It could not be clearer. The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission Act 2014 says that public bodies must, when they are preparing strategic plans, assess and identify the human rights and equality issues that are relevant to their functions as policy maker, employer and service provider. Public bodies must also identify the policies and practices that they have in place or that they plan to put in place to address these issues. We can only assume they meant it when they enacted the legislation, two years ago now.
The excitement could, therefore, hardly be contained as the Department of Education and skills was first out of the traps with its new statement of strategy. All other Government Departments are still in the process of finalising their own new statements of strategies. They lag behind education, hot off the press with its ‘Action Plan for Education 2016-2019’.
The statement of strategy opens with a picture of a smiling minister Richard Bruton and his commitment that “we can work together with all the people who work in and depend on the education and training service to, collectively, make it into the best in Europe”. This ‘best in world’ stuff is cringe-inducing but, whatever, how did it manage the new public sector duty?
It is worth setting it out in full. It comes under the less than promising subheading “ensuring equity”. Equity, it must be remembered, is about fairness, not the more particular, more ambitious equality, not even human rights. It goes like this…
“As part of their public sector duty, public bodies are required to consider human rights and equality issues relevant to them. In preparing this document, such issues were considered and individual actions address matters specific to the education and training sector. Ensuring access to an equitable system is a driving force throughout the Department’s work”.
That’s it. It feels like a crude two fingers to the legislation, to the Oireachtas that enacted it, and to anybody who had naively entertained expectations deriving from the legislation. Human Rights don’t even get another mention in the 64- page document. Equality gets a mention as it is part of the name of the Deis (Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools) initiative and, under Goal 2, where the statement of strategy complacently recites that “we have made considerable progress in advancing equity and equality of opportunity”, but does deign to acknowledge that “significant challenges remain if we are to ensure that children and young people from different backgrounds are adequately supported so that they can experience success in the education system”.
Anything vaguely equality-related is squashed into Goal 2 of the strategy statement which is to improve the progress of learners at risk of educational disadvantage or learners with special education needs. Goal 2 has 18 actions. This compares with 35 actions under Goal 1 to improve the learning experience and success of learners, 29 actions under Goal 3 to help those delivering educational services to continuously improve, 37 actions under Goal 4 to build stronger bridges between education and the wider community, and 20 actions under Goal 5 to improve national planning and support services.
The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission has produced limited but clear guidance on implementing this public-sector duty. The steps required include:
- Undertake an assessment of human rights and equality issues that are relevant to its functions, to the services it provides and to its employees. The Department of Education and Skills Statement of Strategy demonstrates no evidence of such an analysis.
- Consult broadly with employees, managers, trade unions, individuals and communities accessing and using the services, and other key stakeholders, which may be affected by inequalities and human rights issues. The Department of Education and Skills received submissions from 600 individuals and groups but there is no evidence that any of these related to equality and human rights or the public-sector duty.
- Screen and analyse policies and programmes from a human rights and equality perspective, identifying which existing policies and programmes are particularly relevant. The Department of Education and Skills Statement of Strategy demonstrates no evidence of such screening or analysis.
- Develop action plans on human rights and equality with defined actions and responsibilities. The Department of Education and Skills Statement of Strategy demonstrates no evidence of such an action plan.
So, what next? The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, in its guidance, states that where it “considers there are failures to fulfil the Public Sector Duty, it can invite a public body to carry out an equality and human rights review of the work of the organisation and prepare and implement an action plan”. Logically then, the only outstanding matter now is when will the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission act?