Minister for Children Barry Andrews came to the Seanad chamber last night in order to discuss the Final Report of the Joint Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children. This was my contribution to the debate.
I welcome the Minister of State on the occasion of the publication of this extremely important report which is founded on a high level of consensus across the political divide. I endorse the comments of my colleagues regarding the input of all parties into the report. In particular, I commend the Minister of State on his consistent engagement and regular attendance at committee meetings. The commitment shown by Senators in the committee’s deliberations was exemplary and undermines any argument that might be made for abolishing this Chamber.
This issue is characterised by complexity and, often, the presumption of disagreement even where it does not exist. People assumed on the basis of history that certain things cannot be changed but when we began to examine in detail what words actually mean, it was funny how quickly we were able to progress towards agreement. The Minister of State clearly outlined the achievements made in terms of the proposed wording. If this amendment is implemented, we would have a Constitution which protected children as the holders of autonomous rights. It would be a misnomer to say we are putting children’s rights into the Constitution for the first time but we want to ensure they have rights in and of themselves and not just mediated through their membership of families.
The Minister of State has regular dealings with all the organisations engaged with children’s rights and advocacy, including the Children’s Rights Alliance and Barnardos. These organisations offered significant support to the committee and in some cases made multiple submissions. Their universal welcome for the outcome of our deliberations is in itself a measure of the extent to which progress has been made in the course of our work.
In regard to Senator O’Toole’s remarks, it would be more accurate to say the committee proposes to revise Article 42 rather than insert a completely new article because some of the existing wording is retained. This may give rise to confusion in some quarters during the debate. The provisions dealing with primary, physical, moral and intellectual education which are already in the Constitution are simply lifted into this new proposal. The committee debated whether we should unpick the provisions on education or include a right to secondary education. Several colleagues even argued for the inclusion of a right to third level education. However, members did not feel the terms of reference of the committee extended that far and I believe we reached the correct conclusion. The Bill published in 2007 delineated to a considerable extent the work of the committee. A major debate remains to be had, not least in the context of the Constitution, regarding the right to education but it was not within our remit to make proposals in regard to the sections we lifted from Article 42. We have not dropped the word “physical” because the provision in question was simply left unchanged.