Adoption Bill 2009 [Seanad]: Second Stage (Resumed).

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

I am delighted to have an opportunity to speak on the Adoption Bill, on which I have received more personal representations than on any other issue in recent times and about which there has been much anger, sadness and worry. On the positive side, one of my wife's relatives, who was one of the lucky ones, adopted a little boy just before the Christmas before last. I have never seen a child who has brought more joy to more people than has this child. While that is the positive side of adoption, the negative side is represented by one family in particular, which has had a room prepared and furnished for more than 12 months and for which the recent announcement in regard to the curtailment of activity with Vietnam has come as a great blow. The mother concerned asked me why Deputy Barry Andrews did not make this announcement sooner. While I accept issues arose pertaining to the UNICEF ISS report and so on, should some action along the lines agreed recently by the Adoption Board not have been taken last August, when the draft report became available? I refer to the recent agreement by the Adoption Board regarding particular arrangements whereby all couples and individuals who currently possess a declaration of eligibility and suitability for Vietnam may select a new country from which to adopt, subject to the usual submission of a change of country report to the Adoption Board, and also may retain their place in the current Helping Hands Adoption Mediation Agency, HHAMA, list for Vietnam, which is being maintained.

I acknowledge this was a draft report and I accept the Minister's position that sometimes it is dangerous to make decisions on the basis of a draft report. However, clear indications were evident regarding the status of the matter and a statement regarding such an agreement with the Adoption Board should have been issued last August so that people who still hoped that Vietnam would open would not be left in the lurch. The aforementioned woman has suggested that the Minister of State should apologise to those who have been caught in this position. They consider themselves to have lost six months and are putting the blame at the Minister of State's door. I make this point because it is how those who have contacted me feel.

The Labour Party welcomes this Bill and considers the ratification of the Hague Convention on the Protection of Children and Co-operation in respect of Intercountry Adoptions to be long overdue. As my colleague, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, pointed out at the outset of the Second Stage debate, Ireland signed the convention in 1996 but will be the last of the receiving states to ratify it. Nevertheless, the Labour Party fully supports the Bill, at the core of which is the safety and welfare of children. While this is exactly as it should be, there are other issues, such as the anguish it causes to families who cannot have children. Anguish grows when prospective parents are obliged to work their way through a difficult and time-consuming adoption system. More sensitivity could have been shown to those who were in the process of having a child adopted from Vietnam. However, that now is in the past.

My first significant involvement in respect of adoption as a public representative related to Romanian adoptions in the early 1990s following the fall of the Ceausescu regime. I remember the joy of those who previously had been experiencing great difficulty in adopting because, as Members are aware, the pattern of availability for adoption of children in Ireland had changed over a long period and the number of children now is small in relative terms. However, bearing in mind the type of representations I have received, the most important issue on which I must focus is the entire area of transitional arrangements as we move from the current position to that envisaged in the Bill. This Bill, which hopefully will be passed soon, will give force to the Hague Convention. Article 41 of the convention states "The Convention shall apply in every case where an application pursuant to article 14 has been received after the Convention has entered into force in the receiving State and the State of origin." In addition, I seek clarification in respect of section 63 which refers to transitional arrangements and which states "If immediately before the establishment day, a foreign adoption described in the Adoption Act 1991 is not yet effected but is still in process as provided for under the Act, the adoption may proceed under this Act as if it were commenced under this Act."

I intend to read out a sample of the representations I have received on this matter and the Minister of State should respond to them at the conclusion of the Second Stage debate. I represent people who have grave concerns and who are living with this issue on a day-to-day basis. Members handle legislation in the Oireachtas and know there are reasons for legislative delays. Obviously, legislation must be scrutinised and so on but such people wake up to and go to bed with this issue every day. The first sample is from a couple who live in my constituency and states:

We are adoptive parents and members of the International Adoption Association. We are currently in the process of adopting a second child from Russia. As you may be aware Irish couples will not be permitted to adopt from Russia when the Adoption Bill is enacted (i.e. until such time as Russia ratifies the Hague Convention). We wish to bring to your attention the totally inadequate transition arrangements in the Bill.

We are likely to receive a referral in the coming weeks [this letter is dated 11 October] and hope to travel to Russia to meet a child before Christmas. If everything works out we are likely to be travelling to Russia to effect the adoption and bring home the child in March/April 2010. If the Bill is enacted in the meantime, i.e. between trips, we will not be permitted to adopt the child and the child will have been denied the opportunity of a family life.

We would he very grateful if you would support ourselves and the International Adoption Association in including some form of transition arrangements whereby couples who have received a referral and who have been approved by the Adoption Board could effect that adoption. We would be grateful if you would raise this matter with the [Minister and in the debate].

These reasonable people are excellent parents who are highly committed to bringing a second child into a family in which it would be given an excellent opportunity in life. They are living this from day to day and they do not know where they stand, particularly if the Bill, as I hope it will, passes into law quickly. Their fear is their second adoption will be prevented.

I received a letter from another couple on 2 November under the heading, "New Adoption Bill/Bi-Lateral Agreement between Ireland and Ethiopia", which states:

We have been approved in Ireland for a second adoption. We already have a little 21/2 year old girl adopted domestically whose birth father is African. We applied to Ethiopia back in April, 2009 and we are currently on the waiting list. We have completed our legal work here and have had our vaccines. We should not be waiting too much longer to be called to Ethiopia to begin our adoption legally in Ethiopia but for the moment waiting on a referral of a baby. There is a new Adoption Bill and will be introduced into the Dail Eireann. The Bill has been already passed by the Seanad and when passed, will finally allow Ireland to ratify the Hague Convention on the Protection of Children and Cooperation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption (the Hague Convention). Such ratification we strongly agree with but have concerns and wish there be clauses in the Adoption Bill to protect us. The Law is expected early 2010.

We would like there to be a Bi-Lateral Agreement set up between Ireland and Ethiopia. We would like there to be two clauses in the Bill. Transition/Interim Clause & Grandfather Clause.

At the moment it is legal for us to adopt a baby in Ethiopia and return to Ireland, however the legal process can take 8 weeks and more in Ethiopia to complete, we may be out in Ethiopia when the law here changes and this leaves our new adopted baby in limbo when we return. We want to be able to complete our adoption. We want to be protected by the Grandfather Clause that in time we would be allowed to adopt another baby in Ethiopia under the grandfather clause.

Mr. Brian Lenihan T.D., then Minister for Children clearly indicated that there would be a grandfather clause" in the Adoption Bill. In it's 2005 Annual Report, the Adoption Board also reported that there would be such a clause. The lack of a grandfather clause is not in the best interests of our existing children. This can be done by re-introduce the grandfather clause, and this can be accomplished by deleting section 81(1)c.

It is unethical to have let us apply to Ethiopia and use another country's resources be strained further in dealing with our application if we were never going to be allowed to legally complete our adoption. It was not in the best interest of our daughter to be given a life vaccine for yellow fever in the belief she was coming to Ethiopia and enjoy the adoption process of her brother or sister if the law here was going to change and stop us from completing our adoption. We have already completed our legal work here in Ireland which we need to send to Ethiopia.

No fee is charged by Ethiopia for adoption either by the State route or by Sr. Luthgarda's children's home the only two children's homes we have our names on the list for. Therefore there is no room for corruption and babies are genuinely in need of loving families and it is in the "best interest of the child". We have all the love in our hearts to love a child from Ethiopia and celebrate Africian culture. We are supported by our extended family and community.

We want to know what information the Minister Mr. Barry Andrews received that made him change his mind from when it was legal for us to apply to Ethiopia for adoption to this turn around to make it no longer legal for us to continue and proceed with our adoption if the Bill is passed by the Dail and written into law in early 2010. We want to know How the "Best Interest of the Child" has changed.

The final letter I would like to put on record states:

The Adoption Bill, in its current format will mean that Irish people will hot be able to adopt from Countries who have not signed the Hague Convention. The majority of these countries do currently Operate to Hague Standards, which is the current criterion for international adoptions; to be affected here. Barry Andrews has made us believe that this Is essential as it is a requirement of the Hague Convention.

However we found out the Annual Conference of the IAA in the Carlton Hotel Dublin Airport that this is not so. Jennifer Degeling, Secretary to the Permanent Bureau of The Hague Conference on Private and International Law gave a presentation and explained that there was nothing in the Hague Convention which prohibits a Hague Signatory from adopting from a Non Hague Country. . .

Barry Andrews and his department have taken it upon themselves to insert extra conditions in the Bill which are totally unnecessary. These conditions will prevent people from adopting from countries which have yet to sign to the Hague Convention even though the highest standards of practise are in place in the past few years. In excess of 2/3 of adoptions to Ireland have been from Non Hague Countries. These countries will be closed to adoptions if the draft bill is not changed to allow adoptions to place from countries which operate to Hague standards.

Barry Andrews said earlier this year that there would be a transitional period to allow people in the process of adopting from Non Hague countries to complete the adoption once the Adoption Bill is brought into law. He did a U-turn on this fact last week when he said that there would be no transitional period whatsoever. This is unbelievable when you consider the ridiculous amount of time that the process takes in this country. If transitional periods are not put in place it will not be possible for us to complete the adoption process with our chosen country, this is despite the fact that we were issued a license (Declaration of Eligibility and Suitability) to adopt from this county. The standards in our new chosen country are exemplary and meet Hague Standards, but this country is not a Hague Signatory.

In his speech on Saturday 10th October in the Carlton Hotel he [the Minister of State] said that "Adoption has always been a fluid process" and that "Countries have always opened and closed". In short I felt he was telling us "Countries open, countries close . . . get over it". I found this utterly reprehensible that "The Minister for Children", would have such little regard for children. The countries he plans on closing are extremely poor and are more focused on feeding their people than signing the Hague Convention; he plans on consigning these children to a childhood in institutional care despite the fact that adoptions from these countries are as safe as any other country.

The credo of the Adoption Board (and rightfully so) is that "Adoption is a service for children", I believe in this credo 100%. How will the Adoption Bill help children in institutions in poor countries whom have yet to sign the Hague Convention, but do operate to Hague standards.

In his opening contribution the Minister of State said he had asked the Adoption Board to examine the adoption codes of Brazil, the Philippines, South Korea and Thailand with a view to commencing discussions to put in place administrative arrangements that would facilitate inter-country adoptions with Ireland, which is welcome. Could he not have done the same in regard to Russia, Ethiopia and Kazakhstan?

To bring the matter up to date, what role will Ireland play with regard to the children orphaned in Haiti? Can the Minister and the Adoption Board take urgent action so those parents who want to adopt will have the option of taking children out of this terrible disaster area which has just been discussed in the House in another context?

I look forward to the Minister of State's response at the conclusion of Second Stage. Does he believe the issues raised by my constituents and which I have presented to him can be accommodated in present legislation? If the legislation cannot accommodate them what measures will he put in place and what amendments or changes will he make to the legislation to accommodate the very fair case that people have made with regard to completing adoptions in train and to continue adopting from countries from where they already adopted under the process as it stands?

It is good to see the Minister of State present for the debate because it is a very emotive issue and one which probably touches everybody but mostly the parents and children involved in the process. It is obvious that everybody speaking on the Bill has been contacted by and has engaged with people involved. The process may have failed them or they may have been very successful but we have all dealt with such people over the past year. This has become a very serious issue and one which has time implications, be it for the child to be adopted or for the many children who remain unadopted in some countries, whatever future lies ahead for them or for the families engaged in the process who want to do the right thing for all concerned and to have an opportunity to raise a child in a good solid home.

I welcome the Bill but I must question why it has taken us 14 years to get to this point. I accept that like myself the Minister of State was not a politician 14 years ago; perhaps he thought about it then. I did not read his script so I do not know whether he gave an explanation. I wonder why it is often years later that these matters are rushed through when they could have just been dealt with years ago and put to bed. So much time goes to waste here on unnecessary debate, time wasting, days lost and no sittings on Mondays or Friday. Issues such as this could be passed through the House and be put to bed once and for all. If we took action years ago, we might not have had the situation that we had for the past 12 months whereby many couples have awaited information and decisions because we would have had clarity and information. I do not understand a system that leaves a matter such as this to one side for years. Is it because it was not being pushed by anybody or a group did not exist? It is a shame that it is causing grief to many people in the year it is due to be finalised. However, I will not dwell on this point.

The Bill modifies the Hague Convention and that is great and will benefit everybody. It is the proper way to go and nobody here is speaking against it. I will speak about other issues that could be dealt with in the Bill but they have not been included. What parents have to go through in the adoption process is unreal and it is not right. For the majority of parents I met the process has taken four or five years. That is not right or fair, particularly if a child has been chosen and might be one and a half or two years old by the time the adoption process is completed. That child misses out on vital time to be given a good opportunity in life and might suffer in the long run because of it. The Government speaks about early childhood intervention but because of red tape and slow systems, and I accept this is the case not only in this country, some children get left for too long and suffer in the long run. This is a pity and will affect them growing up in Ireland and interacting with other children in school and could have a lasting impact for the rest of their lives. We have a duty to try to fix this and do something about it fast; not merely sign the convention years later but move to improve the services.

I do not see any logic for the process taking four or five years. I accept many get through it in three years but the majority of cases that I came across, and perhaps they contact us because it takes so long, are taking a long time. A couple can have a child in nine months without any training, parenting or advice and that is natural. It is only right that one must go through much scrutiny, courses, advice and interviews for adoption. However, it should not take four years and one's address should not matter. The service should be the same in Cork, Galway, Meath or Dublin. We need to establish targets on how long it will take and the Government and country should guarantee that it will take 18 months, two years or whatever time is agreed.

It is time measures were put in place so people know with what they are dealing. Many of those going down the road of adoption have tried other measures to have a child and have been unlucky for whatever reason. Many years will have already passed before they start the adoption process. All of sudden one is 32, 34, 38, 40 or 42; time flies very quickly and everyone loses if that time passes. We have to fix this. I hope in his concluding speech, or on another day, the Minister of State sets out a plan to improve these services because that is his job. He needs to push the Government to do so. The Minister of State has children and he knows the benefits of this. However, he needs to use his office to make this work and improve the situation for everybody. The child and the adopting family or single person and the community can only gain from this and it must be right.

We speak about Dáil reform and the delay in this Bill coming before the House is an example of where it is needed. Many parents have been left in limbo for the past year awaiting news. They expected good news in May, August, September and October and they were hopeful. However, in recent weeks they received bad news and were told the process of adopting from Vietnam was over. That seems very harsh and unfair. I question the motives and declarations for this. I accept a report highlighted major concerns. The report also mentioned the Government's failure to sign off on the Hague Convention so it is not totally exonerated. I wonder whether there is more to this; is there something that people cannot be told? It dragged on and on with interim agreements being discussed and not being discussed. In some cases the Government intended to reach agreement with the Vietnamese authorities but time ran out. If this is the case the Government should admit it and people should be told.

People are very hurt and let down and they have asked us what will happen to them. They were well into the process and some of them thought they had received a guarantee from the Minister of State last May. At least 20 couples thought they would get through the process. Where does this stand now? Is there any hope that something can be done to facilitate these adoptions? Is it too late? After we enact the Bill and ratify the Hague Convention will we stop dealing with the countries that have not ratified it? From what I have read in statements that is the case. However, other countries such as France, Spain, Italy and Canada have ratified the convention and still deal with Vietnam and other countries which have not ratified it. Where do we stand? If we will deal only with countries which have signed up to the convention what is the reason? Is it because it will save us time and resources into checking the procedures of those countries and that it will be easier to deal with the countries that have passed through the system and have been given the blessing because they signed up to the convention? Will we take the easy way out?

Many children in countries not signed up to the convention need help and want to be adopted and come to Ireland.

Many prospective parents have gone through the process, gone through all the hoops and the red tape, and knocked on all the doors to get certificates, information, bank statements and so on, yet the door was then shut in their faces. There is a duty to help those people. If we cannot help them in the country they originally chose, then we have to put them through the system quickly for another country. They should not be put to the back of the queue, because that is not fair and they do not deserve it. I ask that the Minister of State address this issue in his closing speech. Things have changed, so there is a duty to clarify the situation for those prospective parents.

I note that many of the children's rights organisations have commended the Bill, and there is nobody out there who claims it is a bad thing. However, there are concerns about what is missing from the Bill. It does not deal with provisions for post-adoption services. Deputy Shatter and other colleagues in the Labour Party have brought up this issue, as well as groups such as Barnardos, the Children's Rights Alliance and so on. They have asked this question. It is a golden opportunity to have a full discussion about the services beforehand and especially afterwards. The services provided afterwards affect the child that has been adopted. There needs to be follow-on procedures, and every service should be put in place and not left to chance so that we have the right address and the child receives the correct services after adoption. It is a very delicate situation.

This Bill does not refer to the cost of all this, but adoption can be a very costly procedure. I know couples who remortgaged houses to get the money to go through this process. I am not saying that is the Government's fault, but it is very costly for some people. If people are out of pocket because they were hoping to adopt from Vietnam and that door is now closed, we have to find some way to help them continue the process if they cannot afford to do so. The Minister of State should examine this.

The Bill does not clearly deal with the transition measures. What will happen in the short term? The Minister of State briefly touched on it, but did not clarify matters. There is now a grey area here, following recent announcements from his Department. The Bill fails to address the children who are not eligible for adoption in Ireland, and there are more than 2,000 children who have been in foster care for a significant number of years. I have dealt with only one person affected by this, but I know there are many more out there. This Bill does not seem to talk about the issue. Other countries have brought in new policies to deal with children who have been abused, neglected and so on. What does our Constitution say about that? Is there a plan for a referendum to make the change to a more modern Ireland? This Bill might have provided a chance to have this debate and to put those things in motion.

Many constituents have come to me, both couples and single people. A young lady living in Athboy, County Meath, was concerned because the Bill fails to provide for sole applicants to adopt, and merely perpetrates the existing extraordinary circumstances required, whereby sole applicants are permitted only as an exception to proceed for assessment. I would like clarity on this issue. I accept there are groups out there who say we should not have sole parent adoption. What is the Minister of State's view? Why were things not made easier for this type of applicant? Deputy McHugh also raised this issue. What formed the Minister of State's decision-making process?

The other big issue is the grandfather clause. The Hague convention is about what is best for the child, and surely a grandfather clause makes sense. If a parent is lucky enough to adopt a child from Ethiopia, Bulgaria, Romania or wherever, it makes sense that if everything went well and they would like to adopt again, that the parents would go back to the same country. It would be for the benefit of the child, and it might be the child's relative or a community member. That should be facilitated, but it is not clarified in the Bill. If we want to do what is right for the child, there is a duty on us to fix this on Committee Stage.

One of the groups involved in this area suggested that parents who adopt a child from a foreign country should be made aware if a second child in the foreign family becomes available. There does not seem to be any formal procedure at the moment for that. I am not an expert in this area, and I do not know what kind of contact would continue when somebody is adopted from a family. However, surely it would make sense to put in place a system whereby a family is notified if a sibling of the adopted child becomes available for adoption. These children could be given a chance to get to know each other under the one roof. It cannot be too difficult to arrange this.

The timing of this is wrong, as is the amount of work people have to do. There are various reasons for that, one of which is a lack of social workers. What is the plan to fix that? If we are short of them, then what do we do to get more? I do not think it is okay to just leave this problem alone. What is wrong with the system when people drop out of it? Do we talk to them afterwards? Do we follow up the case and see what went wrong? Do we know how long it takes in other countries? There is anecdotal evidence that it does not take nearly as long as here. Has that been checked out? Have Department officials and the Minister of State found out what happens in the UK, France and the US and decided that we will try to achieve what they have done? If it turns out that it takes four years in those countries as well, perhaps there is a reason for it and Ireland is doing fine. However, the Minister of State and his officials should provide us with that information. There is something wrong and it needs to be fixed. I accept it probably affects only a few thousand people every year, but that is no reason not to put things right.

If a couple have been through one adoption, I do not understand why it takes so long to go through a second one. In some cases it takes as long as the first adoption, and that should not be the case. The couple have obviously passed the various tests and if their child is doing well, how much more can there be to do? I am not trying to simplify things, but is there a reason to go through the whole process again? A colleague from the Labour Party mentioned that couples have to go through another course in some places, but not in others. Standards do not seem to be followed everywhere else.

Is there any effort made to encourage parents who adopt abroad to look at home first? There is very little adoption in Ireland, and very few children under the current rules in the Constitution would be put up for adoption. We need to examine that, because many children in Ireland could benefit from being in more stable homes.

Adoption should be a positive experience, but it often turns into a cruel, harsh and slow process. That is a shame and we have to fix it. Many children in my own community in Navan have been adopted from all over the world. They have been given a great opportunity and they are doing very well. The more of that we can have, the better. Many couples want to be parents and are unlucky enough not to be able to have children for whatever reason. They need the State to step in, to help them and to make sure it happens. We can learn from other countries in this respect.

There are children taken into care by the HSE and taken away from their parents. There is always a reason for it, but the process does not always seem 100% clear. I have been involved in a couple of cases, and it is a grey area where information is always difficult to get. The parents involved, some of whom are not highly educated, are not always treated fairly by the system. When they do something wrong or do not behave as good parents there is often a reason. In these circumstances, one has a sense that official bodies close down, decide the parent or parents have failed and treat them badly as a result. Sometimes parents need help and guidance and although it is provided in some cases, in others the appropriate assistance, advice and legal representation in cases before the courts are not provided. We have a duty to recognise these factors and offer assistance as opposed to casting guilty people aside and ignoring their concerns and feelings. The State must do all in its power to try to reunite parents with children.

Tá áthas orm an deis a bheith agam inniu labhairt ar an mBille Uchtála 2009. Bille an-tábhachtach é an Bille seo a leagann córas uchtála amach don tír seo agus córas chun uchtáil idirnáisiúnta a dhéanamh freisin. Is oth liom a rá nach bhfuil mórán uchtála ar fáil sa tír seo, ach ar an dtaobh eile den scéal is dócha go bhfuil níos mó páistá choimeád ag tuismitheoirí nádúrtha. Sin an fáth nach bhfuil mórán uchtála sa tír seo, ach tarlaíonn uchtáil ó am go ham. Is é an taobh den scéal atá sa nuacht faoi láthair, an taobh ar a bhfuil an plé is mó faoi láthair ag muintir na tíre seo, an uchtáil idirnáisiúnta, go háirithe uchtáil as tíortha ar nós an Rúis, Vietnam agus an Aetóip. Is ábhar cainte an-deacair é seo do pholaiteoirí mar is ceann de na rudaí is deacra dóibh a rá le daoine nach mbeidh siad in ann uchtáil a dhéanamh. Tá seo an-deacair domsa mar is tuismitheoir mé le beirt pháiste. Sa chomhthéacs sin, tá sé deacair seo a phlé le daoine nach féidir leo páistí a bheith acu. B'fhéidir go raibh siad ag súil le go mbeadh páistí acu, agus mar a dúirt an Teachta English, go raibh siad ag iarraidh leanbh a bheith acu ar feadh blianta agus ag fáil cabhair, ar nós IVF, ó dochtúirí ach nach féidir leo páistí a bheith acu. Tá seo an-deacair dóibh. Bíonn siad éadóchasach agus bheadh trua ag duine dóibh. Is rud an-emotional é do na daoine atá ag baint leis seo. Bíonn baint agamsa le daoine mar seo i m'oifig sa Dháilcheantar mar déanann go leor dóibh teagmháil lena dTeachtaí Dála. Is cúis an-tábhachtach í an uchtáil do Theachtaí Dála ar fud na tíre.

I am pleased to speak on the Bill and glad the Minister of State, Deputy Barry Andrews, is present. The Minister of State has faced a certain amount of criticism arising from this Bill, most of which has been political in nature and has been levelled by members of other political parties. As the Minister of State with responsibility for children, he has an important job to do and his primary consideration must be the best interests of the children. While many prospective adoptive parents are heartbroken because they are waiting to adopt a child, the Minister of State has a responsibility to make difficult decisions to ensure the best interests of the child come first. He must also consider the best interests of children who have been legally adopted from foreign countries. This is a sensitive issue and may be the reason he has been slow to comment and engage in debate on the issue. It may also explain the reason he is reluctant to describe exactly what happens in some countries.

I have met many couples in my constituency office who have been waiting for a long time and have endured all sorts of trials and tribulations as they seek to adopt a child. They have tried to have children because adoption is not the first choice for couples. That only a small number of children are available for adoption in Ireland may not be a positive development for adoptive parents, but it is positive for society in general as it indicates that parents are willing to keep their children. Adoption in previous decades was not always done for the best reasons.

Adoption is a sensitive issue. As a parent who has been privileged and fortunate to have two children, both of whom were born since I was elected to the House, I find it difficult to sit in front of heartbroken couples who want to adopt a child. These couples may believe Ministers do not have a heart but that is not the case with the Minister of State. He does not lack a heart, particularly with regard to children and the problems experienced by parents. While adoption is one of the major problems experienced by couples, they often have many other problems. The Minister of State is aware of these and is well able to deal with them in a sensitive manner. I pay tribute to him.

As I stated, adoption is an incredibly sensitive issue for families, couples, children in Vietnam and their parents, as well as children who have been adopted and are loved by their families in Ireland. In this context, some of the political criticism of the Minister of the State has been over the top. I do not propose to discuss it in detail as I am aware that couples who wish to adopt are paying close attention to this debate and would not appreciate Members on this side engaging in the type of political point scoring exercise at least one Deputy from the other side has engaged in. This approach is not helpful to the debate and does not get us anywhere.

The Minister of State had no option but to accept the findings of the ISS report. He had to consider the report carefully given the sensitivities involved in protecting the best interests of the child and of prospective adoptive parents. For this reason, he had no option but to make the decision he did. While he will not have relished breaking the news, it is the role of Ministers to make necessary decisions. I have not received correspondence from prospective parents in light of his decision, although I understand the reason many of them will be highly disappointed. I feel awful on that basis but I am sure they understand the Minister of State's position, even if they do not like it.

The Minister of State has made a number of provisions and the Adoption Board has agreed to a number of arrangements for people who had hoped to adopt from Vietnam. This is a positive development which makes options outside Vietnam available to prospective adoptive parents, some of whom had been considering other options in any case.

The Government has been asked the reason it decided to act in accordance with the Hague Convention. It would be criticised if it chose not to do so given that the convention is the international standard in these matters. As such, the Minister of State is duty bound to apply it.

Prospective adoptive parents will have opportunities to adopt children from other countries when the legislation is enacted. The Minister of State intends, through some of the procedural arrangements made in the Bill, to ensure the adoption process becomes less lengthy. At present, adoption takes too long and these delays are getting parents down. Under the guidance of the Adoption Board and Minister of State, the process will become shorter. I hope parents and children will be brought together because the most basic instinct of humanity is to have children.

I thank the Minister of State and wish the Bill good speed. I hope it will quickly come before the Select Committee on Health and Children for Committee Stage consideration before returning to the House for Report Stage. It should be enacted as quickly as possible and in that context I am pleased to note the Minister of State is due to respond to the Second Stage debate when I conclude. I am glad that the decision of the Minister of State, although difficult, provides certainty. In recent months I encouraged the Minister of State to provide certainty when it was available. He has done so and that is appreciated by potential parents even though the dream, love and generosity has been postponed. I hope this will be for a shorter period than they have gone through up to now.

I thank Deputies for their many thoughtful contributions today and on previous occasions on Second Stage. Senators made a valuable contribution while the Bill was in that House. Every Deputy said that this is an area of extreme sensitivity. In 18 months in this office, I know it is beyond question the most sensitive area and the most difficult to manage because of the sensitivities and the complexity of the issue. One learns immediately about the sensitivities of the issue but the complexity takes longer. I refer to the complexity of the domestic situation, the relationship between the Adoption Board, the Government and the HSE, international legal relations between sending countries and receiving countries, overarching conventions such as the Hague Convention and how all of these issues interplay and influence each other. I also refer to domestic law with regard to domestic legislation since 1952 and how it interacts with the Constitution. One must come to terms with these issues.

I began with and still hold the view that adoption is an important form of alternative care and something the Government wishes to promote within the safeguards provided by international conventions and the Constitution. We are trying to reflect in our domestic law the highest standards that will serve the best interests of children and that these be child-centred in all aspects.

I will address some comments arising from the issues raised by Deputies and make some general remarks. It is true that there are inherent risks in intercountry adoption and these cannot be ignored. In spite of the existence of a bilateral agreement with Vietnam, we must be utterly vigilant about information that comes to our attention, whatever the source. This is particularly true when the source of information is child protection experts, with the agreement and co-operation of the Government of Vietnam. We are required to take this extremely seriously. As Deputy Thomas Byrne said, the ISS report left me with no option but to suspend negotiations on a new bilateral agreement. Having met many parents in my constituency clinics and having met representative groups whenever a meeting was sought, I am aware of the disappointment this caused. There is a philosophical attitude and people understand why the decision had to be made. All along, they wanted certainty but the price of hope was a lack of certainty while we continue to pursue it.

I was quite confident in June and July when I visited Hanoi, Vietnam that those negotiations would come to fruition and that we would be provided with a new bilateral agreement. In August the ISS report and the Molisa report came to the attention of the Government. That was finalised towards the end of November. I reject the view that the Government was unduly tardy in responding to that and making the announcement on 13 January. Countries close from time to time. Vietnam has closed twice, Romania closed, Guatemala, Belarus and other countries have closed from time to time. Ethiopia and Russia closed in recent times. It is not to say to people that it is tough luck or that we are insensitive but we must try to make those embarking on the road to adoption aware that this happens. It is not meant to be discourteous to them and if it came across in that way it certainly was not intended.

Many Deputies referred to the transitional arrangements. In so far as possible, I intend to provide for transitional arrangements. I intend to make a recommendation to the Government shortly and I will try to accommodate as many applicants for adoption as possible. It is not easy to identify the point in the adoption process that one must have reached at the time of the enactment of the legislation to proceed to finality. Is it the point where someone has applied for a declaration of eligibility and suitability, the point where one has received a declaration, the point where one has received a referral or a match in a sending country or where one has met the child or formed a bond with the child? Various stages must be considered. The further along the route one goes, the fewer people have reached this point and the less humane one is about the issue. The process of seeking a declaration is so long that it allows a certain latitude to be as human as possible. I will make a recommendation to the Government shortly and I will take on board the issues raised by the Deputies.

I accept the delay in processing applications for declarations is too long. The Bill allows for accredited bodies to carry out the work of determining the eligibility and suitability of an applicant. By the HSE no longer having a monopoly on this area, I hope we can foreshorten the application process considerably and bring it closer into line with international norms. We have a robust system and our social workers are excellent in explaining to parents the consequences of international adoption. The waiting between various meetings and various reports that must be furnished upsets and frustrates people. It is unnecessary. We have tried to eliminate that by the provisions contained in the Bill.

Several Deputies raised the delay in ratification of the Bill. We are the last country in Europe to ratify this Bill.

To ratify the convention.

Yes, to ratify the convention. When we signed the convention all those years ago, a process began to transpose it into Irish law. However, a decision was later taken to consolidate all adoption legislation and that lengthened the process. The consultation process had the effect of lengthening the period of time it took to ratify and transpose the convention into legislation. Deputy Thomas Byrne referred to the sensitivity we must all exercise in the comments we make about children already adopted here, of whom there are many. They are adopted into loving homes and are thriving. No one doubts that a child in an orphanage who is perfectly adoptable really benefits from adoption into this country. We must be sensitive in discussing issues about Vietnam and the inherent risks in intercountry adoption referred to at the beginning. When we talk about those we must remember there are children already here who are bullied in school over these issues because we are not as sensitive as we could be. From time to time that prevents me explaining to Deputies why we are slow, why we are not putting information in the public domain or communicating certain issues. That is partly the reason for it and the sensitivity is appreciated by parents and Deputies who have a good grasp of the issue.

Many Deputies spoke about this country's constitutional bar on the adoption of children of marriage. It would be possible for such children to be the subject of domestic adoptions if they were from other countries. Domestic adoptions usually arise when the mother of a child who was born outside marriage subsequently marries and the child is adopted by his or her stepfather. There are approximately 200 such adoptions in Ireland every year. The Joint Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children is examining a wording that would allow for more domestic adoptions in Ireland. If the people agree to include that wording in the Constitution, it is hoped that it will allow more domestic adoptions to take place. It might even relieve some of the difficulties we have here. In the UK, there are more domestic adoptions but fewer inter-country adoptions.

Recent events in Haiti, which were mentioned, underline some of the problems with international adoption. We all have a strong urge to try to help children who are in Haitian orphanages. I have had private discussions with Ministers and other individuals about what we can do. Small children who lost their parents in the earthquake may have aunts and uncles or grandparents who survived. International agencies will make every effort to try to reunite such children with their families. Haitian parents who lost their children may be happy to adopt domestically. I would like us to help by supporting the reconstruction of orphanages and by facilitating the provision of respite accommodation to children and parents, as we did after the accident at Chernobyl. It may be possible for us to agree fostering arrangements. The difficulty with adoption is that a Haitian parent might come to Ireland in three or four years time to look for his or her child. They might find that a bond has already been developed between the child and the adoptive parent. It is clear that the State would be liable if it had not carried out the correct adoption procedures with due diligence. This underlines some of the difficulties that exist in this area. Adoption should not necessarily always be the first option for people who have a strong urge to protect and care for children.

Article 9 of the Hague Convention, which is set out in Schedule 2 to the Bill, indicates that it is the duty of the central authority to promote counselling and other post-adoption services. The Law Reform Commission has recommended that the Child Care Act 1991 be amended to ensure that specified post-adoption services are provided by the HSE. The post-adoption services provided by Barnardos are funded by the HSE. In the submission it made to the Joint Committee on Health and Children, Barnardos said it had carried out 108 individual sessions of this nature. It is possible that post-adoption services will come under more pressure as more adoptions involve older children. There will be a greater need for such services in the future. People need to understand that services are already being provided and funded by the State and are provided for in the convention.

Reference was made to the right to access information that helps one to trace people involved in adoptions. The Adoption Board has been operating a national adoption contact preference register for the last few years. The issue of tracing can cause serious, complex and sensitive issues to arise. When I read the board's 2008 annual report, I learned that over 6,500 applications to be entered into the contact preference register were made in the first few years of its existence. Approximately 350 matches were made in 2008. While there is an awful lot of interest in the register, matching can have limited success. Clearly, there needs to be a balance between the right to privacy of a person who gives up a child for adoption and the right of a child to know who his or her parents are. It is hard to reflect those balancing rights in law. Deputies should be aware that the Adoption Board can apply to the High Court when certain issues arise, for example, if a child has a medical condition and wishes to obtain more genetic information about his or her natural parents. That issue is covered to that extent.

Many Deputies discussed whether step-parents should have to go through the adoption process. That question has also been raised by Barnardos and the Adoption Board. The question of whether natural parents should have to adopt their own children is of particular interest in this context. I have a great deal of sympathy with the arguments that have been made. I accept that the guardianship legislation may need to be amended to cater for step-parents and natural parents. I suggest that the special guardianship provisions would be particularly appropriate to step-parents.

I thank Deputies for their contributions and look forward to the Committee Stage debate. I accept that many issues will arise when we consider specific aspects of matters that have been raised in general terms on Second Stage. The Bill before the House will finally give Ireland an opportunity to comply with the Hague Convention. As I said in my opening remarks, we will then be in a position to deal with other countries that comply with the convention, some of which I mentioned. The new regime of adoption in Ireland that is being opened will provide greater certainty for parents and will achieve a child-centred adoption process in Ireland. Everybody wants such a system, which follows best practice and is ultimately in the best interests of children.

Is the Minister of State in a position to indicate to the House the timeframe for taking Committee Stage? I appreciate that he wants to consider certain amendments to the Bill. I am sure his office, like my office, has been contacted by those who are interested in this question. We should give people who are concerned about the Bill some idea of where we stand in this context.

I cannot give the House an indication of when Committee Stage will commence. I hope it will commence at the earliest possible opportunity. I have indicated that we hope to begin Committee Stage by the end of next month and to complete the enactment of the Bill by the end of March.

Question put and agreed to.