Chapter 4:
The Role of Government

4.1 In re-enforcing and extending equality of opportunity, the Government's role is not confined to economic management, the provision of training and education services, and the oversight of anti-discrimination law. Across the broad range of Government policies and services, there is scope for Government to contribute positively to greater equality of opportunity. In recent years two particular initiatives have been developed in this context. Administrative guidance on Policy Appraisal and Fair Treatment (PAFT) aims to ensure that equality considerations are taken into account in the mainstream of Government policies. Targeting Social Need (TSN), is directed at socio-economic disadvantage. SACHR has devoted considerable attention to both initiatives in its report. The Government shares SACHR's estimation of the significance of the future development of these initiatives.


4.2 The mainstreaming of equality considerations into the general work of the public sector is potentially a significant means of attaining the objectives of this White Paper The Government has given careful consideration to SACHR's recommendations on PAFT and to the published views of other commentators on the subject. It is putting forward proposals for consultation which, in many ways, go beyond SACHR's recommendations. They are founded on a statutory obligation to promote equality of opportunity throughout the public sector. This chapter also sets out in some detail how the Government envisages that obligation being operationalised in ways which will supersede the current PAFT guidelines.

4.3 The PAFT administrative guidelines came into operation on 1 January 1994[1]. For several years previously, there had been pressure from those with an interest in Northern Ireland equality issues for a statutory obligation to promote equality of opportunity. This demand was rejected by the previous Government which opted for an administrative alternative based on equality proofing guidelines being developed in Great Britain by the Department for Employment [2]. In drafting the PAFT administrative guidelines, there was consultation with relevant statutory bodies, including SACHR. Not all of the Government's critics have regarded them, however, as a valid alternative to legislation.

4.4 The guidelines require that, in formulating and reviewing policies, and in delivering services, Northern Ireland Departments and other public bodies should assess the potential for unequal impact in terms of eight categories:
  • religion and political opinion;

  • gender;

  • race;

  • disability;

  • age;

  • marital status;

  • dependants;

  • sexual orientation.
4.5Given the highly innovative nature of this initiative, there have been problems of interpretation and implementation by the public sector. Expectations for PAFT have been high among non-governmental organisations and trade unions. Unequal impact in terms of PAFT categories has sometimes been used as the basis for criticism of specific Government policies or actions. It has been argued that, when an equality issue is identified by a PAFT appraisal, it should be the predominant factor in decision making. The Government does not accept that permanent priority status for one policy imperative is feasible.

4.6 The SACHR report endorses many of the criticisms which have been levelled against the implementation of the PAFT guidelines in Northern Ireland. It recommends incremental changes to the appraisal process which will increase transparency and accountability. It also proposes that the PAFT guidelines should be given legislative form, including an obligation on the public sector to promote "full and effective equality" in terms of the PAFT categories [3].

4.7 PAFT is about a process of appraisal. It can highlight factors which might not otherwise have been taken into account in decision making, but these can only inform, not determine, the final decision. This is also the case with appraisals for which there is statutory requirement, such as environmental impact assessments. As an administrative mechanism, the PAFT process is inevitably limited. It is unrealistic to expect it to carry the legal and constitutional weight which some have claimed for it.

4.8 The Government considers that the PAFT administrative guidelines should be superseded by a new statutory framework. A simple legal requirement to carry out PAFT appraisals would be an insufficient response. Future requirements on the public sector in the equality field must be better defined and have mechanisms for independent monitoring. The Government believes that a more radical approach than that proposed by SACHR is needed. It wishes to consult widely on the following proposals which, if enacted, would constitute a fundamental change in the equality obligations placed on the public sector and in its relationship with the statutory equality bodies.

Promoting equality of opportunity

4.9 The Government's proposal would be based on a statutory obligation on public bodies (including District Councils and United Kingdom Departments operating in Northern Ireland) to secure that, consistent with their other responsibilities, their various functions are carried out with due regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity in those areas covered by the current PAFT guidelines. Obligations in respect of categories where there is current legislation on discrimination may be stronger in character than for other categories. It is also suggested that a statutory obligation might extend to the promotion of good relations between people of different religious beliefs and political opinions, and people of different racial groups.

4.10 Each public body might be required to adopt a statutory scheme setting out how it proposed to take regard of its new statutory obligations in its day-to-day work. Such schemes might include:

  • arrangements for the appraisal of policies (superseding the PAFT administrative guidelines);

  • arrangements for consultation on policies;

  • access to services by the public;

  • arrangements for monitoring the uptake of services;

  • the training of staff on the new statutory obligations;

  • the impact of any grant schemes administered by the public body;

  • a timetable for giving effect to the scheme;

  • arrangements for publicising the scheme.
This list is not exhaustive and details of statutory schemes might vary considerably, depending on the nature of a public body's responsibilities.
4.11 The proposed new statutory obligations would require significant culture change in the Northern Ireland public sector. It is doubtful whether public sector bodies would have the expertise to implement effectively these proposals without external assistance. If this radical proposal is to be successful, a key element would be a close relationship between each public body and a statutory authority charged with responsibility for setting the standards for statutory schemes, validating specific schemes, monitoring their implementation and investigating complaints that schemes had not been appropriately applied by public bodies. If complaints were substantiated, the Secretary of State might exercise statutory enforcement powers.

A new statutory authority

4.12 At present there are four statutory bodies in Northern Ireland established by anti-discrimination legislation - the Fair Employment Commission; the Equal Opportunities Commission for Northern Ireland; the Commission for Racial Equality for Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Disability Council. The future of the Northern Ireland Disability Council is currently under consideration in the context of a proposal to establish a National Disability Rights Commission. From time to time, proposals for the amalgamation of some or all of these bodies have been made. SACHR has not recommended their amalgamation, but has proposed that the position be kept under review and has noted that, if significant problems emerged from the separate operation of the three Commissions, this might have to be reconsidered [4]. The statutory anti-discrimination bodies contain considerable experience and expertise on equality of opportunity in their respective fields. A new statutory authority created to fulfil the functions described in the preceding paragraphs could not hope to duplicate this expertise. The most rational organisational solution would be the creation of a unified Equality Commission, bringing together the existing statutory bodies. This would not imply a downgrading of the priority attached to the work of any body. Indeed, the main purpose of such amalgamation would be to enable their work to be greatly extended into a new area, a positive engagement with the public sector to promote equality of opportunity in a broad sense.

4.13 A unified Equality Commission could operate on the basis of separate directorates for Fair Employment, gender, race and possibly (subject to decisions on a National Disability Rights Commission) disability. Other directorates could implement the new functions suggested here. It is not proposed that the separate anti-discrimination laws currently in force should be brought together in one statute. It is also possible that the proposed Equality Commission could consider some of the implications for sections of the Northern Ireland community arising from the application of the concept of parity of esteem.

4.14 The Government wishes to stimulate debate on these proposals for superseding PAFT by wider and more challenging statutory obligations on the public sector, bringing together existing statutory equality bodies as a unified Commission, and establishing a new relationship between the latter and the public sector. The Government sees this as an effective means of injecting equality considerations into the mainstream of public sector activities. The Government will welcome the views of interested organisations and individuals on the proposals set out in the preceding paragraphs.

Targeting Social Need

4.15 The TSN initiative was launched in 1991, provoked by earlier research evidence which showed significant differences in the socio-economic profiles of the Catholic and Protestant communities. Although prompted in the first instance by a focus on community differentials, it was also recognised that disadvantage, though more conspicuous among Catholics, was also shared by sections of the Protestant community. TSN has aimed to tackle disadvantage by directing resources and efforts towards those individuals, groups and areas objectively defined as being in greatest need, irrespective of community background. However, as social disadvantage was found disproportionately in the Catholic community, it was anticipated that, over time, the socio-economic differentials between the communities would be eroded.

4.16 The present Government endorses the rationale and general objectives of the TSN initiative, as launched by its predecessors. It does not believe that TSN has been applied to date with the vigour and effectiveness which a policy of this importance should warrant. It endorses the general thrust of SACHR's conclusions and recommendations [5]. In considering them, the initiative has been reviewed in the light of the new administration's priorities. This has taken into account the implications for Northern Ireland of the new Social Exclusion Initiative in England [6]. The following proposals seek to establish the basis for a New TSN initiative with its scope redefined and increased effectiveness and transparency.


4.17In line with the priorities of this White Paper, TSN should henceforth have a particular emphasis on addressing the problems of unemployment and employability. There is a close correlation between unemployment and other forms of social disadvantage, such as poor housing, ill health and educational under-performance. Obtaining work is often, indeed, the most effective way to counter the effects of social disadvantage on unemployed people and their families. However, some forms of inequality and need must be targeted more directly and would not be adequately addressed by a strategy which dealt solely with unemployment. Departments must ensure that available resources are appropriately targeted on people and areas in need and on key inequalities in fields such as health, housing and education. The Government also recognises that deprivation and disadvantage often require a multi-dimensional strategy, addressing a range of factors, with co-ordinated action across several Departments and Agencies, and a new approach to such integrated activities is set out below at paras 4.27 -4.29.

4.18 All Northern Ireland Departments will have a contribution to make to the effectiveness of the New TSN. No Department can argue that it is irrelevant to its activities, though some programmes can be identified as particularly relevant to the emphasis on unemployment. The preceding chapters have referred to some of these - the New Deal with its innovative job subsidies and measures to divert young people from long-term unemployment; job creation efforts targeted on identified disadvantaged areas; the targeting of education resources at the most needy schools and additional, pre-school provision, towards enhancing the employability of tomorrow's workers.

4.19 The Government will continue with specific initiatives to promote the "social economy" by developing economic activity and indigenous job creation at community level. Such initiatives have included Making Belfast Work, the Londonderry Regeneration Initiative, the Rural Development Programme and other area-based programmes sponsored by the Department of the Environment for Northern Ireland, the Department of Health and Social Services, the International Fund for Ireland and the European Union's Structural Funds. The work of District and Area Partnerships and the development of long term visions for Belfast and Londonderry are further examples of social and economic regeneration initiatives with a potential for increasing employment. All of these area-based programmes require close collaboration, not only between Departments but also with local communities. SACHR's suggestion of operating such initiatives at the level of electoral enumeration districts does, however, seem impracticable, given the very small size of these areas [7]. Larger units are more likely to form a critical mass and achieve the necessary synergies between departmental activities.

Organisation of New TSN

4.20 The refocusing of TSN will also involve organisational change and the Government accepts SACHR's suggestions in this respect [8]. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will have explicit responsibility for the future political direction and oversight of the initiative, though individual Ministers will continue to have responsibility for departmental implementation. Central administrative direction of TSN will fall to two bodies. The Social Steering Group (SSG) brings together senior officials from all Northern Ireland Departments and the Northern Ireland Office to liaise on social policy on a regular basis. It is chaired by the Permanent Secretary of the Department of Health and Social Services and departmental representation is normally at Grade 3 (Under Secretary) level. SSG will promote and co-ordinate TSN implementation by Departments. The Central Community Relations Unit (CCRU) has hitherto had central administrative responsibilities for TSN, and SACHR has recommended that it should have an enhanced role in providing operational training and advice, monitoring and evaluating the initiative and, if necessary, challenging Departments. CCRU will also take responsibility for the publication of an annual report on the implementation of TSN, including annexes outlining the steps taken by Northern Ireland Departments to progress the initiative. This will greatly enhance the public accountability of Government in relation to TSN.

Implementation by Departments

4.21 Though central direction, both political and administrative, can do much to give the initiative greater impetus, the future success of TSN will be largely dependent on the vigour with which Departments pursue their responsibilities. Since 1994 the Department of Economic Development has used the framework of a strategic plan for its implementation of TSN. Each of the main DED business areas has its own TSN Action Plan. The Government regards the DED system as a model of good practice to be commended to other Departments. These new departmental plans will take account of the primary focus on unemployment. They will build on work currently being undertaken in the context of the Comprehensive Spending Review. Where possible, targets will be set, though it is difficult to generalise on their applicability across the broad range of Governmental activity. Departments will consult appropriately in drawing up their plans. The process of strategic planning may also identify legislative obstacles to achieving TSN objectives. Approaching current legislation in this way may be a more efficient use of resources than the "review of primary and secondary legislation" recommended by SACHR [9]. It is expected that details of these new strategic plans will figure prominently in the first TSN annual report.

4.22 In carrying forward the implementation of TSN, the Government must also acknowledge that many departmental programmes, such as social security provision, are effectively determined at national level and in others, notably agricultural support, policy is to a large extent determined at EU level. Departments will, so far as practicable, input the Northern Ireland perspective, including TSN considerations, into the nationwide formulation of policy. This does not, of course, mean that Northern Ireland considerations will necessarily override wider national ones. The principle of parity works overall in Northern Ireland's favour and calling into question aspects of the principle may not be, in the long term, in its best interests. A realistic view of the weight of Northern Ireland considerations within EU policy making should also apply to SACHR's criticisms of the Common Agricultural Policy [10]. The problems of disadvantaged areas in Northern Ireland are more likely to benefit from current thinking in the European Commission on greater direct support for rural development, an approach which the Government endorses.

Financing New TSN

4.23 The Government has already committed an extra £140m for the New Deal for the Unemployed. All other future spending plans are being rigorously examined in the context of a Comprehensive Spending Review. Ministers and departmental officials will look closely at TSN spending programmes and the scope for skewing resources towards disadvantaged groups and areas under more general programmes. However, there is also a need for realism on the possibilities of future additional financial resources for the TSN initiative. There is a range of competing pressures on the overall Northern Ireland Block, including the Government's national manifesto commitments on education and health, the need to maintain universal services, and the particular demands of maintaining law and order in Northern Ireland. Major additions to the Northern Ireland Block, or fundamental resource shifts within the Block, are equally unlikely. Accordingly, the best opportunities for increasing funding for TSN objectives will lie in internal redistribution within programmes. This may involve, for instance, a higher priority for TSN within programme objectives or the inclusion of social need weightings in funding formulae. One of the early tasks of SSG and CCRU, in promoting New TSN from the centre, will be examining the scope for such developments and disseminating best practice among Departments.

Databases and monitoring

4.24 Since 1994 the implementation of TSN has been greatly assisted by the "Robson Indices", a substantial analysis commissioned by the Government from Manchester University, which objectively identifies the spatial distribution of disadvantage, using a range of data sources mostly derived from the 1991 Census [11]. This material has allowed the classification of District Council areas and wards in terms of relative deprivation, with further pinpointing of disadvantage at electoral enumeration district level. This has facilitated the establishment of boundaries in area-based programmes, such as Making Belfast Work, and the distribution of resources in Northern Ireland-wide programmes, such as funding for District Partnerships under the EU Special Support Programme for Peace and Reconciliation. As the Robson Indices correlate with unemployment levels, they will continue to be used as a basic tool in the New TSN initiative. The next Census of population in 2001 will necessitate the review of the existing indicators and this will be informed by the latest academic thinking and will involve public consultation. In the interim, those implementing TSN will exploit any additional administrative sources which may be developed.

4.25 At present Departments use the Robson Indices to define the appropriate geographic areas for their programmes. SACHR has recommended that a consistent definition of TSN areas should be used [12]. The new approach highlighting unemployment could result in a more standardised definition of areas for this aspect of TSN. However, some flexibility in the definition of areas will still be needed. The optimum size for a target area may vary depending on the nature of the programme, whether it is located in an urban or rural area, and the level of resources available. Criticisms of the Industrial Development Board's TSN target areas, and plans to review them, have been noted above at para 2.11.

4.26 It has always been accepted that TSN should involve the monitoring of the impact of policies and services. This can often mean the monitoring of the religion/community background of those making use of services. The aim of this is to ensure that utilisation of services reflects the known distribution of need between the communities. There will be an ongoing requirement for such monitoring. Current work on using postcodes as proxy indicators for religion has the potential to extend this type of monitoring into fields where it may previously have been difficult. A particular emphasis on unemployment also offers the possibility of generating more comprehensive monitoring data but within circumscribed areas.

Promoting Social Inclusion

4.27 The Prime Minister recently established a Cabinet Office Social Exclusion Unit (SEU) for England. It aims to develop innovative approaches to the problems of social exclusion, helping Government to work in an integrated way across departmental boundaries. Social exclusion results from the impact on individuals or areas of a combination of linked problems, such as unemployment, poor skills, low incomes, poor housing, high crime rates, bad health and family background. The Unit has drawn on expertise from Whitehall Departments, English local government, academic experts and the voluntary, statutory and private sectors. It has identified a small number of social problems - school exclusion, street living and the worst urban housing estates in England - as areas where concentrated effort could yield positive results in a relatively short timescale. The Unit will be reviewed after two years. In Scotland and Wales networks have been established to undertake similar work of local relevance.

4.28 In Northern Ireland many issues of social exclusion have previously been addressed under the TSN initiative or by the Social Steering Group. These include the particular problems of under-achieving pupils, victims of domestic violence and people with disabilities. Although there is often a link between joblessness and social exclusion, this is not always the case. Some people are socially excluded despite having a job, and not all those without work are socially excluded. Children and older people may suffer problems of social exclusion which are unrelated to employment status. The Government proposes to establish, under the umbrella of New TSN, a Northern Ireland initiative, Promoting Social Inclusion (PSI), similar to those in England, Scotland and Wales. This will promote cross-departmental policies and programmes which transcend departmental boundaries, where multi-dimensional action is required.

4.29 While the broad definition of social exclusion will be shared with the SEU, PSI's agenda, methods and structures must be tailored to meet Northern Ireland's circumstances. The issues identified by the SEU for immediate action may be less relevant in Northern Ireland. However, PSI will draw lessons from the SEU's relationship with non-governmental sectors. It will adopt a holistic approach, transcending bureaucratic demarcation lines. It will be guided by principles of transparency, evidence-based decision-making, innovation and dialogue with socially excluded groups. It will focus on areas where it can add value and address the long term causes of exclusion. It will emphasise prevention. It will be adequately resourced for this important task and will be led by a senior civil servant accountable directly to Ministers. Its immediate responsibilities will include improving mechanisms for integrating policies and programmes, feeding into public expenditure decisions, and drawing up key indicators of social exclusion against which to monitor progress. Consultation will shortly be initiated with the relevant sectors to clarify the most appropriate model for a PSI initiative in Northern Ireland and to establish a working agenda. This will be progressed by Government in consultation with appropriate partners in the statutory, voluntary and private sectors. PSI will also maintain close contacts with the SEU and the networks in Scotland and Wales. The exchange of experience will be valuable to all concerned, as some of the approaches developed to date for TSN (notably the Robson Indices) may be of wider relevance.

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[1] Central Secretariat circular 5/93: Policy Appraisal and Fair Treatment (December 1993).
[2] Equal Opportunities into the Mainstream: Guidance on Policy Appraisal for Equal Treatment (Department for Education and Employment. August 1996).
[3] SACHR - Employment Equality: Building for the Future (HMSO. cm 3684. June 1997), pp73-76.
[4] SACHR. pp79-80.
[5] SACHR, pp62-65.
[6] Social Exclusion unit (cabinet Office, December 1997).
[7] SACHR. p64.
[8] SACHR pp63.65.
[9] SACHR. p63.
[10] SACHR. p64.
[11] B Robson et al - Relative Deprivation in Northern Ireland: PPRU Occasional Paper No. 28 (Department of Finance and Personnel, September 1994).
[12] SACHR. p64.

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