It’s been another incredibly busy term. There have been highs and lows, meetings of minds and divergences of opinion over contentious issues. Not least the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill 2013 and the 32nd Amendment of the Constitution (Seanad Abolition) Bill 2013. In this, my last newsletter before we resume in September, I would like to set out my thinking on these two Bills and give you some of my term highlights. The following hyperlinks will let you peruse the newsletter at your leisure:
Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill
International Women’s Day
Transparency and Accountability
Party Leaders Allowance
My work does not stop when the Houses rise. I will be spending the summer researching, preparing and strategising for the important work ahead, including the Child and Family Agency Bill 2013, revised Heads of Children First Bill, and the Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) Bill 2013.
I would like to thank my contributors and team, particularly my assistant Amy McArdle whose professionalism, human rights and legal expertise, helps me maximise my input and engagement.
I look forward to working with you into the future and if there are others who you feel would be interested in my work please forward them this newsletter or invite them to subscribe to it on my website www.jillianvanturnhout.ie
Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill:
As a member of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children, I was privy to the 6 days of Committee hearings, 3 days in January and 3 in May, on the Government’s options following the Expert Group Report and the Heads of the Protection of Life Bill respectively.
The hearings provided a forum to discuss the legal, medical and ethical issues relevant to the Bill and heard from experts, often espousing very contrary views, from each of these disciplines. It was an extremely useful exercise for me and following serious thought, careful consideration and same examination of conscience I employ before making any decision as a legislator, I found I was able to support the Bill and its passage through the House.
My decision to support the Bill was notwithstanding a number of genuinely held concerns. I was not in favour of the Bill making a distinction between a risk of loss of life emanating from a physical or mental health condition. Aside from being unnecessarily legally, I believe in the wider public debate on mental health and efforts to destigmatise mental health illness is a regrettable and retrograde step. I argued that the threatened 14 year prison term and unlimited fine was barbaric and a wholly inappropriate means of appeasing opponents of the Bill who, let’s face it, would be opposed to the Bill however drafted because they are fundamentally opposed to the principal. Finally, I expressed my concern over the absence of distinct legislation to clarify issues of capacity and consent where the patient is under the age of 16 years. The Minister for Health has given me a commitment to bring forward legislation to address the capacity and consent for children. Click here to read my speech.
I take my role as a legislator very seriously. I am also a citizen, who is directly impacted by the legislation we pass and votes in referenda to change the Constitution, as will be the case when the question of Seanad abolition comes before the Irish people in the autumn.
As such, in coming to the Government’s 32nd Amendment of the Constitution (Seanad Abolition) Bill, I endeavoured to balance my Senator’s hat and private citizen’s hat appropriately and honestly and the truth is I haven’t arrived at a definitive position yet.
As an active Member of Seanad Éireann I see its flaws, I live the frustration and I understand the criticisms. On the other hand, I have seen and experienced the capacity of the Seanad to scrutinise Bills, to secure greater human rights proofing of legislation and policy, and to add a layer of expertise and consideration that is often lacking in Dáil debates. At the very least, the Seanad is in need of radical reform. So too is the Dáil if we are to resuscitate political democracy in Ireland. As it stands, I am not yet convinced about the Dáil’s ability to deliver the self-reform needed to plug the checks and balance gap that would be left by the Seanad’s abolition.
I went into some considerable detail on these points in my Second Stage intervention to the Seanad and made it clear that I would not impede the passage of the Bill through the House.
Arriving at my position on this incredibly important question is a journey that I am still in the process of taking. However, what I do believe, as reflected in my intervention and in my vote against a Motion tabled by my Seanad Colleagues to recommit the Bill back to Committee Stage and consequently delay the Referendum, is that this is a question for the people and the people alone to answer.
You can read my Seanad contribution in full here.
International Women’s Day:
To celebrate this year’s International Women’s Day, 8 March, I was delighted to host a lunch for participants of the Women for Election Programme. This innovative, non-partisan programme is designed to inspire, equip and inform women to run for political office. My guest of honour was Kirsten Gillibrand, United States Senator for New York. She gave us a unique insight into being a woman in US politics, the balancing of work/family/life commitments, childcare, and other issues identified as barriers to women entering into the political arena.
Transparency and Accountability:
I find Senator Gillibrand’s approach to politics very interesting. She is the first member of Congress ever to post their official daily meetings online every day, so her constituents can see who is lobbying their Senator and for what. I also feel strongly about lobbying and recently tabled a Private Members Motion calling on the Government, in addition to the planned Regulation of Lobbying Bill 2013, to introduce transparent and accountable regulations governing Parliamentarians in their engagement with lobbyists. Like Senator Gillibrand, I am committed to transparency and accountability. I believe that every Senator should publish an annual statement of the public money they receive and I invite you to view my statements for 2011 and 2012, which has been endorsed by Transparency International Ireland and can be viewed here.
Party Leaders Allowance:
Back in March 2012, during the debate on the Electoral (Amendment) (Political Funding) Bill 2011 myself and my fellow Group Senators tabled a series of wide-ranging amendments including one to ensure that allowances paid to Party Leaders and Independent Members of the Oireachtas are vouched. All of our amendments were rejected. I was therefore surprised and very pleased by the Government’s decision to introduce vouching to the party leaders’ allowance system.
In addition to initiating a Seanad debate following the broadcasting of Prime Time’s “A Breach of Trust” in May, which documented instances of maltreatment and emotional abuse at the three Irish Childcare facilities, I also hosted a special briefing session by Early Childhood Ireland on examples of good practice and quality in the provision of early childhood care and education, which was very well attended by Oireachtas Members.
One of my hobbies is genealogy, and I am currently tracing my own family tree. The European Commission is set to consolidate data protection within the European Union and I am concerned that no mention was made of genealogical records. I was aware that the issue of data protection was on the agenda of an informal meeting of Ministers for Justice and Home Affairs in Lithuania and I tabled an Adjournment Motion to request that Minister Shatter raise the importance of ensuring the continuing availability of genealogical records at that meeting.
I was delighted to host a briefing session for Oireachtas Members by the Disability Rights Coalition Ireland on the issues affecting young adults with an intellectual disability and/or autism leaving second level education, who need further support from disability services. I fully agree with the Coalition’s aim to promote empowerment of people with a disability rather than conforming to typical charity model. During an excellent debate on the tremendous work of Special Olympics Ireland, I also took the opportunity to put the spotlight on emerging social entrepreneurs who have started HeadstARTS, which endeavours to empower and enable people with intellectual disabilities through the arts.
Along with Senator Fiach Mac Conghail, I was honoured to cosponsor the Legal Recognition of Gender Bill initiated by our fellow Group Senator Katherine Zappone, which seeks to introduce a Gender Recognition Register which would collate self-declarations of gender from transgender individuals. I will continue in the new term to ensure the human rights proofing of legislation and policy and to advocate on a multitude of issues from direct provision accommodation to stroke and heart heath awareness. I will also continue to maximise the Committee structure as a member of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children by addressing real and pressing concerns in health and child related issues and through the quarterly meetings with Ministers Frances Fitzgerald TD and James Reilly TD, and Minsters of State Kathleen Lynch TD and Alex White TD.