Dáil Éireann - Volume 466 - 11 June, 1996

Written Answers. - Equality Measures.

17. Mr. Callely asked the Minister for Equality and Law Reform what measures, if any, he intends to implement in cases where issues of [1543] inequality exist; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [11929/96]

25. Mr. D. Wallace asked the Minister for Equality and Law Reform the most important steps he has taken to further the cause of equality in Irish society; and the future plans, if any, he has in this regard. [12070/96]

Minister for Equality and Law Reform (Mr. Taylor): I propose to take Questions Nos. 17 and 25 together.

My Department is engaged in a broad-ranging programme of work to further the cause of equality in Irish society.

I hope to publish the Equal Status Bill in the latter half of the year. This Bill will deal with discrimination in non-employment areas on grounds of gender, marital status, family status, sexual orientation, religion, age, disability, race, colour, nationality or ethnic origin and membership of the travelling community.

Work has commenced on the compilation of a report on implementation of the Platform for Action agreed at the UN Fourth World Conference on Women. I hope to publish this report in the course of the year.

I monitor progress towards gender balance on State boards on which much has already been achieved. My objective is to see the fullest implementation of this policy.

The Committee on the Implementation of the Recommendations of the Second Commission on the Status of Women is chaired and serviced by my Department. In its latest report, published in March, the committee noted that approximately 80 per cent of the recommendations had been implemented or were in the process of being implemented.

In the field of employment equality I am currently preparing legislation to strengthen existing protection against discrimination in employment on [1544] grounds of sex. This proposed legislation, however, will also extend protection to cover discrimination on the other grounds to which the Equal Status Bill will apply.

I have also pursued series of legislative measures supporting the reconciliation of work and family commitments. The Maternity Protection Act, 1994 and the Adoptive Leave Act, 1995, are already on the Statute Book and consultations have commenced about preparing parental leave legislation following the adoption of an EU Directive by the Social Affairs Council on this subject earlier this month.

The Employment Equality Agency, which works under the aegis of my Department, is already involved in addressing cases where issues of inequality exist in the context of sex discrimination in employment. The agency assists persons in taking discrimination cases before an equality officer or the Labour Court.

The agency also provides information and advice to workers and employers on equal opportunities measures generally with a view to supporting efforts to eliminate inequalities in employment based on sex.

Pursuant to a commitment in the Programme for a Partnership Government 1993-97, I established the Task Force on the Travelling Community in July 1993, which published its report on 20 July 1995. The report made recommendations covering a wide range of activity but principally related to the Departments of the Environment, Health, Education and my own Department.

In accordance with the terms of a Government decision I established an interdepartmental working group under the chairmanship of my Department to consider the implementation of the report of the Task Force on the Travelling Community. The report of that interdepartmental working group was considered by Government on 26 March 1996 and a range of actions decided on.

I understand that the relevant Departments are preparing action plans and priorities for the implementation of [1545] the recommendations of the report. The Minister of State with responsibility for housing and urban renewal has established a special unit in the Department of the Environment to implement its national traveller accommodation strategy.

While it is a matter for each Minister to evaluate progress on implementing the recommendations of the task force in the area for which he or she is responsible, I will continue to maintain an active interest in how the implementation process develops.

I established the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities to examine the disability area and to advise the Government on the practical measures necessary to ensure that people with a disability can exercise their rights to participate, to the fullest extent of their potential, in economic, social and cultural life. The commission is due to present its report to me shortly. The Government is determined, in line with the recommendations of the commission, to put in place mechanisms for full and equal participation by every citizen with a disability in every aspect of economic and social life.

Work is also progressing towards the establishment of a Council for the Status of People with Disabilities. The council will act on behalf of the various interests involved in promoting the welfare of people with a disability.

I was conscious of the need to improve access to justice and, accordingly, when I was given responsibility for the Legal Aid Board and the Family Mediation Service I was determined to do all possible, within budgetary constraints, to expand and develop these services and to put them on a permanent footing.

To this end, in consultation with the Legal Aid Board and with approval of Government. I initiated a development plan for the board in 1993. I secured increases in the Exchequer's grant-in-aid to the board from £2.718 million in 1992 to £3.206 million in 1993, £4.972 million in 1994, £6.2 million in 1995, and £6.5 million in 1996. This enabled the [1546] board to engage additional staff and to increase the number of law centres. Numbers of staff serving with the board have increased from 99 to 225 in the period from 1993 to date and the number of full time law centres have increased from 16 in 1993 to the present figure of 26. A 27th, at Navan, will be opening soon and a further three are expected to come on stream before the year's end. Also, I embarked on a review of the means test limits in the scheme and the various allowances which are deducted from gross income to arrive at a figure for disposable income as these had remained unchanged since January 1991. As a result of the review I had the income eligibility levels significantly increased with effect from 1 August 1995, thereby making the services of the Legal Aid Board available to many people who otherwise would be ineligible. The impact of the additional resources on the Legal Aid Board is significant. Waiting times for legal aid applicants have been greatly reduced, as have the distance an applicant must travel to avail of the board's services. The board now has at least one law centre, either full-time or part-time, in each county.

Over the years much interest has been expressed in having a statutory scheme of civil legal aid and advice introduced. In this respect I am glad to say that the Civil Legal Aid Act, 1995, which provides a statutory framework for the scheme of civil legal aid and advice was passed on 16 December 1995. The regulations necessary to give effect to that Act are in the course of being formally drafted.

A provision of £300,000 has also been made for the development and expansion of the Family Mediation Service in 1996, which is more than double the 1993 provision. This has facilitated the opening of a second family mediation centre at Limerick, and the engagement of additional staff for the service. Deputies may have noticed the advertisements in the media during the past week seeking persons to fill senior positions with the Family Mediation Service. [1547] Two of these are newly created posts which are critical to the further expansion and development of the service.

18. Mr. Clohessy asked the Minister for Equality and Law Reform the plans, if any, his Department has to assist the European Commission in implementing the EU Equality Fourth Action Programme in Ireland; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12006/96]

Minister for Equality and Law Reform (Mr. Taylor): The Fourth Medium-term Community Action Programme on Equal Opportunities for Women and Men (1996-2000) was adopted by the EU Council of Social Affairs last December, the first occasion that a programme of this nature has Council decision status. My Department was fully supportive of the programme in discussions at official level preparatory to the Social Affairs Council meeting.

The decision of the Council of Ministers also established a management committee to oversee the operation of the Fourth Programme. Ireland is represented on the committee by an officer of my Department.

A central theme of the Fourth Programme is to promote the integration of equal opportunities for women and men into all aspects of economic and social life. This process is also known as mainstreaming equal opportunities and a conference on mainstreaming will be held in Dublin Castle in October 1996, during Ireland's Presidency of the European Union. The conference, which is being co-funded by my Department and the European Union, is intended to develop frameworks for mainstreaming equal opportunities and the European Commission is availing of the occasion of the conference to formally launch the Fourth Programme throughout the Union.

The Fourth Programme also aims to progress equal opportunities for women [1548] and men through mobilising all the participants involved, promoting the reconciliation of family and working life and promoting a gender balance in decision making.

In order to maximise awareness of the programme, my Department has recently conducted a publicity campaign through the national media and has developed an information pack targeted at appropriate organisations, including the social partners, NGOs, local authorities, women's organisations and community groups. The campaign was devised with a view to encouraging Irish organisations to participate in the programme through co-funded projects in the relevant policy areas on which the programme focuses.