Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 459 - 479)




  459.  Let me issue a very warm welcome to you from the Chair. Thank you for the submission you made to us in the fairly early stages of what we are about. We will seek to make our questions follow a logical order, but I cannot predict that the order round the table will necessarily be logical, as we may dot around a bit. If at any stage you want to gloss an answer you have already given, either orally on the spot or in writing afterwards, please do not hesitate to do so. We will leave you to decide between yourselves who is going to answer what, but I will make the observation that we will not feel that your evidence is inadequate if all three of you do not answer every question, so we will leave it to you to decide who is going to answer what. We, in turn, will feel at liberty to put in our written questions of a supplementary nature if, after the event, we discover that there is something which we have failed to ask which we wanted or needed to. I do not know if there is anything you would like to say of an introductory nature before we begin our questions.
  (Mr McCusker)  May I say, Chairperson, that we very much appreciate the welcome you have given us and the opportunity to be here. We would like to say a few introductory remarks.

  460.  We would be delighted to hear them.
  (Mr McCusker)  The first point we would want to make is that the key to this whole area is the statement which was in the Government's White Paper, Partnership for Equality, that what we need are more jobs, more fairly shared. That is a key requirement for achieving more progress on this. However, having said that, the view of Congress is that the 1989 Act has been largely successful. Now, while the overall position looks satisfactory, I think there are pockets of problems in particular occupations and I think there are problems also of segregated workforces which have to be dealt with. Our view is that the priority now is not so much on those who are active in the labour market but those who are not active in the labour market and not connected with it. We are thinking here not just about the long-term unemployed, but women returners and also the increasing proportion of people that we have in Northern Ireland who are drawing Social Security benefits on a long-term basis. Those people are not connected with the labour market. We think that is an area which needs attention. We are a bit concerned that the last White Paper from the present Government concentrated on the religious aspect and did not have a comprehensive analysis of the other dimensions: sex, disability and race. It then drew conclusions based on what we felt was not an entirely rigorous analysis of the situation. Because we think the priority lies in those not active in the labour market, we have attached considerable importance to Targeting Social Need and Policy Appraisal and Fair Treatment. As far as we were concerned, Policy Appraisal and Fair Treatment was not working. Therefore, we advocated that it should be put on a statutory basis, which the present Government have accepted, but how this is going to work out in practice is unclear. Our concentration recently has been to argue that PAFT and TSN means that the focus is on the role of public services and the contribution they can make. There have been a number of disappointments, particularly the Industrial Development Board. In one of the earlier annual reports on Policy Appraisal and Fair Treatment, there was no contribution whatsoever from the Industrial Development Board, yet this is the primary organisation in our society trying to create more jobs in manufacturing, and tradeable services. We think that the IDB should be more active in setting targets for firms which are receiving public money, and monitoring whether those targets are achieved. There are also other areas which do give us cause for concern. As you are probably aware, the Department of the Environment has, at the moment, a document, Shaping the Future. One of the central elements is that there should be nine key centres in which, certainly from a physical planning point of view, growth should be concentrated, but there is a DED document which suggests that they are going to piggy-back on that. As far as we can see, there has been no analysis, on either the Targeting Social Need or on a PAFT basis, of that particular proposal. These are some of the things which worry us and do illustrate the need to have this statutory equality requirement on Government Departments and other public bodies. Just one or two other comments, if I may. One of our other disappointments about the 1989 Act has been contract compliance, which has been virtually a dead-letter. We criticised the provisions in the 1989 Act on contract compliance. The hurdles that are in the way of contract compliance make the Grand National look like a doddle. The amount of time and effort which have to be put into this, effectively to prosecute someone under that, does not seem to be worth the candle. One of the things we want to look at is whether, in fact, the contract compliance should be more linked with the section 31 reviews which are, as you know, to decide whether there is fair participation and consequently on affirmative action. Section 31 is a bit peculiar because when you read the Act all it says is that employers should do this, full stop. There is no statutory obligation on the employer to provide these on the Fair Employment Commission, although that is what most of them normally do. There is no obligation on the Fair Employment Commission to do anything about it. We think that is an area which has remained undeveloped. We also have a bit of a bone of contention in that we think trade unions should be consulted on section 31 reviews. The Government has recently turned us down on that one. I would also like to make some comments on the Equality Commission. Congress has severe reservations about this because it was based on what we felt was an inadequate analysis of what was needed on the other dimensions of equality other than the religious one. Secondly, we feel that an Equality Commission could only work effectively if the corpus of legislation was reasonably uniform between the main dimensions of equality. Finally, we were concerned that you could not give an Equality Commission the extra responsibilities without giving them extra resources. That was certainly not evident from the White Paper. We are particularly concerned that, while the Government in Britain had promised extra resources for the disability dimension, there was no indication that this was going to be read across into Northern Ireland. Those are a few remarks which we hope you will find useful.

  461.  Thank you very much indeed. On contract compliance, one of my colleagues will come back and ask some supplementary questions in due course. Before we get down to what is wrong with the present situation and what we need to achieve in the future, could you give us your reading of what progress you think has, in fact, been achieved since the legislation. In other words, so that we can have a clear idea of what you approve of in terms of where we are now.
  (Mr McCusker)  The evidence from the monitoring returns of the Fair Employment Commission shows that, on an overall basis, the proportions of Catholics and Protestants in employment is approximating to those who are in the working population at large. We are getting closer to that. I think that has been brought about in a large measure by the 1989 Act.

  462.  Thank you. I am not going to ask you what you think are the major continuing problems because I think you have, to some extent, covered those in your introductory remarks. Is there anything you want to add in terms of what might be described as major continuing problems?
  (Mr McCusker)  The two aspects of this are occupational segregation, which is there still in a fairly large measure. There are certain occupations which are predominantly Protestant and there are certain occupations which are predominantly Catholic. I do not think that is healthy for society: occupations which are dominated by one or the other. Similarly, we have a situation in which there are some workforces which are predominantly one or the other. I think again that is unhealthy. It is a problem, as far as we can see from the fair employment statistics, that we do not seem to be making much progress on. This is a problem, but the monitoring statistics do not really come into this. This is where section 31 should get more at this sort of problem: why I think that possibly section 31 reviews should become more important in the future, given that we have a monitoring system up and running.

  463.  Would you like to give us perhaps two or three examples of occupational segregation on either side of the community, and indeed expand a little on what you said about workforces.
  (Mr McCusker)  Occupational segregation. Engineering and craft trades have been predominantly Protestant but there are some changes and moves in the right direction on that one. Then, on the other side of it, you find construction trades tend to be disproportionately Catholic. This is not something which we think is necessarily healthy. In the white collar areas, the segregation has been breaking down a bit. Lawyers, for example, have been disproportionately Catholic, but other occupations, certainly in the past, mechanical and electrical engineering, has been predominantly Protestant. Those are examples off the top of my head of occupational or workforce segregation. It is difficult to single out particular areas because you may feel that you are criticising particular areas but there is always some cross-over. If you are predominantly in the engineering trade, your workforce is likely to be predominantly Protestant, although there are exceptions to that. Similarly, if you are an employer in the construction trade, your workforce is likely to be predominantly Catholic. I would hesitate to name particular firms but you can see them in the FEC's monitoring returns, where only 10 per cent of the workforce is either Catholic or Protestant. That is a situation which I do not think is particularly healthy, particularly if they are in an area where the labour market on which they are drawing is not so unbalanced.

  464.  My next question—I could equally well have asked it right at the end but I will ask it at the beginning—what criteria do you think our Committee should use for determining whether or not the legislation has been effective?
  (Mr McCusker)  I would think that if you looked at the working population as a whole, including those who are in employment and those who are not connected with the employment market, and took a view as to whether the proportions are reasonable or not, my view is that they are not, but I do not think this is so much the fault of the Act. The Act focuses on the employment situation. Our problem is of people who are not connected with the employment situation. This is where the role of the TSN, which is about the provision of public services, is more important and is not really catered for in the 1989 Act although, to some extent, this is now covered by the Northern Ireland Act and subsequent Order.
  (Mr Adair)  May I make a point on one of the things you say, as to how you should evaluate this. If you look at the meanings of the fair employment legislation, one of them was to create a society which in terms of employment would reflect both communities. I think that if you look at that, then there has been an increase in the proportion of the population who are in jobs, and that would be a way of how to measure whether or not the fair employment legislation has been successful.

Mr McCabe

  465.  The questions I want to ask follow quite logically from Mr Adair's comments. I want to ask a few questions about the unemployment differential. You made various references to it in your submission last year. I wondered if, in terms of a general question, I could simply ask you what is the significance of the unemployment differential in terms of the fair employment debate?
  (Mr McCusker)  You can look at it on a statistical basis and then look at it on a political level. On a statistical basis, it would need major changes in those in employment, effectively to give a major change in the unemployment differential. However, at the same time, it is a sort of litmus test of the success of Government as a whole and not just a particular piece of legislation as to whether it is effectively making inroads into this particular problem. It is an illustration of the fact that the deprivation in Northern Ireland is unequally shared. There are large pockets or parts of this Province where the Protestant community predominantly has suffered from long-term unemployment. We feel that it is a particular problem which has to be dealt with for both communities, and until we make significant inroads into that whole problem, including the differential, then the judgment is likely to be that Government is not being successful in tackling the overall problem.

  466.  Thank you. We took evidence earlier from Mr Nesbitt who argued quite strongly that because of changes in the birth rate between the two communities, that the unemployment differential was a moving target and, therefore, it was not worth wasting energy on. That roughly is what he was telling us. I wondered whether you had any reaction to what he was saying.
  (Mr McCusker)  We could indulge in a large argument about the statistics. From our point of view, the fact is that it is a political reality, that the differential in unemployment will be a measure of the success or failure of Government in this area. I accept that there are factors which are outside the control of Government, which will have an influence on rates of unemployment and possibly the differential between the two. What is remarkable is that when you do look at the statistics, to see how durable the differential has been. You may try to defend it in all sorts of statistical ways, but it is a fact that it is there and cannot be denied. It is going to be a measure or criterion which people are going to use to judge whether the whole policy has been successful or not.

  467.  From your perspective, what do you think should be done about the unemployment differential?
  (Mr McCusker)  This is where we would argue that the policies of Targeting Social Need and what has been in the PAFT, the Policy Appraisal and Fair Treatment, come into play. I did mention that we have been disappointed at what appears to us a lack of participation on the part of the Industrial Development Board. For example, we would argue that the Industrial Development Board, if they are giving large public funds to a company, should try and persuade that company—and I think they were successful in one particular case—to take a proportion of their people from the long-term unemployed and they should also then monitor whether or not, in fact, that company has been successful. What the IDB tend to say to you is, "We have plants adjacent to TSN areas." But when we ask them if they are adjacent to TSN areas, that does mean that they are drawing their labour from the TSN areas. "Can you prove it?" They say they cannot. We say, "Do you make any attempt to monitor the situation, collect the information?" I think, quite frankly, that this has been a bit of a bone of contention between us and them because they tend to say, "This is not really our function." This gets to the heart of the thing. We say that there is an obligation on all public bodies at least to ensure that what they are doing is not exacerbating the situation and, if possible, is helping to improve the situation. So those are the areas. I mentioned public transport, for example. One of the projects that the IDB was after some time ago was the South Korean project, to put on the outskirts of Belfast, with no public transport to it. Now, there are questions there: should it go there? If it should go there, should there be a duty on all parts of the Government machine to ensure public transport will be available, or should it be put in an area where there is already public transport? It is back into Shaping the Future. The message we seem to be getting is that we should be going for brownfield sites where there is a developed infrastructure rather than greenfield sites. All of these start interconnecting. It gets back to Mr Blair's phrase of joined-up Government which we do not see much evidence of.

  468.  On your last point, would it be fair to conclude that, although you have talked specifically about the IDB and some of the shortcomings there, you are also looking for more effort from Government on the kind of examples you have just quoted.
  (Mr McCusker)  What we would hope is that a new statutory duty would mean that there would be a concerted effort across all Government Departments and other public bodies. There are other big spenders out there too: the Education Boards and the Health and Social Services Boards. We should have some sort of concerted effort to make sure that what we are doing, as I say, does not exacerbate the problem and hopefully helps to resolve it. Obviously, in this situation, if you have the agencies whose primary responsibility is to try and create additional employment, like the IDB, it is in a leading role but that does not mean to say that everybody can sit back and leave it all to them.

  469.  Thank you. That is very helpful. One obvious Government initiative is the New Deal. I wondered if you could comment at all on the operation of the New Deal and how, if at all, it is impacting on the unemployment differential.
  (Mr McCusker)  I should perhaps disclose that I am a member of the New Deal Task Force for Northern Ireland. In a sense, for the New Deal, the jury is out. The 18 to 24-year-old programme was launched in April last year. The 25-plus programme, which is really the area that is most relevant to this discussion, was only launched in the autumn, and the latest figures I saw showed that only 200 or so were on it. It is very difficult to make a judgment as to where it is going to impact. It has obviously a lot of political clout behind it. It has money behind it, which other schemes have not had. It has a lot of goodwill behind it right across all sectors, so one hopes at the end of the day that it will be successful. In our view, those schemes which are most successful, having looked at experience internationally, are those which connect with employment and are not purely training schemes. There has been a scheme run with some Peace and Reconciliation money in Northern Ireland on a limited basis, called "Bridge to Employment", run by the Training and Employment Agency, which seems to have been quite successful. In this scheme, if you have a company which is new or expanding, you invite the long-term unemployed, particularly in the locality, to go through a special training process prior to being then considered for employment in the firm. In some cases they have had 80 or 90 per cent of the people going through getting jobs. There have been a number of our inward investors involved in that. We would like to see more of that. Certainly in the 18 to 24-year-old part of the New Deal, it was very highly prescribed from Westminster, and there did not seem to be the flexibility to bring those sorts of things into it. The 25-plus does give you that scope. It will be interesting to see whether that develops because, at the end of the day, if more people move into employment that is the greatest measure of success.

Mr McCabe:  Thank you very much.

Mr Salter

  470.  Good afternoon, gentlemen. I want to explore two areas with you, both of which you referred to in your submission to the Standing Advisory Committee on Human Rights in context with their Employment and Equality Review, that is, Affirmative Action and Contract Compliance. It is page 2.122 and the subsequent page. First of all, a couple of general points. How far do you consider that the new Order implements an appropriate approach to affirmative action? I take it from your comments that it should have gone further, but can you expand on that particular point to begin with.
  (Mr McCusker)  One of the problems we see is the question of giving preference to the long-term unemployed. Take an example. If you advertise for a job, you get quite a considerable response and among those responses—we have had this experience ourselves as employers, where I remember on one occasion we had 300 for a comparatively low paid job—you had a range of people who had taken early retirement from major private companies and public sector organisations; and then you had young people with very limited experience; a question arises in that situation: what is the fair thing to do? One presumes that the older person who has taken early retirement has a pension, maybe has a grown-up family; but, on the other hand, the young person is starting out on their career or is in the early stages of their career, and possibly has a young family or maybe a family on the way. What is the fair thing to do in that situation? Should you be able to give preference to the long-term unemployed? Our view is that you should in those situations. To some extent the Government has moved a bit in that direction but I do not think it has moved sufficiently far. This is an illustration of the area that we were concerned about. Certainly the present legislation does not allow you to do that. If you want to be tribunal-proof you go for the person with the experience because you see yourself at a tribunal.

  471.  Let us build on that argument and refer back to the evidence we got from the Institute of Directors yesterday, which will be in the public domain. Basically, from what you were saying, Jim, if you go for experience, if you go for merit, then you are going to be fairly bomb-proof. Would that summarise what you are saying when it comes to defending your position at a tribunal?
  (Mr McCusker)  We are not going for merit, whatever that means. One could write books on what is merit! What we are saying is that the tendency is to go for experience on the basis that you feel that you would be better able to defend yourself if there were tribunal proceedings.

  472.  I do not want to get into a distinction between merit and experience and best person for the job. We know what we are talking about. This is not a trick question. Does not this argument stack up that to go for the person who would help you fulfil the needs of the organisation, who may be the most experienced and the best person for the job or whatever, is it not also fulfilling the needs of the organisation to ensure a balanced workforce? Can you not argue that case strongly, or does the law not allow you to argue that case strongly at the moment?
  (Mr McCusker)  A balanced workforce. If you have you an imbalance in your workforce—presumably you are talking on the religious dimension?

  473.  Yes.
  (Mr McCusker)  My understanding of the law is that, at the moment, it does not allow you to say that it is because you have an imbalance that you can go for a person who is in an under-represented section of the workforce. I am not sure that we go so far as to say that the law should be amended to allow you to do that. There is a problem in our society with long-term unemployment and people who have not been connected with the labour force for a long time. However, we feel that there should be a social obligation on us to give preference to those people in that situation where all things are equal.

  474.  May I interrupt you. That would be irrespective of religious background?
  (Mr McCusker)  Yes.

  475.  Thank you. Moving on, I share the class analysis rather than the religious analysis when it comes to dealing with unemployment. Is there not a genuine problem with affirmative action, as we would define it, certainly in terms of trying to address religious balances? I would suggest three specific areas. One, what about those workers who choose, (in my view, maybe quite sensibly), not to align themselves with any priest of any religion? Secondly, in terms of entrenching the sectarianism, which is endemic in your society. Thirdly, the danger of triggering backlash.
  (Mr McCusker)  The reality in Northern Ireland is that whether you profess to be an adherent to any particular religion or not, you will be classified. You can be perceived as someone famously said one day as a "Protestant atheist" or a "Catholic atheist". That is a reality in Northern Ireland as it exists at the moment. If we developed to a society where people are not perceived in that way—hopefully, we might move to that society—a lot of this stuff would become redundant. The reality in Northern Ireland today is that you will be perceived as one or the other, even though you may say you forsake all religion and all the rest of it. That also possibly answers the other part, that unfortunately in our society there is division. It is there. I do not think that one is adding to it by monitoring the fact that it is there. In some ways it is more open now. Years ago, nobody would talk about these sorts of things. We are now prepared to talk about them and recognise they are there. It has been brought out into the open and this is promoting a more healthy debate. This will lead, in the longer term, to a situation in which this is no longer a factor in society, what you are perceived to be.
  (Mr Adair)  Could I also say in response to this, if you are a declining economy, which we have been for some particular time, and you do not take moves to bring the long-term into work, then you will never get them into work. All you will be doing is regurgitating the people who are in work—moving from this factory to that factory to the other factory. You are going to have to make moves to give the long-term unemployed the chance to get them into employment.

  476.  That is very helpful to read into the record because we are fast approaching the conclusion that you cannot address the balance in terms of declining workforce. May I move on to contract compliance. You talked earlier, Jim, that there were more hurdles than in the Grand National put in the way of effective contract compliance. How practical do you think it is to make the linkage between the awarding of contracts in public service, in particular, and a specific performance requirement for those organisations?
  (Mr McCusker)  I do not think it is easy, but some other jurisdictions who have been able to do it. To some extent there was some evidence of unofficial practice of it in Britain, in relation to race, some years ago. It seems to have had some effect there. The difficulty, at the moment, is that you have to have committed a really serious offence and been found at fault by the Fair Employment Commission, having gone through a whole rigorous procedure with many opportunities for appeal, before you would be disqualified. It is very negative in nature. One of the things, which certainly I have been worrying about, is whether it should not be more connected with the section 31 review, which is really about your participation but, more importantly, whether you are doing anything (or can do anything) about the unfair participation that is present. This may be a better basis on which to consider whether firms should be allowed to compete for Government contracts, be awarded government grants, etcetera.

  477.  It would certainly, would it not, seem somewhat strange for a Government to have on a statute book fair employment legislation—possibly some of the most effective legislation in Europe—and then be handing out large amounts of Government cash to organisations which did not embrace the spirit of that legislation, in the way that they acted and in the way they treated their potential employees.
  (Mr McCusker)  Yes, that has been our point, but Government seem to be very reluctant to penalise companies. They are reluctant to exercise the powers that are in their hands. It is not one that we have successfully argued with Governments in the past. I think probably we are the voice in society which has argued strongly for it, other than possibly the equality commissions. The employers are obviously not keen on it. Governments are not keen on it. We, and the equality bodies and various groups that are keen on it, are not the dominant economic forces in society.

  478.  You are not entirely without friends in this room. Moving on, the Minister of State, Mr Ingram, gave evidence to this Committee some time ago that European Community law poses a problem for us in respect of the introduction of contract compliance. You make no reference to that in your paper, and certainly other witnesses have questioned as to whether or not there really is any blockage created by current European law. Have you any view on that situation or any experience of it?
  (Mr McCusker)  Frankly, we do not have much experience of it. We have heard the argument but I must say we have not found it to be convincing. Our impression is that it is used by civil servants as an argument for not doing more in this area. I am not an expert on international law but one of the things that certainly we are keeping an eye on is that under the Amsterdam Treaty there is now a clause in the Treaty which extends the discrimination to areas like religion and race. We, as a trade union movement, are advocating that this be activated by having European Union Directives on discrimination in religion, race, etcetera. Whatever the arguments have been in the past—and certainly if we are successful in arguing for a Directive on discrimination—it should take precedence over any inconsistency or conflict in all other Directives on public procurement. We would be hopeful that if there is an argument there, the new provision in the Amsterdam Treaty would enable us to overcome that.

  479.  If you were minded to provide us with any supplementary evidence it might certainly help our deliberations if you were to have some from your trade union discussions in Europe. We will have an opportunity to discuss this further over a session (hopefully) with the Secretary of State. Certainly I think this is an area we need to probe. One last point. In your paper to SACHR you talked in terms of the value of establishing a Public Service Commission. You go on to say: "[to] replace the largely ineffective Staff Commissions in Local Government, Health and Education . . ." " . . . implementation of equality of opportunity programmes . . ." and taking over personnel functions. Given that this is set within the paragraph on contract compliance, presumably you would see the establishment of a Public Service Commission as being a useful tool to turn contract compliance from a theory into a reality, or am I reading too much into that?
  (Mr McCusker)  One of our concerns was about the sanctions which could be exercised on public bodies which were not complying with the legislation. The ultimate sanction in the 1989 Act is that the public body is the subject of a formal report to Parliament. We would not wish to be disrespectful of Parliament, but we did not think it was a terribly effective sanction on a public body. The arguments we have had in the past are that if, in fact, a public body was blatantly doing things which were contrary to the letter and the spirit of fair employment legislation, that a Public Service Commission should be able to come in and take over their functions. We have precedents on this in Northern Ireland because, in the wake of the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, a number of district councils refused to strike rates and a Commissioner was put in to strike rates on their behalf.

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