The Equality (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2017, was introduced in the lower house of the Irish Parliament at the end of last year and is currently working its way through the legislative process. The Bill proposes to amend existing equality and anti-discrimination legislation by inserting ‘disadvantaged socio-economic status’ as an additional ground upon which discrimination is prohibited.
Irish law currently proscribes discrimination based on nine grounds listed in the Employment Equality Act 1998 and the Equal Status Act 2000. The nine grounds are gender, civil status, family status, sexual orientation, religion, age, disability, race, and membership of the Traveller community. The Equal Status Act prohibits discrimination in the provision of goods and services, accommodation and education, while the Employment Equality Act forbids discrimination in employment related matters such as recruitment, equal pay, and working conditions. Article 40.1 of Ireland’s Constitution, Bunreacht na hÉireann, also provides protection against discrimination by guaranteeing a right to equality before the law.
The new Equality Bill defines ‘disadvantaged socio-economic status’ as ‘a socially identifiable status of social or economic disadvantage resulting from poverty, level or source of income, homelessness, place of residence, or family background.’ The inclusion of this ground of discrimination has the potential to radically strengthen equality and anti-discrimination law in Ireland. It presents an opportunity for the law to embrace a more substantive conception of equality, capable of redressing material disadvantage by tackling systemic poverty and social exclusion, as well as combatting prejudice, stigma and stereotyping.
Thus, in welcoming the proposal, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC) has commented that: ‘a new prohibition in law to provide equal opportunities for people irrespective of their socio-economic status in seeking and securing employment, can be a catalyst in breaking cycles of deprivation.’ It means that when people are applying for a job they will be assessed on the strength of their skills and ability, and not based on their social background or postal address.
By adopting this measure, Ireland would also be bringing its domestic law into line with its international human rights law obligations under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). During its last review by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) in 2015, Ireland was advised to extend its prohibited grounds of discrimination to cover discrimination based on ‘social origin’ and other related characteristics in order to comply with the Covenant. The inclusion of ‘disadvantaged socio-economic status’ as a protected characteristic in equality legislation will ensure that anyone subject to less favourable treatment in the exercise of their rights because of their inherited social status or economic situation, can avail of legal protection, as required by Article 2(2) of the ICESCR.
The Equality Bill is currently being scrutinised by a parliamentary Joint Committee on Justice and Equality, having met with broad cross-party approval when it was first tabled in the lower house. However, some parliamentarians have expressed concern at what they perceive to be the imprecise nature of ‘disadvantaged socio-economic status’ as a prohibited ground of discrimination, in contrast to the clarity of the other grounds already protected. In response, in its observations on the Bill, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission states that ‘sufficient clarity and precision’ in defining socio-economic status can be achieved through the specification of indicators (as contained in the Bill) and by raising awareness with employers to ensure they understand their obligations under the law.
Although the proposal to make ‘disadvantaged socio-economic status’ a prohibited ground of discrimination has several more legislative stages to go through before in can be signed into law, this Bill must be recognised as a golden opportunity to enhance the capacity of equality and non-discrimination law to be an engine of social justice in the struggle to eradicate disadvantage and equality. It is very much hoped that the Irish Parliament will see this and proceed to enact the Bill into law without delay.