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Mr. Budgen : It may help the hon. Gentleman if I tell him openly across the Floor of the House who, according to the Conservative research department brief, will be caught by the Bill. I quote from the final sentence of the section entitled "Attacks Answered": "Only deliberate defiance or obstruction of the Commission and Tribunal is penalised under the Bill."
In other words, unless an employer says, "Push off" to the commission, he will be all right.
Mr. Marshall : I hesitate to say that I am grateful to have the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West as an ally on this point. He has reinforced my assertion that the Bill is a toothless wonder. I hesitate, too, to applaud him for voting with us this evening as, presumably, he does not have the courage to do so.
We are worried that some of the provisions in the Bill--on contract compliance, for example--are weaker than the proposals in the White Paper. One cannot over-emphasise the fact that, if it is passed, the Bill will provide the framework for fair employment legislation in the Province until the end of the century at least. If it is not capable of seriously addressing the imbalance and the question of Protestant and Catholic employment, it is not worth having. In our view, the Government have failed in their responsibilities in three key areas. First, they have failed to give a clear indication of the way that all Government policies--political, social and economic--are to be subject to the litmus test of whether they promote equality of opportunity. Secondly, they fail to set targets and timetables for reducing the current ratio of unemployment between Catholics and Protestants, thus ruling out the only effective and objective way of measuring the success of the legislation. Thirdly, the Bill is extraordinarily silent about the measures to enforce the legislation in the public sector. We should emphasise the importance of the public sector in Northern Ireland. Although 200,000 people, or 40 per cent. of the work force, are employed in the public sector, the Bill fails to spell out how the legislation will be effective in the public sector.
The Bill pays lip service to the need to promote equality of opportunity, but it does not permit effective and affirmative action to bring that about. I shall mention two examples. As we understand it, and as we are advised, the legislation would make unlawful schemes to train existing employees in a company who might benefit from training for another job in the company or for promotion. We are also advised that outreach measures designed to encourage applications from school leavers to companies with serious imbalances in their work forces would also be illegal. The Minister shakes his head. I am prepared to be convinced by argument, but not by the Minister shaking his head.
If the Government are serious, the provisions of the legislation are far weaker than those available under race relations legislation or the sex discrimination legislation which provide and encourage means of affirmative action. In addition, the Bill should spell out that the Fair
Column 255Employment Commission should be specifically charged with the duty to develop and implement a strategic policy for ensuring the achievement of equal opportunity.
We welcome the proposal that all public sector bodies and all large employers should monitor applications as well as their existing work force. However, like the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, we urge that the Bill should contain a timetable for reducing the 250 employee threshold, for a number of reasons. As the Government know, private sector employers with more than 250 employees are fairly rare in many rural parts of the Province, especially west of the Bann. In certain urban areas, such as parts of Belfast, the limit is too high and very few companies would fall within the net. There should be a time scale for reducing the threshold.
The Bill is totally inadequate to deal with the scale of the problem in Northern Ireland. Unfortunately, the great expectations built up by the publication of SACHR's report on fair employment have been dashed by the Bill. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions has expressed great disappointment. We share that disappointment. I urge the House to reject the Bill.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Peter Viggers) : This is a major piece of legislation--a substantial Bill of 55 clauses which will affect the pattern of employment in Northern Ireland for years to come.
Let me first deal with the points made by my hon. Friends the Members for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) and for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Budgen) who challenged the Bill's fundamental purpose. Speaking, as I do, as one who believes in the dynamo of the private enterprise system that is central to economic success and who believes strongly in the importance of freeing private enterprise from the shackles and burdens of government, and indeed that the private enterprise system allows and encourages the flowering of individual efforts and so makes its contribution to democracy itself, I accept that we should think carefully before introducing further regulation on business. Government should approach the subject with diffidence and move only when it is clear that action is required.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West made that point with fluency and wit. He is one of the few Members of Parliament who can amuse and entertain even as his barbs find their mark. I enjoyed my hon. Friend's speech, but I have to say to him that, in the context of Northern Ireland, it was fundamentally misconceived.
The facts on unemployment are not in dispute. The Government's own statistics suggest that the unemployment rate for Catholic males runs to about 2.5 times the rate for Protestants. Moreover, there are significant differences in the type and pay levels of the jobs, with a clear tendency for Catholics to be over-represented in the lower grades and under- represented in the higher grades.
There could be many reasons for those disparities and the report by the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights and other studies have tried to identify the explanations which could be put forward. For instance, it has been argued that Catholics are concentrated in areas of
Column 256higher unemployment in the west of the Province and that that contributes to the continuing differential in employment. It has been said that social differences between Protestants and Catholics are a major element in unemployment differentials, and it is certainly true that, in using the words "Catholic" and "Protestant", one is not dealing simply with the manner of worshipping God but with a complex socio-political-economic condition. It has been argued that differences in educational attainment, and in subject choice and availability, have contributed to the disparity in employment levels.
In its important report, SACHR also studies the suggestions that have been made that Catholics tend to have a lower commitment to work than Protestants--an idea which SACHR considered and rejected--and that differences in unemployment levels derive partly from differences in age distribution of the Catholic and Protestant sections of the community and the tendency of Catholics to have larger families. All those intensely personal issues have been studied, and properly so, because they provide the framework--the background--to Government consideration and the legislation which has flowed from that. In the context of Northern Ireland, it has been argued that Catholics and Protestants can be reluctant to travel to work outside the immediate area where they live, or may be reluctant to work in places or areas which they regard as hostile. As the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) said, this is known in Northern Ireland as "the chill factor" and there is no doubt that it has some influence. Similarly, it has been argued that Catholics are less willing to accept certain types of employment, the most obvious example being work in the security forces, where work may be available but for various reasons they may feel unable to apply.
Those are sensitive subjects, but it was right that SACHR should commission its detailed study, which in broad terms comes to the conclusion that some of those items do contribute to the employment disparity. However, it is also clear that, even when all those factors are taken into account, there is still an unexplained difference. There remains a much higher correlation than one would have expected between religion and unemployment.
Mr. Viggers : Yes, I believe there is. As the hon. Gentleman will know from his study of the report, it gave statistics against some of the heads that I have enumerated, but not against the security forces. It points out the number of people who do work in the security area, and I have freely admitted that that may be an element in the consideration, but the fact is that, after all those points have been carefully considered, there remains an unacceptable disparity.
At the end of the day we are left with one clear conclusion which no one can deny the Fair Employment Act 1976, conceived as it was with good intentions, has not been successful in eradicating employment disparity between Catholic and Protestant in Northern Ireland. In
Column 257statistical terms, overall the improvement in Catholic employment that was indeed to flow from the 1976 Act has not been achieved. That does not mean that progress has not been made. There have been important areas of substantial progress. I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South-West that there have been over 60 sectoral studies and investigations, and over 400 individual cases, have been examined. Many valuable improvements in employers' practices have been introduced, both at the instigation of the FEA and in the light of the Government's guide to good practice. To take one example, and an important one, the Northern Ireland Civil Service has introduced a comprehensive monitoring programme. This example is now being more widely followed in the public service generally. The experience of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, and indeed that of the major private sector employers who have introduced monitoring and have taken affirmative action, shows that any imbalance in applications and recruitment can be reduced if tackled appropriately.
So some progress has been made but the statistics remain obstinate and clear and they are reflected in public attitudes. There is a wide perception among Catholics that they do not stand the same chance of a job. The statistics confirm this to be the case, and it would be absolutely wrong for Government to stand aside from this situation. Government have a heavy moral obligation to improve the climate of fair employment in Northern Ireland and I submit that any fair-minded person entrusted with our responsibility in this field would take the same view.
If the House agrees, as I trust it will, that legislation is required in Northern Ireland to improve equality of opportunity in employment, is this Bill the legislation which is best calculated to achieve that necessary effect? Certainly, in approaching this legislation, the Government have taken care to consult widely, and my right hon. Friend referred in his introductory remarks to the consultations over two years. Throughout the whole of this process we have been consulting very widely with employers and employee representatives and with community interests. We also had the opportunity of discussing our proposals with Government representatives from the Republic of Ireland. We have followed with interest the views expressed by the Government of the Republic of Ireland, who took a sustained interest. We have taken account of their views and, of course, we have taken account of the views of all those whom we have consulted.
We are satisfied that the thrust of our proposals now laid before the House has a broad consensus of support and that they will be successful in achieving the intention of promoting equality of opportunity in Northern Ireland.
Mr. Martin Flannery (Sheffield, Hillsborough) rose
Mr. Viggers : I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not give way, especially as he has not been present very much during the debate and as I am short of time. But perhaps I should, briefly.
Column 258enforcement machinery is there to implement its provisions? It will peter out like all the others, because it contains no enforcement procedures.
Mr. Viggers : I shall come to that. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely wrong, and I hope to reassure him on that in due course. As I was saying, we have a level of consensus from the consultations that we have carried out. With this level of open consultation and support, one would have hoped to achieve a measure of unanimity for the proposals in the House, at least in principal. I recall that, when the Fair Employment (Northern Ireland) Bill was introduced to the House in 1976 by the Labour Government, the Conservative spokesman, the late Airey Neave, described that Bill as "essential and important." Winding up the debate on Third reading, the late John Biggs-Davison said :
"The official Opposition have supported, and do support, the principle of the Bill".--[ Official Report, 11 June 1976 ; Vol. 912, col 2002-3.]
The Conservative party at that time had reservations about points of detail on the Bill but did not seek to divide the House on Second Reading or on Third Reading. So the Conservative party supported Labour's proposal in broad terms.
How very different the situation is tonight. The Labour spokesman, the hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) made a grudging and petulant speech, with all the emphasis on what he perceived to be wrong about the Bill and lacking the grace to admit that much in the Bill is common ground between us. He was thrown into high relief by the hon. Member for South Down, who said that he would not oppose the Bill and that it needed amendment in Committee. The right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) gave the Bill a fair wind. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Springburn (Mr. Martin) said that he found himself in a surprising position, as he would have to oppose the Bill. The hon. Member for Leicester, South (Mr. Marshall), winding up for the Opposition, sought to rectify some of the damage by hedging some of his remarks and using expressions such as "as we understand it" and "as we are advised" on several occasions. The hon. Gentleman, as we understand it, was wrong in saying that outreach training is not possible and that affirmative action has been weakened. He was badly advised if he was told that. Moreover, if the Opposition think that outreach training and the lack of affirmative action are flaws in the Bill, although I can assure them that there are no such flaws, they should support the Second Reading. Then, within the context of the long title of the Bill, they should seek to amend the Bill in Committee.
They do not have the grace to do that. They are taking an opportunity simply to show that they oppose the Bill root and branch, and to demonstrate that they have the vitality and virility to oppose the Government. They are making a serious mistake, which I am sure they will regret.
Ms. Abbott : Will the Minister accept that our opposition to the Bill is based on a point of principle? The Bill is Hamlet without the prince. An elaborate structure and 55 clauses have been drawn up to enforce a code which is the heart of the Bill, yet the test of the code is not before us. Our opposition to the Bill is based on the fact that it is sheer window dressing to appease American opinion. It will leave behind it bitterness and a feeling in the Province of having been cheated.
Mr. Viggers : I can reassure the hon. Lady completely on that point. It is normal practice, when regulations such as a code of practice are required in connection with an Act of Parliament, that they should be introduced between Second Reading and the Committee stage. The Second Reading of the Bill approves the Bill in principle, and the Committee considers it in detail, and needs to see the code of practice. We already have the guide to effective practice which gives an indication of the lines the code will take. If we had produced the code at this point before Second Reading we would have been criticised for assuming that the Bill had been given a Second Reading. We are doing exactly the right thing, consistent with normal practice.
The Opposition, whatever they say, cannot deny that the Bill proposes the most radical and incisive legislation on fair employment in Northern Ireland presented to this House by any Government. It improves significantly on the Fair Employment (Northern Ireland) Act produced by the previous Labour Government and introduces a new range of obligations, powers, and penalties to ensure that the new law has sharp teeth. We have no doubt that the Commission will not hesitate to use them.
Dealing with a point about monitoring raised by the hon. Member for North Down (Mr. Kilfedder), there will be new regulations for compulsory monitoring by employers, although of course there will be no obligation on workers to register. We stress the obligation placed upon employers. Employers will have that duty and be required to produce the results of their monitoring to the Fair Employment Commission.
There will be new criminal penalties, backed by economic sanctions, covering Government grants and public sector contracts. For the first time, indirect discrimination is defined and outlawed. In all these ways, the Bill delivers fully on the major commitments of the White Paper which was published last May ; indeed, it goes further and does not renege in any way on its commitments.
The right hon. and learned Member for Warley, West (Mr. Archer) complained that the Bill did not explain as clearly as the White Paper how different measures would apply--for instance, affirmative action. If I, as a humble solicitor, may say so to him, a learned barrister, this is the fault of legal language. We are turning the intentions of the White Paper into statutory language. There is no weakening of the proposals in the White Paper.
Mr. Archer : The point I was making was not that the Bill was not a textbook but that it did not make the position clear in statutory language. The point which my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North was making was precisely the point which the Secretary of State made when we were discussing the MacBride principles--that equal opportunities and affirmative action can sometimes cut across each other.
I want to explain the ways in which the Bill expands and strengthens the White Paper. There will be stronger enforcement procedures. Specifically, the fair employment tribunal may impose monetary penalties up to £30,000 for breach of a tribunal order, this being a unique power for a tribunal in the United Kingdom. There will be a new obligation on employers of more than 250 people to
Column 260monitor not only their work force but also the applications for jobs. I have noted the point made in the debate that the figure of 250 should be reconsidered. That is a point clearly best considered in Committee.
All registered employers will be required to review their key employment practices at intervals of three years or less to see if affirmative action is required to improve their employment practice. There will be a new power whereby the Fair Employment Commission can investigate the patterns of employment at any particular organisation and receive voluntary but binding undertakings to improve on employment practice.
Accordingly, by any objective or informed standards, there can be no doubt- -none whatever--of the radical and comprehensive nature of the Bill. Nor can there be any doubt about the Government's determination to see that the new commission is properly resourced to exercise its new powers. We are substantially increasing the budget and the numbers of the Fair Employment Commission.
The leglisation is indeed tough, but it is also fair. I say that with confidence, because it is a central feature of the legislation that appointments shall be on merit and that the best person should be appointed to the job. On that point I reassure the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) : merit is a clear principle in the Bill and it reflects the prohibition of direct discrimination which has been in force since 1976.
However, I must emphasise that merit in this respect takes account not only of ability but also of aptitude, and this latter point allows for recognition of potential. My hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Porter) asked about this in connection with an employer in Northern Ireland whom he had visited recently. It is a central point of the Bill that there will be outreach training and affirmative action which will take account of aptitude. Employers will not simply consider the best person suitable for the job at the time. Aptitude and training potential will be relevant.
Many points were raised during the debate. Because we were anxious that as many hon. Members as possible should have a chance to speak, it will not be possible to deal in detail with all of them. I have sought to do so as far as possible, but the other points can be dealt with in Committee.
The Bill should be supported. It is a matter of grave concern to us that the Labour party does not feel it possible to support it at this point. I think the Labour party will accept that there is a great deal of discrimination which is unintentional. Recruitment by word of mouth can lead to a concentration of workers from one part of the community. Advertising jobs in one area or through one newspaper can similarly lead to an unbalanced recruitment practice. Personnel managers may not give full thought to their recruitment practices. The prevalence of flags and emblems in the workplace can discourage one or other part of the community. In that sense there are many ways in which discrimination in employment can be unintentional. We will source the Fair Employment Commission and give it more power and authority so that it can aid employers to improve their practices which may be unintentional.
Northern Ireland needs to make progress on three fronts : political, security and economic. In the field for which I have specific responsibility, economic development, great strides have been made in the last two years, with substantial investment by local companies and
Column 261inward investment from overseas. The economy has some good features, and increased employment can assist in every aspect of life in Northern Ireland.
The Bill will play a major part in promoting fair employment and the perception of a fair and just society. It is an important and genuinely progressive measure, and I commend it to the House. Question put, That the amendment be made :--
The House divided : Ayes 194, Noes 268.
Division No. 67] [10 pm
Abbott, Ms Diane
Adams, Allen (Paisley N)
Archer, Rt Hon Peter
Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy
Ashley, Rt Hon Jack
Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE)
Bennett, A. F. (D'nt'n & R'dish)
Bray, Dr Jeremy
Brown, Gordon (D'mline E)
Brown, Nicholas (Newcastle E)
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)
Buckley, George J.
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)
Campbell, Ron (Blyth Valley)
Campbell-Savours, D. N.
Carlile, Alex (Mont'g)
Clark, Dr David (S Shields)
Clarke, Tom (Monklands W)
Cook, Frank (Stockton N)
Cook, Robin (Livingston)
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)
Davis, Terry (B'ham Hodge H'l)
Duffy, A. E. P.
Dunwoody, Hon Mrs Gwyneth
Foot, Rt Hon Michael
Garrett, John (Norwich South)
Gilbert, Rt Hon Dr John
Godman, Dr Norman A.
Grant, Bernie (Tottenham)
Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)
Harman, Ms Harriet
Healey, Rt Hon Denis
Heffer, Eric S.
Hogg, N. (C'nauld & Kilsyth)
Home Robertson, John
Howarth, George (Knowsley N)
Howell, Rt Hon D. (S'heath)
Hughes, John (Coventry NE)
Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)
Hughes, Roy (Newport E)
Hughes, Sean (Knowsley S)
Hughes, Simon (Southwark)
Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside)
Lestor, Joan (Eccles)
Macdonald, Calum A.
McKay, Allen (Barnsley West)
Mahon, Mrs Alice
Marek, Dr John
Marshall, David (Shettleston)
Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)
Martin, Michael J. (Springburn)