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Equal Status (Amendment) Bill 2013: Second Stage (Resumed) [Private Members] (Continued)

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 809 No. 3

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Gerry Adams: Information on Gerry Adams Zoom on Gerry Adams] I commend the Bill. I repeat what I said previously, that it will bring us in line with the North. I repeat also that it is official Labour Party policy as adopted at last year’s conference. I appeal to Labour Party Teachtaí Dála to stand by their own policy. They can forget about Sinn Féin. They should stand by their party's policy and vote for this Bill.

Minister of State at the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation (Deputy Sean Sherlock): Information on Seán Sherlock Zoom on Seán Sherlock In the five minutes available I will do my best to address the contents of the Bill. The Bill proposes to extend the discrimination grounds in the Equal Status Acts, which deal with provision of goods and services, but not in the Employment Equality Acts, which cover employment, by adding five or six new grounds for discrimination which have been articulated by Deputy Stanley.

  The existing equality legislation prohibits discrimination on nine grounds, but also contains a range of qualifications and exceptions to ensure that we avoid unintended and extreme consequences. Thus, discrimination based on age is outlawed, but we ensure that children are protected and special treatment can be provided for older people where that is appropriate. Gender may not be used to discriminate in employment, except, for example, in employment providing intimate caring services.

  Many of the contributions from the Opposition benches last night covered employment issues, to which the Bill as published does not apply. We were told last night that this is a drafting error that can be easily fixed. However, it is not the type of drafting error that can easily be corrected. That is because there are no exceptions or qualifications proposed in the Bill in respect of the proposed five new grounds. That is a serious omission. As my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Lynch, said last night, equality legislation seeks to eliminate unfair or prejudicial discrimination based on a person's inherent characteristics - gender, race or age, for example - rather than affecting rational assessments of risk based on a person's previous actions. The question of wiping the record of criminal convictions, for example, requires a nuanced approach via spent convictions legislation. I acknowledge Deputy Dara Murphy's point in that regard. In certain employment areas, as well as in the provision of certain goods and services, a history of conviction for serious criminal offences, such as sexual offences, fraud or theft, can be directly relevant risk factors which should be taken into account.

  The second major defect is that the Bill does not understand the way in which equality legislation interacts with other legislation. Reference was made last night to taxi licences and the security industry. The Bill may be an attempt to compel the relevant authorities to grant licences in such cases, irrespective of genuine concerns about suitability, but it cannot achieve that objective. The Equal Status Acts apply to the provision of goods and services other than public services that are regulated by other legislation. The Equal Status Act 2000, in section 14, makes clear that it operates without prejudice to other statutory provisions. Essentially, the 2000 Act does not apply to an issue that is governed by separate legislation.

  The overly simplistic approach is also illustrated by the inclusion of living in a rural area as a proposed ground for discrimination. Access to broadband was raised in last night's debate, as it was tonight. The Government is committed to ensuring that we have high-quality broadband services and that rural areas are served as well as urban areas. Deputy Heather Humphreys spoke on that point. Does anybody seriously think this goal can be achieved by a simple prohibition on discrimination, or that increased provision of broadband services in the market would be positively encouraged by an outbreak of litigation before the Equality Tribunal?

  The third problem area is the proposal to create an elaborate new proofing mechanism by which all public bodies would draft equality schemes for approval by the Equality Authority. The Government is taking a much more balanced, nuanced and proportionate approach to embedding concern for human rights and equality in the work of the public sector. In the Bill to establish the new Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, IHREC, we are taking a different approach to ensuring that public bodies place equality and human rights at the heart of what they do. Instead of a formalistic box-ticking exercise, with an enormous administrative overhead, we are imposing a positive duty on public bodies to look at the human rights and equality issues they face and address those in their strategic plans and annual reports. Instead of agreeing voluminous paper schemes and deploying a small army of staff for monitoring, the role of the new IHREC will be the much more active one of providing support and facilitation. That will be a much more positive and useful approach.

  The final point is that budgetary decisions are for the democratically elected Government of the day and for the approval of the national Parliament and cannot be subject to approval in terms of the process or content of any State agency's board. The Government opposes the Bill.

Deputy Pádraig Mac Lochlainn: Information on Pádraig MacLochlainn Zoom on Pádraig MacLochlainn That was the exact same speech as the one given last night. The Department could at least have had to courtesy to write a new speech for the Minister of State.

Deputy Dessie Ellis: Information on Dessie Ellis Zoom on Dessie Ellis In a real republic, one that honours the commitments of those who brought this State into being through their sacrifice and struggle, equality would be the watch-word of any Government of the people. It would be at the heart of every policy and would be the aim of every initiative. That kind of approach would not just honour our past but ensure our future, not simply as an economy or a state but as a society thriving and growing, cherishing its people and nurturing the generation that will carry it onwards. Some might describe that as woolly rhetoric, but those ideas are the foundation of a progressive approach and a government that ignores them is not worth electing. I appreciate that government is not an easy task. I know that many in this Government have been pushed to do things they did not want to or to accept policy they did not support because they felt it was unfair or unequal. But if one starts policy discussions on the basis of what one can get away with rather than what is the right thing to do, one has already lost.

The Government has been far from the equality-driven Administration I described. In nearly every instance it seems to have taken the opportunity to take from those who can least absorb a cut, to take services from those who need them most and to deny those who are most vulnerable their most basic rights. The only time Ministers have reflected on those decisions has been after the expression of widespread vocal anger, such as in the case of recent cuts to services for disabled children.

This Bill proposes to make equality budgeting a legislative requirement. Equality-proofing a budget or policy would mean that each Minister would have to approach his or her brief and budget with the impact on wider society of the policy in mind. It would require the carrying out of equality impact assessments by Departments. I have asked the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport and the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government on a number of occasions whether they had impact assessments carried out when deciding on certain policies. The answer I received was depressing but also enraging. The respective Departments claimed they had no responsibility for such a practice. It was bad enough to be told that no impact assessments were carried out, although I suspected as much given the nature of the policies in question, but to be told that a Minister had no responsibility to ensure a policy did not increase inequality was really galling.

The Bill proposes to amend the existing legislation, which was a positive step when introduced but is relatively passive and toothless. While setting out to protect some sections of society, it did not put the onus on policy makers to prove their work was based on the principles of equality. That is the much-needed ingredient this amendment adds and to fear it is to fear good governance and good policy.

One of the groups the original Act protects is the Traveller community. However, we do not have to look too hard to find that this group has not benefited greatly from the current legislative protection. Perhaps in the context of a requirement to carry out such assessments and to promote equality, the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Hogan, would have thought again before intervening in the housing of Traveller families he did not know. Perhaps he would have chosen also not to speak when he used an ethnic slur against Travellers to journalists or when he stood over a cut to the maintenance of Traveller housing which saw funding drop to just €50,000 for the city of Dublin. Equality-proofing requirements might also have caused the Cabinet to pause for further reflection when the idea of cutting housing adaptation grants for disabled or elderly people by 40% was proposed, or perhaps it would have changed minds on the cut to the transport mobility grant.

Another situation in which the Government has moved with no consideration for the wider impact on society is its attack on the livelihoods of taxi drivers, particularly those who were at one time political prisoners. Despite my campaign, it is clear the Government does not give a damn that its measures will put people out of work and put their families on the breadline.

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