Short Life Working Group on Facilitating Peaceful Assemblies: report

The Short Life Working Group on Peaceful Processions in Scotland has reviewed processions in Scotland. The report uses the comparison between Northern Ireland and Scotland as a basis to discuss how well the legislative framework and related processes are working in Scotland.

4. Collecting evidence: interested parties and the potential role of case workers

4.1 In order to make decisions or determinations on a procession, a process of evidence or information gathering is required. Understandably, a substantial amount of information will be provided by the police. It is the police that have to find the resources in order that people can safely parade and protest (and the police may conceivably also be in possession of relevant intelligence). Their officers usually have experience of the area and will have an understanding of past events and the current, localised, social and political context. In both Scotland and Northern Ireland, no other institution or group has historically had equivalent capacity to collect and provide such evidence.

4.2 This raises some important issues. Without going into too much detail, the NI Parades Commission was created in order to remove the responsibility of decision-making from the police (then the Royal Ulster Constabulary, RUC) thereby 'depoliticising' policing.[30] It can be argued that, in Northern Ireland, this was beneficial because it facilitated the process of police reform which led to the RUC becoming the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI). In Scotland, it is similarly accepted by many that having decisions taken by the Local Authority helps remove any charge of political policing. It becomes the job of the police to police the decision or determination made by the Local Authority about a procession. In both cases, the police retain broad legal powers to intervene on the day (including, for example, to prevent an imminent breach of the peace).

4.3 There are two ways this relationship can come under some tension. First, does the body making the decision, the Local Authority or the NI Parades Commission, have sufficient experience to question and challenge public order and other information provided by the police? This is not necessarily to be critical of the police, but at the heart of the mechanisms in Scotland and Northern Ireland is the principle that decision-making should be independent and involve critical engagement with the evidence, including that provided by the police.

4.4 Second, and related to the above, how is the evidence provided by the police considered alongside evidence from other sources? Does the Local Authority or the NI Parades Commission have sufficient capacity to collect relevant information and how is evidence from other parties used?

4.5 Such capacity was built into the NI Parades Commission model from the outset, though the North Review also sounded a cautionary note that having too close a relationship between the adjudicatory and mediation functions may undermine both. The North report concluded that:

'… it would not be right to recommend that, as a matter of course, mediators should report to the Parades Commission on the progress of local discussions, as they could then be seen as an arm of the Parades Commission and thus lose effectiveness. They should, however, report success or failure within a set timescale.'[31]

4.6 In 1998, the NI Parades Commission had 12 part-time Authorised Officers working in pairs (balanced, where possible, in terms of gender and religion) across Northern Ireland to collect relevant information and to encourage mediation. The Authorised Officers were self-employed and trained by Mediation Northern Ireland. In the words of then Secretary of State, Adam Ingram, their role was initially envisaged as being to 'discharge the function of mediation and get as closely engaged with the process as possible.'[32] Their main responsibilities were subsequently stated by the Commission as being:

a) gathering information about parades and the areas in which they are held and reporting to the Commission accordingly;

b) making contact and building relationships with local groups and individuals, including parade organisers and residents' associations;

c) helping the Commission to communicate with specified parties by disseminating information from the Commission, including, where appropriate, serving determinations in respect of particular parades;

d) taking steps to secure local accommodation in relation to parade disputes, including the more long-term approach of community development which seeks to promote and support community activity to build the potential for local accommodation;

e) reporting to the Commission on the potential for such accommodation;

f) engaging with community groups in an educational process about the Parades Commission, how it operates, the extent of its powers and decision making process;

g) reporting to the Commission in the aftermath of contentious parades on how the parade was conducted.[33]

4.7 The Commission's Procedural Rules provided that the Authorised Officers would act on the Commission's behalf in gathering information,[34] would be party to confidential evidence,[35] and would also report to the Commission on the potential for achieving local accommodation 'and on any steps taken towards securing accommodation by the parties to a dispute.'[36]

4.8 Authorised Officer reports might, for example, have outlined a number of options for the Commission to consider. Indeed, Authorised Officers were sometimes invited (or may themselves have requested an opportunity) to make a presentation to Commissioners on recent or potential developments in particular locations. They did not, however, participate in the Commission's decision-making.

4.9 In 2002, it was decided that the Authorised Officers should not have a reporting function on the conduct of parades (this, instead, being fulfilled by a team of parades monitors recruited specifically for that task) since reporting on compliance with the Code of Conduct might undermine the capacity of the Authorised Officers to engage in mediative work.[37] Thus, for a period, the Commission utilised monitors at parades to record examples of compliance or non-compliance with the statutory Code of Conduct and to report back to the Commission. This was an important resource at a time when there were a significant number of parade disputes with widespread repercussions for Northern Ireland. Over the years, partly due to reduced resources but also because the capacity to undertake mediation exists outside the Commission, the Authorised Officers have been reduced to two full time 'case workers'. We were told that they were not directly involved in any mediation work but instead collected information on particular areas to provide a basis for the NI Parades Commission to make informed determinations.

4.10 While there are different structures and processes across the Local Authorities in Scotland, it was common for officers of the Local Authority to undertake these information gathering tasks. We spoke to a number of very experienced Council officials with a great deal of knowledge and expertise in undertaking this work. In many areas of Scotland, the system appears to be under no particular strain but there did nonetheless seem to be significant reliance on Police Scotland in terms of how the Local Authority assessed the potential for disorder or disruption and also the potential impact of a procession on the rights and freedoms of others.

4.11 We also note that the 2006 Guidance for Scottish Local Authorities does 'place a lot of emphasis on community consultation and the importance of gathering community views and the need to keep them informed of what is going on in their area.'[38] The 2006 Guidance on the role of interested parties makes it clear that it is important every effort should be made to engage with interested parties:

53. Your local authority's website should also make it clear that they let organisations on their opt-in list know about processions beforehand. The web page should also invite other interested individuals, organisations and groups to get in touch to ask for their names be added.[39]

4.12 Central to this is the building of relationships and good lines of (voluntary) communication. The 2006 Guidelines make clear the importance of these meetings:

60. A precursory meeting is a discussion between your local authority, the police and the organiser which is an informal way of providing a useful face-to-face opportunity for everyone to go through the notification and discuss any issues or problems. This is not a legal requirement but should benefit the arrangements for holding a procession. It may also be appropriate to invite community organisations along and any business representatives to receive their views. Or, your local authority may decide that it would be better for community organisations to be represented at the full decision-making meeting of the relevant council committee and to go to the debriefing meeting.[40]

4.13 We note the importance of the use of interagency working and the bringing together of interested parties through structures such as the Event Planning and Operations Group (EPOG) and the Safety Advisory Group (SAG) processes as used by (amongst others) the City of Edinburgh Council and Scottish Borders Council. We have not been in a position to look at these processes in detail, but in the report compiled by Michael Rosie in 2016 these were highlighted as good practice.[41] While noting some potential issues,[42] the Rosie report reiterated the importance of interagency working and the importance of sharing good practice.[43]

4.14 The resourcing of such processes can have important outcomes. Rosie notes 'the SAG process has, for example, markedly improved the stewarding of key 'Common Riding' events in the Borders, reducing the police resources required'.[44] Well-resourced interagency work can be very beneficial in reducing the need for routine and long-term deployment of significant policing resources. Stewarding, as we will discuss below, is a good example of where resourcing and enhanced skills can be developed within groups in ways that benefit the planning process for the Local Authority and the Police.

4.15 Moreover, engagement with interested parties should take place on a number of levels. Its facilitation requires, amongst other things, a good understanding of the areas and people impacted by a parade; trusted channels of communication between different actors (including the police and the Local Authority and both the organisers and those impacted by a parade); timely and clear communications in relation to decision-making process and any decisions made; and a review of any events within the communities impacted. Again, multi-agency initiatives (such as Safety Advisory Groups or Event Planning & Operations Groups) convened by the Local Authority should be at the core of such relationship building and the facilitation of dialogue. As we have identified elsewhere in this report, resourcing will be needed to better enable this work and to appropriately capture the resulting knowledge within the Local Authority.

4.16 The police have their own duties with regard to information gathering and decision-making over processions and they have set out their own guidance on this issue where they identify an ongoing process of 'community mapping'.[45] In some key areas it appears that active engagement with interested parties routinely falls to the police. And, at the very least, even when an experienced Council employee was involved, there was not a clear demarcation of roles between the police and the Council. We are not impugning the quality of the work by either Local Authorities or Police Scotland, but rather suggesting that there is potentially a greater reliance on the police than was envisaged in the legislation.

4.17 One example of this is around the production of a 'community impact assessment' by the Local Authority:

Depending on the nature of the event, your local authority, in close discussion with the police, should carry out an assessment of the risk of holding the procession against the considerations set out in section 63(8) of the 1982 Act (including any information available on previous processions).' (including any information available on previous processions).[46]

4.18 The Guidance for Scottish Local Authorities (2006) further suggests this will lead to better and more informed decision-making because your local authority will have:

  • identified the known dangers and risks associated with holding the procession;
  • a better knowledge on which to decide whether and what precautions could be taken to reduce or get rid of risks; and
  • a better idea of what preventative measures they may need to take now and for future processions.[47]

4.19 The clear objective of the legislation expanded in the Guidance for Scottish Local Authorities is for the Council to develop what might be called 'Institutional Knowledge' in order to better process notifications for parades and aid decision-making (see further Section 11 below). We were struck by the knowledge and experience regarding processions held by individuals within different Local Authorities. However, our Short Life Working Group did not have the capacity to fully review how each Local Authority seeks to capture, retain and share this knowledge. We are under the strong impression that data concerning notified processions and the way in which they are regulated across Scotland has not been collected into a significant centralised body of knowledge. We suggest that COSLA or another appropriate body undertake this work.

4.20 We would like to underline the recommendation made in Rosie's 2016 review of progress (a decade on from the 2006 Orr Report) in emphasising that 'Local authorities and police should give further serious consideration to using the Event Planning and Operations Group (EPOG)/Safety Advisory Group (SAG) process as used by The City of Edinburgh Council and Scottish Borders Council respectively, as a model that could be adapted to local circumstance'.[48] In addition 'the Scottish Government might give some thought as to how to best support CoSLA in encouraging the widest dissemination and implementation of good practice in planning around marches and parades'.[49]

4.21 The Christie Report (2011) emphasised that it is sometimes necessary to enhance resources and capacity in one area to reduce spending in another.[50] We would suggest that extending the capacity of Local Authorities (perhaps Glasgow in particular) to collect evidence, engage with interested parties, develop case studies and potentially facilitate negotiation and mediation, may have a long-term impact in reducing conflict. To repeat, this is not a reflection on the work that Police Scotland and Local Authorities have been undertaking, but a suggestion that seeks to rebalance the process so that the Council, the civic authority, is at the centre. Community impact assessments could also be an integral part of the process, but we have not been able to fully establish the modalities of how such assessments might best be facilitated. That said, our sense is that more robust Community Assessments with greater involvement from stakeholders and communities would be beneficial.



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