I am not interested in either maximum fines or minimum fines in connection with this question. What I am interested in is that we should show the minimum amount of commonsense, and there is certainly no commonsense displayed by the Parliament of this country in spending time wrangling as to what penalties we will impose upon parents if they do not utilise free medical services freely given. If we have reached that point in the history of this country, then the sooner we turn the key in the door and the whole lot of us go home the better.
I am happy to say that this particular issue is absolutely unnecessary, that there is no evidence whatsoever on the all-over scale that school medical inspection is not going along progressively successfully and, in the main, harmoniously. The Minister is familiar with the old saying that one swallow does not make a summer. At a full meeting of county medical officers of health I made inquiries and there were only two out of the whole lot who would like to have the powers that are contained here. When they went more closely into it, they were satisfied that it was not the way to deal with it. I do not know how many Deputies or advisers of the Minister have experience of the subject we are discussing; but I can tell the Minister and Deputies that one difficult, nervous or frightened child can hold up the whole work of medical inspection of a school for the best part of a couple of hours. You can bring a child forcibly to the school, but you cannot examine a child forcibly with results. If one child starts to bellow and to get cantankerous and frightened, that kind of thing is infectious when dealing with young children. One child brought to a school by a reluctant parent who is in a bad humour because she is under threat of legal proceedings, the mother and the child arriving in a bad temper, will turn the school into bedlam.
I listened to the Minister's case in introducing the Second Reading of this Bill and to the Minister's case in concluding the debate. I invited him to get all the ammunition he could to justify this particular set of proposals. I am satisfied that he has not come here to-day with an empty gun, but I will guarantee that, when he attempts to fire off his gun, he will find that he has a blank cartridge; that there is no genuine case to be made for bringing the law into the work of school medical inspection.
This Bill has a desirable aim and legitimate objectives; but, on the face of it, it has every evidence of hysteria, of jumping off in one direction in one section and another direction in another section. We are discussing what penalties the courts will impose on parents whose children happen to be absent. When we come to Section 43 we will find that there is another provision prohibiting parents from sending a child to school if they have any reason to believe that the child is infested with lice. What will be the obvious defence when you mobilise all your absentees and bring them to court? What will be the defence of every parent? "Little Mickey was scratching and I had reason to believe he was infested." There is the answer in Section 43. Are we either lunatics or commonsense people when we argue about the height of the penalties to be imposed and provide later on in the Bill a perfect escape, so that it will not be possible to impose a penalty on any single parent for a child being absent?
Some of us have to think of the human machinery that is to be charged with the responsibility of carrying out the really futile and absolutely unnecessary proposals in this Bill. In the first place, you cannot prosecute any parent except the parent has got due notice of the time and place of school medical inspection. In a court of law it is not just as simple as arguing across a desk in the Custom House. In a court of law due notice will be a personal call, with personal notice or a registered letter.
The work of school medical inspection is difficult and slow enough as it is, and one of the reasons for extending the machinery in this Bill is because it is so terribly slow. But, as it is, all we have to do is to notify the school manager or the principal of the school of the date of the school medical inspection. If you mean anything by all your legal threats here, you will have to send a registered letter to the parents of every child in the school. There is no other legal evidence of due notice being given to the parents. You would need an office staff if you are dealing with any kind of big school. The preliminary work that has to be done, if these proposals are not to be absolutely meaningless, will be considerable. There would be a couple of weeks' preliminary work in every big school. You must remember that in the country there are a great number of names and a great number of families and there are many families of the same name in the same townland and there will be any amount of mistakes made in the notifications or in the subsequent prosecution—which, I hope, I will never see. Even the teachers make mistakes arising out of the multiplicity of Byrnes and so on. They make mistakes over the correct name of the parent of this or that little girl. Time and again that has happened.
We will prosecute and interfere and tinker with a machine that is working quite satisfactorily. What will be the result? We will be replacing harmony and confidence with distrust and the virus of coercion and compulsion. Do you think you will popularise your new health schemes in any district in Ireland by parading unfortunate mothers before the district justices, who will impose, according to Deputy de Valera, maximum fines according to the people's capacity to pay? I do not care whether it is a maximum or a minimum fine. Do you think that is the way to inspire confidence in the health machinery of this country, or that that is the way to create harmony?
All this idea of public health service, of school medical service and child welfare schemes came from the United States of America. Read any of their literature on the question and what is blazoned across every piece of literature? That if there is not harmony and co-operation, if the people do not cry out for the scheme, then the whole thing is worthless. How was it started in America? It started in one State and a lot of publicity and propaganda followed until the next State started shouting for the scheme. That State was left until the shout became a roar and then they got the scheme as a concession. There was publicity there again and a third State shouted for it. They gave the people the service that the people wanted and appreciated. If they had begun by saying: "This is the law, you will have your children medically examined or you will pay a fine; you will have this, that and the other done or you will pay a fine," the thing would have been a failure from the very beginning.
One of the very things we are warned against, and one of the things that anybody with any knowledge or experience knows should be avoided in connection with health services, is what we are inviting in this Bill—that the people are to be compelled to accept it. The Minister has grown up in a county that was the first in Ireland that showed its violent reaction against health measures, which the Minister must admit are beneficial, and the only justification he advanced last night for that reaction was that the whole scheme was compulsory. In other words, it was a natural reaction last night because there was compulsion behind a particular health service. Now we are going to apply it to the schools and, as Deputy de Valera said, it is unjust to penalise or coerce people merely because they are poor.
I accept that. Are not the rich given a perfect let-out in this Bill? They have only to send a certificate saying that their own private practitioner has examined the child and there is the let-out. The wealthy can escape. It does not matter how sky-high you make your penalties, there is a perfect escape for the wealthy. There is also an escape for anybody who adopts the obvious defence by saying that he had reason to believe his child was infested.
I should like the Minister to give his views on the operative side of this question. I referred to it on the Second Reading. How will it be implemented? You cannot, in justice, take these particular powers and be selective in their application. No official, no officer working honestly under any Act of Oireachtas Eireann can say: "I will prosecute Tom Brown because his children were absent, but I will not prosecute John White." If there are to be penalties for children being absent, then there can be no selectivity; they will all have to pay a penalty for the offence.
I want to get down to the human machinery for carrying out all these prosecutions for manufactured illegalities. Goodness knows we have enough breaches of the ordinary law without manufacturing new crimes or new offences. Let Dr. Brennan go in. He is a busy man and let us say he inspects a large school with a couple of hundred pupils. There would be a good attendance. The average attendance out of the 200 pupils on the rolls any day would be, we shall say, 170. You have an attendance on the day of the school medical inspection up to the average. You have 170 present and 30 absent and in none of the 30 cases is there a certificate. Neither Dr. Brennan nor myself has the right to discriminate, if this is the law, as to who will be prosecuted and who will not. We shall either proceed against all or none.
Say that we prosecute the parents of the 30 children and the court is fixed for 11 o'clock in some place. It may be the doctor's dispensary day but some other arrangement will have to be made to get the dispensary done. Or the doctor may be away on a maternity case. If so, the case in the court collapses for want of evidence. Let us take it that he is available and that he gets to the court with these 30 prosecutions. There will be a solicitor appearing for four, five, nine or ten of the parents—perhaps different solicitors. They are going to do their job and earn their fees. They are going to defend their clients to the last ditch. The district justice has also to deal with all the other offences listed—prosecutions under emergency regulations and everything else. Charges against people who are in custody, we will say, come first. The doctor sits at the back of the court and it comes near to the adjournment hour. Perhaps one or two of his cases are taken and finished but, by the time the doctor is out of the box, he will have a lot more experience of the foolishness of this kind of legislation than before he went in. He will be amazed at the things he will be called on to prove, things that as between ourselves, we would accept. "Who took that record of attendance —did you?""No". "Very well; who did?""My nurse". "Is she here?""No". "Oh, dismiss". The court is not just the kind of simple affair that some people think. However, one or two cases are taken that day and the other 28 are postponed, say, to the following Wednesday at another venue. The doctor gets a few more through there—perhaps more if there are no solicitors.
Who is going to do all that? Who are the witnesses going to be? How are they going to prove their cases? What is the human machinery? What regard are you going to have for the law of evidence? How are you going to prove your case and is there any use going to court if all your cases are going to be "turfed" one after another? Even if you succeed, after a good many days in court, with regard to that one school, look at all the time that is lost. Look at the school children who could have been inspected while your staff was sitting down in court.
Frankly I regard the proposals contained here as nonsense. They are not required and there is not, I think, one of the officers dealing with this particular question, that welcomes or even will accept the responsibilities put on them here. I know that in cities and in the very dense areas there is a high percentage, higher than anywhere else, of absentees from school inspection. You have a choice of two roads to go— either by attraction to get them there or by compulsion to try to drive them there. Do you think that fines on 20 or 30 parents who are brought into that court are going to work miracles? You will blister those parents all right, but do you think it is going to have the effect you want? The school medical inspection scheme is going to be cursed by every one of those parents. Now the whole scheme of school medical inspection has not yet come of age. It is only in the phase of youth. It is still growing, still developing, but it is growing and developing in the right way. It is becoming healthier every year that passes over and this kind of officious meddling is going to do immense and irreparable harm. It cannot possibly do good. It is not required and it can only do harm.
The whole foundation of a health service is confidence, co-operation, harmony and a rather greedy acceptance of the facilities of the service being given. The very minute that these services have got to function with the aid of the police, under the shadow of the courts, through fear of penalties, then the whole new service is still-born. Not only is it still-born, but it is still-born with an ugly disfiguring scar. The whole thing is ill-conceived, prompted all right by the best intentions in the world, but rushed into print without taking consultation or advice. I think that one of the grandest services established in this State is the school medical inspection and treatment scheme. I do not think there is any other service to equal it in beneficial results. I do not think any other service has brought parents and the State so closely together in harmony and confidence. I know there are areas that are still backward, but there is no area so backward as mine was 18 years ago —not a single one in all Ireland. If I had got compulsory powers and applied them, the very name of public health would be detested in County Meath. It has developed up to the point now that good parents, anxious about the health of their children and the remedying of their defects, are weekly applying to have them examined out of turn and to have the school rotation upset so as to give it another direction. The same remark applies to teachers.
My experience is the experience of the vast majority. There may be an exception or two. But, if that is the position, why take chances with it? Why introduce this hateful element of coercion? Why have the work go on under the threat of the big stick and why should we people here, sensible people, with plenty of work to do, spend our time, waste our time, arguing as to the extent of the penalty that we will impose on parents whose children happen to be absent from school medical inspection?