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Ireland leads cuts on equality bodies

Latvia, Bulgaria, Romania and others are lacerating their equality budgets too
Niall Crowley

In October 2008 the Irish Government cut the budget of the Equality Authority by an extraordinary and disproportionate 43%.  Equinet, the European Union network of specialised equality bodies, wrote to Dermot Ahern, Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, to express serious concern.  Equinet was particularly concerned that the Irish Government, which had previously pioneered  high standards for the European Union with the establishment of the Equality Authority, was now pulling back.  Equinet wasright to fear the power of a bad example. Since then it has had to express similar concerns in four other member states.

In Latvia the equality body is housed in the office of the Ombudsman for the Republic of Latvia.  A significant budget cut led to proposals for the reorganization of the office.  The Department for Discrimination Prevention, the unit responsible for equality, is to be subsumed into a wider legal unit.  Specialist expertise and priority focus on discrimination issues would be lost.

The budget of the Lithuanian equality body was cut by 40%.  Proposals have been developed to merge the equality ombudsman with the ombudsman for children’s rights and or to put both bodies under the remit of the parliamentary ombudsman.  Specialist expertise and priority focus on discrimination would be lost.

The Bulgarian Council of Ministers published a draft decision to cut expenses by reducing the members of independent regulatory bodies to a maximum of five.  This would reduce the number of Commissioners on the Bulgarian Commission for Protection against Discrimination from nine.  The body plays the functions of a tribunal in deciding cases of discrimination.  This proposal would result in long delays in hearing these cases.  The Bulgarian Parliament refused to accept the annual report for 2008 of the Bulgarian equality body, accusing the body of only defending Roma and other minority ethnic people.

The budget of the Romanian National Council for Combating Discrimination was cut by 25% and further cuts are expected.  At times their budget lines have been blocked by their Department of Finance.  The mandate of four of the nine members of the Council has been expired for several months with no replacement.  The mandate of two other members is due to expire.  The Council plays a tribunal role and needs a minimum majority of five members to decide on cases of discrimination.  Independence and effectiveness are threatened.

These bodies represented 17% of Equinet’s membership.  At the 2009 AGM of Equinet it emerged that other equality bodies too are struggling against similar assaults.  The recession is being used as a cover to reverse the advances made under the European Equal Treatment Directives.
Media reports highlighted political interference with the independence of equality bodies in Germany,France and Britain.  The political links of the leadership of the German body were criticised.  A politicial initiative sought to reduce the budget of the French body by 20%.  The chairperson of the British body was reappointed by government despite high profile resignations from the board that raised issues of governance and financial probity in the body.

The independence and effectiveness of the equality bodies are under attack.  The independence of the equality bodies is evident in the choices they make to take on powerful interests in society and in the manner in which they articulate key equality issues.  Independence requires leadership without fear of retribution.  Effectiveness is about the quality and the scale of the work done.  Equality bodies need to engage in a critical mass of work – below which they become irrelevant and fail to make any impact on the issues of discrimination and inequality in society.

An examination of this backlash against the equality bodies demonstrates five different ways in which they are being undermined.  These are:

  • Disproportionate cutting of budgets such that the equality body can no longer engage in the critical mass of work necessary to be effective.
  • Restructuring equality bodies due to budget cuts such that key skills and focus on discrimination issues are lost.
  • Merging the equality bodies with other organizations exercising unrelated functions so that skills, profile and focus on discrimination are lost.
  • Failing to appoint commissioners to the equality body or politicising the appointment of commissioners so that independence is lost.
  • Extending the mandate of the equality body by adding new responsibilities without additional resources so that resources are spread too thinly to make an impact.