HC Deb 01 December 1987 vol 123 cc906-12

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Mr. Durant.]

12.58 am
Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

I welcome the opportunity to bring before the House the problems of people whose property was damaged by an IRA bomb on 16 December 1986. By doing so I hope that I remind the House of the many people, not only those in Belfast, south, but throughout Northern Ireland, who suffer a double jeopardy as a result of terrorism. On the one hand they face the perils of the IRA and on the other the ravage of bureaucracy. To prove that it is appropriate to debate this matter, a bomb was placed outside the York road police station in north Belfast tonight. Thankfully it appears that there has not been a repeat of the catastrophe that occurred in south Belfast a year ago. Tonight's incident reminds us all that this is a continuing problem.

Right hon. and hon. Members will not be likely to remember the incident that happened a year ago, some time after midnight — again there is a connection regarding the time of this debate. There have been many other bombs, and the recent bomb in Enniskillen is fresh in the memory of most people. A year ago there was great devastation in south Belfast. The bomb destroyed the Royal Ulster Constabulary station and an Evangelical Presbyterian church building. It affected some 800 detached and terraced housing. It completely destroyed some of those houses and caused considerable damage to others and several other public buildings near by.

Given that the House has been told about the intense security measures against terrorists, the amazing thing is that that bomb was transported in a school, bus. I know that the Government are fanatical in their pursuit of value for money and that the greatest use must be made of all facilities and personnel. I was brought up in west Belfast, and I do not believe that the thirst for knowledge in that area is so great that night school classes would be held late at night. However, that bus travelled through the area and was not detected or stopped for examination until it reached its target. That says a lot.

I pay tribute to the members of the RUC who sought to evacuate the area quickly and rouse the people. However there were people still in bed when the bomb went off. Mothers with small children were badly affected as well as elderly people. The emergency first aid repair scheme did a reasonable job patching up houses. There the story of help ends.

A self-help committee of working people entered into a bureaucratic jungle to try to get work done. In a letter on 29 July 1987, the Minister claimed that the present arrangements, developed and refined over the years, seemed to work well. That committee would say otherwise. It had to pursue the authorities to get things done. The Minister believed that the Committee wound itself up having achieved its objectives. In fact, the people are still feeling the after-effects.

For example, one house in Brookland street—No. 4 — which had been restored, is now being damaged because the neighbouring house—No. 6—is still lying open to the elements and the vandals. Public money is being wasted. One of the original committee members who lives in No. 8 is still fighting the authorities to implement legal procedures to get the owner of No. 6 to act. Why that person does not act may be debatable. I suspect that it is because he is facing the problems that the others faced previously. To a reasonable extent the Housing Executive fulfilled its obligations to its tenants, but that is not to say that tenants were pleased. They suffered the shock of the bomb, the discomfort caused by workmen doing extensive and minimal repairs, and, in some cases, the continuing effects of bad workmanship. Many also suffered delayed shock. That, of course, was shared by all who experienced the trauma of the attack.

Subsequent helicopter activity in the area, although considered necessary by security chiefs, has added to the tension. Residents find it difficult to sleep at night, and some, who do night work, face the same problem during the day. But the dread of another attack of which inadequate notice is given to evacuate dwellings is the instinctive response to many to the sound of that helicopter.

Those who suffer most from what I call the ravages of bureaucracy are people in the private sector. They shared the previous problems and are responsible for repairing the damage, with officials making every effort to minimise compensation payments. Remember: we are speaking of private dwellings, not business or industrial premises for which, in time, the expense could be recouped.

Assessors take a simplistic attitude, which I faced myself when my home was bombed 17 years ago. They speak of betterment, and regularly allow about 20 per cent, for that. However, that cannot be claimed by the owner-occupier. It is even debatable whether betterment is the right word, when one considers the type of workmanship and materials that are available now, compared with those of the past. When Ministers are reproached on the subject, they calmly state that if a person is aggrieved, he can take the matter to the courts. Right hon. and hon. Members will be aware of the pressures on the courts, which take even longer to settle things. So the owner still suffers.

Let me give one or two illustrations. One single-parent family found great difficulty in getting the work done by a company, and encountered delay, along with her solicitor and surveyor, in obtaining help from the Northern Ireland Office. The Northern Ireland Office assessor gave low valuations. Six months after the explosion, she had still not received a settlement. Finally, in July, she was pressed into a settlement because she had become so weary. The old adage—a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush — held true. Along with others, that woman suffered from the violence of terrorism and the ravages of bureaucracy.

Sometimes, officials do not list all the requirements at once. They ask for one piece of information, and, when the person supplies that, he is told that something else is needed. If officials would list everything required at the beginning, that would shorten the time involved. I know that sharp practices are perpetrated by those who seek to go one better, and the Government, in their opinion, is a broad board from which one should squeeze as much as possible. I am not criticising the Government's good housekeeping; I am criticising the inordinate delays and bad practices of some assessors.

One lady had moved into her house as recently as July 1986, having installed a new damp-proof course and had the house redecorated at a cost of £1,300. She was the head of a single-parent family, trying to teach part-time to look after her child and keep things going. At the time of the bomb damage, her ceiling was not considered worthy of emergency repair, although it was leaking rain. The NIO assessor claimed that the roof suffered from nail fatigue. The difference originally lay between £7,643.16 and an offer of £2,214.70, which allowed about £365 for a new roof.

Fatigued though the nails might have been, if it had not been for the bomb the roof would have lasted for quite a long time. If any builder can put on a new roof for £365, I should like to know his name so that I can recommend him to my friends.

By 29 October this claim had not been resolved, although some movement had occurred. No work had been done, because the settlement had not been granted. Earlier, I said that the bomb affected about 800 houses. We learned tonight that most of them have now been sorted out, but that about 150 have yet to be settled. I do not know whether that is a good going rate, but I do know that at least 150 families are still facing the ravages of bureaucracy.

I shall give a final illustration of the problem. A young couple had to move out of their house because of its poor state as a result of the bombing. When the loss adjuster for the Northern Ireland Office made his first visit to Brookland street, he had no equipment and borrowed a child's torch to use in the attic space. When my constituent, who was concerned to get things sorted out, kept phoning the office involved, the clerk handling the file got angry and telephoned my constituent's solicitor to complain about the phone calls. There is something wrong when a public servant starts to complain because a member of the public who is the aggrieved interested party keeps pressing for action.

When the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland was interviewed by the BBC outside the remains of the police station on 17 December last year he said: All claims will be settled without delay. This must ring hollow to some and at least to one person, who has still not settled. Because the family are seeking to repair the house and sell it and because they have been forced in the meantime to move elsewhere. I have been told that that may have a bearing on the basis of settlement, as mentioned in a letter to me from the Minister as recently as 12 October.

I could enlarge upon the argument, but tempus fugit. I hope that the House now understands a little better some of the problems of my constituents and of other people throughout Northern Ireland that result from 18 years of terrorism. They suffer not only from the terrorism of the IRA but from the ravages of bureaucracy.

1.12 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Dr. Brian Mawhinney)

I share the view of the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) that this subject is of very considerable importance. I welcome the opportunity to take part with him in this debate. The hon. Gentleman is to be congratulated on the commitment that he has shown in pursuing the interests of his constituents since the bomb went off almost a year ago.

It may be helpful to the House if I give a brief summary of the bomb attack. As the hon. Gentleman said, a school bus was hijacked and a bomb containing approximately 600 lbs. of explosives was loaded on board. The driver was forced to take it to the RUC station on the Lisburn road where the alarm was raised. Only 20 minutes were given for people to be evacuated from the area and, as the hon. Gentleman said, that was in the early hours of the morning. That in itself is a reflection of the sort of people that we are dealing with.

Although most of the area was evacuated when the bomb exploded, as we have been told it caused very extensive damage to property. The hon. Gentleman will not know that a couple of days later I was at a function in that part of the city and at about midnight I visited the station and saw for myself the devastation there. It was so bad that the station had to be demolished. Many residential properties, shops and vehicles over a wide area were damaged. Coming as it did just before Christmas and during a period of very cold weather, this attack showed yet again the callousness and the despicable behaviour of the Provisional IRA. It could not have failed to realise that such a large bomb placed in a high-density area would seriously affect the lives of many ordinary people, including the elderly, the sick, the disabled and the young. I join the hon. Gentleman in saying that, had it not been for the prompt action and bravery of the security forces, many innocent people would probably have been killed or seriously maimed by that outrageous attack. It was indeed fortunate that there were relatively few casualties. The hon. Gentleman and I share a particular concern to express out deep unhappiness at the desecration of the church beside the station.

Various Government Departments and other agencies are involved in the aftermath of major bomb incidents, and the Lisburn road bombing was no exception. Representatives from the Northern Ireland Office, the Department of the Environment, the Department of Health and Social Services, the Northern Ireland Housing Executive and the welfare services were all quickly on the scene after the area had been cleared by the security forces. An advice centre, manned by the various statutory agencies, was set up on the morning of the incident, and during that week more than 260 callers were given advice and assistance on how to claim compensation.

Obviously, the immediate priority following an explosion of this nature is, of course, to wind and waterproof the damaged dwellings, and, with a few exceptions, that was accomplished by 16 December. The Department of the Environment also arranged for temporary repairs to be carried out under its first aid repair scheme. Much of the work was undertaken by the Housing Executive's own work force, but additionally a number of outside contractors were engaged to do repair work, and two firms of consultants were retained to supervise it. Tremendous efforts were made by all concerned to accomplish as much as was humanly possible before Christmas. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman recognised that in his speech.

I think that it would be appropriate at this point to pay tribute to the resourcefulness of the residents in the face of such devastation. I entirely take the hon. Gentleman's point that not only did they suffer physical damage to their property—which is outrageous and upsetting enough— but they also suffered emotional damage, with the fear and uncertainty that that brings. That is one of the aspects of life in Northern Ireland, subject to terrorist attack and threat as it is. Those who do not live there do not appreciate the reality as much as those who do.

Despite the personal difficulties that residents experienced, they still found time and energy to assist those less fortunate, especially the sick and the aged. They also showed foresight in setting up an action committee to spur others into action, to co-ordinate repair work and to speed up compensation claims. Officials from the Northern Ireland Office had a particularly useful meeting with the action committee, under the chairmanship of the then lord mayor, Mr. Wilson, when formal liaison arrangements were established.

Let me quote the chairman of the action committee, Mr. Ken Cummings, as reported in the News Letter on 2 June, when the committee, having largely achieved its objectives, was disbanded. He said: most of the repairs have been carried out. Most people have agreed sums with the Northern Ireland Office. There are still a few cases outstanding but we have done most of the work the committee was set up to do. I shall return in a moment to the cases that have not been settled. Perhaps it will be helpful to the House, however, if I turn first to the compensation arrangements in Northern Ireland. There is of course, no equivalent scheme elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

The purpose of the criminal damage compensation legislation is to compensate any person whose property is damaged either as a consequence of terrorism or unlawfully by three or more people. The underlying principle—this is important in relation to some of what the hon. Gentleman said—is that an applicant should be restored, in so far as it is possible to do so financially, to the position that he was in before the damage occurred. That is obviously an area of debate.

The hon. Gentleman cited some examples of where honest people had an honest difference of opinion in trying to assess what was the state before the damage occurred. The principles governing the award of compensation are well established in law, as are the procedures under which claims are made and determined. The assessment of compensation generally follows common law principles and is payable both in respect of actual damage and consequential loss.

Mr. Roy Beggs (Antrim, East)

Does the Minister agree that legislation does not permit all those who suffer loss because of terrorist activity in Northern Ireland, and especially in the business sector, to be compensated?

Dr. Mawhinney

I was coming to that very point.

Assessment is generally based on reinstatement cost, except in the case of investment properties or markedly unprofitable businesses, where compensation is based on market value. Claims are made to, and determined in the first instance by, the Secretary of State. Obviously, an applicant must substantiate his claim, and it is recognised that he may need professional advice and assistance to do so. If his claim is successful, he is reimbursed for all reasonable legal and other costs. If an applicant is not satisfied with the decision of the Secretary of State, he may appeal against it in the county court and thereafter to the High Court if he is still dissatisfied.

That answers one of the points the hon. Member for Belfast, South made. I am sure he was not suggesting that he did not wish to have that backstop of the appeal to the court in the event of genuine disagreement. That is a benefit to his constituents and others in Northern Ireland. But I assure him that we make every effort to settle amicably and reasonably and that we do not see the court as an easy option to enable the Northern Ireland Office to avoid trying to come to an agreed settlement with people who have suffered criminal damage.

Rev. Martin Smyth

Is it not a fact that most people in Northern Ireland facing the question of the courts see that as another hurdle to surmount? While I recognise the concept of a backstop, it can also be used as a polite lever —"You may wait for months and do worse".

Dr. Mawhinney

That is factually the case; they might wait for months and do worse. It is not for Ministers to prejudge what the courts will decide. But we are of similar mind that it is a backstop, and I believe—speaking from memory—that there were probably only five or six cases in this whole incident which were going to court, and that is a measure of the point I am making.

As a result of the bomb attack, a total of 512 claims were lodged for damage to property, of which 322 have been finalised, leaving 190 outstanding. Six of the outstanding cases — I do not have to state this from memory — are subject to appeal in the county court. Interim payments have been paid in 59 cases, and in 47 cases offers of compensation have been made. The most common cause for lack of action in the remaining cases is that detailed documentation has not yet been submitted. The amount of compensation paid so far is about £900,000.

I think it perfectly legitimate for the hon. Gentleman to ask whether, at the end of the year, I can be more specific about exactly what is holding up the cases on which payment has not yet been made. Excluding the six cases that are going to the county court, that leaves 184. Claims where final offers have been made, as I have said, are 47. Claims where the offers have been made but clarification has been sought by the applicant number five. There are six claims in which details are outstanding from the applicant and in which the Department has sought discovery. There are 47 claims awaiting a loss adjuster's report and two awaiting a valuation office report. There are 49 claims awaiting details of quantum from the applicant's professional advisers and 28 claims awaiting other information from the applicant and or his advisers.

I make no criticism of those who have to bring together documents and professional advice to submit it to the Department. I hope that the Gentleman will find those detailed figures helpful and will understand that the Department does not seek to slow down the process in any way; it is trying to respond as quickly as possible as soon as the documentation becomes available to it.

I take the hon. Gentleman's helpful and constructive point that it might help to speed things up if the Department had a comprehensive list of the information that it required and could make that list available immediately if such an occurrence happened again. We hope that such occurrences will be rare. I shall certainly draw his suggestion to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Minister of State. I shall also ask my right hon. Friend to inquire in particular into the case of No. 6 Brookland street to which the hon. Gentleman referred and ask him to write to the hon. Gentleman.

Rev. Martin Smyth

Will the Minister tell us what is the delay in the 46 cases in which an assessor's report is awaited? Is that an assessor from the Northern Ireland Office or an independent assessor trying to value the claim on behalf of the claimant?

Dr. Mawhinney

The hon. Gentleman is pushing me too far on the details. I suggest that he writes to my right hon. Friend the Minister of State if he seeks such information.

It is perfectly understandable that those who have been disadvantaged in this way should want to telephone to find out how things are progressing and to chase their case. However, the hon. Gentleman will accept that, if that happens too much, it gets in the way of progress on the case. We need a happy balance. I am sure that no official was gratuitously rude, but we need a balance between the claimant's legitimate concern and the ability of the Department to get on and do the job.

The hon. Gentleman made much of what he called the bureaucratic jungle. I hope that on reflection he will feel that things are not quite as bad as the picture that he painted. The Northern Ireland Office is staffed with hardworking and conscientious officials who seek to discharge a difficult job. Most would accept that they do it with a commendable degree of professionalism and good humour.

The hon. Gentleman is right that, as we are dealing with large sums of public money—£900,000 so far—we have a statutory responsibility to ensure that that money is accounted for and used only for the purposes for which we are expected to use it. Perhaps that is all encompassed by the hon. Gentleman's phrase "good housekeeping".

I am satisfied that every effort has been made not only to alleviate the hardship of those who suffered from this outrage but to expedite the payment of compensation and the restoration of the damaged property. The House should be grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing us to examine this issue. I hope that he feels that the debate has been worthwhile, not only for him but for his constituents.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes past One o'clock.