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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 Fiona O'Loughlin: Information on Fiona O'Loughlin Zoom on Fiona O'Loughlin] It is likely that those from eastern parts of the world will anglicise their names. We have seen that happen among people from other countries who have chosen to live in Ireland and to apply for jobs here. It is done prior to applying for positions offered by companies. Again, there are many people living in certain estates who say that they have to change their addresses for job opportunities because the areas in which they live are associated with deprivation, anti-social behaviour or other elements of criminality.

Socially identifiable status or socioeconomic disadvantages resulting from poverty level, source of income, place of residence or familial background should not be a measure, or used as a measure, to treat one person less favourably than another. We have to have a developed, fair and united society where true equality of status, rights and opportunities is not fictional. That can only be the product of a joint, cohesive process being developed for each and every one of our citizens. As a republican party, Fianna Fáil is committed to fighting discrimination and inequality. As my colleague said, we have a proven record in providing leadership in the field of equality legislation, particularly in respect of the two major parts of Irish equality legislation, which we certainly want to enhance at this point. It is fair to say that there is evidence of significant discrimination on the grounds of socioeconomic status in key areas. We must do our best to ensure that there is equality wherever there can be.

As my colleague said, it is sometimes difficult to police the prohibitions which we have in the nine areas of discrimination, and in respect of the tenth area which we are proposing in this Bill. Nonetheless, it is very important to state that there is a significant benefit in setting out the grounds on which discrimination is unacceptable in law. It would certainly help to send a strong message that any level of discrimination in any of these areas is totally unacceptable.

Minister of State at the Department of Justice and Equality (Deputy David Stanton): Information on David Stanton Zoom on David Stanton We all share the common objective of wanting to protect all persons living in Ireland from discrimination in their daily lives. As the House is aware, we have robust protections in place in the Employment Equality Acts 1998 to 2015 and the Equal Status Acts 2000 to 2015 to protect equality and to combat discrimination in employment and in access to goods and services. If we are to amend these important pieces of legislation, we need to ensure that the amendments are precise, appropriate and targeted at addressing a particular need.

This Equality (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2017, tabled by Deputy O’Callaghan, proposes to extend the discrimination grounds to include a new ground, that of disadvantaged socioeconomic status. The Government agrees with the principle of what the Deputy is attempting to achieve with this Bill. Let us be clear on that. We agree with the principle. Like the Deputy, we do not wish to see anybody denied access to employment or to goods and services because that person lives at a particular address or belongs to a particular type of family. The Government is also conscious of its international obligations in this area. There are, however, flaws in this Bill which are so serious as to prevent Government from supporting it.

It is a shame that the Deputy did not choose to submit this Bill to pre-legislative scrutiny prior to publication, as all Government Bills must be submitted. Committees have done fantastic work in this area. I would have been delighted had that happened because we all would have been advised by the committee's deliberations and all Deputies could have looked at the Bill in light of them. Government legislation has to go through this process but Private Members' Bills do not. That is a flaw in our system. I have said it before and I am saying it again. It is a weakness in our system. If Private Members' Bills are to be treated seriously, they should also go through pre-legislative scrutiny. Many of the flaws that I will identify could have been addressed through that process and a more nuanced Bill presented to this House as a consequence.

A general principle is that statute law should be certain, clear and precise. In a Bill such as this, one can clearly see that certainty and precision are essential so that the law can be easily interpreted by the person experiencing discrimination, by the courts and by employers, service providers and businesses. Unfortunately, this Bill is characterised by ambiguities and subjectivity. The Deputies who have already spoken have said that this is an area in which it is very difficult to work. Unless the legislation is very clear, it will be almost impossible to work. This Bill, if enacted, would introduce an ambiguous and wide-ranging definition of disadvantaged socioeconomic status into the Equality Acts. The definition would encompass six separate elements - poverty, level or source of income, homelessness, place of residence and family background.

As proposed, the definition of disadvantaged socioeconomic status could give rise to differing interpretations depending on the context. As such, it differs from the existing equality grounds which set out clear characteristics that a person either fulfils or does not fulfil. On the civil status ground, for instance, a person will immediately know if she or he is single, married, divorced, separated, widowed, a civil partner or a former civil partner. Equally, on the Traveller community ground, a person is either a Traveller or she or he is not. That is not subject to interpretation. It is clear. The strength of the current clear definitions in the equality legislation is two-fold. A person at risk of discrimination can immediately know whether or not the protected grounds apply to his or her situation. Equally, and just as importantly, employers or providers of goods and services can know the precise situations which constitute prohibited discrimination. They have to be able to know clearly what differences of treatment are permitted and what are not. Employers or providers of goods and services can then put systems and policies in place to guard against discrimination by themselves or by their staff.

However, the elements included in the proposed definition of disadvantaged socioeconomic status generate more questions than answers. I propose to go through some of the questions which, in my view, arise from the definition proposed in this Bill. Taking the first element of the definition, namely, poverty, how would a person be defined as being in poverty? Would it be a person in consistent poverty or someone in relative poverty? The Bill is not clear on that. That is very serious. Turning to the second element, that of level of income, how would disadvantaged income levels be defined? Would it be relative to a specific income threshold? What about someone who is asset rich but income poor? Would it be relative to the income of others? Would it extend to include any person denied a means-tested benefit because he or she was above a specific income threshold? Where is the line drawn? It is not clear at all from the legislation.

Similar questions arise in respect of source of income. What constitutes disadvantage in this context? Will everyone on a social welfare payment be termed disadvantaged? Will someone working in a specific type of work be considered disadvantaged? Could the definition include a criminal who gained income through criminality and whose source of income was dubious? We have had those debates here before. The place of residence aspect of the definition also raises questions. Would it be restricted to someone from an area of high income disadvantage? Could a poor person living in a wealthy area also qualify? Would it extend to someone living in a particular type of residence, such as an institution? Could a prisoner be eligible to take a case for discrimination arising from his or her "place of residence"? Could the definition encompass someone living in a rural area who was not poor but who had more limited access to employment opportunities? Could a person living in a rural area take a claim if he or she had poorer access to postal or broadband services, for instance, than an equivalent person living in Dublin? Turning to family background, this element seems particularly ambiguous. Who is this element intended to encompass? Would it include a person in a lone parent household, a person from a Traveller family, a person from an ethnic minority family, a person whose parent was not an Irish national, or an adopted person? What does it mean?

These questions need to be answered so that we can be clear as to the situations likely to be encompassed by this equality ground. As it stands, the definition's ambiguity could expand the number of potential cases that might be taken under the equality legislation exponentially, particularly as the Equality Acts encompass indirect as well as direct discrimination.

The ambiguous definition proposed in this Bill could lead to unintended consequences. We could see a situation in which individuals with a good education or training and easy access to finances could take claims based on the level of income or place of residence elements of the definition. Wealthier individuals could challenge their exclusion from means-tested benefits citing disadvantage on the basis of level of income.

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