Homophobic Bullying

Oral Answers to Questions — Employment and Learning – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:45 pm on 9th February 2015.

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Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Sinn Féin 2:45 pm, 9th February 2015

1. Ms Ruane asked the Minister for Employment and Learning to outline the action further and higher education colleges are taking to eradicate homophobic bullying. (AQO 7520/11-15)

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

Each further education (FE) college and higher education (HE) institution is required, as a public authority, to have in place an equality scheme and to report to the Equality Commission on steps taken to promote equality of opportunity for categories listed in section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998.

During 2013, I asked my officials to conduct an audit of how our colleges and universities were taking forward policies to combat homophobia. The results of the audit confirmed that all our institutions engaged in a range of positive practices in that area. In the FE sector, all colleges have in place a range of pastoral care arrangements aimed at promoting the health and well-being of students by providing them with access to appropriate guidance and support, including personal safety and protection, anti-bullying, harassment, self-harm and suicide. Initiatives in place include running awareness and promotional events, training staff in combating bullying, providing support to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) groups in college campuses, engaging with the Rainbow Project and working with college student unions. In the higher education sector, institutions engage in a range of positive practices. All higher education institutions have anti-bullying policies and procedures in place that cover homophobic bullying. Those policies and procedures continue to be monitored, reviewed and updated when necessary.

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as an fhreagra sin. I acknowledge and welcome the measures, but students in colleges continue to experience homophobic, bi-phobic and transphobic bullying. Does the Minister agree that more needs to be done to ensure that LGBT students feel safe while they study? What further measures will the Department implement?

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

Obviously, colleges and universities are taking measures forward, and those measures are constantly reviewed. Indeed, we seek updates from the colleges to that end. I am stunned — indeed, I am shocked — that the Member, given that she is a former Education Minister, is challenging what happens in the FE and HE sector, where good practice is in place. In the wider community, there have been demands for successive Education Ministers, including the Member, to ensure that we have proper effective measures in our school setting to deal with, specifically, homophobic bullying and not just bullying in general. That has been a major gap in provision over the past number of years. In that context, I am somewhat surprised that the Member is challenging the good practice that happens in the FE and HE sectors, compared with what has not happened in our schools.

Photo of Sandra Overend Sandra Overend UUP

I thank the Minister for his answer. Will he outline the steps he has taken with regard to sectarian intimidation in colleges? Some find that certain colleges are a cold house for unionists.

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

Our colleges and universities are very mindful to ensure that we have a neutral environment where people can learn together. A neutral environment does not need to be a homogenised environment where expression of culture is removed from that situation. Clearly, where complaints are made in that regard, whether to student unions or the authorities, you need to take those comments extremely seriously.

Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party

I feel the need to pay tribute to the people in colleges of further and higher education who have tackled the problem. I ask the Minister whether there is anything that we can learn from their endeavours and successes that could be used in the wider battle against homophobia.

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

I thank the Member for his comment. I join him in paying tribute to the leadership across the third-level education sector in ensuring that we have a welcoming environment.

My specific points in response to his question relate to how colleges can engage with the wider community through, for example, local policing and community safety structures and how they can engage with the community and voluntary sector, particularly the organisations that lobby, campaign and provide welfare in relation to different section 75 categories, including, for example, the LGBT sector.

Colleges should also look at how, in general, they can ensure that they have good, efficient practices in place that will robustly challenge in those situations where there is a clear breach of equality duties, including intimidation and bullying.

Photo of John McCallister John McCallister UUP

In his reply, the Minister quite rightly mentioned the importance of ensuring that through the main education system and into the FE sector. Will he comment on what measures are in place in colleges and through his Department? What support is there for young people on government-supported work schemes to make sure that they too are protected from any form of bullying or harassment, including homophobic bullying?

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

The Member makes a very valid point. To that end, as we have sought to design our different apprenticeship and youth training programmes looking to the future, as well as our provision under Pathways to Success for our NEETs strategy, we have been very mindful of ensuring that those involved in the provision of training are alert to the risks of bullying, including homophobic bullying, and on how to ensure that there is proper pastoral support. Indeed, one of the key design features of the new youth training system, the public consultation of which is closing, is a much stronger focus on pastoral care than has been the case up until now.