PARLIAMENTARY DEBATES

HOUSE OF COMMONS

OFFICIAL REPORT

Second Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.

DRAFT LOCAL GOVERNMENT (MISCELLANEOUS PROVISIONS) (NORTHERN IRELAND) ORDER 1995

Thursday 16 February 1995

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The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: MR. ROLAND BOYES

Carlisle, Sir Kenneth (Lincoln)

Cohen, Mr. Harry (Leyton)

Corbyn, Mr, Jeremy (Islington, North)

McAvoy, Mr. Thomas (Glasgow, Rutherglen)

Macdonalds, Mr. Calum (Western Isles)

MacKay, Mr. Andrew (Berkshire, East)

Madden, Mr. Max (Bradford West)

Maginnis, Mr. Ken (Fermanagh and South Tyrone)

Marland, Mr.Paul (Gloucestershire, West)

Merchant, Mr. Piers (Beckenham)

Moss, Mr. Malcolm (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland)

Nicholls, Mr. Patrick (Teignbridge)

Prentice, Mrs. Bridget (Lewisham, East)

Smith, Sir Dudley (Warwick and Leamington)

Speed, Sir Keith (Ashford)

Spellar, Mr. John (Warley, West)

Thompson, Sir Donald (Calder Valley)

Townsend, Mr. Cyril D. (Bexleyheath)

Mr. M. Hennessy, Committee Clerk

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3 Second Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c. Thursday 16 February 1995

[MR. ROLAND BOYES in the Chair]

Draft Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Northern Ireland) Order 1995

10.30 am

Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West): On a point of order, Mr. Boyes. Our proceedings offer the first opportunity for a Minister representing Northern Ireland to apologise to the citizens of the Republic of Ireland for the disgraceful events that occured at the England v. Ireland football match in Dublin last night. I shall raise the matter again later during Northern Ireland Questions. A representative of the police intelligence service said that the service knew for some time that known troublemakers intended to travel to Dublin. Despite that knowledge, and their anxiety that a breach of the peace or serious public disorder could ensure the police were unable to stop the troublemakers travelling from Britain to the Republic of Ireland.

The Chairman: Order. I am not sure whether that is a matter for the Committee.

Mr. Madden: May I spend one moment on the issue because I believe that it is a matter for the Committee? [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] I am surprised that other members of the Committee do not want to know about the intelligence that was shared by the police in Britain with the Northern Ireland Office.

Mr. Boyes: Order. It is time for the hon. Gentleman to sit down.

Mr. Madden: May I just finish my sentence? It will help the Minister and his officials to prepare for this afternoon. I want to know what information was shared between the police, the Northern Ireland Office and the Republic of Ireland about the known troublemakers' intention to travel from Britain to the Republic of Ireland.

10.32 am

Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Malcolm Moss): I beg to move, That the Committee has considered the draft Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Northern Ireland) Order 1995. I extend a warm welcome to you, Mr. Boyes. It is a coincidence that on my first appearance as a mere Back Bencher in Committee, you were leading for the Opposition on the subject of water privatisation. I hope that this morning's proceedings will take less time than that occasion, when we discussed football at length. This is a short order, which in part seeks to update the existing powers and responsibilities of local councils in Northern Ireland and in other instances will give councils powers similar to those that are available to local authorities in Great Britain. I should like to outline briefly the rationale behind some of the provisions. Article 3 deals with a councillor having to vacate office on account of nonattendance at council meetings. Existing legislation is silent 4 as to when the period of absence commences and it is ambiguous as to what types of meeting constitute a meeting of the council for the purposes of determining non-attendance. The order seeks to address those points and provides that the period commences from the date of the last meeting attended and clarifies which meetings count towards attendance at a meeting of the council. In article 4, which deals with the appointment and qualifications of officers, the Department is relinquishing its approval role in respect of the terms and conditions of service for a clerk of a council and certain other officers. This is considered appropriate in view of the role and influence now exercised by the Local Government Staff Commission for Northern Ireland on staffing matters in councils and the existence of fair employment and equal opportunity legislation. Article 7 will provide councils in Northern Ireland with a similar power to that which is available to local authorities in Great Britain to enable them to participate in overseas assistance programmes. Article 8, likewise, brings the legislation in Northern Ireland into line with that in Great Britain by enabling councils to contribute to public appeals made within the United Kingdom. Articles 9 and 10 relate to entertainments licences and the provisions are being introduced at the request of councils to combat "rave" parties. Article 9 strengthens existing powers of councils to refuse an application for the granting, renewal or transfer of a licence. Article 10 increases substantially the level of penalties for certain licensing offences—from an existing maximum fine of £5,000 to a new maximum fine of £20,000 or six months imprisonment or to both. Article 11 deals with street names and the numbering of buildings. The provisions follow from a commitment given by the Secretary of State in December 1992 to remove the prohibition on the erection by councils of non-English street nameplates which is contained in the Public Health and Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1949. This would enable councils, if they so wished, to erect street nameplates in the Irish language. As such, it is in line with Government policy to encourage greater respect for and appreciation of cultural diversity in Northern Ireland. The order provides that a council may erect dual language street nameplates which show the name of the street in English which is mandatory, and in another language, which is discretionary. In most instances, the other language used will be Irish, However, when a council is deciding whether to erect a nameplate in another language it must have regard to the views of the occupiers in the street. This change to the law will consolidate and simplify existing legislation on street names and the numbering of buildings. I commend the order to the committees.

10.36 am

Mr. John Spellar (Warley, West): I am pleased that you are in the Chair, Mr. Boyes. Peace broke out shortly after you and I were on a delegation of Israel and I hope that your good influence will exert itself on Northern Ireland. I welcome the proposals, but I shall probe the Minister on the intention of some of the articles and put down markers on others. Will the Minister say why article 4 has moved from prescription by the Department to a determinant? I accept that article 8, "Contributions to the public appeals", 5 mirrors legislation that applies in Great Britain. That might appear desirable, but there are particular and peculiar circumstances which should be taken into account in respect of Northern Ireland. What might the guidelines be on donations to appeals? There are unfortunate historical precedents: it is said that in 1985–86, councils used public money in response to appeals to erect banners and posters and campaign against the Anglo-Irish Agreement. Will such political donations in Northern Ireland be governed by guidelines and by Government reserve powers? Article 11, which refers to street names, is silent—I will not say defective—on the subject of how the wishes of residents are to be ascertained and the weight and value to be given to their wishes. If the composition of a local authority is at variance with the views of residents, how will that be resolved? That is the core of the issue of parity of esteem between different traditions in Northern Ireland. How will the differences be resolved if one tradition has a majority on the council and wants to override the strongly expressed views of people living within the jurisdiction of that council? How can unreasonable acts by the council that lead to communal tension be prevented? The Minister will also be aware that the European charter for regional or minority languages has called on the Governments of the member states to allow and encourage the use and adoption, in conjunction with official languages, of traditional, unofficial languages. We want to know whether the order—which has advantages, as the Minister outlined in clarifying the position—will facilitate that process. How does the Minister envisage resolving some of the problems that I have described?

10.40 am

Mr. Madden: I want to comment briefly on two of the articles. I welcome article 7. "Power to provide advice and assistance". When my hon. Friend the Member for Western Isles (Mr. Macdonald) and I were in Belfast some time ago we spent much of our time talking to a range of voluntary organisations that had close and regular contacts with local authorities throughout Northern Ireland. One of the matters that they emphasised in our discussions was the difficulty that they were encountering in securing the much-needed involvement, support and active participation of young people—especially young men—who had previously been involved in violence They told us that because of the so-called Hurd rules, any voluntary organisation that was even suggested to have had any involvement with people who had been associated with violence in the past was in danger of immediately having its funding withdrawn. The leading members of a range of voluntary organisations are concerned at the extremely restrictive nature of the current rules. I stress that I am referring to organisations that would supply information on which local authorities could base advice to others and that that is directly relevant to article 7. I should like to hear from the Minister what the Northern Ireland Office is doing to deal with that very real problem. Many of the voluntary organisations were extremely fearful that, unless young people were given a sense of purpose and involvement that was real and worthwhile, they would, in the graphic phrase of one woman who spoke to me who was a community leader in west Belfast, have no reason for getting up in the morning. 6 That woman and her colleagues felt that if those young people were not given some direction in their lives, the peace process would be unlikely to succeed as we all wish. What is the Northern Ireland Office doing to deter young people in west Belfast and other parts of Northern Ireland from returning to violence? Article 11, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Warley, West (Mr. Spellar) has referred, concerns street names. The Minister said that the prohibition on dual signing was lifted in 1992.

Mr. Moss: indicated dissent.

Mr. Madden: If I am mistaken about that, perhaps the Minister would correct me. I obviously misunderstood him.

Mr. Moss: I simply said that an undertaking given by the Secretary of State in 1992 changes the legislation that we put in due process.

Mr. Madden: I am grateful for the clarification. Nevertheless, what surveys have been undertaken since 1992 to ascertain what advantage has been taken to erect dual street names? During the recent visit I made to Belfast with my hon. Friend the Member for Western Isles, I was an interested participant in a lively and heated discussion involving two leading members of Belfast city council on the matter. The Social Democratic and Labour party councillor, in a conversation that I am sure my hon. Friend will recall, said that it was difficult to secure agreement from the council to dual street signing. He argued that having street names in English and Irish was of considerable significance, particularly for nationalist communities and he claimed that considerable difficulties were put in the way of such signing. The Unionist councillor argued that he was very much opposed to street signs in Irish, his main argument being that if people could not read Irish he resented spending council tax payers' money on erecting signs. That seemed to me a modest argument because the availability of signs to communities where such matters are of cultural importance outweighed cost. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Warley, West, I should like to know what procedures people who live in particular areas can use to apply for Irish street names. Would that be by presenting a petition? The Minister said that the opinion of all occupants of a street would have to be tested so I assume that a petition for a street to have an Irish name implies that all occupiers would be contacted to ascertain their opinions. I should like detailed information on how the Minister sees those who wish to have Irish names going about that process. From the conversation that I overheard some time ago, it seems that the situation is extremely difficult. I should welcome any information, however limited, on how many Irish street names there are in Northern Ireland and about how other streets can have them if the majority of people living in a street want one.

10.48 am

Mr. Calum Macdonald (Western Isles): I apologise to the Minister for missing some of his opening remarks. I caught what he said about promoting the use of Irish Gaelic and I welcome and support that, partly because of the 7 conversation that my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden) referred to which we had in Belfast, and because of the situation in my constituency where it has long been the custom that street signs and place names can be rendered in Gaelic. That is Scottish Gaelic of course, but the difference is not that great. Like my hon. Friend, I should like to ask whether, when communities wish to have Gaelic street signs but the local council is, for one reason or another, reluctant to acquiesce, there is some form of redress. Can they appeal, for example, to the Secretary of State if such an impasse occurs? Secondly, why is it necessary to have a dual street sign? In Scotland, the local authority can decide whether to have a dual street sign or a simple, single sign in a langauage other than English, which, in that case, is Gaelic. For example, Highland region often has dual signs in English and Gaelic, but on the Western Isles the practice is more often to have a simple Gaelic street sign without any translation into English. That does not cause trouble either for residents or visitors, who find it perfectly easy to find their way about so long as they know what places they are heading for. I do not see any practical difficulty in having non-English street signs. Communities may feel strongly that they want a street sign that they identify with. This is not a political question. It is not necessarily nationalist to desire street signs in Gaelic rather than English. In Scotland, we have found that the issue transcends political boundaries, unifying nationalists and non-nationalists such as me. I hope that the Minister will take that into account and encourage local authorities to try to have Gaelic street signs when a local community wishes it so.

10.52 am

Mr. Moss: I shall deal first with the questions of the hon. Member for Warley, West, who asked why we were changing the legislation from prescription to determination. The benefits are clearly speed and simplicity of administration. It is easier to designate offices or qualifications than to prescribe them in regulations. I assure him that there is no actual change in the Department's role in overseeing the offices and qualifications. He raised the important question of whether funds could be diverted under article 8 towards political parties.

Mr. Spellar: For political purposes.

Mr. Moss: For political purposes, I mean, especially in Northern Ireland. There is always a danger of the interpretation of legislation being stretched, and we considered that carefully. I am sure that the Department of the Environment and the chief local government auditor will keep a watchful eye on payments made under the provision. Still on article 8, the hon. Gentleman raised the question of whether political parties could in any way benefit from published material which comes under this heading. We rejected any prohibition under the title of "political" in the legislation because of the diverse meanings of the word and 8 the difficulty of interpreting it. The prohibition on councils publishing political material relates to a more restricted area and we cannot, therefore, legislate on it. Several hon. Members raised issues relating to article 11, such as the guidance that would be given to local councils in taking the views of the occupiers of a particular street or road. We felt that it was down to councils, using local knowledge, to decide how best to take on board those views when they were considering whether to erect a dual name plate. The first port of call for councillors would be in raising the issue with their councils. It might come from local pressure, but the first debate would be in the local council chamber. We did not want to impose requirements on how the council should undertake those tasks, as that might have proved unduly restrictive and bureaucratic, especially in relation to local circumstances. The hon. Member for Warley, West asked about the European charter on regional and minority languages, which the Government are still considering signing. The Northern Ireland Office is only one of several Government Departments involved in the consideration. The hon. Members for Bradford, West and for Western Isles raised the issue of rights of appeal. The decision whether to erect a second nameplate is strictly for the council to decide and thereafter to defend. Aggrieved residents who feel strongly about it can challenge the decision, which is open to judical review, in court. It is not appropriate for Ministers to become involved in essentially local disputes. The hon. Member for Bradford, West raised the relaxation of the Hurd principles on what is being done for young people in Belfast. Those principles are kept under constant review in the light of developing circumstances, including the possibility of sustained improvement in the security situation. There are a number of Government initiatives for young people—I am wearing my hat as the Minister responsible for making Belfast work. There is £25 million to be spent in Belfast alone on social and economic provisions, many related to job creation and young people. We are doing a great deal to introduce sensible programmes for young people in Belfast. Finally, the hon. Member for Western Isles asked why the proposal does not allow for street names only in Irish or Gaelic when that is the wish of the residents of the street. There are practical considerations, however. The vast majority of people in Northern Ireland have no knowledge of Irish and it would be severely inconvenient in their day-to-day activities if Irish only were allowed on street signs.

Mr. Madden: I asked earlier whether the Minister could say how many streets in Northern Ireland have Irish names at present.

Sir Donald Thompson (Calder Valley): There are 4,750.

Mr. Madden: The hon. Member for Calder Valley (Sir D. Thompson) always speaks with authority. Perhaps the Minister will confirm in writing that that figure is correct, or give me the right one if it is not.

Mr. Moss: The short answer is that legally there are no dual street names or street names in Irish in Northern Ireland.

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Mr. Spellar: The Minister said that residents who feel aggrieved by decisions could challenge them in court. That is not the most satisfactory mechanism, not least because of cost. Presumably, the only means by which residents could take such action would be if they believed that the council had acted unreasonably and ultra vires. That brings us back to a point in the regulations—that it may be legitimate and legal for the council to override the wishes of residents of a street or district, but it might not be in line with the Downing street declaration on parity of esteem between the two traditions. Those problems may not exist, but we must take account of historical circumstances and consider that local councils may withhold permission for dual street names in spite of representations from residents. Unless there is a built-in mechanism for deciding what is reasonable, the judiciary may be reluctant, to say the least, to intervene to substitute their judgment for that of councils. It may not be the effective mechanism for redress that the Minister suggests.

Mr. Moss: I repeat what I said earlier: we should not be over-prescriptive or set down mandatory requirements on councils. The Secretary of State gave an assurance in 1992 10 that dual street name plates in English and another language—obviously Irish, in most cases—would be allowed, under new legislation that was to be introduced, in areas in which the councils decided that they wanted them. It is a local matter, and the councils should be able to debate and decide on it among themselves. We do not want to go beyond the provision in the legislation that the views of local occupiers of a street should be taken into account.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Committee has considered the draft Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Northern Ireland) Order 1995.

Committee rose at Eleven o'clock.

THE FOLLOWING MEMBERS ATTENDED THE COMMITTEE:

Boyes, Mr. Roland (Chairman)

Carlisle, Sir Kenneth

Macdonald, Mr.

MacKay, Mr.

Madden, Mr.

Maginnis, Mr.

Merchant, Mr.

Moss, Mr.

Smith, Sir Dudley

Speed, Sir Keith

Spellar, Mr.

Thompson, Sir Donald

Townsend, Mr. Cyril D.