Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 497 - 519)




  497. Secretary of State, it is extremely good of you to come at—by the standards of this Committee—a 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 1997—and in many of the statements that have been made before and since then—the 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 Paper—Partnership for Equality—which 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 individuals—I do not know why he is here but clearly Chris McCrudden—who 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 Stringer—who I have to say did a very good job—with 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 to me.

  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 Ireland Office.

  (Marjorie Mowlam) Were you not? I thought you were.

  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 Ireland—and that is happening, tourism is increasing, three new hotels have just set up in Belfast—as 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.

Mr Hunter

  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 so far?

  (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 the proposals.

  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 that decision.

Mr McCabe

  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 us.

  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 money available?

  (Marjorie Mowlam) In terms of the Equality Commission, as I understand it—and I am open to correction from folks sitting with me—the 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 me—and I will look for advice if there is anything else to add—that 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 realpolitik.
  (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?

Mr McCabe

  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.

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