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Criminal Damage (Compensation) (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 2009

Volume 708: debated on Wednesday 4 March 2009

Motion to Approve

Moved By

That the draft order laid before the House on 17 December 2008 be approved.

Relevant Document: 3rd Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments.

My Lords, the Criminal Damages (Compensation) (Northern Ireland) Order 1977 provides a right to claim compensation from the Secretary of State for loss suffered to property as a result of damage caused in Northern Ireland by an unlawful assembly of three or more persons, by terrorist acts, or as a result of malicious or wanton damage to agricultural property.

This amendment arises from concerns about an increase in attacks on community halls in 2007. This increase ran against the trend of a low and reducing number of such attacks in previous years. The increase in criminal attacks on community halls has highlighted both their general vulnerability and the difficulty that they may have in meeting the current criteria for eligibility for statutory compensation under the 1977 order. Their location and relative isolation has often affected claims for criminal damage compensation, where the PSNI has experienced difficulty in obtaining evidence on whether the damage was caused by either three or more people, or to certify that damage was the result of terrorist or paramilitary activity.

The aim of the draft order is to create an additional route to compensation for community halls. There is no readily available definition of what constitutes a community hall, so it is proposed that buildings which are exempt from rates under Article 41(2)(e) or Article 41A of the Rates (Northern Ireland) Order 1977 should be eligible for statutory compensation.

Article 41(2)(e) and Article 41A cover all properties that have been granted rates exemption on the basis that the rates authorities are satisfied that their use, or availability for use, is for charitable purposes as set out in the Recreational Charities Act (Northern Ireland) 1958. The 1958 Act defines as charitable the provision, or assisting in the provision, of facilities for recreation or other leisure-time occupation, if the facilities are provided in the interests of social welfare. I understand that a very wide range of facilities will benefit from the order. By way of illustration, it will cover facilities as diverse as the Ardoyne Youth Club in Belfast, the Loup Women’s Group in County Londonderry, the Indian Community Centre in north Belfast and Ballinderry Road Orange Hall in Lisburn.

The Northern Ireland Office consulted widely on these proposals and also referred them to the Northern Ireland Assembly. Ministers also met the Orange Order, the Gaelic Athletic Association and the insurance industry in considering how to frame this proposal. Broadly, the draft legislation was welcomed by all respondents. The majority of responses—14 out of 21—called for a sunset clause to be removed. The SDLP expressed concerns that coverage was not wide enough, thought the measure had not been adequately equality-proofed and suggested that any approach should focus on the nature of the attack, not the status of the building. The Gaelic Athletic Association also called for the draft legislation to be amended to include the GAA and other sporting, cultural and heritage organisations. The Government noted the concerns that including a sunset clause might in some way limit the effectiveness of this legislation and, after careful consideration, removed the sunset clause from the draft order.

An equality screening exercise on this proposal was carried out. It determined that there might be a higher uptake by the Protestant or unionist communities and men, reflecting the greater number of community halls owned by the Protestant or unionist communities and the fact that some of these properties have been specifically targeted for attacks. By linking with rates legislation relating to charitable usage, the Government are seeking to focus on the disadvantage that arises to users of community halls, not just those who own them. The proposed additional criterion applies equally to all claimants that will fall within the definition of community halls, regardless of their membership of Section 75 groups.

The Government have concluded that the Northern Ireland Office has met its statutory obligations under Section 75 and that further assessment of the policy’s impact on the promotion of equality of opportunity is not required. In reaching this conclusion the Government have taken careful account of the screening exercise that was carried out, the purpose of the proposed legislation, which has the same policy intent that underlies the current rating legislation on which it relies for its definition of community hall, and further analysis of community halls that are currently exempt from rates under Articles 41(2)(e) and 41A of the rating legislation.

The calls for the provisions to be extended to include sporting, cultural and heritage support organisations would widen the scope of the legislation far beyond its intention of being a focused measure. That would have far-reaching and indeterminate implications for criminal damage budgets, as it would move the Government into the position of being virtually the insurer of first resort and seriously distort the commercial insurance market. It would also take scarce resources from other priority areas.

It is clear that the GAA and other cultural and heritage organisations provide valuable services and facilities to local communities, and I acknowledge that they have on occasion been subject to criminal attacks. However, where a GAA hall, or any hall, is exempt from rates under Article 41(2)(e) of the Rates (Northern Ireland) Order 1977 it will be eligible to claim compensation under this proposal. The Government’s conclusion is that the legislation should not be broadened to include properties that do not meet the proposed criterion.

The Government have looked carefully at the SDLP’s suggestion that access to compensation should focus on the nature of the attack, not the status of the building. However, this would require a fundamental change in the Government’s approach and would offer a less certain mechanism by which to determine eligibility for compensation. The Government do not think this suggestion sufficiently addresses the practical difficulties in obtaining the necessary evidence regarding intent. On balance, the Government’s approach provides a surer approach to sustaining community infrastructure when it comes under criminal attack.

The Northern Ireland Assembly’s ad hoc committee made recommendations on the sunset provisions, equality-proofing and publicising the new arrangements. I have already spoken about the sunset clause and equality impact assessment. In relation to publicising the new arrangements, the Government propose that the commencement of this legislation is publicised by means of a press campaign. Furthermore, the Compensation Agency will amend its forms and processes so that the rates exemption status of future claimants will be readily identified.

Future costs will depend on the scale of attacks on community halls. However, based on historic levels of claims received and acceptance rates, the Government estimate that up to an additional £300,000 per year will be paid in criminal damage compensation relating to attacks on community halls.

The Government’s intention is to provide an additional route to statutory criminal damage compensation to assist all eligible community halls where they are subject to criminal damage. This order will provide support and assurance to community halls, facilities that play a vital but often underappreciated role in maintaining and sustaining the social infrastructure in the areas they serve. I am pleased to bring forward these proposals. I consider the additional criterion to be timely, proportionate and welcome, and I commend the draft to the House.

My Lords, I am again grateful to the Lord President for explaining this order. As she said, it relates to a tightly defined category of community halls, which I understand includes not only halls used by one of the two main communities in Northern Ireland, but facilities used by youth groups and ethnic minorities. The Lord President gave us examples. This order provides an easier route for them to receive compensation in the event of criminal damage. We on these Benches are content that this list is narrowly defined. I agree with the Lord President that the Government should be providing assistance to isolated community halls with limited resources, which have little other recourse in the event of suffering criminal damage. I was given examples of community halls that were burned at night, when it is obviously quite impossible to know how many people took part in the crime. We also accept that it is impractical to widen the scope to sporting and other organisations. Indeed, the Lord President made the point that that could be seen as the Government becoming the insurer of first resort, which must clearly be avoided. I have a certain admiration for the ingenuity with which the rates criterion was invoked. It is very tidy. We support this measure.

My Lords, I, too, thank the Lord President for introducing the order. Community halls are vital in strengthening and maintaining the social infrastructure in the communities they serve, so any criminal damage caused to them puts huge financial pressure on the communities that have to repair them. This order is very much welcomed by these Benches. The Lord President spoke about the concern expressed by the ad hoc committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly about the equality impact screening of the proposals. That has been addressed, which addresses the Assembly’s concern. I have only one question for the Lord President: what work has been undertaken to ensure that the order is not vulnerable to challenge? Otherwise, we support the order.

My Lords, I, too, thank the Lord President for introducing the order. Unlike the instrument we discussed earlier, this order is not so much a mark of Northern Ireland’s progress towards normalisation but of the phases of disruption during that progress. The spike in attacks on, for example, Orange halls, is unfortunately part of the context of this order.

In the case of the previous statutory instrument, the trend was towards normalisation. On the tendency of the people of Northern Ireland to claim three times more than citizens in the rest of the United Kingdom for criminal injury, I am informed that not so long ago they claimed six times more than the citizens of the rest of the United Kingdom, so even there the trend is towards normalisation.

In this case, however, we are dealing with something different: the remaining abnormality of the Northern Irish situation. The steps that the Government have taken to tackle the situation of isolated community halls and the context created by the attacks on some of them are entirely wise and reasonable. I have only one difficulty. The Lord President referred to the fact that the GAA and the SDLP disagreed with aspects of this proposal. My essential difficulty lies not in any disagreement with the Government; the case can be made that the GAA is a very wealthy organisation, is perhaps more akin to some of the wealthier rugby clubs in Northern Ireland and is therefore not like the essentially penniless organisations that the Government are trying to help tonight. My difficulty is that, although I agree with the Government, I am uneasy that there is no one in this House to put the other case. It brings home to us again the problem of the absence of representation from the nationalist community in Northern Ireland. That, to some degree, is the product of a decision by the political representatives of that community, but does the Lord President share my unease on that point?

My Lords, I am pleased to support this legislation, which will give the trustees and users of community halls across Northern Ireland a much needed boost. Those who once had the unenviable burden of trying to prove that their community hall or meeting place, which was most likely in an isolated rural setting, had been attacked by three or more people, often in the dead of night, should now have one less hurdle to jump if their hall is attacked.

Since 1977, one feature of the criminal damages compensation system in Northern Ireland dictated that, for criminal damage of more than £200, a chief constable’s certificate was required to receive compensation. The most difficult part of that process was proving how many perpetrators had carried out the attack. To satisfy the criteria, you had to prove either that three people had carried it out or that one individual had done so on behalf of a proscribed organisation. In rural Northern Ireland, that was and still proves to be an almost impossible task. As a result, not-for-profit community halls were faced with unbearable repairs and limited resources and, as time passed, insurmountable insurance premiums that inevitably led to the closure of many necessary facilities that offered a much needed focal point in their local community.

This amendment to the criminal damage legislation is regrettably necessary simply because such attacks are not rare. When the Northern Ireland Assembly considered this legislation before producing its report for Parliament’s consideration, representatives of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland gave a breakdown of attacks on their halls from 1971. The total was almost 300 attacks throughout that period. In 2007, a time of peace in the Province, 28 Orange halls were attacked. There were four major incidents, and in a fifth incident a JCB was driven through a set of gates. A further three halls were completely destroyed and razed to the ground.

Such attacks are undoubtedly politically motivated and have continued since that time. As a result, members and the local community at large have been frustrated in their attempts to socialise both culturally and religiously. Regardless of one’s political beliefs, that should be abhorred and condemned. That is why the legislation will have a very positive effect. Until we reach the stage at which people no longer feel motivated to carry out such attacks, we will be in a position to ensure that they do not succeed in their aim of closing halls and removing facilities from those who wish to use them.

Finally, I commend the Government for the sensible way in which they have approached this legislation. They have maintained its focus, refused to allow the creation of public insurance of the first instance and removed the original sunset clause that was proposed. I support the order.

My Lords, I am very grateful for the strong support from the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, and the noble Baroness, Lady Harris. The noble Baroness asked what work had been undertaken to ensure that the order would not be vulnerable to challenge. Legal advisers have received the proposal and are fully satisfied that it meets equality requirements under Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. We, too, are confident that it meets all the necessary requirements.

The noble Lord, Lord Bew, quite rightly said that the trend that necessitates the order is contrary to the trend that we discussed earlier. That is regrettable, as was clearly articulated by the noble Lord, Lord Browne, to whom I must apologise for calling him the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, earlier. The recent trend is regrettable, but we trust that it will be temporary. I am sure that the Northern Ireland Assembly will reflect on these issues in due course when the trend has gone the other way.

The noble Lord, Lord Bew, also mentioned the GAA. I assure him that my colleague, Paul Goggins, has had meetings with the GAA and that very strong views have been expressed, quite rightly, by the nationalist community. I also have some sympathy with his view that the views of the SDLP and other nationalists cannot be expressed in this House because there are no Members from that community. I am very conscious of that, and I regret it in many ways. I am delighted that Northern Ireland has such a strong voice in this House, but it would be very good if there was a voice from the nationalist community as well as from the Ulster Unionist and other Protestant communities. I hope that this will be addressed in due course, but I do not wish to comment further at this stage.

I hope that communities in Northern Ireland will continue to be sustainable and that the facilities which they use will be properly maintained, thanks to the order. I am grateful for all contributions this evening.

Motion agreed.

Sitting suspended.