Merger of five rights bodies in doubt

 

SERIOUS DOUBT has arisen over proposals to merge five human rights and equality bodies as a cost-saving measure in the forthcoming budget.

There are strong indications that the merger will either be abandoned or else implemented in a much-modified form.

High-level official sources told The Irish Times the most likely course of action was to instruct the various agencies to make savings by co-operating in such areas as secretarial services and other administrative matters but that a "mini-merger" could not be entirely ruled out.

The original plan was to amalgamate the National Disability Authority, the Equality Tribunal, the Equality Authority, the Irish Human Rights Commission and the Office of Data Protection Commissioner into a single agency.

However, official sources were categorical last night that the disability body would not be part of any such merger and it is also considered doubtful that the Equality Tribunal would be included.

There is also doubt over plans to merge the Equality Authority, the Human Rights Commission and the Office of Data Protection Commissioner.

An ad hoc group, the Equality Rights Alliance, which has been campaigning against the merger, now claims the support of 60 civil society organisations.

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform Dermot Ahern is believed to favour the approach of making savings through inter-agency co-operation rather than an outright merger.

Chairwoman of the Equality Rights Alliance Joanna McMinn said last night: "We would be very supportive of a situation where there were shared services and no merger because the mandate of the individual agencies needs to be protected."

In the Dáil last week Mr Ahern stressed the importance of ensuring "that agency functions do not overlap, that there is effective and ongoing communication between these bodies and that the opportunities for synergies, including the sharing of corporate services and other back-office functions, are availed of to the fullest extent possible".

He said in response to a parliamentary question from Fine Gael justice spokesman Charles Flanagan that all agencies under the aegis of his department were being examined. "We are looking to find synergies in order to save taxpayers' money. For example, my department's payroll is organised centrally by a part of the department.

"Other departments are now using that to save on payroll costs, including the Department of the Taoiseach. That saves money in processing salaries for civil servants in both departments. That is what we are looking at."

He assured Mr Flanagan "that any solution arrived at will in no way dilute the level of services provided to the public in the areas of disability, human rights, equality and data protection".

The Minister said: "Ultimately, the level of savings would not be significant if we got rid of all these bodies."

The latest figures for the total financial allocation to the five agencies was around €18 million a year and they employ 170 staff.

"I deny that the Government is trying to dilute the issue of adherence to human rights . . . however, it makes sense to look at the issue of trying to get value for money," Mr Ahern said.

On the establishment of the Human Rights Commission under the Belfast Agreement, the Minister added: "I would not stand over any removal of the section of the agreement which states that a human rights body would have to be established . . ."