I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I am pleased to present this Bill to the House. It provides for the establishment of a statutory body to be known as the Family Support Agency. The new agency will bring together the main programmes and pro-family services introduced by the Government in recent years to support families, promote continuity and stability in family life and prevent marriage breakdown, and to foster a supportive community environment for families at local level. The Bill delivers on commitments in the action programme for the millennium to protect the family through political, economic, social and other measures which will support the stability of the family and through a "families first" policy focus designed to make families central to policy making. The legislation marks a significant step forward in providing a comprehen sive and coherent response for families who have need of support services and for families generally.
The Family Support Agency will provide a family mediation service; support, promote and develop the provision of marriage and relationships counselling services, and family support services; and support, promote and develop the family and community services resource centre programme. The legislation will involve the transfer of responsibility for the administration of these programmes from within my Department to the new agency. I will bring forward an amendment on Committee Stage to give effect to this.
The agency will also have functions in providing information about these services as well as promoting knowledge about parenting issues and family responsibilities. It will undertake research and have a role advising me as Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs in family matters. The new agency will be overseen by a board with expertise and experience in matters related to its responsibilities and it will be accountable for Government investment in the development of family services and programmes which this year amounts to almost £12 million.
The Family Support Agency will be a dedicated agency and a resource for voluntary and community groups that work with families at national and local level and all those involved in promoting family well being. The provision of family mediation, support for the marriage and relationships counselling services and the development of the local family and community services resource centres are the core responsibilities of the Family Support Agency.
These programmes have been radically expanded and developed over the past few years as the key components of the Government's "Families First" approach. Government investment in them has increased from £1.5 million in 1997 to just over £11 million in 2001. This approach is very much in line with the views of the Commission on the Family which sought a greater balance between Government resources allocated to dealing with the legal consequences of marital breakdown and the resources allocated to preventative and social supports for families. This view was echoed at the series of family fora which I hosted throughout the country, eight in all. Over 1,000 people including public representatives attended the fora. While Government initiatives to support families were well received, the view was regularly expressed that there is a need for a greater focus at policy level on measures to preserve and support family relationships and to prevent marital breakdown in the first place.
The importance of mobilising local communities in building a supportive environment for families was also a prominent theme for local groups. The Family Support Agency Bill comprehensively addresses all of these issues. The responsibility for the Family Support Agency to support, promote and develop further family support pro grammes, its functions to undertake research and its information and advisory role to me will greatly strengthen the way in which the Government's response to families in the future can be developed and delivered.
The detailed provisions are contained in the explanatory memorandum. The Family Support Agency will set out its functions, as set out in section 4, to provide family mediation through the Family Mediation Service which the Government has expanded nationwide over the past four years. As Members will know, the service is a free, professional and confidential service which assists couples who have decided to separate to reach agreement on all issues related to their separation. It is important when a couple has decided to separate that they may have a service which allows them to deal with the issues which arise at the breakdown in a non-adversarial manner where this is possible. This approach, which is particularly helpful where children are concerned, is a main feature of the mediation process that parenting arrangements focus on children having ongoing supportive relationships with both parents into the future. The Family Mediation Service was set up on a pilot basis in 1985. In 1997 it was available in two centres, Dublin and Limerick. Since the Government has taken office, and given the commitment that we made in our programme for Government to make it nationwide, I have established new services in Athlone, Castlebar, Cork, Dundalk, Galway, Tralee and Wexford. The Dublin service has been expanded and relocated to larger premises to deal with more clients and new services have been established in Tallaght and Marino, serving Coolock and the northside of Dublin.
A new service for Blanchardstown and surrounding areas is planned for later this year. In line with the nationwide expansion, there has been a significant increase in the numbers of couples being assisted by the service from 484 couples in 1997 to 1,225 couples in 2000 and obviously more this year. In addition to its services to clients the Family Mediation Service each year provides a small number of training places for people who wish to specialise in family mediation thereby contributing to the growth and development of a vibrant profession of family mediators throughout the country. The Family Support Agency Bill provides the statutory framework to secure the future development of these activities. An important goal for the Family Support Agency will be that family mediation is recognised and promoted as a alternative to more adversarial approaches to resolving issues that arise on marital breakdown and that more people throughout the country have access to this valuable professional family support service. In bringing this legislation before the House I am also fulfilling a Government commitment to provide a statutory basis for the Family Mediation Service. This was promised in the review of the programme for Government which was carried out after two and a half years of this Government's term. In doing so I would like to pay tribute to the staff in my Department and the staff in the mediation service. The commitment and professionalism they bring to their work and their advocacy on behalf of customers will provide a major asset to the agency in developing its remit in family mediation. This legislation is a particularly important development for them.
Section 4(1) (c) of the Bill provides that the Family Support Agency will support, promote and develop the provision of marriage and relationships counselling services. Government grant aid for the provision of these services in the voluntary sector has been increased from £900,000 in 1997 when this Government came to office to £4.7 million in 2001. Members will know that this grant aid was transferred from the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, as it was formerly known in the previous Administration.
There are now over 400 voluntary and community groups throughout the country providing marriage and relationship counselling, marriage preparation programmes, child counselling for children whose parents have separated and bereavement counselling and support services. A key objective for the Family Support Agency will be the development of a strong regional network of accessible counselling services for families as recommended by the Commission on the Family and as envisaged in the Government programme.
These are the messages from research that the Family Support Agency will take on board in developing its function to promote support for counselling services in partnership with the voluntary sector. Moreover, as a dedicated agency, the Family Support Agency with its own budget and expertise will be well placed to assist the voluntary counselling services in meeting new challenges, such as the growing professionalisation of the sector, the increasing emphasis on the high standards of training and qualification and the need for the development of models of best practice. The Family Support Agency, in section 4(1) (e), is being given a specific responsibility to support, promote and develop the family and community services resource centre programme at present being administered by my Department.
The family and community services resource centre programme has been singled out by Government in recent years for radical improvement and expansion. In 1997 there were ten centres. We made promises in the programme for Government to radically increase these numbers and there are currently 70 either up and running or have been approved for inclusion in the programme. We made a promise in the review of the Action Programme for the Millennium and the Government is committed to the establishment of 100 centres. The aim of the family and community resource centre programme is essentially to help combat disadvantage by strengthening the capacity of families to carry out their caring responsibilities. Services for lone parent families, young mothers and others in need of extra support can be provided. Initiatives to enhance the role of young fathers in the lives of their children, to enhance parenting skills and to promote the greater involvement of young men in the life of the community are also part of the programme for some centres. Family and community resource centres build on local neighbourhood solidarity, promote informal support networks and have links with schools and services in their locality.
The ethos of working with communities in an empowering way, fostering self-development and self-reliance informs the approach of many of the family resource centres in carrying out their work. In this way the centres can act as a first step to community participation for the most vulnerable and marginalised families. This ethos and approach will be valued in the new agency.
The Family Support Agency will be an important resource to the work of the centres enhancing the role and capacity of these local community initiatives in responding to families at neighbourhood level. The agency will work with the centres fostering their individuality and helping them to promote and develop their own ways of working within their communities. The agency will undertake research to better inform the development of policy services to promote family well being in the future. The families research programme which I introduced two years ago has proved to be highly successful in providing new information about families. Themes being researched include; the processes of family formation; children and parental separation; the effectiveness of counselling services, and the role of fathers in family life.
In recent days Deputies will have received "Grandparenthood in Modern Ireland" the result of the research study undertaken by Age Action Ireland under the programme. One or two Members who are grandparents had a problem with its cover but I had nothing to do with that. The study is most informative about the important supports provide by grandparents in the lives of families especially where children are concerned. When the research programme was set up I asked that the role of grandparenthood be investigated. This is very valuable research.
I am convinced of the need for more high quality research in this field to promote awareness about family issues and to underpin the development of appropriate policies and services which will be effective in promoting family well-being.
The agency is being given a function to provide information to the public about issues relating to marriage and relationships, family mediation, parenting and family responsibilities to support families in rearing their children. The research and information functions will underpin the agency's role in providing advice to me in family matters.
In carrying out its functions the Family Support Agency will have regard to Government policy, and in particular to social inclusion measures.
Section 10 provides for the membership of the agency which will comprise 12 members including a chairperson. the agency will include an officer of the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs, an elected member of the staff and persons who have relevant experience or expertise in matters relating to the agency's functions and responsibilities.
In particular, I consider that it will be necessary for the agency to include members with a special interest or expertise in areas such as mediation, counselling, the work of family and community centres, research, family law and parenting matters.
The Governments' legislative proposals for the Family Support Agency are designed to provide the comprehensive and coherent response that families today need. They will provide national and local voluntary organisations that work with families with the back-up and support they need in a dedicated new body. They will increase our knowledge and understanding of the issues facing families so that Government and all those with a shared interest in family well-being are better equipped to respond to the needs of families as we enter the new century.
It is vital that the State, the community, and families work together in the way envisaged in this agency so that better outcomes are achieved for families in today's changing world. The agency will be both an agent and a symbol of what is needed if we are to have a real "families first" approach.
I commend the Family Support Agency Bill to the House.