Human Rights Day

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Tearing down is easier than rebuilding

Equality and Rights Alliance (ERA) believes that it is wrong to cut rights.  We are asking the Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women’s Rights to recommend that the Government:

  • Allows the Public Service Review Group, announced on November 26, 2008 in response to the taskforce report Transforming Public Services to assess publicly and objectively the finances, staff performances and services provided by The Equality Authority and the Irish Human Rights Commission.
  • Reverses the recommendations to cut the budget of the Equality Authority by 43% and the Irish Human Rights Commission by 24% until the Review Group has completed its work.
  • Reverses the transfer of Equality Authority staff to Roscrea until the Review Group has completed its work.
  • Makes the Equality Authority and the Irish Human Rights Commission accountable to the Oireachtas and fully independent from the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, as required by international law.


 

Scape-goating not analysis


It is easy for policy makers and legislators to get away with silencing the country’s equality and human rights institutions.  

Current budgetary and economic circumstances can be used to justify an undermining of essential watchdog bodies which have asserted their independence by speaking out against the status quo on issues of discrimination and human rights.  

The recent FÁS debate further allows for public service scape-goating rather than the detailed analysis which is really required to give sustainable value for money for tax payers and economic recovery.  The mismanagement of a few provides an opportunity to clear out many. 

As a coalition of 71 civil society groups, many existing on a show-string, Equality & Rights Alliance is fully in favour of efficiency and value.  We are confident that, if reviewed properly, the two agencies operating on a combined budget of just over €8 million will be found to provide just that.

Frontline battles


The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform has responded that the reason he has engaged in the destruction of the Equality Authority and constrained the functioning of the Irish Human Rights Commission is that he wants to divert resources to the front line battle against crime.  This particular clarification came after the horrendous events in Limerick when Shane Geoghan was shot.

The decision to merge the two bodies, along with others, was first mooted in July 2008.  It could be argued that the move to undermine The Equality Authority started over a year ago when the entire board was removed and a new one put in place under a new Chairperson.   As a member of this Oireachtas Committee has already pointed out, for the Minister to discover, after the terrible events in Limerick, that the reason he destroyed The Equality Authority was to divert moneys to the fight against crime is hard to believe.

People are aware


The budget decisions which have rendered the Equality Authority and the Irish Human Rights Commission unviable may not elicit the same outpourings witnessed following the cuts to medical cards for the over 70s.  

However, people are aware of the moves to undermine their equality and human rights and are prepared to act to protect them in the run-up to the local elections in 2009.  Equality & Rights Alliance now has 71 members representing over 2.5 million people.   It started with 40 groups in August 2008.  People are joining the campaign daily.

Irony of timing


The process of dismantling equality and human rights in Ireland began shortly after the UN Human Rights Committee set out its concerns and recommendations to Ireland regarding it compliance with the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in July 2008.  It may well end in the days leading up to the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on 10 December 2008. 

In anticipation of this anniversary, there is an opportunity for the Government to strengthen its commitment to equality, human rights and social justice.  The reality, however, may be closer to that articulated by John F. Kennedy in 1962 when he said: “A nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.”

The Rationale for Review

 

The Budget Actions

 

  • The Equality Authority budget has been reduced by 43% bringing it from an already under resourced position of €5.89m to €3.3m.  The cuts which are up to 21 higher than those applied to other bodies means that it has lost its non-pay budget and cannot carry out its key functions.
  • The Irish Human Rights Commission budget has been reduced by nearly a quarter, bringing it from €2.09m to €1.59m.  Given that payroll costs are €1.5m and that annual rent and other administrative costs come to €0.5m it is clear that an allocation of €1.6m is insufficient to allow the Commission continue to survive let alone exercise its statutory functions.
  • The Equality Authority is being fast-tracked to Roscrea at a time when decentralization has been halted.  No experienced staff members have applied to move.
  • The Irish Human Rights Commission and the Equality Authority are to “fully integrate their facilities, back office and administrative services, and access for citizens.”
  • The cuts to the bodies are completely disproportionate to other cutbacks within the Justice sector.  Some relevant figures include the Garda Ombudsman Commission (-5%), National Disability Authority (-2%), Office of the Data Protection Commissioner (-9%) and the Equality Tribunal (+15%).
  • Equality & Rights Alliance understands that the economy is facing a critical challenge and had expected some cutback in the equality and human rights bodies.  A cut in line with the majority of adjustments would have posed a problem but would not have rendered the bodies unviable.


 

Impact on Services


The Equality Authority will have difficulty opening new case files.  It will not be able to assist people to contest discrimination cases appealed to Higher Courts.  It may not even be in a position to meet commitments to current clients.  This could open the agency to claims of negligence.  

It will lose access to EU funding and so will have to shelve initiatives.  For example, the Authority cannot provide matching EU funding for its Equality Mainstreaming Unit.  A maximum of less than €600,000 is required to unlock a further €800,000 funding per annum for seven years.  The Equality Mainstreaming Unit provides practical support to

small and medium enterprises, business networks, trade unions, and providers of employment services.  Research shows that equality is good for business.

Budget 2009 places a serious doubt over the ability of the Irish Human Rights Commission to do its job properly.  Human rights protection is all the more necessary in times of economic crisis when the weakest in society become more exposed.  

Some examples of the kind of work undertaken by the Commission since its establishment in 2003 include pressing for the inclusion of extra protection of victims of trafficking in the Immigration Bill currently before the Committee; raising human rights issues in the courts on, for example, effective access for legal aid for mothers with intellectual disability in childcare proceedings; and family reunification for naturalised citizens.  It has also advised against extraordinary rendition and torture, an issue which the Government has recently acted on with the establishment of the Cabinet Sub-committee on international human rights.  Work like this simply won’t continue.

The folly of the savings argument


Savings are not the issue here.  They never have been.  

In fact, savings are such a side-show, the Minister presented many glaring inaccuracies when questioned about this issue on November 13, 2008.

   1. The Equality Authority was established in 1997 with an annual budget of €378,000. It now has an annual budget of €5.9 million according to the Minister.
The Equality Authority was established on 19th December 1999. The annual budget of €378,000 therefore covered just two months of operation.  A better comparison would be the annual budget for the Equality Authority in 2001, the first year of full operation of the Equality Authority. In 2001 the Equality Authority had a budget of €3,787,000. The budget proposed for 2009 is €3,333,000 – less than the start-up budget.

   2. (The Equality Authority) is paying an annual rent of €402,000 for its premises on Harcourt Street. If I remember correctly it spends a further €30,000 or €40,000 on parking, according to the Minister.

 

      The rental for the Equality Authority in Clonmel Street is €402,500, including fifteen parking spaces in the basement. The premises was actually secured by the OPW and the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform for the Equality Authority.

      The Equality Authority is being required to leave the premises as it is to be occupied by the Office of the Minister for Children – no savings therefore for the tax payer.

   3. Funds are still being provided to those involved with the 2007 European Year of Equality. Savings in this regard could yield €320,000 according to the Minister.

      The Equality Authority ran an initiative during 2007 European Year of Equal Opportunties. An indication of its success is that the European Commission has made further funding available to the Equality Authority to implement further activities to build on the Year in Ireland. This legacy action plan will cost €382,400. €300,000 of this funding is being made available by the European Commission under its PROGRESS fund.  In order to benefit from this European money, the Equality Authority will have to spend €82,400.  It’s impossible to figure how €320,000 can be saved out of this.

 

   4. The Authority engaged in a costly and controversial once-off Anti-Ageism campaign. The campaign cost €230,000 according to the Minister.

      The Equality Authority has run a ‘Say No to Ageism’ Week for the last 5 years jointly with the HSE and the National Council on Ageing and Older People. Each partner contributes to funding the week. The week cost €255,454 in 2008. The Equality Authority paid €105,454 as its contribution. 

Integration Won’t Save Money


The recommendation that the Irish Human Rights Commission and the Equality Authority are to integrate their facilities, back office and administrative services cannot work.  More importantly it will not make the services more accessible for users, one of the criteria for public service rationalisation, according to Martin Mansergh T.D., Minister of State at the Department of Finance.

One agency will remain in Dublin.  The other is being fast-tracked to Roscrea.  Bi-location, staff changes, redeployment and a new IT system at least will outstrip any value for money envisaged.  What makes it even worse value for money is that experienced Equality Authority staff will not be moving to Roscrea.  Instead, positions will be taken up by new staff.  The old staff will be redeployed within another area of public service, without any real saving to the tax-payer. 

With regard to the Irish Human Rights Commission, while the budget recommended a cut of 24%, the reality is that it is closer to 40% because the Commission has not received funding for posts sanctioned by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform.  The posts were filled in 2008 but the Department has not provided additional funding.  This may be partly off-set by the additional €250,000 granted by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, as announced on November 29th.

The Real Agenda


Equality & Rights Alliance believes that the budget actions have more to do with culling the agencies than saving money.  It questions whether there is a connection between the Government action and the casefiles supported by The Equality Authority, for example. 

In 2007, 69% of casefiles taken under the Equal Status Act involved public sector bodies.  In 2006, the figure was 60% and in 2005, it was 54%.  Under the Employment Equality Acts, 49% of  2007 casefiles and 42% of 2006 and 2005 casefiles were against public sector organizations.  These figures are taken from the Equality Authority’s Annual Reports.

Good to Review


Equality & Rights Alliance welcomes the move towards public service review with the establishment of the Special Group on Public Service Numbers and Expenditure Programmes announced on November 26, 2008.

The cut in the Equality Authority’s budget was actually announced in advance of a Value for Money Review being carried out by Deloitte Consulting, on the behest of the Department of Justice, Equality & Law Reform.  Member groups of Equality & Rights Alliance had been asked to participate in this review.

The OECD report which kick-started the current zeal to reform public service, concluded that, comparatively speaking, Irish public service is good value for money with less employees that public service in other western European countries.  It does “more with less.”  Before that, a 2003 European Central Bank study scored the Irish public service above average on performance and slightly above average on efficiency.

Transparency necessary


The Government has indicated that one of the principles informing decisions regarding rationalisation of agencies is that decision makers will be cognizant of the relationship between citizens and the State.  This is to ensure greater transparency and a citizen friendly system of government (Martin Mansergh TD).

To ensure transparency, therefore, Equality & Rights Alliance recommends that the two agencies are assessed by the Special Group and that budget recommendations are reversed until the group makes its findings known.

Weakening of international obligations


The Irish Human Rights Commission was established because the British and Irish Governments promised under the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement to set up two such Human Rights Commissions – one in Northern Ireland and one in this jurisdiction.  It is therefore a key part of the peace agreement and has an ongoing relevance in both parts of the island.

Rowing back on Good Friday Agreement


Both the Human Rights Commission and the Equality Authority are vital planks in the pledge given by Ireland as part of the Good Friday Agreement to “ensure at least an equivalent level of protection of human rights as will pertain in Northern Ireland”.  The proposed cuts are so disproportionate that they cannot be interpreted as anything other than a rowing back from that commitment.  

A la carte approach to Europe


European law also requires Ireland to keep a public agency in place for the purpose of assisting victims of discrimination.  Across Europe, the Equality Authority is regarded as an outstanding example of an effective, independent and successful anti-discrimination agency. Despite serious funding constraints, the IHRC has also made a significant impact and is highly regarded.  

If the budget actions go ahead, Equality & Rights Alliance believes that Ireland is in danger of breaching EU standards, including the EU Race and Equality Directive.

It is ironic that the Government advocated a yes vote to Lisbon, and will press for a yes to whatever shape Lisbon 2 takes, while at the same time turning its back on the fundamental equality and rights directives and legislation laid down by Europe.

Breaching international standards


At an international level, the United National Paris Principles are unequivocal in relation to the standards they set for the funding and independence of national human rights institutions.  

“The national institution shall have an infrastructure which is suited to the smooth conduct of its activities, in particular adequate funding. The purpose of this funding should be to enable it to have its own staff and premises, in order to be independent of the government and not be subject to financial control which might affect this independence.”1 

Furthermore, the Paris Principles are included in the preamble to the draft EU anti-discrimination directive, underpinning their relevance to the Equality Authority.

The budget actions fly in the face of the Paris Principles.

Finally, the UN Human Rights Committee, in its concluding observations on Ireland’s compliance with the ICCPR, expressed concern at the administrative link between the IHRC and a Government department and recommended that it should be accountable to the Oireachtas.  Equality & Rights Alliance endorses this recommendation.

International Concern


The Government’s actions have attracted international interest, for all the wrong reasons. 

“Human rights are not a luxury for the good times.  It would be very sad if plans to merge the Irish Human Rights Commission, the Equality Authority and several other institutions were implemented as a cost-cutting measure.  These institutions have proven their worth.”
Irene Khan, Secretary General Amnesty International

“There should be no erosion of the powers of these bodies. … Human rights belong to the people and are to hold those in power to account.”
Former President Mary Robinson.

“If it ain’t broken, don’t mend it, and it ain’t broken…. If unemployment is coming, you can see a rise in xenophobia.  When it comes to human rights institutions, belt-tightening is not always the best way of dealing with these issues.”
Thomas Hammerberg

“Both the Human Rights Commission and the Equality Authority are vital planks in the pledge given by Ireland as part of the Good Friday Agreement …  The proposed cuts are so disproportionate that they cannot be interpreted as anything other than a rowing back from that commitment.  They not only send a message to the Irish people that their rights are not important, but they run the risk of undermining government support for the counterpart institutions in Northern Ireland.”
Jane Winter, Director, British Irish Rights Watch

“It was with dismay that we read of the budgetary pressure being applied to the Irish Human Rights Commission and the Equality Authority …Moves to undermine emanations of the [Good Friday] Agreement in the Republic of Ireland will therefore significantly undercut and weaken the position of the Irish government in seeking to apply pressure for the implementation of the Agreement – and in particular human rights and equality terms – in Northern Ireland.”
Mike Ritche, Director, Committee on the Administration of Justice

Equality and rights matter to real people


Discrimination has not gone away.  The Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) found that 12.5% of the Irish population 18 years and over said that they had been discriminated against in a two year period.  This amounts to 381,600 people.  Only 6% of those took cases or made a complaint.  This unmet need underlines the case for sustaining a specific institutional focus on equality, diversity and human rights.  

These are the type of people who want to see that equality, diversity and human rights are protected.


Peter Moore, a man with cerebral palsy and a wheelchair user:

“… the Minister said in the Dáil that he would not finance organisations to produce fancy brochures.  In August this year Phyllis Fahey was awarded €2000 by the Equality Authority following Ulster Bank’s refusal to give her a car loan on the grounds that she was too old.  I don’t think even I would have known what to do if I was refused a bank loan because of my disability.  This indicates that the Minister is wrong and there is a need for these bodies to further publicize themselves so that more people could … learn that the law is not exclusive to the rich and powerful.”

Phyllis Fahey, 74 year old who was supported by the Equality Authority when she was refused a car loan on the basis that she was too old:

“I see discrimination against older people every day of the week.  This is happening in every walk of life and I would say to people, 'Don't be afraid. Take them on'. The lack of humanity towards older people, particularly people in care, is appalling."

Des Murphy, legally blind, was supported by the Equality Authority in his claim of discrimination on disability grounds against Dublin City Council:

“People with disabilities have rights but they must be prepared to fight for their rights when they are discriminated against.”

Shari McDaid, former Equality Studies student and activist:

“When you consider all the people in Ireland who are either young or old, gay or straight, Irish or foreign, married, single, widowed or divorced, parent or carer, Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Hindu, or Jewish, male or female, it seems that very few people are left in Ireland who might not need the help of either The Equality Authority or the Irish Human Rights Commission at some point in their lives.  Pity the public representative who goes knocking at their doors for assistance – will anyone be left to answer?”

Not going away


Equality & Rights Alliance formed to oppose the merger of five equality and human rights bodies.  This did not transpire.  The cuts to The Equality Authority and the Irish Human Rights Commission were just as damaging, however.

The coalition has continued to grow and is now up to 71 member groups (list attached).  Far from demoralizing civil society, the government’s actions have galvanised support and resolve to ensure that equality and human rights are cornerstones of Irish society.  Already Equality & Rights Alliance members are planning to make this an issue at the doorsteps in the run-up to the local and European elections in 2009.

However, civil society cannot provide the expert support, advice and promotion provided by The Equality Authority and the Irish Human Rights Commission.

People are coming to member groups of Equality & Rights daily to say they are fearful of how, in the future, their rights will be protected. Without adequate state resourced institutions, it is inevitable that member groups will have unrealistic expectations of what they can achieve for people whose rights are potentially being violated.

The Human Rights Commission was set up by the Good Friday Agreement and there is a requirement for parity of esteem in the protection of rights in both jurisdictions in Ireland. The Equality Authority has shown itself to be effective in assisting people to vindicate their rights and it appears that its reward for that is to have its viability undermined. These are serious times for equality and human rights protection in Ireland.

ERA postal address: C/O OPEN, 7 Red Cow Lane, Dublin 7 Email: rachel@eracampaign.org copyright: equality and rights alliance 2009; this site uses inContextCMS