I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I am sharing time with Deputy Fiona O'Loughlin.
I welcome the opportunity to introduce the Equality (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2017 and will discuss the provisions of the Bill in detail in due course. However, it is important to note that equality is a contentious political issue. All politicians in this House purport to pursue the objective of equality, but they do so in different ways. Neither I nor Deputy Fiona O'Loughlin believes we have a monopoly of wisdom when trying to pursue the principle of equality, but we believe what we have put forward in this legislation would have a significant impact in seeking to diminish a particular type of discrimination and inequality in Ireland.
Politically, the pursuit of equality has become pronounced in recent years. When one looks at the Official Report of Dáil debates, one sees that in the past 20 years the term "in pursuit of equality" was used frequently in the House and outside it by politicians. The objectives they seek to achieve in using the word "equality" are broad ranging. Of course, equality does not mean uniformity. It does not mean that we must live in a North Korean environment in which we all live in the same type of house, all earn the same money and all must do the same job. Sometimes it is important to distinguish equality from the principles of other political doctrines which sometimes use equality to advance their political theories.
As legislators, we have a significant responsibility to ensure there is equality before the law. We must also understand the limitations on politicians. All we can do is try to change the law in order that the change we make will have an impact on society. It is not always the case that changes in the law can have the effect of changing society, but in this area it would send a significant message. As the Ceann Comhairle and the Minister of State, Deputy David Stanton, know, equality is not a modern principle, although it is invoked frequently in modern political parlance. It is an ancient philosophy that dates back to ancient Greece and Rome. In addition, there are references in some Christian writings to what was regarded as equality. Looking back at those ancient times we probably would not regard those societies as equal, but it is important to note that at the time they emphasised that because of a man's or a woman's ability to reason, there was an inherent equality between men. Although they did not emphasise women as much, that can be read into it.
We also must consider the impact of the principle of equality on modern political philosophy. In the 18th century the American war of independence and the United States Declaration of Independence referred to how all men were created equal. The same principle was present in the French Revolution later in the 18th century. We can also consider our historical development. The Proclamation expressly states the Republic guarantees the equal rights and equal opportunities of all of its citizens. No doubt that was one of the reasons the Constitution, which was drafted in 1937 and came into force thereafter, included the specific provisions of Article 40.1, which states all citizens shall as human persons be held equal before the law. Even though we have that principle and constitutional right in the Constitution, it is important that the Legislature take steps to ensure equality is not simply an academic reference but is given life through statutory import. That has not happened with sufficient clarity to date.
We note that after the Constitution was enacted, it was left to the courts to interpret how and whether the right to equality under the Constitution had been violated and how it should be remedied. That has been done by the courts on many occasions. It was done for the benefit of women who did not receive equality, for example, in the case involving their inability to serve on juries. That only arose as a result of a case taken before the High Court. The High Court declared that it was a violation of the principle of equality under the Constitution that women could not serve on juries. Sometimes it also happened in the case of men. The Adoption Act 1974 precluded widowers from adopting but allowed widows to adopt. That provision was struck down by the courts. Sometimes, however, they courts failed to recognise the principle of equality. The case taken in the 1980s by Senator David Norris was rejected by the courts. The law was subsequently changed by this House.
In the 1990s a Fianna Fáil-led Government put some flesh onto the bones of the principle of equality in the Constitution. In 1998 there was a significant statutory development in the area of equality when the Employment Equality Act was passed by the Oireachtas. Shortly afterwards, in 2000, the Equal Status Act was passed. It is important to note what these Acts provided for because in this legislation we are seeking to amend them slightly by adding a further ground. Under the Employment Equality Act 1998, employers were prohibited from discriminating against employees or potential employees on nine specific grounds set out in the legislation. One cannot discriminate against employees on the basis of their gender, marital status, family status, sexual orientation, religion, age, disability, race or being a member of the Traveller community. Each of the provisions in the Employment Equality Act has been a welcome addition to our legislation. Shortly after the enactment of the Employment Equality Bill, the Equal Status Act 2000 was passed. Similarly, it provided for the nine grounds I have just mentioned, whereby one was precluded from discriminating against individuals when providing services for them. All of that legislation is of benefit.
I am sure the Minister of State appreciates that equality legislation is extremely difficult to police. Sometimes it is difficult to decipher whether an employer or service provider is discriminating against an individual on the basis of any of the nine grounds listed. However, the benefit of having them in our law goes beyond the fact that people can be legally held to account. The greatest benefit is that it conveys a message that the State does not consider discrimination on any of the grounds as acceptable. With this legislation we are seeking to add a further ground to the nine grounds listed in the Employment Equality Act and the Equal Status Act.
We propose to add a further ground, the disadvantaged socioeconomic ground, making it ten grounds in all. Disadvantaged socioeconomic status would mean a socially identifiable status of social or economic disadvantage resulting from poverty, level or source of income, homelessness, place of residence or family background. Like every piece of legislation there is a political reason we are introducing it. I will explain it by recounting to the House stories told to me about things that happened to people in my constituency, which I believe are unacceptable.
First, at a clinic, a woman asked for my assistance in her job application to a large employer - I will not identify it or where she came from - and I was happy to do so. She told me she would not put the address where she resides on the job application. She lived in a local authority estate and told me that she was not putting her address on the form because she believed that she would be discriminated against because people from that estate did not get jobs. Certain employers discriminated against people from the estate because it had an association with antisocial behaviour or minor criminal activity. I was surprised by this and asked others in the area if they had a similar experience. I was astonished by the extent to which people who live in this local authority estate told me that when they applied for certain jobs, and to certain employers, people who live there do not put down their address because they believe they are discriminated against because of where they live. As so many of them believe this, I think it is sufficient evidence to advance the idea. That is part of the reason we are advancing this ground to change the Employment Equality Act, as it stands.
I will tell a second story, which is similar but relates to the Equal Status Act. I was speaking to a woman in a local authority flat complex where she lived, who told me about her children. I was very surprised when she told me that she did not send her young son to a local national school, but to a private school in the area. I was astonished at the efforts to which this woman went to ensure that her son got the best from his early life. She made valiant efforts on his behalf, and one can imagine the amount of work she had to undertake to put him through a private primary school. She told me that she had applied on her son's behalf to the closest national school but that it would not accept her son. She said none of the people in the local authority flats who had applied to this school had had his or her son accepted there and as a result all the children from the flats had to go to another national school which was further away. She said it was very rough and she did not want her son to go there. It is unacceptable for national schools, our schools, to discriminate and say they will not take children from the flats. For this reason we are bringing forward this small piece of amending legislation to change the Equal Status Act and the Employment Equality Act. I am hopeful that there will be support for it in the House.
The legislation is of a type that is extremely difficult to police but when one looks at the law at present, one is not allowed to discriminate against people because of their sex or their sexual orientation, but there is no law prohibiting discrimination against a person because, as in the examples I just gave, someone comes from a block of flats about which an employer may have a negative view or someone wants to send his or her child to a local national school and the child does not get in because it does not take people from those flats. That behaviour is unacceptable. I do not believe that it is widespread in Irish society but we should change the equality legislation nonetheless so that type of discrimination it is not permissible. Neither is the type of discrimination outlined in the Employment Equality Act and the Equal Status Act particularly widespread but it is extremely important that our legislation sets out that one cannot discriminate against people because they are women, because they are gay, because of their age or because of their religion. Religious discrimination was the most significant type of discrimination since it affected so many people up to 1828 under the Penal Laws. In modern times, we should similarly say that one should not discriminate against people because they come from a poorer background. I believe this to be the most common form of discrimination in this society rather than the other types which are already outlined in the legislation. It is not a competition between the different grounds. Each is commendable and should be there but I see no reason that we should not keep trying to evolve and promote our laws on equality. They continually change along with the society in which we live and it is important that we send out a message that it is unacceptable for people to discriminate against individuals on the basis that those people come from a disadvantaged socioeconomic background.
I apologise for going on for too long, and will hand over to my colleague, Deputy Fiona O'Loughlin.