Tairgim: "Go léifear an Bille an Dara hUair anois."
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I thank Deputy Seamus Healy for allowing this Bill to be taken in his allocation of Private Members' time within the Technical Group. Apart from the elite few, no one has escaped austerity. It has invaded every home, every classroom, every hospital and all our public services. Homelessness has reached more families than ever before and our health care system is crumbling. Job opportunities have reduced while work conditions have declined and our front-line services have been stretched so far beyond their limits that we may never know the full extent of the consequences. For the unfortunate few, economic recovery will never reach them.
The Government's sole focus on fixing an economic deficit has left us with a social one. Now, amid some vague signs of economic recovery we need to ensure that resources are fairly distributed in the future. The call to enshrine economic, social and cultural rights is a timely one. A new Government will sit across this Chamber, regardless of its composition, by the spring of next year. We want that Government to be held accountable to its citizens as it reconstructs our future. We want to ensure that everyone has enough to live a dignified life.
When Bunreacht na hÉireann was written in 1937 it was progressive in its time in its consideration of fundamental rights, having been written only 11 years before the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Today, only civil and political rights are adequately considered in our Constitution, for example, the right to privacy and family life, while there is limited provision for economic, social and cultural rights in Bunreacht na hÉireann.
The proposed wording of this Bill is intended to be in addition to the text of Article 45 of the Constitution to the effect that the State shall progressively realise, subject to its maximum available resources and without discrimination, the rights contained in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and that this duty will be cognisable by the courts.
The international covenant presents economic rights as entailing the right of everyone to the opportunity to gain his or her living by freely chosen or accepted work and to just and favourable conditions of work. Social rights are expressed as the right to social security, protection and assistance of the family; the right of everyone to an adequate standards of living for them and their family, including food, clothing and housing; the continuous improvement of living conditions and the right to be free from hunger; the right of everyone to the highest attainable standards of physical and mental health; and the right of everyone to an education. Cultural rights would protect the right of everyone to take part in cultural life, to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and to benefit from the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he or she is the author.
Enshrining these rights in the Constitution would bring it into line with the growing trend in many countries that have revised their constitutions to include economic, social and cultural rights. Twenty-six EU states have made some form of constitutional provision for economic, social and cultural rights. Internationally, 106 constitutions protect the right to work and 133 constitutions provide the right to health care.
Ireland is at the cusp of cultural and social change. People are calling for a more social justice-led future and an expansion of the protections of human rights. There is political will in recognising these rights in our Constitution.
In February 2014, 85% of the members of the Constitutional Convention voted in favour of amending the Constitution to strengthen the protection of economic, social and cultural rights. A majority of members of the convention voted in favour of a constitutional provision to progressively realise such rights, subject to the maximum available resources, and to enshrine that this duty be cognisable by the courts. The convention further voted on whether specific additional rights should be enumerated in the Constitution and it voted in favour of a proposal that all of the rights contained in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, be enumerated within the Constitution.
In March 2014, the Constitutional Convention sent a recommendation to the Government to implement these rights and the Government was due to respond by July of that year. Nearly a year later we are still waiting for a response from the Government to proactively address the status of these rights.
Political will extends to the current Government too. The Labour Party introduced two Private Members' Bills on this issue - one by Deputy Ruairí Quinn in 2000 and the second more recent one by Deputy Kevin Humphreys in 2012. Prevailing myths and misconceptions about economic, social and cultural rights, combined with a lack of real political will, have hindered their application in Ireland but these misconceptions do not stand up. The idea that ESC rights are only aspirations and not intended to be part of our judicial system is misconceived. Decisions in courts in other countries have proven time and again that these rights are legally enforceable. These rights have been recognised through a wide range of legal systems found but not limited to Finland, Germany, Latvia, Portugal, Argentina, South Africa, India, Brazil, Kenya, Colombia and Mexico.
Rights currently protected, such as freedom of expression and the right to privacy, are as broadly worded as economic, social and cultural rights but this has not prevented the courts from adjudicating these issues.
Another misconception is that ESC rights would threaten the separation of powers, do not belong in the courts and should be left to the Legislature to execute. The fear is that elected governments and parliaments would not be free to allocate resources as they see fit. The concern extends to the belief that judges would be extending their role if these rights had to be defended in court and that policy-making should be left to the elected policy-makers, the Government. However, a large body of case law on ESC rights has emerged from countries such as South Africa and shows that courts have remained conscious of their role when adjudicating ESC rights claims. A reasonableness doctrine was incorporated and has been held in court proceedings.
A third myth is that the State would not have the necessary resources to enforce ESC rights, whereas it may for civil and political rights. This is misleading. Currently, civil and political rights may require expenditure of resources such as court costs, policing and the provision of legal aid. Many ESC rights would save the Exchequer costs, such as the prevention of forced evictions.
A fourth myth is that civil and political and ESC rights impose different sets of obligations and that ESC rights are consistently defined as positive rights, requiring the State to act to achieve the enjoyment of these rights. Again, this is not accurate.
This Bill does not propose a cure for all social ills. This will not happen overnight and we have to be reasonable. These rights may not translate into an Act, a statutory instrument or even a circular but will compel decision-makers to vindicate these rights as far as they can. There is an underlining fear that these rights, if implemented, would bankrupt the nation or force the Government to take drastic measures to realise them, but this is not the case. It will not mean that overnight the Government must buy everyone a home. Progressive realisation is the key term. The courts can apply principles of proportionality and weigh these up against other policy considerations while the Government can take into consideration the available resources. For example, if the right to housing was introduced, it would not mean a person would be given a house but it would mean that when the Government is drafting housing policy or legislation, it would have to take into account and be aware of the right to housing. At present, people can only argue their case on the basis of peripheral issues such as unfair discrimination in procedures or the right to appeal decisions. They cannot target the fundamental issue of their right to adequate housing. This intended to hold governments to account and not dismantle them so that if they do not have the resources, they will at least have to show how they came to the conclusions they have reached. The phrase, "subject to its maximum available resources" in the text emphasises this aspect. These rights are intended to define the parameters by which Government can draft policy in economic, social and cultural areas causing a trickle-down effect into every level of power.
The context is ripe for constitutional change. The Government effectively announced the end of austerity, from its point of view, in its recent spring economic statement. The Constitutional Convention, designed by the current Government, supports this change. Internationally, Ireland is a key speaker on human rights on the international platform and, through our long history working with developing countries in times of humanitarian crisis, we have consistently emphasised the importance of human rights. In June the UN expert committee will objectively respond to submissions sent in by civil society organisations in Ireland. It is likely to reveal what we have always held that the Government has failed to use the recession to justify the failure to protect and progress human rights in Ireland and that there were disproportionate cuts to certain sectors while human rights obligations were not taken into account sufficiently. It will show that certain groups were not adequately protected, such as people with disabilities, carers, elderly people, lone parents and minority groups, that is to say, people who were vulnerable to begin with.
The general election is around the corner. This presents an opportunity for those currently in power to observe what people in Ireland really want from the next Government. The 1916 centenary early next year will be cause for reflection for everyone in the county. We will be looking across the spectrum of the 100 years it has taken for this country to be where it is today. Will we be nostalgic or proud? I urge the Government to take a look around, observe the political context in which it finds itself and respond to the will of the people by supporting this Bill. It has supported these principles before and has even pushed for similar Bills in the past. There is no logical reason the Government would not vote in favour of this Bill. However, if it does, it will have to justify its priorities once again.
I wish to take this opportunity to thank Deputy Seamus Healy for using his Private Members' time to allow me to introduce this Bill. I thank Nick Henderson and Amnesty International. They have done major work in this area. I also thank Aiden Lloyd, chair of the economic, social and cultural rights initiative, and all the organisations which have been involved in the initiative for pushing for these rights to be recognised into Irish law. Lastly, I thank Ms Maeve Regan of the Mercy Law Resource Centre, whose work as a lawyer has provided clear examples of the need for economic, social and cultural rights in order that people can defend their right to housing.