This is a Seanad Bill which has been amended by the Dáil. In accordance with Standing Order 85 it is deemed to have passed its First, Second and Third Stages in the Seanad and is placed on the Order Paper for Report Stage. On the question "That the Bill be received for final consideration", the Minister may explain the purpose of the amendments made by the Dáil and this is looked on as the report of the Dáil amendments to the Seanad. The only matter, therefore, that may be discussed is the amendments made by the Dáil. For the convenience of Senators, I have arranged for the printing and circulation to them of those amendments.
Employment Equality Bill, 1997 [ Seanad Bill amended by Dáil ]: Report and Final Stages.
As Members are aware, they may speak only once on this question.
There were 27 Government amendments to the Employment Equality Bill, 1997, in the Dáil. The amendments are listed Nos. 1 to 27 on the amendment sheet circulated to Members. The amendments insert four new substantive provisions into the Bill in addition to amendments on seven technical issues.
The substantive amendments are Nos. 3, 4 and 9 which deal with reasonable accommodation for people with disabilities. Amendments Nos. 10 to 13, inclusive, provide an exclusion in respect of proficiency in the Irish language. Amendments Nos. 14 to 20, inclusive, and No. 23 establish strategic management principles in the Equality Authority and the redraft procedures. Amendments Nos. 24, 25 and 27 provide access to the general redress procedures to members of the Defence Forces where discrimination on grounds of gender is concerned.
Amendments Nos. 3, 4 and 9 are the substantive amendments to the disability provisions of the Bill. Following the debate in the Seanad and Second Stage in the Dáil, I undertook to examine the question of providing specifically for a reasonable accommodation for people with disabilities in the context of the Bill. Consequently, I arranged for a full review of the relevant provisions. Amendment No. 3 replaces the existing section 16(3) with a new provision. The new section 16(3) obliges the Director of Equality Investigations to take into account, in the context of proceedings under the Bill, whether an employer has made a reasonable accommodation where such is needed by the employee in order to do their job effectively. In other words, any case seeking redress for discrimination on the grounds of disability must be evaluated not just by reference to section 16(1) but also by reference to section 16(3).
Amendment No. 4 broadens the scope of the obligation to provide reasonable accommodation in section 16(3) to cover employment agencies, providers of vocational training and regulatory bodies. Amendment No. 9 is a consequential amendment to delete the now redundant section 35(4).
I will now deal with amendments Nos. 10 to 13, inclusive. Amendment No. 13 confines the exclusion in section 36 in respect of teachers in primary and post-primary schools to proficiency in the Irish language as distinct from the grounds of residency and citizenship. Amendments Nos. 10 to 12 are technical in nature and they are consequential on the substantive amendment.
Amendments Nos. 14 to 20, inclusive, and No. 23 can be explained in the context of the strategic management initiative. Amendments Nos. 14 to 20 establish a statutory basis for implementing strategic management into the Equality Authority. The strategic management initiative was introduced in the Civil Service in 1994 and has been developed to enhance the management and effectiveness of the public service. Its underlying principle is to promote an excellent service to the public and ensure that resources are used in an effective and efficient way.
Amendment No. 14 requires the authority to submit strategic plans to the Minister every three years for his or her approval, following which he or she is required to lay the plans before the Houses of the Oireachtas with or without amendment.
Amendment No. 15 sets out in detail the functions and accountability for the performance of those functions of the chief executive officer of the authority. The chief executive officer is charged with managing and controlling the day to day business, administration and resources of the authority and he or she will be accountable to it for the implementation of its policies and the general performance of the new organisation.
Amendments Nos. 16 and 18 provide for the appointment of the chief executive officer and other staff of the authority. The staff of the authority, including the chief executive officer, may include civil servants, non-civil servants or a combination of both.
Amendment No. 17 provides for the accountability of the chief executive officer of the authority to the Committee of Public Accounts. Under this provision the chief executive officer may be required to give evidence to the committee in respect of the regularity and propriety of the authority's financial transactions, the economy and efficiency of the use of its resources and the systems in place for evaluating the effectiveness of its operations.
Amendment No. 19 makes provision in respect of the accounts and audits of the authority and it is modelled on the analogous provision in the recently published Food Safety Authority legislation. Amendment No. 20 sets out the accountability of the authority to the Minister and brings this aspect of the Bill into line with the principles of strategic management. Amendment No. 23 provides for the Director of Equality Investigations to submit an annual report of the activities of the office of the Director to the Minister.
Amendments Nos. 25 and 27 provides access to members of the Defence Forces to the general redress procedures in Part Vll in respect of gender discrimination. Before availing of the redress provisions in Part Vll, a member of the Defence Forces must first exhaust internal redress procedures. If the complaint is not addressed under these procedures to the satisfaction of the member of the Defence Forces or within the period of one year, he or she can refer the matter to the Director of Equality Investigations, the Labour Court or the Circuit Court in the normal way. Amendment No. 24 is a technical measure which brings consistency into the text of the Bill. The remaining amendments are technical in nature.
Amendment No. 1 is a technical measure introduced because the definition of the word "presently" in the Oxford English Dictionary includes the terms “soon” and “shortly” while the intention of the provision is to cover disability which currently exists. This amendment will ensure that no ambiguity will arise at some future date about the interpretation of the provision.
Amendment No. 2 is also a technical amendment. Section 5(3) of the Bill amends section 4 of the Industrial Relations Act, 1969, which relates to the Deputy Chairman of the Labour Court.
References to the Deputy Chairman in that Act are lower case and this amendment ensures consistency between both pieces of legislation in that regard.
Amendment No. 5 is also a technical measure.
The Organisation of Working Time Act, 1997, which came into operation on 1 March 1998 repeals the Shops (Conditions of Employment) Act, 1938, and, accordingly, section 17(1) was superfluous. This amendment deletes that subsection. Amendment No. 6 is a further technical amendment which corrects a typographical error in the Bill and is self-explanatory.
Amendments Nos. 7 and 8 are of a technical nature and are intended to clarify the scope of section 31. Amendment No. 7 removes an unnecessary reference to subsection (4) in subsection (2) as the distinction between employees and agency workers does not arise in the context of regulatory bodies. Amendment No. 8 clarifies that subsection (5) applies to agency workers as well as employees generally.
Amendments Nos. 21 and 22 are technical and bring consistency to the text of the Bill. It is normal practice to provide that the Minister for Finance would consent to a proposal from another Minister, but would concur with another Minister when that Minister consents to a proposal from the third party. Amendment No. 26 increases the maximum fine in respect of trials on indictment to £25,000, the amount considered appropriate bearing in mind the types of offences created in the legislation.
The Bill creates a great deal of concern for people in various walks of life, particularly those in the teaching profession. The Minister is well aware of my views and I do not intend to restate all the arguments which have been dealt with on three previous occasions and in meetings between the two of us. Teachers, particularly at primary level, are extraordinarily worried about the implications of the Bill for them. I recognise we are constrained on Report Stage and if I am extending my brief or going beyond what is appropriate, I am prepared to wait until Final Stage to make my contribution. However, I think it might be better to let me go at this stage.
Since Committee Stage, the Treaty of Amsterdam has been passed. I said on Committee Stage that the Education (No. 2) Bill, 1997, put certain requirements on boards of management of schools in order to ensure there was a diversity of cultures which would be maintained and helped along. I am even more concerned now when I read aspects of the Treaty of Amsterdam which create a new imperative on the Government, the State and all of us. I will not go back over all the details but I refer to Article 128.4º, which states:
The Community shall take cultural aspects into account in its actions under the provisions of this Treaty, in particular in order to respect and promote the diversity of its cultures.
There are statements like that throughout the Treaty. How can the Minister say primary teachers in particular can be excluded from this diversity in a State where between 95 and 97 per cent of primary schools have a church ethos? Where does that leave the question of diversity for those who might have different views, etc. ? The Minister will respond by saying the Bill states an individual has to be seen to be undermining the ethos of a school and the action taken by a board or the school authorities against such an individual will be on the basis that they undermined this ethos.
A more proactive role is envisaged by the Treaty, particularly where it refers to the social protection of people, the harmonisation of social systems and a harmonised approach to diversity and culture. We are creating a huge problem for ourselves. It will not be resolved by the amendments which have been tabled. I very much regret the Minister did not extend the changes to encompass the new demands on Government by the Treaty and did not take a position where teachers would be protected. They will not be protected because, as I said on Committee Stage, ethos will be dealt with locally. It will involve a board of management of a school deciding it does not like something about a teacher's religious beliefs or practices and it will interpret that as undermining the ethos of the school. Consequently, the teacher's employment will come under threat.
I asked for a number of amendments to be introduced on Report Stage, one of which was that the concept of ethos would be determined by a particular Church rather than the management of a school. I tried to establish that, for instance, if there are 3,000 Roman Catholic primary schools in the State, the Roman Catholic ethos would be determined for all of them rather than one person in one school taking a different interpretation. That concerns me. The question of ethos is not detailed in the Bill despite the Supreme Court judgment which led to many of the changes being made to the Bill, some of which are reflected in these amendments.
I note with wry irony that the Minister referred to the dictionary definition of the word "presently". That definition has been a matter of debate among people who enjoy language and the Shakespearean interpretation means "immediately" rather than "currently". That is the correct interpretation but the use of the word "presently" in the manner referred to by the Minister is understood by people nowadays. I do not object to it but I refer to the fact that the Supreme Court had to go to the Chambers dictionary to get an interpretation of the word "ethos". Have we reached a stage where people will interpret legislation by referring to dictionaries? We are leaving a great deal to risk which we could have dealt with.
This legislation will create problems for teachers at school level which are unnecessary. I did not correct Senator Walsh on Committee Stage, but I will now for the record. Every time I spoke on this Bill I said schools were entitled to have an ethos. However, the Senator attributed precisely the opposite to me. I have always been completely in favour of that. Parents are entitled to make the choice of a school with a particular ethos. I completely support choice for parents and those running schools. It is how we employ people beyond that and the connection between proselytization and teaching that creates difficulty. The teacher makes a professional input but is he or she required to do more? The proposals I put forward on Committee Stage created a balance but I obviously failed to convince people.
I also failed to make myself properly understood by Senators Walsh and Lydon who attributed to me a proposal to separate Church and State. He said I wanted to take the churches out of schools. I never made such a proposal, and would not ask that such a proposal be made, for the simple reason that parents have the right to choice in education. Teachers also have a right to choice in education, which is more restricted, but it has to do with protecting their jobs and professionalism. There must be a recognition that an individual could be appointed to a school who is totally committed to its beliefs but who could have a change in attitude and find himself in a completely different set of circumstances — for example, in a relationship unacceptable to the school authorities. This could not and should not be seen as undermining ethos, but the Bill allows for that to take place.
I accept the amendments to that section have increased the burden of proof far more than was provided for and that there are now certain steps which must be proved. The Bill, as amended, is a major improvement on the original proposal. However, it is unhelpful that Ireland is enacting reactive and regressive legislation in the month after our acceptance of the Amsterdam Treaty, with its proposals on third pillar rights, etc. It is also unacceptable that an Employment Equality Bill should include a section which gives the right to discriminate. The incompatibility in the issues raised by this have not been resolved by these amendments.
While I do not have difficulties with the amendments I am disappointed other amendments were not accepted. I concede the Minister of State has worked hard on the Bill and that many other pressure groups besides teachers have had to be satisfied. However, I regret that in trying to meet the concerns of all parties the balance came down against employees, which the Bill seeks to protect in the first instance.
People will lose jobs in two to three years. We are in a new kind of society with new sets of relationships. For example, what are the implications following the introduction of divorce, which is unacceptable to some of the Churches and would, therefore, be contrary to their ethos? What would happen if the board of management of a school decides that a divorced person living in another relationship, a marriage not recognised by the Church involved in the school, is undermining the ethos of the school? How could such a person be defended under the terms of this Bill?
Teachers who suffer and whose jobs are at risk because of the provisions of the Bill will be supported by the INTO if they take a case to the High Court or the Supreme Court to ensure their rights are protected. There is a strong possibility that a teacher will lose a case and his or her job on the basis of this legislation because it allows a chairperson of a board of management to say that, when employed, the teacher was married in the religion of the school but is now divorced and in a new relationship and a marriage it does not recognise and on that basis should be sacked for undermining the ethos of the school. If we lose such cases we will appeal to Europe. The Amsterdam Treaty offers greater protection in this regard.
The Minster of State is making a mistake with this legislation. It is not too late to reconsider it and make changes. It is regressive, reactionary and repressive. I regret we are passing this Bill, as drafted. While 99 per cent of it is positive, good and necessary, for which I compliment the Minister of State, it is unacceptable in the way it deals with schools and teachers and in the way it undermines their security. It is unfair to those hard working professionals who might find themselves with a different set of beliefs or a new set or circumstances in terms of relationships.
I do not say that Churches should be out of schools. Parents make those decisions and it is for us as professional teachers and politicians to ensure they are respected. Nor do I say schools should not have an ethos; they should have one, whether it be Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, Church of Ireland or whatever. Parents are entitled to chose, or to chose a school of no religious ethos. Nor do I say it should be acceptable that somebody should actively undermine the ethos of a school, including its culture and beliefs. There is no protection nor a place for teachers who go out of their way to mock or undermine them or to create doubt in children's minds.
However, people should accept difference, whether they run a school or, as teachers, work professionally, conscientiously and well and respect the culture and beliefs of the school in terms of parity of esteem. The focus of a teacher's professionalism must be that every child is respected for his or her self, whatever their beliefs, colour, background or culture. That should be a mirror image of the way the school authorities see their teachers. Each should be valued for their goodness and their commitment. I regret the passage of this Bill.
I do not oppose the amendments, but I am disappointed the implications of the Supreme Court judgment on the original Bill have not been addressed to the extent that will allow, in the most positive manner possible, people with disabilities to enforce the rights which Members of both Houses had intended to give them under employment equality legislation.
With regard to amendment No. 3, the Minister of State has gone as far as she can from a legal viewpoint in strengthening the employment rights of disabled people, while trying to work around the Supreme Court judgment, which many of us said on Second Stage is almost impossible to comprehend. What would the court make of the Employment Equality Act, 1977, which gave women the right to equality in employment and imposed on employers certain costs which could not have been judged nominal, such as the provision of proper toilet facilities? It is possible a constitutional challenge to that Act on the basis of the judgment given on the Employment Equality Bill would succeed.
The Minister had two options to greatly enhance the power of people with disabilities and other groups mentioned in the Bill to enforce their rights. The first would have been a constitutional amendment. That question has been addressed at length here so I will not rehearse the arguments again. If the Minister's predecessor, Mr. Taylor, saw fit to argue to the Government, who then saw fit to argue at European level, to put the rights of people with disabilities and other groups into the Amsterdam Treaty, which may be called the Constitution of the EU, it is inconsistent for Ireland not to greatly strengthen in its Constitution the rights of people with disabilities. Ireland will agree to such strengthening in European law, but it will not agree to it in Irish law. Senator O'Toole is correct in his prediction that the legislation will be challenged on the basis of rights granted to people in the Amsterdam Treaty and the consequent failure of the Minister to adequately address the matter in the Constitution.
I am aware of employers who are open to employing people with disabilities and who are prepared to make a contribution of more than a nominal nature. However, they would have difficulty making substantial financial contributions in terms of the adaptation of buildings. There is an onus on the Minister to address the interests and concerns of such employers by putting in place a strong scheme of financial incentives and supports and properly marketing it to businesses and employers. As organisations such as the NRB and Rehab are aware, some employers are open to taking on people with disabilities. The Minister should market that concept more strongly and put in place information and finance to encourage them to offer places of employment.
During the debate in the other House on the commission's report 18 months ago, I challenged the Minister of State who was then in Opposition to state that if her party went into Government, the Department of Equality and Law Reform would be retained and would have a Minister in the Cabinet. On that occasion the Minister of State declined to answer my challenge. We know what happened. I do not question the Minister of State's commitment to her work; I am aware from many groups of her interest in their needs and her efforts to address them.
However, a junior Minister and part of a Department with responsibility for this area is not enough. As evidenced in the deficiencies in the Bill, I regret that this agenda is not being pursued on a full-time basis by a Minister with Cabinet rank. I will continue to make this point to the Government. In a sense, this is a plea for the Minister of State, Deputy Wallace, to be elevated to the Cabinet. I do not want her to interpret my comments as a personal attack, but the agenda for which she has responsibility and that her officials are trying to pursue will not be properly enforced until her office is restored to full departmental status and her Ministry has full Cabinet rank.
Many of the arguments we wished to make were dealt with in a detailed way on earlier Stages. Undoubtedly, intellectually we won the argument hands down in terms of the amendments tabled by Senator O'Toole and me.
Is that an objective view?
Yes. Anybody who reviews the evidence would agree. The embarrassment of the Minister in having to deal with the situation was evident as a perusal of the Official Report will show. However, that is not limited to the current Minister or the party currently in Government. Similar cases were made to the former Minister, Mr. Mervyn Taylor, when the Bill was first introduced. There is nothing partisan or personal in my comments. The issue relates to the correct function of the House. We proposed the ideal situation which would meet all the human requirements.
As the Senator saw it.
Senator Walsh, I will ask you to leave the House if you continue to interrupt Senator Norris.
The Senator is an adornment to the House. His interruptions are so fatuous that they strengthen my case and I will encourage them by all means at my disposal.
Is that with the permission of the House?
It is obvious that there is an element of what is perceived as realpolitik in this area. Although moves are desirable, it is not considered practical to move in the direction recommended by Senator O'Toole and me. Having examined the Bill introduced by the former Minister, Mr. Mervyn Taylor, this legislation contains all the defects pointed out at that time, but it also contains some improvements. I welcome the inclusion of these improvements, particularly for people with disabilities.
The Minister has gone a considerable way and I applaud her in that regard. It has made a good Bill better, although it still contains defects. I will not weary the House by rehearsing the details but it is regrettable that a Bill which deals with equality and addresses the subject of discrimination continues to permit discrimination on the part of elements of society which have comprehensively shown themselves to be the least fit or worthy to discriminate. I refer to the churches.
I spent much time in the various debates dealing with problems originating from the Roman Catholic Church and its control of the school system. However, lest anybody considers that this was sectarian, I will refer to a case to which I referred briefly previously involving the curate at St. Bartholomew's Church in the Church of Ireland of which I am member. He was gay and in a stable relationship. It was known to most of the parishioners but when it was drawn to the attention of the church authorities, he was summoned. He was told that he either got rid of his stable relationship or he would be fired from his job and he would lose his house.
The curate refused, he was fired and the relationship was destroyed. Two people who had been happy together for eight years split up. The curate's partner went to England where he formed another relationship with a clergyman in the Church of England but both of them died of AIDS. The young man contracted it from his second partner in England. The operation of discriminatory employment policies by the Church of Ireland had fatal consequences and this will continue under this legislation. There is nothing to protect people in such circumstances.
There was much talk yesterday about suicide. A report on poverty in the gay community has been produced by GLEN. This indicates that there is a significantly higher rate of suicide among young gay men than in the rest of the population. Anything which addresses this problem by giving people security in employment and housing, the very things for which we fought for the Catholic Nationalist minority in the North of Ireland, must be welcomed because they are still not fully guaranteed to gay citizens. This was my principal reservation, in addition to the reservations expressed by Senator O'Toole regarding teachers, about the Bill.
The Bill will improve life for people. I do not wish to be begrudging but it does not go far enough. I understand the type of advice the Minister has undoubtedly received that opposition would be strong if amendments guaranteeing the rights of people in vulnerable positions were accepted. I am not gloating but the power of the Church has evaporated. For good or ill, it is gone. This is sad in many respects. When one travels around the country one sees empty and derelict convent buildings. One hears on the radio that the Roman Catholic Church is now facing the same problems the Church of Ireland has faced for many generations, for example, difficulty finding clergy to service parishes. I do not gloat about this matter. The Irish people will find much to regret in the passing of the presence of the Church at parochial level.
The Church will endure.
I hope it does, but consider the closing of the monasteries — Henry VIII did that, now we are doing it for ourselves and it is a tragedy. On the other hand, the Churches were never weaker politically. I do not suggest that we punch them into a corner, gloat over and act oppressively against them; but if we have an intellectually sustainable and morally justifiable argument, we should now be in a position to stand up to them. We know the history of the Church but we should put our view on the welfare of our citizens and state that they are entitled to jobs, security and a home. Unfortunately, the Bill does not do that, although it has moved a considerable distance. I regret that we did not take the final step to protect people.
I remind Senator Norris that the Churches have suffered schisms through the ages; we may be witnessing one now but I concur with Senator Doyle that they will endure. We regret the dilution or diminution of their influence for various reasons, some of which Senator Norris enunciated but others he did not.
I commend the Minister of State for coming to the House with 27 amendments which improve the Bill. She has been willing to take account of the individual and collective views of Members of both Houses. It is with extreme reluctance that I respond to Senator Gallagher's remark that the Minister's lack of status was a reflection on the quality of the Bill. He put a spin on his comments to camouflage the shortcomings of his former colleague with full Cabinet rank, the previous Minister for Equality and Law Reform, Mr. Taylor. The former Minister's Bill was good in many respects, as I said on Second Stage, but it was mistake-ridden and rejected as unconstitutional. The Minister of State, lacking full Cabinet rank as she does, has been correcting those mistakes.
This Bill could also be found unconstitutional.
The 27 amendments she has put before us significantly improve the previous flawed Bill.
I am glad the issue of reasonable cost has been reincorporated in the Bill — the Attorney General did not give the Minister clearance to include that in the Bill when it was first before the House but she has secured it since. I compliment her on that because it will prove workable. The Director of Equality Investigations will be the final arbiter or even an arbiter of first call in the case of a person who feels wronged or discriminated against by an employer who claims the cost is prohibitive. The appeal system is in place and it is up to us to ensure the Director has the calibre, competence and resources to deal effectively and efficiently with such appeals as may arise, which I hope will be few.
Senator O'Toole is my leader in another capacity and I empathise with his concerns about teachers or other professionals dealing with religious orders who, without deliberately intending to undermine the ethos of a school or similar institution, find themselves in difficulty because of changes in their circumstances. However, I was disappointed that the Senator did not take into account the appeal mechanism in the Bill. If circumstances such as he outlined should arise, a teacher has recourse in the first instance to the Director of Equality Investigations, and in the second instance either to the courts or the European Commission on Human Rights. I would be surprised if the unions would have to go directly to the courts arising from a decision by the Director in the first instance. The Senator also referred to the Amsterdam Treaty, the provisions of which strengthen workers' rights in this regard. That is also to be welcomed because it will provide further safeguards and protection at European level.
If shortcomings are found, which I doubt, reasonable care has been taken to ensure these rights are protected — parents have a constitutional right to have their children educated in the religion of their choice and, for the first time, this Bill gives teachers protection from religious discrimination at work. Section 37(1) addresses the balance between these rights and we discussed that on Second and Committee Stages. The amendments improve the Bill. We will never have perfect legislation and this is not put forward as a panacea for the nine areas which it addresses, but it is an important milestone in the evolution of our legislation to address serious discrimination.
This Bill has been well debated and we will not oppose the 27 amendments introduced by the Minister. However, I agree with Senator Gallagher — the Bill provides for a lot of money to be raised through the Oireachtas for committees and staff but it should also have provided for a grant scheme for employers. Many firms are well disposed to employing people with disabilities but a person's best friend is his back pocket, and if it costs a lot of money the employer will not do it. If the Minister had provided for assistance by way of grant aid many employers would take it up. Other than that, the Minister has worked extremely hard on the Bill and I compliment her for that.
I welcome the amendments which the Minister has introduced and the general thrust of the Bill. I was surprised at the negative comments which were made. Some of those comments were ill founded.
The Minister deserves credit in this instance. It is less than 12 months since this Bill ran into difficulties and was referred to the Supreme Court along with the Equal Status Bill. In the short space of time the Minister has been in office she has succeeded in guiding the Bill through those difficulties, enabling her to present the Bill here in such a comprehensive form. It will have a beneficial effect when it is implemented. I hope the Minister will be able to make the same progress in relation to the Equal Status Bill. That would be welcome and I hope the Minister will be back before the House with that Bill before the end of the year.
The first main point of substance in the 27 amendments was of concern to many people in this House — the provision of better opportunity in employment and lifestyle for the disabled. The Minister has gone as far as is prudent with this and the amendments significantly improve the situation so that reasonable accommodation provisions will have to be made by employers. They will be subject to adjudication if someone feels he or she has been discriminated against. The employer will also be expected to make nominal financial provisions in relation to that. If the Bill had gone further it could have imposed significant expense on employers which could be counterproductive in that employers might have looked at the costs involved when recruiting. The economy is making progress on the basis of partnership. The ethos of the Bill in accommodating disabled people will be taken on board.
The changes in relation to teachers are positive. The residency and citizenship requirements which were originally included in the Bill have been removed for teachers. All that will be required is proficiency in the Irish language. The retention of that requirement is important because as we become more integrated in Europe a great deal of emphasis is being placed on the preservation of individual culture and heritage at European level. There is no more significant measure of culture than the national language and anything which would diminish that would be a retrograde step. The Welsh have a strong love of their language and use it more often than we use the Irish language. That is the example we should follow.
Teaching is an excellent profession and teachers shape our young people, who in turn will shape the State as we move into the next millennium. However, there is often a disparity in the proficiency of teachers in teaching Irish and there is patchy teaching of the language as a result. Hopefully the Bill, with this provision in it, will help to correct this. There is a lack of uniformity in the ability of teachers to teach the language.
I agree with Senator O'Toole. The last time this Bill was debated here in this House, I did not ascribe to anything in his interpretation. There was a far less intemperate use of language by Senators O'Toole and Norris today, they have clarified their positions and I agree with them. Senator O'Toole said he had no brief for teachers who undermine a school's ethos. That is provided for in section 37 of the Bill and it was important the Senator acknowledged that. The primary beneficiaries in all of this must be the students. I accept that teachers, parents and school management boards are important components, but the focus of our efforts should be the pupils. Senator O'Toole may have exaggerated his position to make a point when he mentioned a school interpreting the legislation in a way which would discriminate against someone who was divorced. The possibility of that happening is so remote that it does not merit comment. The Bill also recognises that those schools under the management of religious orders are covered by section 37. It would be discriminatory in the extreme if there was to be a provision which prevented them from promoting their own ethos and religion within their own schools. In all of those schools there is parental discretion to decide whether the pupils participate in religious education. There are people of other religious denomination throughout the State who have exercised their right under that provision but who are happy to have their children attend those schools. We must be realistic when moving forward with legislation.
A further point which might be missed if you took on board everything said by Senators Norris and O'Toole is that there has been a propensity in our education system over the years to make specific provision for and give certain advantage to schools operated by minority religions. Given the history of our country, that is welcome and it is something which should continue.
I welcome the amendments related to the strategic management initiative. It is important throughout the public service that we try to have the best quality management standards possible. The pursuit of excellence in all of our public services is laudable, as it is in all walks of life.
I commend the Minister on all the work she has done on this Bill. It was intricate work, as the previous Minister, Mervyn Taylor, discovered. The Minister has achieved the right balance and the fruits of the work will be seen in the years to come.
In reply to Senator O'Toole, section 37(1) respects the cultural and religious diversity of schools. The provisions of the subsection apply to schools of all religious denominations, not just the Christian denominations. It is important that the Senator notes that section 37(1) was found to be constitutional by the Supreme Court. In this subsection we had to reflect the wide ranging consultations we had with all interested groups — teaching unions, parents, the management of denominational schools and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. The section seeks to strike a balance between the constitutional legal imperative, the individual and personal rights of teachers, and those of parents who wish to have their children educated in a religious based system. As Senator Liam Fitzgerald pointed out, the Bill provides for a Director of Equality Investigations to whom a case can be appealed.
Senator Gallagher rightly pointed out that Article 13 of the Treaty of Amsterdam specifically includes disability within its equality provisions. The powers provided for in that Article will fall to be exercised by the European Council and the European Commission before the principles contained therein will have application for Irish law and practice.
When proposals are brought before the Council, Ireland will take a proactive role in developing them at EU level and in the meantime there is no conflict between this Bill and the Treaty. Indeed, it is likely to be some time before proposals for disability are developed at EU level which are as advanced as those provided for in the Bill.
Senator Gallagher also spoke in favour of constitutional change for people with disabilities and this matter is being looked at within the Department by an interdepartmental committee, along with all the other work that is taking place in the field of disability, including proposals to establish a national disability authority. Once the Employment Equality Bill is passed, we can proceed over the summer with the other equal status legislation, already referred to by Senators Fitzgerald and Walsh.
Senators Burke and Gallagher raised the question of putting in place financial support for a work scheme. I would draw to their attention the fact that there is a scheme in place called the work adaptation grant scheme. We referred to this grant scheme during the debate on all Stages of the legislation. The scheme exists and as to financial support, one can obtain up to £5,000 for the adaptation of a workplace.
It will be of interest to both Senators to note that this time last year funding for the scheme was expanded as there was a waiting list. When the new Government took office it added additional funding for the scheme to clear the waiting list in 1997 and it doubled the funding levels for 1998. There is no doubt that the scheme in place has financial support and that money is available for the adaptation of workplaces.
In general terms, Senator Norris admitted that the Bill will improve life and that we have moved a considerable way forward. However, he is not satisfied that we have moved far enough.
Senator Fitzgerald welcomed the fact that the Bill has returned to the House within a year. It would be remiss of me not to recognise the hard working staff in the employment equality section of my Department who have been responsible for delivering this legislation on behalf of the Government. As Senator Fitzgerald said, the Bill was found to be unconstitutional a year ago. The new Government was anxious to see it on the Statute Book so it was brought back to the House as quickly as possible. To be fair to the staff in the Department's employment equality section, they responded to that requirement. Long hours of work on the legislation ensured that, within a year, we have been able to return to the House with the Bill for its concluding Stages. I thank Senator Fitzgerald for recognising that fact.
In welcoming the concluding Stages of the Bill, Senator Walsh also referred to the improvements for teachers contained in amendment No. 13 to section 36. This is an important improvement and I was surprised that Senator O'Toole did not refer to it because it is relevant. I thank Senator Walsh again for underlining that positive change for teachers in the Bill, which has taken place since we debated it some weeks ago in this House.
I thank all Senators for contributing to the debate, in addition to Deputies in the Lower House and Oireachtas staff. I also wish to thank outside groups who consulted with us, particularly the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, individuals with disabilities and their representatives who were involved during the consultation process. That constant consultation with outside groups as well as listening to Members both of the Seanad and the Dáil meant we were able to amend the Bill in a positive way.
I assure Senators that funding is available for the implementation of the Bill. We have provided £2.1 million in the 1998 Vote for the establishment of the new Equality Authority and the Director of Equality Investigations. As Senator Burke said, as long as the Bill is signed this week and everything is in order, we will be able to put the legislation into practice over the summer period.
As Senators Walsh and Fitzgerald said, the important fact is that we can now proceed with the Equal Status Bill which, like the Employment Equality Bill, deals with the same nine grounds. However, while this Bill deals with employment aspects, the Equal Status Bill to be introduced later in the year will deal with the goods and services aspects of the equality issue with regard to the same nine grounds. The passing of the Bill today allows us to proceed with that positive work over the summer period. I thank all Members for their co-operation in assisting the Bill's passage through the House.