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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 Jim O'Callaghan: Information on Jim O'Callaghan Zoom on Jim O'Callaghan]  We propose to add a further ground, the disadvantaged socioeconomic ground, making it ten grounds in all. Disadvantaged socioeconomic status would mean a socially identifiable status of social or economic disadvantage resulting from poverty, level or source of income, homelessness, place of residence or family background. Like every piece of legislation there is a political reason we are introducing it. I will explain it by recounting to the House stories told to me about things that happened to people in my constituency, which I believe are unacceptable.

First, at a clinic, a woman asked for my assistance in her job application to a large employer - I will not identify it or where she came from - and I was happy to do so. She told me she would not put the address where she resides on the job application. She lived in a local authority estate and told me that she was not putting her address on the form because she believed that she would be discriminated against because people from that estate did not get jobs. Certain employers discriminated against people from the estate because it had an association with antisocial behaviour or minor criminal activity. I was surprised by this and asked others in the area if they had a similar experience. I was astonished by the extent to which people who live in this local authority estate told me that when they applied for certain jobs, and to certain employers, people who live there do not put down their address because they believe they are discriminated against because of where they live. As so many of them believe this, I think it is sufficient evidence to advance the idea. That is part of the reason we are advancing this ground to change the Employment Equality Act, as it stands.

I will tell a second story, which is similar but relates to the Equal Status Act. I was speaking to a woman in a local authority flat complex where she lived, who told me about her children. I was very surprised when she told me that she did not send her young son to a local national school, but to a private school in the area. I was astonished at the efforts to which this woman went to ensure that her son got the best from his early life. She made valiant efforts on his behalf, and one can imagine the amount of work she had to undertake to put him through a private primary school. She told me that she had applied on her son's behalf to the closest national school but that it would not accept her son. She said none of the people in the local authority flats who had applied to this school had had his or her son accepted there and as a result all the children from the flats had to go to another national school which was further away. She said it was very rough and she did not want her son to go there. It is unacceptable for national schools, our schools, to discriminate and say they will not take children from the flats. For this reason we are bringing forward this small piece of amending legislation to change the Equal Status Act and the Employment Equality Act. I am hopeful that there will be support for it in the House.

The legislation is of a type that is extremely difficult to police but when one looks at the law at present, one is not allowed to discriminate against people because of their sex or their sexual orientation, but there is no law prohibiting discrimination against a person because, as in the examples I just gave, someone comes from a block of flats about which an employer may have a negative view or someone wants to send his or her child to a local national school and the child does not get in because it does not take people from those flats. That behaviour is unacceptable. I do not believe that it is widespread in Irish society but we should change the equality legislation nonetheless so that type of discrimination it is not permissible. Neither is the type of discrimination outlined in the Employment Equality Act and the Equal Status Act particularly widespread but it is extremely important that our legislation sets out that one cannot discriminate against people because they are women, because they are gay, because of their age or because of their religion. Religious discrimination was the most significant type of discrimination since it affected so many people up to 1828 under the Penal Laws. In modern times, we should similarly say that one should not discriminate against people because they come from a poorer background. I believe this to be the most common form of discrimination in this society rather than the other types which are already outlined in the legislation. It is not a competition between the different grounds. Each is commendable and should be there but I see no reason that we should not keep trying to evolve and promote our laws on equality. They continually change along with the society in which we live and it is important that we send out a message that it is unacceptable for people to discriminate against individuals on the basis that those people come from a disadvantaged socioeconomic background.

I apologise for going on for too long, and will hand over to my colleague, Deputy Fiona O'Loughlin.

Deputy Fiona O'Loughlin: Information on Fiona O'Loughlin Zoom on Fiona O'Loughlin I am happy to speak to this Bill which seeks to extend the scope of current employment equality legislation by prohibiting discrimination on the basis of disadvantaged socioeconomic or social backgrounds. Put simply, this Bill seeks to enhance equality. As my colleague, Deputy O’Callaghan, said, even though there is much talk about equality both inside and outside this Chamber, we do not do much by way of legislation to protect or improve it. It is easy to say we believe in equality but what does that mean? According to one dictionary definition, it is "the state of being equal, especially in status, rights or opportunities". It is the area of status and opportunities that we hope to address with this Bill.

Discrimination based on socioeconomic or social backgrounds has been a growing problem in recent years. It is chilling to listen to Deputy O’Callaghan speak on the school situation in particular, where some schools did not take children from certain addresses and estates. Many people living in disadvantaged areas have found it difficult to secure jobs simply because they live in a certain area or estate. Their applications are not being considered on merit and they face arbitrary barriers which have a detrimental impact on their lives. This form of inequality needs to be tackled.

The Bill Deputy O’Callaghan and I have brought forward aims to address this growing problem by explicitly banning discrimination on the basis of disadvantaged socioeconomic or social background. This should help ensure that people living in disadvantaged areas are protected from discrimination alongside those who are unemployed or are relying on social protection supports. This should help break the vicious poverty trap that many people fall into.

Fianna Fáil recognises that enhancing social conditions and creating better opportunities for people is the fundamental method of supporting disadvantaged communities. This Bill is just one proposal for tackling inequality and breaking down the barriers which exist for those living in disadvantaged areas. Unfortunately, we live in a world where assumptions based on socioeconomic status or address can often restrict opportunities for minorities or disadvantaged groups, mainly in job opportunities but also, as we heard, in education. Some progress has been made in diversity but many other areas need work to minimise or reduce prejudice.

Studies have shown that individuals sometimes make drastic changes in their personal information in order to achieve better results in the business and-or academic fields, where a surname or location can be life changing.

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