Tuesday, 22 October 2019

Questions (4, 5, 6, 7)

Joan Burton

Question:

4. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on progress towards a Citizens' Assembly on a directly elected mayor for Dublin. [41985/19]

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Joan Burton

Question:

5. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on progress towards a Citizens' Assembly on gender equality. [42283/19]

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Ruth Coppinger

Question:

6. Deputy Ruth Coppinger asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the preparations for the Citizens' Assembly on gender equality. [43149/19]

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Michael Moynihan

Question:

7. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the Citizens' Assembly on gender equality; and when it will first convene. [43261/19]

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Oral answers (14 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions No. 4 to 7, inclusive, together.

At its meeting on 11 June, the Government agreed to the establishment of a Citizens' Assembly on gender equality and noted that a further Citizens' Assembly would subsequently be established to consider the best model of local government for Dublin and, in particular but not exclusively, the issue of a directly elected mayor and his or her powers. It was agreed that the assemblies would run consecutively, commencing with the assembly on gender equality.

The establishment of the first Citizens' Assembly on gender equality was approved by Dáil Éireann on 9 July and by Seanad Éireann on 11 July. The Citizens' Assemblies Act 2019 providing for the use of the register of electors to select members for both Citizens' Assemblies was subsequently enacted and signed into law by the President on 25 July. The membership of the Citizens' Assembly on gender equality will consist of a chairperson and 99 citizens entitled to vote at referendum, recruited at national level and randomly selected to be broadly representative of Irish society. A separate cohort of 99 citizen members will be selected solely from Dublin county and city for the Dublin Citizens' Assembly.

The Citizens' Assembly secretariat is now up and running. A secretary has been appointed and staff assigned. Dr. Catherine Day, the former Secretary-General of the European Commission, will serve as chairperson of the assembly on gender equality. Administrative preparations are well advanced with a view to convening a first meeting as soon as possible, but certainly before the end of the year.

I thank the Taoiseach. Regarding the position of women in Ireland, while the progress and advances have been significant, they have been lopsided.

On many occasions it is a bit like one step forward and two steps back. The idea of a Citizens' Assembly was first introduced to the Dáil by the Labour Party, when Eamon Gilmore was leader. It followed a period of examination and reflection by the Labour Party on how democracy could be made more meaningful and especially how very divisive debates could be addressed. Notwithstanding the advances, the equality position of women in Ireland at the moment is very disappointing. In particular, we have a lot of exceptionalism when it comes to officeholders. Women come and go but it seems men are there forever in the overwhelming majority of cases. For instance, we have never had a woman as Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, as Minister for Finance or as Secretary General in the financial area and clearly we have never had a woman Taoiseach.

In terms of income and pensions, the Government failed to make any mention, for example, of the supplementary pension scheme, in which I was heavily involved, the purpose of which was to allow women, who are often lower paid and who have broken service in paid work because of rearing families and other family commitments, to get a supplementary pension. Such a scheme would give those women in particular an opportunity to supplement the State retirement pension, which might be the only income they would have to rely on in retirement.

In terms of a lord mayor of Dublin, it is clear there is a need for more local democracy in Dublin but that discussion must be a broad one. If we have a singular lord mayor we need to have a very clear idea of the role and whether the person will have the capacity to deal with housing or to be in some way responsible for the quality of planning in the city, which at the moment leaves much to be desired. How will we address the greening of the city and in particular the serious development of public transport that will encourage people to leave their cars at home and to use public transport?

I would like to know the timeline for both referendums and if the Taoiseach will have a discussion with Opposition parties and other interested persons on what should be the subject matter of the referendums. For instance, has the Taoiseach made up his mind on the position of women in the home?

I hope I will get extra time as well, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle.

Sometimes it is better not to hear these things.

Okay. I am sorry. There is no question that a Citizens' Assembly on gender equality will have its work cut out for it because there are so many issues such as the gender pay gap, the costliest childcare in Europe that often prevents women getting promoted and continuing in employment, precarious housing and jobs and the pensions Deputy Burton mentioned. She was also responsible for creating the inequality but we will skip over that for the moment.

That is pure rubbish.

It is difficult to have equality when women's lives and safety are also at risk. The Taoiseach agrees that according to the statistics there is an epidemic of violence against women. Of the 225 women who have been murdered since 1996, nine out of ten were killed by their own partners and 61% were killed in their own homes.

We signed the Istanbul Convention but we have only one in three of the recommended refuge spaces. In the budget, domestic violence was given €20 million in funding and greyhounds got almost €17 million. Domestic violence was given parity of esteem with a cruel industry. Funding for sexual violence increased by 10% but it was halved over the ten years of austerity. Calls to the rape crisis centres have increased by 25%.

There are only three refuges in the greater Dublin area that are operational right now. I was told that the refuge in Blanchardstown turns away up to 500 women and their families every single year and that many women have to be discharged into homelessness. The outreach the centres do, which is critical to give women support and counselling, for example, while attending court, could be expanded into the area of prevention. They could go into schools and speak in communities if they had the funding. The refuge in Blanchardstown could do with two apartments, which it has space for right now, but we need a hell of a lot more. I put it to the Taoiseach that he has not stepped up to the mark in his constituency and he needs to do it. Will he and the Minister beside him, Deputy Zappone, increase such services? We have a major homeless epidemic in the greater Blanchardstown area and that is compounded by women who cannot get into refuges and those who are in refuges who cannot get out of them because they have nowhere to go.

I would argue that much confusion is evident in the current status and operation of the new Citizens' Assembly on gender issues. What specific steps are left in terms of recruiting members, deciding agendas and beginning work?

Where the assembly model has been effective in the past has been in providing a mechanism for deeper debate while the debate continued separately in the Oireachtas. For example, we had an extremely active and effective all-party committee on the eighth amendment. It is fair to say it was the ultimate originator of the specific proposal and policy that was put before the people and supported by them that is now on the Statute Book. Perhaps it is narrower than some of the recommendations that came from the Citizens' Assembly, but both were important parts of the working out of the issue. Ultimately, the Oireachtas committee had to come to a decision, which it did. The three Fianna Fáil members on the committee were instrumental in arriving at the particular proposal that emerged.

The Taoiseach is aware that the recommendations of previous assemblies failed to progress where the process was simply that the report went to the Government and it took unilateral decisions on how to proceed, or not to proceed, with many of the recommendations and the issues discussed. What is proposed in terms of a parallel or follow-on process within the Oireachtas? What discussions has the Taoiseach had with the new chairperson to ensure that the assembly is able to be distinct from day-to-day politics and partisanship?

As the Taoiseach has noted, the resolution to establish a Citizens' Assembly on gender equality was passed in the Dáil before the summer recess. We are grateful to Members for supporting my party leader's amendment to the resolution that the assembly would include in its work consideration of existing structural pay inequalities that lead to women being disproportionately represented in low-pay sectors. That is extremely important. As we all know, when Fianna Fáil was last in government and it cut the minimum wage, the majority of workers impacted by that were women. We know they are disproportionately represented in low-paid employment.

The value of the work of the assembly will be in the opportunity to advance transformative change for both women and girls. That can only happen if the Government commits to implementing the recommendation of the assembly members. The Taoiseach originally committed to having the assembly up and running by the end of this month. Could he assure the House that the full assembly will begin its work by the end of this year?

In terms of the assembly on a directly elected mayor for Dublin, Sinn Féin supports both the proposition for the assembly and the officeholder. However, we hold the strong view that the establishment of a directly elected mayor should be created in tandem with wider and very much talked about reforms of local government. Crucial to the value of a directly elected major to the capital city will be the devolving of powers to the officeholder. Devolved powers must include significant policy areas currently controlled by central government, such as transport and waste management. The devolving of powers from central government to the mayor must be included in the considerations of the Citizens' Assembly. Without discussing the devolution of power, the Citizens' Assembly discussion on a directly elected mayor for Dublin would have very little value because it needs to discuss those far-reaching powers that are necessary. I encourage the Taoiseach to set out a timetable today for the establishment of this second Citizens' Assembly.

We have made much progress on gender equality as a country in the past few decades. We should not be embarrassed to acknowledge that, whether it is the repeal of the eighth amendment, new laws related to domestic violence, the ratification at long last of the Istanbul Convention, the reform of our divorce laws, gender quotas for election to this Dáil, or subsidised childcare for the first time in the national childcare scheme coming into effect in the next couple of weeks. That is important for men as well as women, but can be very important for women. Participation in higher education by women has increased dramatically in recent years, with better parental leave, and with parental benefit coming into effect in a few weeks for the first time. There will be improved maternity benefits. An initiative that I have been especially involved in is Better Balance for Better Business, to encourage private sector companies to ensure that more women are on private sector company boards. We have well above 40% female membership of State boards. I think more women than men were appointed to State boards for the first time last year. We are pursuing the national strategy for women and girls. A women's health task force has been re-established and that in many ways responds to a matter raised by Deputy Connolly earlier. Even though it is controversial, the advancement of 45 female-only senior academic roles in the higher education sector is a good idea, and it is being pushed forward by the Minister of State, Deputy Mitchell O'Connor. It is fair to say that the Government has been very active in pursuing a gender equality agenda.

With regard to women's refuges, I appreciate that capacity is deficient. There are plans for some new ones or at least to increase capacity but I have to double-check that. We need to change the approach. If somebody is being domestically abused, experiencing violence in the home or being attacked by his or her partner, the partner should move out of the house, not the woman and the kids. We have changed the law to make that easier to make sure that the abusive partner, whether it is the man or the woman, has to leave the home, and not the person who is being abused.

They do not always have a choice.

I know that cannot be the case in all cases but it should be more common that the person who is perpetrating the abuse leaves the home and not the person who is the victim of the abuse.

The Taoiseach must not understand the concept.

With regard to areas where I think we will all agree there needs to be progress, one area is pensions. It is worth reading the facts and research about the State pension. The difference in the average State pension paid to a man versus a woman is approximately 2%. Pensioner poverty in Ireland is higher among men than women. When it comes to the State pension, there is not significant inequality anymore in what is paid to men and women, or in pensioner poverty. There is when it comes to occupational pensions, which comes down to the fact that, historically, women have tended to work in lower paid roles and have been in and out of the workforce. The solution to that is to press ahead with the Minister, Deputy Doherty's, reforms relating to lawful enrolment, making sure that everyone who is at work pays into an occupational pension and that their employer does so too. That is how we will achieve, over time, the closing of the pension gap. We are pursuing the pay gap with legislation to require employers to produce information on the gender pay gap in their company or workplace and to explain why there is a difference. We need to strengthen that legislation to make sure that it is not just a reporting mechanism and that things actually change. We want to pursue that in the coming period.

I have met Catherine Day on occasion but I have not met her specifically on the issue of the Citizens' Assembly. I will have to think about whether I should or not. The advice from my officials is generally not to do anything that might be seen to interfere in a citizens' assembly, which means not meeting the chair and not calling out to meet the members of the assembly. I did not do it previously but I met the chair afterwards to hear how it went and to get advice on how it might be done better in the future. Meeting beforehand might be seen by some as interference but I have not decided on that yet. It is intended to have the first meeting by the end of the year, to have a report within six months of the first meeting, and to have the Oireachtas consider the report.