Child Care (Amendment) Bill 2009: Instruction to Committee

I move:

That, pursuant to Standing Order 131, it be an instruction to the Committee to which the Child Care (Amendment) Bill 2009 may be recommitted in respect of certain amendments, that it has power to make provision in the Bill to amend Part 7A of the Health Act 2004 to provide for the powers under that Act to require the Health Service Executive to furnish, in the public interest, information and documents to the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs and consequent amendments to the Long Title to reflect the content of the Bill and to section 1 to amend the citations as required.

Will the Ceann Comhairle clarify whether I should move the recommital of amendment No. 1 or the combination of amendments?

We have not yet reached the amendments. Does the Minister wish to contribute?

Perhaps there is a little confusion about this matter. There is a provision in the agreed Order of Business that the Minister and Opposition spokespersons will have an opportunity to speak for 15 minutes on the amendment on the secondary notices of motion. I am advised that the first motion is not being proceeded with while the second is being pressed.

That is correct.

I propose to clarify the——

Is the Minister speaking to the motion?

Yes. The motion provides for an amendment to the Health Act 2004. It is being introduced because the Child Care (Amendment) Bill 2009 has been before the Houses and the relevant provision is required urgently to ensure I can fulfil my role as Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. For this reason, I have included the motion and the amendments to the Bill at the earliest possible opportunity to enable me to legislate to provide for the powers I need. This is relevant to the Bill as, following enactment, the Child Care Acts, which will include the Child Care (Amendment) Bill 2009, will be transferred by a transfer of functions order to the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs.

The motion and amendments, on which I will speak in detail in a moment, are to ensure the Health Service Executive keeps me fully informed on all matters of which I need to be aware and furnishes to me documents and information in the public interest. I ask the Deputies opposite to support the motion. This is the earliest opportunity to deal with it. We have already had a number of transfer of functions orders in a number of areas, including education, welfare and youth justice, to enable the work of the Department to commence. The motion is important for the establishment of the Department as it ensures the HSE keeps me fully informed on all matters of which I need to be aware and furnishes me with documents and information in the public interest. These are outlined in the legislation. The Minister for Health has similar powers and I require such powers to do my work effectively following the establishment of my Department. I need to ensure I have all the information I need from the HSE. If, for instance, there is an inquiry of which I need to be kept informed, a report is given to the HSE or a concern related to children or young people arises, I will be informed.

We have received some of the amendments at short notice. In the context of the amendments which were not discussed and are being introduced under the motion of referral I understand their primary purpose is to assist the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs in accessing information from the Health Service Executive and they do not provide for any other substantive changes to the Bill.

In other words, they provide for the establishment of a statutory procedure under which the HSE will furnish all relevant information to the Minister.

That is correct. I will provide some further information. Amendments No. 1, 3 and 5 are technical amendments to the Long Title and section 1 of the Bill and are consequential on amendment No. 16, which introduces a new section 33. To clarify the issue once more, the purpose of amendment No. 16 is to amend Part 7A of the Health Act 2004. The amendment is being proposed in order that I will have the necessary powers under the Act to require the HSE to furnish, in the public interest, information and documents to me. The purpose of the amendment——

While I do not wish to interrupt the Minister, we are dealing with No. 13b on the Order Paper, a motion to recommit. We must formally pass the motion before discussing the Bill. The Minister should speak first to the motion.

I was clarifying the reason for the motion.

The motion before us relates to one particular amendment requiring the Health Service Executive to furnish, in the public interest, information and documents to the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. That is a reasonable request with which I do not have a difficulty and will, therefore, support. I presume the motion is technically required to recommit the Bill to committee to address the particular amendment and there is some precedent in this regard. After what unfolded in the House this morning and having compared the list of amendments published yesterday to the list of amendments published on 11 January 2011, I was extremely disappointed. I have done a comparison between the amendments tabled then and those now before us. Key amendments tabled on 18 January, not only by myself but also by the then Fine Gael and Labour spokespersons on children and health and children respectively, Deputy Charles Flanagan and the Minister of State, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, have not been retabled by the Minister in the new presentation of Report Stage of the Bill. This causes me great disappointment.

I will address those amendments when we debate amendments on Report Stage. It would have been better if the Bill were not before us today and the Minister had taken the time to revisit the amendments tabled by her own party spokesperson and by her Labour Party colleague in Government, as well as those tabled by me. Each of the three Opposition spokespersons' set of amendments strongly mirrored each others concerns. We were almost of one voice. I hoped the Minister would have made those amendments her own.

People must be understanding of my distress on receiving the Ceann Comhairle's notice disallowing my amendment, which is verbatim what we discussed in January. The list of those who voted for the first of the three amendments relating to aftercare for children in state care includes all the Fine Gael Members in attendance on the day. It includes the Taoiseach, the Fine Gael health spokesperson and the Ceann Comhairle. Labour Party Deputies who voted for the amendment include the Tánaiste, the Ministers of State, Deputies Jan O'Sullivan and Kathleen Lynch, and all the Labour Party Deputies in attendance. The list includes Deputies who have long, credible and honourable records in arguing for children's rights. I speak specifically of my colleagues who served with me for more than two years on the Joint Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children, the Ministers, Deputies Alan Shatter and Brendan Howlin. Now, on 14 July of the same year, the amendment was not even to be allowed for discussion.

The Minister is aware that the key and crucial issue of concern to all of those who work on the front line of child care and the provision of services for children, particularly in relation to State care and support, is the welfare of vulnerable children when they have reached their eighteenth year. I found myself, effectively, gagged by the receipt of this notice this morning because amendment No. 14, the only one before us today, was being disallowed. I welcome the decision of the Ceann Comhairle to reverse that decision and I reiterate my appeal for the Minister to accept this amendment, which mirrors those placed by the Fine Gael and Labour spokespersons only a handful of months ago.

My amendment was disallowed on the spurious grounds that it would impose a charge on the Exchequer. In that regard, I cite something said by Focus Ireland that is directly relevant to this and which deserves to be quoted in relation to this Bill and for reference: "The outgoing Government maintained that it had very strong legal advice stating that the provision of aftercare is non-discretionary and must be provided when a care professional judges that there is a need." Focus Ireland argued that "may" does, in fact, mean "shall", and continued, "Whatever the lawyers say, from our experience this is not the way the system works". Focus Ireland laid emphasis on this final sentence: "If, technically, the legislation already gives these rights there can be no further costs involved in changing the wording so that the meaning is clear and all doubt is removed."

That is a very important point. As my amendment is now to be discussed, I hope the Minister will note that reference from Focus Ireland. I hope she will not make the same argument as the previous Government and will recognise the validity of the case being presented by Focus Ireland and a range of other non-governmental organisations that have long and credible records in giving voice to children's rights and needs. It is regrettable that we must come here again to argue for the statutory right to aftercare, which is the key and absolute kernel of what the Bill must be about. I will certainly continue to do so.

The provision of aftercare makes economic sense. Structured support has been shown to protect young people from becoming homeless, from the danger of addiction and from falling into a pathway of crime. I do not have to tell anyone here the huge financial cost, let alone the tragic human cost, of dealing with the consequences of drugs and crime and with their wider impact on society. A Government that claims to be a reforming Government must acknowledge, as the Government claims to do and as its spokespersons often did when in opposition, that it is far better to spend money on the care of young people, including accommodation, education and training, than to spend it building more prisons and detention centres. Very often, the absence of the first leads to the second. This is where the wider evaluation of the economic impact needs to be considered.

The absence of a statutory right to aftercare, especially in a society and economy facing the difficulties we now face, means that many young people will be thrown to the wolves. We have had far too many examples of that through the years. Many young people, having reached their 18th birthday, were shown the door. The phrase "thrown to the wolves" is not too strong to use. The Minister and other Deputies will recognise many cases from their own constituencies or from media reportage, where young people leaving State care fell into serious and dangerous lifestyle patterns as a result of the absence of aftercare.

I appeal to the Minister not to adopt the Bill today in the absence of an amendment that enshrines the statutory right to aftercare. It is crucial and a Bill without that key component part would be seriously deficient. That said, I support the motion, which intends to ensure the Minister can proceed. I not only welcome the establishment of the Department; I also recognise and appreciate the choice of Minister for the new Department and I wish Deputy Fitzgerald all the best. However, it was a major disappointment for many people that the broader media failed to focus and report on her first Question Time in the House last Tuesday. That was an important engagement and an important, historic day in terms of children's rights and needs. I was saddened that the new Minister taking her first Question Time was ignored by the popular press. I support the motion.

On behalf of the Technical Group, I broadly support the motion. Like the previous speaker, I congratulate the Government on appointing the first ever full Minister to Cabinet for this important portfolio. I was delighted to table a parliamentary question and have it answered ar an chéad lá a bhí an Aire anseo for Question Time on Tuesday. We cannot shoot the messenger and we cannot decide what the media want to cover. I compliment the Ceann Comhairle on reversing his decision earlier. Most people dealing with children are genuine and interested in child care and aftercare for children. There is not the usual banter about financial issues when this is debated. However, I compliment Deputy Ó Caoláin on pursuing the issue with the Ceann Comhairle and on retaining his composure during a heated debate. He made a good case, the Ceann Comhairle gave him a good ear and reversed his decision.

I am disappointed with the Government's move. There have been many changes and U-turns on various issues in its first 100 days but that is politics and we are in a difficult period. I was on the Government benches during the previous Dáil and supported the Government at the time even though I had lost the whip. At the time Deputies Charles Flanagan and Jan O'Sullivan tabled an almost identical amendment to the one turned down earlier by the Government. We have to retain credibility among the many groups supporting children such as Focus Ireland and the many families who give unstinting service in the care of foster children and children of care. They are often ignored by all the institutions and get no support and have no groups to look after them. Nonetheless, I am glad we have had a change of tack. It is a pity that politics has been played. I acknowledge it is not the Minister's fault and I wish her all the best because I know how suited she is to the Ministry. I hope she will be magnanimous for the sake of the children in considering the amendments.

Debate adjourned.