Equal Status (Admission to Schools) Bill 2016: Second Stage [Private Members]

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

Education policy can throw up many opinions and preferences, some of them contradictory, but most of us agree that children benefit from meeting and getting to know others from different backgrounds and religions. Most of us agree that diversity in our schools is an opportunity for society, not something to feel threatened by. No Member would support the idea of parents being coerced to baptise their children just to secure a school place for them. We would, I hope, find this offensive, from both a religious and a secular perspective, yet most of us, certainly from the Dublin area, have come across these cases. Most, if not all, Members agree that local children should have access to their local schools because they serve as the centre of our communities. As society becomes more diverse and as more people opt out of the predefined roles assigned and imposed by religion, our school system faces a watershed. Can it adapt and cope with the new demands that parents now make of it?

No single change in the law will meet all those parental demands. In particular, where pupil applications outnumber pupil places, the solution will not be found simply by rewriting school admission policies; the solution is to build more schools, and that is what we did during our term in office. Our national school system was originally intended to be religiously mixed way back in the 1800s. However, from the beginning, all the main churches refused to co-operate in the provision of religiously mixed education. Despite the State's intentions as the founder and funder of the system, it became overwhelmingly a denominational system of separate provision, and the State, in successive editions of the Rules for National Schools, increasingly recognised and even enshrined this denominational reality. This development reached its peak in rule 68, which dates back to 1965. In that rule, the Minister and the Department instructed our State-funded schools: "Of all the parts of a school curriculum Religious Instruction is by far the most important". Every school was instructed that a "religious spirit" was to inform and vivify all its work. My colleague, the former Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, rightly revoked this rule last December. It is, of course, no function of the State to instruct schools about the place of religion in the education they provide.

The problem now is that we have a system of national schools that are privately owned but publicly funded, and access to those schools is decided by religion, but we still have a Constitution that envisages something different. This goes back to the 1800s, and there is a clear tension between different constitutional provisions that have an impact on admission policy for our schools. On the one hand, the Constitution makes it clear that the State is entitled to fund denominational schools and that those schools are entitled to provide religious instruction during the school day. On the other, the Constitution also requires that legislation on State aid for schools must not prejudice the right of any child to attend a State-funded school while opting out of religious instruction. This much has been stated in the Supreme Court: if a school accepts public funds, then any child, no matter what her or his religion, is entitled to attend that school and has the right not to attend any course of religious instruction at the school. However, we as legislators have not yet come to terms with what this means and what it imposes on the design of our education system.

The Constitution Review Group reported in 1996 that Article 44.2.4° had the potential to give rise to difficulties. Our task, therefore, as legislators is to strike an appropriate balance between the right of a school to preserve its denominational ethos and the right of a child to attend a State-funded school and to avoid religious instruction there if that is what the parents of the child wish. In other words, when a denominational school accepts State funding, it must accept that this aid is not given unconditionally. The State-funded school must be prepared in principle and in practice to accept pupils from other denominations or none and to provide separate secular and religious instruction. The Bill aims to achieve this effect in law.

I acknowledge that our Bill does not go as far as some commentators and interest groups would like, and I will spell out clearly why. Discrimination in the provision of education is generally prohibited by the Equal Status Acts, but there is an exemption for denominational schools. Section 7(3)(c) of the 2000 Act provides that a school does not discriminate where it admits one child in preference to another on religious grounds. Some campaigners have called for a straightforward repeal of this subsection to end the exemption for schools from our anti-discrimination laws. I acknowledge that the call has a certain appeal, but I believe this is seriously flawed as a solution. Suppose the Act was amended to outlaw a discriminatory admissions policy for State-funded schools and it was insisted on that every school must be open first and foremost to its neighbouring children, with students enrolled on the basis of proximity rather than religion. If there were two national schools in a particular area, one Catholic and one Presbyterian, both schools would no doubt protest against the change in the law but both would comply with it. At the end of the admissions process, simple demographics dictates in the Republic that the Catholic school will still end up with a largely Catholic student population. The problem is that the Protestant school will also, particularly if it is in my area of west Dublin or in Lucan or Swords, because the Catholic population is so numerous that, on a proximity basis, they would more than likely fill both schools. If the law was amended in this manner, it would have to be applied equally and in a non-discriminatory way to schools of all Christian denominations and all minority faiths. Ironically, even though those who want a change in the law are chiefly targeting Catholic schools, only these schools would survive the impact of such a change.

A repeal of, rather than an amendment to, section 7(3)(c) would spell a more or less immediate end to participation in our education system by the Church of Ireland and the Methodist and Presbyterian churches, as well as the Jewish and Islamic faiths. This proposal might well appeal to ex-Catholics, but it takes no account of non-Catholics, and that must make it constitutionally dubious. Since the public funding of denominational schools is contemplated by the Constitution itself, any preconditions that are imposed by the State to receive that funding could not be such as to destroy the denominational character of a school. If schools admission policy was required to be entirely neutral on religion, the smaller the faith, the greater the risk that its schools would entirely lose their denominational character, a character our Constitution rightly entitles them to have.

Even if we were constitutionally entitled to do so, we in the Labour Party do not want to see an end to minority faith participation in schools and, therefore, our Bill does not seek to destroy the ethos of denominational schools. It does seek, however, to impose conditions for State funding that reflect the requirements of the Constitution. It falls to us to propose this Bill because the Government has already made clear that it has no intention of legislating in this area and we are back to the scenario of St. Augustine, the long grass, holding off and Lord let me do it some day but not just yet.

At present, the law states that a school can absolutely refuse to admit a child on religious grounds if the school can prove that the refusal is essential to maintain the school’s ethos. That would be a very hard case to prove and it is not used in practice. Therefore, we do not propose to change this provision. The Act also states that any denominational school can give preference to children of its own denomination. There is no test of necessity and no proof required at all. This exemption applies to every school, regardless of whether it is State-funded. Such a preferential admissions policy might, for example, provide for admissions of, first, Catholics of the parish, then, second, Catholics from outside the parish, and then, third, local non-Catholics.

A "religious first" rule for enrolling students requires the production of a baptismal certificate or equivalent as a condition for admission. As a result, non-baptised children can be turned away, especially in urban areas where schools are hugely over-subscribed. I am very familiar with this in my area. The patrons of all the different religious denominations and patrons such as Educate Together and community national schools work hard, notwithstanding the contradictions in our law, to ensure that as far as possible every child is a welcomed child in the school, regardless of religion, ethnic or cultural background. We must acknowledge the aspect of the present law that sanctions a preferential admissions policy, admitting students from outside the school’s catchment area in preference to those of a different religion or none who live in the area. That is the problem with the existing law. Such policies run the risk of depriving more and more non-Catholic children of education in their neighbourhoods.

The purpose of this Bill is to amend the Equal Status Act to redress the imbalance between the right to maintain denominational schools and the right of children to receive a secular education in a State-funded school. Under our proposals, a denominational school’s preference for one religion would only be accommodated to the extent that it is demonstrably needed, by reference to actual circumstances, to meet the demand for denominational education in its catchment area, in accordance with the conscience and lawful preference of parents. Once that local need is met, the school cannot continue to prefer its own co-religionists to fill up the remaining places. I should make it clear that we intend to allow each school to define its catchment area under its statutory enrolment policy. Not every catchment area is equal in size. A Catholic school may well be in a local parish comprising a few thousand houses while a Protestant school may well serve half a county. We have examples of that in Dublin and in Meath. We have that factual situation.

Another important change is proposed in our Bill. It states that, in deciding whether an admissions policy or a refusal is proved to be essential, due regard must be had to the constitutional right of any child to attend a State-funded school without attending religious instruction, and also to the concomitant obligation that every such school should be so organised as to enable that right to be enjoyed. If the local State-funded school is the only reasonably available school and it is a denominational school, then, notwithstanding its religious ethos, the secular and religious instruction in that school must be severable to enable a child to attend that school without receiving religious instruction. Otherwise, the school should not qualify for public money.

I refer again to the report of the Constitution Review Group, an eminent body that included two former Attorneys General and a director general of that office, as well as two future superior court judges. On this issue, the group concluded bluntly that the denominational character of the school system does not accord with the Constitution. The report states:

The situation is clearly unsatisfactory. Either Article 44.2.4o should be changed or the school system must change to accommodate the requirements of Article 44.2.4o.

Faced with the choice between amending either the Constitution or the school system, that group did not recommend a change to this part of Article 44.2.4o. First, it pointed out that the provision was a limited exception to the general constitutional prohibition on the State endowment of religion. Second, it argued that if Article 44.2.4o did not provide safeguards for minorities, the State might be in breach of international obligations. It argued that an amendment would be a retrograde step in the context of Northern Ireland and would send the wrong signal concerning pluralism in the State. We in the Labour Party accept these arguments. We are not proposing an amendment to the Constitution but, if the Constitution is not to change, then the education system must change to align itself more closely to what the Constitution requires. Therefore, denominational education providers must accept that public money is not given unconditionally. The Constitution imposes requirements. It requires that every publicly funded school must be prepared, in principle, to accept pupils from denominations other than its own and to have separate secular and religious instruction. That is not just the Labour Party’s position, it is also the position, or very close to it, of most of the parties in the Dáil having regard to the recent general election manifestos.

In the spirit of new politics, it is open to the majority in the Dáil this week to progress this Bill through Second Stage and send it on to Committee Stage where we can continue the debate, reach consensus and, finally, make an agreed improvement to the law. I do not claim that its drafting is perfect or that it covers every conceivable contingency, but Second Stage debate is about accepting the principles and policies of a Bill. If it is accepted, we can all contribute to improving the Bill on Committee Stage.

I have seen the Government's proposed amendment to the Bill. I understand the Minister's good intention in this respect but the road to inaction, particularly in this Dáil, is paved with good intentions and, in a way, an excess of talk. The Government's proposal is that this Bill will only be deemed to be read this time 12 months hence. It is to be postponed for 12 months. It would be helpful if we could set a political target for parents because this is about parents, boards of management, teachers and patrons all trying to do the best for the children of the area. I represent Dublin West where we have the highest level of diversity in the State and where an extraordinary contribution is made by patrons, teachers and parents for the betterment of children. We as a Dáil should aim to have this legislation in place for the 2017-2018 school year. It would address the issue in this context of parents having to be involved in baptism where they do not wish to do that. If they wish to do it, it is a wonderful celebration, but if they do not, there is something false and forced about it. If this Bill were accepted and we then dealt with it in committee and at pre-legislative scrutiny level, we would then be ready for that timeline. I urge the Minister, in terms of our Republic, that this is the appropriate thing to do and not to dilly-dally with this for another year.

As this is a precarious Dáil at times, is another year the equivalent of putting it off for three years or more? I understand that the Minister is well disposed and has engaged very generously in the discussion, but I suggest that he rethink the amendment he proposes, because it puts the matter out of bounds in terms of academic years for several extra years. I am not sure that is his intention, but it is the consequence of what he proposes. The Minister also proposes that we sort out so many issues when, in fact, as I think I have outlined in my speech, most of the pertinent issues are addressed in the Bill. Where they are not, the proposals that have been put forward by the different groups and the parties in their manifestos are capable of being addressed on Committee Stage so that we have the best outcome for all of our children in the diverse society that many of us happily live in now.

I move amendment No. 1:

To delete all words after “That” and substitute the following:

"Dáil Éireann resolves that the Bill be deemed to be read a second time this day twelve months, to allow for scrutiny between now and then by the Oireachtas Committee on Education and Skills and for the Committee to consider submissions and hold hearings that have regard in particular to ensure that:

(a) the proposed Bill strikes a balanced and measured approach in relation to competing rights;

(b) the proposed Bill does not give rise to any unintended consequences that create any adverse impact on the schools of minority denominations;

(c) the issue of catchment areas for schools will be examined, with due respect to the importance of established geographic boundaries and organisation, as well as having taken into regard experience in other jurisdictions and the views of stakeholders;

(d) the proposed Bill takes account of any impacts and distortion on school transport policy and provision; and

(e) the proposed Bill does not give rise to Constitutional difficulties;

and to fully discuss and explore other practical issues and consequences that may arise as a result of the proposals, and further agrees that the Bill would proceed separately from the Education (Admission to Schools) Bill, scheduled to be published by Government this term.".

I welcome the tabling of the Bill by Deputy Joan Burton. It is important legislation. Contrary to what the Deputy inferred, I am keen that progress be made in this area. I did not say I was not keen to progress the legislation; rather, I have always said I was keen to work with the committee to advance legislation in this sphere. That is because when the education committee has examined this issue in the past, it recognised that there were difficult legal and constitutional issues that had to be balanced. This is not a simple issue but a complex one. Nonetheless, it is important, and I am very keen to progress the work. That is the spirit in which this amendment is put forward.

I am very keen to progress other areas where choice for parents can be genuinely opened up. I will push ahead with the admissions Bill, on which a great deal of work was done by Deputy Jan O'Sullivan when she occupied the post I now have. She did a great deal of good work, including pre-legislative scrutiny. The Bill did not include a provision of this nature. There is a lot of established work with which we can progress. The admissions Bill is well worth pursuing. It will bring extra clarity and definition to the area and be good for parents. I am also determined to push ahead with a plan to build on the work of Deputy Jan O'Sullivan and her predecessor, Ruairí Quinn, to expand the number of multidenominational schools available in our system. We have set a target of 400 over 15 years, which will represent a considerable acceleration of the pace of transfer. Clearly, a great deal of work will go into that.

Deputy Burton rightly pointed out that there are huge numbers of patrons, students and boards out there doing fantastic work. It is my genuine belief that they deserve the opportunity to attend hearings held by the Oireachtas committee and make their input. This is an issue that will have an impact on many schools and they need to have a chance to assess it and inform us in the Oireachtas of the potential impact it might have. There is a strong case to be made that children should not be unreasonably refused access to their local schools. That has been well articulated by Deputy Burton and others. In particular, oversubscribed schools should not routinely pass over local children to admit children of their own denominations where those children have options in their own areas. That is a principle that informed Deputy Burton's Bill. It is vital that we provide for the consultation that a proposal of this nature involves. Everyone has recognised that there are legal and constitutional issues, and in her own presentation Deputy Burton picked her way carefully through them to ensure that she respected them. It is very important that we get the reassurance not just of this debate, which will be short, but of the sort of scrutiny that can occur in committee and that it deserves.

The Bill has raised a number of particular matters that will have to be examined much more closely when we get to the hearings stage. The Bill relies on a school's catchment to define the area within which preference can be given. The concept of a catchment has not been used in Irish education legislation and as such it is a new one. It is not particularly defined in the Bill. It is certainly arguable that a better approach would be to permit preference for a child where he or she does not have a closer school of the same denomination rather than to define "catchment," which is a term we have not used in the past and that is not clear, although I think from Deputy Burton's presentation that she envisages that catchments would not be standard things. Every school would have a different type of catchment which it would presumably define for itself. That obviously provides scope for creative definitions of "catchment" to allow the continued exclusion of local children. A school could define a catchment as a whole county or the whole country. There is an issue that needs to be examined there. The Bill ties catchment of a particular school with catchment of a particular denomination, which overlooks the practice whereby particular Protestant religions frequently give preference to children of other Protestant traditions even though they are not of the same denomination. That is a practice with which we should not lightly interfere.

The concept of requiring a religious school to prove, even within its own catchment, that its preference is, in the words of the Bill, essential to ensure reasonable access to children of that denomination within the catchment certainly pushes the issue quite far. Article 44.2.5° includes the right of religions to organise their own affairs. Even though the schools are in receipt of public funds, there is an issue with a requirement to prove that it is essential. Furthermore, the criteria against which the schools would have to prove that case are not set out. These are issues we need to examine. I am aware that the existing Equal Status Act uses that phraseology in respect of individual refusals, but the admissions Bill we are promoting will provide that a school that is not oversubscribed cannot refuse entry to any pupil. We are going beyond the requirement to prove that it was essential to disallow it in those cases. We need to tease out how the system would work in practice. One of the things about which we must be careful is the risk of creating a situation in which parents have no choice of school. We do not want to do that. We do not want to have parental choice constrained totally by address. Parents are recognised as the primary educators in our system, and that should be facilitated so that they have as wide a choice as possible. One of the things I am very keen to do is to expand that choice and to provide more multidenominational schools so that parents can operate their own choice to have their children taught in schools of their own ethos. That is the best outcome for parents, which is not to say that parents who choose to have a child in a school that is not of their ethos should not be properly accommodated also.

The matter of catchment may also raise issues for boarding schools, which will need consideration. That is especially so in the context of many Protestant boarding schools, which have very broad catchments. That is part of their attraction. The Bill introduces a provision on children who are opting out of religious instruction with regard to some kind of test to prove that preference was essential. I am not sure I see how those two things are connected.

There are constitutional and, given the education legislation, legal obligations to ensure a child's parents who want to opt out have the facility to do so.

This is a constrained debate, but I will welcome this legislation in the short time that is available to me. Our approach of providing a year during which these issues can be teased out will be helpful and allow us to move ahead swiftly, given that we will have worked through complex issues. If these issues had to be reflected upon and developed solely within the Department without having the opportunity to share that work with Deputies or for the committee to hold hearings with people in a public forum, the preparatory work would not be as well done. The way in which Deputy Burton and the Labour Party have proposed the Bill has given us an opportunity. We can push on with the elements relating to, for example, the admissions policy and move to the point at which the Dáil can make decisions on the Bill, which complements some other measures. The old phrase is, "If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." There have been many reforming people before me in the Department. I want to build on their work and not let valuable measures prepared in the previous Oireachtas be lost.

I hope this offers Deputy Burton some reassurance. My approach to the Bill is constructive and not in the spirit of St. Augustine. I have forgotten what he said, but I know the phrase.

Let him be chaste, but not just yet.

Exactly. We need to proceed with the necessary care that public hearings of the Oireachtas committee would provide us. In that spirit, I commend the amendment to the House.

We will move on to the Fianna Fáil slot. Deputy Thomas Byrne is sharing time with Deputies O'Keeffe and O'Loughlin.

I thank the Labour Party for introducing this Bill. It seems that, if we have proper consultation on this issue, it will be possible to reach a consensus in the Dáil. However, I do not see that consensus yet. For my part, that is primarily because I have not been able to meet all the interested parties. I have met some impressive lobby groups that made good cases in seeking the repeal of the Equal Status Act and other measures, but this is the holy month of Ramadan for Muslims and I have not been able to meet them as a result. The Church of Ireland has not been available to meet either, although it sent an urgent message this evening about its concerns with the Bill. For these reasons among many others, it is essential we take time to consider the Bill and speak to all the interested parties. They must be heard just like we and the impressive lobby groups that want change for good reasons must.

While Fianna Fáil supports the Government amendment, we would not allow the period to reach one year as a means of delay. As Deputy O'Loughlin, the incoming Chair of the Committee on Education and Skills, will agree, this issue can be addressed efficiently and must be dealt with properly. In recent years, time has been wasted on the divestment process, covering only a little of the distance that we must travel on the issues of choice and ethos in schools. Using a sledgehammer to crack a nut or demanding change without consultation or bringing people along has proven a barrier to change. A slightly different approach is necessary if we are to bring people with us. Everyone can see that the arguments are correct. Fianna Fáil accepts that the treatment of non-Catholic parents and children in the education system is an urgent rights issue and must be addressed quickly.

This situation has resulted from the changes in our society and the ever-increasing mismatch between patronage arrangements and the wishes of parents. I acknowledge the role of religious organisations in providing education via the national school system. Some provided it when no other education was available. While we must remember that some of the people involved shamed that work, I thank the religious overall. They are not in our schools as much as they used to be. In general, they did tremendous work for decades when the country had few resources.

The Equal Status Act 2000 prohibited religious discrimination in educational services. However, it allowed schools to enrol co-religionists in preference to members of other faiths when the schools were oversubscribed. Some 20% of schools are oversubscribed nationally, but particularly in Dublin. This has become a live issue. Having met those parents who cannot get their children into local schools, their case is inarguable to some extent and is one for which I have great sympathy. This situation has arisen on occasion in County Meath. I agree with the Minister that our policy while in government, that of providing choice, has worked in some areas. In Ashbourne and where I live in Meath, one generally has a wide choice of educational providers, for example, Catholic and non-Catholic Gaelscoileanna, Catholic national schools, Educate Together, etc. This is good and forms part of the solution to the problem.

No parent should have to baptise a child just to get that child into a school. All children, regardless of religious denomination or outlook, should have access to a school in their local communities. Every Deputy will agree that this principle should be self-evident. However, amending section 7 of the Equal Status Act in the manner proposed in the Bill is too simplistic. As some of the minority faiths that have contacted me today have said, this would endanger the ethos of minority faith schools. I do not like the idea of them having to prove that a refusal or admissions policy is necessary to protect their ethos. The Minister has outlined the constitutional difficulties with it. While I will not go into the detail, this approach would invite court decisions, which would not be right when the issue can be addressed in a better way.

We favour the introduction of selection criteria for oversubscribed schools based on locality and catchment while recognising that children of a particular faith are entitled to attend a school of that faith. The Bill does not address the so-called baptism issue in school admissions properly. Proving an admissions policy is difficult. Going through the question at the committee of what would be required to protect ethos would be useful. Ethos is difficult to define. There is a Catholic ethos, but some schools have a different Catholic ethos. Educate Together has its own ethos and, although it has been in existence since the 1970s, we have only become more aware of it in our communities in the past 15 years or so. What is ethos and what needs to be protected?

Fianna Fáil's policy refers to catchment areas, but I would be the first to admit that this issue needs to be examined. I agree with the Labour Party and disagree with the Minister that catchment areas will form part of the solution to the issue, as schools should have catchment areas. There must be a way of allocating resources fairly. We must work out what catchment areas are. I am unsure as to whether I agree with the Labour Party's approach of letting a school decide, since a school could apply an especially broad catchment area. I am unsure whether the State should get involved in parish boundaries. We should stay away from that if we can. However, we must have a way of recognising catchment areas. Some schools include catchment areas in their admission policies and there are bus catchment areas and so on, but this matter has not been properly examined by the State to date. Deputy O'Loughlin's committee will have to consider it to provide guidance for us.

We have only received brief legal advice on the Bill, as it was published last week, but we believe there will be constitutional issues with it. I say this in good faith. The Labour Party issued a statement on Monday asserting that this was the new politics and it would consult other parties about the Bill.

Quite frankly, there was no consultation. Although I met Deputy Burton and, in fairness, had a fruitful conversation with her, it was very much off the cuff. We just bumped into each other. It was a worthwhile conversation but it would not strike me as consultation. I do not wish to be too critical on the issue but believe that if I had this Bill before the House, I would certainly be canvassing opinion across all sides rather than simply going in for a Dáil debate. Canvassing opinion would have been worthwhile because we could have expressed some of our concerns on the Bill, perhaps at an earlier stage. In any event, this can be done by the education committee, and it needs to be done by that committee. We believe the Bill requires further scrutiny before it passes through Second Stage. The problem with simply passing Second Stage today is that the Bill will just proceed to Committee Stage, which traditionally does not provide for consultation or for people to come in to give evidence. It simply involves a line-by-line examination of the Bill.

We could change that.

We could change things but it would be better to opt for pre-legislative scrutiny before engaging in line-by-line scrutiny. Line-by-line scrutiny is pedantic; it is about words and their meaning. The issues are too big to be dealt with simply by addressing definitions. We really need to examine broader issues such as catchment and ethos. We should explore on the public record why this issue is of particular importance to minority-faith schools. As I stated, I have not been able to consult representatives of at least two minority faiths, and I am sure the other parties have not been able to do so either since this Bill was published. It would be wrong to proceed without consultation.

The concerns I am addressing with regard to this Bill and the issues I am raising in disagreeing with it are entirely predicated in the first instance on the Constitution and, second, on the protection of the rights of minority faiths. This is a matter we must take seriously as a country. It is not a matter we have taken seriously over the decades. The Church of Ireland community, in particular, was not always treated fairly by this State. At the very least, its views on this matter must be taken into account.

When one notes all the issues concerning race that are bubbling up in the United States, the United Kingdom and other countries, including Ireland, one must conclude that the views of the Muslim community must be taken seriously. If it is to see us as seriously trying to integrate it into society and communicate with it, the passage of a Bill like this, which may affect it, must involve consultation. I have not yet spoken to representatives of the Muslim community so I have yet to obtain their views. I presume the legislation does affect them; they have only two schools. Their views will be very important if we are to demonstrate seriousness of intent. I have not had the opportunity to consult the Muslim community, nor has the Dáil, because we are currently in the month of Ramadan.

I am absolutely confident that the Dáil will reach consensus. I sincerely hope it will be achieved by the autumn and that we can have our consultations. The education committee will not be busy with legislation in the way the justice and finance committees might be. Therefore, we will have time to deal with this issue and get this right in a relatively short period. Having this legislation ready for September 2017 is and should be an attainable ambition. I agree with Deputy Burton fully that this needs to be dealt with by then. I am absolutely confident that a consensus will emerge.

We should not say 12 months.

Let us not have a conversation about that.

On the period of 12 months-----

New politics, a Cheann Comhairle.

That is what is being presented here. We have not amended it. I am outlining to this Dáil the commitment of the Fianna Fáil Party to moving forward on this as quickly as possible. We want this addressed and we know it needs to be addressed. It will be addressed. We will not let it slide to the end of the 12-month period. We believe it can be dealt with before then. If this Dáil wants it to be dealt with before then, that is what will happen.

The principles of this Bill are correct but I am of the firm view that a further balance needs to be found within the Bill in order to protect the ethos of many of our schools. What is being proposed by the Labour Party tonight is far short of what is required.

The Equal Status Act 2000 was very progressive legislation brought in by the Fianna Fáil Government. It brought an end to many issues of discrimination that were still present in our society. Any measure that further improves equal status is one of which I am very supportive. It is imperative that any alteration to section 7(3) of the Equal Status Act not put Christian or minority-faith families in a disadvantaged position when sending their children to school. This Bill has the potential to do that. In saying that, the wording of section 7(3) of the Equal Status Act 2000 does need to be updated. It needs to be reformed rather than removed. When places are available in any given school, they should be allocated on a first-come-first-served basis. The process should take into account the locality of the family. Religion should not be the determining factor in these circumstances. The Labour Party Bill does make provision for this.

In essence, schools do not have to provide justification for turning away students of a particular religion if they claim to be oversubscribed. This is wrong and is correctly amended in the Labour Party Bill. The principle behind this Bill is correct but it is too simplistic. I agree that the selection criteria for entry into schools should not be based on whether a child has been baptised. Every child should have the opportunity to attend his or her local school regardless of religion. However, every school has the right to defend its ethos. Minority-faith schools will also lose the right to defend their ethos if section 7 of the Equal Status Act is simply removed.

The majority of schools are already doing a good job in caring for children of different cultural and religious backgrounds. The teaching of different faiths and religions forms part of the religious curriculum in our schools while allowing schools to protect their ethos. The Bill gives neither majority- nor minority-faith schools the protection they require.

The Bill allows us to begin a discussion on how best to approach the issue of access to our schools. If there is an issue with schools turning students away on the basis of religion when oversubscribed, it affords us an opportunity to discuss how best we can overcome it while protecting both the family and the ethos of the schools. However, the Bill is too vague and does not legislate correctly for this complex issue. Fundamental matters need to be resolved before the Bill can progress any further.

It is ironic that the Labour Party is now trying to alter the flaws in our education system despite having held office in the Department of Education and Skills for five years, during which it made no attempt to resolve the issue we are now discussing. The Bill lacks balance and information and does not take into account the potential constitutional issues that may arise. As a result, my party colleagues and I will not be supporting it.

I wish the Minister well and certainly look forward to working with him in my role as Chairman of the Joint Committee on Education and Skills, together with my colleagues, including Deputies Carol Nolan and Thomas Byrne.

Our education system must be fit for purpose in this modern age, reflecting the reality of the diversity of the communities within which we live and our society in general. Every child going through our education system should be treated and cherished equally. No child should be isolated because of his or her religion, lack of religion, race, colour or background. Our education system, which is publicly funded, must be equally accessible to all children.

With regard to the treatment of non-Catholic parents and children in our education system, there is definitely an urgent rights issue. I say this as somebody who was educated by the Sisters of Mercy not only at primary and secondary levels but also at third level, in Carysfort College. I also taught in a faith-based school. There is an ever-increasing mismatch between the current patronage arrangements for national schools and the wishes of parents. It is important to note that 96% of national schools are under denominational patronage. Surveys have found that only one in four parents would actually pick such a school if he or she had a choice. This is the reality we face.

I have no doubt about the principle of this Bill and I believe it is extremely well meant. Along with my colleague Deputy Thomas Byrne, I believe we need more consultation.

If I am to do my job as the incoming Chairman of the committee correctly, I would like to have an opportunity to extend an invitation to many groups to appear before the committee to discuss the issue. That is my priority for the committee, although every member will have an opportunity to set out his or her priorities.

The proposal to enshrine in legislation the catchment areas for schools is important. Currently, catchment areas are not enshrined in legislation, nor are they a statutory requirement in admissions policies. Any solution to the issue of admissions will require enshrining some form of catchment area in school admissions policies. Specifically, schools should not be able to admit children of the same denomination as the school who live outside the catchment area in preference to children of a different denomination from inside the catchment area. This is a key point on which I believe we all agree.

My party colleague, Deputy Thomas Byrne, addressed the issue of protecting minority faith schools, as did Deputy Joan Burton. Fianna Fáil proposes that catchment areas for minority faith schools be sized according to the availability of schools of a different ethos. It is unlikely that this proposal could be perceived as unconstitutional. It would mean that catchment areas could be sized according to the prevalence of the school ethos, for example, Presbyterian, Jewish and Muslim schools would need to have wide catchment areas for admissions. In such circumstances, a child from outside the catchment area would not be considered for a school place before a child from the local area, even if the local child is not of the denominated religion of the school or of no religion.

I acknowledge the role Educate Together has played in helping to solve the admissions problem. The Fianna Fáil Party supports the organisation's ongoing involvement in the patronage of schools. All schools should be multi-faith in their enrolment policies and education practices, albeit under different patrons.

The Fianna Fáil Party in government introduced a community national school model in 2007. This model should play an increasing role as new schools are opened and others are transferred from Catholic patronage. Any large-scale movement of schools from Catholic Church patronage should be planned carefully, however, to avoid significant disruption and a possible decline in educational standards in schools. A gradual transition in the patronage arrangements of schools is vital.

Deputies Carol Nolan and Maurice Quinlivan have seven minutes' speaking time. However, in the absence of unaligned Deputies, they have ten minutes.

The unaligned Deputies may yet arrive.

We will play it by ear.

Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil leis an Cheann Comhairle as ucht deis a thabhairt dom labhairt ar an mBille seo.

I welcome this Bill as an attempt to address the issue of religious discrimination in access to education, which has come to the fore in recent times as the school population has become more and more diverse. I am glad Deputies have an opportunity to address it in the Chamber. Section 7 of the Equal Status Act 2000, which has been interpreted to allow schools to discriminate between students on the grounds of religion, has been roundly condemned by campaign groups and teachers' unions, including the Irish National Teachers Organisation and the Teachers Union of Ireland. In 2011, the UN Human Rights Council recommended that Ireland eliminate religious discrimination in access to education. The Ombudsman for Children has also recommended that the relevant legislative provision be amended.

While I appreciate that the vast majority of schools operate fair admissions policies and do their best to accommodate all children, discrimination in admissions policies has become an issue in some areas, particularly where schools are over-subscribed. Unfortunately, it is not only in the area of religion that children face barriers in terms of access to education. A problem also arises in respect of children with special educational needs who often face a variety of soft barriers in accessing their local school, an issue highlighted recently by the National Council for Special Education. It is my understanding that this issue will be addressed in the upcoming admissions legislation due to be published by the Government. I and my colleagues look forward to engaging to ensure that children with special educational needs can access education on an equal footing with their peers.

While I broadly support the sentiments behind the Bill, I also have a number of concerns. The legislation appears to retain the right of denominational schools in receipt of State funding to give preference to pupils of that denomination in terms of access to education. While this is no doubt an attempt to overcome potential constitutional issues and secure the maximum possible political support for the Bill, it is an issue of serious concern. It is a sad reflection on this House that in 2016 we cannot simply give effect to the right of every child to receive an education without facing any form of discrimination.

The Sinn Féin position is that the right to education is a fundamental human right and every child should be able to access his or her local State-funded school on an equal footing and without discrimination, including discrimination based on disability or religion. Sinn Féin has campaigned heavily on this issue and last year produced a Bill that would eradicate discrimination in access to education. In that regard, I commend my predecessor as Sinn Féin spokesperson on education, Deputy Jonathan O'Brien, on the hard work he did on this issue.

Sinn Féin's support for the Bill is qualified. My party would like the issue to be debated thoroughly and the views of all stakeholders taken into account. We appreciate there is a need to examine the constitutional workings of an amendment to the Equal Status Act in respect of the rights of all children and their parents to practise their beliefs. We would like an opportunity to further examine this issue on Committee Stage, with a view to developing a position that ensures the constitutional rights of every child are balanced in a fair and equitable manner. The State has an obligation to ensure the rights of all children are protected and it must take action to ensure this is the case. My fear is that this Bill will not achieve this objective. For this reason, we will seek to amend it on Committee Stage to ensure the most robust possible protection is in place for all children. I look forward to working with all my colleagues on this issue and making the most of this genuine opportunity to ensure equal access to education for each and every child in the State.

While Sinn Féin will support the Bill, in light of serious concerns expressed by a significant percentage of the population on this issue, we believe the legislation does not go far enough. As such, this is disappointing and a lost opportunity.

There is little doubt that the issue of school admissions has become extremely controversial. We are dealing with the legacy of an institutional structure and a mindset from a bygone era that is not fit for purpose in modern Ireland. In 21st century Ireland, we have a society that is racially, ethnically and ideologically diverse. In terms of religious affiliation, we have people in communities of all persuasions and none. The question for the State and its institutions is how to manage this diversity while at the same time ensuring equality of access for all. In education, particularly primary education, achieving this balance has proved problematic for the State thus far. In large part, this failure is due to the unwillingness of successive Governments to take control of the national school system, which is, after all, funded by taxpayers, and their failure to challenge powerful vested interests. The reluctance to tackle this issue once and for all has produced the chaos, confusion and anger that have become evident in public discourse on this issue.

The State has a duty to act in the best interests of all children. The only way to achieve this is through the introduction of a secular, public primary education system. While this Bill makes a positive contribution towards achieving this goal, it does not go far enough. We live in a complex world and the current admissions system is not sustainable.

I compliment the Educate Together campaign which has done fantastic work in the area of school admissions. Sinn Féin will continue to pursue this issue until we have a State-run primary school system that in practice and ethos is open to all children, irrespective of religious affiliation, race, class or ability.

Deputy Mick Barry has seven and a half minutes' speaking time.

I expected the Ceann Comhairle to give me a few extra minutes as well.

We will stick to the schedule.

I welcome the parents in the Gallery who have been campaigning for change and justice on this issue. The current practice in respect of school admissions and the teaching of religion in schools is at odds with the views and aspirations of the majority of the population.

According to a poll conducted on behalf of Equate, a total of 87% agreed that the State should ensure children do not experience religious discrimination during the school day, while 84% agreed that reforms should be carried out to ensure no child is excluded from education on the basis of whether he or she is religious or non-religious, as the case may be.

Some 96% of primary schools are controlled by religious organisations and 90% are controlled by the Catholic Church. This means that those who are not Catholic face the greatest problems. Muslims, Hindus, those from other Christian denominations and those with no religion face serious difficulties accessing local schools. Children live beside and play with neighbouring children but because of the religion of their parents, they are separated when going to school. In all other aspects of life, Ireland has diversity in religion and cultural backgrounds. We see this in the workplace, sports clubs and communities but not in schools, which remain segregated according to the religious backgrounds of children's parents.

The experience and testimony of parents with children trying to get into schools is stark. The Education Equality organisation has supplied the Anti-Austerity Alliance and other parties with testimony from parents. I have before me several quotes and I will read three into the record. A woman said:

The experience has caused significant stress and anxiety for our family, for a prolonged duration of time. My husband and I have been under enormous pressure to baptise our son against or conscience in order to secure a school place for him.

The second quote is from another parent:

Our daughter is bottom of the list in our local schools, as they are religious ethos schools even though they are state funded ... Our friends have had their children baptised to 'jump the queue' even though they are not religious. We don't want to have to do this.

The final quote is from a man who says:

My daughter was born in Ireland. I was finding it impossible to get a school place for her ... I got a call from the office of Arch Bishop enquiring about the problem ... He offered me a solution: “To make your daughter’s admission easy and quick, why don't you baptise her?"... I was furious ...

He was right to be furious. Those words ring clear and true to me. They stand in some contrast to the weasel words we have heard in the House tonight from Deputies who say that they support the Bill, that they believe it is progressive and a step in the right direction but that they are not going to vote for it. That is simply not good enough.

The experience of these parents and others who have been in contact with the Anti-Austerity Alliance Deputies shows that their rights are not vindicated by the State. Their right to choose religion or not to have a religion is not respected. According to the Equate survey, one person in five is aware of someone who has had his or her child baptised to help the child to get access to the local school. The right of a parent not to have his or her child attend religious instruction is not a reality under the current arrangement. The right of children to education is not respected, as children must travel past their local school to go to another school. Furthermore, there are examples of children not getting access to school and having to postpone the start of primary education.

It is not only parents who are taking issue with religious discrimination in schools; the United Nations takes the same view. This year the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child called on the State to change the laws in respect of school admissions and how religion is integrated into the school day.

I am going to be caught for time. Do I get those extra minutes?

No, the Deputy does not.

The Government has used the Constitution as an excuse for the lack of action on this issue. It contends that the State is obliged to maintain a situation whereby the interests of religious institutions are placed ahead of the right of freedom of religion, the right to access education and the right to opt out of religious instruction. We do not agree with this interpretation of the constitutional position. There is no absolute right on the part of religious organisations to discriminate, especially when they are receiving State funds to provide the State's education system. Constitutionally, the Oireachtas is allowed to legislate to set a balance between competing rights. There is no constitutional prohibition on the Oireachtas ending religious discrimination in school admissions and directing schools to have religious instruction at the end of the school day after core school hours. The only thing lacking is the political will of the establishment parties to implement legislative change that would displease the Roman Catholic Church. Let us suppose the constitutional position did not allow for the necessary legislation. If the Government were serious, it would bring forward a constitutional amendment and hold a referendum to ensure education equality. If the Government did this, it would be supported by voters strongly.

The Anti-Austerity Alliance welcomes the Bill because it would lead to a dilution of the current wording of section 7(3)(c) of the Equal Status Act. The Labour Party Bill would essentially change the pecking order in school admissions policies by allowing local children not of the religion of the school second priority after local children of the religion of the school. This would be a slight improvement but it is still insufficient and it is not what the hundreds of parents who are campaigning on this issue are seeking. The Labour Party Bill also legislates for due regard to be afforded to vindicating the rights of those not taking part in religious instruction. However, the parts of the Education Act that make this difficult in practice will stay on the books.

The Socialist Party and the Anti-Austerity Alliance advocate for complete separation of church and State. We do not believe the State should interfere in people's religion and we do not believe the teachings of religion should inform State laws. Religious organisations should not run State services in education and health. Such services should be well funded by the State, open to all and run democratically. Although we will be voting for this Bill on Thursday, we remain committed to reintroducing the Equal Participation in Schools Bill in the coming weeks. If the Labour Party Bill is passed, we will bring forward amendments on Committee and Report Stages.

There should also be changes in legislation, in particular, section 30 of the Education Act, to end the current position of the Minister having to be deferential to school patrons. Our Bill would require religious instruction to take place at the end of the school day after core school hours. We encourage parents and all those interested in equality to continue their campaigning work. We encourage people to attend the Education Equality gathering for change this coming Sunday at 3 p.m. in St. Stephen's Green.

We will move on to the Independents 4 Change. I understand Deputies Catherine Connolly, Thomas Pringle and Clare Daly are to share seven and a half minutes.

There are two of us. What time do we have?

The Deputies have seven and a half minutes. We do not barter for time here.

No, we are back at school. I welcome the sentiment behind the Bill but I do not believe it will achieve the change we need. Our international obligations have already been cited. As has been said, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child has recommended that Ireland amend the existing legislative framework to eliminate discrimination in school admissions, including amendment of the Equal Status Act.

The Ombudsman for Children has recommended change. The Ombudsman's office reviewed material on our UN obligations dating back to a 2006 review of Ireland's implementation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. That review recommended a change in the admissions framework and so on. The review also examines our monitoring of the international covenant on civil and political rights. Again, the recommendation was to remove discrimination.

The Labour Party is trying to change something without changing it in any real sense. I see the difficulty the Labour Party faces in this regard. There is a strong lobby not to change. However, as was the case during the election, the Labour Party and the previous coalition Government were somewhat out of touch with the views of people. The surveys we have seen support the views of the people to whom we have talked who are demanding change to ensure we do not discriminate against children.

The Minister for Education and Skills has said there will be more schools, and I welcome this. He has set a figure of 400 additional schools within a certain timeframe. However, that does not resolve the problem. While it will give choice, it does not sort out the problem. Let us suppose a small area has only one school. How does someone there who does not want to attend religion class or go to a school with the religious ethos of that school manage? How do we give that child and her parents rights under the Constitution?

In fairness, the former Minister, Mr. Ruairí Quinn, set out on a positive road to try to divest schools of patronage. However, the progress has been extremely slow and I understand only eight schools have divested themselves of religious patronage. We have a historical legacy with 96% of the schools run by religious denominations. However, people have moved on. While I value religion, I also value the right of a child to attend a school without having to participate in religious education.

I do not believe the amendment in the Bill will deal with the complexities of what we are facing. We need to look at it and grasp it in order that we treat all children equally. We give rights to children who want a religious education and we cite the Constitution to back up those rights. However, we cite the Constitution only as an obstacle when it comes to children who do not want that type of education. One cannot pick and choose from the Constitution to suit one's argument.

The Constitution sets out rights entitling people to education and entitling them to practise their religion. However, there is no constitutional right that we would give public funding to a school that will only admit children of certain religions. The Equal Status Act should have addressed the problem at the time, but it did not and that is why we have a problem. It allowed an exception that it should not have allowed at the time. The UN had already indicated we were not meeting our obligations in 2000 and yet we introduced the Equal Status Act. Clearly the Government at the time did not have the courage to do that.

The Bill appears to attempt to deal with the issue of discrimination on religious grounds when it comes to admission to schools. It looks on first reading of the Bill that there is a right to attend a school and opt out of religious education, which the school must facilitate, but the Bill appears to place the onus on parents to assert that right.

The second amendment to section 7 of the 2000 Act is explained as giving effect to the principle that if a local State-funded school is the only reasonably available school for a child, "religious education in that school must be severable", meaning religious education must take place outside the classroom. My concern is that this section appears to place a parent in a situation of conflict with the school to assert that right. Many parents would not want to be in that situation, and why should they have to be? The State, as the body that delivers on the right of all children to receive an education, should ensure religious education in all publicly funded schools is severable.

This week EQUATE published a commissioned opinion on the constitutionality of reforming section 7(3)(c) of the Equal Status Act 2000. Opinion from three constitutional law experts agrees that the church has no constitutional right to unconditional public funding for private or denominational schools and that the Constitution permits the imposition of reasonable conditions on the provision of public funding. While it found that the outright repeal of the section may be open to challenge in that this may be seen as excessive interference with the management by religious denominations of their own affairs within private religious institutions, it also stated in its opinion that an amendment of the section could be made in order that it cannot be relied on by publicly funded schools. It would not prevent religious denominations from operating discriminatory admissions policies in private religious institutions but solely make the provision of public funding to such institutions conditional upon non-discriminatory admissions policies.

The courts in dealing with attempts by the Oireachtas to reconcile competing constitutional rights have established a strong presumption of constitutionality. This means there is a presumption that the Oireachtas has considered the competing rights and has attempted to strike a balance. The Labour Party in this Bill has relied heavily on the Constitutional Review Group report from 1996 which is 20 years old now. I believe the opinion from EQUATE is more up to date and deals with recent case law.

For most families outside of Dublin and the major urban areas there is no choice in what school to send their children to. If I had wanted to send my children to a non-denominational school in Donegal, I would have had to send them to a school 50 miles away, which would not have worked for anybody. While our local school did not and does not insist on children having been baptised to attend, the current system would allow it to and that needs to change.

I would be inclined to support the Bill, but only on the condition that it could be amended substantially in committee. I note that the Government wants the Bill to pass Second Stage in 12 months' time, which is too long. Surely the committee could consider it much sooner. I am not sure how the Minister wants to achieve it. It might be worthwhile to have that discussion in committee, but at the end of the process we must have legislation that means no school can discriminate on religious grounds against any child. I believe that is what we must achieve.

I am delighted to be able to speak on this Bill. I compliment the Minister and wish him all the best in his new portfolio. I look forward to him engaging not only in this but also in many other areas with local communities.

I salute the boards of management, the parents' councils and the entire school community in my constituency. That is all I can speak for. Throughout the years I have served on boards of management of a primary school and a new community college, including setting up that college involving the amalgamation of three schools. Those people must be saluted and complimented on how they operated in difficult circumstances and dealt with calls for change. They are dealing with change.

We need to make haste slowly. We need to look back to where we had local plebiscites on divestment of schools some years ago. There were very mixed reactions. In many areas it was not made clear to them what they were voting on and there were low turnouts. We must not throw out the baby with the bathwater.

There are some good points in the Bill and I compliment the Labour Party on introducing it. We need a reasonable and reasoned debate. The timeframe of 12 months is not unreasonable. We must bring it before the Committee on Education and Skills and it would be important to have public hearings because this has serious ramifications. We do not want to victimise any of the minority faith schools that have been operating under pressure, including some small rural schools in my constituency.

There are other areas that are also very serious. Under the closed school rule, families are being divided. I have been contacted regularly by parents with two or three children in a primary school, and under this rule, based on measurements from satnav, the eye in the sky or whatever, they find they might be a couple of hundred metres nearer to a different school. That has serious implications because the family is divided and there might not be a seat on the school bus, if they get the bus, to get to the school they always went to. It causes huge inconvenience. It is difficult enough for any family to deal with getting their children enrolled in a school. I sympathise with people who have difficulty in getting enrolled for reasons of faith and so on. That should not be happening and, thankfully, it is not happening in my constituency as far as I am aware. We must examine this closely.

We must not just wipe aside the voluntary commitment given by boards of management that we have had and parents' councils in more recent years, and the whole school family. We need volunteers to come forward to support. When we look at the health system, just because we got rid of the religious from it, it has not improved. We need to examine this very carefully, think of the consequences and ramifications and not have undue haste. I look forward to having further debate in committee and to having public hearings also.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill. I congratulate the Minister, Deputy Bruton, on his new portfolio. I am sure it will be no problem to him, as he has served in many other Ministries.

I have to say we do not have discrimination issues in Kerry, Killarney or Tralee. We have people of many different religious denominations attending our national schools and secondary schools. We do not have any issues. I am not aware of them anyway. I have to salute our boards of management and parents' councils for the good work they continue to do to ensure our children are properly seen after. We have no discrimination in Kerry of which I am aware. That is what I have to say.

We certainly have problems in other areas of the school system. Going back the years, if a school closed in an area the Department of Education and Skills gave an undertaking - a written undertaking in many cases - to transport the children of the locality to the central school in the parish free of charge. Sadly, the Department has reneged on that promise or consideration on many occasions. This has hurt many people in rural parishes and caused a great deal of expense for those who now have to bring their children four or five miles - in some cases, the school is six or seven miles away - to school each morning and evening. If a national school bus run does not have ten children, it will not qualify under the free transport scheme. I believe this is unfair, especially as the Department of Education and Skills previously gave an undertaking to transport such children to school free of charge.

I would like to mention an issue that was raised by Deputy Mattie McGrath. I refer to cases in which the older children in a family are attending a school that traditionally has been attended by members of the family in question. Three or four years ago, some bright spark decided that such children should have to attend a nearer school on the basis of a satnav or whatever. It is unfair that the younger children in this family, who would normally have been accompanied to school by their older siblings, now have to go to a different school. I believe all the children in such a family should be entitled to go to the school that was traditionally attended by their family and all the families around them. It is wrong that they are divided and separated now. This change hurt many parents when it was made three or four years ago.

The school transport system needs to cater for all our children, but that is not happening at present. I will give an example. In some cases, a parent needs to have a medical card in order for his or her child to qualify for free school transport. If one parent has a medical card but the other parent does not, their children are denied free school transport. It is very unfair that families in such circumstances have to pay €350 for a school transport ticket for each of their children because many of them can ill afford such an expense.

We will move on to the Social Democrats-Green Party grouping. Deputy Catherine Martin and Deputy Róisín Shortall will share seven and a half minutes.

Tógfaidh mé ceithre nóiméad. I welcome this Bill because I strongly believe we need to reform fundamentally the schools admission practices in all State-funded schools and ensure equality of access, participation and opportunity in our schools. While what is proposed in this Bill is preferable to the current system, it does not go far enough. What is required is quite simple: no State-funded school should be able to discriminate for or against a child on the basis of his or her religion. How can it be fair that a child who lives right beside a school and whose name was the first to be placed on the admissions list can miss out on a place because he or she is not of the preferred religion? Of course there is a place for freedom of religion and religious schools in Ireland. This should be both recognised and respected, but not in an exclusive way. Taxpayers’ money should not be funding discrimination.

Our children are growing up in a worrying time. This worry is caused not just by the external existential threat of climate change, but also by the much more frightening human threats of hate, fear, anger, intolerance and violence. In recent times, we have seen the rise of far-right nationalism in Europe, the nomination of Donald Trump as a candidate for the Presidency of the USA and the anti-immigration rhetoric that fuelled large parts of the ultimately successful "Leave" campaign in the Brexit referendum. All of this leaves me more concerned for our children's future than I have ever been before. It has left me with an even stronger conviction that we must fight this fear with courage, this anger with love and this hate with tolerance. We must defeat exclusion and alienation with inclusivity in everything we do, including how we educate our children.

The most valuable lesson any child can learn is that of respect and love for all the people around him or her, regardless of their ethnicity, their religion, the language they speak or where they are from. No danger is greater to our children than the danger of isolation and insulation. It is a great tragedy if a child cannot encounter other children who come from different backgrounds, cultures, points of view, ways of life or religious beliefs. A child who cannot interact with the wonderful diversity of our country and our world to the fullest possible extent is a child whose childhood is not as rich as it should be. Our schools are where our children make friends. While the religious ethos of so many of our schools is helping to shape the good values of the people of our country, no child should be denied a possible friend because he or she prays in a different way, or he or she does not pray at all.

In saying this, I acknowledge the huge contribution made by the religious to education over hundreds of years. They were often the only educators who were playing an invaluable role at home and abroad. They are renowned throughout the world. In years gone by, they provided education in a voluntary capacity, and at times at great risk to their own lives. We must also acknowledge, embrace and cater for a changing modern society in which all our children are treated equally when it comes to education. Religious discrimination has no place in modern society. All schools in receipt of State funding should be fair, transparent and inclusive in their admissions policies. Discrimination on the basis of religion would not be tolerated in any other walk of life and the education system should be no different.

It is important to say at the outset that if this Bill is passed as it currently stands, it will not end religious discrimination in our schools. The purpose of this Bill has been cited in media reports as "seeking an amendment to the Equal Status Act to allow equal access to Catholic schools whether baptised or not". It has to be said that this Bill would do nothing of the sort. It would retain on the Statute Book the legal discrimination against children in circumstances where there is a shortage of local school places for children who share the same religion as that of the school patron. It blatantly puts the interests of the Catholic Church ahead of the interests of children. That is still a Catholics-first policy in anybody's book. Such a policy is not acceptable.

The Social Democrats want to see section 7(3)(c) of the Equal Status Act 2000 abolished, especially for publicly funded schools. There are various opinions on whether this is constitutionally possible. I am aware that EQUATE recently got an opinion from three senior counsel. I know that Education Equality also received legal advice as well. According to all of that advice, it is possible and constitutionally acceptable to abolish or seriously amend section 7(3)(c) of the 2000 Act. We believe the right course of action at this point would be to test the constitutionality of the abolition of section 7(3)(c). We should proceed not with this Bill, but with legislation to abolish section 7(3)(c). We should let that legislation be tested in the Supreme Court and if we need a referendum, so be it.

Even in its limited provisions, the Bill before us lacks clarity. For example, it does not define the term "catchment area". If schools are defining their own catchment areas, what is to stop them from simply broadening the area to facilitate non-local people who are co-religious over local people who are non-religious?

Neither does the Bill define reasonable access. Who gets to decide what constitutes reasonable access, for example?

The Government proposal is not a solution either. A 12-month delay on this issue is simply a long-fingering exercise. It will mean children enrolling this coming year will continue to face serious discrimination. Moreover, children enrolling for the next school year will face that discrimination also.

We have dwelled far too long on this issue. It cannot be right on any level that State-funded schools can continue to discriminate against children on religious grounds. Doing nothing suits those in favour of the status quo just fine. However, with every enrolment year that goes by, yet another cohort of young children are turned away at their local schools. As legislators, we should be ashamed that we allow that to happen to four and five-year old citizens. This Bill does little to address this discrimination. It is pretending to be something it is not. It is not even a good start. If passed, it would stall real reform for years. As legislators, we have a responsibility to ensure our public education system reflects and respects the diversity of modern Ireland.

I welcome the fact that, by and large, there is general appreciation of the Bill's contents, with the exception of the last speaker. Members, primarily on our left, have said they support the Bill. I am disappointed, however, that both the Minister and Fianna Fáil are willing to kick this down the road. Last Friday, I described this as the do-nothing Dáil. This is another example of pushing away a decision, which we believe needs to be made now.

The Labour Party could go over the 2015 Bill.

In fairness, Deputy Thomas Byrne made the point that the issues of concern could have been teased out on Committee Stage. In that sense, I am disappointed the Government has tabled an amendment to the Bill’s passage. While I welcome the fact the Minister has said he is willing to publish the admissions Bill in this term, I do not see any reason the two Bills could not go side by side. It is particularly disappointing the Government tabled an amendment to the Second Stage passage of this Bill.

This is an effort by the Labour Party to make more incremental progress on these issues, which require measured balance. When in government, the Labour Party has always addressed issues of equality. When Dick Spring became Tánaiste in 1992, he gave equality a place at the Cabinet table. The then Minister, Mervyn Taylor, initiated the Employment Equality Act and started work on the Equal Status Act. Those two Acts formed the bedrock of progress on eradicating discrimination across many areas of Irish life. When we came back into government in 2011, we addressed many equality issues, the most obvious being the referendum on marriage equality, which the people, thankfully in their wisdom, opened their hearts to and made a reality.

Considerable progress was also made in the education area. My predecessor, Ruairí Quinn, when he became Minister for Education and Skills in 2011, established the forum on patronage and pluralism. As a result of its recommendations, a system of consulting parents was established wherever a new school was to be provided. This resulted in most of the new schools established since 2011 being multidenominational. He also initiated the divestment programme, which we all acknowledge has gone slower than we would have wanted. However, it did get the support of patrons, including the Catholic Church and the Archbishop of Dublin, in particular, showed leadership on this. It ran into difficulty at local level. When I was Minister, I met the various patron bodies to see if we could untangle some of these difficulties. I know the Minister has committed to continuing that work, which I welcome. There has been a 43% increase in the number of multidenominational schools and a 54% increase in the number of children attending such schools since 2011.

When I became Minister, I revoked rule 68 which placed religious instruction as the most important subject in schools, irrespective of their ethos. I wish the Minister well in achieving the targets he has set out in increasing diversity in our schools.

Deputy Burton outlined the background to this Bill both in terms of the constitutional provisions and the historic development of schools in Ireland. There is a balance to be achieved. What emerged was not the original intention when the national school system was first set up in the 1830s. In this area, one makes progress incrementally. It is not a system that can be turned around overnight. There are issues of ownership, apart from anything else.

The one issue we are concerned about and want to address is that of parents baptising their children into a religion in which they do not believe. There is something fundamentally wrong about that. This Bill is drafted to address the reason some parents feel forced to take such a course. While all parties agree this is wrong, I have not heard any other practical suggestions in the debate on how to deal with this.

I disagree with Deputy Shortall that this Bill is not doing anything. It is putting in a provision whereby denominational schools cannot give preference to children of that denomination outside the catchment area ahead of other children in the catchment area who are not of that denomination. It is not true to say the Bill is not doing anything progressive.

It is true that 80% of schools are not oversubscribed and, therefore, the issue does not arise for parents applying to those schools. From my experience, there are Catholic denominational schools, many of them in the poorer parts of our cities which are great at being inclusive with up to 30 different nationalities and a wide variety of faiths. However, the problem is where the demand exceeds the number of places. The current situation allows for a school’s admissions policy to give priority to children of the denomination of the school who live outside the catchment area ahead of local children of other denominations or none. This is where the baptism of convenience issue arises.

Catchment does not automatically mean the local parish. In the case of a minority religion, it could, in some cases, cover several counties. It could also specify other like-minded churches. An example was given by the Minister of a Church of Ireland school which takes in Presbyterians and Methodists. This could also be specified within the admissions policy of the particular school. We want to make it absolutely clear that this Bill is carefully drafted to respect and protect the right of minority religions to protect the ethos of their schools. If section 7(3)(c) of the Equal Status Act were abolished, it would not protect the ethos of minority schools.

It would kill them off.

That is the issue we have identified if this section were simply abolished. Deputy Thomas Byrne said the Church of Ireland had contacted him on this. I spoke with representatives from the Church of Ireland today and assured them our intention is not to wipe out minority religious schools but to define their catchments in a much broader way than a local parish Catholic school.

I know some Members feel this Bill does not go far enough and that others are satisfied with the status quo. However, I urge them to support the Bill, which is designed to bring fairer access for children to their local school and to develop on the progress that has already been made in regard to making Ireland a more inclusive place for children, irrespective of their background. Deputy Catherine Martin expressed very well the need to do that in the broader context of attitudes which are hardening in various parts of the world, including Ireland.

Children benefit from meeting and getting to know classmates from various backgrounds and religions. Diversity in our schools is an opportunity for our society, not something we should feel threatened by. For that reason, it is very disappointing that the Government is deciding to kick this down the road for 12 months. This is not new politics; it is a "do nothing" Dáil. We have seen other examples of issues being kicked down the road and not decided upon. I again urge the Government to re-think that timescale, particularly as the admissions Bill is to be brought forward early. We do not need this broader consultation because we can do that within the committee on Committee Stage. The Forum on Patronage and Pluralism has already engaged very widely on this issue under an independent chairman. I believe this is to put off something we need to do right now for the parents of children who are right now worried they will not be able to get their child into the local school.

I thank all Deputies for their contributions to an interesting debate on what is an important and complex issue. The basic aim of the Government is to use our economic success to create a fair and compassionate society and, ultimately, to make life a little easier for people. A key part of this is making it easier for parents and children to access more easily local schools which reflect their values and needs. Therefore, we are taking two major steps to deliver on this. First, as the Minister, Deputy Bruton, said, we are publishing and enacting a new admissions Bill which will reform the process of school admissions, including banning waiting lists and admission fees, and requiring more information and consultation for parents throughout the process. Second, we will increase the rate of delivering the new multidenominational and non-denominational schools to reach a total of 400 such schools by 2030. The Minister, Deputy Bruton, is currently developing a plan to deliver on this.

We also recognise we need to deal with the situation whereby some religious schools, when they are oversubscribed, admit children of their own religion from some distance away ahead of children of other religions or no religion who live close by. That is why we are supporting the principle of the Labour Party Bill. It is important, of course, to remember that only 20% of schools are oversubscribed and, therefore, the vast majority of schools are unaffected by this issue.

It is clear from the debate there is broad consensus that children should have access to their local schools and that this is particularly important at primary level. However, it is also clear from the discussion on this matter that the amendments proposed by the Labour Party involve significant legal, constitutional and operational issues. Given the complexity of the issues at play and the imperative of balancing all of the competing rights, this proposal needs to be thought through carefully to ensure the consequences of the measure are as intended and to avoid unintended consequences. Furthermore, a number of potentially significant legal and constitutional issues arise from consideration in regard to the proposed amendments. Therefore, there are a number of serious questions about the approach proposed in this Bill, in particular in regard to the issues of competing rights and unintended consequences that could have an adverse impact on the schools of minority denominations. The Bill must also take into account the potential impact on and distortion of school transport policy and provision. The issue of catchment areas for schools needs to be examined, with due respect to the importance of the established geographic boundaries and organisation, as well as taking into account the experience of other jurisdictions and the views of stakeholders.

In light of this, we believe the Bill should be delayed for 12 months. I disagree with Deputy Joan Burton, who said we were dilly-dallying, and with Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, who said we were kicking this down the road. We are delaying it for 12 months to allow time for scrutiny and consideration of the aforementioned matters by the new Joint Committee on Education and Skills, which I believe is a very reasonable approach. We will also consider the admissions Bill, which is due to be published shortly and which contains a series of measures on which there is broad agreement and which can quickly improve the admissions process for parents and children across the country. That should proceed on a separate track and not be allowed to be held up by the very complex and difficult issues raised in this Bill.

To conclude, I thank the Labour Party for this proposal. After consideration by the Oireachtas committee, I believe we will be in a better position to bring forward amendments to the Equal Status Act that can capture the complex legal, constitutional and operational elements in this area.

I thank all the Deputies who contributed. It was a very good debate on a very serious issue. I have listened with great care to all the views expressed and know many speakers have given a lot of thought to these issues because they have been around for a long time.

Some colleagues commented that the Labour Party's Equal Status (Admissions to Schools) Bill is not radical enough. It is, in truth, a modest proposal. It is clear it is drafted within the constraints of the Constitution, to address the point made by both Ministers who spoke in the debate. It is designed to address one net issue, namely, to strike a balance between the right of a school to preserve its denominational ethos - it is clear not everybody in the House believes this is right but that is the constitutional position - and the right of a child to attend a State-funded school in his or her own area and, if that be the wish of that child's parents, to avoid religious instruction being given to that child. I agree that is not an earth-shattering set of proposals but it is very important if it affects any one child. If a child in a community cannot get into a local school and children from more distant areas are leapfrogging that child simply because they are of the same religious denomination as the patron of the school that is next door, that is not right. While there are other issues, we can do something about this net issue within the constraints of the Constitution, and we can do it right now.

Our simple belief is that schools that are funded by the State must be prepared to accept pupils from other denominations and from none into their own school community. Many schools do that anyway, as a matter of course. Most Deputies agree it is positive for children to study and play with children from other religions and from other ethnic or national backgrounds.

It is good for children and it is a fundamental building block of a better society. If we know anything from the divisions on our island and, elsewhere, when new migrant communities have come to other European countries, the segregation of communities on the basis of ethnicity, nationality or religion was calamitous in most cases. Too often we have seen that segregation result in alienation of people from each other and from society. A lack of social contact with people of different backgrounds is fundamentally bad for society. As Deputy Burton has set out, what was originally intended to be a mixed religious national school system in this country in the 19th century, which was a progressive view then, has been made into a segregated denominational system of education. That is the one we grew up in and it is still 96% denominational. The result has been little or no choice for most parents. Perhaps there was not an enormous clamour for choice in the 1930s, 1940s or 1950s, but that clamour is there now and we need to address it. We are not suggesting that the problem can be cured entirely by enacting this legislation. A solution will require a number of other matters including, as Deputy Burton has very clearly said, the continuation of the vast schools building programme that my colleague, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, and before her Ruairí Quinn, set about. We have to build more schools and more schools of difference so that we provide choice and match the views of parents. Three quarters of parents want choices that are not available in the current system. The Bill addresses the issue of local children being effectively locked out of their local schools on religious grounds even where there is a space for them. They are being leapfrogged by children coming from well outside their local area, simply because they are of a different faith. That cannot be right.

The issue of catchment, which several Deputies have talked about, is important. In our proposals, we seek to leave that to each school to determine, and I recognise the points made by Deputy Byrne in that regard. There are huge issues in my constituency of Wexford that need to be addressed by defining catchment, because certain schools are drawing pupils from all over the place and other schools are under-subscribed. We need to do something about that. Either we have a CAO system at local level, which was piloted in Limerick, or a defined catchment, but we need to get on with it. That is a separate issue.

The Government amendment seeks to stop the Bill from getting a second reading for a year, which there is no coherent or cogent reason for. Even if somebody said three months, one could make an argument for it, but delaying it for a year can only be interpreted as an attempt to stop the proposal from being enacted. Surely new politics is about allowing debate and allowing all the issues listed by the Government to be addressed by the committee. I have served on committees here for 30 years. There would be no difficulty with any of the points made by Deputy Byrne. The committees can have hearings, bring in deputations and ask for submissions. It may take many months, but the idea of voting down the principle of the Bill on Second Stage on Thursday is wrong. Let the principle be passed so that there is a grounding base document for people to address; otherwise, we are asking the committee to deal with the abstract. I ask that, in the spirit of new politics and with a genuine sense of engagement by all the people here, because there are many important ideas in this debate, we allow this Bill to pass Second Stage. I am very impressed-----

If it passes Second Stage the ten-week provision comes into play, and that is too short.

We can amend that. The committee could come back and say it wants more time. That is a technical issue. The ten-week period refers to consideration in committee. We can begin the process and deal with it, but the notion of killing it off for a year means it will not happen. I am impressed by the contribution tonight of the new Chairman of the Committee on Education and Skills, Deputy Fiona O'Loughlin. I take her at her word that this will be a priority issue, which is very encouraging for us. The last time I saw this amendment, which in technical terms is called a reasoned amendment, it was used by the then Minister for Justice when I introduced the first civil partnership Bill. The Government and the then Minister for Justice, who is now an illustrious Member of the other House, Senator Michael McDowell, voted to delay the enactment of the civil partnership Bill for six months, knowing there were not six months left in the life of that Dáil. It knocked the civil partnership Bill, which was the precursor of the marriage equality Bill, back another Dáil term. My experience of this-----

It was passed.

It was passed eventually. It was not passed in the next Dáil because that one was voted down by the Fianna Fáil-Green Party Government.

Fianna Fáil brought it in.

It was enacted on the third go.

We will oppose the Government amendment, and I ask the Government to think again because to knock it back for 12 months is too much. I ask Fianna Fáil, which is in a strong position to influence this, to ask the Government to relent on this point and accept the principle of the Bill. That is all Second Stage is - the acceptance of the principle of the Bill. I can guarantee that the Labour Party will engage with an open mind to find a solution that can be implemented for children who want to access their local schools. It will not work for September 2016 but if we work with vigour and do not allow the Government amendment to be carried we can have it implemented in time for children who want to get into a school in September 2017.

Amendment put.

In accordance with Standing Order 70(2), the division is postponed until the weekly division time on Thursday, 30 June 2016.

The Dáil adjourned at 10 p.m. until 12 noon on Wednesday, 29 June 2016.