Thirty-fourth Amendment of the Constitution (Economic, Social and Cultural Rights) Bill 2014: Second Stage [Private Members]

Tairgim: "Go léifear an Bille an Dara hUair anois."

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I thank Deputy Seamus Healy for allowing this Bill to be taken in his allocation of Private Members' time within the Technical Group. Apart from the elite few, no one has escaped austerity. It has invaded every home, every classroom, every hospital and all our public services. Homelessness has reached more families than ever before and our health care system is crumbling. Job opportunities have reduced while work conditions have declined and our front-line services have been stretched so far beyond their limits that we may never know the full extent of the consequences. For the unfortunate few, economic recovery will never reach them.

The Government's sole focus on fixing an economic deficit has left us with a social one. Now, amid some vague signs of economic recovery we need to ensure that resources are fairly distributed in the future. The call to enshrine economic, social and cultural rights is a timely one. A new Government will sit across this Chamber, regardless of its composition, by the spring of next year. We want that Government to be held accountable to its citizens as it reconstructs our future. We want to ensure that everyone has enough to live a dignified life.

When Bunreacht na hÉireann was written in 1937 it was progressive in its time in its consideration of fundamental rights, having been written only 11 years before the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Today, only civil and political rights are adequately considered in our Constitution, for example, the right to privacy and family life, while there is limited provision for economic, social and cultural rights in Bunreacht na hÉireann.

The proposed wording of this Bill is intended to be in addition to the text of Article 45 of the Constitution to the effect that the State shall progressively realise, subject to its maximum available resources and without discrimination, the rights contained in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and that this duty will be cognisable by the courts.

The international covenant presents economic rights as entailing the right of everyone to the opportunity to gain his or her living by freely chosen or accepted work and to just and favourable conditions of work. Social rights are expressed as the right to social security, protection and assistance of the family; the right of everyone to an adequate standards of living for them and their family, including food, clothing and housing; the continuous improvement of living conditions and the right to be free from hunger; the right of everyone to the highest attainable standards of physical and mental health; and the right of everyone to an education. Cultural rights would protect the right of everyone to take part in cultural life, to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and to benefit from the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he or she is the author.

Enshrining these rights in the Constitution would bring it into line with the growing trend in many countries that have revised their constitutions to include economic, social and cultural rights. Twenty-six EU states have made some form of constitutional provision for economic, social and cultural rights. Internationally, 106 constitutions protect the right to work and 133 constitutions provide the right to health care.

Ireland is at the cusp of cultural and social change. People are calling for a more social justice-led future and an expansion of the protections of human rights. There is political will in recognising these rights in our Constitution.

In February 2014, 85% of the members of the Constitutional Convention voted in favour of amending the Constitution to strengthen the protection of economic, social and cultural rights. A majority of members of the convention voted in favour of a constitutional provision to progressively realise such rights, subject to the maximum available resources, and to enshrine that this duty be cognisable by the courts. The convention further voted on whether specific additional rights should be enumerated in the Constitution and it voted in favour of a proposal that all of the rights contained in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, be enumerated within the Constitution.

In March 2014, the Constitutional Convention sent a recommendation to the Government to implement these rights and the Government was due to respond by July of that year. Nearly a year later we are still waiting for a response from the Government to proactively address the status of these rights.

Political will extends to the current Government too. The Labour Party introduced two Private Members' Bills on this issue - one by Deputy Ruairí Quinn in 2000 and the second more recent one by Deputy Kevin Humphreys in 2012. Prevailing myths and misconceptions about economic, social and cultural rights, combined with a lack of real political will, have hindered their application in Ireland but these misconceptions do not stand up. The idea that ESC rights are only aspirations and not intended to be part of our judicial system is misconceived. Decisions in courts in other countries have proven time and again that these rights are legally enforceable. These rights have been recognised through a wide range of legal systems found but not limited to Finland, Germany, Latvia, Portugal, Argentina, South Africa, India, Brazil, Kenya, Colombia and Mexico.

Rights currently protected, such as freedom of expression and the right to privacy, are as broadly worded as economic, social and cultural rights but this has not prevented the courts from adjudicating these issues.

Another misconception is that ESC rights would threaten the separation of powers, do not belong in the courts and should be left to the Legislature to execute. The fear is that elected governments and parliaments would not be free to allocate resources as they see fit. The concern extends to the belief that judges would be extending their role if these rights had to be defended in court and that policy-making should be left to the elected policy-makers, the Government. However, a large body of case law on ESC rights has emerged from countries such as South Africa and shows that courts have remained conscious of their role when adjudicating ESC rights claims. A reasonableness doctrine was incorporated and has been held in court proceedings.

A third myth is that the State would not have the necessary resources to enforce ESC rights, whereas it may for civil and political rights. This is misleading. Currently, civil and political rights may require expenditure of resources such as court costs, policing and the provision of legal aid. Many ESC rights would save the Exchequer costs, such as the prevention of forced evictions.

A fourth myth is that civil and political and ESC rights impose different sets of obligations and that ESC rights are consistently defined as positive rights, requiring the State to act to achieve the enjoyment of these rights. Again, this is not accurate.

This Bill does not propose a cure for all social ills. This will not happen overnight and we have to be reasonable. These rights may not translate into an Act, a statutory instrument or even a circular but will compel decision-makers to vindicate these rights as far as they can. There is an underlining fear that these rights, if implemented, would bankrupt the nation or force the Government to take drastic measures to realise them, but this is not the case. It will not mean that overnight the Government must buy everyone a home. Progressive realisation is the key term. The courts can apply principles of proportionality and weigh these up against other policy considerations while the Government can take into consideration the available resources. For example, if the right to housing was introduced, it would not mean a person would be given a house but it would mean that when the Government is drafting housing policy or legislation, it would have to take into account and be aware of the right to housing. At present, people can only argue their case on the basis of peripheral issues such as unfair discrimination in procedures or the right to appeal decisions. They cannot target the fundamental issue of their right to adequate housing. This intended to hold governments to account and not dismantle them so that if they do not have the resources, they will at least have to show how they came to the conclusions they have reached. The phrase, "subject to its maximum available resources" in the text emphasises this aspect. These rights are intended to define the parameters by which Government can draft policy in economic, social and cultural areas causing a trickle-down effect into every level of power.

The context is ripe for constitutional change. The Government effectively announced the end of austerity, from its point of view, in its recent spring economic statement. The Constitutional Convention, designed by the current Government, supports this change. Internationally, Ireland is a key speaker on human rights on the international platform and, through our long history working with developing countries in times of humanitarian crisis, we have consistently emphasised the importance of human rights. In June the UN expert committee will objectively respond to submissions sent in by civil society organisations in Ireland. It is likely to reveal what we have always held that the Government has failed to use the recession to justify the failure to protect and progress human rights in Ireland and that there were disproportionate cuts to certain sectors while human rights obligations were not taken into account sufficiently. It will show that certain groups were not adequately protected, such as people with disabilities, carers, elderly people, lone parents and minority groups, that is to say, people who were vulnerable to begin with.

The general election is around the corner. This presents an opportunity for those currently in power to observe what people in Ireland really want from the next Government. The 1916 centenary early next year will be cause for reflection for everyone in the county. We will be looking across the spectrum of the 100 years it has taken for this country to be where it is today. Will we be nostalgic or proud? I urge the Government to take a look around, observe the political context in which it finds itself and respond to the will of the people by supporting this Bill. It has supported these principles before and has even pushed for similar Bills in the past. There is no logical reason the Government would not vote in favour of this Bill. However, if it does, it will have to justify its priorities once again.

I wish to take this opportunity to thank Deputy Seamus Healy for using his Private Members' time to allow me to introduce this Bill. I thank Nick Henderson and Amnesty International. They have done major work in this area. I also thank Aiden Lloyd, chair of the economic, social and cultural rights initiative, and all the organisations which have been involved in the initiative for pushing for these rights to be recognised into Irish law. Lastly, I thank Ms Maeve Regan of the Mercy Law Resource Centre, whose work as a lawyer has provided clear examples of the need for economic, social and cultural rights in order that people can defend their right to housing.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important legislation, the Thirty-fourth Amendment of the Constitution (Economic, Social and Cultural Rights) Bill 2014. I compliment Deputy Pringle on bringing forward the Bill. Like Deputy Pringle, I compliment the work of the economic, social and cultural rights initiative, a coalition of 60 non-governmental organisations and community groups. The groups include Amnesty International and the Mercy Law Resource Centre, under the chair of Aiden Lloyd, who has been advocating for justice and constitutional protection of economic, social and cultural rights for some time. I thank them for their input to this Bill and the debate.

The purpose of the Bill, as Deputy Pringle said, is to amend Article 45 of the Constitution by adding to the end of that article a provision stating that the State, "shall progressively realise, subject to its maximum available resources and without discrimination, the rights contained in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and that this duty is cognisable by the courts". Specifically, these rights include: the right to work; the right to just and favourable conditions of work; the right to form trade unions and join trade unions of choice; the right to social security; the right to the widest possible protection and assistance for the family; the right to an adequate standard of living for the family, including adequate food, clothing, housing and the continuous improvement of living conditions; the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health; the right to education; and the right to take part in cultural life.

It has been almost 40 years since Ireland ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 1976 but these rights have still not been enshrined in our Constitution. In fact, since 1976 the UN committee responsible for the implementation has written to the Government on numerous occasions asking that this measure be implemented. As signatories to the UN International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights we are obliged to respect, protect and fulfil these rights.

Bunreacht na hÉireann was drafted and approved at a time when economic, social and cultural rights had not achieved the recognition and profile they now enjoy regionally, in international human rights instruments and in other constitutions throughout the world. In Article 45 of the Constitution relating to directive principles of social policy, the drafters of Bunreacht na hÉireann set out their broader vision for social policy and a fair and equal Irish society by declaring: "The State shall strive to promote the welfare of the whole people by securing and protecting as effectively as it may a social order in which justice and charity shall inform all the institutions of the national life." While our Constitution protects, to some extent, some economic, social and cultural rights generally, including rights relating to employment law, housing law, social security and social assistance, these are not enshrined in our Constitution. Furthermore, although the courts have confirmed that a limited number of these rights are protected under the Constitution, they have stopped short of recognising further far-reaching socio-economic rights, such as the right to an adequate standard of living, as implicit in the Constitution. On a basic level this means that if any of these rights are violated, there is no effective legal remedy.

The Constitution is the fundamental legal document of the State. It sets out how Ireland should be governed and the rights of its citizens. The Constitution should give explicit recognition to all human rights. Article 45 provides us with a general aspirational comment about policy but only the Oireachtas is entitled to decide how these rights are implemented.

By enshrining these rights in the Constitution, we would ensure that the rights of the citizens of Ireland are above the politics of the day, and that every Government of Ireland delivers on its obligation to respect, protect and fulfil these rights as best it can within the means available to it. Inserting these rights in the Constitution would make governments more accountable to citizens and make justice more accessible to them. It is hoped that these new rights would lead to the creation of a fairer and more equal society. In particular, it would strengthen the rights of the most vulnerable and ensure basic minimum standards for all members of society.

The citizens of Ireland, as represented by the Convention on the Constitution, overwhelmingly recommended that these rights should be enshrined in the Constitution in its report of February 2014, and I want to add my voice to that. There is also public support for the introduction of these rights but, of course, we are still waiting for the Government to respond to the Constitutional Convention's report on these rights. There is even the political will for the introduction of these rights. As Deputy Pringle said, Deputy Ruairí Quinn introduced a Bill like this in 2000 and, more recently, Deputy Kevin Humphreys introduced a very similar Bill in 2012. The Government will this evening have an opportunity to show its support by voting with Deputy Pringle on this Bill.

On Friday, people are being asked to engage in what I would deem a very meaningless exercise, by which I mean the referendum on reducing the age of eligibility to stand for president to 21 years. It is a nonsense. Everybody knows this is a sop to the Constitutional Convention, although many involved in the Constitutional Convention would not support this referendum at this time. There is no way anyone in their 20s will receive the necessary nominations through the political system in order to be able to stand, and that is a fact.

It would have made much more sense to put the amendment which is proposed in this Bill to a referendum at this time. After all, 85% of the convention delegates supported the idea of putting the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights into the Constitution. An amendment along these lines could make differences to people's lives. For example, Article 7 of the covenant refers to a decent living for people and their families. Having this in the Constitution would assist those campaigning for a living wage of €11.25 an hour, would assist in the struggle against zero-hour or low hour contracts, would assist in protecting single parents who are facing cuts in their income this July and would lend itself to the struggle against precarious employment. Article 11 recognises the right to an adequate standard of living, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and continuous improvement in living standards.

Such rights in the Constitution would clash sharply with evictions and with the austerity measures which have massively increased poverty and deprivation in our society. The right to free education, dealt with in Article 13, clashes with third level fees and the cost of sending children to school at all levels in our society. The state of the health services, especially our mental health services, hardly matches up to requirements of the covenant on health.

This raises the question of whether the reluctance of the Government to put this forward in a referendum is due to the problem it might pose for the type of economy and society the Government is pursuing. This is a low pay, low tax, low social services, neoliberal model of the future. In 2013, Portugal tried to implement a budget which was being forced on it by the troika but the Portuguese court was able to protect certain sections of society. The court rejected a number of measures in the 2013 budget relating to cuts in state pensions and public sector pay, as well as cuts in sickness and unemployment benefits, while upholding a tax surcharge and a cut in overtime pay rates for public sector workers. The court also struck down a number of the articles of a Bill which would have been made it easier to lay off civil servants, holding that it violated the principle of prohibiting dismissal without just cause, the principle of proportionality in regard to the restriction of the right to employment security and the principle of trust. On the latter, cuts to civil service pensions provided in the 2014 budget were also struck down on the same basis, namely, that they had affected aspects of social, economic and cultural rights.

While supporting the Bill, I want to make some more general points in regard to the Constitution. To come back to the point I made earlier, the referendum on the age reduction for President is not seen as serious. When one talks to anyone on the doorsteps, they are not interested in it as it does not impact on their lives in any shape or form. Unfortunately, I think it will be resoundingly defeated and, in the process, it will increase the cynicism of people in regard to politics.

We need to stop making piecemeal changes to a Constitution which is clearly not fit for purpose in today's society. If we need to have at least one or two referenda every year, something is wrong. We should have an elected convention reflecting the different strata and age groups in society, with a mandate to draw up a new constitution. This should reflect not the 1930s and an emphasis on the rights of the Catholic Church, private property and the State but society and its needs today, with an emphasis on the common good and the rights of citizens. We do not need to have everything under the sun in a constitution. It can be shorter, simpler and more suitable to a democratic, secular republic in the 21st century.

I fully support this Private Members' Bill and I thank Deputy Pringle and Deputy Healy for putting it forward. I see no reason for the Government not to accept it and not to try to do something before the next election, although I think that is highly unlikely. However, I would welcome it if the Government could accept it. The Labour Party has put this forward twice in the last decade. We would expect the same people who advocated it to accept it at this stage in the Dáil.

I want to thank the Chair for the opportunity to speak on this excellent Bill. I will be strongly supporting the legislation as it sets out a clear plan for the future of this country, its citizens and, more importantly, the whole area of equality and the urgent need to end the divided society of this country. Over the past few years, we have had an obsession with fiscal matters and not enough of a response to the effects on broader society. I want to commend Deputy Thomas Pringle, Deputy Seamus Healy and Amnesty International for their vision, leadership and courage on this matter, and also for setting the agenda in regard to changing and improving the rights of our citizens. Once again, we can see the Independent Deputies in Dáil Éireann putting forward alternatives to the stale policies of all of the major political parties.

I strongly support the adoption and application of economic, social and cultural rights, which are fundamental to the creation of a more just, inclusive and socially sustainable society. As matters stand, many of these rights cannot be vindicated because they are insufficiently incorporated into the Constitution. That is exactly what this legislation is about and exactly what we need to focus on.

Before I go into the details of the Bill, I want to respond to what is happening today in our own country in the whole area of cultural rights, for example, with the visit of Prince Charles. I am all for peace and reconciliation but I do not buy into the gushing that is going on today about Prince Charles. As a democrat and somebody who believes in a republic, I do not buy into the whole issue of monarchy and privilege. There are many citizens in England, Ireland and Scotland who disagree with that whole element of privilege. It is time our politicians, Ministers and leaders stopped gushing and tipping the cap to these types of people. I am all for reconciliation. However, if we want to have peace and reconciliation, let us go for a pint with our Northern Unionist friends. For example, years ago, Shelbourne Football Club used to host Linfield Football Club. Many is the night in Tolka Park I had a pint with people from the Northern Unionist tradition. Let us go up to the North and invite them down. We do not need a monarch to preach about reconciliation. We will do this and we have been doing this. Let us not be divided on these issues. I mention this in terms of the kind of society and country I want to live in.

Let us get back to the context of this legislation and let us bring it into the real world. Only last week, when I talked about the rights of people with a disability, I asked both the Minister for Education and Skills and the Minister for Health whether they would provide an extra €1,000 to help a young adult with Down's syndrome complete a course in Trinity College.

I have the response from the Minister for Education and Skills, who is a member of the so-called inclusive Labour Party. She stated, "I also understand that the officials from the Department of Health and the HSE are not in a position to provide funding for this course." I hope the Bill puts the rights of such people first. It is a national scandal that €1,000 to fund a course for young adults with disabilities cannot be found.

There are 27,256 people with intellectual disabilities in the State. Some 2,271 people are looking for residential places and 197 need a day care place. These are the issues on which we should focus. Will the Bill guarantee the rights of such people? I have an open mind, but it will ensure there is pressure to deliver services for them. The reality for people with disabilities over the past four years has been unprecedented cuts to supports that enable them to live independently, such as the mobility allowance, the motorised transport grant, medical cards, home helps and the respite care grant.

The Government tried to scrap the personal assistant service, but reversed the decision because disabled people turned up out outside the gates of Leinster House. These cuts breach Article 19 of the obligations of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities. These are the kind of issues that we need to address.

On equality, the OECD, the World Bank, the IMF and TASC recently said, "Gross income inequality is growing and...this has been identified as a serious impediment for future economic growth." Even if one did not believe in people's rights, such an approach will damage economic growth. There is an economic argument for vindicating rights.

The purpose of the Bill is to amend Article 45 of the Constitution by adding to it a provision contained in the Schedule, namely, "That the State shall progressively realise, subject to its maximum available resources and without discrimination, the rights contained in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and that this duty be cognisable by the courts." I urge all Deputies to support the Bill and commend Deputies Pringle and Healy for showing vision and courage and setting out an agenda for the future and for the rights of people in the State.

The fact that we are discussing this Bill today is a tribute to Deputies Pringle and Healy, but is also indicative of the uselessness of this House. Ireland ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 1989. It is a covenant that sets out rights and states that our State has a duty to respect, protect and fulfil them. It is now 2015. Let us consider those rights. They are hardly the most outrageously radical issues which people could put forward. They include things like the right to an adequate standard of living, including food, clothing and housing, the right of everybody to freely chosen work and decent working conditions, the right to form and join trade unions and rights to health care, social security and education. They are core issues which many people thought were resolved years ago and they form the backbone of many people's lives.

The reality is that they are not being delivered by this State. Therefore, I am not surprised that the Government is wavering on this Bill, although we do not know what it will do. The fact that the Bill is being moved is incredibly timely because of values and how society is measured. It is measured in terms of things like growth rates, inflation, deficit balancing, debt:GDP and all the rest. Where are the old standards that were put forward, such as the right to an education for children to reach their full potential? People had a right to a roof over their heads. We live in a city where a homeless man died on the street before Christmas. There are hundreds of thousands of people on housing waiting lists. People who thought they owned their houses are being turfed out of their properties which are being repossessed by the banks.

The idea that if one is sick one can access health care is under question as the Government is moving to undermine PRSI contributions paid by people during a lifetime of work. It is instead frog-marching us into a universal health insurance scheme. The idea that one would have a pension when one retired, a secure, permanent, pensionable job, sick pay or a holiday are, to be quite honest, things we will have to explain to our children.

The reality is that our society is moving backwards because these issues were not rights that were guaranteed by the State but rather they were hard fought for by citizens who went before us. The Government, and governments across Europe, have used the economic crisis to try to take back those gains. It is an obscenity that we live in a time where humankind has at its hands more resources than ever before and we have the potential to give people a decent standard of living and yet conditions are disimproving. Our children face the prospect of being the first generation to be poorer than their parents, which is an indictment of the Government and others across Europe.

It is not surprising that there has not been a move to incorporate these rights in our Constitution and legislation, because those in power have never been without those things. They do not know what it is like not to have a roof over one's head or a secure, permanent, pensionable job. That is the reality.

The Deputy presumes to know, through that statement, what our personal experiences are.

Methinks the Minister of State protests too much. He might like to wait until I finish.

The Deputy should withdraw that statement. It is ludicrous.

Is the Acting Chairman going to chair the debate?

One speaker for the moment, please.

Do not presume to know what our personal experiences are on this side of the House.

I am absolutely delighted. The Labour Party's conscience is awake. It stood over the butchering of living standards of citizens across the State.

This is pure nonsense.

The rich in this society are far richer than they were before it took office. How dare the Minister of State cast aspersions at people in this House. His record stands before him.

Do not presume to know what our personal experiences on this side of the House are.

The Minister of State will have an opportunity to respond.

I am asking the Minister of State to account for his personal actions and for what he has stood over in government.

I will give the Minister of State an opportunity to respond to all comments.

If it was another Deputy, he or she would be thrown out.

It is incredibly ironic that we are talking about cultural and democratic rights and we have a Minister of State who cannot keep his tongue in his mouth for the amount of time he is supposed to be sitting in the House.

That is because I am listening to rhetorical nonsense.

It is akin to the fact that-----

Give me some solutions.

The Minister of State will have an opportunity to respond to all matters.

He has just been presented with a Bill that he supported years ago.

It is absolutely outrageous and does not do the Minister of State any great credit. It is pretty poor of him.

Deputy Daly should read back on what she said in the Official Report later on.

The economic facts speak for themselves. We live in a society where citizens went to the ballot box.

I will draw the attention of the Ceann Comhairle to the Official Report of the House.

Many of them put an X beside Labour Party Deputies because they were told if they voted for them, they would cushion them from the worst excesses of Fine Gael. What they got was a reality that was dramatically different from that scenario.

I am obliged to remind the Deputy that we are speaking on the Bill.

The reason it was able to get away with it is because we do not have a proper system of democracy or democratic or political rights here. People get a chance to put a vote in a ballot box and elect people who enter office and do the opposite of what they promised. That is why we need to enshrine these rights in our Constitution or legislation, in a similar fashion to the right to education. It does not mean that people get such rights but rather it means that sometimes they can go to courts to try to exercise those rights for their children. That is something that will give them a greater tool in their armoury when they are trying to stand up and fight for their rights in this country. The facts and economic statistics prove why that is necessary under this Government.

Constitutional reform was very much on the agenda in 2011 when we had an election but we have not seen a whole lot of it. Despite the Constitutional Convention voting by 85% in favour of incorporating economic, social and cultural rights into our Constitution, there does not seem to be much of an appetite for real change. Ireland has ignored the recommendations of international bodies such as the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Council of Europe committee on social rights to formally adopt or incorporate the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

According to Article 45 of the Constitution, "The principles of social policy set forth in this Article are intended for the general guidance of the Oireachtas. The application of those principles in the making of laws shall be the care of the Oireachtas exclusively, and shall not be cognisable by any Court under any of the provisions of this Constitution." Just like our stance on neutrality, the protection of economic, social and cultural rights, which incorporate housing, labour and health rights, is left up to the policy makers and the Government of the day. Enshrining these rights in our law would mean any decisions the Government would make would have to contribute to the delivery of these rights and guarantee to the best of its ability an adequate standard of living for everyone.

The general thrust of this Government over the past four years and of the Government before it has been neoliberal in nature. The neoliberal ideology is dominant in much of the developed world at the moment and, sadly, we too have gone along with it. I just mentioned the three areas of housing, labour and health rights. I tried to raise a few issues on housing today during Leaders' Questions but unfortunately I had my microphone cut off twice. I was probably trying to say too much. The problems resulting from the housing crisis are indicative of where we are as a society and how we organise it given that the Government is trying to address the crisis through the private sector rather than the public sector. The neoliberal philosophy dictates that the private sector be facilitated at every turn and this is the dominant trend of the latest so-called housing strategy.

Last year, 338 women and 259 children in Wexford were turned away by the women's refuge centre. While we realise that domestic violence is something terrible, the fact that so many women and children have presented themselves at the women's refuge centre is linked to the housing crisis. They do not have anywhere to go. The housing is not there for them and, very often, the private sector does not want to entertain people who depend on rent supplement. I have two cases, one of which I mentioned earlier today. A woman with eight children is on the waiting list in Wexford for a four-bed house since 2000, 15 years ago. This is not the fault of the local authority because it cannot build the houses if central Government does not give it the money to do so. A woman approached me last night at a meeting in Wexford. She said she has six kids and is renting in the private rental market. She gets €575 in rent supplement, which goes to the landlord, and she tops this up because it is not enough rent for him. She is there two years and has a contract for five but he wants her out. The council has no place to put her. What is going to happen to her? Is this a fair system? Are we organising housing in a fair way?

The rent supplement scheme and the reliance on the private sector will mean that those with private rentals can cherry-pick their tenants and the worst of their apartments, the ones in the poorest condition and in the poorest of areas, will be all those who depend on rent supplement will have access to. What does this do for our society? Does it tackle inequality or enshrine it in the way we do things? I do not think this is a very difficult question. It is a huge indictment of the coalition that inequality has risen in its time in office.

I call the Minister of State who has 30 minutes.

Deputy McGrath may heckle away.

Let me say in the first instance that I recognise the purpose behind the Bill proposed by Deputy Pringle and welcome the opportunity to debate the issues. While I oppose the Bill I would like to assure the Deputies that the Government is fully committed to economic, social and cultural development within Ireland through the annual allocation of moneys and resources via the Oireachtas and also in the context of international co-operation.

As Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, I would like to begin by setting out our commitment to human rights in the international context. At the end of this year, Ireland will conclude a three-year term on the UN Human Rights Council. On the council, Ireland has worked to promote and protect the human rights of all people, particularly the marginalised and most vulnerable. I am particularly proud of the resolutions we led on combatting preventable mortality and morbidity of children under five years of age. The promotion and protection of human rights is one of six priority areas within our international development policy. Ireland remains committed to achieving the UN target of 0.7% of GNP in official development assistance as our economy improves.

We give particular importance to the role of the UN human rights treaties monitoring bodies. In 2014, Ireland's record under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights was examined by the UN Human Rights Committee, a body of independent experts elected by those countries that have ratified that convention. Ireland's delegation was led by the Minister for Justice and Equality. Next month, on 8 and 9 June, Ireland's examination under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights will be examined by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. I will lead a delegation which will be composed of officials from my Department and from the Departments with responsibility for economic, social and cultural rights.

Of course, we acknowledge that the primary responsibility for the promotion and protection of human rights lies within the states themselves. We appreciate the important role of the committee, and all of the United Nations treaty monitoring bodies, in holding state parties to account regarding their international human rights obligations. Ireland was proud to play an instrumental role in the recent strengthening process of treaty monitoring bodies, called the Dublin process, as two key meetings of international experts were held in Iveagh House.

I am sorry to disturb you, Deputy Sherlock. I will take a point of order from Deputy Healy.

Do we have the Minister of State's script?

I am not sure if it has been distributed.

Normally, the Minister provides a script for Private Members' business.

We will make provision for that. I apologise to the House if the script has not been made available.

The Minister of State will make that available.

I am sure my officials are watching now and can ensure that it happens.

Can the Minister of State make it available before Private Members' business finishes?

Without doubt.

In March, the Government established an interdepartmental committee on human rights to improve co-ordination throughout the Government on the promotion and protection of human rights in our foreign policy. The interdepartmental committee will progress ratification by Ireland of key international human rights treaties, monitor the implementation of Ireland's treaty obligations, and facilitate timely reporting to international treaty bodies in accordance with these obligations. As chair of the interdepartmental committee, I look forward to watching it bear fruit as it becomes embedded in our operational processes.

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights is the main treaty protecting economic, social and cultural rights. It was adopted, as has been stated, and was opened for signature, ratification and accession by the General Assembly in 1966. It entered into force on 3 January 1976. Ireland signed the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 1973 and ratified it in 1989. The covenant has been ratified by 164 countries, including all EU member states. The covenant contains some of the most significant international legal provisions establishing economic, social and cultural rights, including rights relating to work in just and favourable conditions, to social protection, to an adequate standard of living, to the highest attainable standards of physical and mental health, to education, to take part in cultural life and to enjoyment of the benefits of scientific progress.

In November 2000 Ireland ratified the 1996 revised European Social Charter, which is the Council of Europe's treaty on social and economic rights. I note two of the Deputies opposite have left the Chamber. I hope they will be in a position to at least have regard to the reply, provided on behalf of the Government, to some of the points they made.

We will be able to read it when it is produced.

We look forward to hearing it. If we had the script, we could read it.

On the same date Ireland ratified the 1995 additional protocol to the European Social Charter, which provides for a system of collective complaints.

While the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has not been incorporated into domestic law, the substance of a number of the rights contained in the covenant is protected by the Constitution and by legislation. Although not cognisable by the courts, Article 45 of the Constitution sets out directive principles of social policy for the general guidance of the Legislature. If we are to move to a situation, and I make a genuine point, whereby this legislation is incorporated such that there is a constitutional referendum, we must be cognisant of the separation of powers between the Executive, the Judiciary and the Legislature on points of law which might come forward where test cases are made and what the role of the Legislature would be thereafter, or would it be diminished relative to the Judiciary. I make this point in a very genuine way. I know Deputy Pringle in replying to the debate will respond to this.

The Government aims at ensuring that the State's obligations to implement the covenant in Ireland are met through policies aimed at improving the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights, including by fighting persistent poverty and social exclusion and recognising that others, including individuals, families and many organisations and bodies, have important responsibilities as well. The means by which the State sets out to meet its obligations in this area is through the allocation of resources.

I will now speak about human rights in the domestic context, notably economic, social and cultural rights in Ireland. Ireland has ratified the instruments referred to above which promote economic, social and cultural rights. Since our last review by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 2002, Ireland enjoyed a period of unprecedented economic growth, followed by an equally acute financial crisis, resulting, as we know, in an international bailout package and more than five years of tough measures. Social transfers were used to mitigate inequality and efforts were made to ensure a minimum core content of rights. Our approach was not to apply blanket reductions to all areas of spending, but rather to reform expenditure in a way that continued to protect, where possible, our society's most vulnerable people to the greatest extent possible within our available resources.

Since taking office in 2011, the Government has been determined to fulfil the mandate given to us by the Irish people to repair the economy and public finances, create jobs and give our citizens confidence in a better future. The scale of the economic crisis we have gone through is unprecedented in Ireland's history. Difficult decisions have been taken and huge sacrifices have been made by the Irish people, but this has not been in vain. The spring economic statement confirms the path that has been taken was the right one. As we now plan for the remainder of this decade, our citizens have every reason to be confident and hopeful about their future. This future will have steady, stable economic growth and more people working in secure and sustainable jobs than ever before in the history of the State. It will be a future of stable public finances that will deliver money in people's pockets, higher quality public services and strategic investment in essential infrastructure throughout the country. These hard-won gains require protecting and securing and building on them for the future is the priority. The facts clearly show the policies of the Government have worked and will continue to work in the years ahead. Our economy is growing at the fastest rate in Europe, by 4.8% in 2014, and the Department is forecasting growth of 4% this year. Steady, stable economic growth of 3.75% on average is forecast for the remainder of the decade.

The spring economic statement is part of a much broader reform of the budgetary framework. The next in this new framework is the national economic dialogue and I refer specifically-----

Will the Minister of State speak to the Bill?

I will disturb the Minister of State to answer the question. I checked this earlier because there were times when other Members were sailing close to the wind, but it is quite a broad sweep of a Bill.

In the time allocated to me to speak on the Bill I am providing the context in which the Bill is being put forward. On the point made by Deputy Collins, let me say a national economic dialogue will take place in July. This will widen consultation on the budget with key stakeholders and will fully respect the role of the Government and the Oireachtas to make policy. Deputy Collins will have an opportunity to make her own or her party's submission to the dialogue and we look forward to the ideas she will propose in the process.

If the Government does not have the money-----

Let me remind Deputy Collins the Government has legislated for the restoration of the minimum wage-----

We are very grateful.

-----and we have taken thousands of workers out of the universal social charge. Let me also say the national economic dialogue is about ensuring we have an informed and mature discussion on the short and medium-term priorities of the Government and beyond. Undoubtedly, in recent years considerable sacrifices were made by the people of Ireland and it posed challenges in terms of the progressive realisation of economic, social and cultural rights in Ireland in line with the covenant before us now. However, as I have stated, we are already seeing the fruits of our labour.

The public finances are under control with the deficit falling below 3% this year and debt levels are set to move down towards the European average in the next few years. As a result we will be in a position to implement another expansionary budget this year and every year out to 2020 if this is deemed prudent and appropriate. We will meet our medium-term objective of a balanced budget in structural terms over the forecast horizon.

In order to return stability to the public finances, gross voted expenditure was reduced from its peak of more than €63 billion in 2009 to €54 billion in 2014. In implementing expenditure reductions, the Government's priority has been to protect key public services and social supports to the greatest extent possible at a time of increasing demand. This targeted approach has meant that primary social welfare rates such as pensions have been fully maintained since the Government took office. Our commitment to protecting society's most vulnerable is illustrated by data published by EUROSTAT earlier this year showing that Ireland's system of social transfers and redistribution of wealth and income to those most in need is among the most effective in Europe at reducing the at-risk-of-poverty rate.

Budget 2015 marked a turning point when expenditure reductions were no longer required to meet our fiscal targets. We are now in a position to provide targeted increases for key services. In the area of education, we have sought from the beginning to protect DEIS expenditure, which prioritises the educational needs of children and young people from disadvantaged areas. In 2015, gross voted current expenditure across the key sectors of social protection, health and education will amount to more than €40 billion-----

I wish to raise a point of order, Acting Chairman.

It is very disingenuous of the Government to respond in this way to our proposal. The Minister of State has come in here-----

The Minister of State is making a statement in response to the proposal put down by the Deputies.

I have been interrupted twice while attempting to do so. I am speaking to the Bill and the context in which it is being presented. The explanatory memorandum states:

The purpose of the Bill is to amend Article 45 of the Constitution by adding to the end of that Article a provision, contained in the Schedule, that the State shall progressively realise, subject to its maximum available resources and without discrimination, the rights contained in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and that this duty be cognisable by the courts.

I am responding on behalf of the Government on the issue of the resources that are being made available in order to recognise those rights. The Government is fully entitled to do that within the time allocated to it. I am afraid I am the only speaker on behalf of the Government, and there may be a judgment call on that. However, 30 minutes have been assigned to me and I fully intend to speak to all of the issues that have been raised by the Deputies opposite.


Deputies must allow the Minister of State to respond.

The Deputies, including Deputy Joan Collins, had an opportunity to make their points. I am trying to respond to the issues she and her colleagues raised. In 2015, gross voted current expenditure across the key sectors of social protection, health and education will amount to more than €40 billion, or 81% of total current expenditure. In developing proposed budgetary expenditure measures, due consideration is given to ensuring our society's most vulnerable members are protected to the greatest extent possible in light of continued fiscal restraints.

I will now outline the key issues affecting Irish people and the Government measures in these areas. Net outward migration is expected to cease next year, with a return to inward migration from 2017 onwards. The young people who have left are coming back and will continue to do so.

On the right to work, we have added 95,000 net jobs to our economy since the peak of the financial crisis. It is forecast that we will pass the 2 million people in employment mark next year, replace all jobs lost during the downturn by 2018 and, between 2015 and 2020, add 200,000 new jobs in total. Of course, we must ensure those returning to employment are doing so in the full enjoyment of their rights, including the right to just and favourable conditions of work. The Low Pay Commission, established in February of this year, is tasked with ensuring any changes to the minimum wage are fair, incremental and evidence-based. As part of that, the practice of zero-hour contracts is being reviewed. The establishment of the Workplace Relations Commission will ensure Ireland's employment rights bodies provide for fair and equitable resolutions to industrial disputes. In addition, the Department of Social Protection is in the process of increasing by 1,000 the number of case officers assisting the long-term unemployed in returning to work.

Pathways to Work, the Government's labour market strategy, sets out a far-reaching reform of the State's approach to helping unemployed jobseekers return to work. It is focused on making sure as many new jobs as possible, and other vacancies that arise in the economy, are filled by people who are unemployed jobseekers. This programme, which is the largest single reform programme in the public sector, has delivered on a number of significant reforms. One such reform involved the merger and integration of three previously separate organisations, the community welfare service, FÁS employment services, and the Department of Social Protection's income support services, into the one-stop-shop Intreo service provided by the Department. We have seen the reorganisation of the State's further education and training services through the creation of education and training boards, ETBs, and SOLAS, the new further education and training authority. We have provided for the refurbishment by the end of 2014 of 46 new Intreo offices around the country, with a further 14 to be completed. The development of a new operating model as part of Intreo has yielded significant reductions in claim processing times and faster and more systematic provision of employment services. The introduction, as part of Intreo, of a group information process whereby all new jobseekers are briefed on the services available to them saw, during 2014,186,000 jobseekers attending group information sessions. There has been a profiling of jobseekers on the live register to help prioritise and direct the provision of one-to-one employment services. Since this process started, every jobseeker on the live register has been profiled and more than 800,000 one-to-one interviews between jobseekers and case workers have been conducted. The introduction of a claim suspension facility to allow unemployed jobseekers take up short-term and seasonal work opportunities is another in a broad range of initiatives to assist people back to work.

More than 60,000 long-term unemployed people have moved into work since the Pathways to Work strategy was launched. The persistence rate from short-term to long-term unemployment has fallen from 33% to 29% and the progression to employment rate for people more than two years unemployed has already reached its end of 2015 target of 40%. That is not ideal and we are striving to do better. In 2014, the Department of Social Protection expanded its engagement with employers. The national employer relations team and divisional employer liaison teams work closely with employers and industry bodies to support engagement with jobseekers and the Department's employer services.

The Youth Guarantee implementation plan was published in January 2014 as part of the overall Pathways to Work strategy. Within this framework, the Youth Guarantee sets a medium-term objective of ensuring young people receive an offer of employment within four months of becoming unemployed. The main plank of the guarantee is to provide assistance to young people to find and secure sustainable employment. For those who do not find jobs, additional offers are provided. In 2014, more than 70% of such offers were in further education or training, while others were in community-based employment programmes such as community employment schemes, the Gateway and Tús initiatives, or through the JobsPlus employment subsidy for private employment.

Budget 2015 announced the back to work family dividend, BTWFD, scheme, which provides financial support to jobseekers and one-parent family recipients with children who end their claim in order to take up employment, increase their hours of employment or take up self-employment. Under BTWFD, where applicants meet the eligibility criteria of the scheme, they are entitled to a weekly payment for up to two years following the expiry of their social welfare claim.

The Department of Social Protection administers more than 65 separate schemes and services. Each week, nearly 1.44 million people receive a social welfare payment and, when qualified adults and children are included, almost 2.3 million people benefit from these payments. Some 615,000 families receive child benefit payments in respect of almost 1.2 million children each month. Despite increasing demands across many social welfare schemes, primary social welfare rates have been maintained, including pensions, disability payments and jobseeker's payments. This has ensured Ireland's system of social transfers, which is the context in which the International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights applies, remains among the most effective in Europe in reducing the at-risk-of-poverty rate.

The Department of Social Protection carries out extensive analysis of the impacts of tax measures and changes to certain social welfare payments. This analysis is published as part of the budgetary process over a wide distribution of income levels and is further supplemented by regular analysis and commentary provided by the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI. Furthermore, the Minister for Finance publishes a very detailed analysis of the distributional impact of tax measures across a range of income levels and family types. This is further augmented by hypothetical family case studies.

With regard to the right to housing, the Government announced that local authorities were to receive €312 million in order to build 1,700 homes in 100 social housing projects across the country. This is the first phase in a €3.8 billion, six-year strategy to deliver 35,000 new social housing units by 2020. The strategy will increase social housing supply and reduce the number of people on waiting lists by one quarter by the end of 2017.

On the right to health, the realisation of universal health insurance remains the objective of this Government, despite some of the contentions of people opposite. We continue to progress plans to provide free GP care to children under six and adults over 70 by July of this year. We are committed to moving away from a hospital-centric model of care to an integrated, safe and efficient model which treats patients as close to home as possible, through the primary care model. The increased allocation provided to the health sector in 2015 will deliver over 1.7 million medical cards and a further 0.4 million GP visit cards. In 2014, staffing levels increased by 2,331 or 2%. The increase in staff has been concentrated in the hospital sector. There has also been €35 million in funding in 2014 and 2015 for enhancements to mental health services.

The education sector has faced increasing demands over the past number of years. Primary pupil numbers have increased by over 25,000 between 2011 and 2014; secondary pupil numbers have increased by over 10,000 between 2011 and 2014; and third level student numbers have increased by over 7,500 between 2011 and 2014. Our continued investment in the education sector has seen the pupil-teacher ratio broadly maintained since the Government came into office.

The Government has protected the funding allocations for DEIS expenditure, which prioritises the educational needs of children and young people from disadvantaged areas. Budget 2015 provided for an additional 1,700 new posts to be created in 2015, of which 920 will be classroom teachers. Special educational needs have also been prioritised through providing funding for 480 additional extra resource teachers and 365 additional special needs assistants. The Government has overseen improved outcomes in education, with more students taking higher level maths, and increasing literacy rates among our 15 year olds. We are also embracing the skills revolution, adopting strategies to ensure continuous up-skilling and development of our workforce to allow our citizens to be at the forefront of new technology and the creation of high-value jobs.

Ireland is ahead of the EU average in the gender equality index for 2013 and is committed to achieving gender equality. The national women's strategy has enjoyed success in this regard. It has improved women's standard of living and access to health care, increased female participation in education, expanded the provision of early childhood care, and reduced the gender pay gap.

Ireland also endeavours to be a safe and welcoming environment for minorities; one that respects and accommodates diversity in all its forms. There are critiques of that. That is fully acknowledged. The Department of Justice and Equality is engaged in consultation, for instance, with Traveller representatives regarding recognition of Travellers as an ethnic group. It is hoped that a decision on the matter will be reached shortly.

On LGBTI rights, the upcoming referendum on marriage equality is held against the backdrop of several important legislative advances for LGBTI persons in Ireland, including the Gender Recognition Bill 2014 and the Children and Family Relationships Act 2015.

This sets the context for our discussion today about economic, social and cultural rights in Ireland.

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, ICESCR, requires states that are party to it to take steps, to the maximum of their available resources, to achieve progressively the full realisation of economic, social and cultural rights. The concept of progressive realisation constitutes recognition of the fact that it will generally not be possible to achieve the full realisation of all economic, social and cultural rights in a short period of time. The reference to resource availability reflects a recognition that the realisation of these rights can be hampered by a lack of resources and can be achieved only over a period of time. Equally, it means that a State's compliance with its obligation to take appropriate measures is assessed in light of the resources, financial and otherwise, available to it.

Even though states may realise economic, social and cultural rights progressively, they must also take immediate action, irrespective of their resources, in five areas: elimination of discrimination; economic, social and cultural rights not subject to progressive realisation; obligation to "take steps"; non-retrogressive measures; and minimum core obligations. If either of the two referenda on Friday pass, it will be the first time that a proposal for constitutional reform put forward by a constitutional convention resulted in actual constitutional change.

I ask the House to reject the Bill, while thanking Deputies Pringle and Healy for putting it forward, because it is important that voice is given to a Bill that seeks to change the Constitution.

I am not sure I will need the full 15 minutes. It has been a very interesting debate to follow so far. Points have been made about the Minister of State's speech and the fact it did not address the Bill that is before us. The Minister of State is now leaving the Chamber. Perhaps the fact that the Minister of State's speech was focused for 28 minutes on putting his response into context and spent less than two minutes on the content of the Bill indicates the real problem we have.

I freely admit that if a Bill of this nature had come before us four or five years ago, I would not have been minded to support it, nor would my party. The economic crisis we have gone through has exposed profound weaknesses in how we govern ourselves. We have seen it take a heavy toll on Irish people. It demanded that we take a hard, honest look at how we do the business of politics and it challenged the values and priorities that shaped the country leading to the crash. Like everybody in this House, in the course of the 2011 general election campaign, I listened to a great deal of justifiable criticism on the doors, from people who said they were in many respects disgusted and revolted by the political system. They saw the political system as contributing to the economic crash that bore so heavily on them. When they voted in 2011, they voted in large measure for people and for parties that promised change. One of the reasons we are now living through a period of extraordinary political disillusionment on the part of the public with the body politic is that it has seen the failure of the people it elected to government, who made innumerable promises, one of the most significant being that of radical political reform and a democratic revolution.

Not alone has the Government not delivered a radical, political revolution, it is not prepared to support legislation such as this Bill, which given the experience we have had is necessary to move us forward into the space this whole country wants to be in. Yet we hear from Deputy Pat Rabbitte, for whom people have had much respect - they certainly like listening to his very often interesting quips - that in the course of an election promises are made, one gets people's support, and when it is all over, all promises are null and void. If we did not learn from the mistake made in 2011 of treating the people with such contempt, we do not deserve to be in this House and to continue to have the privilege of representing the people, because we are not acting upon the mandate we sought and got from them.

I accept that the Constitutional Convention was one response on the part of the Government to the commitment it made to revolutionise the political system and bring about a democratic revolution. I was very privileged to attend the Constitutional Convention as part of the 33 member Oireachtas team. I was struck, not by the role played by the Oireachtas Members in the convention but by the enormous pride the 66 citizen members had at the opportunity to participate in something they saw as being historic and momentous in the history of the country. On Friday the people will vote in two referendums and make a decision on whether the two provisions should be included in the Constitution. The Constitution as a document governs how the political system works but it also sets out our intrinsic values as a nation, the ethos we have as a people and the country we want to inhabit.

The disappointment I feel following the Constitutional Convention must be reflected in the disappointment of citizen members that so far on from the completion of the convention, four or five of its reports have still not been considered by this House. The reports that have been considered have been discussed briefly, very often at the end of a Dáil term and certainly without adequate consideration being given to them. The particular issue before us today on economic, social and cultural rights was the subject of debate at the ninth meeting of the convention. It was one of the topics, which I expect the Acting Chairman will agree, that excited much public interest because it was about the bread and butter issues that face us now and our children in the future. I refer to housing, social security, essential health care, the rights of people with disabilities and linguistic and cultural rights. Those rights are enshrined in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. On considering them, we must accept that we have very real problems. The body politic has not honoured the promises it has made to the people to deliver on those particular rights, and there is a need to consider enshrining, as Deputies Pringle and Healy have said, those rights in the Constitution in order that they can be justiciable. It was interesting to hear the Minister of State, Deputy Sherlock, someone I very much respect, make a point in his contribution that was identical to the point made by none other than the former Progressive Democrats leader, Michael McDowell, namely, that we should not create a situation in which those rights would be justiciable, that we should not hand over to the Judiciary the rights to determine what might happen. One can understand the desire of the people when faced with a political failure to deliver on those rights to see some other body, in this instance the Judiciary, have the opportunity to input into the area.

Let us consider what has been happening in the housing area. Deputy Wallace made the point earlier that the State is transferring responsibility to the private sector. I do not think that is the case. The State is talking about making future investment in social housing but the reality is that very little is happening on an operational basis currently. Very few counties will see the significant delivery of houses in 2015 or 2016. Given that the social housing list contains 100,000 people, one will be a very long time on the list before one has any reasonable prospect of being housed if we allow the current situation to continue. In fact, legislation introduced by the party of the Minister of State, Deputy Ann Phelan, under the then Minister of State, Deputy Jan O’Sullivan, would make traditional Labour Party members turn in their grave. A situation was created through the housing assistance payment, HAP, whereby someone on a local authority waiting list hoping to get a house would be removed from the list, ipso facto, once he or she was in receipt of HAP, as he or she would be deemed to have their housing need met. It was a very good way of reducing the list but not a way to address the aspiration of so many people to have a house. The Government has failed to deliver and has created no real impetus in the social housing programme. In fact, there has been a cultural change to a situation in which the vision is that housing will be provided by the private sector, although it is not currently being provided by it because not enough houses are being built to meet the need in the first instance.

Fianna Fáil handed social housing to developers.

We did not hand it to developers.

Yes, Fianna Fáil did.

No, we did not. The Minister of State is incorrect. We introduced something of which I am enormously proud, namely Part V.

Fianna Fáil watered down Part V.

The purpose of Part V was to achieve social integration.

Only one speaker is allowed to speak at a time.

We introduced Part V.

Fianna Fáil watered it down.

The Minister of State’s colleagues in Fine Gael would get rid of it altogether if they could.

Well Fianna Fáil watered it down.

The point I make is that we currently have problems with social welfare claims. We all see in our constituency clinics the length of time people have to wait. We clearly have a problem in health care - ask anyone on a trolley in any hospital in the country or anyone who is on an interminable waiting list for an orthopaedic or other intervention. People with disabilities are another group whose needs must be addressed. One need only talk to the parents of a child who has been diagnosed with a disability who have been told it is essential that the child must have a particular therapy within a short timeframe but what happens is they are put on a waiting list because there is no hope of providing the therapy. That is no longer acceptable. Neither is it acceptable that people in need of a service must continue to wait.

Another area of rights is linguistic and cultural rights. When one speaks to an Irish language enthusiast around the country, despite the 20 year plan and Acht na dTeangacha Oifigiúla they say they still have significant difficulty transacting their business with the State through Irish in spite of the inordinate amount of money the State has spent promoting the Irish language.

When it comes to cultural rights we may look to organisations such as the GAA and Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann.

They have done an outstanding job promoting, supporting and developing cultural rights. However, what have we done to protect the cultural rights of our indigenous Traveller community, not to mind the inadequacy of our response to protecting the cultural rights of the many non-national groups that have come to live in this society?

I commend Deputies Pringle and Healy. The idea of enshrining economic, social and cultural rights in the Constitution is one that should be actively and positively considered. We can place confidence in the Judiciary, unfortunately more confidence than we can place in the political system, to protect the area of economic, social and cultural rights. If we do what the Bill suggests, we could place economic, social and cultural rights on a constitutional footing and strengthen the obligations on the Government to uphold citizens' rights. It would mean that citizens would have recourse to the courts if the Government fails to live up to its express constitutional requirements. The Government of the day would not be able to row back on housing or social welfare commitments in keeping with the constitutional requirements.

It is apt that we are debating this Bill, which arises from the convention, in a week when the people will cast their votes in two important referenda. Much has been said about the marriage equality issue, and I need not enter into that debate. It is interesting, with regard to the constitutional amendment regarding the President, that at the Constitutional Convention the great preponderance of the debate was about the methodology for selecting the candidates, yet the Government decided instead to run with a constitutional amendment on the age of the President. However, in my travels around the country I have not seen a single poster erected by either of the parties in the Government supporting that amendment. I am not aware of any canvassing literature on it or of any enthusiasm on the part of the public for the proposition, albeit I intend to support it because I do not believe we should be ageist in our approach to any of these issues.

I commend Deputies Pringle and Healy on this Private Members' Bill. Sinn Féin supports the proposed amendment to the Constitution. A total of 85% of the members of the Constitutional Convention voted in favour of amending the Constitution to strengthen the protection of economic, social and cultural rights, and a majority of the convention voted for a constitutional provision along the lines put forward in this Private Members' Bill.

Sinn Féin proposed a bill of rights amendment in its submission to the Constitutional Convention, having appropriate regard to the Good Friday Agreement - Strand Three, Part 6, paragraph 9. The Constitutional Convention was required by its Oireachtas mandate to have "appropriate regard" to the Good Friday Agreement in its deliberations. Strand Three, Part 6 - Rights, Safeguards and Equality of Opportunity, paragraph 9 of the Good Friday Agreement describes the obligation on the Irish Government to take "comparable steps" to the establishment of a bill of rights for the North. The British-Irish Agreement of 1998 to which the Multi-Party Agreement is annexed, together forming the Good Friday Agreement, is an inter-state treaty with binding effect on the Irish Government under international law, as recognised by the Irish courts.

The Irish Government has a clear obligation under the terms of Strand Three of the Good Friday Agreement, at Part 6 also known as "Rights, Safeguards and Equality of Opportunity", to introduce additional constitutional protections and human rights guarantees. Under the heading, "Comparable Steps by the Irish Government", it states:

The Government will, taking account of the work of the All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution and the Report of the Constitution Review Group, bring forward measures to strengthen and underpin the constitutional protection of human rights. These proposals will draw on the European Convention on Human Rights, ECHR, and other international legal instruments in the field of human rights ... The measures brought forward would ensure at least an equivalent level of protection of human rights as will pertain in Northern Ireland.

While some of the additional human rights related comparable steps described later in paragraph 9, such as the establishment of a human rights commission, the adoption of enhanced equality legislation and so forth, were met relatively soon afterwards, as was the obligation to incorporate the European Convention on Human Rights in some way into domestic law, the primary constitutional reform aspect of its terms remains to be fulfilled 15 years later.

Constitutional change to improve the situation is required, involving comparable steps in both jurisdictions. In current terms, applying the logic of the Part 6 assessment, neither the Human Rights Act 1998, incorporating the ECHR, in the North nor Articles 40 to 44 of the 1937 Constitution plus the European Convention on Human Rights Act 2003 in the South provides the complete protections indicated in paragraphs 4 and 9, nor can the other international human rights treaties ratified by the two governments do so, as most of these still have neither constitutional status nor even status in domestic law, North or South. When read in light of the equivalence obligation set out at paragraph 9, what Part 6 indicates is that what is therefore needed, but remains outstanding in both jurisdictions, is a comprehensive bill of rights that incorporates but also goes beyond the ECHR rights. Sinn Féin believes that the Oireachtas should authorise a fresh mandate for the Constitutional Convention specific to this purpose.

The 1937 Constitution is now more than 75 years old. At the time of its adoption, it was undoubtedly one of a handful of constitutions that helped set the world standard for protection of fundamental rights and freedoms. However, over successive decades its provisions, and the conservative interpretation of them by the Irish courts, have often fallen short of the mark in this regard. Today, the Constitution struggles to keep pace with our evolving sense of rights and wrongs. Indeed, there will be a vote on Friday on one of those matters that will hopefully strengthen our Constitution in terms of equality. Almost 20 years ago, the leading experts of the Government appointed Constitution Review Group made a thorough assessment of Articles 40 to 45 that set out the fundamental rights of Irish people. Its final report recommended approximately 50 amendments that were required to bring these constitutional provisions up to contemporary standards. Unfortunately, with only a few exceptions, these were never acted upon by the Government of the day or by any government since then.

While the All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution stated its intent to proceed with this overhaul of the fundamental rights provisions, that work had barely begun before the committee was dissolved. There is consequently no question that these constitutional provisions are still in need of amendment to ensure that all citizens can be fully guaranteed treatment with respect and dignity, can be better protected from abuse of power, can hold the State to account for its actions or inaction and get redress for wrongdoing on the part of the State.

We maintain that consideration of a bill of rights amendment which could treat this matter systematically and comprehensively is both an implied obligation and a logical approach. In addition to the obligations under the Good Friday Agreement that I have outlined, there are five main reasons that a bill of rights amendment would benefit Irish citizens and, therefore, deserves consideration.

First, Articles 40 to 44 on fundamental personal rights are not enough. It is true that Articles 40 to 44 protect an important subset of fundamental rights, but their provisions are far from complete. For example, while they contain many civil and political rights, they do not contain most economic, social and cultural rights.

The question is not whether Articles 40 to 44 provide any protection; it is whether they provide sufficient protection of all the fundamental rights recognised in the 21st century as well as the equivalent protection required under the Good Friday Agreement. The answer to that question is "No". According to the Constitution Review Group, "experience ... has demonstrated that Articles 40-44 contain flaws and are in need of revision" not least because "the list of rights expressly protected by the Constitution is, by contemporary standards, incomplete" and "it is scarcely satisfactory that [certain important rights do] not receive general constitutional protection". That is why the review group recommended almost 50 amendments to these articles, some of which are extensive. In addition, Article 45 on directive social principles has been rightly criticised for describing another subset of fundamental rights but at the same time stipulating that these rights cannot be the subject of constitutional litigation. In other words, they cannot be enforced by citizens. This is not satisfactory. A comprehensive bill of rights amendment can remedy these identified deficiencies and bring Ireland's constitutional protections back into line with international best practice.

Second, the unenumerated rights model disadvantages citizens. It is true that the courts have interpreted the Constitution and Article 40 in particular to include some additional unenumerated rights. This is welcome. There is certainly room under its current provisions for a more progressive Judiciary to go even further, as the Indian judiciary has done in interpreting very similar clauses. This means the extent of our rights under the Constitution remains largely under judicial control and subject to judicial discretion, as pointed out by the Constitution Review Group. The unenumerated rights model is fine for lawyers and judges, but it is not great for citizens. The Constitution is not just for legal professionals; it is the citizens' contract with the State. It sets out what the State is permitted to do, is required to do and is prohibited from doing. It is an important tool that citizens can use to hold the State to account, to get justice when the State acts wrongly or fails to act when it should and to vindicate their fundamental rights. Average citizens should know and clearly understand their constitutional rights, rather than having to guess what they are or needing specialised legal knowledge and expertise to interpret the basic meaning of provisions. Understanding the content of the Constitution, especially the provisions it makes on fundamental and other constitutional rights, should not be the preserve of judges and lawyers alone. A bill of rights amendment could help provide clarity and certainty in a way that is accessible and meaningful to the average person. This is, in effect, what the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights did. It gathered together all the EU-recognised rights, including the unenumerated rights that had been confirmed through judicial decisions of the European Court of Justice with a view to making these rights more transparent for citizens for the ultimate purpose of enhancing their enforcement, in a single accessible document.

Third, ordinary equality and human rights legislation is not enough. While the enhanced corpus of equality and human rights legislation, such as the Equal Status Acts and the European Convention on Human Rights Act 2003, is very welcome - indeed, it was one of the benefits of the Good Friday Agreement we gained here in the South - ordinary legislation is not enough to provide sufficiently robust and durable guarantees of these equality and other human rights. Without constitutional protection, a future Government could simply repeal this legislation if it so decides. In contrast, constitutional provisions such as those contained in a bill of rights provide a more permanent guarantee and can only be repealed by the Irish people. The fact is we need both the Constitution and a future comprehensive bill of rights within or attached to it to provide the core guarantees and the avenue for judicial remedies for violations of these rights. The much more detailed legislation provides a necessary framework for implementation of these rights and can provide for both non-judicial and quasi-judicial remedies short of the courts. The two structures play different but complementary roles.

Fourth, the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights does not provide sufficient extra protection. The charter applies in relation to domestic incorporation and implementation of EU law only. Even so, many of its provisions are made subject to domestic law. While it is welcome - indeed, it was the only part of the Lisbon treaty supported by Sinn Féin - it is not enough.

Fifth, the piecemeal approach of individual additional or amending clauses is not enough. The Constitutional Convention has considered to some extent amendments to protect the equal rights of women, LGBT people and children. It is welcome that it has recommended some important changes that are long overdue, but the two referendums that are taking place this week represent no more than piecemeal reform. It will be fantastic if the Irish people vote in favour of marriage equality on Friday, as I hope they will. I would like to see the other referendum passing as well to ensure people under the age of 35 can attempt to become President of Ireland. I am mindful of the famous painting of Michael Collins that hangs in the foyer of this building. Michael Collins would not have been able to run for President of Ireland under the constitutional provisions that are in place today. This week's referendums do not amount to more than a piecemeal approach. We need the more comprehensive and complete overhaul that would be represented by a bill of rights. Unquestionably, these groups of citizens need and deserve unambiguous constitutional protections. Other groups in Irish society need these protections too because they remain potentially vulnerable to certain abuses. Piecemeal reform is not good enough. A comprehensive bill of rights amendment could ensure everyone gets the constitutional guarantees and protections they need. The adoption of a comprehensive bill of rights amendment would give our fundamental human rights, including civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, a more central place in the Constitution. This would better reflect the ethos and aspirations of Ireland in the 21st century.

I would like to conclude by commending the two Deputies who have proposed this Private Members' Bill and facilitated this evening's debate. We support the amendment to the Constitution they have proposed. My party would argue that we need to go much further than a simple amendment to the Constitution. We need a comprehensive bill of rights. It can be argued that it should be attached to the Constitution, as is the case internationally. We believe the Oireachtas should reconvene the Constitutional Convention to examine that matter. It should work with the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission and all the other stakeholders. Until we reach that point, regardless of who is in government we will continue to have debates in here about injustice and the failure to defend citizens' rights. That is our call. We will engage with Governments and with our colleagues in this House until we get to that point.

I welcome the opportunity to speak. As everyone on both sides of the House is aware, a fair, efficient and competitive income tax system is vital not only for economic growth but also for job creation. Since this country was plunged into economic chaos by the reckless policies of the previous Fianna Fáil-led Government, our citizens have gone through what was probably the worst financial crisis in the history of the State. Over 300,000 jobs were lost, our economic reputation was in shreds, we lost many of our youngest and brightest citizens to emigration and we lost our financial independence. In the four years since we took office, we have turned this situation around. Today, we can stand here and say we have regained our financial independence and seen the back of the troika. Over 100,000 new jobs have been created. We are on track to have full employment by 2018. By that year, we will have net immigration and we will see the return of many young people who had to leave these shores in order to secure employment. We have ended austerity. There is a new confidence to be found among our people.

The proposal before the House totally ignores the fairness and progressiveness within our income tax system. Indeed, the proposed measures would do huge damage to our economy if they were introduced. The proposals before the House would be disastrous for my constituency. I am finding a new optimism and hope among those who attend my clinics in Dundalk, Ardee, Drogheda, Dunleer and Carlingford. People are securing employment, which is vital in the interests of bringing people out of the poverty trap. The new-found confidence and optimism that I am seeing at first hand on a daily basis does not suit our political opponents. It does not suit them to have an electorate that is starting to find its feet again. It should be noted that our tax system is extremely fair, especially to people on low incomes. Those who have brought this motion to the House completely ignore the fact that 40% of earners are not liable to income tax.

We have also cut income tax rates for everybody earning less than €70,000.

Substantial reductions in the universal social charge, the USC, have been introduced to relieve those on low incomes. We have removed over 410,000 people from the USC. Core social welfare rates have been protected in spite of the difficult circumstances. Ireland has the most progressive income tax system in the European Union It should be noted that the top 1% of income earners pay 21% of the total income tax and USC, the top 6% pay 44% and the top 24% pay 80% of all income tax and USC. From these figures it is clear that we have a system where we have a relatively high tax on high earnings and low or zero tax on low incomes.

The new-found optimism and confidence of the Irish people as a result of the improving economic climate, does not suit the Members opposite. I would ask them to visit County Louth where we have seen a dramatic drop in the unemployment rate which has resulted in almost 3,500 fewer people on the live register. The proposal before the House would put in danger all of the hard work and sacrifices made by the people of this country over the past few years and I would question their motives for doing so. The only reason I can see for putting this motion before the House is purely populist political gain and for this reason I firmly believe that the people will see through it.

Over the next 12 months the people of this country will have some very important choices to make. Will they keep the Government that has managed to fix our finances? Will they go back to a government which brought them financial chaos in the first place or will they choose a government that will put everything at risk with false and populist promises? One has only to see what is happening in Greece to see the chaos this would bring. I know from the many people who call to my constituency office that they want security and a real future and that a Fine Gael-led government is the only option in this regard. I totally reject the motion before the House. This country needs more of the same fair and progressive policies of this Government that have resulted in the great progress made since we took office.

This is a very important motion and I commend the Members who put it down. I was very proud to be a member of the Constitutional Convention, as Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan knows. At the core of our Constitution is an innate and explicit fundamental philosophy "to promote the common good ... so that the dignity and freedom of the individual may be assured". This philosophy and the protection of many rights were set out in our Constitution long before these issues were fully recognised by other countries and international bodies, pre-dating the United Nations Convention on Human Rights by more than a decade.

Although our Constitution primarily focuses on civil and political rights it does recognise some economic, social and cultural rights, such as the right to education. The Directive Principles of Social Policy place many obligations on the Oireachtas. It must "promote the welfare of the whole people" and assist individuals to "find the means of making reasonable provision for their domestic needs". It must also consider the need to "safeguard with especial care the economic interests of the weaker sections of the community, and, where necessary, to contribute to [their] support".

No matter what our political hues or philosophies as a country we have a long tradition of supporting economic, social and cultural rights, not only in our Constitution but also in our support for international agreements and in policy implementation. In 1973 Ireland signed the UN International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. I would like to isolate some of the rights in that Covenant and show how Government policy has implemented those rights. Article 9 recognises "the right of everyone to social security, including social insurance". Article 11 recognises the right to an "adequate standard of living". Most people will recognise that we do have a comprehensive system of social security.

At times there is much debate about the allocation of resources within our social security budget, more commonly known as social protection but in the round, our policy effectively delivers on both of these rights. This year the Department of Social Protection will administer over 65 separate schemes and services, spending almost €20 billion on social protection measures; €2.4 billion to support families with children in 2015. This includes €1.97 billion which will be spent on child benefit this year, an increase of €5 per month per child, which the Members opposite have welcomed. A total of €1.1 billion will be spent on employment supports in 2015. The Department of Social Protection operates a vast range of schemes covering the areas of disability and illness; carers; unemployment; schemes for older and retired people; benefits for families and children; death-related benefits; assistance for farmers and fisherpersons; back to education allowances; and, inter alia, supplementary welfare schemes.

Included in the right to an "adequate standard of living" in Article 11 of the convention is a right to housing. I accept that we face a major challenge in this respect. The Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Kelly, and the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Coffey, have set out a comprehensive housing policy to be implemented by local authorities. Section 69 of the Local Government Act 2001 obliges the local authority to have regard to the need to promote social inclusion in its policies and requires local authorities to implement policies to counteract poverty or other social deprivation. This year Government has announced that €312 million will be given to the construction of 1,700 new homes in 100 social housing projects across the country. This is the first phase in a €3.8 billion, six-year strategy to deliver 35,000 new social housing units by 2020. I commend the Minister and Minister of State for this. We have left a generation sadly languishing in social housing queues. Last year in my own county of Cork, €4.4 million was allocated for the refurbishment of void social housing units. This returned 367 housing units. That is real progress but it badly needs to be continued and at a quicker pace.

Article 12 of the UN covenant sets out "the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health". This is implemented using a very large budget administered through the Department of Health and Health Service Executive, HSE. This year the Department of Health will spend more than €12.6 billion. This means we must deliver on universal access to health services. That is being done by providing free GP care to children under six and adults over 70. The most visible way that the State delivers on its obligation to ensure a right to health is by providing access to health services for those on low incomes and this is done through medical and GP visit cards. Approximately 1.76 million persons are covered by medical cards. That is a significant proportion of our population. This year there has been an increase in the number of discretionary medical cards in circulation, up by 60% from approximately 52,000 in mid-2014 to 83,000 today. The number of people covered by GP visit cards has also increased to 160,004 compared to 124,512 last year. In total the number of people covered by medical and GP visit cards is more than 1.9 million; more than 41% of our population have direct and automatic access to health care as of right.

In keeping with most Western democracies economic, cultural and social rights are not explicitly present in our Constitution; it focuses on civil rights and political freedoms. The courts have determined that the distribution of the State's financial resources lies within the exclusive remit of those of us privileged to be in our legislature and not with the courts. The power to determine how State revenue will be collected and spent is reserved to the Oireachtas and more specifically to the Dáil. While it is possible for the courts to restore the legal entitlements of parties, decisions involving the redistribution of existing wealth patterns are left to us in this Chamber.

The courts found that the allocation of taxpayers' money for the common good was a matter for the Oireachtas and, more particularly, the Dáil, whose Members are chosen by the people. This means that citizens are ultimately responsible, because they decide, by virtue of voting in general elections, the policies that determine the allocation of resources. We should continue to pursue policies that balance rights with responsibilities. The nuances of this approach can be pursued through legislation and policy more effectively than in broad constitutional provisions.

As a member of the Constitutional Convention, I am pleased that, as a body, the convention considered the issue of economic, social and cultural rights. It worked effectively and ensured this was considered in detail, and a majority of its members - 85% - favoured changing the Constitution to strengthen the protection of economic, social and cultural rights. It is worth noting, however, that a sizeable minority - 43% of convention members - recommended that the issue be referred elsewhere for further consideration. This view was based on concern about the implications of possible reforms, and reflected the challenge faced by the convention in trying to consider such a broad and detailed range of issues in a single weekend.

Deputy Pringle's proposal reflects the outcome of the Constitutional Convention and its recommendation in favour of a constitutional provision requiring the State to progressively realise economic, social and cultural rights, subject to maximum available resources. According to the convention, this duty would be cognisable by the courts and the provision would not diminish the level of protection already afforded in the Constitution. It is worth noting that the convention also identified a number of specific rights, including the right to housing, social security and health care, the rights of persons with disabilities and language and cultural rights, and recommended that these be enumerated in the Constitution.

As we will see later this week, the Constitution is a dynamic document which has led to some highly progressive interpretations. It contains fundamental rights that have been used to vindicate personal rights. This has enabled the courts to recognise rights that are not expressly provided for in the Constitution. They have developed a body of unenumerated rights, which include, among other rights, the right to earn a living. All of this is possible because Bunreacht na hÉireann is a written, structured and living document, which has been used as a template by other countries. We should be slow to consider anything that could possibly undermine this rich tradition. Before considering the possibility of inserting economic, social and cultural rights in the Constitution, we must first engage in a deep and detailed consideration of all possible effects.

Our primary focus should be on the attainment of the economic, social and cultural rights that have been clearly recognised by the State. Some of those rights are already enforceable under the Constitution, while others are viewed as guiding principles. An even greater number are recognised by the State through its acceptance of international agreements. We have achieved a great deal in recognising rights to education, housing, social security, health and an adequate standard of living. While we can debate the specific allocation of resources, comprehensive policies are already in place, although it will always be possible to achieve more in delivering economic, social and cultural rights. Perhaps the best approach is to utilise the balance delivered by our existing constitutional provisions.

The Constitutional Convention, of which Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan and I were members, should be revisited, because the issue of providing for economic, social and cultural rights in the Constitution deserves more in-depth analysis than it received at the convention. This is an important issue, as it primarily affects citizens. Revisiting the issue would also provide us with an opportunity to do more in terms of our policy approach.

I have been struck by the effectiveness of the pre-legislative scrutiny process that has been introduced to the committee system as part of a new approach to framing policy. I say this as the Chairman of a committee that has benefited greatly from the process. Perhaps it would be preferable to have a committee discuss this issue, as it would allow Members of all parties and none to come together to develop an approach that would have the imprimatur of the Oireachtas, as it were. Furthermore, Members would be able to hear from key experts in this area, which is not the case in this debate.

A large amount of work is being done on this issue internationally. In one respect we are losing the argument, because people outside the House do not feel engaged or empowered. While I do not propose to stray into the debate on the forthcoming referendums, one of the consequences of the referendum on marriage has been to mobilise civic society and citizens to become actively engaged in the democratic process. It is important that the country recognise that it has obligations and duties, as a member of the United Nations and the European Union, to move with other countries in delivering benefits to citizens.

While the Deputies opposite will differ from me on the Government's economic policies, people have collectively - le chéile - managed to turn the economy around. We must use the forthcoming budget to ensure the benefits of economic development are passed on to all sections of society.

As a constituency politician, I note that social housing has become a major issue beyond the sections of society that, as people assume, are generally affected by it. I am being contacted by an increasing number of people who are unable to afford to buy a house. This is a major concern. I was visited yesterday by a gentleman who informed me that his personal health was suffering because his grandchild and daughter were living in the front room of his house. While he spoke positively and loves having his daughter and grandchild in his home, he pointed out that these circumstances were affecting his and their privacy and quality of life and he wanted them to have a place of their own.

The Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly, and the Minister of State in the Department, Deputy Paudie Coffey, are responsible for local authorities. They should insist that local government be accountable in respect of expenditure and the allocation of resources. Sometimes local authorities do not spend money they have been allocated from central government funds. This is a key issue in Cork. I cannot understand the reason so many houses are empty and boarded up. The fancy word we use for this is "void," but I prefer the term "empty," as it provides a graphic illustration of the need to tackle bureaucracy. Speaking in a debate on another Bill recently, I raised the need to review the policy on fixing up local authority houses. While I accept that councils employ direct labour for this purpose, I cannot comprehend the fact that houses are lying idle in Cork while people are crying out for housing. I speak only about Cork because I see the problem every day. To the best of my knowledge, the Government allocated money to address this issue.

No. That money had to be returned because councils did not receive it until November last year.

That is not correct.

It is correct.

While I am very fond of Deputy Healy, I know my city.

The funds provided by the Government were only a drop in the ocean.

Deputy Healy should allow Deputy Buttimer to continue without interruption. He will have an opportunity to speak shortly.

Like Deputy Healy, I am a grassroots politician who does not live in an ivory tower.

The funding was part of a campaign of spin.

I note the Deputy is becoming cross. I am disappointed that we are having a row in the Chamber as he and I are good friends.

Moneys have been allocated, even if they were insufficient. The tragedy is that social housing was not built for 14 years, during which Governments abdicated all responsibility. At least this Government is committed to a comprehensive housing policy.

It has presided over four years of inaction.

I am aware that the Minister is a constituency colleague and rival of Deputy Healy, and the Minister of State represents Waterford, which is beside Tipperary. To be fair to the Minister and Minister of State, they have introduced a comprehensive housing strategy and they can be judged on its delivery and implementation. The Deputy should give the Government some credit for allocating money to the strategy.

I am in politics 11 years. I made the point, genuinely, that social housing is something that we should be ashamed of in how we have treated people.

How is that right?

There is another matter we need to tackle. I make this point because Deputy Healy is half-goading me. We have HIQA inspecting facilities in the health service, but who is inspecting some of the rented properties in the cities, in particular, Cork? Some of them that I have been in are appalling and the amount of rent being asked of the tenant is evil.

Put the rights into the Constitution and it will solve the problem.

Deputy Buttimer has the floor.

Deputy Healy did not listen to my contribution.

Deputy Buttimer will vote against it.

I am advocating - I am coming to it with a genuine position - that we should put this to another constitutional convention and go to a committee of these Houses-----


-----where we can have the type of scrutiny we have with legislation and where we can have a proper engagement. I fully accept this is window-dressing in here. I volunteered to speak on this motion because, as Deputy Healy can tell, I am passionate about the rights and entitlements of people. I will argue the political points with the Deputy but the fundamentals are this is a House of the Oireachtas where we determine how we allocate money. It is our job, as Members of this House, to lobby, to advocate and to go to Ministers, but the point that is being lost by some is that this Government has allocated money to social housing.

I want to go back to the issue of health. Deputy Healy was with me today in the Joint Committee on Health and Children. We are spending €12.2 billion on health. Deputy Healy calls for it to be put into the Constitution. What would it mean, if we go to the hospital groups or to the old health board regions on which we served - Deputy Healy might not have served with me on the HSE south health committee - and if we were to put it in the Constitution that we must spend X? How would we prescribe where it would be spent in the context of health? Let us look at the issue of obesity. The biggest health issue we face in the country, which we have tackled to a point, is tobacco where we banned all but plain packaging. Obesity and its related issues will have a profound impact on us as a society because we are living longer, we are more sedentary and our diet is appalling. I would like to hear this teased out a little. How, by putting this into the Constitution, would we-----


Would Deputy Catherine Murphy say that again?

We change the culture.

I am coming to that.

It changes society. We need the Bunreacht to rely on Fine Gael.

I was posing a rhetorical question. What does one do? One empowers people to change the culture. That means one puts in place a policy, for example-----

It undermines the liberal agenda of this Government. That is what it does.

I am not liberal nor conservative. I am a people's person. That is where I am coming from.

Deputy Buttimer is neoliberal.

I do not label myself liberal or conservative. Some people might on the basis of certain things I am doing but I consider myself to be balanced.

One empowers people. One changes the culture. To do that, one takes the policy platform that is Healthy Ireland, out to the people and one engages with them. Deputy Pringle may disagree with me but our fundamentals will get us to the point in the road where we will change the culture. We did it with tobacco. We did it with drink driving. We did it with seat belts.

This will do it with government.

It is called empowering people as well. I will conclude on this because my time is nearly up. In enshrining what one wants to do, the most important point is to get a debate going on it. In my opinion, we barely tipped on it in the Constitutional Convention and it was probably the second best weekend of the convention. The reason was we empowered and educated people who did not really understand what this was about and who in some cases, in my opinion, were afraid of it. I am advocating that we take Deputy Pringle's Bill to Committee-----

Will Deputy Buttimer vote for it?

-----and do what we did regarding mental health and other issues in the health area and have cross-party support so we can arrive at a point.

That is what the Constitutional Convention was for.

I do not mind Deputy Healy having a different viewpoint. I am trying to be constructive. I am not necessarily against what he is trying to achieve. What I am saying to Deputies Healy and Pringle is we are a little premature in what we are trying to do in the context of getting to the point of what they want.

I thought the Government is rejecting the Bill.

I hope, and can only speak for myself - I am being very honest with Deputy Pringle - what we are trying to achieve here is having a policy that is people-centred in terms of how we allocate resources and give people rights and entitlements, and I am not opposed to that at all. However, we are, maybe, a step ahead of ourselves. One does not put the car from first gear-----

Fine Gael exclusively signed it.

If I said "Black", Deputy Joan Collins would say "White". In all fairness, that is the Deputy's history in here.

They came up with-----

One voice, please.

If I said "Black", Deputy Joan Collins would say "White".

Deputy Joan Collins has not heard my contribution.

I listened to it.

I am trying to be constructive.

Nearly 30 years after we had the debate.

I have my view, Deputy Joan Collins has her views and I hope we can meet somewhere in the middle. Deputy Joan Collins is for nothing and against everything; I am the opposite. I want to see people empowered. I want to see our country lift and rise. I want to see people work and have a decent standard of living. The politics of protest is one matter, but Deputy Joan Collins should not come in and lecture me about what I am saying. The Deputy should do me the courtesy-----


Could we have Deputy Buttimer, please?

Deputy Joan Collins is for nothing and against everything.

Fianna Fáil and Deputy Buttimer's party.

Deputy Joan Collins is for nothing and against everything. That is the Deputy's problem. I see the bigger picture; the Deputy does not. All Deputy Joan Collins sees is the placard at the end on the television or the newspaper.

Deputy Buttimer should not be patronising.

Deputy Joan Collins is doing the same. That is the case.

No. I am only saying-----

Deputy Buttimer has the floor.

There is merit in Deputy Pringle's Bill. In my opinion - I imagine we will not have a constitutional referendum before the end of this Dáil - it should be taken to a committee where we can have a real discussion and build cross-party support, as we did in many areas in health. That is all I am saying.

The next speaking slot is shared by Deputies Maureen O'Sullivan, Tom Fleming and Catherine Murphy.

Ar dtús, ba mhaith liom a rá go bhfuil díomá orm toisc go mbeimid ag vótáil anocht mar cheapaim go mbeimid go léir ag aontú leis an ngnó atá againn anocht.

I heard the Minister of State speak about the spring statement as if this was a justification for not accepting the Bill. The spring statement is one matter: enshrining these rights in the Constitution is another. It is disrespectful to the Constitutional Convention that such is the attitude that is being taken. If we are serious about economic, social and cultural rights which are valid and relevant, then we will enshrine them in the Constitution.

The Constitution was drawn up at a time when economic, social and cultural rights did not have the profile they have now, but now they do it is time to bring them into the Constitution. In 1937, there were a lot of positive elements in Bunreacht na hÉireann. Since then, we have signed up to quite a number of human rights instruments and charters. Looking back at what was there in 1937, there was a right to education - free primary education; there were the rights of parents of the child; there was protection for freedom of expression, of assembly, of association and the Irish language; and the right to property. There were other positive aspects to it as well. I was struck by one or two of the quotes:

The State shall strive to promote the welfare of the whole people by securing and protecting as effectively as it may a social order in which justice and charity shall inform [everything]...

especial care [of] the economic interests of the weaker sections of the community, and, where necessary, to contribute to the support of the infirm, the widow, the orphan, and the aged.

There is another paragraph on the "health of workers".

If we had stronger enshrining of economic, social and cultural rights, we would not have seen some of the policies, cuts and budget decisions that we have seen in the intervening years and it is vital that we look seriously at what is being proposed here tonight.

Article 45 states: "The principles of social policy ... are intended for the general guidance of the Oireachtas... and shall not be cognisable by any Court under any of the provisions of this Constitution." At the briefing last week, which Deputy Pringle organised, where we were addressed by Amnesty International, we were looking at that.

The point was made that the State will progressively realise these principles. It is subject to maximum available resources which, on the one hand could be regarded as allowing an excuse for government not to have the resources while on the other hand, allowing a freedom on which we could all agree, including those on the Government side.

If the Government were to accept the Bill it would be an acknowledgement of the kind of society we want for Ireland. By specifically including economic, social and cultural rights in our Constitution we are saying that we are committed to a just, inclusive and fair society. I have acknowledged what is positive in the Constitution. What is being proposed in this Bill complements existing rights. This is not an issue for the left, for the right, for the centre, left of centre or right of centre, it is something for the whole country, for all the citizens in this country.

I was a member of the Constitutional Convention, along with Deputy Catherine Murphy. A total of 85% of the convention voted in favour of amending the Constitution to include these rights. The Government made certain commitments as a result of recommendations from the convention, such as to respond within a certain timeframe, but that is not happening. This is also the case with regard to other recommendations. The response to economic, social and cultural rights was to have been given last July so we are running behind. Yet last week on two occasions the Dáil was left without any business to discuss. It was because legislation moved much quicker than was anticipated but why was there not provision for another debate such as this one? Equally why could a Friday not be designated as a day for considering some of the recommendations?

The Bill is about enshrining these rights in our Constitution and, in particular, the principle of human dignity which underpins these rights. I believe we can move forward by enshrining these principles and rights and to allow for what can be managed within existing resources.

I refer to another poll which said that 81% of respondents agreed with Government expenditure being based on rights. That is very significant. I put forward a Private Members' motion about a human rights-based budget and even though there was a lot of support from Government speakers acknowledging the validity of my proposal the motion was voted down. Tonight's Bill is as a result of discussions with organisations who are working directly on the ground with very marginalised and vulnerable people.

I refer to other aspects of the debate in the Constitutional Convention which was very open and frank. Aspects considered included the meaning of soft rights and hard rights. The debate considered the lack of concrete proposals and unintended consequences and the role of government, Parliament and the Judiciary. There was a particular discussion around the right to housing. The question was whether the right to housing meant the right to a two-bedroom apartment, a three-bedroom house, a bedsit or a bed in a hostel. The question of whether we can accept these rights without constitutional reform was also discussed. The point was made that other bodies exist which could ensure the rights of citizens such as the Ombudsman and various watchdog bodies. The rights could be protected by EU and international law and it could also be done by reforming the Dáil or through legislation or local government reform. These are all valid arguments. However, the upshot from the Constitutional Convention was that 85% of participants were of the view that all those other suggestions were not sufficient and that these rights should be enshrined in our Constitution. They are important as principles in our vision for the kind of society we want.

We should consider the Scottish model when looking at housing and the right to housing. In Scotland there is a legislative basis to the right to a home which has changed local authority practice. The Scottish system therefore engages with people at risk of homelessness, not when they are homeless. In view of this right, the local authority must be informed of anyone in the private rented sector who is threatened with eviction. This legislation was agreed by political consensus. I have a Bill on this subject waiting to make it onto the floor of the House. I worked with housing organisations and the Bill would introduce similar legislation here meaning that the local authority would not wait until a person is homeless and that it could deal with the situation beforehand. Scotland recognised that having people homeless and in emergency accommodation is very expensive - we know this too - not to mention the other emotional and psychological costs. Glasgow was able to close its emergency accommodation because it was not needed whereas in this country our housing situation is worsening.

I refer to the benefits of enshrining such rights in the Constitution. It will be a guide to legislators. What is being proposed is not extreme because they are part of the international body of human rights. They allow for transparent and evidence-based decisions. Ireland signed the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 1973 and ratified it in 1989. If those rights had been enshrined in our Constitution some of the messes might have been avoided. For example, the right to just and favourable conditions of work would have avoided the whole chaos over zero-hour contracts and the threat of privatisation. If everyone had the right to join a trade union and the right to strike we would not have employers giving ultimatums to their workers not to be in a union or paying lip-service to the idea of negotiating with their staff.

I raised the issue on Leaders' Questions last week of children living in appalling situations in homeless accommodation, in direct provision and children in care because their mothers cannot access housing. The protection of the right to housing would mean these situations would not arise. With regard to the right to a higher standard of physical and mental health, we are one of the few EU countries which does not have designated mental health nurses in accident and emergency departments to treat those who present with mental health issues. Huge progress has been made with regard to the right to education but we still have low rates of progression to third level from certain socio-economic groups. Our society has income poverty and has failed to meet the health needs of some of our citizens. We have an appalling situation so needs are not being met. We are increasing inequality.

Both the 1916 Proclamation and the democratic programme of the First Dáil were underpinned by principles of equality of treatment. This Bill wants to amend the Constitution to achieve this equality of treatment. I acknowledge Deputy Pringle's Bill and I acknowledge Deputy Healy who has permitted it to be promoted in his Private Members' time. It is a challenging Bill but what have we to be afraid of by enshrining human rights in our Constitution?

This June, Ireland will face a United Nations committee in Geneva to account for how it has protected and promoted the fundamental human rights of its people in areas such as social security, health, education, housing and living standards. This committee will be assessing contributions from the Irish Government, from civil society bodies and from the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission. This meeting is set against the backdrop of the State's legal obligation as set out in a treaty that was ratified by the Oireachtas in 1989, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

How do we define economic, social and cultural rights? Economic rights would include the right to work and to fair conditions of work. Social rights would include the right to social security, to an adequate standard of living and to adequate food, water, clothing and shelter. Social rights would also include the right to a decent standard of physical and mental health and the right to education. Cultural rights include the right to participate in the culture of one's community and to enjoy the benefits of science and technology. They would also include ethnic or religious minorities having the right to practise their own culture and faith and to speak their own language.

In recent years these rights became secondary to dealing with the banks. The most vulnerable in our society suffered and are still suffering very much, disproportionately. Our elderly, lone parents, disabled carers and those with special needs, have suffered deprivation and consistent poverty. These figures have increased annually since 2008, as evidenced by the 12% of children living in poverty in Ireland up to the year 2013. Recent alarming figures are evidence of food shortages, which is a significant deprivation and injustice for these children in particular. With more than 90,000 people on the housing lists and the looming threat of repossession for many thousands more households in deep mortgage arrears, housing supply is an urgent issue for this Government.

It must be noted that the main ESC international treaty gives states time to move towards providing these rights.

In other words, the rights must be progressively realised as such. This means that the State must work as quickly and effectively as possible towards the full achievement of economic, social and cultural obligations for all. The State must do this using the maximum available resources, which means the total actual resources available, not necessarily the total resources that the Government wishes to make available. Interestingly, once the economic, social and cultural rights are provided by the State then any measures that dilute, limit or reduce in any way the existing ESC rights require exceptionally strong justification.

On 31 March, the Constitutional Convention recommended to the Government by an overwhelming majority of 85% that ESC rights should be given enhanced protection in the Constitution. The Government was due to respond to the recommendation by the end of July. However, in breach of the convention's terms of reference, we now understand this response will not be given perhaps until late autumn.

The economic, social and cultural rights initiative is a network of organisations and individuals with a shared belief that an increased protection of these rights in Irish law would contribute to a more just, inclusive and equal society. The main question relates to education and health and these two issues are very much interlinked, especially with regard to the protection and delivery of services to our young population. We need to ensure they get the necessary quality start in their lives.

Research published by the Economic and Social Research Institute and the National Disability Authority indicates that the majority of children with disabilities in Ireland now attend mainstream schools. Many of them do not need additional supports to progress successfully through the educational system. To work out what supports are needed, we need to know the characteristics of the children with disabilities. In this way we can devise a coherent, effective and efficient system of delivery.

More than two thirds of these children have multiple disabilities. The most common disabilities are intellectual disabilities, for example, Down's syndrome, learning difficulties or dyslexia. Recently, it has been brought to my notice that a major proportion of dyslexic children are being refused special readers for the various upcoming leaving and junior certificate examinations. This is totally detrimental and puts them in a seriously disadvantaged position with regard to facing the most crucial matter of their lives. We will have to go back to the drawing board and reconsider the stiff criteria because the bar is set to a rather high level.

I have seen factual proven evidence whereby the people concerned have gone for independent assessment to reliable and reputable independent people or organisations. The ultimate recommendation was that they were entitled to the assistance. Their only course of action after being turned down in the appeals system has been to go to the Ombudsman for Children. I hope the people who have referred their cases for adjudication will get a sympathetic hearing from the ombudsman's office. It is a disgraceful situation. The Minister of State should talk to the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan. This is something that needs to be rectified. It may be a little late for this year but I imagine some message could be sent to the ombudsman's office to the effect that these people should be given something of a reprieve and fair play.

The report findings show that more boys than girls have disabilities and that the children affected are more likely to come from disadvantaged social backgrounds. In particular, the research provides new information about the population of children and young people with emotional, psychological and mental health disabilities. Young women with mental health disabilities have a greater risk of being absent from school compared with children with other types of disabilities, while young men with emotional, psychological and mental health disabilities have a greater risk of social isolation in that they are less likely to engage with their peers at school. These findings raise questions about whether schools are providing adequate social and personal supports to children and young people. Sufficient time should be set aside for this question. Perhaps now is the ideal opportunity to debate the role of the schools and guidance services in providing the necessary supports. It has been drawn to the attention of all public representatives, including everyone in the House tonight, that the loss of one-to-one career guidance services in our secondary schools represents a major deficiency in our services. These people do not simply advise on careers alone. Those affected can have many hidden problems and often they will not speak out openly in group meetings, etc. I call on the Minister of State to go back to the relevant Minister. Perhaps she could take a positive message with her. If the statistics are examined, I am sure it would be clear that there is a real and urgent need to rectify the situation.

I do not think I can remember a night in the past four years since this Government took office when we have been debating Private Members' business and there has been less interest. The Government has struggled to fill its speaking slots. All day today has been a fig-leaf of a session. It is something of an insult to the Opposition and the people who put this motion together.

What we will see in less than half an hour is no fewer than 55 people trooping into the Chamber to ensure the Government has a majority to vote down this Bill after paying no attention to it whatsoever. That is downright insulting. The Dáil week has been reduced because the referendums are on Friday. While I fully accept the marriage equality referendum is of great importance, people are asking what the second referendum is really about and whether it is one of the pivotal issues of our time. I would have thought issues such as housing and health care, both of which fall into the category under discussion tonight, would have been further up the pecking order of importance. People cannot find the time to come to the Chamber to sit and listen or contribute to this debate. That is really a disgrace. Another point is the tone of the people who have spoken which has not been in the spirit intended. What is intended is to look to the future about how we can change this country by putting rights into the Constitution. We know full well that a right stated in the Constitution has a different impact from certain legislation. This is why it is seen to have the importance it has.

I was one of those who took part in the Constitutional Convention. The convention was given a set agenda of eight topics to consider over a period of almost a year. There was only one opportunity to select a topic that the convention could choose. We should remember that the convention was a Labour Party initiative and that it was in the programme for Government. It is not something that a bunch of people simply thought up. I would have thought there would have been some respect for the convention. The fact is that the members of the convention selected this particular topic after canvassing widely, after many submissions were made, after people spent a year meeting one weekend every month or thereabouts and having read a great deal of documentation before going to the convention with an understanding of exactly what a change to the Constitution meant and having taken it seriously, particularly the citizen members.

I think they expected more, and many of them said they would judge the convention by virtue of the seriousness with which the Government took it. Tonight's debate is hugely disappointing from that point of view.

We have had all sorts of efforts in this regard, including the All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution in the 1990s, with a couple of Golden-Pages-sized tomes as a consequence. It always seems that the Government postpones the important things rather than seizing the moment and taking responsibility for making the changes that are needed.

The Constitution states that the State will vindicate the property rights of every citizen, which, in effect, means that one has the right to own, transfer and inherit property. There are restrictions to this right by virtue of Article 43, which acknowledges that the right to property must be regulated by the principles of social justice. However, we very rarely see the social justice side of that emerging. The one thing that does not mean is the right to shelter; rather, it is the right to property. There is a very significant difference, and most people understand that. For example, there are 100,000 people on housing waiting lists and 1,000 children in inappropriate accommodation this week, which we would not want for our own children. If it is not good enough for us, it is not good enough for other people's children in terms of how they live their lives. As we speak, Dublin City Council is handing out sleeping bags.

I am working with several families who are facing homelessness. Just this week I received an e-mail from one family - a couple with three children - for whom I had gone to whatever lengths I could to sort out their difficulty. I decided I would e-mail the council because I did not want a verbal response on this issue. I received the following response:

Dear Deputy Murphy... I met with [the couple] last week. The meeting was not successful in resolving their housing needs as the only message I could impart was the one we have to give all families in similar situations to [this couple's], which is that there is no short-term homeless accommodation available and they have to seek help from relatives in providing short-term accommodation, or that they have to seek their own private rental accommodation to meet their needs. This has to include their trying to rent where the market is affordable, which may be outside the county. We are aware that renting outside the county is difficult because the legislation requires a local connection to an area in another county to successfully apply to be on the housing list in that county, which is normally a precondition to applying for private rent subsidy anywhere in the country. While some families can establish a connection in another county, many cannot.

That is a load of nonsense, as the Minister of State knows. It is the standard reply that is being given to people who find themselves in a homeless situation. If a right to housing was stated in the Constitution, I believe we would get a different type of legislation. We would take the issue far more seriously and we would not see people like Jonathan Corrie tragically dying on the street within yards of this House.

Due to the impediments that exist in the Constitution, we cannot, for example, have rent caps, and when it comes to commercial property, we cannot end upward-only rent reviews and we cannot tax rezoned land in the way that was envisaged in the Kenny report. We need to change our Constitution to reflect the modern-day issues that need this kind of attention and protection.

In terms of economic rights, we are living in a country where 10% of the population own 50% of the wealth, while we have a child poverty rate in excess of 29% and we rank 37th of 41 countries in the UNICEF league table. Putting economic rights into the Constitution in a meaningful way would make a difference in terms of the political culture that would flow from those rights, because, essentially, people could then appeal to the courts when those rights were not vindicated. I believe that is how we change the culture.

One would wonder why much that is currently contained in the Constitution has not been challenged. For example, Article 40 refers to:

The right of the citizens to express freely their convictions and opinions.

The education of public opinion [through] the radio, the press, the cinema, while preserving their rightful liberty of expression, including criticism of Government....

Yet we have a situation in which the ownership of the media, and people's litigiousness, are shutting down public debate. I believe reforms are required in terms of rebalancing those rights so that we have the right of expression and the right to know the things that are being written but not printed by virtue of the regime we have at the moment.

I am very welcoming of the visitors we have this week, the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall. However, given the absence of Members in the House, which I think is because of their attendance at a banquet and all the rest, I would have to wonder whether we are living in a republic. A republic is not something we choose to live in; it is something that is dynamic and that must keep evolving. There is no evidence that there is any real active determination to change the Constitution, to change the culture and to really give people fundamental rights. I have to say that the Government has let itself down very badly with the way this day has unfolded in the House.

I thank the Deputies for the wide range of comments and analyses which have been made tonight, and I certainly accept their bona fides. This discussion raises important questions and the debate on this Bill provides the opportunity to reaffirm the Government's continued commitment to the promotion and protection of human rights, including economic, social and cultural rights.

The Government's active engagement during Ireland's review by the UN Human Rights Committee on the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights last year, together with the upcoming review by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in two weeks' time, which will be Ireland's third under that covenant, and, finally, Ireland's review next year under the universal periodic review process, all demonstrate the Government's active engagement with the international United Nations human rights framework. It is an important principle of our foreign policy to do all we can to assist the United Nations in its work to promote and protect human rights throughout the world. Naturally, part of the process is for us to engage with these treaty-monitoring bodies as they help call the Irish Government to account.

The Government fully understands the motivation and purpose at the heart of the Bill. Economic, social and cultural rights go to the core of Irish life. They relate to work, social security, family life, participation and access to housing, food, water, health care and education. This is why the Government engaged in wide consultation with civil society and the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission in preparing a national report as part of the examination under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights by the UN committee. In total, more than 34 organisations made contributions, and the Government looks forward to their continued engagement following the review. Many Departments will be present in Geneva in two weeks to provide the committee with further information on how Ireland gives effect to economic, social and cultural rights under this covenant.

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural rights requires states to progressively achieve the full realisation of these rights. This is a central goal for the Government, especially as we exit an era of austerity into a period of renewed growth.

In April this year, the Departments of Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform announced projected public spending increases and taxation cuts in budget 2016 of between €1.2 billion and €1.5 billion. Our budgetary framework is being strengthened, we have added 95,000 net jobs to our economy since the peak of the financial crisis and there will be an additional 50,000 students in our primary and secondary education systems over the next six years. In the most difficult economic times for this country, we have given one of the largest boosts to the education system.

Another significant development relates to the right to housing. A €3.8 billion six-year strategy is being implemented to deliver 35,000 new social housing units by 2020. I want to emphasise that the Government is committed to ensuring the realisation of economic, social and cultural rights for its citizens.

The establishment of the Convention on the Constitution was approved by a resolution of both Houses of the Oireachtas. Its membership comprised 66 randomly selected citizens, 33 politicians from both Houses of the Oireachtas and the Northern Ireland Assembly and an independent chair. The Oireachtas resolution set out eight specific topics that the convention was asked to consider and report on to it. These topics were examined by the convention in its first six reports which, in addition to making recommendations on the specific topics, also made ancillary recommendations on related issues.

The Government has already responded in the Dáil to five of these six reports. It responded to the first report on the voting age and presidential term on 18 July 2013; to the second report on the role of women and women in politics on 10 October 2013; to the third report on same sex marriage on 17 December 2013; to the fourth report on electoral reform on 18 December 2014; and to the sixth report on blasphemy on 2 October 2014. In the process, the Government accepted four recommendations from the convention for constitutional change, namely, marriage equality, reducing the voting age to 16, reducing the age of candidacy for presidential elections and removing the offence of blasphemy from the Constitution. As the House is aware, the Government will hold referendums on two of these recommendations on Friday, 22 May, namely, on reducing the age of candidacy for presidential elections and on marriage equality.

With regard to the convention's fifth report on giving citizens resident outside the State the right to vote in presidential elections, the Government announced in the recent diaspora strategy that it is necessary to analyse the full range of practical and policy issues that would arise in any significant extension of the franchise.

The Government has carried out an extensive programme of constitutional reform over the past four years. We have already held referendums on six matters, as follows: investigative powers for Oireachtas committees; judges' remuneration; the fiscal stability treaty; children; abolition of the Seanad; and the establishment of a Court of Appeal. The two referendums to be held this Friday, on the age of candidacy in presidential elections and on marriage equality, will bring this number to eight. If either of the two referendums passes, it will be the first time that a proposal for constitutional reform put forward by a constitutional convention resulted in actual constitutional change.

I have reflected over the past few weeks on what I have learned as a new Deputy who came to Dáil Éireann four years ago as we approach a possible general election. What I have learned is that the defining characteristic of establishment politics, in so far as they dominate the main political parties in the State and the political machinery of Dáil Éireann, are the politics of the deepest cynicism and arrogance.

In fact, I would go a little bit further and say that the predominant culture of politics for the political establishment and the mainstream parties is the politics of the sociopath and the psychopath. By that I mean a fundamental lack of empathy, not from individuals, because I am sure when they step outside the machinery of the Dáil or their political parties they are human beings like the rest of us with empathy. However, when people get in here the party whip is cracked and the policy diktat comes down from the Economic Management Council, the troika or whoever it is that really pulls the strings or the big corporate interests to whom the mainstream political parties consistently kowtow. What comes out is the politics of the sociopath and the psychopath. It is without empathy for the human beings who are largely the victims of the misguided, distorted, dysfunctional priorities set by the House and the mainstream parties which have dominated it.

What is happening today sums that up. The leaders of the country are sitting down with royalty having a banquet while they engage in studied contempt and dismissal of a Bill that attempts to address the lack of rights for the most vulnerable sectors of our society. It is a dirty secret of Irish society. The irony is further reinforced when the entire country is plastered with posters containing the word "Equality." It is a great word; I love it. I love that equality in terms of the right of LGBT people to marry is, I hope, going to be vindicated, long after time, this Friday. Like many others I will be working very hard right up to the line to ensure that equality, at least, is vindicated.

The fact that the word is plastered all around the country, often followed by the words "For All" should make us think about how our society is characterised by gross inequality that has significantly worsened during the period of office of this Government. That should be a matter of absolute shame for anybody who claims to represent the public or any Government. To read out the spring economic statement of the Government in response to a motion that seeks to put into the Constitution economic, social and cultural rights borders on obscenity. It is studied contempt.

I am sure there was laughter and chortling as the Government thought about how it would respond to this Bill. It probably thought nobody would be listening to the debate anyway, because all of the media will be down with the paparazzi looking at royalty and the establishment enjoying their banquet. Most despicably of all, some 236,000 are living in poverty in this country, which is beyond shameful. Those figures dramatically increased during the Government's time in office. Some 130,000 more children now live in poverty than when the Government came into office.

None of that was inevitable and none of it can be explained away by the economic constraints which the Government often cites as justification for its actions. The Minister of State's speech notes that Government expenditure was reduced from its peak of €63 billion to €54 billion between 2009 and 2014. That is an €11 billion reduction in expenditure on public services. Those services are precisely what the 1,000 homeless children need. They are needed by the 100,000 families that have been on the housing list for 18 years, by the people living in diabolical housing conditions and those living in consistent poverty. Two weeks ago when the rich list was published, we discovered that €11 billion is the exact figure by which the 250 richest people in this country have increased their wealth in the last year. The poor get poorer and the rich get richer.

There has been a systematic, massive transfer of wealth and resources from those who need them - the poor, the vulnerable and children - to the super-rich pals of the political establishment. While it is absolutely sickening and there is nothing to prevent it, this Bill provides that there would be something to prevent it. There should be something to say that the State has a bottom-line obligation to its vulnerable citizens and to provide them with a roof over their heads and a proper standard of education and health care. Anything less than that is not dignified or civilised. A State that is incapable of doing this should be seen as breaking the law and should be allowed to be challenged on that basis.

It is shocking that the Labour Party actually has a Bill on the Order Paper advocating this and yet its Deputies will troop in here tonight to vote against this Bill. They will hope nobody notices because everybody will be watching the banquet with the royals, wherever that is going on.

In closing the debate, I had hoped to be able to thank contributors for a well thought-out debate with constructive ideas and some exchange of views across the floor of the House. I had even harboured the possibility that the Government might agree to take the Bill on board and start the procedure whereby economic, social and cultural rights could have been put into the Constitution. I would have expected the Labour Party, in particular, would have taken the opportunity of the various centenary celebrations, such as the 1913 Lock-out, the 1916 Rising and the democratic programme of the first Dáil. Given the views of that party's founders, James Connolly and Jim Larkin, I would have thought that at least the Labour Party would have been prepared to start the process, but I was very much mistaken.

There is no doubt that the conduct of the Government and of the Minister of State, Deputy Sherlock, in particular, has been deplorable. I have rarely if ever seen such a display of arrogance. The Minister of State gave no justification for his opposition to the Bill. He spoke for 28 minutes about background and so on and spoke for about two minutes on the Bill. It was an insult to the members of the Constitutional Convention who gave their time, energies and weekends to discussing various constitutional options, including this one. They decided by an 85% majority to start the process of putting these rights into the Constitution. The 66 citizen members chosen at random will be particularly disappointed that the time and energy they have given has effectively been cast aside in such an arrogant manner.

The Labour Party's position is also an insult to its own members. It is an insult to Deputy Ruairí Quinn, who proposed a similar Bill in 2000, as well as to the Minister of State, Deputy Kevin Humphreys, who has a Bill similar to this on the Order Paper. The Minister of State, Deputy Sherlock's speech was effectively a justification of the inequalities over which the Government has presided in the last four and a half years.

It is worth repeating that lower and middle-income families have been carrying the brunt of the recession while very wealthy people have increased their incomes and assets during the recession and the term of the current Government. Recently, The Sunday Times told us that the 250 richest people have €73.4 billion between them, which is something like 30% of gross domestic product. A couple of weeks before that, the Sunday Independent told us the richest 300 people in Ireland have a wealth of €84 billion. We know from the Central Statistics Office, the official Government statistics, that the financial assets of the wealthiest people in society are now higher than they were at the height of the boom. Not so long ago, the Minister for Finance told me that the highest paid 10,000 people each have €595,000 per annum.

Side by side with that, there are approximately 100,000 families on social housing waiting lists and 340,000 people unemployed with a further 80,000 in schemes of various kinds. There are thousands of people on trolleys in our hospitals and those figures have increased since last year. Some 400,000 people are awaiting outpatient appointments and 35,000 families face eviction over the next few years. There are 300,000 mortgage holders paying a variable rate almost 2% higher than the European average. These people are bailing out the banks a second time.

It is no wonder that the Government, which includes the Labour Party, did not feel able to put economic, social and cultural rights into the Constitution when it has presided over a situation of immense social dislocation.

There is a huge sense of disappointment, particularly among members of the Constitutional Convention and the various non-governmental organisations which promote the idea of putting these basic rights into our Constitution. I commend the Bill to the House.

Cuireadh an cheist.
Question put:
The Dáil divided: Tá, 29; Níl, 68.

  • Boyd Barrett, Richard.
  • Broughan, Thomas P.
  • Collins, Joan.
  • Colreavy, Michael.
  • Crowe, Seán.
  • Doherty, Pearse.
  • Donnelly, Stephen S.
  • Ellis, Dessie.
  • Ferris, Martin.
  • Fitzmaurice, Michael.
  • Fleming, Tom.
  • Grealish, Noel.
  • Halligan, John.
  • Healy, Seamus.
  • Healy-Rae, Michael.
  • Mac Lochlainn, Pádraig.
  • McConalogue, Charlie.
  • McDonald, Mary Lou.
  • McGrath, Finian.
  • McGrath, Michael.
  • Murphy, Catherine.
  • Ó Caoláin, Caoimhghín.
  • Ó Cuív, Éamon.
  • Ó Fearghaíl, Seán.
  • Ó Snodaigh, Aengus.
  • O'Sullivan, Maureen.
  • Pringle, Thomas.
  • Shortall, Róisín.
  • Smith, Brendan.


  • Bruton, Richard.
  • Butler, Ray.
  • Buttimer, Jerry.
  • Byrne, Catherine.
  • Byrne, Eric.
  • Cannon, Ciarán.
  • Carey, Joe.
  • Collins, Áine.
  • Conaghan, Michael.
  • Conlan, Seán.
  • Connaughton, Paul J.
  • Conway, Ciara.
  • Coonan, Noel.
  • Corcoran Kennedy, Marcella.
  • Costello, Joe.
  • Creed, Michael.
  • Daly, Jim.
  • Deasy, John.
  • Deenihan, Jimmy.
  • Doherty, Regina.
  • Dowds, Robert.
  • Doyle, Andrew.
  • Farrell, Alan.
  • Feighan, Frank.
  • Fitzgerald, Frances.
  • Fitzpatrick, Peter.
  • Hannigan, Dominic.
  • Harrington, Noel.
  • Harris, Simon.
  • Hayes, Tom.
  • Heydon, Martin.
  • Howlin, Brendan.
  • Keating, Derek.
  • Kehoe, Paul.
  • Kenny, Seán.
  • Kyne, Seán.
  • Lawlor, Anthony.
  • Lynch, Ciarán.
  • Lynch, Kathleen.
  • McFadden, Gabrielle.
  • McGinley, Dinny.
  • Maloney, Eamonn.
  • Mitchell, Olivia.
  • Mitchell O'Connor, Mary.
  • Murphy, Eoghan.
  • Neville, Dan.
  • Nolan, Derek.
  • Ó Ríordáin, Aodhán.
  • O'Donnell, Kieran.
  • O'Dowd, Fergus.
  • O'Mahony, John.
  • O'Reilly, Joe.
  • O'Sullivan, Jan.
  • Phelan, Ann.
  • Phelan, John Paul.
  • Rabbitte, Pat.
  • Reilly, James.
  • Ring, Michael.
  • Ryan, Brendan.
  • Sherlock, Sean.
  • Spring, Arthur.
  • Stagg, Emmet.
  • Stanton, David.
  • Tuffy, Joanna.
  • Twomey, Liam.
  • Varadkar, Leo.
  • Wall, Jack.
  • Walsh, Brian.
Tellers: Tá, Deputies Seamus Healy and Thomas Pringle; Níl, Deputies Emmet Stagg and Paul Kehoe.
Question declared lost.
Faisnéiseadh go rabhthas tar éis diúltú don cheist.
The Dáil adjourned at 9.10 p.m. until 2 p.m. on Tuesday, 26 May 2015.