Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20 - 39)



  20.  I do not necessarily share these concerns but these concerns are raised by a number of organisations, including the Committee for the Administration of Justice, who are heavily involved in this review. They are actually saying it is a rather minimalist approach. In your earlier answer to me you said you responded in full. They are not criticising the fact that there has not been a response, but it is the procedures that are proposed within the Order, which require the appellant authority to sit in secret. However, there appears no right for the person accused, or the subject of the Order, to appoint his or her own solicitor or lawyer. That has to be appointed by the State and at the end of the day it is the State that is justifying its actions. Does that square with principles of natural justice and are you confident that you can withstand further challenge on that point in the European courts because you may well get it.
  (Mr Ingram)  I would not want to anticipate further challenge, but there is a possibility of further challenge and the courts can determine whether we have done the correct thing so far as we were concerned. I make the point again about the role of those who act in the interests of the State. It is for all of us, it is not for the State, it is for each and every citizen who makes up that society. There are many brave men and women in the front line, acting in intelligence services, obtaining information to protect us. If that information was imparted to someone who was a threat to the State, then that person's life may be at risk—not to put too fine a point on this. Those are the balanced judgments and that is why I said this in the House to one of my colleagues, Kevin McNamara, who raised that specific point from the CAJ and also from his own point of view. There are still some questions which have been asked by the Bar Association and there is consultation taking place with them on this point. They have an element of unease about it. We continue to talk to them to ensure that we have an agreed position to go forward on. We had to act because of the Northern Ireland Bill going through the Houses of Parliament. We had to interpret the ECHR rule as best we possibly could. I think we have applied it in full but only time will tell.

  21.  I would like to put on the record my personal view that the Government has responded, but what flexibility is there if continued concerns come forward from the Bar Council or from other bodies whom you would wish to take good note of, to build in any changes to the procedure? Obviously we have just heard the news on our pager that General Pinochet faces extradition. I am sure that General Pinochet used exactly the same argument that some of the procedures adopted here were in the interests of the State and, therefore, in the best interests of everybody. Now I am making no parallels and neither would I, but I am aware that the Government may be vulnerable.
  (Mr Ingram)  I would not be happy, nor would the Secretary of State nor indeed the Government, to have done something which would have opened this to further challenge which, in our judgment, would have been successful. We cannot do that. We cannot in terms of applying legislation do something, knowing that we are going to be defeated in the courts. So we have to judge it on the best legal advice available. As far as flexibility is concerned, all Acts of Parliament are open to change. It depends on the weight of the argument, the thrust of those arguments, and obviously if it is matters which would require us to respond to because of judgments in international courts, then the Government does respond to that. We have then to judge just what is happening at that point in time. I would not want to go into the detail of discussion with the Bar Council. I feel that is a matter between us and them. If you want to pursue it I am sure the Bar Council would come along and give you their point of view. It is a matter which we hope we can resolve to their satisfaction and we will continue to talk to them on that basis.

Mr Salter:  I wish you well with it. Thank you very much, Minister.

Mr Beggs

  22.  You propose in the White Paper that the new Equality Commission will have a role in proposing a target for the reduction of unemployment differentials between Catholics and Protestants by 2011. Why do you not consider this is a role for Government rather than the Commission; and in setting a target of 2011, does this not give the wrong signals as to the urgency of the issue?
  (Mr Ingram)  I think we have to give time for any legislation to be tested. Targets can be made at any point in time. We hope that normalisation does take place within Northern Ireland. If that does take place at a rapid rate, then those targets, you are right, will be unrealistic because of the different environment, different landscape, social and political landscape in Northern Ireland, which none of us can predict with any certainty at the moment. As far as the role of the Government versus the Commission, the Commission, of course, is set up to take on board all the elements of the equality agenda and to advise Government as to any subsequent change. Government here, of course, is more likely to be the Government of Northern Ireland, i.e. the Assembly, so they would be reporting to them and concurrently to the United Kingdom Government as well. There is always a possibility of United Kingdom-wide legislation but, at the present time, the main elements of the agenda which the Commission are looking at are matters which will be devolved to the new Assembly. The Commission's role is to be the adviser role, the considering body for that. Hopefully (and I am sure we will) we will get people of quality serving on that body, because there is a lot of interest in this area, providing good quality advice to Government. Government in this area, I suggest, should act after careful consideration. That is what Government has done in relation to the White Paper. We will not rush into changes because of events which might be happening at that particular point in time. We will take things in the round and over a period of time. The history of this legislation shows that this is the way in which subsequent governments have tackled it. Where there is a need for change, the change takes place.

  23.  Do you accept that regionally different communities, Protestant and Roman Catholic, from which springs alienation and lack of opportunity for employment, will this legislation ensure greater and fairer opportunity in regional situations where there appears to be discrimination against a particular section of the community?
  (Mr Ingram)  In my opening remarks, I stressed the fact that this is legislation for both Protestants and Catholics, and for those who do not align themselves to any particular religion. It is for all of the community. We have to ensure quality of opportunity for all. We do know that there is within Northern Ireland territorial or geographic areas, where a predominant area is one part of the community and another area is another part. Hopefully, again over time, as society begins to normalise, we will find integration of communities. That is the ideal type of society. So that there is less categorisation by geographic area and more on the basis of judging people on true merit. The whole thrust of this legislation—not just what this particular Order will be seeking to achieve—the history of this legislation is based upon the merit principle. It is to see that people should be judged on merit and not on religion, although there are specific elements within it which seek to encourage opportunities within those categories. It is targeted equally to disadvantaged Protestant communities as well as disadvantaged Roman Catholic communities.

  24.  Thank you very much. I want to put on the record, in case there is any doubt whatever, that we within the party, which I represent, are committed to full and equal opportunity.
  (Mr Ingram)  Chairman, may I say that Mr Beggs is one of those who did respond to the White Paper. May I thank him for his response to that.

Chairman:  I thank him too, Minister. Mr McWalter, I think you have a supplementary on this question.

Mr McWalter

  25.  It is hard, Minister, not to contrast the accelerated process governing the passing of the legislation with the rather laid-back date of 2011. In particular since, for instance, the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights, which has been referred to several times earlier under its acronym of SACHR, said in 1987 that: "Government should now establish the goals which they would wish to see achieved in five years. An interim target to aim for would be the reduction in differential between the Catholic unemployment rates and the male Protestant rates from two and a half times to one and a half times within five years. The Commission knows of no evidence which demonstrates that this is an impossible goal." Then ten years later, that is last year, they said that: "Targets which are already required of employers should be equally appropriate to Government policy. The Commission recommends that the Government should publicly adopt realistic targets for the reduction of long-term unemployment and unemployment differentials." Given that people are talking about five-year timetables; they are talking about people seeking to get a timetable for change; I think most people who take this matter seriously would regard it as very disappointing that the Government seems reluctant to set realistic goals and timetables for change; so that people would actually see, on a bi-annual or quinquennial basis or whatever, that there is a goal which is short- and medium-term as well as a goal which is long-term. That is one of the aspects of the Order which would cause us most concern: that this is apparently not to be taken up.
  (Mr Ingram)  So far as the 2011 date is set, the year 2011 is chosen because that is the Census date. That is the basis upon which the different points are made. The other thing about setting targets is that it is easy to set targets, but this is an ambitious programme of Government and we have to recognise that Government cannot do everything on its own. This is a problem of society. Government can only encourage the framework and do certain things. We have to judge how fast change is taking place. We have perhaps misjudged some of the pace of change over the last five months. It has gone faster than many people would have predicted in terms of the Good Friday Agreement and in terms of establishing an Assembly. Much progress has been made, although there is a slight impasse at the moment and hopefully that will be resolved. So we do not know when the next leap will take place. I have used the phrase, this concept, of normalisation of society. It is people who will normalise society, not Government. If our targets are not over-ambitious, then the people will prove us wrong and employers will prove us wrong. Therefore, we can revise the targets accordingly. We can say we got it wrong. I would love to be able to say we got it wrong because it means that there is a more rapid change than we were able realistically to predict at a point in time. It is one of those areas where we could take some comfort from when we are wrong.

  26.  Chair, I would like to lodge a protest against the use of the Census dates. I think it is deeply inappropriate. It is a laid-back approach and there is no reason why these statistics concerning fairness of unemployment opportunity should not be made available at times other than Census dates. It seems to me extraordinarily bureaucratic. Of course, we will have a full picture in 2011, but it seems to me very reasonable indeed that we ask Government to be proactive about the gathering of statistics with this particular Order in mind. I hope that the Government will, even at this late stage, revise its view about setting interim targets and having a timetable for realistic and beneficial change.
  (Mr Ingram)  I take on board what you say, but I would repeat the point about those who have custody of this legislation. It is the Assembly, when that gets up and running. They can, of course, revisit this legislation if they feel what we have set is unrealistic. They can revise it. I am sure that your strong view will be expressed by others, as well as others taking a diametrically opposed point of view. It seems to be ever thus in Northern Ireland, but this is a long-standing problem. It is not something—even with all the legislation and the strength of the legislation which is there—it is not about a new society. It is beginning to approximate to it. We can only continue to put pressure on the best we can.

Mr Barnes

  27.  May I link in with a question which was raised by Mr Beggs where he was pointing out within different regions, maybe different communities, the bias in terms of employment which can be against people from those particular communities. An argument can sometimes be used that this is because of a skills shortage which exists within a particular area. You are proposing that there should be training which would be permitted, that could be directly targeted to Catholic or Protestant communities where there is perceived a skills imbalance which takes place. This, to some extent, links in with legislation that exists upon sex and race discrimination. There are, however, rather narrower definitions within the employment legislation than within overt equality provisions, in particular, in relation to existing employees. There might be some problems of a technical matter, dealing with existing situations. So do you feel that there might be some scope for arguing that the area should be extended as far as the possibility of training provision is concerned?
  (Mr Ingram)  If I have picked up the thrust of your question correctly, you rightly say that one of the changes here is the right to be religion-specific in terms of training. That is an important strand, I recognise that. I think that would help greatly if we get the training programmes correct, because then we will get the willingness to co-operate on those training programmes. We are left with the skills base accordingly in areas where there have been economic disadvantages and perhaps are determined for employers to locate in a particular area irrespective of what the religious group is, whether it is Catholic or Protestant. In terms of the retraining elements of it, it could well create a divide within the workplace if an employer was selecting people on a religious basis who were already in employment and upping their skills, which it could then be said would be seen to be to the detriment of the other group. We do realise the type of language and the type of division which still exists in Northern Ireland. So it is for that reason that it was felt not to be appropriate because it would be very specific to people who were in employment and, therefore, could create a division which would not be healthy.

  28.  But there could be a skills shortage which existed within the local population, as it were, which would be the majority population, but which was under-represented in terms of its ability to get promotion to advance itself within that particular area.
  (Mr Ingram)  Again, it is not my area, I do not have responsibility for this. It is one of my colleagues who currently has that responsibility and, again, it would be something which would devolve to the new Assembly. What we have to be trying to do overall is to improve the skill base irrespective of religious affiliation. This is what is the key to economic success in Northern Ireland. So it is not just in terms of fair employment. It is in terms of specific and proper targeted training schemes, which match the need of potential and existing employers. It is sometimes difficult to get that right because you do not know what the next generation of demand will be. It is important in this area. Let me give you a good example in Northern Ireland, where there is a tremendous shortage of gas fitters. Gas has now been introduced into Northern Ireland. The companies find it difficult to expand that network in one sense because there are insufficient gas fitters. People think you can simply train a gas fitter. Of course, you cannot. The regulations which apply to such skills is that people need to be, in the main, plumbers, to be qualified plumbers, before they can go to the next level of gas fitter. So it is not just a case of saying that if we need gas fitters we need plumbers because that is a three- or four-year process to go through. The demand is there. This is an example of proper understanding of the working environment with, hopefully, people trained to meet new needs. It did not happen so we have now got to be cleverer, better, sharper, in trying to achieve that for the future needs, whether it is the electronic sector, or whatever sector is the next area of potential growth in Northern Ireland. However, that does require a lot of joined-up thinking between Government departments and employers as well.

  29.  I want to move on generally to the harmonisation of the different Equality Commissions on race, equal opportunities, disability, fair employment, which has taken place. I realise some of these matters will go beyond your specific areas of involvement, but now that there is going to be an Equality Commission, is it envisaged that there is going to be a need to harmonise and draw together the different legislation in order to fit in together the operations of that Commission? If so, are you proposing to bring in draft legislation?
  (Mr Ingram)  It is slightly outside my remit. It is Paul Murphy, my colleague, who has this responsibility of taking forward the whole of this equality agenda but I think, on the question to which you are seeking an answer, my response to that would be yes, if it were still the Ministers who were driving this forward. I hope, yes, when the Assembly gets its hands on it, because it is sensible to try and ensure integration between various elements of the Equality Agenda. There should not be discontinuities and disparities and weaknesses within the legislation. Sometimes that is easier said than done, of course—trying to mesh diverse pieces of legislation—but the principle is one which hopefully (and I am sure will be the case) is for the new Assembly to take forward because probably all the parties in that Assembly will be committed to the idea of equality of opportunity. If not, then the old divisions will still remain and discrimination, with all its tragic consequences, will still be visited on Northern Ireland. However, hopefully, in a new climate, everyone will accept that equality agenda for what it is trying to achieve.

  30.  I do realise that all this is caught up in the Agreement and, therefore, as we move in this particular direction there is this overwhelming reason why these things have to be developed. But from your wider responsibilities, what would you feel are the advantages and disadvantages of moving into a larger Commission? There must be some areas in which the disability problems which exist work and, therefore, you have interconnections and links with that, but in other areas there may be difficulties.
  (Mr Ingram)  I think it is down to the quality of those who have been on that Commission. I know that there are opportunities in the Commission, although the disability groups feel they may be disadvantaged. Again, only time will tell. What we are seeking to do, through the single delivery agency, is to achieve some of the things which you referred to earlier about the co-ordination of strategies. Importantly, the single commission strategy also helps employers and it is a clean relationship with the employers because at the end of the day this is legislation which is visited upon employers to implement and the cleaner and the more efficient that system is, then it helps them to live within the framework of the legislation, remembering of course that many employers, a large number of employers, a substantial proportion of them, are small employers and what we have got to do is try and minimise the burden of government legislation upon them, so the one commission approach can help them. I do not believe, at the end of the day, that groups that serve on that Commission will automatically suffer from it. If they do, then they have shown in the past their effectiveness in taking arguments forward and demanding their place in the sun and it is up then to the Assembly again to have the responsibility to respond to that, so if the disability agenda has not been taken forward because somehow or other it is ranking lower than other areas of interest, then they have got to make their case, they have got to get people on-side and the legislation probably will be changed as a consequence of the strength of the case they advance. Personally I am comfortable with what has been done. I think it will prove effective for the reasons I have set out, but again, like everything else, only time will tell the effectiveness of that particular piece of legislation.

  31.  How are the interest groups in the area of employment, employers and trade unionists and others, sort of responding to your proposals now that the detail is there? Many of these bodies supported the Agreement, but then when it comes to the actual details of implementing the provisions in the Agreement, then people find difficulties about their own circumstances and their own conditions and they get worries around it. Are you finding that generally people are taking it on board because it is the Agreement and they sort of try to nibble at the edges, or are you getting any major response to say, "Hold on, we have made a mistake here"?
  (Mr Ingram)  I think it would be wrong for me to say that there is not some unease around and clearly there are groups that have expressed unease about going into a single agency and into a single Commission. Government has to govern and we have had to decide what is the best way forward and hopefully I have set out strong arguments as to why we have achieved that and why we do not believe that the fears which have been expressed will manifest themselves. While, at the early stage, if the single Commission approach is not successful because, let us say, disabled groups feel that they are just totally disadvantaged and they are not getting their arguments heard, then it is a case for those who have responsibility for that Commission, one, the Commission itself and, secondly, the new Assembly, and the residual responsibility of the UK Government, to ensure that no one is disadvantaged through this process. We have listened to the fears and we have taken them on board and we have tried to address them as best we can. The White Paper dealt extensively with all of those issues and we have moved forward for the reasons I have set out. I do not believe the fears which have been expressed will manifest themselves in the process of this new approach.

Mr McWalter

  32.  The other issue that we were particularly concerned about was the whole business of how you try to ensure that employers do actually promote clear equality of opportunity. Again the Standing Advisory Commission of Human Rights said that perhaps the Government really ought to develop a series of initiatives so that public contracts are awarded to companies which have proper anti-discrimination policies, practices and procedures and which promote a secure and safe working environment free from harassment. Now, that suggests that in issues like the placement of government contracts, there would be some sense in which those who were seen to be actively promoting fair employment would be given, as it were, a faster track than those that are not, so it is that general idea of having contract compliance. Now, the Government has not incorporated, I understand, in the Order any kind of emphasis on contract compliance and I think a large number of organisations are rather disappointed with that and I would be grateful if you could say whether you continue to refuse to countenance that and, if so, why.
  (Mr Ingram)  Well, we gave due consideration to the contract compliance area because it is one of those areas which is clearly subject to a lot of debate and consideration as to the effectiveness of such a system and people lobby very hard for contract compliance strategies. The Government's policy on this is that we do not believe that public sector, talking specifically of the public sector, procurement policies should be used as a means of achieving social policy objectives, but there are two other areas that were taken into account. One was to ensure that best value was achieved in any particular contract because it is taxpayers who have an interest in whether they achieve best value. The second area is to have put into the legislation the risk in our judgment of a challenge under the EU Regulations, European Union law, so we considered, one, do we do it, and whether it would be in conflict with their existing policies, but, secondly, whether it would achieve best value and, thirdly, by doing so, we could find ourselves at a risk of challenge in law and we cannot act where there is a possibility of a risk of a challenge in that way and that is on the best legal advice available to us, so those were the reasons that we did not accept, I think, recommendation 2(35) of the SACHR Report.

  33.  So you feel that, as a private individual, you can go and shop and purchase goods that have been produced under fair conditions and choose those goods rather than goods that have been produced as a result of sweat-shop conditions, but, as a Government Minister, you cannot do the same thing?
  (Mr Ingram)  An individual consumer, by making that choice, is making a personal choice not to have a best value approach because he may be buying something which is dearer and, therefore, they have that right to do so, but this is public money which is being spent and at the end of the day there is a fiduciary duty upon those who have a public responsibility for spending public money to achieve best value. Whilst we all seek to achieve proper ethical policies, and of course the Government is seeking to achieve that in the foreign affairs field, it is an area which we will clearly continue to seek to deliver on, but again these are not easy equations because the definition of where the ethics lie is different for different people. The other element of this of course is that the individual consumer is not bothered about EU Regulations, is not obliged when he goes into a shop to think, "Am I going to be sued or fined by virtue of the fact that I am making this judgment by not purchasing something from a country with a different line?" Governments have to take those factors into account and we live within that framework of law.

  34.  Chairman, I do think it is quite possible that the Government's best value legislation will actually recognise the environmental and human rights factors as up-front requirements and I do not accept that someone who buys a good which has been produced fairly and is somewhat more expensive is not getting best value if, by doing so, they are protecting a rainforest somewhere or stopping dolphins from being killed, and I hope that the Government will have that enlightened concept of best value and not the very limited concept of best value which corresponded to another regime which was effectively that it is only best value if it is the cheapest.
  (Mr Ingram)  I do not disagree with that——


  35.  I am not discouraging Mr McWalter from this somewhat partisan diversion, but do answer the question.
  (Mr Ingram)  Well, as I say, I do not disagree with that assertion. Clearly governments have the right to lay down, where it is not in conflict with international law, those things which they are seeking to achieve, but it was not felt on this occasion that by putting into the fair employment strategy contract compliance concepts which, it had been advised by SACHR, could have been achieved without risk of being in conflict with EU law, so that was an important element in this and we had to consider that. Best value is something which has to be taken into account in terms of the way it is defined at a point in time. If it is then so decided by a government to change the framework as to the nature of what we are trying to achieve through purchasing strategies and trying to engineer the social dimension, then that is a matter which governments will be considering all the time and under pressure from public demand as well, but the public do expect to see best value from public procurement strategies as well.

Mr McWalter

  36.  Could I, in conclusion, Chairman, just ask the Minister, first of all, if he might be prepared to reconsider this in the light of the best value legislation which is forthcoming and, secondly, if he will in any case revisit it before 2011?
  (Mr Ingram)  Well, that is predicated on the assumption that I will be making the decision in 2011, but I will make sure that my successor in 2011 is aware of the point. Seriously, we will of course take into account any change in Government policy, as we are obliged to do anyway, but this legislation then becomes the property of the Assembly and it is then for them to determine any subsequent modifications to that, although clearly the UK Government can encourage them by the standards that we set.


  37.  Minister, as will have been apparent, the affairs on the Floor of the House caused me to invite Mr Donaldson to ask you the initial questions and I find myself in the role of asking some sweep-up questions at the end. One follows immediately on in one respect the questions Mr McWalter has just asked and relates to compliance costs, and he was referring to contract compliance. I have to say that the explanatory document, which I think was published on the 24th November, reached the Committee in a formal sense this week. It was obviously possible under private enterprise for individual Members to have secured a copy for themselves, but, for the purposes of quality control, I just allude to that because the Clerk himself, I think, was not aware that the explanatory document existed until it reached us. In the explanatory document on page 15, you publish the one-off costs and recurring costs which are going to be incurred and if you take out the public sector administration costs, it looks as though there is the best part of £0.5 million which is going to be incurred on the private sector in additional expenditure in order to comply with the amendments to the existing legislation. Can you remind me, can you remind us of what the recurrent cost was previously to which this £0.5 million is being added?
  (Mr Ingram)  You have caught me offside a bit, Mr Chairman.

  38.  Perhaps the explanatory document was not available to you either!
  (Mr Ingram)  I am not owning up to anything, but I think the best thing is for us to come back to you on that and I apologise for the delay[10].

  39.  That is all right, it reached us. There was no great edge to my remark, but I was just reporting it.
  (Mr Ingram)  But we will give you a detailed response to that.

10   See Ev. p.20. Back

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