Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 520 - 539)

WEDNESDAY 19 MAY 1999

RT HON MARJORIE MOWLAM MP, RT HON ADAM INGRAM MP, MR GEORGE O'DOHERTY AND MR DAVID GIBSON

Mr McWalter

  520. I wondered if I might ask an addendum to my colleague Mr Hunter's question about the RUC. Clearly the community imbalance within the RUC does significant damage to the public image of the UK Government and, of course, particularly in the United States, we were very conscious that the only figure they knew about employment was the RUC figure which they cited as 93 per cent Protestants, seven per cent Catholics. I would just like to ask, given your answer, whether in fact you are yourselves making every effort to make the Patten Commission aware of the importance of this concern so that it will be something to which they will be giving very active consideration with your help?

  (Marjorie Mowlam) Can I say to you, Mr McWalter, we have made no submission to the Patten Commission. It is an independent body. One of the frustrating things one discovers in Government is that independent bodies mean you cannot affect their outcomes. As a result, I have not communicated with the Patten Commission because they are their findings and their results. I think experience tells me when you look up at the make up of the Patten Commission, who is on it and the history of Mr Patten's work in other areas, for him not to be aware of the statistics clearly quoted to you repeatedly when you visited the States would not be the case. Their terms of reference, etc, would mean they would look in detail at this question. On the issue, can I just say that it is obviously crucial and I am sure that it was pointed out in America that one of the reasons for the low numbers of Catholics in the RUC is the threat and intimidation to their families, to their children, to their spouses if they apply. I do not think that can be under-estimated. I am sure it was pointed out also that in times of the ceasefire, the number of Catholics and women applying for the RUC has gone up considerably. If my memory serves me correctly, we are now in the 20 per cent of applications from women and Catholics. Correct me if I am wrong, George, in a minute. So it is beginning to change. I think this is a potentially very difficult issue in Northern Ireland, and once we have got over the present hurdle of the Executive and decommissioning this will be the next big one. It is not going to get easier because on the one side the RUC say very clearly—and it is true—they have given lives of colleagues over the last 30 years, they have held the democratic fabric of society together, sometimes against the odds, and they are now going to go through Drumcree and then take the Patten Commission, which inevitably means the structure will change, and that is not easy for people. On the other side, quite clearly it has the support of the last survey which showed about 60 per cent of the community—which means there are 40 odd per cent who do not feel it polices for them. Now whether that is real or perceived, and it is quite clearly the case in some areas of Northern Ireland, that equally needs to be addressed. So the issues that Patten is facing are not easy. I think that it is up to us to give him the time and space, he says he will report by the summer, and then we can examine it and address those issues in the round because it is a difficult one for everybody.

  521. You are aware, of course, of this Committee Report which said intimidation was not the only factor.

  (Marjorie Mowlam) No.

  522. There were many other factors which could indeed be addressed and taken into account.

  (Marjorie Mowlam) Yes, I was not saying it was the only one. There is a number of factors and they all have to be considered. But I am saying it is one of those issues that is complicated, and the issues that Patten is addressing are not easy, and I think to pull one out and try and address it in isolation does not always help.

  523. Being optimistic for a moment then, and imagining we have got this transfer of powers and all these other difficulties have been overcome, and we get our Executive and Assembly, what arrangements do you envisage for the operation of your own responsibility for equality issues under the Northern Ireland Act? What will you be left with?

  (Marjorie Mowlam) Well, continuing the fantasy for the moment—and I think it is an area that we are at present working on—I think it may help particularly in this regard if I put on record what we will be responsible for and what the Assembly will be responsible for, because I do not think this is clear yet and I think it will be of assistance. The Assembly will be responsible—I will give you a copy—for fair employment, sex discrimination, race relations and disability legislation. The Office of the First and Deputy First Ministers will be the sponsor department for the above legislation and responsible for Commission supervision and funding. I will be responsible for the statutory obligation and the appointments to the Equality Commission and the Human Rights Commission. Fair employment, sex discrimination, race relations and disability legislation are therefore all transferred matters. The appointment of Equality Commissioners are therefore reserved matters. Statutory obligation is a reserved matter. Human Rights Commission is an excepted matter. I will not go into all that. Does that give you a fair idea of the distribution?

  524. It does.

  (Marjorie Mowlam) The short answer is I hope to do less.

  525. I noted your response to, I cannot remember which colleague, who said about the system in the United States of having each person within the Equality Commission having a broad range of responsibilities.

  (Marjorie Mowlam) Yes.

  526. So as to prevent ghetto-isation where you get a disabled person and the people concerned about race or whatever.

  (Marjorie Mowlam) Yes.

  527. As I understand it then from your answer there, that would not be something you would be seeking to influence, that would be something home grown in the United States. If we had a view that having well-rounded people rather than ghetto-ised people, we would not be able to influence things in that way, would that be right?

  (Marjorie Mowlam) I think what was important was that these were exactly the worries of the different Commissions when we were looking at the issue initially in terms of the unified group, one inequality was greater than another and the money would be unequally distributed. I think our concerns on both those fronts have been voiced with the people that are trying to bring it forward under the Dr Stringer Commission. It will be them that decide. Now I do not think there is any disagreement among them as to the desire to make sure in terms of their previous functions that all those are carried forward by the new body and that they themselves will make sure, both financially and in terms of saying that one inequality is better than the other or worse than the other, that they will deal with that. I hope—and this is a personal view—that they look at this positively because one of the arguments that convinced me of the value of the united group was that it made it easier both for people with difficulties, if you were a black woman, lesbian and you did not know where to go under your discrimination, you only had to walk through one door. I think it helps the complainant. Similarly if you are a business and filling in seven different forms or eight or four or however many it will end up that you are filling in because of requests from the different bodies, there is some value in them working to make sure that their forms and their applications are similar or there is one for everybody. Now I do not know how they will handle that, but I think if they help businesses then they will help their statistics, they will help their monitoring and they will help their outcomes. So there is an advantage in that for both sides I think. There is also from a personal point of view an added advantage that there are differences in the legislation, some inequalities are treated stronger by law than others. If I was campaigning, I would campaign to level up. Now that is one of the advantages that I see if I am sitting where they are from the changes which have been made.

  Mr McWalter: Very interesting.

  Chairman: Do you want to ask any others?

  Mr McWalter: No, I will leave it at that.

  Chairman: You do not want to dwell on institutional arrangements?

  Mr McWalter: I thought I might deal with that after my colleagues deal with other matters.

  Chairman: I think we were expecting you to come in on that now.

Mr McWalter

  528. Okay. Moving to the pessimistic scene then—and I thought my colleagues might deal with other matters first—if we do not get the transfer of powers to the Assembly and the Executive, how are we going to manage within Government to continue the momentum you have established in these matters?

  (Marjorie Mowlam) I am not going to answer that question, Chairman. I am sorry to be awkward but it is a highly political question in terms of the present situation in the talks process; if it does not work, what stays, what goes, and I would prefer to avoid it. Can I do that?

  529. I rather thought that might be the answer therefore I am happy to accept that at the moment.

  (Marjorie Mowlam) Sorry.

Mr Salter

  530. I want to explore the issue of contract compliance and quite frankly it is probably more a question directed at Adam following his evidence to us on 9 December. There Adam said in response to a question from Tony McWalter in respect of instituting some elements of contract compliance in order to buttress their fair employment objectives that the Government's policy on this is that we do not believe that the public sector—talking specifically of the public sector—procurement policy should be used as a means of achieving social policy objectives.

  (Marjorie Mowlam) Yes.

  531. Then he went on to say the second area that we have to put into legislation is the risk in our judgment of being challenged under European Union Regulations and European Union law, which has been a consistent Government position for very many years.

  (Marjorie Mowlam) Yes.

  532. Could I put it to you that the Cabinet Office Better Regulation Task Force, which published a report last week, actually says—and for the record page 1, Section 25—"We urge the Government to use its purchasing and funding muscle to promote equality practices among contractors and suppliers to the public sector". Then it goes on to say on page 26 "The public sector purchasers should be ensuring that their suppliers and contractors conform with the requirements in equality legislation, particularly with regard to employment provision". Now I would suggest that is moving in a fairly substantial way down the road of contract compliance. I accept this is merely a Task Force recommendation. Are you aware of discussions in Government circles which, if you like, are moving the debate on contract compliance on?

  (Marjorie Mowlam) Of course there are discussions going on in other Departments, and it is not an idea that we reject easily. There is an innate attractiveness in the idea. I would argue that we have done it in a way that in a sense achieves what the Task Force and others want to do, but almost backwards because it is not that we ignore or are neutral on the issue in any sense at all. Any employer that is found by the Fair Employment Tribunal to have broken the law is liable to heavy fines, no ceilings on that at all. An employer who blatantly refuses to follow certain procedures set out in the Order can be designated an unqualified person and denied contracts. So I would argue that there is there an element of contract compliance but not up-front. So we achieve in a sense the outcome that the Task Force are looking for but without, as John Hume and many others have said, stopping investment happening because people see it as a limiting factor to invest. I think that is an important aspect. Let me say overall, what we have done with New Deal is try and make sure, whether it is short, long, male, female, Catholic, Protestant, etc, that they all get the opportunity, and we are working towards that with the success we have so far had so that, in terms of contract compliance, the goals are achieved. There are many ways to skin a cat and I think we are getting there.

  533. Thanks very much for that answer. Can we be quite clear about this, in respect of the ministerial team within the Northern Ireland Office—there is in principle no objection to the aims of contract compliance. We are merely talking here about what is the most effective means of securing those objectives?

  (Marjorie Mowlam) Contract compliance says you want to take into account fair employment, equality and justice at work place. That is quite clearly central to our thinking. We just do not think that contract compliance, as it now stands, is the best way to achieve it. I think some of the other regulations we have in place achieve that. Also you get caught in terms of value for money and efficiency. The next question from somebody else could be: "If you do that, how do we know you are getting value for money?" Taking into account the different aims we have, I think we have done our best to achieve the objective. Can I just—with the permission of the Chair—give a personal example of why I think there are sometimes dangers with contract compliance. I can remember when I was at university, when we were campaigning hard to make sure by contract compliance that certain goods made with child labour were not allowed in. We bought our coffee from so and so, etc, like we all did.

  534. You and me both.

  (Marjorie Mowlam) Absolutely. All I remember looking back when I had time when I started drinking as opposed to campaigning —

Mr McWalter

  535. Long time ago.

  (Marjorie Mowlam) Yes it was a long time ago. — the problems that are created sometimes by that are that large families are needed and children need to work in the evenings in sweat shops, because of the need to have children to pick in the fields because of the nature of agriculture. Now I am not condoning any of those acts, all I am saying is that before you introduce a change, you have to be aware of the up and down sides and therefore in relation to, say, Third World countries, something like contract compliance could have an incredible down side unless, at the same time, you look at employment practices, you look at machinery for agriculture, you look at Third World debt. So I am just trying to give a personal example that sometimes what looks at first as a very simple, very straight forward thing that can be achieved, sometimes does not necessarily achieve that and there may be other ways that one gets to the outcome without losing sight of the principles.

Mr Salter

  536. Moving on to the second area of objection in the previous evidence, and this was reiterated in the White Paper, Partnership For Equality, where it said in respect of contract compliance there is a potential conflict with EC law, what precisely does the Government think are the legal constraints in this regard?

  (Marjorie Mowlam) I think it is the ambiguity that exists is the answer I have been given in terms of contract compliance in relation to the regulations in Europe. That is my understanding. I have as a result of preparing for this Committee, just for my own personal understanding, asked exactly what they are and what progress is being made on this front.

  537. Have you had any answers to that?

  (Marjorie Mowlam) Not yet, because I did not start preparing for this until yesterday.

  538. That is more than I did. Again perhaps we could ask for this information to follow.

  (Marjorie Mowlam) Certainly.

  539. I will make the point for the record that my information is that last year the European Commission was encouraging national governments to use public procurement to achieve certain social purposes, including equality policies, and that in a recent case at the European Court of Justice it was held that contract conditions imposing social conditions were acceptable under European Community law provided those conditions did not discriminate against out-of-state contractors. So quite clearly I would suggest that some clarification we could all benefit from in that regard. This one is a moving target.

  (Marjorie Mowlam) I quite agree and particularly with the ECJ and others it is worth going into it and certainly we will and we will get back to you.

  Mr Salter: I think that is very helpful. Thank you very much.

  Chairman: Mr McWalter and I have now rearranged the deck chairs on the Titanic and he would like to ask you a further question.


 
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