Thirty-First Amendment of the Constitution (Children) Bill 2012: Second Stage (Resumed)

Atairgeadh an cheist: "Go léifear an Bille an Dara hUair anois."
Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

Sinn Féin has welcomed the publication of the proposed wording of the referendum on children's rights. It has been a long time coming, some 20 years, and is a welcome development. Without doubt, it is a very significant step towards enshrining children's rights in the Constitution. We note that the current text does not mirror the wording agreed to by the cross-party Joint Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children and while the text before us is an important step forward, Sinn Féin will submit amendments on Committee Stage to bring us back closer to the original agreed text. We very much hope the Minister will give these amendments her full consideration and that the Government will not block progressive improvements to the Bill, as it stands.

The true purpose of the Bill is to provide strong protections for children and make a real difference in their lives. Of course, when we talk about children, we mean all of them, from every socioeconomic group and every class. Of course, in this context, we include the children of Traveller families and I am sure the Minister understands why I make that reference in the Dáil this morning. Notwithstanding any amendment to the Constitution, if we do not have a Government-led strategy to tackle the increasing levels of child poverty within society, in the final analysis, the referendum will amount to little more than fine words.

Last week I asked the Tánaiste to commit to child-proofing the budget to be announced in December. As he did not acknowledge my question on that occasion or give a satisfactory response, I want to put the same question today to the Minister with responsibility for children, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald. I want her to give a commitment that she will ensure Cabinet colleagues will child-proof their departmental budget cuts and tax hikes before making any final decision in advance of December's announcement.

The reality of life for many children is a world away from the aspirations in the proposed constitutional amendment. Over 100,000 children live in poverty and this number has increased in recent years as a result of the austerity policies of the Government and, it has to be said, its predecessors led by Fianna Fáil. If the Government or any of us is serious about making paramount the best interests of the child, we need to produce a strategy to end child poverty. In the course of the debate the Minister needs to give a commitment that there will be no measures in the budget which will place even more children in poverty. The charity which deals with children, Barnardos, has warned that further cuts to social welfare and public services will lead to further hardship and greater incidences of poverty and deprivation for children. Some 200,000 children live below the poverty line, an astonishing and shameful statistic, while 500 vulnerable young people were recorded as being homeless on census night in 2011. CSO figures released earlier this month show that the income of households with children fell four times more than that of households without children between 2009 and 2010. Under the Government's watch, sadly, we know these figures will have increased.

An ESRI report published in February on the distributional impact of recent budgets stated clearly that budget 2012 involved greater proportionate losses for those on low incomes, namely, reductions of 2% to 2.5% for those with the lowest incomes, as against losses of about 0.75% for those on the highest incomes. The figures do not lie. Very many people would have been surprised and alarmed to discover that, in fact, that budget had been the most regressive in a long series of austerity budgets. The Government has made a choice. It has sought to protect the highest earners from the worst of the financial crisis. During its short time in office, it has deepened inequality in our society. To put it in very stark terms, this has caused real harm to the most vulnerable adults and children. The ESRI report shows how the Fine Gael and Labour Party budget was the first since the start of the recession that took more from the low paid than those on high incomes. Let us consider this. Again, the figures do not lie.

Recent CSO figures show that almost one fifth of households with children are struggling to survive. In 2010 some 19.5% of households were at risk of poverty. This figure rose to 26% in homes with children aged between 12 and 17 years. The ESRI report tells us that under Fine Gael and the Labour Party this figure will have increased.

Barnardos warns that there are increasing numbers of families for whom some level of social welfare support is essential, simply to make sure there is food on the table and electricity to heat their homes. The Society of Saint Vincent de Paul, which knows all about these matters, has told us that 60% of the calls they receive for support are from mothers with children. The rate of deprivation for our children is higher relative to other countries in western Europe yet, astonishingly, this Government, just like the last, seems intent on deepening this inequality over the course of its tenure.

What does this collection of facts and statistics mean in real terms for real children? What it means for children living in consistent poverty is that they can go 24 hours without a substantial meal and are very often cold because their parents cannot heat their home. Let us imagine that. How are these children supposed to do homework if they are cold or hungry? How are the same children supposed to deal with all the normal stuff of just growing up if they are unsure when their next meal might be? If there is not enough money for food and heat then we can be very sure there is not enough money for increasing school costs, a trip to the cinema, a pair of trainers or a present for a friend's birthday. Those are the realities and in supporting this amendment and indeed, commending the Minister, we as a party are absolutely insistent that the debate around children and their protection cannot be limited to an amendment to the Constitution. We want that made real and the most immediate task, in our view, is addressing the issue of deprivation and poverty.

I am sure it is not lost on citizens or Members of this House that this referendum debate is taking place against the backdrop of the Fine Gael and Labour Party failure to provide an apology and redress for the women and children of the Magdelene laundries and Bethany Home. Both parties, quite rightly, spoke out against these grave injustices when in opposition but in government they have proven very slow to act. The integrity of Senator McAleese is not in question. The work he is doing is a necessary part of the picture but it is not the full picture. The work of the McAleese committee should not be used, as the Government is currently using it, as an excuse not to move forward in the provision of basic supports and services to these women and in the issuing of a full apology to them. The Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Alan Shatter, has repeatedly stated that there is irrefutable evidence of State involvement in these institutions. That is an accepted fact. In fact, legislation was enacted in this very House providing a statutory basis for incarcerating women in a Magdalene laundry in Galway. The evidence is there, in law. It is game, set and match and there is no issue of debate there. It is a nonsense for the Taoiseach and his Ministers to hide behind the interdepartmental committee. They know, I know and the dog in the street knows that the wrong perpetrated by the State, with the connivance of the State, against these women and children is on a par with what happened in the industrial schools.

The Taoiseach's role in government was never to simply pick up where the other crowd left off. He promised it would be different this time around. That is what he said and people believed him. They hoped that would be the case but they have been proven sadly wrong. The only difference, so far, is that it appears that this Government is happy to preside over a situation where the poor get poorer and the ageing wronged still await an apology.

The Fine Gael and the Labour Party failure to protect the elderly women and children of Magdalene laundries and Bethany Home casts a shadow over their Administration. These people were failed by the State and well the Taoiseach knows it. Government inaction deepens the hurt and anguish these people have lived with all their lives. The Government refuses them their pensions, speedy access to medical care and, crucially, access to counselling. The Taoiseach refuses, for reasons that baffle me, to say out loud that we failed these women and for that we, collectively, are deeply sorry. He refuses to tell them they did nothing wrong. These women, so many of whom were only children when sent to the laundries, did nothing wrong. Is it any wonder that people do not trust the State with respect to their children?

Concerns have been voiced about the 50:50 rule with regard to media coverage of referendum debate and speculation has been ongoing in that regard. There are some on the Government benches who believe that when a proposition is put to the people the only argument that should be put forward is the one supported by the Government of the day. A citizen’s vote is the most fundamental tool of democracy and to undermine this in any way by excluding alternative voices would be fundamentally wrong.

Families across the State have very real fears about this referendum. I am picking that up from people and I am sure other Deputies are too. They have experienced and seen at first-hand the failure of the State to protect our most vulnerable children. This failure is not historic but continues to this very day. The report of the Independent Child Death Review Group documented 196 deaths of children in the care of the HSE or who were known to the HSE between 2000 and 2010. That report states that while good practice was adhered to in some cases, its application was sporadic and inconsistent. The authors argued that earlier and more consistent good practice would have increased the chances that these children might have overcome their vulnerabilities. In that regard, it must be said that there is a very clear resourcing issue for those professionals and services that deal with vulnerable young people. People see all of that and they absorb the message it sends to them. The result is that many people do not trust the State to protect our most vulnerable people and in particular, our children.

What should the Government do to allay these fears? I am speaking as someone who will campaign for this referendum and who welcomes it. It is extremely important, in the course of this debate, that we do not dismiss people's worries and fears. They are well grounded in the experiences of children in this State, historically and in contemporary times. We must listen to those anxieties. We must reassure parents that they will remain the primary carers, protectors and custodians of their children and that it is the State's role to support them in that work. We should say to parents that rather than being threatened by this amendment and by the State taking on a responsibility for children, they should draw comfort from the fact that the State commits to intervene, in exceptional circumstances, where there is a clear and present danger to the child or the child is being abused. We are collectively saying that we will not have any more Roscommons.

We accept that it takes a village to raise a child and that we vindicate the rights of child citizens. That should be a source of comfort to parents not a threat, but we must be clear and categoric in our approach and aware of the mistakes that have been made in other jurisdictions - in particular in Britain - and ensure that we do not make the same mistakes.

I make all of those points to underscore the fact that we need a calm and balanced debate. That means we will hear voices and opinions with which we fundamentally disagree. We might even take the view that some of the views expressed are factually inaccurate but that is the nature of democratic debate.

For what it is worth, I call on broadcasters to listen to my appeal-----

-----to make every effort to have a full and inclusive debate, not simply to give a platform to organisations or individuals but to remain mindful of citizens who want to do the right thing by children but who still have fears that must be allayed. I believe those fears can be allayed in the course of the debate.

The children’s referendum is welcome but fine words alone will not put food in the bellies of vulnerable children. In supporting the Bill I challenge the Government to put its money where its mouth is and make a commitment to child-proof December's budget. I want the Government to do that, at a minimum. The Government must also ensure a full and frank public debate on the referendum and address the fears of parents and citizens across the State. Neither must the Government shy away from such fears or concerns. It is in our collective interest that the referendum is passed. It is a necessary and long overdue measure. We have a collective responsibility to embrace a full and frank debate on why we must enshrine children’s rights into the Constitution and when we have done that we have the bigger responsibility of making the commitment real.

I wish to share time with the Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

On 10 November the Irish people will have the opportunity to go to the polls and do something historic. They can vote for or against an amendment to the Constitution that proposes to treat children as individuals in their own right for the first time in the Republic of Ireland. It is 20 years since Ireland ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. In the coming months, the Government hopes to submit Ireland’s update report on implementation of the convention to the United Nations. It is fair to say that this country has been making progress in the past 18 months, but that in the 20 previous years we have seen a litany of reports each more disturbing and more heart-scalding than the next. They are 17 damning indictments of the failure of society and politics to guarantee the safety of children.

As a politician and a father this affected me no more than many others. On coming to office it was my privilege to be able to appoint a full Cabinet Minister for children for the first time in the State in the person of Deputy Frances Fitzgerald. I was and remain of the view that the children of this country deserved rather more than luck for their safety They must be able to rely on more than ‘happy faults’ to secure their innocence, integrity, and their future itself. Moreover, I and the Government wanted to make this not just their social entitlement but their constitutional right. This is a quantum change in a society where for too long children were seen and not heard. The best place for children is within a loving and supportive home. The referendum does not seek to change that. Time and again, unfortunately, we have seen cases where a family, for whatever reason, has failed or were unable to protect a child. Not only that, but in some tragic cases, the family itself - as in the Roscommon case - was the most dangerous and damaging place for a child to be. I wish to allay the fears of good and responsible parents that this will be a charter for trespass into their family’s lives. It will not. Great care has been taken to ensure that it is not and can never be.

Since taking office, the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, and the Government have been working on the wording of the amendment. Many Members of the House have worked hard over many years to reach this day. The work of the All-Party Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children has been an invaluable contribution; equally the efforts and contribution of campaigners, organisations and professionals who work with children and members of the legal profession must be acknowledged. The Bill before the House proposes a new stand-alone Article 42A, titled ‘Children’, which will contain a series of provisions and will be put to the people as one, single, question for their approval. The proposed constitutional amendment forms part of the wider and urgent reform agenda. In terms of child protection, specifically, we have introduced a wide range of reforms through the Criminal Justice (Withholding of Information on Offences Against Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act, the publication of the Children First Bill which will put the Children First national guidelines for child protection on a statutory basis and the National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Persons) Bill. Child protection and support services are having a radical, long-overdue and much-needed overhaul through the establishment of the new Child and Family Support Agency. They are all vital reforms. However, as the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, emphasised last night, none of the reforms can have the wide-ranging and permanent effect of the proposed constitutional change.

The Government is committed - as we did with the European stability referendum earlier this year - to ensure that people have all the information they need to make an informed decision on the 10 November. To facilitate that, an information website, www.childrensreferendum.ie, has been set up by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. It provides information on the constitutional amendment as well as details of the wider reform programme under way in the area of child protection. A Government information booklet will also be sent to each household in the country.

The proposed referendum offers children a second chance to have a family. The wording removes the inequalities in current adoption law. The Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, highlighted to the House last night that there are approximately 6,250 children in care placements at present, with more than 5,500 of the children in foster families. The focus is already on family care. More than 2,000 of the children have been with the same family for more than five years. The legislation may offer them the opportunity to create an even stronger family bond in the future.

Every day all over this country parents put their own fears and worries aside to give their sons and daughters the best, most secure, respectful and loving life they can even in the most difficult circumstances. Our children are our most precious possession. Every child - regardless of the circumstances of their birth - should be allowed not just to feel valued, but to be valued under the law as the invaluable, irreplaceable beings they are. I am proud to speak as Taoiseach on a proposal to amend the basic law to the effect that: "The State recognises and affirms the natural and imprescriptible rights of all children and shall, as far as practicable, by its laws protect and vindicate those rights.” I urge everyone, in particular parents, and others tasked with the safety of children to make every effort to inform themselves on what this referendum is about. The wording of the amendment is careful and cautious. It is formed from cross-party concern and with cross-party support, which I appreciate. We have heard many thoughtful speeches in this House on the Bill and I look forward to hearing more. I urge everyone to use their power as democrats to make come out and make a resounding statement in favour of the children of this country, not just for now but for generations to come.

Most children in this country are happy. Most children in this country are well looked after. I often stand back in admiration at the way young mothers and fathers look after their children, how they educate them, take them to school, take them to football, hurling, swimming, music and dancing and all the other things children do. One hears jocose complaints from mothers that sometimes they spend half their lives on the road ferrying their children from one place to another. When we concentrate on the children at risk who need to be protected, under both the law and the Constitution, we should remember that it is the exception and should look at the norm.

The norm in Ireland is a situation where there are great families looking after their children, putting a great deal of effort into rearing them and ensuring their physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual development is first-class, very often making enormous sacrifices to ensure their children get the best chance possible. We are dealing here with something that is now considered essential because of the various incidents throughout the country that came to our attention. It is very important that the specific rights of the child should be enshrined in the Constitution so that in the very small number of exceptional cases the State may be allowed, with the protection of the Constitution, to intervene to protect those children who are at risk. That is what is involved here. It is important because there has been such debate about children being abused and at risk in families and other situations that the norm in Ireland, namely, decent families looking after their children and very happy children being brought forward, very often with great sacrifice to their parents, is forgotten.

I served on the committee on children's rights that worked to introduce appropriate wording to put into the Constitution. The committee was very ably chaired by the former Deputy, Mary O'Rourke. The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, and the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Alan Shatter, were members. The then leader of Sinn Féin, Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin, made a very strong intervention and was a great attender at meetings. Deputy Alex White represented the Labour Party and there were many Deputies and Senators of all parties who worked on that committee, clearing away much of the undergrowth and irrelevancy and allowing Members of all parties to concentrate on what was essential.

In the nature of all-party committees, there were compromises at the end. The wording introduced, although it enjoyed the support of all parties, probably was not, in some respects, the first preference of any particular party. In the interests of compromise and unanimity additional words were included. It was important, therefore, when the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, took over, that the wording would be re-examined and that which was deemed to be redundant or unnecessary was taken out. I have no objection to that because I believe the words now published by the Minister in the Bill are better, more succinct and focused than the wording that came from the all-party committee. That is probably the view of many of the colleagues of all parties who served on that committee.

I have two points in regard to that committee. Sometimes words are included to get consensus. There was a phrase that some people believed should have been maintained, namely, "cherishing the children of the nation". We know its origin; it came from the 1916 Proclamation but when one considers the Proclamation that phrase was never about children. Echoing Wolfe Tone, "children" referred to all the people of Ireland, the concept being that Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter would be covered by the common name of Irishman so that all the children of the nation would be cherished equally. These were not children, however, and the reference was to citizens of this Republic. Therefore, although it was a nice idea on the part of the committee dealing with the children and the Constitution to incorporate this wording it actually comes from a different origin and was stating something quite different.

It is also important to remember that when the Supreme Court looks at the Constitution and makes decisions on it, it expects that we, as legislators, do not get involved in inserting redundant language into what we decide is appropriate for amendment. It looks at such on the basis that the Legislature has examined it and there is no redundant wording so that if a word is included the court will ascribe a meaning to that word on the assumption that we have scrutinised it, and that we intended a meaning when we inserted it. It is not possible to dress up a constitutional amendment in attractive wording that might appeal to the electorate. If we do that, the Supreme Court will decide that if we put it in we must have meant something and it will try to decide what is meant. There can then be a ruling from the Supreme Court which could be different from the intention of the Parliament, the Dáil and Seanad. I totally approve of the manner in which the Minister pruned the wording that came from the all-party committee and brought it down to a much more succinct representation.

It is also worth noting that there has been a good record by the State in looking after children. Unlike what happens in other countries, children at risk in Ireland receive family care through the fosterage system. By and large, our children at risk are not put into institutions for long periods but are placed in families and have the ambience and protection of the family. Like all other children, in effect they are brought up within families. It is very important to acknowledge that and the great work that is done both by so many families who take children on fosterage and the State agencies that monitor their care when they are fostered.

I wish to comment on the actual debate. Although very good speeches were made last night across party lines, giving real insight into what is required and what are the intentions of the Minister and the Government in proposing this amendment, nonetheless the debate did not get any mention in news bulletins last night. The broadcasting institutions, including RTE, have a responsibility to cover not only conflict but also, as public broadcasters, in respect of something such as a constitutional amendment, to explain the intention and to use the debates on all sides of this House, which were excellent last night, to bring those explanations to the attention of the people. RTE, in particular, as well as the other broadcasting institutions, has a very narrow view of what it may do in terms of covering referenda. I do not believe it must put a stopwatch on the debate and divide it, 50:50, between those for and against. I do not believe justice done on sentences, as in the Coughlan judgment, carries that implication. As long as the coverage is fair and balanced, it seems to me that broadcasters are within their rights of coverage. In a referendum such as this, where most - I believe all - Members of both Dáil and Seanad, as well as the groups and non-governmental organisations that are most interested in the care of children, advocate a "Yes" vote, inventing opponents to the amendment on the basis of giving 50% of the time to a non-existent set of opponents is a very peculiar way to approach this issue. RTE should look at this again and if it gives coverage in a fair and balanced way it seems to me it will fulfil the obligations of the judgment.

There is another issue. RTE should distinguish between its set-piece debates and news coverage. In my view, the Supreme Court judgment is not intended to apply to news. There is an entire area within news where RTE can help the public debate by presenting the facts and the issues, where it is not constrained by the judgment of the Supreme Court. If it had taken the opportunity last night to report on the Second Stage debate in this House it could have done so without contravening any judgment and without having to invent a bogeyman or bogeywoman to come on and give an alternative opinion, even though such does not exist. I would like RTE to look again at that because it is important to do so.

I received a briefing note from the Minister's Department setting out the aims of the new article and I believe this is worth putting on the record as, I am sure, speakers have already done.

It states that the central aim of the new article is directly to recognise children in their own right within the Constitution and by doing so to give children special protection because of their age and potential vulnerability. In brief, the constitutional amendment for people to decide by referendum aims to do the following: to place the article in the Constitution which directly deals with children's rights; to revise the language used regarding when and how the State should be able to step in and protect the welfare and safety of a child to put a focus on the child. This will continue to recognise that children are best reared by their parents and that it is only in exceptional cases where parents fail in their duty towards their children that the State should take action to ensure the safety and the welfare of children; to require that any action by the State to protect children should be proportionate, meaning that actions should be measured strictly by reference to tackling the problems causing harm to the child; to provide that the rights and protections set out in the new article should apply equally to all children regardless of whether or not their parents are married; to allow for the adoption of children in wider circumstances than at present. This will allow for a revised approach to be set out in law for the adoption of certain children who have been reared by foster parents for a considerable period by reason of the failure of their parents to look after or care for them. It will allow also for a new law to make possible the voluntary placement for adoption of any child, including children whose parents are married; to add to the strength of existing laws that require the best interests of the child to be the first and most important consideration for judges in deciding court cases concerning child protection and welfare, adoption, guardianship, custody of and access to any child; and to ensure that in making decisions in court cases of the kind already mentioned above the views and wishes of the child should be obtained and taken fully into account bearing in mind the child's age and maturity.

That last point is very important because it is not only that the amendment will give a specific constitutional right to the rights of children or that the State will be enabled, without any fear of crossing constitutional boundaries, to intervene to protect children in exceptional cases but when the court does intervene to protect children, the child will have a say in its own future. That is very important. We are all familiar with children. Many of us have children and we know that at a very early age children have a reasonably good view of what they want and what is in their best interests. It is very important that that right should be in the Constitution and that the court should be directed in processes protecting the interests of children to take the views of children into account.

I congratulate the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, for the work she has done. She has done an amazing piece of work after such a long delay. People were talking about this 20 years ago going back to the Kilkenny incest case when there was a recommendation that this should be done. After such a short period in Government, it is admirable that the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, has brought this legislation forward and that she has had consultations with many interest groups and has their confidence to the degree that they are backing this amendment.

So far the Roman Catholic Church has been silent, and the other churches have not come out on it yet. I would like if the churches made a clear statement at an early date indicating that they favoured this referendum.

I wish to share time with Deputy Boyd Barrett.

Bringing in a stand alone provision on children's rights affirming the individual right of the child is a positive measure. Aspiring to a firmer protection for children under the Constitution is welcome, and I would not in any way underestimate its impact. It is a significant piece of work and I broadly welcome it in that parameter.

It is somewhat ironic that we have had five referendums on the issue of the rights of the so-called unborn when the rights of born children have been systematically ignored in this State. I take issue with the Minister for Finance who said we have a good record in that regard. Nobody is at fault personally but we have an appalling record on children's rights.

He meant in regard to the changes in fostering.

Historically, with the industrial schools and the Magdalen laundries, but recently as well in terms of the children who died in State care and so on, we have ground to make up. I welcome this measure in the context that at the very least it gives us an opportunity to discuss some of these issues and put centre stage the way we defend children's rights and how we identify those rights.

The provision and the constitutional amendment is aspirational, which is a good thing. As a socialist I would generally be aspirational but the disconnect here is the major gap between establishing in theory the rights of children and the reality on the ground in terms of how we can achieve what the Government said is its objective of protecting and vindicating the rights of children against a backdrop of increased economic austerity. That is the challenge.

One would think we would all agree that basic rights such as the right to food, health care, education and so on would be guaranteed to all children and citizens but even during the boom that was not the case. Traveller children, asylum seeker children and others were left behind and in the new economic climate, with increased costs on families and a decrease in the family budget, it is clear that meeting the basic needs of children is becoming problematic for tens of thousands of families. The Central Statistics Office stated that an average family needs €810 a week to provide adequately for its needs. Clearly, most families in the State are well short of that.

The idea of a secure, happy family home is being threatened by mortgage arrears and in the way the Government is implementing changes in rent allowance, with almost 100,000 people in receipt of rent allowance, many of whom are being forced to move out of the areas they have lived in because of the Government cutbacks. Their children, some of whose parents campaigned to get them into special schools in the area, have to uproot and leave. That is not to mention all the cuts to family income support and so on.

It is unquestionable that this economic austerity is giving rise to serious mental health problems, depression and so on, linked to financial anxiety in many homes. Aware reported a 29% increase in calls to its hotline and it linked that increase directly to the debt burden. It is a constant struggle for many parents to maintain a happy home, and those who face decades of debt or the potential of eviction have a serious problem in trying to provide security for their children. Unless we address those issues this is a lopsided debate.

That is particularly apparent when we examine the issue of education. The irony is that one of the few child-centred clauses in our Constitution is the right to free primary education but the dogs on the streets know that it is not free, and many children are not accessing it properly because of economic austerity. Education and school books costs are rising, and there is extra pressure on families. I do not have time to develop those points but it is ironic that that right is in the Constitution but in reality it is not.

Similarly, that is the case with the clauses whereby any school which gets public money should not have a religious ethos or expose children to indoctrination yet children do not have a right to be excluded from religious instruction as a normal part of the day.

This week, sadly, the issue of bullying in schools has been centre stage and the rights of children in that environment must be addressed. Huge bodies of work have been done on that but unless we address these issues we are only paying lip service in terms of the idea of protecting children's rights in an increasingly unequal society.

That might be the reason RTE and the media are not picking up on this as much as they should. Perhaps people believe that while it is important, and I am not underestimating that it is a step forward, they wonder how much will be achieved by it.

Much has been made about the way this legislation will impact on vulnerable children. The objective is to place the protection of children at the centre of decision making, which is welcome. There is much talk about early intervention, which would be welcome, but we are being presented here with another of those gaps between reality and aspiration.

Early intervention means the appointment of further social workers and gardaí and increased welfare provision to assist those who are struggling. One can dress it up any way one likes in referring to rationalisation and improved working methods, but the reality is that early intervention means more staff working hours and the adoption of a skilful approach by well trained individuals. Those who are inexperienced or overworked make mistakes and can cause damage in their interventions. Budget cuts have led to increased class sizes. How can teachers try to identify vulnerable children when class sizes in Ireland are the second largest in Europe? Last week the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, warned that class sizes were going to increase even further. In view of the fact that there is going to be a shortage of 3,000 teachers in the coming years and in the light of the cutbacks in SNA numbers, how can those on the front line in the education system be expected to identify vulnerable children? The Garda Síochána is already stretched from the point of view of resources and approximately 40 rural Garda stations have closed. How can the force be expected to maintain a watching brief when its budget has been cut by 8%?

The issue which lies at the heart of this matter relates to social workers. This is a matter in which a huge intervention is required. I understand that approximately 30 social workers qualify each year from the HSE-Trinity College social work degree programme. This is the only programme from which one can move directly to join the HSE's social work panel. Last year, however, that panel was suspended and people did not have an opportunity to go on it. The quotas are not being filled and the embargo on recruitment to the public sector means social workers are becoming increasingly stretched. These individuals are doing a great deal more of their work by e-mail and engaging in a lot less direct contact. Against this backdrop, how can children be protected? This is a contradiction, in respect of which the Government has not provide a response.

There is a concern that the increased economic desperation and deprivation being experienced and the inability of some parents to cope could result in their having their children taken from them. If better and enhanced supports were provided, it would lead to happier resolutions within the families to which I refer. I am assured by those with whom I have raised this matter that the use of the term "proportionate" is sufficient in guarding against people losing their children. I am sure we all hope that this will be the case. This is, however, a point which must be borne in mind.

There has been a great deal of discussion about increasing adoption rights and giving children the opportunity to avail of a second chance in a loving home. Obviously, the latter is something of which we would all be in favour, but we must be extremely careful in this regard. The history of adoption in Ireland is not good. There are tens of thousands of undocumented adoptees who have been robbed of their identities because of the way in which the State dealt with adoption in the past. I am aware that many of the people in question are concerned that the legislation on adoption which goes hand in hand with the referendum does not deal with issues relating to them. The legislation to which I refer focuses to a large degree on the adoption in the future of vulnerable children currently in care. That is fine. However, there is an urgent need to put in place a system to protect the relevant documents and files required for tracing families, etc. The most basic right a person has is that which relates to possessing the facts relating to his or her own identity. There is a need to place this matter centre stage. The possibility of a child who has lived in foster care for more than three years and resided with a particular family for 18 months being adopted has the potential to be good and I welcome this development. However, we must ensure the child's view will be central to this. I am glad that this aspect is being respected and emphasised.

Very few people are going to oppose the referendum. The really good aspect of the referendum is that it gives us the opportunity to discuss and highlight some of the complexities relating to the issues to which I refer. However, we need to do a great deal more to really vindicate children's rights. This will involve standing a large amount of Government policy in other areas on its head. I refer, in particular, to policy relating to economic areas. When the budget comes around, we will be calling on the Government to put its money where its aspirations lie. If it does not do so, the State will fail children yet again.

I welcome the legislation and the forthcoming referendum. I pay tribute to the Minister and anyone else who has been working on the proposed new article to the Constitution and whose efforts have resulted in it being brought forward for discussion. In any set of circumstances priority must be given to discussing the needs and rights of children. We must ensure these needs and rights are protected in law in every way possible. There is an even greater need in this regard in Ireland because there is a history of chronic failure on the part of the State to protect children. We have debated some of the State's failures in this regard during the past year or so, including the horrors experienced by those who were placed in the industrial schools, the Magdalene laundries and the Bethany Home residences. The failures to which I refer did not just occur in the distant past, they also happened more recently. I refer to the appallingly large numbers of children who were in the care of the State or for whom the State had a responsibility who died because it had failed to take steps to provide them with adequate protection. The failure to which I refer continues. We have a long way to go to ensure the rights of children will be protected. For example, there have been reports of serious abuse and the neglect of immigrant and refugee children in direct provision hostels. The Irish Refugee Council has called for an investigation into this matter in view of the fact that we do not know what is happening in these hostels or whether the rights of the children in them are being fully protected. There is also the example of children being placed in adult psychiatric wards because there is not an adequate number of child psychiatric places available. It is clearly not in the interests of children to be place in adult wards. Another example of the State's failure relates to the fact that, as a number of previous speakers indicated, the level of child poverty has actually increased in recent years as a result of the austerity measures being imposed.

Against this background, it is extremely important that the legislation before the House has been brought forward and that the entire population should debate how we can fully protect and vindicate the rights and welfare of children as an absolute priority. In that context, there is no doubt that the constitutional amendment will improve the situation. The fact that children were not specifically identified for protection within the Constitution meant that the constitutional imperative to protect the rights of the family often came in conflict with the requirement to protect children. It is both right and proper that the Government is moving to redress the balance and ensure the rights of children in the context of being heard and protected will be vindicated and placed at the centre of the Constitution. It is obvious that an issue also stands to be addressed in circumstances where parents who are willing to have their children adopted are impeded from doing so simply because they are married and so on. The change in this regard is very welcome.

Having said all of this, I must point out that there is a problem. This is not a problem which would lead me to oppose the amendment which should be supported, but laws, constitutional amendments and words on a page do not, in and of themselves, guarantee the rights and protections children need. Please allow me to state the obvious. Those who were placed in industrial schools, Bethany Home residences and Magdalene laundries were overwhelmingly the children of the poor. It was they who ended up being neglected and abused by the State. It is still overwhelmingly the poor, the least well-off and the most vulnerable in society who have needs and difficulties and require protection.

Simply asserting the legal right of children to be heard and protected, without addressing the root cause, will not solve the problem. Therefore, a constitutional imperative to protect children has to be backed up with the required resources to make this happen. I refer specifically to the health and social services to be provided. We must ensure child poverty is eliminated, that no child is in need of food or adequate housing and health care, that no child is disadvantaged educationally or will be disadvantaged if the State does not provide necessary supports for children in trouble or in difficulty or subject to abuse or neglect. While this legislation is welcome and points in the right direction, everything else the Government is doing in all of these areas is moving us in precisely the opposite direction. It is moving us away from a situation where children would be adequately protected.

Child care teams must be fully resourced, but the Children First guidelines for the protection of children have not been adequately implemented and remain to be placed on a statutory basis, although I acknowledge the Minister is working on this aspect of the matter. However, resources such as sufficient numbers of social workers will be needed. It is a question of how to square the €700 million in further cuts due to be made in the next budget and the €2 billion in health cuts made in recent years with a commitment to protect children and how to provide the resources necessary to protect children, considering the level of cuts planned in health funding in the December budget. How do we deal with the cap on the number of special needs assistants when we know that there are children who need support in the classroom and are being denied it or are not receiving the same level of support as they received in the past because of the cuts imposed by the troika in order to bail out bankers? These cuts run directly counter to the commitment to protect children.

Yesterday, I raised the issue of cuts in the home help service. What happens if a mother develops schizophrenia or another debilitating illness and needs support and assistance but does not receive it? It is often the case that young children and teenagers have to look after their parents, with all of the consequences there might be for their development, rights and so on.

The policy of cutting lone parent supports, the number of special needs assistants, home help hours and the incomes of the least well-off will inevitably drive children into dangerous situations because the poverty that is visited on their parents has knock-on consequences for them. Unless we address the policies which are causing poverty, it is difficult to see how this proposal can make a significant difference.

The Deputy's time has expired.

I have not had an opportunity to look at the detail of this complex proposal. I ask the Minister if it will be possible to submit amendments before tomorrow. I suggest the proposal could go a little further, for example, by stating the State recognises and affirms the natural rights of children, including their right to adequate health care, education and housing and the right to live free from poverty and neglect and that all necessary resources, including material resources, will be provided. The ICCL has also pointed out-----

I ask the Deputy to conclude.

-----that in Article 42(A).4 we should not only refer to proceedings taken by the State but any proceedings, in other words, that any group of people should have the right to take proceedings to vindicate the rights of children. This should not just be confined to the State. I again ask if amendments can be submitted today to try to improve and upgrade the protections included in this otherwise worthy proposal.

I propose to share my time with Deputy Bernard J. Durkan.

I commend my colleague, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, on bringing this transformational proposal for a referendum before the House. I also commend all Members of the House for the cross-party support for this measure. I commend the civil society groups which have been forceful in their support for the amendment of the Constitution on the rights of children. That support is crucial. However, it is important that a full debate take place on the airwaves and in the media generally. I share the concern of the Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael Noonan, that the media provide for a full debate on the issue. I acknowledge there are constraints in terms of balance, but this should not stop the media from airing and discussing the issue which is crucial for democracy and, in particular, the welfare of children. We should not take the view that the proposal need not be fully debated and should be nodded thorugh. I commend all those who have participated in the various committees which have discussed this issue and the wording of the referendum.

There has been much debate and discussion and also a recognition of what has happened in the past. There have been 17 reports since Judge Catherine McGuinness's report on the Kilkenny incest case. We have all been struck by the appalling manner in which many children were treated in the past. The case I remember most is that of Sophia McColgan and what happened in her family. Despite the fact that various agencies of the State were involved with the family, it took a long time before there was an intervention. The proposed amendment of the Constitution, if agreed to by the people, will bring about a change in how children will be treated in the future. It will be a case of building a system of protection to give every child in the State, particularly vulnerable children, the opportunity to have a nurturing and secure childhood. It is about changing attitudes to children in order that they will be seen and heard and that their views will have weight and consequence. It is about enshrining in the Constitution a vision of children as citizens recognised as having an entitlement to inherent rights that must be vindicated. The principle that the voice of children should be heard is very important.

We do not wish to have the debate distracted by what is not contained in the proposed wording. The role of the family is still central and Article 41 is not being interfered with. In a small minority of cases there are dangers to the safety and welfare of children and the amendment of the Constitution will provide the State with the authority to intervene in such cases in clearly defined circumstances. However, there will be safeguards, a balance and proportionality in any measure undertaken.

I refer to the proposed Article 42(A).2.2°. This important reform addresses a lacuna in Bunreacht na hÉireann which currently does not refer to the circumstances in which adoption will be provided for in law. In the case of foster parents adopting a child, the current test is extremely arduous. As such, the number of children in foster care who are adopted is very low. The Minister indicated last night that the number was just 16 children in 2010 and 2011. More than 2,000 children have been with the same foster family for more than five years and have not had the opportunity to be adopted.

The proposed wording will allow the Oireachtas to debate and pass a new adoption Act. In this regard, I commend the Minister on the publication of the draft adoption (amendment) Bill 2012 in tandem with the referendum proposal. This will afford citizens a clear perspective on the constitutional and legislative reforms that will flow from a "Yes" vote on 10 November.

Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett referred to the broader range of issues relating to children and child welfare. It is important to emphasise that the proposed constitutional amendment is just one measure, albeit perhaps the most important one, in the Government's reform agenda in the area of child protection. Efforts in this area include the passing of the Criminal Justice (Withholding of Information on Offences Against Children and Vulnerable Persons) Bill, the introduction of the National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Persons) Bill 2012 and ongoing work on the Bill to place the Children First guidelines on a legislative basis. The proposed child and family and support agency, functioning independently of the Health Service Executive, will ensure the principles enshrined in the constitutional amendment become a reality in the lives of thousands of children in this country.

The forthcoming campaign will be beneficial for democracy by allowing citizens to focus on the future of our children. This is an issue that is central to any democratic society but one that has, unfortunately, been too often neglected in the past. The referendum will mark a new beginning in efforts to safeguard the welfare of children and to cherish childhood. The debate in this House is the starting point of that process but we must also strive to engage the broader public.

I join other speakers in welcoming the introduction of the constitutional amendment. I congratulate the Minister, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, and her ministerial colleagues on the time, effort and dedication that went into the preparation of the proposal which is before us today. Given that there has been some debate as to whether it is really necessary, it is important to reflect on the reasons for the bringing forward of the proposed constitutional amendment. The unfortunate reality is that it is indeed necessary. The evidence of the past 20 years or so has shown that for one reason or another and in various circumstances, children in this country were not only neglected but wilfully neglected and had their rights seriously undermined. This was the case even during the period which became known as the Celtic tiger era and it was not just the children of families in poverty who experienced it. In fact, throughout the past two decades there was a serious erosion of the individual child's rights which pointed clearly to a deficiency in the system. If action could not or was not taken, for whatever reason, we must now find ways to address that deficiency. The objective must be to ensure there is no recurrence of what happened in the past.

As I said, the view has been expressed in some legal quarters that the proposed constitutional amendment and accompanying legislation are not necessary. Everybody is entitled to their opinion, of course, but I reject that view. What is true is that while the amendment certainly should not be necessary, unfortunately it is. That is the difference. Over the years there have been numerous cases showing clear evidence that where children were subjected to serious deprivation and wilful neglect, there was an inability or unwillingness on the part of the State and its institutions to intervene. It is important to consider these issues from a child's perspective. Children are vulnerable and very much react to what they see around them. They need to feel they are in a secure and stable environment, whether in a family setting, in an institution, at school or at play. Everything is a challenge to children. If one studies a child's reaction in a strange environment, one will see that he or she is drinking in the surroundings and will inevitably react as he or she knows best. What of the child whose best interests are not being served, whether in the family setting or otherwise? Such a child becomes accustomed to whatever he or she is being subjected to on an ongoing basis. It must be an appalling thing for a small child to find himself or herself in that situation and not to know any other way. It is equally appalling that adults who should know better allow these types of situations to prevail.

That is why we are now obliged to insert into the Constitution a specific measure which sets out clearly the rights and entitlements of children and the need to ensure they are protected in all circumstances. It does not follow, however, that the State is obliged to intervene between child and parent. As several speakers have observed, the family already retains a privileged position under our Constitution and must be protected. That will not change. Only in particular and specific circumstances, where it is clear that the family situation is failing, will the State have a responsibility to intervene. Several speakers suggested that it should be open to any person to intervene in such circumstances, but I am not convinced by that argument. Regardless of who intervenes, there will now be a provision in the Constitution which clearly sets out to protect the well-being, rights and entitlements of children.

Some of us have been in this House longer than we care to remember and were members of health boards in the past. That experience was a great school of learning in so far as child welfare is concerned. Many people working in the health services over the years were futuristic in their attitude and recognised the need for provisions specifically to address the concerns of those dealing with children's welfare. These people expressed their views on the matter liberally and some took action, by way of pilot schemes and so on, to introduce measures which they hoped might be adopted on a general basis. We had an opportunity to learn the full extent and circumstances of neglect in the various cases that have been brought to our attention in recent years. We must not forget, however, that the same degree of neglect still goes on today. I am sure a week does not go without some incident of this nature being brought to the attention of public representatives. Sometimes these matters are simple to resolve and sometimes not. It is an ongoing issue.

Looking beyond the constitutional proposal, it vital that we have effective follow-up in the area of child and youth services. I and others have tabled parliamentary questions to encourage this development in the future. The need for a comprehensive support service for youth was never more obvious than at present. There was a tendency during the Celtic years to neglect the basics and to revel in our apparent wealth. In fact, we neglected many issues of major importance. We now have an opportunity to ensure, in the context of the legislation coming on stream, that we have an adequate and comprehensive back-up service for children at various stages in their development. Children must never find themselves disadvantaged or pushed into a situation where they are exploited or have their well-being and welfare placed in jeopardy.

Deputies have frequently debated the issue of out-of-hours services. One positive aspect of the constitutional amendment is that the provision, as laid down in the Constitution, will have to be observed. Nothing can change that fact and there can be no deviation from that provision. It cannot be watered down in any way, which means we will not be able to decide that we will only do certain things in certain circumstances but will be required to do what must be done.

Although a great many families have suffered as a result of the economic downturn, this does not necessarily mean that people who have suffered economic deprivation will reject their children. Far from it because history shows that seeking to ensure the best for their children has been the hallmark of 99.9% of parents in this country. That will remain the position, which is as it should be. However, circumstances will arise where it will be clear that the welfare and well-being of a child are at risk.

A fair amount of other legislation is proposed and will be helpful. For example, it is important to note, as the Minister of State and her colleague, the Minister for Finance, have done, that more than 2,000 children have been living for more than five years with foster families. Confidence is important to young children growing up and living in a safe environment and feeling secure assist in their development. While foster care is helpful in this regard and we are fortunate to have a system of fostering in place, a question mark about whether the care will continue hangs over all children in foster care at all times. Uncertainty is unfair to children and I hope it will be addressed in the context of the forthcoming constitutional amendment. It is of critical importance that we provide the supports families require and that where intervention proves necessary, it is undertaken in a positive manner that protects children and enhances and supports families in the first instance.

Nobody should view this legislation as a threat or as in any way undermining the position of the family. That is not the intention behind the Bill, as all Deputies recognise. At the same time, while Ireland is not unique in the number of cases of child abuse and neglect, we are all aware of what should have been done in the past and what must be done in the future. This legislation means we now know it will be done. However, as with all legislation that is brought before the House, it will only be as good as its implementation. If we fail to enforce or operate any aspect of this or other legislation, we will have serious questions to answer.

The country has come through a terrible experience in recent years. Having been at the top of the economic pile, as it were, we have plunged into an abyss. In such circumstances, individuals and entire groups in society tend to be ignored. This is a danger to which we need to be alert. For this reason, we must try to ensure that, in accordance with the sentiments expressed in the legislation, we live up to what we set out to do rather than only paying lip service to its provisions. We must put in place the measures and supports that are necessary because they will bear rich fruit in creating a new generation of children who can have a degree of assurance that they have security and support, either in a family environment or, in the event of the failure of their family, from a second family. It is hoped such children will be able to develop into well adjusted individuals with the confidence required in this challenging world.

I welcome this debate and commend the Minister for the work she had done to reach this point. I also welcome the Government's decision to hold the referendum on a Saturday. I hope it is one that will hold for future votes. I had a discussion at the weekend with a highly aggrieved eight year old who wanted to know the reason we were holding a referendum for children and the reason she was not getting a day off school. Not everyone can win.

A narrative is emerging on the benches opposite, generally from newer Deputies, that nothing was done before the Minister's appointment and that she did all the work on this issue in the past 18 months. While I accept that she has done considerable work, this narrative ignores the work of previous Ministers, including the former Minister of State, Mr. Barry Andrews; our late and much missed colleague, Brian Lenihan; the former Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Brendan Smith, and the Joint Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children, on which I served for several months in the previous Dáil. As an aside, that cross-party committee which was chaired by our former colleague, Ms Mary O'Rourke, showed how a committee of the Houses could work. It was well chaired and supported, properly resourced and its members had access to all the legal expertise members required. As we struggle to find models for parliamentary committees following last year's referendum, we would do well to examine the way in which it operated. The emphasis on trying to achieve cross-party consensus on this issue was the reason it took so long to hold the referendum. However, alongside the process on the constitutional amendment, significant legislation was implemented in many areas and substantial investment was made in physical infrastructure for children, including community child care facilities. The subtle narrative that the Minister has waved a magic wand and suddenly transformed everything is wrong and unfair to those who served previously in the House.

It was extraordinary how much time the Joint Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children devoted to definitions of specific words. As someone who is not a lawyer, I noted the passion with which legal experts discussed words which laypersons believed to have the same meaning. Lawyers have an amazing skill to ascribe to one word many meanings which were probably never intended in the English language. The great thing about the referendum on 10 November is that the lawyers and, to a certain extent, legislators will have to step aside and allow children to step forward and finally have their day out. However, we owe children and for this reason we, as legislators, cannot fully step back. It would be wrong to believe the task of protecting children will be done and dusted when or if the referendum is passed.

During the contributions of the Minister of State, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, and the Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael Noonan, I reflected on how we would engage members of the public in the debate on the referendum. During the years people were shocked to the core by many of the reports published on individual cases such as the death of Kelly Fitzgerald. One of the difficulties we face is that, having been engaged and horrified by the many cases of neglect and institutional support that emerged in the past, people appear to believe the problem has gone away. We need to remind them that children in these cases were mistreated or abandoned by their families under the watch of the State. For this reason, we must do everything possible, including passing this constitutional amendment, to ensure we do not wake up some morning to read similar reports in the newspapers of institutional neglect.

It would be remiss of us not to acknowledge that during this time of much neglect and people dropping balls, there were many heroes within the system. There were many social workers who tried to battle lack of resources and, more important, a legal system which did not help them do their jobs. There were many who stood up to the plate, some of whom paid with their jobs. There were the foster families who will, for once and for all, get some sort of certainty because of this referendum. Deputy Durkan put his finger on their amazing work by stating they did it in uncertain circumstances. These families provided safety, a home and the security of the family unit to many children. I have read stories of foster parents who had up to 1,000 children go through their families over the years. These are the heroes during this time.

There were also many people who stood forward to be advocates in many of the non-governmental organisations, NGOs, like Mr. Geoffrey Shannon who has been a persistent and consistent advocate for children's rights. For those concerned that this referendum may open up the care system and push more children into care, Mr. Geoffrey Shannon's words are important. He says it will lead to the right children going into the care system. That is the children who are lost to the system, whose rights were ignored as was the State's responsibility to them, whose health and future was destroyed because the State could not act. These are the kind of children who need to be brought into the care system. These are the children who will, if this referendum is passed, get the care and attention they need.

We will be proposing some amendments to strengthen the referendum which will be discussed with my colleague, Deputy Troy. It is interesting to watch this House unite fully behind this referendum. It is important we mobilise people in the coming weeks. The date for the referendum, 10 November, is only a short time away. It is important that the information that is needed will get to people in a cogent and understandable way. There are complex issues here and the difficulty with them is that they can be twisted to suit agendas of which we might not even have thought. Suddenly in the middle of a campaign, these could become firelighter issues. To avoid that, people need to be given proper information well ahead of 10 November.

Although the House has united behind this referendum and all suggestions are that it will be passed, it is incumbent on all of us to go out there and fight for it. We must explain it to those in our constituencies. We cannot take this referendum for granted. If we do so, we are taking those children who fell out of care and who were abandoned by the State, some of whom may not have survived that abandonment, for granted too. We owe it to those children, to their families and to those who stood up to the plate that the referendum is passed with a large turnout. It would be wrong, given all the reports we have had into the neglect of children by so many State, church and education institutions, not to. This is an opportunity to say, as a country, this is the end of such neglect and the start of something different.

If it is to be the start, then the Minister's job is not finished after 10 November. Her job then will be to ensure the wording, the ethos and the preference of this amendment are backed up by resources and social workers. We must finally resolve the issue of the on-call social worker. Children are not nine to five; their difficulties are 24 hours, seven days a week. We need a system that responds to them on that basis. I welcome the fact the Minister published the adoption legislation. It is important it is enacted and properly resourced. As Deputy Durkan, who has been in this House much longer than I have, stated, the intention is great but the difficulty is that after 10 November we will move on to the next item like the budget. It is incumbent on the Minister to ensure the necessary resources and the legislation are put in place to turn this constitutional amendment to Bunreacht na hÉireann into a practical format which will benefit people's lives. It is also incumbent on her to ensure the social workers on the ground are empowered as soon as possible. I commend the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, on her work to date but her job is only starting.

I commend the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs on bringing forward this legislation to facilitate the 31st amendment to the Constitution which proposes the insertion of a new Article 42A. As has been said, this issue of constitutionally recognising children's rights has been under consideration for some time. The Minister's predecessor had been working diligently on this for a long time. While I am not an advocate of emergency legislation or constitutional amendments, it has been quite some time since the range of issues which gave rise to this referendum, such as the institutional care of children, children in society and the adequacy of family circumstances in individual cases to cater for their needs, have been considered.

The proposed Article 42A will recognise and affirm the natural and imprescriptible rights of the child with laws enacted to protect and vindicate them. In the exceptional circumstances where the capacity of the family to cater for and avoid any level of neglect to children is a problem, the State will be in a position, as the guarantor of the common good, to step in and provide the children with foster or adoption facilities so they can move to a new family environment which will set the foundation for their well-being in the years ahead. The Minister is also bringing forward new legislation for adoption. Bringing the two forward in tandem is wise at this time.

I have no doubt this referendum will give rise to much legal debate. I hope, however, we do not get into a debate about competing rights – the rights of the family on the one hand and the rights of the individual child on the other. This legislation is essentially about providing the best possible family ambience for all children.

At this point there is no harm in deliberating on some of the underlying societal problems we have. Louth and east Meath have new urban centres sitting side by side with rural towns. From time to time, the whole gamut of social problems comes up on the radar of my constituency clinics. During the Celtic tiger era, I was always struck how some schools' boards of management set up breakfast clubs for pupils. On many occasions, I saw the benefit of these clubs at first hand in the schools. If a schoolteacher finds children coming to school hungry, there is an underlying social problem. It is not always possible for social workers to go into individual family circumstances and effect change overnight. We need to bear this in mind.

Society and societal attitudes and values have changed remarkably in this country in the past 25 or 30 years. Perhaps the problems that this legislation is focused on existed previously but because we had different societal attitudes or values they did not surface in the public domain to the extent that they are surfacing nowadays.

It is not only the extremes. Inevitably, the media and the public view will always focus on the extreme cases, no matter what the subject of debate is. The old principle that hard cases make poor law is relevant in these circumstances. Many families are in difficult socioeconomic circumstances now, more so than they would be in the normal cycle of economic well-being in the country, and they need to be considered. I imagine the proposed amendment is not regarded as a panacea to tackle these individual problems. The Legislature should consider these things. In recent times we had a crisis in funding in the health service, which is rather important for many families in the circumstances we are debating today. A decision was taken to transfer €35 million earmarked for the mental health sector to plug a hole somewhere else. That decision should be reflected on and reconsidered. There are significant mental health problems. Some are direct and some are indirect contributory factors to the problems under discussion here. There is a need to provide more resources to help tackle these problems. The mental health support programme in the Department of Health has an Achilles heel. Mental health is regarded as an area that we can provide for only if we have some money here and there. As a society we need to consider the priorities in that area and to provide the resources for it.

I hope the debate does not turn into a tug-of-war between the priorities and needs of the family on the one hand and the individual child on the other. I am sure that is not what was envisaged but it is something we need to bear in mind. There has been a change in the community support framework. No matter what the society, we have a prejudicial view that community activity only takes place in a rural environment, but the potential for it to occur in an urban environment is even more obvious provided we have good, well-motivated community leaders to make it happen.

I recall a visit to a particular school in Dundalk which focused on special needs education. The teachers were involved in service apprenticeships and youth work around the town. The school was in a area of socioeconomic deprivation. I was particularly impressed with one thing. The teacher in charge of the school went to households where children were missing from school for several days to see where they were and to ensure that their homework was done and that the work given to them by the school on that day or previous days was undertaken. We need to actively encourage family support to ensure there can be enhancement or improvements. No matter what the level of academic activity or study, it is possible with diligence and application in the family environment to effect change and improvement. Perhaps as a community we should consider where we can go into individual households and help them to reorganise. The legal empowerment to do that may be missing now but we need to consider this area. I say this as someone who has been in the House for several years.

There will be a clear and tangible benefit to us if we support families in need. Inevitably this will entail further resources being made available to us. It is a question of prioritising and anticipating the social difficulties that give rise to the problems on which this debate is focusing. I thank the Acting Chairman for the opportunity to speak. I support what is being proposed. I wish the Minister well and I thank her predecessors for their work in this area as well as the officials who have been dealing with the preparatory work for the referendum.

I wish to share my time with Deputies Hannigan and Nolan.

I wish to acknowledge the dedication and commitment of previous Ministers in this area. I also acknowledge the endeavours of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Fitzgerald, with respect to the proposed amendment to the Constitution. The proposed new Article 42A.1 states: "The State recognises and affirms the natural and imprescriptible rights of all children and shall, as far as practicable, by its laws protect and vindicate those rights." Why is this needed? Why do we need to have this debate if we have a Constitution with the provisions of Articles 40, 41 and 42? Are these not sufficient to safeguard the rights of children? These questions have been raised by some voices in society opposed to the current amendment. I admit to being left in some confusion about why anyone could continue to raise these questions today.

Deputy Calleary is quite right: we need to be on message when it comes to this issue as we approach a difficult and challenging time economically in this country. Let us not forget that during the past 20 years, from the Kilkenny incest investigation report in 1993 through to all the revelations and reports into child sex abuse, testimony has been given by thousands of children who have suffered throughout the history of the State since Independence. This has continued up to the most recent reports of the deaths of children in the care of the State. We can be in no doubt of the need to amend the Constitution. Society's attitudes allowed these abuses to continue and they must be challenged. This amendment, particularly the article quoted above, will lay down a marker to help and foster a new attitude in this country to children and their rights.

One significant change that will result from the amendment is that all children will be treated equally with regard to adoption, regardless of the marital status of their parents. All children will be treated equally when it comes to the protection of their welfare. The first legislative act to follow from the amendment will be the Adoption (Amendment) Bill. This will allow for children of married parents who have been placed in the care system and abandoned or who have been subject to serious failure in respect of the duty of care of children by their parents to be eligible for adoption. The spirit of the amendment will demand further legislative acts. It will change the philosophy of the Government with respect to underpinning the care of children in society.

Two areas that need attention come immediately to mind. The first is the need for an improvement in the standard and quality of how we approach the welfare of children in the care of the State. Second, we must be in a position to guarantee that no child or vulnerable young adult will ever be placed in an adult mental ward or mental health unit. There are many others to which I am keen to refer, and I thank the Minister for her availability and understanding in this respect. I welcome the philosophy with which the Minister has approached this Bill and I warmly and unconditionally support her in her endeavours in this respect. I understand what we are trying to achieve here, but the country must also understand what we are trying to achieve. This has been a key objective of both Government parties in our manifesto and it is a key area of the programme for Government. It is important that the country sees that we are honouring this.

While economic issues continue to dominate the political agenda in this country, there remain many important issues that require attention and this is one in which I look forward to playing a role with respect to communication. This referendum has been a journey of a thousand miles, but we must take care and ensure that no scare tactics engender challenge to the passing of this vital amendment. I note from discussions with Labour Party members across the country that they will be active on the ground in this campaign and it is incumbent on all political parties to play a role in ensuring that this amendment is successfully passed.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important legislation. As Deputy Keaveney stated, this was a promise in the Labour Party manifesto and it was also in the programme for Government. Therefore, I am delighted that we are holding a referendum on this issue on 10 November. I am delighted because the children's referendum has been a long time coming. A total of 17 different reports since 1993 have outlined the State's failings in child protection since its foundation. Each of those reports described in horrific detail the ordeals that children had to go through because of either family or State neglect and I think we all agree that these situations cannot be allowed to continue. The sad reality is that all public representatives have come into contact with persons whom the State has let down. It is incredibly difficult to listen to their individual stories knowing that we all were part of a society which allowed this to happen. Voting "Yes" to this amendment on 10 November will give children who are being neglected or abused a much better chance at getting the protection they need when they need it.

The wording of the amendment has been carefully put together. There were 64 different meetings of the Joint Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children. Over the past year the Minister and her staff have been working closely with the Office of the Attorney General to ensure the amendment does not take away from any other right that is currently in the Constitution. This is an important point to make and one that we will need to continue making over the next seven weeks.

This referendum is about reaffirming the Irish people's commitment to the protection of children. As the Minister pointed out yesterday, the amendment once again confirms the status of the family as the best place to raise a child. It is not that the State knows more than the family about how to raise a child. There is a concern out there that some groups may use the status of the family as a way to campaign negatively against this referendum. I hope this is not the case, and that we are facing into a referendum campaign that will be positive. I would hate to see some sectors in society use this campaign to promote their own narrow social agendas. Let us take the opportunity to say to each child who is growing up in this country that he or she is important and the State will provide for him or her when others cannot.

My party is planning a positive campaign. We have appointed the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, to lead this campaign as our national director of elections. She met with her campaign team yesterday and they are planning a wide range of activities such as putting up posters and distributing leaflets across the country, and also going out to knock on doors and ask members of the public to vote "Yes". Our membership will be right behind us. I myself was out knocking on doors in Kells last weekend and I spoke to several hundred people. The key message for me was that people know the referendum is being held and welcome it, but my worry is that they said almost universally that it would sail through. This will not sail through unless we convince people to go out and vote for it. That will be the key message for me and for my team over the next few weeks, and one that the Government must bear in mind. We need people to go out and vote "Yes" for this. Sitting at home will not pass the amendment.

I congratulate the Minister and her staff for constructing a form of wording that has been welcomed by the vast majority of child protection groups out there and by others in society, and I wish her all the best in this referendum campaign.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill, which will, I believe, be one of the most important to be passed in the Government's lifetime. I also commend the Government, and indeed the Minister, for producing a Bill the wording of which is widely lauded by political society and civil society alike.

Currently, children's rights are lacking, and the Constitution as it stands is failing them. The obvious absence of provision for children's rights in Bunreacht na hÉireann is stark. We have seen evidence of the impact of this absence before now and we need to make this a thing of the past. It has been obvious that this major problem needs to be rectified, and the answer to a legal problem can only be a legal remedy. As such, a fundamental change to the way we treat children in the Constitution is necessary.

Historically, parents' rights were seen as paramount and, despite evidence to the contrary, it was widely accepted that parents knew best. The family was afforded special protection by the State. This special protection can be seen in many different cases over the years and while no one is denying that the family has a special interest and should have that place of paramount importance in the Constitution, it cannot be used to denigrate the rights of children as a secondary issue.

The Kilkenny incest case, the Ryan commission report, the baby Ann case and the Roscommon incest case are all glaring examples of failings not only by the legal system but by successive Governments that have shied away from implementing the legal changes necessary to protect our children. When we look back over these reports, the details of which can only be described as abhorrent, it is clear that the State failed to protect the victims in each. The Kilkenny incest case highlighted a legal stumbling block. It found that the strong emphasis on the rights of the family in the Constitution could give a higher value to the rights of parents than to the rights of children. The proposed amendment means that children will be protected from harm in the future and will place the child at the centre of decision-making regardless of his or her parents' marital status.

The Ryan report shocked the nation. That children were suffering systematic abuse in more than 200 State-funded institutions was a blatant indication of the lack of protection afforded to them. In that report it was advised that the needs of children should be foremost in all policies affecting children. This amendment ensures that in any court proceedings the interests of the child will be paramount. Such a move should bring about a greater focus on these issues through our child care policies.

The baby Ann case saw the Supreme Court rule in favour of a child's natural parents even though baby Ann had been given up for adoption by them two years previously. This was in recognition of the special protection given to parents in the Constitution, yet there was no individual protection afforded to Ann, the child at the centre of the case. The amendment will provide that the rights and protections enjoyed by children are to be enjoyed by all children irrespective of their parents' marital status.

The Roscommon incest and abuse case, in which the married parents of a large family sexually abused their children for more than a decade, was another stark example of failure by the State and its legal architecture to protect children. In this case the children's mother was able to secure a High Court order preventing a local health board from taking the children into care. Consequently, the children stayed with their abusers for many more years than they should have. Constitutional guidance gave priority to the marital family. This type of failure would be prevented by this constitutional amendment.

I could go on. In all, there are 17 major reports on gross child protection failings - 17 tragedies in which vulnerable children suffered abuse and neglect. To echo what the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Gilmore, said yesterday, we are at last being informed by the bitter lessons of the past. We have learned from the dark history of our past when children's interests were ignored. The proposed constitutional amendment will provide the legal tools to ensure these gross failings cannot happen again. Our country will be constitutionally bound to treat future generations fairly and equally and with their best interests at the very centre of decision making. Article 42A is an important step in strengthening the protection of all children in the State. It is a most welcome development, identifying children as much more than the property of their parents or the State. They are included in our society as children in their own right - vulnerable individuals who enjoy security and protection as an inherent right.

I understand Deputy Colreavy is sharing with Deputy Martin Ferris. Is that correct?

Sinn Féin supports what the Minister is doing here and will actively engage with people to ensure they come out to bring about the change that we feel is so necessary and that the referendum is passed.

To put this in context, when the Constitution was written in 1937, Ireland was a different place. We had just come out from under British occupation, we had many Victorian values and we had a different, imposed legal system.

The past 70 years in this State have seen a seismic shift in attitudes, particularly towards marginal sections of society. As a people, we have moved away from Victorian thinking towards more open and liberal attitudes as to how citizens should be treated. Up to quite recently, societal thinking on children could be best summed up by the phrase "Children should be seen but not heard." This has changed and society now genuinely seeks the best welfare of the children of the nation. This is partly because children are vulnerable and require protection, but in the context of resources it is also because we recognise our children are the greatest possible investment we can make for the future. Also, the needs of children have changed since the Constitution was written. Change has come about for these reasons and because of the examples of cases where children were abused in their homes and institutions and the State, for whatever reason, was powerless to act effectively.

I remember reading newspapers and listening to comment on some of the more horrific cases of child abuse in family homes. I was angry as a citizen that in my name the State had failed those vulnerable children. I remember feeling a sense of frustration that the Government, which was acting on my behalf and on behalf of the nation, could not get its act together and do the right thing by children. I hope no Irish person will ever have to go through such frustration and anger, because the State was no good to children who were abused. The State should have been there in loco parentis to ensure the right thing was done for those children, but the State let them and the nation down. It should have made a resolution then that this hurt could never happen again.

This is what makes this referendum so important and I commend the Minister and the Department on bringing it forward. Some people will criticise it and many will think it goes too far and that an evil state exists to remove children from good parents. However, there will be safeguards within the legislation. There have been examples, particularly in Britain, of where social services went totally overboard and misunderstood communications between social workers and children, whether this was a result of inadequate social work education or policy. Fundamental mistakes were made there which were very painful for parents and damaging to children. Therefore, the policies we put in place must be tight because the last thing we want is for the social workers intervening to protect the child to instead damage the interest of the child. We cannot and will not tolerate that.

We need to modernise the Constitution to reflect the realities as they are today. Constitutional reform is necessary so that we, as a Government and society, can affirm children as full citizens of the State, with rights both within the family unit and where necessary separate from the family unit. Under the current Constitution, children enjoy the same rights as all citizens, but this does not reflect the fact that the needs of children are vastly different from those of adults. Currently, there is no special status for children in the Constitution. They are practically invisible in it. What may be interpreted from the Constitution is that the rights of the family may supersede the rights of children, as pointed out by Mrs. Justice Catherine McGuinness, the chairperson of the Kilkenny incest investigation, a long time ago. This needs to be rectified and that is the reason this amendment is necessary. If anybody questions the necessity for the amendment, the Kilkenny investigation demonstrates simply a good, painful example of the need for it.

The referendum, if passed, will give children rights within the Constitution for the first time. Article 42(A).1 will state: "The State recognises and affirms the natural and imprescriptible rights of all children and shall, as far as practicable, by its laws protect and vindicate those rights." This is the first time the State will acknowledge the rights of children as individuals with constitutional rights. Sinn Féin will propose an amendment to this to include the word "equally". I know the Minister would not want any unintended discrimination against children here, whether based on class, gender, creed or race and therefore we will propose this amendment.

Article 42(A).2 and 3 will aim to rectify the double standards that in the past prevented agencies from intervening in a family case where a child was at risk, or where agencies were involved, did not provide them with the policies and the rights to make a difference to the rights of those children. An example of this is to be seen in the Roscommon abuse case. Due to the constitutional position of the marital family under Irish law, a higher risk threshold must be reached before the State can intervene when a child is at risk. Furthermore, a child of a marital family generally, may not be adopted, even if in the care of the State for the whole of its life. It is legally possible to provide for adoption under the Constitution, but it is very difficult to do and rarely happens due to the legal difficulties.

I disagree with those who say the family will lose some of the protection afforded by the Constitution.

Cuireadh an díospóireacht ar athló.
Debate adjourned.
Sitting suspended at 1.30 p.m. and resumed at 2.30 p.m.