Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1 - 19)




  1.  Minister, we are extremely glad to see you. It is even more genuine than it usually is—and with me it is always genuine. We really are grateful. We know that the Government reorganised its programme in order to enable this to take place before the Standing Committee tomorrow, and we are genuinely very appreciative. You will also be aware of the conflict with the floor of the House, for which I fear my party is in some sense responsible, though unintentionally, and one at least of our number—Mr Donaldson—is due to go and take part in that debate. Therefore, I am going to invite Mr Donaldson to lead off our questions. However, before I do that, the ground rules will be the same as on previous occasions. If there is anything you want to gloss thereafter, you should feel free to do so. If you would like to introduce your colleagues, that would be welcome to the Committee, and if you want to say something at the beginning, please feel free.
  (Mr Ingram)  Mr Chairman, thanks very much for the warm welcome. All of us are under pressure because of events taking place on the Floor of the House and interest in what is happening there. On my right is George O'Doherty who is the Assistant Secretary with responsibility for equality matters. On my left is David Gibson who is the Deputy Secretary at the Department of Economic Development. Clearly, if there are any matters of detail, they can assist me with them, and I am sure the Committee would benefit from their detailed knowledge of the legislation. I had intended to say something about the history of this legislation and the immediate history, and lead into it, which hopefully may help the Committee in understanding why the Government is doing what it is doing and where it has come from in terms of this legislation. With your agreement, I think it would maybe be helpful if I say that what I intended to say really condenses the document which we have submitted to you, and hopefully for the record it would be helpful in bringing those major points to the attention of the Committee.

  2.  That would be helpful.
  (Mr Ingram)  Can I say that the promotion of greater equality between all sections of the population in Northern Ireland has been a priority of successive Administrations since Direct Rule was introduced in 1972. Equality of opportunity is a fundamental human right and, of course, speaking as Minister with responsibility for development of the economy, it is an absolute essential if we are to make maximum use of the human resources available to us in Northern Ireland. Also, of course, imbalances in employment opportunities have led to a feeling of alienation in some parts of the community in Northern Ireland. As Tom King said in introducing the 1989 Fair Employment Bill, the principal objective of legislation of this kind is a moral one. It is to ensure that a person's opportunity to obtain employment and all its benefits is determined not by which part of the Northern Ireland community he or she comes from, but according to ability, and ability alone. That is a fundamental right of every human being. The first legislation in this field was the Fair Employment Act 1976, which followed publication of the van Straubenzee Report in 1973 and which created the Fair Employment Agency. Much was achieved by that Agency, but in the mid 1980s it became clear that, while the 1976 Act was having an effect, this was not as rapid as might have been hoped and there were continuing differentials in the socio-economic experiences of the two communities in Northern Ireland. This was confirmed by an extensive report on fair employment produced at that time by SACHR, and in 1988 the Government produced its proposals in a White Paper. This led to the 1989 Act which was a substantial advance on the 1976 legislation. It created new institutions with wider powers in the form of the Fair Employment Commission and the Fair Employment Tribunal and imposed new obligations on employers, not least in terms of monitoring of workforces. The new legislation introduced some of the toughest measures against employment discrimination available anywhere in Europe, and the then Government undertook to introduce a comprehensive review after five years' experience of the new law. This was initiated by the Central Community Relations Unit in 1994 but, in response to pressure for the review to be seen to be independent of Government, responsibility was transferred to SACHR later that year. SACHR duly reported in June 1987, and the Government published its response to that report in a White Paper entitled "Partnership for Equality" in March of this year. The legislation which is before the House at this time carries forward proposals made in that White Paper having taken account of the responses received. The legislation that has been, and is being, introduced has, as its underlying principle, appointment and recruitment on the basis of merit. There is no question of reverse discrimination, quotas or any other tampering with the merit principle. However, as Tom King noted in 1989, established patterns of employment tend to perpetuate themselves, particularly in a divided society. This can very easily lead to the virtual exclusion of either Catholics or Protestants from a particular workforce. Without any deliberate or malign reason, one section of the community may find itself effectively excluded from consideration when vacancies are being filled. This is why the legislation requires employers to take positive steps to open up their employment opportunities to applicants from all sections of the community. Equality of opportunity is not something that will happen of its own accord; it must be planned for and worked for, like other business objectives. Since then, the legislation has been amended twice, firstly in 1991 to clarify the circumstances in which monitoring information could be disclosed, and secondly in 1995 to remove the limit on compensation which might be awarded by the Fair Employment Tribunal. The evidence is that the 1989 legislation has had an effect, but that there is still some way to go to ensure equality of opportunity. The recruitment statistics shown in the attachment to the DED submission, which were prepared by the FEC from monitoring returns and quoted in the SACHR report, show that appointments from the two communities roughly reflect applications for jobs from the two communities with, as might be expected, any marginal advantage by one community in one year being reflected by the opposite in another year. The beneficial effect of the legislation can also be seen in the composition of the Northern Ireland workforce, particularly by reference to such areas as the professions and managers and administrators. Roman Catholics now represent 36.5 per cent of those employed as managers and administrators, compared with 30.5 per cent in 1990. Clearly that is a substantial gain, but we cannot rest on our laurels. There is still evidence of a gap between the Catholic share of employment and the Catholic share of the economically active. The most recent statistics, for 1997, show that the Catholic share of employment was 38.8 per cent, while their share of the economically active was 41.4 per cent. There is also evidence of continuing imbalances at the top of large organisations (not least in the Civil Service), and, of course, substantial evidence that Roman Catholics are far more likely to be unemployed than Protestants. I therefore believe, Mr Chairman, that while the 1989 Act has, in the words of SACHR, had a positive impact on employment equality, there is still much to be done, not least in helping those unemployed, whether Protestant or Catholic, to secure employment. Of course all of us will know that the Government's proposals in the White Paper "Partnership for Equality" are focussed heavily on helping the unemployed acquire skills that will enable them to seek employment. The Government made a commitment to tackle the scourge of unemployment in its election manifesto, which we are now delivering on through New Deal and other employment measures. We also gave a commitment to implement the broad thrust of the proposals in the White Paper "Partnership for Equality" contained in the Good Friday Agreement. Much has been achieved to date in moving Northern Ireland towards a more equal society, and that progress I believe will be enhanced by the Fair Employment and Treatment Order which I will be presenting to the House tomorrow and which has already been considered by the other place on Monday. Hopefully, Mr Chairman, those are helpful opening remarks, but clearly there may be other areas of interest to the Committee which I am happy to do my best to deal with or, if not, we can come back with more details in written responses.

Chairman:  That was extremely thoughtful of you to provide that, and helpful to the Committee. Mr Donaldson.

Mr Donaldson

  3.  Thank you, Chairman, and a very warm welcome to the Minister. Can I ask you first of all about the form of the legislation. You will be aware that there were three possible alternatives open to you as to the form in which the new fair employment legislation might be brought before Parliament. In 1976 and 1989, the legislation took the form of primary legislation, whereas this time round you have opted for the draft Order in Council approach which has the effect that Parliament has very limited opportunity to scrutinise the legislation before enactment. In the past, the Government has frequently resorted to publishing a proposal for a draft Order in Council which at least enables interested parties sometimes to comment on the proposal before it is finalised. Why were the primary new legislation approach and the proposal for a draft Order in Council approach both rejected in this case?
  (Mr Ingram)  I think that is a useful issue to examine, and I am grateful to you for raising that issue. I think all of us would recognise that the best way of dealing with any legislation is through primary legislation except perhaps those areas which are deemed not to be contentious but which can be dealt with through other means. Certainly this legislation is important, but we have got to bear in mind that it is an amendment to existing primary legislation. Having said that, I think it is worth while drawing your attention to the Good Friday Agreement, because there are certain impositions within that Agreement placed upon the Government. In the section on page 19 of the Good Friday Agreement, entitled "Rights, Safeguards and Equality of Opportunity", in paragraph 2 of that part of the Agreement, it says, "Subject to the public consultation currently under way, the British Government will make rapid progress with:" and then it details "(i) a new regional development strategy for Northern Ireland, ... (ii) a new economic development strategy for Northern Ireland", and in (iii) it says, "measures on employment equality included in the recent White Paper ("Partnership for Equality")", then it goes on to set out various aspects relating to that. So we were then faced with the need to move forward on this agreement. The Government has made it clear that we will deliver on every aspect of the Agreement by every identifiable means. The phrase there "will make rapid progress" meant we had to look at it in a particular way. If we had not had the White Paper, if we had not been involved in a comprehensive process of consultation, then we would have had to go through that process, but because the White Paper was there, recognised within the Good Friday Agreement, there had been quite a considerable level of response—not from your own party, I may say, Mr Donaldson; your party did not respond to it, although there was an opportunity to respond to the document—but we felt that there had been quite a detailed examination of the issues involved. SACHR obviously had been commenting on the issue as well, from which the White Paper had largely been drawn. On that basis, if we had then left it to primary legislation, there was no guarantee of when we would get the Bill slot in terms of this Session of Parliament. We have been very lucky—I do not know if "lucky" is the right word. We have certainly been very busy in the last Session with the large number of Bills which we have put through. Of course, when one department is gaining precedence over other departments, other departments tend to say, "Well it's now our turn." If we had come along and said, "Let's have another piece of primary legislation", then we would have had to get in the queue. This is important legislation. therefore there has to be detailed consultation. Everyone had the opportunity to respond to it. We are putting in place amendments to existing legislation based upon that consultative document, so that there are no surprises in this. Indeed, some of the Order was tweaked to amend it to cope with the consultation studies and the consultation responses we had received. That is the reason behind it. We want to move forward on this agenda, it is important for all the citizens of Northern Ireland, and if we had not done it we would have missed a period when these important changes are taking place.

Mr McWalter

  4.  Welcome, Minister. I think that partly I am asking a supplementary to make very clear that there is quite a wide range of opinion that this is a very dubious method of proceeding. Either we have very significant improvements in the prospects of getting fair employment, in which case it would seem that primary legislation really is appropriate, or we are tweaking with a Bill, an interesting Act which, although it was an advance at the time, is deemed to be ineffective and at the very least then the Order is of significance, in which case it should have been the proposal for a draft Order, one can see, because that would at least establish the idea that Parliament would be involved in investigating at length the departures from that Act which has not been very effective despite the fact it was an advance, and we would want to see significant changes and improvement. What we seem to have is something whereby there is a danger of it becoming a bit of a habit; that we had very compressed debate on 8 September on legislation which was a direct response to the events in Northern Ireland, and we appear here again to be getting the short circuit. I agree with you that this is a major step forward, but there is a strong will on the part of Parliament to process these things in the appropriate time, if that is necessary. There is still a bipartisan approach, particularly for matters like this. I find it difficult to accept that the kind of rushed job which we are faced with here is the best way of getting an Order or a change in proceedings, which would be effective. I speak as somebody who I am sure shares with you the view that this is very important stuff, but if it is, should we not spend a bit of time trying to get it right?
  (Mr Ingram)  Let me say that I do not accept the description of this legislation being dubious, or the procedure being dubious, or its being a rushed job. I think that in my earlier response I showed that there was a very extensive consultative process gone through in bringing together the conclusions to the White Paper. In fact, there were three months available to people to comment on the White Paper. I would repeat the point that there is a requirement in the Good Friday Agreement that we have, as a British Government, to comply with, because we want everyone who has signed up to that Agreement to comply with their responsibilities as well, and so we had to make rapid progress towards the Agreement. As far as where this legislation may end up a year from now is concerned, of course it does not at all rest with the House of Commons; it is one of those devolved issues, and it becomes a matter for the Assembly. We are also within a timeframe where the Assembly may well have been up and running. We may have put out a White Paper, then it would have been left to the Assembly. Who knows where they would have put that in priority terms, if at all? Therefore, because it has been devolved and therefore been left to the Assembly, we could not, as a Government, have made progress as required of us in the Good Friday Agreement. I think we are a victim of circumstances here. Timetables have been imposed upon us as well.

  5.  You are saying you are a bit unhappy at the procedure as well?
  (Mr Ingram)  We are a victim of circumstances which we were very grateful for, in that this does show the process that evolved in Northern Ireland in bringing about a different type of society. As far as the Orders in Council procedure is concerned, we have had extensive discussions with the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister on this, not just on the specifics of this but on the generality of Orders in Council. Indeed, the Northern Ireland Bill was amended to take account of procedures which would apply where the Government was bringing forward Orders in Council, and within that Bill, which is now an Act, there are procedures laid down where there has to be full consultation with the Assembly before the Government acts an Order in Council. There are always going to be times where we do need to use that type of emergency procedure. Hopefully we do not need to use them, but there will be occasions—and I do not want to speculate as to where and why we might do that—when we might do it. On that basis, we have said that the Assembly must be consulted so that there at least we have got their reflections on what the Government is seeking to do. So I think we have tried to accommodate as best we can all the different aspects of this. You asked a supplementary question about does it mean I am not happy with the procedure? I would have preferred as a democrat that this was done through primary legislation, but, again, as I think I said, we are victims of circumstances, but healthy circumstances, as far as this process is concerned.

Mr McWalter:  That is helpful, thank you.

Mr Donaldson

  6.  Minister, I have had constituents on both sides of the fair employment provisions who have come to me. I have had constituents whom I have encouraged to pursue cases through the Fair Employment Commission, and I have had employers who have been on the receiving end of cases. There are some aspects which concern me about the operation of these provisions, and I would like some clarification on those. I have had cases where employers have had former employees take cases against them, and one might describe them as vexatious cases. That has caused those employers to engage legal defence teams at quite some expense, only to find at the last minute that the litigant withdraws the case, and they find themselves left with a large legal bill, through no fault of their own, arising out of such vexatious cases. I have had other situations where employers have found themselves on the receiving end of findings for fair employment cases and frustrated because the appeals procedure is limited in terms of those cases. We now, as I have said, have encouraged people to take cases to the Fair Employment Commission. I am not here defending one side or the other, but I do have sympathy with employers who find themselves in those circumstances. I wonder if the Government has any plans to provide some kind of remedy?
  (Mr Ingram)  Of course costs can be awarded against vexatious litigants; that is the reality of it. It clearly is a matter for those who are sitting in judgement of the matter to determine whether that case was vexatious and therefore to what extent damages or costs should be awarded. In terms of the statistics which we have presented to you in our submission, clearly you may want to examine this in greater detail as to just how extensive that issue is. I do not have in front of me at this point in time that type of categorisation, but we would be probably categorising in terms of monitoring, that of the 3,500 total registrations—I am trying to see the words—1,592 were withdrawn. Of course, that does not mean to say they were withdrawn because they were vexatious; they were withdrawn because clearly there was no purpose in proceeding with the case, because of advice or because of a subsequent consideration as to the presentation of the case. So whilst the figure does look large, in terms of cases withdrawn and others withdrawn after tribunal hearings and so on, they may be fewer. I am sure you will be taking evidence from Sir Robert Cooper, to get a better handle on all of that, because he deals with the nuts and bolts of this and will give you a better feel as to how many are vexatious and then what should be done about it. I make the point again about the Assembly's responsibility in this. This is framework legislation, devolved legislation, which the Assembly over time can amend if it so wishes and if it feels that there is a need, assuming the Assembly gets up and running—and all of us hope that that is the case. They can then consider whether the legislation is effective, does it need amendment, and if so where should they amend it. Therefore, it gets closer to the people upon whom it is having an immediate impact. I think that is helpful as well.

  7.  Is that an issue that the Northern Ireland Office have given consideration to in reviewing this legislation? I know that complaints have been made by employers to the Northern Ireland Office about this in the past, and a number of Members representing Northern Ireland constituencies have brought it to the attention of some of your predecessors. I wondered what actual consideration has been given to the problems which employers can find themselves in in terms of these kinds of vexatious claims. You have acknowledged that, although we do not have a scientific breakdown of the nature of cases withdrawn, nevertheless there are quite a high percentage of them, are there not?
  (Mr Ingram)  I would say that obviously I will take account of representations made, but what you would not do is alter legislation on the basis of a small or even a medium-sized number of representations, because here we are trying through this legislation—and it has been on the statute book in different shape and form for a good number of years—to create a different type of employment and equality of opportunity in Northern Ireland. How do you then debar a vexatious claim? You have got to have a pre-judgement on that. So there is a process of examining the cases, to advise people as to what they should be doing. The implication would be that because they are vexatious claims, then we should not have the legislation or the existing legislation should not be altered. I think that legislation is a powerful piece of legislation which has proved its efficacy over a number of years, but it does need improvement. That, of course, is what SACHR and the White Paper sought to achieve. It is a moving feast all the time. The Assembly can deal with this in its supplementary revision of that.

  8.  I do not think there is any suggestion that you would go nearly as far as removing the legislation, but in terms of fair employment provision, whilst of course there is much facility given to someone who is pursuing a case of fair employment, the question I am simply asking is, in the review of the operation of this legislation, has adequate account been taken of the difficulties which many employers find? After all, right at the top of the agenda in Northern Ireland is economic development, and you did refer earlier to the need to provide employment. The best way of dealing with unemployment is to provide employment. If businesses are saying to you, the Northern Ireland Office, "Look, we're prepared, we will work with this system", are you taking adequate account of the concerns that employers have, to ensure that the system is more effective in catching the vexatious applicants and litigants at an earlier stage, so that employers do not find themselves in a situation where, because of a protracted case situation, the clock is ticking and the fees are running up in terms of the legal defence teams they have to employ?
  (Mr Ingram)  There are two points to make to that. If, from your own party's point of view, you had had a substantial body of evidence which said that this was the case, that is a point which you could have made during the consultation process on the White Paper. We received no representations to that effect. As far as the business interest is concerned, whilst the CBI does not represent all the business interests in Northern Ireland, this is a body which does represent a wide range of business interests, and they made no representations to this effect. I have no knowledge of any group of company interests who made such representations. Clearly, if there had been a weight of evidence coming our way, then that would have conditioned our thinking, but where there is no evidence, where there is no pressure, then there is a need in one sense to take that fully into account. You have to respond to the consultation process, and there was a vacuum as far as that type of evidence was concerned.

Mr Livingstone

  9.  Good afternoon, Minister. I was one of those who felt that the 1989 Act was just a sop to try to buy off the campaign for the MacBride principles. In the event, I am clearly very glad to see it has turned out to be much more effective than many of us feared, but there are two areas in particular which lagged behind the general improvement. One of those obviously is the security-related area, where there are problems we have discussed elsewhere in this Committee before, and in relation to other reports, where the proportion of Catholics in employment has gone up by just 1 per cent, almost as bad as in the private sector where you have craft and skilled manual workers, where the increase is a mere 1.5 per cent. This strikes me as very similar to the sort of pattern I suspect you would find with black and Asian employment in London or any other major city. What is your thinking about what can be done? Is this just a question of providing better training and skills for Catholics, or is there just a more embedded resistance in those areas of employment?
  (Mr Ingram)  The way in which we have altered the legislation, of course, is to allow employers to target their employees in a specific way. The other delivery mechanism of the Government is in terms of New Deal, in terms of trying to improve the skills base overall in Northern Ireland, with other targeting approaches for unemployment not just in terms of the specific groupings or categories but also in terms of gender and race as well. So we are trying to make a widely available employment opportunity to all, trying to put through these mechanisms which improve and lift the skill base. Therefore, we are trying to do this with proper training mechanisms. The delivery area for that is the TEA (the Training and Employment Agency). They are very proactive in all of this. Again, they may be a body from whom you want to take evidence. You may be interested in what they are delivering specifically in this area, because they do monitor what they are doing to match what we are trying to do in terms of fair employment. As I understand it, there is no obligation upon them to do it, but they do it anyway because it is worthwhile so doing. So, in the short term we have been in Government we are beginning to tackle all of that. Only time itself will tell whether we have been successful or not in this and in lifting the skill base. Our overall economic strategy for Northern Ireland is to do just that, because that is the type of employment we want in Northern Ireland—the high skill, the high quality, the highly-paid jobs. You need a good skill base to achieve all of that. There is a potential there, because of the large pockets of unemployment, because that is where unemployment is likely to be located. So only time will tell whether that proves to be successful. As far as the statistics are concerned—the statistics which we gave in relation to improvement in the security-related areas—that again is something which we are currently reviewing. It is at an early stage of review, and I would not expect that we would be in a position to give you a definitive breakdown on this by the time you have concluded your investigation, but if we were in a position to do that, clearly we would do that as well. That is much more problematic in Northern Ireland, because there is still a paramilitary threat out there, and for the interests of all of the community of Northern Ireland, we have to be very careful who is taken into certain categories of employment. Once we get, or hopefully get, to a normalised society in Northern Ireland, then there is no need for this type of debarment to exist, but do not ask me for a timescale on that, I do not think I could even begin to guess.

  10.  Thank you. There is one point which occurs to me. Many of the states in the United States of America passed MacBride legislation banning pension fund investment in Northern Ireland, and these laws will still be on the statute book. Has your Department considered a direct appeal now to those states in the light of the progress being made, which is supported by many of us who actively campaigned for MacBride, now to repeal these measures.
  (Mr Ingram)  Again my feeling for this is that what we had in the 1989 legislation was beyond the elements of the MacBride and much more comprehensive than the MacBride principles. There were certain aspects of the MacBride principles that may have been difficult to implement anyway. There may have been a conflict with the EU regulations. Clearly we want to establish in our biggest potential market for investment, ie the United States, a better understanding of what we are doing on the equality agenda for Northern Ireland. I think why this particular piece of legislation was taken through is important. We will constantly raise the equality issue when we are in individual states. A chain of Consuls through the Embassy in Washington are always proactive in this area trying to correct many misunderstandings that are around, primarily in Irish America about the MacBride principles and about the equality agenda which has been delivered by the Government. We believe we have very tough legislation which is moving this agenda forward and hopefully you, yourself, would have good contacts in this area to help us sell that message. This does give us an opportunity to bring jobs and investment into Northern Ireland, which helps the minority of the population to get into employment.

Mr Livingstone:  Thank you very much, Minister.

Mr Grogan

  11.  I was particularly interested in the Monitoring Regulations that will be published at some stage to accompany the draft Order. When are they likely to be published and how will they differ from the existing Monitoring Regulations?
  (Mr Ingram)  I am advised that they will be published in January. Just to supplement that. The side advice is "hopefully". We are trying to drive this forward so the intention would be to proceed with that. We will do everything to take this through as rapidly as possible. Therefore, January would be the objective date for that.

  12.  Will they differ in any way from the current operation of the Monitoring Regulations?
  (Mr Ingram)  Maybe Mr O'Doherty could help you on that.
  (Mr O'Doherty)  Mr Chairman, there will be additional requirements in the Monitoring Regulations. Firstly, employers will be required to include part-time employees, but to group them separately. All registered employers will be required to monitor applicants and appointees and larger employers—that is, 250 employees plus— will be required to monitor promotions and leavers.


  13.  I have another question at this juncture about the timetable. Before I put it I will indicate from the chair a sympathy with the views put forward by Mr Donaldson and Mr McWalter about the pace at which these matters are being brought in. I did read the House of Lords transcript of Hansard for the events on Monday. I was a little alarmed, I have to say, in the exchanges between the noble Lords, Lord Lester and Lord Cope and the Minister on the re: Amin case, that although an assurance was given by the Minister, while the substantive legislation was being debated, that the matter was going to be taken care of without actually any ifs and buts, by the time the matter was raised on Monday the Minister was, perfectly reasonably—I am not complaining about this—driven to saying that he would write to the noble Lords in terms of the answer. It is that kind of detail which worries us. In other words, the pace at which things are going forward, where there are loose ends which have not been fully attended to before Parliament is asked to conclude its business. It may well be that if that matter is raised with you tomorrow, Minister, there will be no problem at all and you will give a virtuoso performance.
  (Mr Ingram)  Thanks for the warning!

  14.  I shall read the Hansard with interest. But that is a concern on our part. We know some of the circumstances surrounding the pace at which you have to move, but you must forgive us if there is a degree of sensitivity on the part of the Committee. What timetable do you envisage for the establishment of the new Equality Commission, the appointment of the Chair and the other Commissioners, and what progress is being made by the committee which is overseeing the transitional arrangements?
  (Mr Ingram)  Perhaps I should explain. This is, in one sense, outside my remit because it is actually dealt with by one of my Ministerial colleagues who has taken forward the Equality Agenda. The Commission, as you know, has not yet been appointed. The Working Group has been set up to bring forward recommendations on how the Commission should operate. That Working Group has held its first meeting and is expected to report by March of next year. The post of the Chief Commissioner and the other Commissioners will be advertised shortly, it will be advertised publicly and, of course, the Nolan principles will apply to those appointments; so there is a process which then has to be gone through all of that. It is hoped that those adverts would appear in January of next year. That is the timetable.

  15.  So the advertisements will precede the conclusions in March?
  (Mr Ingram)  That is the appointment of the Chief Commissioner and the other commissioners.

  16.  These events are happening concurrently, not consecutively?
  (Mr Ingram)  The Working Group is looking at how the Commission should operate. Again, it seems to me that it is important to have people in place who would have the responsibility of operating that, rather than just saying that these are the things you are now going to do.

  17.  I understand that fully. Let us assume, for a moment, that I am a candidate for the Chair and I ask those who are interviewing me to tell me about the working arrangements and they say, "We can't tell you that, the committee has not yet decided."
  (Mr Ingram)  If I was asked that question and I was interviewing I would say, "We are interviewing you because you have the ability to help us in coming to a conclusion on this. We can help each other in coming to the best conclusion as to the best way forward." If you leave it to afterwards then there is a longer period obviously. You go through the Working Group examination. You decide on the recommendations. Then you go through the interview process, which delays it. So what we are trying to do is to foreshorten it for the right reasons, not for the sake of rushing it through, but to try to get this body in place as quickly as possible because of the range of important issues which it is having to deal with—not just in terms of fair employment but other aspects of the equality agenda. This is because that whole agenda is critical to what we are seeking to do in Northern Ireland, as you well know, Mr Chairman. It is one of those issues which is constantly raised and one which has to be addressed. If we are seen to be dragging our feet for no good reason, then we will be subject to criticism. I refer again to the requirement in the Good Friday Agreement to make progress in that area and we are seeking to achieve that objective.

Mr Salter

  18.  Good afternoon, Minister. My questions refer to national security exemptions and the right of appeal, which looking through the explanatory notes are Articles 96 and 79 and 80, which are amending section 42 of the 1976 Act. My first question is: are your officials aware of the critical findings of the, I think it is Tinnely——
  (Mr Ingram)  —— and McElduff.

  19.  You obviously are—cases in the European Court of Human Rights in July with regard to procedures governing national security exemptions and perhaps more critically the subsequent rather more severe judgment of the European Court of Justice. How have you taken account of those criticisms of the previous procedures?
  (Mr Ingram)  By responding to them in full. When the Northern Ireland Bill came through the House we, of course, amended it to take account of that ECHR judgment on Tinnely and McElduff. We put in place a tribunal mechanism so that the right of appeal is there. Because we are dealing with national security, then specific elements of that appeal mechanism have to apply: i.e. a QC will be employed to represent the interests of the complainant. He will not be responsible to that complainant. As explained in the House, the reason for this is that when we are dealing with matters of national security, to impart information to someone whom we have previously judged as a threat to the State, may then put at risk the person or persons who are acting on behalf of our society and the nation in obtaining certain information. We have to balance the fine judgment between the rights of the individual and the national interests in all of this. The way we have dealt with it through the Northern Ireland Act, in terms of the proposed legislation, takes into account the whole of the ECHR judgment. Of course, that does not mean it is the end of the matter, because people can challenge our judgment in that. Then it is a matter for the courts to determine who has got it right; whether we handled this correctly and sensitively and in full measure as far as that person is concerned.

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