Public Processions (Northern Ireland) Bill [Lords]

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The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Adam Ingram): Hon. Members have questioned the validity of new arrangements for dealing with applications for and notices of parades, but the clause replicates the Public Order (Northern Ireland) Order 1987 in providing for notices to be handed to police officers. It is a straightforward translation from existing legislation.

The arguments were based upon supposed situations but not one example was given of actual difficulties. The hon. Member for East Londonderry did not say that complications or problems had arisen when he or someone else tried to organise a parade.

The hon. Members for West Tyrone (Mr. Thompson) and for East Londonderry said that problems could arise because RUC stations are not open all the time or because a sergeant may not always be present. In such cases, the organiser would be required to return when the station was open or when the sergeant was present. That would mean that the organiser had a valid reason for not meeting the 28-day requirement. Clause 6(2)(b) provides that if it is not reasonably practicable to meet the 28-day requirement, notice should be given as soon as is reasonably practicable thereafter. Allowance is made in the Bill to deal with difficulties such as stations not being open or the sergeant not being there.

There are other reasons why the RUC prefer the notice to be handed to a reasonably senior officer. Although there is no requirement to check through the document, the sergeant usually goes through it to ensure that it is properly filled in and that there is no technical reason to refuse the request to hold the parade hon. Gentlemen have more experience of such matters than I have.

The proposal is designed to assist parade organisers. A reasonably senior officer is responsible for receiving the document, going through it with the organiser and giving advice if there are any technical problems. The officer will see that it is filled in properly so that there will not be any dispute about it.

Mr. Thompson: The Minister said that the clause merely translates the 1987 order to the Bill. But that is not a sustainable argument for refusing to amend the Bill to make it more amenable to those who organise parades. To argue that a measure cannot be changed merely because it is a carry-over from an order is ridiculous.

Mr. Ingram: The hon. Gentleman did not argue on the grounds of a catalogue of difficulties that have existed since the 1987 order came into being. He did not say that the measure was completely impractical or that it had caused a breakdown in communication between the RUC and parade organisers. He has not said that documents are not submitted in time or that they contain errors that need constant to-ing and fro-ing between the RUC and the parade organisers. If the hon. Gentleman had cited a range of such shortcomings resulting from the 1987 order there would be some merit in his argument, but neither he or his hon. Friend advanced their case on that basis. They simply said, "Now we have an opportunity to change the legislation, let us change it," but they have no good grounds for doing so. I therefore ask the hon. Gentleman withdraw the amendment.

Mr. William Ross: I cannot accept what the Minister said. He said that we did not give examples. Time and again I went to my local station in Dungiven to see the sergeant not necessarily on this issue because there could be any one of a hundred reasons for a person having to attend a police station only to be told that the sergeant was not there; that he was out at an accident, or on different duties, or whatever. The person might then be asked to return the next day, or asked whether the sergeant could call on him. That might happen to me perhaps because I am a Member of Parliament and live only a mile away but the same facility would not necessarily be offered to everyone. My hon. Friend suggested, and the Minister did not deny, that in Great Britain there is a far easier procedure.

[Mr. John Maxton in the Chair]

We are told that a person crossing the border from Scotland to England has only to give notice. The Labour party is adept at organising all sorts of marches throughout the country, and good luck to it. All that it has to do is to give notice to the first police area into which a march will move. That does not arise in Northern Ireland. There is only one police force and long may that remain. I know instances of a procession beginning in one substation area or divisional area and ended in another, and returning. We say that the fact that something is written in earlier legislation does not mean that it is on tablets of stone forever.

My amendment proposes the use of the term "place of commencement" instead of "starting place". The former term was used in earlier legislation but I suspect that in law they mean the same. If the draftsman saw fit to change the legislation previously, and the Government accepted that

Mr. Hunter: Does the hon. Gentleman recall the Minister saying that it would be reasonable to expect an officer to read through the notice with the organiser to ensure that it was correct? I, too, feel that that would be a reasonable expectation. Also, will the hon. Gentleman consider that clause 6 places only one requirement on the police? It states: "The Chief Constable shall ensure that a copy of a notice given under this section is immediately sent to the Commission."

Would not it be wiser to amend the Bill to eliminate the anomaly that the officer would go through the notice and the statutory requirement that the notice be sent immediately to the commission?

Mr. Ross: I agree with the hon. Gentleman.

Another point arises here. The Government propose that the period beforehand be extended. The Minister has said that if the organiser went to the police station and the sergeant was not there, he could return the next day; the sergeant's absence would be a reasonable excuse. However, the organiser could go back to the station the following lunch-time and be told that there had been a car accident down the road and the sergeant was attending to that. He could be on any of a hundred necessary duties. The organiser could return the third, fourth and fifth day because the sergeant was not there. That would be nonsense. All we ask is that he be permitted to go to the police station and leave the document there. If there is anything wrong with it the sergeant could telephone to say, "You should do so-and-so" or "Something is wildly wrong with the[Mr. Ross] document." The amendments seek first, that the document be given to the sergeant as soon as humanly possible in the circumstances, and secondly, that it be given to the sergeant whose substation covers the area in which the procession begins. He would then see that the procession would begin in his substation area but continue to the next one up the road, and decide that he must inform his senior officers. This is not to make things more difficult for the organisers or the police, but to streamline the procedure as much as possible. If the Minister thinks about this seriously he will realise that our amendments are helpful.

As I said earlier and as the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter) also pointed out, an organiser may live some distance away. Bands can come from quite a distance. They may have to put in a notice and as I understand it, they have to give notice to their station when they are leaving because they may be processing to a bus from the hall. A whole series of actions have to be taken. The organisers of processions and those taking part should be allowed to post the notice, especially when they have a whole month in which to do so. We shall come to that issue later. There is no good reason why some if not all of these amendments should not be accepted. I urge the Minister to reconsider his earlier comments.

11 am

Mr. Ingram: Welcome to the Chair, Mr. Maxton. I do not know how long you will be in it but you have an exciting day ahead of you.

The hon. Gentlemen's points would be valid if they could give examples of where these supposed events have led to a breakdown between the parade organisers and the RUC. There has been 11 years' experience of the Public Order (Northern Ireland) Order 1987, and hon. Members have not given any examples relating to that but have only concocted suppositions based on it. That is where the weight of the argument would lie.

The hon. Member for East Londonderry said that the 1987 order used the phrase "place of commencement". That has been changed in the Bill to starting place. I am told that it is because the draftsman of the Bill is a fully paid up member of the Plain English Society. The intention here is to get clear wording. The main thrust of the hon. Gentleman's argument concerns the procedures which relate to it. The procedures have not been shown to be flawed.

There is a fundamental difference between Northern Ireland and Scotland, England and Wales. In Northern Ireland parades can be contentious. There can be major points of conflict associated with them. That is not the general experience in the rest of the United Kingdom: there may be some difficulties with some demonstrations but it is not the norm. They do not result in large numbers of police officers on the street nor in the throwing of petrol bombs and hundreds of army personnel being deployed to maintain public order. There is a different environment in Northern Ireland, hence the need for the Bill and the 1987 order. No cogent arguments have been advanced and I therefore ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment.

Mr. William Ross: The Minister is being completely unreasonable. To make an argument here one apparently needs to come along with chapter and verse and all sorts of examples. We are telling him that there have been examples. I told him that I have often been to the police station when the sergeant was not there and that I had to return. That may not have been with one of these documents, but there could be any one of a hundred reasons why someone has to go to his local police station. I have to go back or ask the sergeant to call on me, which he does occasionally when it is necessary. It is sheer common sense and the Minister abandons common sense when he says that we are being unreasonable. I am not minded to withdraw the amendment.

Question put: That the amendment be made:

The Committee divided: Ayes 2, Noes 10.

Division No. 2]

Ross, Mr. William
Thompson, Mr. William

Browne, Mr. Desmond
Dowd, Mr. Jim
Gapes, Mr. Mike
Godman, Mr. Norman A.
Hope, Mr. Phil
Ingram, Mr. Adam
McGrady, Mr. Eddie
McIsaac, Shona
Pound, Mr. Stephen
Worthington, Mr. Tony

Question accordingly negatived.

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