Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 22 October 2014
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality
Appointment of Members of Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission: Motion
Apologies have been received from Senator Tony Mulcahy. The purpose of the meeting is to consider the motions regarding the appointment of members of the Irish human rights and equality commission. A briefing has been circulated to members. I welcome the Minister and her officials to the meeting to assist the committee in its consideration of the motions. I ask everyone to turn off their mobile phones or to place them in flight mode. I invite the Minister to brief the committee on the motion. Her contribution will be followed by a question and answer session.
This discussion is a continuation of the work the joint committee has done in respect of the establishment of the Irish human rights and equality commission. It is a pleasure to be here to discuss the draft motions which reflect the requirement set out in section 13(1)(b) of the Irish human rights and equality commission Act 2014 that a resolution be passed by each House of the Oireachtas recommending the appointment of members of a commission, after which the appointments will be made by the President. The motions were approved by the Government on 14 October 2014 and recommend the appointment by the President of the following persons with effect from 1 November 2014, which is the establishment day for the commission: Emily Logan as Chief Commissioner, Siobhán Mullally, Teresa Blake, Orlagh O'Farrell, Mary Murphy, Betty Purcell, Heydi Foster Breslin, Sunniva McDonogh, Ray Murphy, Frank Conaty, David Joyce, Fidele Muwarasibo, Mark Kelly, Kieran Rose and Liam Herrick.
The joint committee had discussions and an exchange of views last year with the members designate of the commission and more recently with the chief commissioner designate, Ms Emily Logan. Today provides me with an opportunity to speak about the appointments process, which has been - I stress - fully independent of the Government and designed to ensure compliance with the Paris Principles as well as to yield a commission membership that is broadly reflective of Irish society. I am sure the committee will agree that we have achieved this outcome. Ms Logan has been nominated by the Public Appointments Service following an independent selection process to serve as chief commissioner of the Irish human rights and equality commission. Over three years, she has demonstrated a commitment to the protection and advancement of human rights during her time as Ombudsman for Children. I had the pleasure of working with her in my previous role. She brings a wealth of experience to this job.
In April 2013, 14 people were appointed as members of the Human Rights Commission and the Equality Authority on an interim basis. It is relevant to note that the Government agreed in principle at the time to nominate them in due course to be appointed to the Irish human rights and equality commission. They had been selected by an earlier selection process which was also independent of Government and in line with the Paris Principles, which are the set of UN rules relating to the operation of national human rights institutions. I note for the information of the joint committee that the independent assessment panel was appointed in 2013 under the chairmanship of the ombudsman, Ms Emily O'Reilly. The other members of the panel were Dr. Mary Keys, Ms Sylda Langford, Professor Gerard Quinn and Professor Gerard Whyte, and they were assisted by the Public Appointments Service in running the selection process. The Government had no role. I take this opportunity to thank the members of the independent assessment panel for their work.
I take the opportunity, as many Members of the Dáil and Seanad did when the legislation was being debated, to pay tribute to the staff of both the Human Rights Commission and the Equality Authority for the work they have done as individual organisations over the years on equal rights. They are now embarking on a journey as a single body. I acknowledge their dedication and patience over the last couple of years as the merger process evolved. It is obviously a difficult time when an organisation undergoes the kind of change which has had to be undertaken in this case. I appreciate very much the ongoing commitment to human rights and their work of the organisations in the period. I pay tribute also to the former commissioners of the Human Rights Commission and the board members of the Equality Authority for the direction and advice they gave to both organisations over the years. The task ahead is challenging but I reiterate the support of the Government for the new body and its ongoing support for the protection and promotion of human rights.
I commend the motion to the committee.
My colleagues and I in the joint committee wish the new commission well. We thank the members of the former Human Rights Commission and Equality Authority for their work in the past. Regarding the staff of both bodies, we acknowledge that it has been a challenging time for them.
The committee had an involvement in the endorsement of the selection panel. There was an issue at the time, as I understand from UN sources, that perhaps the selection panel might not have been sufficiently independent of the Government; therefore, we were pleased to meet and engage with it and give it an all-party and no-party endorsement. I wished it a fair wind in its work, which was important. I thank the departmental staff for facilitating this and the role we were able to play, as a parliamentary committee, to ensure complete independence, both from a national and international perspective. It was something that had not happened previously and we were very happy to be involved in it.
I will hand over to my colleagues shortly, but there is another matter I wish to raise. Senator Katherine Zappone and other members have been discussing the idea of the committee changing its title to include human rights in it and, possibly, being involved at that level. It is something we are examining and perhaps the Minister might consider supporting members on that journey. Other parliaments have parliamentary committees that have oversight functions from a human rights point of view; therefore, it is something we are examining and discussing.
Too often the Government is criticised for not being proactive. The amalgamation of the Human Rights Commission and the Equality Authority is a positive step forward. It creates synergies and efficiencies that will create a strong, dynamic organisation that will ensure issues relating to human rights and equality are at the forefront of political discourse and that actions will be taken, as opposed to there being just words, in order that we will have a much more tolerant and equal society.
An issue has arisen which I wish to bring to the Minister's attention. I do not expect her to respond to it today because she probably is not in a position to do so, but there is a situation in Clare County Council in respect of the Equality Tribunal. There are hundreds of what I consider to be vexatious claims to the Equality Tribunal and, unfortunately, it is costing hundreds of thousands of euro to prepare responses to all of them. They have all been dismissed, but dozens are coming in every week. I understand a ministerial order or regulation can be introduced to deal with vexatious claims to the Equality Tribunal. Perhaps the Minister might take note of this issue and refer back to me at a future time with her thoughts on it.
I thank the Minister for attending to address the joint committee on the motion. I echo the Chairman's comments on the process. The people the Minister is proposing to appoint are excellent choices and a great leader has been chosen as Chief Commissioner. We look forward to their being able to move forward in their planning process. I commend the fact that the Government had no role in the process of selection, which speaks strongly to the independence of the commission. I also acknowledge the great support of the civil servants in the Department throughout this ongoing process which I realise has been difficult at different times.
As the Chairman mentioned, we are investigating including human rights in the title of the committee and in the context of our terms of reference. That would be an important symbolic move. It would acknowledge that we were in a new era with the establishment of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission. We hope to bring that particular lens to bear in our work on justice, equality and defence matters.
Perhaps the Minister might clarify that the members of the commission will begin their three year or five year term from their date of appointment on 1 November. They have already been in situfor almost one year, but their official term will begin then. Second, what were the criteria whereby some commissioners were chosen for three year terms, while others were chosen for five year terms?
I am grateful for the comments about the staff of the Department. Mr. Deaglan O'Briain and Ms Mary McKenna who are accompanying me have put a great deal of work into the development of the legislation and the establishment of the commission.
On Report Stage in the Seanad I said I would be fully supportive of the committee in respect of the change to the Title to include human rights. I believe this should be pursued.
Regarding the issue raised by Senator Martin Conway, as it is before the Supreme Court, I will not comment on it. As the function of that body has been moved to the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, that Department would make the decision on the regulations mentioned by the Senator.
I can confirm that the body will begin its term from 1 November. With regard to having three and five year terms, that decision was made by the independent panel. It decided how to deal with who would have a term of three years or five years. We do not have any of the details because it was done independently. The panel obviously worked out its own rationale and agreed on who would have a three year term and who would have a five year term.
I welcome the Minister and the motion. It is the culmination of a long process, but it is good to see the commitment shown to strengthening the mechanisms for protecting human rights and incorporating the Equality Authority. I had been critical of the moves made by the previous Government to weaken and undermine the authority. I described it as a quiet coup at one stage such was the level of its undermining. It is great to see such a change in focus and, in particular, the independent appointments process fulfilled in this way. It is welcome to hear the Minister say she does not know what mechanism was used to decide on who would have three or five year terms. It is very positive that it was done entirely independently. Obviously, we have already had hearings on the appointments issue and we also had a hearing with Emily Logan, who will be an excellent Chief Commissioner.
My question is about staffing levels in the new body. I should have checked the current level of staffing and funding for the new body before the meeting, but does the Minister believe it is sufficient to enable it to be effective? We are conscious that this body has been treading water for some time, unable to be as proactive as the two previous bodies were. We are hoping for added value with the combination of the two into one entity. How many staff will there be in the body? Is there a plan to increase that number in the future or will it stay static?
This issue was discussed previously. I met the Chief Commissioner designate and discussed the budget with her.
I assured her of both my support and that of my Department in respect the commission's budgetary needs. In the budget for 2015, we have included an independent Vote. This means that the money came out of the departmental Vote. People were of the view that the departmental Vote in respect of the equality portfolio had decreased but that is not the case. The difference is that it now comes under a separate heading. The current staffing level is 47 and this will be reviewed as we move forward. The allocation is €6.3 million, which is an increase of €2 million on the figure for 2013. When the commission begins its work, the budget will be kept under review. I am anxious, however, that it will have the funding necessary to allow it to carry out the work which comes within its remit.
When the legislation was debated in the Seanad, we accepted an interesting amendment tabled by the Senator and Senator Zappone which will allow the commission to initiate investigations on a proactive basis if it is of the view that there are issues to be addressed in particular settings. To some degree, the size of the budget will depend on the commission's work programme and how it develops. I reiterate that it will be open to review. I am very confident that the commission's starting position is good in the context of it getting on with its work.
I apologise for my late arrival, I was delayed elsewhere. Will the Minister indicate whether the 14 members of the commission appointed in the same way as the chief commissioner, that is, by way of the Public Appointments Service process following independent selection?
I have already addressed that matter. The assessment panel that was appointed in 2013 was completely independent. It was chaired by Ms Emily O'Reilly and the other members were Dr. Mary Keys, who is from Galway and a member of the Mental Health Commission, Ms Sylda Langford, chair of the Citizens Information Board, Professor Gerard Quinn, who is from NUI Galway, and Professor Gerard Whyte, who is from Trinity College. The panel was assisted by the Public Appointments Service in the running of the selection process, which was fully in line with the UN Paris Principles. Those principles outline how the members of human rights institutions across the globe should be selected.
I also apologise for my late arrival. For how long will the members who are being appointed serve on the commission? Will their terms of office all expire at the same time - perhaps three or five years from now - or will their appointments be staggered? In other words, will there be continuity and will we avoid a situation where all the commissioners will finish their terms of office at the same time and where we will be obliged to appoint an entirely new batch of people?
There will be continuity. This is because there will be terms of office of three and five years. The membership of the entire body will not, therefore, have to replaced at any one time. Those with three-year terms of office will be replaced first and then those with five-year terms. The decision to have two distinct periods of service was taken in order to avoid the situation to which the Deputy refers, namely, where it would be necessary to appoint an entirely new membership. What we have done will ensure that the body of knowledge gained will be carried forward and will not be lost.
I am not straying at all and I will tell the Chairman why. When they appeared before the UN Human Rights Committee, representatives from the Human Rights Commission of Ireland mentioned failure in this area as part of the issue. It is, therefore, extremely relevant to what we are discussing. I am aware that there has been interaction between the Minister's Department and representatives of the Traveller community. Will the Minister indicate how this matter is progressing and whether she anticipates any developments taking place in the near future?
I discussed this matter with the Deputy previously. I am aware that he has a major interest in and has done work on it. I am also interested in it and the Department is reviewing the recommendations. Some discussions have taken place but the matter is still under review. I will forward to the Deputy a note on the up-to-date position.