Single Equality Bill

office of the first minister and deputy first minister – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:30 pm on 23rd February 2009.

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Photo of Kieran McCarthy Kieran McCarthy Alliance 2:30 pm, 23rd February 2009

5. asked the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to detail the timetable for the single equality Bill.     (AQO 2110/09)

Photo of Martin McGuinness Martin McGuinness Sinn Féin

We continue to legislate in order to provide legal protection against discrimination and to promote equality of opportunity. Since the restoration of the institutions, we have introduced legislation to strengthen and improve the rights of individuals in a number of different areas. We have introduced several changes to disability discrimination legislation in order to improve the lives of disabled people here. For example, we have amended the definition of disability so that people with progressive conditions are deemed to be disabled from the point of diagnosis. We have made it unlawful to treat a disabled person less favourably than others for a disability reason in the disposal or management of residential, commercial and other premises. We have also imposed new duties on public authorities and private clubs to make reasonable adjustments for disabled people.

In the area of gender equality, our law was amended in order to give effect to the European gender goods and services directive. We also brought forward regulations to amend the Sex Discrimination Order 1976 in order to ensure that we fully complied with the European equal treatment amendment directive. We are currently consulting on the removal of the transport exemption that pertains to the right of access to goods, facilities and services contained in the Disability Discrimination Act 2005 in order to make it unlawful for transport operators to discriminate against a disabled person.

Following the close of the consultation period, we will move quickly to amend the law. In addition to strengthening the framework of equality legislation, the Executive have agreed the policy approach that is intended to reduce inequalities further in the areas of age, gender and race, and the inequalities that result from poverty and exclusion. The Executive will soon consider proposals to tackle the inequalities that are experienced by people with disabilities, in line with their statutory section 75 duty.

We are aware that the European Commission has produced a draft directive to extend protection against discrimination on the grounds of religion, belief, disability, age or sexual orientation in the area of goods and services. We must ensure that our citizens enjoy the same protections as others do across the European Union. We will therefore consider the implications of those developments in deciding the future direction of equality legislation here.

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

Minister, before I call Mr McCarthy to ask a supplementary question, we were informed that you were going to answer questions 5 and 11 together.

Photo of Martin McGuinness Martin McGuinness Sinn Féin

That is news to me.

Photo of Kieran McCarthy Kieran McCarthy Alliance

Given the horrendous delay by the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister in making progress on the single equality Bill — which was the subject of my original question — is it not abundantly clear to any observer that the Bill has, in effect, been abandoned by that Department?

Photo of Martin McGuinness Martin McGuinness Sinn Féin

We will continue to keep the broad spectrum of equality legislation under review. Our Department is committed to the principle of equality for all people here. Policy proposals on equality legislation will be considered in consultation with the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister and the Executive. It would not be appropriate to comment on timescales until policy decisions have been taken.

Our officials continue to assess the situation and keep us informed of developments in Britain and Europe on proposals for equality legislation. Work on equality legislation continues in order to deliver on our Programme for Government commitments, EU obligations, case law requirements and emerging issues. It is a mistake to say that all possible avenues have been closed down by the Executive — they clearly have not.

Photo of Alban Maginness Alban Maginness Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Minister for his reply. Is this not another example of Sinn Féin’s surrendering of a vital political issue, this time on equality legislation, to the whims and fancies of the DUP, in the same way that it did on the Irish-language Act, the Maze and education?

Photo of Martin McGuinness Martin McGuinness Sinn Féin

That is wishful thinking on the Member’s part. The reality is that we are part of a coalition Government. If a member of the SDLP were the deputy First Minister, he or she would have to deal with the same issues and difficulties that I do. Clearly, it is quite easy for one to seize on issues if one wants to score political points and be involved in one-upmanship. However, that does not work for the simple reason that we — and I speak as a member of Sinn Féin and as the deputy First Minister — have accomplished something that the SDLP failed to do, which was to bring about a fully inclusive Executive. [Laughter.]

The SDLP, and its two deputy First Ministers, never managed to bring about a situation in which all parties sat at the Executive table, but Sinn Féin did, and that is important. Of course, the Democratic Unionist Party, the First Minister and I have said that being in Government together is not easy. It is difficult. However, the political situation in the North of Ireland has been transformed by the decisions —

Photo of Martin McGuinness Martin McGuinness Sinn Féin

The situation has been transformed as a result of the decisions that both the DUP and Sinn Féin have taken. The SDLP finds that hard to take, because it told everyone, prior to the restoration of the institutions, that there would never be an agreement between the DUP and Sinn Féin.

Photo of Martin McGuinness Martin McGuinness Sinn Féin

That is absolutely true. The Member can shake his head for as long as he likes, but it is on public record that the SDLP told the world and his mother that the DUP and Sinn Féin would never come to an agreement. That party was, therefore, confounded when we did.

A Cheann Comhairle, the next toot from the SDLP was that, although we had managed to get the institutions up and running, it would never last. Through our recent efforts and work, we have clearly shown that the process is sustainable, that it is lasting, and that it has produced results in the interests of all of the people that we represent. That does not mean to say that we agree on everything; there are issues on the agenda that remain to be resolved. However, rather than giving up, Sinn Féin works day and daily. Members of the SDLP can heckle, mutter and moan as much as they like on the sidelines, because the reality is that Sinn Féin and the DUP accomplished something that the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists failed to do.

Photo of Paul Maskey Paul Maskey Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. [Interruption.]

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

Order. The Member has the Floor.

Photo of Paul Maskey Paul Maskey Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat. When some parties do not get their own way, they try to butt in, shout and heckle; however, that gets them nowhere.

Can the Minister outline the main pieces of equality legislation that have been enacted since the restoration of the institutions?

Photo of Martin McGuinness Martin McGuinness Sinn Féin

Since May 2007, our Department has made seven pieces of equality legislation: the Disability Discrimination (Premises) Regulations 2007; the Disability Discrimination (Service Providers and Public Authorities Carrying Out Functions) Regulations 2007; the Disability Discrimination (Private Clubs, etc.) Regulations 2008; the Disabilities Discrimination (Questions and Replies) Order 2007; the Disability Discrimination (Guidance on the Definition of Disability) (Appointed Day) Order 2008; the Sex Discrimination Order 1976 (Amendment) Regulations 2008; and the Sex Discrimination (Amendment of Legislation) Regulations 2008.

In addition, we launched a consultation on the draft Disability Discrimination (Transport Vehicles) Regulations in December 2008. That consultation will run until 13 March.

Photo of David Burnside David Burnside UUP 2:45 pm, 23rd February 2009

I hate to intervene in the nationalist/republican debate. [Laughter.]

With the depth and extent of the equality and human-rights legislation that exists in Northern Ireland, is there no time in the future that the deputy First Minister envisages this Assembly evolving into the same formation of a Government and Executive as every other democratic country in the world, whether that be a voluntary coalition or a weighted majority?

Photo of Martin McGuinness Martin McGuinness Sinn Féin

It is quite clear that the Member wishes to draw me into a revision of the speech that I made during the course of last weekend. Clearly, the answer is no. We have to work with the institutions and the agreements that have been made over the course of recent times. Those have been hugely beneficial to all of the people whom we represent. As a result of the Good Friday Agreement and the St Andrews Agreement, we clearly have a responsibility — as an Executive and as an Assembly — to continue to work those institutions.

The future is unquantifiable for all of us. Over the course of recent times, people have failed to predict the future as regards the economic situation. People are now trying to predict what will happen economically over the course of the next while. From our perspective, we want to work the institutions that currently exist. The people who hanker after changes to the situation surely know that change can only come about as a result of agreements that are forged among the main parties that receive mandates from the electorate.