Niall Crowley writes about the legislative proposal for the new Human Rights and Equality Commission
Alan Shatter recently published the Heads of a Bill for merging the Equality Authority and the Irish Human Rights Commission into a new body to be called the Human Rights and Equality Commission. The Minister highlighted his commitment to complying ‘unequivocally’ with the Paris Principles established by the UN as a standard for National Human Rights Institutions. Cue celebrations by all concerned!
We could surely expect this commitment to translate into independence and effectiveness for the new body. Cue concern by all those celebrating!
Independence is offered in terms of a new accountability to the Oireachtas. The strategic plans and annual reports of the new body will now be submitted to the Oireachtas although there is no onus to even read them let alone debate them.
The Director of the new body can also now be called to give account for the ‘general administration’ of the Commission to Oireachtas Committees. It is hardly surprising that the Minister’s press release noted that this Oireachtas oversight was of ‘symbolic importance’ in terms of underpinning the independence of the new body.
The Minister will continue to determine the grant payable to the Commission. The Commission will continue to be required to submit estimates of income and expenditure to the Minister in ways that are to be specified by the Minister. Wasn’t this where all the trouble began in the first place in 2008?
Independence and the Paris Principles appear to be further compromised in that there is no explicit statement that a representative of Government cannot be a member of the Commission. When it comes to staffing, the commitment to recruiting its own staff is diminished in that the first director and a significant number of the initial staff will be seconded civil servants.
Effectiveness is not mentioned in the Heads. There is a postive provision that the Commission shall be provided with sufficient resources to ensure that it can carry out each of its functions effectively. However there is no definition of effectively, no independent determination of baseline figures for what might be required, and no protection against arbitrary changes in the budget.
The Minister has been challenged in interviews in relation to the budget to be made available to the new body. His best offer has been that the new body might get to hold onto the savings made from merging the two existing bodies.
In what appears to be a wildly optimistic figure he predicts this will amount to 500,000 euro. This is hardly sufficient given the huge cuts made to the budgets of the existing bodies and the fact that neither body ever had a sufficient budget to carry out all its functions effectively.
So the Paris Principles are the benchmark but the provisions made for independence and effectiveness seem to fall short. There must surely be something to celebrate in this new initiative. Yes – the public sector duty! The Programme for Government had committed that all public bodies would be required to take due note of equality and human rights in carrying out their functions. The Heads now give legal expression to this commitment.
What is it about our political and administrative system? They get their hands on a good idea, promise to implement it and then tear the heart out of it. The Heads make provision for some public bodies to give consideration to equality and human rights in the planning and execution of their policies and actions, in their strategic plans and in their annual reports.
It is made clear that this provision confers no new rights and no cause of action. There are no sanctions for non-compliance. There is no clarification of what ‘give consideration’ might require of the public bodies. In Northern Ireland and Britain the equality legislation makes detailed provisions on what is required to be done by public bodies in this regard.
An explanatory note calms any unsettled public body nerves by stating that all that is involved is obliging a public body to formally consider human rights and equality issues relevant to its work, to set out its consideration of relevant issues in its Strategic Plan, and to report on issues and events in its annual report. This is far from the equality schemes and the equality impact assessment of all policies and plans required in Northern Ireland. The commitment to equivalence of rights in the Belfast Agreement still awaits realization.
The Heads make clear that there is to be no new departure for equality. The focus on equality could now actually be considerably narrowed. The Heads define equality as meaning that all persons are equal in dignity, rights and responsibilities without regard to gender, civil status, family status, sexual orientation, religion or ultimate belief, age, disability, race (including colour, nationality, ethnic or national origin) or membership of the Traveller community.
This is narrower than the understanding of equality that the Equality Authority always applied in its strategic plans. It makes no reference to access to resources, representation, recognition and respect nor to participation in and benefit from the social, economic, political and cultural life of society. It takes no account of diversity and the reality that treatment without regard to diversity can often be discriminatory.
The Heads do make provision for a valuable leveling up of functions and powers between the Irish Human Rights Commission and the Equality Authority. However this is undermined by not addressing the narrow range of equality grounds that can be considered. These should be expanded to include ‘socio-economic status’ and ‘any other status’ and thus allow for coherent action on equality and human rights.
Then the Heads introduce an unhelpful hierarchy in the equality grounds. A specific purpose is given to the Commission to encourage the development of a culture of respect for human rights, equality and intercultural understanding, along with a specific function to promote awareness and understanding of and respect for the multicultural character of Irish society. Interculturalism is a vital element for equality but no more vital than achieving equality for women, people with disabilities, lesbian and gay people, young and old people, carers, lone parents and so many more.
Oh dear it has to be concern rather than celebration!