Thursday, 13 April 2000
Seanad Eireann Debate
Acting Chairman: I remind Members that a Senator may speak only once on Report Stage except the proposer of an amendment who may reply to the discussion on the amendment. Each amendment must be seconded.
“(b)on any such grounds, an organisation consisting wholly or mainly of persons in respect of which the grounds apply or having as its object the furtherance of the interests of such persons is treated less favourably than an organisation consisting wholly or mainly of persons in respect of whom the grounds do not apply, is treated, has been treated or would be treated,”.
I tabled a similar amendment on Committee Stage and my concern grew during the discussion. Initially I stated that this section was included in the 1997 legislation. The Minister of State claimed that having engendered a degree of exceptional caution in the Department regarding this legislation, the Supreme Court judgment has had the effect of convincing the Department that this section should be deleted.
However, the effect of such a measure would be to water down the Bill because it would mean that a group could not take an action as a group per se. We explored this issue in the context of, for example, the Traveller community being prevented from renting an hotel room for a meeting. I asked if the group could take a complaint to the Director of Equality Investigations but the Minister of State said that the secretary of the group who had tried to make the booking could do so on an individual basis, or that each member of the group could take an individual action. This seems farcical and wrong and is against the spirit of the legislation.
This Bill arises from the need for and the desire of the Oireachtas to correct injustices. Using the example of Travellers, the need for the legislation has arisen out of discrimination suffered by that group and others and many such instances have been discussed during debate on the Bill. In many cases people suffer discrimination by virtue of being a member of the group which is being discriminated against.
Since this legislation was first mooted two other groups have emerged as suffering discrimi nation, namely refugees and asylum seekers. It is important that the Bill encompasses all eventualities as far as is possible and that it reflects the Oireachtas's intention and the spirit of the principles and policy underlying such legislation which received the support of all political parties in both Houses since it was first published in the early 1990s.
This amendment is critical to the spirit of the legislation. The Bill will be undermined if a member of a group being discriminated against can take an action only as an individual and not as a member of a group, or if a group per se cannot take an action. I am not satisfied with the assurances given to me and that is why I am proposing this amendment. The Minister of State should see beyond the fog of caution which has descended on the Department arising from the Supreme Court judgment. She should put aside the fear the judgment has engendered in the Department, recognise the need for this amendment and accept that its rejection will water down the Bill and reduce its effectiveness.
Mr. Connor: I second this amendment. There is little I can add. If, for example, a group of Travellers are refused service in a licensed premises, it is the group which is being refused and not an individual member. Romany people operate in the same kind of nomadic groups one finds among the Traveller community and the discrimination is often against the group. We are seeking to add clarity to the legislation. We pressed this issue on Committee Stage and we do so again on Report Stage.
Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Miss M. Wallace): Senator O'Meara expressed concern that a case could only be taken by an individual member of a group. However, the provisions are broader in that every member of the group can take a case at the same time. If there are 100 people in a group, 100 cases can be submitted and 100 people can receive compensation, if appropriate. I gave an example involving a residents' association taking a case to the District Court in which the chairman is the named individual taking the case. However, because legal fees are involved it is not open to other members of the group to take the cases so they operate in the chairman's name. This is different because we are not dealing with legal fees. There is no difficulty with 100 cases being submitted for the 100 members of the group. The 100 people will receive compensation if it is appropriate. Mary Smith does not have to be singled out as the person who has to fly the flag for the entire group. They can all fly the flag as individuals.
Ms O'Meara: I am disappointed the Minister is not taking my point on board. Often in such a  case a committee member is named to limit the potential liability of the group. I am trying to make the point that the right of a group to take an action should be enshrined in law. The Minister is right in that in practice 100 individual claims could be made, but the law should enshrine the principle that the group should be able to take an action. This Bill does not allow for that and is the less for it.
“(3)References in subsection (2) to the disposal of an estate or interest in premises or the provision of accommodation or of any services or amenities relating to accommodation include references to the termination of any tenancy or other interest in those premises or ceasing to provide such accommodation, services or amenities.”.
Mr. J. Cregan: I thank the Minister for her time and thank my colleagues on the opposite side of the House for the time and effort they have put into tabling amendments. I am delighted that the Minister was able to accept some of the amendments and that all their hard work was not in vain.
Ms O'Meara: The Minister has stated her anxiety to get this legislation onto the Statute Book but I reiterate what Senator Cregan has said, that it is important to table amendments and to examine legislation, particularly legislation which is so important, to ensure it meets the spirit of the intentions behind it. I acknowledge the hard work of the Minister and her officials in putting this and its twin sister, the Employment Equality Act, through the Oireachtas. I look forward to seeing the Bill implemented and the changes it will bring about. I look forward to its powers being used by the Director of Equality Investigations. I particularly look forward to people who have been discriminated against using it to have their rights restored.
Mr. Connor: I welcome the passage of the Bill. It is very important legislation which establishes basic human rights. Along with its sister legislation, the Employment Equality Act, it addresses many instances which are often not recognised as discrimination. I thank the Minister for her co-operation. Both Second and Committee Stage debates were very productive. I read the proceedings in the other House and we in this House gave it a better run and dealt with more amendments. The Minister was always understanding of our arguments and I thank her for that. We won many of the arguments but were unable to win the votes.
Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Miss M. Wallace): I thank Senators for their co-operation, their support in improving the Bill and the hard work they put into it. This is the twin of the Employment Equality Act, 1999, and it will be a great day when this is signed into law. Behind me sit the hard working staff, one of whom has worked on this Bill for seven years. After such a long time working on it, we hope she can move on to more wonderful things. I thank all of the staff who have worked on this legislation over the years. It will now return to the Dáil so the amendments can be finalised and, hopefully, it will be passed before Easter.
I thank Senators and staff for their assistance in this. I also join Senators in thanking the Equality Authority and the Director of Equality Investigations's office, which were established in October, which use the Employment Equality Act and await the equal status legislation. It is a wonderful day for the people covered in the nine grounds in the Bill.
Mr. Cassidy: I am grateful to the Opposition parties, my own party, the Cathaoirleach and Leas-Chathaoirleach for their co-operation in the passage of this Bill. I also thank the Minister for being so accommodating with amendments. It is great to see so many of our colleagues who have  served in the Seanad now participating in Government, especially those who are so young. There is a great future for Deputy Mary Wallace, who has been a distinguished Member of both Houses. I wish her well in the remaining two years of her ministry and look forward to her  coming to the House many more times under the present Government.
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