Memorandum submitted by the Committee
on the Administration of Justice
The Committee on the Administration of Justice
(CAJ) was established in 1981 and is an independent non-governmental
organization affiliated to the International Federation of Human
Rights. CAJ seeks to ensure the highest standards in the administration
of justice in Northern Ireland by ensuring that the government
complies with its responsibilities under international human rights
law. Its membership is drawn from across the community in Northern
Ireland and beyond. The organisation works across the whole gamut
of human rightscivil, political, economic, social and culturaland
has made submissions to a range of parliamentary committees over
the years. CAJ was honoured with the Council of Europe Human Rights
Prize in 1998 for our efforts to mainstream human rights
and equality into the Northern Ireland peace agreement.
CAJ fully recognizes that the Equality Bill
("Bill") does not extend to Northern Ireland given that
this area of work is now a matter for our devolved Assembly. We
would however be keen to ensure that debates on equality issues
in any region of the United Kingdom are as informed as possible,
not least because regional assemblies may look to Westminster
for guidance in relation to legislating in certain areas of public
policy. While we recognize that the current Bill is lengthy and
complex, with a range of important provisions, we have chosen
to restrict our comments to part one of the Bill which relates
to socio-economic inequalities. We have done this largely because
there has been quite a debate recently within Northern Ireland
about how best to address socio-economic disadvantage in legislationnot
least with respect to the discussions around a Bill of Rights
for Northern Ireland. We would also wish to add that our comments
here are informed by our experiences of working closely with the
statutory duties on the promotion of equality and good relations
as contained in Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998.
In this context, we hope that you find our evidence useful.
Undoubtedly, current patterns of increasing
socio-economic inequality present a challenge to government and
civil society alike. CAJ, like many organizations working in the
field of human rights would be keen to see greater socio-economic
equality. Our concerns with the measures outlined in the Bill
not with an opposition to the concept of greater
equality, but rather with skepticism of the value of the current
provisions. CAJ notes for example that there are a number of serious
weaknesses with part one of the Bill.
These include for example the fact that the
new socio-economic provisions:
Only apply to "decisions of a strategic
nature", ie not all policies (as per Section 75 of the
Northern Ireland Act for example).
It will be for the public authorities
subject to the duty to determine which socio-economic inequalities
they are in a position to influence. In this context one wonders
whether most public bodies will in effect decide that they are
in a position to influence few, if any, inequalities.
Individuals have no recourse to private
law because of a failure by a public authority to comply with
the duty. For example, the explanatory notes of the legislation
specifically state that in situations in which an individual feels
that the socio-economic disadvantages that they face should entitle
them to a flat in a new social housing development ahead of those
whom the individual judges to be less disadvantaged, there is
no provision in the Bill for the individual to bring a case against
the local council or other public authority in such circumstances.
There are no requirements in the Bill
for a socio-economic equality impact assessment, or any set of
procedural obligations akin to the current Equality Impact Assessment
provisions of Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act, which
one might use as a measure of compliance with the requirements
of the primary duty.
There is no enforcement role for the
Equality and Human Rights Commission in relation to this provision.
There are no equivalent complaints mechanism
to the current paragraph 10 and paragraph 11 arrangements
in Schedule 9 of Section 75 of the Northern Ireland
Act. This would at least allow for an element of redress in relation
to failure to follow procedural requirements.
CAJ fully recognises that legislating in this
new area of law is complex. However we are also aware that a much
more robust system is in place elsewhere in the UK to require
public authorities to comply with certain procedures in order
to give effect to a primary duty to promote equalitynamely,
in Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act.
CAJ also notes that in relation to the explanatory
notes attached to this provision, several examples are provided
outlining how the provision might work in practice.
The explanatory notes state for example that:
"The duty could lead a public body with
strategic functions in relation to health to allocate money from
its agreed budget to a separate funding stream which targets geographical
areas with the worst health outcomes."
It is of course worth noting that under existing
law, a public body could carry out just such a similar exercise.
Given the absence of any adequate enforcement procedures, there
is clearly a serious question as to the "value added"
aspect of part one of the Bill.
CAJ would be of the view that ineffective laws
are better left off the statute books altogether. Such provisions
merely serve to undermine public confidence in the role of the
legislator. Moreover, by introducing ineffective laws, the impression
can be created superficially of "something being done",
when in actual fact the real changes which need to take place
in society to address a particular problem are ignored.
Addressing socio-economic disadvantage is an
important issue that should warrant meaningful action on the part
of government to bring about positive change. CAJ believes that
the current socio-economic clause is neither meaningful nor likely
to lead to any positive change and as such should be withdrawn.
CAJ would also be of the view that it is important
that legislators in other regions of the UK do not seek guidance
on how to address socio-economic disadvantage from this provision.
Within the context of Northern Ireland, we will continue to lobby
for a strong and inclusive Bill of Rights with justiciable economic
and social rights provisions. We will also continue to argue within
the context of Northern Ireland for a robust and meaningful anti-poverty
strategy. There are in fact a range of measures which we believe
should be introduced to effect greater socio-economic equality.
The provisions contained in part one of this Bill however would
not be one of those measures and we would caution policy makers
and legislators against seeking any guidance from the socio-economic
clause in this Bill.