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Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2011/2012

Date: 01 July 2009

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:

Mr Danny Kennedy (Chairperson) 
Ms Martina Anderson 
Mr Alex Attwood 
Mr Tom Elliott 
Mr Ian McCrea 
Mr Barry McElduff 
Mr Francie Molloy 
Mr Stephen Moutray 
Mr Jim Shannon 
Mr Jimmy Spratt


Dr Stephen Donnelly ) 
Dr Gerry Mulligan ) The Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister 
Ms Eileen Sung )

The Chairperson (Mr Kennedy):

I thank Mr Spratt for handling the previous section of the meeting. We move to the session on the gender equality strategy. We will be briefed by departmental officials, Dr Mulligan, who is being well exercised today, and Eileen Sung. A research paper on the strategy, which includes the action plans, is in members’ packs. I welcome Gerry and Eileen. Dr Mulligan has made a transformation.

Mr Shannon:

Is it ‘Groundhog Day’?

The Chairperson:

It is like something from ‘Doctor Who’; you are the new doctor, Dr Mulligan.

You are both very welcome. You will give a presentation on the gender equality strategy, after which members will ask questions. The session is being recorded by Hansard.

Dr Gerry Mulligan (Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister):

I hope to leave as much time as possible for questions, so I propose to give only a brief introduction by way of background and an update on where we are. Eileen is head of the gender equality unit. It is not only Eileen’s unit in the Department that contributes to promoting gender equality. A significant amount of the work that we do on legislation and policy in areas such as childcare and lone parents is clearly relevant to meeting the objectives in our gender equality strategy.

That strategy was published in 2006, during the most recent period of direct rule. It was the result of a significant amount of work that was undertaken in consultation with the general public, the Human Rights Commission, the Equality Commission, and, significantly, a gender panel that was set up to work with us to develop the strategy. As with other strategies that emerged from direct rule, we felt that it continued to be relevant and fit for purpose, and we put it to the Executive to adopt the strategy as part of its Programme for Government. Therefore, as part of the Programme for Government, we have a commitment to implement that strategy.

It is important not only because it delivers on our Programme for Government commitments, but because it is an important part of our broader international commitments, particularly in relation to the United Nations’ conventions around gender discrimination and the Beijing declaration and platform for action. Therefore, it is an extremely important policy document.

Since the publication of the strategy, we have been working with the gender panel and Departments. We have been identifying what Departments need to do to deliver on the key objectives. In broad terms, the strategy’s objectives include achieving better data on gender. It may seem like a technical point, but we need to know how programmes impact on men and women to determine whether there is a differential impact. Therefore, there was a strong emphasis on data collection.

Another part of the strategy is to ensure the economic security of men and women. Other strategic objectives are to achieve equal value for paid work; to improve the health of men and women; to achieve a gender balance on Government-appointed committees, boards and other relevant official bodies in which there is significant under-representation of women; to ensure the active and equal participation of women and men at all levels of society, economy, peace building and government; to promote the particular rights of girls and boys by increasing awareness of their different needs; to eliminate gender-based violence in society; and to ensure that women and men, including girls and boys, have equal access to education and lifelong learning.

That is the broad framework that we seek to deliver through specific actions. The Committee has a document that reviews progress towards achieving those actions. It is an interim, mid-term review that includes the current actions that Departments are taking to achieve the strategic objectives. The actions have developed and evolved since 2006, so the actions in the report are different from those which were first produced by Departments, and they represent a three-year rolling programme that is updated every year.

The current list of actions is intended to bring us to the end of the current comprehensive spending review (CSR) period. Next year we aim to update those with a view to having a mid-term review of the strategy in 2011. That is the current situation. I welcome questions on the strategy, the action plan, or the mid-term review.

The Chairperson:

It might be said that the document is quite weighty and significant. Is a possible criticism, therefore, that it lacks focus and cross-departmental co-ordination? It is a concern that, although it is everybody’s responsibility to carry out their duties, no one is really in charge of ensuring that they are carried out. Is there sufficient stick, as well as carrot?

Dr Mulligan:

I will invite Eileen to develop the point, but the role of OFMDFM has been one of promoting, advising and challenging. We challenge when we feel that Departments’ actions are perhaps not as relevant to the objectives as we would want them to be. We advise on the significance of the strategy and our obligations under the Programme for Government, as well as our wider international obligations. The branch promotes the strategy, and its budget funds activities that are linked to the gender strategy in order to raise awareness and generally promote its aims. OFMDFM is not totally passive in the process, but, given that Departments are individually responsible for delivering on the actions and for the resources that are required to deliver them, there is an acknowledgement that OFMDFM is more a co-ordinator than a policing agent in that regard. Perhaps Eileen will develop that point.

Ms Eileen Sung (Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister):

All that Gerry has said is true, and the report acknowledges that the action plans are not perfect; they are, as Gerry has said, almost a baseline of what is happening over the CSR period. They will be developed annually with Departments. I welcome your recognition, Chairperson, that the document is important, particularly for transparency. OFMDFM has been well supported by the gender advisory panel, and Ministers have taken a keen interest in that panel’s work.

We are keen to support the work involved in getting the action plans into the public domain to inform debate and discussion and to strengthen the challenge function to which you referred.

On the possible lack of focus, the report allows us to consider emerging priorities. On page 25 a number of key areas are highlighted. Members will see that some actions are already taking place in, for example, childcare, women and leadership, the gender pay gap, and gender-based violence. It is hoped that the report and the action plans will give all of our partners in this enterprise, including the Assembly and the elected representatives who are questioning us today, the opportunity to say whether the focus and direction of travel that emerges is right or wrong. I accept the criticism to a certain extent, but the flexibility exists, at this stage, to adjust the focus as we move forward.

Dr Mulligan:

Eileen has usefully shown that, although we may not have a stick, we have the lever of setting the agenda and suggesting what the priorities should be. Eileen mentioned our priorities of childcare, the gender pay-gap, violence and so forth. We highlight those priorities to Ministers and ask that they be addressed when actions to tackle inequality are being developed. We have, therefore, a fair degree of leverage in the process.

The Chairperson:

There seems to be an absence of clearly measurable, time-bound targets.

Ms Sung:

In 2008, OFMDFM published a set of gender equality indicators, to which there was a lengthy introduction that cautioned against targets. It indicated that the key gender statistics that illustrate differences in labour market participation — mortality, morbidity, poverty, wealth throughout the lifespan, and various other key inequalities — could be used at the five-year stage to monitor the position of gender inequality.

It is difficult to identify the targets that we want to be achieved. The target contained in the Programme for Government is that on the gender pay gap. The Executive committed to undertaking action to eliminate the gender pay gap, and some interim work has also been carried out in that area. In April 2009, OFMDFM published a discussion paper on measuring the gender pay gap. We will publish shortly an additional discussion paper to highlight the difficulties surrounding the gender pay gap and to suggest some areas of work with added value that we could usefully undertake to tackle some of the important issues. The second paper will also highlight differences in gender roles, caring and family responsibilities and other tricky issues of gender identity.

Ms Anderson:

Thank you, Eileen and Gerry. You mentioned that OFMDFM will publish two documents that will highlight the difficulties in implementing the programmes that are required to address all the issues. In the context of the monitoring framework, how can we ensure that we monitor what Departments are doing to move towards the elimination of the gender pay gap? What processes can we put in place proactively to ensure that not only is it in the gift of Departments to move towards the elimination of the gender pay gap, but that they have prioritised the implementation of the required programmes?

I am interested in hearing the views of the stakeholders’ representatives on the gender advisory panel: what is their opinion of the action plans? In addition to transparency and accountability, we must ensure that the views of those involved are shared. We must know whether they consider that we are delivering as much as possible.

Ms Sung:

Those are both excellent points. At the mid-term review, for example, we will have an opportunity to report on progress against the targets on the gender pay gap and a range of associated measurements. In 2006, the Women and Work Commission published a report, focusing on the implications for Northern Ireland, against which OFMDFM monitors the work of the Departments. We subsequently produce a report to which the Department for Employment and Learning is a major contributor. That is a useful tool for keeping tabs on various programmes and actions that are targeted at helping to eliminate the gender pay gap.

We have issues about career segregation. That is at a fairly low level of activity. The Women and Work Commission’s actions and indicators are the best example of how one can directly monitor activity across Departments.

Ms Anderson:

Are Departments continually analysing the outworkings of that report?

Ms Sung:

The Women and Work Commission is due to report again later this year, and Northern Ireland will be preparing a specific local response to that report. Perhaps the Committee will have an opportunity to examine the report at the same time. That would be a useful check on what we are doing. The mid-term review will help us to look at how we are prioritising the actions and the supporting work.

Ms Anderson:

What about the gender advisory panel representatives?

Ms Sung:

Under the terms of reference, officials are required to inform Ministers of the views of the gender advisory panel. One function of the report is to fulfil that obligation. However, the panel has not yet seen those plans. We felt that it would be inappropriate, while desirable for full transparency, for the gender advisory panel to have a final version until the Committee had seen it first. The representatives have commented on presentations, but they have not had the opportunity to see the full thing. That piece of work is the responsibility of officials. We sought to reflect the views of the gender advisory panel, but I am sure that it would be a useful exercise for this Committee to take views separately from the panel.

The Chairperson:

It might be interesting if we could establish which issues generated most input, supportive or challenging, from the gender advisory panel and the Equality Commission. When do you expect to refer the paper to the gender advisory panel?

Ms Sung:

One way to proceed might be to put the paper to the Executive and to seek approval to publish. A lot of work is still going on in the background. We have views from the Equality Commission and unfinished business that gender advisory panel members raised, for example, about gender-neutral perceptions. That is a difficult question because, if we were to start talking now about which issues generated most interest, it would be a lengthy discussion. However, that is something that is essential to share with the Committee.

Ms Anderson:

Ministers approved the revised terms of reference for a gender advisory panel, which involves stakeholders outside government, and that was going to advise and assist OFMDFM in monitoring and reviewing the strategy. Surely, therefore, it would be right to engage and consult with that gender advisory panel, if that panel was not in receipt of a public document like everyone else, even to afford it the respect of fulfilling its role as stated in the terms of reference. We could then engage with it and reflect on some amendments or changes, if that were possible.

Dr Mulligan:

We have engaged with the gender advisory panel in confidence on important documents, such as those on baseline indicators and action plans. We find the panel’s comments to be particularly useful, and they help to shape the document. We will always look at opportunities to engage, in the spirit of openness and confidentiality, and we will certainly factor that into our further work.

Mr Attwood:

I perceive some tension between what is said in some of the documentation and what you have said today. The introduction to the report confirms the Programme for Government’s commitment to tackling remaining gender inequalities etc and states:

“In particular the Programme for Government undertakes to ensure there are effective programmes and strategies aimed at achieving the eradication of all forms of discrimination against women,”

and so on.

“Effective programmes and strategies” and “commitment to tackling remaining gender inequalities” are strong words. However, the language that you used today was that OFMDFM was “not totally passive”. You also said:

“actions not as relevant as we might want them to be”;

that you “caution against targets” and that:

“we have a co-ordinating not a policing role”.

I read strong words about ensuring that there are effective programmes and strategies, but I hear softer words today, and I find a slight tension in that.

That leads me to a couple of specific questions. In the Programme for Government, there is a particular strategy to ensure access to affordable quality childcare. However, when the issue of affordable childcare and requirements around policy options for childcare provision are worked through in the progress report, the action that you report back to the Committee and the Assembly is PSA 7, Making Peoples’ Lives Better:

“Aim: Drive a programme across Government to reduce poverty and address Inequality and disadvantage.”

The Programme for Government makes very specific commitments about childcare provision. There is a need for action. However, the height of the action that is being taken is PSA 7. We are 10 years into the overall strategy and a couple of years into the Programme for Government. Can you reconcile that?

Dr Mulligan:

I will address your last point first. If the impression is given that the commitment to improve access to affordable childcare and the action on that are disconnected, then we need to revisit the action, because that does not reflect what is happening. Ministers have agreed on a firm commitment to develop a strategy to improve access to childcare, and we have a programme of work, which is scheduled for roughly the next six months, that will look at options for enhancing access to affordable childcare. Therefore, there are very specific actions. As an interim measure, we have put to Ministers that we see the need to preserve the existing infrastructure for childcare provision until we have an agreed strategy. Ministers are doing a lot in the ministerial subgroup on children. If we are not reflecting that well, then we will certainly revisit it, and thank you for drawing my attention it. It probably does not do justice to what Ministers are actually doing.

On your point about the tension, I am probably guilty of being cautious in my terminology. It was a response to the suggestion that we might have a stick to beat Departments with, knowing that, legally and constitutionally, we cannot oblige Departments to take action that we might think appropriate. It is a process of encouragement, exhortation, challenge and, ultimately, seeking agreement at ministerial level. We can deliver the commitments, but, if my softer language conveys a lack of priority, I offer my apologies, because it should not. We will certainly strive to make sure that we can deliver on what is in the document.

Mr Attwood:

The jury is out on all this. That is my overall reading of your comments. In one way, we have to draw conclusions from what you have included in the report, and it is not unreasonable to draw conclusions from the inclusion of PSA 7. As the Chairperson said at the beginning of the meeting, the Committee will send further information to OFMDFM about the childcare strategy. In hard terms, we do not know where that will go. You mentioned some information today about your plans for the next six months that I had not heard previously.

I will offer another example. Although the action plans make no reference to gender budgeting, the introduction to your report says that gender budgeting will lead to real change. There seems to be some disconnect; you make a statement about an option, but that option is not reflected in Departments’ action plans. How will you reconcile those discrepancies?

Dr Mulligan:

The action plans will go some way, but not necessarily all the way, towards delivering what we think would make —

Mr Attwood:

They are not action plans if they only go a little way.

The Chairperson:

If you ask a question, at least give the witnesses the opportunity to answer.

Dr Mulligan:

As Eileen acknowledged at the beginning, the action plans are not perfect. We will continue to persuade Departments to introduce initiatives and programmes that are based on our consultation with organisations, the sector, the advisory panel and Committees. I am not suggesting that Departments are unaware of the issues; they are critically aware, in a lot of actions, of the disadvantage of certain gender groups, be they men or women. Therefore, it is an iterative process, and I do not want to convey the impression that we are hard in our words and soft in action. We are hard in our words, and we promote the most progressive actions possible with the resources available.

The Chairperson:

Thank you for your presentation. We might do certain things ourselves or initiate further contact on the issue.

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