This outrageous legislation and the outrageous unholy alliance that is coming together to pass it deserve the fullest possible debate.
Judicial Appointments Commission Bill 2017: Second Stage (Resumed)
It is new politics.
It is new new politics, where every priority of the ordinary citizens of this country is put to one side. Housing is out the door, the health service is out the door and legislation on the most significant political issue - water - is delayed again. There was no answer from the Tánaiste to a question on that subject earlier. Instead, one Minister, Deputy Shane Ross, with a bee in his bonnet over many years about the Judiciary, decides it, and the Government and Sinn Féin agree to facilitate his whim. The idea that Fine Gael, on the whim of one Independent Deputy and in alliance with Sinn Féin, would radically overhaul our Judiciary and change the way the Judiciary is appointed is simply outrageous. It is unthinkable to the grassroots members and supporters of Fine Gael throughout the country, but this is what it is reduced to.
Sinn Féin saw Fianna Fáil opposing and decided it had to be for it. For no price at all, it offered its full support to the Government. At least the DUP in the North got £1 billion. Fianna Fáil said we would facilitate passage of the Education (Admission to Schools) Bill provided a section on special education was included, and the Minister, Deputy Bruton, responded to that, but Sinn Féin does not appear to have looked for anything. It has gone hook, line and sinker with this particular procedure. I cannot believe that Fine Gael Deputies and Ministers are comfortable with this unholy alliance.
The Minister, Deputy Ross, seems to think the Judiciary is just another quango which he does not like and which should be dealt with in some fashion. He and the Government fail to understand that the Judiciary, especially the higher elements, are part of the Government of the country. This Government is split into executive, legislative and judicial elements. The Judiciary can make or break laws. They interpret the Constitution and run our courts system. They can make or take away the freedom and civil liberties of people if they deem it necessary to punish criminal offences. It is a very important body which, through all the years of the Troubles, kept this State running. It was the most important organ of the State to ensure justice was done and people were punished for their crimes. Sometimes this was done at great risk to the members of the Judiciary, and I am aware of several members of the Special Criminal Court who have ongoing Garda protection.
I know that, given all that history and having regard to the importance of the Judiciary, it is not in the hearts of Fine Gael to line up with Sinn Féin, whose members are not in the House. I know that the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, and the Tánaiste and Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Fitzgerald, do not believe in what they are doing and do not agree with this legislation. I know they are not comfortable lining up with Sinn Féin and that they will find it hard to go back to local party meetings or branch supporters and tell them they have a great new law which Sinn Féin is backing.
This is provocation. I am being provoked but I will not respond.
The Minister is showing admirable restraint.
Deputy Thomas Byrne is very energised about this.
I am trying to get the Minister to his senses. He is a solicitor by profession and has generally carried out his ministerial duties with aplomb. He has been dignified but it is totally undignified for any Government of Ireland, particularly Fine Gael, to line up with Sinn Féin on the whim of one Independent Deputy to change the way our Judiciary is appointed. I urge them to stop, to hold back and pause. I understand the Committee on Justice and Equality, in its wisdom, has paused this.
This is a branch of our Government. It is an authority which is separate but equal. It can overrule our legislation, can imprison people and can interpret legislation. It can create new rights and has done over the years, sometimes in a very welcome way and sometimes not. If we do not like the rights they create or recognise under the Constitution, there can always be a referendum as the ultimate arbiter. The Government is denigrating the Judiciary with this Bill and Members sitting behind the Ministers have spoken about it.
That is more provocation.
The Minister is laughing because he knows it is true.
It is not.
It is undignified for the Chief Justice of Ireland to sit on a committee with someone else chairing it and it is disrespectful of the way our constitutional system of checks and balances works. The Chief Justice oversees the judicial system and has one vote in the Supreme Court, with nominal charge of the system, but the Government will relegate her - it is Chief Justice Denham at the moment - to simply one member of a committee with a lay chairperson.
It is very worrying that the Public Appointments Service will now indirectly appoint judges. Deputy Ó Cuív has spoken very well on this matter. The Government is simply replacing one elite with another. The Minister, Deputy Ross, speaks of a Government elite deciding on judicial appointments, but at least that elite is elected by the public. It is answerable to the public and can be kicked out of office over judicial appointments. Governments have fallen on judicial appointments over the years, so they can be matters of political controversy.
It is not simply about packing a board. The Minister, Deputy Shane Ross wants to pack it in another way using the Public Appointments Service. We should be deeply interested in who is a member of the Supreme Court or the Court of Appeal. We should take note of whom Governments appoint or the Public Appointments Service recommends because these institutions of State rightly have so much power. They can make law, break it if it is deemed to be unconstitutional and can interpret it, so it is very important we know the direction of these people. We do not need to know how they will decide in individual cases, but it is in the public interest for some analysis to be done of who is appointed to the Judiciary because they can change the direction of the country. That is the way our system works, so it is very important to get the right people in the system. I am not convinced this Bill will do it.
The number of lay people proposed by this Bill is extraordinary but, as Deputy Ó Cuív said earlier, it will not mean someone from the Aran Islands will be appointed to the judicial appointments commission. The Public Appointments Service will just create a new elite, mostly from Dublin and mostly from one part of Dublin. Deputy Ó Cuív has the figures to prove this is happening with other appointments. A new elite is being formed that is unelected and unaccountable. We are contracting these things out to other people, but they socialise and mix together. These people speak at conferences and in the media and have their influences and networks, but the only influence and network in this House should be in accordance with the Constitution, which states that it is the Government that appoints the Judiciary in a fair and transparent way. I do not believe this legislation does that.
Simply put, those who know the people who would be good judges and could give those names to the Government are not allowed to be on the appointments commission. The legislation which Fianna Fáil has put forward was prepared by Deputy O'Callaghan. It is a disgrace that the Government has refused to issue a money message for that legislation for no reason other than that it wants to stall the legislation on the instructions of the Minister, Deputy Ross. The Fianna Fáil Bill recognises that within the Judiciary and the legal profession there are those who can analyse people's particular talents and skills and then present that analysis to the Government in the form of ranked candidates, which is very important in order to allow the Government to tell who is the best candidate who deserves appointment in the view of the judicial appointments commission as proposed by Fianna Fáil. Ultimately, the Government would then make a final decision. That is not available under the Bill proposed today.
The most we can ask for at this point is for passage of the Bill to be paused and that the Government think very seriously about the Judiciary, the nature of our constitutional system and the alliances the Government is building in order to get this Bill passed. Those alliances are not just with Sinn Féin, which is very important, but also with the sole Independent who is really fighting for the Bill. The Government backbenchers who were not preferred for ministerial office are telling the real story. That is where the truth comes out. Some backbenchers feel more free to speak their minds than their colleagues who, now that they have been appointed to ministerial office, and I am referring to junior Ministers rather than Deputy Flanagan, will not speak out on this issue. However, I presume that those recently elevated to office were previously of a mind with their colleagues who have spoken out on this issue. I congratulate those who have spoken out because they, when they go back to their constituencies, voters and the ordinary, decent members of Fine Gael, have found that people are aghast that this Bill is a priority in view of the fact that only last week the Government showed that when needs must, it does not comply with the existing rules. This will continue to be the case. The unholy alliances that have been formed and the rushing through of this legislation are a disgrace.
There is much else on which the House could be working. In terms of education, people have been waiting over a year for the Technological Universities Bill 2015, while the Education (Admission to Schools) Bill 2016 is devoid of any substance because the baptism barrier issue has not been addressed and the Bill is hardly worth the paper it is written on. That Bill has also been awaited for a year. There has been a substantial amendment to the Bill in regard to special needs which has added to its value and I am grateful for that. These are just some of the issues in the area of education and skills. There are many other areas with which the Dáil could be dealing if this controversial Bill were not being forced through. The Bill could be considered over a longer period of time and the best of both it and the Bill proposed by Fianna Fáil could be taken. The fundamental issue raised by Fianna Fáil Bill is that the Chief Justice should chair the appointments body, as has been similarly proposed by Fine Gael backbenchers. Surely there is a meeting of minds in this regard and it should be possible to do so. Fianna Fáil would work with that and that is what the production of legislation is about.
I attended the Select Committee on Education and Skills for six or seven hours yesterday while dealing with the Education (Admission to Schools) Bill 2016. I pay tribute to the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Bruton in that regard. Because the Government does not have sufficient numbers of Deputies, he has to take the views of the Opposition on board or risk losing a vote on the Bill and thereby put into legislation a feature that either he does not want or his officials may think completely unworkable. However, he has taken a very constructive approach and has even withdrawn some of his amendments with which the Opposition Deputies were not particularly happy and will revert to us on them before Report Stage. That was a brilliant example of new politics in terms of the fundamental job of this House, which is making legislation and creating better laws.
Under the previous Government and former Governments involving Fianna Fáil in which I remember serving as a backbencher, as I am sure the Ceann Comhairle also does, there was often a dismissive attitude if backbenchers put forward views different to those of the all-powerful Minister. That has changed for the better because of the composition of the House. This is the opportunity for the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, to shine in embracing new politics and coming up with a workable solution to which all Members could sign up. What could be better than the entire House coming up with an agreed approach on this issue? That is what should happen in regard to judicial appointments rather than one Minister forcing his will on a party that is lining up with another party that should know better than to start discussing the Judiciary. The House should be working towards an agreed approach. I was grateful to see the signals from Deputies Deering and Farrell. Deputy Deering has said that he will not vote for the Bill unless it is changed. I presume their point of view is feeding into the discussions they have with the Minister, any text messages on the issue that are being sent by Members, or the WhatsApp groups there are in Fine Gael. It is a positive sign that those Deputies can speak out. Fianna Fáil will work with the Government if it is willing to amend the Bill, in particular in regard to the position of the Chief Justice and the composition of the appointments commission. There are good things in both this Bill and that proposed by Fianna Fáil. The good thing about the Government Bill is that it proposes reform. Fianna Fáil does not agree with much of its detail and the Bill it proposes is a serious effort to address this issue. However, there is plenty of time to deal with them.
I was uncomfortable when the Judiciary began speaking out on this issue. I am not used to it and would not open my mouth one way or the other about the court case that was mentioned earlier. Whether a person is found guilty or not in a court case is no business of Members; it is entirely for the Judiciary. In the same way, legislation is the business of the House and Members must ensure it is constitutional, although the Supreme Court has the ultimate say on constitutionality and can interfere in that regard. I was a little uncomfortable with the comments of the Judiciary this week in regard to the legislation. That said, the fact that such commentary was so unprecedented shows the seriousness of the issue. This is not about the self-preservation of some kind of grubby system. As I have said, it is replacing one system with another. It is very difficult to get the system right because it involves a branch of government that can decide on laws. That members of the Judiciary have spoken out on the issue should give pause to the Minister. While I do not know him very well, I have dealt with the Minister on various issues over the past ten years and sat with him on the justice committee. I am sure that the comments of the Judiciary gave him pause for thought this week. The Minister's comments on this issue were not as sharp as those of the Taoiseach, who pointed out the importance of the separation of powers and criticised the Judiciary.
I hope I give the Minister pause for thought by saying that the future of the Judiciary and its membership should not be decided by the Minister, Deputy Ross, and supported by Sinn Féin and Fine Gael working together. That is not what should happen. All Members should work together on this issue. Fianna Fáil are willing to do so. We have shown that by producing legislation dealing with this issue. The best possible outcome on this issue should be sought. There is no need to rush it. The Government cannot deliver the legislation for Deputy Ross because it does not have sufficient numbers to do so. He needs to be told that. I presume that the only commitment Fine Gael can give to Deputy Ross is that it will bring forward the legislation. It has no control over a vote on the legislation. I do not know if it will pass. It is possible it will not. It will face a hard battle on Committee Stage as the Government does not have a majority on the Select Committee on Justice and Equality. We will wait and see what happens at that committee. Its make-up is interesting. I have no doubt that my colleagues on it have every intention of working very closely with other committee members, including those from Fine Gael, to achieve the best possible outcome. That is where this must happen. If this Bill gets to Committee Stage, I have no doubt that Deputy Flanagan will be able to sit around a table at that committee with his Fine Gael colleagues, Deputy O'Callaghan and two Deputies representing Independents4Change who have a strong interest in justice matters - out of the glare of this debate and all the politics - and work out a good solution on this issue. I urge the Government to step back a little and tell Deputy Ross that the best it can do is to bring the Bill to Committee Stage.
I would like to see the entire House come together on this issue. If it is to be Deputy Ross versus the remainder of the House, that does not really matter. If the House were to come together on this issue, it would send a signal that the Judiciary is a branch of government that Members respect and want to see the best people appointed to and that Members recognise that the importance of this matter is such that it should not be subject of political debate. I therefore ask the Government to hold back and to think of the alliances it is making on this issue. They are not conducive to the making of good laws, nor are they good for the future of the Judiciary.
Tá mé chun críochnú ansin. Tá sé tábhachtach go bhfuil gach rud pléite againn maidir leis an mBille seo. Measaim go bhfuil deis againn agus deis ag an Rialtas, deis atá á ofráil ag Fianna Fáil, obair le chéile chun na nithe is fearr den dá thaobh a chur le chéile ionas go mbeadh an Dáil agus an tOireachtas ag labhairt le haon ghuth ar an ábhar tábhachtach seo faoi bhráinse agus craobh den Rialtas seo maidir le ceapacháin bhreithimh. Tá sé an-tábhachtach go n-oibreoimid le chéile agus nach mbeidh dhá pháirtí amháin ag obair le chéile chun toil Aire nó Teachta amháin a chur i bhfeidhm. Ní hé sin an tslí cheart le deileáil leis seo. Caithfimid dul níos moille agus an rud is fearr a dhéanamh don tír seachas do Bhaill Dháil Éireann amháin.
The separation of powers in any republic is a delicate and essential balance to ensure citizens can make laws and have the law judged in an independent manner. In the Irish context, the broad history of the Irish judicial system is one that merits great praise. Our judges have in the main been independent, fair and sometimes quite brilliant in interpreting the laws of our Republic. Many of our constitutional and civic rights have been defended and enhanced by the actions of our judges, and miscarriages of justice are rare in Irish judicial history.
However, Ireland is a republic. In a republic, the essential element is that the people are sovereign. This means that the people must have the essential political power to govern through their elected representatives. To govern democratically in the modern age, there must be a transparent appointments system to all public positions, but in particular to powerful appointments such as the appointment of a judge. The current system that is in place is in need of reform. There is no doubting that. The events surrounding recent appointments to the Court of Appeal are a perfect example of a method of appointment that does not command the necessary impartiality and transparency that is essential if we are to maintain and enhance public confidence in our democratic institutions.
All democratic institutions have come under intense public scrutiny in recent times. Our modern age, as the Taoiseach describes it, demands that the appointments process to senior positions in public life be of the highest standard. How we appoint our judges and the process of how we decide to appoint judges is also of crucial importance. The events of the past two weeks have not reflected well on this, however. In this constitutional Republic, the Government is charged with appointing judges. The reality of the past two weeks, however, is that this Bill is being rushed through by Fine Gael and its new friends in Sinn Féin to cover the political embarrassment of the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, over last week's appointment of a judge. We are now engaged in a farce of a debate over the very important subject of the impartial appointment of judges. Too often we hear of politicians living in the Leinster House bubble and being removed from the issues of the real world. This is an accusation we share with the legal community who are accused of living in the bubble of the Four Courts or the Law Library and being removed from the concerns of ordinary citizens. I, as a newly elected Deputy, have often tried to combat this accusation by working on the issues that are at the top of citizens' concerns. It is with some frustration, therefore, that an important issue that should be carefully teased out in Parliament and outside it is dominating the political agenda while housing, mental health and education are being put on the political waiting list by Fine Gael, Sinn Féin and the Independent Alliance. I find that hard to take. I also think that the longer this farce of a debate goes on, the more damage that will be done to everyone in this Dáil.
What we need to do is to reset carefully the atmosphere surrounding this debate. Badly thought-out legislation in judicial reform will only damage the carefully established separation of powers that has been developed and has evolved over decades. Deputy O’Callaghan, Fianna Fáil justice spokesman, takes this issue very seriously, and he is right to do so. He is also a highly experienced lawyer, and this is not a disadvantage here but a great asset. He believes in substantive reform of our legal system, but Deputy O'Callaghan and we in Fianna Fáil believe in substantive reform that is carefully formulated with widespread consultation with the members of our legal community and with international best practice taken into account. The Fianna Fáil proposal of a truly independent yet balanced judicial appointments commission is a fair attempt to put forward an appointments system that is transparent, professional, independent and yet values the fact that appointments to the Judiciary require the input of those who currently occupy these crucial positions. Serving senior judges, from their professional experience, day in, day out, and their academic and legal publications, hold an institutional knowledge that is vital in the appointment of competent judges. If we were dealing with senior medical appointments, for example, we would require consultant surgeons involved in the appointment of surgeons. In fact, the public demands that professional competency be adjudicated on by those who are at the highest levels of their profession. Fine Gael, Sinn Féin and the Independent Alliance, however, want to diminish the role of our senior judges. This is degrading and populist legislation at its worst.
The role of retired judges is also excluded from consideration in the Government's Bill. Many of our retired judges are some of the finest legal minds that exist in this country, yet because the Minister, Deputy Ross, has a bias against judges, they are all to be excluded in this unusual alliance of Fine Gael, Sinn Féin and Deputy Ross. We also know that one of the realities in judicial appointments is that it is in many instances difficult to get well-qualified and experienced legal personnel to put themselves forward for consideration to be a judge. This Bill and the undercurrent of disrespect towards our Judiciary that has been a feature of this debate is not going to convince any solicitor or barrister to put him or herself forward for consideration. As I said at the outset of my contribution to this debate, the separation of powers between the political world of Parliament and Government and an independent Judiciary and legal system is a vital and delicate balance. There will always be a healthy tension between the courts and Parliament. Lawmakers and those who adjudicate on our laws are often somewhat at odds. That is the purpose of checks and balances that are vital to protect citizens from overreach by either Parliament, the Government or the Judiciary.
When changes need to be made to the judicial system, the utmost care and sensitivity must be used to protect that balance. This Bill is not that change. It is politics, and it is potentially dangerous politics. At the end of the day, long after the political arguments and game playing that tend to dominate Parliament day to day, the citizens of this State require a judicial system that is independent, robust and has the confidence of those who need the legal system. It is still not too late for a reset on this Bill. Parliament is at best seriously divided on this issue. There should be maximum consensus in this Dáil on judicial reform. Instead we have partisan and political manoeuvring. That is the worst possible atmosphere in which to change the method of judicial appointments. The Government prioritisation of this Bill has meant other more vital issues are taking a back seat. This is another bad day for this Dáil. I ask the Members supporting this Bill to reconsider pushing this through. Our Republic deserves better than this.
This is the first occasion on which I have been in the Chamber with the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan. I wish him well in his new office. He brings much experience, and I commend him on his work in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. I did detect a change in tone in the Department of Justice and Equality at the weekend. His comments to his back bench colleagues around this Bill show a bit of experience of ground hurling coming to fruition.
That is good because until now the Bill was sailing through without much challenge. I have more faith now that the Committee Stage process will result in changes to the Bill. Nobody is against reform and the Judiciary cannot be immune to reform. The separation of powers does not preclude us from highlighting the need for reform. The timing of this Bill and the urgency being given to it in the context of the challenges facing our country are quite extraordinary. The Minister of State at the Department of Education and Skills, Deputy Halligan, of the Independent Alliance, has an interest in things extra-terrestrial. He believes in life in other territories and I was thinking over the past few days that if aliens came down from space and looked at this republic of ours, they would see the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, facing transport challenges such that our cities are congested to the gills. Anybody trying to get to work in Dublin this morning faced enormous delays and there will be no money for roadways in the Transport Infrastructure Ireland pipeline after 2019. They would ask is the Minister of State with responsibility for people with disabilities threatening to leave Government over our refusal to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities or over the inordinate delays experienced by children with disabilities around the country, the lack of occupational therapy, physiotherapy and basic services. They would ask is Deputy Halligan threatening to leave Government over the problem around cardiac care in his constituency. The Minister and Ministers of State I have referred to are apparently threatening to leave Government over the appointment of judges. It is a very serious issue but in the context of the challenges facing this Republic is it one that will pull down the Government? I do not think so.
There is a housing crisis, the Government has done an amazing volte face on a commitment to have families out of hotels by the end of July. Quietly amidst the sound and fury of this Bill it has ditched that commitment and families will still be hotels in August, September, October, November and December. Meanwhile we will have a new gold-plated quango, compliments of Deputy Ross. Is it not ironic that the man who made a career out of having a go at quangos is now championing a gold-plated quango? In fact this is not even gold-plated, it is full gold, not the cheap stuff. This is top class gold from wherever it comes. To be fair to Deputy Ross when one has a career as a journalist it is easy pickings for the likes of me who googles "Shane Ross+quangos" because there is any number of headlines and articles. I got a good one he wrote on 6 January 2013 with the headline “How a Quango Failed a Nation”. It was about Transport Infrastructure Ireland. Now we are being bequeathed the judicial appointments commission office with staff, directors, all sorts of things that go with them, boards that are the subject of controversy, that will include lay people who will probably get expenses that the old Shane Ross would be submitting freedom of information requests on and fulminating about in The Sunday Independent. He has decided, however, that this is the number one priority facing this Republic and the Government has fallen into line behind him. That is extraordinary in 2017 given the challenges we face.
We do need reform, that is why Deputy O'Callaghan put forward a Bill on reform. Nobody is denying that we need reform. Deputy Bríd Smith earlier criticised Fianna Fáil's opposition to this Bill. She cited the various tribunals that have happened in this State over the past 20 or 30 years which investigated former members of this party. I would say straight back to her that those tribunals and the moral strength and conviction of the judges who ran them shows the strength of the Judiciary and no matter who appoints the judges they uphold the law, the rules that this Legislature passes. They uphold that law regardless of whether a person is Taoiseach, or a citizen, regardless of a person's standing.
All of those championing, and chomping at the bit for, this legislation, who say we are need of reform have failed to cite instances of the Judiciary systematically failing the State. It is not the Judiciary that is failing the State, it is other arms of the Department of Justice and Equality by putting things in front of the judges that maybe should not be there in the first place or by the management and challenges facing An Garda Síochána. Is it not extraordinary that the new Minister's first major legislative outing is nothing to do with the reform of An Garda Síochána, given the challenges facing it, or with asylum seeking, given the decision of the courts some weeks ago about asylum seekers and the right to work but it is this? It still misses the mark on opportunities for reform. If we are going to reform our Judiciary there are many areas we need to consider. Deputy O'Callaghan has set out a roadmap for doing that. We need to consider the gender make-up. There is a gender quota in this Chamber. I was sceptical about it but it certainly worked in 2016 and it has the potential to work even better. Should we consider a gender make-up for our Judiciary to ensure it reflects and represents those who may appear before it? Is there any serving judge with a disability who understands what it is like to live with a disability and to fight a country and a system that seems determined to fight people with disabilities? A judge with a disability would have experience of going through that system and being able to bring that experience to judgments in relevant cases. How many members of the new Irish community who have moved to this country in the past 20 years from different parts of the world are members of the Judiciary? They know why they moved here, the opportunities they sought and the challenges that new community faces such as those often presented to them by the Department of Justice and Equality in respect of citizenship rules and ridiculous waiting periods.
Yes, we need reform but the manner in which this is being done will preclude reform and the political controversy associated with it will ensure that the reforms that are needed are forever associated with the stigma of this Bill and its background. We know the rushing through of this Bill was the price for Deputy Ross’s support for the appointment of the former Attorney General to the Court of Appeal, as well as the Garda station. The Minister need not be throwing those eyes over at me. He knows it. He has been around here longer than me. The only person who has been here longer than him is Deputy Ross. The reform of the Judiciary is now associated with the quagmire of that appointment.
The Minister should get out the hurl and take it to this Bill with the zest with which he has taken it to people over the years. Now that his constituency is a five-seater again, I am sure it will be sharpened up. He needs to sit down with the members of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice and Equality who have a real interest in this Bill and in reform and ask what they need and what do we want the Judiciary of a 21st century republic to look like. We want it to uphold the tradition of challenging that republic, and the tradition it has shown since the foundation of the State of protecting the Republic at a time when there were people trying to take it down by paramilitary means, people now associating themselves with this Bill. Judges stood up to them, sometimes at their own personal cost and at risk to their personal safety. That tradition of standing up for the Republic must be protected in judicial reform. This Bill, and the circumstances of its introduction, does not represent standing up for the Republic or the legislation but bowing down to cronyism, to the lowest common denominator of politics. That is not the way this Bill or this House should be. As someone with a long background in this area and service to this House the Minister should not let this be the hallmark of his first major Bill as Minister for Justice and Equality.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on this Bill. On 27 October last I contributed to the debate on Deputy O'Callaghan's judicial appointments Bill, which was a significant and welcome improvement on the absurdity of Deputy Ross's proposals when he introduced a Bill in 2014.
I will relay some of the things he postulated as representing the way forward.
I congratulate my midlands colleague, Deputy Flanagan, on his elevation to the position of Minister for Justice and Equality. He was a very fine spokesman on justice for his party a number of years ago and he has long experience as a solicitor. He practised in the midlands in the District Court, the Circuit Court and the High Court. I am sure he has appeared in the Supreme Court to give instructions in some cases. He knows that, irrespective of who makes his or her appointment, a judge takes the oath of office extremely seriously once on the Bench. No matter who one appears before and regardless of whatever views he or she might have had, he or she adheres to the oath of office and dispenses justice fairly, impartially, objectively and in accordance with his or her oath and the law of the land, which prevails in respect of and dictates the course of the case he or she is hearing. Political persuasions are cast aside. The legislation before us is now saying that anyone who has any contact with politics or politicians is contaminated. It is incredible that someone would have to live in a cocoon well away from being seen talking to anyone of any political persuasion or none. "Cronyism" is a loose term of banter which has now taken on a particular meaning and which is being used widely to disparage people. That is the purpose for which it is being used. If one has any degree of friendship at all, one is a crony. I look on that as being a friend of someone from whom one might have sought advice in the past and from whom one received dispassionate and objective advice. That is now elevating itself to the level of cronyism, which is completely objectionable. I have appeared in all the courts in the land over the past 27 years and I am sure I never knew nor cared who appointed the members of the Judiciary. I always got a fair hearing on behalf of clients, as did my opponents.
Judges make decisions and, having practised in courts across this land, they are very experienced. People who apply for the Bench are often at the top of their profession, whether it is as a solicitor or barrister. They will have spent a considerable period gaining experience, competence and intellectual ability. Going on the Bench often results for them in a significant reduction in remuneration. When a person applies for a position, he or she does so on a confidential basis. I can foresee a situation whereby the group responsible for recommending people for appointment will be so large, we will not be able to guarantee confidentiality. All it takes is one person to say something. One could tie it up like the JAAB by making it a criminal offence to give out information. Be that as it may, there is always speculation. I cannot say that anyone ever breached the Act, but there was always speculation as to whether Willie Penrose, BL, or some other individual would become a judge. That is fair. It may be either informed or idle speculation but people who make applications do so in confidence. They want to ensure that if they are not successful, it will not be publicised. It is a significant rebuff to individuals if they are not chosen. As the Minister will know, it is a big decision to become a member of the Judiciary. As such, I reject this idea of cronyism.
Deputy O'Callaghan's Judicial Appointments Commission Bill always struck me as sensible, constructive and balanced. It contrasted sharply with the proposals published by Deputy Ross, who is now a Minister, in 2013. He wanted a judicial appointments council to recommend suitably qualified candidates on merit and he wanted a joint committee of the Oireachtas to consider the recommendations and then nominate judges for appointment by the President. Most bizarrely, he wanted the Constitution amended to stipulate that no judge or practising lawyer could have no role in the assessment of the qualifications of the candidates or in recommending their suitability. That was the most harebrained idea. I say to the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, who is very experienced, that it would knock one for six. It knocked us all for six, which is why I castigated it. That was daftness on stilts. It was so manifestly absurd that I could not understand how its author could be taken seriously as either a political commentator or a practising politician, let alone as a Minister. It is one thing to come out with gadfly blustering, which is clearly entertaining for a readership in the leafy suburbs, but it does not contribute anything serious to the debate on this issue.
In opposition, Deputy Ross was a noisy distraction. In government, he has become an empty space. If he spent as much time worrying about his Department as he does about another Minister's, we would be all better off. I see Deputy Troy is present. The Deputy is an Opposition spokesman on transport. We would prefer if the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport ensured that there were trains with adequate capacity, speed, comfort and frequency leaving our major towns of Longford and Mullingar for the east. We would rather there were enough jobs to keep people in their own areas, but they need to go eastwards in the morning and to come home in the evening. The Minister should be ensuring that there are buses on the roads. He should be ensuring that the station at Thomastown reopens. If he concentrated on all of those issues, he would be kept extremely busy and would not be distracted.
This Bill has clearly been rushed to accommodate the crusade upon which the Minister, Deputy Ross, has embarked. He spelled out his desire for reform a number of years ago and brought forward a judicial Bill in 2013 which can only be described as a whopper. It sought to eliminate, at a stroke, input from any member of the Judiciary. His judicial appointments council would have ensured that no judge, member of the Bar Council or Law Society, or anyone of that ilk, to use his term, would have an input. In the Minister's view, they are all insiders. He has exhibited an unusual distaste for anybody of any professionalism or expertise. I am not much into getting expert input myself in that we, as politicians, should do our own work without relying on commissions and experts. Surely, however, members of the Judiciary, particularly the Chief Justice and presidents of the various courts, have invaluable insights to impart and contribute to the assessment of applicants by a judicial council. Potential applicants for judicial vacancies will clearly have practiced in these courts on numerous occasions, whether as solicitors or barristers, both of which professions have full rights of audience and advocacy with some excellent solicitors doing so. They are in a prime position to give a view as to the suitability of an applicant's abilities, competence, intellectual capacity and, the most important attribute of all, temperament. The latter is critical to an appointment. On appointment to the Bench, one severs the relationships one enjoyed prior to appointment. It can be a lonely place from that perspective.
The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, could have proposed something that I know the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, would like to see. There is no doubt that the JAAB system requires an overhaul. There must be improvements, changes and enhancements, all of which we would welcome. The big thing to do, however, would be to create a judicial council.
The Chief Justice, Mrs. Justice Susan Denham, has been calling for it for at least three or four years. Funnily enough, if people were to read back through the records of this House, they would see that I have called for it on four or five occasions in the past five or six years. I think that is the most important thing. It would have a huge input in terms of continuing professional development and education for everyone involved, but particularly judges. It could also deal with complaints if someone feels aggrieved about any particular aspects or matters, whether he or she is a litigant or a representative. It could be an advocate or an instructing solicitor, or the solicitor might be the advocate. This would be the most important thing. In fact, this Bill should not be coming forward without that being on tow. The example of Hamlet, prince of Denmark comes to mind. Both should be brought forward together-----
Not far behind it.
-----and not far behind. The Minister, Deputy Flanagan, knows it. We are lucky to have him because at least he understands this. We do not have to spend time spelling it out. He knows this better than anyone else from his wide and expansive practice in his county and across the midlands. That is where this game is at. I think it would be important and judges would welcome it. They have been looking for this for a long time. However, this legislation has been rushed.
This legislation would have been significantly improved if the Minister for Justice and Equality and, more particularly, the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, had been willing to accommodate significant elements of the Judicial Appointments Commission Bill proposed by Deputy O'Callaghan. There is a lot of changes in that. My colleague and party leader, Deputy Howlin, spoke about all manner of things the other night. We know the State, in various guises, is the biggest consumer of legal services. We have the separation of powers and we have to jealously guard it. We have no right to be making comments on a case before the courts or a decision of the courts. In fairness, the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, always cautioned us to ensure that we do not make any comments on current or potential cases. We have no right to make comments on anything that is before the courts. Concomitant with and ancillary to that is that we have rights. We cannot be restricted in bringing forward legislation irrespective of whether the Judiciary has a different view. As legislators, we are entitled to our view and we are given by the people the role to bring forward legislation as we see fit. However, such legislation must be constructive and balanced.
Committee Stage will provide an opportunity to significantly enhance and change for the better the Bill as proposed. I think there will have to be significant changes or amendments. In the context of the Government not commanding an overall majority, the Bill may not progress further. I can perceive significant difficulties in the Seanad. This is not just an argument; it is about ensuring that the legislation which emerges will be the very best.
Deputy Calleary referred to quangos, and this is a significant quango. The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, was a Senator when he was writing for the newspapers. I remember his fulminating every Sunday about quangos. They were strident columns in the newspaper. He castigated various Governments of every colour and hue about their, shall we say, innovative ways of creating quangos. Sometimes it suited the Government of the day to establish a quango because it wanted to depute to the latter the decisions that it did not want to make. In fairness, the Minister was right about that. The Government would have been devolving responsibility for particular matters or for decisions that it did not wish to take or did not want to be answerable for in the Dáil. That was one of the things that used to drive people mad. The then Senator also fulminated about the costs of these quangos, but now he is advocating the establishment of the mother of all quangos. The fact that he cannot accommodate the Chief Justice in terms of her being appointed as chairperson of the panel-----
It is scandalous.
-----is frightening. I always would have great confidence were a committee to be set up to evaluate applications. If picking an electrician, for example, for a simple job, one would hardly expect that the committee would be chaired by a carpenter or a plumber. It would have someone with expertise in electrics. It is that simple. Members of the Judiciary have their own ways of communicating. The Chief Justice, the President of the Court of Appeal, Mr. Justice Sean Ryan, the President of the High Court, Mr. Justice Peter Kelly, the President of the Circuit Court, Mr. Justice Raymond Groarke, and the President of the District Court, Her Honour Judge Rosemary Horgan, communicate. In fairness, Deputy O'Callaghan's judicial appointments commission would have been recommending that there would be three individuals ranked for each judicial vacancy. It would be merit based and the number of recommendations would have been reduced from seven to three. These proposals are universally accepted and I support them. They were endorsed by the judicial appointments review committee that was established by the judges themselves. The judges want these changes. Therefore, let us work with them. We can put our own individual Oireachtas slants on them.
The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, does not seem to understand that, under the Constitution, the Government would still reserve the right to not accept any recommendation made pursuant to any Act. The Government is so empowered by the Constitution. I heard the Minister, Deputy Ross, saying yesterday that he had an agenda and that this is only a halfway house, but the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, cooled his ardour and his engines. If the Minister, Deputy Ross, wants to get what he really wants, he had better go back to the people in a referendum. That is the only way he will get what he wants because those in government are the only people empowered by the Constitution to appoint judges. The Government still can reject everyone, but if it rejected someone under Deputy O'Callaghan's proposed Bill, it would have to say, "Penrose was not fit because he did not have expertise in commercial law", or whatever. That is fair enough. If I do not have it, I do not have it. However, it is clear that the Minister, Deputy Ross, does not understand that.
Deputy O'Callaghan's Bill would provide for a commission that had a well-thought-out mixture of competencies. As well as the Chief Justice and the presidents of the various courts referred to, there would be nominees from the Citizens Information Board, the Higher Education Authority, the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, the Free Legal Advice Centres, the Law Society and the Bar Council. There was also provision for gender balance on the commission. It was absolutely spot on. It got everything right. All of those people had various expertises. It was not necessarily legal expertise, but they were people of stature. The commission would also have had to have regard to the importance of promoting gender and cultural diversity and, the Leas-Cheann Comhairle will be glad to hear, ensuring that a sufficient number of judges were proficient in the Irish language. One of the facts is that a judicial career is often embarked upon after a career in practice, and I support this. That is a feature which enhances judicial independence. Our judges are not schooled before appointment. I think that is important.
On the salary package for judges, and I might conclude on this although it might not be the most attractive thing to say, it should be an attractive option for practitioners well into their 50s and early 60s to consider. The recent changes that were made-----
-----by the then Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, my own party colleague, were wrong. They emasculated the pensions of judges. Let us be big enough to recognise that this is a major issue. We will soon reach a stage where some of those we wish would apply will not do so. The recent changes to which I refer were a mistake, particularly as the savings made were insignificant. This Bill should become a vehicle to reverse those changes. If we go to committee and utilise Deputy O'Callaghan's Bill with this legislation, we will get the best of both worlds. We will get what everyone wants to achieve.
It is no use having argy-bargy between one side and the other. That is what we want to get rid of. We do not want that. We want to have the separation of powers clearly demarcated in the Constitution. We want to adhere to that principle. We could get the best of all worlds if we work hard enough in committee and achieve what we all want to achieve, namely, reformation and modernisation of the appointment process for members of the Bench.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute on this legislation. The name given to the legislation might be inaccurate. Instead of being called the Judicial Appointments Commission Bill, perhaps it might be better framed as the "Shane Ross Judicial Grievance Bill", because that is what this is all about. The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport has had huge interest in this area over the past number of months. I have listened over the past number of days as contributions were made and everybody acknowledges that reform is needed. Everybody acknowledges that nothing stands still. We must benefit from the mistakes of the past and use them to inform decisions into the future. Everyone also acknowledged our judicial system is wholly independent. Even the Minister, Deputy Ross, in a letter to The Irish Times yesterday, himself acknowledged that "With a few notable exceptions our judges have served the nation with independence and wisdom". I congratulate the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, for having the courage and conviction to pull this back from a Minister who is not responsible for this Department. He is to be commended on that. I hope the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, will take on board the concerns raised by people on this side of the House and by people in his party. It is a little disappointing, despite the fact the Minister encouraged Fine Gael Members to participate in this debate, that when I look at the speakers, not too many have participated. It is also a little bit disappointing that the Members of the Minister, Deputy Ross's own political party, although he does not describe it as a party-----
There is one of them here.
The members of his party who decided to join him in government are not contributing. They are not coming in and being wholesome and fulsome in their support of this. There are notable concerns coming from notable, independent commentators. There are notable concerns coming from the Judiciary, which we all acknowledge is wholly independent. They have written to the Taoiseach. Our party leader has asked the Taoiseach to make that letter available. I do not know whether the decision to publish that letter has been made. There is huge concern that this rushed legislation will do damage. The one thing I find a little interesting is there are times when the Minister, Deputy Ross, quotes independent experts. He quotes them for his own advantage but if any independent experts do not side with what he is saying, he brushes them aside as lobbyists. If there is such a will on his part to reform how the Judiciary is appointed, why has a Government, of which he is a very influential member, blocked Deputy O'Callaghan's Bill? It is a Bill that, as Deputy Penrose said, met wide approval. It came before the Dáil in October of last year and could have advanced to Committee Stage if the Government decided to sign the money bill. That did not happen. Where was the priority of reformation back then? Why did he not ensure this went through Committee Stage at that time?
I could not sleep the other night and I wondered what would bore me and put me to sleep so I went to Google and looked at some of the Minister, Deputy Ross's articles from the Sunday papers.
It is a sad life.
After the last general election, the former Taoiseach made the grand offer to Fianna Fáil to abandon our election promises and form a coalition. Had we accepted that offer, poor Deputy Ross would not have been in Cabinet. He was critical about reform. He said reform does not butter parsnips and, while it is important, it is not something that came up at the doors. He cited the housing crisis and asked why it was not being tackled. It is now 12 months into a Government of which he is a member and the promise that was made to end homeless families sleeping in hotels has been broken. Now he is rushing through legislation and we must ask why. The reason he is rushing it through - I understand he was going to bring down the Government if this was not adopted before the summer - is because he sat on his hands when the former Attorney General was appointed to the Court of Appeal. He was exposed; he did not care about the appointments process so long as he got what he wanted.
There was an article in my local newspaper in which the member of the Independent Alliance from my constituency said what Fine Gael did was wrong - as if the Independent Alliance was not part of the Government - but it is okay because the Minister, Deputy Ross, has a Bill that will proceed before the summer recess. If the legislation was imminent three weeks ago, why did he agree to that appointment? If, as we are led to believe, the legislation was imminent three weeks ago, why was that appointment agreed to? We know that previous judicial appointments were blocked by the Minister, Deputy Ross, saying he wanted a reform of the system. Those blockages of judicial appointments led to a backlog in court cases, which led to a delay in the administration of justice. The other day, he said it was something he had championed all his political career. What he hopes some people will forget is that he is now into his fourth decade as a Member of the Oireachtas. One can go back and look at the debate on KildareStreet.com from 1995, when the legislation was changed following the appointment of an Attorney General directly to the courts. Would you believe it? It appears he did not contribute to the debate at all but of course, this is something he has championed all his political life. Perhaps he was writing a column for the Sunday newspapers in the week in question. Questions have been asked of me continually over the past number of weeks by stakeholders in the area of transport, tourism and sport. Where is the passion? Where is the commitment? Where is the dedication? We do not see it in the area of transport. The only legislation the Minister, Deputy Ross, has pursued in his own Department over the past 12 months is on drugs and driving. It took him until December to bring forward legislation that the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, had left waiting for him when he assumed office. Only yesterday, during Priority Questions in the Chamber, he confirmed he does not know if a statutory instrument or legislation is needed to give the Irish Aviation Authority the power to regulate noise. This issue is preventing the construction of a second runway and impeding development. There already has been a double-digit number of accidents or deaths involving cyclists this year. One of the Minister, Deputy Flanagan's ministerial colleagues has put her name to that legislation. A junior ministerial colleague has also put her name to it. The Minister, Deputy Ross, is not bringing it before the Dáil. Why is that? The Minister, Deputy Flanagan, is very familiar with the issue of Brexit and was doing a good job on it in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
Brexit is one of the biggest challenges facing the aviation sector, which supports approximately 50,000 jobs. The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport did not even meet his European counterparts to discuss how the open skies policy will be maintained following Brexit until I exposed that he had not spoken to them. That is an absolute joke. It is a pity the Minister does not bring the same vigour and commitment to the areas for which he has responsibility as he has to this legislation, which is not under his control.
The Minister, Deputy Ross, is correct that political allegiance should not bring advantages to anyone in any walk of life when applying for a job. While it should not result in preferential treatment or favouritism, nor should it disqualify someone from a position. I find, and I am sure the Minister in his long political career has found likewise, that the majority of people who are active in political parties have a strong social conscience, want to give something back to society and have, at the top of their agenda, a desire to benefit their community. The Minister, Deputy Ross, appears to believe there is something wrong with those who are involved in a political party. I remind him that the only difference between the Independent Alliance and the political parties is that members of the former receive an additional €40,000 per annum from the public purse to spend as they wish on campaigning and hiring staff to do constituency work. Has every job allocated, sanctioned or approved by the Independent Alliance in the past 12 or 18 months gone through the public appointments process? Have all of these jobs been advertised or have some Independent Alliance supporters been appointed to internal positions? I do not know the answers to those questions because I did not bother researching the matter, but given the Minister's stance on such issues, I expect that is not the case.
My fear is that the Bill will facilitate greater political patronage because it does not set out the criteria to be met by the lay members of the new commission or from where these members will come. They could be appointed through the public appointments process, which means party members could apply and be appointed to sit on the commission as lay members. Deputy Jim O'Callaghan's Private Members' Bill, on the other hand, stipulated that the commission should include nominees of the Free Legal Advice Centres and Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, respectively. The Bill before us includes no such stipulation. Deputy Calleary referred to having representatives of the disability sector and new communities sit on the commission, whereas the Bill makes no such recommendation. There is no requirement that the three persons whose names will be submitted to the Government be selected on the basis of ability and the Government of the day is not required to accept any of the recommended appointments. It can reject all three nominees and proceed to make an alternative appointment.
Is it not ironic that the Minister, Deputy Ross, who wants to eliminate political appointments, has rejected the recommendation of the Mahon tribunal that appointments to the National Transport Authority be made by an independent commission, choosing instead to retain the power of appointment to the authority. This is a case of "Do as I say, not as I do".
The Attorney General is a political appointment and there is nothing wrong with that. However, the Attorney General will sit on the commission proposed by the Government and at Cabinet. This matter hardly amounts to a complete removal of political influence from the process.
A number of speakers highlighted the proposal to ask the Chief Justice to sit on a committee which he or she will not chair. To be fair to the Government, I imagine many of its members are holding their noses and compromising on the Bill to retain the support of the Minister, Deputy Ross. Nevertheless, this provision shows disrespect towards the most senior judicial officeholder in the State and its key legal office.
A number of speakers pointed out that a layperson chairs the judicial appointments commission in Scotland. While that it is correct, the chief justice of Scotland does not sit on that country's judicial appointments commission. The commission reports to the chief justice who, in turn, reports to the Scottish Government. Is it not amazing that Sinn Féin cites the Scottish model in support of this legislation? I am not overly enthused or excited by the fact the Minister is happy to accept the support of a party that once used to spend its time threatening members of the Judiciary. While it no longer threatens the Judiciary, it does not use it because it has its own kangaroo courts.
Nowhere in the legislation is it specified what qualities a person will need to possess to be appointed a judge. It is important to set out in legislation the qualities a person who takes up such an important role must have. While these may seem obvious, we should specify that they must be persons of high integrity, independence of mind and moral courage and must have a high level of intellectual skill, a sound temperament and common sense and be impartial, objective, fair and composed. The Fianna Fáil Party set out these criteria in its proposals. One wonders why they are not set out in the Bill.
As I stated, it is wrong that the Chief Justice will not be asked to chair the new committee. My constituency colleague, Deputy Penrose, stated there is a rumour that he will some day serve on the Bench. Given that we come from the same village and fish out of the same pond for votes, I hope that day comes sooner rather than later. In all seriousness, however, the Deputy is correct that if one asks someone to chair an interview board for a teaching post, hospital surgeon position or any other job, one will ask a person with the relevant experience to do the job. If the Minister, Deputy Ross, is serious about what he says, school principals would never sit on an interview board because they would choose their friends to be part of their team. What tends to happen is that the captain of the team picks the best person to serve on the team. When one sees how the Minister is performing in his Department and the Trojan horse he has introduced to reform the judicial appointments system, which everyone agrees needs to be reformed, one wonders whether the captain of this team picked the right people to serve in government.
While Fianna Fáil fully believes in the need to reform the judicial appointment process, the Government's Bill is deeply flawed. Fianna Fáil has proposed legislation on establishing a judicial appointments commission that would be independent of Government and make recommendations to same based on an assessment of the merits of applicants for judicial office. We must ensure that the best and most suitable and qualified people end up on the Bench. This is an important process and it cannot be rushed. I welcome that the Oireachtas Committee on Justice and Equality will not facilitate the Government in ramming the Bill through in haste. Like most other Bills, it will take its due course.
We entrust senior judges on the Bench to make life and death and responsible decisions and to rule effectively and impartially using the evidence that is available to them. They need to know the Constitution. They should be impartial, patient, shrewd and fair minded. We need the best and most suitably qualified people on the Bench. Will this Bill deliver the best person for the job? No.
I sat in the Chamber yesterday and listened as the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, spoke at length about this Bill, in respect of which he has held the Government to ransom. He said that "political interference ... should be reduced to a minimum" and that he wanted to see an end to the system of "political colour" influencing appointments. I wondered whether this could possibly have been the same Minister who, having spoken about the Judiciary for numerous years and taken the high moral ground on all issues relating to judicial appointments, sat at the Cabinet table and allowed the appointment and elevation of the Attorney General to the Court of Appeal while she was also sitting at the Cabinet table. I wish to state categorically that I am referring to the process and not the individual. It is unheard of that the applicant would be present for Ministers' discussion of a new role and paid position. Was it even discussed? Was the Cabinet presented with a fait accompli? We will never know, as Cabinet confidentiality reached new heights after that particular debacle. I cannot understand how this was allowed to happen.
The Minister, Deputy Ross, lost all credibility in respect of his Judicial Appointments Commission Bill. This was the highest level of cronyism, which he wants to be removed from politics. It is funny when a person's own area or constituency is affected. I await with bated breath the announcement on the five other Garda stations now that Stepaside will be reopened. Will it be one for every Independent Alliance Deputy in the audience? Time will tell.
This situation casts a slur on the last Cabinet meeting of the former Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny. For a man whom I have respected, his role ended disappointingly and on a low note.
Our judicial appointments process needs to be reformed to ensure people are appointed to judicial office based solely on merit. For this reason, Fianna Fáil proposed its legislation on establishing a judicial appointments commission whose recommendations would be based on an independent assessment of the merits of applicants for judicial office. The Government's proposed commission will not allow for such an independent process. Among its faults, the Government's Bill will require the Chief Justice to sit on a commission that she will not chair. This is indicative of the disrespect the Government has for the Judiciary. A proposal that the Taoiseach would sit on a committee but not be its chairman would rightly be dismissed out of hand by the Government.
The Bill excludes the presidents of the Circuit and District courts from full membership of the commission. It also recommends that the majority of the commission should be lay members, namely, persons who are neither judges nor lawyers. This grouping of judges and lawyers in the same category by the Government ignores the fact that judges are not members of the legal profession. That they were previously members is not a basis for assuming that judges and lawyers, if in a majority, would have a negative influence on the commission. It would be considered remarkable if surgeons in hospitals were selected by a panel, the majority of whose members had never carried out surgery or even worked in a hospital.
The Bill proposes that the three persons recommended by the commission will not be ranked in order of merit. The failure to do so defeats the entire purpose of having a commission that seeks to recommend the best candidate. The Fianna Fáil Bill establishes a judicial appointments commission to recommend to the Government the names of individuals who it believes would be the most suitable, based on merit, to be judges. For each position, it would recommend three people. The Government scheme has the same provision. Under our Bill, however, the three would be ranked as Nos. 1, 2 and 3 in order of merit. In no way does this offend the constitutional prerogative that rests with the Cabinet. Under neither scheme must the Cabinet opt for anyone on the list. However, there is benefit in a body with expertise telling the Cabinet who it believes are the three best people in a certain order.
It is important that there be a complete separation from the political process. Another difference between the Minister's scheme and the Fianna Fáil Bill is that we want to have the recommending body completely separate from the political process in order that there would not be people who were part of the political process on the recommending body. For this reason, we believe the Government's scheme to be inappropriate, given that the Attorney General will be on the recommending body. Names will come to the judicial appointments commission, the Attorney General will be a part of that commission when the names are being considered, and those three names will then be nominated to the Cabinet where the Attorney General also sits. That does not achieve the objective of separating the political process from the initial recommending process. The political process will ultimately decide who is appointed, so the recommending process should be protected. There will be replication and infiltration between the two bodies if the Attorney General is on both.
Another main substantive difference between the two proposals is that nothing really changes under the Government's Bill. The new recommending body will nominate three people whose names will go to the Cabinet. The Cabinet will then operate in the same way it does now. It must consider the three names. If it does not like them, it can say that the person whom it selects was not recommended by the commission. Under our Bill, there would be a greater hurdle for the Government to overcome. The Government would get the names of Nos. 1, 2 and 3. If it did not select or recommend any of those for appointment, it would need to give a reasoned decision for that. This is an important point, given that three judges applied for the position the Attorney General received when she was elevated to the Court of Appeal. We did not receive answers to that question last week. Were the three people who applied for the job even considered or discussed at Cabinet? Once again, however, Cabinet confidentiality knew no bounds.
One matter on which Fianna Fáil agrees, and on which we have changed our position since Second Stage of our Bill, is the Minister's proposal that District Court judges should be eligible for appointment to the High Court. That is fair. If one is a lawyer of 20 years' standing, one can be made a District Court judge, but if one becomes a District Court judge after 20 years, one then becomes ineligible for appointment to the High Court. It would be unfair for that situation to apply.
I will turn to the exclusion of former judges. The Government's Bill includes a categorisation of laypersons, the effect of which is to merge people who hold judicial office and people who were or are practising lawyers. It is inappropriate to merge them and it simply plays to the agenda of the Minister, Deputy Ross. Why is it that, under the Government's scheme, former judges are precluded from being on this recommending body? If one is trying to identify someone who would have a good idea of what it takes to be a judge, one would think that a former judge would be suitable to fulfil the role. Under the Minister's scheme, though, that is not permitted.
While preparing what I was going to say today, I rang my constituency office in Waterford and asked the girls there whether anyone had contacted me this week about the Judicial Appointments Commission Bill 2017. The answer was-----
-----"No". When I asked what I had been contacted about, they told me: housing, homelessness, waiting lists, home help hours and the main story of the past two weeks in Waterford and a matter on which I have been campaigning for the past two years, the lack of 24-7 cardiology cover. I have discussed this issue several times in the Chamber. From 5 o'clock this evening, the cath lab in the south east will be closed.
If a person has a coronary attack in Waterford and needs some kind of cardiology intervention after 5 p.m., the cath lab is closed. It opens eight hours a day, Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and it is closed 16 hours a day. It is also closed all day Saturday and Sunday. Two weeks ago this Sunday, Mr. Thomas Power presented to University Hospital Waterford. Unfortunately, the doors of the state-of-the-art cath lab were closed and there was no interventional cardiologist consultant on duty. Unfortunately, poor Mr. Power was transferred to Cork and died 30 minutes up the road in Dungarvan. He was 39 years of age, newly married and his wife was expecting their first baby. That is what is exercising people at the moment, not the Judicial Appointments Commission Bill 2017.
This morning I attended the launch of the pre-budget submission of the Alzheimer Society of Ireland. I thought to myself, "What are we doing?" We are here in Leinster House, but what are we doing as parties and as Government? What are we doing for people? I decided that the Government is spending the whole time being reactive. It is not being proactive. I am speaking about the married couple of 63 years who were separated because of bureaucracy, HSE guidelines, not meeting the criteria and not meeting the rules and regulations. No one in charge with a bit of discretion could say, "Stop, this is wrong." The only way this couple resolved the situation was to contact Joe Duffy's "Liveline" show. I work very hard, like every other Deputy in this House, and I asked myself what it took to make something happen.
I stood on the floor of this House approximately two months ago and raised a Topical Issue matter about a six year old girl in Waterford whose name is Emily. Emily was brain-damaged at birth and is non-verbal. Her mum and dad care for her 24-7. Emily was looking for a ceiling track hoist. The HSE offered her a ground hoist, but unfortunately it was not suitable for her house. I spoke to the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, and to the Minister, Deputy Harris, on two occasions and they fully agreed with me that this child should have a hoist which would make her life that little bit easier. She still has not received that hoist. I asked myself what I should do and whether I should get her parents to ring "Liveline" because, unfortunately, at the moment, it is only when something hits the headlines that anything happens. We have to stop being reactive and become proactive because people are suffering.
Like every other Deputy in the House, I could stand here and talk for 24 hours about all the people who need home help services or who have been on waiting lists for two years. I am the first to accept that we have come through tough times and that we do not have an endless pot of money, but we have to determine what is most important to us. Can we not look after our own citizens such as Emily? There are 700 people in Ireland who have both Down's syndrome and dementia. There are 700 adults, most of whom are in their early 40s. There is one person in Ireland who has Down's syndrome and is 71 years old. That is unheard of, but people with Down's syndrome are living longer. It is fantastic to think that is happening. The majority of these 700 people with Down's syndrome, however, have now developed dementia. They are prone to it. The majority of them live at home with parents who are in their early 70s or hitting their 80s. These parents are very worried about what will happen when they die. As a society, are we doing enough for them? We are not.
I know I have gone off on a bit of a tangent but I appeal to the Minister and the Government to be more proactive and to stop being reactive, because these are real people with real issues. It is regrettable that the proposals put forward by the Government are not for the purpose of achieving genuine reform but instead are for the purpose of appeasing one member of Government whose proposals in this area are ill-considered and deeply flawed. Fianna Fáil remains committed to achieving reform in this area, as outlined in our own Judicial Appointments Commission Bill, which was published in October 2016 by my colleague, Deputy Jim O'Callaghan.
I thank the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, for being here to listen to us. I, along with my party, will not be supporting this Bill. This Bill is regrettably not about reform. It is the unholy price that Fine Gael is prepared to pay for power, and the cost of it is the undermining of the judicial system.
I will carry on from where Deputy Butler left off. It is possibly off the topic of the Judicial Appointments Commission Bill 2017, but as Fianna Fáil's Front Bench spokesperson for children and youth affairs, it would be negligent of me not to highlight where the Government is failing children. The Government is failing to protect children. Dr. Geoffrey Shannon was before the Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs yesterday and he produced the report, more than 500 pages long, of an audit he conducted for An Garda Síochána. The summary of the audit related 91 cases. No different from the cath lab about which Deputy Butler spoke, I speak about the out-of-hours service for children which we do not have countrywide. We only have it in four counties. One cannot get a social care worker after 5 p.m.
Out of the more than 5,000 entries on the PULSE system which Dr. Shannon looked at, there were 91 cases of children being taken under section 12. Section 12 is where An Garda Síochána has to intervene to remove a child. I am conscious there are children in the Gallery listening to this, but it is where parents fail to parent and a complaint is made to An Garda Síochána. Regrettably, when there is no social care worker to make that intervention or assessment, gardaí have to intervene, for which they are not trained. In some cases they are left with no choice but to bring a child back to the Garda station for the night. In some cases they present them to a hospital. In most of these cases, however, the child is returned to the family. In some cases there were repeated returns. One of the reasons cited in most of the reports on these section 12 interventions was cases of alcohol and drug abuse where families could not cope and failed to parent.
The Government is failing wholeheartedly to protect children. The fact we are ramming through a Bill two or three weeks before we have annual leave and while there is a whole list of other priorities for us to address is an unbelievable rejection of children. In terms of the protection of children's rights, this Government has been dragging its heels on key issues and legislation. We have yet to see the child care (amendment) Bill which is supposed to bring much-needed reform to the guardian ad litem service used in Ireland.
Guardians ad litem act as the voice of the child in courtroom proceedings, and provide a vital service in protecting children at their most vulnerable. The current system used to appoint guardians ad litem as well as the regulation of the overall guardian ad litem system is in dire need of reform. There are patchy appointment mechanisms, whereby a child may be appointed more than one different guardian ad litem at different points in any given legal proceeding, or may be denied one for arbitrary reasons. There are no central qualification or selection standards, which means that, while there are many highly qualified and diligent guardians ad litem, the system is wide open to exploitation. In all these cases, children in need of strong representation pay the price. Without this reform, we are failing to ensure children's rights to be heard are protected, thus failing under Article 42 of our own Constitution as well as the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Furthermore, the Minister for Justice and Equality continues to sit, as it were, on the gambling control Bill. I have spoken at length on this Bill and I have asked numerous parliamentary questions about it. The previous Taoiseach told me the reason it was not being addressed was because digitisation moves too fast. He sort of dismissed me. Unfortunately, gambling goes on and, unfortunately, it is all happening online at this time.
Unfortunately children can access it and place a €5 bet wherever they want once they have an online account. If they fail there, they get an enticement to bring them back into the market. I am talking about children of 15 being able to gamble online. That gives them the first sweetener and the first taste of success. All the while the Government has been sitting on its hands since 2013 with what would be very good legislation if it was brought forward. I asked if we could rewrite it and produce something better. My esteemed colleague, Deputy O'Callaghan, said it was very good and that the Government should be allowed to bring it forward. I have begged the Government to bring forward this Bill, but it is refusing to do so.
The industry is asking for this legislation to be introduced. All the while young hurlers, footballers and other sports enthusiasts are gambling hand over fist. Cuan Mhuire is full to the gills with young people who are gambling and getting themselves in debt. Husbands and partners are gambling life savings away. Hospitals are full. The incidence of suicide is at an unmerciful level. One of the factors feeding into it is gambling. It is a hidden secret. When I held a public meeting recently I was told it is something we do not talk about. However, we are prepared to talk about the judicial system. We have no problem bringing legislation on that into the House three weeks before annual leave and we are told it has to be done.
Why are we not supporting the people who elected us and the people on the ground who are struggling? Families, husbands, wives and children are struggling. Sometimes children do not have food put on the table because a father or mother is gambling every last penny that comes in. All the while we do not have a regulator or regulation. Why do we not have that? It is because the Government has been sitting on its hands since 2013 and is not prepared to introduce it. It is not prepared to man up to the hard facts. That would be serving the people.
We all agree that the judicial system needs reform, but the Government had the opportunity last October when Deputy O'Callaghan introduced his Bill. If the Government had been reasonable and understood what was needed, it would have grasped the Bill with open arms and worked with it, but it decided not to.
Is the Minister, Deputy Ross, really interested in reform or is he just interested in showboating? I believe he is interested in showboating. If he were serious about his portfolio, he would note that British tourist numbers are down by 4%. Our bread and butter in the west of Ireland is tourism and he is not prepared to address it, talk about it or deal with it. He has not met industry representatives on it and it is part of his portfolio. Shame on him.
I will move back to gambling. Particularly as gambling has moved online, a large number of children and young people are sadly becoming addicted before they even reach 18 years of age. The experience of bullying is an innately harmful and damaging experience for a child or young person. As the digital world becomes intricately interwoven with the real world, particularly for younger people, the experience of cyberbullying has sadly become commonplace. Whether it is the sharing of intimate or otherwise damaging images online, or the circulation of rumours through messaging apps, the Internet has truly opened up new modes of bullying.
Both the special rapporteur on child protection and the Law Reform Commission have noted this phenomenon and called for legislation to be brought forward which creates specialised offences in the area of cyberbullying. In April 2017, the then Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Fitzgerald, indicated that the drafting of the heads of a Bill addressing these issues was under way, but we have yet to see anything concrete in this regard. All the while, constituency offices around the country are hearing very sad tales of teenagers and children who are experiencing online harassment or bullying.
The Minister, Deputy Zappone, has failed to introduce legislation to implement the single affordable childcare scheme, meaning that many children will once again be deprived of access to quality affordable child care.
In the absence of a strong legislative framework to protect the rights of children, we are utterly failing to protect children, particularly those who are most at risk, such as those in foster care, involved in family law proceedings and those from underprivileged backgrounds.
It is important to understand the legislation that is awaited. The affordable childcare scheme Bill is to provide a single affordable childcare scheme to replace the current non-statutory schemes. Pre-legislative scrutiny took place in February and we are awaiting the Bill. The child care (amendment) Bill is to provide for extensive reform of guardian ad litem services in child care proceedings. It was expected in February or March 2017 and is now promised for next session. The adoption (information and tracing) (No. 2) Bill is to extend the provisions of the Adoption (Information and Tracing) Bill to inter-country adoption. The date for that Bill is unknown and I have submitted a parliamentary question on it. I have already spoken about the gambling control Bill, which has been sitting there since 2013. Shame on the Government.
According to Sinn Féin we live in a bubble here. Sinn Féin Members talk about the bubble of Leinster House; I think they are in the bubble. Deputy Butler, who spoke before me, talked about real issues. When I ring my constituency office are people interested in discussing the Judicial Appointments Commission Bill this week? Absolutely not. What are we talking about? I am talking about the lack of a superintendent in Gort whom we lost in 2013 and I am wondering when we will get a replacement. Two superintendents are to be appointed in the entire country and I am lobbying to get one reappointed in Gort. However, as I am not a member of the Independent Alliance, I hold my breath on getting a superintendent.
I am well outside the bubble. My feet are clearly on the ground as to what is affecting people. The Judicial Appointments Commission Bill has taken up all our time this week and will seemingly continue into next week. The Oireachtas committee has now advised that it will not accept it. Why are we wasting time on this? What is the fear of the Minister, Deputy Ross? I believe he was embarrassed by the manner of the appointment of the former Attorney General to the Court of Appeal. I think he hung his head in shame and felt he could not cope with it. It was fear and a knee-jerk reaction. It was like "Get me out of here."
Last week the dwarfs came forward to us. Deputy Butler put on a beautiful presentation where we had 16 dwarfs who are participating in the World Dwarf Games in Canada in August. They came to make a fabulous presentation to us because they get no funding. That is in the area of sport, which also falls under the brief of the Minister, Deputy Ross. Those 16 people meet up in different locations to train every week. They are the most amazing people. They will go to Canada to fly the flag and represent Ireland. However, the Government has not given €1 towards it. We are lobbying really hard to get them a few euro to offset some of their costs with flights and accommodation. One of them is 12 years of age and his family is very proud of him. It is horrific to think that we do not acknowledge people who have put in the effort and are going forward to represent our country and who will represent us so well. I raise this because it falls under the brief of the Minister, Deputy Ross.
Local government in Galway is under severe pressure. We are about to hit bankruptcy being €2 million in arrears. We need local government funding; we need intervention. While we have a good network of roads, most of the roads that need an upgrade are controlled by TII. Who is responsible for that? It is the Minister, Deputy Ross. On numerous occasions I have asked him to provide an injection.
We need a Minister who is prepared to legislate and work on his brief. He is the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport. Unfortunately we are not seeing any actions from him. He is far too interested in items that do not fall under his remit. It is an old axe he wants to grind. It is about populism and being the centre of attention. He has been the centre of attention all week. If Members on the other side of the House really believed in it, why have we not seen more speakers? I have never in my life seen as few speakers from the other side of the House. Either they do not understand it or they do not support it. Either way it is apparent to me that this is the Shane Ross Bill - earlier Deputy Troy said we should rename the Bill.
I do not mean to be flippant but it is very apparent that there is very little support for the Bill coming from the other side of the House.
Home help, homelessness and the domiciliary care allowance are the real issues that are outside of the bubble. Claims for domiciliary care allowance now take 22 weeks to process and getting the July provisions is like finding hen's teeth. It is wrong for people to have to wait 22 weeks, almost half a year, for the domiciliary care allowance. People were told initially it would take 14 weeks and then the time kept being pushed out. The last response I got from the direct line for Deputies was that I should not check again as no date could be provided. That is no response to give to a Deputy or for me to have to give to a constituent but, regrettably, that is the reality on the ground.
Last Christmas I spoke to the Minister for Health about a young lady, Beatrice, who needed an emergency medical card. She is in an unusual position in that she has a life-limiting condition and will not reach full life expectancy. She is an 11 year old child. The situation is complicated because she is Brazilian and does not have full status in this country, which means she fails to qualify for an emergency medical card. She needs medical attention and intervention all the time and she is waiting on an emergency medical card but because she does not have the right reference numbers she will not receive it.
A woman in north Galway who has four children is waiting for a house from Galway County Council. Her landlady has told her she must move out of her house for the simple reason that her daughter is returning to Ireland. The four children are all under the age of 17 years and the eldest is hoping to go to college this year, which she will do, with the help of God. The woman is on a waiting list for housing with Galway County Council. She has been told that she must present as homeless with her four children in the middle of August when her tenancy lease is up. They will probably be presenting when the leaving certificate results are out. Can one imagine the trauma she is going through? She is asking herself what she is doing. She will be homeless with four children and she does not know if she is going to get a house. All of the children are in education locally. One is in national school, two are in secondary school and hopefully the fourth one is going on to college. I meet that lady on a regular basis but I have no comfort for her because I do not see any solution. Yet, I have 20 minutes today to speak about judicial appointments. That is totally wrong. What all of us should be working on and keeping to the forefront are the people with sick children, those who are homeless, those who are seeking home help hours, people with the domiciliary care allowance, and people looking for the back-to-education allowance. That is what is real but somewhere along the line, Members on the other side of the House have taken their eye off the ball. They lack imagination, vision and deliverability. It is a shame on them. It is an absolute shame that the Minister, Deputy Ross, can bring them to this point but what is even more shameful is that he is not here himself to hear the debate.
I feel bad that people such as the Minister of State, Deputy Moran, are taking the criticism on his behalf. The Minister, Deputy Ross, should be here to take it. I would love to tell him to his face about the child he is letting down, the dwarf children, the child with the medical card and about homelessness because he does not want to hear the real facts. Guess who is in the bubble in Dáil Éireann. It is the Minister, Deputy Ross.
Like other colleagues I welcome the opportunity to address this Bill, but at the outset I wish to put on record how disappointed I am that we are spending time here discussing this Bill today at a time when there are so many other issues that are of the gravest concern. The Minister for Justice and Equality is well aware of issues in his area that we could be addressing. The Minister of State, Deputy Moran, is well aware of issues in his jurisdiction that are far more important and critical to the daily lives of many people than this issue. As a constituency worker, the same as everybody who is elected to this House, I can state that nobody has come to me in recent times requesting or suggesting that this legislation is either necessary or is of such profound importance that we should be debating it here today. I add my voice to those of other speakers who have listed the kind of issues we should be addressing. I will elaborate further on that in the course of my contribution.
It is appalling that Fine Gael has rolled over for the Minister, Deputy Ross. I cannot fathom it. Fine Gael, based on the spread of representation it has, is a party which fully understands the vast array of issues that matter to the lives of so many people. It is not about spreading blame for the existence of those issues but we are elected here to try to resolve them, in so far as we can. We are facilitating the existence of the Government, notwithstanding our desire to implement our own manifesto, because we recognised that could not happen as we were not in a position to make it happen. We swallowed our pride and we facilitated the emergence of a Government in order that the country could be governed. Others, including Sinn Féin, who interestingly enough are supporting this Bill but who are not here, sat on their hands. We tried to identify areas that were unique to us in terms of our manifesto and we sought some compromise from the hardest ravages of what Fine Gael would do if the party was left to its own devices. It does pain all of us on this side of the House that we are left debating this instrument of which the impact at best will be minimal.
It is unfathomable why the Government did not engage with Deputy O'Callaghan, who brought forward a Bill that was proportionate in response to the issue of ensuring that the appointment of judges was transparent and there was a perception of transparency. If one goes back and looks at the appointment of judges, notwithstanding for whom they cast their ballots, by and large they were of the highest standard. I see nothing in this Bill that suggests this approach provides any greater capacity to address the perceived problem than the Bill devised by Deputy O'Callaghan would have done. I really am at a loss. We on this side of the House believe in reform. The Bill Deputy O'Callaghan proposed was based on the establishment of a judicial appointments commission that would be fully independent of Government and would make recommendations to the Government with an appropriate, independent assessment based on the merits of the judicial application. That is reform but perhaps it did not meet the test set by the Minister, Deputy Ross, who seems to want to leave blood on the floor and settle old scores that seem to have preyed on his mind for decades. There is obviously something in his past that makes him want to level the playing pitch in terms of the Judiciary. I fail to understand what it is. Perhaps it would be appropriate for him at some point to clearly outline those issues.
The Ministers of State, Deputies Moran and Finian McGrath, generally come to the House in a spirit of co-operation. Such Deputies are sometimes elected on single issues. They are not getting their legislation through but the Minister, Deputy Ross, is. The Minister, Deputy Flanagan, knows well that Fine Gael has rolled over yet again to keep the Minister, Deputy Ross, happy. He was not satisfied with getting the Stepaside Garda station re-opened in return for allowing the Attorney General to move on and make space for one of Fine Gael's own members to fill that position. I do not question in any way the right of the Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar, to appoint the individual he saw fit.
The fact that he happens to be a member of Fine Gael is of no concern to me because I have every expectation that the Attorney General will discharge his duties in line with the Constitution and by his best lights. The fact that he was a member of Fine Gael is, to me, an irrelevance and it should also be irrelevant to the Minister, Deputy Ross, but it clearly is not.
On the occasion of achieving the Stepaside Garda station re-opening, I understand that the Minister, Deputy Ross struggled with his conscience. A mighty battle ensued around the Cabinet table. At least that is what we are told by certain informed sources in the media. We are told there was also a mighty struggle of conscience last weekend when, yet again, the Minister, Deputy Ross was on a knife edge. His posterior must be sore from sliding along that knife over the last weeks. He must be in pain. The Minister, Deputy Ross, won out when the conscience lost yet again. He seems to have been so happy after that Cabinet encounter and after beating his conscience into submission that he awarded himself a round of applause around the Cabinet table. He was so impressed with defeating the conscience and in getting what he wanted from Cabinet. He is happy. He was the great defender of the public good as a Senator, as a publicist, as a panellist, as a columnist, as an author and as a backbencher but in truth, when he got in here he could not resist putting his snout to the very bottom of the pork barrel to help himself to the fattiest and tastiest piece of flesh, I assume to fortify himself for the next election campaign in Dublin Rathdown and he needs fortification. If we look at the track record of the Minister, Deputy Ross, over recent months he will need some fortification when he knocks on the doors of the good people of Dublin Rathdown.