Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 50 - 59)




  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.

Chairman:  Alright; well in that case we will start with questions straightaway. Mr McWalter will ask the first question.

Mr McWalter

  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, a handful?
  (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 to—for 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, as appropriate.

  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 legislation?
  (Mrs Stewart)  I take your point, but what I have to emphasise is, it is a question of resources—in CBI Belfast office, there is the Director and myself and two support staff—besides 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.

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