It has been an interesting week to say the least. First thank you to the many people who have offered support over the last week. The Secretary of State on Friday, in haste, appeared to have “reinterpreted” her letter to victims and survivors that was sent last Monday evening.
I believe it was sustained pressure and vociferous support that persuaded her to do so. Irrespective of the spin that was put on it, she has to recognise the impact of the letter on victims and survivors of historical institutional abuse (HIA), particularly the more vulnerable of them.
It now appears that the “questions” that have arisen from the HIA Consultation that are being tabled at Stormont, are there to seek clarity on the detail in some of the responses. If that is the case, according to some involved in the talks, it could be a very brief review.
So what are the key issues?
The make-up of the Redress Panel was originally to have been comprised exclusively of judges or retired judges. It has been our view that the Redress Panel should, alongside a single judge, have people on it who have worked in the field of childhood trauma, social work, occupational therapy and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – a much more rounded set of skills and experience.
The initial redress figure recommended by Sir Anthony was set at £7,500. That would only be awarded to anyone who was abused in an institution, witnessed abuse or was in an abusive environment. It appeared it was a “one-size-fits-all”, irrespective of the time spent in such an institution. We feel that the figure is set too low, given that the figure in other Inquiries was much higher and did not have the same limiting constraints attached to this recommendation. For instance, in Canada it was called a “common experience payment” and was awarded to everyone who spent time in any of Indian Residential Schools.
The Scottish Abuse Inquiry has already opened its application process for initial Advance Payment to those who are 70 years of age or older and to anyone suffering from a life-threatening or terminal illness, who may not live long enough to apply to the statutory redress scheme. That initial payment on verification of residency in an institution is £10,000. It states that “they will not have to give evidence of being abused but will require documentary evidence which shows that they were in care”. They have also had discussions with HMRC and DWP to ensure that these payments are not considered as taxable earning and that nor would they impact on any social welfare payment.
It is our view that the length of time spent in care should be taken into account, that anyone who meets the criteria in the HIA Inquiry recommendations would qualify for the initial £10,000 for the first year and that there should be an additional premium of £3,000 for each subsequent year.
HIA recommendations state that in the case of the death of a victim or survivor, within an established qualifying period, who would have qualified for redress, that the surviving spouse or children would be awarded just 75% of the redress payment. It is our view that the surviving partner or children should be entitled to 100% of the award. That is only fair, especially given the long delays in establishing this scheme.
The Independent Inquiry into Child Abuse, currently under way in London, has already opened applications to child migrants who were taken to Australia, South Africa and Canada. This includes children taken from England, Scotland, Wales, Isle of Man the Dominions and Dependent Territories. It also includes child migrants taken from here in the North.
I fought from the outset for child migrants from here to be included in the HIA Inquiry. So, we now find that those taken from here as children are already eligible for that £20,000 payment, based on the figure that was recommended in the HIA Report from a completely separate inquiry. While those who were left behind in the same children’s homes here, await legislation to be adopted at Westminster to start our redress process.
The legislation will establish a Commissioner for Victims and Survivors of Historical Institutional Abuse. This will give victims and survivors access to information on benefits, rights and information on the reasons they were placed in care and hopefully have the statutory authority to allow them sight of any record which would assist in the search of family history and personal records pertaining to the birth records and search for their own identity parents, brother and sisters. They have a right to know who they are and be provided counselling and supported in that search.
The Secretary of State has said that she met last week with Sir Anthony Hart, the judge who headed the HIA Inquiry, to seek his input and has asked that he work with her officials so they can deliver. One cannot fault Sir Anthony in the investigative role he had in the HIA Inquiry, nor the findings of abuse and neglect contained in the report.
We are, however, concerned that this may be an opportunity to reinforce many of his recommendations, which we believe fall short of meeting the current and future needs of victims and survivors, at the expense of implementing the improvements which we believe were highlighted in the responses to the consultation and are the subject of the current review of the analysis of those responses and that consultation.
The Prime Minister has been told by the Conservatives’ 1922 committee that she must set out her timetable for departure soon. This increases the urgency with which her Secretary of State for Northern Ireland must act on the issue of Redress for Victims and Survivors.
It is probably taken as read that when the Prime Minister goes, the Secretary of State will also go. This issue needs to be dealt with before that happens. The wait for a new PM and Secretary of State, or a possible general election, will inevitably further delay delivery on redress. We need a commitment from the Secretary of State that she will have this legislation drafted and presented to Parliament at Westminster for immediate action before that happens.
Jon McCourt – Chairman, Survivors North West