Winter 2020

Alice-Mary Higgins Newsletter 2020
Alice-Mary Higgins Newsletter 2020

Dear Friends, 

Welcome to my latest newsletter. I was honoured to be re-elected to the Seanad this year and want to express again my deep thanks to all who contacted me, supported my work and entrusted me with their votes.

As a member of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action, I have spent the last two months examining the new proposed Climate Bill and recommending how it should be strengthened. I also established and chaired a cross-party group on the Sustainable Development Goals.

As a member of the new Oireachtas Committee on implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of People with a Disability, I will work closely with civil society to push for a rights-based approach and systemic change.

In the Seanad chamber I have been active on issues ranging from housing and social welfare to financial regulation and environmental protection. I have continued to champion progressive legislation with my colleagues in the Seanad Civil Engagement Group and have increased the pressure for Seanad Reform by co-sponsoring a new Bill.

People in Ireland have shown great solidarity with each other this year, recognising that we are at our strongest when we work together for the common good. I hope that we can bring that same understanding to the challenges of political reform, climate justice and social and economic justice. The pandemic has cast a sharp light on deep inequalities and misplaced priorities. When we come through to the other side of this difficult time, we will need new thinking, greater investment in public services and public spaces, deeper respect for care and creativity, and a more resilient and equal society and economy.

As your Senator, I will work with and for you to help shape a better future. If you would like to learn more about my legislative or campaigning work or get involved, visit my website or contact my office via social media, phone or email. We are always happy to hear from you.

Wishing you a safe and happy New Year,
 
Yours sincerely,

Alice-Mary Higgins,  

Independent Senator (NUI)

COVID-19

In COVID-19, the world has faced a shared crisis. The pandemic has been challenging for all and extraordinarily hard for some, particularly those who have lost loved ones. We have also seen powerful and moving expressions of care, creativity and solidarity across many communities. As your Senator, I have been actively engaged in the national and international response, with a particular focus on public health and the human rights of vulnerable groups. Before Christmas, I advocated for a more cautious approach and highlighted advice from some of the scientists who advocate for a ' zerocovid' strategy. I have consistently called on the Government to prioritise public health over commercial concerns.

I encouraged the scaling up of ventilator production and fought for better access to PPE for those delivering community and voluntary services and homecare, particularly to older people. The importance of public health staff, doctors, nurses, cleaners and other essential workers has never been clearer. We need to recognise that through decent pay and conditions. I have advocated for speedier, secure contracts for health professionals and proper pay for student nurses. 

I supported early action on social welfare supports and the eviction ban but was disappointed to see those measures recently diluted. I have also advocated strongly for statutory entitlement to sick-pay. I campaigned to extend family leave and access to the temporary wage subsidy scheme. I also advocated for reductions in class sizes and greater flexibility on remote learning for children in high-risk families. 

Mike Ryan of the WHO highlighted the links between public health and human rights. Some of the most vulnerable groups in this crisis are those with little control over their environment. We need better regulation of nursing homes and better conditions in homeless hubs and direct provision. In response to my CEG ‘Deportation Moratorium‘ Bill in December, the Minister for Justice agreed to suspend deportations during the Covid crisis.

A common crisis requires a shared response. I have engaged actively with other international parliamentarians on an equitable, ambitious approach to recovery that strengthens climate resilience and public services. As vaccines become available, it is important to not only secure access in Ireland but also ensure vaccination is available worldwide.  

Mother and Baby Homes and the Right to Information

The publishing of the Report of the Mother and Baby Homes Commission has been extremely difficult for many of those directly affected. A number of those I spoke to have been distressed not only by the reminders of the past but also by the language of the report itself, much of which seems to be framed in a way which offers excuses and equivocations around the role of state and church and fails to recognise the direct testimony of women affected as ‘evidence’ when it comes to issues like forced adoption.  

The voices and concerns of survivors, adoptees and their families must be heard and respected and both State and Church must face up to their responsibilities in terms of information, redress and justice. 

Minister O’ Gorman has indicated that a redress scheme will be announced in April and that it will go beyond the very limited categories suggested in the report. It is essential that survivors who receive redress are not required to sign any waivers or confidentiality clauses and that the contribution which churches and religious orders can and must make to reparations does not reduce their liability to other legal action. It is also important that those who were in other similar institutions outside the narrow remit of this report are given recognition and support. 

When legislation came through the Oireachtas last November, It initially sought to split the documents and records, with some going to the Minister and others to TUSLA. I fought hard to successfully persuade the Minister to amend this and make sure he will receive a copy of everything when the Commission ends in February. I am now pressing for assurance that the documents he receives are not inappropriately redacted.   

Making sure the Minister has a copy of all documents is important because, as I highlighted in the Seanad, he will, after he receives them, become a Data Controller, and be required to respond to requests from individuals seeking access to their own personal information under Article 15 of the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).  

The Department initially denied that these files would be subject to these ‘data subject access requests’ by claiming that they were exempt or sealed. However during the Seanad debate, I repeatedly noted there was no actual legal or legislative ‘seal’ on personal information in this or other related Acts and it was actually Government interpretation which created a ‘policy seal’, one with real and distressing impacts for many individuals. I also noted that rights under GDPR could not be removed by national legislation. A similar view was expressed by the Data Protection Commissioner. 

In response to political and public pressure and powerful campaigning from groups like Aitheantas and the Clann Project, the Minister revised his position and has now actively acknowledged that he will, as ‘Data Controller’ be responding to individual requests for information. It is to be hoped that he will approach this in an empowering and positive way.  

For many of those adopted out the mother and baby homes, their birth certificate is a crucial aspect of their personal identity. I will be actively supporting proposals to speedily amend the civil registration act and ensure that adoptees can access their own birth certificate in the same way as any other citizen.  I will also be engaging actively with the Information and Tracing legislation planned for later this year and seeking to ensure it does not repeat the mistakes of previous legislation.  

The report's approach to the issue of 'forced adoption' is extremely unsatisfactory given the strong testimonies of many women on this matter and indeed the exposure of considerable evidence around illegal registration in recent years. Serious further independent investigation is required into both this and the incredibly high infant mortality rate in many institutions. The lack of information around deaths or burial continues to cause huge distress. Any legislation around graves or memorialisation must not exclude the possibility of inquests. Moreover, there must be an immediate block on any sale or development of places like Bessborough, while hundreds of children who died there remain unaccounted for. 

It is time for new approach to Ireland’s terrible history of institutional abuse, one that not only apolises for a culture of secrecy and shame but also challenges the systems built on that culture. As a state, Ireland needs to take responsibility for the past and also take responsibility for the future. Moving towards a proper separation of church and state will require new thinking and strong choices. Major projects such as the National Maternity Hospital must for example, be fully owned by and accountable to the public.  

For those directly affected by the report and related issues, dedicated helplines, counselling and other supports are available at hse.ie

Women’s Health and Gender Equality

Domestic violence has been described by the UN as a ‘shadow pandemic’ and it is not acceptable that Ireland still does not have enough shelter places for the women who seek them. More funding and resources are urgently needed. We made ‘Coercive Control’ an offence in the last Seanad and recently saw the first prosecution. Now we need to act on Image Based Sexual Abuse.

Although use of remote consultations has been positive, Covid-19 has been very difficult for those accessing reproductive healthcare in hospitals. I have strongly advocated for safety measures which would allow women to have partners with them during the sensitive, sometimes tragic, experience of scans and childbirth. I have also supported campaigns for the extension of maternity and parental leave.

I was honoured to be re-elected to the executive committee of the European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual and Reproductive Rights by my fellow parliamentarians from across Europe. I will be working alongside them to promote access to reproductive rights and challenge the recent rollback on women’s equality and LGBT+ recognition, particularly in Hungary and Poland.

Climate Action and Just Transition

Having campaigned for climate justice for over a decade, I was glad to re-join the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action. We are running out of time, both on climate change and biodiversity loss, and the next few years will be crucial.

Our Committee has engaged in intensive pre-legislative scrutiny of the proposed new Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Bill. The Bill as initially drafted was weak in terms of language and accountability, Our Committee has recommended that weak language like “pursue climate neutrality” by 2050 be replaced by stronger commitments to “achieve climate neutrality”. I also believe a focus on 2050 is too far away to drive meaningful action. It is what we do in the next ten years that matters most. That is why I pushed strongly for one of the most important Committee recommendations, inclusion of a legally binding “national minimum interim target for 2030” in the text of the Bill. At my suggestion, the Committee has also separately asked the Minister to support more ambitious targets at EU level.

We have called for the Climate Bill to include a stronger focus on biodiversity and just transition as well as a proper definition of climate justice. I also pressed for the inclusion of the Sustainable Development Goals. On all of these issues, Ireland could learn a lot from Scotland’s excellent ‘second-generation’ climate legislation which passed in 2019.

The Covid-19 crisis is not an excuse for inaction but a reminder of the importance of listening to science and taking urgent collective action. It is important that we approach our recovery following Covid and Brexit in a sustainable way. Just transition and the Green New Deal need to begin right now!

Paws for Thought

In the last Seanad, amendments from myself and Senator Lynn Ruane led to a new rehoming strategy for retired greyhounds and put a vet on the Irish Greyhound Board.

However the breeding and killing of dogs in this industry is still indefensible which is why we opposed the massive €19.2 million public subsidy it received this year.

Future Forests

The Forestry (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act was rushed through the Oireachtas in September. Among other changes to the Forestry Appeals Commission (FAC), this legislation introduced new fees and tight timeframes which make it harder for concerned citizens to challenge bad forestry decisions.

This is despite the fact that, in 2019, almost half of such appeals were found to be valid. When, in July 2020, the Minister for Agriculture admitted in the Dáil that the European Court of Justice had criticised Ireland’s failure to meet EU standards in its environmental decision-making, appeals naturally increased. The Government should respond by fixing the process and make proper use of tools such as Environmental Impact Assessment rather than blaming those who identify problems.

These problems include an overreliance on monocultural Sitka spruce plantations and the ‘clear-felling’ forests rather than thinning them to protect biodiversity. The urgent need to change these policies was further highlighted by a recent Department of Agriculture report submitted to the European Commission, which found that much of Ireland’s monocultural forestry has actually emitted more carbon then it absorbs.

The Forestry Bill also required the Minister to prioritise ‘yield of forest goods and services’ when issuing a policy directive to the FAC. I won an amendment to change that focus from ‘yield’ to ‘support’. We should support and grow forests and woodlands in Ireland, but rather than treat them as just a crop, we need to recognise them as complex and important ecosystems.

Ireland’s current National Forestry Programme expires at the end of 2020 and I will be pushing for a much stronger emphasis on biodiversity and environmental sustainability in any new strategy, including an empowering approach to public participation.

Homes and Housing 

The Covid-19 crisis made us all more aware of the importance of home. In the early months of the pandemic, I advocated for shelter and safety for those who were homeless and I welcomed the decision to ban evictions at that time. It was disappointing to see that protection watered down in July and limited to those on specific payments. While a temporary eviction ban was brought in again during the 5km restrictions, the Government did not accept my amendment to extend that. I did however get the Minister to commit to a public awareness campaign. If anyone you know might be at risk of eviction, they can contact the Residential Tenancies Board, www.rtb.ie, for information.

I also opposed other aspects of the Residential Tenancies legislation which dilute tenants’ rights. These include new powers to evict even long-term tenants if they are just 28 days in rent arrears and cannot pay within 28 days. 28 days is too short - less than the time between paychecks, however my attempts to amend this to 60 days were rejected. 

I have also consistently pressed for public investment in social housing, so that less people are dependent on the private rental market. The Government should scale up action on housing now while the state has access to 0% interest loans.

Solidarity - The Young Philosophers 2021

I was delighted to launch the UCD Young Philosopher Awards for 2021, which will have a new international award on the theme of Solidarity. Congratulations to all who entered the 2020 awards on the theme of ‘Covid-19 Ethics’ particularly Lily McCann who won the overall prize on the important question “What do we owe each other?”.

The Young Philosopher awards, sponsored by the UCD Centre for Ethics in Public Life, are an opportunity for philosophers, including primary or secondary school students, teachers and academics, to discuss and engage with the big questions of what it means to live together and to live well in this world at this time. For details on how to enter visit youngphilosopherawards.ucd.ie

Seanad Reform and Political Scrutiny

I have been fighting for Seanad Reform since 2013. In the last Oireachtas, I was part of the official cross-party group that developed a Bill to implement the ‘Manning’ recommendations - including a vote for all citizens in Ireland over the age of 18 and extension of the university franchise as promised since 1979. Unfortunately, the Government chose to disregard it. Reform must not be left on the shelf. That is why in November, myself, Michael McDowell, and other Senators introduced the cross-party Bill ourselves. We will continue to press for progress and will be making sure that Seanad reform is central to the debate on a long overdue Electoral Commission.

How the Seanad is elected matters, and so does the work we do. I have, over the last six months, been one of the strongest champions of parliamentary process, consistently speaking out against the cutting of corners and the rushing through of bills in a way that does not allow proper legislative scrutiny. Thoughtful decision making and political accountability are more important than ever at a time of crisis.

Oireachtas Committee on Disability Matters

In 2018 Ireland ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and it will soon make its first official report to the UN. The Government still needs to ratify the Optional Protocol which allows individuals to take legal action on their rights. That protocol is just one part of the sustained legal, political and public pressure needed to ensure that commitments on equality translate into real systemic change.

I am a member of the new Joint Oireachtas Committee on Disability Matters which will examine the legal and practical steps needed to ensure effective implementation of the UNCPRD. When preparing our Terms of Reference we invited public submissions and 187 disabled persons organisations, representative groups, service providers, carers, families and individuals with a disability contributed. Alongside my work on the Committee, I also hope to progress the Community Participation (Disability) Bill 2019 which I co-sponsored with former Senator John Dolan.

Better Economics

As a long-time advocate for new economic thinking, I am delighted to join the Oireachtas Committee for Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform and Taoiseach, where I look forward to championing issues like equality budgeting, fiscal reform, investment in public services, progressive tax policies and financial regulation. In the Seanad, I have also proposed amendments that would require banks to pay tax on profits and hold speculative investors accountable for their decisions. In the spring I look forward to progressing my legislation on Quality Public Procurement to ensure that our public money is spent thoughtfully and effectively.

The Seanad Civil Engagement Group 

I am proud to lead the ‘Civil Engagement Group’, a group of like-minded progressive Senators who had a major impact in the last Oireachtas. We will be continuing our work together in this Seanad and I am delighted to inform you that myself, Lynn Ruane and Frances Black will be joined by a new member, Senator Eileen Flynn. Having worked with Eileen through many campaigns over the years, I know her commitment to a more equal Ireland and look forward to working with her inside and outside the Seanad to make a difference.

The Seanad CEG will continue to drive change and champion inclusive and innovative thinking. We will be introducing important new legislation in this term while also restoring and following through on our previous bills on topics including the Occupied Territories, spent convictions, adult safeguarding, public procurement and Traveller history in education. In October we brought forward a Bill to strengthen the advocacy rights of civil society organisations, while in December we introduced a Bill to prohibit deportations during the Covid 19 pandemic.

Senator of the Year

I was honoured and delighted to be chosen as 'Senator of the Year' by Miriam Lord in her Irish Times end of year review. I will continue to work hard in the challenging year ahead.

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