Child Care Bill, 1988: Second Stage (Resumed).

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

Last night I was coming to the conclusion of my comments but I should like to summarise very briefly my attitude and that of the Labour Party to this most important Bill. The Labour Party broadly welcome this long overdue Bill but we express surprise that the Bill which has emerged has had such a long gestation period. Two similar Bills have been published in the past three years, the Children (Care and Protection) Bill, 1985 published by the former Minister for Health, Deputy Desmond and the Children (Care and Protection) Bill, 1987 published by the Labour Party. This Bill is a watered-down version of the earlier Bills, but I hope it can be improved in the course of passage through these Houses.

The crucial question which every section boils down to is whether the Oireachtas and the Department of Health will provide adequate moneys to allow the far-reaching measures contained in this Bill to be implemented. It is all very well to provide powers to monitor, regulate and control but all these powers and regulations are useless if we have inadequate resources and staff to carry out the work being devolved to health authorities. The health boards cannot function as now constituted with the inadequate legislative powers they have. They have neither the money nor the personnel to support families, to assist children at risk and to monitor cases brought to their attention. I and other Deputies have personal and direct knowledge of cases where exasperated health board officials have indicated that it is simply not possible for them to provide the type of help and support that vulnerable families need or require. I have referred to the Wexford Family Centre, a pilot concept of total family support. This concept is well known throughout the United Kingdom but very rare here because the resources have never been provided for that type of family support. If we are simply to pay lip service to the desirability of supporting the child in the home setting then we need not put any resources into it, but if we are serious about allowing a family to nurture their children in the home background, then the type of back-up support which exists in other developed and civilised countries has to be provided here.

Another crucial matter which caused me great concern was the involvement of the District Court. I said last night I would not be disparaging in my comments on the District Court, unlike a previous speaker. However, the task force report on child care in 1981 and the Kennedy report of 1970 called for the establishment of specialist family courts. That request, lying on the shelves for more than a decade, has yet to be acted upon. Although the legislative provision is not included in this Bill, we had hoped the Minister would at least indicate that some other Bill would be brought before us to establish the family courts which everyone involved in the welfare and protection of children has called for. We have yet to hear the Minister's view on this matter and I hope he will indicate when replying whether it is proposed to establish a family court.

I welcome the provisions in the Bill which make the court setting less formal, which allow decisions to be made without hauling a child through the court and enable matters to be discussed in private, but they are not far-reaching enough. Fundamentally, what is required is for judges to have specialised training and knowledge in the area of children's welfare. This is not the case now. Justices of the District Court do not have that training and cannot be expected to make that sort of decision. It is clear that we are not going to enact this legislation in this session. I would hope the Minister would use the time during the summer recess to rethink this and to focus on the needs of family courts to see if provision could be made for that.

Deputy McDowell underlined last night the urgency of this Bill. He rang a few alarm bells when he indicated that some judges of the High Court had at least an attitude which would deny the legislative rights of health boards to take action under current statutes. What that does is to underline for us the urgency of the legislation before us. We have a difficult and contradictory demand on us to make good legislation but also to proceed with some haste. We have not legislated in this area in any comprehensive way for 80 years. So it is very important that decisions we make now are carefully thought out and carefully enacted.

Last night the Minister instanced the alarming increases in reported cases of child sexual abuse. As a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Women's Rights I have seen reports from our various health boards of alarming increases in the sexual abuse of children. I instanced a report from one community care area in the Eastern Health Board region where reported cases of sexual abuse of children have risen from seven in 1982 to an alarming 79 in 1987. One reason for this dramatic increase is the simple fact that people feel freer to make these reports; there is less secrecy and less terror of making reports to State agencies. Even putting that aside, the sheer volume of reported cases now must underline for us the urgency of the type of legislation we are considering today.

I welcome the recent guidelines from the Department of Health on the identification, investigation and management of child abuse cases. Very clear and cogent guidelines have been put down and are being acted upon and that is a very proper and welcome development. The Minister also indicated that he was authorising the extension of services and providing the resources to extend services at Temple Street and Crumlin children's hospitals to monitor child sexual abuse and to treat children who have been sexually abused. I also welcome the allocation of £450,000 from the national lottery proceeds to health boards outside the Dublin area to tackle the area of child sexual abuse. All those measures are welcome and this Bill provides the legislative framework to intervene in cases of emergency. The Garda, in the first instance, can act immediately and incisively to protect vulnerable children who are at risk, and then the more measured procedures through the courts for the more long term solutions for children who are at risk are available.

One of the issues I raised last night, and which I would again ask the Minister to focus his attention on, is the failure to establish a national children's council, something that has been requested again and again by all the caring agencies and by many people involved in the provision of children's care. I honestly do not see any cogent or logical reason for not establishing a national children's council. I welcome the monitoring committees at local health board level; but surely a national children's council, even on a fixed term basis, could be established to set out parameters, a basic bill of rights for children, to provide an overall picture of our provision or lack of it for children and to protect children and strengthen the mechanism on the grounds for the welfare of children.

I have asked also for the strengthening of family support services and I welcome section 3 in Part II of the Bill where the health boards have been given responsibility to promote actively the welfare of children with emphasis on providing support and assistance so that children can remain at home. Again, we can pay lip service here. We can say the positive thing, but if we do not provide the staff and the resources it is only lip service without any determination to actually break the cycle of deprivation that we all too often witness where a child who is abused or is from a deprived background grows up and has children who in turn deprived or abused.

It is a cycle that is familiar to us all and dealing with it must be a priority if we are to call ourselves civilised. The only way we can break that cycle is by actually reaching out through family support services in a holistic way. To put a sticking plaster on that major problem is not to address the problem. It would cause difficulties forever in the future unless we are determined to provide whatever it takes to break the cycle of deprivation that seems to be ongoing and never ending.

I also welcome the power in the Bill to set standards for and to monitor playschools. One provision that is sadly lacking here is adequate legislative provison for playschools or nursery education. We have a very fine standard of national schools from compulsory age, but unlike most western European countries we have no provision for young children; we have a patchwork and a variety of standards in existence throughout the country ranging from the very good to the appallingly awful. This provision in the Bill enables the physical framework to be monitored. I would hope that in the fullness of time more comprehensive legislation would also set standards for those who wish to engage in what is probably the most important task that anybody in society is given; the task of nurturing and developing very young children, who are so impressionable and vulnerable. We have no legislation at all. One can set up a pre-school in a garage and charge fees, and one does not need to have any standards of hygiene or safety or standards of education for oneself. We yet have to tackle that problem. The ultimate answer is obviously to have a proper State-funded, State-run pre-school system or a kindergarten system attached to the national school.

Now we have a dwindling schoolgoing population and in a few years we will have more and more vacant classrooms in the primary schools. Surely that is a golden opportunity to establish State-sponsored, pre-school, nursery or kindergarten education. We will have the qualified teachers, as they are being trained, and reducing numbers in the classes will help. The opportunity will be available in the future to provide on a State basis for all our children from their earliest age. Otherwise we are leaving to chance and to the market provision for that earliest type of education. The result of that is already evident, with children arriving into formal education some from economically deprived backgrounds and already doubly deprived, being backward linguistically and educationally and not having any experience at all of socialising. Other children coming from the better nursery schools have a tremendous advantage. We have a responsibility and an obligation, if we are to cherish all the children of the nation equally, to make provision in this area.

I spoke last night about solvent abuse. This is something that most of us find shocking but the problem has, at least, receded in recent times from the absolutely disgraceful levels of some years ago. However, the reality is that there are still many young children walking the streets of this city and other cities and towns breathing into plastic bags filled with glue and staggering around in an intoxicated state. I have acknowledged that it is tremendously difficult adequately to cope with that situation, but some responsibility must be placed on those very few irresponsible retailers who subordinate everything to profit and sell cans of glue, often in large quantities, to children. They must at least be suspicious that the objective is not wholesome activity but to intoxicate those children and their friends and damage their health. I welcome unreservedly the new powers under this Bill to call such irresponsible retailers to account and impose upon them a fine of £1,000 and 12 months in prison.

I dealt last night at some length with the detailed provisions of the Bill. It is a major piece of legislation, the most comprehensive Bill introduced into this House for 80 years. I shall end by making my most serious and damning comment on it. It is that if we are serious about making provision for children who are vulnerable, if we are serious about protecting the most innocent in our community, then we must provide not only words in a Bill but resources for health boards to enable them actively to carry out the functions to be developed upon them. I am afraid the record of this Administration to date is to run in the opposite direction. I can only hope that when the Estimates are published at the end of this year we shall see that the goodwill and good intentions that are incorporated into this Bill are not merely lip service, but that the Government are determined to protect the vulnerable child.

I am pleased to have the opportunity for a debate on the Child Care Bill, 1988. The big difference between the present Government, Fianna Fáil, and all the Opposition parties is that we do not just talk about social legislation; we take positive action. Since coming into office, allowing for the many and varied problems in the Department of Health in relation to the Estimates and to the general situation, my colleague, Deputy O'Hanlon, in particular, has been instrumental in bringing forward these two very important pieces of legislation.

This proposal has been talked about since 1970 and has been particularly active since 1980, being highlighted in the reports of the Task Force on Child Care. After just 15 months in office of this Administration, we are bringing forward this Bill, the Child Care Bill, 1988, which is required. We are bringing forward the most comprehensive legislation dealing with child care for some time.

Most of the Deputies who have contributed to this debate so far have concentrated not on what is in the Bill but on what is not in it and they claim should be in it. I would like to bring the House back to the Bill we have before us and point out some of the important legislative provisions which it contains. The purpose of this Bill is to update and strengthen the law in relation to the care of children, particularly children who are being assaulted, ill-treated, seriously neglected or sexually abused or who are at risk.

The need for the Bill was graphically illustrated by my colleague, the Minister for Health, Deputy O'Hanlon, in his opening speech. While the vast majority of our children grow up in the love and affection of their parents, there are some who are not so fortunate. At any time about 2,500 children are in the care of health boards, the majority because their parents are unable to look after them, whether due to physical or mental illness, alcoholism, marital breakdown or other family crises. Other children enter care in much more dramatic circumstances. They are the victims of child abuse, whether it be physical, emotional or sexual. In 1986, the total number of confirmed cases of all sorts of child abuse known to the health boards was 494, of which some 274 were victims of child sexual abuse. Figures are still being collected from health boards in respect of 1987, but all the indications are that the total number of reported and confirmed cases in 1987 will be substantially higher than 1986.

At present, a person over 15 years of age may not be placed in health board care regardless of how desirable this might be in his or her interests.

On a point of order, is the use by the Minister of State of a script correct?

What I am really doing is speaking from notes.

The Minister of State has no script to distribute.

During the debate on the 1985 Bill, a number of interested parties sought an increase in the age up to which children may be taken into care. They pointed out that some older children would benefit from being in care but cannot be admitted under the present law. We have accepted this and propose in section 2 to define "child" for the purposes of this Bill as a person under 18 years. This will raise to 18 years the age up to which health boards will be responsible for children and the age up to which children may be admitted to care.

Section 3 is one of the most important provisions of the Bill. It imposes a duty on health boards to promote the welfare of children. The boards will be required to provide child care and family support services such as social work support for families at risk, counselling services, pre-school services, home help services, child guidance, day fostering, family resource centres and out-reach projects for the young homeless.

Section 4 extends the powers of health boards to receive children into care on a voluntary basis. At present, about 80 per cent of the children in care are there on a voluntary basis. In future, health boards will be able to receive into care, without reference to the courts, orphans and abandoned children and, with the consent of the parents, children whose parents are unable to care for them due, for example, to serious illness, sudden bereavement, marital breakdown or other family crisis.

Section 5 provides for the establishment of one or more child care advisory committees in each health board area which will be composed of persons with a special interest or expertise in child care, including representatives of voluntary bodies providing child care services.

The Minister is reading from a script.

The situation is that we prepared the script only last night. I shall endeavour, if I can, to get copies later but we have to work as we are.

I shall not press the point.

I do not think we are under any obligation to circulate any script to the Dáil, as it happens. I can recall many instances where scripts were not available.

That is true, but scripts should not be used except by the Minister.

Part III (sections 10-13) deals with the protection of children in emergencies. Section 10 provides that a garda would be empowered, without warrant, to remove to a safe place a child who had been assaulted, ill-treated, neglected or sexually abused, where there is an immediate and serious risk to his health and well-being.

Section II empowers the district justice to make an emergency care order. This would authorise the removal of a child from his home and his placement in the care of a health board for up to eight days where there was an immediate and serious risk to his safety. Part IV, sections 14 to 24, set out the circumstances in which the courts may place children who have been assaulted, ill-treated, seriously neglected or sexually abused or who are at risk, in the care of or under the supervision of health boards. Section 14 imposes a statutory duty on a health board to apply for a care order or a supervision order, as appropriate, whenever this appears necessary.

At present health boards are not under any obligation to take children into care although some doubts have been expressed about their legal authority to do so. Section 14 will eliminate any such doubts. Section 15 provides for the making of a care order which will suspend the parents' rights to custody of the child and place him or her in the custody of the health board. The grounds on which a care order could be made are that the child has been or is being assaulted, ill-treated, seriously neglected or sexually abused or that the child's health, development or well-being has been or is being avoidably impaired or seriously neglected, or there are reasonable grounds for believing that the child's health, development or well-being is likely to be avoidably impaired or seriously neglected. In addition, the court would have to be satisfied that the child required care or protection which he is unlikely to receive unless he was placed in the care of the health board.

Unlike the present legislation, the focus here is on the needs of the child rather than on the wrongdoing of his parents. This will ensure that the needs of the child are given full and careful consideration and we are satisfied that the proposals in the legislation are adequately covered in District Courts. A supervision order — section 16 — would authorise the health board to have the child visited regularly at home to ensure that he was being properly cared for and to give his parents any necessary advice and assistance. If the board were not satisfied they could ask the court to give directions to the parents as to the care of a child or, if necessary, apply for a care order. A supervision order would apply for 12 months and would be renewable.

Section 27 will enable the Minister to make regulations governing the placement of children in foster care and section 28 confers a similar power in relation to residential care. Section 31 enables a health board to provide support and assistance for persons who were formerly in care.

There are two areas covered by the Bill in which I have a particular interest, the provisions in relation to the supervision of pre-school services and the controls on the abuse of solvents. Deputy Howlin wanted pre-schools to be organised and run by the State but, in present economic circumstances, this is not possible. Part VI provides for the introduction of a system of inspection of services for pre-schools children, for example, day nurseries, creches, playgroups and pre-schools.

Section 58 proposes to make it an offence to sell solvent-based products to children where it is known or suspected that they will be abused. Provision is made for fines of up to £1,000 or 12 months imprisonment. Both these provisions have been subjected to some criticism which is totally unjustified. I wish to respond to some of the points that have been made and, no doubt, the Minister will elaborate on what I have to say. Solvents are a very difficult area to control. I am aware that there is widespread public concern about the dangers to children from the apparent growth in the incidence of solvent abuse. Already this year there have been reports in the media of some six deaths of young people related to solvent abuse and this is, as far as is known, the highest number of deaths ever recorded from this cause.

It has been suggested that the provision in section 58 in relation to solvent abuse does not go far enough and that there is a need for more stringent legal measures. Parents will have to be vigilant in relation to solvent abuse and ensure, where possible, that solvents are kept out of the reach of young children and are not available to them. The Government carefully considered a number of possible measures which it has been suggested would help to combat solvent abuse but all of them had to be rejected for one reason or another. I should like to mention a number of these and explain the difficulties involved with them.

Firstly, there is the suggestion that there should be a complete prohibition on the sale or supply of solvents to children. The difficulty here lies in the wide range of ordinary household products which may be abused. These include all forms of aerosols, adhesives, nail varnish remover, paint strippers and butane gas, to name just a few. To impose a ban on the sale or supply of all these products to children and young persons would be totally unrealistic and would be impossible to enforce. It might be suggested that a ban need only extend to the most commonly abused solvents but the danger is that this could result in children switching to other more lethal solvents. I understand that there is some evidence of this in the United States when a partial ban on sales of solvents was introduced.

Another suggestion has been that the manufacturers of solvents should be required to include an additive which would give off an unpleasant odour. The difficulty with this is that the odour would also affect ordinary members of the public using solvents for legitimate purposes and this idea had to be rejected on that ground. Finally, there was a question of making possession of a solvent by a child an offence and giving the Garda power to confiscate solvents in the possession of children. The Government and I are totally opposed to criminalising solvent abuse. Those who engage in this behaviour tend to be young and must grow out of the habit very quickly. It would be impossible to enforce such a law and nothing would be gained by making it an offence. On the contrary, it might only send this form of abuse underground and make it more difficult to help the children involved. Indeed, I am chairman of the National Drugs Advisory group and on numerous occasions we have discussed how to cope with the growing problem of solvent abuse. Some of our members have advised shopkeepers in particular to ensure that these solvents are not sold to children, where there is any suspicion that they could or would be abused. Solvents should also be kept at higher level in shops so that they are more inaccessible.

In relation to cigarette lighters which are freely available and very cheap, shopkeepers should generally refuse to sell them to young people. We must all take a responsible attitude to this problem because it has resulted in many deaths and other problems. Many people are receiving treatment at present due to the abuse of solvents. There is a further difficulty in allowing the Garda to confiscate solvents from children. As I indicated earlier, most of the products which contain solvents are perfectly harmless in their own right and it would not be proper that children who had these products for perfectly good reasons should be at risk of having them confiscated. The most appropriate and effective response to solvent abuse is information and education. In that regard, there is always the danger that if you inform young people how solvents are abused it could give rise to them experimenting with these items because, fundamentally, they are household products. The most harmless product can be abused. The abuse of butane gases and other forms of gas have given rise to the most serious problems.

I emphasise again that parents should be conscious of the use of these domestic products. They should be stored in an appropriate way out of the reach of children. Items which are used in offices and by young children at school for corrections in copies are dangerous products and can be abused. There is now a much greater awareness of the problem and a good deal of community concern about it. For example, many retailers have already taken steps on a voluntary basis to restrict the supply of solvents to young persons. I must emphasise that shopkeepers should be vigilant and aware of how easy it is to have these products abused. When they notice a trend developing of young people buying butane gaslighters, or other such items for which they would not have any particular usage, they should where possible make the parents aware of the fact and if necessary refuse to sell them. However, I would accept that more needs to be done to bring home to young people the dangers inherent in solvent abuse. As I indicated in my opening remarks, I have instructed the health promotion unit of my Department to take urgent action in this regard.

In relation to the scope of control on pre-school services, there has been some criticism of the scope of Part V of the Bill which deals with the inspection and supervision of services for pre-school children. It has been suggested that these provisions do not go far enough and that a much stricter registration system is required. One Member this morning raised the question of State pre-schools. The House will realise that this would be a very elaborate and expensive provision. I have to say that I do not accept the view that the provisions of the Bill do not go far enough. While I am anxious that children availing of the services at present should be properly cared for and protected from possible abuse, equally I am determined that the rights of parents to place children in the care of persons of their choosing should not be interfered with unnecessarily. I might mention that the Task Force on Child Care Services for their part cautioned against the establishment of, and I quote—"an elaborate supervisory system which could interfere with a great deal of ordinary neighbourly help at present being carried on." Furthermore, a survey conducted by the Working Party on Child Care Facilities for Working Parents found that over 60 per cent of infants and pre-school children of working mothers were being looked after by grandparents and other relatives, or by non-relatives who reside in the family home.

The ISPCC are doing excellent work in this area, as are the Irish Pre-School Playgroup Association, an organisation which has many of the voluntary pre-school groups registered with them. Again, they laid down requirements in relation to facilities for pre-school groups. The first question needing to be determined is: what services or arrangements in relation to pre-school children should be subjected to statutory control? I am firmly of the view that arrangements made by parents with relatives and friends for the care of their children should not be subject to State intervention. There are two main categories of services which will be subject to statutory control under the provisions of this Bill. They are first, nurseries, creches and child-minding services operating on commercial lines and, second, community playgroups and other non-commercial services.

All of these services will be required to comply with requirements which will be set down in regulations which will be made following consultations with the Minister for Education. Health boards will be required to have the services inspected from time to time and will be able to call on the assistance of inspectors of the Department of Education, particularly in the case of services with an educational dimension. While it is my intention that any necessary improvements in the services would be brought about by way of advice and encouragement, health boards will be able to prosecute in the event of serious or persistent failure to adhere to the relevant regulations. On conviction a court will be able to impose fines and, more significantly, order that a service be ceased, either temporarily while improvements are being effected or for a longer period. Generally speaking, these services being provided on a neighbourly basis are quite good. But the fact that in most areas there will be a controlling factor on the part of health boards will ensure a general improvement in the services. These provisions are more than adequate to deal with any abuses likely to arise in the area of pre-school services. It is neither necessary nor desirable that a comprehensive registration process, with all its attendant bureaucracy, be introduced at this stage.

Voluntary organisations such as the Irish Pre-School Playgroups Association, with many associates nationwide, are very much involved in this area. Parents themselves are conscious of groups or facilities available where their children would be properly cared for and would have certain control over those services.

It is important that the provisions of this Bill be implemented as quickly as possible because they have such vital implications for many young children who may be in danger at present.

This is the most important Bill on children's rights to be introduced in this House for many years. However, I will not describe it as the most comprehensive. Already a number of speakers have pinpointed areas in which its provisions are inadequate. Like others, my biggest fear is that the provisions of the Bill will constitute just pie in the sky if the necessary resources to finance them are not made available. For example, the £450,000 mentioned by the Minister in his remarks yesterday will go a small way only towards alleviating the many problems obtaining.

We have awaited this Bill for many decades. Since it was published two weeks ago many of us have not been afforded sufficient opportunity to consult or consider many of its important aspects. Therefore I welcome the lapse that will occur between the Second and Committee Stages. We shall have the summer months to consider our position. Likewise I hope the Minister will reconsider his position in relation to a number of issues raised.

The major question marks hangs over how many of the provisions of the Bill can be implemented. For example, how will the health boards carry out the duties and responsibilities assigned them under the provisions of the Bill when they are at present wallowing in a sea of debt, finding it almost impossible to fulfil their present statutory responsibilities? Therefore one must ask how they will undertake to fulfil these additional responsibilities.

The Minister gave a frightening statistic yesterday of the incidence of child abuse. In Cork the social workers assigned to the child abuse clinic there have been taken off other duties in the Southern Health Board region. If we are merely to rob Peter to pay Paul then the provisions of this Bill will be rendered meaningless.

It must be recognised that health boards are encountering serious problems at present, as are the health services overall. Our major concern must be now how we will resource the provisions of the Bill. Only in recent days has the lid been lifted off the can of worms obtaining in our health services by two very courageous consultants in the Meath Hospital. It is my prediction that in the days and weeks ahead there will be more incidents of people involved in the health services coming forward, ignoring the dangers of legal actions against them, people who will with courage outline the problems being encountered in the health services and the hardship and cruelty being experienced because of the effects of unplanned cutbacks.

Coming to the Bill itself, the underlying principle of any Children's Bill must be to provide a comprehensive and effective system to cater for every aspect of the problems that can affect a child in its formative years. If we invest major resources in improving the health of children we will be assured of an overall standard of good adult health and a corresponding decrease in the dependency on health services. At present we do not have a national, regional or local policy in relation to child care. Resources for the disturbed and difficult 12 to 16 years old group are almost non-existent. Staffing levels, especially in the statutory agencies, are hopelessly inadequate to give in-depth family support when required initially.

The publication of this Bill must be welcomed, as was the Bill published in 1985 by the previous administration, following on almost two decades of discussion about the reform of legislation and services for children. The Tuairim Committee report of 1966 constituted the first stage in the development of the debate, followed shortly afterwards by the Kennedy report and, subsequently, by the Task Force report of 1980.

There has been great demand for a major reform of our children legislation and, as a result, I know that this Bill will be warmly welcomed. Many of the proposals in this Bill are long overdue but, unfortunately, it still fails to tackle some of the most central issues which many of the people working in the area of child care have been promoting for quite some time. Our Constitution does no clearly define our childrens rights and, unfortunately, the present Bill does not totally establish the right of children and does not eliminate the many ambiguities.

Deputy McDowell yesterday went on at length about the inadequacies of the District Court system in dealing with family problems and children's problems. I am not an expert in that area but the views put forward yesterday by Deputy McDowell, sometimes colourfully, should be borne in mind by the Minister. From my own limited experience of District Courts, they are totally unsuitable and inadequate for the hearing of children's cases, mainly because they are overcrowded and too busy and because the formal nature of the legal proceedings at those courts is totally unsuitable. The absence of any reference to family courts is a major defect in this Bill and I would ask the Minister to reconsider that in conjunction with the Minister for Justice.

The Task Force report of 1981 recommend the setting up of children's courts, under the jurisdiction of district justices but these recommendations have not been incorporated into the existing Bill. One of the most central issues in any legislation is how the services can be delivered and I and my party feel that the present health board structure may not be the most efficient vehicle as it is inefficient and fragmented.

The duties and responsibilities of the health boards are being strengthened considerably in the present Bill and yet there is nothing in the Bill which establishes child care authorities within the health structure, as recommended by the Task Force. These authorities would provide a more efficient service for the children and for their families. This Bill does not tackle the promotion of welfare and the development of support services at community level.

The duty of the health boards is to promote the welfare of children and to develop services of a preventative nature — but these facts are not set out clearly in this Bill. Will the Minister clarify this in more detail when he is responding to the Second Stage debate? The Bill does no recognise the role of the local and voluntary organisations which are helping those in need, and which have been of paramount importance down through the years in terms of children's rights.

The child care advisory committees within the present health board system are talking shops and are inadequate as were the advisory health committees which were abandoned by the Minister in recent times. They are abandoned illegally by the Minister because he has not brought in amending legislation to legalise the decision. Will the Minister say today when this legislation will be produced? From the proposals set out, it would appear that the child care programme will again be the Cinderella of the community care programme, which itself is the poor relation of all of the health care programmes, despite the lip service that has been so frequently applied to it. In recent times the whole status of the community care programme in the health boards has been further downgraded by cutbacks, despite assurances by the Minister.

The Kennedy and the Task Force reports recommended the setting up of an independent national children's council, which would make recommendations on the development of child care programmes and which would foster co-operation between the numerous agencies involved in child care. This would also promote research and inform the public of developments in child care services. The omission of the national children's council is a major defect of this Bill because such a body is necessary to ensure that we do not have to wait another 20 or 30 years before we have an updating and upgrading of the laws in relation to children.

I very much welcome the broadening of the definition of the child to cover the 16 to 18 year olds. I hope this will bring about an improvement in the problem of youth homelessness by eliminating the confusion over the statutory responsibility for their care and protection. Any new provisions must, of course, be accompanied by the development of the support systems for mothers, which, at the present time, are totally underdeveloped in this country.

Because Ireland is unique amongst the countries of Europe in that our annual birthrate is nearly 50 per cent higher than the average, we must lay greater emphasis on the development of our child care programmes. One in three of our population is aged under 14 as compared with one in five in other European Community countries.

Unemployment and poverty here have meant that nearly half a million Irish children come from families who are entirely dependent on social welfare payments to survive. That is a frightening figure. About one third of the child population are, therefore, living below the poverty line and many of these are suffering from malnutrition.

It is very fashionable at the present time to talk about child abuse and neglect by parents but we tend to forget that the greatest child abuse and neglect has been by the State. This is because the State has not recognised the plight of children in Irish society for many years. The State's failure to bring about reform and improvement in child care facilities has meant that the State has been the greatest child abuser.

The Task Force report identified the need for planning and providing services at different levels. It recommended child care services required to meet the needs of deprived children, and family support vehicles, such as those required by some families, but especially by families under stress of one kind or another.

As I have already mentioned, resources for the disturbed and difficult 12 to 16 yer old groups are almost non-existent. Decisions about this age group tend to be made on the basis of resources available rather than need and this is totally unacceptable.

The Task Force of 1980 recommended also, a reorganisation of the child care authorities and that the health boards should more adequately meet the needs of the 1980s and 1990s. The Task Force also recommended reorganisation of the service provision of the personal social services and suggested the specific development of the preventative family support services, such as the day-care facilities pre-school and residential facilities, and the school psychological services. Preventive services are more cost-effective in economic and therapeutic terms. For example, in Cork there has been very little in the way of effective development of family support services to meet the reality-based needs of families. In the Cork area over the past two years more than 45 teenagers were left in high risk living situations because, primarily, there was no adequate residential facility, either short term or long term, to meet their needs. This is unacceptable and it is a major scandal.

I have been told that the authorities are aware of teenagers who have left home due to a breakdown in relationships and these teenagers were placed in bed and breakfast accommodation or in bedsitters, in contravention of the Department of Health boarding out regulations in placing children under 16 years in unapproved accommodation. This was brought about because of a lack of facilities.

Again, I have been informed by professionals working in the field from their broad based experience of case conference decisions, where the group decision arrived at was to receive children into care or to apply to the court for fit person orders, that, in fact, these decisions could not be acted upon because there was not a relevant or adequate residential facility available. Many teenagers are still living in damaging and unacceptable home environments.

Mentally handicapped teenagers have been placed in adult psychiatric hospitals because of the lack of suitable residential resources. This particular problem has come about because of the cutbacks and it is indeed a major problem at present.

Disturbed children and teenagers with serious behavioural problems cannot be helped because there are no local or national resources to facilitate caring for such people.

As has already been pointed out, glue sniffing is a major problem in our cities and has caused quite a number of deaths. It is tragic that teenagers with serious solvent abuse problems are involved in petty crime, such as joyriding. Some of these teenagers are only 14 years of age and because they are 14, they are too old for admission to any local or national residential facility and have graduated therefore, to more serious crimes resulting in court appearances and, in some cases, prison sentences.

It is sad to think that many of these teenagers will be permanently dependent on State services for most of their lifetime because counselling or therapeutic services were not made available to them when they were most needed. As a result, many of them will never have normal relationships and naturally, many will have failed marriages. This situation is intolerable and must not be accepted.

Children in the poverty trap have a constitutional right to be cherished as equal members of our society. But instead they are rejected and neglected because the relevant statutory authorities do not have the resources to care for them.

The organisations dealing with these types of problems badly need resources. The families and children throughout the country need supportive, preventive and residential facilities to offer a basic service.

Properly staffed residential homes for teenage boys and girls are required and the motto which I am stealing from an organisation must be "a resource in time saves crime". Resources must be made available to support families when problems first start to appear. We must not continue to offer a fire brigade service when the house has already burnt down. The reality is that our child care service is undergoing a major crisis.

When this Bill was published first, I met with a number of people who work in the child care area and they painted a frightening picture for me. They confirmed my own view that there is indeed a crisis in child care and that the recommendations of the task force have been largely ignored, that is the recommendations to modernise the law relating to child care and protection.

Professionally trained staff are badly needed both in the voluntary and statutory agencies throughout the country even to adequately meet the referral rates coming in, in relation to teenage marital violence, alcohol abuse, barring orders, marital breakdown, child abuse and child sexual abuse. These problems are the daily diet of social workers throughout the country and these problems are increasing all the time.

The lack of psychological services for primary school children presenting behavioural problems is hopelessly inadequate. I feel that primary school teachers are next in line to parents in creating trusting relationships with young children and are in a unique position to detect when a child might have emotional or educational difficulties.

Primary schools provide the best focus for preventive programmes for children at risk, hence the management structures for neighbourhood youth projects for children and teenagers, projects pioneered by the Department of Health on the recommendation of the task force must be developed and broadened. One such project has been operating successfully in the Cork area for many years now — the Mayfield Neighbourhood Youth Project. That type of service must be extended to all areas where there is deprivation and a need for this type of service.

Child guidance services may be needed for severely emotionally disturbed children when there is a complete breakdown of the school situation. These children are usually seen at central clinics or at the child guidance centres.

There is a need for a school psychological service to help teachers to cope better with classroom learning for emotionally deprived children. The school is the best setting for a child to receive help with educationally related problems as he or she is in familiar surroundings. This would be more acceptable to parents as they may be unwilling or unable to attend clinics.

It is my belief that in socially deprived areas of our larger cities, school psychological services are imperative. I am very supportive of the pilot schemes which are working in certain areas at present. These schemes are in areas where there are largely local authority developments with high unemployment and widescale social deprivation. An educational, psychological service to primary schools is, therefore, essential. Ireland is the only country in western Europe at present that does not have this type of service.

Generally speaking, I think that the development of neighbourhood youth projects, to which I have referred, in deprived areas, alongside a school psychological service would be the first step in helping those children and their families who are most in need.

I must pay tribute to the neighbourhood youth projects throughout the country which have done a great job. I would ask the Minister to extend this type of project to other areas. These projects are an attempt to apply and practise all that we have learned about child rearing in the past 150 years.

Until the middle of the last century, it was not generally agreed that society had a duty to protect children in need who were vulnerable.

An increasing preoccupation, in the late 19th century, with the legal rights of children, was complemented by the work of Freud and the great educationalists who explored the world of the child and the importance of childhood to the kind of adults we became. They established the link between a happy child and a responsible and mature adult and they developed the belief that happy children tended to have stable and supportive relationships later in life.

Our child care services as they developed tended, however, to offer deprived children the wrong kind of care too late. Typically, the child who was seen to have a problem or to be the problem, was plucked from his family and his environment and placed in a residential home. By the time the State intervened, the appalling family situation was irreversible. No matter how well run a residential home was, it could not compensate for the home environment.

Fostering was also an option but the question that had to be asked was, why not help the family and child to overcome the problems, while keeping them together?

It was easy to identify children who had physical defects but very difficult at all times to identify children whose handicap was intense unhappiness. The pendulum swung, therefore, away from intervention to a system based on prevention.

The Government established the Task Force on Child Care Services in 1974 and that force was asked to recommend how services to deprived children and children at risk could be improved and to prepare new legislation to protect the child and to propose administrative reform.

The task force, in an interim report, recommended the setting up of the youth projects I have referred to in Dublin, Cork and Limerick. The projects were to be located in deprived urban communities where children were at a considerable disadvantage by comparison with those in better off and more organised areas. The projects were set up in order to provide vulnerable children with meaningful relationships with reliable adults outside their families, through which they could learn to value themselves and gain confidence and competence in their personal and social relationships and skills.

The target group of children were to consist of those who lacked stable adult models with whom they could identify and establish relationships of trust; whose parents or parent substitutes have been inconsistent, rejecting or disturbed; whose parent or parents have become so dependent on their children, emotionally or otherwise, that they are inhibiting the natural process of growing; who, having severe family, educational or social problems needed outside help, and who, while not experiencing emotional problems or lacking in stable adult relationships, had established or were likely to establish patterns of persistent and serious delinquencies. While I am dealing at length with these types of projects, let me say there is a grave need to develop these projects in more detail and in a more-widespread manner.

The project set out to combine under one roof, as it were, the insights and techniques of individual case work and group work with children and their families. Because no two children in the project would have the same need, the project had to tailor their activities to the needs of the child.

After much discussion between the task force and the planning team set up by the Department of Health, the team recommended that each project would have a management committee who would be representative of the agencies providing services involving the neighbourhood, the community in which the projects were allocated and the parents of the children of whom the projects were aimed.

The small number of these projects that exist have been a magnificent success. They have pioneered a new method of working with children in deprived urban areas. The essence of the projects was to prevent children being damaged in any way and to mobilise the community in which they were located on behalf of the children in that community and so combine the voluntary organisations in the community and the statutory organisations. In fact, they represent a novel partnership in child care between statutory and community interests in order to enhance the welfare of children. I believe the projects have been good in principle, practical and effective.

I have dealt at length with the issue of neighbourhood youth projects because I firmly believe there must be liaision between the statutory bodies and the voluntary organisations in the area of child care. This type of initiative is essential in any future development of child care programmes.

This Bill is long overdue and I hope it will not be talked to death as many Bills have been in the past. As I mentioned, I have reservations about the Bill. It has raised major questions about the supply of resources in order to implement the provisions of the Bill. There is no real planning for the child care service at present and the provisions of this Bill when it becomes law will have to be operated by social workers. I estimate that we need about three times the number of social workers we have at the moment to operate the provisions satisfactorily. Page 44 of the NESC report of 1987 indicates how this country is sadly lacking in social workers for the delivery of services in the field.

The NESC report on community care services has indicated a major shortage of social workers in our health services. This Bill gives greater responsibility to health boards, but the Minister has not specified where the resources are to come from in order to enable the health boards to carry out the new responsibilities now being placed on them. I believe the £450,000 referred to by the Minister yesterday goes no way to providing the facilities required.

Another omission on which I ask the Minister to comment in his response is that the Bill does not mention the problems facing the children of the travelling people. It does not set out what support systems might be put in operation for this very deprived sector of our society. Many voluntary organisations are already catering for the needs of children of travelling people but these organisations have very little statutory support. One of them is St. Catherine's School in Model Farm Road in Cork with which the occupant of the Chair is familiar. The resources are greatly stretched and they are totally dependent on voluntary contributions to carry out their and society's duty to this sector of the community.

I ask the Minister in his response to define the term "authorised officer" which is used in the Bill on a number of occasions. My reading of the Bill does not reveal a definition of that term.

Another of my reservations is that the family courts for child care cases have not been set up, and my party share that reservation. At present the practice is that children's cases are squeezed in during the normal court day's business. If the Minister is not going to include children's courts in this Bill on Committee Stage, then at least a specific day should be set aside to deal comprehensively and fully with child care cases. As speakers said yesterday, a district justice handing out fines for illegal parking and other minor offences of a summary nature then sets his mind to dealing with cases that can affect the whole future of a child and the situation in which a child can find himself for maybe ten years. That is unacceptable and must be changed, so I ask the Minister to have a rethink on this major omission from the Bill.

In relation to the section dealing with residential care, I ask the Minister where the money is to come from to meet adequately the provisions set out in the Bill. In the southern area, for example, there is not one place in north Cork to cater for children needing residential care in a home or foster home. That is how bad the service is at present.

Part VI deals with supervision of pre-school services, an area about which I have some knowledge. Like most Members I have read the many frightening stories about the standards of some pre-schools and I should like to refer to a case highlighted in a national newspaper. It was reported that some unscrupulous childminders in Dublin are caring for up to 50 children at a time with very little personal assistance. It was also reported that those people charge as much as £40 per week for each child and that in some cases the premises used are not covered by insurance. The report claimed that those people were breaking the law.

The appalling situation outlined was described by the chief executive officer of the ISPCC as being a "complete free for all". He stated that the statutory and voluntary agencies were very aware of what was going on but that it was taking much longer than had been originally thought to bring in effective legislation and regulations to deal with that abuse. The reality is that until we pass the Bill before us there is no legislation governing the setting up of creches or pre-school play groups here. It appears that anybody can carry on this type of operation in their own homes, in converted garages or any other building, and that the only way the law can catch up with them is when they do not conform to fire regulations, if they have inadequate insurance cover or if the employees do not pay tax or PRSI. It is surprising to see how many parents leave their children for the entire day with people they know little about. In many cases the conditions are totally unacceptable. Many of those who run playschools may appear to be normal and caring individuals, but they could be mistreating children while in their care. There is a great need for new and tougher regulations and for that reason I welcome the provisions in the Bill. The system that exists is totally unprofessional in dealing with the pre-school groups in existence.

Having set out the frightening picture portrayed in a recent newspaper article, I should like to state that the majority of pre-school operations are good. The people running them are caring and kind. The majority are registered with the Irish Pre-school Playgroups Association, which has been in existence for 19 years. Pre-schools, generally speaking, are staffed by conscientious and dedicated people. My three children attended pre-schools in Cork in recent years and I was very impressed by the dedication and the hard work of the teachers.

The Irish Pre-Schools Playgroup Association's role in the development of the pre-school sector should be recognised by the Minister in the Bill. That association was established to support parents and playleaders, to help them to understand and provide for the needs of young children with emphasis on previous experience. I hope the role of the association is recognised by the statutory bodies and the Minister because they have helped to raise the standards of playgroups by maintaining a specific code and by holding meetings, discussions, lectures and appropriate training courses in support of those objectives. They have tried to raise the level of public awareness of the needs of pre-school children and the value of the playgroup. They have published a number of well researched articles to achieve their objective.

Section 6 sets out certain standards for playgroups but I should like to ask the Minister if, in implementing standards for pre-schools which are not funded by the State, he will be attempting to implement standards for this private sector activity that the Department of Education are not adhering to. I am referring to the very bad condition of some of our primary schools. I am all in favour of raising standards in the pre-school area in the private sector, but we should set the example.

Will the Minister explain the role he intends for the Minister for Education in the supervision of pre-school services? I should like to know if the reference to the Minister for Education in the Bill will mean that a change of policy is proposed. My impression is that the Department of Education up to now have not been interested in the development of pre-school groups. Is the change coming about because of pressure from the teaching organisations? The Minister should tread carefully in regard to this, and I hope that the playgroup and pre-school activities do not become too formalised and an extension of the primary school system. I understand that about 20,000 children are being taught in our pre-schools. I welcome the standards announced by the Minister in regard to premises, adult/child ratio, safety of equipment and the proper provision of play material suitable for that age group.

I would welcome an input by the Department of Education, but I hope the Minister can explain that Department's role in regard to playgroups and pre-school centres, I welcome the introduction of legislation which will ensure a code of standards for playgroups but I should like to suggest that the people who have pioneered this valuable service be recognised and their views taken into consideration. The Minister should incorporate some recognition for the Irish Pre-School Playgroups Association in the Bill.

Part VII deals with children's residential centres. Most centres in existence will not take children over 12 years. Now that we are extending the definition of the child to 18, we are working in the abstract again and not dealing with the resource problem. A code of standards is long overdue. Section 44 (3) states:

Any person inspecting a centre on behalf of the Minister under this section may make such examination into the state and management of the centre and the care of any children therein as he thinks fit.

My reaction to that provision is that I hope a specific body, or individual, will carry out this function. The standards must be consistent at all times and they must not vary from area to area.

In relation to section 46 I should like to ask the Minister the grade of the official who will be carrying out the function outlined. In my view it will be necessary to engage the services of a senior social worker who has a depth of experience in regard to this matter. I hope the Minister will elaborate on this provision.

Section 53 (5) deals with a charge which may be made by the health board. I should like to ask the Minister to elaborate on that provision. I recognise that wealthy families can afford charges imposed on them but there are many families who will not be able to afford the charges that may be imposed. Health boards should be flexible to this provision. The Departments of Health and Education were responsible for residential care of children. The Department of Health had responsibility for certain children's homes while the Department of Education were responsible for reformatories and industrial schools. At the same time the Department of Justice had responsibility for probation hostels. Almost all those services are provided by voluntary bodies through public funding.

Until 1984 the two categories of centres were industrial schools under the Department of Education and homes under the Department of Health. The schools changed theirmodus operandi in the seventies following the recommendation in the Kennedy report — a family group home approach instead of the traditional institutional approach. I am pleased to be able to say that a lot of progress has been made through the reconstruction and modification of existing homes and the construction of new units.

At the same time there has been a reduction in the number of children in such homes, from 2,000 in 1969 to 755 in 1982. By 1982, the majority of these places were occupied by children who were referred by health boards. In the same year, there were 20 homes approved by the Department of Health catering for nearly 500 children, compared to 600 children in 1969. The reduction in figures indicates the availability of community support and community-based services. The task force report recommended that all residential services for children should be the responsibility of the Department of Health and the Child Care Authority in each region. In 1982, the Government acted on this recommendation.

If other recommendations of the task force are to be implemented, considerable changes in the present structure and range of services will be necessary. I would like to refer to page 79 of the National Economic and Social Council report published in October of 1987. This report says of the recommendations of the task force report that if these recommendations entail a range of residential services within or within easy access of each community care area they should be provided.

At this stage, I would like to refer to the substantial supplementary report published with the final report of the Task Force on Child Care Services. That supplementary report argues that the objective of the report cannot be achieved within the present administrative structure. The supplementary report recommends that a fourth health board programme entitled Family and Child Care be set up and that within this programme, there would be two assistant programme managers with the responsibility for child care authority functions and one with responsibility for other welfare functions.

It appears that, up to the present time, there has not been any widespread discussion of this proposal and I would ask the Minister if, in the rearrangement of the health board programmes he announced recently, he is considering this option. I would like him to give some response to that question.

My party have put forward proposals this week in relation to the reorganisation of the health services. We proposed the abolition of the health board structure. Under the community care programme proposals that we set out, there is a definite role for the child care programme. We set aside the position of project manager for the management of the child care services.

This report has been lying around since 1982 and I would like to know what is happening with it. Until such time as the present administrative issues are sorted out, the development of services may be hindered seriously. The Bill, as I have said, without being comprehensive, is a major Bill and it is unfortunate that this whole area of child care has been neglected throughout the decades. I hope there will be a full and realistic debate on Second Stage — I have gone on longer than I had intended — and that we will tackle Committee Stage early in the autumn session. I would ask the Minister to conclude this Bill in early autumn. I hope it will have a speedy passage through both Houses because we need to implement the proposals that are set out as quickly as possible.

I would repeat the reservations and fears that I have about this whole legislation that it might be just pie in the sky and that the health boards, because they are under-resourced, will again fail to carry out the statutory functions of this legislation, through no fault of their own but due to lack of finance from central Government. The Minister has responsibility, while we are dealing with this Bill in a comprehensive way, to spell out how he proposes to resource the many recommendations of this Bill. The speech by the Minister yesterday gave to no clue as to how the services can be provided.

First, I join in the welcome for the Bill. It has been long awaited. Pressure for it has been growing in the last couple of decades, in proportion to the growth rate of psychologists and social workers in our community. It would be interesting to see if there is a correlation between the two. It is good that that pressure was there and that the Bill has now emerged.

The general feeling is that the services for children at risk were inadequate in terms of their spread and sophistication. The question of response in terms of speed is something that needed to be dealt with. The Bill goes a long way towards meeting these problems and providing a satisfactory solution to them. As other speakers have said, how satisfactory the response will be in practice will depend on how much resources can be allocated to it. There is already a basis for a good service. With organisational tightening and the legislative changes proposed here I would imagine that the existing service will be able to provide the remedies that the Bill envisages for the problems that are apparently on the increase. They were always there but we are only now getting to know them.

The Bill has to lay the framework for what is always a difficult problem — that is the conflicting rights of parents and children in cases where there are allegations of neglect and ill-treatment. Resolving that dilemma has caused difficulty in other jurisdictions. We have to be careful that there is at all times a middle-of-the-road approach and that extremes and the views of extreme people do not become ascendant in this area.

There are examples from other jurisdictions of how concern with children and obsession with neglect can go off the rails and produce results that were obviously unthought of by the people who frame legislation. One example was widely reported from Sweden about two years ago when a child was removed from the custody of its father because a social worker decided that the level of eye contact between the father and the son was not satisfactory. He indicated that there was probably neglect and that the child's development into a full personality would be inhibited. That child was then taken into the care of the State. That is an indication of the extreme lengths to which what is provided for in the Bill can go unless there is at all times commonsense monitoring from the top of the people involved.

The other example, equally frightening, took place in the last 18 months in the north-east of England when apparently a huge number of cases of sexual abuse of children was found by two doctors. As a result of their findings, a large number of children were taken from their parents and put into care, in spite of the protestations of the parents that no such abuse had taken place. By the time the machinery to review what had happened was brought into play, immense — I hesitate to use the word psychological because it is used too much — harm had been done to the children and the parents concerned. It was proved conclusively that the findings of the so-called medical experts had been erroneous. People are very slow to challenge medical expertise. It is an example of the danger of medical experts, or experts of any ilk, being given unfettered control and unfettered liberty to operate in their area of concern. These are two graphic, real and recent examples of the very important need for the Department of Health, as the national monitoring agency, to ensure that in the application of the remedies provided for in this legislation extremes will be avoided. That is very important.

Debate adjourned.