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The Member will be aware that section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 places a statutory duty on all public authorities to promote equality of opportunity between a wide range of groups such as:
persons of different religious beliefs, political opinion, racial group, age, marital status or sexual orientation between men and women generally; between persons with a disability and persons without; and between persons with dependants and persons without.
Furthermore, section 75(2) states:
a public authority in carrying out its functions relating to Northern Ireland shall have regard to ... promoting good relations between persons of different religious belief, political opinion or racial group.
My Department has published an interim equality scheme that sets out how, as a Department, we propose to fulfil our section 75 statutory duties. In addition, my Department is required to provide an annual progress report to the Equality Commission setting out how we have delivered against those statutory duties. The first Department for Communities section 75 annual progress report will be completed for 2016-17 and will be made available following submission to the Equality Commission in August 2017. I will be happy to have a copy, when it is published, sent to the Member if that would be useful.
I thank the Minister for his answer with respect to setting out what section 75 is meant to achieve. However, I will take the opportunity to remind the Minister of the question: what action does he intend to take to improve good relations with respect to those of different sexual orientations, and can he address that specific issue in his answer?
Section 75 is applicable right across the areas that I have highlighted in Departments and their duties to deal with all the issues raised in section 75. That is the statutory instrument that Departments have to abide by, and I will certainly do that.
Obviously, my door is open to people who want to engage with me. This is an area that I have touched upon in the House before. When dealing with section 75, and the different groups that exist, we must acknowledge that people have different characteristics that they identify by. It is important that we, as a society, respect all those different characteristics and that we find a space in our society where people can accommodate differences so that, where differences exist, they can be expressed in a way that is respectful.
It is important that, in promoting one's identity, we do not denigrate another's identity. That is how our society would be best placed to evolve when it comes to dealing respectfully with individuals, irrespective of their background.
This is a very important issue to us. Obviously, the case that was heard in the Court of Appeal raised the issue of the conflict that, at times, can exist. As a society, we need to find ways of navigating those differences, but it is beyond the issues that seem to dominate the debate on section 75 — sexual orientation and religious belief. When we look at all the groups in section 75, we see that it is about helping people who have disabilities and the broad spectrum that it covers. It is important that we look at those issues in their totality and find a way of addressing all the issues raised by how people identify and that we do so by trying to find a respectful dialogue while acknowledging that differences exist, and where you can make reasonable accommodation for that, it should be carried forward.
Section 75 is applicable to arm's-length bodies as well. Obviously, all arm's-length bodies should be complying with the law. I expect that, whether it is my Department or the arm's-length bodies, when dealing with these issues, you find a way to comply with the law, and that everybody can be treated equally in the services that have to be delivered by the state.
I make the comment again that there will be occasions when the different characteristics identified in section 75 will be in conflict. It is in that space that we need to find a way in which our society can manage that. Again, I do not believe that the promotion of one's identity should be carried forward in a way that denigrates another individual's identity. It is in that space that, I think, the challenge to the Assembly is this: what type of society do we want to have? Is it one that respects that difference? Is it one that can reasonably accommodate those differences? Is it one where a particular section 75 group will want to enforce its will upon another section 75 group? That is not equality, and I believe that there is a better way to do things than what has happened heretofore.
The Member makes a valid point. I think that there will be individuals on the extremes who identify with whatever characteristic I have referred to so far. That should not put people off being able to have dialogue on these issues. I give an assurance that I recognise that social media can be a very powerful and useful tool, but it does attract individuals who will, at times, misrepresent the broader interests of the characteristic that is identified. Again, my door is open. I am happy to have a conversation about these issues; I think that is important. It is also important that that conversation is carried out in a respectful manner, recognising that people will come to the table with different views on how we navigate around these issues. If the starting place in all this is treating each other with respect then, potentially, there is a way in which we can find an accommodation.