Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80 - 99)



  80.  They tend to last longer?
  (Mrs Stewart)  A lot longer, yes.

  81.  Why, in simple terms, is that?
  (Mrs Stewart)  I think, because they are fairly complex issues, and the evidence tends to have to be gone through in great detail, and because of the way the tribunal system works in that, and this is another issue; but the Chairman is obviously writing everything down, so, basically, the tribunal moves at the speed that the Chairman is writing.

  82.  You have got some slow Chairmen?
  (Mrs Stewart)  That is the speed that things tend to move at, so even to get through the evidence can take quite a long time.

  83.  Thank you. Moving on to the Fair Employment Commission, what are the employers' general impressions of their dealings with the Fair Employment Commission? I will break this down. What is the general sort of feel, from the employers' side, dealing with the Fair Employment Commission?
  (Mrs Stewart)  I think there has been a change, over the last few years, would be my impression, both from my earlier remarks, in terms of what is being seen as the key issue, when we go out and visit our members, but also in terms of how, and I would stress that the surveys that we referred to are 1993 and 1995, but in terms of, I think the Commission, it is fair to say, have made a big push, over the last few years, for example, to contact, for example, the SME sector, in terms of the things that they should be doing, in terms of the things like the Section 31 reviews, and, indeed, educating, if I can put it that way, and I know that they have had a fairly extensive seminar programme, and so on, for the SME sector. So I think while we would sometimes still hear certain criticisms of them, and I think the basic issue that we have already referred to, in terms of having the same body enforcing and giving advice and information, which is quite a fundamental issue, but I think that they would be seen as being a lot better, or a lot more perhaps professional in more recent years than perhaps they would have been seen in the early nineties, that would be the impression that I would have.

  84.  Would it be your impression, or based on evidence, that employers are inhibited from seeking advice, knowing that the Commission also pursues individual cases?
  (Mrs Stewart)  I think there is evidence. We have had specific evidence of this in the past, in relation to individual companies, which obviously I cannot disclose, but we know that this has happened.

  85.  Your membership, your members?
  (Mrs Stewart)  Yes, our members. And that, I think, is where the nub of the concern about having the same body, that is where some of that comes from, because I think the Commission would make the point, well there are Chinese walls, and so on, in terms of the way they organise themselves, but I think it would be seen as an inhibiting thing, in terms of even employers ringing up and asking for information, that would you ask a policeman if your tyres were bald, for example, things like that, as an example. So I think that there is a problem there, and that is why we had put forward the view that there is an argument for having a separate body giving advice and information; perhaps the Labour Relations Agency.

  86.  In terms of how significant inhibitions might be amongst your members, or generally, is it very significant, or is it just a kind of worry that people have at the back of their minds?
  (Mrs Stewart)  There is a difference between asking for general information, which I think employers are quite happy to do, and there is a lot of general information available in leaflet form, or whatever, from the Commission anyway, and they have made a big effort to produce more user-friendly information over the last few years. Where it gets down to specifics, and they are perhaps on the telephone and they are asked for their name and company, there is an inhibition there because if an individual complaint does arise, they know that in the FEC they are on file.

  87.  Forgive me, that did not answer my question. Is it very significant, not very significant?
  (Mrs Stewart)  Without having done the sort of scientific research, I just do not know.

  88.  What would your best guesstimate be; it is clearly a problem, or a perceived problem?
  (Mrs Stewart)  I would say it is still a fairly significant problem, fairly significant.

  89.  Are there any feelings amongst your membership, or a wider employer community, that the Commission is slow responding, say, to outturns of the monitoring exercises?
  (Mrs Stewart)  Again, I think that was something that came up in 1995, when we did the joint survey with the other organisations. I think that, in terms of the Section 31 reviews, particularly, the Commission was very well aware that there was a resource problem, in terms of how they handled that, but I understand their policy is now different, in terms of Section 31 reviews, and that they use them perhaps in a more strategic way, in terms of targeting employers, or whatever, rather than trying to respond to every employer, which I think, realistically, they accept they are not going to be able to do. So it is a question, I think, of their own internal priorities, if you like, in terms of responding to individual employers.

  90.  And is that a sensible way forward, in the sense that it really deals with the situation?
  (Mrs Stewart)  I suppose it is sensible, in the sense that when you have a finite resource you obviously have to use it in a strategic way, if I can put it that way.

  91.  But from the planning point of view?
  (Mrs Stewart)  I think, from our members' point of view, there was an expectation that when they had put a considerable amount of work in to carrying out these reviews, which they had, they expected they would get a formal response, or an acknowledgement rather, and then they actually expected some sort of more definitive response.

  92.  And is that expectation still there, realistically?
  (Mrs Stewart)  It is not something we are hearing a lot about, to be honest, I could not be any more precise than that, it is not an issue that has arisen. Of course, we are now at a stage where we are, what, everybody has done their review, or certainly the larger employers will be on to their third cycle review. It did not arise particularly as an issue, I think, when they were in their second cycle, because when we did the surveys most employers had really only gone through one review, and they were sort of in the process of looking at the second one. So, on the basis that we are not hearing much about it, I suspect it is probably not such an issue now.

Mr Barnes

  93.  Mrs Stewart, earlier you indicated that you had been doing your homework and you had been having a look at our evidence session with Mr Ingram. In that case, you may realise I am the person that asked the questions about the new Equality Commission, and, therefore, in order to be boringly consistent, I will raise the same topic. What structure does the CBI prefer for the new Equality Commission, I am thinking, in particular, does it want separate areas to be dealt with on race, gender, disability, employment, or would it believe that some sort of integrated system might work better?
  (Mrs Stewart)  We are on record as supporting a single institution, and have been for quite a number of years. I think, ideally what we would like would be a one-stop shop, whereby if an employer had a query that they could make one phone call and they would get an answer, no matter what the query related to, in terms of discrimination, or whatever. I think, realistically, we are some way away from that, because we really need to have a single body of legislation, which we are not going to have for a while, if ever. This was an issue that we have discussed; no very strong views came out. I think what we would not want would be too rigid a structure, whereby you could envisage the situation where, if an employer did ring up with, say, a query which impacted on, say, race and gender, for example, that you would have one very rigid directorate dealing with race, you would then be passed on to somebody else dealing with gender. One thing that I have heard mooted, and we have not, to be honest, considered it in detail, is that the new body could be divided by function, which might be quite a sensible way forward, that there would be one legal department, one advice department, one enforcement department, but I understand the working group is meeting and working on this at the moment. Obviously, we will have to see what comes out of that. It is quite difficult at the moment to be any more specific, because we are not being given much indication about the way the Government thinking is running on this.

  94.  Might employment be an area where there is almost greater cross-over with the other areas that are dealing with discrimination; so there are employment cases that affect disabled people, there are employment cases that affect gender, etc., and therefore it might be, from your perspective, more sensible to have these as a sort of one-stop shop, as you say, in order to deal with matters, even if you then divide according to function?
  (Mrs Stewart)  Yes. I think the employment one would be the one, certainly, just because of our legislation, or lack of legislation, that our members would have the most experience of, in terms of the anti-discrimination legislation. So that would appear to be sensible. But I think that, certainly from our discussions so far, as I said before, our aim would be that we could eventually be working towards a full one-stop shop, it just depends on how that can be achieved.

  95.  The example you gave, about the need for full integration, related to the sort of advisory function that you wanted to be able to ring up and therefore sort out a problem that might affect other aspects, apart from employment, but they impinged upon employment; but then there are enforcement functions, would the enforcement functions be likely, in your mind, maybe to be rather more separate, when you talked about legal and other areas, would not maybe enforcement fall into that pattern?
  (Mrs Stewart)  I think, following on from my earlier remarks, we would like to see them as separate as possible, because then, hopefully, we would not have the situations that we have seen in the past, whereby there has been a reluctance to ask for information and advice in specific cases, because of the fear that, if an individual complaint does arise, that is held against you, but your name is on file as having asked about a specific situation, which perhaps then materialises into a complaint. So, yes, we would like to see them as separate as possible, because this, I think, reflects our views, in terms of the enforcement and the advice and the information-giving functions.

  96.  In relation to the law, the fair employment legislation that the Commission would be dealing with, the CBI submission talks about consolidation and clarification of equality laws in Northern Ireland, would you see that equivalent as maybe being needed in terms of new race relations, new gender, new disability legislation, as well as in terms of fair employment?
  (Mrs Stewart)  In Northern Ireland, yes. I think that would be the ideal situation, if we could work towards that, but the question then is, what road do you go down, and which do you take as the model piece of legislation, and which do you model your single piece of legislation on, I think there are quite a lot of practical and legal issues there. But I think we have taken the view that, realistically, that probably will not happen for some time, although it would be something I think we would have an aspiration to see happening.

  97.  The trade unions seem to be indicating that they are beginning to be a bit worried about it all being sort of under one body that it was operating, that there is a distinction then with what is happening within the rest of the United Kingdom with legislation that is developing on disability, but now it has got itself subsumed in something that you cannot get out of, to some extent, because it is part of the Belfast Agreement, but are you making the best of a bad job, or are you fairly enthusiastic about these things coming together?
  (Mrs Stewart)  I know there are separate issues in relation to disability, and there has been quite a strong lobby for a separate Disability Commission for Northern Ireland, I am aware of that. It is not something I think we have had particularly strong feelings on, CBI, either way, but I think the concerns relate to the possibility of a hierarchy of discrimination, that maybe fair employment is seen as being more high profile, or whatever, than some of the other issues. I think that is where the concerns are, but I do not think they are particularly concerns that we have expressed.

  98.  My impression, in the House, listening to Northern Ireland Members, is that, across the board, there is a great deal of commitment about ending disability discrimination, which is not reflected across the board in the same way in terms of fair employment legislation. I was wondering what the feeling was amongst employers, because disability legislation produces what they often see as numbers of burdens, I was wondering whether that attitude was strong in the areas you move in, in Northern Ireland, in terms of the comparison with disability in employment?
  (Mrs Stewart)  I think it is fair to say that the whole area of disability is not one, up until fairly recently, that there has been a lot of discussion about in the business community. We are not hearing any very strong views either way, to be honest; obviously, we were aware, when we responded to the White Paper, and so on, this was an issue in terms of a separate Commission for Northern Ireland. We, I think, flagged up the fact that we were aware that there was a lobby for a separate Commission, but apart from that we did not say a lot more about it, because it was not something that we were getting a lot of feedback on, to be honest, from our members. So I do not think I can really say much more than that.

  99.  Would you feel, generally, that you have had to be reactive to a situation, that what has happened is that the arguments are in favour of a general Equality Commission, and types of overarching legislation, and your task really, I suppose, is to knuckle under and try to make it work within the employment area, or to try to iron out the bugs, in connection with it?
  (Mrs Stewart)  Yes, but we have been on record since 1995, I think, as being in favour of a single institution. I think, obviously, in 1995, we were in a different situation in Northern Ireland because this was long before the disability legislation that came into being, and even, indeed, before we had race relations legislation, so we were really talking at that time, I suppose, about fair employment and equal opportunities, chiefly.

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