Draft new equality legislation announced at Stormont on Thursday actively discriminates against under-16s, according to a leading youth organisation.
OFMDFM proposals for a law on goods, facilities and services would make it illegal to discriminate on the basis of age.
The Northern Ireland Youth Forum (NIYF) has been campaigning strongly in support of these new laws but was shocked to learn that the consultation excludes the rights of everyone under 16.
NIYF director Chris Quinn claimed it was a kick in the teeth for thousands of young people discriminated against on a daily basis in Northern Ireland.
“The good news is that legislation will be passed to make it illegal for citizens to be discriminated against whilst using public or private sector services and facilities. That is unless you are under 16.
“Whilst the NI Youth Forum fully supports the protection of rights of older and younger people; the Youth Forum strongly opposes this move and believes it is a further slight on young people.
“The NIYF believes that young people are amongst the most vulnerable groups in society.
“They are often discriminated against in shops, leisure facilities, when attempting to access public services and the media regularly demonises this group. Young people need their rights upheld and they need this protection within the legal process.”
The proposals were published by OFMDFM junior ministers Jonathan Bell and Jennifer McCann.
They said in certain circumstances it was appropriate to treat people differently because of age, such as the prohibition on the sale of alcohol to people under 18. The proposals will not affect other legislation which currently imposes statutory age limits.
Mr Bell said: “We are eager to progress this Programme for Government commitment as soon as possible. It will give individuals confidence to know their rights to fair treatment, and provide legal clarity for service providers.”
Ms McCann added: “This will put age discrimination outside work on a similar footing to discrimination law in employment. It sends out the clear message that ageist attitudes and practices are as unacceptable in service provision as in the workplace.”
Age Sector Platform, the charity responsible for the Northern Ireland Pensioners Parliament, said the breakthrough has been a direct result of the passionate campaigning of older people, whose strong voices have ensured the bill will go ahead and could make a huge difference in areas like health care and financial services.
Spokesman Michael Monaghan said Northern Ireland was the only region of the UK and the only part of the island of Ireland without this legal protection and it was only right that this “injustice” be rectified before next year’s Assembly election.
“Now we will begin the important work of ensuring this legislation is as strong and effective as it can be. Older people’s experiences of age discrimination must be central to developing a law which will have real impact.”
Koulla Yiasouma, incoming Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People (NICCY), said: “I am deeply disappointed and concerned by today’s announcement that junior ministers Bell and McCann intend to exclude children under 16 from proposed legislation prohibiting discrimination, on the grounds of age when accessing goods, facilities and services.
“Surely, I am not the only person who sees the irony of age discrimination legislation that, in itself, discriminates against a certain age group.”
The Equality Commission has argued strongly that protection against age discrimination should apply to people of all ages, including children and young people, as people of all ages experience discrimination in accessing goods and services.
Chief commissioner Michael Wardlow said: “We had urged the Executive to extend the law to cover all ages and are disappointed that it will afford protection against discrimination only to people aged 16 and upwards.
“Though this is an advance on the equivalent legislation in Great Britain, which applies only from the age of 18 upwards, it still leaves a wide band of children and young people without protection against age discrimination.”
Commissioner for Older People Claire Keatinge said protection from discrimination on the grounds of age is a vital part of how our society respects and supports people, and particularly older people.
“Whilst it does not make sense to discriminate against any age group, I am delighted that older people in Northern Ireland will soon be protected by the most age-inclusive legislation in terms of goods, facilities and services provision across the UK and Republic of Ireland.
“Older people are deserving of the highest level of service provision, and nothing short of protection through the law can ensure that they are not discriminated against on the grounds of age.”