Wednesday, 28 April 2021
Ceisteanna - Questions
I propose to take Questions Nos. 8 to 15, inclusive, together.
The current Citizens' Assembly on gender equality was established in January 2020 and, following delays caused by Covid-19, resumed its work with online meetings in October last year. The assembly adapted its methods to comply with public health guidelines. The results of the assembly's voting on key recommendations were announced on Saturday, 24 April. Its final report, which will set those recommendations in context, is expected in June. The assembly has agreed 45 priority recommendations covering a wide range of areas set out in its mandate. These include recommendations on the Constitution, politics and leadership, care-giving and childcare, domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, pay and the workplace, and social protection. The assembly's report, when finalised, will be for consideration by the Oireachtas in the first instance, and I look forward to working on the recommendations.
Under the programme for Government, the Government aims to establish a citizens' assembly in 2021 to consider the type of directly elected mayor and local government structures best suited for Dublin. This assembly will be established with a new chairperson and new members. Consideration is being given to the appropriate methodology for future citizens' assemblies, but any decisions in this regard will be guided by the experience of the current assembly. An independent researcher has been appointed to monitor and record, among other things, the perceived deliberative quality of the assembly, which will also assist in decisions on future assemblies' use of virtual meetings. I understand that the Citizens' Assembly, which commissioned the independent review, plans to publish it.
The programme for Government provides for the establishment of citizens' assemblies to consider biodiversity, matters relating to drugs use and the future of education. Officials from my Department are engaging with officials from the relevant Departments on the approach to be taken with these assemblies. It is envisaged that they will be established after the Dublin mayor Citizens' Assembly has completed its work but the specific timelines relating to each assembly have yet to be worked out. Citizens' assemblies do very valuable work in guiding policy and giving a sense of the direction that the public would like Government to take. They take time to set up, however, and run especially in these times of the pandemic. Although the timing of the citizens' assemblies outlined in the programme for Government may not yet be confirmed, there are ongoing and new initiatives being carried out in each important area, such as biodiversity, drugs, and the future of education.
There are a number of proposals in the programme for Government for citizens' assemblies on biodiversity, the future of education, the mayor of Dublin, drugs use, etc. Can the Taoiseach outline what his priority is in this regard? Second, the Citizens' Assembly on gender equality reported at the weekend and offered 45 very good recommendations. My party has been fighting for many of the latter, for almost half a century in some cases. I will ask a number of quick questions on this.
The assembly recommends the deletion of Article 41.2, the article relating to women in the home. Does the Taoiseach intend to act upon this recommendation?
The assembly recommends, specifically in the context of gender equality and non-discrimination, that Article 40 be amended because it protects family and private life. Will the Taoiseach look at that article also?
Given what the Taoiseach is announcing tomorrow in the context of maternity services, we all know that the HSE's clinical director in this area has recommended that, in the context of maternity services, access should be given to all partners of women who are due to give birth at certain stages of the process, whether it be 12 weeks, during labour recovery or at other critical points. Will the Taoiseach ensure that there is consistency in the approach taken by maternity services across the country in this regard?
My colleague, Senator Ivana Bacik, has been campaigning in respect of the gender pay gap issue for years. As the Taoiseach is aware, there is a big difference between the pay of women and that of men. Senator Bacik has brought forward a Bill on the issue. Will the Taoiseach support that Bill or does he intend to opt for the Government Bill which, I understand, is in the process of being drafted? What is the timeframe in this regard?
Citizens' assemblies have obviously done very good work in a number of areas. Many of the issues identified in the programme for Government as being ones on which we should have citizens' assemblies deliberate are extremely positive. If one were to ask people right now what they believe we should have a citizens’ assembly deliberate upon as a matter of urgency, I believe a very large number would say that we need one on the mental health crisis which is affecting young people and many other age cohorts and which has been magnified by the Covid-19 crisis. In general terms, the problem in this regard stems from the failure to resource basic mental health services in order to allow them to address it. The Taoiseach should consider that.
There is also an issue with regard to education. I do not think we can wait for a citizens' assembly to be established. I raise again with the Taoiseach the matter I have raised in recent weeks, namely, that relating to the psychologists and the desperate need that we have in this regard. We are 400 psychologists short of the number we were promised in A Vision for Change. I have pointed out that the fees and the unpaid placement work that students are having to do is acting as a huge barrier to getting psychologists qualified who could help address the mental health crisis that exists across a range of areas in respect of which there are massive waiting lists. The HSE advertised this week for assistant psychologists to work for it for 20 hours a week for nothing. That is outrageous. I appeal to the Taoiseach to investigate that because these young psychologist trainees should be paid.
On the citizens' assemblies, will the Taoiseach look at the issue of families getting legal representation at inquests in circumstances where they have lost their loved ones? As he is aware, the families of the Stardust victims put forward proposals to ensure that they would all have legal representation at the inquest. Those proposals were cost-effective and based on international best practice. They were not agreed to by the Government, which suggested that families should go down the legal aid route. Assurances were given that the families would get representation through that means. We now have a situation where it appears that the majority of families will not receive legal representation and they are yet again protesting outside the Dáil, which is something they had hoped they would never have to do again. The inquest will not be able to start or carry out its work properly if all the families are not legally represented. This is causing great anxiety and distress for the families. Will the Government engage with the families and their legal representatives on this issue and seek to resolve matters in order that the inquest can go ahead and that all the families can be legally represented at it, as the State will be? The State is currently carrying out its legal work in preparation for the inquest and the families should also be able to do so as well.
Once again, the Citizens' Assembly has delivered a set of progressive recommendations that put the conservative parties is in Government to shame, demonstrating the gap that exists between ordinary people and the political establishment. One of recommendations resoundingly approved by the Citizens’ Assembly is that the legal right to collective bargaining be guaranteed for all workers in order to improve wages, working conditions and rights in all sectors. Yet, many big companies in this country still refuse to recognise or engage with trade unions. Workers at Amazon, Google, Facebook, Deliveroo, and many other companies are getting organised and are facing major resistance from their bosses. This Saturday is made May Day - International Workers' Day - and People Before Profit will be launching our trade union recognition Bill, which will force companies to recognise and engage with unions in acting upon that proposal from the Citizens’ Assembly. Will the Taoiseach support that proposal and commit to change the law to compel employers to recognise unions?
The programme for Government contains a commitment to establish a citizens’ assembly on the future of education and states that the voices of young people and those being educated are central. This week, once again, our system, in the manner in which we teach our children, has been exposed either in the buildings that they are in or in the lessons that they are being taught as being unsuited for purpose. In this instance, what happened was not related to the pandemic but rather to religious institutions and how they are permitted to instruct relationship and sexuality education, RSE, programmes, not according to facts or constitutional rights but according to church teaching and ethos. The particular programme to which I am referring is called Flourish. It was developed by the Irish Catholic Bishops Conference, which has stated that church teaching in respect of marriage between a man and a woman cannot be omitted. Among some of the other harmful issues are preachings against lone parents and the LGBTQI+ community. This is an issue that does not just impinge on children. Speaking at the Irish National Teachers Organisation's annual conference in March, its vice president, Joe McKeown, stated that up to 4,000 LGBTQI+ teachers are hiding their sexual orientation because they feared that their jobs or promotion prospects could be harmed if their school patrons discovered their true identities.
Some 90% of our primary schools operate under the Catholic ethos. Parental choice does not exist and our young people deserve better RSE than we had. The programme for Government contains a commitment to achieving a target of at least 400 multidenominational primary schools by 2030 to improve parental choice but this raises bigger questions regarding the role of church and our education system. Will the citizens' assembly on the future of education consider ways and the extent to which it can suggest solutions or alternatives to religious institutions in our education system.
I wish to put to the Taoiseach a question about a legacy issue relating to the Citizens' Assembly which has not been dealt with but which is of great importance. I refer to the two ancillary recommendations that are essential to preventing crisis pregnancies. Those recommendations were put forward by the Citizens' Assembly on the eighth amendment to the Constitution. It is almost three years since those recommendations were made. They were backed up by the Oireachtas Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, including by members of the Taoiseach's party. The basis of the recommendations is that there should be free contraception available to women and that there should be non-ethos-based sex education.
What has happened or will happen to those two recommendations that have been left lying undealt with? In light of that, what will happen with the important and fundamental incremental changes the Citizens' Assembly at the weekend recommended on the issue of care? The recommendations included: to improve the terms and conditions of those in paid employment as carers, to give them access to pensions, to ensure the choice in care and independence of older persons and persons with disabilities would be guaranteed and to change the carer's allowance, the respite and the pensions for carers and their families. This is a hugely important cohort of tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of family carers throughout this country who year on year save this State billions by looking after people in need with disabilities, elderly people with care needs and family members who they love. They give a huge amount of commitment but get no pension and no proper pay for doing an amazing job. Hats off to them and to the Citizens' Assembly for recommending the changes.
The Citizens' Assembly on gender equality has recommended a slew of changes. I will concentrate on the call by the assembly to amend the notoriously sexist Article 41.2, which states that mothers have duties within the home. This was part of the Constitution in order to give constitutional status to the social teachings of the Catholic Church. It is backward, sexist and sectarian and it is right that it should be removed.
The role of carers and care work, including decent pay, job security and pension rights, should be recognised. We need to go further than removing sexist language and endorse the call by the assembly for increased spending on a publicly-funded childcare model, bring an end to the gender pay gap, make the minimum wage the living wage and improve maternity leave rights. I hope that the call by the Citizens' Assembly is heeded by the Government. I do not have any great faith that it will be. If it is not, I hope it leads to massive pressure from below for change on these issues in Irish society.
There is a commitment in the programme for Government to expanding the role of the vacant homes officer. There are only three full-time vacant home officers in this State. At at time when we are in the worst housing crisis in the history of the State and people are crying out for housing, does the Taoiseach know how frustrating it is for people and families to look at vacant houses in their community where there is criminality, gangs, antisocial behaviour and dumping, and they are lying idle for months and years? In my constituency of Cork North-Central and for the whole of Cork city, there is one part-time vacant homes officer. It is estimated that there are 1,777 vacant homes in my constituency and we have one part-time vacant homes officer. This is the Taoiseach's plan to solve the housing crisis. Will the Taoiseach commit to providing funding for all local authorities to end the scourge of vacant homes in their communities and provide people with the housing they desperately need? In Cork city, only two houses were returned under the repair and lease scheme and only 47 under the buy and renew scheme. We need action now.
Twenty-five months ago, baby Christopher's life was ended by individuals within the National Maternity Hospital in an alleged illegal abortion. Christopher was a fully healthy boy and his parents are heartbroken. A large number of elements of the law were broken, not least that a senior practitioner signed off on the abortion but never met or examined the mother. The family has met two Ministers for Health and the Chief Medical Officer. I know the Taoiseach is aware of the case because he has spoken to the family directly. However, 25 months later, the family still has not had justice for what happened to Christopher.
Peter McKenna has written a detailed report on the family's case. That report lies on the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly's, desk and has lain there for weeks without the information being given to the family. The family cannot get access to that report at the moment. The Minister once told the family that they could trust him but yet, his office has told the family that if they want to get access to the report, they can ask for it under the freedom of information, FOI, legislation. That is a phenomenally disgraceful response to parents who have had the life of their son ended in a hospital illegally in this country. Will the Taoiseach say today he will put an end to the difficulties this family is experiencing and they will have justice?
On a point of order, the Leas-Cheann Comhairle chastised the last Deputy for going off the point. This Deputy has completely gone off the point. Will the Leas-Cheann Comhairle please correct his contribution?
No, Deputy. I am using my discretion to allow Deputies, when they put their hand up, in on the issues that are down and grouped. Deputies have gone to the trouble of tabling questions, as Deputy Gould did and now Deputy Tóibín has done, that bear no resemblance. I will leave it for today. The point has been made and I will certainly be enforcing the rules more rigidly.
There are many questions there and in the time I have left, it may not be possible to respond to every question.
Deputy Kelly began on Article 41.2. It is not the first time that proposals on deleting that have been tabled and I would be interested in pursuing that. Its practical application no longer exists and it does not operate in practice. Working in collaboration with the Oireachtas, I think the Government would be in a position to pursue that issue and to assess the recommendations generally from the Citizens' Assembly on gender equality. We would look at all 45 recommendations to examine them and take decisions in respect of them.
I will talk to the leadership of the HSE in respect of the recommendations from the clinical director that maternity wards and services be open to partners and that there be uniformity in terms of the application of that across the country. That is proven to be a difficult issue for many people.
On the gender pay gap, I would be supportive of all measures we could take to reduce that pay gap and have equality in respect of pay for similar work. We will bring forward a legislative proposal. I will check where that is in terms of the timelines.
I agree with Deputy Boyd Barrett that mental health is a subject that could well be dealt with, in parallel to ongoing action by Government and the health services. It is a topic that would be worthy of consideration by a citizens' assembly.
On the recruitment of more psychologists, we have provided additional resources. In respect of the position the Deputy outlined, I am not aware of the details of that. There is a general view the Deputy has been articulating that everybody in training or student life should be fully paid. There are widespread implications of that approach. It is a more complex issue than presented. I do not know whether that is the case here or not. I do not know the specifics of the case the Deputy has raised but I will pursue it.
On Deputy Cian O'Callaghan's point, I will inquire of the Department of Justice in respect of the families and relatives of the victims of the Stardust tragedy and legal representation. We will see if we can get that issue sorted to get the issue moving and the inquest under way.
Other points were made by Deputy Murphy regarding the trade union recognition Bill. Under the Labour Employer Economic Forum, or LEEF, framework, there is engagement with IBEC and ICTU on the way to examine in considerable detail the issue of trade union recognition. The terms of reference have been drawn up for that work and it will progress.
I do not want to be seen to be ignoring the issue Deputy Tóibín raised and I am aware of it. There are very concerning circumstances surrounding the case in question and I will certainly see if I can examine the latest position with regard to the report.