Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Third Special Report


Letter to the Clerk from the Northern Ireland Office

  Ministers have asked me to thank your Committee sincerely for their examination of the work of the Parades Commission. I now enclose a memorandum in response to those recommendations directed to the Government, and on which we have corresponded, where appropriate, with the Chairman of the Commission.

As mentioned in the memorandum, we are still awaiting the outcome of judicial proceedings bearing on a point raised by the Committee. This hearing has already been postponed several times, however, and may be so again; but I understand the Committee would prefer a reply sooner rather than later.

I hope the Committee finds the response helpful.

  24 October 2001

Paragraph 23

We recommend that, when the next round of appointments is due to be made, particular efforts are made to attract high calibre candidates from sections of the community which are presently under-represented on the Parades Commission.

When appointments were last being made to the Parades Commission, regardless of the measures we took to stimulate a broad spectrum of interest, we began the selection process with a pool of applicants in which Protestants outnumbered Roman Catholics by more that two to one, and men outnumbered women by almost five to one. Appointments being made on merit, the recommendations we put to the Secretary of State reflected those proportions.

When appointments next fall to be made, we propose to take such affirmative action as is justified, before the process of selection begins, to seek to secure a balanced pool from which to draw, perhaps using recruitment consultants with that specific remit.

Paragraph 71

It would have been helpful Y if the Government had made clear its intention to abandon the proposal to bring forward the date of application of the Human Rights Act 1998 to parades legislation.

The Committee's recommendation is in principle entirely accepted.

Paragraph 83

We view with some concern the Chairman's view that the Commission's procedures in relation to decisions on parades may be open to challenge on the grounds of natural justice. We recommend that the Government and the Commission consider urgently whether the procedures need to be improved by greater transparency and, if so, put the necessary steps in hand.

There is a clear conflict between the Commission's desire for transparency in gathering evidence, and the concerns of many on both sides of the community that their evidence be kept strictly confidential. There are many situations, particularly in small, closely-knit communities, where those who gave evidence might find themselves the targets of a backlash B the Commission has had recent experience of allegations of this kind. The police would also have legitimate concerns.

Further deliberations await the outcome of legal action. A representative of a band has made a legal case concerning disclosure and confidentiality, but the review has been deferred several times, most recently on 22nd October.

Paragraph 98

The Commission saw a number of practical difficulties with the concept of linkage of parades, rather than always considering them separately as the current legislation requires, not least because it appeared to mean different things to different people. It has, however, considered the matter further and concluded that it would be helpful if it had a power enabling it to make general policy statements in relation to individual contentious areas only. We recommend that the Government examine this proposal carefully.

The Government awaits specific proposals in this regard. However, if such proposals are received and are compatible with human rights law, the Government will consider amendments to the legislation if necessary.

Paragraph 106

Although the Chairman of the Commission expressed doubts over the present need for it to have the power to assist litigants, we recommend that consideration be given to enabling the Commission to contribute to the costs of parties taking cases that raise points of general importance in relation to the clarification of the application to parades of human rights law.

The various litigants who have taken judicial reviews of Commission decisions have, in almost every case, done so with the assistance of legal aid. By that means, therefore, the Government already makes a financial contribution towards clarification of human rights law.

Furthermore, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission already plays an important role in this area, which would be inappropriate for the Parades Commission to duplicate.

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Prepared 29 November 2001