I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
This is a simple Bill with a simple purpose. It has but one substantive provision which is to repeal the scheme — commonly known as the "reinstatement scheme"— whereby certain women were allowed to return to positions in the Civil Service without having to compete formally at Civil Service Commission open competitions.
The scheme owes its origins to the Civil Service Regulation Act, 1956, which provided that women, who were then compelled to retire on marriage, could be reinstated upon being widowed. Indeed, from our present perspective, it seems scarcely credible that a mere generation ago, women were obliged to resign from the Civil Service on marriage. It is hard to accept today that in 1932 the Brennan Commission reported that:
If a woman recruited to the post married after eight or ten years' service, the main purpose for which she had been employed entirely fails, and she has, moreover, during that time been blocking the way of a man who could give good value for the service in question.
Under the 1973 Civil Service (Employment of Married Women) Act, the restriction on married women remaining in the Civil Service was abolished and the conditions under which married women could be reinstated were broadened. From that time onwards, any woman who retired from the Civil Service for the purpose of getting married and who became a widow, or did not get married, or could establish to the satisfaction of the Minister for Finance that she was not being supported by her husband, could be reinstated to the Civil Service. In that context, the 1973 legislation could be said to represent the first major initiative to improve the lot of women in the Irish Civil Service.
Policy and guidelines on equal opportunities for the Civil Service were drawn up and published in 1986. They provide the basic principles on which the ongoing development of gender equality policy is based.
Last year saw only the second woman in the history of the State rise to the rank of departmental Secretary when Ms Margaret Hayes was appointed Secretary of the Department of Tourism and Trade in September. If we look at the proportions of women in each of the main middle and senior management grades we find that the picture is a good deal more healthy than it was in 1972 just before the marriage bar was lifted. At higher executive officer level, some 38 per cent of the grade is now composed of women — the corresponding figure in 1972 was 12.4 per cent; women Assistant Principals now represent 24 per cent of the total — in 1972 they were a mere 4 per cent; 13 per cent of all Principals are now women compared with 0.5 per cent in 1972. The percentage of women Assistant Secretaries is now 5 per cent, whereas, in 1972, women in the combined grades of Assistant Secretary, Deputy Secretary and Secretary constituted less than 1 per cent. Women are still under-represented at management levels in the Civil Service but progress is continually being recorded.
This progress while steady is somewhat slower than I would like it to be. It is assumed that the effects of the marriage bar are still a factor influencing the representation of women at the highest levels in that it usually takes considerable time to progress to the top of the administrative pyramid; but Margaret Hayes entered after 1973 — she has reached the top — so why are there not many more? It cannot be the marriage bar.
A further factor influencing the number of women in high ranking positions is the lower participation rate of women in promotion competitions. This is a disturbing fact and one which is being examined. Clearly everything is being done to ensure that even the slightest suspicion of bias is removed from Civil Service selection procedures. It is now policy that every effort be made to try to have at least one women member on each interview board, whether for recruitment or promotion.
Members of boards are briefed on Civil Service equality policy and are given written guidelines setting out the implications of that policy for the conduct of interviews.
The general pattern emerging from an anaylsis of statistics gives no indication of gender bias in either recruitment or promotion competitions.
The current representation of women is, perhaps, nothing to crow about, but the figures do represent substantial change in the right direction.
To a significant degree, they are also the fruits of the various Civil Service initiatives intended to help staff to combine work and family responsibilities. Career breaks, job-sharing schemes and flexi-time have all been available for a number of years and are widely availed of. A créche for the children of civil servants opened in 1992 and is operating to full capacity. Plans are well advanced for a second créche.
I am pleased to note that the policy statement on the programme of change for the Civil Service, entitled Delivering Better Government, which is to be launched this Thursday, confronts head-on the issues surrounding the under-representation of women in the upper echelons of the Civil Service and considers the means whereby this imbalance can be overcome.
The signs are promising but there is no reason to be complacent. There is still considerable progress to be made. In order to address the topic of equality in a meaningful way, it needs to be looked at in the context of the general climate of change within the Civil Service. This is centred around the Strategic Management Initiative — or the SMI as it is more commonly known.
Where is this climate of change leading? We are seeking to develop a process which will place a constant focus on what we should be doing and on likely future developments, thus enabling a more effective and informed response to be made, both to today's needs and to the likely challenges facing us in the future. I am convinced that meaningful gender equality policies serve to enhance this process.
Experience has shown that the promotion of equality policies yields a number of tangible benefits to the organisation concerned. It increases productivity by improving the use of staff resources, results in higher levels of job satisfaction and enhanced morale, helps to retain the best people by taking their needs into account, and contributes to a working environment in which higher standards of quality and customer service can take root. In short, equality for all staff is a key element in achieving a high-performance, flexible Civil Service — the type of Civil Service which we intend to develop under the strategic management process.
I would regard the effects of the reinstatement scheme as having been beneficial. Since 1980 some 400 women, who had left the system on marriage and who met the criteria, were deemed eligible for reinstatement. For most of the women in this category returning to the workplace was an economic necessity and we should celebrate the fact that the State provided a vehicle by which they could do this for many years. A major attraction of the reinstatement scheme, compared with re-employment through open competition, was that people could resume in the same grade and at the same salary point as they had reached at the time they resigned.
Why are we now seeking to repeal this scheme? The reinstatement provisions were challenged in autumn 1990, under the Employment Equality Act, 1977, by a former official of the Revenue Commissioners who had been required to resign her position on marriage prior to 1973. She applied for reinstatement, but accepted that she did not meet the requirements in that she was married and was being supported by her husband.
She alleged that she was discriminated against on grounds of marital status in that Revenue sought details of her financial circumstances which would not be required of a widow. The Labour Court found that the entire scheme was discriminatory and contrary to the principle of equal treatment in that access to reinstatement was denied to all men and to certain women. The court also found that the Minister for Finance should introduce legislation to repeal the provisions of the scheme.
Subsequently, the Attorney General's office advised that the reinstatement provisions were in breach of the EU Equal Treatment Directive and that we were obliged, under the terms of the directive, to repeal the scheme. The then Minister, Deputy Bertie Ahern, considered that he had no option but to suspend the scheme pending the enactment of the necessary legislation. When it was learned that the woman who had taken the case had referred the Labour Court determination to the High Court, it was considered that further action on the Bill should be halted pending resolution of the challenge. The High Court case has been struck out by consent and it is now possible to proceed with the necessary legislation.
I must confess to having some reservations as I stand before the House today to speak in support of this Bill. Those who check the Dáil Official Report for the time when the 1973 Act was going through will find that there was universal support for its provisions. These provisions were seen at the time, in the words of Richie Ryan, as "a further indication of the Government's commitment to end all discrimination against women and of the Government's concern for the less fortunate members of our society". While the most important provision — that which ended the ban on married women remaining in the Civil Service — remains unaffected by the current Bill, I consider it regrettable that the reinstatement provisions for those who were obliged to leave the Civil Service on marriage have now to go — but go they must.
The concept of gender equality, which was only in its infancy when the 1973 Act was passed, has developed since then, both here and in Europe, and we are now at the stage where it is seen in a much broader context — it is no longer simply an issue of equal rights for women but of equal rights for all regardless of gender. The effects of this more comprehensive approach can sometimes be surprising and even, as in the present case, occasionally somewhat disturbing. Equality can sometimes be a double edged sword.
Many will, I know, share my particular sympathy with the women who were obliged to leave the Civil Service before 1973 on marriage and who will no longer have a right to reinstatement should their domestic circumstances so indicate.
In the last 12 months alone three such cases have come to my notice in my constituency. I am sure other Deputies, too, have had representations on this matter. However, I am afraid that we are caught between a rock and a hard place and the only course of action open to us is to repeal the scheme. If I may quote from the determination of the Labour Court in the case I mentioned earlier:
The Court is satisfied that the whole scheme for the reinstatement of some women in the civil service is discriminatory and contrary to the principle of equal treatment, and that the proper solution is to recommend the repeal of Section 11 of the 1956 Act as amended by Section 4 of the 1973 Act.
The court went on to say that:
All recruitment to the service should be by open competition through the Civil Service Commission, including the re-recruitment of former civil servants who resigned for whatever reason. I can assure Members that the Government investigated all available options which might have mitigated the effects of the repeal to some degree at least.
Consideration was given to such ideas as: instituting a new reinstatement scheme which would apply solely to those women who were compelled to resign before 1973; the possibility of having a scheme which would be open to all former civil servants, regardless of gender, who were deemed to be "hardship" cases; and the possibility of having special panels in some of the Civil Service recruitment competitions which would be confined to women who left on grounds of marriage. All such approaches had to be rejected on the same grounds: they each ran a significant risk of being found to be in conflict with the EU Equal Treatment Directive which precludes discrimination based on gender or marital status whether such discrimination is direct or indirect. In effect any targeted scheme had to be ruled out of bounds.
Although conscious of the necessity not to take any action which would replace one form of discrimination with another, the Government is anxious to take whatever meaningful steps are open to it to facilitate those women who left the Civil Service on marriage and now wish to return.
Accordingly, we have decided that the next two series of clerical assistant and executive officer competitions will include special sub-panels which will be composed solely of former civil servants — regardless of gender or marital status. The House will readily see that while this approach is, of necessity, not focused on women it represents the only measure of relief open to the Government to cater for those who might have wished to be reinstated had the scheme remained on the Statute Book.
It will also be open to all former civil servants to apply for all competitions in the normal way. Indeed, many women who left the Civil Service on grounds of marriage have re-entered the system through this means. The extension of the upper age limit to 50 for most Civil Service recruitment competitions has enabled many more women in this category to re-enter the system.
The necessity for this legislation will, I am sure, be recognised, if not necessarily welcomed, by Members on all sides of the House.
I commend the Bill to the House.