Justice Minister Alan Shatter expressed his frustration yesterday at the failure of Cabinet colleague Brendan Howlin to agree to the staffing and budget details for the State’s new human rights and equality body.
Speaking at the joint launch of the 2012 annual reports of the Irish Human Rights Commission and the Equality Authority, Mr Shatter said he was “personally disappointed” at the impasse.
He said progress in establishing a new agency, merging the two bodies, which he announced back in 2011, had been “slower” than he wished.
Mr Shatter said there was a need to “restore” funding and staffing levels following drastic cuts to the groups, particularly under the previous administration. The minister said both he and his officials had been involved in discussions with the Department of Public Expenditure.
“I had hoped to be in a position to announce details of the new commission’s budget and staffing today, but, unfortunately, these difficult discussions have not been completed,” he said. Mr Shatter said it was essential the commission had adequate resources to recruit staff to fulfil its remit, which is to be expanded. “I am personally disappointed that this important issue remains unresolved,” he said.
The impact of cuts on the organisations was highlighted in their reports.
Chief executive of the Equality Authority, Renee Dempsey, said staffing in its legal section — which provides legal support to cases from the public — had been “seriously reduced” and that during most of 2012 they had only one solicitor.
Some 196 case files were progressed in 2012, compared to 289 in 2011. Just 41 new case files were opened, compared to 156 in 2011.
Ms Dempsey said 26 applications for legal representation were considered in 2012 and that 11 were granted and 15 refused, the latter reflecting the lack of resources in the authority.
Irish Human Rights Commission acting chief executive Des Hogan said 2012 had been a “tough year” and that staffing levels were “strained”, with numbers reducing from eight to six.
The acting chair of the new Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, Sunniva McDonagh SC, said she was “anxious” the minister brought forward legislation setting up the organisation as well as progress on the appointment of a chief commissioner and “adequate and staffing resources”.
Mr Shatter said the legislation should be published in four weeks.
Ms McDonagh said there had been a steady rise in people contacting the Human Rights Commission, from 512 in 2011 to 614 in 2012, driven by a sharp rise in economic and austerity cases, accounting for a third of all cases last year.
“The spike in issues that related to economic, social and cultural rightsis not surprising as the impact of the economic crisis and austerity policy choices deepen,” said Ms McDonagh.
Common complaints: Disability still biggest issue, followed by age, gender and race
* Received 8,108 enquiries in 2012, almost the number in 2011.
* Disability was the biggest ground for inquiries in the two main categories (employment and equal status), followed by age, gender and race.
* In the 1,779 employment inquiries, general information accounted for most (332), followed by working conditions (278), access to employment (228), dismissal (134), harassment (98) and bullying (82).
* In the 1,815 equal status inquiries, general information accounted for most (299), followed by provision of a service (199), educational establishments (121), accommodation (67) and access to pubs/nightclubs (56).
* On family leave entitlements, 3,115 related to maternity protection (3,147 in 2011) and 1,362 concerned paternity leave (1,350).
* On maternity, leave entitlements accounted for the most inquiries (523), followed by return to work (393) and annual leave (362).
* Case study: In one case settled between the parties a woman complained that she was sexually and verbally harassed by the manager of a bar where she worked. “During the course of her employment the complainant was subjected to adverse working conditions. She faced suggestive comments from the manager about her appearance and the way she was dressed. The manager made advances towards the complainant, touched her leg inappropriately and often forced her to have drinks with him.”
HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISSION
* Received 614 inquiries in 2012, compared with 522 in 2011.
* Civil and political rights accounted for 35% (212), followed by economic, social and cultural rights (203).
* The commission made observations on proposed laws, including the rights of whistleblowers, those subject to Garda vetting and proposed mental capacity legislation.
* The body commented on policy matters, including the use of “mosquito devices” to ward off teenagers from hanging around shops and the use of special observation cells in prisons for people with mental health issues.
* Cases: The IHRC provided legal support to a local authority tenant with an intellectual disability who faced repossession. Before proceedings started, the local authority offered the tenant a new house, which was “significantly” better and the case was settled.
* Other cases included: a mental health patient, whoalthough a “voluntary patient”, was treated in a locked ward he could not leave; an appeal to Europe in a case where a person claimed his right to privacy was infringed by the retention of communication data and a case where a victim of sexual abuse claimed the State was responsible for his abuse by a primary school principal in a religious school.
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