19 September 2002 Edition
A simplistic response
The minister and the equality agenda
BY EIMEAR Ní FLAITHEARTAIGH
In January 2002, the National Economic and Social Forum (NESF) published a report on the reintegration of prisoners.
Drawing on evidence from a wide series of consultations, visits to prisons and community-based projects, local hearings, written submissions from prisoners' groups and commissioned research, the report focuses on the barriers to a more effective integration of prisoners back into society.
Launched by Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, the recommendations were submitted as an input to the process of important changes the government has been making in areas such as the new Prison Service, the Probation and Welfare Service and the Parole Board, due to be set up soon.
One of the key recommendations was an end to discrimination on the basis of a criminal record, bar for exceptional circumstances, in order to support prisoners' return to employment and to break the cycle of reoffending.
The report's findings underlined the importance of getting and keeping a job in order to break free of a life of crime. This is particularly true of Ireland, where we have the highest reoffending rates in Europe.
Speaking at the launch of the report, Dr Maureen Gaffney, Chairperson of the Forum said:
"This Report, if implemented, will have far-reaching consequences. It brings one of Ireland's most marginalised groups to the centre of the social partnership process and calls for the application of the learning and experience of that model to give a much needed push to prisoner re-integration policies and practice. It also throws up a challenge to us all - as fellow citizens - we all have a role to play in achieving this aim."
As part of its function to review the working of the Employment Equality Act, the Equality Authority has proposed that the legislation been extended to include four new grounds, including the grounds of criminal conviction.
The position paper was presented to government after widespread consultation, careful consideration and research into how to improve the effectiveness of the overall legislation.
The proposal to include criminal conviction in equality legislation is based on the premise that discrimination against people on the grounds of a criminal record should only be allowed where the offence would be incompatible with the requirement of the job.
As Niall Crowley, Equality Authority CEO, explained:
"While it is entirely reasonable that a person convicted of sex offences is excluded where there is contact with children, it would not be resonable to discriminate against a person convicted of a traffic valiation when applying for the same job."
And how did Equality Minster Willie O'Dea respond? By calling it political correctness gone mad, claiming it was unworkable, and dismissing it out of hand.
Referring to the Equality legislation, Minister O'Dea went on to say:
"I want to keep things simple. My attitude is, wait and see how it [the legislation] is working before we start putting in new grounds."
But we know how the legislation is working and we know there is a need to extend it. Unfortunately for the Minister, the real world is not always simple. Balancing rights and responsibiliites is a complex issue. Not impossible, just one that takes thought and vision to implement.
As a spokesperson for republican former prisoners' group, Coiste na n-Iarchimí, put it:
"While the campaign to end discrimination against former political prisioners is clearly a separate issue, we do support the Equality Authority in its stance. In the republican community people have been labelled with criminal convictions purely as a result of the conflict and do suffer discrimination as a result, so we understand the importance of tackling the issue. In relation to the specific barriers faced by former political prisoners, we are working to have convictions expunged."
While Willie O'Dea may be happy to take a populist line, it sits uneasily with his government's own policy. For example, the National Development Plan identifies crime as a social inclusion issue, detailing how offenders are generally from disadvantaged groups in society, are likely to reoffend and to be further marginalised as a result. Commenting on the cycle, it states that "offenders... experience multiple disadvantage which accumulates to economic and social exclusion and to an extreme form of marginalisation from the labour market".
Research has consistantly illustrated that the prison population is overwhelming male, young and from a working class background, the majority of whom have been found guilty of non-violent crimes. John Lonegan, Governor of Mountjoy, is on record as stating that a young person's postal address is a better indicator of whether they end up in prision than the extent of crime in society, which is some indictment of our criminal justice system.
Irish Council for Civil Liberties spokesperson, Liam Herrick, expressed disappointment with Willie O'Dea's simplistic response to such a complex issue. "We are disappointed at the tone of the Minster's response and the fact that he choose to overlook the obvious safeguards that would be built into any extension of the legislation," he said. "The vast majority of people with criminal records have not been convicted of violent crimes, have paid their debt to society and are struggling to reintegrate themselves in the face of a shortage of rehabilitation supports out there."
In fact, an equally pertinent issue is the distinction between detected and undetected crime, particularly in the workplace. Virtually all corporate fraud is an insider job, a "self inflicted" wound, according to former AIB Group internal auditor Tony Spollen. Most of this so-called white collar crime is not reported, with the offenders simply moving on to the next workplace and escaping a criminal record. So it is clear that the current situation offers no protection to employers against fraud, but simply serves to further discriminate against marginalised groups.
The law as it stands makes no distiction between the type of criminal conviction, the seriousness of the crime, the length of time that has passed since the conviction or of the steps prisoners may have taken to rehabilitate themselves. Instead, it is a blanket ban, preventing people from securing employment and almost acting as an incentive to continue with a life of crime.
What the Equality Authority is suggesting is a fair balance between the rights of those with a criminal record and the general public. They agree that there needs to be safeguards and exemptions. In this, it is broadly analogous to that of the disability ground: a broad definition of the ground itself and a separate definition of an objective test. The disability ground is not seen as political correctness gone mad and has proved to be workable.
What the Equality Authority and prisoners' groups would like to see is a debate about why the legislation needs to be extended to include former prisoners and how this should be best done. Let's hope the rest of Willie O'Dea's cabinet colleagues can muster a less simplistic response and show the maturity to understand the issues involved.
No exemptions from equality law - Ó Snodaigh
Aengus Ó Snodaigh has called on the Minister of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, to show leadership and make a firm public guarantee that he will not cave in to pressures for exemptions from equality legislation to allow discrimination against Travellers.
"The calls for exemptions made by politicians, including Minister McDowell's party colleague Noel Grealish, are outrageous and irresponsible racist nonsense," said the Sinn Féin spokesperson on Justice, Equality and Human Rights. "Amending equality legislation to allow for discrimination against some groups would render the law meaningless and totally unacceptable. We need a firm, public guarantee from the Minister that this will not happen.
"Deputy Grealish stands in violation of the Anti-Racist Protocol for Political parties, and I question his motivations in further aggravating this situation. Given that they have signed the Anti-Racist Protocol along with the rest of us, I trust the Progressive Democrats will take immediate, unmistakable steps to sanction him and to prevent recurrences.
"Public order problems are adequately catered for under public order legislation, which should be enforced and applied equally by the Gardaí regardless of a person's ethnic background. Sinn Féin will strenuously oppose any attempts to water down such equality legislation as exists, and will continue to actively champion the right of all people in Ireland to avail of its protections under all nine grounds."