I thank the Chairman and members of the committee for the invitation to appear with my colleague, Professor Caroline Fennell. The establishment of this committee was a specific recommendation of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission to ensure proper democratic oversight of decision-making during the pandemic. It is with particular respect to this work that we address the committee today.
The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission is Ireland's independent, national human rights institution and national equality body. It was established as a statutory body in 2014 and is accountable directly to the Houses of the Oireachtas. The commission is also the independent monitoring mechanism designated for Ireland under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. We are supported in that work by a disability advisory committee composed of a diverse group of people with lived experience of disability.
In addressing the committee today the commission is conscious of our mandate to protect and promote human rights and equality in Ireland in what are truly exceptional times. We are also conscious of members' role as legislators and public representatives to do the same. The committee has heard and will hear from other witnesses today about the direct experiences of people with disabilities during the pandemic and the impact on services and the users of services. We will reiterate aspects that are highlighted by them.
The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission emphasises for the committee that the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on people with disabilities should be understood in the context of the rights of people with disabilities and the actions taken or not taken to protect and realise those rights. Under the UNCRPD, to which Ireland and the European Union are party, the State has an obligation to promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities, and to respect their inherent dignity. This legal obligation is in addition to the fundamental principle of non-discrimination, including on the basis of disability outlined in Article 21 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and in the EU's equal treatment directives. Article 15 of the Council of Europe's European Social Charter, to which Ireland is a party, guarantees the right of persons with disabilities to independence, social integration and participation in the life of the community. The right to equality is also set out under Article 41 of the Constitution, as well as in statute under the Employment Equality Acts and the Equal Status Acts.
It is clear that Covid-19 has given rise to significant risks of discrimination and the undermining of rights of persons with disabilities, including the rights of older persons, many of whom have disabilities. While Covid-19 is a once in a generation public health crisis, its impact should be seen in the continuum of how people with disabilities continue to be treated in the design and delivery of public policy.
The Covid-19 response has exposed inadequacies of Ireland's public policy for people who live in congregated settings, including nursing homes. This includes disruption of supports in services for people with disabilities and for family carers; accessibility of information for people with disabilities; lack of appropriate data that would allow for more responsive decision-making; education and employment for persons with disabilities; and the noted absence of people with disabilities in decision-making that affects them. These issues are detailed in our written submission and we are happy to discuss them further and at length with the committee.
I will highlight one example where it is critical that the human rights and equality implications of public policy are given full consideration. In March, April and May of this year, the Department of Health published guidelines for decision makers in the health service and how access to critical care should be prioritised during the pandemic in the event that demand exceeds availability. The commission has reviewed this guidance and is concerned that there are potentially profound implications for the human rights and equality of people with disabilities, older people and other vulnerable people. We are concerned that those most likely to be impacted by this policy guidance have not been adequately consulted. A consultation process needs to meaningfully consider the human rights and equality obligations of the State and the individual and collective rights of all of our citizens. As a commission, we have communicated our concerns to the Minister for Health. It is our view that the current moment, when the threat of Covid-19 has thankfully receded, represents an opportunity to further consider and develop this important guidance for healthcare workers.
More generally, with regard to the lived experience of people with disabilities, it is important to recognise the progress that has been made. This progress has seen Ireland move from an old charitable medical model of support for people with disabilities towards a rights-based perspective, supporting people to live inclusive, independent lives. It is a fact that the significant gaps and vulnerabilities in existing policy and services have resulted in a disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on people with disabilities. This disproportionate impact is at odds with the sentiment and message of collective solidarity in the face of the pandemic. Unless the law, practice and policy which underpin the rights of people with disabilities are made more resilient, we will continue to see people with disabilities face the same vulnerabilities relating to their rights at times of crisis, including times of economic crisis.
The path to that greater resilience has already been mapped out, as noted by Mr. John Dolan and Mr. Enda Egan, and includes policy and legislation already identified as being needed to bring Ireland into compliance with the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. To this end, the commission also would add that the implementation of the public sector human rights and equality duty by public bodies and the exercise of their functions would be a significant and positive step towards permanently embedding the rights of people with disabilities in service delivery. It is imperative that we learn the lessons of this crisis and that policy makers ensure that human rights and equality considerations are central in the review and development of policy, the impacts of which are deeply experienced by people with disabilities.