Equality Commission

– in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 5:15 pm on 5th October 1998.

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Photo of Eileen Bell Eileen Bell Alliance 5:15 pm, 5th October 1998

I would like to make a few comments concerning the establishment of the Equality Commission.

I agree with some of the comments that were made about the ballot; we do need to think about this again.

Equality is defined as "the condition of being equal with more than two persons in quality or in having strength, ability et cetera". Equity is "fairness" and also recourse to "principles of justice to correct or supplement the law". I start with these definitions because the term "equality" — like many other words, such as "inclusiveness", "identity" and even "peace" — are not always used in the correct way, but rather to support a certain slant to suit other perspectives. In every society, every citizen is different, there are different incomes and living situations, but that should not mean that those who do not enjoy full employment, good health or sound minds should not be equal to, or at least feel equal to, others as regards basic rights and a proper quality of life.

We in this Assembly have a chance to ensure that all our citizens, whatever their circumstances, have the right to realise their full potential and to have their place in the sun. However, our hands are being tied by what I believe is the premature setting up of the Equality Commission. The Belfast Agreement stated that decisions on the establishment of this new Commission would be "subject to the outcome of public consultation". The consultation process produced only 18 replies in favour of the merger out of a total of 123, yet it is still being debated and will become law before the new Assembly is even finalised. It will be cut and dried before the proposed Department of Equality can start its work.

A number of points are still unclear. It has been suggested that the Northern Ireland Office is to allocate a budget of £4·8 million to the Equality Commission. The current budget for the Commission for Racial Equality, the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Fair Employment Commission is £5·5 million. Who will be supervising the allocation of this smaller budget to the different departments of the new Commission? Will that be done by Westminster or by the new Assembly? How will it be administered and how will that affect the staff of the existing equality bodies?

These are important points. But I would like to go on to what I consider are more important points. Emphasis is being put on eliminating religious and political discrimination, but there seems to be no clear process proposed for reducing other types of discrimination such as that based on gender, disability and race. The political imperative to focus on equality issues in respect of the two major groups in our community may undermine those of smaller, less vocal groups. For instance, the members of the minority ethnic groups are only now finding a voice through the Commission for Racial Equality and are in danger, along with others who feel that they have a need for recourse to the other equality bodies, of losing out on the attention of the new Commission, which will be remitted to attend to all the different interests.

It is essential that the Assembly is empowered to ensure that this Equality Commission is seen to be fair and to work for all who need it. Rights must not only be protected, they must be promoted. Any downgrading of gender, disability or racial rights should be challenged as patently discriminatory.

Another point of concern is that the legislation, as it stands, could lead to some problems with affirmative action programmes. For instance, certain measures are currently taking place to increase Catholic representation in the Royal Ulster Constabulary. The Bill does not allow for this, but I think it should, as there is a precedent laid down in the provisions of the Canadian Charter of Rights, for example.

Sex discrimination is another crucial area that needs specific attention. Women, as with those with disabilities, face the reality of inequality in all areas of economic and social life. The Equal Opportunities Commission has demonstrated that there is still work to be done in the area of equal pay for work of equal value, and it has recently encouraged Government Departments, agencies and local councils responsible for economic development to include a gender dimension in their policy development.

Female Members in the Assembly will agree that the Assembly must adopt such a stance in its own legislative practices. I am glad to note that the shadow Commission is already looking into the possibility of childcare provision for Members and staff.

To conclude, I should restate my concern and the Alliance party’s concern at the timing of this proposal to set the Commission up, especially when it is clear that so many organisations and groups have expressed similar concerns. The amalgamation of the existing equality commissions can only suggest a certain lack of confidence on the Government’s part that the Assembly will deal with equality issues in a proper fashion. No one is disputing that there should be a review, but it should have been delayed until the Assembly was fully set up, and we also want to think about the new Human Rights Commission.

I am sure that we all want to create a Northern Ireland where citizens can live, work and play in a fair and equitable society without fear or discrimination. The Assembly will play its part and be committed to that goal. The Government should have shown more faith in the devolved Administration’s ability to achieve this.