Topical Issue Debate

Human Rights Issues

I appreciate this matter being taken. I suppose people around the world were horrified, and rightly so, and condemned this Bill when it was put before the Ugandan Parliament. There were indications that President Museveni might refuse to sign this private members' legislation into law but he appears to have caved in to whatever pressures were in the country. It was interesting that a week before, there was a delegation from Uganda comprising both government and opposition sides and they indicated that this would not be brought into law. I do not know what pressures the Ugandan Government and Parliament are under but there is a right-wing, church-dominated agenda coming from some churches.

Uganda is a partnership country for Irish Aid. Where does that leave our relationship with Uganda? Do we still see Uganda as a reliable partner after the passing of this Bill despite the assurance that it would not pass it and in light of the misappropriation of aid money in 2012? I do not want aid to Uganda to stop but I want to hear what we are going to do. What message is Ireland sending? Will we continue to support civic society in Uganda? The nightmare question for many people was, if this was passed, what would be the roll-out? One newspaper has published up to 200 names to allow people to be intimidated, attacked, etc. What is the next step? It would be interesting to hear the Minister's views on that.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing us to raise this and I thank Deputy Crowe. This is a very controversial piece of legislation. It does not respect the human rights of any person irrespective of their sexuality, particularly the LGBT community in Uganda. Putting aside Africa's views of homosexuality, its religion and ethos, we must examine the human rights perspective. If this Government is serious about the pursuit of human rights, the Bill must be taken up by the Government at whatever level it can be. We are criminalising people who are gay. To quote the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, it is "atrocious". It is driving people underground, further stigmatising gay people and increasing risk-taking behaviour. It is making Ugandan citizens vulnerable. It is inexplicable that a president can do this.

I heard Deputy Crowe. At the Committee of Public Accounts meeting today the Secretary General of the Department of Foreign Affairs, Mr. David Cooney, said it would not be appropriate to cut Irish Aid to Uganda over its anti-gay laws. Part of me agrees with him because it would be penalising people, which we should not do, but this Bill needs to be taken up through us as a parliament with the Inter-Parliamentary Union, IPU, the EU or the UN. It is focusing on discrimination and is completely anti-human rights. Even allowing for the argument about aid, which I do not want to pursue, I hope our Government will pursue this at the highest level.

I am taking this Topical Issue matter on behalf of the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Eamon Gilmore. The passing of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill by the Ugandan Parliament and its subsequent signing into law by President Museveni last week is a very disappointing and unwelcome development. The Tánaiste has made it clear that the enactment of this draconian legislation will affect our valued relationship with Uganda.

The Minister of State, Deputy Joe Costello, in his speech this week to the UN Human Rights Council, highlighted our grave concerns at the enactment of regressive legislation in some countries, including Uganda, affecting the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex, LGBTI, individuals. The Minister of State called on the Human Rights Council to be more vocal as the most basic rights of LGBTI people continue to be violated on a daily basis. This Government has consistently supported the promotion and protection of the human rights of all persons, irrespective of their sexual orientation or gender identity, and is strongly committed to combating all human rights violations committed against individuals on such or any basis. Our commitments in this area are a fundamental feature of our foreign policy and our aid programme.

There is no doubt that this legislation is in clear conflict with Uganda's binding international obligations to uphold human rights. The legislation is in contravention of the principle of non-discrimination in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the African Charter on Human and People's Rights, both of which have been ratified by Uganda, as well as in the Ugandan Constitution. It is the responsibility of the Ugandan Government to uphold its international obligations to treat all citizens equally, regardless of their sexual orientation.

Ireland, together with its EU partners, has been actively engaged with the Ugandan Parliament and President Museveni in efforts to halt this regressive and discriminatory legislation. It is a threat to Uganda's gay community and an affront to all those who value tolerance, respect and dignity of all people. It will also undermine public health in a very practical way, including the efforts to combat the scourge of HIV-AIDS in Uganda. Ireland will continue to play a positive role in support of human rights and equality in Uganda. We will continue to express our support for all human rights activists in Uganda, in particular those working on LGBTI rights. We strongly urge the Ugandan authorities to protect all its citizens against violence, exclusion, discrimination and arbitrary punishment and to abolish all laws that contravene human rights obligations, including this new regressive law.

I would like to emphasise that none of our aid budget is provided by way of direct support to the Government of Uganda, with the exception of the Office of the Auditor General for its important work on fighting corruption. Our support to the poorest and most disadvantaged people in Uganda is provided through trusted non-government channels. In this way, we are directly targeting the poorest and most vulnerable sections of society, be it people living with HIV-AIDS, those experiencing chronic poverty in Karamoja, or those who are being subjected to gender based violence. A review of the future of our partnership with Uganda has been planned in the coming period, and this will provide us with the opportunity to consider what we have achieved so far and how we should work for the benefit of the people of Uganda in the future.

I listened to what the Minister said about this. It is about the health and well-being of the LGBT community in Uganda. A review was going on about the funding that went missing. Will this be part of that ongoing review? Many people are saying this is a game changer, that it changes the dynamic between this country and Uganda. Is that the Government's view? The Minister said the Government is actively engaged with the Ugandan authorities but is that going to make any changes? The Red Pepper published pictures and details of Uganda's "top 200 homosexuals." Is the Government concerned about what will happen to people and about other countries following through on similar legislation?

That is always the danger with regressive legislation like this, as it is not only the impact it will have in the country in question but rather in other countries around the region.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. There is an obligation on the Government to act and there is a similar obligation on us as parliamentarians to ask for a motion before the next meeting of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, as we cannot allow discrimination to continue with regard to sexual orientation. We accept that people have and will be killed as a consequence of this legislation, and I hope the Government can act. I accept the options are limited with regard to aid, and the Minister of State's reply indicates that we cannot necessarily go after some of the programmes, but it is important that on a European Union, United Nations and parliamentary level we do not allow this to become part of a movement across certain continents, as Deputy Crowe indicated. Such a movement could have regressive legislation depriving people of their rights and entitlements.

I agree with Deputies and repeat that this is regressive legislation that is clearly in contravention with Uganda's international obligations in the human rights area. The Bill was introduced to the parliament as a private members' Bill on 14 October 2009 and passed on 20 December 2013. I have indicated that our embassy in Kampala, along with our EU and other partners, have actively engaged with the Ugandan President and Ugandan Government, warning them that the enactment of this draconian legislation will not in any way help relations between Uganda and its international development partners. As I indicated earlier, the Tánaiste has made it clear that the enactment of this draconian legislation will affect our valued relationship with Uganda. We have participated actively in high level discussions within the EU and strong statements have been issued by High Representative Catherine Ashton. The Ugandan authorities have a responsibility to take all necessary action to ensure the principle of non-discrimination is upheld.

On the question of aid, Ireland intends to continue to provide support to the poorest and most vulnerable in Uganda. Our support, as I mentioned, is directed to projects and programmes operated through trusted non-governmental partners. We will continue to work with non-governmental organisation and civil society partners in support of human rights and equality in that country.

Undocumented Irish in the USA

I am glad to be given the opportunity to raise this very important issue at this time. In June 2013, the US Senate passed the most monumental overhaul of US immigration laws in a generation which would clear the way for millions of undocumented residents to have a chance at citizenship, attract workers from all over the world and devote unprecedented resources for security along the US-Mexico border. The vote was 68 to 32, which was a very sizeable margin of victory, with 14 Republicans crossing the aisle to vote with all Democrats in favour of the legislation. That vote puts the onus of immigration reform on the Republican-led House, where leaders have unfortunately been resistant to the Senate legislation.

House Speaker Boehner has refused to bring the Senate Bill to the floor or even go to conference with the Senate. He has stated that reform of the immigration laws will be a priority in 2014 for the House and indicated to USA Today in December 2013 that immigration is next on the agenda, once the Senate passes a bipartisan budget deal for the next two years. Unfortunately, the comments from House Speaker Boehner on 6 February express doubts about progress on this legislation.

The Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform, ILIR, is still fighting for the estimated 50,000 undocumented Irish in the immigration debate. The lobby was set up in December 2005 and it has since held several immigration rallies throughout the United States, along with high profile lobby days in Congress to advocate for our undocumented Irish workers. Irish-Americans from across the US will be out in force in the American capital next Wednesday, 12 March, lobbying for immigration reform during a rally organised by the ILIR. This is specifically aimed at Republican members of the House not in favour of reforming US immigration laws.

It is interesting to note that prior to 1965, the Irish could immigrate to the US freely, with approximately 17,000 doing so on an annual basis. As the House knows, the St. Patrick's Day celebrations are important in celebrating and consolidating links with the United States, and we have been offered that opportunity over many decades. It is also an opportunity to raise the issue of the undocumented Irish at the highest levels of influence in Washington DC. I am glad I have been given the opportunity to raise this issue to establish what progress has been made on advancing the cause of the undocumented Irish in the US. I would like the Minister of State to reassure us this evening that every ministerial visit to the United States would have this on the agenda with different interest groups, members of the US Administration and members in Congress. We must advocate the need to progress the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Bill, as it is critical for so many individuals. There are probably more than 50,000 people and their families affected.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue, which I am taking on behalf of my colleague, the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Gilmore. Immigration reform in the US is an issue to which the Government accords very high priority. We are very conscious of the difficulties experienced by Irish citizens who are undocumented in the United States, and the Tánaiste has met and spoken to many of them during his working visits there, and also with the various groups who lobby on their behalf.

The Tánaiste has maintained contact, both directly and through our embassy in Washington DC, with many key players in Congress who are influential in steering the process of US immigration reform. Over the past six months, both he and embassy officials have had direct contact with some 70 members of the House of Representatives and their staff. These have included Republican Congressman Paul Ryan, chair of the House Budgetary Committee and former vice presidential nominee, Republican Congressman Bob Goodlatte, chair of the House Judiciary Committee and several other leading Republican members of that committee, including immigration sub-committee chairman, Trey Gowdy, Minority House Leader, Nancy Pelosi, chair of the Congressional Friends of Ireland, Pete King, House Speaker John Boehner, and House Majority Whip, Kevin McCarthy, and their staffs. The Tánaiste has also maintained contact with key figures in the US Administration and with Irish-American community representatives. Throughout all these contacts the Tánaiste has reiterated the Government's interest in all aspects of immigration reform and in particular our interest in seeing an overall agreement reached which provides relief for currently undocumented Irish migrants and a facility for future flows of legal migration between Ireland and the US.

I wish to confirm that the issue is one which will again be raised as a priority by the Taoiseach during his forthcoming St Patrick's Day visit to the US and his meetings with President Obama, Vice President Biden and key members of Congress. Other members of Government visiting the US will also raise the issue as appropriate during their contacts. This is particularly important in light of the most recent developments, which indicate that the prospects for passage of immigration reform legislation by Congress this year are not good. The Deputy will be aware that following passage last June of the US Senate Bill - the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Bill - the issue has been under consideration in the Republican controlled House of Representatives.

Public comments and private conversations which the Taoiseach, Tánaiste, members of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, and our embassy officials in Washington DC had with leaders of the House Republican caucus had given rise to expectations that the House would take up consideration of a series of immigration reform bills last autumn. Unfortunately that did not come to pass, as Deputy Smith indicated. Earlier this year, further public comments from House Speaker John Boehner, Majority Leader, Eric Cantor, and Chief Whip, Kevin McCarthy, again raised hopes that the Republican leadership in the House saw the need to proceed with immigration reform. To that end, the leadership prepared a set of draft principles that would guide action on immigration in the House and presented them to the members of their caucus for consideration at a meeting on 30 January. Informed by that discussion, House Speaker Boehner gave a press conference on 6 February in which he expressed doubts that the House would pass immigration reform legislation this year. He did reassert that immigration reform is something that needs to get done and that he would continue to consult his members.

Given that expectations had again been raised, these and other comments are disappointing. However, it is important we keep our focus on the end game. The Government, through our ambassador in Washington DC and her team, is continuing an extensive outreach and engagement with members of Congress and with the Irish groups and organisations lobbying for immigration reform. We are monitoring the ongoing discussions within the Republican Party and continuing to press the case for addressing the concerns of our undocumented and to provide for a future legal flow for Irish immigrants to the United States. As I noted earlier, the forthcoming St. Patrick's Day visits to the United States will provide a further important opportunity to engage with US leaders in support of our immigration objectives and assess the prospects for the weeks and months ahead.

The Government remains fully committed to the effort to achieve an outcome that addresses the needs of our undocumented and creates a legal path for the future.

I am glad that the Minister of State has given us a firm assurance that the Taoiseach and other members of the Government who will be in the United States will take every opportunity to raise at political and official level the need to have this immigration reform passed by the House of Representatives. We must try to ensure this is the year of immigration reform. We all encounter families who have family members in the United States whose position has not been regularised. We need to reassure the undocumented and their family members at home that every effort will be made to find a satisfactory solution. It is not only the emigrants who want their position to be regularised but many employer organisations have spoken out strongly in favour of the proposed legislation. If the Bill was passed, it would provide a path to permanent residency for more than 50,000 Irish people. The proposed E3 visa would provide for future flows of legal migrants between Ireland and the United States. We all know of individuals who have been unable to travel from the United States for family events, celebratory or sad. My constituency has suffered from heavy emigration for many decades. Many speak to me about their concern about a family member whose position has not been regularised in the United States. It is extremely difficult to see elderly parents come to one's clinic concerned that their son or daughter may not be able to visit when the parents are not able, through infirmity or ill health, to travel to the United States. The Minister of State's visit to Philadelphia last year was very successful. I spoke to some of the people he met who told him about the real situation in the United States and the need to advance this important measure.

I thank the Deputy for his insights and input into this important issue. Everything he has said about its importance is correct. In addition to the various contacts the Tánaiste, the Taoiseach, other Ministers and the embassy have had, the Government keeps a close eye on developments and makes its own assessment of the prospects for developments. While the exact shape and form of any movement remains to be seen, House contacts have spoken about a possible "convoy" of Bills on a range of issues such as US border security; individuals brought illegally to the United States as children; visas for agricultural and other temporary workers and, crucially, from Ireland's perspective, the legalisation of undocumented migrants in a manner that would enable them to work in and travel to and from America. The timing and sequencing of such a "convoy" of Bills would be crucial if any overall deal was to be reached. In addition, their handling vis-à-vis upcoming Republican primary contests and-or the November Congressional elections will also be important and could yet determine the ultimate outcome. Congressional contacts have referred to the period from late May onwards as the likely time in which Bills could be taken on the floor of the House.

Treatment Abroad Scheme

I thank the Minister of State for being in the Chamber to respond to this issue.

Alice Turner, Drogheda; Clodagh Daly, County Laois; Robin Smith, Dublin; Merryn Lacy, Bray; and Donal Parsons, Sligo, are infants affected by neuroblastoma. The first time most Irish people heard about this dreadful illness was when Lily-Mae Morrison, the "tiny dancer" from Galway, and her family captured their hearts last year and the year before when raising awareness of the condition and funds for her treatment in the USA. She is doing well. Thanks to the tenacity and determination of her family, friends and supporters across the country, she received the kind of treatment that at least six but possibly ten or 11 Irish children with the same condition need. The families affected by this often extremely aggressive childhood cancer are very grateful for the expert care they have received from, and the commitment shown by, medical staff here. The treatment and support provided are excellent.

A seriously sick child is every family's worst nightmare. Our hearts sink when we hear about a child diagnosed with any life-threatening condition. A diagnosis of neuroblastoma presents a whole new set of challenges for the family affected. It is the natural order for parents to do anything in their power to give their children a shot at life. In the case of neuroblastoma, this can mean having to raise up to $200,000 to meet the cost of getting onto a treatment programme in the United States that has a proven success rate and minimises the often catastrophic risk of relapse. Relapse rates are extremely high; they can be 70% to 80% in cases where the aggressive form of the condition is present. There are strong reports from the United States on the efficacy of this programme and treatment.

I do not have the answers to all of these challenges for families living with this waking nightmare. I do not expect the Minister of State to have the answers, but I appeal to him to find a better, more humane and supportive way for the State to assist these families in spending as much of the precious time they have available with their families, not going from cake sale to coffee morning, from fund-raising gig to table quiz, to ensure their children get the chance every child deserves.

I welcome the opportunity to speak about the condition of neuroblastoma.

Neuroblastoma is a disease in which malignant cancer cells form in nerve tissue such as adrenal gland, the neck, chest or spinal cord. It most often begins during early childhood, usually in children younger than five years of age. Proven treatment regimens for children with neuroblastoma are provided at Our Lady's Hospital for Sick Children in Crumlin, the centre for paediatric oncology services. Treatment for neuroblastoma involves a number of diagnostic and treatment approaches which include surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

Under the treatment abroad scheme, the Health Service Executive, HSE, provides the cost of approved treatments in another EU or EEA member state or Switzerland. The application to refer a patient abroad must have been assessed and a determination given before the patient travels abroad. To qualify for the treatment abroad scheme, the treatment must be medically necessary and meet the patient's needs. In addition, it must be a proven form of medical treatment that is not experimental.

Ireland has focused on improving the quality of cancer services through reorganisation and expansion. The overall approach is set out in the strategy for cancer control. Great improvements have been made in cancer diagnosis and treatment. We have moved from a fragmented system of care to one that consolidates cancer treatment, with multidisciplinary care and decision-making. Survival rates for all cancers are rising. The five year survival rate has increased to 56.4% for people diagnosed between 2003 and 2007. It was 49.6% for those diagnosed between 1998 and 2002. The full impact of the reforms in cancer care should, in time, further improve survival rates.

I acknowledge that parents of children who have been diagnosed with neuroblastoma, or any other serious illness, will be concerned that their children receive the best care and treatment. I am informed by the HSE that Our Lady's Children's Hospital in Crumlin provides proven treatment regimens for children with neuroblastoma which are of a world class standard.

Children are treated there according to the European neuroblastoma protocol, which incorporates all available therapies. There is no other recognised proven treatment anywhere in the world. In the last year, a new phase two trial has been opened in Our Lady's hospital and staff and experts operate proactively in this field in a structured and ethical way. The ongoing developments in this field are clearly welcome and we will do all we can to support the parents and families of young children with neuroblastoma.

The reason I raised this issue is because I have seen the direct impact on two families in Drogheda and Galway whom I know very well. The way in which the community in Drogheda has responded has, like other communities across the country, been phenomenal in terms of fund raising and the staff who provide the treatment regimen in Crumlin are a credit to the health service.

However, I raise the issue because I get the sense that diagnoses of this condition are on the rise. It is legitimate to inquire into how the State intends to manage neuroblastoma if it is becoming more prevalent. Funding will be particularly challenging in the absence of a comprehensive strategy on the part of the HSE to provide new or evolving treatments. The Minister of State will be aware of the types of treatment currently available in the United States. Many of these treatments are still under trial but their efficacy has been well proven. It has been drawn to my attention that a number of treatments have success rates of 100% in dealing with recurrence or relapse. It is imperative that the Department of Health and the HSE develop strategies and support mechanisms for families who are currently compelled to raise significant funds to give their children the best chance at life.

Deputy Nash is correct in regard to the improvements that have been made in diagnosis and survival rates. We are focusing on improving the quality of cancer services through reorganisation and expansion. Previously we had a fragmented system but we have consolidated cancer treatment in eight designated cancer centres, not including Crumlin, with multidisciplinary care and decision making. Given the time required to achieve full national roll out and rapid access clinics in designated centres, the full impact of the establishment of the national cancer control programme and the introduction of cancer screening programmes will not be realised until we evaluate five year mortality rates for patients diagnosed from 2012 onwards. There are enormous opportunities in this area but they bring with them the kinds of challenges that Deputy Nash outlined. We will do all we can to assist families and provide cancer diagnosis and treatment at the highest international standards.

School Enrolments

Deputy Eoghan Murphy has tabled the next matter to discuss with the Minister for Education and Skills the increase in demand for primary school places in September 2014 in Dublin South East.

I understand it is in order for me to request that the matter be deferred until the Minister for Education and Skills is available to take it. I am not trying to be difficult or infer that the Minister of State, Deputy White, is not capable of replying but I understand the Minister wants to discuss the issue and it pertains to his constituency.

The Deputy's request is covered by Standing Order 27A(2), which states:

Provided further that where, in exceptional circumstances, the member of the Government or Minister of State officially responsible for the matter is not available on the day, the available member of Government or Minister of State shall so inform the member who has given notice immediately prior to the taking of the matter. The available Minister shall also inform the member who has given notice of the date on which the officially responsible member of the Government or Minister of State will be available. The member who has given notice shall then be given the option to—

(a) defer consideration of the matter to the day on which the officially responsible member of the Government or Minister of State will be available, when it will be the first matter to be taken, or

(b) proceed with the matter on the day with the participation of the available member of the Government or Minister of State;

I ask the Minister of State, Deputy White, to specify the day on which the Minister will be available.

The Minister, Deputy Quinn, will be available to take the matter next Tuesday, subject to it being selected by the Ceann Comhairle.

The matter will be taken next Tuesday as the first item.

The Dáil adjourned at 5.15 p.m. until 10 a.m. on Friday, 6 March 2014.