Sinn Féin has welcomed the publication of the proposed wording of the referendum on children's rights. It has been a long time coming, some 20 years, and is a welcome development. Without doubt, it is a very significant step towards enshrining children's rights in the Constitution. We note that the current text does not mirror the wording agreed to by the cross-party Joint Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children and while the text before us is an important step forward, Sinn Féin will submit amendments on Committee Stage to bring us back closer to the original agreed text. We very much hope the Minister will give these amendments her full consideration and that the Government will not block progressive improvements to the Bill, as it stands.
The true purpose of the Bill is to provide strong protections for children and make a real difference in their lives. Of course, when we talk about children, we mean all of them, from every socioeconomic group and every class. Of course, in this context, we include the children of Traveller families and I am sure the Minister understands why I make that reference in the Dáil this morning. Notwithstanding any amendment to the Constitution, if we do not have a Government-led strategy to tackle the increasing levels of child poverty within society, in the final analysis, the referendum will amount to little more than fine words.
Last week I asked the Tánaiste to commit to child-proofing the budget to be announced in December. As he did not acknowledge my question on that occasion or give a satisfactory response, I want to put the same question today to the Minister with responsibility for children, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald. I want her to give a commitment that she will ensure Cabinet colleagues will child-proof their departmental budget cuts and tax hikes before making any final decision in advance of December's announcement.
The reality of life for many children is a world away from the aspirations in the proposed constitutional amendment. Over 100,000 children live in poverty and this number has increased in recent years as a result of the austerity policies of the Government and, it has to be said, its predecessors led by Fianna Fáil. If the Government or any of us is serious about making paramount the best interests of the child, we need to produce a strategy to end child poverty. In the course of the debate the Minister needs to give a commitment that there will be no measures in the budget which will place even more children in poverty. The charity which deals with children, Barnardos, has warned that further cuts to social welfare and public services will lead to further hardship and greater incidences of poverty and deprivation for children. Some 200,000 children live below the poverty line, an astonishing and shameful statistic, while 500 vulnerable young people were recorded as being homeless on census night in 2011. CSO figures released earlier this month show that the income of households with children fell four times more than that of households without children between 2009 and 2010. Under the Government's watch, sadly, we know these figures will have increased.
An ESRI report published in February on the distributional impact of recent budgets stated clearly that budget 2012 involved greater proportionate losses for those on low incomes, namely, reductions of 2% to 2.5% for those with the lowest incomes, as against losses of about 0.75% for those on the highest incomes. The figures do not lie. Very many people would have been surprised and alarmed to discover that, in fact, that budget had been the most regressive in a long series of austerity budgets. The Government has made a choice. It has sought to protect the highest earners from the worst of the financial crisis. During its short time in office, it has deepened inequality in our society. To put it in very stark terms, this has caused real harm to the most vulnerable adults and children. The ESRI report shows how the Fine Gael and Labour Party budget was the first since the start of the recession that took more from the low paid than those on high incomes. Let us consider this. Again, the figures do not lie.
Recent CSO figures show that almost one fifth of households with children are struggling to survive. In 2010 some 19.5% of households were at risk of poverty. This figure rose to 26% in homes with children aged between 12 and 17 years. The ESRI report tells us that under Fine Gael and the Labour Party this figure will have increased.
Barnardos warns that there are increasing numbers of families for whom some level of social welfare support is essential, simply to make sure there is food on the table and electricity to heat their homes. The Society of Saint Vincent de Paul, which knows all about these matters, has told us that 60% of the calls they receive for support are from mothers with children. The rate of deprivation for our children is higher relative to other countries in western Europe yet, astonishingly, this Government, just like the last, seems intent on deepening this inequality over the course of its tenure.
What does this collection of facts and statistics mean in real terms for real children? What it means for children living in consistent poverty is that they can go 24 hours without a substantial meal and are very often cold because their parents cannot heat their home. Let us imagine that. How are these children supposed to do homework if they are cold or hungry? How are the same children supposed to deal with all the normal stuff of just growing up if they are unsure when their next meal might be? If there is not enough money for food and heat then we can be very sure there is not enough money for increasing school costs, a trip to the cinema, a pair of trainers or a present for a friend's birthday. Those are the realities and in supporting this amendment and indeed, commending the Minister, we as a party are absolutely insistent that the debate around children and their protection cannot be limited to an amendment to the Constitution. We want that made real and the most immediate task, in our view, is addressing the issue of deprivation and poverty.
I am sure it is not lost on citizens or Members of this House that this referendum debate is taking place against the backdrop of the Fine Gael and Labour Party failure to provide an apology and redress for the women and children of the Magdelene laundries and Bethany Home. Both parties, quite rightly, spoke out against these grave injustices when in opposition but in government they have proven very slow to act. The integrity of Senator McAleese is not in question. The work he is doing is a necessary part of the picture but it is not the full picture. The work of the McAleese committee should not be used, as the Government is currently using it, as an excuse not to move forward in the provision of basic supports and services to these women and in the issuing of a full apology to them. The Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Alan Shatter, has repeatedly stated that there is irrefutable evidence of State involvement in these institutions. That is an accepted fact. In fact, legislation was enacted in this very House providing a statutory basis for incarcerating women in a Magdalene laundry in Galway. The evidence is there, in law. It is game, set and match and there is no issue of debate there. It is a nonsense for the Taoiseach and his Ministers to hide behind the interdepartmental committee. They know, I know and the dog in the street knows that the wrong perpetrated by the State, with the connivance of the State, against these women and children is on a par with what happened in the industrial schools.
The Taoiseach's role in government was never to simply pick up where the other crowd left off. He promised it would be different this time around. That is what he said and people believed him. They hoped that would be the case but they have been proven sadly wrong. The only difference, so far, is that it appears that this Government is happy to preside over a situation where the poor get poorer and the ageing wronged still await an apology.
The Fine Gael and the Labour Party failure to protect the elderly women and children of Magdalene laundries and Bethany Home casts a shadow over their Administration. These people were failed by the State and well the Taoiseach knows it. Government inaction deepens the hurt and anguish these people have lived with all their lives. The Government refuses them their pensions, speedy access to medical care and, crucially, access to counselling. The Taoiseach refuses, for reasons that baffle me, to say out loud that we failed these women and for that we, collectively, are deeply sorry. He refuses to tell them they did nothing wrong. These women, so many of whom were only children when sent to the laundries, did nothing wrong. Is it any wonder that people do not trust the State with respect to their children?
Concerns have been voiced about the 50:50 rule with regard to media coverage of referendum debate and speculation has been ongoing in that regard. There are some on the Government benches who believe that when a proposition is put to the people the only argument that should be put forward is the one supported by the Government of the day. A citizen’s vote is the most fundamental tool of democracy and to undermine this in any way by excluding alternative voices would be fundamentally wrong.
Families across the State have very real fears about this referendum. I am picking that up from people and I am sure other Deputies are too. They have experienced and seen at first-hand the failure of the State to protect our most vulnerable children. This failure is not historic but continues to this very day. The report of the Independent Child Death Review Group documented 196 deaths of children in the care of the HSE or who were known to the HSE between 2000 and 2010. That report states that while good practice was adhered to in some cases, its application was sporadic and inconsistent. The authors argued that earlier and more consistent good practice would have increased the chances that these children might have overcome their vulnerabilities. In that regard, it must be said that there is a very clear resourcing issue for those professionals and services that deal with vulnerable young people. People see all of that and they absorb the message it sends to them. The result is that many people do not trust the State to protect our most vulnerable people and in particular, our children.
What should the Government do to allay these fears? I am speaking as someone who will campaign for this referendum and who welcomes it. It is extremely important, in the course of this debate, that we do not dismiss people's worries and fears. They are well grounded in the experiences of children in this State, historically and in contemporary times. We must listen to those anxieties. We must reassure parents that they will remain the primary carers, protectors and custodians of their children and that it is the State's role to support them in that work. We should say to parents that rather than being threatened by this amendment and by the State taking on a responsibility for children, they should draw comfort from the fact that the State commits to intervene, in exceptional circumstances, where there is a clear and present danger to the child or the child is being abused. We are collectively saying that we will not have any more Roscommons.
We accept that it takes a village to raise a child and that we vindicate the rights of child citizens. That should be a source of comfort to parents not a threat, but we must be clear and categoric in our approach and aware of the mistakes that have been made in other jurisdictions - in particular in Britain - and ensure that we do not make the same mistakes.
I make all of those points to underscore the fact that we need a calm and balanced debate. That means we will hear voices and opinions with which we fundamentally disagree. We might even take the view that some of the views expressed are factually inaccurate but that is the nature of democratic debate.
For what it is worth, I call on broadcasters to listen to my appeal-----