While Deputy Healy-Rae was in possession, he is not present. Consequently, I call on Deputy Bannon.
Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission Bill 2014: Second Stage (Resumed)
I wish to share time with Deputy Neville.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
I thank the Acting Chairman and am delighted to get the opportunity to speak on this important legislation. Human rights, justice and equality concern themselves with the proper ordering of things and citizens within society. Equality and human rights are two sides of the same coin. One cannot block equality for people in society because all citizens deserve to be treated equally. This Bill will bring about a safer, fairer and stronger Ireland. I am in favour of tolerance and compromise when conflicts arise. Religious beliefs divided this country for too long. It is only in the past 20 years or so that we have come to recognise that religious belief is a matter of personal conscience, not a concern of government.
We all have natural rights and this Bill, when implemented, will work for the common good and will protect and promote human rights and equality. In bygone days, to be free was not to be a slave with someone else having legal guaranteed control over one's person. This is still its essential meaning. To be free means that one is not prevented from doing what one wants to do and not forced to do what one dislikes doing. Any limitation of this twofold power is an interference with freedom and human rights. It may well be that to interfere with the freedom of some people prevents their interfering with somebody else and is, therefore, a guarantee of the latter's freedom.
This Bill will merge the Equality Authority and the Irish Human Rights Commission. It is also a measure to streamline government by making it smaller, leaner and cheaper to run and giving better value to the general public from our scarce available resources. It will also end the overlapping roles of both bodies. Our programme for Government proposed getting rid of many of the overlapping agencies. This Bill recognises and seeks to implement an important judgment of the European Court of Human Rights by amending the European Convention on Human Rights Act 2003 to provide for an enforceable right to compensation for a person found to be unlawfully deprived of his or her liberty as a result of a judicial act. A smaller and more streamlined body will be able to more effectively and efficiently champion human rights.
When Fine Gael entered government we introduced important human rights legislation, the Criminal Law (Defence and the Dwelling) Act, which protects home owners who use reasonable force in self-defence. This has provided legal certainty and clarity on the issue of home defence. It also put an end to the scenario of injured trespassers suing home owners. It provides that the home owner or occupant of a home is no longer obliged to retreat when confronting an intruder or trespasser. In my opinion, this is equally a human right for our people. We have brought legal certainty to an area where serious confusion existed. I was delighted that we acted on this issue when we came into government because up until 2012 the home owner was very vulnerable when faced with intruders. It is a basic human right to protect one's home and family.
The natural equality of men and women is one of the essential principles of natural law; no law is more fundamental than that of the natural equality of people. Natural equality is that which exists between all men by the very constitution of their nature. I was delighted to serve on the Constitutional Convention, which gave citizens a direct voice on a range of issues. I hope the convention's deliberations will bring about reforms to our Constitution, particularly in the areas of human rights and equality issues, all for the betterment of our society.
Natural equality is founded upon that human nature which is common to all humans who are born, grow, live and die in the same way. Therefore, each of us must treat others as equal to him- or herself. The consequence is that all men and women are naturally free; that we are to treat our inferiors in rank as our equals by nature; and that no one may claim any particular right above that right of others unless he or she has acquired it other than by birth or wealth. Equality means an absence of legal discrimination against any one individual, group, class or race. It means equal claims to a minimum standard of education, housing and food and a guarantee against economic insecurity - in other words, a recognition that there can be no difference inherent in nature between the claims of man and woman to happiness - and, especially, that no one person or group may be sacrificed to another.
As a human being I deplore the violation of human rights in any shape or form, whether it be here or in any other part of the world. As a politician my concern is focused on human rights issues and by extension I am fully supportive of the establishment of the democratic process around the world. I refer to conflict in the Middle East and the current situation in Ukraine. Democracy must reign in those areas.
In this historic week when the last remaining vestiges of dissent between Ireland and Britain are being put to rest, I do not propose to dwell on the causes or details of our 800 years of struggle for freedom in this country, particularly during the Famine years. State visits such as this highlight awareness of the civil, political, economic and social rights of those who were victims of human rights abuses over the centuries. It is essential that we have exchanges or visits such as this among leaders in order to address issues, including human rights issues and concerns, by encouraging better communications between nations. I thank the Minister, Deputy Shatter, for introducing the gender equality Bill, which provides that women and men have an equal right to participate in politics without discrimination. The gender quotas will bring more women into the political system, although my former constituency colleague, former Deputy Mary O'Rourke, would have disagreed with this measure. The concern of all free people must be to address the human rights and welfare of children, adults and all those who are exploited by the forces of war, oppression and wrongdoing.
I welcome this opportunity to contribute to the debate. I will deal in particular with the human rights of people with disabilities. I will compare international law with the situation in Ireland. Under international law, Ireland has a responsibility towards everyone under its jurisdiction. These international obligations exist in addition to those in Ireland's domestic law and the 1937 Constitution. Where there is a conflict, international law is superior. Even if international standards are not expressly reflected in domestic law, they are binding on states once they are ratified. Each general international human rights instrument protects the rights of persons with mental illness through the principle of equality and non-discrimination. More specific standards exist with regard to people with mental illness.
The primary source of international human rights under the United Nations system is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is frequently quoted and which encompasses civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights.
Civil and political rights, including the right to liberty, a fair trial and to vote, were subsequently laid down in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which I will refer, and the committee of experts was established to oversee its implementation in national jurisdictions. Economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to an adequate standard of living, the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health and an education, were laid down in the second binding treaty, namely, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and a similar supervisory committee was established, namely, the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. These UN committees are supported by the UN High Commission for Human Rights which also issues comments that are instructive.
Other treaties are of relevance. For example, the UN Commission on the Rights of the Child, often quoted in this House, carries certain additional obligations. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states the obligation on states parties to the covenant to promote progressive realisation of the relevant rights to the maximum of their available resources clearly requires governments to do much more than merely abstain from taking measures that might have a negative impact on persons with disabilities. The obligation in the case of such a vulnerable and disadvantaged group is to take positive action to reduce structural disadvantage and give appropriate preferential treatment to people with disabilities in order to achieve the objectives of full participation and equality within society for all persons with disabilities. That almost invariably means that additional resources will need to be made available for that purpose and that a wide range of specially tailored measures will be required.
The UN principles for the protection of persons with a mental illness and the improvement of mental health care, known as the MI principles, were adopted in 1991 and state elaborate and basic rights and freedoms of people with a mental illness must be secured if states are to be fully compliant. Many of the rights included in both covenants, including the UN instruments, include such measures as standard rules for the equalisation of opportunities for persons with disabilities, a declaration on the rights of mentally retarded persons, a declaration on the rights of disabled persons and the UN body of principles for the protection of all persons in any form of detention or imprisonment. The relevant principle in regard to the rights of people with a mental illness is Article 12 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which provides for the rights of everybody to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standards of physical and mental health and identifies some of the measures states should take "to achieve a full realisation of these rights".
The MI principles to which I referred apply to all persons with a mental illness, regardless of whether they are in inpatient psychiatric care, and to all persons admitted to psychiatric facilities, regardless of whether they are diagnosed as having a mental illness. They provide criteria for the determination of mental illness, the protection of confidentiality, standards of care, the rights of people in mental health facilities and the provision of resources. MI principle 1 lays down the basic foundations on which states' obligations towards people with a mental illness are built. It states all persons with a mental illness or who are being treated as such shall be treated with humanity and respect for the inherent dignity of the human person and shall have the right to exercise all civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights as recognised in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
In addition to the UN mechanism, Ireland is bound by certain human rights principles laid down by the Council of Europe. There is a regional system of international human rights law comprising 43 states throughout Europe. Chief among the Council of Europe's treaties is the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. Another is the European Convention for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment which pertains specifically to places of detention. It has an expert committee, the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
Ireland's treatment of people with a mental illness is part of a wider pattern of discrimination against people with disabilities. Amnesty International uses the term "persons with disabilities" in accordance with contemporary UN usage which defines disability as summarising a great number of functional limitations occurring in any population in any country of the world. People may be disabled by physical, intellectual or sensory impairment, medical conditions or a mental illness. In general, Ireland's treatment of people with disabilities is often at variance with international standards. The concluding observations in the report of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights on Ireland's second periodical review were critical of Ireland's treatment of people with disabilities. It remarked on the persistence of discrimination against persons with physical and mental disabilities, especially in the fields of employment, social security benefit, education and health, and expressed concern that the principles of non-discrimination and equal access to health facilities and services were not embodied in the national mental health strategy.
The Minister might comment on the Government's declared position on the repeal of the Mental Health Act 2001 in regard to criticisms of it and the need to have it upgraded. I will raise that issue in a different forum at a later stage, probably in a Topical Issue debate.
I think I am sharing with Deputy Mick Wallace, but if he does not turn up, I will soldier on regardless.
The merging of the two bodies is important. This gives us an important opportunity to focus on how this country can promote human rights and equality, which is critical, but we have to take a step back in that regard. Talking about equality is welcome, but we need to have the resources to back it up.
I will begin by referring to rights and supports for people with disabilities. We have seen many references to this issue on paper, while, simultaneously, decisions are being made in the Department of Social Protection, the Department of Education and Skills and so on which adversely impact on the lives of disabled citizens and prevent them from having an equal stake in society. I will give two examples, the first of which is the Gateway scheme which is a slave labour, chain gang type facility to make up for the fact that local authority jobs are being eroded. Thousands have been lost in the past few years. Traditionally, local authorities provided for and held a substantial number of positions for people with disabilities, members of the Traveller community and so on, people in our society who would otherwise be discriminated against, to give them an equal opportunity. As a result of jobs no longer being available in local authorities, people are unable to access their right to employment. That is a substantial step back.
I am aware that many disabled citizens who rely on personal assistance have seen their hours cut and not replaced. That is reprehensible. It is all very well to talk the talk, but we need to deliver on the issue of resources.
There are particular groups in society which need our protection when we refer to human rights. One that has been alluded to is the Traveller community. The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance, ECRI, report from one year ago noted that Ireland had a legislative weakness in dealing with the issue of racial profiling and suggested it introduce legislation to deal with it. It stated it would check on our progress in this regard in the near future. The report also noted that stronger efforts were needed in the area of Traveller-Roma accommodation, with the need for Ireland to introduce measures binding on local authorities in Traveller accommodation provision. This is an area that needs to be beefed up.
The way in which we respond to issues which some of the more vulnerable sectors of society experience dictates how these groups feel they are valued. The iReport facility is a reporting system for people, communities and organisations in Ireland to document serious incidents of a racist character which occur against citizens, those not born in Ireland and members of the Traveller community. If we were really serious about equality and human rights, we would address these issues. Sometimes racist issues arise, but how the State responds to them can often be more hurtful. Some of the accounts collected by the iReport organisation of how gardaí respond to racist incidents have been shocking, with very few being explored properly. For example, only one out of 100 victims can verify that they have been in receipt of an incident number and that there has been a proper investigation. The poor level of communication adds to the upset and confusion for victims. For example, gardaí told a white man reporting a car break-in that Travellers were probably responsible for the crime before they conducted an investigation into it. Another incident recounted a scenario where a garda, in questioning walkers at a popular tourist site, asked one man very aggressively about car break-ins when he learned that the man’s name was synonymous with the Traveller community. A Traveller family visiting a Garda station to request a stamp on their forms found the gardaí laughing and joking while stamping their children’s hands. They felt very degraded by that experience. The Minister is aware that Traveller children's details have been entered on the Garda PULSE system, causing upset to their families. Despite the denials by the former Garda Commissioner that there was no racial profiling by the Garda, external bodies and proof from the PULSE system indicates that there is.
This is not just a serious erosion of human rights or degradation of citizens but will also add to problems in the future. Several weeks ago I spent a Sunday afternoon in Rathkeale with some members of the Traveller community. I met one man, a successful businessman, who admitted one or two members of his family previously had been involved with the Garda not in a good way. He himself was a law-abiding citizen who had never had any problems with the law. His home was broken into in a violent armed robbery during which his family was held at gunpoint, while he was beaten in front of his grandchildren. The Garda did not investigate that robbery because, in their opinion, the family were members of the Traveller community. The gang went on to rob other families in the area and were eventually caught. Subsequent to this, the Criminal Assets Bureau, CAB, conducted a raid on this man's property. Again, the family was held at gunpoint, but this time there were no men present, just a granny, a mother and some grandchildren. One young boy faced armed gardaí from the CAB with helmets and torches, feeling his grandparent and mother was going to be shot. He thought it was the same burglars back again. The family had property taken from them which was later shown on television with a slogan saying, “proceeds from criminal activity”. I saw the property, the painting etc. It was returned to the family. It had not been misappropriated and was the family's own personal property. This family was tarred, vilified and demonised simply because they were members of the Traveller community. It is these antics that alienate generation after generation. The ten year old boy who witnessed his family being held at gunpoint will not respect the Garda anymore, nor will his uncle who was stopped on a laneway and beaten up by gardaí for no valid reason.
Unless we start to look seriously at measures to protect some of the most vulnerable groups in society, talk about merging human rights and equality organisations is simply that, talk. We need to educate all facets of the State in their dealings with minority groups. The worst case of this was the taking of the Roma children earlier this year, which is the subject of an inquiry. We need to respond far more seriously to these actions. The Minister needs to do more with the PULSE inquiry that has been established. We are alienating generations of the population. Apart from the appalling indictment that they lack basic human rights standards, Travellers and the Roma population are among the most excluded members of our society.
Another issue on which we need to deliver is women’s access to abortion services. Ireland has been rightly criticised for its violation of women’s human rights because of its lack of appropriate legislation on abortion. Last year we passed weak and appalling legislation which was supposed to give protection in law to a pregnant woman whose life might have been in danger by allowing her access to a termination. That law falls well short of that intention. Critically, it excludes that group of women who tragically discover their foetus has a fatal abnormality not compatible with life. Former Attorneys General have advised the State that this group potentially has a right to secure an abortion in Ireland by arguing in the European court that those women who had taken cases to the European court had not exploited all domestic avenues before doing so, thereby implying that had they done so, a hearing would have been granted, even within the confines of the Constitution, yet the Government has failed in the past year to legislate to allow abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities which, to my mind, is degrading, inhuman and a gross violation of people’s human rights.
Unlike former Ministers, the Minister is on top of his brief in what goes on in prisons and the case of prisoners. It is welcome that the phasing out of slopping out in prisons is under way. I accept that this will take time, but I am surprised, given the Minister’s knowledge, that he has stood over multi-cell occupancy, which is a degradation of human rights. We should not force people to share a prison cell. It is not good for the staff or prisoners themselves. If we are to advance as a state in protecting human rights, we need to address these concerns, not just talk about them.
I have not had as much time as I would have liked to go through the Bill. The merging of the two bodies was cited last week in the Government’s amendment to the motion of no confidence in the Minister. This disappointing Bill could have been more progressive and reforming. Improvements have been made to the first draft provided in 2012.
The Bill lacks substance if it is to provide properly for the protection and strengthening of human rights structures within the State.
The independence of the proposed statutory body from the Government is questionable, particularly in view of the procedures set out in sections 13 and 14 regarding the appointment of the commissioners. Section 13 provides that the Government will hold a veto on the appointment of those selected for the position of commissioner by the Public Appointments Service. Section 14 allows the Government to remove a member of the commission under a broad range of circumstances. These provisions compromise the independence of these appointments and run contrary to the spirit of the UN Paris Principles. Under those principles, autonomy from Government is strong, particularly in regard to funding and appointment of commissioners.
Section 26 sets out how funding will be allocated by the Oireachtas and leaves this decision entirely to the discretion of the Minister, subject to input from the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. The Irish Human Rights Commission's submission notes that in order for the commission to be properly independent, in accordance with the UN Paris Principles, it should have autonomous control over its budget and the amount allocated to it should be what is reasonably sufficient in the eyes of the commission, rather than as set out in section 26 currently - what is reasonably sufficient in the eyes of the Minister.
Section 42 introduces a positive duty for public bodies to have due regard to human rights and equality, and the commission is to assist public bodies to comply with this positive duty by producing guidelines and codes of practice and by review and the making of recommendations. In light of this new and additional task for the proposed commission and the range of public bodies that would be covered, it would seem an increase in resources will be necessary. I would appreciate it if the Minister would commit to this in the House as a demonstration of a real, meaningful and measurable commitment to the new commission and to the importance and priority of human rights within the Administration. It should also be noted that the Irish Human Rights Commission believes that section 42 should be reviewed and strengthened. This may be a legal obligation, in accordance with the principle of equivalence in the Good Friday Agreement. For example, there are no provisions to enforce compliance with this duty.
I have looked at the Irish Human Rights Commission's notes on this Bill. It points out that section 35 provides for inquiries to be conducted at the discretion of the commission or by direction of the Minister for Justice and Equality, with complex procedures prescribed for the holding of an inquiry set out in Schedule 2 of the Bill. The explanatory memorandum states that the inquiry function has been redesigned and modelled on that contained in the Commissions of Investigation Act 2004 to ensure it is robust and effective in practice. It is recalled that the Paris Principles call for national human rights institutions, NHRIs, to have functional independence from government. In this regard, the IHRC, or IHREC designate, recommends that its inquiry function should not be the subject of direction from a Minister, despite the fact that the IHREC would be independent in the conduct of any inquiry thereafter.
Section 35 also sets a high threshold for the decision to conduct an inquiry in so far as there must be evidence of either a serious violation of human rights or equality of treatment obligations or a systemic failure to comply with human rights or equality of treatment obligations, the matter must be of grave public concern, and it must be, in the circumstances, necessary and appropriate so to do. The IHRC recommends that the threshold for the holding of an inquiry be lowered and brought into line with the agreement, under the Commissions of Investigation Act 2004, which requires only that the matter to be investigated be of significant public concern. It may be expected that inquiries conducted by the commission will not be routine, in light of the resource implications of such an undertaking.
The requirement that there must already be evidence of a serious violation of human rights or equality of treatment obligations before the inquiry commences begs the question of the purpose of the inquiry. The requirement that a matter be of grave public concern could preclude an inquiry into a hidden violation - for example, the Magdalen laundries, a confidential communication from a whistleblower not already in the public domain or a matter than affects only a limited group of people but none the less has significant implications for human rights and equality compliance. Furthermore, the commission recommends that it should not be precluded from considering broader human rights standards than those obtaining under domestic law when conducting inquiries. In this regard, I point out that the three inquiries undertaken by the IHRC to date examined international human rights law standards and were not the subject of any judicial review or other legal proceedings.
A clear distinction should be made in this Bill between the narrative value of an inquiry report to document any failure to uphold human rights and equality standards by a public body or Department and any enforcement proceedings resulting from an inquiry which, by necessity, could only refer to human rights and equality standards with force of law. The application of a narrow definition of human rights to inquiries fails to distinguish between the value of an inquiry to prompt a change in law and practice for the future and those aspects of an inquiry which could possibly lead to enforcement action. At a minimum, it is recommended that a clause be inserted in the Bill that the IHREC is not precluded from referring to the definition of human rights under Part 2 of the Bill in the course of conducting and preparing a report on an inquiry, even if it is considered necessary to provide that the narrower definition applies in regard to any enforcement action arising therefrom.
I want to raise an issue we raised before. We hoped the terms of reference introduced yesterday, which are welcome and are strong regarding the taping issue, would have included whatever recommendations arise from the Judge Cooke and Seán Guerin reports, so that we can be confident of getting to the truth of the issues involved. Likewise, we raised the issue of racial profiling within the Garda force with the Minister previously. He said that he was content with the Garda Commissioner's guarantee that this did not happen, but this is an issue the Minister should consider further. He says he wants things to be done better within the force and that some areas need to be examined. This is definitely one area the Minister should consider looking at, because it is important for the force that the people are satisfied on this issue. If racial profiling is taking place, we need to address this problem, and if we want to find out for sure whether it is taking place, we must investigate the issue properly. It would be good to include this in the latest investigation.
I am pleased to have an opportunity to speak on the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission Bill 2014 and thank the Minister for introducing it to the House.
I welcome the Bill. There has been significant debate in various European countries over whether it is appropriate to merge an equality body and a human rights institution. There are two sides to the argument, but some countries that have already done this have seen strong advantages in terms of developing a comprehensive approach to both equality and human rights and preventing any risk of fragmentation. I believe the idea of merging the two bodies and bringing them together under one commission with real teeth is a welcome development.
This is just one of the latest areas the Minister has reformed in the context of ensuring equality and better treatment of need in equality in this country. One area of change for which the Minister will always be remembered here is the citizenship ceremony. I was honoured to attend one of these ceremonies in the Convention Centre with the Minister some months ago and saw how this new ceremony has transformed the purpose of citizenship and given a status to citizenship for new citizens. Just compare this with what we had previously, when new citizens had to sit at the back of a court, with criminals and potential criminals, and wait to be called up in front of a judge. That was not the "Céad míle fáilte" this country is known for. The change to a citizenship ceremony is welcome.
I also commend the work done by the Minister during the Irish Presidency of the Council of the European Union in the area of equality and human rights and the tackling of hate crimes, racism, xenophobia, homophobia and anti-Semitism. This work has borne fruit, as can be seen now from the Council conclusions during the Irish Presidency and, most recently, the Commission's communication on this issue, which will put a new framework in place in terms of how European countries can work together to tackle issues such as inequality, hate crime, racism, xenophobia and homophobia.
While many politicians talk about inequality, anti-Semitism or being discriminated against, the Minister has obviously experienced it in a very real, disgusting, intolerable and unacceptable way in recent days.
This Bill is very welcome and I will focus on one of the grounds listed in equality legislation, namely disability. For far too long this State, regardless of who is in government and which element of bureaucracy is at play, our approach to people with disabilities is to provide them with a social welfare cheque. That is both economically stupid and morally reprehensible. Although so many people with disabilities want to work and play their part in society, and they have a major part to play, we have been far too slow to ensure they can access the workplace. I hope we can focus on this as a government. Today is national job shadow day with the Irish Association of Supported Employment and I am delighted to be joined in the Visitors Gallery by a young man, Conor Coffey, who is shadowing me for the day. He epitomises the message that there are so many people with disabilities who have a role to play.
For far too long, general elections have come and gone. The first politician who knocks on the door promises, if elected, to increase the disability allowance by €5, the next promises to increase it by €5.50. Although money matters, it misses the broad point that this country has consistently failed to put structures in place to enable people with disabilities to access the workforce. That is a clear breach of their human rights and entitlement to equality in this Republic. While I welcome the work being done in this area and the Minister's Department by the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, we need a supported employment strategy. We need to help people with disabilities access the workforce and play their part. I urge the Minister to do that.
Some of Deputy Clare Daly's points on disability were correct and we need to heed them. Up to last year, special needs education policy had not been reviewed since 1993. We went through all the years of economic boom and threw lots of money, some of it badly needed, into special needs education, but we never stopped and asked whether the structures were correct. This Government is trying to untangle that. When we consider equality issues - and I am taking the example of disability - we need to see it as a cross-governmental and cross-departmental effort. We need to move beyond that politically-driven and media-driven argument that everything comes back to euro and cent. If that were the case, people with disabilities would have had all their challenges overcome during the Celtic tiger years. They did not because we were so obsessed with just funding levels rather than asking what we were funding and whether structures were adequate. The Minister is trying to rectify that by examining two agencies that have served this country well but are no longer fit for purpose and the times in which we live, and by bringing them together in a streamlined fashion to deliver a better structure regarding human rights and equality.
We need to examine a range of legislation where the language in place is stigmatising, offensive, outdated and disgusting. The Minister has done great work on the Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) Bill, which will finally remove the horrendous Lunacy Act from our Statute Book and replace it with modern legislation and wording. There is more to be done. I am a co-author of the cross-party Mental Health (Anti-Discrimination) Bill which has support from members of all parties and the independent group in this House and which examines the stigmatising language across a range of Acts passed by these Houses in the past. For example, a person with a mental illness cannot win the national lottery, access credit, access insurance or be a Member of this House. These are the sort of laws that remain on our Statute Book in 21st century Ireland. Let us establish a new human rights and equality commission and continue with the reforming zeal the Minister has shown in this area. Let us also look across all the silos that operate in our bureaucracy where there is still stigmatising language in place which contributes to inequality and a breach of people's human rights.
The Minister is very conscious of direct provision and he and his Department have been working on reducing the number of people in direct provision and the length of time people spend in it. Direct provision is an abhorrent practice. It was meant to be a very short-term provision for dealing with people seeking asylum in our country. However childhoods are being lost in direct provision. Children are spending their entire childhoods in direct provision. The only people benefiting are private operators, which are funded by taxpayers. I raised this issue with the Secretary General of the Department of Justice and Equality at the Committee of Public Accounts a number of weeks ago and I know the Minister and his Department are working on it.
On the membership of the human rights and equality commission I ask the Minister to consider the very important mantra, "nothing about us without us". While I welcome the fact that the membership will have gender equality, in the past we have heard service providers speaking on behalf of people with disabilities rather than hearing from people with disabilities. There is an advisory group, and that is welcome. The Minister does not want to be too prescriptive about narrowing the pool of people who can serve on the commission and I respect that. We need our best and brightest. However we also need people who can talk about some of these issues based on their direct life experiences rather than just abstract concepts. I ask the Minister to consider that.
This is another step forward in reforming an area that badly needs reform. We cannot become complacent. In recent days and weeks there have been a number of attacks and assaults on people's liberties and breaches of various equality legislation. I very much welcome the Government's commitment to hold a referendum on marriage equality next year. I look forward to actively supporting that and campaigning in favour of it and I welcome the Minister's personal commitment to that issue. I encourage the Minister to continue to do what he is doing in Europe in terms of examining how we can work together in a pan-European way to learn from each other about how we deal with equality and human rights. I commend the legislation to the House and ask that the Minister note my comments.
It has been this Government's desire and stated objective to amalgamate many institutions and organisations. There was a rush to talk about quangos. When amalgamating, it is incredibly important to get the fit right. From the outset I have had difficulty with this proposed amalgamation. It will happen, and I am concerned that the new organisation does not lose focus on the critically important individual elements.
There is little point in having good legislation without the means to enforce that legislation, where sanctions cannot be applied where there is offence, or cases cannot be taken because the organisation lacks the capacity to do so. Others have made this criticism and the Minister probably did when he was in opposition, and he probably supports the idea. Regarding equality there is anecdotal evidence of substantial delays and people not having a hearing at all. It is important that there be an understanding that if we have legislation we must have the resources to implement it. Although many of the resources that have been stripped away from both these organisations were taken under the previous Government, it has not been reversed. The capacity to deal with the workload must be examined.
The other issue of critical importance is independence from the Government, as we constantly speak about the Oireachtas having responsibility but, in reality, it is the Government that retains a significant amount of power. There is an issue regarding how the Oireachtas functions. I have a number of observations but I first pay tribute to Mr. Niall Crowley, who was incredibly concerned about the extent of cutbacks and the ability of organisations to function, as well as the importance of the work done by these bodies. I applaud his courageous decision to resign and take up the cause of organising a civil society response.
There are a number of questions to be asked. There is a concern that the new body may not even meet the standards as set out by the 1993 Paris Principles for human rights institutions. Will the Minister address this issue in his response? Was there dialogue and what consideration was given in that area? I would like to be satisfied that the issue received considerable attention. There is a concern about the commission not being able to appoint a chairman or board, and this matter has already been raised by others. Will the Minister give a direct response on how the process will come about? The positioning in the Department of Justice and Equality is the wrong fit and I would rather see it placed in a Department responsible for communities, with separation from the law enforcement side of the State. What consideration was given to the positioning of this new organisation?
There is much criticism that the definition of equality is too narrow. We do not want a case where the organisation cannot pursue matters through the courts because of a narrow definition, so the issue should be addressed. There is often a trade-off between inclusiveness and efficiency, and this is one area where such a trade-off is not safe. The amalgamation is, first and foremost, about saving money but the effectiveness of the organisation must be based on it being an inclusive model. What thought went into that process? Other Deputies have noted the threshold for commencing an inquiry under section 35 of this Bill is very high and the language requires serious violation of human rights or equality provisions, or a systematic failure to comply with human rights or equality provisions. I am not sure what cases are likely to succeed or how that definition will be adjudicated. It is incredibly important that this is made clear to people or otherwise they will refrain from taking cases or seeing this authority as a viable route for complaints.
There are flaws in this legislation but good legislation requires the resources to carry it through. There are major examples through various Departments over decades of legislation that exists in theory but whose provisions are not evident in practice. There must be a robust assessment of legislation when it is enacted to ensure it does what is intended in carrying out functions. This is very much a case in point.
I thought some of the Members opposite were going to contribute as they are in the House. I thank all those who contributed to a very important debate on an important piece of legislation. I will start where I finished in my contribution yesterday evening by saying we want the best possible piece of legislation enacted and we are open to constructive suggestions as to how the legislation might be improved. I hope Members will forgive me if I do not give instant responses to some of what has been stated in the House as I want to reflect on the contributions made by Deputies with regard to the legislation and consider on Committee Stage any necessary amendments, including those which may be tabled from the Opposition.
It is important to recall certain basic principles regarding the legislation and some of the substance of the Bill before the House in the context of the comments made. I appreciate not all Members of the House may have had the opportunity to yet consider the speech I delivered yesterday evening. This is a very important piece of legislation and I regard it as a landmark piece of legislation regarding human rights and equality issues. We should never forget, of course, that the context of human rights is reflected in our Constitution and our courts play a role in protecting the rights of individuals. There is also the context of the European Convention on Human Rights and the European Court of Human Rights based in Strasbourg, which also plays a particular role.
Nevertheless, it is the job of the national human rights agency and the equality agency to ensure that in a broad range of areas the Government respects human rights of individuals and action is taken where necessary to address issues or when individuals are at risk of discrimination. At the core of this Bill is the fact that we have two bodies, the Irish Human Rights Commission and the Equality Authority, which undertook very important work effectively in their independent silos, with some of the work overlapping. When we considered the manner in which they approached the work in both bodies, which have had excellent membership and staff, the view was that an amalgamated body with extended powers and greater independence than applied to either body with regard to appointment of individuals was desirable. It was also preferable to confer additional functions on the body over and above the functions exercised individually by the two bodies which currently exist, and that resources would be used more wisely if the functions to be assigned to the single body were applied rather than across two individual bodies.
I must ask the Minister to adjourn the debate.