Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2011/2012

Date: 06 May 2009

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:

Mr Danny Kennedy (Chairperson) 
Mrs Naomi Long (Deputy Chairperson) 
Ms Martina Anderson 
Mrs Dolores Kelly 
Mr Barry McElduff 
Mr Francie Molloy 
Mr Stephen Moutray 
Mr Jim Shannon 
Mr Jimmy Spratt

Witnesses:

Mr Bob Collins ) 
Ms Evelyn Collins ) Equality Commission for Northern Ireland
Ms Jane Morrice )

The Chairperson (Mr Kennedy):

I am pleased to welcome Evelyn Collins, Bob Collins and Jane Morrice from the Equality Commission. Thank you very much for your attendance. Jane, I take this opportunity to express our sympathy — as I indicated by letter — on the recent death of Paul.

Ms Jane Morrice (Equality Commission for Northern Ireland):

That is much appreciated; thank you.

The Chairperson:

This session will be recorded by Hansard for inclusion in our report. Please make an opening statement, after which, members will ask questions.

Mr Bob Collins (Equality Commission for Northern Ireland):

Thank you. In the first instance, we have to express an apology to you. There was confusion on our part about the starting time. I am sorry for our late arrival.

The Chairperson:

That is all right. Fortunately, the Committee has plenty to occupy its time.

Mr B Collins:

We welcome the opportunity to be here, as we welcomed the earlier chance to make a submission on EU issues to the Committee.

There appear to be a number of fundamental propositions. The first is that for the foreseeable future Northern Ireland will be inextricably linked to the European Union. The second is that Northern Ireland’s economic development will also be linked to and affected by the rest of Europe’s. The third is that economic development and the development of a more equal society are themselves inextricably linked — they are the obverse and converse of the same coin.

If those three propositions are true, and I think that they are, the development of a more effective relationship with Europe has a particular relevance for us in the Equality Commission and for the rest of public life in Northern Ireland.

In the first instance, a significant level of equality and anti-discrimination laws that obtain in Northern Ireland is influenced by or derived from legal initiatives under the auspices of the European Union, and that is likely to remain the case for the foreseeable future.

The second example, as I said earlier, relates to the link between the development of the economy and the development of equality generally — they are not separate, they are not in conflict, they are closely interconnected. It is unlikely that a society that is not operating on an equal basis will develop its economy as it should. A society without an effectively-developed economy is unlikely to be in a position to provide equality of opportunity for all its citizens.

The third point is that life is always a sequence of two-way relationships. Northern Ireland does not simply import from or learn from the European Union. Northern Ireland has a great deal to offer to the European Union, not only in relation to the Equality Commission’s statutory responsibility — equality of opportunity, good relations and anti-discrimination legislation — but because initiatives that have been taken in Northern Ireland have not found expression in other parts of the European Union. Certain experiences and practices in Northern Ireland may be relevant in other areas of the EU or in aspects of EU policy generally.

Free movement of goods and people between member states has been a foundation stone of the European Union since the Treaty of Rome. That is important in Northern Ireland, because it confers real advantage on people from here who wish to live and work in other member states; it recognises the entitlements due to those people; and, by the same token, it reflects that those same entitlements are due to others who come to live and work in Northern Ireland, which is an important part of the statutory responsibility of the Equality Commission.

The Assembly, the Executive and the Committee have specific roles in relation to Europe, which may be touched upon later. Jane Morrice may want to say something from her own perspective as a former member of the European Economic and Social Committee.

Ms Jane Morrice:

I am happy to contribute during questions.

Ms Anderson:

Thank you for the presentation, Bob. I have read the general observations that are included in the Equality Commission’s submission. I would like you to retract the observation, which you repeated, that equality and the economy are linked. The Equality Commission’s position that the promotion of equality is dependent only on economic prosperity is deeply worrying. From our perspective, it is very worrying. It is unacceptable and, I think, unsustainable.

The facts prove that the Commission’s argument that economic prosperity is dependent on equality is not true. Before the economic downturn, we had 10 years of prosperity across the island. However, despite the Celtic tiger economy in the Twenty-six Counties, there was structural, social and economic inequality. If anything, social and economic inequality has got worse. To say that economic prosperity and equality of opportunity are interdependent is to suggest that we are waiting for economic prosperity in order to have equality. An interpretation and interrogation of that whole paragraph in the submission is needed. It raises major concerns for me. Recently, during the time of prosperity, the gap between the haves and the have-nots increased. Are we saying that in the economic downturn equality must wait? Are we saying that equality was not delivered during the period of economic prosperity and that now, because of the economic downturn, we have to wait?

That is an unfortunate use of terminology in that part of the submission. It is not reflective of the work of the Equality Commission and its statutory responsibility, under section 75(1), to:

“have due regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity”.

Your submission states that:

“In the same way, the existence of good and harmonious relations between various groups of people will be a vital precondition for economic and social development.”

Yet, section 75(2) states that public authorities should:

“have regard to the desirability of promoting good relations”.

That is the target. The language in your submission turns “desirability” into “vital precondition”. Of all the paragraphs, I found that one the most worrying, especially coming from the Equality Commission. I think that it should be retracted.

The Chairperson:

Just to clarify, your use of the word “our”, when you said that it was unacceptable, was an indication on behalf of your party.

Ms Anderson:

I was talking about our party.

Mr Shannon:

It is not the royal we.

Ms Anderson:

It is not the royal anything.

Mr McElduff:

Martina speaks for me and Francie Molloy.

The Chairperson:

That is a particularly surprising admission coming from you. However, we understand that you are representing the view of your party.

Ms Anderson:

Anyone who speaks at this Committee and questions any witness at an evidence session does so as an individual. We never claim to be representing the Committee in its totality, and I think that that is understood by everyone when they speak.

The Chairperson:

Likewise, it is understood by the Chairperson.

Mr B Collins:

I would be worried about that paragraph if it meant what Ms Anderson suggested that it does. However, in my view, it does not mean any of those things, and I do not think that it needs to be retracted. It does not establish a hierarchy, and it is not derived from the terms of section 75. It states that to realise the full potential of economic development and equality of opportunity, we must recognise that those two factors have a mutual relationship — there is no doubt about that. It does not mean that you cannot have economic progress in an unequal society. The globe is full of examples of that happening. However, the full potential of economic development cannot be realised unless there is a relationship with equality of opportunity.

In recent times, I have said, and the Equality Commission has frequently said, that equality of opportunity is not a luxury. It is not something than can be disregarded in times of economic downturn. It is not a fair weather friend, to quote something that I said in another place. It is precisely when there are economic difficulties that we have to be absolutely cautious that the needs of equality of opportunity are reflected, protected and assured.

The reference to good and harmonious relationships is a reference as much to the statutory provisions on fair employment and treatment as to anything else. In those circumstances, I would have thought that it is a vital precondition for economic and social development. The notion that one can posit comprehensive, complete and full economic and social development in a circumstance in which there would not be an environment of fair employment and treatment would be to overlook something significant.

If I can reassure Ms Anderson in her concerns, it is not a statement about the relationship between equality of opportunity and good relations as they are set out in section 75(1) and (2) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. Nor is it a political or an ideological statement about the extent to which equality and economic development can co-exist. It is a statement of the aspirational and ideal potential in the relationship between economic development and equality — that they are mutually supportive and sustaining, and that they are not enemies.

Ms Anderson:

The statement says that:

“Economic prosperity and equality of opportunity are mutually interdependent”.

That is absolutely clear. We have experienced economic prosperity, and still do for groups and organisations in sections of this society, yet we do not have equality of opportunity. Of course, there is potential to advance the promotion of equality of opportunity. However, given the fact that billions of pounds of public money are being spent on programmes and projects during an economic downturn, we can still promote equality of opportunity regardless of whether we have economic prosperity. That statement is not even suggesting or stating that fact. Therefore, it should be retracted. Alternatively, it could be elaborated on and explained, but it should certainly not stay as it is.

Mr B Collins:

What we have said, we have said, and I do not propose to edit that here. Quod scripsimus, scripsimus, as Pontius Pilate might have said.

The alternative reading is that equality of opportunity and economic prosperity inhabit separate universes, do not interconnect and have no mutual relationship. I do not think that that is true, and the point, as I said, is that even in circumstances of economic downturn, equality of opportunity has to be protected and regarded. That is because, first, we have a statutory obligation, and, secondly, because that is the right thing to do. We could spend a great deal of time discussing that sentence without any product.

The Chairperson:

Questions have been posed and clarification sought. You have confirmed the position of your organisation.

Ms Morrice:

I thank the member for raising this issue, because I believe that there is a misunderstanding, and it is useful and valuable that we have clarification. It is important that the issue is clear, and that is definitely what we want to happen. The misunderstanding is based on the fact that one cannot have healthy, balanced economic growth without equality. That is what that statement is saying. That is turning the statement round into how we wanted to say it. I hope that that is clear, and that is exactly where we stand.

Mrs D Kelly:

I apologise for arriving too late to hear what Martina was saying, and I was not sure about the gist of her argument. Equality of opportunity is available to all under the legislation, unless there is some sort of communist-type policy whereby it is a free-for-all and everyone should have the same wage and living standard. We want everyone to prosper. Surely equality of opportunity means that anybody can apply for a service or a job based on meeting the criteria.

Mr Spratt:

Except if they work for the Equality Commission, of course.

Mrs D Kelly:

They can still apply.

Ms Evelyn Collins (Equality Commission for Northern Ireland):

The point that we were referring to is elaborated in paragraphs 17 and 18 of the submission, which focus on the resonance between the Programme for Government’s expressed recognition that we can not grow the economy in isolation from determined efforts to transform society and enhance our environment and a commitment to use that increased prosperity and economic growth to tackle social disadvantage and build an inclusive and stable society. That commitment very much mirrors the European Union’s approach over many years that economic growth has to go hand in hand with social progress. That helps to clarify the original statement that we made in paragraph 9. The twin commitment at the European Union level, which is matched in the Programme for Government, runs throughout the document.

Ms Anderson:

But I think, Chair, just —

The Chairperson:

Sorry, to be fair, we have given that point more time than is reasonable and other members wish to ask questions.

Mr Shannon:

I do not want to see the Sinn Féin utopia in which everybody gets paid the same wage: the deputy First Minister, the driver of the car and everyone else. That is illogical. People get paid for their jobs according to their capabilities, the status of the job, and so on.

Ms Anderson:

We are proud of what we do.

Mr Shannon:

For the record, as somebody else mentioned earlier, I support the comments made by the Equality Commission and am very pleased to see them in the submission. Mr Collins, in my opinion, what you have put in the submission is a statement of fact. Economic prosperity and equality of opportunity are mutually interdependent. Therefore, you have not said anything that is not true, and it is very unfair to even suggest that.

We have a comparative peace, which we hope to build upon, and it is important that everyone can feed into that. Harmonious relations come off the back of a good economy and job opportunities. [Interruption.]

The Chairperson:

Order, please.

Mr Shannon:

I wanted to make that statement because other members have made statements, so I feel that we should be able to do likewise.

Ms Anderson:

Is that the royal we?

The Chairperson:

The long-suffering Chairman would not prevent anybody from making statements.

Mr Shannon:

He is very long-suffering and he is very gracious.

One of the statements in your submission mentioned the needs and concerns of Northern Ireland and its people, and it made reference to the fact that those are reflected in the UK’s policies on European engagement. It also referred to the institutions of Government and the Assembly in Northern Ireland being fully aware of the significance of European Union membership. It then went on to refer to the regions. Do you believe that anything more could be done at this time to ensure that Northern Ireland, as a region within the United Kingdom, improves its relationships in Europe for the betterment of the people that we represent?

Mr B Collins:

I hesitate to stray much beyond the boundaries of what the statutes tell us we are supposed to be in existence to do. However, there are real opportunities for deepening the relationships between Northern Ireland and the European Union. Some of those have been addressed in the Barroso task force report and in the Executive’s action plan in response to that. There are potential areas within the structures of the United Kingdom for the Executive and the Assembly to work together with the devolved legislatures in Scotland and Wales in such a way as to influence the articulation of UK policy on the European Union. For obvious reasons, that has tended to be driven from London. Consideration needs to be given about issues in Northern Ireland, such as equality and discrimination, and others that touch on all aspects of the lives of people who live in Northern Ireland. Opportunities exist to influence the way in which UK policy towards Europe is developed.

Clear opportunities are also afforded by the east-west relationships that were developed in the Good Friday Agreement and the St Andrews Agreement, through which Ireland and the UK, as well as the various constituent elements in the UK, have opportunities to shape an approach to the development of European policy.

Furthermore, clear areas exist in which Northern Ireland has a significant contribution to make to the development of European policy that derive from its experience and practice; for example, in the operation of the devolved Administration and a whole range of policy areas. The totality of wisdom about the developments that have taken place in Northern Ireland does not reside in London, Dublin, Washington or Brussels. Northern Ireland has real experience that could be relevant to other parts of the European Union and to the development of EU policy across a whole range of areas. Engagement by the Assembly and by a Committee of the Assembly will provide an opportunity to give life to those issues. That is why it is important that this Committee is devoting this kind of attention to the question of the relationship with Europe.

There is a broader question, which is certainly beyond the remit of the Equality Commission, but one has a view, about the extent to which the public appreciates the significance of the European Union, the issue of the shaping of policy and the centrality of the relationship between Northern Ireland and the rest of the European Union. That is an area of discussion for another day.

Mrs Long:

Thank you for the presentation and the written submission. I also read the document, although I read it slightly differently. I took from it that there was a synergy to be achieved from having in place good relations, equality and human-rights laws, and that there was benefits from all three working in collaboration. In the same way, if there are robust policies on equality, good relations and human rights, it also benefits the economy. That is not to say that the economy cannot be grown without those robust policies, but if that is done it will become an unbalanced and unstable economy, and there will be serious issues concerning how to maximise the benefits for everyone, and support those who are not benefiting.

The Chairperson:

Is that your statement over?

Mrs Long:

It is, you will be glad to hear. I keep it concise.

You highlighted the influence that the European Union has had through legislative measures, action programmes, and so on. To what degree does the Equality Commission monitor what is happening in Europe to get an early warning on legislative developments, the equality agenda, and other issues that are likely to arise in future years? Also, to what degree are you reliant on the Assembly or the Executive to do that scoping work?

Finally, in what way do you think that the processes of flagging up issues that will be dealt with in the future and smoothing factors such as transposition could be enhanced, so that it could be done in a more effective and efficient way?

Ms E Collins:

The Equality Commission recognises the critical nature of European Union legislative and policy framework. We participate in a number of networks; for example, a network of the European equality bodies was established fairly recently. We share information and engage with the European Commission in particular, but also, from time to time, with the Parliament on what it is doing on equality legislation and policy. We also have representation on an advisory Committee to the European Commission on equal opportunities between women and men. That meets maybe twice a year.

We share information on what is happening in Northern Ireland and gather information on what is happening at the Commission. We can then feed that back into our own work, so that, when mapping the landscape of how we see issues developing, we take into account not only what comes from Northern Ireland through the Programme for Government, for example, but what is likely to be in place at the European Union level.

Of course, we also have ongoing dialogue with officials from the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, who likewise monitor what is happening at a European level, and try to anticipate what changes will need to be made, for example, in respect of equality legislation by dint of the European Commission framework.

We also, from time to time, look in advance at communications from the Commission — as they arise — that examine, for example, the future of non-discrimination and equality in the European Union. One such communication was published in July 2008. We fed into it as it was being consulted on throughout Europe. It concluded that although much has been achieved, much remains to be done. It focused its attention on two main strands, one of which examined the legislative framework. It concluded that more needed to be done to ensure effective transposition in member states of existing directives, and that it would bring forward a new directive to consider protection against discrimination in respect of the provision of goods, facilities and services on the grounds of age, religion, sexual orientation and race. Work is ongoing on that.

It also said that in addition to the legislative framework, further action must be taken on non-legislative measures, particularly mainstreaming equality. Of course, our work on section 75 is of interest to the European Commission as it develops its thinking on mainstreaming. It is particularly interested in positive action, promoting diversity as a valuable business tool, and a range of other non-legislative measures. We had input in dealing with that.

In our planning, we examined and recognised what such an instrument for communication could set out. We are aware that the gender road map, which I know that the Committee has discussed with other witnesses, is due to be completed in 2010. Work is ongoing to prepare a subsequent gender road map. We will have influence on that as well as notice.

To make it more efficient and effective, good communication must take place between the range of parties who have a role to play in enhancing our understanding of the European Union and its role here. Our submission refers to one concrete example of that which is, clearly, that the Assembly can and should have a clear role in debating and scrutinising European issues that are particularly relevant to Northern Ireland.

The directive that was announced in the communication on non-discrimination and equality in 2008 is, as of yesterday, the subject of public consultation in the UK by the Government Equalities Office. The Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, which has particular responsibility for equality legislation, could make submissions to ensure that its views are heard in the UK context and that they feed directly into the European Commission through MEPs or other contacts that you have. Therefore, there is a range of ways to enhance communication. Looking for opportunities to influence can be brought to bear.

Mrs Long:

We tend to think of Europe as somewhere that sends legislation; however, nobody ever really thinks about from where it comes. It actually comes from other member states when they raise issues. As regards good practice in the Northern Ireland context, when, perhaps, matters have been developed further than they have in other European states, do you believe that more can be done to feed that good practice in, so that we become contributors, if you like, in Europe, rather than simply recipients?

Ms E Collins:

I know that Jane wants to respond to that point. It is clear from our work with Equinet that people are interested in our unique tools and in how we operate here. We have generated much interest through speaking at conferences and from information that has been sought through Equinet. I would not call it an early warning system. However, a system is in place whereby if another member state seeks particular information from those of us who have had longer experience of equality legislation and have taken a certain case, for example, under gender discrimination law or other discrimination law, we can feed that in. Therefore, there is certainly recognition that Northern Ireland can contribute much to, as well as learn from, other member states.

Ms Morrice:

I want to reiterate the point that Evelyn made. With the directive coming forward, there is an opportunity for the Committee to get involved, scrutinise and to put forward a submission on it. Two examples of best practice spring to mind, the first of which is agriculture. Farmers are well aware of how to use their influence through lobbying and using their unions to influence legislation. That is important.

The second example is of best practice in a regional area, namely Scotland. It is very good at getting in on the act. Obviously, Ireland is, too, although Scotland, as a region, has been doing it for a long time and has done much work.

My role in the European Economic and Social Committee is useful for the Equality Commission because I get early, advance warning of legislation that comes through. As part of my role on the Committee’s Employment, Social Affairs and Citizenship Unit (SOC), I ask the Equality Commission to feed into opinion on European legislation so that it can make its voice heard at an early stage.

The Chairperson:

I think that the president and the chief executive of the Ulster Farmers’ Union were particularly interested in your last comment. They are seated behind you. [Laughter.]

Mr B Collins:

If the farmers are behind you, you are all right. [Laughter.]

The Chairperson:

I could say more, but I will not.

Mr McElduff:

I interpreted the words in paragraph 9 in the same way that Martina did. I reassert the fact that equality of opportunity is paramount in any economic conditions. We have an issue with the wording of paragraph 9, and Jane said that it may have been a misunderstanding.

Paragraph 15 states that the EU funding programmes have contributed to “mainstreaming equality of opportunity”. How has that happened, and are there any specific examples?

Mr B Collins:

One of the critical points in paragraph 15 is that:

“the Assembly has a clear role in ensuring that equality is mainstreamed in future funding programmes or similar support activities.”

The structural funding programmes that are operated through the European social fund and the European regional development fund have introduced equality as one of the cross-cutting measures to be taken into account. That is important, because it recognises equality as part of the social objective of the programmes that are supported by both European funds and matching funds from this jurisdiction.

Monitoring of the groups that are in involved in and benefit from the distribution of those funds gives a real indication of the extent to which equality of opportunity is reflected in the outcomes that ultimately flow from the deployment of those funds. There is real potential, and there will be even greater potential in the future. One can already point to a significant plus in the fact that equality was one of the cross-cutting core themes in the most recent round of applications.

Mr Spratt:

The paper that you submitted to the Committee reiterates your general duties. The Equality Commission has a track record of discriminating against one side of the community. Have your employment practices improved since the last time that you appeared before the Committee?

The Chairperson:

Order.

Mr Spratt:

Sorry —

The Chairperson:

Order. We are considering European issues.

Mr Spratt:

Yes, but there is a paper in front of us that restates the principles and duties of the Equality Commission and deals with European issues. I am quite at liberty to ask a question about that organisation’s employment record, given that it has worsened in each of the past five years. The representatives were questioned about that on their previous visit, but they now return to lecture us on equality. I am now asking a simple question: has equality improved within the organisation — yes or no?

Mr B Collins:

The simple answer to that, Chairman, is that we are here to discuss the Committee’s work on European issues. We were here a relatively short time ago, and we had a number of exchanges with Mr Spratt on that occasion. It is better to focus on the subject that you invited us here to discuss.

Mr Spratt:

I take that answer as a no, and that the organisation’s employment record has not changed and that it is still discriminating. [Interruption.]

The Chairperson:

Order.

Mr B Collins:

For the avoidance of any doubt on the part of any member of the Committee, let me add to my previous response. The Equality Commission does not discriminate against anyone. The Equality Commission observes the law. I recognise elected representatives’ entitlement to express their views, but I am not going to be a doormat for anyone. I do not propose to remain here for that kind of comment to be made. I respect the Committee and its work, and we are happy to be here to talk to you about the subject that we were invited here to talk about. I propose to say nothing beyond what I said already, other than to reiterate that we do not discriminate against anyone. I will not allow that charge to be made.

Mr Spratt:

It is obviously a very sore point.

The Chairperson:

Order. I ask everyone to respect the Chair, if not the person in the Chair. Mr Spratt asked a question, as he is legitimately entitled to do, and we received a response. I consider the matter to be dealt with.

There are no further questions. I thank the witnesses for their attendance. If there is any additional information that you wish to provide for us about our inquiry into European issues, we will happy to receive it. It may well be that we will seek clarification on other points. I hope that everyone feels that they are respected by the Committee.

Mr B Collins:

We are happy to have attended and we are at the Committee’s disposal if it needs any further information from us.

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