BY BARRY McCAFFREY
A STORMONT committee set up to oversee equality legislation has itself been accused of allowing ethnic minority leaders to be publicly mocked by MLAs.
In October 2012 the Stormont Assembly voted by a majority of 60 to 42 to support the controversial Welfare Reform Bill, which will see the introduction of the biggest shake-up of social security benefits for decades.
As a result of divisions following the Assembly vote, an ad-hoc committee was established, the first of its kind ever established at Stormont, to produce a report on whether the Welfare Reform Bill abides by the requirements of equality legislation protections in Northern Ireland.
The committee is due to deliver its report to the Assembly today ( Tuesday).
However the committee has itself been accused of failing to prevent ethnic minority leaders from being mocked as they gave evidence to MLAs.
As part of its evidence-gathering process in December, the ad-hoc committee invited interested parties to appear before it at Stormont.
One of the groups which gave evidence to the committee was the Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities (NICEM).
NICEM executive director, Patrick Yu, and the organisation’s Legal Policy Officer, Karen McLaughlin, gave evidence to the committee at Stormont on December 4.
However the Detail can now reveal that NICEM subsequently lodged an official complaint to the committee’s chairman Trevor Lunn complaining that two MLAs had used “inappropriate and disrespectful treatment” including allegedly laughing at Mr Yu and Ms McLaughlin as they gave evidence.
In a letter to the committee chairman, Mr Yu wrote:
“While NICEM welcomes robust engagement between committee members and did indeed answer all questions in full on this occasion, we feel that the conduct of some committee members towards us as witnesses was totally inappropriate.
“As well as being very sceptical towards the witnesses, members also laughed at the witnesses on two occasions.
“NICEM has a strong tradition of giving evidence to Assembly committees and welcomes every opportunity to represent the views and interests of black and minority ethnic communities in Northern Ireland.
“However, we are concerned about the treatment of witnesses on this occasion and would like to ask the chair to formally take action on this point.”
Mr Lunn subsequently replied insisting that “no disrespect was intended” to the NICEM directors.
However the Equality Coalition, an umbrella group of more than 80 non-governmental organisations, has now also made an official complaint over the alleged behaviour and demanded a full investigation into the alleged actions of Stormont committee members.
“It is clearly inappropriate for any committee members to effectively sneer at the representatives of minority communities who have been invited to give evidence to them,” it said.
“Such conduct is a matter of serious concern and we would have expected a robust response to NICEM’s complaint.
“We note the complaint was considered in private and there is little mention of it on the public record, beyond a member complaining that it should have been dealt with in public session.”
Responding to the allegation that ethnic minority leaders had been mocked by MLAs, committee chairman Trevor Lunn wrote in a letter to Nicem:
“There is nothing much I can tell you about this to be honest.
“They wrote to the committee with certain issues following the meeting that they had when they came to make their presentation to us.
“The committee staff responded on my behalf.
“As far as I was concerned that was the issue dealt with.”
Ruling out an investigation into the alleged mistreatment of the NICEM directors, Mr Lunn said:
“They wrote with their observations, we responded.
“I have heard nothing further.
“As far as I’m aware the matter has been dealt with.
“If NICEM is not satisfied they are perfectly welcome to contact me personally.”