HL Deb 23 February 1995 vol 561 cc1285-7

5.40 p.m.

Baroness Denton of Wakefield rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 26th January be approved.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the purpose of the draft Fair Employment (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 now before your Lordships is to remove the present limit of £35,000 on the amount of compensation that can be awarded by the Fair Employment Tribunal in cases of religious or political discrimination.

Fair employment issues in Northern Ireland have been high on the Government's agenda for many years. Discrimination in the workplace on the grounds of an individual's religious belief or political opinion was outlawed as far back as 1976. That legislation was considerably strengthened in 1989. The order represents a further enhancement of that law. It will help to ensure that all those—whether Protestant or Catholic—who are victims of discrimination will receive adequate and proper compensation for the injury they suffer.

In addition, to establishing the Fair Employment Commission as a successor to the Fair Employment Agency, the 1989 Fair Employment Act also established a new independent judicial body—the Fair Employment Tribunal—to hear and determine individual allegations of unlawful discrimination. The tribunal operates on broadly similar lines to the industrial tribunals in the United Kingdom.

When the 1989 Act was passed, industrial tribunals had power to award compensation (for example, in cases of sex discrimination or unfair dismissal) of up to £8,500. However, because of the seriousness with which religious discrimination was regarded, the Fair Employment Tribunal was given power at that time to award up to £30,000 compensation. That amount was raised to £35,000 in March 1994 to take account of inflation. However, in light of the European Court of Justice decision in relation to the case of Marshall v. Southampton and South West Hampshire Health Authority, it is now necessary to remove that limit completely.

The applicant in that particular case had successfully taken her claim of sex discrimination to the industrial tribunal in Great Britain. In awarding maximum compensation the tribunal noted that Ms. Marshall would have been awarded much more had there not been a limit on the amount the tribunal could award.

Ms. Marshall decided to pursue that matter through the European Court of Justice which delivered its judgment on 2nd August 1993. The court ruled that victims of unlawful sex discrimination were entitled to full compensation. It also ruled that the ceiling on compensation and the exclusion of the possibility of awarding interest under UK law were both incompatible with the EC Equal Treatment Directive. The Government accepted that new principle. They moved quickly to abolish the compensation limit under sex discrimination legislation, in both Great Britain and Northern Ireland. That prompted a re-assessment of the situation relating to compensation in other areas of anti-discrimination law. It was concluded that there was no valid distinction between different types of discrimination and that the new principle of abolishing compensation limits for all discrimination cases should apply. The order will abolish the compensation limit in cases of religious and political discrimination in Northern Ireland.

In addition, the order will give the Fair Employment Tribunal power to include interest on awards. Details of how such interest will be calculated are to be set out in subordinate legislation.

This is a short and straightforward order, but it is necessary for Northern Ireland. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 26th January be approved. — (Baroness Denton of Wakefield.)

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, this is an extremely welcome order. The issue of unfair discrimination at work has been a running sore for too long in Northern Ireland and although there have been improvements, it still continues.

It is of particular interest to those who supported the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Lester, not too long ago, that the Government were vigorous in their non-acceptance of the principles behind it, and yet, on this occasion, there has been a glowing commendation from the Minister in relation to the virtue and value of the work of the European Court. I am sure that that will be transmitted by those on this side of the House to the Minister who did not accept the principles of the Bill put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Lester.

The removal of limitations on amount is absolutely critical as is the power to award interest. That has been the case in personal injury cases, as is well known. In our view, it is of particular importance because discrimination at work is not merely discrimination in terms of earning capacity since for most, if not all of us, work is not simply a means of earning money but is a central part and amenity of life. Therefore, although repentance has been a little dilatory, repentance is always welcome and therefore we support the order.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

My Lords, this order is obviously very welcome to those of us on these Benches. The noble Lord, Lord Lester, asked me to convey his appreciation for the Government's change of heart on this matter. He put a great deal of work into this issue and he has been vindicated. The result is extremely welcome.

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, your Lordships have given the order generous recognition. In Northern Ireland, we try to do things well.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, is the Minister admitting that on this side of the Irish Sea, things are not done well in the area of discrimination?

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, I fear that I must disappoint the noble Baroness. I am merely saying that in our areas of responsibility, we try to do things well. We assume that the standards are as excellent elsewhere.

As the noble Lord, Lord Williams, said, it is very important to continue to work in the area of fair employment. This order is very relevant to that and I am grateful for the support that it has received. I commend the order to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.