So, now we have been promised a “Government working to give every person equality of opportunity in a fair society” in the Programme for Government. Leaving aside the limited ambition as goals of equality of opportunity and fairness, the Programme does contain a raft of equality commitments. There is something for nearly everyone in the audience.
Women, people with disabilities, older people, young people, Travellers and carers get substantive mention. Lone parents are less fortunate and get one commitment on income disregards. Refugees and asylum-seekers are least evident with a vague promise to promote integration, but no indication of how this is to be done, and one to reform Direct Provision, but only for its negative impact on family life.
The equality infrastructure is what sustains the commitment to such promises. It includes the policy processes, policy plans, institutions, and legislation that drives their implementation. It is useful to assess how the Programme commits to the further strengthening of this equality infrastructure. This strengthening is needed given its rather tattered post-economic-crisis state.
The Programme has a dramatic commitment to “develop the process of budget and policy proofing as a means of advancing equality, reducing poverty and strengthening economic and social rights”. If properly implemented this has great potential. It is to be the responsibility of the Budget and Finance Committee with the involvement of a new independent fiscal and budget office and Government departments and with support from the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC).
There is, however, no mention of the statutory duty on public bodies to have regard to the need to eliminate discrimination, promote equality of opportunity, and protect human rights. This has been in place since late 2014. No Government department has implemented it and no guidance has been provided by IHREC on its implementation. It would have been more convincing to commit to developing the institutional arrangements for implementing this statutory duty alongside the new budget-proofing process.
Policy plans are valuable in establishing strategies to address the inequalities experienced by different groups and sustaining a focus on these. There is a plethora of policy plans promised: new National Women’s Strategy; new National Disability Inclusion Strategy; existing Comprehensive Employment Strategy for People with Disabilities; new National Traveller and Roma Inclusion Strategy; and new Action Plan for Educational Inclusion. There are further commitments to implement the 2012 Carers Strategy, develop a LGBT youth strategy, and pursue an integrated plan across Government Departments to reduce poverty, disadvantage and inequality.
The issue with plans, though, is implementation. The development of such plans tends to be the responsibility of the Department of Justice and Equality. Their implementation tends to be the responsibility of a wide range of other less enthusiastic Government departments and agencies. Implementation of ambitious plans can get reduced to diverse projects supported by some Department of Justice and Equality funding. While the projects are valuable, this diminishes the potential of policy plans. The Programme makes no mention of how implementation of these policy plans is to be driven and ensured. Constant planning in a context of limited action and change rapidly gets disheartening.
The only statutory institution for equality mentioned is the National Disability Authority. There is a vague commitment to review its role. This must be ambitious if this agency is to emerge from the shadows of uselessness. On a time-limited basis, but nonetheless valuable, a special working group is promised to audit the current delivery and implementation of local authority Traveller accommodation plans, and a taskforce is promised to promote implementation of personalised budgets for people with disabilities.
The community and voluntary sector gets significant mention, but only for its provision of “the human, social and community services in all key areas of our national life” and its contribution “to the economy” and for creating “value for Irish society”. This passes over the central contribution of this sector in advancing the interests, and giving a platform to the voice, of communities experiencing inequality. Its value should be identified in terms of our democracy rather than our economy.
Increased funding levels are promised to the sector. However, funding models are to focus on “quality, effectiveness and efficiency” rather than on advancing equality, rights, or social justice. The promise is further compromised by an emphasis on commissioning for services, a process that commodifies or marketises these services and turns community groups into commercial entities.
Legislation gets hardly a mention. There is a strange commitment to refer the proposal of the Constitutional Convention to incorporate economic, social and cultural rights into the Constitution, for consideration by the Oireachtas Committee on Housing; and a vague promise to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
By Niall Crowley