HC Deb 11 June 1976 vol 912 cc1943-50
Mr. McCusker

I beg to move Amendment No. 21, in page 7, line 35, at end insert— '(a) identifying factors not related to the presence or absence of equality of opportunity which influence those patterns and trends.' We have reached those parts of the Bill which can be described as somewhat unpleasant when one gets down to the nitty-gritty. This clause, although it is one of the shortest in the Bill, received perhaps the greatest amount of attention in Committee.

The clause imposes a duty upon the agency to identify and maintain registers of religious affiliations of employees of companies throughout Northern Ireland and to review those registers of religious affiliations with a view to deciding whether the statistics reveal the existence or absence of equality of opportunity. The registers are also designed to assist the agency in forming certain opinions.

There was lengthy debate on this matter in Committee. No matter how one seeks to get round the problem, it still boils down to the fact that someone must—at least initially—go through a list of names and append against the names certain religious affiliations. We were assured in Committee that the names themselves might be dispensed with but that eventually the agency would keep a register containing a list of employers and that against that list of employers would be a statement that in some instances the employer employs a preponderence of Protestants and in some instances the employer employs a preponderence of Catholics. We were told that on the basis of those statistics the agency would consider whether the statistics revealed the existence of or absence of equality of opportunity.

It became obvious as the debate proceeded in Committee that the Minister of State who was then handling the Bill did not seek to put that interpretation upon the clause. He admitted eventually that there were many other factors involved—the geographical location of the works, the composition of the population in the area of the factory, the training facilities, the tradition of employment in the area and even the security situation. Those could all be factors which would ultimately influence the composition of a work force. The Minister of State's careful qualification of what was meant is set out in columns 256 and 260 of the Official Report.

We are trying to ensure that, although the agency may require these statistics to enable it to do some work, the statistics will not be used simply as a basis of making certain assumptions but that the agency will take into account all the other factors I have mentioned and when reaching its conclusions will not be prepared to damn someone on the basis of statistics when other factors are involved. For that reason, and in the hope that it meets the assurances given by the Minister, we have put down the amendment.

Mr. Powell

I want to add a special appeal to the Minister of State to treat the amendment favourably. He will have refreshed his memory of the long debate on this clause in Committee. As that debate proceeded, it became clear that there was an ambiguity and a possible double or alternative interpretation in the clause, and an interpretation that would affect the whole meaning of the work of the agency.

The ambiguity arose out of the expression identify and keep under review patterns and trends of employment … considering whether they reveal the existence or absence of equality of opportunity". It seemed to some of my hon. Friends and myself that the natural meaning of that duty of the agency was that it was to compile statistics of the religions of employees which would enable it to identify the existing, and to review changing, patterns of employment in the aspect of the existence or absence of discrimination.

As the debate continued, it became clear that that was not the intention of the Government and was not the sort of duty they were seeking to impose upon the agency. Indeed, there must be a dozen passages in Hansard of the Committee stage where the then Minister of State, in the most emphatic terms, disavowed any intention that the agency could find itself compiling statistics of percentages by religion and applying some sort of quota norm to answering the question: is there or is there not here equality of opportunity?

As we listened to the then Minister of State, we saw that the patterns and trends of employment could be reviewed from a different point of view in this context and that the duty of the agency might be intended to be to establish the basic facts of the whole employment situation, against which the existence of discrimination and the denial of equality of opportunity would be able to stand out—if I may put it another way, that it could be the duty of the agency to establish what was accounted for in other ways than by discrimination, and thus isolate discrimination and the denial of equality of opportunity. That seemed to us to be a perfectly rational procedure—indeed, a procedure implicit in the existence and general duties of the agency.

If I may address the absent spirit of the hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. van Straubenzee), I hope that he is in a small minority in considering that where hon. Members do not believe that a Bill will serve a useful purpose, or are even opposed to the principle of the Bill, their proper attitude thereafter is to clear off and leave the Bill as it is, on the general principle that the worse it is drafted the better, since it is not, in their view, serving a useful purpose. For my part, I believe that there is no contradiction in parliamentary terms between what we said on Second Reading and what we shall say on Third Reading and endeavouring, taking the assumptions that are accepted by the House by its vote on Second Reading, to ensure that the Bill is as good as possible within the framework of those assumptions.

1.45 p.m.

We have sought in this amendment to ensure that the intended interpretation is given to the duty of reviewing patterns and trends of employment. I assure the Minister that, with the best will in the world, until we had been through two or three hours in Committee we were unable to read Clause 16 except as implying the compilation of statistics of religion and the application of a quota norm as the evidence of non-discrimination. We have the advantage now that we have on the record of our Committee proceed- ings several statements of the Government's intentions. No doubt it is true that the agency will be guided and motivated by the intention of its creators—we are not always, I am sorry to say, guided and motivated by the intention of our creator—we shall, nevertheless, all be ready to give the agency the benefit of the doubt; but so crucial is this matter, and so much suspicion and even anger attaches to the notion of catalogues by percentage of religious affiliation and the idea that there is some rule of thumb that will be applied to the statistics, that we ought to do everything we can on the face of the Bill to banish the possibility of that view being taken, or even of that interpretation being given, of the proceedings of the agency.

It seems to us that the amendment will achieve precisely that effect. It states exactly what the then Minister of State said the agency would set about doing: that it would set about establishing the scope of other factors determining the matter, that it would then consider whether that revealed the existence or absence of discrimination, and consequently it would be assisted in forming an opinion as stated in paragraph (b). I appeal to the Minister of State, bearing in mind that we are in difficulties at this late stage in the second house of the Bill and, therefore, we cannot draft and redraft for very much longer, to accept this wording.

Mr. Molyneaux

I want to say a few words in a general way about the background to the amendment, because I remember well what happened when I was serving on a public body in Northern Ireland. We were assembled for our monthly meeting, and the secretary read a letter from some superior body asking for a breakdown by religious denominations of the members of our staff, which at that time numbered about 100. I remember the stunned reaction of my fellow members of all denominations as that letter was read.

After a time they recovered, and I discovered that they were staring at me. Eventually one of them asked me: "Did you know, because, after all, you were the chairman of the panel which appointed them?". I was totally unable to give any answer because no such element had ever entered into our considerations. We were concerned only to get the best people for the job on all occasions.

The body making the inquiry received a reply which the original letter well deserved and merited, but it is true to say that from that day onwards there was a degree of suspicion both in the main body and in the relatively small panel that was responsible for the appointments. There was a degree of suspicion which had never before existed. Had it not been for the fact that my two fellow members of the panel, both respected members of the Catholic community in Northern Ireland, were good friends of mine, I tremble to think what might have been the effect on our operations. There might have been an evil influence on all our future considerations of applications, applicants and interviews had we felt ourselves bound somehow to decide not on the merit of whether a person was the best for the job, but whether he would fit into a particular religious category. Because of that experience, which will be with me all my days, I warmly support the amendment.

Mr. Speaker

Before I call the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) I hope that the authorities will ensure that the noise outside the Chamber stops. We cannot have our proceedings disturbed in this way.

Rev. Ian Paisley

With my lung power I could shout above that noise.

We are coming to one of the important matters for hon. Members from Northern Ireland. I would deplore any attempt by the agency to interpret the trends in employment by the quota system, because anyone who knows Northern Ireland—and there are many hon. Members who are ignorant of the Northern Ireland situation—are aware that there are certain sections of trade and industry that are almost totally in the hands of one religious section.

I am thinking of one section of the building trade which is 100 per cent. in the hands of Roman Catholics and another section of another trade which is 100 per cent. in the hands of Protestants, because they have long traditions and people of particular denominations have been employed in those trades for many years. I remember being in a situation where employment was needed for a particular reason and I learned that fact as I have never learned it before. I do not want to give the House the names of places in the building trade where that situation applies, or the names of places where it applies in another industry.

When speaking of equality of opportunity I am emphasising that the person who has the qualifications for the job should not be discriminated against because of his religion. The man with the qualifications for the job should get it, and we want to see that situation safeguarded. How will the agency make its investigation? How will it interpret trends if it does not deal with religious affiliations within employing bodies? Will it rest with the employers to establish the religion of employees?

Many organisations purposely do not inquire about the religion of employees and in the present delicate situation many people in Northern Ireland do not want their religious affiliations to be known. There are also those who have no particular religious affiliation.

The story is told that in one of the troubles a person was asked his religion and he said that he was an agnostic. He was then asked whether he was a Roman Catholic agnostic or a Protestant agnostic. Those are the facts of life. I trust that the Minister will realise that the purpose of the amendment is to deal with an important issue.

Mr. Moyle

One virtue of the debate on this amendment is that it enables me to reiterate everything that my right hon. Friend the Member for Salford, West (Mr. Orme) said in Committee about the total undesirability of trying to administer the Bill on the basis of quotas and registers of people's religion. The Government do not wish to see the Bill administered in that way and I am in a position to reaffirm everything that my hon. Friend said. At least the House is aware of the Government's intentions and the Government are aware of the worries of Northern Ireland hon. Members.

We are dealing with what will become a totally new legal concept. In all these matters to some extent we are dependent upon the way in which the courts will interpret any concepts that we write into the Bill. The phrase in the Bill about reviewing patterns and trends of employment is sufficient to take the administration of the future Act away from the narrow point of quotas and registers in respect of the employees about whom hon. Members are worried and away to the broader issues as they are related to employment.

A typical example would be where it was found that a factory had a sectarian bias one way or the other which was explained by the fact that representatives from the minority concerned might have to travel through a particular area to get to the factory, which they might prefer not to do. That might explain the sectarian nature of employment at a factory. That situation is covered by the existing wording of the Bill. But in an attempt to make it quite clear, hon. Members have introduced a further sub-paragraph.

Until now their aim has been to make the drafting of the Bill as precise as possible, but here they seem to have gone the opposite way in trying to introduce a sub-paragraph which seems capable of bringing almost anything into the considerations of the Fair Employment Agency. If we incorporated that subparagraph into the Bill, I wonder what the precise effect would be when being adjudicated upon by a court. It is always possible that such matters will be subject to adjudication. Perhaps it is a flight of fancy, but the whole matter is so wide that maybe the constitutional link between Great Britain and Northern Ireland might be brought into question if the amendment were accepted.

Mr. Powell

The Minister of State has pointed out that the agency would have to identify such a matter as the existence of a dangerous area and the location of a dangerous area for transit. It follows that to do the job as he has interpreted it, the agency will have to identify a whole range of factors which are unrelated to discrimination. I wonder whether he has really grasped the difficulty with which we are endeavouring to cope.

Mr. Moyle

I am seized of the difficulties. It is a question of the best way of solving the problem. The words as they stand relate in some way or another all the matters which the agency must take into consideration to employment. I know that a statute must be construed as a whole. Even so, the amendment is very wide and moves right away from patterns and trends of employment to a point where it is not easy to judge where the bounds of the Bill and of the Fair Employment Agency operating it could be drawn.

2.0 p.m.

For this reason I am loth to accept the amendment. I could understand it if the amendment were being put forward on the basis that hon. Members opposite want to create a climate of opinion within which the agency will work and if they were addressing themselves to this end to secure further public clarification. That would be a valid purpose for the amendment. But it is so wide that it is difficult to judge what its precise terms are, and I must ask the House to reject it.

Mr. McCusker

What the Minister said obviously gives us pause, and it may well be there may well be something defective in our amendment. But under the clause in its present form there is undoubtedly a duty on the agency to compile or keep registers of religious affiliation. I do not know how the agency will keep under review "patterns and trends", unless it decides at any moment how many of one religion work in a certain place and how many of another, and carry out the same exercise six months or a year later.

We hope that we have been assured that the agency will not keep names, but it will keep totals, and someone has to say what religion a certain person is, and so on. If the Minister can assure us that "patterns and trends" can be kept under review by some other means, and that there will be no percentage lists of employment in different places of employment and so on, that may help us, but at present that is what the clause indicates. It indicates that the agency keeps them with a view to considering whether they prove that there is equality or lack of equality of opportunity.

Amendment negatived.

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