Tairgim: "Go léifear an Bille don Dara hUair anois."
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I am hoping it will be third time lucky for my Thirty-seventh Amendment of the Constitution (Economic, Social and Cultural Rights) Bill. We debated it first in the Thirty-first Dáil in May 2015, then in the Thirty-second Dáil in March 2017 and now in the Thirty-third Dáil today.
Why do I keep resubmitting this Bill for debate? It is because of its importance to our human rights. It is because of the constitutional protections we would have, namely, the right to adequate housing, to join a trade union of our choice, to health and mental health, to participate in culture and to benefit from scientific progression. All of those are very important human rights, but even more so in the shadow of Covid-19.
I keep resubmitting this Bill in the hope of some light bulb moment where the majority of Deputies would realise that it is right to do the right thing. I do so because we signed up to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 1973, ratified it in 1989, and have done nothing on it since. It is because a previous Government set up a Constitutional Convention which, in its final meeting in February 2013, discussed this exact issue and 85% of members voted in favour of amending the Constitution for inclusion of these rights, to be realised progressively and within available resources.
I am not naive enough to believe that the Government will accept this important human rights Bill this time around. To think that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael would accept a Bill that would mean legislation would be based on human rights is laughable. I have heard all the arguments against accepting the Bill over the years and still none of them stack up. If anything, this past year of unprecedented times in a global pandemic has shown us that this Bill is important now more than ever.
Over the years, most of the Opposition parties and groupings have spoken in support of the Bill and voted for it. I note also that, in the Thirty-second Dáil, when the Green Party was on the Opposition benches, Deputies Eamon Ryan and Catherine Martin, who are now Ministers, supported this Bill. Does that mean that the Green Party will ensure that the Government will accept the Bill and that all of its Members will support it this time around? What arguments could they possibly have against it, although they have changed their tune regarding the EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, CETA, and seem to be haemorrhaging members?
In fairness, the Labour Party originally introduced this Bill back in the 2000s and then again in 2012 but by the time they were in government in the Thirty-first Dáil and I attempted to bring it forward, they had found reasons to vote against it. I note that now that its Members are on the Opposition benches they have returned to their original policy stance. It is amazing to see how policies and priorities change once a party gets into government.
The economic, social and cultural rights initiative, ESCRI, was a coalition of over 60 civil society organisations that supported strengthening the protection of economic, social and cultural rights in the Irish Constitution. More than 60 organisations, including Amnesty International, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, the Children’s’ Rights Alliance and the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, were involved. In 2017, the ESCR initiative held a conference in the Mansion House in Dublin entitled Making Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Meaningful. The event brought together a range of stakeholders to discuss how enforceable economic, social and cultural, ESC, rights such as housing and health would impact on individuals and groups in Ireland, drawing on experiences from other states where ESC rights have been given legal protection.
Imagine having legal protection. There was much momentum and goodwill behind this important campaign.
In preparation for this debate, I contacted some of those civil society organisations and also Mr. Aiden Lloyd, who was integral to the initiative. To my dismay, Mr. Lloyd told me that they "wound up the ESCR Initiative a few years ago as it was clear that the Government had no intention of implementing the recommendation of the Convention on the Constitution". Mr. Lloyd continued, stating "prior to winding up we had spoken to ICCL about taking on the brief, but they are already operating with meagre resources to fulfil their civil and political rights objectives." Based on his years of campaigning, Mr. Lloyd said "I think there is good support among some politicians and civil society groups for ESC rights to be written into the Constitution but unfortunately without resources it was impossible for us to continue as an advocacy group."
It is a pity to see dedicated and active campaigners and organisers become so despondent with Government policy that they cannot continue their fight. The Minister of State will say that some of the things the Government brought about included the referendum on marriage equality, but that happened because of people power, public readiness and willingness for that campaign and people sharing their stories and mobilising in their communities. He will also say that the Government made history when it declared that members of the Traveller community are an ethnic minority. Do not get me started on how this and previous Governments have and continue to let down members of the Traveller community in the most heinous ways. I will come back to this point.
Amnesty Ireland still has an informative section on its website relating to the campaign for economic, social and cultural rights, which had been funded through the Atlantic Philanthropies. Amnesty's website states:
We are working to strengthen the protection of economic, social and cultural (ESC) rights, like the rights to health, housing and to an adequate standard of living in Ireland. By putting ESC rights into Irish law the Government would be guaranteeing everyone in Ireland a life of dignity to the extent that our resources allow. It would mean decisions made by the Government must contribute to the delivery of these rights. This includes a guarantee that every single one of us can access, at the very least, an adequate standard of living.
There is also a useful section relating to frequently asked questions and other resources and information that can be used to bust myths, including fallacious claims about the separation of powers between the Executive and the Judiciary and that the Oireachtas would lose powers in respect of taxation legislation. I have been in touch with Amnesty, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, the European Anti-Poverty Network and others because in non-Covid times we would have held a press conference and a photocall and tried to raise the profile of this important Bill.
I will outline reasons why I feel so strongly about the need for this Bill. When the troika went to Portugal, it was not able to destroy its public housing system because it is constitutionally protected. We need that here. The right to join a union should not be left to the whim of a political class that has always danced to the tune of big business. The Convention on the Constitution scrutinised this provision. Some 85% of the members of the convention - ordinary, everyday people - agreed that these rights need constitutional protection. Why have successive Governments failed to act on the will of the people? It is the people's Constitution after all.
This Bill would be an anchor for the rights to housing, health and education to be provided for on the basis of need at all times. It would give Irish citizens a strengthened right to hold the Government to account for how the State manages affairs and would put the people of Ireland at the centre of Government. The right to a home is fundamental to happiness and the foundation for so much else in society as it gives people stability to plan and participate in an active, positive life. The separation of powers argument does not hold water. More than 11 countries, including such radical places as Germany, Portugal and Finland, have these rights protected in their constitutions. Why can we not do it here?
As a nation, we are renowned for our contribution to music and the arts. Being able to enjoy both is an important part of a fulfilling life. It should not be the preserve of the rich. Everyone should have the right to take part and enjoy cultural life.
Covid-19 has brought devastation to our island and to the world but it has given us an opportunity. I believe that we need to follow a zero Covid strategy and use the time this would give us to plan and reset. The Constitution is used as a barrier to much progressive legislation by Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil but in March of last year we saw a different type of governing. The pandemic and the global crisis showed that steps could be taken for the majority and not just the few. Evictions were stopped, rents were frozen, private hospitals were taken into the public service and there was new-found appreciation for the front-line workers in our supermarkets and food delivery services and the eye-watering demands that are placed on the health service. Communities came together.
We were told that we were all in this together and people believed it, until the Government faltered. While formation of the grand coalition took place, it actually led to the falling apart of the governing of our country. Egos got in the way of public good. Personalities wanted to be to the fore to make big announcements and some went off to Clifden to celebrate the lockdown with golf and a dinner. The difference with the elite classes and the idea of there being one rule for them and another for us started to grate. Residents of nursing homes died as the virus spread so quickly. Residents in direct provision were also left behind. Workers in meat factories were made to work, which led to Covid-19 outbreaks. It is happening again now.
The property rights in the Constitution are constantly used and regurgitated as reasons we cannot have an effective solution to the housing crisis. Yet, the Minister will say there is no need for a right to housing in the Constitution, because the Government should be trusted to provide legislative measures to ensure there is sufficient and affordable housing. The housing and homeless crisis is of the Government's making. It is the fault of the present and previous Governments that there are thousands of children who are forced to experience homelessness and that people have died by suicide because of their housing situations, never mind their inability to access timely mental health support. It is the fault of the present and previous Governments that more homeless people have died on our streets in the past year than in many other years. This crisis and these tragedies are of the Government's making. Then the Government asks the Opposition and the public to trust it and tells us we do not need constitutional protection and that it will look after us all. It only looks after the rich and the landlord classes, the real estate investment trusts and those who profiteer from this basic human right: the right to shelter, to an adequate place to live, to a home. Last week RTÉ investigated an issue which some of my colleagues have been raising here consistently. That is the difference. I will talk about it later but that is why I will not be accepting the amendment the Government is putting forward. I do not believe it is well meant.