I thank the Chair and members for hosting us today. It has been almost a year since we came before the committee and I note the significant crossover in membership that has occurred in the interim. During our engagement with the committee last year, we emphasised the importance of matching equality and human rights governance principles with economic policy. Human rights principles reinforce the focus on good budget governance including a strong evidence base, and in terms of key principles, mechanisms to guarantee participation, transparency and non-discrimination. Our engagement with the committee today is about respecting our public accountability and accountability to the Oireachtas and providing with an update on the commission’s work in this area in recent months.
The commission is Ireland's national human rights and equality body and its 15 members are all appointed by the President Michael D. Higgins. We account directly to the Oireachtas in respect of our statutory functions. Our founding legislation gives us a range of powers, from promotion and awareness-raising activities to significant legal powers to take proceedings, to act as amicus curiae, or friend of the court, and initiate statutory inquiries. In our engagement with the committee last year, we emphasised the role the commission could play in assisting and encouraging the development of gender and equality-proofing practices within the relevant institutional spaces. Much of the commission’s work over the past year has been on building relationships with key actors in order to facilitate this.
An important aspect of our work has been exploring how best to embed human rights and equality-proofing mechanisms into current budget planning systems rather than creating parallel structures. In this spirit, over the past year the commission has actively engaged with officials in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, which is in the process of developing its own approach to incorporating equality budgeting into Ireland’s medium-term expenditure framework. The commission has provided its input and feedback on the Department’s ongoing work in this area. The commission has also worked with the Department to facilitate a workshop on equality budgeting for officials across Departments with particular roles in the budgetary process. The workshop was held in mid-June and was run by my colleagues, Dr. Mary Murphy and Mr. Laurence Bond, our director. This was the first of what we hope will be regular cross-departmental engagements to contribute to the development of equality budget proofing. We see our recent engagement with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform in this area as extremely positive and would hope to see similar engagements. In particular, we would identify the Departments of Finance and Social Protection as priority Departments in the context of this work.
The committee will also be aware of the public sector duty that applies to all public bodies under the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission Act 2014. We have a mandate in assisting public bodies in meeting this duty to have regard to human rights and equality by providing guidance. In the past year we have rolled out a programme of capacity building, involving a number of pilot projects and information provision for public bodies around Ireland, from local authorities to Departments. We view this work as intimately connected with the question of equality and human rights proofing. Indeed, we view effective budget proofing as a central means by which public bodies can meet their legal obligations under the public sector duty.
The commission is also working to build a knowledge base on equality and human rights proofing. We have published a number of fact sheets on proofing and have been working in co-operation with specialists to produce content for a special edition of the academic journal Administration focusing on human rights and equality proofing. This special edition will bring together the latest policy developments and best practices in budget proofing, taking a cross-Border and international perspective. This special issue will be published in August and we hope it will make a contribution to Departments’ efforts to incorporate equality and human rights budgeting into their current practices.
The programme for Government commitment to budget proofing is a very positive development. However, as members will be well aware, achieving effective and meaningful proofing practices across relevant institutions of the State is a very long-term process, requiring a long-term commitment to increased capacity, change methodologies and shift cultures and practices. The commission has called for the creation of a national proofing advisory committee to assist this process.
The Oireachtas and its committees have a crucial role to play in maintaining a focus on proofing and scrutinising the efforts of Departments in the preparation of the forthcoming budget and into the future. This applies to the work of the sectoral committees and it also applies of course to this committee's broader oversight role and the great potential that exists for collaboration with the Departments of Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform in the broader budgetary planning process. Connected to this, of course, is the essential role that the planned independent parliamentary budget office will play, and we note and welcome the fact that recruitment for this new office is currently under way. I will leave it at that for the moment.