Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2011/2012

Date: 01 April 2009

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:

Mr Danny Kennedy (Chairperson) 
Mrs Naomi Long (Deputy Chairperson) 
Ms Martina Anderson 
Mr Stephen Moutray 
Mr Jim Shannon 
Mr Jimmy Spratt


Ms Bronagh Hinds ) 
Ms Anne-Marie Gray ) Northern Ireland Women’s European Platform
Ms Elizabeth Law )

The Chairperson (Mr Kennedy):

I welcome the representatives of the Northern Ireland Women’s European Platform, whose written submission is included in the members’ pack. I welcome Bronagh Hinds, Elizabeth Law and Anne-Marie Gray. The usual format is that you make a short presentation and then make yourselves available for questions. The session is being recorded by Hansard for later publication. We look forward to what you have to say and we expect the session to last for approximately 25 minutes.

Ms Elizabeth Law (Northern Ireland Women’s European Platform):

Thank you. We very much welcome the opportunity to meet with you on the importance that European matters have for Northern Ireland, especially, we believe, at the moment, given the enlarged European Union and our own peace building. We are very glad to be with you.

The Northern Ireland Women’s European Platform (NIWEP) is the expert co-ordination for the United Kingdom member of the European Women’s Lobby, which in turn, is the Commission’s expert body on gender matters. NIWEP works across all institutions of the EU dealing with issues which are of importance to women. Essentially, that is all issues. In that capacity, I am the UK board member of the European Women’s Lobby.

We have done European international work and we have worked more widely in international work. In that realm, NIWEP has secured special consultative status with the UN, and we were the first body in Northern Ireland to do that. Anne-Marie led the UK non-governmental organisation (NGO) delegation to the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). We believe that it is very important to have engagement on European matters through networking, and through the learning and sharing, across member states, of good practice on issues that we can address.

We included in our written submission the range of issues that we have touched on and been involved in. We will leave you a copy of a report of our most recent work, which was done under a European programme called Plan D. That report says a lot more about the Women’s European Platform and about the issues that concern women across Northern Ireland, from other agencies and from statutory bodies. That work was part funded by the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (OFMDFM). It will give you a fuller picture and we will be glad to answer any questions that you might have on that.

Our submission touches on three areas on which the Committee wished to consult. The first of those is the strategic approach that was suggested by the Barroso task force. That is important to consideration of our emergence from conflict and how we use UN Security Council resolution 1325 to put in place an effective role for women in peace building, particularly given the review of public administration. The other aspect that the Barroso report embraces is social capital. We have strong views on the importance of fully capitalising on social capital and community-development models in order for Northern Ireland to thrive.

The second area that we looked at is the role of the Assembly and the scrutiny function of this Committee. You have taken up that role to mainstream gender equality, and the vehicle for that is the gender equality strategy and the targets therein. There is a great opportunity to look at how equality for women can be ensured. We recognise that giving attention to EU matters is a considerable responsibility for the Committee as part of its scrutiny role.

We recommend that there should be a separate EU and wider international committee, because there are significant responsibilities and challenges. We commend to you the opportunity to use NIWEP, the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action (NICVA) and other organisations that have European expertise and an international focus. We can offer key skills such as networking and our experience of working with other European member states. There is a challenge to resource and support all that, but the Committee has an opportunity to benefit from the relationships that have been built. We are happy to advise further on the detailed practicalities of that work.

The third area is crucial and concerns interfacing domestic and EU policy. What is the link between what happens in the European Union and domestic policy, and how does it make a difference for all the people who live here? We recommend that there should be strengthened engagement with MEPs and Northern Ireland representatives who sit on the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions. There are good links, partnerships, sharing and models that can be built upon to the benefit of domestic policy. We have relationships with some, but not all, of the European Union institutions, so there is more work to be done in that regard.

It is important that Northern Ireland maintains a profile in Europe and, indeed, that is increasingly the case because of the enlargement of the European Union. Our profile in Europe has been a key benefit over the years, and we believe that that will continue to be the case.

It must be remembered that the United Kingdom is the member state. Therefore, it is an imperative to address the profile of Northern Ireland within the member state, whether that be across the UK and/or in partnership with Scotland and Wales, or, potentially, in partnership with the other member state with which we have a land border — the Republic of Ireland.

Those are the positive suggestions and the thrust to the way forward as we see it. We will take your questions and look more at the practicalities of the outworking of the opportunities that we see.

The Chairperson:

Thank you for your presentation. Do you think that Northern Ireland has spent its EU money wisely? Was it spent well, compared with the Irish Republic who spent a lot of its EU money on infrastructural projects rather than the bridge-building of a different nature that we are investing in? How much has been achieved by the way in which we have spent our EU money?

Ms Bronagh Hinds (Northern Ireland Women’s European Platform):

We have a number of comments to make about that issue. There is only so much money, and one cannot do everything with the funding. Investment in infrastructure is important, but it is also important to have invested in businesses and in social capital — as was mentioned earlier. From having headed up Oxfam in the past and working internationally, I know that Northern Ireland is looked to because of its social capital and community infrastructure. It is a model throughout the world. Some of the money that has been spent around social capital has been spent well, as has some that that has been spent in supporting some of the business elements.

The importance of ensuring that there was equality monitoring in relation to the spend came late to Europe. I want to make specific mention of gender and the international and European drive for gender budgeting. That is very much linked to this Committee’s role in scrutiny and providing leadership in mainstreaming equality, including gender equality. Perhaps, the Committee might want to think about how it can speak to Departments in the future about gender budgeting to ensure that there is a fair spend across all beneficiaries of domestic and international funding.

The Chairperson:

Your paper questions whether Northern Ireland’s representation at the EU is being used effectively. It said that:

“Scant attention appears to be paid to our MEPs and the deliberations of the European Parliament by either the Executive or Assembly Committees.”

On what do you base that?

Ms Hinds:

First, we have seen very little of that in the debates, and we have picked up comments that have been made by MEPs, and others, about their lack of engagement or lack of engagement in linking the European and domestic policy.

Secondly, we came in to the meeting at the tail end of Mr Williamson’s evidence, and we heard his comment about the federation’s role in linking to Europe in respect of funding. We are trying to press that the missing link at the Northern Ireland end is that some groups, such as NIWEP and others, are beavering away and making links or representing Northern Ireland in Europe — officially or in less official organisations — but there is not sufficient mapping of that. Neither is there sufficient co-ordination of that, sufficient knowledge of that being shared or sufficient use being made of that.

We were making the point that someone — and presumably it needs to come from our political leaders here — needs to be tying in those kinds of European and other international relations. The individuals need not be political representatives, but they could be from NGOs, business or elsewhere. They will have to try to achieve the maximum benefit and profile for Northern Ireland.

Ms Anne-Marie Gray (Northern Ireland Women’s European Platform):

Part of that bigger picture is that the public will be led by what they see happening in the Assembly and Executive. We consulted extensively on the CEDAW report to the United Nations and our other European work, and the public perception was that the EU is not a priority in Northern Ireland or its politics. The public in Northern Ireland do not engage with the European debates even to the extent that the public in England, Scotland and Wales does.

Our finding is supported by academic evidence from the Northern Ireland life and times survey, which was carried out by the two universities a number of years ago. It contained a module on attitudes to Europe in its annual survey and found the public perception of Europe to be ambivalent rather than overly negative. The public did not see the importance of Europe or consider themselves informed about it. They did not feel that they could talk informatively about some of the main debates, for example, whether to enter the Euro zone.

If we are to encourage an effective degree of public participation and debate, the Assembly, Executive and OFMDFM must show leadership, perhaps with the help of organisations that do, and are seen to, engage effectively with Europe.

The Chairperson:

Surely the Barroso task force report highlights opportunities that have not previously been taken but could be now? Why wait for the Government to act? Why are the bodies not proactive?

Ms Gray:

NIWEP is, and has consistently been, proactive, as have other organisations. It is also fair to say that we had to be proactive on a shoestring because we have not been well resourced. We are a NGO and most of the work is carried out by volunteers, yet we have still managed to achieve consultative status at the UN and UK expert representation at the European Women’s Lobby. However, the issue is about how organisations can be expected to carry out this high-level policy work without being adequately resourced. Perhaps the Committee and Executive will have to think about that for the future.

Mr Spratt:

Thank you for your presentation. As a representative of South Belfast, I have an interest in the issue of women who are being brought across and used as sex slaves. The police have been involved in some good operations to tackle that and domestic violence, and they have co-operated with your organisation. Can any more be done in Europe to tackle trafficking, particularly that of young women for the sex market?

Ms Law:

An international approach to all types of trafficking is important. There must be consistent guidelines, and the European Women’s Lobby has a specific project on trafficking within its observatory on violence against women. There is, therefore, a significant workstream on violence against women. Within that, the particular concentration on trafficking recognises that only an international response with shared guidelines and shared support for women in that situation will address the problem. Member states must share their knowledge and good practice to create a common approach whose straightforward objective is the elimination of sex trafficking.

Mr Spratt:

There is clearly international and member state co-operation on intelligence and police co-operation on what is a huge problem throughout the world. Specifically, do you recognise the co-operation that there is from a policing perspective, and do you feel that more needs to be done at Government level or within the member states to deal with that situation?

Ms Law:

It has to happen on all those levels, so that the Government has a co-ordinated, inter-sectoral response and picks up on the providers of services in instances of trafficking. The policy line on the issue comes from the wider international work and the recommendations of CEDAW, which also dealt with trafficking and the resources that need to be applied to address the issue. That policy is applied through the EU roadmap, and the European Women’s Lobby has established an observatory on violence against women. That project brings together countries internationally, but also on a three-dimensional model so that, within the countries, the inter-agency work, Government work, and NGO work is involved in that. There is a consistent response on all levels, which criminalises the trafficker and supports the woman.

The European Women’s Lobby Nordic Baltic project has quite a lot of information and models of good practice. I am glad to gather some of that information and provide it to the Committee in more detail, if that would be helpful.

Mr Spratt:

That would be helpful; thank you.

Ms Hinds:

CEDAW required the UK Government to develop a national strategy on violence against women in June 2008, and they are supposed to be working on that. The Home Office is carrying out a survey, which has gone out for consultation in England. We know that the End Violence Against Women coalition in Northern Ireland is on a round of meetings with Government Departments, but we need all Government Departments to address the issue, and an effective Northern Ireland strategy that interlocks with those in Scotland, Wales and England. We would like the Committee to keep an eye on that, so that, when we report back to CEDAW, we will have the highest standards in the UK.

The Chairperson:

We are happy to receive additional information, and if you want to include suggestions as to how we might contribute, we will be happy to receive those also.

Ms Anderson:

It would do no harm for you to contact the Policing Board, because the human rights and professional standards committee is due to report on domestic violence; we should also keep an eye on that, so that we can make a contribution.

The paper that you previously sent to the Committee commented on the valuable contribution that the North can make to conflict resolution and peace building. I support those comments, and they flag up the need for a conflict transformation centre. Dare I say it — as someone who sits in what I feel is a male equivalent of ‘Jurassic Park’ — I think if that was driven more by women, it may have been further advanced.

The Chairperson:

Which arena do you refer to when you say ‘Jurassic Park’?

Ms Anderson:

Many arenas that I sit in; particularly this one. I do not mean this Committee — well, not particularly this Committee, I should say. I should qualify that, because some of the men here are quite progressive and advanced. However, I am one of the few women who sit in the Assembly — particularly as you ask the question, there are only three female unionist MLAs. I have met the most dynamic and robust individuals from the unionist community, but I do not think that they are represented when I look across the Benches at the entire unionist representation.

Mr Shannon:

I represent them, as do Stephen and Jimmy.

Ms Anderson:

I answered the question that the Chairperson asked.

The Chairperson:

Let us move on from ‘Jurassic Park’.

Ms Anderson:

Will you give a little more detail of your views on the UN resolution 1325 with regard to the role of women in peace building? That is quite important, and a research paper on it was produced prior to the Assembly motion on the need for more support for women.

Ms Gray:

We believe that it is central to the progression of women’s issues on lots of levels. In Northern Ireland, there are many examples of good practice of women being centrally involved in peace building during conflict, as well as post-conflict. However, we feel that that has not been adequately acknowledged. United Nations resolution 1325 is about ensuring equal participation of women in decision-making structures, not just in structures specifically linked to peace, criminal justice, and so on. Therefore, we have the ideal mechanism in the review of public administration for ensuring that women’s representation is very much enhanced.

When we look globally to Europe and to the United Nations, we see people looking to women in Northern Ireland for lessons in how to do that. We know that, because we are asked to provide information about models of good practice and about women’s roles in peace building. In fact, recently, we were asked to identify a number of women from Northern Ireland to participate in a high-level conference on women and peace building across the world. Therefore, other countries can see the contribution that women have made in Northern Ireland, and we think that it is time that it is acknowledged here. It is required to be acknowledged through resolution 1325, but progress has been slow.

The United Kingdom is perceived as a country that has been associated with active promotion of the resolution in other countries, and that was the case. However, it has been neglected in its application here.

NIWEP has been lobbying on the issue for some years. It is not a new resolution. In July 2008, CEDAW expressed its frustration at the lack of progress on the issue, and we are keen to look at ways to take it forward.

Ms Hinds:

There is good practice here, and there are models here that we can use, and that we have been asked to use, abroad, as Anne-Marie said. However, CEDAW was concerned about the lack of attention across the board to resolution 1325 in Northern Ireland.

We are glad that there are increased numbers of women in the police, but the numbers need to increase further. It is about the involvement of women in the resolution of conflict, negotiation and peace building. There are also an inadequate number of women who are board members of public bodies, and even fewer women chair public bodies. All those areas have been identified under resolution 1325, as well as women’s involvement in peace building.

We know that there is a huge under-representation of women in our political structures, and there has to be leadership from the top. We will not comment on the previous debate, but only 14 % of MLAs are women and only 21% of councillors in local government are women. There has been reform of local government in Britain. Task forces are also being set up in Britain to address the problems that they did not address when they reformed local government, that is, the under-representation of groups, particularly women, and, particularly, black and ethnic minority groups and women.

We are in the middle of reorganising local government. The most effective way to make change is to ensure that it is written into legislation, and that it is written into the constitutions of new councils and into the methods for selection and organisation of councils, with regard to senior management, middle management and selection of politicians.

For some people, that raises an issue about special temporary measures and positive action. However, the United Nations CEDAW has recommended the adoption of special temporary measures by political parties, and others, to ensure that we redress the traditional under-representation of women. I will just draw your attention to the fact that that is permitted under legislation in the UK. It is not required, but it is permitted for political parties to take such steps, and the golden opportunity is selection for local government in the review of public administration.

Mr Spratt:

We have a democratic process of selection — maybe not like some other parties.

The Chairperson:

I have a sense that we have strayed slightly into a different area, rather than European issues, which is today’s subject. I can see the connections and the links, and the point has been well made.

Mr Shannon:

You referred to a piece of work you carried out called Plan D. I am keen to see how that can be applied to Northern Ireland. You also commented on encouraging the media to improve its coverage of European affairs. What are your thoughts on those two issues?

Ms Law:

Plan D is about raising awareness and understanding of the European Commission and of the other EU institutions. Our approach was to look at the important issues for women and for other people in Northern Ireland, to see how those institutions made a difference, and to see how women could be involved in policymaking at European level in order to influence those policies and decisions for the changes that they would like to see here.

Our approach to Plan D was about linking the issues that are highlighted through CEDAW that streamed through the European road map on gender equality and then had an impact on the lives of women in Northern Ireland. It is parallel to the streams and the issues that are in the gender equality strategy, and it is another mechanism that brings those issues home and ensures that change and policymaking are for the enhancement of society.

Ms Hinds:

The other part of Plan D, which is mentioned in our submission, is that, being European, we need to think more domestically and link to the global. It is not a question of separating what we do in Northern Ireland, what we do in Europe and what we do at international level. It is about thinking in a more comprehensive way, which will link up all those policy areas.

Plan D was about to develop European awareness, but it was very much on the model of citizenship and people’s engagement in democracy, the relationship between elected democracy and participative democracy, and engaging people in the debate. Having carried out an extensive range of consultations, major conferences and expert round tables, we found that once we were able to describe things in domestic policy matters and how that linked to the European policy agenda, the European policy agenda had to shape some of the issues that we deal with.

We were not dealing with academic women only, but with a wide range of women from estate-based women round the greater Belfast area, academic women, political women and others. They appreciated that understanding and relationship between the domestic level, the European level and the international level. They were able to talk about issues that mattered very much to them on the ground and saw where that related and how we needed to represent that at a European level.

I will digress and tell the Committee a funny story. I was at a conference with the Women’s Information Group, which represents women in estates across Belfast. One of our number gave a presentation using Abba songs, in order to take people through the debate on Europe and to make it real. Believe me, one can link Abba link to the issues.

The Chairperson:

‘Money, Money, Money.’ ‘Take a Chance on Me.’

Ms Hinds:

All those; it really was quite funny.

The Chairperson:

What about ‘ Waterloo’? [Laughter.]

Ms Hinds:

We talked about bendy bananas and straight carrots, so, knowing the mayhem that is sometimes promoted in the press about European restrictions, we wish to put on the record that we believe that Europe — I speak as someone who, in the 1970s, was part of the anti-Europe campaign, but I have had a conversion — has been good on gender-equality issues for women. We never hear those positive stories in the media, so we must think about, and situate, some of our domestic policies within a European framework, and our politicians must put a positive spin on Europe in the media.

Given that Northern Ireland is a small region, we are concerned to maintain not just our link with Europe, but a good profile of Europe here and a good profile of Northern Ireland in Europe. In order to do that, we need the media, so we must work on that together.

The Chairperson:

So, it is not a case of ‘The Winner Takes it All’. ‘Mamma Mia’.

Thank you for your contributions. You indicated that you will provide additional information, and we may seek further information and clarification. In which case, we will contact you.

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