many people are coming to accept that as being an extravagant interpretation of the Bill.
Clause 10 and Schedule 4, which this group of amendments seeks to remove in their entirety, amend only the Limitation (Northern Ireland) Order 1989. These provisions introduce new factors that the Northern Ireland courts must consider when deciding whether to allow certain claims relating to overseas military operations to be brought after the primary time limit expires and set the maximum time limit for such claims at six years. It is necessary to extend similar provisions across the whole of the UK to ensure consistency. Your Lordships would acknowledge, I think, that it would be deeply unsatisfactory if the changes that the Government are introducing in relation to claims brought in England and Wales and Scotland could be circumvented by a claimant bringing their claim in Northern Ireland instead.
I am absolutely sure that the intent of these amendments is not to create legal loopholes. No one could listen to the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, without understanding her commitment and sincerity about the concerns that she has articulated. The stated reason for these amendments is a concern that the Bill will undermine a specific provision in the Belfast agreement stipulating that the United Kingdom Government would complete the incorporation into Northern Ireland law of the European Convention on Human Rights, with direct access to the courts and remedies for breach of the convention rights. The noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, sought reassurance on this point.
As I said when this issue was debated in Committee, the commitment to incorporate the ECHR into Northern Ireland law has already been met by enacting the Human Rights Act 1998, which provides for direct access to the domestic courts to vindicate convention rights, and the Northern Ireland Act 1998, which provides that the Northern Ireland Assembly may legislate only in a way compatible with the convention rights, and that Northern Ireland Ministers must also act compatibly with these rights. As currently drafted, the Government consider the Bill compatible with the convention rights. Your Lordships will acknowledge that review of the Human Rights Act is not the responsibility of the MoD.
Statutory limitation periods, which seem to be what these amendments are mainly concerned with, are generally considered legitimate restrictions on the right of access to a court. That right of access is not absolute, and the European Court of Human Rights has upheld the compatibility of limitation periods, even if these periods are in themselves absolute, including the absolute six-year limitation period for claims resulting from intentional torts in England and Wales. That was the finding in Stubbings and Others v the United Kingdom. Limitation periods do not impair the essence of the right of access to a court. Such periods ensure legal certainty and finality, avoid stale claims and prevent injustice where adjudicating on events in the distant past involves unreliable and incomplete evidence because of the passage of time. As such, nothing in the Bill would diminish the essence of the protections that the Human Rights Act currently offers the people of Northern Ireland. I reassure noble Lords that the measures in the Bill do not undermine the United Kingdom’s commitment to human rights and to the European Convention on Human Rights.
For the reassurance of the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, I repeat that this Government remain fully committed to the Belfast agreement, the constitutional principles it upholds, the institutions it established and the rights it protects. This agreement has been the foundation for the welcome political progress, peace and stability in Northern Ireland over the last 22 years and will be protected going forward.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Ritchie and Lady Suttie, have asked whether I am agreeable to meeting them. I am very happy to agree to meet them if I can help them, but it may be—and I would ask them to reflect on this—that they would find engaging with the review of the Human Rights Act, and perhaps meeting with the Northern Ireland Office, more relevant to their specific concerns. If they still wish to meet me, however, I would, of course, be happy to do that. With the explanation offered by these remarks, I urge the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment.