My colleague made a fair point on the vote. I am conscious we do not normally get legislation before us on it. I welcome the Bill, which is very technical in nature. I might be in error in some of the points I pick out of it. If the Minister had sent us his speech we might have gotten a better sense of the errors we have made in our speeches on the Bill.
I welcome that the Bill will improve and formalise procedures for the operation of Ireland’s diplomatic relations. I have one concern, which I will come to later. First, in general, I welcome the introduction of the Bill, which will enhance the efficiency and clarity of arrangements with respect to the staff of diplomatic missions and international organisations. The lack of clarity has been commented on in the courts. The Bill will hopefully strengthen the rights of workers and their families. It is a positive development.
The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations 1961 and the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations 1963 codify what is perhaps one of the oldest and most accepted fields of international law, namely the formal relations between states and their official representatives. To facilitate the peaceful and efficient conduct of these relations, these treaties grant diplomats certain privileges and immunity, including immunity from the criminal jurisdiction of the receiving state and immunity from its civil and administrative jurisdiction. While this is an important aspect to the functioning of peaceful international relations, granting such immunity has been abused by a small number of diplomats in Ireland and abroad. It is important we state that from the outset.
I welcome that Part 1 section 3 of the Bill repeals section 49 of the Diplomatic Relations and Immunities Act 1967 which requires Government approval for Irish citizens to be appointed to international organisations serving in Ireland. Having such a requirement seems unnecessary and archaic and I welcome it will be repealed. I do not fully understand why it was there in the first place. I am sure there was a rational reason behind it at the time. It is outdated and is being removed.
Part 2 of the Bill includes some simple technical amendments to sections 39, 40, 42A, 43 and 50 of the Diplomatic Relations and Immunities Act 1967. I welcome that it does not include an amendment to section 47 of the 1967 Act which was originally included in the heads of the Bill. Head 5 of the Bill wanted to amend section 47 by inserting "tribunal or other adjudicatory body or administrative authority," after "In proceedings in any court". In a positive development during the pre-legislative scrutiny work, the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland pointed out this would extend immunity to the workplace relations bodies on matters of employment, which would be problematic and reduce workers’ rights and possible entitlements. It is critically important that employers, including embassies, are held to account by the employment laws of the State by the workplace relations bodies. While the issue of diplomatic immunity is contested in these settings, the Migrants Rights Centre has been able to file claims on behalf of domestic workers employed by diplomats and has had successful claims heard in the labour courts and other courts. While the original proposed amendment relies on the bodies to decide if immunity extends as a matter of law, the granting of certification in the first instance muddies the water by asserting that immunity does apply as a matter of policy. The impact of such a provision could disproportionately impact on the rights of workers to due process where their employment rights were deemed to have been breached.
It would have also acted contrary to the guidelines relating to the employment of private domestic employees by accredited members of the mission which were introduced by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in 2015. I welcome the fact such a provision has not been included in this Bill. We all know that with the vast majority of embassies there is no problem, but in a few well documented and controversial cases, major issues have arisen.
Between 2008 and 2014, the Migrant Rights Centre referred nine cases of alleged human trafficking for the purposes of forced labour involving domestic workers employed in embassies and diplomatic households to An Garda Síochána. In one of the more prominent cases, a 17-year-old girl travelled to Ireland to work for a diplomat’s family, having been told she would be allowed to work part time and pursue her studies. However, on arrival she found she would be required to be the sole carer of a child with severe special needs. Her day apparently started at 5.30 a.m. and her employer assaulted her when she asked to use the phone to call her family. This was all documented. She was not paid for her three years of work and, worryingly, she still has not been compensated. Another case involved three Asian women who were brought to Dublin as domestic workers for a diplomat and his family. They worked for an average of 108 hours a week. Two of them were paid €134 per month and the third was paid around €160 per month as she had been working for the family for longer. Anyone reading the details of these cases in the newspapers would be shocked and horrified that this could go on in Ireland in the 21st century.
Human rights workers in this area have said that because such domestic workers lose their visa status when they leave the employ of the embassy staff member, many feel bound to their employer and may be forced to stay in exploitative situations as a result. This is an anomaly that needs to be addressed. I thank the Domestic Workers Action Group which has done so much work in this area to highlight these difficulties. Under the Department's new guidelines, diplomats have to sign a contract agreeing to pay minimum wages, link workers with the Migrant Rights Centre and allow for labour inspections. This is significant and extremely welcome. However, we know that enforcement remains problematic due to the protections provided by diplomatic immunity under the 1961 Vienna Convention so it is important we remain vigilant in this area. I support my colleague's suggestion that the Minister would write to the diplomatic missions outlining the rules and regulations that operate in Ireland. This could be done in a diplomatic way, pointing out that issues that have arisen in the past should not arise in the future.
Section 9 of Part 3 of this Bill is problematic and I am concerned over its inclusion. The section seeks to amend the Irish Nationality and Citizenship Act 1956 to provide that any period of time spent in the State while exempt from immigration controls, as workers in embassies are, is not reckonable for residency in the context of naturalisation. I believe that this is an important right that should not be undermined or interfered with in any way. I am also concerned that the section states that children born to diplomats and associated persons who are exempt from immigration controls do not, except in certain circumstances, qualify for Irish citizenship by birth. I would appreciate it if someone from the Department could explain that to me. I cannot understand the purpose of excluding what would be a very small group of people in this way and to write that exclusion into the legislation. The section does not seem necessary or proportional. I ask the Minister to explain why it is included and why these workers should be treated differently from other workers. I ask him to provide details on how many people have applied for naturalisation or citizenship in this way in recent years. Such information is important and might explain the inclusion of this provision. Why is this something that must be changed now? What is the policy goal of such a change? This is extremely concerning for me and it needs much more detailed discussion. I intend to raise this again on Committee Stage, where my party will seek to remove or amend it. Otherwise we will be voting against this Bill, which we do not want to do because there are many positive elements to it.
Section 10 of Part 3 amends the Immigration Act 2004 in order to specify particular categories of diplomatic and associated persons who are exempt from mainstream immigration controls. This is welcome because it allows domestic workers in diplomatic missions or diplomatic households to be accompanied by their immediate family members during their posting in the State, which is a positive step. During the pre-legislative scrutiny stage of this Bill, representatives of the Migrant Rights Centre pointed out that the explanatory note defines domestic workers as inclusive of service staff but that subsections of the legislation were actually unclear as to whether service staff were included. They requested a subsection to specify that a member of the private staff is inclusive of service staff. I welcome that subsection (b) of section 10 of this Bill expressly specifies that private servants are included. I welcome the fact officials in the Department are listening as part of the pre-legislative scrutiny of legislation and are taking ideas on board.
Section 11 of Part 3 amends the Employment Permits Act 2003 to permit a foreign national family member of a foreign government employee on posting to the State who falls within the terms of a bilateral agreement entered into with another government to access the labour market without the need for an employment permit. This is a sensible and welcome amendment. It makes Ireland a much more welcoming place. However, we must ask about the situation regarding domestic workers in embassies and diplomatic households who are currently bound to their employers. If they try to leave, they lose their legal right to reside and work in this State. Should they not be included in an amendment to the Employment Permits 2003 Act and be allowed to apply for other jobs in the State? I am interested to hear the Minister's views in that regard. This is something I will also propose that we examine in more detail on Committee Stage. I welcome the fact the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is updating and improving arrangements with respect to international organisations and the staff of diplomatic missions in Ireland. Some of the changes are very welcome but I am hugely concerned over section 9 of Part 3 of the Bill. I am not opposing the Bill at this Stage as much of it is very positive. I would like to have a more detailed and robust discussion about section 9 in Part 3. I particularly seek further information on why the Department has included it and unless I can be convinced of its merits and workers’ rights organisation in this area can support it, then I will have huge difficulty in supporting the Bill as a whole. I hope we can amend the legislation. I welcome the fact it has been brought before the House. Indeed, it is unusual these days for us to be dealing with legislation. The more information we get from the Department, the more we can interact in this process and improve this and future legislation.