Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum from the CBI Northern Ireland


  The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee has agreed to examine the operation of the Fair Employment (Northern Ireland) Act 1989, with a view to reporting in time for the Act's tenth anniversary next year. The Committee has asked for the CBI Northern Ireland's views on the extent to which the Act has succeeded in it's objectives, the difficulties which have arisen in implementing its provisions and the need for any reform of the Act in the light of the experience of the past ten years. Views on the abolition of the Fair Employment Commission and it's replacement with the new Equality Commission have also been sought. The Committee will be taking oral evidence in November, but in the meantime have asked for a memorandum setting out CBI views on the matters within the scope of the enquiry to be submitted by 1 October.


  1.1 CBI Northern Ireland believes that the current fair employment legislation is working. It is comprehensive, fully implemented and vigorously enforced. We believe that there are encouraging signs that progress towards equality of opportunity and fair participation is being achieved. The Fair Employment Commision's (FEC) Annual Report for 1996-1997 states that Catholic employment in the sectors monitored since 1990 has shown an overall improvement of about 3.2 per cent. Since there has been an increase of about 2 per cent in the proportion of Catholics in the labour force during the same period, this means that the relative position of Catholics in employment has improved by approximately 1 per cent.


  2.1 There are costs associated with the implementation of the legislation, and it does impact on the flexibility of the labour market. However, the introduction of the 1989 Act led to a welcome improvement in many companies' recruitment and selection procedures, resulting in the best person being recruited or selected. This should have a significant positive impact on the long-term development of the local economy.

  2.2 In 1993, CBI Northern Ireland circulated a selection of 100 of its local member companies with a questionnaire on how the FEC was implementing the fair employment legislation.

  2.2 Some of the key points to emerge at that time included:

    (i)  Most employers' experience was that the FEC was unwilling to provide definitive written advice, or would only do so when pressed. Written advice given tended to be in the form of general guidance only. The conflicting role of the Commission in terms of giving advice and information on the one hand and supporting complaints on the other was identified as a problem.

    (ii)  Legal costs quoted for cases not pursued, either because the complainant dropped the complaint or, occasionally, the FEC withdrew, were substantial. A two-year time lag between the initiation of a complaint and it being heard by the Fair Employment Tribunal seemed to be the average.

    (iii)  The costs involved in the provision of information in relation to a complaint ranged from £300 to £500 up to £1,000 per complaint, because of the amount of staff time involved.

    (iv)  The section 31 review was by far the most costly and time-consuming exercise which had to be undertaken by all companies. Figures such as £7,500 and £10,000 each time the review had to be completed were quoted. Time spent ranged from three to four days to 14 man weeks for one of the larger companies. Total costs per year ranged from one week's salary for each staff member involved in monitoring for a smaller employer to £30,000 per annum, plus overheads, for one of the largest.

  2.3 CBI Northern Ireland, in conjunction with the Institute of Directors, the Construction Employers' Federation, the Engineering Employers' Federation, the NI Textiles and Apparel Association and the Software Industry Federation, commissioned Coopers & Lybrand to carry out a survey of the members of each organisation (allowing for overlapping membership covering at least 500 companies) during November 1995. The survey covered a number of issues relating to the fair employment legislation in general, and the operation of the Fair Employment Commission and the Fair Employment Tribunal in particular.

  Some key findings included:

    (i)  Companies were still experiencing difficulties in completing their section 31 review, and over half of those who responded had not received any formal comments from the FEC on it.

    (ii)  The FEC took more than a year to respond to some 40 per cent of the companies who did receive a reply to the section 31 review.

    (iii)  A majority of companies said that the introduction of the fair employment legislation had had an impact on their costs, with the extent of costs directly related to the size of the company.

  Apart from the surveys referred to above, another area of difficulty highlighted by members is when the FEC insist on a company advertising, even when it is reducing its numbers.


  3.1 As early as the 1993 survey referred to above, CBI Northern Ireland highlighted the need for the advice and information function and the handling of individual complaints to be properly separated, thus avoiding the conflict of interest between these different departments in the FEC. Preferably, the provision of information and advice should be handled by a separate body, with the Labour Relations Agency (LRA) having been suggested. However, the recommendation for a single Equality Commission (see below) will transform the current situation, hopefully for the better. CBI Northern Ireland recommended this in its initial submission to SACHR on the employment equality review. CBI also recommended at this stage an enhanced conciliation role for the LRA.

  In its recent response to the "Partnership for Equality" White Paper, CBI Northern Ireland proposed that the LRA should establish a structure for conciliation, if this is built in to procedures, while questioning the present ability and resources of the Agency to handle such work. However, CBI regards this as an important area in which progress needs to be seen, and urged the Government to ensure that some less burdensome procedures are developed as a matter of urgency, in the interests of both employers and employees. Nationally, CBI has supported the aims and objectives of the new Employment (Dispute Resolution) Act, which will provide increased arbitration and conciliation roles for ACAS, and could thus provide a useful model to follow.

  3.2 A further recommendation by CBI was that the FEC should have a set of performance standards to which it should adhere, and the continuing need for such standards cannot be over-emphasised, particularly in the light of such developments as the Citizens' Charter in recent years. These standards would set out realistic timetables in relation to the conduct of individual complaints of religious discrimination, section 11 investigations, etc. The FEC should have targets, expressed as percentages, which they should be making every effort to achieve, (eg, 95 per cent of written enquiries to be responded to within two weeks). There should also be guidelines available for employers in relation to the documentation which may be asked for as part of the disclosure procedure in individual complaints cases.

  3.3 SACHR's recommendation that there should be a Charter of Rights for Complainants and Employers, which was "commended" by the Government to the FEC in the Partnership for Equality White Paper, could address some of the posts made in 3.2 above. The White Paper also states that "This [Charter] could provide clarification of the Commission's dual role in enforcing the Fair Employment legislation and advising employers".


  4.1 CBI is on record as supporting the concept of a single organisation with responsibility for enforcing all employment equality legislation from the time of its response to the Employment Equality Review in 1996. In our response to the Partnership for Equality White Paper, CBI reiterated the need for a clear distinction between advice/education functions and the handling of complaints. The 1995 joint survey referred to above showed overwhelming support for the development of a single organisation which could handle all aspects of equality. CBI also considers that consolidation and clarification of all the relevant legislation should be the long-term goal, as without this, there could be some difficulties in relation to a single Commission. The aspiration should be that a single call from an employer, or indeed an employee, should be sufficient to get answers to all queries on sex, religion, disability, age etc. discrimination.

  4.2 The incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into UK domestic law may herald in a few years' time the need for a Human Rights Commission for Great Britain. CBI could envisage such an institution with an overarching human rights remit with specialist functions on race, gender and disability, with integration of related services and funding.

  4.3 It should also be remembered that the Amsterdam Treaty gives competence in the broad brush of equality issues, and it may well be that this will be tackled over time by a wide-ranging Directive covering all the issues e.g, race, disability, sexual orientation, political opinion. Such a development could only reinforce the need for the UK to have an equality institution functioning at the constitutional level to oversee human rights and equality laws.

  4.4 CBI Northern Ireland disagrees with SACHR and the Government in their view that there is no need for an Employment Appeals Tribunal (EAT) in Northern Ireland. Having an EAT would speed up the appeals process, while being cheaper for the employer and the claimant. The need for an EAT will become more pressing in the medium-term as further anti-discrimination legislation is introduced, along with the increasing complexities of the EU interpretation of Equal Treatment and related Directives, such as on part-time working, working time and contract work. There is also the possibility of all-embracing anti-discrimination measures emanating from the Amsterdam Treaty. CBI questions the legitimacy of Northern Ireland remaining excluded from an EAT process which is available in Scotland, Wales and England, which seems to go against the move towards a common system of labour legislation for the UK as a whole, and discriminates against employers in Northern Ireland. Finally, the Government's White Paper "Fairness at Work" proposes a number of measures which increase the requirement for an EAT, eg, new parental leave rights and the removal of limits on compensation for unfair dismissal. With respect to the latter, under the current system—Northern Ireland employers will be left with no system of appeal against the quantum of damages awarded, only an appeal on points of law, which surely cannot be equitable.


  5.1 CBI Northern Ireland believes that there is encouraging evidence that the legislation is helping to achieve equality of opportunity and fair participation. However, other important factors in accelerating fair participation include the rate of employment creation, improvement in qualification levels of Roman Catholics, tackling the skills gap, particularly in relation to the unemployed, efficient job search and the benefits barrier, all of which could be termed "supply side" measures, and cannot be dealt with by fair employment legislation.

28 September 1998

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries

© Parliamentary copyright 1999
Prepared 30 July 1999