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More purge than merge

The new Human Rights and Equality Commission is underfunded, underpowered and inadequately independentRachel Mullen 

 

Minister Shatter has promised that the new Human Rights and Equality Commission will “more effectively, efficiently and cohesively champion human rights and equality”. It is, however, difficult to envisage how a body, composed of two merged organisations that have seen their budgets and their staffing levels devastated, could be expected to work more effectively.

Since 2008, the Equality Authority and the Irish Human Rights Commission have been significantly and systematically diminished. Their budgets have been reduced by 39% for the Irish Human Rights Commission and 49% for the Equality Authority. The staffing level of the Irish Human Rights Commission has been reduced from 14 staff to six staff (a 57% reduction) and the Equality Authority from 58 staff to 12 staff (a 79% reduction).

The staffing of the Irish Human Rights Commission has been reduced from 14 staff to 6 (a 57% reduction) and the Equality Authority from 58 staff to 12 (a 79% reduction)

Neither body was ever regarded as sufficiently resourced. Even in 2008 neither body had the resources to implement all its functions. Minister Shatter has confirmed, in response to a recently-tabled parliamentary question, that the budget for the Human Rights and Equality Commission will be the combined reduced budgets of the two existing bodies. This budget of €4.09m is €1.8m less than the budget that was available to the Equality Authority alone, in 2008.

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Reduced resources have taken their toll. The number of legal cases the Equality Authority has supported dropped by 66% between 2008 and 2011. The Irish Human Rights Commission has no funding available to discharge its legal functions and any legal work being carried out is on a pro bono basis.

The campaigning ‘Equality and Rights Alliance’ has presented a report, based on the above, to the EU Parliament Petitions Committee. This sets out the case that the Irish Government is in breach of its obligations under the EU equal treatment directives, given the disproportionate cuts applied to the Equality Authority. This builds on an earlier petition made in 2010.

The directives require Member States to designate a body with the capacity to give independent assistance to victims of discrimination to pursue complaints, conduct independent surveys concerning discrimination, publish independent reports and make recommendations on discrimination issues. The Equality Authority does not have the resources to fulfil this mandate.

The Irish Human Rights Commission enjoys ‘A’ status under the UN “Paris Principles” for National Human Rights Institutions. The Equality and Rights Alliance has submitted a report to the International Co-ordinating Committee on the situation of the Irish Human Rights Commission, as set out above, recommending a review of its ‘A’ status.

The merging of the Equality Authority and Irish Human Rights Commission represents the reprehensible nadir of our statutory equality and human rights infrastructure, though there is still an opportunity to ensure that the new Commission is established in a manner that allows it effectively to advance equality and human rights. It is vital that the legislation to set up the new Commission, expected in April, is developed in a manner that creates the conditions to realise this potential.

The Equality and Rights Alliance has identified five areas of concern from the Heads of Bill for the new body, published last June:

  • The definitions of equality and human rights in the Bill need to be broadened to avoid limiting the functions of the body.
  • The scope for the merged body needs to include, as part of its key purpose, holding the state to account on human rights and equality issues and stimulating social change for equality and human rights.
  • The body should be made directly accountable to the Oireachtas rather than, as proposed, to the parent Department of Justice, Equality and Defence.
  • The body must have full autonomy to appoint all of its own staff rather than having to depend on civil-service secondments.
  • The welcome introduction of a duty on public bodies to give consideration to equality and human rights needs to be strengthened. with the addition of enforcement mechanisms and of an ambitious definition of what is meant by “give consideration to”.

 

Rachel Mullen is coordinator of the Equality and Rights Alliance