“Go gceadófar go dtabharfar isteach Bille dá ngairtear Acht chun an Bunreacht a leasú.”
“That leave be granted to introduce a Bill entitled an Act to amend the Constitution.”
I am pleased to introduce this Bill today and I thank the House for the opportunity to do so. This is a Bill to provide for the possibility of remote voting for Members of these Houses. As present, only Members of the Oireachtas who are physically present may vote in Dáil and Seanad proceedings, which is appropriate in all normal times and circumstances. Being a Member of Parliament is a significant privilege and turning up and voting is the most basic part of that. This pandemic and other events have shone light on the restrictive nature of that constitutional requirement to be physically present for every vote.
There are at least three foreseeable situations in which the option of having remote or proxy voting by these Houses would be desirable in the public interest. The first is the provision for the operation of the Houses during emergencies such as the pandemic that we have had or any other foreseeable emergency. Provision should also be made for Members who either are or who become ill or immunocompromised in order to ensure that they can continue to participate in parliamentary proceedings. Provision should finally be made for Members who have recently had or have adopted a baby. We have heard much talk of maternity or parental leave for politicians over the years and I am aware of and want to pay tribute to other Members before me who have introduced legislation, particularly Deputy Niamh Smyth in 2017, and to the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte for their work on this. I am aware that others are working on ideas and I also pay tribute to Deputy Cairns for her work-in-progress on this.
This Bill today is only part of and a contribution to that conversation. There is clearly more work to be done by us all in collaboration. We should not be prescriptive as to how women or men take leave or adapt their work to spend more time with their young children or give support to their partner who may be a primary carer. It is horribly paternalistic for us to continue to tell women how to organise their time. Maternity leave might look very different for different people. Some might choose to take an extended period of time off and some may choose to continue working as much as possible while at home. Others may wish to continue working in their office. Nobody can really prepare for maternity leave. As a person does not know how she will be or how her baby will be, it is therefore impossible to predict that and it is certainly impossible for other people to predict and make plans for that person. Whatever such leave might look like for any Member, I suggest that the introduction of remote voting might play a part in whatever arrangements we ultimately come to.
This is just as relevant for the fathers of babies who should also have the option of voting remotely. They too are needed at home more during this phase, either to be with their child or to provide support for the partner. I am very glad to have the support of my party but particularly those members of my party who have all recently had babies such as Deputies Dillon and Richmond and the Minister of State, Deputy Heydon, to whom a degree of flexibility should be acknowledged at least as an option.
We cannot change a culture that leaves women continually behind without approaching everything equally. Parenting is not a gendered issue, nor is work. A key part of the work equal agenda is addressing a cultural shift which recognises that people and parents have babies; it is not just women who have babies.
It is not my intention by introducing the this Bill to be in any way prescriptive. The Bill simply attempts to remove a constitutional block in allowing politicians, male or female, to approach their work in different ways, whether because of parental responsibilities or for other reasons.
All workers who are parents with young children, including, as a subset, Oireachtas Members, should be allowed discretion to organise their own time. How to spend the weeks and months following the birth or adoption of a baby should be the parents' choice. It should not be a case of me, or anybody else, attempting to be prescriptive.
I focus today on the remote voting issue as a parenting issue because, in some ways, it is so obviously a live issue. However, it is just as important an issue for Members who are or who may become immunocompromised through illness, which could happen to any of us who might need to go through chemotherapy or another such procedure. It is also an important issue for those who would like to seek election to this House but who are immunocompromised. We can do more to be inclusive. Although I hope we will never need this provision, it may be important for the operation of our Parliament in a future emergency.
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to introduce the Bill. I appreciate that it is a constitutional Bill, which means it might arise again very far into the future, on a referendum day. It is an effort to contribute to the debate on how we organise our time in this Parliament and on the approach to parenting, in particular, not as a gendered issue but as a work issue.