Northern Ireland Assembly
Tuesday 6 June 2000 (continued)
Order. Your time is up.
Rev Dr Ian Paisley:
Let the Union flag fly.
The Assembly divided: Ayes 53; Noes 41.
Ian Adamson, Fraser Agnew, Pauline Armitage, Billy Armstrong, Roy Beggs, Billy Bell, Tom Benson, Paul Berry, Esmond Birnie, Norman Boyd, Gregory Campbell, Mervyn Carrick, Joan Carson, Wilson Clyde, Fred Cobain, Robert Coulter, Duncan Shipley Dalton, Ivan Davis, Nigel Dodds, Boyd Douglas, Reg Empey, David Ervine, Sam Foster, Oliver Gibson, John Gorman, William Hay, David Hilditch, Derek Hussey, Billy Hutchinson, Roger Hutchinson, Gardiner Kane, Danny Kennedy, James Leslie, David McClarty, William McCrea, Alan McFarland, Michael McGimpsey, Maurice Morrow, Dermot Nesbitt, Ian Paisley Jnr, Ian R K Paisley, Edwin Poots, Ken Robinson, Mark Robinson, Patrick Roche, George Savage, Jim Shannon, David Trimble, Peter Weir, Jim Wells, Cedric Wilson, Jim Wilson, Sammy Wilson.
Alex Attwood, P J Bradley, Joe Byrne, John Dallat, Bairbre dé Brún, Arthur Doherty, Mark Durkan, Seán Farren, John Fee, Tommy Gallagher, Michelle Gildernew, Denis Haughey, Joe Hendron, John Kelly, Patricia Lewsley, Alban Maginness, Alex Maskey, Donovan McClelland, Alasdair McDonnell, Barry McElduff, Martin McGuinness, Gerry McHugh, Eugene McMenamin, Pat McNamee, Francie Molloy, Conor Murphy, Mick Murphy, Mary Nelis, Danny O'Connor, Dara O'Hagan, Éamonn ONeill, Sue Ramsey, Bríd Rodgers, John Tierney.
Eileen Bell, Seamus Close, David Ford, Kieran McCarthy, Monica McWilliams, Jane Morrice, Sean Neeson.
Total Votes 94 Total Ayes 53 (56.4%)
Nationalist Votes 34 Nationalist Ayes 0 (0%)
Unionist Votes 53 Unionist Ayes 53 (100%)
Question accordingly negatived.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I had requested that a code of conduct should be drawn up and circulated to Tellers, so that they would be aware of how they should behave when acting as Tellers. This arose as I was in an unfortunate situation with a particular Teller. Has this been done, or are you working on it?
I did receive your request, and an advisory code of conduct for Tellers has been drawn up. Before that is issued, however, I will be consulting with the Business Committee and, in all probability, with the Procedures Committee. Having observed the vote in the last five or 10 minutes, I think it extremely timely that we have an advisory code for the Tellers.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. As one who has acted as a Teller on a number of occasions, I am very concerned that a finger is being pointed at every Teller here today. My party and I know how to behave as Tellers. We do not interfere with anyone. That should be made quite clear. If an individual has acted in an ungentlemanly way or misconducted himself, that person should be dealt with.
I was not implying that that had happened.
I have responded to the question that has been raised. Members who were acute observers of which Lobbies particular Tellers were in, on this occasion, will understand that conduct is not necessarily a matter of being ungentlemanly or unladylike. It may sometimes be a matter of just being in the wrong Lobby at a particular time.
The sitting was suspended at 1.12 pm
On resuming (Madam Deputy Speaker [Ms Morrice] in the Chair) -
Madam Deputy Speaker:
This debate will last two hours. The proposer may speak for 15 minutes. Then there will be five minutes each for other contributors. The proposer will have another 15 minutes to make the winding-up speech before which there will be a further 15 minutes shared between the two junior Ministers.
Mr C Murphy:
Go raibh maith agat, a Chathaoirligh. I beg to move the following motion:
That this Assembly notes with approval the work to be completed by 30 June 2000 by public bodies in order to comply with the requirements of Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998.
This motion has been put on the clár to afford the Assembly an opportunity to comment on, and set down markers in relation to, conformity with equality requirements by public bodies and other bodies in receipt of public funds. This is the month in which those bodies designated by the Secretary of State are to complete their equality schemes. It is an opportune time for us, as elected representatives, to note with approval the genuine efforts being made by some to conform fully with the requirements of section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and to remind those who have produced inadequate responses that we are determined to hold them fully to those requirements. We must also ask why the Secretary of State appears to have exempted certain public bodies, and many bodies in receipt of public funds, from the requirements of the Act.
The inclusion of an equality agenda in the negotiations that led to the Good Friday Agreement was no accident. The unfortunate attitude of many public and private bodies in this state throughout its history was, perhaps, best summed up by John Taylor at the beginning of those negotiations, when he said
"Of course there can be equality of opportunity, but not equality. The Irish minority cannot be equal to the majority in Northern Ireland."
The incorporation of the equality agenda into the agreement was a direct consequence of resistance to the systematic discrimination that was prosecuted by the institutions of this state, including public bodies, for three generations. Until that apparatus of discrimination is dismantled, the emphasis on equality must be a major focus in the Programme for Government of this Administration. The Good Friday Agreement enshrined the equality agenda and paved the way for the creation of a new statutory duty under section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act to promote equality among all public bodies. This requires such bodies to have due regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity, and that means more than just facilitating equality of opportunity. It means recognising the existing need to redress inequalities and actively promoting policies that address that need. These will inevitably include affirmative action measures, which will need to be clearly identified in equality schemes.
This is not just about religious and political discrimination, which has been the hallmark of this state, important though that is. Equality schemes must actively address disability issues. The experience of inequality among disabled people in this society is evidenced by the fact that nearly one in five persons of working age in the Six Counties has a disability which significantly limits their day-to-day activities. Only 31% of people with disabilities are in employment, compared to 75% of those without.
On gender issues, the discrimination experienced by women in all aspects of the economy of the Six Counties remains an obstacle to social change and economic equality. Just over half - 50·5% - of women are economically active, compared to 69·4% of men. Female workers are concentrated in low-paid, low-status jobs and in part-time, casual or temporary work with poor terms and conditions. Overall, women's income from employment and/or benefits is only 61% of that of men.
On the issue of race, there is continuing racism on institutional and individual levels. The marginalisation of Irish travellers is reflected in their lower life expectancy, higher infant mortality and poorer educational attainment.
Attacks on, and harassment of, ethnic minorities are increasingly common in Irish society, both North and South. There are other issues relating to sexual orientation, age, religious belief, political opinion, and those with and without dependants.
On the unemployment differential, the most recent labour force survey, released a fortnight ago, demonstrated that Catholics are still more than twice as likely to be unemployed as Protestants. This has been the case throughout the last three decades, despite the repeated bogus claims about the efficiency of fair employment legislation in this society. The 1991 census showed that Catholic males in my constituency of Newry and Armagh were as much as three times more likely to be unemployed than Protestant males. In the Mid Ulster constituency, Catholic males were almost three times more likely to be unemployed than Protestant males, and Catholic females twice as likely as Protestant females to be unemployed. Undoubtedly this is as much a product of the practice of discrimination in job location as the practice of discrimination in job appointments. In an article published last year in the 'European Journal of Political Economy', Prof Vani Borooah concluded that the central message, based on analysis of the 1991 census for Northern Ireland, was that there was clear evidence of discrimination against Catholics.
This systemic discrimination has been institutionalised in the Northern Ireland Civil Service. The latest equal opportunities audit, published earlier this year, shows gross under-representation of women and Catholics in the senior grades of the Civil Service. Indeed, it was not long ago that we had the spectacle of a Catholic woman being subjected to the worst kind of sectarian harassment in the office of Baroness Denton. Despite the shame and adverse publicity that that case brought upon the senior Civil Service grades, the perpetrator of that sectarian abuse was subsequently promoted.
Targets must be set, as part of the Programme of Government for this Administration, to eliminate the unemployment differential and to ensure equality of representation for Nationalists and women in the senior Civil Service grades. Many of the equality schemes produced to date, particularly and disappointingly those by many of the Government Departments, fall below acceptable standards. They are deficient in affirmative action measures, transparency monitoring and research, proper use of impact assessments, and effective timetables to tackle seriously the impact of inequality in this state. Some public bodies have not even been required by the Secretary of State to comply with the equality requirements. That is contrary to the intent of the Good Friday Agreement.
The Assembly should send out a signal that less than full and proactive adherence to the principles of equality will not be tolerated from anyone in receipt of public funding. The private sector should also take note of our determination in this regard. We should note with approval the work being undertaken on this issue, but should also serve notice that adherence to equality principles will be a central theme of these institutions. We will remain vigilant until full equality across all these issues has been attained. Go raibh maith agat.
I am somewhat unclear about the meaning and intention of the motion. I am assuming that Members will be noting with approval the intended, or hoped for, result of the work currently being undertaken, and which has been completed by some public bodies and authorities. Rather than necessarily agreeing with Conor Murphy's introductory remarks that many bodies have successfully completed the work, I would like to concentrate on his remarks questioning the levels of completion and adherence to the requirements by slightly amending them to "some bodies have successfully completed." In our view, an analysis of the existing draft equality schemes shows that they leave a lot to be desired, and they appear to have fallen well short of the intended aim.
I and my Colleagues, having examined draft reports from various public bodies, are particularly concerned that such bodies appear to be paying only lip-service to the scheme requirements. Many lack the appropriate levels of detail in their assessment plans. In particular, I draw the Member's attention to the Departments that are attached to the Assembly. There is, in the SDLP's view, a big flaw in many of the assessment plans. They appear to be statements of agreement with the spirit of the legislation, rather than of what arrangements are needed in order to carry out an equality impact assessment of their policies.
Recent European Commission research into equality legislation showed that the quality of the policy statement and the assumed equality-neutral character of the policy were two difficulties in promoting what it referred to as mainstreaming, that is, implementing quality legislation in the workplace. Our departmental equality schemes tend to fail on both counts, as they provide no information to support implicit assumptions or explicit statements of assumptions made.
There does not appear to be any joined-up government discussion of how one Department's policy might influence another. In the SDLP's view, Departments should provide much more detail on decisions relating to their timetable of work.
The documents appear - I am talking about the whole public body requirement - generally to support the requirements of the scheme. But, as I have said already, they do not go far enough in suggesting what is needed within the organisations to carry out an equality impact assessment on policy.
Often it is a simple matter of repeating the guidelines and agreeing with their implementation, rather than proactively illustrating how they can work. The true test is the commitment of finance and resources to achieve equality. It is a good test of a public body's commitment to see whether it will "pony up", as we might say, and make a financial commitment.
As I am trying to illustrate, there is a mixed picture surrounding the draft schemes and their various aspects. For example, how far does the draft scheme issued by any body specify that adequate consideration will be given to impact assessments? I am now talking generally and not just about the Departments, which I have dealt with specifically. Too often one sees repetition of old Policy Appraisal and Fair Treatment-style formulae that are more about redressing discrimination than about actively promoting equality. Many of the schemes do not supply visible impact analysis plans. There are several other concerns, but my time is up.
Madam Deputy Speaker, it is good to see you back in the Chair. This is an interesting debate, and it is interesting to see who has brought the equality issue forward.
I shall touch a little on the equality schemes in the first instance. I have to concur with some of Mr ONeill's remarks. Many of the responses have lacked clarity, particularly in relation to staff training, resourcing, timetabling and impact assessment. There is also a lack of information on the financial implications of the measures proposed, and in many cases there is no indication of how they propose to communicate the schemes to young people. Many of the schemes do not address the needs of older people.
There is much work to be done on a lot of the schemes that have been brought forward on the draft proposals. There is a need for tightening up. The policy of the DUP on equality is that no one should suffer discrimination on account of gender, disability, religion, ethnicity or creed.
We believe that everyone is entitled to be in the same position in respect of getting jobs or of accessing the various options that are available to them and that no one should be discriminated against. I am thinking in particular of the new police force that is to be established and the fact that the selection of police officers is to be carried out on a fifty-fifty basis. In reality, there should be a system whereby those who are best qualified should be selected to carry out the job.
I was told today that Sinn Féin had been speaking to foreign journalists and telling them that people who had previously been engaged in paramilitarism should be entitled to join the RUC. In my view that is not equal representation. All those who adhere to the law and who are prepared to enforce it in an impartial manner should be entitled to apply to join the RUC, or the Northern Ireland Police Service, or whatever it happens to be called. Nothing else should be taken into account.
I would be interested to see how European money will be distributed under these new equality schemes. In the past there was a very unequal distribution of European money. We heard some interesting figures being quoted today - figures that go back to 1991. That is the last century, in case those people did not realise. It is time to come into the new century, into the new era, into the new millennium and leave the old century behind. On a regular basis, we hear old, irrelevant figures being quoted, but perhaps a lot of people in South Armagh, those referred to, were "doing the double" at that time. That was before the Tories had drawn up the legislation which stamped out a lot of that, and perhaps not as many people were unemployed as the statistics created by that census showed. That census has undoubtedly been used to discriminate against members of my community when it came to getting money from the European peace funds, and that should be addressed under the new equality initiative. Ministers of this Government have made certain appointments. How does that fit in with the equality agenda? The Health Department, for example, has brought out its equality agenda, and yet the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety has taken on a multiple murderer to act as her special adviser. Was that person the best qualified to do the job, or was it simply a case of employing somebody because of his past? [Interruption]
Madam Deputy Speaker:
Will the Member please be very cautious about his remarks.
I have nothing to be cautious about, Madam Deputy Speaker. I can name the person he murdered. He happened to come from my constituency, and I went to school with his son. I have no problem in doing that, if it is the wish of the Assembly. I can understand that that Minister would, perhaps, like to portray herself as being a very green Republican in spite of the fact that some of the Sunday newspapers indicated that she comes from a fine line of British Army soldiers. Her great-grandfather once joined the forces to suppress Fenians - a fact that is quite amusing. Given that that was her background, she may go out of her way - [Interruption]
Madam Deputy Speaker:
- to be seen to be more Republican than necessary, but she should not let that affect her dealings with the workforce. She should employ everybody on an equal basis.
Madam Deputy Speaker:
I am afraid your time is up, Mr Poots.
There are currently a number of problems with these schemes, and from what I understand, 105 of them have been completed to date. I want to pay tribute at this point to a number of bodies that have called for consultation with others, in particular the South Eastern Education and Library Board, which wrote to Assembly Members yesterday. The letter gave details of meetings at which the Board is prepared to have consultation before it finally submits its schemes. This is a piece of good practice which the other designated bodies would have done well to follow, rather than simply preparing a scheme and forwarding it to each of us. We currently have approximately 50 of these schemes sitting on our desks, and they could have notified us about some of these consultation meetings.
That brings me to my first point. This is such a new method of designing equality in Northern Ireland that a great deal more consultation should have taken place. There are three stages. The Equality Commission made it very clear to the designated bodies that they could have taken more time in the preparation for approval of the schemes, and then decided on what should be screened for impact assessment statements.
Having read a number of them, I am concerned that the departmental bodies - not the non-departmental ones - have decided what they are screening out. So, it seems they have taken a very negative approach to the issue of equality. In other words, they are deciding what they are not going to do, rather than what they are going to do.
Finally, there would have been a third stage, after the schemes had been forwarded to the Equality Commission, when there could have been some consultation on the impact assessment statements. I am slightly disappointed that they did not take the opportunity to engage in the kind of wide-ranging consultation that needs to happen on issues of equality, and in which the Human Rights Commission is now prepared to engage, in relation to its bill of rights.
This is a unique opportunity for Northern Ireland. Human rights and equality should not be owned by any section of the House - they belong to us all. With that in mind, I commend Mr Poots for his early comments, before he got into the disappointing party political statements. He was right in saying that Departments have lost an opportunity to speak to children in particular about the impact, and also to older people who have often been the more excluded and marginalised members of our community.
Most of the schemes comment on disability, religion, race and gender. However, this was an opportunity for us to bring in others, and link up Departments which are responsible for older people and the younger members of our community.
There is serious concern that the Secretary of State has still not designated other bodies for equality schemes. Different types of bodies have been designated, and those currently completing the schemes have been designated under two pieces of legislation - the Commissioner for Complaints (Northern Ireland) Order 1996 and the Ombudsman (Northern Ireland) Order 1996. The Secretary of State has the power to designate other bodies and has not done so. He should now set out a timetable by which he will designate them and let us see how comprehensive these bodies are.
Now that our new Ministers are in place, they should be committed to the schemes. In their absence, the Departments and the designated bodies had to go ahead and prepare the schemes. The Ministers may not have had much time to sign off the schemes, other than perhaps by adding their signatures. Now is the time for them, in this consultation process, to be active change agents. If the statements do not come from the top and there is not a commitment to allocate resources - as Mr Poots has pointed out - and put the training in place, they will only be as good as words on paper. Many of us know that writing reports or making statements is worth little if they are not enforced or implemented.
I take some hope from the fact that we have now gone a long way in Northern Ireland towards not just talking about and using the rhetoric of equality, but to producing action.
I thank Mr Conor Murphy for proposing the motion on equality, as it gives the House an early opportunity to examine the issue of equality schemes currently out for consultation across Government Departments.
The equality schemes set up under section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 are a worthwhile first step. However, I know, from my own experience in responding to the Department of Education's scheme, that the consultation period is very short. If equality is to work for any group of people then the key to success is enforcement and accountability. I call on the Departments, and the Ministers in particular, to put equality high on their agenda. I call on them to ensure that section 75 is implemented in full and that they address some of the issues raised today and I call on them to ensure that adequate resources are allocated, suitable training is given to staff and that appropriate mechanisms are put in place for proper consultation, particularly, complaint procedures.
Questions also need to be asked about whether the internal management structures for coping with the equality duty are adequate and about whether suitable weight is given to the equality of opportunity considerations when it comes to making final decisions. These queries need to be answered and appropriate amendments made to redress the major flaws in these schemes.
I would also like to bring to the House's attention the specific issue of equality for those with a disability under the requirements of section 75 of the Act. The House will be aware that the Disability Discrimination Act of 1995 is already on the statute book. However, for this law to have real teeth in the future, it is essential to establish a commission of enforcement for Northern Ireland. Without such enforcement it will not be possible to make serious inroads into the present levels of discrimination. In the rest of the UK the newly formed Disability Rights Commission has real teeth to deal with those who flout the law. In Great Britain, the commission possesses the powers not only to investigate cases of inequality in the workplace but, where necessary, to pursue action through the courts. As no such protection or redress exists for disabled people in Northern Ireland, I look forward to early legislation emanating from the Office of the First and Deputy First Ministers not only to correct this imbalance, but, more importantly, to protect disabled people against discrimination in our society.
As a result of the House's recent suspension, the powers contained in the Equality (Disability, etc) (Commencement No 1) Order (Northern Ireland) 2000 were left for others to decide. As a result, disabled people in Northern Ireland got a raw deal and did not receive the protection they rightly deserve. The House has the duty in the months and years ahead to ensure such protection. Then and only then will we be able to talk seriously about equality.
In recent years there has been a more pragmatic and forward-looking approach to various aspects of equality legislation, particularly when it refers to disability and gender. May I echo the comments made by Mr Poots that noone in the House would contemplate or countenance accepting or acquiescing to discrimination on the grounds of ethnicity, religion, community background or anything else. We believe in the concept of a fair and equal society.
Now, looking at the timetable for equality impact assessments, it is very clear, taking the equality agenda as a whole, that what is happening in Northern Ireland is the emerging of a concept of inequality. A revision of legislation is being undertaken as result of this concept rather than as a result of reality. That concept is total and utter nonsense. It is a fallacy that people are discriminated against in Northern Ireland because they are Roman Catholic. People may say that for party political purposes or because they need some medical or psychiatric assistance. Perhaps they should listen and learn.
The tenth monitoring report of the Equality Commission is available only now; it was issued last week and gives the current up-to-date figures, in local government terms, for the Nationalist-controlled councils. In Newry and Mourne - I think one of its representatives spoke earlier - 76·8% of recruits last year were Roman Catholic. In the case of Down District Council - again, one of its representatives spoke earlier - 78·9% of recruits last year were Roman Catholic. In Londonderry - a representative has not spoken until now - 77·4% of recruits were Roman Catholic. In the case of Omagh District Council, 73·8% of recruits were Roman Catholic. Strabane came out remarkably well: only 60% were Roman Catholic. What sort of world are these people living in? I have not gone into the statistics for private sector companies, which I have mentioned from time to time over the past 20 years.
Will the Member give way?
No, not when I have only one and a half minutes.
The private sector is even worse. In the case of Norbrook Laboratories, the head of which sits on one of the North/South Councils, 85·9% of recruits are Roman Catholics. The figure for Glen Electric is 95·1% - we are coming close to 100%. Sean Quinn's is 91·2% Roman Catholic. Reality checks are needed big time. People want to try to dwell on a concept and an illusion of reality. In reality, our community is being discriminated against day in, day out.
Any equality impact assessment study must take account of the impact that reverse discrimination has had over the past 20 years. There is nothing that I have seen or heard from either the Equality Commission or any submissions to it that takes account of that - nothing. It has to be and it must be taken account of because these figures demonstrate a worsening position. If I were to read out the figures of 10 years ago they would have been slightly better than that. Where there are large numbers of Roman Catholics in employment, even more are being recruited. Of course there is the reverse situation where there are a large number of Protestants being employed, but it is not the case that large numbers of Protestants are also being recruited.
Go raibh maith agat. Equality is central to the Good Friday Agreement and the incorporation of the equality agenda into the Good Friday Agreement was a direct result of the inequalities that have existed in this state since partition. As my Colleague, Conor Murphy, pointed out, senior Unionist politicians in the Six Counties failed to recognise the inequalities that existed then, and some still fail to recognise them.
Section 75 is a key part of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. Section 73 outlines the duties of the Equality Commission. The legislation also details the equality schemes that will help to address the imbalances in our society. It should provide a framework to help ensure that equality of opportunity for all is made a reality in policy making. By 30 June, public authorities will have to comply with the requirements of section 75 by law. However, it is vital that all public authorities are included in this designation. At this point Peter Mandelson, who has authority for designating bodies in receipt of public funding, has not yet designated universities, further education colleges and UK Departments. I urge him to do so immediately.
The UK Departments include the Home Office, which is responsible for the appalling conditions to which asylum seekers here are still subjected, and the Social Security Agency, which clearly has an obligation to promote equality. Some other glaring omissions include the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, which has is no equality scheme for the IDB - a body which has been criticised recently for its poor management and bad judgement, and which has a huge budget to spend as and, more importantly, where it wishes.
The Department for Social Development, in which there is no equality scheme for the Belfast Regeneration Office, has spent millions of pounds of taxpayers' money on the Laganside project; but it is doubtful how this will impact on the most deprived areas of the city in terms of employment and accessibility. While the docks area thrives with building work going on as far as the eye can see, areas like north and west Belfast remain as they were, with dereliction and deprivation being the norm.
We are in danger of creating greater divisions and disparity in this city, and across the Six Counties, unless funding is properly allocated so that all can benefit from the resources that are available. If the Belfast Regeneration Office does not have to comply with equality legislation, there will be a danger that Nationalist areas will suffer neglect. What I find hardest to understand is the reticence of the Office of the Centre, under the First and Deputy First Ministers, on addressing religious and political discrimination. They are listed in the screening process as matters for consideration in five years from now. The same scheme has listed community relations for impact appraisal in the first year of work.
The promotion of equality in employment, goods and services should be the primary duty and the promotion of good relations a secondary consideration. If the former is achieved, it should surely underpin the latter. As for the equality schemes themselves, it is essential to have clear and unambiguous timetables specified for achieving the tasks and goals. Equality schemes must include timetables for training, for screening and for the production of impact assessments and annual reports. They must clearly specify how the body concerned intends to secure equality and not merely repeat the guidelines. We have to ensure that overlaps that may exist are properly dealt with and do not result in gaps in the provision for equality. Schemes must indicate the extent of their responsibilities for impact assessment and show how this relates to the next level up or down to ensure adequate protection.
None of the equality schemes that I have seen to date has addressed one of the most important aspects of this work - is the effective monitoring of employment practices by public authorities. We all know about disparities in employment practices which were only addressed in part by the old fair employment legislation. For example, senior ranks of the Civil Service and Government Departments discriminated wholesale against Catholics.
Madam Deputy Speaker:
Order. There are conversations going on which I am able to hear from the Chair. Let us keep quiet while the Member continues.
Go raibh maith agat. We all know about disparities in employment practices which were addressed only in part by the old fair employment legislation. We must use this opportunity to get it right and to ensure that future generations are not discriminated against because of religious belief, political opinion, age, sexual orientation, race, gender, dependence or disability. Go raibh maith agat.
Mrs E Bell:
I am sure we will get order.
Equality, as Mr Campbell has confirmed, is a term like reconciliation, agreement and even peace that has many definitions,depending on your background and perceptions. It is therefore difficult for us to ascertain how the statutory duty in section 75 will affect the need for equality of opportunity for all and how it will be implemented by designated public authorities in terms of good value, equal treatment, and best practice. This must be done within the specified criteria. I recommend a means used by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. It has circulated to all other bodies, and to their staff, an Equality Commitment Statement. If any member of staff feels that he is being discriminated against in any way he can call that up to have it dealt with.
Something like that is clear. As other Members have said, sometimes it is great to put something on paper, but it can be hard to implement it. The submissions that I have read from many different public authorities and bodies make very similar reading. It looks as if they all used the same template, which seems to be this guide to the statutory duties. I got the definite impression that many, if not all, seem to have been completed simply because they were obligatory rather than from an informed viewpoint, and clearly that gives concern.
The Equality Commission has worked tirelessly on advising and informing authorities on the implementation of the statutory duty, but it is early days for all of us. We will need to support the Equality Commission's examination of policies for promoting equality of opportunity. This must be done within appendix 1 of the Act, which I do not have time to read out.
Equality-impact assessment must also be clearly and effectively conducted so that everyone feels they have been treated exactly the same. The consultation process, as others have mentioned, must be thorough and comprehensive; it does not seem to have been in some submissions I have seen in different areas which I know. There has not been as wide a consultation to complete their submission as there should have been. Members have already mentioned shortcomings regarding disability and gender, therefore, rather than follow my notes, I shall merely say that I share their concerns.
One of the main problems to date is the complete absence of information for the public, who seem unaware of the statutory duty's implications. Procedures must be publicised for the public so that equality requirements can be properly maintained. As has been said, in due course equality schemes must be produced by other bodies and authorities that have not been designated, and I hope the Secretary of State will examine that. Organisationssuch as the Assembly must look at it to ensure that we lead the way in promoting equality at all levels. Our Departments have had to make submissions on issues like employment and recruitment practice, and procedures of general good practice and we must do likewise.
We are in the early days of real equality that we all understand. However, I will, as a Member of the Committee of the Centre, along with my Colleagues, be looking at the role of the Office of the First Minister and Deputy Minister in the area of equality. We shall be looking carefully at implementation so that all the gaps are stopped. Like others, I welcome this. When I first looked at this motion, I thought it was perhaps too early. But I now believe, on the basis of comments made by others, that it has been timely, ensuring that we all know what we are in for in the coming months, and hope that we can all look each other in the face equally.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I listened with interest to what Mr Campbell said about the Equality Commission's annual report. As most Members know, Assembly Members get most reports that go out, but it is significant that we do not get a copy of that particular one. Would it be in order for the Assembly to take that point up with the Equality Commission and ask it why it does not circulate this report annually to Members?
Madam Deputy Speaker:
That is not a point of order, but the matter could be taken up with the Printed Paper Office.
I agree with the closing remark of my North Down Colleague Eileen Bell that this debate on the issue of equality is timely. However - and I shall come to the reasons presently - I take exception to the wording of the motion, which I feel is perhaps not quite so appropriate or timely. As the Member remarked the importance of equality, like many of these words, lies perhaps as much in perception as in reality. Unfortunately, for many within the Unionist community, the terms "equality" and "Equality Commission" conjure up other images. Indeed, their memories are very much drawn to the Fair Employment Commission, which for many in the Unionist community was heavily discredited. For many of them, it is difficult to approach this issue in the context of trying to create a situation where there is equality of opportunity, which should be our aim for everyone. Many Unionists will view the word "equality" in the same way many people viewed Eastern European states calling themselves "democratic" in the former Soviet era. A concern among many Unionists is whether the Equality Commission will simply be another exercise in discrimination against Unionists.
I do not think that should be the case, and I hope we shall all strive for a situation in which we have full equality of opportunity, not simply in religion, but, as has been mentioned, in gender, ethnic background and disability. All those things should be tackled.
This brings me to the nature of the motion itself. It is rather clumsily worded, for two conclusions could be drawn from it as to what is intended. Either we are congratulating the fact that work is going on in the area of equality, although to be congratulating people on the fact that the matter is being looked at without any examination as to the quality of the work itself seems to be a rather facile notion, or secondly, we are congratulating the output that has been achieved. Given that there was a deadline of 30 June, it seems premature to be making a judgement on whether it is achieving, at this stage, its objectives. Indeed, we have heard a wide range of criticism from various Members. It may well be that, given time, those criticisms can be accepted and dealt with, but there is great concern that many of the responses which have been put forward are fairly inadequate and do not cover all the issues. In particular, given the concentration on religious discrimination, other issues such as gender discrimination and giving teeth to disability legislation have tended, in the past, to be pushed to one side. Before we make a judgement on whether the matter is being dealt with properly by the equality review, we need to look at the end product, rather than simply welcoming it at this stage.
I question the methodology that has been used. The sheer number of Departments and statutory bodies producing reports led to a period when all of us were deluged more or less every day with another report from another group. I wonder whether the idea of simply getting every Department or every group to produce its own report was the right approach.
I also wonder whether the issue of equality could be better tackled by a more holistic approach which actually looked at the wider issues, and also whether Government resources have been wisely spent on these dozens of reports, rather than having been used to look at the issue in a broader frame. There is then a tendency to ignore a lot of the bigger issues.
For example, I have severe concerns, from a legal point of view, about some of the powers that the fair employment body had. We had a situation - I do not know whether it has been addressed yet - which particularly discriminated against employers. If an employer lost a case, he could not appeal in terms of quantum; he could appeal only in terms of law. There are a number of similar issues which I do not think -
Will the Member give way?
I do not have time to give way.
There have been a number of issues of that nature. There are issues, in terms of taking a look at the wider approach, as to whether the whole area of disability discrimination has been properly dealt with. I am not sure that simply pigeon-holing it into a wide range of Departments and minor Government bodies is the right way of dealing with it. It should have been dealt with centrally using a bigger approach.
I also question, for example, discrimination in my own constituency. Much has been made of discrimination in a number of areas. North Down, which is supposed to be the "gold coast" of Northern Ireland - [Interruption]
Madam Deputy Speaker:
Will the Member please draw his remarks to a close.
North Down, at one stage, had the lowest rate of unemployment in Northern Ireland, but it now has above-average unemployment. I believe that that is due to Government policy. I do not think that this is the right motion for today. I am glad to see it is being debated, but I do not think the wording is correct.
First, I want to make an observation about this debate, which I hope will be heard by the bureaucracies inside and outside Government. There is a very high degree of consensus in the Chamber on this issue. There may be some difference of opinion - and there is some profound difference of opinion on the outworking of equality practice - but it is quite clear that, that aside, all those who have spoken today from all the parties now accept that there is an equality duty; that equality has been mainstreamed and that a culture of equality has to prevail inside government and beyond in the North. I have observed, not just for our own benefit but more to ensure that those who are in and close to government and those who are in public authorities in the North understand, that there is a high degree of political consensus on the issue of equality in the North, unlike at any other time in our history. Public authorities in particular need to acknowledge and accept that there is a growing consensus and cohesion and that whatever the past might have been, the political establishment in the North will increasingly make demands from public authorities to ensure that they fulfil their equality functions and equality duties.
While the Chamber understands that public authorities have taken time to come to terms with their new duty under the Northern Ireland Act and acknowledges that the outworking of that, at public authority level, is difficult and requires many changes, nevertheless it is appropriate to put on record what is expected of them. Other Members have referred to that already, so I will only mention two crucial requirements on public authorities which, to date, have not been reflected adequately or at all in the draft equality schemes that they have submitted to the Government.
The first requirement is essential. Section 75 lays two responsibilities on public authorities. There is concern that public authorities will concentrate on one to the absence of the other. That will not be accepted by politicians or by the Equality Commission in the North. The two duties are to pay due regard to the need to promote equality and opportunity and to have regard to the desirability of promoting good relations. We can easily imagine situations where, while fulfilling their equality of opportunity duty, they will respect community relations but fail to promote equality of opportunity as required by the legislation.
Public authorities need to appreciate that the higher duty upon them is the need to fulfil equality of opportunity. While it is desirable to promote community relations, that is a lesser duty, even though it is a high duty that they owe to the local community. Public authorities need to be aware of the difference and of the primacy of the need to promote equality of opportunity rather than the desirability of promoting community relations.
The second point I want to make to the public authorities is that there is a lack of definition and detail in the draft equality schemes that they have submitted to the Government. They need to demonstrate much more conclusively that they are prepared to invest in the equality duty, the resources and all the other requirements necessary to see that it works in practice. In particular, they need to demonstrate more fully the requirement for training to be undertaken by public officials to ensure that the duty is fulfilled. They need to outline more clearly how resources are going to be invested to ensure that the duty is fulfilled, and how they are going to apply the principles of their equality schemes generally. They need to outline clarity in screening to ensure that we understand why public authorities select some of their functions rather than others when it comes to applying the public authority duty.
Finally, and most centrally, the public authorities need to outline how each equality duty and equality scheme fulfils the Targeting Social Need requirement of Government. A former Secretary of State said Targeting Social Need was one of three compelling requirements of government in the North. Public authorities need to demonstrate that in practice in each area.