The Commission

Schedule 1 – in the House of Commons at 11:45 pm on 4 February 1998.

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Photo of Mr William Ross Mr William Ross UUP, East Londonderry 11:45, 4 February 1998

I beg to move amendment No. 39, in page 12, line 13, leave out 'more' and insert 'less than'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker:

With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following: Government amendment No. 27.

Amendment No. 40, in page 12, line 34, at end insert—

'(6) Membership of the Parades Commission shall consist of United Kingdom citizens, resident in Northern Ireland, appointed by the Secretary of State so as to secure, as far as practicable, that the membership is representative of the community in Northern Ireland.'. Government amendment No. 28.

Amendment No. 7, in page 12, line 40, at end insert 'The quorum for the purposes of a determination under section 7 shall be 3 where there are 5 members of the Commission, 4 where there are 6 members of the Commission and 5 where there are 7 members of the Commission.'.

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

This is another amendment in which there is a typographical error. It should read "less", not "less than". We are trying to make improvements to the schedule, which at present states that there should be not more than 6 other members of the commission.

The amendment had the support of the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) who is not in his place at present. We believe that there is a good case for having more than six other members. We are asking the Government to remove the restriction to six other members and to leave open the possibility of there being more.

Government amendment No. 27 states: The Secretary of State shall so exercise his powers of appointment under this paragraph as to secure that as far as is practicable the membership of the Commission is representative of the community in Northern Ireland". The possibility of a complex society being properly represented in a way that is fair to the various sections of the community by a commission that has no more than six members is nonsense.

The Government have accepted the case that we made in Committee, and they accept the case that I am trying to make in the amendment, so I see no good reason why the Minister should not immediately accept the amendment. We could then all go home, after another couple of hours on Third Reading.

The Minister knows that his amendment is defective if what is sought is to make the membership of the commission representative of the community in Northern Ireland. Given the problems that we have experienced with Mrs. Brig Rogers and the attempts by the Dublin Government to have people selected—we have already outlined the leak from Dublin civil servants—the Minister should understand our concern that the membership of the commission, whose work is very sensitive, should comprise United Kingdom citizens who are resident in Northern Ireland. Surely the people of Northern Ireland have sufficient gumption to hold down jobs on the commission.

12.30 am

That is why I have tabled amendment No. 40, which states: Membership of the Parades Commission shall consist of United Kingdom citizens, resident in Northern Ireland, appointed by the Secretary of State so as to secure, as far as practicable, that the membership is representative of the community in Northern Ireland. In other words, the amendment contains the provision that the Government have foolishly left out of their amendment. We urge the Government simply to dispense with amendment No. 27 and accept amendment No. 40. We would all be happy to hear the Government say that they, like us, believe that the commission should comprise United Kingdom citizens.

I realise that that would rule out Mr. Sean Farren, Mrs. Rogers and several other leading members of the Social Democratic and Labour party who were born in the Irish Republic, who have never relinquished their citizenship of that country and who undoubtedly travel on Irish passports, and thus would not be acceptable to the Unionist population of Northern Ireland as representing their best interests or being fair and unbiased in their judgment. I do not see why the Government should not accept this very reasonable amendment.

The hon. Member for South Down has tabled an amendment regarding the quorum, which has appeared on the amendment paper before. The Government have tried to accommodate him, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not withdraw his amendment. My party supported him strongly in Committee, and we still believe that what he proposes is a good idea. That view is also clearly shared by the Government, who have come part of the way to meet him. If the hon. Gentleman cares to put his amendment to the test tonight, we shall be happy to support him.

The Government would usually jump at an opportunity to secure full cross-community, cross-religious and cross-party support. As the Unionist party, the Democratic Unionist party and our colleague the hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney)—who has apparently departed the Chamber—are in favour of this sensible, far-reaching amendment, why does the Minister not stand up immediately and say that the Government will accept it?

Hon. Members will appreciate that this is a very important group of amendments that tests the Government's intention to be fair and to ensure that the membership of the commission reflects the whole Northern Ireland community and the various interests within it. The commission should comprise more members than the legislation states at present, and it may be enlarged by amendment No. 39. The Minister must realise that Government amendment No. 27 concerning membership is defective and that ours is much better. The hon. Member for South Down would no doubt agree that his amendment is also far better than the Government's puny effort. We therefore have before us three amendments that could be accepted happily by the whole House.

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

Our debate on my amendment No. 7 should be the least emotive that we have this evening, or this morning, in that it relates purely to an appreciation of numeracy. I thought that my amendment in Committee, which was not accepted but which is repeated here this evening, was a fairly logical numerical progression whereby a quorum is seen to be an adequate number of the total membership of the commission.

I cannot conceive of anybody designing the Government's amendment. Government amendment No. 28 says that, where the commission consists of seven members, the quorum shall be four; and where the commission consists of six, the quorum shall be three. In other words, a decision could be made with three present out of six, and presumably a majority of three is two, so two out of six could make a decision. That is bad.

The membership of the commission is not defined in the Act. I think that it is a maximum of seven—the chairman and six possible other members. To go on down the list, where there are five, four or three members of the commission, the quorum shall be two. That is a recipe for bad decision making in any society, be it a local football club, the women's institute, or wherever. There is no logic in the Government's amendment.

I should not have minded my amendment being doctored a little, but I cannot understand why the Government have substituted their amendment for my much more logical proposal. It is self-evident that a commission with a membership of four or five should not have a quorum of two, and that a commission of six should not have a quorum of three. Where the numbers of the commission are so small, the analysis of the decision making will be quite important to the consequences of its work. In all cases where a decision has to be made, there should at least be a majority in every case of the total membership of the commission.

Not only in view of the unanimity among Northern Ireland Members, which is rare on this Bill, but simply because of the sheer logic of my amendment—I put it in modest terms—and the sheer illogicality of the Government's amendment, I urge the Minister, perhaps with unique generosity at this early hour of the morning, to accept amendment No. 7 in place of Government amendment No. 28.

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

Will the Minister clarify the amendment? As I understand it, schedule 1, paragraph 2, states: The Commission shall consist of—

  1. (a) a chairman; and
  2. (b) not more than 6 other members".
That appears to mean that the maximum would be seven. However, paragraph 2(2) states: The Secretary of State may by order vary the number for the time being specified in sub-paragraph (1)(b). That seems to mean that the Secretary of State could have power to increase the maximum number to seven or eight, or possibly nine.

However, when we come to the quorum, the amendment states that, where the Commission consists of seven members the quorum shall be four, and where the Commission consists of six members the quorum shall be three, and in any other case two. Does that not mean that, if the Commission were increased to eight, the quorum would only be two? That does not seem logical.

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

Does my hon. Friend realise that the other horrifying possibility is that the Government might reduce the commission membership to three?

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

I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. I accept that a quorum of two may be intended for a number of members lower than six, but a quorum of two for any organisation is nonsense. The quorum for any organisation should be at least three. A quorum of two means that two people could get together and run the show. That is unacceptable.

Mr. Öpik:

Amendment No. 7, tabled by the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) is sensible. I shall not reiterate the arguments in its favour, but if it can be taken separately, it will receive the support of the Liberal Democrats.

Photo of Mr Tony Worthington Mr Tony Worthington Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office

This group of amendments all deal in some degree with the composition of the Parades Commission. Amendment No. 39, which was tabled by the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross), would mean that the Parades Commission would consist of a chairman and no fewer than six other members, imposing a minimum of seven.

However, the Bill as drafted reflects consultation by the Government with the Parades Commission—which applies to all our recommendations—and its members, having analysed their work load for the forthcoming year, would prefer the flexibility that the drafted formulation will give. We must respect their views on their work load and on the number of members—that is, a chairman and six other members, giving a maximum of seven. If that is the commission's view on the number of members needed, I can see no good reason why the House should see the matter differently. Therefore, I urge the House to reject amendment No. 39.

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

The Minister is sticking to his view that the commission should have seven members. As it already contains a well-known member of the SDLP, how many Unionists will be on it? How many members of the Ulster Unionist party, the Democratic Unionist party and the United Kingdom Unionist party will be on the commission?

Photo of Mr Tony Worthington Mr Tony Worthington Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office

We shall not appoint people to the commission on the basis of quotas. We shall appoint people on merit, because that is the basis on which we appoint to public bodies. Quotas are divisive, and the Government do not wish to take that approach. In Committee, the hon. Gentleman tabled an amendment similar to amendment No. 39, and he said that he was trying to achieve balance within the commission. I believe that Government amendment No. 27 achieves that balance.

There was a clear consensus in Committee, and in the House, on the need for the commission to be representative of the community in Northern Ireland, as far as is practicable. I am sure that that is right. We have sought balance in the existing commission and will continue to do so, but we are also legally obliged to appoint on merit. We cannot set membership by quota, and we would not want to do so.

Government amendment No. 27 is similar to the requirement in the Police Act relating to the Police Authority. It will make it a duty for the Secretary of State to ensure that the Parades Commission is, as far as is practicable, representative of the community in Northern Ireland. I therefore commend it to the House.

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

If the number of members of the commission were increased to eight—as the Secretary of State has power to do—what would the quorum be? Would it remain two?

Photo of Mr Tony Worthington Mr Tony Worthington Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office

I will come to the quorum in a moment.

Amendment No. 40, tabled by the hon. Member for East Londonderry, would restrict membership of the commission to UK citizens resident in Northern Ireland. He said that various people would be excluded from membership and that that suited him.

It is very odd for a Unionist to want to exclude citizens of the United Kingdom who do not live in Northern Ireland. That principle is contrary to the spirit of the Race Relations (Northern Ireland) Order 1997, article 72 of which applies a statutory prohibition against discrimination on racial grounds to appointments to offices or posts by Ministers and Departments. Article 5(1) provides that "racial grounds" includes the grounds of nationality or ethnic or national origins.

Photo of Rt Hon David Trimble Rt Hon David Trimble Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party

May I refresh the Minister's memory in respect of his own amendment No. 27, which imposes a duty to secure that the Commission is representative of the community in Northern Ireland"? That surely requires him to appoint people who are members of the community of Northern Ireland. How can he say that someone who is not a member of that community is in any way representative of it?

Photo of Mr Tony Worthington Mr Tony Worthington Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office 12:45, 4 February 1998

That argument implies that the only characteristic that makes someone representative of Northern Ireland is residence in Northern Ireland. The chair of the Parades Commission is not resident in Northern Ireland, but we think that he is making a considerable contribution. This is dangerous ground for Unionists. It is possible to do a good job for the citizens of Northern Ireland while not being resident in Northern Ireland. We do not want to go that way. If we accepted amendment No. 40, we would discriminate against all non-UK citizens and against UK citizens not resident in Northern Ireland. I therefore urge the House to reject that amendment.

Amendments Nos. 7 and 28 are similar. I am grateful to the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) for tabling amendments in Committee and on Report on the commission's quorum arrangements. We have consulted extensively with the Parades Commission on that. After considering Government amendment No. 28 and his amendment No. 7, we believe that his points have a sound basis. I am told that there is a flaw in his wording, but he made a strong case. The best that we can do at this stage is to leave the Bill as it is. I am being encouraged to ask him to withdraw his amendment while we withdraw ours.

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

I do not know where the flaw is, but I understand that there is a difficulty in that my proposal for a quorum of five out of seven is a bit top-heavy. I do not want to rehearse what I consider to be the illogicality of the Government's amendment, but if both were withdrawn, we would revert to the quorum in the first draft, which is three whatever the number of members. On that basis, I would be prepared, with the House's permission and on condition that the Government did not press amendment No. 28, not to press amendment No. 7.

Photo of Mr Tony Worthington Mr Tony Worthington Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office

We seem to have reached agreement. At the final stage of the Bill, we have shown our willingness to listen to the views expressed in amendments. That has characterised our approach throughout our proceedings on the Bill in this House and in the other place.

Amendment negatived.

Amendment made: No. 27, in page 12, line 16, at end insert— '(3) The Secretary of State shall so exercise his powers of appointment under this paragraph as to secure that as far as is practicable the membership of the Commission is representative of the community in Northern Ireland.'.—[Mr. Ingram.]