Catherine Day: Importance of care key Citizens’ Assembly theme
Assembly was concerned about carers’ low remuneration, lack of sick pay and pensions
The Citizens’ Assembly looked closely at the social value of care, the need to support carers and to give more choice to those receiving care.
Ireland is seen as a leader in involving citizens in shaping future policy through deliberative democracy. Citizens’ Assembly models are increasingly being seen internationally as a way of tackling challenging or divisive policy problems. They are also a way of connecting the citizenry with political decision-making at a time when there is a perceived decline of trust in democracy and politics.
In recent years, Ireland’s Citizens’ Assembly, and the preceding Convention on the Constitution, helped bring about successful referendums on marriage equality and the introduction of abortion. Last Saturday, the latest assembly concluded with a set of strong recommendations on advancing gender equality.
The assembly involves 99 citizens randomly chosen to be broadly representative of all citizens. They meet to reflect and debate topics agreed by the Oireachtas, informed by expert presentations, evidence and different perspectives. The process means that citizens are well-informed and confront different views before deciding what they want to recommend to the Dáil and Seanad. The record of previous assemblies indicates that the process delivers an accurate and sometimes surprising picture of the views of the broader population.
Covid-19 threw a sharp spotlight on gender inequalities and in some cases exacerbated them
The outbreak of Covid-19 had a major impact on the work of the assembly on gender equality. Citizens’ assemblies typically meet face-to-face but public health measures removed that possibility so, with the agreement of its members, the assembly moved online. From a starting point of over 500 recommendations generated by members, the assembly gradually concentrated its focus on a final set of 45 priority recommendations.
As well as moving us online, Covid-19 threw a sharp spotlight on gender inequalities and in some cases exacerbated them. It highlighted the need and desire for change in many aspects of Irish life which have a gendered impact. The importance and value of care, the need to support carers and to give more choice to those receiving care were key themes of the assembly.
In the course of their work, members were sometimes surprised to learn where Ireland stands in comparison to other countries – for example, Ireland’s ranking for parliamentary representation worsened over the lifetime of the assembly to 100th out of 187 countries. Many of our members were also unaware that publicly elected representatives do not have the right to maternity leave.
The recommendations adopted by the citizens will require constitutional and legislative change in important areas if adopted. For example, the assembly voted by 80 per cent to replace the infamous “woman in the home clause” which dates back to 1937. They voted to replace it with language that is not gender-specific and would oblige the State to take reasonable measures to support care within the home and wider community. They also recommend extending the current constitutional protection of the married family to include all kinds of families and to include an explicit reference to gender equality and non-discrimination in the Constitution (as over 80 of the world’s constitutions already do). These changes would require a referendum to change the Constitution.
Other recommendations call for the introduction of a publicly funded, accessible and regulated model of quality of childcare together with an increase in State spending on childcare from its current level of 0.37 per cent of gross domestic product to at least 1 per cent by no later than 2030.
The assembly was concerned about the low levels of pay, lack of sick pay and pensions for carers and made recommendations to provide them with a pay, benefits and career structure that would reward their skills and the valuable work that they do.
The assembly also debated the thorny and often divisive issue of gender quotas. And some may be surprised that members voted convincingly (by 88 per cent) to extend the gender quota for party candidates at general elections to local, Seanad and European elections by the end of 2022 and to increase the current 30 per cent threshold to 40 per cent.
The assembly is calling for funding of public bodies to be contingent on reaching a 40 per cent gender balance by 2025 and legally requiring private companies over a certain size to have at least 40 per cent gender balance on their boards. Members also agreed by a large majority that publicly funded sports, cultural, arts and media organisations should be required to have a 30 per cent representation of women, or men, on their governing bodies by 2025, rising to 40 per cent by 2030.
The hard work of the members and their determination to express their views in clear language was most impressive
Indications are that domestic sexual and gender-based violence has worsened during the Covid-19 pandemic. The assembly is recommending that a Cabinet Minister be responsible for co-ordinating implementation of a national strategy. Further recommendations include holding technology and media companies to account for immediately removing online content that constitutes sexual harassment, bullying, stalking, and sexually violent or abusive content, with regular reviews to ensure legislation keeps pace with technological advances.
The full set of recommendations is available on citizensassembly.ie/en/. They will be laid before the Oireachtas together with a report on the work of the assembly by June. Members have also written an open letter to the Oireachtas calling for acceptance of the assembly’s recommendations and their implementation without delay to deliver gender equality for Ireland and tackle the many inequalities exposed by Covid-19.
Chairing the assembly was a very positive experience for me. The hard work of the members and their determination to express their views in clear language was most impressive. And members also voted by 96 per cent to declare their willingness, if necessary, to support and pay higher taxes to make a reality of their recommendations – a clear statement of willingness to pay for better public services and improved social protection to achieve a more gender-equal Ireland.