I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important Bill. While I regret the long delays in bringing it forward, it is appropriate that we are debating these provisions in parallel with preparations for the 22 May referendum on the Good Friday Agreement.
The commitment to human rights and the development of a legislative framework which upholds such rights is spelt out clearly in the Agreement. Enhanced employment equality and new equal status legislation are just two of the pillars we in the south are committed to building. I trust that with this legislation enacted we can move on quickly to the Equal Status Bill. It is of particular importance that the human rights commission promised in the Agreement should be established as soon as possible. There would seem to be no reason to delay such a development.
The strong commitment to equality of opportunity in the Agreement has many dimensions. Placing such rights in the context of an overall commitment to human rights reinforces the importance and centrality of these issues. As someone who has long campaigned for women's rights in this context, I welcome the explicit inclusion of a reference to women in the Agreement, to the gender dimension of equality rights and our right to full and equal political participation.
The legislation we debate today is just one step in copperfastening women's rights and widening the circle of those whose rights must be protected. However, the goal of women's equality is still to be achieved and in creating a more inclusive and fair society on this island, it is essential not to lose sight of this or allow women's equality to be pushed into second place. There is no hierarchy of equality. All the human rights dimensions have equal importance and the participation of women is a vital ingredient in the development of our economic, political, social and cultural growth.
The pace of progress of this legislation has been tortuous. It is vital, long overdue but essential legislation. I spoke to a young woman yesterday who had looked at the legislation. She was surprised that it was not already on the Statute Book.
As we approach the new millennium, one can readily understand why a young woman would be surprised this legislation is not already on the Statute Book. Our knowledge of the need for change in this area goes back to the time when the current Taoiseach was Minister for Labour. It is disappointing it took so long to deepen the legal framework and extend protection in this area. I acknowledge, however, the work of the current Minister, the Minister of State and the staff in the Department who have had to deal with the difficulties of the Supreme Court judgment. The legislation has come back to the House quickly. Many Ministers from both sides of the House have engaged in the long process of widening the powers and broadening the scope, but there has been a failure to do so speedily. When necessary, urgent legislation has been enacted within months, if not weeks. Why did it take so long to introduce legislation guaranteeing equal treatment to citizens? Why did it face so many barriers? What does that tell us about the House's priorities and about attitudes to the protection of human rights? I raise those questions in the context of the Agreement on Northern Ireland. That thinking underpins a great deal of that Agreement. We should not be complacent about the pace of progress we need to make if we are to underpin the thinking, principles and philosophy in that Agreement in all our legislation. We do not accord this fundamental principle the priority it deserves. I hope this is the last time important rights that need to be copperfastened remain unprotected for so long.
The environment in which this legislation is designed to operate is very different from that which prevailed when the original 1977 law was enacted. At that time women were the exception in many areas of the workforce. Thousands ceased to remain in paid employment when they had a child and a great many fewer had the benefits of complete second and third level education. Today girls have totally different expectations of life and careers. Many more wish to combine motherhood and paid employment, taking time out for full-time child care for short periods. The mushrooming of adult and second-chance education means that more women are able to take up education and gain new skills. The underfunded but welcome NOW programme and other EU equality initiatives have opened up more opportunities for women. In a generation the woman's place has become women's places and while progress is far from evenly benefiting all women, our experiences today are generally very different from those of our mothers.
The rest of society has not kept pace with this change. We want to confirm the concept of equal rights in the workplace for women, but we still fail to provide child care, family friendly working environments, appropriate parental leave and a range of other necessary practical supports. If we want women to enjoy equal rights we must recognise that they will exercise them in a way that is relevant to their life experiences. For many an essential part of that life experience is motherhood and it should be possible to combine participation in the paid workforce with this essential role without the stress or pressure created by an unwieldy and rigid system which assumes a clear divide between the public and the private. While extending the law and enacting the equal status Bill — when it eventually re-emerges — is fundamental in this regard, practical changes, which match the legislative aspirations with reality, are also fundamental.
The social partnership shares joint responsibility in making these changes. I expect the Government to take a lead in influencing change, in developing policies and incentives and in ensuring that, as an employer, it is committed to delivering on the rights it enshrines in law. With only a short time until the negotiations on the successor to Partnership 2000, I expect that opportunity will be used to demonstrate a national commitment to equality between women and men and among all citizens. I have already emphasised the importance of enshrining the protection of human rights in legislation. I hope, as agreed under the peace Agreement, the Taoiseach will publish a timetable for the enactment of legislation in this area. The UN torture convention, the race convention and Protocol 7 of the European Convention need to be addressed urgently. This legislation should form part of a package.
It is striking to note the Bill moved through the former Departments of Labour and Equality and Law Reform and the current Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. The range of work done by the Department of Equality and Law Reform was impressive. In contrast we should review how equality rights have been protected and developed in the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. While I do not mean that in a negative sense, we must assess whether the mainstreaming of equality rights is working effectively as opposed to when the matter was dealt with by a separate Department. Documentation in that regard should be published.
The Bill has been referred to the Supreme Court and trawled for constitutional problems. It has done a through job, with some surprising recommendations in a number of areas. Under the referral procedure, even though a Bill might be 95 per cent perfect it has to be dealt with again from the beginning. In contrast, if a Bill is found to be constitutional it cannot be challenged again. Is that the best mechanism or should the Constitution Review Group examine the matter to determine if there is a better way to deal with the issue?
It is interesting to note that property rights have been found to have greater authority in our Constitution than individual human rights. As we move towards the new millennium perhaps it is time to move from the protection of land to the protection of people in our Constitution. This is particularly relevant when one considers the disability provisions in this Bill, the tone of the Supreme Court judgment and the matrimonial homes Bill. When the Constitution was drafted it reflected a culture that emphasised the importance of the protection of property above everything else.
The Bill provides for a wider constituency. It has taken us many years to recognise that discrimination cannot be tolerated where the lives, livelihoods and potential of one group of people are sacrificed or diminished while others are enhanced. There is nothing natural in a civilised society about excluding large numbers of people from all sorts of opportunities. To continue to allow discrimination would make a clear statement of intent; privileges are to be accorded simply because a person is, for example, male, white, able bodied heterosexual and settled. That statement sounds ridiculous, but it reflects reality for many. The experience for many women, travellers, people with disabilities, people who are gay or lesbian or refugees is the converse.
Some of the discrimination is blatant and direct and much of the rest is subtle and difficult to expose. The legislation will at last provide a foundation for case law to be developed. Case law is essential. The courts will be able to give meaning to our objectives and to ensure that people who have a case of discrimination will be able to exercise their rights.
We are struggling to come to terms with living in a diverse society, leaving aside the social imperatives of conformity which were so intense at late as the 1960s. What underlies the prejudices experienced by travellers, refugees seeking asylum, people who are gay or lesbian or by someone with a disability is our fear of difference, and this is frequently rationalised. Prejudice against travellers is often highlighted as a concern about crime, as if all travellers were criminals. Prejudice against people of colour is often highlighted as a concern about their being illegal immigrants milking the system. Prejudice against people with a different sexual orientation is often highlighted as concern about the possibility of child abuse and prejudice against people with disabilities is often highlighted as concern about their not being able to cope. Those prejudices lead to discrimination and this law will help to expose it.