NIO 'failed to comply with its equality scheme commitments'
THE Equality Commission has found that the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) failed to comply with its equality scheme commitments during the development of its controversial legacy bill.
Details of the proposed bill were revealed by Secretary of State Brandon Lewis at Westminster in March 2020.
Some of the proposals set out at the time appeared to move away from the legacy deal struck in the 2014 Stormont House Agreement prompting some victims' groups to express concern.
The Equality Commission launched an investigation in July last year after receiving complaints from the Committee on the Administration (CAJ) of Justice and Pat Finucane Centre (PFC).
Both human rights groups alleged that the NIO failed to provide them with an equality screening document linked to the bill.
Under Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 public authorities must pay regard to the need to "promote equality of opportunity and regard to the desirability of promoting good relations".
Earlier this year the bill was also referenced during a speech by Queen Elizabeth while Mr Lewis revealed proposals for a defacto Troubles' amnesty in July.
British government plans to also end all civil proceedings and inquests are subject to widespread and cross-community opposition.
The commission last night said that following an investigation it found the NIO had "failed to comply with its equality scheme commitments".
Chief Commissioner, Geraldine McGahey said: “We undertook a detailed examination of how the Northern Ireland Office developed this important policy matter and found failures in the key process of undertaking equality assessment during the policy making process," she said.
"The Northern Ireland Office should have followed the commitments set out in its equality scheme and we found that it did not.
"It must now consider our recommendations for improvements to their processes of undertaking equality assessments of proposed policies. "
In its finding the commission also confirmed that the NIO had also failed to provide "any copies of the incomplete/draft screening form" to it.
Daniel Holder of CAJ last night welcomed the report.
"Its notable that the NIO departed from applying its Equality Scheme procedures properly at the same time that it unilaterally ditched the Stormont House Agreement," he claimed.
“An equality assessment should have been carried out and made available on the policy at the earliest possible stage to highlight the impact of this change would have, including on victims and their families.”
Paul O’Connor of the Pat Finucane Centre said it was concerning that the NIO also failed to provide a copy of the screening document to the Equality Commission.
“Whilst the NIO should have provided an equality assessment on the legacy bill to us, and that was the source of our complaint, it is doubly concerning that the NIO also refused to provide the documents to Equality Commission investigators," he said.
A UK Government spokesperson said the Northern Ireland Office "takes its equality duties very seriously, and the potential impacts of all our policies are considered at every stage of policy development".
“This specific investigation relates to a previous written ministerial statement from March 2020.
"We have always made clear that we would release the screening document on our legacy proposals once enough policy detail had been developed.
"As such, an equality screening on addressing the legacy of the past was issued on 19 July 2021 following the publishing of the government’s command paper on 14 July 2021.”
- This article was amended on September 29 2021