The Equality and Right Alliance conference, A Fairer Ireland: Equality and Rights at the Heart of Recovery is on today in Dublin. According to the Conference program, this morning’s speakers included Dr Kathy Walsh and Brian Harvey who are presenting their research into the real impact of government cuts in the funding of both the Equality Authority and the Irish Human Rights Commission.
As the Chairperson of ERA, Joanna McMinn, mentions in her introduction to Downgrade Equality and Human Rights: Assessing the Impact, the research “documents the diminished capacity of both the Equality Authority and the Irish Human Rights Commission: a chipping away that took place both prior to and after the disproportionate cuts to their funding”. She also argues that while cutbacks undermine the capacity of the EA and the IHRC to do their job, it’s the erosion of the independence of these institutions from government that is more important.
“The research explores how the independence of key state watchdogs has been compromised by a behind-closed-doors system of selection and appointment, accountability to government minister and departments rather than Parliament, civil service staffing and lack of financial insulation from the caprice of government ministers.”
Below is the Executive Summary for the research paper. Click here to download the whole document.
The purpose of this research was to document and review the work of the Equality Authority and the Irish Human Rights Commission; narrate and analyse the cuts and changes which took place to both bodies in autumn 2008; measure and assess the effects of the cuts on their operations; and devise a methodology to enable the non-governmental community to track their future activities and the impacts of those cuts. The research was carried out in summer 2009 and involved interviews with over 38 stakeholders, officials, experts, political leaders, academics and activists. Looking first at the history of Irish equality and human rights bodies, they emerged from different routes and historical circumstances: the Equality Authority (1999) from domestic imperatives and European obligations; the Irish Human Rights Commission (2001) from the Good Friday agreement. In following their subsequent work, it is clear that over time both have made a significant impact and improved the rights and circumstances of ordinary citizens. The Equality Authority was commended as a model in Europe.
International standards – the Paris Principles of the United Nations and the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) Recommendations of the Council of Europe – provide objective standards by which to measure the operations of both bodies, supplemented by the requirements for equality bodies of European Union Race Directive. International commentaries have highlighted the importance for such agencies of independence from government, adequate and stable funding, appointments through transparent procedures, consultation with civil society, effective complaint handling, representativity of society as a whole and giving attention to awareness raising, education and training activities.
In constructing the Irish equality and human rights infrastructure, the government
appears have given insufficiently detailed attention to the Paris Principles, the ECRI recommendations, or the exhortations toward independence in the 2000 Race Directive. Although diligent attention would appear to have been given to defining the powers of both bodies – and was rewarded with bodies that have made significant impacts as a result – less attention appears to have been given to issues of independence, board selection, financial autonomy, staffing or location within the public administrative architecture. These are the issues that have posed problems for the two agencies subsequently.
The powers of the two bodies have developed unevenly.
- Both bodies have used the broad range of their powers to invite casework, negotiate for change and publish research and policy. The Equality Authority has been most commended for its casework and negotiation for change, while the Irish Human Rights Commission was praised for the quality of its legislative observations, although limited attention would appear to have been given to them by government.
- The powers of inquiry of both bodies were underdeveloped. The amicus curiae function of both bodies has only lately been developed. The number of cases progressed by the Irish Human Rights Commission has been small in number.
- The work of both bodies in the areas of mapping or baseline studies, impact assessments and training work is underdeveloped. Long before autumn 2008, both bodies had eventful histories. The legislation governing both bodies was amended on several occasions to give the Minister responsible more powers. The composition and selection of both bodies became a source of contention. The operational efficiency of the Equality Authority was significantly affected by decentralisation.
The announcement of the cuts in autumn 2008 saw the two bodies adopt different trajectories. The Irish Human Rights Commission took the decision to protest over a 24 per cent cut in budget, something which it still does. The Equality Authority, facing a cut almost twice as large (43 per cent) had less room to adapt and attempted to negotiate a compromise with its parent department.
The subsequent démarche led to the resignation of the Chief Executive, followed by a number of board members.
In examining the outcomes and practical effects of the cuts, we conclude:
- In the case of the Irish Human Rights Commission, distinct efforts were made to manage the crisis and maintain a basic level of service. The Commission took six specific actions to contain or reduce costs. It is clear that these cuts halted its upward organisational trajectory. It is in a vulnerable state and the departure of further staff and would push it below the level of viability.
- Despite a more severe budget cut, the Equality Authority appears to have adopted a ‘business as usual’ approach. In its cutback strategy, the Authority attempted to ensure that the burden of the cuts was dealt with by a reduction in staff numbers (they were reduced from 51 to 38) and office operations rather than activities, which it has endeavoured to maintain. The significant fall in staff numbers is compounded by the relocation of most of those remaining to a new provincial location. The Authority identified six areas in which its activities have reduced, but attributed only two of these to the cuts. In the absence of a dialogue with or full cooperation of the Authority, it cannot be confirmed that this is the full operational impact of the cuts. The true impact on its caseload is uncertain. We question its ability to carry out its mandate.
- Stakeholders consulted as part of this research believe that the profile of the Equality Authority has been reduced, with a decline in media coverage, fewer significant case outcomes, a much reduced engagement with the NGO community and a sharp falling off of the equality agenda in its engagement with the business and enterprise community.
The principal conclusions of the report are:
- The independence of both bodies has been breached. The main points were identified as the behind-closed-doors system of selection and appointment, accountability to government ministers and departments rather than Parliament, civil service staffing and lack of financial insulation of budget from the caprice of government ministers.
- The budget cuts appear to have had a significant impact on the work of the Irish Human Rights Commission and an unquantifiable impact on the work of the Equality Authority. Indicators are presented that enable these issues to be tracked in a number of ways at several levels.
- The design of the Irish Human Rights Commission and the Equality Authority, taken together, does not reach a modern interpretation of the full application of the Paris principles nor the ECRI recommendations, nor in the case of Equality Authority, the 2000 Race Directive.
Three options are outlined for the future: reform and re-financing of the institutions concerned; a merger of the two bodies, which has no support and would be purely a cost cutting exercise; and a stronger, unified body based on best international practice and experience. This research made recommendations to government, the two agencies concerned and civil society for a study of the option of a unified body; for strengthening the operations of the two existing bodies and the equality and human rights infrastructure; and for tracking systems.
The events that took place in Ireland in 2008-9 are by no means unusual in an international context, for they have their antecedents in other countries where governments also halted – but ultimately only temporally – the trajectories of equality and human rights institutions. They challenge the non-governmental community and civil society, as rarely before, to build a counter-discourse that will imagine, devise and construct a renewed, fresh infrastructure that can resume, rebuild and extend the progress so sharply interrupted.
The role of an amicus curiae (or ‘friend of the court’) in legal proceedings is non-partisan assistance to the courts by providing advice on rights issues).
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