Deputy Killeen was in possession but he is not present. Does the Minister propose to reply to the debate?
Children Bill, 1999: Second Stage (Resumed).
Unless Deputy Shortall is offering, I will now do so.
Deputy Shortall has already made her contribution. I call on the Minister to reply.
I take this opportunity to thank everyone who contributed to this enlightening debate, the tenor of which reflects well on the House. Obviously, there are a number of matters with which I must, of necessity, take issue. Not least of these is the contention expressed by a number of speakers on the opposite side of the House that the Bill did not differ radically from the 1996 Bill which was published by the rainbow coalition Government when Deputy Currie held responsibility for children's matters in the Department of Justice.
In Opposition I engaged in heavy criticism of the 1996 Bill because I was of the view that it lacked certainty – in particular respects it also lacked direction – and did not take advantage of international best practice to the extent it could have done. My criticisms of that legislation were valid at the time and I stand over them now. I have no regrets for making those criticisms.
It is true that it took almost two and a half years to bring a new Bill before the House. There were sound reasons for that. First, we had to learn from international best practice how best to proceed. In that regard, the then Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Fahey, went to New Zealand to examine the situation there. He and his officials studied it in great depth and reported back to me. I was satisfied on hearing their report that amendments were required.
Other sources were also studied and, as a result, we began to compile amendments to the 1996 Bill. It became apparent in the course of preparing the amendments that it would not be possible to bring that Bill before the House. A new Bill was required. There are radical differences between the 1996 Bill and the Bill before the House and I am alarmed to hear some Members of the Opposition suggest there is none. The only explanation for such a baseless argument is that people either did not read the 1996 Bill or this Bill or they misunderstood both Bills. It is difficult to understand how anybody could argue that the 1996 Bill is similar to the new Bill unless one accepts one or other of those explanations.
In reply to a parliamentary question the Minister said there were 15 changes.
It suited the Members of the Opposition, to whom I listened in silence and with growing surprise—
The Minister did not listen in silence; he heckled.
—to suggest that the new Bill was not different from the 1996 Bill. The most plausible explanation for that attitude was their desire to clamber aboard with the new legislation and the best way of doing so was to pretend it was the old legislation. That does not wash and I will explain why in the course of this contribution.
It is easy to exaggerate the incidence of juvenile crime. It has been said that every generation considers it is in the middle of a juvenile crime wave, the likes of which has not before been seen.
More denial by this Government that a problem exists.
It is also only too easy to become complacent and to shrug off juvenile offending as a part of growing up, from which most youths will emerge unscathed as model citizens. Neither of those scenarios, Deputy Shortall, is a true reflection of reality. One should always wait to hear the full story before one comments hastily.
Juvenile offending is unquestionably a nuisance. It annoys and irritates society. Much of it consists of anti-social activities, delinquency and vandalism. Much of it also results from thoughtlessness. We do not have a significant problem with serious juvenile offending. Incidents that are almost a daily occurrence in other countries are, to be fair, a rarity in this country. We should not get carried away with our reactions to occasional incidents of serious juvenile offending—
The Minister should visit a few urban constituencies and see how serious the problem is. To suggest that it is not a large problem is nonsense.
—or the more common examples of anti-social activities. Instead, we should thoroughly examine and understand the problem and work out a rational response. That was done in the preparation of this Bill.
The Bill does not provide a juvenile justice system that can be neatly packaged and implemented in a rigid manner. It is a statutory framework which will underpin the future development of our juvenile justice system. As such, there is much scope for the system to develop in response to changing circumstances in a way not now anticipated. The present system, for example, which was developed from the Children Act, 1908, had no provision for probably the single most important initiative in dealing with juvenile crime in the 20th century, the Garda juvenile liaison officer scheme.
How the system develops in a constantly changing world is also significant for the cost of implementation. Most Deputies stressed the need for additional resources to implement the Bill. I agree with that assertion. Any worthwhile juvenile justice system that emerges from this legislation will cost money. It will not be possible to implement the Bill on the cheap nor would it be desirable to attempt to do so. Inadequate resources, badly targeted, will only bring the innovative provisions of the Bill into disrepute.
The most significant resource implications identified for my Department will arise in implementing the provisions relevant to the Probation and Welfare Service. It is anticipated that the eventual annual cost to the Department for implementing those provisions will be approximately £9.85 million. Capital non-recurring costs will be about the same or a little more. With regard to the Department of Health and Children, capital funding has been made available to enable the health boards to put in place an extra 110 high support and special care residential places. More than half of those places are expected to be in place by the end of this year while the remaining places should be in place by the end of next year.
In addition, under the national development plan, additional capital funding is being made available to health boards for child care services, including services required to implement the Bill. The Department of Health and Children is at present in discussion with the boards on the matter. The Department of Education and Science has a capital development plan for the children detention schools which will cost approximately £20 million, of which about half is directly attributable to its responsibilities under this Bill. It is clear that a co-ordinated plan to implement the Bill is well advanced.
Deputies Neville, Shortall, Currie and others argued that it was not worth waiting three years for this Bill. They thought it could have been produced earlier and made it plain that it differs little from the 1996 Bill. I have made my position clear in that regard. I initiated a complete re-examination of the 1996 Bill. I did not consider it appropriate to current circumstances and was of the view that a new Bill should be produced.
Deputy Neville claimed that in answer to a parliamentary question I said there was a total of 15 changes to the Bill. In fact, in my reply on 2 November 1999, I said I was listing some of the more significant changes contained in the new Bill. Deputies Neville, Shortall and Currie have chosen to represent that as the sum total of the amendments. Clearly, that is a misleading argument. In any event, even three or four of the 15 more significant changes are of such importance and have such implications for the direction of the juvenile justice system that the time spent researching those aspects alone was well spent.
It is unfortunate that I will have to spend the greater part of the time available to me responding to the nonsensical allegations that the two Bills do not differ. However, I will try to answer as many questions on the substance of the Bill as time permits. Part II of the Bill, which provides for the family welfare conference, is new. It extends the parameters of the 1996 Bill in a way which was not envisaged in that Bill. The philosophy underpinning the 1996 Bill focused on preventing further criminal behaviour by children who had already committed their first offence. It was not concerned with primary prevention or early intervention. The family welfare conference provides what many Deputies, including Deputy Shortall, argued should be in the Bill, that is, early intervention in families with problems.
Many Deputies, including Deputy Shortall, argued that a provision regarding early intervention in families with problems should be included. It will do this on an inter-agency basis under the leadership of the health boards. While primarily designed to deal with children with behavioural problems from the juvenile justice point of view, it is a primary crime prevention measure for children. However, it is much more than that and the benefits flowing from it will become clear in time.
What Deputy Shortall argued for is contained in the legislation. It leads me to conclude again that either the Deputies opposite were being mischievous or they had not read the 1996 Bill or this Bill. The performance of Deputy Shortall at times led me to the view that she was auditioning for a part in the Three Nualas.
As the report of this debate will be on the permanent record, I should correct Deputy Currie when, speaking on this debate on 29 March, he said:
Provision is made for a family welfare conference and there will be the introduction of a court directed and supervised family conference . . . Did the Minister even read the 1996 Bill? All these matters were contained in it.
I wonder if Deputy Currie read the 1996 Bill, because he did not read the Bill before the House. I doubt if his memory is failing him or if he did his refresher course. I read the 1996 Bill and fine comb it as I did, I could not find any reference to a family welfare conference nor to any other strategy on primary intervention. Neither could I find reference to a court directed and supervised family conference. I was heartened by the welcome given to this aspect of the Bill by more reasoned Deputies.
It is extraordinary that a Deputy who was a spokesperson and a former Minister of State dealing with a subject as sensitive and difficult as this could misrepresent the position in the House, but Deputy Currie can answer for himself. I believe he is suffering from a fit of pique regarding the abandonment of the 1996 Bill. It was admirable in parts but it would not have served the cause it was meant to serve as well as the legislation before the House.
Part IV places the Garda diversion programme on a statutory basis and provides for a family conference. That was provided for in the 1996 Bill, but where did that Bill provide for an action plan, which is what restorative conferencing is about? Where is the provision for a non-Garda chairperson, which several Deputies have sought, the contract or the restorative cautioning? These provisions will not be found in the 1996 Bill, but they will be found in this Bill.
There were some good ideas in the legislation introduced by Deputy Currie, but it was necessary to ensure the Bill contained a comprehensive strategy on restorative cautioning and conferencing. There are other changes to Part IV which are too numerous to mention, apart from one or two. It is now supported by a principle, the location of a conference being a Garda station is no longer highlighted and the identity of children admitted to the diversion programme and not just to the conference, as provided for in the 1996 Bill, is protected.
Deputies Neville and Clune asked what would happen to children not admitted to the diversion programme. The current administrative arrangement is that children can be admitted by the director or, on instruction, by the DPP. This was also the case in the 1996 Bill and it is one aspect I have not changed. The decision will depend on the circumstances of each case, but it is inevitable that placing the programme on a statutory basis will ensure it will be used more and more, especially in respect of children who at present might be regarded as marginally unsuited to it. It will also mean the programme will operate in a more transparent manner.
Deputies Hayes and Clune asked what training had taken place in preparation for the family conferencing. To date, 14 juvenile liaison officers have been fully trained and by the end of this week that number will have risen to 38. Training is by the mediation council of Ireland and the JLOs have also undergone a Thames Valley course. I assure Deputy Ó Caoláin that restorative conferencing and restorative cautioning will be up and running as soon as the Bill is enacted.
Part V deals with criminal responsibility and despite what Deputies Neville and Currie said, it is fundamentally different from the 1996 Bill. There was no guarantee in the 1996 Bill that the age would ever be raised to 12 years. The form of words used looked like an exercise in procrastination. I thank all those Deputies who welcomed the new age of criminal responsibility, which will be fixed with certainty at the age of 12. I do not intend to engage in a game of legislative scrabble, but that is what was being undertaken in the 1996 Bill. The age of responsibility might have been set at ten years of age, but it could have been 11 or 12. It is important to have certainty in this respect and that is what we are providing in the legislation before the House.
Deputy Currie mentioned that he had agreed to consider a proposal to make it an offence to aid, abet, etc., an under-age child to commit an offence. I do not wish to quibble with him on that, but the amendment he was preparing would have made it an offence to cause such a child to commit an offence. My legal advice is that such a provision is unnecessary but that the offence I have proposed is desirable.
I have made no major changes to Parts VI and VII, but I have had Part VI re-drafted so that it will be possible to appeal the custody regulations in so far as they relate to children. This will avoid duplication and confusion. Deputy Neville said another adult reasonably named by the child will be excluded from the questioning of a child in a Garda station. Section 61(6) defines reference to a parent or guardian as including adults reasonably named by the child. This was done to streamline the drafting and illustrates the point I made about the many presentational and drafting changes I made in the Bill, but which may not be found in the reply to Deputy Neville's parliamentary question, which appears to have formed the basis for his and Deputy Currie's address to the House. Deputy Neville also referred to the possibility of parents not being present at the questioning. If he compares section 48 of the 1996 Bill to section 61 of this Bill he will notice that the circumstances where questioning can take place in the absence of a parent or guardian have been reduced.
Part VIII introduces two significant additions to the Bill, each of which changes the direction of the 1996 Bill by adding a new dimension to it. I do not have time to dwell on all of these additions other than to say that the power of the court to adjourn a case and refer it to the health board is now linked to the new family welfare conference system. Also, the court directed family conference to be convened by the probation and welfare system is new. Both these innovative features offer an opportunity to the courts to deal with children brought before them for committing offences in a new way that offers greater opportunities for rehabilitation and could result in no finding being recorded against the child.
Among the changes I have made to Part IX are the introduction of the parental supervision order, a tightening of the parental compensation order, the introduction of a detention and supervision order, the introduction of rules governing places of detention and providing the courts with the means of avoiding the development of a revolving door in children's detention schools. All of these are major changes to the 1996 legislation. They were not envisaged in 1996. I indicated on the record of the House my deep unhappiness with the 1996 Bill and set about changing it for the better. I have a deep interest in juvenile justice. I am still astounded by the fact that Opposition Members say the new Bill is the same as the 1996 one. It is the most extraordinary assertion to have been made in the House for some time.
Deputies Neville and Clune mentioned the references in the Bill to St. Patrick's Institution. They are included for technical drafting reasons as they were in the 1996 Bill. However, unlike that Bill, the places which will accommodate 16 and 17 year old offenders will operate under their own rules which are separate from the prison rules intended in the 1996 Bill. It has not been finally decided where these young offenders will be detained, but currently being examined is the feasibility of providing two dedicated detention centres, one in the Dublin area and one in the Munster area.
Deputies Neville and Shortall were concerned that a revolving door syndrome could develop in children detention schools. Obviously this is a difficult issue. It is not ideal that the schools can refuse to accept young offenders properly referred to them by the courts. On the other hand, a revolving door syndrome would be disastrous for the schools and at odds with their ethos. It could also have constitutional implications. The solution in the 1996 Bill was to give the court power to defer the making of a detention order where no place was immediately available. I was not satisfied that that went far enough, so I have made some changes to the wording of section 144 to link the power of deferment more directly with the availability of places. I have also added section 145 under which the court, where it wishes to make a detention order but no place is available and it would not be appropriate to defer the making of the order, may instead impose the most appropriate community-based sanction.
Under the Bill no child should be referred to a children detention school if a place is not available. The control is at court level rather than at school door level. This is more appropriate than continuing the current unsatisfactory policy of allowing the schools discretion as to whom they will accept. The system of reports in the Bill, with provisions in Part X concerning the certification of schools as to the number, age and sex of children and the treatment facilities available and the new special residential services board, should ensure that there will be no inappropriate placements in the schools in future.
Part X has undergone many significant changes since the 1996 Bill, starting with a rewording of the principal object of children detention schools. Deputies Shortall and Fitzgerald did not like the name "children detention schools". The name is simply descriptive. The words "children" and "school" are obviously essential and we should not be afraid to use words such as "detention". The children in these schools will have been found guilty by the courts of committing criminal offences. The suggestion put forward by the Deputies that the schools be called "special schools", as they are informally known at present, is especially inappropriate as the schools could be confused with schools for children with special needs. The same point was made by Deputy Ulick Burke who also argued that children in detention schools would lose their educational ethos. The Deputy need only look at Part X to see that sections 157 to 224 represent more than a change of name. If one wishes to sum up the ethos of the schools, one need look no further than section 158 which establishes the principal object of the schools.
I emphasised in my opening address the importance of the principles and objectives supporting the Bill. Part X provides a more flexible framework for the leave arrangements of children from the schools. Any objective reading of sections 202 to 207 can only lead to the conclusion that we now have a leave scheme which will allow for a separate leave programme to be devised for each detained child. That programme will be one of the most important elements in providing for the reintegration of young offenders back into society. Particular features I have added are mobility trips and unaccompanied absences for such matters as receiving additional training or obtaining work experience.
Regarding Deputy Currie's remarks, the reason I have removed the provision for a children detention school board is that its functions would have overlapped with the much more innovative and desirable special residential services board provided for in Part XI. Obviously, provision for both boards could not be justified.
Deputies Neville, Currie, Fitzgerald and Higgins referred to the inspection provisions in the Bill. The 1996 Bill included an inspection provision in section 164 and, as it turned out, it was inadequate. I have provided a sophisticated inspection system in sections 185 to 189. I ask any fair-minded person to compare the two. The reason I deleted the reference to inspections taking place at least every six months is the danger that six monthly inspections could become the norm and that they would take place to fulfil a statutory obligation in a predictable manner rather than because they were needed. If Deputies opposite see that as some type of sinister development, we can re-examine it. In response to Deputy Fitzgerald, the social services inspection would concentrate its inspections on child care facilities. In any case, the schools will have their own sophisticated inspection system.
Part XI introduces the special residential services board. I spoke of this in my opening address and will say no more than to put on record that this is an important new part of the Bill which will be of immense value to every child who is detained in a children detention school or a special care unit. To dismiss it as an amendment is a failure to understand its significance. Last week the Minister of State with responsibility for children announced the membership of the interim administrative board, which is another example of forward planning.
I realise I have taken up too much valuable time in countering the nonsense that the 1996 and 1999 Bills are indistinguishable. The only matter which I have noticed to be indistinguishable in the course of the debate on the legislation is the speech of Deputy Currie compared with the speeches of Deputies Neville and Shortall. All were on the wrong track and were incorrect in trying to make the case that the Bills were indistinguishable. This Bill is entirely new.
I wish to answer as many of the remaining questions as I can. Deputy Shortall appeared to suggest that no proper juvenile justice system was operating while the Bill was being prepared. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Garda and the Probation and Welfare Service will tell her the position. We have a crime problem, but the number of crimes committed by juveniles is relatively low. However, juvenile crime must be tackled and this Bill will allow the system to develop in a positive direction.
Deputy Higgins said a recent survey showed that 33% of all crime was committed by under 16s. This is another piece of misinformation which is thrown about this House like confetti at a wedding. Statistics do not support the Deputy's position. Some 85,000 indictable crimes were reported in 1998. In the same year 15,000 crimes committed by under 18s were reported to the Garda national juvenile office. That is less than 18% of the total. When one considers that the 18% includes 16 and 17 year olds and summary offences, it can be seen that the extent of the problem is nowhere near that suggested by Deputies Higgins and Shortall. The conclusion one could reach is that their calculators were not working, that they were on an off-morning and were unable to add or subtract or that they were simply being mischievous. One can take one's pick.
Offences committed by young persons tend to be irritating—
Will the Minister take a question?
There is no difficulty with taking questions.
Given the Minister's denial of the existence of a serious juvenile crime problem, will he accept an invitation from me to visit a number of urban constituencies to speak with the public who are well aware that there is a serious juvenile justice problem? The Minister need only listen to the radio any day of the week, listen to people living in areas which are under siege from juvenile crime and speak to gardaí who are completely without direction because of the absence of legislation in this area in recent years to become aware of the level of the problem.
This is tantamount to further misrepresentation. At no stage did I say that there was not a juvenile justice or juvenile crime problem.
The Minister should stop denying the existence of a problem.
I reiterated that there was a problem and that it was one which the Bill seeks to resolve but that, relative to other countries, our rate of juvenile offending is low. Those are the facts and they are backed up by the statistics.
People have given up reporting crime.
The Deputy has asked the Minister a question and should allow him to reply.
I am not denying for one moment that a problem exists. There is a problem which this legislation seeks to resolve but no amount of misrepresentation can hide the fact that this Bill seeks to tackle the problem which has been identified.
No amount of misrepresentation can hide the fact that since this Government took office crime has decreased by 21% and no amount of misrepresentation can hide the fact that Deputy Shortall was a member of a party which, when in Government, cancelled prisons, prevented the introduction of innovative criminal legislation and failed to increase the number of gardaí and to provide resources to tackle the criminal justice system. Members of that party are now coming into the House with crocodile tears pretending that legislation which has nothing at all to do with them is their own.
Deputy Shortall also said that three principles should underline the approach to juvenile justice, namely, prevention, rehabilitation and political commitment. I have no difficulty agreeing with that analysis although I would make the observation that reintegration may be as important as rehabilitation. That is why, unlike the 1996 Bill, this Bill provides primary prevention measures through the family welfare conference. This is the mechanism for early intervention for children at risk which the Deputy rightly identifies as being important. I referred to some of the measures aimed at rehabilitation a few moments ago.
Deputy Shortall did not think that sufficient emphasis was given to the care, education and welfare of children in Part III, which deals with children in need of special care or protection. It is made clear in the inserted section 23B(2) that a special care order authorises a health board to provide appropriate care, education and treatment. While this phrase is repeated later in the section, it only has to be stated once to be law.
Deputy Currie asked what I meant by the phrase "natural grouping of schools" in the con text of the management of children detention schools. It means that where there is more than one school on the same campus, as for example in Finglas, one board of management could be appointed to those schools. Legislatively, it is provided for in section 164 and seems a very sensible and efficient way of managing the schools.
Deputy Currie, who incidentally claimed that this Bill was indistinguishable from the 1996 Bill, asked why the Bill removes the onus from parents to prove that they had a reasonable excuse for not attending court proceedings in which their child is involved. It added nothing to the provision; only the court can excuse attendance at court, and non-attendance in the absence of such excuse can be treated as contempt of court.
Deputy McGennis understood that family welfare conferences could be triggered in two ways and she is quite correct. That is set out in section 7 and, whether instigated by a court or a health board, it is an exercise in avoiding crises in a child's life, not crisis management, through early intervention on an inter-agency basis.
Deputy Hayes asked whether community service orders would be extended to persons under 16 years of age. The answer is no. In 1983, it was decided to restrict community service orders to the 16 plus age group as otherwise it could conflict with legislation protecting young persons in employment. The day centre order is an alternative activities-based initiative to community service for the under 16 year old age group.
Deputy Hayes also asked me to outline the compensation provisions of the Bill. Payment of compensation by a child is dealt with in the Criminal Justice Act, 1993, while section 113 of this Bill deals with compensation by parents. The child may have to make reparation, either financial or otherwise, under either of the two restorative conferences or under the restorative cautioning provisions.
While not entirely relevant to the Bill, I thank Deputy Perry for his interesting comments on shared parenting. As the Deputy said, unless there is abuse or violence, it is usually in a child's best interests to retain contact with both parents when a relationship breaks down.
I thank Deputies Collins, Moloney and others for their wide-ranging contributions and, in particular, for their welcome for the restorative justice aspects. The provisions on restorative justice are among the most important initiatives ever taken in this country in the juvenile justice system and I would emphasise that they do not represent an easy option. Deputy Collins also mentioned the co-operation between Departments in the preparation of the Bill which was of critical importance in getting the Bill to this stage and will be of equal importance in its implementation. In this respect, I congratulate and thank the officials involved from the respective Departments.
Deputy Ring asked whether children would be better off when this Bill is enacted. The answer is an emphatic yes. Families and society generally will also be better off as a result of this legislation. I agree with Deputy Ring's comment that jail is no place for children. That is why the Bill prohibits the imprisonment of children and why one of the fundamental pillars of this legislation is that child detention will be a last resort. That is emphasised throughout the legislation.
However, I could not agree with Deputy Ring when he equated children begging with disadvantage. The problem is far more complex than that, as alluded to by Deputies Brady, Kelleher, Boylan and Timmins. While begging is largely a social problem, the criminal law can be of assistance, in particular where child begging is condoned or organised by adults. The changes I am making to the law on sending children out to beg will do much to alleviate the problem. Deputy O'Sullivan sought clarification of that change. Basically, it reverses the burden of proof so that in future parents will have to satisfy the court that they did not allow the child out to beg. This is a very important change. Changing the burden of proof will unquestionably make a difference in terms of convictions and will lead to this problem being tackled head-on.
Deputy Carey expressed some disquiet about setting up the diversion programme on a statutory basis. While I understand his concern, I believe the programme could stagnate without this boost to its status. It will also ensure that the programme will attract further resources and be more transparent in its administration. It will also allow the programme to be expanded to include restorative conferencing and restorative cautioning. The 29 Garda youth diversion programmes funded by my Department will continue to operate on an administrative basis. Deputy Carey thought that the restriction on movement order should apply over longer hours. The problem with that is that it could interfere with a child's legitimate activities such as school attendance and would be difficult to enforce.
Deputy Keaveney referred to under-age drinking. There is no doubt that this is the source of much anti-social activity by children. The national age card scheme which I introduced last year, combined with the provisions of the new licensing legislation, should have the effect of making it more difficult for under-age children to obtain alcohol. It also provides more severe penalties for those convicted of selling alcohol to young persons. In future the sale of alcohol to under-age people will be an offence of strict liability and there will be no defence for it. Where there is a doubt about a young person's age, identification should be immediately sought and if it is not forthcoming, I would strongly advise that the person should not be served. If a publican sells alcohol to under-age people, his or her premises will be closed down for a short period for the first offence, a longer period for the next one and will ultimately lead to the forfeiture of a licence.
Deputy Keaveney also suggested that 16 to 18 year old detainees should be the responsibility of the Department of Education and Science on the grounds that, otherwise, they would be treated like adults within the prison system. As I already mentioned, 16 and 17 year olds will be detained separately from older detainees in places which will operate under their own rules according to an ethos which will differ little from children detention schools.
Deputy Michael Kitt would not wish to see local voluntary effort sidelined by reason of this Bill. He need have no fears on that account. There are numerous examples in the Bill where voluntary programmes, services and facilities can be used but, of course, only with the agreement of the management of those voluntary initiatives.
Deputies Ó Caoláin, O'Sullivan and Finucane were concerned that the Bill could not be implemented without additional probation and welfare officers. It is estimated that 63 additional probation and welfare officers and about nine additional clerical staff will be required to fully implement this Bill. Plans are now being drawn up in my Department, as a matter of urgency, to ensure the necessary number of additional professional and support staff will be in place to allow the relevant parts of the Bill to come into operation at an early date.
Deputies Batt O'Keeffe and Cooper-Flynn mentioned the concern shown in the Bill for the victims of juvenile offending. I was determined, when considering that aspect, to ensure victims would be active participants in family conferences, with their rights and interests protected, and that they would not be silent participants, or even exhibits. Deputy Cosgrave, who had some concerns in this area, can be assured the conference will be a positive experience for victims.
Deputy O'Keeffe also sought clarification on whether the facilities sought by the High Court were the same facilities being provided under the Bill. The health boards are at an advanced stage in putting in place the necessary residential facilities for children with severe behavioural difficulties who need residential care. These include high support units and the special care units provided for in the Bill.
Deputy Callely asked if special care orders would restrict a child's liberty. The purpose of this part of the Bill is to enable a health board to apply to the court for a special care order if the child is in need of special care and protection. If the court approves the order, the child shall be committed to the care of the board and placed in a special care unit. It is important to emphasise that, with the introduction of the family welfare conference in Part II, this will be an option of last resort.
Deputies Theresa Ahearn and Michael Ahern spoke about children getting into trouble after school. This is very true – a peak time for juvenile offending is the afternoon. The family conference can play an important role in keeping these children, sometimes called "latch key kids", off the streets after school. For example, a grand parent or other relative may be in a position to look after the child until the parents arrive home.
Deputy Barnes talked about the returns to society to be gained by greater investment in child care. That policy underpins the family welfare conference which will allow for earlier intervention where children are at risk. Deputy Barnes also mentioned the Scottish children panels. We considered these, but the panel system, as operated in Scotland, could not be transplanted to Ireland for constitutional reasons. Deputy Cooper-Flynn welcomed the emphasis on family involvement in the various conferences provided for in the Bill. What I have in mind here is that not just the parents or guardian but the wider family, in particular, grandparents or an uncle or aunt, who can have a very positive influence on young persons would also be present.
Deputy Fitzgerald raised a question about the sharing of information among care workers. The Data Protection Act may present a problem in some circumstances but, in general, I believe information should be shared between agencies and the agencies should be able to trust each other in that respect. If information is not shared, interagency co-operation falls down, which would be damaging to the success of the Bill. Deputy Fitzgerald also referred to the need for an independent commissioner to enforce children's rights. The Deputy will be aware that the Department of Health and Children is at present preparing legislation to establish an ombudsman for children.
Deputy Ulick Burke referred to obtaining apologies from seven year olds. Children of that age would be dealt with in the context of the family welfare conference, operated by the health boards. The restorative justice principle, to which the Deputy alluded, is not part of that scheme.
I hope I have replied to the more salient points raised by Deputies. I also hope I have illustrated unequivocally that this legislation is entirely new. It draws from previous experience, and good ideas contained in the 1996 Bill have not been abandoned. However, it must be clear that there are fundamental differences between this and the 1996 Bill. I say that, not to seek any credit, but to emphasise and explain why it took so long to produce this Bill and bring it before the House. There were cogent good reasons for that. I have no difficulty with Members opposite celebrating that achievement. However, attempting to pretend this is their own legislation is akin to celebrating the victory of the Irish horse in the Grand National and trying to convince oneself one had a bet on it when one had nothing on the horse. It must be clear to everybody that one cannot collect, no matter how much one celebrates, unless one placed a bet.
That is a rather strange metaphor.
The Government has gone racing mad.
I thank the Deputies who contributed to this debate. It would be impossible to respond to every point made but Committee Stage will provide another opportunity to respond. I note the illustrious Deputy Higgins stated I used a rather strange metaphor. If the Deputy had been present for the debate, he would know it was quite appropriate in the context. The level of debate and the number of speakers is indicative of the interest shown in this House in the welfare of children. I thank again the Members who contributed, particularly the principal spokespersons for the Opposition.
Personalised insults are indicative of the Minister's attitude.
I took enough of them.