Compensation scheme for abuse survivors ‘must be launched’ despite lockdown

A compensation scheme for survivors of historical abuse must be launched as scheduled next week despite the coronavirus lockdown, a campaigner has said.

Jon McCourt, of the group Survivors North West, said a virtual launch could deliver progress for victims without compromising safety with a public gathering.

Victims have already endured long delays in their campaign for recognition and compensation.

Paying compensation to those who suffered harm when they were in homes run by the church and state was among recommendations from the Historical Institutional Abuse (HIA) public inquiry in 2016.

Child abuse inquiry hearing
Child abuse inquiry hearing

It examined allegations of physical, emotional and sexual harm of children in residential institutions between 1922 and 1995.

But the collapse of Stormont in January 2017 delayed that process.

In December the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, David Sterling, said the application for abuse payments for those victims and survivors of historical abuse will open in March.

Mr McCourt told the PA news agency that yet another delay – even one that cannot be helped – would be a blow to victims.

“The milestone date for the launch of the redress process was March 31, that was given to us by David Sterling long before this particular crisis,” he said.

“Everything right now is up in the air, but even though everything is up in the air I am very, very aware that some see this as another delay – which it is, but this one is not a manufactured delay.

“It was supposed to be a public launch. Last week the word was it wouldn’t be a public launch but didn’t say there wasn’t going to be a launch.

“One way or another, the launch should go ahead, the opening of this redress should take place on March 31.”

Mr McCourt acknowledged that further steps following the launch such as lawyers taking statements and access to documents will be delayed due to the coronavirus crisis, and also revealed that the building where the redress board is based is closed for a deep clean.

But he emphasised that symbolically it is important to the victims that the scheme is opened.

“Everything has conspired against us but let the launch date be March 31,” he added.

“Even if the president of the board says as far as he is concerned the official date for opening this will be March 31, the process is opened, and when we can we will get on with it.”

A Stormont committee heard on Wednesday that coronavirus is creating “huge challenges” for the process.

Civil servant Mark Browne warned: “The virus is moving quicker than the law is at this point.”

Stormont Executive Office officials Mr Browne and Gareth Johnston gave evidence to a scrutiny committee of the devolved Assembly about rules surrounding the redress scheme.

They said restrictions linked to Covid-19 were changing and tightening day-by-day.