Yesterday, I was a panellist on Sam Smyth’s Sunday Supplement on Today FM. Also on the show were Leo Varadkar TD and John McGuinness TD.
You can listen to the show in full by clicking here.
I would like to add my voice to concerns being raised by Emily Logan, Ombudsman for Children, regarding the Bord Snip recommendations to subsume her Office, along with others, into office of the Ombudsman.
Quite what the point of such a merger would be is not at all clear. According to the McCarthy Report, the move would save at best a couple of hundred thousand Euro. This is less than a drop in the ocean in terms of the €5.3b cuts that are outlined in the document.
The proposal would effectively abolish the distinct and independent nature of the Ombudsman for Children’s Office, the only agency expressly charged by law to listen to children and to advocate on their behalf.
McCarthy also seems to be suggesting that investigations by the new Ombudsman’s office would be carried out by staff at lower grades, which would almost certainly compromise its capacity to adequately deliver the service.
It is astounding that this proposal has emerged just weeks after the publication of the Ryan Report. While that report was universally greeted with shock and dismay, we are now being asked to reduce the level of protection and support we will be offering children.
Earlier this month, the Ombudsman for Children’s Office published its annual report highlighting a 10 per cent year-on-year increase in demand for the services of the agency. To merge the Ombudsman for Children’s Office with bodies that have no express powers or functions relating to children would be entirely wrong and mis-guided.
The Minister for Finance has referred to pressure from sectional interests in the context of the proposed cuts and savings. Children, however, are not a sectional interest.
The Criminal Justice (Amendment) Bill 2009 was debated in the Seanad for over eight hours yesterday and ultimately passed without amendment late last night. This is from my Second Stage speech:
I made the point on the Order of Business earlier that, unfortunately and regrettably, there did not seem to be much point in debating this legislation because the Government was clearly intent on not accepting any amendments, and that this would render our debate somewhat irrelevant. The Leader, Senator Donie Cassidy shook his head in response to my comment, which I took to be an indication that he disagreed with me. Senator Terry Leyden then indicated to the House that if amendments were brought before the House that the matter could be dealt with during the course of the summer. The Minister has now put that issue at rest and has made it very clear, in no uncertain terms, that no amendments to this legislation will be accepted by the Government and that, to use his words, “we need this legislation now”. Let us be clear about this, there is no intention on the part of Government to permit this House to amend this legislation in any respect today or on any other day.
Notwithstanding the Government’s view as to whether we should be listened to in this House on this legislation, we still have to reflect on our role as legislators. We are paid to come here by the people to deal with legislation. As to what is our role, I accept that the Government has a very particular role, perhaps an enhanced one in the sense that it has the expertise and advice of the Garda available to it and it is dealing on a day to day basis, operationally and in policy terms, with the management of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. Therefore, it is in a position of expertise far greater than anything available to any of us. I accept that. That is how the system works.
Let us examine our role. I do not wish to oversimplify it but it appears to be the case that a Minister comes to the House to inform us of the changes that need to be made to the law because there is a problem that needs to be addressed and he outlines the changes he proposes we should make. It is our role to ask him to tell us why that is the case and to demonstrate it to us. We then consider whether that explanation is adequate and we either vote for or against the proposals brought by the Minister. I accept that is an oversimplification but it is not an unreasonable description of our role.
If I am correct in that are we not entitled to ask the Minister to do more than simply assert the need for certain legislation? The Minister must demonstrate the need for it to us. He must show us why it is necessary, not just simply by anecdote, the expression of his opinion or the communication to us indirectly of an opinion given to him by the Garda. He must give us some evidence on which we can take the rest of the argument in trust that what he says is necessary. I cannot, and do not, exclude the possibility – I say this genuinely – that these measures are necessary, but I am not prepared to agree to them simply by it being asserted to me without any evidence or convincing argument – in some cases without any argument at all – as to why they are necessary.
This is very serious legislation. We are dealing with the curtailment of rights and the liberty of the citizen, irrespective of what he or she is accused of, and in view of this we are under a bounden duty to exercise the strictest possible scrutiny of any such proposal. That is all I am interested in doing. Senator Quinn, and to some extent Senator Boyle, have expressed the hope that the Minister will return with responses to some of the questions that have been raised. I do not know whether the Minister will do so when he replies to Second Stage. However, he has made it clear that he does not intend moving from his position. That puts us in a very odd position in terms of trying to debate the issue, or any expectation we might have that the Minister might address any of the difficulties we have.
It is true that the reports from the IMF and the OECD are neither a ringing endorsement of the Government’s stewardship nor handy crib sheets for the Opposition to attack the Government. But the problem is that when the reports were published, particularly the IMF report, they were accompanied by the sort of press releases the Government issues at such times suggesting that they constitute a ringing endorsement of Government policy.
That was exactly what we got when the IMF report was published. In the Minister of State’s speech in the Seanad, he welcomed the opportunity to have this debate because it gives an opportunity to put on record the endorsement of the Government’s policies and the endorsement it provides for the action it is taking. It includes some endorsements of what the Government is doing but the extent to which we should fall to our knees and thank the Government for taking action in this unprecedented crisis is another matter. The Government is not entitled to come into this House and seek congratulations for doing the job it is paid by the people to do, for taking steps to turn around this crisis that is partly of their making.
I am adhering to the call for restraint in this debate by saying the crisis was only partly of the Government’s making but it was of its making to a considerable extent. This was pointed out in the IMF report, which the government is so quick to characterise as an endorsement of the Government’s position. The Minister asked that while we debate the IMF report, we refer to it, and I propose to do so. I do not intend to paraphrase the report at all but will quote directly from it lest I am accused, as others have been and as some have done, of spinning it.
I will talk about the future, because that is what we are all interested in, but we cannot look to the future unless we are honest about how we got to where we are. Senator MacSharry is a good colleague in this House who often uses the phrase: “We are where we are.” That covers a multitude. It is easy for a Minister or someone else to say it, but how did we get to where we are? This is part of the analysis required to see how we get away from where we are. In addition, it is not a matter of where we are in the sense of spreading the blame; it is about where the Government has brought us. We must reword that handy little catch-all phrase which is used mainly by Government spokespersons and apologists in an effort to dissuade us from considering how we got to the state we are in.
The IMF report states:
Dazzling growth and buoyant public revenues prompted tax reductions and expansion of public expenditures that have proved unsustainable. Various commentators and the IMF in its Article IV consultations did warn that the seemingly-unstoppable growth masked serious imbalances, including the fragility of public finances.
This is a direct quote and not an attempt to paraphrase or put a spin on anything. The report states that the IMF analysis “shows that after strong growth between 1987 and 2001, which earned Ireland the moniker of the ’Celtic Tiger,’ potential growth had steadily eroded”. Here, the IMF is telling the Government that growth had started to erode from 2001. This is the report the Government is so anxious to tell us constitutes an endorsement of its policies. The report goes on to state: “Analysis by OECD staff, consistent with the results from the Kalman-filtering approach, concludes that Ireland was perhaps the most overheated of all advanced economies.” I will not burden people with the detail of the Kalman filtering approach which is an econometric model. Again, these are the words of the IMF report itself.
Why is it that for many weeks there is little or legislation before the House but in the two or three weeks before the end of the session there is an extraordinary flurry of activity with measures being introduced and pushed through both Houses as is happening again now? Why is it that the Minister, the Department or those who manage the flow of business to the Houses cannot pace themselves a little better throughout the year? Why can legislation not be introduced in the House periodically in a manner that will allow it to breathe, as it were?
The Leader of the Seanad often says he does not guillotine legislation and that is true, but that misses the point. It is not a question of saying we can have an hour or two to read the legislation but of allowing the public to consider important legislation over a period of weeks. I am not suggesting that the Government never makes an effort to do that. In fairness, it does. However, that should be the universal approach to legislation, unless it is genuinely emergency legislation which must be put through the Houses in a period of days.
I have in mind some of the criminal justice legislation we are dealing with this week. There are two Bills this week and I presume the Criminal Justice (Amendment) Bill will be introduced in the House next week. The latter includes proposals for the considerable curtailment of the liberty of the citizen. It may well be that this is justified and that Members of the House support it but it is one of the most serious actions a parliament can take. The guarantee of last September is probably the most serious action a parliament can take in that it mortgages the future and future generations. However, in terms of the liberty of the citizen the proposed legislation provides for the expansion of the use of the Special Criminal Court and removing the important protection that juries provide.
I disagree regarding any further restriction on the use of juries. In the criminal context, in particular, it is a further restriction on the liberty of the individual, as is the introduction of secret hearings in the District Court regarding detentions and so forth. I appeal to the Leader to ensure, especially with legislation of this nature, that the public and the Houses be given an opportunity to consider such legislation over a longer time span. It should certainly be over a period of weeks and not days, as is now being proposed.
It appears from reports yesterday that decisions relating to the budget and the economy generally are being postponed to the autumn and no decisions will be made by the Government until after the referendum on the Lisbon treaty in early October. The Taoiseach indicated in the Dáil yesterday that the Minister for Finance is only beginning the budgetary process at this stage. On that basis, it will take some months. I presume that the calls by a number of colleagues for detailed debate and the presentation by Opposition parties of their budgetary priorities will go off the agenda of the House given that the Government is only beginning the budgetary process and will not be in a position to present any of its proposals to either House until well into autumn. The calls by colleagues such as Senator John Hanafin and others, therefore, presumably cannot be met in those circumstances. If the Government is only getting going on its proposals, one can hardly expect the Opposition to put forward proposals until the Government at least indicates what it intends to do.
It would assist all the Opposition parties and the general public if the Government would come clean and publish all the information available to it regarding the budgetary position and proposals that have been made by expert groups retained by the Government for that purpose. What basis can there be for a delay in the publication by the Government of the documents prepared by Professor McCarthy’s committee? Why should there be a delay? They are public property. They are not the property of either the committee, because the Government has been given the report, or the Minister or Government. These are grave matters. One newspaper today describes our economy as being in an “historic slump” while others report the economy being in the “worst ever state”. What excuse can there be for the public and the Opposition parties not to be told or given all the information available to the Government? I have always believed this with regard to the banking situation as well, notwithstanding that some arguments can be made from time to time about confidentiality. However, those arguments have faded, particularly in the case of nationalised banks.
All of the information that is available to the Government is public property; it is the property of the people. The Government only holds that information in trust for the people and it should be published for the people. If the Government Senators seek any measure of consensus or co-operation from Opposition parties, they will have to come clean on the basic information that is known to the Government. If that detailed information is shared with us, we can have the type of meaningful debate the Irish public expects in this and the other House.