Wants to Bring Employment Law Reform Up To Date PDF Print E-mail


I rise in support of the motion tabled by my colleagues.  From time to time, we hear much criticism of business being brought to the Floor of the Assembly that has no relevance to our legislative powers or that is outside of our control, but, with employment law, we have something that has historically sat separately, on a regional basis, and that now, under devolution, can be shaped and worked to suit our needs and requirements in Northern Ireland.  In practice, of course, we need to be mindful of what has been established at European Union level and how that can restrict any radical change to the law and the protection afforded to workers that Europe encompasses.  That said, as a regional Government, we now have the opportunity to develop the system and, in particular, ensure that Northern Ireland does not fall behind the rest of the United Kingdom in terms of reform. 

The motion recognises that the national Government have undertaken a review of employment law and that it has been policy that the law here should be broadly in line with that in Great Britain.  On a lighter note, however, I do not think that, despite the usual time delay that happens in the implementation of some legislation, we will ever again have to wait the 21 years that it took to bring in the Race Relations (Northern Ireland) Order here in 1997, it having been enacted in Great Britain in 1976.

We are aware, of course, that a process of review has started in Northern Ireland, and I acknowledge the work of the Minister and his Department to date.  When the discussion paper was launched in May, it was to get the views of all the stakeholders, bearing in mind the main issues of early resolution of disputes, efficient and effective tribunals and better regulation in general.  That exercise has proved to be useful, and a large number of responses were subsequently received.

The Minister's recent statement to the House and his appearance at the Committee last week were encouraging for those who wish to see the matter gather momentum and move forward to a designated timetable if possible.  It has been very useful at this stage to determine which policy areas are being taken forward for consideration and which proposals have been identified.

The aim of the motion is to ease and reduce the regulatory burden on business, and, hopefully, the actions that are being taken currently by the Minister and his Department are the beginnings of such easements and a fit-for-purpose legislation that will help to balance the needs of our economy with respect for the rights of every worker.

Although the review will help existing businesses to grow, we must also work to ensure that we are best placed to compete in the global market.  Nowadays, we hear only too often of the displacement of industry to other areas or the loss of contracts that do not come our way.  I am not saying that current employment law is the reason for that, but if those who are charged with bringing in inward investment were armed with good, practical, reformed laws, we just might create an advantage for ourselves over places with poorer or difficult employment legislation.

We need to place ourselves well in the market.  I am encouraged by the Minister's initiative of a benchmarking exercise to identify international best practice in employment relations.

In conclusion, I believe that this debate and support for the motion will assist in moving the matter of employment law forward.  As we enter the consultative stage in spring 2013 and on towards potential legislation, there will be many more debates and discussions on the more sensitive issues, but we should all focus on best practice.  Rather than falling behind on reform, we should make Northern Ireland a model for the workplace.  I support the motion.