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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 5 Jul 2001

Vol. 540 No. 3

Human Rights Commission (Amendment) Bill, 2001: Committee Stage. SECTION 1.

The amendment in the name of Deputy Frances Fitzgerald has been ruled out of order because it involves a potential charge on the Revenue.

Amendment No. 1 not moved.
Question proposed: "That section 1 stand part of the Bill."

My amendment to this section was not accepted. I quoted from the Paris Principles earlier about an independent selection committee. Will the Minister comment on this? The Bill could have put an independent selection committee on a statutory footing and expanded this mechanism to deal with the appointment of commission president and to deal with casual vacancies which would occur during the term of office of a commission. That was my proposal but it has been deemed to incur a charge. The idea would be to continue with the original selection process, that there would be an independent committee which would make a recommendation to a Minister. That was my thinking behind it and I would like to hear the Minister's views. In the event of vacancies arising now or in the re-appointment of the commission at a later stage, how would the Minister envisage that it would happen? Could a future Government set up an ad hoc committee as the Minister did, to make recommendations, as opposed to putting it on a statutory footing which is clearly not now envisaged in the Bill.

The gender equity provisions in section 1 are welcome. I wonder if this is indicative of an approach which will be further developed in all legislation where it is relevant. It may be relevant where boards are being appointed. This type of equity provision could be built in for the representation of women. It exists in the RTE Authority Bill because I put forward an amendment to that some years ago which the Minister at the time, Deputy Michael D. Higgins, accepted. I am aware that the Minister is examining the representation of women on boards following the statistics that have been recently published and that he will make recommendations to Government. Is this an indication that there may be some statutory footing planned for dealing with those issues, because there has been poor representation of women on boards.

One of the most important challenges we face in terms of human rights legislation is that we recognise and try to understand the point of view and approaches adopted by others. These may not necessarily be approaches and views that we might agree with. We must recognise that in all spheres of human existence there are differences of opinion. Opinions must be respected, irrespective of one's own opinion. This is particularly true on an issue as fundamental as human rights. It was against that background that I proposed to Government that we would set up a selection committee which would become engaged in the process of selection for members of the Human Rights Commission. The selection committee put forward names and the rest is history. It is a process which was admired internationally. The whole process was regarded as quite innovative and was seen to be at arm's length from Government.

I take pride in the way the system operated. I honestly believe that even though we had subsequent additions and contributions by Government, the commission is certainly reflective of the broad spectrum of our society. Whether one would place that on a statutory footing is another matter. Deputies will appreciate that this is a matter which would require very deep consideration. I do not believe any Government irrespective of its nature, would wish to abrogate entirely its obligations in this area, the requirements of section 5, subsection (12) of the Human Rights Commission Act, 2000, which places the onus solely on the Government to ensure that the membership of the commission reflects the nature of Irish society in all its forms. In this connection I point out that the 1998 Northern Ireland Act and the provisions relating to the establishment of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, put similar emphasis on the need to take account of the community balance in that jurisdiction . It is a matter on which the Human Rights Commission may have a view. The Act of 2000 clearly places an onus on the commission to report within a two year period. The commission's report will have been prepared with the benefit of hindsight and the practical experience of the commission during that critical initial period.

It would be more prudent for us to await the substantive proposals of the commission before deciding whether the independent selection committee should be placed on a statutory footing. It may well be the way forward because I have always said the Human Rights Commission is not meant to be a limb of government. It is there to interface between the public and the Government. That is the objective of the exercise. Clearly when a commission such as this is being set up, it is difficult when it is the Government which is setting up the mechanism for the appointments to ensure that one is entirely unbiased in that respect. I honestly believe that we have probably achieved that. Deputy Fitzgerald mentions the question of gender balance. The legislation specifically provides for an equal balance in terms of gender. That was a proposal which was put forward by Deputy Howlin which I accepted in the spirit of the co-operation which we are trying to adopt in our approach to human rights in the jurisdiction and to ensure that everybody in society feels that they are included, that this is an inclusive process. As to whether that would move on to other areas of activity in terms of State boards, I do not know. I certainly wish to see a greater degree of involvement of women on boards. In terms of the fundamental issues of human rights, the fact that we have a clear statutory gender balance will contribute enormously to the inclusiveness which I am trying to ensure we attain.

I welcome the Minister's contribution. This could be something on which the Human Rights Commission would wish to address and report. The fact that we have discussed it today in the House makes it more likely that it will happen and that the Human Rights Commission may return with a view on this issue. It is important that the lessons are learned and if there are proposals for a statutory basis from the Human Rights Commission that we would have an opportunity to consider that again when the review comes in. Even though I cannot formally move the motion, I think that is the way forward. I hope the gender equity principle enshrined here will be considered by the Government in other legislation. I was not aware that it was Deputy Howlin who had moved it and I pay tribute to him for doing that. It was when Deputy Michael D. Higgins was Minister that he accepted an amendment of mine which included it in the legislation for the RTE Authority. It is good to see it but I do not think it has been used too often in between times.

Question put and agreed to.
Section 2 agreed to.
Title agreed to.
Bill reported without amendments, received for final consideration and passed.