Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Fourth Report


134. The following are the Committee's summarised principal conclusions and recommendations:

    (a)  Several witnesses stressed how important to the Peace Process issues of equality of opportunity are, particularly issues of fair employment. We agree (Paragraph 1).

    (b)  While we appreciate that the Government wanted to make "rapid progress" with the legislation in order to ensure that the terms of its obligations under the Belfast Agreement were fulfilled, we do not consider that the procedures used in this case provided for adequate Parliamentary scrutiny of important new legislation in a sensitive policy area where, hitherto, primary legislation has been the norm. We regret that Government felt it should proceed by way of an Order in this case. Fair employment legislation is an issue of such importance and sensitivity that primary legislation, which permits both more extensive debate and amendment, would, in our opinion, have been the more appropriate approach (Paragraph 28).

    (c)  We consider that the community differences in unemployment should remain an appropriate and important issue of concern for Government. While not a simple measure of success of the legislation, it is one measure of the success or failure of Government policy generally in the area, but not the only one (Paragraph 47).

    (d)  We are conscious that much of the evidence on the compliance costs of employers under the fair employment legislation is, at best, somewhat anecdotal. Further research is necessary before definitive conclusions can be reached. We return to the issue of further research subsequently (Paragraph 53).

    (e)  The Fair Employment and Treatment Order 1998 has only been in force for a few months and it is not therefore possible to assess the effectiveness of the new provisions. It is clear that the previous legislation has made an important contribution to improving the degree of fairness in employment in Northern Ireland, even if the precise extent of that contribution cannot be accurately determined. Mr Ingram commented that "there is still some way to go to ensure equality of opportunity" and that "there is still much to be done." We shall continue to monitor the effectiveness of the legislation in this important policy area (Paragraph 55).

    (f)    None of the evidence we have received convinces us that the Fair Employment Commission has been assisting "frivolous cases" to be taken to the Fair Employment Tribunal (Paragraph 61).

    (g)  We recommend an urgent review of the manpower and physical resources devoted to Fair Employment Tribunals in order that the backlog of cases can be cleared and future cases decided much more speedily, in the interests of complainants and respondents alike (Paragraph 64).

    (h)  The FEC regards the twin aims of "fair participation", first, as achieving the better representation of the Roman Catholic community, and, second, as getting rid of segregation in employment. We explored with the FEC whether it considered that there was a tension between these two aims, and whether they sought to prioritise one over the other. The answer was that the Commission had not had to prioritise the aims because the Commission had sufficient resources to concentrate on both. We recommend that adequate resources be provided to the Equality Commission to ensure that this remains the case (Paragraph 65).

    (i)    While we welcome the extent to which individual complaints have been used by the Fair Employment Commission as the basis for strategic work with employers, we agree with the Commission that if this was the "sole method of dealing strategically with employers then it would be a failure." We recommend that the existing regulatory functions of the Commission be retained in their entirety. (Paragraph 66).

    (j)    We recommend that the Equality Commission be established without further delay (Paragraph 72).

    (k)  We recommend that a review of the appropriateness of the Nolan/Peach system for appointments of the type involved in relation to the Equality Commission be carried out by Government in light of the experience now gained in its operation since it was introduced and the concerns expressed to us in this case, and more generally in Northern Ireland, about some recent appointments to public bodies (Paragraph 74).

    (l)    We were impressed, during our visit to the United States, at the importance the equivalent body to the Equality Commission (the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission) placed on staff flexibility and non-specialisation in order to ensure as integrated a Commission structure as possible (Paragraph 77).

    (m)  We recommend that Government should give very careful consideration to the proposal of the Equality Working Group report, which concluded that an extra £525,000 of public money would be necessary if there was to be no diminution of effectiveness in areas of current activity while also making the new equality duty on public authorities effective. It is, in our view, essential that the work of the four bodies to be subsumed into the new Equality Commission continues at present levels of activity (Paragraph 78).

    (n)  Harmonisation of equality legislation would raise the difficult question of the level of harmonisation. We have not examined the regulatory frameworks in the equal opportunities, racial equality and disability areas of policy in Northern Ireland, so we have no information on what changes might be appropriate if a common framework is introduced. On the basis of the evidence adduced in the course of this inquiry, however, we would be most reluctant to see any diminution in standards in the area of fair employment legislation. It would also sit very oddly with the enhancements introduced only recently by the Fair Employment and Treatment Order 1998 (Paragraph 81).

    (o)  We recommend that an early announcement be made by the Government on designations generally under section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 (Paragraph 85).

    (p)  Given the delay that there has already been in establishing the Equality Commission, a further extensive delay in bringing in the equality duty would be most unfortunate (Paragraph 87).

    (q)  We recommend that the Government look again at the potential contribution of contract compliance to achieving fair employment objectives, taking account of the full extent to which this may be compatible with EU law and drawing fully on the experience of the United States Federal Government. The Government has acknowledged, in the White Paper, the principle that contract compliance has a part to play in the particular circumstances of fair employment in Northern Ireland. This is, as the Government says, a significant modification of general Government policy on contract compliance. We believe that the present limited provisions can, and should, be developed into a more effective mechanism for helping to deliver fair employment policy objectives (Paragraph 101).

    (r)    We note that Government and public bodies award public contracts on behalf of the communities that they serve. It is not therefore, in our view, unreasonable that these communities might expect that public contracts should, all other things being equal, go to contractors who further such a basic policy aim as fair employment. We do not consider the award of public contracts as simply an economic activity by the Administration, in which the Administration can consider itself as equivalent to a private sector organisation (Paragraph 103).

    (s)  We find it difficult to see how public purchasing activity can in principle be regarded as a separate area of state activity in which equality criteria are ignored that are considered self-evident in other areas of state activity, such as public sector employment (Paragraph 104).

    (t)    We recommend that Government Departments and public bodies review the position they have taken with regard to public procurement in the context of the preparation of their equality schemes under section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 (Paragraph 105).

    (u)  We recommend that the Government make renewed efforts to find a solution to this problem of legal representation in relation to national security certificates which is acceptable both to the Bar and to Government. We understand that there is a similar question outstanding regarding the equivalent procedure in the immigration context. More generally, we recommend that the use of the national security certificate system (NSCS) be reviewed by the Northern Ireland Office in the context of the preparation of its equality scheme under the Northern Ireland Act. This would consider whether the operation of the NSCS has any implications for equality of opportunity between the two designated religious communities (Paragraph 113).

    (v)  We have considered whether the existing affirmative action exceptions should be broadened further. We consider that the new Order implements an appropriate approach to affirmative action for the time being and we consider that the new provisions should be given time to prove whether or not they are adequate to the task. Any further changes should await an assessment in due course as to whether they deliver the extent of change necessary. If they do not, then further action may have to be considered. This might include reducing further the current restrictions on religion-specific training, and permitting the operation of a "tie-break principle" involving the appointment of a person from the under-represented group where two candidates are otherwise equally well qualified for a position. We recommend that a formal assessment should be made after the new Order has been in effect for five years, just as the 1989 Act was reviewed after five years operation. (Paragraph 117).

    (w)  We have noted above the continuing under-representation of Roman Catholics in the Senior Civil Service. As the Secretary of State put it in her evidence,

"... there is a problem ... 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 understand from the Secretary of State that the Government is considering what might be done to improve the situation. We look forward to receiving further information on the results of this reassessment when it is completed - we hope in the near future - and look to the Government to include at least an interim response in its Reply to this Report (Paragraph 118).

    (x)  We recommend that, in order to prevent conflicts of interest arising, the Secretary of State should establish her own Equality Unit within the Northern Ireland Office, in part to advise her on the exercise of these functions, and in part to co-ordinate the equality schemes of UK Departments and public authorities designated by her under section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 (Paragraph 122).

    (y)  If, by the time the Government replies to this Report, there has been no such transfer of powers, or such a transfer of powers under the Northern Ireland Act 1998 is not an immediate prospect, we look to it to indicate what institutional arrangements within Government it proposes for equality matters in Northern Ireland (Paragraph 123).

    (z)  We agree with the Secretary of State that a Memorandum of Understanding should be agreed between the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and the Equality Commission to minimise unacceptable overlaps, without in any way improperly fettering the powers of either body, and we so recommend (Paragraph 124).

    (aa)  We welcome the inclusion of TSN as one of the areas of responsibility of the new Equality Unit in the First and Deputy First Ministers' Office. We consider that New-TSN should be adequately resourced to enable it more effectively to target a reduction in the unemployment differential than it has proven to be in the past, that the indicators used to determine social need be kept under review to ensure that they enable the effective targeting of resources to those in greatest need, and that the transparency and accountability of TSN decision-making be enhanced. (Paragraph 125).

    (bb)  We recommend that monitoring of the effects of the New Deal by religion be carried out as suggested to us by the Northern Ireland Economic Council, in order to estimate whether, and to what extent, the New Deal helps to reduce the unemployment differential (Paragraph 126).

    (cc)  As we have seen, the fair employment legislation has recently been amended to permit recruitment from the long-term unemployed as a lawful form of affirmative action. Again, it remains to be seen to what extent this enabling provision will affect the unemployment differential. We recommend to the Equality Commission that it vigorously promote the use of this provision (Paragraph 127).

    (dd)  We recommend that, when the IDB prepares its equality scheme under section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act, it should in particular consider the extent to which its operations might better serve to contribute to the policy goal of reducing the unemployment differential. We may return to this matter in the context of our inquiry into the public expenditure aspects of inward investment in Northern Ireland (Paragraph 128).

    (ee)  We do not consider that Government should wait until the production of the results of the Census in 2011 to reconsider the issue of the unemployment differential. We note that the next review of employment equality, which the Government has said will be launched by 2005 at the latest, and we have suggested should occur five years after the coming into effect of the Fair Employment and Treatment Order 1999, will consider any deviations between the benchmarks established and the available data. This would provide a suitable opportunity for appropriate policy initiatives on the unemployment differential (Paragraph 130).

    (ff)  We therefore envisage an important role for positive foreign involvement in helping fair employment develop in Northern Ireland. In particular, constructive American involvement continues to make a valuable contribution to fair employment issues in Northern Ireland through direct and indirect investment (Paragraph 132).

    (gg)  We recommend that Government attempt to ensure that independent research on fair employment issues be made available on a continuing basis from several sources. In particular, we recommend, given the potential importance of these issues to economic planning and investment in the future, that the Northern Ireland Economic Council be encouraged to integrate fair employment issues into the mainstream of its work on a continuing basis (Paragraph 133).

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