Equality (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2017
Speech by Minister Charlie Flanagan T.D.
8 November 2017

A Cheann Comhairle, Deputies,

This evening’s debate has confirmed the support across this House for ensuring that individuals or groups in Irish society are not disadvantaged by virtue of their socio-economic status when seeking employment or access to services.  The Government strongly shares that view, however, this Bill does not provide the answer to that challenge. 

Adding a new ground of socio-economic status into the equality legislation is inherently complex.   This has been attempted before unsuccessfully.  I would remind the Dáil that the question of including socio-economic status as a ground of discrimination in the equality legislation has been examined, and previously rejected, by the Fianna Fáil Government of 2002 – 2007, as well as the recent Fine Gael - Labour Government. The reasons given for rejection by both Governments remain as valid today as they were then.  Minister Stanton has referred, in this context, to the UCC report of 2004 which confirmed the extreme difficulty in providing proof of discrimination on this basis.  The International Labour Organisation Committee of Experts has also noted that the problem of discrimination based on “social origin” is “unquestionably one of the most difficult to define.” 

The inclusion of such a ground in equality legislation is relatively new at European level.  Definitions vary between EU Member States.  Some, such as Belgium or Denmark, have introduced the concept of ‘social origin’ into their equality legislation.  Others such as Latvia are using the concepts of ‘property’ and ‘place of residence’ to address socio-economic discrimination.  Meanwhile, Lithuania uses the term ‘social status’.  The application of such concepts in caselaw at EU level is still in its infancy.  EQUINET, the network of equality bodies, has indicated that equality bodies are only beginning to develop greater clarity as to how the new ground can be operationalised.     We should be careful about moving precipitously down a road where concepts, definitions and applicability are still in flux.

As Minister Stanton has indicated, Deputy O’Callaghan’s Bill proposes a definition of ‘disadvantaged socio-economic status’ which is ambiguous.  That ambiguity creates the risk of increasing the number of potential claims under the equality legislation exponentially.  The potential impact on the public and private sector could be significant.  If claims were to rise exponentially, this could impose an undue burden on business, employers and on public service providers. Care must be taken to ensure that measures do not go beyond what is reasonable, proportionate, and above all, necessary.  Moreover, as Minister Stanton pointed out in his speech earlier this evening, a general principle is that statute law should be certain, clear and precise so that it can be easily interpreted by the person a law such as that proposed here seeks to protect and by the court - and so that employers, service providers and businesses are clearly aware of their obligations.

The Government has taken a series of measures to strengthen the equality legislation and to target specific economic areas such as access to housing.  As Minister Stanton has indicated, the Government brought forward the Equality (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act in 2015 which prohibits discrimination in the letting of residential accommodation on the basis that a person is or is not in receipt of rent supplement or Housing Assistance Payment.   The Government considered that this was a clear instance where concrete evidence existed of discrimination and where amending the equality legislation could achieve the objective of ending such discrimination.

Similarly, the Government brought forward the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission Act 2014 which has established the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission and set it on a sound footing, independent of Government, answerable to the Oireachtas and well-funded.  That Act also introduced the concept of a public sector equality and human rights duty.  That duty imposes an obligation on public bodies to eliminate discrimination, to promote equality of opportunity and to protect the human rights of staff and service users.  The duty provides a means of addressing structural issues and of developing the capacity within the public service to promote equality and human rights.  The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission is working with public sector bodies to embed the duty into their work and to realise the potential of this important legislative provision.  

Similarly, the Programme for Partnership Government has committed the Government to develop the process of budget and policy proofing as a means of advancing equality, reducing poverty and strengthening economic and social rights.  The Oireachtas is playing a key role in this process.   The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission has a specific mandate to support this work.  The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform is working actively with a range of Government Departments to develop their capacity in the area of gender budgeting.  

Such tools have the potential to target structural disadvantage effectively.  Their benefit is that they do not require an individual victim to go through the process of taking an equality claim and undergoing the difficult process of proving discrimination.  Instead, they promote the process of structural change at organisational level.

Equally the equality legislation may not be the most effective legislative instrument to combat exploitation or disadvantage.  The enactment of legislation focused on a specific problem issue may be more effective.  Socio-economic disadvantage may be caused by working conditions.  One of the Government’s legislative priorities is to address the problems caused by the increased casualization of work and to strengthen the regulation of precarious employment. This was a commitment in the Programme for Government and the draft legislation which has been approved by the Government earlier this year aims to fulfil this commitment.

The draft legislation aims to address a number of issues which have been identified as being areas where current employment rights legislation can be strengthened. Perhaps this is a more appropriate way of enhancing rights of people disadvantaged by socio-economic status as there is a particular emphasis on low-paid, vulnerable workers.

The legislative proposals will address the following key issues:

These proposals are the result of extensive consultations which included a public consultation following the University of Limerick study on Zero Hour Contracts and low hour contracts. They were also informed by a detailed dialogue process with IBEC and ICTU over a period of several months.

The challenge of addressing socio-economic disadvantage requires policy solutions as the primary response.  Greater socio-economic equality can be achieved through greater participation in education, effective labour market activation measures and other social supports and through the creation of increased employment opportunities.  Significant progress has been made in the field of education over the past two decades.   In 2001, only 68.2% of students in the 2001 DEIS cohort stayed in school up to Leaving Certificate.  That number had risen to 82.7% for the 2009 cohort, with over 93% of these students completing the Junior Certificate. 

The DEIS plan has set ambitious goals for 2019.  It expects to see the following successes in higher education enrolments:

Similar progress has been made in creating employment opportunities for citizens and migrant workers.  In March 2011, 441,000 persons were on the Live Register.  That figure has now essentially halved.  The corresponding figure for October 2017 is 236,000, down over 40,000 in a year.  Just as importantly, the number of long term claimants alone decreased by over 23,000, or 18%, over the same period.  These Live Register figures confirm that people in every field of employment, regardless of skill set and regardless of postcode, from professional and technical, are getting employment.  Employment opportunities are opening up for all.  Indeed the reduction in numbers on the Live Register was greater for Plant and Machinery operatives (down 16.3%) than for those in Professional and Technical occupations (down 10%).  

Addressing socio-economic disadvantage involves multi-faceted solutions.  If we are to proceed with a legislative approach, it is vital that it should be precise, proportionate and clearly based on evidence.  With that in mind, the Government is proposing to commission objective research to establish the extent and prevalence of discrimination needing to be addressed.  It is crucial to identify the problem before introducing a broadly-based equality ground which is so ambiguous as to crease the risk of disproportionate impacts on employers and public and private sector organisations. 

For this reason, the Government believes that it is premature to proceed with an ambiguous and flawed Bill. For this reason, I must recommend against acceptance of this Bill while stating again that I and my colleagues in Government strong shares the view that no individual or group in Ireland should be subjected to discrimination by virtue of their socio-economic status when seeking employment or access to services.  I will keep the House updated on the Government’s extensive programme of work in tackling disadvantage and providing opportunities for all in this republic.