Thank you, Deputy Speaker. I welcome the opportunity to move the Final Stage of the Fair Employment (School Teachers) Bill. It will remove the anachronistic exception of teachers from the Fair Employment and Treatment Order (FETO) and ensure that it is no longer possible for any teacher to be discriminated against because of their religious background when applying for a job.
Fairness and equal opportunity are key values of the Alliance Party, and the legislation delivers on them. The Assembly and the Executive are often — rightly — criticised for failing to deliver the leadership and services that the people of Northern Ireland need and deserve. There is a real and urgent need for a functional power-sharing Executive to be restored as soon as possible to deliver for the people of Northern Ireland.
The Fair Employment (School Teachers) Bill is a small example of what we can achieve in the Assembly when we work together. It should not be legal for teachers to be discriminated against because of their religious background when applying for a teaching job. The Bill presents us with an opportunity to end that provision. The Fair Employment (Northern Ireland) Act outlawed employment discrimination on the grounds of religious belief in Northern Ireland in 1976, but the Fair Employment and Treatment Order continues to permit discrimination on the grounds of religious belief in the recruitment of teachers to this day.
Almost all workers in Northern Ireland can rely on legislation to protect them from discrimination on the grounds of their faith, but teachers cannot. Under the Fair Employment and Treatment Order, employers in Northern Ireland with 11 or more employees must register with the Equality Commission and monitor the composition of their workforce. That does not apply to the teaching workforce. The Equality Commission for Northern Ireland recommended the removal of the exception of teachers from the Fair Employment and Treatment Order for secondary-level teachers in 2004 and early consideration of removing it at primary level on the grounds that it was no longer acceptable to exclude the entire teaching workforce from fair employment legislation that covered all other occupations. It also recommended that teachers be included in the monitoring and review requirements.
There is an increasingly clear consensus that teachers must be included in the Fair Employment and Treatment Order and be afforded the same legal protection from discrimination when seeking employment as anyone else in our society.
The Fair Employment (School Teachers) Bill will give effect to those long-standing recommendations. It presents the Assembly with the opportunity to remove the exception of teachers from the Fair Employment and Treatment Order, and I trust that that is an opportunity that we will take today.
This opportunity has been made possible by a collective effort from many people, and I put on record my thanks to research officer Connie Egan and constituency officer Nick Mathison for the work that they contributed to the Bill's progress. The Bill and, indeed, my service as an MLA would not have been possible without their dedication and that of all staff members who served on our team over the past decade, and I would like to recognise them for that. I thank everyone in the Bill Office, the Speaker's Office and all Assembly staff who support the progress of private Members' legislation. I thank the Executive Office Committee. To be completely frank, the Committee's proactive and comprehensive approach to Committee Stage made the Bill's progress possible. I am very grateful for that approach. I thank the Education Minister and officials from the Department of Education and the Executive Office for their engagement at key stages of the Bill, particularly with the education management sector to ensure that a small number of amendments would deliver a good, manageable period for implementation of the provisions. To everyone who responded and contributed to the Bill, I say thank you. I also thank my colleague Kellie Armstrong MLA and her team, who provided me with valuable assistance and support throughout the progress of the Bill.
I hope that the Bill will give teachers the fair employment protection that they deserve. Hopefully, I will be able to dedicate the Bill to them after Final Stage today, given the courage, leadership and sacrifice that they and everyone across our education sector have shown for many, many years, particularly in the pandemic of recent years.
First, on behalf of the Committee for the Executive Office, I congratulate the Bill sponsor, Chris Lyttle, on bringing the Bill to Final Stage. It has not been a straightforward journey, and it was not always certain that the Bill would make it to this point. However, Chris's belief in the importance of the Bill and in the potential for positive change in the education sector through its provisions provided the impetus to carry on.
What will the legislation mean? It will mean that teachers will be free to apply for teaching posts in schools without being asked about their religious background. Yes, some schools will still ask for the certificate in religious education, but that is now more widely available, and there may be conversations in the future to discuss where that is necessary. It will mean that discrimination on the grounds of religious belief will not be allowed when teachers are being recruited. The fact that this has been allowed until now is an anachronism. It will mean that teachers who previously did not apply for certain posts, believing that they would be turned away on account of their religious background, can now, with confidence, apply to teach in any school.
The Bill will mean that there is the potential for greater diversity in our schools. The lack of diversity in our education system has been cited as one of the factors involved in keeping our society divided. Our communities are changing. Our schools need to change with them. The Committee acknowledges that this will not be straightforward for many. We have heard that schools are worried about how to preserve their ethos. Those discussions will need to take place, and the Committees believe that the two years is sufficient time for them to happen. We have heard that schools will need time to implement the monitoring requirements of the Fair Employment and Treatment Order. Again, the Committee feels that two years is sufficient time for those arrangements to be put in place. With the exception of a small number of individual submissions to the online call for views, all stakeholders who came before or provided written submissions to the Committee agreed that the exception for teachers in the 1998 Order had to go. The only question was when. That time is now. The Committee for the Executive Office supports the Bill.
In closing, I will say a few words in my capacity as an SDLP MLA. I would like to say a very big thank you to Chris Lyttle, the Bill sponsor. Chris, it was a pleasure to work with you on the passage of the Bill. As you leave public life, as a legislator, you leave behind a legacy to the education sector and to teachers all over Northern Ireland. For those in our universities who are studying to become teachers — they will be the educators of the next generations — you have opened doors that were previously closed. I applaud you and wish you well in your future contribution to society, which I know will not stop when you walk out the door of the House. I commend the Bill to the House.
I welcome the opportunity to speak at Final Stage. On the face of it, this is not a massively important Bill. It does not put money into anyone's pockets. It will not hit the news headlines tonight. Why is it important? I think that it is important, and there are a couple of reasons for that. First, it exemplifies what can be achieved when parties work together. At one stage, not so long ago, the Bill would have been seen as a lost cause, but, through parties cooperating and working together, we were able to move it forward quickly, get it on to the Floor of the Assembly and get Committee Stage done and dusted. Now, here we are, on the last day of the mandate, with the Bill ready to pass.
The second reason why it is important is that there was a time when people thought it necessary to have an exemption from fair employment. Through engagements in the Committee, it became clear that none of the stakeholders in the education system believed that the exemption from fair employment legislation was necessary today. To me, that signals a massive step forward for society in general, and that is why the Bill is important. Its outworkings are that any teacher will have the same protection under fair employment legislation as any other worker.
I congratulate the sponsor, Chris Lyttle. I have worked closely with him, not just on this but with him and Kellie on the Integrated Education Bill. The raft of legislation that has come through the House, not just today but over the past few weeks, is an indication of what the Assembly can achieve when people work together and cooperate. I support the Bill.
As the DUP Member who has spoken on the Bill, I assure the sponsor of my support and congratulate him on getting it to this stage. I also wish him every success as he takes on new roles in life. This will absolutely not be the last time that we hear from Chris Lyttle. I am confident of that, and I wish him well as he goes forward.
The Bill is important in Northern Ireland. I have had reservations about the process by which we arrived at Final Stage today. I would have preferred that the Bill had more consideration, because it deals with one element of discrimination in employment but is silent on some other issues that are very important and that we need to discuss, such as ethos and the Catholic certificate in religious education that is required by some schools. We do not want to take away a legal form of discrimination and leave anomalies behind. That is important. I hope that, given the amendment that we supported and the time that we have in which to do this, there can be sensible conversations about how we take all these issues forward in their totality.
I want to put on record that I have engaged with a number of education sectors on the Bill; indeed, as Pat Sheehan said, it was, largely, supported by all the sectors that gave evidence to the Executive Office Committee. We will therefore support the Bill today, but I want my remarks on the additional issues to be noted, so that we can go forward and look at the whole landscape and make sure that everybody has every opportunity for every job, no matter who they are or where they come from.
I thank the Bill sponsor and those who made it possible.
I will be brief. On behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party, I support the Bill at Final Stage. I commend Chris Lyttle for all his work in getting us here. Three or four weeks ago, we probably thought that it might not be possible, but, as other Members have said, it just shows what is possible when we have a collective will, an efficient and effective scrutiny process through the Committee, and the collaboration of the various offices — the Bill Office and the Department — to get us to this stage.
The Bill is mercifully short, as I said at previous stages, but massively significant and symbolic. Mr Sheehan said, rightly, that it reflects a change in society and in where we are today. Perhaps it would not have been possible in the past, but I am glad that, through cooperation and working with the sponsor and with other Members, we have been able to get here today.
I pay tribute, as others have, to the Member, not only for this Bill but for his dedicated service to the people of East Belfast and to the Assembly over a number of years. I wish him well. I am sure that we have not seen the last of you, Chris. Thank you for all your efforts to get us here. It would have been nice, I suppose, if we had been able to get this change through in other ways. He and I and others attempted, through many questions, motions and whatever else, over a number of years, to get movement from the Executive Office on this matter, but we are where we are. The failure there has become Chris's success in getting us to this stage. I commend the Bill.
I will be very brief. I am happy to support the Bill. It is important legislation that will benefit many teachers and student teachers. I, too, commend those who have worked hard to ensure that the Bill made it to Final Stage and that it gets through in this mandate. As my colleague Pat Sheehan said, it shows how successful we can be when people work together and how we can pass legislation that will have a positive impact on real people and their lives.
I commend and thank Chris Lyttle for the work that he has done on the Bill and as Chair of the Education Committee. He has shown real integrity, fairness and equality throughout. The Bill reflects the MLA and the Committee Chair that he has been. Well done and thank you, Chris, for all that.
I, too, support the Bill. Dealing with the issue of fair employment in the teaching profession is an important step forward; the Bill represents a positive step. As Diane Dodds highlighted, it is important that we see it not as a single action but as part of a wider process. There needs to be a review to say that this is the first step forward, but there is further work to be done in a future mandate to deal with all the issues concerning this.
The exemption of teachers from the Fair Employment and Treatment (Northern Ireland) Order 1998 is an anachronism that, many if not all of us will agree, should have been swept away years ago. It is important that we take that step today, however.
Education is very much at the heart of our society. It is one of the most critical things in itself but also because of the extent to which it shapes a new generation and provides it with opportunities. To send a signal to that new generation that it is all right for society to have discrimination at the heart of the structure for the appointment of teachers is fundamentally wrong. We should send a signal that selection for employment is based on merit. The legislation is therefore a useful and important step forward.
Finally, I wish my old sparring partner Chris Lyttle all the best. At times, we have not seen precisely eye to eye on every issue, but many of our exchanges about education have shown that we both have an undoubted passion for it. I thank Chris for his service to the people of East Belfast and to the wider education system in Northern Ireland. I wish him and his family all the best as they move ahead. He is voluntarily stepping away from the Assembly, and that is not a choice that everybody gets to make. I wish him all the best for the future.
I commend the Bill to the House.
I thank the Bill sponsor not only for introducing the legislation but for getting it through to its Final Stage on the last day of the mandate. I, too, thank the Executive Office Committee, because, had it not been for its actions, I very much doubt that the Bill would have got this far. As Mr Stewart and Mr Sheehan said, when this place has a mind to get something done, it can get it done very effectively.
It is a matter of regret that we did not see the Executive Office bring through the Bill. For it to be introduced, it had to go through a private Member. As Mr Sheehan said, however, its timing was just right. There has been no fighting about it. There have been no concerns that one sector of our community was being discriminated against in the Bill. The Bill omits article 71 from the Order, and that means that schoolteachers are now protected by fair employment legislation. It also shows that private Members can make a difference.
This will be the last time that I speak in the House in this mandate. I say this to all those teachers: in 2024, when you are applying for jobs, it was Chris Lyttle who made sure that fair employment legislation will protect you. Chris is finishing off the Bill today, and he is finishing off his political career. Today has been wonderfully progressive. The legislation going through today — the cheers in the Great Hall were nice to hear throughout the Building — goes to show, as others have said, how positive this place can be. It is fitting that the whole day has been about private Members' Bills.
The Bill changes a few things that I will put on record. We have very good teacher training colleges in Northern Ireland. Those colleges can now prepare our student teachers to teach in any school in Northern Ireland. I look forward to their taking forward that challenge. There is an opportunity for young people, as Mr Weir said, to look to their teachers knowing that they reflect Northern Ireland and that they have the best person for the job standing at the front of the classroom.
In my final couple of sentences, all that I want to say is that, in Chris Lyttle, we have had a champion for children, a champion for disabilities, a champion for sports, including football, and a champion for learning disability . Now, in his final piece of work for the Assembly, we have a champion for teachers. Thank you very much, Chris Lyttle MLA. It has been an absolute privilege and pleasure to work with you. I cannot wait to see what you achieve next.
Like everybody else, I congratulate the Bill's sponsor on bringing this Bill through at such speed, with the cooperation of the Committee — the Chair is smiling — the Department and everybody else. A one-line Bill should not be that complicated, but this one raised issues, which we managed to resolve fairly quickly.
I should also say, before I forget, that I was not expecting to be retiring on the same day as Chris Lyttle.
I know what I am going to do: I am not quite sure what he is going to do.
In discussion at the Committee, we had submissions from the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS) and the Catholic Schools' Trustee Service. I must say that, from listening to the discussion, I thought that there was an element of reservation from those two organisations. I thought perhaps that they were even going to oppose the Bill. Therefore, it was a pleasant surprise when, at the very end, it was indicated by Gerry Campbell from CCMS, and in particular from Bishop Donal McKeown on behalf of the trustees, that they had no problem with the Bill and they were OK with it.
Others have said that things have moved forward in Northern Ireland. That is a pretty good example of it. Ten years ago, there would not have been that reaction. They are relaxed about this. I know that they have some concerns about the Catholic ethos of their schools, but I cannot believe that the admission of non-Catholic teachers into Catholic schools will change the ethos of those schools at all. There is more of an obligation on teachers coming in to accept that ethos and run with it. There are — I am trying to avoid the word "Protestant" — non-Catholic teachers already in Catholic schools, and the roof has not fallen in.
This is a good day. I congratulate Chris, my past party colleague, also on his tenure as Committee Chair. He has done a fantastic job and I wish him well wherever life takes him; let us put it that way. I do not think that he will be lost to the public service. I hope not. He may not even be lost to politics, because I know that he has caught the bug. He tries to deny it, but we will have to wait and see. He is very quiet about what he is going to do next. I wish him well.
This is a pretty good day for smaller parties, is it not? We have had the Hospital Parking Charges Bill — well, that was not from a smaller party
. Not yet, anyway. We have had this Bill from Chris, two Bills from the Green Party, and I forget the others. It has been a good day and, as others have said — yes, Pat Catney, of course, my constituency colleague, as well — it indicates what the Assembly is capable of. People will remind us — well, remind you, because I will not be here — of that after the election. They have often said to me in the last few weeks, "Why could you not have done this over the last three years? How much legislation would you have passed?". They have a point.
I am not looking in any particular direction, but I hope that good sense will prevail and that perhaps Members can get back to work after the election at an early stage. I really hope so, and I wish everybody in this Assembly well, including yourself, Mr Deputy Speaker.
Thank you, Trevor. I have already wished you all the best for your retirement, if that is what you want to call it. Please enjoy the rest of your time. It will be a lot different to this political forum, but have a good time; I am sure that you will. We have worked well together on many things during my time in the Assembly. All the best to you, Trevor.
On that point, I come to the Bill's sponsor, Chris Lyttle, to conclude the Final Stage.
I am really grateful that my final act in the Assembly Chamber as an MLA is to move the Fair Employment (School Teachers) Bill. I am hopeful that it will deliver positive change for our education system. It delivers for fairness, a value that I, the Alliance Party and this Assembly hold dear; education, the engine room for development and equal opportunity for children and young people across Northern Ireland; peace and prosperity; and teachers, the leaders of this engine room and the people who play one of the most important roles in our society. As I said, I want to dedicate the work that we have all contributed and the Bill to the teachers and everyone who is working to deliver the best education system possible for Northern Ireland.
I thank my Assembly colleagues without whom the Bill would not have progressed to this stage and would not pass. I thank Sinead for the role that she played as Chairperson of the Executive Office Committee and for the time that she made available to me outside of Bill stages and Committee meetings, which, as I said, made the progress of the Bill possible.
Thank you, Pat Sheehan, for the advice that you gave to me at key times throughout the Bill process when it seemed like there may not be an opportunity for the Bill to pass. That heads-up and cross-party cooperation contributed to the passage of the Bill.
I thank Diane Dodds, another sparring partner from the Education Committee. I have really valued the opportunity to engage with Diane on the key issues. Even if our starting point was different on some of the issues, I have really valued our engagement on them. She raised valid points about other issues relating to the matter that a future Assembly could consider, such as how we approach certificates of religious education.
I also give a massive thank you to John Stewart, the Deputy Chairperson of the Executive Office Committee, for the time that he gave me at key stages of the Bill. There was a key day when we went from the Bill not going to pass to it potentially passing due to a visit to his office in the Assembly. Perhaps for good reason, people do not see all the work that goes on behind the scenes or the level of cooperation that can happen at times to make things possible. They see us arguing robustly
and fighting our corners in media studios. Perhaps the hosts of some of those programmes see fit to encourage that type of approach, but I am thankful for the level of cooperation between parties on the key issues and hope that that will be the legacy for the next Assembly. I also recognise John's party colleagues, Sandra Overend and Danny Kennedy, who previously attempted to move this legislative reform. That work was not wasted; it contributed to the destination that we will hopefully get to today.
Thank you so much, Nicola Brogan, for the opportunity to work with you on the Education Committee and for being the champion that you are for early education and childcare. Those are huge issues that the Assembly and Executive must prioritise, and I know that, if returned, you will ensure that they do. Thank you for the opportunity to work with you.
Thank you to Peter Weir for his contribution to the Final Stage. He has, indeed, been a sparring partner on many issues in relation to education. I really value the fact that, whenever we disagreed, we still had a degree of humanity and respect for each other afterwards. I am really grateful that Peter took the time to contribute to the Final Stage debate today.
Thank you, Trevor Lunn, for your contribution and for your support as a member of the Executive Office Committee. You are a friend of mine and a friend of the party: I think that you said that you got on better with us after you left.
I have always valued your interaction, whether you were in or out of the party, and I appreciate the work that you have done on education throughout your tenure in the Assembly, delivering on some key issues for our education sector. I appreciate that. Regarding your commentary about getting the bug for politics, I suppose that there is a slight element of 'Hotel California' about it, in that you can get out any time you like, but you can never quite leave. I hope that I will be able to keep contributing in some positive way.
Last but not least, thank you, Kellie Armstrong, for the advice that you have given and the support that you have been to me throughout the passage of the Bill. Thank you to all my Alliance Party colleagues for their support and, on occasion, friendly prompts to try to make sure that I got on with progressing the Bill.
I am really grateful for the support that they have been in that regard.
To everyone who will return to the Chamber in May to contribute to the peace and prosperity of this wonderful part of the world that we all call home, I say a really sincere: God bless you and keep you. It is an immense privilege to serve in this role. I wish every one of you every success in building a united, prosperous Northern Ireland for us all.
Thank you, indeed, Chris, for your very kind words to us all. I have already told you in person, but my sincerest best wishes to you on whatever path you choose to go when you leave here. I have no doubt that it will be a successful role.
Question put and agreed to. Resolved:
The Bill has passed Final Stage and stands referred to the Speaker.
It is a pity that it could not be like this all the time
but anyway. I think that most people have got the message about that bit. I ask Members to take their ease until we move to the next item of business.