Courts Bill 2013: Committee Stage

Wednesday, 26th June 2013

Part 1 of 2:

I tabled this amendment in the utmost good faith and I thank my colleagues in the Independent Group for their support for the amendment.

The issue of court ordered disclosure of complainants confidential records, be they medical, psychiatric or therapeutic and be the complainant an adult or a child, in the absence of any legislative guidelines is one of considerable and pressing concern. I have no intention of undermining the urgency and necessity relating to adult complainants but I see this Bill as an opportunity to introduce legislative provision and clear practice for the disclosure of sexual assault counselling communications regarding children who are witnesses in criminal trials.

I note the work in this regard and the calls to action by many children’s and human rights NGOs, civil society organisations and practitioners in the field of specialised assessment and therapeutic services for children who have been sexually abused. I am grateful, in particular, for the support and advice I have received from Rape Crisis Centre Ireland and Children at Risk Ireland in the context of assisting me in understanding the current lacuna in the protection of confidential therapy notes and records and developing the legislative solution proposed in the amendment.

I am acutely aware of the need to strike the proper and appropriate balance between the right of the accused to procedural fairness in child sexual abuse cases, the right of the child witness to privacy as well as his or her right not to be revictimised or unduly traumatised by the criminal justice system and the public interest. It is wholly compatible with Irish constitutional law, Ireland’s obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights and the best interest of the child to provide in law that the disclosure of sexual assault counselling communications will only be granted by the trial court where the evidence sought has substantive probative value, where there is no other evidence which could prove the disputed facts and where the public interest in disclosure outweighs the potential harm to the child.

I wish to provide an overview of the current law in Ireland, the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights and arrangements in other common law jurisdictions. Such an overview is relevant to the arguments I am making in support of the amendment. However, I do not propose to document each area exhaustively because I am confident that the Minister, as a legal expert, is au fait with them and as a result of the fact that they have ably synopsised by the Government special rapporteur on child protection, Dr. Geoffrey Shannon, in a number of his annual reports and, most recently, his fourth such report which was published in 2010. It was via the latter that I first became aware of this issue. The report to which I refer contains Dr. Shannon’s finding that there was an urgent need for legislation governing the issue of disclosure of private records, such as medical records, and counselling notes.

The right of the accused to justice and procedural fairness is the cornerstone of the Irish criminal justice system and is principally guaranteed under Articles 43.1 and 43.2 of the Constitution. The European Convention on Human Rights provides further guidance via Article 6, which protects the right of the accused to the presumption of innocence and the right to a fair trial, and Article 8, which provides a right to respect for one’s private and family life and home and correspondence, subject to certain restrictions that are in accordance with law and necessary in a democratic society. The most relevant restriction in this context relates to the protection of the rights and freedoms of others. The issues at stake here clearly require the balance of what, in this context, are competing interests. There is a substantial body of jurisprudence from the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg which finds that a complainant’s Article 8 interests can be accommodated alongside the Article 6 rights of the accused.

The decisions from Strasbourg demonstrate that while the right to a fair trial is absolute, none of its contingent parts, of which disclosure is one, is itself absolute. A fine example of this can be found in the Doorson v. The Netherlands decision of 1996, in which the courts held that Article 8 interests:

…are in principle protected by other, substantive provisions of the Convention, which imply that Contracting States should organise their criminal proceedings in such a way that those interests are not unjustifiably imperilled. Against this background, principles of fair trial also require that in appropriate cases the interests of the defence are balanced against those of witnesses or victims called upon to testify.

The court was confirming that while Article 6 is important, the concept of fairness that it embodies has many possible configurations.

The practice regarding disclosure orders for third parties has been considered in the past 15 years by many of our fellow common law jurisdictions. The disclosure process settled upon in these jurisdictions range from being governed by judicial rulings, as in Northern Ireland, to legislation, as in Australia, Canada and Scotland, to a combination of both, as in England and Wales. I have examined all of these. They vary in their application from being manifestly weighted in the interests of the right of the accused to a fair trial, as in Scotland, to a comprehensive codified system for the use and disclosure of confidential records in sexual offence cases, as in Canada, to models requiring judicial scrutiny on a case-by-case basis, as in Australia. Whatever the approach adopted, what is most important is that each jurisdiction has seen fit to debate the balance of rights and public interest considerations and to apply standards governing disclosure, non-disclosure and objection to disclosure.

In Ireland there is no legislative provision governing disclosure nor have these important issues been subjected to sustained analysis or consideration by the Irish superior courts. The matter is crucial with respect to child witnesses who have been the victims of sexual abuse. They are uniquely vulnerable by virtue of their age and the heinousness of the abuse perpetrated against them. My understanding is that under current practice, therapists in recent years, especially in the past six to 12 months, have been receiving increasing numbers of requests from the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions seeking access to the notes of children’s private and confidential therapy sessions.

I have several serious concerns. One is re-victimisation, creating a sense of powerlessness, stigma and betrayal at having innermost thoughts and feelings examined by a third party and, potentially, the alleged abuser. Another is the perception of a breach of trust, a betrayal by the therapist following the therapy process which could undermine the healing potential of therapy. This could also create a conflict between seeking counselling and reporting or proceeding with a prosecution. One could argue that the disincentive effect of disclosure of personal records would be such a powerful disincentive to report sexual offences – this relates to the public interest in the pursuit of justice area – and seek counselling – this relates to the public interest in restoring the child’s well-being and ability to function in society area – that it seriously prejudices the public interest.

There is a strongly held view by many practitioners in specialised assessment and therapy services for children who have been sexually abused, that therapy notes should be privileged outright on the basis that they hold neither material evidence nor information relevant to the proceedings. When we reflect on the purpose of therapy for children who have been sexually abused, what the therapy involves and, moreover, the arrangements these services have in place to manage the process, the rationale for such privilege is strong. Therapy, as a whole, is not concerned with making judgments or assessing the veracity of what is shared in sessions. Rather, it is a particular type of human engagement whereby the exploration of the thoughts and feelings of the child at a particular point is facilitated. Therapy notes, in turn, are context specific. They derive from therapeutic encounters and, as such, are concerned with documenting feelings, thoughts, hopes, fears and dreams rather than actual facts or material evidence. Ultimately, the aim of therapy is to assist a child to get back to a life that is not dominated by the sexual abuse experience and to equip the child to build trusting relationships. In doing so, the therapist will address patterns of behaviour and responses that have become unhelpful, burdensome or troubling to the child’s living experience.

Therapy can also draw attention to healthy responses and coping strategies shown by the child in and out of session. This can involve the use of fantasy and therapeutic play scenarios, especially for younger children, in which the children can try out different roles to make sense of the abuse they experienced. However helpful to the children, therapists are becoming increasingly concerned about how notes describing such scenes might be interpreted in a legal arena and taken out of context. Trust in the therapeutic relationship and the creation of the a safe space is paramount to the effectiveness and success of the therapeutic process. It is difficult to envisage how this can be achieved where privacy and confidentiality of these therapy sessions are not sacrosanct.

I suggest that the effectiveness and success of the therapeutic process is an important part of the public interest consideration in restoring the child’s well-being and ability to function in society. I could offer several harrowing examples of the devastating effects the current practice is having on child victims of sexual abuse and their families, including the conflict that ensues between either seeking justice or striving for the healing and well-being of the child. However, to speak about these cases on the record would be inappropriate. There is one case I can refer to, however, which was given to me at the request of the subject. It is a case I find deeply disturbing. The case highlights the reaction of one teenager, currently engaged in sexual abuse counselling, at the thought of their therapy notes being disclosed to a third party. The person said if they had known starting the counselling process that their therapy notes might be disclosed, they would never have started the process. Having already started, but now knowing it is a possibility, they are afraid to explore certain thoughts and feelings, thus undermining the therapeutic value. Most upsetting, they said that the idea of their trauma being scrutinised by others was tantamount to their insides being poked at again. This is a classic example of the re-victimisation I referred to earlier. There is a sense of powerlessness instilled by the criminal justice system in the absence of disclosure guidelines and this must be addressed.

I note the language of the European Commission in respect of the EU directive establishing minimum standards on rights, supports and protection of victims of crime, which was adopted in October 2012. The Commission stated that one of the greatest tests of the quality of our justice system is how well we treat our victims and that appropriate treatment is a demonstration of the solidarity of our society for each individual victim and a recognition that such treatment is essential for the moral integrity of society. It is crucial, therefore, not only to combat and prevent crime but also to properly support and protect individuals who fall victim to crime.

It is important to this debate to understand the management systems that specialised assessment and therapy services employ and their relevance to disclosure. The first phase, which is distinct from therapy, is the compilation of an assessment report whereby the practitioner will take account of the abuse alleged by the child. This is the baseline account of what the child says has happened. It is passed on to social workers and the Garda, where appropriate. It is available to the DPP and, in the context of a criminal trial, is not difficult to see how its content is regarded as relevant information. However, then the process moves on into the next phase, away from the who, what, where and when. Instead, the focus is on therapeutic issues that arise for children in their recovery. If any information arises in the course of the therapy phase that substantively alters the picture in the assessment report, the practitioner will update the assessment report accordingly and pass it on to the relevant social worker and so on. In essence, any information or evidence relevant to a criminal trial for child sexual abuse is already disclosed as a matter of course. The information left contained in the counselling records and therapeutic notes have no material relevance but it represents the heart and soul of a damaged child. As the Minister noted earlier, the Bill is about addressing issues that have been long ignored. I put it to the Minister that we must bolster our protection of these child witnesses and I offer the amendment to the Minister in this regard as a legislative response.

Part 2 of 2:

I thank the Minister. I will not press this amendment. The Minister robustly engages in exchanges on the amendments tabled by Members. I know that, like me, the Minister understands the importance of this amendment. Having listened to his response, I know he appreciates the timeliness if we can find an appropriate and balanced wording. As I said, many practitioners wanted me to look for absolute privilege, which is probably what my heart would like to seek, but I realise we must achieve a balance which is what I strove to do. I take on board what the Minister has said. I looked at legislation for ways we previously defined counselling advice, so I am very happy to share that information with him.

In 2010, Dr. Geoffrey Shannon identified in his fourth annual report the urgent need for legislation governing the issue of disclosure of private records, such as medical records and counselling notes. It is now 2013. I would be very hesitant to go any other route, even though I have utmost trust and faith in the Law Reform Commission. The issue of adults must be looked at but for me there is a real and pressing concern in regard to children. I will engage in the process outlined by the Minister.

Register of Lobbyists Legislation: Motion

Wednesday, 26th June 2013

Part 1 of 2

I move:

”That Seanad Éireann:recognises that corporate and market forces can have a significant impact on people’s lives and public health outcomes and this provides strong justification for legislative and regulatory responses by government to reduce the influence of commercial and vested interests associated with tobacco, alcohol, gaming and other industries on public health and welfare policy;
recognises the need to provide decision makers with guidance to meet public expectations for transparency, accountability, integrity and efficacy when considering, developing, debating and implementing legislation or government regulations;
and calls on the Minister for Expenditure and Public Reform:
— to update the House on the General Scheme (Heads) of the Regulation of Lobbying Bill 2013;
— to debate with the Members of Seanad Éireann the need for transparent and accountable regulations governing Parliamentarians in relation to any engagement with representatives from tobacco, alcohol, gaming, or other commercial and vested interests.”.

The motion has been tabled by the Independent Group comprising myself and Senators O’Donnell, Mac Conghail, Mary Ann O’Brien and Zappone. We felt that it was important to table the motion as Private Members’ business because we wanted to focus on the lobbying of parliamentarians and to reflect on our role in that process.
When I saw the Government’s amendment, which I shall deal with in more detail later, I was surprised that the role of parliamentarians was not mentioned. The aim of the Independent Group’s motion is to shine a spotlight on parliamentarians, particularly the role of lobbying in the areas of tobacco, alcohol, gaming and other interests that have a public health and public welfare policy.

Everybody knows what role the tobacco industry plays in public health. The World Health Organization has prepared a report that identified a number of forms of tobacco industry interference which has been used to derail or weaken tobacco control. An example in the past few weeks has been the Minister for Health’s proposal on packaging. I would summarise the WHO’s list is as follows: manoeuvring to hijack the political and legislative process; exaggerating the economic importance of the industry; manipulating public opinion to gain the appearance of respectability; fabricating support through front groups; discrediting proven science; and intimidating governments with litigation or the threat of litigation. The WHO has clearly identified many forms of interference and I can see the hallmarks of it here in Ireland.

Let us examine alcohol-related harm. Too much focus has been placed on how alcohol affects industry. I have written two EU reports on the affect of alcohol-related harm. First, the issue must be adopted as a public health issue. All too often people have been sidetracked or derailed when they tried to deal with the matter. We have many reports on the issue and the figures are unacceptable. The latest report that I participated in was the one prepared by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children. In early 2012 the committee had all-party agreement on the major recommendations in its report but no action has been taken. I surmise that the alcohol industry has influenced the debate. We have witnessed lobbying during the debate on the marketing of alcohol and alcohol sponsorship of sporting events. The industry has far too much say in these issues. My problem with such influence is that it does not happen in the open but at meetings or expensive dinners.

Let us examine the tobacco industry. Many factors hinder efforts to cut the unnecessary toll of death and disease. The Irish Heart Foundation and the Irish Cancer Society have identified that the tobacco industry has great determination and has successfully influenced vital areas of policy. The tobacco industry is one of the best funded and sophisticated corporate lobbying interests in the world that works to build relationships with legislators and policy makers. The tobacco industry has a fundamental conflict of interest with public health policy. For decades the industry has worked across the world to market its killer and addictive products to children, deceived the public about the harmful effects of tobacco use and fought any policies designed to reduce tobacco use and save lives. Like any other corporation the primary obligation of tobacco, drinks and gaming companies is to deliver profits to shareholders and they are not concerned about public health issues. That means selling more of their addictive products.

I wish to refer to public health policy. Article 5.3 of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control states that there is a “fundamental and irreconcilable conflict between the tobacco industry’s interests and public health policy interests.” Parliamentarians should declare when they are approached by these industries. We cannot leave it to the lobbying companies to list their consultations with politicians, perhaps using a PR agency. That is not good enough because they represent specific interests of the industry. I would prefer if companies declared their interest rather than list a collection of consultations with politicians. The latter is not accountability or transparency.

I wish to raise the concerns of organisations to whom we should listen, such as the Irish Heart Foundation and the Irish Cancer Society as they are at the coalface dealing with these issues. They have written to me stating they have been informed by a number of elected officials that tobacco industry representatives have been actively lobbying Members of the Oireachtas on the price of tobacco products in Ireland and the volume of illicit tobacco. They also point out that information gathered from parliamentary questions, media reports and freedom of information requests indicate that the tobacco industry representatives have considerable contact with Government officials.

From my reading of Article 5.3 of the World Health Organization framework that should not be happenings. We as parliamentarians should not accept this happening. We should not be meeting them. We need to ensure we have a clear regulatory system for lobbyists, but also for parliamentarians. What is needed is a code or pledge that parliamentarians sign stating that in the interest of public welfare, there are certain companies, sectors or vested interests that they will not meet or Members may be allowed to meet those organisations but must declare they have done so.

This brings me to the important work that Transparency International Ireland has done on a legislative footprint. When I came to the House I checked with the office of the Clerk of the Seanad about conflicts of interest I might have when I table amendments. I was advised quite clearly that I should make a declaration of interest. I have actively done that. I am involvedpro bono in an organisation for NGOs and I do not get an income from it. For clarity, I will always declare any interests I might have. When we deal with policy and legislation I do not hear people announce often they have met representative from any of these companies. However, the Irish Heart Foundation and the Irish Cancer Society report that Oireachtas Members are meeting representatives of the tobacco companies.

It is important to look at ensuring that if contacts are made with officials, Ministers or parliamentarians that the footprint is clearly noted when we are adopting legislation. Following scandals in the European Parliament involving parliamentarians ready to accept bribes in exchange for legislative favour, the Parliament recommended to the bureau to establish the requirement of a legislative footprint but it has not yet been implemented. This goes to the crux of the difficulty we have and to the crux of the motion we tabled and the amendment to it. We find it very comfortable to talk about the lobbyists and how we will regulate and control them. That is important and I do not underestimate that challenge but there is also a responsibility on ourselves as parliamentarians to state what is acceptable or not, which is the reason I was very disappointed in the amendment tabled by Government. We worded our motion in very open language. It states, “to debate with the Members of Seanad Éireann the need for transparent and accountable regulations governing Parliamentarians in relation to any engagement with representatives from tobacco, alcohol, gaming, or other commercial and vested interests.” What was the problem with that paragraph? I wanted to make provision for a pledge or a contract. We left it open to have a debate in the House, yet those on the Government side could not incorporate that into their amendment. In my view that raises serious questions.
My colleague, Senator Marie-Louise O’Donnell, will second the motion.

Part 2 of 2:

I thank colleagues for their participation in the debate. I particularly thank my Government colleagues for not seconding their amendment, which I assume has been withdrawn and that we will not have to be pushed to a vote on the issue.

I was disappointed at the selective citing of the OECD principles in the amendment. Several of the principles were cited but not principle No. 6. The comment on it calls for transparency and integrity in lobbying, and mentions the Government should also consider facilitating public scrutiny by indicating who has sought to influence legislative or policy-making processes, for example by disclosing a legislative footprint which indicates the lobbyists consulted in the development of legislative interests. This is the heart of what we are trying to bring forward in our motion.

We called for a debate and not for anybody’s hands to be tied. We wanted a debate on the role of parliamentarians, which is exactly what we have had today in the Seanad. This is a first step in the process. Many interesting points have been raised with regard to the role of lobbyists, and this is important, but we also need to focus on ourselves and our role as parliamentarians. Several weeks ago the Government launched the healthy Ireland initiative. What we propose supports this Government policy. We would like to see a legislative commitment to publish details of meetings on public health and welfare issues. The regulatory impact and legislative footprint should be examined. Why not have a code of conduct for all branches of Government? Why not give clear guidance to our parliamentarians? Senator Byrne disclosed his experience. Why are we not given clear guidance so we do not have to find out by accident? Senator Marie Louise O’Donnell, who seconded the motion, clearly showed the reality of what is happening in the gaming industry. I would like to see assurances that the Cabinet handbook will be updated to include Article 5.3 of the World Health Organization framework convention on tobacco control.

Senator Whelan asked the pertinent question as to why alcohol sponsorship was not dealt with as a public health issue. This is something we must ask ourselves as parliamentarians. As I have stated previously, I wrote two reports on alcohol-related harm for the European Economic and Social Committee. Most Senators have probably not heard of the committee, but the European spirits organisation lobbied intensively every one of the 344 members of the committee on my report. It tried to discredit me, the NGO for which I was working and the report itself. Thankfully it did not win and my colleagues in the committee supported me in the majority. The motion we have tabled was for the purpose of having this debate, and I thank the House for its support. It is a first step in starting the process and the public has an expectation of us that as parliamentarians we must have higher standards.

Thirty-second Amendment of the Constitution (Abolition of Seanad Éireann) Bill 2013

Wednesday, 26th June 2013

As leader of the independent group of Taoiseach nominees, with Senators Fiach Mac Conghail, Mary Ann O’Brien, Marie Louise O’Donnell and Katherine Zappone, I begin by stating clearly that each of us has our own individual perspective on the Bill before us today. We are, as everyone knows, a group of Independent Senators in the truest sense, independent of Government and of each other in the positions we adopt in the course of our Oireachtas work. We come from a wide range of backgrounds and disciplines, including civil society, NGOs, the arts, education, business and human rights. It is this diversity in our expertise which prompted the Taoiseach’s choice of appointment.

Seanad Éireann was established to give a voice to different and challenging opinions in Irish society. I am confident we are fulfilling this role with honesty and integrity. On behalf of us all, we thank the Taoiseach for the privilege of the position in which he has entrusted us. We have taken time to reflect on our individual viewpoints in this debate today on the Thirty-second Amendment of the Constitution (Abolition of Seanad Éireann) Bill. I look forward to hearing the deliberations of my colleagues as the debate ensues. From this point onwards, the views I express are entirely my own.

I was greatly honoured to accept this position as Senator and at the time I was cognisant of the Taoiseach’s position with regard to the abolition of the Seanad and the commitment in the programme for Government. In trying to work through my position on the Bill, I have had to separate my role as a Senator from that as an individual citizen who will vote in the referendum. When it comes to Committee and Report Stages, I will, as I do with all Bills, consider each amendment tabled and will vote on the merits of the rationale behind it. That said, and as a matter of principle, I will not impede the passage of this Bill through the Seanad. This is a decision for the Irish people to make.

Finalising my personal position on the Bill and its ramifications has not been an easy journey, and in fact it is a journey I have yet to complete. I have embraced my role as Senator with enthusiasm and dedication. I relish the opportunities presented to me to further issues through legislative amendments and policy debates. I am one of life’s optimists but I do not wear rose-tinted glasses when it comes to the Seanad. I see the flaws, I live the frustration and I understand the critics. The Order of Business can sometimes seem more like a recital of “It Says in the Papers” and all too often is dominated by local issues, making us seem more like a council meeting. I decided some time ago to participate on the Order of Business only where I believed an issue of national relevance needed to be raised and debated immediately and where there was no other channel through which I could raise it. Several colleagues remarked this decision would mean I would reduce my media presence, as it is the only part of our work in the Seanad on which most media report. I stand by my decision, as the record will show. However, these comments make me wonder how the public is supposed to get a true picture and understanding of the work we do.

Proponents of abolition have stated small countries such as Ireland do not need second chambers, which are more common in large, federal countries or countries with deep divisions. The countries cited as good models for us to follow have a strong system of local democracy. Ireland has widened the role and functions of local authorities, but very few powers have actually been devolved. Increasing powers over the years have absorbed by the Executive, and one only needs to watch Bills as they progress through the Houses to see the quality and openness of debate is really up to the approach of individual Ministers. I have sat here and watched, in dismay, as some Ministers have basically rammed a Bill through the House. Equally, I have had the ultimate privilege of being able to robustly and appropriately debate my points and amendments with Ministers who respect and engage fully in the parliamentary process. On a few occasions I have even won my point. Moving Ireland to a unicameral system is something I can understand in theory, but I am concerned we are being asked to take this decision without having any safety nets in place.

I was very interested in the proposals for reform outlined by the Taoiseach at the opening of Second Stage in the Dáil and today. There are many worthwhile proposals which are not contingent on the abolition of the Seanad so why do we not progress ahead with these reforms? George Bernard Shaw stated, “The best reformers the world has ever seen are those who commence on themselves”. This is a sentiment with which I fully concur. I respectfully put it to the Taoiseach that all of the questions we are debating about the ability for the Seanad to reform apply in equal measure to the Dáil and local government. There have been a number of reports on Seanad reform.

I imagine we could stack this room high with articles and books on all aspects of political reform in Ireland. If we were to take all decisions based on the number of reports written then I would like to know how many more reports on alcohol-related harm we need before action is taken on marketing and minimum pricing?

I have seen first-hand how difficult it is to change a procedure or a Standing Order in the Seanad. People do not resist change in principle but they do resist being changed. Is there a reason some of the proposed changes cannot be immediately commenced? What is the incentive to change for Deputies? Will the proposals get diluted as time progresses and why wait for the result of the referendum to effect wider political reform? From working in Leinster House I see the competing demands on Deputies’ time, not to mention local and constituency demands. Will they be able to free up the time needed to take on an increased legislative role? I would have greater confidence if I saw more evidence of actual change and ability to change. In the words of US President Barack Obama, “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we have been waiting for. We are the change that we seek”.

Considering the committee process in particular and the proposals put forward to strengthen it, we have seen a small number of Ministers bringing the general scheme or heads of Bills to joint committees for an initial consideration, which should be welcomed. I am an active member of the Joint Committee on Health and Children, which is ably chaired by Deputy Jerry Buttimer; I find my work on this committee very rewarding and I believe there is scope for members to influence legislative and policy outcomes. However, holding our work up to scrutiny one can see there is only a cohort of members who regularly attend for more than 20 minutes and who actively participate. One can consider the metrics. In July, we will have our quarterly meetings with the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs and the Minister for Health respectively. One month in advance of these meetings we are asked to submit questions; I have a long list but we are only allowed to ask three questions of each Minister, so I must make a shortlist. With 21 members on the committee, one can imagine the potential range of questions. However, I note that with regard to the Minister for Health’s quarterly review meeting on 25 July, only ten of the 21 committee members have submitted questions, and even more disappointingly, only six of the 21 committee members have submitted questions for answer by the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. Is this because of the competing demands on the time of representatives or is it because of resource constraints? Will this be addressed by the proposed reform?

We can critically examine the important issue of the child and family support agency that was announced in the programme for Government, with an anticipated budget of €546 million. Why was the committee process not used to give the heads of Bill the scrutiny they deserve, as this is a once in a lifetime opportunity for reform. I want to believe but the evidence suggests otherwise. I have on numerous occasions expressed my willingness to support and actively engage in the process to establish the new agency and yet, to date, I have never heard silence quite this loud. In any proposal to reconstruct and reform we need to ensure that there are members who are looking at issues with a national focus. We need balance in our discussions, and the Seanad has at times represented views that have otherwise been unheard.

EU scrutiny is another area in which the Oireachtas has, to date, been lacking. We are not using the red and yellow card system of the Lisbon treaty, for example. I would also have liked to address the issue of costs with the Taoiseach, as we should examine equivalent costs for strengthening competencies and resources. There is also the issue of timing of this referendum and the rush to hold it in the autumn. Why not hold it with the European and local elections in May next year? Why not introduce changes to the Dáil and local government while stepping up EU scrutiny? The heart of my dilemma is a question of why one action is contingent on another. I question the constitutional changes relating to the President, judges and certain officials like the Comptroller and Auditor General. We need a distinct debate on the constitutional impact of such changes.

I believe the events of recent years and days clearly show we need a political system that ensures we have a democracy built on accountability and transparency. We need to bolster our defences to ensure that powerful interests cannot have a free rein, and there is a clear and urgent need for political reform. My dilemma is that on the one hand I am unconvinced the Dáil will reform to the extent that is needed in order to compensate for the losses that will be accumulated through the abolition of the Seanad, while on the other hand, one must ask if a second Chamber is the most effective way to achieve the accountability, transparency and openness that we need to resuscitate political democracy in Ireland. I remain undecided

Public Health (Availability of Defibrillators) Bill 2013

Wednesday, 19th June 2013

I would also like to heap praise on Senator Quinn regarding the Bill he has introduced. I am supportive of this initiative. I understand the Minister for Health wants to conduct a technical assessment but he did not outline a timeframe. I am always concerned when Ministers do not outline a timeframe. Perhaps it could be completed before we return in September and we could then complete the passage of the Bill. I am sure Senator Quinn would give it the summer to allow that to take place.

The Bill represents a powerful legislative platform to ensure many more lives are saved through bystander CPR and early defibrillation. This is important, given that an estimated 10,000 people die each year from cardiovascular disease, of which almost half are from sudden cardiac death. A total of 70% of these deaths occur outside hospital. The survival rate for out-of-hospital cardiac arrest was 6.5% in 2012. This figure can and must be improved upon. International comparisons show that higher rates can be achieved, particularly when the equipment and training are in place to ensure early recognition, early CPR and early defibrillation. Survival rates in Norway, Sweden and Denmark are 13%, 11% and 9%, respectively. Even higher rates have been recorded in the Netherlands, where research over a three-year period to 2009 showed that neurologically intact survival was 49.6% for patients treated with an on-site defibrillator compared with 14.3% where there was no defibrillator. Perhaps this will help the Minister with his research. I fully support the efforts made in this Bill to achieve a survival rate of 40%.

Legislating to provide more defibrillators is a vital prerequisite to increasing the life-saving role of bystander CPR. Like others, I commend the excellent work of the Irish Heart Foundation’s Chain of Survival initiative, which comprises four vital links that can save a life: early access; early cardiopulmonary resuscitation; early defibrillation; and early advanced care. In addition to overseeing training in the initiative, the IHF provides significant assistance enabling communities and organisations throughout Ireland to maximise early CPR and defibrillation. The foundation has unrivalled expertise in the practical operation of the efforts we are discussing.

Senator Brennan and others mentioned that the presence of a defibrillator often creates demand for training on how it use it and, therefore, helps to create knowledge. It is important to ensure that through regulations there is adequate, ongoing and certified training. Everybody knows how important it is to regularly update training in the workplace and so on. Knowledge is power. We need to hardwire knowledge of CPR into the public consciousness by including a CPR training module in the school curriculum. This would save many more lives. I am a girl guide leader and we include it in our training. Everybody engaged in youth work and sports should include CPR in training. Young people who aim to be leaders in these organisations should have access to this knowledge. We should share such knowledge, because who knows when we will need to put it into practice?

I raised an Adjournment matter with the Minister for Health last week relating to National Stroke Awareness Week. This year’s focus is on the IHF’s Act FAST campaign, which was launched in 2010 to increase public awareness about the early signs of stroke and to encourage speedy medical intervention. During the debate, I referred, in addition to financial assistance, to other supports at the disposal of the State, such as the provision of advertising sites in high-footfall areas of Government buildings and property and consideration of a way to reimburse the 23% the foundation has to pay in non-returnable VAT for the campaign, which is proving not only to save lives and improve quality of life but also to save the State money.

There is also a VAT argument to be made regarding defibrillators. There is an anomaly in our taxation system whereby an individual can get a tax rebate of 23% on the purchase of a defibrillator whereas a sporting organisation or club of volunteers cannot. This needs to be rectified. I appreciate the anomaly is rooted in VAT law but I would like to know what is being considered in the context of existing taxation law to address this issue. I will continue to pursue this issue where the State charges VAT when it is saving money because NGOs, sporting and youth organisations and civil society organisations are doing its job and saving lives in some cases. I commend Senator Quinn on this initiative, which I fully support.

Adjournment Motion – National Stroke Awareness Week: Act FAST Campaign

Wednesday, 13th June 2013

Senator Jillian van Turnhout:

I thank the Minister for facilitating me and coming into the House. It is an extremely busy day but we both know stroke awareness is very important to both of us. This is national stroke awareness week, with this year’s focus on the Irish Heart Foundation’s Act FAST campaign, which was launched in 2010 to increase public awareness about the early signs of stroke and encourage speedy medical intervention. I welcome Mr. Chris Macey from the Irish Heart Foundation to the Gallery. Under an Adjournment motion in January last year I raised the issue of stroke rehabilitation services and the Minister knows I have raised it several times at the health committee before him.

An estimated 10,000 people suffered a stroke in Ireland in 2012 and the same number are estimated to suffer a stroke this year. Approximately 2,000 die as a result of stroke, making it Ireland’s third biggest killer. Stroke is the single most significant cause of severe disability and up to 50,000 people are living in our communities with disabilities as a result of strokes. In addition to the devastating impact stroke has on the sufferer and their families, the financial costs are huge. The Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, estimated that in 2010 the direct annual cost of stroke was €557 million of which as much as €414 million is spent on nursing home care and there is nothing to indicate that this cost has fallen in the past three years.

In the face of these stark figures, the Irish Heart Foundation’s Act FAST campaign is a commendable initiative which warrants State support. The campaign, while still in its infancy, has been a resounding success, particularly in raising public awareness of stroke warning signs through the first three letters of the acronym FAST, as follows: face, has the person’s face fallen on one side?; arms: can the person raise both arms and keep them elevated?; and speech, is the person’s speech slurred?

The most recent Irish Heart Foundation’s Attitudes and Behaviour study found that there had been a 190% increase in awareness of these warning signs. This increased awareness, along with the rapid development of the 24-7 thrombolysis services nationally by the HSE’s national stroke programme, has contributed to a 400% increase in the numbers receiving life-changing, clot-busting treatment and it has helped cut death and disability rates from strokes significantly against demographic and international trends.

However, the last letter of the acronym, arguably the most important one since it is the call to action, namely, “T”, time to call 999 if one sees any of the signs, has not had the desired impact. Just over half of the respondents surveyed said they would call an ambulance. Speedy medical intervention is imperative if we are to limit the detrimental impact of stroke. The average stroke destroys 2 million brain cells every minute, which means the quicker one gets emergency treatment, the more of one’s brain can be saved. The knock-on effect is reduced risk of death or severe disability and a considerable financial saving to the State.

The Irish Heart Foundation is entering a new stage of the campaign where there is clearly room to improve on awareness of the timely medical intervention, and it needs State support. In addition to financial assistance, there are other supports at the disposal of the State, such as providing advertising sites in high footfall areas of Government buildings and properties and maybe examining a way of reimbursing the 23% they have to pay in non-returnable VAT for the campaign, which is proving to save not only lives and quality of life, but is also saving the State money. I would like the Minister’s reassurance that both financial and alternative means of supporting the new phase of the Act FAST campaign are being positively considered.

Minister James Reilly:

I thank the Senator for raising this important issue and raising awareness in the week that is in it. She is right about the figures; they are staggering. Some 10,000 strokes a year is very serious. We should acknowledge the growth in public awareness of stroke warning signs, as the Senator has outlined, and the improvements noted and confirmed recently by the HSE. The FAST campaign coincided with a major development of stroke services nationally, including an increase in the number of stroke units around the country from six to 27 and the expansion of 24-7 thrombolysis treatment from a small number of hospitals mainly in urban areas to all hospitals that treat stroke patients. The FAST campaign has assisted health services to maximise the impact of the stroke service improvements. The HSE has advised my Department that it provided €268,000 last year and €308,000 this year to the Irish Heart Foundation to help with its various health promotion activities. Like the Senator I welcome the foundation’s presence here.

Such improvements in stroke services were envisioned in the policy document Changing Cardiovascular Health: Cardiovascular Health Policy 2010 – 2019 which was launched in 2010. This established a framework for the prevention, detection and treatment of cardiovascular diseases, including stroke, which seeks to ensure an integrated and quality assured approach in their management, so as to reduce the burden of these conditions.
I could go through the rest of this but I would much prefer to talk about prevention. In this country we have a long history politically of engaging in expensive developments. They are necessary, and politicians are always very pleased to open a new wing of a hospital or an MRI scanner but have been reluctant in the past to invest in public health initiatives that can save many more lives. When we look at the causes of stroke we see our old enemies again: tobacco is a major cause of stroke and if we could keep our children and the next generation from starting on this habit it would be a lot easier than trying to get them to quit and would prevent a huge number of strokes per year.

Obesity is another issue which leads to diabetes and hypertension, which is well known to be associated with stroke. The issue of alcohol must be mentioned also because it has peculiar properties with regard to blood pressure. It is known to cause vasodilation peripherally so one would imagine it would drop one’s blood pressure, but it causes vasoconstriction which causes one’s blood pressure to go up. It is a risk factor also.

Many of our figures relating to stroke are preventable if these areas are tackled. Earlier I mentioned the Government’s commitment to healthy Ireland. I am the Minister for Health but I often feel as though I am the Minister for ill-health because all we speak about is disease and illness when what we need is to keep people well. The Department of Health cannot do this alone. It needs the Department of Justice and Equality to keep our streets safe so people can exercise. It needs the Department of Finance and the manner in which it taxes and incentivises certain types of behaviour. It needs the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government to give us safe well-lit places at night to exercise. We also very badly need the Department of Education and Skills on board and I know the Minister, Deputy Quinn, is very committed to this area.

This is about developing healthy lifestyles early in life which will stay with people. Early habits are the hardest to break. This has also been proven with regard to tobacco. If one does not start smoking before the age of 21 one is unlikely to take it up. We know this industry goes after our children. It wants to replace with new recruits those who have died, including the 5,200 who died from tobacco related illnesses this year, and those who give it up, and these new recruits are children. According to a survey 78% of smokers stated they started smoking before the age of 18. It is wonderful we have a new stroke programme and we are saving a life a week, and I am told the new initiatives we have undertaken save a life per day. While all this must be done to help those who fall ill now, we must look down the road and realise the actions we take now could save the next generation from much hardship and grief. If we do not tackle the obesity epidemic among young people and the rising epidemic of diabetes we may very well be the first generation to bury the generation behind us which is an appalling thought. No parent wants to be at his or her child’s graveside.

Senator Jillian van Turnhout:

I support the Minister on the preventive measures on tobacco, alcohol and obesity. Strokes are Ireland’s third biggest killer and I ask the Minister to give consideration to the financial assistance I have suggested and perhaps consider other measures such as using public buildings for billboard spaces or reimbursing the 23% VAT. This is a public health awareness campaign and one could argue the State should be running it. Perhaps there is a way the Government could support it such as refunding the 23% VAT to the Irish Heart Foundation.

Minister James Reilly:

I am very happy to state we have cross-Government support for these initiatives, particularly the healthy Ireland initiative. I will have to engage with my colleague, the Minister for Finance, to achieve the VAT reimbursement the Senator seeks. This is not the only area where I feel VAT needs to be examined, as we also have VAT on condoms and vaccines. There is no VAT on tablets or liquid medicine but because vaccines are in injectable form they are subject to VAT. I would like to discuss a range of areas with the Minister. We are in very constrained financial times and it is difficult to seek to reduce the Exchequer return in any real sense.

We must get the people of Ireland and Europe off their addiction to nicotine but we also need to get the governments of Europe off the addiction of the income which tobacco products bring.

Youth Unemployment: Motion

Thursday, 12th June 2013

The Minister is welcome to the House. I very much welcome that Senator Reilly and her colleagues tabled this motion.

It is an important issue for us to debate, and considering the motion and amendment, one could see the glass as being half full or half empty. Nevertheless, it is really important that we are discussing youth unemployment. Unemployment, and specifically youth unemployment, is something that concerns us all across the House. Nevertheless, focus should not be solely on employment as for the age group in question, this is the period in which they are most likely to be in education and training. Unfortunately, the picture remains seriously bleak when we take employment, education and training into consideration.

Some people have already cited the Indecon assessment of the economic value of youth work report of 2012, which was commissioned by the National Youth Council of Ireland. We know Ireland has the fourth highest number of young people not in education, employment or training at 18.4%, compared to the average at 12.9% for the EU in 2011. In April 2013, the figure for young people who are long-term unemployed for more than 12 months was 27,857. I realise that is a reduction on previous months but it is still a considerable number of long-term unemployed young people. Ireland also has the highest number of children and young people under 18 at risk of poverty or social exclusion, with the figure at 37.6%, as compared to the 27% EU average.

We are all aware of the devastating impact that unemployment has, particularly on the social and health aspects of young people’s lives, as well as morale and self-esteem. It is generally accepted that increased social pressures such as financial and employment worries can trigger mental health problems or exacerbate existing issues. Unless concerted action is taken, the mental health of young people in Ireland and Europe will decline in coming years. We know that in 2009, Eurofound, the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, which is based in Dublin, conducted research indicating that across 21 EU member states, the cost of exclusion of young people from employment amounted to more than €100 billion. The study considered the cost of social welfare payments and contributions to GNP and it put a preliminary figure for the cost to society at €14,000 per young person who is not in education, employment or training. Some €11,000 would be from unpaid contributions like PRSI and PAYE and €3,000 is representative of benefit payments.

The cost to the Exchequer of youth unemployment is estimated to be €3.16 billion annually. Last December, the Independent group put forward a motion in this House on the importance of the value of youth work. We had good support across the House in our belief that the State must recognise the value of the youth work sector and its potential for a cohesive approach in tackling youth unemployment and exclusion. We know just under 400,000 young people benefit from youth work in Ireland and 53.3% of these are from socially or economically disadvantaged areas. Over 40,000 volunteers are involved in youth work, with almost 1,400 whole-time staff equivalents. Some 26% of young people in Ireland participate in a youth club or youth organisation, and that is the highest level in the EU. The Indecon report proved that for every €1 invested by the State in youth work, we save €2.22 as a State in the long run. This can be contrasted with the fact that youth organisations have received cumulative cuts during the recession, with the cuts running at approximately 30%. Youth organisations could be used as a vehicle in tackling youth unemployment but we are cutting their funding.

The youth guarantee is very important to me and everybody in this House because it will give young people an offer of a job, work experience, apprenticeship, training or combined work and training. It is hoped this will be found within four months of the young person finishing education or becoming unemployed. We should hope it will achieve the target of having 2 million young people out of unemployment by 2014.

I agree with the contention in the motion that the youth guarantee scheme must play a central role in the Government’s strategy to address our young person not in education, employment or training, or NEETs, crisis in Europe. I commend the Government for signalling its support for the youth guarantee from the outset and making it a priority. Given what I have stated on the importance of the youth work sector, I also welcome the determination of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, in securing EU agreement on a greater role for youth work in supporting EU policy proposals for youth employment and social inclusion. I welcome the pilot scheme planned for Ballymun. It is good that we will have a pilot but we must consider local circumstances. I am a bit concerned about the length of time it may take to mainstream the process.

I am conscious of the time but I will comment on those who are most disadvantaged. These are the 9,000 young people who have been on the live register for three years or more. They have literacy issues and they are early school leavers. The have a poor relationship with State agencies. We must do much more to tackle the problems of this cohort of young people within the youth guarantee. The youth sector is well placed to work with this cohort, who are the hardest to reach. There should be a joint initiative between the Departments of Education and Skills, Social Protection, Children and Youth Affairs and Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation.
Has the Minister identified additional measures to support young people who are long-term unemployed in avoiding the weaknesses identified in the scheme already in operation in Finland and Sweden?

Making the Case for a Right to a Home – Joyce Loughnan

Joyce Loughnan – CEO Focus Ireland

Making the Case for a Right to a Home:

It is over 75 years since the Irish people approved a new Constitution in 1937 with Bunreacht na hÉireann replacing the 1922 Constitution of the Irish Free State. The Constitution is of course a vital, living document which seeks to reflect the values at the heart of Irish society.

As we all know, societies develop and change over the years and it is important for a Constitution to reflect this. Indeed, over the past 75 years our Constitution has been amended a number of times by the people, to reflect historical and societal change. The current Programme for Government included a commitment to establish a Constitutional Convention and this work is underway.

This year already, the members have voted in favour of lowering the voting age to 16 and to amend the clause in the Constitution which emphasises the central role of women in the home.  Some of the other key issues for the Convention to examine in the first stage of its review this year include: reform of the Dáil electoral system; giving Irish citizens abroad the right to vote in presidential elections and the provision for same-sex marriage.

Everyone has a Right to a Place they can Call Home

Focus Ireland has always believed in a rights based approach to tackling housing need. Our vision is that “Everyone has a right to a place that they can call home.”  We work through our support services and housing programmes to help people to secure a home and to prevent many others from losing theirs in the first place.

Housing is a basic human right and Ireland should honour its international obligations that guarantee a right to housing and act to remove the inequalities in the Irish housing system.   We believe that if a right to housing was enshrined in our Constitution, this would help to ensure a more effective response by the State in dealing with the issues of homelessness and housing need.


Unlike other EU countries, Ireland has no established right to housing or accommodation for its citizens. Indeed housing rights in Ireland are historically weak by way of comparison to our European neighbours.  Homelessness on the other hand is perhaps the most extreme denial of housing rights in society. It is a phenomenon directly resulting from poverty and social exclusion.


Without a right to housing the extent, nature and experience of homelessness in society is deepened, exacerbated and prolonged. Focus Ireland believes that the absence of a right to housing in Irish society means that previous governments, officials and administrators have responded in a lesser way to the challenge of homelessness and housing need.

Focus Ireland has called for a legal right to housing for all citizens in need of a home and for this right to be enshrined in our Constitution many times over the years. This belief is supported by the public as a survey carried out for our charity found that a massive 80% of the public support a Constitutional right to housing for Irish Citizens.


Focus Ireland launched a fresh campaign last year calling for a Right to a Home which included writing to the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste on this matter. We believe it was a mistake by the government not to include the right to a home as one of the issues for the Convention to examine as part of its first phase of work.

The finding of our survey show the public wants action on this issue. However, we welcome the Taoiseach’s commitment to add further topics to the second stage of this process and strongly believe that the Right to a Home should be one of these issues.

There has been good work carried out across housing and homeless services for many years – yet Ireland is still failing to provide adequate housing for some of our most marginalised citizens.  If we are to effectively tackle major problems in society it must be impossible to view housing as a stand-alone issue.  Failure by the State to provide housing leads to people becoming homeless or remaining trapped in low standard, insecure accommodation. We have sadly seen this in recent years as the previous government failed to meet the agreed deadline to end long-term homelessness and the need to sleep rough by 2010.

However, there have been positive developments already this year as Minister Jan O’Sullivan has recently launched a new Homelessness Policy Statement which sets a new deadline of 2016 to end long-term homelessness.  Focus Ireland fully supports this policy and will be working in partnership to implement it – but we also still firmly believe that a right to a home is required in our country.

We are still very much focused on working to secure the “Right to a Home” as one of these issues for the second phase of the Constitutional Review.

I hope readers of this piece will support this campaign as we look to continue it this year

to keep this important issue on the agenda.

To find out more about the work of Focus Ireland and how you can support our work go to



Email Newsletter – March 2013

This is an especially busy time for me in the Seanad. I have lots to report but would like to take this opportunity to draw your attention to two of my recent contributions.  The first is the content of my Irish Times opinion piece, 28 February, on the new Child and Family Support Agency. I continue to pursue this issue in the Joint Committee on Health and Children and welcome any contribution you have as we work toward establishing this vital agency. The second is the press release I issued yesterday, 6 March, upon securing inclusion in the Finance (Local Property Tax) (Amendment) Bill 2013 exempting properties used by a charity for recreational activities from paying the property tax.

The Seanad has seen the passage of important legislation and enjoyed probing and fruitful debates on a wide range of issues over recent weeks and I plan to bring you an update on this in my next newsletter.

Until then, best wishes,

Senator Jillian van Turnhout

  1. 1.      Jillian van Turnhout: Child protection agency needs more public scrutiny


Opinion We have an opportunity to get the Child and Family Support Agency right. But, with so little transparency, we may repeat the HSE’s flaws.

When the Government took office in March 2011, it pledged to “fundamentally reform the delivery of child protection services by removing child welfare and protection from the HSE and creating a dedicated child welfare and protection agency, reforming the model of service delivery and improving accountability to the Dáil”.

For those of us who have campaigned for years to strengthen and uphold children’s rights in Ireland, this commitment to establish the new Child and Family Support Agency was a source of celebration, and heralded a new and long-overdue reform of children’s services.

However, slow progress and questions around the creation of the agency have turned celebration into concern.

What has happened so far? In September 2011, Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Frances Fitzgerald established the taskforce on the Child and Family Support Agency as a direct response to the Government’s commitment. Reporting back to the Minister in July 2012, the taskforce described the new agency as “a once-in-a-generation opportunity to fundamentally reform children’s services in Ireland”.

In July 2012, the Minister announced that her department had started to draft the heads and a general scheme of a Bill to establish the Child and Family Support Agency.

Some seven months later, we still have not seen the Bill. We are in the dark about the agency’s remit, function and operation, and about how it will ensure transparency and accountability.

This is an extremely important juncture in the conception and development of the new agency, yet the process appears to be taking shape behind closed doors. If we are to create a new culture of children’s services, child protection and family support, we must avoid establishing what is effectively a rebranded Health Service Executive.

Thus far, there has been inadequate debate and input involving the relevant external stakeholders such as experts, service providers, parents, and children’s organisations. I believe this is a missed opportunity.

Past failings

As someone who campaigned hard for a Yes vote in the children’s rights referendum, I readily admit to being disappointed that it was not the landslide victory so many of us had hoped for. However, the ensuing debate afforded policymakers a real opportunity to learn from and remedy past failings.

We cannot ignore the fact that many No voters had concerns about past treatment by our social services system. We need to listen to these concerns and ensure the new agency is fully resourced, that it works for all children and families, and that it is focused on the kind of early and accountable intervention that can deliver the best possible outcomes for children and families.

The latest Health Information and Quality Authority inspection report of the foster care service run by the HSE’s Dublin North West local health area has found that the area “could not guarantee good outcomes for children” in its foster care service.

This is the fourth consecutive report to identify serious gaps in the HSE’s ability to provide for the safety and wellbeing of children in this foster care region. I am aware that parts of the HSE are already in the process of being transferred into this new agency.

Have the deficits identified in these reports been remedied? If not, is the new agency destined to inherit a failing system of service delivery? How do we insure against this? The Child and Family Support Agency will have a budget of €546 million for 2013 and we are advised that it will have 4,000 staff. Will the staffing needs for the new agency reflect a strong professional mix? Will staff from the current HSE simply be transferred? What is the Minister’s rationale for not including public health nurses in the first phase of the new agency?

The HSE has never been a beacon of accountability. Money set aside for mental health services is routinely diverted to plug other gaps in the health service budget.

In December, we learned that in spite of efforts to earmark funding, the long-promised mental health staff and services are still not in place. To the best of my knowledge, no one at the HSE has been held accountable for this.

Will this new agency have robust checks and balances to ensure oversight and accountability? How do we ensure that in developing this new agency, we do not lose sight of what is best for children and families?

Surely the whole purpose of the consultation and debate was to maximise the potential of this essential agency.

What we need is an informed, integrated approach – one that brings together all the health and support services for children and their families under one roof: child welfare, prevention and early intervention services, child protection, family support, therapeutic and psychological services, public health nursing and accessible mental health services. The new agency will also need to connect with schools and other community organisations and agencies.

Open consultation

To do this – and do it well – the Government should publish the Bill to establish the new Child and Family Support Agency.

In the interim, the heads of Bill should be published to allow for public debate and consultation. As the saying goes, sunlight is the best disinfectant.

The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs should appoint an interim board to ensure that there is oversight and governance in determining the vision, remit and resources of the new agency.

We have a unique opportunity here to ditch ineffective systems and to finally make sure that children get the treatment they deserve, and that families get the help they need. An effective and accountable Child and Family Support Agency would be a monumental step forward for a country that has so spectacularly failed our most vulnerable children in the past. This opportunity has been a long time coming – and we know that history is unforgiving. We are duty bound to get this right. Frances Fitzgerald has shown great capacity for change and reform. So, let’s take ownership and publicly debate what we expect from the new agency.


  1. 2.      Government responds favourably to Senator van Turnhout’s proposal to grant property tax exemption to youth organisations

In a Seanad debate in December 2012 attended by Minister for Finance, Michael Noonan TD, Independent Senator Jillian van Turnhout made the case that charities that hold properties used for hosting and accommodating activities for children and young people should be exempted from the Government’s proposed property tax.

Senator van Turnhout, who is the Leader of the Independent Group in the Seanad and a campaigner on children’s issues, argued that the imposition of a property tax on properties owned by the Girl Guides and similar youth organisations would place many of these organisations in a precarious financial position.

Minister Nooan expressed his appreciation of the fact that groups like the Girl Guides and Scouts provide facilities and work with young people and with other sectors for social and personal development purposes. He said in the debate that just as he had granted such organisations an exemption from the household charge for the buildings in question, he would ensure that the exemption would also apply to the property tax.

Today in the Seanad, Minister Brian Hayes, TD, announced that on foot of Minister Noonan’s commitment in December to respond favourably to Senator van Turnhout’s proposal to grant an exemption, the properties used for accommodation purposes by groups such as the Girl Guides or Scouts will indeed be exempted from the property tax.

Section 7 of the Finance (Local Property Tax) (Amendment) Bill 2013 now states that “Properties used by a charity for recreational activities” shall not, for the purposes of this Act, be regarded as a relevant residential property.

Senator van Turnhout:

“Naturally, I am delighted that the Government has recognised the merits of my proposed amendment. The Irish Girl Guides Trust, of which I am a director, holds a number of properties around the country that are used for children’s and youth activities. These are held on a non-residential and non-commercial basis, with the guides spending weekends away in these properties. The guides pay a very low fee for their stay, because no profits are made on the properties, most of which are in need of serious investment and repair. At a time when families are being squeezed, today’s decision by Minister Noonan to exempt these properties from the property tax is very welcome.”