Caoimhghín Ó CaoláinQuestion:
1 Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin asked the Taoiseach his legislative programme for the current Dáil session; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [31179/09]
1 Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin asked the Taoiseach his legislative programme for the current Dáil session; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [31179/09]
2 Deputy Eamon Gilmore asked the Taoiseach his legislative priorities for the remainder of the Thirtieth Dáil; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [32533/09]
3 Deputy Enda Kenny asked the Taoiseach his legislative priorities for the remainder of 2009; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [35602/09]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 3, inclusive, together.
The legislative priorities of the Government for the current Dáil session are set out in the legislation programme published on 16 September 2009 and the Government will publish its legislation programme as usual at the beginning of each session throughout the remainder of the Thirtieth Dáil.
Apart from the Statute Law Revision Bill, which was passed by the Dáil on Thursday 19 November, my Department has no legislation planned for the current Dáil session.
The Murphy report into child abuse in the archdiocese of Dublin reveals a litany of abuse of staggering proportions. Those in a position of authority within the Church who knowingly allowed this to continue deserve condemnation. In his capacity as spokesperson on children for the Fine Gael party, Deputy Alan Shatter pointed out that both the State and State agencies are still failing to protect children, protection to which they are properly entitled.
We now accept, as does the Government, the advice of the Attorney General and the all-party Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children that there is no need for a referendum on legislating for soft information. The failure of the Government to implement one of the key recommendations of the Ferns report means that at this moment children are vulnerable and subject to predators in this regard.
Will the Taoiseach see to it that the child protection guidelines, Children First, will be put on a statutory footing? Will he see to it, as Taoiseach, that this legislative proposal gets absolute priority for implementation early in 2010? Will he give a commitment to hold a referendum on children's rights so that recognition of children can be expressed in the Constitution, as committed to on more than one occasion by this Government and its predecessor?
As the Deputy said, the report outlines a harrowing litany of abuses suffered by children at the hands of clergy operating under the aegis of the Dublin archdiocese. The report also made a number of comments on how the State acted with regard to allegations of abuse made against clergy members. The Minister of State with responsibility for children and youth affairs, Deputy Barry Andrews, and his officials will consider the Dublin report with a view to establishing what must be done in addition to what was planned for implementation in the plan developed by the Minister of State in response to the Ryan commission report, published in May.
Concerns have been expressed about the statutory powers of the HSE to deal with child sexual abuse by non-family members. The Office of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs will be consulting further with the Office of the Attorney General to seek clarity in that regard. It should be noted that the HSE has powers under section 3 of the Child Care Act 1991 to promote the welfare of children not receiving adequate care and protection. The Office of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, in co-operation with the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, has commenced the process of preparing heads of a Bill in respect of the use of soft information. Other Departments, An Garda Síochána and the HSE are being consulted on the draft heads.
Soft information is information available to authorities in respect of which the person to whom it relates has not been charged or convicted of a criminal offence. The proposed legislation on soft information will need to have regard to the constitutional rights of persons, including the rights to equality before the law, to a good name, to privacy and to earn a livelihood. It will also have to address the right to fair procedures and have regard to the European Convention on Human Rights.
A revised edition of the Children First guidelines is to be published shortly and the guidelines will be promulgated throughout the public service. In addition, the Office of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs is committed to the preparation of legislation to ensure that State employees and staff from key agencies in receipt of Exchequer funding and who are working with children will have a duty to comply with the Children First guidelines.
We need to consider the appropriateness of asking questions on legislation that pertains to Departments other than the Department of the Taoiseach.
As the Taoiseach rightly pointed out some days ago, he chairs an all-party committee dealing with areas other than those that pertain to his own Department. I have no doubt he is well able to answer these questions.
For quite some time, we have been told about draft heads of Bills being circulated. This matter is obviously very serious and sensitive, but the State is now in a position to drive through the legislation on soft information expeditiously. It is very important. It has taken the Government a number of years to come around to the opinion that one does not need a referendum to legislate for soft information. While I recognise there must be consultation, all I want from the Taoiseach today is a commitment that the Government will prioritise the legislation, which is critical for children who are vulnerable or are likely to be victims of predators of the kind in question. When the consultation is taking place, can I take it that the spring legislative agenda will accord priority to legislating for soft information in the House? This side of the House will support the Government in passing and implementing the legislation as quickly as possible. I did not catch the Taoiseach's reply on whether a referendum on children's rights will be a commitment of the Government.
The former chief executive of the National Treasury Management Agency appeared before an Oireachtas committee and criticised Government policy in respect of NAMA. The Inland Fisheries Bill now states: "In carrying out duties under this section, the chief executive shall not question or express an opinion on the merits of any policy of the Government or a Minister of the Government or on the merits of the objectives of such policy." Is it a new departure that a provision such as this is to be inserted in all legislation such that people will not be able to speak their minds or tell the truth before Oireachtas committees? Is this change being made because of what occurred at the committee meeting at which the former chief executive of the National Treasury Management Agency gave his view on NAMA?
On the second point, I am not aware there is any connection between those two issues. The Deputy had better ask the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Eamon Ryan, about the Inland Fisheries Bill. The person to whom Deputy Kenny referred, who appeared before a committee, indicated subsequently that he was not opposed to the policy but that he was just giving some views on how it was developing. Having been involved in many of the discussions that took place on how we would deal with the situation, he recognised the agency would be important in that respect.
To come back to the point regarding the first series of questions Deputy Kenny asked, as I said the heads of the Bill are being prepared and it will be dealt with as a priority issue. It is a complex area. It was not a question of the Bill simply being delayed. It was discussed in an all-party committee context to see whether the issue would be dealt with through a constitutional referendum or through legislation. It is an important issue, which has again been highlighted as important to proceed with. The Government will proceed with the Bill and I do not think anyone would question the commitment of the Minister of State at the Department ofHealth and Children, Deputy Barry Andrews, to move these issues forward as quickly as possible.
The question of a referendum on children's rights is a matter the Minister of State, Deputy Barry Andrews, is considering and has been examined by previous Administrations. It is a matter to which we can give consideration but the immediate priority has to be the legislative proposals to which the Deputy referred.
I understand there are only nine sitting days left for this session of the Dáil. The Standards in Public Office (Amendment) Bill 2007 went before the Seanad on 4 July 2007. It is still on the Order Paper after two years. The Taoiseach is aware that when he was Minister for Finance the main provisions of the Bill were to raise the value of a gift Ministers and Ministers of State can receive from €650 to €2,000. Things have changed since then. What is the current status of the Bill? Is it intended to put it before the House, leave it on the Order Paper or change the levels which were determined at the time? The value of a gift which would not impinge upon the work or intention of a Minister or Minister of State in Government was determined to be €2,000.
I take the Deputy's point. As the Bill is still on the Order Paper, it is a matter for the Whips and the organisation of the House to decide how and when it can be taken. The Department has been dealing with other important legislation which is of a higher priority. It remains on the Order Paper and I understand Second Stage has not yet been taken.
I am sure when the Taoiseach or Ministers carry out official duties around the country communities give them mementos of their visit. Does the Taoiseach think that a gift to the value of €2,000 is somewhat excessive? The members of the Cabinet have acquired many pieces of glass and bog deal from the official openings they conduct.
I cannot recall the exact provisions of the Bill as it is a long time since it was discussed in the Seanad, but I understand it relates to an issue which arose at the time, that is, people who receive support from people other than family members or those working in an official capacity.
Last year, only 25 Bills were enacted, the lowest number for more than a decade. This year, 20 Bills were listed by the Government for legislation when the Dáil resumed on 16 September, only four of which have been published. I understand there is a Cabinet committee on legislation, for which the Taoiseach's Department is responsible. In the context of the protection of children and the aftermath of the publication of the Murphy report, I would like to raise three issues.
Following on from the Taoiseach's previous reply, has he a date in mind for the introduction of a Bill concerning soft information? In the Murphy report, problems regarding soft information were central to the strategy of various clerical paedophiles in terms of being protected and not properly investigated. A number of bishops were criticised in the report.
The Deputy's questions would be more appropriate to another Minister.
The issue was that soft information was obviously not shared among parishes or dioceses or at an all-Ireland church level so that the children could be protected. When will the legislation to protect children and dealing with soft information be brought before the House?
Many of the serving bishops mentioned in the report are patrons of primary schools that are funded by the State, but under the patronage of the Catholic Church and other bodies. Does the Government plan to introduce any legislative changes to address this issue? Does the Taoiseach consider it appropriate for patrons, who have been identified in the report as having behaved wrongly when it came to trying to apprehend and stop paedophiles, to continue to be patrons?
Could we have a question, Deputy?
For some time the Government has promised legislation to include the vocational education committees as patrons of primary schools. That would probably be a very simple Bill running to a page or a page and a half, to simply allow——
That is an issue for another Department. It is inappropriate to be asking it at this time.
The Taoiseach chairs a Cabinet committee on legislation. Has the Cabinet committee on legislation met to discuss all the ramifications of the Murphy report? Only four Bills of 20 promised have been published this session. What is the problem with promised legislation? In the light of what we now know from the horrifying facts outlined in the Murphy report, this matter of protecting children is now urgent for every parent, teacher and anyone who has anything to do with children.
Could we have a question, please?
Does the Taoiseach have a timeframe? Has the Cabinet committee on legislation met to discuss the different elements of this legislation, which cuts across several different Departments? As a cross-departmental issue it is appropriate to the Cabinet committee on legislation. Parents and children, particularly teenage children, would like to know when——
Could we have a question, please. Time is moving on.
——the legislation giving protection will come before the Dáil.
Has the Cabinet committee on legislation considered the position of chaplains in various schools? The Murphy report showed that one of the vehicles to children was through chaplaincies.
I suggest the Deputy tables a parliamentary question to the Minister for Education and Science on these matters.
Regarding the legislative programme, since the Government came to office after the last general election on 14 June 2007, some 73 Bills have been enacted. There was not a pre-existing raft of legislation that was coming from the previous Dáil as all of that legislation was cleared. It enabled us to enter the Thirtieth Dáil without that backlog of work to be conducted as well. In the summer session 29 Bills were published. As Deputies, and particularly Deputy Burton will be aware, in the current autumn session some landmark legislation has been introduced and this has rightly taken up much of the legislative time of the House because of its importance. I refer to the National Asset Management Agency Bill and other financial-type Bills that needed to be dealt with. In the current autumn session seven Bills have been published to date and I understand the remaining Bills on the A list will also be published before the end of the session, which is the normal criteria for putting Bills on the A list at the beginning of any parliamentary session.
Deputy Burton then referred to other questions she wishes to ask arising out of the Murphy report. The question of the ownership of schools and those involved in the management of schools has been evolving for some time now. For many years the vocational education system has been dealing with the vocational stream of second level education, post-leaving certificate courses, further education centres and so on. In addition, we have Educate Together and the gaelscoil movement. Thus, there are various models; there is not a uniform school management structure. This has evolved over time and will continue to do so. During a discussion in the House some time ago, various public statements were made — including one by the then Archbishop of Dublin — about the possibility of bringing together a forum to deal with these matters and look to the future. The situation is developing.
To answer the Deputy's question directly, there has not been a meeting of the Cabinet sub-committee on legislation, at which these matters could have been considered, since the publication of this report last Thursday evening. Both the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the Minister of State with responsibility for children and youth affairs have given detailed statements on behalf of the Government concerning the work that has been done and remains to be done arising from this report, as well as the Ryan report, from which many recommendations have emerged. The general policy question raised by the Deputy is one that will evolve over time.
May I ask a brief supplementary question?
I ask the Deputy to be brief. She has had a good innings.
Does the Taoiseach have a date for the legislation dealing with soft information? Does he consider it to be urgent? Does he think the bishops who have been severely criticised in the Murphy report are suitable persons to remain as patrons of primary schools which are educating young children?
It is important to point out that the role of patron does not involve any executive function in the management of schools. In many cases the positions have arisen from the historical involvement of religious denominations — not a particular church — in education. I have explained to the Deputy that this structure has evolved and changed over time to reflect the social changes that have taken place. Further policy development in this area will be required in due course.
With regard to the legislation that was mentioned, the heads of the Bill are being prepared as a matter of priority by the Minister and, I understand from his comments in recent days, will be brought to Government within the next month or so. We will then proceed through the legislative process to a more detailed drafting of the Bill. The matter will be dealt with as expeditiously as possible given the criteria that must be taken into account, which are complex, although this should not provide a reason for undue delay.
In view of the recent flooding emergency and the specific role of the Department of the Taoiseach with regard to the Office of Public Works, is legislation being planned to give more power and funding to the OPW to build flood protections, particularly in areas such as Gort, Cork and Clonmel? These areas have had other major flooding events but the problem was never addressed. In view of the failure of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to carry out its remit, legislation should be introduced to give the OPW the power to deal with this issue, which has been in the news of late because of the disaster that has struck those areas.
I am also seeking information on other legislation because when Deputies ask questions on the Order of Business, we do not always receive a full answer. Given the Taoiseach's role in the Cabinet sub-committee on legislation, he may be able to provide us with some information. Is legislation planned to establish an independent electoral commission to take over the running of elections and the drawing of constituency boundaries and to develop a new electoral system for the Seanad?
The following is another area in which legislation is desired, but perhaps the Taoiseach has moved forward in this regard. Some of his Cabinet colleagues seem to be in favour of a more open and transparent system of appointments to public bodies. Is that legislation forthcoming?
The final matter I want to ask the Taoiseach about today is the proposal which his Government colleagues in the Green Party have suggested in the past. Is there legislation for a new system of financing local government? Hopefully, the Taoiseach will be able to address some of those matters.
On the flood relief schemes, etc., as I stated last week there is approximately €34 million being spent in programmes this year. Deputy Ó Snodaigh mentioned Clonmel. Phase one of the Clonmel scheme has been completed. Phases two and three are gone to tender, with construction probably due to start in March. On my visit there one could see the significant benefit of that project. It certainly saved that part of the town from flooding on this occasion. Similar defences in Kilkenny and Carrick-on-Suir have provided that sort of protection for many years.
Clearly, what has emerged is that part of the assessment now must be what work needs to be done in the longer term as a result of the very considerable flooding in recent weeks. There are plans in the Office of Public Works for continuing to provide flood relief works and schemes. They have certain plans up to 2014 subject to budgetary requirements. These are issues that will receive priority and have been receiving priority even at a time of tight financial constraints being imposed on the Government, and this will continue. There is also a great deal of technical work ongoing at present, all of which must be considered. There is in the Office of Public Works a recognition that this is important infrastructural work that must take place. Existing priorities and the revision of priorities arising out of what has emerged in recent weeks will form the basis for further work by the OPW in the years ahead.
On some of the issues Deputy Ó Snodaigh raised, in the revised programme for Government there is a commitment to establish an independent electoral commission incorporating the functions of the Standards in Public Office Commission with enhanced powers of inspection. That commitment will pass to the line Minister for progressing over the course of the remainder of the term of this Government.
The Deputy spoke about the question of open and transparent appointment of persons to State bodies. That does not necessarily need a legislative base. Practices have been initiated in some instances where, for example, the committees have had a say in the establishment of the NAMA commission, and the Minister for Finance invited proposals from Opposition Deputies for consideration. At the end of the day, it is the prerogative of Government to make these appointments but, obviously, one always seeks to appoint persons who fulfil the criteria necessary, who have a competence and an interest in the area, or who have shown by their activities in other occupations or professions to be capable and competent to serve on a board. This is an issue that is there for consideration.