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I was wondering, Mr Deputy Speaker, how you were going to be referee and striker at the same time with question 1.
As the funding Department for the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland, the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) is accountable for the commission’s business activities and resourcing arrangements. In that context, the deputy First Minister and I approve the commission’s three-year corporate plan. Our Department must also approve the commission’s annual business plan. It also carries out reviews every five years or so, with the next review scheduled for 2009-2010.
The commission reports to OFMDFM quarterly on its performance on progress made towards achieving the aims, objectives and targets contained in its annual business plan. In turn, OFMDFM officials consider the contents of those quarterly reports and request further details where appropriate. Our officials also meet bimonthly with commission staff to discuss various issues, including the outworking of the business and corporate plans. Formal meetings at senior management level take place quarterly.
For the financial year 2007-08, the commission set 23 targets of progress: 18 of those were met, two were partly met, and three were unmet.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom fáilte a chur roimh fhreagra an Aire.
I thank the First Minister for his reply. The question relates to the effectiveness of section 75. Local government is an area of particular concern. There are two approaches to section 75: a complainant can go to a local authority — or whatever offending body — and lodge a section 75 complaint; or the Equality Commission can generate its own review of section 75. Is the First Minister concerned by the fact that during the years of the Equality Commission’s existence, it has not generated a single section 75 complaint against any local authority and that it is left up to individuals? That is a weakness.
I am not sure that I recall any successful legal action relating to section 75. Part of the commission’s work is to give advice and assistance so that organisations do not fall foul of section 75 requirements. Schedule 9 to the Northern Ireland Act 1998 requires the Equality Commission to keep the effectiveness of the duties imposed by section 75 under review.
The Equality Commission is not appointed by the deputy First Minister and me; it is appointed by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Given that the Secretary of State has section 75 responsibilities, he should keep account of the effectiveness of the organisation that he appoints. For our part, we have a pay and rations requirement for our Department and the commission. We can approve or not approve the commission’s corporate and business plans, but we are limited because we do not appoint the organisation in the first instance.
I was going to try to get through this question and still be ministerial. My views on the Equality Commission are fairly well known. It is always difficult for a body that is not itself representative to carry out its role. The duties of the Equality Commission are set down in law; if it is believed that breaches of the requirements of section 75 have occurred, people can have redress through the courts. As I said before — though it is not always the only indicator of whether there have been breaches of section 75 — there have not, in my view, been any successful legal actions with regard to section 75 requirements.
I thank the First Minister for his answers. There is a statutory obligation on the Equality Commission to be reflective of the community in Northern Ireland. What is the First Minister’s assessment of the Equality Commission’s record in that regard, given that it has, in my view, failed in its obligations towards the unionist and Protestant community in the appointment of commissioners and in its record as an employer?
I can go along that road for 50% of the way. The other 50% has to take the form of a stricture on the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, because it is he who appoints the members of the Equality Commission, rather than the commission itself. It is not a representative body, and one situation flows from the other. If a body is not representative, its staff get out of kilter and there is a cold-house feeling, which has a rolling impact. It looks dreadfully bad if the Equality Commission has to put its own requirements to the test. Some 30% of its staff is Protestant, which is clearly not reflective of the community. Urgent action is required, and simply placing an advertisement here and there is not enough. The Equality Commission is required to show equality in its own staffing arrangements and in the commission itself.