I thank the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, for her presence and the opportunity to have such a lengthy and thorough debate on what is an extremely important issue.
Since the appointment of a senior Minister for children – an historic event in Irish political history – on 9 March 2011, we have spent a great deal of time and effort and employed considerable resources on children’s rights, adoption and child protection issues across the Departments of Children and Youth Affairs, Health and Justice and Equality. We have spent a considerable amount of time debating such legislation. I echo the sentiments of a number of colleagues on both sides in complimenting the Government in that regard.
I am pleased the Minister has managed to achieve a unique feat in recent history in that we have full support in this House for the children’s referendum and what it hopes to achieve. I hope that will be reflected in society when the referendum is put to the people in November.
The Bill and the actions the Government has taken on child protection and rights in society will most likely inspire confidence in the future of child protection law in this country and in the many civil society organisations and individuals which have campaigned for greater children’s rights and protection for the past 20 to 30 years. It is important that the support the House has given the Bill and the referendum that will follow is mirrored by the public who will ultimately sign off on the Bill.
In 1996, the Constitution Review Group called for constitutional protection of children after such instances as the Kilkenny incest case in 1993. Similar calls were heard in 2006 by the All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution and again in 2010, four years later, by the Joint Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children. The programme for Government, written in 2011, specifically outlined the strengthening of children’s rights through constitutional amendment as a priority.
On the Government’s first day in office, 9 March 2011, An Taoiseach appointed a senior Minister to the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. That was a significant event. While there has been widespread support for the referendum, we would be foolish to take its result for granted. For this reason I have two points to make, first, we must ensure that the maximum number of people engage in the debate and, second, that the public are clear about not only what the amendment will do but also what it will not do.
My first point relates to the date for the referendum – 10 November, which is a Saturday. That is a significant day to choose for the children’s referendum in that it is a Saturday and 1,162 primary schools were closed in May of this year for the previous referendum. That will not occur on this occasion as the referendum will be held on a Saturday. I commend the Cabinet, and the Minister in particular, for accepting a Bill I published in the previous term on Saturday voting. I hope the Bill will become an Act in the future. Saturday voting allows for less disruption of children’s education, which is fitting in the circumstance given that the referendum is about children’s rights and protection within the Constitution.
A Saturday vote also encourages the involvement of more younger people in the debate and the vote such as college students who are living away from home. Student groups have been calling for weekend and rest day voting for as long as I can remember. Statistically, students do not vote in large numbers and this will be an opportunity for them to take ownership of this important constitutional amendment, debate it and use it as an opportunity to further the cause of children’s rights in the Constitution and ensure they become a force to be reckoned with politically. I see no reason young people should not have as significant an impact on politics as the so-called grey vote. Students should recognise that.
I wish to refer to those who are challenging the amendment. We have heard one or two of them on the radio and read about them in the newspapers in recent days. This is a democracy and it is every person’s right to debate and challenge the decisions we make in this Chamber and in the Seanad. When putting a referendum such as this to the people it should not be rubber-stamped automatically but it should be debated. We should go through such measures carefully, line by line and ensure they do what we want them to do and that they does not impact adversely on anyone else. Opposition to the amendment should not be based on an anti-Government, anti-State or an anti-Judiciary agenda, nor should it be based on fear.
I wish to focus for a moment on what the amendment does. There is no change to Article 41 of the Constitution which recognises the family as the natural and fundamental unit of society. It does not abolish rights belonging to any individual, regardless of their age. It merely ensures that children are afforded equal rights under the Constitution regardless of the marital status of their parents.
I repeat the commendation of the Minister and her team for the extraordinary work the Department has achieved in the past year. We have never as a State seen this level of commitment and work carried out on behalf of children or on behalf of families. This amendment, along with a suite of legislation that the Department, along with the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, and the Minister for Health, Deputy Reilly, have introduced to strengthen child protection laws brings with it a new responsibility. Much work has been carried out within the Department to match necessary services with scarce resources. I again thank the Minister and the Cabinet for bringing forward the legislation.