Our Equality legislation covers nine grounds of discrimination. This reflects the worthy ambition to be comprehensive in attacking discrimination. However, Central Statistics Office (CSO) data suggest we are far from realising any such ambition. They show that 41% of people who feel they have been discriminated against perceive this discrimination to be on grounds other than the nine grounds covered. There appears to be a big hole in the protection afforded to those experiencing discrimination.
These CSO data come from an equality module they introduce periodically as part of their Quarterly National Household Survey. It’s from 2014, but it was not news as the figure stood at 42% in the previous 2010 equality module. The CSO data does not identify what grounds now need to be included in the legislation, they merely allowed respondents to tick a box titled ‘other ground’. However, the indications are that a substantial element of this ‘other ground’ is the ground of socio-economic status.
First to recommend the introduction of a socio-economic status ground was the Equality Authority back in 2002. In 2008 it commissioned the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) to examine the CSO data on discrimination from the 2004 module. The ESRI did not reach definitive conclusions on the composition of this ‘other ground’ but noted an association between choosing this ‘other ground’ and trade-union membership, low education status, and unemployment. This supports the argument for a new socio-economic status ground to be introduced in our equality legislation.
The Equality and Rights Alliance has just launched a report, by Tamas Kadar, that finds Ireland lagging behind many European countries by not introducing such a ground. The European Network of Legal Experts in Gender Equality and Non-Discrimination found that legislation in 20 of the 35 European countries surveyed provides protection against discrimination on a ground related to socio-economic status in 2016. There is, according to the Network, a significant move across the EU towards extending the mandate of equality bodies to cover socio-economic-status related grounds.
The case flows first from the high levels of inequality and discrimination evident on the ground of socio-economic status. This has been exacerbated over the years of economic crisis and austerity in Ireland and across the EU. Why would we protect some groups from discrimination and not others?
The Equality and Rights Alliance report found that discrimination on a socioeconomic-status ground has grown in importance in both human-rights and equality law, with a growing case-law from courts and tribunals on this ground. Experience from abroad is showing that there are important gains to be made by Ireland from introducing this ground.
Casework on the socio-economic status ground, identified in the report, shows that this discrimination is predominantly reported in employment, social services, public and private housing, healthcare, and social protection systems. The significant focus on the public sector might be one reason we have been so slow to introduce this ground. Casework on this ground can be as high as 25% of the case load of equality bodies, but in most instances it is around 5%. Perhaps another reason is that most of the other grounds are identity based whereas socio-economic is status based. But research shows that to the greatest extent socio-economic status is driven by birth also. Ideologues may deny the relevance of this but research dictates its own imperatives. This elevates the socio-economic ground beyond pure status.
It is time to expand the grounds covered in Irish legislation. We have waited more than the apparently required decade from the case for this change first being made. We have made the required token gesture with the introduction in 2015 of “housing assistance” as a new ground into the Equal Status Act to protect against discrimination in accommodation. People in receipt of housing-assistance social-welfare payments, such as HAP and Rent Supplement, cannot be discriminated against in the provision of accommodation or related services. Why not go the whole way and introduce a socio-economic status groundThis would best be done, according to the Equality and Rights Alliance report, in an asymmetric way designed to protect those experiencing disadvantage from discrimination. The ground could then be defined in terms of discrimination against someone on the basis of where they live, their employment status, their education status or their housing status. The introduction of this ground is a logical extension of the merger of equality and human rights issues under the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission and of the focus on economic and social rights in the Programme for Government which includes commitments to equality-and-human-rights budgeting and policy-proofing. Adding the ground of socio-economic status is the lynchpin for integrating a concern for equality and human rights. It is the logical next step.