Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 480 - 496)



  480.  When you say "strike rates", you mean to set a rate?
  (Mr McCusker)  Yes. There is a precedent for this sort of thing. That was the context in which we were arguing. To some extent, the argument has moved on. We are now into this situation where we are going to have this statutory duty on public authorities. Again, one of the unanswered questions is who monitors whether, in fact, a Government Department or a public body is honouring its statutory duty, and what is the sanction if it is not? This is different from the private sector where we can say that we are not paying any more grants or giving any more contracts. But we cannot stop a public service. This is one of the areas which continues to concern us; where you need a long stop somewhere.

  481.  As you say, the situation has been moved on. This links us to the issues around the new Equality Commission which has been set up. What is your reaction to the work of the steering group, chaired by Dr Stringer, on the arrangements for catering the existing equality agencies into the new Equality Commission?
  (Mr McCusker)  What they have said so far we do not have any great problems with. We are most interested to see what their next stage is which, I understand, is due out very shortly. It would be a more critical stage. I know there has been a lot of debate about how the Commission internally should be organised. Whether it should have four directorates relating to the four equality dimensions, or whether they should all be integrated and organised on some sort of functional basis. We have not taken a very firm view on this. It is something which is still the subject of discussion. I think Mr Adair may want to come in on this point.
  (Mr Adair)  There is a lot of concern which is still current. The object of the exercise was to set up one Equality Commission. It seems to be that in this working group they are actually moving away from it and they are coming up with a situation where there is the worst of all worlds. It looks to me as if they are going to have four directorates within the Equality Commission. You will then end up fighting over the head of resources about which one you are going to pin your hopes on, rather than being a collective thing to have a go at the whole scenario.

  482.  What role have the trade unions on the new Equality Commission? Have you been invited to send representatives or have you been frozen out completely?
  (Mr McCusker)  We do not know whether we are yet in or not. Like all and sundry in Northern Ireland, we have been invited to make nominations and we have put in four or five. I understand that there is something like 200 nominations. I might say that there is an area of considerable debate in Northern Ireland about how far Nolan impacts. We are concerned that Nolan might be fair enough for all understandable reasons in Britain, but the way it impacts in Northern Ireland we are very concerned about. Effectively, it puts the civil servants even more in the driving seat. We have been very concerned about the impact when civil servants, say, decide the specification. Some of the specifications we have seen, particularly that for the Industrial Development Board, are such that not many of the long-term unemployed can get a look in. The job specification has been very restrictive. Secondly, when they interview the people, there is a potential conflict between that specification and what the Secretary of State has said about the Equality Commission being representative of the community. How you square representation of the community with Nolan has not been satisfactorily explained to us. We think that the Equality Commission should be representative of the communities. That should take place within Nolan. I am not sure how this is going to be worked out.
  (Mr Gillen)  May I add something to that. The Secretary of State, just last week, issued a press release and the second report on the composition of public bodies. We have had a number of meetings with the heads of the Civil Service, with the Secretary of State and various Ministers, on how we think we are being disadvantaged through Nolan. The Secretary of State has said quite unequivocally that this is going to create better opportunities for women and marginalised groups to be included on public bodies. It would make it far easier to fill in. Jim mentioned the IDB. One of the things was that you had to be a chief executive of a company or a managing director to qualify to be on the board of the IDB. That is excluding people. We have been working pretty hard to try to get that changed. It is something that we are very interested in and will continue to pursue. We did bring the question up with Len Peach about PAFT in relation to public bodies, who said it would be useful to have that stipulation in public bodies and PAFT, so that they are representative of the community. Therefore, we look forward to some response on that. We know that his term of office has been extended for another period. It is something when we get the second report we will want to pursue.

  483.  I want to read some of this into the record because it is very useful and is a new point you have raised. We have already heard this morning about concerns over the representative dimension of the Equality Commission. Should it represent political parties or disputes within political parties, or whatever? What I would like from you, gentlemen, could you put on the record for us and summarise your concerns as to how Nolan could impact on this process. In other words, what is it about Nolan that has ramifications for the process we are talking about?
  (Mr McCusker)  Our concern about Nolan/Peach is the specification is drawn up by civil servants; it is not the subject of any public consultation whatsoever. The tendency, as far as we can see, is to draw up job specifications which are exclusive and not inclusive. Then it moves into an interviewing process which is conducted, in the main, by civil servants. There may be one person from outside the civil service, but again how that person is selected, what their role is, is shrouded in mystery. At the end of the process you get a decision. It seemed to us also to inhibit what Ministers can do. You may be critical of Ministers in the past, how they selected people, but I imagine that the Minister now has great difficulty in not accepting what comes up through the Civil Service process. Our view—and this does not just apply to the Equality Commission—is that quangos should be representative of society. The tendency of the last Administration was that quangos should be composed primarily of business people. We do not think the function of a quango such as the Equality Commission is to second-guess professionals. The function of an Equality Commission is to represent the person in the street. This depends on what constituency is being addressed, but obviously in the equality area you need to look at the main equality dimensions: the fact that there is division in our society between Catholic and Protestant, the gender dimension, a disability dimension, a race dimension. We have also got the economic players. We have the employers and ourselves. We have all the equality organisations. Our view is that being representative should be the first thing. I was struck by something which I just happened to come across accidentally. It may appear to be a bit off-beam. There was an advertisement in one of the London newspapers for a trade unionist to be appointed to the Docklands Light Railway. If that did not conflict with Nolan/Peach, why cannot we say we want so many trade unionists for an Equality Commission? So many Catholics and Protestants and all the rest of it. Why cannot we adopt that approach? If it is good enough for the Docklands Light Railway, it is good enough for the Equality Commission in Northern Ireland.

  484.  I hope the Equality Commission will be more successful than the Docklands Light Railway!
  (Mr Gillen)  If I may make a quick reference to the Good Friday Agreement, it will come as a big shock to some of our colleagues, at least in the Republic, some of the things which are in the Good Friday Agreement: how far behind they are in equality issues and current employment issues. Recently, our Executive Council was invited to nominate two people to the new Equality Agency which has been set up in the Republic, (specifically, in the ICTU), one man and one woman. We have no such guarantee in relation to the new Equality Commission in Northern Ireland, whereas we did have certainly a recognition that we were on the Fair Employment Commission and the Equal Opportunities Commission. There is that remote possibility that we will be excluded from the new Equality Commission because we are not recognised or involved as a social forum. What we are arguing is that we may well have some individuals in there, but as a trade union centre working in this area since 1966 or before that, we should be included in there as a regular. This was the point the Chairman was making: that we will have to go through to Peach/Nolan, etcetera.

Mr Salter:  Thank you very much.


  485.  As a matter of curiosity, the advertisement calling for trade unionists on the Docklands Light Railway, was this before or after it was taken into public ownership?
  (Mr McCusker)  I think it was after.

Chairman:  It has nothing to do with the price of eggs but simply because Sir Len Peach's name has come up in the course of evidence, I well remark that he gave me one of the memorable phrases of my life when he was still in the private sector: that what the private sector was seeking was wild duck flying in formation.

Mr Beggs

  486.  We are well aware that you did make reference to national security exemptions in your submission to SACHR. What concerns do you have, if any, about the new procedures regarding ministerial national security certificates?
  (Mr McCusker)  Our concern about section 42 of the Act has been the problem that the person who is "accused" has not been able to know what the evidence has been against him. The argument from the security people is that if this were disclosed then that could prejudice their sources. Our suggestion has been that a third party look at this and see if we can bridge that particular gap. Our understanding has been, for example, that the Ombudsperson is not entitled to see stuff which might be classified as national security. That person should be able to see what the evidence is against the person and be able to intervene in this situation: to decide, first of all, whether the refusal to disclose the evidence is reasonable; and, secondly, if it is reasonable, whether it is a fair assessment of the situation that the person should be denied, say, employment, etcetera. We have concerns that there is not the independence in the proposals that we would have in the like of the Ombudsperson. One of the other things which concerns us is that there have been cases of mistaken identity in some of these cases, where usually there has been evidence of association with certain people. It might not relate to the person who is accused, so to speak, yet the person does not have the opportunity of denying it. This is a denial of justice which does concern us greatly.

  487.  I am going to move now to statutory equality duty. What effect, if any, do you consider the new equality duty on public authorities in the Northern Ireland Act is likely to have on policy-making in areas relevant to equality of employment?
  (Mr McCusker)  I think this is an area which we were discussing earlier on. If you take the examples I quoted of the IDB, we think it would now be an obligation on them to ensure that their activities are consistent with the statutory duty; to report on how they have taken the statutory duty into account in their decision-making processes. Also, as I have illustrated, and this is a key issue for the future, this is in the Department of Environment's Shaping the Future and in the nine key centres. How does that Department take into account its statutory duty in drawing up its nine key centres and all its associated activities? The Training and Employment Agency is in the lead role here also. It should be under an obligation as to how it has taken into account its statutory duty, and how it proposes to ensure that in its activities it has taken account of statutory duties. It is very relevant to a number of agencies in Government.

  488.  How capable do you consider the CCRU is generally in the area of equality policy development?
  (Mr McCusker)  I would say quite freely that we are disappointed in the CCRU. It does not appear to have an awful lot of clout. I am not sure what the reason for that is but I think, at the end of the day, that Departments have been able to argue against the CCRU. There has been no statutory obligation. Quite frankly, the CCRU has been told that you can go and take a running jump, if you wish, because there is nothing you can do about it if we do not adhere. It has been dependent on co-operation by Departments. I do not think it has been able to persuade Departments to go along with the requirements, as we see it, of the old Policy Appraisal and Fair Treatment. I think this is a crucial area. Not only are there proposals for a devolved administration, but in this proposal for an Equality Unit through the office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, we assume that it will exercise the power and the function previously exercised by CCRU and particularly ensure that the new statutory requirement is met. Given that it rests in that office, in the two senior people in the devolved administration, this should give it a lot more clout than it has had in the past.

  489.  How confident are you of CCRU's current ability to act as an effective internal enforcement mechanism for the equality obligation of the Northern Ireland Act?
  (Mr McCusker)  Quite frankly we are not confident. The indications are that it is not able to. Our main argument for that would be the Annual Reports on Policy Appraisal and Fair Treatment. We think they have been distinctly lacking in enforcing progress and have been paying lip service to the policy. There has been no apparent evidence. Maybe the CCRU has, in fact, been trying to exercise clout and has been unsuccessful but, on the face of the public documents that are available, it does not seem to have been successful. We have to say that this has been no reflection on the judgment or the competence of the people there, but the fact is that at the end of the day the goods have not been produced and the present system has not been working. This is one of the reasons why we argued we should have the statutory obligation.

Mr Beggs:  Thank you.

    The Chairman's attention having been called to the fact three Members were not present, he suspended the proceedings; and other Members having come into the room and three Members being present the proceedings were resumed.


  490.  You mentioned section 31 at the beginning and I have a couple of questions, in conclusion, to ask you about consultation with employers on periodic reviews. The first is: to what extent are employers currently consulting with trade unions when reviewing their employment practices and procedures under section 31?
  (Mr McCusker)  I think, certainly in the public sector, it is fairly good practice; but in the private sector, which Samuel may wish to comment upon, it is probably an exception that there would be consultation.
  (Mr Adair)  You will find, Mr Chairman, in most of the major companies, the big companies such as Shorts, Gallaghers and Du Pont, that they will consult. The medium sized companies do not feel that they can contribute by consulting upon those issues at this particular point in time.

  491.  I have a further question which I will break in two. Could I ask you to clarify the relationship between these reviews and the requirement to promote equality of opportunity in the new Northern Ireland Act. First, am I correct in thinking that where the employer is a public sector employer, then the employer review will be part of the arrangements which the employer will be required to take for meeting the general obligation to promote equality of opportunity under the Act.
  (Mr McCusker)  That would be our reading. Section 31 would be part of the statutory duty and would be one element in it because that would be one element of the business of the public sector organisation. It would not be the whole of the obligation of the public sector body under the statutory obligation.

  492.  I was expecting you to give that answer, or at least in general to give that answer. Therefore, let me move on to the second half. Am I correct, under that assumption, in thinking that public sector employers will, therefore, have to consult representatives of those affected (and this will include trade unions) in the preparation of the employer review?
  (Mr McCusker)  I am not sure that there would, in fact, be a statutory obligation to consult. I think our expectation is that they will consult. Certainly most of the major public sector employers have consulted on their section 31 reviews. One hopes that there would be no regression in that situation, but I am not sure we have read into the statutory obligation that it would entail an obligation to consult the trade unions.

Chairman:  If, in the aftermath of this examination, you wanted to gloss that at all on the basis of having taken further thought, it would certainly be helpful to us to know what your conclusion was. Let me ask whether any of my colleagues have a supplementary question they want to ask.

Mr Salter

  493.  There is a lot of talk about division in the society and discrimination against Catholics or Protestants. Where do the ethnic minorities, as some people are all too ready to define them—the Sikhs, the Hindus, the Chinese, the Vietnamese—come into this equation, if at all?
  (Mr McCusker)  One of the problems with our society is that because of the proportions between Catholics and Protestants, it tends to dominate the debate on equality. I often think that people with disabilities are the most discriminated against in our society. Because it is politically an issue, the Catholic/Protestant dimension means that the other dimensions sometimes are neglected. One hopes that the new Equality Commission will be able to put more resources behind the other dimensions, including the race one. We used to pretend in Northern Ireland that we did not have a problem with race discrimination because we were too busy discriminating against Catholics and Protestants. The recent evidence is that those people are very discriminated against. Even outside the realms of the employment situation, they are quite frequently subject to physical assault in a way which has not been apparent before. I do not think our treatment of ethnic minorities in Northern Ireland is anything to be proud of.
  (Mr Adair)  Could I add a supplementary to that particular point. In the society, women are still discriminated against as well, from the fact that you will always find that they cannot travel as far to jobs, and that a lot of the jobs are part-time and they are not in the periphery of where they are. The ethnic minorities will come into that category as well because they will be the chip shops and Chinese restaurants and things like that, where they are limited to the amount of hours they can actually do.

  494.  For what it is worth, a friend of mine was a service soldier, who comes from an Afro-Caribbean background. He said that there was one thing—this was many years ago - where the Catholic and Protestant communities were entirety at one, which was the depth of discrimination and racial abuse that he suffered at the hands of both people.
  (Mr McCusker)  Unfortunately, I can believe it.

Mr Beggs

  495.  We have drawn attention to many of the difficulties still to be overcome within Northern Ireland during this session. I think, nevertheless, I would like to have it confirmed by the representatives here that in spite of all the difficulties throughout the period of trouble, there has been a remarkably high level of goodwill and co-operation at all levels among those employed in Northern Ireland industry and commerce, thanks to the influence which trade union representatives have had.
  (Mr Gillen)  Could I thank you very much for that. We take a bit of pride in the role that we have led in Northern Ireland these past 30 years: our peace work progress campaign, our Investing in Peace Programme; the support that we have given to local politicians who are now in the Assembly; the goodwill that we offer them. We look forward to the opportunity to congratulate them when they set up an Assembly and an Executive to look after all of our interests. Today we had piece in the Irish News this morning about the role that we have played with the CBI in Neckford, in the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action, where we wrote to all of the Assembly members, including the two Prime Ministers and the two Secretaries of State, saying that we are still out there waiting to support our politicians. We want to have some arguments with them as well because we want to talk about the future of our health service, our education service, local government. We want to talk about employment prospects; all of the things we want to work out closely together. I know where Samuel comes from, he comes from the public services, and we work very hard to keep our membership together. We run courses which will put issues before them. We have established a Counteract Unit to deal with the problems of sectarianism or whatever. We are working with education as well. We will continue to support politicians and value the work that they do, and hope that they will involve us as they take us forward into the year 2000.


  496.  I do not know whether there is any question you were expecting us to ask you, which we have failed to ask you, but we are very appreciative of your having come to give evidence to us. We very much appreciate the time and trouble you have devoted to it and let me thank you on behalf of the whole Committee.
  (Mr McCusker)  Thank you very much, Chairman.

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