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5 February 2018

Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ)

£142,788
Supporting voluntary sector groups to scrutinise the application of the equality duty in Northern Ireland.
Strengthening the Voluntary Sector

About the project

Inequality and discrimination, past and present, are of particular importance to the ongoing success of the peace process in Northern Ireland. This has come into sharper focus in a time of public spending cuts and dwindling resources. A public sector equality duty (Section 75) was introduced following the 1998 Belfast / Good Friday Agreement. CAJ’s three-year project will equip a broad range of groups to scrutinise the application of this duty by public authorities.

This grant is one of several we have given to organisations to use law and human rights based approaches to challenge local or national government practice, and to identify and pursue opportunities for strategic legal initiatives to change law and policy.

Daniel Holder

CAJ

Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 – which followed the Good Friday Agreement – introduced a nine-ground public sector equality duty (protecting age, gender, racial group, sexual orientation, dependents, political opinion, religious belief, marital status and disability) and an obligation by public authorities to assess the impact of their policies on equality.

Nearly twenty years later, however, the dividends of peace have not been evenly distributed across the community. Groups facing disadvantage and discrimination include women, ethnic minorities, LGBTI people, persons with disabilities, older people and children. There is continuing inequality between Catholic and Protestant communities, with Catholics still facing greater need in areas such as housing and poverty.

Concerned organisations have a path to statutory remedy through the Northern Ireland Equality Commission; however few groups use the complaints or review processes to challenge breaches. One reason for this is the legalistic nature of these processes and the advanced skill-set needed to identify which screening and equality impact assessments are not compatible with the law.

Our grant from the Baring Foundation is supporting a new ‘Equality Duty Enforcement Project’, which will support a coordinator to work with members of the Equality Coalition – a network of over 80 organisations in Northern Ireland’s equality sector – to take forward complaints and other interventions to ensure the equality duty is complied with and to share and embed CAJ’s human rights based approach and legal expertise with other Coalition members.

The project has recently in December 2017 made its first intervention – a formal complaint about the failure by the Department for Communities (the Department with responsibility for social security in Northern Ireland) to assess the impact of the Two Child Rule in Universal Credit on disadvantaged groups in Northern Ireland, which is likely to have a particularly adverse impact on Catholic families.

We believe that the review mechanisms available to enforce the duty – although underused – have the potential to lead to significant public policy successes in the interests of disadvantaged groups and underpin a peaceful Northern Ireland. The context both of austerity and the fragility of power-sharing agreement means that the scrutiny they provide make this project even more timely.

Participant feedback

“The post of equality duty enforcement project coordinator is a much needed asset… Their advice will be vital in pressing forward the equality framework in Northern Ireland to the benefit of all the section 75 protected groups. While we might like to engage with Section 75 more, we often feel we don’t know enough about how to apply it.”

Women’s Resource and Development Agency (WRDA), Equality Coalition.