THE referendum on the rights of children expected next year may not be necessary, the Minister for Children said.
Minister Barry Andrews said many of the issues thrown up by those seeking a referendum could be addressed by changing the law rather than the Constitution.
He also admitted he had concerns that a referendum would become embroiled in debates not directly related to children’s rights, as the vote on the Lisbon treaty had shown.
“The issue of a children’s referendum would be complex,” he said. “It’s never going to be simple or straightforward. The Lisbon treaty highlighted some of the dangers of extraneous issues coming into a campaign. For certain individuals, it would be their first instinct to try and confuse the issue and bring in red herrings and distract from the merits of the proposal.”
He stressed such concerns would not be sufficient reason alone to avoid a referendum, saying: “You can never use that as an excuse never to amend the Constitution.” But he added the all-party committee examining the issues and wording that could be included in a referendum were also discussing legislative alternatives.
“Whether a constitutional referendum would be required is part of that debate,” he said. “We are trying to assist the committee to look at the issues that have constitutional implications and a lot of them do not. A lot can be dealt with legislatively.”
Issues he suggested could be addressed through changes in the law include the courts’ handling of child victims, revisions to the sex offenders register and the extension of garda vetting of childcare workers to include “soft information” — where unproven allegations of child abuse have been made against an individual as opposed to convictions.
It is not clear, however, how legislation would resolve the core issue that gave rise to the referendum proposal — the dispute over the defence of “honest mistake” which allows an adult accused of having sex with a minor to claim they thought the minor was of legal age.
Labour is working on draft legislation it believes could dispense with the need for a referendum and the minister commended the party’s “pro-active” approach. He said however the all-party committee, which is due to report to Government in November, was working to get agreement among all members — including pro-referendum Fine Gael — before making its recommendations. “If you politicise this, we are in big trouble. You lose sight of the central issue which is to improve the legislative framework for protecting children.”
The minister made his comments at the publication by children’s organisation, Barnardos, of guidelines for people running creches, playschools and other pre-school childcare services.
Barnardos chief executive, Fergus Finlay, said the book — a guide to the law and best practice for child protection — aimed to improve the standard of facilities and personnel in the sector.
“The word that tends not to be used in the debate about childcare is quality. You get debate about the lifestyles of working parents, the cost of childcare, the availability of childcare, commuting and all that kind of stuff but never enough about quality.”
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