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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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  8 o’clock

(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Heather Humphreys: Information on Heather Humphreys Zoom on Heather Humphreys] it also serves to highlight the severe constraints within which we are working when staff must be moved from one Department to another to alleviate backlogs. This is all because the continued focus of this Government since taking office had to be on trying to do more with less. It is in this regard that this Bill does not stand up to scrutiny. The Bill proposes what could be very resource-intensive obligations on a number of public bodies to prepare and publish equality impact assessments of their work for approval by the Equality Authority. While such a move is likely to create much paperwork, it will not necessarily lead to greater equality.

I welcome the commitment from the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, that the Government will shortly publish the Bill to establish the new Irish human rights and equality commission. As she stated, the Government is focused on imposing a positive duty on public bodies to look at the equality issues they face and address these in their annual reports. The role of the human rights and equality commission will be an active one, which focuses on providing support and facilitation - in other words, less administration and less paperwork and more results.

The Bill proposes to create five new grounds in the Equal Status Acts, including the case of criminal conviction. This is an area in which I have a particular interest as, over the past two and a half years, I have encountered a number of cases where people have experienced major difficulties when applying for jobs due to relatively minor offences on their criminal records. That certainly is an issue of equality. Obviously, if a person breaks the law, regardless of how minor the offence, he or she deserves to be punished. There should be no ambiguity about that. However, the bottom line is that we all can make mistakes, in particular when we are young. It is important these mistakes are not held against a person for the rest of his or her life, thus impinging on future career opportunities. This issue has been dealt with in some detail by the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, who brought forward the Criminal Justice (Spent Convictions) Bill some time ago and which is currently on Report Stage in the Dáil and, hopefully, will be enacted in the autumn.

That Bill is much more practical in its application than the one before us. Rather than dealing with all convictions as if they were equal, the Criminal Justice (Spent Convictions) Bill differentiated between various convictions. For example, convictions for offences such as murder, manslaughter and sexual offences may never become spent. Likewise, convictions resulting in sentences of more than 12 months may not become spent and not more than two convictions in a person's life may become spent. Essentially, the Bill aims to ensure that those who commit minor one-off offences are not stigmatised when seeking employment in the future. In essence, the Criminal Justice (Spent Convictions) Bill was about giving people a second chance.

This Bill has chosen to extend the discrimination grounds in the Equal Status Acts but not in the Employment Equality Acts. I am confused as to the reason for this but I understand that, as it stands, the Bill will not apply to employment issues.

The Bill also proposes to extend the discrimination grounds in the Equal Status Acts to those living in rural areas, which is an interesting point. I live in a rural area and I recall last year having a conversation with a gentlemen about the household charge. He argued that he did not avail of any of the amenities the charge was supposed to cover. He lived in the countryside and he advised that he did not use the public library, the swimming pool, the park and certainly did not have street lighting. He said all of these amenities were in the town and that he did not use them but eventually he agreed that he used the roads. Obviously, these need to be maintained too. It was ironic this year, when the property tax took effect, that those who lived in the major cities and towns felt they were being discriminated against as their properties were of a higher value. It was a case of the shoe being on the other foot.

I note the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, made a similar point last night in regard to the provision of broadband services. Often people living in the countryside are not able to obtain as good a quality of service as those living in towns. Under the proposed Bill, this could be also seen as discrimination when, in fact, it is sometimes due to logistics and economics. On that note, I was pleased, when I met with Eircom this evening, to hear it is investing €1.5 billion of capital expenditure to deliver the nation's newest fibre network, reaching 1.2 million homes and businesses. I was particularly pleased that fibre broadband will be available in Monaghan town from July of this year and that by June 2015, Eircom fibre broadband will be extended to the towns of Carrickmacross, Castleblayney and Clones.

I note that under the Bill the Government would be also classed as a public body and as a result, the annual budget would also have to be proofed and approved by the Equality Authority. The Government and all the elected representatives of this House engage with various interest groups and organisations in the lead-up to the budget each year. A number of these organisations hold pre-budget submission meetings which every Deputy has the opportunity to attend and take on board concerns and raise these matters thereafter. This Bill seems to propose that we take budgetary decisions and put them in the hands of an unelected State body.

At the outset I said I accepted the spirit in which the Bill was being brought forward but what it proposes is simply not practical. It is for this reason and the other issues I have outlined that I will not support the Bill.

Deputy Dara Murphy: Information on Dara Murphy Zoom on Dara Murphy I welcome the opportunity to contribute on this Private Members' Bill. When I first read it, my sense of it was that it was positive and that this was a well-meaning Bill. I still hold that position. However, as someone who speaks on Private Members' and other Bills from time to time, I requested the explanatory memorandum but there was none. I then found there was no impact assessment nor scoping of the cost of the various measures. I am sure the Deputies opposite will not welcome this observation but it is an exceptionally broad attempt, which covers many areas. In that regard, it is almost impossible for the Government to amend it in such a way as to support the intent.

I was in business for 20 years, employed people and provided services and I came across the Equality Status Acts and the Employment Equality Acts on many occasions and in many different ways. This Bill does not pertain to the Employment Equality Acts but much of its sentiment belongs with those Acts. Many of the issues are covered by them, including the right to be a member of a trade union and the people's diversity and socio-economic backgrounds are protected.

When we talk about the Equal Status Acts, it is difficult to envisage a situation in which in the purchase or the provision of services, the issue of whether someone is a member of a trade union, his or her socio-economic background or whether he or she speaks Irish would apply. I would be interested to hear specific examples of where that might apply. As a purchaser of services, in particular, my focus would be on the cost of what I was purchasing rather than on where, how or by whom the services were being provided.

There is more substance in the area of criminal convictions. The Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, was very open to amendments to the Criminal Justice (Spent Convictions) Bill.

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