Previous Section Index Home Page

17 May 2006 : Column 1051

We have had a very wide debate. I go back to the amendments and the new clause that are before us. I think that there is the potential for reasonable consensus on these matters. I hope that we have given greater strength to the Assembly’s powers to have cross-community support, that we have given extra models, which my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle has requested, and that we have put in place a mechanism that will ensure that if the Assembly wishes to devolve in due course, it has strong powers to do so. I commend my new clause and amendments to the House and I ask hon. Members not to press their amendments.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

New Clause 2

Criminal Damage (Compensation) (Northern Ireland) order 1977 Amendment

‘After subsection 4(a) of the Criminal Damage (Compensation) (Northern Ireland) Order 1977 there is inserted—

“Any building to which Artic1e 12 of the Rates (Capital Values, etc.) (Northern Ireland) Order 2006 applies.”.'. — [Mr. Dodds.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Dodds: I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The purpose of the new clause is to ensure that buildings to which artic1e 12 of the Rates (Capital Values, etc.) (Northern Ireland) Order 2006 applies come under subsection 4, as opposed to subsection 5, of the Criminal Damage (Compensation) (Northern Ireland) Order 1977. Community halls, Orange halls, halls used by the Ancient Order of Hibernians and other types of hall recently gained exemption from rates in Northern Ireland. That move was widely welcomed throughout the community as beneficial for local communities. It relieved a major financial burden for those who run such halls on both sides of the community: on the Unionist side and on the nationalist side. Under the new clause, those halls would also be subject to subsection 4 of the criminal damage compensation provisions, rather than subsection 5. That would bring them into line with agricultural premises.

Other properties have to prove, for the purposes of getting compensation from the Northern Ireland Office, that three or more people were involved in an attack or commission of an offence that resulted in damage to premises, or the Chief Constable has to issue a certificate indicating that it was carried out by a proscribed organisation. Agricultural premises, on the other hand, are not subject to such stringent provisions. In that case, if the act is deemed to have been carried out maliciously or wantonly, that alone is the condition that applies and compensation is payable.

Through their recent derating provisions, the Government have recognised the valuable role played by the halls that we are talking about—community halls, Orange halls, halls used by those in the nationalist community. They provide an invaluable community resource. That applies to urban areas, but it is particularly applicable to rural areas. Lest we run away with the idea that the proposal would only benefit
17 May 2006 : Column 1052
people who run those halls, many of them, like parish halls throughout the United Kingdom, are used for a wide range of purposes. In Northern Ireland, they are used by credit unions, community groups and youth services for a vast array of community activities, and their use has expanded a great deal in recent years. The removal of a large financial burden following the introduction of derating was welcomed in Northern Ireland, and I congratulate the Government on taking on board the proposal, which we pressed strongly in our discussions and negotiations with them.

Insurance is even more financially crippling for those halls than the rates levied on them. Orange halls often make their own provision, which is very costly, because many insurance companies refuse to offer cover for community halls, particularly Orange halls. The cover that is available is extremely expensive, because of the number and extent of sectarian attacks suffered by the halls and the problems that they face in obtaining compensation for such attacks. Sometimes, people seeking insurance for an Orange hall approached more than 30 different companies before finding one that provides cover, and even then at an exorbitant price. They sometimes have to pay four-figure sums for insurance that would cost £100 or £150 in Scotland and England, which is a massive difference. There have been dozens of sectarian attacks in recent years, particularly on Orange halls, which have suffered extensive damage and, in many cases, been razed to the ground. Those attacks are usually carried out in the dead of night, with few witnesses, and they deprive a local community of an invaluable resource.

Lady Hermon: I support very strongly the new clause tabled by the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues. He will have noticed that the Minister expressed support for the Government document, “A Shared Future”. Would it not be helpful if the Government did not just talk the talk but walked the walk and supported the proposal, which usefully acknowledges the traditions and cultures not just of the Orange Order but of the Ancient Order of Hibernian?

Mr. Dodds: I very much welcome the hon. Lady’s support. She is quite right. The case for the halls has been made, and the argument has been won, as evidenced by the fact that the Government decided exceptionally to introduce derating for the halls only a few months ago. The principle and precedent have been established: the new clause would simply remove a major financial burden that has an even greater impact than rates, so I hope that the Minister has it in his gift to respond positively to the proposal.

Mr. Peter Robinson: My hon. Friend is making a powerful case—one so compelling that no reasonable Minister could resist it. The fact that compensation is not paid after halls are destroyed makes them all the more a target. In the sectarian attacks that have taken place, there is the knowledge that the responsibility and the cost will be borne directly by the Orangemen or the Ancient Order of Hibernians concerned. That makes it much more attractive because the perpetrators know the pain that will result from the attack.

17 May 2006 : Column 1053
4 pm

Mr. Dodds: My hon. Friend has highlighted a significant aspect. Those who carry out the attacks see that they are hurting the Orange community directly. Those who attack other halls on the nationalist side are doing the same on that side. They are impacting directly on the community. That, as my hon. Friend points out, provides an incentive for further attacks. There is no greater incentive for the arsonists, vandals and hooligans who carry out the attacks than to see halls that they have attacked previously lying derelict and, in some cases, razed to the ground for months and in many cases years on end, as people struggle to get compensation from their insurers, if they have insurers, or from the Northern Ireland Office, which refuses to provide insurance. They have to resort to raising the funds themselves, which in many cases is virtually impossible.

The way that the system operates is an incentive for arsonists to go on attacking isolated halls. I should draw the attention of the House to the areas affected. I have a list of the arson attacks on Orange halls. I do not have a complete list of all the halls that have been attacked throughout Northern Ireland, but last year there were attacks on three Orange halls in County Tyrone, two in County Down, another one in County Tyrone, one in County Antrim, one in Armagh, two in Belfast and another one in Armagh. The attacks are widespread throughout the Province and are having a major impact on local communities.

Dr. McCrea: The list that my hon. Friend read out reflects the fact that the halls often represent a small, and in the local area a minority, community. Local people therefore are not able to pay for the rebuilding of the hall. My hon. Friend mentioned halls that were attacked in Tyrone. Those were isolated Protestant communities in a large nationalist or republican area. The attack on the hall was an attack on the culture of a small minority community.

Mr. Dodds: My hon. Friend is right. Halls that have been targeted—for example, in Castlederg, Strabane, Altnaveigh in Newry, and Whiterock in Belfast, near my constituency—are all situated in areas where the Protestant Unionist community is very much in the minority. That is a feature of the preponderance of attacks that have taken place, though it is not exclusively the case. They are seen as attacks on vulnerable communities, depriving them of what is for many of them their only local community resource.

I know that the Minister takes such matters very seriously. In recent months, he has spent a long time looking into issues in deprived Unionist areas in particular, and deprived areas generally. He has spoken to many people in local communities in Belfast and in rural areas. I know that he has heard directly from many organisations, community groups and individuals who make extensive use of Orange halls and other halls, and who have told him how important it is that those facilities continue to be made available for local communities in their areas.

The new clause is in line with the Government’s recent derating of Orange halls, and it is all of a piece with the proposals announced by the Minister recently, when he
17 May 2006 : Column 1054
said that he was in the business of trying to bring about regeneration and give confidence to deprived Unionist and loyalist areas. If the Government were to adopt the amendment, it would be seen as a positive step in not only Unionist communities, but nationalist communities.

The amendment would not cost the Government a considerable amount of money. They may say that we must not open the floodgates to large amounts of Government expenditure, but the fact that they have been prepared to move on the issue of the rates indicates that they recognise the issue.

The Minister followed through on his consultation process in those communities with a £33 million package, and something similar could be done to help communities in not only Belfast, but throughout Northern Ireland. The DUP welcomed that package, but we recognise that a lot of it was centred on deprived areas, particularly in Greater Belfast. We accept that the bulk of the most deprived areas are in Belfast, but we have also made the point that the process should not stop there and that more needs to be done for rural areas and the west of the Province. This is a tremendous opportunity for the Government to take that process forward and implement in a practical yet modest way a measure that would give a tremendous fillip to communities throughout Northern Ireland.

I urge the Minister to accept the amendment. It is clear that the current regulations, which require proof that a hall has been attacked unlawfully, maliciously and wantonly by three or more persons unlawfully, riotously or tumultuously assembled, or as a result of an act committed maliciously by a person actingon behalf of or in connection with an unlawful association, are often unworkable, because in a huge number of cases it is impossible to prove that those conditions were met. Such attacks often take place in the dead of night in isolated areas. Everyone in Northern Ireland knows that the motivation behind attacks on community halls is sectarian, yet obtaining compensation for such an attack can, even when it is done successfully, be tortuous and involve extremely costly insurance premiums.

Such premises should be categorised in the same way as agricultural premises, which have been categorised in Northern Ireland for the precise reasons that I have enunciated. Agricultural premises were targeted in the dead of night and, although everybody knew why it was happening, the matter could not be proved. Historically, the Government have recognised that certain types of buildings and premises deserve special categorisation, because they are in isolated areas and are difficult to protect and defend, and Unionist and nationalist halls across the community deserve to be placed in that category. I trust that the Minister will respond positively to the amendment.

Lembit Öpik: I want to add two thoughts to the remarks of the hon. Member for Belfast, North(Mr. Dodds). First, it seems that there is some justification for saying that in certain circumstances in which natural justice would point towards a compensation payout, such payouts have been prevented by the strictures outlined by the hon. Gentleman, North, because the conditions are difficult to prove. He cites the example of a rural and isolated
17 May 2006 : Column 1055
premises that might be subject to an arson attack. The same thing can happen in urban areas. Will the Minister outline his understanding of the extent to which this is a problem?

My second concern is that it looks as though an accident of circumstance can mean that an attack in two different situations will lead to very different outcomes as regards compensation, through no fault of the person making the compensation claim. What is the Minister’s view of that apparent double standard? I know that he would agree that it is an unintended consequence of the Bill, but it strikes me that the new clause could resolve the disparity. It would be terribly undesirable were compensation not to be paid out in some situations. I hope that he can either accept the new clause or provide clarity about what the Government regard as the best course of action to ensure that those in rural and isolated areas, or those who cannot prove the nature of an attack, are not treated as second-class citizens.

Mr. Hanson: I thank the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds) for tabling his new clause.

I start by utterly condemning any attacks or vandalism on Orange or Hibernian halls, or any other buildings used for meetings. Whether they are attacked as a matter of general vandalism or subject to an attack of a sectarian nature, that is unacceptable in a civilised society. I would urge, as would the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale, East (Paul Goggins), that any individuals who had information about such attacks should take it to the police, who may be able to undertake prosecution. Those who carry out such attacks should face the full force of the law—that is self-evident in a civilised society.

Let me say to the hon. Member for Belfast, North in particular that the current criminal damage legislation is an important means of supporting individuals and groups who have suffered material loss over the period of conflict in Northern Ireland. Now that we are moving, I hope, to a more normal society, such attacks, particularly the sectarian ones, should be reduced. That will in due course have obvious implications for current criminal damage arrangements generally.

The Criminal Damage (Compensation) (Northern Ireland) Order 1997 is particular to Northern Ireland. As we all know, that is because of the particular problems faced by Northern Ireland at that time. Such legislation does not exist in other parts of the United Kingdom. I want to reflect on the future of such compensation schemes, particularly in the context of a changing Northern Ireland and the Government’s national approach to compensation. Of course, I recognise the great hurt and pain that can be caused, be it by a small act of vandalism causing a broken window or something much more serious in the shape of an arson attack on an entire building. The Police Service of Northern Ireland takes such criminal acts very seriously and will use the full weight of the law to prosecute the perpetrators.

Before turning to the new clause, I will respond to the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik), who asked me about the nature and number of such attacks. I recently answered a parliamentary question—if it was
17 May 2006 : Column 1056
not me, it was my hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for security—which indicated that police figures show that over the past 15 years, attacks on Orange halls in particular have varied significantly. In 1997, therewere 41 attacks; in 2004, there were six attacks; and the provisional figure for 2005 was higher than that for 2004. That information gives no specifics on the nature of the attack—it could be a broken window or a full arson attack on a building.

4.15 pm

The new clause seeks to change article 4 of the Criminal Damage (Compensation) (Northern Ireland) Order 1977, which was drafted to meet specific conditions relating to agricultural property, particularly the absence of a Chief Constable’s certificate where the damage was caused by those acting on behalf of an illegal organisation, or the evidence of the involvement of three or more persons.

Claims for non-agricultural properties are covered under article 5 of the Criminal Damage (Compensation) (Northern Ireland) Order 1977 and, where its conditions are satisfied, claimants can obtain compensation for damage to such property. A Chief Constable’s certificate, or proof of the involvement of three or more persons or of an illegal organisation, are generally required as proof of liability in respect of claims for compensation. Where there is evidence of damage caused by civil disorder, for example, Orange halls can make claims under the provisions of the order. When claims are not met under compensation arrangements, they should fall under commercial insurance arrangements in the normal way. We are dealing here with the question of whether we should give compensation to Orange halls on a par with that given to agricultural buildings when there is no Chief Constable’s certificate and no evidence of the involvement of three or more persons.

The effect of the new clause would be to extend the category of properties falling under article 4, which was not intended for that purpose. The Government believe that, when a property is damaged and when there is no Chief Constable’s certificate and no evidence of the involvement of three or more persons—when the circumstances do not meet the evidential requirement of the legislation covering criminal damage compensation—the normal route for seeking compensation, in Northern Ireland as in other parts of the United Kingdom, is through general property insurance.

I recognise that there can be difficulties in obtaining insurance, and I have discussed this issue with the hon. Member for Belfast, North. The Orange Order is a powerful organisation in the fabric of Northern Ireland, however, and it represents an awful lot of individuals and organisations. I would hope that it could use its power to raise these issues with the insurance companies.

I know that it will disappoint the hon. Gentleman that I am unable to accept his new clause today. The provisions relating to the specific circumstances of agricultural properties were made in 1977. There is an anomaly involved, as that is the only area that is covered. However, there is compensation available for circumstances involving collective discontent and disorder, and compensation can also be obtained with a Chief Constable’s certificate or with evidence of the involvement of three or more people. I am unable to accept the new clause for those reasons.

17 May 2006 : Column 1057

Lady Hermon: If the Minister is not prepared to accept the new clause, will he consider an alternative that would make things easier for organisations such as the Ancient Order of Hibernians and, particularly, the Orange Order, which bears the brunt of these problems? Could not the Northern Ireland Office pay for CCTV cameras to be installed at the premises of such organisations, in order that they might gather the evidence themselves under the present scheme? Will the Minister agree to that?

Mr. Hanson: The hon. Lady will know that I have recently announced additional resources for CCTV cameras, and a competition for individual organisations to bid for such cameras. That is possible for any organisation to do, subject to their demonstrating that the cameras would be of benefit in the prevention of crime. In principle, there is nothing to preclude an organisation from bidding for CCTV cameras to cover Orange halls. I cannot, and nor would I wish to, fund CCTV cameras at every Orange hall site, because that would be an impractical way of implementing Government policy. However, in principle, there is nothing wrong with applications being made to that effect.

The hon. Member for Belfast, North mentioned the significant investment of £33 million in areas of deprivation, and we have also undertaken the derating of Orange halls, which has released significant resources to the organisation. I know that he and his party welcomed that move, having pressed for it. The Government supported that change, and considered it a positive move forward in releasing those resources to the Orange halls. I know that he will be disappointed that I cannot accept his new clause today, but I cannot. I have explained the reasons for my decision, and I hope that he will withdraw it on that basis.

Mr. Dodds: I have listened to the Minister’s comments and I am disappointed that he does not feel able to accept the new clause or to take on board the suggestion made by the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) that he might at least provide such halls with the opportunity to try to claim compensation—as many of them do not have insurance—by gathering evidence from CCTV.

Mr. Hanson: I emphasise again that if the Chief Constable offers certification to the effect that the damage was caused by disorder or other associated means, and if three or more people were involved, criminal compensation can be claimed. The problem only exists if fewer people were involved.

Next Section Index Home Page