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Equality (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2017: Second Stage [Private Members] (Continued)

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 961 No. 2

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Charles Flanagan: Information on Charles Flanagan Zoom on Charles Flanagan]  Much progress has been made in the field of education in the past two decades. For example, only 68.2% of students in the 2001 DEIS cohort stayed in school up to and including leaving certificate. That number rose to 82.7% for the 2009 cohort, with more than 93% of those students completing the junior certificate. The DEIS plan has set ambitious goals for 2019 and expects to see a number of successes in higher education enrolments.

Similarly, progress has been made in creating employment opportunities for citizens and migrant workers. In March 2011, 441,000 persons were on the live register. That figure has essentially halved. The corresponding figure for October 2017 was 236,000, down more than 40,000 in one year. Just as importantly, the number of long-term claimants decreased by more than 23,000, or 18%, in the same period. These live register figures confirm that people in every field of employment, regardless of skill set and postcode and including those with professional and technical backgrounds, are getting employment. Employment opportunities are opening up for all. The reduction in numbers on the live register was greater for plant and machinery operatives - down 16.3% - than for those in professional and technical occupations, which figure decreased by 10%.

For many reasons, the Government believes it is premature to proceed with this ambiguous and flawed legislation. I must recommend against its acceptance while stating that my colleagues in government and I strongly share the view that no individual or group should be subjected to discrimination. I will keep the House updated on our extensive programme of work tackling disadvantage and providing opportunities for people.

Acting Chairman (Deputy Catherine Connolly): Information on Catherine Connolly Zoom on Catherine Connolly Táimid ag dul ar ais arís go dtí Fianna Fáil. Níl a fhios agam cé hé an chéad chainteoir eile.

Deputy Jim O'Callaghan: Information on Jim O'Callaghan Zoom on Jim O'Callaghan An Teachta Browne. Cúig nóiméad.

Deputy James Browne: Information on James Browne Zoom on James Browne I thank Deputies O'Loughlin and O'Callaghan for their work on this important Bill, which aims to further ensure equality and fairness in our society. My party and I are committed to fighting discrimination and inequality at all levels in society. To that end, we introduced the Employment Equality Act and Equal Status Act in 1998 and 2000, respectively. With this Bill, these prove Fianna Fáil's commitment to making merit the only ground on which to assess someone's suitability for employment.

Current legislation exposes an area of inequality that needs to be resolved. With the introduction of this Bill, it will be established that an employer cannot discriminate based on disadvantaged socioeconomic status. Regardless of someone's socioeconomic disadvantage arising from poverty, level or source of income, homelessness, place of residence or family background, an employer will not, and should not, be able to put one person above another. If passed, the law will ensure that people are employed based on merit alone.

I am delighted to contribute on the Bill, as it tackles a problem that has been festering for many years. With this law in place, it will be a clear breach of the law to discriminate between job applicants based on, for example, the addresses on their CVs. A person's family background will not affect his or her job prospects. Someone who has lost a home will not face discrimination when applying for a job. When such cases arise in County Wexford, they are difficult to witness. Bright, hard working and determined people are losing out because the law does not protect them.

These arbitrary symbols will not affect people's employment if this legislation is passed. The Bill's strength is its ability to nip the problems facing those living in disadvantaged areas and those who are unemployed in the same manner. The Bill will help to stamp out the vicious cycle facing many people who, having been turned down for jobs for discriminatory reasons time and again, are often forced to stay in poverty traps. It gives young people hope that they will be able to press ahead, climb the ladder in the workforce and sketch out life's purpose.

It is a credit to my party colleagues, Deputies O'Loughlin and O'Callaghan, that the Bill has come to the floor of the Dáil. International human rights organisations have long called for the introduction of a social origin ground. This Bill is just one step on the long road to breaking down the barriers faced by those living in disadvantaged areas or from disadvantaged backgrounds. This Bill is about sending out a message to employers that discrimination in the workplace is illegal. Ultimately, the legislation's impact will be telling for those who feel the law and politics are not on their side. This Fianna Fáil Bill shows how that is changing bit by bit.

Deputy Jim O'Callaghan: Information on Jim O'Callaghan Zoom on Jim O'Callaghan I will conclude by thanking all Members who contributed to this debate. I welcome the support from a wide range of Deputies. I also acknowledge the contributions of the Minister and the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton. I will reply to some of the Government's criticisms of the legislation. The Acting Chairman also raised one or two points to which, with her permission, I will respond.

At the outset, the Minister of State expressed his belief that the Bill should go to pre-legislative scrutiny. I agree. One of the unusual features of the current Oireachtas is that, when the Government introduces legislation, pre-legislative scrutiny is carried out before the Bill comes to the Chamber.

Deputy David Stanton: Information on David Stanton Zoom on David Stanton Yes.

Deputy Jim O'Callaghan: Information on Jim O'Callaghan Zoom on Jim O'Callaghan However, Private Members' Bills are debated on Second Stage and, if they pass that point, their pre-legislative scrutiny is carried out on Committee Stage. There are unusual reasons for the difference between Government and Opposition Bills, but that is the system.

Deputy David Stanton: Information on David Stanton Zoom on David Stanton It is daft.

Deputy Jim O'Callaghan: Information on Jim O'Callaghan Zoom on Jim O'Callaghan It may be daft, but that is our system.

I assure the Minister of State that I recognise that some analysis of this Bill needs to be conducted, and my colleagues on the justice committee and I would be happy to carry out pre-legislative scrutiny in respect of it. I am not seeking to steamroll through our legislation just for the sake of getting it passed. Rather, it is an advancement of our equality laws. Care needs to be taken in that regard.

The Minister, Deputy Flanagan, and the Minister of State asserted that the Bill was ambiguous and would be difficult to enforce. It must first be acknowledged that both seem to recognise that there is an issue, namely, that people are being discriminated against unfairly on the basis of what I have described as their disadvantaged socioeconomic background. I accept that this is a more difficult ground to police and enforce than is the case with the nine other grounds. Regarding the gender ground, for instance, it is clear if a person is male or female. The point being made by the Government is that it is more difficult to assess whether a person is from a disadvantaged socioeconomic background. I accept that, but a part of the responsibility of legislators is to try to develop and advance the law. Pay discrimination on the ground of gender was deemed unacceptable previously. We recognised that in the 1970s, but we need to keep developing our equality laws. All constitutional rights must be updated. They are dynamic. Deputies have a responsibility to ensure that constitutional rights are recognised in statutory frameworks to ensure they take into account ongoing difficult social circumstances.

There is a recognition in the House that people are being discriminated against because of where they come from and their backgrounds. I have tried in the Bill to give as best a definition as I can to describe "disadvantaged socioeconomic status", but let us be clear, it will be more difficult than describing gender. However, just because something is difficult does not mean it is something we should not attempt to do. The definition that Deputy O'Loughlin and I have set out refers to a particular identifiable status of social or economic disadvantage - this is not difficult to understand - resulting from poverty, level or source of income, homelessness, place of residence or family background. These are not difficult to decipher or interpret.

The most important aspect of equality legislation is that it is stated in statute that one cannot discriminate against people on grounds of race, gender or sexual orientation. It would be an addition to our equality legislation were we to include in that disadvantaged socioeconomic status. It is difficult to prove breaches of any of these equality grounds. If someone decides not to employ a person because she is a woman, it is difficult to prove, although some of the recent circumstances cited by the Ministers seem to have made that easier. In practice, it is difficult to prove any breach of these grounds, but that is not a reason for not doing this.

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