I beg to move
I am pleased to bring these technical but important Regulations before the Assembly. Their purpose is to ensure that the Administration has up-to-date information that is compatible with other statistical information and which will enable trends in employment to be better identified.
Most employers in Northern Ireland are required by law to submit monitoring returns to the Equality Commission annually. Part of that process involves providing workforce information on the basis of nine occupational groups ranging from managerial to elementary occupations. These groups are based on the 1990 Standard Occupational Classification, which has recently been reviewed and updated by the Office for National Statistics.
These Regulations will amend the Fair Employment (Monitoring) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 1999 to ensure that information on the profile of each workforce is provided on the basis of the new occupational groups. That means that employers will be monitoring information on a basis that is compatible with and comparable to other statistical sources of data such as the 2001 census or the labour force survey. The Regulations will take effect from January 2004. In other words, monitoring returns submitted on or after that date will have to provide information on the basis of the revised occupational groups.
Since monitoring information in relation to applicants, appointments, promotions and leavers relates to the 12-month period before the date of the return, employers will have to start gathering information from January 2003 onwards on the basis of the new categories. Making the Regulations now will allow enough time for the Equality Commission to prepare employers for the necessary change.
To assist employers in reclassifying their workforces a revised index for classifying job titles will be provided at no cost to the employers. The index lists about 10,000 occupations and will enable employers to identify the appropriate grouping code accorded to the various occupations among their workforce.
The Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister has commissioned research on the likely cost of implementing the Regulations, and the research indicates that the change will have a minimal financial impact on employers. There will be a small initial cost because of the need to reclassify existing employees according to the new groupings, but thereafter there will be no recurring expense. A regulatory impact assessment has been completed on the Regulations and copies have been placed in the Assembly Library.
Employer representative bodies, the trade unions and the Equality Commission have been consulted and are supportive. The Examiner of Statutory Rules has scrutinised the Regulations and he has said that there is nothing of any importance that needs to be brought to the attention of the House.
The Committee considered the Statutory Rule. It amends the standard occupational classifications which employers use to make the monitoring returns under fair employment legislation. The Committee considered the rule at its policy development stage several times and deferred its decision until the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister had consulted with employers on the proposals and on the additional cost to them in reclassifying employees.
The Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister has informed the Committee that there will be a one-off cost of approximately £127 million for the private sector and £102 million for the public sector. Employers have said that they are generally supportive of the proposal, which is surprising. The Committee considered the Statutory Rule on 26 June 2002 together with a report from the Examiner of Statutory Rules. Therefore I confirm that the Committee is satisfied.
As Mr Haughey said on behalf of the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister and Mr Gibson confirmed on behalf of the Committee of the Centre, the Regulations deal with updating employment categories in accordance with the Office for National Statistics requirements. How long do Ministers expect the updating of categories to have effect?
In 1975, fair employment was introduced; there was also the Fair Employment Agency, the Fair Employment Commission and the Equality Commission. In the mid 1970s, procedures were needed to ensure fairness of employment and to monitor how employment operated to ensure that a balance was being struck. However, the assumptions of the 1970s are being extended to today’s processes in a way that is becoming untenable. A quarter of a century ago, we could have said that people were Catholics or Protestants; if they were not Catholics they were Protestants, whether Hindu Protestants, Jewish Protestants or agnostic Protestants. However, society has changed significantly. One of the previous categorisations of religious balance was the question of the primary school one attended, but integrated education is now having an effect on that.
(Madam Deputy Speaker [Ms Morrice] in the Chair)
The increasing number of ethnic minority citizens in Northern Ireland is also bringing a change in minority religious backgrounds, which disturbs the traditional pattern. The undoubted increase in secularisation is making categorisation on the basis of religious belief dubious. Society has changed in all those respects.
In the 1970s, fair employment had to be fought for against violent opposition from many Unionists; it was seen as a Nationalist campaign against Unionists. However, that has also changed significantly. Fair employment is now the presumption in the public sector and in the private sector, and it is seen as the way in which people move forward and the necessary way to ensure that balance is maintained and that fairness and equality are provided to all citizens in their work.
However, the Regulations do not merely produce categorisation of types of employment; they produce categorisation of types of people. They perpetuate divisions; they stick people into pigeonholes, which may or may not be appropriate; and they continue to divide society. I thought the aim of the Good Friday Agreement — which the Assembly has been seeking to achieve for four years — was to unite to produce a new society moving forward in a different way.
I would like to ask two simple questions. First, as a matter of record, if the categories are straightforward and simple, will the Ministers explain what category police officers fall into? Unfortunately, they are recruited on a sectarian headcount and not by appointing the best person for the job. Secondly, if the implementation date for the Regulations is January 2004, how much longer does the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister think it will be necessary to divide up people in Northern Ireland rather than starting to build a united society?
I thank Mr Gibson, the Deputy Chairperson of the Committee of the Centre, for his remarks. He may have overstated the costs involved in making the changes. The average additional staff cost for the public sector is estimated at £127, not £127 million.
That is compared to £102 for the private sector. Within the private sector, the average additional staff cost ranges from £52 for small businesses to £185 for large businesses. Mr Gibson was correct if you take the million out of his remarks and change it to £125, £52 and £107.
With regard to categorisation according to religion, I draw Mr Ford’s attention to schedule 1 of the Fair Employment (Monitoring) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 1999, where it is allowed that people may be categorised
"(i) as Protestant;
(ii) as Roman Catholic;
(iii) as if the community to which they belong cannot be determined".
There is a third category for people who do not wish to be seen, or who cannot be seen, as belonging to either of those categories.
I was once required to fill in a monitoring form for a public appointment that gave the options as something described as "the Protestant community", "the Catholic community" or "neither" with the caveat, "Do not use the last one because we will find out what you are anyway" — I paraphrase, but that was the implicit direction. Can the junior Minister confirm that it is acceptable that those who do not wish to be categorised may in all circumstances ask to be regarded as "other"?
I cannot comment on a form that I have not seen that the Member may have filled in, or seen, in the past. The Regulations that we are currently dealing with allow for a categorisation of people under the definition, "as if the community to which they belong cannot be determined", and that is how it stands. It has been examined by the Examiner of Statutory Rules, who stated that there is nothing in it that requires to be drawn to the attention of the Assembly.
Mr Ford made some more general remarks about how long this type of categorisation will be needed. It will be needed as long as there is unease or prejudice in the community that causes difficulties in fair employment. If at some stage in the future, because of the measures that we take in the name of fair employment, the general feeling in the community is that there are no longer any grounds for apprehension about fair employment procedures, these rules may be relaxed. However, that is a matter for the future. I doubt that Mr Ford would dispute the fact that there is unease in both sections of the community. [Interruption].
There is unease in the community about whether employment procedures are fair, and that applies to both the private and public sectors. As long as the apprehension and fear persists, we will have need for Regulations of this kind.
The monitoring that we have carried out under fair employment legislation has had an effect on ensuring equality of opportunity. One has only to look at employment figures, particularly in the public service and the Civil Service, to see the effect of fair employment legislation. Consultation on the single equality Bill will provide an opportunity to look at those matters afresh.
Mr Ford mentioned the categorisation of police officers. I do not have the 10,000 categories in front of me, and I am sure Mr Ford would not expect me to. However, I will write to him to indicate where they are placed in the categorisation. I commend the Regulations to the Assembly.
Question put and agreed to.