The government’s commitment to the merged Equality and Rights Body will be clear even before it starts work – Rachel Mullen
In late June the Irish Human Rights Commission published its last Annual Report before it is replaced by the Human Rights and Equality Commission later this year. Minister Alan Shatter launched the report. Dr Maurice Manning, the outgoing president of the Human Rights Commission, requested the Minister to ensure that the legislation to merge the Equality Authority and the Human Rights Commission would give the new Body the level of independent functioning it would require in order to meet international standards like the UN Paris Principles. Manning noted, in particular, that the new Body should be allowed to recruit its own staff at all levels.
The Paris Principles are standards to assess the independent and effective functioning of National Human Rights Institutions (NHRI), adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1993. The International Coordinating Committee of National Human Rights Institutions assesses NHRIs against these standards, in a peer-review system. The Irish Human Rights Commission was awarded a succulent ‘A’ status accreditation in 2003. In 2008 the Commission was reviewed for re-accreditation. It retained an ‘A’ status but serious concerns were noted by the Accreditation Committee that likely budget cuts for the Commission could mean non-compliance with the Paris Principles. The establishment of the new Human Rights and Equality Commission will require a new application for accreditation.
Alan Shatter has stated his commitment to ensuring that the new body should achieve the highest level of accreditation. One of the key benchmarks for independent functioning is that the institution should have the autonomy to recruit its own staff at all levels. The draft Heads of the Bill recently published by the Minister, however, contains a provision that “the first Director of the Commission shall be the person who on the day prior to the establishment day is the Chief Executive of the Equality Authority”.
This provision is contrary to the Paris Principles and to the guidance of the Accreditation Committee who have specified that national institutions should not rely on seconded appointments at senior level. It ignores the recommendation of the Working Group, established to report to the Minister on the merger, that responsibility for the appointment of the Director should rest with the new Body.
There are other provisions in the Heads of the Bill which will require amendment if the new Body is to achieve the highest standard under the Paris Principles when it comes to independence and effectiveness.
The Heads of the Bill cede considerable control to the Minister for Justice in determining the grant to be given to the new Body and in its financial accountability. This leaves the new Body vulnerable to another abrupt cut to its funding such that in 2008 when the budgets of both the IHRC and the Equality Authority were subject to wholly disproportionate cuts by the then Minister for Justice.
The Heads of the Bill purport to provide accountability for the new Body, to the Oireachtas. This should serve to strengthen its independence. However, this accountability is limited to submitting its strategic plans and annual reports to the Oireachtas and to the possibility of the Director being called to account for the ‘general administration’ of the new Body to Oireachtas Committees. The Minister for Justice has tellingly described this accountability as “symbolic”.
The manner in which equality is defined in the Heads of the Bill diminishes both the independence and effectiveness of the new Body. Equality is narrowly defined in terms of dignity, rights and responsibilities. The Equality Authority used a broader definition of equality in its work – equality in access to resources, recognition, respect and representation.
Resources are key to effectiveness of the new Body. The Heads of the Bill usefully require that the new Body is provided with sufficient resources to ensure that it can carry out each of its functions effectively. However there is no mention of how this baseline is to be independently estimated. The Minister has, again tellingly, only referred to the possibility of the new Body retaining any savings made from the merger. This will not in any way address the negative impact of the cutbacks to the two bodies over the past four years.
Civil-society groups are watching how this merger process develops. The first test will be the transparency of the appointments process to the board and the expertise and independence of the panel appointed to conduct this process. The second test will be the appointment of the new Chief Executive to lead the body. This should not be decided in advance by officials in the Department of Justice. The third test will be the manner in which equality is defined. The fourth test will be the resources made available to the new Body. Failure in any of these tests will set the new Body on a trajectory where its domestic and international credibility will be in question before it has even begun to operate.
Rachel Mullen is Co-ordinator of the Equality & Rights Alliance www.eracampaign.org