Thursday, 11 July 2019
Citizens' Assemblies Bill 2019 [Seanad]: Second and Subsequent Stages
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
The Citizens' Assemblies Bill 2019 is a technical measure designed to enable the register of electors to be used for selecting members of the citizens' assemblies which the Government, on 11 June 2019, agreed to establish. Two assemblies are being established. These are the citizens' assembly 2019 and the Dublin citizens' assembly. The role of the citizens' assembly 2019 will be to bring forward proposals to advance gender equality under a number of specific headings. The role of the Dublin citizens' assembly will be to consider the best model of local government for Dublin and, in particular, the issue of a directly elected mayor and his or her powers.
The Government decision requires the establishment of the assemblies to be approved by resolutions of both Houses of the Oireachtas. The motion approving the establishment of the citizens' assembly 2019 was approved by resolution of the Dáil last Tuesday and by the Seanad earlier today. The resolution sets out the detailed arrangements that will apply to the working of the assembly. A motion approving the establishment of the Dublin citizens' assembly will follow later. These assemblies will operate under the aegis of the Department of the Taoiseach and will comprise a chairperson to be appointed by the Government and 99 citizens selected randomly from local authorities' registers of electors. The same chairperson but a different selection of 99 persons from the Dublin local authorities' registers of electors will make up the Dublin citizens' assembly. The assemblies are to be run consecutively, commencing with the citizens' assembly on gender equality at the end of October 2019, and will take six months each to complete the work involved.
In order to proceed with the establishment of the assemblies as proposed, it is necessary to bring forward legislation to allow the register of electors to be used for the selection of assembly members. This is because section 13A(3) of the Electoral Act 1992 provides that the use of the register of electors is confined to electoral and other statutory purposes. Such a statutory purpose is provided, for example, in the Juries Act for the selection of members of juries. A similar approach was taken previously in 2012 when arrangements were being made for the membership of the then proposed Convention on the Constitution and again in 2016 for the then proposed Citizens' Assembly. As to the selection process itself, a polling company will be commissioned for this purpose. Its brief will be the selection of a representative sample of the Irish electorate in terms of gender, age and regional spread. The selection process will be overseen by the independent chairperson of the assembly.
I will now outline the detail of the Bill. Section 1 provides that information in the electoral register may be used for the purpose of selecting citizens of Ireland to participate in both assemblies. It provides in subsection (2) that section 13A(3) of the Electoral Act 1992, which confines the use of the electoral register, shall not apply in the establishment of these citizens' assemblies. In subsection (3), definitions are provided for "the Act of 1992", "the edited register" and "the register of electors". Section 2 contains standard provisions dealing with the Title and construction of the Bill.
The sole purpose of the Bill is to provide in statute for the use of the electoral register in the selection of members of the two citizens' assemblies. The Bill is required to facilitate the establishment of the assemblies, as proposed and agreed by the House. I commend it to the House.
I thank the Minister for outlining and summarising the provisions of the Bill. This is a short Bill designed to facilitate the establishment of citizens' assemblies to deal with two very important issues. One relates to gender equality, the gender pay gap and all other matters that go with it, particularly the need to examine whether Article 40.1.2° should be removed from the Constitution or amended. It will specifically look at the role of those who care and the interaction of carers and parents with children, parental care and parental leave. This is a very important matter to be looked at in modern Ireland.
In general terms, criticism aside of the citizens' assemblies they have provided very good fora for teasing through in great detail important issues and matters of the day and looking at where potential pitfalls may be. For those who may have a particular view on it, this is an advisory assembly. The Dáil is the citizens' assembly and that has primacy. It is right and proper and very useful in many instances to consult.
Certainly on the gender equality issue, it is very important in modern society that we make sure we provide the best of opportunities for all our citizens regardless of their gender, background, creed or sexual orientation. We can always be working on that. To have a diverse group of citizens selected at random from throughout the country to consider these matters is something that I and Fianna Fáil welcome and fully support. In his interactions on the selection of citizens, and the Minister will not be selecting them as it will be an independent company that will do so, there were some concerns about regional spread in previous assemblies and the fact certain counties were not represented. I ask that as much as possible some of this feedback is taken on board and perhaps in the Minister's closing remarks he may have further information about how random the sample is. He correctly stated that we want to ensure that it is a representative spread of citizens from across the country, which means taking account of gender and ensuring that a selection of people from rural and urban areas are involved.
The Minister may wish to address that further and ensure that the group of citizens is as representative as possible. Turning to the issue of a directly elected mayor for Dublin, this has been raised previously by my party colleague and spokesperson on Dublin, Deputy Lahart. A previous response from either the Minister or the Minister of State, Deputy Phelan, I am not sure which, mentioned that a citizens' convention rather than a citizens' assembly would look at this issue. This is an important issue as it concerns a directly elected mayor for our capital. A citizens' convention would have allowed input from political parties and politicians concerning how we would see that being achieved. I understand that commitment was made in response to a question on the Order of Business. How can we ensure that political parties can input into that process? That is the job of politicians. Is there a reason why we are going with an assembly as opposed to the previously stated citizens' convention?
I say that with the full understanding that whatever recommendations are made regarding a directly elected mayor, as well as the gender and gender equality issues, will purely be advisory. Perhaps the Minister might comment on how long he thinks this process will take? When will the assemblies be established, when will they conclude and when will the next step be taken? I am referring to reports coming back to the Dáil, and the Seanad if necessary, for further debate and discussion. I am seeking some insight concerning the Minister's view on how long this process might take, particularly in respect of the first issue. It is of great importance and deserves detailed attention and discussion by the citizens' assembly. In addition, when the report comes back to the Dáil it is also important that appropriate time is allocated with a view to securing a commitment to holding a referendum on Article 41.2.1o, the women in the home clause of the Constitution, in 2020. It is Fianna Fáil's earnest desire for that to happen, whether that referendum is concerned with a deletion or an amendment to the existing article.
We will be guided by the assembly. I say "guided" but obviously at the end of the day the Dáil will make its decision. I ask the Minister to give us an update on what he sees as the timeline following, hopefully, the passage of all Stages of this Bill today. What is the next step and what is the timeline? Will the Minister confirm that he is committed to holding a referendum on Article 41.2.1o in 2020? We should be giving this matter priority, particularly concerning early years parental care and seeking to give and facilitate a greater work-life balance and ensure an equal role for both partners in a relationship and co-responsibility for care within the family.
I apologise for missing the Minister's remarks but I have had a quick look at them here. Sinn Féin is supporting this proposition. I have to say that I was a sceptic when the Constitutional Convention, as it was then called, was initiated. I thought at the time that it was the Government of the day not being willing to grapple with issues and, therefore, subcontracting them out to assemblies. I have to say I was wrong. The experience has proved to be a useful tool for our democracy. I am referring to getting a group of citizens, with or without politicians, deliberating with experts and accurate information in the round. I am also referring to the reports produced by the Constitutional Convention and the subsequent Citizens' Assemblies. On that basis, I am more than happy to support this proposition.
It is also important that we look at the issue of gender equality and find sensible, practical and workable solutions to remove the many barriers that continue to exist preventing women's full and equal participation in social, political and business life, as well as economic inequalities. In that context, I am happy that Deputy MacDonald's amendment concerned with examining the structural barriers to pay equality for women is an important addition to this Bill. That has to be welcomed and, indeed, already has been by many. The Minister also mentioned in his remarks that there is going to be a subsequent motion on a directly elected mayor for Dublin. I do not think that can come soon enough.
When the Minister of State, Deputy Phelan, introduced the legislation for the plebiscites in Limerick, Cork and Galway cities, some of us reflected on our experience of being councillors in what was then the mayor's forum. It was established to look at the issue of directly elected mayors by the former Deputy and Minister, Phil Hogan. I represented South Dublin County Council. One of the major problems we had as elected members was trying to grapple with the idea of a plebiscite on a directly elected mayor when we did not know what we were talking about. We did not know what the powers would be, if powers would be lost from the local authorities up to the new mayors' offices or if powers would devolve down from central government or State agencies. We were having a debate on directly elected mayors in a vacuum.
We repeated that mistake with the late publication of the legislation for directly elected mayors in Cork, Limerick and Waterford cities. While this time around people had information beforehand, it was only for a short time. If and when this motion is published, I urge the Government to give the maximum amount of information regarding what the mayor's office would look like, what powers and funding it would have, its relationship with existing Government structures, local and central, as well as its relationship with the statutory agencies. That would be a welcome move for those of us minded to support directly elected mayors, with real executive powers devolved downwards from central Government, as an enhancement of democracy.
Concerning the citizens' assembly, I echo Deputy Darragh O'Brien's questions regarding timelines. I would also like to get a commitment from the Minister that the recommendations of the assembly will be implemented. We have had some good reports from the Constitutional Convention that are now sitting on shelves gathering dust. The most obvious one is the eighth report of the Convention on the Constitution concerning social ,economic and cultural rights. Those were important recommendations. In fact, many of them would have greatly enhanced gender equality if they had been implemented. I have no doubt those recommendations will be among some of things that this new citizens' assembly will discuss. Looking, for example, at the recommendations of that report, some 85% of members of the assembly said "yes" when asked if, in principle, the Constitution should be amended to strengthen the protection of economic, social and cultural rights. When asked specifically about housing, social security, essential healthcare, rights for people with disabilities, linguistic and cultural rights and rights covered in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, between 75% and 90% of assembly members voted to support those rights.
On enshrining the right to housing in the Constitution, some 84% of the constitutional convention supported that right in 2014. The Minister is willing to look at that but the Government has not yet stepped up to the plate. That right was not supported as some kind of knee-jerk reaction. The members of the convention looked at, considered, deliberated over and decided on those issues. We are going to ask these 100 citizens that will be selected to do the same on gender equality. Despite such a resounding endorsement of the proposal to enshrine economic, social and cultural rights in the Constitution in 2014, the Government is still not willing to act on that recommendation all these years later. Let us not have a citizens' assembly on gender equality for the sake of it. Let us not have it do a good job and report back to the Government and the Oireachtas with a set of recommendations only for the Government to do with that report what it has done with a number of previous reports. That would be an insult to the people we asking to spend time, effort and energy on this convention, as well as to those of us in this House who would genuinely like to see this citizens' assembly do its work.
The Minister has our support. We would like to assist him and the Government in whatever way we can. In return, however, we want a commitment that recommendations, particularly those which have a clear majority, from the citizens' assembly will be implemented. If the Minister has time to make concluding remarks, I would like to know the answer to a question. My enquiry speaks to the amendment that Sinn Féin tabled in the Seanad but which was voted down. I tried to table it in this House but it was not allowed because of the more restrictive rules regarding amendments.
At some point the Government should produce a report listing the reasons it has not acted upon recommendations in the reports of earlier Constitutional Conventions or Citizens' Assemblies, or provide a timeline for when it will do so. Not doing so will undermine public confidence in the overall Citizens' Assembly project. While we have had some really big wins, marriage equality and repeal of the eighth amendment being the obvious ones, there are lots of other examples where the Government could have moved on very important proposals supported by vast majorities in the Citizens' Assemblies and Constitutional Conventions and chose not to do so.
I will be brief. This is a fairly simple Bill, primarily facilitating the use of the register of electors for selection of certain Citizens' Assemblies. This is fairly straightforward but I will say a few words about the concept from the perspective of somebody who was a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution. We had some doubts about the setting up of the Citizens' Assembly, thinking it might delay something which I felt needed to be done quite quickly. However, we would all acknowledge that it was a very positive development. It allowed an issue that was very difficult for many people in Ireland and had been suppressed for many years to be debated, facts and figures to be considered and deliberations on the facts from experts in the area to be discussed. It facilitated a change of perspective for many people in Ireland on this issue. I know several Citizens' Assemblies have been proposed, that on the issue of gender equality being the most immediate. One has also been proposed to discuss a directly elected mayor for the Dublin area.
These fora provide an opportunity for issues that need that level of scrutiny to be deliberately considered over a period of time. It makes sense to use the register of electors to select participants for such an assembly. I do not want to say anything more on the Bill. It is important that we get it through and facilitate the intention of the Government in this regard.
I thank the Deputies for their contributions. Deputy O'Sullivan is right - this is essentially a technical Bill, but it is part of a larger framework of political and democratic engagement in the process of informing and reforming decision-making in a progressive and pluralistic society. We are leading the way in doing that, particularly in decisions we have made in recent years which came off the back of work of Constitutional Conventions or Citizens' Assemblies.
To come back to some of the questions that were asked, lessons are always learned as we go through these processes. The selection will be completely independent of me. There were some concerns about representation in previous Citizens' Assemblies. In response I note that these Citizens' Assemblies did fantastic work and came up with great decisions which, by and large, were implemented on the big issues. I am also aware that some people made arguments about the representative samples in these Constitutional Conventions and Citizens' Assemblies. I believe they made these points more to undermine the outcomes than from genuine concerns about the constitution of these assemblies. They will be completely independent of me.
The Citizens' Assembly on local government will concern reform across the four local authorities in Dublin, with a view also to looking at the possibility of a Dublin mayor. It is not just about a new office-holder. It will be much broader than that. Based on the work I have been doing with the local authorities in Dublin, and given some of the cross-boundary challenges we face, it is really needed. We have passed the motion for the first Citizens' Assembly. The second Citizens' Assembly will have the same chairperson and a different 99 members. The question around whether to call it a Constitutional Convention or not can stray into semantics. The important point is that while there will be input from the political side, politicians will not be members. They will be the decision-makers after the process has taken place. That has proven effective in the past. Everything that comes from the assemblies will be advisory. We make our own decisions as the elected representatives of the people. We have had great guidance from previous Citizens' Assemblies and Constitutional Conventions. They will remain a guide.
Regarding the timeline, we hope to have the first Citizens' Assembly up and running from the end of October and for it to run for six months. Being fair and allowing for a little bit of time between the two Citizens' Assemblies, I would envisage starting the assembly on Dublin local authorities a little later. It will also sit for six months. It will be guided by the same chairperson to facilitate the turnaround between the two assemblies.
I am almost certain that there will be referendums in 2020. I cannot say now what they will be and I cannot make any commitments in that regard. Several different issues are in the works. I will very shortly be writing to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government about another issue of concern to its members. This is a technical Bill. As I said earlier it is part of a larger framework.
Regarding the recent plebiscites on the issue of directly elected mayors, I note that a very detailed policy document was created. Some questions remained to be answered. Even if people had not read the document, the principle of devolving more decision-making functions to local authorities and investing them in an individual elected by the people was passed in Limerick and came very close in Cork and Waterford. Had we seen leadership from other political parties in those cities it might have passed.
Implementation is a matter for the Oireachtas, not for me. Many of the really serious recommendations that have come from previous Citizens' Assemblies and Constitutional Conventions have been implemented. Some are unfortunately still stuck in committees that Fine Gael does not control. I have said before that I am open to enshrining a right to housing, as is the Taoiseach. Currently we are involved in very serious measures to increase housing supply and protections. We are also open to a debate on a referendum on how a right to housing might properly be instituted in Irish law, either through statute or constitutional change. That matter is still with the committee, which is not chaired by Fine Gael.
I wish to reaffirm that the Citizen's Assembly will report to the Oireachtas. It will be for the Oireachtas to decide, given the manner in which it reports and the recommendations that are made, whether to establish a special committee or forward the question to the existing committees and work from there.
If I may address the matter on Second Stage, this is pertinent to one of the amendments put down by Sinn Féin. We dealt with it in the Seanad. I understand it was withdrawn at the time, but I thought it was going to be an amendment of the motion. My point at the time was that it would not be appropriate for me as Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government to come to the Oireachtas to report on the Citizens' Assembly's work on gender or other issues. It might fall to several Ministers or we might decide to set up a separate structure. The motion establishing the Citizens' Assemblies might be the best way to determine a reporting procedure. That said, the Citizens' Assembly is responsible to the Oireachtas and will report to it. We will then have an opportunity to consider how to move forward. Now is the time to think about what reporting arrangement we might want for the Citizen's Assembly on local governance in the four Dublin local authority areas and whether the Citizens' Assembly should report to the Oireachtas through a Minister or in some other manner. This is an electoral Act which needs to be reformed, which is the technical reason we are discussing it now.