Children Bill, 1999: Second Stage (Resumed).

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

When travelling through the city approximately 20 minutes ago, I noticed a lady begging on the sidewalk with a baby in her arms who was no more than a couple of weeks old. This type of thing is prevalent in the city and it is an outrage and scandal that children are being used and abused in this manner. This should be dealt with immediately because there is no excuse and no need for it. If the person feels the need to beg, she should not use her baby to do so. Passers by informed me that the baby would be handed from one woman to another. This is taking place approximately 100 yards from this House and must be stamped out. I have been told that their minders, bigger boys, make these people beg and then take the money off them. This abuse of children is not acceptable in this day and age and must be stamped out.

There should be support for sport and community recreation because there is no healthier activity for young people. Young people who are deeply committed to sport will not be involved in any wrongdoing. Present planning developments of large housing estates with no play areas will lead to many problems. Young people should be involved in indoor activities such as table tennis and snooker and outdoor games such as football, tennis, handball and so on. Coaches and others should be trained to work with these people and there should be financial support to ensure play areas are available. This would lead to a healthy young society and we would not end up paying the price in the future for neglecting these areas.

When discussing the Bill, we must acknowledge the work and consultation which has gone into this in the past. We have been waiting for the Bill for a long time. If one looks back at the way in which the State dealt with children at risk over many years, it was done in an unstructured and very fractured way. This is a very comprehensive Bill which was worth waiting for. When discussing legislation we have to acknowledge that resources are vital for its implementation. The aspirations and design of the Bill are positive and set out a statutory framework for dealing with juveniles. Until such time as a proper funding mechanism is put in place we are reneging on those whom we are trying to protect.

The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform is responsible for publication of the Bill. Will the Minister explain who will provide the funding, given that the health boards and the Department of Education and Science are involved? We must not fall between stools as in the past when it comes to dealing with juveniles before the courts. In a much highlighted case recently a judge was requested to place a child in detention. However, no proper facilities were available. After the Bill leaves the House a proper funding mechanism must be put in place.

The Bill covers four main areas of the law. It provides a modern statutory framework for the development of the juvenile justice system. It provides for a family welfare conference and other new provisions for dealing with out-of-control non-offending children. It re-enacts and updates provisions in the 1908 Act protecting children against abuse by persons who have the custody, charge or care of them. It provides for a special residential services board to advise the Ministers for Education and Science and Health and Children on policy matters relating to the remand and detention of children and ensures the efficient and effective co-ordinated delivery of services to children in respect of whom detention orders or special care orders have been made.

The starting point for the Bill was the Children Act, 1908. That Act was the basis for the creation and development of a juvenile justice system that has, despite its many weaknesses, served the country well throughout the greater part of the 20th century. There have been many problems in dealing with juveniles through the justice system. Because of the number of agencies involved no clearcut decision could be made by one without consulting the others. That has happened too often in the past.

A matter I have raised in the past is the enrolment of children in national schools. Until such time as that is addressed we will be always one step behind finding out children at risk. For example, if a child is enrolled in a national school and is taken out by a parent, nobody knows whether the child has been enrolled in another school. From a statistical point of view the Department of Education and Science assumes it has been enrolled in another school. A centralised enrolment mechanism must be put in place whereby, if a child is taken out of one school, the parent or guardian informs the principal that the child is enrolled in another school. There must be a mechanism of checks to ensure the child is enrolled. Many children drop out of national school and fall away from the mainstream education system and are at risk at an early age. If a mechanism was in place and it was shown that the child was not attending any national school, educational services, such as the home-school liaison officers, could be availed of. In this way the immediate problem of children who are at risk could be addressed.

Those in the education process say they can pinpoint at an early age the vast majority of children who will fall out of mainstream education and lean towards a life of crime. A computerised enrolment system which would show if a child is not in full-time education should be put in place. Now by the time it comes to the attention of the authorities the child is at risk. This issue which has been mooted by the Department of Education and Science will have to be addressed. There will have to be correlation between the Departments of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and Education and Science on a centralised computerised enrolment system.

An issue about which I am concerned is that children are used for the specific purpose of begging on the streets. There must be hundreds of children on the streets day in day out who are used for begging purposes. We heard in the House previously that vans drive around and drop the children off at various points throughout the city where they have to beg, often in inclement weather conditions. That issue will have to be addressed immediately. Those children are at risk. Who profits from their begging on the streets? While there is poverty in the country, the abuse of children in systematic type begging is appalling and should not be allowed at the start of a new millennium.

I welcome the family welfare conference system provided for in the Bill. If a child commits an offence and is brought before the family welfare conference and the parents or guardians come and discuss it in an open forum, without the pressure of the court and the confrontational type legal system, the child might accept it has done wrong and the parents might accept they have been negligent in their duty to look after and rear the child in a normal fashion. In that way it may be possible to resolve the problem without recourse to the legal system. The family welfare conference is an innovative idea but the health boards must have in place a stand alone fund for this purpose. Health boards must not shy away from their responsibilities due to a lack of funding. I have outlined cases where judges have been unable to put children into detention units simply because they do not exist. The family welfare conference can make a huge contribution to helping children at an early age. It will allow health board officers build up a knowledge of which children are at risk at an early stage. If that is put in place along with the centralised computerised enrolment system we may be able to pick out the children before they move into a cycle of violence.

The provision of special care orders is a positive step. There are children who have to be put into care. There have been cases where children were a threat to themselves and to others. A case was reported in Cork of a young child being placed in completely unsuitable bed and breakfast accommodation. If we are to build proper detention centres and use the special care order elements of this legislation, we must provide the necessary detention units and human resources to deal with children in a compassionate but firm manner, for their own good and for the good of society. This has not been done in a co-ordinated fashion in the past.

The diversion programme makes huge advances in steering a child away from a life of crime. This programme was formerly known as the juvenile liaison scheme and is now to be put on a statutory footing. Section 19 sets out the objective of the diversion programme. This is "to divert from committing further offences any child who accepts responsibility for his or her criminal behaviour". Section 20 establishes that the diversion programme shall be managed "by a member of the Garda Síochána not below the rank of superintendent". The officer will be called the director and will be under the "general superintendence and control of the Commissioner of the Garda Síochána".

Garda are trained to deal with adults. Juveniles who are involved in crime think differently and must be treated differently from adults. A proper training programme must be put in place to allow garda to update their skills in this regard. Dealing with a juvenile is very different from dealing with an adult and garda are trained to deal with adults. Resources must be made available to ensure that the gardá can implement this legislation in a caring and fair manner.

Victims of crime are rarely consulted with regard to sentencing and the conduct of court cases. Section 26 provides for restorative cautioning. The section provides that a victim may be present at the administration of a formal caution. This will allow for discussions during which the child will have to confront the effects of his or her behaviour. The child will also be invited to apologise and to make some form of reparation to the victim. A child might commit an offence at an early age but for him to confront his victim and discuss his crime openly could be a very positive step. Most children, even those who have committed crimes, are remorseful. This facility, by which children can be made to understand the consequences of their actions, and the family welfare conference system are to be welcomed.

Part 5 sets a new age of criminal responsibility, places the doli incapax rule on a statutory basis, clarifies the duties of the Garda Síochána when dealing with an underage child and creates a new offence of aiding or abetting an underage child to commit an offence. Section 54 makes it clear that “a person who aids, abets, counsels or procures a child to be responsible for an act or omission which, but for the child's age, would be an offence can be indicted, tried and prosecuted as the principal offender”. This is a very important provision. We have all heard of children who have been used by adults for criminal activity. We have heard of young children being used to climb through small bathroom windows to steal from houses. We must address this problem and it is important that this section is applied forcefully. The courts must make it very clear to people who have access to children that the use of children to commit crimes is unacceptable and will not be tolerated. An adult may encourage and help a child to commit an offence, knowing that only the child can be prosecuted. Sections 51 and 54 are very welcome.

We must try to understand why children are becoming involved in crime at an early age. We have problems with regard to drug, alcohol and gambling addictions. These issues must be addressed in other fora. We must be responsive to children and try to understand how this involvement comes about. I hope the Bill will be seen as a caring and understanding piece of legislation. I hope it will deal firmly with adults who are in positions of responsibility and ensure they confront the consequences of their actions.

The State has neglected its duties regarding the spiralling problem of drug addiction, alcohol abuse and gambling. People who deal regularly with children say that their involvement with crime is usually the result of a family problem or addiction. Until we deal with this aspect of the problem we will be using this legislation to fill detention units and to provide subjects for family welfare conferences. Resources must be targeted at areas where high unemployment is coupled with drug abuse and other social problems. We all know where these social black spots are and we must provide resources in the form of education, sport and recreation facilities and employment opportunities to confront this problem.

I welcome the Bill. Through the diversion programme and family welfare conference system, it will make an important contribution towards steering young offenders on a path away from crime. Until we deal with the underlying difficulties we will continually fill our detention units with children who should not be in them.

I hope the Minister will clarify the question of an early enrolment system which would allow for an early check on children who are not attending school and the reasons for that. I cannot understand why children can be seen begging in the streets in front of the offices of local authorities and even of the national parliament during school hours. This is unacceptable.

I, too, welcome the Bill, although it has been a long time in coming. The Children Bill, 1996, was before the House for quite some time and had reached Second Stage on 12 February 1996. If this Bill had been brought forward sooner we might have saved a number of children from a life of crime. The most important point to be made, and it has been made by many previous speakers, is that if the necessary resources are not made available to implement the measures contained not just in this Bill but also the Child Care Act and other legislation, nothing will be achieved.

The Ministers for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Education and Science, and Health and Children should indicate to the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, the funding necessary to implement the Bill properly and deal with the hugely serious issue of children at risk and children who drift into crime. They should not get up from the table until they have pinned him down on the issue. It will be a difficult task given the attitude displayed by him in public statements. While he wants to cut the tax bill, it is clear that he does not want to spend money on these crucially important public services. If we fail to address the problem of children who drift into crime and who find themselves alienated from society, we will find ourselves in serious difficulty. The necessary resources should be made available to provide the extra staff required in the health boards and the Probation and Welfare Service to implement the measures contained in the Bill. I wish the Ministers well in dealing with the Minister for Finance who has demonstrated a lack of urgency in tackling the issue. More statements should be issued by the two Government parties supporting the spending of public money in these areas. They are not being issued from the top.

We all know of children who are at risk. Those of us who are members of health boards are aware of the serious problems encountered in dealing with what are euphemistically described as out-of-control children. It is not the best term to use. It is not good enough that the health board of which I am a member had to send five children to Northern Ireland and mainland Britain to be cared for. There are many other cases where the health boards have not intervened.

The age of those involved in crime seems to be falling continuously. They are being distanced from society and do not seem to understand the havoc they are causing to their families, relations and neighbours. As I drove along the canal last week on my way home from Leinster House there were youngsters throwing stones at cars. They had no understanding of the danger caused. About two days later in my city of Limerick a group of youngsters who looked to be no older than 12 years ducked across O'Connell Street through the traffic, one of whom threw something at the windscreen of a car. These incidents are relatively minor in comparison to the incidents that occur at the homes of elderly persons who, as Deputy Kelleher said, frequently have their windows broken by young people to terrify them. This is a huge problem.

From talking to social workers and other professionals involved in child care, particularly in health boards, children are presenting problems at a younger age. This is a source of serious concern. I agree with Deputy Kelleher on the need for early intervention. There is a need to support the health boards and organisations such as Barnardos which are working with these children. Schools in areas with a high incidence of crime need greater support of the kind available under the Breaking the Cycle scheme. Sports clubs should also be supported. If children can be diverted away from crime at an early age we will do society a huge service. Deputy Cooper-Flynn said that the question was being asked, "Is anybody doing anything about the problem?" If there is anybody which should be doing something about it, it is her own party, which should display a greater sense of urgency.

The Bill succeeds in providing a comprehensive legislative framework in which the serious issue of juvenile justice and troubled children can be addressed. This is long overdue and I am confident that following a detailed examination of the Bill on Committee and Remaining Stages it will amount to fine legislation. I welcome in particular the provisions dealing with family welfare conferences, special care orders to be issued by the health boards, restorative cautioning and non-custodial options, but they will only be effective if the necessary resources are provided.

Section 13 sets out how the health boards, which are already short of funds, can give effect to the recommendations of a family welfare conference. Will the necessary resources be made available? This is crucial. The purpose of the restorative cautioning provisions is to ensure young people are forced to confront the consequences of their actions. I hope, however, they will not be separated and distanced from the community which has been affected and that their families will be directly involved. If implemented properly these provisions will make a big difference.

Those who work in communities are aware that the Bill is only part of the solution in dealing with the crisis in child welfare. The provision of the necessary resources is critical to the success of the Bill in helping children at risk. The problem is getting worse every day. Staff shortages are critical. The determination needed to recruit the necessary staff to cope with current demand, let alone new responsibilities, is lacking. I was informed in reply to a parliamentary question on 7 March that a further 63 staff will be required in the Probation and Welfare Service alone to ensure implementation of the Bill. No timetable for the recruitment of these staff has been provided by the Minister. All he has said is that recruitment will be intensified over the next two years. He should address this issue seriously to ensure the Bill is effective. If the necessary resources are not provided the Bill will remain little more than an aspirational wish-list of how we think the system should work. This is not good enough. There is a need to invest resources to ensure the Bill has an impact on young people. This cannot be over-emphasised.

Crisis management has been the defining characteristic of child welfare services to date. Unless resources are provided that will remain the case. Early intervention in families experiencing difficulties and letting families know that support and help are available at the earliest opportunity is urgently needed. Often the families most in need of intervention are the hardest to reach. If one knows the family history and what the big brothers are at, it is possible to identify at the age of one or two the children likely to get into trouble. It seems State services only take notice when a child is at risk or comes in contact with the Garda Síochána. Intervention at this stage is often too late. Early intervention which focuses on the child and the family is urgently needed. In addition to the staff shortages, the chronic lack of proper residential units to deal with existing demand is a disgrace. This point was also highlighted during questions to the Minister for Health and Children earlier. In the High Court, Mr. Justice Peter Kelly has been forced to repeatedly call the Government to account for failing to vindicate the constitutional rights of troubled children in the face of official inertia.

Earlier this year lawyers representing a number of children who were in need of urgent and specialised care had to seek an injunction forcing the Department of Health and Children to live up to the commitments it gave to provide additional secure units. The Department went to court, seeking to ditch the timetable it agreed to at an earlier hearing. Fortunately, the Department lost that case and has been required to build the agreed units. However, the fact that it took a legal injunction to force the Government to provide even the most basic number of secure units beggars belief.

I tabled a question on 9 March to the Minister for Health and Children on the plans for these units. As a member of the Mid-Western Health Board, I am aware of the need for such units. In his reply, the Minister outlined a number of units which are planned in various health board areas, but the problem is that they are not due to be available until 2000 and, in some cases, 2001. In the meantime, there are no appropriate places for the children concerned. The Minister also announced that he intended to set up a new interim body which would pre-empt the body which will be established under Part 2 of the Bill. While that is welcome, there should be a sense of urgency about providing these places as soon as possible. Many children are in totally inappropriate units because appropriate places have not been provided. The fact that we are still waiting for these units is indicative of a Government which refuses to place the welfare of children at the top of its political agenda.

A teenage girl came to public attention last week. She had not committed any crime but she was in need of care and support. She was sent to an institution for the criminally insane because no other facility was available for her. There have been a number of similar cases over the past two years and there is an urgent need to address this issue. Over the past two to three years I have raised the cases of children who have been sent out of this jurisdiction by my health board and other boards. If the behaviour of children is causing serious concern to a health board, the children will inevitably end up before the courts and start a life of crime if there is not correct intervention. This matter must be given the urgency that Mr. Justice Kelly has forced the Government to give to such cases.

Deputy Kelleher raised the issue of children begging. Will the Minister clarify section 247 in Part 12 which contains a reference to this issue? The section re-enacts the offence of causing or procuring a child to beg. I understand that it will place a bigger onus on adults and be tougher on those who send out a child to beg. I support this provision and perhaps the Minister could indicate how it will work. It horrifies us all that children are still being sent out on the streets to beg. Often they are not dressed in warm clothes and they are sent out to beg when they should be receiving the type of education we all want for our children. Often the adult appears to get away with it and there does not appear to be proper intervention on behalf of the child. The Garda, the health boards and the education system do not appear able to intervene. If this measure can solve the problem, the Bill will be valuable in that area.

I also welcome section 246 which deals with cruelty to or the neglect of children. It deals relatively well with the ill-treatment and maltreatment of children. I am glad it includes issues such as frightening, bullying or threatening a child because the issue of bullying has not been properly addressed in terms of adults and children up to now. This is a welcome move, but it is in contrast to the attitude of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform regarding the Statute of Limitations Bill which is being dealt with by the Seanad. He was not willing to include physical abuse in that Bill which I published and the Government accepted.

Unfortunately, that legislation has been watered down because the reference to physical abuse has been removed. If the issue of physical abuse in the present can be addressed, I do not understand why that problem in the past cannot be addressed. However, I welcome its inclusion in this Bill. I hope the problem of cruelty to and neglect of children can be addressed. Despite the progress that society has managed to achieve in some areas, many children are still neglected and cruelly treated sometimes by their parents and sometimes by whoever is looking after them. There is no point dealing with the problems of the past in this area if we are not also willing to deal with current problems. I welcome that aspect of the Bill.

A policy on children does not appear to be a priority for the Government. One of the reasons for this is that at least three Departments, includ ing the Departments of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Health and Children and Education and Science, have responsibility for this area. My party favours the creation of a Department and Minister for children so that this issue can be raised at the Cabinet table and placed centre stage. If that happened, the issues would not be in the remit of different Departments which pass responsibility for them from one to another.

There may be difficulty getting the resources to implement the Bill because the issue is divided between a number of Departments. There is no single Minister who can go to the Cabinet table or approach the Minister for Finance and say that money is needed now to implement policies. If this does not change, there will be a continuation of a very disjointed society where some children are well nourished, looked after and educated and get a good start in life but, sadly, others are not. The Bill, in conjunction with the Childcare Act and other measures, should provide the type of start we all want for our children.

The issue of resources is urgent and I hope the Minister will not wait long after the Bill has been dealt with by both Houses of the Oireachtas and enacted before sections are enforced. It appears to take years for some measures to come into force. I urge the Minister to enact the Bill as soon as possible. He should sit down with the Minister for Finance and secure the substantial funds which are necessary. The health boards, the probation service and other sectors involved in this area should be in a position to recruit the necessary staff and provide the necessary facilities and secure places so these children can have the possibility of a life other than one of crime.

This Bill is most welcome and the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy O'Donoghue, and his officials should be commended on producing such comprehensive consolidating legislation. The Bill retains the good aspects of the old measures in the various Children Acts and supplements them with many new provisions, structures and institutions which, when implemented, will provide a comprehensive framework of advice and care for children in our community who are at risk, in need of care or require remedial and rehabilitative attention and treatment if they have offended against the law and society.

My principal theme in welcoming the Bill is the concept of responsibility. The care and development of children involves many interlocking and overlapping responsibilities. As all adults, and particularly those with children, will appreciate and as Deputy O'Sullivan pointed out, parents and guardians have a responsibility towards children. The State also has a responsibility towards children, parents and guardians. The final aspect is the inclusion and acquisition of a sense of responsibility on the part of the child and its progressive development to a point where it is able to take its place and play a full part in adult society.

The Bill, which displays a caring ethos, is concerned with the rehabilitation of offenders rather than their detention and punishment. It has been proven that the latter do not work and they will not work in the future. The Bill is concerned with putting in place appropriate systems and structures which will permit assisted interventions by parents, community and social workers, Garda personnel, the Judiciary or other appropriate people in cases where a child, either through his own behaviour or that of those in whose care he is or with whom he is associated, is deemed to be at risk or to pose a threat to the security of himself or others.

Sections 52 to 54 deal with the age of criminal responsibility. I am pleased the Minister has finally moved away from an essentially Victorian, if not medieval, concept of what constituted the age of reason in respect of criminal acts perpetrated by children. All those aiding and abetting or effectively putting a child up to committing what would, but for age, be criminal acts and who are, to all intents and purposes, corrupting the child, in the widest sense of the word, can be charged and tried as principal offenders.

I welcome the various provisions which either enable or require parents or guardians to discharge their responsibilities to children through their participation in family welfare conferences, as detailed in sections 7 to 16 of the Bill, and also through the provisions in section 91 which oblige them to attend all stages of proceedings in court where a case is being heard against their child.

Sections 111 and 112 are very important in that parents can now be issued with a court parental supervision order. This can be imposed where the court takes the view that the parents' failure to control their child or to neglect it have contributed to the behaviour which resulted in the child being found guilty of an offence. It is also good that the courts will be provided with discretionary power to oblige parents to undergo treatment for alcohol and substance abuse or to participate in a parenting skills course. This is evident in many sections of society where certain families exercise no control whatsoever over their children. As Deputy O'Sullivan stated, the residents of senior citizens' complexes are being harassed by children, ranging in age from 14 downwards, who should not be out late at night.

Many Members will be aware of this problem from personal experience – for example, they may be familiar with it from incidents which affected their extended families. Behavioural problems in children can stem from addictive behaviour in adults. Such behaviour provides a bad example. There is a wealth of statistical and research evidence in this area. As public representatives, we are often approached by people in our clinics who are experiencing problems with their children.

Section 113 of the Bill which enables a court to compel parents or guardians to pay compensation to the victim or victims of an offence committed by their children is also intended to bring home to parents the fact that their responsibilities extend to the consequences of negative actions on the part of their children. This is a welcome development. Similarly, section 114 is designed to emphasise parental responsibilities and gives the courts power to order parents to enter into a recognisance to exercise proper and adequate control over their children. Such discipline is lacking in many homes.

The taking of personal responsibility by the child for his or her behaviour and actions, in addition to parental responsibility, is being encouraged by means of the provisions in sections 117 to 132 of the Bill. These deal with such matters as community sanctions, community service orders, probation orders, day care centre orders, the provision of training or educational activities by the probation and welfare service, intensive supervision, residential supervision and suitable persons or mentor orders. As Deputy O'Sullivan pointed out, there is a need to provide adequate human and financial resources to implement these measures. The Minister has assured us that he will take the necessary steps to ensure that the resources which are required will be put in place.

The measures provided for in sections 133 to 136 empower the courts to impose restrictions on movement orders on child offenders. These orders can result in the imposition of curfews or barring orders from premises or their vicinities or a particular locality. This is a welcome development which will go a long way towards eliminating the harassment of many senior citizens. If properly operated and enforced, these measures could provide a considerable measure of relief from some of the worst types of anti-social behaviour perpetrated by juveniles against the more vulnerable sections of the community such as old people living alone, widows or single parents who may be unaccountably singled out for harassment by groups of inadequately supervised children.

Section 137 gives the courts, as they see fit, the power to mix and match, in individual circumstances, restriction orders with probation orders or day care centre orders. In keeping with the tenor of the Bill, this power is specifically designed to provide caring and law enforcement authorities with a flexible and sophisticated range of responses. It will enable them to design and tailor individual rehabilitation programmes to individual children's domestic, educational and developmental circumstances.

Section 247 re-enacts the offence of causing or procuring a child to beg. Deputies O'Sullivan and Kelleher referred to this problem which has become very prevalent. On any day of the week, regardless of the weather conditions, one can see children as young as six and seven years of age begging on O'Connell Bridge. The adults responsible for them come along, collect the money they have been given and proceed to buy take-aways or go to a pub for a drink. That behaviour is unacceptable and there is no need for it. A casual observation of what happens on our city's streets shows that this practice is endemic and, in these better times, can only be explained in terms of being an organised, calculated and completely unnecessary activity.

The placing of the evidential burden on the appropriate adult, usually the parent of the begging child, to show that he or she did not send the child out to beg should go some way towards the elimination of this practice, which is a particularly repellent form of child abuse. The long-term negative effects this may have on children can never be measured. It may destroy their confidence or place them at a disadvantage when they enter adult life and try to participate in society.

Section 259 provides a limited "clean slate" in respect of most offences committed by children. This is also consistent with the Bill's emphasis on rehabilitation and the giving of a second chance.

The institutional provisions relating to family welfare conferences and the revitalisation of the juvenile liaison scheme, which will be restructured and renamed the diversion programme, are positive steps forward. The provisions relating to children in custody and court proceedings are comprehensive and well thought out. The abolition of reformatories and industrial schools and their replacement by children detention schools, under the care of boards of management, and the establishment of a special residential services board to oversee the provision of care for children in detention are all evidence of the State's willingness and ability to shoulder its share of the responsibility for troubled children in our society.

We must learn from our past mistakes and oversights and enshrine in legislation the necessary safeguards for children in care or detention to ensure their wellbeing is protected at all times and that those to whose care they are given are conscious of their responsibilities in this area. That is most important.

Legislative provisions are important but steps must also be taken to ensure appropriate human and financial resources are committed to the new institutions so they can work properly. Shameful incidents like housing troubled children in wholly inappropriate facilities such as the Central Mental Hospital should become a bad memory. We have the resources to do things properly. Let us do that and protect our children.

I welcome the Bill and I commend the Minister and his officials on introducing it. A great deal of work and thought went into it. If the human and financial resources are provided and the necessary steps taken, this will be one of the most important Bills to be discussed in the House for years. Our children and young people are the most important members of society. We have a responsibility to ensure that they are confident and able to fend for themselves and that they are not disillusioned by bad experiences or bad example as a result of being abused or used in the wrong way. In some cases children are aided and abetted in begging and other criminal activities by parents and extended families. They might see little else from morning to whatever time they go to bed, although some are wandering the streets all night. I have been told of children who do not return home until 6 a.m. Whose fault is that? Who is responsible? The parents are responsible.

This Bill will go a long way towards eliminating such practices and behaviour and ensuring that parents are made more responsible. I commend the Minister.

It is good to see this Bill before the House at last. The present situation, which gives no support or comfort to the victims of the misdeeds of children, is unacceptable. The Bill is a step forward and, while it is described as radical, it must be open to ongoing scrutiny.

The current difficulties whereby young people who are disturbed non-offenders are mistreated by the justice system must stop. The Bill gives some relief to those unfortunates. Indeed, in many instances, it is not only the child who is badly treated but also the parents. The manner in which those who are guilty of criminal misdeeds are treated is also about to change.

Since the evolution of a more open society where the strong arm of the law is no longer accepted, a growing difficulty has existed. In the past many would have received an enthusiastic reprimand from the local garda for anti-social behaviour but for the past 20 to 30 years social behavioural problems have slid away from society's control. The system was not equipped to meet the challenge which these young offenders presented to the structural conformity of enforcement facilities. The problem of young offenders being housed with hardened criminals or those who have established anti-social tendencies meant that instead of being reformed the young offender was encouraged and, in many cases, taught to breach further the ground rules of society.

The issue of juvenile offenders is complex and, as such, deserves the focused support of the justice system. Young offenders must be taken seriously and dealt with in an appropriate manner. The change in the age of criminal responsibility is a good development which will generate respect for the law. When the age is too low the issue of responsibility is blurred and allows those who have responsibility to sidestep it.

Many children who have a pattern of disruption and anti-social behaviour are also non-offending. These young people and their families must be afforded the support which will give them the opportunity to conform with and accept the norms of society. They and their parents and guardians need the structured support of society in facing their problems. The concept of the family conference which will involve all players is a positive step forward. Young people whose characters are in the early stages of formation must be given the supports and structures to lay the foundations for a good adult life. In many cases the deviant behavioural pattern is a response to factors outside the control of the child.

The family conference facilitates a full review of the social and cultural environment together with the other influences which may contribute to the malconformity in which the child engages. It is attended by the child, fellow family members, social and care workers, gardá and educationists. Understanding the scale of the problem enables a critical path of recovery to be found. It is most important that when, as a last resort, these young people are taken into care they are not included in the correctional detention system. They should remain separate from those convicted of criminal offences to minimise the prospect of corruption.

I trust that, where appropriate, the family welfare conferences will be open to the positive players in the life of the children – the gardá, social workers, parents, teachers, sporting club volunteers and whoever might be capable of reaching out to the young person to bring him or her back into the community. It must be recognised that when society fails, everybody fails. I am heartened to note the Minister's clear focus on the desire to have young offenders reintegrated into community and society. Dealing with a problem, even a criminal problem, in a reasonable and realistic manner which takes account of the young age of an offender is the correct approach.

Many of us might have become young offenders but for the correctional habits of our parents. Where issues are dealt with sensitively causing the offender to own up to their responsibility for the offence and to appreciate the scope and impact of their actions on the victim, the community, their families and themselves, they have been able to adjust their behavioural pattern and go on to make a valuable contribution to society.

While I support the approach detailed in the Bill, I am concerned that it is not viewed as an easy way out. I do not want a situation where the culprit simply says, "Let us put up with the grief even for five minutes and get back to our old ways". The process must have respect for the seriousness of a situation. It must not be used by any of the players as the easy option. If used correctly, it might not be the easy option but the best one.

The victim's participation in such conferences causes me some concern. It is important that the victims who attend receive psychological support and counselling to ensure it is a positive experience and that they are not further victimised by the process. In rare cases it is possible that the victim might not be a positive force at such conferences. In some rare situations, it is also possible that the victim may not be a positive force at these conferences and some guidance must be given to the facilitator as to the appropriateness of the attendance of the victim. The capacity of the facilitator to draw up the contract of action is very important as is his or her ability to ensure it is realistic and appropriate and that all have the ability to live by it. State agencies must have the capacity to service the contract in the same way as the offender must be able to meet his obligations. The facilitator's role is extremely important and can be the making of the process. To this end, I trust the Minister has plans in place to enable all those who are envisaged as chair facilitators to be given first class training to enable them transform the problem into a success story.

The opportunity to have the victim present when formal cautioning is applied is a good early deterrent. It shows the seriousness of the situation and yet does not blow things out of proportion. The Children Court will enforce the action plan formulated after the family conference. It is important and desirable in ensuring the contract is respected. The benefit is that no criminal record will exist while society as a whole will benefit from the change in the behaviour patterns of the young.

There is a recognition that, on occasions, young offenders who are before the courts might best be dealt with by the intervention of the health board. That the court can direct the health board to organise a family welfare conference and report back with its proposal is truly positive.

The role of the parent in the life of the child is also recognised and the facility to hold the parent responsible in certain situations is welcome, but does it go far enough? Is it not too vague as to have real meaning? There are, as the Minister recognises, some parents who have a totally irresponsible attitude to the well-being of their children and take no responsibility for the control of their off-spring. Parents in such situations share in the negative outcome of their neglect of their responsibility.

The issue of payment of compensation should be enhanced making it a debt against the parent, irrespective of ability to pay. Failure to carry out parental duties has been a source of cost and parents should repay that cost irrespective of the amount of time it takes to recover it. If a parent claims inability to pay, the option is a community service order against him or her. Parents must be forced to take their role seriously.

The obligation on health boards to apply for a social care order in respect of children found in their care and who are in need of special care and protection is a good thing as is the establishment of special residential service boards charged with the co-ordination of residential services, whether detention schools or special care units. The Minister must ensure sufficient places are made available suitable to meet the needs of the young community. It is not good enough to introduce radical legislation and clap oneself on the back if young people are passed from Billy to Jack and forced into a life of anti-social behaviour at best, if not downright criminal activity. Money needs to be spent to support this Bill.

I refer to disturbing events affecting my constituency and on which Deputy Martin Brady commented, that is, the presence of gangs of youths roaming in estates and causing mayhem for the elderly, their neighbours and everyone living in the area. The problem is that when residents report these matters to the local Garda station, the gardá arrive but they export the problem to another estate. On the northside of Dublin and elsewhere in the city, youths roam the streets until 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. without parental control. Elderly people and others must live in a state of fear. Their homes are like prisons, they are afraid to go out and they cannot lead a proper life.

I have written to the Minister on several occasions and he has helped by getting in touch with the local garda who visit these people, which is of some comfort to them. However, we are not coming to grips with the problem which seems to be getting even worse. Local authorities provided excellent open spaces but have had to remove them because they were providing cover to these youths who sit outside people's homes drinking, taking drugs and engaging in anti-social behaviour until the early hours of the morning. They are creating mayhem and are making life difficult for law abiding residents in these areas.

I get telephone calls daily in my office informing me of such behaviour. A lady telephoned me today and told me that in an open space in Sutton youths pulled down a wall and broke into her back garden, which they were using. There was no way she could get rid of them. This behaviour has to stop. Parks are not there to give cover to people engaged in anti-social behaviour. Each day youths gather in our parks. People look forward to summer evenings but if they live near a park, they do not look forward to them. In the long evenings, youths gather in parks and make life unbearable. This must be tackled at an early stage.

I know there is a Private Members' Bill before the House, but I would like to touch on the issue of joyriding on the northside of the city and in the city generally. Youths are buying old bangers for £20 or £30 and are causing mayhem in estates. They are driving around at speeds which will kill people. They must be taken to task. We must face up to this problem. The garda must tackle this problem. I know they are doing their best, but perhaps they are not fully equipped. They must be given the wherewithal to tackle this problem and ensure the city is free for people to use and enjoy it.

I am glad of the opportunity to speak on this important Bill. It has been recognised by all speakers that this Chidden Bill was overdue. I am glad, however, the Minister did not rush in and cobble together a Bill which would not have met the needs of the country in this day and age.

As we are aware, the Children Bill, 1999, will repeal the Children Act, 1908, which is from a different century. It is modern comprehensive legislation which will cover three main areas of the law. It provides the framework within which the juvenile justice system can continue to develop. It re-enacts and updates provisions in the 1908 Act protecting children against abuse by persons who have the custody, charge or care of them. It provides for a family welfare conference and contains other provisions to deal with out of control non-offending children.

There are several parts to this Bill and the responsibilities of the Minister for Health and Children include the family welfare conference, children in need of special care and treatment and the special residential services board. It would have been a mistake not to have taken an holistic approach to this matter as the care of children falls within the remit of the Departments of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Health and Children and Education and Science. It is only right that the Minister should draw those threads together.

As the Minister said, there is an overlap, given the integrated nature of the Bill. Under section 78, for example, the court may direct the health board to convene a family welfare conference for a child before it on a criminal charge if it is of the view that the child's real problem is the need for care or protection.

A number of sections deal with the juvenile justice aspect. One of the reasons for the Bill is that young offenders, by reason of their age and level of maturity deserve to be treated differently from adults. The juvenile justice system that developed under the 1908 Act was incapable of further development unless underpinned by new legislation. Any legislation that dates from the beginning of the century has run its course and needs to be updated. With modern thinking reflected in the Bill, in time, there should be a notable decrease in juvenile offending. The objectives of the Bill are to divert first time and non-serious child offenders from inclusion in the criminal justice system. It is important that young children are not stigmatised before they become teenagers, as happened under the old system. I am glad the Minister has included this. Another objective is to provide the court with the means under which they do not necessarily have to proceed to a finding in more serious or persistent cases. It is important that the courts have options rather than being limited to one course of action.

A third objective is to deal with children found guilty of offences through the imposition of a community sanction. The Minister has provided ten community sanctions, eight of which are new. This gives great scope to make decisions that will not criminalise young children. Another objective is to reintegrate child offenders into the community where the court, as a last resort, orders detention. This is one of the most important aspects of the Bill as it will help prevent such children re-offending. It will be an enormous task but we must face up to it.

The Minister mentioned restorative justice. It is a new concept. New Zealand has pioneered many new ideas, this one among them. It has several meanings but the Bill gives effect to the most commonly known one, every action that is pri marily orientated towards doing justice by restoring the harm that has been caused by crime. One way of doing that is to bring together the parties who have a stake in a particular offence to resolve collectively how to deal with the aftermath of the offence and its implications for the future. The Bill provides two examples of restorative justice and while these have been influenced by the New Zealand model, in practical terms they are quite different. It would not be possible to transplant one country's method of dealing with juvenile crime because of cultural differences, crime trends and so on. While it is necessary to acknowledge differences, the idea should be taken on board.

The first example of restorative justice is given in Part 4, the Garda diversion programme. Incorporated in that is a conference that may or may not be chaired by a garda. It will provide a forum for the child, parents, other family members, the victim and possibly other interested persons, where appropriate, to discuss the child's offending and the reasons for it. It will confront the child with the consequences of his or her actions and establish the basis for a lifestyle that does not include anti-social behaviour. It will allow the child to apologise and possibly make reparation to the victim. This concept is very important. It goes back to the notion of the extended family that used to be part of our society but which has broken down not only here but throughout western society. Affluence takes over, the nuclear family is affected and the extended family ignored. Involving the whole family in the development and control of the young members of the family is an excellent idea.

Section 26 provides for restorative cautioning under which the victim may be present at the administration of a formal caution to the child. This allows for a less formal type of conferencing which will be suited to cases where a more structured conference might not be appropriate or justifiable. The courts are also given the power to direct the probation and welfare service to convene family conferences. These will be similar to Garda conferences and will be appropriate to cases where the garda consider they have no option but to prosecute, that is, where the non-enforceable aspects of the Garda conference might have led to compliance difficulties. The benefits and advantages of the court directed conferences are that there is an opportunity for the case against the child to be finalised without proceeding to a finding, with all that would entail. Second, the child and his or her family would have a say in finding a solution, it would not have been imposed by the court. Third, the outcome of the conference will be supervised by the court and will be enforceable. Fourth, it is not an easy outcome. The recommendations of a family conference may include the making of an apology to the victim, the making of reparation, restriction on the child's movements and participation by the child in supervised activities.

I welcome the change in the age of criminal responsibility which is being raised from seven to 12 years. Children under that age will become the responsibility of the health boards and among their intervention options will be the convening of a family welfare conference. The arguments in favour of raising the age to 12 years is that, first, the former Oireachtas Select Committee on Crime, after a thorough examination of the issues involved recommended the age of 12 years in its first report. Second, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child criticised our low age of criminal responsibility. The 1996 Bill recommended that it be raised to ten years. Third, the number of children under the age of 12 who have come to the notice of the Garda is relatively low. The 1998 crime report shows that 1,000 children under the age of 12 were reported to the Garda national juvenile office on the suspicion of committing offences. Fourth, although raising the age to 12 years will mean that children under that age who commit offences will no longer qualify for admission to the Garda diversion programme, they will still have contact with community gardá. This will be on a more integrated and co-operative basis with other agencies such as health boards. Fifth, it would not be possible to raise the age in stages by means of regulations as proposed in the 1996 Bill. Sixth, regardless of the specific arguments, the fact is that raising the age of criminal responsibility to 12 years is right. It is the age below which we would not wish to see our children criminalised.

The court will have two new powers that may result in cases not proceeding to finality. First is the family conference and, second, the convening of a family welfare conference by the health boards to ascertain if the child's real problem is the need of care or protection. These are two important new additions to the Bill highlighting the greater emphasis on care and protection and restorative justice. Where the court proceeds to a finding of guilt, it will usually request a probation officer's report. The need not to do so will only arise where the court is imposing a minor penalty, such as a small fine, or where it already has an up to date report on the child available to it. The system of reports is central to the success of the Bill. Not only will they contain information resulting from interviews with the child and, where practicable, other family members, and information on the child's behaviour and willingness to make amends, educational circumstances and prospects, motive for the offence and likelihood of reoffending, they will also give a view on what would be the best way of dealing with the child and on what is available.

Since it is a principle that detention will be a last resort, it is important that the Bill provide credible alternatives. The Minister has provided ten community sanctions of which eight are new. The courts are thus given extensive new powers to impose appropriate sanctions on child offenders which can be served in the community and do not involve institutional detention. The varied nature of the sanctions should ensure that, for every child found guilty of an offence on whom the court wishes to impose a community sanction, a suitable and appropriate sanction will be available no matter what the child's problems or needs. The community sanctions were also included in the 1996 Bill and few significant changes have been made to them. The suitable person order has been renamed the mentor order to emphasise the mentoring nature of the order. Otherwise it is similar to that contained in the 1996 Bill.

An important new provision is that concerning the responsibility of parents for their delinquent children. Two existing provisions which require parents to pay compensation or to be bound over to control their child have been added to by the inclusion of a parental supervision order. The courts will be empowered to impose this order on parents where they are satisfied that a wilful failure on the part of parents to take care of or control their child contributed to the child's offending. This is a typical carrot and stick order under which the parents will, for example, be given the opportunity to partake in a parenting skills course or receive treatment for substance abuse. Failure to comply may result in being in contempt of court.

This is very important. Many years ago, when I worked on a building site, I noticed that some children came home to empty houses and they became what is known as "latchkey kids". It was not long before those of us in the area noticed that these were the children who were getting into trouble because no one was there between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. or 7 p.m. to control them. Parental responsibility must be highlighted. If it cannot be done by use of the carrot, then the stick must be used. If children are not directed on to the proper course when they are young, they will move in circles which will cause them to get into trouble.

The detention provisions are largely similar to those in the 1996 Act, although they have been substantially redrafted. There are some important changes. First, because of the fear of a revolving door syndrome developing in the schools of detention for children run by the Department of Education and Science, it is made clear that a court cannot order the detention of a child under 16 years of age unless a place in such a school is available. The alternatives for the court in such circumstances are to defer making the order until a place is available or to impose a community sanction as an alternative. The latter provision is new in the 1999 Bill. The second change is the introduction of a detention and supervision order for 16 and 17 year olds and this will allow the court to split the sentence equally between detention and supervision in the community thus allowing for better aftercare and integration.

The protection provisions are essentially an updating of the 1908 Act and, while they have not changed radically from the 1996 Bill, there are two significant differences. First, the scope of the cruelty offence has been broadened to include a child's mental or emotional health or wellbeing. The 1996 Bill only referred to the physical health or wellbeing. One of the components of cruelty is being expanded to include frightening, bullying or threatening a child. These changes give effect to recommendations of the former Select Committee on Social Affairs in section 246 of its 1997 report on non-fatal offences against a person in respect of children. Second, the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act, 1993, is being amended to raise the penalty for soliciting a child for the purposes of prostitution. This is a holding operation pending a more considered examination of the issue of child prostitution in the context of the analysis of the discussion paper on the law on sexual offences.

I commend the Bill to the House and congratulate the Minister on bringing forward balanced legislation which has met the desires and wishes of the House.

I wish to share my time with Deputy Farrelly.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate and I welcome the Bill. Although the Minister described it as a flagship in terms of new legislation, it has taken him a long time to raise the flag in this instance and all involved have been under starter's orders for a long time. Much of the Bill is similar to that introduced by Deputy Currie when he was Minister of State with responsibility for this area in the previous Government. I compliment him on his endeavours in taking a welcome initiative at the time. This Bill is comprehensive and has two new and welcome major components. As the Minister said in his opening remarks, it is hoped the Bill will last for many years.

Juvenile justice is a difficult area and we all recognise that. The fact that we repeatedly see references to many other Departments and agencies is an indication of the difficulty which will be encountered in implementing the provisions of the Bill. However, where goodwill and co-operation exist between Departments and other agencies, voluntary and statutory, the Bill, which is to provide for the welfare of children, especially those in the area of juvenile justice, will be well provided and catered for. That is what I welcome.

The issue of resources has arisen repeatedly during the debate. Enacting legislation and putting in place the necessary personnel is of little value unless the requisite finance is provided. If it is not provided from the beginning when the legislation comes into force and if the Bill does not operate or is found wanting in any area because of lack of finance, the exercise will be useless.

The increase in the age of criminal responsibility from seven to 12 is welcome. There has been little comprehension until recently that children between the ages of seven and 12 benefit very little from the court context. Therefore, I hope the new provisions the Minister has included in the Bill will be of major benefit to them. However, they will be only if the properly trained personnel are available to the health boards and the Garda. We will be in further difficulty if they are not trained to adapt to the sensitive issues involved in these cases. The Minister indicated that gardaí are in training for this great change in their role. They will have to deal with young people in comparison to their previous dealings with the elderly, adults and crime.

As a member of a health board, I am concerned about the ability of health boards to take on the additional tier of responsibility unless adequate funds are provided. Over the years, the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform provided valuable resources to vocational education committees to provide Youthreach, outreach and other schemes so that minor offenders could be kept within the education system. Many children who become involved in crime at a young age come from broken families, whether due to the dissolution of marriage or because they are reared by a lone parent. The children of a violent partnership are the most vulnerable and those who do not benefit from a formal family structure in their early years inevitably end up in the category with which we are trying to deal.

Children are lost if, for whatever reason, they fall foul of the formal education system at an early age. In the long run we would save resources if we target additional resources towards children in their formative years. We must bring together all the agencies established under this legislation to help regularise young offenders. In consultation with agencies and Departments with responsibility for this area, I hope the Minister will secure additional resources to eliminate many of these problems before they start.

I was amused to read some of the definitions in the Bill. A school is defined as "a children detention school". This phrase eliminates any prospect of providing a learning environment for any child committed to such an institution. Some people used to call such places industrial schools and changing the name is easy. However, we need to do more than just change the name. The ethos within these detention centres and schools has to change. The Bill lacks a clear intention that these detention centres will be anything more than holding centres for people who will be pushed on from the various agencies and the courts. If this happens then the problems we hope to eliminate under this Bill will be compounded. I hope this does not happen, but, if it does, it will be the beginning of the slippery slope back to the past and our hopes and wishes for rehabilitating juvenile offenders and leading them back into society will fail. We need something more mean ingful than a change of name from industrial schools to detention schools. Nothing will happen unless there is a root and branch reorganisation and reorientation of the traditional customs in these institutions. They were established in a different era and we need something more fundamental than a change of name.

The family welfare conferences are a welcome provision. There is also the introduction of the concept that children will be made responsible by having to apologise for their actions. However, I am not sure what an apology from a seven year old will mean to a victim. Children may view it as vindictive if they are brought before a group at an early age and forced to apologise. I am not sure if there is a benefit to such a practice.

The other provisions are aspirational in that we are asking parents to undergo retraining and reassessment courses and so on. Compelling people to attend these courses is the wrong approach. It would be preferable if we asked them to do so in good faith, conscious of the fact that a crime has been committed and that parents have a responsibility to request their children to take responsibility for what has happened. Requesting people to attend these courses may be preferable to demands and directives. Young offenders will benefit from their appearances at these family conferences. The situation will no longer exist where a District Court judge will have to release a young offender because there is nowhere to detain or rehabilitate him.

Will the Government put in place the resources to upgrade existing facilities or will there be new facilities to replace institutions such as St. Patrick's? We must replace them because of the experiences of so many who went through such institutions in the past. They were breeding grounds for further crime. If there is to be a new beginning it is important that there should be new institutions which can house and develop the courses necessary for the rehabilitation of young people.

It is up to the health boards to decide when a young offender should be detained. Where do the health boards have facilities to provide for young offenders?

I welcome the Bill although I am disappointed that we had to wait three years for it to be introduced. The current Minister was critical of Deputy Currie's work in the area. He hoped that if he left it long enough, we would not recall what was in the previous Bill. We remember, however, that 90% of what was in Deputy Currie's Bill is contained in this Bill. I introduced two Private Members' Bills to the House and the Minister did not accept them. The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform now publishes the rules and regulations contained in those Bills on its website. The Minister will have to repeat himself when he legislates for the private security industry.

I welcome the provisions for early intervention in the juvenile justice system and the holding of family welfare conferences for children at risk. Allegations can be made wrongly and it is important that all sides involved are given a fair hearing. I have been involved in cases in which I had to ensure that both sides of the story were heard positively.

I welcome the provision in the Bill for courts to be able to impose curfews on offenders. If a curfew is imposed, we must ensure that the place to which the person is restricted is not the place where his or her problems began. The place of curfew should be favourable to the person upon whom it is imposed.

This is wide ranging and important legislation which will have many implications for children. It is extraordinary that it takes so long to get child centred legislation on the Statute Book. That has been the case for many years and it is clear that the rights of children have never been at the heart of policy. Only recently have we become sensitive to children's rights. Even the Constitution protects the family above the child.

In discussing the Bill we should present the reality of life for Irish children at present. Who will this Bill affect? Who are these children who will end up before the courts and from where do they come? What is their experience of life before they started offending?

There is a need to tackle the broad issues in relation to children as well as the specific issues which confront those who appear before the juvenile justice system. The most recently available figures confirm that child poverty is a serious problem in the State, with between a quarter and a third of Irish children at risk living in poverty. There are many people who do not believe this; they have a mistaken idea that current economic success has touched everyone when it has not. The stark reality is that an extraordinary number of children still live in poverty and Ireland has the second highest level of child poverty in the EU. Dealing with this poverty must be a priority for the Government. If it is not, even more children will appear before the courts and this legislation will have to be used again and again instead of preventative services being made available to children at risk.

We are good at talking about human rights in other countries but there are serious human rights issues in relation to children in this State. In that context, the appointment of the new human rights commission presents an important opportunity. It is important that the group is chaired by a very experienced chairperson and that the Minister engages in all party consultation on its development.

We know children who grow up in poverty are less likely to do well at school and that they have few recreational, social and cultural opportunities, as the Combat Poverty Agency has pointed out many times. These children are more at risk of becoming involved in crime and anti- social behaviour. It is clear that poverty damages the health of children and their opportunities.

I am particularly interested in truancy. The road to delinquency starts with truancy. Initiatives are needed to identify children who play truant, or who are at risk of playing truant, at an early stage and to make services available to those children.

In March 1999, there were 340 people under 20 years of age who were alone and homeless in Dublin with a further 900 children being homeless with a parent. One in ten children have been found to be in consistent poverty measured in terms of relative income and the denial of basic necessities. Infant mortality among Traveller children is two and a half times the national average. Reported cases of physical and sexual abuse number more than 4,000 per year, which has increased more than 50% in four years. The number of pregnancies that end in abortion continues to grow and it is now equal to more than one in eight live births with more than 1,000 teenage mothers having abortions each year. That is a frightening statistic which must be addressed. There is also growing evidence of child prostitution among young people. In a 1997 study it was found that 50 children under 18 years of age were found working in prostitution in Dublin, and no doubt that number has increased in the past few years.

In deprived areas 25% of children are regularly absent from school and half of those are chronically absent. Those children will need access to the provisions of the Bill unless we can reduce those numbers. A total of 10% of primary pupils have a serious reading difficulty, which is much higher than in other countries, and the figure is more than 20% in deprived areas. A total of 17% of Irish people aged 16 to 25 are at the lowest level of literacy. For example, they are unable to read an Aspirin packet and comprehend it. The list goes on. There are an estimated 33,000 children with a disability at school-going age, but we do not collect enough information about how they are doing. More than 20% of young people have abandoned school by the age of 16, 80% of them among the Traveller community, and in some deprived areas less than 5% progress to third level. The benefits of the tiger economy are not reaching many of these children.

Substance abuse by young people has grown to such an extent that we have moved from the bottom of the European league in the 1980s to the top of it in the 1990s. More than 60% of young Dubliners aged 14 to 15 have been offered illicit drugs and one third have used them – 17% have used them in the past month. The typical age at which children first use drugs is 12 and a half and, according to Garda records, nearly 30% of hard drug users are under 20 years of age. In many ways we are beginning to stand out from our European neighbours in regard to access to drugs. People find it difficult to believe that and for us, as legislators, it raises questions as to the initiat ives we need to take to reduce the supply of drugs on the streets. which have many implications, one of which I mentioned to the Minister this morning as I know he is also concerned about it.

I refer to the apparent random attacks on young people, which are often linked to drug or alcohol abuse. We do not want to frighten parents about this problem, but many young men almost expect to be the target of a random unprovoked attack on the street. That raises major questions about video surveillance, the availability of gardaí to police the streets, what we are doing to address the problem of access to drugs in nightclubs in Dublin and if we are doing enough in terms of security to maintain standards in those clubs.

The previously downward trend in terms of young people smoking has increased. In the 15 to 17 age bracket, 31% of boys and 36% of girls – that rate is accelerating – are current smokers.

Time and again judges report there is no suitable place to send children who display seriously disturbed behaviour and I do not need to go over that area, as Deputies Neville and Shortall highlighted the ongoing position arising in our courts regarding the shortage of places for disturbed teenagers. Each weekend accident and emergency departments of our hospitals have to deal with young people who should be in residential care. They turn up at accident and emergency departments because they have nowhere else to go. Serious pressure is being put on registrars in our paediatric hospitals to deal with these young people who should have access to a service at a much earlier stage.

We have a serious problem regarding our children. I gave those statistics because the Bill must be considered in that context and against that backdrop. We need to address the broader issues regarding children as well as the specific issues covered in the Bill. We need to address the co-ordination of policy on children at Government level, as there is a serious problem in that regard at the highest level within Government. While various Departments have done a good deal of work in this regard, the co-ordination of policy in this area needs to be addressed, and I hope the national child strategy will go some way towards addressing it.

We need an enforcer to implement the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The convention is a powerful instrument, but if it is to become meaningful we need a mechanism to enforce it. It is no good having rights if we do not enforce them and monitor and evaluate whether they are being fulfilled. Fine Gael proposes that the appointment of a strong and independent commissioner on children's rights would be a way to address this issue. Such a commissioner should be established by statute, be independent of Government, have an ombudsman type role in terms of dealing with complaints and procedures, have a monitoring role on implementing the UN convention, have independent powers of investigation, the opportunity to child proof legislation and ministerial proposals, an advocacy role for children and a research arm and could make an input into the work of committees of the House. Those kinds of initiatives must be taken in addition to the provisions in the Bill.

The Bill covers a critical area and its success or failure will depend to a large extent on the resources put in place to implement it. I would like the Minister to address the issue of resources. There is a lot of good thinking in the Bill and it provides many opportunities to look after the welfare of children, but if we do not have the resources in terms of staff to implement it, it will fail. Some pertinent questions were asked about the recruitment of probation and welfare officers. What will be the timescale for their recruitment? It will also be necessary to recruit social workers. There is a shortage of those professionals at present and the waiting lists for their services are increasing. What Government initiatives will be taken to ensure appropriate staff will be in place to implement this Bill? It is not an easy problem to tackle as there is a shortage of professionals. It is akin to the problem regarding nursing. When the provisions of the Bill come into effect, if it is to be a success, additional staff will be needed in the health boards, the probation service and the Garda juvenile liaison section.

I want to raise the issue of the sharing of information between personnel who work with children who appear before the law and children or families in difficulties. A number of professionals have told me recently that the sharing of information has become a problem following the implementation of the Data Protection Act in regard to the issue of confidentiality. Often a number of people call to see families, which highlights there is not enough co-ordination or sharing of information between the professionals who are trying to help the families. The Data Protection Act has become a barrier to sharing information. I ask the Minister to respond to the issue of sharing of information between professionals. The easiest way to address this problem would be to get the agreement of the family, but professionals working with these families have said that they have experienced problems regarding the sharing of information.

A number of speakers raised the question of families not having information about services. It is difficult to believe that today this could be a problem. One would imagine families would know what services are available, but often they do not. This question of ensuring that basic information reaches families experiencing difficulties needs to be addressed. We need new initiatives to address this problem at community level. Health boards and local authorities need to be more proactive about ensuring such families get such information. It is a catch 22 situation in that if one does not have the staff to provide the services, giving more information about the services can lead to even more demands being made. This is a difficult issue. Some time ago major demands were made on the services provided by the Eastern Health Board. It had a list of 500 cases to be dealt with by its social workers. I do not know what the current figure is and perhaps the Minister will give us that information. In many areas it is difficult to provide anything other than a crisis intervention service. That issue points to the need for additional resources and staffing to enable us to break that cycle.

In relation to the welcome development of family case conferences, these will need resources and good guidelines on how to function if they are to work. One could have a high quality or poor quality case conference. We need to ensure that good procedures are put in place and that the resources are available so that families, children and professionals can participate in order to achieve a good outcome. These will need to be resourced because minutes will have to be taken and information will have to be distributed following the conference. If they are to work effectively, resources will have to be made available to ensure the best services.

The Bill provides that where possible children should not be held with adults in Garda stations. I ask the Minister to look again at this provision to see if it can be strengthened or if regulations can be introduced to make sure children are dealt with in the way the Bill envisages. There is a very good section in the Bill which deals with how children who come into contact with the gardaí and the criminal justice system should be dealt with and how their dignity should be respected. If this section is to be meaningful, the Minister should spell out how this will be done at local level. It will not be easy in terms of resources but it is a worthwhile objective and should be considered seriously.

Deputy Shortall referred to the term "detention schools". I ask the Minister to consider this because the existing term "special schools" seems to be preferable to the concept of "detention schools". I ask the Minister to address also the issue of an inspectorate of child care and how this will relate to some of the facilities being set up. Will they have a remit in relation to these facilities because we do not need to be reminded of the scandals that emerged in the past in institutional care and the need in the future to be rigorous in our monitoring of how these institutions will work? Obviously the new inspectorate of child care has terrific potential in this area and is already being praised for the work it can and is doing. I would like to know whether it is feasible for the inspectorate to have a role in the various facilities mentioned in the Bill.

On the question of what works for children and the importance of continuing to research and evaluate the different services which are being delivered to children and the different efforts we are making, we do not have to reinvent the wheel in relation to interventions at an early stage to help children. I must mention the research being carried out in the United States which highlights the importance of early start and early initiatives in child care to ensure that children do not go down the road of juvenile crime. It is important to try to target services at the children who are likely to end up before the courts. It is clear from research here and in other countries that many of these children can be identified at a very early age. Putting resources into child care such as preventative services, family resource services in communities and targeting children at risk of disadvantage from an early age will pay dividends. This will mean that fewer children will come before the courts.

This Bill is welcome, even though it is overdue. It is comprehensive legislation and increases the age of criminal responsibility, which is welcome. Unless we tackle the broader child poverty issues which I have outlined and which are very prevalent in this Celtic tiger economy, unfortunately, more and more children will come before the courts. I conclude by asking the Minister to ensure a comprehensive policy is put in place to tackle the range of issues that affect children. When enacting the legislation, he should address the issue of resources because the legislation cannot help the children who come before the courts unless the resources are put in place to support families and children.

I apologise for the delay in coming to the House and missing my slot. I thank the Acting Chairman and the Minister for their accommodation. Unfortunately, with the many demands on Members' time, I was chairing the Committee on Enterprise and Small Business, which is debating the Copyright Bill, and I was not able to get to the House earlier.

I welcome the Children Bill, 1999. It is probably one of the most important pieces of legislation this House will deal with for a considerable period. I am pleased that during his Second Stage speech the Minister indicated the Bill will affect children's lives for the better, which is important. He indicated it has been a long time in gestation and that is for the better also. I pay tribute to the Minister, his officials and staff who contributed to bringing the legislation before us, including those who worked on other legislation, such as Deputy Currie and others. This is much improved legislation and I have no problem with the fact that it was in gestation for a long time.

Four main areas of the law are indicated in the Bill – the juvenile justice system, the family welfare conferences and other new provisions, the protection of children against abuse and the special residential service board to advise the Minister. These are four very important areas. The Bill clearly identifies and recognises, as we all do, the importance of early intervention and the benefits accruing from case conferences. This is a serious attempt to have detention as a last resort. It highlights the importance of parental and guardian responsibility in relation to the actions of children and the whole area of rehabilitation and education. There are many important aspects in this Bill.

I concur with some of Deputy Fitzgerald's comments on resources and staffing which are important issues. Given my experience as chairman and member of the Eastern Regional Health Authority and my previous experience as a member and former chairman of the Eastern Health Board, there are serious problems in relation to resources and staffing. Much of this relates to the tremendous changes which have taken place over the past number of years. Things are developing at such a rate that people who come into the area of child care are trained, they take up positions, get experience and then move on to other positions, leaving vacuums in certain areas. This is a result of continuing changes in the area of child care and relates particularly to social workers and others who work in the front line, move on and create difficulties and vacuums because of promotions and developments in the area of child care.

Concerns have been brought to my attention in relation to child care orders and the manner in which a member of a board or a Member of the Houses of the Oireachtas can obtain information about such care orders.

A number of cases have been raised here which draw to our attention areas of deep concern and warrant a special review of the information available to elected public representatives whether board members or Members of the House, including the Minister. I understand a case was before the House where the then Minister had certain difficulties when he wanted to find out some relevant information to assess, evaluate and adjudicate on the case put to him. We should recognise that issues of this nature should be under regular review and the Minister should have the authority to obtain the relevant information.

This Bill together with the Childcare Act, 1991, results in a significant overhaul of the legislative provisions in relation to children. That must be welcomed cautiously. Given our experience to date, I ask the Minister in conjunction with his colleague, the Minister for Health and Children, to review the areas of concern brought to their attention.

I welcome the provision of family welfare conferences. A pilot project on family welfare conferences has been in place in the eastern region since last year. It is being evaluated by UCD and the initial findings will be available in June. It is important to incorporate the findings into the Bill on Committee Stage.

Section 8 which deals with family welfare conferences seems to put the emphasis on care and supervision orders. It is important that the Bill reflects one of the basic principles of this model, that of empowering families.

Section 14(1) states: "No evidence shall be admissible in any court of any information, statement or admission disclosed or made in the course of a family welfare conference." As worded this section is too wide and could restrict the health board in its work. I ask that this be looked at again.

Part 3, which refers to children in need of special care or protection, is an amendment to the Childcare Act, 1991. When enacted, will it replace the current High Court orders placing restrictions on the liberty of children? It is important that the criteria for placing children in a unit where their liberty is restricted are clearly laid down. Section 23(b) specifies some of the criteria. Will the Minister consider expanding the criteria to include the words “where the child has a history of absconding”? As a member of the committee which considered the Childcare Act, that is a matter that was brought to my attention. It is important that detailed regulations are introduced in regard to the implementation of this section.

Part 5, section 52, raises the age of criminal responsibility from seven to 12 years. That is welcome. Section 53 provides that if a child under the age of 12 years is found by the Garda to be engaged in an activity which, if the child was over 12 years, would constitute criminal activity, the Garda must take the child to his or her parents or, if not practicable, to the health board. This will have significant resource implications for health boards in terms of extra demands and hours of service. Also section 78 will have resource implications for health boards. It provides that if a child over 12 years of age is before the Children Court on a criminal charge, the court may refer the matter to the health board to consider whether a care order or supervision order is required. This will have a tremendous impact in urban areas, particularly Dublin. I ask that special recognition be given to the Eastern Regional Health Authority and the three area boards under its remit for appropriate support and funding.

As chairman of the Eastern Health Board I am aware, having been involved in the launch, that the Eastern Health Board got a relatively large amount of funding, which was much appreciated, from the Department of Health and Children in preparation for the Children Bill. This is the first time funding was provided to a board prior to the enactment of a Bill. I acknowledge there appears to be a commitment to provide resources.

This is a significant Bill and introduces fundamental changes in the legislative provisions for children. It requires detailed planning and includes manpower planning which should involve interdepartmental and inter-agency representations. Additional resources on a planned basis are required. I cannot overstate the importance of prior and ongoing training for all personnel involved. I pay tribute to Brid Clarke, programme manager, in the former Eastern Health Board. She has moved to the post of assistant chief executive and I wish her well. She will be an important tool in ensuring the new structures have the knowledge and expertise required in the ever challenging child care area. I acknowledge and pay tribute to all others involved in child care for their commitment and dedication. It is important that regulations are issued in respect of special care orders. I look forward to further debate on this issue on Committee Stage.

(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.

Tréaslaím leis an Aire agus leis an Roinn as ucht an méid oibre atá déanta acu ag ullmhú an Bhille seo. Tuigim ón méid a dúirt an tAire nach raibh sé so-dhéanta Bille na bliana 1996 a úsáid agus a leasú. Is léir go raibh gá leis an am ó shin chun an Bille nua seo a chur ar fáil. Bheadh sé deacair a rá go bhfuil ábhar ar bith níos tábhachtaí ná cúram leanaí. Cuireann sé iona orm gurb é Bille ón bhliain 1908 atá á chur i leataobh agus á achtú ag an am seo. Tá sé thar am é sin a dhéanamh. Tá athraithe bunúsacha in ár ndearcadh ar an cheist seo agus i dtaobh leanaí go ginearálta atá faoi choimirce an Bhille seo.

In replacing the 1908 Act the Bill, not before time, heralds a new system of juvenile justice. It shows considerable changes from the Children Bill, 1999, which was also far-reaching. Deputy Currie is to be congratulated for the work he put into it. Society's view has altered radically in recent years. We have become more aware of the difficulties encountered by children, particularly those at risk as victims or as perpetrators of crime which is frequently drug related. It can also take the form of random attacks, as a result of the effects of alcohol or other substances.

The Minister has sought to learn from best practice worldwide in the area of juvenile justice. The Bill seeks to be balanced and comprehensive and provides sophisticated measures to address child welfare issues. The family welfare conference should deal with the area of parental responsibility in a more modern and effective manner. There is a huge need for such intervention. One can sometimes learn more from the failures of existing systems here and in other jurisdictions than from their successes. It is clear that poor procedures and inadequate staffing have militated against the efficacy of the systems in place here and abroad. With the best will in the world many parents have failed to meet what society perceives as their responsibility in this area. Many others have made no attempt whatsoever. It is a difficult area for the professionals to intervene effectively and professionally.

It is very important that the Bill protects children against abuse by parents, guardians or other carers. Recent high profile cases have underlined the difficulties which many children have encountered. Some have expressed amazement that such abuse could have taken place unnoticed. One of the lessons we have learned is that it is very difficult, even for those in regular contact with children, to be aware of what exactly is going on within the family circle. The added constitutional protection of the family seems to have created further difficulties.

Debate adjourned.