(Mayo): What a sorry figure Ireland cut in Geneva in January 1998 when the Government was forced to admit it could not raise the age of criminal responsibility to 12 years because to do so would place “an intolerable burden on our social services”, as stated by the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs, Deputy O'Donnell. The document presented to the UN committee examining Ireland's record in implementing the UN Convention on Human Rights and on the Rights of the Child admitted that the practice of having a single Minister of State involved with children's issues in the Departments of Health and Children, Education and Science and Justice, Equality and Law Reform had been dropped. Plans announced by the Government over a year previously to appoint an ombudsman for children had been dropped.
In the five years from 1992-6 only seven cases of cruelty or neglect of children were reported to the Garda. Elsewhere the document stated that 2,276 reports of child abuse were confirmed in 1995. The drugs problem is "a manifestation of wider problems of economic and social deprivation that contribute to a sense of exclusion for some sectors of society". It is small wonder that the Children's Rights Alliance was outraged at the Government's decision to abandon its ombudsman for children proposal. It was the Rainbow Government that funded the research project, by a group representative of the Children's Rights Alliance and Departments, which recommended that such an ombudsman be appointed. The recommendation was accepted and a decision to create the post was announced by the then Minister of State, Deputy Currie. The Children's Rights Alliance was also critical of the Government's failure to make the public aware of the provisions of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The reality is that our performance as a nation, in terms of the development of child services and child protection, has been pathetic.
It is incredible to reflect that 20 years ago the task force on child care services opposed an increase in the age of criminal responsibility on the basis that getting into trouble with the law was, for many children, their only chance of drawing attention to themselves and of getting help. It is small wonder that members of the United Nations committee expressed their amazement at the persistently high levels of child poverty in a country which is apparently so economically successful. That was in 1998, but as we enter the new millennium things have not changed. The Sunday Business Post last Sunday reported that Ireland comes a close second to Britain as the worst EU country in terms of child poverty, with 28% of Irish children living below the poverty line. In Britain, at least, the Prime Minister has pledged to end child poverty and has set firm deadlines, dates and targets. In Ireland we have no firm target although we have aspirations for reducing child poverty in general.
There needs to be a significant increase in child benefit, targeted at those most in need. The Combat Poverty Agency, for example, is calling for a guaranteed minimum income of £30 to £40 per week for all children, depending on age. Giving children a proper upbringing does not come cheap. There are more than a million children in this country, representing 30% of the population or eight percentage points above the EU average. It is unacceptable that as many as 270,000 Irish children are deemed to be living in poverty at a time when the economy is growing at a double digit percentage rate each year.
I vividly recall a comment made by the then Minister of State with responsibility for children, Deputy Currie, when he insisted that civil servants from the Departments of Justice, Health and Education should have regular meetings to synchronise and co-ordinate their activities in respect of children's welfare policies. He was absolutely amazed that there were civil servants in the room who did not know each other. This was a striking illustration of the failure of these Departments to co-ordinate and streamline their activities. Nevertheless, the farcical situation of no Government Minister having overall responsibility for children continues. Children's educational welfare is the responsibility of the Minister for Education and Science, as are the detention centres for children envisaged in this Bill.
One would imagine that the Minister for Health and Children would be responsible for sponsoring this Bill in view of the fact that he is the Minister for Health and Children and of the central role the health boards will play in triggering various aspects of the Bill, including family welfare conferences. The Bill specifically vests powers, such as the power to institute special care orders, in the Minister for Health and Children. Like so many other measures dealing with children, for example, those dealing with child sexual abuse, this Bill is being sponsored by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform.
The cosy perception of the Irish family as a safe haven for children has been severely damaged over the past decade, as light has been penetratingly shone into the dark corners of society and children have begun to cry out. The revelations are shocking. While institutional violence, both sexual and physical, has managed to attract the bulk of the publicity, there is not a day when court cases are reported that two or three cases are not splashed across our newspapers giving the most graphic and frightening details of incest inflicted on children by their nearest and dearest. The skeletons emerging from the cupboards of the hidden Ireland have shocked us all and have rocked the long-held belief that there was some thing uniquely warm, safe and protective about the Irish family.
What is shocking is not merely the lurid details of the reported cases but also their sheer volume. Only a huge systems failure could have allowed such depravity to continue for so long and to such an extent, undetected and unpunished. The statutory provisions for protecting children at risk were contained in the Children Act, 1908, under which a child could be removed from the custody of his or her parents and placed in the care of a relative or other fit person, in specified circumstances. An order could only be made if it appeared to a District Court judge on the basis of the information sworn, usually by a social worker, that there was reasonable cause to suspect that the child had been assaulted, ill treated or neglected or that one of the offences listed in the Act had been committed. After the child had been taken to a place of safety the District Court conducted a full hearing and could make an order committing the child to care until the age of 16 years.
However, one of the major drawbacks of the law as it then stood was that a social worker, public health nurse or any child care employee of a health board had no right to enter a child's home to investigate whether a child was being abused, if such reports were received. Another fundamental deficiency was that a health board did not have the right to have a child medically examined without the permission of his or her parents. The Child Care Act, 1991, made a number of important changes in the law relating to the protection of children, notably defining a child as a person "under the age of 18, other than a person who is or who has been married". It also gave each health board a statutory duty to promote the welfare of children in its area who were not receiving care and protection and specified measures which should be taken to make this duty a reality.
The provisions of the Act, however, did not come into operation automatically on the enactment of the legislation but required a ministerial order to be brought into operation. As a result, many of the most important sections remained to be brought into operation, notably those dealing with children at risk. A glaring example of the results of the deferral of important parts of the Act was the case of the late Kelly Fitzgerald in my county of Mayo. A fundamental problem with this legislation, as with the 1908 and 1991 Acts, is that it lays down no express duty for any person to report child sexual abuse or suspected child sexual abuse.
The Constitution is of overriding importance in considering the law in relation to the protection of children. Articles 41.1 and 42.1 stress the rights of the family and of parents with regard to their children. Power to remove a child from the family home is given by Article 42.5 which provides for such in exceptional circumstances where the parents, for physical or moral reasons, fail in their duty towards their children. While one would like to see the constitutional rights of the child set down in crystal clear terms in the Constitution, one takes some comfort from the fact that the rights of children have been confirmed and asserted by the High Court and Supreme Court in a number of cases. In general, however, the courts have held that the child's rights are to be found within the family rather than specifically against the family or the parents. Courts have also interpreted the rights of the child as the right to be brought up and educated by his or her parents. However, it would seem impermissible to regard the welfare of the child as the first and paramount consideration in any dispute between parents and a third party, such as a health board, without bringing into consideration the constitutional rights of the family.
I welcome the annual Garda report as an annual monitor and gauge of how the system is coping with crime. However, one vital component is missing from the Garda report, that is, an age profile of criminals. A survey published by the Irish Independent some time ago addressed this issue. The survey determined that people under 16 are to blame for 33% of all crime. It also concluded that half of Irish 14 year olds are regular drinkers and that boys as young as 11 and girls as young as 12 have little problem in getting access to alcohol. The survey also confirmed that truancy is particularly bad in Dublin, with as many as 6,000 children mitching from school each day. When one adds the growing drugs culture to the alcohol culture it is obvious that the childhood of many children is severely under threat.
While the Minister may contend that overall crime figures have dropped over the past few years, juvenile crime figures have increased significantly. In September 1998 Chief Superintendent Joe Dowling confirmed that while overall crime figures were down by 10%, he was very concerned at the juvenile crime figures. Total referrals to the force's national juvenile office had risen by 5.5%, referrals for burglaries were up by 11% and referrals for serious assault were up by 32%. There was a total of 15,075 referrals for all types of crime to the national juvenile office the previous year. Eight out of ten referrals were male.
I welcome the Bill which is long overdue. It replaces the outdated legislation which has governed the juvenile justice system for more than 90 years. Credit must be given to Deputy Currie as the Bill is a redraft of the Children Bill, 1996. It introduces a long overdue restructuring of services for children who come in contact with the juvenile justice system.
Commendable though the Bill is it will not work unless it is adequately resourced. The resource implications are considerable. I welcome, for example, the increase in the age of criminal responsibility from seven to 12 years. This means that there will be a significant additional burden on the health boards which will now deal with children who up to now have been the responsibility of the Garda Síochána. The resource implications for the health boards are obvious and must be addressed. All one has to do is look at health board waiting lists for hospital out-patient services and the number of bed days lost to discover that the additional statutory responsibility involved in the Bill will involve considerable additional costs. What is the estimate for the additional resources required to meet the additional responsibilities imposed on health boards by the increase in the age of criminal responsibility? What estimate or projection has been worked out between the Minister sponsoring the Bill and the Minister for Health and Children who will have a large part to play in enforcing some of its most important aspects?
There is considerable concern that the Bill does not state how often detention centres for offending children who are the subject of special care orders will be inspected. Given the sorry experience for children in former State institutions children who are subject to civil detention must benefit from care, education and treatment provided in special care units and have their rights upheld.
I welcome the concept of family welfare conferences, a fundamental part of Deputy Currie's Bill. Recently I had the pleasure of visiting Scotland and witnessing at first hand the children's hearing system which has been in operation for the past 25 years and is working well. I wish the family welfare conference enshrined in the Bill the same degree of success.
Children's detention schools are to replace industrial and reform schools and to be used by the courts where detention is considered the only suitable way of dealing with a child. The directors of such schools are not in a position to refuse to admit children from the courts. Given the totally inadequate provision for such children unless adequate accommodation is provided we will end up with two problems, the mixing of children with different needs – the implications in terms of cross-contamination, to put it crudely, are obvious – and the inevitable overcrowding. One could easily end up with a situation which has characterised the prison service, the revolving door syndrome, where children will be released from schools because of pressure on accommodation before they complete their planned programmes. That would be disastrous.
The Children Bill, 1996, stipulated that inspections were to be carried out "at least once every six months". The Bill does not go that far, it merely states that regular inspections will be carried out. It must specify defined dates by which inspections will be made.
I welcome the diversion programme which will place the juvenile liaison scheme on a statutory basis. Working through solutions is the only way to proceed. I am particularly impressed by everything I have read and studied about the principles of restorative justice as they operate in New Zealand. We owe a debt of gratitude to the Irish Penal Reform Trust which has forged ahead and pioneered the concept here. I had the pleasure of deliberating at its conference in April 1999 at which this principle was fleshed out in considerable detail.
I welcome the manner in which the Bill imposes responsibilities and obligations on parents to participate in their children's welfare. The concept of parental supervision order which instructs parents to undergo treatment for drug and alcohol abuse and/or attend a parenting course is a good one. The welfare of the child is of paramount importance. Every child is entitled to his or her childhood. Nothing and nobody can get in the way of that primary right or objective.
The Children Bill, 1999, provided for interviews of suspects in Garda stations at which "other adults reasonably named by the child can be present". This provision is mysteriously deleted from the Bill and should be considered by the Minister on Committee Stage.
I welcome the concepts and principles of the Bill. I wish it well. For too long we have uttered pious platitudes and hid behind the Constitution which cherishes all the children of the nation equally but the experience for thousands of children has been a sad and sorry one. I hope this Bill marks the first step in a major recovery of the paramount position of the child in society.