Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Tuesday, 29 May 2018

Vol. 969 No. 7

Leaders' Questions

The people have spoken emphatically. In a clear and decisive manner, the people, through the referendum, have voted for change - for new laws which will end the cruel inflexibility of the eighth amendment. The people have given the Oireachtas the mandate and the obligation to legislate for a new approach, one that trusts women and their doctors.

Civic society was powerful in this referendum. Led by women, the Together for Yes campaign ensured that the voices of women remained central to the debate and they provided an immense service to democracy. The Oireachtas committee, made up of all parties in this House, deserves particular credit for its fact-based, impartial approach to the issue and the comprehensive nature of its evidence gathering and analysis. It now comes back to the Oireachtas to respond promptly, proactively and positively to the decision of the people.

I would appreciate if the Taoiseach could outline the timescale for the introduction of the legislation and its passage through the Oireachtas. Could he indicate whether the Government is agreeable to having Second and Committee Stages debated and dealt with before the summer recess, even if that means lengthening the period for which the House sits to facilitate that?

The Select Committee on Health can progress Committee Stage through the summer after the Second Stage debate because, after all, the essentials of the Bill were well known. They were debated at length during the referendum campaign. It was very transparent and no one can argue otherwise.

In addition, many women will require this new legal framework urgently. Some nine women a day travel to the United Kingdom and three a day take an abortion pill. We also have the issue of fatal foetal abnormalities to deal with. There is an urgency to this matter for women in crisis pregnancies. We no longer want women travelling to the United Kingdom on those lonely, isolated journeys. We no longer want women taking the abortion pill in isolation without medical supervision or care. Have the Government and Taoiseach considered, in the context of the new legal framework that will emerge, allowing women in Northern Ireland to avail of the services that will be enabled in the Republic as a result of the passage of the legislation? Has giving them access to our GP services and hospitals been considered? We already have established links with the health services in Northern Ireland in respect of other areas.

In terms of consultation with the medical profession, will the Taoiseach outline whether any discussions have taken place with representatives of the Irish College of General Practitioners, ICGP, and other groups on this issue recently? Have any preparations been undertaken in advance to prepare for a new legal framework? Did the Department of Health engage in any scenario planning in the context of the referendum to ensure that it can now progress the various strands and areas that require attention as a result of the people's decision?

The people have indeed spoken in what was a great act of democracy. A very clear majority, more than two thirds of Irish people, voted to amend our Constitution, to remove the eighth amendment and to put a new clause into our Constitution;13 new words that enable us to legislate for abortion in Ireland so that it is legal, safe and, it is to be hoped, rare. It was a resounding result and credit for this result should be given to many different people. I would particularly like to mention the members of the Citizens' Assembly under the chairmanship of Ms Justice Laffoy. They met weekend after weekend to study the issues and come up with proposals. It is interesting that they voted for those proposals by almost the exact same margin as was the result of the referendum, so I do not think anyone can argue against the Citizens' Assembly's representative characteristics.

I would also like to mention the all-party committee under the chairmanship of Senator Catherine Noone, the Members of this House and the other House who took part in this campaign on all sides, the civil society campaign led by Together for Yes and others, and especially those very brave women and men who told their individual stories. By opening their hearts they caused others to open their minds. That was the crucial thing that changed people's minds over the last number of years. I agree that this change in our society did not just happen in the last few weeks. Perhaps it happened quite some time ago and the result we had at the weekend was just a reflection of that.

It is now our job, as a Government and an Oireachtas, to give effect to the people's decision. That involves a few things. It involves new law to repeal some existing legislation and bringing in new legislation to regulate for the termination of pregnancies in Ireland. It also involves the development of clinical guidelines by GPs, the Irish College of General Practitioners, the Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, and the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland. It will also require the licensing and regulation of some medicines which will need to be done by the Health Products Regulatory Authority, HPRA. There are three discrete pieces of work that have to be done. One of them falls to us while the others fall to others.

Meetings on the clinical guidelines involving the Department of Health and the various colleges and bodies that represent doctors are happening today. There had been initial discussions prior to the referendum but obviously nobody wanted to prejudge the result so detailed discussions really only begin now. The HPRA will also start its work. When it comes to legislation, it is the view of Government that we want to legislate as soon and as quickly as possible. We also want to make sure that we do not rush the process either because there are people who do not accept the result of the weekend and who may challenge the referendum itself in the coming days and who may wish to challenge the legislation in the months and years ahead once we pass it.

It is important that we act with haste but not too much haste that we put through bad legislation. I think everyone will agree with that sentiment. The Minister for Health brought a memo to the Cabinet this morning. The Cabinet authorised him to work with the Attorney General to begin the drafting of detailed legislation right away as a priority, with a view to having it in this House before the summer recess. We are agreeable to the Deputy's suggestion that the Dáil term be extended into the recess, if necessary, to allow this matter alone to be legislated for and get through Second Stage before we rise for the summer, thereby allowing the select committee to consider the legislation during the recess.

I asked the Taoiseach about women from Northern Ireland who might wish to avail of services in the Republic under the new legal framework that would inevitably result from the decision made by the people last Friday. I welcome his commitment to longer sittings to get the legislation through. I agree with him that the urgency of this issue for many women in our society means that we have an obligation and a mandate to ensure the passage of the legislation, the general scheme of which was published on 29 March last. He might indicate whether there was any scenario planning. I accept that people had to wait for a result, but surely some priority work on the legislation was undertaken on the basis of what was likely to happen. I would like to make an important point to the Taoiseach. I know a thing or two about the health service and stakeholders. I accept that people have their jobs to do, but we need to make it clear to the stakeholders that they cannot second-guess the decision of the people. Equally, they cannot add caveats to it on the licensing side or with regard to clinical guidelines. The people's decision is very clear. The Government has a role in making it clear to all and sundry that the decision of the people cannot be second-guessed in any shape or manner.

There were two scenarios - the referendum being carried or it not being carried. If it had not been carried, obviously there would be no legislation at all. Now that it has been carried, legislation can be introduced. A lot of work was put into the general scheme that was published in March. The planning at the time will make it much easier for the Department of Health and the Attorney General to produce the actual legislation. The amount of work done and planning in the development of the general scheme means that it will be done in weeks, whereas ordinarily it would have taken months. We can examine the position on women from Northern Ireland. My initial impression is that it will be treated like a normal health service. It is already the case that women who reside in Northern Ireland and women who are Irish citizens can travel to Ireland to avail of healthcare. There are people on the Northern side of the Border whose GPs are south of the Border. People from Northern Ireland already come to hospitals here for healthcare. I imagine it will be treated as a normal part of the health service in the normal way. We also need to work on the detail of that aspect. I have mentioned that a number of things need to be done. It is not just a question of legislating in the Dáil and the Seanad. Clinical guidelines will also be needed. It will be necessary to regulate and license the new medicines. We are still anticipating that even with the best intentions, it will be the end of the year - 1 January 2019 - before we give full effect to the will of the people. The legislation might be through in October or November, but it will be January before we will be able to give effect to the new regime.

Saturday was a momentous day for the people of Ireland. We voted overwhelmingly to remove the eighth amendment from the Constitution. We said in a strong and unified voice that we would no longer tolerate Irish women being treated as second-class citizens. We said we trusted women to make the best decisions on their pregnancies and healthcare. We demonstrated the instinctive compassion of the people. We said loudly that we were no longer willing to stand over a system that made exiles of women in crisis. The people led and the politicians followed. By voting "Yes", the people showed us their vision of what they wanted their country to be - progressive, equal, fair and kind. It is important to commend the Citizens' Assembly, as the Taoiseach has done.

I commend the Together for Yes group for the fantastic work it carried out and acknowledge those who have campaigned for 35 years to achieve this result. I also acknowledge those in this House who spoke out on the issue of abortion when it was not easy to do so.

The campaign is now over and the people have spoken. Our attention as elected representatives now turns to the job of enacting legislation. It is crucial that we get this done without delay and that we get it right. I appreciate that there are complexities in meeting the three objectives of passing sound legislation, drafting and agreeing clinical guidelines and enacting medical regulations. This work needs to all happen in tandem. We have to remember that between now and the enactment of legislation, women in crisis will still face the same challenges they did before the referendum was passed. In the interim, as we await the legislation, a positive and necessary step is the immediate repeal of the Regulation of Information (Services Outside the State for Termination of Pregnancies) Act 1995, the abortion information Act. That would allow doctors to make referrals for women and to confer with doctors outside the jurisdiction about the care of women who will still be forced to travel for terminations. Repeal of this Act would at least offer women some degree of support and confidence. By working together constructively, we can pass the necessary legislation promptly. I hope every Member of the Oireachtas will act constructively and will recognise the decision of the people. The people have played their part and now it is up to us as legislators to play ours.

Given the timeframe the Taoiseach has outlined, will he commit to working with us to ensure the 1995 abortion information Act is repealed immediately? In respect of citizens living in the North, can he make a commitment that Brexit will not disrupt access to the services in the way he has described?

The people's decision was loud and clear. We in this Government and this House have heard what they had to say; we want a modern Constitution for a modern people, a Constitution that says we trust women and respect their decisions and choices when it comes to their own healthcare. It is now our responsibility as a Government and Parliament to give effect to the will of the people.

The legislation that has been proposed and that is now being prepared by the Minister, Deputy Simon Harris - he was authorised by Cabinet today to prepare it as a priority - will repeal the 1995 abortion information Act. It is our intention, all things going to plan with the best efforts and the best people working on it, to have that legislation on the floor of the House before the summer recess, so in six or seven weeks' time. That legislation will repeal the abortion information Act, which is important because it will allow doctors to refer women to clinics in England and elsewhere, at least during the period while we set up the new arrangements for this State. We are open to considering the possibility of repealing that legislation as a discrete move or as a first move, which I understand is the proposal the Deputy is making.

That is something we will need to talk about on a cross-party basis. We need to be honest and clear about this. It would be the same people working on that legislation. It would be the same Parliament and the same Oireachtas time that would be used up. It would be the same health committee that would have to sit in session and the legislation would have to go to the Seanad as well. The likely effect of it would be to delay the main piece of legislation. This is the nature of these things. If we do this in a piecemeal manner, the big piece giving effect to what the people actually said at the weekend is the bit that will be delayed. I know there are numerous suggestions at the moment for piecemeal legislation. The Deputy has proposed something on information and the Irish Family Planning Association, IFPA, and others have proposed that too. Senator Ivana Bacik has proposed discrete legislation on decriminalisation. If we have three, four or five, or even one or two discrete, piecemeal bits of legislation going through these Houses, it will still be the exact same people working on them.

It will push back and delay the main legislation, which is the legislation which will give effect to what people said at the weekend. We need to ensure we all agree that we are willing to accept that before going down that road. It is a matter on which we are willing to talk to people on a cross-party basis.

I am not proposing this discrete move, as the Taoiseach described it, as being optimum. The optimal situation is that we could move the legislation within a matter of weeks and give immediate effect to the will of the people. We all accept, however, that is just not possible and, in any event, we have to be sure-footed in the drafting of the new legislation.

The bottom line is that women and girls will still fall pregnant. Some of those pregnancies will be in crisis circumstances, such as, for example, a diagnosis of a fatal foetal anomaly. The fact is that those women and girls will still have to travel. That situation will pertain until the law is changed which the Taoiseach envisages to be early next year. We cannot leave women in the impossible situation that they leave by boat or plane with a telephone number in their pockets without their medical files. That is an intolerable situation. I am suggesting as a mitigation - it is nothing more than that – that we ensure, at a minimum, that women or girls who still have to make the journey can do so with the advice, the care and the assurance of their doctors with their medical files in a joined-up and caring way. That is the least we could do.

While I accept the decriminalisation issue is urgent, in the practical outworking of this for women, I think this is the priority legislation. Will the Taoiseach keep an open mind on this matter? It is a necessary move and I believe, if there is goodwill, we could clear the decks. It is a simple matter of repeal. It is straightforward enough technically. When does the Taoiseach propose to talk to the Leaders of the Opposition on matters such as this?

The Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, will meet party spokespeople tomorrow to discuss this. He only got the result of the referendum on Saturday and approval from Cabinet this morning. He is acting quickly in this regard and will meet the spokespeople tomorrow to discuss a way forward.

The Deputy's analysis is correct. There will be a lacuna, a gap period, between the point at which the referendum is certified - it has not been certified yet - and the legislation is enacted and commenced. During that period, the same problems that women in crisis pregnancies have faced for years and decades will continue. I understand the good intentions behind the Deputy's proposal. What we want to seek, however, is a cross-party approach. Part of the reason this change happened is because we had a reasonably good cross-party approach to this issue. Everyone supported the Citizens' Assembly and everyone was part of the all-party committee. The majority of Members voted to put this question to the people. I would like that broad cross-party approach to continue.

We are open to discussing discrete legislation along the lines suggested by the Deputy. If we go down that route, however, we need to do it with eyes open, understanding that it may delay the timeline for the substantive legislation.

Too often the profession of politics has a bad name in this country. The result of the referendum over the weekend, however, showed Irish politics and the Irish people at their best. The credit lies with the thousands, mostly women, who campaigned long and hard for the result and those who told their stories bravely and often for the first time. It lies with those in Together for Yes, again run by women, who, despite many efforts to throw them off course, showed courage in pursuing their campaign strategy and sticking to the core message of care, compassion and change. Across Ireland on Friday, people voted overwhelmingly "Yes" for these reasons. They said enough to the hypocrisy of the eighth amendment.

It is often said victory has many mothers and defeat is an orphan. The activists who toiled for decades on what was a taboo subject deserve the immense credit they won on Saturday. Walking through Dublin Castle and in count centres throughout the country I saw people from across the political divide hugging and embracing at the momentous earthquake that was happening around them.

We are now tasked in this arena, as others said, with implementing the will of the people. The Minister for Health said last night that the proposed legislation would be published - the Taoiseach has confirmed it – and I hope passed on Second Stage in this session in order that Committee Stage could be considered during what is normally the summer recess. I welcome the setting out of that clear timetable by the Government and look forward to exchanges with all parties in order that we can, as speedily as possible, implement the will of the people.

People want to know what comes next. I think there is great appreciation of the work done by the Citizens' Assembly on this important and complicated issue. The assembly and its predecessor, the Constitutional Convention, have proved beyond doubt their worth. That model should be used again to look at issues of complexity and importance for the country and its people. The future patronage and control of the education system is one such issue. The Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector during the term of the last Government was an important step but few schools have since been divested. The most recent controversy over enrolment in Educate Together schools shows the demand for non-denominational education. Will the Government, acknowledging the important role in dealing with this difficult issue performed by the Citizens' Assembly, convene a new citizens' assembly to address the issue of school patronage in order that we can have a comprehensive and open discussion involving all interests on an issue of major importance to the country?

I join Deputy Brendan Howlin in recognising the success the experiments of the Constitutional Convention and the Citizens' Assembly have been. When we served in government together, the convention was included in the programme for Government agreed to in 2011. None of us really knew how it would work out, but we can now stand over the fact that the assemblies were representative of the public. Moreover, they gave issues real and detailed consideration and thus allowed us to move on in many ways. They have been very helpful to the political system in helping us to understand what the opinion of the public would be once fully informed of all the issues. The Constitutional Convention helped to give rise to the referendum on marriage equality three years ago. The Citizens' Assembly gave rise not only to the referendum on the eighth amendment but also to the general scheme of the Bill that we published before the referendum.

The Constitutional Convention looked at other things, including aging and the issue of climate change. One of the issues we have discussed in government is potentially asking a new citizens' assembly to look at the wider issues of gender equality. We know, for example, that much good work has been done on issues such as domestic violence, as evident from the domestic violence legislation going through the Houses. There is work to be done on other issues, for example, the gender pay gap, greater equality in pensions and having far higher participation of women on company boards. For the first time, some 52% of the people appointed to State boards last year were women, but when we look across the corporate sector, we see it is not replicated. Fewer than 20% of the members of boards of listed corporations are women. One of the things we are considering is the next question we will put to the Citizens' Assembly. The question will look at the wider picture of equality between men and women and ask the assembly to come up with a set of proposals to allow us to follow through in many ways on the result of the referendum and deliver equality between men and women in other areas.

I agree with the Taoiseach 100% on the value of both the Constitutional Convention and the Citizens' Assembly. Originally it was former Deputy Eamon Gilmore's idea. Even within the Labour Party, he had some convincing to do on the idea that another forum would have merit.

However, the model has proven its worth. One of its values is that it depoliticises an issue for a while. In other words, when something is introduced here, no matter by whom, Members take an immediate position without exhaustively teasing out all sides and complexities of the issue. There is a role for the Citizens' Assembly on the school patronage issue which is significant for many right now who want choice in the education they provide for their children. The Citizens' Assembly model would be a very good way to have that debate and to allow all sides to have an input and be tested in an open way. Will the Taoiseach consider adding school patronage to the list of urgent issues to which he has referred, including the gender pay gap and gender issues generally, for consideration by a new Citizens' Assembly?

I am happy to give it consideration. The Citizens' Assembly and the Constitutional Convention before it looked at many issues. As such, it is not the case that an assembly could not look at more than one issue in future. It is certainly something the Minister for Education and Skills and I will consider, along with the Government. The Constitutional Convention made other recommendations, including lowering the age at which a person could become President, which the people decided to reject. We should not necessarily assume that everything these assemblies or conventions come up with will be approved by the people. Following through on a Citizens' Assembly's proposal, we will have a referendum next year on extending the right to vote in presidential elections to all Irish citizens, including those living in the North and across the world. We want to have a referendum on that at probably the same time as next year's local and European elections.

The Government has a policy on school patronage. We believe in diversity and choice in education and educational patronage. My view is that diversity should include the Catholic Church and other churches and religions whereas some would argue for a purely secular education system. There is room in our education system for different forms of patronage, including the Church of Ireland, the Catholic Church, other religions, Educate Together and, of course, Gaelscoileanna. I am not entirely convinced we should move from a model of diversity to one in which everything is exactly the same. That is something that could be considered. We have committed already to an additional 400 multidenominational and non-denominational schools by 2030. We also have a system now to survey parents on the patronage of new schools. In my own area, people in Tyrrelstown decided they wanted a Catholic secondary school whereas in another part of the constituency, they decided they wanted an Educate Together. That might not be a bad model either.

I raise today the Government's policy on demountable homes and rural cottages to help people in rural Ireland.

A burning issue.

Demountable homes have been vital where an old house fell into disrepair or became uninhabitable for those aged 50 and 60 and above and who, in no circumstance, would or could leave their own place. They want to stay in the places they were born and reared. All these people would provide a site for a demountable home. Councillor Johnny Healy-Rae said at last Monday's meeting of Kerry County Council that these people will only leave their home places in a hearse. That is a fact. These units have always provided comfort, a bit of heat, security, and safety from the elements and vermin and they still can. As to rural cottages, only three have been built in Kerry in the last nine years. From 2016 to 2021, ten are to be built. However, there are 35 to 40 more people on the waiting list for these rural cottages. These people will provide a site of their own. They want to live near their parents and their family and to work on their farms but the Department has agreed to fund only ten of these up to 2021. Do we have any funding for housing? If the Government does not, I ask the Taoiseach to spell that out. We would all understand.

Clearly, these people are providing almost half the cost of housing themselves. They are providing the site. In 2015, the Government announced €62.5 million for housing in Kerry. It never told us when it would be spent by. Will it last until 2030?

Rural cottages have been an integral part of rural Ireland since the foundation of the State, but in particular since the 1960s. Is this aligned with the famous Project Ireland 2040 where planning permission will only be granted in rural areas if the development does not detract from the greater urban areas? For instance, Kerry County Council granted permission to a person to build a house on his own place, being a favoured nephew, and it was appealed to An Bord Pleanála by one of these serial objectors. An Bord Pleanála came back and said that, at 6 km, where he was proposing to build his house was too far away to go to his place of work. That is a fact.

These rural cottages almost always end up costing tenants, as they have almost always bought them because they are on their own land and they do not like to see anyone else coming into their own land. It is only a loan, as the houses have been built to standard, and when the tenants have got on their feet, they have bought them out.

Is the Government trying to move all the people into Dublin or into the urban areas? That is what I am asking.

I am afraid I cannot comment in great detail about the precise situation in the Deputy's county as I am not fully briefed on it. The Deputy might elaborate on demountable homes. It is not a term I am familiar with, but perhaps one with which I should be.

In terms of the broader picture, across Ireland 18,000 homes have commenced construction in the past year. That is a significant increase. We had a period of seven years during which almost no new homes were built in Ireland because the Government could not afford to build social housing and because the banks and construction sector were on the floor. We are very much playing catch-up. We have much to catch up on, but with 18,000 new homes having commenced construction in the past year, we are now building more new homes in Ireland than at any point in seven years. We need to ramp that up to 25,000 next year and 35,000 the following year.

Last year, we added 7,000 new homes to our social housing stock through different mechanisms, including direct build, approved housing bodies, leases and voids, and we will add almost another 8,000 this year. We are ramping that up again and increasing the supply of social housing.

The Deputy mentioned funding. Specifically, €6 billion is being provided for investment in housing between now and 2021. That is an enormous investment in housing between now and 2021. It will deliver 110,000 extra social housing units for people to live in between now and 2021. That is a huge uplift in investment.

Separately, as the Deputy will be aware, under Project Ireland 2040 we have set out a plan for the nation. It is a plan for a country with 1 million more people living here by 2040, with most of that growth happening outside of Dublin, the other cities growing twice as fast as Dublin and an extra 200,000 people living in rural Ireland. Indeed tomorrow, the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Ring, will announce further details of the €1 billion rural regeneration fund which will be deployed over the next decade.

It is clear the Taoiseach has no understanding of what I am talking about. At last Monday's meeting, Councillor Johnny Healy-Rae got a reply that the local authority must clearly demonstrate that the proposed demountable unit is required on foot of a genuine emergency - either a fire or a flood. I must point out to the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government that there are many people who reach the age of 60, or maybe even older, whose house has fallen into disrepair. They will not leave the place where they were born and reared. All they are asking for is a demountable home to placed on a site, and even connected to their own septic tank. It is very clear. I am asking the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government to examine this. It is not fair to deny these people who want the right to stay where they were born and reared. It is likewise in the case of the rural cottages.

To think that 35 applicants have to wait five more years to be housed, if they will be at all, in the rural place where they want to live on their farms and close to their parents. The Government wants to move them all into the large urban areas. I cannot understand why. These people have their own water and septic tanks and they are burdening no one but the Government cannot see as far as its nose.

Deputy Danny Healy-Rae-----

This is the place they want to be and-----

I call the Taoiseach to respond.

-----it will get back the funding-----

The Deputy does not have control.

-----when they get on their feet and they are able to buy out the house again.

Deputy Danny Healy-Rae must respect-----

I know a Leas-Cheann Comhairle but-----

The Deputy does not know.

This is a very serious matter for the people who are-----

That may well be but I have a serious job-----

-----in these circumstances applying and looking for a demountable home.

I call the Taoiseach.

I am informed by one of my colleagues that demountable homes are prefabricated homes, which is what they are called in Fingal and they can be constructed on site. I am told it is an option for local authorities. Ultimately it is for local authorities to come forward with those proposals. A sum of €6 billion is allocated in Project Ireland 2040 for investment in social housing over the next ten years. Investment in social housing is ramping up dramatically. To give the Deputy a rough idea of the figures, there were 657 direct builds. That increased to 2,434 last year. There were 1,250 acquisitions last year. There were 600 leases last year with more ambitious targets again for this year. There is a lot of money being invested in social housing, with €6 billion set aside for the next ten years. It is up to local authorities to come forward with proposals to the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government. If Kerry County Council wants to come forward with proposals for demountable homes or prefabricated dwellings, the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, and his Department will certainly consider them.

The Government would consider them in Dublin but not in rural County Kerry.

Deputy Danny Healy-Rae knows the rules, please.

I am very sorry.

It is a bit late now. We move on to the Order of Business. I call Deputy Bailey.