Children’s Rights Alliance lecture marking the work of Jillian van Turnhout

Children’s Rights Alliance lecture marking the work of Jillian van Turnhout
Senator in Seanad Éireann from 2011 to 2016
in The Ark, A Cultural Centre for Children

13 April 2016

Speech by Jillian van Turnhout

Thank JvT Speech 14 April 2015 Photo (1)you Children’s Rights Alliance for this wonderful opportunity to reflect on my path to children’s rights advocacy and my term of office in Seanad Éireann.

So, what can you expect from this evening? I plan to start by sharing a bit about myself and my journey. I will use some of the legislation we dealt with in the Seanad to offer insights into both success and failure and how best to avoid the latter.  I hope you will find it interesting and to the NGOs in the room, I hope it will help you both understand life inside the bubble and how best to shape it.

As I look around the room I see so many friends and supporters.  I know I couldn’t do what I do without you.  On this note I want to begin by giving a very special thank you to my husband Michael who is my rock.  A huge thanks to my Mum, Jenny Hassett and my late Dad Michael Hassett for always believing in me and nurturing the eternal optimist in me who believes she can make the world a better place.  To my brothers John and Gerry for the reality checks and keeping me grounded. And to my sisters-in-laws Philo and Gina for always cheering me on.  My Researcher and Assistant in the Seanad over the last 5 years, Amy McArdle, is also here tonight and I want to pay her a special thanks for all her support and expertise as our time working together comes to an end.  Amy, I wish you good fortune as you move to your exciting new challenge.

My Dad lost his Mum at the age of 8 and lost his Dad less than 3 months later following a bicycle accident. Unbeknownst to him, my Mum, living only a short distance away, would soon be grieving the loss of her Dad. So much tragedy in their early years and both tell of how narrowly they escaped a fate in one of the children’s institutions we are only too aware of today. They were lucky you see. They both had strong, determined adults who believed in them. So, while they grew up in hardship, they grew up knowing they were loved. This is the gift they gave to me and my brothers, the gift of growing up wrapped in love. When asked what one thing I would want for every child?  My answer is always “to have an adult who believes in them fully and strives with them to realise their dreams”.  It has taken me until now to realise that their experience, and the experience they gave to us their children, was a key factor drawing me to children’s rights.

JvT Speech 14 April 2015 Photo (2)For the first 12 years of my career I worked in the private sector but throughout this time I was working with children and young people in a voluntary capacity not least through my involvement with the Irish Girl Guides. Anyone who knows me knows I’m a Girl Guide! I have endeavoured in every role and position I have held to date to live by my Guide Promise and Law to ensure that “I think of others before myself”.

Just over 20 years ago I was elected as Secretary General to one of the then three European youth platforms – it brought together all the International Youth Organisations at a Council of Europe level.  Over three years I worked in Brussels with the leadership of the other two youth platforms to successfully merge into the European Youth Forum – a sole platform for youth organisations across Europe.

On returning to Ireland I was honoured to be elected as President of the National Youth Council of Ireland.  Now, I know I’m showing my age here but I remember getting my first mobile phone in this role and the excitement of waiting for it to ring.  I also remember doing my first radio interview and my Mum, who remains my dedicated media consultant to this day, giving me her first piece of advice “I hope you are not going to be one of those moaners who is always complaining.  If you want to be a game changer then you need to focus on how to solve the problems”.

I went on to be a member of the European Economic and Social Committee which is an advisory body of the EU and was honoured to be elected to the position of Vice President.  As part of my work on the EESC I was a member of the EU-China Round Table, which took me back and forth to China over several years.  In this role I was the rapporteur on its Children’s Rights Report.

I still remember my job interview in the Central Hotel for the Children’s Rights Alliance in May 2005. I remember thinking it was a long shot since my professional experience until then was primarily in the private sector, albeit with the advantage of significant performance driven results expertise, but still it was only my voluntary work that was directly relevant to the work of the Alliance.  Perhaps I needed to think more like a man and focus on all the things I could offer.

In accepting the role I met every metaphor going-baptisms of fire, roads hit running, and deep ends plunged. Within my first year in the Alliance we produced a Shadow Report and had appeared before the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, we also produced a children’s report to the Committee and had agreed a Social Partnership deal entitled, somewhat optimistically, “Towards 2016”.

In my time in the Alliance I worked with many wonderful and talented people and I would like to take this opportunity to wish one of them, Maria Corbett, every success with her exciting new venture.  Maria recently announced she is going to take up a full time PhD with NUIG to examine the process of how we decide to take children into care. I can’t think of a better person for the job.  During this time, I also developed a great relationship with Prof Geoffrey Shannon whose legal expertise I have always appreciated. Thank you both for your firm and lasting friendship.

It was on taxi ride through Shanghai’s equivalent of Temple Bar in 2011 that I received the fateful phone call from the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, inviting me to accept his nomination to the Seanad. I hope you will appreciate just how surreal a moment that was for me! To this day I remember clearly him stressing that he wanted me to be truly independent and keep my own voice.

So this evening, in the spirit of ‘keeping my own voice’ I intend to peel away some of the layers of legislative mystery. While the Seanad transcripts will give you the “record” of how various Bills pass through the House, I will give you a behind the scenes look at what really influenced and shaped some of the legislation I worked on.

Finance (Local Property Tax) Act 2012
In preparing for the Local Property Tax Bill in 2012 I knew that many children and youth JvT Speech 14 April 2015 Photo (3)organisations owned residential venues and was concerned they would face paying significant Property Tax bills. I rang the Department of Finance to explain my concerns. As it happened, the Official I spoke to had had a daughter in the Girl Guides and got exactly what I was talking about.  In December 2012 I tabled an amendment to the Bill to exempt venues owned by children and youth organisations from the Property Tax. The Minister for Finance, Michael Noonan TD, did not accept my amendment but did commit to come back with an amendment to achieve the same aim in a few months.  I took him at his word and in March 2013 he came back and granted the exemption and specifically cited Guiding and Scouting as an examples of why he was doing so.

As we all know, there is often a disconnect between law making and the practical reality on the ground.  There is no better feeling in the world than knowing you have bridged that disconnect and won a victory for civil society.

Protection of Children’s Health (Tobacco Smoke in Mechanically propelled Vehicles) Bill 2012
On New Year’s Day 201JvT Speech 14 April 2015 Photo (4)6, the Protection of Children’s Health (Tobacco Smoke in Mechanically Propelled Vehicles) Act of 2014 came into effect in Ireland. This legislation extends the workplace ban on smoking to all vehicles where children are present.  The impetus for this important legislative change was in fact the Protection of Children’s Health from Tobacco Smoke Bill 2012, which I initiated with Senators John Crown and Mark Daly with the support of John’s assistant Shane Conneely. We started the process optimistically in spring 2012 with a view to its passage before the summer recess.  Instead what ensued was months of tedious meetings and games of tag with John Crown stressing the urgency of the Bill, Mark working the political aspects and me bringing the children’s rights expertise but also the diplomacy necessary to calm the waters and steady the ship.  Each of us played to our strengths. In the end, some three years later, even though only a handful of words from our original Bill remained due to amendments but we got it over the line.

Adoption (Identity and Information) Bill 2014
Tens of thousands of Irish adoptees don’t know their original names, who their parents JvT Speech 14 April 2015 Photo (5)are or their medical history.  In November 2014 I co-sponsored legislation with Senators Averil Power and Fidelma Healy Eames to recognise the right to identity of adopted children.

As an adopted child, an adoptive parent and a children’s rights advocate, we each brought our own unique perspectives to the table.  Thanks to cross party support in the Seanad we persuaded Government to allow the Bill pass through Second Stage (no mean feat!!).

For those who are not au fait with the legislative process, there are 5 Stages in the passage of a Bill but it is the middle 3 that are the most substantive.  In short:

  • First Stage initiates the Bill and gets it on the agenda of the first House (Dáil or Seanad);
  • Second Stage is the general debate on the purpose, intention and scope of the Bill;
  • Third Stage (aka Committee) goes through the Bill section by section and considers individual amendments;
  • Fourth Stage (aka Report) allows you to review issues raised at Committee and table additional amendments; and
  • Fifth Stage (Final) sees a vote on entire Bill.

A successful Bill then goes to the other House, and follows stages two to five and then hopefully it is enacted into Law.  Many Bills, particularly those not initiated by Government, fall or stall at one hurdle or another…and some reappear as a Government Bill down the line!!

Back to our Adoption Bill and we are now at Committee Stage the third stage of the Seanad process.  Unusually, since we were the authors of the Bill, we had tabled a considerable number of amendments to address issues raised by the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, James Reilly, at Second Stage.  Averil and I worked as a tag team and it was the one and only time I occupied the Fianna Fáil front bench seats in the Seanad.  It became clear as we were working through the amendments that the Minister and his officials had decided to neither engage nor oppose our amendments.

While this was allowing us to whiz through the changes we proposed it was all very bizarre.  It was at this point I got a text message from an Official in the House kindly pointing out that the schedule did not limit us from pushing the Bill through all stages.  So, following a speedy consultation with Averil, we agreed to give it a go but not before giving the Minister his opportunity.  I took to my feet and asked the Minister if he would be willing to engage with us on our Bill before Report Stages, which we were willing to take another day otherwise we would progress all Stages.

At the end of Committee Stage we asked again and there was still no comment.  So we pressed ahead to Report Stage and then with thanks to the Government Senators jumped the final hurdle and took the fifth and final stage.  These last two stages took all of 30 seconds maximum.

We now had a powerful tool in our armoury on the Right to Identity for all adoptees.    We had a Bill that had passed unopposed through all stages in the Seanad.  Surely the Dáil could pick it up and amend it if and where necessary.

Our efforts pushed the Minister and the Department to publish its own Heads of Bill on Adoption (Information and Tracing).   The Heads had come a long way from formerly stated positions. There are still obstacles, which were highlighted during the excellent hearings by the Health and Children Committee and detailed in its subsequent report.  There are over 50,000 adult children whose right to their identity could soon be realised.  This issue is a ticking clock as many are aging and many not see the legislation published let alone enacted.  It is urgent.

Immigration (Reform) (Regularisation of Residency Status) Bill 2014
Passing legislation is never easy and unfortunately things don’t always go to pJvT Speech 14 April 2015 Photo (6)lan! Case in point, a Bill proposed by Senator David Norris and myself to provide a pathway to residency for asylum seekers who have been awaiting a decision on their protection application for 4 years or more.  We had worked on the substance and intention of the Bill with a number of individuals and organisations working with refugees and migrants.  We knew the Bill we initiated wasn’t technically perfect but we hoped for the support of the House to move the Bill to Committee Stage where the necessary changes could be made.   However, Senator Norris and I were blindsided by Sinn Fein.  They had been approached by another NGO working in the area who did not agree with the use of the term ‘amnesty’ and so lobbied to block its passage.  Sinn Fein voted with Government against the Bill and we lost the passing of Second Stage by 1 vote.  We never expected our Bill to pass into law rather we saw it as an important opportunity to highlight the appalling reality of Direct Provision and to put pressure on the Department of Justice and Equality to act.

I appreciate the motivation of the NGO concerned but I still think it was a short sighted step that showed scarce respect for their fellow NGOs and more importantly removed an important lever to effect change.

Children and Family Relationships Bill 2015
The Children and Family Relationships Bill really illustrates the importance of JvT Speech 14 April 2015 Photo (7)collaboration and I wish to commend the Children’s Rights Alliance not only for their work on this Bill but for their unstinting support and expertise during my tenure.  Tanya Ward, Chief Executive, has proven her leadership, vision and acumen in spades since taking over the reins in 2011.

The Children and Family Relationships Bill was tabled and debated against the backdrop of the impending Marriage Equality Referendum.  This coloured much of the debate on the Bill but this legislation was so much more.  It represented the most significant reform of child and family law for a generation and finally put children at the heart of family law.

I watched in admiration as the Alliance united voices by forming a working group of members with diverse views to analysis and co-ordinate advocacy action.  They provided briefings and strategic communications at every level needed to effect changes to the Bill.  The Alliance built consensus amongst their membership, generated media and organised events.  Indirectly their work built consensus and support for the recognition of LGBT people as parents.  At this point, I also commend Minister Frances Fitzgerald TD, Minister for Justice and Equality who personally steered this legislation through both houses.  It took 30 hours in Seanad Éireann alone.

As I talk about the Marriage Equality Referendum one of my greatest regrets in office is that we could not embody the same level of public engagement when it came to the Children’s Referendum.  The closest I got to tapping into mass public sentiment was JvT Speech 14 April 2015 Photo (8)when I took on Child Beauty Pageants. I was inundated with support from parents and the public.  It showed me there is a strong public appetite to protect childhood but we haven’t been able to able make the link in the public mind with children’s rights.

Marriage Age
Not everything must be done through legislation. Tabling Motions under group speaking time can be equally effective.  In May 2014, we had a Seanad debate on the abducted schoolgirls in Nigeria that Boko Haram had threatened to sell into forced child marriage. I took this opportunity to voice my concern that exemptions to the marriage age in Ireland mean that, strictly speaking, child marriage is not prohibited here.

In June 2014, Senator Ivana Bacik brought forward a Motion calling on the Government to remove the court ordered exception to the legal age for marriage of 18.  Aware of my own interest in this children’s rights anomaly, Ivana invited me to second the motion and I detailed how in 2012 28 child marriages were permitted to take place in Ireland.  Just before Christmas the Government committed to setting the marriage age to 18 without exceptions.  I hope this is brought into law soon.

On a side note, I must take this opportunity to thank Ivana and wish her every success in her Seanad campaign.  I have grown in respect and admiration for Ivana – she is a great person to collaborate with. She’s whip smart and has an expert legal eye for legislative scrutiny.

My lowest moment
If you had asked me a few days before the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill I JvT Speech 14 April 2015 Photo (9)would have said that this would be my most tense vote.  The debate was fractious, bigoted and filled with misinformation.  Little did I know my toughest vote would be within hours of that vote.

To set the scene, we were now operating in a Seanad where the Government was in the minority and needed Independents or opposition to support them.   In the short period of 3 hours leading up to my toughest vote I was shouted at in the corridor, grabbed, cornered and at one stage even pinned up against a wall – all by opposition parties and independent members– who felt they could ‘bully’ me into voting a particular way.   On a side note we are all friends again.  The vote in question was on a motion to delay the passage of the Referendum Bill proposing the abolition of the Seanad.  If I voted with the opposition, we would delay the passage of the Bill for 90 days.  However, in my head all I could think was that only six months previously we were one vote short of delaying the passage of the Social Welfare Bill that brought in the cuts to the Respite Care grant. If we couldn’t get our acts together to frustrate this utterly unfair cut, how in good conscience could we justify delaying the passage of a Bill that was about keeping our own jobs!!

No one from Government approached me about my vote.  On pressing the button I voted with my gut.  Along with my colleagues Senators Marie Louise O’Donnell and Fiach MacConghail we made the difference and ensured the vote for the Referendum would be put to the people.  The footage of the day will show how I was jeered and shouted at by opposition for being a ‘traitor’.  Funny how they changed their view when the people of Ireland gave the Seanad a mandate.

IndependentJvT Speech 14 April 2015 Photo (10)
Being independent should not mean you are automatically in opposition.  As a Taoiseach’s nominee I had to work out what independence meant for me?  From the outset I believed it meant dealing with issues on merit. I voted with the Government where possible and clearly articulating my position where not. In the end we were operating in a minority Seanad and so each time I voted it counted – a power I had to use wisely.

Following my low point in the Seanad I was feeling increasingly isolated from both the Government Senators and Opposition Senators.  Some Government Senators felt I should automatically vote with them as I was a ‘Taoiseach’s nominee’.  Coupled with this I felt an increased sense of responsibility as the people of Ireland had voted to keep the Seanad.

So, I sought a meeting with the Taoiseach and despite everyone thinking we were in regular contact this took a few months to set up.  In fact, prior to this meeting the only advice I received from him was during my first days in office to pick a few key issues and stay on them if you want to effect change. Sound advice that I endeavoured to follow.

I met the Taoiseach and he listened.  I explained my frustration with the system, with trying to put forward amendments and feeling I was working in an echo chamber.  He repeated the advice he gave me when he first appointed me “I want you to be yourself and be Independent”.   It was only when I reached out that he leaned in to help and provide support to me.

Following this meeting he set up a weekly meeting for me with an advisor from his Department.  The only thing he asked was where possible I would give advance notice when I was not in a position to support the Government.  The payback for doing this was access to influence and in particular securing wins on a number of policy fronts.  At no stage during my time as a Senator has the Taoiseach ever tried to influence my vote.

Reform
There is much debate and talk about Reform.  I find most Members are very happy to JvT Speech 14 April 2015 Photo (11)discuss any aspect of reform that won’t directly affect their lives.   I believe that reform begins with the individual.  I decided when I started to take a new approach to politics and so used my social media – twitter primarily – to account for my work and I also publish each year a statement of my salary and allowances to ensure maximum transparency.   Indeed, each year I return the unspent portion of my allowance and as there was no procedure up until last year I had to ‘gift’ it back to the Department of Finance.

An example of some of the reform introduced in my time is pre-legislative scrutiny to a significant number of proposed laws.  This allowed for Committees to bring in experts, civil society groups, public officials and the Minister responsible to provide testimony.

Health and Children Committee
My experience is on the Health and Children Committee.  In reality only five or six members keep each committee going.  If you attend for one minute or three hours your attendance is recorded in the same way.  I was fortunate that my Committee was under the excellent chairmanship of Jerry Buttimer who ensured we worked collaboratively and respectfully.  I am very proud of our work, much of it in areas I have already highlighted, but additionally our hearings on End of Life Care. I hope the report we published will come to fruition.

Many NGOs supported my work at the Committee. A particular thanks to Chris Macey of the Irish Heart Foundation and Angela Edghill of the Irish Hospice Foundation.  Their advocacy expertise was so helpful especially in my early days as was Chris’s sage advice when I was faced with a legal threat from tobacco industry stooges.

In a similar vein, I was happy to draw on my European experience in challenging the alcohol industry and its attempts to frustrate and stymie legislative efforts to address alcohol related harm.  The drinks industry has a role – to make profits for its shareholders.  They have no role, whatever guise they choose to wear, in the formulation of health policy.   I think my views are clearly known.

Constituency
Senators shouldn’t have constituencies. Certainly not geographical ones.  As an independent Taoiseach’s nominee I definitely didn’t have one but I did endeavour to use the platform I was given to continue working with NG0s, civil society organisations, community and voluntary sector organisations and interested members of the public to JvT Speech 14 April 2015 Photo (12)help achieve our shared objectives.  I want to thank each and every one of you who has helped and supported Amy and I throughout the past five years across a broad range of issues. Your insight and expertise has been essential to the quality of our input and in helping us to convey the reality on the ground.

One thing I would stress to you is the importance of collaboration. It is the missed opportunity I see all too often in Leinster House. An organisation will come to meet me in my Seanad office and say “A is critically important” and then the next day another group within the same sector will come to me and say “B is the most important”.  These groups need to work together to determine and agree the priorities, not offer a choice for politicians to decide.

Coin drop machine
One of the greatest privileges of being a Senator is theJvT Speech 14 April 2015 Photo (13) opportunity to meet and engage with a wide range of peoples who bear witness to their personal circumstances.  We
have done so much damage in the past and the only way we can truly demonstrate we have learnt from our mistakes is through the actions we take now.  I wish I had a magic wand or a do-over. Instead I feel I am operating one of those coin machines you see in arcades.  You have to put a lot of coins in to hit the tipping point for change.

There are many issues where I feel I have put in a considerable amount of coins but we have yet to see progress. In particular, I highlight the situation for transgender, non-binary and intersex children.   In 2015 Ireland passed ground breaking gender recognition legislation into law.  However, it is silent when it comes to children under 16 –despite my efforts to introduce an interim gender recognition mechanism.   Minister James Reilly has committed his Department to doing more research in the area in time for the review of the Gender Recognition Act in 2017.  I am also sitting on a Working Group hosted by TENI and hope with several others to ensure children have a voice and a place in our laws.

Shelter
JvT Speech 14 April 2015 Photo (14)
I cannot leave today without mentioning the untenable homelessness crisis faced by children and their families, which is compounded by the shortage of social housing and the State’s failure to regulate the private rental sector.  It is incumbent on us to ensure all children – homeless children, children from the Traveller community and children in Direct Provision –  have secure and appropriate accommodation.

Corporal PunishmentJvT Speech 14 April 2015 Photo (15)I want to end on a high and the achievement of which I am most proud- havingchampioned and secured the effective ban on the physical punishment of children in Ireland.  A few months before this win a high level official in the children’s area told me that it would be impossible.  I succeeded by drawing on all in my armoury – all that I have amassed and using every ounce of social and political capital I had built up.   I have documented the official story in the Irish Journal of Family Law but let me take you behind the scenes here.

As early as 2011 I had spoken in the Seanad on the need for Ireland to repeal the defence of reasonable chastisement and I continued to raise the issue throughout my tenure. Behind the scenes I researched the issue, drew on International experiences and identified the piece of Legislation I would use as my vehicle.  The Children First Bill was perfect as it was about child protection and yet it contained no penalties or sanctions and so no one could say I was trying put parents in jail.  I also knew the Government would work to ensure this Bill was brought into law as it was a key plank of its reform of child welfare and protection.

The Committee Stage of the Children First Bill was taking place on 23 September last.  At 10am the previous day I met an Advisor and several officials from the Department of Children and Youth Affairs to discuss my amendments to the Bill.  Over the summer recess I submitted several substantive amendments and I had been waiting for this moment.  In our meeting I said I was willing to concede on the other amendments but that corporal punishment was my red line.  They tried very hard to dissuade me but I did not see any other Oireachtas Member willing to put their head above the parapet on this issue and so I had to do it before my time was up.  Even if I lost, I intended to force a vote and let the record show who in the Seanad was willing to be listed as saying it is acceptable to hit children.   It was a tense meeting.

At 4pm that same day, I was invited to meet Minister Reilly and the Secretary General of the Department.  My persistence on the issue meant he had spent the day trying to find a way forward through discussions with his officials and the AG.  In that meeting he gave me a commitment he they would do the change but I needed to buy them some time to work out the how.  We agreed that I would postpone a vote at Committee Stage but one way or the other we would be voting on an amendment at Report Stage.

I had been working with the NGOs and in particular the Children’s Rights Alliance, ISPCC and Mummy Pages who were all outstanding in playing a subtle but vital role in getting the ban on corporal punishment over the line. It worked, with thanks to my fellow Senators who all supported me; the NGOs and children’s rights advocates; and some really outstanding civil servants and advisors.

Through this action the Government has put children first and provided leadership that will hopefully give confidence to other countries across the globe, including our nearest neighbours, to protect children from violence.

There is so much more I could mention but let’s keep it for another day!  It has been a roller-coaster ride that I feel so privileged to have been on. I learnt so much, not least how to hold my nerve and persevere with my eyes fixed firmly on the goal.  I believe I made the most of the opportunity.  I worked extremely hard to effect the most change I could. I don’t know what my future holds but as ever I am optimistic and confident that I will rise to my next challenge.

I would like to thank my fellow Senators from across the house for their collaboration and cooperation.  It has been an immense honour.  Most of all I wish to thank all of you for your input and support during my tenure.    Thank you the Children’s Rights Alliance for giving me an opportunity to share my experiences and to the Ark for providing such a wonderful venue.  Thank you ALL.

END

Exchange of Views on Literacy with HRH Princess Laurentien of the Netherlands

Breakfast Briefing/Exchange of Views on Literacy with HRH Princess Laurentien of the Netherlands, 23 September 2015, Leinster House

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Hartelijk Welkom en Leinster House Koninklijke Hoogheid Princess Laurentien.

Fáilte roimh go leir.

We are delighted to have you, Your Royal Highness, and indeed you, Ambassador Paul Schellekens (of the Netherlands to Ireland), here with us today.

The theme of this week’s National Adult Literacy Awareness Week is “Learning and life chances-promoting equality through basic education”. The aim is to raise awareness about literacy in Ireland and to promote the free courses available to people who want to improve their reading, writing and maths skills.

“Literacy is essential to effective communication and active participation in all aspects of daily life. It goes far beyond reading and writing. Literacy in a contemporary context also involves listening, verbal reasoning, numeracy and the use of commonplace technologies like the telephones and the internet. Literacy means we can be plugged into the world and negotiate the complexities of modern life.

It is to our national shame that 1 in 6 working age adults are found to be at or below literacy level 1 of a 5 level scale and 1 in 4 below level 1 for numeracy (OECD 2013)”.

I have convened this session as both a briefing and an opportunity to exchange views on how best to support literacy through lifelong learning.

All too often I see in my work on children’s rights how literacy is an inter-generational issue.  I fully support the need for family literacy initiatives.

Princess Laurentien is a passionate advocate on the issue, which she first encountered during her studies in the U.S. Her Royal Highness worked as a literacy volunteer in the 1990s. From 2001 onwards she started giving speeches on the importance of basic literacy skills, providing a platform for the work of others in the field and working as a ‘match maker’ between different actors. In 2004 she took this work to the next level when she founded the Reading & Writing Foundation in the Netherlands. While she continues to serve as that foundation’s Honorary Chair, she also promotes the cause of literacy internationally as UNESCO Special Envoy on Literacy for Development.

Following Princess Laurentien’s address we will hear from Inez Bailey, Director of the National Adult Literacy Agency, a charity dedicated to ensuring people with literacy and numeracy difficulties have access to educational opportunities that meet their needs and can fully participate in society.

Gender Recognition Bill 2014: Report and Final Stages 15 July 2015

As always, the Minister of State is welcome to the House. I thank the Tánaiste for her commitment to the issue of gender recognition and thank the Minister of State for the energetic and robust debates we have had here in the Chamber and outside. I join other Members in welcoming the distinguished guests who have joined us here today, in particular Dr Lydia Foy and Michael Farrell. As I look at each face in the Visitors’ Gallery and think of the journey I have been on, I note that I did not know the majority of these people a few years ago, but now I feel I know them as friends. They have had to share their life stories with me for me to understand what we are debating here today and see the importance of today. That says a great deal. I have met some really amazing and brilliant people.

As the Minister of State knows, I have met many parents and children directly affected by this issue. While I am really happy today and recognise that is a great day, it is a bittersweet moment for me. It brings me back to my childhood when teams were being picked. There is a team getting on the human rights bus that is going. They are the adults and they are going to get it but the children did not get picked. That feeling of children being left out in the cold…yet again… makes it very difficult for me again today that we did not do anything for children, even though we had that opportunity. As we meet today, young people organised by TENI are meeting on the issue. BelongTo has a group of children meeting on this very issue. It is not that these children do not exist; they do. The Minister of State and I have met the parents and we know the real issues they face.

I will not go back over and rehearse every issue, but there have been developments since we debated the issue in the House in February. The calls I have made were informed and very much supported by organisations such as TENI and BeLonG To but also by the ISPCC, Children’s Rights Alliance, NYCI, SpunOut, Epic, Amnesty and the USI, just to name a few. Indeed, at its parliamentary assembly, the Council of Europe issued a resolution on discrimination against transgender people in Europe and said we needed to ensure that the best interests of the child are a primary consideration in all decisions concerning children. This is on transgender people; I am not picking something out of place. Indeed, since we have been debating the matter, Malta has passed gender identity, gender expression and sex characteristics legislation which ensures that children are free to live as they wish and are only required at the age of 14 to provide a gender for their birth certificate. In Norway, the Government has proposed legislation for pre-legislative scrutiny, not some independent Senator, to look at gender recognition from age seven. I welcome the commitment the Minister of State made in February to have the roundtable among education partners and I welcome the fact that one meeting has happened, but it is only one meeting. No education partners have been contacted on the issue of transgender children. We will face September again and there will be children who cannot live as they wish and go to the schools they wish to attend because they are being actively blocked.

Much has been made of the marriage equality referendum, which was a joyous and tremendous day, but there was also the children’s referendum which took two years for the Supreme Court to clear. That is the lens we also need to be looking at. We need to ensure that our legislation is also looking at that lens. The Government’s national policy framework for children and young people, Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures, is a whole-of-government document, not just one relating to the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. It very clearly sets out that the development of laws, policies and services should take into account the needs, rights and best interests of children and young people. It says that efforts should be made to involve children and young people in policy and decision-making processes. While that is Government policy, we saw in this process that children were excluded from the debate at the pre-legislative scrutiny stage. I have gone over my notes to confirm that. There was no good reason for it. I have gone back over the e-mails and the Acting Clerk of the Dáil has confirmed that they should have been allowed to give testimony at those committee hearings, but were not. We did not allow their voices to be heard, and we should not have done that. Other committees allow children to appear before them.
As I said, the best interests of the child should be our paramount consideration, taking account of the views of the child and the evolving capacity of the child. I proposed an interim gender recognition certificate where everybody is ad idem, that is, the parents, the child and an independent person, be that the Minister, a general practitioner or a court. Obviously, that was not successful. It was brought forward again in the Dáil. That led me to read the debates in the Dáil on Second and Report Stages, in particular. It was noticeable that Members of all parties and none raised the issue of children and the importance of including children in the Gender Recognition Bill. There was one exception, the Labour Party. Its Members did not, so perhaps it is Labour Party policy. I do not understand. I have read through all of the transcripts and no Member from the Labour Party raised this issue. I am still at a loss. The European Region of the International Lesbian and Gay Association gave really compelling testimony before the 29th Human Rights Council. Obviously, it welcomed what we are doing in Ireland but also noted that there was no process for legal recognition of minors under 16 years of age. These children exist and they deserve protection. A parent of a six year old trans girl said: “I just want to keep this child alive. I have a happy child now, why end up with a dead child? It’s important that she gets documents that reflect her gender.”

The difficulty for me, to which I have not received a satisfactory answer, is relevant to the court case S. v. An Bord Uchtála in 2009.  The case involved an intersex child born abroad, who had been registered as female at birth. The judge made an order to allow an amendment of the register of foreign adoptions so that the child’s paperwork would reflect his gender of rearing as a boy and enable him to be enrolled in the local boy’s school. The difficulty is that because this Bill excludes children, are we saying to the courts that we do not want them to interfere or do anything on children? We are closing the door on this. As a legislator, I believe we are sending a clear message to children that we will not talk about gender recognition. That is a problem for me. I am also worried about one of the amendments from the Dáil regarding passports. Again, I have dealt with some cases where children have got their gender changed, not on their birth certificate but on their passport. This amendment will not allow that to happen. Even more children have been squeezed out of this. There are four to five children a year who will not now be able to get a passport in the gender they wish because we have tightened the knot again and really made sure that children are firmly outside the room when it comes to gender recognition.

In conclusion, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs wrote to the Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection and proposed written amendments. I appreciate that she did not feel she was in a position to accept those amendments. Is the Minister saying that this is now under the remit of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs? If it is, I will table amendments to the Children First Bill. This must be made clear because I do not wish to be told when we debate the Children First Bill that it should have been done in the Gender Recognition Bill or that it should be done by the Minister for Social Protection. Will the Minister clearly state whether this is in the remit of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs? When will the meeting with the education partners take place? I am not asking for an exact date, but a timeframe for when it will take place.

One of the proposals sent by the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs was that we would explicitly state that children and young people would be included in the strategic review. Will the Minister give a firm commitment on that? I do not wish to be told two years hence: “Children are not in the Bill so how can one strategically review children if they are not in the Bill?” I wish to be told clearly that this issue will not be left behind. It is a joyous day for adults, but there are children whom I have met and to whom we have said: “Go sit in the corner; we are not ready to deal with this yet.” In fact, we have slammed the door.

 

Statements on Tackling Obesity in Ireland, 17 June 2015

The Minister is always very welcome to the House. The time he has dedicated to today’s debate shows that he has an understanding of the importance of this issue and the serious health concerns associated with it. There is no doubt that we are IN the midst of a full-blown obesity epidemic. It is shocking that 61% of adults and 22% of children between the ages of five and 12 are overweight or obese. Given that this issue is so costly and damaging to the health and well-being of the nation, it is difficult to understand why we are still discussing strategies rather than implementing the excellent strategies we already have. The national task force on obesity has been operating for almost ten years, but its recommendations have been implemented in a partial and haphazard manner. The then Minister for Health, Deputy Reilly, established a special action group on obesity in 2011. This group highlighted priority areas and policy recommendations, such as an introduction of a sugar tax and the improvement of nutritional labelling. These are very cost-effective ideas, but four years on there has been no action towards implementing any of them. Children remain particularly vulnerable. The Government’s failure to act is having a particular impact on them. They are increasingly vulnerable to chronic diseases, premature deaths and disability in adulthood.

Given the negative impact of obesity on people’s health, it is understandable that we talk about it in a critical and negative way. However, we need to be mindful in our discourse that obesity and excessive weight are realities that people live with and struggle to overcome. This is especially important when we talk about childhood and adolescent obesity, which can have a significant impact on the self-image, self-esteem and confidence of the young person affected. For many years we have associated malnutrition with lack of food or starvation, but in fact that is under-nutrition. Obesity is the result of malnutrition, which is a poor diet with a lack of adequate nutrition for proper growth and development.Not everyone who is malnourished is overweight or obese but this does not mean that he or she is not seriously damaging his or her future health. It is imperative, therefore, that we shift the focus to a more holistic healthy lifestyle approach, with nutrition and exercise as its linchpins. We must tackle the unhealthy obsession that has developed about being fat, counting calories, “yo-yo” dieting and losing weight, all of which are serious issues among young adults, especially females.

As previous speakers pointed out, school is where children spend the majority of their time in the company of their peers. Physical education in schools is essential to a child’s physical and mental development. The children’s sport participation and physical activity study of Irish students in primary and post-primary education found that a mere 35% of primary pupils and 10% of post-primary pupils received the minimum 120 minutes of physical activity in school per week, as recommended by the national task force on obesity. One in four of the children surveyed was unfit, overweight, obese or had elevated blood pressure.

A 2013 report by the European Commission, Physical Education and Sports at School in Europe, found that the provision of physical education at primary level in Ireland is the third worst in the European Union, while at post-primary level, it was found to be seventh worst in the EU. This failure to ensure the weekly minimum of 120 minutes of physical activity for children is a serious blow to children’s health. We must promote physical activity, participation in physical education and non-structured play during school hours. Children should be encouraged to engage in team sports, join activity clubs in the community and simply enjoy the outdoors. When they learn these habits at primary school level they continue to be active throughout their teenage years, thus reducing the risk of obesity.

I am concerned that parents do not have control over children’s eating habits when they are outside the home. While healthy lunch policies are widely implemented in primary schools, they tend to be abandoned when children enter secondary school. Research carried out this year by the Irish Heart Foundation on food provision in post-primary schools found that 51% of students have daily exposure to foods that are high in sugar, fat and salt and that these are widely available not only outside the school gates but also in school tuck shops and vending machines. There is no statutory requirement on schools to provide meals and hot food to students throughout the school day, although many schools have canteen facilities. Given the obesity epidemic we face, it is alarming that no national guidelines or standards are in place on the types of food and drinks available for children to buy. With no time for exercise and sugary, fatty foods surrounding children everywhere, it is little wonder that childhood obesity rates are high. If we continue to ignore this issue, our children’s health will only worsen.

Obesity is also becoming a problem of poverty. Convenient cheap foods that are high in calorific value and low in nutritional value are becoming the norm for lower income families. Why are convenient healthy foods the most expensive option? Anyone who visits a canteen or shop will see that convenient healthy foods are the most expensive option. The cost of healthy food is becoming a barrier to a healthy diet for families. For this reason, I support the introduction of a sugar tax. The money generated from such a tax should be used to fund projects such as family food initiatives. These are projects that help to improve the availability, affordability and accessibility of healthy food for low income groups at local level using a community development approach. The objective is to help families to achieve a healthier lifestyle.

The Minister raised the issue of free general practitioner care for children aged under six years and the two health checks available for this age cohort. While these are excellent initiatives, one of the issues people have raised with me is that they do not provide access to a dietitian or nutritionist in cases where a general practitioner encounters a problem. The schemes present an opportunity for general practitioners to engage with parents and provide them with nutritional information. As the Minister is aware, I fully support free GP care for children aged under six years.

An issue arises regarding choice architecture. The Department organised a seminar some weeks ago on what is known as the nudge policy and a number of simple steps that could be taken in this area. One need only visit a local shop, supermarket or canteen to observe how choice architecture is being used. It is easy for shoppers to grab the unhealthy option. While many of us agreed with Senator Byrne’s interesting comments on food, these issues do not always click for us. If Members are not getting this information easily, how much more difficult must it be for someone managing a family and in a rush to do so?

I thank the Minister for his attendance. My message is that we have policy blueprints and it is now time for action.

Press Release: The exclusion of children from the Gender Recognition Bill is fundamentally wrong

Senator Jillian van Turnhout describes the exclusion of children from the Gender Recognition Bill 2014 (being considered, Wednesday 17 June, by the Dáil Select Sub-Committee on Social Protection) as fundamentally wrong

She says “I cannot sit silently by as we tell trans children and young people to sit in the corner and wait for their rights to be upheld, maybe, at some point down the road.”

 Statement from Senator Jillian van Turnhout 16 June 2015 *** Embargo 10am 16 June 2015***

“There are few groups in Ireland more vulnerable than our transgender (trans) children and young people. We don’t know exactly how many trans children we have in Ireland but we do have compelling anecdotal evidence from the groups supporting them that their number is significant; they live all around Ireland; there has been a notable increase in the numbers of trans children and their families contacting support groups for advice over the last 12-18 months; and in LGBT awareness training in schools the vast majority of teachers have questions around trans issues and trans identification. This is not a remote issue. We are talking about real children throughout Ireland right now. Many of these children are living a nightmare from as early as between three and five years of age when their gender identity is likely developed, where their gender identity doesn’t match the sex they were assigned at birth and therefore indicated on their birth certificate.  These children and their parents face numerous challenges as so many of our services are driven by our birth certificates.

“Schooling is a classic example of the barriers trans children face in trying to live their young lives in the gender they identify with. We have a predominantly single-sex school system in Ireland where enrolment is predicated on a birth certificate. And so, we can have a 6 year old child who has clearly articulated that he identifies as a boy. His parents, friends, extended family and community all accept and support his lived reality. Is this young child, a boy, really going to be forced to go through a girls’ school, wearing a girl’s uniform, using the wrong name and personal details in order to access the education available in his locality? Are we really prepared to stand over legislation that in this case would allow unnecessary distress, embarrassment, humiliation and potentially serious psychological harm prevail in this boy’s life for 10 years before he is eligible to apply to have his gender identity recognised?

“As a children’s rights activist I am profoundly disappointed that children under the age of 16, and given the onerousness of the process for 16-18 year olds we can say in effect ALL children, have been excluded from the provisions of the Gender Recognition Bill 2014, which enables a person to apply for formal legal recognition of their preferred gender. I believe the new children’s rights article in the Constitution makes it incumbent on the Oireachtas, in any legislation directly impacting the lives of children, to ensure the best interests of the child are the paramount consideration; the views of the child are heard when key decisions are made about their lives; and the evolving capacity of the child is facilitated.

“The voices, opinions and lived realities of trans children have been deafeningly silent throughout this legislative process. I do not know of a single trans youth who has been consulted by Government but I have heard directly from many young people and their families about how significant a mechanism through which their preferred gender could be formally recognised in their childhood would be to them practically but also in terms of their mental and emotional well-being.

“It is fundamentally wrong that this Bill does not provide a mechanism for legal recognition, even on an interim basis, of gender for trans children under 16 who seek it, where there is parental consent, support of the child’s GP and agreement that this is in the best interests of the child. I tabled an amendment seeking such a compromise, an Interim Gender Recognition Certificate, at Report Stage of the Bill in the Seanad back in February.

“It is important to stress that an Interim Gender Recognition Certificate for children is completely distinct and has no bearing on any decision that might be taken by a trans person to pursue medical intervention, such as hormone replacement therapy or to undergo gender reassignment surgery at a later stage in their lives.

“I sincerely hope the Government is prepared to deal with the question of trans children in this Bill. We have this opportunity to make a massively positive impact on the lives of trans children in Ireland and to ensure, unlike too often in the past, that we are not compounding and ignoring the needs of our most vulnerable citizens.

“An Interim Gender Recognition Certificate for children would allow the rights and best interests of trans children to be promoted and protected, and for evidence gathering around models of best practice for a permanent arrangement, in the period before the issue is revisited in the two year review.

“I cannot sit silently by as we tell trans children and young people to sit in the corner and wait for their rights to be upheld, maybe, at some point down the road.”

-ENDS-

For More Information, Please Contact: Senator Jillian van Turnhout,

Leader of the Independent Group (Taoiseach’s Nominees)

Phone: 01-6183375    e-mail: jillian.vanturnhout@oireachtas.ie

Notes for Editor:

  • Gender recognition is an established human right to which children, as individual rights holders (Article 42A(1) of the Constitution), should be entitled. The Yogyakarta Principles (2006), which consolidated international human rights law, treaties and standards relating to sexual orientation and gender identity, is widely accepted as the authoritative legal statement and fully supported by Ireland at the International for a, defines gender identity as “each person’s deeply felt internal and individual experience of gender, which may or may not correspond with the sex assigned at birth”. Principle 3 goes on to say:  “Each person’s self-defined sexual orientation or gender identity is integral to their personality and is one of the most basic aspects of self-determination, dignity and freedom.”
  • The Gender Recognition Bill 2014 will be considered, Wednesday 17 June, by the Dáil Select Sub-Committee on Social Protection.
  • Senator van Turnhout tabled an amendment at Report Stage of the Bill in the Seanad on 17 February 2015 seeking an Interim Gender Recognition Certificate for children under 16 years of age.
  • Some paediatric specialists put the age of gender identity in children, whether transgender or not, at two or three. Other research cites gender identity development as occurring between three and five years of age.
  • Senator van Turnhout welcomed the commitment in February conveyed by Minister Humphreys in the Seanad on behalf of the Minister for Education and Skills, Jan O’Sullivan TD, to convene a round-table discussion with all educational partners on issues effecting transgender children. However, she notes that to date no steps have been taken to this end.

 

Statements on Early Child Care

I start with a declaration of interest. I am chair of Early Childhood Ireland, but it is a governance role. The Minister is very welcome to the House to discuss this issue. I applaud him for the work he is doing in setting up an interdepartmental group on future investment in child care. It is very encouraging to see the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs taking ownership of and showing leadership in the area.

I was surprised recently when I saw a map of the State, Department and agencies involvement developed by Mr. Thomas Walsh of NUI Maynooth. The list was large and I wonder about resources and costs, purely on the State side. That issue needs to be re-examined to ensure the system is streamlined. The map is an exemplar of the role of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, for which I applaud it. The role of the Minister is to co-ordinate and bring people together and to fulfil the missions of the strategy of the Government in Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures.

I hope the template will give us all an agreed map in order that we can declare where we need to go to. Difficult choices will have to be made, but at least we can agree at last what needs to happen. Parallel to this, as the Minister will be aware, the Joint Committee on Health and Children is having hearings on this issue. Deputy Sandra McLellan is our rapporteur, under the excellent chairmanship of Deputy Jerry Buttimer. The hearings have started and last week Early Childhood Ireland, Start Strong, the NWCI and the Children’s Rights Alliance came before the committee to set the scene for the issue. We have already had a good debate.

I want to discuss special needs and additional needs, which came up at the hearings last week. I mentioned the fact that the Department of Education and Skills provides more than 6,500 SNAs in primary schools, yet, apart from some local resources, none is allocated to children in early years education. I know that very often the focus is, correctly, on a child with needs, but we all know, and it was stated in the hearings last week, that the importance of inclusion and mainstreaming for all children in a setting cannot be overestimated. What came out of it was that perhaps the special needs assistant model is not the right model, so I hope the Minister is examining other models. It was about how they could access resources to support children in order that they were included in the settings and about adequately resourcing the preschool setting to include and mainstream the child rather than having a shadow with the child, . I advise the Minister to examine some of the answers we received from the organisations at that hearing.

What also came out very strongly from each of the organisations that presented was the importance of the first year of the child’s life, and that we must do everything we can to ensure this first year is at home. This came from all the organisations and it is something I ask the Minister to bring into his consideration. Perhaps over time, as we are trying to be ambitious, the Minister could look at how we ensure we have maternity and paternity leave. In Sweden either parent must take three months of the leave and it is up to them to work out how it is done. We need to look more inventively at this.

I strongly urge the Minister to ensure any money allowed goes into investment and not into cash transfers. We do not have to look too far back in history in this regard. The early child care supplement was withdrawn by the former Minister for Finance, Brian Lenihan, and the free preschool year was started at the beginning of the recession. I am hugely surprised to see that Fianna Fáil has gone back to tax credits in its plans. For me it is about investment. I urge the Minister to examine this.

 

Statements on Alcohol Consumption in Ireland

I was happy to swap with my colleague Senator Rónán Mullen because I would not have wished him to feel he was being silenced by not being able to contribute to the debate on the forthcoming referendum. I welcome Ms Suzanne Costello from Alcohol Action Ireland, who is in the Visitor’s Gallery.

I welcome the Minister for Health, Deputy Varadkar, to the Seanad and applaud him for what he is doing in this area. I accepted an invitation from the Department of Health to attend a seminar entitled “Influencing Healthy Lifestyles: Nudging or Shoving? The Ethical Debate.” It was really informative, and I thank the Minister for extending the invitation to us.

The public health (alcohol) Bill 2015, as the Minister outlined, deals with labelling, minimum unit pricing, marketing, advertising sponsorship, availability and price-based promotions. The Joint Committee on Health and Children, chaired by our excellent Chairman, Deputy Jerry Buttimer, held a series of meeting on the subject and is finalising its report. The Minister came to the final hearing of this series of debates on the heads of the Bill to hear the views of the members. What the Minister said today in the Seanad shows me that he took on board a number of the committee’s sentiments with regard to the public health (alcohol) Bill. I thank him.

I note with sadness that according to the OECD report Tackling Harmful Alcohol Use: Economics and Public Health Policy, Ireland has the fourth highest level of alcohol consumption in the OECD, behind Estonia, Austria and France, at 11.7 litres per capitafor those aged 15 years and over. To be placed fourth in this category is not the position we want to hold on this league table.Several of my colleagues have referred to the executive summary of this OECD report, from which I will quote:

 

Alcohol has an impact on over 200 diseases and types of injuries. In most cases the impact is detrimental; in some cases it is beneficial. In a minority of drinkers, mostly older men who drink lightly, health benefits are larger. … Harmful drinking is normally the result of an individual choice, but it has social consequences. The harms caused to people other than drinkers themselves, including the victims of traffic accidents and violence, but also children born with foetal alcohol spectrum disorders, are the most visible face of those social consequences. Health care and crime costs, and lost productivity, are further important dimensions. These provide a strong rationale for governments to take action against harmful alcohol use.

 

People often talk about the consumption of alcohol by young people and children, but they do not necessarily refer to the impact of alcohol on children in families. We see the figures in reports on domestic violence. The example set by the parents’ lifestyle impacts on the household. Senator Colm Burke referred to the students who won the Young Scientist exhibition with their project entitled: “Does the apple fall far from the tree?”, who made a presentation to the Joint Committee on Health and Children. In their project they quoted from a recent ISPCC report in which one child noted: “If you see your parents get drunk, whether you like it or not, it will have an effect on your life.” What surprised me was that one fifth of parents surveyed were not concerned about the prospect of another parent or adult supplying their adolescent with alcohol. That shows me how normal it is for adolescents to drink alcohol. If the adults in these young people’s lives think it is acceptable to buy a young person alcohol, it shows how much needs to be done in informing and educating the adults as well. We have to focus on young people. There is an issue with young people and alcohol which is European-wide, but, as the saying goes, they do not lick it off the ground. The adults in their lives are the role models and they very often set the norms. It is the norm for adults to go to the pub to socialise. We do not have other avenues. We need to ensure we have other avenues and that we provide other examples for our young people.

I fully endorse minimum unit pricing. The excellent report by Dr. John Holmes and Dr. Colin Angus from the University of Sheffield is comprehensive and goes through everything. They have been very open. I have gone back and forth to them with questions and they have been open about addressing any concerns we have. I would be very happy to share this report with colleagues.

I am concerned that the code of practice must be placed on a very strong footing. I have observed how the drinks industry can find every loophole in the system. Could we look at the threshold for the audience profile measurement, which stands at 25% at present? That is far too high. It should be at 10%. I would prefer if there was no alcohol advertising, but at the very least we need to reduce the level of advertising. I raised the issue of online marketing at the committee hearings. We know that some years ago Diageo announced that 21% of its marketing budget would go to online marketing. Recently legislation was introduced in Finland to ban alcohol apps that contained games, location settings and information on the nearest place to drink. Clearly, these apps are targeted at children. It is a social engagement. As my colleagues have said, a young person who visits YouTube will see advertisements for alcohol that I do not see. The drinks industry is very skilled at targeting particular groups. They know what sites and YouTube videos people are looking at, and the advertising is targeted at them. I have seen the effects of this at first hand. If I walk into any classroom and ask children to name their favourite advertisement on television, I guarantee that alcohol advertisements are up there in their choice. The young people score highly on brand recognition.

This brings me to the issue of sports sponsorship. I really believe we should set a date, no matter how far forward it is, to cease all alcohol-related advertising. It is very telling that neither the drinks industry nor the sports organisations will tell us how much sports sponsorship is worth. We do not have a figure. I think that is unacceptable that we do not know what we are talking about. Youth organisations which do so much voluntary work across the country will not take a single cent from the drinks industry, and I do not see the Government being put under pressure to replace it. In fact, the funding of youth organisations was cut by 40% during the recession, yet these organisations are still delivering those services. I acknowledge that some sporting organisations have stopped taking money from the drinks industry, but the sporting organisations who are still taking sponsorship money should let us know how much we are talking about. Last year, a school principal from Munster spoke at an Alcohol Action Ireland hearing on the issue of sports sponsorship. When Munster won what in France is called the H Cup, he invited the team to visit the school and he was delighted a few team members said they would go. They had a great day, but when they arrived with all the sponsorship and drinks advertising, he realised that he, as the principal of the school, had brought alcohol advertising to the school and he apologised to his students for doing so.

How the drinks industry has a handle on us is subliminal and insidious. It is unacceptable and we need to examine it. At a recent hearing, Katherine Brown of the Institute of Alcohol Studies stated alcohol sponsorship of sport is a way past children’s bedroom doors because they have a picture of a sporting hero on the bedroom door with the nice alcohol branding linking it to sporting success. She stated that if we are really serious, we need to tackle and deal with the issue of separation.

We also need to address the drinks industry role in decisions taken. I am concerned when I see jobs advertised by certain drinks companies. According to the job descriptions, they want to stay one step ahead of regulatory developments. They want to ensure they can beat the system. They will tell us it is all about education and if we were all more informed, we would all make the choices. I know about education, healthy eating and lifestyle. I am not as good as I should be because it is not what changes my behaviour. This is where legislation is important and why the Minister has my absolute and full support. I want us to go further and to do more. I want us to follow policies like that recently announced by the HSE, whereby it will have no truck with the alcohol industry. Why are the Departments of Education and Skills and Health not coming out with similar statements? The Child and Family Agency is thinking about it. It should have no truck with the drinks industry. We must do a lot more in Ireland.

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.

Special Educational Needs Services Provision: Motion

Wednesday, 29th May 2013

I welcome the Minister to the House and am pleased to participate in this debate this evening. There are many valuable proposals in the report by the NCSE, Supporting Students with Special Educational Needs in Schools. I note and support both the report and this motion’s strong commitment to providing access to mainstream education and the benefits which often accrue not only to children with disabilities but to society as a whole. The normalisation of disability is a vital step towards achieving a fair and egalitarian society. Indeed, ensuring access to mainstream schooling is in line with our obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which specifically recognises the needs of disabled children. It goes on to say that the education of such children must be done in a manner that is conducive to their achieving the fullest possible social integration and individual development. That is something with which we would all agree.

With the UN Convention in mind, I read the NCSE report with great interest but was disappointed by its finding that certain school enrolment policies and practices were less than fully inclusive and that such policies had created barriers to enrolment for students with special education needs. As a firm believer in the right of all children, irrespective of any specific educational needs, to access their local schools if they so wish, I encourage the Minister to give serious thought to how this can best be remedied. I question one section of the motion, although it is perhaps unintentional wording, regarding the entitlement of schools and their patrons to develop their own enrolment criteria. It is vital that the school application process be carried out in the most fair and transparent manner possible. The exclusion of any child from a State-funded school on any discriminatory basis is, for me, unacceptable, be it on the grounds of educational needs, faith or family history. I also believe that on this occasion the Government is right in tempering the language of the motion. The Minister must examine and give serious consideration to the recommendations of the NCSE report but to call upon him to introduce these recommendations in a wholesale manner, without due diligence, defeats the purpose of such a report, which aims to inform Government policy.

In particular, I am conscious of the concerns expressed about the report’s conclusions that Down’s syndrome should not be reclassified as a low incidence disorder, given these children often require more intensive support than others in the same classification due to the variety of additional difficulties associated with Down’s syndrome. While I note the report’s insistence that the proposed allocation system will allow for individualised assessment of children with and without Down’s syndrome, I am concerned that this does not conclusively address whether Down’s syndrome children will be entitled to resource hours. While I do not doubt the veracity of the report’s finding, further review by the Department may be useful in allaying the fears of parents.

I hope the Minister will provide clarity and reassurance for parents and children. September will be upon us before we know it and many parents are concerned. I support the call for the implementation of the EPSEN Act 2004, specifically to priorities access for children with special needs education to an individual education. It is well overdue and I put my trust in the Minister.