Newsletter Spring 2019

Alice Mary Higgins Newsletter 2019
Alice Mary Higgins Newsletter 2019

Dear Friends,

Welcome to my latest newsletter which shares highlights of the last six months and some of the challenges ahead. These include Brexit and I have been particularly focused on its implications for pensions, data, research cooperation, human rights and community development. 

Alongside this, you'll find bits on my recent work on issues like climate, bees, workers rights, peace, philosophy, dogs, data & just a little on public procurement!

2019 is the centenary of the first Dáil and we can never be complacent about democracy. I am committed to deepening participation at local, national and international level.

Our new Seanad Reform Bill is one positive step in the right direction.

As an Independent Senator, I work constructively with my colleagues in the Civil Engagement Group and others across all parties on issues including peace, data protection, animal welfare and the environment.

I’ve been a passionate advocate for over a decade on the entwined challenges of climate change and biodiversity. Now children are taking to the streets to say we need accelerated action and a radical shiftinthinking. Onepractical proposal is my legislation to place quality and sustainability at the centre of public procurement.

Lastly, I want to thank all who have been in touch with concerns, ideas or support over the last few months. We are always happy to hear from you!

Getting the Most from Public Spending – My New Bill on Public Procurement

In early April I will be bringing a new Private Members’ Bill on Public Procurement into the Seanad which will, I hope, improve joined-up thinking and quality within state contracts.

Now more than ever, we need to know that the public money we spend is giving us the best results – and that means thinking it through in terms of sustainability, employment, social impact, human rights, equality and the environment.

The controversies over the National Children’s Hospital, Cervical Check Screening and Western Building Systems are just a few examples of why our procurement system needs reform. Cervical Check demonstrates, for example, how a tender based on lowest price may cost far more in the long run, including a deep personal cost to the health and lives of women a ected.

My Bill could reduce the chances of this happening again by making “price-quality ratio” the default option in all procurement.

In the case of the billions being spent on the National Development Plan 2019 – 2027, the Bill looks for 50% quality criteria on any major project. It also introduces guidelines on how environmental, employment, social and equality considerations can be re ected in those criteria.

I am hoping to secure cross-party support for these practical and much needed proposals.

Delivering Seanad Reform

I campaigned for the retention of the Seanad in the 2013 referendum and believe that referendum should be seen as a mandate for reform. The public must be given a direct democratic voice in Seanad elections.

Last year, I was one of a small group of Oireachtas members appointed to a Seanad Reform Implementation Group.

In December, we sent a nal report to the Taoiseach along with a draft Seanad Reform Bill which would deliver widespread reform of the upper house of the Irish Parliament. While I would have liked to see certain aspects go further, I do believe the Bill will be a real step forward for democracy. Ongoing political and public pressure will be needed to persuade all within national and local government. Why not ask your local election candidates if they will support Seanad Reform and a wider franchise!

For details of the key reforms in the Bill see alicemaryhiggins.ie/about/seanad-reform

Supporting Women

In December, the Oireachtas passed all stages of the Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Act 2018. Speaking during the final debate, I thanked all those who had campaigned for change, chosen support over silence and brought compassion and care to a difficult choice. I also spoke of the need for solidarity with women in Northern Ireland around access to safe abortion care.

As a recently elected member of the European Parliamentary Forum on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights, I am aware of the positive and thoughtful example and support Ireland can o er to people experiencing difficult pregnancies or struggling to access reproductive rights in other parts of the world. We can also learn from how other countries have managed issues like misinformation or the intimidation of patients at hospitals.

I also spoke in the Seanad about the many women who experienced cruelty in the past and are still seeking justice. I will continue to do all I can to support the survivors of the Magdalene Laundries and Mother and Baby Homes. 

“I believe we are closer to being a republic that not only respects and trusts women’ but one which women can trust and which they know they can shape.”

“I hope that those who had fears and concerns about the new legislation will come in time to see that the law is a step forward in compassion and allows us to better talk, share and support one another as a society.”

– Senator Higgins, Seanad speech, Morning Ireland, Dec 2018

Promoting Peace

I am chair of the Oireachtas Peace, Neutrality and Disarmament Group, which brings together TDs and Senators of all parties and none who are interested in protecting and promoting Ireland’s proud role as a neutral country and honest peacebroker. Ireland’s neutrality and credibility has, for example, allowed us play an active role in disarmament agreements and in peace negotiations in countries like Colombia.

Unfortunately, Ireland’s international reputation as a neutral peacekeeper has been diluted by recent decisions of the Irish Government to join the new EU military pact PESCO and move our navy away from humanitarian search and rescue in th eMediterranean. In 2016 I expressed concern that this change in policy could lead to loss of life. Sadly, this seems to have proven true with very few migrants now being rescued from those waters and many more trapped in appalling Libyan detention centres.

In December 2018, I successfully brought a motion on Yemen through the Seanad with all-party and Government support, condemning all targeting of civilians and calling for restrictions on arms trading and a scaling up of humanitarian aid to those a elected.

During 2019 the Group will continue to engage further on these and other issues, including UN resolution 1325 on the role of women in peacebuilding.

Protecting Data and Privacy Online

Although issues of data and privacy may seem technical, they are personal and important for many people.

Last year, I was successful in ensuring that public bodies are now fined when they breach citizens’ data rights and I continue to press for good practice in this area.

During Seanad debates on the new Data Sharing and Governance Act, which sets out how our personal data is shared between public bodies, I tabled over 40 amendments, with the Minister agreeing to many, including more transparency and balance on the Data Governance Board and the removal of ‘special categories’ of sensitive personal data from most data-sharing arrangements.

Together with Senator Lynn Ruane, I succeeded in inserting a section into the Data Protection Act to ban the online pro ling and targeting of children for commercial purposes. One year on, the Minister has yet to either amend this provision or bring it into effect.

Internationally I continue to link with other parliamentarians across Europe and the United States around best practice in this area. I was invited to speak at the prestigious Conference of Attorney Generals in the United States, where I met with senior lawmakers interested in European and Irish policy. Data-sharing is also an area that could be deeply affected by Brexit

Urgent Action Needed on Climate Change

Children across Europe have been taking to the streets to call for urgent action on climate change. There is frustration in their protests but also a great love for nature and an understanding of just how precious and fragile it is.

Climate change was already an emergency a decade ago. I campaigned on it at the 2008 UN Climate Conference in Copenhagen, highlighting how the global south has been experiencing its devastating impacts for years. Now the evidence is being seen and felt every day in every part of the world.

Scientists tell us that we have less than 12 years to avoid catastrophic consequences – we cannot a ord to waste even one more year. When the signposts are so clear it is frustrating that Ireland is still talking about future roadmaps. We are likely to meet just 1% of the 20% emission reduction required by 2020, and some have hinted that Brexit might be used as an excuse for further delay.

We need to be clear; the planet won’t listen to excuses. Action is needed now to meet and exceed the Paris targets on emission reductions. It is great to see Dublin City Council show leadership by setting itself a target which is more ambitious than that of the Government.

There is much we can do. The procurement legislation I am proposing would bring environmental considerations into public contracts. At European level, I am pushing for EU investment in infrastructure like public transport, which supports a just transition.

I was happy to support Deputy Thomas Pringle’s recent landmark Fossil Fuel Divestment Bill but disappointed to see it undermined by new licences for o shore oil exploration and the importing of fracked gas.

We can’t afford any more backwards steps, we need to be moving forward and children are leading the way.

Environmental Crisis

“We are facing a twin crisis, climate change and ecological collapse. These problems, and their solutions, are deeply intertwined.”

In 2017, during hours of debate against the Heritage Bill which increased the cutting of hedgerows, I highlighted the importance of birds and bees and their role as pollinators.

Just two years on, many are seeing just how serious this is. We face a potential 40% loss of insect life, which would be catastrophic for ecology, society, agriculture and the whole tapestry of life.

We need to ensure all of our planning, including our climate change planning, considers and supports ecological diversity. Alongside much needed social housing, we also need to create and nurture green spaces, wildlife corridors and pollinator plans within each town and city

Ruff Justice

Senator Lynn Ruane and I won two small but important changes to the Greyhound Racing Bill.

We made sure there will be a vet on the board of the Irish Greyhound Board and that owners will be asked to put in place rehoming plans for dogs after they retire.

Unfortunately we were not able to win our amendments around ethical checks on the export of dogs.

Decent Work 

Over the last six months I have lent my support to the striking nurses and hospitality workers who deserve to keep their tips. I have spoken at a Theatre Forum event on the often insecure working conditions for many of those working in the arts.

As a member of the Joint Committee on Employment A airs and Social Protection, I have also been challenging the Government and employers on the increasing use of forced or “bogus” self-employment which exploits and damages individuals and deprives the public exchequer of PRSI.

We have heard testimony from individuals and academics which makes it clear that not enough action is being taken. Only a handful of cases are prosecuted and even where an individual gets a successful ruling it rarely triggers a wider investigation into that company or sector.

Ireland will need to tackle bad practice and strengthen our protections if we are to meet the standards being set out under the European Union’s proposed new directive on transparent and predictable working condition.

Young Philosopher Awards: Asking a Question is a Powerful Act!

The Irish Young Philosopher Awards encourage primary and secondary school students to explore philosophy through a nationwide award programme and a festival in UCD.

I was delighted to help launch this year’s awards with pupils from Dublin 8’s Canal Way Educate Together School, who were among last year’s winners.

Asking a question can be a creative and powerful act. By encouraging children to develop and share their thoughts on life and how we live together, the Irish Young Philosopher Awards deepen understanding and open up new individual and collective possibilities. I’m excited to see what young people have to say this year.

Get involved! Projects need to be submitted by Friday 8 May. For more information, go to: youngphilosopherawards.ucd.ie

EU Investment and Sustainable Development 

In February, I represented the Oireachtas at EU Parliamentary Week and contributed to lively debates on Europe’s economic policy and future direction. One key topic was EU investment priorities post 2020. I made the case for European investment in public services and social infrastructure at local and national level.

I emphasised climate change and the Sustainable Development Goals as areas where the public sector could lead on research, innovation, scale and transferability. I also highlighted housing and care as crucial areas for public investment and spoke about the need to address any potential chill e ect on that investment from a narrow interpretation of state-aid rules or the threat of corporate courts.

Civil Engagement Group

I am leader of the Civil Engagement Group in the Seanad. As a group we are very proud of our work and the impact we are having in the chamber, committees and the wider community.

Senators Lynn Ruane, Frances Black, John Dolan, Colette Kelleher, Grace O’Sullivan and myself all have independent voices but we work closely together to shape the political agenda, win amendments and bring forward new legislation.

Over the last year the group have progressed a number of ground-breaking bills including:

  • The Family Reuni cation Bill – led by Senator Colette Kelleher

  • The Control of Economic Activity (Occupied Territories) Bill – led by Senator Frances Black

  • The Traveller Culture and History in Education Bill – led by Senator Colette Kelleher
  • The Criminal Justice (Rehabilitative Periods) Bill – led by Senator Lynn Ruane.

Our 2017 Bills on plastic microbeads and vacant sites, while not successful, created pressure on Government to act. In April, Senator Alice Mary Higgins will introduce an important Bill on public procurement.

The group consistently push for joined-up, long-term thinking and in advance of Budget 2019, took a slightly unusual approach by highlighting the cost of NOT investing: in climate action, education, supports for lone parent families, people with disabilities, addiction support services and homecare. You can view our video at alicemaryhiggins.ie/news

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