Dáil debates

Thursday, 29 March 2018

Appointment of Members of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission: Motion


1:00 pm

Photo of David StantonDavid Stanton (Cork East, Fine Gael)
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I move:

That Dáil Éireann, noting that the Government on 27 February 2018, nominated Francis Conaty, Heydi Foster-Breslin, Salome Mbugua Henry, Caroline Fennell, Patrick Connolly, Tony Geoghegan, and CoIm O'Dwyer for appointment by the President to be members of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, recommends, pursuant to section 12(3) and section 13(1)(b) of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission Act 2014, that Francis Conaty, Heydi Foster-Breslin, Salome Mbugua Henry, Caroline Fennell, Patrick Connolly, Tony Geoghegan and Colm O’Dwyer be appointed by the President to be members of the Commission with effect from a date to be determined by the President for a term of office of five years.

I thank the Dáil for the opportunity to make my remarks on this important motion, which recommends the appointment of seven commissioners to the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, IHREC. The commission is Ireland’s national human rights institution and also our national equality body. The functions it serves in the protection and promotion of human rights and equality are core elements in the proper functioning of a democratic society. These appointments are significant for all of us. The commissioners work in pursuit of an inclusive Ireland where human rights and equality are respected, protected and fulfilled for everyone, everywhere.

IHREC’s mission is to build a fair and inclusive society that protects and promotes human rights and equality in Ireland. I cannot overstate the importance of its work. IHREC was established as an independent statutory body by the 2014 Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission Act. Now, in 2018, the commission is really hitting its stride with a recent public human rights and equality awareness campaign underpinned by a public information service. Significant progress has been made on the public sector duty, raising awareness in public bodies of their legal obligation to eliminate discrimination, promote equality of opportunity and protect human rights. Furthermore, IHREC has a significant programme of research under way which has already given rise to publications in a range of key areas to support equality and human rights policy development. This represents only a sample and snapshot of the important work undertaken by the commission.

We are fortunate that IHREC has an “A” status accreditation from the International Coordinating Committee on National Human Rights. This recognition underlines the commission’s domestic and international standing and institutional independence. It is because of the structural independence of the commission that we have this motion before us today. Members of the commission are appointed by the President following the passing of a resolution in each House of the Oireachtas. This safeguards the independence of the commission and precludes any Government influence in the appointments process.

The 2014 Act outlines the appointments process, which required the Department of Justice and Equality to engage the Public Appointments Service, PAS, to carry out the selection of the best available candidates. The Department consulted with the PAS in agreeing the selection criteria and process to be implemented. This process took account of the skills needs identified by the commission and sought to ensure that the provisions of the 2014 Act were complied with. The State boards process is followed in these circumstances, with one notable exception as provided for in the legislation. Instead of providing the Minister with a list of suitable candidates to select from for appointment, in this case the final selection was made by the PAS. The latter appointed a selection panel, with no representative from the Department on either the short-listing panel or the interview board. The entire selection process, from the placing of the advertisement on the PAS website to the final selection, was managed independently by service.

There was a high level of interest with a total of 149 applications. Seven candidates were recommended for appointment. Two of the seven selected served previous terms on the commission. I doubt there can be any disagreement that the seven candidates recommended by the PAS are eminently qualified for the role of commissioner. They possess a broad range of skills required by the commission, an in depth knowledge of matters connected with human rights and equality; and bring a wealth of experience across multiple sectors. It is important that membership of the commission is suitably diverse to broadly reflect the nature of Irish society. This is a requirement under the 2014 Act, which also includes a provision to ensure an appropriate gender balance. These are the types of issues that the Government considered when it accepted the recommendation of the PAS to appoint the seven members.

It would be entirely remiss of me not to take this opportunity to pay tribute and express my sincere thanks to the outgoing commissioners for their hard work, dedication and, in particular, for the expertise and knowledge they contributed to the essential work of the commission in its implementation phase.

It is my privilege today to recommend these candidates to the House for appointment.

1:10 pm

Photo of Jim O'CallaghanJim O'Callaghan (Dublin Bay South, Fianna Fail)
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We are here today because of the provisions of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission Act 2014. Under section 13 of that Act, there is a requirement that before individuals are appointed to the commission, a resolution of this House be passed supporting those appointments. I and Fianna Fáil will support the resolution put forward by the Minister of State. I agree with him that the individuals identified in the motion who seek to be nominated and appointed to the commission are eminently qualified. I wish them well in respect of the important function they have to play in the commission. Like the Minister of State, I also want to commend the outgoing commissioners on the work they did.

The Minister of State will be aware from the legislation that, as is the case in many areas, appointment to the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission involves quite a complicated procedure. Many years ago, Ministers were simply able to appoint people they thought were suitable. We have now reached a stage where the Public Appointments Service, PAS, plays a very significant role in identifying candidates suitable for appointment. The statute before Members has a very complicated structure. It requires the PAS to run a competition that must then identify individuals who are suitable. Then, under the Act, in particular section 13, there is a requirement that the PAS will ensure that the individuals to be nominated have experience and knowledge of matters connected with human rights and issues such as gender, civil status, family status, sexual orientation and the other grounds which are identified in our equality legislation as being heads of equality measures to ensure they are complied with.

I welcome the motion being put forward by the Government. I hope the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission adopts a proactive role in terms of trying to ensure human rights and equality in this country are put to the forefront of the political agenda. I hope the commission will seek to make life uncomfortable for Members of this House and other institutions of the State. It is extremely important that an equality commission, in particular, seeks to probe and advance the equality agenda beyond what may be perceived as being comfortable by Members of the House. We need to ensure that we do not get into a situation whereby we tick a box in respect of equality and human rights, say that a commission is in place to deal with that and we are complying with international obligations and that because we have been credited with an A standard, everything is fine. That is not how human rights and equality should progress.

When Mr. Niall Crowley was head of the Equality Authority, he made life very difficult for Governments. That is the role an equality and human rights commission should play. It should make life difficult for the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, and me. It should push the boundaries and seek to ensure that equality is not simply a political soundbite, but rather a political objective. While I am on that point, it would be remiss of me not to mention the legislation Fianna Fáil and I have introduced in respect of an amendment to the equality and equal status Acts. We seek to put in another ground of discrimination, namely, discrimination on the grounds of social and economic rights. I would like an equality authority to be able to probe and advance that right. At present, however, it cannot do that because our law does not provide for it.

I ask the Minister of State to reconsider the amendment. A money message should be provided for that legislation. I know the Minister of State is uncomfortable with it. He is perfectly entitled to oppose the amendment and be uncomfortable with it, but if we want to progress and advance equality in areas other than those with which we are comfortable, we will have to ensure we add separate grounds. We do not want equality to be seen as a niche area. We need to ensure that the very many people in this country who face gross inequality every day have somebody fighting for them to ensure that equality measures are advanced rather than simply ignored. It is a responsibility of politicians but I also see it as a responsibility of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission.

I wish the commission well in the future. I wish the seven new board members or commissioners well and hope they do an excellent job. I hope they will see it as their function to make life uncomfortable for the political institutions in the State and other institutions.

Photo of Donnchadh Ó LaoghaireDonnchadh Ó Laoghaire (Cork South Central, Sinn Fein)
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I want to echo the final point made by Deputy O'Callaghan. It is vitally important that the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission is an organisation which is very vocal and not afraid to rock the boat and provide criticism where fair criticism is required. That is particularly important given that any organisation or body of the State can offer mild criticisms or observations about how things should be done better. The role of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission should be more robust. It is vitally important that everyone is involved in that. Human rights and equality are a fundamental pillar in any functioning, forward-thinking society and democracy. It is essential that those who hold positions such as this acknowledge the influence and power they wield and keep that to the forefront of their minds when involved in the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission or any other body of that kind.

I wish to separate from my remarks the fact that I will support the nominations and congratulate the excellent nominees involved. I note Salome Mbugua Henry has been nominated. She spoke at a very valuable event we both attended last Saturday on the integration of migrants into Irish politics. Frank Conaty, Heydi Foster-Breslin, Caroline Fennell, Patrick Connolly, Tony Geoghegan and Colm O’Dwyer are all excellent nominations.

I also, however, have some observations on and concerns about the process. My understanding is that special or specific criteria were provided to the public appointments system. I understand they were not cleared by the commission in full and emphasised knowledge of corporate organisations, large organisations and experience of that kind to a greater extent than heretofore and, perhaps, to a greater extent than knowledge of and experience in the area of human rights and equality. Those skills are obviously of value but the commission is not an enormous organisation and its primary purpose is advocacy and developing a critique of failures in Irish society and Government policies. It is vitally important that the primary consideration is experience, knowledge and expertise in the area of human rights.

That should not have happened. Those special criteria should have been passed by the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission in full. What has happened should never occur again. I am concerned that it could be the case that the changing criteria, if followed further, could lead to a diminution of or a lesser emphasis on radical critique of Government. I had an interesting conversation with somebody some time ago and was furnished with documents which suggested that the process in respect of how people would be put forward for the seven positions identified a number of specific issues in terms of existing expertise or areas that were not required. To be perfectly frank, it would be possible to connect that to some of the people who were previously on the board and were not reappointed.

In many such organisations there would be an automatic or at least a presumption of reappointment. In this case, that did not happen. I have a concern that some of the information or proposals put to the public appointments system shaped the process that followed in a way which should not have happened. It is vitally important that does not happen again. Where people offer a radical critique and expertise in a particular area of human rights, they should certainly be considered for reappointment. These are the skills and priorities which need to be to the forefront of any decisions which are made in respect of appointments.

I hope lessons will be learned from this process. I am not entirely satisfied with the process that has taken place. This is a matter of concern. Human rights and equality need to be the areas of expertise that are to the forefront. Notwithstanding my comments, we will support the nominations. They are excellent people, and I hope they will serve the commission well and that they will be a thorn in the side of Government.

1:20 pm

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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The role of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission is critical. It needs to be completely independent of Government in order that it can, where necessary, and independent of any Government pressure, make critiques of any Government failure to uphold human rights or equality principles. The State has failed very badly in many of these areas. I ask the House to think of the plight of children in emergency accommodation and how their rights are not being upheld; of Travellers, whom the State has systematically failed and continues to fail in many areas of equality and human rights; of the failure to secure the rights of refugees living in direct provision centres and of the completely unacceptable hardships imposed particularly on children in direct provision; and of the failure of the Government to deliver on its promise to take in 4,000 programme refugees, Syrian refugees, a failure highlighted by one of the unsuccessful candidates for the commission positions we are deciding today. I refer to Betty Purcell who, as part of her work for IHREC, had produced a conference on this matter. The Government was publicly embarrassed in respect of this failure by Betty Purcell. I have no doubt about the credentials and the bona fides of those who have been nominated. I welcome the fact that they include representatives of the disability community, people who work in the area of housing and so on. I am sure all the people who have been selected will serve well and be important voices.

There is, however, a real problem with this process. It is not independent. The criteria which were established for the selection of candidates, and effectively for the exclusion of a whole range of candidates who had impeccable human rights credentials, were passed through the Minister's office in an email which, I understand, was not on what is called the shared drive - in other words, the formal process of communications surrounding issues relating to the selection and nomination process - but went from the commissioner's office to the Department and then back to the Public Appointments Service. The email stressed that the commission would particularly benefit from additional skills in finance and corporate governance and stated the commission had sufficient expertise in the area of gender equality. The thing about this is that having a preference for people with finance and corporate governance skills, first of all, has nothing to do with human rights. It also disqualifies people who, for example, may not have played such roles but who have impeccable and important credentials in the area of the advocacy of human rights and equality principles, particularly if they are from small NGOs. What if one is part of a small NGO that does not have such experience? I understand only one member of the interview panel asked questions about human rights and equality issues and that the overwhelming emphasis in the interviews was on corporate and financial governance. These are not acceptable criteria, nor is the interference of the Government in deciding these criteria when we are talking about a body that absolutely needs to be independent. It is worth noting that the United Nations Paris Principles state that the institutions set up to protect and uphold human rights principles should be absolutely independent from government, whereas the legislation as it currently stands states, "The Minister shall agree with the Service the selection criteria and process to be implemented in respect of the filling of any vacancy." This is wrong. It should not be the Minister who decides the selection criteria. At best, it should be the all-party Oireachtas committee, where these selection criteria would be decided in an open, transparent and public way, rather than with the potential for interference by the Minister depending on his or her particular views on these matters.

I will not oppose the motion because I am sure the people who have been nominated are very good. However, it is worrying that people such as Michael Farrell did not even get an interview and that people such as Carol Coulter, Ursula Barry, Betty Purcell and so on were effectively excluded on the basis of some of the criteria that were included-----

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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We cannot go through the list of all those who were involved.

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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-----in the process of selection.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended at 1.25 p.m. and resumed at 2.10 p.m.