Topical Issue Debate

US Visas for Irish Emigrants

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to raise this Topical Issue and the Minister of State, Deputy Creighton, for dealing with it. I wish to highlight the fact that so many young people are emigrating to various parts of the world. The USA is one such opportunity available to our people. US Senator Charles Schumer previously wrote legislation for the diversity visa programme while a member of the House of Representatives. He thus created the Schumer visa which was distributed to 50,000 people from countries with low rates of emigration to America. This bill is the first in 15 years - when the Morrisson and Donnelly visa lottery programmes were cut - that focuses exclusively on Irish emigration to America. There is not a town or village in our country that has not lost young people to emigration in recent years. They are going to Australia, Canada, the USA, England and elsewhere. I would like to see the Government working closely with the people in America who are trying to introduce these visas. For young people tavelling from Ireland to America, having a working visa, whereby they can work for two years or have that period extended, is of vital importance. It allows them to find bona fide work, be above board, have proper health cover and be covered if they have an accident or something unfortunate happens to them. It takes them out of the black economy and ensures them the freedom to avail of different employment opportunities that might arise. A person working illegally in the United States is restricted in what he or she can do.

I acknowledge the Taoiseach's recent trip to America which was good for the country. He portrayed the country in a good light and sent a good message to America, which is to be welcomed.

I have raised the issue of visas on previous occasions. I appreciate that a spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has said the Government is working with Irish American community activists and the embassy and consulates in the United States to advance the prospects of the Bill. This is vitally important. I ask the Minister of State to ensure the Government operates in a proactive way on this issue. It would be most welcome if 10,500 visas, or possibly more, became available in time.

We do not want to see our young people having to go, but there is nothing worse than seeing young people between the ages of 18 and 22 years unemployed. They will never get these years back. It is vital that they use their time productively. As long as there is no work available here, we want to see them getting on. We want to see them safe and happy and in work. It is in everyone's instinct to work and be productive every day.

I am relying on the Minister of State to work with her counterparts in America to ensure this work can come to fruition in order that we can offer the hope to many young people that they will be able to work in a safe and secure environment and be above board.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter, in addition to his parliamentary question on the subject today. I also thank him for his generous comments on the Taoiseach's recent visit to the United States.

Addressing the position of the undocumented Irish and reforming our migration arrangements with the United States remain important priorities for the Government in its relationship with the US Administration and Congress. Enabling Irish people to apply for E-3 temporary US work visas has been a particular focus of our efforts in our ongoing exchanges on immigration related issues. E-3 visas are two year renewable non-immigrant worker visas and currently available to Australian nationals in possession of a third level qualification. The proposals under discussion, if passed by Congress, would allow Irish nationals to apply annually for up to 10,500 E-3 visas which would be valid for two years and could be renewed. The eligibility criteria for these visas are the subject of detailed discussions in the US Congress. The benefits that would derive from E-3 visas could be expected to arise for future potential Irish emigrants to the United States rather than the undocumented Irish directly, although there may be scope for at least some in the latter category to apply for such visas. The Deputy can be assured that the Government, including the Irish Embassy in Washington, is extremely proactive in pursuit of this goal.

As Deputies will be aware, the Taoiseach is today returning from a series of St. Patrick's Day engagements in Washington, Chicago and New York. In addition to promoting our economic and business agenda, he discussed progress on the proposed E-3 visas during his high level meetings with the Administration and Congress.

The Taoiseach and the Tánaiste discussed immigration issues with President Obama when they met him on 23 May last year in Dublin and the Tánaiste also did so in separate exchanges during the course of 2011 with Secretary of State Clinton and Senator Patrick Leahy, Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

During the Tánaiste's recent visits to Washington DC and New York he reviewed progress on E-3 visa issues during further separate contacts with Deputy Secretary Bill Burns of the US State Department and also with Senators Leahy, Scott Brown and Charles Schumer and members of the Friends of Ireland group at House of Representatives level. He also discussed the issue in detail with the congressional delegation led by leader Ms Nancy Pelosi during its visit to Dublin on 12 March.

Senators Schumer, Leahy and Durbin, as well as Senators Brown and Kirk, previously tabled draft Bills which would enable the provision of E-3 visas for Irish applicants. Both Bills have since been referred for examination by the US Senate's Judiciary Committee. In all our exchanges with them the Government thanked the Senators for their ongoing efforts in this regard and encouraged them to persist towards reaching a positive outcome. They have also been assured of the Government's continuing close interest and support in this connection which we are exercising through the Irish Embassy in Washington. In turn, the Irish Embassy is working in tandem with key stakeholder groups from throughout the Irish-American community. During his visits to the United States in February the Taoiseach met representatives from several of these groups, including the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, Chicago Celts for Immigration Reform and the Coalition of Irish Immigration Centres. He acknowledged and thanked all of them and others from within the Irish-American community for their vital help in rallying support for our collective efforts.

I am heartened by the advances made so far towards enabling Irish people to apply for E-3 visas. However, the Government is very conscious that the current US domestic political climate around immigration issues and the presidential elections taking place there later this year mean that passing any immigration related legislation will present very significant challenges.

I thank the Taoiseach for discussing the E-3 visa issue during his recent trip and the Tánaiste for his efforts during recent trips to Washington and New York when he also discussed this important matter. I am aware of the difficulties surrounding emigration to America, particularly at this time. It was always recognised by American politicians that Irish people went to America with one thing in mind, which was to work and be valuable contributors to American society. The generations who left our shores made, through their work, a valuable contribution to that society.

I hope political efforts will, eventually, bring the visa issue to a successful conclusion. I look forward to the Government supporting these efforts. Having listened to what the Minister of State said, the Government is being proactive and workmanlike in dealing with this important issue. There have been a couple of slips such as when it was suggested people were leaving the country because of a lifestyle choice. There is no such thing. People do not want to leave. However, if they believe they have to leave in order to seek work, better themselves, keep themselves busy and make a contribution, we should support them in every way possible. I thank the Government for its efforts in this regard.

I reiterate that the Government places importance on addressing the position of the undocumented Irish and reforming our migration arrangements with the United States. In addition to the ongoing political contacts on emigration reform, the E-3 visas in particular, the Government also provides considerable financial support for the invaluable Irish community and welfare organisations which do so much to improve the lives of the most vulnerable members of Irish communities in the United States. In 2012 alone €11.6 million will be provided for organisations and projects aimed at assisting Irish emigrants and communities abroad under the emigrant support programme. The benefits that would derive from the passage of E-3 visa legislation would enhance the flow of migrants between our two countries. They would also create positive momentum and bode well for possible further progress on other wider emigration issues, including those of direct concern to the undocumented Irish. I am very much aware of the difficulties confronting them and the distress that they and their families, in the United States and Ireland, experience as a result of the situation in which they find themselves.

I would urge anyone, however, who might be tempted to follow in the footsteps of the undocumented to take account of their plight and to refrain from seeking entry to the US for work purposes without having first acquired a relevant visa clearance.

I am grateful to the Deputy for his engagement on this issue. The House can be assured that the Government will continue to avail of every opportunity to pursue a successful conclusion to the debate in Congress on the E3 legislation and to find a solution for the undocumented.

Human Rights Issues

I wish to raise with the Minister of State with responsibility for European Affairs, Deputy Lucinda Creighton, the horrific and tragic case in Morocco that came to light recently where a 16 year old girl, Amina Filali, committed suicide after being pressurised by a court, and her mother, to marry her rapist. While the marriage was seen to be required for cultural and religious reasons by some of Amina's family - so as to avoid any damage to the family's honour - the impetus to resolve rape cases in this way is also prompted by an aspect of Morocco's penal code, which allows the rapist of a minor to shield himself from prosecution if he marries his victim. The relevant part of the penal code is Article 475.

Amina's father was against the marriage but was pressurised by the court to agree to it. One can only imagine the psychological trauma visited on the family and the child by having to marry her rapist. After the marriage, she was severely beaten by her rapist and his mother over a period of three and a half months. Then, on the 10 March, she took her life after swallowing 60 cent worth of rat poison. Women's groups in Morocco have been protesting outside the parliament in Rabat calling for an inquiry into the case and for the repeal of Article 475. They rightly point out that, "Marriage is not the solution for a rape, which is a crime", in this case one that went unpunished.

This week we are deciding on whether to introduce gender quotas to improve the participation of women in politics in this country. Our history on the treatment and equality of women is not without blemish; an example of which we heard last week was the matter of symphysiotomy. We have travelled far but we still have some way to go. I respect the fact that we must have due regard to cultural sensitivities and be cautious to avoid the mistakes and evils of colonialism committed by other countries in the past, which were often rooted in arrogance. However, we must be proactive as we owe it to those who are struggling around the world for justice. Poverty and a lack of educational opportunities are at the heart of many such actions, in particular in the case of women. In the midst of our financial and economic difficulties we should be also mindful of the obligations to those living in desperate poverty around the world, in particular to the family that is affected in Morocco.

I urge the Minister of State to call in the Moroccan representative to this country. As a fellow parliamentarian I ask her to indicate our displeasure and to add her voice to a call to have this reprehensible law repealed. Further, as Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs, I urge Deputy Creighton to encourage her European colleagues and the European Union itself to bring to bear as much political pressure as possible on Morocco to repeal a law that provides for a situation whereby a rapist can rape a minor and have an exit strategy as a consequence of a provision in civil law. I find that disgusting and reprehensible. I ask the Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs to take whatever action is necessary on behalf of this country and this House to highlight it to the Moroccan representative in this country and in Europe.

I thank Deputy Keaveney for bringing this horrendous case to the attention of the Dáil. I am sure I speak for everyone in this House in expressing my horror at the details of the case of Amina Filali. As the Deputy correctly pointed out, she was raped and then forced to marry her assailant so as to prevent him from being prosecuted for his appalling and heinous crime. She then suffered severe beating at the hands of the man who raped and subsequently married her. We can have no understanding of the depth of despair that Amina suffered which drove her to take her own life. She was stripped of her rights and punished for the wrongs of her abuser. She was abandoned and neglected by the legal system that should protect vulnerable members of society. She was left without the promise of a future. She was just 16.

Women have played an important role in the momentous changes we have seen across the Arab world in the past 12 months. They have stood shoulder to shoulder with their brothers and husbands and demanded freedom and equality. Their demands extend to gender equality and protection under the law. Strong encouragement must be provided by the European Union and other international actors to ensure real benefits flow for women from the Arab spring and that their overall position is advanced in Morocco and other countries undergoing reform and change.

Morocco has in recent years taken some steps to empower women in Moroccan society. The adoption of the family code in 2004 was a major milestone in improving the protection of women's right in Morocco, including by raising the age of marriage to 18 and prohibiting polygamy. The new Moroccan constitution, which was adopted by referendum last year, has for the first time recognised gender equality. Those are steps in the right direction but it remains clear that Morocco must take further steps to protect women that have been the victims of rape or domestic violence, including the repeal of Article 475 that permits such an appalling miscarriage of justice as was suffered by Amina. Amina's death was a heart-breaking tragedy but it has resonated considerably within Moroccan society and galvanised many Moroccans to seek changes to this draconian law. I fully support the calls of human rights defenders in Morocco and elsewhere seeking an immediate repeal of Article 475 and I also strongly urge the Moroccan authorities to launch a full investigation into the death of Amina and the important issues it raises.

Morocco will undergo the second review of its human rights obligations and commitments as part of the universal periodic review, UPR, process at the next session commencing in May this year. Ireland and our EU partners will engage with Morocco in the course of its UPR on the human rights situation in Morocco, including recommendations on necessary reforms to its penal code to ensure greater protection of women and reforms required to provide greater equality and empowerment of women in Moroccan society.

This country is committed to the achievement of gender equality and the empowerment of women and is involved in a variety of initiatives at international level to this end, such as playing an active role in the negotiation and adoption of resolutions at the UN General Assembly and the UN Human Rights Council aimed at promoting the rights of women and girls. This country was to the fore in promoting the establishment of UN Women, the new UN agency working for gender equality and women's empowerment, and has provided more than €1.8 million since its establishment last year for its work in developing countries.

I thank the Minister of State for her objective, well researched and honest response. I call on her as a fellow Oireachtas Member whom I know shares my concern to call the Moroccan representative in this country to this House. I am sure it is a man; it is hardly a woman.

I have met him already.

I would be grateful if the Minister of State would call the man from Morocco to her office to outline the palpable outrage of decent people in this country who are ashamed that in a contemporary, allegedly civilised society, courts of justice would provide an escape route for rapists to marry their victims to save face for families for cultural reasons. That form of abuse cannot be provided for in any society. I ask the Minister of State who has responsibility for European affairs to take whatever action is necessary to demonstrate with great ferocity our concern. This was an innocent child who, for reasons beyond our imagination, was forced to marry her rapist, imprisoned for three months in an horrific relationship and beaten consistently and her only way out was to take her own life. I ask the Minister of State to call in the officials attached to the Moroccan mission in Ireland and ask what are the plans to repeal this awful law.

I thank the Deputy once again for his contribution. I have no difficulty with either myself or the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade calling in the ambassador. I will discuss the matter with the Tánaiste. As the Deputy correctly states, it is of such grave concern that it behoves the Government to take strong and decisive action. There is no doubt the case has resulted in widespread concern across the international community. In many ways, the case of Amina Filali can be compared with those of Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia and Wael Ghonim in Egypt which have helped to highlight the urgent need for reform and the greater promotion and defence of human rights in countries which are undergoing significant transformation as a result of what has come to be known as the Arab Spring. The important leadership role played by women in advocating for democratic reform and greater human rights has been much commented upon. The Tánaiste referred to the "striking and inspirational" leadership role played by women in the Arab Spring when he addressed the UN General Assembly last September. Ireland has been active in arguing at both EU and UN level that particular attention needs to be paid to promoting and safeguarding women's rights and the position of women within these societies in measuring the changes taking place in those countries in transition. Strong encouragement needs to be provided by the European Union and other international actors to ensure real benefits flow from the Arab Spring for women and their overall position is enhanced.

In the case of Morocco, it is important to note that a process of change has commenced in the wake of the Arab Spring and in response to popular protests which, thankfully, have been peaceful overall. A new government headed by the moderate Islamist Party for Justice and Development, PJD, has taken office following last November's parliamentary elections. A new constitution came into operation last July and King Mohammed VI who continues to exercise much influence in the country has identified judicial reform as one of his priorities, which is to be welcomed.

Ireland, with its EU partners, will continue to strongly encourage Morocco along the path of reform and democratic change. The European Union is engaged in an active human rights dialogue with Morocco as part of the EU-Morocco association agreement. Ireland will seek to ensure these structures are fully utilised in pressing Morocco to do more to improve its overall human rights record and introduce the fundamental reforms needed to prevent human tragedies such as that involving Amina Filali from occurring.

National Asset Management Agency

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for affording me time to discuss this important matter which is of topical interest to many - the need for the Minister for Finance to ensure the scales are balanced in favour of communities, as opposed to developers, under NAMA legislation, giving local authorities or groups priority in the purchase of enterprise sensitive sites and properties to enable and enhance the economic renewal of such areas which have been decimated by the actions of banks and developers. While NAMA has cash reserves of over €4 billion, the country, as we all know only too well, is bankrupt. Strangely, NAMA plays dumb when asked to account for its increasing cash pile.

Prior to the general election the Taoiseach described NAMA as a secret society. Throughout history we have witnessed the destructive power of such societies and this one seems to be able to operate with impunity. Unless there are some checks and balances, NAMA stands to lose sight of its duty to the people. I am delighted that its officials have been called before the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform to account for its stockpiling of money at a time when providing an economic stimulus should be an essential part of its remit.

NAMA's success must mean success for the country in the short term. I speak on behalf of small enterprises throughout Ireland, particularly in my constituency of Longford-Westmeath, which could become local success stories and the driving force behind the economic recovery of their communities which have borne the brunt of the economic downturn, to the detriment of every man, woman and child in them. The fall-out will be felt in towns and villages for generations to come. I am aware that in my constituency there is a groundswell of opinion that NAMA must give local authorities and groups priority in the purchase of enterprise sensitive sites and properties, the retention of which is essential for the renewal of local economies. NAMA must be seen to be supporting the shop-and-work-local principle to aid economic recovery.

While developers rode on the crest of a wave, economies were decimated and businesses went to the wall. Now the balance must swing firmly in the direction of local enterprise, with properties being sold at realistic prices to local businesses and educational and cultural entities. As small and medium concerns are the lifeblood of local economies, developers must not be given priority in the purchase of key local sites. It is strange that NAMA was set up to recover money from developers, yet, from what I hear, they are still actively buying key properties from under the noses of local groups and individuals. Recovering money for the taxpayer is commendable; however, there must be a drip to allow some of the money which has been stockpiled to feed or filter back into the economy through the provision of stimulus packages. However, NAMA seems reluctant to do this. I seek a positive response from the Minister of State.

I thank the Deputy for bringing this issue to the floor of the Dáil.

NAMA has a commercial remit under the National Asset Management Agency Act 2009 and must dispose of assets in a commercial manner in order to repay the loans it has incurred in the acquisition of such assets. However, within the legal and fiscal boundaries in which it must operate and notwithstanding its commercial remit, it plays a role in creating balanced and desirable places to live, with obvious benefits for sustainable social values. It is developing strategies to achieve its objectives, taking account of the need to contribute to the social and economic development of the State in the broader context of the National Asset Management Agency Act 2009. In doing so, it seeks to balance commercial requirements with providing for better social advances in so far as this is possible.

Within the context of its commercial remit, NAMA is at all times open to proposals and actively contributes to public policy processes, aimed at supporting the achievement of wider social and economic objectives. NAMA advises that there are wide-ranging examples of this, including through the agency's engagement with the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government and local authorities regarding unfinished housing estates and the broader issue of social housing provision.

For example, following release of the report of the advisory committee on unfinished housing developments last June, the Minister of State with responsibility for housing established a national co-ordination committee to oversee action on unfinished estates and to monitor and drive progress. NAMA has two representatives on this committee, which meets regularly with the County and City Managers' Association.

The committee has focused its initial attention on the 243 estates categorised by local authorities as the most problematic from a public safety perspective - category 4. It is often assumed that the vast majority of unfinished estates are under the agency's control. However, only 29 - 12% - of category 4 estates are controlled by NAMA debtors or receivers. NAMA is funding, through its debtors and receivers, the cost of urgent remedial work on these 29 category 4 estates, which is estimated at €3 million, and very good progress has been made.

NAMA is also focusing attention on category 3 estates. Some 150 out of 1,500 estates in this category relate to NAMA debtors. Work is ongoing and at an advanced stage in regard to clarifying the status of each site and agreement of plans and timetables for optimum site resolution.

It is important to point out that NAMA's interest in the assets underlying its loan portfolio is that of a lender holding security rather than as an owner, except if a receiver has been appointed to a debtor or where a debtor has given express consent to NAMA. The agency is, therefore, bound by normal rules of banking confidentiality in most cases. This means NAMA, in general, will request debtors to engage directly with relevant groups in cases where a property that may be suitable for use by a public body is brought to the attention of the agency.

In exercising the commitment of the board to offer first option to public bodies, NAMA must be conscious of its overriding commercial remit, and the broader public interest also requires NAMA to maximise receipts for the taxpayer. Only a narrow sectional interest would be served by accepting a reduced price.

In December 2011, NAMA identified more than 2,000 properties as being available for social housing, representing, as the Minister for Environment, Community and Local Government described it at the time, potentially "one of the largest housing allocations made in the history of the State". NAMA is working systematically with local authorities and the Housing Agency to determine the demand and suitability for the identified properties. This work is well advanced and units will be coming on stream in the coming months.

In the context of the NAMA board's stated commitment to offer first option to public bodies on the purchase of properties which may be suitable for their purposes, the agency also advises of additional examples in terms of exploring potential synergies and delivering sites and buildings in respect of schools, health care facilities, including primary health care centres, community and recreational amenities and civil buildings. Towards this end, NAMA advises of ongoing and constructive engagement with the Departments of the Environment, Community and Local Government, Education and Skills, Health, and Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, and with the universities and the HSE, with a view to identifying possible solutions for them. Examples include the provision of sites for the Department of Education and Science, UCD and UCC, and the development of a primary health care centre and ambulance station in Tallaght for the HSE. NAMA debtors are also facilitated in engaging with, inter alia, local voluntary and community organisations and sporting organisations on an ongoing basis in terms of identified land and property that may be suitable for their specific purposes.

It is clear that NAMA is making some progress in meeting the broad social and economic objectives set forth in the National Asset Management Agency Act of 2009 while continuing to seek a commercial return on the properties under its control.

I thank the Minister of State for her comprehensive reply. She referred to NAMA's commitment to offer first option to public bodies on the purchase of properties. It is important that community groups should be included where there is community involvement.

Regardless of whether we like it, NAMA is perceived as being an exercise in cronyism directed at shoring up bankers and property developers who in many cases were the cause of the current economic crisis. Perhaps the Minister of State can confirm or deny a rumour that is circulating, namely, that NAMA properties are being sold back to developers and that the very developers who were responsible for the economic downturn have a less than healthy involvement in the administration of NAMA.

It is the responsibility of every agency in the State to do what is needed to get Ireland back on the road to recovery. NAMA should be playing a greater role and it must explore ways by which it can provide finance for commercial entities and, in particular, small and medium-sized businesses as part of all our efforts to restart the economy and support jobs. It is a role NAMA should play but that is not how its actions are perceived by the public.

I particularly want to see community groups involved. The Minister of State said there was a commitment to offer first option to public bodies but community groups feel they are not getting a fair crack of the whip. In small villages and communities, the option may never arise again for them to avail of such properties if they are, in turn, off-loaded to a developer.

I again thank the Deputy for his contribution and for his constructive suggestions. I will happily pass on his comments on the inclusion of community groups to the Minister for Finance. With regard to his question on whether properties are being sold back to developers, as I said, the details of sales will not be published because of commercial sensitivities, but I am not aware of any such cases. If the Deputy has concerns, he should furnish the details to the Minister for Finance and the issue can be looked at in more detail.

Vatican Report on Child Abuse

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for ensuring this issue would be discussed today. It is entirely appropriate that, following on from the publication yesterday of the Vatican's report into the Catholic Church, the issue would get time on the floor of the Dáil. The publication of this report again brings to the fore the issue and the legacy in our country of child abuse in the relatively recent past.

The Vatican report does not add any new insight, as such, or bring much new to the table in regard to the perspective on child protection. It is, by and large, a report in regard to the future of the Catholic Church and how it is looking to rebuild in the country. The fact it does not bring new light from the perspective of the Vatican will be a source of disappointment to many of the victims of crimes of child abuse over the years. We can never apologise enough or be remorseful enough in regard to those people, and the church can never be remorseful enough to its victims of child abuse in the past.

Despite the fact the report does not bring new information to the table, it very much brings to the fore once again the issue of past child abuse and, in particular, how the State is dealing with child protection today. The Vatican report backs the work of its own National Board for Safeguarding Children and highlights the fact it is satisfied that all reports of child abuse have been reported to the civil authorities in the recent past. However, the responsibility for protecting children lies first and foremost with the State. The publication of the Vatican's report yesterday puts this once again on the agenda.

In that regard, I would like the Minster to update the Dáil on certain issues and also to take up the issue of how we, as a country, are dealing with some of the most important issues of the present. Will the Minister indicate when the report of the Health Service Executive's child protection audit of the Catholic Church will be published? When will the heads of the Bill to implement the Children First guidelines be brought before the Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children? Will the Minister clarify when the referendum on children's rights will take place? Will she also clarify how many of the 62 social workers who were to be recruited last year are in post? The recruitment of these additional staff was initiated to ensure the remaining gaps in the child protection system would be filled. Unfortunately, there was too much foot dragging and lethargy in regard to the appointments. Moreover, the Minister announced on the floor of the Dáil during a recent Question Time that social workers taking early retirement would not automatically be replaced. That is a regrettable decision which flies in the face of the Government's stated intention to make progress in this important area.

In addressing the report of the Vatican, I ask the Minister to update Members on the action being taken by the Government in respect of the important issues to which I referred.

I noted the publication yesterday of the Summary of the Findings of the Apostolic Visitation in Ireland. Like the Deputy, I have had some time to consider the report and its implications as they relate to child protection. There are several important points for us, as a Government and as legislators, to note in respect of the ongoing protection of children in this State. I am extremely aware of the ongoing pain and trauma for victims of abuse. The report states that innocent young people were abused by clerics and religious to whose care they were entrusted, while those who should have exercised vigilance often failed to do so effectively, not least various bishops and religious superiors. This wrong can never be put right. However, placing the protection of children above all other considerations is the most important demonstration step that can be taken.

I endorse the importance of what is in the report in regard to child protection. While much of the report is concerned with the renewal of the Catholic Church, there are important points to note in regard to child protection. In particular, I am pleased to note that the church intends to do further work with victims of sexual abuse. I have no doubt there is scope for such further work. The church can find new ways of engaging so that victims feel heard and have their issues dealt with. I also welcome the commitment in the report to support the work of the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church, to undertake an audit of church personnel files, to ensure the prompt referral of complaints to the civil authorities and to introduce a new programme of training in seminaries on child protection issues. I look forward to hearing how the church intends to progress these issues.

The lessons of the past show us clearly that we can never assume that children are being protected. As such, it is essential that there be robust safeguarding arrangements within all organisations working with children, backed up by a strong statutory requirement to report concerns. From the State's perspective, we must ensure there is no doubt as to the responsibilities of every organisation and individual to protect children and report concerns regarding abuse. To that end, my Department is finalising legislation to place the Children First national guidelines on a statutory footing, legislation which was first promised in 1998. Heads of a Bill for this purpose are being finalised in association with the Office of the Attorney General and will be submitted shortly to the Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children. The Government is determined that the law will unambiguously demand that the protection of children is the paramount concern for all organisations engaged with young people. The Children First guidance will apply to all church organisations, voluntary organisations and sporting and cultural organisations which have direct contact with children.

The Catholic Church must continue to discharge its safeguarding responsibilities, particularly through the important work of the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church. I am pleased to note the visitation report's finding that the norms of the church's Safeguarding Children child protection policy document are being followed. The National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church is engaged in the audit of the implementation of the Safeguarding Children guidelines within the Catholic Church. I strongly welcome the Vatican's endorsement of the work being undertaken by the board and the recommendation that this audit process be conducted in a prompt manner.

I also note the report's recommendation that the board must be adequately resourced and funded to do its work. That resourcing is a matter for the Catholic Church and I welcome the clarity the report has given on the essential need for the church in Ireland both to support and resource the board and to assist and co-operate with it fully in its important work. We have already received the board's audits of the six dioceses. This important visitation for the Catholic Church in Ireland should give a strong impetus to the work of auditing the remaining dioceses and the completion of the Health Service Executive's audit on child protection.

The executive, which has statutory responsibility for child welfare and protection, has conducted an audit into Catholic Church child protection policies and procedures and will present its report to me shortly. I had hoped to receive the report this month, but there has been a request for further time on the part of the church and the HSE due to the volume of work involved. I am happy to allow that time to ensure every opportunity to co-operate is afforded. I expect the finalised report to be delivered to me at the beginning of June. The chief executive officer of the National Board for Safeguarding Children, Mr. Ian Elliott, is working closely with the HSE's national director for children and family services, Mr. Gordon Jeyes, on church child protection matters.

I note the assurances of the archbishops of the visited archdioceses that all newly discovered cases of abuse are promptly brought before the civil authorities. This is in line with the Children First national child protection guidance, which applies to all organisations working with children in Ireland, including religious organisations. There is also an obligation under the Children First guidance to bring knowledge of previous abuse to the attention of the relevant authorities where there has been a failure to do so in the past. I thank the Deputy for raising this issue today and look forward to his contribution on the proposed legislation at the committee.

The Minister's indication that the heads of the Bill to implement the Children First guidelines are expected to come before the Oireachtas committee in the coming weeks is welcome. Unfortunately, on the other three issues I raised - the appointment of additional social workers, the referendum on children's rights and the HSE's audit of the church dioceses - we have thus far seen only procrastination, confusion and indecision. The Minister and her party promised there would be a referendum on children's rights within the Government's first year in office, with an initial undertaking to hold it at the same time as the presidential election. That did not happen. On 16 February 2012 the Minister embarked on a public relations push and announced it would take place this year. However, last week in this Chamber the Taoiseach would not stand by that commitment and instead said there was no timeframe for the holding of a referendum. Yet the Minister was telling the media earlier today that it will take place this year. There is a great deal of indecision and confusion surrounding the matter.

It was announced in December 2010 that the HSE's national child protection audit would be published in the spring of 2011. Following her appointment to office, the Minister announced in July last year that it would be published in September. When I questioned her in early December about the lack of progress, she said it would be published in the spring. Today she is saying it will be done in May or June. The Minister will forgive me if I do not hold my breath in anticipation of a referendum in 2012 or the publication of the HSE audit in May or early June.

I ask the Minister to bring clarity to the matters I have raised. The State must take its responsibilities seriously. It is not acceptable for the Government to continue pushing back dates unnecessarily and offering timelines to which it does not adhere.

The Children First legislation was first promised by the Deputy's own party in 1998 but was not delivered.

Fourteen years ago.

The referendum was first promised seven years ago and was not delivered. The commitment of the Government is to have a stand-alone children's referendum. There has been a Government decision to that effect and it is intended to hold such a referendum this year. As for the precise timing, the Government clearly has a decision to take in respect of a number of referendums. It is in this context that the decision on the precise timing will be taken. As I have explained with regard to the HSE audit, there was a request from the HSE and the church for further time due to the volume of material that was returned in the course of the audit. I agreed to the request from both bodies that this audit be published in June. I gave them the additional time because I considered that to be the best thing to do in the interest of co-operation and of getting a quality report that was able to deal with all of the material and provide an up-to-date position. I understand the intention was for the previous Government to publish it in October 2010. As it was not published then, it is better to wait and have an up-to-date report, which will be available in June.