Address to Seanad Éireann by Mr. David Begg

Wednesday, 25th September 2013

I too wish to join in the welcome to David Begg and thank him for his very interesting address. Like all Members I have plenty to say about how present-day Ireland compares with the Ireland of the 1913 Lock-out. I refer to areas such as child poverty, socioeconomic disparities, the promotion and protection of economic, social and cultural rights, sub-standard housing and accommodation – Priory Hall and the ghettoisation of direct provision – vested interests, property development and the relationship with banks. It is interesting to note that at the turn of the 20th century it was lawful to hit one’s dog, one’s wife and one’s child. Sadly, in 2013 it is still lawful to hit one’s child – and arguably, someone else’s child – in the absence of an explicit ban on corporal punishment of children in the home and in alternative day-care settings. This is, perhaps, a subject for a further discussion. However, it is interesting to highlight the rights of children.

Because of time constraints I will limit my contribution to the following comments. I commend the ICTU 1913 committee on the Dublin Tenement Experience: Living the Lockout project, which was delivered in collaboration with Dublin City Council and the Irish Heritage Trust. I met the Irish Heritage Trust this morning and I was informed that the project received a community grant and the trust is looking for a reinstatement of community grants. In August I had the pleasure of visiting 14 Henrietta Street. It is no exaggeration to say that I felt completely transported during that hour. The poverty, disease, desperation, pride, spirit and fight portrayed by the actors were tangible to all present. Will this become a permanent project, and how can we support it? The way in which the arts were brought together for such an experience is tremendously powerful, both for the people of Ireland and for visitors to the country.

I was delighted by the decision of Dublin City Council to name the Marlborough Street bridge after Rosie Hackett in recognition of her dedication to the trade union movement and her struggle for workers’ rights. It is very important to recognise the role of women.

It is also very important to recognise that Rosie Hackett was just a girl of 18 when she helped to organise the strike in protest against the poor working conditions in Jacob’s factory. To galvanise and lead as many as 300 women at such a young age is a remarkable achievement and a testament to the potential of the young to be the driving force behind positive change. We need to keep this firmly in mind when we speak of youth activism and we see organisations such as SpunOut, which has been in the news this week, the National Youth Council of Ireland and all its member organisations.

Mr. Begg mentioned the figures for those not in education, employment or training, NEETs, which is an obvious concern, as well as the youth guarantee, so what can we do to support this youth activism? Rosie Hackett was 18 when she was involved in that strike and there are many Rosie Hacketts today that we should support as we look to bring about positive change in Ireland.

Houses of the Oireachtas (Inquiries, Privileges and Procedures) Act (Commencement) Order 2013: Statements

Tuesday, 24th September 2013

The Minister is most welcome. It is very useful to have this opportunity to clarify the provisions we are discussing. People throughout the country are eager to know what form the banking inquiry will take. It is a welcome development that this House is being used as a forum to allow the Minister to set out exactly what is proposed.

I echo Senator Thomas Byrne’s comments on the Committee on Procedure and Privileges. It is important that both Houses have a role to play in this investigation. It is also important that we play to the strengths and capacities of individual Members. It may be necessary to set party membership considerations aside and consider individuals’ qualifications to participate. We all must keep in mind that our efforts in this area are for the benefit of the people.

I welcome the proposed modular approach and the timeframe that has been set down. All too often we have seen inquiries that dragged on for so long that their original purpose was eventually forgotten. However, while being mindful of the requirement to keep the inquiry tight and focused, we must also remember that we have a responsibility on behalf of the citizens of the State to find out as much information as we can. Senators Sean D. Barrett and Katherine Zappone who were singled out by several speakers for their economic backgrounds would certainly offer an expertise in these matters. I have no doubt, however, that other Senators and Deputies from various professional backgrounds also have qualities and capacities which would make them suitable for inclusion in the inquiry.

Order of Business, 24 September 2013

Tuesday, 24th September 2013

Last Thursday, in the light of the introduction of a ban by the French Senate, I expressed my opposition to the child beauty pageant due to take place in Dublin. I am delighted to say the hotel where it was planned to be held cancelled the booking and that no other hotel in Ireland would take the event. Eventually, it was a rushed event in a bar in County Monaghan. I thank all of the parents who got behind my call and the hotels that stood firm, for which I thank them, as I realise they are commercial ventures. I also thank the social media which showed their positive use in getting behind the call, as well as my colleagues who supported the call. I have been inundated by messages from across Ireland and it seems to have hit a touchstone with the people. The organisers of the child beauty pageants have said they will be back next year and organise events regionally. This is about the early sexualisation of children, to which I am very much opposed. I have taken the initiative to contact the French Senate to ask for details of its ban and how it put it in place. I ask the Leader and my colleagues in the House to join me in opposing this initiative. This is above party politics and we can work together on the issue. I will shortly bring forward an initiative, but I hope it will be a joint initiative on behalf of Members of the House.

Directive of European Parliament on Sexual Abuse and Exploitation of Children: Statements

Thursday, 19th September 2013

I too welcome the Minister to the House and thank him for his comprehensive presentation on the EU directive. I could say a lot on issues related to the directive, but I intend to focus on article 25 which relates to child abuse material online. I welcome the commitments the Minister has given this morning. Among the wide-ranging provisions relating to criminal offences and sanctions in the area of sexual abuse and exploitation of children, the directive requires all member states to take the necessary measures to ensure the prompt removal of any web pages containing or disseminating child abuse material hosted on servers within their jurisdiction. It also asks member states to make appropriate safeguards to block access for Internet users within their territory of web pages containing or disseminating child abuse material hosted on servers outside of their jurisdiction.

I do not know whether the Minister’s comprehensive presentation is a sign of things to come, but I feel the Seanad’s role has been airbrushed out of it. In February 2012 we had an Independent group motion on the EU directive and the need for Ireland to block sites. At the time, I was delighted my colleagues, among them Senators Mary Ann O’Brien, Fiach Mac Conghail, Katherine Zappone, Marie-Louise O’Donnell and probably every Senator in the House, supported the motion calling for a blocking of sites. We took the Minister’s word that he would consider that, even though we knew at the time the ISPs and some officials did not agree with us on the need to block them. I welcome the moves being made now, but I wish to acknowledge the role of the Seanad in calling for this.

I have produced a report on effective strategies to tackle online child abuse material which is published today and I will be happy to present the Minister with a copy of it. Often we are told that blocking does not really work, that we will not get rid of it all and that we should not be naive. Would the Minister say the same to drug traffickers or suggest that we should just remove customs and borders because drugs get into the country anyway? We must put a deterrent in place to block this material. I am not living in some naive world where I believe that implementing the directive will solve the issue, but implementing it will act as a deterrent and will ensure that average citizens will not come across such material accidentally, as they do currently.

I welcome the commitment given, but I would like to see greater urgency attached to it. I was disappointed to see in the legislative programme that the criminal law (sexual offences) Bill is still under section C, which means that publication is not expected until 2014. The Minister for Justice and Equality will know that I have a long list of issues he has promised the Bill will cover and other colleagues have other issues. However, there is a problem with regard to the proliferation of child abuse material on the Internet and this is a stain on our moral conscience. I am very concerned by this and that is the reason I commissioned the report I did, in which I go through the options for Ireland and what needs to be done.

We need to think about the victim profile. Many Members attended an extraordinary briefing we received in 2012, before we moved our group motion in the Seanad. Pat McKenna of ChildWatch and Michael Moran, assistant director of Interpol’s directorate dealing with trafficking of human beings briefed us at that meeting and provided us with startling figures. When they examined some of the images in question, some 74% of the victims appeared to be ten years of age or younger. We heard of images of children with their umbilical cord still attached. The prevalence is moving towards children who cannot yet speak, because they cannot articulate what is happening to them. The images and pictures we are talking about are horrendous. They are a crime scene.

Another problem is the offender profile. Some 70% of the offenders are aged between 21 and 50. Some 59% are likely to be married, 41% are likely to have children and 33% are physically abusive in other aspects of their lives. What we were told at the briefing stays with me. We were told that the average person who comes across this trade accidentally is horrified and walks away from the computer. However, within a week, many will go back to the computer and start looking for more images. These images are not traded in money, but in images, so what will one do when one wants to be king of the pack but create one’s own images. We must introduce a blocking system. This problem affects Irish children and children worldwide.

I have been very affected by some of the stories of children who have been abused. I cannot understand the reason behind many crimes, but I can nearly understand murder, although I do not condone it. However, I cannot understand child abuse. I cannot get my head around why people would do it. In the case of this kind of child abuse we have victims who find out that their images are proliferated across the world and that their own country will not block these images. We must ensure we have a blocking system in place.

The Minister mentioned a hotline. I call it the lesser known hotline. It is great to have it, but it is not much use if it is not publicised and people do not know about it. To be honest, I believe the existence of the hotline can be used as a cover or excuse by the ISPs who can point to its existence. This is a bit like the issue of drink awareness, where people can point to MEAS and We need a much more independent system.

The countries that already have filtering in place are Canada, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland, Italy, Netherlands, Finland, New Zealand, France, Malta, Australia and the UK, including Northern Ireland. All our mobile telephone providers across Europe have it. Therefore, I do not accept any arguments we hear about why we cannot do it.

I commend the Garda Síochána, Europol and Interpol, who are doing amazing work and I feel strongly that we need to support them.

Why is there not a greater urgency to transpose the directive? We should be doing so without delay. It is great that we have the EU directive. Let us put filtering in place. Self-regulation is not working. The Internet service providers, ISPs, are being dragged to the table.

A child abuse image is a crime scene. It is a digital record of some of the most monstrous crimes against children.

This is a question of protecting children from abuse. We must take action. I plead for greater urgency. We can undertake it discreetly and efficiently, a suggestion that I examined in my report.

Order of Business, 19 September 2013

Thursday, 19th September 2013

I support Senator O’Brien in his call for No. 2 to be discussed. It is something we should do to ensure any inquiry is as we intend it and as we would expect. Perhaps it cannot be facilitated today but if there were a commitment, I would be supportive of it.

I commend the French Senate, which yesterday banned beauty pageants for children under 16 years. In fact, it will impose prison sentences. This is about protecting childhood. Beauty pageants prematurely force children into roles of seduction that seriously harm their development. I am most disappointed to note that this weekend for the first time in Ireland there will be such a beauty pageant. It is not a welcome development. I wish to send a clear message that it should be cancelled and that we should not be having these types of beauty pageants in our country. We should be protecting childhood.

I thank the Leader for putting on the agenda for discussion today the EU directive on combatting the sexual abuse and exploitation of children and child pornography. As colleagues are aware, in February 2012 the Independent group put forward a comprehensive motion that dealt with the directive, but nothing has happened since. I welcome that it is on the agenda today. I have published in advance a report on effective strategies to tackle online child abuse material. We should remember that a child abuse image is a crime scene. It is a digital record of some of the most heinous crimes against children. This is about protecting real children from real abuse in the real world. I have copies of the report if colleagues would like to see it in advance of our discussion at 11.45 a.m. We should send a clear message to the Government that we need to ensure we have filtering in place to block online child abuse material. I thank the Leader for placing this matter on the agenda. However, we must do more than just discuss it.

Junior Cycle Reform: Motion

Wednesday, 18th September 2013

I also wish to support my colleagues, Senators O’Donnell and Mac Conghail in the tabling of this motion, which I fully support. I do not wish to get tied up in knots about terms like “core” or “compulsory” because I welcome the junior certificate reform. My own background is in youth work and much of what we practice in non-formal education is being brought into the classroom and the formal education sector, all of which is to be welcomed. My colleague, Senator Mac Conghail, spoke about the balance between theory and practice and in both my current role and my previous job, I have visited the transition year students of many schools. In this context, there is a great difference from school to school on how transition year is implemented. I refer to that capacity and the capability within a school and within individual teachers as to whether they harness the potential of a transition year student year. There is a similar fluidity to the new junior certificate reform and perhaps that is where part of my hesitancy lies about history not having as central a role as I would wish. While my colleagues have referred to the statements of learning, I can understand the reason, at the joint committee meeting of 12 June last to which my colleague, Senator O’Donnell, made reference, many eminent people expressed fears about history and whether the students would be ready and prepared. It can be taught as a subject or a short course and if the latter, comprising 100 hours of learning. Will that prepare someone to take it at leaving certificate level? Will it prepare them for university to go further in those subjects? How could a short course even get one in? Anyone who loves history will understand the depths and knowledge it has. Senator Moran mentioned students making choices and I have met many students, some very close to home, who have based their choices both for the junior certificate and as they enter into the leaving certificate cycle, on the points. It is purely about points and I understand this drive whereby this is what one needs to do to get the college course one seeks.

This point brings me to the amendment to the motion, which refers to the compulsory subjects, the importance of literacy and numeracy skills and of the development thereof, with which everyone agrees.

All the work I have done on literacy and numeracy, however, tells me one does this in many different ways, not just through particular core subjects such as English. Literacy can mean a parent in a supermarket telling a child to pick up a can of peas, spelling out the word.

I am a little concerned about us jumping to the next thing when we pick literacy. People may have forgotten that in 2008, the Department of Education and Skills and the Council of Europe produced an excellent report on language education policy profile concerning modern languages and their importance, but it was dropped because we are doing literacy and numeracy. I do not say one approach is more important than the other but many of the people being recruited – we are told it is all about growth and jobs – are coming from outside Ireland because we do not have the required modern language skills. Part of my concern in respect of history is the same as that which applies to the placing of modern languages and issues such as how we prepare students for life. Yesterday, I attended a very impressive seminar which looked at the work-readiness of students. Young people are approaching work very differently now. A person from Accenture told us that after a person begins to work, he or she will want to take a sabbatical to go back to further education or to travel and will afterwards return to work. The idea of being in a job for life is changing and we must prepare our young people for this changing environment.

I have a difficulty. In this discussion we may all be on the same side, but when I drill down, I find I do not have confidence that under the junior certificate reforms we will have consistent delivery of the junior cycle in each school, which would be detrimental to students. There might be a teacher who is visionary and able to encompass this new way of learning but there may be difficulties with some who are traditional and not ready for the change. The current sixth class will be the first to be tested in this regard. Will we have consistency throughout the country and will we prepare for it? I believe we need a little more structure. In my view, there are certain essential subjects. History and modern languages are the ones I would like to throw into that pot. That is where my hesitancy lies and if I try to understand it, I find I do not have the confidence I would like to have. I do not want children to be guinea pigs.