Human Rights Commission Bill, 1999: Committee and Remaining Stages.
Section 1 agreed to.
I move amendment No. 1:
In page 4, before section 2, to insert the following new section:
"2.–The State shall, within 6 months from the passing of this Act, ratify or otherwise become a party to the following instruments–
(a)Protocol No. 7 to the European Convention, done at Strasbourg on the 22nd day of November, 1984;
(b)the Torture Convention;
(c)the Racial Discrimination Convention;
(d)the European Social Charter (Revised) done at Strasbourg on the 3rd day of May, 1996, and the Additional Protocol to the European Social Charter providing for a system of Collective Complaints, done at Strasbourg on the 9th day of November, 1995.”.
I thought I understood the intricacies of the rules of the House, but I am a little confused why amendment No. 1 is in order and amendment No. 2 is out of order. However, I will not pursue it or test the patience of the Acting Chairman, who has had a rough couple of days – I do not wish to further test his stamina.
The object of the amendment is to deal with the extraordinary tardiness with which the State ratifies various international conventions. Our tardiness in relation to Protocol No. 7 of the European Convention, which dates from November 1984, should be a matter of embarrassment. However friendly the Minister of State and I are, I would be naive to believe he will accept the amendment, but I would like to hear whether a timescale exists for the instruments referred to in amendments Nos. 1 and 2. Amendment No. 2, which is out of order, refers to the European Convention on Human Rights and Protocols 1 to 11.
The Senator can discuss the amendment when we are discussing the section.
Perhaps, but as it is a new section I might meet with the wrath of the Chair.
Protocol No. 7 is not yet in force as a sufficient number of states have not acceded to it.
The main difficulty I have with the amendment is that it seeks to force the Government to ratify or otherwise become a party to the four instruments in question. That course of action is wrong and contrary to the doctrine of the separation of powers enshrined in the Constitution. As was said during the debate in the Dáil, Ireland in so far as the adoption of international treaties and obligations is concerned takes the dualist approach in such matters because of the effect of Article 15 of the Constitution, which provides that the role and exclusive power of making laws for the State is vested in the Oireachtas, and Article 29.6, which states that no international agreement shall be part of the domestic law of the State save as may be determined by the Oireachtas. This latter provision has been interpreted as precluding the Irish courts from giving effect to an international agreement if it is contrary to or grants rights or imposes obligations additional to those of domestic law.
When the State wishes to adhere to an international agreement it must, therefore, ensure its domestic law is in conformity with the agreement in question. In some cases the entire contents of such an agreement are transposed into domestic law by providing that the agreement shall have the force of law in the State. In other cases it may only be necessary to transpose certain provisions of the agreement simply because other provisions are either already incorporated in our law or are of a nature that they do not require incorporation. Sometimes no transposition provisions are required, an example is the Council of Europe's Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities which was ratified in May 1999 and which has been referred to in debates on the Bill.
Apart from that fatal flaw, the question of the ratification of all the instruments mentioned in the amendment is already the subject of detailed consideration. In so far as Protocol No. 7 to the European Convention on Human Rights is concerned, the matter is relevant in the context of the Government's recent decision to incorporate the convention into Irish law by next October in the context of the Good Friday Agreement and against the background of the legislative and other developments taking place in terms of immigration.
Legislation dealing with the so-called torture convention has already passed through the other House and is currently awaiting Report and Final Stages in this House. The convention on racial discrimination is being examined now that the equal status legislation has been enacted. The 1996 revised Social Charter together with its additional protocol, which deals with a system of collective complaints, has been the subject of consultations with ICTU and IBEC. I understand our signature and ratification of both instruments is currently under active consideration. Therefore, I think it must be accepted that there is no need whatever to place a statutory obligation on the Government to do what it is already in the process of doing.
Apart from that there is a more fundamental objection relating to the Legislature binding the Executive in a matter which clearly requires careful consideration and examination as to how best and by what means the State should take on board international treaties, agreements or conventions. Accordingly, I will not accept the amendment.
I thank the Minister of State for his detailed reply but am quite taken by the idea that there would be something wrong with the Legislature binding the Government. Funnily enough, I thought our job was to define the limits of Government, to be the body which ensured Government did not abuse its power. Power can be abused by commission or omission. Omitting by delay or deliberate policy to ratify a large number of international agreements dealing with various aspects of human rights is an abuse of power because it restricts the right of citizens to claim rights which might not be explicit in our Constitution but which we have said, for the benefit of international public opinion, we subscribe to and which conveniently for Government we say at home we will not really subscribe to. I am talking about such instruments as the convention on the rights of the child.
There may have been serious and detailed objections to the amendment, and I would have listened to them carefully because I appreciate it is a complex issue. However, my patience is tested when it is said there would be something wrong with the Legislature binding the Government. The function of the Legislature is to define the terms within which the Government operates. The Constitution and the law are what govern the country, not the Government. Governments operate within the Constitution and the law and if it is not bound by both of these then we have tyranny. I know the Government has no desire to be tyrannical, but the language emanating from it makes it sound as if human rights are a problem and the idea of a citizen demanding fair treatment in a range of areas, such as racial discrimination, is an inconvenience and a further burden on the State.
I ask the Minister of State to explain why ratification of these instruments takes so long and why it is such a tortuous process. I am not too concerned about what other countries do because we have a reasonably good tradition. People are often surprised to hear there are only three countries in Europe with a longer history of continuous democracy this century than Ireland, namely, Switzerland, Sweden and the UK. We have a longer tradition of continuous democratic government than most countries in Europe and we should recognise the worth and achievement of that.
Human rights are a part of democratic government and are a continuously evolving concept. These international conventions are not particularly radical. By and large they are the lowest common denominator agreed between a large number of states. To allow indifference to cause the sort of delay which result in protocols dating back to 1984 being without full force in the State suggests a peculiar set of priorities and that this long delayed and overdue human rights commission would not have appeared if it had not been forced on us by the parties to the Good Friday Agreement. The Minister of State's reply was most regrettable.
When Senator Ryan opened the debate on this amendment he said that he would not push it and that we would have a philosophical debate. I was disappointed with the Minister of State's reply because it seemed to rob the debate of all philosophy. My concern, which I expressed on Second Stage, is that the Bill tends to take a minimalist approach to civil and human rights and it is similar to pulling a tooth to get such commissions established. The imaginative language in the Good Friday Agreement regarding human rights and so on somehow runs into the sand. I am sorry that we were given an explanation which depended on a good deal of gobbledegook and some doubtful constitutional principles.
I must apologise for myself every day for the number of times I wrote in drafts for Ministers that issues were under active consideration and I shudder to think that these instruments are under active consideration. The European Convention on Human Rights was only this year incorporated into Irish and UK law to some extent, 50 years after it was drafted. If that is the speed of gestation, we will wait a long time for the rest of it. The Minister of State's reply seems to miss the evolving nature of human rights across the world, the changing nature of society and the needs that throws up. The European convention is a splendid document and a model of its kind but it is a dated model which needs to be updated, similar to the UN convention, by various conventions and protocols.
Like Senator Ryan, I admire the history of this country in regard to the protection of human rights, particularly the durability of the 1937 Constitution, but nevertheless times change and we should be ready to embrace change. I would be much happier if the Government outlined a concerted vision of human rights. We quickly assent to conventions rhetorically when they are promulgated but take a long time to implement them in our jurisdiction. The argument about separation of powers is quite tenuous. Like Senator Ryan, I believe that it is the job of the Legislature to show order. The law is that the Executive is in a position then to adhere to international treaties. I join with Senator Ryan in expressing disappointment in what seems to be a lack of enthusiasm for the entire process.
I concur with the concerns of Senators Hayes and Ryan about the hypocrisy that exists. We are great at verbalising about, supporting and signing up to conventions, yet we do not ratify them in legislation. The EU has appointed a special committee to examine human rights to update the European Convention on Human Rights, which was introduced more than 50 years ago. Representatives from all member states meet on a regular basis in Brussels to examine the issue. The Heads of State will meet in December to formalise an updated convention on human rights for the EU. International conventions are the lowest common denominator agreed between states. Even within that committee there is a reluctance to address issues and push the boat out a little further. I am concerned that the raison d'être for the Bill is that the Taoiseach can at least say to his fellow Heads of State in December that Ireland has set up a human rights commission and is going through the formalities. However, basic issues are not being addressed.
The Minister of State's reply was sketchy and not convincing. There has been a great deal of racial discrimination and intolerance in recent times throughout the State where refugees are concerned. There was even a slight indication of it on the Order of Business earlier. It is important that there are laws to govern this level of intolerance and indecency towards our fellow human beings. The Republic of Ireland is supposed to be a Christian, ultra-Catholic community. Much of our response in legislation, if it were examined closely, does not clearly state that.
The Government and the Minister of State should have no difficulty accepting the amendment, which provides for Protocol No. 7, the torture and racial discrimination conventions and the European Social Charter, 1995. These are basic instruments which are increasingly needed. As a result of the great economic boom, Irish people seem to be losing many of the basic principles and finer characteristics associated with them. There is a need to doubly ensure that such principles are protected and that those in vulnerable positions are protected by the legislation that we adopt, particularly in regard to human rights. Ireland is a relatively young and modern democratic State. It is not long since there was appalling abuses of human rights here and we should very much appreciate it so that we can legislate to protect human rights. I urge the Minister of State to accept the amendment. While additional legislation may be needed, at least a start can be made by accepting it.
The Government proposes and the Legislature disposes. The taking of international agreements is a matter for the Government and it will only do so under certain conditions, such as a constitutional requirement. Protocol No. 7 is not even in force yet, as a sufficient number of states have not acceded to it. Our record on accession to international agreements is quite good, as the list I circulated following my Second Stage contribution demonstrated.
With regard to Senator Hayes's remarks, the Bill adopts a much more imaginative approach than the corresponding Northern Ireland Act. Generalisations are almost always dangerously misleading but it is almost universally believed that the convention on human rights generally is liberally orientated while the provisions of the Constitution are more restrictive. Why then, when the Government proposed to limit the grounds on which bail could be refused by a court, did it find that under the convention bail could be refused if there was a possibility that the accused person might commit further offences while released? Under the Constitution bail can only be refused on the grounds that the accused might abscond or interfere with a witness.
Furthermore, as the Review Group on the Constitution pointed out in its 1996 report, the replacement of the existing fundamental rights provisions in the Constitution by the provisions of the convention would lead to a diminution in some individual rights as some of those rights – for example, personal liberty in Article 44 – are more extensively protected by the Constitution than under the equivalent provisions of the convention.
Secondly, incorporation, as such, would not fill any gaps at constitutional level since every sub stantive right afforded by the convention is either expressly protected by the Constitution or has been recognised as an unremunerated personal right under Article 40.3.1º of the Constitution.
As far as the incorporation issue is concerned, it is well recognised that the fact that we have had a written Constitution since 1937, ready access to the courts, and the fact that our courts can strike down legislation, is well ahead of most other States. Our record under the convention shows that six cases were taken in 47 years.
There is an extraordinary touchiness about this matter. Incidentally, I accept that there are aspects of the operation of the European Convention on Human Rights where narrower rights are defined than those in our Constitution. Unless we amend our Constitution, however, that will not cause a problem because obviously the Constitution will have a superior force. On the other hand, it was through the European Convention on Human Rights that Senator Norris managed to talk some sense into this State about areas in which the State felt obliged to put its nose. The State had felt obliged to regulate areas of human behaviour which were not its business. Therefore, we have benefited from the convention.
I notice the Minister did not mention how many of the cases that were taken against us were successful and how many were not. My recollection is that one or two cases – in particular, the case of non-marital children and Senator Norris's case – were successful, even if on limited grounds.
All this is very fine, but it does not get away from the fact that, for instance, the European Convention on Torture, which is tortuously making its way through the Oireachtas, has been in force for many years. If General Pinochet had landed here for his medical treatment, instead of in London, we probably could not have detained him because we had not ratified the convention. What concern of national security or anything else could have delayed for so long a convention to suppress torture? It is simply a lack of priority and this amendment is about encouraging such priorities. Apart from the Convention on Torture, we still do not have any real sense of urgency concerning a timescale within which many of these matters will be approved.
For a variety of reasons I do not propose to push this matter to a vote. It is most regrettable, however, that we cannot obtain more satisfactory responses from the Minister about issues concerning international conventions. We are not dealing with them properly.
I am just as critical of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Act and of the powers given to the commission there. I have said so already. It is a bit cheap of the Minister to throw that in. I am concerned about another matter that flows from the Good Friday Agreement. There is a perception among Unionists in the North that they are being asked to swallow a heavy dose of human rights legislation which is not being pursued as actively here. This will become quite an active issue for debate as the policing Bill goes through its stages, and the demands of Nationalist parties and human rights activists and, I have no doubt, representatives of this Government to strengthen the human rights provisions in that legislation are heard. We should not do anything to weaken either the moral stance or the negotiating position of the Government by having a more diluted approach to human rights than others.
Is the amendment being withdrawn?
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Amendment No. 2 is out of order.
Amendment No. 2 not moved.
Section 2 agreed to.
Question proposed: "That section 3 stand part of the Bill."
If I have to keep on doing this, I will do so. The Bill is supposed to be a matter of urgency and we accept that it is. However, Governments seems to be determined never to bind themselves, even when matters are urgent. Section 3 states, "The Minister shall by order appoint a day to be the establishment day for the purposes of this Act." It could be in 25 years' time. Why can they not say within one month or three months of the enactment of this legislation? The Freedom of Information Act was one of the very few Bills to have passed through the Oireachtas in recent years which contained a specific date for enactment. That was because the then Minister was worried that her successor might decide to sit on it for a long time.
The Mental Treatment Act was passed by the Oireachtas in 1991, yet it was never brought into force. Some elements of the Local Government Acts were never brought into force either, because of the potential for major legal action against the State. Somebody should talk to the parliamentary draftsman's office to explain that this legislation is urgent and it should, therefore, contain a provision to appoint the establishment day within three months of the Bill's enactment. Why not?
I do not understand why we have to have all these open-ended provisions. The Government is particularly good at prescribing timescales for everybody else. Most legislation that deals with a subsidiary body contains a timescale within which things have to be done. When it comes to a simple matter of bringing leglsiation such as this into force, however, the Government wants to leave it open-ended and I think that is wrong.
I assure the Senator the Government has announced that the commission will be in place by July 2000.
Why not put it into the Bill?
Question put and agreed to.
Section 4 agreed to.
Question proposed: "That section 5 stand part of the Bill."
Section 5(4) states:
A person shall not be appointed to be a member of the Commission unless it appears to the Government that the person is suitably qualified for such appointment by reason of his or her possessing such relevant experience, qualifications, training or expertise as, in the opinion of the Government, is or are appropriate, having regard, in particular, to the functions conferred on the Commission by this Act.
Why does it not mention that the citizen ought to be of good character? The former Taoiseach, who was the beneficiary of £8.5 million of munificence from his business friends, would, without a doubt, have "such relevant experience, qualifications, training or expertise" to be a member of this commission. Doubtless, the gentleman who is soon to go to the European Investment Bank would also possess all of those qualifications.
Why not insert into the subsection that the person should be somebody who the Government is satisfied is of good character, as well as meeting all the other requirements? I suppose we should be grateful that neither Ray Burke nor Pádraig Flynn has the necessary qualifications or expertise, or we might have both of them on the human rights commission.
This subsection is a change from the previous position outlined in the heads of the Bill. It reflects the views of interested organisations and the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights, as well as the All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution. The emphasis on legalism is now gone, though to some extent this criticism may have stemmed from the detail of the earlier provision which specified that the president of the commission had to be a Supreme Court judge and gave the impression that barristers and solicitors had to be represented. Subsection (4) now contains a single set of criteria applicable to all members of the commission, including the president, who does not have to be a judicial person.
The subsection is meant to convey the idea that a body such as the commission should be representative of a wide cross-section of the community. The subsection now provides that a person will not be appointed to be a member of the commission unless it appears to the Government that the person is suitably qualified for such appointment by reason of his or her possessing such relevant experience, qualifications, training and expertise as, in the opinion of the Government, are appropriate having regard in particular to the functions conferred on the commission by the Act. It is thus designed to ensure that members of the commission would be drawn from the widest possible background so as to ensure pluralist representation of the social elements involved in the promotion and protection of human rights in the State. Subsection (2), which provides for gender representation, and subsection (12), which is a guarantee of representation of Irish society as a whole in the composition of the commission, should be read in conjunction with this provision.
I referred to this matter on Second Stage. I am glad the Minister has taken the emphasis off in terms of only a judicial person being at the head of this commission, even if that was only an implication. I am content with the section as it stands but I would be encouraged if the Minister accepted a suggestion that there should be some advertising of the position so that people can express their interest in it.
That comes back to something that was raised on the Order of Business today. I believe we are moving in the direction where all political appointments, and all public appointments in forms of patronage, should be made more openly and there should be some means of making people aware of vacancies so that their names can be considered. From my experience, albeit in other jurisdictions, there is often a tendency for the people who have worked the hardest in these fields to be overlooked when the time comes to make appointments, partly because people might think they made too much noise or whatever, but we should have due regard to the fact that there are people who have an honourable history of endeavour in promoting human rights when it was neither popular nor profitable to do so.
On the whole question of filling vacancies in the Judiciary which may arise if a judge is appointed to the commission, that tends to overbalance the section a little and it could perhaps as easily be dealt with by way of a Schedule rather than in sections 4 or 5.
It is vitally important that those appointed to the commission are people who, voluntarily over the years, highlighted specific human rights abuses across the world. There are quite a number of people who have taken a particular interest in that and who have pursued, successfully in some instances, cases of abuses of human rights. Those people have a genuine commitment to and specific knowledge and detailed information about a variety of issues and the expertise they have built up over the years should not be ignored. At various stages these people have addressed the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, and I am sure the European affairs committee, and they have met the Minister for Foreign Affairs. I suggest to the Minister that a list of these people's names be compiled and from that list the people would be appointed to the commission. I would not like to think that people would be appointed to the commission because they had a particular political persuasion. Only those people who have a genuine commitment to and interest in human rights and who have a track record in pursuing the advancement of human rights throughout the world, including in this country, should be appointed to the commission.
We always seem to look to the Judiciary in these matters but human rights is about basic respect for one's fellow human beings. I am not sure that we need judges to chair these bodies. It brings a wonderful legal dimension to it, but human rights is about basic respect for people and while there are many people who have knowledge of the various conventions but who may not necessarily be trained in legal matters, they have a much broader legal knowledge of that specific area than somebody who was appointed a judge and whose expertise may be in commercial, constitutional or company law. That is the reality. I have some qualms about the idea of a judge. Anybody with a track record in this area could chair the commission and I ask the Minister to re-examine the manner in which these appointments will be made.
I will convey to the Minster for Justice, Equality and Law Reform the point made by Senator Hayes about advertising. On Senator Taylor-Quinn's point, I indicated on Second Stage and today the Government's determination to ensure that people are appointed who have something specific to offer. The Government is very conscious of that. In all my years in public life, in the Dáil and here, this is the first time a commitment has been laid down to deal with this issue in the way I have outlined.
Why is it not a requirement that the people to be appointed should be of good character? If somebody wants to apply for citizenship of this State, the first requirement in law is that they must be of good character. It is legally possible for somebody who is not of good character, in other words, somebody who has behaved either in politics or in other areas of life with considerable impropriety, to be appointed as a member of the commission on human rights. Why not insert a reference to the fact that such people should be of good character? It is not in the Bill.
Am I to take it the Minister is not going to answer the question?
We have adequately covered the points made by the Senator both today and on Second Stage.
Question put and agreed to.
Section 6 agreed to.
Amendments Nos. 3 and 4 should be addressed to section 8, not section 7.
Question proposed: "That section 7 stand part of the Bill."
As a matter of principle, I am never happy with the phrase, "The Government may dismiss a person from his or her office . . . for any other stated reason . . . ". I would be happy with the words "stated misbehaviour", but I am not happy that the Government may dismiss a person from the commission if it is satisfied that for any other stated reason he or she should be dismissed.
Well known rules are laid down in relation to natural justice, and they will apply.
Question put and agreed to.
I move amendment No. 3:
In page 6, subsection (2), between lines 29 and 30, to insert the following new paragraph:
"(a) to encourage ratification by the State of human rights instruments or accession to those instruments, and to ensure their implementation,”.
This is a fairly innocuous amendment. Section 8 deals with the functions of the commission.
The amendment gives the commission a proactive role in doing precisely what Senator Hayes and I were concerned about earlier, which is seeing to it that the international public relations work we do by signing conventions is carried beyond that and put into practice in the State. We are suggesting that one of the functions of the commission should be to encourage ratification by the State of human rights instruments. I would be interested to know why the Government does not think it should do that.
I am opposing this amendment dealing with the role of the commission in encouraging ratifications for the reasons the Minister outlined on Committee Stage. It will be open to the commission as part of its function under paragraph (c) to recommend to the Government that it should accede to or ratify particular human rights instruments. The provision in question is deliberately widely drawn so as to encompass precisely this type of role for the commission. It may take the initiative in the matter and this is particularly relevant in the context of the type of activity which is contemplated by the amendment.
It must also be borne in mind that the commission would take action in this area is because it sees a need for the Government to act to strengthen, protect and uphold human rights in the State. The question of implementation of the instruments in question is already taken care of by the existing provision in the Bill. It is hardly possible that the commission, having raised the matter, will sit back and let it rest.
This highlights the way different Departments and Ministers deal with amendments. The fact that an amendment makes explicit what the Government insists is implicit is hardly a fundamental difference of policy. It is my understanding that some Ministers will agree to an amendment for clarification reasons. In my experience, the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform inevitably takes the view that unless there is an overwhelming reason it will leave an amendment out. It is easier for the Government not to have an explicit statement in legislation.
I wish to clarify why the commission may be constrained. When the chief executive comes before the Committee of Public Accounts, the section of the Bill which deals with that states that "he or she shall not question or express an opinion on the merits of any policy of the Government or a Minister of the Government or on the merits of the objectives of such a policy." That is the level of constraint imposed on the chief executive when he comes before the Committee of Public Accounts. It is difficult to reconcile that determination to keep people quiet with the argument that what we are seeking to have made explicit is implicit.
This is a straightforward and simple amendment which does not vary from the general principle of what the Government is promoting and elaborates on subsection (c). We have close ties with the United Nations, the organisations of the EU and national voluntary organisations. It is not a major conspiracy to get involved with them – it is something we do anyway so why not include it in the legislation? There is no conflict of interest between what the Government proposes and what Senator Ryan proposes. I suggest the Minister of State should also accept amendment No. 5 which ties in with this section.
Senator Ryan referred to the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. I wish to add that the Attorney General is satisfied with the subsection as it is.
Whenever the Attorney General is quoted at me, I always remind the House that the Attorney General was satisfied with a section of legislation which went through this House and defined a crossbow as a firearm. After that, I am very sceptical about the way the Attorney General uses language.
Which Attorney General was that?
I cannot remember, it was a long time ago but the Senator will find it in the Firearms Act.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
I move amendment No. 4:
In page 6, subsection (2), between lines 29 and 30, to insert the following new paragraph:
"(a) to contribute to the reports which the State is required to submit to United Nations bodies and committees, and to regional institutions, pursuant to its treaty obligations,”.
This amendment proposes to give the commission a further function, as of right, to contribute to the reports the State is required to submit to the United Nations bodies and committees and to regional institutions, pursuant to its treaty obligations. It would be strange if an Irish Government reporting on human rights in Ireland to any international organisation could write a report without a contribution from the statutorily established Human Rights Commission, which is the current position.
We propose that, as of right, any such report an Irish government submits to such international bodies should contain a contribution and commentary from the Irish Human Rights Commission. If it cannot do that, what is its role?
I am satisfied that the role of the commission intended by this amendment is adequately catered for by the provision of the Bill at paragraph (c). That is the primary intention behind that subsection. I envisage the commission will have a large input into the reports the State is obliged to submit to various international committees operating in the area of human rights, particularly the UN committees which examine our reports on the UN covenants on civil and political rights and economic, social and cultural rights.
Paragraph (c) states that the commission may “either of its own volition or on being requested to do so by the Government, make such recommendations to the Government as it deems appropriate in relation to the measures which the Commission considers should be taken to strengthen, protect and uphold human rights in the State,”. I can do that without any law. I can make, of my own volition, such recommendations to the Government that I deem appropriate in relation to the measures which I consider should be taken to strengthen, protect and uphold human rights. It is my freedom to do so as a citizen but it does not give me the least reason to believe that anything I say will be paid heed or incorporated in any publication subsequently made available by the Government.
The same applies to the commission. The idea that it is a major concession to allow it to make submissions to the Government on human rights issues of its own volition emphasises the point we have been making throughout this debate – that this is a pretty mean-minded and minimalist piece of legislation when it should be generous and open. It is anything but that. It keeps the commission on the margins and ensures it is not an active, vigorous body with an independent profile within and without the State.
It is not true that the amendment is covered by paragraph (c) because the amendment gives the commission a right to be clearly identified as involved in reports. Therefore, instead of Governments skating over difficult areas of human rights, they would either have to deal with them or confront the fact that the human rights commission takes a different view from the Government, which will often be the case because there is a perpetual tension between the rights of the individual and the power of Government. We want this institutionalised, which would be the case if the commission was taken seriously and was not just a reluctant response to a commitment entered into under pressure from other people during the negotiations on the Good Friday Agreement.
The commission will be able to contribute in its own right to these matters as is covered in paragraph (c).
To consult with national or international bodies or agencies is not the same as being able to make reports to them.
If the Government wants to say that, it should amend section 8(c) so that it reads “to consult with or make reports to. . . . ”. It does not say the commission can make reports, it says it can consult. It is not the same the thing.
Caffrey, Ernie.Coghlan, Paul.Coogan, Fintan.Costello, Joe.Doyle, Joe.Hayes, Maurice.Hayes, Tom.Henry, Mary.Jackman, Mary.
McDonagh, Jarlath.Manning, Maurice.O'Dowd, Fergus.O'Meara, Kathleen.O'Toole, Joe.Quinn, Feargal.Ridge, Thérèse.Ryan, Brendan.Taylor-Quinn, Madeleine.
Bohan, Eddie.Bonner, Enda.Callanan, Peter.Cassidy, Donie.Chambers, Frank.Cregan, JohnDardis, John.Farrell, Willie.Finneran, Michael.Fitzgerald, Liam.Fitzpatrick, Dermot.Gibbons, Jim.Glynn, Camillus.
Keogh, Helen.Kett, Tony.Kiely, Daniel.Kiely, Rory.Leonard, Ann.Mooney, Paschal.Moylan, Pat.O'Brien, Francis.O'Donovan, Denis.Ó Murchú, Labhrás.Ormonde, Ann.Quill, Máirín.
Tellers: Tá, Senators O'Meara and Ryan; Níl, Senators Farrell and Keogh.
Amendment declared lost.
I move amendment No. 5:
In page 7, paragraph (c), line 3, after “fit” to insert “including to co-operate with the United Nations and any other organisation in the United Nations system, the regional institutions and the national institutions of other countries that are competent in the areas of the promotion and protection of human rights,”.
We should be at the forefront in dealing with international bodies. We have a good record in terms of the stability of our democracy. Sometimes people like myself, with minority interests in politics, can find it a boring stability but it is remarkable and one which has not been based on any excess of order imposed by those at the top – it is a free society. Like Senator Hayes, and unlike many on the liberal left, I am not a critic of the 1937 Constitution. Some of the language used is quaint but it is an extraordinarily vigorous document in defending individual rights, much to the chagrin of a variety of Governments of different political complexions, including those of which my party was a member when it made the momentous and correct McKenna decision about referenda some years ago.
Many people in politics, including those who comment and give advice on political matters, have a wish to row back some of the extraordinary protections that the Supreme Court and other courts have interpreted from our Constitution. As it would be unconstitutional, it would be impossible to implement any part of the British Protection of Terrorism Act because one would not get away with keeping a person incommunicado. That said, the amendment simply makes explicit – but I am sure the Minister will tell me it is implicit – the right of the commission to co-operate with the United Nations and any other organisation in the UN system, including regional and national institutions that are competent in the areas of promotion and protection of human rights.
As the Minister said earlier, this Bill, like others, has come through the Attorney General's office and, therefore, the language has been carefully chosen. It uses the word "consult", not the words "co-operate" or "collaborate"– it means consult. I am not sure if the commission can be consulted but it states that it can consult with bodies. In other words, the commission can ask for their opinions. I am not sure whether other international bodies can legitimately be consulted. We debated this issue earlier. This amendment attempts to make explicit the right of the commission to be involved with international bodies.
I do not accept this amendment because I regard the matter as being adequately covered by the provision in section 8(c).
I am not the most patient of people. I want someone in the parliamentary draftsman's office, the Attorney General's office or a Minister to explain to me how the phrase "to consult with" can mean the same as "to co-operate with." I defy the Minister of State, the Government or the two bodies I have mentioned to find a dictionary which says that co-operate is a synonym for consult. It is not the same thing. It is a trite, inadequate and offensive answer to suggest that consult means co-operate. It does not. I know full well that if the Government intended this commission to actively co-operate with all these bod ies it would have inserted the phrase "consult and co-operate with". In fact, the Government is so cautious that it stipulated in section 8(d) that the body could “make . . . recommendations to the Government”. In doing so the Government accepts that the commission could not make recommendations to the Government without that provision.
If we must have an explicit provision about something as natural as making a recommendation to the Government, how can the word "consult" be interpreted and distorted to include the word "co-operate"? This type of nonsense has emanated from various Ministers for Justice, Equality and Law Reform for many years. I wish they would start using the sort of English that the rest of us normally use in our ordinary lives.
Consultations can be ongoing and go on forever. People can consult all they like but there may never be an end result.
The word "operate" comes from the Latin word opera which means work. Co-operate means we must co-operate in work. For example, the United Nations could consult and decide it needs a report from Ireland on how it is complying with a variety of protocols and issues that it has signed up to. The commission would then be obliged to co-operate and give the information required. In relation to consultation, the commission is not obligated in any way to give the UN what they require. There is a fundamental difference between the two.
I am concerned about the reluctance to accept this amendment, particularly given our record. Ireland has agreed to a number of charters and conventions at international level but it has not ratified them at national level. Are we afraid that if we co-operate we will be shown in a bad light at international level? The Department seems to be afraid of this and that is why there is a reluctance to accept this simple addendum to this subsection. It makes a lot of common sense. If we have nothing to be afraid of then we should not be afraid to accept this amendment.
I have nothing further to add.
This is extremely unsatisfactory. The Minister of State says no and neither he nor anyone else will talk about it any more. This is Alice in Wonderland stuff. If he says consult means co-operate then we must all agree. That is not true. I am not saying he is being deliberately dishonest. I am saying it is not true to say that consult includes co-operate. We are in a position where a House of the Oireachtas is endeavouring to find out what legislation means, but the Government says it means what we think it means and we will not tell you any more about it. This is unsatisfactory.
Amendment put and declared lost.
I move amendment No. 6:
In page 7, paragraph (e), line 14, after “activities” to insert “including to assist in the formulation of programmes for the teaching of, and research into, human rights and to take part in their execution in schools, universities and professional bodies,”.
Who would think that this amendment, which explicitly refers to the possibility of a commission on human rights, would be unacceptable to the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform? The Department of Foreign Affairs does a remarkably good job at educating people about human rights abroad. It spends a considerable amount of resources on development, education and issues of human rights. It is good stuff which has been well researched and presented. It has had a considerable effect on the Irish public's perceptions of many things. It would be wonderful for an Irish commission on human rights to do the same thing.
Section 8(e) which reads “to promote understanding and awareness of the importance of human rights in the State . . . . .. to undertake, sponsor or commission, or provide financial . . . . for, research and educational activities,” is vague and inadequate. However, I do not wish to pursue this amendment too vigorously.
This amendment was discussed on Committee and Report Stages in the Dáil. I remain firm in my view that it is not needed. The provision in section 8(e) enables the commission to promote understanding and awareness of the importance of human rights in the State. That is the primary objective of the provision. For that purpose the commission can then undertake research and educational activities, sponsor or commission such activities or provide financial or other assistance for such activities. The role of assisting in the formulation of programmes for the teaching of and research into human rights and taking part in such activities in educational professional bodies is covered by section 8(e), particularly by the reference to undertaking research and educational activities throughout the State.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
I move amendment No. 7:
In page 7, paragraph (h), line 27, to delete “in its absolute discretion”.
This amendment deals with the right of the commission to apply to the High Court to appear as amicus curiae which my limited legal understanding and somewhat less limited Latin knowledge suggests is a friend of care. In other words, it refers to someone who will play a supportive role where a human rights issue is involved. Section 8(h) says that the commission may play such a role “.. in proceedings before the court that involved or are concerned with the human rights of any person and to appear as such . . . on foot of such liberty being granted . . . . ”, in other words, if the court allows him to do so. The subsection continues “.. (which liberty each of the said courts is hereby empowered to grant in its absolute discretion),”. I suspect that the words in brackets are probably unconstitutional because it is a gross interference with the rights of the courts. The courts have considerable rights to do what they wish. It is a gross presumption on the part of the Legislature to say that they could not do it if we did not let them.
These words remind me of some of the strange phraseology used in the Freedom of Information Act which warns the Judiciary that if they have access to confidential material for the purposes of a legal challenge they must not leak it to anyone. Some judge will read this and will react to the cheek of the Legislature to warn the Judiciary about how it should behave. This provision is like that. Adding the words "to grant in its absolute discretion" implies that without this phrase the Judiciary would have something less than absolute discretion. Given the type of argument the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform would normally use, the phrase "in its absolute discretion" is unnecessary. The courts have absolute discretion and the phrase should be deleted.
The provision in section 8(h) which gives the Human Rights Commission the power to take on the role of amicus curiae, or friend of the court, is a novel one which has been widely welcomed as an innovative and helpful measure.
The intention behind the phrase which the amendment seeks to delete is to underscore the fact that an application by the commission in a suitable case does not carry with it an automatic assumption that the court in some way is bound to accede to the request. A decision to allow the commission to appear in the role of amicus curiae must always rest with the court itself, taking into account all the circumstances of the particular case. To do otherwise could be seen as unjustified interference in the independence of the courts. It could well be, for example, that a party on one side or other of the argument might object strenuously to a third party involvement.
As I have said, this provision is a new one with which I do not wish to anticipate any teething troubles. However, there is always a question over what form the proposed intervention by the commission will take. It is easy to think of a case where a lawyer retained by the commission will seek to make an oral submission to the court. Where a judge, at the stage of giving leave to apply for judicial review or on a review of a case before the substantive hearing of the issue, receives such an application from a body such as the commission for leave to intervene and to be heard, he or she may consider that the most appropriate course at that stage is to restrict any leave which may be granted to furnish a written submission instead. It may be that at a later stage in the case a judge will be able to read this and determine whether an oral presentation or argument from the commission would be of sufficient assistance to justify adding an extra party to the litigation in process.
The court must have absolute discretion in these matters. The present wording makes that clear and I am not prepared to alter it in any way.
I do not share Senator Ryan's concerns in this matter. I do not think there is a difficulty on any occasion of reinforcing what we accept as normal court practice. Once a matter is presented for adjudication before the courts, there must be absolute discretion and independence of the courts. To reinforce this in legislation does not infer anything other than what it actually states. This is acceptable and Senator Ryan should have no undue concern about the matter.
Is the amendment being pressed?
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Question proposed: "That section 8 stand part of the Bill."
Section 8(d) states that the function of the Commission shall be:
either of its own volition or on being requested to do so by the Government, to make such recommendations to the Government as it deems appropriate in relation to the measures which the Commission considers should be taken to strengthen, protect and uphold human rights in the State.
Will the commission have the right to make such submissions public?
Paragraph 8(d) seeks to make recommendations to Government either on its own volition or on being requested on measures to strengthen, protect and uphold human rights in the State. This is a most important provision in the UN guidelines which develops the thinking behind the Paris Principle which states that whether a national institution can advise or assist Government on its own initiative will generally be a matter for enabling legislation. An institution may be empowered to advise at the request of the Government, or it may be granted a wider authority to submit unsolicited recommendation. Rarely, however, the UN points out, will a Government be legally compelled to refer legislative or other matters to a national institution. The Government has given the human rights commission a very wide role in this area by giving it the power to make unsolicited recommendations to the Government on its own initiative or on the basis of a request by the Government.
It is the intention that this provision will be used to the fullest possible extent. In the case of draft legislation, for example, the commission will have the power to examine any Bill for human rights implications. The Government for its part will be able to consult the commission in the policy formulation phase or the draft heads phrase in the preparation of draft legislation.
I would now like an answer to my question. Will the commission be able to make its recommendations public, yes or no?
Question put and agreed to.
Section 9 agreed to.
Question proposed: "That section 10 stand part of the Bill."
This is an important section which has to do with the provision of legal and other assistance. I am particularly concerned about subsection (5) relating to the assistance referred to in the preceding provisions. This assistance involves legal proceedings. Subsection (5) refers to the provision, or the arranging for the provision, of legal advice; the provision, or the arranging for the provision, of legal representation or the provision of such other assistance to the applicant as the commission deems appropriate in the circumstances. It is a question of assisting people in court cases involving human rights issues. What guarantee is there that the commission will have the resources to do this on a significant ongoing basis or will it resemble the Legal Aid Board where there are queues half a mile down the street?
My advice is that the Government is committed to making this a powerful body with wide-ranging powers.
That is not an adequate answer but I will not pursue the matter.
Question put and agreed to.
I move amendment No. 8:
In page 11, subsection 3(b), to delete all words from and including “and” in line 21, down to and including “force” in line 24.
The definition section reads, '"human rights" has (other than in section 11) the meaning assigned to it by section 2'. Section 2 reads, “In this Act (other than section 11) “human rights” means (a) the rights, liberties and freedoms conferred on, or guaranteed to, persons by the Constitution, and (b) the rights, liberties or freedoms conferred on, or guaranteed to, persons by any agreement, treaty or convention to which the State is a party”. Section 11 reads, “The Commission may institute proceedings in any court of competent jurisdiction for the purpose of obtaining relief of a declaratory or other nature in respect of any matter concerning the human rights of any person or class of persons”. This is fine. However, in this section where the commission may institute proceedings, human rights is redefined in a much narrower form. It means the rights, liberties and freedoms conferred on, or guaranteed to, persons by the Constitution and the rights, liberties or freedoms conferred on, or guaranteed to, persons by any agreement, treaty or convention to which the State is a party and which has been given the force of law in the State or by a provision of any such agreement, treaty or convention which has been given such force. Therefore, all the noble rhetoric to which we subscribed in so many international conventions is that these rights are fine, we think they are great, they make us sound lovely in the eyes of the world, but if an Irish citizen wishes to claim any of those rights the commission cannot take action to protect them.
My amendment seeks to delete the reference "and which has been given the force of law in the State or by a provision of any such agreement, treaty or convention which has been given such force". That is to narrow the definition of "human rights" where the commission could be active in vindicating human rights below the level at which the Bill in general defines them.
A more restrictive definition of human rights is necessary for the purposes of the Bill connected with the taking of legal proceedings by the Human Rights Commission as the courts can only deal with matters that are law for and in the State. There is no point in basing cases on human rights instruments which are not law in the State. While many such instruments have been signed and ratified by the State, it does not follow that the provisions of such instruments are cognisable or justiciable on their own in the State. They may be law for us on the international plane but on their own they cannot be pleaded before our courts. Article 15.2 of the Constitution provides that the sole power of making laws for the State is vested in the Oireachtas exclusively and Article 29.6 provides that no international agreement shall be part of the domestic law of the State save as may be determined by the Oireachtas.
The European Convention on Human Rights is a case in point, though the position in that regard will change in the not too distant future as action has to be taken to incorporate the convention into Irish law in the light of the obligation in the Good Friday Agreement to further develop and underpin the constitutional protection of human rights in this State.
To accept this amendment would be to make a nonsense of the commission's legislative powers. It simply cannot take cases based on rights which are not cognisable or justiciable under Irish law.
Is the implication in the first part of the section that the commission can only assist action in domestic courts? The incorporation of the European Convention into domestic law will greatly reduce the necessity for people to take cases to the European Court of Human Rights. Does this section provide powers for claimants to pursue their rights through the European Court of Human Rights if the commission feels they should do so?
Not to accept this amendment makes a total nonsense of our signing up to various conventions and charters at different levels, many of which have not been incorporated into our national legislation. This Bill further excludes them and compounds the offence in that we can only adjudicate on specific matters. There is duplicity and hypocrisy in the Irish Government signing up to various conventions and charters at European and international level and actively legislating to exclude them. That is what this section will do. I question the Government's sincerity in this area.
The Bill states that the commission may institute proceedings in any court of competent jurisdiction. Is the commission to be restricted to bringing cases to court within the jurisdiction of the Republic of Ireland? Will it be in a position to pursue violations in Belfast or Northern Ireland? Will it be entitled to pursue cases in the European Court of Justice? There is an element of hypocrisy in all this. Is this Bill being introduced so that the Taoiseach can put on a good face when he attends the Heads of State meeting in December to sign the revamped European Charter on Human Rights which is to be incorporated into Irish law?
I have outlined the reasons I am not accepting the amendment. Section 10 covers proceedings relating to the European Court of Human Rights and section 11 deals with cases before Irish courts.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Section 11 agreed to.
Question proposed: "That section 12 stand part of the Bill."
Section 12(4) states: "The Civil Service Commissioners Act, 1956, shall not apply to the appointment of a person as the chief executive." Why is that?
The overall intention behind this section is to underscore the commission's independence by giving it full control over the appointment of its staff, from the chief executive down.
Question put and agreed to.
Section 13 agreed to.
Question proposed: "That section 14 stand part of the Bill."
This section deals with the accountability of the chief executive to the Committee of Public Accounts. We all accept that it is good that such accountability exists. One could understand the inclusion of a provision in this section that a matter that is sub judice, confidential or a matter of policy for the commission in terms of human rights issues cannot be discussed. This is not the first time this type of provision has appeared in legislation.
Subsection (2) states: "In the performance of his or her duties under this section. . . . . [in other words, when he or she is appearing before the Committee of Public Accounts] . . . . .the chief executive shall not question or express an opinion on the merits of any policy of the Government or a Minister of the Government or on the merits of the objectives of such a policy."
It is a very independent commission.
This is an independent, powerful commission. I do not think this provision was meant to be incorporated into this legislation. It was merely included because such provisions are standard. In spite of its minimalist nature, it is clearly intended that the commission can criticise Government. One section states it can make recommendations to Government as it deems appropriate and another states it can take cases to the European Court of Human Rights or to the domestic courts. What is the sense in it being able to do all these things if the chief executive is to be silenced when he appears before the Committee of Public Accounts? Why should he not speak at that committee about things he can speak about everywhere else? Has everybody but Members of the Oireachtas got rights? Members are forever being told they must stick to the limited agenda of Dáil committees. That is quite extraordinary.
It is a standard provision. It is not the business of the chief executive to discuss commission policy.
We are down to fundamentals again. This appears to be a muzzling device.
No, it is normal procedure.
It may be normal procedure in departmental matters but the individual concerned is not a civil servant giving an account of specific matters within a Department to which the Minister has an opportunity of replying in the Dáil during the course of questions.
The Bill establishes an independent commission which will be free to do many good things regarding the protection and maintenance of human rights. We are now faced with the scenario that the chief executive will not be allowed to discuss such matters before a committee which is supposed to be transparent, open and accountable. Such person will not be permitted to answer questions put to him by the Oireachtas. Are we denying Members the right to question the commissioner and commission staff on the Government's record on human rights? This is a serious matter.
This section could not apply sensibly to an independent commission. I can understand that it could apply to a civil servant who transfers to it from a Department, given the strictures and restrictions that would apply in such a case. While the Minister can be questioned thoroughly in the other House on policy matters, this is an independent commission, not a Department. The section should provide more freedom and flexibility in this area. It inhibits freedom, accountability, openness and transparency.
I agree with what the Minister of State said as I was an accounting officer at one time. This matter is not the business of the chief executive. There is nothing in this section that ensures the commission would be muzzled. It could state what it would wish to state and one would presume it would do so. If it needs a mouthpiece, it will have a chairman who should be answerable to the Dáil and the various committees of the Oireachtas.
This section is narrowly drawn. It deals with the stewardship of the chief executive's responsibilities to run the organisation, to ensure those responsibilities are carried out, that its accounts are in order and so on. We are making a meal of this section. There is nothing in it that would prevent the commission from stating what it would want to state. The chief executive is responsible to the commission. It would be strange if he or she were to use, as a defence for not doing his or her own job, the fact that he or she did not like the law, the policy or some other matter. It is right that he or she should be asked to account for his or her responsibilities, but he or she should not speak on policy matters as they should be ventilated by the commission and by its chairman.
I was at one with Senator Hayes up to now. Section 15 deals with the accountability of the chief executive to other Oireachtas committees. I am a member of the Committee on European Affairs which is involved in drafting the European charter on fundamental rights and freedoms. Members of that committee would be interested in the views of a body such as the Irish Commission on Human Rights. The legislation provides that the chief executive of the commission, not its chairman, can come before the Committee on European Affairs and speak about whether the Government was right or wrong in the way it dealt with certain matters.
He would also come before the Committee of Public Accounts.
If he came before the Committee of Public Accounts, he would be told he could not speak on such matters. It goes without saying that the Committee of Public Accounts should deal with matters pertinent to public accounts. If the chief executive of the commission was asked questions by the chairman of that committee, he would have to say that while he would like to answer them, he is not be permitted to do so under law. He could tell the chairman of that committee, Deputy Jim Mitchell, that if his brother, Deputy Gay Mitchell, who is a member of the Committee on European Affairs, asked him to answer such questions at a meeting of that committee he would be able to do so.
The chief executive officer is concerned with administrative matters. If an Oireachtas committee wants to talk to the commission on policy matters, it can meet its members and discuss it with them.
Question put and agreed to.
Sections 15 agreed to.
Question proposed: "That section 16 stand part of the Bill."
As is usual, the section provides that various matters must be dealt with quickly. It states that accounts must be kept and shall be submitted not later than three months after the end of the accounting period to which they relate by the commission to the Comptroller and Auditor General and, immediately after the audit, a copy of the income and expenditure account, the balance sheet and of such other accounts kept and a copy of the Comptroller and Auditor General's report on the accounts shall be presented to the Minister who shall cause copies thereof to be laid before each House of the Oireachtas. However, it is open to the Minister to do that whenever he or she gets around to doing it.
Senator Quinn, my colleague on the Independent benches, has made it a matter of principle that there is no excuse for applying a time limit to others in dealing with a matter but allowing the Minister concerned to dawdle by laying copies of a report before the Houses of the Oireachtas whenever he or she gets around to it. A timescale similar to what which applies to submission of accounts in this case, whether it be two months or three months, ought to apply to the period within which a Minister, having received a report such as this, will lay it before the Houses of the Oireachtas. The making public of reports such as those on the conditions in our psychiatric hospitals and reports of prison visitation committees has been delayed not only for months but for years because what was in them was inconvenient for the Government to deal with or its members were too busy or too indifferent to do so. A time limit ought to apply within which reports, having been received by Ministers, should be laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas.
Question put and agreed to.
Sections 17 to 23, inclusive, agreed to.
Question proposed: "That section 24 stand part of the Bill."
This section deals with provision for a review of the commission's effectiveness. It states that the commission shall, before the expiration of the period of two years from the establishment day, make to the Government a report containing such recommendations as it thinks fit for improving the effectiveness of the commission and the effectiveness of any of the functions conferred on it by this Bill. Will that report be made public?
Yes. As I indicated earlier, the report will be made public.
If that is the case, and I am glad it is, why is there no provision in the legislation for the human rights commission to be covered by the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act?
I am advised it will be covered by an amendment to the Schedule in respect of that Act.
Undoubtedly it could be covered by an amendment. If the Minister is saying the Government intends to amend the Schedule to ensure the human rights commission will be covered by the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act, I am glad to hear that.
I gave the House the advice that was conveyed to me.
Question put and agreed to.
Sections 25 and 26 agreed to.
Title agreed to.
Bill reported without amendment and received for final consideration.
Question proposed: "That the Bill do now pass."
It is frustrating to deal with a Bill in such detail and to end up discovering there is not the remotest chance that perfectly reasonable amendments tabled and supported by such eminent figures as Senator Maurice Hayes will be considered. With regard to legislation emanating from the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, it has been my experience as a Member of this House that if legislation originates in this House, virtually no amendments will be accepted to it here and it will be amended extensively in the Dáil, whereas if legislation originates in the Dáil, it will be amended extensively there and no amendments to it by Members of this House will be accepted here. The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform should come around to accepting there is not one but two Houses of the Oireacthas.
I share Senator Ryan's concern that none of the amendments tabled was accepted. This is a most important Bill and some of the amendments tabled would have improved it. Given the contributions made in respect of those amendments, it is disappointing the Minister of State could not see his way to accepting some of them, although I am sure he was operating under instructions not to accept any of them.
For many people, the human rights commission is one of the most important parts of the Good Friday Agreement. I wish it well, although the Bill that will give effect to it would have been improved by the acceptance of some of the amendments tabled.
I thank those Senators who contributed to the debate on this Bill. It will create a human rights commission with the means and powers to protect human rights in this State. Ireland has an enviable record in the protection and vindication of human rights. The Constitution with its bill of rights, together with the case law developed by our courts, has proven to be a living and evolving guardian of our fundamental rights. The protection of those rights is further guaranteed by the functions conferred by this legislation on the human rights commission, the full realisation that human rights is achieved through adequate legislation, appropriate administration arrangements and informed community awareness of those rights. I am confident that the Bill, as passed, fully embraces these requirements and tasks the commission with a wide and challenging job.
I wish also to acknowledge the contributions of the many non-governmental organisations which have given comments and observations during the drafting process. It may be seen from a comparison with the draft heads of the Bill that the Bill as passed reflects the import of those observations in many key areas and is a better Bill, as a result.
The commission to be established by the Bill, as the Taoiseach said in his statement in December 1998, will be a model for others as this legislation leads rather than follows standards of best international practice for such human rights institutions as are laid down in the 1993 Paris Principles.
In an all-Ireland context the commission will play a crucial role, through the work of the joint committee to be established with the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, in drawing up a charter open to signature by all democratic political parties reflecting and endorsing agreed measures of protection of the fundamental rights of everyone living in the island of Ireland.
It remains for me, on behalf of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, to wish the commission every success as it undertakes this new and important protection of human rights.
Question put and agreed to.
Sitting suspended at 5.35 p.m. and resumed at 6 p.m.