Dáil debates

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Priority Questions

Children's Rights Referendum

2:00 pm

Photo of Caoimhghín Ó CaoláinCaoimhghín Ó Caoláin (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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Question 19: To ask the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the date on which she plans to publish legislation to facilitate the holding of a referendum on children's rights; when she will advise opposition spokespeople of the wording of her amendment; the date on which the referendum will be held; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [33710/12]

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Minister, Department of Children; Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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The Programme for Government 2011 - 2016 states that the referendum on children's rights is a priority and that the wording of the proposed referendum will be along the lines of that proposed by the all-party Joint Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children, JCCAC. From the outset of deliberations on the constitutional amendment on children's rights, the need for all-party consensus on this topic was highlighted. Having been a member of the JCCAC alongside Deputy Ó Caoláin, I can attest to the level of all-party co-operation afforded the then Government in the work of the committee. I pay tribute to the work of the Chairman of that committee, former Deputy Mary O'Rourke.

Both myself and officials of my Department have engaged extensively with the Attorney General and her officials to formulate a draft wording for the proposed constitutional amendment. Contact in that regard is ongoing and, as part of normal process, will involve consultations across the relevant Departments in advance of presentation of a proposed wording to Government for consideration. Integral to the passing of the proposed amendment will be a change as regards adoption law in the position of children of marriage and married parents. To ensure that the public are fully informed of the nature of the proposal and the consequences of approving it, the proposed amending legislation in the area of adoption will be published along with the wording of the amendment.

Publication of the referendum Bill will have regard to the need to allow an appropriate period for the proposal to be fully debated and considered by the public and by the Oireachtas.

I have already undertaken informal consultations with the political parties and others and I intend to continue to consult with Opposition spokespersons as the preparations which are currently under way progress. I also envisage that the issue will be dealt with in the Joint Committee on Health and Children.

The Government has yet to consider the matter of the precise referendum date but it has already decided that it will take place later this year and will be held on a stand-alone basis. The significant and complex work currently being done is geared towards this timeline and objective.

Photo of Caoimhghín Ó CaoláinCaoimhghín Ó Caoláin (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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The Minister will understand the frustration felt in some non-Government parties at the absence of information regarding the ongoing engagement with the Attorney General and the consideration by the various Departments which the Minister indicated previously. There is concern that slippage may occur. We are a little over a week away from the summer recess and the House will not resume until September. The referendum is to be held in the autumn but much can happen in the intervening period of weeks. I am sure other Opposition Deputies are of the same view as myself and are anxious to have a direct engagement with the Minister. I would be available throughout August and early September if an opportunity presented.

We are all, understandably, anxious that an all-party supported proposal be put to the people. I note the Minister said the wording of the proposed referendum will be along the lines of that proposed by the joint committee. Nevertheless, the absence of hard information gives rise to justifiable concern that what we agreed during the course of that long engagement in committee may be emaciated by a variety of departmental considerations and the Attorney General's fears. If the Minister is not in a position to provide certainty regarding the date of publication of the facilitating legislation for the referendum and the changes to the Adoption Acts to be presented in tandem, will she indicate her willingness to meet spokespeople on children's issues in this House either over the course of the recess or early in September? I hope she will understand fully the anxiousness I am describing.

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Minister, Department of Children; Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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As the Deputy will be aware, this was a priority for the Government and we have not put off a decision on holding the referendum. We have made it clear that it will be held this year and, given its importance and the range of issues to be addressed, that it will be a stand alone referendum. That is an indication of our commitment and such a timely response has not been seen from a Government previously.

I assure the Deputy that I will liaise directly with him and with Deputy McConalogue on an ongoing basis between now and September. I am also happy to brief them fully on the adoption legislation. These are complex issues. There is all-party agreement on them and I want to continue that agreement. I will certainly facilitate ongoing consultation and discussion on the referendum and the accompanying adoption legislation.

Photo of Caoimhghín Ó CaoláinCaoimhghín Ó Caoláin (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the Minister's indication that she will meet Members of other parties. I acknowledge that we have spoken previously on the matter but it is important that our engagement is ongoing. She will understand that in the absence of detail from not only our own parts, but also a range of external interests in this area, the clamour of concern is growing. We must have faith in what she and her Department are proposing. I have had faith heretofore and I want to be able to respond to concerns with the certainty I had when we concluded our deliberations and report in committee more than two years ago. It must be acknowledged that the delay is inordinate and this gives rise to understandable concern. The Minister would go some way towards addressing this concern by keeping others in the House informed as best she can. I hope we will be consulted prior to the Cabinet agreeing to the wording. Surely that would best inform the final proposition to be put before the people.

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Minister, Department of Children; Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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I understand the point the Deputy is making. I do not accept that the delay has been inordinate. On the contrary, this is a priority issue for the Government and our actions reflect that. My Department and the Office of the Attorney General is doing detailed and committed work on the issue and it is subject to considerable interaction and discussion between the Attorney General's office and me. Considerable progress has been made but the Deputy will appreciate that further work is required in terms of painstakingly examining the wording that was considered by the committee to see how it can be translated into a constitutional referendum. I will continue to brief Members because I agree with Deputy Ó Caoláin on the importance of co-operation in this area.