Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 540 - 559)



Mr McWalter

  540. We had better go back to the positive line, I think about how you cope with an elected Assembly and Executive and ignore the issues about contingency plans for failure, which perhaps with the Titanic business we will not draw that analogy of the Chair. You have got your Equality Unit established within the Northern Ireland Office, presumably from what you have told me that is what will have to act as a source of advice to you. Is that how you are going to do it? You are going to review the decisions of the Equality Commission within your Office?

  (Marjorie Mowlam) I understand that Unit will be in the Office of the First Minister and the central secretariat for him to do that. Part of the devolved legislation will be the Equality Commission, which will fall to them.

  541. You will be referring some matters to them, perhaps they will then make decisions about them and refer them back to you?

  (Marjorie Mowlam) That is why I want a Memorandum of Understanding between the Equality Commission and the HRC, and then we are going to have to look at the detail of this between us. As we are not yet at that stage, those discussions have not taken place. They will be ones that we will need to have both internally and with the First Minister and Deputy First Minister.

  542. You are mindful of the difficulty of you throwing the ball and then catching the ball back, as it were, i.e. perhaps it is more appropriate to have a clearer independent element within this whole process?

  (Marjorie Mowlam) I think that we are aware of the many difficulties that can arise. We are looking at how the Scots are doing it. We are trying to share experiences. I think there is a certain common sense in not moving too quickly to agree a certain outcome until you get a better feel for how things are functioning. There is a chance to review, there is a chance to change, and I think we will do our best not to pre-commit ourselves to positions we have to then wriggle out of, but rather give it time to be created, set up and for the discussions and talks to take place.

  543. Can we put it on the record that you are strongly aware of the need for this independent element within this process?

  (Marjorie Mowlam) No, that is not what I have just said.

  544. I am only asking if you are strongly aware of that.

  (Marjorie Mowlam) I am strongly aware of the potential difficulties, misunderstandings, problems that could result not just between the HRC and the EC but between us and the devolved Assembly. We shall have a long time in the summer, hopefully when devolution has taken place (it is up to the parties in Northern Ireland to reach an agreement on outstanding issues) to address exactly these questions, but I do not want to commit myself to a particular mechanism of handling potential difficulties now, even though I hear and respect and understand the suggestion that you are making.

  Mr McWalter: Thank you.


  545. Let me just ask one supplementary question arising out of your answer to Mr McWalter. I can understand why a number of the other answers you have given—if I use the word "tentative" I am not suggesting they have been anything other than firm— have implied that they are contingent, that you have to wait on other developments. I have to say that the questions which Mr McWalter has been asking do seem to me to be free-standing, as to whether you need to have independent advice separate from the advice available from the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, and I am absolutely surprised that that question has not been addressed, since it is a question which inevitably quite a lot of people will be asking.

  (Marjorie Mowlam) Yes, I understand and do not dissent from the importance of the content of the question both you and Mr McWalter are addressing. Not in the least do I dissent from that. All I would do, Mr Chairman, is point out the amount of time and the amount of human beings that are working on this and it is very difficult, week in and week out, when you are still in negotiations and in talks, to move things forward at the same time. What we have done—and I think the Civil Service have worked very hard to achieve this—is we have papers circulating not just on the structures, but the guidelines, the objectives and monitoring across the board that I cannot give the Committee here a firm view on. If we had devolved institutions in place then I think a criticism levelled at the Department would be a valid one. At the moment, all I would say is that I think we have moved at incredible speed in getting things in place, and I think we have to be very careful because what we do not want to do is to pass on to a devolved Assembly dud institutions which have inherently structural or other difficulties in them. This is clearly an area that needs addressing when the First and Second Minister can focus on it, but while the First and Second Ministers are still addressing issues of what the structures are going to be like and as we come up, as you and many others in the room are aware, into the marching season their attention is diverted. I am sure we will get time to address these, but they are not ones we can address in isolation.

  546. Thank you very much indeed for that answer, Secretary of State, but if you will forgive me saying, it sounded more like there has not been time to do it than the answers that you gave to Mr McWalter about the fact that it was not the right time to do it. We are not in any way seeking to be critical of the Department. We totally realise the work that has got to be done, and it may well be that the first answer you gave to Mr McWalter was in a sense a cover for the fact that it had not been possible to do the work, but I do think that the answers were actually inconsistent.

  (Marjorie Mowlam) I did not mean to imply—and I apologise to the Committee if I did—that it is not the right time. It is the right time to do a lot of work on this. That work is going on and varying progress is being made in different parts of it. There are papers circulating in the Civil Service looking at this, but it has no validity or standing until we have firmed that up. So, yes, it is the right time and it will need to be looked at carefully.

  Chairman: I think we now know where we are.

Mr Barnes

  547. In your introductory remarks, Secretary of State, you said that, in terms of employment and people moving into employment, it was a situation that was "roughly fair". I suppose in the long term this means that the unemployment differential peters out if you are given long enough to deal with it. We had evidence given by Dermot Nesbitt that the unemployment differential between Catholics and Protestants is an appropriate focus for concern. How important is the unemployment differential in your thinking?

  (Marjorie Mowlam) Obviously it is important. You stated that I said it was roughly fair. What I was trying to point out was that there clearly is a differential, but there is deprivation and unemployment in both communities that needs to be addressed. What the new TSN gives us a chance to do is to address deprivation in employment and in other issues, like housing and education and health, across the communities, and by doing that we obviously take into account the high numbers among the Catholic population, but we do not reverse discriminate against others. You suggested that previous submissions have suggested it would peter out. If my memory serves me right, the differential has gone up and down over time and what we need to do, regardless of what the causes are for it, is address the unemployment, and that is what we are trying to do by TSN, by the New Deal, by child care, by Family Credit, by Working Families Tax Credit. Does that address the point you were making, Mr Barnes?

  548. Yes. I was speculating as to whether it would peter out over time even though it would take an exceptionally long time. Can I now refer to the Northern Ireland Office. There was an argument that was put to us by the Committee on the Administration of Justice that the Government appeared to have removed itself from the list of actors who have a role to play in tackling the unemployment differential. You had said earlier, however, that the departments were looking at potential in the future in order to tackle the situation itself. How do you feel about the role of the Government on the issue?

  (Marjorie Mowlam) In terms of tackling unemployment?

  549. No, within those avenues that the Northern Ireland Office has direct control over.

  (Marjorie Mowlam) I can assure you that we are not telling everybody else to tidy up their houses and leaving our own unattended. We are working very hard in terms of training and in terms of interviewing and in terms of application forms, as I suggested in answers to questions earlier from Mr McCabe and we are doing all we can to front load people to apply to the Civil Service. We are trying to deal with unemployment, not only in terms of the differentials but also to make sure that, in terms of fair employment, the Civil Service meets the same goals as we would put to anybody else. I think we are addressing that at the front end, but the real problem in terms of the Civil Service is that the percentage of Protestant and Catholic is roughly five or six percentage points difference. Where there is a problem is at the top three or four levels of the Civil Service, which is male dominated and there are not many Catholics to be seen either. We are looking internally at how, alongside the principle of merit and alongside open competition, we can do what we can to improve that situation.

  550. In terms of the Civil Service and maybe more generally, do you feel that particular goals and timetables should be set in order to meet the ending of differentials as far as unemployment is concerned?

  (Marjorie Mowlam) They are available under the Equality Commission aims and objectives. In terms of the statutory obligation to promote equality of opportunity, there are targets and monitoring available. In terms of TSN and our own policies directly being implicated, we are not only now consulting on priorities but we are looking at the best ways to collect data and monitor so that we do have in place practices that will produce data that we can act on.

  551. Can I just pick up on disability issues. I am on the Committee that is dealing with the Disability Rights Commission Bill, and because of the reasons you have explained about the Equality Commission, that will not apply to Northern Ireland. There is concern expressed by some people about that because this obviously applies to employment aspects as well. The disability legislation provides access to work for disabled people. Do you feel that the early start that you talked about earlier, the fact that it is really a matter of weeks or so in moving towards an Equality Commission, is going to be something that will then help the other things that you mentioned as being there? You talked about one gateway. It was not always easy to divide people into different areas. I was just wondering how you felt about the criticisms by those in Northern Ireland who are worried that they are not getting a Disability Rights Commission when there has always been a considerable commitment across the board in Northern Ireland for disability rights?

  (Marjorie Mowlam) There is a commitment not just among those in the disability lobby but across Northern Ireland. It would not be an unfair statement to say that disability has not always been at the top of everybody's agenda, and that gender and religious and other inequalities are usually given a higher profile, but I hope that as a result the Disability Commission and the disability lobbies in Northern Ireland they will have a stronger voice and be heard through that unified Commission. As I say, if they are thinking tactically, and I am not part of that lobby, you would look at what the others have got and say, "Okay, if this is one Commission we should all have the same", and I would be a strong supporter of that. I hope that clarifies the commitment that we clearly have to try to help other inequalities raise their profile and that is one of the arguments why I very strongly supported one Commission. As the disability lobby in Northern Ireland knows as well as most, after devolution it will be the Assembly that will be responsible for disability legislation, and one of the arguments that we have always made in favour of devolution is that there will then be representatives closer to the people that will hear their arguments.

  552. The signs are that they will move on that because they took a very strong line in the Forum on disability rights.

  (Marjorie Mowlam) Good. It is up to them and if they are doing that, I welcome it.

Mr Hesford

  553. Secretary of State, the Chairman has already welcomed the progress the Government is making on New Deal and I am sure the Committee as a whole welcomes any move forward in that regard. As the tide rises all boats get lifted and that is one of the central ways of tackling inequality in employment. Will there be any extra money for TSN given that it is a key programme and it is clearly successful?

  (Marjorie Mowlam) The money that was allocated to Northern Ireland, whether it was the £200 million for New Deal, whether it was the money for the Social Exclusion Unit which we put into our Social Inclusion Unit or the money for the child care strategy, has been allocated to the particular schemes. Thatcherism did not hit Northern Ireland in the way it hit elsewhere because a lot of the public sector was in place. For example, our ACE scheme which we are now transferring to TSN gave us a start in some areas that other parts did not have. I do not apologise for transferring them because I think the New Deal addresses many of the problems that were found in ACE. You would get a young person coming in and they could not cope. I would go round schemes and you would see a kid who was trying to lay bricks, but they could not read the instructions, and what New Deal does is give them four to six weeks for their difficulties to be taken into account and handled, otherwise you are just putting them through like sausages and you do not deal with the difficulties. I think what we are doing is trying to make sure that there is some degree of flexibility in the new TSN, making sure that what we do actually meets the needs of the people we are trying to help and as a result there is some cross-departmental work going on with the new TSN to make sure that flexibility is there. I cannot give you a straight answer as to whether extra money is being put in, but I hope it will suffice to say that extra money is being put in where there is a need, and that is how we are trying to respond, rather than stopping the infighting with different departments saying, "It is ring-fenced, you cannot touch it". That is what we are trying to make happen on the ground.

  554. Secretary of State, you indicated earlier that the figures show that the employment situation is changing. One of the things that we came up against in America is that the perceptions are increasingly getting outdated. Can the latest figures be put in front of the Committee as to where the mix is going so that if we deem it relevant in due course we can base our recommendations on the up-to-date position rather than the historical position? It might be helpful if that was dealing with as many sectors as possible, including all areas of the public sector.

  (Marjorie Mowlam) I look to Adam because it is your work, but the answer is yes, is it not?
  (Mr Ingram) Yes. There is no reason why you cannot have that type of detailed information because that is the first line of the framework upon which we and the Assembly will be making judgments.

  555. I hope that is helpful, Chairman.

  (Mr Ingram) It may be helpful to look at the whole economic strategy because I think that does impinge upon what is happening in the changes within the workforce and the demands for new training approaches. As the characteristics of the economy in Northern Ireland change, then there are new opportunities, but also problems arising because traditional industries are disappearing, not because of Government changes but because of international changes and changes in the marketplace.

  556. Structural changes.

  (Mr Ingram) Yes, structural changes and whatever else. We can give you as much detail on that as you want, but I would not give you too much that we obscure what you are trying to drive at.

  557. It is the meat, it is the core message that we can pick out which I think is certainly what I would be interested in.

  (Marjorie Mowlam) That is exactly what we are trying to do when I said be flexible in terms of not just TSN allocations but looking at that in terms of Making Belfast Work, for example, which was a response in terms of a particular geographical area. I think we should move. These are not policies yet, but we are looking at how the IDB could use a special incentive in a particular area where there is not a factory. Because of our size and our tightness, those are the kind of things that we are trying to address. We are helped in a sense because, as I said earlier, the public sector is much bigger in Northern Ireland. Now, that is both a help and a hindrance in longer-term developments. I think the figure was four out of ten jobs are in the public sector, which indicates the size of our public sector in Northern Ireland. So a lot of the changes that came elsewhere in the 1970s and 1980s did not come, but what is hitting us on one side is the global market and the changing nature of the sectors that are with us and on the other hand we have got quite a high level of inward investment of some of the new IT stuff, call centres, because we have worked very hard with many of the big companies. Adam and I spent quite a bit of time earlier in the year going round 11 cities in America talking to 1,000 business people and that has paid off. Investments, thanks to John Hume, started quite high and we have done our best to increase that. So the mix of sectors is beginning to change quicker than elsewhere. We also have some advantages in terms of the structure of the family, which has changed so quickly in the last 20 years here and is not changing quite as quickly there, and so some of the benefit changes which are needed to respond to the structural family changes are coming through in time and are actually meeting difficulties as people face them. That is happening in parallel.

  Mr Hesford: Thank you.

  Chairman: Following on from what you have just said, Secretary of State, can I comment on exchanges we had in the United States where those to whom we were talking wanted to get a clearer fix on what our objectives were. They made the point that if there were geographical pockets of high unemployment, then the problems sounded as though they were more structural and rather less admissible to this legislation, although this legislation remains important and I pass that on in the light of policy decisions you are engaged in taking at the moment. Mr Donaldson?

Mr Donaldson

  558. Secretary of State, Minister, you mentioned in your opening remarks the role of the Human Rights Commission and you indicated that the Human Rights Commission may express views on equality issues from time to time. You will be aware of the controversy regarding the composition of the Human Rights Commission in Northern Ireland and you will be aware that Unionists, from my party leader down, are very concerned about the composition of the Human Rights Commission in terms of its ability to reflect the balance of the community. My party leader is on record as saying that he does not regard the composition of that Commission as reflecting the community balance. Equality is an important issue and part of the equality issue relates to community balance. Would it not be better if you addressed the issue of the composition or membership of the Human Rights Commission before asking that Commission to make pronouncements on equality? I have to say to you from a Unionist perspective, Unionists will look on those pronouncements with a very suspicious eye given that they do not feel that the composition of the Human Rights Commission reflects a proper representation of that community.

  (Marjorie Mowlam) Yes, I am aware of your leader's concerns on this issue and, as I indicated earlier, his concerns on the Human Rights Commission are mirrored by concerns from other parties representing other communities in relation to other Commissions. So it is a problem that both communities feel at different times in terms of the make-up of bodies and it is a problem that complaints are received on consistently. Can I say in response that what we have tried to do is in terms of using the principle of merit, using open competition, using transparent procedures so everybody can see how decisions are made and we feel this is the best way of trying to get a committee that can perform the functions successfully. Sometimes if you are appointed on merit it means that it is not exactly 50:50. I can assure you in relation to the Human Rights Commission that other criteria, apart from just qualifications, academic, industrial, personal, geographical, are taken into account, of which community is one of them. Not everybody fills that bit of the form in, but we do take it into account. "We" not being us, the Government, but the Civil Service Commission that makes these decisions. As I said to both your leader's concerns and to the other community who have complained equally about other appointments, what we are trying to do is look at ways that we can encourage more people from whatever community to apply. We are open to whatever suggestions your party or any other can come up with or anybody from the Committee as to how we deal with both the merit principle and getting a balance. You may go for quotas. There is always a difficulty with quotas, but we are looking at the different options and if that is what you are suggesting—then it would be useful to know so that we can respond to people's wishes.

  559. Secretary of State, I am not suggesting quotas, but I am suggesting that you are under a statutory obligation to ensure that the composition of the Human Rights Commission reflects the community balance and, I have to say, as an elected representative from Northern Ireland, you did not get it right and in my judgment there were applicants for positions on the Human Rights Commission who met the qualifications but did not get selected. Perhaps that is for another day.

  (Marjorie Mowlam) I would like to put on record that it is not my decision[1]. There is a Civil Service Commission with representatives from outside Northern Ireland that look at the application forms with specific criteria and guidelines and reach a conclusion, but I do take your final point that I am sure we will return to this and we are looking at options to help facilitate questions of this kind. It will be a problem the new Assembly will have to address as well.

1   See also Ev. p. 161. Back

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