HC Deb 08 April 1998 vol 310 cc335-7
1. Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde)

What responses she has received to the Government's White Paper "Partnership for Equality". [36889]

4. Mr. Tony McNulty (Harrow, East)

What responses she has received to the Government's White Paper "Partnership for Equality". [36892]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Tony Worthington)

To date, two formal responses have been received to the consultation proposals in the White Paper "Partnership for Equality", but the three-month consultative period will end on 12 June 1998.

Dr. Godman

We all know why the Secretary of State and, indeed, the Prime Minister are absent this afternoon. I am sure that I speak for everyone when I say that we wish them well in their remarkable endeavours to bring about a tolerable accommodation among the participants in the talks.

Turning to the laddie from Clydebank, may I say that I appreciate talk about setting up an equality commission, but I hope that my hon. Friend is going to tell me that there will be a harmonisation of legislation relating to fair employment, gender, sex and disability. I remind my hon. Friend that one in six adults in Northern Ireland are disabled. What is the White Paper going to do for them?

Mr. Worthington

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments and associate myself with those relating to the efforts of the Secretary of State, the Prime Minister and the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy). No three people could be doing more to bring about an historic and honourable settlement than they are, and we wish them well.

If, after the consultation period, the Government go ahead with an equality commission, one of the biggest steps that we shall take will be to make it the duty of every Government Department to show how its policies are promoting equality of opportunity, which will benefit all the eight groups of people who suffer the risk or the reality of being disadvantaged. The Departments' efforts will be supplemented by a powerful, independent equality commission. I trust that my hon. Friend, and my neighbour in constituency terms, is reassured by those remarks.

Mr. McNulty

In light of what my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) said in his supplementary question, may I exhort all hon. Members who contribute to this Question Time to choose their words carefully so as not to impinge on what is happening in Belfast as we speak?

As for the White Paper, may I first have an assurance that the opinions of all those who respond by the end of the three-month period will receive due consideration? Secondly, will the Minister explain how the new legislation outlined in the White Paper will build on the fairness-at-work legislation?

Mr. Worthington

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments and the wisdom of his initial words.

The equality White Paper seeks to build on what the report of the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights said about the progress that has been made in achieving fair employment over the past few years. However, enormous problems remain to be tackled in terms of community unemployment differentials, and that must be the centre point of our efforts in future. Our new deal, which was successfully launched on Monday in Northern Ireland, as elsewhere, will be tackling that unemployment, and all the equality measures in the White Paper are aimed at making Northern Ireland a conspicuously fair society.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)

Does the Minister accept that the new deal launched earlier this week has been widely welcomed in Northern Ireland; that that major initiative will lead to greater equity of treatment, fairness and justice than has existed in the past; and that it will provide those who are presently unemployed with the opportunity to compete in the job market, and help them to get out of the benefit trap and overcome the disadvantage and deprivation they have suffered in the past? Does he agree that those who are presently unemployed must take those opportunities and help themselves? Does he also agree that the high birth rate in Northern Ireland and continuing terrorism make it difficult to attract sufficient new investment to create jobs and equal opportunities for all?

Mr. Worthington

What will help Northern Ireland above all are a peaceful society and an honourable and just settlement, which can be arrived at this week. That is the best message possible for fairness in employment and prosperity.

I welcome the hon. Gentleman's comments on the launch of the new deal, and thank him and his party for their support for the new deal. Nearly 1,000 firms have shown an interest in the new deal; 85 groups came forward to be appointed as consortiums and we have chosen 26, many of which are local district councils or further education colleges. I am confident that that response means that we have the framework to enable us seriously to tackle unemployment problems, currently especially among young people, but progressively among other people in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Robert McCartney (North Down)

In connection with the new deal, has the Minister taken into consideration the point made by the hon. Member for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs) about the birth rate in Northern Ireland, which, at about 5.4 per cent., is higher than that in the Republic of Ireland and three times the European average? Is the Minister aware that, in Londonderry alone, 3,000 new jobs a year would be needed simply to maintain the current rate of unemployment? What plans has he in hand to deal with that issue, which is fundamental to the disparity in employment between the two communities?

Mr. Worthington

We propose, in all our policies, to increase the number of jobs. That is what we started to do on Monday, and we shall continue our efforts over the coming months.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East)

May I welcome the publication of the White Paper "Partnership for Equality", which provides the evidence that better child care facilities and education and training in preparation for the job market lessen the discrimination between the Northern Ireland communities? Does my hon. Friend agree that, in publishing that document, the Government have provided a framework for further improvement in all those areas?

Mr. Worthington

I certainly welcome my hon. Friend's comments. The equality document is but one part of the whole equation that we have to put in place. I expect to announce in May the Northern Ireland child care strategy to minor the national child care strategy, and to further the good start that we have made in the matters my hon. Friend mentions.

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