Registration of Bands Taking Part in Public Processions

Clause 11 – in the House of Commons at 11:45 pm on 4 February 1998.

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Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office 11:45, 4 February 1998

I beg to move amendment No. 22, in page 7, line 40, after 'court' insert

'or other body or person'. The amendment deals with the Secretary of State's power to introduce a registration scheme for bands. As was explained in Committee, the Government consider that the commission will have sufficient powers under the Bill to deal with the mischief caused by some bands. Therefore, the provisions in clause 11 as it stands should be viewed as a reserve power, which broadly replicates provisions in the 1987 order.

However, should the commission's powers not be sufficient, some have suggested bringing into force the registration scheme—indeed, recommendation 38 of the North report specifically suggested that the Government should give consideration to the introduction of a registration scheme for bands. The report did not consider in detail what sort of scheme would be best, but suggested that a court-based scheme along the same lines as the scheme for clubs in Northern Ireland might be appropriate.

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Clause 11 as it stands gives that power to introduce a court-based scheme, but I have listened to representations made in Committee and elsewhere and, on reflection, I have decided that it would be useful to keep a number of options open. The power to introduce a registration scheme might well be used in circumstances that we cannot at present foresee. It makes sense to leave the provision as flexible as possible, so that the Government are not wholly restricted to a court-based scheme, hence the amendment. It would expand the range of flexibility open to the Government in what is a reserve power—one that has not been exercised to date and which may never be required to be exercised.

Mr. Öpik:

Will the Minister confirm that that does not exclude the use of the court, but simply expands the range of choices when registering a band?

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

That is the case. The amendment simply expands the range of options open to us, and it has been proposed because of representations. Because of the difficulties associated with a court-based scheme, it would not be easy to implement such a measure, but if that was what was required to be done, it would be done. The amendment expands the flexibility open to the Government, and I hope that the House will support it.

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

I am somewhat surprised to see the amendment on the amendment paper, because we discussed the proposal in Committee and the Minister's closing remarks tonight illustrate the immense difficulties associated with it. He said, that if it was necessary to do it, it would be done, but he seemed to be saying, "When the time comes, we shall do wonders, we know not what or how."

There is no clear way forward in this matter; it is something with which various groups in society who have close connections with bands have wrestled for many years and no one has, as yet, come up with a satisfactory scheme. When the Minister says that if it is necessary to do it, he will do it, he means, "At the last minute, we shall cobble something together"—in other words, it will be another flipping disaster. We need that like we need a second head.

The Minister also said that he listened to what was said in Committee and elsewhere. Would he care to specify what the "elsewhere" is? We are so used to open government nowadays that we are always willing to hear what the Minister has to say. We were somewhat disappointed on Second Reading, when the Rev. Roy Magee had resigned a week previously and the Secretary of State knew.

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

So as to speed up proceedings, I shall state that "elsewhere" included those who have responsibility for the administration of justice, because they would have responsibility for trying to define some of the aspects of a court-based scheme. A range of opinions were taken on this matter—I would suggest that that is responsible government.

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

Let me finish my point about Roy Magee first. The Secretary of State had known that he had resigned for a week before Second Reading, so in the interests of open government she did not tell anyone, and it seeped out the next day.

When the Minister tells us that he consulted those who have responsibility for legislating and the legal end of things, we wonder whether it is just barely possible that they told him, "This is extremely difficult to do, Minister. We think that you should look rather wider than a court-based scheme, because the courts do not really want one. That being so, we want to hand the whole thing over to somebody else."

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

No, not a royal commission, but the Parades Commission. My hon. Friend will understand that there are only about a dozen contentious parades. The commissioners will have plenty of time on their hands to worry about the registration of bands and set down the rules. Of course, a band can disappear under one name and reappear under another the next day. An amalgamation of several bands may appear. That is the sort of problem that we have always had, which reflects the sort of people with whom we have had to deal.

I wonder whether the Minister has any clear idea of what sort of body or person will examine the bands and produce a registration scheme. What quango will rule on what is acceptable as a band? The Minister will remember the cheerful little debate that we had in Committee on what constituted a band. It was all very amusing, but that debate did not take us very much further. We shall be looking to the commission and then we shall be wondering whether there will be an appeal mechanism to the courts.

I am not happy about the amendment, and I hope that the Minister will tell us more about how he expects to implement it. What he has said so far has served only to raise a host of questions in my head, to which I want answers. We are dealing with a sensitive and intricate subject. It would be difficult to find an unacceptable scheme, but to find an acceptable scheme is, in my view, impossible.

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

I shall move the sweetie from one side of my mouth to the other, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) has raised a fundamental issue. He is right in saying that we are dealing with complex and difficult matters and that it is not easy to arrive at an acceptable solution. I have not given any thought to the detail, because there has been no attempt at implementation. We are talking about a reserve power. I have no doubt that, if we decided to set forth on a range of options, the hon. Gentleman and his party, through the normal process of open government and a willingness to consult as many people as possible, would have the opportunity to make their views known.

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

Did I hear the Minister aright? Did he say that he is introducing an important amendment in a sensitive part of the Bill without having given it much thought? Is not that symptomatic of what has happened throughout all stages of our consideration of the Bill so far?

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

No. My remarks related to the amendment, which is designed to give increased flexibility. I referred also to the detail of the application of the provision, which involves a long-existing reserve power that has never been exercised. There are views, of course, about how it should be implemented, and those are associated with complications. There is no intention now to exercise the reserve power.

I have enough on my plate to be going on with as a Minister, and I am sure that the same applies to other Ministers, in trying to administer what is taking place in Northern Ireland. I try to exercise the faculties that I have to the best effect. There is no point in trying to consider things that are not to be brought into being. We try to focus on what will be implemented and will have effect. That is surely a good use of time and of the limited brain power that we might have. We wish to take the most effective and best administrative approach, and that is why I said what I did. The hon. Member for East Londonderry somewhat extended my comments.

Amendment agreed to.