Dáil debates

Tuesday, 9 July 2024

Ceisteanna - Questions

Constitutional Amendments

4:15 pm

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
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1. To ask the Taoiseach if he will report on his plan for constitutional amendments. [26855/24]

Photo of Mick BarryMick Barry (Cork North Central, Solidarity)
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2. To ask the Taoiseach if he will report on his plan for constitutional amendments. [27946/24]

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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3. To ask the Taoiseach if he will report on his plan for constitutional amendments. [28200/24]

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
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4. To ask the Taoiseach if he will report on his plan for constitutional amendments. [28203/24]

Photo of Duncan SmithDuncan Smith (Dublin Fingal, Labour)
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5. To ask the Taoiseach if he will report on his plan for constitutional amendments. [29417/24]

Photo of Ruairi Ó MurchúRuairi Ó Murchú (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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6. To ask the Taoiseach if he will report on his plan for constitutional amendments. [29484/24]

Photo of Cian O'CallaghanCian O'Callaghan (Dublin Bay North, Social Democrats)
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7. To ask the Taoiseach if he will report on his plan for constitutional amendments. [29564/24]

Photo of Simon HarrisSimon Harris (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 7, inclusive, together.

There are a number of proposals for constitutional reforms under consideration. However, no final decisions have been made as yet by Government on the timing of any such referendum. Some of the proposed constitutional reforms arise from the programme for Government, such as housing and extending the franchise for presidential elections to Irish citizens living outside the State. Other proposals, such as the EU Agreement on a Unified Patent Court, arise from existing legal requirements. In respect of the referendum that would be required for the Unified Patent Court, the Government decided that more time was necessary to ensure there would be a full opportunity to debate and understand the issues at hand. However, the Government does remain strongly in support of the Unified Patent Court. That said, the area of patents and patent law is undoubtedly highly technical, and it is not unreasonable, therefore, to allow more time. There is also a commitment regarding ownership of water services, and the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage will bring forward proposals in due course for Government's consideration on those matters.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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There are five contributors, so Deputy McDonald has up to two minutes.

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
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The matter I want to raise with the Taoiseach is the promise to extend the franchise for presidential elections. As the Taoiseach knows, we are something of an outlier in not allowing any opportunity for citizens living outside of the jurisdiction to participate in any electoral contest.

There had been an agreement and wide consensus that the election of the first citizen, Uachtarán na hÉireann, would be the occasion on which we would extend the franchise, particularly to the North of Ireland. Irish citizens living in Ireland should be given this democratic opportunity, at a minimum. This is a programme for Government commitment. We were told in April 2022 and Government vowed, no less, that the referendum would take place before 2024. In April last year, we learned that was unlikely to be held in time to impact the next presidential election.

Why is there a delay? Why has this been consistently pushed down the pipe? It is not a contentious matter. I will grant that the framing of the franchise needs to be carefully considered. We all accept that. This was a settled matter. I feel it is particularly acute for Irish citizens living in the North of Ireland that this matter is still being stalled. It is not acceptable.

4:25 pm

Photo of Mick BarryMick Barry (Cork North Central, Solidarity)
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I would like to talk about the right to housing. Rickets, anaemia, faltering growth, extreme tooth decay and scabies are just some of the extreme health conditions now being reported by medical professionals regarding children living in emergency accommodation across this State. There are now 4,316 kids living in emergency accommodation. Ten years ago, the figure was just 700. With Fine Gael in government, those numbers rise month after month after month. Many of these kids have been living in emergency accommodation for more than two years. I put it to the Taoiseach that his is either a Government of deliberate cruelty or a Government of incompetence. If it has chosen not to act decisively to prevent child homelessness, it is a Government of deliberate cruelty. If it has tried to stop it or at least tried to reverse the rise, then it has failed utterly and is a Government of incompetence. Which one is it? While the Taoiseach is at it, he might tell us when he will give the people a referendum on the right to housing.

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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I want to ask about the consequences of the defeated care referendum. I think the Taoiseach knows and we all know that a significant part of why that was defeated was the anger of people with disabilities, special needs, carers, and so on, about the failure of the Government to include real rights for carers and people with disability in the Constitution. I do not anticipate that the Government will have another referendum of that sort in the term of this Government but it seems to me that it has an obligation to heed the message that was sent from carers and people with disabilities. I want to know what the Taoiseach will do in response to the clear message that was sent. He promised that the Government would ratify the optional protocol to the UNCRPD, which would give real rights to people with disabilities. Is the Government going to do it and when? Will the Government get rid of means testing for carers and disability allowances, which is effectively trapping carers and people with disabilities in poverty, particularly women? What is the Taoiseach going to do about the absolutely shocking situation with the provision of assessments for children with special needs and the services?

I wrote to the Taoiseach about the case I raised with him last week about Margaret, whose child was diagnosed with autism and an intellectual disability in 2023. They were referred for speech and language therapy, occupational therapy and a psychologist and were due to see the speech and language therapist in July, this month, then received a letter saying they would not get the speech and language therapy until January of 2026. This kind of thing has to be addressed as a matter of urgency.

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
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The programme for Government makes a commitment to hold a referendum on housing. The time of this Government is coming to an end one way or another. It is simply a matter of months before the next election. The Housing Commission went off and proposed wording which states:

1°: The State recognises that having a home is of fundamental importance to quality of life and that access to adequate housing, by facilitating the development of family, social and community relationships, promotes the common good.

2°: The State therefore guarantees to every citizen a right of access to adequate housing and pledges, as far as practicable, by its laws to protect and vindicate that right.

Does the Taoiseach agree with that wording? Does he think a referendum should be held within the lifetime of this Government to insert that into the Constitution? All the indications are that this Government does not seek to vindicate people's right to housing. That is why we have more than 4,000 children growing up in homelessness. I also want to make the point that it is now almost ten years since Jonathan Corrie died not far from the gates of Leinster House. At that time, it was said this was a scourge and should never happen again but, at the weekend, two men drowned tragically. It seems very unlikely that they would have drowned if they had not been rough sleeping. It seems their drowning is linked to their being homeless. I would also say that in the investigation there, something that needs to be looked at is whether the additional barriers that have been erected around the canal had any role to play in where those men had located their tents and whether that contributed to their awful death.

Photo of Ruairi Ó MurchúRuairi Ó Murchú (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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I will also deal with right to housing. I brought up the issue before of the affordable housing scheme in Cois Farraige in Blackrock, just outside Dundalk. I am expecting word back. First and foremost, €305,000 is not affordable for a huge number of people in the general Dundalk area. Only five of those who applied qualified when there were meant to be ten houses offered. Louth County Council will also say there is a definite issue with the criteria, so this needs to be looked at. I previously brought up the issue of rentals. I will read out what one of my constituents said to me.

She said this is outrageous. It is €5,000 a month for a four-bedroom house in Dundalk. She asked what our politicians and TDs are doing to stop this and how the younger generation will be able to stay in Ireland and have a home, whether buying or renting. She said that once these prices start hitting Dundalk, more landlords will be looking to possibly put people's rent up. She said we need laws and caps on rent to stop this. She currently has two adult children who are both working and cannot think about buying or renting in Ireland. She said it is disgraceful and nothing is being done, and that she hopes the local Sinn Féin TDs will move to stop this nonsense and give the next generation a chance.

Obviously Sinn Féin has our proposals to address just how dysfunctional the rental sector is and a three-year ban on rent increases to allow for supply to change the circumstances, because the market has failed people miserably, and insufficient action has been taken. Like this lady here, people are worried about the future for their children. Not enough has been done and something has to be done immediately. That is how bad things are.

Photo of Simon HarrisSimon Harris (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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I will take these questions in the order they were asked. Deputy McDonald raised the franchise for the presidential elections. I have not had an opportunity to comment on this since I became Taoiseach. I am in favour of this proposal and acting on it. The Deputy is right that the programme for Government contains a commitment to that. In line with that commitment, the Government restored the Thirty-ninth Amendment of the Constitution (Presidential Elections) Bill 2019 to the Dáil Order Paper. The date for holding a referendum will be decided once legislation is passed. The Deputy knows all of that. We need to have an honest conversation about where we are at this stage in the cycle, both with regard to what is left in this Dáil term and the context of the next presidential election.

As the Deputy says, it was already indicated previously by Government that these changes would not be in place in time for the next presidential election. My understanding is that if a referendum on extending the franchise for presidential elections were to be passed by the people, implementing legislation would be required in addition to making the necessary practical arrangements to enable an extended franchise to participate in future presidential elections. I am told that international best practice would recommend that these arrangements should be settled at least 12 months in advance of a presidential poll.

I understand the Deputy's frustration and accept her legitimate question. I am happy to work to see if we can develop a political consensus around the timeline for that, bearing in mind that, at this stage, it will probably straddle this Dáil and the next. I am happy to engage with the Deputy. I will do some thinking on it and correspond with the Deputy on the matter.

To answer to Deputy Barry's question is that the Government is neither cruel nor incompetent. The Government is dealing with a significant intergenerational housing crisis which we can debate, and do, but the Government is not cruel. It is also dealing with a significant increase in migration numbers. There are many opportunities, as we discussed, in positive immigration, which I know, but those challenges intertwine on occasion in the monthly numbers that are now published. We are investing significant resources in trying to make real progress on social and affordable housing, housing supply in general and investing more in emergency accommodation. We continue to do that. The Deputy and I can debate how best we believe we can rectify that. That is the truth. Certainly, nobody in Government is cruel in relation to this matter.

On a referendum on the right to housing, I have no issue with that or consideration of putting the latter in the Constitution. The wording the Deputy read out is not something I find objectionable. There are questions, however. First, in the midst of a housing crisis, it is a little like the care referendum, although I do not want to conflate the questions. I met many people on the doorsteps who might have liked words in the Constitution around care but would have liked a speech and language or occupational therapist a lot more. It is never for us to second guess the Irish people but to be truthful, a reason the referendum was voted down significantly was that people thought constitutional change is grand, but can the Government roll up its sleeves and get stuck in on disability services, children's disability network teams and assessments of need. Passing wording on housing will not address the housing crisis in the here and now. I am not sure we will get to this in the lifetime of this Government in terms of a referendum on housing. There has been no firm Government decision, that is just my honest evaluation of the situation.

To Deputy Boyd Barrett's point, we heard a message. I am not being partisan or political - we all need to reflect on the message the electorate sent during the referendums. It probably was not one message but there was a message for us in the need to do more for carers. I personally met carers' groups with the Minister for Social Protection, the Minister of State at the Department of Health and the Minister of State with responsibility for disabilities and others recently about their legitimate asks and expectations of the next budget. We will continue to engage with them in the days and weeks ahead.

It is our intention to ratify the optional protocol of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. My understanding is that the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, will bring an update to Cabinet this month. I have been clear that I want to see us ratify it this year. That is what we are working towards.

I join Deputy Paul Murphy in expressing my sympathy to the families and friends of Donal Scanlon and Alex Warnick, both of whom tragically passed away at the Grand Canal in Dublin over the weekend. We think of both of them, their families and their friends. The Dublin Regional Homeless Executive confirmed that both men had engaged with its services. It has also advised that there is sufficient emergency accommodation in Dublin. I urge anybody seeking accommodation to please contact their local authority because the message from the executive is that it has emergency accommodation.

4:35 pm

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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The quality is so poor, people would rather sleep at the canal. That is the truth.

Photo of Simon HarrisSimon Harris (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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To Deputy Ó Murchú, I thank him for his points specifically in relation to the affordable housing scheme in Dundalk, the criteria around it and the anxiety felt by people in relation to the housing crisis. I undertook to come back to him on that, which I will.