I wish to share my time with Deputy Upton.
Private Members' Business. - An Bille um an Aonú Leasú is Fiche ar an mBunreacht (Uimh. 3), 1999: An Dara Céim. Twenty-First Amendment of the Constitution (No. 3) Bill, 1999: Second Stage.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
Tairgim: "Go léifear an Bille an Dara hUair anois."
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
No one can doubt that our recent economic success, achieved above all through social partnership, has opened up fresh possibilities and thrown down new challenges for the State. Our society in the past had learned to tolerate poverty, disadvantage, poor health and inadequate housing. We had put up with glaring, persistent and institutionalised inequality because the majority believed that there was no alternative. We were taught that we were a poor country with few or no natural resources. A comprehensive assault on poverty and disadvantage was a utopian ambition which had no place in the daily reality of public life. The best the poor could hope for was goodwill, good works and the voluntary dedication of a few. It was a world where symptoms might be relieved, but their causes went untreated; where crime needs were met, if at all, as a matter of grace and favour, rather than as of right, of sporadic and inadequate benevolence, rather than a coherent and systematic effort to face up to the demands of basic justice.
We no longer need to see ourselves that way today. We cannot plan for the future on such a traditional basis. This year alone the State's current account surplus is likely to exceed all the money we received in Structural Funds from Brussels in the previous six years. We are now a rich country and we are getting richer. We will soon be net contributors to an expanded European Union budget.
It is in this light that we must again revisit our country's claim to its status as a true republic. For too long republicanism has been more synonymous with Nationalist rhetoric and verbiage than with any dedication to truly republican ideals. Over the decades we in the Labour Party have attempted to remain true to the republican and egalitarian vision of our founders, including most famously James Connolly. It is a vision which found its first formal expression on behalf of the new State, at the instigation and insistence of the Labour Party, in the democratic programme of the first Dáil. The programme asserted the right of every citizen to an adequate share of the produce of the nation's labour and proclaimed that no child should suffer hunger or cold, from lack of food, clothing or shelter.
Addressing the task of fulfilling aims such as these is the reason 80 years on we politicians, as successors of that generation, still gather in this building. It is the essence of our purpose and mandate as servants of the people to politicise society so that, acting collectively, we can deliver a future beyond individual ambition or achievement. There is, however, a view, growing in strength, which would confine politicians to servicing the needs of the economy, rather than the needs of the people. According to this view, the economy must be freed from political direction and left to find its own level. The only engine for dynamic change should be a free, lightly regulated market in which the citizen is valued only in proportion to his or her purchasing power. The regulation and supervision of business is denounced as "red tape". Trade union recognition, calls for greater public provision and the like are decried as being inimical to sustained economic growth, which is not only an end in itself, it is the only legitimate and inevitable end. From such a broken linkage between the economy and politics comes a society which is characterised by fragmentation, alienation and the abandonment of politics.
Our view of society is different. Our vision is at once national, determined to bring to fruition the ideals of the founders of the State, and international, encompassing an Ireland which strengthens and deepens its bonds with its partners in the European Union and the United Nations in the common implementation of a social market ideal. My party believes that a real republic is a country in which all citizens have the right, to the best of their ability, to participate in and contribute to the social, economic and cultural life of the nation with opportunities to develop their personal and social selves in conditions of freedom, solidarity, justice and equality. It is only in such circumstances that narrowly defined political rights such as access to political power by voting or standing for election can be made.
We assert that a fully participative vision requires comprehensive provision of and universal access to the means to satisfy basic needs in income, health, housing, education and welfare. We reject an analysis which seeks to subordinate these social and economic rights and places formal political freedoms on a higher plain entitled to a greater degree of legal recognition and protection. Since our relationship with each other in a participatory and egalitarian society is enriched when cultural creativity is respected, we believe in a cultural rights policy which is democratic, participatory, open and committed to extensive public provision and access.
In short, ours is a vision of society, not of its absence. It is rooted in the principle of equality of citizenship and adequate public provision which facilitates participation, inclusion, freedom, personal development and celebration as a matter of rights. This is the time we should be embarking on a fresh initiative at every level, constitutional, institutional, infrastructural, financial and legislative. Now that we can afford it, we have no excuse for not restating and reinforcing the republican and egalitarian ideals on which the State was founded. This is not to set course on a new direction, rather it is to return to our roots.
This is the overall context in which my party proposes a constitutional guarantee of fundamental social, economic and cultural rights for every citizen. The Bill is just one of three constitutional amendment Bills my party has introduced in this Dáil session with the aim of improving the Constitution in the explicit recognition and protection of fundamental rights. The Bill proposes to amend Article 40 of the Constitution in order to provide for formal recognition of social, economic and cultural rights. Specifically, we propose the addition of a new paragraph 7 along the lines of the following three sentences:
The State, bearing in mind international legal standards, recognises the economic, social and cultural rights of all persons and, in particular, recognises the right to earn a livelihood and to reasonable conditions of employment, the right to adequate health care and the right to an adequate standard of living, comprising adequate housing and nutrition and other means necessary to a dignified existence.
Where practicable, the enjoyment of these rights should in the first place be ensured by individual and family effort and initiative.
Where persons or their dependants are unable adequately to exercise or enjoy any of these rights, the State guarantees, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate these rights, in accordance with the principles of social justice.
Second, we are proposing a second amendment to Article 40, this time dealing with equality before the law. Our third proposal is to state and define a set of rights for children, independent of the collective rights of parents or the family unit.
Let me say at once that, although the subject matter of these constitutional amendments and the manner in which we have dealt with them is close to the Labour Party's heart and reflects our thinking, I do not believe we are seeking to subvert the Constitution in the service of a philosophy that is exclusive to just one system of political thought. No provision of our Constitution should go so far as to foist a system of political or philosophical belief on a dissident minority of any significant size. We have been down that road before. The tenets of the basic law should command universal assent and not give rise to party political controversy. In a constitutional democracy it is right and entirely legitimate that the electorate should be asked to choose between different and competing views. To the extent that they receive support, every political party should have the institutions of Government available to it to shape the national agenda according to its own mandate, unfettered by ideological hangovers left in place by previous Administrations.
We are not talking about a programme of values in any way peculiar to the Labour Party. It is an argument for an agreed constitutional guarantee of a minimum level of universal entitlement to certain rights, with qualifications that relate to prevailing resources and standards. Constitutional recognition of these rights will not spell the end of the battle to secure their full enjoyment, or even the beginning of the end, nor will it render us redundant in our daily work. It is no more likely that, if the right to adequate housing is judicially recognised, the High Court will take over the nation's housing lists than, because the Constitution already recognises a right to primary education, the High Court would want to draw up the primary school curriculum. It will be for each generation to set and maintain its own standards.
In the nature of things the recognition afforded by a constitution can only be at a basic level, with a wide margin of discretion left to the Executive and Legislature when it comes to the extent and quality of delivery. Therefore, my party is not calling on elected politicians to vote themselves out of their jobs, or even part of their jobs, in supporting this Bill. We are looking to strike a balance in the text of the Constitution, taken in its entirety. We want to give the people an opportunity to assert the values which they wish to claim as indicative of the national character, values grounded on imagination, generosity and empathy.
As such I disagree with the argument made by the constitutional review group in 1996 in setting its face against any expanded provision in the Constitution for socio-economic rights. The majority of the group rejected the argument that the State should, as a counterweight to economic inequality, guarantee a general and legally enforceable right to freedom from poverty and social exclusion. I prefer the arguments of the minority members of that expert group. I believe, as I have made clear, in the merits of social cohesion and social inclusion. A false dichotomy is made between civil and political rights, such as the right to vote and to stand for election, which are regarded as basic and requiring constitutional recognition, and the social and economic rights which I have listed. In any event, our Constitution already recognises some rights of a socio-economic nature and these are being enforced by the courts. Recent cases involving rights to education and appropriate care only serve to illustrate this point.
Of course, socio-economic rights, no more than any other class of right, should not be framed so as to be absolute or open-ended in nature. Nor should the Government or the Oireachtas be entirely robbed of discretion as to the manner in which rights are vindicated in practice. Our text takes account of these practical realities. That is why I repeat again that this set of Bills is just one aspect of my party's overall approach and just one of a wider set of proposals. I would not believe the Labour Party's work was done if these amendments were accepted by the people at referendum. Their implementation will remain a constant task for this and future generations.
This Bill is part of a wider argument about the philosophical vision according to which this country should be governed. These proposed changes to the constitutional framework do not encapsulate the argument in its entirety, but the debate should shine a light on some aspects and should highlight the approach of individuals and parties in this House. For example, according to the Minister of State, Deputy O'Dea, writing in The Irish Times of 19 October:
Fianna Fáil's republicanism does not begin and end at national liberty, i.e., self-determination and independence. Its republicanism embraces the ideals of the French Revolution. Fianna Fáil believes in a society where all citizens have equal opportunity and equal access. We believe the State is the guarantor of these rights and liberties and with these rights come responsibilities to our fellow citizens and society as a whole.
So, if Fianna Fáil and the Government as a whole does indeed wish to see the State act as guarantor of the rights and liberties of the citizen, we are entitled to expect at least sympathetic consideration of our approach this evening, and I await the positive response of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform.
Tonight we are concentrating on one particular proposition, that our fellow citizens live, move and have their being in, and are shaped by, a world of social and economic forces as well as purely political interactions, and that socio-economic rights deserve a place in the constitutional scheme of things alongside civil and political rights. It is argued that the recognition of these rights in a legal framework would be expensive and that the cost cannot be quantified. We have heard this sort of argument before. For example, almost a year ago, the Department of Finance under Deputy McCreevy gave its reaction to the recommendations of the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities. This reaction was included in a report, Towards Equal Citizenship, published in December 1999 by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. The commission had recommended that every disabled person be given a "statement of needs" which would entitle them to services without having to argue their case again and again with numerous Departments, health boards and agencies. Disability interest groups had been campaigning for years for the establishment of a legal right to services. The response of the Department was forthright:
The Department of Finance cannot accept these recommendations, which imply the underpinning by law of access to, and provision of, services for people with disabilities as a right. This right, if given a statutory basis, would be prohibitively expensive for the Exchequer and could lead to requests from other persons seeking access to health and other services without regard to the eventual cost of providing these services.
That this argument should be made at this time of plenty is regrettable, but its philosophical basis is also fundamentally flawed. The availability of resources may affect the time at which we are in a position to vindicate a right, and our amendment accepts that this issue arises. It does not, however, determine nor should it determine the very existence of a right. My party's views is that that should be a matter for the people. If we accept a right exists, we should prepare to vindicate it as resources allow. To deny it exists has meant, in this society at least, the treatment of some of our citizens in a less than satisfactory manner. That much at least has been revealed in recent years about our society since Independence, to our cost.
For example, while the State pretended to be concerned about homeless children the truth was that it merely collected them, institutionalised them and then ignored their plight. The public purse is now faced with the cost of those decades of child neglect and child abuse in the various institutions. It is far cheaper, in the long run, to get things right the first time round.
Essentially, when it comes to meeting minimum standards of provision of universal entitlement, there are costs which must be recognised as having a prior claim – moral, social and legal – on our collective resources. We are not alone in that opinion. Throughout Europe, both in the settled democracies of the west, in the newly established democracies of central and eastern Europe and across the rest of the world, the written constitution, which sets out basic structures and normative values that underpin all other legislation and public activity, is seen as the place where a strong commitment to respect for social and economic rights should be made. For example, Article 2 of the Swedish Constitution provides:
(1) Public power shall be exercised with respect for the equal worth of all and for the freedom and dignity of the individual.
(2) The personal, economic and cultural welfare of the individual shall be fundamental aims of public activity. In particular, it shall be incumbent upon the public administration to secure the right to work, housing and education and to promote social care and social security and a good living environment.
The Polish Constitution states that a minimum level of remuneration for work, or the manner of setting its levels, shall be specified by statute; that public authorities shall pursue policies aiming at full, productive employment by implementing programmes to combat unemployment; that everyone shall have the right to safe and hygienic conditions of work; and that citizens have the right to social security. It also protects the right to health protection and of equal access to health care services.
Article 25 of the Japanese Constitution states:
All people shall have the right to maintain the minimum standards of wholesome and cultured living. In all spheres of life, the State shall use its endeavours for the promotion and extension of social welfare and security, and of public health.
More extensively, in Finland, sections 18 to 20 of the Constitution stipulate:
. . . everyone has the right to earn his or her livelihood by the employment, occupation or commercial activity of his or her choice . . . the public authorities shall take responsibility for the protection of the labour force and shall promote employment and shall work towards guaranteeing for everyone the right to work . . . those who cannot obtain the means necessary for a life of dignity have the right to receive indispensable subsistence and care . . . everyone shall be guaranteed the right to basic subsistence in the event of unemployment, illness, and disability and during old age, as well as at the birth of a child or the loss of a provider . . . the public authorities shall guarantee for everyone adequate social, health and medical services and shall promote the health of the population . . . the public authorities shall promote the right of everyone to housing and the opportunity to arrange their own housing.
The Belgian Constitution has similar provisions while Switzerland has similar sets of rights.
As well as at domestic level, there has also been activity on the international stage. The European Social Charter was drawn up by the Council of Europe in 1961. Ireland signed the charter in that year and ratified it in 1964. The original charter guarantees 19 fundamental social and economic rights, of which seven are regarded as particularly significant, namely, the right to work, the right to organise, the right to bargain collectively, the right to social security, the right to social and medical assistance, the right to the social, legal and economic protection of the family, and the right to protection and assistance for migrant workers and their families.
There has been greater development at EU level. In December 1989, the Heads of State and Government of 11 member states – the UK opted out – adopted the Community Charter of the Fundamental Social Rights of Workers, or, as it was commonly known, the social charter. This document is based on the Council of Europe's original Social Charter and on ILO conventions. It lays down a range of social rights that are to be guaranteed in the European labour market.
At first, the social charter had only moral, not legal force. Subsequently, and because the Conservative Government in Britain strongly opposed any increase of the Community power in the social policy field, the other 11 member states concluded an agreement on social policy, by way of an annex to the treaty of the European Union. Ultimately, the Labour Party victory in the British general election of 1997 marked a shift in that country's attitude toward social policy. As a result, the objectives of the agreement on social policy were introduced into the body of the Treaty of Amsterdam and, following the ratification of that Treaty by all member states, future social policy legislation is applicable to all member states, including the United Kingdom.
It is a measure of the importance attached to the concept that, in the context of enlargement, the European Commission has specifically included economic and social rights in its assessment of the fulfilment of the so-called Copenhagen criteria by the ten candidate countries who seek to be members of the EU. The opinions delivered by the Commission on readiness for membership consider whether these countries have adhered to the European Social Charter.
Given this, it is surprising that some within the EU are concerned about the new proposed draft Charter of Fundamental Rights, particularly as the charter only applies to Union law. I understand two such concerns were expressed by Deputy O'Malley and Deputy O'Kennedy. Those who make this argument still fail to see there is an urgent need to inculcate some sense of common ownership of, and participation in, the European project. The lack of openness, transparency or accountability in its operations means that, to most citizens, Europe and its workings are unfathomable. This incomprehension will lead to further misunderstanding, distrust and alienation. An increasing number of citizens of the Union do not care. In this light, a commitment to the rule of law and a commitment to respect for and maintenance of fundamental rights is an essential precondition to any further development at the European level. Any such regime will include recognition of social, economic and cultural rights, as the draft charter does.
Our starting point in this debate is an attitude to the role and function of the Constitution which was asserted also by the Commission on Justice and Peace in its document Re-Righting the Constitution. It states:
The Constitution is much more than a neutral set of operating instructions to regulate the technical functioning of the State. It represents a privileged source and statement of values, both in the State and in the wider society from which the State arises.
The history of the last century is about the vindication of liberal political rights. Now more than ever, democracy stands triumphant as a political system. Some have suggested that we have accordingly reached the end of history. I, however, hold to the view of the UN Commissioner on Human Rights who has suggested that this century's crusade must be to end the rampant social division that divides our planet. As is always the case, there is no better place to start than at home.
This Bill is one of the most important legislative initiatives the Labour Party has taken in recent years. It is also one of the most significant Bills to have been introduced to the 29th Dáil. I hope the Government parties will treat it with the seriousness it deserves.
The 1937 Constitution has, with some exceptions, served us fairly well, but it is a product of the era in which it was drafted. Those who drafted it could hardly have envisaged the kind of changes we have experienced over the past 60 years. The Constitution was drafted at a time when Ireland was still living in the shadow of the Civil War that had ended less than 15 years earlier. It was a very poor, predominantly agricultural country with a rather narrow, inward looking society. It is no surprise then that the Constitution still reflects many of the attitudes and aspirations of the 1930s.
The former Taoiseach, Seán Lemass, was of the opinion that the Constitution should be changed at least every 25 years as our society develops into a modern State. In fact, the Constitution has been changed very little. Several of the amendments passed in referenda arose from our membership of the European Union. There have been a number of progressive changes, such as the reduction in the voting age. The final removal of the constitutional prohibition on divorce was a belated recognition of the reality that putting something in the Constitution does not prevent marriages from breaking down.
Successive Governments have ducked the issue of reform of the Constitution. Seán Lemass established a committee to review the Constitution which produced a widely praised report in 1968 but, unfortunately, nothing was done to implement its recommendations.
The programme for Government of the Rainbow Government, produced in December 1994, provided for the appointment of an expert group, chaired by Dr. T.K. Whittaker, to report on all aspects of the Constitution. The group produced its report in due course and, in accordance with the commitment given by the Rainbow Government, it was referred to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Constitution. I suspect that the response of the Government may be to say that it is premature to make a decision on a matter like this and that it should be left to the Oireachtas committee. This proposition is of such urgency, however, that it should not be delayed any further. The Oireachtas committee was already dealing with many difficult issues. Indeed, whenever the Government has a tricky political problem, it kicks it away to the Oireachtas committee. Nobody can say with any certainty when the committee will be able to complete the comprehensive task given to it.
The likelihood is that when the current intergovernmental conference concludes its consideration of proposed EU reforms, a constitutional amendment will almost certainly be required. We are already committed to holding a referendum next year to ratify the Rome statute of the international criminal court. The opportunity presented by these referenda should be used to put this proposed constitutional amendment on social and economic rights before the people.
As Deputy Quinn pointed out, this Bill is just one of a package of constitutional reforms the Labour Party has produced. We can only debate one Bill at a time but in addition to this proposal, we also have Bills providing for an amendment to guarantee equality before the law and to specifically outlaw discrimination on a range of grounds. We also have a Bill to enshrine the rights of children in the Constitution. While acknowledging the need for wider constitutional reform, I would like to see this package of measures put before the people at the earliest possible opportunity.
The Constitution was drafted in very different political, social and economic circumstances. The rights of property, reflecting the ethos of the time, are strongly asserted in the Constitution and this right has been cited by successive Governments as the reason nothing has been done to abolish the feudal and anachronistic system of ground rents. While the Constitution set out, in Article 45, some impressive sounding principles for social policy, it specified that these principles "shall not be recognisable by any Court under any provision of this Constitution". Therefore, while rights such as the right to private property and indeed the right to personal liberty, could be vindicated by the courts, social rights generally could not. That imbalance should now be addressed.
The economic picture has changed dramatically since the 1930s. Indeed, the economic picture has changed enormously in the past decade. It may well have been that the authors of the Constitution feared that putting enforcement of social rights into the Constitution might place a crippling economic burden on a new and underdeveloped State, but that argument no longer applies. We are experiencing a period of unprecedented economic growth. The State coffers are awash with money. We will have a multi-billion pound budget surplus at the end of this year and having benefited from a huge inflow of cash from the European Union, we will soon become a net contributor. Objectives that would have been difficult to achieve only ten years ago, and which would have sounded positively Utopian in the 1930s, are now entirely feasible and achievable, yet every political representative in this House will know from their own experience that many people have not benefited from the economic boom. One cannot walk more than a few hundred yards from this House without encountering people sleeping in doorways.
People are finding it more difficult than ever to buy a home or to qualify for local authority housing. All housing should be affordable, of a good standard and provide security of tenure.
The gap in the speed and quality of health service available to private and public patients grows ever wider. Hospital waiting lists show no sign of decreasing and waiting for up to eight months for a simple cataract operation, for example, is now the norm.
The courts have highlighted the glaring shortcomings in areas like educational opportunities for those with disabilities and treatment of disturbed children. Child poverty here is the second highest in Europe, affecting between a quarter and a third of Irish children. Every child should have the right to education which should be directed to the development of the child's talents and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential.
We now have an opportunity to make a new start by inserting into our Constitution a specific commitment that we, as a society, will meet certain basic commitments in regard to social and economic rights for all our citizens. The Labour Party is not alone in advocating a constitutional amendment along these lines. Many organisations and groups involved in the welfare of the disadvantaged have urged this course of action. The Commission on Justice and Peace of the Catholic Bishops Conference has produced a well argued and thoughtful document making the case for an amendment. The former President of the High Court, Mr. Declan Costello, who is also a former Attorney General, said in November 1998 that the Constitution should be amended to guarantee explicitly the social and economic rights of the underprivileged. Noting that the courts had enhanced protection of the basic rights included in the Constitution he stated: "There is no reason to assume that the enjoyment of the economic and social rights of the underprivileged and deprived would not be likewise enhanced if they too were constitutionally protected".
The period of unprecedented economic growth offers us challenges as well as opportunities. Most of all, we now have to decide the direction we want Irish society to take. Do we want to continue with a situation where a minority do exceptionally well, the bulk of people largely stand still and a growing minority are left further behind or do we want to create a truly fair and egalitarian society where everyone will have an equal opportunity and a fair deal? I have no doubt that the majority of people would opt for the latter course and that they would vote for the amendment we are now proposing if they are given the opportunity to do so.
It is the responsibility of the State to eliminate the causes of poverty and to ensure equality by creating opportunities for the redistribution of our vast wealth. This work should not be left to community and voluntary bodies who are currently doing much of what the State should be doing. It is for this reason that we bring forward the Bill this evening to ensure that all our citizens can be assured of their social and economic rights.
I wish to share my time with the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Martin, and the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment and Local Government, Deputy Molloy.
The stated intention behind this Bill is to amend the fundamental rights provisions in Article 40 of the Constitution so as to provide for the recognition, defence and vindication of social, economic and cultural rights. Specific rights in these areas, such as those relating to health, nutrition and an adequate standard of living, are specifically referred to in the Bill.
The Government fully understands the motivation and purpose at the heart of the Bill. The central issue, however, is whether the rights included in the Bill should be set out in the particular section of the Constitution that is identified in the Bill. The Government does not believe that it is right to do so because the delicate balance which the Constitution achieves in the area of what might be termed fundamental and human rights, which may also be classified as civil and political rights on the one hand and economic, social and cultural rights on the other, would be seriously disturbed by such a development. This is no arbitrary distinction. It is one that is also reflected in several international rights instruments which apply to this area to which Ireland is a party and in respect of which it takes its responsibilities very seriously.
The type of rights identified in the Bill are loosely based on rights contained in the 1966 UN International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which entered into force in January 1976. Ireland signed the convention in October 1973 and ratified it in December 1989. It came into force for Ireland in March 1990. In accordance with the provisions of Articles 16 and 17 of the covenant, Ireland submits detailed periodic reports to the Secretary General of the United Nations for consideration by the relevant UN committee on the measures it has adopted and the progress it has made in achieving the observance of the rights recognised therein. The first such report was published in September 1997 and was examined by the committee in May 1999. The second comprehensive report which was published earlier this year has yet to be considered by the committee.
In so far as the committee's suggestions and recommendations on the first report are concerned, it is of particular interest to note that it raised the question of incorporation of the rights contained in the convention in the Constitution. The Bill now before the House reflects to some extent the UN committee's wishes in that respect.
The preamble to the covenant recognises the distinction between the rights that it embraces and the rights of a higher order which may be classified as human rights or rights of a civil and political nature. In terms of the Constitution, this internationally accepted difference in the classification of rights is reflected in the Fundamental Rights Articles 40 to 44 and the Directive Principles of Social Policy in Article 45. This latter article contains the type of rights in the social policy area which are covered in the covenant. Article 45 commences by stating that its provisions merely lay down general guidance for the Legislature and do not provide the basis for striking down laws for being unconstitutional. Not alone are the courts forbidden from striking down laws on the grounds of inconsistency with these provisions, but the provisions themselves are decreed as non-cognisable by any court. That is the problem behind the approach adopted by the Labour Party in bringing forward this Bill.
I want to turn to the 1996 report of the Constitution Review Group. It examined this area in great detail and a majority of the group agreed with the overall position that the Constitution should not be amended to include rights of the type now in question. The main reason, as it is stated in that report, why the Constitution should not confer personal rights to freedom from poverty or to other economic or social entitlements is that these are essentially political matters which, in a democracy, it should be the responsibility of the elected members of the people to address and determine. The report also stated that it would be a distortion of democracy to transfer decisions on major issues of policy and practicality from the Government and the Oireachtas, which are elected to represent the people and to do their will, to an unelected Judiciary.
This point is further illustrated in the report by reference to the solving of economic and social problems being an integral part of any political agenda, but that the degree to which a solution can be sought or found must depend on the resources which the community is prepared to make available at any given time. It would not, in the view of the group, accord with democratic principles to confer absolute personal rights in the Constitution in relation to economic or social objectives, however desirable in themselves, and leave the Oireachtas with no option but to discharge the cost, whatever it might be, as determined by the Judiciary.
It is noteworthy that the Constitution Review Group did, on balance, favour an amendment of Article 40.3 of the Constitution which would provide a comprehensive list of fundamental rights specifically encompassing the personal rights identified by the courts to date and which might also include those set out in the European Convention on Human Rights, which in accordance with a recent decision of the Government is to be incorporated into our law by means of legislation, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, so far as may be considered appropriate, but not, significantly, those in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
The Government believes that to incorporate these rights in the Constitution in the precise manner that the Bill now before the House proposes, that is, by means of a blanket amendment to Article 40.3, would be the wrong course to follow. This is because the Government views social and economic policy as primarily and ultimately the prerogative of democratically elected and accountable politicians, whether they sit in the Executive or the Legislature. A transfer of these powers to an unelected Judiciary is not warranted and it would disturb the delicate checks and balances owed by the three independent pillars of State to each other. The right to earn a livelihood, one of the rights proposed for inclusion in the Constitution by the Bill, is already one of the unenumerated personal rights in Article 40 which has already been identified by the courts.
No one should be allowed to fall below the minimum standard of subsistence so as to suffer from a lack of food, shelter or clothing. As the Constitution Review Group states, if this should ever happen, despite the social welfare system, the Constitution appears to offer ultimate protection through judicial vindication of fundamental personal rights such as the right to life and the right to bodily integrity.
In so far as the particular rights sought to be included in the Constitution by the Bill are concerned, the Constitution Review Group made certain positive recommendations for selective constitutional reform, particularly in relation to some of the substantive rights guaranteed by the covenant, for example, in a proposed redraft of Article 40.1 that poverty would be included as a ground on which discrimination would be prohibited, the right to work and earn a livelihood, which, as I have already mentioned, is one of the unenumerated rights contained in the Constitution, to be inserted in Article 40.3 and, in a redrafting of Article 45, the right to just and favourable working conditions, as well as the right to an adequate standard of living including food, clothing, housing and the continuous improvement of living conditions to be included as non-justiciable rights.
Those recommendations will be considered in due course by the All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution and by the Government at the end of that process. In the meantime, the Government will continue to ensure that in keeping with the overall requirements of budgetary policy, issues of particular concern to the social partners in this area will be dealt with through the partnership approach, taking into account the National Anti-Poverty Strategy.
The Supreme Court has a proud record not just in terms of the protection of the fundamental rights of our citizens but in the interpretation of the articles relevant to human rights. That has been one of the outstanding features of democratic life in this State since its foundation. It should give people great grounds for celebration. Many democratic countries throughout the world have recognised the rights which have been established following an interpretation of our 1937 Constitution by the Supreme Court.
In this context it is also of note that Ireland is about to incorporate into its domestic laws the European Convention on Human Rights. It has been argued by many academic lawyers and in this House that the rights which have been enumerated over the years by our Supreme Court might be more expansive than the rights enumerated in the European Convention on Human Rights. This is an arguable point. However, all those interested in the protection of human rights will be pleased that we are about to incorporate the convention into our domestic laws. People will welcome the fact that we will have a Human Rights Commission as a watchdog in respect of human rights in this jurisdiction in the near future. The House will be aware that Mr. Justice Donal Barrington has been appointed as president of the commission. I anticipate that we will announce the names of the other members of the commission at an early date.
I thank the Labour Party for putting forward this legislation. It is timely that we have a debate on this issue, particularly on the cusp of the new millennium. I look forward to a fruitful discussion in the House.
The Private Members' Bill before the House refers to the right to, among other things, adequate health care. The eligibility system currently in place for health services and the ongoing extensions to it provide a firm statutory basis for entitlements to health services. The Government's approach has been to greatly expand and develop the range of services available and to do this in a practical way by putting additional services in place rather than engaging in flights of political fancy, as reflected in the Bill.
At present, medical card holders are entitled to a full range of services, including general practitioner services, prescribed drugs and medicines, all in-patient public hospital services in public wards, including consultant services, all out-patient public hospital services, dental, ophthalmic and aural services and appliances, and a maternity and infant care service.
Non-medical card holders are entitled, subject to certain modest charges, to all in-patient public hospital services in public wards, including consultant services and out-patient public hospital services, including consultant services. A maternity and infant care service is provided during pregnancy and up to six weeks after birth.
For those who do not qualify for a medical card there are a number of schemes which provide assistance towards the cost of medication. Under the long-term illness scheme persons suffering from a number of conditions can obtain, without charge, the drugs and medicines for the treatment of that condition. Under the drug payment scheme, a person and his-her dependants do not have to pay more than £42 in any calendar month for approved prescribed drugs, medicines and appliances.
These are the fundamentals of our eligibility system. However, the Government has recognised that any such system must be monitored to ensure it addresses changing needs. It is for this reason that, in An Action Programme for the Millennium, the Government identified the need to review medical card eligibility for the elderly and large families, and decided that the income guidelines for entitlement to medical cards for persons aged 70 years or over should be doubled. This improvement, which is being introduced over a three-year period, began on 1 March 1999.
The latest agreement between the Government and the social partners, the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness, refers to the fact that health board chief executive officers are examining the operation of the medical card scheme and will consult the social partners by the end of 2000. Particular emphasis will be placed on the needs of families with children and on removing anomalies and barriers to take-up, including information deficits.
The existence of a robust eligibility framework is a fundamental element in the provision of the health care services required by our population. It is, however, only one element. As is acknowledged worldwide, the provision of health services is an immensely complex process. This Government is supporting our eligibility system with an unprecedented level of resources and a wide range of strategies and programmes across a whole range of health care areas. I regard my role as Minister as measuring the real need for additional services, taking account of public expectations, as well as the expert view, and trying, as a member of the Government, to bridge the gap between current provisions and what is needed as speedily and efficiently as possible.
Inevitably the resources available for health care are finite, despite the substantial increase in year-on-year investment in the health sector. That the health sector has done well relative to financial investment is not in doubt. However, I am conscious that from another, equally valid, perspective there remain key areas of unmet need that require investment on an urgent basis. For example, areas such as services for older people, services for people with a disability, the young chronic sick, child care services and issues relating to bed capacity and manpower in the acute hospital services. The Government acknowledges that more needs to be done in all these areas. It has a strong record of investment in the health system and is committed to continuing this trend in 2001.
The £2 billion earmarked for health in the national development plan represents a trebling of capital investment compared to the previous seven year period. The development plan investment will enable substantial improvements in the physical infrastructure and equipping of acute hospitals, and in facilities for the intellectually and physically disabled, the elderly, the mentally ill and children in need of care and protection. The plan also provides for investment in health centres and information technology. By making the commitment of £1 billion each to our acute hospitals infrastructure and non-acute community care infrastructure, we have redressed an imbalance in spending between these two areas which should significantly improve the non-acute and community care services.
The Government has delivered a major programme of phased investment in services for people with intellectual disability and autism. This has involved expenditure of over £127 million in capital and revenue up to the end of this year. Many of the problems faced by persons with disabilities in accessing appropriate support services arise as a result of a lack of investment in these services in the past. We will continue our phased programme of investment in services for people with intellectual disability and autism. There will also be major developments for persons with physical and sensory disability – more community residential and day care places and regional assessment centres will be provided.
A series of key strategy documents have been launched over recent years aimed at addressing the major causes of premature death and illness. These include a comprehensive cardiovascular strategy to improve heart health, for which we have provided substantial funds to commence the implementation process in 2000. The strategy will also focus on intersectoral collaboration to address the broader determinants of heath status which lie outside the health services.
As a result of the increased levels of investment, such as those provided over recent years, the existing health care system can deliver a quality service. The volume of care delivered continues to increase year on year. For example, there were 827,000 discharges, including in-patient and day care, in the acute hospital system in 1999. This represents an increase of about 2.4% over 1998 levels. Day cases increased by 9.64% and almost one million procedures were carried out on these patients.
In addition, the complexity of the cases dealt with has also increased. For example, since 1996 there has been a 17% volume increase in the most expensive procedures. There were an estimated two million out-patient attendances in 1999 and there were more than 1.2 million attendances at accident and emergency departments.
The latest waiting list figures show a significant decrease and we are continuing to allocate additional funds to improve the waiting list initiative. The Government has taken a number of significant initiatives in the acute hospital sector to ensure that services are reformed, re-organised and properly geared towards the needs of the population. We dealt with specific initiatives, including the national cancer strategy, the development of renal services, the establishment of the Medical Manpower Forum and the development of a new hospital accreditation programme, all of which will improve the governance, management and quality of our health services.
One of our key tasks is the need to review the whole area of hospital bed capacity. Deputies will be aware that the Government is committed in the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness to a review of bed capacity in the acute and non-acute settings. This review is being processed and is expected to be completed in spring of next year. The review is of critical importance in the context of assessing the capacity of the hospital system to manage periodic surges in emergency admissions and the reduction of waiting times for elective treatment.
The assessment of existing and future capacity will have regard to a number of fundamental principles which need to underpin the future provision of services. These include equitable access to care for public patients, availability of prompt treatment within a reasonable period, the provision of the most appropriate form of care in the correct setting, the organisation and delivery of a patient-centred and flexible service, the comprehensive integration of services across traditional boundaries and a strong emphasis on the measurement of outcomes and the appropriateness of treatment. We are developing and improving services across the system and making additional investment available.
Our current health strategy, Shaping a Healthier Future, was devised in 1994 and has provided the framework within which most policy and service development has taken place over the past six years. There is general agreement that the strategy has served us well. However, it is now time to consider how we envisage the health services developing over the next five to seven years and the new strategy can be expected to set out our new health goals and how we intend to pursue them.
In broad terms, I see the task under three main headings. The first concerns modernisation, reform and change, addressing the measures we need to put in place to deliver a patient-centred service which is safe, up to the required standard of quality and delivered on time and on the basis of need. The second will analyse service development needs and prioritise areas for new investment. The third will be concerned with the positioning of the strategic partnership for change and development as an explicit element of the managing process. I am committed to the idea of seeking to define and develop a new vision for health which will be built on the perspective and opinions of the many stakeholders involved – the patient or client, service providers, professionals in all disciplines, management and unions.
I see the way forward for health care in terms of determining the real needs and producing the strategies and resources to meet those needs and to provide effectively for our people. That is the most tangible and effective way we can make progress in the short term.
While I am pleased to have the opportunity to outline yet again to the House the main features of the Government's approach to housing and the degree to which the Government's measures are yielding positive results, my primary concern in this debate is the nature of the Bill before the House. A damaging illusion underlies this Bill. The Labour Party is attempting to sell the fiction that real social and economic needs can, in some magical way, be met through enshrining rights in the Constitution. Lofty sentiments are one thing, meeting real needs in a practical way is quite a different matter.
What does the Labour Party hope to achieve by this approach? Does this House uphold the view that decisions on health and housing policy should be removed from the Oireachtas?
They would do a better job anyway.
Are the Government and the Oireachtas, directly elected by the people and with a mandate to pursue certain policies, not best placed to make democratic decisions on such significant issues of policy and the appropriate allocation of resources to underpin those policies? The Constitution Review Group examined the arguments in favour of the inclusion of specific personal economic rights in the Constitution and concluded against their inclusion. Its reasoning was quite straightforward, that "the solving of economic and social problems is an integral element of any political agenda but the degree to which a solution can be sought or found must depend on the resources which the community is prepared to make available at any given time".
The responsibility for ensuring that the citizens have adequate housing at a price or rent which they can afford, rests properly with the Government, the elected representatives of the people. The Government has demonstrated its willingness to accept that responsibility. We have consistently put housing at the top of our agenda. We never underestimated the scale of the challenge we faced. We have taken decisive action and will continue to do so. We wasted no time in addressing the gap between supply and demand for housing and our response to overall housing needs forms a coherent, planned and strategic response, and there are very welcome signs that we are now turning the corner.
What really matters are not words and theoretical proposals, but action to deliver the increased housing our population needs, and this Government has delivered. Last year's record housing output of over 46,500 new houses will be exceeded this year. The latest leading indicators of housing supply, coupled with progress being made on the Action on Housing initiatives announced in June, suggest that we are on target to achieve 50,000 housing completions this year and further increases in the coming years.
The implementation of the Action on Housing supply measures is being pursued urgently. Concrete action has been taken to ensure that the housing supply measures are driven and co-ordinated effectively to bring forward land for housing more quickly. We have introduced incentives to guarantee an ongoing supply of serviced housing land. Action has been taken to deal effectively with planning and infrastructural constraints in order to maximise the potential of available land.
Getting the maximum benefit from the supply of building land is a key element of the Government's strategy and increased density is crucial to achieving this. We have introduced planning guidelines to increase residential density in appropriate locations. Significant advances are being made in achieving a balanced distribution of population and economic activity in the future through strategic and spatial planning. We have rebalanced the rates of stamp duties to improve the affordability of reasonably priced second hand houses for first time purchasers and prevent investors pricing first time buyers out of the market.
The most recent house price figures available for the September quarter provide strong evidence of a moderation in the rate of house price increase, particularly new house prices. House price inflation in the new house market is currently showing a 12 month increase of 10% in Dublin and 12% nationwide, the lowest increases since 1995. It is generally accepted by most reasonable commentators that the Government's actions have played a key role in achieving a slowdown in the rate of house price increase – a very positive achievement against the background of continued economic growth and low interest rates. Sustained increases in housing output and reduced investor activity are the key factors underlying this moderation.
There is also firm evidence that first time buyers are gaining an increasing share of the new housing market as the targeted tax measures to curb speculative investment take effect. Survey data available to my Department indicate that the first time buyers' share of the £100,000-£150,000 housing market has grown from 38% to 44% nationally since July. Most importantly, we have significantly expanded the social housing programmes with unprecedented and guaranteed funding of more than £7 billion over the period of the national development plan.
The range and extent of measures implemented by the State, and improved significantly by this Government, to provide housing for those unable to access housing from their own resources demonstrates our commitment to ensuring that housing needs are adequately addressed. The Government provided for an increase of 60% in Exchequer expenditure on local authority and social housing programmes this year compared with last year. This is by any standards a remarkable level of increase and ensures that there is no financial constraint on the delivery of the maximum amount of social housing. In 2000, the Government has provided increased Exchequer funding for local authority and social housing programmes. This figure represents a 133% increase over the figure provided in 1997 by the previous Government and reflects the priority we afford to meeting social housing needs.
Will the Minister of State look at the housing lists? He has some brass neck.
We have provided for 25,000 local authority housing starts between this year and the end of 2003. We have created the conditions whereby the voluntary housing sector will be able to deliver over 15,000 additional housing units over the national development plan period. We have introduced new arrangements to prevent and comprehensively address homelessness. We are committed to resourcing local authorities to allow them to implement their five year Traveller accommodation programmes. My target is to expand overall social housing output through the range of local authority and voluntary housing programmes to meet the needs of over 15,000 households per annum over the next few years compared to 9,200 last year.
In considering the progress that has been made on housing, it is also necessary to point out that many measures already taken have yet to have full effect. This is a crucial point: there is a significant lead-in time to achieving results where construction is concerned, especially with the construction industry operating at full capacity.
The Minister of State told us that three years ago.
It is the same old stuff.
Similarly, institutional change cannot deliver results overnight. The effects of our landmark policy under the Planning and Development Act, 2000, to enable local authorities to reserve up to 20% of land intended for residential development for social and affordable housing have yet to be felt. The same goes for the Act's provisions which streamline the planning process. These include the use of strategic development zones to ensure the early development of large scale residential developments, with a land holding levy for land owners who do not develop the land within specified time frames. These measures, as the House will be aware, have received the imprimatur of the Supreme Court.
Our approach to housing, therefore, has been very much action oriented. We have kept housing under careful review and have refined our strategies as necessary.
Does the Minister of State believe this nonsense?
Let the Minister finish. He is running out of time.
He is certainly running out of time.
Any comprehensive and fair minded analysis of the Government's record on housing will find that we have taken an unprecedented range of actions across the broad housing spectrum. It will also find that we have not been lacking in political resolve to tackle the housing issue. We are firmly committed to meeting real housing need. No constitutional amendment could increase that resolve. The Govern ment will be keeping a careful eye on the success of the initiatives we have introduced and will implement further measures if we feel they are warranted.
The first speech of the radical party.
The Minister of State missed the entire point of the debate.
I propose to share my time with Deputies Timmons, Hayes and Gay Mitchell.
Deputy Quinn's comment was extremely apt; the Minister of State is running out of time fast and the Government is running out of time. I find it amazing that Ministers can come in and read a prepared script and they did not even hear the debate to date and the arguments put forward for the Bill.
How does the Deputy know?
There are televisions in every room. I was listening carefully to these pre-prepared statements. I will get around to what the Minister of State, Deputy Molloy, stated, but I want to deal first with the Bill.
We have been listening to the same claptrap from him for three years. There are 45,000 people on the waiting list for local authority houses. Incomes over the past years have risen by 5% per annum and house prices have gone up by 20% per annum. The cost of a house outside this city is now six times the industrial wage. The Minister of State's record is a disgrace.
Every day I receive more reports an inch thick on the failure of the housing policy from the Government. Nobody other than the Minister of State believes this propaganda.
I want to come to the Bill because the debate is more serious than the speech the Minister of State served up.
I am dealing with the facts.
Allow Deputy Yates speak without interruption.
The Minister of State thinks he is a member of the radical party.
Before it becomes redundant.
Fine Gael welcomes this debate and will be supporting the Bill on Second Stage. I want to set out briefly the Fine Gael perspective on this. The Constitution is not a rigid rule book of how everybody should live or how Governments should perform. It represents a set of values and a vision of society. In fairness, on the tour of other European countries he gave us, Deputy Quinn showed how it is possible to have day to day public administration which must deal with fiscal issues and at the same time have a vision of the rights of a type of society. That is worthy of support, but it is totally inconsistent of the Minister to stand up and say "No, we could not possibly have this" and at the same time say that the European Social Charter already conveys these rights. It is totally inconsistent for Ministers to say we could not possibly have this, while at the same time they say the UN charter and the European social charter already convey these rights. If one listened to the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, one could argue that these rights are already there. I think he said that the Constitution goes further. If one takes the case of the autistic child last week—
The Supreme Court interpretation.
Yes, if one takes the case of the autistic child last week, one could argue that these rights are already there. The Ministers cannot argue that they are in favour of giving these rights when they are opposed to this Bill.
While we would like to see this Bill go to committee for a proper analysis, there are two things about which the Fine Gael Party is concerned. We do not object to promoting greater fairness but we do not want to see further marginalisation of politics and politicians. The partnership process has already marginalised people in this House in that the public are not satisfied to leave it to once every four or five years to vote in a Government, they now want a more inclusive process. If politics becomes more judicial, which is not the intention of this Bill, it would further marginalise the Dáil.
There is a need for debate about the existing law and whether we need to enshrine greater rights of equality in it. There is a very strong case to be made for children and the greater protection for children vis-à-vis these rights in the Constitution. We look forward to this legislation advancing to Committee Stage and to being teased out. These are the types of issues that should be before the committee and not just the issue of abortion for instance. The agenda seems to have been narrowed down to a one item agenda in many respects in terms of public interest. Whatever poverty exists in our society, we owe it to the next generation to aspire to move out of that cycle of poverty and not to regenerate it. We must make sure everybody has the opportunity to live life with the maximum level of dignity and rights.
One of the rights vindicated in this proposal is the right to housing. It is quite appalling that the Minister of State, Deputy Molloy, can run in and out of this House and be so oblivious to reality. Instead of the complacent self-congratulatory rhetoric that we hear from him and the senior Minister in his Department, we should acknowledge the reality which is that there are 45,000 applicants for local authority and voluntary hous ing. We have people who are living in substandard rented accommodation without security of tenure. We have lone parents and others living in mobile homes. We have three generations of a family in one house, under the one roof, in very overcrowded conditions. We have people whose health is affected by the standard of accommodation in which they live. Their prospect of getting houses has diminished in the period of office of this Government.
There is no point quoting statistics relating to extra money when house prices have gone through the roof. The reality is that last year, this Government said 4,500 local authority houses would be built and that the goal was 45,000, which means ten years to clear the waiting list. However, only 2,900 houses were built by local authorities, and that is not all. One can walk any street outside this House and see people huddling in sleeping bags. If one meets Focus Ireland, one will know there are solutions to this problem. It is not rocket science to give someone adequate shelter for the night and to have transient accommodation facilities where their addiction problems and their bodily needs can be met. This has been done in other countries and needs to be done here. I cannot understand with the type of budgetary surpluses we have, how there is no proper contractual relationship with Focus Ireland and the excellent voluntary groups to provide the multi-faceted support needed for homeless people.
One does not have to go far to come across something I notice is not debated among urban TDs. In my constituency, I am ashamed to say, I know of elderly people who, or whose father before them, bought out their houses, vested in county council cottages, and they do not have toilet facilities. If one goes through the files of applications in every health board under the special housing aids for the elderly scheme – which only gets a paltry £8 million even though it is an excellent scheme – one will see that instead of these people getting grants, teams coming in and doing the work, they are applying to repair collapsing and leaking roofs and are living on an £80 or £90 per week old age pension. They cannot afford to carry out the repairs or to provide bathroom facilities at this time of plenty.
What we have is a paralysis of analysis. The three Bacon reports said that if one alters the temperature in a room, one changes the heating. It is as superficial as that. It has made things worse. It has affected investment in the private rented sector. Rents have risen by 120% in the past 20 months. There is a real crisis in that sector and yet we have no solutions. The NESF report said there should be a target to clear 70% of waiting lists for local authority housing. Yet we have the same nonsense and a little bit of progress on the supply side but not enough. We need 60,000 new houses a year or half a million new houses if one considers that household formation size has gone down from 3.3 to 2.8 people per household, the growth in the work force the returned emi grants and the migration patterns to the eastern part of the country. That is the reality. Yet one-third of all posts for planners cannot be filled. Local authorities are writing to people for further particulars because they cannot make a decision as there is not enough staff.
When I ask builders why they are not building houses, they say there are no water and sanitary services. The State has the monopoly on that. It takes ten to 12 years from the preliminary approval to the report, the design, the bill of quantities, contract documents, the tender and the construction to build a sewerage scheme. There is no integration of the contractual process. Deputies opposite should not congratulate themselves and decry other Members of this House who are trying to cut through the waffle and enshrine rights for people through the courts because of the failure of this Government to deliver.
The net point of this debate or the reason this proposal has been put forward is because of the policy failures of this Government. Since we do not have a decent health service, rights, decent welfare and housing, people are seeking to enshrine that right in law to oblige the Government to provide it. That is the point to this debate. What is needed is a twin response – a committee of this House to look at this legislation and at the appropriate international norm of a social vision and set of values to which we should aspire in our Constitution, notwithstanding our economic position at any time. Deputy Quinn clearly articulated the right and the vindication of that right. For Ministers not to have listened to that point and to come in with set scripts renders this debate very barren.
This housing crisis and the pressures on people who cannot afford housing are what will really unhinge the partnership process. People who are getting up at six o'clock in the morning to go to work do not have the prospect of owning their own home at the peak of their working lives and energy. People will not be satisfied with 4% extra in any partnership deal; they will want a radical increase in pay, which will have knock on effects in terms of national competitiveness, exports, jobs and investment.
There has been a failure to deal with housing, the homeless and standards of accommodation for the elderly and this obviously requires new solutions. We will put forward a series of measures which will not only provide the resources but which will deal with issues of supply, put the appropriate structures in place and get rid of the bottleneck in planning, sanitary services and housing delivery, areas in which local voluntary organisations have succeeded but in which local authorities have not.
I hope we have a slightly higher standard in this debate than set pieces from the Minister for Health and Children and the Minister of State responsible for housing. They simply came in here with speeches printed from the same word processors which spew out this speech at every tape cutting ceremony and function happening every Friday and Monday in constituencies. This debate deserves better than that. We support a detailed analysis of the possibility of enshrining these values and visions in the Constitution and that should be dealt with on Committee Stage.
I am delighted to have an opportunity to speak on this very timely motion. It is an indictment of our times that we have to seek to include such fundamental rights in our Constitution as we start out in the 21st century. As our people become richer, our society becomes poorer and our wealth and prosperity is bringing not a two tier society, but a multi-tier society as compassion and concern are the property of no one. Our economic masters instruct us on how the economy must be kept on track and the balance sheet is boss.
In the middle of all this, a large group of people are looking in from the outside, with their noses pressed to the glass. There are almost 50,000 applicants on the housing waiting list. Perhaps it is time to say that a Government that presides over a housing waiting list of 50,000 applicants should not be in power. Tonight, as we speak, 340 young people under 20 years of age are homeless in the greater Dublin area. One of the contributing factors to this situation is the housing crisis and the lack of affordable accommodation. George Bernard Shaw said, "Give me flowers when I can smell them". Many people in this country feel excluded and their dissatisfaction is bubbling underneath the surface.
No doubt, the many Government speakers will list off the large amounts of funding that have been allocated here and there. We will be told we never had it so good. However, many commentators are missing the point. The average price of a new house for a first time buyer is £21,000 dearer now than this time last year. This, coupled with interest rate changes, has resulted in the repayments on a £100,000 mortgage increasing by £200 per month in the past year for a first time buyer. This money must be found somewhere and something has to give. Children see less of their parents and more of the television. Young children are left sleeping as the parent rushes to collect the baby minder. All meals are microwaved as life becomes a struggle.
Some people will say the situation is not all that gloomy. However, I regret it is for many. We need only look at the abuse by our young people of alcohol and other substances, their disdain for authority and the street violence which is a weekly occurrence in every town. This is reflective of the breakdown of families, as parents feel required to put all their energies into sustaining a so-called decent life.
In 1995 just over 30,000 houses were built, 26,000 of which were private and 4,000 of which were public. Four years later, in 1999, after two and half years of the current Government's term of office, with an escalating demand and more funding available, over 46,000 houses were built, an increase of 16,000. However, only 3,500 of those were public housing, with the remaining 43,000 privately owned. That tells us only one thing – this Government has failed, at a time when it is difficult to fail, to provide for the housing needs at the lower end of the market. The Government will seek to blame the local authorities. However, it is the Government's responsibility, a responsibility it has failed to live up to. The Government will seek to gloss over this neglect with Exchequer returns.
I try to be constructive when I speak on Private Members' motions. However, I can see no white teeth in this issue. No spin can change the fact that the holiday home has attained preference over the homeless. That has happened because of the Government's policies. It can be reversed if the will is there, but there is no evidence the will is there. The Minister of State, Deputy Molloy, spoke about concrete action. The Government has an aversion to concrete – its only relationship with concrete is in its mindset. A Government that presides over a housing waiting list of 50,000 applicants should not be in power.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on this Bill, which was presented by the Labour Party and which I welcome. It is a sad fact of modern life that people on the edge of society, those who demand most from the provision of social services, have to come cap in hand, begging to the courts, to have their rights vindicated. However, that is the real situation we face at the moment.
I know the reality from cases in my constituency. There has been a vast number of celebrated cases in recent weeks, which have shown the only justice people can obtain is not through the political system or the actions of politicians or Departments, but through the courts system. As long as that is the case, we are abdicating our rights and responsibilities as politicians, as my colleague, Deputy Yates, said.
There is a need to enshrine in our Constitution a new vision and set of standards of how we, as a society, will deal with people who are on the edge and are the most vulnerable in our modern society. We have looked after such people shamefully.
That was highlighted this week by CORI, when it pointed out, once again, that Ireland is 17th on a list of 18 industrialised countries in terms of a poverty index. Our GDP expenditure levels on social provision and social protection are lagging far behind many other European Union countries. We spend about 17.5% of our annual GDP on the provision of social services for some of the most vulnerable people in our society. However, the average EU spend is about 28% and in Britain it is 26%. The notion that we are spending huge sums of our national resources on social provision to look after some of the most vulnerable in our society, which was alluded to by the three Ministers who spoke on the Bill tonight, is nonsensical, given that we spend only 17.5% of annual GDP on social programmes to help poorer people and those on the edge in our society. That lie must be nailed at the start of this debate.
We have looked after people shamefully, which is a disgrace. We will show the redundancy of politics as long as people have to go before the courts to have their rights vindicated. That is why there is a need, in the context of this Bill, to put a new vision in our Constitution.
Deputy Yates is right that that new vision must be enshrined for children, in particular. I brought a case in my constituency to the attention of the House three weeks ago where a child, who was off the rails, was before the courts system on 12 separate occasions over a two year period. On every occasion he was sent to Oberstown House. However, there was no place for him there, so he was sent back home to stay with his parents and, surprise, surprise, within a number of days he was causing havoc in the community again. If it were not for a final intervention by the District Court, that child would still be running amok around parts of my constituency.
It is a disgrace that, despite the involvement of social workers, education providers and the local authority system, it took so long for a decision to be ultimately made by the courts to send that child to Oberstown House, where a place was eventually found for him. That highlights the fact that there are few facilities in this country for children who have gone off the edge and are in danger. We have not developed any kind of modern system to help children in that situation.
The same applies, as my colleagues said, to housing. The Minister delivered the same script to the House this evening that he has been delivering for the past 18 months. It is a script of platitudes, describing the actions the Government has been taking in recent years and months. However, the percentage of money we spend on social housing has reduced over the past five years. We all accept that total capital expenditure has grown substantially over recent years. However, about 8.5% is spent on social housing at the moment, which is lower than the percentage spent when the current Opposition was in Government before 1997 and also lower than that spent in the mid-1980s, which were incredibly difficult economic times. We are building fewer social houses, as a percentage of the total number of houses built in this country, than was the case ten or 15 years ago, and at a time when there is massive demand for social and affordable housing.