"That Dáil Éireann, in this the Centenary Year of its first meeting, re-committing itself to the imperative of the Democratic Programme and the principles of justice and equality, to support the development of all children, and in order to ensure a fair start for every child, declares that:
— it is the first duty of Government to provide for the wellbeing, education and development of children, regardless of their origins, and to provide them all with an equal opportunity to contribute, to the extent of their abilities, to the economic, social and cultural life of the nation;
— the accommodation of homeless families with children must be the immediate and urgent priority of housing policy;
— all children born and raised in Ireland should be entitled to Irish citizenship, regardless of the nationality or migration status of their parents;
— all children who are adopted should have access to information about their birth parents;
— same-sex couples who are parents should have equal parenting rights to those afforded to opposite-sex couples;
— the Government should ensure that quality childcare is genuinely available to all and is affordable;
— all children should be entitled to a prompt assessment of any special needs and the provision of whatever support services they may need; and
— the Government should ensure that primary education is genuinely free-of-charge, including through public funding of the cost of school books and uniforms and by outlawing mandatory contributions by parents to national schools; and
calls on the Government to:
— immediately implement actions to ensure no children remain in homelessness;
— immediately implement the Affordable Childcare Scheme announced in Budget 2019;
— immediately implement its commitment to providing free-of-charge general practitioner care to all children under the age of 18;
— prepare and implement a comprehensive strategy to eliminate consistent child poverty and material deprivation, with clear timeframes for its implementation; and
— report to the Dáil no less than quarterly upon the implementation of this strategy and in particular to report on current numbers of children in consistent poverty or deprivation."
I propose to share time with my colleague, Deputy Sherlock. Decency, justice and equality are the Labour Party’s core values. Today we are talking about those values insofar as they apply to children and young people. When the Labour Party’s leader, Tom Johnson, wrote the 1919 Democratic Programme for the First Dáil 100 years ago, he stressed that the first duty of Government was towards the education, development and welfare of children. They are important words for us to listen to today. In the Labour Party’s new democratic programme for 2019, we restated this pledge as follows: "The first duty of Government is to provide for the wellbeing, education and development of the children, regardless of origins, and to give them all an equal chance to fulfil their potential."
Statements of principle are important. They give people a clear signal of what we as a people, a Parliament and a party stand for. In fairness, if this motion just asked the Dáil to support giving all children an equal chance to fulfil their potential, I am sure everyone in the Chamber from all political persuasions would vote to support it. However, our motion is not merely about fine words or statements of exhortation. We have set out in real terms the measures that are needed for the Government to fulfil its duty towards all children in this country.
The Government must end homelessness for families with children. Legal changes are needed to grant citizenship to all children born and raised in Ireland. These are real issues affecting children in this nation today. Legislation is needed to give information about birth parents to adopted children. They have been denied such information for decades. Legislation is needed to ensure complete equal parenting rights for same-sex couples. I know all of these matters will be close to the heart of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. However, we need to act upon them.
Public spending is needed to make affordable, quality childcare available to all who need it. Public spending is needed to ensure prompt assessment of any special needs that a child might have, such as autism, and the provision of support services to address those needs once identified. Public spending is needed to provide genuinely free-of-charge primary education. We have all talked for years about free primary education but there are real unmet costs that are barriers for full participation to some of our children.
I could point out the inequalities and injustices that continue to occur in each of these areas. My colleagues will address some of these areas in more detail. I just want to concentrate on two points. First, there is a reason we talk about childhood as a person’s formative years. It is that experience that is a person's best teacher. However, experience can also be the worst teacher. If a child’s experience of family life is cramped bed and breakfast accommodation, a hotel room or emergency homeless accommodation, if that is the early childhood experience, the outcomes will not be good. If a child’s experience of family life is stressed parents, it will be no surprise if that child does not thrive in school afterwards or if he or she develops other problems in later life.
If we fail in our duty towards a child, we do not just leave the person worse off: as a society we are all the poorer. We lose the contribution that individual could have made to the development of the nation and our society if we had given him or her the capacity to reach his or her full potential. Of course, some children come through the most harrowing and difficult of backgrounds and go on to achieve great things, despite, not because of, the adversity. We know that many other children are held back by their early formative years and it can be so hard, if not impossible, for schools and support services to undo or reverse the harm done in the early years of a child's formation. It is, therefore, incumbent on us, as a parliament, to redouble our efforts, refocus and commit to provide the best possible chance we can for our youngest citizens.
My second point is on the issue of citizenship. If a child is born and reared in Ireland, he or she has never lived elsewhere and no deep connection to another country, he or she should, by right, be entitled to Irish citizenship. The issue is about the residency status of parents. In the United States the children of illegal migrants are known as "dreamers", a phrase of which I am sure the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Zappone, is well aware. There is a generation of "dreamers" in Ireland, too. They are children and young adults whose parents perhaps overstayed their work visa or came here as tourists and subsequently took up work, just as countless numbers of Irish people have done in the United States. We have to enforce our migration laws, but we do not have to blame innocent children for the mistakes or decisions made by their parents. That is why it is so important that we do not leave any of Ireland’s children in this legal limbo. It is not good enough that some children get a special deal because they happen to live in a constituency that is represented by a member of the Government, while at the same time unknown others are deported or living restricted lives because they do not have access to citizenship.
The Labour Party’s motion is about providing a fair start for every child in Ireland. The Labour Party has participated in eight Governments since the foundation of the State, in every one of which we have delivered better quality public services. This Fine Gael-led Government which includes the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Zappone, has not delivered on the promises it made to children in the programme for Government. The motion specifically calls on the Government to deliver on its commitments to ensure no children will remain homeless; implement the affordable childcare scheme announced in budget 2019; implement the commitment to provide free GP care for all those under 18 years; and implement the commitment to lift at least 70,000 children out of consistent poverty by next year. These are important objectives which were freely entered into by the parties who entered government and should be delivered on. The Minister said in the programme for Government that she would achieve these things. We have survived the economic crash and money is now available. The Government has the money and the opportunity to make the necessary investments to deliver on its promises to the children of the nation. Instead, the Taoiseach has repeatedly offered tax cuts to higher earners, rather than investing to address these fundamental issues. That is at the heart of the question. The Labour Party wants the State to invest public funds for the benefit of children. It is not about cash payments but about investment in a national system of affordable childcare, special needs services for all children and comprehensive free primary education. It is about legislation to address the injustices that I have outlined and preparing and implementing a comprehensive strategy to eliminate consistent child poverty and material deprivation.
The Government’s amendment to the motion does show some progress. I do not deny that there has been some, but the Government is not delivering on its commitments. I regret that it has tabled such an amendment because it distracts from the core failings of its own policies. If it continues with its current policies, we will not eliminate child homelessness, the affordable childcare scheme will not be implemented, parents will still pay for GP visits for children aged seven and 18 years and far too many children will remain in poverty. This is Labour Party’s wake up call for the Government. If the Government is sincere in its commitments to Ireland’s children, in this the centenary year of the inaugural sitting of the First Dáil, it needs to address these real matters. Let us, as the national parliament, across all benches, give that commitment, without reservation or a vote, to the children of the nation.