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Local Government (Contracts) Bill

Report received.

Public Processions etc. (Northern Ireland) Bill [H.L.]

3.23 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office (Lord Dubs): My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. Over the past few years, tensions surrounding disputed parades have left deep scars on Northern Irish society, revealing unprecedented sectarian distrust and division and at times presenting a serious threat to public order. The tensions surrounding disputed parades threaten to overshadow the fact that the vast majority of parades are both uncontentious and peaceful. Of over 2,900, only a handful of parades are disorderly. Fewer than two dozen needed restrictions imposed on them this year. But those which have led to trouble have posed a serious problem which we are determined to tackle.

The task is all the more important given the current real prospects for political progress. For the first time in three-quarters of a century, we have an inclusive political talks process based on principles of democracy and non-violence and including representatives of all strands of opinion. We need to give the talks and the new structures which may emerge from them the best possible prospects of success. It is hard to imagine a more important contribution to that than tackling the tensions surrounding the marching season.

The parades issue is both complex and sensitive. It touches questions of rights and responsibilities which lie at the heart of our civil society. Balancing conflicting rights is always one of the greatest challenges in a democratic society. But the issue is all the starker in Northern Ireland given the strong emotions, entrenched positions and the sometimes dangerous consequences of friction. No provision can legislate those difficulties away. But the events surrounding parades at Drumcree and elsewhere have focused attention on the current

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mechanisms for handling disputed parades. We believe that those arrangements are no longer either adequate or appropriate.

The Government took office earlier this year just as the tensions of the marching season were rising once again. Clearly, urgent action was needed. The Secretary of State, with her officials and the many people of goodwill, spared no effort to find an accommodation to head off potential disaster.

Although, as we now know, the very worst did not happen this year, local accommodation did prove impossible at Drumcree. The police were again placed in the no-win position of having to make decisions on public safety grounds--and enforce them--in a highly volatile atmosphere in which they were likely to be condemned no matter what action they took. The Secretary of State made it clear at the time that the chief constable had her full support in taking those difficult decisions. Subsequently, some courageous decisions were made. In particular, the Orange Order's decision to call off a number of marches on 12th July in the wider interests of tranquillity in Northern Ireland has rightly been widely applauded.

I am in no doubt that we are moving forward in Northern Ireland and that the political progress for which we will continue to strive could transform the atmosphere for the marching season next year. But we cannot just wait and hope. As the Secretary of State said when she announced the Bill, we need a parades policy which can win everyone's allegiance because it is based on clear principles, because it represents a threat to neither side and because it recognises the rights, aspirations and responsibilities of everyone.

After the events at Drumcree in 1996, the then government commissioned Dr. Peter North and two colleagues to produce an independent report on the parades issue. The Bill before your Lordships is the legislative expression of our commitment to that report. I welcome this opportunity to pay tribute to Dr. North and his two colleagues for the enormous amount of work they put into producing their report, which deals in an admirably fair and balanced way with what is an extremely difficult issue.

Before coming to the substance of the Bill, I shall, with your Lordships' permission, briefly summarise the findings of the report. The North Report revealed major problems with the way in which public order legislation was working in Northern Ireland and recommended some radical and far-reaching changes. In particular, it concluded that current legislation, by focusing mainly on public order issues, provided a perverse incentive to those who threatened to act outside the law.

The North Report recommended setting up a new body, the Parades Commission, with the task of working to achieve agreement on contentious parades. It also recommended that that body should take over from the police the power to issue determinations when local agreement was not possible. In addition, the report recommended that the commission should take into account wider factors, including,

    "the impact of the parade on the relationships within the community".

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The North Report summarised the problem of parades as one of competing rights: the internationally recognised right to march; the right of local residents not to suffer intimidation in their own neighbourhoods and to be free of unreasonable disruption; and the right of all to be free from the threat of serious public disorder. The vital task of the Parades Commission will be to balance those rights, which may at times conflict.

The commission has already started its work under the limited mandate given to it by the previous government, and performed invaluable work throughout the last marching season. Under the dedicated and determined chairmanship of Alistair Graham, the members of the commission quickly got to grips with this most difficult of issues, making themselves known to the very many groups and individuals involved and working tirelessly to facilitate agreement. We owe Mr. Graham and his colleagues a debt of gratitude for their work, and I assure them of the Government's wholehearted support for the challenge ahead.

The commission has demonstrated in its work this year the importance of efforts to facilitate local agreement. While the commission will have power to make binding determinations, it will do everything it can to avoid having to do so. No decision-making process can match an amicable agreement on the ground. The commission will have wide powers to encourage and facilitate such agreement. In particular, it will wish to stimulate early constructive debate on particular parades and help to diffuse tensions, thereby making it more likely that local accommodation can be reached. It is therefore important to understand that the commission's powers to make determinations represent a final stage in that process--something of a last resort and in some senses a sign of failure. The commission will have succeeded fully in its task if the powers granted to it in this Bill never need to be used.

This Government have said all along that we would examine our commitment to implement North in the light of the experience of this year's marching season. We have done so, and we maintain our view that the implementation of the report's findings remains the right way forward. However, through that process of examination, we have identified some enhancements to the arrangements which are included in the Bill. I propose to draw your Lordships' attention to those in my summary of the Bill's main provisions, to which I shall now turn.

Clause 1 establishes the Parades Commission for Northern Ireland and refers to Schedule 1, which makes provision for its membership together with their term of office, remuneration, and other ancillary provisions relating to the commission.

Clause 2 sets out the functions of the commission in relation to parades. In particular, the commission will have the duty to promote greater understanding of issues concerning parades, seek to facilitate local agreement on contested parades, and make determinations with respect to those should local agreement not be possible. The clause also enables the commission to provide financial and other assistance, and commission research.

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Clause 3 provides that the commission's remit could extend beyond parades to include the law and practice relating to other expressions of cultural identity which take place in the open air and which may have an adverse effect on relationships within the community. The clause exempts parades, which are covered by the provisions of the rest of the Bill, and also sporting events.

This clause is one of the provisions which augments the North recommendations and which will, we hope, further enhance the legislation. It stems from widely expressed concerns that a parades commission as envisaged by North would focus too narrowly on a method of expressing cultural identity which, in practice, is undertaken particularly by one side of the community. We listened to those concerns and took them into account in providing this potential extra role for the commission.

However, the commission will initially face the challenge of establishing how it will take forward its new responsibilities on parades, and it would not be right to divert it from that task in the initial stages. We do not therefore propose to commence this further remit into operation immediately on Royal Assent. The Secretary of State will, however, keep it under close review and hopes that it will be possible to activate the provision within a matter of months.

Clause 4 requires the commission to issue a code of conduct providing guidance to those organising a parade, and governing the behaviour of the organisers of parades and those participating in them.

Clause 5 requires the commission to issue a set of procedural rules on the practice and procedure it will follow in carrying out its functions. Those rules are drafted taking account of the North Report's recommendation that the new structures we are establishing must be as transparent as possible if they are to be effective.

Clause 6 requires the commission to issue guidelines setting out how it will interpret its powers in practice. The guidelines set out the various factors to which the commission will have regard in making determinations.

Drafts of those three documents were published for consultation purposes by the commission yesterday and copies have been placed in the Library. The commission has encouraged all those with constructive views to offer on the drafts to let it have them by the end of January. Following enactment of the Bill, the documents will be laid before each House and will be brought into effect by an order made under the affirmative resolution procedure. Your Lordships will therefore have an opportunity in due course to debate those documents.

Clause 7 deals with the advance notice to be given for a parade. It provides that the notice period be increased to 28 days, an increase from the 21 days provided for in current legislation and recommended by North. This slightly longer period of notice is considered appropriate in view of the procedures the commission will need to follow in considering contentious cases.

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Clause 8 enables the commission to impose conditions on parades where it considers that appropriate, including conditions as to the route of the parade or preventing it from entering any place. This clause is the key provision of the Bill, and I have already referred to its significance. First, it transfers the power to make determinations on contentious parades from the Royal Ulster Constabulary and entrusts it to the Parades Commission. The power which the commission will have to impose conditions is broadly similar to that currently enjoyed by the RUC, but the key change is the basis upon which determinations will be made.

The clause sets out some of the conditions which the commission may impose and provides that it may, in accordance with the procedural rules, take the guidelines into account in issuing, amending or revoking a determination. It outlines some of the factors which will be covered in the guidelines issued under Clause 6 and to which the commission will need to have regard in reaching a decision. The factors the commission will need to take into account partially reflect current legislation, including any public disorder, damage to property or disruption to the community which may result from a procession. They also however include the new factor which North recommended of the,

    "impact the procession may have on the relationships within the community".
The commission will also be able to take into account the failure of any specified person to abide by the code of conduct.

In addition, the provision endorses North's recommendation that, where the route of a parade is long-standing, that should be one of a range of factors the commission should take into account in considering its decisions. We hope that that will go some way to easing the fears of those in the loyal orders who may have believed that this legislation is designed to attack their traditions and even their identity.

Clause 9 enables the Secretary of State, on an application by the chief constable, to review a determination made by the commission and to revoke, amend or confirm it after consulting the commission, where consultation is practical. The North Report recommended legislative provision for the Secretary of State to reconsider a determination by the commission in cases where the chief constable expresses his concern. This clause enables the RUC to appeal a determination of the commission to the Secretary of State. In reviewing a decision by the commission, the Secretary of State will need to take all the relevant factors into account, however, not just public order.

Clause 10 retains the specific power of the police to take action to deal with or prevent a breach of the peace. This follows the report's recommendation that the police should retain the power to intervene on public order grounds where a determination of the commission is defied. As I explained, the commission will seek to make its decisions in advance of a parade, but should the public order situation deteriorate in the period between the decision and the day of the parade, or indeed on the day of the parade, we have included the

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specific power recommended by North enabling the police to take whatever steps they consider necessary to protect public order and safety.

Clause 11 retains the Secretary of State's power to ban marches in certain cases. The clause restructures this power, however, introducing as recommended by North the new factor of the impact the parade may have on relationships in the community. It also reduces the maximum period of a blanket ban on all parades in an area from three months to 28 days.

Clause 12 confers the power on the Secretary of State to provide by order for the registration of bands. That would enable the Government to establish a court-based registration scheme in the event, which we do not expect, that the commission's powers do not prove sufficient to deal with the mischief that unruly bands sometimes cause. It would then be an offence to take part in a parade as a member of an unregistered band or a band that failed to comply with the conditions of registration.

Clause 13 empowers the police to require persons in the vicinity of a parade to surrender any alcohol they may have, re-enacting existing Northern Ireland legislation.

Clause 14 makes it an offence to hinder or obstruct a lawful public procession and Clause 15 confers on the police the power to arrest without warrant anyone suspected of committing an offence under the Bill. Both clauses re-enact existing law.

Clause 16 makes provisions about orders and regulations under the Bill and Clause 17 deals with the interpretation of the Bill. Clause 18 and Schedules 3 and 4 provide for amendments and repeals made necessary by the Bill. Clause 19 deals with the Bill's short title, commencement and extent.

Discussions are proceeding in the usual channels in relation to the appropriate form for the Committee on this Bill. I shall listen with interest to any comments your Lordships make this afternoon.

I believe that this Bill will go a long way to putting new structures in place which can deal with this vexed issue in a balanced, principled and effective way. The questions people want to know about our policy are obvious. How will it work on the ground? What sort of decisions will result? Who will take them, and when? Of course, setting up an independent body means just that. If I could give a fixture list for next year's parades and how the commission might treat them, there would be no job left for the commission. Nor would its independence look very credible. But these questions deserve to be addressed.

Our decision to implement North's recommendations was made on its merits. But it is fully in line with the firm position we have taken on rights both in opposition and in government. In particular, last week's White Paper, setting out our plans to incorporate the European Convention on Human Rights into domestic law, demonstrated once again the top priority we give this subject. Rights underlie our approach because they are the natural heritage of all, regardless of political

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affiliation. But, also, we believe a system based on transparency and recognised rights stands the best chance of success, even in the vexed area of marching.

However, rights do not exist in a vacuum. They also come with responsibilities. Despite the continuing problems of the marching season, there have been many recent indications that people on both sides were prepared to recognise the value of compromise. The Secretary of State has already paid tribute to their courage and vision, which will enable us to build for the future. I hope the new structures we are setting up will make such gestures easier. In our rights-driven approach, a sensible decision not to exercise a right will not make it any the less real, or reduce the possibility that it can be exercised again in the future.

I have today outlined the broad approach to the parades issue which the Government are taking. There will be, I know, considerable debate and discussion of these proposed measures both in this House and in another place in the coming weeks. If the Bill achieves its aims--and I believe it will--parades will cease to provide a forum for intransigence and grievance and bitterness. It will therefore contribute immensely to the process to which we are all committed, the securing of a better future for all the people of Northern Ireland.

I look forward to the debate today and in particular to the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Cope. I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.--(Lord Dubs.)

3.42 p.m.

Lord Cope of Berkeley: My Lords, left to myself, I would not have pressed a maiden speech on your Lordships so soon after the agreeable ceremony of my introduction last week. But working Peers are here to do things and I am glad to be my party's spokesman on Northern Ireland matters. Having served as Minister of State in the Province, I find, like my noble friend Lord Mayhew (who made such an eloquent maiden speech last week), that you never get it out of your system and, indeed, that you do not desire to. The daily courage and the generosity of the people of Northern Ireland see to that. But there is also the challenge to us all of this beautiful part of our country torn apart by politics, with all the pain and grief to its staunch inhabitants.

Among that pain and grief, processions of various kinds have been the occasion of the most terrible clashes. The present troubles began with the civil rights marches of 1968 and 1969. The demands that those marchers made have all been addressed vigorously over the years, but there remains the underlying conflict about which country the Province should belong to. This Bill attempts, with that background, to make marches without trouble easier to achieve for all concerned.

The Bill stems, as the Minister said in introducing it, from the report of Dr. Peter North, Father Oliver Crilly and the Reverend John Dunlop. He was right to say that we owe them all a debt of gratitude for an exceptionally clear and thorough report. I should perhaps disclose to the House that I have known Dr. North for many years. In fact we were at school together at Oakham, which

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was then a direct grant school. When the school decided in its wisdom to put on a Shakespeare play for the first time, it chose what actors call the Scottish play. Peter North played the part of Macbeth and I played the part of Lady Macbeth, in a long blonde wig. I understand that Dr. North's further education was alongside the noble Lord who is to speak for the Liberal Democrat Party today. That shows what coincidences life holds. However, the result of that, I suppose, is that it does not in the least surprise me that the North Report is a very thorough job. It is right that its main recommendations should be implemented in the Bill. I welcome a statutory basis for the Parades Commission and I also welcome the fact that the Government have put these provisions in a Bill and not in an order.

I have several rather more detailed points to put which, if they can be cleared up today, might even serve to shorten the Committee stage. Clause 2 permits the commission to provide financial assistance to any person or body it wishes, with the approval of the Secretary of State. I wonder for what sort of purpose and on what scale this money might be--not too much, I suspect, because such assistance is not mentioned in the Financial Memorandum.

Clause 3 goes wider than the North review was asked to go and provides for the commission itself, at some unspecified time in the future--though the Minister did say that it would be implemented within months--to make recommendations about the law and practice applying to other expressions of cultural identity. That is a valuable provision which will help to put the whole matter into context. "Within months" is a helpful phrase, but as far as I am concerned, the sooner this is able to be implemented the better.

The Minister also pointed out that sporting events are specifically excluded from this clause but did not say why. Sporting events can be very vigorous expressions of cultural identity in Northern Ireland. The existence of special sports belonging solely to one community ensures that that is so. It seems to me odd to propose to exclude them by specific law both from the possibility of regulation, which I understand, but also from future consideration under Clause 3 of the Bill.

In Clause 11 the Secretary of State is given the power to ban particular processions or indeed types of processions. That is basically the same power which the Secretary of State has now. In making the decision she will have regard to possible disorder and disruption, to the potential demands on the police and the Army and to the effect of the proposed march on relationships within the community. But curiously, as I read the Bill--I am no lawyer--the Secretary of State, in banning a march, cannot take into account two other matters which the commission will have to consider. They are, first, any failure of those involved to comply with previous regulations; and, secondly, so-called traditionality--the fact that a procession has customarily been held on a particular route. I would have thought that the Secretary of State should have regard to these matters too in taking a decision to ban a particular march.

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Lastly, I hope the Minister can tell us why the Bill provides for stiffer penalties--up to two years' imprisonment--for organisers of processions who fail to comply with a regulation on a legal procession but smaller penalties--up to six months' imprisonment--for someone who organises an illegal procession without notice or someone who breaks up a legal procession or attempts to do so. That is an undesirable imbalance in the penalties provided for under the Bill. I suggest that your Lordships need to consider these points, among others, if we are to do our job as a revising Chamber. But it is also particularly important on Second Reading to consider the overall effect.

The Bill, when implemented, will lead to statutory mediation to try to deal with the problems in advance. It will also mean that regulations, both in general and for specific parades, will normally be settled by the commission and not by the police who have to enforce them. It will not insulate, however, either the police or Ministers from decisions on some of the most difficult parades.

The ultimate decision to ban is, rightly, not open to the commission. Sometimes those who wish to obstruct a legal march or those who wish to hold a march to mark an anniversary or to protest about something may set out to show the strength of their feelings by deliberately escalating events to the stage where the commission process cannot deal with them. There are precedents for that kind of thing happening in Northern Ireland. The buck will then stop with the police and Ministers.

The vast majority of people from both traditions in Northern Ireland are sorely tested, but they are ultimately people of good will. But in legislating we always have to remember that some are not and any new provision is likely to be tested by evil men. There is no escaping that unless at some time there is the settlement that we all long for. At present we all hope and pray that the talks will go ahead to a conclusion in a spirit of reason and democracy, even though recent statements by Sinn Fein/IRA do not encourage such hope. It seems to me that the Government keep conceding points to them--such as ending internment, the Prime Minister shaking hands etc.--without as far as we know getting anything in return. The Republican representatives do not yet give the impression that they have seen the truth, which has been evident for years, that neither Northern Ireland, nor Britain, nor any other self-respecting democracy can be bombed into submission to the will of terrorists. The Irish Republic itself, despite the obnoxious clauses in its constitution, stands for law, order and democratic decisions. If you have a good cause in a democracy the ballot box is enough.

This Bill will help to minimise the threats to law and order and, we hope, the genuine offence that can be given to people of both traditions by decisions on parades. But the Royal Ulster Constabulary will still need to hold the line, as it has done so gallantly over the years. It is an impartial force for law, order and justice, which are the essential foundations of democracy. I built up the highest respect for the RUC

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while I carried responsibility, and we continue to rely on it. I hope and believe that this Bill will help the Royal Ulster Constabulary to keep the peace.

3.52 p.m.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham: My Lords, it is my very pleasant duty, on behalf of the House, to offer the noble Lord, Lord Cope, first, our congratulations and then a welcome. First, on behalf of the whole House, I should like to thank him for an outstandingly cogent and eloquent maiden speech. Secondly, on behalf of a rather smaller group of your Lordships who normally meet at less salubrious hours of the day, often in the wastes of the dinner hour, to discuss Northern Ireland business when our numbers can be counted on the fingers of two hands, I offer him a welcome to a very important club. We shall be pleased to see him alongside us in the wee small hours.

The noble Lord has a wide range of experience in another place. He has extremely distinguished experience in government including, as he reminded us, a spell in the Northern Ireland Office, which is quite apparent from the ease with which he has picked up his old brief and gone straight to the heart of the matter in this important debate this afternoon. I had not realised that the noble Lord had had such wide experience of the harsher side of life. I knew that he had had a spell in the Whips Office of the Conservative Party. The problems of Northern Ireland need all the wisdom that we can muster and I know that your Lordships will join with me in appreciation of the fact that the noble Lord will be speaking in this House on Northern Ireland topics and, we hope, on other matters, too. We hope that we shall hear from him often in the days and years to come.

The author and his colleagues who produced the North Report deserve our thanks. Dr. North and his two colleagues did us proud. It is a good report. It is good to see that the Government are now acting on it, that is, after some delay because the report came out in January. I personally regret that action was not taken in the spring before the present Government came to power. I believe that when they were confronted with it they were probably right to leave it until this autumn to see how the summer went. In fact, the summer did not go too badly, largely because common sense obtained and also because a lot of people did a great deal of work behind the scenes including, it must be said, some leaders of the Orange Order themselves who made an outstanding contribution to a relatively peaceful resolution with no repetition of the scenes at Drumcree, which had done so much damage the previous year to relationships between the two communities and the police. It is always serious in Northern Ireland if the police and the communities find a distance between them as, indeed, at the time, did the two governments. This year has been much better. We on these Benches believe that the Government are now right to turn the North Report into this Bill.

There is such a gulf in Northern Ireland between the perspectives of the two main communities, not least on this issue. I am sure that the House appreciates that both positions are quite understandable, tenable and defensible. There are those who believe that they have

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an inalienable right, derived from history and tradition, to assemble a march and that that right is being infringed for, as they would see it, political reasons. Equally, of course, there are those who believe that an assertion of superiority is being forced on them backed up by the might of the security forces. It is that gap in perception that causes the problem. I believe that the North Report did well in trying to align these perspectives. Some of the suggestions have already been enacted, I believe, successfully. The legislation that the previous government produced in their twilight weeks, which insisted on a notification period for parades, was instrumental in making this summer's parades markedly less troublesome than those of the year before.

The Bill takes the recommendations of the North Report further and we find that welcome. The central innovation, which is that of a Parades Commission, which is truly independent, is a major advance. I believe the fact that ultimately, as set out in Clause 9 of the Bill, the Secretary of State may reconsider the recommendations, is right and inevitable in the tense situation of Northern Ireland. I find it welcome to see a Bill with such a rounded group of measures. For instance, I am very glad to see in Clause 8 that those who incite others to break the proposed law are as liable as those who break it. Similarly, in Clause l4, clear sanctions are laid out for those who obstruct a march which has been allowed by the commission.

The Minister presented the Bill so clearly. Perhaps I may raise with him one or two points of concern. There are some aspects of the North Report which do not appear in the Bill and there are other items that were not pre-figured in the report but which are in the Bill. Perhaps I may briefly refer to them. I regret the fact that several parades cannot be grouped together in the way that Dr. North and his colleagues suggested. It would be helpful if the commission were able to say, "Well, we will let you have that march, but you cannot have that one". There is more scope for negotiation and compromise if groups of marches can be treated together. As the Minister knows, at the moment it is intended that the commission will treat marches independently.

There is the issue that the preliminary view of the commission is given informally. That is desirable because consultation in Northern Ireland is often very valuable. But there is a danger if the commission were to publish its preliminary view informally. Some people might imagine that they can change it before it becomes the formal view and they may even resort to threatening violence to get their way. The Minister might care to refer to this in his reply, but I believe it would be better if the commission consulted and then decided.

Finally, there is a matter which is of some concern to myself and my colleagues on these Benches. The Government's efforts to balance the Bill between the interests of different communities are clear and, on the whole, they are welcome. But I wonder whether one or two aspects have been put in for symbolic purposes in order to represent balance, whereas they may in fact diminish the effectiveness of the commission. In particular, Clause 3 gives the commission potential power over a wide range of activities far removed from

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the question of marches. For that to be effective, there would have to be an assurance that the Government and the RUC would act. I wonder, therefore, whether Clause 3 is wise. My noble friends and I may want to return to this later as we further consider the Bill.

In conclusion, in supporting the Bill, as we do more or less unreservedly from these Benches, we still recognise that it can be no more than a facilitating measure. In the end, we are dependent on the growing confidence, a display of common sense, the ability to compromise and the recognition of each other's point of view. In the end, those are the keys to progress in Northern Ireland. This Bill can make a contribution, but we should not mistake it for a solution.

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