I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
The Equality (Miscellaneous Provisions) (No. 2) Bill of 2017 concerns mental health discrimination. Every day, people with mental health difficulties face discrimination in accessing services, accommodation or getting jobs. This Bill is aimed at ending that mental health discrimination.
Anyone can experience a mental health problem. One in four of us will. We have come a long way in destigmatising mental health. However, while stigma has been weakened, it still exists in respect of mental health in Ireland. There is still a fear that people will treat one differently if one is open about suffering a mental health issue. There are still those who wrongly believe that people with mental health problems should not do important jobs. There is still a persistent and incorrect perception among a minority that the outlook for recovery is poor. That is wrong.
This Bill amends Irish equality legislation, including employment legislation, by creating a stand-alone ground for mental health within our equality legislation in order to strengthen, clarify and expand it by giving it a more human rights based definition. It contains a more broad definition of mental health status and includes a person’s emotional, psychological and social well-being. By creating a stand-alone ground it also puts mental health discrimination front and centre within our equality legislation. Currently, under equality and employment legislation, it is unlawful to discriminate on the grounds of disability, and that includes a mental illness. However, the disability ground restricts mental health to a narrow medical definition and it is hidden away under the disability ground. This ground of disability is retained.
So why do this? Since the original Employment Equality Act and the Equal Status Act were passed, our understanding of mental health has developed significantly. In the past 20 years we have grown to understand that mental health is not just the absence of disease or illness. It is a complex combination of a person’s physical, mental, emotional and social health factors. However, people with mental health difficulties continue to face discrimination in housing, employment and State services, especially indirect discrimination. That can lead to isolation, which exacerbates mental illness, and they become trapped in a cycle of illness by discrimination and stigma.
Since being elected a Deputy and appointed mental health spokesperson I have met many people who have suffered discrimination based on their mental health status. I am often told that the fear of prejudice and discrimination holds them back from seeking help. In 2010, a study entitled Hear My Voice: Challenging Mental Health Prejudice and Discrimination, by Dublin City University’s school of nursing, on behalf of Amnesty International Ireland, showed that as many as 95% of Irish people who have mental health issues say they have been treated unfairly because of their condition. Almost two thirds of the 300 study participants interviewed reported having been avoided or shunned because of a mental health problem. As many as 61% of individuals said they had been treated unfairly by family members while 43% claimed to have faced discrimination when it came to retaining a job. One third experienced difficulties when applying for work with the result that two thirds had decided not to seek some roles. Survey participants also reported unfair treatment in areas such as education. It must be remembered that this study was carried out some ten years after discrimination based on mental illness was made illegal.
Colm O'Gorman of Amnesty International was reported as saying at the time that while there is no clear evidence of overt direct discrimination by the State against people with mental health problems in national laws, policies or practices, the real issue was the hidden indirect discrimination that people with mental health problems face when they experience inequality in education, housing, work and other areas. Mr. O'Gorman added: "We know that people with mental health problems have lower employment rates and are more likely to have left education early, suggesting the reported unfair treatment from the research is having a very real impact on people’s lives."
I understand the Government is opposing the Bill. It appears it is doing so on the grounds that it might expose employers to legal action or is difficult to enforce. The whole purpose of the Bill is to strengthen equality legislation to act as a preventive measure and any employer who complied with the equality legislation would have nothing to fear. If those arguments were accepted as an excuse we would have no equality legislation. Most LGBT discrimination has been and is of an insidious nature and is often difficult to prove. Similarly regarding discrimination based on gender, but we do not say that because it is difficult to prove we tolerate it. The opposite is the case. It is the most insidious and indirect discrimination that we must guard against. It is precisely because it is a wrong and that it is hard to prove that we must take a legislative stand against it. We must make it clear, in black and white, that discrimination of any kind is unacceptable.
Regarding the difficulty of enforcement, I would point out that the Domestic Violence Act 2018, a very welcome and important Act, a criminal code, includes under section 5(o) the grounds of psychological and emotional welfare of a victim. Those terms, therefore, are already a part of Irish law and will need to be interpreted by the courts. It is difficult to understand the Government's objection to the use of the terminology in this Bill.
I am very disappointed with the Government’s decision to try to block legislation that will strengthen anti-discrimination laws. If this was really about enforcement, any real concerns could be teased out on Committee Stage. Instead, just like the mental health parity legislation, which the Government killed with a money message, it appears the Government is so embarrassed by its own failure to legislate on mental health that it is taking a knee-jerk reaction to any opposition efforts to do so.
It is now over three years since the expert group review of the Mental Health Act 2001 reported. It made 165 recommendations. We have had three Ministers with responsibility for mental health in that time but, to date, the Government has legislated for only one of those recommendations. Despite many promises, we have not even seen a heads of Bill yet. I appreciate that does not come under the Minister of State's remit but it does come under the Government's general remit and that of the Minister for Health.
I hope the rest of the House will support this Bill going to committee where it can be further scrutinised.