Promoting Women’s Health and Wellbeing

Women’s health and wellbeing has been a recurring theme in the current Oireachtas, and the Civil Engagement Group has been to the fore in championing progressive legislative change and policy developments.

For every budget proposed by the current government the group has been at the forefront of calls for the equality- and gender-proofing of the budgetary measures, and continues to call for more transparency and action on this commitment made by government.

The group campaigned nationally and locally with Together for Yes for the successful repeal of the 8th amendment to the constitution, paving the way for the roll out of safe and legal abortion care in Ireland. The group was represented at every stage of the debate in the Oireachtas, with Senator Lynn Ruane serving on the Special Oireachtas Committee on the Eighth Amendment.

The Group coordinated, on behalf of several NGOs, cross-party consensus in the Seanad leading to the introduction of the offense of ‘Coercive Control’ into the Domestic Violence Act 2018.

As a majority female grouping, the Group’s members have been to the fore in creating the first Oireachtas Women’s Caucus. Senator Colette Kelleher has served as the Caucus’ vice-chairperson since its foundation. The Group is also active in the All Party Oireachtas group on Sexual and Reproductive Health, and Senators Colette Kelleher and Alice Mary Higgins attending the Nairobi Summit of the International Conference on Population and Development in Autumn 2019.

The group continues to advocate for equality between women and men and for the closing of the pay and pension gap, quality affordable childcare, resources to tackle violence against women and more issues on a daily basis within the Oireachtas.

Making the Seanad work for civil society

Since the Civil Engagement Group’s foundation in May 2016, all of the Senators have made it their mission to make the voice of civil society heard in the Oireachtas.

Bunreacht na hÉireann envisions an upper house where a certain number of the Senators are elected “having knowledge and practical experience of” a number of particular areas of interest:

  • National Language and Culture, Literature, Art, Education and such professional interests as may be defined by law for the purpose of this panel;
  • Agriculture and allied interests, and Fisheries;
  • Labour, whether organised or unorganised;
  • Industry and Commerce, including banking, finance, accountancy, engineering and architecture;
  • Public Administration and social services, including voluntary social activities.

In practice, while Senators are nominated by well-known bodies organised and recognised to do so under those categories, never has any group of Senators sought explicitly to represent the specific expertise and interests of the people working day in and day out in such organisations.

Speaking on the formation of the Civil Engagement Group, Senator Alice-Mary Higgins said; “We saw a natural alliance form, based on shared experience of working within civil society, activism and social movements. There was also common ground around a more inclusive and transformative approach to policy-making, with a stronger focus on equality.”

Senator Frances Black also highlighted that; “While the members of our group are new to political office, we bring to the table a proven commitment to social advocacy. Often the most vulnerable in society are the least heard. We each want to change that and by working together, we can, I believe, have a greater impact and shine a light on sometimes invisible issues.”

In May 2019 the group tabled legislation to support the voices of community and advocacy groups whose voices were being inadvertently silenced through application of the Electoral Act, limiting their ability to advocate through the political processes of the Oireachtas and through referendum campaigns.

In the three years since the group’s formation, they have championed the voice of civil society through, among others:

  • Legislative proposals directly (Private Members’ Business) and indirectly (amendments to government legislation);
  • Holding government to account and putting issues on the political agenda through membership in Joint Oireachtas committees;
  • Bringing together alliances of like-minded parliamentarians at home through All-Party Oireachtas Groups;
  • Promoting international cooperation and inspiration through the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and other global forums.

Reforming the Seanad

On the 4th of October 2013, the people of Ireland voted by a narrow margin against the proposed abolition of the Seanad. The Civil Engagement Group firmly believes this vote did not reflect a belief that the Seanad should be left exactly as is, and rather a belief that while Ireland does need a bicameral system, the upper house should be fundamentally reformed to be fit for purpose, democratic and accountable to the public. Many members of the Civil Engagement Group campaigned vocally to retain the Seanad in advance of that referendum.

On the first sitting day of the current, 25th, Seanad Éireann, every member of the Civil Engagement Group co-sponsored the Seanad Reform Bill 2016 along with other members of the house.

This proposed legislation was introduced so early in the Seanad’s term to reflect the urgency and high demand for reform which was heard during the 2013 referendum campaign.

Senator Alice-Mary Higgins and Senator Grace O’Sullivan represented the Group on the 2018 Seanad Reform Implementation group, which published its report in December 2018.

Among the reforms proposed on a cross-party basis by the group are:

  • Graduates of all higher education institutions will be entitled to vote in a single, six-seat, constituency – replacing the current three seat National University of Ireland, and three-seat Dublin University constituencies.
  • The 43 vocational panel seats will be opened up with 28 being elected directly by the public, and 15 by local councillors and other political representatives.
  • Each voter will be able to choose which vocational panel they wish to cast their vote in.
  • The franchise for Seanad elections will be extended to Irish citizens overseas and to people resident in Northern Ireland who are entitled to Irish citizenship.

While the Programme for Partnership Government commits the government of the 32nd Dáil to enacting reform of the Seanad there has been very little progress made by government. This latest report is the 14th published in the past 80 years setting out pragmatic reform proposals to the Seanad.

The Civil Engagement Group remains committed to reforming and empowering a democratic, transparent and responsive Seanad.

Highlighting and tackling homelessness

The housing crisis is one of the defining political challenges of our time. In recent times it has led to over 10,000 people including close to 4,000 children living in persistent homelessness, and the Civil Engagement Group have been campaigning on this issue since the first days of the current Seanad.

The Group’s very first motion proposed, and adopted unanimously by the whole House concerned the particular issue of housing for people with disabilities. The Group has continued to exert pressure on the Government to address the particular needs of people with disabilities on an all-of-government basis time after time, and housing is no exception.

Another specific area within the housing issue is the chronic lack of suitable and quality housing for members of the Traveller community. The Group has raised this issue time and again, leading to hearings in the Seanad and in the Committee rooms, and to the creation of the Special Joint Oireachtas Committee on Key Issues Affecting the Traveller Community.

Since then, the group has proposed constructive legislation to help address the crisis, proposed amendments to government legislation and held the Ministers for Housing to account on their activities in working on housing provision, and advocated on behalf of experts and civil society organisations working in homelessness and housing provision both in the Seanad, in the media and through active participation in the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government.

The Group believe that the government has begun using the constitution as an excuse to not introduce real housing reform, and will continue actively and loudly campaigning on housing and homelessness until government policy begins to show progress.

The Cost of Not Investing

The six members of the Civil Engagement Group in Seanad Éireann have outlined their concerns in advance of Budget 2019, highlighting the cost of not investing in public services.

Among many other areas, the group highlighted that the government needs to demonstrate a commitment to lone-parent families, climate change, education, people with disabilities, addiction support services, and home care, which have suffered from years of austerity-era cuts.

Senator Alice-Mary Higgins, leader of the Civil Engagement Group, said, “the cost of not investing in proper supports for lone parent families means that they are more likely to live in deprivation, they are more likely to be homeless, and their children are three times more likely to live in consistent poverty. We need to gender- and equality-proof this budget to ensure these families are flourishing and not struggling.”

Speaking on the cost of not investing in tackling climate change, Senator Grace O’Sullivan said, “We have a choice: we can continue to sit back as the weather gets more extreme and sea levels rise, all the while facing EU fines of €150 to €600 million euro, or we can invest now in a new, green economy.”

“The cost of not investing in education,” Senator Lynn Ruane said, “jeopardises future prospects and further compounds the cycle of poverty. Investing early in a child’s life means we can have better stability, growth, health outcomes. It is an investment in society as a whole, not just the individual.”

Addressing the cost of not investing in people with disabilities and their families, Senator John Dolan said, “employment, community access, housing, income support, transport et cetera are the investments that are needed for people with disabilities. €250 million would be a good start, and we will all gain.”

Senator Frances Black said, “We must invest in real addiction support services, if we don’t the long term effects are huge. Alcohol harm alone costs the state €2.3 billion every year. We need to invest now to break this cycle.”

“The State spends €1 billion on residential care for people with dementia who would be much better served, and much more cost effectively, by home care,” said Senator Colette Kelleher, “it is expensive care, and it is care that people don’t need or want, and there is a better way. A down payment of €100 million would be a wise investment by government in home care.”

The Offence of Coercive Control

The Civil Engagement Group in Seanad Éireann welcomes that the critically important Domestic Violence Bill 2017 has today passed committee stage in the upper house. Among the amendments agreed at committee stage today were the creation of the offence of coercive control, and the acceptance that the closer the abuser is to the abused, the more serious that offence is. This was achieved thanks to the close cooperation of Senators from Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin, Labour, the Civil Engagement Group, and independent senators, as well as constructive engagement from Minister David Stanton and his officials in the Department of Justice and Equality.

One of Senator Colette Kelleher’s contributions during the Committee Stage debate on the Domestic Violence Bill 2017.

“While the focus has understandably been elsewhere in the past number of days, the Domestic Violence bill is a ground-breaking piece of legislation for women, children and others and must be passed into law as soon as possible,” said Independent Senator Colette Kelleher, a member of the Civil Engagement Group.

“Today the Seanad is sending an important signal that controlling and coercive behaviour should and will be regarded as a criminal offence. This is an important step forward in our understanding of intimate partner violence and as well as offering protection to those affected it will, I hope, also contribute to prevention,” said Civil Engagement Group leader, Senator Alice-Mary Higgins.

“I am really heartened to see the broad, cross-party consensus to make this bill as effective as possible. This is politics at its best, and it will have a big impact on the protections against domestic violence in this country, particularly for women. I’m especially happy that our provision for emergency barring orders was accepted, making it as easy as possible for a vulnerable person to get such an order out-of-hours. These are the small but meaningful changes that committed legislators can achieve working together, and I’m delighted to see this bill one step closer to becoming law”, said Senator Frances Black.

“During my career as a community worker, I supported many victims of domestic violence and know just how vital and necessary this legislation is. While I welcome the robust measures & protections for victims in the bill, it must be matched with additional and targeted resources for front-line services. This needs to be a key priority for the Minister for Justice and must be addressed in tandem with the bill’s enactment,” said Senator Lynn Ruane.

The Civil Engagement Group’s First Year

The Civil Engagement Group has been at the forefront of Seanad and Oireachtas reform initiatives since the group was formed in May 2016. All six supported the Seanad Reform Bill 2016, which radically reforms Seanad elections, and have made major inroads in opening up the work of the Oireachtas and its committees to groups often overlooked, including in the Seanad Public Consultation Committee and Petitions Committee. Supporting one another’s core areas of focus, the Group has made many very meaningful improvements to legislation in the Seanad.

The Civil Engagement Group in February 2017. Not pictured: Lynn Ruane.

Among these the Group has successfully amended the Planning and Development (Housing) Residential Tenancies Bill 2016 to make it harder for vulture funds to evict tenants; the Adoption (Amendment) Bill 2016 to make it fairer for the families of children in care to be heard in their adoptions; the Heritage Bill 2016, seeking to protect Ireland’s biodiversity and the welfare of canal users; and the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill 2015 to protect young people from unhealthy exposure to alcohol.

Working across Party lines is a hallmark of the Group’s work in the Seanad, cosponsoring bills, amendments and motions with every other group and party in the upper house, and in turn securing their support for the Civil Engagement Group’s work. The The Group is represented on the Joint Oireachtas Committees for Social Protection; Justice and Equality; Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement; Health; Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government; Education and Skills; Public Petitions; the Special Committees on the Future Funding of Domestic Water; on the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution; on the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union; and the Seanad’s committee on Public Consultations; Committee on Procedure and Privileges; and Committee of Selection.

Senator Kelleher’s Adult Safeguarding Bill 2017 passed second stage without opposition in April 2017 and is now progressing through the legislative process, followed closely by Group senators. Senator Kelleher has also spearheaded work on raising awareness and coordinating Oireachtas work on dementia, organising Dementia awareness training for 60 members of both houses, and launching the first All Party Group on Dementia which has produced five reports, held two study trips and a high-level roundtable on home care. Senators Kelleher and Dolan are now focusing on launching an All Party Group on Disability.

Senator Dolan’s motion on the housing needs of people with disabilities was agreed by the house early in the term, while Senator Higgins’ motion calling on the Seanad to reject the proposed CETA agreement between Canada and the European Union was similarly passed. Senator O’Sullivan’s Vacant and Derelict Homes Bill 2017 moved the debate on housing in Ireland forward at a crucial time and Senator Ruane’s Controlled Drugs and Harm Reduction Bill 2017 has been receiving significant support as it moves through the legislative process.