Visit of Hungarian Parliamentary Delegation.

I cordially welcome the visiting delegation from the Hungarian Parliament constitutional and judicial affairs committee. I also welcome our friend, His Excellency, Dr. Janos Balassa, the Hungarian Ambassador to Ireland and other representatives from the Hungarian Embassy.

I am Deputy Seán Ardagh, Chairman of the joint committee. I am joined by Deputy Gerard Murphy, Vice-Chairman of the joint committee and a member of the Fine Gael party, the largest Opposition party, Deputy Finian McGrath, an Independent Member of the Dáil from Dublin North-Central, Deputy Charlie O'Connor, a Fianna Fáil member and Government Deputy from Dublin South-West, Deputy Máire Hoctor, a Government Deputy from Tipperary North and the convenor for the Government on the joint committee, and Senator Ann Ormonde, who is Government spokesperson on education in the Upper House.

Mr. Pal Vastagh

I thank you, Chairman, for your introduction. I am a member of the Hungarian Socialist Party, and a former Minister for Justice. I am joined by the senior member of our delegation, Dr. Katalin Devánszkiné Molnár, a member of the Socialist Party and the Government coalition, Dr. Gabor Fodor, vice-chairman of the committee and a member of the Alliance of Free Democrats and the Government coalition, and Dr. Laszlo Salamon, a member of the Civic Union, the conservative party. Three members of the delegation have been members of the Hungarian Parliament since 1990, when the first free elections were held. Two assistants from our committee are also members of the delegation, Dr. Anett Borbely, legal adviser and clerk of the committee, and Dr. Rita Nagy, assistant to the committee. We are also joined by our Ambassador, Dr. Balassa.

You are all very welcome. I will go through the role and function of the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights. First, we track the activities of the Departments of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and Defence, and all the agencies and bodies under the auspices of those Departments. This includes the police, courts, prisons and issues concerning equality, racism, immigration and otherwise. We also process all legislation that comes from those two Departments. On occasion, we discuss policy initiatives with major stakeholders including non-governmental organisations. We travel abroad to examine best practice models to improve the working of the Irish system. We examine all proposed EU measures in the justice and defence sectors, although this is a small part of our work as the Joint Committee on European Affairs deals with the vast majority of legislation that comes from Europe. We also participate in and undertake major reviews and public consultation on items such as the review of the criminal justice system or community policing. Members will be delighted to answer any questions the delegation may have in regard to these matters.

Dr. Vastagh

The profile of our committee is somewhat different in that our competencies are less in some regards and wider in others. Our primary function is to monitor legislation by testing the constitutionality of laws and amendments but we also function to monitor our justice system.

In Ireland the Supreme Court tests the constitutionality of legislation. It is seldom required to do so but there has been such a case recently. When legislation is passed by the Houses of Parliament it goes to the President for signature. The President can seek the advice of the Council of State, which consists of dignitaries such as former Taoisigh and Presidents and judicial experts, as to whether the legislation should be referred to the Supreme Court. This is the decision of the President alone but he or she receives advice from the Council of State.

Dr. Vastagh

In Hungary we have a dedicated constitutional court for the review of constitutional matters, which has a very wide scale of competencies. In our constitutional system, the President of the republic has the right to consult the constitutional court in cases where he or she suspects some constitutional problem with legislation. Our committee must also consider whether legislation is compatible with the entire legal system. This means the committee checks all legislation and legislative amendments.

The members of the delegation are all Solomons.

Dr. László Salamon

The constitutional committee is a type of internal constitutional element in the legislative process. It does not serve to replace the President's veto or the participation of the constitutional court in the process. A specific issue with which we deal is very important legislation for which a qualified majority of two thirds is required. We try to supplement the constitution itself. For example, we are examining the law in regard to elections and we have 30 such topics of legislation to consider. If such legislation is before the Parliament, the constitutional affairs committee has responsibility in this regard.

I wish to deal briefly with the role of the Opposition. Like most parliamentary systems throughout Europe, the Opposition's power is limited to a significant extent and the Government is pitted against the Opposition in a very direct way in the plenary sessions of Parliament. However, the committee system offers the Opposition an opportunity to exchange views with Government Members, especially backbenchers. Although the Government parties have a majority on all committees, there are sometimes worthwhile exchanges and compromises.

Nevertheless, the Government has a majority and there are severe limitations as to the type of amendments the Opposition can suggest. For example, Opposition members do not have the power to introduce amendments that involve a cost to the Exchequer and so are mostly confined to technical amendments. However, it is extremely useful to have Opposition and Government Members working together, particularly as a considerable number of Government backbenchers share some Opposition concerns on specific issues. In addition, Ministers constantly visit the relevant committees, which gives Opposition members an opportunity to present their views and those of voluntary and non-governmental agencies which make representations to committees prior to the enactment of legislation.

I welcome the delegation to Ireland and hope they enjoy their visit. If it is appropriate, I would like to ask a few questions to which delegates can respond later. Does the Hungarian Parliament have independent members or just political parties?

Hungary supported the US position during the war in Iraq and sent 300 soldiers plus other back-up services. Was this a popular decision? The current political mood in Hungary seems to be very divisive and there appears to be a problem with dialogue between parties. Why is this?

In terms of Hungary's attitude towards Europe, there was a 38% turn-out for the European elections. Would that be the norm?

We deal with many crime issues in our country. Does Hungary have a major international drugs problem, and how does the Government respond to such problems?

Before any of those questions are answered, I will invite Deputy Hoctor to make a contribution.

I too welcome the Hungarian delegation. I recently visited Budapest with my colleague, Deputy O'Connor, to attend a conference on restorative justice. From my brief time in the country, I learned Hungary is far more positively involved in the concept of restorative justice than Ireland. Restorative justice entails the offender being made accountable and responsible for his or her offence and he or she repays the community or victim. I would be interested to hear delegates' comments on that.

This committee deals with a broad range of issues, including the provision of services and facilities for people with disabilities. Is the issue of disability considered important by the Hungarian Parliament?

In the past, this committee has dealt with the important issue of domestic violence and violence against women. Is this an issue with which your committee deals? I would welcome the delegate's comments, time permitting.

Some questions come within the terms of reference of the committee and some are more general questions. The ambassador can answer the more general questions or Dr. Vastagh can answer specific committee questions.

Dr. Vastagh

We will share the tasks. Mmembers of the delegation and I find it interesting that this committee gets in touch with public opinion with regard to criminal justice, and we would like to return to this topic. Some members of our delegation are also members of the human rights committee. I will begin answering questions and other delegates will add their answers also.

According to our constitutional rules independent members of Parliament are permitted. An independent member came into Parliament after the first free elections, although it is still atypical.

How many independent members are there?

Dr. Vastagh

Approximately six or seven. That was after our first free election 15 years ago in 1990. After the elections, some members left their own parties and became independent. They cannot join another party within six months of leaving, but they have not run as independents in free elections.

The war in Iraq was not popular in Hungary. Public opinion did not favour the steps taken by the Hungarian Government and upon the decision of the Parliament the Hungarian contingent had to return from Iraq. In general, Hungary is not interested in the maintenance of an anti-democratic system. Consensus was widespread concerning this issue.

Participation in the European elections was a little higher than 42%, but that was relatively low. However, it is a general tendency in Europe. As a new member state, we would have preferred a bit more interest.

Dialogue between political parties in Hungary is rather less effective. There is a sense that the power of parties is reflected in election results. The political practice whereby the power of parties is a reflection of their election results makes election campaigns very tense and makes political dialogue more difficult. I hope that our accession to the EU will provide an opportunity for this situation to change. As the governing party, the Hungarian Socialist Party initiated deeper dialogue with regard to the national development programme and achieved positive results.

Hungary's geographical location makes it very vulnerable to international crime and it is affected by problems such as drug trafficking and human trafficking. We wish to make effective progress in strengthening co-operation in the areas of justice and home affairs. Hopefully, the improved possibilities provided by the new constitutional treaty will help tackle this essential issue.

Dr. Gábor Fodor

I wish to add to Dr. Vastagh's contribution as a member of both the human rights committee and the constitutional and judicial committee. The human rights committee is concerned with fundamental human rights as well as minority and religious rights. Some matters which come within the remit of the constitutional and judicial committee are also relevant to our committee. In Hungary, we recently adopted a law preventing negative discrimination against the disabled and we also have regulations which aim to secure equal rights for them. I think Hungary's legislation in this field is adequate but its implementation is more problematic.

Violence against women also comes within the competence of this committee. The Hungarian plenary assembly recently adjourned a debate on domestic violence but will resume the debate soon. We wish to enact relevant legislation regarding constitutional regulation of this crucial question in Hungary.

The laws on equal opportunities are also relevant to equal opportunities for women and in terms of legislation, Hungary is one of the most advanced states in Europe. However, in several fields, implementation is inadequate. For example, during lunch we discussed one aspect of the question, namely the number of female MPs and the desirability of a quota. Opinions differ on this matter as some support a quota system while others do not. Personally, I do not, but I think that political parties should make more effort to signal the seriousness of the question to Hungarian society. I noticed that racism is within the competence of the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality Defence and Women's Rights. Does this mean the joint committee is responsible for the legal regulations relating to racism or does it examine cases of racism which have happened in Ireland? Does the joint committee have hearings on this issue?

Dr. Katalin Devánszkiné Molnár

: I wish to make some additional remarks to Dr. Fodor's contribution on equal opportunities. As he said, in 2003 we adopted a law on equal treatment and on the enhancement of equal opportunities. Many people have suggested that we should also enact specific legislation on equal opportunities for women. I am not sure if additional legislation is necessary. I feel that the proper implementation of relevant legislation provides the appropriate background for the establishment of equal opportunities. Although legal actions may be brought before the courts to seek redress in employment or other equality issues, I feel that implementation of the legislation is not currently adequate.

Before the change in 1989, female participation in the workforce was high. From 1990 until 1997, the number of women in the workforce gradually decreased. Since then, the situation has been stagnant, but the numbers are now growing very slowly. It has been our experience that women who wish to return to the workplace after reaching the age of 50 encounter real difficulties finding employment.

We have adopted certain strategies for the redeployment of female workers in society. One very positive idea was that the Government must finance women's efforts to find work as well as the first three months of their employment. We also try to help mothers with newborn babies or very young children who would like to go back to work. The Equal Treatment Authority can act in any case where equal treatment has been violated. The authority has considerable expertise regarding cases of violence at work or cases when people's right to equality is breached. The authority acts in a complementary fashion because not many people sue in court in defence of their rights. We hope that women in the EU will be successful.

Ireland has two major pieces of legislation, the Employment Equality Act 1998 and the Equal Status Act 2000, that deal with racism. Ireland was a monocultural, white country until the late 1990s. As a result of Ireland's prosperity and human rights problems throughout the world, the question of multicultural diversity suddenly exploded in the late 1990s and early 2000. Asylum and immigration policies and procedures were only established in the late 1990s and early part of this century. Many Irish people experienced culture shock when they encountered people of different colours and origins and there were occurrences of racism. As a result, considerable action has been taken by the Government, non-governmental organisations and local communities to try to reduce the problem.

We are very much involved with the European Commission on Racism and Intolerance and the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia, the two European bodies dedicated to fighting racism. Ireland has a national anti-racism awareness programme and a national action plan against racism. The national action plan is developing at all times and the committee is determined to do everything it can to reduce the incidence of racism in Ireland. Many of the anti-racism organisations meet the committee regularly and this helps to publicise the work of these organisations.

Child care is a sensitive issue in Ireland at the moment. Two by-election campaigns are in train and child care is a very hot issue in them. The country's prosperity has driven up the cost of houses sharply in the city and people are moving 20 to 30 miles outside the city to live. A couple will usually need good child care if the woman is to be able to work. Providing good child care is a challenge for us all in future.

Dr. Vastagh

I would like to ask an additional question. Regarding the framework of justice and home affairs co-operation, if the committee finds out about the position of the Irish Government before the European Council meeting, does it know what the Minister is going to say at the European Council meeting and how he is going to vote in the name of his Government? In the event that the committee knows his mandate but the decision taken in the European Council differs from that, does he come back to give an explanation?

We have regular discussions with the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy McDowell, whom you met this afternoon. Prior to the Justice and Home Affairs Council meeting, the Minister has indicated that he is very willing to meet the committee regularly to incorporate our views into his decision-making and the negotiations at European Council level. There is an opportunity before the Council meeting for the members to influence his thinking and the way he makes his decision. The Government is separate from the Parliament but is accountable to it. We sit as an agent of Parliament. There is an opportunity for the Minister to inform the committee of what took place after meetings of the Justice and Home Affairs Council.

Dr. Vastagh

Is this a parliamentary custom or is it regulated by law?

It is a tradition that Ministers show their great respect for Parliament through their input and advice. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform works well in co-operating with this committee. There is an opportunity at the committee for the Opposition to put forward its views to the Minister. There is a constitutional requirement that the Parliament give prior approval to certain EU motions and the implementation of directives.

In Ireland major criminals are targeted by a group called the Criminal Assets Bureau. It is a force of dedicated policemen and women who confiscate the proceeds of crime. Is there a similar organisation in Hungary? On an important foreign policy issue, 2.7 million ethnic Hungarians live in Romania, Slovakia and Serbia, some of whom have been attacked recently. Would the delegation appreciate the committee requesting the Minister to raise this matter at EU level?

I agree with the Chairman's assessment that Ireland is at an early stage on the issues of immigration, racism and refugees. We are trying to address these quickly, as indicated by our Government's action in not limiting the number of immigrants who can come to Ireland. I am optimistic that we are moving along the right line but there is still much work to do.

I am concerned that states are inclined to introduce laws affecting traditional points of view on human rights legislation because of the global fight against terrorism. This debate is ongoing in England and our Minister is seeking changes in Irish law to increase the powers of the police and the Judiciary. Taking the history of Hungary and other eastern European countries into consideration, does the delegation believe we should be cautious in giving anyone excessive powers to interfere in basic human rights?

I am sure the delegation would not wish to tell us how to handle Irish legislation just as we would not wish to tell them.

Dr. Vastagh

We will delegate the responsibility for answering these questions. To answer Deputy McGrath, in Hungary there is a council for crime prevention that evaluates our national strategy with the participation of the police, the criminal justice system and others. The parliament has debated and adopted this document, and it returns to this issue publicly on a regular basis.

I welcome the Deputy's proposal regarding his second question. The Hungarian minorities in neighbouring countries constitute a complex issue. For example, the minority in Romania has organised politically and is a part of the Romanian Government coalition. The deputy prime minister and three ministers are of Hungarian origin. In Serbia and Montenegro the situation is worse. There has been a period in which the minority represented itself at government level. We have tried to call attention to these issues in the European Parliament and it has decided to establish a committee of inquiry to examine the matter on the ground. In Slovakia, Hungary is represented in the sense that the deputy prime minister is of Hungarian origin. The upcoming possible accession of Romania in 2007 is one of our priorities, with regard to our Hungarian minorities there. We welcome the beginning of the accession negotiations with Croatia in mid-March. Problems and conflicts may be assisted and resolved by a different middle Europe, which is part of the EU. I thank committee members for their interest.

Dr. Fodor

I would like to briefly contribute an answer. We have had an idea from Deputy McGrath. I would consider it very helpful if the Government or its representatives would raise their voices on this issue. As Dr. Vastagh has pointed out the question of Serbia and Montenegro is very important in terms of Hungary and minorities. Of course the experience of war and the status of human rights in Serbia-Montenegro makes the situation of Hungarian minorities there much worse. Hungarian and European public interest must face up to increasing attacks on Hungarians. We would be grateful for any help the Government could offer, because this is a very important matter not only in terms of Hungarian minority rights, but for human rights in general.

We have heard some comments from Deputy Murphy regarding immigration quotas. In Hungary there is no quota for immigration. There is immigration, most of which is from cross-border Hungarian national minorities. Hungary has immigrants from all over the world, including Asia and Africa. I believe Hungarian authorities should change the procedures they have followed until now. The position is not very positive.

On racism, Hungary's greatest minority is the Roma minority, to which more than 500,000 people belong. In the domain of racism the most serious problem is racism against Roma people. This is an important problem for all the political parties in Hungary, along with terrorism against freedom. All action against terrorism is to be supported, in order to protect people. We aim to pass a regulation dealing with this, but one that does not limit fundamental human rights. I thank the committee.

I thank the members of the delegation. I am delighted Deputy McGrath raised the issue of ethnic Hungarians in the countries bordering Hungary. We will raise it with the Minister before the next Council meeting and will convey the delegation's feelings on the matter. We enjoyed this exchange immensely. I hope it is the start of good co-operation between the two countries.

Dr. Vastagh

On behalf of my colleagues, I thank the committee members for the valuable information provided. I hope that, if possible, they can visit Hungary and our committee this year, in order to continue this interesting and useful dialogue.

We will be there.

The joint committee adjourned at 6.35 p.m.sine die.