I merely want to refer again to the point I was making before we adjourned for Question Time. On Committee Stage we agreed to a time limit for the debate on certain Parts of the Bill. Do Deputies agree that this would be the best way to proceed?
Child Care Bill, 1988: Report Stage (Resumed).
That procedure was very effective and meant that all Stages were gone through. Perhaps that suggestion could be taken up by the Whips.
The Minister of State, in conjunction with my office, was anxious to facilitate the House in that regard. I need hardly say that I should be very happy to co-operate.
If the spokespersons for the various parties wish, we can have a short meeting when we adjourn at 6.30 p.m. to see if we can arrange a structured conclusion to the debate.
Is that satisfactory? Agreed.
I support amendments Nos. 10 and 11 in the name of Deputy Yates, which seek to broaden section 3 by establishing in it the fundamental right of children to have their wishes and views taken into account. I am impressed by the desire of Deputy Yates to do this. He has made it clear that it is not in any way a veto which would be given to the child but would ensure that their views would be listened to and recorded so that if any reference was required subsequently it would be on the health board files.
I see very little which could be opposed in the two sections which it is proposed to add. I am anxious that the wishes of the child would be documented. Paragraph (d) of amendment No. 10 provides that children would be informed of their right to be consulted prior to any action or change in their circumstances. While I remember the lengthy debate we had on Committee Stage on this section — the Minister referred to cases when a child might not be in a position to make a valued judgment of his circumstances or might be too young or not capable of doing so — I do not think that should, as a general rule, preclude children from having the opportunity to voice their views, have them listened to and documented. There will be many instances when children will be very willing and able to express a view. I am sure it will be a matter of course any way that that view will be listened to but it is important, if we are enacting legislation, to lay down what we want to happen in clear legislative terms and not just come to a consensus view that this will happen in any event. If we want it to happen we should spell it out. This is one of the things we consistently said during the debate on Committee Stage. I believe both these amendments should be strongly supported by those on the Opposition benches and I hope they will be accepted, as the previous amendment was, by the Minister of State.
I am not in favour of amendment No. 10 because under the Bill the health board will have a statutory obligation to look after the welfare of children. Section 3 (2) (b) (ii) provides that a health board shall, in so far as is practicable, give due consideration, having regard to his age and understanding, to the wishes of the child. If the health board or social worker says to children who have been sexually abused or abused in any other way that they believe they should be taken into care or removed from their families, there are many children who would fear the repercussions of accepting that advice — they may believe, as in the old saying "the devil you know is better than the devil you don't know". Many children would not have any idea of the best thing to do and out of sheer fear could go against what would be in their best interests. That would be my biggest fear in relation to explaining to children their rights in a situation like that. There might also be the problem that a child would run away and a health board would be faced with a bigger calamity than they started with.
At the same time, I am very much in favour of the proposal that a child's view should be seriously considered. Children will know what they want at a certain age and, as legislators, it is our obligation to look after their rights. The Minister took that point on board on Committee Stage and I believe amendment No. 142 in his name will incorporate many of the proposals we would be putting forward. I am very much in favour of reviews for children in residential care. I worked in this area and it is very important that children are not left in care for, say, two years without a review taking place and perhaps that type of care is no longer necessary. I think this is provided for in the Bill and I do not see the necessity to reiterate it in this amendment, and furthermore I do not agree with the practice of explaining to children their rights in certain situations.
Section 3(2)(b)(ii) provides that "a health board shall, in so far as in practicable, give due consideration, having regard to his age and understanding, to the wishes of the child" and so on. Is it not reasonable to follow-on from that by including the paragraph that Deputy Yates proposes in his amendment, that the health board shall inform children of their right to be consulted. We should remember that we are talking about children of up to 18 years of age, who would understand and who are entitled to be consulted prior to any action or change in their circumstances. This is a logical and reasonable request and I support this amendment.
I have very serious reservations about the part of the amendment which proposes that children should be informed of their right to initiate a review of their circumstances as, quite frankly, if we are talking about young children this amendment could lead to chaos. Young children would not understand what this means and in the case of teenagers there are different degrees or levels of understanding. I wish to convey those serious reservations and question the wisdom of pushing this amendment.
Taking amendments Nos. 10 and 11 together, under section 3 (2) (b) health boards will be placed under an obligation to give due consideration to the wishes of the child, assuming of course that the child is of sufficient age and intelligence to express a view. However, the obligation will be subject to the proviso "in so far as is practicable." This is in recognition of the fact that it is not always possible or practicable to consult the child or have regard to his wishes. For example, where there is an immediate and serious threat to a child's safety it would not be practicable to consult the child about the making of an application for an emergency care order. Similarly, a health board could not be bound by the wishes of a child, otherwise what would the health board do in a case of alleged sexual abuse if the child wanted to return home and resume living with the alleged abuser?
The Deputy's proposal on the other hand, that a child should have a right to be consulted before any action is taken in relation to him, is not realistic. This could serve to prevent health boards from taking action to protect children in certain situations, particularly in an emergency. If, for example, the health board were unable to consult the child, under Deputy Yates's proposal the board would be prevented from taking action to protect the child. I am sure that this is not what Deputy Yates intends but it seems that this could be the effect of what he is proposing.
Having said that, I want to make it clear that I support and accept the principle of children in care being kept informed of their progress and being consulted as far as possible before any decision is taken which might affect them. Social workers, child care workers, foster-parents and others who deal with children on a day to day basis are well aware of the importance of this. I would like to draw the attention of Deputy Yates and the House to amendment No. 142 in my name, which would require the Minister for Health to make regulations which would make it mandatory on health boards to carry out regular reviews of the cases of children in care. If the Deputy is prepared to withdraw these amendments, I would be happy to give an undertaking that the question of giving a child in care a right to initiate a review of his own case will be sympathetically considered when the regulations under amendment No. 142 are being drawn up.
Again, it comes down to a question of emphasis. The purpose of the Child Care Bill is to give priority to the rights of children, which in some cases supersede the rights of parents in the interests of the child. The Minister has said that he envisages children being consulted but is there anything wrong with the concept that it is proper to consult children, to talk to them and build up their confidence at a time when they are experiencing trauma, are in trouble and in need of someone to talk to? Such a process of consultation might be welcomed by them. I am aware that there are some children who do not have the intelligence which would allow them to veto what is to be done but if they express a wish — we have to take into account the fact that circumstances may arise where they would express a wish — what is wrong with the concept which Deputy Yates has spoken about of documenting that wish? It may not be possible to grant it at the time but perhaps within a year or two when the case is being reviewed it may prove to be of benefit to the social worker or health board concerned with their welfare.
I know we are dealing here with hypothetical examples but I would like to think that children are not going to be treated as numbers in a lottery game and that it will be remembered that they are human beings with special problems, not of their own making. Would it not be of benefit to the health boards and agencies responsible for them to know what children are thinking or are talking about and what they would like us to know? There is nothing wrong with the principle of what Deputy Yates is trying to achieve. Indeed, it restates some of our aspirations outlined in the Bill without making it too bureaucratic and I think it is a reasonable one.
The Minister said that if I withdrew amendment No. 10 he would consider the question of allowing a child to initiate a review. On that understanding, I will be happy to withdraw the amendment. However, I feel very strongly about amendment No. 11 and feel there would be great potential for injustice, hardship, misunderstanding and damage to children if their views were not recorded. In reply to Deputy Fitzgerald, who said children may not be the best judges and that their desires may not be in their best interests, I consider it very important that a child's wishes are recorded. I consider this to be a vital legal protection for children.
I will certainly press amendment No. 11 because if a child wishes to have his circumstances reviewed this should be recorded. The social worker or the health board may say no, that they disagree and tell children they cannot go back. If the views and wishes of children are recorded evidence in regard to them could be accumulated over a period. This is patently reasonable and, seeing that I have agreed to withdraw amendment No. 10 on the understanding that the Minister will consider the points I have made when drawing up the regulations, I ask him in turn to accept amendment No. 11.
I move amendment No. 11:
In page 6, between lines 27 and 28, to insert the following:
"(e) document the requests of children in their care.".
Amendments Nos. 12 and 13 have been ruled out of order because they involve a potential charge on the Revenue.
I move amendment No. 14:
In page 6, lines 40 and 41, to delete "that he is unlikely to receive unless he is taken into care" and substitute "and where it appears to be in the better interests of the child to do so.".
Prior to tabling this amendment both Deputy Howlin and I had consultations with social workers. The purpose of the amendment is to firm up what we believe should be in the Bill — we hope the Minister will agree with us — without disturbing the thrust of the Bill. If the amendment is accepted section 4 would read:
Where it appears to a health board that a child who resides or is found in its area requires care or protection and where it appears to be in the better interests of the child to do so it shall be the duty of the health board to take him into its care under this section.
The amendment would change the emphasis. The social workers, the professionals in this area, are anxious that we do this because the words used in the Bill could lead to ambiguity. We are anxious to strengthen this section without disturbing the thrust of it as initiated by the Minister.
I support the amendment.
This amendment is identical to one Deputy Howlin tabled on Committee Stage when we gave it long, arduous debate.
I might explain that the purpose of this section is to provide a statutory basis for what is usually referred to as "voluntary care". This refers to circumstances in which children are received into care with the agreement of their parents. It also covers the admission of children who have been deserted or abandoned. It is the most common avenue of admission to care; approximately 65 to 70 per cent of children in care enter into care in this way.
The purpose of the phrase "that he is unlikely to receive unless he is taken into care" is to require a health board, before taking a child into care, to investigate whether the child's need for care and protection can be met by any other means short of admission to care. For example, it might be that the provision of a home help or social work support would help alleviate difficulties and render admission to care unnecessary. In the case of an abandoned child a health board might try to arrange to have the child looked after by relatives. The phrase acts as a type of filter to prevent inappropriate or unnecessary admissions to care. Of course, having considered the available options, if a health board are satisfied that admission to care is the best or only course for the child, then there is no obstacle to that. Indeed the relevant health board would be under a duty to take the child into care in such circumstances. I would be concerned that the effect of the proposal of Deputies Howlin and Ferris in this amendment would be to remove this safeguard, making admission to care too readily available as an option. This also runs counter to the principle of minimum intervention, one of the cornerstones of child care policy.
In the circumstances, I regret I am unable to accept the proposed amendment.
I am sorry the Minister has not found it possible to accept our amendment. Certainly its provisions would not envisage that the "taking into care" facility would be resorted to without having taken due regard to or seeking another view on the subject. Surely the words contained in the phrase "and where it appears to be in the best interests of the child to do so" obviously involve a procedure of investigation and so on. Certainly we would not rule out the possibility of a health board taking somebody into care if they considered it to be in the child's best interests. That would not rule out the possibility of the relevant health board resorting to other family members to be the carers of the child concerned.
I know this was discussed at the Special Committee. I know that professionals working in the field were anxious that we endeavour to bring the Minister round to our viewpoint, that this was a better form of wording. However, in view of the Minister's outright condemnation of our wording, there is no point in our wasting the time of the House.
We come to amendment No. 15 in the name of the Minister. As amendments Nos. 17 and 20 are related, perhaps all three can be discussed together, by agreement. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I move amendment No. 15:
In page 6, line 43, to delete "Nothing" and substitute "Without prejudice to the provisions of Parts III, IV and VI, nothing.".
The purpose of amendments Nos. 15 and 20 is to deal with concerns expressed at the Special Committee about certain matters in relation to this subsection. First, there was concern expressed that the phrase contained in section 4 (2) that "Nothing in this section shall authorise a health board to take a child into its care against the wishes of a parent..." might be interpreted as applying to all admissions to care and, as a result, a health board would not be able to seek an emergency care order, an interim care order or care order unless the parents agreed. Clearly, that is not the intention. The need to comply with the wishes of the parents arises only in the case of voluntary admissions under the provisions of section 4. In all other cases the health boards would be able to seek orders for the placement of children in care regardless of the parents' views.
Second, there was also concern expressed at Special Committee that the effect of section 4 (4) — which requires a health board in the case of a child who is taken into voluntary care because he is lost, because his parents are missing or have deserted him, or to attempt to reunite a child with its parents — might be to require health boards to return to their parents children who had, for example, been abandoned even though those parents might be unfit to have care of them. Again, that is not the intention. In such a case a health board would be able to apply for an emergency care order, or a care order, as they saw fit.
The insertion of these amendments makes it clear that the powers and duties of a health board under this section are without prejudice to their power under Part III to seek an emergency care order, under Part IV to seek an interim care order or a care order, or under Part VI to place a child in foster care or residential care.
I might add that these amendments also meet the point raised by Deputy Yates in his amendment No. 17, which he might now consider withdrawing.
As I recall our discussion in relation to section 4 and voluntary care, the Minister is quite right in so far as section 4 (2) did lead to some ambiguity. I have no difficulty with the manner in which the Minister has now proposed to tidy up that subsection that, notwithstanding other relevant sections of the Bill, it is with regard to voluntary care only that a health board can do what is contained in section 4 (2).
As I recall it — I stand to be corrected here — the insertion of the words "without a court order" in my amendment No. 17 would give greater flexibility to a health board. Section 4 (1) reads:
Where it appears to a health board that a child who resides or is found in its area requires care or protection that he is unlikely to receive unless he is taken into care, it shall be the duty of the health board —
I am seeking to insert the words "without a court order"—
to take him into its care under this section.
I am trying to facilitate the health boards, where there is voluntary care, that they would not require any form of legal jurisdiction by getting a court order. That is a somewhat separate point from what the Minister is tidying up. In so far as the Minister is dealing with this area of responsibility, I am quite happy about that. But I am endeavouring to give greater flexibility to health boards, so that there will be no question of legally verifying a child being taken into care in voluntary care circumstances by having to go to court, or in the event of anybody subsequently raising the matter — to the effect that there was no legal care order, emergency care order or any other type of order having been obtained.
The legal advice available to me is that the amendments I have tabled cover Deputy Yates's point adequately.
As we are taking these amendments together, I am replying to my amendment No. 17. Of course, this anonymous legal advice is always very helpful; it covers a multitude when in trouble. However, we have our legal advice also but, as I am replying and to facilitate progress, I will reluctantly withdraw this amendment.
As amendment No. 16 involved a potential charge on Revenue it has been ruled out of order.
I move amendment No. 18:
In page 6, line 46, to delete "wish or".
Amendment No. 19 has been ruled out of order in that it involves a potential charge on Revenue.
I move amendment No. 20:
In page 7, line 9, to delete“Parts IV and VI” and substitute “Parts III and IV and VI”.
I move amendment No. 21:
In page 7, lines 13 and 14, to delete "or, if this is not possible, to arrange for him to be looked after by a suitable person,".
This amendment is consequential on the changes made in section 30 on Committee Stage. It was proposed originally that, where it was not possible to reunite a child who is lost with its parents, or whose parents are missing or have deserted him or her, a health board would be empowered to place the child in the care of a suitable person, for example, a relative or friend. However, in the light of the new provisions inserted in section 30 on Committee Stage, it is proposed that the child be dealt with in accordance with that section. Section 30 enables a health board to make the following arrangements with respect to a child in their care:
(a) by placing him in foster care,
(b) by placing him in a children's residential centre ... or other place of residence,
(c) in the case of a child who may be eligible for adoption ... by placing him ... with a view to his adoption, or
(d) by making such other suitable arrangements ... as the health board thinks proper.
It will be seen that section 30 makes a greater range of options available to the health boards than does section 4 (4). It is proposed, therefore, that the provisions of section 30 should operate rather than the words be deleted in the amendment.
I move amendment No. 22:
In page 7, line 15, after "interests" to insert ", giving due regard to the wishes of the child".
This is self-explanatory. It is a repeat of a discussion we had on Committee Stage. It arises in section 4 of the Bill. I am seeking to provide that the wishes of the child be given some attention. As the Minister has it termed, it is just "the best interests of the child". That is, of course, a subjective term because what one social worker may think is in the best interests of the child the parent might not think is in the best interests of the child. Deputy Shatter outlined on Committee Stage in some detail reservations he had in certain cases whereby what was subsequently proved in court to be not in the best interest of the child was not necessarily the wishes of the child either in the initial decision made by the health board. Therefore, I feel it would be prudent to add these few words, "giving due regard to the wishes of the child". I do not feel it alters in any way the substance of the voluntary care section here, it just tidies it up.
I say in support of this amendment that it would be rather odd for the Minister not to accept it because under the Guardianship of Infants Act, 1954, where disputes arise with regard to custody of children, in particular when children reach the age of 10 or 11 and upwards, since 1964 the courts have had due regard in practice to the wishes of children. "Having due regard" does not mean that if a child has a perception of what should happen that is clearly contrary to the welfare of the child a court will make the order the child says should be made. It has meant in practice that a social worker's psychiatric assessment reports which record the view of a child are given some weight where the views of the child coincide with what is in the interests of the child's welfare, where there are two possible options which would result in the child's welfare being equally protected but there is a clear wish on the part of the child to follow one option rather than the other. Judges in the courts have on occasions taken it on themselves to talk to older children to ascertain what their wishes are in the context of reaching a final decision. Therefore, I urge the Minister to accept this amendment.
I do not think there is anything controversial about the amendment. It would accord with practice in other areas of child care law as it has operated for a number of years. I see no reason why such due regard to the wishes of the child should not be taken on board where a voluntary care situation arises. I urge the Minister to take it into account, and I draw his attention to the growing international awareness and practice in this area in which it is now being recognised that adults do not always know best for children and the children's wishes should be given a degree of seriousness in determining what steps should be taken on their behalf. In a report by the Law Reform Commission on the whole area of child sexual abuse, the commission in that context emphasised the importance of adults listening to what children say and what they are reporting and giving them a degree of credibility that perhaps up to now they have not always been given.
We have already inserted in section 3 a new provision requiring health boards in the performance of their functions in relation to the care and protection of children to regard the welfare of the child as the first and paramount consideration. That provision applies automatically to the actions of a health board under this section, so it is not necessary to make this insertion here. Section 3 (2) (b), Part II of this Bill also refers to the wishes of the child and section 23 imposes the same duties on the courts. I think there is no doubt about it, the interests of the child are the first and paramount consideration at all times, be it in the health boards responsibility or in the interpretation and duties of the courts towards the child. The Bill is very strong in that area and I think we are all at one on that. Therefore, this amendment is unnecessary and I would be sincerely grateful if Deputy Yates would withdraw it.
I acknowledge the Minister's point. However, I think he has missed my point and Deputy Shatter's point which is that this section deals with voluntary care. It does not deal with the courtroom situation or with any legal care order. It deals with a code which will operate purely in the confines of section 4. In the instance of voluntary care it is important that we extend the provision "having due regard for the wishes of the child", where practicable, to this section. In the same way as the Minister used this argument against my earlier argument, saying because it was stated elsewhere in the Bill it applied, that he was refusing to accept an amendment and was moving his amendments to tidy this up, I think my argument holds equally valid. I ask him, therefore, to reinforce what he has said by allowing section 4 to be improved in this way. Therefore, I will press my amendment.
I move amendment No. 22a:
In page 7, between lines 28 and 29, to insert the following:
"(2) Each health board shall, without unreasonable delay, arrange for the preparation of a family assessment report as to the suitability of a person or a married couple to adopt outside the State when requested by such person or couple to undertake such assessment and upon the conclusion by the health board of such enquiries as it deems appropriate, shall furnish a copy of such report to the person or couple who requested such report and to the lawfully designated authority in the State to which an application to adopt has been made.".
This amendment is to tackle an area that has not been tackled. It was raised in passing during Committee Stage. This relates to section 6, which imposes an express duty on health boards to provide, or ensure the provision of, in their area a service for the adoption of children in accordance with the Adoption Acts, 1952 to 1988. It is to do with ensuring that the health boards process adoption applications of a domestic nature; where, as is usually the case, a married couple seek to adopt a child in a health board area, the health board social work team will carry out whatever assessments are necessary on the couple, they will properly advise the mother of the child as to the purposes of placing the child for adoption and its legal implications, and matters are properly processed.
Section 6 of the Bill entirely ignores something that is becoming a growing phenomenon in this country and which we have not yet sought to address by way of legislation. There has been a dramatic decrease in the number of children made available for adoption in recent years. Until 1984-85 there were in the region of 1,200 or 1,250 adoption orders per annum being made by the Adoption Board. The number had reduced to 615 orders made in 1989 and fewer than 400 of those were made in favour of married couples who were unrelated to the child they were adopting. The remaining adoptions were either made in favour of people who were related to the child, such as grandparents, or, in the majority of instances, it was the mother who had the child outside marriage subsequently adopting her child jointly with her husband who was not the father of the child, so that following marriage the couple would in law be mother and father. Fewer than 400 adoption orders are currently being made in respect of childless couples in this country and that has resulted in an increasing number of couples trying to adopt outside Ireland. We have had instances of that in various countries in South America such as Chile, Equador and Peru. We have also had instances of adoption in India, the Philippines and other countries. This year has seen a dramatic illustration of that. It is my information that there are now, on average, two or three Irish couples per week travelling to Romania to adopt children. It is my understanding that there have been in excess of 120 Romanian children adopted by Irish couples since the beginning of this year.
One of the problems that Irish couples adopting in Romania are experiencing is that they need to have a social worker assessment report carried out to satisfy the authorities in Romania that they are appropriate couples to adopt. There is great difficulty in this area because health board social workers will not carry out assessments as employees of the health board, for the purpose of foreign adoption, and the adoption societies, who only have a domestic role in the area of adoption, will not carry out such assessment reports either.
This amendment is designed to impose a duty on the health boards in this area. It reads:
Each health board shall, without unreasonable delay, arrange for the preparation of a family assessment report as to the suitability of a person or a married couple to adopt outside the State when requested by such person or couple to undertake such assessment and upon the conclusion by the health board of such enquiries as it deems appropriate, shall furnish a copy of such report to the person or couple who requested such report and to the lawfully designated authority in the State to which an application to adopt has been made.
In effect, it seeks to ensure that if a couple who wish to adopt outside the State go to a health board looking for an assessment to be carried out so that they can satisfy the authorities in Romania or elsewhere that they are a suitable couple to adopt the social workers attached to the health board would carry out the necessary and proper assessment. It is my contention that this State has an interest in ensuring that, when adoption orders are made outside the State in favour of Irish couples living in Ireland, those adoption orders are made in favour of couples who are suitable to adopt. We also have a duty in the context of the tragedy that is unfolding in Romania. There are few Members of this House who have not watched television programmes and read articles depicting the horrific predicament of young children and babies locked away and abandoned in orphanages in Romania, who lack basic health care, education, nutrition, and the basic thing in life that all children require, an amount of love and attention.
This Bill is a fortunate opportunity to ensure that the health boards will co-operate by carrying out such assessment to facilitate Irish couples who wish to adopt and who wish to give assurances to the Romanian authorities, and authorities in other countries, that they are appropriate people to adopt.
I hope the Minister can accept this amendment. I hope he will see it not as something being tabled in a party political context. This is an enormous Bill and it is very easy to miss various issues we can deal with. Since Committee Stage, the need to address this problem has become even more apparent. I would invite the Minister to take this amendment on board to impose an obligation on health boards to carry out such assessments and to facilitate couples in Ireland who are appropriate to adopt, who are happily married and do not have children of their own, to adopt outside Ireland. I would ask the Minister to do this in the context of what must be his own knowledge in this area, that currently many adoption societies are refusing even to take new couples on to their waiting lists because although there has been a substantial increase in the number of children born outside marriage — almost 11 per cent of total births — there has been a substantial increase in the number of mothers retaining their children.
I hope this amendment will be seen in the spirit in which it is proposed and that the Minister will see fit to take on board. It is an amendment that would commend itself to many people outside the House who have been watching the problems that are unfolding in Romania and who would like to see our Government providing the necessary support and facilities to ensure that these children are given the possibility of a proper family life with Irish couples who are willing to open their homes to them and provide them with that family life.
I will be brief because Deputy Shatter has very competently covered the situation. The difficulty here is that these childless couples who are going to Romania have to go through a number of different procedures to bring home a child. First, they have to get approval from the Department of Justice to bring the child into the country, and that requires sending off birth certificates and so on. The second difficulty is to get acceptance from the Romanian authorities and they increasingly require as a basic measure of acceptance — in other words, the suitability of such parents to adopt — an assessment from the health board's local social worker. As demand has increased for these assessment reports the health boards have been increasingly reluctant, due to manpower restrictions or pressures of work or whatever, to give such assessments out. One's ability to get these assessment reports depends on what part of the country one comes from and by which health board one is serviced. This is totally unfair.
We need to bring uniformity into the situation. We need to facilitate the people who genuinely cannot adopt at home. We know there are crazy age restrictions because of the difference between the demand and supply in regard to adoption here. The Minister could, with this legislation, allow all parents, as of right, to have this assessment carried out. The assessment may well conclude that they are not a suitable couple to adopt, but if it was favourable it would greatly enhance their prospects. I know people who have gone to Romania two and three times and they still have not been able to sort things out conclusively; therefore, it is very important that these assessment reports be made available to them.
The timing of this Bill is fortuitous and section 6 gives us the opportunity to deal with this situation. I would ask the Minister to accept it for what it is and in a spirit of generosity, because it is a tragic situation for both the children and the parents concerned.
We all know these problems exist but I wonder if this is the right time to address them. I understand that consultations are taking place at the highest level to address them. There is no reference, however, in this Bill to the mechanisms for adoption. I wonder if it is not inappropriate to introduce an amendment like this into a child care Bill. This is essentially a Child Care Bill, not an adoption Bill. Surely my legal friend across the way must be aware that an adoption Bill would be a far more appropriate mechanism to address this problem. I would like the Deputy to respond to that when he has an opportunity to conclude on the amendment.
I support this amendment proposed by Deputies Shatter and Yates. Extraordinarily from my constituency, quite a number of married couples have gone to Romania and have brought home children they adopted there. The circumstances surrounding the preparation for that are well documented. It is appropriate that every investigation possible be carried out before people go to Romania. The Department of Justice insist that a family assessment or an assessment by a social worker be carried out as to the suitability of the adoptive parents. Initially there were no problems but because of problems being experienced by the administrative authorities it is becoming increasingly difficult to get social workers to carry out assessments. The only children available for adoption are those in Romania. Under a system in that country legal documentation must be submitted to the Department of Justice for approval before the people visit the authorities in Romania. Often two visits must be made to that country.
This amendment puts an obligation on us to ensure that the adoptive parents are suitable but it also provides that there should be a system in Romania under which people can get information on the children, whether they are healthy, are not HIV positive and so on. The childless couples from Ireland who are anxious to adopt children should be able to do so having been given clearance, firstly, by the authorities here and, secondly, by the Romanian authorities. While this is not an adoption Bill, as has been mentioned by Deputy Fitzgerald, it is a Child Care Bill. Children who come from another jurisdiction to Ireland to be adopted are not Irish nationals. They have to go through a procedure of naturalisation so that they eventually become citizens and obtain their own passports. The children will be our responsibility and it is at the initial stage that we should become involved. The adoption of the amendment would certainly go a long way towards meeting the concern of adoptive parents.
Last weekend people were pointing out the deficiencies in the Bill and said it does not address this dimension, which has arisen since the Bill was introduced. I ask the Minister to seriously consider the argument made by my colleagues, which is a good one. We sought legal opinion this morning on an amendment such as this but, in the meantime, we are prepared to support the amendment before us, which meets some of our concerns.
Most Deputies have been asked in recent years by constituents to give a stamp of approval to the adoption of Romanian children, but one feels very inadequate about that. There is a certain irony in this considering the need for such documentation and so on. Very caring, well-meaning and loving couples go to Romania to adopt children who are living in appalling circumstances. Those who have listened to radio reports or seen programmes on television on this matter wonder how any civilised state could allow such a thing to happen.
We are very fortunate that this amendment has been put forward. I suggest that the Minister seriously consider taking it on board. Surely he must have known that this was the way this side of the House would be thinking. Being a Child Care Bill, it is appropriate that this provision be inserted. I respectfully suggest to the Minister, if he claims that the place for it is in an adoption Bill, that the position in regard to Romania will have changed by the time such a Bill is introduced. I support this amendment and ask that it be given sympathetic consideration.
Far be it from me to dictate to my legal colleagues on the other side. I anticipated that a Private Members' Bill would have been introduced before now but, perhaps, political opportunism will be seen tonight on RTE.
It will come later.
Like other Deputies, I have been contacted in relation to Romanian adoptions. I understand the frustrations of people who find that children are not available here for adoption. An opportunity has arisen not only to provide an additional pool for adoption for parents here but also to be helpful to a country which has major problems of its own. I do not think the amendment is appropriate to this legislation. I hope an amendment to the Adoption Bill will be forthcoming. Like Deputy Yates, I believe there are other problems not only in the context of foreign adoptions but in regard to the relevant age of families who are entitled to adopt. Many people feel the age limit is very restrictive.
We have always had an excellent reputation of having a very good adoption society. We have been very diligent in ensuring that the people involved in adoption go through a long process so that no mistakes are made. I fear that, perhaps in ten years' time, the Romanian Government will say to the people of Ireland: "We would like our children back". Hindsight is a great thing. It is very important that this amendment is taken in its proper context. It would be most inappropriate to include it in this Bill. This is a matter on which we all have views. I hope the Minister will address the problem as quickly as possible and, perhaps in the very near future, we will see an amendment to our adoption laws, not only to deal with foreign adoptions but with other problems that have arisen over the years.
Very weak arguments have been made against what is a clearcut amendment. It is easily understood and is a follow-on from section 6 (1). It provides that without unreasonable delay arrangements should be made for the preparation of a family assessment report. We are talking about children in care and the adoption of children. Reference has been made to Romanian children and, therefore, it is reasonable to have this amendment inserted in the Bill. I support it.
I share the concern expressed by all Members in relation to the problem that has arisen with the adoption of Romanian and other foreign babies. I do not think this is an appropriate Bill in which to insert this amendment. I question why it has been introduced at this stage. Some Deputies have said they have heard no good reason why it should be excluded but I have heard no good reason why it should be included. If it was such an important amendment, and had been carefully considered, I venture to suggest that it should have been included in the original list of amendments and not on a white sheet, labelled No. 22a. I am sorry that I have to raise the issue of why this proposal should be before us at this late stage. The special committee who were set up to deal with this Bill worked very well and everyone co-operated on it. There was no mention at all of introducing this proposal then and I query the appropriateness and the motivation behind introducing it now. Perhaps later tonight we will know why it was put down today.
On a point of order, if the Deputy wants to make allegations questioning people's motivation perhaps he might indicate what motivation is behind——
That is not a point of order.
I do not know why on a serious issue members of Fianna Fáil have to get into that area.
Perhaps Deputy Shatter will quote the Standing Order——
This is a serious issue.
If it were serious and if the Deputy were so concerned about it he would have introduced it a lot earlier and it would have been raised in the Committee. It is inappropriate. I do not withdraw any remark I made concerning the motivation behind the proposal. The motivation is suspect. I would not support the amendment because it addresses only a tiny part of the serious problem that it purports to address. I do not think we should play around with the emotions of people who are caught up in this. This area requires much more than a totally inappropriate last minute amendment which does not address the problem. Consequently, the Deputy should withdraw the amendment.
I deprecate the fact that there is a note of aggression now which was not present during Committee Stage. This is not helpful. I do not think an idea is any less good because it is thought of late rather than early. I have often dealt with legislation where important ideas were made late in the day. The Minister and the Department have been dealing with this Bill for a long time, yet 32 pages of ministerial amendments were issued last Friday.
It should not be said that, simply because they were circulated as late as Friday last and that the Minister did not think of them over the last two years, they are inferior. The reality is that every suggestion put forward here is worth debating. If the argument is that the proposal would be only a partial solution, that it would not be comprehensive in its scope, the same argument could be used against enacting many of the sections because they are only partial solutions which affect a few people. Thankfully, child sexual abuse is not so rampant in the population that it affects the majority. We are dealing with children and with the rights of children. If we can protect and defend the rights of a single child by introducing a section or clause in this Bill it is worthy not only of debate but of serious consideration. That is the basis on which we have progressed legislation——
Provided it is relevant.
Let us get things back on the rails and give serious consideration to any amendment that comes before us, regardless of the colour of the paper it is printed on.
The situation was put in sharp focus for me in recent months as a result of television reports from Romania. I do not feel it is necessary to apologise for that. I commend Deputy Shatter for seeking to use the earliest opportunity to bring some form of order and authority into the area of adoption of children from these depressed areas. We have seen the visible suffering of children who have been totally abandoned and neglected. Teenage children were confined in tiny cots and so are grossly deformed. There are loving parents in this country who wish to adopt some of those children and that issue merits consideration in the House. Legislation might be needed but the Government have not seen fit to bring it before us. It is up to the Opposition to use whatever vehicle it can to bring forward ideas for amending legislation.
The argument that it does not fit into this Bill is spurious. It is to fit into section 6, which deals specifically with the issue of adoption and states that each health board shall provide or ensure the provision in its area of a service for the adoption of children in accordance with the adoption Acts. It is a natural follow-on to insert the amendment now proposed. There should not be any contention on the issue. It is bad policy not to support an amendment because we do not like the colour of the paper it is written on or because we do not think a particular vehicle is the most suitable one for it. If the amendment is good and worthwhile and is designed to improve the lot of any adopting family or of any child it is worth considering and I support it.
I assure the House that my acceptance or rejection of any amendment is based entirely on fact, information, legal advice and a genuine sincerity to ensure that we enact the best law. I assure Deputy Shatter that I do not either accept or reject amendments on the basis of the party proposing them. I do not operate in that way. For the past three and a half years it has been my privilege to be on this side of the House playing a particular role. I accept amendments, as they stand before me, in a most sincere way and with the aim of ensuring that we enact the best possible law.
Last Thursday we published 32 pages of amendments. These were based on firm commitments given during a long Committee Stage debate that we would review, examine and bring forward amendments on Report Stage at the request of Members who had serious doubts or asked questions about different matters. We will continue to do that as we go through the Bill in order to accommodate the House.
With regard to the amendment before us, the question of inter-country adoption is a complex matter. There is no one who accepts that more than Deputy Shatter. It involves questions of national and international law. It is the subject of urgent consultations betwen the Minister for Health and the Attorney General. The role of health boards in this delicate area is one of the questions presently under consideration. In view of this it would not be appropriate to pre-empt the outcome of these consultations by inserting a provision in this Bill. I ask the Deputies to withdraw the amendment to allow the negotiations and discussions that are presently under way at the highest level to be brought to a positive conclusion and to enable the necessary amending legislation which may emanate from these discussions to be brought forward. Until the discussions are concluded I do not see any sense in proceeding with a piecemeal matter like this.
I take it Deputy Shatter is replying to his amendment.
The amendment is in joint names so both of us can reply.
No, only one can reply.
Deputy Shatter drafted this amendment and I am satisfied with the quality of the words used. I notice that in his reply the Minister did not say that there was any particular wording or language used that was inadequate. A number of points were made. Deputy Dempsey's remarks were contemptuous and I am glad the Minister distanced himself considerably from them. They were irrelevant.
This should be put into sharp focus because three questions were put to the Minister for Health in relation to the problem of foreign adoptions, particularly of Romanian children. On 29 November last Deputy Shatter asked the Minister to indicate whether he had any intention of bringing legislation before this House to tackle the problem in regard to children being adopted abroad. In reply, at column 673 of the Official Report, the Minister for Health, Deputy O'Hanlon stated:
We are having discussions with the Attorney General and we want to be helpful. We would not be doing a service to Irish people seeking to adopt abroad or the infants if we rushed willynilly into law.
Later I asked the Minister whether he was aware that foreign adoptions of Romanian children were running at the rate of about three per week and that there was a very substantial demand for such adoptions. I said:
In regard to the Taoiseach's strictures about the Order of Business may I, for future reference, ask the Minister if he is promising legislation in this area, yes or no?
For once the Minister gave a very clear answer. He said:
No, I said nothing which would amount to a promise of legislation in this area.
There is no legislation — or adoption Bill — in this area. There is no hope for these people. It is not a case, as Deputy Dempsey said, of playing on the emotions, it is trying to solve practical problems for people who are being turned away by the Romanian authorities because they cannot get basic assessment reports from some health boards, although they can from others. We are trying to give an immediate response and I am pleased that today my party made arrangements — again through the good work of Deputy Shatter — to produce comprehensive legislation in the form of a Private Member's Bill which will deal with all aspects of adoption and the lack of recognition of foreign adoptions.
If you adopt a foreign child at present the position is the same as it was in regard to illegitimate children some years ago — there is no legal provision for it. This is a quite separate matter, it is a case of getting the health board to do these parents a favour, to provide an assessment report. It does not require a fundamental rewrite of our adoption law, that is another day's work with which this party will deal in view of the fact that the Minister will not. What we are being offered by the Minister of State is not some merit based approach to the pros and cons of what is required, we are being offered a dismissive rejection of a vital amendment in relation to people who are caught in an emotional vacuum by virtue of the fact that they cannot get these assessment reports because more of them are in demand than heretofore.
There are two issues, one is a major adoption Bill which will be a separate day's work and the second is the health boards in so far as they must provide child care servicesvis-à-vis adoption. Within the provisions of this Bill we are seeking to insert a simple additional paragraph which would mean that the Minister and the House would be saying that when the assessment reports are requested they must be granted. Perhaps the Minister could say that in certain circumstances, there would have to be a genuine need for these assessment reports.
I regret that Deputy Shatter could not again contribute but we will be pressing this amendment to a vote unless the Minister is prepared to reconsider the matter. I am very disappointed that the amendment could not have been seen in the spirit of the urgency and personal circumstances of those concerned and accepted on that basis.
- Ahearn, Therese.
- Barnes, Monica.
- Barrett, Seán.
- Bell, Michael.
- Belton, Louis J.
- Boylan, Andrew.
- Bradford, Paul.
- Browne, John (Carlow-Kilkenny).
- Bruton, Richard.
- Byrne, Eric.
- Carey, Donal.
- Connaughton, Paul.
- Cosgrave, Michael Joe.
- Creed, Michael.
- Crowley, Frank.
- D'Arcy, Michael.
- Deasy, Austin.
- De Rossa, Proinsias.
- Doyle, Joe.
- Dukes, Alan.
- Durkan, Bernard.
- Farrelly, John V.
- Fennell, Nuala.
- Ferris, Michael.
- Finucane, Michael.
- Flaherty, Mary.
- Garland, Roger.
- Gregory, Tony.
- Harte, Paddy.
- Higgins, Jim.
- Higgins, Michael D.
- Hogan, Philip.
- Howlin, Brendan.
- Kemmy, Jim.
- Lowry, Michael.
- McCartan, Pat.
- McCormack, Pádraic.
- McGrath, Paul.
- Moynihan, Michael.
- Nealon, Ted.
- Noonan, Michael. (Limerick East).
- O'Shea, Brian.
- O'Sullivan, Gerry.
- O'Sullivan, Toddy.
- Reynolds, Gerry.
- Shatter, Alan.
- Sherlock, Joe.
- Timmins, Godfrey.
- Yates, Ivan.
- Ahern, Bertie.
- Aylward, Liam.
- Barrett, Michael.
- Brady, Gerard.
- Brady, Vincent.
- Brennan, Mattie.
- Briscoe, Ben.
- Browne, John (Wexford).
- Calleary, Seán.
- Callely, Ivor.
- Collins, Gerard.
- Connolly, Ger.
- Coughlan, Mary Theresa.
- Cullimore, Séamus.
- Davern, Noel.
- Dempsey, Noel.
- de Valera, Síle.
- Ellis, John.
- Fahey, Frank.
- Fahey, Jackie.
- Fitzgerald, Liam Joseph.
- Fitzpatrick, Dermot.
- Flynn, Pádraig.
- Gallagher, Pat the Cope.
- Geoghegan-Quinn, Máire.
- Harney, Mary.
- Haughey, Charles J.
- Hillery, Brian.
- Hyland, Liam.
- Kelly, Laurence.
- Kenneally, Brendan.
- Kirk, Séamus.
- Kitt, Michael P.
- Lawlor, Liam.
- Leyden, Terry.
- Lyons, Denis.
- Martin, Micheál.
- McDaid, Jim.
- McEllistrim, Tom.
- Molloy, Robert.
- Morley, P.J.
- Nolan, M.J.
- Noonan, Michael J. (Limerick West).
- O'Connell, John.
- O'Hanlon, Rory.
- O'Keeffe, Ned.
- O'Leary, John.
- O'Malley, Desmond J.
- O'Rourke, Mary.
- O'Toole, Martin Joe.
- Quill, Máirín.
- Reynolds, Albert.
- Roche, Dick.
- Smith, Michael.
- Treacy, Noel.
- Wallace, Dan.
- Wallace, Mary.
- Walsh, Joe.
- Wilson, John P.
- Woods, Michael.
- Wyse, Pearse.
We now proceed to amendment No. 23 in the name of the Minister. I observe that amendment No. 24 is related. I suggest we discuss amendments Nos. 23 and 24 together. Is that satisfactory? Agreed.
I move amendment No. 23:
In page 7, line 33, to delete "Without prejudice to section 4,".
Amendments Nos. 23 and 24 are similar to those made to section 4 — amendments Nos. 15 and 20 — and seek to clarify the circumstances in which a child can be taken into and maintained in care under this section. The new subsection provides that in general a health board will not be able to take a child into care with a view to his adoption against the wishes of the parent or personin loco parentis. Similarly, a health board will not be able to maintain a child in care with a view to his adoption against the wishes of the parents.
The only situation in which a health board can act under this section against the wishes of the parent is where there is a court order under Part III or Part IV, for example, where the child has been placed in the care of the health board by the courts on the grounds that he has been assaulted, neglected or sexually abused. The health board may consider that the long-term interests of the child would best be served by placing him with suitable persons with a view to them adopting him.
However, I want to emphasise that nothing in this section alters the provisions of our adoption legislation. A child cannot be adopted against the wishes of his parents unless the High Court is satisfied that the parents have failed in their constitutional duties to care for the child and that it is in the best interests of the child that he be adopted. The Adoption Act, 1988, makes provision for such exceptional cases and the health boards will continue to be subject to the strict terms of that legislation.
I have no objection to this amendment and I agree to it.
I move amendment No. 24:
In page 7, between lines 36 and 37, to insert the following:
"(4) Without prejudice to Parts III, IV and VI, nothing in this section shall authorise a health board to take a child into its care against the wishes of a parent having custody of him or of any person actingin loco parentis or to maintain him in its care under this section if that parent or any such person wishes to resume care of him.”.
I move amendment No. 25:
In page 7, line 47, after "services" to insert "including community groups, child care practitioners and representatives of children with mental handicap.".
This amendment relates to the membership and possible composition of the child care advisory committees. This matter was discussed on Committee Stage. I am not satisfied with the wording provided by the Minister. It is too general and could allow certain community groups involved in play groups and other localised facilities, particularly in urban areas and areas of deprivation, to be included in the child care advisory committee.
On Committee Stage the Minister specifically rejected the inclusion of people involved in mental handicap. An organisation called SWIM — Social Workers in Mental Handicap — are providing an excellent service. They have an indepth knowledge of the deficiencies in these services provided for such children. It would be wrong to assume that children in care did not include mentally handicapped children. There has been an increasing demand in all areas of mental handicap for a principle of integration in education and in care. It strikes me as the wrong policy option for the Minister to state — as he did on Committee Stage — that mental handicap was a completely decompartmentalised, separate area from child care and that there should not be an overlap. In my view there should be an overlap. Therefore, I am seeking that the membership of the child care advisory committees would include community groups, child care practitioners and representatives of children with mental handicap in preference to the Minister's more bland and vague choice.
If I remember correctly, we had some long arduous debates in relation to the child care advisory committees and some useful points were taken up and have been looked at by the Minister, as we can see in amendment No. 26. Amendment No. 25 is very restrictive. It seeks to include community groups, child care practitioners and representatives of children with mental handicap in child care advisory committees. At the time, wrongly or rightly, there was much media hype in relation to facilities for the mentally handicapped——
There still is.
——and tongues wagged as to whether it was sincere. If membership is restricted it would preclude certain other people who may be as interested and as well qualified to be members of the child care advisory committee.
The Minister's amendment is more widely based and would, I hope, incorporate the members Deputy Yates wishes to have included as well as others, and it would depend on the availability of certain groups in the health board areas. Perhaps there are more organisations in one health board area than another. That is an area that would need to be looked at rather than being specific in relation to the membership of the child care advisory committees.
The purpose of the child care advisory committees is to involve the greatest possible expertise in health board areas to sit on these committees, and to advise the health board in the performance of their functions under this Bill. I consider that the section as drafted is sufficiently broad to encompass the sections dealt with specifically by Deputy Yates' amendment. In his amendment Deputy Yates wants to ensure that community groups, child care practitioners and representatives of children with mental handicap would be included in the group of people who are not necessarily excluded. I would have read this section as being open to all these groups which Deputy Yates seeks to include but I was not privy to the Committee Stage debate of this Bill.
Deputy Yates said the Minister had not intended to include representatives of children with mental handicap in these committees. If the Minister said that on Committee Stage, then this amendment is very necessary. I would not support a section in the Bill which would exclude people with a special responsibility for the handicapped and children who are mentally handicapped, because some of these children will be in care at some time. It is important that people who are dealing with them regularly, professionally and otherwise, would have an opportunity to sit on these child care advisory committees. I would hate to think they would be excluded although the section, as drafted, does not exclude them specifically. I need to hear the Minister's confirmation that they would be included because, if what Deputy Yates says is correct, I would be very concerned and would insist that the words proposed by Deputy Yates be included.
I have been looking at section 7 of the Health Act, 1970, which brought into being the local health committees. I would draw an analogy between what was incorporated in that Act and what is now proposed. The position then was that the Minister should make regulations to establish, in relation to the functional area of each health board, such number of committees and so forth. Under the provisions of this Bill the health board shall establish the health care advisory committees. Why, then, is it not acceptable that the health board should have the right to include such representatives as are suggested in the amendment? In the debate on my amendment No. 1 to the Minister's amendment No. 26 I will deal with the wording of his amendment. What is wrong with including such groups as community and child care groups? According to the Bill, it is the health boards who will establish the child care advisory committees. Why should there be a restriction on some groups? There should not be any restriction; all we are asking is that these groups should be specifically mentioned. I support the amendment.
I think there has been some slight misunderstanding of what the Minister said on Committee Stage. I think he said that he would not specifically include mental handicap groups. He made the point that he was not being restrictive by not mentioning certain groups or focusing the mind of a health board towards a particular group but rather he would prefer to leave this provision as wide as possible so that health boards would take on the best people in a wide range of organisations. If I recall correctly, Deputy Howlin referred at that time to a particular group who operate in County Wexford who would not operate in other parts of the country. He was anxious to ensure that health boards would not be constricted by naming specific national organisations, thereby excluding organisations in a particular town, county or health board area. I am sure when the Minister is replying he will clarify this point.
I would prefer to leave this provision as open as possible in order to allow the greatest degree of flexibility to health boards to take on the best possible range of people to serve on these bodies. If specific reference was made to mental handicap groups, community care groups, voluntary organisations and so on, I would be afraid that health boards would make decisions on the basis that the Minister intended that only national organisations should be represented on child care advisory committees. I believe the Minister's amendment is appropriate in this case and I support it.
As I have always had a horror of empire building and forming structures just for the sake of it, I would not favour initiating something which was not there before. However, we have to set out in this legislation the relevant groups who must be represented. I would stress very strongly the need to have representives of the mental handicap groups on these bodies. The mental handicap groups are marginalised in our society and they are almost without a voice in putting forward the argument for residential care. The arguments put forward by the mental handicap groups are very sound — their children should have the same right to education, training and care as any other child. I do not believe they have the avenues to achieve this and as child care advisory committees will advise the health boards on such matters I believe this group and the other groups referred to by Deputy Yates should be specifically referred to in the Bill.
Amendment No. 25 is identical to an amendment we discussed in detail on Committee Stage. We went through the same arguments at that time. Section 7 (2) already provides that the child care advisory committees shall be composed of persons with a special interest or expertise in matters affecting the welfare of children. This expression clearly covers what Deputy Yates referred to as "child care practitioners". With regard to the reference to community groups, the existing subsection specifically provides for the involvement of representatives of voluntary bodies providing child care and family support services. This expression is sufficiently broad to cover any type of voluntary body who could have a genuine contribution to make to the work of the committees.
I can easily concur with what Deputy Fennell and other speakers have said about the mental handicap group but there is also the physically handicap group and so on. We have left this provision as broad as possible so that there can be the widest representation and broadest consultation. Consequently, this amendment is not necessary and I would be sincerely grateful to Deputy Yates if he would withdraw it.
As the Minister rightly said, we had a long debate on a similar amendment on Committee Stage. I do not want to hold up the proceedings any further but I have received requests from people who want to know exactly what constitutes expertise as referred to in section 7 (2). This is not defined in any way. Is it envisaged that it will be up to the individual health boards to decide what in their view is special interest or expertise in matters relating to the welfare of children? It is important that there should be some clarity on this point. I think all of us are anxious for the provision to be as inclusive as possible so that groups who are genuinely working in the field of child care would be entitled to have their views heard by the health board. What exactly does the Minister have in mind in regard to expertise? I do not recall this being spelled out in any detail on Committee Stage and certainly not today. I am not sure that the Minister can reply——
He can reply when we are dealing with amendment No. 26.
I was going to say that. The Minister will not have an opportunity to reply now but in the fullness of time the opportunity will present itself for him to elaborate on that.
I wish to assure Deputy Dempsey that I have nothing personal against him but every time he makes a contribution he causes me some difficulties. He said that if he could recall correctly the discussion on Committee Stage, the Minister was as open as possible, he did not wish to exclude any group, he wished to give full consideration to all groups and it was not so much a case of ruling out the mental handicap group as not being specific. I should like to quote from the proceedings of the Special Committee on Wednesday, 10 January what was said by the Minister of State, Deputy Treacy. He said:
Deputy Yates wishes to include representatives of services for the mentally handicap but the mentally handicap services already have their own well organised network of regional committees. These are working well and I see no reason to duplicate their work by extending the remit of the committees we are establishing here to the field of mental handicap.
It is not a case of the Minister being open, broad and so on; he was being quite specific. He was slamming the door in the face of any potential inclusion——
I was leaving the door unlocked.
Those were the Minister's words, not mine. If there is any movement in the Minister's position I welcome it, as I have done throughout the debate on this Bill. If I was being political, I would ask if the membership is being kept so open that groups will be included on a party political basis.
I can assure Deputy Yates that he would definitely qualify——
There is a requirement to be more specific in these areas. Therefore, I will be pressing amendment No. 25. I welcome amendment No. 26 in the name of the Minister. In the context of what Deputy Howlin said, I should like to point out that there was a detailed line of questioning specifically on the number, composition and length of service of the members of the advisory committees but the Minister was unable to give any answers as he had no firm views at that stage on any of the questions. Will he answer those questions in the limited time available to him to deal with amendment No. 26?
We now come to amendment No. 26 in the name of the Minister. Here we have amendment No. 1 and amendment No. 2 to amendment No. 26 and amendments Nos. 27 and 28 are related. I suggest, therefore, that amendment No. 26, amendments Nos. 1 and 2 to amendment No. 26 and amendments Nos. 27 and 28 be discussed together by agreement. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I move amendment No. 26:
In page 8, to delete lines 9 to 13, and substitute the following:
"(5) The Minister shall give general directions in relation to child care advisory committees which may include directions on any matter relating to the membership, constitution or business of committees (including a provision empowering a committee to co-opt one or more members) and each health board and child care advisory committee shall comply with any such directions.".
At the Special Committee I accepted proposals from Opposition Deputies that there should be an obligation on the Minister to give directions under this subsection and also that provision should be made to enable the Minister to give a direction empowering a committee to co-opt one or more members. The proposed amendment gives effect to that commitment. I trust it will be accepted and will enable Deputy Yates to withdraw amendment No. 28 and Deputy Howlin to withdraw amendment No. 27 as we hereby embody in our amendment what they propose.
Would the Minister answer the questions, if there are answers?
I would like to call Deputy Sherlock next. Perhaps he would move amendment No. 1 to amendment No. 26.
I move amendment No. 1 to amendment No. 26:
In the third line, to delete "membership,".
Here again I will draw an analogy with the 1970 Health Act and reckon we have to be very careful on this one. The Bill at section 7 states "that a health board shall establish a child care advisory committee to advise the health board on the performance of its functions under this Act and the health board shall consider and have regard to any advice so tendered to it". That is fine, no one could object to it. The only thing we object to is the Minister's amendment, which states that "the Minister shall give general directions in relation to child care advisory committees". On the one hand the Bill will give the health boards power to set up health care advisory committees, while on the other the Minister now wants to insert an amendment which would take away that power entirely. The two are in conflict.
The amendment states that such general directions may include directions on any matter relating to the membership. There would be some sense in putting forward an amendment proposing that provision be made for the drawing up of regulations covering such committees, including a provision on membership for bodies who have been mentioned previously and others actively engaged in the child care area and in related activity. On the one hand the Bill states that the health boards "shall" establish child care advisory committees while on the other the Minister, according to the amendment, "shall give general directions which may include directions on any matter relating to the membership, constitution or business of committees". That is not the way to go about it and I do not believe the Minister should have that power. For this reason I propose that in the third line the word "membership" should be deleted.
The 1970 Health Act gave local committees the duty to advise the health boards but I should point out that these committees no longer meet as their powers have been taken away. I see the same thing happening with the child care advisory committees, which the health boards will establish, as the Minister, if his amendment is accepted, will have the power to tell the boards who the committees should consist of and what their powers and functions should be. If this were to be done by way of regulation to be handed down to the advisory committees it would be fair enough. The Minister should not have the power to give directions on any matter relating to the membership. However, that is exactly the power he is seeking in his amendment. For this reason I oppose the amendment and seek to have amendment No. 1 to amendment No. 26 adopted.
Deputy Howlin rose.
We must dispose of amendment No. 1 and indeed amendment No. 2 to amendment No. 26 before we come to deal with amendment No. 26. I take it, therefore, that Deputy Howlin will speak to Deputy Sherlock's amendment.
I would like to comment on the Minister's amendment and the two amendments to his amendment. I should say that I welcome the Minister's amendment and that he is acting in good faith and keeping the commitment he gave at the special committee. I requested him at that time to make it mandatory on the Minister for Health to give directions on matters relating to the establishment of these advisory committees and take on board the submission made by Deputy Yates on the matter of co-option. He has acted on that in good faith and I welcome the amendment very much.
A whole range of issues was raised at the special committee, including the one I raised a few minutes ago, and I hope the Minister will respond to it. We often find when enabling legislation is introduced to establish committees such as these, and this is understandable, that the details have not been worked out. However, it is not understandable in this case because the timescale involved has enabled the Minister and his officials to come up with a detailed view on the way these local child care advisory committees should be constituted, on what is meant by the particular wording of the legislation in front of us, including what is meant by "special interest" and "expertise". I expect the Minister to give us a definition of both those terms.
I cannot support Deputy Sherlock's amendments because one of my strong fears as expressed at the special committee was that, having regard to the vagueness and looseness of the section, there would be inconsistency nationally as between one health board and another in relation to the composition, membership and scope of the committees. It is imperative that not only should the Minister have the power and duty to determine the scope and membership and the mechanism for appointment to the committees but that the health boards should be obliged to act upon those recommendations, otherwise there will not be a consistent pattern across the country.
Many people argue in favour of freedom of action at local level but, unfortunately, because of our political establishment, political dominance does not often work in the best interests of health policy at health board level. At least we are given the opportunity to monitor it from the Oireachtas. I hope the Minister's amendment will be enacted unamended as I could not bring myself to support either of the two amendments to the amendment in relation to the role of the Minister with regard to membership or the duty of the advisory committees to act on suggestions made by the Minister. It is right and proper that those provisions be in the Bill.
I hope the Minister will take some time to give a detailed overview to the House on this, probably the final occasion we will have an opportunity to hear in detail what he wants to put in place in relation to the local advisory committees.
I support the Minister's amended amendment and want to say how pleased we are that it does take in the co-option provision discussed on Committee Stage. Sometimes it is felt here that Ministers should not have responsibility at local level, that there are inherent dangers in that; at other times it is felt important that the strength of direction be shown by the Minister's involvement. Generally, we would follow the line of the last speaker and express our satisfaction with the Minister's amended amendment.
Presumably Deputy Sherlock means, in regard to amendment No. 1 to amendment No. 26, that the reference to "membership" is designed to enable the Minister to appoint members to these committees. That is not the case. Appointments will be a matter for each health board. The only role envisaged for the Minister is in setting down classes or types of persons or bodies from whom the membership should be drawn. However, the Minister himself will not be involved in appointing members to the committee. Therefore, I would be grateful if Deputy Sherlock would withdraw that amendment.
The effect of amendment No. 2 to amendment No. 26 in the name of Deputy Sherlock would be to enable a health board or a child care advisory committee to consider any directions given by the Minister and, having considered them, ignore them. I am not sure that that is what Deputy Sherlock intends but that would be the effect of his proposal. In view of that, I would also ask Deputy Sherlock to consider withdrawing amendment No. 2 to amendment No. 26.
Deputies Howlin and Yates have pressed me on the constitution of the committees, their membership, expertise and so on. I would define "expertise" as being the relevant professionals with competent qualifications and practical experience with a positive commitment to child care.
When the Minister says "professionals" does he mean that excludes the voluntary sector?
It includes all sectors, all professionals — doctors, teachers, nurses, child psychologists, child care workers, all of the relevant professions, a very broad spectrum of people.
As regards the constitution of the local advisory committees, I want to be truthful and fair to the House and say that we have not given consideration to this area. We wanted the Bill to be put in place, when we would consider its implications, operate the guidelines and then put our position forward.
When is the Minister likely to do that?
Perhaps Deputy Sherlock would indicate how his amendment stands?
I refer briefly to my amendment No. 2 to amendment No. 26 and point out that I want to include the word "shall" rather than the word "may"; that has been the case throughout Committee Stage. I am very sceptical about the whole section we are now debating and the amendments. I have good reason to be sceptical because of the position of the local advisory committees of health boards. However, I will leave that aside for the moment. If the relevant health boards will have the authority, is there anybody here who would say — whether on the Government or Opposition side of the House — that the health board or health board agencies are not eagerly awaiting the enactment of this Bill? Of course they are, and once they are given the power under the provisions of this Bill they will be eagerly setting up their local advisory committees. I am very wary about the power the Minister will retain to direct the health boards to appoint members or indeed specify the other functions of the health boards. With regard to the point made by Deputy Howlin, it is indeed more likely that henceforth demands will come from below rather than direction from above in this regard. For example, it is estimated that, in the Southern Health Board area, the cost of implementing the provisions of this Bill could be as much as £2 million. Does the Minister mean to tell me that that amount will be provided? I do not believe it will be. I do not see any provision therefor. I foresee quite clearly that the reins will be held very tightly by the Minister and his departmental officials. That is why I feel strongly about the matter. However, I am impressed that the Minister has said that he will not be appointing the members of such local advisory committees. Why then include the word "membership" in section 7 (5)?
Is the Deputy pressing his amendment?
I move amendment No. 2 to amendment No. 26:
In the last line, to delete "shall" and substitute "may, after consideration,".
I move amendment No. 29:
In page 8, between lines 18 and 19, to insert the following:
"(7) Each child care advisory committee shall have the following powers and functions:
(a) it will have access to all information relating to child care services in its area;
(b) it shall make recommendations in relation to the improvement of child care services to the child care authority;
(c) it shall be a consultative body to voluntary organisations;
(d) it shall make annual reports to the child care authority on child care services;
(e) it shall submit plans for the future of services in its area;
(f) it shall review the needs of children in its area;
(g) it shall draw attention to individual child cases as it sees fit and promote the development of child care services in its area.".
I was somewhat aghast to hear the Minister say he had no further thoughts in relation to his proposals for his child care advisory committees. He has not moved forward one iota from the position he outlined on that fateful day of 10 January last.
If I brought forward proposals, I would be wrong; if I do not bring forward proposals, I am wrong — so how does one proceed?
Where the Minister would be correct would be in accepting my proposals as outlined in my amendment No. 29, in which we have given the Minister a number of options to consider in relation to the powers and functions of the child care advisory committees.
I want to make it clear — so that there will not be a rehash of that discussion — I did not, and I am sure this House would not, envisage that the child care advisory committees would have an executive role to play in second-guessing the decisions of the child care advisory committees. Consistent with that is the need to have access to information, to have the necessary resources and back-up facilities to make a proper independent input into a review of the services, planning for the future of the services and to pass comment on individual cases if they were so concerned. Therefore, what we are proposing is that initially they should have all the information, that they should make recommendations, consult and receive submissions from the voluntary organisations, produce annual reports of their own and submit their views and plans for the future along with a review of the needs of the children in their areas.
If somebody is particularly concerned about the treatment of an individual case, he or she should be able to have it referred to the relevant child care advisory committee for further consideration. It is not good enough that the Minister should state here that now he has conceded the question of minor matters of co-option and so forth everything is in order. The only basis on which we could withdraw amendment No. 29 was if we heard the Minister's draft regulations. It seems no thought has been given to these regulations. I thought the Minister said they had not gone that far down the road, that they were so busy they had not time to do the draft regulations.
The Deputy is getting too flippant.
We had this in great detail almost 12 months ago.
I will give the Deputy an answer in a moment which he may not like.
Excellent, because my views have not changed. My views are very clear. I propose we include the provisions in subsection (7) (a) to (g) in amendment No. 29. I was reflecting on what Deputy Sherlock said — that we do not know how long these advisory committees will last — but I imagine if you were on the child care committee itself — namely the health board — and this advisory committee were causing all sorts of problems you might not be too keen to ratify some of the outgoing members.
Since they will not have executive power, it is important that we confer on them an independence of role that gives them a useful function. If they are to be merely a talking shop, purely a paper exercise observing the formalities of giving advice, then I fear they will lapse into irrelevance. In the context of not having a national children's council and no annual report to the Dáil by the Minister of national child care services, this is the only watchdog for health boards. Therefore, we must take them seriously. We must not come to this House with blank sheets of paper, with no ideas. We must come forward with positive suggestions, and these suggestions have the support of the Child Care Coalition and all the professionals and voluntary groups. I ask, therefore, that the House accept amendment No. 29.
I support this amendment. In the context of the final stages — and I am glad we are finally giving this legislation to the health boards, weak as it is — this section and the acceptance of this amendment is the last chance we have to give the Bill some strength. At this stage the Bill is as significant for what is not in it as for what is in it. Deputy Yates moving this amendment mentioned we have no national child care advisory board or authority, no local, separate authority with clear responsibility, but that we are tagging on additional responsibilities to already overburdened health boards. This is the Cinderella of the services.
The only committees getting the Government sanction are the local advisory committees. Despite the case argued by all the Opposition parties and all the voluntary bodies, the Government have turned their mind against everything else and this is all that remains to give the Bill teeth to fight for the development of the health services. It was astonishing listening to the Minister today say that beyond the power to co-opt members he has given no furhter thought to what he is going to do with these committees. I gather he is going to stun us all with his response. I hope he will because it is extraordinary that, after ten years into the drafting of this legislation and two years into its consideration by this House, the Minister still does not know why he is giving himself powers or why he is establishing these committees.
Deputy Yates' amendment should be accepted because it is absolutely essential that these committees have teeth, that they have access to information, as is suggested in the first part of the amendment, that they will have power to make recommendations to ensure that emphasis is laid on issues as they emerge, that policy directives are laid down and developed and that the voluntary organisations should be considered. We are asking here for annual reports at local level. This begs the question why we should not have a national report, but if this is the only mechanism we have, let us make progress with it.
Plans for the future of the services in the area are absolutely essential and in the context of the amendment the group will be more committed and wholehearted. Other than that, we are leaving it to the community care section of the health board, who are over-stretched at the moment. Health boards generally are over-stretched trying to develop and maintain existing services without taking on this area. A strong child care committee is essential and it is a pity it is the only mechanism this legislation allows. It is vital that they are given the power, support and direction from this House that would indicate that we are serious about this area, that the setting up of these committees is not intended as a sop, that they are not meant to be anonymous, private committees who meet and nobody will know about them. We should provide powers and clear functions in the legislation to ensure that the expertise and commitment to child care among the many organisations who, I hope, will be represented on these committees are availed of to the greatest extent.
The first utterance I made on Report Stage today was that this was a good Bill, and I believed that. A great deal of important legislative provision is incorporated in it. But it is not as good as it could be or as good as it should be at this stage of debate, when so much time and effort have been spent on it.
Section 7 is one area that, unfortunately, is clearly wafer thin. Listening to the Minister, one is inclined to come to the conclusion that local advisory committees were put in as a sop, that he did not want a national authority who would have a co-ordinating role, who would be a policy generator in their own right, who would draw up a bill of rights for children, who would have teeth and muscle and who would be listened to.
To offset that and to have some sort of safety net, he decided to agree to have at least one local child care advisory committee in each health board area. If you were going to depend on that as your safety net you would not expect it to have holes in it, but clearly the Minister's safety net is full of holes. What he said on the section was basically that one committee should be established in each health board area, but he has flabbergasted most of us by saying that really he has not thought out what exactly they should do. At this stage it seems a mite unusual, to put it at its kindest, that the only detailed suggestions before the House on the functions of a committee the Minister is recommending we establish are coming from the Opposition benches. That is not good enough.
I have no difficulty supporting the amendment because I agree with its provisions, but I am disappointed that there is not a comprehensive ministerial amendment. He was aware of the Opposition views on Committee Stage. I am less than satisfied with the degree of reponse I got to the first series of queries I raised under the Minister's amendment No. 26, which I supported and welcomed.
I really believe the committees that will be established now will be of much less worth than needs to be the case. If we are to give them serious functions we should legislate accordingly. Their role should be spelled out in clear terms in the core legislation and the Minister has already had adequate time to bring that about. No doubt he will tell us that these functions will be spelled out in due course by way of regulations, but regulations are not legislation and are often used as a device to prevent Members of this House from questioning Ministers about legislation once it is enacted; for instance, on the Order of Business, one can ask about legislation but not about regulations that arise from legislation. I would be much happier if there were a clear view from the Minister on the role, function, composition and powers of the child care advisory committees it is proposed to establish. I would be a lot happier if their functions were spelled out in clear legislative terms and we could debate them here. After all the time that has elapsed since we had a parallel discussion of this issue on Committee Stage, I deeply regret we have made little or no progress.
I would like to remind the Minister of the extreme debate and the passionate requests which were made on Committee Stage on this section. We came into the debate gravely disappointed that there was not to be a national children's council or child care authority, no overall umbrella group that would be seen as the standard bearer of the rights of children to maintain a certain standard. I regret that Report Stage has to be squeezed in almost in Christmas week. I am utterly disappointed because I felt that, given the length of time that has elapsed between Committee Stage and this Stage, things would have been considered and thought out and that we would have from the Minister an outline of the functions and role of the local advisory committees.
I want to see local committees that have vitality and energy and the initiative to make an impact so that people, wherever they are, will be able to make submissions or requests to them and use these committees at local level. It is regrettable that we do not have stronger national umbrella groups. What is promised is a pathetic entity. It will be a poor, limp and sad thing unless the Minister can come in now and give us a commitment that he will put some muscle, drive and energy into these committees. Otherwise, this will be a rather sad part of this Bill and a very regrettable aspect of this debate.
In the past two weeks I had the great learning experience of attending a conference set up by an alliance of child care workers and all the other agencies dealing with the inadequate support and services we give to our children. I know other people sitting in this Chamber attended this meeting also. It was packed with people who for years have coped in their own way, either on a voluntary or professional basis, with the whole area of child care and all its inadequacies, its lack of structure, investment and legislation. It made us feel, with a fierce urgency, that none of us could sit comfortably through another session or another year unless we had some kind of central, consultative advisory body with teeth that would be listened to and whose members would join forces and, based on their joint experience, bring about the kind of child care services our children deserve. That alliance consists of the Judiciary who deal with the difficulties and the deprivations of our children every day, right across to children and the people who foster them, whose expectations of this legislation are extraordinarily high. If we do not give the powers to some committee to monitor and advise and, above all, have a real input into this legislation — and I join with my colleagues in saying this in the most non-party political way possible — we will be failing totally to deliver what all those agencies and all those people out there on the ground are expecting.
Within the confines of Report Stage in which he had to operate, I feel that Deputy Yates's amendment covers in a moderate way, without making huge demands, the basic needs of such a committee. If we do not empower this committee to use its expertise and monitor situations in an independent and autonomous way it will be useless.
I want to put on record the grave disappointment reflected on this side of the House. I agree with Deputy Howlin that this has the makings of a great Bill and the Minister and his officials have put so much work and time into it.
This amendment is one of the most fundamental ways we can improve the Bill and give confidence to that alliance that was set up two weeks ago that it can work and that their agencies will have an input that will be taken seriously, that will not be just advisory, that will not be passed over, that will not be devalued and not listened to.
My plea to the Minister is that he should accept this amendment. It is not just recognising what we in this House are saying. It is recognising what a vast alliance of the most committed people I know outside this House are involved in and desperately need. It would give them a sense of acknowledgment of their expertise. Above everything else, it would strengthen this Bill in a way they see as absolutely essential.
On a point of order, I have just read through the Committee Stage debate. Is it within my power to withdraw paragraphs (a) to (g)? For instance, if I found that paragraph (g) was particularly difficult, is it possible for me now to say that I stand by all of amendment No. 29 except that paragraph?
By agreement of the House an amendment can be put down.
Could Deputy Yates clarify the question? His comments are not very audible on this side.
I was asking if it would be possible to do something, not that I was necessarily going to do it. I was refreshing my memory on what the Minister said on 10 January. He found paragraph (g) unacceptable so far as individual cases are concerned. I wondered if it was possible to negotiate on parts of this amendment, and I have received an answer.
We are discussing this amendment in the context of a previous amendment from the Minister. He gave a very positive response to some of our concerns. We are very pleased that the Minister, in amendment No. 26, is taking positive action and that he will direct local health boards to set up committees by statute. I have no doubt he will do that. He talked about membership and powers of co-option. It is incomprehensible that it will be up to the Opposition to prompt the Minister as regards the areas where these committees should function laying down guidelines, standing orders and so on. I was surprised when the Minister said he had not really thought about these committees yet. He said he and the Government are considering them. He said he wants to deal with the Bill first and then he will consider the committees.
If the Deputy checks the wording he will find that that is not exactly what I said.
As I understand it, that is what the Minister meant, but he will have an opportunity to spell out what he meant. The Minister said he accepts the principle of the committees and that he will have power to direct that they be set up, but he has not yet thought about what they are going to do. We want to make sure that they will not be talking shops but that they will have a fundamental input into child care and that they will have a role as laid down by this House. For that reason it is imperative that the Minister puts forward his ideas as quickly as possible. Otherwise, it will fall to the Opposition to decide what we consider to be the various functions of these committees. That is a reasonable request to make to the Minister.
If the functions of the committees are being set out in regulations Members will not be allowed to debate the matter. We can only accept or reject the regulations in accordance with the proceedings of the House. We cannot amend them or make any suggestions about them. As in previous legislation, before the Minister brings the regulations before the House he might take the opportunity to consult with the Opposition parties. That is what is proposed in this amendment. If he does not agree to do that, it would be improper of us not to put the amendment.
This also points out the important role we play on these committees. We would have preferred a national children's council and other structures, even a children's ombudsman. We would have welcomed a procedure where parents could appeal the decisions of health boards, but the next best thing is the statutory local committees and we would like their role to be defined. I think the Minister is going to shock us with his response, and I am prepared to be shocked.
I hope Deputy Ferris and Deputy Howlin will not lose hope. I think the committees work very well and the Opposition's views are as important as those of the Minister and backbenchers. If we proceed within that framework we will produce the best Bill possible.
The Deputy supported us.
I never said that. I might have the same ideas——
The Deputy may have the same concerns.
Is the Deputy going to shock us?
No, I will never shock anyone but perhaps I will be able to manoeuvre my way into things. It is a pity that this is a total regurgitation of the amendment Deputy Yates put forward on Committee Stage when we had a long, arduous discussion on it. Like myself, the Deputy is concerned with paragraph (g), which deals with specific cases and access to confidential information. The Deputy might reconsider this part of the amendment.
Like all Deputies, I am concerned that the advisory committee would have a statutory role and that it would be an aid to the health boards, the Department and all involved in the child care structure. There has been no Child Cafe Bill since 1908 and the people involved in this area have worked very hard to anticipate the problems that have arisen. There was no word of child sexual abuse or drugs in the twenties, but these people have moved with the times, and that is to their credit. It is a shame that the legislative process has not done likewise. However, we hope in this legislation we will be as progressive as possible.
I see merit in many parts of the amendment — such as paragraphs (a) and (c). Paragraph (e) refers to the submission of plans for the future of the service. This comes under the review of services section. The advisory committee could make proposals to the health board for ratification and the review of the needs of children in local areas is very important. I know that the North-Western Health Board would have different problems from the Eastern Health Board or any other health board and that the problems in my area may not pertain to other parts of the country. To an extent, we can try to have a uniform system but the needs are different in the different health board areas.
I hope Deputy Yates will reconsider the amendment. I also hope the Minister will give teeth to the advisory committee. It would be unacceptable if, after a two year debate, the committee fell on their face. I believe the Minister will take our views into account when making the regulations. Perhaps some arrangement could be worked out between all sides so that the amendment could be accepted.
On Committee Stage we resolved the argument about central authority and central controlvis-à-vis local authorities and local advisory committees.
We did not resolve it; we were defeated on it. That is not resolution, it is bullying.
It is democracy.
Do not pretend there was consensus.
As regards Deputy Yates' amendment in relation to local advisory committees, I have very little difficulty agreeing with most of the points he made; I believe they should be taken on board. There are two points which may be unacceptable, and I think Deputy Yates realises this. Paragraph (d) states: "it shall make annual reports to the child care authority", but since there will be no child care authority that point falls. Paragraph (g) states: "it shall draw attention to individual child cases as it sees fit". Is this a good idea?
I would like Deputy Yates to tease out the implications of this. Are child cases, families, or the role of social workers and professional officers dealing with these cases to be discussed in public? This may be acceptable in a large urban area but when dealing with cases in, say, the town of Wexford, will the committee sit in public?