I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
Approximately ten years ago a small organisation came into existence called Choice Ireland.
It was founded after a public meeting about the eighth amendment to the Constitution organised by Labour Youth. During its period of activity, I have no doubt that this organisation helped move the conversation in Ireland considerably towards a detailed and reflective consideration of the eighth amendment.
One of the actions the group undertook was to highlight the extent to which rogue agencies lied to women in crisis pregnancy agencies. I know one of the women involved in the group very well: Sinead Ahern is the chairperson of Labour Women nowadays. She was one of a small number of women who went undercover to determine the true extent of what was going on in these so-called rogue agencies. When speaking about this issue recently, Ms Ahern noted her shock in discovering that these same agencies still operate a decade later. Somehow, we have all collectively looked the other way for the past number of years. It took the brave work of two journalists, Ellen Coyne and Catherine Sanz of The Times, to bring our focus back to the lies, the deceit and sometimes the grotesque mistruths being told to women in crisis pregnancy situations.
However, it is not enough for us to express our horror or outrage and then for the issue to disappear once more. To do so would leave these agencies operating for another decade, abusing countless women when they are in most need of care, support and, above all, the truth. It is no longer tenable to stand over a situation in which dieticians and opticians must be regulated before they can offer any service to the public but those counselling women in vulnerable situations face no requirement to register or be regulated at all. It is not good enough for us to stand over a situation in which women are being lied to in what sometimes amounts to a grotesque fashion at a time of vulnerability. Women in crisis pregnancy situations are being told that abortion increases a woman's risk of breast cancer or that women who have had abortions will later abuse or neglect any children they might have. These are lies told to scare, humiliate and denigrate women and, most of all, to prevent them from having access to the impartial information to which they are entitled before they make choices for themselves.
We are long past time for an honest conversation about gender equality in Ireland. We continue to hear a litany of statistics about the enduring problem of domestic violence in this country. We heard again this morning about the persistence of the gender pay gap, which amounts, in the analysis done, to 20% between men and women. Too many women remain in low-paid, insecure work. Too few women are breaking through the glass ceiling of senior roles in the public and private sectors. Access to affordable child care in Ireland for every family still looks like a distant dream. We have, thankfully, more women in this House than ever before. Waking the Feminists is doing exceptional work to improve the position of women in theatre in Ireland. There are other efforts to increase the number of women on State boards, in academia, in science careers and elsewhere. However, we still have a long way to travel on the road to true equality and we need to have a broader discussion on these matters. The discussion is happening outside this Chamber. It is time we began a frank discussion here too. Today we deal with one way in which we permit the mistreatment of women in Ireland. Rectifying this problem will not solve all the other issues I have mentioned, but even the elimination of this one injustice will represent a step towards equality, and every step on that journey matters.
For all the reasons I have outlined, I believe new legislation is needed to regulate this area. We in the Labour Party have chosen the Health and Social Care Professionals Act as the vehicle for the proposed reform. It is the vehicle best suited to deal with the elimination of rogue counselling agencies from the spectrum. That Act applies to the newer health and social care professions outside the traditional core sectors of medicine and nursing. The Act establishes registration boards for those designated professions, it protects the use of the titles of those professions and it provides for the resolution of complaints relating to fitness to practice.
There may be some practical difficulties in applying this Act to crisis pregnancy counsellors. I have discussed my proposal several times with the Minister for Health, Deputy Simon Harris, here present, and with his officials and I thank him for the frank and forthright way in which he has approached this difficult and sensitive issue. I acknowledge and appreciate that the Minister is anxious to co-operate on the Bill and accommodate what he recognises as much-needed reform in this area and that he has instructed his Department and its officials accordingly. As I understand it, the problem, from an administrative perspective, is that the Health and Social Care Professionals Act applies automatically to certain professions directly named in the legislation itself. These include, for example, chiropodists, occupational therapists, physiotherapists and psychologists. These professions already have what we might call the infrastructure of a recognised and regulated profession, namely, a defined scope of practice, a representative professional body, defined routes of entry and recognised qualifications. The Act goes on to enable the Minister by regulation to designate additional health and social care professions. He does so by reference to the stipulated factors. In other words, the Minister assesses whether the profession has in place the infrastructure to enable it to be regulated. Normally speaking, the path towards recognition and designation may take months, if not years, involving consultation, assessment, the satisfying of preconditions and so on. I propose in my Bill to fast-track this process for those involved in pregnancy counselling.
I propose to amend the Act itself so as to include these professionals in the category of those directly designated in the Act. I do so unashamedly and for a reason spelled out in section 4(4)(e) of the 2005 Act. In deciding whether it is appropriate and in the public interest that a particular health or social care profession be designated, we as legislators insisted in that section that regard must be had to "the degree of risk to the health, safety or welfare of the public from incompetent, unethical or impaired practice of the profession". I want to home in on this factor, which is the reason I propose this amendment. Giving incompetent, unethical and impaired advice or counselling to vulnerable women with crisis pregnancies represents an unacceptable risk to their health, safety and welfare. In these circumstances, I do not believe we have time for a more leisurely route. Immediate action is warranted. As I said, the Minister and his officials share these concerns and have signalled they are anxious to work co-operatively to secure a workable way forward. A departmental consultation process is already under way in respect of counselling generally, but crisis pregnancy counselling has not as yet been specified as a separate social care profession. I recognise there are practical hurdles. However, if we do nothing and simply await developments, I do not believe we will see, in any acceptable timeframe, the necessary criteria being satisfied by the profession itself.
We will not see agreement on a defined scope of practice, a representative professional body or agreement on recognised qualifications. It may be, when we have had an opportunity to consider this further in committee, that we will find a solution which combines aspects of this body of legislation with another Act that I had some involvement with when I served as Minister for Health a number of years ago.
I refer, in this regard, to the Regulation of Information (Services outside the State for Termination of Pregnancies) Act 1995. The latter arose from the 14th amendment to the Constitution, which enshrines in the Constitution that Article 40.3.3° cannot be used to limit the freedom to receive and impart information about services available in another state, subject to such conditions as may be laid down by law. The 1995 Act lays down those specific conditions and seeks to reflect an appropriate balance between the constitutional rights and freedoms bearing on the question of abortion information. The Supreme Court had decided in a number of cases that the dissemination of information on abortion, such as the name, address and telephone number of a foreign abortion service and the method of communication with it, was unconstitutional. However, the European Court of Human Rights had held that these Supreme Court injunctions were in breach of Article 10 of the European Convention relating to freedom of expression and the right to receive and impart information. The legislation we passed to give effect to the 14th amendment sought to clarify the legal entitlements and obligations of persons and agencies that provide abortion information and to ensure that any doctor or advice agency that provides abortion information to pregnant women does so only in the context of full counselling on all of the available options, without any advocacy or promotion of abortion.
From discussing the matter with the Minister's officials, I understand that he and they emphasise section 5 of the Act. That section applies to anyone who engages in the activity of giving information, advice or counselling to individual members of the public with regard to pregnancy. The section states that where such a person is requested by a pregnant woman to give information, advice or counselling on her particular circumstances, it is not lawful for that person to give what is called "act information" to the woman unless the information, counselling and advice are "truthful and objective". The Department's view is that a rogue counselling agency may well be in breach of that statutory requirement. In other words, it may be found that the information it provides, if not fair and accurate, is in legal terms not truthful or objective.
I have no problem with that, as far as it goes, but it is important to bear in mind that the scope of the 1995 Act is confined to a specific type of information, or what it calls "act information". This is defined as information likely to be required by women in availing themselves of pregnancy termination services. In other words, "act information" relates to that information which helps somebody have an abortion, and, in reference to the subject matter of the original Supreme Court injunctions, it means providing the name, address and telephone number of a foreign abortion service and so on. Thus, as then Minister for Health, Deputy Michael Noonan, pointed out on Second Stage of that Bill in this House, the Act does not apply to more general information, such as information about the nature of abortion. If a rogue agency, which seeks to restrict access to abortion, provided women with information that was objectively untruthful, it might do so without being subject to the legislation.
I am conscious that my time has almost expired. It is important that we have a workable solution to outlawing this practice of giving totally inaccurate, misleading and damaging information to women at a time of crisis. We believe our proposed legislation is the best and quickest method to do this. I welcome the support for the principle of the legislation from the Minister and I look forward to working with him to find a mechanism that will bring a form of legislation to the Statute Book at an early point to achieve these objectives.