HC Deb 25 May 1989 vol 153 cc1167-71

  1. '(1) Except in contracts certified in accordance with the provisions of section 39(7) of this Act, all public authorities shall include the provisions of the Code of Practice in every contract hereafter entered into with every person ("the contractor").
  2. (2) The contractor shall include the provisions of the Code of Practice to this Act in every sub-contract so that such provisions are binding upon each subcontractor, unless the sub-contract is certified in accordance with the provisions of section 39(7) of this Act.
  3. (3) Every public authority shall require as a condition for the award of any contract that each prospective contractor or subcontractor shall submit a statement in writing to the effect that he is already implementing the provisions of the Code of Practice.
  4. (4) Every public authority which administers a programme involving financial assistance included in section 41(2) of this Act applies shall require as a condition for the approval of any such grant, that the applicant shall submit a statement in writing to the effect that he is implementing the provisions of the Code of Practice.
  5. (5) The Department shall draw up regulations providing such means of enforcing the provisions of this section as it considers appropriate.'.—[Ms. Mowlam.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Ms. Marjorie Mowlam (Redcar)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

New clause 4 attempts to point out the inadequacies of the Bill's contract compliance provision. It suggests an alternative concept to that proposed by the Government, who conceive of contract compliance as a last resort to be used as a stick against those employers who deliberately and persistently fail to promote equal opportunity. Our clause involves a carrot approach. Rather than use contract compliance in a punitive way, it enshrines a positive strategy. Employers who promote equality of opportunity would enjoy the advantages of being eligible for contracts and grants. Employers who did not promote it would not. Employers would be required to attain an acceptable minimum standard of fair employment before becoming eligible. Therefore, contract compliance would be used primarily as an instrument to reward good employers, rather than as a last-sanction against persistent discriminators.

That approach was suggested by the Department of Economic Development in its consultative document on fair employment. The Government jettisoned the best feature of that document. The same type of contract compliance was advocated by the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights, and by the Northern Ireland Congress of Trade Unions. The new clause has two other noteworthy features. First, it extends contract compliance requirements to subcontractors, which is important but notably absent from the Bill. Secondly, it ensures that the same procedures apply both to contracts and Government grants. At present, that is not the case, because clause 39 states that a public authority shall not enter into any contract with unqualified persons unless certain conditions are fulfilled, while discretion to award contracts to unqualified persons is given in clause 40. The possibility that public authorities will make grants to persistent discriminators is unacceptable.

Mr. Viggers

The scope of new clause 4 is wide and would involve a substantial change to the Bill It is superficially attractive, but I urge the House to resist it on the grounds that it is impracticable and unworkable, and that to incorporate it in the Bill as it has evolved would be difficult. It would also be difficult to enforce.

The mechanism proposed in the Bill for the application of important economic sanctions is straightforward, equitable and effective. It strikes when notice of disqualification has been served by the commission. It has none of the complications of inserting provisions into contracts or of auditing conformity with declarations of statements of intent. New clause 4 would introduce all those unnecessary and cumbersome complications. It requires every contract and subcontract to include all the provisions of the code of practice, and it provides no definition of what is meant by a contract. It applies to contracts regardless of their nature and size, and of the financial amounts involved.

New clause 4 falls back on a mechanism that we tried and found inadequate—the submission of statements of compliance. The hon. Member for Redcar (Ms. Mowlam) was right in saying that the Department of Economic Development made such a proposal, but we came to the conclusion that that would not be the best way to proceed. The Bill as drafted incorporates a broadly similar mechanism, which is the declaration of principle and intent. We propose moving on to a system that we are sure will be much more effective, which is a clear trigger mechanism based on a notice of disqualification.

The new clause does not set out coherent or considered proposals for enforcing the provisions it makes but proposes instead to delegate that important aspect to departmental regulations. There is no indication of what those regulations might contain. For the practical reasons that I have described, the new clause would not be helpful and I invite the House to resist it. In doing so, I am not rejecting the concept that the hon. Lady presents, but careful consideration of it has prompted us to move on from the basis suggested in her new clause.

Mr. Molyneaux

The clause appears to deal solely with contractors based in Northern Ireland. I have always found it difficult to understand why contract compliance does not exist in Great Britain, where there is a far greater need for it. From time to time there are clamourings for such a provision, but even right hon. and hon. Members who are the representatives of ethnic communities do not seem to be terribly diligent in promoting their constituents' claims and requests in this House.

What will happen under the provisions of new clause 4 if a company based in England decides to tender for a Northern Ireland contract? There are many examples of that happening. Is it required to certify that it is complying already with the terms of the clause? What will happen if such a contractor comes to Northern Ireland and says, "I cannot sign that certificate because the requirement does not exist in law in England where I am based"?

Perhaps the Minister can clarify whether his Department and those responsible for enforcing the legislation will be content with an English contractor promosing that if he obtained the contract he would comply with the codes of practice and all the regulations. How would that promise be enforced if the contract were awarded and the operation were sealed? At what stage and in what manner would the authorities manage effectively to apply the regulations and make certain that they were watertight?

6.30 pm
Rev. William McCrea (Mid-Ulster)

I am sure that many right hon. and hon. Members feel that the legislation is one-sided. People feel that there is massive discrimination in Northern Ireland by Protestants against Roman Catholics. I shall refer to my constituency of Mid-Ulster. I do not think that the Opposition have shown much consideration or care for people, especially the Protestant community west of the Bann. Will the Minister confirm that sanctions will be applied against Roman Catholic companies in my constituency that have no Protestant employees whatsoever? I note that Opposition Members are nodding approval, but I have never heard any Opposition Member referring to the Protestants west of the Bann who are being discriminated against. It appears that many Government and Opposition Members feel that the legislation will apply east of the Bann to remove Protestants from jobs and to deny them jobs rather than being fair across the community.

Rev. Ian Paisley

Does my hon. Friend agree that the employment of Mr. Cooper lends credence to what he has said? Time and again cases have been drawn to the attention of Mr. Cooper and he has refused to investigate. For example, he would not investigate firms in Londonderry which employed no Protestants whatsoever. How can the people of Northern Ireland have any faith in him and believe that he will have a Damascus road experience—or a Dublin road experience—and say that he will now investigate firms that do not employ people from both sides of the religious divide?

Rev. William McCrea

My hon. Friend has made the next point that I wanted to draw to the attention of the House. My biggest problem is that I have consistently made representations to the Fair Employment Agency about the denial of jobs to my constituents, but the agency would not investigate. Will the Minister assure the House—I should like it on record so that I can refer to it in future—that, whenever a Member of Parliament makes representations and requests investigations into firms west of the Bann, such an investigation will take place?

In my constituency, some firms employ a work force that is 98 per cent. Roman Catholic and 2 per cent. Protestant, yet those firms receive handsome handouts in Government aid. Photographs often appear in the newspapers and they are commended for their excellent employment.

I know that my colleagues from Northern Ireland want fair employment, not favoured employment. We are not denying the right to fair employment. I would fight for fair employment, but it seems that there will be favoured employment and I do not accept that that is a proper concept.

The Minister should take into account the fact that a report by Mr. Cooper of the Fair Employment Agency on employment in local government in Magherafelt found the Magherafelt district council guilty of discrimination against Roman Catholics. In the past 16 years, the council was under SDLP control for 12 years, and under Unionist control for only four years. It was interesting that Mr. Cooper's report revealed that the only years of fair employment were the four years when I was chairman of the Magherafelt district council. I found that most interesting. I should be glad if the Government and the Opposition would read that report, as it proves that I believe in fair employment and at that time there was fair employment in the Magherafelt district council and throughout the community.

I am concerned that sanctions appear to apply to Protestant firms and people who own companies. It will be most interesting when I refer to the Minister companies in my constituency that are displaying, in the words of the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady), blatant sectarianism in discriminating against the Protestant community. I hope that the hon. Member for South Down will join me in making representatons for funding to be removed from those firms.

Mr. Viggers

With the leave of the House, I rise only to reassure hon. Members that the legislation we are considering applies equally to Catholics and Protestants. In that sense, it is entirely even-handed. If the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster (Rev. William McCrea) feels that any case of discrimination is not being pursued and is unable to get satisfaction from the Fair Employment Commission, I hope that he will draw it to my attention and not make allegations in the House which he has not pursued elsewhere. It would be quite wrong for the hon. Gentleman to make allegations which were difficult to substantiate if the Government had not been given the opportunity to pursue them. Subject only to those points, I reaffirm that we do not consider that the new clause would be helpful.

Ms. Mowlam

I wish to make one short point to the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster (Rev. William McCrea). If he had read the Standing Committee report in sufficient detail, he would know that hon. Members on both sides of the House gave examples from both sides of the Bann.

Rev. William McCrea

When we referred matters of discrimination to the relevant authorities, it did not work. I have not received an authoritative statement from the body that I was told would look into fair employment. I have requested an investigation into the Department of Health and Social Services, naming the officers and the posts, and after six years I have still to receive an answer from the Fair Employment Agency.

Ms. Mowlam

The hon. Gentleman raised two points and I was replying to the first, so his intervention was irrelevant to my remarks. If he has specific complaints, he should take them up with the Government and not with the Opposition.

The hon. Gentleman seems to use the Fair Employment Agency when it suits him—as he did when he referred to Magherafelt council—and then he makes negative comments in the House against Mr. Bob Cooper of the Fair Employment Agency, when Mr. Cooper is unable to reply.

Mr. Molyneaux

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Ms. Mowlam

No, I shall not give way, as those points should be addressed by the Minister. I was simply putting it on record that it was out of order for the hon. Gentleman to raise those points in that way.

I understand the difficulties that the Minister has pointed out with regard to the new clause. It is disappointing that he feels unable to include it in the Bill in a more concrete way than saying that he accepts the concept. I hope that the Minister will not divorce theory and practice in regard to other issues. If he accepts the concept of the new clause, I hope that there will be further developments on contract compliance in another place or at a later stage. We are disappointed, but we accept the Minister's points. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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