Two Private Members Bills Propose Prohibition of Discrimination on Grounds of “Socio-Economic Status” and “Mental Health Status”Thursday, 23 November 2017
There are currently two private members’ bills at early stages of the legislative process in the Dáil which propose to create two additional grounds of prohibited discrimination. The bills would prohibit discrimination on grounds of “socio-economic status” and “mental health status” in:
- the Employment Equality Act 1998 (the “Act of 1998”) which regulates employment; and
- the Equal Status Act 2000 (the “Act of 2000”) which regulates the provision of services, including the provision of education.
The bills (both having been proposed by Fianna Fáil TDs), are not guaranteed to become law. However, there are early indications that they could be enacted despite (in one case) being opposed by the minority Government.
The Equality (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2017 (the “Socio-Economic Bill”)
On 9 November 2017, the Equality (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2017 (the “Socio-Economic Bill”)was ordered to proceed to the Committee Stage of the legislative process, despite Government opposition. The Socio-Economic Bill seeks to amend the Act of 1998 and the Act of 2000 by prohibiting discrimination on the basis of a person’s social and economic background.
The Act of 1998 prohibits discrimination connected to employment. The Act of 2000 prohibits discrimination in the provision of services. Both acts prohibit discrimination on certain specified grounds including race, religion, gender and civil status.
The Socio-Economic Bill proposes to add another discrimination ground, known as the “disadvantaged socio-economic status” ground, to both the Act of 1998 and the Act of 2000. As the Socio-Economic Bill is currently drafted, the new ground is defined as:
“A socially identifiable status of social or economic disadvantage resulting from poverty, level or source of income, homelessness, place of residence, or family background.”
Despite expressing the Government’s agreement with the principle of the Socio-Economic Bill, Minister of State at the Department of Justice and Equality, David Staunton, noted that there are “flaws in this present bill which are so serious as to prevent Government from supporting it.”
Minister Staunton stated that the definition of “disadvantaged socio-economic status” included in the Socio-Economic Bill is so broad as to give rise to the potential for differing interpretations depending on the context. Minister Staunton explained that, in this sense, the proposed ground differs from the existing equality grounds which set out clear characteristics that a person either fulfils or does not fulfil. A clear definition, Minister Staunton noted, means a person at risk of discrimination can immediately know whether or not the protected grounds apply to his or her situation. Minister Staunton further cautioned that;
“The ambiguous definition proposed in this Bill could lead to unintended consequences. We could see a situation in which individuals with a good education or training and easy access to finances could take claims based on the level of income or place of residence elements of the definition. Wealthier individuals could challenge their exclusion from means-tested benefits citing disadvantage on the basis of level of income.”
Notwithstanding the criticisms from the Government, the Socio-Economic Bill passed the Second Stage vote in the Dáil and will now proceed to the Committee Stage, where it will be examined section by section and subject to amendments.
The Equality (Miscellaneous Provisions) (No. 2) Bill 2017 (the “Mental Health Status Bill”)
On 14 November 2017, the Equality (Miscellaneous Provisions) (No. 2) Bill 2017 (the “Mental Health Status Bill”) was introduced. The Mental Health Status Bill seeks to amend the Act of 1998 and the Act of 2000 by the inclusion of an additional discrimination ground, namely mental health status.
As the Mental Health Status Bill is currently drafted, the new ground is defined as:
“Emotional, psychological and social wellbeing”.
The proposed new "mental health status" ground appears to be intended to be broader than the “disability” ground that already exists in the Act of 1998 and the Act of 2000, despite the fact that mental illness and intellectual disability are already encompassed by the definition of the existing “disability” ground.
The Mental Health Status Bill was not opposed by the Government at the First Stage and will now proceed to the Second Stage where it will be debated in Dáil.
Both Bills are still at early stages of the legislative process and will likely face amendments before they are enacted (if they are enacted).
We will monitor the progress of these bills and will be publishing further updates on their developments and the potential implications for employers.