Employment Permits (Amendment) Bill 2012: Second Stage

29th November 2012

I welcome the Minister of State to the House and begin by joining everybody else in commending Senator Quinn for his initiative in bringing forward this important and necessary Bill. I echo the words of Senator Byrne as this debate forms part of the role of this House, and we are here to legislate. The debates we have should inform the legislation, and today’s Bill is a sign we are getting down to business.

I wholeheartedly support the Bill and its purpose. Unfortunately, forced labour is alive and well in Ireland, as is clearly demonstrated by the shocking exploitation of Mohammad Younis and our laws, albeit unintentionally, protecting the perpetrators. The High Court was correct in law to overturn the determination of the Labour Court to award over €90,000 to Mr. Mohammad Younis for alleged breaches of his employment rights, including threats, payment “well below” the minimum wage, the imposition of extremely long working hours of 77 hours per week with insufficient breaks and no day off and the failure to renew Mr Younis’s work permit, thus rendering him undocumented in the State and extremely vulnerable to the exploitation and mistreatment meted against him. Senator Quinn very clearly elaborated on Mr. Younis’s case.

The High Court was correct in law because as set out in section 2 of the Employment Permits Act 2003 finds that Mr Younis does not have a valid and legal work permit and as such cannot benefit from relief in respect of an employment contract. It was correct in law but it was not just and right; part of the law should make circumstances just and right. It is clear that Mr. Justice Hogan recognised this, and in overturning the award made by the Labour Court, he stated that Mr Younis “has been the victim of the most appalling exploitation in respect of which he has no effective remedy”. As colleagues have noted, Mr. Justice Hogan further felt compelled to send a copy of his decision to the Ceann Comhairle, the Cathaoirleach and the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Richard Bruton.

I appreciate that the Department is currently working with the Office of the Attorney General to examine options to address the lacuna in the Employment Permits Act 2003 arising out of the High Court decision. Having carefully considered the Bill, it seems to be a viable and immediate option at our disposal to plug the legislative gap, which in real terms means protecting very vulnerable workers from exploitation by unscrupulous employers. This is not an issue that has the luxury of the time it can often take for the legislative process to deliver. It is an immediate problem.

The Migrant Rights Centre of Ireland currently has 30 cases of exploited workers in precarious positions with work permits at various stages before the Labour Relations Commission. Clarity, certainty and legal protection must be brought as a matter of absolute urgency to these people. I urge all Members to support the Bill before us.

Before concluding it would be remiss of me not to point out that while the lacuna in the law to which this amendment purports to remedy was unforeseen or unintentional in its impact, there is no room for suggesting that this Government is unaware of the negative and dangerous consequences of its failure to legislate against forced labour either as a solitary offence or by amending the Criminal Law (Human Trafficking) Act 2008 to define forced labour. The current legislative protections afforded through ordinary criminal offences such as false imprisonment, blackmail, assault, coercion, or the immigration or health and safety law are not appropriate or sufficient given the profile of the victims and the likelihood that they will have neither the knowledge of nor the confidence to evoke these protections.

A law or a clearly defined provision on forced labour in existing legislation would give victims confidence and act as a deterrent to their exploiters, which is increasingly necessary, with anecdotal evidence suggesting that the recession is leading to greater recourse to very cheap or free labour by unscrupulous employers. I use today’s debate on this Bill to call on the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, to publish the publish the International Labour Organisation’s report on criminalising forced labour in Ireland, which I understand sought to assess what Ireland would need to do to become fully compliant with, among others, the ILO forced and compulsory labour and abolition of forced labour conventions, the United Nations Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery; and Article 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The report exists – let us publish it. With 160 cases of forced labour in the past six years and rising, according to the Migrant Rights Centre, I also call for a wider Seanad debate on forced labour in Ireland.

I thank Senator Quinn for introducing this Bill. It is discreet legislation that protects vulnerable workers from exploitation by unscrupulous employers. We need to pass this Bill, but it is only the first step towards ensuring that we send a clear message to the effect that Ireland does not tolerate forced labour. We cannot lecture other countries about forced labour while tolerating it on our own doorstep.

Sexual Violence in Conflict: Motion

27th November 2012

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. It is my pleasure to second the motion. I commend Senator Norris on initiating this motion, which has received support across the House.

It is fitting that the debate takes place on the nearest working day to the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, although, as Senator Norris said, sexual violence in conflict is not limited to women. It is important and timely that we, as a Parliament, have this debate, particularly with Ireland’s upcoming Presidency of the European Union and our recently won membership of the United Nations Human Rights Council.

Senator Norris spoke with great passion and authority about the heinous use of sexual violence, rape and other forms of sexual abuse as a tactic or weapon of war. The gravity of rape as a tactic of war is such that it is explicitly covered under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court 1998, which entered into force in 2002. It has jurisdiction over the most serious crimes of international concern. More recently, UN Resolution 1820 was passed in June 2008. It notes that women and girls are particularly targeted by the use of sexual violence, including as a tactic of war, to humiliate, dominate, instil fear in, disperse and-or forcibly relocate civilian members of a community or ethnic group.

As Senator Norris said, the situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is of extreme concern. It was also brought to light by Mr. Peadar King who has produced a thought provoking documentary which is essential viewing for all parliamentarians. When we viewed it in the AV room, it was the first time I saw nobody being able to say anything at the end of a viewing. We were all shocked to the core that this is happening today in another part of the world. No conflict appears to be immune from these despicable acts. In Burma, the military has been accused of carrying out rapes and gang rapes of women and girls as young as eight years old with impunity. Rape and sexual violence continue to be perpetrated with unspeakable frequency in Sudan’s Darfur region, with women and girls running the gauntlet of being raped every time they leave the safety of their villages to collect water and fire wood.

The level of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is almost beyond description. It goes far beyond the rape of babies, elderly women, men and boys. It includes gang rapes conducted by the militia in front of family and community members and, in some cases, male relatives are forced at gunpoint to rape their own daughters, mothers or sisters. There are reports of rapes being carried out with bayonets and guns shot into the victims’ genitals. Unfortunately, it would be possible for me to continue at length with further examples illustrating the pandemic proportions of the devastating impact and urgency of this situation. However, what we need is action and I will use this time to focus on where action must take place.

There must be action at international level to bring about an immediate and complete cessation by all parties to armed conflict of all acts of sexual violence against civilians, in accordance with UN Resolution 1820. With regard to Ireland’s contribution, obviously we are committed under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. We are also committed to international obligations under UN Security Council Resolutions 1325, 1820, 1888 and 1889. These obligations are collectively addressed under Ireland’s National Action Plan for Implementation of UNSCR 1325, 2011-2014. I am pleased to learn that progress has been made with the recent establishment and first meeting of this action plan’s monitoring group, which is being led by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and chaired by Ms Liz McManus, to ensure the meaningful implementation of UNSCR 1325.

I commend the efforts of the Irish Joint Consortium on Gender Based Violence, which is made up of human rights, humanitarian and development agencies, the Irish Defence Forces, Irish Aid and government agencies. It is innovative that the membership is both governmental and non-governmental. Hopefully, it will provide an example to other countries. It is an excellent and meaningful initiative which strives to address gender based violence and promote the adoption of a coherent and co-ordinated response within the policies, procedures and programmes of all its member agencies. I also note Ireland’s support for and contribution to the achievement of a system wide cohesion process for the establishment of the United Nations new entity for gender equality and the empowerment of women, UN Women. I commend this. Ireland will be a board member of this body next year and I urge the Minister of State to ensure that gender based violence, sexual violence, sexual abuse and rape as a weapon of war are promoted as atrocities of urgent concern. Equally, I urge the Minister to bring it to the agenda of the EU. I cannot understand why the EU is not taking more concerted and coherent action. For me, one of the reasons for membership of the EU is that through the strength of the combined numbers we can provide a role model on the global stage of what is acceptable and unacceptable.

As Ireland is a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council, we need to intensify our diplomatic efforts to secure action with the Africa group and the African Union. I call on the Government to have a thematic resolution on sexual violence in conflict at the next session of the United Nations Human Rights Council as an outcome of this debate.

National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Persons)

27th November 2012

I welcome the Minister of State. I also welcome the Bill in general. It is good to see it before the House and that the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, used the committee process to formulate the heads of the Bill. I encourage more Ministers to use this process.

It is important that we do not view the Bill in isolation. It is part of a suite of legislation that includes the Children First Bill, the Criminal Justice (Withholding of Information on Offences against Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act 2012, the Criminal Justice (Spent Convictions) Bill 2012 and the recently passed children’s rights referendum.

I wholeheartedly support this Bill, but I will raise some concerns. One concern is the length of time taken to process vetting applications. From the documentation provided by the Library and Research Service I see that the process has improved considerably and been reduced to a matter of weeks. However, the employing organisations in question work with particularly vulnerable children. Having taken a straw poll during the weekend and today, voluntary youth work and sports organisations are waiting months. The average for vetting volunteers is three months, but could be as much as six months. We need to keep this point in mind. The Bill is not concerned with resourcing but it puts the same onus on organisations regardless of whether the persons in question are employees or volunteers. There is a slight get-out clause for large voluntary organisations. It is a considerable burden.

As Senators know, I am involved in the Irish Girl Guides. Someone who volunteers to be a leader wants to be active. I have no difficulty with that person not having unsupervised access to a group. However, one must wait for up to six months for vetting to come through. We can have all of the procedures and legislation in the world but organisations can commit a criminal offence under this Bill if they are not careful about the onus. There is a difference between an employee and a volunteer who helps out on a weekly basis. It is important that the Bill refers to occasional versus regular. However, there is a difficulty, in that they sometimes converge.

The Irish Girl Guides would never allow a non-vetted person to stay with a group overnight. Regardless of whether that person was supervised, he or she would not be allowed in the building. In the run-up to an event, though, a parent may offer to help for the weekend when a leader becomes ill and is unable to attend. We have found other solutions, for example, a leader must come from another area, but I am trying to apply to the Bill the reality of how the system will work in practice.

The Department of Justice and Equality has employed 20 civilians on a temporary basis and includes a number of personnel under the JobBridge scheme to work on the backlog. When the Bill comes into effect, the demand on the vetting bureau will increase significantly. Will this exacerbate the situation? Everyone involved in this debate wants to protect children. Sometimes, I run code of ethics training courses. Child protection in Ireland is a pendulum. For all too long it was stuck at one point and we did not want to consider that children were being abused in any manner or form. If we saw no evil, no evil was taking place. In a way, the pendulum has now swung to the other side. We have become overprotective and are placing burdens on organisations. It is important that we find the right balance in the centre. We should keep an eye on child protection without assuming that everyone is evil or that it is always a question of stranger danger. Some 92% of people who abuse children are family members or are known to the families. This is not stranger danger.

I welcome the provisions on the exchange of soft information. In light of a number of cases in recent years, our efforts would be toothless without that exchange. Under Part 3, subsection 12(3), an organisation can have the defence of “neither knew nor could reasonably be expected to know”. This covers volunteers partially, but I am concerned that there is an equivalence.

My second point relates to portability. Senator Power raised the issue of PPS numbers. I am confused about whether they can be used. Many of the people I know volunteer and a volunteer is likely to volunteer in more than one organisation. It is the person’s nature, yet he or she must go through the same vetting process repeatedly even if he or she is volunteering within the space of months or a year. I understand that the Minister will not provide for portability because an offence might have been committed during the two volunteering or employment opportunities, yet we are told that re-vetting is not practical. If one has been in an organisation for five plus years, one should be re-vetted. The Minister can consider this issue under the Bill, but no guidelines have been included. I am concerned that we are not sending out a clear message to organisations. Is it the case that, once one is in, one is safe and not a harm to children? I have a difficulty with the distinction between employees and volunteers. A volunteer with the Irish Girl Guides will work for two hours per week. Someone might volunteer for years without anyone ever knowing what occurs during the other hours of his or her weekly life.

I am also concerned about the status of being offered a job subject to vetting. I am conscious of the High Court case that is currently before Ms Justice Mary Laffoy about someone who failed to get a job with Kilkenny County Council because of five non-convictions relating to alleged criminal damage, road traffic matters and theft, all cases of which were struck out without evidence being heard. If an organisation has offered someone a job subject to vetting, what is its legal status in a lawsuit after the information comes through?

I support Senator Power’s point on childminding. If there is one issue on which I will table an amendment, this is it. We have excluded far too large a group. A grandmother or other family relative might mind a child, but some people engaging in childminding are gaining monetarily and should be covered by the legislation. If someone makes any financial gain, he or she should be covered. This vetting legislation will cover volunteers, but it will not cover people who make financial gains from minding young children. I have an issue with this and I will table amendments. Having read the Dáil debate, I have a number of concerns. In light of the time constraints, I will revert on the issue.

The spent convictions Bill is also before the House and I will table amendments to it. I am experiencing a dilemma regarding spent convictions.

A shoplifter may have the spent conviction wiped but it will be on the record for life. Therefore, if a person with such a conviction applies for any social care work, he or she will not be eligible for those courses.

We know from statistics that if a person has not re-offended in a certain time, he or she is as likely as me or anybody else to commit an offence. I have a difficulty with something being carried for life if there is a possibility of a person working with any group. I can understand such a stipulation if a person is to work with vulnerable children and adults, but I am concerned about its operation in mainstream organisations.

18th December 2012

Part 1

I also tabled an amendment to deal with this issue. The difficulty I have is there is one big anomaly in the vetting and protection of children. The Child Care Act 1991 distinguishes three groups. Everyone is in agreement that the first group under section 58(a) are the relatives of the child or children or the spouse of such relatives but that is not what we are seeking to amend. We are referring to sections 58(b) and 58(c), which concern a person taking care of one or more preschool children of the same family and no other such children in that person’s home, or a person taking care of not more than three preschool children of different families in his or her home. A total of 92% of victims are abused by either a direct family member, somebody known to the family or somebody trusted by the family. The fact that the children are being minded in their home means they are members of a high risk group and, therefore, we need to explode the “stranger danger” myth. The reality is a child is most likely to be abused by someone known to, and trusted by, the family.

I agree with the Minister that there is a major difference between an informal, occasional child minding arrangement and an ongoing arrangement for a monetary consideration, which is what we are concerned with. I listened carefully to the Minister’s argument and I could use the same argument not to vet tennis coaches because they often engage in one-on-one training of children in a private arrangement with their families. I do not know why the Minister is protecting this group. This sector is unregulated. The Minister said the parents would have to vet. Why can such child minders not have to become a member of a professional organisation such as Childminding Ireland, or Early Childhood Ireland. Why can those organisations not vet on behalf of the parents? There are ways around this. Parents need to know the person minding their child in their home, as opposed to a public place or somewhere other people can interact with them, has been vetted. These minders are members of a high-risk group and that is why I tabled an amendment. I do not say it is a perfect amendment and I will be happy with any amendment that deals with this issue. This anomaly needs to be addressed.

Part 2

I listened carefully to what the Minister had to say. As I stated on Second Stage, I welcome the Bill. It has been long-promised. It is great that we are debating it and I will do everything I can to ensure its successful passage.

I am torn on this issue. It is an issue, not only in regard to vetting, but which has been neglected, of regulation. It is preschool children on whom I am particularly focussed which is why I looked to sections 58(b) and 58(c) of the Child Care Act 1991. It is quite defined there. We are talking about preschool children. It is the early years education sector. The organisations working in this area are the organisations which came to me and asked that we would put forward amendments in this area. They see it as an issue. I do not lightly propose amendment No. 8.

I believe it is an issue. Perhaps we cannot solve it today, and that is where I feel torn. There is an issue about where there is a regular ongoing financial consideration. Nobody I have heard is talking about ad-hoc or occasional arrangements. There are persons who are minding children in their homes every day of the week for a financial consideration and they are acting as a business. The Minister is saying they will be exempt and I have considerable difficulty with that.

Part 3

I have listened carefully to the debate because, like the Minister, at the beginning of this issue I would also have supported Senator Ó Clochartaigh. It is important, however, that organisations would know of such soft information. The Minister’s words have been very useful. My difficulty is that a conviction, or even a spent conviction, is barring people from so many professions. I have a huge difficulty with that. For example, one cannot do courses in the social work and care professions if one has had a previous conviction, even if one has been rehabilitated. I understand what the Minister is saying about having the knowledge, but I do not think that all such avenues should be closed off for one’s whole life because a person shoplifted once in his or her early 20s. It was wrong but if people took the punishment and were rehabilitated they should be allowed to go on. It is about striking the right balance. While it may not necessarily be relevant to this Bill, when we get back to dealing with spent convictions, there is an issue about how such people are treated by organisations and professions.

Part 4

I seek clarification in respect of section 12(5), which states, “This section shall not apply to any employment, contract, permission or placement referred to … that commenced or was entered into … before the commencement of this section”. I looked at that section and then read paragraphs (a), (b) and (c) of section 21(1), which refers to retrospective vetting. I believe these provisions contradict each other and I seek clarification to try to understand. I lack the Minister’s legal expertise but a few people have asked me this question about the apparent contradiction within the Bill. I note section 21(1) goes on to state “where the person concerned has not previously been the subject of an application for vetting disclosure under this Act, not later than such period as may be prescribed, make an application for vetting disclosure … in respect of that person”. Consequently, it appears as though one part or the Bill states they are not. While I am absolutely sure the Minister can give me an answer to try to explain, I have read the provisions several times and believe they contradict each other.

I thank the Minister for that clarification. My difficulty is that were I an employee, under section 12, I could claim that vetting does not apply to me. If one then puts in place retrospective vetting, it is about the organisation but as an employee, could I refuse to be vetted? I refer to the position into which that could put an organisation.

Part 5

I have a comment on section 19, which partly speaks to what Senator Ó Clochartaigh has proposed. My background, as the Minister is aware, is in youth work organisations. I am confused as to whether an organisation must report to the HSE, the Garda Síochána and the bureau. Why can the authorities not speak to one another? Why is the onus put on organisations to do all of the reporting? My background is in the Irish Girl Guides. If a concern is reported to the HSE, for example, and it follows all the Children First guidelines, will it then not be following protocol in that it has not reported the concern to the bureau or the Garda Síochána? I found the section confusing.

I accept what the Minister said but my difficulty is that looking at the situation from the perspective of organisational resources, the onus is being put on the organisations to do what could be called double-reporting, but my concern is that we are not getting the arms of the State to ensure that they report to one another and that one would have the HSE reporting to the Garda Síochána or sharing information. The Bill places the burden on organisations. I understand about vetting, but if one has a voluntary youth work organisation the Bill places a big onus on it, for very good reason, but I wish to ensure that an organisation would not inadvertently fail to comply with the law because of the multiple reporting requirements.

Joint Committee on Health and Children – World Prematurity Day 2012: Discussion with Irish Premature Babies Organisation

22nd November 2012

The report, Too Little, Too Late?, states that we do not have a national neonatal health policy and criticises the fragmented implementation of policy and the significant disparities across the country. I ask the witnesses to elaborate on this geographical lottery. This brings me to the issue of the transport service. I am trying to understand the precise nature of the obstacles. I see that the service is available on a nine to five basis, seven days per week but logic tells us that babies do not always arrive during office hours. What are the obstacles to a 24 hour service?

I ask for more information on the other supports available to families. I have been working on the issue of pre and post-natal depression, which affects between 10% and 20% of women. They are being told that they have to wait nine months before they can get the appropriate services but this is a critical time for bonding with their children.

Joint Committee on Health and Children – Youth Issues: Discussion with Comhairle na nÓg

22nd November 2012

Part 1

I thank the delegates for packing so much into their presentation. I refer to the issue of sexual health. I think the presentation emphasised sexual health over sexual relationships. My husband is Dutch and in the Netherlands much time is devoted to relationship education and awareness. Is it the case in schools that the word “sexual” makes everybody wary of dealing with this matter? Should the emphasis not be more on young people developing relationships of which sex is one aspect? I note the point about access to STI clinics. Are there issues with regard to parental consent for children and young people to access information? Is there a role for youth cafés or other spaces to allow services to be provided in a more informal setting?

I was privileged to attend the showcase organised by Comhairle na nÓg and I applaud the work of the comhairlí on the issue of mental health. I refer to the various media campaigns about youth mental health issues. I ask how awareness can be increased, because we are all agreed this is necessary.

Part 2

My point is to build on that. There is also a role for adults. We are giving one message to children about Facebook and Twitter. When adults do not act appropriately on these sites, however, we deal with it differently. We have to take on our responsibility as role models in how different social networking sites are used.

While I agree on the point of the importance of education, there is also a huge power in young people telling their peers how they deal with being trolled and that it is okay to ignore it. It can give young people solidarity that they are not alone in being trolled. When one is in a difficult situation in life and realises one is not on one’s own, it makes it easier to get through it.

Email Newsletter – November 2012

WE DID IT!! A sincere thank you one and all who strived for and supported the successful passage of the 31st Amendment, enshrining children’s rights into the Irish Constitution. I would like to pay a particular tribute to the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Frances Fitzgerald TD, who delivered on the Government’s promise. I was exceptionally proud of the campaigning and information provided by so many NGO’s and civil society organisations during the campaign period, which helped secure the YES!

This is a very gratifying time for me both professionally, having campaigned for a children’s rights referendum for many years, and personally, having long felt a profound sadness and sense of the shame and responsibility I bear as a member of a society that has systematically failed to protect our most vulnerable children.

The people of Ireland have now spoken. The successful passage of the referendum was badly needed to overcome the legal roadblocks; preventing us from fully protecting children and supporting families; hampering us from making decisions that are child-centred; and preventing us from reforming our adoption laws. It provides the first, critical step toward fundamental reform. But, it is not a panacea to solve all the issues affecting children and families today and we all have work ahead of us.

Over the coming months I will be working hard to give life to this constitutional change, to ensure that we transform our child and family services, and to improve outcomes for all children. Children’s rights in the aftermath of this referendum remain a priority for me both in the Seanad and as a member of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children. I will strive to secure the optimum outcome when the Bills listed below pass through the Upper House. As always, I welcome any specific comments or suggestions you may wish to share in relation to any aspect of my work.

Children First Bill 2012
Earlier this year, the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children examined the General Scheme of the Children First Bill and after consultation with a wide spectrum of stakeholders we produced the following report which we presented to the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. It is anticipated that this Bill will be forthcoming shortly.

Adoption (Amendment) Bill 2012
I have made it clear in my discourse around the wording of the 31st Amendment that I would have preferred it to go further in a number of areas, particularly in stating certain rights, such as the right to identity. I am keenly aware that more than 50,000 adopted people have no automatic legal right to their birth certificate, no legal right to their medical information or history, or any legal right to trace information about their identity. I have proposed that this Bill should come to the Seanad first to ensure that its intricacies are given an opportunity for a full and detailed debate.

Bill to Establish the Child and Family Support Agency
In July, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs published the Report of the Task Force on the Child and Family Support Agency. I believe we cannot ignore that some of the No voters in the Referendum were reacting to how they have been treated, or how they perceive they would be treated, in the past, currently or in the future by our social services system. We need to listen to their concerns and ensure that the new agency is fully resourced ; is for all children and families; and is focussed on early and accountable intervention that supports better outcomes for children and families, thus helping to keep families together.

National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Persons) Bill 2012
Having spent many years working in the community and voluntary sector, I am keenly aware of importance of a thorough and streamlined vetting process and I plan to bring my practical experience to the debate.

Criminal Justice (Spent Convictions) Bill 2012
I am concerned that the proposals in the Bill do not go far enough to achieve the stated purpose of the Spent Convictions Bill “to assist the rehabilitation of offenders, who often experience difficulties securing employment as a result of having a conviction” due to the overly conservative and restrictive time periods set for the length of sentences the spent convictions regime will apply to and the conviction free period required to enjoy its benefits. These are concerns I intend to address through amendments to the Bill.

Valuation (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2012
I plan to table an amendment in relation to rates being charged to ECCE schemes throughout the country. Unlike any other business, ECCE services are limited by the subvention they receive and the agreed child/adult ratio. Both of these parameters are set by the State and yet there are currently 88 rating authorities who each charge different rates to early childcare settings.

Protection of Children’s Health from Tobacco Smoke Bill 2012
I have co-sponsored this Bill with my fellow Senators John Crown and Mark Daly to prohibit the smoking of tobacco products in vehicles where children are present. This Bill is currently stalled in the system. We are working to ensure its progression without any further delay.

Supreme Court Judgment, 11 December 2012
I am anticipating an active and important debate in the Seanad following the delivery of the Supreme Court Judgment that the Government’s information booklet and website was “not fair, equal or impartial”. A full ruling will be given on 11 December 2012 and I have asked the Seanad to schedule a debate in days following the judgment. I would welcome your views on how we can better inform the public about the issues at the heart of future referendums, that doesn’t revolve around YES/NO shouting matches. The Seanad held an urgent debate on the Supreme Court decision on Thursday 8 November and you can find my contribution here.

In addition to these Bills I will continue in my efforts, already underway, in relation to; the care of children in direct provision (asylum accommodation); the independent inspection of residential services for children with disabilities; the value and contribution of the youth work sector; palliative care for children with life limiting conditions; childhood obesity; mental health; neurological services; alcohol related harm; the protection of our national heritage and archives and of course Budget 2013.

As a final note, I would like to sincerely thank all the NGO’s, civil society organisations, community and voluntary organisations and interested members of the public who have shared their concerns and expertise with me. Your contribution to my work is invaluable. I believe we are moving closer in many areas to achieving our shared goals and I look forward to your continued input and support.

Best Wishes,
Senator Jillian van Turnhout

Order of Business, 16 November 2012

I echo the congratulations to the Irish team, which has given us all a boost. Perhaps we would like to skip over the budget and get straight to the European matches. Unfortunately, we cannot.

I have concerns at the kite flying that is happening. Vulnerable hard-pressed families are reading headlines every day and wondering what will happen. We should all be careful with our comments.

I echo what Senator Bacik said about St. Patrick’s Institution and seeking a debate in the House. It is of extreme concern and a gross violation of our human rights record. For the sake of the children in vulnerable situations we need to act as soon as possible.

Today, I raise the issue of transition year students. Most of us are aware of the transition year programme which promotes the personal, social, vocational and educational development of students and prepares them for their role as autonomous, participative and responsible members of society.

Recently, I received an application from a transition year student to work for one week in Leinster House as part of the work experience programme. I was informed that this is not possible. What better way to achieve these goals than by allowing young people to experience a working environment through one of the work experience programmes offered by most schools that conduct the transition year programme? The Houses of the Oireachtas lacks any dedicated structure to facilitate students who wish to experience the working life of the Parliament. Work experience is available for second level students with members of parliament in the European Parliament and the British Houses of Parliament. Why can we not do it here? Even closer to home, Dublin City Council offers second level work experience.

This experience is extremely valuable, would give students an insight into our work and would help them understand what we are doing here. I call on the Leader and the House to examine ways in which the Seanad could put in place a one week programme once a year to provide transition year students with an opportunity to listen to some of our key debates and a chance to partially shadow a Senator. The programme could be open to a lottery and provide to a limited number of transition year students an opportunity to see what we do. I ask that this be given serious consideration and I would be happy to give any support and assistance I can.

Order of Business, 15 November 2012

I too have been deeply saddened by the tragic loss of life in Galway. I urge caution. I have listened to several speakers, in particular Senator Colm Burke. We need to be careful about our role. We need to ensure there is due process. This is a very sensitive time for many people. I ask the Government to publish the export group report as a matter of urgency. My understanding is that Ireland needs to report by the end of the month. The sooner the report is put into the public domain the better for us all. Rather than having a discussion based on speculation let us have an informed and calm debate. The difficulty with the issues is that as soon as one speaks on it people want to place one on a spot in the spectrum. I urge Members to have an informed debate and express impassioned views after they have seen the expert group report.

My colleagues and I from the Independent Group have tabled a motion on the Order Paper on the value of youth work. I seek Government time for a debate on this motion. I ask my other colleagues in the Seanad to add their names to the motion, which I will circulate to them. This report will be launched later today but it demonstrates the economic value of youth work. If anybody had the pleasure, like I had yesterday of attending a very impressive showcase of youth arts in the Mansion House that was hosted by the National Youth Council of Ireland, they would have seen young people from film, youth theatre and orchestras. It was an inspirational lunchtime for me. The value of youth work in our communities is often understated. I hope we can have a good debate about the important value that youth work plays.

Measures to Address Bullying: Motion

14th November 2012

I welcome the Minister to the House. I commend the Fine Gael Senators on bringing this motion before us and initiating this timely debate. We have been debating the seriousness of bullying in all its forms for some time now, including here in the Seanad as recently as September when we had statements on homophobic bullying and the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, was present.

I note with great sadness the tragic deaths by suicide, linked to cyberbullying, of teenagers, Ciara Pugsley and Erin Gallagher, as the backdrop to this motion. Their tragic deaths by suicide must be the catalyst for real action to tackle the pernicious, pervasive and extremely dangerous phenomenon that is bullying. The motion, rightly, welcomes the improvements technology has brought to our lives, but we must also be cognisant of the new dangers such improvements inadvertently bring. Today, we are talking about cyberbullying but another issue of concern to me is the dissemination of child abuse material on the Internet.

It was demonstrated by the successful passage of the children’s rights referendum on Saturday that the protection and welfare of children is a key concern in Ireland and must remain a top priority for all Members of the Oireachtas. In this regard, I welcome the commitment in the programme for Government as well as the anti-bullying forum and the working group to produce an action plan on bullying established by the Minister for Education and Skills. I look forward to seeing the roadmap the working group will produce. I hope the working group speaks of the need for effective structural changes in curriculum, policy, support services and teaching practice, and is for all children. Otherwise it will be a lost opportunity. I look forward to the Seanad debating the action plan when it is produced.

It is important to note that it is not possible to combat cyberbullying through legislation. Legislation capable of catching the kind of circumstances which prevail in cyberbullying cases exists in the offence of harassment under section 10 of the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act 1997. This point is well made in a recent legal comment by Fergal Crehan, BL, who noted that “laws can only make things illegal, they cannot stop them from happening”.

The law can only help in prosecuting disclosed cases of bullying but does not help in preventing the behaviour. We need to concentrate on tackling the behaviour. We must examine the prosecution aspect and ensure that when people present evidence those concerned will be prosecuted for breaking the law. We need a fundamental cultural shift in attitudes and values around bullying through a national strategy with a whole school community approach. We must redouble our awareness efforts in order that parents, teachers and communities know the signs as most of us would find it difficult to recognise them, especially in teenagers who are going through a troubled period in their life at the best of times. To recognise the signs is very difficult for any parent on his or her own. That is why there is a need for a whole community-school approach.

Belligerency can take many forms. The recent publication, A Guide to Cyber Bullying, prepared by the Office for Internet Safety, O2, Barnardos and the National Centre for Technology in Education, identified five types of cyber bullying: personal intimidation, impersonation, exclusion, personal humiliation and false reporting. The guide stated that such behaviour should be tackled with education and the role of the school is particularly important. It was pointed out in the excellent briefing earlier that all too often, schools tend not to promote their bullying policies but will promote many other policies. By promoting the fact that they have a policy on bullying is almost a way of emitting some deficiency in the school. We need to reduce that stigma and grow up. Schools need to say what they are doing.

Senator Moran’s experience was telling. Many children will not tell about a bullying experience because of the shame and often they present in medical conditions. I had one girl involved in youth work who ended up hospitalised and on a drip. When we got down to the issues it was clear she was being bullied. Very often children will present with medical conditions because they believe it is their only way to get out of their situation.

The role of adults has been mentioned. There is saying to the effect that children do not pick it off the streets. I have just been through a referendum campaign where those on both sides of the debate shouted at one another and used strong language. On some programmes such as “Frontline” I sometimes feel there is a pack mentality.

We need to be careful. All too often we talk about the children and say they need to be nice to one another and kind to one another, yet it is considered acceptable for me to shout and use abusive language and tell another person that he or she is stupid because I know better. We need to challenge ourselves as adults about our behaviour.

It is important that the curriculum is not used in its standard form. Earlier the National Youth Council of Ireland gave a presentation on youth arts and Roscommon Youth Theatre performed an eight to ten minute play on bullying. It was powerful and the young people showed empathy. By preparing and writing the play they were able to get an understanding of the different sides of what happens in a bullying situation. Whether it is sport, as Senator Coghlan said, or arts we must use different ways to address the issue.

There is also the issue of child abuse material on the Internet which I will raise again with the Minister for Justice and Equality, having done so last year. The debate is welcome and I hope we can now proceed to take action to address this aspect.

Order of Business, 13 November 2012

I congratulate the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs, his Department, the permanent missions of Ireland to the United Nations in Geneva and New York, and everyone else involved in Ireland’s successful bid to secure a seat on the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. It will be an interesting three years and I look forward to Ireland’s renewed focus on the implementation of the Human Rights Council’s universal periodic review recommendations now that we have member status.

With very warm wishes I say “well done” to everyone involved in the successful passage of the referendum on children’s rights, especially to the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald. This is a gratifying time for me personally and professionally.

I have campaigned for many years for this referendum and I anticipated the margin to be much more narrow as this is a difficult issue involving profound social change. Much comparison has been taking place in the media with previous referendums and I note this referendum pertained to social change. As this was a major difference from previous referendums, it is difficult to make comparisons. I believe this referendum will be transformative and the full extent of its impact is not yet known. A case will appear before the Supreme Court in ten or 20 years’ time, after which people will know that on Saturday, 10 November 2012, they made a difference.

However, I also urge caution in dismissing the “No” vote. I spoke at many meetings throughout the country and some of that “No” vote reflected a real fear of the social services and this is something to which Members must listen. One cannot simply dismiss the “No” vote by suggesting they all were anti-government. People have had negative experiences, in the current period or previously as children or as family or friends. Consequently, the Leader should facilitate the appearance in the House of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs at the earliest opportunity to discuss in particular the report of the task force on the child and family support agency, which was published in July. I believe Members must play a role in shaping that new agency and they should address the fears people have raised.

In addition, Members also could discuss the fifth report of the special rapporteur on child protection and the Ryan report implementation plan, on which a three-year progress report was published earlier today. I also ask the Leader to ask the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs to introduce the adoption Bill to this House first. This issue is intricate and some of the relevant concerns were raised ensuring the debate. I believe this legislation will require timely and well thought-out debate.

Finally, I ask the Leader to schedule a debate in a timely manner after the Supreme Court judgment is given on 11 December. As the date on which the Supreme Court will give its detailed judgment is known, Members should have a timely debate to discuss the full implications.