I wish to share my time with Deputy Collins.
Human Rights Commission Bill, 2000: Second Stage (Resumed).
Is that agreed? Agreed.
We are indebted to all the parties to the Good Friday Agreement for the work they put into that Agreement, from which this Bill arose. Hopefully, the Bill will encourage the parties in Northern Ireland and elsewhere to re-engage to ensure the operation of the agreement is resumed. Anybody who had the opportunity of engaging with some of the Ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive could not but be impressed by the work they did in a short space of time.
The Minister for Foreign Affairs, speaking in the Seanad recently, commented on the valuable arrangements on the equality agenda which, quite properly, put a human rights culture at the heart of the new dispensation. He said:
Provision was made for issues which I could broadly describe as part of the transition from conflict to peace – the normalisation of security, reform of the policing and criminal justice systems, prisoners and the decommissioning of arms.
I am also aware of the implications of the Good Friday Agreement for the future incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into our body of law in the Republic and I understand the Government is actively considering its implications.
The Bill is designed to provide further protection for human rights by the establishment of the Human Rights Commission and to define its powers and functions. The establishment of the commission is part of the ongoing process required to fulfil the terms of the agreement of the multi-party talks, more commonly know as the Good Friday Agreement. The Agreement imposes on both sovereign Governments the establishment of separate human rights commissions. The words "human rights" are defined in section 2 as "the rights, liberties and freedoms conferred on, or guaranteed to persons by the Constitution, and the rights, liberties or freedoms conferred on, or guaranteed to persons by any agreement, treaty or convention to which the State is a party".
In a general sense, the Good Friday Agreement is about human rights. It is about the right of people to sleep in their beds at night without the fear of being firebombed, the right of shoppers to walk around town centres without the risk of being blown up or the right of people to make political progress within and between communities in Northern Ireland without being subjected to the threat of violence. The parties to the Agreement affirmed their commitment to the "mutual respect, the civil rights and the religious liberties of everyone in the community". Among the rights they especially affirmed were the right to freedom and expression of religion, to pursue democratic national and political aspirations and of women to full and equal political participation.
The Good Friday Agreement obliges the Government to create a commission with a mandate and remit equivalent to those of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. When both bodies are up and running, the Agreement envisages that they will create a joint committee "as a forum for consideration of human rights issues in the island of Ireland" and especially to consider "the possibility of establishing a charter open to signature by all democratic parties reflecting and endorsing agreed measures for the protection of the fundamental rights of everyone living in the island of Ireland".
The most immediate function of the commission is determined by section 8. This is inclusive of the general provisions of keeping under review the adequacy and effectiveness of the law and practice in the State relating to human rights and to make recommendations to the Government which are considered necessary to strengthen, protect and uphold those rights. It must also promote understanding and awareness of the importance of human rights and it may undertake research and educational activities, sponsor a commission to do so or provide financial or other assistance for that purpose.
A commission may conduct an inquiry either of its own volition or at the request of any person who considers that an inquiry is necessary or expedient. Any inquiry may be refused if the commission is of the opinion that the matter could be more appropriately dealt with by the institution of legal proceedings or by the taking of an application to a tribunal or other person in whom are vested powers to award, redress or grant appropriate relief. Proceedings may be discontinued where it is considered the request is trivial or vexatious or the alleged violation is manifestly unfounded. An inquiry may be held in public or in private.
Information obtained by the commission in the course of its functions and which has not otherwise come to the notice of the public shall not be disclosed to members of the public unless authorised by the commission. A person who fails to comply with the request or make disclosure to the commission shall be guilty of an offence and liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding £1,500 or imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months or both.
Both the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and the Human Rights Commission in the Republic are required to advise and make recommendations to their respective Executives on the adequacy and effectiveness of the law relating to the protection of human rights. Each is entitled to conduct inquiries but only the Irish commission has power to compel disclosure of documents and the attendance of witnesses. The immediate priorities of the respective commissions may be formed from different perspectives. The inhumanity of sectarian violence is the most obvious concern of the Northern Ireland commission. The issues for the Irish commission are not so immediately obvious, but some matters demand attention, including the rights of minorities, refugees, racism issues, Travellers, etc.
Regarding the Northern Ireland commission, once the nine part-time commissioners have been appointed, the commission as a whole will have to plan a strategy for the immediate future. Where the priorities will lie remains to be seen. It will want to maintain a high profile for its work and to develop a reputation for thoroughness, accuracy and a commitment to internationally recognised standards. It will be able, if it wishes, to express its views on punishment beatings and shootings, which to most people are the most salient issues which need to be addressed, especially in Northern Ireland. It will also need to learn from the experience of human rights commissions in other parts of the world.
It is a significant milestone in the area of human rights that this is being addressed by the Government and the Executive in Northern Ireland. I am not certain, with the suspension of the Executive, exactly what is the position of the commission in Northern Ireland. Undoubtedly there is a need for parity of esteem and equality. These are issues concerning fundamental human rights which ought to inform the commissions in Northern Ireland and the Republic. I welcome the discussion by the Government about the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into our body of law. I am glad to have had the opportunity to say a few words on the Bill.
I thank Deputy Carey for sharing his time with me. Under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, which had the majority support of both communities on this island, it was agreed that a human rights commission would be set up in the Republic of Ireland. This is why we are putting in place such a commission under the Bill. Before looking in detail at the provisions of the Bill, I wish to make some remarks about the state of the peace process at present.
I am as disappointed as anyone else at the developments in Northern Ireland in recent weeks, especially by the suspension of the Executive. It is important we put in context the developments of recent weeks. Ever since 1994, there has been relative peace in Northern Ireland. There was the horrendous bombing in Omagh which claimed nearly 30 lives. However painful and sickening those events were for the friends and families of the bereaved, the past five and a half years have seen some real signs towards reconciliation between the two communities. The Good Friday Agreement lays the framework for how an everlasting peace agreement which commands the widespread majority support of both communities can be achieved. I do not believe the Good Friday Agreement will be shelved. It has some tangible and innovative proposals which can help foster economic and social progress in Northern Ireland as well as build a greater trust between Unionists, Nationalists and republicans.
Respect for human rights must be a central part of any civil society. No democracy can succeed unless the human rights of citizens who live in that state are respected. That is partly the function of the Bill. Under the terms of the agreement reached in the multi-party negotiations in Northern Ireland, it was agreed to establish a human rights commission in the Republic of Ireland with a mandate and remit equivalent to that in Northern Ireland. The proposals in the Bill also take account of the work of the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation and the Constitutional Review Group's 1996 report which recommended that a human rights commission should be established in the State. The objective of such a commission is to maintain an overview of the extent to which human rights are protected at both constitutional and legal level, to assess the adequacy of this protection and to make recommendations to the Government for the better protection of these rights as appropriate. The Bill also reflects and accommodates where possible the views put forward by various interested organisations which were consulted, in particular, the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights, the All-Party Committee on the Constitution and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
The Bill draws on the universally accepted benchmark or blueprint for national human rights institutions adopted by the 1991 International Workshop on National Institutions for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and by the UN General Assembly in December 1993 and which has come to be known as the Paris Principles. On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on 10 December 1998, the Taoiseach stated that a national institution would be established to meet the commitment in the Good Friday Agreement which would be a model of its kind for Europe.
Section 2 states that the Human Rights Commission will be charged with the responsibility of examining law and practice in this day with reference not only to human rights and fundamental freedom contained in the Constitution, but also by reference to those instruments which reflect modern human rights norms. These include the European Convention on Human Rights to which Ireland is a signatory, the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the UN Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. As other conventions and agreements are ratified by the State, they too will come within the remit of the Human Rights Commission. Examples in this regard include the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination, the Convention Against Torture and other cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment which are under active consideration in this respect. As the 1996 report of the Constitutional Review Group illustrates, the list of human rights treaties to which the State is a party is quite extensive.
Section 4 deals with the independence of the Human Rights Commission. It is generally recognised, and correctly so, that an effective human rights commission will be one capable of acting independently of Governments. The commission will, however, have to conform with the accepted norms and practices with regard to financial matters such as auditing, accounting and relating procedures.
Section 5 deals with the proposed membership of the commission. Subsection (1) provides that the commission will have a president and eight other members. Subsection (2) provides that all such members will be appointed by Government and subsection (3) is designed to ensure that those members will be drawn from the widest possible background so as to ensure pluralist representation of the social elements involved in the promotion and protection of human rights in this State. The term of office for the members of the commission will be five years.
Section 8 contains one of the core provisions. It sets out in detail the functions of the Human Rights Commission which are to keep under review the adequacy and effectiveness of law and practice in this state relating to the protection of human rights; to consult with national and international human rights bodies as it sees fit; to make recommendations to Government on measures to strengthen and protect and uphold human rights in the State; to conduct inquiries as it considers necessary or expedient; to prepare and publish reports and research or inquiries conducted by it; to establish and participate in the North-South Committee of Representatives drawn from the commissions in both jurisdictions as required under paragraph 10 of the relevant section of the Good Friday Agreement.
Section 9 deals with the proposed inquiries by the Human Rights Commission. In brief, this section enables the commission to undertake inquiries into any matter it considers relevant. It will have a completely free hand in this respect and may decide to conduct its inquiries in public or in private as it sees fit. This section, most importantly, provides the commission with the means to conduct its inquiries. It can require the production of relevant information or documents with the necessary powers to obtain an order from the Circuit Court accordingly with penalties for non-compliance.
Section 10 refers to prospective and possible legal advice sought by the Human Rights Commission. It provides that a person may apply to the commission for legal advice, legal representation or such other assistance as the commission deems appropriate in the circumstances relating to the protection of human rights. While the European Convention on Human Rights was signed and ratified by Ireland in the early 1950s, it has not been incorporated into Irish law. That matter is currently under review arising from the obligation of the Good Friday Agreement to further examine the matter in the context of strengthening and underpinning the constitutional protection of human rights in the State. In the event that provisions of the conventions are given effect in Irish law, its provisions will then come within the scope of this section.
The remaining sections 12 to 26 refer to the duties of the chief executive officer and staff; the need to put forward appropriate audits and accounts as well as dealing with remunerative aspects for staff members. I agree with section 23 which obliges the commission to produce and submit an annual report on its activities in the preceding year not later than 31 March. The Minister should ensure that copies of the report are laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas.
Section 24 provides that the commission shall make a report to the Government after a period of two years in operation containing such recommendations as it thinks fit for the improvement of its effectiveness and the effectiveness of any functions conferred on it by the Bill. The commission is to pay particular regard to any developments in the field of human rights that have occurred in the period not just within the State but internationally.
The Human Rights Commission will be successful if appropriately funded. I know it is the Government's intention to ensure that adequate and substantial funds are made available to guarantee that it is administered effectively.
I would like to share my time with Deputy Owen.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
I welcome the Bill establishing a Human Rights Commission. This is extremely important legislation which, along with the equality Bill and the Equal Status Bill, will form a key element in protecting human rights in this country.
I wish to raise three points with the Minister, the first of which relates to the importance of a public information and education campaign on human rights. We have had a less than satisfactory approach over the years to the incorporation of international treaties protecting human rights. The level of debate on human rights in general has not been very high. I hope the Minister will ensure that suitable information on the various aspects of this Bill will be made available. I wish to quote from the address made by Mrs. Robinson to a conference on African human rights institutions in South Africa. She stated:
Again for those of you about to establish national institutions let me underline the importance not only of the mandate and the legislative mechanism for creating a human rights commission but also the process of public consultation and transparency which should precede its creation. A national institution established hastily without public understanding of its role and responsibilities will be unlikely to succeed in its mission.
That is a very important point and is one which we should take note of. Many good submissions were received during the development of this Bill from the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, Amnesty and many other NGOs during the hearings held by the justice committee. The Bill has been greatly improved by the suggestions made at those hearings which were very important.
My second point relates to the importance of the appointment of the chair of the commission. The Minister should appoint to this position someone who has a record of protecting human rights, who has a record in understanding equality issues and who will have the imagination to make of the Human Rights Commission the powerful instrument it could be. I hope when the time comes the Minister will make a strong appointment to that position.
The Paris Principles have already been referred to. The principles, endorsed by the Commission on Human Rights in 1992 stressed that national institutions should be established by legislation or constitutional provision but should be fully independent of Government, pluralist and representative of the social forces of civil society. I hope the Minister will take this into account as the Human Rights Commission is established.
My third point relates to the up-to-date position in regard to the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into Irish law. It is extraordinary that we are the only country which has not managed to do that. What is different about our approach to this issue and about Irish law that we have been unable to do what every other contracting country has done?
This week we heard that the Equality Authority has received 3,000 queries since it was established. That reflects a growing need in the area of equality and human rights. It also shows that information about the Equality Authority is getting into the public arena, which is important. A human rights commission will complement and continue the work of the Equality Authority.
An article in The Irish Times earlier this week stated that the Refugee Council is concerned at the dispersal of under age asylum seekers. It shocked many people because it described the fact that asylum seekers throughout the State have no access to legal advice or other essential services. It confirmed that there are now 87 minors seeking asylum in the State, two of whom are aged 12, three aged 14, eight aged 15, 27 aged 16 and the remainder aged 17. Questions were raised as to whether they were informed of their rights on arrival, such as the right to legal advice. The Refugee Council believes there is not sufficient information or services available to these minors, some of whom were on their own. One pregnant girl was sent to Ennis shortly after her arrival but she was not given the opportunity to see a doctor. That scenario is disturbing.
Providing adequate protection for refugees and asylum seekers and proper access to education, housing and basic services will be a key issue for us in the future. Given that this is a new and challenging area for society, there will be problems. The human rights commission and the Equality Authority will have strong roles to play in protecting the rights of minority groups here.
The Bill has been introduced as a result of the Good Friday Agreement, which states that the Irish Government will establish a human rights commission with a mandate and remit equivalent to that within Northern Ireland, and international pressure from the United Nations to establish national institutions to protect individual human rights. This international trend was evident at the Beijing women's conference in 1995 and at the Vienna world conference on human rights in 1993. Both these conferences called on all states to establish such commissions. Mrs. Mary Robinson has also played a part in this international movement in her efforts to advance human rights.
It is important to recognise the powers human rights commissions should have. The Paris Principles set minimum standards but they stress the need for complete independence of Governments and the power to human rights proof existing and proposed legislation. Recently we discussed legislation relating to deportation and concerns were expressed about human rights.
The Paris Principles also state that there should be the power to investigate possible abuses or patterns of abuse of human rights. The Government has established a commission to inquire into widespread child abuse. However, if an outside body had had the opportunity to examine the pattern of child abuse at the time, it could have been stopped. The principles state there should be the power to subpoena witnesses and documents in order to carry out such investigations. Perhaps the Minister could clarify the range of areas the human rights commission could examine. This would help to inform the public of the potential of the new commission which will be established under this legislation.
I welcome the fact that Ireland will set up a human rights commission, which is overdue. We have been tardy in recognising human rights. In the area of women's rights, we have been driven by international legislation and conventions rather than by Government initiatives. There is unfinished work in the area of women's rights and new issues are emerging which will have implications for human rights. They include domestic violence, sexual assault and trafficking in women, which all European Governments must address. Some work was done at European level recently on trafficking in women and this has implications for Irish law.
New challenges arise all the time but establishing the human rights commission will mean that grievances and injustice can be addressed.
It seems extraordinary that we are only now discussing the establishment of a human rights commission. However, that is not to say we do not have many other mechanisms whereby people can seek redress if they feel their human rights have been abused. If we did not have the Good Friday Agreement, would this legislation have been introduced? Perhaps it is a failure of successive Governments that we did not establish a human rights commission on our own initiative. Nevertheless, I am glad we are doing so now. It is interesting that the UK has already established its commission. The Good Friday Agreement highlighted the need for us to do that.
When the areas of rights, safeguards and equality of opportunity were being discussed in preparation for the Good Friday Agreement in 1996 and 1997, it was amazing how many times the issue of changing people's attitudes and mindsets and revolutionising the way in which society had developed in Northern Ireland because of the unnatural way people had become ghettoised was raised. Housing was given out to Nationalists on one side and to Unionists on the other side and this helped to perpetuate the breakdown of normal society. It was only when one considered what needed to be included under a heading, such as human rights, in the Good Friday Agreement that one realised how society in Northern Ireland was not normal. It also meant that the Irish Government, the Civil Service and the Ministers negotiating the Good Friday Agreement were challenged to listen to their consciences and to ask if they had adequate legislation in their jurisdiction to deal with this matter, but they discovered that they did not.
As the Minister pointed out, the concept of human rights commissions is relatively new. It is interesting to consider some of the countries which already have such commissions. I am not filled with a huge amount of confidence by the fact that Indonesia has a human rights commission. One begins to wonder about the usefulness of such a commission. The fact that the Philippines has a human rights commission also fails to fill me with confidence. I accept that Mr. Marcos and his followers are no longer in power in the Philippines but, having visited the islands, it does not appear that the commission is doing a great deal for the poor people who live there. The human rights commission in Indonesia is of no use whatsoever, particularly when one considers what that country did to the people of East Timor.
The Minister must ensure that people will have full and complete confidence in the human rights commission which will be established here. That commission must do its work in a way which inspires people to adhere to the judgments and advice it gives.
It is interesting to note that the function of the Northern Ireland commission is to keep under review the adequacy of law and practice relating to human rights in that jurisdiction. The members of the commission will act as advisers to the Assembly as it considers legislation. In other words, they will be responsible for benchmarking all items of legislation.
Every item of legislation passed by this House involves some aspect of human or civil rights. Therefore, there is nothing which does not have to be closely examined. A year or two before I entered Government in 1994, a new mechanism was introduced which obliged each Department to include in every memorandum to Government a heading which listed the effects of legislation on women. In other words, the legislation had to be gender proofed. In some instances it was stated that an item of legislation had no particular effect on men or women. However, every Department was obliged to include such information on each memorandum to Government. Without giving away any Cabinet secrets, such information often led to a great deal of discussion because a Minister may have written below the heading that the legislation would have no particular effect.
There are indirect discriminations in many of our practices in this State. Let me provide an example. An indirect discrimination exists in respect of a person's right to participate in a community employment scheme. In order to be able to take up a place on a community employment scheme, a person must have been signing on for 12 months. Women who have given up their jobs to work in the home and who want to return to the workforce because their children have started school believe that the best way to do so is by taking up a place on a community employment scheme where they will work for 20 hours per week and still have time to spend with their children when they come home from school. Those women are discriminated against by the mere fact that they have not been signing on and there is no mechanism which will allow them to qualify if they have been absent from the workforce. That is an indirect discrimination mainly against women because, by and large, it is they who give up their employment to work full time in the home.
I hope the commission, when established, will be able to proof the State's systems. Let us consider the issues that led to an onus being placed on the Irish and British Governments to establish human rights commissions. The relevant documentation informs us that against the background of the recent history of communal conflict, the parties affirmed, in particular, the right to free political thought, the right to freedom and expression of religion, the right to pursue democratically national and political aspirations, the right to seek constitutional change by peaceful and legitimate means, the right to freely choose one's place of residence, the right to equal opportunity in all social and economic activity regardless of class, creed, disability, gender or ethnicity, the right to freedom form sectarian harassment and the right of women to full and equal political participation. It is a sad reflection that in 1998, almost 50 years after the UN Declaration on Human Rights, there was a need to list these rights and freedoms in legislation to establish a human rights commission. These rights and freedoms should be automatic.
When the commission is established, I hope the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform of the day will not be able to persist in leaving in place systems which allow, as Deputy Fitzgerald stated, young asylum seekers to be treated in the way they are being treated at present. Such treatment is not excusable but at times it is understandable because the staff of health boards, the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and other institutions are dealing with this area for the first time.
I have heard some horrific stories about asylum seekers who are being sent to bed and breakfast accommodation in the Dublin suburbs with only 50p in their pockets. They are supposed to travel to that accommodation by bus and return to the Mount Street centre the next morning in order to queue all day. Nobody cares whether these people have the means to travel to their accommodation which is sometimes situated in Portmarnock, Malahide and Swords. Great concern has been expressed about the welfare of 17 to 19 year old women who are obliged to travel to the suburbs at night and then return to Mount Street the next morning to spend the day in the hope that they will be dealt with before the end of the day's business.
We have a great deal more to do in terms of the delivery of human and civil rights in this country, not just for ourselves but for those who come here seeking asylum or work. It is time that a human rights commission was established because we do not yet recognise the multicultural nature of our society. I looked up into the visitors' gallery this morning and spotted a group of school children, three of whom were from a country in Africa. Ten years ago one would not have seen someone in the gallery that one could instantly recognise as being from Africa. The people of Ireland must face up to the reality of respecting the human and civil rights of others.
We welcome the introduction of the Human Rights Commission Bill. I reiterate Deputy Fitzgerald's comment that the appointment of the chairperson of the Human Rights Commission will be crucial. I urge the Minister to reflect long and hard on the type of person he appoints to that position because it will be on the basis of the respect paid to that person that the commission will succeed or fail.
(Mayo): This evening the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform will close the Second Stage debate of the Human Rights Commission Bill, a measure designed to establish a Human Rights Commission to promote and protect human rights and to develop a human rights ethos in this country. Next week, at a select committee of this House, this same Minister will make a total mockery of the aspirations contained in this Bill by crudely bludgeoning through Committee Stage amendments to the Illegal Trafficking in Immigrants Bill, 1999.
These amendments are blatantly discriminatory in that they establish a separate and much less favourable regime of judicial treatment for asylum seekers and non-nationals than that to which Irish nationals are entitled. Next week at the select committee the Minister will reduce the time within which an asylum seeker must seek leave to apply for a judicial review in order to challenge the refusal of his asylum application from three months to 14 days or, in essence, ten working days. That is, by any standards, a very wrong and unfair measure.
When the Minister introduced this Bill to the House on 25 November 1999, he talked about our Human Rights Commission being a model of best practice for others. Yet, while the Bill is weaving its way through the Dáil, the same Minister seeks to introduce a parallel blatantly discriminatory measure which sets at nought the whole principle of the equal application of the law. He chooses to deliberately ignore Articles 40 to 44 of the Constitution and the interpretation of these Articles which clarifies in explicit terms the broadening of the scope of the Constitution for the protection of non-citizens as well as citizens. What the Minister is doing is unconstitutional and should be referred to the Council of State.
I do not think the Deputy is discussing the Bill before us. He has moved off the Bill.
(Mayo): This is a matter appropriate to human rights.
There may be a passing reference to it but not a whole debate.
(Mayo): I genuinely believe it will not find its way onto the Statute Book. As a former independent appeals adjudicator, Mr. Peter Finlay, said last week, this is bad law. The Illegal Trafficking in Immigrants Bill is a racist measure from a Government paralysed by paranoia in dealing with asylum seekers.
I would prefer if we did not debate that Bill. The Deputy will have an opportunity to submit amendments to it on Committee Stage. Tonight we are discussing Second Stage of the Human Rights Commission Bill.
(Mayo): One of the remits of the Human Rights Commission will be to look at all aspects of human rights, including all legislation dealing with human rights. The Illegal Trafficking in Immigrants Bill is a fundamental area of human rights.
The Deputy cannot discuss that Bill now. He may make a passing reference—
(Mayo): It will be the job of the commission to do that. By pre-emptively vetoing this, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle—
A passing reference is acceptable.
(Mayo):—you are cutting across the terms of reference of the Bill we are discussing.
The Government stands accused of failing to introduce a proper immigration policy in order to make a clear distinction between asylum seekers and economic immigrants. The legislation we have had so far from the Government on human rights and immigrants has been incremental and reactive to evolving situations, rather than planned, progressive and forward looking.
An Irish citizen will continue to have three months to apply for a judicial review. An asylum seeker will have 14 days. Apart from the anti-asylum seeker discrimination in the new measure, the Minister's amendment goes on to state that such leave shall not be granted unless the High Court is satisfied there are substantial grounds. In other words, in order to get permission for a judicial review, the applicant must present a watertight case. How can any asylum seeker and his legal team possibly prepare the required watertight case within two weeks?
What we are debating now is much more appropriate to Committee Stage of the Bill. I would prefer that the Deputy deal with Second Stage of the Human Rights Commission Bill. A passing reference may be made to other Bills but not a detailed discussion on what is much more appropriate to Committee Stage.
(Mayo): I fully agree with you. I will also debate the same point on Report Stage when the Bill comes back to the House.
We are dealing here with issues which are intensely individual and personal. Any lawyer dealing with a judicial review case is probably also the recipient of numerous other cases. How can one present a watertight case within two weeks? There is a need for detailed planning, examination, preparation and presentation. Using the defence that it is wasteful of court time is deeply offensive to the rights of non-nationals. The Minister's amendment, which proposes to block off access to the Supreme Court—
Deputy Higgins is being totally out of order.
(Mayo): You have allowed—
This is an amendment to another Bill. It is not appropriate to have a detailed debate on it on Second Stage of this Bill.
(Mayo): If you took the trouble, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle, to listen to and read the previous contributions to this debate, you would see they rambled all over the place on human rights. They dealt with the rights of Travellers, minority groups, women, immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees. What I am doing here—
The Deputy is having a detailed discussion on what is appropriate as an amendment to another Bill which is in committee. It is not appropriate to Second Stage of this Bill.
(Mayo): This Bill—
The Deputy is having a detailed debate on a ministerial amendment to another Bill.
(Mayo): The Bill we are now debating—
I ask the Deputy to deal with the Bill before the House.
(Mayo): I will in due course. This Bill sets down the criteria and the substance of a Bill dealing with human rights. I am talking about a fundamental area which will come within the remit of this Bill when it finds its way onto the Statute Book.
A passing reference is totally acceptable. However, for the past five minutes the Deputy has been discussing in detail a ministerial amendment, which is a debate much more appropriate to Committee Stage of the Bill he is talking about, not this Bill.
(Mayo): It is a ministerial amendment that can be debated by the Human Rights Commission when it is set up. I see absolutely no—
That may well be, but it will be dealt with on Committee Stage of the other Bill. I ask the Deputy to discuss the Human Rights Commission Bill.
(Mayo): I will get to it in my own time but I will finish my contribution on this amendment first. This amendment is deeply offensive to the fundamental rights of people and to Parliament. This is not the first time this Minister has introduced substantial amendments on Committee Stage which effectively change the goalposts and the content of a Bill, when the Second Stage of this Bill has not been completed. By introducing these amendments on Committee Stage, he has subverted, aborted and precluded the right of this House to debate substantial amendments.
This is not the first time this has happened. It happened with the Immigration Bill, when the entire thrust and substance of the Bill was changed on Committee Stage without reference back to the House. It also happened in relation to the Broadcasting Bill. It is a ploy and a mechanism adopted by the Government.
If legal advice were got on this subverting of due process, the Government would face serious questions about the manner in which it seeks to undermine the fundamental right of this House to a proper debate. Standing Orders set down that there are five Stages to a debate. The First Stage is publication, Second Stage is the broad debate on the principles of the Bill, Third Stage is a minute dissection and analysis of the Bill, Fourth or Report Stage is where the Bill is brought back into the House and is followed by Fifth Stage. Introducing huge tranches of amendments on Committee Stage subverts and undermines the fundamental rights of this House. It is deeply offensive and contemptuous of Parlia ment. This is not the first time the Minister has treated this House in such a derisory fashion.
I welcome the Human Rights Commission Bill. I am entitled to make those points because they are relevant to the Bill and what will happen in the select committee next week. As I said before, it is a fundamental part of our obligations under the Good Friday Agreement. I welcome the consultation process that preceded publication of the Bill, where members of the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights had an opportunity to meet with representatives of non-governmental organisations to listen to their views and concerns. It is a much better Bill as a result of this consultation. It is obvious from an examination of the Bill as published and from the Minister's Second Stage speech that the views of the various non-governmental organisations have been heard and taken on board. For example, the commission's maximum right to membership, of a president plus eight members, is being opted for. The Minister also clarified that it is envisaged in sections 8 and 9 that the commission may conduct inquiries. However, will he clarify whether the commission can conduct a public sworn inquiry? It has already been stated that the commission can hold inquiries in public but can it hold sworn public inquiries? Will the Minister also clarify whether the commission can conduct such inquiries outside the State?
I regret there is no provision in the Bill to enable the commission to draft legislation or to scrutinise draft legislation. One would imagine that an independent statutory body, the membership of which is drawn from a diverse range of backgrounds, would be entitled to suggest legislative changes and to suggest the draft form that such changes would take, as well as carrying out a constructive analysis of draft legislative proposals from Government.
Like others, I detect a clear preference on the part of the Minister for the appointment of a serving or former judge to the position of president of the commission. I am not au fait with the specialist qualifications or interests of serving or retired judges, but rather than assuming it must be a judge or a former judge, the Minister should take serious note of the fact that the Human Rights Commission in Northern Ireland is functioning well under its chief commissioner Professor Brice Dickson, former professor of law at the University of Ulster. It is crucial for the success of the commission that its president has a broad range of experience in the area of human rights and what might loosely be described as a feel for the issues involved.
I will address Ireland's performance in the area of fundamental human rights and the performance of this Government in particular. Apart from the contradictory position of the Minister, we are extremely exposed in terms of our performance on other human rights fronts. In 1950, the Council of Europe drew up the European Convention on Human Rights which became the touchstone charter for drafting international human rights law. Ireland was one of the first countries to sign and ratify the convention. However, 50 years later, not only have we failed to incorporate the convention into domestic law but of the 41 contracting countries of the Council of Europe we are the only one not to have done so. We signed and ratified the convention, yet the rights and safeguards of the convention cannot be pleaded before our domestic courts. As a result, Irish citizens are left in the ludicrous and expensive situation that they must first exhaust every legal domestic redress, where the charter is not of any relevance, before taking their case to Strasbourg.
As a nation how can we face into any international forum and claim a right to participate in a debate on human rights when we are so patently found out by our unwillingness to draft a Bill to give domestic validity to the measures we applauded and ratified so enthusiastically 50 long years ago? This from a country which lobbied successfully for the appointment of Mary Robinson to the post of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Ireland is still performing very poorly in dealing with Traveller issues. The Department of the Environment and Local Government has set down statutory minimum targets and guidelines for local authorities yet much local authority time is spent trying to diffuse the NIMBY factor which tends to prevail as councillors invariably come under pressure from local settled communities protesting at halting sites or traveller housing. Last evening's "Prime Time" programme and this morning's newspaper headlines amply illustrate that some things never change, that the anti-traveller prejudice is rampant and it will take a major effort to break it down.
An area in which the Government can really effect change and show the way to the private sector is in dealing with the rights of people with disabilities, the rights of minorities and the area of gender balance. I am not convinced by recent statements by the Taoiseach and Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform wringing their hands in helpless acknowledgement that, throughout the public service, we have failed to meet the modest goals set down by the Government. The Minister acknowledged that 51% of State-sponsored bodies do not have guidelines for dealing with sexual harassment and almost half do not have a policy on equal opportunities. Of the 82 State-sponsored bodies surveyed, Aer Lingus and Aer Rianta came closest to reaching the standard, but both had a compliance rate of only 79%. The reality is that there has been only marginal progress towards realising the targets set down. How can any Government expect others to fulfil their duties and obligations when the Government and its State agencies with the vast resources at their disposal and endless opportunities to lead the way have faltered so badly? This failure points to a glaring misjudgment in the construction of this Government. It was a major error not to continue with the Department of Equality and Law Reform as a separate entity. The first and only Minister for Equality and Law Reform, Mervyn Taylor, was totally absorbed by his brief and with the welfare of the disadvantaged, the discriminated against and minorities. Nominations for appointment to every official body were checked, cross-checked and gender checked and nominations were vetoed unless the established quotas were met. It was inevitable, given the huge expanse of the justice brief, that once equality was merged with it, the latter would soon become the Cinderella once again. This is a sad fact because there is so much to do.
There are glaring examples in areas for which the Government is responsible, of where people's fundamental rights are not being respected. For example, the elderly, whose fundamental right is to spend their twilight years in the secure comfort of the homes which, in many cases, they built, are being flouted and disregarded. What greater right have we than the right to live and the right to life? However, there are health service waiting lists of up to two years for cardiac surgery where some people never receive treatment as they die before their turn arrives. Are these people on the second rung of a two-tier health service?
There are also the educational rights of mentally handicapped children. The Constitution aspires to cherish all our children equally yet voluntary and parent groups have to constantly sell tickets, collect money at church gates and organise fund-raising events to supplement the shortfall in the level and quality of services. The list is endless. I welcome the commission. This is step in the right direction which is long overdue and I suspect it will have a busy time.
I thank Deputies who contributed to Second Stage. It is fair to say there was a broad welcome for the Bill about which I am genuinely pleased. Some of the points raised deserve further comment, even those which were more ludicrous.
The position as regards our ratification of the Council of Europe framework convention on national minorities was mentioned. This convention is referred to in the relevant section of the Good Friday Agreement and, as I stated when introducing the Bill on 25 November 1999, in accordance with the requirement in the Agreement the convention was ratified on 1 May 1999. The House passed the Bill which will allow us to ratify the UN Convention against Torture and the necessary action will be taken as soon as the Bill passed by the Seanad on 7 July 1999 is approved by the Dáil and enacted into law.
When the Equal Status Bill is enacted, steps will be taken to ratify the international convention on the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination and the question of lifting certain reservations applicable to the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women will be examined.
Following the coming into effect of the revised Articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution on 2 December 1999, the Irish Nationality and Citizenship Bill was published and is awaiting Second Stage. The provisions of the Bill are designed to take effect from that date. It goes without saying that the Bill could not have been brought forward in advance of the review of the Good Friday Agreement because the technical approach to the Bill's naturalisation provisions may have been different depending on whether the constitutional changes were to be made.
Deputy Flanagan asked if there were consultations on the Bill with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. That process started with a letter from the High Commissioner to the Taoiseach on 15 June 1998. A meeting with senior officials followed in September of that year with the UN High Commissioner's Special Adviser on National Human Rights Institutions. Further meetings and discussions on the Government's proposals took place on three further occasions in the first half of 1999. Given the development of human rights commissions in Australia and New Zealand, the opportunity was taken to consult with senior members of those commissions who were visiting Ireland at that time.
Deputies Howlin and Ó Caoláin were critical of the apparent delay in producing the Bill. I do not accept that there was an undue delay. The outline of the general scheme was settled in November 1998 at the time the Labour Party published its Private Members' Bill. The Government then approved the unusual step of publishing the scheme for consideration, a move which has been warmly welcomed by this House. That process took some time as – many of the NGOs which contributed to the discussions will testify to this – my Department had an open door policy about meeting any person or group interested in the proposals. Furthermore, account had to be taken of the fact that two committees of this House were also considering these proposals. The Oireachtas All-Party Committee on the Constitution made its views known to me in March 1999 and the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality and Women's Rights reported on 17 June 1999. The Bill was then published in early July 1999.
In so far as the provisions of the Bill are concerned, I do not agree with the view that has been expressed that the Government somehow favours or is predisposed toward the appointment of a judge as president of the commission. The scheme was amended in this respect and the Government is now empowered to consider a candidate from any walk of life for the position. If it happens that a judge is considered for the appointment, certain technical legal consequences flow from that. The inclusion of those provisions in the Bill, however, are merely facilitatory in that context. They are certainly not indicative of the Government's thinking on the issue.
With regard to the belated question of membership of the commission, I have said that the Government will be as open and transparent as possible in making these appointments. I do not see the need for an elaborate appointment procedure, either through a selection committee, as was done in the case of the Dublin Docklands Development Board Act, or a Dáil-Seanad ratification process, as happens with the Ombudsman, a procedure we also considered. As I said in my speech, the commission in Northern Ireland was appointed using the formal procedures which apply in that jurisdiction requiring open competition for such posts. The Government could decide to adopt a similar process or it could decide to consult as widely as possible with interested groups and seek nominations prior to appointing members. We will certainly take into account the views of this House in the matter in our determination to have the membership of the commission drawn from as wide a base as possible of suitable candidates with human rights expertise, knowledge or experience.
Deputy Howlin referred to the commission having a specific power to draft legislation. I see no difficulty with that. The commission, under section 8(f2>c), will be entitled to frame its proposals to Government in whatever form it chooses. If it decides to follow the Law Reform Commission and draft its proposals in suitable format, that would be very beneficial in the drafting process which is ultimately the responsibility of the parliamentary draftsman's office.
Deputies Flanagan and Howlin queried the exclusion of parliamentarians from membership of the commission. I am happy enough to look at that between now and Committee Stage and I have a certain sympathy for their point of view. I am disposed towards amending the Bill in that respect.
I will also consider the suggestion that the commission should have the power to issue public statements in relation to the human rights aspect of situations where groups of people might be discriminated against. A provision could be modelled on section 5(1) of the 1994 New Zealand human rights Act. We looked at this in the earlier stages but we thought that such a function would be embraced by section 8(f2>c) of the Bill.
Similarly, the undertaking of an audit of human rights aspects of all our laws and regulations is embraced by the function of the commission in section 8(f2>a). I readily admit, however, that it lacks a timeframe within which the work should be done. We must be careful not to overburden the commission, especially during its initial period of operation. Deputy Flanagan should be aware that when the New Zealand commission was given a remit with a four year time limit in the 1994 Act, it had been up and running since 1977. I would prefer to leave things as they are at the moment so the commission can determine its priorities in the light of what it sees as areas where it needs to get involved straight away.
Deputy Flanagan mentioned Sweden's incorporation into law of the Convention on Human Rights. The Swedish statute entered into force on 1 January 1995. It provides that the convention is to have the status of ordinary law. Given that this law could come into conflict with other legislation, it was necessary to add to the Swedish Constitution a provision that a law or other regulation should not be issued in conflict with Sweden's obligations under the convention. This solution is still regarded as controversial because it seems to open the way for judicial encroachment on the freedom of Parliament to enact laws. It does not represent a model which we should follow.
I hope to bring to the attention of the Government very soon my proposals on the question of incorporation as required by the Good Friday Agreement. When they have been considered a decision will be announced in the normal way in due course.
In case my silence is taken as assent, I utterly reject statements and imputations cast by the two main Opposition spokesmen during the otherwise very constructive and worthwhile contributions to this debate on 25 November. The general thrust of the comments was to the effect that the climate in my Department does not allow for priority and detailed consideration of important international conventions and that this is indicative of the mindset of those charged with that area of policy. It was inferred that the decision to amalgamate the Department of Justice with the Department of Equality and Law Reform is partly to blame for the deprioritisation of "soft" legislation, that I might be less diligent than my relevant predecessor in my vindication of equality issues at Cabinet level and that the draft legislation now before the House would have been better left to the Department of the Taoiseach.
These are disgraceful comments to which the staff of the Department and I take grave exception. I had occasion recently to nail similar statements in the Seanad and what I said there deserves repetition in this House. One of the truly great repositories of human rights in the State since its foundation has been the Department of Justice in its various guises. My record and that of the Department in terms of legislation is testament to that. Since entering office I have steered an unprecedented 25 Bills through the Oireachtas and I have 13 more before it at the moment. A substantial number of these Bills could be called "soft legislation". The record of the Department goes back further than that.
Deputy Fitzgerald asked this evening about the areas of competence of the commission. We do not intend for there to be any no-go areas. Obviously, if a matter is properly the concern of another statutory agency, such as the Equality Agency, matters should be left to that body. The commission could still have a role in relation to systemic or procedural aspects, even where a statutory body has competence. As to inquiries of the commission, it will have a free hand in the question of whether such inquiries are prudent, private, public or sworn.
I doubt the issue of the commission travelling abroad will arise. There may be restraints arising from the law of the country concerned. If the issue arises, the matter can be considered during the two year review of the commission's work.
With regard to the suggestion that the commission should have the power to better scrutinise draft legislation, that is already the intention behind section 8, paragraphs (a) and (c), setting out the commission's functions. The term “draft legislation” strictly speaking, means proposals that are published in Bill form. It is open to the commission to make whatever suggestions it considers appropriate in that connection. However, the term also embraces draft heads or schemes of Bills. It is desirable that the commission should also have a role in this regard because its input at the preparatory stage would be useful and valuable. We must be careful this function does not conflict with the role of the Government's constitutional and legal adviser in all matters, including on the question of compatibility of draft proposals with modern human rights norms as set out in the various conventions, treaties and agreements to which the State is, or maybe about to become a party. The wording of the Bill seeks to achieve the fullest possible constitutional advisory role of the commission in this respect.
Those who commented in the House on the issue of asylum seekers and who were members of the previous Administration have considerable audacity. They seek to lecture me in this House on the asylum process when they should hang their heads in shame following upon their maladministration when in office. The total chaos which was left behind by that Administration, when thousands of applicants not alone did not know if or when their claims would be heard, but were led to the view that they could be waiting ad secula seculorum is a testament to that. At the time there was no provision for legal aid, for a one stop shop such as we have now, for health screening, or for translation facilities. There were 22 staff working in my Department on a part-time basis on thousands of cases. Is that the record of an Administration that had even the remotest interest in asylum seekers? It is the record of a Government that had decided to ignore the issue to see if it would go away. Given that context, it is very difficult for me to accept the crocodile tears which are falling here this evening. The comments made are those of people who did nothing about the issue when in office.
I have heard and noted all the comments made this evening. I noted what Deputy Fitzgerald said on the issue of the dispersal of minors and what Deputy Owen said regarding what she heard about people being sent off with 50p in their pockets. I also noted what both Deputies said about rumours they had heard to the effect that minors were being dispersed and not getting legal advice. I too read of these anonymous cases. I am the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and if people have a case which they want to put before me with names and addresses and times and dates I ask them to do so and I assure all Members of the House that I will investigate them. However, the reality is that Deputies are making wild allegations in the House on foot of hearsay and are not producing any evidence to back them up. That is desperately unfair to the people who are processing these claims in the most humane manner possible.
It may be the case that people do not agree with the policy and that there are people in the House and outside who believe in an open door policy. It may also be the case that they want me to preside over a situation where all asylum seekers coming into the country be allowed to work. They are entitled to make that case, but I ask people inside and outside the House to hold an honest debate on the issue. Do not repeat allegations which cannot be substantiated. I ask people everywhere to have a calm, cool and rational debate without exaggeration and misrepresentation and without misleading the public to achieve an objective. Let us leave the ulterior motives elsewhere and hold a realistic debate. It might also do no harm to leave behind the juvenile name calling.
What is occurring among certain sections inside and outside the House is a dishonest debate, predicated not on facts but on fantasy and nothing else. That is not viable. It is a dishonest and disingenuous position for people to hold. I again plead with them to come up front, state the facts, present the evidence and stand over it. If people cannot put up, they might as well shut up.
With regard to the position of unaccompanied asylum seekers and minors, when unaccompanied minors make an application for asylum they are immediately referred to the relevant health board. That is the truth. The responsibility of the health board for an unaccompanied minor is exactly the same as that for an Irish child under the Child Care Acts. All asylum seekers receive information in a language they understand and all are entitled to legal advice at all stages of the asylum process. In those circumstances would the Deputies who made allegations in the House earlier tonight and those outside the House who make similar allegations in the media, present their evidence or stop spreading untruths.
In the course of a scandalous contribution in the House tonight, which betrayed an abject lack of knowledge of the subject, Deputy Jim Higgins tried to suggest that the measure now being proposed by the Government in relation to judicial review is "a racist measure".
(Mayo): Hear, hear.
He went on to say the distinction was not being made between an asylum seeker and an illegal or economic immigrant. That betrays an ignorance of this subject that is beyond comprehension. An asylum seeker can be an illegal immigrant or an economic migrant and he is either one of those or a refugee. The term "asylum seeker" is, therefore, an all encompassing phrase for "illegal immigrant" and "refugee".
(Mayo): He gets 14 days.
The difference between an asylum seeker and the other two is that the status has not been determined. If Deputy Jim Higgins does not understand the basic terminology which applies under the law in relation to asylum and refugees, then the deductions he subsequently makes could not possibly be right. At the very least is casts a very serious doubt on either his willingness to be forthcoming or his understanding of what he is talking about.
(Mayo): Am I right or wrong?
Regarding judicial review and the proposed reduction in time from three months to 14 days, Deputy Higgins seeks to give the impression that somebody is being asked to prepare a case de novo in a period of 14 days. That, Sir, is untrue. Every asylum seeker must make an application in the first instance which is then considered by the officials. Every asylum seeker who is deemed to be an illegal immigrant has the opportunity of appealing to a refugee appeals commissioner. That means the case is dealt with all over again. At that point is it not fair to assume that if the individual has been turned down—
—that his or her case will be well prepared and that he or she can, at the very least, do what we are asking in terms of the amendments within a period of 14 days, namely, to establish for the court not that they have a definite case but that they have substantial grounds for their case? There is nothing wrong with that and that is all we are asking them to do.
Of course the misrepresentation, the misleading, the nudge and wink and the ulterior motive has taken over in parts of the House and in some places outside it. That, while it may never be printed, is the truth. John Keats once wrote
"Beauty is truth, truth beauty,"– that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
Deputy Higgins could not be more wrong when he says that a watertight case must be established for a judicial review within 14 days.
(Mayo): It will not stand up unless it is watertight.
It is false. The notion that we are blocking access to the Supreme Court is another untruth, another misrepresentation.
(Mayo): Is there access?
Access to the Supreme Court will, of course, arise where a point of law, for example, of public importance, arises in the case of an individual, be he an asylum seeker or anybody else.
Mr. Finlay SC was mentioned. Normally I would under no circumstances take it upon myself to mention the views of a person who is not a Member of the House.
(Mayo): The Minister appointed him.
When Mr. Finlay says this is bad law, he expresses his opinion as he is entitled to do. At no point would I attempt to muzzle an individual who wishes to express an opinion in relation to any issue, something which is well known. Would that some of my critics were as liberal as I in that respect.
The Attorney General advises the Government. I did not get up one morning and decide I could introduce this measure and that it would be constitutional. I take the advice of the Attorney General. It is a matter for Mr. Finlay if his advice differs from that of the Attorney General. I am not obliged to take and it is questionable whether I can take the advice of Mr. Finlay. I suggest that my constitutional obligation is to take the advice of the Attorney General, whose advice I sought. His advice was that I could introduce this measure. If it subsequently transpires in the courts that I am not correct, I will accept that decision.
However, I will not accept and should not be expected to accept the definitive views of people given in furtherance of an objective which I cannot see when the advice from the Attorney General is quite categoric. It is not a matter for an individual to decide what is constitutional. Under the Constitution that function is reserved for the courts and nobody else may decide. I would not be so presumptuous, even taking the advice of the Attorney General, to stand in the House on any legislation and categorically state that it is constitutional.
I will happily return to this issue next week, but before doing so I wish to state that the demonisation which—
Notice taken that 20 Members were not present; House counted and 20 Members being present,
The demonisation which has become a feature of the debate on the Bill does less credit to some of the people making the wild allegations than to me. I have listened to nonsense in this House and elsewhere over a long period from certain Members in Opposition regarding the enforcement and observance of human rights in Ireland. The greatest repository of human rights in this jurisdiction is contained in Bunreacht na hÉireann, 1937, which was drafted by the then Fianna Fáil Administration led by Mr. de Valera. Subsequent to that, the provisions of the Constitution in so far as they relate to human rights have been interpreted in successive Supreme Court decisions, which have served to expand upon human rights like few other jurisdictions in the free world. There are experts who venture to suggest that the rights enumerated by the Constitution and expanded upon by the Supreme Court are perhaps more expansive and even superior to those set out anywhere in the world and that may include the European Convention on Human Rights.
Reference has been made to the fact that this convention was not incorporated into Irish law despite the fact that Ireland was the first to ratify it, and that is true. However, it is entirely disingenuous for members of the Opposition who have been in Government to come into the House and berate the Government about incorporation of the convention into Irish law when they had the opportunity and did not do so. I have stated categorically over recent months that it is my intention to bring forward proposals to the Government to incorporate the convention into our law. This is the first time in the history of the State that any Government has said it will do so. The Taoiseach was the first statesman in Ireland to agree to do so under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.
I wish to expand further on our human rights record and the criticism of me and the Government. Since coming to office we have introduced more legislation relating to human rights than any Administration in the history of the State. The Employment Equality Bill, 1997, which was struck down by the Supreme Court, was amended, brought before the House by me on behalf of the Government and enacted. It provides for a range of rights and terms of employment which could not have been envisaged before. The Equal Status Bill, 1999, which is currently before the Houses of the Oireachtas and which will provide for the elimination of discrimination in the provision of services, is the most innovative Bill of this or any other age. As a consequence of the Employment Equality Bill, 1997, being struck down in the Supreme Court, the Equal Status Bill, 1997, was also deemed unconstitutional. We in the Department went through that legislation with a fine comb, line by line, section by section, until we could bring it back before the House.
We are debating Second Stage of a Bill which will put a human rights commission on a statutory footing that will have far-reaching powers to inquire into human rights abuses, to act as amicus curiae for the courts and to apply to the courts to secure an individual's human rights. I wish to pose a question to Deputies Howlin and Higgins and all the other critics. Can they stand in this House and honestly say to the Government that our record on human rights deserves the demonisation and unyielding criticism that they have brought to bear on it when our record stands head and shoulders above anything they did in Government?
They did absolutely nothing.
That is the truth. Following every swing in opinion polls in recent times Deputies Higgins and Howlin came into the House and made misleading and untrue statements about the treatment of asylum seekers in order to try to demonise the Minister of the day in regard to this matter. It is not in the interest of honest debate.
On a point of order, is it in order for the Minister to accuse another Member of stating untruths?
Of course it is.
It is not in order to state deliberate untruths.
For the record and for future precedent is it in order, Sir, for a Member of the House to accuse another of stating untruths in the House? Is that what you are ruling?
What a Member says may be untrue. The question arises as to whether what the Member says is deliberately untrue. If so, it would not be in order. It would be disorderly.
We would all be up in arms.
It is quite in order—
I have ruled on the matter. It is not disorderly to say—
The Deputy is filibustering.
A Cheann Comhairle, can I ask that a transcript of what the Minister said be re-read into the record?
The Deputy should resume his seat.
(Mayo): Is it any wonder the Minister is a joke?
This is outrageous. The man is a joke.
Other legislation was brought before the House by the Government which also touched upon human rights. The list includes the Parental Leave Act, 1998—
—the National Disability Authority Act, 1999; the Criminal Justice (Release of Prisoners) Act, 1998; the Criminal Justice (Location of Victims' Remains) Act, 1998; the Jurisdiction of Courts and Enforcement of Judgments Act, 1998; the Arbitration (International Commercial) Act, 1998; the International War Crimes Tribunal Act, 1998; the Irish Nationality and Citizenship Bill, 1999, which has reached Committee Stage; the Children Bill, 1999, which awaits Second Stage—
Misleading and untrue.
A great legislator.
—the Equal Status Bill, 1999, to which I have already referred; the Human Rights Commission Bill; the Protection of Children (Hague Convention) Bill, 1998, which has reached Report Stage in the Dáil; the Criminal Justice (United Nations Convention Against Torture) Bill, 1999, which has reached Committee Stage in the Dáil; the Criminal Justice (Safety of United Nations Workers) Bill, 1999, which is awaiting Second Stage in the Dáil; and the Statute of Limitations (Amendment) Bill, 1998, which has reached Committee Stage in the Dáil.
A tremendous performance, unparalleled and unprecedented.
Unprecedented like GUBU.
This is the record of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. A total of 25 Bills have been passed since the Government took office, 13 are before the House and eight are at an advanced stage of preparation.
(Mayo): What about gangs, rapes and robberies?
Deputy Higgins stated that the only Minister for Equality and Law Reform was former Deputy Mervyn Taylor.
I have the greatest admiration for the former Minister.
And rightly so.
However, if I were Deputy Higgins, I would not besmirch his memory by suggesting that there was no successor to him. Nothing could be further from the truth.
(Mayo): He was the only worthwhile Minister.
The Minister is a disgrace.
The legislative record of this Administration in terms of equality and law reform will stand up to scrutiny in coming decades and will stand up to comparisons with former Deputy Taylor's record at any level. When we again debate the issues of human rights—
(Mayo): The Minister has put it on the hind teat again.
We are debating it now.
—and asylum seekers, I plead with the Deputies to stop trying to fool the people. They have had enough of them.
The Labour Party had more advisers and less legislators when it was in Government.
The intellectual wing of Fianna Fáil has arrived in the House.