HL Deb 19 November 2002 vol 641 cc257-9

3.6 p.m

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

asked Her Majesty's Government:

For how much longer the Saville inquiry is expected to last; how much it has cost to date; and what the final cost is estimated to be.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the inquiry has indicated that on current plans it expects to report during 2004. I pause for the hiss to be recorded. Up to the end of October 2002 the total cost of the inquiry to the Government was £93 million. It is estimated that the final cost will be £155 million, subject to the outcome of the judicial reviews of decisions on lawyers' fees.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, I pause to get my breath back. Has the time not come for the noble and learned Lord and his colleagues to reflect on the fact that the inquiry is into events which took place more than 30 years ago; has cost £93 million (I was flabbergasted by the noble and learned Lord's figure); and has gone on for four years?

Despite what the noble and learned Lord the chairman has said, does not the Minister agree that this has come to look more like a trial every day, with the Army, already under very considerable pressures at this time, in the dock? I should hate to be impertinent, but I wonder whether the time has not come when the noble and learned Lord the chairman would not be better employed performing his duties in your Lordships' House.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, it was a long time ago, but the allegations are of the utmost gravity. Whether the allegations are true ought to be determined. Part of the cost, which is large, is that those members of Her Majesty's Armed Forces who served at that time, whether they are still serving or not, are entitled to have legal representation. It seems to me that what was said by Mr Hague, the then Leader of the Conservative Party, was right. He said: if the Prime Minister is personally satisfied—on the basis of the strong advice he has received—that genuine, fresh and compelling evidence has now been submitted which is significant enough to warrant the reopening of the inquiry, we shall accept his judgment".—[Official Report, Commons, 29/1/98; col. 504.] For my part, whatever the expense and whatever the consequences, I believe that the Prime Minister was right.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, does not the Minister agree that there is something very wrong with a peace process which since 1998 has spent all that money on a single event in which 13 people sadly died—and I take his point about its importance—but has allocated only £18.25 million over the same period to the needs of victims? Most of the money has gone to initiatives, strategies and programmes, but does not the Minister believe that as we are dealing with a peace and healing process some of it might have been used to deal with and address the violence from the paramilitaries on the streets? That seems to me to be just as important as the issue he has raised.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the noble Baroness is right in that both issues are important. But it is a false opposition to suggest that an inquiry might to be under-funded in order for other worthy purposes to be achieved. Very substantial public resource is devoted to the problems of paramilitary violence a l the moment, as the noble Baroness knows.

Lord Smith of Clifton

My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord agree that a more general point is at issue here—namely, that it is not only this inquiry that has cost a lot of money? There have been other protracted and costly inquiries. Is it not time that the Government set up one of their favourite task forces—preferably not under a lawyer—to look at how such inquiries can be expedited, rather than to continue going about these things in the conventional way?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the noble Lord makes a valid point. It is a question of the structure of any inquiry and whether it should be more of an inquisition rather than an adversarial proceeding. Certainly I have taken part in an inquiry which was largely inquisitorial and was able to report relatively inexpensively and fairly promptly.

Lord Glentoran

My Lords, I admit that I spoke against the opening of this inquiry. At that time I was a Member of the Back Benches. I certainly go along with my former leader in another place, William Hague. Does the Leader of the House agree that in the context of all the tragedies which have taken place over 30 years—the number of people who have been killed, the soldiers who have been murdered, the civilians who have been slaughtered—in the name of terrorism and the unification of Ireland, to spend this amount of money on a continuing sore which must be, and can only be, working from one side to the other to aggravate against the peace process, is not sensible?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I do not think that it is working, ultimately, to the detriment of the peace process. These are, I repeat, serious allegations of criminal activity against servants of the Crown. If wrong-doing occurred, it must be exposed. If wrong-doing did not occur, that must be explained also. Those against whom allegations are made are entitled to their representation and to their day.

Lord Rogan

My Lords, given that many of the key witnesses to events being examined by the Saville inquiry are either very old or deceased, how confident is the noble and learned Lord that an accurate conclusion can be arrived at? Is not the inquiry another down-payment—today we have heard that it will cost £155 million of taxpayers' money—in return for Sinn Fein/IRA's limited engagement in the Northern Ireland political process?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, in the nature of things, many of the witnesses will be old and some of them are dead. This is a common experience which judges meet from time to time. The three members of the tribunal are eminent judges who will have to set those issues in their context. But, of course, we have film from the time, we have journalists' recollections at the time and we have many sources of live, direct evidence. It is a matter for the noble and learned Lord, Lord Saville, and his judicial colleagues to weigh all the evidence and to come to their judicial and judicious conclusion.

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville

My Lords, can the noble and learned Lord remind the House of the cost estimate when this long legal journey was embarked upon?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, if there was one, I do not know what it was. But my experience is that any estimate of legal costs is normally inadequate.

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