HC Deb 01 February 1993 vol 218 cc117-24

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

10.16 pm
Mr. John D. Taylor (Strangford)

I am delighted to be called at this early hour, albeit to talk about treason in the United Kingdom. Treason has just been committed by the Government in the earlier debate on Maastricht—[Interruption] I am now referring to a second aspect of treason.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse)

Will hon. Members leaving the Chamber please do so quietly?

The Comptroller of Her Majesty's Household (Mr. David Lightbown)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The right hon. Member for Strangford (Mr. Taylor) used the word "treason".

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I did not hear what the right hon. Member said. If he used that word, I have no doubt that he will wish to withdraw it.

Mr. Taylor

I am talking about treason in the United Kingdom by the IRA, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Tonight's debate is about bombing by terrorists in the United Kingdom, especially in the village of Newtownbreda, in my constituency. Treason is bad, and that is why hon. Members in all parts of the House deplore treason when it is committed, and we know when it is committed.

On 23 September last year I left my constituency and caught the evening plane to come to the House for a special sitting to debate the decision by Her Majesty's Government to leave the exchange rate mechanism, a decision which most hon. Members welcomed, even though at the time some people opposed it. Those who opposed it and referred to it as black Wednesday now gratefully refer to it as white Wednesday. Such is the change in politics in this country.

As I arrived at my home in Westminster that night, I switched on the 11 o'clock news to learn that there had been a major explosion in what was described as south Belfast. I am glad to see the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) in the Chamber. Naturally, I was anxious to obtain more details about the explosion, so I listened to the midnight news. To my horror, I discovered that the explosion was not in south Belfast but in Strangford, in my constituency, at the forensic science laboratory in the village of Newtownbreda.

It was a major explosion, one of the largest to have occurred in the United Kingdom. It resulted in damage to 1,002 homes in my constituency, in Brerton crescent, in the large Belvoir estate and in widespread areas of Newtownbreda. I came to my office at 6.30 the next morning. I went on Downtown Radio and BBC Radio Ulster to broadcast to the people in my constituency concern about what had happened and to advise them what should be done. We then had the debate in the House on the economic crisis facing the United Kingdom.

On the next day, Friday, I flew back to Northern Ireland with the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland), who visited Belvoir. I am glad to say that on the following day, Saturday, she visited Belvoir for another three hours, accompanied by the local Presbyterian minister, Rev. Brian Black, who took her around many of the homes. For the first time she saw the reality of IRA terrorism in Northern Ireland. I shall quote what the hon. Lady said at that time:

It is just devastating. One had to be on the spot to really appreciate the cruelty of this terrorist attack in a residential area. I am overwhelmed by the kind welcome given to me and by the sheer guts of the people of Newtownbreda to overcome this criminal attack. I am very impressed at the quick response of the various support agencies, but obviously much more needs to be done. That IRA attack on the forensic science laboratory in Newtownbreda damaged 1,002 homes. Mr. Deputy Speaker, if that had happened in your constituency or in any constituency in England, it would have caused a national crisis and would have attracted the Government's urgent attention. It certainly would have gained the headlines in all the national newspapers. I am sorry to say that such a major event in Northern Ireland is almost dismissed in London.

Elderly and young people were made homeless. Forty-two houses were totally destroyed and made uninhabitable. Five months after the explosion, many people are still not back in their homes.

The IRA commits outrages almost daily in Northern Ireland. It has been happening for 23 years. The majority community in Northern Ireland is critical of the Government's failure to bring the terrorists under control, but that is not the subject of tonight's debate. The subject is the specific problem in the Newtownbreda and Belvoir area. The people of Belvoir were by far the largest section of the community affected by the bomb. They have responded magnificently to the challenge from the IRA.

On the Sunday after the bomb explosion, I went to the united church service in the Presbyterian church hall. The Presbyterian church was destroyed, as was the Methodist church and the Church of Ireland parish church. The Church of Ireland parish church is now in ruins, but I am glad to say that it is rising from the ashes. The other two churches are now back in operation.

I went to the united church service and was greatly encouraged by the spirit of the community. At the same time, a second service was held in the Belvoir activity centre. That service had been organised by the Church of Ireland. My wife attended the service. She came home with the same experience of a people who would not be beaten into the ground by the IRA terrorists, but it is easy to say that. None the less, families had great economic and social problems and stress was placed on them. Those are challenges which the Government and politicians face.

Of the 1,002 houses which were damaged, 42 were damaged to the extent that the people had to get out. Many of those people are still not back in their homes. I have a parliamentary reply to confirm that 10 per cent. of the houses—more than 100 houses—were badly damaged. Of the 1,002 houses that were damaged, 428 were privately owned. Belvoir is a mixed estate in which some houses have been acquired by the residents and are now privately owned. The others remain under the ownership of the public housing authority, which in Northern Ireland is called the Housing Executive.

I must place on record the appreciation of the community at large of the response of the public authorities. Under the leadership of Castlereagh borough council, of which the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) and I have the honour to be members, the Belvoir activity centre became the nerve centre for the reaction to that IRA terrorist outrage. The council is particularly proud of that centre, which opened one year ago.

At the centre, the Housing Executive, the Law Society, the social services agencies, the Northern Ireland Office and other public institutions set up offices to help and advise people on how best to respond to their terrible experience. I understand that experience because I have had five properties bombed by the IRA in the past 23 years. I know exactly the procedures through which one must go. In the early 1970s, when I was a member of a firm of consulting engineers and architects, I acted in a professional capacity on behalf of more than 500 claimants for compensation and settled their claims, I hope successfully. We dealt with the old county councils and subsequently with the Northern Ireland Office.

I have praised the various public agencies. I should also like to mention the Royal Ulster Constabulary. If the two local community policemen had not seen the bomb in the van outside the forensic department, tragedy would have taken place. Bad as the bomb was, the great thing is that no lives were lost. We can replace bricks and rebuild homes—it is happening—but we can never re-create lives. Luckily, lives were not lost. That is why religious services were held in Belvoir. They were services of thanksgiving that, despite the misery of the bomb explosion, no human life had been lost.

Those who live in privately owned homes are still suffering. The Housing Executive carried out a first-class operation. It moved in immediately and made all houses, rented and privately owned, watertight by putting tarpaulin over the roofs. It then proceeded to concentrate on repairing its houses—about 500 out of the 1,002. It rightly took pleasure in stating before Christmas that all its 500 houses were repaired and the people were back in them. That was to the credit of the Housing Executive. That must be placed on record, because the bomb damage was a major challenge for the executive. It was a major crisis.

I am sorry to say that the problem continues for the private owners. I foresaw that and stated it on the radio at 6.30 on the morning after the explosion, fewer than 12 hours after the explosion. I warned that the problem would be the owner-occupiers. From my experience of dealing with such problems, I realised what the problems were. I realised, such was the extent of the damage, involving more than 400 private owners, that there would be a major problem.

On 23 October 1992, one month after the bomb exploded, the Northern Ireland Office had received claims for compensation from the occupiers of 890 out of the 1,002 houses damaged. I am sorry to say that, a month after the bombing, each claimant had received an average of only £30. On 6 November 1992, of the 42 private house owners, only five had received more than £2,000 in compensation. Yet on 24 September, one day after the bombing, the Government were able to state that 10 per cent. of the 1,000 houses had been badly damaged, and that 42 were wrecked.

Anyone with experience in the construction industry, or in the allied professions, would have known from walking around those homes that many would need expenditure of between £20,000 and £30,000 for them to be restored and made habitable again. Given that, the Northern Ireland Office should have been able to make an immediate interim award of £10,000 or £15,000 to the people concerned so that they could start to rebuild their homes. People had lost their roofs; their ceilings had caved in; their kitchens were wrecked; their beds had been destroyed; their sitting rooms were in crisis. Some were sleeping on the floor, with water dripping on them. Emergency action was required in the form of interim compensation awards; but such action was not taken.

No ordinary person in Belvoir, Newtownbreda, Belfast or anywhere in England can produce £30,000 overnight to restore his home. A person who loses his home, as a result of a bombing or any other tragedy, will need money with which to restore it; but after securing that money, he is caught in a trap—unless he has a very kind bank manager.

The public authority homes—the Northern Ireland Housing Executive homes—were being repaired steadily and efficiently; all credit is due to the executive for that. Meanwhile, the owner-occupiers were waiting for their interim compensation awards, and receiving very little. As I have said, they were receiving an average of £30 each a month after the bombing, and on 6 November five had received just over £2,000 apiece. Even on 10 December —just before Christmas—only three applicants in Belvoir had received an interim award of more than £10,000.

When I went to the midnight Church of Ireland communion service on Christmas eve and met the people again, they confirmed that little progress had been made. Of the 42 who had lost their homes, 14 were living in caravans on that frosty night, in dreadful conditions—surrounded by muck and quagmire, running up big electricity and heating bills in the mobile homes to which they were not used, and still waiting for major compensation.

The Government must respond quickly to the needs not just of those in Housing Executive homes but of those in privately owned homes. The Northern Ireland Office, and the Northern Ireland compensation agency, must adopt a new approach to home owners. To its credit, the Northern Ireland Office recognises that a problem exists; but it was caught unawares by the bombing on 23 September. It emerged that the Department had no policy to deal with a bomb that affected such a large number of privately owned homes.

Eight days after the bombing—not the day after, but eight days later—the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland announced a new policy: the Northern Ireland Housing Executive would take over responsibility for reinstating the privately owned homes. But it was too late. Not one person from the 428 privately owned homes took up that offer. Why? Because it was too late.

The law in Northern Ireland is simple. When one suffers damage because of a terrorist bomb or an illegal organisation, one must serve notice, within 10 days of the atrocity, that one intends to apply for compensation. As a result of the enterprise of Castlereagh borough council at the Belvoir activity centre and the various agencies that were working so well in the community centre at the time, the people were well organised.

The Secretary of State has complimented the borough council and the people for being so well organised and for responding so efficiently to the outrage. They had appointed their solicitors, quantity surveyors and builders, as they were told to do. Having made those commitments, and knowing that they had to serve notice of a claim within 10 days, they suddenly read in the Belfast Telegraph, nine days after the explosion, that they need not have done so at all. I see that the Minister is nodding his head—

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Michael Males)

No; I was shaking my head.

Mr. Taylor

The proof is in the pudding, and not one person from the 428 privately owned houses took up the offer from the Housing Executive to fix their houses because it came too late.

Regrettably, the Government did not have a policy. They have one now and have applied it to other major bomb explosion—for example, recently at Glengormley, in the constituency of Antrim, South. Private owners there have taken the opportunity of getting the Housing Executive to repair their houses. That could not apply in Belvoir because it came too late. That is why the way to resolve the problem was to get urgent interim compensation awards made to the house owners.

Four months after the bomb, people are still living in caravans and running up large bills. I want the Minister to explain to the House and to my constituents whether those electricity bills, which are much larger than the bills that they would have received had they been in their homes, will be considered when the final compensation awards are made.

I also want the Minister to reconsider the operation of the Northern Ireland Compensation Agency. I am not criticising the staff of the agency, who have worked hard during the past three months and have had to deal with 2,500 compensation claims during that time, which is 50 per cent. of their normal work load for a year. The limited staff in the Northern Ireland compensation agency were extended to the limit because of the lack of staffing and the increase in republican terrorism in Northern Ireland. I know that that costs money, which is always a problem in public life.

If the Government are presiding over increased republican terrorism, they must provide more staffing for the Northern Ireland compensation agency. Without adequate staff it cannot respond quickly in a case such as Belvoir. Four months after the bomb people are still living in caravans. The tarpaulins that were put on their roofs on 24 September 1992 have finally been removed during the past two or three weeks. Therefore, much as we appreciate the work of the compensation agency, we hope that the Minister will increase its staff.

Finally, will the Minister remove the forensic science institution from Newtownbreda? It is the second time that we have had a bomb explosion. The people of Belvoir, Brerton crescent and the surrounding district cannot be asked to endure the possibility of a third explosion at those premises.

10.40 pm
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Michael Mates)

I am glad to have the chance to reply to the right hon. Member for Strangford (Mr. Taylor), and I shall try to cover all the issues that he raised, although he has left me very little time.

More than 1,000 tenants and owner-occupiers suffered damage to their homes as a result of the outrageous attack on the forensic laboratory, and it is right that the right hon. Gentleman should be concerned that everything possible has been done to alleviate the problems that were, and are still being, faced by many of his constituents.

By that callous act, the Provisional IRA has demonstrated yet again its utter disregard for the lives and property of ordinary people. It was mostly fortuitous that nobody was killed or seriously injured. I join the right hon. Gentleman in paying tribute, not only to the two members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary who warned people and saved lives, but to the two local security guards inside the forensic laboratory who raised the alarm. They acted with great courage and speed, which is why we are not discussing the deaths of many people.

As the right hon. Gentleman will know, I visited the scene on the day after the incident and saw the destruction, pain and suffering at first hand. It is a tribute to all the people in Ulster that they continue to be so resilient in the face of such acts, not just in Ulster but elsewhere.

The right hon. Gentleman was wrong when he said that the Government had no policy. They have a perfectly good policy, which was created when the right hon. Gentleman had some responsibility for such matters and set out rules on criminal compensation for damage. Although they have been varied, they remain roughly unchanged.

The Newtownhreda incident was exceptional because, as the right hon. Gentleman said, there were involved many Housing Executive houses and many private houses, most of which had been purchased from the Housing Executive by people in the middle to late stages of their lives. We faced a problem, and the first thing that happened on the morning after the incident was that an executive decision was taken that instant repairs would be made to private houses as well as Housing Executive houses. Clearly it would have been wrong if panes of glass and leaking roofs were not mended as an emergency action.

The right hon. Gentleman rightly paid tribute to the Housing Executive, which took on that job. I join him in paying tribute to all the agencies—local government, Northern Ireland Office and voluntary organisations—that quickly set up shop and remained there throughout the weekend. They all did a marvellous job—from the solicitors who advised people to the volunteers who provided creche facilities for the children. Other services, including the social services, were present. People who had suffered trauma were counselled. The people charged with responsibility in such a major disaster came out of it with great credit.

The right hon. Gentleman was right to say that on 1 October my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State announced that the Housing Executive could carry out repairs for owner-occupiers in the district in return for an assignment of compensation. That was in response to the massive amount of damage, and to give owner-occupiers the opportunity to have the same service as had been available to Housing Executive tenants who were living beside them.

It was an unusual situation as one house was a Housing Executive property and the next one was private, the next Housing Executive. After consultation we took the decision that it would be right to offer them all the same treatment. It has been suggested—I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman suggested it again—that the announcement came too late for the owner-occupiers because of the statutory requirement that a notice of intention to claim compensation should be lodged within 10 days.

However, the timing of my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State's announcement had no bearing on the matter as it was made perfectly clear that anyone intending to have their repairs carried out by the Housing Executive had to make an application for compensation. Therefore, the claim for compensation had to be made, no matter who was to carry out the repair. The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that those who had taken advice and potentially spent money on lawyers, architects and accountants would have received the same service. The money would have been repaid to them. We were taking on the offer to repair the houses and agreeing to treat them in the same way—the Housing Executive would have been repaid by the compensation agency.

None of the owners took up our offer. That was their right; it was their right to make their own decisions on who should carry out the repairs. Having taken all the advice available to them, they chose to stick with the private sector, and I do not argue with that decision. However, they cannot blame us for not having made the offer, because our offer was clearly made.

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East)

I would not want the Minister to get the impression that the policy, as it is now stated, does not work satisfactorily. Although it was not taken up in the Belvoir case, largely because people had committed themselves to builders and others, the Minister should not do away with the policy. He should publicise it and make it better known so that in other incidents—please God that there be no more—the offer can be taken up more quickly.

Mr. Mates

We were attempting to make the peculiar circumstances of that disaster match the Government's response. The right hon. Member for Strangford said that the policy has been used since, but the following bomb to which he referred largely affected commercial property and caused very little private damage. Each case is different. The Government are trying to approach each problem sympathetically and to provide a solution. The right hon. Gentleman is right—

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at fourteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.