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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 Mattie McGrath: Information on Mattie McGrath Zoom on Mattie McGrath]  I believe there is a cartel in the public service that has its hands on the power and is associated with Ministers. It does not care about the ordinary people. It does not care about Tony Rochford or people like him who are self-employed who pay their taxes. He is now on hunger strike and in a very serious situation because of what I believe, as a self-employed person, is an anomaly in the Bill. A section of the Bill states that he cannot get his C2 certificate because he did not pay his property tax. I paid my property tax. I had no problem with that even though I believe it is unjust but this man did not pay it and now he is being penalised. He is not allowed work. He is self-employed. An 8% rebate is total robbery. It is blackguarding self-employed people. It is twice that of what applies to PAYE people, which I do not agree with either in the way it is taken out of their wages.

I am looking across at a Labour Minister of State and I see Labour Party Deputies who talk about standing up for ordinary people and small business people, the backbone of this country. This man wants to pay for his family and earn his keep but this was rushed past him. The property tax was rushed through this House. Despite what the Taoiseach said, it was an unjust and unfair measure in terms of a person's home. This man wants to do work. He had his C2 and was tax compliant but now he cannot do anything because he has not paid the property tax. That is a disastrous law. I know the Government must try to collect it whatever way it can and I do not mind if the full amount of property tax is taken out of a self-employed person's business but I have a huge problem with not giving him a C2, not allowing him do his VAT returns and putting him out of business. Furthermore, if he has no business, he will not get any unemployment benefit or assistance. It is a perilous situation that has driven him to the gates of these Houses on hunger strike for 17 days.

I appeal to the Minister of State, Deputy Lynch, to bring some sanity to the situation. Legislation was rushed through this House and guillotines were used and what is the Government doing? Abolishing the Seanad when we could better scrutinise legislation. I ask her to consider these issues because there is no proof-reading of legislation. It is just tax, tax, tax, cut, cut and cut and attack the ordinary people.

Acting Chairman (Deputy John Lyons): Information on John Lyons Zoom on John Lyons I call Deputy Regina Doherty who I believe is sharing time with Deputies Michael McCarthy, Frank Feighan, Heather Humphreys and Darragh Murphy. Is that agreed? Agreed.

Deputy Regina Doherty: Information on Regina Doherty Zoom on Regina Doherty I must be honest. I had to read the Bill a number of times to try to figure out its purpose, and I am still not sure about that. I think the author of the Bill is trying first to extend the nine discrimination grounds in the Equal Status Acts to include a number of additional grounds such as the rural ground and the convicted prisoner ground and, second, to create a duty on existing public bodies to have regard to promoting equality of opportunity and developing equality impact schemes for approval by the Equality Authority and also to make sure that anything it introduces is proofed in this way. One such thing it is proposing is the annual budget.

According to its author Sinn Féin's Bill seeks to introduce mandatory equality impact assessments on public bodies, introducing measures that impact on these categories as well as the existing nine categories of gender, civil status, family status, etc. I hate to point out the obvious but the Employment Equality Act already prohibits discrimination in the employment sector and the Equal Status Acts prohibit discrimination in the provision of goods and services in each of the following nine grounds: gender, civil status, family status, sexual orientation, religion, age, disability, race and membership of the Traveller community. There are already a range of detailed exceptions that avoid extreme or unintended consequences, for example, to protect children or the age ground that applies to the maximum age at which people can attend school, etc.

I am not clear if the omission of the Employment Equality Act was done deliberately or by way of a drafting error. There were not any notes published with the Bill, which made it more difficult for me to understand what it was about. There were no assessments of the impact the obligations in the Bill would have on any of the statutory bodies. There was no assessment of the scope of the grounds or what the impact of incorporating them would be on the State. There were no qualifications or exceptions as to the possible variations that might be present in the equality legislation, and there was no assessment as to the considerable staff resources each public body would have to provide to enact the changes. I have to ask if this is serious equality legislation or just ill-thought out.

Equality legislation has come a long way, and I regret when legislation such as this is put before the House when we can speak of the record not just of this Government but previous Governments. What we are faced with currently is the challenge to turn the rhetoric of fundamental rights into the reality for people living every day under the rule of law throughout our communities.

In terms of what is happening on the ground and what our Government is doing as opposed to talking about, earlier this year the Minister for Justice and Equality, who is present, appointed the members of the new Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission. The Minister said that the merger of the Irish Human Rights Commission and the Equality Authority is to promote human rights and equality issues in a more efficient, effective and coherent way, a single institution whose remit is to establish a footprint at local level. It is independent of Government and that independence is guaranteed by its statute. The status is vital to its credibility, here in Ireland, in Europe and internationally. The body will become the front-line body for turning commitment to human rights and equality into reality at national and local level. I am in favour of practicalities and on a practical level it will promote public awareness campaigns in the print media, radio and online. It is to remind the members of the public of their rights and to reinforce awareness of the support and redress mechanisms available.

Equality is not always about treating everybody the same but it is about people treating others in such a way that the outcome for everybody is exactly the same. From the outset this Government has shown that it is about best practice in words and in deeds. That is the reason I will be opposing the Bill tonight.

Deputy Michael McCarthy: Information on Michael McCarthy Zoom on Michael McCarthy On the issue of equality, the Minister of State, Deputy Lynch, was in the 25th Dáil when the constituent members of the then rainbow Government, which now form the current coalition, drove an equality agenda when it was neither popular nor profitable to do so. If we cast our minds back to the genesis of the debate on equality, in July 1973 that coalition Government, which is what we were referred to before Fianna Fáil got into the habit of coalition, introduced legislation to remove the marriage ban. This country has an appalling history of treating women badly and unequally but that Act passed in the 1970s removed a discriminatory ban on women who were married and working in the Civil Service. We all know and are perhaps related to people whose careers suffered as a result of that. If we look back to 1973 and the record of these two parties in government then we see that this discriminatory nonsense was removed.

We created the Department of Equality and Law Reform. When the Labour Party went into Government in 1992, Mervyn Taylor was Minister for Equality and Law Reform and he initiated the campaign to remove the constitutional ban on divorce. The prohibition on divorce in the Constitution basically meant that we were treating citizens of this country inherently unequally. The decriminalisation of homosexuality and the passing of the Equal Status Act are the hallmarks of the now constituent parties in government. The record in that regard is there for anyone to see, and it is a very proud record.

Listening to the Deputies opposite one can understand the confusion that Deputy Doherty has pointed to in regard to the specific pieces of legislation to which the Private Members' Bill refers. It refers to the Equal Status Acts of 2000 and 2004 but curiously, either erroneously or deliberately, it does not refer to the Employment Equality Act. That confusion is only matched by the level of debate I have heard thus far in the context of this Private Members' business. We heard a great deal about what we already know, such as the protests and so on, but something that happened this evening should not necessarily inform a debate about equality. All our experience as professional politicians, public representatives or people involved in active citizenship in communities in some shape or form should cherish that notion of equality and speak about it in isolation, irrespective of whether the economy is struggling or buoyant. We all know where it should stand.

The Bill proposes to create a number of grounds in terms of the Equal Status Acts, one of which, curiously, is trade union membership. How do we establish whether someone is a member of a trade union? I am a member of SIPTU. I carry a SIPTU membership card with a Labour Party membership card in my wallet but how can we tell if someone is a member of a trade union? The other curious heading is the native Irish speaker. How do we distinguish between someone who speaks cúpla focal fluently and competently or someone who speaks it because it is their native language?

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