Statements on the Magdalen Laundries report

Wednesday, 27th February 2013

I also welcome the publication of the report. I begin by asking that the Department of Justice and Equality ensures that copies of the report are provided to those survivors who do not have Internet access, including some who provided testimony to the committee and who have yet to receive a copy. I wish to pay tribute to the Minister of State’s own personal conviction and courage on these issues.

This report established, categorically, what survivors and their advocacy groups have told us for years, namely, that the State was directly involved and consequently, complicit, in the Magdalen laundry system. I very much welcome the State’s inclusion of all surviving women in the apology, thereby avoiding any distinction being made between survivors who were sent into the laundry system by their families and those incarcerated there at the behest of the State. This is a very important non-distinction which embraces the fact that the laundry system itself was inherently abusive, rather than the abuse stemming from the women’s and girl’s mode of entry. In this regard, however, I must express my disappointment that the report found little evidence of physical abuse, which seems contrary to the evidence handed to the committee by the Justice for Magdalene’s group, comprising 12 files of supporting evidence, including 795 pages of harrowing survivor’s testimonies from girls who were assaulted by nuns, often with keys, belts and other implements, as well as from independent witnesses who attested to the truth of these stories. In the Ryan report, volume 3, chapter 18, and in various documentaries and survivor testimony, it has been widely accepted that these institutions were inherently abusive. If gruelling and relentless unpaid labour behind locked doors is not physical abuse, I do not know what is. The report, in my opinion, should have been dedicated to the survivors of the Magdalen laundry system and all those who did not survive its brutal regime.

Whatever side of the political divide one is on, as Senator Power very clearly articulated earlier, the capacity of Deputy Enda Kenny, as Opposition leader, for example, in response to the Ryan report, and as Taoiseach in response to the Cloyne report, to speak with compassion and sincerity on subjects of the greatest sensitivity is beyond reproach. This was further exemplified when he made his considered official statement and apology on behalf of the Irish State on the evening of 19 February for what is, undoubtedly, our national shame. There has been much discussion following the Taoiseach’s formal apology about whether it was good enough, sincere enough or moving enough. I can only speak personally when I say that I was profoundly moved by the Taoiseach’s words. However, the apology was not for me. It was given on my behalf, but it was for the survivors and their families. The litmus test is them and I am heartened by reports from survivor advocacy groups and the survivor’s reactions to the news teams, directly after the Dáil address, that the Taoiseach’s sincere and heartfelt words were deeply meaningful to the survivors, who feared that day would never come.

We need to learn from our past, and several times in the Seanad I have quoted the Amnesty International report, In Plain Sight, which responded to the Ferns, Ryan, Murphy and Cloynes reports. In the report, which is still very relevant, Colm O’Gorman, a former Senator and executive director of Amnesty International Ireland, stated:

[T]he focus cannot be purely on the past, as if this history has no relevance for our society now. We must consider the degree to which this history reveals vital truths about the nature of our society today. The past only becomes history once we have addressed it, learnt from it and made the changes necessary to ensure that we do not repeat mistakes and wrongdoing.

Since having been appointed a Senator I have found myself questioning how much we have learned as a society and a State, when the culture of secrecy, collusion, cover-up and lack of accountability which surrounded institutional and clerical sexual abuse can still be seen in contemporary contexts, such as with regard to the survivors of symphysiotomy and the treatment of asylum seekers, particularly children, in the State-run direct provision centres which we have debated in the House. This is the Ryan report of the future if we do not deal with it.

Having now established categorically there was State involvement and oversight in the Magdalen laundries system it is also important to establish whether in more recent times the State and its relevant Departments knowingly made efforts to deny this fact or minimise its involvement. I speak, for example, of our testimony before the United Nations Committee against Torture in 2011. There are also outstanding issues involving unnamed graves at the Bohermore cemetery in Galway and unexplained and unregistered deaths in High Park in Glasnevin. On this point, this opportunity should not be allowed to pass without commending the late Mary Raftery on her efforts to bring the issue of the unexplained and unregistered deaths to the fore in her 2003 article in The Irish Times entitled “Restoring dignity to Magdalenes”. In it she raised allegations of the most serious order, including that the then Department of the Environment had issued additional exhumation licences for unidentified and unregistered human remains without a full investigation of the circumstances. That such an investigation did not take place at the time and still has not taken place beggars belief. Where was the accountability then and where is it now?

I have been very disappointed by the radio silence so far of the four congregations at the centre of the McAleese report. Where is the accountability and where is the media and public scrutiny of the wholly inadequate apologies they have issued? I have read their apologies very carefully. One congregation used the word “refuge” to describe the laundries eight times in seven sentences. We have established these institutions were anything but refuges. Other congregations acknowledge that the limitation of care during the time women spent with them was wrong and upsetting. I welcome the calls by the Tánaiste, Deputy Eamon Gilmore, and by the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Alan Shatter, for the religious congregations to contribute to the compensation scheme. I would very much like to see the congregations offer contributions in acknowledgement of their direct role in the abuses suffered by women rather than coming forward on foot of pressure by the State.

The system of redress must be prompt, open, transparent, fair and non-adversarial. I welcome the appointment of Mr. Justice John Quirke to head up the three-month review to recommend criteria for providing support, payments and services to the women. Senator Power asked a number of questions about statutory footing and independent appeals and I will write to the Minister, Deputy Shatter, on these issues. I call on the Minister and the Minister of State, Deputy Lynch, to give full and frank consideration to the restorative justice and reparation scheme for Magdalen laundries survivors proposed by the Justice for Magdalenes survivor advocacy group.

It is good that the report has been published and it very clearly proves State involvement, but it does not mean the book is closed. It has opened a new chapter, and what belongs in this new chapter is up to us. We must support the women and the organisations supporting them. We can stand together on this and show we have learned from the mistakes of the past.

Report on Child and Family Income Support: Statements

Tuesday, 26th February 2013

I welcome the Minister and thank her for keeping her promise to bring the report before the House. This is a welcome report as it provides us with a strong evidence base, thus allowing us to move from an anecdotal discussion to one based on evidence. I understand this debate will be the first in a series of discussions in the Seanad on this report. I note also that other Senators in my group, including Senator Zappone, would like to speak on the report.

We are all too aware of the serious impact that six successive budgets have had in reducing social welfare payments. These cuts have created a greater risk of poverty and deprivation and increased consistent poverty rates, especially child poverty. Time does not allow me to address in detail the issue of child poverty. My colleague, Senator Mooney, spoke about the European Union statistics on income and living conditions, the SILC figures, which show that between 2009 and 2011, consistent child poverty rates in Ireland increased from 8.7% to 9.3%, while child deprivation rates rose from 25% to 32%. The recent Children Rights Alliance report card gave the Government an “F” grade for child poverty, stating there had been “retrograde steps in targeting children and families.” For the second time in a row, the budget cut the back to school clothing and footwear allowance and four consecutive budgets have reduced child benefit.

All Members are concerned about child poverty and I do not claim any of us has ownership of the issue. However, when we speak of child benefit the focus is often on children’s early years, an area of which I am strongly supportive, whereas we also have figures to indicate what is known as inter-generational transmission. This means that when a child experiences poverty in the teenage years, the problem tends to persist into adulthood. We need to be cognisant, in addressing the issue of child and family income support, of the need to take account of the entire age spectrum of children.

The Mangan report examined six options, generally involving either taxation of child benefit or a two tier system. I welcome the Minister’s statement that she will examine outcomes for children and the use of tax credits, which is an issue the Seanad can debate at a later date.

We need to address the stigma associated with the family income supplement. We have all agreed that employment is good but we need to ensure we have a system that encourages people to enter the workplace, as appropriate.

I very much welcome the unanimous agreement on universality. There should be some form of universality in our approach.

I was very surprised to see Appendix 3, the pre-budget progress report that warned against making across the board cuts in November 2011. By way of clear warning, the group said that if the Government is to decide to reduce child benefit rates, any such reduction should ensure that there are sufficient resources available within the child income support budget for the future implementation of an integrated universal supplementary payment. It also states the consequences of an uncompensated reduction in the child benefit rate would be significant in terms of child poverty. We have seen that in the EU-SILC figures. We have not seen how the changes could have influenced child poverty in the past year and a half.

I really welcome what the Minister said today and I listened very carefully. I noted her focus on outcomes for children and her questioning of what we are about. While we can examine the original intention of the child benefit payment, the fundamental question we need to ask, before asking whether there should be taxation or means testing, concerns the function of child and family income supports. What does our policy require them to deliver? Is it to invest in and contribute towards healthy, well-educated and secure children, which in turn is an investment in healthy, well-educated and secure adults who are less likely to be dependent on social welfare? We have some really tough decisions to make but I believe child poverty can best be tackled by investment in services, not just investment in payments.

We need to ensure there are wrap-around services to ensure healthy and secure childhoods. There is no shortage of services requiring investment. Many colleagues will mention affordable and accessible quality childhood services. I refer to the second year of the early childhood education programme, after-school services, universal health care and schoolbooks campaigns, such as those advocated by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul or the youth work sector.

The Minister mentioned taking some of the savings and putting them into the Children Plus initiative. Only 11% of the savings from the budget went into the initiative, from which children benefited. Some 89% went to the general Exchequer, with no benefit for children. The European Commission’s recommendation of last week on child poverty and well-being, “Investing in children: breaking the cycle of disadvantage”, states the required strategy should be an integrated one based on a three pillar approach. The first is access to adequate resources, the second is access to affordable quality services, and the third is a child’s right to participate. These are the pillars we should be discussing when examining child and family income supports. We need to ensure we have the three pillar approach.

I acknowledge there are tough decisions to be made. Having listened to the Minister’s speech, my question is on the scope of our discussions. Are we looking purely within the remit of the Department of Social Protection? If so, we must get into means testing, taxing and examining tax credits. Can we really look at the outcomes for children, the delivery of services and redirecting, as the Minister stated? We need to ensure we do not take away the safety net. We need to ensure the required services are in place before any further reductions are made.

Order of Business, 19 February 2013

Tuesday, 19th February 2013

I thank everyone who attended a joint briefing I organised on the Magdalen report with Amnesty International, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties and Justice for Magdalenes. I hope we will debate the issue at the earliest opportunity, and I hope that today is day one of justice. When we have the debate I ask for appropriate time to scrutinise any proposed redress scheme; there should not just be reflection of the past but also consideration of how to restore into the future.

I welcome the publication yesterday by the Children’s Rights Alliance of its report card for 2013, which is a really comprehensive report on the Government’s promises to children. Overall, the Government got a C grade, and I will refer to Senator O’Brien’s comments with regard to child poverty. I do not know if it is “the” Mangan report but the first report of the Mangan group was put online today, and it is dated March 2012. I would like to see clarification on the report and its content. I am concerned by the leaks we read over the weekend. As a legislator, I cannot believe I must speak about leaks of a report. We have had debates on the Social Welfare Bill and we have been asked to act responsibly but we have not been provided with the relevant information.

In the Children’s Rights Alliance report and relevant to child poverty, the Department of Social Protection got an F grade. Rarely does the Children’s Rights Alliance hand out an F grade. We have seen increasing child poverty figures in Ireland and if child poverty is left unaddressed, the issue can continue into a person’s teenage years and cause significant life poverty risk.

Reading the reports at the weekend on whether we should means-test or tax child benefit, as well as what the Mangan report would come out with, it felt like it was Groundhog Day. It was first mooted in April 2009 by the then Minister, the late Brian Lenihan, that we should examine this issue and I recall when debating it that I used the same speaking points that I am using now. I have not had to change them. The debate should be moving on. I ask for a debate on the matter in this House.

Will the Leader ask the Minister for Justice and Equality for clarity on when the family leave Bill will be published and the consultation process on it with the social partners is envisaged? As the EU parental leave directive needs to be transposed into law by March 2013, the clock is ticking. I know the Bill is on the legislative list, but when will it be published in order that we can uphold our obligations?

National Lottery – Motion

Wednesday, 13th February 2013

I thank the Minister and my colleague, Senator O’Donnell, for tabling the motion, which I fully support. I have listened to the Minister carefully. I can see positive elements on both sides of the argument. The difficulty is that my gut is saying that we should not be doing this. That is why I am supporting the motion.

With respect, I listened to the Minister. First, on the figure of €500 million and the clear statement that there was no basis to it, while waiting to speak I put “national lottery, Brendan Howlin and €500 million” into Google. The Minister must speak to his spokespeople. Numerous newspaper articles come up in response to the search. If we take The Irish Times in August 2012, there is a reference to the lottery licence sale Bill being due next month and to the Minister, Deputy Howlin, saying that the building of the national children’s hospital could be part-funded by a front-load payment secured for the next licence to operate the national lottery. It was stated that the upfront payment to the State could be in the region of €500 million while some €200 million could go to the children’s hospital project. The article indicated that the Minister’s officials have met and held conference calls with potential bidders for the licence. I went to many sites. I was alarmed that is very excited and proposes to bid for the national lottery. That makes me hesitant about what is taking place.

The Minister has said we cannot afford it. It is a difficult subject because it is about the national children’s hospital. I passionately agree that we must build the hospital. I have been waiting for it. The announcement by the Minister for Health was to set up a new board for it. The hospital is like the carrot at the end of a stick. We are constantly being told that it will go ahead. I concur with Senator Norris’s image of holding the baby. It has become an emotive issue. I want the hospital to go ahead but I do not understand why we cannot have a hypothecated draw. “Hypothecated” is a new word for me.

I had to look it up. I wonder why a cost-benefit analysis has not been done. Have we looked to our nearest neighbour in the UK which had a draw for the Olympics? From what I read there was not a huge decrease in the other draw. People got behind the London Olympics project and supported it. Whatever one thinks about the Olympics, one could certainly motivate people behind the national children’s hospital, which for me is part of the reason the motion has been tabled.

The Minister also referred to interactive sales channels and mentioned that such games are already available online. It made me think of my mum saying that just because someone says one should jump over a cliff does not mean that one should do so. I am concerned about the growth of interactive sales channels, as we all are. I am trying to think it through logically. If I was a reputable company that wanted to buy the licence I would expect a return on it. If I were giving an upfront payment I would expect a return. Such a return would mean that the money raised would not go to good causes. One does not get a free lunch. As a reputable company why would I give an upfront payment? It would be because I expect to get something. Several companies around the world are now taking steps to regulate interactive sales channels. Perhaps I would expect this country to be a little more lenient on such channels. I do not say that is the Minister’s intent but where is the carrot for a company to make an upfront payment? No company would have the same vested interest in us having a national children’s hospital as the people of this country. The people of Ireland want such a hospital. I am open to being convinced by the Minister’s arguments but I am not. My gut is asking why we are not renewing the licence or staging our payments?

We can go for renewal of the licence, we do not have to go for the upfront payment. The Minister has put that argument forward about the upfront payment but we could apply for the renewal of the licence.

I have no difficulty with that. My difficulty is that by asking for an upfront payment, the bidder expects something in return. Nothing comes for free.

We get money from the draws if we have the hypothecated draw Senator O’Donnell has suggested. I would like to see a cost analysis of this. We should talk to the British and also see what payments we need for the national children’s hospital. When I was building my house I did not give the builders every cent on the day they said they would build it, even though all the plans and permissions were not yet in place. It was done in stages.

Over several years. We are still waiting for this national hospital and the draw could be in place before we know it.

Child Care (Amendment) Bill 2013

Wednesday, 13th February 2013

The Minister is welcome, as always, to the House. Having regard to the children’s rights referendum, as I have said here previously, I applaud, commend and congratulate the Minister on delivering on the Government’s promise. When I was on the referendum trail, as many of us were, I listened to the concerns of many parents on the doorsteps, on the streets and at public meetings. We cannot ignore that some of the “No” voters spoke of concerns about how they have been treated or how they perceive they would have been treated in past, would be treated now or in the future and some of those concerns were based on reality and some were based on perception. In addressing these concerns, I stress the significance of the Department’s decision to improve the social services system by removing child welfare and protection from the remit of the HSE and moving it into a dedicated new agency, the Child and Family Support Agency. I assure parents that the new agency will focus on early and accountable intervention that supports better outcomes for children and families and that will work to keep families together, which is something we all want to do where possible.

The Minister’s Department published the Report of the Task Force on the Child and Family Support Agency in July last year. I have asked the Leader of the House on a number of occasions if we could debate that. The Bill will be produced shortly and I ask the Minister to outline when it will be produced but I am also cognisant of the fact that the agency will have 4,000 staff and that it has a budget of €545 million. Many of us could make an impromptu speech about the failings of the system at present and we all want to get it right. We should have a debate on the remit, resources and vision for the new agency to help frame that Bill. I ask the Minister to give consideration to having a debate on it in the House perhaps prior to the publication of the Bill because this is an issue on which we could have a consensus in the House in that we that we all want to work together on it.

I wholeheatedly support this Bill and welcome the initiative the Minister has taken in bringing it forward. The making of care orders under the Child Care Act 1991 is a very important function of the District Court in the interests of the child welfare and protection. Care orders are made where the District Court, upon the application of the Health Service Executive, is of the opinion that a child has been or is being assaulted, ill treated, neglected or sexually abused, or where a child’s health, development or welfare have been or is being avoidably impaired or neglected or the child’s health development or welfare is likely to be avoidably impaired or neglected. A care order allows the child to be placed or maintained in the care of the executive pending the making of a full care order. Ordinarily the first step in the process, as the Minister said, is an emergency care order, which can last up to eight days, followed by an interim care order, which, under the current arrangements, is only extended by a maximum of eight days in the absence of parental consent. We know that, in the interests of logic and practicality, District Court judges have recently – I believe it was the beginning of last year, under the recent direction of the President of the District Court- stopped granting 28-day extensions of interim care orders in cases where the necessary consent has not been provided. I welcome that the Government has put forward the amendments in order to give the clarity that is necessary because I believe this was always the intention. These amendments are urgently required to remedy the impractical and counter-productive nature of the maximum eight-day extension without consent in terms of finding and working towards an appropriate solution for children in the cases in question.

The current system of returning to court every eight days to extend an interim care order – especially since extensions are practically always granted, I have talked to many solicitors working in the area about this – is not in the best interests of children and their families. The reality is that it creates insecurity for the child who knows he or she is being discussed in the court every week. One is over one court case and into the next one. It places an increased burden on parents that these cases are before the District Court every week and no time is given for consideration to work towards a solution. It means that social workers, team leaders and solicitors are in court waiting around all day to justify the continuation of the order only to return one week later again and again for the same case. This seriously undermines the time and resources available to social workers and team leaders who need to focus on the care and best interests of the child. It incurs an excessive and unnecessary cost for the HSE and the Courts Service. It creates unmanageable court lists and there are considerable blockages in the system.

I wholeheartedly support the Bill. The benefits of it are that it will move the focus to the best interests of the child because it will free-up the time of social workers who are most important in this process and also other people involved in the HSE towards looking at the best interests of the child. There will be significant cost savings. It will mean that the courts will be able to deal with the cases that are necessary to be dealt with. It will also mean that there will be certainty and security for the child concerned and that he or she will know that this is what will happen. The emergency care orders are there for a reason but here we are talking about interim care orders. It will move the focus to working to find a solution that is in the best interests of the child and it will rebalance the focus from going to court to managing a positive outcome in the case. That is where the focus should be.

I support the Minister bringing into line the 28-day extension to 29-days because it makes sense to have one day and one could say this is the day in question and it also ensures there is clarity and consistency which will greatly benefit the management of court lists. I thank the Minister for this. It is excellent that she has brought forward this Bill. Many people are waiting for it to come through and hopefully it will relieve a lot of time for those involved.

Address to Seanad Éireann by Ms. Phil Prendergast MEP

Wednesday, 13th February 2013

I thank the Acting Chairman for facilitating me and allowing me to speak. I apologise that I had to leave the Chamber briefly because I had to attend the internal meeting that also detained Senator Cummins. However, I was present for Ms Prendergast’s intervention at the beginning. I welcome her.

I still feel relatively new here but the issues that I wish to mention today relate to the Single Market and the multi-annual financial framework. I want to question her specifically on those issues given her work on the Internal Market and her opening comments. As we know 2012 represented the 20th anniversary of the European Single Market. The development of the Single Market is a key priority and it is a key priority for the Irish Presidency. However, we are all very aware that it remains incomplete and Ms Prendergast mentioned where it is incomplete in her intervention. During the Single Market week held in October 2012 there was an opportunity for the private sector and citizens to engage, on a personal level, in the European policy area. I shall mention four of the areas that were raised then. Perhaps Ms Prendergast can enlighten us and share her opinions on the concerns raised. First, access to the market of a host country can be restricted by national certification or regulations that do not exist to the same extent in the home country. For me that goes against the principle of a Single Market and single area.

Second, cross-border procurement can be a problem. This is the age of electronic and online technology but many procurement procedures require a hard copy to be delivered rather than use electronic means.

Third, e-commerce is very popular at national level but it is more difficult at international level. We are very aware of the different regulations for areas such as consumer protection and data privacy and that makes things difficult. The playing field is uneven or unequal when it comes to e-commerce.

The fourth area related to European start-ups and that surprised me. On average, European start-ups are only entitled to half the amount of venture funding of their US counterparts. Is there a way to redress that imbalance? We must ensure that we have an even playing field between the US and the EU if we want to encourage start-ups. Ireland is extremely interested in promoting entrepreneurship.

Many of these issues will be addressed by the Single Market Act which is in its final stages of implementation. It always seems to be problematic to reach a completed option. The adoption of the Act should be expedited because it is a job-creating opportunity for Ireland, the Irish Presidency and the EU. I would welcome Ms Prendergast’s opinion on the Act.

As Ms Prendergast has informed us, the Commission recently introduced the Single Market Act II. To what extent does the second Act address the issues that were identified by the consultations, the four areas that I repeated here, during the Single Market week? To what extent does it fill the gaps left by the first Act? I would appreciate anything she has to share with us on that matter.

Last week was an interesting, exciting and challenging week for us all, both personally and stamina wise. For me the negotiations that took place in Brussels on the multi-annual financial framework at the European Council summit were extremely important and I am very aware of the Parliament’s role. I am also very aware that Ms Prendergast has previously stated that the budget must do more to stimulate growth in the European economy. I know that the Parliament will be looking at the multi-annual financial framework and the proposals on the budget. I want Ms Prendergast to tell us, as a preliminary opinion, whether she supports the proposals by the European Council. Does she think they go far enough? I thank the Acting Chairman and Ms Prendergast.

Order of Business, 12 February 2013

Tuesday, 12th February 2013

It is six weeks since the new year. The Chinese new year was celebrated last Sunday. This is the year of the snake. My first question relates to a report that was promised in the new year.

I believe we have qualified on both counts that we are in the new year. I refer to the report of the Advisory Group on Tax and Social Welfare chaired by Ita Mangan. The Minister, Deputy Burton, challenged us to examine the facts of this report and gave an undertaking in this House to publish the report early in the new year. My question is when that report will be published. Yesterday a report from the Consumers’ Association of Ireland showed there has been a 12% rise in the cost of a typical basket of groceries. We have seen a very brutal cut across the board in child benefit payment. I am willing to take some tough decisions on child benefit but let us see this report and let the discussion begin. I do know why it has taken so long for it to be published.

We were also promised that the child and family support agency Bill would be published in the new year. Colleagues in the House will know that I have repeatedly asked for us to debate this new agency which has a budget of €545 million and a staff of 4,000, yet we have not had a debate on it. I have tried every angle to have a debate on it in this House but that has been blocked. When will the Bill be published? When will we see it? This is a very important agency. My fear is that staff are just being transferred from the HSE. I question whether any Member of the House would say it is a great idea to transfer staff from the HSE, with all the deals and practices they have, into the agency. When will that Bill be published?

A report was commissioned six years ago from the commission of investigation into the Death of Gary Douch. That commission of investigation was established in April 2007 following the attack and subsequent death of Gary Douch in a cell in Mountjoy Prison. I ask the Deputy Leader to ask the Minister for Justice and Equality when that report will be published?

Criminal Justice (Spent Convictions) Bill 2012: Report and Final Stages

Tuesday, 5th February 2013

Part 1

I note that two important amendments I raised on Second Stage and tabled as amendments on Committee Stage have been incorporated into the Bill by the Government. I thank the Minister for that.

It is very important that we now have clarity about the application of the legislation with respect to multiple convictions arising out of one incident or offence. I strongly welcome the extension from 12 months to two years of the maximum applicable sentence for a relevant non-custodial sentence. I hope at a future review of the legislation that this limit will be extended further to allow a greater number of people to avail of the clean-slate second chance the legislation aims to provide.

I thank the Oireachtas Library and Research Service for an excellent Bills Digest and for conducting additional research at my request, which I will be sharing with the House shortly. I also thank the Irish Penal Reform Trust for providing background information on the case studies, which have helped us all and have certainly helped to strengthen my resolve in calling for the most liberal and generous spent convictions legislation possible. For me, this is not about being soft on crime or unduly lenient on offenders. It is about showing foresight and an appreciation of the long-term holistic benefits of encouraging the rehabilitation and re-integration of ex-offenders back into society.

The Minister will be aware, since my initial statement on Second Stage, that I had hoped the Bill would go further. I have tabled a suite of amendments which would see the maximum applicable sentence for a relevant custodial sentence extended from 12 months to two years. I have proposed two years as a compromise between the 12 months in the Bill and the 48 months applied under the UK legislation and now also proposed by my colleagues in Sinn Féin. I have listened carefully to the Government’s rationale for holding fast on the 12 months exclusion point. I want to welcome that it exceeds the six months that was recommended by the Law Reform Commission in 2007. Nevertheless, I maintain that 12 months does not go far enough and I will address some of the points that were raised during Committee Stage in this regard.

First, the Government has pointed out the UK legislation represents the most liberal spent convictions scheme in the common law world and that, in comparison to Australia and New Zealand, what is being proposed in this Bill is liberal. While this is indeed true, it is also true that the UK has had a 40-year head start on Ireland with regard to spent convictions legislation. During this time, the UK Ministry of Justice has strived to strike the appropriate balance between public safety and reducing barriers to re-integration for those who have moved on from offending behaviour. As the Minister knows, the UK Ministry of Justice commissioned a review of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act, which was called “Breaking the Cycle: Effective Punishment, Rehabilitation and Sentencing of Offenders”. This report recommended that the limitation of the spent convictions scheme to 30-month sentences was too restrictive. In response, the UK Government, through the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, has reformed the relevant sections of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act, setting the limit at 48 months – four years – which is four times the limit proposed in this Bill. On the flip side, I appreciate the schemes in Australia and New Zealand are more restrictive, but I do not see any convincing argument to align ourselves with their position.

We need to look at the purpose of the Bill, which is clearly set out in the memorandum as being “to assist the rehabilitation of offenders, who often experience difficulties securing employment as a result of having a conviction”, and thinking how best we can achieve this aim. The key question is identifying the maximum sentence for which an ex-offender should be able to avail of second-chance legislation. Surely the more people who fall under the remit of the legislation, the greater the positive impact on ex-offenders and society at large.

This leads me to my second point, which concerns the suggestion that the 12-month cut-off point covers almost 90% of all custodial sentences handed down by Irish courts.

In light of this figure, I sought information about the number of people who have been convicted of sentences of up to two years. No data is available on how many people have convictions of not more than 12 but fewer than 24 months. Between that one and two-year figure, I tried to see what we are talking about. The Courts Service records all sentences of imprisonment up to two years together and then breaks them down for the information based on the type of offences, like assault or theft. The data does not distinguish between sentences of up to 12 months and those of up to 24 months. Figures from the Irish Prison Service provide a partial picture of the amount of people with custodial sentences that may come within the scope of the Bill. However, these figures only look at those serving prison sentences. They are limited in their application as by definition, they exclude those who have received suspended sentences and other sanctions such as community service orders, fines and probation orders.

Taking out the sentences that cannot be spent because of their seriousness such as sexual offences and homicide, and bearing in mind that the data is based on the number of committals and not the number of people or sentences so that if people are released and recommitted to prison in a given year, they will be counted each time they are committed, 87.2% of the prison population in 2011 would be eligible to have their convictions spent as they are serving sentences of less than 12 months. A further 4.83% of prisoners could benefit from a spent convictions regime if a sentence of up to two years was eligible to be spent. That would bring the overall percentage of convictions covered by the spent convictions legislation to 92%. I am asking the Minister to move a further 2% in this legislation because he said that this will cover 90% and if we were to go for the two years, it would move it to 92%. It is very interesting that the Courts Service does not record the difference between one and two-year sentences which sends a very strong signal that it considers them to be grouped offences. It strengthens my argument in seeking for it to be extended to two years. Such an extension is in keeping with the spirit and purpose of the Bill and would have a significant and positive impact on the lives, futures and families of ex-offenders given sentences of two years and under.

In respect of the Schedule proposed by me, the overall rationale for this part of my amendment is that the currently proposed rehabilitative periods of four to five years and two to four years, respectively, for relative custodial and non-custodial sentences are much welcomed improvements on the periods proposed in the Bill as initiated. I do not intend to push this amendment to a vote. I feel strongly that in order to achieve the objective of the Bill, as set out in the accompanying explanatory memorandum, the Bill needs to be as generous as possible. I have wondered whether in taking the more conservative approach, the Government has been afraid of accusations of undue leniency and being soft on crime. I can understand the concerns given public concern over crime, the fear of crime and the impact of crime on people’s quality of life. This legislation, which encourages rehabilitation and re-integration of former offenders and must be implemented with a raft of other interventions such as rehabilitation, treatment and re-integration measures, is a tool to make society safer and fairer for us all. A less restrictive spent convictions regime negating as far as possible against the negative, far-reaching and often discriminatory consequences for ex-offenders and their families would also reflect the qualities of compassion and forgiveness in Irish society.

I am aware of research conducted by the Home Office in the UK into reconviction rates. This research suggests that if an individual has not re-offended in the first two years post-conviction, he or she is at equal risk of future offending as someone with a previous conviction. This finding is in keeping with the fact that in UK legislation, the conviction-free or rehabilitative period at the lowest end of the offending scale is two years. The length of time required for rehabilitation must be proportionate to the seriousness of the offence committed but it should not be so long as to constitute an additional and disproportionate punishment. It has been very clear on Second and Committee Stages that all of us in this House welcome and support this legislation. The amendments I am putting forward allow us to go that little bit further and give more people an opportunity to go for that pathway of rehabilitation and having a second chance and a new start in life.

That is why I urge the Minister to consider increasing the limit for an excluded sentence from 12 months to two years. I have examined the figures and am of the view that if the changes I have suggested were accepted, 92% would be covered by the legislation. I ask the Minister to give some in-depth consideration to this matter.

Part 2

All of us who have spoken have acknowledged that this is ground-breaking legislation, the fact that it will impact on so many people and their families and give them a second chance. As I have no doubt that if the Minister was in our position, he would try to push it that little bit further, I ask him to look at our amendments in that light. I have looked at other common law countries and certainly agree with his comparison. It is very difficult in that we cannot compare Ireland to civil law countries, but if we look at our partners in the European Union and having a consistent policy on giving offenders a second chance, this is not the most liberal and we could go a little further to give people a second chance and the opportunity to have a clean slate.

It is welcome that the Minister has said we need to put the legislation in place and monitor and evaluate it to see whether we can go further. I am very happy to share my research and figures in this regard. It is very interesting that the Courts Service does not distinguish between figures in the under two years category. There is something in this, which was partly my reason for choosing the period of two years in my amendment. Will the Minister look again at this issue before he brings the legislation to the Dáil?

I will not press my amendments today because I want to show my utmost and fullest support for the legislation. Equally I have tried to think of the people that are caught outside of the loop. As I said, it ranges from the 90% to 92% and I want to push it a little further in order that we would include up to two years. I support the legislation so I will not press my amendment. I am aware that the legislation must go through the Dáil and I ask the Minister to give it consideration.

Part 3

I thank the Minister for this historic legislation. It was long promised but he has delivered. This legislation on spent convictions has brought us into line with our European partners. I know that the Minister has played a strong role and hand in ensuring that we have a rehabilitation system and restorative justice. The legislation is testimony to that and I support it. During the debates in the House on Second Stage, Committee Stage and today on Report Stage we have shown how we can constructively engage in dialogue. Equally, I pay tribute to the Minister for engaging with us in that dialogue and for trying to tease through the arguments to ensure that we have the best legislation. I greatly appreciate that when he attends that he engages extremely constructively with us and I thank him for that.

Order of Business, 5 February 2013

Tuesday, 5th February 2013

I join in the tributes to former Senator, Martin McAleese, and on behalf of my group, I wish him a fond farewell and thank him for his contributions. I wish him every success with his future endeavours. I also thank his assistant, Ms Catherine Butler.

We all await the interdepartmental committee report on the investigation into the State’s involvement in the Magdalen laundries, on which Mr. McAleese worked. Everyone is thinking of the women today. It is part of our shameful past. Some of the survivors had, and have, intellectual disabilities and mental health difficulties, while others have disabilities as a result of their incarceration and some continue to live in institutions. When I realised they were still not being properly looked after, I wondered how much of this was about our shameful past and how much was about today. The measure of our society will be how we deal with the report. Will they get the apology and the compensation they rightfully deserve? The people will look at this carefully and each of us, individually and collectively, has a role in ensuring the voices of the survivors are heard. I trust that when the report is published at 4 p.m., we will give a voice to their suffering and will ensure justice is done, as opposed to being talked about.

I acknowledge the work of Older and Bolder, which has announced that it will close on 30 June 2013. I am saddened that a strong advocacy voice such as this will cease due to a lack of funding. The organisation was funded by Atlantic Philanthropies but will no longer be able to continue after 30 June. It played a strong role in our work on the rights of older people and it provided a strong co-ordinated voice during the recent budget discussions. There are seven excellent older people’s organisations under the Older and Bolder umbrella, and a strong co-ordinated voice helps us as Senators in our work in advocating for change. I thank Ms Patricia Conboy and her team.