Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum from the Northern Ireland Economic Council


  The Council is in receipt of your letter dated 31 July seeking the Council's views on the extent to which the Fair Employment (Northern Ireland) Act 1989 has succeeded in its 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. The abolition of the Fair Employment Commission and its replacement with new Equality Commission, foreshadowed in the Northern Ireland Bill which is before Parliament, will also be relevant.

  The Council is not in a position to comment on the success, difficulties and way forward for the Act, not having conducted research on these issues. However, we recently commented on the Government's Partnership for Equality White Paper, which touches some of the issues of concern to the Committee. A copy of the response is attached.

14 September 1998




  The Council is pleased to respond to the Government's proposals for promoting employment equality in Northern Ireland, set out in Partnership for Equality. Although this is a White Paper, it nevertheless contains elements of a Green Paper, since for a small number of issues "where the Government has not yet made a final decision, or where there are detailed matters to be decided, consequent on a decision in principle" (page 6) written comments are requested. However, since these are in areas where the Council has done little if any research, our comments on the White Paper are largely of a general nature.


  The Council welcomes the broad thrust of the Government's proposals for employment equality. We have consistently argued that policy should promote economic development rather than just economic growth. By this the Council means that the talents and aptitude of each member of the population should be given every chance to grow and be rewarded. Thus policy should be concerned not only with growth but also with reducing unemployment, eliminating educational underachievement, abolishing poverty and ensuring that income distribution does not become too unequal. In sum, policy should be concerned with reducing economic and social marginalisation for large parts of the population.

  To some extent, of course, these policy concerns are mutually reinforcing. Indeed, as the White Paper rightly points out, "Equality of opportunity is a fundamental human right which would also accelerate economic growth by maximising human potential. Furthermore, widespread confidence that the labour market operated fairly, with recruitment and promotion based on merit, would lead to greater social cohesiveness and better relations between different sections of the community." (paragraph 1.1.).

  Recent announcements by Government have seen a movement towards economic development as the objective of economic policy in the UK. The Council noted in its commentary on the 1997 UK Budget how employment growth has been added to GDP growth as a macro-economic goal. Our analysis of the impact of the 1997 and especially the 1998 UK Budgets demonstrates how income has been redistributed in Northern Ireland from richer to poorer households, a decisive break with the pattern of previous Budgets. However, Government has not neglected GDP growth, with the Chancellor and the President of the Board of Trade announcing in May 1998 that bridging Britain's productivity gap is the next big national challenge.

  The Government's proposals for employment equality fit well within this framework for economic development. The importance of equality of opportunity is quite rightly the centrepiece of the White Paper, although equality of opportunity will not of course secure equality of outcome, given the tremendous diversity of people along a whole series of variables. One of the strengths of the White Paper is the way it systematically deals with resolving unemployment through initiatives such as New Deal programmes designed to improve the life chances of pupils through improvements in the school system and the New TSN with its "emphasis on addressing problems of unemployment and employability" (paragraph 4.17).

  All these issues have been addressed in recent publications by the Council, not least in the work which we are doing on underachievement in schools. We welcome the research now being promoted by the Government into the selection system at age 11, to which reference is made in the White Paper. We were disappointed that no reference was made to the issue of underprovision of places for Higher Education in Northern Ireland which featured in the Dearing Report on Higher Education in the UK.


  Employment equality in terms of promoting equal opportunity into employment (and training and promotion) should apply to all in Northern Ireland. The White Paper refers to those categories already subject to legislative protection—religion, political opinion, gender, race, disability—as well as those additional groups covered by the Policy Appraisal and Fair Treatment (PAFT) guidelines—age, marital status, dependants and sexual orientation (paragraph 4.4). However, much of the discussion in the White Paper concentrates on securing equality of opportunity by religion. In the Council's view it is vital that the very necessary attention given to this important issue should not obscure the need for vigorous action on other important instances of group differences in the labour market, not least in respect of gender.


  Government has introduced the New Deal, an active labour market programme, as a way of reducing long-term unemployment throughout the UK. Northern Ireland, where this is much more of a problem, has been allocated a number of places for 18-24 year olds that reflects the extent of the problem regionally. Furthermore, this was substantially augmented by the Chancellor's announcement in May 1998 of up to 30,000 extra places in Northern Ireland for those long-term unemployed aged 25 years and above. When combined with an economy that will receive a considerable boost from the prospect of peace and political stability, this suggests that real reductions should take place in long-term unemployment in Northern Ireland in the near and medium term.

  While the White Paper concurs that unemployment will fall, it is also rightly concerned that the Catholic/Protestant unemployment ratio for men (2.2 in 1991) and women (1.8)—particularly for those unemployed for more than a year, two thirds of whom are Catholics—should be reduced. Indeed, the White Paper specifically asks for benchmarks and benchmark measures for the reduction of the differential (paragraph 2.22). The Council in its report on resolving long-term unemployment of June 1997 put forward a series of measures that should be considered in meeting this objective. These measures included not only New Deal type programmes but also reforms to the housing market, the educational systems, public transport and the delivery of the job-search functions of the T&EA and Social Security Agency.

  Based on existing information and ideas, the Council believes that it is important to move actively on measures designed to lower unemployment, particularly long-term unemployment, and to promote equality of opportunity as proposed in the White Paper. However, further research should be undertaken, perhaps by persons skilled in analysing black/white unemployment differentials in the UK, US and elsewhere, to give a better understanding of the dynamics of the labour market and, thus, the reasons for the unemployment differential, leading perhaps to the identification of further initiatives. Paragraph 2.21 recognises the difficulties but even it may be too sanguine about the ability of the proposed policies to erode the differential.

  The White Paper was obviously proposed prior to the Good Friday Agreement. The Government will no doubt be considering what adjustments are needed in order to give full effect to that Agreement.

18 June 1998

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