Wednesday, 21 February 2007
Order of Business
The Order of Business shall be No. 7, Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2007 â Second Stage, resumed; and No. 8, Courts and Court Officers (Amendment) Bill 2007 â Order for Second Stage and Second and Subsequent Stages. It is proposed, notwithstanding anything in Standing Orders, that: (1) the DÃ¡il shall sit later than 8.30 p.m. and business shall be interrupted not later than 10 p.m.; (2) the proceedings on the resumed Second Stage of No. 7 shall, if not previously concluded, be brought to a conclusion at 6 p.m. tonight; (3) the Second and Subsequent Stages of No. 8 shall be taken today and the following arrangements shall apply: (i) the proceedings on Second Stage shall, if not previously concluded, be brought to a conclusion at 9.30 p.m. tonight; the speeches of a Minister or Minister of State and the main spokespersons for the Fine Gael Party, the Labour Party and the Technical Group, who shall be called upon in that order, shall not exceed 20 minutes in each case; the speech of each other Member called upon not to exceed ten minutes in each case; Members may share time and a Minister or Minister of State shall be called upon to make a speech in reply which shall not exceed five minutes; (ii) the proceedings on Committee and Remaining Stages shall, if not previously concluded, be brought to a conclusion at 10 p.m. tonight by one question which shall be put from the Chair and which shall, in relation to amendments, include only those set down or accepted by the TÃ¡naiste and Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. Private Members' Business is No. 38, Civil Unions Bill 2006 â Second Stage (resumed), to conclude at 8.30 p.m.
Deputy Staunton is my party's spokesperson on this area. He has made the point that this is an extensive Bill and that members of the Opposition only had one day to consider the implications of the range of proposals made in the Bill. I do not know whether the Minister, Deputy Brennan, would agree. It is a very short time within which to consider such a range of proposals. I do not intend to vote against it but wish to make that point.
The Labour Party agrees with the Leader of Fine Gael on this matter, that it is a very short time to consider such a detailed Bill. Many Members wanted to speak but they simply will not have the opportunity now. We are opposed to the proposal.
I concur with what has been said. The Bill is of considerable interest to Members, including those in my party. Not all those who wish to speak will be accommodated. I do not see the reason the debate should be curtailed in this way. The Bill contains a range of measures which need to be dealt with.
I agree with the three previous speakers. I ask the Taoiseach to facilitate provision on the Order of Business to allow the Minister for Health and Children to answer questions on the growing crisis in accident and emergency departments right across the land. Yesterday in Tallaght Hospital more people than ever were lying on chairs and trolleys.
There is no need for a guillotine on this measure, on which there is general agreement. It is a short, enabling measure to appoint additional judges. The Government has got into guillotine mode and seems to be guillotining everything in sight. We are opposed.
That was not my fault. I wish to ask two questions.
I refer to a report made available to the Department of Education and Science about the alleged serious drop in standards of young teachers and the difficulties this causes for the maintenance of teaching standards which is so important to the country. Will the Government make time available for a debate on this matter or does the Minister propose to hold a debate on the implications of the report in order that Deputies can express their concern?
Regarding the referendum on children, yesterday Deputy Rabbitte raised an issue about the separation of the protection of as against the welfare and rights of children. I commented on the matter yesterday evening. Is the Government opposed to holding a referendum now on the question of the zone of absolute protection and the question of soft information? This was considered in great detail by the committee and in respect of which there is no difficulty or opposition from any party in the House. Is the Government opposed to holding a referendum on those two issues now? I am not a constitutional lawyer but the other five issues may cause some difficulty and need to be fully debated. I committed my party to dealing with the matter before the end of the year, irrespective of what happens in the general election. Everybody should have the opportunity to tease out the issues and fully understand them, the balance of rights and so on.
On the first issue, that is a fairly old and limited report. It is three years old and was conducted on 140 students. I understand the matter is being addressed to the colleges. I do not think it is necessary for the House to debate a report of that nature.
On the question about the referendum, I stated my view yesterday and on Monday. We have listened to the views of the Opposition parties. The Minister of State, Deputy Brian Lenihan, and the people engaged in this matter are of the view that the issues should be taken together. There might be an argument in favour of two questions being put and we are open to considering it. I am not taken with the idea that we should hold two referendums on child protection in one year because the rights and protections issues are intertwined. It would be a case of holding one referendum now on the issue arising from the CC case, that of soft information, and then waiting until later in the year to take the others.
We would prefer if they were taken together, whenever that is. If there was an argument about the two questions and if two referendums were held in the one year, it might be questionable whether young people could be expected to become actively engaged. I invite the Deputy to make his views known in a referendum debate in order that there will be interest in the issue and a good turnout. Holding two referendums within a period of seven or eight months does not sound like a great idea but I will listen to the arguments.
However, having read the newspapers this morning, it seems the Government has since then decided to rule it out, as that seems to be the sentiment attributed to the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Lenihan.
Given the growing opinion that it is not feasible or wise to have this omnibus referendum this side of the general election, and given the weight of comment from expert opinion in the newspapers again today that the matter requires further discussion and teasing out, is it not too long to delay the issue relating to the protection of children? Why could we not run with that issue, for example, contemporaneous with the general election, and run with the other issue as soon as a reasonable debate can take place? Would that not be a more appropriate way to proceed?
Everybody in the House wants the amendment with regard to the protection of children from sexual predators enacted, and wants that protection afforded to children. The experts say they need more time to tease through the other propositions to permit us to get it right rather than rush it.
I want to get it right rather than rush it. However, while I do not know about growing opinion in the newspapers, I know of growing opinion among people who were quite agitated last night and this morning. They have waited for us to deal with some of the issues that were comprehensively dealt with in the Constitution review report, following the Mrs. Justice McGuinness report of 1993. It then went for nine years into the all-party committeeââ
Please, Deputy. It came out of the all-party committee yet ten years on we want more time and some are even suggesting we should have another committee. Some of the groups are very agitated as a result.
I am trying to be helpful. The parties have had the substance of our proposals for several weeks and have had the proposals since Monday. I understand they must have some time but I would prefer if they could give me their written views on how they see the matter moving forward. Many of the groups, including adoption groups, believe these are urgent matters which should be dealt with immediately. These issues are creating much difficulty in many cases. That is view of the groups. They do not share the opinion that there should be a delay and that the questions should be intertwined.
I must consider all of the angles. If the Opposition parties could give me their considered opinion, we could try to take a path forward.
Does the Taoiseach intend to move ahead in the way the Government can move in areas that may be related to but not dependent on the referendum? Just to indicate, at the very least, that there is bona fide sincerity about delivering protection for children, and not engaging in anything that could be seen as politicalââ
I wish to ask with regard to the register of persons who are unsafe to work with children. Given the call from the British and Northern Irish authorities that we would put in place measures to deal with soft information without the need for a referendum, can that be done?
It was pointed out that to do that, we would need the protection of the Constitution. That is why there has been a long delay on this issue. There has been a long-term mission to outline documents to see whether we can establish a designated statutory body with overall responsibility for collecting and sharing information with other agencies about the risk or occurrence of child sexual abuse or other forms of abuse. We have engaged in discussions with Northern Ireland to ascertain whether such a body would be established. I understand it would be easier to achieve this if we had the consolidation of our constitutional cover on it. That is part of the delay.
On promised legislation, I will shortly attend the launch of another report on trafficking in Ireland. Before Christmas, the Taoiseach gave a promise during the Order of Business that anti-trafficking legislation would be introduced as one of the top two priorities for the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. Will we see that promised legislation before the election? If so, when?
I would like to ask a different question, if I may. Perhaps the Clerk would wait until the question is put before the briefing.
The TÃ¡naiste's amendment postpones the Second Reading of the Civil Unions Bill for six months, knowing the DÃ¡il will not have six months to do so. Therefore, it will be effectively defeated asââ
I wish to refer to the Salient Rulings of the Chair, in particular Salient Ruling 302, which states: "It is not for the Chair or the House to decide whether a Bill, a section of a Bill or an amendment is or is not in conflict with the Constitution". The reasoning in the Minister's amendment is that he notes that the Bill as presented appears to be inconsistent with the Constitution. I regard that as out of order, in conformity with the Ceann Comhairle's ruling, and I ask thatââ
This is a point of order. There is a growing practice whereby we can raise the issue on the following day â on Thursday. However, the Taoiseach is unlikely to be here on a Thursday and from past experience the TÃ¡naiste is unlikely to be here. I register my strong protest at this growing practice. There has been a tradition in this House that members of the Opposition could on a daily basis, regardless of the day, raise an item pertaining to promised legislation. I intend to try to ensure they are able to do this for as long as I am in the House.
If the Deputy checks the record of the House, back to the establishment of the State, he will find more issues have been raised on the Order of Business in my time in the Chair than ever in the past. The Deputy already had a question today at Leaders' Questions, to which the Taoiseach referred, so he is on the recordââ