Context of proposals
Individuals in Northern Ireland currently have protection against unlawful racial discrimination under the Race Relations (NI) Order 1997, as amended (RRO 1997). This legislation prohibits discrimination on racial grounds in employment and vocational training, and when accessing goods, facilities and services. It also gives protection against unlawful racial discrimination when accessing private clubs (such as golf clubs), buying or renting premises, when in education (including education in schools), and when subject to the functions of public bodies, such as the police.
Whilst the race equality legislation currently provides Black Minority Ethnic (BME) individuals with significant rights against racial discrimination and harassment, these rights are not comprehensive and gaps in protection still exist.
Pursuant to our duty under the race equality legislation to keep this legislation under review and to make recommendations for change, where necessary, we carried out a comprehensive review of the race equality legislation in 2000 and recommended a number of changes to the legislation. A number of key recommendations highlighted in that review remain outstanding and are therefore included in our recommendations for change highlighted below.
Since this comprehensive review of the race equality legislation in 2000, we have consistently called for these and other changes to the equality legislation to be addressed.
This has included proactively engaging with the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) in 2004 as regards the development of robust and comprehensive single equality legislation. However, despite a commitment in the St Andrews Agreement (pdf) in 2006 to ‘work rapidly’ towards the development of single equality legislation, this legislation has not been progressed by the Northern Ireland Executive.
In the absence of progress on single equality legislation, in February 2009, we submitted our Proposals for legislative reform to Junior Ministers in OFMDFM outlining a number of areas in Northern Ireland equality law which required urgent amendment; including the harmonisation and strengthening of the strengthening of race equality legislation.
In particular, in our Proposals for Legislative Reform, we made it clear that a priority area for reform of the race equality legislation was increased protection from discrimination and harassment on the grounds of colour and nationality across the scope of the race equality legislation.
More recently, we have recommended increased protection for certain categories of agency workers against racial discrimination and harassment; as highlighted by the Northern Ireland Court of Appeal’s decision in Bohill v Police Service of Northern Ireland and the case in Great Britain of Muschett v HM Prison Service (HMPS).
The need for reform of the race equality legislation in Northern Ireland has been recognised at a number of levels; both locally and internationally.
- in its consultation on a NI Single Equality Bill in 2004, OFMDFM recognised the need to increase protection from discrimination and harassment on the grounds of colour and nationality and indicated its intention to rectify this gap in the race equality legislation;
Further, recent independent research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (pdf) into poverty and different ethnic minority communities in Northern Ireland has also highlighted the need for the race equality legislation to be strengthened
The need for reform of the race equality legislation in Northern Ireland has been heightened by developments in Great Britain. In particular, the introduction of the Equality Act 2010 in Great Britain in October 2010 has addressed a number of our recommendations, and, as a result, individuals in Northern Ireland have less protection against racial harassment and discrimination than people in other parts of the United Kingdom (UK).
It is important to note that in some areas we are of the view that the Equality Act 2010 has not gone far enough and have set out recommendations which go beyond the level of protection against racial discrimination and harassment currently set out in equality legislation in Great Britain.
Whilst a number of our recommendations call for specific changes to the race equality legislation, some of our recommendations apply equally to other equality grounds; for example, protection against intersectional multiple discrimination, increased protection against discrimination by public bodies when carrying out their public functions, an increase in tribunal powers, and the strengthening of our enforcement powers.
In considering our recommendations on race law reform, there is also the opportunity to advance and harmonise protection against discrimination across a number of equality grounds. We therefore recommend action to address similar legislative gaps that exist under other areas of equality law in order to ensure a consistent and best practice approach is adopted across the equality legislative framework.