I welcome this wide-ranging legislation which provides protection to many people who have suffered years of discrimination. Much of the discrimination has been experienced at a personal level, has caused great suffering and has had enormous consequences for those involved personally, financially and socially. It is important that our law sets out clear standards and sends direct messages about our attitude to discrimination. However, enshrining legislation in law is only a first step. It is important that we have the necessary resources to ensure this legislation becomes reality.
This legislation is also about changing attitudes. If we are to ensure that we have a society in which people can reach their full potential, irrespective of sex, marital status, family status, sexual orientation, religion, age, disability, race or membership of the travelling community, much more work has to be done.
This Bill is a step in the right direction but it must be publicised and fully explained. I notice that in its submission the free legal advice centre in Coolock referred to the complexity of the language and the need to move to more simple language in our legislation generally. In the absence of that, we must embark on a good public information campaign and I ask the Minister to respond to that suggestion. The provisions of the Bill should be widely publicised and the necessary resources must be given to groups which can best run that public information campaign.
Likewise, an expanded equality authority will be unable to do its job without a serious assessment of the necessary resources. I am speaking of both additional staff and an additional budget. If we are to be vigorous in promoting the objectives of the Bill, we must examine the issue of resources which has been a problem in this area. We are coming from a rather low base in trying to provide funding to tackle equality issues. Sometimes we think fairly small increases stretch further than they do, and it is easy to underestimate what is needed.
This Bill also looks at issues of racism. One could not address this Bill without expressing unease about the numbers of asylum seekers awaiting interviews. We have 5,000 people who have been waiting a long time — hardly any interviews have been held since December. If we want to ensure these people are not subject to discrimination and attack, as they have been, the very least we can do is deal speedily with their unique situation when they come into this country. We need an information campaign. The lack of a proactive approach by the Government in highlighting the needs of asylum seekers has been striking. When we think about how Irish emigrants were welcomed in other countries over the years, we need to pay something back. Of the world's 15 million refugees Europe receives only about 5 per cent compared to 90 per cent hosted by developing countries. Sometimes we see this problem totally out of perspective, and we have recently seen a series of very racist headlines.
One of the key issues is the level of protection from discrimination for those who are disabled. The Minister is obviously trying to walk a line between staying within what the Supreme Court judgment says and protecting the disabled. There is need for a higher level of protection than that provided for in the Bill. I hope that before the end of the debate the Minister of State will have got the legal advice that will enable her to go further with this provision. There is no need to wait for a disabilities Bill. We could be a little bit more courageous in this one. The protection is too restricted — there is less protection for the disabled here than for the other eight categories and we should try to remedy that now. I am interested to hear what the Minister has to say about this.
Huge numbers of people with disabilities are capable of working as effectively as non-disabled people but require small infrastructural adjustments such as ramps and special computer equipment. It could easily be argued that the cost of implementation is more than nominal. If we accept the Bill as currently drafted we are talking about nominal or token protection, and that is not enough. The Minister has submissions from a very wide variety of groups, from the Irish Council for People with Disabilities and many others. It is stated that the Bill could establish a hierarchy of people with various disabilities and that the replacement of reasonable accommodation at nominal cost could prove to be an open licence for employers to discriminate against people with disability, and there is a scandalous level of unemployment among people with disabilities.
The Bill does not define "nominal cost". It is a concept that is very vague and potentially very limiting. It is quite worrying that we have not addressed it in more detail. At what threshold, for example, does a cost become other than nominal? Employers should not be allowed the benefit of the let-out unless they first ascertain what is reasonably available from the State. The nominal cost could be computed taking into account what is available from the State on the facts of any given case. There are some worries about section 35 in relation to subsidy from the State. Perhaps the Minister would look at that too.
This Bill includes people with disabilities in equality legislation for the first time, and that is welcome. However, we should not sell them short. It is necessary for the Minister of State to obtain legal advice to see if she can go further than she has while taking account of the Supreme Court judgment. We are out of step with best international practice, and there is no reason we should be so. I hope the Minister will introduce an amendment on this before the Bill is passed.
Section 19 provides for equal pay. However, the whole question of access to work is still problematic for many women, given our live register requirements. This is an issue that must be addressed in the context of equal pay. Women still tend to predominate in certain sectors, often less well paid and without proper opportunities for training or upward progression. Women are concentrated mainly in three sectors, services, clerical and a narrow range of professions. Women also predominate in low paid areas and as atypical employees. We have to talk about women not as a whole group but in the context of issues relevant to different sectors. The question of child care, which I have already addressed, has to be taken on board if equal pay is to become a reality. We really must wake up to providing high quality, accessible and affordable child care. This must be seen as a positive enhancement in the lives of children and parents and not as an optional extra. Parental leave must be introduced, and flexibility in the workplace for carers of children and the elderly.
This Bill also deals with sexual harassment. There is some very disturbing research which the Employment Equality Agency has done in relation to sexual harassment. Recent research showed, for example, that 18 per cent of women and 2 per cent of men in a large unionised organisation had experienced sexual harassment during their career, 60 per cent of which had occurred in the previous 18 months. A staggering 79 per cent of people who witness the harassment choose not to get involved. We all know that from our own experience. It is clear that physical harassment is not now tolerated by employees, with rare exceptions, but it is clear that supports are lacking to help people raise grievances concerning the more subtle forms of harassment, and I welcome the definition in section 23. An information programme is necessary on this question because, as the research I have quoted clearly illustrates, there is a problem in relation to this issue in the workplace. Section 23 does not deal with same sex harassment. This is something the Minister should look at. There is no reason whatsoever to exclude this from the definitions in the Bill.
Another disturbing issue is that there is an increasing number of calls to the Employment Equality Agency concerning the failure to accommodate pregnancy at work. This is very worrying and points to the fact that we have to work incredibly hard on attitudes. I have heard from a number of women recently of subtle and not so subtle forms of discrimination against them if they are pregnant. It shows that old attitudes die hard and that we need to be vigilant. If we are serious about combining work and family life, if we are serious about gender equity, this is a very big issue. One would have hoped attitudes had gone beyond this but sadly they have not. However, I welcome the huge efforts being made by many employers and social partners to deal with the question of harassment and promote gender equality in a variety of ways. Much can be learned from the gender experience by those other groups who are now covered under this Bill and protected from discrimination.
What we are discussing here is intimately linked with equal opportunities in education. Obviously we need an ongoing programme in equal opportunities in education. The more one examines this Bill, the more one recognises that it requires actions by a very wide range of Departments and by a wide range of social partners for it to be effective.
I welcome the support for positive action under sections 39 and 63. This positive approach, as outlined in the equality review and action plan section, is excellent. It is the way forward. I hope it means that many businesses will be supported and encouraged in carrying out equality reviews. It is in very sharp contrast to section 88. I would like some more information on that section. It allows for research and inspection. I do not think this is the way we really want to go in terms of equality legislation, but perhaps there is some reason this is included. This seems to be very strong legislation. I do not know whether it is a separate new power we are taking on, but I would like to hear from the Minister before Committee Stage what exactly is envisaged here and why it is felt necessary to put in such strong powers.
I also note the special provisions for the Defence Forces in a number of sections. I question the exclusion of the Defence Forces from the mechanisms which other people can use. Obviously the Defence Forces are changing dramatically and the question of the individual human rights of members of the Defence Forces is something we ought to consider rather than going for blanket exclusions. Why not give rights of redress to members of the Defence Forces? There are also some exclusions in relation to the Defence Forces which I do not think necessary.
I know the intent of section 16(4) is to provide protection for children. However, I suggest that if one wishes to screen out unsafe staff, a range of good work practices in the workplace must be developed. Some rewording of the section may be necessary to ensure it does not unfairly lead to discrimination against individuals. This is obviously a very delicate area as it is necessary to be careful in screening out unsuitable staff. References must be obtained and good practices must be in place. The phrase "reliable information" is too broad and could lead to unjustified discrimination. Some minor changes in wording would give the protection sought for children in the employment of staff while, at the same time, not being unduly discriminatory towards certain people. This area must be examined.
There was a great deal of discussion about section 37(1) before the Bill was referred to the Supreme Court. It is obviously not a complete and total code on dismissals. There are worries that it could be used inappropriately and unreasonably to discriminate against teachers. It could be unfairly and arbitrarily decided that their behaviour is against the ethos of the institution. It could also be argued that this section builds in a procedure whereby unfair recruitment can be challenged. I am uncertain in my attitude to it as currently framed. One question I would raise is whether sexual orientation can be used as a ground not to employ someone under this section. I am unclear on that and I would like it clarified, if possible.
Section 37(6) defines disability and impairment very widely; it is very inclusive and wide-ranging. It is very wide-ranging in terms of the number of persons employed who would be excluded under the provisions. The exclusion may be disproportionate to the intended aims of treating people equally without regard to the various grounds of difference. Section 37 states that persons can be excluded from employment in a service on the grounds of slight disability or perceptible impairments. I do not believe those would interfere with their capacity to carry out a job. That section could be changed slightly and would be less discriminatory for that.
The form of redress outlined in the Bill is a very complex mechanism. Depending on the grounds upon which a case is taken, whether they are general grounds, dismissal, gender or discrimination by the Civil Service, different fora must be appealed to. It is necessary to go to the director of equality investigations, the Labour Court, the Circuit Court or a number of others. It is very complex and I am unsure how easy it is to solve this issue, but I ask that it be addressed. The issue of legal aid being unavailable in employment cases needs consideration. We assume the unions and the Employment Equality Agency will tackle this but perhaps we ought to extend legal aid to cover these cases.
This is welcome legislation. It is timely as we enter the new millennium that we enshrine in legislation protection to ensure people are not discriminated against. However, it does need back-up resources and information campaigns to ensure the provisions are widely known and implemented.