Examination of Witnesses (Questions 497
WEDNESDAY 19 MAY 1999
MP, RT HON
MP, MR GEORGE
497. Secretary of State, it is extremely good
of you to come atby the standards of this Committeea
relatively anti-social hour and we very much appreciate your doing
it in terms of the timetable. A very warm welcome to you and your
colleagues. Of course, we have the advantage of knowing who your
colleagues are, but should you wish to introduce them please feel
free to do so. I think you are familiar with the ground rules
under which we operate. We will endeavour to make the order of
our questions logical, not everybody can stay for the entire session
so we may go slightly out of order at some stage but in principle
we will follow a logical order. We will of course be entirely
content if you want to gloss any answer either you or the Minister
give, either at the time, when you have had the opportunity to
reflect and perhaps you want to alter the answer, or alternatively
in writing thereafter, and we will retain the freedom to come
back to you with supplementary questions in writing if they occur
to us after the occasion. Those are the rules under which we always
operate. Is there anything you would like to say of a preliminary
nature, quite apart from the introduction of your colleagues?
(Marjorie Mowlam) Just one or two things,
if that is all right, Chairman. Can I just begin by thanking you
for inviting me and saying how delighted I am to have the opportunity
to join with you and speak with you this morning. I did just want
to begin by repeating the apology I gave to you for the difficulties
created by the timing of the debates of the Northern Ireland (Remains
of Victims) Bill. I know that some of the Committee members stayed
behind for the debates and were unable to accompany you, Chairman,
on your evidence giving visit to the United States. I know you
appreciated the difficulties over the timing and urgency of the
Victims Bill and I am very grateful for the co-operation of this
Committee, both you and its members. Many, many thanks for that,
I know it was not a positive decision but we had very little option
in terms of timing. As you say, I think you are all familiar with
the folk who are with me today: my colleague, Adam Ingram, the
Minister, who has already given a report to the Committee as the
Minister responsible and David Gibson and George O'Doherty who
were here back in December. I hope the Committee does not object
if there is detail that I am not familiar with if they help me
out. Just briefly, by way of introduction, you will be pleased
to hear that I am not going to repeat everything that Adam said.
He set out the history of fair employment legislation in Northern
Ireland. I will not repeat the very full introduction he gave.
I will say that I think there has been a very important and very
progressive development in Northern Ireland on this issue. The
right of any person to be considered for a job, or a promotion,
not on the basis of their sex, race, religion or political beliefs
but on the basis of their abilities I believe is a very basic
right in any civilised society. It is a right which, if denied,
cannot just lead to anger, resentment, division but even unrest.
In our General Election Manifesto commitment back in 1997and
in many of the statements that have been made before and since
thenthe present Government has made it clear its commitment
is to fairness, justice and equality of opportunity in Northern
Ireland. I believe we have taken action based on these principles
while in Government. If anything has changed, it is the mechanisms
of implementing those principles sometimes need to be reviewed,
but the principles have not shifted. Last year, a month before
the Good Friday Agreement, the Government produced a White PaperPartnership
for Equalitywhich embodied the principles and set out our
proposals to put them into practice. Previous governments too,
as shown by the history of fair employment legislation, have sought
to take active steps to combat discrimination and to promote equality
of opportunity. I think it is a testimony to all who have worked
in Northern Ireland that this issue has been recognised as an
important part of building for peace and promoting reconciliation
between the communities. Without being sycophantic to the Chair,
I think he was Permanent Secretary when TSN was introduced the
first time, and I think that is a tribute, not just to that Government
but to previous Governments that had a much tougher time than
we have had in terms of violence on the streets, that they realised
the importance of working in this area on fair employment and
getting jobs in. I think I would just like to put on record Jean
Denton and Richard Needham, not because I believe they did a good
job necessarily, but whenever Adam or I are going around Northern
Ireland, it is those folk who people say worked very hard in tough
times to move this issue forward. I think this legislation has
for the most part been a success. As the report in 1997 from the
Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights shows, the proportion
of Catholics now getting jobs is roughly equal to the proportion
of Catholics who apply for jobs. The same is true for Protestants.
The trend is also reflected in the increasing numbers from the
Catholic community employed as managers and administrators, showing
that access to promotion and advancement within work is also more
now than before, basically in all areas, based on merit. That
does not mean that there is still not a long, long way to go.
As Adam discussed with you last time, there are still differences
between the two communities in getting those jobs in the first
place. There is still a significant differential in terms of unemployment,
both short and long, with the unemployment rate for Catholic men
still twice that for Protestants. This is a matter the Government
have sought to address in our White Paper in a range of policies
to help increase training and employment opportunities under the
New Deal programme. This has already made a real difference in
Northern Ireland, and in Northern Ireland on the New Deal we are
outperforming anywhere else in the United Kingdom. Overall unemployment
is falling from over 13 per cent five years ago to just over seven
per cent now. The number of people unemployed for over a year
is down by more than half. Over 4,000 people have already found
jobs as a result of the New Deal. We have nearly 3,000 employers
that have agreed to sign up and take people. The Government's
1998 White Paper owed much to the work of SACHR and the work they
put into their 1997 report. I think it is a reflection of SACHR's
hard work and of other individualsI do not know why he
is here but clearly Chris McCruddenwho have worked hard
both for the previous Government and for us to make sure that
we do everything we can to implement SACHR's recommendation. I
would like to put on record the work that Adam Ingram has done
and before him Tony Worthington to help the parties come to terms
with some of the detail of the issues which are now incorporated
from the White Paper into the Good Friday Agreement. The Good
Friday Agreement made specific reference to proposals for a unified
Equality Commission and a new statutory duty on all public sector
bodies to promote equality of opportunity. Those proposals have
now been enshrined in legislation in the Northern Ireland Act
of 1998 and the subsequent Order. A unified Equality Commission
is to take over the functions and responsibilities of the Commission
for Racial Equality, the Fair Employment Commission, the Equal
Opportunities Commission and the Disability Council in Northern
Ireland. As you can imagine, and I am sure have been told by previous
submissions, many of those groups had deep anxieties about the
merger proposal. We tried to understand that and take their views
into account. Instead of imposing new arrangements on people,
we have sought to build consensus for the proposals through the
establishment of a working group, chaired by Dr Joan Stringerwho
I have to say did a very good jobwith representatives from
all the equality bodies on board. The working group produced their
report and recommendations on 7 May. The report provided us with
much important advice on the composition, appointment and structures
for the new Commission. We are very grateful to Dr Stringer and
her colleagues for the work they have carried out. We have now
commenced the appointment process in line with the Peach guidelines
for the Equality Commission commissioners. There will be 16, including
the Chief Commissioner and one deputy. As well as taking over
the work of the existing bodies, the Commission will also be responsible
for monitoring and enforcing a new statutory duty to be placed
on all public sector bodies to promote equality of opportunity.
That is the culmination of a number of years work by many people
and will have made good a commitment that we made to the people
of Northern Ireland before the Election. I am happy now to see
that being put in place. The duty will place a statutory responsibility
on the public sector, all parts of it, to have due regard to the
need to promote equality of opportunity in carrying out their
functions, regardless, for example, of religion, political opinion,
race, gender, sexual orientation or disability. The Equality Commission
will oversee the obligation and publish guidelines shortly after
it commences its duties. The relevant public authorities will
then be required to produce equality schemes in accordance with
those guidelines within six months. I am pleased to be able to
say, well not pleased to say there is a political lull, but in
the lull in the present process many of the Departments are beginning
to look at those potential equality schemes, beginning to examine
them. So hopefully the six month period can be cut to a shorter
time. I should mention also briefly at this point the new Human
Rights Commission for Northern Ireland which started in place
on March 1 and is beginning to take its work forward which is
another result of the Good Friday Agreement. I have no doubt that
the Human Rights Commission will be expressing views on equality
issues, just as the Standing Advisory Commission did before. Once
the Equality Commission is in place I look forward to seeing the
two bodies draw up a Memorandum of Understanding to deal with
any overlap between the two bodies. I would like, Chairman, to
conclude my opening remarks by saying that I know you will appreciate
the situation in Northern Ireland remains difficult and challenging
for everybody and in particular for members of the Northern Ireland
political parties, one of which is represented here today.
498. I should say, Secretary of State, that
is partly a function of the Irish debate.
(Marjorie Mowlam) I do apologise.
499. It is nobody's fault, it is a constant.
(Marjorie Mowlam) I look forward to the
day, and I hope it will be very soon, when devolution will allow
the people of Northern Ireland to have a much greater say in the
areas of legislation that are transferred to the new Assembly.
That will include fair employment, sex discrimination, race relations,
disability legislation, all under the sponsorship of Northern
Ireland's First Minister and Deputy First Minister. Ultimately
we must all hope that Northern Ireland will one day be a society
in which such provisions become obsolete. A society in which a
person's merits are the only basis on which they are judged when
looking for a job, whether they are Catholic or Protestant, male
or female, able bodied or with disabilities. I think that is probably
all I want to say in terms of opening remarks and I look forward
to trying to address questions that hon. gentlemen choose to put
500. Secretary of State, thank you very much
indeed for the preliminary remarks you made about the events last
week. As far as the Committee is concerned, those matters have
passed and the seven of us who were still able to go had a thoroughly
worthwhile visit to the United States. Thank you warmly for the
general statement you have made and from the Chair I congratulate
you on your prime position in terms of the New Deal within the
Province. I should say perhaps that the reason why Mr McCrudden
is here is because he is acting as a Specialist Adviser to us
on this particular inquiry. If I may utter a personal appreciation
at your remarks about the period before the present Government
took office: although my family motto on being translated from
Latin takes the form of a pun and means "from a perpetual
spring" I was never actually Permanent Secretary in the Northern
(Marjorie Mowlam) Were you not? I thought
501. Very good of you
(Marjorie Mowlam)to promote you.
502. Very good of you to have implied I was.
(Marjorie Mowlam) Sorry!
503. We will be coming on to ask questions about
the Equality Commission in a moment, so your introductory remarks
are helpful. Let me ask one general question: you have stressed
why you regard the matter which we are investigating as being
of importance, could you just say in particular its significance
in the context of the peace process?
(Marjorie Mowlam) Okay. Can I apologise
for promoting you, it is just it seems you were there so long.
Also, just to say that some of the comments you made then in terms
of the peace process, which I will now go on to address, did make
a difference in terms of where we are now. I think people keep
saying this Government has done a lot but I have to say it is
important, particularly in a context like this, to acknowledge
that previous governments set the building blocks in place and
that should never be forgotten. In terms of the importance of
this issue and the bodies in the peace process, can I say when
we started in Government, one of the issues that we thought about
in Opposition in terms of strategically working out if we won
the election what we would do, one of those was making sure that
the principles of fairness and equality and justice were basic
to what we did, because there was no way that one could unentangle
the history of Northern Ireland, but quite clearly those feelings
were central to moving forward. In that sense, that is one of
the basic elements of building the process that is there now.
Secondly in terms of the Good Friday Agreement and the negotiations
that took place to reach that, it was important to recognise that
agreement did not give anybody 100 per cent of what they wanted
and many people agreed that they wanted the Assembly or they wanted
the North/South Ministerial Council but I think there was general
agreement that the Human Rights Commission and the Equality Commission
were essential parts of building for a fairer equal future for
all people in Northern Ireland. I think reading previous submissions
Roy Beggs made that very clear in a previous meeting of this Committee.
So that I think was one of the elements that there was much more
agreement around in reaching the Good Friday conclusion than some
of the others. Clearly, accelerated prisoner release was supported
by some and not as keenly by others, but they all signed up to
that package because they got something and I think one of the
unifying aspects was human rights and equality. It was an important
element of the Good Friday Agreement working and now we are moving
down the road to implementing the Good Friday Agreement and are
looking at the different bodies that need to be put in place.
One of the hardest things. which will take time, is the reconciliation
and respect and tolerance between people. That does not happen
overnight, you do not deal with years of sectarianism quickly,
but I think that having these provisions there, as do many people
who have spoken about them during the Good Friday Agreement and
since, that they are important aspects of making sure that they
are firm foundations on which that reconciliation and respect
for each other from the different communities can take place.
I think they are crucial corner-stones to the process. Let me
finally just put one other aspect in place and that is that however
long and hard we work on implementing the Good Friday Agreement,
many of the what I call everyday folk in Northern Ireland are
not terribly interested in part 3, subsection 4, second paragraph,
it does not move them terribly. What does move them is a change
in the degree of normality in their day to day life and one of
the aspects of that is a job. Therefore, that this is in place
and there is a feeling that not just the training and opportunities,
whether it is more inward investment or greater chances to be
trained to do a job, are important parallels to the talks process,
because without that it is very difficult as we slowly make progress
for them to see changes which I see in their face every day. So
this is a crucial part of showing that as more and more people
begin to invest in Northern Irelandand that is happening,
tourism is increasing, three new hotels have just set up in Belfastas
that happens, jobs become available and that makes a difference
to the peace work.
Chairman: I have another question to ask about
the peace process, which I will ask in a moment, but I am conscious
that Mr Hunter has to go to a Standing Committee at 11 o'clock
so let me bring him in at this juncture.
504. Secretary of State, I apologise that I
have to go in a moment. Could we turn to the theme of statutory
duty to promote equality of opportunity.
(Marjorie Mowlam) Yes.
505. You said in your opening comments to the
1998 Northern Ireland Act, Section 75 provides for the designation
of bodies as public bodies and Schedule 9, public bodies have
to comply with the terms of that.
(Marjorie Mowlam) That is right.
506. Can you clarify is it Government policy
that the Royal Ulster Constabulary should be designated as a public
body under Section 75?
(Marjorie Mowlam) At the moment it is
not. We say that the statutory obligation to promote equality
of opportunity goes across public bodies. It is not in force for
the RUC simply for the fact that the Patten Commission is looking
at all aspects of the RUC and therefore this does not directly
apply to it. Other sections of the public sector can be added
but I think in view of the importance of the issue of the police,
both to the police themselves and to the public, that we should
leave it to be looked at in the round and then return to it in
terms of later legislation if that is so needed.
507. Is it possible for you now verbally or
later by correspondence to list those UK departments and public
bodies which are likely to be subject to Schedule 9?
(Marjorie Mowlam) No final decision,
Mr Hunter, has been made on which UK departments or additional
bodies should be designated but I can assure the Committee that,
in response to your request, when those decisions are taken, we
will inform you.
508. Secretary of State, thank you very much
indeed for that. Let me go back to the further question I was
going to ask on the peace process. Is it your view that the Irish
Government are meeting their commitments on equality under the
Good Friday Agreement in the context of the Irish Government enacting
equivalent measures for protection for equality, such as fair
employment legislation, in the same manner as the British Government
is doing in Northern Ireland?
(Marjorie Mowlam) I am afraid I cannot
give you an informative answer on that. I spend most of my time
making sure that we are doing it rather than the Irish are doing
it. I am sure their commitment to the Good Friday Agreement will
mean that they are working on it and I have indications that is
the case but how far they have got in detail I cannot tell you.
I will certainly check and let the Committee know.
509. Thank you very much indeed. I said we were
going to come on to questions about the Equality Commission and
other colleagues have questions they want to ask you about that.
What date do you envisage as the start date for the Equality Commission
and if I may, ask what are the reasons for the delay in its establishment
(Marjorie Mowlam) In terms of the setting
up of the Equality Commission, the Human Rights Commission is
functioning. Once we have got the appointment process in place
and it is complete we will establish it as quickly as possible.
I would guess it would take some weeks but no more. We are very
keen to make sure that everything is ready to move if and when
progress can be made, so it is weeks rather than anything else.
As I indicated in my introductory remarks, the delay with the
Equality Commission was because there were differences of opinion
from the equality bodies in Northern Ireland. We spent some time
discussing that with them but then there was the desire that if
it was going to work they had to buy into it, hence the Committee
run by Dr Joan Stringer to put together from the bottom up a structure
that would work. Now that is done. The interviews are taking place
and it will be a matter of weeks, but that accounts for the delay.
It was not just a question of a couple of civil servants shuffling
the paper, it was the people themselves involved drawing together
510. One supplementary question which derived
from our own experience in the United States last week. Are you
envisaging that the personnel involved in the Commission in fact
will be able to work across the whole range of the Commission's
activities or will they be broken down by the parent bodies from
which they originally came?
(Marjorie Mowlam) That is something that
they themselves are discussing and it will be up to them to make
511. Can I ask just a little bit about the procedures
for the appointment of Commissioners. Really what I want to know
is if you are satisfied with the procedures? Also, we have heard
a bit of criticism about the way the Nolan system applies in Northern
Ireland and I really wondered, one if you were satisfied with
the procedures and secondly, if you were satisfied that the operation
of the Nolan system did result in appointments that were broadly
representative of the community?
(Marjorie Mowlam) Let me begin by saying
that whether it be the appointment of the Equality Commissioners,
Human Rights Commissioners or others, we followed a procedure
that was based on merit, that was open and transparent, open advertisement,
and there were Civil Service Commissioners making the appointments.
I do not have any trouble with that. I think that is reasonably
straightforward and as independent as one can get it. Now the
criticisms that you refer to have come from all communities on
different appointments, which is usually an indicator to me that
it may not be perfect, but there is a reasonable attempt, based
on merit, which I think is the principle we have to stick with,
that there is a fair enough balance and they take into account
other factors. In relation to the Equality Commissioner, they
took into account a whole host of criteria: geographical spread,
gender, etc, religious affiliation. They are taken into account
and the final decision is made on that principle. Now I have no
difficulty with that at the moment, no problem, and think that
it is in general fine. Now I do hear the criticisms that come,
I do not ignore them and as I say they have come from all sides.
What I think we need to look at, and what I am looking at as a
result of those criticisms, is not the procedure itself but what,
as I have said, we can front load the system in terms of making
sure that the people are encouraged to apply, the forms are such
that people find it easy to apply, to encourage training, to encourage
people to apply. If we can front load the process making sure
that we get a fair representation of people applying then I think
we will be addressing many of the criticisms that have come to
512. I just noticed that you did mention the
idea that the appointments have to be on merit. I suppose you
will be aware also that we have heard quite a lot of criticism
about the so-called merit principle recently, both in Northern
Ireland and on a recent trip to the States. I just wondered if
you were entirely happy that everyone understood what we meant
by merit and it does not at times conflict with other notions
like affirmative action?
(Marjorie Mowlam) I think it is potentially
difficult. I am not a strong supporter of affirmative action because
I do not think in the end it assists. Like I came to Parliament
because there had to be one woman on the short list, now that
is a form of positive action which produces a result that means
one gets there in fair competition but it encourages some people
to look at options that they would not necessarily consider. I
think there are options like that that are worth looking at. We
have changed the legislation to allow religious specific education.
We have changed the legislation also to facilitate employers to
recruit unemployed people without fear of complaints against reverse
discrimination. We are trying to permit people to be appointed
for jobs. Let us take a specific example, take building, always
more Catholics applying, take engineering, always more Protestants.
Now the changes we have made mean the firms can put in place religious
specific education to facilitate what they do not have at the
moment which is people applying for the jobs. This is the other
side where, as you will have listened across the board, employers
often say to you: "Nobody applying". Well no longer
can that be a possibility as a way out for not answering the questions.
513. Can I ask you a question about money.
(Marjorie Mowlam) Money, money, money!
514. The Equality Working Party Report, which
I think was published about a fortnight ago, recommended that
there should be about an extra £525,000 of public money allocated
to make sure that there is no lessening of the current activities
when the equality duty on public authorities has to be taken on
board. I just wonder, Secretary of State, if you are sympathetic
towards this and if you are inclined to try and make the extra
(Marjorie Mowlam) In terms of the Equality
Commission, as I understand itand I am open to correction
from folks sitting with methe situation is that part of
the working group's job was to put together not just their staffing
structures for future strategy, but also their costings. I have
not seen that breakdown yet, and I look forward to receiving it.
Obviously I will look very carefully at the figures. We have not
got it yet have we? Have we got it already? When did it come in?
We have got it. I just have not seen it, I apologise for that.
We have the costings in and I have just been informed that the
difficulty is accommodation, and that is the area we are still
looking at. Let me therefore give you a general answer, as I am
unable to do so on the specific. I could not obviously give an
open-ended support of whatever the working group requests, but
certainly we have no intention of making it difficult for the
group to do its job. So we will look as favourably as we can at
the requests that they have made. As an indication that is not
just words but we are serious, if you look at the money that we
have spent on other bodies so far, we have spent already 0.75
of a million on the Human Rights Commission, and that expenditure
is clearly allocated for the next three years. On the Criminal
Justice Review Group, from June of last year we spent nearly a
third of a million. So we are not making it difficult for these
groups to do their jobs.
515. I mentioned it because there was a very
specific recommendation in the report that, in order to be effective,
there had to be new resources. They identified this figure, I
accept we do not want to look at that. They were very clear that
there had to be new resources and not simply a reallocation, otherwise
the public might view that as simply pinching at one area and
not entirely accommodating this new responsibility.
(Marjorie Mowlam) I hear what you are
saying, Mr McCabe, and I am aware of that because I meet the people
from the old different bodies which make up the new Commission
and their desire is to make sure that certain things they were
doing in the past continue. There has been a great deal of co-operation
from the different Commissions in the past, and I can assure you
we in no way want to inhibit them doing the tasks that they are
there to do. It is a crucial part of the future to make sure this
works, and I can assure you we will do everything in our power
to facilitate that.
516. If I just stay with the Equality Commission
for a second. If I have got this correct, I understand that as
far as the civil servants are concerned, they think the date for
the transfer of powers to the new Equality Commission can be separated
from the start date for the new equality duty on public authorities.
I wonder firstly, if you are happy with that proposal that you
can separate the start date and secondly, if you are sure that
is entirely lawful?
(Marjorie Mowlam) I do not know whether
it is lawful or not, but common sense would tell meand
I will look for advice if there is anything else to addthat
I want to get these up and functioning as quickly as possible.
Now when any new body begins to function, offices have got to
be found, staff put in place, it has to begin to function, so
common sense tells me that even if the two do not happen in parallel,
that if you get the body up and running and they begin to work
out the structures, work out the strategic guidelines, know where
they are going, that then they will be in a much better position
when the statutory obligation falls into place to operate it.
I would answer in the sense of saying I do not think there is
anything Machiavellian, underhand or nasty with this, it is just
(Mr Gibson) Dr Stringer's working group did suggest
in fact that there should be a period between the giving of powers
to the Commission and the introduction of the statutory duty to
allow guidelines to be issued.
517. If I may say so, Mr Gibson, that would
still leave open the question of whether the working party's recommendation
is actually lawful?
(Mr Gibson) I cannot answer that. I assume
it is. I have no reason to believe it is not lawful and it surprises
me to hear that.
518. I have a feeling.
(Mr O'Doherty) Chairman, I think this
question, if I speculate a little perhaps, arises from a question
that is apt and is a result of communications between my good
self and the Chairs of the existing bodies in terms of the mechanisms
of setting up the new unifying Commission. Mr McCabe's question
is quite valid in the sense that it has to be asked. I have asked
it, I have not yet had the answer to that. In all fairness, I
do not think the Secretary of State could give Mr McCabe an answer
to the specific question. That will come out in the wash.
Chairman: I think we now know where we are.
Mr McCabe you have another question?
519. Yes, finally, I just wonder if you have
a start date in mind for the new equality duty on public authorities?
(Marjorie Mowlam) No, as I have said,
as quickly as possible, when it is set up. I can assure you, as
reality shows, we have not been slow at putting things in place.
There are certain aspects of the Good Friday Agreement that are
being finalised, this is one of them. I can assure you we will
not drag our heels. The Human Rights Commission is up, the British
Irish Council is almost there. The new Civic Forum is still with
the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, but civil servants
have worked like crazy to get us to where we are in time for potential
devolution. I can assure you it will not be delayed.
Mr McCabe: Okay. Thank you very much.