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Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, I take entirely the point that consumers are looking for a better service. I hope that what we propose will address that issue. I believe that the combination of an independent regulator and increased competition will improve the service.
Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that while, of course, points of detail will emerge when both Houses consider this matter in due course of time, the message that he has communicated to the House this afternoon is welcome indeed, stressing, as it does, the benefit to the consumer that will flow from what he has announced in terms of principle and also the value of fair competition? Those are, I suppose, the two basic themes that he has enunciated. Is it not a remarkable contrast to the prevarication that the previous government showed over this matter, totally incapable as they were over many years of coming to any sensible solutions at all? I believe that the country will welcome the changes that the noble Lord has signalled, and, moreover, that in due course of time this pragmatic, positive approach which the Government have announced will be of immense benefit to the country as a whole and will provide the Post Office with the ammunition to be able to compete effectively with other international post offices.
Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, I am delighted that my noble friend Lord Clinton-Davis made the point that customer service is absolutely central to what we are trying to do and that the tackling of this problem is long overdue. When one considers that this great institution was cash starved for many years, it is no surprise that sometimes it did not undertake the important investment that was necessary to increase its
Lord Gladwin of Clee: My Lords, I declare an interest as for over 20 years I was a non-executive member of the Post Office Board. It is that experience which leads me to say how much I welcome the Statement that has been repeated by my noble friend this afternoon. However, I wish to press him on a paradox in the Statement which I find puzzling and which I do not believe his replies to noble Lords who have pressed him on this matter have clarified. The relevant paragraph relates to pay. My fear is that employees of the Post Office reading this paragraph as it stands could ask, "So what? What is new?" The paragraph states,
Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, perhaps I may explain the phrase, "cutting the cloth in difficult times". I think we all feel that good performance should be recognised where it takes place in industry. It is also important--and this is not always so closely adhered to--that when times are difficult and performance is not good pay should equally reflect that. This is not a one-way system.
"Where appropriate" indeed implies that the Post Office should make these decisions. The Statement is a very clear invitation for it to do so and to reflect appropriately where it needs to pay salaries to ensure the quality of people needed to run the business.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, the purpose of the draft Fair Employment and Treatment (Northern Ireland) Order 1998 is to consolidate and extend the legislation on fair employment which is unique to Northern Ireland. I believe that it will be helpful to the House if I outline briefly the background to the order and then say a few words about its more important provisions.
The promotion of equality of opportunity has been a priority of successive administrations since the early 1970s and the order before the House represents the culmination of a comprehensive review of the legislation carried out over the past three years.
The first Fair Employment Act in 1976, which established the Fair Employment Agency, was ground-breaking legislation and paved the way for the introduction in 1989 of the second Fair Employment Act. That had considerably more teeth and put the onus on employers not simply to avoid discrimination but actively to promote equality of opportunity through affirmative action. Much has been achieved under the 1976 and 1989 Acts but the review of the legislation carried out by the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights, and published in June 1997, indicated that more needed to be done.
The Government considered carefully the SACHR recommendations and published its response in March of this year in a White Paper entitled Partnership for Equality. Subsequently the Government made a commitment in the Good Friday agreement to make rapid progress in the implementation of the measures set out in the White Paper. The order now before the House fulfils that commitment.
The order makes a number of amendments and contains several new provisions to strengthen the law on fair employment. These are set out in the explanatory document which accompanies the draft order and I do not intend to go into them all in detail. There are, however, some key issues which have been tackled in the order and I should like to comment briefly on them.
First, the order brings together in a single piece of legislation the 1976 and 1989 Acts and incorporates the various amendments that have been made to them. This exercise alone will be of considerable help to all those who work with the legislation, including employers, trade unions, the commission and the Fair Employment Tribunal.
One important change is that the order also extends the legislation to cover the provision of goods, facilities and services and the management and disposal of premises, which includes land. This brings fair employment law into line with that on sex discrimination and race relations, but that is not the main reason for the change. The main reason is that it is the right thing to do. As a matter of principle, all unjustified discrimination, whether in employment or in any other area, should be unlawful and the opportunity is now being taken to extend the law in that respect.
The order does, however, provide for reasonable exemptions. Since 1989, all except the very smallest employers have been required to monitor annually the community background of their employees, and larger
When the 1989 Bill was going through its parliamentary stages there was some criticism that while it assisted those in employment it did little for the unemployed, particularly the long-term unemployed. The draft order addresses that issue in two ways. First, Article 75 enables an employer, if he wishes to do so, to fill vacancies in his workforce only from among people who have not been in work for a specified period of time and protects him against a charge of unlawful indirect discrimination. I hasten to add that no employer will be compelled to recruit exclusively from among the unemployed but those who wish will be able to do so.
The second change in the law which will be of particular benefit to the unemployed is a permissive provision in Article 77. This allows employers to provide training for people of a particular religious belief who are not in their employment. Up to now "religion specific training", as it is called, has been unlawful, but Article 77 would enable members of an under-represented community to take advantage of training which would enhance their skill levels and thus help them to compete on more equal terms for vacancies when a subsequent recruitment exercise takes place. As with Article 75, no employer will be compelled to provide this type of training.
Other significant changes to the existing legislation include compensation for unintentional discrimination in employment; action against persistent discrimination; new roles for the commission; extension of the law to cover barristers and larger partnerships; and the introduction of an appeal procedure against certificates issued by the Secretary of State for the purpose of safeguarding national security.
That is all I wish to say at this stage about the provisions of the draft order but in closing I must reiterate that fair employment and the elimination of unlawful discrimination continues to be an important issue and a priority for government in Northern Ireland. Enormous progress has been made in recent years and effective remedies are available to anyone who has a genuine grievance. Nevertheless, there is no room for complacency and there must be a continuing effort by all involved to work towards a situation where the scourge of unlawful discrimination is finally eradicated from society. I beg to move.