Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum from the Institute of Directors (Northern Ireland Division)

INTRODUCTION

  1. The Institute endorses fully the principles of equality of opportunity in all aspects of employment and public life in general.

  2. It also accepts in principle that it is necessary to ensure, and to demonstrate, that the economic and social benefits of living in Northern Ireland are fairly distributed on the basis of merit and that disadvantage does not bear disproportionately on one section of the community more than another.

  3. In particular the Institute accepts in principle that no one should be disadvantaged in the pursuit of employment, job training or career progression on account of their religious beliefs or political opinions.

THE FAIR EMPLOYMENT LEGISLATION

  4. The Institute, therefore, supports the fair employment legislation, including monitoring and the inherent concept of "affirmative action"; encouraging its members to do so and to observe the requirements of the legislation and to follow the guidelines on employment practice which have been produced under the Acts. The Institute welcomes such progress in ensuring fair outcomes as the legislation has evidently brought about.

  5. Nonetheless the operation of the legislation has been burdensome to employers and is anomalous in a number of respects. For example:

    (a)  The interpretation of the legislation, in broad and somewhat flexible terms, has brought about effects, and brought within its scope areas of activity, which we suspect were not envisaged when the legislation was enacted.

    (b)  An apparently tolerant approach by industrial tribunals and the courts has encouraged excessive litigation and a tendency to use the legislation to pursue grievances which have little or nothing to do with the purposes it was designed to serve.

    (c)  Partly for that reason Industrial Tribunals have been heavily overloaded. There have often been long backlogs of cases and extensive delays. Thus complaints are not dealt with expeditiously as was originally intended and grievances are left unresolved, continuing to fester in the workplace.

    (d)  What was intended to be a system through which redress could be secured through a relatively straight forward process comprehensible to and usable by the layman has become a "legal mine-field" requiring the employment of lawyers. Process is not only time consuming but expensive.

    (c)  Employers have little effective means through which they can recover the costs (in time and money) of complaints not seriously founded on the legislation.

    (f)  The requirements of the employment guidelines (e.g., the implied discouragement of "head hunting" and "cold calling"), restrict, to a degree, employers' ability to meet their labour demands efficiently effectively and quickly. They can also impede people taking the initiative to find work or better jobs.

    (g)  For some employers, monitoring and the publication of results can be intimidating and conducive not so much to affirmative action as to reverse discrimination. The line between the latter two concepts is a thin one and the difference is not always clearly understood.

    (h)  From an employer's point of view, the role of the Fair Employment Commission seems to concentrate on policing legislation rather than providing support, encouragement and advice to companies. For this reason, the Commission is often regarded with trepidation rather than as an ally in creating a more efficient organisation with transparent equality of opportunity.

    (i)  The potential for the FEC to take on an arbitration and negotiation role has not been exploited. The Institute would recommend that greater emphasis is placed on this role. This type of approach has been successful in creating more harmony in the workplace in respect of industrial relations.

    (j)  Frivolous cases are often taken because claims are supported by the agencies. Such actions should be deterred by ensuring that the risk is placed on the claimant and not the public purse.

ENCOURAGEMENT FOR BUSINESS

  6. Up to a point we would agree that such difficulties must be accepted as the inevitable consequence of a determined approach to fair employment and as part of the price of social progress and of the political stability on which employers depend.

  7. We fear however that the difficulties will be increased in consequence of the strong focus (e.g., through the recent White Paper) which now exists on equality of opportunity in an ever widening field and on Human Rights in general. It is difficult for employees to make their case at times when they risk being seen as not "politically correct".

  8. However, if real progress is to be made in Northern Ireland, adequate regard must also be given to allowing employers to run competitive wealth-creating businesses which can sustain the local economy, rather than creating administrative and regulatory burdens which impede such activity.

  9. We hope therefore that any review of the legislation will take our concerns into account and that a serious effort will be made to reduce, if not to eliminate, the kinds of anomalies to which we have referred, whilst in no way limiting the effectiveness of the legislation in achieving the objectives at which it is aimed.

NEW EQUALITY COMMISSION

  10. The Institute has long supported the concept of a "one-stop shop" for advice, information and support in relation to providing an equal opportunity workplace. The amalgamation of fair employment, equal opportunities, race relations and disability agencies into one body is therefore welcomed.

  11. Members would, however, wish to see the legislation governing all four agencies redrafted to draw together common aspects of the relevant regulations, whilst clearly identifying where there are differences.

  12. Monitoring and reporting paperwork should be reduced as a result of the amalgamation, so that companies can produce one set of data for the new Equality Commission, thus lessening the administrative burden on business, particularly for the smaller organisation for whom the process is cumbersome and expensive.

  13. The advisory/negotiation role of the Commission should be emphasised over the policing/monitoring role. Ideally the two roles would be separate, perhaps with the Labour Relations Agency being given a role in the process.

CONCLUSION

  14. The Institute supports the objective of the equality legislation to produce a workplace where recruitment and progression is based on merit. In achieving this objective, the ability of business to create the wealth on which this community survives should not be constrained by overly burdensome regulation.

4 November 1998


 
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