Racial Equality Strategy

Oral Answers to Questions — Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:00 pm on 27th April 2015.

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Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP 2:00 pm, 27th April 2015

1. Mr Swann asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister what steps are being taken to bring forward a racial equality strategy. (AQO 8004/11-15)

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP

Mr Speaker, with your permission, I will ask junior Minister Jonathan Bell to answer the question.

Photo of Jonathan Bell Jonathan Bell DUP

Racial equality and good race relations remain key goals for the Department. Recent race hate attacks are a brutal reminder that we need to strive to achieve those goals and not to take them for granted. Attacks, whilst relatively few in number, cause fear, alarm and despondency among our minority communities. They shame all of us, yet they reinforce our determination to create a society that allows people of all backgrounds to live here in peace and to be treated with respect and dignity.

We are working on a strategy that will genuinely tackle the barriers that stand in the way of people feeling that they belong here. We received a large number of responses to last year's 16-week public consultation. We had 97 written responses from groups and individuals and 303 requests for consideration of specific strategies for Roma and for Traveller people. Forty-nine online questionnaires were completed, and we had feedback from six public meetings and other meetings with academics, trade unions and other key stakeholders. The analysis of all of that is being finalised, and officials have met a large number of representatives of the sector to hear further reflection and input and to clarify what the key issues are. That engagement, along with the analysis of the consultation responses, will inform the final strategy. In conclusion, we want to produce a strategy that embodies both the aspirations and the everyday needs of the families and individuals who have come to live here and who have contributed so much to our community.

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

I thank the Minister for his response and agree with him that we should all be ashamed of attacks where they happen in our community. Does he agree that the absence of such a strategy is a hindrance to the efforts to combat this type of intolerance? Can he update the House on when, he thinks, a strategy will be published?

Photo of Jonathan Bell Jonathan Bell DUP

There are pieces of work under way with the sector. I am not sure that the people perpetrating the attacks are necessarily looking to a strategy for the reason why they behave in such an abhorrent way. We have sought to meet the groups concerned. We have listened carefully to their needs and aspirations. There is tremendous local work going on across Northern Ireland, specifically in our communities, to make this a welcoming place. It is vital that all those voices are brought together to deliver a strategy that delivers most for those for whom it is intended. We will not be found wanting in producing that.

Photo of Jimmy Spratt Jimmy Spratt DUP

I thank the Minister for his answer. He will be aware that South Belfast has some good examples of community engagement on race issues. What work is being done to improve and increase engagement throughout communities on race issues?

Photo of Jonathan Bell Jonathan Bell DUP

The Member is correct: there is some tremendous work being done right across Belfast, specifically in the South Belfast area.

I look to the Belfast Mela as a key example of how the Indian community has led the way in bringing in the many other cultures that represent so much, have contributed so much, have put so much into the economy and have made a net gain contribution from the minority ethnic sector to our economy and our society. It has made us the diverse and rich society that we are. When I first went to the Belfast Mela in, I think, August 2011, I was overwhelmed by the numbers present. Yet, year on year, the numbers are getting bigger, and the involvement by the whole community, from right across Belfast, is now so strong that you have to queue for a long time to get in. That is the work the community sector is doing on integration, celebrating diversity and enjoying the society that we are today in Northern Ireland, which is enriched by the diversity. We hope that our strategy and the minority ethnic development fund, which we kept at its current level despite all the financial crises and pressure, will be our commitment to the minority ethnic sector and to the community sector to continue to build on those good race relations.

Photo of Sean Lynch Sean Lynch Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire don fhreagra sin. I thank the Minister for his answer. I think that we all agree that political leadership is needed at the highest level to tackle the growing problem of racism. Does the Minister agree that his party's failure to distance itself from racist views and, indeed, previous comments by his party leader fuel intolerance, racism and disrespect towards other cultures and races?

Photo of Jonathan Bell Jonathan Bell DUP

It is difficult for those of us who have come through it all. We do not want to look back to the past, but I look at the number of people murdered or maimed by the republican movement, which went across Europe shooting people, shooting children and everything else. If the Member wants to look back, he has enough significant material in the abuse of people that his republican movement was involved in without pointing the finger at anybody else.

From the First Minister down in our party, we have completely condemned all recent racist and hate incidents. When I am with the First Minister with the Islamic community, with the Indian community or wherever we are, we give a consistent and strong message. I do not know where he gets those messages from, because they are not being given to me by the minority ethnic development community. When we have seen a problem, the First Minister, along with us and our officials, has worked with the minority ethnic sector. We recently convened a special sitting of the good relations board at which we looked at what immediate action all of us in OFMDFM could take to tackle race hate. That programme board has met on a number of occasions, and it will do so again, because we want to work together to show that that minority of cases whre there are race hate attacks — they are a minority — do not represent us or any party in the House. Frankly, silly slurs like that do not help anybody.

Photo of Anna Lo Anna Lo Alliance

The ethnic minority fund for 2013-15 ended on 31 March, and it is not known to the organisations when the new round of funding will finish. Obviously, the two- or three-month gap in funding will negatively impact on the ability of ethnic minority organisations to help finalise the racial equality strategy. Will the Minister consider extending funding to all the organisations that have received funding for the previous two years until the outcome of the funding round is known?

Photo of Jonathan Bell Jonathan Bell DUP

First, I offer a sincere word of thanks to Anna Lo. She has been of tremendous assistance to us in the office and has met us regularly. She has real credibility and can help us understand the voice of many in the minority ethnic development sector. I want to record my thanks for all her assistance.

The direct answer to the question is that the invitation for new applications opened on 27 March, and the closing date was today. As I said earlier, we are pleased to confirm that, despite all the financial pressures, the minority ethnic development fund is £1·1 million for the 2015-16 financial year. On top of that, we have put together a crisis fund of £100,000 to help those most in need or crisis.

We did that, as well as holding a number of drop-in workshops in Belfast, Londonderry and Craigavon to help the groups with the application process. We hope to let the applicants know the outcome of their applications by the middle of next month.

As the Member said, a number of requests were made, mostly from those who had been in receipt of minority ethnic development funding, to argue for the funding to simply be extended for a further period. The Member will also be aware that other organisations supported the opening of a new call for applications to those who had not been successful previously or who were involved in work in that area but had not been funded. Some of the organisations were new and some were not so new, and we wanted to see which of them could potentially serve their community and broader society well with the help of funding. We felt that it was fairer to allow everyone to apply and have the same opportunity. Options were put to us, such as the one that the Member suggested of just continuing —

Photo of Mitchel McLaughlin Mitchel McLaughlin Speaker

I advise the Minister that his two minutes are up.

Photo of Jonathan Bell Jonathan Bell DUP

— for a further period. We took the decision that, on balance, it was appropriate to open it to all the organisations.