On Wednesday, 19 September 2018, the Independent TD for Donegal Thomas Pringle introduced again a private bill to protect Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in the Constitution.

After his successful Fossil Fuel Divestment Bill was passed by the Dáil in July, Thomas Pringle has this week introduced his piece of legislation which would make housing, health, education (among others) fundamental human rights with full protection under the Irish Constitution.

Here is a transcript from the Dáil Éireann debate (copied from www.oireachtas.ie/en/debates/debate/dail/2018-09-19/18/)

Deputy Thomas Pringle: “This is my third time introducing an economic, social and cultural rights Bill. It was been voted down twice by Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, yet three times I have remained hopeful that they would reach some sort of epiphany and realise the need to incorporate these rights into our Constitution. We stand today amid a devastating housing and homelessness crisis, a crippling two-tier health system and an escalating trolley crisis with the education system not far behind in these gloomy times. These three vital components in our society are under siege by Fine Gael’s privatisation agenda and the continuation of Fianna Fail’s privatisation of our vital public services. Housing, health and education and workers’ rights, among many others, should be viewed as fundamental human rights, but to Fine Gael they are products that people can access based on their ability to pay.

When I first introduced this Bill in 2014, we were astonished at the emerging crisis, particularly in housing and health. In 2014, according to Focus Ireland, there were 2,580 people in homelessness, 20 of whom were in my own constituency of Donegal. Today, there are nearly 10,000 people in homelessness, not taking into account the changes in the way the Government collects statistics, which has reduced the numbers to its own benefit. The number is in fact far higher than that. According to the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation’s Trolley and Ward Watch, 7,942 people were on trolleys and waiting in wards. Today, that figure has increased by 22% compared with the 2014 average.

It is clear that Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, the establishment parties, have paved the way for greater outsourcing and privatisation of State services, inevitably curbing the rights of individuals and targeting the most vulnerable people in society. My Bill seeks to reverse this ideology by preserving the defendable rights of individuals. These include housing, including prioritising social housing to address the current housing crisis; a universal right to healthcare based on need and not ability to pay; greater protection of workers’ rights to correct the imbalance of power in favour of employees and unions; equal access to education reflecting diversity in our society; a right to social protection in line with cost of living; and incorporation of the living wage, among many others, which time and time again, the people have called for.

The protection of economic, social and cultural rights continues to grow around the world. For example, the right to healthcare is included in 133 constitutions, while the right to join a trade union is included in 152. A total of 136 recognise the right to work and/or the state’s duty to provide work. Furthermore, the right to housing is included in 81 constitutions, while the right to culture is incorporated in 141.

Economic, social and cultural rights present a framework to undermine existing systems of injustice and inequality which are pervasive in today’s society as basic human rights are eroded consistently by private sector interests which, unfortunately, the Government promotes. Furthermore, economic, social and cultural rights can provide a legitimate framework for addressing climate change and ensuring the Government will facilitate a fair and just transition to a low carbon economy. Climate change is a huge impediment to the realisation of economic, social and cultural rights. Therefore, they are interlinked.

I also feel the need to engage in a bit of myth busting. A key tenet in the protection of economic, social and cultural rights is the notion of “progressive realisation” as defined in Article 2(1) and reflects the fact that it may not be possible to achieve full enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights within a short period, particularly when resources are limited. Progressive realisation is seen as a necessary flexible device, reflecting the realities of the real world and the difficulties involved for any country in ensuring full realisation of economic, social and cultural rights. Most importantly, it establishes obligations on states parties to achieve full realisation of the rights as contained in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and that a state can only readjust them in reaction to an economic crisis if the necessary protections required for vulnerable and disadvantaged populations, in particular, are taken into account and where it is justified.

Economic, social and cultural rights are becoming increasingly necessary in the Irish context, particularly after a decade long recession from which a housing crisis has emerged. As Ireland experiences unprecedented numbers of families living in emergency accommodation, questions are being raised about how the provision of housing can be adequately and consistently provided for in an economy with frequent cycles of boom and bust, while not remaining at the mercy of ideological preferences as determined by the Government of the day. Greater protection of economic, social and cultural rights in the Constitution would provide the necessary anchor for rights such as those to housing, health and education to be provided for on the basis of need at all times, even amid times of economic or political turbulence. When it comes to budgetary measures, the Government would have to justify reasons for the allocation of resources not intended for the administration of economic, social and cultural rights. If a justification was not favourable, an individual could defend his or her rights in the courts and thereby hold the Government to account for its decision-making.

Together with the progressive realisation tenet, the referendum Bill would ensure the economic, social and cultural rights of individuals were balanced against the available resources of the State, regardless of ideological persuasion or the state of the economy at the time.”

An Ceann Comhairle: “Is the Bill opposed?”

Deputy Tony McLoughlin: “No.”
An Ceann Comhairle: “Since this is a Private Members’ Bill, Second Stage must, under Standing Orders, be taken in Private Members’ time.”
Deputy Thomas Pringle: “That the Bill be taken in Private Members’ time.”