6 November 2008 Edition
Human rights and equality on the chopping block
BY MIRIAM MURPHY
WITH the over-70s taking to the streets in their masses, followed closely by students and teachers, the post-Budget media focus has been on key socio-economic rights. However, thus far, sparse attention has been paid to the ‘cross-cutting’ implications of the Budget for the state’s equality and human rights infrastructure.
These implications were the focus of Sinn Féin spokesperson Aengus Ó Snodaigh’s Dáil speech on Budget 2009.
According to Ó Snodaigh, sweeping cuts to a range of crucial agencies will have devastating implications for those seeking to defend rights through the courts, for disability services, for gender equality, for privacy and data protection, for Garda reform, crime prevention, penal reform and for national efforts to tackle harmful drug use.
“What does the Budget’s rationalisation of state agencies mean for equality and human rights?” asked Ó Snodaigh.
“The Combat Poverty Agency, a protector of the poor, has been axed. The Equality Authority and Human Rights Commission, and their facilities – back office, administrative services and access for citizens – are to be fully integrated.
“This is combined with a budget cut of over €3m. The two organisations had an allocation between them of €8m in 2008, so there is a 40 per cent cut in funding. The Government claimed it had withdrawn its proposal during the summer to merge the two agencies but the consequence of this budget is akin to an amalgamation which, with the Budget cut, will dilute the ability of these important watchdogs to carry out their functions and will restrict their activities.
“What did the Human Rights Commission do to deserve such an assault on its budget and independence? It put Government complicity with serious human rights abuses under the spotlight. Its recent highly critical report on extraordinary rendition and Shannon Airport springs to mind.
“The budget means that important public interest cases will not be brought before the courts. Cases that highlight and force progressive changes to legislation and policy might never be taken. Cases that oppose discrimination on age grounds, such as the prohibition on persons over 70 serving on juries, cases that oppose physical barriers to persons with disabilities, such as the failure of pubs and hotels to provide accessible toilets, cases that force the provision of education to children with special needs and cases aimed at achieving legal recognition for transsexual people might never be taken if the minister proceeds with this punitive Budget cut.
“The Budget jeopardises the future of such public interest legal activism. It means that more people, who are by definition vulnerable because their fundamental rights have been compromised, will have to fight their battles alone, if at all.”
In the wake of the Budget, the Human Rights Commission (HRC) sought a meeting with Ó Snodaigh. At that meeting, the HRC confirmed that the cut to its budget will be unworkable. Their grant for next year is to be €1.6m. Their staffing costs alone are fixed at €1.5m. This leaves almost nothing for rent and office running costs, publications and all the other expenses that are essential to their work.
The HRC has been continuously under-funded relative to its equivalent office in the North so this will make a poor situation even worse.
Beyond the one line in the Budget which reads “the Equality Authority and Human Rights Commission are to fully integrate their facilities, back office and administrative services and access for citizens”, the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform has offered zero guidance to the HRC as to how they are to compensate for the cut and continue to operate in 2009. The Equality Authority themselves are being subjected to a 43 per cent budget cut and in addition they are in the process of being decentralised to Roscrea, County Tipperary, whereas the HRC is remaining in Dublin. This in itself raises questions as to how the facilities (back office, etc) can be “fully integrated” at all.
As a percentage of the Department of Jutice’s overall budget, the savings being made are insignificant. In reality, the recession is being used as an excuse to attack the HRC and to dismantle the human rights and equality architecture. This fact is also highlighted by the budget cuts to the Free Legal Advice Centres (-5 per cent), national women’s organisations (-5 per cent), equality proofing (-30 per cent), the new Cosc office to address domestic, sexual and gender-based violence (-18 per cent), equality monitoring (-8 per cent) gender mainstreaming and positive action for women (-45 per cent), Office of the Data Protection Commissioner (-9 per cent) and the Garda Ombudsman’s Commission (-5 per cent).
Following his meeting with the HRC, Sinn Féin’s Ó Snodaigh said:
“This move undercuts the 26-county state’s delivery on its obligations under the equivalence provisions of the Good Friday Agreement. Therefore, at the highest level, Sinn Féin will be raising the matter with both the British and Irish governments.
“There is a job of work to be done now by all who are concerned with the achievement of equality and the protection of fundamental rights.
“We must all campaign to have these Budget cuts reversed. For my part, I intend to publish a Bill that would take powers over the HRC away from the individual minister and vest them in the Dáil as a whole instead, as is the case in Scotland. This would help to protect the HRC from the whims and tempers of individual governments in the future.”
• AXED: Combat Poverty Agency, a protector of the poor