Wednesday, 12 March 2003
Adjournment Matter. - Irish Community in Britain.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Browne, in the absence of the Minister for Foreign Affairs, who will be representing our country abroad on this significant weekend for Irish people everywhere.
It is appropriate that I should raise this issue on the Adjournment as it concerns the Irish community in Britain. In recent weeks, the British Government introduced a Licensing Bill in the House of Lords. The proposed legislation has resulted in expressions of concern from the Irish community in Britain as to the possible adverse effects it could have, particularly on Irish cultural activities as practised in various centres across the United Kingdom. This is of particular concern to the Federation of Irish Societies, the umbrella body representing our citizens in Britain. The federation has mounted a strong campaign through local Members of Parliament to raise awareness of the possible consequences of certain sections of the Licensing Bill.
I hasten to add that the Bill is a matter for the British Government, whose business it is to regulate licensing matters. I am, however, reflecting the views of the Irish community in Britain, members of which are concerned that the legislation might have adverse effects on cultural activities. The main reason for this concern is that the Bill seeks to change the licensing system for entertainment in clubs and similar venues from the traditional magistrates system. Under that system, local magistrates could license such institutions, but under the proposed new system licensing powers will be transferred to local authorities and will be exercised by elected representatives.
The transfer of such powers to local authorities is something that, on the face of it, Members of this House would welcome. There is a concern, however, that pressures which would traditionally have been borne by magistrates – who would have been able to take a more dispassionate view because they operate in a non-political environment – will now be transferred to local councillors. A famous member of the Irish diaspora, the late Tipp O'Neill, said that all politics are local. Therefore, there is a real possibility that vexatious, malicious or mischievous complaints could be lodged against applications for the renewal of licences by or on behalf of the Irish community.
I want to bring to the Minister of State's attention an amendment that the Federation of Irish Societies believes should be included in the Bill. Because of the close relationship between the Irish and British Governments, I am asking the Department of Foreign Affairs to bring these concerns to the attention of Her Majesty's Government at the highest level. The amendment, which the Federation of Irish Societies believes should be included, would specifically protect community-owned venues for ethnic minorities in Britain, including the Irish, from vexatious, malicious or racist complaints. The federation is seeking to have the amendment incorporated in Britain's race relations legislation.
The 1997 report of the UK's Commission for Racial Equality – Discrimination in the Irish Community – pulled no punches in this regard. It stated that at the extreme end of discrimination there are pure racists such as members of the British National Party, the National Front and Combat 18. It is sad to note that some elected politicians in Britain have displayed racist, anti-Irish undertones in what they say and do.
We had the recent example of a leading businessman who did not like what he read in The Guardian newspaper. When he rang up to berate the journalist involved, the conversation was taped and what flowed from him was a torrent of invective, most of it of an anti-Irish nature. He profusely apologised afterwards because he owns a number of retail outlets, some of which operate in this country, and he was concerned about the adverse impact of his remarks. I suggest, however, that he would not have made this apology but for the fact that the conversation was made public.
This is a very real issue, although I do not want to over-elaborate on the other elements of the Licensing Bill. On the positive side, I have been informed that an amendment to the Bill, which was sponsored by the Musicians' Union in Britain and supported by the Federation of Irish Societies, was passed in the House of Lords yesterday. This will, in effect, exempt all premises, including Irish clubs and centres, from what were termed to be draconian provisions on regulated entertainment. The legislation will now provide exemption for events at which attendance is below 250 persons if the entertainment finishes at 11.30 p.m. The result of the amendment is that a significant number of Irish centres and community halls, which have been used for Irish dancing and music classes, will now be exempt as the measure has been accepted by the House of Lords.
I would add a note of caution, however, because once the Bill is passed by the House of Lords it will return to the House of Commons. It is normal British Government practice to try to overturn amendments that may not be acceptable. Since this was an Opposition amendment that was accepted in the House of Lords, there is some fear that it might be overturned by the Labour Government which may not be in sympathy with it.
The Minister of State should take note of the amendment which, as it stands, has been accepted as part of the Bill. It would exempt all premises provided the maximum attendance is 250 and the entertainment finishes at 11.30 p.m. This is very much in line with the views of and welcomed by the Federation of Irish Societies and the Irish community generally.
While keeping in mind the protocols involved, this is not an attempt to interfere with the legislative process in another country's parliament, rather it is about having pro-active responsibility for our citizens living in Britain, welcomed by the British population, settled and earning a living there, who wish to retain their separate ethnic origins and pursue their Irish cultural activities without fear of having to shut them down because of elements in society who would be racist and anti-Irish. It would be most unfortunate if a law which, on balance, seems to be welcomed generally across the United Kingdom was to be used as a battering ram against the Irish community in Britain. It is in that context that I ask the Minister of State to convey the concerns of the Irish community to the relevant British authorities along the lines outlined.
I thank the Senator for raising this important issue. The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Cowen, regrets he cannot reply as he is abroad on important business.
In April 2000 the British Government published a White Paper on reforming alcohol and entertainment licensing. The White Paper set out proposals for modernising and integrating the alcohol, public entertainment, theatre, cinema, night cafes and late night house licensing schemes in England and Wales.
On the basis of the White Paper, the British Government drafted a Bill which was introduced in November 2002 by Culture Minister, Tessa Jowell. It received its Third Reading in the House of Lords last night and will be debated in the House of Commons shortly. Its aim is to regulate public entertainment through licensing with a view to addressing concerns about public safety and noise pollution.
Entertainment is described in Schedule 1 of the Bill as including any of the following: a performance of a play, an exhibition of a film, an indoor sports event, boxing or wrestling entertainment, a performance of live music, any playing of recorded music, a performance of dance or entertainment of a similar description where the entertainment takes place in the presence of an audience and is provided for the purpose, or for purposes which include the purpose, of entertaining that audience.
The original Bill required all public entertainments to be licensed. A lobbying campaign to have the Bill amended is being led by the Musicians Union and the Arts Council for England. Exemptions for entertainment in churches and educational establishments have been secured during debate on the Bill. Deregulation of music incidental to other activities was also addressed in an amendment.
The Minister for Foreign Affairs is aware that some provisions of the Bill have given rise to concerns on the part of Irish cultural organisations, including Comhaltas Ceoltoirí Éireann. In particular, there are concerns that a requirement to license any performance, live music or dancing will introduce costs which small clubs cannot hope to meet, including the cost of the licence and the cost of compliance with new requirements such as hire of security personnel, different health and safety standards and so on. There are also concerns that impromptu music and singing sessions, central to the Irish and English folk tradition, will be illegal if held on unlicensed premises. The previous licensing regime allowed publicans to hire one or two musicians to provide entertainment without having to seek a licence.
The Federation of Irish Societies is the main umbrella group for Irish groups in Britain. Affiliates include community care, social and cultural groups. The federation lobbies both the British and Irish Governments on issues of concern to the Irish community in Britain. This issue was raised at the federation's national meeting on 1 February 2003 in Liverpool. Representatives of Irish clubs and cultural organisations noted their concern that the draft criteria for licensing of premises as music venues and associated costs could lead to the closure of clubs and cause great difficulties for Comhaltas and cultural groups organising musical gatherings. It was decided that the federation and organisations would lobby locally and nationally on this matter, liaising with the campaign of other interested parties, led by the Musicians Union.
The Minister for Foreign Affairs understands this issue very well and, at his request, the Embassy of Ireland in London has availed of its frequent contacts with Members of the House of Commons and House of Lords to appropriately convey the concerns of the Federation of Irish Societies. He recognises and appreciates the enormous contribution that Irish cultural groups have made, not only to strengthening the cultural identity of the Irish community in Britain but also to enriching the cultural life of the country in general. He very much hopes any adverse effects which the provisions of the Bill might have on their activities can be avoided.
The matter is being debated in the House of Lords where a number of amendments have been proposed. The House of Lords voted last month during the Bill's Report Stage to exclude unamplified incidental live music from the licensing regime. As the Senator said, an amendment was introduced last night to exempt small premises from the licensing regime. It was designed to safeguard live music performances in small venues – those with fewer than 250 customers. This will only apply where the entertainment ends at 11.30 p.m. The amendment was passed.
The Bill has yet to be debated in the House of Commons. However, the concerns of the Federation of Irish Societies in regard to aspects of the Bill will continue to be raised, where appropriate. I will convey the Senator's views, including his concern that some of the amendments could be overturned, to the Minister. Like the Senator, I have concerns about some aspects of the Bill. As one who visits the Wexford-London Association and other associations in London on a regular basis, I understand from where the Senator is coming. I will pass on his comments to the Minister.
I am very reassured by the Minister of State's reply. I am particularly reassured as I am fully aware of his ongoing engagement with the Irish community generally in Britain and particularly with those members who come from County Wexford. We may have met on one occasion in that context some years back. I am also reassured by the fact that he is aware of the real possibility that an important amendment introduced last night might be overturned. I am sure the Irish community in Britain and the Federation of Irish Societies which represents it can be equally reassured by the reply given by the Minister of State on behalf of the Minister for Foreign Affairs. I am grateful that the Department acted so quickly in response to my request of recent days to address this important matter for Irish families living in Britain.
The Seanad adjourned at 8.30 p.m. until 10.30a.m. on Thursday, 13 March 2003.