Examination of Witnesses (Questions 50
WEDNESDAY 16 DECEMBER 1998
50. Mrs Stewart, you are extremely welcome.
It is unusual for us to bring matters forward by ten minutes,
but I think I had noticed you were already here and I imagine
it is possibly even more convenient for you for us to finish early
than to start early. I do not know if there is anything you wanted
to say to us before we start asking questions, but you would be
very welcome to do so, if you wished. This is an unusual occasion,
and it is, I think, partly a function of it being the last sitting
of the Committee before Christmas. I fear one or two of our number
are going to depart at a fairly early stage in the proceedings,
it is my job to make sure that we remain quorate. We will endeavour
to make sure that the questions follow a logical order, and the
questions may come from different corners of, different facets
of, the horseshoe. If there is anything, at a later date, that
you want to say, that you want to gloss, in terms of any answer
you have given, either orally or in writing, please do not hesitate
to do so, and, equally, we may have some questions after the event
which we have not had the opportunity of putting. I do not know
if there is anything you would like to say to us in advance?
(Mrs Stewart) No, I do not think so.
well in that case we will start with questions straightaway. Mr
McWalter will ask the first question.
51. Thank you very much, Chair, and hello,
it is nice to meet you. Can I begin by asking you about just the
general attitude, really, in the CBI to the fair employment legislation;
when you have a conference or meet with your friends, when the
expression "fair employment" comes up, do people just
go "Oh, gosh, that again", or is it an encumbrance,
or is it something to which you believe the CBI, as an organisation,
feel that there is a very positive sense that, by working with
the legislation, they are actually really improving the overall
economy of Northern Ireland?
(Mrs Stewart) We see the benefits of the legislation,
and I think we have made that quite clear in not only our memorandum
to this body but in responses over the last few years, of which
there have been several, given the rather protracted process that
we have gone through, in terms of the employment equality review.
I think it is fair to say that probably when the 1989 Act was
being introduced it was not welcomed with open arms in all quarters.
I think employers, once it became law, realised that they had
to comply with it, it was the law of the land, and actually now,
I think it is fair to say, many would see the positive benefits
of it, in terms of recruitment and selection, that it has enabled
them to carry out those processes in a much more objective and
standardised way, possibly, than they would have done before.
52. When you say "many", do you
mean the vast majority, the majority, a significant minority,
(Mrs Stewart) I cannot be that specific. In terms
of our own membership, I think we would be fairly representative
of the business community, when you take into account the trade
associations that we have in membership of CBI, which cover such
sectors as software, construction, textiles, and so on, all major
employment sectors. We are probably talking in the region of about
80,000 employees being covered by those associations, and indeed
the companies in direct membership; so that is a fairly large
proportion of the private sector in Northern Ireland.
53. And what information do you supply to
your members to try to get them to understand how they might best
comply with the legislation?
(Mrs Stewart) In the early years of the legislation,
we worked with the Fair Employment Commission quite extensively,
ran a number of fairly large seminars on issues, for example,
like how to complete the Section 31 review, which was seen as
quite a major task the first time employers had to do that, after
the first three years, and we had a large response to that. We
would generally involve a speaker from the FEC, probably at least
once a year, we have two employment affairs briefings in the course
of a year and we generally involve them, but we have ongoing contact
with the FEC, in terms of our day-to-day work.
54. And that happens about twice a year,
there are seminars/workshops?
(Mrs Stewart) Yes.
55. These are not entirely devoted to fair
employment, they are devoted to a range of employment issues of
which fair employment would be a part?
(Mrs Stewart) Yes, these would be devoted tofor
example, now, in recent years, the disability issue has become
quite alive, and then there have been a lot of European-inspired
Directives, and so on, so fair employment would be considered
along with a range of other topics. But what I would emphasise
is that, apart from that, within our own committee set-up in Northern
Ireland, we have an Employment Affairs Committee, which is a body
of about 15, who tend to be human resource specialists, and we
would have ongoing contact with the FEC through that committee
and we would be considering issues of fair employment, like, for
example, this memorandum to yourselves, through that process,
and, indeed, through our Regional Council, which meets four or
five times a year, as well.
56. So if someone wants advice, you would
not necessarily ask them to go to the FEC, you might well give
them advice yourselves on how best to manage a particular problem?
(Mrs Stewart) No. We have to be quite careful
about that. We are not really in the service provision business,
and we have no liability insurance in terms of giving specific
advice; we do offer general advice and we have a number of employment
law specialists in our London office, here, who are obviously
well aware of the fair employment legislation and how it fits
into the wider body. But I think we do tend to more signpost people,
to be honest, so we will be signposting them to the FEC, or, indeed,
the Labour Relations Agency, or, indeed, some of the other bodies,
57. Like whom?
(Mrs Stewart) Like the EOC, or the Commission
for Racial Equality in Northern Ireland, depending on the nature
of the query.
58. To summarise then, it might be possible,
might it, for there to go a full year in which these matters are
not explicitly addressed, because other employment issues will
be being dealt with by your conference and workshops, and the
contact in these matters, as a result, could be fairly intermittent?
(Mrs Stewart) I think it would be unusual for
there not to be contact even at officer level. I would be in contact
with the FEC probably several times during a year, maybe at the
level of the Chairman, the Chief Executive or down to specific
functional officers, depending on what the nature of the contact
was, obviously, or what was required.
59. And might it not be a good idea if you
were a bit more proactive about advisory services, because that
would make you be seen as being strongly supporting the fair employment
(Mrs Stewart) I take your point, but what I have
to emphasise is, it is a question of resourcesin CBI Belfast
office, there is the Director and myself and two support staffbesides
the question of the liability as well. We cannot really get down
into specifics of giving advice on issues. I think, in terms of
the proactive thing, we have, to be honest, over the last few
years, taken quite a high profile, in terms of, quite often, we
will initiate a contact with the FEC, in terms of running an event,
or whatever, or getting them to speak to some of our members.
Mr McWalter: Thank
you, Chair. Thank you, Mrs Stewart.