Deputy Crawford was in possession and he has eight minutes remaining.
Equality Bill 2004 [Seanad]: Second Stage (Resumed).
I welcome the opportunity to conclude my contribution on this important issue. I visited a disability group in Kingscourt, County Cavan, since I last spoke on the legislation. I listened to the group's story and, unfortunately, we have a long way to go before equality is achieved. Parents in this group provide 24-hour care for their children with few services available to them. They must bring them to school in Cootehill in their cars or travel on the bus with them because no assistants are available on the bus. No respite care is available and some parents must put their children in sheltered housing in Monaghan, which is a long distance from their homes. The Ceann Comhairle will have experience of service provision in Carrickmacross, County Monaghan. People with disabilities cannot access most premises, including public buildings, in the town and no parking is provided for them. Above all, it is impossible for them to get jobs.
We have debated the rights of people with disabilities frequently and we had a three hour debate on this issue over the past two days but people are seriously concerned about the delay in introducing disability legislation. The Government is not prepared to provide rights to people with disabilities, which it has promised for years.
Under section 24 there may be a difficulty regarding payments to people with disabilities, regardless of their ability. This is a serious issue and I hope the Minister of State will clarify it. Although people may be disabled, they are often well able to work with computers and so on and undertake many different jobs. If they can do the same job as an able person, they should be guaranteed the same wage as him or her and they certainly should not be paid at a rate lower than the minimum wage.
The Minister of State indicated in his contributions that amendments will be tabled that will provide for a parent or representative of a person with an intellectual or physiological disability to act in place of a person seeking redress. I welcome that development because it is important that somebody should be allowed to speak on behalf of people with such disabilities.
The Bill will also provide that licensed drivers under the age of 18 will have recourse to the Equal Status Act in the case of unreasonable treatment in regard to motor insurance. This will provide solace to the individuals concerned and it will be welcomed with great eagerness by able bodied young people. Nothing has annoyed people in rural Ireland more than the cost of motor insurance for young people because they must use a car to travel to their places of employment. Very often, their insurance is double the value of their cars. If this amendment is made, I will welcome it as a major step forward.
It has been mentioned recently that charges for school transport will be increased. While this is not provided for in the legislation, it raises the question of the equality of services available to people in rural areas as opposed to those available to people living in urban areas. That cannot be allowed to happen. A total of 47,000 medical cards have been withdrawn, which means that people who did not have to pay for school transport previously must do so now and if they have to pay higher charges, that would be unfair.
Children with Down's syndrome used to be looked after by independent support groups but they are now looked after by health boards. The services they received are no longer available to them. Ireland is a so-called Celtic tiger nation and it is not acceptable that people with disabilities cannot access services they were able to when times were much tougher.
Housing is also an issue. It must be ensured people with disabilities are given priority in this area. I was contacted yesterday by a constituent who has a disability. She holds down a full-time job but must climb stairs to reach her flat in the building in which she resides. She is not capable of climbing the stairs and she must carry all her goods up as well. She must make a tremendous effort but she does not have better access to housing than anybody else on the waiting list. She is not a single mother but that should not be held against her. There should be equality in this regard and she should benefit.
I dealt with a case involving another woman a few years ago. She was 21 years old and she was seeking housing but because she was not married or did not have a child, she was not allowed to join the housing waiting list. I raised this issue at a Monaghan County Council meeting at the time but the issue was not resolved until she married.
There are also equality issues relating to the aged. I received a letter from Cavan County Council recently stating that urgent work that needed to be done to an elderly woman's house could not be done because of a scarcity of money. A new application has been forwarded to the person concerned. That application will be assessed under the council policy on essential repairs, which was recently adopted. It is nearly impossible for her to have the case processed.
In his speech, the Minister of State stressed the importance of ensuring that a coherent and consistent approach be maintained in our legislative and administrative infrastructure for equality. Last night I heard about a couple who received planning permission in Dublin. It had been granted for three months when a case was suddenly taken against them. The couple in question has been harassed for the past four years through all sorts of structures. It still seems that when one is in a position of privilege and power, one gets away with behaviour that the ordinary person would not. This is why we need to ensure the existence of a coherent and consistent approach.
I will return to this major issue which cannot be ignored. People are entitled to their rights irrespective of where they live or who they are. I will certainly maintain my right to defend them.
Like Deputy Crawford, I welcome the opportunity to contribute on the Bill. It is important and is part of a schedule of legislation affecting social issues in general, many of which are interlinked. We must continue to develop this process and make changes when they are needed.
In that context, Deputy Crawford and others referred to section 24 which amends section 35 of the original Act of 1998. There has been concern about this area but it needs to be clarified that certain cases are treated differently and different rates are paid. This compares with the issue of apprenticeship. Apprentices are paid different rates at different stages of their training for doing more or less the same work. As far as I know, a principle was accepted by the EU that, in training circumstances, sheltered workshops in particular, different rates could be paid to different people. However, it is important that we have clarity in this regard, and that is what the Bill sets out to achieve. It is part of a raft of legislation and we must continue to address the relevant issue and make improvements.
This Bill, or any other legislation for that matter, will not on its own prevent abuses and discrimination from taking place. What it ensures is that when such discrimination takes place, the victim can take action. There will be a guarantee of a firm legal platform for taking such action against those indulging in discrimination.
Many citizens have a built-in bias against others, as we all know. It can be based on a variety of factors, including skin colour and gender. In many cases, the difficulty arises when these biased people gain power and abuse it. When the perpetrator is in a position of power it can be very awkward for the victim to take action against him or her. Therefore, we need this legislation to ensure a legal platform is in place to allow the victim seek redress.
The best way of tackling bias is education. We cannot depend on it alone, however, and we need a mechanism to support victims of discrimination. Ultimately, the victim must have a means of redress when any bad occurrences take place. That is what is involved in the Equality Bill.
I am well aware of the Minister of State's interest in and commitment to having equality legislation in place and I compliment him on that. Deputy Cuffe, in his contribution, referred to a form of begrudgery in the Minister of State's opening speech. I was surprised by this and I am not quite sure what the Deputy meant. The Minister of State has a duty to ensure the legislation he puts in place can be implemented and will stand up to legal challenge. I know he is committed in this field and I urge him to continue with the work he is doing in this regard.
The Bill will enact into law three EU Council directives on issues including the principle of equality between persons irrespective of racial or ethnic origin, the establishment of a general framework for equal treatment in employment and the implementation of the principle of equal treatment of men and women in access to employment, vocational training, promotion and working conditions. The Acts most directly affected by the directives are the Employment Equality Act 1998 and the Equal Status Act 2000. These two Acts were, in their own way, landmarks in the campaign for greater equality and anti-discrimination legislation. As we know, many cases have been taken based on them.
It is important that we also recognise that the two Acts have been catalysts for a sea change in the approach of those in a position to give instructions and those in positions of power. The legislation has led to an awareness on their part of how they should behave in certain circumstances. This change in approach is taking place day by day and the legislation ensures a more enlightened approach to the relevant issues.
Both Acts provided for significant and wide-ranging protection against discrimination in the workplace and regarding the provision of services and related matters. I refer to ageism, access to employment for people with a disability, gender related issues and access to public buildings. The issue of fair treatment by all State bodies should also be considered because I am especially concerned about some of the quangos we put in place to run many of the services we provide.
Other Members have referred to discrimination against Travellers, on which I will elaborate if time permits. Age discrimination, unfortunately, is more or less taken for granted in society. In some instances, it is officially sanctioned and is policy. An example of its having been embedded in legislation was the compulsory retirement age of 65, which has recently been modified and discussed widely. The retirement rule was such that, in many areas of employment, anybody who reached the age of 65 was simply forced to retire regardless of medical condition or, more importantly, social circumstances.
The changes in demographics and longevity in particular have led to a change in approach to retirement, but I believe the factors that have led to this are all pension related. However, I welcome that we are becoming more flexible in our thinking on the retirement age. I have stated before that if people of 65 are capable of running marathons, they are quite capable of doing a day's work.
I have had concerns for many years about ageism in the workplace. I had responsibility for a large number of employees over a period of many years and I repeatedly made the point that while age can affect their output and ability to work, it brings experience, reliability and a commitment to the task that younger people may not have. I discovered that if one lost one's job ten years ago at the age of 50, one was more or less unemployable. That was a tragic situation where people were thrown on the scrapheap. Perhaps it was a perceived lack of mobility or doubts about the person's physical attributes that led to people discriminating in this way. There is a balance on the other side but people were not aware of it and simply continued to discriminate.
A person of 40, 50 or 60 years of age will bring attributes such as experience to bear on the task to be performed. We should be cautious not to discriminate on the basis of age. The strengths of people in the younger age groups will be different from those of the older age groups but an overall balance can be achieved if the older person is given the chance. If we accept the principle of equality and treat people with respect, regardless of age, it will be a big advance. However, legislation is needed to support that.
At the other end of the spectrum of discrimination based on age is the issue mentioned by Deputy Crawford, the treatment of young people seeking car insurance. There has been blatant abuse by the motor insurance companies of the concept of equality of treatment. Various methods are used to get around the legislation that is in place. The basic method used by many companies is to give an unacceptable or outlandish quote. The quotes are little short of robbery. I am glad this issue is being examined in a number of practical ways. First, we are seeking to reduce the cost of insurance in general by taking steps we should probably have taken 20 years ago to deal with bad or illegal drivers and to improve the infrastructure. We are also doing it through legislation by not permitting discrimination against young people.
The companies, not satisfied with treating young people in that fashion, were also using gender as a basis for a different type of discrimination whereby different insurance rates were offered for male and female applicants. This has led to another debate in the context of proposed EU legislation. The insurance companies have explained how much more all other customers will pay for insurance if this practice is outlawed. The suggestion that this will increase insurance costs for everybody else is rubbish. Both the insurance companies and the legislators must put a regime in place to ensure that everybody is treated fairly and equally. If the laws are in place and are implemented, everybody's insurance premia will be reduced. We must stop the practice of unequal treatment. Female drivers might be happy with the present situation but if discrimination is allowed to start, it will be hard to stop. When there is such discrimination, we must intervene and stop it.
There are many other areas of discrimination to be tackled. I referred to quangos because I had an experience recently with An Bord Pleanála and a group of residents who live in Glasheen, near my parish in Cork. The Oireachtas introduces legislation to establish these bodies and then cuts them away from Government. There have been many complaints recently about parliamentary questions being disallowed because the Minister is no longer directly responsible for the body concerned. Many functions are being moved from the political arena and given an independent status, which leads to the establishment of quangos.
The difficulty arises when things go wrong in the quango. The difficulty for the group of citizens in Glasheen arose when planning permission was refused for a house on a small site at the side of another house. That was overcome by the applicants securing permission to double the size of the existing house, which people presumed would be for multiple uses. Residents asked me for my advice and I told them how to use the system by contacting An Bord Pleanála and making their objection. They did this. There were two objections. One was from the immediate neighbour, who slipped up and did not include the message from Cork City Council that he had been involved. His objection was disallowed on a technicality.
The second objection was most interesting. It was from the residents' association. The members did not hear anything from the board for some time so they inquired about their objection. They were told the board did not have an objection from the association. They came to me to find out what they could do. We questioned An Bord Pleanála but were told that no such objection was received. The association produced the registered post receipt but the board told the residents — I spoke to the board's representatives with the residents — that their agent, An Post, had let them down. An Post was contacted and it produced a signed receipt for the letter from An Bord Pleanála's offices. It was signed by a certain individual and when I and the secretary of the association returned to the board we were told that the board had no such employee. We were told that An Post was most unsafe in that letters were thrown into all sorts of offices and the organisation could do anything with such letters.
After about a week of actively pursuing this matter, we were told that there was such an individual but that he did not work directly for the board. He was the employee of a security company which the board employs. He signed for the letters but the board maintained it was not fully responsible. After another two or three weeks of arguing about this, I asked about the equality of treatment for the appellants in this case. The board insisted it did not have their letter despite the fact that it had signed for the letter and that a package was delivered.
These residents are left in limbo. Their only recourse now is the courts. Everybody knows the costs of the courts and tries to avoid taking that course. However, the case I have outlined highlights how vulnerable the public is when dealing with quangos. I am not using the word "quangos" in an insulting way. It simply means quasi-autonomous non-governmental agencies. However, they apply their rules rigidly. The Minister should consider providing in legislation for a means of redress for people such as these residents who find themselves caught on a technicality. They have proof of their actions and that they did everything correctly but have been told the letter is not there and that the board will discriminate in favour of the person who applied for planning and not deal with the objection.
It is a scandal. An Post did its job even though An Bord Pleanála says it failed the residents. I believe I did my job by advising them on the procedures, without interfering in the rights or wrongs of the case or trying to get a particular decision. The residents have been let down by the public service and by the State. I am not sure where they can go from here.
Another issue I have spoken about over the years is the availability of employment for persons with a disability. The State could do far more in this regard given its huge bureaucracy and huge number of employees. For many years the objective was to have 3% of all positions in the public service allocated to persons with a disability. That objective was not met. Approximately five years ago, we agreed, in conjunction with the disabilities groups and national bodies, to widen the parameters that would be applied to allow one to be designated officially as disabled. This meant one did not have to be, for example, totally blind or deaf. The parameters were widened substantially but the 3% target was not increased.
I was a member of the Southern Health Board and Cork City Council and each year I put down a question on this issue, inquiring about the current figures for the employment of disabled persons by both agencies. I did this to highlight the issue within the personnel departments involved and to make people aware of the need to discriminate in favour of such people. While I am not sure of the present figures, I would like to think we could keep working in that way. The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform was at 2.7% or 2.8% at the last count and I hope all other Departments are at least at that figure. I am told Dublin City Council is a leader with an achievement rate of 4%, on which I compliment it. The widening of the criteria for inclusion on the list meant that we should have probably increased the target to 4% or 5% for the employment of people with a disability.
It would not be much good to employ a person in a wheelchair, who would be located on the sixth floor of a building without appropriate facilities. I know huge work has been done and the OPW in particular is to be complimented for its efforts. However, we need to continue to highlight this issue to jog the conscience of people in this regard. In the area of access to public transport, all carriages of the trains used on the Dublin to Belfast line are accessible and work is being done on those used on the Dublin to Cork line. While all new trains are fully accessible, we need to continue to work on outlying areas. In the past two years we have had the experience of wheelchair passengers having to travel in the guard's van and being more or less shackled down for the trip, which is totally unacceptable.
There is discrimination in the way pregnant women are treated. One in four nurses have work sharing arrangements, mainly to allow them to start families. We should discriminate in a favourable fashion. We can discriminate in a negative or positive way. We try to discriminate in a positive way with weighted employment etc. We can do the same in other areas and this legislation will help. The disability Bill and all the other legislation the present and previous Government introduced will help. In particular I commend the Minister of State, Deputy O'Dea, for his record in this regard and I wish him well with the Bill.
I wish to share my time with Deputy Neville.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
Fine Gael in general welcomes the Bill, which makes a series of textual amendments to the Employment Equality Act 1998 and the Equal Status Act 2000, to implement a number of EU directives. It removes the upper age limit for the age ground of the Employment Equality Act and it enhances the reasonable accommodation of people with disabilities provisions under the same Act. However it fails to develop remedies and redress under the legislation to the point of being effective.
While the Bill is rather straightforward, it could have gone further to implement additional changes in equality legislation. Unfortunately the EU is driving these changes and not the Government. It is regrettable that in the area of equality as in other areas the Government has taken a back seat approach. It has not been the driving force for change in this area and its approach has been reactive. We have Europe to thank for the many progressive developments in this area and in other areas of law and society. While we can be very quick to condemn Europe for its rules and regulations, Europe has put the need for equality to the forefront.
The Bill addresses many aspects of the equality of citizens. However it does not address the question of equality for the Irish language. In my view and that of many in my constituency the failure of the Government to have Irish recognised, as an official EU language is unacceptable. I have received many representations on this matter. With the exception of Ireland all countries that signed the Treaty of Rome in 1957 or have signed treaties of accession since then, have had their national languages recognised as official languages of the European Union.
The decision by the Government in 1972 to exclude Irish has disadvantaged our people. Many of the new accession countries are much smaller than Ireland and yet their languages are recognised. Estonia has a population of 1.4 million and Slovenia has a population of 1.9 million. In Malta, where English is widely spoken, the national language, Maltese, is recognised as an official language by the European Union. Despite all the promises of the Government that the status of Irish would be recognised and the Gaeltacht Commission's findings, Irish has not been made an official language.
It is a fundamental principle of the European Union that language is central to people's identity on the basis that respect must be accorded to linguistic diversity. That diversity is not a brake on progress — rather it is central to the multicultural heritage, which has fostered the economic growth that shapes the modern Europe. This becomes important when people are applying for EU jobs. I recently read of 350 vacancies for English language secretaries. Candidates were required to have two official languages. Irish could not be listed as a second language as it was not an official language and this discriminated against Irish people applying for such jobs. There are a number of similar examples.
It is disappointing as we enter the last month of the EU presidency, the Government has done very little to have Irish recognised as an official language of the EU, particularly as the ten countries that have just joined the EU had their languages recognised. We may have missed the last possible opportunity to have our native tongue recognised. It is a disgrace that when we elect our 13 MEPs on 11 June they will not be able to speak in their native tongue in the Parliament Chamber. Many of us remember when Mary Banotti MEP made her maiden speech in European Parliament she spoke some words as Gaeilge. She was asked to sit down or speak in English only as Irish was not an official language, which was sad and should have been addressed during Ireland's Presidency. I wish Mary Banotti well in her retirement from the European Parliament where she has spent 20 years.
We are all aware that the Equality Authority took Portmarnock Golf Club to court under the Equal Status Act 2000. This was an important case for the interpretation of the provisions of that Act as they affect registered clubs. It clearly holds benefit for women who play golf and equally holds benefit for the wider goal of gender equality in society, which is most welcome. Last Monday, the club had its drinks licence suspended for seven days after its rule excluding women was found to be discriminatory.
The legislation represents another lost opportunity to encourage employers to introduce family friendly work practices. On the question of disability Fine Gael has real concerns about section 9 which deals with the right of disabled persons to have access to employment. It uses words such as "burden", "disruption" and "detriment" in the context of determining whether a disabled person should be facilitated. The Government's approach to disability is more akin to an accountant's cost benefit analysis. This is totally unacceptable at a time when the Government has published only one disability Bill and has persistently delayed the second one. On the Order of Business each morning, Members ask the Taoiseach or the Tánaiste when the disability Bill will come forward and the House are told that it will happen shortly. This morning, I heard the Tánaiste say it will be published in the coming weeks. We will welcome it.
It was disappointing during Private Members' business on Tuesday and Wednesday that the Government missed an opportunity to make a difference to the lives of people with disabilities. It refused to endorse the Opposition proposal to convene a national summit on disability issues in tandem with the publication of the disability Bill. I commend my colleague, Deputy Stanton, who has done Trojan work on disabilities. Disability issues must be treated as priorities. It is sad that so many people are left on the long finger and it is time for the Government to publish the disability Bill. There has been enough debate, discussion and consultation over the years. People with disabilities should not have to rely on the goodwill of the general public nor should they have to try over and over again to convince the Government that as equal citizens of the State, they should enjoy the same privileges and rights as able-bodied persons.
Deputy Dennehy mentioned the 3% of public service jobs which were reserved for people with disabilities. The rule was introduced in 1977 and the goal has been achieved for the first time in the Civil Service recently. Disability groups which have constantly campaigned for rights based legislation enforceable in the courts are justifiably disgusted by the proposed disability Bill which will not legally oblige the State to provide extra services for the disabled. It is wrong that services will be provided only if resource constraints permit. Once again, the Government has shown that its priorities are Exchequer driven while society's weakest link pays for its broken promises.
In my constituency, Clare County Council has made every effort to recruit people with disabilities and I commend it as one of the leading local authorities in this context. There are other cases however. A young girl working in a restaurant experienced a seizure, which was a once-off event. The following morning, her employer dismissed her. While she won her case for unfair dismissal, she received no compensation as her employer went out of business soon afterwards. It was a sad scenario. The Government should make legislative provisions in respect of employers who are not registered companies. It is important to note that the majority of employers abide by the rules and treat staff extremely well.
The Equality Bill appears to miss the opportunity to prevent discrimination in the context of parental, paternity and adoptive leave. Discrimination can be experienced by men as well as women but the Bill misses the chance to admit it. Fine Gael has concerns about section 24, which seems openly to prevent the payment of different rates of pay to disabled persons. It represents a regressive step and marks a departure from the EU principle of equal pay for equal work. While the Minister may be well intentioned in proposing the section, its effect will be discriminatory and provide an avenue for the exploitation of vulnerable people who for fear of losing their jobs will be reluctant to complain.
A great deal has been said about car insurance and discrimination against young drivers who are asked to pay very high premium rates. The issue must be addressed. I hope provisions will be included in the Bill in this context. While 41% of the Dublin Bus fleet is wheelchair friendly, rural based services must be improved. I acknowledge that trains are being upgraded. Public buildings must also be upgraded to provide facilities for the disabled, particularly small hotels and bed and breakfast accommodation over two and three floors. While there are other aspects of the Bill I would like to talk about, the time is not available to me. I would particularly like to discuss provisions for people over 50 years who lose their jobs and feel they are the weakest people in society as no one wants them. I welcome the Bill which goes some way towards helping people to counteract discrimination.
I am pleased to contribute today to debate on the Equality Bill 2004. In the Employment Equality Act 1977 and subsequent Acts, provisions were made to prevent discrimination against women. This process was hailed as a very important development at the time, which it was. However, the employment of women and their equality should be re-examined with the benefit of hindsight in the context of increasing debate about the glass ceiling which prevents their promotion. The ambitions of the EU and the Government in the 1970s for equality to prevail in terms of women's rights and employment have not been realised.
We need only look at the Dáil and Seanad to realise that politics is one of the areas in which women have not established themselves in an equal position in terms of numbers in Cabinet or in political parties or in the Dáil or Seanad. The number of women who have reached senior levels within industry and the public service has not reflected the ambitions of people who were there when the Employment Equality Acts were introduced. There is just one female chief executive officer of a health board and only two female county managers at local government level. We must ask why that is the case. It is not because people do not wish for equality nor is it the result of a Government policy. However, there is something inherently preventing the full participation of women on an equal basis in all areas of private sector employment, the public service and the political process. Society, led by the Government and political parties, should seriously examine the reason our ambitions have not been realised 30 years after the acceptance of the idea of equality for women.
We must also examine our approach to the aged. I have raised the issue of discrimination against older people on several occasions. People age at different rates. A person of 70 may be as physically and mentally active and alert as another person of 50 or even 40 years of age. People can contribute at 60, 65 and even 70 to the same extent as another person of 50 due to the difference in the ageing process for each of us. We fail to recognise this fact when we tell people of 65 that they have reached retirement age and must cease to work. People should have the opportunity to retire or change employment from their 50s to their 70s.
Ageism should not exist in this area, rather the recognition of aged persons' capacity to continue contributing in their profession, employment and other areas. We should not have this idea that at a certain age, a person is looking back rather than forward and that his or her contribution is already made. There is a growing trend for people under 65 years to take early retirement. Many may have aged mentally and physically at an earlier stage. With the significant talent of this age group, the continued role people of an advanced age can play in society must be recognised. We can learn from how previous societies looked on the aged as the wise men and women rather than as pensioners.
Employment discrimination against those who have suffered a psychiatric illness is prevalent. I have met individuals who were treated in psychiatric hospitals and made full recoveries. However, when applying for jobs, they had to undergo medical examinations and wondered if they should reveal their past illness and treatment. While they should reveal this information, in doing so they encounter a level of discrimination from either public or private employers. A mindset exists among employers at all levels that there will be concerns if an employee has had a psychiatric illness, particularly in employment that tests one's cognitive abilities. Within the psychiatric profession, it is accepted that 90% of depression cases treated see a full recovery without any further effects, just like pneumonia or any other transient illness. Employers and recruitment agencies must be educated to be conscious that the stigmatisation of psychiatric illness can lead to discrimination, especially against those who have had hospital treatment. In doing so, employers are missing the opportunity to hire good employees who could significantly contribute to their enterprises.
In last night's debate, the Minister of State, Deputy Tim O'Malley, from the Limerick East constituency conveyed the State's approach to the provision of psychiatric services when he boasted that €90 million was spent since 1997 on the development of psychiatric services. This works out at €11 million on average per year. Compare this with the costs for electronic voting, with which the Minister of State, Deputy O'Dea, had problems, or the Punchestown equestrian centre. An annual spend of €11 million exposes the Government's true commitment to psychiatric care.
We are not all strictly female or male as each gender has certain traits of the other. In my case, I find it difficult to admit I am wrong, although I have little occasion to do so. The late Theresa Ahearn was a well-respected Member of the House and I recall debating with her on equality issues. I argued strongly that one cannot legislate for attitudes, while she was of the opposite view and argued it just as strongly. Two years ago I heard a statement that supported Theresa Ahearn's argument and I now accept she was right. The British politician, Mr. Jack Straw, not someone I would normally quote, during an interview on discrimination and equality was informed by the interviewer that one cannot legislate for attitude. He agreed but added that one can legislate to ensure one's attitude does not detrimentally affect others. That should be the aim of anti-discrimination legislation.
Although people's attitudes can be changed through education, one must also ensure that attitudes do not impinge on others. Enforcement on that basis is as important as legislation. This process is begun by educating people to respect others, no matter what their imperfections. I admit I come from a group of people who are not perfect. It would be lovely if we were all colour blind but we are not. It would be lovely if gender was irrelevant, but it is not, although in certain instances it should be. Education is the starting point against discrimination, but legislation must ensure that attitudes do not impinge on other's lives.
Certain elements of the Bill need to be taken on board. Ireland has still not implemented the anti-discrimination at work EU directive. It is not as if we have been asked to introduce wide-ranging legislation with draconian penalties. The EU normally asks directives to be introduced at the lowest possible level. If anti-discriminatory or equality legislation is about anything, then it needs to be all-encompassing. Areas will be found where new forms of discrimination emerge, although they are few and far between. We have been around long enough to know what we do not want to do.
I find peculiar and disturbing the provision under job justification that one can be refused a job on the basis of gender. I do not want to paint all employers as awful people. The majority of employers do a very good job, keep their companies going, try to make a profit, keep the staff happy and so on. When it comes to employing staff, however, and interviews for jobs, if employers can find a way to employ a man instead of a woman, they usually will.
The only two great leaps forward for women in the area of employment have taken place in times of crisis. We now have approximately three women at county manager level in the country, but the number of women at grade III level in the local public service is enormous. As one goes up the pyramid of grades, the number of women becomes smaller. For some reason — perhaps it is the mindset — women drop off the pile.
The report issued yesterday by the Equality Authority states that a considerable number of the complaints received by it were related to discrimination because of pregnancy or sexual harassment. We can have it one way or the other. Do we want the population to increase to fund pensions for our older generation or do we not want women to have children any more? If we want them to have children, we must organise the workplace to ensure they can do so without it impinging on their prospects.
Deputy Neville asked why women do not reach beyond the glass ceiling. I can understand why he is puzzled about this. Many men do not think about it very deeply. Most of the women with whom I deal, as, I am sure, does the Minister of State, because we have similar constituencies, do not even get out of the basement. The glass ceiling is one thing, but these women need to get to the second floor at least. The reason more women are stuck in low-paid employment and do not reach the higher levels is child care. My response to anyone who asks me about the issues facing women is "child care." We cannot have it both ways. We cannot say we want women to participate in society if we also accuse them of not being at home for their children when the young lad — or the young girl, as it was in my case — is found to have broken someone's window.
We cannot be the social housekeepers of the world as well as entrepreneurs without flexibility and assistance from the State. I have never believed in the concept of the superwoman, but there are mechanisms we can put in place to ensure women do not suffer discrimination and that they can help to contribute to society. This is essential. Women's participation in society benefits not only women but men as well. It is of benefit to all of society. We will need to consider this further.
To return to the issue of job justification and gender, I could never figure out why there were not more women in the area of gynaecology. Why are 98% of all gynaecologists men? It is not as if they will ever need to treat a man. The reason for this is that the area is a closed shop, a boys' club. There are many good gynaecologists and I thank God for them. As they say, if everything is going right, one is paying too much, and if something goes wrong, one will never be able to pay enough. However, I do not understand why there are not more women in this profession.
I will return to the issue of the protection of religious ethos in schools and so on. When this measure was first introduced by Mervyn Taylor, I opposed it, despite being in the same Government. I must admit I received severe abuse because of this, which did not all come from outside the party. I accept fully that schools that have a particular ethos need to protect it. My children were deliberately sent to a convent school. This does not necessarily mean, however, that somebody who does not share that ethos cannot promote it if that is his or her job.
We should not give to particular sections of society the right to discriminate. We should give them the right to employ people who are capable of doing their jobs and to dismiss those who are not. We know there are enough of them about. However, to give a section of society the right to discriminate is dangerous. We should support these people. We should agree that ethos is important and must be upheld and protected. If someone is damaging that ethos, he or she can be dismissed to protect it, but we should not give people the right not to employ someone because he or she does not share a certain view.
Only 10% of Irish companies have voluntarily altered their workplaces so that people with disabilities can work there. This is probably because most companies do not realise there is a grant system and a major network of support to ensure that people with disabilities can work. I spoke at length last night about people with physical disabilities because I know something about this area. To deny someone the right to work because of the design of a building, which is not related to the person's ability or capacity to do the job is to deny ourselves the value and contribution of worthwhile people.
I agree with Deputy Neville about people who have suffered from mental illness in the past and the type of discrimination that can result. Mental illness is the new leprosy. We do not want to talk about it. This is because it is so close to home and we know any of us could be struck by it tomorrow. If employers want to employ people with disabilities, there are grants and advice available. Some of these people are incredibly gifted but simply cannot access certain buildings. This building is a case in point. I am not certain that if I were in a wheelchair, which I have been, I would want to suffer the humiliation of being carried in and out of here or having to sit outside while one of the ushers brought me a microphone. If we want change, we should start at home. The physical design of buildings which excludes people is disgraceful and should be dealt with.
Women earn much less than men despite the equal pay directives and legislation. Men earn €13.77 per hour on average, while women earn €9.86. It is estimated that this adds up to a difference of €1 million over the working lifetime of a woman. We all speak from our own experience and mine is of women who have not been treated equally. There is also the issue of women who work in the low-wage economy.
They do so following marriage to juggle child care. It is much easier to work from 7 p.m. until 10 p.m. or 11.30 p.m. cleaning offices when one's husband or partner is at home, or one's mother can drop in and mind the children. It makes life a bit easier to be at home during the day when the children are very young or to be able to pick them up from school because there are not adequate child care services.
There is the example of a young woman who worked for a local authority and had reasonable prospects, but brought home just €320 a week. If I were to tell this story about someone working in McDonalds from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., five days a week, bringing home €320 a week, we would all be outraged. This woman had reasonable prospects but she had a four month old baby and child care was costing her €250 a week, leaving her with €70. Anyone knows that food for a baby costs €40 a week. She had a car, because there is no public transport system. This woman gave up her job as she was not able to match her outgoings with her income. She reckoned that if she stayed at home and looked after her child at least she would not be in debt. This is what drives home the lack of a support system. If we want a society which caters for the next generation, we must put the mechanisms in place to ensure this happens.
If the Bill proposes that employers will be allowed to pay people with disabilities lower rates per hour than their able-bodied co-workers, I throw my hands in the air. It is an awful mindset and a terrible attitude. People in this society who are disabled, because of an accident in the womb, at birth or after birth through illness, appear to be of lesser value — I am not talking about social value but economic value — than those of us who can stand upright, negotiate stairs and do not need special toilets. I ask the Minister of State to remove this section from the Bill.
Nowadays there are many types of employees. On the one hand, there are those who have been in the workplace for years and, on the other, there are new employees being employed at a lower rate, which causes huge friction. Not only do people with a physical disability, or those of us who are less than perfect, look different, but they will now be treated differently, despite doing the same job. As this is one of the worst measures in the Bill, I appeal to the Minister of State to remove it — I believe I am appealing to someone who knows what I am talking about.
I hope great changes for the better will be made in the Bill. Elements of it are excellent, and I compliment the Minister of State on these, but there are measures which need to be improved. Those of us who have been discriminated against in one form or another will appreciate if the legislation protects us from such attitudes.
This is an important Bill which seeks to amend the Employment Equality Act 1998. I am grateful to have an opportunity to speak on the Bill. It proposes to make further and better provision in regard to equality of treatment in the workplace and elsewhere. It proposes to implement the principle of equal treatment between persons irrespective of racial or ethnic origin, establish a general framework for equal treatment in employment and occupation and implement the principle of equal treatment for men and women in regard to access to employment, vocational training and promotion, and working conditions, which is extremely important.
However, several commentators have said the Bill does not go far enough. It proposes to transpose the three EU directives into the Employment Equality Act and the Equal Status Act. These include the race directive, the framework for employment directive and the gender equal treatment directive. It removes the upper age limit under the Employment Equality Act and enhances the reasonable accommodation requirement for people with disabilities under the same Act. It fails to develop remedies and redress so that the legislation can be effective and persuasive, and does not measure up to the Equal Status Act in terms of improving the functions of the State as required under the race directive.
It is obvious that this is a necessary change. Europe has always driven us. It has been instrumental in keeping us on the straight and narrow in regard to employment law, in particular, and equality issues. We have our Constitution, but it has escape clauses, which means that some people are more equal than others. Our rights under the Constitution are balanced by escape clauses. This means that, in the interests of the State and so on, these rights are qualified. Under EU directives, we are obliged to implement these measures. We have often been slow to implement directives, but in some instances, we have over-implemented directives such as the nitrates directive and the habitats directive. These are important issues, which it is better to implement later rather than never.
Major advances on equality issues have been made by the Equality Authority of Ireland. The chief executive officer, Mr. Niall Crowley, has done very good work in this regard and continues to raise issues of extreme importance to society. While I welcome a standard of equality and proper employment practice across Europe, some areas are not covered by the directives. These areas have suffered badly in this country. There is the European working time directive which affects consultants and junior hospital doctors. While these people may be confined to working very few hours per week, general practitioners still work 168 hours a week, which does not make sense. There needs to be more co-ordination in the European Parliament and in the Council of Ministers in respect of the anomalies in the system. I do not know why a general practitioner should have to work 168 hours a week, all the hours God made, while a junior hospital doctor does not have to do so. When I worked in a hospital, I worked a one in two rota. My locum currently works 168 hours a week unless he can get a locum to replace him. These are the inequalities that exist in the current system.
This is important because these directives are based on logic. If someone holds a responsible job, such as a lorry driver, we must ensure that he does not drive too far. This directive is one way of ensuring that he is not a danger to himself and others. It is rational that junior hospital doctors should have a limited number of working hours because people's lives depend on them. Having worked around the clock as a doctor in a rural area, I know that there is a need for rest periods. That is not covered by EU legislation, which is a major problem. There are other areas that are not covered by equality legislation and I do not know why. However, I welcome the legislation before the House, warts and all.
Europe has dictated to us and we have been happy to comply because we are in Europe for the long haul. We have failed miserably in those areas in which Europe has not been involved. It trusted us to do the right and honourable thing with the funds it gave us, such as Structural Funds. Successive Governments failed to distribute the resources they received for the people in the deprived areas in Ireland. They denied us most of the funds and that is obvious from the mid-term review of the national development plan. The figures for expenditure on roads, public transport and other infrastructure show that we did not get the funding. We did not get it because the Government did not give it to us. That is why I have been elected to the Dáil — to make the point that for successive generations, Governments knew how people would vote and so did nothing for them.
There must be change. The most economically deprived area in Ireland is in my constituency. That should not be tolerated because people in the west matter. If the Government could ensure that half the number of graduates from the west would not have to come to Dublin for their first job, as is the case at present, it would mean a great deal to people in the west. It would also help the people of Dublin who can only move around the city at the same pace as 100 years ago — the pace of an ass and cart. Knock Airport was to have a tax incentive programme but it was blocked by the Government. The excuse was that it was prohibited by EU regulations, but it was our own Government that was responsible.
This legislation deals with the elderly, which is important. It means that someone over 65 who suffers from discrimination can be protected by this legislation. As a student in the US many years ago, I noticed that many old people were working. It is their right to work but our elderly were denied by legislation. I therefore welcome this aspect of the Bill. Younger people under 18 also need to be covered. It is obvious that the elderly have been forgotten because they do not have a voice. The sight of elderly people in institutions was the sad side of migration. They often did not have the right to live in their own area. The most deprived and vulnerable people in our community were those who had to leave our area and go to an institution where they knew no one. Like the old Indians, they lost heart and died because they were alone, with no resources or support from the new community. People should have a right to housing, to live in their own community and to keep their friends.
St. Brendan's village gives people the opportunity to stay in their own area no matter how old or disabled they are. Even if it cost twice as much, it would be worth it, but it is in fact more cost-effective and is the largest employer in our area. Every village needs something like it. I have nothing against nursing homes or far-away institutions, which are necessary, but we need a community alternative. Equality is about allowing elderly people who have never left their community to remain there. Community is where people are most happy and it also cost-effective. In this country, some people are more equal than others. In the west, there is a lack of infrastructure to provide sustainable employment and viable business. Roads, railways and airports are not sufficiently developed and, as a result, some people are more equal than others. This is due to the imbalance in regional development. The EU is not to blame for this. It lies with our own Government.
There is a bias in favour of the rich in Ireland and the Bill should cover this issue. The Government can create tax breaks to ensure the construction of nursing homes by business people with an agenda. They may have an agenda to improve the lives of the elderly, but the primary motive is to make money. There are three actors in this situation. The State provides long-term accommodation for old people, as does private enterprise and is thriving as a result, while the community is in the middle. Community is not catered for and the Bill should cover this problem. If I had drafted this legislation, I would have ensured that communities would have the same opportunity as private enterprise. Why should private enterprise, which is profit-driven, have the edge on people who want to support the elderly in their community? Much remains to be done.
I will welcome the Bill if it improves the lot of Travellers. Some people have stated that it will water down the rights Travellers already have. When people refer to Travellers, others switch off. It is obvious that Travellers have had to become legalistic and prepared to take on the State.
People say we should consider the Aborigines in Australia who were treated badly. The native Indians in America were treated badly also. Their buffalo were killed off by the settlers over the years and they were put into reservations, which were subsequently taken over and many of those people became alcoholics at the lower end of the socio-economic scale. The same happened to the native Aborigines.
We are treating our Travellers in the same way. We need to open our eyes and not have a bias against Travellers. If it did not exist, we would not have Travellers who cannot get accommodation. Our Travellers have a right to housing but if a serious attempt was made by local authorities to solve the problem, we would not have a so-called Traveller problem.
I know Travellers who are the salt of the earth, and I have met Travellers who are looking for houses. One might think of a Traveller as someone who lives on the side of the road but these people were brought up in a house as part of a large family. Travellers have larger families than the average family. Their life expectancy is poor because they are deprived — nobody is making that up. They have poor life expectancy because they are treated badly, they have inadequate access to services and they do not have proper houses. Children in a large Traveller family in, say, County Mayo go to the same school as other children and play on the same football teams but when it comes to getting married, they end up on the road because they cannot get housing. If there are larger Traveller families, there will be more Travellers looking for houses, but that issue has not been addressed. Travellers deserve equality and I would be happy if this Bill were to give them that, but the fear is that it will not do so. I ask the Minister to examine this area carefully and ensure there is no further discrimination.
There has been a major opportunity to be proactive and creative in all these areas. This Bill should provide that Travellers have the same rights as everybody else. It should be spelled out, but reading through it one can see it is a most complex document which one would have to spend days and nights reading to get any sense from it. I do not understand that. I ask the parliamentary counsel who draft legislation to try to do so in a more user-friendly way because it is difficult to make sense of a document like this one. It should refer to valuing our Travellers, who are our ethnic group, and ensuring they are not housed on the edge of some clearance out of sight and out of mind. We must promote a Traveller culture and provide facilities such as a Traveller village. I try to promote issues such as that but local authorities do not want to know about them. Local authorities have been before the courts for neglect, and rightly so.
There is inequality on the ground and as a general practitioner I witness that. Such inequality should be addressed in a Bill like this one. Manifestations of that inequality include the Hanly report and the radiotherapy report, which refers to discrimination against people in local areas. It is all about the centralist agenda and bringing people to the major cities where, incidentally, the political parties are located. People are being drawn away from their areas. If there are no services in an area, people will not stay in it. There is a vicious circle of removing services from an area which results in people leaving the area. If people go to an area where there is no doctor, garda, bank or post office, they will not stay in that area. Who wants to bring up their children in an area which does not have a proper school, post office or any of the necessary services? That is a type of apartheid in terms of equality and health.
There are many incidences of inequality that need to be addressed. For instance, BreastCheck is available in one half of the country, and I will not ask the Minister to say which half. Cervical screening was supposed to be introduced nationwide by 1999. There are many other instances across the board I could talk about but I will conclude on that point.
I wish to share time with Deputy Morgan.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
This Bill is to be welcomed in that several EU directives relating to equality are to be assimilated into Irish legislation, thus updating it to accord with changing circumstances in Ireland. If we are to become a truly multi-ethnic society, all remaining vestiges of discrimination on whatever grounds must be eliminated.
Discrimination on ethnic grounds and incitement are not unknown quantities in the Ireland of today. Ethnic conflict has become, to some considerable degree, a basic feature of many modern societies, undoubtedly due to the fact that these societies have increasingly diverse populations. This growing diversity can be attributed to the extended global pattern of migration. Racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia or a related intolerance are generally at the root of every conflict, whether it be in Northern Ireland, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Sudan or the constituent republics of the former Soviet Union.
The concept of race describes a group of people with the same physical characteristics and with notable cultural and social similarities. In view of this description, racism can be defined as an attitude of prejudice, bias and intolerance among various racial groups. Xenophobia is another emerging problem and has become a social and human rights issue in the contemporary world due to migration.
Several countries have fallen into the trap of seeking to resist immigration by people from other racial or ethnic groups. How else can the children of Filipino nurses view this country's continued resistance to their coming here? Both racism and xenophobia are a violation of human rights, and this Bill goes part of the way to eradicate them.
Movement of people across boundaries continues to cause problems among nationals of recipient states and non-nationals. This is due to competition for scarce resources, ignorance and in-built prejudice. For the states themselves, migration raises questions of security, economic management and sovereignty.
This Bill makes slight progress in the area of accommodation for disabled people and employees. However, it has taken 27 years for the public service to reach a target of 23% employment of people with disabilities in some areas. Other areas have much more to do and I do not have a sense that this issue is being driven as a policy in many public service and private companies. It is essential to ensure there is no further discrimination against disabled persons.
There appears to be a latent reluctance on the part of the Government to legislate positively to provide for pay parity for the disabled. Section 24 of the Bill permits pay disparity in the case of disabled people to be maintained. Once that clause is in place, employers will use it. They will abuse the law, and I have no doubt about that. That appears to be totally at variance with the principle of equal pay for equal work, which appears to legitimise discrimination among some of the weakest in society.
It should be remembered that democracy is only as strong as the weakest link, and the true measure of democracy is how we care for the weakest in society. The continuing discrimination against working mothers has not been addressed in the Bill, particularly the short-changing of working mothers in regard to child care. Female third level college entrants are currently out-stripping their male counterparts by over 25%, and many of them will be working parents in a decade.
The Bill has does nothing to provide for family-friendly workplace policies and affordable child care facilities to enable our brightest and best young graduates to remain in the workforce. A recent ESRI study, which coincided with international women's day, reported that women are paid 15% less than men on an hour-by-hour basis, despite the fact that they do the same work. The research showed that the 15% gap exists virtually across the board while in managerial positions the disparity increases to 28%. The smallest gap is in the public service. However, most chief executives and senior executives in the public service are male and, while women receive equal pay, they do not hold as many senior executive positions.
Much of this continuing discrimination against women is due to the family responsibility role. The existence of legislation has not prevented such discrimination in the past, particularly in areas of recruitment, training, pay and pensions. Such inequalities must be addressed urgently and this Bill provides an excellent opportunity to move legislation in that direction.
Some sections of the Bill give cause for concern. Section 47, in particular, affords non-nationals no protection from discrimination on racial grounds with regard to higher education grants. Under this section, non-nationals who have applied for refugee status but have not been granted that status will still be open to discrimination from health boards, vocational education committees, immigration officers and public authorities. In this regard, the Bill falls short of the aim of achieving full equality in practice.
Section 9 requires employers to take appropriate and practical measures to facilitate and accommodate people with disabilities in the workplace. This is to be welcomed as it should ensure that businessmen will have to meet their responsibilities to disabled people. The qualification of disproportionate burden in the matter of providing training or enabling disabled persons to advance in employment may be abused by some employers to permit them to avoid their responsibilities. I have no doubt this will happen. This qualification is wide open to abuse by rogue employers who would use it to avoid providing for disabled persons in the workplace. Prior to now, employers were merely obliged to provide reasonable accommodation for employees with disabilities at no more than a nominal cost. This enabled certain unscrupulous employers to abdicate their responsibilities to disabled persons. That the Bill strengthens this area considerably and places the onus on employers to comply with its provisions for accommodating persons with disabilities is to be welcomed.
The long-awaited disability Bill still awaits publication despite the fact that it appeared in the programme for Government and Sustaining Progress. Equality issues for persons with disabilities are intertwined with the disability Bill which was to have been published last autumn and enacted before the end of 2003. With local and European elections looming, the disability Bill appears to be as far away as ever. This provides some insight into the Government's attitude to equality matters as far as the disabled are concerned. Sustaining Progress also promised a disability Bill by the third quarter of 2003 in tandem with the commitment in the programme for Government. However, the disabled are compelled to wait until the Government decides how equally they should be treated and when their rights should be enshrined in equality legislation.
Certain exemptions allowed to immigration officers, landlords and service providers are maintained in the Bill. It had been recommended that these exemptions be removed.
The broad thrust of the Bill is to be welcomed and it is important that every person is enabled to contribute on a positive level to society.
As the Minister of State will reply at the end of the debate I ask Deputy Morgan to limit his contribution to five minutes.
Throughout 2003, my party called for the transposition of these directives into the law of the State because of their importance in enhancing protection from discrimination for people in this State. The transposition of the directives by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform is deeply flawed in that he failed to consult representatives of people whose rights will be affected by the legislation while also ignoring the recommendations of the Equality Authority on the proper transposition of the directives. The way in which the directives are being transposed is flawed because it is coloured by the Minister's right-wing opposition to a rights-based society. He has expressed this opposition on many occasions.
I will confine my remarks to the employment related aspects of the Bill which include 41 amendments to the Employment Equality Act 1998. Recently, I raised in the House the unacceptable rate of unemployment suffered by people with disabilities. A report published by the National Disability Authority earlier this year shows a severe lack of progress made over decades in enabling people with disabilities to enter the workforce. My party colleagues and I have concerns regarding section 9, which deals with the nature and extent of employers' duties to reasonably accommodate people with disabilities. The changes in section 9 stem from article 5 of the framework directive which requires employers to take appropriate measures to enable people with disabilities to have access to employment, participate or advance in employment and undergo training. However, this is qualified by the provision that employers do not need to take such measures if they would impose a disproportionate burden on the employer. The previous speaker alluded to this and I agree with his comments.
We are especially concerned about the factors which may be taken into account when assessing whether such measures would be a disproportionate burden on the employer. These give employers greater scope to avoid making provisions for disabled people than was envisaged in the framework directive. Sinn Féin will seek to amend this section by removing a number of the factors which can be taken into account when determining whether a disproportionate burden is being placed on the employer. These will include the number of persons who would benefit from such measures, any disruption caused by them and the nature of any benefit that would accrue to a person likely to be affected by them. In particular, the number of persons affected should not be taken into account when assessing disproportionate burden as this would create a major disincentive to increasing the participation of disabled people in the workforce.
Failure of employers to take steps to accommodate people with disabilities remains a primary obstacle in progressing from community employment, education and training schemes to employment. The desire of people with disabilities to enter the workforce can be seen from the high percentage participating in CE schemes. However, fewer then 10% of people with disabilities progress from CE schemes to the open labour market. This indicates that they are not being facilitated in making this transition.
I reiterate Sinn Féin's call on the Government to make the cost of workplace adaptations tax deductible as an incentive to employers to be more progressive in their attitude to these matters. There must also be a higher standard of compliance in the public sector and in larger companies which have greater resources at their disposal. This is especially evident when one considers that the State has failed to implement the 3% target for employment of people with disabilities in the Civil and public service, which was set in 1977.
Section 10 reduces protection against discrimination for those attempting to access employment by amending section 17 of the Employment Equality Act and removing the protection of the Act from non-nationals where nationals are defined as persons who are lawfully resident in this State. Sinn Féin agrees with the contention of a number of groups concerned with equality issues that this attempt to reduce protections in existing legislation is in violation of the principle of non-regression contained in the directives being transposed. I will give way to the Minister of State.
I thank Deputies for their lively and interesting contributions to this important Bill. Many issues were raised which Deputies signalled will be debated at greater length on Committee Stage. However, I would like, at this stage, to address some of the important points raised.
I totally reject the assertion by a number of Deputies that there was a lack of consultation on the Bill. The Bill was published in January 2004 following an extensive consultation process with the social partners, the community and voluntary pillar and relevant Departments and agencies in the latter half of 2002. The consultation process took account of submissions received and discussions with interested parties in a series of bilateral meetings and, where possible, issues raised have been addressed in the Bill. Many of the organisations participating in the Equality Coalition fall within the community and voluntary pillar and would have been represented in this context as well as being free to make individual submissions to the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. In that regard, separate submissions were received from Pavee Point Travellers' Centre and the Irish Traveller Movement.
On the question of publicity, the Government has made no secret of the fact that legislation to amend the Employment Equality and Equal Status Acts to give effect to the EU equality directives was being prepared or that it was hoped to bring such proposals through to enactment as soon as possible. If anything, therefore, an extended time has been available to interested parties to consider pertinent issues. These matters have been the subject of a number of Government press releases, including widely reported press statements on the legislative programme at the commencement of each Oireachtas session and my press release re publication of the Bill in January.
I agree the legislation is complex. The principal Acts clearly represent complex protective legislation requiring checks and balances, and providing for the establishment of the Equality Authority and the Office of the Director of Equality Investigations. The Bill provides for a series of amendments to the Acts, some substantive and some technical, primarily to give effect to requirements of the EU directives. It is important that this process is transparent and that the provisions proposed to implement the directives are clearly identifiable. At the same time, the benefits of a consolidated approach are recognised. For this reason, a decision was taken at an early stage of the drafting process, to provide the Members of the Oireachtas with consolidated texts of the Acts as amended by the Bill as initiated. Subsequent to the outcome of the parliamentary process, the final versions of these texts will be made available generally.
Deputy Costello criticised the lack of a consolidation Bill and requested that the Government withdraw this Bill to await a consolidation exercise while at the same time complaining of delay. The Deputy cannot have it both ways. In reply to Deputies who claimed we are taking a back seat on equality by merely following Europe, that is not true. In fact, the reverse is the truth. Irish equality law on the grounds of race, religion, sexual orientation, age and disability predates EU law in these areas. Furthermore, there is currently no law in force at EU level covering discrimination in the supply of goods and services, except on the ground of race. The provisions of this Bill are, in the number of grounds covered and in the range of activities in which discrimination is prohibited, far in advance of what is required simply to meet our EU obligations.
Deputies referred to the Equality Coalition's claim that protection will be reduced for vulnerable groups. The purpose of the Employment Equality Act and the Equal Status Act is to protect vulnerable groups with nine discriminatory grounds cited in the legislation. The equality directives are being applied comprehensively to all nine grounds, beyond what is required in the directives, and there is no reduction in the level of protection provided across these grounds.
In response to Deputy Durkan, the framework employment directive does not allow the retention of the upper age limit of 65 years in the Employment Equality Act 1998. The Equality Bill therefore removes this limit from that Act. This reflects the fact that the workforce is becoming older and that older workers should be facilitated in remaining in employment and be fully entitled to the protections from discrimination contained in our equality legislation.
Several Deputies called for the imposition of a positive duty in the legislation on employers and service providers. However, there is no requirement in the directives to do so and I am not aware of any EU country which imposes a statutory obligation on private sector concerns to promote equality of opportunity. The Government, by establishing the Human Rights Commission, ratifying the Council of Europe Framework Convention on National Minorities, implementing the Employment Equality Act 1998 and the Equal Status Act 2000 and by introducing the European Convention on Human Rights Bill has been meeting its obligations under this section of the British-Irish Agreement.
Deputy Boyle repeated, in the context of this debate, the ill-founded criticism that the Government's referendum proposal would somehow create a class of persons without human rights or with a lesser set of human rights in the State than Irish people. That is not true. Deputies Costello, Cuffe and Deenihan raised a number of concerns on the proposed new exclusion for certain employments in the home. These are, that the exclusion continues to be blanket in nature and does not have to be justified or shown to be reasonably necessary, that discrimination in employment is most commonly practised at the point of recruitment and that the provision is indirectly discriminatory to women. The new provision will replace what were relatively sweeping provisions under sections 26(2) and 37(5) of the Employment Equality Act, the retention of which would be inappropriate. This provision was the subject of a Government amendment on Committee Stage in the Seanad to ensure that the exclusion allowed is confined to access to employment only.
Contrary to Deputies' assertions, the directives recognise and provide for the need to permit difference of treatment based on a characteristic related to any of the discriminatory grounds where, by reason of the nature of the particular occupational activities concerned or of the context in which they are carried out, such a characteristic constitutes a genuine and determining occupational requirement provided that the objective is legitimate and the requirement is proportionate. The general application of this principle is reflected in the new provision proposed in respect of section 25 of the Employment Equality Act under section 16 of the Equality Bill.
In regard to the more specific exclusions to preserve the right to individual and personal privacy, it is proposed to remove the exclusions to which I have referred and to provide instead for a limited exclusion applicable to access to employment consisting of the provision of personal services in the home and which affect the private or family life of the person concerned.
In implementing Article 5 of the Framework Employment Directive, section 9 will amend section 16(3) of the Employment Equality Act to raise the duty of reasonable accommodation placed on employers by providing that this will entail taking appropriate measures unless this would impose a disproportionate burden. I have taken on board Deputies' suggestions as to how that might be defined and will be happy to discuss them by way of amendments submitted on Committee Stage.
Deputy Costello indicated opposition to section 24 which provides that a different rate of remuneration is permitted for persons with disabilities in certain cases. There is good reason that section was introduced in the format used. Again, I will be happy to discuss that matter on Committee Stage. A number of objections have been raised, most vocally by Deputy Lynch, about the exclusion of religious bodies under section 37(1) of the Employment Equality Act. I will be happy to discuss any amendments in that regard on Committee Stage.
Deputies have repeated the Equality Coalition claim that the Government will be able to discriminate against asylum seekers and certain migrants in respect of any aspect of policy or provision in this Bill. This is not the case. Section 49 exempts only those actions taken in accordance with a provision governing or arising from the entry into and residence in the State of non-nationals. Asylum seekers are a temporary legal category of persons awaiting a decision on their claim to be given refugee status. Differences of treatment between asylum seekers, on the one hand, and refugees on the other are on the basis of legal status, not nationality.
Section 47 provides that the Minister for Education and Science does not discriminate where he or she restricts the making of higher education grants to EU nationals or provides for the payment of grants at differing rates as between EU nationals and others. There is nothing in section 47 that prohibits the Minister for Education and Science from giving grants to non-nationals. All that section does is give the Minister for Education and Science discretion as to whether the conditions should be restricted to EU nationals. No other member state has such a wide system of student support and it was considered that paying grants to all-comers could place intolerable strains on the student support system and might act as an incentive for non-EU nationals to come to the State.
I do not have time to deal with the many other matters raised. However, I will be happy to deal with Deputies concerns by way of amendments tabled on Committee Stage. I am sure all sides of the House believe, as I do, that the progressive and comprehensive nature of the legal and administrative framework for equality introduced by the Government during its previous term in office is strengthened by this Bill. The prohibition of discrimination in the workplace and the area of service provision on the nine grounds continues to provide employees and individual citizens with greater protection than they secure on the basis of EU citizenship. The amendments made by this Bill are welcome extensions of our existing legislative provisions and I look forward to their detailed consideration on Committee Stage.
Will the Deputies claiming a division please rise?
Deputies Boyle, Cuffe, Gormley, Ó Caoláin, Morgan, Ferris and Gregory rose.
As fewer than ten Members have risen I declare the question carried. In accordance with Standing Order 68 the names of the Deputies dissenting will be recorded in the Journal of the Proceedings of the Dáil.