I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
May I share time Deputies Burton, Stagg and O'Sullivan?
Vol. 631 No. 6
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
May I share time Deputies Burton, Stagg and O'Sullivan?
Is that agreed? Agreed.
I am honoured and privileged to move the Second Reading of the Civil Unions Bill in my name and supported by the Labour Party. I am proud to introduce this measure to the Dáil and to seek the support of Deputies of all parties and none for its enactment because it is a basic human rights measure.
The purpose of the Bill is to provide for the recognition and legal registration of civil unions. Civil union is defined as a conjugal status relationship "by virtue of which two persons of the same sex as each other receive the benefits and protections, and are subject to the responsibilities, of parties to a marriage".
Many Irish citizens in stable long-term partnerships are denied legal recognition and the protections and rights of loving couples by virtue of their gender. Irish society has progressed a long way. Today, most citizens would have no difficulty in supporting the provisions of this Bill and taking this major step to ensuring legal equality for all Irish citizens.
On my way into the House, I was handed the Government amendment. Last week, I spoke to the Government and Progressive Democrats Whips and asked that, on the basis of my understanding of consensus on this issue, the Bill should be allowed to pass Second Stage and that if there was a difficulty with any provision, we could address it on Committee Stage. The House could unite in a simple measure to advance equality, as we have done previously. Quite frankly, I regard the amendment as little short of shameful because the Government does not have the guts to oppose the measure in the House. Instead, it has tabled a reasoned amendment that passes the Bill notionally. It states that the Bill will be read a second time in six months, knowing full well that this Dáil does not have six months——
——and that under Standing Orders, the Bill will fall with the dissolution of the Dáil. I regard that as shameful.
I will deal with the specifics of the reasoned amendment because I do not believe they are right or in accord with the shared opinion of Members on the Opposition Benches or the Colley report, which is cited in the amendment.
Under the constitutional understanding of marriage and in accordance with current law, persons of the same sex cannot marry each other. This Bill does not alter or seek to alter the current constitutional understanding of marriage. Instead, it would create an equivalent status relationship for the benefit of persons of the same sex. In simple terms, it provides that in most respects, the rules of law that apply to marriage will apply also to civil unions between persons of the same sex.
Article 41.3.1° of the Constitution, which has often been examined recently, states: "The State pledges itself to guard with special care the institution of Marriage, on which the Family is founded, and to protect it against attack." The Labour Party believes that the Bill does not offend against the provisions of that section since the Constitution, as interpreted by the Supreme Court, caters for people who can marry. The Bill is designed to cater for people who cannot marry under that constitutional definition and is in no way in competition with the definition.
The Government amendment, circulated at the last minute, asks the House to note that "the terms of the Civil Unions Bill as presented appear to be inconsistent with the provisions of the Constitution". I want the Minister who will respond to the debate to tell me where the inconsistency can be found because it is not my legal advice or the conclusions of the Colley report that such an enactment would have any constitutional infirmity.
This is the first time that a Bill on the legal recognition of same sex relationships has been debated in the House, but I wish to acknowledge an initiative by Senator Norris in the other House when he sought to advance this issue. No doubt there are some who regard this measure as controversial or unacceptable. The Government does not have the guts to argue that, but it will defeat the measure by its actions none the less.
I am long enough a Deputy to remember the debate on contraception, which was controversial and emotive. In my first month as Minister for Health, I was pleased to introduce the reforming contraceptive Bill. A decade on, we wonder what all the fuss was about. In similar terms, I remember the debate surrounding the legal recognition of divorce championed by my colleague, the then Minister, Mervyn Taylor. It is interesting to see a recent opinion poll showing that if the question, which was carried by a squeak, were put to the people today, 75% would vote in favour. Doomsayers' dire warnings of the end of marriage and an assault on communities did not come to pass. The institution of marriage has proven more resilient than they feared. This Bill or one like it will soon become law and we will again look back and wonder what the fuss was about.
Let me set out the details of the Bill. We propose that the general law as to capacity to enter a civil union should be the same as capacity to marry, that is, with similar restrictions as to age, the validity of an existing union or marriage, mental incapacity or closeness of blood relationship. We make legal provisions for the notification, solemnisation and registration of a civil union by the same people and in the same way as marriage, mirroring the provisions in the Civil Registration Act 2004. We provide that where a religious registered solemniser has a conscientious objection to presiding, he or she will not be required to preside. This does not apply to civil registrars, but many church men and women are registered solemnisers of marriage under thelaw.
The Bill deals with the benefits and responsibilities of parties to a civil union. The essential purpose is to provide that parties are entitled to the same rights, privileges and benefits and are subject to the same obligations as those that apply to spouses in a marriage. In particular, the Bill provides that parties to a civil union are responsible for the support of each other to the same degree and in the same manner as is provided by law for married persons. We propose that the rights and obligations of parties to a civil union with respect to a dependent child be the same as those of a married couple with respect to such children.
The Bill deals with issues such as pre-nuptial agreements, the recognition of foreign civil unions, civil union break-up and other related issues, as detailed in the Schedule.
In general, the Bill applies the various aspects of existing family law to civil union relationships. One area of particular focus is the issue of adoption. The Labour Party felt that this Bill should be as comprehensive as possible and we carefully examined this matter. Our examination led us to propose a general amendment to the law of adoption. We set out for the first time in law basic principles or criteria to govern adoption in this State. These principles would have general application in all adoption cases.
The subsection provides that, in any decision on or relating to an application to adopt a child, due regard shall be had to the principle that the first and paramount consideration is the best interests and welfare of the child throughout his or her life.
We set out in some detail the child focused criteria that we proposed should be applied to all adoption cases, including the child's ascertainable wishes and feelings regarding the decision considered in the light of his or her age and capacity to understand their particular needs; the likely effect on the child, throughout his or her life, of having ceased to be a member of the original family and to have become an adopted person; the likely effect on the child, throughout his or her life, of having become an adopted child of the person or persons who applied to adopt him or her; the child's age, sex, religion or religious background, national origin, cultural and linguistic background and any other relevant characteristics; any harm which the child has suffered or is at risk of suffering; the relationship the child has with relatives and with any other relevant person, including the likelihood of any such relationship continuing and the value to the child of its doing so; the ability and willingness of any of the child's relatives, or of any such person, to provide him or her with a secure environment in which to develop and otherwise have his or her needs met; the wishes and feelings of any of the child's relatives, or of any such person, regarding him or her; and, finally, the child's right to know the identity of his or her parents and, as far as practicable, to be brought up by his or her parents, each of them or by other family members.
All of that in the judgment of the Labour Party makes eminent good sense in any adoption procedure. The simple provision is that nobody has the right to adopt a child, but a child has a right to be adopted in the most nourishing, healthy, supportive environment objectively decided upon in his or her interest. That legal provision, which some have found controversial, is in accordance with the child welfare amendment published yesterday by the Government and proposed by the Taoiseach, as repeated today in the House, to be inserted into the Constitution. The new Government-sponsored constitutional amendment, which mirrors our legal provision, will insert a new subsection 42(A)4 into the Constitution as follows:
Provision may be made by law that in proceedings before any court concerning the adoption, guardianship or custody of, or access to, any child, the court shall endeavour to secure the best interests of the child.
Our objective mirrors and parallels that set out by the Taoiseach and the Government in its constitutional form, which obviously will have an even more robust legal basis than the mere statute we propose to enact here. In essence, our proposal, which can hardly be considered controversial in any way, is that in any adoption case the paramount consideration is the welfare of the child.
The Bill makes provision for similar recognition in terms of existing practices and regulations for same sex cohabiting couples as for cohabiting couples of different gender. There has been debate and expert consideration of these matters in recent months. Most recently, the Colley working group on domestic partnership provided thoughtful and useful advice to all of us as legislators. The Labour Party Bill has been informed by the Colley conclusions. The Colley proposals are in stark contrast to the Government amendment tabled tonight.
What Ms Anne Colley and her group recommended, as she said, was that full civil partnership for same sex couples in contrast with opposite sex couples was viewed by the group as a distinct institution, separate from and not competing with marriage. The group believed that full civil partnership for same sex couples did not suffer the same constitutional vulnerability as full civil partnership for opposite sex couples.
She went on to say that introducing a full civil partnership scheme in Ireland would achieve equivalence in this area with Northern Ireland, where the Civil Partnership Act has been in force since December 2005. The essence of what she said is in stark contrast to the gobbledegook presented by the Government in its amendment tonight, where it wishes to re-entangle the issue of giving statutory rights to cohabiting couples of opposite gender and to put that into the mix of same sex unions.
That is constitutionally fraught because if equivalence is given to cohabiting couples as to married couples — where each member can marry if he or she wishes — then the institution of marriage is being attacked. That is what Colley said. However, by giving legal recognition to same sex couples who cannot constitutionally marry, no injury is done to the concept of marriage, which is unique under the Constitution, as currently defined, to opposite sex couples. That is a basic fact which Colley recognised and it has informed our proposals. It runs absolutely counter to the gobbledegook put forward in the Government amendment to the motion.
I have said the Government amendment is shameful because a good number of people — I thought the Taoiseach and Tánaiste were among them — believe the time is now right. Consequent to the very thoughtful proposals of the Colley group, we shall deal separately with the cohabiting issue, because it is a separate matter and is more constitutionally fraught than this one. That is the legal advice available to us. The Colley working group quoted the Taoiseach in its report. It is worth putting on the record what he said, which was so much vaunted in the Colley report and welcomed by people who sought to have equality under the law.
Our sexual orientation is not an incidental attribute. It is an essential part of who and what we are. All citizens, regardless of sexual orientation, stand equal in the eyes of the law. Sexual orientation cannot, and must not, be the basis of a second-class citizenship. Our laws have changed, and will continue to change to reflect this principle.
That is the end of an empty quote, because it is meaningless in the context of the amendment the Government has tabled to the Bill. I genuinely find it is shameful of the Government to actually attempt to present support for this measure. For those who do not understand it, the procedure postpones the Second Reading of the Civil Union Bill for six months. In the normal course of events, we need do nothing more than wait six months and the Bill is deemed to have passed. However, the Government knows full well that six months from now this Dáil will have expired and under the Standing Orders of the House the Bill automatically falls. It is a shameful betrayal of the words of the Taoiseach. I want him and the members of the Government who will respond to this debate to explain how our proposals are unconstitutional, why they want to re-entangle the issue of cohabitation with recognition of civil union of same sex couples and why they want to wait for Supreme Court and other decisions before moving to enact legislation which is long overdue.
I regard this Bill as a seminal equality issue. I challenge all Members of the House to support it in principle. If there are difficulties in the detail, let us deal with them, but let us give full equal citizenship to all citizens of this country, so that they are cherished and respected under the law.
Deputies Burton, O'Sullivan and Stagg are sharing time and fewer than 20 minutes remain in this time slot.
I thank the Acting Chairman.
The Labour Party has a long and proud tradition of advancing social and personal freedom. I congratulate my colleague, Deputy Howlin, on introducing this Bill and giving all politicians in this House an opportunity to debate it and to cast their vote in favour or against it tomorrow evening.
It is difficult for those born after 1980 to sometimes recall that there were once severe discriminations against women, particularly married women, children born outside marriage and gay people, who were criminalised up to 1993 when a Fianna Fáil-Labour Government decriminalised homosexual acts between consenting adults. Severe discrimination existed on the right of access to contraception, which was addressed by both Deputy Howlin, as Minister for Health, and by his predecessor, the then Minister, Barry Desmond. The right to civil divorce was piloted through by the rainbow Government of Fine Gael, Labour and Democratic Left and by the former Minister, Mervyn Taylor. How much damage was done in all those years of discrimination against people in all sorts of circumstances? When the law was changed, Ireland became a better place, not a perfect place but a better place, particularly for those people who suffered those myriad discriminations.
This Bill proposed by the Labour Party follows that tradition, which is to allow recognition and registration of civil unions between same sex couples. I understand that the President of Poland, a state visitor to our country, made derogatory comments today about gay people and culture being a threat to the survival of the human race. That is regrettable in the context of the contribution gay people have made not only to the culture, literature and music of Poland, but in general to many aspects of life in the past and to life today.
In many ways Bills such as this one attempt to rebut crass and gross discrimination to ensure people can walk tall and live their own lives in harmony as their sexual orientation dictates. As a State, we should encourage stable, long-term, enduring and loving relationships by granting them status and recognition. As a State, we have done that up to now in regard to the family and marriage and recognised it in a particular way. It is appropriate that we now extend that by way of this legislation.
I look forward to the day when we see people celebrating same sex unions in the company of their friends and their families, as we have seen in other jurisdictions in recent years. Countries are generally better where personal happiness, liberty and freedom are exercised.
At present, a gay couple finds it difficult to secure recognition of status in terms of next of kin. I am particularly aware of loving, long-term gay relationships where one partner becomes ill and the other has no legal status as next of kin, often up to the moment of death. That is particularly distressing and painful. Similarly, in respect of shared assets, such as a home, where one partner dies, particularly where the deceased partner has died without making a will, the surviving partner in a gay relationship may not only be bereft but could be effectively destitute and homeless.
I reiterate that this Labour Party Bill seeks to create an equivalent status relationship for the benefit of persons who are of the same sex. It provides that in most respects the rules of law applying to marriage will also apply to civil unions. Article 41.3.1 of the Constitution states: "The State pledges itself to guard with special care the institution of marriage ..." This Bill seeks to create a parallel situation for those who cannot marry under our Constitution and, therefore, the provisions of the Bill run parallel to marriage rather than in competition with it. The Bill seeks to assimilate the general law as to the capacity to enter a civil union with capacity to marry. The law as to notification, solemnisation and registration of a civil union under this Bill will be similar to the law applicable to marriage and Part 6 of the Civil Registration Act 2004 will apply accordingly.
As my colleague, Deputy Howlin, said, this Bill also introduces a number of reforms of adoption law, basically taking into account various elements of the universal declaration on the rights of the child, namely, the right of a child to know his or her family and for the rights of the child to be foremost in legislation relating to children. Some Members of this House may be uncomfortable and even opposed to the notion that approximately 50,000 people have been adopted since adoption law was introduced here in early 1950s. The Official Report of that debate in the late 1940s and early 1950s, if anybody cares to check it, reveals that a considerable number of Members of the Dáil and Seanad objected to children gaining a right to be adopted into a family on the grounds that they followed the reservations of the Roman Catholic Church, which were stated repeatedly from 1930s onwards and which reflected the notion of the fear of a stranger's child entering a family and thereby acquiring inheritance rights.
I do not believe that any Member of this House or of the Seanad today would object in terms of the stringent objections to the notion of adoption made in the 1930s to 1950s. We must to bear in mind that life moves on and it is our job, as a Legislature, to reflect the society in which we live and to offer people the freedom to enter into civil relationships and to have their relationships publicly acknowledged and celebrated by themselves, their families and friends.
I interrupt the Deputy to remind her that 11 minutes in this time slot for the two Members sharing time with her.
I always abide by the Acting Chairman's rulings and I am delighted to do so now.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to make a short contribution to this debate. I congratulate my colleague, Deputy Howlin, on introducing this measure. This is an historic occasion for the Dáil as it is the first time such a measure has been brought before this House. If it is passed and eventually becomes law, it will represent a significant step towards the provision of full equality for gay and lesbian citizens and particularly for those in same sex relationships.
The Labour Party is proud of its record in showing political leadership on equality issues since the foundation of the State. It was Barry Desmond and Deputy Howlin who introduced legislation that provided for the easier availability of contraceptives, thus enabling couples to plan their families and reduce the number of crisis pregnancies. The Labour Party in Government provided the impetus for the legislation that decriminalised homosexual activity between consenting adults.
Indeed, it was ten years ago this month that the constitutional referendum, piloted by the former Minister for Equality and Law Reform, Mervyn Taylor, went before the people and was passed — albeit by a very narrow majority. People will recall that during the referendum campaign there were all sorts of scare stories put about that the introduction of divorce would lead to the collapse of marriage as an institution and the disintegration of the family. "Hello divorce, Goodbye Daddy" was one of the milder slogans touted at the time. We were told the courts would be clogged up dealing with endless disputes that would make huge amounts of money for lawyers. In fact we can see from statistics released this week that nine out of ten cases of divorce or judicial separation are settled before ever going to court.
Divorce was a social change that many people feared, but it did not damage marriage or the family. There are those who genuinely believe that what we are proposing would also damage marriage and the family. I believe these fears are groundless.
This Bill is about extending basic civil rights to couples in long-term stable relationships who currently enjoy few rights or entitlements under the law. If one person in a same sex relationship falls seriously ill, the partner has no legal standing. If one person in a same sex relationship dies, the partner has no entitlement to inheritance. Same sex couples do not enjoy the same rights or entitlements regarding tax or social welfare. Our Bill seeks to create an equivalent status relationship to marriage for the benefit of people who are of the same sex. It provides that, in most respects, the rule of law applying to marriage will also apply to civil unions. Those who enter into a civil union will essentially have the same rights, but also the same obligations as those who are married.
Despite the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste both having made sympathetic noises, and despite the publication in November 2006 of the report of the committee on domestic relationships, chaired by Anne Colley, the Government has failed to honour commitments to bring forward legislation to give legal recognition to same sex unions. When asked about the issue in June 2006 by the leader of the Labour Party, the Taoiseach said he certainly would not rule out the possibility that we could at least start, if not complete, a legislative process over the winter.
Having failed to deliver on their own commitments, I hope the Government parties will at least withdraw their amendment and allow this Bill to proceed to Committee Stage, where the complex issues involved can be teased out in much more detail.
I commend my colleague, Deputy Howlin, on introducing this Bill. I am very proud to be a member of the Labour Party tonight. This Bill should have been introduced many years ago. Having governed for ten years, it is shameful that the equality agenda has not been advanced in any way at all by Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats Party.
I am absolutely amazed at the amendment that has been proposed by the Government. It is the biggest political fudge I have seen in a long time and the most misleading amendment one could make to any proposal. It is dishonest. It effectively states that it accepts the need for legislative reform for the recognition of civil partnerships to enable persons who are cohabiting in relationships of mutual dependency to make fair and reasonable provision for each other, and for other persons dependent on them and in their dealings with other persons. This sounds great. However, the amendment suggests that this may be unconstitutional, although our legal advisers clarified that it is not. The amendment then postpones the Second Reading of the Civil Unions Bill 2006 for six months. The Minister, who has just arrived in the House, knows perfectly well that this Bill will fall if that happens.
This amendment effectively misleads the House. Since the Ceann Comhairle often tells us that we are not allowed to mislead the House, he should rule against this amendment as that is what it does.
It implies that this Bill will be dealt with in six months' time. It represents a complete failure of political courage. The Progressive Democrats Party once had a proud liberal tradition and we often heard fine speeches in the past on its liberal credentials. However, it seems to have completely subsumed itself into Fianna Fáil on these issues.
Fianna Fáil also seems to have squeezed out anybody who had a bit of political courage on such issues. I am particularly thinking of the former Minister for Justice, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, who had the courage in 1993 to take a step forward on this issue, when Fianna Fáil was in Government with the Labour Party. Since my party has been out of power, virtually nothing has been done on the equality agenda. The Minister who has just arrived in the House is the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. However, he rarely describes himself as such. He is now described as the Minister for Justice by the media, as if equality and law reform simply did not exist. In effect, it does not exist for this Government and it is about time it was put back on the political agenda. That is what the Labour Party is seeking to do tonight.
I am extremely disappointed that the Government has not accepted the Bill. If the Minister and his colleagues have problems with aspects of it, there is full provision to amend the Bill on Committee Stage and on Report Stage. We do not claim to have all the wisdom on this issue, but we would like to see progress. The Colley committee made these recommendations and drew a distinction between marriage in the Constitution and the kind of civil rights we are proposing to provide this evening. This matter of civil rights is a core issue for the Labour Party, because we believe in a rights-based agenda. We believe in policies and in legislation that are about equal rights for citizens. Gay and lesbian people do not have equal civil rights when it comes to taxation, social welfare, inheritance and sensitive areas such as health. We are trying to put these rights on the Statute Book this evening.
I would like to refer to our colleague in the Seanad, Senator Norris. I am a member of the all-party committee on the Constitution. Senator Norris came to that committee and presented his own legislative proposals. He addressed the committee, which contains representatives of the Government parties, and there was a general view held by committee members that we should forward the agenda of equal civil rights for gay people. That appeared to be the position of the Government parties, as the committee is chaired by a Fianna Fáil Deputy. Yet the Government cannot come into this House tonight and provide for those civil rights.
We had an argument before about divorce and the tiny majority that passed the referendum. However, it was accepted into the normal legislative proceedings. It did not damage marriage and did not harm people who did not need or want divorce. I have no doubt that if the Government were to sign our Bill into law, it would make no material difference to marriage in this State.
This is simply a failure of political courage and a failure to address these important human rights issues. They need to be addressed urgently because this agenda is being put on the back burner until the after the general election. That means that it will take some time to bring this issue forward. The Government could allow this Bill to proceed to Committee Stage. It could allow a full debate on the Bill in this House and in the Seanad. It could enact the Bill so that all citizens in this State could have equal rights.
This Bill is about legal rights, but it is also about the culture of our country and how accepting and all-embracing we are of all our citizens. There have been some awful incidents of homophobic bullying in schools and in other places. If we fudge issues of this nature, we will make it more difficult to protect people from such activity. The message we will send out will be that we are not yet prepared to embrace equality for all our citizens in this area. I am very proud tonight to be part of the Labour Party, which is proposing this legislation. I find it shameful that the Government is not willing to allow the Bill a Second Reading.
I move amendment No. 1:
To delete all words after "Dáil Éireann" and substitute the following:
"That Dáil Éireann:
Affirms that any legislative reform in this area must be fully consistent with the provisions of the Constitution and in particular the State's constitutional duty to protect with special care the institution of marriage; and
accepts the need for legislative reform for the recognition of civil partnerships to enable persons who are cohabiting in relationships of mutual dependency to make fair and reasonable provision for each other and for other persons dependent on them and in their dealings with other persons; and
notes that the terms of the Civil Unions Bill 2006 are confined to conjugal relationships between persons of the same sex;
welcomes the Reports of the Working Group on Domestic Partnership chaired by Anne Colley and the Law Reform Commission Report on Rights and Duties of Cohabitants as valuable studies of the options for legislative reform in this area; and
agrees with the Government's stated position that a proposal to amend the Constitution so as to qualify that duty at this time would be unnecessarily divisive and counter-productive; and
notes that the terms of the Civil Unions Bill 2006 as presented appear to be inconsistent with the provisions of the Constitution; and
regards it as prudent to await the determination by the Supreme Court of an appeal now pending before that Court in relation to the issue of recognition by the State of same-sex marriages contracted in foreign jurisdictions before legislating in this area; and
mindful of the desirability of legislating in this area in such a manner as to attract the greatest degree of social consensus; and
accepting that the Department of Justice Equality and Law Reform is currently considering an approach based on a comprehensive legislative response to the foregoing issues,
postpones the Second Reading of the Civil Unions Bill 2006 for 6 months.".
I thank Deputy Howlin for introducing this Private Members' Bill for the consideration of the House. The Government is not voting against the Bill. Instead, it is proposing that the House should postpone the Second Reading for six months, with a view to enabling a more comprehensive approach to the question of civil partnerships to be adopted by the House.
The Minister knows the Bill will fall with the Dáil.
We need to build on a number of developments which have already materialised. We should bear in mind that a major development in our constitutional jurisprudence will inevitably arise, one way or another, from the Supreme Court's decision on the Zappone appeal.
On a point of order, I would like to ask the Chair, as I have already asked the clerk, whether——
Is the amendment in order?
The amendment proposed by the Tánaiste on behalf of the Government suggests that the House should grant a Second Reading to the Bill in six months' time. However, the Tánaiste knows that under Standing Orders, the Bill will fall when the general election is called. Is an amendment in order that purports to pass a Bill, but will have the effect of killing it?
It is beyond the constitutional terms——
I have already deemed the amendment to be in order.
I thank the Chair.
Has the Ceann Comhairle deemed it to be in order?
The Office of the Ceann Comhairle has deemed it to be in order.
On a point of order, is a copy of the Minister's script available?
It is coming.
I would like to make some comments on it in my contribution.
It is coming.
So is Christmas.
The approach we are proposing will build on a number of developments which have already materialised. A significant development in our constitutional jurisprudence will inevitably arise from the Supreme Court's decision on the Zappone appeal. As increasing numbers of people in Irish society reside in domestic arrangements which are not founded on marriage and do not conform to constitutional or traditional family forms, the Government wants to deliver a framework in which all non-married couples, including gay couples, can live in a supportive and a secure legal environment. This entails addressing the real life situations people choose for themselves. The Government considers that legislative reform should provide protection for people in such situations on an equal basis with other relationships of mutual dependency.
That is total hypocrisy.
Legislative reform in this area is complex, given that it deals with the intersection of the law, in the public and private spheres, and personal relationships.
Radical or redundant.
The Government considers that this issue must be addressed within the existing constitutional framework. A constitutional amendment to qualify the status of marriage to accommodate gay and lesbian relationships would, in the view of the Government, be highly unlikely to succeed. If such an amendment were attempted, it could be very counterproductive in terms of achieving social consensus on this issue. The Government is unequivocally in favour of treating gay and lesbian people as full and equal citizens in society. It is complex and challenging to give effect to this principle in legislation by providing for civil partnerships, as it involves thinking about a host of related matters. We owe a debt of gratitude to the courageous men and women who have campaigned for many years to achieve equality for gay and lesbian people. From the dark days of prejudice, a new tolerance has emerged, based on our appreciation of the fact that homosexual people are in every respect entitled to be equally valued as members of society and not to be relegated to an inferior status. That is what republicanism is all about.
The Minister should say that with a straight face.
He is standing by the Republic.
The revolution in mindsets that has partially taken place must be completed. Far from considering gay and lesbian orientation as a mere attribute, we are beginning to understand that sexual orientation is central to the character and identity of the individual and must be seen in that light. I often consider the life of Dr. Alan Turing as a parable for our time. As many people in the House know, Dr. Turing was a brilliant mathematician and a pioneer of computer science. He was also gay. In the course of the Second World War his brilliance was probably one of the key factors in the defeat of the Nazi war machine. At Bletchley Park, he cracked the innermost secrets of the Nazis with his brilliant and inventive code breaking and mathematical work.
This is patronising rubbish.
It is an extraordinary irony that a man who contributed significantly to saving the world from the Nazi regime was prosecuted in 1952 for an open gay relationship with a young man and forced to accept injections of oestrogen as an alternative to going to prison. Having been excluded from his life's work because of his homosexuality, he was driven to suicide in June 1954. His life and his history teach us how wrong it is to treat gay men in such a way. When we hear homophobic comments, we should remember the martyrdom of Dr. Turing, who helped to save civilisation for all of us.
I would like to mention the Government's commitment to the development of gay rights since 1997. In particular, I will highlight the policy changes which have benefited gay people in this jurisdiction.
What has the Government done?
The Members opposite, who are interrupting me constantly, did nothing on this front when they were in government from 1992 to 1997.
We decriminalised homosexuality.
Ireland has developed one of the most modern and extensive equality codes in Europe since 1997. The comprehensive Employment Equality Act 1998, which outlaws discrimination on nine distinct grounds, including sexual orientation, deals with discrimination in work related areas from vocational training to access to employment. The Act, which was introduced by the current Government, relates to employment conditions in general. The Equal Status Act 2000, which provides protection for the first time against discrimination outside the field of employment, complements the 1998 Act and covers the same nine grounds. The Act, which gives those who are discriminated against a statutory means of redress, has a broad-ranging scope, covering the provision of goods and services, the disposal of premises, accommodation, education and registered clubs. Ireland remains one of the few European countries to specifically outlaw discrimination on the ground of sexual orientation in relation to access to goods and services. That legislation was introduced by this Government. When the Labour Party was in government, it produced a Bill that collapsed because it was found to be unconstitutional.
It was found to be unconstitutional on one minor point, which was ably argued in this House by the then Minister, Mr. Mervyn Taylor.
I ask Deputy Howlin to allow the Minister to speak without interruption. He was given an opportunity to speak without interruption.
We normally show respect to former Members of this House. The former Minister, Mervyn Taylor, deserves respect rather than the Minister's cynical rubbish.
Deputy Howlin had an opportunity to speak.
The Deputy has been barking throughout my speech. He should allow me to speak. I am entitled to speak. I did not interrupt him.
The Minister was not here.
He was not here.
I listened carefully on my monitor to every word Deputy Howlin said.
The Minister could not interrupt me from his office.
I know exactly what he said. I know how hypocritical he is being now. The Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2004 outlaws discrimination in occupational pensions on the nine grounds, including sexual orientation, to which I have referred. When the Government amended the health insurance legislation in 2001, not only did it maintain the existing protections for consumers, but it also introduced protections on the ground of sexual orientation. The Health Insurance (Amendment) 2001 deals with the question of how health insurance is provided to members of the community. That was done by this Government — nothing was done by the Labour Party Government.
Not one thing was ever done by that party.
The Deputy can continue to say "rubbish", but what I am saying is true. The Labour Party never lifted a finger in this regard.
Who was in government in 1993?
The Parental Leave (Amendment) Act 2006 extended the force majeure leave entitlement from the 1998 Act to employees in respect of persons, including same sex partners, with whom they have a degree of domestic dependency. That was another step forward that was taken by this Government, rather than the Labour Party. The decision to allow gay couples to take force majeure leave delivered on the commitment in the 2002 programme for Government to strengthen the parental leave scheme in accordance with the recommendations of the social partners. Such important incremental improvements provide clear evidence of the Government’s ongoing commitment to achieving greater fairness in the law relating to cohabiting couples, regardless of whether they are same sex or opposite sex. In continuing this policy, the Government has ordered a root and branch review of all statutory and non-statutory schemes under the Department of Social and Family Affairs to ensure they do not have any unanticipated negative impact on those who are protected under the nine grounds of discrimination which are set out in our equality legislation.
In addition to legislative changes, this Government has expressed its commitment to full equality in society for gay and lesbian people in a number of other practical ways. The Government has undertaken initiatives to foster informed public debate on issues of concern to gay, lesbian and bisexual people, including the legal recognition, rights and duties of cohabitants. In 2002, in response to a commitment by the social partners in the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness, the NESF undertook a study to identify barriers and opportunities to implementing policies to promote equality for gay, lesbian and bisexual people. This study was based on consultations held with representatives of the relevant community and voluntary sector organisations, notably LGB groups and women's organisations, employer and trade union interests and representatives from Departments and State agencies.
My Department is funding a post of liaison policy and equality implementation officer in the gay and lesbian equality network, GLEN, under a well-known three year programme. The Department of Health and Children has funded Gay HIV Strategies, a programme operated by GLEN to combat HIV infection among gay men. The Department of Education and Science funds projects managed by Belong To, a youth group for gays and lesbians.
This Government has not been standing still on the question of full equality for gay and lesbian people. Among the next steps is the extension of legal recognition to gay couples and other couples in domestic relationships. The suggestion that we are hypocritical and have done nothing is wholly untrue. The reality is that nothing was done by the previous Government and everything that has been done has been done in the lifetime of this Government. This should not be forgotten. Every single last thing by way of progress——
The Minister is wrong
——has been achieved by this Government.
That is wrong and a lie.
The Minister protests too much.
Allow the Minister without interruption.
We decriminalised homosexuality in the 1993 Act; we brought in the first anti-AIDS campaign in 1992. The man is talking rubbish.
I hear all this ranting and raving but the fact is the Opposition cannot point to one thing they ever achieved — not one thing.
The Minister is the one who is ranting and raving.
Stand up and tell the House one thing you achieved.
The establishment of the Department of Equality and Law Reform, the first Equal Status Act, the decriminalisation of homosexuality, the first anti-AIDS campaign in the country. Does the Minister wish me to continue?
Allow the Minister without interruption. I ask the Minister to address his remarks to the Chair. If he speaks to the Chair he might not invite interruption.
It is fascinating to be told by people that we know nothing about constitutional law when they produced equal status legislation which was flung out by the Supreme Court.
Deputy Michael D. Higgins wishes to raise a point of order.
May I ask on what basis the Ceann Comhairle's office accepted an amendment?
Sorry, Deputy, I have already ruled on that matter.
The Deputy was having a senior moment when that was dealt with a moment ago.
If the Deputy wishes to come to my office I will be glad to discuss it with him.
What did the Minister say?
He must have been having a senior moment as that was dealt with a moment ago.
I ask the Deputy to allow the Minister to continue without interruption, please. I do not think it is fair to any Member of this House that a number of Members in any party continue to interrupt and do not allow the Member called by the Chair.
I was not raising the previous point. I was asking a different point and I will go to the Ceann Comhairle's office to explain it.
I ask the Deputy to resume his seat. The Chair has ruled on the matter.
An amendment beyond the term of the Dáil is improper and the Ceann Comhairle as well as the Minister should know it.
The Minister without interruption.
It is a totally improper amendment, beyond the term of the Dáil. The Minister should look at the Constitution.
A political consensus is emerging towards legislating in this area, hence this debate tonight. This mirrors an emerging international trend to provide enhanced rights and recognition to cohabitants and particularly to same-sex cohabiting couples. However, there is no uniform international approach to statutory recognition and protection for same-sex civil unions. A small number of jurisdictions have opened up marriage to same-sex couples while more have provided civil registration schemes either confined to same-sex couples or available also to opposite-sex couples.
In legislating in this area, each country is faced with its own unique set of complex political, legal and social circumstances. In this jurisdiction we are now facing into this complex environment. In the UK, the Civil Partnership Act 2004 provides for registration of exclusively same-sex civil partnerships in an institution broadly equivalent to marriage. The UK Act runs to 264 sections and 30 schedules in order to extend the appropriate legislative provisions on spouses to encompass same-sex couples. Deputy Howlin's Bill attempts to replicate this 264 sections scheme in ten short sections.
The Civil Unions Bill would be unlikely to survive a constitutional challenge and the Government cannot therefore support it in its current state. The Bill falls short of being a suitable model to provide for the civil registration of same-sex relationships. It is drafted in such a way that it would be unlikely to withstand constitutional challenge and in particular it offends against Article 41.3.1° of the Constitution which obliges the State to guard with special care the institution of marriage on which the family is founded and to protect it against attack.
The Bill purports to ascribe to the same-sex partners all the rights and obligations of marriage, with some minor exceptions. The advice consistently available to the Government is that a law which equates non-marital relationships to marriage for all purposes could not survive constitutional challenge. I said this in the Seanad when Senator Norris moved his Bill which was broadly similar.
Senator Norris's Bill was quite a different Bill.
The Bill is also premature because it would clearly be unwise to attempt to provide a statutory scheme equivalent to marriage for same-sex couples until the Supreme Court appeal on the recognition of a foreign same-sex marriage has been decided. I look to section 5 of this Bill which would purport to decide the issue before the Supreme Court in the Zappone case and I do not believe it is appropriate that we should attempt to do so. If the Supreme Court is to uphold the High Court and rule that it would be unconstitutional to recognise foreign marriages in this way, section 5 of this Bill would fall flat on its face. I suggest we wait for the Supreme Court decision in the Zappone case so that we know what we can do.
Because we are a separate branch.
The Government fully accepts that same-sex couples and other unmarried cohabiting couples require heightened legal protection. Many cohabiting couples share property, home life and income, and want to care for one another, to be next-of-kin to each other and to be cared for in that context and to have legal rights to do so. While it is open to couples to regulate at least some aspects of their relationship by means of contract, this is a route which relatively few couples currently take. Against this backdrop it is desirable to provide legislative safeguards with mutually enforceable rights and obligations, but if we do so, we must do so in a manner which is consistent with the requirements of the Constitution.
As a society, we must give thorough consideration to what course we can and should follow in this sensitive and complex area. We must be clear on what it is we are trying to achieve. Do we wish to provide specific rights to cohabiting couples and confer the protection of the law on those rights? If so, what rights do we wish to give, and how do we confer them?
The House will be aware that I established a widely representative working group under the chairmanship of Anne Colley to report on the various options on domestic partnership. The options paper was published in November 2006 and in the following month, December 2006, the Law Reform Commission report on rights and duties of cohabitants became available. These two reports are very valuable pieces of work which are currently being considered in my Department and legislative proposals are being drafted. The commission considers it appropriate to have a tiered approach which incorporates each of these models, status and registration type models. It recommends the use of a contract model and a redress model as the basis for reform in addressing the rights and duties of cohabitants.
The Law Reform Commission report left aside registration on the basis that the working group on domestic partnership was considering this along with a range of other options. The options paper describes some such schemes in detail. Both the options paper and the Law Reform Commission report correctly note that if an opt-in registration scheme was made available, the needs of cohabiting couples who choose not to register or marry would not be addressed unless other modes of protection were put in place. This Bill fails to address that point.
It does not purport to.
Legislative reform in this area might then include a civil registration scheme alongside the contract and redress models recommended in the Law Reform Commission report. The working group and the Law Reform Commission suggest that such an approach would allow cohabitants either to opt-in to a set of rights and duties towards each other and attain a formal and public status or make a contract, while a failure to do either of these would trigger the availability of a redress scheme.
Extending State recognition and the protection of the law to partnerships between persons who decide to create a relationship of mutual dependence between themselves, whether that relationship is heterosexual, homosexual or non-sexual, is qualitatively different from providing a status equivalent to and attracting the same rights and entitlements as conventional marriage. Up to now, marriage has been defined as a status based on a male-female monogamous relationship for the duration of the life of the marriage. While the case law on the issue has been conclusive to date, there is the outstanding appeal to the Supreme Court in the Zappone case.
I do not consider it appropriate to address the issue in a piecemeal fashion, as this Bill would have us do. It is an insufficient response to attempt to provide a direct equivalent to marriage for same-sex couples and deem the matter to be dealt with. Our response, not just as a Government but as a society, should be coherent and well thought-out. It must take into account the wide range of differing cohabitation and family models.
I wish to take this opportunity to restate that the Government is unequivocally in favour of treating gay and lesbian people as fully equal citizens in our society. Our legislative record shows that we have put in place a comprehensive framework of equality legislation, backed by a strong equality infrastructure, to ensure people cannot be discriminated against on the basis of their sexual orientation. I have previously stated that not all same-sex couples will necessarily want an institution which only and mandatorily gives them all the rights, entitlements and duties of marriage, just as not all cohabiting opposite-sex couples would want to be in that position. That would be to give them all duck or no dinner — there is no choice. They either take on all the incidents of marriage or get no recognition for their relationship. Most people want a choice on these matters. They do not want just to be told that they will have all duck or no dinner, and that is it.
The Minister will give them no duck and no dinner.
Why does he not just ask them?
I have asked and I have discovered what is the situation.
The Minister looked into his heart.
I do not believe we should walk the road of saying, "We know best; this is the way to run a gay relationship". The only State recognition available for a gay relationship is if it is on the same basis as marriage. That is not fair to gay and lesbian people, and is highly unrealistic.
The Deputy should listen.
Allow the Minister to continue without interruption.
Will the Deputy stop heckling? He has been heckling and speaking for over an hour. He should keep quiet.
The Minister does not listen.
It is not fair to say to gay and lesbian people that only one model of State recognition is available, namely, that one must take on all the incidents of marriage. It is not fair to say to heterosexual cohabiting couples that the only basis on which they can be recognised is if they enter into a marriage equivalent.
It is not right to say to people who have a non-sexual relationship and who want to give next-of-kin rights to each other, or who want to be recognised for those purposes, that they can have no support from the State unless they decide to also take on the incidents of marriage.
Those are not fair propositions. The Deputy has not thought this through.
What does the Minister propose? Nothing.
Allow the Minster to continue. The Deputy will have an opportunity to speak later in the debate.
Some couples may prefer a form of civil partnership which protects certain rights of importance to them but which may not have the full set of legal implications of marriage. I want to do something for them.
Off you go.
We are working on it.
The Minister has gone from the sublime to the ridiculous.
Allow the Minister to respond.
While Deputies may find it funny, we are working on it. Of course I acknowledge that many same-sex couples seek full equal status with opposite-sex couples by having the option of marriage extended to them. I respect that ambition but legislative reform is possible only to the extent permitted by the Constitution.
On the question of constitutional reform — I want this point made as a different impression was created earlier — the All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution did not favour an amendment to the constitutional definition of the family. In facing the strategic decision as to whether to change the definition of the family to extend constitutional protection to all forms of family life, the Oireachtas committee took the view that such an amendment would cause deep and long-lasting division and would not be passed by a majority. The Taoiseach has accepted this point of view and I also believe it is the correct assessment. If we were to go down the road of proposing change that required constitutional reform, and that constitutional debate was begun and lost, the cause of equality would be set back for years. That is something for which I must take responsibility. I cannot just simply posture on the subject.
We are not proposing it.
Equally, the Irish Human Rights Commission-commissioned report on the rights of de facto couples offers the view that, while desirable to anchor any future legislation in this area, constitutional reform is not prescribed under our international obligations. My view is that it is beneficial for those in cohabiting relationships, and for society, to provide a legal framework of recognition and protection for unmarried cohabitation. People who are heterosexual and in cohabitation must have some protection. This Bill offers them nothing. If offers people in long-term relationships with no sexual dimension nothing whatsoever with regard to conferring next-of-kin rights on each other.
It does not purport to do so.
An opposite-sex couple may want to stay outside the legal marital relationship but may nevertheless want to create some mutually enforceable rights and obligations in their dealings with each other and with society in general. On the other hand, as the law stands, gay and lesbian couples are excluded from marriage and cannot make a full legal and social commitment to each other. Just like opposite-sex couples, many gay and lesbian couples may want to create mutually enforceable rights and obligations towards each other and to be recognised within society.
There is also the case of cohabitants where there is no sexual dimension to the relationship. Such relationships are often accompanied by social and economic interdependences for the people involved. Fairness demands that the rights of people in these relationships need to be considered. For example, in the case of two elderly people who have been sharing a house for life, as matters stand, neither of them can confer on the other next-of-kin rights in the case of death or even in regard to hospital visitation.
There are many complex issues involved in creating legal recognition and protection for cohabiting couples. Rather than pretend the Bill is the way forward, which it certainly is not as it says nothing to cohabiting heterosexual couples——
It is a separate issue.
It says nothing with regard to non-sexual relationships. It turns its back on the concept of civil partnership and states that there should be only civil unions for gay and lesbian people, and then deals with the matter in what I believe is an unconstitutional way. Rather than suggest the Bill is the answer to all our questions, which I do not believe it is——
Nobody is suggesting that.
It is seriously flawed but I am not making that point. I am not nit-picking. I am suggesting there are serious strategic errors in the Bill and its orientation, if I may use that phrase with regard to it. Let us all sit down and spend the time needed to get this right. There is no rush to get it right before the election. It is far better to put in place a decent law, even if it takes six months and even if, after the general election, the Dáil has to put it back on the Order Paper and get on with the matter. It is far better to do that than to pretend a badly drafted piece of work is the answer to all our questions.
It is not badly drafted.
It is. A series of things are wrong with it.
The Minister should point them out.
I will. For example, the Deputy attempts to decide the Zappone case in section 5.
The Minister has already made that point. It is not true.
Deputy Howlin will have an opportunity to respond tomorrow.
I know when people are grandstanding.
The Minister is an expert at it.
This is grandstanding. This is the first Government——
To do what?
——-to bring in an Equal Status Act, an Employment Equality Act——
——-and all of the measures to which I referred, which were designed to give fairness to gay and lesbian people. It was the first and only Government to do it.
The Minister has lost the run of himself.
Labour was in Government from 1992 to 1997 and achieved nothing in this area.
Is that why the Department of Equality and Law Reform came into existence?
Despite having a full-time Minister for Equality and Law Reform, it achieved nothing tangible for the gay and lesbian community.
That is not true.
The Deputy keeps repeating it is not true but I tell him it is.
This is incredible. The Minister has lost the plot.
All of the legislative innovations, including Mr. Charlie McCreevy's huge steps forward in regard to inheritance law and taxation, which were done in part for the gay and lesbian community, have happened on our watch and not on the Labour Party's watch.
It is Dr. Strangelove.
The suggestion that this Government has achieved nothing, is being hypocritical, is avoiding the issues or is afraid to deal with the issues is simply untrue.
What about the Bill?
It is simply untrue. The Bill is a lazy-minded, ten section effort to achieve what a Bill in the United Kingdom took 264 sections to achieve.
We can include 264 sections, if the Minister likes. Where is his Bill?
It is lazy-minded grandstanding. That is the first point.
The second point is that the Bill does not address the position of cohabitants, which the Law Reform Commission suggested should be reformed.
Nobody wants the Bill to do so. It is a separate issue.
It is not a separate issue. It is the same issue.
It is a separate issue. The Minister did not read the Colley report.
I ask Deputy Howlin to allow the Minister to speak. The Deputy will have an opportunity to contribute tomorrow, unless he wants to give the Minister some of his time.
It is the same issue, namely, there are people in our society who are not in a position to enter into a marriage, for one reason or another, but who want to have legal recognition for the attributes of mutual dependency which arise out of their relationship.
The third point is that the Bill assumes the only set of recognition principles this House will make available to anybody is a status equivalent to marriage. Gay and lesbian people who do not want that get nothing under the Bill. If a person does not sign up to the full marital relationship, he or she does not get anything — no help with next of kin, no help with ownership of property and no help with anything else. The Labour Party can posture and grandstand and try to pretend to the gay and lesbian community that this Bill is the answer to its problems, but it is not. It is badly thought out, lazy and inadequate. What I am doing and what I have consistently tried to do in my Department is to produce good quality legislation which advances matters. That is what I am doing.
Where is the Minister's Bill?
Allow the Minister continue.
I came into the House——
Ten years ago. The Minister's time is up. Ten years gone, ten weeks to go.
Where is the Minister's Bill? His time is up.
I came into the House to point out what has been and what will be achieved by the Government. I had one thing in mind, namely, that having listened to Deputy Howlin, I would put on the record the difficulties and problems with his Bill, but Deputy Howlin has constantly interrupted me. The truth is that in five years the Labour Party did nothing. The Government, however, has done a hell of a lot.
The Labour Party has challenged us all this evening. On behalf of the Fine Gael Party, I am prepared to rise to that challenge. Fine Gael believes in the general principle put forward by the Bill, particularly the statutory provision for a civil alternative for those who do not wish or who cannot marry for one reason or another. This is not surprising, in the context that the Fine Gael Party was the first political party in the State — four years ago — to produce a major policy document on the concept of civil partnership.
I support in principle the Bill put forward by Deputy Howlin. I do not accept every provision in the Bill and wish to put down a marker with regard to one provision in particular. I do not agree with section 8 of the Bill which would allow couples who have entered into a civil union under the legislation to adopt in Ireland. I say this in the context that adoption rights did not form part of the Fine Gael document. At the time, it was felt that adoption was a complex area that warranted further detailed study.
Including the issue of adoption in the context of the Labour Party Bill muddies the water somewhat. The issue of adoption still requires further analysis and should not be provided for in the Bill, but we can deal with that. As Deputy Howlin said, we have a procedure in the House whereby when one does not agree with all aspects of a Bill, one can put forward a Committee Stage amendment. I would be quite happy to do that in this case. While one may not accept every provision of the Bill, it would be more beneficial to immediately allow all cohabiting couples to avail of the rights specified and then revisit separate issues such as adoption.
As far as Fine Gael is concerned, I am not here to say "me too". However, the point made with regard to same sex couples and opposite sex couples was well made. There is a case for a Bill that makes civil union available to both same sex and opposite sex couples. Again, this is an issue that could be considered on Committee Stage. I accept that some people may say it is an attack on marriage or that others will say it is not fair or equal to have discrimination, as it were, in favour of same sex couples, but it is an issue that could be dealt with on Committee Stage.
I cannot accept the Government attitude in the area of policy. There are controversial issues, but let us face them. We have a parliamentary process for so doing. If one does not agree with all the aspects of particular legislation, one can table a Committee Stage amendment and deal with it in that manner. Why then does the Minister tell us we should put the issue off, effectively sine die? He suggests six months, beyond the life of the current Parliament, when he will be out of office and have no further responsibility in the matter. We will find a suitable replacement.
One line of the Minister's speech stands out. He said he wanted to take this opportunity to restate that the Government is unequivocally in favour of treating gay people as full, equal citizens in our society. How can that be squared with kicking the Bill to touch and not confronting the issues raised in the Bill?
Some people who make submissions think politicians take no notice of their submissions. When looking into the background of the Bill, I looked at the report of the All-Party Committee on the Constitution and was struck by a submission made by the gay caucus which asked the question: Gay people, who are they? The response was: "Gay people are your sons, daughters, sisters, brothers, cousins, nephews, nieces, uncles, aunts and even spouses; they are your co-workers, friends, neighbours and co-siblings".
We are talking about all these people, but why do we continue to treat them differently? Why do we not take this chance to confront the issues and give them the kind of rights set out four years ago in a policy document by Fine Gael and which the Labour Party is now attempting to cope with in legislative form?
The gay caucus submission pointed out that while law can seem cold and abstract, it has consequences for real flesh and blood people. The consequences for cohabiting gay people are that they pay higher income tax, capital gains tax, stamp duty, inheritance and gift tax. Their non-Irish spouse cannot easily work or live in Ireland. They may face discrimination in pension benefits. In cases of domestic violence they are less protected by the law because they cannot claim barring orders under the Domestic Violence Act 1996. They may not be recognised as next-of-kin if their partner is hospitalised. The partner of a deceased gay person will have no entitlement equivalent to that of a spouse to a share in the estate of the deceased person and so on. The submission finished with three words: "Is this fair?"
Is the answer we are giving from the Dáil tonight, that we are not prepared to confront the issues and not prepared to make an honest attempt to try to put in shape a process that would deal with the obvious discrimination in our society? This is the reason that, while I do not support all aspects of the Bill, I suggest we should all support it in principle. Let us refer it to Committee Stage and try to work out an acceptable format that will get all-party consent, or if that is not possible that we will end with legislation that will end this disgraceful discrimination.
The Minister referred to speaking in the Seanad on the issue, but if I remember correctly, he adopted the same attitude there. That was two years ago when Senator Norris introduced a Bill along similar lines. In passing, I compliment Senator Norris on having done so much for the cause of equality. At the time of that Bill, the Minister again kicked for touch, but nothing has been produced in the meantime.
The Minister said he wanted to await the report of the all-party committee on the matter. The All-Party Committee on the Constitution reported and recommended that legislation could extend to such couples a broad range of marriage-like privileges without any need to amend the Constitution. The all-party committee has, therefore, stated there is an open door as far as the Constitution is concerned. We can deal with the issue without a constitutional amendment. Why do we not deal with it?
The Law Reform Commission also reported on the issue and produced an excellent report on the rights and duties of cohabitants. The working group set up within the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform has given its view too. As usual, we have heard positive noises from the Taoiseach, but that is about as far as he goes from the point of view of achieving anything. Over two years ago the Taoiseach stated, "These people who are in relationships which are not illegal, they are not immoral, they are not improper, they say: "We want more equality and we want to be treated fairer"." I agree with that, and it is what this Bill envisages. However, the Taoiseach and Ministers have refused it in the House, suggesting instead that we postpone consideration once more. It is reminiscent of St. Augustine, who asked God to make him pure, but not yet. Why do we not confront the issues, even if they are controversial? Why do we not make an honest attempt to deal with them? That is my main criticism of the Government.
The Tánaiste has said that the Dáil should pass legal reforms that formally recognise those who have entered into a civil partnership with each other, regardless of their sexuality, and allow the surviving half of such partnerships to acquire next-of-kin status. Why do we not do that? What is holding up the process? Why is this disgraceful discrimination allowed to continue? Anyone can die intestate after being hit by a bus, and anyone thus affected could suffer disgraceful discrimination tomorrow or at any time unless we are prepared to confront the issues.
That is where I fault the Government, since no legislation has been produced to address the sorts of issues touched on in that submission. There have been many promises, announcements and noises, but just as with so many other areas, nothing has followed.
Fine Gael has no difficulty confronting such issues, since it does not pretend to have the answer to every problem. However, we made an honest effort to introduce proposals four years ago. We are also prepared to participate with others in attempts to reach a broader consensus on such issues. This Bill has taken on board many of the principles of Fine Gael policy. When we published it, we did so in the teeth of great opposition. However, we were ahead of our time, and it is now clear that a broad view exists that such issues should be tackled. Last year an opinion poll showed that 84% of people believed that same-sex couples should be given some form of legal recognition. The public wants it, as do the Labour Party and Fine Gael, so why do we not go ahead and do it? Over half of those surveyed believed that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry. Some 33% favoured civil partnerships and, above all, only one in ten said that there should be no legal recognition of same-sex relationships. However, if we do as the Government wishes regarding this Bill, that is what will happen, since the current situation will continue indefinitely, sine die. That is what the Government proposes.
Let us recall what we are discussing and what we must do. If a partner dies intestate, the surviving partner should be entitled to his or her entire estate and not be liable to inheritance tax. Why do we not provide for what applies in a marriage? As far as next of kin are concerned, a civil partnership would bestow such status on a registered partner. Then there is the issue of pensions. In the event of the death of a registered partner, the surviving party would be entitled to benefit from pension provisions in the same way as married couples under the same State or private scheme.
Taxation was touched on in the submission that I quoted. I support the equivalent of the married tax-free allowance and mortgage allowance being conferred on registered couples. For the purposes of social welfare benefits, registered couples would be considered adult dependants and assessed according to their joint income. It is of relevance in the context of workplace entitlements. Registered partners should be entitled to compassionate leave from their employers in the event of serious illness or the death of their partner along the same lines as married couples. It is almost universal practice nowadays that new homes are bought in the names of both partners. The Family Home Protection Act 1976 should be widened to include registered couples.
Those are the basic tenets of Fine Gael policy and, almost in its entirety, that of the Labour Party, which also covers those provisions. Differences can be ironed out, and that is why the Government should change its approach between now and tomorrow evening. It may not accept everything in the Bill, just as I do not accept everything, as I have made clear. However, on the broad approach and the need to take legislative action and grant recognition, let us agree in principle. The purpose of the Second Stage of any Bill is to agree broad principles, while the Committee Stage irons out differences on individual aspects. The proper approach would be to allow this Bill through and let us confront the issues, including controversial ones, in detail on Committee Stage. Let us iron out our differences but not kick the issue into touch once again.
The Government amendment has pointed out constitutional vulnerability, but that can be overcome. I accept that any Bill must comply as far as possible with the Constitution. However, that can be achieved. Let us work together on it and try to ensure that the outcome is a Bill that is not vulnerable to constitutional challenge. The Government contention is that this Bill could be vulnerable, and I suspect that it might be true regarding adoption, although I am not in favour of that provision. Where there are difficulties, let us do what is constitutionally possible and leave aside aspects that might give rise to constitutional challenge. That is the practical approach that I suggest on behalf of Fine Gael.
I do not say that from a political perspective. It might not be the most important issue in my rural constituency of west Cork, but it affects everyone, and where there is inequality, injustice and unfairness, it affects all parts of the country. Surely the least that we can do as legislators in such circumstances is make an honest effort to confront that. As a party that aims to take a lead role in the next Government, Fine Gael is determined to implement an agenda of reform and fairness, and not only as a gesture to the Gallery. We do not simply want to please lobbyists. We want a change that will remove the injustice and inequality that I have mentioned. Of course we will not do anything that will go down in flames in the Supreme Court, as suggested by the Minister.
Before concluding, I will make a last plea. We all realise that there is a problem that affects every part of the country and supporters of every political party. Let each of them rise to the challenge very properly laid down by the Labour Party. Let us try to find a way to overcome this disgraceful discrimination, unfairness and injustice. The way to do so is to allow the Second Stage of the Bill to pass. Let us go to the committee and try to iron out the details and produce a consensus acceptable to all parties.