Children and Family Relationships Bill 2015: Second Stage

I am delighted to speak to this Bill today. The Bill provides for, among other things, a parent, spouse or partner to acquire guardianship, meaning that, on a practical level, those who care for children will have the legal authority to take decisions on their upbringing. Similarly, the Bill enables a relative to apply for custody of a child in certain circumstances and grandparents – I am delighted with the provision in that regard – and other relatives will be able to secure access to children more easily where the parental relationship has broken down. Deputy Ross has just referred to the matter. I have met very sad grandparents who do not get any access at all.

They are all good measures in themselves but the fact that the Minister for Health spoke yesterday morning on the radio about the introduction of entirely new areas of legislation that were originally intended to be covered by the Bill demonstrates the complexity and overly ambitious nature of the legislation before us. The interview with the Minister for Health, Deputy Varadkar, was unprecedented. I believe he was attempting to stave off what he expected to come later yesterday from the former Minister, Deputy Shatter, a member of the Fine Gael Party in government. He ridiculed the Bill. Deputy Shatter has taken to the airwaves all over the country today to ridicule the Bill. He is a Government backbencher and former Minister who said he did 90% of the work on the Bill. The Minister and the previous Minister are not even together on that. One of the most disturbing elements of the Bill is that it is being continually touted as child-centred, when in many cases that is very far from the truth.

According to the Department, donor-conceived children were not consulted on their experience at any time during the process. They were excluded. Their views were not important. The same happened with regard to the legislation which went through last year. People who wanted to speak were not allowed to appear before committees. This makes a mockery of the claim we are learning from other jurisdictions where experience of assisted human reproduction has descended almost entirely and operates with few ethical matters. We need to hear the voices of those warning the Bill is not child-centred and caters more for adult-centred wishes. This is a view born of the hard experience of monitoring other jurisdictions where similar legislation was attempted with safeguards which proved utterly dissatisfactory. In the UK, the authority regulating practices has stated it wants to make sperm and egg donation as common as blood donation. This is completely farcical and misunderstands the gravity of what is occurring, which is the creation of a new human life.

I have a number of concerns about the Bill. While the Government has been at pains to state the Bill and the referendum are completely separate, I do not believe it to be true. I received the Bill last Thursday. Normally a Bill does not come to the House until two weeks after it is published. Other Deputies have referred to this, as has a former Minister of State. This time allows us to take advice and read and study the Bill. The Bill has 172 sections. When the previous Government was in office, the then Minister, Deputy Ó Cuív, introduced in animal welfare Bill with 40 sections which took a full year to pass through the Houses. I was very involved in it and I know the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Coveney, was meticulous when in opposition, and rightly so. The rush on this is inexplicable and dangerous. Rushed legislation is bad legislation.

Deputy Ó Cuív referred to Mothers and Fathers Matter. We must listen to this organisation. I do not accept the comments he made about it. The people involved are genuine people with genuinely-held views. We must accept all sides in the debate because if we do not, we will start with the wrong premise. Keith Mills is a gay activist who is totally opposed to the Bill. I have heard him on radio and television and I have met him and others.

The Bill is being rushed with indecent haste which is very dangerous. The former Minister, Deputy Shatter, states he was the main architect of the Bill. One would think he was still in government the way he is dealing with it. He is on the warpath and is not happy at all with the Bill. The Minister knows this better than I do, as she was here yesterday when he literally savaged her.

The timing of the Bill and the referendum does not help the situation. The Government has once again decided it wants to railroad a Bill through the Dáil with very little time. This is dangerous. No doubt it will use the Whip if it has to and it will use its large majority. This has been a disaster with regard to Irish Water and many other issues.

I am concerned about other elements of the Bill, and the majority of people who have contacted me have done so on these issues. The rights of the child are paramount. A child has a right to a mother and father as far as practically possible. We know there are circumstances in which this cannot happen, such as accidents and other diverse reasons. The State has a responsibility to vindicate this right as far as practically possible. It is an onus on the State but it is not doing so. I fundamentally believe that all other things being equal, children should not intentionally be denied a mother and father. In my view this is what the legislation will do.

In anticipation of a “Yes” vote in the referendum, the Bill will remove the preference for an actual family comprising a mother, father and child, and this is of most concern. Why not postpone the referendum? The Government states we are confusing both issues but we are not. We need reasonable time to discuss the Bill. We had been promised it for months but it did not come. Deputy Ross spoke about the promise he received. The issues will be conflated and this is the way the Government wants it.

In my role as a public representative I meet groups on all sides and I am open to meeting anyone else who wishes to meet me to discuss these issues. Genuine concerns are held by a large number of people and it would be wrong of me to deny these issues exist or fail to raise them on behalf of my constituents who have expressed these concerns to me. I hope these issues will be fully addressed during the debate on the Bill, but time will be a problem. The Government has chosen to race the Bill through the Dáil prior to the referendum, with the result these very serious issues are not being given sufficient time to be debated. Those who are concerned will have no option but to use the referendum for the wrong reason and vote “No”. The Minister is making her bed and she will lie on it. She is making a very bad bed because she is rushing this legislation which is six or eight months late, and the former Minister, Deputy Shatter, will probably go on tour around the country to savage the Bill.

I had suggested the referendum be delayed to allow these issues be fully addressed so the legislation and the referendum would not be intertwined, but the Government decided to railroad the Bill through the Dáil. This is despicable, disgraceful and sad. The Bill was only published last Thursday and we are debating it this week. Normally there are two weeks between each Stage of a Bill being taken but the Government wants it all hallelujah done and dusted.

I warn the Minister other issues have been raised about the rights of fathers which are also of concern but do not relate to the same-sex issue. I am totally opposed to the idea of the Bill being rammed through without sufficient time. I intend to table amendments and I hope we will have time to discuss them and that they will not be pushed over.

I contest any suggestion these views are due to being homophobic or a bigot. We need calm and reasonable debate on this. Such comments help no one and certainly do not help to sway those with genuine concerns. I welcome the good parts of the Bill, and some of its provisions do not go far enough with regard to grandparents and fathers’ rights of access. We must listen to all sides and have a reasonable debate. Thankfully, we live in a democracy and all sides should be allowed to debate the issues openly and freely without fear of being abused or threatened. I am open to meeting anyone who wishes to discuss these matters. My office is always open.

I hate to contrast the two, but when Deputy Ó Cuív introduced a Bill on animal welfare which comprised 40 sections, it took 12 months to pass through the Houses. Other Bills with fewer sections take a long time. How will we deal with the 172 sections of the Bill? I believe 20 of them are technical but the others are very serious. I am sure several amendments will be tabled to all of the sections. I believe the deadline is St. Patrick’s Day. It is being done in indecent haste and I have major concerns. I do not like when people here attack groups such as Mothers and Fathers Matter. It is a group of individuals, some of whom are gay activists who are not happy with the Bill and do not want segments of it. We must have a reasonable and calm debate and we must have time. We are often accused of making bad decisions, and often we have done so, but how will we discuss a Bill this size, understand its sections and receive advice?

I welcome the fact that I received a briefing on the Bill, but I was whisked out of the office with indecent haste after approximately 12 minutes. The questions I asked could not be answered and the official, whose name I do not have and I thank him for meeting me, was called out twice and then we were told the office was needed. I was brought to the Minister’s side office, where I thought I would have half an hour. The three people with me and I were whisked out with indecent haste. We would not have been whisked through an airport as fast if the plane was on the tarmac and about to leave. This is not good. I do not know who gave those instructions or who said the office was needed. Surely we had been booked in for at least 30 minutes as the Bill has 172 sections, but we were whisked out after 12 minutes following three interruptions by another official.

Is that any way to treat a public representative who is trying his best to understand the Bill, or trying to address, welcome and support the good provisions, although I have problems with other provisions? That is not good. Let us contrast this with most legislation debated in the House. This happened in the United Kingdom as well. People there spent 930 hours discussing a rural pursuits Bill but only 30 hours discussing a Bill similar to this. We are copying what they did over there. Why? We are meant to be a democracy. We are elected by the people to debate and scrutinise legislation. We are expected to do that to the best of our ability. We need a little space and a small window to understand the Bill and to try to put forward amendments and have them submitted correctly to the Bills office. I thank the staff of the Bills office for their co-operation as well. I am not blaming the officials in the Department for the fast ending of my briefing last week. Someone gave instructions. They were only doing what they were told. They were courteous and helpful, but it was the fastest briefing that I have ever received in my seven years here. We were hardly in the door when we were out again. That is not a briefing.

People who have been affected by sperm donation and the children in those situations were not consulted. Why? We are meant to have a consultation with the people who matter and the people who have been affected by these situations.

The former Minister, Deputy Shatter, has spectacularly undermined and attacked the Bill. I am no fan of his and I was not a fan when he was in government, but he is quite embarrassing. This is a mess the Government has created for itself. I wish the Minister for Justice and Equality no ill will, but I am unsure who is going to control Deputy Shatter. It is not the only issue, but he wants more stuff in the Bill. The Minister for Health came out yesterday morning to confuse matters deliberately. He has enough issues to deal with in the health area, telling us that he is exercised by the trolley situation and that it will get worse before it gets better, besides making this strange intervention. It was bizarre. He must have known from the Fine Gael Parliamentary Party meeting that there was trouble coming from the renowned former Minister, Deputy Shatter. Deputy Varadkar tried to run the gauntlet and disarm him by speaking out, but he was only confusing the situation and disturbing more people. The people out there have to be consulted.

Will the Minister for Justice and Equality give a commitment that the process will be unlike that for the children’s rights referendum? We voted in the House to give the independent Referendum Commission a sum of €3 million to run the referendum, but those in the Government interfered. They put their hand in the till, took out €1.1 million and misspent it. I am not saying that; the High Court and the Supreme Court made a unanimous decision that money was misappropriated. Yet the referendum still went ahead. There was no debate in this House. I have called for it a hundred times. I have asked the previous Minister and the current Minister for it. Are they going to shamefully interfere again with the so-called independent commission? We will have to vote money for the commission if it is to run the referendum. That is important. The commission has a job to do and it should be left to do it. A citizen took the case and the case was vindicated in the Supreme Court by unanimous decision. That was not even discussed in the House. No one was charged or arrested for that. That was daylight robbery, the same as robbing the bank. They had their hand in the till and they took the money. They were found with their hand in the till.

I want assurances that this will not happen again in our democracy. We will be celebrating the centenary of the 1916 Rising next year, but this is the kind of treatment the Government gives to money voted by the Oireachtas for an independent commission. They clearly robbed it and stole it. There are no simpler words. While the Supreme Court did not put that description on it, that was the import of their decision. No one acknowledged that or dealt with it.

No one was sacked or questioned on it or anything else.

This is a democracy.

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