Referendum on Children’s Rights must come in advance of new legislation

July 7, 2010 § Leave a comment

There needs to be clarification on a development in regard to legislation referred to in the newspapers today, which I have not heard previously mentioned in these Houses that, apparently, the Government intends to introduce legislation to alter the legal environment for the placing for adoption of the children of married parents.  We know the children of married parents can only be adopted in very restricted circumstances because of our laws and the interpretation of them.  It is one of the issues that is at the heart of children’s rights, the proposal for a referendum to amend the Constitution, the so-called children’s rights referendum. 

One of the things that will have to be done to facilitate the introduction of the legislation, to which the Minister of State, Deputy Andrews, referred in the newspapers today, and which I would welcome, would be that the children’s rights referendum would have to be brought forward, put to the people and passed.  That is important.  Can we take this indication by the Minister of State in this morning’s newspapers of an intention to bring forward this legislation, as an indication that the Government now clearly intends to hold a children’s rights referendum this autumn since the holding of such a referendum would be a necessary precursor to the introduction of legislation of this kind?

Is ‘Social Partnership’ a misnomer?

October 22, 2009 § Leave a comment

I am extremely disappointed that the Government appears to have lost out on the opportunity afforded to it when its representatives met the social partners – I believe they are still referred to in this way but the title may now be something of a misnomer – to engage in any real or meaningful discussion, particularly with the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. The Government’s current line is, “We have to do what we have to do.” Such an approach does not provide a basis for seeking consensus across society in respect of the difficult situation we face and the undoubtedly serious measures that must be taken.

It is simply not good enough that the Government puts out three figures as comprising the €4 billion in savings that need to be made and then announces that this is the way it must be. There will be no consensus in respect of, buy-in to or support across society for this type of dictatorial approach with regard to what is going to happen in the next couple of months. I have appealed to the Leader of the Seanad to do what he can, however minimal that might be, to persuade the Government and the Minister for Finance not to take this kind of approach or attitude towards the former social partners. I also urged the Leader to convince the Minister for Finance to use the opportunity that will present itself in the coming weeks to enter discussions with the trade union movement and put it up to its members to contemplate those areas – be they in the public service or elsewhere – where radical change must occur and invite them to come forward with proposals. I do not know if that is the basis on which the Government wishes to have the discussion on this matter. However, simply announcing a position at this stage will not work.

Criminal Justice (Amendment) Bill 2009

July 15, 2009 § Leave a comment

The Criminal Justice (Amendment) Bill 2009 was debated in the Seanad for over eight hours yesterday and ultimately passed without amendment late last night. This is from my Second Stage speech:

I made the point on the Order of Business earlier that, unfortunately and regrettably, there did not seem to be much point in debating this legislation because the Government was clearly intent on not accepting any amendments, and that this would render our debate somewhat irrelevant. The Leader, Senator Donie Cassidy shook his head in response to my comment, which I took to be an indication that he disagreed with me. Senator Terry Leyden then indicated to the House that if amendments were brought before the House that the matter could be dealt with during the course of the summer. The Minister has now put that issue at rest and has made it very clear, in no uncertain terms, that no amendments to this legislation will be accepted by the Government and that, to use his words, “we need this legislation now”. Let us be clear about this, there is no intention on the part of Government to permit this House to amend this legislation in any respect today or on any other day.

Notwithstanding the Government’s view as to whether we should be listened to in this House on this legislation, we still have to reflect on our role as legislators. We are paid to come here by the people to deal with legislation. As to what is our role, I accept that the Government has a very particular role, perhaps an enhanced one in the sense that it has the expertise and advice of the Garda available to it and it is dealing on a day to day basis, operationally and in policy terms, with the management of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. Therefore, it is in a position of expertise far greater than anything available to any of us. I accept that. That is how the system works.

Let us examine our role. I do not wish to oversimplify it but it appears to be the case that a Minister comes to the House to inform us of the changes that need to be made to the law because there is a problem that needs to be addressed and he outlines the changes he proposes we should make. It is our role to ask him to tell us why that is the case and to demonstrate it to us. We then consider whether that explanation is adequate and we either vote for or against the proposals brought by the Minister. I accept that is an oversimplification but it is not an unreasonable description of our role.

If I am correct in that are we not entitled to ask the Minister to do more than simply assert the need for certain legislation? The Minister must demonstrate the need for it to us. He must show us why it is necessary, not just simply by anecdote, the expression of his opinion or the communication to us indirectly of an opinion given to him by the Garda. He must give us some evidence on which we can take the rest of the argument in trust that what he says is necessary. I cannot, and do not, exclude the possibility – I say this genuinely – that these measures are necessary, but I am not prepared to agree to them simply by it being asserted to me without any evidence or convincing argument – in some cases without any argument at all – as to why they are necessary.

This is very serious legislation. We are dealing with the curtailment of rights and the liberty of the citizen, irrespective of what he or she is accused of, and in view of this we are under a bounden duty to exercise the strictest possible scrutiny of any such proposal. That is all I am interested in doing. Senator Quinn, and to some extent Senator Boyle, have expressed the hope that the Minister will return with responses to some of the questions that have been raised. I do not know whether the Minister will do so when he replies to Second Stage. However, he has made it clear that he does not intend moving from his position. That puts us in a very odd position in terms of trying to debate the issue, or any expectation we might have that the Minister might address any of the difficulties we have.

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Children’s Ombudsman concerns must be heeded

July 1, 2008 § Leave a comment

Children\'s Ombudsman\'s concerns must be heededConcerns raised by the Ombudsman for Children in her Annual Report, over the state’s failure to properly protect vulnerable children and to support families with additional needs, must be heeded and acted on.

The 43 per cent increase in demand for the services of the agency is testament to the high regard in which Ms Logan and her Office are held, but alas, also provides a clear indication that the state, through its various departments and agencies is failing to deliver on the services that children and their families deserve, and to which they are entitled.

The fact that education-related complaints form the bulk of concerns raised, should be of particular concern, but it is hardly surprising given the dismal performance of Fianna Fail in making provision for children with special needs.

Over a quarter of complaints handled referred to health-related matters, such as child protection, access and adequacy of HSE services, and decisions regarding children in care.

We already know that social work teams are considerably under-resourced, and thanks to the HSE staff recruitment embargo, just about every one of them is operating well below full staff complement. Local child protection teams simply don’t have the resources they require to make early interventions, in order to prevent a problem in a family escalating into a crisis.

When you consider the massive backlogs in many areas of the country, the lack of an out-of-hours service, and the lack of specialist residential places for children with challenging behaviour, the scale of the problem is massive.

When Brian Cowen was elected as Taoiseach he told the Dail that the particular responsibility of the Govt was to “represent the interests of our young”. It’s now time for him to act on that worthy sentiment by ensuring that the concerns raised by Emily Logan are addressed and resolved immediately.

More :: Download the Ombudsman for Children’s Annual Report by clicking here (PDF)

Seanad to debate Labour Freedom of Information Bill

April 28, 2008 § Leave a comment

Leinster HouseLabour Senators will introduce the party’s the Freedom of Information Bill in the Senate next Wednesday during Labour Party Private Members Time.

Senator White said: “This Bill is designed to extend the scope of the Freedom of Information Act to a number of key bodies including the Garda Siochana and to repeal the regime of charges for access to information introduced by the Fianna Fail/PD government in 2003.

“The Freedom of Information legislation enacted by the Rainbow government was grounded in the belief that public bodies must be accountable to the ordinary public they are there to serve and that accountability requires openness. Freedom of information overturns the presumption of official secrecy set out in the Official Secrets Act and replaces it with the legal presumption that the public has a right to know.

Senator Hannigan said: “Freedom of information, everywhere it has been introduced, has brought about more open government and better administration of public services. Doing business in the open is the best guarantee of efficiency.

“However, this government has always been hostile the concept of freedom of information and has done its best to undermine the original Act by introducing legislation in 2003 that severely restricted categories of information that could be applied for and by imposing a series of heavy charges designed to discourage people from using the Act.

“This Bill seeks to undo some of that damage and to extend the scope of the Act to key public bodies that this government has so far refused to have included.”

More :: View the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill 2008 by clicking here.

EU matters debated with President

April 8, 2008 § 1 Comment

The President of the European Parliament, Mr. Hans-Gert Pottering addressed the Seanad this morning on his trip to Dublin. During his speech, Mr. Pottering praised the valuable work of Irishmen and Irishwomen in Europe, their contribution to the workings of the Union and the value of the Lisbon Reform Treaty.

“I trust in the wisdom of the Irish electorate, which perhaps is the best-informed electorate in the EU about European matters,” he said.

I got a chance to to say a few words following Mr. Pottering’s address. He are some extracts from that speech:

I am delighted on behalf of the Labour Party to welcome the President to the House. We are affiliated to the socialist group in the European Parliament, which vies with the President’s group for largest group.We do not have the largest group currently but we hope to before too long. I had the pleasure of meeting the President last night and he said something to me that very much resonated in the context in which we are speaking.

The President stated that being in Berlin in 1962 or 1963 and seeing the wall being constructed represented the single biggest motivating factor for his entry into politics. All of us, whether left, right, centre, red, green or blue, celebrated the removal of this abomination at the heart of our continent. It was extraordinary to see the division it constituted in the continent of Europe removed so quickly in the end. It was also an enormous moment historically for Europe to see it go. It seems that in the context in which we are discussing the Lisbon treaty and having this debate we should not forget that this was an enormous symbolic occasion for Europe and the importance of a united Europe.

Unity in Europe cannot be founded only on symbols, important as they are. My party will support the Lisbon treaty enthusiastically and will actively canvass and campaign throughout the country for a “yes” vote. This morning’s discussion is an interesting and useful occasion. However, while it is not so much that storm clouds are gathering, in any debate we must address the serious economic issues we have on a worldwide scale at present. We have seen what happened in the United States and Europe.

What serious role can the European Union take to address the concerns of many millions of workers throughout the Union that at a time of economic downturn, the first to suffer are those on low pay and low wages? These are people already affected by the impact of the various inequalities which still have not been removed throughout the continent. We still have a 15% gender gap in pay, despite all we achieved. We still have a gap between rich and poor in all countries of Europe and between the security of employment many of us have and the precarious situation many workers face.

An issue I am especially concerned about is the question of the draft directive on agency workers, which we have debated in this House. I am sorry to state the Government has not seen fit to support it, at least at this stage. Does the President agree with me that it is vital a measure such as this is brought forward quickly? If it is not brought forward during this Presidency, it should be brought forward in the next. People who quite rightly are asked to vote in support of the Lisbon treaty would see they have a stake in it and that it has a real impact on their lives.

Something which often amuses me, and I saw it arise again in recent days, is the notion of red tape. I would like to reflect on this idea. People rail against red tape and no one likes unnecessary bureaucracy. When we criticise red tape we forget that in many cases this so-called “red tape” represents a major achievement. People speak about the burden of regulation. I would like to speak more about the achievements of regulation such as the fixed-term work directive and basic minimum holidays and hours of work which came from European directives. We also have the equality directives, including the new equality framework directive. All of these were initiated in the Commission, debated and passed at European level. I do not regard any of these issues as red tape or a burden. I regard them as real achievements for workers throughout Europe.

It is unfortunate that during the debate in the European Parliament in recent days, it was suggested by some Members that the new framework directive brought forward by the Commission, of which I am sure the President is aware, represents more red tape. If what is needed to combat income, gender and race discrimination is called red tape then I embrace red tape. If this is what it is let us have more of it. Of course, this is not what it is. It is a pejorative way of describing it.

It is a real achievement of Europe and if the workers of Ireland are to be asked to support the Lisbon treaty, and we will ask them to do so, they must see that ratifying the treaty will have a real impact on their lives.

In response to my concerns, Mr. Pottering stated that the EU needed to find a “middle ground” in relation to red tape.

“If we introduce too much regulation, then parts of the political spectrum will not want anything to do with Brussels,” he said. “Those who prefer regulation will, if left alone, do too much. We must take all people along with us on the European project.”

Freedom of expression protects us all

March 18, 2008 § Leave a comment

My opinion piece on the Defamation Bill was published in the Sunday Independent on Sunday 16 March.

“The quality of public discourse should be a concern for all of us, especially for politicians. When we debate our defamation laws, as we did last week in Seanad Eireann, we have a responsibility that extends beyond self-interest and special pleading — whether by politicians or others offended by harsh criticism in the media, or by newspaper proprietors concerned with maximising sales and profits.”

To read the full article, click here.

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