Wednesday, 7 July 2021
Ceisteanna - Questions
I propose to take Questions Nos. 17 and 18 together.
The Citizens' Assembly on gender equality was established in January 2020 and submitted its final report to the Oireachtas on 2 June. The assembly agreed 45 priority recommendations covering a wide range of areas set out in its mandate. These include recommendations on politics and leadership, care giving and childcare, domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, pay and the workplace and social protection, and the Constitution. The final report of the assembly sets out those recommendations in context and is for consideration by the Oireachtas in the first instance.
Following delays caused by Covid-19, this assembly adapted its methods to comply with public health guidelines and resumed its work with online meetings last year. An independent researcher was appointed by the assembly to monitor and record, among other things, the perceived deliberative quality of the assembly. This report will assist in decisions on the use of virtual meetings for future assemblies. I am informed the researcher has now submitted her report to the Citizens' Assembly and I understand it will be published by the end of the week.
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 gender equality assembly.
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 relevant Departments on the approach to be taken with regard to these assemblies. It is envisaged that they will be established after the Citizens' Assembly on the Dublin mayor has completed its work, but the specific timing of each assembly has yet to be confirmed.
Citizens' assemblies do very valuable work in guiding policy and giving a sense of the direction the public would like the Government to take; however, their establishment must have careful regard to public health constraints, which can add to the complexity and the time it takes to operate them safely and effectively. Although the timing of the 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: biodiversity, drugs and the future of education.
The last time we discussed this issue, we had an extensive discussion on the outcome of the most recent assembly on gender equality. I also inquired of the Taoiseach about his priorities, as a number of assemblies are proposed. In his reply, he might indicate what his priorities are.
The programme for Government commitment is stated as being one on the future of education, but I would also expect that to examine the role of the church in education. For a number of years, the Labour Party has called for such an assembly. It should not just address the role of the church in education but also in healthcare. There is a range of complex constitutional and ethical questions that must be resolved, so I ask that the Taoiseach would consider that one of the assemblies would be on the role of the church and religious institutions in both healthcare and education. Society has changed so much. We have seen the complex problems with the National Maternity Hospital, and how the historical role of the church in providing social services and education has given rise to issues, with the desire of the public being for secular health and education free from religious influence. We cannot keep dealing with these issues on a case-by-case basis. The Taoiseach would probably agree with me on that. We need a framework to deal with all of these issues. It would be remiss of me not to ask the Taoiseach about the national maternity hospital. It has been two weeks since the issue was debated here and nothing seems to have been progressed. Where are we at as regards the discussions on this with the Minister? Is the Government going to power on with the current proposal or is there a proposal to acquire the site? Could the Taoiseach update the House?
I would be broadly in agreement with the Deputy's point that the world has changed and society has changed. It is not just the church and education and social services; it is also what happens post the church leaving certain sectors of society. I am particularly conscious of the disability sector and section 38 organisations more generally, capacity issues and relationships between the State and such services, where the State does not have the lever. I am moving on this. This argy-bargy going on, saying we are not taking extra classes and we are not taking extra places for children who need places, cannot go on. We need to have the proper framework that the Deputy has suggested to evolve into a newer situation. The national maternity hospital is a classic illustration of that. It is what it is now, and there is ongoing engagement with the Minister on it, but I stand back from it all and say that the State is funding this 100%, so, to me, there are obvious and logical conclusions to that. In the future, I do not want to preside over anything like that. This has been going on for years but, in other developments, if we are providing services, we own the services and we control what is happening there.