Status of Children Bill, 1986: Fifth Stage.

Question proposed: "That the Bill do now pass."

Deputy Shatter referred to the Bill as a milestone and Deputy McCartan referred to it as a very major development. I agree entirely with them. It is most important social legislation. I would like to thank the Deputies genuinely for their co-operation in the passage of the Bill. It will remove from our law a wide range of discriminations against persons whose parents have not married each other. I appreciate greatly the contributions the Deputies have made in the course of the debate on this Bill. Because the legislation we are dealing with is complex and has very many ramifications into other areas of law, their contributions were very constructive and helpful.

By enacting this legislation in a spirit of unanimity concerning the basic principles underlying the Bill we have demonstrated our commitment to equalising the status of children. The enactment of the Bill will ensure that this country will be in a position to ratify the European Convention on the Status of Children Born out of Wedlock. I assure this House that once the Act is in operation, which at the outside will be six months after its passing, steps will be taken early to ratify that convention.

The rules committees have already been asked to consider what rules of court will be necessary to give full practical effect to the Bill. All possible steps will be taken to ensure that the rules of court and other subsidiary legislation will be in place so that the Act can be brought into force if possible sooner than six months after its enactment.

In passing this Bill the Oireachtas and the politicians have led the way in providing for the rights of children whose parents are not married to each other and in removing discriminations which are there at present. It is a very major step and one major feature of it is the fact that any future legislation must carry these provisions. That is provided for in section 3 which enunciates the general principles central to the Bill that for the purposes of this and future Acts relationships are to be determined without regard to whether the parents of any person are or have been married to each other unless the contrary intention appears. This is a major development not just in this Act but in the context of all future Acts.

I welcome the passing of the Bill. I thank the Deputies for their assistance in having it passed at this stage and I look forward to it coming into practice and being implemented at the earliest possible time.

As I said a few moments ago, the passing of this Act is a major milestone in our social legislation. The Bill was first brought into this House by my party in Government. We had been committed to it for some years and the Fine Gael Party had been in the forefront of those pressing for law reform in this area for a number of years before we came into Government. I should pay tribute at this stage to Young Fine Gael who pioneered what I would describe as the political work on the political stage in this area when they produced a draft Private Members' Bill in 1979. Major organisations concerned with children and unmarried mothers such as Cherish, the Federation for Unmarried Mothers and a number of others have long sought this legislation.

This legislation will put the majority of children, whether born inside or outside marriage, in a position of legal equality. That is to be welcomed. The passage of this Bill has on occasion seen the Members of both Houses acting as legislators and there have been considerable changes and improvements made to the Bill to deal with many technical and legal issues which have arisen.

I hope the Minister will not regard me as begrudging if I remark that the Bill could have been enacted in an even better form. We have left unnecessary gaps and failed to tackle some issues which we could easily have confronted. We have left a number of children outside the scope of this measure and we will have to return in the not too distant future to the forgotten children of the Status of Children Bill. I refer to those children who are conceived and born as a result of some of the major medical and scientific advances which have taken place in the past few years and who are effectively excluded from and ignored by this Bill. I sought to have these children included within its scope, with the support of some other parties in this House, so that no children would be left outside the provisions of the Bill. Some children are left uncatered for, but nevertheless the vast majority of children born outside marriage who have been the subject of discrimination for many decades will now find themselves, generally speaking, in a position of legal equality with children born within marriage.

We will finally be able to become a party to the European Convention on the Status of Children. With the enactment of this Bill, we will finally meet our international commitments as a State which is already party to the European Convention for the Protection of Fundamental Freedoms. This State has already been found to be lacking in the context of the European Convention in a decision made by the European Court in Strasbourg because of our failure to provide protections for children born outside marriage equal to the protections for children born within marriage and because of our failure to extend equal protections and rights to the parents of such children. With the passage of this Bill, we should be able to redress the position whereby we have for some time been in serious breach of a major international convention on fundamental rights. It is correct at this stage to refer to that matter.

I hope this will be the first of a number of Bills enacted in this House across party lines with all-party support, tackling some of the many social issues which have for many years been ignored, including many issues that relate to the family and family life. Some of these issues we have been very prone to talk about at length but we have been unduly lethargic when it comes to getting involved in legislative action.

I thank the Minister for the remarks he made about the constructive nature of the debate. I appreciate that some of the amendments we have sought have been accepted. I had hoped others would be accepted but we may have to come back to them on another day. This House has done a good day's work in the enactment of this Bill in the context of the many children who look to this measure to put them in a position of legal equality, to protect their rights and to extend to them the same rights as children born within marriage.

I join with the Minister and Deputy Shatter in marking the significance of the legislation we are about to pass into law. It is a major step forward in dealing with a social problem which has been with us for decades and it is an achievement for us as legislators that we have at long last got rid of one of the most invidious discriminations that has existed in law since the foundation of the State. We have moved very far ahead of the climate that existed up to the early seventies when the best we could do for children born outside marriage was to provide them with the meagre sum of 20 shillings for their maintenance on the basis of a putative or supposed father. We have come to the stage when we can for the first time recognise our international obligations and can say with some dignity to our European partners that we have caught up with them. We should never forget how long it has taken us. We should remember it with some degree of shame.

I should like to mark the particular contribution made by Cherish, the organisation which in the early seventies started us thinking about the position of the child born outside wedlock and the position of single mothers having to toil on behalf of such children. To them and to all those others in the community who campaigned and kept this issue to the forefront tonight's achievement will be a source of particular gratification. I have no doubt the legislation will be of use to them.

I would ask the Government to do something about the appalling state of the legal aid facilities for people who must undoubtedly have recourse to legal advice and assistance to gain access to the courts in order to establish many of the rights being made available to them under this Bill. It is pointless unless there is some measure of improvement in the area of legal aid to make matters easier for people.

Many important issues have been raised in the course of the debate, such as DNA fingerprinting and children born as a result of artificial insemination. These matters have been highlighted during the debate and inevitably we will have to return to them, as well as many other issues thrown up in the discussion. I hope the Minister has taken cognisance not just of the narrow provisions of the Bill but of many other contributions made by Deputies on this side of the House and that he will ensure that legislation in all areas concerning children is kept up-to-date. I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for his indulgence. It was a particular pleasure to have been involved in this debate.

Question put and agreed to.

The Bill, which is considered by virtue of Article 20.2.2 of the Constitution as a Bill initiated in the Dáil, to be sent to the Seanad.