Wednesday, 12 May 2010
Question 2: To ask the Taoiseach the position regarding the implementation of the recommendations of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12964/10]
Question 3: To ask the Taoiseach the recommendations of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Constitution that have been implemented to date; his plans for the implementation of outstanding recommendations; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [13814/10]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 2 to 4, inclusive, together.
I have put it on record before that neither I, nor my Department, is solely responsible for the implementation of recommendations in the Reports of the Joint Committee. As Deputies may be aware, the joint committee has produced three reports to date dealing with freedom of expression; with amending the Constitution; and with the functioning of the electoral system. It would be a matter for the relevant Ministers to consider any recommendations emanating from these reports and to bring forward proposals to respond to them, as appropriate. I should point out, however, that two of them were Interim reports, surveying current practice in this and other jurisdictions, and did not put forward any recommendations.
Will the Taoiseach confirm whether the Minister of State with responsibility for children was given an allocation of €3 million to hold a referendum this year on children's rights?
The Chairman of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children, Deputy O'Rourke, recently called on the Government to hold a referendum. She also revealed that the Minister of State with responsibility for children has a budget of €3 million to hold that referendum. She confirmed that the wording was agreed and she presumed, as Chairman, that it would be accepted by Government. That was on 30 April.
In confirming that €3 million is available and has been assigned to the Minister of State for the holding of this referendum, can the Taoiseach give us some clarification on whether it is intended to hold it in 2010? It is a matter that affects a large number of people, and the need for a referendum has been agreed, after a great deal of work, by the all-party Oireachtas committee. The proposed wording should be inserted into our Constitution by a decision of the people. I support this strongly. The Government should now be in a position to say it will hold the referendum at a date to be fixed in 2010 so that those involved can begin to focus on their task, which is to ensure people are as well informed as possible so they can make their decision when they are asked to vote on the referendum.
The Minister of State has a budget of €3 million. The all-party committee has agreed the wording of the amendment and the Chairman of the committee presumes the Government will accept that wording. Could we now have a statement from the Taoiseach on behalf of the Government to the effect that when the Minister of State comes back to the Cabinet, he will make a decision to hold this referendum some time in 2010?
As I have said a number of times, the committee issued three reports in this regard. The first of these recommended that the Government establish a statutory scheme for Garda vetting to regulate the collation, exchange and employment of hard and soft information for the purpose of child protection and to require that all persons working with children be subject to vetting. In conjunction with the Minister for Justice and Law Reform, the Minister of State with responsibility for children is working on the preparation of legislation to establish a national vetting bureau.
The second report dealt with absolute or strict liability in respect of sexual offences against or in connection with children. It contained 39 recommendations in total, some of which were restatements of recommendations in the 2006 report of the Joint Committee on Child Protection in respect of criminal justice procedures. Again, the Minister for Justice and Law Reform, on behalf of the Minister of State with responsibility for children and youth affairs, obtained Government approval in December 2009 to prepare the general scheme of a Bill to implement the recommendations of the joint committee, including the majority recommendations in cases in which there was no unanimity. That Bill will deal with the issues of absolute and strict liability that arose in the context of the Supreme Court judgment in the CC case.
The third report, which was published in February, dealt with the rights of children under the Constitution and the statute and case law concerning adoption, guardianship, care proceedings, custody and access to children, and included an alternative wording for a constitutional amendment. The report is currently being considered at senior official level in relevant Departments prior to its consideration by Ministers; the Attorney General is also considering the legal and constitutional issues that arise. The work is ongoing and after consideration by the Government, decisions can be taken.
The Government does not seem to give issues relating to child protection a high priority. The Ombudsman for Children pointed out in yesterday's report that the HSE has failed to properly implement child safety guidelines over the past decade, leaving children at risk of abuse. The first of the reports to which the Taoiseach refers, which was published in September 2008, recommended legislation to deal with what was called soft information for child protection. At the time that report was published, the idea was that the legislation would be introduced in the autumn of 2008. We are now well into 2010 and, according to the Government's list of legislation, the heads of the Bill have not even been considered yet.
The third report from the committee chaired by Deputy Mary O'Rourke, which was published in February of this year, recommends a referendum to enshrine the rights of children in the Constitution and contains an agreed wording for the referendum. All expectation had been that the referendum would take place in 2010, but the Taoiseach does not yet appear to be in a position to state whether it will take place this year.
We have been kicking the issue of a referendum back and forth with the Taoiseach for a number of weeks. Will there or will there not be a referendum on the rights of children, based on the recommendation of the all-party committee, in 2010?
I do not agree with the Deputy that the Government does not place a high importance on these matters. Under a previous Administration we set up the Office of the Minister for Children, which has been a welcome development and has resulted in many improvements in the administration of this area. The Office has brought together disparate activities that traditionally had been associated with different Departments, which was seen as one of the reasons a legislative framework was not established as quickly as we would like. There have been reports from Oireachtas committees considering these matters, and they are being acted upon in that Bills are being prepared.
These are not simple issues. The first report recommended the establishment of a statutory scheme for vetting and dealt with the question of hard and soft information, as well as recommending that persons working with children should be subject to vetting. These are involved issues which relate to endangerment and the risk of sexual exploitation or abuse of children. They are important matters and we are committed to introducing legislation that will provide a statutory basis for the vetting of persons to identify those who are suitable to work with children and vulnerable adults. As I said, we hope to see the general scheme of a Bill submitted to the Government at the earliest possible date.
As I said, the preparation of the general scheme of a Bill dealing with the recommendations in the second report was approved by the Government in December. The Government is in no way neutral or indifferent to these matters. The reason they have been dealt with at such length and in such depth by joint committees is precisely the complexity of the issues involved and the need to find a solution which will meet the objectives without causing other problems to arise as a result. We must make sure these measures are effective.
I have been clear about the situation regarding the third report published in February, which dealt with the rights of children under the Constitution and the statute and case law concerning adoption, guardianship, care proceedings, custody and access to children. These are important matters and they are currently being considered at senior official level in the relevant Departments prior to their consideration by Ministers; the Attorney General is also involved. I have made it clear that as soon as that work is completed it can be considered by Government. It is not the case that these issues are not being dealt with.
I will stick with the issue of the referendum. We have the report from the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children, which contains a proposed wording for the constitutional amendment. In these matters, the wording is the most difficult aspect, and much time and effort was put into this on an all-party basis. The legislation to allow for a referendum is straightforward once the wording is agreed. It is a standard Bill; we have had constitutional amendments here before.
The wording has been agreed and the legislation is simple. As Deputy Kenny has pointed out, money has been set aside to hold a referendum in 2010. Will we have this referendum in 2010? It is a simple question and the Taoiseach should be able to give a straight answer.
I understand there is an agreed wording from the committee. The advice the Government takes on these matters is from the Attorney General, who, as the Deputy knows, must be given an opportunity to provide such advice. The various Departments must also consider the impact of the implementation of the comittee's recommendations. The Government must be allowed that opportunity, because it is its responsibility to bring forward such legislation on the basis of approval by Government. Constitutional amendments are not straightforward.
Has the Government considered this at all yet? The report was published in February. When a referendum is being considered, there are normally just a couple of opportunities in the year for it to be held. One of those is the beginning of June, which is what I expected. I got the Dáil schedule from the Whips office earlier in the year and noticed there was a week at the beginning of June when there were to be no Dáil sittings. I assumed and said to myself that would be the week we would have the children's rights referendum. That would be the logical time to have it. What is the Government's plan for having it or what is the position? The political belief is that the Taoiseach is pulling back from holding a referendum on children's rights because he is afraid he will have to have the three by-elections on the same day, but the last thing he wants is an election of any sort. It seems to me the Taoiseach is sacrificing the right of children here to have their rights written into the Constitution and refusing to have this referendum, which was agreed on an all-party basis, in order to save his political skin.
I assure the Deputy my political skin is well hardened and well worn after 26 years in public life. He need have no worries in that regard. I am talking about the merits of the legislation before us, but I am well aware of the political charges the Deputy and his colleagues would like to continue to dissipate to the public. The churn of statements never ceases to amaze me, despite how inconsistent they may be. I suppose that is the luxury of opposition.
I suppose there is a limit to the number of ways we can put this question to the Taoiseach. Is the Government committed to holding a referendum on children's rights and is it committed to holding such a referendum in the current year? The response we received from the Tánaiste here last Thursday was that the matter has not been finalised by the Government yet and the Taoiseach has stated this morning that the issue is currently being considered. I asked the Taoiseach yesterday what was being considered. Can we have a firm response this morning that the Government is committed to holding a referendum on children's rights this year and that the only matters being addressed are the sign-off, hopefully, on the wording recommended by all parties in the House, the drafting of the referendum Bill and the preparations for a referendum commission? This consideration should not take a serious length of time, given the amount of work already invested in the committee's deliberations and the fact the Government parties were represented in that engagement and the current Minister with responsibility for children was an active attendee and participant for the greater part of the preparation and production of the third report of the committee recommending the referendum on children's rights.
We have indicated to the Taoiseach and Tánaiste time and again that there is growing concern and understandable impatience with regard to this referendum, particularly given the seriousness and import of what is involved, the backdrop to the particular commendation from the committee, the various reports and the exposure of the dreadful events that have gone on over many years in a variety of settings. These matters continue to threaten the safety of children in a variety of settings today We need to take the appropriate action to guarantee children's rights as an absolute imperative of the Constitution. I urge the Taoiseach to be more forthcoming and to be crystal clear in affirming the Government's commitment to holding a referendum on children's rights in the current year.
I stated already that it is precisely because of the seriousness and import of the issues involved that the Government is proceeding as it is. I refer the Deputy to the programme for Government in respect of the Government commitment in these matters.
That unfortunate and trite reply will do nothing to assuage the fears of Deputies here and an ever-growing body of interested observers as to the Government's intent on the back of the committee's recommendations. There can be no less awareness on the part of the Taoiseach than there is on ours that there is growing concern within non-governmental organisations dedicated to the service of children's rights and interests throughout the State. There is an imperative on him and the Government to show clearly that they hold common intent and that they are absolutely committed to carrying out the recommendations of the committee. That is not clear. The Taoiseach refers us to the revised Government programme, but the last one was not worth the paper on which it was written. Such a referral gives no assurance and does not assuage fears one iota.
The Taoiseach has the opportunity this morning to state firmly the Government's intention to hold a referendum on children's rights in the current year. We, with one voice across all the Opposition parties, ask him to do that. The Taoiseach is not doing it, which of itself raises all the serious questions other Deputies and other voices outside the House are raising. I will ask the question again for the last time. Will the Taoiseach confirm to the House that the Government is committed to holding a referendum on children's rights and will he hold that referendum in 2010?
I told the Deputy and previous Deputies precisely what the Government position is on the matter and do not understand why the Deputy should suggest the Government's commitment is not genuine. We are dealing with this issue.
I listened to Deputy Ó Caoláin without interruption, but every time I reply to him, he feels he has the right to interrupt me. If the Deputy wants a reply, he must wait for it, but there is nothing I can do about the fact my reply will never be satisfactory for him. The facts of the matter are as I have outlined them to the Deputy. If he wants to relegate the programme for Government in the way he did, by dismissing it out of hand, there is obviously nothing I can say to him to convince him - because he does not wish to be convinced - about what the position of the Government is. I have referred the Deputy, if he wants to know what the political commitment is, to the programme for Government. With regard to the work that is ongoing, I have explained to him what exactly the Government is doing on this matter. It is a serious and important matter and work is proceeding. The Attorney General's advice will, obviously, have to be considered by the Government in respect of all of that.
I understand and recognise the work that was done and the fact that members of the committee from all parties came forward with the wording. That was good work, but the Government must now consider that position and decide where it goes from here.
Would the Taoiseach accept that there is widespread concern that the Government is merely paying lip service to children's rights and child protection? Would he acknowledge that the concern is built on very solid foundations, given that not a single recommendation in the report of an all-party committee on child protection issues, which was published in autumn 2006, has been implemented? The Office of the Minister for Children's review of the operation of the Children First child protection guidelines which was published at the end of July 2008 referred extensively to the failure to apply them uniformly across the State and to the reality that children who were at risk were not given the protection to which they were entitled. The concern that the Government and the current and past Ministers of State with responsibility for children are only paying lip service to this issue was compounded by the report published by the Ombudsman for Children yesterday. It quite astonishingly reveals that, following the review carried out by the Office of the Minister for Children which confirmed that the Children First child protection guidelines were not being implemented, a high level group within that Department which was established in 2008 to ensure application of the child protection guidelines did not meet on one occasion in 2009.
Would the Taoiseach acknowledge that the ultimate condemnation of the current Minister of State with responsibility for children and the Minister for Health and Children, and their predecessors in Fianna Fáil-led Governments in this State since 2007, is the finding by the Ombudsman for Children of serious maladministration in the Office of the Minister for Children? The report details quite clearly that over a period of eight years there was an utter failure to exercise the oversight the Department took upon itself to ensure the full and uniform application of the Children First guidelines. Will the Taoiseach explain the reason for the maladministration or, in the diplomatic statutory language of the Ombudsman for Children, a failure that constitutes unsound administration under section 8 of the Ombudsman for Children Act 2002? Will he explain why, during the period he was Minister for Finance and subsequently Taoiseach, there has been unsound administration, a failure to ensure uniform application of the child protection guidelines and, along the east coast under the old health boards and under the current HSE, there has been a cover-up of an industrial dispute with the IMPACT union which has resulted in instructions being issued to social workers not to apply fully the child protection guidelines? Will the Taoiseach acknowledge that the delay in even acknowledging that a referendum on children's rights will take place this year absolutely confirms that the Government is doing nothing other than paying lip service and is prepared to sacrifice the welfare of children to cheap headlines and sound-bites in the daily newspapers?
I could not compete with Deputy Shatter on cheap headlines. He is a past master at it.
With regard to the substance of the charges made, I do not accept the Deputy's contention with regard to the personage of the Minister of State with responsibility for children, Deputy Barry Andrews, and the efforts he is making-----
He is a bright young man going nowhere.
The Minister of State with responsibility for children and youth affairs has overseen the development of revised Children First guidelines. These latest guidelines take account of previous reviews and have been modified to incorporate feedback from the Ombudsman for Children. They are now being printed and will be widely disseminated as part of the initiation of a comprehensive implementation process. The new guidelines will be supported by a detailed implementation framework which will apply across all sectors and will include a particular emphasis on the need for systems of quality assurance and inspection to ensure that the guidelines are being properly implemented. The ultimate aim must always be to ensure the protection and well-being of children who are being abused or at risk of being abused.
Many of the actions outlined in the Government's implementation plan for the Ryan report will have a direct impact on the operation of child welfare and protection services and on many of the organisations, both voluntary and statutory, which have direct contact with the children. The Government is committed to the implementation of this plan and €15 million is being made available this year for the implementation of these actions. The implementation plan includes a commitment to draft legislation by December this year to introduce a statutory obligation on State bodies and others in receipt of public funding to comply with Children First. This requirement, together with the detailed implementation framework for the revised Children First guidelines, will ensure that the weaknesses identified by the Ombudsman for Children are comprehensively addressed.
I welcome the fact that this report on an area of great importance has been published. It sets out the findings of the Ombudsman for Children arising from an investigation into the implementation of the guidelines. They have been in place since 1999 and were recently reviewed and revised by the Office of the Minister for Children. We have a duty of care to try to alert everybody to the possibility of child abuse. The report recognises that substantial efforts have been made since 1999 to implement the Children First guidelines, which were designed to strengthen existing child protection services. It acknowledges that Children First is by far the most comprehensive and far-reaching document on child protection and welfare in the history of the State.
The report also highlights difficulties in the implementation of Children First and, in doing so, concurs with previous reviews, including a comprehensive review of the guidelines published in 2008 by the Office of the Minister for Children. The Ombudsman for Children's investigation found that insufficient efforts were made by the health boards and the HSE to drive forward implementation of the guidelines and resolve problems arising-----
The Ombudsman for Children's investigation found that insufficient efforts were made by the health boards and the HSE to drive forward implementation of these guidelines and resolve problems arising, particularly variable implementation across the country. The report is also critical of the degree of inter-agency oversight and the role of the Department of Health and Children and the Office of the Minister for Children in this regard. These adverse findings focus in particular on the period 2003 to 2007.
These findings have been made and have been acknowledged. The work that has been undertaken by the Minister to deal with it is an open and fair assessment by him of where we stand. If there are further detailed questions the Deputy wishes to ask about the report, the Minister will be happy to discuss them.
Will the Taoiseach not apologise to the House for the absolute incompetence and maladministration disclosed to have occurred at central Government level, not simply within the HSE, over a period of eight years with regard to child protection? Will he acknowledge that the promises now being made, to put in place arrangements to ensure that the Children First child protection guidelines are applied uniformly, replicate the promises made by the then Minister of State with responsibility for children, Deputy Fahey, in 1999 when the child protection guidelines were first published? Finally, in the context of the Taoiseach suggesting that everything possible is being done to implement the child protection guidelines, will he acknowledge that there is an enormous contradiction between publishing an implementation plan in July 2009 arising from the Ryan commission report to provide additional protection for children-----
-----and what is stated - this is a question, Sir - in the Ombudsman for Children's report, that the high level group established to ensure the application uniformly across the country of the child protection guidelines did not meet on a single occasion in 2009? Perhaps the Taoiseach can tell the House if that group has yet met in 2010.
These are detailed questions that can be put to the Minister about the administration of his Department. That information, as the Deputy will be aware, would not be available to me today, but the Minister is happy to answer any questions the Deputy has.
I was anxious to move on to one or two other matters on which Government has promised constitutional change. Before I do so, I want to ask the Taoiseach about the children's referendum. I am not clear, from the answers he has been giving to us today, whether it is the case that the Government has yet to consider Deputy O'Rourke's report on the holding on a referendum or whether the Government has considered it and has not made a decision on it. First, can he tell us has the Government considered that report and considered the question of holding a referendum?
Second, I am not clear what the position is vis-À-vis the Attorney General. I am not clear whether the Taoiseach is waiting for the Attorney General to come to the Government with his opinion or whether the Government has asked the Attorney General for an opinion on specific matters relating to the referendum. Perhaps he might clarify that as well.
I have one or two other questions I want to ask about other children's issues.
On this matter, the Minister of State with responsibility for children and youth affairs presented a copy of the third and final report of the joint committee to Cabinet in March. All Ministers and Departments must consider the report and examine the implications of the proposed wording for their individual areas of responsibility. A senior officials group has been reconvened to guide the interaction and co-ordination of the responses of all Departments. The Attorney General will be asked for his advice as to the legal and constitutional ramifications of the report and his input will be critical in terms of deciding on future actions.
That clears it up. It is quite clear that the Government has not yet discussed the matter and the Attorney General has not yet been even asked for his opinion on it. That tells us plenty about where the Government is at on the holding of this referendum.
There were commitments in the programme for Government about possible constitutional changes. There was a commitment in the programme for Government to establish an independent electoral commission. That has not been established. Can the Taoiseach give us some indication as to when it might be established?
One of the matters that such an electoral commission was to consider was the feasibility of extending the franchise for presidential elections to the Irish abroad. Given that there is to be a presidential election next year, if we were to extend the franchise to the Irish abroad for that election the matter would have to be progressed soon. When will the electoral commission be established? What is the current state of play on the idea of extending the franchise for presidential elections to the Irish abroad?
In respect of any such matter, it is for the relevant Minister to bring forward proposals for the establishment of such a body. That matter has not yet been brought to Government.
Any commitment on work the electoral commission would do is not predicated on having to report prior to the presidential election. That is not the commitment that is in the programme for Government. It is about establishing the independent electoral commission and considering these matters, including the one referred to by the Deputy. Until the commission is established, I cannot anticipate how it will consider that matter.
On constitutional matters and on a further matter, will the Government act on the recommendation of the Joint Committee on the Constitution to remove the reference to blasphemy in the Constitution? Does the Taoiseach agree with the committee when it stated in the 2008 report on the freedom of expression that in a modern constitution blasphemy is not a phenomenon against which there should be express constitutional prohibition? The committee's report stated that if there is a need to protect against religious offence or incitement, it is more appropriate that it is dealt with by way of a legislative intervention with due regard to the fundamental right of free speech.
Given that the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Dermot Ahern, indicated his willingness to make this constitutional change, will the Taoiseach indicate whether he himself will support such a change, whether it has been addressed by Cabinet and whether there is any serious consideration being given to the removal of this reference against the backdrop of the inclusion of the offence of blasphemy in the Defamation Act 2009?
I am aware that the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform has made public his view that he intends to devise a proposal in this area for consideration by the Government. That has not yet arrived at Government and I would not anticipate what the Government's decision would be on the issue. Were it to be approved or were it to be proceeded with, obviously, it would have to be considered in conjunction with any referendum that would take place in the future - we have done that in the past.
Given that - as the Taoiseach will be well aware - there was considerable unease about the inclusion of the reference in the recent defamation Bill and given the Minister's own stated commitment on the record which reflects the views of the all-party Joint Committee on the Constitution which made this recommendation in 2008, will the Taoiseach, as leader of the Government, indicate his position and will he undertake, following both the recommendation of the committee and the already stated view/disposition of the Minister with responsibility in this area, to urge that such a referendum would take place to remove this reference?
This is a matter of procedure. Of course, when a proposal is brought forward it will be considered by the Government. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform has indicated it is his intention to devise such a proposal in due course and it will be considered by Government, and when Government makes a decision, that decision will be communicated to the public.
I have found myself in many cases to be supportive of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform in many of the initiatives he has brought forward. Perhaps Deputy Ó Caoláin would not mind me considering the proposal when it comes forward. He might give me that privilege as well.
On the April 2004 report of the All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution, in 2006 the then Taoiseach, in reply to a question on the implementation of the building land section of that report, stated that the Government would bring forward another set of proposals, which must go through the Government and which he would announce here. That was included in the first programme for Government but it seems to have slipped out of the second programme for Government. Perhaps it is still there.
I refer to the All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution's report on building land of April 2004. In April 2006, in reply to a question, the then Taoiseach stated that the Government would bring forward another set of proposals but that they must come before Government, and they would be announced in the House shortly thereafter. The matter also was included in the new programme for Government but it has not been included in the second programme for Government between the Green Party and Fianna Fáil. Surely the Green Party did not agree to it being dropped. Is it still part of Government policy and in the programme for Government?
I would make the point that any proposal that comes from a Minister, regardless of whether it is specifically referred to in any programme, would be considered by Government in due course. I cannot be any more specific than that.