Equal Status Amendment Bill 2013

PaulConnaughton-2-150x150

Dáil Éireann, 2 July 2013

Thank you for the opportunity to speak on this Bill.

 

In supporting the Government in opposition to this Bill, I must say that the main reason for my opposition is that I believe it does not represent a common sense approach to the subject.  Essentially what it would do is put more pressure on staff in public bodies to prepare reports and would require significant additional resources in the Equality Authority to respond appropriately to these reports.

Among the public sector, activities which would have to be proofed with such an Equality Impact Scheme would be the annual budget presented by the Government and voted on by the Dáil.  At a time when Minister Noonan faces incredibly difficult budget decisions, the thought that this entire process could be held up while civil servants check if there is any possibility that the budget could have a negative impact on former IRA prisoners released early under the Good Friday Agreement, is simply bizarre.

This Government has a job to do and must be let work unhindered towards the goal of getting this country back on track, restoring consumer confidence, rebuilding a broken jobs market and ensuring that this work is done while the most vulnerable in our society are sheltered from the harsh cuts that have been made and will have to continue to be made as we continue to spend beyond our means.

In many respects, the rationale behind the Bill is laudable, it seeks to ensure that decisions made by Government and public bodies are examined to see what impact they will have on the most disadvantaged in our society.  However, the flaw in this current Bill is the method by which it seeks to achieve that goal.

I believe that one reason why the Equal Status Act has had some measure of success to date is that its parameters are confined to nine grounds.  Students in secondary school learn the nine grounds under which discrimination in the provision of goods or services is prohibited.  I believe that to add in a further five grounds would only serve to confuse the public, to dilute the Act and would in fact have an effect opposite to that which is intended.

Another element in terms of the success of the Equal Status Act is that its measures were mirrored in the Employment Equality Act.  This Bill seeks to insert a further five grounds for discrimination in the provision of goods and services but not in terms of employment.  Of course I believe that’s a welcome fact, the idea that an employer would have to explain himself or herself where they were faced with many prospective employees but did not choose to take on someone with a criminal conviction for theft, for example, is simply unworkable.  Once again, common sense must apply. The nine provisions in both Acts are easily understood and are sensible.  The extension of the grounds to a further five sections of society in the Equal Status Act but not the Employment Equality Act is not sensible and simply must be rejected on those grounds.

In terms of the Impact Assessments which this Bill proposes that public bodies carry out, no consideration has been given to the extra burden that this will place on all public bodies in terms of staff costs, this at a time when resources within all public bodies are extremely stretched and when staff are under great pressure to comply with all the strictures they are currently faced with.

I believe that in the current economic circumstances any change to legislation should be accompanied by a comprehensive assessment of how much additional expenditure such measures are likely to incur.  I believe that the lack of any explanatory material in terms of the financial burden that this proposed Bill will place on public bodies is a serious lapse and further underlines why this Bill cannot be supported.

In the Government’s Programme for National Recovery 2011 – 2016, this government undertook to require all public bodies to take note of equality and human rights in carrying out their duties.  This, I believe, is a much more sensible approach to the matter, one that requires less resources on behalf of all public bodies, but which still requires that they consider the human rights environment in which they operate.

For five years now, tough decisions have had to be made by Finance Ministers in order to steer the country away from the disastrous course it was on.  This year will be no different.  Resources are increasingly scarce, within Government Departments, public bodies, but more importantly, in every household across the country.  Anyone in charge of household finances knows that in tough times every decision must be examined in terms of the extra financial burden it will create and what the reward, if any, will be.

I believe that, while laudable objectives lie at the heart of the drafting of this Bill, it is unrealistic in the current climate and if passed, would do little more than place a major bureaucratic burden on already hard-pressed employees in public bodies.