Senator van Turnhout – No alternative but to vote against the resolution to establish the Constitutional Convention

Press Statement
12 July 2012: For Immediate Release.


Due to a series of votes under Seanad Order of Business today there was no opportunity for Senators to debate the Resolution to Establish the Constitutional Convention. I am very disappointed by this given the importance of the Convention and the number of concerns I have over its structure, operation and process, as set out in the Resolution. While I have welcomed the Government’s commitment to establish the Convention, I along with my colleague Senator Katherine Zappone had submitted a suite of amendments, which I believe would have redressed a number of my now outstanding concerns. The Resolution was called to a vote and without an opportunity to debate its content I felt I had no alternative but to vote against it.
I am issuing the script of the intervention I had intended to deliver during today’s debate.

“As Leader of the Independent Group (Taoiseach’s Nominees) I was given the opportunity in March to meet with the Taoiseach to discuss the Government’s proposals for the Constitutional Convention as published on 28 February 2012.

Following that meeting I made a submission to the Taoiseach in which I welcomed the Government’s commitment to establish a Constitutional Convention. I also set out a number of the concerns I had, and I am sorry to say continue to have, about its structure, operation and overall process.

It is deeply disappointing that none of the recommendations made to the Government in good faith by public representatives, constitutional lawyers, political scientists and civil society organisations have had any impact on the arrangements as contained in the Resolution to Establish the Constitutional Convention.

I am concerned that this failure to take on board well articulated and constructive concerns does not bode well for the desired outcome of this process, which according to the Programme for Government is to consider “comprehensive constitutional reform”.

Our time to debate this Resolution is extremely limited and so I am forced to limit my intervention to just two issues, to which myself and my colleague Senator Zappone have submitted amendments.

Amendment to point (ii) “reducing the voting age to 17” delete “to 17”

Reducing the voting age:

I am concerned that we are not considering arguably more significant issues in the in the context of “comprehensive constitutional reform” such as, provision for same-sex marriage or our preferred formulation “provision for marriage for same-sex couples”, and review of the Dáil electoral system before some of the other listed topics.

That said, I welcome the inclusion of the voting age as a topic for consideration.
However, I believe that the Government’s formulation here is too prescriptive and seeks to pre-empt the outcome.

I would urge the Government not to seek to control the final result of the Convention on this issue.
I note that in one of the references in the Programme for Government, this same issue was listed as “Possible reduction of voting age”.

Reducing the voting age to 17 should not be the only option open for discussion.
The voting age is not static. It is something that changes as our society develops and matures.
The voting age in Ireland was reduced in 1973 by 3 years from 21 to 18.

There is a global and European momentum towards extending the right to vote to young people at 16 and 17 years old.

European Examples:

Austria-In 2007 became the first European country to reduce the voting age to 16 for all elections.
Germany-7 out of 16 landers have lowered the voting age to 16.
Slovenia-16 and 17 year olds can vote if they have a job.
UK-Proposals to lower the voting age to 16 are currently being considered.

Outside Europe Examples:

Brazil, Cuba, Nicaragua and the Philippines 16.

I am also concerned that there is no scope for the discussion under this specific topic of complimentary amendments such as the minimum age for a candidate to be eligible for election as President or to be eligible for membership of Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann. I believe it is important that the Convention is given scope to examine other aspects of a given topic.

Civil Society Participation:

In my submission to the Taoiseach I made a number of my concerns about the composition of the Convention known.

[Amendment in bold “the Convention shall invite and accept submissions from interested bodies, including civil society organisations, and will seek such expert advice as it considers desirable”].

I believe this amendment will better ensure that adequate space is provided to allow for meaningful input from civil society groups and other relevant stakeholders throughout the process.

Their expertise in assisting and advancing public consultation processes, such as on the Universal Periodic Review and the current Review of the White Paper on Development, is clear.

It is also especially important given that there are certain members of the Irish population who will not directly participate as members of the Convention, such as children.

The voice of children must be heard. I ask the Government to ensure that the relevant NGOs and structures such as Dáil na nÓg are fully utilised to redress this concern.

Tánaiste, on a final note I feel it important to say [on the record] that I am not convinced about the role for Oireachtas Members as set out in this Resolution.

I am concerned by the appearance of Government dominance over the entire process.
I have reservations about the appropriateness of Oireachtas Members participating, particularly in the review of the Dáil electoral system but on all the issues generally, given the space public representatives already have to debate and consider these issues and in light of the fundamental need to provide the widest scope possible for ordinary citizens to engage with the topics.”


Adjournment Motion – Mental Health Services

11th July 2012

In December last, I praised the budget 2012 commitment to invest €35 million in mental health services, of which €23 million was dedicated to developing community mental health teams for adults and children.

Along with many others with an interest in mental health, I was alarmed to read in a newspaper report over the weekend in The Irish Times that part of the €35 million investment in mental health services could be used to offset overruns in the HSE. This report was swiftly countered by the Minister of State’s Cabinet colleague, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, who gave assurances on the RTE Radio 1 programme “This Week” on Sunday that the promises of additional posts for mental health services would be delivered. My first request is that the Minister of State take this opportunity to give me the same assurances in this regard.

In budget 2012, a further commitment was made to recruit 414 staff for community mental health teams, of which 250 posts were to be in dedicated adult teams. I am extremely disappointed that not one position has been filled although it is now July 2012. The Minister of State is, more than most, acutely aware of the wide-ranging benefits of community-based mental health services. Among many other benefits, community-based mental health services enable people to be treated for mental distress in their communities, either at home or in a hospital, minimise inpatient and day-case hospital stays, liaise with local community services such as vocational training, education, housing and voluntary support services to provide integrated recovery support for the individual, and support primary care staff in providing mental health support. Furthermore, having accessible mental health services in the community can help normalise mental health and destigmatise mental health problems, reducing the prejudice and discrimination that people currently face. Community mental health teams are a vital part of the recovery ethos which is central to A Vision for Change. The community-based mental health services envisaged in A Vision for Change are specialist services with staff who have particular expertise in supporting people’s mental health.

Core services offer a holistic range of supports and include staff from a range of specialist disciplines such as clinical psychology, mental health nursing, occupational therapy, psychiatry and social work. However, the specialist disciplines mentioned remain significantly understaffed. Back in 2010, a report by the Inspector of Mental Health Services on an audit of community health staffing showed that only 50% of the required number of psychologists and only 60% of the required number of occupational therapists were in place.

In addition to my concern about the existing under-staffing, I am concerned by reports from the coalition group Mental Health Reform that the Irish Mental Health Commission is no longer collecting data on staffing levels in approved centres. This gap in data will make it extremely difficult to assess whether staffing levels are reaching the recommended level as set out in A Vision for Change. My second request is that the Minister of State tell us what information has she in this regard. Perhaps she can provide me with assurances that data will be collected.

The Minister of State recently confirmed that 31 of the promised 414 posts in community mental health teams under the HSE service plan 2012 will be converted to nursing posts for acute inpatient services in Dublin-mid-Leinster region. Mental health services in Ireland have for far too long been the Cinderella of the health services. The 414 staff promised in the HSE service plan should not be deployed in inpatient services and must remain in the community. Staffing needs to be ring-fenced. The continuing uncertainty over the future of the mental health budget does nothing to allay fears about the Government’s commitment to invest the dedicated €35 million I mentioned at the start. My third and final request is that the Minister of State confirm that the badly needed posts in community mental health teams will be in place by September, and that the posts will be ring-fenced to ensure they are not diverted to inpatient services.

Order of Business, 3 July 2012

I would like to draw attention to the publication on last Friday of a HIQA inspection report on children’s residential centres in the HSE South area. The report followed a two day pre-announced inspection of the children’s residential centres in April. Three young people resided in the centre, one aged 14 years and two aged 15 years. The report was highly critical. The inspections described the living accommodation at the centre. It consisted of two separate purpose-built bungalows that were described as shabby and not fit for purpose, the heating was broken, walls were broken as well as cupboards and doors.

The inspectors also identified serious concerns over the care being given to children by staff at the centre due to their very low morale. One of the findings that I found particularly troubling was that two of the teenagers had attended school intermittently before being admitted to the centre but they no longer attend school. They had not been to school for over eight months. We know from the child death review group’s report last week of the importance of education and school attendance and that the report spanned 2000 to 2010. The new report is dated April 2012. It alarms me because it has highlighted the fact that the issues contained in the child death report have not been addressed. It is imperative that the HSE act on the 23 recommendations in the HIQA report. I also draw the attention of the House to the fact that there is still no independent inspection regime for children in disability services or children in direct provision.

It baffles me, given the truly dreadful record in child welfare and protection that not only are many children in Ireland seen but not heard, some of the most vulnerable are neither seen nor heard. I call on the Leader to invite the Minister for Health, Deputy James Reilly, and the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, to the House to explain the reason there is no inspection for these categories of children. In recent months I have had correspondence with both Ministers, neither of whom will take responsibility for these categories of children.