Unifying the equality laws

A proposal for an Equality Commission in Northern Ireland could have repercussions for the rest of the UK, says Fiona Cassidy. Fiona Cassidy is a partner at Jones & Cassidy.>

Northern Ireland was unique in UK terms in that it had no domestic legislation prohibiting race discrimination. This unacceptable gap in the legislative provisions for the promotion of human rights in Northern Ireland was rectified by the introduction of the Race Relations (NI) Order 1997. This mirrors, to a substantial extent, the Race Relations Act 1976, which did not apply to Northern Ireland.

The definition of a “racial group” is given an extended meaning under the 1997 Order and it specifically includes the Irish Traveller Community. However, a racial group does not include a group of persons defined by reference to religious belief or political opinion; the Fair Employment Acts cover discrimination on those grounds.

The 1997 Order established a Commission for Racial Equality for Northern Ireland, whose powers are similar to the equivalent provisions of the 1976 Act. For the first time complainants now have the right to pursue a claim of race discrimination before an industrial tribunal in Northern Ireland.

To date only one case has been decided and this resulted in a finding of discrimination and an award of £3,000 compensation in favour of an Englishman who complained of a hostile anti-English working environment (Robins v Norfil).

It is surprising, however, that having recently established a Commission for Racial Equality in Northern Ireland, government has now proposed a new unified Equality Commission in Northern Ireland.

In its White Paper responding to a review of current fair employment legislation, which, as noted above, exists to deal with religious and political discrimination, government has made a radical proposal to create a unified equality commission bringing together the existing statutory bodies namely:

The Fair Employment Commission;

The Equal Opportunities Commission for Northern Ireland;

The Commission for Racial Equality for Northern Ireland;

The Northern Ireland Disability Council (Partnership for Equality White Paper CM 3890).

Government has stated that the main purpose of such an amalgamation would be to enable the work of the commission to be greatly extended into a new area of a positive engagement with the public sector to promote equality of opportunity in a broad sense.

The proposal lacks the detail of how such a commission might function but suggests that it might operate on the basis of “separate directorates for fair employment, gender, race and possibly disability”.

It is not proposed, however, that the separate anti-discrimination laws currently in force should be brought together in one statute which, in my view, is the crux of the problem with the proposal.

The key to the success of a unified Equality Commission would be greater harmonisation of the law to ensure a coherent legislative base for enforcement and a strategic policy which ensures that particular equality issues are not marginalised.

One of the more significant legislative differences in equality law in Northern Ireland is the scope and coverage of the Fair Employment Acts. These require registered employers to monitor and review their employment practices and composition and to take action to provide fair participation.

The Fair Employment Commission has greater and more effective powers than the other statutory bodies in the area of the promotion of equality of opportunity, monitoring and fair participation.

If a single Equality Commission is to achieve the objective of a positive engagement with the public sector to promote equality of opportunity, it is difficult to see how this would be achieved effectively if it has to operate on the basis of different legislative powers for each equality area. Separate legislation may create a bureaucratic nightmare in which the Equality Commission may find itself floundering.

The proposal is subject to consultation, and written comments are invited by 12 June 1998. If government proceeds to introduce an Equality Commission, it may have implications for the promotion of equality in other parts of the UK.