In discussing the new Child Care Bill, I would immediately like to draw attention to the enlightened thinking behind the 1908 Act. We live in a dramatically changing society. Because of the dramatic changes in values and attitudes it will be necessary in future to review existing legislation on a much more regular basis. Some Members suggested that we could go into the next century before reviewing the Bill, but that cannot be tolerated at any time in the future.
Much more follow-up legislation will be required in the areas of child care, family support services and community care services. Discussions in this area should be ongoing. Legislation should not be brought forward as a reactionary response to bad cases. Rather it should be brought forward as a result of a careful and logical approach to the issues involved.
Young people in general are at greater risk than ever before. It is simplistic to suggest that only the children of financially deprived families are at risk. Anyone involved in youth affairs will know that children from all sections of society are now in danger. Although it is correct to say that children of financially deprived families will have less opportunities in the educational and social areas, it is arrant nonsense to suggest that children from the more affluent sections of society are not in danger of being neglected, assaulted or sexually abused. What is likely to happen, and what has happened in the past, is that such abuse will not become known because that section of society may not come to the attention of the social worker or others working in the field. There is a grave danger that many commentators are becoming much too smug about the source of potential danger. The Minister's directive last year that all reported cases of child abuse, including those reported anonymously, would have to be investigated by a director of community care was most appropriate in this regard.
I do not think we can ask the question often enough why there has been an upsurge of child neglect, violence and assault. We do not ask such questions with a completely open mind. We are much too ready to fall back on the simple and convenient answer of financial deprivation. Of course, that answer neatly avoids the need for each one of us to examine our own conscience. It avoids the need to question heavy drinking by the more affluent sections, the incidence of watching damaging video films and other sources of amusement for the adult section of society which is not financially deprived. However, we cannot avoid the fact that children in such an environment may be in danger.
Another aspect of the child care legislation which is a considerable worry and must be examined — this has cropped up during the debate and people seem to be taking sides — is the possible conflict between the points of view expressed by what I might loosely describe as the pro-family group and the pro-State supplied safety group. Both groups have very clear and strongly held beliefs about what is best for the child. It must be said, however, that both groups are totally sincere and honest in their approach but believe in a different solution in providing for children at risk. The first group would seem to have the backing of Articles 41 and 42 of the Constitution, whereby the family is described as (a) "the natural primary and fundamental unit group of Society" and (b) "the primary and natural educator of the child". The second group however would have the clear evidence from social workers and others of the terrible happenings within some homes and families and would be aware of the need to prevent these happenings. The Minister has to bring forward legislation which while recognising the Articles of the Constitution also recognises the need to get any child out of a dangerous situation as speedily as possible. Whatever the differences, all legislation must begin from the basic principle of giving precedence to the safety of the child. Many people have taken sides on this issue, and both arguments must be recognised, but the safety of the child must take precedence.
The provisions of section 16 of the Act enabling the court to make a supervision order allowing for the health board to supervise a child in its own home seems to be a fair compromise between the previous stark choices of taking a child into care or gambling on leaving it in a very dangerous and unsupervised situation. The Minister has had to modernise the legislation and to cater for the new dangers in society.
I referred earlier to a previous attempt at legislation which resulted in the tabling of 150 amendments. It is to be expected that amendments will be tabled also to this legislation and I think the Minister will take them on board. We need to realise that legislation alone will go nowhere near solving the problem. Public opinion must change. Health care finances must be diverted into the Cinderella areas of family support and community care in general. Related legislation must be introduced and supported. We have had arguments about legislation which not only affects children but also affects adults' comforts. Very often arguments are put forward by pseudo liberals. The availability of pornographic material, of drink and other mood changing substances, the sheer lack of parental control, which is very often the results of too much socialising are just some facts aside from unemployment and poverty which directly affect children. I question the reaction we get when we attempt to improve this situation. Recently the Minister for Justice brought in legislation to prevent young people buying drink directly from supermarket shelves. This source had been previously identified as one of the major areas for such supplies to young drinkers. Some of the adult population have complained that they could not select their Christmas wines directly from shelves — so much for their being willing to make sacrifices for those at risk. We cannot tolerate that sort of double think. We will have to bring in legislation where necessary and where there is a conflict of interests between adults and children we will have to support the interests of children.
There is a massive and articulate campaign waged by many sources for the funds available in the health care area. I know that the personnel involved in child care and family support services may not be as well organised or as vociferous as many of the other disciplines. I also know from representing a large urban area and being a former chairman of the Southern Health Board, that their request for finance will have to get the same degree of recognition as the other sources. In fact they will need more resources to compensate for their poor starting position. I believe that if extra money is not immediately put into family support services that the situation will deteriorate beyond control and it will be useless bringing in any legislation. However, from experience, I believe this is a decision for the local boards rather than for the Minister. No matter whose responsibility it is we must divert cash into this area or we will be in very deep trouble.
In asking the question why there is such an increase in child-related social problems we could look at it under a number of headings. Is it because the family unit is being undermined? There are many attacks on the family unit, some of which are obvious and very blatant but some are much more subtle. I have been contacted by many people who expressed grave anxiety about the schools training programmes which are loosely described as skills for life or life skills. The people who contacted me were genuine family-loving people, neither ultra-conservative nor ultra-liberal, just ordinary down-to-earth people. They come and tell of happenings which should worry anyone in public office. They complain of activities which apparently lead to mood changes in their children, and in some instances they feel that these children could end up in the situation covered by the Bill which we are now discussing.
It might be argued that this point might be more relevant to the Department of Education but if this kind of activity leads children into these areas of conflict we must ask questions, There are questions to be asked by a number of Departments in this area. One of the prime worries about these particular sessions is the apparent secrecy in which they are conducted. The parents who are the so-called primary and natural educators of children according to the Constitution are being deliberately kept ignorant of what is going on.
In relation to the contents of the Bill, generally speaking the public are not aware of how limited is the existing legislation. It is only when a particularly notorious case hits the headlines that interest is taken in the power that exists for dealing with it or, as up to now, which did not exist. One of the primary sections is section 2 the main effect of which is to raise from 16 to 18 years the age up to which health boards are responsible for children. That will immediately make an important change which was clearly required. I would like to ask the Minister if this definition of "child" will apply to all legislation which is child-related as in the areas of justice, labour and so on because if not there will be a lot of confusion. I have seen confusion in the past with regard to factories Acts, safety regulations and so on. It is important that basic definitions as the age of responsibility should be standard right across the board. I ask the Minister to look at that and to see that it extends into the other areas.
Sections 3 to 9 contain a number of provisions aimed at promoting the welfare of children and preventing family breakdown. I referred earlier to finance but this will be money well spent because up to now it depended totally on the type of director of community care or the programme manager of each health board. The family support services must get a good share of health budgets in the future; otherwise it will reflect in the dependency rate on health boards and social welfare. There is a need to go from just minding it to actively promoting the welfare of children and I hope we will do that as a result of what the Minister is proposing.
In section 5 it is proposed to establish one or more child care advisory commitees in each health board area. This is something that many of us have asked for in the past. We want these committees to advise the board and come forward with their knowledge — because voluntary bodies and professionals would be involved — on the performance of its functions under the Bill. This opens up a new area of child care which was an essential move. I commend the Minister for getting the voluntary groups involved. Section 7 enables the health boards to make arrangements with the voluntary bodies and section 8 empowers health boards to grant-aid voluntary bodies. I would ask the Minister to tighten up those two sections to ensure that the health boards are required to support child care and family services. At present it depends very much on having an enlightened director of community care or programme manager available. I would ask that this would become mandatory. In the Cork area we are lucky as we have got tremendous people many of whom are religious groups who help in the area of child care but I think they need financial support.
Section 10 relates to a controversial area which was challenged in the courts and that is the right of a garda in an emergency to remove to a hospital or other children's home a child who has been assaulted, ill-treated, neglected or sexually abused. Initially, that removal could only be for a maximum of 24 hours. The time now proposed is reasonable because it could be a very traumatic experience if something goes wrong. We are all aware of the recent case in Britain where the professionals were proved wrong. It was so traumatic for the families involved that they will never recover from the experience. It is essential that we have a brief period to look at the position. That immediately leads to the question as to whether there will be training for the Garda to recognise the reality of a given situation. They are not experts in this area and there is need to provide some type of training for them which will probably come under the Department of Justice but we need liaison between the Departments. There is need for training of the Garda because they would not have the expertise.
Section 16 enables the court to make a supervision order. This is enlightened legislation because up to now we had stark choices: a child was put into care or a child was left in the confines of the dangerous area because there was no alternative where people could take extra care and still leave the child in the home or in another safe place. This provision is good as it will give the professionals the option of working with families and of pointing out to them the danger of the child being taken away and so on. It is an excellent compromise between the two previous levels.
Part VI of the Bill is very important as it deals with the introduction of a system for the inspection of services for pre-school children. Deputies trotted out a whole range of issues on that subject during the debate. The primary areas are day nurseries, crèches, playgroups and pre-schools. Pre-schools, in particular, have mushroomed. That is a reflection of the change in society where so many women quite rightly, feel that their place in society may be at the workplace even though they may also be mothers. They put the children either in the day nursery, a crèche or a pre-school. Pre-schools are totally supported in the Cork area through the Cork Community Services Council. Those who would now be considered almost professional in the area know that there is a need for the introduction of standards and inspection and all of this will mean that extra funding will be required. There is no use in saying to a programme manager of community care that there are another 40 places to examine when there is nobody to examine them. We will have to look at the whole question of funding.
The most humane section which was widely greeted by everyone is section 57, providing for the abolition of the death sentence in respect of crimes committed by persons under 18 years of age. As a newcomer here I find it incredible that such legislation even existed on the Statute Book. In relation to that legislation we were really in the dark ages and I am delighted the Minister had the courage at last to get rid of it. It is incredible that it took so long to arrive at this stage.
The final point I should like to mention is one that is very topical and about where there was great public disquiet: it relates to the question of the abuse of solvents. It is an area fraught with danger. Going through the motion of writing down the various household products which may be abused can, in itself, be a temptation to young people. Many of us who have worked in the area of drug and alcohol abuse have been aware of the many alternatives to glue sniffing over a number of years. There are hundreds of substances that can be bought off the shelf in shops or found in offices and so on that can be used for that purpose. It is practically impossible to police the whole area. The Minister is attempting to do so in rendering it an offence to sell solvent-based products to children where it is suspected they will be abused. I do not know how that could be proved in a court of law. The deterrents, of a fine of £1,000 or 12 months imprisonment obtain, but it is an area very difficult to police. It constituted a weak area in respect of which there was no legislative provision.
We will have to be prepared to move more speedily. I do not see why a Bill pertaining to any issue must consist of 50 or 60 pages. Whether by way of ministerial order or otherwise we shall have to move more speedily in order to head off obvious difficulties such as glue sniffing when the Garda tell one: sorry, we cannot do anything about it; there is no legislation in this regard.
The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children are seeking mandatory reporting of cases of abuse. Such provision would be good and would mean that nobody involved in a case would be allowed slip away. There have also been efforts made to effect a change from the circumstances in which the offended person, that is the child, rather than the offender is removed from the home. Because of the pattern emerging, showing that in many cases more than one child in a family is sexually abused, further examination of this area is warranted. When there is evidence to the effect that a number of children in the one family have been abused over a number of years by the same person the notion of removing the offender will have to be examined. I agree with that notion particularly where the evidence suggests that such action would be more beneficial to the family concerned.
The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children referred to the child care area as being the Cinderella of our social services. Community care in general has been put on the back boiler for years. It was the last programme to be formally recognised, the general hospitals and psychiatric programmes having existed longer. The whole of the social services area — community care, care of the aged, child care, family support, will have to receive a greater proportion of the overall health budget. If it is an issue for the health boards then let us face up to it and put our money where our mouths have been to date.