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Session 2008 - 09
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Public Bill Committee Debates

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. Clive Betts
Armstrong, Hilary (North-West Durham) (Lab)
Banks, Gordon (Ochil and South Perthshire) (Lab)
Carmichael, Mr. Alistair (Orkney and Shetland) (LD)
Clelland, Mr. David (Tyne Bridge) (Lab)
Cousins, Jim (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central) (Lab)
Cox, Mr. Geoffrey (Torridge and West Devon) (Con)
Crabb, Mr. Stephen (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Con)
Dowd, Jim (Lewisham, West) (Lab)
Goggins, Paul (Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office)
Goodman, Helen (Bishop Auckland) (Lab)
Holloway, Mr. Adam (Gravesham) (Con)
Linton, Martin (Battersea) (Lab)
Marris, Rob (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab)
Pritchard, Mark (The Wrekin) (Con)
Reid, Mr. Alan (Argyll and Bute) (LD)
Simpson, David (Upper Bann) (DUP)
Emma Berry, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Fifth Delegated Legislation Committee

Wednesday 11 March 2009

[Mr. Clive Betts in the Chair]

Draft Criminal Damage (Compensation) (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 2009
2.30 pm
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Paul Goggins): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Criminal Damage (Compensation) (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 2009.
Thank you very much, Mr. Betts. It is very good to see you in the Chair this afternoon, on a day when much has already been said in the House about Northern Ireland affairs, and admirably expressed by the hon. Member for Upper Bann. I am sure that the thoughts and sympathy of the Committee are with the families of the two soldiers and the police officer who were so brutally murdered this week in Northern Ireland.
This draft order was laid before the House on 17 December 2008. The Criminal Damage (Compensation) (Northern Ireland) Order 1977 provides a right to claim compensation from the Secretary of State for loss suffered as a result of damage caused in Northern Ireland by an unlawful assembly of three or more persons, or by terrorist acts. The Compensation Agency for Northern Ireland determines whether a claim falls under the legislation, relying on police information to make that decision. With terrorist-related damage, the evidence establishing entitlement is provided by a Chief Constable’s certificate.
This amendment to that order arises from concerns about a significant increase in attacks on community halls in 2007. Those attacks highlighted the general vulnerability of such facilities, as well as the problems sometimes faced in meeting the criteria for statutory compensation under the 1977 order. A number of such claims have failed because the Police Service of Northern Ireland has experienced difficulty in obtaining the necessary evidence to meet the compensation criteria.
Community halls play a vital role in maintaining and sustaining the social infrastructure in their local areas, and the temporary loss of the facility and the costs of reinstatement that result from attacks can have a significant impact on the halls’ viability and put important community services at risk. The aim of the draft order, therefore, is to put in place an additional eligibility criterion for community halls, creating an entitlement to compensation when criminal damage occurs. For the purpose of the amendment, facilities that are exempt from rates under article 41(2)(e) or 41A of the Rates (Northern Ireland) Order 1977 are community halls. Articles 41(2)(e) and 41A cover all properties that have been granted rates exemption on the basis of their use, or availability for use, for charitable purposes in the interests of social welfare, as set out in the Recreational Charities Act (Northern Ireland) 1958.
I consulted widely on the proposals and also referred them to the Northern Ireland Assembly. There were 22 responses to the public consultation, including the Assembly’s formal response. A summary of the responses was laid before Parliament along with the draft statutory instrument. I also met representatives of the Orange Order, the Gaelic Athletic Association and the insurance industry to discuss the proposals. The draft legislation was broadly welcomed, although the majority of responses called for the sunset clause to be removed. As the Committee can see, we have heeded that advice.
By using articles 41(2)(e) and 41A of the rates legislation, our aim is to focus the amendment on community halls used for wider community and social welfare purposes. In adopting that approach, the Government are focusing the legislation on the usage rather than on the ownership of community halls. The effect should be to secure the provision of community services that are being provided through community halls to a wide range of groups. I have concluded that the Northern Ireland Office has met its statutory obligations under section 75.
Some have called for the provisions to be extended to other organisations, particularly to include other sporting, cultural and heritage organisations, in a way that would widen the scope of the order far beyond its original policy intention. While I understand the concerns behind that proposal, it would, in effect, make the Government the insurer of first resort for a vast swathe of organisations in Northern Ireland, which would seriously distort the commercial insurance market and inevitably move scarce public resources away from other priority areas and public services. I fully accept that the GAA and other cultural and heritage organisations provide valuable services, and I acknowledge that they have, on occasion, been subject to criminal attacks, but the Government want to focus the new criteria narrowly on vulnerable community facilities that provide social welfare services, and not on wider sporting and cultural services. Of course, where a GAA building or any other building is exempted from rates, under article 41(2)(e) of the Rates (Northern Ireland) Order 1977, such a facility will be eligible for compensation claims under the proposal before us. I am pleased to confirm that the GAA is today meeting senior representatives of the Compensation Agency to ensure that any outstanding or future claims are dealt with speedily and appropriately.
In addition to its other helpful observations, the Northern Ireland Assembly’s Ad Hoc Committee, which was called to consider the amendment, recommended that the new arrangement should be widely publicised. The Government will ensure that commencement of the legislation is brought to the attention of those likely to be affected, as well as the wider public. In addition, the Compensation Agency will amend its forms and processes, so that the rates exemption status of future claimants will be readily identified. The Government’s intention is to provide an additional route to statutory criminal damage compensation to assist all eligible community halls.
The order will provide reassurance and practical support to those who own and run community halls throughout Northern Ireland. Such facilities play a role in maintaining and sustaining the social infrastructure in the areas that they serve. The measure is limited and modest, but will help to reinforce community confidence, and I commend the draft to the Committee.
2.36 pm
Mr. Stephen Crabb (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Betts. This is the first time that I have spoken on behalf of my party on Northern Ireland business—or on any other business for that matter.
I would like to express the support of the Conservative party for the sentiments expressed by the Minister about the events of recent days in Northern Ireland. The Conservatives broadly support the draft order. It is clear that the current arrangements for community halls that have suffered criminal damage are not working. The 1977 Order, which was framed during very different circumstances, sets down criteria for eligibility for compensation that are, in practice, extremely difficult to meet—either a certificate must be obtained from the Chief Constable or it must be proved that the attacks were carried out by three or more persons. The result is that where insurance is even available, the cost of the premium can be unbearable for the organisations concerned. As a result, the damaged halls are, in some cases, likely never to be repaired, and the impact on those communities served by them can be severe indeed.
I echo the Minister’s remarks in recognising the enormous importance of the halls for the communities concerned. They provide not just a facility for the person or organisation that owns the hall, but for many community and social groups with access to the facilities offered. I am aware that the Government have held talks with the insurance industry about the problem being discussed this afternoon, but those have not resulted in any solution. We therefore support the draft order as a last resort, because every other avenue has been exhausted. If damaged or burnt-out halls are left abandoned and fall into disrepair, the communities affected will suffer profoundly. Small community groups and the owners of the halls often do not have the available finances to repair the criminal damage, especially when it is severe.
We support the order as a practical, tightly focused solution to the problem. Attacks on community halls, as the Minister said, have become relatively frequent, and because they are carried out mostly at night, when there are no witnesses, those responsible are not caught. In 2006-07, there were 56 recorded attacks on community halls, but not one charge was brought by the police for such an attack that year. I know that the Minister joins us in condemning such attacks strongly, but will he give an assurance that everything is being done to support the police in trying to catch the criminals responsible? Making it increasingly difficult for individuals or groups to carry out such attacks is surely another part of the solution to this disturbing phenomenon, although I am under no illusion about how difficult it will be to find such a solution, given that many of those halls are in rural or isolated locations and that many attacks take place under cover of darkness.
The Conservative party recognises that part of the context of the order is that the number and intensity of these attacks have increased in recent years—one of the few trends that fly in the face of so much of the good work and progress achieved in Northern Ireland. In particular, we recognise that the spike in attacks has disproportionately affected one section of the community in Northern Ireland—the so-called Orange halls. The Orange Order is an historic organisation that plays an important role in Northern Ireland society. Its halls are not just used by the order itself, but often by a wide range of individuals and groups from the communities they serve. They provide important social and cultural activities to those communities and I know that they are highly valued by many people in Northern Ireland.
The hon. Member for Upper Bann has told me, on a previous occasion, that he has had six or seven incidents in his constituency where community halls have been attacked. As a result, many community groups have lost their local meeting facility, including senior citizen clubs, youth groups, mother and toddler groups and pre-school groups. The situation cannot be tolerated and so we welcome the draft order today and the lifeline it throws to community halls that are under attack.
Will community halls need to take out any insurance if the Government become, as a result of the order, the insurer of first resort? Does the Minister agree that that is a concern and how does he hope to overcome that? Does he intend to review the legislation in future? As he said, the Government have removed a proposed sunset clause for the order, which would have set a time limit on the period for which compensation is payable for criminal damage to community halls. I recognise the arguments that have been put forward about the insurance industry requiring longer periods of time to build up case histories to help them set premium levels, but will he comment further on the permanency of the order? Does he intend to review it in the future and, if so, what kind of time frame does he have in mind, given that the three-year cycles, which I understand were proposed in the original sunset clause, have been rejected?
Another potential concern that we have regards the cost of compensation. Attacks on community halls have increased in frequency; some are very serious, involving the use of petrol bombs, and sometimes whole halls have been burnt down. Therefore, the cost of compensation is likely to be substantial in some cases. In the other place, the Minister stated that the Government estimate that an additional £300,000 will be paid out in criminal damage compensation for attacks on community halls. Will the Minister briefly comment on what assumption lies behind that figure? Is it based on historic attack numbers, or does it take account of an upward trend?
To reiterate, we welcome the order. We believe that it has been well drafted and that the consultation behind it was carried out thoroughly, and we support it.
2.42 pm
David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): Welcome to the Chair, Mr. Betts. In some respects, what we are discussing is something of a carry-over from the past in Northern Ireland. In very small measure, it serves as a further reminder of the heartbreaking events that we have lived through over the past few days. I say that because these proposed changes were made necessary by the determination, of a small number of people, to inflict sectarian hatred and violence on the community. Those who carry out sectarian attacks on community halls—whatever those halls may be—share the same divisive and poisonous hatred and the same agenda as those responsible for the recent vicious murders.
As has been said, Orange and other community halls play a vital role in the life of many communities across Northern Ireland. They are often the centre of community life and activity, especially in rural areas or where there is a small, isolated community from one section of Northern Ireland society in part of the Province where the population is overwhelmingly from across the historic divide. For that reason, and because of the warped ideology of those who cannot live anywhere but the past, the halls have been targeted down the years.
It is essential that the good work done in such halls is protected, and much good work is done. There are senior citizens’ clubs, as the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire said, mum-and-toddler groups, youth clubs and cultural events such as music, dance and so on. I am glad that the Government saw that that had to be protected and accepted the assertion that it should be.
I am also glad that the proposal for a sunset clause has been removed. We believe that the inclusion of such a clause would not have served as the essential deterrent of the kind that is required. I am glad that the Government agree with that line of argument, and therefore welcome the changes.
I know that, oftentimes, my Northern Ireland colleagues and I have been somewhat critical—just slightly—of Government initiatives in Northern Ireland, often with good reason. However, I believe that, amid the sorrows and tears of recent days, it is only right that I express my thanks to the Government for listening and for taking on board the points that were made to them by me and my party colleagues, and by representatives of the loyal orders and of other political parties.
Yesterday, the entire Northern Ireland Assembly, including Sinn Fein, stood for a minute’s silence for two young British soldiers and a member of the Police Service of Northern Ireland who had been murdered. Mr. John O’Dowd, Sinn Fein Member of the Legislative Assembly for my constituency, referred to those events as “murder”, and the Deputy First Minister, Mr. Martin McGuinness, called those responsible for the atrocities “traitors”.
In the midst of the evil that we have witnessed in recent days, those are good developments and they point to a simple, cold, certain fact: Northern Ireland has changed. We are not going back into the abyss and darkness of the past. We will not allow anyone to use any means to drag us there.
Finally, the changes will help to safeguard the future of community halls in both sections of the community across the Province. They are yet another small step forward and as such are to be welcomed.
2.48 pm
Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Betts, and I apologise to the Committee for my lateness and for missing the beginning of the Minister’s remarks.
I also express my condolences to the families of the murdered soldiers and policeman, and send my best wishes for a full and speedy recovery to those who have been injured.
I welcome the order. It arises from concerns about an increase in attacks on community halls in 2007, which, as has been said, runs against the trend in Northern Ireland. The increase in attacks on community halls has highlighted their vulnerability and their difficulty in meeting the eligibility criteria for statutory compensation. The PSNI has often experienced difficulty in obtaining evidence to determine whether damage was caused by three or more people, and in certifying that damage was the result of terrorist or paramilitary activity.
We all know from our constituency experience how important community halls are. An enormous burden would be placed on any community if its hall were destroyed and if it had to raise the funds to rebuild it. I therefore welcome the order’s extension of the circumstances under which the Government will pay compensation should a community hall be destroyed or damaged. On the new circumstances, the order states that compensation will be paid if the damage is
“unlawfully, maliciously or wantonly caused”.
Furthermore, there is now no need to prove that three or more people were involved or that the damage was the result of paramilitary or terrorist activity.
I also support the definition of the categories of hall that are to be included— namely, the rates authorities must be satisfied that a hall’s use is for charitable purposes. The Government therefore have my full support in passing the order.
2.50 pm
Paul Goggins: First, I welcome the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire to his first time in action on the Front Bench. I am sure that he will find himself there on many other occasions, although I hope that he remains firmly on the other side of the Committee. His articulate support for the measure has made an impression on us all, and I am grateful to him for it.
The hon. Gentleman clearly understands the procedure in relation to compensation, and he is also right to point out that, at times in the past, the Chief Constable’s certificate has taken a long time to arrive, because obviously the police need to be satisfied that a terrorist organisation has been involved. I have taken steps to ensure that, wherever possible, that process is speeded up so that people get the certificate as soon as possible.
The decision on the criteria of the involvement of three or more people in an attack on a community hall is taken by the Compensation Agency, but always, of course, on the advice of the PSNI. The decision is taken on the balance of probabilities, rather than beyond reasonable doubt, so it offers more flexibility. Again, I discuss the issue regularly with the agency to ensure that such decisions are made in a timely fashion, because where community halls are attacked and damaged, that damage needs to be repaired as soon as possible. Obviously, we need to do everything we can to speed up the process.
The hon. Gentleman is quite right to point out that the issue is one of increasing premiums; if there are more attacks, insurance companies will take measures and increase premiums. Community-based groups would find those premiums unaffordable, which is why we needed to step in.
I assure the Committee that the PSNI takes such attacks seriously, and, in the face of the increased number of attacks, it stepped up surveillance of community halls, which everybody welcomed. Indeed, the PSNI worked closely with community organisations to ensure that preventive measures were put in place. Where there is an attack, the PSNI carries out a thorough investigation, but, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, such attacks often take place in remote areas and it is difficult to get witness statements. None the less, the PSNI takes such incidents extremely seriously.
On the broader context, last Monday, the Prime Minister himself gave an absolute assurance that wherever such attacks are carried out, particularly by terrorist organisations, Sir Hugh Orde will have all the facilities and resources that he needs to undertake his important work. In 2007, there were 71 attacks on Orange halls, while in 2008 there were 34, which signals a reduction. This year to date, there have been four attacks. That is four too many, but we see a decline in the number of attacks as a result of police surveillance and preventive work. Furthermore, we hope that the decline stems from a shift in attitude in relation to such attacks. I assure the Committee that compensation from the Compensation Agency will be paid only on the basis of criminal damage, while accidents or other incidents with a non-criminal cause will have to be covered by insurance in the normal way.
There was initially a three-year sunset clause, but we accepted the advice of the Assembly Committee and others, including those from the insurance industry, that such a clause would not allow sufficient time to drive premiums down. There will no doubt be a review at some point, but I am sure the Committee hopes that it will be initiated by the Northern Ireland Executive’s Justice Minister, once the devolution of policing and justice powers has been completed. I look forward to reading about that at a future date.
We made the estimate of up to £300,000, which has been referred to, based on a five-year record of attacks. We think that that will be sufficient to cover any payments that have to be made.
I welcome the support of the hon. Member for Upper Bann, who talked about the work that goes on in community halls. All members of the Committee know of the valuable work that community organisations do in their area. Among the most miserable experiences for me over the last two or three years have been visits to those who own and run such community facilities, made in the aftermath of attacks or fires. It is heartbreaking. That is why it was important for the Government to step in.
The hon. Gentleman also spoke very clearly against sectarianism and the events of recent days. It was a tremendous sight in Northern Ireland yesterday to see his party leader standing with the Deputy First Minister and the Chief Constable while making their statements. The other party leaders have also made clear statements to the Assembly this week, including my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan), who is not with us this afternoon. Everybody is in the same place on this issue, which is welcome.
Uniquely, the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute did not ask me any questions, as I recall. His support for the order is welcome.
Question put and agreed to.
2.56 pm
Committee rose.

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