Anger over jobs switch 'bias' claim
Transferring more than 300 vehicle licensing jobs from Northern Ireland to Wales will remove the possibility that customers may fall victim to religious discrimination, according to Government proposals.
The claim contained in the official public consultation document on switching the posts from a facility in Coleraine, Co Londonderry to the main Driver Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) base in Swansea has incensed politicians on both sides of Northern Ireland's traditional community divide.
As part of the consultation, the potential equality impact of the move in relation to religion was assessed.
The paper sets out statistical evidence that in 2011 around 37% of the customers processed at the Driver and Vehicle Agency (DVA) offices in Northern Ireland were Catholic and 52% were Protestant - that compares with the census figures of the same year indicating that in the population in the region as a whole 45% were Catholic and 48% Protestant.
The consultation expresses confidence that the proposals will have a neutral impact on religious groups in Northern Ireland.
It then adds: "Furthermore, centralisation at the DVLA will in fact remove any possibility that NI services may be biased to any particular religious group since these transactions will no longer be serviced by staff based in NI, who could themselves hold particular beliefs."
Stormont's Environment Minister Mark H Durkan said he was "absolutely amazed" with the reference to religious discrimination in the consultation.
"Hundreds of DOE (Department of the Environment) staff in Coleraine face a very anxious time with the real threat of jobs being lost," said the minister, a member of the nationalist SDLP.
"To propose to transfer their jobs from Coleraine to Swansea is very painful. This reference to removing possible discrimination has added insult to injury for staff in DVA.
"The implication that there could be any bias by staff in DVA in the delivery of services to customers is outrageous. Staff in DVA have an exemplary record of the highest possible standards of service to all customers. This totally inappropriate comment by DVLA is reflective of the poor quality of this consultation.
"Not only is it wrong that a consultation on such an important matter is being carried out in the middle of summer and for the shortest possible period of eight weeks, the whole exercise is one-sided, amounting more to a statement of intention by DVLA, rather than a proper and meaningful consultation that sets out, and seeks opinions on, all the possible options for the future delivery of vehicle licensing services in Northern Ireland."
He added: "Staff in DVA and the motoring public in Northern Ireland can rest assured that I intend to continue to oppose the UK Government's proposals to take away choice and high quality services and to remove over 300 jobs. Centralisation of motor tax services in Swansea would be an unnecessary attack on local services and on the local economy, especially in Coleraine where the majority of the jobs are based."
East Londonderry MP Gregory Campbell branded the reference to discrimination as "bizarre".
"I have been MP for the area for 12 years and I am not aware of a single instance from any section of the community alleging either malpractice or a reduction in service on the basis of religious grounds," said the Democratic Unionist.
"It is a bizarre reason or rationale to try and justify closure.
"This closure would be opposed by everybody and by all party political people."