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Committee on Budgetary Oversight debate -
Wednesday, 12 Jul 2017

Development and Reform of the Budget Process: Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission

I welcome Ms Emily Logan, Chief Commissioner, Mr. Laurence Bond, director, and Dr. Mary Murphy, commission member, from the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission. The witnesses will be looking at development and reform of the budget process.

Before we begin, I remind members and witnesses to turn off their mobile phones. The interference from mobile phones affects the sound quality and transmission of the meeting. Witnesses are reminded that they are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence that they are to give to the committee. However, if they are directed by it to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or an entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

I now invite Ms Logan to make her opening statement.

Ms Emily Logan

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.

I thank Ms Logan for her opening statement. Would Dr. Murphy or Mr. Bond like to add anything?

Dr. Mary Murphy

We had understood that it would open up to questions. I can certainly anticipate some of them.

Ms Logan mentioned that there were workshops with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and that there were positive outcomes from them. What specifically was positive from them, and has there been follow-up with those workshops?

Ms Emily Logan

Dr. Murphy and Mr. Bond ran them so I will defer to them.

Dr. Mary Murphy

The workshop focused primarily on gender-proofing, which the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform chose to focus on, believing that that is the most likely, practical way of advance proofing in the next budgets because there is more data available in that area than any other equality ground. There was a growing understanding of where the current budget processes, for example, spending reviews, would be proofed. It was not concerned with identifying extra dimensions of mechanisms that would be proofing but rather looking at the evolving budget practice and where proofing could be added in.

Some good common understanding about the usefulness of that approach and how that would work was developing. There was also a common understanding that there would be an equality statement in the budget on budget day and some discussion as to how that could be made meaningful. Again, this built up expectations that this would happen. One of the most useful parts of it was the realisation that individual line Departments needed to understand the elements in their established policy goals that were most relevant to equality and human rights, draw out from their established policy goals some key priority goals that were relevant to equality and human rights and put them forward for specific proofing exercises. That could mean existing expenditures that needed to be reviewed to maximise the impact of that expenditure for equality and human rights or it could mean new budget lines as they were evolving.

One example might be Rebuilding Ireland which is now open to review and which is likely to have existing budget lines and some new budget lines added, but has not been fully exposed to an equality and human rights proofing exercise. Lots of other ones included national strategies that were already in existence such as the youth strategy - Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures - or the new Traveller or Roma strategy or the new national women's strategy. All of those strategies have a bearing on individual line Departments and all of them are ways of advancing equality so it involved getting a better understanding of where these national strategies fitted into the business of line Departments and where they needed to proof to make sure they were maximising the budget potential to realise the outcomes in those strategies. Much was done in the training to help people have a common understanding of how this would advance and it was quite useful in that sense. People gave us feedback that they had a much better sense of what the language meant and that there was agreement across Departments that this was a sensible way to move forward. Mr. Bond might want to add something.

Mr. Laurence Bond

The workshop was hosted by us and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. We made some of the inputs. The key thing to note is that the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform called officials from Departments together to address these issues, which is a very positive development. This arises out of work we have been doing with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform over the past period. The Department recognises that there is a programme for Government commitment to proofing and so, therefore, it has a responsibility to address that aspect. It has been trying to engage with that and, as Dr. Murphy pointed out, to identify ways in which it can be meaningfully advanced through the existing processes, for example, in respect of the spending review, the social impact assessment and the performance budgeting framework that is in place in the Estimates. Having said that, the Department has not overstated expectations in terms of what might happen this year, but it does seem important that there would be some specific equality statement in this year's budget as a concrete embodiment of the commitment in the programme for Government and that this is meaningful in a certain way. The workshop arose out of that understanding of work being done in the Department and work we have done with the Department. It was then part of bringing that out to budget officials in the line Departments to ensure that there was that common understanding referred to by Dr. Murphy.

I want to address the workshop, which sounds like an excellent idea. I propose that the Chairman invite the Working Group of Committee Chairmen to undertake such a workshop because there is no sense in this committee promoting equality budgeting and gender-proofed budgeting unless each line committee takes them on. It might be worth the Chief Commissioner's while writing to the chairman of each parliamentary party and each group to tell them that this workshop is available. We are here in our little committee room talking about this but if every committee put it on its agenda, its effectiveness could be far stronger.

It could serve as a model for other Departments, which was a question I was going to ask.

Ms Emily Logan

It is fair to say we could do something dedicated for that smaller group if that was helpful.

Dr. Murphy mentioned Rebuilding Ireland. I suspect that the Oireachtas Committee on Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government probably never thinks of gender proofing housing programmes. It just wants to get houses built. There are so many areas where people do not think this is relevant when it is relevant. If we put it on everyone's agenda, these people could not claim ignorance.

I welcome the delegation. Deputy Boyd Barrett and I attended a meeting recently with a Member of the Scottish Parliament who outlined some of the methodologies used in Scotland. It has a block grant because it only has a devolved government and does not have the kind of fiscal independence we still have. Are there other jurisdictions where there is a more meaningful process? We have been talking about equality proofing for all of my time in this Dáil going back to the mid-1990s, yet there are so many issues.

Age Action Ireland appeared before the committee a few months ago. A number of us also raised issues relating to gender inequality, for example, the changes made to the PRSI stamps records in 2012. The Taoiseach and the Minister for Finance have resolutely refused to embark on any restoration. As Professor Alan Barrett of ESRI said, we changed the rules in the middle of the game. In particular, older women and the cohort of women from the 1950s and early 1960s were grossly discriminated against. In respect of the process the witnesses have evolved, are we talking about relentlessly coming forward with the kind of funding that would be necessary to make that restoration to help people might now be losing €30, €40 or €50 per week or more for the rest of their lives and who worked very hard for 25 or 30 years in the economy and who also worked very hard in the home? A similar example is the exclusion of women who do not have a recent stamps record from community employment and easy pathways back into the workforce. There are so many examples. For example, in the disability area, we have been looking for the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities to be passed, particularly with regard to assessments for children with disabilities where families are waiting for a long time. As part of the process, would we have definitive mechanisms where, for example, we could say that discrimination with regard to insurance for the older cohort of mostly female workers, although there are some men among it, would be phased out? Do other jurisdictions have these mechanisms?

Dr. Mary Murphy

The Deputy mentioned a meeting with a delegation from Scotland and asked whether there are other countries where best practice might be looked at. In respect of the event hosted by us and the Department, we drew particularly on Austria, Iceland and Andalusia in Spain as the three examples where it was felt that best practice in proofing was emerging. It is because they embed their proofing exercises in the budget process in the way we spoke about earlier. They use slightly different models to do it. Austria looks at some of the key priorities in each government department and gets each department to nominate five different priorities it wants to proof. Andalusia takes a whole-of-budget approach. These are just different ways of doing the same thing.

It would be seen that one of the advantages of these models is that they are quite well institutionally embedded in the budget process. They are difficult to move once they are in place and they are often buttressed by legislative requirements so that they stay there. They are independent of whichever government is in power at the time. They are seen to be quite useful from that perspective. All of them involve a marriage of the types of expertise that are available in the civil service to do budgets and the kind of expertise that is available from consultation with expert groups on the outside around gender, age and disability so that those type of issues - the very discrete issues mentioned by the Deputy - can be spotted early in a policy development stage and ironed out in terms of taking out anomalies that would have disadvantages for certain groups. Consultation in alignment with different types of expertise in the process is very important.

The human rights principles are quite useful there because they are clear that what is required is progressive realisation so it is not that one must attain all the standards in one go but one must be seen to be making reasonable progress towards them so that what is expected is realistic. The principle of retrogression also applies. This argues that if one reaches a certain stage of human rights standards, for example, in respect of pensions, one should not initiate policies that would retrogress those standards.

In the case Deputy Broughan gave, human rights standards suggest that having inadvertently discriminated against a particular group, in this case women, one should take steps to restore the standard of rights that group had previously. The human rights principles give a good, effective guidance for Government decisions in those areas, once the impact of the policies is known.

I do not have much to add. I agree with everything the IHREC representatives said. I thank them for coming in and for their continuing work and I also welcome the IHREC's statement on family hubs. They are right in saying that we cannot allow them to become some sort of permanent solution to the housing emergency, particularly following the report that we have the highest proportion of women in homelessness in Europe. That prompts a question. Where does scrutinising and proofing the budget proposals from an equality perspective begin and end in the context of wider policy? I refer to things that might not be in the budget itself but which have equality or inequality implications. This is one that must be looked at.

There is no doubt that in recent years women and children have suffered disproportionately from policy decisions in the area of housing, social housing and social housing supports. How does one navigate the line between politics proposals, where something needs to be addressed, and scrutinising what is being proposed by the Government in the budget or at budgetary committees? Recently, I have worked on another area of discrimination, namely, motor insurance premiums, which hit certain categories of people in particular. Discrimination is rampant against older and younger people, and other categories of driver. Could the witnesses comment on that?

We are just getting this budget scrutiny process up and running. We have had a shorter run-in this year and it will not be finished, with a comprehensive last word completed, for the forthcoming budget. There are practical constraints for the 2018 budget. Is it the case that the main task of the IHREC is to ensure that there would be an equality statement in the budget and that this issue would be brought to the attention of the line committees?

Mr. Laurence Bond

To answer the Deputy’s broader question of whether it was just about budget proofing, clearly it is not. That is what we are discussing specifically in this context, along with actioning the commitments in the programme for Government. For instance, there is the public sector duty commitment in the legislation which requires all public bodies, including Departments, to take account of equality and human rights and the impact they have, and the need to assess the impact of their policies on service users and others. We argue that there is a broader requirement for Departments and public bodies more generally to develop policy which takes account of equality and human rights. One way to bring that about is through budget proofing but that is not to the exclusion of taking other reviews into account.

On the issue of budget proofing, the model laid out in the budget scrutiny report last year was the idea that this oversight committee would have a broad oversight role, especially regarding how the process was being developed by some of the lead Departments, primarily Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform. Much of the finer scrutiny of how Departments address this issue would have to be through sectoral committees. As we outlined last year, rather than all responsibility for scrutiny lying on the Oireachtas, the onus should be on the Departments to carry out the proofing and it is then for the Oireachtas to scrutinise that to ensure they deliver. Departments themselves would have to come to committees and show where they had addressed the requirement to equality proof. Deputy Calleary made the point that people on the housing committee might not necessarily think of gender but that is something that needs to be addressed and taken into account when we consider policies. That is what budget proofing in equality and human rights means.

A key issue underpinning that is the role of the independent parliamentary budget office which has not progressed as quickly as it might have. We think it should be a key part of the institutional architecture into the future and we want to see it move ahead quickly. Among the things we want to see is a clear statement in the budget regarding the commitment for budget proofing in the programme for Government, and to ensure that it is meaningful. We recognise it is a long-term process but we need to see steps taken each year, which would be a sign that progress was being made on this commitment. If, prior to the budget, this committee and the line committees could take this into account in questioning their Departments, it would be an important part of the architecture. We feel the independent budget office must be brought about sooner rather than later.

For the information of the committee, the director of the parliamentary budget office has been appointed. Ms Annette Connolly has been appointed to the position and a press release was issued this morning. It is a positive development. I hope to meet her briefly tomorrow and the committee will meet her at the earliest opportunity. Mr. Bond is correct in how important it is for that office to be up and running. Did Dr. Murphy wish to come in again?

Dr. Mary Murphy

I have one final request. Last year, we made a suggestion that was based on the Scottish example where there is a budgetary advisory group. The idea was to assemble the key actors from the parliamentary and public service sides with oversight bodies such as ourselves, ESRI and NESC. That would have facilitated keeping the show on the road and major questions such as data, its availability and the role of oversight could happen in a way that there was strategic thinking propelling it. When the parliamentary budget office is up and running, one thing it could do would be to pull these key actors together, perhaps a couple of times a year, in order that a strategic understanding could evolve, based on their perspectives, on how this might run.

I have one final specific question. Does the IHREC have an opinion on pay equality and the pay inequality among public service workers and if this falls foul of the standard of equality one would expect in employment?

It is now illegal to pay people differently for doing the same job based on their sex, yet we have institutionalised inequality in having three different pay scales in the public sector. It is the legacy of the financial emergency legislation and austerity but if some might claim justification for this at one point, for two people to work side-by-side on different rates now is an equality issue. That discrimination is not based on sex, although it probably hits women workers worse. While it is not gender-based discrimination per se, it is an arbitrary form of discrimination based on when a person happened to commence employment.

However, it is an arbitrary form of discrimination. Based on when a person happened to commence employment, that person will be on a different payscale for the rest of her life. With all the talk of pay restoration, there is still no commitment to eliminate that pay discrimination. Is that covered by equality legislation?

Ms Emily Logan

I respectfully ask that we might come back to the committee on that. We were expecting to look at other matters.

I am unsure whether that is in your remit, but it is a valid question. Obviously, I have my own views on the FEMPI legislation. Deputy Lahart, I am conscious that you have not said anything.

No, that is fine.

My next question is for any of our witnesses. Do you intend to do a post-budget review in terms of equality matters? It would help this committee in terms of the budget for 2019.

Ms Emily Logan

We have not yet done that, largely because this is only our second year of operation. It is more a question of internal capacity on our side in respect of why we have not done it. Obviously, there is an appetite within the commission to do it, but we have not yet done it. I do not want to over-promise.

I appreciate that. I think it would be helpful for us to see what targets were met in the commission's perspective in respect of looking at budget 2019. That is my view anyway.

Dr. Mary Murphy

Our preference is to encourage Government to do that proofing - that is the essence of it. However, we recognise there is an interim stage in all of this and that sometimes other actors may need to do it until it becomes a more consolidated part of the budget process.

Are there any further questions?

Mr. Laurence Bond

I will add a little information on the budget advisory group model that Dr. Murphy referred to. There is a model in the Scottish jurisdiction. A special issue of Administration is coming out in August. It will contain a specific article outlining what that experience has been. That might be of assistance to Deputies.

I appreciate that, Mr. Bond, and thank you for coming in. Thank you, Ms Logan and Dr. Murphy, on behalf of the committee.

That was short and sweet.

Ms Emily Logan

We are conscious that the summer economic statement debate is under way.

Sitting suspended at 2.55 p.m. and resumed at 3.05 p.m.