The next slot is for Members from the Technical Group and I understand Deputy Donnelly proposes to share time.
Equal Status (Amendment) Bill 2013: Second Stage (Resumed) [Private Members]
I wish to share time with Deputies Joan Collins, Boyd Barrett and Mattie McGrath.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
I support the Bill before the House, which aims to put equality budgeting on a statutory footing and is a welcome proposal. This means that in preparing Bills relevant to the budget and other operations of public sector bodies, the authority can give advice to those public sector bodies on how they should approach and ensure equality in their operations and planning. It ensures the public bodies will have a strategy to foster equality in their operations and in wider society as a result of what they do. Moreover, it will monitor the outputs to ensure these things actually are happening and that the organisations in question will have, through further training, the capacity to do this. Equality budgeting is a sensible path for Ireland to follow and I suggest this is an opportunity to improve Ireland's planning and implementation capacity in order that particular groups and marginalised groups in particular are not inadvertently discriminated against in highly important legislation, such as the annual budget process.
The Cabinet handbook states that regulatory impact assessments should be conducted for all significant legislation. As every Member of this House is aware, this does not happen. However, it must happen if Members as legislators are to improve their effectiveness over the coming years, and the inclusion of equality budgeting in that process would be a useful addition. There is no downside to introducing equality budgeting in Ireland and putting it on a statutory footing. It improves transparency and provides useful checks on how public assets are deployed to make sure one group is not inadvertently discriminated against or gaining over another group. It also improves strategic thinking and analysis at a national level, at the official level here in Parliament and at a local level within individual public sector bodies. In short, equality budgeting is a more enlightened and smarter way for officials, politicians and civil society to work.
I encountered equality analysis in the form of gender-proofing in the course of policy work I was undertaking in the United Kingdom. It was the first time I had seen it and it was highly effective, because what we were proposing was put through a gender-proofing process and that forces the mind to start thinking in different ways. When thinking about policies or seeking to deploy public assets, it forces the mind to ensure the inclusion of various groups, be they based on gender, sexual orientation, religion, income level or whatever. I commend the Bill to the House.
This is an important amendment Bill which I support fully. The issue of equality budgeting was raised more than a year and a half ago in respect of its impact on sections of society. It has been seen to operate fairly effectively in places such as Scotland, where it has been in place for a number of years. Consequently, useful legislation in this regard exists in other countries that could be used as a map. Equality budgeting is really important because of the internal devaluation that has taken place on foot of the Government's troika programme. It has meant the driving down of wages and conditions in all areas, particularly for the lower paid and in respect of women and young people. As to whether the impact this is having is known, like others, I am aware of its visual impact and of the stories people tell me. However, neither the actual figures nor how it is affecting people are known, and it is really important that they be known. Obviously, such cuts will increase income inequality and it is a question of how other austerity measures, including cuts to the health services, education, special needs assistants, disability supports and welfare entitlements, as well as the imposition of the universal social charge, are affecting the system. A group of carers representing the Give Carers a Break! campaign today made that particular point. They outlined how they had experienced a devastating cut of approximately 5% when there was an overall cut of 1.2% in the social welfare bill last year and they have called for equality-proofing.
I also wish to make a point about a group of people who are particularly vulnerable, namely, the self-employed, who have been badly hit in the economic collapse, particularly given the lack of access to social supports and so on. A man named Tony Rochford has been outside the gates of Leinster House for the past two days. He had his own business that failed and is not paying the local property tax because he cannot afford to do so. He considers it to be the straw that broke the camel's back. He has been on hunger strike for 17 days and while some Members might suggest leaving him outside for a while as he will give up, this man will not do that. He is absolutely determined to make an issue out of this and every Deputy and backbencher in Leinster House should listen in.
The Deputy's time is up.
They should state that because of austerity and what has happened in Ireland, a man has been on hunger strike for 17 days and this should not be ignored. Members should be out there supporting him.
Briefly, I support this Bill. It is absolutely right to add these other categories for inclusion in the equality legislation to ensure that equality extends to all sectors that need it and that potentially suffer discrimination when it comes to dealing with State agencies or in respect of how public assets are deployed. Consequently, this Bill is welcome.
I wish to give two instances of what matters can lead to when equality is not taken seriously. The first is the case of the aforementioned Tony Rochford, who is outside Leinster House. I had never met the man before but he was a self-employed tiler who, like many self-employed people in the construction sector, has been devastated by the economic crisis. He is trying desperately to pay his mortgage, only to then have the property tax loaded upon him. However, because of the particularly draconian manner in which non-payment is dealt with in the case of the self-employed, as opposed to the PAYE sector, he now cannot work because he has not been given a tax clearance certificate. This is really desperate; he is faced with a choice of either paying his mortgage or paying the property tax and has taken what is an extreme form of action. I do not suggest it is the right form of action but it is an action he has decided to take, namely, to go on hunger strike. He has been on hunger strike for 17 days and he appears to be expressing determination to go all the way. I ask the Government to consider the self-employed in this regard because in all sorts of ways they are hit disproportionately by the impact of the crisis, the property tax and so on. I believe that Tony Rochford's case underlines the need to do something urgently about this.
How much longer do I have?
The Deputy has 20 seconds.
I also might mention briefly just where such desperation might lead. I also just now met a man named Mike Mahon outside Leinster House. He is a pensioner who had an interest-only deal on his mortgage whereby he was paying €150 per month. After that interest-only deal ran out, he suddenly was faced with a bill of €900 per month, which he could not pay.
I am sorry, Deputy, but your time has expired.
He now is facing jail because he did something rather rash and stupid - that is, he glued together an ATM. I ask the Government to intervene in this regard.
I also wish to support this Bill because I do not believe there is any regulatory impact assessment of public spending and, as for all the Bills being passed in this Chamber, one is more draconian than the next. I saw when, under the late Brian Lenihan, the Oireachtas introduced a pension levy on everyone from the bottom up. However, it was reversed for the senior civil servants and they got away with it.
I believe there is a cartel in the public service that has its hands on the power and is associated with Ministers. It does not care about the ordinary people. It does not care about Tony Rochford or people like him who are self-employed who pay their taxes. He is now on hunger strike and in a very serious situation because of what I believe, as a self-employed person, is an anomaly in the Bill. A section of the Bill states that he cannot get his C2 certificate because he did not pay his property tax. I paid my property tax. I had no problem with that even though I believe it is unjust but this man did not pay it and now he is being penalised. He is not allowed work. He is self-employed. An 8% rebate is total robbery. It is blackguarding self-employed people. It is twice that of what applies to PAYE people, which I do not agree with either in the way it is taken out of their wages.
I am looking across at a Labour Minister of State and I see Labour Party Deputies who talk about standing up for ordinary people and small business people, the backbone of this country. This man wants to pay for his family and earn his keep but this was rushed past him. The property tax was rushed through this House. Despite what the Taoiseach said, it was an unjust and unfair measure in terms of a person's home. This man wants to do work. He had his C2 and was tax compliant but now he cannot do anything because he has not paid the property tax. That is a disastrous law. I know the Government must try to collect it whatever way it can and I do not mind if the full amount of property tax is taken out of a self-employed person's business but I have a huge problem with not giving him a C2, not allowing him do his VAT returns and putting him out of business. Furthermore, if he has no business, he will not get any unemployment benefit or assistance. It is a perilous situation that has driven him to the gates of these Houses on hunger strike for 17 days.
I appeal to the Minister of State, Deputy Lynch, to bring some sanity to the situation. Legislation was rushed through this House and guillotines were used and what is the Government doing? Abolishing the Seanad when we could better scrutinise legislation. I ask her to consider these issues because there is no proof-reading of legislation. It is just tax, tax, tax, cut, cut and cut and attack the ordinary people.
I call Deputy Regina Doherty who I believe is sharing time with Deputies Michael McCarthy, Frank Feighan, Heather Humphreys and Darragh Murphy. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I must be honest. I had to read the Bill a number of times to try to figure out its purpose, and I am still not sure about that. I think the author of the Bill is trying first to extend the nine discrimination grounds in the Equal Status Acts to include a number of additional grounds such as the rural ground and the convicted prisoner ground and, second, to create a duty on existing public bodies to have regard to promoting equality of opportunity and developing equality impact schemes for approval by the Equality Authority and also to make sure that anything it introduces is proofed in this way. One such thing it is proposing is the annual budget.
According to its author Sinn Féin's Bill seeks to introduce mandatory equality impact assessments on public bodies, introducing measures that impact on these categories as well as the existing nine categories of gender, civil status, family status, etc. I hate to point out the obvious but the Employment Equality Act already prohibits discrimination in the employment sector and the Equal Status Acts prohibit discrimination in the provision of goods and services in each of the following nine grounds: gender, civil status, family status, sexual orientation, religion, age, disability, race and membership of the Traveller community. There are already a range of detailed exceptions that avoid extreme or unintended consequences, for example, to protect children or the age ground that applies to the maximum age at which people can attend school, etc.
I am not clear if the omission of the Employment Equality Act was done deliberately or by way of a drafting error. There were not any notes published with the Bill, which made it more difficult for me to understand what it was about. There were no assessments of the impact the obligations in the Bill would have on any of the statutory bodies. There was no assessment of the scope of the grounds or what the impact of incorporating them would be on the State. There were no qualifications or exceptions as to the possible variations that might be present in the equality legislation, and there was no assessment as to the considerable staff resources each public body would have to provide to enact the changes. I have to ask if this is serious equality legislation or just ill-thought out.
Equality legislation has come a long way, and I regret when legislation such as this is put before the House when we can speak of the record not just of this Government but previous Governments. What we are faced with currently is the challenge to turn the rhetoric of fundamental rights into the reality for people living every day under the rule of law throughout our communities.
In terms of what is happening on the ground and what our Government is doing as opposed to talking about, earlier this year the Minister for Justice and Equality, who is present, appointed the members of the new Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission. The Minister said that the merger of the Irish Human Rights Commission and the Equality Authority is to promote human rights and equality issues in a more efficient, effective and coherent way, a single institution whose remit is to establish a footprint at local level. It is independent of Government and that independence is guaranteed by its statute. The status is vital to its credibility, here in Ireland, in Europe and internationally. The body will become the front-line body for turning commitment to human rights and equality into reality at national and local level. I am in favour of practicalities and on a practical level it will promote public awareness campaigns in the print media, radio and online. It is to remind the members of the public of their rights and to reinforce awareness of the support and redress mechanisms available.
Equality is not always about treating everybody the same but it is about people treating others in such a way that the outcome for everybody is exactly the same. From the outset this Government has shown that it is about best practice in words and in deeds. That is the reason I will be opposing the Bill tonight.
On the issue of equality, the Minister of State, Deputy Lynch, was in the 25th Dáil when the constituent members of the then rainbow Government, which now form the current coalition, drove an equality agenda when it was neither popular nor profitable to do so. If we cast our minds back to the genesis of the debate on equality, in July 1973 that coalition Government, which is what we were referred to before Fianna Fáil got into the habit of coalition, introduced legislation to remove the marriage ban. This country has an appalling history of treating women badly and unequally but that Act passed in the 1970s removed a discriminatory ban on women who were married and working in the Civil Service. We all know and are perhaps related to people whose careers suffered as a result of that. If we look back to 1973 and the record of these two parties in government then we see that this discriminatory nonsense was removed.
We created the Department of Equality and Law Reform. When the Labour Party went into Government in 1992, Mervyn Taylor was Minister for Equality and Law Reform and he initiated the campaign to remove the constitutional ban on divorce. The prohibition on divorce in the Constitution basically meant that we were treating citizens of this country inherently unequally. The decriminalisation of homosexuality and the passing of the Equal Status Act are the hallmarks of the now constituent parties in government. The record in that regard is there for anyone to see, and it is a very proud record.
Listening to the Deputies opposite one can understand the confusion that Deputy Doherty has pointed to in regard to the specific pieces of legislation to which the Private Members' Bill refers. It refers to the Equal Status Acts of 2000 and 2004 but curiously, either erroneously or deliberately, it does not refer to the Employment Equality Act. That confusion is only matched by the level of debate I have heard thus far in the context of this Private Members' business. We heard a great deal about what we already know, such as the protests and so on, but something that happened this evening should not necessarily inform a debate about equality. All our experience as professional politicians, public representatives or people involved in active citizenship in communities in some shape or form should cherish that notion of equality and speak about it in isolation, irrespective of whether the economy is struggling or buoyant. We all know where it should stand.
The Bill proposes to create a number of grounds in terms of the Equal Status Acts, one of which, curiously, is trade union membership. How do we establish whether someone is a member of a trade union? I am a member of SIPTU. I carry a SIPTU membership card with a Labour Party membership card in my wallet but how can we tell if someone is a member of a trade union? The other curious heading is the native Irish speaker. How do we distinguish between someone who speaks cúpla focal fluently and competently or someone who speaks it because it is their native language?
How does one put in place a measure to evaluate the position in that regard? Nuair a chuaigh mé go dtí Scoil Phádraig Naofa i nDún Mánmhaí fadó fadó, d'fhoglaim mé a lán Gaeilge. Nuair a d'fhág mé an scoil, rinne mé dearmad ar go leor de. We are all students of politics because we are here practising it at a level that is important in the context of our professionalism. However, we also have personal links. How does one assess whether someone is a competent speaker of Irish or whether he or she is a native speaker? What would be the position with regard to someone who speaks German as his or her native language? How would the provisions of this legislation apply to such an individual?
Another issue which arises is that which relates to qualifying prisoners. One can easily understand the subjective nature of the provision in this regard. In terms of the law, however, a prisoner is a prisoner. How does one distinguish between the reasons one individual has been imprisoned and those - non-political - reasons another person has been imprisoned? There is a vested interest in this regard. It is difficult to understand how this matter should be viewed in the context of equality.
Reference is made in the legislation to a person's socioeconomic background. How does one establish this? Should one sift through the reports of the CSO and examine the breakdown of social classes? Should one allow for the massive social mobility that occurred in this country during the Celtic tiger years? There could be one person who left school without sitting the leaving certificate and who obtained employment on a construction site at a rate of €1,000 per week and another individual with a degree in business who took up a managerial position in a company and earned half that amount. How should we assess people's socioeconomic backgrounds?
The Bill is extremely flawed and there is a great deal of confusion surrounding it. I am of the view that the flaws and confusion in question are not deliberate but are the result of error. I, along with other colleagues, will be opposing the legislation.
I neither welcome nor agree with this Bill. The Employment Equality Act prohibits discrimination in the area of employment and the Equal Status Act prohibits discrimination in the supply of goods and services. A great deal of work was done in order to produce these two items of legislation.
A number of members of the Opposition raised the case of Tony Rochford, who is on hunger strike outside the Houses. Mr. Rochford is similar to many self-employed people. I was self-employed and I employed 30 people at one stage. The self-employed are experiencing serious difficulties. Self-employed people work every hour that God sends and they put a great deal of time and effort into their businesses. In many instances those businesses are family concerns. As a result of the downturn, many of these people were obliged to diversify. Diversification can involve moving into other areas of business but it can also mean moving into property or buying shares in banks - which were previously perceived as blue-chip companies - in order to provide for one's pension. Many people such as Tony Rochford have experienced tough times. I am of the view that the Government should try to meet this man and address his grievances.
People in this country are currently involved in a love affair with the airwaves and other forms of media. They feel that their problems can be solved by contacting Joe Duffy's "Liveline" programme or the Shannonside radio station, using Twitter or writing to the newspapers. I have seen evidence of this. As a local Deputy, people telephone me in respect of various issues. I ask them to meet me and discuss how their problems might be resolved with the relevant Minister, Department, etc. However, they do not want to do this. It may have been the case when we were on the other side of the House but I believe matters have become worse as a result of a race to the bottom because all those in opposition now want to do is to go on the airwaves and state how bad things are. As sure as day follows night, people's problems must be solved at some point. This must be done in a rational way by trying to identify the nature of such problems and then finding solutions to them. The Opposition must oppose the Government and that is great. However, we must tell our constituents the truth and try to resolve the issues they raise with us rather than attempting to score political points.
Point-scoring such as that to which I refer occurred in respect of both the household charge and the local property tax. Like everyone else, I am obliged to pay the local property tax. I do not particularly like paying it but I must do so. I am also obliged to pay the second home charge. I was only in a position to pay that charge on half the properties I own and, as a result, an additional fee of €20 will be applied in respect of each of them next month. When I get paid next month I will pay those charges, but I do not want to pay them. However, we must all pay these charges because they relate to the provision of services. There was a great deal of hoo-ha about the charges to which I refer and there were those who stated that people should not pay them. Unfortunately, many individuals listened to what was said and are now being charged extra as a result. I inform anyone who approaches me to see if anything can be done that I cannot help them. I cannot even do anything about the charges that apply to me. In my opinion, those who advised people not to pay should take responsibility for their actions. As has often been stated, two things in life are certain, namely, death and taxes.
We must try to be lenient because there are other people who, like Tony Rochford, find themselves in difficult situations. As already stated, Mr. Rochford's problems would be much better resolved if representatives of the Government met him and, hopefully, tried to address the matter about which he is aggrieved. It is not good that politicians in this House are seeking to try to articulate his case in the House in a way which appears to make a martyr of him. Having said that, my heart goes out to the man. The Government and other politicians must try to resolve this matter.
The Bill would require the adoption of a hugely resource-intensive approach. It is far too much to expect local authorities to try to address many of the matters with which it deals. In light of the constitutional status of the Irish language, it is not clear what is intended by the provision that deals with native Irish speakers. Does this provision relate to the 2% of our people who are native Irish speakers or to the further 8% or 10% who are competent speakers and who are natives? The position in this regard is not clear. Tá mé ag foghlaim na Gaeilge agus tá feabhas ag teacht orm. I had the honour of being made a member of the Fine Gael Front Bench three years ago and 10% of my brief related to the Irish language. A number of academics who profess to speak a much purer form of Irish than anyone else decided to write to the newspapers about my elevation. We in this country can hardly speak English properly. Like tens of thousands of others, I spent 14 years trying to learn Irish in school but I was put off the language by people such as the so-called academics to whom I refer, who expressed the view that they did not consider me pure enough to hold the position on the Fine Gael Front Bench to which I was appointed. The native Irish speakers I encountered during my time on the Front Bench - those in Conradh na Gaeilge and Comhdháil Náisiúnta na Gaeilge - were absolutely fantastic. They understood the position in which I found myself and I really appreciate the support they gave me.
I have fundamental problems with this Bill and I will be opposing it.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate. I accept the spirit in which the Bill has been introduced. My understanding is that the basic intent behind it is to ensure that decisions made by the Government and public bodies will, in essence, be proofed in order to assess the impact they might have on certain sections of society. In theory, that is a fair enough concept. However, the problem is that the Bill is simply not practical.
As everyone is aware, the Government is operating within extremely tight and difficult budgetary constraints. Major efforts have been made to reduce the numbers in the public service in order to bring down costs. A number of State bodies have been abolished or merged as we attempt to secure greater efficiencies of service. The Haddington Road agreement, if implemented, will lead to many public servants working additional hours as well as making other major sacrifices. Only last week the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, announced the redeployment of 54 staff from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and other areas of the public service to the Garda central vetting unit. While this is most welcome and will, I hope, help to alleviate the delays relating to the processing of vetting applications, and also the backlog,
it also serves to highlight the severe constraints within which we are working when staff must be moved from one Department to another to alleviate backlogs. This is all because the continued focus of this Government since taking office had to be on trying to do more with less. It is in this regard that this Bill does not stand up to scrutiny. The Bill proposes what could be very resource-intensive obligations on a number of public bodies to prepare and publish equality impact assessments of their work for approval by the Equality Authority. While such a move is likely to create much paperwork, it will not necessarily lead to greater equality.
I welcome the commitment from the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, that the Government will shortly publish the Bill to establish the new Irish human rights and equality commission. As she stated, the Government is focused on imposing a positive duty on public bodies to look at the equality issues they face and address these in their annual reports. The role of the human rights and equality commission will be an active one, which focuses on providing support and facilitation - in other words, less administration and less paperwork and more results.
The Bill proposes to create five new grounds in the Equal Status Acts, including the case of criminal conviction. This is an area in which I have a particular interest as, over the past two and a half years, I have encountered a number of cases where people have experienced major difficulties when applying for jobs due to relatively minor offences on their criminal records. That certainly is an issue of equality. Obviously, if a person breaks the law, regardless of how minor the offence, he or she deserves to be punished. There should be no ambiguity about that. However, the bottom line is that we all can make mistakes, in particular when we are young. It is important these mistakes are not held against a person for the rest of his or her life, thus impinging on future career opportunities. This issue has been dealt with in some detail by the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, who brought forward the Criminal Justice (Spent Convictions) Bill some time ago and which is currently on Report Stage in the Dáil and, hopefully, will be enacted in the autumn.
That Bill is much more practical in its application than the one before us. Rather than dealing with all convictions as if they were equal, the Criminal Justice (Spent Convictions) Bill differentiated between various convictions. For example, convictions for offences such as murder, manslaughter and sexual offences may never become spent. Likewise, convictions resulting in sentences of more than 12 months may not become spent and not more than two convictions in a person's life may become spent. Essentially, the Bill aims to ensure that those who commit minor one-off offences are not stigmatised when seeking employment in the future. In essence, the Criminal Justice (Spent Convictions) Bill was about giving people a second chance.
This Bill has chosen to extend the discrimination grounds in the Equal Status Acts but not in the Employment Equality Acts. I am confused as to the reason for this but I understand that, as it stands, the Bill will not apply to employment issues.
The Bill also proposes to extend the discrimination grounds in the Equal Status Acts to those living in rural areas, which is an interesting point. I live in a rural area and I recall last year having a conversation with a gentlemen about the household charge. He argued that he did not avail of any of the amenities the charge was supposed to cover. He lived in the countryside and he advised that he did not use the public library, the swimming pool, the park and certainly did not have street lighting. He said all of these amenities were in the town and that he did not use them but eventually he agreed that he used the roads. Obviously, these need to be maintained too. It was ironic this year, when the property tax took effect, that those who lived in the major cities and towns felt they were being discriminated against as their properties were of a higher value. It was a case of the shoe being on the other foot.
I note the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, made a similar point last night in regard to the provision of broadband services. Often people living in the countryside are not able to obtain as good a quality of service as those living in towns. Under the proposed Bill, this could be also seen as discrimination when, in fact, it is sometimes due to logistics and economics. On that note, I was pleased, when I met with Eircom this evening, to hear it is investing €1.5 billion of capital expenditure to deliver the nation's newest fibre network, reaching 1.2 million homes and businesses. I was particularly pleased that fibre broadband will be available in Monaghan town from July of this year and that by June 2015, Eircom fibre broadband will be extended to the towns of Carrickmacross, Castleblayney and Clones.
I note that under the Bill the Government would be also classed as a public body and as a result, the annual budget would also have to be proofed and approved by the Equality Authority. The Government and all the elected representatives of this House engage with various interest groups and organisations in the lead-up to the budget each year. A number of these organisations hold pre-budget submission meetings which every Deputy has the opportunity to attend and take on board concerns and raise these matters thereafter. This Bill seems to propose that we take budgetary decisions and put them in the hands of an unelected State body.
At the outset I said I accepted the spirit in which the Bill was being brought forward but what it proposes is simply not practical. It is for this reason and the other issues I have outlined that I will not support the Bill.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute on this Private Members' Bill. When I first read it, my sense of it was that it was positive and that this was a well-meaning Bill. I still hold that position. However, as someone who speaks on Private Members' and other Bills from time to time, I requested the explanatory memorandum but there was none. I then found there was no impact assessment nor scoping of the cost of the various measures. I am sure the Deputies opposite will not welcome this observation but it is an exceptionally broad attempt, which covers many areas. In that regard, it is almost impossible for the Government to amend it in such a way as to support the intent.
I was in business for 20 years, employed people and provided services and I came across the Equality Status Acts and the Employment Equality Acts on many occasions and in many different ways. This Bill does not pertain to the Employment Equality Acts but much of its sentiment belongs with those Acts. Many of the issues are covered by them, including the right to be a member of a trade union and the people's diversity and socio-economic backgrounds are protected.
When we talk about the Equal Status Acts, it is difficult to envisage a situation in which in the purchase or the provision of services, the issue of whether someone is a member of a trade union, his or her socio-economic background or whether he or she speaks Irish would apply. I would be interested to hear specific examples of where that might apply. As a purchaser of services, in particular, my focus would be on the cost of what I was purchasing rather than on where, how or by whom the services were being provided.
There is more substance in the area of criminal convictions. The Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, was very open to amendments to the Criminal Justice (Spent Convictions) Bill.
We are now awaiting Report and Final Stages of the Bill. The spirit of allowing people with convictions to be allowed to rehabilitate is worthy of pursuit, and many of the amendments went towards allowing people a second chance. That will cover a large portion of the criminal conviction issue.
I disagree about trying to designate a crime by type of person or whether it is linked to a cause. For example, that might apply to an act of violence of a certain level carried out by somebody who may be an animal rights campaigner or who may believe an act of vandalism is a valid protest against the property tax. That would create a great difficulty so the matter should be set, as it is currently within the Criminal Justice (Spent Convictions) Bill, at the crime level rather than at person type. I support that element of the Bill.
There is the potential for further debate on rural issues, particularly with regard to publicly provided services. There is a requirement to protect people living in rural areas but when we speak about privately provided services, we should accept that for some provision of services, the cost of delivery to rural areas must be built into pricing. One cannot allow for prejudice against people living in rural areas but equally we cannot force an uneconomic cost on business.
The spirit of the Private Members' Bill is good and if parts of it could come back before us, it would have merit. There was much good work done here in debating spent convictions and the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, accepted amendments from many parties. I urge the Minister of State, Deputy Sherlock, to push through that legislation as it would go a long way to achieving what is requested in this Bill.
The next speaker is Deputy Stanley, who is sharing time by agreement. Is that agreed? Agreed.
Equality is at the core of what we believe should be modern republicanism. Sinn Féin has long promoted the idea of an Ireland of equals in a Europe of equals, and this not just a hollow slogan dusted down for elections. Sinn Féin is committed to building a united Ireland where equality is at the centre of how we measure the nation’s success. This equality will include social, political and economic equality but, unfortunately for citizens on the island, we see an Ireland far more unequal now than in the past. Consecutive Governments have pursued policies that have created inequality and contributed to the level of inequality that exists today. A former Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, former Deputy Michael McDowell, promoted inequality when he stated, "A dynamic liberal economy like ours demands flexibility and inequality in some respects to function". He also indicated that it was such inequality "which provides incentives". I hope we have moved on from that view.
In November last year Sinn Féin pledged support for the Equality Budgeting Campaign, a broad-based coalition of trade unions, community groups and non-governmental organisations seeking the introduction of equality budgeting in this State. Simply put, equality budgeting means that no Government could introduce a budget without it being equality-proofed first. It is no surprise that this Government has failed to embrace this process as budgets we have seen here would never see the light of day if they were equality-proofed.
So what will the Sinn Féin Equal Status (Amendment) Bill 2013 do? It has three basic aims. It will add six new additional anti-discriminatory categories to the already existing nine categories. Namely, Sinn Féin would include in the category trade union membership, socioeconomic back ground, Irish language speakers and former political prisoners. The previous speaker referred to this and although he may not be familiar with it, this concept is in the Good Friday Agreement. It specifically refers to people who were in prison as a result of the conflict and who have served their sentences or got early release under the Good Friday Agreement.
We would also include rural dwellers in the list of categories. The Bill will also introduce equality impact assessment, with all public bodies and Departments having to implement the process. It will also introduce a notion of equality budgeting, where economic policy making and planning places equality at the centre of decisions concerning public expenditure and income.
One issue I want to raise is the right to join and be represented by a trade union. People have the right to join a union but they do not have the right to be represented. We should remember that any gains made by ordinary people and their families were achieved after campaigning and struggle, and without trade unions many of the gains we now take for granted would never have been achieved. Issues of child labour, maternity benefits, annual leave and the 40-hour week were all successfully won not because the likes of William Martin Murphy woke up one morning and said he would grant such requests but rather because trade unions won the fight. In this city we are commemorating the 100th anniversary of the 1913 Lock-out and in the streets around here, people were engaged in an epic struggle for the right to join and be represented by trade unions. Jim Larkin and James Connolly gave leadership and dignity to those people.
It is only appropriate tonight that we reflect on the gains made by trade unions and we must also reflect on challenges facing us today. How much has really changed? Sadly, workers remain fearful of the consequences of joining a union, and I am sure the Minister of State comes across such people as much as I do. It is shameful that 100 years after the great Lock-out, men and women live in fear of what their employer will do if they join a trade union. This is a very common issue and I feel very strongly about it. I have met trade unions organisers in the midlands on this very matter, and they recount stories of workers - men and women - living in fear of even being associated with trade unionism, never mind joining a union.
In particular, this problem prevails in the meat industry, where some employers in their race to the bottom to increase profits have employed immigrants on a minimum wage - in some cases it is reported to be even less - and proceeded to isolate them form the rest of the workforce. When unions attempt to engage with and organise the workers they are met with a wall of silence and fear. We have heard of cases where fathers use their children to translate stories to union organisers of bullying and victimisation in work and threats from employers. This is unacceptable and should not be tolerated in 21st century Ireland. This Bill is an attempt to help overcome some of this fear, and it will make it illegal to discriminate or bully workers who organise themselves in a union. It is 100 years since the Lock-out and such steps are long overdue.
I will also highlight inequality in our communities. For years the great and the good, including people in Government, have dismissed any debate on inequality as airy-fairy, but such arguments can no longer be dismissed. The boast of being a low tax economy has had serious negative social effects, and we only have to look at number of telling statistics to see that. The number of children living in poverty has increased by nearly 32,000 since last year, from 200,000 in 2012 to 232,039 in 2013. That is nearly one in five children living in poverty. The number of people living in poverty overall has jumped from 706,000 to 731,984 during the same period. This is the human face of austerity and inequality, which forces people into poverty and divides our society with devastating consequences.
The overall tax take in this State as a percentage of GDP is 31.3%, well below the European average of 35.6%. Linked to this is the startling figure of €11.49 billion. That is the figure this Government grants in tax relief. We must look seriously at this and I urge the Government to look at it in the run up to the budget. It is the case that people who are wealthy get richer.
In their book The Spirit Level, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett claim that for each of 11 different health and social problems such as physical health, mental health, drug abuse, education, imprisonment, obesity, social mobility, trust and community life, violence, teenage pregnancies and child well-being, outcomes are significantly worse in more unequal countries. We know that from looking around the globe. Their striking conclusion is that the societies that do best for their citizens are those with the narrowest income differentials - the Nordic countries - while the most unequal such as the US and the UK do worst.
In conclusion, the question is where we want Ireland to be in a few years' time. Do we want a more unequal society or do we want a more equal one that is safer, more caring and more productive? We should say "Yes" to that.
Tá mé iontach sásta seasamh anseo anocht chun tacaíocht a thabhairt don Bhille um Stádas Comhionann (Leasú), 2013. Tá moladh mór tuillte ag an Teachta Mac Lochlainn, a tháinig chun tosaigh leis an mBille seo. Tá moladh le tabhairt fosta chuig na heagrais phobail uilig atá ar cúl an fheachtais mar cheannródaithe ar an iarracht atá á dhéanamh comhionannas a chur i gcroílár an Rialtais seo; go háirithe ionas go ndéanfar scrúdú comhionannais ar an gcáinaisnéis atá againn gach bliain. Tuigim fosta gur tháinig ICTU and SIPTU amach go láidir inniu ag rá gur chóir tacaíocht a thabhairt don Bhille seo. Is comhartha iontach láidir é sin, go háirithe do Pháirtí an Lucht Oibre, a bhfuil ceangal acu leis an gceardchumann SIPTU. Ar an drochuair, tá sé iontach soiléir go bhfuil daoine i bPáirtí an Lucht Oibre a bhí mar bhaill bhródúil de SIPTU sular toghadh iad isteach sa Teach seo, ag dul in éadan an cheardchumainn sin. Tá siad ag dul in éadan toil na grúpaí pobail, atá ag cur na hargóinte seo chun tosaigh, agus in éadan toil a bpáirtí féin, mar go bhfuil sé mar pholasaí ag an bpáirtí go mbeidh comhionannas curtha isteach i gcroílár cáinaisnéis na tíre seo.
I am delighted to support this legislation. This legislation is not revolutionary or unrealistic. It is a simple step forward in the way a normal democratic society should deal with its affairs. There should be protection for the six different areas that have been listed in this legislation. Very importantly, equality budgeting should be the cornerstone of how we deal with budgets into the future.
The question we have before us in this legislation and the question Deputies must ask themselves when a vote is called later on tonight is whether they fear equality and fairness and whether they want to turn their backs and protect themselves and the Government in which they are involved in continuing with the budgets they have implemented over the past number of years, which are a far cry from the slogan of equality. I have listened to the contributions made in this Chamber. I am amused, particularly by the Labour Party which is voting against its own party policy on equality budgeting and the views of SIPTU and the ICTU, of which many of them are proud members and shop stewards and in which they have a long history, and both of which have asked all Members of this House to support equality budgeting and this legislation. I am amused by the squirming of Labour Party Deputies in particular when they try to come up with reasons to justify voting against the issue of equality.
We heard Deputy Ciarán Lynch tell us that equality is a subjective concept. This is very similar to the cries made by the former leader of the Progressive Democrats, Michael McDowell, which said he was against equality. I ask the Labour Party Deputies of 2013 to imagine what it would be like if they transposed themselves back to nearly 100 years ago, if one of their leaders was in place of the great labour leader, James Connolly, when they sat down to discuss what would be in the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, and if when James Connolly put forward the notion that all children of the nation would be treated equally, the Labour Party of today said "equality is a subjective concept, James, we can't have that in the Proclamation". That is the message they are sending out here today.
Why fear equality? The answer can probably be seen in the type of measures this Government has introduced over the past two years. Equality is not a concept. Equality is something that is rooted in the Irish people and very dear to them but it is something that is very distant from this Government, as has been seen in its actions. We have seen it time and time again in budgets and in the presentation made by the Carers Association in the AV room today. It will not be the only group that will come in here asking, demanding and begging that the Government and Deputies bring forward the issues of equality and fairness. Why attack carers when the wealthiest in society are being protected? Why attack those with special needs while those in the privileged elite are protected?
We know there is no easy way out of this crisis. We know the mess Fianna Fáil, its banker friends and corrupt developers left this State in but there is a fair way to get out of it. This Bill would lift the veil of this Government which likes to proclaim that it is standing shoulder to shoulder with those who demand equality and fairness but which in its actions does something quite different. I commend this Bill. I hope the Labour Party Deputies look into their consciences and vote to support this legislation, which their party dictates they do.
A phrase to the effect that any free society or state should be judged on the basis of how it treats its most vulnerable members or lowest class has been used by many people down through the years. However, its meaning is as important today as it ever was. I think every Member of this House could agree that the Government needs to ensure that it protects the most vulnerable members of society. Again, there is commonality in respect of that statement. Irish society has changed rapidly over the past two to three decades and while there have always been vulnerable groups in our society, the increased diversity of our society means more and more groups and individuals need enhanced protection from State resources.
This Bill proposes to create that protection and supports closing the clear cracks in Irish society. This Government recently released One World, One Future, its new policy for international development, and reducing inequality is a key part of that policy. In fact, the policy paper states:
Evidence clearly shows that high levels of inequality, including gender inequality, can not only harm economic growth, but can also lead to people being trapped in poverty across generations, and in some cases social and political unrest.
It commits the Government to using its aid programme to "target those most excluded, deliberately addressing the inequalities these people face". Does this evidence not apply to Ireland? That is the question we are asking here tonight. Does the Government believe that this should only happen abroad in foreign countries? Inequality does not fix itself through market forces or by simple state hand outs. To reduce inequality, one has to tackle the root causes of it and this requires robust mechanisms whose essential element is ensuring that vulnerable groups are protected. Over 60 countries worldwide use equality budgeting to tackle inequality and poverty and surely it is time this State considered following suit.
Existing equality laws ban discrimination and unfair targeting of people based on their gender, civil status, family status, age, race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, and membership of the Traveller community, but we all come across cases of discrimination every day. Our Bill would add new and additional anti-discriminatory categories. It would prohibit discrimination against trade union members, Irish language speakers, former political prisoners who served their sentences before the Good Friday Agreement or were released under its terms and rural dwellers and on the grounds of socio-economic background.
Yesterday I listened to Deputy Pádraig Mac Lochlainn opening the debate. In the course of his speech I received a text from someone in my office telling me to ask Deputy Emmet Stagg and other Labour Party Deputies whether they support the Bill. Unknown to me the person who sent the text had read the Labour Party's policy. I replied that I would ask. I listened to the arguments made by the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, and I was not impressed. I am impressed at Fine Gael's ability to put Labour Party Ministers and Ministers of State on the front line for contentious issues such as this. Yesterday it was Deputy Kathleen Lynch and today it is Deputy Seán Sherlock.
Essentially the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, said we cannot afford equality. From a Fine Gael Minister this would have been understandable because Fine Gael does not believe in equality, but the Labour Party’s stated policy is for equality proofing. By opposing this equality-proofing Bill Labour Party Deputies will vote against their party’s policy position. What is the value of the Labour Party in government if its only role is to bolster the conservative economic and social politics of Fine Gael?
As Deputy Pearse Doherty stated, the Labour Party’s founding father James Connolly is accepted as the principal author of that part of the Proclamation which guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities and the section which commits to cherish all the children of the nation equally. The fact is equality does not exist in this society. It is a republic in name only and the policies of the Government and of successive Governments have contributed directly to a growing inequality, particularly between the rich and the poor.
I am an Irish republican. I believe in a republican system of governance. I believe in a real republic in which the people are sovereign and equal and have all–encompassing rights, including economic rights, the right to a home, job and education, to a health service from the cradle to the grave, to a safe and clean environment and to civil and religious liberties. This is what republicanism and genuine democracy are about. They are about embedding equality into the daily life and experience of citizens. The imposition of equality duties and equality-proofing Government policies and budgets and public bodies through impact assessments are a means of achieving this and of dictating outcomes. Without this, equality will remain little more than a pipe dream.
It is a fact that inequality is all around us in this part of the island. It famously exists also in the North, but there it has the added dimension of generational, sectarian and political discrimination. Interestingly, the other parties here reference the continued existence of inequalities in the North as a pretext for attacking Sinn Féin. There is no logic, truth or rationale to this position. They quote poverty levels in west Belfast to justify their own position. They refuse to acknowledge the citizens of west Belfast, in common with other communities throughout the North, are tackling these issues on a daily basis and succeeding against the odds. It is because these citizens took a stand – they would be waiting a long time for Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael or the Labour Party to help them – that generational and political discrimination are being tackled. In the Six Counties there are now equality protocols and equality-proofing of government policies, budgets and public bodies. If this is good enough for the North why cannot citizens in this part of Ireland have these rights?
Equality is cited 21 times in the Good Friday Agreement, including in the pledge of office for Ministers. The Government is co-author and guarantor of this Agreement. A complete section is given over to equality protocols, and legislation is designed to ensure equality in employment. We all live in a post-Good Friday Agreement Ireland. This is very obvious in the North but not so obvious here. It is catch-up time in this State and legislating for equality here must be a key part of this. This should include the charter of rights to which the Irish Government signed up 15 years ago.
Active discrimination against the Traveller community is totally and absolutely unacceptable. Apart from being ethically wrong, no person or community should be treated as second class or non-citizens. Equally is good and inequality is bad for society. Inequality is expensive and uneconomic. Sinn Féin’s equality legislation is about achieving a more equal and prosperous society, which is in everyone's interests.
If we consider the programme and record of the Government the need for this approach is obvious. The ESRI found the budget for 2012 had a disproportionate impact on the least well-off in society and this was repeated in the budget for 2013. Every day we see the removal of citizens rights and the reinforcement of privilege for the elites in society. Our Bill would require an equality impact assessment to prevent the implementation of unfair policies, which is why the Government opposes the Bill.
We also need equality for the Irish language and for rural Ireland.
I commend the Bill. I repeat what I said previously, that it will bring us in line with the North. I repeat also that it is official Labour Party policy as adopted at last year’s conference. I appeal to Labour Party Teachtaí Dála to stand by their own policy. They can forget about Sinn Féin. They should stand by their party's policy and vote for this Bill.
In the five minutes available I will do my best to address the contents of the Bill. The Bill proposes to extend the discrimination grounds in the Equal Status Acts, which deal with provision of goods and services, but not in the Employment Equality Acts, which cover employment, by adding five or six new grounds for discrimination which have been articulated by Deputy Stanley.
The existing equality legislation prohibits discrimination on nine grounds, but also contains a range of qualifications and exceptions to ensure that we avoid unintended and extreme consequences. Thus, discrimination based on age is outlawed, but we ensure that children are protected and special treatment can be provided for older people where that is appropriate. Gender may not be used to discriminate in employment, except, for example, in employment providing intimate caring services.
Many of the contributions from the Opposition benches last night covered employment issues, to which the Bill as published does not apply. We were told last night that this is a drafting error that can be easily fixed. However, it is not the type of drafting error that can easily be corrected. That is because there are no exceptions or qualifications proposed in the Bill in respect of the proposed five new grounds. That is a serious omission. As my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Lynch, said last night, equality legislation seeks to eliminate unfair or prejudicial discrimination based on a person's inherent characteristics - gender, race or age, for example - rather than affecting rational assessments of risk based on a person's previous actions. The question of wiping the record of criminal convictions, for example, requires a nuanced approach via spent convictions legislation. I acknowledge Deputy Dara Murphy's point in that regard. In certain employment areas, as well as in the provision of certain goods and services, a history of conviction for serious criminal offences, such as sexual offences, fraud or theft, can be directly relevant risk factors which should be taken into account.
The second major defect is that the Bill does not understand the way in which equality legislation interacts with other legislation. Reference was made last night to taxi licences and the security industry. The Bill may be an attempt to compel the relevant authorities to grant licences in such cases, irrespective of genuine concerns about suitability, but it cannot achieve that objective. The Equal Status Acts apply to the provision of goods and services other than public services that are regulated by other legislation. The Equal Status Act 2000, in section 14, makes clear that it operates without prejudice to other statutory provisions. Essentially, the 2000 Act does not apply to an issue that is governed by separate legislation.
The overly simplistic approach is also illustrated by the inclusion of living in a rural area as a proposed ground for discrimination. Access to broadband was raised in last night's debate, as it was tonight. The Government is committed to ensuring that we have high-quality broadband services and that rural areas are served as well as urban areas. Deputy Heather Humphreys spoke on that point. Does anybody seriously think this goal can be achieved by a simple prohibition on discrimination, or that increased provision of broadband services in the market would be positively encouraged by an outbreak of litigation before the Equality Tribunal?
The third problem area is the proposal to create an elaborate new proofing mechanism by which all public bodies would draft equality schemes for approval by the Equality Authority. The Government is taking a much more balanced, nuanced and proportionate approach to embedding concern for human rights and equality in the work of the public sector. In the Bill to establish the new Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, IHREC, we are taking a different approach to ensuring that public bodies place equality and human rights at the heart of what they do. Instead of a formalistic box-ticking exercise, with an enormous administrative overhead, we are imposing a positive duty on public bodies to look at the human rights and equality issues they face and address those in their strategic plans and annual reports. Instead of agreeing voluminous paper schemes and deploying a small army of staff for monitoring, the role of the new IHREC will be the much more active one of providing support and facilitation. That will be a much more positive and useful approach.
The final point is that budgetary decisions are for the democratically elected Government of the day and for the approval of the national Parliament and cannot be subject to approval in terms of the process or content of any State agency's board. The Government opposes the Bill.
That was the exact same speech as the one given last night. The Department could at least have had to courtesy to write a new speech for the Minister of State.
In a real republic, one that honours the commitments of those who brought this State into being through their sacrifice and struggle, equality would be the watch-word of any Government of the people. It would be at the heart of every policy and would be the aim of every initiative. That kind of approach would not just honour our past but ensure our future, not simply as an economy or a state but as a society thriving and growing, cherishing its people and nurturing the generation that will carry it onwards. Some might describe that as woolly rhetoric, but those ideas are the foundation of a progressive approach and a government that ignores them is not worth electing. I appreciate that government is not an easy task. I know that many in this Government have been pushed to do things they did not want to or to accept policy they did not support because they felt it was unfair or unequal. But if one starts policy discussions on the basis of what one can get away with rather than what is the right thing to do, one has already lost.
The Government has been far from the equality-driven Administration I described. In nearly every instance it seems to have taken the opportunity to take from those who can least absorb a cut, to take services from those who need them most and to deny those who are most vulnerable their most basic rights. The only time Ministers have reflected on those decisions has been after the expression of widespread vocal anger, such as in the case of recent cuts to services for disabled children.
This Bill proposes to make equality budgeting a legislative requirement. Equality-proofing a budget or policy would mean that each Minister would have to approach his or her brief and budget with the impact on wider society of the policy in mind. It would require the carrying out of equality impact assessments by Departments. I have asked the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport and the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government on a number of occasions whether they had impact assessments carried out when deciding on certain policies. The answer I received was depressing but also enraging. The respective Departments claimed they had no responsibility for such a practice. It was bad enough to be told that no impact assessments were carried out, although I suspected as much given the nature of the policies in question, but to be told that a Minister had no responsibility to ensure a policy did not increase inequality was really galling.
The Bill proposes to amend the existing legislation, which was a positive step when introduced but is relatively passive and toothless. While setting out to protect some sections of society, it did not put the onus on policy makers to prove their work was based on the principles of equality. That is the much-needed ingredient this amendment adds and to fear it is to fear good governance and good policy.
One of the groups the original Act protects is the Traveller community. However, we do not have to look too hard to find that this group has not benefited greatly from the current legislative protection. Perhaps in the context of a requirement to carry out such assessments and to promote equality, the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Hogan, would have thought again before intervening in the housing of Traveller families he did not know. Perhaps he would have chosen also not to speak when he used an ethnic slur against Travellers to journalists or when he stood over a cut to the maintenance of Traveller housing which saw funding drop to just €50,000 for the city of Dublin. Equality-proofing requirements might also have caused the Cabinet to pause for further reflection when the idea of cutting housing adaptation grants for disabled or elderly people by 40% was proposed, or perhaps it would have changed minds on the cut to the transport mobility grant.
Another situation in which the Government has moved with no consideration for the wider impact on society is its attack on the livelihoods of taxi drivers, particularly those who were at one time political prisoners. Despite my campaign, it is clear the Government does not give a damn that its measures will put people out of work and put their families on the breadline.
Government Members will claim that Sinn Féin is not being real about the finances of the State. I propose that those who believe they will build an economy and maintain a society based on cuts to the most vulnerable - the disabled, the elderly, Travellers and single parents - are not being real. They are being lazy and callous. If they are neither of these, then they are weak and apologetic for these grossly unfair and insufficient approaches. Equality is something for which we should all strive. We should oppose inequality across the board. The Minister of State's rhetoric indicates that he will never strive towards equality, given some of his excuses.
Tonight, we saw the Labour Party's version of equality, that being sharing the same speech two nights in a row so that both speakers might make the same statement.
I will cite some of the arguments made last night by the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, and again tonight in the same speech given by the Minister of State, Deputy Sherlock, for not supporting our Bill. One of the reasons given by the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, for the Government not supporting the Bill was that "the Bill proposes that there would be very resource-intensive obligations on the full range of public bodies to prepare and publish equality impact assessments of their work for approval by the Equality Authority". This is an absurd argument and is an argument for not doing anything. This is surprising, given that it is the Labour Party's policy. How are jurisdictions with less resources than Ireland able to conduct budget equality impact assessments when this State cannot because doing so would overburden an already stretched public sector? The North and Scotland can do it, but Ireland refuses to do it. The only reason is that there is no political will on the part of the Labour Party and Fine Gael.
The Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, also stated: "In the Bill to establish the new Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, IHREC, which we are working on and hope to publish before too long, we are taking a different approach to ensuring that public bodies place equality and human rights at the heart of what they do." Let us see how this fits in with the Government's proposals.
Last September, the Taoiseach attended a ceremony to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Irish Human Rights Commission, IHRC. While he was commending the work of the IHRC, he was proposing to merge it with the Equality Authority and to water their powers down. At the time, we published a Bill to oppose the merger because we wanted to safeguard the bodies, one of which - the IHRC - was established as part of the Good Friday Agreement of which the Government is a co-guarantor. In opposition, the Ministers of State, Deputies Kathleen Lynch and Sherlock, opposed any such merger. Now in government, they seem to have rolled over to Fine Gael's demands.
Last night, the Minister of State also stated:
The reality is that resources are limited and additional expenditure demands or costs arising - for whatever reason - will have to be paid for through expenditure reductions elsewhere or through the raising of additional revenue. Nothing is this Bill can change that reality or be of any help to the Government in making the difficult decisions its members have been elected to make on behalf of the people as we work to restore the country's economic sovereignty.
After attacking some of the Bill's technical drafting issues, she got to the nub of the issue, that being, what would be the point in proceeding with the Bill if, as she believed, it would change nothing. If she believes that the introduction of a budget impact analysis assessment process will achieve nothing, it says more about her than it does about anything else. This is her party's policy. SIPTU, ICTU and a number of non-governmental organisations, NGOs, came out yesterday and today in support of the Bill. Is the Minister of State telling them that the introduction of such analyses will have no positive or progressive effect on society? It beggars belief.
I also wish to cite two comments made by Deputy Ciarán Lynch last night. He stated:
Equality is a subjective concept. Someone might come before this House and propose that because of the mortgage difficulties which obtain, everyone should receive a write-down of 30% on his or her mortgage. That would be an equal measure but it would also be subjective because we would be giving a break to people who would not deserve it and we would probably not be giving enough assistance to those who require it. When we discuss equality, we should place it in a subjective context.
This is complete waffle. I do not even know where he gets it. He is obviously confusing the concept of equality with equity. He also stated: "The legislation before the House constitutes another aspect of Sinn Féin's subjectivity when it comes to dealing with prisoners." He may recall that Sinn Féin tabled a Private Members' motion in the Dáil to mark the 15th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement last May. In moving the Government amendment, the Tánaiste, Labour's leader, and the Taoiseach stated during the debate:
-- the Government, as joint and co-equal guarantors of the agreements, is committed to continuing to:
-- work to ensure that the agreements are fully implemented.
There is nothing subjective in what we propose. It may have escaped Deputy Ciarán Lynch but the agreements also include political prisoners. Is the Labour Party stating that it refuses to implement the agreements fully?
Deputy Ciarán Lynch also stated: "If the Bill is an attempt on the part of Sinn Féin to embarrass the Government, then it has missed by a mile." We are not in the business of trying to embarrass the Government. It does a good enough job of that itself.
It does not need help from us. We are concerned with proposing constructive solutions and working with Deputies to try to better the lives of Irish citizens. This Bill is an attempt to do so. Instead of focusing on what Government Members perceive to be drafting issues, why do they not sit down and work with us on its positive aspects and allow it to move on to Committee Stage where we could work together to strengthen it?
As the Ministers of State have criticised the Bill and its drafting, I should point out that it was drafted with the help of some of the legal experts provided and resourced by the Bills Office of the Oireachtas. It is not just us who the Ministers of State are criticising, but also the people working in the Bills Office who helped us to draft this legislation.
I wish to address the points made by the Minister of State, Deputy Sherlock, on criminal convictions. He stated that we were proposing to scrub them. That is not what is being proposed in this legislation. We are aiming to apply equal rights to those who have previously served their sentences. A number of Deputies spoke about the Criminal Justice (Spent Convictions) Bill, which has been in committee for the last 18 months.
God help them.
There is no sign of it coming out of the committee. There is no urgency around it. If this Bill does not meet the Government's standards and is to be rejected here, then that is unfortunate. The challenge, however, is for the Government to bring forward its own legislation to ensure that budgets are fairly analysed and an impact analysis is done. If that type of legislation had been in place initially, the Minister for Education and Skills would not have reversed a decision on resource teachers last week or reversed the DEIS decision. In addition, the Minister for Health would not have reversed disability cuts. If all those impact analyses had been done in the first place, all those sectors in society, including the parents concerned and people with disabilities, would not have had to camp outside the gates of Leinster House to get what is rightfully due to them.
That will be the challenge following the vote to take place after I conclude speaking. When the Government votes down this Bill it should bring forward its own legislation to ensure that budgets are fair and equitable. We should stop discriminating against people based on what they may or may not have.
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- Flanagan, Charles.
- Griffin, Brendan.
- Hannigan, Dominic.
- Harrington, Noel.
- Harris, Simon.
- Hayes, Brian.
- Hayes, Tom.
- Heydon, Martin.
- Hogan, Phil.
- Howlin, Brendan.
- Humphreys, Heather.
- Humphreys, Kevin.
- Keating, Derek.
- Kehoe, Paul.
- Kelly, Alan.
- Kenny, Seán.
- Kyne, Seán.
- Lawlor, Anthony.
- Lynch, Ciarán.
- Lynch, Kathleen.
- Lyons, John.
- McCarthy, Michael.
- McEntee, Helen.
- McGinley, Dinny.
- McHugh, Joe.
- McLoughlin, Tony.
- McNamara, Michael.
- Maloney, Eamonn.
- Mitchell, Olivia.
- Murphy, Dara.
- Murphy, Eoghan.
- Nash, Gerald.
- Neville, Dan.
- Nolan, Derek.
- Noonan, Michael.
- Ó Ríordáin, Aodhán.
- O'Donnell, Kieran.
- O'Donovan, Patrick.
- O'Dowd, Fergus.
- O'Mahony, John.
- O'Reilly, Joe.
- O'Sullivan, Jan.
- Perry, John.
- Phelan, Ann.
- Phelan, John Paul.
- Rabbitte, Pat.
- Reilly, James.
- Ryan, Brendan.
- Sherlock, Sean.
- Spring, Arthur.
- Stagg, Emmet.
- Stanton, David.
- Tuffy, Joanna.
- Wall, Jack.
- Walsh, Brian.
- White, Alex.