I wish to share time with Deputies Wallace and Pringle.
Twenty-ninth Amendment of the Constitution (No. 3) Bill 2011: Second Stage (Resumed)
That is fine.
I am not entirely happy to lend my support to the Bill because I am of the view that a referendum on children's rights in their totality is required. However, such a referendum has been pushed down the road. That is why I am supporting the measure before the House. Almost 18 months ago and following a lengthy deliberation period, all-party agreement was reached in respect of a particular wording. All that time has passed and we have still not been presented with a date for a referendum on children's rights.
I do not generally favour doing things in a piecemeal way. However, every year that passes is another year in a child's life. That is not a year which is replaceable. Children are our future and if they were really valued, they would be placed higher in the order of priorities. The House has sat through the night on occasion to deal with certain matters. I accept it will not be easy to deal with this matter and that the wording that will be required will be complex in nature. I am of the view, however, that if there was a will to do so, the referendum would be held on the same day as the presidential election.
The Bill before the House represents a start and that is why I will be supporting it. Last year, people who are now in government made a number of strong statements. I refer, for example, to the Minister for Justice and Equality, who has a long history in this area and who correctly pointed out the need to strengthen children's rights in the context of the Constitution. In February 2010 the Minister complained that children who were enduring physical and sexual abuse were being left too long in particular environments. Basically, he stated that such children were at risk from their own families. He called on the Government to announce a date for the referendum on children's rights, which he described as being vitally important.
Even if children's rights were fully enshrined in the Constitution, the absence of adequate services dedicated to vulnerable children will mean the current position will continue to obtain. We know the damage this has done to the lives of those who have suffered abuse. We have heard the testimony of those who are survivors of abuse. We owe it to them and to the children of today to ensure that a change is brought about. I do not believe that a constitutional provision alone will make the difference. It would, however, be a start, particularly if it were underpinned ensuring that the requisite facilities and services were provided. It may be an obvious point, but people only get one childhood. If that childhood is stolen as a result of neglect or physical or sexual abuse, there can be profound consequences for the individual involved and also for society.
Just over 12 months ago the Labour Party used its Private Members' time to request that the then Government bring forward the necessary constitutional amendment Bill in order that a date for the referendum might be set. That party is now in government and is in a position to exert its influence. However, the matter has been pushed back to 2012. I am concerned that in 2012 we will be informed that there is nothing such as the presidential election on to which the referendum can be tagged. As a result, for economic reasons, it will be pushed back even further. I seek an absolute commitment that the matter will be dealt with in a comprehensive manner in 2012. To do anything less would be to let the children down.
I agree that improving the adoption laws is a positive step but, like Deputy Catherine Murphy, I am of the view that it is a terrible pity that a referendum on children's rights will not be immediately forthcoming. A referendum on the right's of the child has long been called for by organisations such as Amnesty International and Barnardos. I hope the Government will not kick the can down the road for quite as long as the previous crowd.
At this time last year, the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, was screaming about the importance of holding a children's rights referendum immediately. However, he does not appear to have maintained that sense of urgency since coming to power. In its election manifesto the Labour Party stated:
The delay in proceeding with the referendum on children's rights is totally unacceptable. Labour in government will ensure that a children's rights referendum is urgently progressed.
Perhaps its idea of what is urgent and mine are different.
In its submission to the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, Barnardos stated:
Barnardos continues to campaign for the insertion of children's rights into the Irish Constitution. The conspicuous absence of distinct children's rights in the Constitution represents the ongoing failure of our society to adequately prioritise children and means that a distinction is made between children of married and non-married parents in the delivery and access of services. This distinction is in breach of Article 25 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights which states that: Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.
This illustrates the fact that issues such as unequal access to services has distinctly disadvantaged many children in this country. Recently there have been serious cuts in respect of primary education which will certainly disadvantage many of the less well-off in our society. I refer here to the cap in respect of special needs education, cuts in the number of resource teachers for Travellers and a reduction in the number of language support teachers. None of these measures will do the less well-off children in this State any favours.
I will be giving qualified support to the Bill. I do so because during the entire time Fianna Fáil was in government, it made no moves towards holding a referendum on children's rights. In their election manifestos, the Labour Party and Fine Gael afforded a high priority to holding such a referendum. We can see, however, that, in the context of the programme for Government, this Administration is stalling on this issue.
In February 2010, all-party agreement was reached in respect of the wording that would be necessary in order for a referendum to be held. We are in the final days of June 2011 and there is still no proposed date for such a referendum. It is vital that such a date should be identified and that we should enshrine the rights of children in the Constitution. One of the reasons people are so cynical with regard to politics relates to the type of toing and froing that has marked the debate on the need to recognise the rights of children and to hold a referendum thereon. Despite the fact that agreement on a wording was reached in 2010, nothing happened. Now the Fianna Fáil Party has introduced a Bill in respect of adoption in certain circumstances but we are still no closer to a date for the referendum in order that the rights of the weakest in our society, namely, children, might be recognised. Everyone has a duty of care to ensure those rights are recognised, strengthened and protected.
The amendment indicates that the Bill should be deemed to be read a Second Time in six months. I appeal to the Government to ensure it returns to the House at that time and identifies a date on which the referendum on children's rights will be held and that it provides a wording in respect of that referendum. If the latter is done we will then be in a position, once and for all, to put the rights of children to the fore. We will also be in a position to protect children within the Constitution. Taking the course I have outlined would also go some way to repairing the damage that has been done to politics in this country and to removing the cynical attitude that has arisen in respect of our profession. Our priority must be to protect those who are the most vulnerable.
I wish to share time with Deputy Buttimer.
That is fine.
I congratulate those in the Government who took the decision to place children's affairs on a par with other portfolios through the establishment of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. It was wonderful to welcome Deputy Fitzgerald to County Clare two weeks ago on her first official engagement as Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. Throughout her visit to County Clare, the Minister demonstrated her deep understanding of her brief. I thank her for that. I also wish to acknowledge the Minister's work with regard to Vietnamese adoptions. She met a group in Clare with regard to such adoptions and I am aware there is some movement in that regard. I welcome her work in that area.
One of the Minister's initial tasks is to place children's rights in Bunreacht na hÉireann, while recognising that this process is by no means without implications for other articles of the Constitution. I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge the significant body of work carried out by the late Brian Lenihan when he was Minister of State with responsibility for children. During the last Dáil, I worked as Fine Gael spokesperson on juvenile justice. The former Minister's fingerprints were found everywhere, from the Children's Act 2001 to the Irish Youth Justice Service which he established and, not least, the All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution. I acknowledge the Trojan work he did in this area.
Yesterday evening, the Minister outlined clearly and unambiguously the high value she places on consensus on this issue. Consensus is the only way we can bring this work to a conclusion. While there is merit in the Bill brought forward by Deputy McConalogue and while I understand what he is trying to achieve, it is a fragmented approach to the issue. We must have a consensus, but in trying to bring forward just two issues, the Deputy is breaking that consensus. More importantly, hasty constitutional changes, whatever the reason they are introduced, tend to create the unintended or unforeseen consequences referred to last night by Deputy Ó Cuív. Historically such changes have always been damaging and negative and tend to make worse the very issue one is trying to make better. The Minister confirmed last night that the principles put forward by Deputy McConalogue will be contained in the Government's wording. It is for this reason that I cannot see the merit in proceeding with this Private Members' Bill.
There is no doubt that an unforgivable amount of time has elapsed since Mrs. Justice Catherine McGuiness made her comments on the child's status in our Constitution. However, as we now come to a constitutional conclusion, if that is possible, there has been progress and there have been initiatives that will allow us to place children's rights in our Constitution distinctively.
The establishment of the Department, the establishment of the Office of the Children's Ombudsman, the Children Act itself and the strengthening of children's advocacy groups have all been mentioned. All the experience and knowledge of these offices and facilities will no doubt be used to the utmost advantage by the Minister as she proceeds in her work. I support the Minister's amendment to the motion and note that she has left the door open somewhat with her commitment to revisiting the issue in six months time. The Government is committed to holding a referendum to strengthen children's rights and this position is clearly outlined in the programme for Government. The Government will produce a wording which reflects the work of the Joint Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children, which was unanimously agreed by all parties on that committee.
The last thing we need is a piecemeal approach to this referendum. I believe the best approach is to have consensus on this issue and that an agreed wording can be put to the people in the referendum which will take place early next year.
In welcoming the opportunity presented by the Private Members' motion to debate the issue of adoption and children's rights, it is important to remember that although this is the first, it will not be the last time that we will debate these issues in this Dáil. These complex issues touch upon the social fabric of society and highlight the delicate interplay of the Constitution, legislation and the day-to-day realities for many people. It is important we take our time and that we get things right and do not have to return to the issue. I welcome the Independent Members here tonight in support of this Bill and hope that the amendment will have cross-party and Independent support.
The approach taken by Members on the opposite side appears to deal solely with the constitutional position of adoption, without reference to the rights of children, parents, families, foster parents or the other rights touched upon by the proposals. The deliberate, slow and tedious cross-party approach taken by the Oireachtas over the past four years in dealing with the issues of children's rights is a recognition of the complexities which must be overcome. I agree with the Minister's proposals that the most prudent way of dealing with the issues of children's rights is in a comprehensive manner in a stand alone referendum that is not tied up with a presidential election. Addressing these issues in a piecemeal fashion does no service to the children, parents or families affected. Their interests are best served by a Government committed to the rights of children, the Government we have now that has established a dedicated Department of Children and Youth Affairs and which is committed to holding a referendum on children's rights. We are not talking about words or slogans here, but about action.
Our Constitution is interpreted by the courts as a dynamic living document the articles of which can be interpreted in the social context at the time of a judgment. For these reasons, we must be careful in amending it and must try to ensure that in years to come, long after we are gone, our decisions do not have unintended consequences. We have seen what has happened over the years when governments have courted populism and we must avoid such consequences. Our Constitution places the marital family in a position of elevated protection, a status that reflects our historic development and the importance which society places on the raising of children. This importance was recognised by the All-Party Committee on the Constitution when it recommended an amended Article 42. The proposed amendment recognised the paramount importance of the welfare and best interests of children and the rights and responsibilities of parents. Balancing these competing rights is the reason bringing forward a constitutional amendment takes time. It is also the reason the Minister will take her time. She is not a Johnny come lately to this. In her work in the Seanad as Fine Gael leader and spokesperson on health and in her work on the committee over the past three years she has played a dynamic pioneering role.
She will take her time and she deserves the support of all in the House. This is not a political issue, but is about children, parents and their rights.
The issues this House needs to address with regard to adoption are much broader than as presented in this Bill. Addressing the issues of adoption necessitated by neglect of parental responsibilities towards a child and adoption of a child of married parents fails to recognise the many other difficulties we must remedy. It is our job as legislators to find a remedy and solutions. We must examine the processes and procedures regarding international adoption. I agree with Deputy Carey that we must examine whether the processes and procedures for adoption adequately cater for modern family arrangements. These issues are important to children, parents and families. To address adoption without considering the issue in its widest possible context does these families a disservice.
I request that when preparing this legislation, the Minister fully considers all aspects of adoption and the impact that such legislation will have on the lives of the many families it will affect. I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak on this issue tonight. I support the Minister, who has a full cabinet seat for children's rights and youth affairs. She has given a commitment, last night and in the past, to dealing with the issue of children's rights. I know the Government will deliver on that. I hope Members continue to contribute constructively on this issue and to offer cross-party support and not divide the House. The Minister deserves our full support.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important matter. As someone who has worked in the area of child protection, I am only too aware of the need for a greater emphasis on the rights of children within the Constitution, particularly in respect of the types of family recognised by Bunreacht na hÉireann. I am a lone parent and am unrecognised in the Constitution. Improvement is required in this area to bring Ireland up to date with best practice internationally — everybody is only too well aware of this — and to protect the most vulnerable members of society and our future.
The changes being considered by the Joint Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children contain many important elements, including giving children a chance to air their views on adoption. It is frightening to believe we have come this far without enshrining this as a right officially.
As early as 1996, the Constitution Review Group pointed out that the Constitution needed to be worked on if the State were to measure up to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Two years later, a UN committee pointed out that "Ireland's approach to the rights of children appears to be somewhat fragmented". Deputy McConalogue might argue Fianna Fáil's approach to the rights of children is still somewhat fragmented. This is because it is putting one aspect of a very important, complex area into the spotlight without considering the wider context.
Everybody agrees the issues surrounding adoption need to be addressed. The issue does not exist in isolation but is part of a wider, complex and very sensitive area, yet we have had a brazen example of Fianna Fáil wading in and proposing a quick build because it looks good on the surface, much like some of the ill-thought out apartment complexes its builder friends were so fond of throwing up in the Celtic tiger era.
What exactly did Fianna Fáil do for children during its tenure in government, or during the Celtic tiger era? As my colleague the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, rightly pointed out yesterday, this is an issue that the Fianna Fáil-led Government failed to put to the people for 14 years. It has a cheek to come into the House and cut and paste in regard to the issue.
Deputy McConalogue has accused the Government of doing a U-turn by not putting the referendum on children's rights to the people on the day of the presidential election. I, for one, am delighted the decision was taken not to hold the two referenda on the same day. This shows the Government has a deep understanding of the issue and recognises it is an area that needs work. We in the Labour Party-Fine Gael coalition believe the wider issues deserve space to be debated properly in the public arena so people will have an understanding of what is at stake. The Government is fully committed to strengthening children's rights and it will have a referendum on this subject next year. While it is fine by me that Deputy McConalogue wants to criticise the Government for taking time to think about an issue and ensure people are aware of the facts, I am glad to belong to a group that believes children's rights comprise an important issue that deserves time.
Many candidates are putting themselves forward to be President. It is only natural, therefore, that the media will concentrate on personalities and would not give sufficient time to the referendum on children, which is so important. It seems Fianna Fáil may not be interested in the presidential election given that it has nobody to fly the flag for it. This is understandable, I suppose. Perhaps it will consider backing an affiliated candidate, if possible, to vote by telephoning or texting a premium line. Deputy McConalogue should note this is not how our democracy works.
I commend Fianna Fáil for attempting in this debate to highlight one key area that needs to be tackled. However, dealing with the issue in conjunction with the presidential race would be heavy-handed and ill-considered. We should not support this fragmented Bill by Fianna Fáil as it addresses only one part of a wide-ranging problem that needs to be tackled. Let us give the Joint Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children space to put the final touches to the wording to help protect our future and that of future generations.
The people will have the chance to have their say on this important issue. Let us ensure they have the space to consider it. Allow me to be so bold as to coin a phrase: "Think of the children."
Let me begin with a quotation from a report of the Select Panel for the Promotion of Child Health in the United States: "Children are one third of our population and all of our future". Children account for over 1 million members of our population. As a parent of four children, I can stand confidently and state they are all of my future. My four children's concerns, wishes and heartaches are the responsibility of me and my husband. It is paramount to us, as parents, to ensure their future development and happiness are central. We must ensure children are at the centre of decisions we make regarding them.
We gave a commitment on entering Government that we would hold the referendum on children within a year. I agree with the Minister and Taoiseach that the referendum should not be held at the same time as the presidential election as it will result in children being used as a bargaining chip. The issue could become very confused and fuzzy considering the other proposals for later in the year. Having said that, we must afford the people the opportunity to change the Constitution in such a way that the welfare of the child is paramount.
Since the last Government gave its commitment to holding this referendum, there have been huge delays. The current Government has already shown the serious approach it takes towards children and their future by giving a full Cabinet position to the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. I welcome that and wish the Minister the best in her role.
Everything we do for children and every decision we make must be above politics. We must make child-centred decisions. "Child-centred" is a phrase that is bandied about frequently these days but, in a constitutional context, it could not be more important. Children have a right to be heard, to be at the centre of every decision that is made that concerns them, not to be discriminated against, to life, to survival and to development. In short, they have a right to their rights under the UN convention.
In 1998, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, examining Ireland's first report on the implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, stated our "welfare practices and policies do not adequately reflect the child rights-based approach enshrined in the Convention". It has taken some time and many reviews and reports to get to where we are today.
There have been criticisms from children's groups, such as the ISPCC and Barnardos, that political will seems to be lacking in regard to making provision for the child in our Constitution. This is not the case. As long as Fine Gael is in government, all the children in this country will have a voice. In whatever small way I can, I will, with my voice, ensure the rights and interests of children remain on our agenda. There will be much debate outside this House about what is right for our children. While we must listen to all opinions, it is most important that we listen to our children. Only they know how they feel and how they are affected by the decisions we make on their behalf.
Experts say that the best place for a child is with its family and that, in so far as it is practicable, children must remain within the family unit if it is in their best interest. It is in the best interest of a child to live in a stable and loving environment. In today's society, there are different types of family units and a number of different loving and stable environments in which a child can grow up happy and healthy. Legislation must be produced to reflect this. Changing our Constitution, the very foundation of our State, to reflect changes in society is a necessity. To bring forward a change that will strengthen the rights of the child while still being mindful of the family and supportive of it must be our main aim.
I agree with the recommendation of the joint committee that adoption legislation should be published before the referendum is put to the people because only then can people make an informed decision. We cannot ask the people to make such an important decision on children blindly as it would not make sense. It also makes no sense for the Opposition to come to the House with only one element of a Bill in a piecemeal approach to the overall aims of the new Constitution.
We all agree that children should be our priority. Although I was not in this House at the time of the joint committee's deliberations, I have read the report and listened to the debate on it. I am glad to note there was, after much discussion, political consensus on the way in which this referendum should be approached. I hope we can continue in the same vein given that the Government is so committed to this matter, regardless of anything else that is occurring politically. Political differences that may exist between the Government and Opposition regarding economic policy, for example, must be put to one side and never interfere with our joint aspiration to ensure our children and their future remain our top priority.
I very much welcome the opportunity to speak on this important issue. I congratulate Deputy Fitzgerald on her appointment as Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. Knowing her as I do, I know how well suited she is to her brief, how seriously she will take her responsibility and how committed she is to the issues surrounding children's rights, child protection and supporting families. Deputy Buttimer went some way towards outlining the Minister's record on these issues when she was a Senator and member of the all-party Oireachtas committee.
I wish Deputy McConalogue well in his role as Fianna Fáil spokesperson on children. While we may not agree with the Bill he has introduced, we believe it is important that Private Members' time is being used to highlight issues concerning children and the new Department of Children and Youth Affairs. I very much welcome that. While I do not agree with the approach of Fianna Fáil on this matter, it has provided us with an opportunity to highlight the need for a comprehensive children's rights referendum and to give attention to the issue of adoption.
The creation of a full Cabinet Department for Children and Youth Affairs is a very welcome development. It gives crucial political recognition and clout to issues such as the one before the House this evening. Already we are beginning to see the benefits of this new political clout in the area of adoption. I warmly welcome the fact that within the first 100 days of taking office the Government, through the Minister instructed the Adoption Authority to visit Vietnam in an effort to progress the huge body of work that needs to be done to begin the process of Irish people being able to adopt from Vietnam once again. Commentary by the media on the Government's first 100 days will be dominated by issues such as banking and the economy, as this is to be expected, this is real societal progress and I commend the Minister and the Department on it.
The issue of children's rights and child protection has rightly been prominent in Irish political and societal discourse in recent years. In fact at times, the only other issue to rival it in terms of media coverage and political debate has been the economic crisis. After the publication of report upon report documenting — at times very frank, graphic and upsetting in nature — the appalling failures of the country, at all levels from the top to the ground, to protect and cherish our children, the time for constructive and comprehensive action to place the protection of children at the centre of our Constitution once and for all is long overdue.
In this sense, I genuinely welcome the opportunity afforded by the debate tonight, which allows us as national legislators, to put on the record of the House our commitment not just to respond to absolute failures and neglect with empty rhetoric or phrases but rather our desire to work together on a cross-party basis to action real and meaningful change in how children are treated and respected in 21st century Ireland.
There are a number of problems and limitations with the specific Bill before the House tonight and many of these were outlined yesterday by the Minister and Deputy Ó Caoláin of Sinn Féin. I will not repeat these points other than to make two brief comments. Cross-party consensus when it comes to any referendum to improve the standing of children in our constitution is essential. The previous Government's attempt to deviate away from agreed cross-party wording which took a long time to achieve and move to a more narrow version was foolish. I am pleased the Minister confirmed yesterday that the new Government will respect the work done by the cross-party committee and base the wording of a referendum on its agreed conclusion. It is ironic and disappointing to hear Fianna Fáil criticise the new Government for any delay in the introduction of this referendum. It was in fact its attempts in Government to move away from the cross-party wording that added to delays that brought us to today.
We cannot support a Bill which cherry-picks a very narrow part of the overall children's rights agenda. Quite aside from the isolationist approach to dealing with complex issues, it could also lead to a significant delay in the presentation of an over-arching referendum on children's rights. I welcome the fact that the Government amendment does not dismiss the contents of the Bill out of hand but instead attempts to include it in the much bigger project of a children's rights referendum.
While the Government takes the necessary time to ensure a comprehensive and well-thought out referendum can be put to the people, no time can be wasted, and I know the Minister will not do so. It is important that a more specific timeframe for the referendum is provided at the earliest possible opportunity.
I am not interested in political point scoring on this issue and I do not care what party suggested it, when it was suggested or why but I agree with previous speakers on this side of the House that it would not be appropriate to hold this important referendum on the same day as a presidential election which will engage in party and personality politics. This issue is far above any office in the country.
I ask the Minister when considering the issue of adoption to take on board the comments made in the House by Deputy Mattie McGrath last night on foster care. I specifically ask that she conduct an urgent review of the supports in terms of after-care being provided to people upon reaching the age of 18 in foster care and to their foster parents. This is a very important issue which is not being adequately addressed. I hope the new Minister for Children and Youth Affairs will use her new political clout and Department to progress this issue.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate. I congratulate the Minister and wish her well. Like everybody else, I know her qualities and her commitment to many social issues. She is particularly sensitive to children's issue and is an excellent choice.
This is a highly complex issue. I was a member of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children. We expected that within months of beginning discussions and taking submissions we would produce a report. However, the area is so complex and difficult it took us two years to finalise a report. We did so with the consensus of all members of the committee. All parties subscribed to the contents of the report.
This will require very serious debate because many organisations have serious views on many aspects of it. Deputy Ó Fearghaíl was also a member of the committee and he understands what I am saying and is nodding in agreement. This discussion on the proposed amendment will be very serious and in-depth. It will not go through like other amendments which were, on the face of it, straightforward. This is not a straightforward amendment; it is highly complex.
I commend the committee Chairman, Mary O'Rourke, and Vice Chairman, Deputy Michael Noonan, who put their heart and soul into ensuring that despite the lawyers we finalised the wording after two years and that there was consensus on the report. The committee was established in November 2007. It issued three reports, and the final report was issued in March 2010. Our brief was to deal with the constitutional change and statutes and case law concerning adoption, guardianship, case proceedings, custody and access to children and to make a recommendation on how the Constitution could be amended to enshrine and enhance the protection of children.
The committee recommended the recognition of children's rights and recognising the role of parents with regard to primacy, and being natural carers, educators and protectors of the child. There is much debate on the roles of the parent and the State with regard to the difficulties of the affect of a constitutional change on the rights of the child on parents.
The wording proposed by the committee specifically states that the State should ensure that all children of the State are equal and that the State should not discriminate between children. It recommended that the proposed wording of the constitutional amendment should require the State by proportional intervention to support all children. We were certain that all children in the State are to be equal and have the same status under the Constitution. There was much discussion on this with regard to people who have come to Ireland from abroad to work here and whose children were born here. It was highlighted that society has changed, thanks be to God, in the past 40 or 50 years and children of single parents should have absolute equal rights with all other children.
Ba mhaith liom mo chuid ama a roinnt leis na Teachtaí Niall Collins agus Dara Calleary. I join colleagues in congratulating the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, on her appointment to Cabinet. It was a wise and inspired move by the Taoiseach to elevate the Ministry with responsibility for children to full Cabinet level. It is particularly gratifying that a Kildare person is occupying the role.
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this debate on an issue of significant concern. I compliment my party's spokesperson on children, Deputy Charlie McConalogue, on his initiative in bringing forward this important proposal which seeks to address the need for the State to provide for the adoption of children in the event of substantial parental failure and where married couples are prepared to agree to the adoption of a child of their marriage.
This debate makes good use of parliamentary time and constitutes further proof of the Fianna Fáil Party's commitment to provide a positive and constructive Opposition in the 31st Dáil. We last discussed these matters during Private Members' time on 18 and 19 May 2010, when the current Minister, Deputy Brendan Howlin, moved a motion calling in effect on the then Government to proceed, post haste, to fix a date for the holding of a referendum on the rights of the child which included provision for constitutional reform in the area of adoption, as envisaged in Deputy McConalogue's Bill. On that occasion, contributors on all sides acknowledged the work done by the Joint Committee on a Constitutional Amendment on Children under the chairmanship of former Deputy Mary O'Rourke. While the Chairman was praised, Members were also unanimous in commending Deputies Howlin, Ó Caoláin and Shatter and then Senator Alex White on their considerable efforts and the leadership they showed in achieving political consensus on a number of issues relating to children and on the matter of a form of words for a constitutional amendment.
On the occasion of that debate, which was held just 13 months ago, there appeared to be a most genuine consensus on the need to press forward with a referendum at the earliest possible time. As a backbench Government Deputy at the time, I considered that the concern of a number of Departments, including the then Department of Education and Science, that the proposed wording of the amendment would give rise to problems and unintended consequences could be addressed by tweaking the proposed wording of the amendment and that this could be done within a reasonable timeframe. In due course, the then Minister of State, Deputy Barry Andrews, proposed a new form of words. As we all know only too well, however, his initiative was overtaken by events.
In light of the momentum that was generated in the previous Dáil towards creating a stronger constitutional and legislative framework in support of the rights of the child, it is sad and disappointing to see this goodwill and momentum being dissipated to some extent by a Government which considers that the pay of judges rates priority attention over the rights of the child. This is despite the statements made by Members of the Government parties when in opposition, the commitments they gave in the course of the election campaign and their statements on entering government.
A number of Deputies opposite indicated that it would be inappropriate to hold a referendum on children's rights in conjunction with the presidential election. I recall that it was the current Taoiseach, Deputy Kenny, who suggested in February, in the run-up to the general election, that the referendum was a priority issue for his party and would be held alongside the presidential election. Some of the Deputies opposite are, therefore, departing from the position set out by their leader some time ago.
While there are complexities surrounding the broader issues of children's rights, they are not insurmountable and the issue of adoption is more straightforward and capable of being dealt with in the timeframe set out by Deputy McConalogue. If it were to respond positively to the proposal before the House, the Government would avail of an opportunity of joining with us in creating greater security, new opportunities and, ultimately, better life prospects for many young Irish people now and in future.
The statistics on children in care, which I am sure all Deputies have studied, are truly staggering. Of the 6,000 children in question, 90% are currently in foster home placements, with one third of these or close to 2,000 children in long-term foster care. Figures for the first quarter of 2011 suggest there has been an inordinate increase in the number of children being taken into care.
In looking back over the matters debated by the joint committee over the two year period to which Deputy Neville referred, I recalled a report from a principal social worker in one of the country's 32 local health offices. In the time remaining, I propose to read some extracts from what he had to say about the need to provide specific categories of children with the opportunity of being adopted. The word of a professional working at the coalface adds perspective to our debate. He stated the following:
On the proposed amendment to the Constitution I think the position should be that adoption can be considered as an option for all children where the reality is that they have been placed, and are living away, from their birth or natural parents. Clearly appropriate timeframes will have to be worked out as to when children become available, so to speak, for adoption.
Excluding inter-country adoptions there are three routes to adoption at the moment.
The old fashioned "stranger adoption" where the mother indicates she wants the baby adopted and the baby is placed with parents unknown to her, assessed and selected by an Adoption Agency.
A relative, as defined by the Adoption Act 1998, adopts the baby.
Foster parents apply to adopt their foster child under the Adoption Act 1988. This is only possible under very restrictive conditions where the parents are shown to have comprehensively abandoned their parental duties.
In my area we have worked with 3 "stranger adoptions'' and about 6 foster parents adopting foster children over the last 10 years. All of these adoptions have provided very good solutions for the children involved. And this has been particularly true for the foster children adopted. All of these children were over 10 years old, and some were 16 or 17 years old. Therefore, the children could understand the process of their adoption and could see that this was a powerful and very visible demonstration of their foster parents' love for them. Also it was shown to them that they were being accepted into the family not only by their foster parents but by their foster siblings as well.
At the moment there are 230 children in care in my area. Thus over the last 10 years I would guess there have been about 600-700 children in care. Thus adoption as an option is only for a very small minority — barely over 1% of children in care. Over the last 3 years I have had 4 requests to assist families who would be classed as private foster carers, under the Children Act 2001, to adopt the child they had living with them. Private foster care is any arrangement where the child is in the full-time care of a person other than his parent-guardian or their partner or relative. Two of the requests came from families where the wife was the grand-aunt of the child — or the aunt of the mother of the child. It seems clear that both children have been placed with the full consent and support of the mother. In the one inspected by a social worker from my team the child is thriving and doing very well within his private foster family. The wife in the family is not close enough a relative as defined by the Adoption Act 1998. Therefore, there is no mechanism by which this child can be adopted by the adults he has lived with for the past 3 years. In another case, the relationship was much more distant — the wife in the private foster family is a second cousin of the mother of the child.
The fourth case here is a family similar to the earlier three except the child was 17 years old. The husband here was a relative of the mother. In an agreement made when the child was two years old the mother placed the child with her relative and his wife. This agreement was facilitated by a Health Board social worker at the time. This solution was a private arrangement and was seen as better than taking the child into the care of the Health Board.
As the child approached 18 years of age, the couple, who were the carers for 15 years, sought to adopt him. Again, this did not prove possible under the existing Adoption Law.
A final case I'll mention involves a baby born from an extra marital relationship and placed in the care of the H.S.E. from the maternity hospital. The mother is adamant the baby cannot live with her as her marriage has been revived and she cannot see how the baby could fit in with her husband and her other children. She was very open to the idea of adoption, but neither she or her husband will comply with the Adoption Board's rules on establishing paternity. It seems that any mention of the extra marital baby threatens the stability of the newly reforged marriage. This baby then cannot be placed for adoption but has been placed in long-term foster care.
All of these 5 cases were active in [this local health area] in the last two years. All are situations where [the social worker thinks] it is most likely that an adoption would have been in the best interest of the child. Yet the adoption option was not possible. [His] area is one of 32 LHOs in the country, so [he assumes] there are considerably more children in this position countrywide.
Some of the impediments [he has] identified could, I suspect, be remedied by legislation. Blocks on children of married parents may require a constitutional amendment. The overall benefit of the amendments proposed should be to free up the position so that the best plan for each child can be constructed and all options, including where appropriate, adoption, can be realistically considered.
The present position is that many children are in long-term foster care — both state and private — and cannot be adopted. This remains the case even though they may have minimal, or no, contact with their natural parents and have a relationship with their foster carer of an emotional depth and intensity that one associates with natural parents-child relationships. The emotional and psychological benefits of the permanence of adoption cannot, in my view, be underestimated for such children who are adopted.
In short, of the 700 children approximately in care in my area over the last ten years hardly more than 1% were adopted. Given the emotional and psychological benefits associated with adoption, far too few children are getting the chance of adoption. An appropriate constitutional amendment on adoption could help enormously in changing this landscape.
As can be adduced from the extracts of the report which I have just read into the record, there is a most compelling case to proceed, as a matter of urgency, in accordance with the proposals set out in the motion. In conclusion, I am conscious of the fact that some Members on the other side of the House are reluctant to proceed. However, I will quote what former Deputy Michael D. Higgins said on these matters in the House in May 2010: "What must be decided? The children of the people who will be consulted in all the Departments are not at risk. If one wants to say every child is a protected child in this Republic, then one will vote for the motion. That is what we should do, we do not need any more time."
I commend the Bill to the House.
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this debate on an issue of significant concern. I compliment my party colleague, Deputy McConalogue, our spokesperson on children, on his initiative in bringing forward this important proposal which seeks to address the need for the State to provide for the adoption of children in the event of parental failure and where married couples are prepared to agree to the adoption of a child of their marriage. It is regrettable that of necessity we often find ourselves discussing and debating issues relating to the economy, finance and banking in this House but do not get more time to discuss very important social issues such as this. This is a genuine attempt to keep the focus on this matter and to keep it high on the agenda.
I most sincerely wish the newly appointed Minister well in her work. There is no need to be party political about this issue and any criticisms we make will be constructive, not political. The amendment to the Constitution will empower the Oireachtas to introduce legislation which will permit the adoption of children in long-term care, if it is in their best interests. We must focus on what is in the best interests of the child and nothing else, and we must park economic reasons and everything else in that context. The amendment will seek to affirm the right of all children to be adopted, regardless of the marital status of their parents. Most importantly, it does so without interfering with the primacy of the family under the Constitution.
Unfortunately, and it is a reflection on our society, there are more than 6,000 children in care in Ireland. A total of 5,500 of these are in foster care, and one third of them are in long-term foster care. In some cases, children are taken into care at birth and are raised by foster parents. They might only have sporadic contact with their parents. The possibility of adoption would represent a chance for a stable and secure family life, something every child deserves. We should take every opportunity to salute and acknowledge the work of foster families and the people involved in the delivery of foster care to these children. Many people are involved and often their work is unacknowledged. I know many of them in my constituency. All Members know such people in their constituencies given that they are constituency representatives as well as national parliamentarians. The work they do is truly tremendous.
This Bill has been brought forward because the Government parties have reneged on commitments they made, when they were in the Opposition, to proceed immediately with a referendum on children's rights. I ask the Government to take on board the initiative Deputy McConalogue has brought before the House. We should not divide along party lines, but support him.
In conclusion, I wish to acknowledge the sterling work of both the Office of the Ombudsman for Children and the Ombudsman for Children. As public representatives all of us have probably referred case work to that office and its work is carried out in a very professional manner. I should also mention the work of the many advocacy groups in this area, including the fine work of the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, ISPCC, and Barnardos Ireland. We should seek to maintain the level of State funding for these organisations so they can continue to carry out their fine work.
I commend my colleague, Deputy McConalogue, for bringing this legislation forward. I also wish the Minister every success in her office.
I had the privilege of being a substitute member of the Joint Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children in the last Dáil prior to my appointment as a Minister. It was a model of how committees should and can work.
It was adequately resourced and all parties had access to legal expertise. The work done, under various chairs, was considerable. The material made available to us was superb. It is a pity that model cannot be adopted by other committees. I hope the Abbeylara referendum will deal with the issues that choke committees. I also hope the model of that committee will be used by other committees.
There was agreement on the committee about adoption and about the inadequacies in current adoption law. When the Constitution was drafted in the 1930s, adoption was probably not in the minds of those who framed it. The 1952 Act dealt with the adoption of children born outside marriage. As many speakers have said, society has moved on since then and situations have presented themselves to which the law has not responded or kept up with.
Deputy McConalogue's Bill is an attempt to bring the law up to date. The constant theme of our debate in the committee, and generally, is that there should be respect for the primacy of the family. That is still something we should hold within our Constitution, no matter that the format of family has moved on. The concept of the family is very different now from what it was in 1937. Like other European countries, we should retain a commitment to family values within our Constitution. The measure proposed by Deputy McConalogue respects that commitment. The work done over many years, including that done by the late Brian Lenihan, always respected that.
It is not only politicians who say our adoption laws are deficient. There is agreement within the Judiciary and among experts in the area that work needs to be done here. We have a perfect opportunity to show that the 31st Dáil treats children as a priority by holding a referendum in October, as was promised. On that day, technical referendums will be held on judges' pay and amendments relating to committees. It would make a statement that the Dáil can unite and takes the issue of children seriously if we agreed to hold a referendum on children's rights on that day.
The Chief Justice was clear when he wrote the foreword to Child Law by Geoffrey Shannon, who does so much good work in this area. The Chief Justice commented:
Domestic law in the area of child rights falls far short of our international obligations. Irish law is out of sync with European Convention jurisprudence and, in particular, the Constitution focuses on the nuclear marital family and does not countenance any other family forms outside of this.
When the Chief Justice, the first law officer of the State, feels free to say that, he presents us with a challenge to respond. Much work was done by previous committees to do that but it is now time the Oireachtas came together and filled in the gaps that exist.
I join colleagues on the other side of the House in paying tribute to the various agencies and lobbying organisations that have done so much work in this area. The last number of years saw the uncovering of unbelievable scandals, things we could not countenance, as a State or as people of the State. We left that work to be done by health care professionals and social workers. We left them to go into houses and come across scenes that none of us would like to see. They did so without fear or favour and at considerable personal and professional cost to themselves. As a Legislature, we must respond to the commitment they have shown in their work by introducing legislation such as that promoted by Deputy McConalogue.
Deputy Collins spoke about the statistics relating to care. It is a matter of concern that there has been a considerable spike in all these statistics during this year. This spike may indicate a greater awareness or the availability of more resources. Nevertheless, it shows that in spite of society's reaction to various child abuse cases, we still seem to have a serious problem. The figures from December 2005 to April of this year show a 26% increase in the number of children in care, from 4,800 to over 6,000. This presents legislators with a challenge to ensure that we respond quickly and efficiently to the messages and that those who are providing care have equal opportunities in terms of adoption and providing children with permanent care.
Geoffrey Shannon further proposed that children who have been in foster care for at least five years should not be returned to their natural parents without the consent of a court. This would bring us into line with policy in Northern Ireland, where if a child has been in the care of foster parents their prospective adopters' statutory rights are independent of their role as carers for a local authority. An all-island approach to this issue would make sense, within the constraints of different legal systems.
Everyone agrees that the welfare of the child is paramount. It is difficult, in the context of legal and constitutional jargon, to focus on the fact that we are dealing with children who are looking for security and the proper chances in life. We must ensure that we provide that framework for them.
The late Brian Lenihan did huge work during his term as Minister of State with responsibility for children and laid the groundwork for those who followed him, in legislation and in practical projects throughout the country. He stressed the importance of the Constitution. He said:
Time and again the people of Ireland have demonstrated their strong attachment to our Constitution. We should not underestimate the huge onus that rests on all of us who seek to strengthen the position of the child in that Constitution. The burden of persuasion in any referendum is a heavy one. It is all the greater when the proposal relates to the delicate and intimate relationship that exists between child, parent, family and State.
That is the balance we must reach in this Legislature as we tackle this issue.
I will conclude with one of Brian Lenihan's fine remarks in this area:
This is an enormous opportunity to make a difference for children. I firmly believe that the time has come to move beyond oratory, to ensure that the fundamental law of our land, the Constitution, properly reflects our commitment to value and to protect childhood.
There can be no greater honour to the memory of a great man than that we collectively agree to do that without further delay and to use what has been offered by Deputy McConalogue as a vehicle to do so.
It is a very good thing that Private Members' Bills are published from the Opposition side of the House. I hope we will come to a point where Private Members' Bills can be accepted and developed on Committee Stage. I regret that is not possible with this Bill. I do not want Deputy McConalogue to take personally any criticism I now make of the Bill because I am conscious that he was not a Deputy in the previous Dáil. Perhaps he has been walked into this Bill by his colleagues.
For a great number of years I wanted to see our adoption laws changed and this issue addressed so that where a child is born to a married couple in circumstances where there is no reasonable possibility of the child being properly cared for by the parents the child would have a real opportunity to be part of a constitutional family by way of adoption and not left in residential or foster care. Many foster parents have children in long-term care with them and would like to adopt those children but cannot do so at present.
Deputy McConalogue should not take this personally but I am assuming he has been walked into this or he has published this Bill out of a lack of information and naivety. The Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children dealt with this issue and, following two years of deliberations, it made a comprehensive proposal for a children's rights amendment, which envisaged this issue also being addressed. It was recommended in the committee's report that, because of concerns that during a referendum campaign the proposal on adoption might be misrepresented, it was important that all the necessary work would be done to publish a draft Bill, as was done with the publication of the Family Law (Divorce) Bill 1996 as a prelude to the divorce referendum, in order that the public would not only have a constitutional amendment to consider but would know the substance of the legislation that would be enacted should the referendum be successful.
Having watched Fianna Fáil in government for 14 years doing absolutely nothing productive to ensure a referendum in this area, having gone through the difficulties of two years of deliberations as a member of a joint Oireachtas committee that produced a consensus on a constitutional amendment, and having watched the then Government ignore the amendment and the former Minister of State with responsibility for children's affairs — whom on a personal level I liked and whom I have some sympathy for in losing his seat — dancing on the head of a pin trying to explain, having sat through those deliberations and agreed to the publication, why he was unable to bring forward an amendment wording to facilitate a referendum before the election, it is little short of cynical and nauseating that this Bill has been published in this way and in this truncated form, ignoring entirely all the related issues of children's rights and the recommendation made carefully by the committee on which Deputy Ó Caoláin, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs and I sat that it was an important part of the architecture of this legislation and it was a crucial necessity in advance of a referendum that the necessary adoption Bill to accompany a referendum proposal be published. That has not happened.
The alacrity with which the Fianna Fáil Party, after all those years in government, has produced this measure, which is a short but inadequate extract from the comprehensive children's rights amendment published, is extraordinary. A commitment given by Fianna Fáil in government to hold a referendum on children's rights was utterly ignored and never met. A commitment to agree to the holding of a referendum based on the wording of a joint Oireachtas committee was never kept, yet barely three and a half months since the general election, all of a sudden there is an enthusiasm to hold a referendum dealing with two areas that need to be addressed to protect children's rights and to propose that the referendum be held without the necessary legislation being published in circumstances in which the success of the referendum could be at serious risk. In the absence of the publication of the draft Bill, there is a problem, which we saw in the work we did at the joint Oireachtas committee. I very much appreciate the Deputy was not part and parcel of that work and does not have the insight we had. We dealt with some groups who made representations to the committee on the basis that such a proposal was not being considered in the interests of the welfare of children and it was an invidious proposal to remove children from married couples and to break up happy families.
It was not such a proposal. It is in the vital interests of the welfare of children that this provision ultimately forms part of a children's rights amendment but it must do so in circumstances in which the Constitution recognises the importance of the welfare of the child and gives some primacy to children's best interests. Such a provision is not contained in this proposal either. I appreciate the Deputy may have published this with the best will in the world but it is misconceived, grossly inadequate and it is dangerous because clearly no work has been done on producing the legislation. If the party opposite was serious, I would have been delighted to discover that the draft Bill on adoption was available in the files in the Department of Children and Youth Affairs but it does not exist. If it existed, it could have been published in conjunction with this. I regretfully have to conclude by saying I fully support the approach taken by the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. I invite the Deputy not to put this to a vote later and to withdraw this Bill.
This is my first opportunity to compliment Deputy Fitzgerald on her appointment as Minister for Children and Youth Affairs and I wish her well and to congratulate Deputy Shatter on his appointment as Minister for Justice and Equality, and I also wish him well with those onerous responsibilities.
I disagree, however, with his contribution. I compliment my colleague, Deputy McConalogue, who was first elected a number of months ago, on bringing forward this Bill relating to an issue of importance to many people throughout the country. A number of years ago, Deputy Shatter was one of the first Members to have legislation accepted by the then Government. Deputy McConalogue is setting a high standard for himself in introducing legislation at this stage.
I reject the contention of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs last night that the Fianna Fáil approach is flawed and piecemeal. Our approach is constructive and it will add incrementally to the necessary progress in ensuring we protect and improve children's rights. I served as Minister of State with responsibility for children in late 2007 and early 2008 and I brought the proposal to the Government to establish the all-party constitutional committee on children. Together with the late Brian Lenihan, who was then Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, we discussed the parameters of the committee with Deputy Ó Caoláin on behalf of Sinn Féin, Deputy Howlin on behalf of the Labour Party and Deputy Shatter on behalf of Fine Gael. At the time, the Government made a decision to put an exacting timeframe on the work of the committee, which was ably chaired by the former Deputy, Mary O'Rourke, as has been mentioned by many contributors to the debate.
The complexity of the issues before the committee was evident from the significant number of written and oral presentations it took from many eminent professionals, people with great knowledge representing non-governmental organisations and the legal profession and other specialists in the area. For the short time I served on the committee, I was taken by the commitment of all the members. It was a complex issue that necessitated detailed study of many conflicting documents and data in preparation for each meeting. The former Deputy, Mary O'Rourke, chaired that committee in an exemplary manner. We agreed at the time that there would be a tight timescale on the basis that the Government wanted all-party agreement on wording in order that it could be put to a referendum. The establishment of that committee in November 2007 arose from a commitment in the then programme for Government to deepen consensus on the Twenty-eighth Amendment to the Constitution Bill that had been published in March 2007 by the previous Government.
The Government's amendment states, "endorses the action taken by the current Government..." but no actions have been taken other than to defer a commitment to hold this referendum on the same day as the presidential referendum. We are used to pre-election promises becoming null and void but, at the end of March, the Taoiseach stated the children's referendum campaign would run in tandem with the presidential election. Last year and in the early part of this year, members of the Labour Party and Fine Gael spoke eloquently about the need for this referendum and stated it could be held in conjunction with the general election.
Subsequently, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs thought it would be too political to have this particular referendum issue discussed during the course of a presidential election. We all know that presidential elections are less political than general elections, and over the years, the former Minister of State, Barry Andrews, worked on the basis that the referendum proposal would be put alongside a general election. It was thought this time last year that such an election would be held later in 2011, so it is important to put those facts before the House tonight.
Deputy McConalogue made a very thoughtful and constructive speech. Deputies Browne, Ó Cuív, Ó Fearghaíl, Collins and Calleary clearly outlined our particular commitment to this very important issue. I heard the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs say last night that children, up to age 18, comprise 1.1 million of our population. That is a great asset and a high proportion of our population, and she rightly stated that we must ensure that we address properly the cares and needs of that particular age cohort, as we do for all age cohorts in the country.
Adoption is a major and sensitive issue. As representatives we all had widespread discussions throughout 2010 with prospective parents who were wishing to adopt from Vietnam. We all know the sensitivity of those issues and the difficulties as well. I know there have been visits since then. I have the utmost confidence in the chairperson of the Adoption Authority, Mr. Geoffrey Shannon, who I had the pleasure of recommending to the Government for appointment to that office. He brings a great status, knowledge, expertise and absolute commitment to the work at hand. The chief executive, Ms Liz Canavan, worked with me as an official in the Office of the Minister for Children, and I was delighted to see her being appointed chief executive as well. With the encouragement of the Minister, they will ensure that the work of the Adoption Authority is done in an exemplary manner with commitment and a clear understanding of the needs of prospective parents as well.
In the short time I was in that office, I had the opportunity to attend meetings of the different representative organisations and support groups. I met many families and individuals who were involved in those particular support groups, and I was always struck by the absolute commitment, tenacity and dedication of those people. They were all working in a voluntary capacity to help other prospective parents and to ensure that the needs of children are catered for properly.
The wording put forward by Deputy McConalogue has been around for a number of years. It was first proposed in 2007 by Brian Lenihan, our late lamented colleague. It has been endorsed by the all-party committee. This is not a wording that has just been put before the Oireachtas this week. It has been through very thorough scrutiny inside and outside the Oireachtas. It has been scrutinised by non-governmental organisations and so many representative groups who are absolutely committed to its ideals.
The approval of this Bill will enable the holding of a referendum on adoption alongside the forthcoming presidential election. I reject the negative comments by the Minister for Justice and Equality in respect of Deputy McConalogue's Bill. Fianna Fáil will continue to work in a positive way on all of the issues relating to children's rights. We firmly believe in progressing these issues on the basis of consensus. As the Minister said last night, we all want to balance the rights of families and children. She referred to the need to do a body of work in preparing proposals which would be published in conjunction with the Bill. Deputy Shatter referred to this as well. Of course people would need to know the parameters of the proposal on which they would be voting. We are well aware of that. In his wide ranging and considerate speech, Deputy McConalogue referred to this issue before the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs did so, as she spoke at a later time. He stated clearly that the amendment to the Constitution would empower the Oireachtas to introduce legislation to allow for the adoption of children in long-term care, if it is in their best interests.
We know that a White Paper will be required. The Department will have to outline clearly the exact position arising from the passing of the referendum. Deputy McConalogue also referred to the need to identify a threshold before it would be possible for a child in foster care to be adopted. If the Minister for Justice and Equality had the opportunity to listen to the Deputy last night, he would have heard him refer to the fact that the Fianna Fáil proposal would be for a threshold of five years before a child could go forward for adoption, after being placed into care. The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs referred to the need to decide between whether the threshold should be three, five or seven years. She was not being prescriptive and all of us agree that the one year period in Britain would not be satisfactory, which is why we in Fianna Fáil put forward the proposal of five years.
I understand very clearly that the former Minister of State, Barry Andrews, did much preparatory work on the necessary supporting documentation, to which the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs referred last night. He did this last year, following the recommendations of the all-party Oireachtas committee. We understand that three proposals for referendum will be put to the people along with the presidential elections in October or November. They refer to the Abbeylara judgment, the whistleblower's legislation and the rate of pay of the Judiciary. No preparatory documentation or draft Bill has been seen by any Member in respect of those referendum proposals, so it is absolutely wrong to say that there is not time to prepare the necessary supporting documentation for this Bill which we are putting before the House tonight.
This issue has been discussed in great detail over many years. We all know that it initially arose from the good work of Mrs. Justice Catherine McGuinness in the area of children's rights. The late Brian Lenihan then chaired the All-Party Committee on the Constitution, which also did excellent work. Subsequently, the proposed 28th amendment was put by the then Government in the early part of 2007. Following the election in May 2007, the new programme for Government stated that an all-party Oireachtas committee would be established to deepen consensus on the wording. I was Minister of State with responsibility for children at this time. I put that proposal to the Government and the then Taoiseach appointed former Deputy Mary O'Rourke as chairperson of the committee. The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Fitzgerald, Deputy Ó Caoláin, myself, Deputy Ó Fearghaíl and many others were on that committee. All members of the committee were absolutely committed to working in the best interests of the children of this country. I am very disappointed that the Government is not taking the opportunity to progress this particular element of that all-party work for October or November. I am not being divisive. I am being positive and progressive.
We are bringing forward this Private Members' Bill to run a referendum on adoption alongside the presidential election. The Bill will allow for the adoption of hundreds of children who are currently in long-term care and who cannot be adopted because of rules arising from the current position of the family in the Constitution. Fianna Fáil has taken the step of introducing this Bill in response to the U-turn by this Government on its commitment to run the proposed children's rights referendum alongside the presidential election. Last year, Fine Gael put forward the idea that the referendum could be held alongside the general election. During the election campaign and following the election, the Fine Gael Party indicated that this would be held on the same day as the presidential election this year. Late last year, Fine Gael and Labour also suggested that the referendum could be held the same day as the general election. As leader of the Labour Party in Opposition, the Tánaiste said the following late last year.
In the past, various referenda were held on the same day as general elections. A general election is to take place some time in the new year. Is it intended that the referendum on children's rights will take place on the same day as the general election?
Shortly after Deputy Kenny was appointed Taoiseach, he said the following:
It should be possible to get agreement on a formula of words that could be put to the people on the same date as the presidential election. That was a post-election commitment. The Taoiseach made that commitment after his election as Taoiseach. However earlier this month, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald stated:
"...the referendum will not take place on the same day as the presidential election. There is concern that to do so would unnecessarily and unhelpfully politicise children's rights..."
We have seen a major change in the Fine Gael and Labour Party commitments on this issue. I am disappointed because I am quite sure as Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív pointed out last night, that the overall children's rights proposal and referendum is a complex issue and no one will take away from that. I note that the previous Attorney General and the then Government gave detailed consideration to the proposal that was put forward by the Oireachtas all-party committee. This is one component that could easily gain the support of the electorate in a referendum. I know of the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald's work and her commitment to this area.
Even if our proposal is voted down, we could not accept the Government amendment. The Government amendment commends the Government on its actions to date. The Government's actions to date have been to renege on the commitment it made pre and post election. That is the reason we are putting forward a proposal tonight and I can reassure the Minister and Deputy Ó Caoláin who raised this issue last night that we will continue to work constructively with all parties in this House on furthering and improving the interests of children.
Cuireadh an leasú.
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- Kirk, Seamus.
- Mac Lochlainn, Pádraig.
- McConalogue, Charlie.
- McGrath, Finian.
- McGrath, Mattie.
- McGrath, Michael.
- McGuinness, John.
- McLellan, Sandra.
- Moynihan, Michael.
- Murphy, Catherine.
- Ó Caoláin, Caoimhghín.
- Ó Cuív, Éamon.
- Ó Fearghaíl, Seán.
- Ó Snodaigh, Aengus.
- O’Brien, Jonathan.
- O’Dea, Willie.
- Pringle, Thomas.
- Ross, Shane.
- Smith, Brendan.
- Tóibín, Peadar.
- Troy, Robert.
- Wallace, Mick.