I thank the committee for this opportunity to speak to its members today.
I welcome the launch of this important committee and wish it well in its work which will help to advance progress towards greater equality in Irish society.
I will start by saying a little about the citizens, many of whom the members saw on the video that was just played, because the work they did and the messages they are sending to the Oireachtas made up the work of the assembly. As members have just seen, the 99 citizens were a representative mix of the Irish population. They were a cross-section of women and men from different age and socioeconomic groups and different parts of the country. They brought their own life experience to the assembly. In their discussions they were informed by factual information about Ireland today, complemented by information on how other countries are dealing with equality issues. They heard from advocacy groups and from individuals who brought to life the realities of living in a country where many inequalities remain.
As members are aware, most of our work was done during the Covid crisis and, understandably, this brought the issue of care to the fore. In every session, we discussed the availability, quality, suitability and cost of care. There was also a strong focus on the way our society treats the people who care for us, and on how we need to do better by them.
The Covid crisis meant that most of our work was done online. We would have preferred to meet in person but the citizens rose magnificently to the challenge of working online and they accepted a more gruelling work schedule than had initially been proposed to them. They worked hard to be prepared in advance of each meeting so as to maximise their time for discussion. One gets the sense from the video that they wanted to send clear and action-oriented recommendations to the committee and to communicate a sense of urgency. They insisted during all their work on clear language to get their views across. As members just heard, to underline the seriousness of their recommendations, the assembly voted overwhelmingly that they are prepared to support and pay higher taxes to make a reality of our recommendations.
I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the members of the assembly on their dedication, commitment and hard work. I put on record our thanks to the secretariat, who did a fantastic job in organising and supporting the work and for whom the citizens had the highest possible praise and appreciation. We also thank the experts, whose input was invaluable to our work.
As members of the committee are aware, our work programme was based on an Oireachtas resolution of July 2019, with one exception. The resolution at the time made no reference to domestic, sexual and gender-based violence but we agreed early on to include it in our work because of its importance as a gender equality issue.
All of the inputs the assembly received and considered as part of its work are available on its website. As the recommendations are concise, the report we delivered to the Oireachtas gives context and background to explain what the assembly considered and the data on which some of the recommendations were based. In all, more than 500 recommendations were initially generated and these were then gradually reduced to the 45 recommendations that are before the committee. As the committee will be working on each of the recommendations, I will not take the time now to summarise them. I have provided a longer version of my opening statement that sets matters out in more detail and highlights the key areas. I will use the short time available to me to group the recommendations into blocs. I will start with the proposed changes to the Constitution and then address the proposed changes to our laws, as well as to policy and practice.
As regards recommendations for Constitutional change, a constitution sets out the values and principles that citizens accept to live by, so it is a very important document. To get to the truly gender-equal society the assembly to see, the citizens propose first to include the principles of gender equality and non-discrimination in the Constitution. More than 80% of the world's constitutions have such principles and it is recommended that we join them in that regard. The second suggestion for constitutional change is to extend the obligation of the State to protect family life to all families. At the moment, only the married family is given that protection. The citizens believe it should be extended to all families. The third area in which they recommend change is something that was already recommended by the Convention on the Constitution in 2013, that is, to delete Article 41.2 of the Constitution, often referred to as the “woman in the home” clause, and replace it with an obligation for the State to take reasonable measures to support care within the home and wider community. This recommendation reflects the strong focus on care and caring throughout the work of the assembly.
Next, there are several recommendations suggesting ways to accelerate change through legislation. For example, the assembly recommends extending gender quotas to local, Seanad and European Parliament elections, as well as to the boards of publicly funded and private companies. Other recommendations would require changes to social protection legislation to make benefits gender equal and to improve pay and workplace conditions to reduce the gender pay gap. There are several recommendations for stronger legislation to combat hateful and abusive language and to hold technology and social media companies to account for their content.
Finally, many of the recommendations call for changes in current policy, such as by combatting gender stereotyping through education, for example. In considering how care is given, the citizens recommend improving low rates of pay and dealing with the lack of a proper pay and benefits structure for carers, the vast majority of whom are women. They recommend providing carers with a pay and benefits structure that rewards their skills and training, similar to those of teachers and nurses. They also call for structural change in how childcare is delivered and for an increase in the State share of GDP spent on childcare to 1% by 2030. That would bring Ireland into line with our UNICEF target. The recommendations also address care for older people and those with disabilities, emphasising that their choices and preferences should be reflected as much as possible in decisions on their care needs.
In dealing with domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, the assembly calls for support for victims and survivors. In this regard, they urge reform of the courts system, specialist training for judges and lawyers, and ensuring sufficient publicly funded beds, shelters and accommodation for victims and survivors. They also recommend that a Cabinet Minister should co-ordinate a national strategy to prevent and counter domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, and the creation of a victims and survivors commissioner to be an independent advocate and voice for victims and survivors.
In some areas of our work, citizens were surprised to learn that timely data were not available. As all present are aware, one cannot make good policy without good data. The citizens recommend having a statutory body for gender equality led by a Cabinet Minister to ensure cross-government co-ordination on gender equality issues. Other recommendations include requiring gender impact assessment of policies and equality budgeting across all Government bodies and local authorities.
In conclusion, for me, it was a privilege, and a fascinating experience, to chair the assembly. Although we have made significant strides in the past ten or 20 years, we still have a long way to go before we can say we live in a truly gender-equal country. I sensed both impatience and frustration on the part of many who feel their voices are not heard on these issues of daily importance to their lives. The recommendations of the assembly show how these real-life issues can be addressed and I believe the members of the assembly broadly represent the views of the wider population on these issues. I am delighted that their work is now entering into the decisive phase where their elected representatives will examine their recommendations and decide how best to advance them. I thank the committee for the opportunity to appear.