The Secretary of State appointed four new equality commissioners in September this year, following a fair and open competition. Under the Northern Ireland Act 1998, responsibility for making such appointments lies solely with the Secretary of State. He wrote to the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to notify them of the launch of the competition, and he informed them when the appointments were made.
Will the Minister warn the new commissioners about the unease that is felt about the commission, particularly among many Unionists, and will he ensure that it does not add to the compensation culture in Northern Ireland or fuel the already crippling burden of political correctness there?
How did I guess that the phrase “political correctness” might just creep into the hon. Gentleman’s supplementary question?
The hon. Gentleman and I have discussed this issue on a number of occasions, including occasions on which I have been at the Dispatch Box, and I think it fair to say that we do not agree on it. This is not about political correctness; it is about putting fairness, justice and equality at the heart of the peace process in Northern Ireland. That is what the Good Friday agreement did when it established the Equality Commission. The hon. Gentleman should not underestimate the difference that the commission has made, and the distance that it has taken us in terms of the progress made in Northern Ireland.
Surely it is difficult for the Equality Commission to demonstrate fairness, and to be a paragon of fairness, when the composition of its own staff is so out of kilter with the community in Northern Ireland. There is a serious under-representation of Protestants. How can the commission go to local councils and other public bodies and ask for fairness and equality when it has itself failed to practise those virtues?
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the staff, but the commissioners themselves reflect communities across Northern Ireland. In appointing commissioners, the Secretary of State must have due regard to their community background, although there is of course an open competition. The appointments to which I referred in my first answer were made in a fair and open way, and the Equality Commission plays a very important role in the peace process in Northern Ireland.