HC Deb 12 November 1987 vol 122 cc535-7
1. Mr. Tony Lloyd

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what proposals he has to legislate on the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights report on equality of opportunity.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Peter Viggers)

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced on 29 October, we shall be taking the report's recommendations into account in framing detailed proposals for new legislation on fair employment.

Mr. Lloyd

Does the Minister accept that the report has received considerable approval from most sections of society in Northern Ireland? Will he guarantee that he will introduce legislation to amend the Fair Employment (Northern Ireland) Act 1976, and that because that was Westminster legislation he will introduce the new legislation before the House?

Mr. Viggers

We are firmly committed to such legislation. The standing advisory commission's report contained some 240 specific recommendations, so we must give careful thought to the matter before we legislate. We shall bring the issues before the House; we are currently considering whether we should do that by a Bill or by order.

Rev. Ian Paisley

Is the Minister aware of what occurred yesterday in Northern Ireland when workers at Short's, the University of Ulster and at Fisher Body wanted to observe a one-minute silence? The managements said that, as a result of the FEA arrangements, they could not do that because it would offend certain employees in the work place. Is he aware that when nurses from the Royal Victoria hospital complex who worked with the nurse who was slaughtered asked that the Union Jack be put at half mast they were told that it would be offensive? It was only when the board intervened that the flag was flown at half mast. Will the Secretary of State assure the people of Northern Ireland that they will have the right to observe a one-minute silence in their workplace when atrocities are carried out by the IRA?

Mr. Viggers

The points made by the hon. Gentleman do not directly follow the subject of the main question, but I assure him that the Government are committed to legislation on fair employment. We believe that our policy has the broad support of employers and employee representative bodies and is the right measure to reduce sectarian difficulties.

Mr. John David Taylor

Does the Minister see any inconsistency in the fact that a person was recently removed from employment in this building who was merely suspected of supporting Sinn Fein, when the Government's legislation is forcing employers in Northern Ireland to employ people who positively support Sinn Fein?

Mr. Viggers

The Government are committed to fair employment. The process that we have outlined in our consultative document and again in the employment guide in September is—

Mr. John David Taylor

Answer the question.

Mr. Speaker


Mr. Viggers

Monitoring of sectarian background is necessary to encourage employers and employees to co-operate.

Mr. Cash

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is essential, in maintaining the confidence of the people of Northern Ireland — not only in relation to the improvements that have been made in court procedures vis-à-vis the Diplock courts but in matters relating to fair employment — to ensure that Catholics have a fair opportunity to attain jobs on terms equal to those available to other members of the Ulster community?

Mr. Viggers

My hon. Friend expresses the general view that it is broadly unacceptable to have unemployment among those from Catholic background at two and a half times higher than that among those from Protestant backgrounds, and that the Government line is the correct one.

Mr. Hume

Does the Minister accept that the standing advisory commission statistics, the Government's own consultative statistics and, indeed, his own remarks show an unprecedented frankness in admitting the extent of the problem and a determination to deal with it? Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we need a two-pronged approach? First, we need strong fair employment legislation to outlaw discrimination and to take sanctions against employers who deliberately discriminate; and, secondly, we need investment in areas of high unemployment. Anything that obstructs that process of investment damages the creation of fair employment in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Viggers

The figures that I cited were the Government's figures, confirmed by the standing advisory commission. I support the line that the hon. Gentleman has put before the House. Clearly, if we can encourage further investment and project Northern Ireland as a good place to do business and a fair place to employ people, we shall help to promote further prosperity and jobs.

Mr. James Marshall

Does the Minister accept that that last aim could well be advanced if the Government showed firm political commitment to the measures in two ways? Does he agree that the report should be debated on the Floor of the House and, more important, will he give a commitment that the legislation will be introduced in the form of a Westminster Bill and not by order?

Mr. Viggers

We are giving careful consideration to the latter point. On the timing of the legislation, there has been a large response to the proposals in our consultative paper. Some 80 substantial written representations have been made and it is crucial that we get the legislation right.

Forward to