The contributions of the Minister, the spokespersons for Fine Gael and the Labour Party shall not exceed 30 minutes and the contribution of each other Member shall not exceed 20 minutes.
Human Rights Commission (Amendment) Bill, 2001: Second Stage.
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
The purpose of the Bill is simple and straightforward. It is to amend section 5 of the Human Rights Commission Act, 2000, so that the Human Rights Commission to be formally established under its provisions shall consist of 15 members rather than nine members as originally envisaged in the Act.
It was the Government's original intention that this amendment should be included in section 7(a) of the European Convention on Human Rights Bill, 2001. That Bill completed its Second Stage in this House on 14 June 2001 and is currently awaiting Committee Stage in the Committee on Justice, Equality, Women's Rights and Defence. The Convention Bill is designed to give further effect in Irish law to the Council of Europe Convention on Human Rights. It is a matter that flows directly from the Good Friday Agreement on Northern Ireland. The establishment of the Human Rights Commission also has its originals in that agreement. The idea of dealing with the outstanding matter relating to the Commission in the Convention Bill stems mainly from that. In addition, there was the matter of timing following the review by both Governments of outstanding aspects of the Good Friday Agreement in Hillsborough last year, which promised that full implementation of the outstanding aspects of the Agreement was to be achieved by June 2001. The Government had hoped, accordingly, that the provision to deal with the issue of commission membership could have been dealt with in the one Bill which would be enacted before the Summer recess. In that way I could proceed to make the necessary Establishment Order under section 3 of the Human Rights Commission Act, 2000, immediately upon enactment of the Convention Bill.
It was on this basis that I informed the President of the Human Rights Commission, Mr. Justice Donal Barrington, and the House in my replies to recent parliamentary questions, that I hoped to be in a position to establish the commission formally within this time limit. I also said that if the Convention Bill could not be processed within that time frame, I would proceed with the commission issue in a separate Bill. For reasons I will come to, it has not been possible to proceed as the Government had intended and that is why the Bill dealing solely with the increase in the number of members of the Human Rights Commission is now before us. I acknowledge that Deputies Shatter and Howlin had earlier indicated that they would support this split approach.
The Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights, before it goes on to consider the provisions of the Convention Bill proper on Committee Stage – which was originally scheduled for Tuesday last with Report and Final Stages to take place today – has decided to consult a wide range of organisations in the general human rights area who wish to comment on the proposals in the Bill. The committee has heard the views of only a few of the many organisations involved, including Amnesty International, The Children's Rights Alliance and the interim Human Rights Commission, as it has not proved to be possible within the time frame originally envisaged for enactment of the Bill to hear all the groups who wish to make observations and recommendations. Accordingly, Committee Stage has been deferred to allow consultations to take place in July and September. I have already expressed the wish that we can get back to deal with the Committee and Final Stages of the convention Bill as quickly as possible.
The Bill now before us is required because the Government decided to increase the number of human rights commissioners to better meet the requirement in the Act that its members broadly reflect the nature of our society. This means that the Human Rights Commission now has 15 members in total, including its President, Mr. Justice Donal Barrington. All 15 members have been nominated by the Government and have accepted their offers of appointment. The Commission has been meeting now for some months as an interim body. However, this situation cannot be allowed to continue for much longer, and the enactment of this Bill will allow me to make the necessary Establishment day Order under section 3 of the Human Rights Commission Act, 2000, immediately. The commission can then proceed to develop fully its role and functions under the Act, including its participation in the important work in an all-Ireland context of the Joint Committee of Representatives with the Human Rights Commission in Northern Ireland.
I commend the Bill to the House.
I wish to share my time with Deputy Barnes.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
I welcome this Bill. Although it is small, its consequences are very important, as the establishment of a Human Rights Commission on a formal basis is an important marker in any democracy or country; it is certainly an important marker for this country.
It is now more than half a century since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 declared that it was essential that "human rights should be protected by the rule of law" and it is already ten years since the drafting of the Paris Principles in 1991, which recommended the creation of national institutions such as a Human Rights Commission: "vested with competence to promote and protect human rights".
It is now more than three years since the Multi-Party Agreement between the British and Irish Governments pledged to establish a Human Rights Commission in Ireland with a remit similar to that of Northern Ireland and to create a committee of the joint representatives of the two commissions.
I welcome today's Bill, which is a belated recognition by the Minister that this is the way to go. We have said all along that it should not have been put in with the other legislation to incorporate the European Convention on Human Rights and that is what emerged in committee. I hope the way the Minister listened to the voices which suggested this was to go will be matched by his listening to the presentations in the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's' Rights, as very important points have been raised in the presentations already made, including that of Mr. Justice Donal Barrington, President of the new commission. I hope the Minister shows flexibility in accepting some of the recommendations being made in relation to the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights. It would be to the advantage of everyone in the country if he did so.
Ten months have passed since the announcement of a procedure for the appointment of human rights commissioners in this jurisdiction. Could there have been more delays? The delays have been unacceptable and wherever the Minister was getting his advice in relation to the establishment of the commission, some of it has been quite flawed. It was not necessary to go through the rather tortuous procedures which have emerged in the establishment of the commission. They were quite unnecessary and undermined the commitment of the Government and the House to establishing a human rights commission in an appropriate way. The President of the commission, Mr. Barrington, told the committee the other day that he felt almost as if we were afraid of incorporating strong human rights legislation in our country. He asked why we should be afraid. We have a strong Constitution and body of law and he said we had nothing to be afraid of in incorporating the European Convention in the strongest way possible. That applies to a strong human rights commission as well.
The importance of a human rights commission is that it repatriates into Ireland elements of an institutional expression of human rights protection. What is in Strasbourg, the Hague or Geneva or Luxembourg is brought closer to the citizen. At a moment of heightened feelings about the concept of European integration and globalisation, never has such a process been more necessary for the individual citizen. We saw in the debate about the Nice treaty, that people feel quite disconnected and if institutions such as a human rights commission can be made meaningful for individual citizens, that will go a long way towards dealing with that sense of disempowerment. I ask the Minister to look again at the Amnesty audit report on human rights in Ireland. Some of its suggestions about information and awareness and educating the public about human rights are very important. We have not done enough in that area in Ireland and I hope the Minister asks his Department and perhaps this new commission to come forward with some suggestions as to how best this might be done. It is one thing to pass legislation but to make that legislation meaningful for people is a different task and a big challenge.
Opportunities to share North and South between the respective commissions have been lost and must be quickly made up. As the Preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: ". . . whereas it is essential, if a man is not to be compelled to have recourse as a last resort to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights be protected by the rule of law . . ."
We may feel that does not apply in Ireland but one cannot be too careful about trying to create a strong culture of human rights. Ireland will now be able to join more than 50 countries who have already established human rights commissions. We are not ahead of the posse on this but quite slow, though it is good we are at this point now. Our written Constitution is already strong in some respects in its protection of individual rights and there is nothing to fear in having a human rights commission that is autonomous and sufficiently resourced to express its independence and robustly defend human rights in its commentary, laws and practices. Mrs. Mary Robinson spoke about the importance of having enough funding for a human rights commission and I ask the Minister to look at funding again. Funding for our human rights commission is less than the funding for the commission in Northern Ireland, and that has already been deemed inadequate. We should look at this again. If funding is inadequate it will limit the scope of the work the human rights commission can do.
In the past some extraordinarily important cases have been pursued by individuals in Ireland seeking fundamental rights. It is telling to reflect on those. When we look back, we see they have been solitary struggles on the part of individuals with little means, without a human rights commission. The recommendations on free legal aid that were made in relation to the incorporation of the European Convention and the need to look at free legal aid for those taking cases is very important.
Think of Miss Airey and her struggle for civil legal aid and the right of access to justice for all. In the Oireachtas here Senator Norris pursued a fundamental right over long years for the decriminalisation of homosexuality. The right to marital privacy and freedom of information are the fundamental rights and freedoms which Irish individuals have sought from courts here and abroad.
Yet, there are still troubling and unresolved questions such as the murder of human rights defenders like Pat Finucane and Rosemary Nelson, where the defenders of human rights are not free to pursue their mission and profession. When this happens the human rights of all are at risk.
It is important to build a human rights culture and I agree with the views of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action in endorsing the importance of promoting and developing a human rights culture to create greater awareness of human rights and to increase the profile of human rights commissions. An institutional mechanism without popular rapport will be perceived as another moribund and faceless bureaucracy so it is important to deal with that issue. This is occurring at a time of much abstention, low voter turnout and resentment of State intervention, so the risk must be combated. I hope the Minister will consider this. It will not be easy. We are living in times of partnership, collective accommodation and compromise.
A human rights culture respects the dissenting individual who goes out on a limb to pursue individual rights in public. We often treat such individuals as obsessive. We tend to stereotype them very often, which makes it difficult for them to make their case. For example, the right of young adults or individuals to a primary education is such a case – the case being pursued by Mrs. Synott. The development of a strong human rights culture teaches us, encourages us and shows us how important it is not to stereotype and to respect people who fight for rights.
Some of the rights that will be explored by the new commission will be those of individuals who are otherwise outcasts. I have in mind the rights of prisoners and seriously mentally ill persons because conflict can arise in respect of their rights to freedom and rights to privacy or expression.
With the crumbling of so many institutions under allegations of abuses of individual rights – from the Berlin Wall to the industrial schools of Letterfrack and Daingean – it is timely to restore the individual person to the centre of our concerns. Our response to a culture of failed authoritarianism should be to foster a culture of respect for individual human rights. That is very important. In many institutions in this country, there are still traces of a lack of respect for individuals. As politicians we must learn about it with regard to the political system and our democracy. The need for a culture of respect must be expressed in Parliament, in the church and through education.
This will be a challenge for the members of the new human rights commission. The petitions and cases presented to it may be from those who have suffered and whose lives are damaged. Suffering does not always ennoble one – it can also distort, but difficult cases of this kind will reveal our capacity to embrace the dignity of the person.
There are many gaps in our legislation and services, many of which we have spoken about this year. We spoke of gaps in services for children and basic rights and accommodation for children who are getting into difficulties. We spoke of victims of violence. But there are other groups, of whom we will be more conscious in the future, such as emigrants and the Traveller community. There are many issues relating to Travellers in the equality report launched by the Minister this week. There are emerging issues concerning electronic privacy and surveillance, trafficking in persons, refugees and asylum seekers, and unaccompanied minors.
I was at a conference on children's rights in Sweden recently. I had the official statistics of the Minister on unaccompanied minors. I think the number was 18. At the conference, I was told that the figure for unaccompanied minors in Ireland amounted to several hundred. Will the Minister re-examine the figures and report to me on the matter because the significant issues concerning the rights of unaccompanied minors need to be dealt with? I have no doubt but that the Minister and the health boards are doing their best to deal with the problem. However, more pressure will be put on the services if the issue is to be dealt with in the best possible way. Unaccompanied minors comprise a group that is very much at risk and in danger of having its rights violated.
Other issues of concern, both national and international, relate to child prostitution and child soldiers. They too will form part of the focus of the work of the Human Rights Commission. The commission has had a difficult genesis in the constitutional world. Its appearance generated a "hand raised to shield the eyes from an unexpected light". Its confinement is now over. This House will welcome studying and reading the opinions of the Human Rights Commission – be they social, cultural, political or economically based. It will welcome being informed by this offspring of a new generation of human rights thinking.
Given the initial difficulties of the Human Rights Commission, two features need to be established – independence from the State – the commission should have such resources so that it is not required to be a supplicant or pet itioner itself for their attainment – and a standing or permanent selection committee to fill ad hoc or occasional vacancies which may arise during its mandate so that the guarantee of pluralism is sustained. Will the Minister consider this? I tabled a motion to this effect. The taking of the approach I am advocating is in line with the Paris Principles of 1991.
The amendment I tabled was ruled out of order because of the cost implications. However, it is something that should be considered. The Paris Principles on the establishment of human rights commissions emphasise that:
The composition of the national institution and the appointment of its members, whether by means of an election or otherwise, shall be established in accordance with a procedure which affords all necessary guarantees to ensure the pluralist representation of the social forces (of civilian society) involved in the promotion and protection of human rights, particularly by powers which will enable effective cooperation to be established with, or through the presence of, representatives . . .
The representatives in question are people or bodies that should be on a human rights commission and five examples are listed.
It is very important to ensure we do this as the human rights commission grows and develops over the years. The idea should not be dismissed.
One should bear in mind that the commission will not be able to review international public law that is not part of Irish law. Hence, the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of discrimination Against Women – the effective international convention on women's rights – will not fall within the commission's remit. I think I am right in that regard; perhaps the Minister will comment on it.
There may even be some initial confusion among the public as to what is properly the field of a human rights commission compared with the Equality Authority and the Office of the Director of Equality Investigations, for example. As far as the public is concerned, there will be trial and error involved.
In the past few years, we have had better mechanisms to ensure equality in this country. However, the report of the Equality Authority shows that, despite legislation pertaining to women, for example, gender inequality still tops the list of cases brought to the authority in the past year. That is telling. Judging by journalistic commentary, one would think problems concerning gender equality have been eliminated. However, there are still outstanding issues and, as the Minister acknowledged during the week, there is a need to reconsider the measures in place to tackle inequality where employment is concerned.
Because of a Supreme Court ruling, it is very hard to build up proper and adequate protection with regard to disability rights. Every day we are made aware of problems concerning wheelchair access and access to jobs. Commitments to very basic rights in respect of disability are not being met. The public may be confused about the remit of the Human Rights Commission and may require information.
We live in a rights conscious world of global trade. Yet, as recently as 1995, the Council of Ministers voted to cut funding of human rights and democracy groups in half – a decision reversed by the European Parliament. Funding for human rights groups across Europe was frozen again for a period by the Commission following a UK court case – another decision contested by the European Parliament. We in the Oireachtas have an essential role in creating the conditions for the growth of grass roots democracy and advocacy, institutional mechanisms for human rights protection and good law. I welcome this amendment to the Human Rights Commission (Amendment) Bill and I look forward to the work of the Human Rights Commission in future.
I welcome the Bill. For once, we will not complain about the short time it will take to pass this legislation through the Dáil. I am sure the Minister appreciates the efforts of Opposition Members and members of the Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights to have this legislation in place before the end of session. It will give us the time and space to consult in depth the many groups who welcome the European Convention on Human Rights Bill of which this legislation is an important part.
It reflects well on the Minister and on the committee, to which he may sometimes feel he is dragged and held at inordinate length to discuss legislation, that we decided to deal with this separately. The European Convention on Human Rights Bill is of enormous importance and embodies the welcome European inclusiveness exemplified by the inclusion of submissions from groups.
I was reminded when Deputy Fitzgerald spoke of how much we in Ireland, especially women, welcomed and have relied on European legislation, especially in the area of equality, since we became members of the then European Economic Community in 1973. That vision and welcome opening up brought on by such legislation and the sense of rights and of a centre to which we could apply if we could not get the justice we sought in Ireland is perhaps something we have lost. This may have been reflected in the rather cynical turn off and low voter turnout in the recent referendum on the Nice treaty.
I hope as a result of this debate and the longer and more comprehensive debate which will take place on the European Convention on Human Rights Bill in September or October that we will be able to reinvigorate our sense of what being members of the European Union and the rights and inclusiveness of Europe mean to us. I hope we can build on that to renew for the people the importance in the new millennium of seeing Europe as a centre and resource of rights and supports other than Structural Funds or headage payments. That is what Europe is about and it is the essence of this Bill.
The legislation allows the Human Rights Commission to be established on a statutory basis with its enhanced membership of 15. Our job in that regard is twofold. One is to give it the proper resources to allow it to be independent, outgoing and accessible, especially to people who are denied full access to their rights and to the process of gaining them. The other is to ensure the work of the Human Rights Commission is in tandem with that of the Minister and of the Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights.
I would like to believe that, from its establishment, we would regularly receive reports and submissions from the commission and hold meetings with it. I note and welcome that the draft recommendations of the shadow Human Rights Commission to the committee ended on a positive note by saying that, if amendments were made to the European Convention on Human Rights Bill as it progresses through the Houses, the commission would welcome the opportunity to make further observations and recommendations. In continuing to make submissions, the commission should establish some basis for frequent consultation with the committee. Knowing the stature and competence of people on the commission, we will probably receive many reports which will exercise the committee and the Legislature in general.
It is timely that we debate the establishment of the Human Rights Commission after the establishment of a similar commission in Northern Ireland. I hope there is full co-operation between both. Mr. Justice Donal Barrington said in his submission to the Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights that, with the establishment of Human Rights Commissions North and South under the Good Friday Agreement, both should work towards the goal of having the same rights in all parts of the island of Ireland.
That is what the Good Friday Agreement is about. If we ensure rights are safeguarded and forthcoming on both sides, perhaps we will have a resolution of the critical process being undergone again under the auspices of the Agreement. We send our best wishes to the Taoiseach in his meeting with the Prime Minister, Tony Blair. The Human Rights Commission can underpin the important structures established under the Agreement. I appeal to all sides not to cherry-pick and, instead, to accept the Agreement fully and endorse it and implement it, as I know the Human Rights Commission here will do.
When we debate and, I hope, amend the European Convention on Human Rights Bill, we might include convention proofing of legislation in the same way gender proofing has been included. This is a powerful incentive to ensure our legislation is proofed and workable when it leaves the Houses.
Resources are important not just for the workings of the commission and the support it needs but also to allow it extend itself and make itself accessible to members of the public who feel they need a hearing of the commission or who need to obtain briefing or advice from or for it to take on a case on their behalf. One of the most important things we can do is allow the commission establish a proper presence. We can ensure it can do that by granting free legal aid to members of the public who wish to access the commission or other areas of law. Unfortunately, we do not grant that at present. I am confident that the Human Rights Commission by its very presence, commitment and the back-up of the European Convention on Human Rights will allow accessibility, openness and support for people who feel they have been marginalised, excluded or do not have the resources to take these cases.
I welcome the setting up of the commission prior to the summer recess to allow it to co-operate fully with its Northern Ireland counterpart. I look forward to enacting as quickly as possible in the autumn the European Convention Bill. I do not think Members on this side of the House will delay the legislation because it is one of the most fundamental pieces of legislation which must be enacted as quickly as possible.
It is a joy for me to be able to rise on legislation introduced by the current Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform which I heartily welcome. I cannot say that about many pieces of legislation since I took on this spokesmanship. I am sure that has nothing to do with the fact that it is one of the shortest Bills the Minister has introduced; it contains just two sections and four sentences. I acknowledge this in a week when really bad business is being done in this House – I genuinely say that as a parliamentarian and as someone who has respect for this House – because it is not good that fundamental legislation is guillotined through. I know Ministers and the Government Whip will say that is normal practice at the end of term. I recall each division in the Department wanting measures enacted quickly. They also discover orders that need to be dealt with which all arrive on the Minister's desk in the last few minutes. That can put huge pressure on Departments. However, we must resist turning this House into a rubber stamp. There is a tendency – I have noticed this in the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform in particular – to assume the Executive is the Legislature, that once the Executive passes a measure, it is a given that the House will accept it unamended. It is up to all of us to try to assert the primacy of this House and the accountability of the Executive to this House. Otherwise the whole notion is of Government backbenchers in particular and the Opposition as simply being here to make up the numbers and that the real critical mass of not just decision making but, ulti mately, public accountability falls within the Cabinet, which is not a good thing.
What is happening here is a very welcome initiative from the Minister to take a reasoned argument from this side of the House. In the backdrop of other arguments being ignored, I want to acknowledge the decision of the Minister, Deputy O'Donoghue, to split what was a single Bill and transpose into Irish law the European Convention on Human Rights and use that transposition Bill as a vehicle to regularise the situation in the Human Rights Commission by formalising the membership at 15 rather than the nine for which we have already legislated. He listened and was open and able to allow the delay to take place by allowing this particular measure to happen and the commission, which is now in shadow form, to become a reality in legislative terms. I promised umpteen times in recent weeks when I raised this issue on the Order of Business that we would facilitate a quick and early enactment. I am very pleased to carry out that pledge today.
I want to make a few general points in regard to the principles that underpin the Human Rights Commission. Other Deputies said, and rightly so, that the commission will be mould breaking in terms of its functions under section (8) of the parent Act and equally the calibre of the people the Minister has appointed to that body. Its powers and reservoir of expertise have been immeasurably broadened by increasing the number from nine to 15. Some would argue that 15 is too big for a decision making body but if one considers the individual talents represented by the group of 15, it would be very difficult to find an area of thinking public life which touches on the issue of human rights that is not reflected in that grouping. It will be extraordinarily impactive and I am very impressed by the first public outing of the shadow commission, that is, the submission made by Mr. Justice Donal Barrington, currently shadow president of the Human Rights Commission, and Professor Binchy, who both made profound, balanced, clear and intelligent presentations to the committee. I look forward to many more presentations on a whole range of issues which I believe will be transforming in the way they change our attitude to the rights of individuals and, God knows, they are absolutely required.
The Good Friday Agreement is an extraordinarily good document which brings together a much closer functioning between Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and Great Britain. Many of us in the Republic have in a very narrow fashion seen the Good Friday Agreement as a vehicle to bring about change in Northern Ireland. Equally, it will and has been a vehicle for bringing about change in the Republic. It is often very easy to identify the wrongs of another and not just not address but not even see the wrongs perpetrated by ourselves. We need to do an awful lot to get things right in our republic before we can be worthy of the name republic for which so many generations of Irish people argued, intellectualised about and shed their blood to achieve.
We will have another day to deal with the mechanism for transposition of the European Convention on Human Rights because the Minister has given us that time to listen to the authoritative voice not just of the shadow commission but also the myriad of other bodies. I am very impressed by the number of organisations throughout the country who want to have input into how the convention is transposed into domestic law. The Minister sent me a briefing on the definition of human rights to be used in the Human Rights Commission Bill on foot of amendments I tabled to the parent Bill. He also pointed out the variety of mechanisms available for taking international treaties and giving them effect in our legal framework.
I do not wish to take up too much time today dealing with that issue but I add my voice to those who genuinely argued that the Minister should be open to persuasion in regard to the mechanism he has proposed because it is not a party political issue. If we are to make the uncomfortable decisions that will impact on us all, particularly those involved in administration at any level in the State, we must be as broad and deep as we possibly can in enshrining rights in our basic law. The Labour Party has tabled two constitutional amendments to give rights to a number of groups, particularly those who are intellectually or physically challenged, because we deny huge categories of people full participation in our democracy. This is a major issue which must be addressed.
I am most distressed about the issue of racism and it must be addressed. One of the principal tasks of the new human rights commission will be to tackle racism in this nation. It must give it a positive focus, promote multiculturalism and break down the unfathomable prejudices that are too often manifest in the State against people of different colour. This will be one of our biggest challenges in the years ahead. Sadly, we have not done well on it to date. People have built up prejudice and allowed it to be used. Lies and misinformation have gone into public circulation in relation to asylum seekers or non-nationals that they are spongers and that they are taking houses meant for other people on housing lists. We need to take a stand on this issue and a particular burden will fall on the current Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to lead the crusade that is required, to stand solidly against racism.
We must be less understanding and tolerant of racism. I am aware of examples of it in my constituency. I vividly recall receiving a telephone call one night from a representative who attended a meeting on my behalf in my constituency. His opening words were "Are you sitting down because I have just come from the meeting and I am still shaking?" He said it was like a rally about which one would read or hear in the deep south in the 1960s. Many good people were there, but their fears had been whipped up. We need to deal directly now with issues of prejudice through education, outreach services and dialogue. Ultimately, racist sentiment should not be allowed to take root. Action must be taken before it is too late and Ireland has a divisive society. I agree we all have a fundamental role to play in that regard.
The functions of the commission are set out in section 8 of the parent Act. One of the matters I sought to address by way of an amendment to the parent Act when it was before the House was to broaden the definition of education in section 8(d). The Minister assured me at the time that there was broad scope to be proactive in second and third level education in terms of promoting multiculturalism. This will be an important job for the new commission. As I indicated, from what I have seen to date, I have great confidence that its work will be mould breaking.
Ireland is changing. It is becoming more multicultural but it is also changing in the context of our view of authority. Deputy Fitzgerald referred to this aspect. There was a time, 20 or 30 years ago, when the pillars of society were the local priest, the national school teacher, the bank manager and the Garda sergeant. Their writ held and some people hanker after that time, but, as has been exposed, there was much wrong with it. Their writ was often destructive. It was a simpler time, but many people were crushed. For example, some women were held in a purdah where only certain work was acceptable for them and they could not go beyond it. Others were trapped in marriages that were oppressive and brutal.
I have been a Member of the House for almost 15 years and one of my most depressing moments involved a clinic case. A woman in her sixties came to me and told me that she had married and come from the west to live in my county. She said her life was wasted because she married in her late teens, was taken out of her community and came to live in a new community where she was brutalised for decades. I was the first person she had approached about the matter. She said her life was wasted and it still upsets me to think about it because I had no succour to give her. We must understand how crushing the old ways of secrecy were for so many people.
Stories have emerged about institutions that were established for children. Huge pressure was placed on voluntary and religious organisations because the State did not meet its obligations. Women were trapped in unemployability while men did not realise their full potential because they did not have, and were not expected to have, access to education. Much was wrong with that society but, to some, it looks rosy in retrospect.
In the new, changing Ireland, much wrongdoing is being exposed. It is like walking into the broad daylight and seeing many of our faults for the first time. It is a huge advance to recognise those faults. We will never have perfection but we can create mechanisms that strive for perfection and hold people to account. Ireland has enormous potential in that regard because there is something fundamentally good about the Irish character. We are generous and we acknowledge the deficiencies of others. We rally to support our neighbours in times of need in a way that is not characteristic of every society.
However, to achieve what is possible and build a republic to which many people would aspire, we need to tackle institutional opposition to openness. This must involve us all. The House, its Members, local authorities, institutions, State agencies and others are reluctant to open their books or themselves to accountability. This institutional opposition to the process of change needs to be addressed. The vehicle that will be formally established with the enactment of the Bill will be a critical agency in achieving that objective.
As I said, we are involved in building the concept of citizenship. Every person, regardless of race, colour, disability, incapacity, sexual orientation or gender should be allowed to be full citizens of the Republic. This is an easy litany to trot out, but it is a difficult objective to realise and we have a long way to go to achieve it.
I welcome the Bill and I look forward to working with the new human rights commission in the months and years ahead. I agree with Deputy Barnes – I sought this on Committee Stage – that there should be another designated agency to consider legislation to ensure every enactment is in compliance with basic principles of international definitions of human rights. It would be useful if it commented on legislation before it is passed rather than afterwards. The Minister foresaw some difficulty with that suggestion, but perhaps it could be considered in the future. I welcome the Minister's openness in allowing this issue to be split from the European Convention Bill. I look forward to the detailed debate on that Bill and to the shadow disappearing from the Human Rights Commission as it becomes a statutory agency.
I thank Deputies Fitzgerald, Barnes and Howlin for their contributions to this debate. In bringing legislation relating to human rights to the House, I have been very careful to consider the views of Members of the Opposition and of people outside the Oireachtas so that the legislation would reflect the broad view of Irish society. That was the intention in the composition of the original commission. It transpired, when the first nine had been appointed, that there were concerns, especially among non-governmental organisations, about the composition of the commission and we expanded the number of the commission to 15. I agree with previous speakers that the commission as it now stands is broadly reflective of Irish society and has the capacity to enhance human rights in our society.
It is important to recognise that everything is not all right in this jurisdiction and all wrong in Northern Ireland. This proposition is sometimes put forward because of the troubles which have afflicted Northern Ireland for so long. There are, of course, human rights which require recognition and enforcement in this jurisdiction as much as in the other jurisdiction on this island. In this respect, the establishment of the Human Rights Commission through this legislation will shine a light into the hidden Ireland and expose an amount of wrongdoing which many people may not have expected to find. If the commission achieves this objective – and I believe it will – this will have been a good afternoon's work.
If the commission is to fulfil its function adequately it must be funded properly. I secured a 25% increase in the commission's funding during last year's budgetary process, bringing the total allocation for this year to £1.25 million, which should be more than adequate for the circumstances in which we find ourselves. I will ensure that proper account is taken of the commission's needs for next year's allocations, in so far as the position can be accurately assessed.
I say this arising from practical considerations because part of the difficulty in achieving a proper allocation for the commission is the blank sheet which is currently before us. Until the commission decides on its staffing complement and agrees on the formulation of its strategies, priorities and work progammes, allocations must be regarded, at best, as informed estimates of what might be required in a fully operational setting. The enactment of this Bill will clear the way for the commission to prepare and cost its plans accurately and provide the first real opportunity to address the allocation of the commission in a detailed and more informed way.
I will not reiterate the arguments made on Committee Stage of the Bill last year with regard to future financing, financial autonomy for the commission, the mechanism set out in the Human Rights Commission Act for its funding and the channelling of funding through my Department. Funding mechanisms are crucially important in determining the independence of national human rights institutions. There is, however, the practical reality that States must operate within the constraints of their own budgetary and financial accounting systems – well we know it – and having consulted with the Department of Finance on this issue, it was agreed that the most straightforward and appropriate way of funding the Human Rights Commission was through a grant from my Department, the method provided for in the Act. I have no difficulty with that. I or my successor will have responsibility for many bodies and schemes which can be classed as human rights orientated.
Is the Minister planning to have a successor shortly?
I am not planning to have any successor shortly.
He may not have a choice.
The Minister has a life sentence then.
For example, the Courts Service Vote is part of my remit, as is the Equality Agency and the Director of Equality Investigations. In relation to access to justice, there is the statutory scheme for legal aid and advice. My Department also acts as the conduit for funding the criminal legal aid scheme and Victim Support.
The approach taken by the House, both today in the joint committee and during the debate on the Human Rights Commission Act, has been extremely positive. That is why I am trying to ensure that we continue along that path, not just to ensure the attitude is positive all the way through but also to ensure that when the legislation setting up the commission and incorporating the European Convention on Human Rights into Irish law are in place, people, irrespective of their social background or divergent views, will feel confident that the system is one in which they can have trust. That is important when one is dealing with something as fundamental as human rights. Because of the positive attitude of Deputies this afternoon and during other debates on human rights legislation, I am sure this objective will be attained.
I look forward to the debate on the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into Irish law. It is important that members of the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights hears the views of the various groups which have expressed an interest in putting foward proposals. It is equally important to realise that we cannot accommodate every person's views. The best we can do is to achieve the best compromise we can and ensure that the provisions of the Constitution are observed and not circumvented or undermined. I do not believe anyone will approach the incorporation process with the intention of doing that but I caution against excessive expectations. The Constitution has been a valuable tool in the hands of our citizens and our higher courts in moulding and fashioning human rights, whether the express rights in the Constitution itself which have been interpreted by the courts or the rights which the courts have enunciated arising out of cases taken under the Constitution. We now have a fine bill of rights. There are those who will argue that the bill of rights currently enshrined in our Constitution and in statute law, is more expansive than that contained in the European Convention on Human Rights. Other experts would not agree with that point of view.
I say these things to ensure that we all know the constraints within which we must operate in terms of the method of incorporation. There is no simple solution. I take issue with the argument which has been advanced in some quarters that the approach has been more minimalist than that taken in Britain, for example. In a number of important respects the approach we have adopted in the legislation as published and before the sel ect committee is more expansive than the British legislation on incorporation.
That is for another day. Today we have made further significant progress in terms of seeing this legislation passing through Second Stage and for that I express my appreciation to the main Opposition spokespersons and to all in both Houses who have expressed an interest and contributed to the debates on human rights over the past year.