HC Deb 15 March 2000 vol 346 cc47-66WH

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Sutcliffe.]

9.30 am
Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster)

It gives me great pleasure to open the debate on the fourth report of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland of the previous Session. The report, which is entitled "The Operation of the Fair Employment (Northern Ireland) Act 1989: Ten Years On", is based on evidence taken by the Select Committee between December 1998 and May 1999. The Committee was ably advised in its inquiry by Dr. Christopher McCrudden, then reader in law at Oxford university and a fellow of Lincoln college, Oxford. Dr. McCrudden has since been elevated by the university to the chair of human rights law and I congratulate him on that well-deserved promotion. The Committee was congratulated on the thoroughness of its report by the Committee on Administration of Justice, but we were reminded that follow-ups would be desirable. This debate affords an opportunity for such a follow-up.

The centrality to the difficulties in Northern Ireland of discrimination in general and in employment in particular has been recognised for many years. The first fair employment legislation for Northern Ireland was enacted in 1976. It was significantly amended and strengthened in the Fair Employment (Northern Ireland) Act 1989. I was in the Commons during the concluding stages of the Act's passage, which occurred during the curious week in July 1989 when I had been appointed Secretary of State for Northern Ireland but had not yet taken office. The Act created the Fair Employment Commission. During its passage, the Government committed themselves to review its operation and such policy in general within five years of its enactment. The independent Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights, to which the task of the review was ultimately entrusted, recommended substantial changes in a report published in June 1997.

The Government set out their response in the "Partnership for Equality" White Paper, which was published in March 1998, and accepted some of the recommendations. However, they went further and proposed the merger of the four existing equality bodies, which included the Fair Employment Commission, into a single equality commission. The White Paper triggered the Committee's inquiry, although, upon its renewal in July 1997, the Committee had already discussed the possibility of such an inquiry and deferred it until we could pass the verdict of a decade on the working of the 1989 Act.

The Belfast agreement gave added impetus to the further reform of fair employment legislation as it included a Government commitment to make rapid progress with measures for employment equality. The Northern Ireland Act 1998, which implemented the Belfast agreement, accomplished several aims in the broader equality field, including the merger of the four equality bodies and the imposition of a duty on public sector bodies to ensure that each paid due regard to the need to ensure equality of opportunity between a wide range of groups in the operation of its functions. Those measures were followed in December of that year by the Fair Employment and Treatment (Northern Ireland) Order 1998, which implemented many of the White Paper's proposals and repealed and re-enacted the remaining provisions of the 1976 and 1989 Acts. As a result, all the fair employment law is now contained in a single piece of legislation.

Our inquiry was therefore undertaken at a time of considerable change in Northern Ireland's equality framework. In particular, there was major institutional change. The Equality Commission assumed the functions of the Fair Employment Commission, and the Fair Employment and Treatment (Northern Ireland) Order extended both the scope of the legislation and the number of employers covered by it. Obviously, the Committee had little or no chance to see before we reported how the new measures were working in practice. The Equality Commission had not then even been appointed.

The Committee's report contained more than 30 principal conclusions and recommendations on a wide range of matters, including the unemployment differential—a touchstone, to many people, of the extent of discrimination in Northern Ireland against the Catholic community, the cost burden on employers of fair employment legislation and the implications both of merging four specialist equality commissions into one multi-functional Equality Commission and of the new equality duty on public authorities set out in section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act. Other conclusions and recommendations related to the institutional arrangements for handling equality within government, the potential contribution of contract compliance and whether existing affirmative action exceptions should be broadened.

The Government gave a broadly welcoming response to the report in October 1999, underscoring the Select Committee's comments on the importance of equality of opportunity issues to the peace process and to Northern Ireland's future. As five months have elapsed since that response, I hope that the Under-Secretary will give hon. Members an idea of the progress that has since been made in this vital matter and offer an initial assessment of how the Fair Employment and Treatment (Northern Ireland) Order is working.

The Government's response prompts me to raise several points. First, what progress can the Under-Secretary report on reducing the backlog of live industrial tribunal and fair employment tribunal cases? The response described a welcome increase in manpower and physical resources, and I hope that there has been a significant reduction in cases from the July 1999 figures.

Secondly, is the Equality Commission satisfied that it is adequately resourced? The Minister will recall that the equality working group concluded that an additional £525,000 of public money would be necessary. How much extra money have the Government made available to the commission this financial year, and what further resources will be provided next year?

Thirdly, the Committee sought an early announcement about the public authorities to be designated under section 75(3) of the Northern Ireland Act and the response promised an order last autumn. As far as I am aware, no such order has been made. What caused the delay, and when is the order expected?

Mr. John M. Taylor (Solihull)

Will my right hon. Friend enlarge slightly on the curious lack of decisions by the Secretary of State defining the bodies that must comply with section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act? Does he, like me, recognise that the Equality Commission is particularly exercised about that?

Mr. Brooke

That is the nub and substance of my question to the Under-Secretary.

When does the Secretary of State expect to approve the draft guidelines on the form and content of public authorities' equality schemes, proposed by the Equality Commission some time ago? The Minister will recall that public bodies are under a statutory duty to submit their equality schemes to the commission by 30 June.

Fourthly, the Government's response to our recommendation in paragraph 105 on public procurement was ambiguous. Will the Under-Secretary enlarge on that somewhat elliptical response, which included the words "in due course", and explain what arrangements will be made to ensure proper assessment of procurement policies under the equality duty?

Fifthly, the response stated that the Government would review progress on the promotion of fair participation in the senior civil service and identification of further measures to help the Northern Ireland civil service at senior levels to become more representative of the Northern Ireland community as a whole. It stated that the remit and conduct of the review is under consideration and will be announced shortly. What progress has been made, and when can the announcement be expected? I ask that in the context of a response that was given last October.

Sixthly, interwoven questions arise from our recommendations in paragraphs 122 and 123. Before the Executive was suspended, it was envisaged that changes would be made to the equality unit in the office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. Will those changes be implemented? What will be the staffing arrangements at higher and lower levels? Will the unit be headed by a deputy secretary?

In a linked question, the Government said that appropriate structures would be established to ensure that the responsibilities of the Secretary of State would continue to be performed under devolution, but no equality unit has been created in the Northern Ireland Office. During suspension, will the Secretary of State employ the equality unit of the Northern Ireland Executive or his own Northern Ireland Office civil servants? What is the Minister's reaction to the observation that the lack of an equality unit in the Northern Ireland Office has caused the delay in obtaining the Secretary of State's approval of the designation order and the draft guidelines—a matter on which my hon. Friend intervened?

Finally, in this series of questions, what progress has been made in developing a memorandum of understanding between the Equality Commission and the NI Human Rights Commission to minimise the impact of the possible overlap of their respective jurisdictions?

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the evidence of witnesses clearly gave the impression that unlawful employment discrimination on political and religious grounds had declined significantly? Has there, or has there not, been a decline? We should not, 10 years on, be left perceiving that there has been a decline.

Mr. Brooke

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. It is true that we received a great deal of evidence on the beneficial effects of the 1989 Act. I hope that those benefits continue. During our review of the working of the Act, we examined the issues in the current context. That is the basis of my questions to the Under-Secretary. It would be helpful if he mentioned the achievements of the 1989 Act.

The Northern Ireland Act set out the allocation of responsibility between Westminster and Belfast on equality issues. The substantive provisions were transferred matters. The Secretary of State retained responsibility for the statutory equality duty as it affects the public sector and for the Equality Commission. I hope that the Minister will assure us that progress will not be slowed by the suspension of the Executive.

As this is a short debate, I have highlighted only a few matters raised in the Select Committee's report. Northern Ireland has some of the most advanced anti-discrimination legislation in Europe, if not the world. The Government are committed to reviewing the legislation and related policies by 2005, which the Select Committee welcomes. As the hon. Member for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs) implied, aspects of the legislation remain controversial, but I am pleased to report that the Select Committee's opinion was unanimous. I commend the report.

9.44 am
Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire)

Unlawful discrimination on the grounds of religious and political opinion seems to have declined in the Province. In "Employment Equality: Building for the Future", the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights examined the monitoring data that the Fair Employment Commission published annually. It assessed the impact of the 1989 Act on the employed work force.

Analysis of appointments by larger firms shows that the Catholic share of applicants has increased in the public and private sectors among men and women. The statistics seem to show a good match between the proportion of Catholic applicants and appointees, but with minor variations. Although SACHR concluded that neither community was experiencing systematic discrimination at the point of selection, there have, without doubt, been individual cases of discrimination against Catholics and Protestants. However, emphasis should be placed on the word "systematic", and it is mainly in that respect that improvements have occurred.

There seems to have been a reduction in the under-representation in employment. The Fair Employment Commission's statistics show that the overall Catholic share of employment rose by 4.3 per cent. between 1990 and 1998. The statistics show an under-representation of Catholic males, but an increasingly small under-representation of Catholic females. However, the Catholic share has risen in every occupational group since 1990. Catholic representation in the public sector increased by 3.4 per cent. in the same period.

In security-related occupations, however, only 8.4 per cent. were Catholic in 1998—a 1 per cent. increase since 1990. Security-related occupations still lag far behind. The Patten report on policing recognised the need to attract more Catholics into the service. That is not a matter for us to debate today, but we should recognise that it is a serious problem that must be resolved. The private sector has seen a significant increase in the proportion of Catholics in employment. The Catholic share for males increased by 4.7 per cent. between 1990 and 1998, and for females by 4.5 per cent.

Those statistics are important, as they suggest that things are improving in Northern Ireland. They also demonstrate consistent progress in all walks of life for men and women. Despite that, however, there is still some way to go.

Unemployment occurs for many different reasons, but all those affected are socially disadvantaged and they deserve the assistance and encouragement of Government agencies to help them to find productive work. The unemployment differential between Catholics and Protestants is still significant, and the rate for Catholic men is still twice that for Protestants. That is not necessarily the direct consequence of discrimination; nevertheless, something must be done. I believe that that is partly the result of fair employment not occurring across the full gamut of occupations and partly the result of employment practices not being equitable throughout the community.

It is apparent that the persistence of the unemployment differential is not a valid indicator of the success or otherwise of fair employment legislation. We cannot say that the legislation has failed simply because those differentials exist. However, we must recognise that, although progress is being made, it will be a long haul to achieve what we want.

Mr. Beggs

Does the hon. Gentleman accept the Fair Employment Commission's assessment that there has been a sea change in attitude to fair employment within the Protestant and Roman Catholic communities? In fact, the greatest factors that have influenced the opportunities available for those under-represented in employment have been the extent of recent under-investment and the significant number of new jobs created as a result of the new deal in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Öpik

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The attitudes that tend to support discrimination are unsustainable if the primary dynamic is economic. The importance of inward investment cannot be overstated because, as Northern Ireland returns to normality, so it needs to recruit the best people. Recruiting the best people tends to mitigate the discrimination that we have seen. Indeed, it is that attitude that has allowed employment legislation to work. Overall, it is clear that the legislation has made an important contribution to improving fairness in employment in Northern Ireland, even if the precise extent of that contribution cannot accurately be determined.

Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act provides that each public authority shall have due regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity. I should like to ask the Minister a few questions, to which I hope he will be able to reply when he responds to the debate. First, do the Government have any plans to extend fair employment legislation specifically to monitor equality of opportunity among the groups mentioned in section 75 of that Act? Specifically, do the Government intend to monitor equality of opportunity between persons of different religious belief, political opinion, racial group, age, marital status and sexual orientation? It would be helpful if the Minister could say whether the Government intend to monitor equality of opportunity between men and women, between persons with and without disability and between persons with and without dependants. We all recognise that Northern Ireland has the potential to be a role model for equality of opportunity. It would be a wasted opportunity not to monitor the impact of the legislation way beyond the more traditional divides that probably prompted the legislation in the first place.

Secondly, the report of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee on the operation of the Fair Employment (Northern Ireland) Act said: We consider that the community differences in unemployment should remain an appropriate and important issue of concern for Government. What progress has been made in setting targets for the reduction of those community differentials? It might be useful to set specific staging-post targets towards the longer-term goal of entirely eliminating those differentials.

Thirdly, can the Government outline the timetable for circulating the final guidelines on equality? There has already been some delay, which I would not want to be extended. Are the Government taking steps to ensure that the schemes will be sufficiently detailed and concrete to serve their purpose, because vague plans are worse than no plans at all? The right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke) mentioned the civil service, where it seems that an issue still remains, but that is an area in which the Government can make a more direct intervention. What progress has been made in the review of senior Northern Ireland civil service appointments, given that a profound differential still exists? I accept that part of the differential is historic and will take time to equalise as people percolate through the system.

The report also stated: We recommend that, in order to prevent conflicts of interests arising, the Secretary of State should establish her own Equality Unit within the Northern Ireland Office, in part to advise her on the exercise of these functions, and in part to co-ordinate the equality schemes of UK Departments and public authorities designated by her under section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. What measures have been introduced to ensure effective quality of advice to the Secretary of State with the creation of an equality unit within the Northern Ireland Office?

The fact that we are having this debate and that there is some reasonably good news on the subject should give us grounds for optimism. Therefore, I hope that the Government will take the opportunity to welcome the momentum that has already been generated, thanks to the legislation, and ensure that, in terms of attitudes, the civil service acts as a role model for the public and private sectors it is efforts to eliminate what has perhaps been a slightly neglected issue, and which has unquestionably been a source of great irritation of certain sectors of the Northern Irish community.

9.54 am
Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde)

I compliment the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke). I am a peripatetic constituent of the right hon. Gentleman—not that I ever vote for him, as I am sure he appreciates.

This is a fine report, which makes many significant recommendations. Joan Harbison and her excellent team at the Equality Commission play an important role in such matters, but—as I have said to Ministers before—I am anxious that the body's staffing may not be adequate. I, too, think that the Fair Employment (Northern Ireland) Act 1989 has worked well, and those of us on this side of the water have much to learn from it. However, there are still problems, as has been acknowledged.

Employment practices in Northern Ireland are increasingly anti-discriminatory. Discrimination does still exist, some of which is structural. For example, as the report mentions, there are problems in the civil service and with the delay in the designation order, which I am sure the Minister is addressing.

Mr. Beggs

The hon. Gentleman's observations on senior staffing levels in the civil service may be a little out of date. The establishment of the Northern Ireland Assembly and 10 new Departments has led to the creation of new posts, affording the first opportunity in almost a lifetime to ensure a greater spread of representation at a senior level.

Dr. Godman

I am delighted to hear the hon. Gentleman praising the Assembly. As he knows, I was there on the day of the farmers' lobby and saw it at work. Indeed, at the conclusion of the day's business, the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Adams) said to me, "Norman, you have seen for yourself that this place works." Indeed, it does. I look forward to it being reinstated soon so that the fair employment practices mentioned by the hon. Gentleman may be re-established.

The hon. Gentleman is right: the Assembly provides an opportunity for everyone in Northern Ireland who recruits and trains employees to be as fair as possible in their gatekeeping work. I should be delighted to learn that discrimination in the 10 new Departments is being given the boot and kicked out of the door. It is for the Minister to provide such an assurance; it is not humble—or perhaps, not so humble—for a Back Bencher such as myself.

Discrimination still exists, especially in relation to the long-term employed. What is being done to help such people? On page xxxvi of the report, the Select Committee notes the continuing under-representation of Roman Catholics in the Senior Civil Service. Is that still the case? If so, what are the Minister and the Secretary of State doing about it?

What is being done to help the over-50s back into employment? They are at a particular disadvantage in finding decent work with good terms and conditions. How many civil servants are aged over 50? What proportion of the civil service do they represent? Do they hold senior positions? I am getting perilously close to my retirement, having hit 60, but I am not looking for a job with the Under-Secretary, if he will forgive me for saying so. The important point is that many people aged over 50 to whom I have spoken in Northern Ireland, as in Scotland and elsewhere, feel that they have been discarded from the labour market. The Minister must devote serious resources to finding work for the long-term unemployed, especially those aged over 50.

I shall respond to another comment made by the hon. Member for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs). The other day, while at the Royal Ulster Constabulary Markets division, I spoke to Sergeant Stephen Jones, who won the good community policing award last year for the remarkable work that he does in a nationalist area—albeit, a small one—and a commercial area. I told him and the others who were at the meeting that I had stayed at the Hilton the night before and asked them how many people from the Markets area had found work at the Hilton or elsewhere in that area. Some of those people mentioned the new call centre that is being built on the old gasworks site, which will provide 500 jobs. I have no doubt that, following the good practices under the Fair Employment (Northern Ireland) Act and the recommendations of the fine Select Committee report, the employer will ensure that equality rules the day in recruiting those 500 employees, but I hope that older people, as well as young people, will be taken on.

Mr. Beggs

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, instead of the Industrial Development Board devoting much of its resources to supporting training in companies that have decided to move to Northern Ireland, serious consideration should be given to targeting the unemployed, of whatever age group, and making available specific funds to ensure that those people have the skills that will enable them to apply successfully for jobs in call centres or other targeted sectors of employment?

Dr. Godman

I find myself in the curious position of constantly agreeing with the hon. Gentleman today. Employment in call centres is important, but we must train youngsters and others so that they can take on highly skilled work in Northern Ireland. The 1989 Act and the recommendations in the report will encourage many firms to set up in Northern Ireland. I do not want all such companies to go to Northern Ireland; I should like some of them to come to Greenock. However, they will be encouraged by the concerns that the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster and his colleagues have shown about the Act, which was passed, I seem to recall, by a Conservative Government.

We must prepare people on an absolutely fair and utterly anti-sectarian basis for employment, with good terms and conditions. Those to whom I spoke in the Markets area the other day had two overriding concerns: to live in decent, affordable houses, which many do—new kitchens, for example, are being installed—and to have a decent job. It goes without saying that people want to live in a peaceful community, but they want access to the labour market too.

Mr. John M. Taylor

A moment or two ago, the hon. Gentleman permitted himself an aside, saying that he thought that the legislation under review was passed by a Conservative Government. I confirm that it was; at that time, I was the Government Whip responsible for conducting the measure through the House.

Dr. Godman

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He is a delightful fellow, but, he is not known for his modesty. I made the aside because I thought that he might take the bait, or, as he is a fly fisherman, the fly. The measure is good legislation, as Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland have told me. The Under-Secretary must re-examine the policy on targeting of social needs. I know that it is under consultation, but it should not be a blunt instrument; it must be sharp enough to get at the problems that some still believe cannot be eradicated.

I want briefly to refer to highly skilled jobs at Harland and Wolff. A couple of my Catholic constituents—one, Bart Monaghan, a good friend of mine, was a shop steward—were sent to work in Harland and Wolff. Bart was advised to learn the words of "The Sash" and be able to sing it before he went to Belfast. In those days, a Catholic had enormous difficulty finding work in Harland and Wolff, no matter how highly skilled he might have been back on the Clyde, although that has now changed.

It is essential that the Government and the Departments involved, including the Ministry of Defence, ensure that the shipyard remains open. I was a shipyard worker, although I doubt that I would get a job in my trade of shipwright now. I want lots of orders to go to the Clyde, but orders from the Ministry of Defence and others can be shared with Harland and Wolff. Every vessel that has gone down its slipway is a testimony to that yard's find tradition and superb skills, which must be maintained.

The Minister must carefully consider the report and what the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster said about it, especially the matters relating to the Equality Commission. The targeting of social need must be a sharp weapon to deal with the problems. The Minister must do all that he can to ensure that Harland and Wolff remains in business. He must keep up the good fight against discrimination, which still means a lousy life for many Catholics in Northern Ireland.

10.9 am

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

As I am a member of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs it would be immodest of me to praise the report, but I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) did so. However, I can praise the work done by the Chairman of the Select Committee, the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke). The 1999 issue of Irish Political Studies recognises fully the right hon. Gentleman's role on that Committee. I declare an interest in that I am a member of the Political Studies Association of Ireland.

Growing and full employment help to tackle bias and unfairness in employment. Full employment at least reduces the scope for unfairness in employment to the level of discussing promotion and who gets which jobs. That is one aspect of the problem of unfairness in job distribution in Northern Ireland.

Mr. John M. Taylor

I follow the hon. Gentleman's line of argument entirely sympathetically. Will he join me in noting that unemployment in Northern Ireland has halved in the past 10 years?

Mr. Barnes

I was about to point to the success of the new deal, which has already been mentioned. The Select Committee is examining the question of inward investment, which is important for job creation in the Province. Such developments help to tackle some of the problems of unfairness in employment.

I have always thought that full and fair employment is both a cause and a consequence of developments towards peace in Northern Ireland. It is easier to achieve the objectives of the peace agreement in a setting of full employment. Peace itself helps to achieve that where it is missing. It is not easy to distinguish which element needs to be more fully discussed, but the two issues—the cause of peace and the consequences of it—seem vastly important. Our discussion is of matters that are of significance to people's daily lives, and fairness between groups of people, but we are also discussing the peace process and the possibilities within it. We were right on two grounds to involve ourselves in this investigation.

In the modern world, employment often requires people to be highly mobile. Sometimes jobs are available only for specific periods, after which people have to move and look elsewhere. That is a bigger problem in Northern Ireland than elsewhere in the United Kingdom. People in the Province are now more divided into separate Catholic and Protestant communities than at any time in their history. As a consequence of the troubles, people have been moved from areas and have gone to the communities where they feel safest. That obviously creates difficulties for the establishment of fair employment. Economic developments will take place more readily in some areas than in others. That creates a problem because people need to move around and into new areas, so it is important to move away from placing people in areas that become almost ghettoes.

Mr. Beggs

Does my hon. Friend accept that, although civil unrest has existed in Northern Ireland for 30 years, unrest has never reached the workplace, and that Northern Ireland's record will show that, compared with other regions of the United Kingdom, less time was lost in industry and commerce because of industrial disputes? That shows how well people from each community worked together in the workplace to ensure each other's prosperity.

Mr. Barnes

The tensions within Northern Ireland were reflected in the working communities, but the Northern Ireland trade union movement always directed itself to tackling that problem, and always sought reconciliation and agreement between groups rather than play either card or fly the flag of a united Ireland or of the United Kingdom. It organised its own campaigns against violence and intimidation. It saw that that attitude among the work force could reach out into home and community life, and we should fully recognise the importance of that.

It is interesting that my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) took part in the inquiry, although he is now busy with other activities within the London area. However, in our first question and answer session, my hon. Friend said: I was one of those who felt that the 1989 Act was just a sop to try and buy up the campaign for the MacBride principles. In the event, I am clearly very glad to see it has turned out to be much more effective than many of us feared. The significance of the legislation was recognised by someone on the Committee whose political views could be said to be close to the aspirations of republicanism and to some of the Catholic community's ideals for a united Ireland. Much propaganda had been associated with the MacBride principles, but it was recognised that something significant had been achieved, and that was reflected in the evidence provided to us and in the report.

Mr. Jeffrey Donaldson (Lagan Valley)

If the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) had been living in Northern Ireland, does the hon. Gentleman think that he would have had a case against the Labour party's selection procedures under the fair employment legislation?

Mr. Barnes

I might have many things to say about that, but on another occasion. On this occasion, what I say will remain entirely relevant to the matter in hand.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Nicholas Winterton)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Barnes

The Department of Economic Development in Northern Ireland supplied us with evidence, which produced the response from the hon. Member for Brent, East. It showed that between 1990 and 1997, Catholics employed in firms with 26 or more employees had risen from 33 per cent. to 36.9 per cent. If the non-denominational were excluded, the rise was from 34.9 per cent to 38.8 per cent. There was still a bias in view of the potential number of Catholic workers, but significant developments were clearly taking place.

Maldistribution is shown clearly in the statistics for 1997: 42.4 per cent. of Catholics were employed as plant and machine operators, but only 36.5 per cent. were employed in management and administration. The wider issue of who secures which jobs is still significant, and still needs to be properly investigated.

The Fair Employment Commission's statistics showed that some fluctuation had taken place and that Catholic employment in the public sector had barely increased between 1991 and 1995, although it was claimed that that was because various measures had previously been introduced that had helped to achieve an increase. In the private sector, some significant developments occurred between 1991 and 1996, although the number fell back in 1997.

As the Chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee said, the Equality Commission was established on 1 October 1999 to take over from the Fair Employment Commission, as a consequence of the peace agreement. It is important that we are updated on developments in order to ascertain whether the hopes that were placed in the Equality Commission to extend the work of the Fair Employment Commission have been fulfilled, or seem likely to be fulfilled, as the period involved is short.

Mr. Beggs

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that a continuing vital role for the Equality Commission will be detailed monitoring? In the event of clear evidence of under-representation of one or other community in either the public or the private sector, we must ensure not only that the figures involved are reported, but that we are shown evidence of on-going monitoring to correct imbalances.

Mr. Barnes

I am sure that, given the work of the Fair Employment Commission and the work that will be done by the Equality Commission, such considerations will be to the fore.

I am worried that the Equality Commission has taken on rather more than it can handle, given its size, having assumed responsibility for gender, race and disability. Will those aspects work together? The commission has to work that way as a result of the Belfast agreement, and I do not complain about that, but I have always been worried about disability legislation in the United Kingdom. We have established a Disability Rights Commission in Britain, but disability is part of the Equality Commission's responsibility in Northern Ireland. In Northern Ireland, a commitment has been made to full civil rights for disabled people. That has been reflected in the House and by all the political parties in Northern Ireland outside the House that I have contacted in the past, which favour such measures. The only body from which I have not received a response is Sinn Fein, which may be embarrassed that it has been in the disability-creating game for a time.

I hope that the Equality Commission's range of responsibilities will enliven its ability to tackle those areas, rather than detract from it. However, we must be careful that one aspect does not miss out at the cost of another.

The report shows that, given the massively difficult circumstances in Northern Ireland, some satisfactory advances have been made. It is a matter of prodding and pushing, and ensuring that we are not complacent and that objectives are delivered in line with agreed principles. What emerged from the contribution of the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster was that he wanted to pursue several detailed points, and although he did not disagree on the principle or direction he wanted those points to be acted on. That is a correct role for a Chairman to play in ensuring that a Select Committee's work leads to responses from Government Departments.

10.24 am
Mr. Jeffrey Donaldson (Lagan Valley)

I welcome the opportunity to participate in the debate. One of the conclusions in the report of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs related to the parliamentary scrutiny of fair employment legislation in Northern Ireland. The Committee felt that it was inadequate that such an important matter should have been dealt with by an order rather than primary legislation. It hoped that any review of and changes to the legislation would be dealt with by primary legislation, so that more adequate parliamentary scrutiny could be ensured.

The Ulster Unionist party clearly wants fair employment, but we feel that it must be created using the principle of merit. When the fair employment legislation was introduced in Northern Ireland, we were concerned that it would be a blunt instrument that would not properly and fairly tackle problems such as long-term unemployment. We have worked with the legislation and encouraged our constituents to use it when necessary. We have tried to improve it and the methodology that was used by fair employment tribunals and the former Fair Employment Commission.

We have adopted a positive approach to the legislation in seeking to deal with religious discrimination. It is important to recognise that that problem is not one-sided. There is evidence that both the main traditions in Northern Ireland are discriminated against. Some large employers have serious disparities between the levels of Roman Catholics and Protestants employed, and the register of companies monitored under the fair employment legislation shows that some of the worst cases involve under-employment of Protestants.

The problem is portrayed as one-sided because of the over-use of the unemployment differential, which is constantly mentioned as an example of discrimination in employment. That creates a wrong impression. The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee concluded that the unemployment differential was not the only measure of the differences in unemployment between the two traditions.

Lately, we have seen the effect on the economy of Northern Ireland of changing global situations that do not discriminate against one community or the other. Global changes and difficulties in competition from the far east may lead to the closure of the Harland and Wolff shipyard. That will have a serious impact on the community in east Belfast. As the area has a large Protestant majority, it will disproportionately affect the Protestant community.

The recent decline in the textile industry has led to several factory closures in North Down, which have had a disproportionate impact on the Protestant community. Unemployment in Northern Ireland is principally due not to discrimination per se, but to economic and social factors that are influenced by matters far beyond the purview of Northern Ireland and by the fact that we have many multinational employers. To argue that unemployment is caused by religious discrimination is to minimise the problems that exist in the affected areas.

Mr. Beggs

My hon. Friend rightly drew attention to the threatened crisis if there is no direct intervention and Government support for the mainly Protestant work force of the Belfast shipyard. He also mentioned the employment losses in textiles in North Down, which again is a mainly Protestant area. For the sake of the balance that we both seek, does my hon. Friend agree that in the shirt factories of Londonderry, where more than 90 per cent. of the work force are Roman Catholic, cheap imports are forcing cuts and closures, and are having a damaging effect on employees?

Mr. Donaldson

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He is right. I was about to make the point that the social trends and economic conditions that have given rise to recent closures and job losses are by no means restricted to the Protestant community. The impact on the textile industry in the west of the Province, particulary shirt manufacturing, has had a disproportionate effect on the Roman Catholic community there. Two thirds of the long-term unemployed are Roman Catholic: that is not acceptable. My party wants the problem of long-term unemployment to be addressed. Resources need to be targeted at areas with high long-term unemployment, regardless of the community's political colour, demography or religious balance. Long-term unemployment must be tackled, and the best way of doing that is to create employment by bringing jobs to such areas.

The hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) referred to a friend who went to work in a Harland and Wolff shipyard who had to learn not only the words of "The Sash", but how to sing it—there is a difference between knowing the words and knowing how to sing it. The hon. Gentleman will be only too aware of Monklands council, close to his own constituency, where there were cases of religious discrimination. Religious discrimination is not exclusive to Northern Ireland. I am not suggesting that the hon. Gentlemant is arguing that it is a major factor, and nor am I denying that there is such religious discrimination in Northern Ireland, but it is important to place it in context.

Dr. Godman

Monklands is some distance from my constituency. Historically, the cane sugar refineries overwhelmingly employed Catholic employees. The campaign to keep Harland and Wolff open could learn a great deal from the campaign that was waged on the upper Clyde to keep the Govan shipyard open. I hope that there will be some interchange between the two.

Mr. Donaldson

The hon. Gentleman is right. Many sub-contractors working in the Belfast shipyard were previously employed in yards in Scotland and the north of England. I hope that we can combine our efforts to maintain employment in the Belfast shipyard, not only for the good of the employees who live in Belfast, but for those who live in other parts of the United Kingdom whose skills are being utilised in the Belfast shipyard. The retention of those skills is important to our economy.

I shall deal now with some aspects of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee's report and the Government's response to it. I touched on the issue of long-term unemployment, and I urge the Minister not to believe that the employment differential is the only way in which to tackle the problem. Employers are worried about the growing cost of compliance. I welcome the Government's proposal to undertake research into compliance costs for the next review in 2005. Such an important matter cannot be ignored.

I welcome the moves taken by the Government to increase the number of part-time chairmen serving on the fair employment tribunals to double the number of lay members of those tribunals. It is frustrating for people to experience long delays before their cases are heard, and I hope that the Government's action will lead to a reduction in the backlog.

We expressed concern during the passage of the Northern Ireland Bill about the problem that may emerge if religious discrimination and related issues dominate the work of the Equality Commission. We hope that the valuable work on gender imbalance carried out by the Equal Opportunities Commission will continue, and that it will be enhanced by the Equality Commission.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs) has referred previously to the problem of disability discrimination, and there is much work to be done in Northern Ireland on that. I hope that the issue will not be marginalised by the decision to bring it under the umbrella of the Equality Commission.

Although race relations is not a major problem in Northern Ireland, it must still be given its proper place in discussions. Age descrimination is an emerging factor not only in Northern Ireland, but throughout the United Kingdom, and I hope that the Equality Commission will bear that in mind when allocating resources.

Reference has been made to appointments at senior levels within the Northern Ireland civil service. My hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim rightly drew attention to the restructuring of Government Departments in Northern Ireland as a means of redressing the imbalance at senior levels in the civil service and providing an opportunity on the basis of merit for people from the Roman Catholic tradition to apply for senior positions.

Applications from the Roman Catholic community to the Royal Ulster Constabulary have increased considerably since the reinstatement of the IRA ceasefire. Recruitment is now at more than 20 per cent. We welcome that. It points to a clear link between intimidation of people from the Roman Catholic community who want to join the RUC and the number of Roman Catholics actually in the RUC. I hope that the continuation of the ceasefire will give more Roman Catholics the confidence to join the RUC. We welcome the fact that more are now being recruited.

Finally, I want to speak briefly about targeting social need, which recognises that a range of social factors contribute to long-term unemployment. It is important to consider the indices that are being applied, and the use of local government wards to identify pockets of social need, because some areas and pockets of social deprivation are being missed under the targeting social need initiative. For instance, the Seymour Hill ward in my constituency is just outside the area covered by the making Belfast work initiative, and it sits alongside the electoral wards of Twinbrook and Poleglass, which attract assistance under the TSN initiative. High levels of social deprivation are found in the Seymour Hill ward, yet its people are not being assisted under TSN, unlike people in neighbouring wards. I hope that the Government will deal with that problem.

10.41 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. George Howarth)

This has been a useful debate. It has given us the opportunity to review progress since the report was published, and we have had the chance to discuss some of the issues that are important to ensuring equality and fair employment in Northern Ireland.

I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke). His involvement with Northern Ireland matters is long and distinguished. That service continues to great effect in his role as Chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee. In his opening speech, the right hon. Gentleman raised most of the critical issues to which we must now turn our minds.

The hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) made a typically thoughtful speech, which raised some slightly different matters that need to be considered. His later remarks were about targeting social need, and he argued that we should revisit the methodology and the statistical base involved in TSN. I am certainly prepared to consider that matter with my officials. I may or may not agree with him on the subject, but it is important that we should give some attention to such constructive criticisms.

A number of issues on fair employment law were dealt with under the Northern Ireland Act 1998. It is, of course, a transferred matter. At the time of devolution, we implemented a number of new provisions, some of which passed to the offices of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. One of the first substantive issues to come before the Assembly was an equality Bill that dealt with disability—an issue that was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes), with which he has long been associated. The Government deeply regret the circumstances that led to the suspension of the Assembly, and we hope that in the near future the devolved institutions can be restored.

The right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster gave us a history of fair employment and equality legislation. It would be superfluous to go through that again. However, he raised an issue that is of great concern to the House and should be of great concern to everyone who takes an interest in the issues that have divided society in Northern Ireland for so long. If we are serious about getting things right in Northern Ireland, it is vital that we address issues such as equality and fair employment. The effects of not having policies to promote equality and fair employment are deeply corrosive. One need only to consider the history of the past 30 or 40 years to see just how corrosive those effects are and to understand how people feel when they believe that they are being discriminated against. If we are not fair, especially in employment matters, that feeds the arguments of those who would take a completely different path from the democratic process that we believe is the right way forward for Northern Ireland.

I shall now deal with some of the specific points raised by right hon. and hon. Members. The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik) said that community differences in unemployment should remain an important issue for the Government, which I fully accept. However, I should reiterate the Government's concern about the differential impact of unemployment in the two Northern Ireland communities. The latest data collected in 1998 suggest that the ratio of the proportion of male Catholics and Protestants unemployed is 2.3, and the comparable statistic for women is 1.4. People might hold different opinions about the current and historic factors that have created those differentials, some of which were referred to by the hon. Member for Lagan Valley. However, they are unacceptable and the Government are committed to their reduction. It is heartening that everyone who has spoken in the debate subscribes to that central tenet of Government policy, which is part of the solution to the problems that we are all eager to address.

In order to tackle the ugly scar of long-term unemployment, the Government have introduced several new initiatives, including the new deal and the new policy on targeting social need. My hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) raised an issue, which was echoed by the hon. Member for Lagan Valley, about those older members of the potential labour market who are unemployed. They will both be aware that the Government intend to introduce the new deal for the over-50s this year, and it is right that we should do that. I say that not only because I have recently passed the age of 50 myself, but because a significant proportion of people of that age in Northern Ireland and elsewhere still have a contribution to make and are still capable of supporting themselves and their families. They have been overlooked. It is especially important that we should tackle that serious problem in Northern Ireland through the new deal for the over-50s because that source of discrimination, or perceived discrimination, may hit hardest those groups who are least able to find their way back to remunerative employment without help.

The Equality Commission has a role in advising the Government on measures to reduce the religious imbalance among unemployed people, and on targets and timetables. I shall say a little more about that in a moment. We regret the fact that persistent long-term unemployment differentials exist, but progress has been made to close that gap, especially since the Fair Employment (Northern Ireland) Act 1989 was introduced. It has not been closed entirely, but we are moving in the right direction. The data show that the gap stands at 1.3 percentage points compared with 3.4 percentage points in the 1991 census. That is an important sign that we are making progress towards fair participation. It clearly demonstrates an achievement of fair employment legislation.

Dr. Godman

I am sure that the Minister will write to me if he cannot respond now, but what is the record of the Northern Ireland Office on the recruitment, selection and employment of people aged over 50?

Mr. Howarth

My hon. Friend is right; I do not have those statistics, but I am reasonably confident, having looked around a room of civil servants at briefing meetings, that a fair number of staff at a senior level are over 50, although there are exceptions, as your gaze indicated, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I shall write to my hon. Friend if I can obtain reliable statistics.

The Select Committee's report raised a number of issues on the Equality Commission, especially on appointments, resources and the need to avoid an overlap between its work and that of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. The work of the Equality Commission is a priority. The Government will ensure that adequate resources are made available to enable it to carry out its work effectively. The commissions are discussing a memorandum of understanding and are liasing well on a range of matters in which they have a mutual interest. On appointments, I can add little to the Government's response. We do not consider that a review of the appropriateness of the Nolan-Peach procedures is necessary but we hope that with the return of the devolved responsibility that will be a matter for local consideration.

I pay tribute to the work of the commissions and their chief commissioners, Joan Harbinson and Brice Dickson. They were good and far-sighted appointments. They have worked well together and with the Government, sometimes explaining how we could improve our performance. I am confident that their productive relationship will continue.

In addition to the establishment of the Equality Commission, other important developments have taken place since the Select Committee produced its report. Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act became operational on 1 January. By 30 June 2000, those public authorities to which it applies will have to submit equality schemes to the Equality Commission. Work is progressing on those, with a view to early public consultation. They will set a framework for the assessment of the impact of policies and for consultation.

The targeting social need policy has also developed. Draft action plans were published in November 1999, and consultation ended on 28 February. Northern Ireland Departments and the Northern Ireland Office are considering the proposals contained in approximately 150 responses. Finalised action plans will be put to Ministers. As in all consultation, we welcome constructive criticism and hope to respond positively where appropriate.

The equality agenda is progressing in line with the spirit of the Good Friday agreement and the 1998 White Paper "Partnership for Equality".

Mr. Brooke

I put six or seven questions to the Under-Secretary on behalf of the Select Committee, and I appreciate that he may write to me about those to which he does not respond now. However, I should like to ask specifically about section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act, and when he expects the Secretary of State to approve the draft guidelines put to him by the Equality Commission.

Mr. Howarth

I shall come to that. If there is time, I hope to deal with all the points raised by the right hon. Gentleman.

We are conscious of and concerned about the backlog of employment tribunal cases, which the right hon. Gentleman mentioned. As the hon. Member for Lagan Valley readily conceded, resources for the tribunals office have been increased: more staff, panel members and tribunal rooms have been made available. The number of complaints has reduced—there were 666 in 1997 and 499 in 1999, which is a 25 per cent. reduction. It is important to resolve cases as quickly as possible and not to allow backlogs to build up.

The right hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of the equality unit in the office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. Plans for its expansion, agreed by them, will go ahead. A deputy secretary will be appointed to head the unit, which, during suspension, will advise the Secretary of State on equality issues.

We are conscious of the issue of monitoring and targets, which was raised by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire. We and those who advise us on the subject are trying to set realistic and achievable targets that are properly monitored.

As to contract compliance, it is important, as an objective of procurement, that the securing of value for money for the taxpayer should not be distorted by the use of other purchasing objectives. However, in Northern Ireland, a formal feature of contracts is that contractors are bound to observe the equality and fair employment legislation. We are keeping a careful eye on developments in England, where, through the single regeneration budget, local authorities and central Government agencies, we are investigating how to use the appropriate leverage to create employment opportunities for local people. We may be able to learn from that.

The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire also asked about the Equality Commission and its resources. A further £425,000 is earmarked in the year. We are committed to ensuring that the resources necessary for it to carry out its duties will be made available.

As to designations, we consulted the Equality Commission before finalising our plans. Several suggestions from the commission are under consideration. Some hon. Members, including the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster, will appreciate that there were problematic issues with respect to further and higher education. I understand that some progress has been made on them. We hope to make the initial designation order shortly, but it is likely that a further and more comprehensive order will be made later in the year, after consultation.

The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire asked about anti-discrimination law. Perhaps we can debate that important matter on another occasion.

I have not been able to answer all the questions put to me, but I shall write to the hon. Members who asked them.

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