I am pleased the Minister is in the House this morning and, lest he is replaced by someone else, I will begin with what should be the end of my speech. It may be difficult for the him to listen to all the contributions and take them on board. His mind may be wandering to blue seas around Cahirciveen. However, I will make a point about illiteracy. There is no relationship between illiteracy and intelligence. One of the main reasons there is so much juvenile delinquency is that many children are illiterate. The problem of illiteracy is not being addressed in school – I am aware this will offend many teachers. Many of my friends are teachers, as is my wife – because many teachers cannot identify it. If they are lucky enough to identify it, they cannot deal with it, and this includes remedial teachers.
I have a video of a programme on Channel 4 which I said I would send to the previous Minister for Education and Science. I shall send it to the Minister's private secretary before the end of the month. Perhaps during the Easter period he will have an opportunity to view it. The research was carried out on a detention centre for juvenile delinquents south of Edinburgh. Prior to the survey it was estimated that in Ireland dyslexia affected 4% of the population some time ago; research shows it affects 8% or 10%. Before conducting the survey at the detention centre the researchers estimated it might be 15% or 20%. The results were startling. Some 50% of those in the detention centre suffered from dyslexia. Dyslexia is not a terminal illness. If discovered in time it can be addressed. The esteem of those in the detention centre was increased when the difficulty was addressed. In the past one-third of a class was considered average, one-third was intelligent and one-third was thick as their father and grandfather and were put at the back of the class. That is simply not true.
While there is full employment, 200,000 are unemployed and each year there are 10,000 early school leavers. The 200,000 unemployed includes those 10,000 early school leavers. The Minister will be familiar from his clinics in Kerry with the wife who comes to him and says her husband is due to finish his FÁS scheme in a few weeks' time and he is in a state of depression and asks if his FÁS scheme can be extended. He likes it and gets on great with his colleagues but cannot go out to find a job. The reason for this is that he has a set pattern of work which is not academic and does not involve paperwork. He does not want to go into a factory where there are signs stating one must wear a hard hat, wash hands, clock in and clock out, etc., because he cannot read and is afraid to admit it to his peers. I ask the Minister to bear that in mind and, with the Minister for Education and Science, to set up some research. It is available in the United States and in England and that may save us having to go back to invent the wheel.
When we look at the Brinks Mat robbery a few years ago, and various other robberies, we ask how they were carried out. We must remember we are dealing with people who commit crime. They may be illiterate but they are intelligent. Their way of striking back at society is to go out and commit crime because society has failed them by not addressing their reading difficulties.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill which has been a long time coming. I note that the Minister in his opening paragraphs stated that he does not wish to take up the time of the House outlining the many twists and turns, over recent years, that have eventually culminated in the Bill and then goes on to do so. No matter what the background, it is important that this Bill has eventually reached Second Stage. It covers three areas of law – it provides the framework for the development of the juvenile justice system, it re-enacts and updates the 1908 Act and it provides for a family welfare conference and other new provisions for dealing with out-of-control non-offending children.
We are all aware of how vulnerable children are and while many of us would like to think that Dickens and Fagin do not belong to our age, we are sadly very wrong. One does not have to walk over O'Connell Bridge to witness the exploitation of children; it happens in many other areas of this country and is manifested in many forms, be it in child prostitution in a public toilet or in the collection of glasses in a well established lounge. Many children are simply deserted by their parents. During the Christmas period I had reason to spend several nights in a children's ward in a hospital in Dublin and it was heart wrenching to discover a little three year old boy crying each evening for his mother having not received a visit for over a week. It is difficult to tune into such an existence. However, there is an onus on us to deal with such situations.
Strangely enough in medieval times, the age of majority became fixed at 21 years but, for all but the upper classes, this was irrelevant since even the very young worked as soon as it became physically possible. In this Bill a "child" means a person under 18 years of age. A child has a limited participation in its own decisions. Children cannot vote, sit on a jury, hold public office or own land. The Children Act, 1908, was the basis for the creation of our present juvenile system and the time has definitely come to revamp our approach and to establish and implement a system that serves our children and our time and causes them to stop and reflect how their actions can impact on victims. This is a theme that could easily be extended right across the criminal law area. Many difficulties have been experienced over the years in introducing comprehensive juvenile justice legislation.
In the 1980s the Department of Health and Children made proposals, which included juvenile justice provisions, aimed at replacing the 1908 Act. In the mid 1990s the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform took over this work. The key factor which delayed, frustrated and blocked the progress was the difficulty in agreeing the respective responsibilities of the main Departments concerned, namely, Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Health and Children and Education and Science. Under new legislation this was overcome when Deputy Currie was appointed Minister of State with responsibility for Children's Affairs at the three Departments and immediately took on the task of progressing this legislation. On his appointment he established under his chairmanship a co-ordinating committee of officials from each of the Departments.
One of the first tasks of the committee was to break the impasse of responsibility that was holding up progress on a children's juvenile justice Bill. Agreement was reached that the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform would be responsible for the detention of 16 and 17 year olds, the Department of Education and Science would be responsible for young offenders under 16 years of age and the Department of Health and Children would be responsible for disturbed non-offending children. Deputy Currie then brought forward the Children Bill, 1996.
Ireland is not unique in thinking that we have difficulties with juvenile crime. It is a feature of developed countries that problems arise with juvenile delinquency and crime to a greater and lesser extent and many have more serious problems than Ireland. Juvenile crime has been always with us. After feudalism broke down in Europe, every succeeding generation of adults has considered itself to be in the middle of a juvenile crime wave, with some children effectively out of control and it was considered that things were better in the days of their youth.
The reaction of legislators heretofore has been by and large to introduce harsh measures to deal with delinquency at times of particular concern. Opinion swings full circle when the harsh measures are not seen to work and a more liberal approach is then followed. When this does not work there is a return to the harsher measures and a cycle of juvenile justice oscillation between the two traditional approaches, the juvenile justice delinquency model and the welfare model. It is accepted that this country and this Bill embraces, as did the 1996 Bill, that the most appropriate system for this country is a modified form of a justice model which incorporates suitable elements of the welfare model. This is the best way to break out of the cycle earlier described.
It facilitates the individual child offender to be dealt with in a way that presents the best and most appropriate hope for rehabilitation while ensuring the common good of society generally, and also ensures that the feelings of the victims of juvenile crime are taken into consideration.
We must examine clearly why there is such a high level of crime with juveniles at a time when the standard of living of most of the population has never been higher. Studies show that a high percentage of crime is committed by young males who live in the more socially deprived areas of our cities and towns. Drugs are a major factor in many areas but it is also the case that only a small number of children in deprived areas actually become involved in crime. We must learn to know why this happens and detailed studies must be completed to enable us to tackle and deal with the problem rather than dealing as we are in this Bill with the outcome of the problem.
The juvenile who commits crime is usually a boy from a deprived background. The family is often dysfunctional with a strong possibility that one or both parents, or brothers or sisters, was previously involved in criminal activity. He often suffers from low self-esteem. He will also associate with people who are involved in juvenile delinquency and will be under intense peer pressure. He will have very little medium to long-term planning for his future or for a career. He may have a short attention span and have difficulty relating with other people. He may crave attention and acceptance by his peers through his behavioural activity.
Most crime committed by children is petty. Larceny is by far the most common and the majority of crime, such as housebreaking, shoplifting and breaking into cars, are committed by boys in the 14-15 age group. For the Bill to operate the Department of Health and Children must provide substantially increased resources to the health boards to develop child and family support services. This difficulty is found in all areas of legislation. A great deal of legislation is being brought forward, perhaps too much, but we cannot implement it because of a lack of resources. While the financial resources may now be available, in many cases the human resources are not.
More finance must be provided to help in the provision of services for families and children under stress. Residential accommodation facilities and support services for at-risk adolescents and young homeless people must be made available. Parenting courses, family resource centres and counselling and social education programmes must be provided. All schemes must be available and aimed at disadvantaged areas, children in need and parents under stress or who lack parenting skills. Many groups and societies now provide courses in parenting skills. People of an older generation sometimes dismiss the need for them and say that parents should have these skills instinctively, but this is often not the case. Given that we have so many young mothers we must examine the concept of parenting skills courses.
The objective of these schemes must be to prevent young people becoming involved in crime. It is accepted that young boys need role models. Many families today are single parent families and 95% of these consist of children with their mother whose father is absent. Society is changing fast and the State has a duty to ensure that a child has a right to know his father and to have his father's influence. Society must state that fathers have a duty and responsibility to take a parenting role. If a father is absent or inadequate and a mother is under pressure because of her personal circumstances, young boys look to their peer group to relate. If this group is comprised of young children in similar difficulties it will be easy to become involved in petty crime. With very low self esteem, very little sense of worth and no hope for the future, those young people can get satisfaction from breaking the law and ending up with the proceeds of their crime. They can also quickly learn that the justice system, in their circumstances, does not exist. They no longer fear the gardaí, judges or authority because they understand that nothing will happen them. They can then be influenced by more serious criminals who will use their vulnerability and recklessness to involve them in serious crime which often includes drug related offences.
The approach of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to increase prison numbers, while welcome, should also include a deep examination of why people start committing crime, what brings them into crime and why they commence on the road which eventually leads them to prison. We must try to get to the root of the problem. Most of the reasons for youthful crime are environmental, educational or social. We must recognise that approximately 90% of prisoners left school before they reached their 16th birthday. This highlights the educational and environmental backgrounds which influence the development of criminal activity in a young person. In most cases it is shown that they are oblivious to the suffering and difficulties they inflict on their victims. They do not understand the trauma such victims go through. In fact, they do not wish to care about this. This must change and such people must be made responsible for the outcome of their activities and be sensitive to the hurt caused.
The family has changed dramatically. When I was young the traditional family consisted of a mother, father, children and their children. In today's society the family comprises many types of units. It might be composed of a single parent and children or a man and woman who have families from previous relationships as part of their family. This is not a very important issue. What is important is that parents take responsibility for the children in their care. More juvenile offenders are produced from dysfunctional families, particularly where there is a history of alcohol abuse, drug abuse, criminal activity and physical and sexual abuse. The services must assist all families, whether they are described as dysfunctional or otherwise.
Our present approach is inadequate. It is not right simply to remove the young person and obtain another place for him in an overcrowded detention unit, whether in the short or long-term. The best place for a child to be reared is with his or her family. More emphasis must be placed on the responsibility and duty of parents to bring a child to adulthood and to prepare him to have a productive, happy and fulfilling future.
Education has a key role. There must be a serious examination of our education system which does not respond to areas of underprivilege. Designed often by comfortable, middle class professionals, it is not accepted by, or relevant to the underprivileged. Juvenile crime must be seriously, comprehensively and radically tackled at its source. Parents have rights but they also have responsibilities and they must not be allowed to abdicate their responsibility for parenting their children. The best opportunity for a child to have a crime-free, drug-free and decent life opportunity is to have a background which is secure and supportive. Detention for child offenders must only be seen as a last resort. Alternative forms of sentencing must have a priority. Community service must be developed and better funded and monitored, with meaningful and productive projects and programmes to involve the child and to bring to the child a sense of contribution to the good of the community while under the supervision in the schemes.
The combination of increased community service and the curfew provided for in the 1996 and 1999 legislation will have several benefits. It will keep the young offender out of prison and detention, thus having an effect on both those systems by reducing overcrowding. The work which is provided must be productive and designed to sow the seeds of community and civic spirit in the offender. The community will benefit from the work done. Community service must be suitable in terms of where it takes place, the length of time on the service and its value to the community. This approach, installing in the offender a sense of rehabilitation, must be the overriding factor with the punitive or humiliating aspect of such service being minimised.
Adequate Government funding must be provided for community centres where young people are encouraged to keep active and occupied. Drug related crime involving juveniles must be closely examined. We must look at all types of drug related crime such as possession, feeding the habit and crimes committed while under the influence of drugs. I call for more funding for drug treatment programmes for juveniles. These must be introduced as a matter of urgency and I compliment the former Minister of State, Deputy Flood, who has done Trojan work in this area. Young offenders might be given a choice of detention for the full statutory period or a reduced sentence with attendance at intoxication treatment programmes.
Education is the way out of the difficulties experienced by many communities. The education programmes must respond to the difficulties experienced in these communities. In modern Ireland we emphasise the individual more than the group. In the more affluent areas young people are given the means to achieve their expectations, including a thorough formal education. In many families in such areas there is an automatic expectation that the child will attend a third level institution. In some less well-off families an interest and motivation is instilled in young people and the means are given to obtain a trade or skill.
I cannot over emphasise the importance of literacy. The Minister could be the man to address this issue. Like Socrates he could adopt an idea, although I hope he will not come to a similar end.