A legislative and administrative framework for equality has been in place for some time with the enactment of the Employment Equality Act 1998 and the Equal Status Act 2000, and with the establishment of the Equality Authority and the ODEI, the equality tribunal. The Equality Bill 2004, which is currently before the Oireachtas, will amend both of these Acts to give effect to EU equality directives 2000/43/EC, race directive, 2000/78/EC, framework employment directive, and 2002/73/EC, gender equal treatment in employment directive. While the opportunity is being taken in the Equality Bill to more closely align the provisions of the Acts and to introduce a number of procedural improvements, the principal purpose of the legislation is to give effect to the EU directives which I have referred to and more general issues of policy and practice which are not currently under review.
As part of the consultation process undertaken by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform in 2002, prior to the preparation and drafting of the Equality Bill, a submission setting out 45 recommendations was received from the Equality Authority. Included in these was a recommendation that the equality legislation implement a duty on the private sector to prepare and implement on a regular basis action plans to promote employment equality and to promote equality within the provision of goods and services across the nine grounds in a planned and systematic way; and that the Equality Authority should be given a role to establish, maintain and enforce standards in regard to these action plans. I understand that, in addition to the formal submission received from the authority, it has also advocated this approach in the course of some more recent equality fora.
As I have said, the focus of the legislation amending the Employment Equality and the Equal Status Acts is to successfully transpose the EU equality directives, none of which requires the imposition of such a duty on employers or service providers. The existing infrastructural approach to equality assigns the key role in these matters to the Equality Authority in keeping with its key functions in regard to the elimination of discrimination and the promotion of equality of opportunity.
Part VI of the Employment Equality Act, applicable also in regard to the Equal Status Act, makes provision for a comprehensive system of equality reviews and action plans centred on this key role. The authority may invite a particular business, group of businesses or the businesses making up a particular industry or sector thereof to carry out an equality review in relation to their business or businesses and or prepare and implement an equality action plan in respect of that business or businesses.
The authority may also itself carry out an equality review and prepare an equality action plan in relation to a particular business, except where it has less than 50 employees, group of businesses or the businesses making up a particular industry or sector thereof. Further, it may employ persons qualified to audit the level of equality of opportunity which exists in such business or businesses, and to examine the practices, procedures and other relevant factors present, to determine whether they are conducive to the promotion of equality of opportunity. In addition, the Employment Equality Act gives specific powers to the Equality Authority to refer for enforcement, by the High Court or the Circuit Court as appropriate, any case of non-compliance with an equality action plan.