It could take more than 10 years to process all applications to a Troubles victims’ compensation scheme, MPs have been told.
The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee also heard that the scheme may require some victims to retell their story several times, and that some people who are eligible are not coming forward due to a lack of trust.
The committee met on Monday to discuss issues relating to the Troubles Permanent Disablement Payment Scheme, also referred to as the Victims’ Payments Scheme.
The scheme was set up after years of campaigning by victims to distribute recognition payments for those seriously injured through no fault of their own in a Troubles-related incident.
It covers violence related to the Northern Ireland Troubles between 1966 and 2010.
Payments range from £2,000 to £10,000 per annum, or those over the age of 60 can choose to receive a lump payment.
The Victims’ Payments Board was established in February 2021 to determine applications for the scheme.
The president of the Victims’ Payments Board Mr Justice McAlinden recognised that there was a delay in payments but that there was “complexity” involved in assessing applications.
“I can fully appreciate that there are frustrations with the time taken in the processing of applications,” he said.
“The answer I meet them with is simply this – that the time taken is evidence of the care taken by the board to ensure that every application is dealt with fairly and properly.
“And every piece of information that can be retrieved is retrieved and carefully scrutinised to ensure that no-one falls through the net and no-one is left without an appropriate recognition of the harm that they have suffered.”
Mr Justice McAlinden also said that despite the scheme being time bound, it would require long-term financial investment and monitoring.
“Obviously, the scheme is time limited and I think we’re probably going to deal with the backdating issue as well, but in essence I would hope that all those who are eligible under the scheme will have their applications in before the scheme closes,” he said.
“In terms of when those applications will be processed and how long it will take to process all the applications, my estimate is that we will still have some form of residual board performing the process of making determinations on the 10th anniversary of the set-up of the scheme and probably beyond that.
“And in terms of the monthly payment arrangements that are made and prospective applicants and issues of that nature, there will have to be a long-term plan put in place to ensure the continuity of payments etc, the transfer of payments to the relatives of victims, issues such as that will require long-term funding and long-term planning.”
Mr Justice McAlinden added: “I foresee that this board will have a lot of work to do for many years after the closing date of this scheme, but that is by the very nature of the task that we are faced with which is a complex task.”
Ian Jeffers, commissioner of the Commission for Victims and Survivors Northern Ireland, told the committee that during the application process some victims would have to relive traumatising experiences.
“They’re telling their story at that point to get it committed to paper, then they’re telling their story, you know, potentially two, three, four times along the way, quite often to people that they do not know and do not trust,” he said.
“And when we consider the nature of what they’re sharing, it takes time for victims to build that sort of trust, to feel confident to tell their story.
“And it’s simply wrong, I think, that we make somebody tell their story three, four or five times through this process, for the most complex ones, and those that need assessments and so forth.
“So I think that’s an area we should look at and see is there a way that that can be streamlined.”
A further issue raised in relation to the application process for the scheme was the concept that victims needed to be present in the “immediate aftermath” of an event in order to receive compensation.
Mr Jeffers said the “immediate aftermath” was excluding some people who had been impacted by trauma from the conflict from eligibility in the scheme.
“One example I have is a family involved in one of the larger incidents and five in the family, one was killed,” he said.
“Three were actually at the scene, one wasn’t but they’ve all applied and the one that wasn’t will not qualify, doesn’t qualify because they weren’t at the immediate aftermath, despite the fact that they don’t have a mum.”
He added: “I think we do need to provide really clear advice on what we mean about the immediate aftermath.”
Siobhan O’Neill, professor of mental health sciences at Ulster University, said it would be helpful to have more population data on who is eligible to encourage them to come forward.
“There’s certainly fear and mistrust, there might be an issue around people feeling that they don’t want to benefit from something that was so negative,” she said.
“They don’t want to revisit this, that they have recovered or they feel that they have somewhat recovered, and that going through this would be harmful for them personally.”
She added: “Four per cent of the population report to bereavement, 7% mental health affected or witnessed a conflict-related incident, so there’s still high proportions of our population who are affected by the conflict, who report being a victim or meet the definition for being a victim.
“So I think we really need to work a little bit harder to find those people who are eligible but who are not applying and to understand why that is, so that we can bring them in.
“Because this is supposed to recognise the needs of victims and send a strong signal that we care about victims in Northern Ireland and we want to help people who have struggled as a result of our conflict here, and it’s not really doing that in the way that it should be.”