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19 Mar 1997 : Column 1030

Public Order (Northern Ireland)

12.40 am

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Sir John Wheeler): I beg to move,

In his statement to the House on 30 January, my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland said that the Government welcomed the report of the independent review of parades and marches, and announced a number of measures that we would take in response to it.

The Government undertook to establish without delay an independent Parades Commission with an education, conciliation and mediation role, in time for this year's marching season. At the same time, the Government began consultation on the wider decision-making and related powers of the Parades Commission recommended by the report. That consultation will last until the endof March. The Government accepted the other recommendations of the report, and undertook to examine opportunities to implement them, including the necessary legislation.

The order will amend the Public Order (Northern Ireland) Order 1987 to implement some of those recommendations that do not hinge on the outcome of the current consultation exercise. The period required for notification of a parade or procession will be increased from seven to 21 days, and new controls on alcohol at parades will be introduced.

The proposal for a draft order was published on 25 February and was distributed to a wide range of individuals for consultation. In order to ensure, so far as possible, that the provisions of the draft order would be in effect before this year's marching season, it was necessary to shorten the consultation period from the usual six weeks to two weeks. Those who responded to the consultation generally welcomed the proposed measures.

Since the publication of the proposal, the Government have taken the opportunity to make two minor technical amendments, which I shall deal with now. First, we have amended article 4(5), which gives the police power to dispose of intoxicating liquor that has been surrendered. There may be circumstances in which a police officer has confiscated drink that he genuinely, but mistakenly, believed to be alcoholic. To provide for such a situation, we have made an amendment to give the police power to dispose of anything that has been surrendered to them. The change mirrors an amendment made to the Confiscation of Alcohol (Young Persons) Bill, on which the provision is broadly based.

Secondly, we have added a new article 4(10), to ensure that the time limits on the exercise of the controls on alcohol will also apply in a "stand-off" situation, where persons have assembled for a parade that does not then go ahead. The amendment will mean that the confiscation powers will end at midnight on the day on which those who have assembled disperse.

I shall now deal briefly with the detailed provisions of the draft order. The current seven days' notice to be given of a public procession has been clearly shown to be

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inadequate, especially for contentious parades, to give all sides maximum opportunity to discuss differences at a local level and, it is to be hoped, to come to agreement.

The order will therefore increase the period of notice from seven to 21 days. With regard to spontaneous parades, the order will provide that, where it is not reasonable to require the organisers to notify the police 21 days in advance, they may give less than 21 days' notice, but will be required to explain the reason for the short notice. The order will also require that notice is given in a standard form, which will be set out in regulations, and which must be signed by the person giving the notice.

The review team--that is the North team--noted considerable and widespread concern from all parts of the community about the problems caused by alcohol at parades, a problem that the measures contained in the draft order address. The measures make a discretionary power available to the police. Clearly, the use of the powers by the police will be dictated by the operational situation and discretion will be exercised. I am confident that the Royal Ulster Constabulary will adopt a sensible and commonsense approach to the enforcement of this measure.

In summary, the order would implement a number of the recommendations in the review team's report. I hope that we shall be able to press on with other necessary legislation to deal with any other matters raised in the report in the next Parliament, should that prove necessary after the consultation period. I commend the draft order to the House.

12.45 am

Mr. Tony Worthington (Clydebank and Milngavie): We find this to be a miserably inadequate order, but we shall support it because we recognise that its two provisions--the need to extend the period of notice to 21 days, and the need to control alcohol--are necessary. Those seem to be common sense and should be applied, but we feel that the people of Northern Ireland have been badly let down. In the words of the Secretary of State on 30 January in response to the North report:

We now have these two small provisions, which have become the total legislative response so far by the Government to the North report. There were 43 recommendations in the North report and the Government's response is that two are to be enacted. We feel particularly aggrieved because it was obvious for so long that the Government should be reappraising how marches and parades in Northern Ireland should be conducted and controlled.

My hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Ms Mowlam) was pressing from the middle of the summer of 1995 for action on this, and the Government responded only after the appalling events of last summer. They then failed to act upon the North report in full when it was published and we are now left, in effect, with two clauses as the Government's response. Any incoming Government will feel that their task has been made more difficult. As my hon. Friend said on January 30:

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    That is not what the House has done.

The central recommendation of North--in the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar, "the guts" of the report--was that there should be an adjudicatory body. That was not immediately accepted by the Government, who said that they would need further consultation. Can we hear from the Government the results of that consultation? The Government gave the impression that they were hesitant about an adjudicatory body, but will they now confirm that it is their view that there should not be such a body?

For our part, the Labour party can confirm that it is our intention to enact the North report in full. The Government promised that, in terms of the non-adjudicatory functions--the Minister confirmed this--they endorsed the report's recommendations, which they believed should be implemented without delay. We are less than a fortnight before the start of the marching season, and nothing is in place. The measures that we are considering today will not be in place for the start of the marching season, and even the 21-day rule created by this order will not be effective until the marches that will take place in the middle of May.

What has happened to the advisory commission? What is its membership? I remind the Secretary of State that he said in the House on 30 January:

He said that legislation would not be required to establish the commission, so it is fair for us to ask where it is.

If there is a commission, as the Government agree, even if it is only with the mediation, conciliation and education role, it is vital that it is backed up by a statutory code of conduct. From reading Hansard of 30 January, it would seem that the Government accepted the recommendation that there should be a statutory code of conduct. They agreed that a code should be prepared and published for consultation as soon as practicable. We want to know where the code is that will apply to this year's parades.

The Government also said that consideration should be given, as recommended by North, to changes to articles 4(1)(b) and 7 of the Public Order (Northern Ireland) Order 1987. What conclusions have they come to on that matter? They also pledged that there would be a registration scheme for bands, which would be introduced as soon as the necessary practical arrangements could be put in place. Again, what has happened to that proposal?

The Secretary of State also said:

I hope that I can have a full response to my questions.

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