Seanad Éireann - Volume 138 - 09 December, 1993

Interpretation (Amendment) Bill, 1993: Second and Subsequent Stages.

Question proposed: “That the Bill be now read a Second Time.”

Minister for Equality and Law Reform (Mr. Taylor): The purpose of this Bill is to facilitate the drafting of legislation and [1284] statutory instruments in the feminine gender.

Senators will be aware that the Interpretation Act, 1937, defines the meaning and construction of words and expressions used in legislation. Section 11 (b) of that Act provides that, in the interpretation of legislation generally, every word importing the masculine gender shall, unless the contrary intention appears, be construed as if it imported also the feminine gender. The converse of this rule, however, does not apply.

The practice has therefore been that legislation is drafted in the masculine gender, unless it relates exclusively to women, as is the case with the Maternity (Protection of Employees) Act, 1981. However, legislation which affects both women and men is drafted in the masculine gender even if it primarily relates to women, as is the case with the Employment Equality Act, 1977.

There have been many calls for an amendment to the 1937 Act. The Act has been criticised by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Women's Rights and has been the subject of Private Members' Bills in the past. The Second Commission on the Status of Women criticised the present position as sexist and one that could “contribute to stereotyped and limiting images of the respective roles of women and men”. The Commission recommended that the Interpretation Act be amended to enable the adoption of the feminine gender in legislative measures clearly and primarily addressed to women.

I believe these criticisms are well-founded. There is general awareness nowadays of the importance of terminology in shaping perceptions of particular groups. It is no longer acceptable to use language which is sexist or which reinforces sexual stereotypes. I believe the State should give a lead in addressing this issue.

I stress I am bringing forward this legislation not for ideological reasons but for sound practical ones. This is not a matter of being “politically correct”. The predominance of the masculine gender in [1285] legislation can, as the Commission on the Status of Women pointed out, contribute to stereotyped and limiting images of the respective roles of women and men. It is sexist and demeaning that legislation which will primarily, but not exclusively, affect women cannot be couched in the feminine gender. There is a clear imbalance in the present position and the Bill is designed to redress this imbalance.

Section 1 of the Bill provides that, in the interpretation of legislation generally, every word importing the feminine gender shall, unless the contrary intention appears, be construed as if it also imported the masculine gender. This is, of course, the converse of the existing provision in section 11 (b) of the 1937 Act. It will mean that use of the feminine gender in Bills and statutory instruments will no longer be confined to measures directed exclusively to women. This provision will apply to Acts passed on or after the date of enactment of the present Bill and to statutory instruments made under such Acts.

Section 2 of the Bill is a standard technical provision which provides for short title, construction and collective citation.

To complement the provisions of the Bill, the Government has decided that, in general, Bills and statutory instruments should be drafted in gender-neutral language as far as possible. In other words, legislation will be framed as far as is possible in terms which can apply to either gender rather than in terms which are specifically masculine or feminine.

This is a short Bill but it represents a fundamental change to the Interpretation Act. Its importance should not be underestimated. I commend the Bill to the House.

Mr. Neville: I welcome the Bill. It is a simple but important proposal. It updates, after 57 years, the Interpretation Act by giving the interpretation of legislation in the female gender the same status as the interpretation of legislation in the masculine gender. Section 11 (b) of the Interpretation Act provides that every word importing the masculine gender shall, unless the contrary intention [1286] appears, be construed as if it imported the feminine gender. This Bill gives the feminine gender the same status as the male one. Heretofore, legislation expressed society's view in general that males had a higher recognition and status.

This Bill is symbolic of a growing change in attitude to women in general and is welcome. Much has been spoken and written about women's rights and equality of the sexes over the past two or three decades. A great deal has been achieved but too many areas remain to be dealt with. Equality between the sexes in many areas is more apparent than real. I wish to mention a few of them and invite the Minister to comment on them.

The lack of support for child care facilities seriously limits women's potential to play an equal part with men in society. There can be no equality of opportunity in the workplace without a supportive system of child care. The key indication of the Government's commitment to this area is the amount of money it provides for greater and more accessible child care facilities. The report of the Commission on the Status of Women identifies, as a first priority in this area, the establishment of an annual child care budget to invest in the development of child care facilities. The commission has suggested a budget of £20 million and special tax allowances for investment in child care and that the Government should make a case for EU Structural Funds for child care facilities. I ask the Minister to comment on the Government's approach to this and to say if there are plans to provide moneys for the establishment of such facilities.

If the Government is serious about women's rights, it should extend equality legislation to the Defence Forces. There is no valid reason for excluding the Defence Forces from such legislation. The Minister can implement this extension by the making of an order. This would indicate the Government's real commitment to equality in a key area under its control.

I am highlighting these two areas as an example of where the Government has [1287] an opportunity to show real commitment to equality of the sexes. I also ask the Minister to indicate when the Equal Status Bill, as recommended by the Second Commission on the Status of Women, will be published. What plans has the Government to establish an independent equality commission on a semi-State basis?

In discussing equality, we must recognise and give due status to work done by women in the home. Despite the vital role they play in society, they have never been given the recognition they deserve. What plans, if any, has the Government to direct social welfare payments and allowances for dependent children to spouses in the home? This would give some recognition to such women. The Minister might also give us information on the Government's view on the reform of the PRSI system to allow women in the home optical, dental and other such benefits. Tackling these issues would be much more tangible to the lives of women than this Bill, worthy though it is.

Education has a vital role to play in the attitude of future generations to equality and women. It is important girls have the same access to subject choices as boys. There has been discrimination in this area in the past. There have been some improvements but many remain to be introduced or accepted by schools and colleges. Until we have equality of educational choices, we cannot say women have full access to careers previously dominated by males.

Finally, I wish to raise an area which is of direct relevance to the Houses of the Oireachtas. The ushers in the Oireachtas are exclusively male. I congratulate them on the excellent job they do. They are our public relations officers in that they meet the public when they arrive at the Houses of the Oireachtas. They do a first class job and one cannot commend them highly enough. Surely the ushers, who are the window of the Oireachtas, should not be exclusively of one sex? I am surprised that there are no women ushers in the Oireachtas. Perhaps the Minister will [1288] give his views on this and address it in the future.

Ms Gallagher: It gives me enormous pleasure to welcome this short Bill to this House because of its significance. As the youngest elected Member of the Houses of the Oireachtas I am, therefore, the youngest woman in either House. It shows the changes and inroads which women have made in politics. I am optimistic for the future when I see myself in my first year aiding the passing of this legislation, which I welcome. Countess Markievicz was elected as the first Minister for Labour 75 years ago. This has too often been underestimated and written out of the history books. Next Tuesday a portrait of Countess Markievicz is to be unveiled in Leinster House.

We are making strides in the fight for equality but it is a fight. As a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Women's Rights, I am aware of the measures which are necessary to deal with even the most basic and fundamental recommendations in the report of the Commission on the Status of Women. Countless reforms are necessary. Many of these involve high costs but many do not cost anything but simply require policy changes. Why do we have housing estates with steps to pathways which are inaccessible to women with prams and shopping bags? We should be looking to simple policy matters where the Government should not miss an opportunity to rectify matters.

The language in our legislation has been sexist. Apart from that, language generally tends to be sexist. When reference is made in newspapers and on television and radio to people in the home the word “she” is automatically used. When reference is made to business, law and high finance the word “he” is generally used because it is a male dominated society in that sense. Those attitudes are ingrained in people. Even women take those attitudes to heart because we hear this language so often and have grown up listening to it. It is time to get rid of at least the overt and open discrimination in language.

[1289] The damage is often unknown but it is invidious. It ingrains attitudes in society where it is assumed that judges and bank managers are men. Why should this be assumed? Perhaps we are talking about history here. Perhaps we are not open to the fact that there are women in those positions nowadays. There are not enough of them but we are getting there. We must change the attitudes which result in these assumptions.

This legislation goes some way towards tackling that. However, it is still a man's world. We do not have separate social welfare payments for women dependants. Married women on the dole, of which there are many, are described as dependants. Their husbands receive the payment and they get nothing into their hands. That is a disgrace. In most cases the woman looks after the children but she is not recognised as an individual under the social welfare code.

We have umpteen areas in which legislation is urgently needed. When I came to this House I was aghast that I could not find the ladies' facilities. They are hidden and were obviously not planned for in the beginning. We still do not have a crèche in Leinster House. We have an enormous distance to go but at least this legislation gets rid of what I call the blatant and obvious discrimination. Women in politics need certain supports such as positive discrimination in certain ways, a political system which encourages women and financial support. However, I firmly believe that it is only when women are elected to these Houses that the necessary changes will happen.

This legislation deals with open discrimination. Women have come so far nowadays that one cannot always say “he” in legislation. At last, this has been taken on board and provision has been made to gender proof our legislation. We will no longer have to read “he” in reference to important people, it will now read “he or she”. It is a help but it is not enough.

It gets rid of the open and obvious discrimination, but the real problem is in the mind, and is more difficult to eradicate. I am talking about the ingrained [1290] attitudes of many people. I wonder if we have really changed anything. Men are more careful now about not being seen to discriminate but attitudes need a general shake up. We are now left with the hidden, carefully disguised discrimination which still exists in my profession, in politics and every other area of life.

That is much more difficult to tackle but I have faith in the Minister for Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Taylor, whom I know personally and who is totally dedicated to this. The creation of that Department was a major step on the road towards equality because at last we are not just talking to a blank wall, we have a Minister to approach on such issues. The legislation introduced so far goes a long way. One can now tick off many of the recommendations of the Commission on the Status of Women. We have made inroads but it is most important that we tackle attitudes. That is the most difficult task but we will keep at it. I welcome this legislation.

Mr. Norris: This important legislation is welcome. It is, in a way, a slight piece of legislation in that it is quite a short, clear Bill. It has a number of significances. The first I wish to draw to the attention of the House is the fact that it represents a clear signal from the Government on two levels. On one level the Government is obviously committed to equality and I would like to pay tribute to the splendid work of this Minister. However, the Government has also used it to indicate that it will not accept cooperative government, including contributions from the Independent benches.

I make again, with the Minister present, the point which I made on the Order of Business that this is a Bill which has been on the Order Paper or available for quite some time. It originated before I was elected to this House as a result of the work of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Women's Rights. There was some discussion with Nuala Fennell who, I think, had intended proposing precisely such legislation.

[1291] When I was elected to the House I was made a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Women's Rights. This was one of the areas which we looked at and it did, in fact, cause a certain amount of trouble. It is ludicrous to envisage situations where employment equality legislation has to be drafted in grammatical terms which completely eradicate the visible presence of half the human race because of their gender. It is completely absurd.

I had discussions with Nuala Fennell who by that stage was no longer a Member of the House. I took over sections of her Bill and we changed it slightly. It was printed and put on the Order Paper. For four years I asked various Governments to use this simple, uncontroversial legislation to give a signal that it was prepared to accept proposals for legislation from benches other than those of the Government. It is important that signal should be given at some stage. I remind the House that it is now 40 years since any legislation, even of a non-controversial nature, emerged from the Independent benches. The Minister is shaking his head but my information is that the last Bill to emerge from the Independent benches in the Seanad——

Mr. Taylor: My apologies.

Mr. Norris: ——was the late Professor B.W. Stanford's Bill on humane treatment of animals in abattoirs. I acknowledge that the Government has accepted and sent to Committee Bills from, for example, Deputy Shatter and that is most welcome. It is a pity, however, that it could not be done in the Seanad because we are a debating Chamber, a revising Chamber and a Chamber where social improvements can be made.

It has been noticeable in the past session that not only have Bills not been introduced here but legislation which has been proposed in this House and put on the Order Paper has been snatched from us and taken to the Lower House. [1292] Senator Neville is in an excellent position to speak about this. I am making a strong plea to the Government to find some opportunity to signal that the intellectual energy of this House can be appreciated, harnessed and channelled so non-controversial items can be put on the Order Paper to allow us on this side of the House, whether we see ourselves as Opposition or merely Independents, to contribute to debate.

The Bill is welcome and I accept what Senator Neville and my other colleagues have said about the wider aspects, particularly the question of including the Defence Forces in equality legislation. I am sure the Minister will examine this issue particularly since the Government was so successful in a difficult and sensitive area, the decriminalisation of homosexual behaviour which was extended to the armed forces in a manner which President Clinton found quite impossible. There should not be too much difficulty with the inclusion of the Defence Forces in all equality legislation.

The idea that the male includes the female must be one of the most insulting, patronising and demeaning notions even if it is only at the level of grammatical construction. It gives a clear indication of the position of women who were traditionally regarded as inferior and less important. Generally speaking it was much better if they were invisible or in the kitchen which is more or less the same thing.

Mr. Neville: It is not the same thing.

Mr. Norris: I do not have to mention the same old phrase we all know from textbooks, “Tá Daidí ag obair agus tá Mamaí sa chistin”. I do not know what she was doing in the kitchen if she was not ag obair. When the Government gets around to giving wages for housework, not just to ensure equality but in full recognition of the dignity of each individual, as a house person who does all my own housework, I will certainly be claiming some supplementary income.

The grammatical form in which legislation previously had to be framed indicates [1293] that women were regarded as an emasculated form of the male which was not fully complete but rather an imperfect version of humanity which was seen as secondary. I have to say the Church has a large measure of responsibility in this.

Senator Neville is looking for female ushers and I will not make a cheap crack and use the word “usherettes” because that would be clearly sexist language. If we are going to have ushers who are women and who would do an excellent job, why can we not have equal employment in the Church? We could have women priests or a woman pope which would be a huge advance.

Mr. Neville: The Minister may not have control over that.

Mr. Norris: Some day he might — one never knows. These matters which appear to be simple grammatical effects actually reflect deep seated prejudices in our society. It is a good day's work to eradicate this and is long overdue.

Although I welcome the Bill I regret that it was not possible for the Government to be generous on this occasion. As the Minister indicated by his body language, the Government took legislation from the Opposition in the Dáil. I hope the Minister will carry the message back to Government as there will be other Bills which will have all party support. Perhaps we could get away from the dog in the manger attitude which prevents legislation emerging from this side of the House. The point is not quite as important as the removal of sexism but it would be a healthy development in our political life.

Miss Ormonde: I welcome the Minister to the Chamber and I am delighted that he has introduced this legislation. I know the Minister well and have worked with him at county council level. I am not surprised that he is so up front because any time I had dealings with him he treated me as a person, not as a woman.

This legislation is overdue and I am delighted to see it being introduced when [1294] I am trying to make strides as a person in politics. I do not speak as a woman in politics and neither should people speak as men in politics. We should speak as educated people doing a job.

It is all about attitudes and while I welcome this legislation there are some hidden agendas which stem from our education system and from parents who still believe in maintaining the traditional concepts of men, boys and girls. There is nothing wrong with that but we tend to rear children with separate agendas for boys and girls when it comes to the workforce.

Every year I interview students of 18 years of age for post leaving certificate courses. I ask the young ladies to tell me something about their background, what they would like to do in life, how they would see themselves in the future and whether or not their mothers are working. Immediately they reply that she is not and when I ask what it is she does they say that she is at home. This is a good example of how people think. If a woman is not doing something outside the home, she is merely a housewife.

This is a sad reflection on our education system and we must start confronting this problem. As an educator I try to introduce it in social and personal programmes by urging students to think of themselves as people, recognise their own strengths as a person and yet delight in being a boy or a girl. This legislation is important but could remain in the background. If I was not here today I might not know about the introduction of this legislation.

I am delighted to be able to return to my school and tell the staff that legislation has come on stream which deals with equality of opportunity and equal chance for all young people whether they are male or female. I dread the use of the two words, male and female. They are necessary and it is nice to be a woman or a man but we should live our lives as people. I broke through in a Seanad campaign which was very male oriented. There were 14 men on the panel on which I sought election and to be elected against those odds was a clear indication of a [1295] change in politics. We have seen it here in that female Senators have been prominent in discussing these issues.

We can discuss equality in the context of our education system and the number of teachers and school principals. I do not know why we do not have more lady principals. Maybe it is an example of discrimination. One term I cannot stand is “ban gharda”. Do we use the term “fear garda”?

Mr. Neville: That has been abolished.

Miss Ormonde: It has been abolished and it was well overdue. However, it was in existence for so long that people still use it. I was talking to a person yesterday who used it. It is still necessary to change attitudes. Ideas have not filtered through society. Any legislation which is enacted must be communicated to the public and our attitudes in implementing it must change. It must filter through all walks of life, otherwise, the legislation will exist but we will not know anything about how it works in society. It is nice to see this welcome legislation coming on stream. It tells us that we are now a nation which respects equality of opportunity in theory. We must start with theory. I hope there will be more such legislation in the future.

The key provision in this Bill is that legislation from now on is to be drafted in gender neutral language. We will get away from the concepts of male and female and legislation will reflect people as they are. Whatever walk of life we are in, we are there as people and that is the way it should be.

Ms Honan: I, too, congratulate the Minister and welcome this legislation. As other Senators have said, there are still many issues outstanding, but we must give him credit where credit is due. This section in the 1937 Act was criticised by the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Women's Rights. Senator Norris, who referred to that point, brought Private Member's Bills into this House dealing with this issue. The Second Commission [1296] on the Status of Women, of which I was a member, made a strong recommendation in this regard when it asked that the Interpretation Act be redrafted to enable the adoption of the feminine gender in legislation clearly and primarily addressed to women.

I welcome the statement in the Minister's speech to the effect that he is ending discriminatory and unnecessary gender specific language in Bills, Acts and Instruments of the Oireachtas. The Commission on the Status of Women recommended that “she/he” and “chairperson” should be used in all Bills, Acts and Instruments. I would like to see that happening. Language is very important and has a huge influence on our experience of life. Children can be very conditioned by the language they habitually hear. We take it for granted that great strides are being made but Countess Markievicz was a Minister long ago and it took until 1993 to break the one woman barrier in Cabinet. It shows how slow progress has been. Many of the requests or recommendations of the Commission on the Status of Women are still outstanding and still perceived by women to be very important.

It is because there are so few women in positions of power, both in the Oireachtas and outside, that things change at such a slow pace. The aggressive and demanding voices in this country, those which are listened to, are the voices of men. Senator Neville has said that childcare is the single most important issue that prevents women from taking their full place in Irish life. This very important issue must be addressed by the Minister. I know tackling this issue has a cost, as does the issue of carers. In 1990 some 66,000 people were cared for in their own homes and over 80 per cent of the carers were women. Women are not selfish or demanding of things for themselves. When decisions about these issues are being made, whether in the Oireachtas or outside in the world of business, people always ask where the money will come from, but we can find money for other things. We must reassess our values and decide what is important.

[1297] Much of the contribution of women over the years has been very important and has gone unrewarded because women are not demanding. They are not selfish enough and do not demand things for themselves. It is up to us here to realise this and demand for women the things they want.

The Commission on the Status of Women recommended an Equal Status Act, to which Senator Neville referred. We are waiting for that. It also recommended the setting up of an equality commission which would incorporate the Employment Equality Agency, but the Minister should note that the level of staffing and funding to the Employment Equality Agency is very low. There is much to be done in this area. Those who have the money or power are not aware that there is such an agenda to be fulfilled. They do not realise the enormous amount of work to be done. I ask the Minister to increase staffing levels and funding for the Employment Equality Agency and to talk to us about his views on the equality commission.

I compliment the Minister for Enterprise and Employment, Deputy Quinn, who in setting up of the county enterprise boards asked them to strive to achieve 40 per cent representation by women. They were not too earnest in their striving because most of the boards sent back lists of names without a women among them. It is absolutely disgraceful. In fairness to the Minister — and I compliment him on this — he added two women to each of the county enterprise boards throughout the country. If I were Minister I would have sent back the list and told them that I was sorry, but since representation of women was not at 40 per cent, they would have to strive again. It is not acceptable in 1993 that they presume since they always got away with this they will get away with it this time.

I am a member of the county enterprise board in Laois. When we were discussing the position of chief executive, they all talked about “him”. It was automatically assumed that the chief executives of the county enterprise boards would be men. If you interrupt people and say “she” or [1298] “a woman” they turn around and look at you as if you are making a statement. We are making a statement. People continuously say “he” and nobody considers it to be important. That is the way it has always been and it will continue unless we are vigilant and constantly demand our rights in this respect.

I am not saying that we should not have men. We need a balance right through society, particularly where the decisions made will affect people's lives. That is why in dealing with the county enterprise boards, the Government should encourage women to get involved in enterprise and to use their talents and resources there. By talking about men, about “he” and by not having equal representation for women on these bodies, certain statements and perceptions are sent out to women. Women are being told that they have their place but that it is not at the centre of activity.

I wish to raise one other issue. We have an office in this country, the Ombudsman, which was established in the recent past. The word “ombudsman” came from Norway. My difficulty is that by 1990 the normal term for the ombudsman in Norway was “ombud”. We could do something about this here. The office of the Ombudsman was set up by the Government. By the very term “man” the message is automatically given that there is a presumption that the holder of that office is a man and must be a man. I ask the Minister if he would take appropriate action to change the name of the Ombudsman to “Ombud”. He would be giving a signal out that the holder of the office can be man or woman. These things are important, and not for the sake of being politically correct. It must be done to condition people to the idea that both men and women can participate equally in all aspects of life. We who are seen to be in positions of power must recognise this.

I compliment the Minister and wish him well. He has a lot to do. He has already brought the Matrimonial Home Bill to us which we welcome. I urge him to continue in this work and to look at [1299] the issue of community of property which he said should now be aimed at.

Minister for Equality and Law Reform (Mr. Taylor): I thank all the Senators for their constructive contributions on the Bill. The question of whether legislation is drafted in the feminine or masculine gender may appear trivial to some. I am convinced however that the present dominance of the masculine gender in our legislation is distorted and offensive to women. It is sexist and reinforces stereotype views of roles of women. It is simply not acceptable that legislation primarily directed at women should be framed in the masculine gender. Criticisms of the present position have come not only from the Second Commission on the Status of Women, but from many other quarters also. The Minister of State, Deputy O'Rourke, made strong comments on this topic in this House last May and many Deputies in the other House have also raised it. There were strong comments made on this topic by the Minister of State, Deputy O'Rourke, in this House last May and many Deputies in the other House have also raised it.

The approval with which the measure is being greeted is welcome and is evidenced by the fact that Senators have commented on other substantive equality issues, not all of them in my area of responsibility. I agree with Senator Neville's remarks about child care, and he can take it that this is a matter which is receiving my active attention at present. Appropriate proposals for funding child care will be put forward for assistance from the Structural Funds. The equal status legislation to which Senator Neville also referred is being advanced as speedily as possible and I hope it will come before the Oireachtas early next year.

With regard to Senator Norris's point, I cannot take responsibility for what a Government may or may not have done four years ago but I would have no problem in looking at any Private Members' Bill which originated in the Seanad in my [1300] area of responsibility and I am sure that other members of the Government would feel likewise. The Government has shown that it is prepared to be open minded by accepting the landlord and tenant Bill proposed by Deputy Shatter in the Dáil. I know of no reason that there would be any inequality in that regard in the Government's view regarding acceptance of Private Members' Bills on non-controversial or appropriate matters as between the Dáil and the Seanad.

Senator Honan referred to the question of the “ombud” which had not occurred to me and I thank her for bringing it to my attention. I will refer it to the appropriate Minister who has charge of that office. It is a matter which should be dealt with at some stage. I thank all Senators who contributed for their constructive comments.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill put through Committee, reported without amendment, received for final consideration and passed.