I call on the Minister of State, Deputy Paul Kehoe, to make a statement under Standing Order No. 43.
Convention on the Constitution Final Reports: Statements
I welcome the opportunity to respond in the House on behalf of the Government to the remaining reports of the Convention on the Constitution. I will deal with the seventh, eighth and ninth reports, and I wish to share my time with my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Ann Phelan, who will deal with the fifth report.
The establishment of the convention was approved by resolution of both Houses of the Oireachtas. Membership of the convention comprised 66 ordinary citizens randomly selected, 33 politicians drawn from political parties North and South, and an independent chairman. The Oireachtas resolutions set out eight specific topics that the convention was asked to consider and report on to the Oireachtas. These topics were examined by the convention in its first six reports. Ministers from the relevant Departments have already given the Government's response in the House to five of these six reports of the Convention on the Constitution: the first report, on reducing the voting age and the length of the presidential term, on 18 July 2013; the second report, on the role of women and women in politics, on 10 October 2013; the third report, on same-sex marriage, on 17 December 2013; the sixth report, on blasphemy, on 2 October 2014; and the fourth report, on electoral reform, on 18 December 2014. In responding to these five reports, the Government accepted four recommendations for constitutional change: removing the offence of blasphemy from the Constitution; reducing the voting age to 16; reducing the age threshold for candidacy in presidential elections; and marriage equality. The Government held referendums on reducing the age threshold for candidacy for presidential elections and marriage equality in May 2015. The marriage equality referendum passed by a majority of 62.1%. This is the first time a proposal for constitutional change put forward by a constitutional convention resulted in actual constitutional change.
I will turn now to the seventh report. The Oireachtas resolutions said that, having completed its reports on the items addressed in its first six reports, the convention could report on such other items as it saw fit. The convention chose two items under this heading, and its seventh report deals with the first of these, namely, Dáil reform. Before I respond on the report itself, I should recall that the Government has already implemented a wide range of Dáil reforms since taking office, many of which have had a significant impact on the way in which the House conducts its business. The process of parliamentary reform is, and always must be, an ongoing one. This Government can be proud of its record in this area. For decades, under previous Governments, reform of the Dáil and Oireachtas committees was ignored. Since taking office the Government has supported Dáil and committee reform by implementing a range of important measures, including the following: increasing the number of Dáil sitting days from 93 days a year under the previous Government to 123 days a year; introducing an additional session of Leaders' Questions on Thursdays; reforming ministerial Question Time by extending each slot to 75 minutes and requiring the Member asking the question to be present in the Chamber, and enabling a Member who is dissatisfied with an answer to a Parliamentary Question to appeal in writing to the Ceann Comhairle; replacing the outdated Adjournment Debate with Topical Issue debates taken by a Minister from the relevant Department, and allowing Deputies to postpone the debate if a Minister from that Department is not available; the addressing of the Dáil each year by the Taoiseach and Tánaiste, setting out the Government's annual priorities; opening up the law-making process through the introduction of a pre-legislative stage for Bills, conducted by the relevant Oireachtas committee, thus allowing for unprecedented and extensive engagement by the public in the law-making process; and the introduction of a provision whereby the proposer of a Private Members' Bill now has five minutes on First Stage to outline the purpose of the Bill to the Dáil, following which the Member can seek to have the Bill debated during a Friday sitting. The number of Bills introduced by Deputies has grown from 14 published in 2010 to 53 published in 2014. The process of reform must and can go further, specifically in the form of the Government's response to the recommendations contained in the convention's seventh report.
Some of the recommendations in the seventh report would require constitutional change, while others could be implemented by means of changes to Standing Orders. I will deal first with those requiring a referendum. The Government does not consider that there should be a change in Article 17.2 of the Constitution, which requires a money message from the Government before the Dáil passes any vote on legislation for the appropriation of revenue or public moneys. Nor, indeed, is it considered desirable to make a change in the related Standing Order. The convention also recommended including a reference to Oireachtas committees in the Constitution. In the programme for Government, a commitment was given to reduce the number of committees and give key committees constitutional standing. The Government has already moved, through its progress on Dáil reform, to reduce the number of committees and to make their operation more effective. The Government intends to follow through with its commitment in the programme for Government by accepting the convention's recommendation that a reference to Oireachtas committees be included in the Constitution.
The Government also accepts that there is a case for a referendum to enhance the Office of the Ceann Comhairle by giving it constitutional standing. It is true that the Constitution provides, in Article 15.9, that each House of the Oireachtas shall elect from its Members its Chairman and Deputy Chairman. There are also other references to the Ceann Comhairle in the Constitution, including of course the well-known provision with regard to the Ceann Comhairle being returned as a member of Dáil Éireann at the next general election. However, the Government accepts the recommendation that the role and office of the Ceann Comhairle can be further enhanced by giving it constitutional standing. The convention also recommended that the election of the Ceann Comhairle be done by secret ballot in the interests of enhancing the independence of the office. The Government intends to bring a new proposed Standing Order to the House next week and to ask the Members to agree to this reform.
I now turn to the recommendations of the convention that would require a change in Standing Orders. The Government does not propose to establish a forum chaired by the Ceann Comhairle to set the Dáil agenda. As regards the introduction of more free votes, this is really a matter for each political party or grouping. On other Standing Order recommendations, we will, as I mentioned earlier, bring forward a proposal to amend Standing Orders to provide for the election of the Ceann Comhairle by secret ballot. Standing Orders will also be amended to introduce a system whereby the Taoiseach will appear before the Working Group of Committee Chairmen twice a year. Provision will also be made by Standing Orders for the proportionate allocation of committee chairs using the d'Hondt system. As regards resources for committees, the Government welcomes provision by the Oireachtas of increased resources over recent years to support the work of committees.
A number of recommendations will be referred to the Dáil reform sub-committee for further consideration. The sub-committee will look at the recommendations that members of committees should have access to support from a panel of external members and former Deputies and at how the introduction of family-friendly hours for the Dáil and a committee week would work in practice.
I turn now to the eighth report of the convention, on economic, social and cultural rights. Briefly, it recommends that the State progressively realise economic, social and cultural, ESC, rights subject to maximum available resources, that this duty be cognisable by the courts, and that specific additional rights be inserted into the Constitution: housing rights, social security rights, rights to essential health care, rights of people with disabilities, linguistic and cultural rights and rights covered in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Obviously this recommendation raises substantial questions. They include, for example, questions such as the suitability or otherwise of the Constitution as a vehicle for providing for detailed rights in these areas, the possible cost, and the fact that there is already power by legislation to confer rights and determine expenditure via primary and secondary legislation and an elected and accountable Government and Oireachtas and that, unlike the Constitution, such legislation can be varied as needed and as availability of resources allows. Other issues include the absence of provisions for revenue to provide for any ensuing expenditure; concerns about transferring to the judiciary, which is unelected, the power to make decisions affecting the allocation of resources which are more appropriate for an elected Parliament and Government; and the current position of the State as regards debt levels and the need to meet stringent EU rules into the future. In light of these considerations, the Government has decided that this report should be referred to an Oireachtas committee for consideration of the various issues that arise from it.
The ninth report contains the convention's final recommendations and conclusions.
The convention members voted unanimously that there should be a second convention, but the report acknowledges that realistically this is an exercise that could be achieved only once in the lifetime of any Dáil.
The convention also voted on what topics could be considered by a future convention. It is interesting that the top three selected were the environment, Seanad reform and local government reform, as the Government has already taken a number of initiatives in these areas. For example, we introduced the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act 2015, which sets out the national objective of moving to a low-carbon, climate-resilient and environmentally-sustainable economy. In terms of Seanad reform, the Government presented a package of procedural reforms for the Seanad Committee on Procedure and Privileges in February 2014. The Government has also published a Bill to enable implementation of the 1979 constitutional amendment to extend the Seanad franchise to graduates from institutions of higher education in the State that do not currently form part of the Seanad university constituencies. A working group on Seanad reform was also established and reported last year. As regards local government, the House will recall that this Government has implemented the most extensive reform package in the history of the State. This included a reduction in the number of local authorities from 114 to 31, a reduction in the number of councillors from 1,627 to 949, the establishment of 95 municipal districts and the dissolution of 80 town councils. However, the question of establishing another convention and any topics it might consider will obviously be matters for the next Government.
I have addressed the recommendations made by the convention in its seventh, eighth and ninth reports. Before I conclude, however, I wish to acknowledge and commend the work of the convention and its members. Under the chairmanship of Tom Arnold, and with the help of the convention staff and the various experts who supported its work, the members of the convention demonstrated high levels of engagement with the issues, not just on the topics addressed today but throughout the lifespan of the convention. The exercise involved a considerable personal sacrifice on the part of the members, as they were required to give up their entire weekend on ten occasions. I take this opportunity to thank all involved for their dedication and commitment to this valuable innovation in our democracy.
I am pleased to have this opportunity to provide the Government's formal response to the recommendations of the Constitutional Convention contained in its fifth report.
Members will be aware of the Government's approach in this matter as the opportunity was taken in launching Global Irish - Ireland's Diaspora Policy last March to outline the Government's position on the fifth report of the convention. The Government's position was also outlined in this House during the debate on the Thirty-fourth Amendment of the Constitution (Presidential Voting) Bill 2014 on 11 March 2015. A clear majority of convention members were of the view that citizens resident outside the State, including citizens resident in Northern Ireland, should be given the right to vote in presidential elections. It is clear that extending the franchise, as recommended by the convention, would require an amendment to the Constitution. The Government decided that it would be necessary, first, to analyse the full range of policy, legal and practical issues that would arise before any decision could be made on the holding of a referendum. Accordingly, the Government asked the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, in co-operation with the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Minister of State with responsibility for diaspora affairs, to analyse these issues and to report back to the Government in due course.
It would be useful to remind ourselves of the main issues to be analysed. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has estimated conservatively that there are some 3.5 million Irish citizens resident outside the State, including those resident in Northern Ireland. At the other end of the scale, the Irish diaspora is estimated by some at 70 million. We must be aware, therefore, of the potentially very large number of citizens to whom the franchise might be extended and what the impact might be, both on the population of the State and with regard to the administrative and cost implications that would arise. In our analysis, we are considering a number of questions. Should all citizens resident outside the State have the vote in presidential elections or should it be limited to a particular category? Should it be citizens who are only absent from the State for a set period of time? If so, what would be the appropriate time, for example, five, ten or 20 years? Should it be citizens born on the island of Ireland only? Should it be passport holders only?
The implications of extending the franchise in presidential elections to citizens in Northern Ireland would present significant practical challenges. The potential electorate in Northern Ireland is sizeable. It has a population of approximately 1.8 million, with an electorate of over 1.24 million, the vast majority of whom have a birthright to Irish citizenship. In addition, Ireland and Northern Ireland have a unique constitutional relationship since the Good Friday Agreement and any consideration of the franchise issue would have to be considered fully in that context. This would include considering the political sensitivities there might be in legislating for the electorate in the North to vote in an election in this jurisdiction and the need to ensure that any proposal is fully consistent with the State's recognition of the current constitutional status of Northern Ireland.
Other practical and operational challenges would be no less significant if the franchise in presidential elections was extended to citizens resident outside the State. Arrangements for the registration of new voters and for voting by those voters would have to be workable and robust. Considerations arising here would include the method of voting, cost and resource needs and the security of the ballot. In summary, there is a series of complex and inter-related issues - issues of both principle and practicality - that must be analysed in detail. The Government is committed to undertaking that analysis and a start has been made on the work involved. At this stage, however, it will be for the next Government to consider taking this matter forward.
In conclusion, I commend the work of the Constitutional Convention. We all owe a particular debt of gratitude to the ordinary members of the convention for engaging so positively with this important work.
Fáiltím roimh an deis labhairt ar an ábhar tábhachtach seo. I am conscious of the short period of time we have. The amount of time allocated to deal with these outstanding reports is derisory. The time allocated, the fact that we are dealing with the reports in the dying days of this Government and the fact that so many reports remain to be considered are a total affront to those who participated in the Constitutional Convention, in particular to the 66 citizen members who gave so generously of their time, effort and energy and who were filled with enthusiasm for the initiative.
Fine Gael and the Labour Party called for the establishment of the Constitutional Convention as a key aim of the programme for Government. Both parties agreed to put agreed proposals made by the Constitutional Convention to referendum as well as putting all proposals made by the forum before the Dáil within four months. Both of these promises have been broken dramatically. None of the proposals of the final report of the Constitutional Convention has been taken on board, including recommendations on removing blasphemy from the Constitution, strengthening economic, social and cultural rights, reforming political and Dáil procedures and giving citizens overseas a vote. The Government has also not taken the opportunity to propose a slate of minor changes advocated by the Constitutional Convention and has given up on much of its vaunted idea of holding a Constitution day. Instead of letting the people deliberate and decide on these important changes to our Constitution, the Government has made a series of shameful U-turns.
Regardless of the merits of particular reforms, there should be an open public debate on the issues recommended by the convention. The people should have their say on the proposals. Instead, the Government has effectively shut down debate on these issues of political reform, denying citizens the right to make decisions on how we can reform the political system and culture in this country. The debate today is indicative of how little respect the Government has for the process of the Constitutional Convention, with the allocation of a mere two hours for the Dáil to discuss the final five reports of the Constitutional Convention. These are detailed reports to which a massive amount of expertise, deliberation and, not least, the valuable time and energy of the 66 ordinary citizens who participated in the forum were given. It is shameful that the Government thinks that by holding this debate today it is giving due consideration to these reports. Now it believes it is free to shelve them.
I will use the rest of my time to speak about the recommendations contained in the reports on voting rights for citizens abroad, the removal of the blasphemy provisions from the Constitution, Dáil reform, the potential for inclusion of further economic, social and cultural rights in the Constitution and on the recommendations for further constitutional reform that the convention did not discuss.
Fianna Fáil supports the proposals of the Constitutional Convention to extend voting rights to Irish citizens abroad and in Northern Ireland in presidential elections. A clear majority of convention members favoured a change to the Constitution to give citizens resident outside the State the right to vote in presidential elections, with 78% of members in favour. Ireland is unusual internationally in not allowing citizens resident overseas to vote in any elections. There are two exceptions; members of the armed forces and the diplomatic services are able to vote in Dáil elections, while only NUI and Trinity College graduates can vote in the Seanad. Beyond these exceptions, only those who are ordinarily resident in the State may vote. The Government recently launched its diaspora policy, Global Irish, and claims to value the input and contribution of citizens abroad to our public affairs. However, the report cynically casts aside and downplays the genuine desire of citizens abroad to have a role in electing the President. While the Government applauds itself on its diaspora policy, it is yet again ignoring demands from Irish citizens abroad and in the North of Ireland for recognition from the Irish State. The diaspora policy actually confirms that the Government has chosen to ignore the recommendation of the Constitutional Convention that emigrants and residents in Northern Ireland be given the right to vote in presidential elections. The diaspora report is patronising in its tone towards these citizens and dismissive of the Constitutional Convention. It dismisses the demands of citizens abroad for a vote as being "challenging to introduce and to manage". Its calls for yet another consultative report with reference to matters of complexity is utterly disingenuous. It simply fobs off the idea that Irish citizens abroad be given a right to participate in Irish elections. Why do we need another consultative report while the Constitutional Convention has produced such a consultative report which the Minister is simply choosing to ignore?
Another recommendation that the Constitutional Convention made and that the Government has sought to ignore is to hold a referendum on the recommendation to remove the references to blasphemy in the Constitution and replace them with a prohibition on incitement to religious hatred. This is a great pity and a missed opportunity to modernise our constitutional architecture. The current blasphemy provision in Article 40.6 is archaic. Replacing it with a new provision and fresh legislation detailing religious hate crimes would have ensured religious groups were protected from incitement while freedom of speech was not unduly constrained. As a liberal democratic country in western Europe and part of the EU, Ireland has been used by extremist groups and autocratic regimes alike as a pretext for oppressive laws and systematic discrimination, often against Christianity or other religions that do not accord with the majority. There is a moral obligation on Ireland as a democratic nation to stand up for human rights, of which freedom of expression is one of the most fundamental. Ambiguity on the issue undermines Ireland's international standing. The recommendation of the convention struck the delicate balance between freedom of speech, the cornerstone of human dignity, and respect for deeply held religious values. Freedom of expression is the cornerstone of a democratic society. Any constraints on it must be clear and limited. However this is not the case with blasphemy in Article 40. The blasphemy provision in the Constitution has not been properly defined and has been ineffective in achieving its original aim. Replacing it with a new provision on incitement to religious hatred will protect religious belief, which is most important, from unwarranted inflammatory attacks. A new provision on blasphemy and fresh legislation will protect deeply held religious beliefs more effectively.
The Government has failed to live up to its much vaunted new politics with a botched Seanad abolition referendum. Subsequently, it has abandoned any effort to change how we do politics in this country. The Government promised a democratic revolution and delivered quite the opposite. The history of the Government's measures to date illustrates its failure to grasp the nettle of reform. Instead, it has concentrated power in the hands of the EMC at the expense of the Houses of the Oireachtas. In Dáil Éireann, the Government has completely broken its promises for a new politics in a damning indictment of its commitment to reform. For instance, the Government is systematically breaking its programme for Government pledge not to guillotine Bills, with 63% of legislation being guillotined to date. A fine example is the ramming through of the Irish Water legislation in a single day. In respect of 78% of Bills, the Government has failed to implement its programme for Government commitment to allow two weeks between Stages. The Topical Issues debate is being completely undermined by the failure of relevant Ministers to turn up in over 40% of cases. The Friday sittings farce is mere window dressing to bolster sitting days without any real debate. Only one piece of legislation taken on a Friday, which was Deputy Penrose's Bill Private Members' Bill, has found its way to the Statute Book. The Government continues to engage in cronyism in State board appointments, ignoring the open public process. The recent raft of Dáil measures taken without consultation will, in reality, disempower the Opposition and give more time for Government back slapping by its own backbenchers. The attitude displayed to date by the Government belies the fact that the people have voted for genuine change. Instead, the risk is that it has hardened its centralising agenda to the detriment of pursuing meaningful change.
Fianna Fáil has been committed to finding common ground in developing a consensual approach in reforming the Dáil. Reform must encompass a broader approach to all tiers of the State in order to re-shape the structure of Irish politics to make it fit for purpose. We need a holistic political reform which is critical to genuinely changing how we do politics in Ireland. As the Government has abolished town councils and slashed local democracy, the need for real reform is more apparent than ever. To free up the Oireachtas from Government control and strangulation, a number of key measures could easily have been implemented which still can be. For example, establishing a new office of policy and economic oversight would ensure that Members had access to expertise and sufficient information in the decision-making process. As the Constitutional Convention recommended, the Government could use its current powers under the Constitution and appoint experts via the Seanad as Ministers. We could revamp Standing Orders for the Dáil to strengthen individual Members' roles and create an independent committee system. Finally, we could introduce an independent, properly resourced electoral commission with a wide remit and adequate enforcement powers. It is a grave indictment of the Government's political reform agenda that none of these measures was taken.
The Constitutional Convention also explored what further economic, social and cultural rights could be inserted into the Constitution. A key issue in the debate around whether to enshrine socio-economic rights lies in whether this would mean handing decisions on the allocation of scarce resources away from the Oireachtas and to the Judiciary. In other states where socio-economic rights are enshrined, judiciaries have generally taken a restricted view of their application and avoided wading directly into government decisions. In Ireland, under Article 40.3.1o, the Judiciary has been empowered to interpret unenumerated rights. This has meant that since the seminal mid-1960s case of Ryan v. the Attorney General, the Supreme Court has used case law to find rights not explicitly stated in the Constitution but drawn from the broader spirit of the document. The Constitutional Review Group report in 1996 advocated amending Article 40.3.1o to restrict wide ranging judicial interpretation and to list out explicitly the fundamental rights contained in the Constitution. Enshrining socio-economic rights without amending Article 40.3.1o may lead to a further extension of judicial power as the creative approach to the Constitution enables the Judiciary to widen its influence over areas currently considered the remit of day-to-day politics. Our stance is that Article 40 could be amended so that judicial activism was constrained and a comprehensive but not exhaustive list of rights explicitly stated. This would allow for a judicial discretion to react to social change and avoid rigidity while stating the values and goals of the State through the people's express will. Such new substantive rights, in addition to the right to a primary education, could include a right to housing or shelter or a right to a decent standard of living or income. I see many issues with inserting such explicit substantive rights into the Constitution, not least the unintended consequences it could have on the State finances.
The final report made some valuable further recommendations for constitutional reform. The recommendation to insert a declaration on environmental protection or stewardship has merit as a fundamental constitutional principle. It also recommends local government reform.
After the abolition of town councils and the other backward steps the Government took in respect of local representation, we need a new vision of local government in order to engage ordinary citizens, strengthen representation and deliver for people on the ground. This must involve a fairer level of representation in towns, the creation of community councils and reforms to executive powers, such as directly elected mayors or new cabinet structures at local authority level, if we are to ensure more genuine powers in terms of enterprise support, planning and recreation for those local authorities.
The Constitutional Convention was a remarkable forum and it was great to be involved but it is a shame that more of its recommendations were neither taken on board by the Government nor allowed be put to the people in referendums. Given the quality of the deliberations that went into the convention's work, it is incumbent on the next Government, whatever its composition, not to shelve these reports but to use them to modernise our Constitution further and reform the political process.
Recently, the Taoiseach proposed the establishment of a people's forum of one sort or another regarding the right to life issue. It is difficult to be wildly enthusiastic about this proposal when one considers the commitment made by people to the Constitutional Convention and the fact that the timescales initially set out for it by the Government were not met in any case. As the Dáil draws to an agonising close, we find no fewer than five of the convention's recommendations being considered in a very short and inadequate timeframe. There is no one sitting on the Government side who participated in the Constitutional Convention and heard the recommendations-----
My apologies. There is no one sitting on the ministerial benches who participated but Deputy Dowds was most certainly there and made his presence felt. I would like to have seen the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Charles Flanagan, who engaged directly in the process, in attendance today. He has a detailed understanding of how the convention worked and the value of its output.
I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for giving me this time. I wish to express, perhaps as well as the Minister of State did, my hope that the outstanding reports will not be put on a shelf to gather dust but will instead be used by the incoming Government to advance the cause of change that the people have supported.
The convention was established in 2012, which seems a lifetime ago, to discuss amendments to the Constitution. It met on 1 December 2012 and sat until 31 March 2014, which also seems a lifetime ago. It was a great undertaking and I acknowledge and commend the work of the convention's chairs, its secretariat, the expert advisers and panels and, in particular, the citizens who participated in the exercise.
There was an element of scepticism and criticism - some of it worthy - when the convention was first established. This was an experimental approach that drew on a representative group of citizens to participate with politicians in considering an eclectic and Government-selected range of topics. It never went as far as we in Sinn Féin would have liked. We had our criticisms. Nonetheless, we played our full part in all of its deliberations and our party attended all of its sessions. We were fully committed to making it work well.
Overall, the convention was a worthwhile exercise. In some cases, it dealt with serious constitutional changes, albeit in a piecemeal way. It is good and healthy for any democracy to give citizens an opportunity to play their part in a process that could decide groundbreaking constitutional changes and take a country in a new direction politically. Involving citizens made democracy more inclusive and representative. They took their participation seriously and there was a high standard of debate at every session. People were passionate and idealistic and argued their points with thought and obvious commitment. It was refreshing for politicians and citizens to interact in that manner. Too often is it the case that citizens across the State feel excluded from and irrelevant to the democratic process. The convention process was a deliberative one, which made it all the more interesting, as citizens and political representatives were challenged to consider, reconsider, reach a position, revise it and draw a conclusion.
Let us consider our current position. It is almost two years since the convention concluded its deliberations and nine reports have been issued. In a statement to the Dáil in July 2012 on the convention's establishment, the Taoiseach stated how important it was to have a timely response to its recommendations. He stated: "The Government recognises that unless the reports the convention produces are responded to quickly, the convention and, indeed, the very process on which we have embarked will be called into question." Here we sit in what my colleague called the twilight hours of this Dáil. By the Government's inaction, it has essentially called into question the efficacy of the process from start to finish. Sinn Féin, the other parties and the citizens who gave of their time certainly played their parts. What is in question is the Government's lack of engagement and its neglect. This seems a deliberate ignoring of the convention's recommendations and reports. No one signed up to this process to be ignored, sidelined, second-guessed or patronised. An inordinate Government delay is disrespectful to those who gave of their time and it is disrespectful to the citizens in question that we are only dealing with these reports in a rushed and restricted way when they should have been addressed separately and through proper debate. That was the least that was required.
Given the political scandals that have plagued domestic politics for decades, who can blame the public for their cynicism towards high-level politics and politicians? It is not only incumbent on everyone elected to public office to adhere to high ethical standards, although that is crucial, but to demonstrate to our citizens that politicians are not just here for self-aggrandizement or selfish gain or to pursue our own agendas at the expense of ordinary persons. The Constitutional Convention enabled the inclusion of ordinary citizens and helped to give them ownership of the democratic and political processes through a partnership. Some of the cynicism that people felt towards the political process could have been alleviated. How disappointed and let down must they feel after so much dithering? We have waited almost two years for movement from the Government. What there has been has effectively been non-movement. We acknowledge the convention's great success that was the passing of the referendum on marriage equality. Besides this one blip on the radar, though, there is an obvious Government disinterest in and detachment from the process, which confirms the worst fears of a disillusioned public that a convention touted by the Government as a central plank of its proposed political reform agenda was, in the Government's mind, really a talking shop.
I suspect that were it not for the imminent election, we might never have heard again about the Constitutional Convention. More than likely, the reports and consideration would have been consigned to some dark cabinet to gather dust.
A great deal of goodwill was invested in this work, the deliberations and consideration. Therefore, I do not make criticisms lightly at this juncture. One should remember that when this process started, the Government gave the appearance of being fully committed and engaged therein. The convention, with a very modest and limited budget and few resources, met its deadlines. In the end, it produced 38 recommendations, including significant proposals for reform. The Government committed to responding to each report, within four months of publication, in a full debate in the Houses of the Oireachtas and to establishing a timeframe for the holding of referendums. One can almost hear the wind whistling and see the tumbleweed rolling by waiting for this to happen.
I want to address what I believe to be a worrying aspect of the responses the Government has given, such as they are. In the first instance, I wish to address the statement made by Minister of State, Deputy Ann Phelan, on votes in presidential elections for citizens resident outside the State. It is self-evident that such a departure carries with it complexities, as she put it, and issues of principle and policy. I do not thank the Minister of State for coming into the Chamber and making such an obvious statement. That said, these issues need to be teased out. The convention, in deliberating on these matters, hearing from expert witnesses and debating the various topics, considered very many of the complexities. It took a decision that the matter of voting rights merited the making of a proposition to the people by way of a referendum. It now seems the Government is rejecting that decision of the convention. It states these issues must be considered time and again. Inadvertently, it seems anxious about the electorate in the North of Ireland. I wonder why that might be.
Having committed to the convention and seen how right it was on the issue of marriage equality - an issue that was complex and potentially controversial in and of itself - the Government should not be overriding the decision and recommendation of the convention. It would be a different matter if there had been a split vote or a decision on the margins. This issue, however, commanded overwhelming support and it must be put to the people. The Government's foot-dragging on the matter is wholly unacceptable.
I am very concerned about the Government's response on economic, social and cultural rights. The Government knows that we signed up to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights as long ago as 1973, and we ratified it in 1989. Therefore, we have accepted these rights in principle. Clearly, it seems we are in favour of them. The next logical step is to enshrine the framework and entitlements in our basic law and constitutional text.
I recognise that there are real issues to be weighed up and considered, as with any form of constitutional change, but I am most alarmed by the very predictable response of the Government to the effect that it does not wish the Judiciary to intrude on matters that properly belong to the Government and to have an undue influence in respect of the use of the resources of the State. I do not accept that the resources are limited, as stated by Deputy Seán Ó Fearghaíl.
They are finite.
They are finite, yes. We could debate that.
The Deputy is splitting hairs.
The very purpose of enshrining rights such as these for citizens is that it makes those rights justiciable and places an onus on the State to vindicate them. It is disingenuous and wrong of the Government to state it is bothered by this because the Judiciary might get stroppy with us. Perhaps it is bothered by this innovation, supported by the Constitutional Convention, because it would actually force the State to honour basic entitlements of the citizen. Many of the entitlements have been trodden on for generations.
Both Fine Gael and the Labour Party supported the constitutional enshrinement of economic, social and cultural rights when in opposition. In 1999, Members from both Government parties voted to support a Labour Party Bill that sought this. How is it that the parties have changed their mind now? How is it, despite the deliberations and firm conclusion of the Constitutional Convention, that the Government thumbs its nose not only at the process, but also at its conclusions?
Over the holiday period, the Minister of State, Deputy Gerald Nash, looked into his soul, de Valera style, and said he believed the constitutional position on women in the home ought to be put to the people in a referendum. Well done to him. Bravo. I thank him for catching up. In fact, that very matter was deliberated upon and considered by the Constitutional Convention. The issue, as with many addressed by the convention, should have had its complexities and nuances well teased out at this stage, and it should rightfully have been put to the people in a referendum. We need another Constitutional Convention. I hope it will not be as ad hoc and piecemeal as its predecessor. At its core must be an understanding that when the deliberative process ends and citizens and convention as a whole make decisions, those decisions will be respected and honoured by the Government of the day.
The next slot is shared by Deputies Maureen O'Sullivan, Thomas Pringle and Paul Murphy.
Having been a member of the Constitutional Convention and, with Deputies Buttimer and Keating, having an attendance rate of 100%, I can certainly acknowledge the tremendous work and commitment of its members, both political representatives and citizens, in addition to the staff and chairman, Mr. Tom Arnold. I acknowledge, in particular, the meticulous planning, the availability of experts, the submissions and the input on the various matters the convention was dealing with. The principles guiding the convention were such that it was to be innovative, influential and independent. Once it got going, it certainly showed its independence. It would have been truly independent if, at the first meeting, it could have chosen the topics to be considered. However, we were presented with a fait accompli regarding what was to be discussed. There were eight designated topics, from the Presidency down to women and blasphemy, but a real opportunity was missed. While each of the topics was significant and important to certain sectors, they were not all burning issues of the day. Nevertheless, each was discussed at length and there was testimony and input from a range of people.
The convention certainly did its work in a very timely way, and the secretariat must be acknowledged in this regard. The nine reports were published. To date, however, only five have been subject to statements in the Dáil. This shows a lack of respect for the convention. There is now a rush in respect of the remaining four topics. Despite this, there have been occasions in the Dáil when time allowed for legislation or other statements was not all used in full or when certain items due to be considered were not considered. It is a pity that the time could not have been used.
All the discussions at the Constitutional Convention were conducted in a manner that was respectful of the wide variety of views on the issues at hand. As with previous speakers, I acknowledge that the highlight of the convention was the discussion on marriage equality, which was a respectful, dignified and emotional debate. There was obvious relief at the end of the weekend in question when the convention voted overwhelmingly in favour of marriage equality.
At the end of the discussion on Topic 8, the Constitutional Convention demonstrated its independence when members discussed other potential topics for debate. While a wide range of issues arose, those on which the largest number of submissions were made were, first, the environment and, second, economic, social and cultural rights, on which 132 and 104 submissions were made, respectively. The two additional areas were Dáil reform and economic, social and cultural rights. The environment must be a topic for a future Constitutional Convention. I do not believe the Minister of State's comments on the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Bill because the legislation most certainly does not cover all the issues that must be covered in the area of the environment.
This debate focuses on voting outside the State, Dáil reform, economic, social and cultural rights and the Constitutional Convention's final recommendations. The possibility of allowing people to vote abroad received widespread support at the convention. One issue that arose in the discussion on this issue was the position of people who are outside the State at the time of elections, whether on holiday or for work purposes. As the Dáil does not operate to a fixed term, people do not know on what date an election will be held until shortly beforehand. If people were aware of the date of an election, they would be able to make arrangements to vote. I have met Irish people abroad, particularly those who are doing development work with non-governmental organisations in very difficult circumstances, who are upset that they cannot vote in elections. While no one wants a return to electronic voting, which was a debacle, information technology has come a long way in the intervening period. That option deserves to be examined again.
The Taoiseach has responded to the report on Dáil reform and supports the election of the Ceann Comhairle by secret ballot. This could be an academic exercise in cases where governments have significant majorities. More respect must be shown for the role of the Ceann Comhairle, and perhaps that would be the case if the Ceann Comhairle were to challenge Ministers to a greater extent when questions are being asked, in particular when they are not being answered.
I am aware of the proposal to have a committee week and I accept that committee work is interrupted when votes are called in the Chamber. However, the proposal would not work for practical reasons. For example, the design of this building means we could not accommodate simultaneous sittings of all the committees. I am a member of the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement and the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade whose staff and secretariats do amazing work.
I listened to the Minister of State's comments on economic, social and cultural rights. The fact that addressing this issue would be difficult should not preclude us from doing so. I refer in particular to the rights of people with disabilities.
Speaking as an Independent Deputy and member of the Technical Group, the Oireachtas must keep up with the changing nature of Irish politics. Irrespective of how many Independents are elected to the next Dáil, they must be recognised in Standing Orders to ensure they are not required to fight the battles that Independent Deputies had to fight in this Dáil.
As chairperson of the Irish section of AWEPA, I thank the Constitutional Convention for facilitating a number of parliamentarians from Libya, Yemen, Egypt and Tunisia who wished to attend the convention. We had a very good discussion when they were present.
I will repeat a point I made when I spoke at the opening of the Constitutional Convention in Dublin Castle. We must balance the need to reform certain areas of the Constitution that are in need of reform, while protecting those parts of the Constitution that have served as a solid foundation for our democracy. As a woman who enjoys many rights because I live in a democracy, I am very conscious of those women in other countries who have few, if any, rights.
I am glad to have an opportunity to contribute to the statements on the Constitutional Convention. The Government's response to the recommendations of the convention makes for sobering reading. According to Second Republic, overall, the Government has accepted 32% of the convention's recommendations for constitutional reform and 58% of its recommendations for policy reform. While this may look good on paper, when one delves a little deeper, one finds that only 11% of the convention's recommendations on constitutional reform and only 5% of its recommendations on policy reform have been implemented.
Most strikingly, according to Second Republic, key provisions such as citizen initiatives, for example, 1YI, the one year initiative, for which I have been campaigning, have been rejected or have received responses from the Government that can be described as ambiguous at best. It will be very important, as we enter the general election campaign, that candidates add citizen initiatives to their agenda. A second Constitutional Convention, as called for by Second Republic, should be established or citizens forums should be introduced, as proposed by the one year initiative.
It is vital that the Government acknowledge that its response to the reports before us is 313 days overdue. This is pathetic. It is clear the Government has not taken the Constitutional Convention and parliamentary procedures seriously given that it has not bothered to respond in the Oireachtas to two reports within the prescribed four-month timeframe. The 66 ordinary members of the Constitutional Convention gave up their time free of charge and showed incredible dedication to the convention process. They deserve more respect and recognition than has been shown to them. If that does not make one angry, what about the fact that the Government will be between 533 and 660 days late in responding to the final four reports being debated today?
I will dedicate my time to advocating that the Government or its successor address economic, social and cultural rights. Last year, the Government voted down a Bill I introduced which would have enshrined economic, social and cultural rights in the Constitution. It argued, as the Minister of State has done again today, that it would be difficult to enshrine these rights in the Constitution. That is not the case. What would be difficult for the Government would be to accept the burden of vindicating the rights of citizens in the economic, social and cultural spheres. This is the reason it resists proposals to enshrine such rights in the Constitution.
Limited provision is made for economic, social and cultural rights in Bunreacht na hÉireann. Enshrining such rights in the Constitution would bring it into line with a growing trend in many countries which have revised their constitutions to include economic, social and cultural rights. Some 26 European Union member states have made some form of constitutional provision for economic, social and cultural rights. Internationally, 106 constitutions protect the right to work and 133 provide the right to health care. This demonstrates that the idea that one can reflect such rights in the Constitution is a tangible objective.
In the ninth and final meeting of the Constitutional Convention in February 2013, 85% of its members voted in favour of strengthening these rights and the Government made a commitment to respond to its recommendations within four months of publication. In March 2014, the convention issued to the Government a recommendation that it implement these rights and the Government was due to respond by July of the same year. Almost one year later, we are still waiting for a response from the Government to proactively address the status of economic, social and cultural rights.
To counter the lingering myths presented by the Government, it is important to give an idea of what these rights would entail. Economic rights would entail 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; the right of everyone to form a trade union or join a trade union of his or her choice; and the right to strike. Social rights would entail the right to social security; the right to protection and assistance of the family; the right of every person and his or her family to an adequate standard of living, including food, clothing and housing, and the continuous improvement of living conditions; 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 education. Cultural rights would entail the right of everyone to take part in cultural life, enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and 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.
The Constitution should provide for these rights. It would be difficult for the Government to do so because vindicating these rights would require a change in the culture of government, which is what this Government is afraid of.
I thank the ordinary people who participated in the convention on the Constitution and produced a series of recommendations within the limited framework under which they had to work. It is the position of the Anti-Austerity Alliance that a left-wing Government would begin a more fundamental process than the Constitutional Convention. We would commence a debate in society with the aim of writing a new Constitution because the current Constitution is utterly unfit for purpose in today's society, as it was in the society in which it was written. We need a Constitution that places equality and social justice at its core, one which enshrines economic, social, cultural and environmental rights as primary rights which are superior to the right to profit. We need a secular Constitution which enshrines the separation of church and State, unlike the current Constitution, and is democratic and socialist.
I welcome the recommendation from the Constitutional Convention on strengthening economic, social and cultural rights.
If that were done, it could make a real difference to people's lives, but it is clear that the Government has no interest in that happening. Let us suppose the right to a home were enshrined in the Constitution and were said to be higher than the right of a bank to maximise its return on a mortgage, the right of a landlord to squeeze as much as he can out of a tenant or the right of developers to maximise their profits. That would make an immediate difference to ordinary people. It would blow away any idea that there is a constitutional problem with having proper rent controls. It would bring pressure on the Government to build the homes that are needed. The same applies in terms of the right to decent health care for all as opposed to the right to access second-tier health care. The same applies to the right to work and the right to strike. I also welcome the fact that a majority took the view that the rights of the environment should be enshrined in the Constitution.
Why is the Government not interested in that? Why do the people responsible in the Government say these matters need to be considered when it is obvious the Government will not consider them? It is clear that the Government does not want to constrain future Governments in having to meet the aspirations of people in terms of economic, social and cultural rights.
The Government and previous Governments were happy to constrain future Governments to implement a great deal of austerity. They were happy to sign up to the fiscal treaty, the six-pack and the two-pack. They had no problem constraining future Governments, including in respect of the potential to end up in other courts, etc. The problem arises when it comes to enshrining the right of people to a decent living standard. The Government has a problem with that. They fear a Portuguese-type situation. In that country under a relatively progressive constitution the citizens were able to take the Portuguese Government to court and win by way of rejecting some austerity measures. The Government's response says it all.
I also wish to reference the question of the separation of church and State. The convention did not get a chance to discuss this matter properly. We believe this is central. It is unacceptable that the State, from its inception, handed over the provision of many public services to the church to get away from its responsibilities and as an instrument of social control. That close connection between the church and the State was the context in which scandals such as the Magdalen laundries could take place. It is also the context in which people do not have the basic right to abortion, for example. We still have blasphemy in the Constitution. Despite the fine promises of the Minister of State, Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, we still have not seen a referendum on this issue.
My final point relates to the question of the future amending of the Constitution. A burning issue for many is the question of the repeal of the eighth amendment. The utter, deep and cynical hypocrisy of the Labour Party will not go unnoticed by ordinary people.
What utter rubbish.
The Labour Party is having meetings around the place. Those involved, having been in power for five years, are saying it is time to repeal the eighth amendment. They had plenty of time to do it. However, they rejected a Bill in the Dáil precisely to repeal the eight amendment. I am referring to the Thirty-fourth Amendment of the Constitution Bill. It is utter hypocrisy and people can obviously see through it. Incredibly, the Minister of State, Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, has said that the reason the Labour Party rejected that Bill was because the Bill was unconstitutional. A bill to amend the Constitution cannot be unconstitutional. People should campaign for repeal of the eighth amendment and for the right of women to access abortion.
Deputy Robert Dowds and Deputy Eoghan Murphy are next and are sharing time.
It was an honour for me to be a member of the Constitutional Convention, as was the Acting Chairman. It was very good that this initiative was agreed and followed through. In the first instance it was a Labour Party initiative to have a constitutional convention. While there were many shortcomings in terms of how it was run and so on, there were many positives too, especially the recommendations which led to the marriage equality referendum. I pay particular credit to Deputy Eamon Gilmore for his work on that. There were certainly shortcomings. For example, it was a waste of time to spend a weekend discussing the length of time that the President should serve. It would have been better if more time had been spent discussing the issue of Dáil reform.
My time is limited and I may come back to some other points. I welcome the announcement by the Chief Whip in respect of the election of the Ceann Comhairle by secret ballot and the other two reforms to which he referred. These are good developments. I am keen to concentrate most of my remarks on the question of Dáil reform. Much of the discussion on this topic at the Constitutional Convention was around the question of our electoral system. I regret the general thrust of the recommendation on that front, because it was largely a rehash of our current system with what I regard as its worst points amplified. For example, many people were in favour of even larger multi-seat constituencies. I regret that the Constitutional Convention did not warm to a system of elections like those in Germany and New Zealand, where there is a split system involving single-seat constituencies that elect half the members, while the other half come from a party list. That would be a better system. It can be done to give parties approximately the right percentage of seats according to their percentage of the vote. Clearly that would be fair and such a system would have numerous advantages. Our system with multi-seat constituencies, whether at national or local level, leads to considerable duplication. For example, the four Deputies from a given constituency could pursue the same issue. We should consider this in respect of the cost of parliamentary questions and so on. If we had a situation where a constituency was represented by one Member, it would help to remove some of that and it would have many other advantages as well. There would be fewer internal party disputes in all political parties in scenarios where Deputies are trying to get the better of a constituency colleague. In many cases that colleague is his greatest rival, more so than a colleague from an opposing party. It is reminiscent of comments supposedly made by Winston Churchill to a new Tory backbencher, although perhaps he made them in a slightly different context. He told the backbencher that his opponents were across the floor but that his enemies were behind him.
I will go on in this vein a little. If we had such a system there would be less of a need for individual parliamentarians to pander to the lowest common denominator in terms of their constituents' needs and they could take a long-term view.
Deputy Murphy has agreed to allow me to go on for two more minutes.
The Topical Issues debate will begin at 4.42 p.m.
I will finish quickly. It would be easier for people in that situation not to be populist. That sort of populism was one of the things that got this country into great trouble. We need to try to move away from it to the greatest extent possible. Also, in that alternative scenario it would be easier to have a more flexible Whip system, because a party would not have to protect people against other people in their constituency.
A broader view needs to be taken, not only by politicians but also by the general public. The referendum on inquiries was voted down by the general public. That happened because people are so suspicious of politicians. It is important that people realise that, while it is clear there are a few corrupt politicians, the vast majority are not and they need to be given the power to do their job properly. The great advantage of politicians is that, unlike the Civil Service and the Judiciary, we can get rid of them if we do not like them or what they are doing.
I echo the comments of Deputy Dowds on how we elect people in this country. Just because something comes from a Constitutional Convention does not mean that it is right.
I have already spoken in the Chamber on the Constitutional Convention's report and will not repeat what I said but I would like to focus on the seventh report on Dáil reform in the limited time I have. I thank the members for their work in that regard. When we discuss changes to the Dáil and what we do in here, changes to the Constitution are not necessary to achieve fundamental reform. There can be changes to Standing Orders and simple changes in practice and habit.
The proposal to elect a Ceann Comhairle by secret ballot is a fundamental reform which is very welcome. It will mean that greater independence will be given to the Chamber and greater powers for it to act as a check and balance on Government behaviour, which is what it is meant to be. We did not have that in the years leading up to the crisis and it is part of the reason we had a crisis. It is a welcome change from which a lot more change will flow. It is important to note that when we see commentary on this change, people refer to it perhaps coming back to haunt the Government. That proves that it is a fundamental change because the Government is ceding power to the Parliament, which means it is a fundamental and important change.
Some of the things of merit that need to be fleshed out include how exactly the election will take place. Such a change was introduced in Westminster in 2007 and has been very successful there. It is important that there are no party nominations and that nominations come instead from the Members of this House, separate from their party affiliations, to ensure independence in terms of the vote. It is important that a candidate going forward needs nominations but the threshold for nominations should not be so high that it would be difficult to be nominated.
It is important that there is an opportunity for candidates to address the Chamber but not so much opportunity that they can have private meetings in the background or do deals. Rather, they should be able to speak to Members about why they should be elected to chair the House. I would also like to see the election take place after Ministers are appointed, thereby not precluding anyone who might be very well got in the Chair from going forward because he or she might have hoped for preferment to ministerial office.
The further change in regard to the d'Hondt system is another fundamental change that is very welcome. I also agree with the point on finding some way to allow people who are outside of the country at election time to vote by way of a postal vote.