Skip to main content
Normal View

Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 24 Oct 2001

Vol. 542 No. 6

Family Support Agency Bill, 2001: Second Stage (Resumed).

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

Acting Chairman:

Deputy Durkan was in possession but he is not present. I call Deputy Keaveney.

I wish to share my time with Deputies Roche and Dennehy.

I welcome the Family Support Agency Bill introduced by the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs, Deputy Ahern. The fact that a new statutory body known as the Family Support Agency has been established is very important and another example of the Government's commitment to policy development in regard to the family. While it is an important step, it is sad that we must welcome mediation services and so on. While we would like to think that nothing ever goes wrong with relationships and marriages, it is important that there is encouragement for stability in family life, including measures to address the effects of marital breakdown. The measures being introduced will meet these objectives and will come within the remit of the new agency.

The fact that the new support agency will provide mediation services throughout the country for couples who have decided to separate and help them to reach amicable agreements in regard to the family home and financial and parenting arrangements is very important. It is also important that the children of such families are included in these mediation measures. We would prefer if mediation was not necessary and that marriage guidance and so on was strengthened. One of the roles of the agency is in marriage preparation programmes, relationship education and parenting information to support families, which is badly needed nowadays.

I would emphasise the negative role of alcohol in society as a whole and how that leads to trouble. There should be earlier intervention programmes for both adults and children. I welcome the initiatives of the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Martin, in regard to under age drinking. If we could do more in the area of early intervention perhaps we would reduce the need for mediation. Much of the breakdown, violence within the home and trouble with children can be attributed to one factor. This is not an exclusive one but it has serious implications throughout most cities, towns and villages. I ask the Minister to work with the Minister for Health and Children and the Minister of State with responsibility for children on the children's strategy, partic ularly in regard to early intervention and alcohol. While we talk about providing family mediation services throughout the country, I am disappointed that we do not yet have that facility in my own county. I hope that all the supports provided for in this comprehensive Bill will be made available in Donegal. I wish the Bill and the families who will use these services every success. I know these services will have a positive impact.

I, too, welcome the Family Support Agency Bill.

Acting Chairman:

Is the Deputy sharing time?

I am, with Deputy Dennehy. I would be grateful if the Chair would let me know when I have spoken for eight or nine minutes.

I welcome this important legislation. I would argue strongly that rather than individual functionary focused interventions to support the family there now needs to be some holistic support for families across the agencies. I agree with the previous speaker who suggested that this Minister, Deputy Ahern, the Minister for Health and Children and the Minister of State with responsibility for children should combine their efforts to focus on families, particularly families in crisis.

This legislation is yet again a fulfilment of a Government's commitment. The aim of the legislation is to support families, promote continuity and stability in family life, prevent breakdown and foster support in a community environment for families at local level, all of which is laudable. I am particularly pleased that the Government has singled out the family resource centres for major improvement and expansion. We have first-hand experience of how valuable these centres can be in County Wicklow where we have two such centres in Bray. The Little Bray Family Resource Centre and the St. Fergal's Resource Centre provide astonishing services and integrate them into the local community. Unlike many official agencies, they are not bound by territoriality so if they need to do something with school children or families, they have the flexibility to do so which State agencies do not.

While the legislation is welcome, the Minister will know there is a major lacuna in the law of this State which causes not just difficulties for families but, in many cases, pits families who are in difficulty against the State, and the State can have a destructive role. I have in mind the gaps that are now appearing in the implementation of the Children Act, in particular, in regard to care orders and the operation of in camera courts. I hope this new agency will have some capacity to carry out research on the extent of damage being done to families by health agencies who operate illogically and frequently out of control.

This is best illustrated by bringing to the attention of the House the case of a young family living not in my constituency but in south County Dublin who were visited by a number of social workers and gardaí on Christmas Eve, 1996. Their home was entered and their youngest child was removed in conditions of some violence. When the family resisted the removal of the child, batons were drawn and both the mother and father were beaten. That is not acceptable in a civilised country.

The basis on which this child was taken out of the parents' care has never been made public and will never be made public because the court proceedings took place in camera. The child was removed from the care of the family into the care of the Eastern Health Board for four and a half years. At the end of that time the child was given back to the family without any explanation, apology or effort made to counsel or overcome the difficulties caused.

Spurious allegations were made about this family. In the intervening period, the family was forced to appear virtually every week in an in camera court to deal with the child's case. A number of allegations were made that were never substantiated or pursued. The most bizarre aspect of this case was that on Christmas Eve two years ago, health board officials arrived with the child in tow, and left the child and all the child's possessions on the doorstep and went away. The family were left in a legal lacuna. For the following two and a half years, the family were forced to go back to the courts week in, week out until two weeks ago when a judge showed common sense and said that the case was a disgrace, that it had been an abuse and he struck it out.

In the interim four and a half years that family has been through stress which is barely imaginable. Other than the death of a child, having a child forcefully removed must be the most horrific thing that can happen to a family.

The truly bizarre aspect of this case is that it was the family who went to the health board seeking counselling support and guidance, and brought themselves to the attention of the health board. I would not mind if this were an isolated case, but it is my understanding that up to 1,400 families are currently affected through children being taken into care. The vast majority of those are proper cases and the interventions are correct. Even in this case the health board may well have made an honest mistake at the beginning, but to proceed as they have done is bizarre, and it is not the only bizarre case. There is a case in Donegal where a health board intervened after the birth of the first child and, extraordinarily, after the court had instructed that the first child be given back to the family, officials from the health board presented themselves in the labour ward to remove the second child. That family needed support and intervention, but it did not need devastation. There is a problem here in that demarcation issues will arise relating to who handles these cases.

The purpose of the Bill is to create a family support agency. I ask the Minister if this agency could have power to, at a minimum, carry out research into the operation of health boards in the matter of child care. I know the argument from officials will be that this is primarily a matter for the Departments of Health and Children or Justice, Equality and Law Reform, but the reality is that this matter is the responsibility of this House. If a case like the one I have highlighted can happen, it is a tragedy. If dozens or even hundreds of cases like it can happen, it is a disaster and it is something in which Members on all sides of this House should be involved.

The family support agency will be an important agency in the State. Many positive things have been done by this Minister, Deputy Ahern, and other members of Cabinet. I have drawn the particular cases in question to the attention of other members of Cabinet. It is interesting that a Minister of State said not long ago that when the details of one of these cases was presented to the House, it was the worst case he had ever heard of. The chief executive officer of one of the health boards involved told me that this case was a terrible tragedy. Somebody has to take hold of the crisis that exists. It is not something that can be simply passed from Billy to Jack because vulnerable families are under threat from the State.

The State institutions are extraordinarily well funded. In the case of the family I mentioned in south County Dublin, the family business has gone down the tubes. They were out the door with legal debt. They were in a position where everything they had previously was put on the line, and their family life was devastated. They still do not know, four and a half years later, the reason this happened in a caring, Christian and civilised society. They should know the answer to that question. I offer the balance of the time remaining to me to Deputy Dennehy.

I welcome the Bill and the opportunity to contribute to the debate. It is important legislation, particularly in the context of the attempt to prevent some of the social problems we see emerging almost on a daily basis. The emphasis should be on prevention. There are few more important issues to be dealt with than providing the support and encouragement badly needed for families and family relationships. Regardless of one's definition of a family unit, we are all aware of the problems that arise and if they are not dealt with and support given, it will be difficult to deal with the consequences. There are many lessons to be learned and we are learning them very slowly.

We all recognise the changes that have taken place in society and the difficulties being faced by many citizens including, in particular, children. One way to offset those problems is by supporting the family unit and giving as much assistance as possible. Family support centres and community resource centres are of critical importance and should be central to the service which is provided, whether it is family mediation, counselling service or the encouragement of personal participation in individual training programmes. They have all proven themselves the best vehicle for the provision of such services and they must be given adequate funding and resources. I compliment the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs, Deputy Dermot Ahern, on his commitment in providing that support. These centres are closest to people who may have problems. They are run by local people, in most cases, and there is an awareness of just how difficult things can be in the real world. One of the primary reasons for their success is that they are based on local participation. Outside agencies may be involved from time to time but, if the unit is functioning correctly, it is locals who make all the important decisions.

Based in my parish of Togher, in Cork, there is an excellent pre-school and family support unit, on which I have served as a trustee since its establishment about 20 years ago. My role – a purely honorary one – has allowed me to see, at very close quarters, what can be achieved by people working together, if enough support is provided. I appreciate the work of those involved in the Togher centre, particularly women, who are empowered to help themselves. Every aspect of daily living is dealt with, including budgeting, health issues, cultural and sporting activities, including large-scale participation in the Cork Evening Echo mini-marathon. Courses are available in many activities, such as computer literacy.

It took quite a long time to convince the Southern Health Board that money spent on such family centres would be returned ten-fold in savings, over time. Prevention is far better than cure and far less costly in the long run. In addition to his support for local centres, the Minister has also provided the support services and co-ordination of effort required within his Department – a key aspect which was lacking in the past. I welcome the acknowledgement of that by previous speakers, especially Deputy Frances Fitzgerald in her positive comments. It is all too easy, for the sake of criticism or opposition, to distort the facts and ignore the advances which have been made. The Government's approach to family support is an important part of the help which must be provided to society. Government investment in the related programmes has escalated in the past four years from £1.5 million to more than £11 million per annum. That money has been used to set up and implement the various services and programmes that will, I hope, lead to a reduction in marriage break-ups and will help society generally.

Family support is needed across the whole spectrum of society and a wide variety of needs. It is of little use telling people how to rear their children, or urging them to participate in social activities, if they cannot financially afford that participation. This Minister has been to the forefront in ensuring that financial support is available in the widest possible range of areas and in targeting the extra funds available. It is critically important to direct the funding to where it is most needed and where it will be appreciated and properly used.

Child benefit is one vital aspect of family support. In the past, some politicians, on all sides, tended to preach to parents about their responsibilities but Government support was not always up to speed with such lectures. In 1996, child benefit was increased by £2 for the first, second and third child in a family but, in 1997, it was £1 for the first and second child and £5 for the third child. I suggest that people who would grant that kind of increase were not entitled to lecture anybody. The subsequent changes are worth noting. In 1998 and 1999, this Government did not break any records but, in 2000, we entered a new era of support for families, particularly larger families, when the Minister introduced increases of £25 for the first and second child and £30 for the third child. That is the type of action required, rather than mere lectures.

The Family Support Agency will become an integral part of the Government's better approach to families and will help to co-ordinate the work of several existing programmes. I particularly commend the results which I have seen from the Togher centre as a basis for replication in other areas. I suggest to the Minister and his Department officials that flexibility is a vital ingredient in any programme, especially with people who are not used to dealing with State agencies. We need to be there to meet them and to appreciate their problems, rather than quoting chapter and verse to them.

I welcome the principle of this Bill. There is a keenly felt need, within communities, for a range of family mediation and counselling services. An agency to co-ordinate and provide resources for these services is progress and demonstrates a positive commitment, which I welcome. The individual citizen, the family and the community are the basic building blocks of our society. The rights of each must be vindicated and the needs of each must be recognised and provided for if we are to achieve a society which works cohesively, a caring society which cherishes all its citizens equally in all their diversity.

Ours is a changed, and changing, society. The general understanding of what constitutes a family has changed – and rightly so. Those families who fell outside the standard definition of family were for too long excluded and discriminated against. Neither this Bill nor the 1937 Constitution defines the family, but Article 41.2 of the Constitution refers to "woman's life within the home". That piece of sexism dates from the era when married women were prevented from working in the Civil Service. Article 41.3 pledges to "guard with special care" the institution of marriage, on which, it says, the family is founded.

Most families are founded on marriage, but by no means are all so founded. For example, many families in our society consist of a single parent and a child or children. There are also many instances – and this is not a modern phenom enon – of grandparents rearing grandchildren. This has been known in our society for many generations. It is a pity this Bill does not contain an explicit recognition of what is now, thankfully, generally recognised in Ireland, that the traditionally defined nuclear family is not the only family form and not the only context in which children can find a safe and loving home. In my remarks, I want to reflect the concerns of the Family Resource Centre Forum about this legislation. That body has provided a simple and useful definition of family. It defines a family as comprising two or more people living in a co-dependent relationship and views all families as equally entitled to support. I concur with that.

I recognise also that the majority of families, those based on long-term relationships, centred on marriage and the rearing of children need support, most especially when difficulties arise. I am concerned and disappointed at the lack of adequate consultation in the framing of this legislation. The Family Resource Centre Forum represents a network of community based centres, yet its inclusion in the remit of the Family Support Agency as set out in this legislation was presented as a fait accompli and in the words of the forum: “no consultation occurred with any of the key stake holders”. This is unacceptable. These experienced and committed people could have provided a very useful input into the law making process, but were effectively sidelined. However, they are expected to fulfil important functions under the aegis of the new agency.

The Family Resource Centre Forum has welcomed any Government action which assists, supports or develops services of family mediation and counselling. It interprets its inclusion by Government in the Family Support Agency as an acknowledgement of the importance of its work in communities.

The forum has three principal concerns with the Bill and the role expected of it. Those concerns are: the lack of consultation with the family resource centres preceding this legislation; the fact that the family resource centres operate on the guiding principle of community development; and the understanding inherent in this legislation of what constitutes a family.

The Government's White Paper, Supporting Voluntary Activity, states that voluntary organisations have a right to be consulted about policy in the design and delivery of services and programmes. It seems this principle was not adhered to in the framing of this legislation. As a result we need to carry out another legislative fire brigade action. I have confidence the Minister will accept the validity of this argument and I hope he will assist in this effort by taking on board the real concerns being expressed and amend the Bill accordingly.

The family resource centres suggest a number of key changes to the Bill. They seek recognition for the unique and cohesive ethos of the centres to ensure their continuation. The FRC Forum should be recognised as the consultative body for the centres. Community development principles should continue to be the basis of their operations. Very importantly the FRC Forum seeks the right to elect three members on to the board of the Family Support Agency. This is a key requirement and I urge the Minister to adopt it on Committee Stage.

There should be a genuine process of consultation from now on. Existing family resource centres should also be allowed to participate in the work of the agency or in the work of the community development programme under the community development support project programme. The Minister and I both represent constituencies in the north east region where there are four centres affected. They are the centre in Mullaghmatt and Cortolvin in Monaghan town, the centre at Tullacmongan in Cavan and further centres at Trim and Kells.

Under the Family Support Agency, centres may be required to change their ethos from one based firmly on community development and the fight against poverty to one primarily focused on counselling and mediation in family difficulties. One of the primary causes of family difficulties and the break-up of families is poverty, housing poverty, educational poverty and lack of resources at many levels.

Profound social changes in recent decades have seen the breakdown of the traditional support network provided by the extended family and the wider local community. For those with lower income, the impact of these changes has been far greater than for those cushioned by average or higher incomes. I hope the Minister can reassure us on the concerns that I and others have raised. I hope that, albeit belatedly, a process has already begun that will see all involved in supporting families and communities working together with a common purpose.

I propose to share my time with Deputies Brendan Smith and Michael Ahern.

In recent years the Oireachtas has spent considerable time establishing statutory agencies to deal with specific areas of policy and administration, which were previously under the aegis of a Department. I do not welcome this trend. The new organisations tend to be less open, transparent, accountable and democratic. Examples are: the Office of Director of Corporate Enforcement, involving the transfer of responsibility from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; the Dublin Transportation Office; and the Environmental Protection Agency, involving the transfer of responsibility from the Department of the Environment and Local Government. If we ever return to an era of public expenditure cuts, will this plethora of new agencies survive?

Nevertheless, I will suspend my concerns in the case of this Bill, given the importance of the family in our society. I welcome the name change given to the Minister's Department. It was once the Department of Social Welfare and in 1997 it became the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs. The Minister has developed this initiative and put families at the centre of Government policies. I note also the commitment of the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair and his Government to do this. This is not before time.

In a Fianna Fáil policy document published in July 1995, the sixth in a list of the party's aims and objectives states:

Fianna Fáil believes in a caring, socially responsive society, which is pro-family, cares for the weak and socially excluded and stresses the responsibility of each citizen as a member of that society. The family is the core building block of society. Its gradual disintegration in modern society leads to the aggravation of social problems, particularly the breakdown of law and order and heavy demands on the health and social services. Fianna Fáil is committed to supporting the cohesion of the basic family unit in all its policies, while responding humanely and effectively to situations caused by breakdown, stresses or human rights abuses inside families.

The family is the basic unit of society. If people are to accept this they must first believe in the concept of society but not everyone does. For example, Margaret Thatcher did not. She believed instead in the individual as part of an economy, but we will leave that argument for another day.

The unprecedented economic growth of recent years has been good and bad for families. It has been good in that parents have more material wealth to provide for families. I cannot over emphasise the importance of this. Poverty hurts families. However, it has been bad in that the increases in house prices has placed growing pressures on both parents to work to pay the mortgage. Other problems include the lack of affordable child care, traffic and transportation problems, increased expectations, crime, drug abuse and marriage breakdown.

The new agency to be established under this legislation will have much work to do, including in the area of parenting skills. Most parents get no training in this area. Previously we relied on the extended family network, which is now in decline. Hitherto, parents had to learn as they went along and most succeeded. However, some need help and this agency will fill that role.

I praise the Minister for Finance for increasing child benefits in his budgets. They benefit parents who work in and outside the home, which is as it should be. I also praise the Minister's commitment to grants schemes. There are grants for voluntary organisations, community development, education and training, locally based community and family support groups, the family and community services resource centre programme and the community development programme. There are also financial advice and budgeting services. These go a long way to support families, communities and voluntary organisations. Like pre vious speakers I commend the role of voluntary organisations and am pleased to see them acknowledged and appreciated by the Department. They should be even more celebrated in this, the international year of the volunteer.

The family mediation service, a relatively new concept, does invaluable work. Not everybody is aware of what it does and in view of this it should be widely publicised and promoted. The previous speaker referred to the traditional definition of a family encompassing a husband, wife and children. I accept that the realities of modern life means that this definition no longer holds good. In this regard the Parents Alone resource centre in my constituency was founded to reflect changes in the family. It has done incredible work on research and support for lone parents. The Minister accepts that such groups do important work and they should be encouraged and supported.

The individualisation of the standard rate tax band, introduced in Budget 2000, appears to discriminate against single income households. In view of the forecast downturn in the economy will this issue be revisited to take account of the prevailing economic circumstances and the interests of society as a whole?

The Minister should note that many people will listen to what the Deputy has said.

I agree to disagree and I speak as a member of a single income family.

I welcome the Bill and the Minister's commitment to support families and I commend his work on implementing the recommendations of the Commission on the Family. An Action Programme for the Millennium, put before the people at the last general election by Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats, emphasised the importance of putting families first. The Minister has strongly supported the policies in the programme.

I welcome the fact that the family support agency will provide a family mediation service and that it will support, promote and develop the provision of marriage and relationships counselling services and family support services. It is important that the efforts of many groups who are doing valuable work on a voluntary basis are co-ordinated and supported in a practical way. Last year, I introduced representatives of the Cavan family resources centre to meet the Minister and officials in his Department. I compliment the centre on its work in marriage and bereavement counselling and across a range of other areas. I hope the Minister will give the centre official recognition and the financial support it needs to have full-time staff properly rewarded and resourced.

The supportive role the Minister has given to community development is self evident. The number of family and community resource centres has increased from ten in 1997 to 80 today while the number of community development projects has increased from 90 to 130. The number of core funded groups doubled from 130 in 1997 to 260 to date. Funding for this area in the Minister's Department has tripled, from £6 million in 1997 to in excess of £17 million this year. This is clear evidence of the Minister's and Government's commitment to the development of community work and to support for worthwhile community development projects.

I was involved at the outset with the development of a resource centre at Tullymongan in County Cavan. The committee members and people in the wider community very much appreciate the support provided by the Minister in the form of grant assistance to projects and by his visits to the centre on a number of occasions to compliment those involved on their work and to see at first hand the range of facilities provided and activities undertaken. It is worth noting the range of activities in what is a relatively small centre that caters for a number of housing estates in Cavan town. It has a homework club, two youth clubs, a youth group scheme operated by the North Eastern Health Board and members of the community, pre-school five mornings per week and a ‘tweenies' group. There is band practice twice a week, the church choir uses it twice weekly for practice, there is mass each Sunday morning, there is computer training morning and evening, Monday to Friday, a women's group meets twice a week, the North Eastern Health Board has an office there and the local sporting clubs use the facilities to raise funds through discos, dances and other activities. Rooms are rented to other groups for meetings, information nights, etc. At present the committee is in the process of establishing a lone parents group and providing a range of activities for Travellers. This range of activities is a great credit to those who established the centre, first under the chairmanship of Councillor Patricia Walsh and a small group of other committed people. The Minister's assistance and that of the local authority made it possible for the centre to provide these very worthwhile facilities.

Turning to the Bill, I have difficulty with the proposal to bring the community development projects under the remit of the agency. A family support agency should be primarily involved in counselling and family mediation. The resource centres, such as the one at Tullymongan, engage in different activities. I hope it will be possible to retain funding for the management of those centres directly from the Department. The range of activities is broad and is not in the area of family mediation or counselling. I also have a difficulty with the number of regional support agencies and specialised support agencies which are operating to support various community development projects. I do not see the need to have so many. They must be duplicating the work of officials in the Department and I would like to know what percentage of the overall funding for community development projects is being used up through their work. I would like the funding to go directly to the centres where the range of activities that is so important to so many communities is being carried out voluntarily. There are community development workers attached to some of these resource centres and that is very welcome. If funding is to be given – apart from funding for bricks and mortar – let it go directly to the personnel working in the centres, not to groups monitoring the work on a regional or national basis. Funding given directly to the centres will yield a better return and ensure that the goals envisaged by the Minister will be achieved. That will allow useful work to be done within the communities in need of support and development.

Many people of all ages have benefited enormously from the programmes organised at the resource centre in Cavan, to which I referred. It helps to develop a community spirit. Many people have become computer literate and have gained IT expertise through the availability of courses in the centres in their communities.

I take the opportunity to congratulate the Minister for the excellent work he has done in the area of family and child development over the past four years. As has been said by previous Deputies, when we were the Opposition we recognised the need for vast investment in support of the family. We also realised that the definition of what constitutes the family had widened. I would not call the previous definition narrow because the family should be based on marriage, but our society has changed and we have to look at lone parents and co-habiting couples as families.

Life has changed. Years ago there was support from the extended family for young parents. Grandparents lived in the home or nearby and were not put into hospitals and nursing homes as happens increasingly nowadays. They were there to help the younger members of the family growing up and to lend support when there was trouble. The problem of lone parents did not exist to the same extent as it does today and there was not the increase in marriage break down that has been occurring in recent years. We recognised the need to establish a system to support those in need.

Over the past four years, funding for family counselling services has increased five fold, from £900,000 in 1997 to £4.8 million today. The family mediation service has been expanded from two centres at Dublin and Limerick in 1997 to 11 today. The number of people availing of family mediation has increased from 250 in 1997 to more than 1,200 last year while investment in the service has quadrupled from £300,000 to £1.35 million. The number of family and community centres has increased from ten in 1997 to 70. We recognise the need and we are providing the services.

I support what Deputy Brendan Smith said about family resource centres. A number of them in my own constituency have done tremendous work for the whole area. They are fearful of being brought under the umbrella of the family support agency. One of the reasons for their fear is the manner in which the current support agencies are treating the family resource centres. They are afraid the family support agency will further dilute the ethos of the family resource centres and control what happens at local level. There is a definite need for supervision of resource centres, but there is a question to be asked. Are there too many intermediary bodies standing between the Department and the family support agencies? I ask the Minister to look at that in the period before the enactment of the Bill. Local people are involved at local resource centres and they have a great knowledge of what is happening in the area. Most of them are well qualified, especially those who are leaving the resource centres. They do not need too much supervision from intermediary bodies which can tend to be in the business of building their own little empires.

I congratulate the Minister in bringing forward a very necessary service, but I ask him to ensure that this legislation does not have a detrimental effect on the family resource centres. They are doing tremendous work.

Mr. T. Hayes:

I wish to share time with Deputy Crawford.

(Mr. Kirk): I will call the Minister at 1.15 p.m. so you have something less than eight minutes between you.

I join with everyone else in welcoming this Bill. The timing in bringing it before the House is very important. Despite the fact that we hear the Celtic tiger roaring and we live in a time of great economic prosperity when there are huge reserves of money available, the family is under more pressure than ever before. Families find it more and more difficult to live normal lives and the everyday problems they encounter in health, education and housing are leading to that greater pressure.

There are financial pressures on the family. Nowadays two people have to go out to work in order to pay for mortgages and the daily out goings of many ordinary families and that brings huge strain as life moves into a faster lane. We come across many hardship cases. I have come across some which have amazed me. Families experience financial hardship and difficulties and the pressures they impose. The banking institutions should note what I am saying. I have encountered one case where a family has encountered financial problems and cannot pay back its mortgage. The bank is not putting them out on the road as it did in the past. It is taking back the house and leasing it to the family. That is not a good move. That is a retrograde step in an era where we are trying to support the family. The home is the cornerstone of any family. I do not know if the Minister is aware of this problem but it must be addressed by the Government. Institutions that are involved in this kind of activity must change their attitude if proper support is to be afforded to families.

People in local authority houses encounter financial difficulties as a result of rent and arrears that they are unable to pay. Many of these people receive some form of income from the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs. I know of a family that owes over £3,000 in arrears that is being threatened with eviction. While some support does exist, there is no effort to help those people out. There are young people and small children who may be put out of their house in the next few weeks. We must intervene in such cases. A Bill such as the one we are discussing should have a clause built in to help such people.

The issues of health and higher education grants need to be addressed. With regard to higher education grants, there are huge problems. The income threshold in not high enough and needs to be raised.

The Minister should listen to the plea of backbenchers concerning family resource centres. He was in my constituency, which he knows extremely well, and is aware of the impact the centres are having on the community, in places such as Knockanrawley.

The Minister will be delighted to hear that. I welcome the discussion on the family. It is one of the more serious issues we have to deal with in our offices and clinics every week. When I entered the Dáil almost nine years ago, potholes and farm grants were the issues of importance in the Cavan-Monaghan constituency. Now, problems pertaining to families are to the fore. There should be another family resource centre in Cavan not just in Tullymongan. I appreciate the work of the one about which Deputy Smith spoke. However, based on the letters I have received from that centre, the staff do not have the same regard for the Minister. They are very annoyed that there has not been proper consultation and they are worried about the future of the centre.

Time does not permit me to deal with their problems and those of the Drumlin Community Group in Carrickmacross, etc., but they are real problems. Will the Minister take these issues into account on Committee Stage so these groups can be given assurance and security? They have done a tremendous job. I agree with everything that Deputy Smith said about the work they did and are continuing to do. The same can be said of the centres in Monaghan. However, they must be given security and must be recognised. The Minister has visited them and his Department has been very supportive of them. He should not run away from them now and should make sure they are properly controlled and accorded the status they deserve.

The real problems today are housing, the cost of rented accommodation and the cost of child care. The cost of rented accommodation has trebled in the past four years. Those on social welfare only will get the health board allowance, but others who are in some sort of small employment cannot get it. It is extremely hard to live when paying £100 per week for a flat in a town such as Monaghan.

The problems concerning the family are serious. It is an important institution. The figures are frightening. The birth rate outside marriage in 1960 was 1.6%, it is now 31%. Thirteen percent of families are headed by lone parents. There is an enormous amount of poverty in society, whether we want to recognise it or not. Much is being done at national level for different kinds of people, but lone parents, who are such because of widowhood or otherwise, need to be looked after and require our full support.

I thank the Deputies who have spoken. I might not have time to respond to all the points they made, but I will do my best to address some of the main ones.

The Minister has more time than we had.

The support agency brings together into a new body the main programmes and pro-family services introduced by the Government in recent years. The legislative proposal aims to provide a comprehensive and coherent approach to the future development and delivery of essential supports for families, to promote continuity and stability in family life and to foster a supportive community for families at local level. These are the key components of the Government's family-first approach.

As the discussions in the House have shown, the objectives of the Bill are shared by all of us as policy makers, legislators and members of families and local communities. I thank the Deputies for their generous support of what the Bill proposes to achieve.

A number of issues were raised in the debate, some of which I would like to address. Some Deputies sought clarification on how the new agency would bring together the different strands that are involved. They wanted to know what kind of structure would be put in place in the composition of the board.

The new agency will have three core responsibilities: first, the provision of a family mediation service; second, to support the development of marriage and relationship counselling services provided by voluntary organisations throughout the country; and third, to support the local family and community resource centre programme. Its responsibility is also to undertake research, and the Bill will strengthen its remit and its approach to the provision of information to the public and will underpin its role in advising me, as Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs. These responsibilities will be carried out in consultation with the key stakeholders, such as the voluntary organisations providing counselling services and marriage resource centres.

A board will oversee the agency. It will have a chief executive, whose job it will be to develop and foster the three distinct areas of the business. Coherence across these activities will be ensured by the board, whose members will include people who have expertise and experience in the fields relating to the agency's responsibility. Staff interests will be represented on the board. In all, there will be 12 members of the agency, including a chairperson. I consider this to be a reasonable size for an agency charged with the responsibilities listed in the Bill.

The Bill provides that the agency will work with other public bodies with shared interest in family matters and will carry out its responsibilities having regard to the Government's social inclusion priorities. This is designed to bring about much greater coherence in terms of what we are trying to achieve for families, especially those that are most vulnerable. The agency will provide the comprehensive response that families of today need and will be a catalyst for a new relationship between the State, community and family in addressing the complex social problems that arise today.

Deputy Frances Fitzgerald asked how the family support agency would ensure the future survival of the family mediation service and how its ethos and identity could be safeguarded. Ten years ago, family mediation as a professional service, with its potential as a non-adversarial approach for couples in resolving issues concerning marital separation, was virtually unknown in this country. In 1985, a small pilot service was introduced in Dublin and for some years it struggled to maintain its existence in the face of limited resources and the scarcity of qualified staff to run it.

It is important to say, as did one or two speakers, that not everybody knows of the existence of the mediation service. That is something I have said to the mediation service in my discussions over the past four years. I have also given it money to advertise its service. I have heard their advertisement on the local radio stations, Northern Sound, and LMFM. I compliment them on portraying the service as being available. It is also the case that, when I came to office, this service had just two centres, one in Limerick and the other in Dublin. It now has 11 and will have 12 early in the new year when another one will be opened in Blanchardstown. Members raised the issue of a centre in the north-west. That is a problem. It is not a problem of financial resources but the fact that we cannot find a qualified mediator in the area. I challenge the representatives of the area to highlight the need for a mediator in the area. I would like Deputy Crawford to know that it should not be a party hack.

The Minister would not know anything about that.

Radically improved Government investment in recent years and the commitment of dedicated professional staff have ended the marginalistion of the family mediation service. It is recognised as being at the leading edge in the development of professional standards in the field. The Bill ensures a secure future for the service and that must be understood. In the review of the programme for Government at the half-way stage of the lifetime of the Government, we promised to place the mediation service on a statutory footing. That will be done when we pass the Bill. The legislation guarantees the future support and development of the mediation service and provides the basis for the development of a viable profession of highly qualified family mediators throughout the country. It is important to note that we are one of only a few countries in the developed world which have taken a legislative initiative in this important area of family support.

Deputy Fitzgerald also referred to the need to protect the ethos of the service. Family support is one of the most value-laden areas of public policy, as Members will know, and understandably so because we are dealing with matters which are highly personal. People rightly have high expectations in this area because of the way in which the support of the Government for family life is fundamentally important to our aspirations and ideals about family life and the type of society to which we aspire. Trust, confidentiality, security and neutrality are hugely important to people in dealing with sensitive aspects of family life. These values are intrinsic to the professional ethos of the family mediation service and to the family counselling and support services.

Family resource centres engage with their local communities in an empowering way unique to them which fosters self-reliance and participation. The family support agency as a separate, independent body dedicated to the preservation of family relationships is better placed than the Department to safeguard these values in meeting the needs of families, dealing with sensitive family situations and supporting and promoting a community environment in which people's deeply held beliefs about family life and the type of society to which they aspire can be affirmed.

I can understand some of the views expressed by Members about the establishment of yet another agency. However, having discussed this at length with my departmental officials, I believed we had reached the stage where we had invested huge resources in the past four years in the family mediation service. I do not say that in a party political way. We had either quadrupled or multiplied by five the amount of financial resources, not to mention the manpower times invested in this issue. We believed that developing the service into an agency which could call on the expertise of people who had know ledge in this area was the right way to go. I accept what Members said about another agency, but I assure them that, if they examine the legislation closely, they will see that, in all instances, the agency, unlike others which have been established, is answerable to me, as Minister, and to the Houses of the Oireachtas.

Will the Department still retain the family unit?

Yes. Deputy Perry asked when a family mediation service would be provided in Sligo. I have already referred to that when speaking about the north-west. It is regretted by the Department that, despite considerable advertising and promotion, it has not been possible to recruit a suitable, qualified mediator to work in that region. It is a gap and we wish to fill it. The financial resources are available for it.

The Bill complements the vision of the National Children's Strategy set out for our children. The strategy acknowledges the importance of children in their own right. It recognises that they must be supported in the context of the family. The Bill comprehensively addresses these family needs.

Several Members referred to proposals in the Bill concerning family resource centres. These are an essential component of the Government's family first approach in building neighbourhood solidarity and responding to families locally. That is why they have been singled out by the Government for radical improvement and expansion in recent years, a course recommended by the Commission on the Family. It is important to say again that, when I came to office, there were ten family resource centres. The Government in its programme for Government promised to increase the number of family resource centres to 100. As Members have said, in the region of 80 are either up and running or are about to be. I would not do anything to reduce the importance of the family resource centres, but the logic of including them under the new agency in the Bill is that it would be a nonsense if they were excluded when it will be an important resource for their work.

Reassurance on all these matters, clarification of the Government's policies as regards the new agency, the promotion and development of the centres' ways of working as well as the administrative and practical issues to be addressed in ensuring a smooth transfer of programmes to the new agency are all the subject of ongoing discussions between my officials in the Department and representatives of the family resource centre forum. I will address the family resource centre programme later.

The regional support agencies have worked well in the development of family resource

centres. They would not be working with them if there were only ten in the country. There are now 80 as a result of the work we have done in the past four years. I see the agencies as having a continuing role but accept some of the criticism Members have made in this regard. It is something of which we are conscious. When the elected representatives of the people make these points, we must take them on board.

Deputy Roche referred to the issue of the difficult interaction between the State child care services and families. It is something of which people are aware. The family mediation service is exploring the potential for family mediation in the context of child protection disputes. It has qualified personnel in this regard who will examine this issue. The agency intends holding information sessions in January for key personnel in the area of child protection matters. It is something in which it would have a role to play.

Some Members referred to the front cover of the research report, Grandparenthood in Modern Ireland, which was compiled independently of us but with finance from our research programme. Members will know this was an excellent report. I specifically asked when we designed the research programme that the issue of grandparenthood be examined because I was aware, not only from my experience as a public representative but also as a qualified solicitor, that grandparents can unfortunately be excluded from the general family unit in separation situations. This research programme was brought forward and this excellent report was produced.

Some Members had a problem with the cover and suggested that, in some way, I had something to do with it. I did not. The picture on the cover is of Lucy Freud, the mother of the painter Lucian Freud and a grandmother. Lucian Freud generously agreed to allow Age Action Ireland, which sponsored the report, to use the painting of his mother free of charge as a gesture of support for its work with older people. I know a number of Members may have in a tongue-in-cheek way raised the issue of the cover but I have put the facts on record.

I thank the Deputies for their comments. I look forward to Committee Stage and the passing of the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.