Summer Newsletter 2017

Senator Alice-Mary Higgins
Senator Alice-Mary Higgins

Dear Friends,

It is one year since I had the honour of becoming a member of Seanad Éireann, the first woman elected to the NUI panel in 35 years. I want to offer again my sincere and heartfelt thanks to all those who entrusted me with their vote and who have supported me in different ways.

Over this exciting and busy year, I have endeavoured to make a meaningful contribution to legislation and debate. At the outset, I brought together a number of Senators with backgrounds in civil society and advocacy to form the Civil Engagement Group; a technical group which allows us each to remain independent while giving us greater speaking rights and more opportunities to propose legislation. Our group has also been able to reach out and generate cross-party cooperation on important issues such as disability rights, housing inequality, social care, education and environment.

This newsletter shares some highlights from my first year in office and some of the challenges and opportunities ahead. You can read about the launch of the Seanad Reform Bill, my successful motion against the unfair trade agreement CETA, the important amendments won on rental protection and planning, my work to place equality at the heart of policy, and the ongoing battle to protect Irish wildlife and heritage. You can also learn about my role on the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Social Protection and in particular, my demands for pension equality and better recognition of care. In the Seanad and internationally, as an Irish representative on the Council of Europe, I will continue to push for principles of equality, political participation, economic and environmental sustainability, human rights and international responsibility.

I am committed to working effectively and creatively with civil society and colleagues from across the political spectrum to deliver change. Please do feel free to contact me about issues that are of concern and interest to you and do please get involved in some of the campaigns which help shape our legislative work.

Yours sincerely,
Senator Alice-Mary Higgins

Seanad Reform

I was very proud to introduce the Seanad Reform Bill along with colleagues from across the political spectrum on the first sitting day of the Seanad. By introducing the bill at this early point, we reflected our own commitment to reform and the strong message sent by the public during the 2013 referendum on the abolition of the Seanad. I am deeply committed to a more transparent, accountable and participative national house and I believe that this bill will go a long way to ensuring that that happens. The Bill would, without requiring a referendum, enact common-sense reforms put forth in the Manning Report of 2015 to extend universal suffrage while protecting the thematic focus of the Seanad and ensuring it plays a distinct function to the Dáil. Last autumn, the Bill passed second stage in the Seanad and should enter committee stage later in 2017.

Recognising and Valuing Care

Since my election, I have consistently pressed for greater recognition of the cost and contribution of care, the lifeblood of society on which we all rely. During National Carers Week 2016, I attended a conference organised by Family Carers Cork and University College Cork where I spoke about ways to deliver greater support to carers across Ireland. Last autumn, I was delighted to welcome the introduction of paternity leave, something I had campaigned for in my previous role with the National Women’s Council of Ireland. As a long-time champion of investment in childcare and early years, I have also emphasised that decent terms and conditions for those who work in this area must be part of the quality childcare agenda.

It is, however, as a member of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Social Protection that I have had the opportunity to really place care on the agenda. As a committee we have looked at the particular challenges faced by lone parents in this regard. I have also fought for proper recognition of care within our contributory system and for concrete measures to reduce Ireland’s Gender Pension Gap of 37% and address the deeply unfair averaging system which penalises those who have spent a period of time delivering care. This systemic inequality was compounded by 2012 cuts to those, mainly women, on the very lowest pensions. In January 2017, I won an important change to the rules which made it easier for individuals to make voluntary contributions and improve their contributory record, however far deeper reform is needed. Alongside groups such as Age Action and the National Women’s Council I will be campaigning strongly on this issue over the coming months.

Housing

The Civil Engagement Group used our very first Private Member’s time in the Seanad to highlight the housing needs of people living with a disability and we have also focused on homelessness, Traveller accommodation and property speculation. I have met with the Simon Community, Threshold and Cope Galway to support their demands for greater investment in social housing and better rental protection.

In the Seanad, we won a number of significant amendments to the Planning and Tenancies Bill, including greater protection for tenants whose rental properties are being sold by their landlords and a ‘use it or lose it’ clause which means that any developers who get fast-track planning permission will be forced to actually build rather than hoard. Our group also co- sponsored legislation to tackle derelict and vacant sites in towns and cities. Although we were disappointed to see it blocked, we will continue to press for action in this area.

Trade Must Benefit Citizens, Not Just Corporations

Trade can be good but it must work for citizens as well as corporations. Last October, my motion against the provisional application of the Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement (CETA) between Europe and Canada was passed by the Seanad. A significant defeat for the Government, this was one of the first expressions of parliamentary resistance to the unusual and damaging terms of this deal. Despite this motion, the Government still went ahead and signed up to provisional application. Crucially however, one of the most controversial aspects, the new Investor Court System (ICS) cannot be introduced before the deal is fully ratified by the Dáil.

These special courts allow corporations to sue states for massive compensation if they feel their profits are unfairly impacted by public regulations. Such lawsuits have had a serious impact in other countries, undermining good public policy in areas like workers’ rights, health, environment and equality. I have been calling on the Government and the European Commission to listen to concerns of environmentalists, trade unions, food producers, farmers and citizens and urgently remove ICS from this and all future trade deals. Indeed, removing these controversial courts could be crucial to the achievement of a successful post-Brexit trade deal.

Protecting the Environment

We live on a shared island on a shared planet and protection of the environment is something we need to tackle from a macro to a micro level. I was proud to help lead the opposition to the Heritage Bill 2016, which threatens to undermine our natural heritage by extending the current six month period for burning uplands and cutting hedgerows into March and August. This would bring cutting and burning into nesting and pollination season and severely endanger the birds, bees and wildlife that rely on these invaluable ecosystems.

I worked closely with other Senators and civil society to raise these concerns and highlight the alarming lack of evidence behind the proposals. After 36 hours of debate in the Seanad we did win some improvements. However the Bill as it enters the Dáil remains deeply flawed and should be strongly opposed.

On a wider level, I have also played an active role in supporting Fossil Fuel Divestment and demanding stronger action on climate change. I have specifically highlighted the need for sustainable transport and put pressure on the Minister for Transport to increase investment in cycling and cycling infrastructure right across the country.

Equality and Gender Budgeting

In May 2016, I travelled to Scotland to meet with parliamentarians and to further examine their model of equality budgeting. I believe that this is a standard which we should aspire to implement in Ireland. Austerity measures since 2008 have increased economic inequality and torn at the social fabric of Ireland. By ensuring that all legislation is equality proofed, in particular the annual budget, we can ensure that this divide is tackled rather than becoming further entrenched. While there is a commitment to equality and gender- proofing in the Programme for Government, it was not implemented as part of Budget 2017. I will be strongly pressing the Government to make it part of Budget 2018.

Supporting the Arts

As a proud supporter of the arts, and having grown up in Galway, I was delighted to see Galway being chosen as a European Capital of Culture for 2020. It is important that creative and cultural opportunities are available in every town and village across Ireland. Within the Seanad chamber, I have highlighted the right to cultural participation and the need to increase arts and heritage spending to reach the EU average of 0.6% GDP. I was also very happy to speak in support of the Competition (Amendment) Bill which delivers collective bargaining and better labour conditions for freelance workers, with significant impacts for those in the arts sector. The Bill was tabled by Senator Ivana Bacik, and widely championed by many of the unions including SIPTU, Irish Equity, the Musicians’ Union of Ireland and the National Union of Journalists (NUJ).

Excellence and Equality in Higher Education

I have consistently advocated on the importance of greater public investment in education and over the last year I have, in particular, emphasised the importance of targeted increases in funding for our third level institutions to make sure they can respond appropriately to both the challenges and opportunities presented by Brexit. Equality is also an important aspect of excellence and I welcomed the release of the HEA report on achieving gender equality at third level. The report signals a willingness to proactively tackle gender bias throughout our universities and colleges.

At the GENOVATE conference in UCC in December I saw the creative approaches being developed by many within third level and research institutions to deliver the necessary changes. At the UCD Alumni festival I was honoured to be part of a panel on Women in Leadership which looked at the wider under-representation of women across many areas of public life. Through my work in the Seanad, I will continue to highlight the value and importance of equality and participation, both in education and elsewhere.

International Responsibility and Human Rights

In the past twelve months we have seen many events globally that have brought home the damage done by those who wish to capitalise on insecurity or create divisions. In a changing and challenging social and political landscape, I strongly believe that it is more important than ever to forefront rights and equality in the work that we do as parliamentarians. Wherever we dilute these principles we run a risk of damaging social cohesion and the very integrity of our European and global communities. I have sought to actively and constructively engage in international debates on economic and environmental sustainability, political participation and human rights and to champion important commitments such as the Paris Climate Change Agreement and the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Another part of our shared international responsibility is supporting fellow human beings who seek refuge from war, drought and injustice. The Government has so far taken in only a fraction of the refugees it previously pledged to accommodate. In the meantime the European Union has been signing a number of worrying immigration control deals with regimes in Turkey, Libya and Sudan – raising serious concerns in relation to human rights. Moreover, as I have highlighted in the Seanad, Ireland’s direct provision system is deeply flawed and the new International Protection Order with its daunting paperwork and very limited family reconciliation has further added to the distress of many asylum seekers. A more humane system must be introduced.

Ireland also needs to face up to its responsibility on reproductive rights. As well as campaigning for a referendum on the Eighth Amendment, I have spoken on this issue at UN level and was honoured to be recently elected to the executive of the European Parliamentary Forum on Population and Development.

From the Seanad Chamber

“...one crucial pillar of the Good Friday agreement was the co-guaranteeing of human rights...will you, Mr Barnier, in your negotiations, seek to protect the Human Rights Act...it is also vital that established principles and policies in areas such as employment, equality and environment do not face a rollback in this process. We all know that a race to the bottom is one that nobody wins”

- Addressing the EU’s Chief Negotiator on Brexit, Mr Michel Barnier, in a joint sitting of the Seanad and Dáil, 11/05/2017 

“I would like the Taoiseach to outline how he sees the equality and gender-proofing aspects of the budget being delivered, both in budget 2017 and in the future...The fact is that the median earning income in Ireland is €28,500. Half of all workers in Ireland are earning that amount or less. They cannot be invisible... What they need is real investment in wages that are quality wages, work that is quality work, real increases in pay and public services.”
- Addressing an Taoiseach, Enda Kenny 29/09/2016

“Care should be a quality area of employment. It is potentially one of the largest and highest density employment areas with a high ratio of staff. The sector needs to be developed and deepened.”
- Addressing the Minister Pat Breen 30/06/2016

“We must make not only our concerns but our ideas heard on the importance of a social Europe grounded in peace, participation and inclusion.”
- Addressing Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon 29/11/2017

Senator Higgins has made over 100 contributions to Seanad and committee debate. To search debates by topic or date go to oireachtasdebates.oireachtas.ie

Download Summer Newsletter 2017 (pdf)

More Stories