Advance Notice of Protest Meetings Related to Public Processions

New clause 3 – in the House of Commons at 5:44 pm on 4 February 1998.

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'.—(1) Where notice has been given under section 6 in relation to a public procession, a person proposing to organise a related protest meeting shall give notice of that proposal in accordance with subsections (2) to (4) to a member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary not below the rank of sergeant by leaving the notice with him at the police station nearest to the place at which the meeting is to be held.

(2) Notice under this section shall be given—

  1. (a) not later than 14 days before the date on which the meeting is to be held; or
  2. (b) if that is not reasonably practicable, as soon as it is reasonably practicable to give such notice.

(3) Notice under this section shall—

  1. (a) be given in writing in such form as may be prescribed by regulations made by the Secretary of State; and
  2. (b) be signed by the person giving the notice.

(4) The form prescribed under subsection (3)(a) shall require a person giving notice under this section to specify—

  1. (a) the date and time when the meeting is to be held;
  2. (b) the place at which it is to be held;
  3. (c) the number of persons likely to take part in it;
  4. (d) the arrangements for its control being made by the person proposing to organise it;
  5. (e) the name and address of that person;
  6. (f) where the notice is given as mentioned in paragraph (b) of subsection (2), the reason why it was not reasonably practicable to give notice in accordance with paragraph (a) of that subsection; and
  7. (g) such other matters as appear to the Secretary of State to be necessary for, or appropriate for facilitating, the exercise by the Secretary of State or members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary of any function in relation to the meeting.

(5) The Chief Constable shall ensure that a copy of a notice given under this section is immediately sent to the Commission.

(6) A person who organises or takes part in a protest meeting—

  1. (a) in respect of which the requirements of this section as to notice have not been satisfied; or
  2. (b) which is held on a date or at a time or place which differs from the date, time or place specified in relation to it in the notice given under this section,
shall be guilty of an offence.

(7) In proceedings for an offence under subsection (6) it is a defence for the accused to prove that he did not know of, and neither suspected nor had reason to suspect, the failure to satisfy the requirements of this section or (as the case may be) the difference of date, time or place.

(8) To the extent that an alleged offence under subsection (6) turns on a difference of date, time or place it is a defence for the accused to prove that the difference arose from—

  1. (a) circumstances beyond his control;
  2. (b) something done in compliance with conditions imposed under Article 4(2) of the Public Order (Northern Ireland) Order 1987; or
  3. (c) something done with the agreement of a member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary not below the rank of inspector or by his direction.

(9) A person guilty of an offence under subsection (6) shall be liable on summary conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 6 months or to a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale, or to both.'—[Mr. Ingram.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

With this, it will be convenient to discuss Government amendments Nos. 15, 17 to 19 and 24 to 26.

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

New clause 3 and the amendments grouped with it deal with introducing a new notice requirement for related protest meetings. New clause 3 introduces the requirement itself, Government amendment No. 24 introduces the definition of a protest meeting, Government amendment No. 25 defines a related protest meeting and Government amendment No. 26 is consequential.

In addition, Government amendment No. 15 would put a duty on the Parades Commission to keep itself informed of the conduct not only of those taking part in public processions but of those taking part in a related protest meeting. Government amendments Nos. 17, 18 and 19 would put a duty on the commission to draw up a code of conduct for protest meetings.

The Government have been acutely conscious of the need to ensure that the legislation is both balanced and seen to be balanced. We recognise that some have felt that the legislation and the North report focused exclusively on parades as the problem and did not take sufficient account of sometimes violent protests against parades. That criticism is mistaken, but we have recognised the need to address such perceptions.

A number of amendments were made to the Bill in the other place. Those included measures to harmonise penalties in the Bill, to ensure that comparable penalties could be applied to protesters and marchers who broke the law. Today, we are introducing a number of further Government amendments, which similarly aim to ensure balance in the Bill.

The North report considered whether there was a case for introducing a notice requirement for open-air public meetings. Paragraphs 12.76 to 12.81 of the report concluded that a notice regime for all open-air public meetings would not be appropriate, particularly given the number of uncontroversial public meetings, such as open-air preaching, which would unnecessarily be caught by a notice requirement. The North report considered whether it might be possible to cover protest meetings only, but thought that that would not be practicable.

In Committee, amendments were proposed by the hon. Members for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss), for West Tyrone (Mr. Thompson) and for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross), which dealt specifically with the concept of protest meetings. In some cases, they were described as counter-demonstrations or counter-processions. Of course, if protesters choose to arrange a procession of their own, that will fall to be dealt with by the Parades Commission in the usual way.

In Committee, I explained that it would be important to get the definitions right, and I also set out some of the difficulties that there might be in defining a counter-demonstration. I did, however, say that I would consider the matter further.

I have taken considerable time to consider the issue and I have read our detailed debates in Committee. We have now come up with a workable definition. The definition of related protest meetings will ensure that the vast majority of open-air public meetings will continue to be able to take place without a notice requirement. That helps to satisfy the concerns expressed in the North report. But equally, the definition is tight enough to ensure that all related protest meetings are covered. The notice requirement will provide valuable new information for the police and the Parades Commission. We did not want to overburden the commission with extra work, but what we have set forth will provide it with additional and valuable new information.

None the less, the police will be obliged to pass notice of protests on to the Parades Commission, and it obviously makes sense for the commission to have as much information as possible about the likely reaction to a parade from which it has received an application.

Another important feature of the amendments is that the notice requirement for protest meetings is rather shorter at 14 days than the 28 days required for a procession. I believe that to be a sensible measure. It would clearly not be possible to demand the same notice requirement for protest meetings as that which applies to a procession. By definition, a protest meeting cannot be organised until it is known that the procession has been planned and is likely to go ahead.

Let me explain some of the mechanisms that will operate as a consequence of the amendments. Some might argue that there is a problem of conflicting responsibilities if a public procession is governed by the Parades Commission, while the related protest meeting is governed by the police. In addition, the criteria on which conditions can be imposed will differ slightly. Protest meetings that are largely public order based will continue to be dealt with under the Public Order (Northern Ireland) Order 1987. However, processions will be dealt with under the provisions of the Bill, which include the factor of impact on relations within the community.

The North report considered whether it would be helpful for parades and protests to be dealt with by the same authority. It concluded in paragraph 12.96 that there was no particular difficulty, and recommended leaving open-air public meetings under the control of the police, using their existing powers in the order, if necessary. I agree entirely with the report's findings on that point. We anticipate the closest possible communication between the Parades Commission and the Royal Ulster Constabulary. I am certain that that co-operation will continue, and both will ensure that the combined effect of any measures imposed minimises any difficulties that might result from the procession or the related protest meeting.

Photo of Mr William Ross Mr William Ross UUP, East Londonderry

We on the Ulster Unionist party Bench have read new clause 3 with considerable interest. Exactly where in the Bill is it intended to insert the words that appear on the amendment paper? Why is it intended to continue article 5 of the 1987 order? Is it still necessary, or do the Government intend to repeal it?

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

I shall come back to article 5.

The new clause would be placed appropriately within the Bill, according to the structure of the legislation. That was not a serious point. The important point is what the new clause contains and where its powers lie with regard to related protest meetings.

Photo of Ian Paisley Ian Paisley Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party

Will the Minister make it clear that the order has draconian powers on open-air meetings? For example, a police officer can say to a person addressing an open-air meeting, "I don't like what you're saying; you've got to stop speaking." He also has the power to keep people from attending meetings and listening to what is being said. He can say, "I don't want you to stand here and listen." The order has tremendous power on open-air meetings.

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

That is indeed the case. If I heard the hon. Gentleman correctly, he referred to draconian powers. Those are appropriate powers to deal with public order. That is why the legislation was passed in the first place. I appreciate that he may not like legislation to deal with public order problems relating to open-air meetings that could possibly constitute public disorder, but all sensible people recognise the importance of the powers that reside with the RUC.

In Committee, I promised to consider a code of conduct for protest meetings. Government amendments Nos. 17, 18 and 19 deal specifically with that issue. They address—as recommended in the report—the perception that the Bill is unbalanced. As I said, new clause 3 introduces a notice period for protest meetings.

I maintain, however, that to make the commission responsible for making determinations on protest meetings is unnecessary. Going beyond North in that respect would impose a major burden on the commission in what will already be an extremely busy period, certainly in the year ahead and, perhaps, beyond that.

The commission will not deal with protest meetings directly, but it will have the power to take into account the behaviour of protesters. The amendments will enable the Parades Commission to recognise, for example, the extent to which the past misbehaviour of marchers at parades was provoked by similar misconduct on the part of protesters. The commission will thus be able to take into account the extent to which those parading or those protesting have breached the codes of conduct. That will be a useful contribution to the material that the commission will have at its disposal in coming to final decisions.

I believe that those measures are useful and proportionate. I hope that they demonstrate the Government's recognition that the problem of marching is not simply with the marchers, and that we are not looking to create structures to bear down on the overall number of public processions. As a consequence of the debate that took place in the other place and in Committee, further consideration has been given to the issues that were raised about a code of conduct and a notice requirement for protest meetings. I hope that the House finds the new clause and amendments that I have proposed sensible. I urge that they be accepted.

Photo of Malcolm Moss Malcolm Moss Conservative, North East Cambridgeshire

I am grateful to the Minister for taking away the recommendations that we made in Committee and coming back with the new clause and the amendments, most of which were tabled by me and my hon. Friends. New clause 3 is very much in line with the wording of new clause 1, which I tabled in Committee, but there are some additions. As I develop my argument, I shall focus on some of the changes.

Principally, we tabled our amendments to try to get more balance into this important measure. I say important because only today, from a radio phone-in programme that I listened to, it was obvious that there is tremendous resistance in the Province, particularly from Unionists, to the thrust of the Bill. It is vital that we in this place are seen to be even-handed as we write legislation for the first time to deal with what is accepted as a protracted problem, but, in forming the legislation, we might exacerbate rather than improve the position.

In that context, it is vital that the public in Northern Ireland—particularly one side of the public—consider the legislation to be even-handed, balanced and a genuine attempt to accept and tolerate marches and parades that have been going on for many years. We must ensure that it is not heavy-handed and that it does not make those who organise and take part in parades and processions leap through too many hoops, with some of their activities becoming almost criminal.

I now deal with the specifics of new clause 3. I should like the Minister to comment on them as best he can. Subsection (1) refers to the organiser of a protest meeting having to submit notice of such a proposed protest meeting

to a member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary not below the rank of sergeant by leaving the notice with him at the police station nearest to the place at which the meeting is to be held. That wording differs markedly from that in the provision that relates to the notice that needs to be given by organisers of a public procession, who have to leave notice at the police station nearest the procession's proposed starting place. That could mean two different police stations.

I accept that some processions and parades may cover several miles. The protesters might organise a protest at one position along the route of a parade or decide to protest at the start or finish. The notice that must be handed in will in many cases go to different police stations. Given the 14-day time scale for giving notice and the vagaries of the post and administration, I fear that proper and due notice will not be given, particularly to the Parades Commission, whose principal job in this context is to facilitate mediation between the two factions. Perhaps the Minister could give reasons for the different wordings.

My amendment left out the wording in subsections (2)(b) and (4)(f), which are linked. Subsection (2) provides that notice shall be given not later than 14 days before a meeting, and that, if that is not reasonably practicable, it should be given as soon as it is reasonably practicable. If notice is given later, reasons must be given for the notice being late.

I omitted that on purpose. The 14 days was my recommendation in my original new clause 1; I suppose that I should be grateful to the Minister for accepting that time scale. It seemed a reasonable length of time, given that the parade organisers would have to give 28 days' notice. The provision would give a clear 14 days for those who wished to protest to get organised and to submit their notice of intention to protest.

Keeping the two paragraphs gives a green light, if not a licence, to those who wish to be mischievous to delay handing in their notice. As long as they give a reasonable explanation, it comes under the term "reasonably practicable". The shorter the time scale, the more difficult it will be for the commission and its facilitators to do their job. What would happen if, for example, notice were given with only six days to go?

Photo of Robert McCartney Robert McCartney UKUP, North Down

On the hon. Gentleman's first point about two different police stations, does he agree that the 28 days' notice will presumably be made public, and made public with reference to the police station at which it was given? People organising a counter-demonstration could reasonably be expected to serve notice at the place from where the notice of procession emanated. That supports his first point. Secondly, on his valid objection in respect of the term "reasonably practicable", most counter-demonstrations will almost certainly be argued to be extemporary or spontaneous protests. They will rarely be accompanied by people who accept that they are the progenitors. To put in the "reasonably practicable" escape clause will be no more than an encouragement to give notice at the last minute and disclaim responsibility.

Photo of Malcolm Moss Malcolm Moss Conservative, North East Cambridgeshire

I am grateful to the hon. and learned Gentleman for supporting my arguments. It is indeed the case that, if 28 days is the notice required from the organisers of a parade, it gives plenty of time for the parade to be publicised, for the commission to be notified, and even for the commission and its facilitators to make approaches to the groups in the community which they know, for historical reasons, might wish to organise a protest. I suggested 14 days as a reasonable time, bearing in mind the 28 days' notice for the parade organisers.

However, I am concerned that the two paragraphs that introduce the term "reasonably practicable" give a green light, an encouragement, to people to delay putting in notice, to force the commission between a rock and a hard place. If it has only a few days to make a decision, does it suspend the parade to allow greater time for discussions or come to a rushed decision? It would be pilloried either way, by the protesters or the march organisers, for not giving proper and due consideration to the proposal. I should like the Minister to address those questions.

6.15 pm

New clause 3 raises another question that the Minister could helpfully clarify. We are talking about giving advance notice of protests about public processions. If, within a short time scale, it is obvious to the commission and the police that serious disorder could ensue and the protesters are not looking to give way—they may or may not have given proper notice, but they may have given reasons why they could not do so—who is going to ban or prohibit the protest meeting?

Some of the amendments tabled by me and by Northern Irish Members that we discussed in Committee sought to give powers either to the Secretary of State or to the commission to prohibit what we then called counter-demonstrations—I am more than happy to go along with protest meetings—if there was going to be serious public disorder. In amendment No. 24, the Government have tied the definition of a protest meeting to an open-air public meeting. It may be that the powers to prohibit come under paragraph 5 of the Public Order (Northern Ireland) Order 1987.

Can the Minister confirm that the power to ban a protest meeting if the situation is getting out of hand remains with either the Secretary of State or the RUC under the open-air public meeting paragraph of the 1987 order?

On amendments Nos. 15, 17 and 18, once the Minister had accepted the need to be more even-handed in the legislation and offer more balance to the two communities, it was obvious that he had to consider bringing in protest meetings at various places in the Bill. That is in keeping with some recommendations in the North report, which I think was balanced in its approach and attempted to find a way through this difficulty by being as even-handed as possible. I am grateful to the Minister for adding "and protest meetings" to clause 2(1)(c), where the duties of the commission are spelled out. The commission now has to keep itself generally informed as to the conduct of public processions and of the protest meetings that have often gone alongside parades or processions.

On clause 3, amendments Nos. 17 and 18 again follow the recommendations of the North report that a code of conduct should be issued by the commission, to provide guidance not only to persons who are organising public processions but to those persons who intend or hope to organise protest meetings. I have two questions on that for the Minister. Before coming to his decision to include the new wording in those amendments, did he seek the views of the Parades Commission and in particular of Mr. Graham? If so, what did Mr. Graham have to say? Does the Minister intend to recommend to the commission that it follow the suggestions in the North report on a possible code of conduct for those making a protest against a legally held parade?

It would be churlish of me not to acknowledge that the Minister has thought carefully about the reasoned amendments that we tabled in Committee. He was obviously persuaded by the power of our argument. I think he will agree with the Opposition that the new clause and the amendments strengthen the Bill and go some way towards redressing the imbalance that is perceived by one side of the community in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Eddie McGrady Eddie McGrady Social Democratic and Labour Party, South Down

New clause 3 and the amendments grouped with it show a significant change in the ethos of the Public Processions (Northern Ireland) Bill, which should perhaps now be called Public Processions and Protest Meetings (Northern Ireland) Bill.

I have great sympathy with the Minister. In Committee, he was subjected to arguments about the alleged imbalance in the Bill. The propaganda outside the House was that the Bill was intended not to regulate processions and parades but to deny people the right to hold them. That is a great pity, because in Committee the Minister strongly rebutted that argument. He rightly claimed that the Government were trying to be even-handed in their attitude to parades and events that flow from them. I hate quoting the Minister's words back at him, but in Committee he said: We demonstrated at length during the Bill's consideration in the other place that there is no need for the extension of the Secretary of State's banning power to cover counter-demonstrations because she already has the power under the public order order to ban all open air meetings. That power will remain when the Bill comes into effect."—[Official Report, Standing Committee B, 15 January 1998; c. 52.] That was the point of the intervention of the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley). The Public Order (Northern Ireland) Order 1987 contains provisions to deal with counter-demonstrations and protest meetings, so the necessity for the new clause must be called into question.

The wording of the new clause will create considerable difficulties for those whose duty it will be to implement and abide by the regulations that will flow from the Bill. My interpretation of the North report is that it came down against the extension of the notice requirements to what it called open-air public meetings, but which we are now calling protest meetings: they are the same. I cannot understand why North has been quoted as an authority for the introduction of new clause 3, given that it says that the requirements should not be extended to open-air meetings—or protest meetings.

Subsection (4)(g) is almost the same as clause 6 as it appears in the Bill, but there are two words missing. The subsection refers to such other matters as appear to the Secretary of State to be necessary for, or appropriate for facilitating, the exercise by the Secretary of State or members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary of any function". The words that have been left out are "the Commission". A definite decision was made to exclude the commission from any duty to consider public protests.

Photo of Malcolm Moss Malcolm Moss Conservative, North East Cambridgeshire

That is one of the strong recommendations made by North. Page 181 of the report states: we recommend that a Code of Conduct should be introduced covering the behaviour both of participants in a parade and of protesters.

Photo of Eddie McGrady Eddie McGrady Social Democratic and Labour Party, South Down

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and for that correction. It was my interpretation that North did not want an extension of the legislation to open-air meetings. There may be a difference between open-air meetings as he conceived them, and what we now call protest or anti-march meetings. I will let that go for the time being.

By omitting the word "Commission", the Government are establishing two structures: parades and processions will be governed by the commission, and protests or anti-march demonstrations will be dealt with solely by the police and the Secretary of State. That will lead to a great deal of confusion in Northern Ireland, and to claim and counter-claim.

The presumption is that a parade should go ahead, unless there is the threat of public disorder. If the commission makes a determination that a parade should go ahead, and notice is given to the police and to the Secretary of State of a counter-demonstration, will the police or, ultimately, the Secretary of State decide that, because the commission has allowed the parade, they must, willy-nilly and to be consistent, ban, restrict or abolish the right of peaceful protest? The people who will enforce the Bill have been given a difficult task. The two-tier structure that the Minister is creating will be exploited, and it will confuse the issue in the public's mind.

People who genuinely want to protest, be it by holding a parade or some other event, have the right to do so in a peaceful and orderly way. New clause 3 and related amendments will make it much easier for certain elements to utilise the new requirements of the Bill to orchestrate protests that are not genuinely peaceful, do not genuinely reflect local concerns, and could be exploited by any number of people.

If a disruptive element at a peaceful local protest meeting gets out of control, does that damn the peaceful local protest for all time? Given the definition of a public protest and the other amendments dealing with locality and vicinity, will people not be able to make a peaceful public protest outside their own homes unless they have registered their intention to do so? We are going a long way towards withdrawing fundamental human rights.

My main fear, however, is that people wanting to create public disorder may use the new clause and amendments for their purposes. I know that that was not the intention, and that the Minister was trying—legitimately—to deal with improper accusations that the Bill was unbalanced; but he risks creating a two-tier system, and introducing a whole new range of provisions in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office 6:30, 4 February 1998

The hon. Gentleman may have misunderstood the purpose of the new clause—as, I suspect, did the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss). Does the hon. Gentleman accept that we are simply trying to require protesters to give notice of their intention? Can he tell me what is wrong with that concept?

Photo of Eddie McGrady Eddie McGrady Social Democratic and Labour Party, South Down

I have no problem with the concept of giving notice of a protest, but we are talking about giving notice to an entirely different body from that envisaged in the Bill as it stands. The Bill states that notice of parades, assemblies or whatever must be given to the police and then to the commission, but the new clause specifically and deliberately excludes the commission.

Photo of Robert McCartney Robert McCartney UKUP, North Down

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman—

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. Has the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) finished his speech?

Photo of Eddie McGrady Eddie McGrady Social Democratic and Labour Party, South Down

I should like to hear what the hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney) has to say, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Photo of Robert McCartney Robert McCartney UKUP, North Down

I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and the hon. Gentleman.

I entirely understand the hon. Gentleman's difficulty. Does he agree that the commission's function is to determine whether the procession, and those who may wish to protest, will cause a breach of public order? If that is so, the commission should presumably be considering both the procession and the protest. I think that the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) was making the point that, if the words "reasonably practicable" were retained, the commission might not know whether a protest was to take place until the last moment.

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. The hon. and learned Gentleman's intervention is becoming more like a speech.

Photo of Eddie McGrady Eddie McGrady Social Democratic and Labour Party, South Down

I thank the hon. and learned Gentleman, who has greatly assisted my argument. I was not sure that he would do that when he rose to speak.

According to the Bill, the commission will have to consider all the aspects of proposed parades, processions and protests in order to make a determination. As I understand it, a determination on parades or processions will be made by the commission, while a determination on protests will be made by the police or the Secretary of State. That is a recipe for very difficult circumstances.

Photo of Ian Paisley Ian Paisley Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party

I am glad of the opportunity to speak about the Bill today, because the House saw fit to exclude my party from the Standing Committee, although we represent a sizeable part of Unionist thinking and although there are three Unionist Members outside the Official Unionist party. That was intolerant. Excluding people who, having been elected Members of Parliament, took part in the Second Reading debate on the Bill does not serve the purposes of democracy, and does not enhance the democratic image of the House in Northern Ireland. I shall say no more about that, except that I understand that the arrangements have been altered in regard to the Police (Northern Ireland) Bill. I am glad about that, but I should not have had to stand up in the House and say what I have said.

I am afraid that the Minister is not prepared to get to grips with one fact—the fact that what caused the current trouble was the Public Order (Northern Ireland) Order 1987. Hon. Members shake their heads, but I have sat here for many years, and I sat through public order debates relating to England, Scotland and Wales. I know that it would be impossible, under the same arrangements, to get the proposals in that order through the House.

Let us imagine that a police officer who decided that he did not like what a man in the street was saying could say, "You must stop your open-air meeting." No other order allows that. Let us imagine that that officer could say to the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss), "I do not like you listening to that man. You must move on." Such measures are draconian. We must accept that the 1987 order sowed the seeds of the current situation in Northern Ireland.

It does not often happen that all but three Northern Ireland Members go to prison over such an issue, but that is what happened. Those Northern Ireland Members realised what the order would bring about. Many people are groaning and crying and saying that what has happened is terrible, but it was bound to happen. The south of Ireland gloated, and said, "We now have an order that will deal with the Unionist population in Northern Ireland." We have seen how that has come about. What is more, we know from the words of Gerry Adams that he and the provisional IRA worked for three years to bring it about.

It is sometimes said that Unionists in the House are much too outspoken—that they say far too much, and express themselves far too strongly. Yesterday, I picked up a paper and read the comments of a young lady journalist from the bogside, a Roman Catholic. She had something to say about Martin McGuinness, something to say about Gerry Adams and something to say about the type of people with whom we have to deal. Addressing Martin McGuinness, she said: How dare you, big chief republican, current killers' mouthpiece, former killers' colleague, clamour for prosecutions? She said that it was a pity that he would not be examined for what he had done. She said: Mrs. Rose Heggarty must long to know. You promised, on bended knee, that her son was safe to return from exile.He was in hiding from the IRA who had threatened to kill him.

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. We are discussing new clause 3, which is not related to the matters that the hon. Gentleman is raising. He must confine himself to the new clause.

Photo of Ian Paisley Ian Paisley Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party

I am confining myself to new clause 3. We are talking about the opportunity to protest against processions. The leader of the IRA-Sinn Fein has told us that he brought about the current position—along with his colleague Martin McGuinness—for that purpose. I am talking about a person who is responsible for bringing about the circumstances that have led to our discussing new clause 3.

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. The hon. Gentleman should not discuss what brought us to the situation. We are debating new clause 3 and the history of the matter is not before the House.

Photo of Ian Paisley Ian Paisley Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party

I am amazed by your ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because I thought that we were entitled to put matters into their context. This is a serious matter and I regret that I am ruled out of order for stating what a Roman Catholic lady from Londonderry had to say about one of the prime movers in this matter. I shall relate her final statement, which is a simple one. She said: Sinn Fein should shut up … They have covered a dirty, murky, bloody past of their own in a way that makes Widgery look positively Godly. Of course Mrs. Heggarty mourns the killing of her son who was brought to a house by Martin McGuinness and later killed despite promises that had been made. That is the background to the debate.

The Public Order (Northern Ireland) Order has to be taken with the Bill because the Minister has said that under the order the Secretary of State and the police are given certain powers. If we had approached the matter in the context of that order, which gave rise to the situation, perhaps we could have found a solution. We are not heading towards a solution because one of my political opponents, the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady), said earlier that the new clause is a recipe for more trouble. That is because the commission will deal with processions and a different authority will deal with protests against them.

The hon. Member for South Down is right. As the House knows, I am not holding up a banner for any commission but the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members who know the situation are talking sense.

The Minister will not always be in Northern Ireland but we have to live with the situation there. I do not understand the Government's thinking on this matter. The Minister says that they want balance, but the new clause will not provide that. It does not deal with protests and processions on the same level and in the same way. To obtain balance they would have to be dealt with in the same way, but that is not being done.

It has been said that perhaps the Bill is not balanced, but there has been no acknowledgement of that imbalance. We said from the beginning that it was unbalanced but that has been forgotten. If a clause similar to the new clause had been in the Bill on Second Reading we could have dealt with it in the context of the whole Bill, but the new clause appears after the Bill has passed the other place. That is not fair on such an important matter.

6.45 pm

Some people have asked me tonight, "Do you think that the debate will be long?" That is an amazing question. We are dealing with one of Northern Ireland's most protracted problems. There were cries of outrage throughout the House after Drumcree, and hon. Members ruthlessly condemned people who should have been commended, yet in a debate on this matter, people want to get home early. The House must realise that we are discussing a serious matter and if we do not get the legislation right, hon. Members, Roman Catholic and Protestant people and people in the rest of the kingdom will reap the consequences. Northern Ireland Members must have answers from the Government to some disturbing questions.

The protests issue is serious. Open-air meetings are entirely different from protest meetings against processions. It cannot be said that all open-air meetings are in the same category. The public order legislation refers to such meetings as religious, social or political. We are discussing meetings that have been organised for the one purpose of stopping those who for years have walked along a particular road. The Bill was born out of Drumcree. Protests and how they are to be handled must be tightly defined.

Mr. Adams said that they worked for three years organising protests. They will not give up, because they have made great headway. We must examine the public order part of the Bill and define protests instead of lumping them in with ordinary open-air meetings. That is entirely unfair.

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

The hon. Gentleman is presenting a vigorous argument. Why did he not table any amendments?

Photo of Ian Paisley Ian Paisley Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party

Because I was not allowed on the Committee: I was kept off it. I have been in the House longer than the Minister and I know that if I had tabled amendments they would not have been called. Almost all the amendments that have been called by Madam Speaker are Government amendments. Who does the Minister think he is talking to? Does he think that I came here yesterday? I know a little about the workings of the House.

The Government would not have liked 100 amendments from me on the amendment paper. They would have laughed at that, and yet the Minister asks why I did not table amendments. I did not need to table any because good ones have already been tabled and I shall address them when we come to them. If that is all that the Minister can say in a serious debate, it shows what will happen in Northern Ireland in future when his hand is on the tiller and difficulties arise.

A proper period must be set for a protest notice; we must leave the loophole of "if practicable". If the legislation does not contain a specified period of time for submitting the notice, people will get out of the requirement by leaving the submission of the notice to the last minute. A protest will be held only when it has the best effect. The hon. Member for South Down raised another important issue when he asked whether the new clause would cut out a spontaneous protest. If an event is taking place outside someone's door, he may protest, but if he has not given notice of it he will be in serious trouble. No Government could enforce that law, because there are protests every day about something or other.

Let me deal with the issue of responsibility. We attended a big meeting on Friday at the city hall, and I am sure that the trade unionists who organised it wanted it to be peaceful. It was far from peaceful, though, because elements came with banners that were insulting to one part of the community. A woman came down and said that she represented the politics of West Belfast. She was told by the trade unionists that she was not going to be allowed to speak and they had a whole row among themselves.

Were the meeting organisers responsible for the trouble that ensued at the city hall on Friday? Not at all. They called the meeting in good faith. They were not protesting about anything, but there were elements—Gerry Adams was there—to ensure that the republican view would be brought to the fore and that the banners would be carried. The whole thing was supposed to be about peace, but ended in a charade.

We need to handle these matters with great care and to reflect on them closely, because there are great difficulties with regard to these protests. I do not understand why the House is setting up a commission to examine parades because those parades are largely Orange, Apprentice Boys and Royal Black Institution parades. We know that the Bill is largely aimed at the parades, yet the people who protest about those parades are going to be treated differently. Why is that? Instead of balancing it out, the Bill balances things in their favour.

With all due respect to them, the police do not operate in the same way in every district in Northern Ireland. We have a clamping law that says that, if people do not pay for their car tax disc, the car will be clamped, but that law does not work in the republican areas, because people who are employed to put on clamps dare not go into those areas. If they sat down outside a republican's or a leading IRA man's home and put a clamp on his wheel, they would probably be knee-capped before they got up from the bending position. So who is going to carry out this legislation? Will it be carried out freely?

I challenge the Minister: in the past year, how many illegal parades have been held in Northern Ireland of which he had no notice and where nothing was done? Why was nothing done? Because they were in republican areas. Those people gave no notice to the police. They had their parades, and nothing was done.

We are back to the same situation with the new clause. Therefore, it is not a solution. We will not have one until we are prepared to consider the Public Order (Northern Ireland) Order, which the Government have set their mind on not examining, because I think they want the power to be invested in the Secretary of State and in the police. However, we are not going to find a solution until we have legislation that can be lived with by the majority population and by the minority population.

This Bill has been rejected by the people who are going to walk on these parades. They have already said that they will not talk to the commission. If they are not going to talk to it, how will it do its work? The Government need to think long and hard about what they are doing and about the new clause in particular.

Photo of Robert McCartney Robert McCartney UKUP, North Down

I shall develop some of the points that the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) made on new clause 3. There is a curious dichotomy in the proposal that the commission should decide whether a parade should be permitted, but some other body—the Secretary of State or the police—should decide on the protest meeting.

As the hon. Member for South Down said, that will give rise to much difficulty. The problem arises from the Public Order (Northern Ireland) Order 1987, which in effect became a protester's charter. If protesters opposed a parade that was to be conducted perfectly lawfully—and it was accepted that it would be so conducted, with proper notice given—so forcefully that the likely outcome would be a breach of the peace, the parade would be stopped. In effect, if people wanted to stop a lawful parade, and they mounted such violent and unlawful opposition that public disorder could be guaranteed, whereupon the parade would be banned.

I understand that the purpose of the Bill—and, indeed, of the commission—is to assess the overall situation in relation to any parade, balancing various considerations on both sides and considering the likelihood of whether, in the circumstances, it would cause such local protest that it merited being banned, or whether it should proceed.

The people who will organise a parade—it is accepted that most of the parades will be of a pro-Unionist, Orange, Royal Black Institution or Apprentice Boys variety—are known and recognised. In most cases, they have paraded on traditional routes on many occasions. They can be identified, they are responsible citizens and they can all be made amenable to the law. They are the sort of people who will put in a notice within the prescribed time, fulfilling all the requirements of the legislation, so that the commission, from the day that that notice is filed, will be aware of who is organising the parade, where it is to start and finish, and what its composition will be.

The commission will be charged with the task of assessing the entire situation, but the new clause says that people who intend to organise some form of protest or opposition demonstration should give 14 days' notice. Does that mean that the commission will be unable fully to assess the situation until it receives notice of a counter-demonstration?

For example, if no notice is given until the required 14 days before a public procession is to be held, what will the commission do during those 14 days—the first 14 days of the 28-day notice? Will it assess the position on the following basis: this parade is being organised by recognised, reasonable and lawful people on a traditional route that, in the past, has not had any objection? It could make a decision possibly within two or three days, but, under the new clause, it could not conceivably make a decision for at least 14 days—because 14 of the 28 days can elapse before counter-demonstrators must give their notice.

That situation is bad enough, but then we come to the provision that was mentioned by the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss), which deals with a late notice. Someone may offer the defence that it has not been reasonably practicable to give an earlier notice of a protest demonstration. Will the commission have to wait until the eleventh hour before it gets the final, vital information that is necessary for it to make an overall decision on whether the counter-demonstration is likely to give rise to such a breach of public order that the procession should not go ahead?

That is but one of the anomalies that will arise unless the commission is seized of the overall situation and is in a position to decide that the procession can go ahead, taking into account all the information that is available to it from anyone who may possibly be organising a counter-demonstration.

To assess the situation, the commission would have not only to take into account all the information that would be available on the 28 days' notice required from those organising the procession, but to have all the information about the nature and type of the people and the nature and place of the counter-demonstration. It would be in the interests of those who are going to parade and those who are going to protest—and it would certainly be in the interests of the commission—that the commission should know at the earliest possible date just what will happen, so that it can make a sensible and valid decision one way or the other.

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If the 28 days' notice—the notice to be given by those organising the parade or procession—is to be kept, the appropriate time for notice to be given by those who are organising the counter-demonstration is 21 days in advance. That would enable the commission to remove itself from the uncomfortable position of being between a rock and a hard place. It would know 28 days before the proposed date what the paraders were going to do, the nature of their procession and where it was coming from and going to, and it would also know within 21 days the sort of opposition that the procession was likely to engender. It would have three weeks in which to consider the whole matter and, we hope, make a decision.

If we proceed as suggested, the commission could consider the circumstances of the procession and decide that nothing appeared to be wrong with it but have to withhold its decision to allow it to go ahead until it found out whether there was to be a counter-parade—and it would not know that for at least another 14 days. Indeed, it might not know until two or three days before the actual date of the procession should the House accept the notion of giving notice only as soon as it is reasonably practicable to do so.

There is a great deal of good sense in what the hon. Member for South Down suggested. The commission should be seized of the entire situation in relation to the paraders and those who intend to bring the counter-demonstration. Unless one body has that information reasonably in advance of the given date of the procession, it cannot conceivably, in practical terms, be in a position to make any valid or worthwhile decision.

Photo of Mr William Thompson Mr William Thompson UUP, West Tyrone

We welcome the Government's conversion to the notion of taking counter-demonstrations into consideration.

The Government were bound to have known all along that the problem lay not with legal processions but with illegal opposition to them. We do not object to protests, provided they are within the law and do not go out of their way to stop a lawful parade. Unfortunately, that is what has been happening in Northern Ireland. People who are opposed in principle to parades not only protest but go out of their way to try to stop them. Of course, they have been encouraged in that by the failure of the Royal Ulster Constabulary leadership to deal properly with them under existing legislation. We therefore welcome the new clause.

One question that arises relates to the 14 days' notice. I understand that the commission has announced that it will make a determination five days before a parade is due to be held. It therefore seems more likely that it will be after the determination is known that the protest will be held. It is more likely that notice will be given not under subsection (2)(a) of the new clause, which refers to not later than 14 days", but under subsection (2)(b), which stipulates

as soon as it is reasonably practicable". The Minister has spoken a great deal about balance and said that the new clause will provide it. I disagree entirely. The new clause certainly goes some way towards balancing the situation, but it does not go the whole way. The criteria that will be used to judge a protest will to some extent be different from those used to judge a proper parade.

For example, we are told that, when judging a parade—that is, judging whether a determination should be issued in relation to it—the commission will have to take into consideration any impact which the procession may have on relationships within the community", as stated in clause 7(6)(c). As we are talking about parity, perhaps the Minister will explain why, when it comes to a protest in a similar situation, the impact on relations within the community should not be taken into consideration as well. It may well be that in certain circumstances and in a certain community protesters from the other community will come and create havoc, so surely the impact of a protest on relations within the community should be taken into consideration, too.

There is also a lack of parity in the Secretary of State's powers in relation to a protest and to a procession. Under the order, the Secretary of State does not have the power to ban a protest. She can ban all protests for a time, yet under this Bill she can ban a particular procession. That means that there is disparity in this instance, too. The whole thing is still unbalanced. I think that the Minister should consider that imbalance.

As far as it goes, we welcome the Government's conversion. Unfortunately, the proposal is very late and has only been dragged out of them, whereas it should have been included in the Bill at the very start. In fact, had they added something simple to the existing legislation, it would probably have been more helpful than what they are trying to do now. In any event, we welcome the Government's conversion and hope that the imbalance will be removed. We shall certainly recommend how that can be done.

Photo of Shona McIsaac Shona McIsaac Labour, Cleethorpes

I am glad that hon. Members are welcoming the new clause; I think that shows that the Government are listening to the concerns of people in Northern Ireland.

Central to the Bill is the philosophy that people have a right to march and a right to peaceful assembly. With those rights come responsibilities; everyone must recognise that. The key responsibility is to recognise the freedom of others and the right of everyone to live his life without fear and intimidation.

I agree with what was said in Committee to the effect that the majority of the approximately 3,000 parades held in Northern Ireland every year pass off peacefully. Only a few are contested, but it is those contested parades that cast a shadow over Northern Ireland. If we do not deal with those parades, I do not think that there will ever be real peace in Northern Ireland.

I know from experience that a contested parade can be intimidating and cause much fear. I am part of what is wonderfully described in Belfast as a mixed marriage—I am Presbyterian and my husband is Catholic. I have visited my in-laws in north Belfast, which, as those who are familiar with the area know, is a very mixed community where there has always been much tension. I have been there when marches have taken place and I, too, have felt fear and intimidation. No one, from whichever community, should have to put up with the taunts and insults that I heard.

The new clause will enshrine in the Bill rights and responsibilities. It recognises the right to march and the rights of people to protest peacefully, and I am glad that hon. Members have welcomed it.

I have seen many marches in Northern Ireland. As a Presbyterian girl I have accompanied my husband to some spectacular Easter parades—they are part of history and tradition. Similarly, in the countryside in the summer, we have seen Orange Lodge parades, which are likewise part of history and tradition. The few processions that cause the problems—Drumcree is the most recent flash point—are the reason we are discussing this subject. I hope that the new clause will ensure that the protests, aggression, fear and intimidation cease.

Photo of Mr William Thompson Mr William Thompson UUP, West Tyrone

Does the hon. Lady acknowledge that, in the areas where there has been trouble, that trouble has been caused mainly by the attempts of Sinn Fein-IRA to stop parades, and that the vast majority of parades pass peaceably because there is no threat from that quarter?

Photo of Shona McIsaac Shona McIsaac Labour, Cleethorpes

I do not agree. I have seen nationalist as well as Orange parades disrupted in Belfast. Unfortunately, a minority on both sides cause trouble.

Photo of Mr William Ross Mr William Ross UUP, East Londonderry

The hon. Lady will be aware that a number of my colleagues live in Belfast. She has said that she has seen nationalist parades disrupted, but can she tell us time and place, as we would be very interested to know?

Photo of Shona McIsaac Shona McIsaac Labour, Cleethorpes

I am afraid that I cannot give an example from my own experience, but my mother-in-law and father-in-law told me about a parade in north Belfast from Eia street, through Duncairn gardens and into Tigers bay that caused much fear for the Catholic community in the New Lodge.

Photo of Martin Smyth Martin Smyth UUP, Belfast South

I have had parishioners who live in Eia street and I know where Tigers bay is, and I have to tell the hon. Lady that the parade that was impeded was not a nationalist one. It is tragic to mislead the House in any way.

Photo of Shona McIsaac Shona McIsaac Labour, Cleethorpes

I apologise if I have misled the House. The hon. Gentleman is right, but I am sure that he will agree that the community in the New Lodge area is very mixed and there has been much tension over the years—it has suffered more sectarian killings than most parts of Belfast. I am sure that both communities there want the killings to stop and want once again to live in peace.

As I said, I am glad that hon. Members welcome the new clause. It was not dragged from the Government; the Government listened to the debates and acknowledged much of what was said, and I hope that the House will support the new clause.

Mr. Lembit Öpik:

The new clause requires those who want to participate in a counter-demonstration to notify their intentions 14 days in advance. It represents a substantial response to many people's concerns, so Liberal Democrats support its fundamental aim. Indeed, this group of amendments is probably the most important that we shall discuss tonight.

The purpose of the Bill is to balance the rights of people to march against the rights of people to object to those marches. That will create a more level playing field, which will make parades much less of a sticking point and a cause of friction in the community.

I agree that it would be iniquitous if one group had to notify the police of its intentions 28 days in advance whereas others could arrange protests on the spot. Some counter-demonstrations seem to have become as traditional as the marches against which they protest. It would be grossly unfair if the original march were regulated but the counter-march were not. The new clause and the amendments will go a considerable way to addressing the bitterness that such an iniquity could cause.

I assume that the RUC was consulted on the new clause and that it will be pleased with it, as it should make it easier to police the contentious marches, which, as others have said tonight, represent only a tiny minority of the marches that take place each year in Northern Ireland.

I have a few concerns, which I shall briefly relate. The Minister should explain why different authorities will assess the cases for the counter-demonstration and the demonstration. I can see some logic to that, but there is a danger of creating unmatched messages and different interpretations of the validity of the two marches.

Subsection (2) of the new clause creates a loophole by requiring that people who propose to organise a counter-demonstration should give notice not later than 14 days before the meeting is to take place or, if that is not reasonably practicable, as soon as it is reasonably practicable to give such notice. We all know that there are trouble-makers; as other hon. Members have said, this provision is a licence to cause trouble. In what circumstances will 14 days after notice of the march give insufficient leeway for those planning a counter-demonstration? They will have a full two weeks in which to get their act together and formally make their intentions clear.

The hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney) expressed his concern about civil liberties. He made an important point. In theory, if the measures are mishandled, they could restrict civil liberties. It almost goes without saying that they have to be handled sensitively; if they are handled too strictly and restrictively, people will have a right to complain. Clearly, those issues are not absolutely clear-cut. A great deal of sensitivity is needed in balancing things that we may feel uncomfortable in permitting against concern that banning such things would simply restrict too much people's right to demonstrate or counter-demonstrate.

Photo of Ian Paisley Ian Paisley Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party

I think that I heard the hon. Gentleman say—I might have been wrong—that some of the counter-demonstrations were as old as the parades. I do not know of any recent counter-demonstration that has caused trouble which was not a new counter-demonstration, carrying out the programme of IRA-Sinn Fein.

Mr. Öpik:

To correct the hon. Gentleman, I said that some counter-demonstrations were as traditional as the parades—certainly not as old. In that sense, I completely agree with him. It would be rather strange to suggest that counter-demonstrations were set up on the same day as the original demonstrations. I was referring simply to a question of traditionality. By that I mean that communities have, in some cases, taken as a traditional element of the marching season participation in certain counter-demonstrations. I note his other point, which is valid.

Despite all our concerns about potential weaknesses, the new clause would tighten up something that needed to be addressed. In effect, it prevents or reduces the danger of allowing some people to exploit the law for narrow party political purposes. It will not eliminate exploitation, because some situations will always lend themselves to such political exploitation. However, it will hopefully strike a fairer balance. With the proviso of the Minister's explanations about the concerns that I and others have expressed, the Liberal Democrats will support the changes.

Photo of Mr William Ross Mr William Ross UUP, East Londonderry

This matter came before the Committee at some length. We had a long and interesting series of exchanges on the theme. Afterwards, one of my hon. Friends said to me that the question of people assembling for peaceful purpose and being thwarted by others in carrying out that purpose had been thoroughly explored a long time ago. So I did some checking up.

It is of note that, as long ago as 1882, the Salvation Army, which enjoys a favoured position under this legislation, had a certain amount of trouble. The position taken by the mayor of the town at the time was that order could be easily maintained if the Salvation Army would simply stop parading. The account of events describes a melée involving thousands, including Mayor Blatch, the largest brewer in town. It continued:

Despite much superficial bloodshed, there were no injuries more serious then broken limbs. The magistrates who considered the issue said that the ban that the mayor had tried to impose was "an interference with liberty". They

placed the blame for the riots squarely on a band of young roughs, paid agents of the liquor interests of Basingstoke. Those events occurred in 1882, in the south of England. What has changed? All one has to do is take away "Mayor Blatch" and the "liquor interests" and insert "IRA", and take away "the Salvation Army" and insert "loyalist institutions", and one has the exact same set-up that we have seen in recent years in Northern Ireland.

The issue in Basingstoke—the same as the one that we are facing tonight—went to the Queen's Bench Division on 12 and 13 June 1882. The issue considered was: The appellants assembled with others for a lawful purpose, and with no intention of carrying it out unlawfully, but with the knowledge that their assembly would be opposed, and with good reason to suppose that a breach of the peace would be committed by those who opposed it". That goes rather further than anything that could be levelled against the Orange institution concerning any procession. The matter was

Held by Field and Cave, JJ., that they could not be rightly convicted for an unlawful assembly. If the Minister is really looking for background and a solid foundation on which to base the changes that he is introducing, perhaps that is where he should start. If he starts from that solid foundation of more than 100 years since, he will come to the conclusion, as we have, that the Bill is fatally flawed, because it builds on a sandy foundation rather than a solid rock of reason.

I welcome the Government's limping conversion towards reality, but it is too little, too late. Far more should have been done and far more sense should have been injected—not only under this Government but under the previous Administration 11 years ago. If it had, we might have been in a happier position today.

That matter was the subject of many amendments in Committee. The Government, to some extent, have been converted to our point of view. We believe—the Government now accept our point—that those who assemble intent on disruption and confrontation and who are prepared to use violence to stop a customary legal procession or any procession to which they choose to object should come under the same rigorous conditions as those who are going about their peaceful business in the first place.

The hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) got it wrong in believing that there have been only a few such examples. We have always maintained that there are as many as the IRA wish to create, and can create, at a given time. As soon as it has finished with one area, it moves to the next. There are not just a few; there are as many as it can manage. There is no comparison between the crowd of thugs that we often see in the street, carrying petrol bombs, bombs and iron bars, with those who simply want to go on a customary parade of whatever type, usually to a church. I do not see how both groups can be placed on exactly the same footing.

What will the commission do as soon as it is informed? We were told in Committee that 28 days' notice was needed for the commission to manage to work its way through all the various steps that it has to take. Fourteen days is a lot shorter than 28 days, so, it will have only eight or nine days to reach a decision after it has received notice—provided that it is served with notice in the first place. I suspect that protesters will say, "Oh, but we did not know," and will go along at the very last minute. Instead of two weeks' notice, it will be two days—although the protesters will have spent a month preparing.

The Government have a problem, and the police will have a problem. I assume that that is the reason why the police will have to take the primary decision rather than leaving it with the commission, which I think will be informed, in practice, as a matter of courtesy.

What will the commission and the police do? Let us say that the commission is given 14 days' notice. Will it try to persuade the objectors to withdraw their objections? Will it try to persuade them to call off the protest? Will it try to persuade the organisers of the original procession to call off the procession? Will it meet representatives of IRA-Sinn Fein or send somebody else to meet it? Or will it begin to recognise just exactly what it is up against: an armed, criminal, murderous conspiracy to overthrow the United Kingdom's constitution? How will the commission operate?

Photo of Malcolm Moss Malcolm Moss Conservative, North East Cambridgeshire

Has the hon. Gentleman given any thought to what might happen in relation to the giving of notice? We know that only one parade or procession will be involved in giving 28 days' notice, but how many protest notices could be given relating to that one procession before somebody decided that they must be taken as a whole? Or will they have to be considered individually?

Photo of Mr William Ross Mr William Ross UUP, East Londonderry

That opens up the can of worms—not one relating to objections but the one constituted in the Bill. We believe that the whole arrangement is built on the wrong foundations, and can therefore do nothing but create more problems than it resolves. That is why I am asking questions. I hope that I shall get answers to them, but I have some doubts.

When the 28 days' notice is received, the commission will go out and ask people in the villages, "Do you object to this procession?" I know that that is not on the face of the Bill, but the guidance booklet that we were given says that that will be the procedure.

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The commission will go around to all those folk and say, "There is a procession coming down"—it may be the Ancient Order of Hibernians, an Orange procession, or something else—"Do you object to it?" Two days later, there will be a full-blown campaigning group trying to stop that procession. That is one of the craziest aspects of the Bill, and the same situation arises repeatedly within it.

Until now, the protest groups have simply been groups of people with no particular entity, whereas now they will have an entity. As soon as they submit an application, it will have to say that there is an organised body of people with a name. I think that that is a good thing, because it will tell us which individuals are organising the action. There must be a name on the application, so the police will start seeing who is actively involved and who is the person allegedly running things.

Can the Minister assure me that the Government's proposed changes will cover counter-processions? I thought that, in his opening remarks, he distinguished between counter-processions and sit-down demonstrations—"protest" implies a static protest, a crowd in the street. Apparently, such events are not processions but counter-demonstrations, because they have been arranged for the same time and place as something else. They would be caught under the rest of the legislation.

If that is so, the Minister has lifted and in some ways improved the provisions in the 1987 order, and is inserting them into the Bill. I welcome that. Those people have been getting away, literally without a scratch on them, for far too long. I welcome the fact that they are now being brought to the point where they will have to appear for what they are—organised groups out to stop processions.

There are a number of ill-intentioned people out there who will try to disrupt the processions. What then? Who will be responsible for making them amenable? Will the commission go and talk to them? Will the police? We should like to know who will do that.

Several aspects of new clause 3 cause me a certain amount of concern. The notice given to the police has to be handed to someone not below the rank of sergeant". In Committee, we had a long debate on the other aspect of that—the fact that the processional notice has to be given to a police officer not below that rank. The implication in that case was that, if there was no one of that rank present, people would have to come back the next day and the next day, and so on, until they found a sergeant.

The same words appear in new clause 3. I tabled an amendment that would have covered the point, but unfortunately it has not been selected. We have pointed out that in England and Scotland it is good enough for notice to be posted to the police, but that in Northern Ireland one has to take the notice to the police.

We debated the matter for some time in Committee, but the amendment that I tabled for Report stage—as I said, sadly, it has not been called—was to the effect that the notice could be left for the sergeant, by giving it to any police officer at the station. That is not being acted on, so new clause 3 has the same shortcomings in relation to giving notice as does the main body of the legislation. That point needs to be addressed, and if there is any opportunity to deal with it, the Government should do so before the Bill passes into law.

The plain truth is that the Bill is trying to deal with the wrong problem. It is trying to tell people, "Look, there are certain processions that cause trouble." There may be—but I think that certain people are out to cause trouble about processions. I can think of several examples in places such as Belfast and Londonderry, where we have seen the Sinn Fein-IRA element processing year after year with every intention of causing offence to their neighbours, and behaving pretty badly, yet no action was taken against them. Whenever those people found that no action was being taken against them in that sphere, they turned the whole thing on its head and decided to go back into the protest business, the opposition and confrontation business, in an effort to stop the Orange processions.

The Minister talked about a perception out there. Well, that is the perception out there. I believe that, in taking a little step, he has done something to redress the balance, but he has a long way to go yet, and no one could be totally satisfied with new clause 3.

The smaller amendments consequential on the new clause are of considerable interest in their own right. Among other things, there is Government amendment No. 24, which will write into clause 16 a definition of exactly what a "protest meeting" means. It means a gathering,

an open-air public meeting (within the meaning of the Public Order (Northern Ireland) Order 1987)—

  1. (a) which is, or is to be, held—
    1. (i) at a place which is on or in the vicinity of the route or proposed route of a public procession; and
    2. (ii) at or about the same time as the procession is being or is to be held; and
  2. (b) the purpose (or one of the purposes) of which is to demonstrate opposition to the holding of that procession on that route or proposed route".
The Minister may say that the proposed new paragraphs (a)(i) and (ii) are clear, specifying as they do a place that must be on or in the vicinity of the route at or about the same time as the other procession. How on earth can anyone prove that the purpose or one of the purposes is to demonstrate opposition? People could say that they were coming to that place for a totally different purpose. I suspect that all sorts of lies will be told. We are up against a fairly cancerous organisation, which does not worry about a few lies if it can get them on the road.

Let us hope that amendment No. 24 will be interpreted by the authorities and by the police in the widest possible way, so as to ensure that a planned protest meeting will not be allowed to take place on or near the route anywhere near the time of the other procession, or even on the same day—for proposed new paragraph (b) is probably impossible to prove.

I cannot do other than say that I give the provisions a certain amount of welcome. Some of the wording is pretty much like the wording that the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) and I tabled at an earlier stage. However, we are also coming close to the view that I expressed several times in Committee—that we would wind up by allowing all processions to proceed. We may hear more about that later.

It seems to me that, so long as some processions are stopped and others are allowed, there will always be people who protest. There will always be a way for the wicked and the violent to raise Cain, as they have been doing for some time. The Government will not be done with public order legislation when they have finished with the Bill; I believe that we shall have to come back to the subject within a year.

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

We have had a very extensive debate, and I thank all hon. Members for their contributions. I shall do my best to deal with the many detailed points that were raised. First, I wish to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) for her helpful comments. It is useful to hear new and different voices in the House, and from people who have experience of events in Northern Ireland but do not necessarily represent any interests there. The greater and wider the knowledge of events in Northern Ireland, the better debates in this House will be.

I particularly thank my hon. Friend for her strong support of my position. She said that it was not the case that the new clause and the related amendments had been dragged out of the Government; far from it. Comments of that nature are ungracious. The hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) claimed all credit for what is happening, as if it were his inspired thinking that had brought it about.

We said in the other place that these matters were worthy of consideration. I said in Committee—the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire was present—that I wanted to hear the strength of the arguments. Clearly, an option was open to the Government to propose measures relating to these matters. I wanted to hear the full flavour and strength of the arguments in advance, and then reach a balanced position. Clearly, many varied points of view could be expressed. The new clause was not dragged out of me, nor was it a result of the inspired thinking of the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire.

This is the benefit of the Committee and Report stages of a Bill—something which, in opposition, we never had the courtesy of from the previous Government, who were usually extremely discourteous in dealing with any substantive points on the Bills on which I was privileged to serve.

I say to the Ulster Unionist Members that I fully understand their overall view; they do not want this legislation at all. I recognise and welcome the spirit and the intent of their amendments. We can perhaps deal with the overall thrust of the Bill at Third Reading, but I have no doubt that we will hear many of the same points expressed again. I recognise that Ulster Unionist Members do not want the legislation, but I have to say that that is not the experience of those who have viewed what is required in Northern Ireland and who are trying to bring about a more balanced and reasonable approach to the Province.

Photo of Mr William Thompson Mr William Thompson UUP, West Tyrone

The majority of the elected representatives in Northern Ireland do not want the Bill—surely the Government should take notice of that. If the Conservative party were introducing a similar measure in Scotland, where there are no Conservative Members, there would be strong objections from the hon. Gentleman.

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

I understand that argument entirely, but I am a representative of the United Kingdom Parliament, as is the hon. Gentleman. The responsibility rests with this House. We do not have a devolved assembly in Northern Ireland—something which many of us hope will come out of the current talks—and these matters must be considered by the UK Parliament. It may or may not become a devolved issue; that is a matter for the talks participants, and then for the people of Northern Ireland.

There is a fundamental misunderstanding of what the new clause and the associated amendments propose. Their purpose is simply to place within the Bill a requirement on those organising protest meetings to give notice of them. I ask the question—what is wrong with that? The amendments deal with a code of practice in relation to protest meetings which is consistent with North's recommendations. Again I ask—what is wrong with that? There is no change in the law as it stands relating to the public order aspects of open-air meetings.

7.45 pm

A number of hon. Members raised similar points in different ways, and I apologise if I do not mention them all in dealing with the substantive points. Clearly, hon. Members will have an opportunity to return to these matters if necessary. My hon. Friend the Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady), the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik) and Ulster Unionist Members mentioned the commission in terms of processions, and the way in which protest meetings related to those processions would be dealt with by the police, and asked why these were to be dealt with differently.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Down said that the commission was not to be involved at all. Of course the commission is involved in the process, because, under new clause 3, the police are required to give notice to the commission of the fact that the organisers of a related protest meeting have given notice of such a meeting. The commission will take the behaviour of the protesters into consideration when making determinations in relation to future parades. It is wrong to imply or indicate that somehow the commission is not associated with matters relating to protest meetings.

Photo of Eddie McGrady Eddie McGrady Social Democratic and Labour Party, South Down

I thank the Minister for trying to explain this point, but the fact is that the commission will have been given notice through the police of a protest, and will have taken cognisance of the overall problem in terms of the procession and any possible protest. None the less, there is a definitive distinction, as the commission apparently cannot make a determination on the protest meetings. That is the point I was making.

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

I was going to come to that, and I may have misheard my hon. Friend. I thought that he had implied or indicated that the commission was not associated at all with protest meetings.

The difference between that which relates to protest meetings and that which relates to public processions is quite clear. By their very nature, protest meetings have a tendency to become matters of public disorder. That view has been expressed. It does not happen at all protests—nor should it happen at all—but we have seen examples of it. As it is a public order issue, it should rest with those who have direct responsibility for dealing with the matter—in this case, the RUC. Of itself, it does not create a new distinction, as it is dealing with the reality of the situation.

Another fundamental issue is at stake in dealing with protest meetings. If the matter were to be given to the commission to deal with, my best judgment—after consultation with the commission—is that an incredible burden would be placed on the commission, which has to deal with a wide range of issues. We are dealing with a difficult enough set of circumstances without giving the commission a much more contentious area to deal with. That is why we have dealt with it separately.

Mr. Öpik:

If my understanding is correct, the Minister is suggesting that the commission will take account of the performance of the counter-demonstration in future assessments of the procession. If that is correct, is there not a built-in temptation for the counter-demonstration to work in such a way as to prompt the commission to rule that the procession would be unacceptably dangerous in terms of public order? That could be counter-productive, by giving the counter-demonstration an unreasonably high incentive to misbehave.

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

All those things are a possibility, and the Parades Commission has been given a difficult job. As the hon. Gentleman recognised in his speech tonight and on Second Reading, we have consistently spoken about the difficult nature of the commission's job. It will not be easy to make those judgments, and in future years fine, precise decisions will have to be taken based on past years' experience.

I know that the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire was not on the Standing Committee, but we dealt with a wide range of matters relating specifically to ways in which the commission will have to deal with those complex matters. The hon. Gentleman will have had the opportunity to read the Committee Hansard—if not, I suggest that it should be his bedtime reading tonight, assuming we get home to bed tonight. I have dealt with that issue generally; if hon. Members are dissatisfied, they have the right to vote accordingly, but the judgment was based on the parameters and issues I have described.

The hon. Member for South Down implied that a requirement to give notice of protest meetings is somehow restrictive of people's civil liberties, but that requirement is no more restrictive than the notice requirement on parades and processions. We have to take into account the rights of those who wish to parade and march, and those who wish to make a peaceful and lawful protest.

There is no threat in the legislation to the latter group—that is an important aspect of the Bill. The right to peaceful and lawful process is a fundamental right of all UK citizens, but sadly we have seen examples of protests that have gone beyond that limit, for a variety of reasons. By no stretch of the imagination can the new clause be described as a denial of the fundamental right to peaceful and lawful protest.

The hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire raised issues relating to subsections (2)(b) and (4)(f), and asked about the words "reasonably practicable". There is a need for flexibility in legislation, which is why those subsections appear in new clause 3. The use of the word "reasonably" precludes deliberate manipulation by protest organisers of the sort described by the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members.

There might be circumstances in which 14 days notice is not practicable, and we could spend all night thinking of examples of that—problems with the post or other reasons. We also have to remember that parades and processions can be notified less than 28 days in advance if prior notice in their application was not practicable, either. Flexibility is built in for processions, and similar provision is required for protests.

At the end of the day, the judgment on whether those who are protesting are in breach of the legislation and whether they acted in an reasonable way will be made by the courts, if the matter is referred to them by the RUC. It will not be a matter for political judgment or intervention. It is reasonable to have those subsections in new clause 3.

In an intervention, the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) asked about article 5 of the Public Order (Northern Ireland) Order 1987. Article 5 gives the Secretary of State the power to ban open-air public meetings. It has been amended by schedule 3 to the Bill, but the power continues to apply to all open-air meetings, including protest meetings. There are amendments consequential to the provisions of schedule 3, but the specific application of article 5 to open-air meetings continues.

The hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire asked about the police station where notice is to be given. A meeting is "a related protest meeting" when it is to be held at a place which is in the vicinity of the route, or proposed route, of a public procession. Therefore, as new clause 3 requires notice to be given at the police station nearest to the place at which the meeting is to be held, that will almost certainly be the same power station—sorry, police station: although the police have the power to take action; sometimes one cannot read notes scribbled down as points were made—as that which is nearest to the proposed starting point of the procession, but that will not necessarily be the case; hence the difference in the wording.

The hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) raised points about parades being dealt with by the commission, and protests by the police. I hope that I dealt in my earlier explanation with the reasons why it is set out as it is in the Bill. I reiterate that any problems resulting from protest meetings are almost exclusively—albeit not wholly—public order-related.

By definition, a protest meeting will be held on what can be classified as home soil, so the criterion of the impact on relationships within the community would not be relevant. However, by their very nature, parades will go through areas that might be described as opposition or hostile areas, or not home territory, which is why conflict arises. Therefore, it is relevant and appropriate that that issue should be taken into account by the commission in making its determination. North came to the view that there was no practical difficulty in dealing with the issue in that way.

The hon. Member for North Antrim also spoke about spontaneous protests, and about how, for example, a trade union dispute or other public demonstration would be inhibited by the need to give notice. He is wrong in his understanding of what we are trying to achieve, because new clause 3 applies only to protest meetings relating to a public procession. A meeting for the purpose of a trade dispute or some other public protest issue would not fall foul of the notice requirement, and would not be inhibited.

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

I shall first deal with one more point; then I shall come back to the hon. Gentleman.

The hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney), who is not in his place, made the point that the commission could not fully consider the situation relating to a parade until it had received formal notice of a protest, and that it would have to wait until the eleventh hour until it knew of that. Without new clause 3, there would be no notice requirement for a protest meeting, so the new clause obviously improves on that which was there before. We have an improvement in the legislation, not a reining back of the legislation.

In addition, as the hon. Member for East Londonderry said, authorised officers, and possibly even the members of the Parades Commission, will go out into the community when a potentially contentious parade is to take place so as to see what is happening on the ground. The responsibility rests with them to try to find out what is happening, so they will probably—although it is not certain—pick up on the possibility of some protest against the procession or the parade ensuing from the application going ahead. They would have knowledge of it before the 14-day period was triggered.

However, it was judged that it was reasonable to impose a 14-day notice period, because it would give people the right to know that a procession was to go through their area, and enable them to consider whether they were agreeable to its doing so. People have the right to consider what is happening in their area and the right to lawful and peaceful protest, and those rights should not be taken from them. That right should not be removed from them.

We could debate the number of days to a standstill but there must be a balance. We have 28 days for an application for a procession, and 14 days for a protest. The point made by the hon. and learned Member for North Down does not hold much substance in the way in which he presented it.

8 pm

Photo of Mr William Ross Mr William Ross UUP, East Londonderry

Trade union disputes are a case in point, and trade union peace rallies are another. Those are events that we all applaud. We know what happened recently when there was a hijacking by the IRA in front of Belfast city hall. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland turned up, and was happy to beat a hasty retreat. How will the Government, the police or the Parades Commission deal with such a situation?

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

My right hon. Friend turned up at the event to which the hon. Gentleman referred, but she did not beat a hasty retreat. The hon. Gentleman should not believe everything he reads in The Newsletter. I accept, of course, that sometimes The Newsletter can be accurate.

My right hon. Friend's intention was to see the turnout. She wished to get a feel for it and then go on—[Interruption.] I am trying to explain the background. I seem to have created some hilarity, but I understand that some honest assertions or statements are not always accepted by some members of the Ulster Unionist party. I have outlined the circumstances relating to my right hon. Friend's presence.

The hon. Member for East Londonderry talked about a trade union peace rally, but that was not a public procession. There was no need for it to comply with new clause 3, because it did not relate to a public procession. Therefore, this point has no substance.

I have tried to deal in a structured way with the many points that have been raised during the debate. Some have been raised in different ways by different hon. Members, but I have tried to condense the issues into key elements.

New clause 3 and the associated amendments represent a genuine attempt to take on board what has been said in Committee about the need to amend the Bill. The same or similar expressions were raised in another place. We are trying to achieve a balance. There was always a possibility that the Government would proceed as we have.

Although members of the Ulster Unionist party may object to the Bill in its entirety, I am glad that they recognise that movement has been made, as shown by new clause 3 and the related amendments. I hope that this movement will be of benefit to the community generally, which is involved in participating both in processions and protests and upon which protests and processions impact. The Bill will be better as a consequence of the new clause and amendments, and I commend them to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

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