Equality Bill 2004 [Seanad]: Second Stage (Resumed).

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

Strand 3 of the Good Friday Agreement contains important provisions which, if fully implemented, would enhance equality and human rights protections right across the island, to the benefit of all. The Agreement specifically commits the Government to increase equality and human rights protections in the State, to make them at least equivalent to those available in the Six Counties. It was intended as a baseline, not as a ceiling. Now the Government, led by the Minister with responsibility for injustice and inequality, is seeking not to enhance these protections won for all the people of this island in the Good Friday Agreement, but instead to roll back what was gained in pursuit of his personal war on a rights-based society, his war on immigration, and his war on the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process itself.

The Government is no friend of equality, as proven by its record in office. It had to withdraw the Disability Bill 2002 after mass protests against it specifically because it was not a rights-based Bill. However, the draft replacement Bill looks even worse than the first one. The Government has criminalised Travellers without access to halting sites as a result of its and local authorities' failure to deliver on accommodation plans. The Minister's first order of business was to criminalise immigrants through random arrests in the pre-dawn raids of Operation Hyphen, which netted many who were perfectly legal.

The Government's failure to adequately fund the Human Rights Commission means that six years after the Agreement it is still not fully operational, and the Minister has further undermined the commission by ignoring its recommendations and refusing to consult it on a number of items of legislation, including the draconian Immigration Acts 2003 and 2004. He has legislated to allow publicans a licence to discriminate and limited the jurisdiction of the Equality Tribunal in the Intoxicating Liquor Act 2003.

The Government's Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2004 legislated to reverse an Equality Tribunal decision by allowing discrimination against lesbian and gay couples in their entitlement to social welfare benefits. The Minister has failed to take strong action against attempts by publicans to introduce a blanket ban on Travellers and has failed to reprimand Members and public representatives for racist comments. He has publicly stated his own prejudice against asylum seekers. He is now trying to ethnically cleanse our citizenship laws and Constitution.

Notwithstanding stated Government policy, the Minister has refused to incorporate into law gender-based affirmative action targets. He has also repeatedly expressed contempt for the equality and human rights sector, and said that we must choose between our rights and low taxes. The Government, particularly the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, has proven it is nothing less than the biggest threat to equality in this State.

It is not simply a matter of protecting what we have gained under the Good Friday Agreement, we must enhance protections. Our equality legislation must be significantly enhanced. It lags behind the EU standard as well as the standard set in the Six Counties. For example, statutory duty provisions at least equivalent to those outlined in section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 are required to bring us properly into line with Good Friday Agreement commitments. Sinn Féin agrees with the Equality Authority that the nine grounds of protection from discrimination must be expanded to include equality regardless of socio-economic status, political opinion, trade union membership or past criminal conviction. The race directive, the framework employment directive and the gender equal treatment directive represent the best of what the EU has to offer the people of this island. They provide a baseline of rights protection which should be available to all persons who find themselves in a European Union country.

Throughout 2003, I called for the transposition into domestic law of these directives to enhance the protections from discrimination available to people in the State. I hoped that process would pick up where the Good Friday Agreement left off. Like the Government which introduced it, the Bill before us is a profound disappointment. Like the Minister himself, it does a disservice to the Good Friday Agreement and everyone in the State who voted for it. The first problem is that the Minister failed to consult the sectors representing people whose rights will be most affected by this legislation. He ignored most of the recommendations of the Equality Authority on the proper transposition of the directives I mentioned. The Minister did not even seek the opinion of the Human Rights Commission, which I am glad to discover is planning a submission to him on its own initiative. Let us hope he does not ignore that as he has ignored so many of the commission's past submissions.

The result of the Minister's failure to consult is the poor Bill before the House today. The Minister got the process wrong and the House must now get it right. The legislation must not be rushed through on the Minister's whim. Adequate time is required for committee hearings involving representatives from the human rights sector. These representatives should include the Human Rights Commission, the Equality Authority, the National Consultative Committee on Racism and Interculturalism the National Disability Authority and the non-governmental organisations represented on the newly-formed equality coalition which made a submission to the Minister on this Bill. As much time is needed for adequate Committee Stage debate as has been afforded to consideration of the equally important Education for Persons with Disabilities Bill to permit Members to thrash out properly the changes required to ensure we enact the best possible legislation. We will also need adequate time for a proper Report Stage to allow us to reach and properly debate all proposed amendments.

There are major problems with the content of this Bill. It fails fully to transpose EU equality directives into law. The Bill is as much about the dilution of rights as their protection. It violates the principle of non-regression of rights protections specified under all three directives. Its provisions on sanctions and remedies do not comply with either the directives or European Court of Justice standards. It excludes conveniently actions or failures of the State which is contrary to Article 3.1 of the race directive. The legislation makes no provision for the abolition of discriminatory practices or laws as required by Article 14 of the same directive. In fact, section 47 rolls back actively an Equality Tribunal decision on discrimination in education, proposing instead to permit discrimination by changing the law. It also legislates for racism in section 49, in particular by removing the protections previously afforded in respect of discrimination on the ground of nationality. This violates our international human rights obligations and Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which is now law in the State.

As drafted, the Bill violates the equality directives and the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. It is thus vulnerable to a Supreme Court or European Court of Justice challenge. In short, the Bill represents a further signal that the Minister has declared war on all of us who do not rank high enough in his social-Darwinistic hierarchy. The Minister is picking us off one by one, starting with those he perceives to have the fewest advocates. First, his Government turned on Travellers and, subsequently, the Minister began his war on non-nationals. Today it is republicans but tomorrow it could be anyone. He is trying to pit us against each other. He says taxpayers will not pay for rights-based disability legislation and contends that we must choose between that and a proper health care system. The Minister says immigrants cost more than they contribute and that if we let them in, we will be unable to afford services for disabled people.

These are lies calculated to cover up the Government's failure, true priorities and lack of political will. My message to the Minister is that he will not succeed in his plan to divide and conquer. I applaud the equality coalition which formed recently to keep an eye on him. I am encouraged by the unity demonstrated by the progressive Opposition in the House as we continue to work co-operatively to ensure we have the best possible equality legislation and begin to set the standards for the whole of Europe rather than simply for Ireland. That will not happen if the Minister fails to listen and take on board the concerns of Members on this side of the House and of those who work in this field. The Minister must, for once, listen to what the Human Rights Commission has to say.

I welcome the Bill. We have made considerable progress in the area of equality over the past 20 years, particularly the last ten. There is a growing realisation and appreciation of the importance of equality in all aspects of Irish life rather than simply the workplace. People are becoming more educated and sensitive to different groups, which is welcome. However, we have a long way to travel. We are still not seeing enough people with disabilities in the workplace. We are all familiar with well-qualified people of high ability and enthusiasm who cannot secure employment due to a physical disability involving impaired eyesight or mobility. Some of these people have masters degrees and all have the aptitude to work but their disabilities and the inaccessibility of buildings deny them the employment opportunities for which they are qualified. There are many examples of this phenomenon, which must be addressed.

While this Bill does not seek to make provisions on physical access to buildings and movement within them for people with various disabilities, the Minister should note that there is a considerable amount of work to be done in this area. I have raised this issue in the House on a number of occasions. While significant investment has been made to improve access to public buildings and all new buildings are accessible to people with disabilities, there are several older buildings which continue to lack proper access for wheelchair users and those with sight and hearing difficulties.

Another significant equality issue involves the participation of women in a number of areas of public life. During consideration of the National Tourism Development Authority Act 2003, I pointed to a large number of State boards and regional tourism organisations on which women were under represented. On that occasion, the Minister did not accept my amendment that at least 40% of the board be comprised of women, but he did deliver in that the board is representative of women. However, he included such a provision in the Arts Act and that is to be welcomed. There are other areas in the tourism sector where women make up only 10% of boards, yet 70% of those involved in that sector are women. I merely state that as an example where equality does not exist, although we are making improvements.

I recently raised on Question Time the issue of gender balance in the teaching profession, especially in the primary sector. Other Members have raised this issue as well. Currently, only 10% of national teachers are male. There should be positive discrimination to ensure more males are encouraged to take up teaching. Approximately half the pupils attending primary school are males. It is important in terms of role models that at least 20% of our teachers are male. All schools should have a male teacher. There are no male teachers in some of our schools. It is important that situation is rectified as mentioned by a number of speakers.

The Bill aims to implement three EU directives, the race directive, the framework employment directive and the revised gender equal treatment directive. These then will take precedence over the Employment Equality Act 1998 and the Equal Status Act 2000. Increasingly, the impetus for legislative change comes from Europe, one of the positive aspects of Ireland's membership of the EU. Ireland would not have made the progress it has made to date were it not a member of the EU.

It has been pointed out that it is regrettable that we take a reactive rather than proactive approach in this regard. There is no reason Ireland should not be to the fore in equality legislation. We should not be held up as a shining light to our EU partners as a nation sympathetic to the needs of minorities and those with disabilities because, unfortunately, we have prioritised other areas. While it must be acknowledged that we have made progress, we have a long way to go. We should be much more proactive than has been the case heretofore.

I draw attention to a number of issues contained in the Bill. In some respects the Bill provides greater protection than is required by the directives. However, it appears to fall short of the requirements of the directives, especially in the areas of remedies, enforcement and exemptions. These matters were referred to in the Seanad and perhaps the Minister, through his officials, could expand on them.

Under the Employment Equality Act employers are only obliged to provide reasonable accommodation for employees with disabilities to the extent that it costs only a nominal sum. The Bill is weak in that regard. This minimal responsibility reflects an over-cautious response to the Supreme Court judgment which found the disability provisions of the earlier Bill to be unconstitutional. That issue needs to be carefully considered and strengthened, if possible. The effect of the framework employment directive is to roll back the Supreme Court judgment by imposing a more onerous responsibility on employers to facilitate participation by disabled people.

The Bill implements this obligation by requiring employers to take appropriate measures to enable a person with a disability to have access to employment, to participate or advance in employment or to undergo training unless this would impose a disproportionate burden. The prohibition on discrimination in the Employment Equality Act 1998 did not apply to workers over 65 years or age or under 18 except as regards vocational training. The Bill abolishes the upper age limit with certain exemptions in terms of occupational benefit schemes and exemptions which allow employers to offer fixed-term contracts.

The new lower age limit is the school leaving age of 16 but with a provision to allow an employer to set a minimum age of up to 18 years for recruitment. The Bill expands the permitted categories of positive action in the workplace to encompass all nine grounds and to allow measures to ensure full equality in practice. The position of migrant domestic workers is improved by the abolition of the absolute exemption regarding employment for the purposes of a private household, and that is to be welcomed. I expect that, with enlargement, many more migrant domestic workers will come to Ireland. People, who are busier these days taking care of their lawns and houses, are often inclined to employ nannies to take care of their children, as is done in America. Up to now it has been difficult to find such workers, but I am sure there will be a much greater supply of such workers in future. The Bill will protect them and, in that regard, it is to be welcomed.

However, none of the binding parts of the directives permits exemption on any aspect of employment in a private household, an issue that will have to be addressed. The Bill appears to fall short of the directives in a number of respects. All three directives contain provisions requiring sanctions to be effective, proportionate and dissuasive. In light of those provisions and the case law of the European Court of Justice, it is surprising that the Bill contains no provision for providing an option for all non-gender claims to be initiated in the Circuit Court as pertains for gender claims under the Employment Equality Act 1998; removing the current ceiling of €6,350 on the maximum compensation that can be awarded under the Equal Status Act 2000 and the Intoxicating Liquor Act 2003; and removing the two month written notification provision in the Equal Status Act 2000. The aforementioned is something I noticed in a commentary in the media recently to which, perhaps, the Minister might respond.

The race directive has a broad scope with limited exemptions. It is, therefore, surprising that no steps have been taken to abolish the exemption in section 14 of the Equal Status Act 2000 which allows legislated discrimination and the unique exemption regarding licensed premises in section 15. The Equality Coalition made a number of recommendations on the Bill. I am sure the Minister and his officials have taken note of the presentation made by the Equality Coalition to Members of this House. While it welcomes the Bill, it has expressed a number of reservations. It does not believe, for example, the Bill transposes or fully implements obligations emanating from EU directives. Furthermore, although perceived by many as technical legislation, it will reduce protection against discrimination for vulnerable groups. I have already referred to those groups. The coalition has made a number of recommendations which I hope the Minister will consider when the Bill is debated on Committee Stage. It has proposed 41 amendments, some of which I hope will be moved on Committee Stage.

I welcome the Bill. It is part of the corpus of equality legislation being developed at present. As someone who has worked with people with disabilities in the past and continues a connection with a number of disability groups, I welcome any progress. The House should be aware of changing work practices. The workplace, the nature or work and the type of work for which people with disabilities are suited continually changes. We must continue to examine the relevance of all legislation to current work practices and to the needs of people with disabilities and other minority groups.

It is important that Ireland is seen to lead the way in this regard. We have an open, sympathetic and welcoming attitude to people with disabilities. We are a generous nation and have always been open to other people's needs. For that reason, equality legislation is always well received in Ireland. There are those who, for their own reasons, might oppose progress but all Members of this House have a positive attitude to legislation which furthers the rights of minority groups and of people with disabilities.

I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate on this Bill. I hope the concerns I have raised, which echo the concerns of most speakers, will be addressed by the Minister in his reply.

I welcome the Bill in so far as it addresses some equality issues. The main aim of the Bill is to implement EU equality directives and it also makes a number of changes to existing legislation. There are three EU equality directives which the Bill tries to transpose into Irish law.

The race directive outlaws discrimination on the basis of race or ethnic origin in employment or other areas. It is hard to reconcile this requirement with the restrictions the Government recently placed on citizens of the former accession states receiving social welfare payments. While I appreciate the Government's entitlement to introduce these restrictions in accordance with the terms of the accession treaties, it is difficult to understand why an EU directive requires us to transpose equality requirements into Irish law while, at the same time, an EU treaty allows our Government to prevent EU citizens from collecting social welfare payments. While accepting this pragmatic approach which placates and allows time to demonstrate to extremists that the prediction of an influx of EU citizens from the new states to exploit our social welfare system is exaggerated, if not totally unfounded, it is important to keep these provisions under constant review and change them as soon as possible. No matter how well intentioned or hard working our EU neighbours are, an odd one will temporarily fall into the unemployment trap. The introduction of these restrictions on EU citizens is at odds with this legislation and with the EU directives themselves. The sooner they are lifted the sooner the real spirit of this legislation will be implemented.

Business leaders agree that immigrants from the former accession states came to Ireland solely in order to work. Mr. Turlough O'Sullivan, director general of the employers' group, IBEC, pointed out that we still have low unemployment levels. He also pointed out that we have a significant number of non-nationals already here and we need them. He further stated he believed it is a small risk that people will come here just to sign on.

Equality has no borders and should have no borders within the European Union. Equality should, as soon as possible, apply to all citizens. In the spirit of this legislation, the Government should review these restrictions regularly, with particular regard to genuine cases of people who become temporarily unemployed through no fault of their own. In fairness to the Government, it has insisted that the right to work will be completely equal for everyone from the 25 countries of the European Union.

When dealing with equality issues, it is important for Irish people to recognise and acknowledge that the workers from the former accession states who are already here and their compatriots to follow are not asylum seekers, refugees or spongers. Many Irish people choose to believe otherwise. They lump every foreigner together in a potentially threatening group, whether migrant worker or asylum seeker. The view of many Irish people is that if someone looks and sounds like a foreigner he or she is here to milk the system. If we do not change our attitude we will do ourselves a disservice and will seriously damage Ireland's image. Many of the workers in low-grade, poorly-paid jobs today will form the future influential and ruling classes in their own countries. They will remember the treatment they received in Ireland. The introduction of laws and directives can be helpful but a positive attitude by every Irish citizen is the real test of how we deal with the equality issue.

This brings us to the issue of work permits for non-EU workers. It is likely that workers from the former accession states will fill the majority of jobs in the future but a considerable number of work visas will be issued to non-EU citizens.

I call a quorum.

Notice taken that 20 Members were not present; House counted and 20 Members being present,

While the main objective of the Bill is to implement the EU equality directive, it also includes a number of other changes to the equality legislation. It proposes a substantial number of amendments to existing legislation so there is no reason it cannot amend legislation to change our work permit system. According to the Minister's press release the Bill implements EU Council directives concerning equal treatment between persons irrespective of racial or ethnic origin, establishing a general framework for equal treatment in employment and also a directive of the European Parliament on the implementation of the principle of equal treatment for men and women as regards access to employment.

While accepting that different rules must apply to non-EU nationals, certain basic rights should be given to all workers and the Bill should be used to change a system which gives the employer total control over the employee by attaching the work permit to the employer. This serious inequity has been very obvious for some time. This time last year, Sr. Stanislaus Kennedy stated that the existing system, whereby an employer applies and receives a permit for a worker, effectively binds the employee to that employer and exposes employees to the risk of exploitation.

Unfortunately, however, the Taoiseach at the time said there were good reasons work permits for migrant workers were issued to employers rather than to employees. Despite this, the Taoiseach added that some areas should be changed and stated they were under review. Some 15 months later, despite all the injustices that have occurred since, we must presume the regulations are still under review. Under this legislation, a simple amendment could be made to the Employment Permits Act to rectify this.

It is important to emphasise that the majority of employers abide by the rules and treat their staff extremely well. Having said that, reports in the media and recent television programmes clearly demonstrate there are a considerable number of rogue employers who use the current system to exploit immigrant workers. One of the key recommendations of the Migrant Rights Centre's report in March last was that permits be detached from the employer to avoid the potential for exploitation and wage depression. While the report adds that many employers are fair and operate to high standards, even these employers admit that the permits can be perceived by the holder to be a form of bonded or indentured labour.

What is most worrying is that the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment recently dismissed the bonded servitude comparison as a nonsense, pointing out that employers dependence on work permits would be greatly reduced from 1 May. The Department seems to ignore the fact that 40% of permits last year went to workers from outside the expanded EU. The Department also fails to recognise other factors that leave non-nationals vulnerable to exploitation, including poor English skills and lack of knowledge to determine, never mind pursue, their legal rights.

In the same context, another serious problem has arisen for non-EU immigrants as a result of enlargement of the EU. Under the Employment Permits Act, a fee of €400 per permit was introduced which was legally payable by the employer. Rogue employers will now take this opportunity to hire accession state workers who no longer need a work permit and sack non-EU workers. The Minister should abolish the fee, at least in the short term, to help protect workers. If this practice is widespread, it will lead to a significant number of legal battles as unions have made it quite clear that failure by the employer to re-apply for a work permit on behalf of an employee is no grounds for dismissal.

To be fair, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform seemed to clearly acknowledge the injustice of the system when he stated in the Seanad last week that people should not be here on the basis of one link with one employer. The Minister went on to state that he intended to introduce a green card system to deal with this problem. My problem with this is that introducing a green card system in a new immigration policy, while welcome, would still mean that injustices will continue. A simple amendment to the Equality Bill would go some way to ending abuses until the Minister has time to deal with the issue in a more comprehensive way.

Many of the changes in this Bill are very welcome, including the provisions dealing with motor insurance, the change in emphasis when dealing with retirement and the clear message that there can be no discrimination on age grounds. My only problem with the provisions of the Bill is that in certain areas they do not go far enough. The aspirations are clear but there are far too many opt-out clauses, particularly in regard to the provision of facilities for people with disabilities. The Bill provides that when deciding if the measures in question would impose a disproportionate burden, account should be taken of a series of reasons, including the financial and other costs involved, the scale and financial resources of the employer, the number of people who would benefit, any disruption that would be caused to the business and many more. The Equal Status Act has a similar nominal cost provision in respect of access to goods and services. These opt-out clauses are a dream come true for an employer who does not care and does not want to act.

I note the Minister told the Seanad that the public service had nearly reached its target of employing 3% of people with disabilities — 2.7% to be exact. While I accept we have come a long way, it is some time since the 3% target was set by the Government. Much has changed in that time, including for the better, and the Minister might check that the 2.7% is consistent throughout the public service. He might consider putting more pressure on Departments, councils and health boards that are not performing as well as they should. Indeed, the Minister should now consider introducing new guidelines with an overall target of 4%. We welcome the Bill and, with some amendments, it could be excellent legislation.

The Second Stage debate would ordinarily be welcome in that equality legislation is something in which most people in this House would have an interest because such legislation should be improved and strengthened. The Bill seeks to include in Irish law a number of European Union directives, including the race, employment and gender directives. Unfortunately, it takes the minimal approach by going for the minimum threshold across all European Union countries and, in so doing, seeks to water down existing equality legislation.

The Minister has chosen to introduce this new Bill to replace two previous items of legislation, the Employment Equality Act 1998 and the Equal Status Act 2000. The question must be asked whether he is choosing to do this because he wishes to consolidate the legislation or, as many of us on this side of the House suspect, because he wishes to water down both Acts. He has gone on public record as saying that in the area of social rights he does not believe there is a requirement to legislate for such rights. He said this in regard to the long promised, and still missing, disability Bill. This must inform the debate on this legislation. The various exemptions throughout the Bill indicate a mindset and ideology which is more concerned about making profit for employers than employers' responsibility to the people they employ. I will list the various exemptions the Government is seeking to introduce.

We must acknowledge that the Bill, in its present form, is being opposed by a strong group of non-governmental organisations which have formed an organisation called the Equality Coalition. They have given briefings and back-up documentation to all Members of the House. It is worth noting that these are well respected organisations which represent significant public concern in respect of equal rights and equal status for all those in society. The Equality Coalition includes organisations such as Age and Opportunity Ireland, Amnesty International, Dominican Justice Alliance, European Anti-Poverty Network, Forum for People with Disabilities, Free Legal Advice Centre, Immigrant Council of Ireland, Irish Council for Civil Liberties, Irish Refugee Council, Irish Traveller Movement, National Lesbian and Gay Federation and several other organisations. The briefing, which is significant, reads as follows:

The Equality Coalition would question the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform's management of the legislative process. The Coalition is concerned at the manner in which this Bill has been introduced, as well as its style and format. Introduced with little publicity and no public consultation with grounds representing marginalised groups, the Bill is completely inaccessible to non-lawyers and non-specialists. Moreover although the Government consulted the EA and the National Consultative Committee on Racism and Interculturalism, most of their recommendations were ignored.

For any document representing a broad swathe of non-governmental organisations to put on paper such a damning criticism poses very serious questions for the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform because he is the member of Government charged with representing equality and human rights interests at the Cabinet table. If those whose everyday business is ensuring these standards are practised and strengthened question the basis on which the Minister is operating in putting this legislation before the House, we have a very serious problem as a Legislature. It is the responsibility of Members on this side of the House to point out that clause in the legislation and the motives of the Minister.

The greatest criticism, which is outside the content of the Bill, is a very fair point. If we are talking about basic legislation in respect of the rights of citizens, it must be accessible and legible. What we have here is a lawyers' document. Given that the Minister comes from that background, this legislation is a recipe for people exercising their rights only through the judicial process. There should be a clear statement in Acts passed in this House on how equality, equal status and the rights of citizens can be put into practice. While the Government complains about tribunal costs, it sets the rates for people participating in these tribunals. We are now dealing with legislation which will entrench that type of mindset into the everyday workings of the court system. It will be of no advantage to citizens who want to have their rights properly protected.

The Bill has very curious opt-out clauses. There is a significant watering down of previous legislation. In regard to discrimination in access to employment, there is an amendment to the existing legislation which is a blanket provision. It enables employers to discriminate against prospective employees who apply for work in a person's home on the basis of providing personal services. This country has developed into a service economy. It is no longer the manufacturing economy it aspired to be. People employed in personal services, in particular, represent a large proportion of the workforce. Not only are these low paid positions but they tend to be filled by women rather than men. These people are discriminated against in many respects.

This is a curious provision. Is the Minister saying that au pairs and cleaning ladies in Rathgar should be exempted from equality legislation, which is what is coming across to me? If personal experience is informing how the legislation is practised, I point out to the Minister that his personal experience is not the personal experience of many people in this House, never mind many people throughout the country. Principles about access to employment should apply across the board, regardless of gender, race, disability and all the avenues included in legislation through the Equal Status Act and employment equality legislation.

There is a question regarding how employers are expected to encourage people with disabilities into employment. The Government has set a quota of approximately 3%. This figure is not being exceeded. How this translates in various homes and among people with different types of disabilities is something which needs closer examination. In terms of the private sector, which the Minister, Deputy McDowell, and his party appear to be largely interested in representing in this House, there is a huge opt-out under section 9 of the Equality Bill. It appears to suggest that employers can take appropriate measures to enable people with disabilities to have access to employment, participate or advance in employment or undergo training, unless the measures would impose a disproportionate burden on the employer. This is the classic opt-out.

Those of us who have been campaigning on environmental issues for many years have seen this clause used to huge effect and, as a result, environmental standards are not maintained as well in this country as in other places. In environmental law there is a principle known as "best available technology not exceeding excessive cost". This ensured that very little, if any, environmental improvement work has taken place in Irish society because the cost argument has always been put forward. It would be better if the Government changed it to state that if there were excessive costs, the State would intervene in some way through a grant or tax subsidy system. This would be instead of the tax subsidies the Government allows in respect of property and which represents a disproportionate amount of our national wealth. The tax system should not be used in the context of a buoyant property market. However, the Government lacks that imagination and has an ideological bent which will not even think along those lines.

Ultimately, the concerns of the Equality Coalition extend to groups which are already much maligned in society and whose lot seems to be set further downwards in this Bill. I refer in particular to the Traveller community as well as asylum-seekers, refugees and other non-nationals. We are already facing an unnecessary and divisive referendum on citizenship, which the Government has chosen to introduce for the sake of it. The referendum will introduce different categories of people in society, namely, citizens and non-citizens and the rights and entitlements each should have. In this context, my fear and that of my party is that we will also have a dual-track approach in respect of the rights of Irish citizens in that there will be different categories, some of which will have certain entitlements but not others and none of which will be entitled to all. It is an almost Orwellian view of society that some citizens are more equal than others.

I regret that the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform is not present to listen to this part of the debate and I would like him to respond somewhat positively when he sums up the Second Stage debate because I see nothing else in his philosophy of life which says anything other than that some people in society should be looked upon as less than Irish and, in some cases, less that human. It is dangerous to allow that type of mentality to develop because it seeps into society and we will end up with the type of race and nationality difficulties which have bedevilled other societies.

As a result of our history as a colonised rather than a colonial country and as an island nation which has learnt from the mistakes of other societies, we have an opportunity to put in place a more proactive and inclusive society which will benefit us culturally as well as economically. Economic arguments are being put aside to justify the needs of the Minister and his party supporters. Economically, we need more people in this country. We no longer have a replacement birth rate. We are growing older and, as we do so, it will become more difficult to meet further costs in terms of pensions in the context of the dependency ratio.

If our country of 4 million people was applied to the Netherlands, which has a similar land mass, we would have a population of 30 million. It is in this context that we have debates of this nature. However, the Government seems to pretend that, although we have an excess of tax of €500 million for the first four months of this year, we can somehow spend half the EU average on social protection expenditure, that the needs of our society are half those of other European countries, that we do not have their demographic problems and that these changes are not coming down the road. I refute that view. The Government is sitting idly on its hands. It does not take the needs of Irish society into account, does not want to recognise it as it is now or can develop and does not have any mindset or perspective beyond the next general election. A Government which thinks that way is not doing the country any great service.

The changes in the Equal Status Act are of equal concern because they affect the right of individuals to complain and put lower values on the type of redress people can receive if their complaints are subsequently justified. The Minister needs to state why it is that even with watered-down legislation and the ability of people to access what will be available if the legislation is passed, they would receive fewer forms of redress than have been indicated by the European Court of Justice and various European directives? How is this even bringing about even a minimum playing field in terms of standards which apply across the European Union? I do not believe the Minister has thought this through. It is his particular bias that he does not care about the type of redress individual citizens receive as long as it is allowed to get into the treadmill of ever-rising court costs which benefit certain people about whom we know.

It is unfortunate that the process undergone in respect of the Bill has not been fully open and consultative. One of the Taoiseach's excuses we hear on a regular basis in the House on the Order of Business in respect of the disability Bill is that it is not ready because it is still involved in a consultation process, that many people in the disability area are being shown drafts and re-drafts and are being asked for considered opinions which are going back to the Office of the Chief Parliamentary Counsel. Some Government sources have indicated that there has rarely been a Bill which has received as much drafting and re-drafting. We will see if that is the case when it eventually comes to light.

The Equality Bill 2004, which should be the mirror Bill of social legislation from the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, seems to have had none of that process. I have already listed upwards of 24 groups which have come together as a coalition and stated that they do not believe that such consultation has taken place. Yet, as legislators, we can only operate on the basis that they are reacting in a second and often thirdhand manner to their concerns on this issue. This does not speak well of the Government or the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. However, given his performance on other Bills, it is unsurprising.

The idea of consolidating the three directives and two existing Bills on the Statute Book may seem like a good idea, but the Minister is merely chipping away at the edges and we will end up with amélange which is not in the interest of Irish citizens. For example, the Minister has approximately 40 Bills on the Government’s legislative programme. Three or four of them are promised by the end of this session, the heads of a couple of dozen have been agreed and are being drafted, but the majority of the Bills promised by the Minister do not even have heads. Rather they seem to be ideas the Minister has which are given to people in the Cabinet office and are presented to Members of the Opposition two or three months later. It almost seems an obsession that the Minister must have three mad ideas before breakfast every morning and name them as Bills.

Along with his eggs.

The Opposition should not put up with that nonsense. Does the Minister have a coherent legislative programme? If he does, what is it? If it is what we have experienced to date, what is the philosophy underlying that programme? If it is what is indicated in this Bill, my party cannot support it nor, I suspect, can many Opposition Deputies. There is a strong need for legislation on equality to be improved. We have made tentative steps with the Equal Status Act, the Employment Equality Act and the establishment of the Equality Authority, even though the Minister chooses periodically to ignore these bodies as he does the Human Rights Commission. We need a progressive Government which is prepared to put on the Statute Book not legislation which waters down what we already have, but new and improved legislation which improves the rights of all Irish citizens.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this legislation and compliment the Minister on bringing it forward.

The Bill seeks to bring together three European directives, which must be transposed into national legislation. We must transpose three EU directives into national legislation, as recommended by the Attorney General. It also gives us the opportunity to update and amend the Employment Equality Act 1998 and the Equal Status Act 2000 which provide for broad-ranging protection for individuals against discrimination both in the workplace and in access to and the provision of services on nine grounds. The Bill will implement the provisions of Council Directive 2000/43/EC, the principle of equal treatment between persons irrespective of race or ethnic origin.

I commend the Government on the speed with which it has brought forward this legislation, although it has been a long time in gestation. There was quite an amount of consultation with various organisations and individuals before the final draft of the Bill was published. It is important to remember that the Ireland of 2004 is quite different to the country of the 1950s and 1960s. We now have a multicultural and multiracial State and, with the increased prosperity of the last 20 years, we are attracting an increasing number of people from other countries and ethnic backgrounds to Ireland. It is important to legislate to protect them.

For too long Irish people had to go to foreign countries and we hear much about the difficulties they had abroad. We should learn from that. The experiences our people had in the US and especially in Britain from the 1940s to the early 1960s should not be repeated in this country. We should be more accommodating and put legislation in place which gives legal rights to individuals, families and groups. We should be proud that these people are being welcomed in the country, that as a Legislature we are putting laws in place which will ensure their rights are accommodated, and that these people are not discriminated against.

I commend the organisations, which do so much work for the physically disabled in Ireland, and the Irish Wheelchair Association is top of my list. That is a very active national organisation although, over the years, its work may have gone unnoticed. In the past five years, however, the way in which it has managed its organisation and the proactive work it does for the physically disabled in every county is there for all to see. The Government and the Department of Health and Children in particular acknowledge that work by providing generous grants. That is money well spent. That organisation has such a significant voluntary input that if the State had to pay for all the work being done by volunteers such as family members and the paid staff of the IWA, it would be much more expensive. The State is getting very good value for money from that organisation.

I am concerned by aspects of our relationship with the EU. We are recognised as first class Europeans and the way in which we deal with European directives has been exemplary. However, some of our European partners are not as forthcoming, particularly when it has come to implementing directives issued in the past two years. Specific dates for implementation were set down but some countries have not complied with those dates and people in Irish industry are concerned. As good Europeans we have sent in our information but, to some extent, our EU partners have taken advantage of that. They missed the deadline, they still have not met the targets set for them by Europe and they have taken advantage of the information sent in by Ireland. Although that is a side issue in terms of the Bill, it is important to put on record that we are better Europeans than some of our partners. I hope the ten new member states take a leaf out of our book rather than that of other countries.

The directives being transposed into primary legislation require that European member states prohibit direct and indirect discrimination, and harassment or victimisation on the grounds of gender, racial or ethnic origin, religious belief, disability, age or sexual orientation. This relates to employment, self-employment and occupational and vocational training.

Irish employers have largely been good employers where possible and, when a little incentive is given, they cater for the needs of people with disabilities. Generally there is little discrimination in the Irish workplace against individuals, and the race directive prohibits such actions in respect of access to and the provision of goods and services. The approach taken to implement the directives has been to maintain as far as possible the comprehensive and multi-ground approach provided for under the Employment Equality Act 1998 and the Equal Status Act 2000.

As a result, the provisions of the directives will generally be applied in the case of all discriminatory grounds applicable in national law and in both employment and the access to and provision of goods and services in non-employment areas. While many of the provisions of these directives are already in place as a result of Ireland's equality legislation, the new provisions of the Bill broaden the scope of those two Acts. Protection from discrimination under the Employment Equality Act is being extended in several ways, particularly the protection from discrimination on age grounds, which will now apply to those over 65 years for the first time, and the self-employed will be brought within the scope of the Act. It is generally recognised here and abroad that people are physically capable of working beyond 65 and want to do so. It is important to acknowledge that in our legislation, not just in this Bill but in all legislation introduced in the lifetime of the Dáil.

Other exclusions will be amended or removed and the duty on employers to adapt the workplace to facilitate employees with disabilities will be enhanced. In some circumstances this will cause difficulties for some employers and perhaps tax breaks should be considered. The Minister for Finance could introduce incentives for employers willing to employ people with disabilities, although some organisations have lobbied for such incentives without success. The Minister for Finance could consider this when drawing up his budget in December.

A number of technical amendments to the Employment Equality Act and the Equal Status Act are being introduced. These will give greater clarity to enhance the work of the Equality Authority, which is being renamed as the Equality Tribunal. The Attorney General has advised that the race directive should be implemented by means of primary legislation because it includes policy choices. That is a good decision and I am pleased the Government has taken that advice on board. The Equality Authority which has the role of promoting equality and working towards the elimination of discrimination provides information and advice to any person who feels he or she may have been discriminated against on any one of nine specified grounds, whether in employment or non-employment areas. The work of that authority has been well documented. The use of that facility has gone down well particularly among employees who feel they may have been discriminated against in the workplace.

I am pleased the Minister has brought forward the legislation. It will enhance current employer and employee legislation and I hope it has a speedy passage though the House.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to contribute to the debate on this legislation. Like other speakers I welcome many of the provisions in the Bill, all of which are in response to EU directives, in respect of which we had made provision previously but these are being amended once again. One of my complaints on this and similar legislation is that we do not appear to have sufficient time to debate the issues in the House. In the past, adequate time was allowed for every debate. We have now reached a position whereby different Bills are slipped into the schedule to suit the occasion and it becomes a cat and mouse game between Government and Opposition to try to ensure, from the Opposition's point of view, a reasonable standard and scope of debate takes place.

The Government appears to hold the opinion that it is slick and clever to get a Bill through the House in the fastest possible time. It is foolhardy to proceed on those lines as the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Lenihan, who is a legal practitioner, will be aware. The experience has been that much of that legislation, having been put through the House in a hurried and frenzied fashion, goes to the courts to be struck down at a later stage. That should be the rarity rather than the rule. In a previous era there was provision for a much longer debate and a greater and better analysis of what was contained in legislation. I say that specifically in regard to this Bill which has 58 or 59 sections, and which is of enormous importance to the economy and the Legislature and will impact on the population.

The principle of equality has been established for some time and, hopefully, has been practised. The last speaker referred to the removal of discrimination on age grounds. I wonder why that came about and if it has anything to do with the 2030 and 2060 problem with regard to pensions, which is looming on the horizon. I wonder whether it arose out of necessity or recognition of actual discrimination. It coincides with European thinking to the effect that people should work longer, not because of their health or a good feeling towards their fellow man, but to finance pension schemes in the future.

Deputy Boyle mentioned the multiethnic, multinational society which, hopefully, we are beginning to develop here. Nobody has mentioned the positive impact that will have on our pensions. Our ability to pay pensions will be positively affected by the number of people of an employable age. The greater the number of such people who enter the economy, the better it is for our pension system. It is not necessarily a threat, as some have pointed out, but it is better from the point of view of people entering the workforce at an age that allows for a reasonably long duration in the workforce thereafter before qualifying for a pension. That is all part of the contribution they make. They do not come here merely for the benefits of the economy but to make a contribution. That contribution will be extremely important in 2020 or 2038 or, as I am now informed, in 2060. The year is constantly revised. Only a few years ago it was 2010 and the bulge that was supposed to come at that time did not come. I mention that since I have not heard it mentioned before. I have frequently heard reference to the importance of people making provision for their pensions in the future. The number of people coming into this economy for economic reasons and making a contribution through the workforce and the Exchequer is a counterbalancing exercise that should be borne in mind.

The principle of equality as between men and women is provided for in the Bill and has been provided for in previous Acts. As time goes by and different cases are taken by both male and female members of society, there is a change in the application of the law. In most cases that is good. A recent case involving age discrimination concerned a young woman who had a child and who sought assistance from the health board for rent subvention and from the local authority in regard to housing. She was told that since she had not yet reached the age of 18 she would not qualify. Needless to say I did not allow that to go unchallenged.

It is extremely difficult to understand how that could apply under a Government agency or any institution in the public service. While it is not correct, that is neither here nor there. Nowadays, on a regular basis, agencies and organisations make up the rules as they go along. That is not acceptable. If the person has a requirement or a legitimate demand at a particular time, regardless of what rules are introduced, that person's needs have to be addressed under the Constitution, as the Minister of State will readily agree. He knows full well what I am talking about. It is deplorable that a young girl who obviously requires a house and a subvention towards it is told she is not old enough and will have to wait another six months. What does one do for that six months? How are that person's needs met and her rights vindicated under equality legislation? How are that person's rights protected under European equality legislation? In those circumstances it is necessary to be vigilant, notwithstanding any past legislation and the mostly positive changes made, because there are situations arising, which were not anticipated and they need to be examined.

It has been suggested that, as time goes by, different situations are dealt with in a particular fashion within certain areas of employment on the basis that a person, male, female or with a disability, should not be treated in purely equal terms. However, I suggest there are always people in the workforce, both able-bodied and otherwise, who will always believe they pull their weight in their contribution and will be able to point out others who do not seem to shoulder the same burden.

While a person with a specific disability could possibly contribute to their employment to a greater extent than an able-bodied person in certain circumstances, unfortunately, provision can be made under the current legislation whereby remuneration can be altered in a manner to suggest that the able-bodied person is more capable, more competent and more likely to be able to make the contribution that was anticipated. Those circumstances may give rise to a problem in that it could well be that the person with a disability is or can be equally as good. I am aware the Act provides for redress of this situation, but how often that will happen? I hope the provisions will be applied as they were intended to be.

If the contribution in the workplace by a person with a disability or by anyone else who regards themselves as being discriminated against is equal to the average of all other workers around them, I believe they have a case. They have every right, notwithstanding their incapacity or disability, to demand equal treatment in terms of pay.

It has been suggested that this is not always the case. Where a person with a disability is willing to do and capable of doing the job and of making the important contribution to the economy, we must clearly recognise that there should be no deviations and no circumstances in which they would receive a lower rate of remuneration on the basis that they possibly might not be as capable of doing the job as an able-bodied person. If they do the job, they are entitled to be paid the rate.

This Bill covers all areas of discrimination on racial, religious and ethnic grounds, and that is to be commended. Despite recent debates in this House, it is a sign of the growing maturity of our society when we recognise that those who come to this country are in a similar situation to Irish people of previous generations who visited other jurisdictions. As Deputy Nolan said in his contribution, the Irish were not always welcome in some places. They were discriminated against. We should learn from those bitter experiences and try to ensure that we address the situation in a much more positive fashion. Those who come to Ireland for economic reasons are not necessarily here to deprive us of something that we have but are here to ensure that they give their families a better quality of life. They make a contribution to Irish society, just as a person with a disability in the workforce does, by being involved and by shouldering part of the economic burden.

Society should not regard itself as being in a position to dispense rights and entitlements to people in that situation. It is a fact of life that they recognise they can make a contribution if given the chance and they will improve the economy and society as a result.

I ask the House to consider the case of those born into an area of social or economic deprivation. That area of discrimination has not been properly considered. Young people from such areas are advised not to put their address on an employment application form. That is actionable, but I wonder to what extent it can be followed up. To what extent do children born in those areas have an equal opportunity of surviving in today's tough and competitive economic era? To what extent can they aspire to moving to a reasonable level in society and living in reasonable accommodation and giving the next generation the possibility of moving a step further up the ladder? I admit that I thought we were winning that battle a few years ago but, as time goes on, I have my doubts. I see growing evidence to suggest that in areas of social and economic deprivation, it begins in the overcrowded schools, in the lack of opportunity from the very beginning and the perception that no matter how hard such children may work, they will never achieve the same levels of achievement as their wealthier neighbours.

I do not know whether the Minister of State agrees with me or not but I do not care, for such is the nature of debate. In the 1940s and 1950s, more people were in the lower to middle income groups areas than in the upper income groups. Change has come about and it has not been positive, in my opinion. More people in the lower income groups find themselves in the same area and competing with each other in a way which is not beneficial to themselves or to the economy, and it is a trend that should be carefully considered.

I have tabled many parliamentary questions on this issue over the years. I have taken an interest in this topic for many reasons. Like other Members I have dealt with individual cases in my constituency. It has been quite obvious that some children are not given a chance, not because they and their parents are not willing, but because, for social and economic reasons, they find it very difficult to get off the ground, so to speak. This socio-economic group is being kept apart and does not appear to matter as much as it did ten, 15 or 20 years ago. A careful examination of this group is required.

We are living in a competitive economy and society. There are those who say this is a caring society, which is probably true, but for some reason I cannot determine, it appears that we become less caring as we grow wealthier.

It would do no harm to examine the extent to which socio-economic deprivation can lead to discrimination at a later stage, resulting in long-term unemployment and a continuation of the cycle of inherited discrimination. I am sure every Deputy has experience of helping and advising families in that bracket as to how to better place themselves for the future. In every instance, the people concerned want to become involved in society and help themselves and would do so with only the slightest encouragement.

I will conclude where I started, I would like more time to discuss the issues raised in this legislation but that is clearly not possible. I ask, therefore, that the provisions of the Bill are monitored to ascertain if they have a positive impact on the workplace and in society.

Education is at the hub of the issue of inequality and the real litmus test of this Bill will be its impact on the marginalised and disadvantaged in society. As Sinn Féin spokesperson on education, I am very concerned about section 47 which amends section 7 of the Equal Status Act. It is my understanding that the Minister is reversing the findings of the Equality Tribunal in a way that will allow the Department of Education and Science to discriminate against a specific category of people. The proposed amending legislation allows the Minister to discriminate on the basis of race in the area of higher education grants. The amended section will prevent resident migrants from securing higher education grants.

The Equality Tribunal advised the Minister for Education and Science that further and higher education grants are a service and that non-nationals who are denied this service are being discriminated against. The Government extended the criteria for non-nationals to access higher education but did so only very recently and under legal obligation. The House was informed that the decision to extend the qualifying period for receiving the back to education grant was taken because other European Union citizens were coming here to abuse the system and attend courses in what was a form of education tourism.

The Department's literature states that equality is central to education and stresses the importance of promoting equality, as embedded in the Education Act of 1998. Its fine sounding literature states that schools must use their resources to ensure that the educational needs of all students, including those with disability or other special needs, are identified and provided for. Schools must, it continues, promote equal opportunity for male and female students and maintain an admissions policy which provides for maximum accessibility to the school and ensures that principles of equality are respected. This may read well but the Government has been minimalist at best in its approach to issues of discrimination and the recent referendum debacle offers further evidence of its reluctance to proactively challenge issues of inequality.

It is disappointing to note that the Government took no heed of the many recommendations of the Equality Authority and the Equality Coalition. Practically no consultation took place with the wide range of marginalised groups whose lives are at the mercy of such legislation. The Equality Coalition has criticised the Bill, particularly the style and method with which it has been driven. There has been little publicity around this highly important Bill and little or no consultation with the relevant target groups. What is more, the wording is not easy to understand and can be misleading. Yet again the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform tried to railroad through vital legislation which has been to all intents and purposes inaccessible to the public.

While the Bill will make some welcome changes to equality legislation, aspects of these changes will reduce protection from discrimination for certain vulnerable groups such as non-nationals. For instance, the Bill should have placed a greater obligation on employers and service providers to actively address inequality.

In the area of discrimination in employment, the Bill does not take account of the fact that most discrimination takes place at the point of recruitment. The first hurdle for an applicant is to get through the interview. The Bill, as framed, will allow employers to reject applicants for employment because of their personal prejudice. In addition, section 15 allows hoteliers to deny access to a customer who may produce a substantial risk of criminal or disorderly behaviour. This section is widely used to deny Travellers and the disabled access to hotels.

What will the Bill do for the next generation of students? They will need to be from the well-healed sectors of society. Will the Bill do anything to resolve the shortage of resources in the education system? Will it refurbish run-down schools, provide funding for special needs teachers and assistants, improve school transport or ease the lot of school teachers?

In budget 2004 the Minister made a commitment to allocate a further €30 million for school buildings in the primary and secondary sectors, which would increase the total capital allocation for these sectors to €387 million. I wonder how much building and refurbishing was done. Based on the amount of correspondence I continually receive concerning run-down schools, it has not been enough. What will the legislation do for the thousands of people who lack literacy skills? Where is the equality for this group of people who have been blighted by inequality in access and denied the opportunity to develop fully as citizens.

Early school leaving is not a single event but a symptom of a long process of failure on the part of our education system. Every year, 15% of pupils leave school without the leaving certificate, while 3% leave with no qualification. This amounts to nearly one in five school leavers, an alarming statistic for a first world country in the 20th century. Up to 1,000 pupils do not go on to post-primary education and one in every ten children leave primary school with literacy problems. The emphasis must be on keeping children in school and I hope the Minister will stand by his commitment to support and develop the stay in school programme.

The Bill may appear impressive in ways, but only until when one digs a little deeper to get through the reams of wordy text which should have been written in plain English rather than legal speak. The Department of Education and Science literature gives the impression that non-nationals with leave to remain here on humanitarian grounds have the same access as EU nationals for purposes of education. That is a rather cute move on the Department's part because we do not have humanitarian grounds for giving leave to remain. When the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform informs an individual in writing that he or she has been granted leave to remain, he does not indicate whether it has been granted on humanitarian grounds. In effect, therefore, the Department and education providers do not treat this category of persons as EU nationals for education purposes.

This Bill in its current form will adversely affect resident migrants with employment permits, international students and leaves dangerous room for discrimination. The Government chose to ignore significant directions from the Equality Authority and yet again tried to take a short cut in attempting to push forward with this legislation. The Bill needs more work and should not be rushed through. While the EU equality directives are welcome, the Government has handled the whole issue badly. The Government chose to merge two Bills into one and this mish-mash has failed to supply a consolidated version of either. In addition, it appears the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and his Department have ignored recommendations from the Equality Authority and the Law Reform Commission. The real question that has to be asked is why this is the case.

I welcome the legislation before the House. It is very important that we are to the fore in promoting equality legislation. As the Minister pointed out, much of what is contained in the Bill is an implementation of community directives on equality. The various directives, which he listed provide for equal treatment on the grounds of gender, racial or ethnic origin, religion or belief, disability, age and sexual orientation. When the Minister mentioned religion or belief I wondered whether belief included political preferences.

It is fair to say we have been to the fore in the area of equality legislation in some respects. It is also true that the depth and breadth of what is provided in these directives is more than what would have been the case in the Employment Equality Act 1998. That Act was groundbreaking legislation in its time. It had a very considerable impact and many cases have been successfully taken. This goes back to the point made by Deputy Durkan that these new Bills do not address difficulties by themselves. It falls to someone to pursue the issue at some stage. It should not always be necessary to seek that redress through the courts. Eventually, many cases are taken to the courts and a strong body of case law is built up. Ultimately, as happened with the Employment Equality Act 1998, employers recognise that a set of rules are in place and the impact of the legislation is quite positive. That filters down to the individual employer.

The Equal Status Act 2000 also put Ireland ahead in the area of equality. We tend to forget that legislation was fraught with difficulty as it went through the House. Nonetheless, it set the principles on equality across a range of categories. It is fair to acknowledge the very positive impact the EU has had on social policy in this country. One does not have to go back too far to find basic legislation on equality on the Statute Book. An example of this legislation relates to the protection of the family home which was introduced less than 30 years ago. Credit is due to Mr. Haughey for enacting the legislation and it had a beneficial effect on the position of married women who were open to exploitation and were being exploited in some circumstances.

There are many other areas on which this legislation has an impact. One of these is the area of employment for disabled people. Neither the public nor the private sector has anything to boast about in terms of provisions for employment for disabled people. There is a notional 3% quota in the public sector for employment of people with disabilities. Some health boards, county councils and even Departments meet or even exceed the requirement. However, there are many that are slow to even attempt to achieve what is required of them. The quality of work done by many disabled people is often equal to that carried out by what would be called an able bodied person. There are other disabled people who may take a little longer to do the work or who might need supervision. We have dipped our toes in the area of support for disabled people in employment. There is a level of supported employment which does not have much resources. Where it is available it is very successful. This represents an achievement for disabled people in getting the work done and provides them with significant rehabilitative training. It is very beneficial for their quality of life and it provides them with a social outlet they would otherwise never have. It also gives them that basic human right of positively contributing to society. That is a right we need to extend as much as possible.

Some of the provisions of this Bill will provide for the adaptation of the workplace to accommodate disabled people. This will advance the area of supported employment and will take ownership of that concept. There has been much discrimination, some of it overt, but a lot of it unintentional and less visible. Thankfully, due to legislation, the impact of education and greater awareness of the capacity of disabled people, that situation is improving. It is useful to look at the background to this kind of equality legislation to discover what begets it. It can explain why there is an inclination to be fearful or discriminatory towards people of different racial origin or people with disabilities. It can be a deep-seated fear within the individual that causes him or her to behave in a discriminatory fashion. There is much evidence from studies of the human condition of abuse by people in power. The most extreme examples of such abuse are usually found in war-torn areas such as Rwanda or Srebrenica, and even Iraq where the conditions in prisons serve as an example. All right-minded people should avail of every opportunity to roundly condemn such abuse. However, we sometimes tend to say injustice only happens in these places but that is not the case.

Discrimination and the abuse of power are liable to happen in all kinds of circumstances and in a much less dramatic way than in some of the examples I have given. Nevertheless, it is true that there are employees whose very lives are made a misery because of mistreatment, either by their superiors or others in the workplace whose behaviour is entirely unacceptable. Some forms of such behaviour are addressed in the Bill. It is not before time that we recognised that such abuses do happen and that there is a need for legislative provisions to address them. There is also a need for a very clear means to pursue discrimination cases, whether they are related to sexual orientation, referred to in the Bill, or any of the other categories covered in the two previous Acts and the Bill.

We generally tend to think of the treatment of non-nationals when we talk of difficulties associated with equality and I suppose it is true that there are some instances of discrimination against them. We have a large number of asylum seekers in Ireland, some of whom have been here for a very long time and many of whom would dearly wish to make a positive contribution to the economy. It is incumbent on us to address this very important issue. As we have all said at various times, there is much work to be done.

Many non-nationals, because they have been in Ireland for a considerable period, have made a commitment to remain in the country. It would be a positive move if this commitment was recognised by a scheme that allowed them find a useful place in society as quickly as possible, regardless of whether they were asylum seekers or fell under another category. Were this to be achieved quickly, some of the instances of racial discrimination about which we hear and encounter occasionally would no longer arise. Ultimately, many of the problems can be traced back to a belief, sometimes fuelled by one or two media organs and by ignorance, that those who enter the country seeking asylum or refugee status are getting a better deal than some citizens. This is patently untrue. However, the fact that asylum seekers are denied the opportunity to make a positive contribution as employees in the economy tends to lend some credence to this entirely baseless allegation, which one reads and hears frequently, sometimes in public.

Over a long period we have had difficulties regarding the treatment of the Traveller community and how it interacts with others. We need to be very clear about where we stand on this issue. It is obvious that there is a need to set out the rights of citizens and a mechanism to protect those rights. However, we need to look with honesty at the operation of some of the measures we have put in place and ascertain whether what was achieved in the Equal Status Act, for example, was positive. I doubt whether bringing individual publicans before the courts and having them pay a couple of thousand euro, or whatever the fine might be, is of any assistance in improving the lot of Travellers. Furthermore, when we set out the rights of any minority group, we do not include in the relevant provision an obligation for such groups to behave as good citizens. There is a great deal of confusion about this. Anybody with the temerity to suggest that Travellers or others have behaved in an unacceptable fashion runs the risk of being accused of making an attack on them, in breach of equality legislation. We need to be very clear that whatever rights are afforded under legislation run only as far as everybody else's rights run and that the obligation to behave well extends to everybody.

This brings me back to my point on the need for all societies in western Europe to be aware of the enormous advantages, in terms of quality of life for every individual, that lie in committing to a society with an in-built principle of equality across all areas, as is evident in the Equality Bill and others. When we bring ourselves to the point of knowing that the philosophy underlying this legislation improves quality of life for all, the legislation will have a positive impact. I refer not only to the quality of life of the direct beneficiaries of the provisions of the Equality Bill but also to everybody else. Ultimately, the belief in equality that increasingly permeates European society will become accepted in other societies where, frankly, it is simply not recognised. Conflict arises from inequality and injustice. I commend the Bill to the House.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this very important legislation. We often blame the European Union for certain issues but it has introduced much necessary equality legislation and raised issues that we might otherwise not have dealt with had we not been part of that bigger community. Some of our previous equality Acts have proven to be very beneficial.

We would all like to think employee-employer relationships were extremely good but I only have to consider the case of some friends of mine to demonstrate the opposite. They had to rely completely on employment equality legislation to protect their rights. They received major publicity recently when they won their case regarding promotion. The problems to which I refer continued until the passage of the 1998 Act. Those concerned welcome the fact that there is legislation in place to ensure they are afforded their rights. I could not help admiring the words spoken by the Minister on Second Stage when he said that Ireland is to the fore in its promotion and protection of the principles of equality and freedom from discrimination as a result of ground-breaking legislation enacted in this regard. There is no doubt that there is good legislation in place but this legislation is not necessarily implemented.

We are good legislators. I have regularly said in the House that although the legislation dealing with meat and bonemeal was enacted in 1989, it was not implemented until 1996. If it had been implemented when it should have been, we would not have had the same crisis with BSE. It is not enough just to introduce legislation, it must be implemented.

I welcome our involvement in the European Union. I have been heavily involved in farm organisations both at national and European level and, in that context, I became involved with Northern Ireland issues. There is a matter that worries me at present. An earlier speaker referred to religious discrimination. Since I became involved in farming politics and continued into the party political structure in this House, I have never highlighted the religious issue. However, I must mention it in this context. In the past week I discovered that a body known as the Ulster-Scots Agency, under the chairmanship of Lord Laird, has had its funding cut. This body was highlighted as a major breakthrough in the context of peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland. It produces a newsletter and Members of the House will have received a copy of it.

The chairman of the body felt obliged to resign from the agency last week because of the cut in the budget. Through that agency a small group was set up in my home village of Newbliss to deal with the Border minority group and ensure the people got their fair share of assistance. The person working for that group will be let go at the end of August. This is taking place at a time when, according to today's newspapers, there is an unexpected Exchequer surplus of €500 million. I am aware that the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Lenihan, is committed to equality issues and I urge him to ask the Government to take immediate action on this issue and to ensure that funding is restored. As matters stand, it raises questions about equality and the religious factor, an issue I hate to raise in this House. However, it must be raised in this context. Lord Laird has been trying to promote the culture of that society. This issue should be dealt with in a proactive and considered manner.

Ulster Scots is spoken in east Donegal as well.

The agency covers the Border area and is extremely active.

It is not just in Northern Ireland.

Yes. It is promoting the old culture that existed there.

This Bill amends a number of other Acts and I welcome that in principle. It is the result of European legislation. Another issue which I must raise, and it might surprise the Minister, is the Irish language. I do not have a great ability in the language — I will not even try to speak in Irish in the House — however, many people are annoyed that, despite all the talk about equality and the fact that Ireland has been a member of the European Union since 1973 and now holds the EU Presidency, Ireland is the only country whose people do not have the right to speak their language at European venues. I urge the Minister to reconsider that and take account of the anxieties of those who have a major commitment to the Irish language.

This affects not just the people who regularly come to mind. Sometimes we are inclined to allow the hardline republican groups to claim the Irish language. I have good friends who were born and reared in Belfast but whose children were reared in Monaghan and all of them are fluent Irish speakers. It is for no other reason than they just love the language. My colleague, Deputy McGinley, will obviously be able to speak about that in Irish. It is an issue that must be dealt with in the last few months of the Irish Presidency.

The Bill covers many issues. However, there is great anxiety among the public about the issue of foreigners living and working here. There is a great deal of misinformation and this worries me as we face an election campaign. A large number of people working in this country are from countries which became member states last weekend and I welcome them to this country as European citizens.

There are also others from outside the EU. I recently encountered a case of two African men who desperately want to work in this country. They have good reasons for being here. They are drivers but under our regulations they are being asked to return to their home country. At a time when we need such people, we must seriously consider their rights and the rights of their employer. The employer could recruit workers from some of the new member states but they cannot drive because they do not have the correct type of licence to drive on our roads. The Africans, however, have legitimate driving licences. This is relevant to insurance and the serious lorry crashes which have occurred in this country as a result of recruiting drivers who were insufficiently trained and did not understand our roads.

We need to deal with this as an equality issue. People, regardless of their country of origin, should be allowed to come here as long as they are prepared to work and provide a service that is needed. I do not want people coming to this country to sponge off us but people who are capable of working and who have jobs should get a chance.

The equality issue also affects people with disabilities. It is annoying that in recent weeks a number of Bills have been rushed through this House, not to mention the electronic voting shambles, while the disabilities Bill is still not finalised. This Bill is a matter of life and death for many people and when we talk about equality we cannot ignore that. A mother of a seven year old girl contacted me last night. The child desperately needs a resource teacher. The mother has repeatedly tried to get a resource teacher, to the extent that the Minister's staff have come to know her on a personal basis over the past 18 months. There are five children in the rural school concerned who require a resource teacher. Before the last general election, parents were told that 350 resource teachers would be made available in the following September. However, that child has not yet been given the resource teacher she needs.

Debate adjourned.