The Order of Business is No. 1, Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Bill 2015 - Committee Stage (resumed), to be taken at 12.45 p.m.
Order of Business
All too often the system fails people and it often fails the most vulnerable and those who cannot speak up for themselves. When the system fails the citizens, it is the responsibility of the State to acknowledge that it has failed, give assistance and right the wrong perpetrated. In the case of Louise O'Keeffe the State failed the citizen. It failed to protect her when she was in national school and failed to give assistance and protection when the abuse became known. Instead of the State acknowledging its wrong and failure, Louise O'Keeffe had to take it to the High Court and the Supreme Court and eventually to the European Court of Human Rights which ruled against it.
Now, however, the State is taking the narrowest possible view of that ruling. Louise O'Keeffe said she had been asked to attend a meeting with the Government and this was, on her own interpretation, to give a veneer of activity masquerading as action. She has described the Government's current behaviour as deplorable. I am seeking an amendment to the Order of Business in order that the Minister for Education and Skills would attend the House to explain why the State is continuing to fail to assist those who have been wronged and who failed to get the protection they rightly deserved from the Government.
I see from the Government's legislative programme which was announced yesterday that one of the Bills promised by the Minister for Finance in 2012 is not in it. It concerns the protection of the national anthem the copyright of which has expired. Given the historic significance of 2016, the national anthem should be protected from any inappropriate use. We will be publishing a copyright Bill to this end and I hope the Leader and the Deputy Leader will provide Government time to pass it. It would protect the anthem which is a national symbol and deserves to be protected. I hope the measure will attract cross-party support and that the Government will accept it.
Will the Senator clarify the amendment?
The amendment to the Order of Business asks the Minister for Education and Skills to come to the House to discuss the Louise O'Keeffe case, the Government's treatment of the European Court's ruling and its narrow interpretation of it.
I note the commencement of the Fines Act which is a significant development in terms of penal reform that occurred in recent days. This means that we will finally see an end to the automatic practice of imprisoning people for non-payment of fines. This is an issue on which we are all united in this House. There has been a general consensus that we need to end the practice whereby every year thousands of people are sent to prison. It is usually for very short periods of time but, nonetheless, it is a huge burden on those individuals and the prison system. We will now finally see an end to that system, with a much more streamlined and fairer criminal justice system emerging as a result. People will be given alternatives of paying fines by instalments, attachment of earnings or community service, rather than having to go to prison for non-payment of fines.
The Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, made the announcement on foot of relevant IT systems being put in place by the Courts Service, as required to implement the Fines Act. I very much welcome that measure and know that other colleagues will join me in doing so. If time permits, I ask the Leader to arrange for a debate on penal reform. The Government's record on penal reform has been strong, although it may have been generally overlooked. We have seen important and humane initiatives such as the closure of St. Patrick's Institution for young offenders which we all welcomed before the Christmas recess. In addition, the ending of the process of slopping out in Mountjoy Prison and elsewhere has been proceeding quietly across the prison system, but with little public awareness of it. If time permits at some point during the lifetime of this Seanad, I would like us to have a debate on the progress made on the issue of penal reform, as well as on the other relevant steps that need to be taken. They include, in particular, the recommendations made in the report of the justice committee on penal reform which was published some years ago.
I commend the child care initiative being taken by the Labour Party, including the announcement of a proposed policy to make child care more affordable for parents. It seeks to place a cap on the hourly rate which people pay for child care. Deputy Ciara Conway was on radio this morning talking about this matter which is also reported in today's newspapers. Child care is a major cost for so many parents, particularly in Dublin where we see crèches and after-school facilities charging high amounts. Clearly this is a real burden for working parents; therefore, I ask the Leader for a debate on the matter if time permits.
I also wish to note the publication this week of Standing up for Working People, the Labour Party's plan for fairness and decency at work. One aspect of the plan covers the policy that those engaged in freelance work such as freelance journalists or actors should be entitled to engage in collective bargaining. I hope we will be able to address that matter in Private Members' time in the near future.
I wish to speak for one moment about Professor Frank Pantridge. He would have been 100 years old this year, but, unfortunately, he died in 2004. His contribution to cardiology continues in hospitals, sports clubs and public places and is immense because in 1965 he invented the defibrillator. It is something that has saved many people's lives who would otherwise have died. We debated a Bill on this matter two or three years ago and adjourned the debate when the Minister said he wanted to consider the Bill, yet nothing has happened since. Something must happen on this issue. I very much doubt that we will get a chance to debate it again in this Seanad, but we should certainly call on the Minister to do something about it. Professor Pantridge worked in the Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast. Speaking about his invention on BBC Radio Ulster in 1998, he said he did not create the device for personal gain or prestige but simply to save lives. He added: "People were getting cardiac arrests in a situation where the heart stops. In the casualty department people were arriving dead, having died in the ambulance." He went on to say, "My objective was to have almost a pocket defibrillator, if that was possible." He went on to produce one. When we debated defibrillator legislation, the House was fully behind the Bill, but we adjourned the debate on it with one minute to go to give the Minister time to consider the costs. Nothing has happened since and we have not been able to achieve what we set out to do. Perhaps what we set out to achieve was a little too much. We said there should be a defibrillator in every building that had 100 people per day going through it, but that did not happen. It was suitable that the Leader was able to find time for statements on innovation and jobs yesterday evening, which was attended by the Minister of State, Deputy Damien English. However, could we ask the Minister to do something about the defibrillator legislation in order that its provisions could somehow be put into operation to save lives?
I welcome yesterday's announcement by the Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton, that Mr. David Begg will be the new chairperson of the Pensions Authority. In this position, Mr. Begg will bring with him extensive expertise in trade union affairs, pensions and corporate governance. I wish him well in his forthcoming role.
Last July I expressed my abhorrence and disdain at the treatment given to Clerys workers following the sudden closure of their department store. There is no doubt that their treatment was totally unacceptable, as many of my colleagues in this House agreed. Clerys had a loyal work force, many of whom had worked in excess of 40 years and gave their entire working lives to the company. Legal issues were totally disregarded by the management. The legal requirement for a consultation period of 30 days with employees was not implemented prior to the redundancies in the company. It is necessary to urgently amend sections of the Protection of Employment Act. As legislators, we must ensure issues such as those in Clerys are addressed with appropriate protective legislation. No doubt, we will encounter similar treatment of workers by other employers if we do not take immediate action. We must do something urgently.
I am calling for an urgent debate on this issue and for the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Gerald Nash, who was in the House yesterday and recently issued a report to the Government on the sale and liquidation of Clerys, to debate this issue with Members in the Seanad as soon as possible.
I welcome the political reforms announced by the Taoiseach on 5 January 2016 and circulated to us the next day by the Oireachtas Library and Research Service. The reforms include election of the Ceann Comhairle by a secret ballot, the proportional allocation of chairs of Oireachtas committees using the D'Hondt method and regular appearances by the Taoiseach before the working group of committee chairs. These reforms harmonise with the recommendations made by the Smaointe group of four leading political scientists, Prof. David Farrell, Dr. Eoin O' Malley, Dr. Theresa Reidy and Dr. Jane Suiter. This group is concerned about the guillotine motion which is also a concern of the Leader. The use of the guillotine motion was why the President had convened the Council of State to review legislation during the Christmas recess. The work of political reform is important and the reform initiatives are welcome. The observations of the four political scientists are also welcome.
I note that Standard & Poor's rating agency has taken a dim view of the regulation of the insurance sector in Ireland. The Taoiseach was dealing with this matter also during the past week. I am concerned there is a possibility for €92 million of liability from the Setanta Insurance company, even though the company, as the Central Bank stated today, was prudentially regulated in Malta. How on earth a Maltese liability ended up here should be discussed in this House. We also have concerns about the insurance industry not rewarding areas where the OPW has installed flood defences. There is also the matter of the Quinn Insurance company bankruptcy. The insurance sector requires tighter regulation.
There are also fears, as reported by Daniel McConnell, that we may be returning to the era of pro-cyclical budgets and concerns are being expressed by the European Union. It is very important to make it explicit that revenues from corporate tax which grew exceptionally quickly in the last quarter are sustainable increases and there is not a round of budget promises which would return the State into the financial difficulties which this Oireachtas was elected to correct.
The BT Young Scientist awards were announced last week. Thousands of excellent projects were submitted by students. I went to see projects from my own local secondary school, St. Nathy's College, and it was fascinating to see the level of thinking among young children. I listened to a radio interview with a young person from County Longford who had submitted a project. He assessed the possibility of a link between prescription charges and the increased numbers of patients on trolleys in hospitals. It appears there is a direct link. People are not buying their medication and it results in pressure in emergency departments. This young student found that the number of patients on trolleys has increased by 112% directly because of prescription charges. Perhaps we should take on board some of these ideas and research by young people.
I now turn to the Boundary Commission which is reviewing the boundary at Monksland in County Roscommon with a view to moving it into County Westmeath and thereby into Leinster. I believe the Boundary Commission seems to have a job for life. When I ran for the council elections in 2004, I ran in the Ballaghaderreen electoral area. When I ran in the general election in 2007, it was Roscommon-South Leitrim. When I ran in the council elections in 2009, it was Ballaghaderreen-Castlerea. When I ran in the general election in 2011, it was still Roscommon-South Leitrim. Now it is going to be changed to Roscommon-East Galway. Previously it was Roscommon-Longford, Roscommon-Mayo and so on. However, the boundaries have now changed again for the local elections. It is no longer Ballaghaderreen-Castlerea but Ballaghaderreen-Boyle. There seems to be a change by the Boundary Commission for every single election. My point is that people in County Roscommon will not tolerate, under any circumstances, the notion that an area of 30 sq. km. of land with 7,000 people would be taken into another province. It simply will not be tolerated. I ask the Leader to invite the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly, to the House to discuss the matter. It is an issue in four regions in the State, but there is no way that a land grab by other counties will be allowed by people in County Roscommon.
Ballaghaderreen will stay in Mayo for football.
There was a disturbing, if alarmist, article in the Irish Daily Mail last week about leaving certificate and junior certificate examination marking. When I was a teacher, I was involved in the marking of examination papers. At the time an examiner had to sign a document regarding confidentiality. It is possible I am now breaching that, but I hope Oireachtas protection will come into play. I have the utmost confidence in the marking system and the way in which the marking is administered by the Department. It is of real importance to young students who have given five years of study that their papers be examined dispassionately, accurately and professionally. However, there are always a few bad apples in every barrel which need weeding out. They can be difficult to identify and deal with. I ask the Leader to request that the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, extend the period of training for examiners. It is currently only two days in Athlone during which time they are to comprehend how the system works and how to put it into practice. This is not enough training, especially for new examiners. I understand it would incur some expense, but I believe it should be extended to at least one full week. This may cut down and minimise the mistakes made in the marking of examination papers. It would also identify possible weak links - in my experience, there are very few - in order that they could be spotted and eliminated from the system in time. That is my response to the article in the Irish Daily Mail.
I offer my full support to Senator John Kelly. While it might suit Galway to weaken Roscommon from a football perspective, we are certainly full square behind County Roscommon in its fight to hold on to the Monksland area. Taking the area into County Westmeath would impoverish County Roscommon and it would lose a significant rates base. It would have a major, detrimental impact on the county of Roscommon and the services there. The county can be assured that the Oireachtas representatives from County Galway strongly support County Roscommon in retaining the current county boundaries.
With regard to Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh's Commencement matter this morning on the cost of car insurance for young drivers and those who drive older cars, I agree with many of the good points made by the Senator. The cost of insurance is causing hardship for many. However, the Senator knows there is a limit to what Government can do and it is precluded by EU rules from interfering in the insurance market. I am glad that the review of the insurance sector is being conducted by the Department of Finance, the Central Bank and other agencies. There are some steps the Government can take and I would like to see a serious analysis of why the cost of insurance has risen so dramatically for certain people in certain sectors. One of the reasons is that we all pay to cover the costs of significant claims of uninsured drivers.
I would like to see a Government tackling this issue head on. There are things that could be done. If somebody goes out on the road in an uninsured car, not only does he or she put the lives of others at risk but it penalises other drivers whose premiums will be hiked. That car should be confiscated and the person concerned should not be allowed back on the road for a significant period. There have been several high profile cases reported in the media this year of fraudulent claims. There is an opportunity for further significant savings in this area. I hope the review of the insurance sector by the Government and the Central Bank will bring about significant reductions in insurance premiums.
I welcome the launch today of Ireland’s first national physical activity plan by the Ministers for Transport, Tourism and Sport and Health to increase by at least 50,000 every year the number of people taking exercise as a normal part of their daily lives. I welcome the support for community walking groups, the active school flag programme and building on initiatives to get Ireland swimming, cycling and running.
Is the Senator seeking a debate on the matter?
This is very significant. We heard a lot of talk yesterday about obesity. This is part of a plan to make us a much healthier nation.
Tacaím leis an méid atá ráite ag an Seanadóir Ó Dálaigh maidir le cás Louise O'Keeffe agus leis an leasú atá molta aige. I second Senator Mark Daly’s proposal for a debate on the issues arising from the Louise O’Keeffe ruling.
Some Senators have welcomed the appointment of Mr. David Begg to the Pensions Authority. I am not raising an issue about an individual, but I am concerned about the method by which the appointment was made. The Government promised us transparency and a new way of doing business. That the chairperson of the Pensions Authority has been appointed and the Public Appointments Service, PAS, has been circumvented in the dying days of the Government worries me. I hope the Leader will assure us that we will not see a raft of cronies appointed by Ministers to State boards, etc. in the dying days of the Government because they promised us this would not happen. It does not send a very good signal that the Tánaiste has done this. I do not see why it could not have been done through the PAS.
Does the Senator think Mr. Begg is not qualified?
I am not raising an issue about the individual but the process of the appointment.
The man in question has been mentioned and is highly qualified.
The issue is not about the individual but the method of appointment.
That is why we do not allow names to be bandied about on the Order of Business or in the House. Mr. Begg is not here to defend himself.
I note that the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs is this morning facing questions before a United Nations committee on Ireland’s children's rights record. Senator Ivana Bacik has been talking about the Labour Party’s child care initiative, which I look forward to reading. The issues being raised today in Geneva, however, point to a failure by the Government to implement many of the promises it made five years ago. Issues to be raised in Geneva include non-Christian children accessing State-funded schools; inadequate resources for Garda vetting procedures for adults working with children; lack of a rights-based framework for children with disabilities; the continued failure of local authorities to provide adequate housing for Traveller children and their families; the failure to recognise Travellers as an ethnic minority and the continued holding of asylum-seeking children in direct provision centres, sometimes for their entire lives. There is also the issue that the Ombudsman cannot investigate issues relating to direct provision. Child poverty rates and the trauma experienced by children living in emergency accommodation, etc. will also be raised. The score card is not very strong for the Government. We have debated this issue regularly because there is a certain amount of expertise on it in this House, which deepens the debate. Although there are only a few more days of this Seanad left, if there is time in the programme I would welcome a debate on these issues. The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs might be willing to come into the House when he comes back from Geneva to discuss what was raised there. That debate could be one of great importance.
The Irish Independent today quotes the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, as saying: "The State has never invested in childcare and, as the economy recovers, it is time to change that for once and for all." I have the height of respect for the Minister. She sat in this House and I was proud to be one of her colleagues, but is she living in the real world? I have been involved in child care for almost 20 years. From 1997 until Fianna Fáil left office in 2011, millions of euro, if not several billion, were invested in child care, specifically in a capital programme that resulted in the provision of superb facilities across the country. In my town of Drumshanbo we have a dedicated child care facility which looks after 120 children of all ages. Most of the people, sadly because of failed Government economic policies, benefit from a State subsidy given to those in receipt of social welfare. A significant proportion of the people accessing child care, particularly in rural Ireland, and in some urban parts, gain from Fianna Fáil initiatives dating back over 20 years in respect of child care.
Although a large amount of money was given to provide for state-of-the-art facilities, of which people are proud, the high cost of providing child care remains a problem for those in what is called the “squeezed middle”. I have repeatedly raised this issue in the House, going back several years. It is a bit hollow and cynical that in its dying days the Government which has been in office for five years talks about considering child care costs. The Labour Party is engaging in more auction politics to attract votes from the “squeezed middle”. I am not in any way diminishing the financial difficulties faced by the middle classes, although I hate using such terms, those with incomes who find it increasingly difficult to make ends meet, not only because of child care costs but also mortgage costs and the cost of living. The figure of €25,000 is given as the annual cost of living in Dublin.
The problem is one of rising child care costs and nothing has been done to address that issue. It diminishes the Government to suggest there has been no investment by the State in child care facilities. If that is its message, it will not gain votes because people, particularly in my county and town, know that excellent child care facilities have been provided and that those who are unable to pay, mainly those on social welfare, are able to access a State subsidy and that it does not cost them so much. This Labour Party initiative is a cynical exercise in trying to attract votes.
I totally understand the Cathaoirleach’s desire to hold on to Ballaghdereen in County Mayo, from a football point of view, but we are all very concerned at this infringement by one county on another or by their aggrandisement. I, too, would like to hear from the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly, on this matter. The Leader has some experience of it between Waterford and Kilkenny. There are other proposals in other parts of the country. It is not desirable and it would be interesting to hear the Minister outline what rationale, if any, is behind it. Let our views be heard. There should be no final decisions by anybody on any of this.
I concur with Senator Sean D. Barrett in his general welcome for the many proposals on Dáil reform being discussed and presumably decided on in the other House.
The process of political reform which is sought and accepted by the public is undermined by decisions such as the one raised by Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh, namely, the appointment to a significant post of responsibility of a person without going through the proper channels. We cannot dispute the credentials of the person appointed to the Pensions Authority. He played a key role in the broader partnership process, but a commitment was given to process State appointments and political appointments at all levels in a different fashion. Sadly, that has not happened. That undermines the concept of political reform and is a retrograde step in that regard.
On the proposals being debated elsewhere, I note that one of them suggests the election of the Ceann Comhairle be by secret ballot. The question that will be asked in this House is whether the measure will spread to the election of the Cathaoirleach of the Seanad by secret ballot, but that is a debate for this House on another occasion.
Political reform drips very slowly. I welcome the document produced yesterday - all documents produced add to the political reform mix - but point out that on 26 February 2002, not 2010 or 2008, the Oireachtas agreed to a series of political reform measures relating to the work of the Oireachtas, the work of committees, having a separate committee week, membership of committees and much more. Ten or 12 measures, including the introduction of electronic voting in the Dáil Chamber, which went ahead, were not just agreed to within the parties but were officially launched in a document and a press conference held under the chairmanship of the then Government Whip, Seamus Brennan, to announce that suite of political reform measures in 2002, which were agreed by all sides of the House. I recall it vividly because I was a member of the Whips committee at the time. All parties agreed to a significant degree of political reform within the House which would have transformed the way the House did its business. That was on 26 February 2002 and if the Leader wants to find the document, it is resting at peace in the Oireachtas Library. One of the problems we have is that great ideas are put forward by all sides of the House and on occasion are accepted, but they are then forgotten about. It is like the 1991 report on local government reform, the Barrington report, which was agreed to by every member of all parties on all sides of the Dáil and the Seanad, which is also resting at peace in the Oireachtas Library. When we come up with proposals and ideas, we must follow them through. As a former Member of the other House, I can say that if the 2002 proposals had been enacted, the work of that House - presumably, it would have drifted into this House also - would have been transformed in a progressive way. One of the suggestions was that there be a Member's hour each week whereby a backbench Member of the House would be allowed a full hour to raise subjects of his or her choice. Its purpose was to engage Members of the Oireachtas in genuine parliamentary debate and reform and it is disappointing that an agreed document launched 14 years ago remains on the shelf.
In terms of what is happening in the other House on political reform, if we are to do something similar here, we should do more than debate it. We should initiate it because parties on all sides of the House but, more importantly, every citizen of the country, will benefit from political reform and turning the two Houses of the Oireachtas into genuine debating Chambers where ideas are brought forward, listened to with respect, regardless of who brings them forward, and, if appropriate, acted on. We need to have grown up politics in the future.
Will the Leader arrange for the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade to come to the House? It has been reported that the Government is refusing to follow the lead of many other countries which have declared that the barbaric treatment and murder of Christians in the Middle East is tantamount to genocide. It would be sad if the Government was denying that this is the case and not supporting that call by many states. Calling it genocide means that the perpetrators will have to face the consequences of their actions in due course under international law; therefore, it would be highly desirable that we would have the Minister here to clarify the Government's position in that regard and whether these reports are accurate or inaccurate.
I refer briefly to the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs who appeared before the Human Rights Committee of the United Nations, which is somewhat of a misnomer in terms of that committee, but let us call it by its official title, even if it does not live up to the name. He mentioned specifically children who grew up in households where parents were effectively precluded from paid work and said they would struggle to be included in mainstream society in any meaningful way. He said we knew that household joblessness could lead to the transmission of poverty from one generation to the next and referred to the consequences for children in this regard. He said a good social policy and a strong expression of children's rights gave every child the opportunity to realise his or her full potential. That is rhetoric but solid, tangible policy formulation and implementation is needed to achieve it. I refer to good social policy.
My question, to which we might ask the Minister to come to the House to reply, is about the initiatives being planned by the Government to support the institution of marriage. We know from CSO statistics and much social research in other countries, apart from the small amount of research conducted here, that single mothers rearing children, in particular, are likely to suffer from the more extreme elements of poverty. They are not often in a position to work and, in general, they are very disadvantaged and not supported by the fathers of their children. That in itself is sufficient motivation for the Government to have a fairly proactive policy on ensuring the institution of marriage is promoted and encouraged in a way that will reduce the number of children born outside marriage where they are at much greater risk of living in poverty and being disadvantaged in the early formative stage of their lives, which subsequently has lifelong effects on them in terms of disadvantage when they grow up. I would like the Minister to come to the House to discuss that issue.
I record my support for Louise O'Keeffe regarding recent media interviews and how she has been treated by the State over successive years. She has demonstrated, not only on her own behalf but on behalf of other abuse victims, tenacity and a thirst for justice over many years. She took her initial complaint in 1997 and went to the High Court in 2004, the Supreme Court in 2006 and applied to the European Court of Human Rights in 2009. We have seen this case played out over the terms of three successive Fianna Fáil Governments and, subsequently, this Government. I have no difficulty with the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, coming to the House to explain, but I would prefer a much more detailed brief on where the State Claims Agency sits on this issue with reference to other cases. I understand the Minister has said she does not have all the available information to hand. Therefore, while I have sympathy for the amendment proposed to the Order of Business, I would much prefer to wait for the information from the State Claims Agency. Any abuse victim will say it is never about the money. It is not and should never be about the money in terms of recompense for very grave and difficult situations in which children were placed. However, every victim should be entitled to recognition for what he or she suffered and this is one way in which the Government could make redress to the victims concerned.
On the point raised by Senators Máiría Cahill and Mark Daly about-----
I am sorry for interrupting the Leader, but I omitted to second Senator Mark Daly's amendment. Please forgive me.
On the question raised by Senators Máiría Cahill and Mark Daly, since taking office the Government has sought to provide appropriate redress for those who experienced abuse and mistreatment across the State. In 2012 it established a residential institutions statutory fund to provide housing, health services and educational support for those who had survived physical, emotional and sexual abuse in residential educational institutions. We also commissioned a report to examine what had happened in the Magdalen laundries and in 2013 put in place a compensation scheme and made available medical support for the women whose lives had been irreparably damaged. A redress scheme was also established for survivors of the barbaric symphysiotomy procedures. It is right that the Government has acted to right some of the wrongs of the past. It is even more important that we continue to act to prevent future generations of children from experiencing such abuse. That is why the Government called for the holding of a referendum to enshrine the rights of children in the Constitution which was comfortably passed by the people. It is also why the Government has placed the Children First guidelines on a statutory footing, with mandatory reporting of all child protection concerns. It is the reason legislation is passing through the other House to improve our approach to the vetting of those who have contact with children.
The Senators are right in saying that in 2014 the European Court of Human Rights ruled in favour of Louise O'Keeffe and found that there had been a violation of Articles 3 and 13 of the convention. The court awarded her €30,000 in damages and €85,000 in expenses. The Government did not quibble with this judgment in any way but moved immediately to make the payment to Ms O'Keeffe and publish and disseminate the findings of the court. Both the Taoiseach and the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, immediately apologised to Ms O'Keeffe and the survivors of sexual abuse in schools for our collective failure to protect a generation of children from such appalling and degrading treatment. The Government also began an immediate examination of the general measures that might be required to meet the terms of the judgment and ensure the safety and protection of all children in the State. The commencement of the Children First Act has been part of its general response. The commencement of the vetting Act will, as I said, be another important step in this regard. The Children First interdepartmental implementation group has been specifically tasked with carrying out a detailed review of current and planned child protection mechanisms in the school system to assess the extent to which issues identified in the judgment have been addressed in the period since 1973.
The judgment in the O'Keeffe case relates to cases in which there was a prior complaint about sexual abuse to the school authority and in which no effective action was taken and children subsequently suffered. There is, however, no strict interpretation of what constitutes a prior complaint. Claimants are not required to come up with specific proof. While the State must be satisfied that, on the balance of probabilities, there was a prior complaint, it does not insist on a strict evidential standard being met in assessing the material put forward by an applicant. An holistic approach in analysis has been taken and that is the basis on which the Government is offering an ex gratia payment to those who suffered historical sexual abuse. Under the approach agreed to by the Government, we have already reached settlements with six other individuals who experienced sexual abuse in school. Payments have been made to each of them.
I know that Ms O'Keeffe disagrees with this approach to a compensation scheme and that her views are heartfelt and expressed only with a wish to advance the cases of those who suffered in school. The State, however, has a broader obligation. While we have to take the view that we have to right some of the wrongs of the past, we also have to protect the resources of the State for investment in the safety of the next generation of children. The Government is taking the proper approach and striking the right balance. Therefore, I do not propose to accept the amendment to the Order of Business proposed by Senator Mark Daly, although I have expressed a comprehensive view on the Government's stance on and approach to the matter. Rather than proposing an amendment to the Order of Business, the Senator might raise the matter for discussion in the Commencement debate if he is seeking further information on it. I am sure the Minister will come into the House to take that debate.
Senator Ivana Bacik welcomed the commencement of the Fines Act, an issue we discussed previously. Rather than have people going to prison, there can now be an attachment of earnings order and other arrangements, which should be welcomed by all. The Senator also called for a debate on penal reform and rightly pointed out that we had seen very positive improvements under the Government in that regard. I do not think we will have time in the next few weeks, but we will try to see whether we can have a debate on the issue.
The cost of child care was referred to by a number of Senators. Senator Paschal Mooney discussed the high cost involved for the squeezed middle and he is right. Although I agree with him that there has been significant State investment in facilities, I can assure him that I have no intention of having a debate in this House on any of the promises or proposals of any political party prior to an election.
I am sorry I was tempted.
Senator Feargal Quinn spoke about the availability of defibrillators, a matter he has raised on several occasions. As he mentioned, even if it was over-ambitious, we should certainly do something about the issue. I will raise it again with the Minister for Health, as I have on several occasions, to see if we can come up with some concrete proposals to advance it. I firmly believe it should be advanced.
Senator Terry Brennan welcomed the appointment of a gentleman to a new position, while Senators Trevor Ó Clochartaigh and Paul Bradford questioned the method by which he had been appointed.
Deputy Ciara Conway did so, too.
The matter has been raised by all Senators and people can view it in whichever way they wish.
Senator Terry Brennan also spoke about the Clerys' workers and the Protection of Employment Act and suggested there might be a need for an amendment to it to protect workers' rights. My understanding is that another workplace relations Bill will be brought before us in the next week or two. I hope it will address some of the concerns outlined by the Senator.
Senators Sean D. Barrett and Michael Mullins, among other Senators, raised concerns about the insurance industry. Senator Sean D. Barrett said there was a need for greater regulation, while Senator Michael Mullins spoke about the review of the industry which had been undertaken by the Government and the Central Bank and which had been welcomed. I note the points he made about the cost of insurance for young drivers. I think everybody agrees on the issue of uninsured drivers, which is driving up the cost of insurance. The Senator called for greater penalties in this regard. His suggestion that vehicles be confiscated straightaway should be acted on. I also note his points about the making of fraudulent claims.
Senators John Kelly, Paul Coghlan and Michael Mullins addressed the issue of boundary changes. Although that is the last thing we should be debating at this point, I note the points made by Senator John Kelly and others.
Senator Ned O'Sullivan spoke about the marking of examination papers and the need for greater training for examiners and so on. His point is valid and I will bring it to the attention of the Minister for Education and Skills.
Senator Michael Mullins welcomed the launch of the recently announced new physical activity plan.
Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh raised the issue of children's rights, a matter which was also raised by Senator Jim Walsh. I will endeavour to have the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs come to the House before the upcoming general election to debate the issue.
I have addressed the points raised by Senators Paschal Mooney and Paul Coghlan.
Senators Paul Bradford and Sean D. Barrett raised the issue of political reform, although most of the reforms spoken about concerned the other House. While I welcome the proposed reforms, I do not propose to arrange a debate in this House on the reform of the other House. We have enough to do to organise our own affairs.
Senator Jim Walsh referred to the murder of Christians in the Middle East, which is appalling. I suggest the Senator table the issue for discussion in the Commencement debate with the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade. On the issue of support for the institution of marriage, I can assure the Senator that the Government is very supportive of the institution of marriage.
I am far from assured.
I hope I have addressed all of the matters raised and apologise if I have not done so. As I said, I do not propose to accept the amendment proposed to the Order of Business.
Senator Mark Daly has proposed an amendment to the Order of Business, "That a debate with the Minister for Education and Skills on the Government's interpretation of the ruling of the European Court of Human Right in the case of Louise O'Keeffe be taken today." Is the amendment being pressed?
I thank the Leader for his comprehensive reply on the action taken thus far, but in the light of Ms O'Keeffe's concerns about how other victims are being treated, I propose to press the amendment.
- Bacik, Ivana.
- Brennan, Terry.
- Burke, Colm.
- Cahill, Máiría.
- Coghlan, Paul.
- Comiskey, Michael.
- Conway, Martin.
- Cummins, Maurice.
- D'Arcy, Jim.
- D'Arcy, Michael.
- Hayden, Aideen.
- Henry, Imelda.
- Keane, Cáit.
- Kelly, John.
- Landy, Denis.
- Moloney, Marie.
- Mulcahy, Tony.
- Mullins, Michael.
- Naughton, Hildegarde.
- Noone, Catherine.
- O'Brien, Mary Ann.
- O'Neill, Pat.
- Sheahan, Tom.
- Zappone, Katherine.
- Barrett, Sean D.
- Bradford, Paul.
- Daly, Mark.
- Heffernan, James.
- MacSharry, Marc.
- Mooney, Paschal.
- Ó Domhnaill, Brian.
- O'Sullivan, Ned.
- Walsh, Jim.
- White, Mary M.
- Wilson, Diarmuid.