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."

I am appreciative of the sharing of time by my colleague, Deputy McConalogue, and acknowledge the work he did when he was our party spokesperson on children affairs.

The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Fitzgerald, is entitled to considerable credit for the valuable work she and her departmental officials have done since taking office. She has hastened slowly on this particular matter because it did require very careful deliberation. This is borne out by the extensive time given both by the committee chaired by former Deputy Peter Power, and subsequently that chaired by former Deputy Mary O'Rourke on which I was privileged to serve, where all the matters pertaining to the rights and the welfare of the child were carefully and tortuously teased out to get them right. I believe this Bill will be passed today and the people will pass the referendum in due course. The Minister is in the fortunate position of having an important political legacy to point to at an early stage in her ministerial career. Perhaps there are colleagues of hers in government who will not be so fortunate or have not been to date.

Like Deputy McConalogue, I commend the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs on the manner in which she has engaged with NGOs and with political individuals involved in this process throughout the years. I would expect nothing better from another Kildare person. It is important for those of us on this side of the House to recognise that all political parties have been actively engaged in the area of children's welfare and rights for several years. A cross-party consensus has been achieved, brought about by careful and assiduous work. I pay tribute to my colleague Mary O'Rourke, who chaired a committee which worked diligently on this issue. There were at least 60 meetings of that committee. It teased out the issue of the referendum, the important issue of strict and absolute liability and the area of soft information. I acknowledge the work done in the past by Ministers of State with responsibility for children, the current Minister's predecessors, Mary Hanafin, Barry Andrews, Brendan Smith and the late Brian Lenihan. All of them contributed to the work that has brought us to this point.

Given everything that has come to light in recent years about the experience and welfare of children, it behoves all of us to keep children's rights and welfare at the centre of the political and public agenda not only for the course of this referendum but in future. With this in mind I welcome the political support for the referendum from all sides of the House. My only fear is of a passive and perhaps naive assumption or belief that the public will support this vital amendment simply because we in the House and in the political system are doing so. There is an onus on all sides of the House to engage actively with the electorate in the coming weeks to highlight children's welfare, the myriad issues affecting their daily lives and the progression to responsible adulthood, as well as the important passage of this referendum.

I recall my late grandfather saying to me many times that children should be seen and not heard. Given that Bunreacht na hÉireann was written in his era, it is not surprising that there are few mentions of children in the document. Long before the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child in November 1989, enlightened legislators had come to realise that the rights and welfare of children were central to the well-being of society and had begun to legislate accordingly. Ireland signed the convention in 1990 and it could be argued, understandably, that the State has been tardy in making the necessary constitutional changes to expand on the general provisions contained in Article 40. While this may be true, the same cannot be said for the advancement of the welfare of children through legislative means and other initiatives. The establishment of the Ombudsman for Children and the additional policy framework introduced through the passage of major legislation such as the Children Act 2001 and the Adoption Act 2010 has strengthened the rights and improved the welfare of children. The establishment of the Office of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs as a super-junior ministry some years ago is also to be commended, and I commend the Taoiseach on his elevation of the role to full Cabinet status.

We should not lose sight of why this referendum is needed. We must ensure that children's voices are heard and we must create a culture that puts children and their interests and rights at the centre of decisions taken in all areas of society, including the Government, State agencies and the courts. We must ensure the State takes responsibility and responds quickly to protect children in situations in which they are being abused or neglected. This can only be achieved if our good intentions and honourable approach are supported by practical provisions. Effective intervention can be accomplished only when adequate resources are in place. While everyone involved in this process to date is motivated by nothing other than what is best for children, it is inevitable that there will be some among the public who will not agree with the detail and the nature of what is proposed. It is of the utmost importance that there should be respectful, open and detailed debate in the public arena in the hope that people will be won over and convinced by the real and pertinent arguments made in support of the legislation.

There is nothing in this referendum that will have a negative impact on the status of the family. I believe these proposals have the balance right between what some perceive to be the competing interests of the integrity of the family and the rights and welfare of the child. Sadly, everyone in the House is familiar, from what we see in our constituencies, with the countless situations in which children are trapped in chaotic families that are seriously damaged and suffering from abuse of alcohol and drugs. Resources must be deployed to support children in such situations and whatever can be done must be done to rehabilitate such family units. However, there is a need to identify instances in which supports are not working and other interventions must be taken. In these exceptional cases the caring agencies of the State must have the judgment and courage to act in the best interests of the child and instigate removal of the child from the family environment for either the short or the longer term.

The last time I spoke in the House about children's welfare I raised an important point which I believe to be worthy of mention again. There are many factors at play in the lives of young Irish people other than the constitutional provision or any legislative initiative that we advocate or enact. We cannot fail to notice the impact that a rapidly changing society is having on them. I am referring among other things to the sexualisation of children by elements within the music and entertainment industries and the type of rampant commercialism that targets marketing campaigns at children. Young children are increasingly exposed to this sexualisation and many young people are subject to the pressure of fulfilling society's perceived images of what they should or should not be, or how they should or should not act. This pressure, often based more on perception than reality, adversely affects their mental health and sense of self-worth.

The reality of paedophilia has haunted the land. Despite all the revelations and recommendations, the evil that is paedophilia has not ceased and will not cease to exist. Therefore, we can only guarantee the welfare of our children by ensuring, individually and collectively, that we are constantly vigilant and attentive to their genuine needs.

In essence, this constitutional amendment provides the nation with a chance to make children visible constitutionally, to make decisions in their best interests, to support families, to protect children, to reform our adoption laws and to foster a new culture for children in our society. The Constitution is the fundamental law of the State and guarantees a range of personal rights. It is a proclamation of our values as a society and it underpins interaction between the State and its citizens. If we truly believe that our nation's children should be at the heart of this document, this is our chance to prove it, and this referendum affords us the opportunity to do that. For the sake of Ireland's future generations we must vote "Yes", and I look forward to the privilege of doing so on 10 November. I encourage Members not only to verbally support the referendum here and in the media but to actively support it on the ground. If we are going to achieve our objectives then there must be a real and meaningful nationwide debate on the role of children in Irish society, when there is a need to intervene on their behalf, and the need to ensure that they can look to a positive future as responsible adults and members of Irish society. I commend the legislation to the House and I look forward to voting in the referendum in due course.

I welcome the fact that we are debating this. I acknowledge the work of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Fitzgerald, in this area and I commend her for fulfilling the programme for Government and realising the commitment to hold a referendum on children's rights. This is significant, and I do not say it lightly. It behoves us to acknowledge these occasions when they present themselves.

I refer to the McKenna judgment.

I accept the ruling of the court in this area and I accept the need to be balanced. It was never fair that the Government would fund one side of a campaign, however in instances like this there will be skewed implications from a judgment like that because, effectively, one is telling the national broadcaster and commercial stations to give half of their broadcast time to persons, groups and organisations who are on the opposing side of this referendum. I am not taking from anyone's democratic right to oppose it, but it is a bit ridiculous that someone, for the purposes of accessing broadcast time, can deliberately oppose the referendum. This referendum is about children's rights, nothing else. I had occasion last week to write a letter to the editor of theSouthern Star because a letter writer the previous week had written that, in effect, this is about the State controlling one’s family. Of course, these fundamentalists who go on with that kind of hysterical lunacy will go on to argue that the State wants to take one’s children forcibly and all that kind of old rubbish and hyperbole. The McKenna judgment is responsible in many instances for allowing that kind of lunacy to prevail. I ask, in the context of referenda, that the McKenna judgment be examined and that the Government would seek to address the clear negative implications of that which detract from a good debate.

This debate is entirely compatible with the debate we have had in the past couple of nights in this Chamber on the Magdalene laundries and, in particular, the role of religious orders. This is an opportunity for the Catholic hierarchy to redeem itself in terms of protection of children and children's rights but there has been a deafening silence. That is quite worrying. It is appalling to look back to that era of the Magdelene laundries and those idioms and sayings, such as that mentioned earlier that "children should be seen and not heard". "Spare the rod and spoil the child" was effectively a voucher to go off and flay children. This country has a shameful record on the treatment of children down through the years. There is a catalogue of reports - the Murphy report, the Cloyne report, the Kilkenny incest case, the Roscommon case - of appalling and shameful neglect. While this, unfortunately, will not eliminate it, it will go a significant way to enshrining children's rights in the Constitution.

Two former Labour Party Senators in the 1970s, former President Mary Robinson and the President, Michael D. Higgins, proposed Private Members' legislation on the status of illegitimacy. In the context of that debate, there were Members of that House on that occasion who put the interests of children beneath the interests of property owners. They had more respect for and cause to think about the rights of property owners as opposed to the rights of children. It is shameful and appalling. I am glad that the Bill is here. We are focused on the present. I hope there will be a robust debate on this significant referendum but we should never forget the historical context that has allowed us to reach this point.

This is not about the State micro-managing families, enforced vaccination or going into one's house to remove one's children. This is about giving rights to children and enshrining those in the Constitution. It is about recognising that children do suffer in families and intervening in those exceptional circumstances when those unfortunate situations arise.

The groups and organisations that support this referendum are worth mentioning: UNICEF Ireland, the ISPCC, the Children's Rights Alliance, Barnardos, the Irish Foster Care Association, the Children's Ombudsman, Ms Emily O'Reilly-----

-----Emily Logan, rather - Amnesty International Ireland, the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre and, significantly, Mrs. Justice Catherine McGuinness, the retired Supreme Court judge who is an expert in this area and a former Member of Seanad Éireann. There are persons who, for some strange reason, seem to have no respect for Supreme Court judgments, who seem to have no level of understanding of the status of the former Supreme Court justice and who think themselves above her. It is significant that we acknowledge the role she will play in the context of the debate, far be it from us to second guess someone of that stature in terms of how she assigned judgments to various issues.

I welcome this debate. I look forward to a robust exchange. I hope the issues of the McKenna judgment can be addressed in the context of wider referenda and while maintaining the integrity of people's democratic right to participate in debate.

I too am delighted to speak on the Bill. As a young person and recent entrant to politics who sometimes wonders why I bothered, today is a good day. I have been lucky enough to see it from the other side. I was somebody outside of this House 18 months ago who was lobbying for this referendum, through my work with Barnardos and, previously, as a social worker with the HSE. Today is a good day for the children of Ireland and for families of Ireland. People's fears should be allayed and having this opportunity to discuss the Bill in the House should contribute to that.

It is very simple. Of the 1.2 million children who currently live in Ireland, there are 6,000 children in the care in the State. There are 6,000 children who, for whatever reason, are not allowed or not able to live with their families. We should not write these children off and they should have a second chance at a stable, loving family environment. I am lucky enough to have two adopted sisters and have seen at first-hand how an adopted child can bring such joy and happiness to families. In this debate we need to reflect on where we have failed in the past to safeguard and protect children, particularly those who were removed from mothers and put up for adoption, in some cases without the consent of the parents.

There is another small group of children who have not been remarked upon in the course of this debate, that is, those of a married couple bereaved of one parent and whose other parent remarries, where, under the current state of affairs, the new spouse is not eligible to adopt those children and provide them with a second chance of a family. I have personal experience of this because of some cases on which I have worked and some friends of mine. This is another group of children whose rights will be exercised and fulfilled by the passing of this constitutional amendment.

Deputy McCarthy rightly spoke about the fear mongering and scare tactics sometimes used about the control of the State. As somebody who worked in a social work department for four years, I am aware that the last action any social worker wants to take if at all possible is to remove a child from a family because all the evidence shows, and many of the critical thinkers on social policy would say, that sometimes a bad family is better than an institution. The key to alleviating people's worries and fears in this regard relates to proportionality. What the Minister has been able to do in 18 months that other Governments failed to do time and again is to really take this on head first. We had a situation in this country some time ago where the Government could not tell us how many children died in State care. That was a disgrace, but moves have been made to ensure that data collection is done in a proper, efficient and professional way. It is integral for us as legislators to have this information so that we can be proactive and protect the most vulnerable children, and the Minister is to be commended on that.

When I sat in backrooms in HSE buildings in the south east and pontificated on what was right and wrong about the system, one of the points we always made is that we should remove child protection from the HSE. What has happened in the past 24 hours must show us that the issue of health is contentious, difficult and problematic. We owe it to our children to remove child protection from the HSE and give it an agency of its own; it requires, needs and deserves its own status. The Minister and her Cabinet colleagues are to be commended for ensuring a budget has been made available for the establishment of such an agency and prioritising the protection and welfare of children. The children involved are a minority. They are children who may never have an opportunity to walk through the doors of Dáil Éireann and the ones to whom we, as legislators, must give a voice. They are often from families experiencing great difficulties, often owing to alcohol. Much has been said today about a multinational company which is hijacking today's date to promote its product. Over the course of this debate we have heard about all the things that impact on the lives of children, but the greatest difficulty children in Ireland face is the misuse of alcohol by parents. This impacts on children socially, emotionally and sometimes financially and has huge repercussions for their development. Misuse of alcohol is often one of the main reasons State intervention is required to protect children and their rights. Therefore, I commend the Minister and the Cabinet for bringing forward what I consider to be an unopposable amendment.

The crazy lunacy we saw in the Roscommon case has been well documented. Those who work in public services are often judged roughly and blamed and asked why they did not do their job. However, social workers went to court time and again to try to secure full care orders for the children involved in the Roscommon case who were suffering horrendous abuse at the hands of their parents, yet somebody on the fringes of radicalism - for want of a better word - thought it would be a good idea to finance a High Court case for the parents. The person concerned thought that because the parents were married, they were entitled to their children, above the rights of those wonderfully brave children who were able to give evidence in court to secure the care orders they so badly needed to ensure their lives would be protected and improved. Nobody can disregard the damage done to these children which they will carry through their adult lives. Most speakers have spoken about how a child's formative years are so important; a truer word cannot be said. Now, for the first time since our former President Mrs. Mary Robinson and the current President Mr. Michael D. Higgins made their brave move to tackle the issue of the use of the word "illegitimate" in the Seanad in the 1970s, we have a Government which is committed to ensuring all children, regardless of the marital status of their parents, will be treated equally. This is only right and proper in a modern democracy. For this reason, I commend the Minister and her Cabinet colleagues for having the foresight to bring forward the amendment.

I welcome the decision to set the voting date for a Saturday. This is something for which I called six months ago and also at our think-in some weeks ago and I would like to think I had some influence in that regard. The reason I called for the holding of the referendum on a Saturday was to ensure the people closest to children, those who have recently turned 18 years, would have an opportunity to exercise their vote. I strenuously urge them to ensure they are registered in time to vote in order to participate and ensure what I hope will be a "Yes" vote in the campaign for children's rights.

I commend the Minister on her work on the wording of the amendment and her work which might sometimes be seen by onlookers as piecemeal in rebuilding child protection services. Having worked at the coalface, I can appreciate what she has done to establish a single agency to ensure the protection and welfare of children, particularly given the new focus on practice and outcomes. This will deliver immeasurable and better outcomes for some of Ireland's most vulnerable children. For that reason, the Government is to be commended.

Deputy Dessie Ellis is sharing time with Deputy Brian Stanley.

Ba mhaith liom fáilte a chur roimh an mBille seo. Tá sé an-tábhachtach ar fad i dtaca le cearta páistí sa sochaí seo. I warmly welcome the Bill. It is not everything it could be, but it is a welcome development. I applaud the Minister for it, as I know she has worked very hard to bring it to us and with other interested parties to develop it in the best way. This is a very important beginning in what I hope will be a serious reconstituting of the State to give it a strong rights-based foundation. The Constitution of 1937 was very much of its time. It was written 11 years before the Declaration of Human rights and 52 years after the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Unfortunately, it has taken us this long to bring about an initiative to renew the Constitution and update the rights of the child. We must address the imbalance where a child's rights are superseded by those of his or her parents. The problem is that the amendment is narrow and only addresses specific situations which do not affect a lot of children. That is not to say, however, that it is not worth doing, but it could do more. We would like to see more being done. Sinn Féin has long been in favour of enshrining the rights of the child in the Constitution, at the minimum standard set by the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Some 23 years after publication of its report, we are still a long way from the convention's standards, but we welcome this move to bring us closer.

There is a problem with the amendment, in that despite enshrining "natural and imprescriptible rights", there are no specifics as to what these rights are, leaving them entirely to the Supreme Court's judgment. One could argue that the amendment is even meaningless, which is very disappointing. This is not surprising, however, given the Government's lack of desire to fund what could be considered rights. I hear the Minister of State with responsibility for housing talk about the right to a home, but she never really says what she will do to help secure and protect that right. Actual rights cost money, money the Government is not willing to spend. This draws into question the notion that it has any real dedication to the rights of citizens. On the day following a successful referendum, when this wording will be part of the Constitution, will the lives of the children of the State be all that different? It will surely make a difference to some children at risk who are neglected and not listened to, but it will do very little for those whom the State neglects.

My focus is on housing, but there is no accepted right to housing for any man, woman or child, despite fine words from the Minister responsible at Question Time and surreal speeches to housing associations. According to the CSO's very conservative figure, 457 children were homeless in the State. Where are the rights of these children? Where is their right to a home, shelter and nutrition? Where is their right to medical care and adequate living standards? Their right to free education does not mean much to them when not even their most basic rights are provided for. Not alone this, but the Government seems to have abandoned the goal of ending homelessness and it has done nothing to develop a youth strategy to end it, despite the requests of many groups working on homelessness issues and numerous calls for a strategy from me and Sinn Féin. These real rights would change things and lift people out of the indignity of living in an incredibly unequal society. These rights cost money, rather than mere fine words with no meaning. This is money that Fine Gael and the Labour Party are not willing to spend. People like Rachel Peavoy, who froze to death in her flat in an empty block, are dying because of the lack of adequate housing. Many people who live in deplorable conditions have been waiting for years to be rehoused. Those who live in damp accommodation at Dolphin House, St. Teresa's Gardens and O'Devaney Gardens have seen their wallpaper go brown and fall off the walls. Their children are breathing in mould and have raw sewage in their drinking water, so it is no wonder that they are too sick for school some days. What of the rights of these children? What about those women who have to sleep on their mothers' couches, with their children snuggling into them for warmth, because they have no homes? What about the children who get up in the morning hungry, in unwashed clothes and without enough sleep, because their house is crowded with cousins and uncles and there is no bed for them? How can we say we know anything about the rights of children when we allow this to continue? Not only is the Government allowing it to continue - it is making it worse. It has presided over a calamitous catalogue of austerity measures. As a result, those who were already struggling are now barely able to survive. The Government has cut €116.8 million from the housing budget in the last year. It halved the funding for the regeneration project in Ballymun, where Rachel Peavoy died in her flat. Those who are living in squalor and suffering ill-health, due to the disrepair of their accommodation, can expect worse in the future as they are left in the mire.

I would like to speak about the cuts that have been imposed on people on rent supplement. Many of those who have been told they have a right to housing, as long as it involves the use of tax revenue to fund private landlords, are struggling to find a place that will let them rent. Rent supplement is a poverty trap which forbids them from moving out of unemployment. Now they have to lower the standard of accommodation they seek because it was costing too much. Does the Government think the people receiving rent supplement were living in luxury? Does it think they have the ability to tighten their belts, or is it just that the Government wants to tighten the noose? We must begin a process where the rights of people are taken seriously, rather than merely being mentioned in ministerial speeches which promise nothing but the same. We must change the system to enshrine not just a mention of rights but the specifics of what those rights are, and the State's responsibility to protect and provide for these rights. It is not 1937 anymore. We are living in the era of human, social, political and economic rights. We should begin to govern like that. We should provide for, protect and enshrine real rights for people, rather than more hot air. While I welcome this Bill, if it is the best the Government has to offer our children and the pinnacle of its understanding of rights and the State's responsibilities, we should all worry. Children are the future of this country. They should be respected and heard. I remember the case of Daniel McAnaspie, who was murdered. If legislation had been in place to enshrine his rights, maybe he would have been helped and his family would have been heard. We have had to face many such tragedies over the years.

I commend the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, on drafting and introducing this Bill. It has been said many times over the last couple of days that this legislation is long overdue. Many people have been waiting for it. A Deputy who is a former social worker gave the House her first-hand experience of why this referendum is important. I have come across cases during my work as a county councillor and as a Deputy that have confirmed to me that this amendment is necessary. Sinn Féin has asked consecutive Governments to do exactly what is being done. I must give this Government credit for doing the right thing on this occasion.

Although I accept that this Bill is a step towards "cherishing all the children of the nation equally", it would be remiss of me not to consider this debate in the context of a debate that took place in the Dáil last night and the night before. Today we are debating a Bill that might enshrine the rights of children in our Constitution, but when we debated a motion relating to the Magdalene laundries, the Government refused to offer sincere apologies. It would not debate the possibility of compensation being paid to the poor women who were enslaved in the same laundries that were used by Government Departments, State agencies and even Áras an Uachtaráin. The State has been absolutely linked to the abuse of these citizens, so it is important for it to apologise some time in the near future.

When we study the text of the Bill before the House, we must realise that words are meaningless unless they are matched with the resources and political will to make them a reality. I have often noted that strategies and legislation are worthless in the absence of resources. One could paper the walls of Leinster House and Government Buildings with the fine words of the literature that the Government and all parties in this House will produce in support of this referendum. Unless those words are linked to actions and resources, they are not worth the paper they are written on.

Even though the Minister knows that children are disproportionately affected by poverty, the Government has continued to cut funding to services over the past 19 months. I refer to services that provide vital supports to families and children. The wording and sentiment of this Bill fly in the face of recent budget cuts and, if the kites that were flown over the summer are anything to go by, the measures in the forthcoming budget. The voluntary and community sector provides vital services that the State and the private sector cannot or are unwilling to provide. Large swathes of the population in certain parts of this State depend on services that the Government has attempted to shut down.

I would like to give some evidence in support of the point I am making. When Government spending fell by 2.82% between 2008 and 2012, the funding given to community-based services was disproportionately cut. If one uses the Government's own figures from the budgets of 2008 to 2012, one can see that Government funding to family support projects has been cut by 17%, funding for voluntary housing has been cut by 54%, funding for drug projects has been cut by 29% and funding for sports capital grants has been cut by 52%. The comprehensive review of expenditure holds out the prospect of further contraction in education, community employment, housing, mental health, disability and services that protect the welfare of children. The national recovery plan indicates that nearly 50% of funding to tackle drugs will be cut by 2014, reducing overall spending to €23 million down from €44 million in 2008.

In November 2011, the Government scheduled 41 State agencies for closure, of which 15 were specific to social policy, This is another example of the Government having a particular focus on undermining the community sector. The savings from this measure - a paltry €6 million - are minimal. At the same time, the Government established the biggest and most expensive quango in the history of the State, namely NAMA. It is clear that the focus of the Government's attacks is on the community sector and the communities it serves. Based on the figures available, 31% of workers in the community sector will be gone by 2015. These workers provide essential services in the communities of greatest need. How can the Government square the demise of this sector, which it will oversee if it continues to take the road it is taking, with the words in this Bill that are to be enshrined in our Constitution?

According to the evidence I have presented, the Government will be guilty of gross hypocrisy if it continues to take this approach. With this in mind, the wording of the proposed referendum rings hollow. Child poverty under this Government is increasing at a faster rate in Ireland than it is in Greece. Child poverty levels had been decreasing until 2009, but they have unfortunately started to rise again, particularly since last year's budget. The Government, with a Labour Party Minister, has done nothing to reverse that trend. In my constituency of Laois-Offaly vulnerable young people have suffered at the hands of the Government. Respite services for young people with mental disabilities in County Laois have been cut and, in some cases, totally shut down. Fountain View House in Abbeyleix which provided an excellent respite service for adults is now closed. The 50 adults who availed of this service will now have to seek care in Mountrath where a service will only be available on alternative weeks. Here is the crunch: up to two weeks ago, that service catered solely for children and young people. Not only is the level of service being cut in two, but there is also no provision for emergency respite care where required by families of children with mental disabilities, including Down's syndrome. Many of the children affected will not now be able to avail of respite services in Mountrath but instead will be offered what is called "share a break" with unqualified adults. Does the Minister consider it safe to have children with mental disabilities dealt with by unqualified adults, as has been proposed by the HSE? It is a recipe for disaster and a case of history repeating itself under the watch of the Minister whom I take to be a sincere person and know is concerned about the welfare of children. I take the opportunity to urge her and the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, to take the lead and reverse these cuts, particularly those to services for vulnerable young people.

I salute the Minister's achievement in bringing the legislation before the House. I know it has been difficult to get it this far. I look forward to campaigning vigorously to have the referendum passed, but the political epitaph of the Government will mention hypocrisy if it does not match words with action. I appeal to it to do so.

I wish to share time with Deputies Sean Kyne and Liam Twomey.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I am pleased to have an opportunity to speak to the Bill. This debate is the start of a national debate on the issue in the context of the upcoming referendum on 10 November. It is disappointing, therefore, that it is not getting the broader coverage that it deserves. If one listened to many of the contributions to the debate, as I have done, they were all hugely relevant to the issues that we need to discuss, both in the context of the upcoming budget, as well as the referendum, and the broader agenda around the programme for change for children which the Government is advocating. We have Members who are genuinely representative of all sections of society. Some have been foster parents, some have brothers and sisters who have been adopted or had brother and sisters in foster care, while others have been social workers. Therefore, there is a broad range of experiences and a real commitment to this issue that deserves to be understood and covered in informing the broader public debate on it. It is unfortunate that we have not had that space in recent days, given the coverage of other political scandals which are not as relevant in any sense to the common good as this debate is.

I congratulate my colleague, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald. From the very outset, the fact that the Taoiseach chose to appoint a Minister for Children and Youth Affairs was a statement of intent that we wanted to do something real in terms of the programme for Government. The choice of Minister was also a statement of intent, as the Minister has been a fearless advocate for women's rights. When our term in government is being assessed, some of the fundamental changes delivered will have stemmed from this new Department, as time will show.

I am pleased that all parties in the House have chosen to welcome what we are trying to do in the referendum. This is about shifting fundamentally the legal framework and protection provided under the Constitution since its inception to balance the rights of families and those of parents and children in their own right. This should have happened before and I am glad it is happening now. When the Constitution was written, the attitude towards the family and the support provided through the family for children were very different. This is about the modernisation of the Constitution to learn from the shameful mistakes made which resulted in the tragedies to which Deputies Dessie Ellis and Brian Stanley referred and which, to be honest, were preventable. They are a scar on the history of a country that makes very strong statements on cherishing children in various contributions.

What we are trying to do is to strike a difficult balance and put a wording together in order that we can, first and foremost, provide clarity for judges who need to make difficult and sensitive decisions and also give direction to social workers who face extraordinarily complex problems. We also want to prioritise the rights of an innocent child in that decision-making process and in the legal determination of whether we should intervene and decide how supports should be provided and how we can balance people's rights, often in very emotive and difficult situations for both parents and children, in making life changing decisions and interventions that the State has a responsibility to make but has failed to make in the past, with tragic consequences. In many ways, this failure has been supported by the legal system, which is why it is so important to change the Constitution, rather than try to deal with this issue through primary legislation. Of course, what we are doing in the Constitution needs to be backed up with primary legislation, which is exactly what is happening by way of the Adoption (Amendment) Bill that the Minister has published and introduced.

It is, of course, possible to make a strong case that we should be doing more in regard to the wording of the amendment. However, this is about trying to meet the need for clarity in the Constitution to give priority to a vulnerable child while at the same time recognising the role of legislation to back it up and providing for all of the other rights that I know Deputies are seeking for children and backing this up through the decision-making process at budget time and other times of the year in order that we deal with the level of child poverty in Ireland, as highlighted by Members in graphic detail.

It is the responsibility of Government to do all of those things. Colleagues on both sides of the House should not expect to achieve them through a wording for a constitutional change. This is about a provision in our Constitution that gives clear direction to judges and policy makers in terms of what they need to do. That needs to be followed up by other actions from Government and the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, including drafting primary legislation to solidify, clarify and give details of the rights we need to protect for children. The Government must also back that up - at a very difficult and tight time from a budgetary point of view, when Ministers are operating under expenditure ceilings, which is not something we are used to - by finding a way to prioritise and allocate resources. As far as possible, we must be consistent in what we are doing in terms of the legislation we are introducing and, indeed, the wording we are advocating that the public in Ireland support on 10 November.

As a number of speakers have already mentioned, approximately 30,000 cases of concern about the welfare and vulnerability of children are reported each year. That is a large number of cases and we need both the resources and the legal framework to be able to deal with them as effectively as possible. We need to make difficult judgments with regard to legislation, including, for example, on the role of foster parents, to try to facilitate the transition for children from foster care into long-term adoption. In this way, vulnerable children who have been failed by their parents over a long and measurable period can have the benefit of a stable, loving and lasting relationship within a family structure. That has not been catered for in law to date. As a result, we have seen cases in which foster parents who desperately wanted to adopt children they loved were prevented from doing so. At the same time, we need to balance the obligation towards the child in such a situation with the rights of parents who may turn their lives around and try to take responsibility for their children again, having done that with the support and care of social workers and the State. It is a difficult balancing act, but I am pleased that the parties in the House have decided to support what we are trying to do. I hope we will have the kind of public debate that is needed in the build-up to 10 November so that we can get a result that will have a lasting benefit for vulnerable children across the country.

The amendment proposed by this Bill, which is to be put to the people, has been a long time coming. It is particularly timely given that this year marks the 20th anniversary of Ireland's ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. This convention contains several principles focusing on the best interests of the child, the right of the child to be heard and the right to life, survival and development. The amendment proposed in the referendum on 10 November will help to ensure that our Constitution helps us as a nation to live up to these noble and fundamental principles.

The Constitution, as an espousal of our ideas and values, defines our nation. To a large extent, time and constructive consideration are of the utmost importance when amendments to it are at issue. No one can argue that time and careful consideration has not been given to this amendment. The debate has been ongoing for 20 years now, with contributions from legislators, legal experts, policy makers and NGOs, all seeking to redress the imbalance. The Constitution Review Group, the all-party Oireachtas committees and others have produced over a dozen reports on the matter and much of this work is reflected in the finalised proposed amendment before us.

There are many reasons to support this amendment, not least because it will enshrine the independent rights of children and redress the imbalance which currently favours the rights of parents and family over children. This imbalance will be remedied as the State, through its agents such as social workers and health practitioners, will be explicitly empowered to intervene in cases in which a child's rights are being neglected or trampled on. Furthermore, the amendment will, for the first time, end the unconscionable situation whereby children have been treated differently on the basis of their parents' marital status. It will also bring to an end the situation whereby some children have to spend most of their childhoods in foster care because of a ban on voluntary adoption of the children of married parents.

This week the Dáil debated a motion on the Magdalen laundries, which was one tragic and shameful chapter of our recent history. Together with the Ryan and Murphy reports into the abuse of children, either in parishes or institutions, it is beyond doubt that the rights of some children have been ignored and disregarded. This neglect went on to have profoundly negative effects as the affected children reached adulthood. The amendment to include the new Article 42A in the Constitution will enable us as a society to prevent the traumatic and harrowing events of the past from happening again by ensuring State intervention to uphold and defend the welfare and safety of any child in the event of parental failure. By explicitly stating and recognising the natural rights of children, we are setting ourselves a high standard which should be common sense to any society which values, cherishes and protects its children, especially its vulnerable ones.

Despite the broad support for this amendment from all political parties and most NGOs and children's charities, we would be foolish to believe it is without detractors. Some have espoused genuinely held points of view while others have peddled complete nonsense, such as the claim that if the amendment is passed children will be taken from their families on the basis of a phone call. Others still have castigated the amendment and view it in a similar light to the mother and child scheme of some 60 years ago on the basis that it seemingly interferes with family life. Opponents in the last category seem to have difficulty with an Ireland that no longer imposes morality based upon a single religion but rather works to safeguard child welfare and vindicate the rights of children as human beings, through a combination of legislation and constitutional amendments, based on internationally recognised best practice standards.

This amendment should not be viewed as a standalone measure. It is the latest in a suite of measures designed to prioritise child welfare and rectify the grave mistakes of the past. Already, in the short time it has been in office, the Government has produced other significant legislative measures in this area, including the Criminal Justice (Withholding Information on Offences Against Children and Vulnerable Persons) Bill and the National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Persons) Bill. These will be joined by the children first Bill, which will clarify and strengthen procedures to guide those citizens working with children. These Bills and the addition of a dedicated article dealing with children's rights into our Constitution are essential, but so too are resources. If we are to succeed in upholding the highest standards of child welfare and protection we must ensure we make best use of the resources we have.

I note and support the inclusion of the child and family support agency Bill on the autumn legislative programme. A task force was established recently to advise the Department of Children and Youth Affairs on the creation and operation of this new agency, whose sole focus will be the delivery of family support and child welfare and protection services. I commend the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, who is evidently working hard to reform this vital area. I also commend her for her work over the last 18 months on the rights of the child. The constitutional amendment to be put before the people on 10 November is central to this work and I urge all citizens to support it.

There are 1.1 million children living in Ireland. At any one time, 6,000 of these children are in care and, of these, 2,000 have been in care for more than five years. Our child services are doing their very best to look after our troubled, neglected and abused children. They may be a very small cohort but they require huge intervention from the State. I have direct experience in this area. I agree with some speakers who argued that we need more resources. There is absolutely no doubt about that. I also agree that we do not get it right all the time, but this is one of the most emotionally tough areas in which to work. The State does not try to replace parents. In the vast majority of cases, the families of vulnerable children are getting support from State agencies. Thousands of children and their families are receiving a lifeline every day from State agencies under tough emotional and economic conditions for both the families and the people providing the services. The best interests of the child are always served by those who work in this field. I would never put down the hard work and dedication of the people in this field.

The best interests and welfare of children are covered by legislation such as the Children Act 1991. Prior to that child protection was based on legislation enacted in 1908. We have come a long way in recent years. The referendum will help give the courts more guidance on how to look after children via both the Constitution and the subsequent legislation which will follow.

For the vast majority of children, regardless of the referendum, parental rights will remain paramount. The referendum will change nothing for them. Sadly, for a small cohort of traumatised children we must give them equal rights to their parents in order that the courts have the power to protect them. The intention of the amendment is to protect a small group of children.

This is not about dysfunctional families. What I might consider to be a normal family, someone else might consider dysfunctional. This is not about putting one set of values above another. When the State intervenes in children's lives in this country it is to help the parents and children. In a small number of cases it is to save the children from neglect, often what is criminal abuse and neglect of a small cohort of children who are the backdrop to many of the cases to which reference has been made in the Chamber. I am pleased that we are doing this work.

I have spent years watching judges, social workers, child care workers, public health nurses, care assistants and doctors striving to be fair and impartial in what are huge emotional and legal issues. I urge that we would not allow the referendum to become a sterile legalistic campaign. The referendum and subsequent legislation could save the lives of a small number of children. For years we said children must be seen and not heard. The referendum and its accompanying legislation will show that we want both to see our children and to hear what they have to say. That is what we should support in the context of the referendum.

I am delighted that for the vast majority of children this country is a great country in which to live. My children are all under the age of 11. They think their new found children's rights is about putting chocolate muffins into their lunch box. I do not wish to be flippant about what we are doing but this is a great country for children. What we are doing is building on that so the small number of children know we believe in them and are there to help them and look after them. In some respects the referendum is a celebration of what we are doing for children. We should campaign on that basis.

I wish to share time with Deputy Healy-Rae.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I commend the Minister on the work she has done to bring the referendum to fruition. She has a strong commitment to children and vast professional experience in the area. I am particularly proud to be a Member of the Oireachtas when the referendum is being put to the people.

Prior to being elected for Dublin West, I worked for many years as policy officer with Focus Ireland and was involved in some of the initial discussions and submissions when the Oireachtas committee chaired by the former Minister, Mary O'Rourke, was formed. I am on the record as being critical of the economic strategies of the previous Fianna Fáil Government but while in the NGO sector I worked with the previous Minister of State with responsibility for children, Barry Andrews, and found him to have a strong commitment to the area. It is right that his work in this area is acknowledged.

The referendum to deliver children's rights is something for which people have been campaigning right across civil society for some time. Organisations such as Focus Ireland, the Children's Rights Alliance, Empowering People in Care, EPIC, which represents children in care or who have moved out of the care system, Barnardos and countless NGOs have championed this cause. It is a positive development that in the House where there are often, rightly, areas of strong, fundamental and in some cases irreconcilable disagreement, that there are issues on which I hope there is consensus. When it comes to child protection and the rights of children that is one of the areas on which there is agreement.

This is very much a first step in terms of delivering on children's rights in the Constitution. It is an important and strong step in the right direction but it is by no means the end of the discussion. Social and economic rights are also inalienable and should be included in the Constitution. In that context, there are 100,000 children living in poverty. We know from the Central Statistics Office that 13% of children live in homes that were not adequately heated in 2010. Educational disadvantage and inequality is still a reality for many children. Until we address those issues our work as an Oireachtas and a country will not be complete.

The constitutional amendment specifically recognises two things: the rights of the child as a citizen in this Republic, for the want of a better way of expressing it, and most importantly, when it comes to discussing where they live and with whom, that their voice is recognised and will be heard in the process. The fact that the new Article 42A specifically draws attention to the rights of the child is crucially important and is welcome. I hope it will help to ensure the best outcomes for children.

It would be remiss of me not to follow on from Deputy Twomey's reference to the 6,000 children in care. Section 45 of the Child Care Act 1991 must be amended to provide for a statutory right to aftercare. Both the Fine Gael Party and the Labour Party supported the amendment when we were in opposition and gave commitments to change it when in government. I look forward to us working together to try to introduce such a legislative change to provide for a statutory right to aftercare for all young people who leave State care. That would be an important step forward and would give a practical and policy effect to the text of the Constitution, Bunreacht na hÉireann. I hope we can return to the issue.

There is an inextricable link between homelessness and child protection and ensuring that children can grow up in a secure environment. Many of the tragic and difficult life stories which were expressed poignantly and elaborated on in the report of the special review group chaired by Geoffrey Shannon, with the assistance of people such a Norah Gibbons, related to young people who died in care and who had been involved with the homeless service at times and had slipped through the cracks. We must address those issues as well and ensure that where a child is at risk or becomes homeless that the State, as it were, would wrap its arms around them in the way that a parent would wrap their arms around a child who was in trouble or unwell. We must ensure we learn from those telling and profound reports about our fellow citizens who have unfortunately passed away despite having been in State care.

The referendum is a step in the right direction to deal with what is a complex issue, but it also requires effective policy such as the provision of housing, dealing with families in crisis and making sure, for example, that we support community mental health teams so services for families experiencing stress and difficulties due to breakdown or addiction and the plethora of issues those who work in the social work or child care area encounter are protected. If we do not do that the amendment to the Constitution will be just a change on a piece of paper; it will not genuinely transform the lives of children in the Republic. I hope the issue can be central to the debate as well.

Sitting suspended at 1 p.m. and resumed at 1.30 p.m.

Deputy Patrick Nulty is in possession.

In addition to my earlier remarks, I wish to comment on the actual referendum campaign. As other contributors noted, there is a near consensus across the political spectrum in favour of a "Yes" vote but we cannot in any way be complacent about the campaign. In referendums in the past there have been very reactionary elements that have sought to play on fears, distort reality and play an unhelpful role in campaigns, and we must be ready for that. We must campaign by knocking on doors and convincing people to vote "Yes" for children's rights and give children a voice in our Constitution. That means being willing to listen to the legitimate questions people have and being willing to address them, talk to them and explain what this referendum and the amendment to the Constitution will do, in real terms. In real terms it will see that children are, for the first time, recognised in the Constitution; it will help modernise the Constitution for the 21st century and ensure that children in a vulnerable position will have the support of the State and know the State is behind them.

As I stated, I believe this is only a first step in terms of vindicating children's rights. There is a very long way to go to tackle the issues of social, economic and cultural rights, not only for children but for every citizen in the country. The referendum is a welcome step forward. Again, I commend the Minister for her work and I look forward to the campaign.

Deputy Michael Healy-Rae has ten minutes.

I sincerely thank the Technical Group for allowing me time to speak on this very important matter. I very much welcome that we are to have a referendum on children and I hope that after the vote takes place there will be a greater recognition of and a certain place in our society for young people. We all know of the awful abuses that befell some young people in years past. When we look back, as we must, on the history of the protection of children, we really left a great deal to be desired. To take the education system alone, it is not too many moons ago that corporal punishment was accepted. It was a practice that was carried out every day in our schools during that period, considered an acceptable practice by a person whose job it was to be entrusted with the care of a child for the day, to educate and, supposedly, protect that child. During the course of the day it was acceptable behaviour for that person to beat and hurt the child. That is awful. That is where we are coming from in this country, from a level and a time where that practice was acceptable. Thanks be to God it is no longer acceptable. It is no longer allowed in any shape or fashion to hurt, hit or interfere with a child. I thank the Government for its work on this matter and reiterate my welcome for this referendum. I do so in the hope that afterwards Ireland will be a better place when it comes to taking care of our young children.

I also thank groups such as Barnardos, the Children's Rights Alliance and others that campaigned very sincerely throughout the years for children's rights. Children are only young once and if something goes wrong during their childhood we cannot ever buy back the years they have lost. That is why it is 100% our responsibility, as legislators, to ensure that young people have a happy and carefree childhood. In the world we live in now there are situations where, unfortunately, parents break up and remarry. Many different situations happen. In the middle of all that there are our young people, our children, and we must ensure they are protected, that the State will be present for them and that they are people in their own right, who have their own rights even if they are only children. When I say "only children" I do not mean it in a derogatory way but to say that we must value them for what they are, namely, young people with rights.

The Children's Rights Alliance has published a document giving five key reasons to support the children's referendum. The first is that for the first time the Constitution will take a child-centred approach to the protection of all children and will allow the State better to support families who are struggling, rather than wait for a situation to reach a crisis point. I refer back to what I stated about marital and relationship break-ups. What consenting adults do is their own business but if there are children involved it is of paramount importance that they are protected.

Second, the provision will allow 2,000 children, which is a very large number, in long-term State care the opportunity to be adopted and given a second chance to be part of a loving, stable and permanent family. In a marital break-up children, for one reason or another, can find themselves in circumstances where their parents are unable or unwilling to take care of them but there are many loving couples who would dearly wish to adopt children and give them a safe and happy upbringing. They would not be seeking to adopt unless they had the financial wherewithal to bring up children and therefore we must do everything to ensure that young people who need a loving family structure to be part of will have that opportunity.

The third point made by the Children's Rights Alliance is that child care, adoption, guardianship, custody and access decisions should be based on what is in the best interest of the child. That is 100% right. This measure will ensure that judges listen to the views of children when making decisions in child care, adoption, guardianship, custody and access cases. It should be the case that judges have the best interests of the child at heart at all times. This will set out how we as a country now view and value our children and help us move beyond the damning history of child abuse. What happened to children in the past here can never be allowed to happen in the future.

As I stated at the outset, we have a damning history with regard to child care because of the situation between the State and the Church and in terms of what was allowed to happen. A commission set up in 2009 to inquire into child abuse examined the official and the unofficial attitude to children and families who were in need of assistance. Its report found that we banished those young people to industrial and reformatory schools which were established in 1858. Sadly, from 1936 to 1970, 170,000 children and young people were sent to those schools. That is frightening because they were facing into a situation where there was not adequate care for them. They were deprived of a caring relationship with adults. They were treated as if they were not real people. That is the reason this referendum is so important. For once and for all, a child will have the same rights and will be considered in the same way as an adult, which is only right.

Of the 170,000 children who entered those schools in the years I mentioned, 791 adults spoke to the commission in confidence about their experiences in these schools throughout their childhood. They reported that circumstances including a combination of poverty, illness, parental death and non-marital births contributed significantly to their admissions to these schools.

We discuss non-marital status at the time but it is a terrible indictment of what went on that children were born in circumstances where they did not have two parents to take care of them. In many instances a large majority of the 170,000 people who were admitted to these schools came from a one-parent background. Of the 791 people who were spoken to, 229 were from non-marital families; 562 were born into marital families but in 140 cases the death of one of the parents led to their admissions into these schools; 241 reported that parental alcohol abuse, poverty and family violence, and lack of care and control, led to their admission; and of the 791, only 14% were admitted as a result of a criminal conviction, in other words, for committing a crime, but the majority of crimes committed in those cases were the theft of food, fuel, bicycles and clothing. In other words, all these young people were trying to do was survive.

I hope the campaign will inform the people before they vote, and I will rely on our media to have an open debate. We are heading into the time of year when people have more time at night to watch television and follow the debates. I hope the Government, and the Opposition, will have representatives informing the people on what is being proposed and outlining that it is for the betterment, security and safety of our children.

I call Deputy Simon Harris who I understand proposes to share his time.

I am sharing time with Deputies Phelan and Corcoran Kennedy.

I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak on the Thirty-First Amendment of the Constitution (Children) Bill which will provide for a children's referendum to be held and for a new article to be inserted into our Constitution recognising the rights of children in our country. I commend the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, on her tireless and determined work in making this referendum a reality and in keeping it a political priority.

In a time when we all know that the economy dominates political media and public debate it would have been easy to let the issue of child protection, and a referendum on this issue, slide down the political agenda. It is a credit to the Minister and to this Government that this has not happened and that she has brought us as a nation to this point where people will have an opportunity shortly to cast their ballots on this very important issue.

I genuinely enjoyed following the debate in the House over the course of the week. It has been one of the more interesting and substantive debates I have heard in my 18 months in this House. It has been a testament to how good this institution and this House can be when political parties of all sides park their differences and make constructive and substantive suggestions. The only regret is that, unfortunately, when that happens there appears to be a lack of media interest in it. The media must re-examine that issue. It seems that when there is no argy-bargy and Punch and Judy antics what happens in this House is not newsworthy. It is important to put that on the record.

In the time available to me I will focus on three points relating to the forthcoming children's referendum. First, it is important to note that while child protection issues are ongoing, there is no doubt they are very much an issue for modern Ireland. This referendum also provides a nod to our history and sends a message to those who were failed as children by our State, our institutions and some of its citizens. It takes the collective sense of shame, disgust, anger, repulsion and frustration which we as a nation, and each of us as individuals, felt upon hearing of the failure of this country to protect its children and turns those feelings into a statement of intent in the form of an article in our Constitution in which we clearly set out our desire to the effect that such failure or neglect will never again be tolerated. The national rug under which so much has been swept is being thrown out and a new Ireland is grappling with its past as it looks to its future. In my opinion, this referendum marks the coming of age of our Republic in the context of protecting vulnerable children. It brings to life our words of regret and sorrow with positive action and intent.

There has been a great deal of comment with regard to the resourcing of services. There is no doubt that this is an important aspect of any political debate and also the delivery of any structure. It is vital, however, that we do not narrow the focus of this debate on Ireland's children to concentrate simply on the issue of funding. This country underwent a decade of massive economic growth which led to the creation of huge national wealth. Even during that time, however, we all were aware of the newspaper and television reports about vulnerable children being failed and child protection structures not working. There is a need for a cultural and legal shift in how the State cares for its vulnerable children. No amount of funding could ever rectify the reality that when it comes to adoption, children are not treated equally under Irish law. No amount of Government expenditure could ever change our legal system to ensure that the voices of children are heard and considered by the Judiciary. As the advertisement for one of the credit card companies states, "There are some things money can't buy."

The forthcoming referendum will involve the people placing in our supreme guiding legal document an intention to hear children's voices, support vulnerable children and treat all children equally when it comes to adoption. By all means, let us continue the important political discussion with regard to child-proofing budgets and the provision of funding. However, we must also recognise that the referendum will solve the age-old problems the country has faced, which no budget, in and of itself, could ever solve.

It must be acknowledged - as the Minister has done - that there is no such thing as a perfect wording. In my view and that of Members on all sides, this wording strikes a good balance and achieves what we as a society wish to achieve in respect of protecting and supporting vulnerable children. I echo the call by former Supreme Court Justice Catherine McGuinness and others for people, as the referendum approaches, to study the wording and familiarise themselves with it but avoid the risk of over-parsing it. As is the case with the old adage to the effect that doctors differ and patients die, if one puts a group of lawyers in a room for long enough, diverse views on any legal wording will emerge.

When we as citizens set out to consider this issue and then vote on it, we must ask ourselves key questions. For example, does this referendum move the country closer to where we want it to be in terms of how we view and value children? Is it an honest and credible effort to act upon the concerns expressed in some 17 reports over a period of two decades in respect of child protection structures and how we view children? Will the referendum help to ensure that children will be listened to when decisions relating to their well-being are made? Will it end a historic injustice and inequality in terms of how some children are treated within the existing adoption structures? If the answer to these questions is "Yes" - and I truly believe it is - then people must cast their ballots in favour of the constitutional amendment on Saturday, 10 November. Both the referendum and the Constitution belong to all of the Irish people, not to any one group. By familiarising ourselves with the wording, by engaging in respect of the issues and by voting, we can advance the position with regard to child protection a few weeks from now.

I join previous speakers in welcoming the Bill. I also welcome the fact that we are going to have a referendum to recognise the rights of children distinctly within the Constitution. I commend the Minister and her officials for bringing us to the point at which we are discussing the legislation that will allow the referendum to take place. The programme for Government contained an express commitment in respect of this matter and it is important that said commitment is now going to come to fruition. I join the previous speaker in hoping there will be a full and frank discussion of the issues during the campaign leading up to the referendum on 10 November.

In light of what we have learned in recent years with regard to the wholesale neglect of children by the State and the different organisations it charged with their care, it is important that we specifically acknowledge the rights of children within the Constitution. I commend the Minister and her officials on the wording of the proposed new Article 42A. Prior to the publication of the Bill, some concerns were expressed about the difficulty of ensuring that the wording would not be in any way controversial. In that context, I completely support the proposed wording because it will ensure that the rights of children will be fully protected by the Constitution in the future. That is wholly appropriate, particularly in light of the scandalous abuse of children that, sadly, occurred in this country over many years. As Deputy Harris pointed out, the proposed constitutional amendment is an attempt on the part of the State to grapple and come to terms with the scale of that abuse. It is not before time that this is happening. However, it is important that it is being done at this juncture.

I wish to emphasise the fact that the proposed new Article 42A makes particular reference to the exceptional circumstances that can arise from time to time. Thankfully, in most families such circumstances do not arise. They do, however, arise in a minority of instances. It is a fundamental part of the role of any legislator to ensure that we legislate for the future. Children and their rights must be central in this regard. I am fortunate in that I grew up in a very happy family environment. Not every child has the same opportunities I did and it is only right, therefore, that the agencies of the State should be in a position to intervene in family situations in which the relevant protections are not afforded to children. That is why the Bill before the House and the forthcoming referendum have my complete support.

It is the duty of every Member of the Oireachtas to ensure that the children of Ireland will enjoy the freedoms and protections outlined in the constitutional amendment. In beginning a new chapter in the history of our country, it is important to acknowledge some of the scandalous atrocities that were visited upon children in the past. It is very important, therefore, that we are now inserting into our Constitution express provision relating to the protection of children. Not every child finds himself or herself in the fortunate position of growing up in a happy family environment.

I welcome the recent publication of new adoption legislation by the Minister. The latter seeks to remove some of the inequalities contained in existing adoption legislation whereby the children of potentially married parents who are in long-term foster care could be adopted by their foster parents. This is a positive expression on the part of the State of its gratitude to foster families, of which there are many throughout the country, that have taken children from difficult backgrounds into their homes and lives and provided them with a proper upbringing. It is an extremely positive development that the role played by these families is being acknowledged and that it will be enhanced into the future. The relevant provision in this regard is contained in the adoption legislation that was published after the Thirty-first Amendment of the Constitution (Children) Bill.

I take this opportunity to reaffirm my full support for both the Bill before the House and the forthcoming referendum.

Constitutional documents have a tendency to avoid being prescriptive, listing as they do the rights of citizens. It is wholly appropriate that the Constitution would list the rights of children and that the nation would resolve to protect those rights. This is the reason I fully support this legislation and the proposed constitutional amendment.

I welcome the opportunity to speak in this important debate. I warmly welcome the publication of the Thirty-First Amendment of the Constitution (Children) Bill 2012, as provided for in the programme for Government, which is an important element of the reform of child protection legislation. I thank all those who have contributed to date, including those in the political sphere and also advocates such as the Children's Rights Alliance and Dr. Geoffrey Shannon, and especially the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, and her officials in the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. The creation of a special Cabinet Minister with responsibility for children copperfastens the Government's commitment to children and families in our society.

By providing for the insertion in the Constitution of a new Article 42A, the nation will ensure that children are recognised in their own right in the Constitution, in which they had previously been all but invisible. The opponents of the referendum argue that a "Yes" vote would in some way reduce the role of the family. Nothing could be further from the truth. The family will continue to be protected under Article 41. We all know that the best place for children is to live with their families but not all families can provide, or wish to provide, what children need. Such families will not help children to reveal their true potential and to succeed in life.

We should reflect on how children have been served by the Constitution to date. The passing of the referendum will ensure they will be placed centrally in the Constitution. As other speakers have said, this change was recommended by Mrs. Justice Catherine McGuinness at least 20 years ago. In cases in which families are not the best or safest place for children, the voices of children will have to be taken into account where previously the family was prioritised. Those arguing against the proposal have stated that the State will take children away from their families, and such scaremongering is beginning to be spread in the debate. However, the State will intervene only in exceptional circumstances. The model of family support for children and the protection of their welfare is still central to Government policy and will not change. This has been a successful model. I refer to the marvellous foster families who welcome children into the warmth of their family homes and provide them with the care and attention they need so that they can heal their emotional or physical wounds. Foster parents are very special people and their marvellous work must be acknowledged.

I refer to the proposed Article 42A.2.2° which will make provision for the adoption of children. This will allow for children to be adopted, but only where the biological parents voluntarily agree. Currently there are 1,500 children who have been in care for more than five years and who have little or no contact with their biological families. Those children deserve the opportunity to be adopted into a loving family and to be given all the opportunities and security of belonging legally to a family. We need to consider the welfare of children whose parents are abusive to the point of criminality and ensure that laws are in place to protect them. The publication of the general scheme of the adoption (amendment) Bill alongside the referendum will inform the debate and provide the required clarification.

I am pleased to note that Members opposite support the work of the Minister and that they will campaign for a "Yes" vote in this most important referendum. I hope that people will engage in the debate and that they will take note of the information provided so that we can have a good debate with them when we go out on the campaign. At that point we will be able to discuss the proposal in detail with voters. We are putting children at the heart of our Constitution and at the heart of our society.

We have all been horrified by the cases that have arisen in the past. Deputy John Paul Phelan referred to his own happy upbringing and I am one of many who had a happy childhood. Those of us who know what it is like to have a happy and fulfilled family life think of the horrors that other children have suffered throughout the history of this country, often at the hands of their families. It is the responsibility of the media to give us their full attention so that people will hear the points we make about the referendum.

I know this referendum will not solve all of society's ills but we must protect our children, support families and treat all our children equally so that they may live healthy, safe and contented lives and have the opportunity to fulfil their potential and to become full members of society. I look forward to taking part in the campaign to advocate for a "Yes" vote and I look forward to hearing both sides of the argument in the debate, but I hope those campaigning for a "No" vote will listen to those of us who are advocating for the proposal and see the sincerity of our call for a "Yes" vote.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. This is an historic occasion because we hope to enshrine the rights of children in the Constitution, and I thank the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, for giving the people the opportunity to express their wishes in a referendum. There is unity of purpose in the House with regard to the broad thrust of the amendment and my words should be taken as observations rather than criticisms of the Government or its policy.

The Minister knows well that rights have often been established without the resources to back them up. In past decades, the church, the State and families have abdicated responsibility for giving children the opportunity to reach their full potential. The abuse inflicted on many children has had a deep and damaging effect on the nation. I hope this referendum may be part of the healing process and allow people to express support for children's rights, thereby acknowledging that we all betrayed children for too long. The unity of purpose in this House and the broad support among the community is very welcome.

The publication of the adoption (amendment) Bill in tandem with the proposed wording of the constitutional amendment is welcome. We are all aware that the lives of too many children have been put on hold because of the difficulties associated with the adoption of children of married couples. In particular, the provision to address the difficulties arising from the prohibition on the children of married couples being placed for adoption is very welcome. It is a critical component of the overall architecture of the amendment.

We are very good at conferring rights but not so good at resourcing them. For example, for far too long we have turned a blind eye to the incidence of truancy in schools. This is just one instance where legislative provisions regarding the welfare and health of children are not reflected in practice. There is an opportunity now to have a debate on the need for a higher level of liaison between the various State agencies involved in child welfare issues, the Garda Síochána and schools. Teachers are on the front line in that it is they who will observe that a child is not attending school or is showing signs of malnourishment or other types of mistreatment. The obligation should not necessarily be on the teacher to report in such instances, but there should be a mechanism whereby schools can report such matters to the relevant agency - in this case, the Health Service Executive - with the latter having the responsibility to act. With the benefit of hindsight, it seems obvious that in the Kilkenny incest case, the Roscommon case and others there were serious problems in the home. While those problems may have been alerted to the authorities from time to time through the schools or by members of the local community, no effective action was taken. This points to a fundamental breakdown in the system of protecting children, arising from a failure of communication between the various agencies in feeding information and taking appropriate action.

An effective system of co-operation and liaison between the different authorities is a critical aspect of safeguarding children's welfare. I am aware that the HSE has an obligation to act under the Child Care Act, but it can only do so on the basis of the information it is given. There must be a more concerted and proactive system of co-operation between the various bodies with a responsibility in the area of child protection and welfare. For most children, home is their sanctuary. If it is brought to the attention of authorities that a child is subject to mistreatment in the home setting, that information must be acted on. There have been claims that the provisions in this regard represent an intrusion on the privacy and sanctuary of the home. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is about achieving a balance between the right of the individual child to be heard and protected, while also recognising the special recognition assigned to the family under law. The proposed amendment does not alter that privileged status, but it does seek to hold the family accountable as a safe environment in which to raise children.

School truancy is a well recognised phenomenon in our society, as reflected in the enrolment books of a large number of schools throughout the State. What is required to address this problem is a better follow-up system involving home-school liaison officers, social workers, the HSE and, where appropriate, the Garda. A failure to attend school regularly is often the first sign that a child is in a vulnerable position. Again, sufficient resourcing is key if we are to have an effective system for detecting and deal with truancy in the education system.

To reiterate, none of the points I am raising is meant as a criticism of the Minister. As I said, she deserves the congratulations of us all for having brought this proposal to the House. This debate does, however, afford us an opportunity to raise issues of concern under the broad umbrella of child welfare and protection. A report in last Tuesday’s Irish Examiner indicated that the HSE had placed a ten year old child in a home for older, troubled children, in contravention of its own national policy recommendation that children under 12 years should be placed with families. This child had spent eight months in the care centre in question when it was visited by inspectors from the Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, last May. The inspectors conveyed their concerns to the HSE that a more appropriate placement had not been found. When the newspaper reporter inquired about the case to the HSE last Tuesday, a spokesperson indicated that the HIQA recommendations had been implemented in full. HIQA pointed out that despite the home’s stated function being to cater for 12 to 17 year olds for a maximum of 12 months, it was, in fact, open to housing children aged eight to 11 years. It is common sense to recognise that, in a care setting, children between the ages of 12 and 16 or 17 years could have a negative influence on younger children. Older children, unfortunately, may be dealing with substance abuse or sexual exploitation issues as a consequence of their experience of growing up in a dysfunctional or unsupportive home environment. We must avoid situations where vulnerable younger children are exposed, within a care setting, to negative influences. This requires clear lines of demarcation in the provision of care for children in different age cohorts. There must be dedicated facilities for vulnerable younger children and care must be taken that such children are not placed in a foster care setting where they will share a home with troubled older children. HIQA has done us a service in highlighting this issue. Once again, however, it will be a question of ensuring the HSE has adequate resources to ensure it is a priority.

Part of the difficulty in regard to child protection and welfare issues is the compartmentalising of Government activities. The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, the Minister for Health, the Minister for Social Protection, the Minister for Education and Skills and the Minister for Justice and Equality all have a responsibility, within their respective Departments, for different aspects of child welfare, including protecting and supporting children and families through social welfare and health provision. We must devise a sensible arrangement whereby Departments, instead of operating as separate silos, will take a more co-ordinated, trans-departmental approach. Some progress has been made in this regard, but it seems apparent that there are fundamental gaps and flaws which hinder a streamlining of observation, reporting and action in the area of child protection. Above all, there must be co-operation between Departments and agencies in processing information from teachers, the HSE, the Garda and community and voluntary organisations. I urge the Minister to place a strong emphasis on this issue in her management of her Department. I accept the difficulties facing her and all Ministers at a time when the Government is under severe resource pressure, but this matter must be a priority.

There are also concerns to be addressed in terms of the broader question of society and how it is evolving and developing. Any parent will agree that as soon as one has a child, one begins to look at life differently. There is huge pressure on children today as a consequence of intense marketing by various industries and companies. An issue of real concern to parents in this regard is the sexualisation of young people. While there have been significant changes in the advertisement of tobacco and alcohol products, there is covert and insidious advertising in other sectors which is targeted at younger age groups in a very succinct and subtle way. We must be diligent in this regard and there is a case for revisiting the legislation on advertising standards and considering a programme of awareness-raising in schools.

Another factor is the impact of Internet and social media advertising. Children these days are more keenly aware of issues in the world than we might have been when we were growing up simply because of the volume of information they are presented with on a daily basis through various media. This can have a disturbing and negative impact. A recent report showed that among 13, 14 and 15 year olds who had attempted suicide, a large number cited cyber bullying as a component of their distress. We must tackle the pressures on children that stem from media influences, whether through traditional advertising or the medium of the Internet. Emphasis must be placed on the protection of the child. Many reports published over the years, including the Murphy commission and Ryan reports, showed that the church, State, parents and families abdicated their responsibility, turned a blind eye to abuse and made no effort to deal with sinister and insidious behaviour in certain institutions. The State stood idly by, as it were, and abdicated its duty and responsibilities by farming out children to religious orders.

According to a recent report, some of the religious congregations still have not learned lessons from the past. The congregations have an obligation and a duty not only to clean up their act but also to assist the authorities in any way possible in their investigations into crimes committed against students and children in their care. I hope the Garda Síochána will pursue those who perpetrated heinous acts on children in schools or other institutions and bring them to justice regardless of when the abuse occurred. I was a boarder for a number of years at Sacred Heart College in Carrignavar, which was heavily criticised in a recent report. I have met some of those who were abused at the college, whose lives have been shattered by their experience. Like others who attended the school, I ask myself why we did not become aware of the abuse, especially as I considered myself a streetwise young fellow who knew the world around him fairly well. Perhaps if we had been a little more streetwise, I and others would have understood what was taking place in the college and many similar institutions around the country. People who did not see what was occurring or did not raise suspicions they may have had feel a certain amount of guilt because they believe they sat on their hands and allowed these events to happen. The referendum offers us an opportunity to try to put right the many wrongs of previous times.

The issues we face are not only historical in nature, however, because problems such as homelessness, truancy, substance abuse and the sexual exploitation of children can be observed daily on our streets. We must be conscious, therefore, that the point of the referendum is not to try to address historical deficiencies in child protection but to ensure that such deficiencies are not repeated and the vindication of the rights of the child is placed centre stage. Once the referendum has been passed, any legislation required to uphold and vindicate the rights of the child or force the State to meet its responsibilities will be welcome. I hope that child protection legislation will be continuously monitored and updated as society evolves and changes.

The amendment to the Constitution will provide a new lease of life for children of married couples who have been placed in foster care by allowing them to fulfil their hopes and aspirations. I hope it will allow all the children who are currently in limbo to move on with their foster parents.

The Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, has an important role in the oversight and inspection of care facilities for children who are vulnerable or at risk. The issue of resources is a cause for concern because in the current political climate hospitals tend to be the focus of our attention. For this reason, we need an assurance that HIQA will be able to fulfil its mandate of carrying out regular inspections of child care facilities run by the HSE and others. As its remit broadens, we must ensure the authority has available to it the resources and capability it requires to provide a permanent inspection regime for such facilities, especially in light of the difficulties the HSE experienced some months ago as it sought to house a ten-year-old child in Kilkenny.

I hope for all the reasons I have cited that we have a vigorous discussion on the referendum. As with all referendums, some people will oppose the proposed constitutional amendment. However, the broad support the amendment enjoys in the House sends a strong signal to broader society that Parliament is genuinely committed to ensuring the child is placed centre stage in our Constitution. We must also send out a message that we are not seeking easy plaudits but will show a strong commitment to follow up and provide protection to children in vulnerable circumstances.

As I noted, children continue to fall into homelessness or engage in substance abuse and truancy at an early age. The neglect of the general welfare of children can be observed daily, including on the street opposite this House. A society that purports to be a civilised republic must address this matter urgently.

I thank the Minister for delivering on her commitment to bring this matter to the people as quickly as possible. While it took a long time to reach this position, the all-party consensus achieved in the committee which was established specifically to deal with the constitutional amendment has been of great assistance. While it may not have made the Minister's job easier in terms of technical matters such as producing the correct wording for the amendment or a legal framework that would stand up, it helped to ensure popular political support for the referendum. The advocacy groups that were regularly consulted throughout this process will fully support the amendment and the legislation that flows from it. I wish the Minister well.

Speaking on the vetting legislation last week, I stated that this amendment would enshrine the rights of children in our Constitution for the first time and afford to adopted children protection that does not currently exist. The constitutional rights the amendment will provide to children are robust in a way that does not undermine the rights of parents unless they have failed in their duty towards their children.

I wholeheartedly welcome the amendment and its wording. I pay tribute to the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, and Mr. Geoffrey Shannon, the Government's special rapporteur on child protection, for the work they have done. It would be remiss to fail to pay tribute to previous Oireachtas committees for the work they did. I also commend the excellent decision by the Government to hold the referendum on a Saturday. This will provide greater opportunities to vote for those who might otherwise be unable to so if the referendum were held on a weekday. I hope this decision sets a precedent for future polls.

I and Senator Rónán Mullen, a leading conservative commentator, differ on many issues. However, the Senator supports the amendment on the basis that the balance of the wording is right. If people of differing social outlooks are able to agree that the amendment should be supported, it indicates that those from the extreme conservative end of the political spectrum who oppose the referendum are on very weak ground when they argue against it. Those few people against this referendum should seriously reconsider their viewpoint on it and look again at the wording. I want to draw attention to the views expressed by the former MEP, Ms Kathy Sinnott, and explain why I believe they are misguided. Ms Sinnott suggests the amendment, if passed, will give the State preference over parents when deciding what is in a child's best interests and may give the State too much power. This argument misses the point. The amendment will force the State to consider the rights of the child above all else in a proportional way. Under the terms of the amended Constitution, it will ensure the State will not be permitted to run roughshod over the rights of parents. It must consider the rights of the child to ensure the well-being of that child. Accordingly, this means the right of the child to be with its parent or parents would have to be considered seriously and not ignored.

I am concerned those in agreement with Ms Sinnott are ignoring the role the State has played in the abuse and profound mistreatment of children in the past. Do those who are against this amendment not see the reason the State did nothing to protect children was because children had no rights, thereby allowing the State to do as little as it pleased? Do those opposed to this amendment not realise that the wording acts to curb excessive control by the State by stating in Article 42A that it is in "exceptional cases" where the State becomes involved and only "by proportionate means as provided by law"? This wording means the State must exercise reason, not lack of it and must provide legislation for it to act. We in this House, who represent the people, will be charged with deciding what the State can or cannot do. I cannot foresee a situation where legislators, regardless of what side of the political spectrum they are on, will allow the State to do as it pleases.

I want to also draw attention to the 2009 horrific case in which a mother of six children in Roscommon was convicted on ten counts of incest, sexual abuse and neglect of her children. The six children, aged between six and 15, were not fed properly and were beaten and abused on regular occasions. Circuit Court Judge Miriam Reynolds who heard the case said at the time there was room for future legislation to be drawn up to deal with the actions of the woman concerned. When passing sentence in the case, she stated she was working under legislation dating back to 1908. On reading the amendment wording, it is crystal clear legislation in this area will be required if the amendment is passed.

One of the barristers involved in the Roscommon case asked Judge Reynolds to take into consideration that the wider community must have known of the abuse that was occurring. He also said it must have been obvious when the children attended school they were badly dressed and badly cared for. The lives of these children have been destroyed by the actions of their mother. It is difficult to understand how these children could have been let live in the family home for so long. They should have been removed from the family home for their own safety.

While this is a rare type of case in terms of the extreme behaviour and cruelty that occurred, it is a clear example of why this referendum is needed. Even the most ardent opponent of this amendment to the Constitution must surely agree such cases merit intervention by the State to protect children. I am in no doubt there are other such cases and also circumstances that never make it to the courts, where the behaviour of parents, although less extreme, is still absolutely criminal and cruel and warrants the protection of children without recourse to parental rights.

This amendment will give children clear rights under the Constitution. I am firmly of the view it will not be a case of the State intervening on a whim but in order to protect children in their own right and not in the context of their parents' rights.

I commend the amendment to the House.

I want to acknowledge the work carried out over the years by various civil society groups and others that has brought us to this point. I want to credit the members of the cross-party committee on the constitutional amendment on children and the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Fitzgerald, for their combined work on this issue. I also want to recognise the cross-party support for the wording of this amendment. The initial welcome from across the political spectrum shows not just the necessity for this amendment but also that it is one issue where politics can rise above party political concerns and campaign for the right result.

Our Constitution is a document of which we can be largely proud but it is very much of its time, the 1930s. Being of its time, the family unit is recognised as the fundamental unit group in society and the State guarantees to protect it. The special protection of the family in the Constitution has resulted in some notable exceptions, including an explicit statement of the rights of a child. This, as we have seen in many cases of neglect, placed limitations on our ability to intervene where the best interests of the child were at stake.

In this regard, this amendment is a reflection of the lessons learned since 1937 in the failures of child protection such as those detailed in the Roscommon child case, the Ryan commission report and the Cloyne report. We were collectively shaken by these reports of neglect, abuse and hurt into recognising the limits of our Constitution in the area of child welfare. The general public now wants to address this issue. That is not to say this is an exercise in overextending the power granted to the State at the expense of the family. Rather, it is to reflect the child's rights in the Constitution. Our Constitution, as a living document, should reflect how our values and priorities change over time. This amendment is a clear example of this.

I recognise this Bill is only the beginning of the debate but I believe the concerns of those who have expressed caution about this Bill are unfounded and addressed by the language of the amendment. From examining the amendment, it makes several important clarifications. It recognises the importance of the family and does not seek to replace it. This is a message we need to get across when we are on the doorsteps campaigning. It affirms the rights of all children. It states intervention can only take place in "exceptional circumstances" where "parents fail in their duty toward their children to such an extent that the safety or welfare of their children is likely to be affected". The State will act "by proportionate means" to "endeavour to supply the place of parents" if such an exceptional circumstance arises. This language recognises that the family unit is not under threat while the motivation is for protecting the rights of the child.

Referenda are obviously a public vote on a legal text. Not being legally trained, I recognise how one has to take expert opinion on the intention of a text and its legislative strength. With this referendum, there is an onus on Members to stress the importance of this amendment to our constituents, particularly in disadvantaged areas. Our message to our constituents has to be succinct, to the point and in most simplified way to ensure full understanding of the proposal. All too often, the booklet on the referendum that comes in the door contains text difficult to understand. Rumours and Chinese whispers can turn an issue into something that it is not. I am already heartened by the intention of my party colleagues to campaign for a "Yes" vote. I hope other political expressions in favour of this amendment are followed through on the doorsteps. Every Member must campaign for this referendum. The concern is that it may be thought this vote can easily be won. We cannot allow that to happen. We have an obligation to get out and meet people at the door, answer questions they have, explain the issues involved, check to see that they are singing from one hymn sheet and that they understand what they are being asked to do on 10 November.

I echo a point made by my colleague, Deputy Ciara Conway, on the application of the broadcasting legislation in respect of balanced coverage. In this instance, a judgment should be made on the balance of public opinion, not on strict 50:50 coverage. This points to the McKenna judgment. The reality is that there may be 50:50 coverage of an issue on which a significant majority believe taking one course of action is the right thing to do. It is somewhat uncomfortable to think the judgment allow an equal say to those on one side of the argument who may represent only a small minority. This calls into question the provisions in place under the Broadcasting Act relating to balanced coverage.

The Bill and the upcoming referendum are very important for the provision of child services. The legislation is in the best interests of the children of Ireland. Our values as a caring society and citizens of a republic require the rights of the child to be asserted in the Constitution. The amendment recognises the vulnerability of children and provides for a proportionate response, whereby the interests of the child will be at the heart of the decision-making process. The amendment is not an end in itself and the education and welfare services must have continued funding to support and protect children. This is also a chance for the people to affirm the protection of the child, learn from the failures of the past and resolve that they will not be repeated.

I thank the Acting Chairman for giving me the opportunity to speak to the Bill. I look forward to campaigning for a "Yes" vote between now and 10 November.

The next speaker on the list is Deputy Pádraig Mac Lochlainn who is not present. I, therefodre, call Deputy Dan Neville.

I wish to share my time with Deputy Michael Creed.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate and congratulate the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs on how quickly she has brought this process to referendum stage, as promised. In the referendum we are asking the people to expressly recognise children in their own right within the Constitution. It is important that every child enjoy certain rights. He or she deserves protection from the State by virtue of the fact that, as a child, he or she is vulnerable.

It is important to view the matter in perspective. In 2011 in excess of 30,000 child welfare concerns were reported to the welfare services. Where children are in difficulties, it is important that family and parental supports to overcome such difficulties are available. No sparing should be made in the provision of these facilities. It is frightening that last year some 1,500 welfare cases concerned sexual, physical or emotional abuse.

We are asking the people to support a change to the Constitution to ensure children are protected and families supported, that inequalities in adoption are removed and that the State, through the Constitution, recognises children in their own right. We are asking the people to support the referendum to ensure children at risk are protected from harm and that a system allowing for intervention to take place is set out focusing on the child and referring to the impact of parental failure on child safety and welfare. By voting to pass the referendum, the people will reaffirm and underpin the commitment to early intervention and the development of family support services, which are vital to respond to child welfare concerns. This will prevent more serious problems from arising within the family and, therefore, protect children in the home and prevent them from being taken into care when a more serious problem develops.

The passing of the referendum will provide the legal framework for adoption of any child, irrespective of his or her birth status. This will give an opportunity for children in foster care to be adopted where it is in their best interests and it will give foster families the opportunity to enjoy full parental responsibility and succession rights for adopted children. The Government has published proposed legislation to amend the existing adoption law to facilitate children in clearly defined circumstances. Such cases include children who have been reared by foster parents and who have been with them for a considerable period and where there has been a failure by their parents to look after them.

The inclusion of a provision for children in the Constitution has been called for since the Kilkenny incest investigation in 1993. This call was repeated in the Constitution review group report of 1996 and the 2006 report of the All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution, of which I was a member. In the report on the Kilkenny incest investigation of May 1993 Mrs. Catherine McGuinness, senior counsel, stated:

While we accept that the courts have on many occasions stressed that children are possessed of constitutional rights we are somewhat concerned that the "natural and imprescriptible rights of the child" are specifically referred to in only one sub article (Article 42.5) and then only in the context of the State supplying the place of parents who have failed in their duty.

She further stated:

We believe that the Constitution should contain a specific and overt declaration of the rights of born children. We therefore recommend that consideration be given by the Government to the amendment of Articles 41 and 42 of the Constitution so as to include a statement of the constitutional rights of children.

The Joint Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children, of which I was a member, was established by resolution of the Dáil and the Seanad on 22 November 2007. I found the deliberations rather detailed, legalistic and most efficient under the chairmanship of Mrs. Mary O'Rourke and the vice chairmanship of Deputy Michael Noonan. The committee also included the current Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, and the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Alan Shatter. It met on 62 occasions during more than two years of deliberations. It met in public session on 15 occasions and in private session on 47 occasions. Its clear recommendation was that the proposal for an amendment to the Constitution to enshrine and enhance the protection of the rights of children should be submitted by referendum to the decision of the people. The final report was published in February 2010 and addressed the need to strengthen the rights of children.

The committee was concerned that in certain cases the current constitutional framework created a difference in treatment between children of marital and non-marital families. This inequality arises particularly when a court is called on to resolve an issue pertaining to the guardianship, custody or day-to-day care of a marital child in a dispute between parents and third parties. The committee was of the view that children of marital parents were less protected from harm within the family than children of non-marital parents. It pointed out that there were still some difficulties with the treatment of children based on their parents' marital status. Aside from this, an unmarried mother cannot seek maintenance for her personal support and, therefore, is not likely to be in a position to choose to remain at home on a full-time basis. The committee also expressed a concern that where a family was found to be experiencing difficulties in the care and upbringing of children, there should be proportionate intervention by way of the provision of assistance and support for the family.

The committee emphasised that in the vast majority of cases parents were best placed to protect the lives of their children and that it was only in those cases where there was a genuine threat to a child's safety or welfare the courts of the State should be entitled to intervene and that any intervention had to be proportionate. The committee held that there should be specific rights attributed to children and that these specific rights should be enumerated in the Constitution. It considered favourably the core provisions of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child setting out the basic rights which should be acknowledged with reference to all children. It also expressed concern that children who were in long-term foster care might be precluded from adoption. Adoption by the foster family, where it would be in the interests of the child to be adopted, should be possible.

The Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael Noonan, referred to the change to the proposed wording. There are some changes between the wording proposed by the committee to which I referred and that to be put in the referendum. Lengthy debates on the wording took place at the committee. We received much legal advice and legal opinion, and as the House will be aware, the more legal opinion one gets, the more differences emerge on what is right and wrong. The committee was determined that there would not be a division on this matter. We wanted an all-party outcome in recommending the wording. Nobody was fully satisfied. All parties had to compromise. What came out of it was a compromise on the views of all the parties - some significant, some not so significant - and at the end of the day, there was all-party support. It was only right that the Minister, objectively, with legal advice, looked at that in the context of what I am saying, and we now have a wording which, thankfully, everybody in the House agreed.

I refer to the Report of the Constitution Review Group, chaired by Dr. T.K. Whitaker, published in 1996. On the correct balance in children's rights and parents' rights and duties, the report clearly stated:

... it would appear necessary to expand the circumstances referred to in Article 42.5 so as to include a situation where the protection of the constitutionally guaranteed rights of children require intervention. A re-wording of the State's duty to the child under this Article is necessary in the light of the Review Group's proposed amendments to guarantee expressly certain rights of the child and elsewhere remove adjectives and phrases which appear to refer to natural law which have been a source of some difficulties.

Further, if parental rights and children's rights are both being expressly guaranteed, it would be desirable that the Constitution make clear which of these rights should take precedence in the event of a conflict between the rights. One can envisage, for example, a situation where a child has lived for, say, ten years with foster parents and a natural father or mother seeks to recover the custody of that child. The natural mother might well have a constitutional right to the custody of the child but the best interests of the child might require it to remain with its foster parents. If, as suggested above, there is an express statement included in any revised Article 41 that in all decisions affecting a child its best interests should be a paramount consideration, then this would resolve any conflict in favour of the child.

I propose to share time with Deputy Tom Barry.

I thank Deputy Neville for sharing his slot with us.

At the outset, I congratulate the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, on bringing forward this proposal. It is sound advice that one should make haste slowly when addressing issues of constitutional reform and, certainly, haste has been made slowly on this issue. There was much work done in bringing this to fruition by the Minister and her predecessor in government, former Deputy Barry Andrews, and I am sure many others have contributed along the way. The accusation cannot be made that this is something done a whim. It is something that has considerable thought put into it and I congratulate the Minister on bringing forward the proposal and, indeed, for publishing the draft adoption legislation which is an aspect of this area of child welfare that we need to address.

It is not often that there is an issue in this House of which all parties are in broad principle supportive but it is true to say that society has been scandalised in recent decades by the seemingly endless revelations regarding the failures of individuals, institutions, State bodies and, indeed, families to adequately address the needs of children. If this debate and this constitutional amendment will bring some sense of healing and appropriate care for children, then that is a welcome development.

There are a couple of observations which I would like to make. It is long overdue that the State visited the import of the McKenna and Coughlan judgments. The McKenna judgment deals with the spending of State funding on referenda and the Coughlan judgement deals with the issue of broadcasting. We need to underpin those judgments with legislation. It is absurd, at a time when society at large, but particularly their representatives in this House, are almostad idem in respect of support for the referendum, that broadcasting institutions, including those with a public service remit, RTE, must give equal time to those who advocate a “No” vote. That is a clear absurdity. Legislation, if it were to be introduced, should take cognisance of the views of this House on how that breaks down in respect of broadcasting time entitlement. Equally, there is the issue of public funding. As I understand it, there is to be no public funding spent on this campaign other than in establishing the commission etc. However, it is also absurd, on a matter of such critical importance, that the State, if it were minded to spend public funds, and although the Executive and the Legislature would have almost 100% backed the proposal, would have to fund a campaign against its own specific proposal. That flies in the face of democracy. These two judgments will have to be revisited and underpinned by legislation. It is a failure and an implicit criticism of the Legislature that it regularly gets cowed by, on the one side, a strong Executive and, on the other, fear of the courts on whether an issue is legal or constitutional, and fails to do its job. I would like to hear the Minister reflect on this issue in her concluding remarks. In the context of the referendum which I support, there is a view out there for which I have some sympathy that if this House had legislated for child welfare all along, if it had the courage to amend the adoption law to take adequate account of those who are failed by it currently, particularly those who are in long-term foster care, and if it had challenged the courts to recognise that this is the interpretation that the Legislature wishes to have of the Constitution and let us see how that manifests itself, then we would have been doing our job better in this House.

There is a danger of referendum fatigue. Most recent referendums have struggled to get a 50% turnout. There is a case to be made that the Referendum Commission which will be established to deal with this is something that could be established on a permanent footing. It might take account of voter education on various issues and deal with how the electoral register is compiled, and a range of other functions could be assigned to it. I go back to the point I made at the outset, that we should make haste slowly in amending the Constitution. I am not entirely convinced about the merits of the Constitutional Convention but there is a solid case to be made to expand the Referendum Commission in terms of a range of other functions that it could usefully perform if we are to avoid the alarming drop in voter turnout in referenda.

I am delighted to be in a position to speak on the Thirty-First Amendment of the Constitution (Children) Bill 2012.

I will be brief and will keep it simple. This is about the interests of children and about keeping the child at the centre of the debate. It must be acknowledged how serious the Government is with regard to children's rights. This Dáil saw the formation of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, under the competent stewardship of the Minister, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald. Since its inception less than 18 months ago, we have seen the creation of a new Department and a roll-out of a comprehensive wording for the new referendum for children. I congratulate the Minister and all those involved who have been burning the midnight oil on many nights to make this happen.

In a society which hangs on every word and looks for fault in every action, we need to readjust and view this amendment in the spirit in which it was written. We can have all the words in the world, but what is essential is that we embrace its spirit. We can legislate all we like and examine the legalese all we like, but the amendment must be embraced in spirit. It is about ensuring that children are recognised in our Constitution. This dedicated provision for children is very welcome and will protect children while also preserving the rights of the family. The new term "visible" will be used a lot in this debate, but what it means is that children will now, for the first time, be recognised in the Constitution as a defined grouping. Article 42 will now provide for the first time a strong affirmation of each child's inherent rights. This must be welcomed. Of course, with these rights come a responsibility on the State to protect the most vulnerable children. While the need for protection only arises in exceptional circumstances, we are all aware such situations occur all too often.

The four main objectives of the Bill are the protection of children, the support of families, the removal of inequalities in regard to adoption and the recognition of children in their own right. Society is changing and the days of children being seen but not heard are long gone. In today's modern world, the Constitution must reflect this. We must also recognise that children are growing up today much faster than they did in my generation. Children are being challenged from every side in our modern, technological society and we must never underestimate their ability to adapt, learn and contribute to society. It is our duty to recognise them in our Constitution and to protect them.

I welcome this Bill and it is good to see it being welcomed by all political parties. It is timely to put children at the centre of the debate, but we must remember that the amendment does not dilute the rights of the family.

I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak on this welcome amendment. I congratulate those who were involved in deciding that polling day will be a Saturday. This great move demonstrates how child-centred the referendum will be as we will not be taking children out of school on the day. Also, students and people who work away from home will have the opportunity to vote. This is a progressive move and I look forward to seeing the turn-out numbers and believe they will be much improved.

I congratulate the Minister on bringing this amendment to fruition. The Government prioritised this issue and children in general in the setting up of the Department and appointing a stand alone Minister to it, but she had a significant amount of work to do to bring the amendment forward following the establishment of the Department. The cross-party consensus we have on this is down to her diligence and the work done by previous members of the cross-party committee. This is welcome. I look forward to the canvass and to being able to knock on doors and explain this to the people of Kildare South. It will be a great opportunity. The referendum will reinforce the continued development of early intervention and family support services. It will encourage a response to child welfare concerns and help prevent more serious problems down the line, reducing the need for children to be taken into care. However, it is crucial that in conjunction with the change in the Constitution, we get the resources and support services necessary.

I take this opportunity to refer to a local issue in Kildare, namely, the provision of supports for women and children who are victims of domestic abuse. In 1998, the then eastern health board approached Newbridge Community Development to develop a women's refuge in County Kildare. In December 1998, 14 years ago, a formal meeting was held between the health board and Kildare County Council at which both agencies agreed a women's refuge was needed, and in 1999 Teach Tearmainn was formed. A helpline was set up in 2000 with the support of the health board while awaiting development of the refuge and the health board agreed expansion of the service in 2002 and to fund information and support services. Between 2002 and 2006, Teach Tearmainn, in alliance with the health board and Kildare County Council worked to identify a suitable site and agree a service model for a refuge, while continuing to provide the ongoing services through the helpline.

In 2009, the funding requirements for operational costs of the refuge were submitted to the HSE and in 2010, approval to proceed with the tender process was granted by the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government and a capital assistance grant was approved by the Department in 2011. Teach Tearmainn met with the HSE early in 2011 to discuss operational funding requirements and then made a formal submission to the HSE. The contracts were signed between Teach Tearmainn and the construction company, but later the HSE informed Teach Tearmainn that no funding was available. Teach Tearmainn has taken ownership of the women and children's refuge now, but it is not operational because the funding is not there. I know the Minister is well aware of this issue.

My point is that the referendum on its own is not enough. We need support services and we need structures in place. There are a number of difficulties in regard to why the refuge has not been delivered in 14 years. Part of the reason is that there are so many different agencies and State bodies involved, from the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, the HSE, the Department of Health, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and Kildare County Council. This is a problem. In 2011, some 59 women requested refuge from Teach Tearmainn and over 60% of them were referrals from State agencies. This demonstrates the challenges. So far in 2012, we have 50 women and 113 children seeking refuge from Teach Tearmainn for whom we cannot provide. Kildare needs a refuge and I will continue to work with the Minister, and other Ministers to provide that. The overriding point is that a referendum alone will not provide resources. We need services to be adequately funded to ensure our children and in this case women who are victims of domestic abuse have the level of protection required.

Deputy Creed touched earlier on the role of the McKenna and Coughlan judgments and the impact they will have on this referendum. Something struck me in that regard during the referendum on the fiscal compact. One section of society came out strongly in favour of that referendum, the agricultural sector. All the different farming organisations, the IFA with over 90,000 members, the ICSA, the ICMSA and Macra na Feirme all came out in full support of it. A handful of farmers in the midlands set up an organisation entitled Farmers for "No" and the level of coverage they had to receive because of these judgments was wholly disproportionate with the level of support farmers in general had for the referendum. In trying to ensure equal voices, we have a situation with regard to this referendum where broadcasters will have to go looking for people who have a negative attitude to it. This will lead to confusion. I have no problem with regard to providing equal air time to groups which want to make a case. However, when we have a situation where broadcasters may be forced to go looking for people to be negative in order to provide a balance, this is unhealthy and flies in the face of the judgments for fairness and balance.

I commend the Minister on her work on this and look forward to the campaign for what I hope will be a successful referendum.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the discussion on the passage of a Bill that will ultimately lead to an amendment of the Constitution. I compliment the Minister on the work she has done since she took up her role at the Cabinet table. I suppose the Bill has been a long time coming, which is no reflection on the Minister. It is a long time since Mrs. Justice Catherine McGuinness said in 1993 that, from her perspective, there was a need to elevate the status of the child and enshrine certain language in the Constitution to help to strike a balance between the rights of the family and those of the child. Some have sought for political reasons to suggest there was a lack of willingness, desire or capacity on the part of previous Administrations of all hues and that they chose instead to procrastinate. I know that would not be the Minister's view, considering that she served on an all-party committee that tried to achieve consensus on the language and wording that should be used in this part of the Constitution. I pay tribute to some of those who worked with the Minister, including the late Brian Lenihan, Mrs. Mary O'Rourke and the two Ministers, Deputies Brendan Howlin and Alan Shatter. It should be recognised that the previous Minister of State in this role, Mr. Barry Andrews, who sat at the Cabinet table, played an active role in trying to maintain the consensus developed at the all-party committee. The Minister has been able to pull together some of the steps he took at the time. Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin was also among those who helped to bring the process of finding a wording to a culmination. The wording set out in the Bill seems to find favour in the House. I think all sides are prepared to support and campaign on it.

It goes without saying that it is important to elevate the status of the child. It is a sad reflection on our society generally that it has taken so long to appreciate this. Our efforts to take action in this regard have been compared to our efforts to regulate the banks. However, it is not an exact analogy. By the time we eventually got banking regulation right, it was too late because the entire banking structure was in desolation. Similarly, we did not have an effective constitutional recognition of the child when it was most needed to change the thinking within society. I am reminded of the recent comments of a bishop who outlined his understanding of paedophilia while trying to explain his perspective on the decision to transfer a priest. He seemed to suggest the relationship between the priest and the individual in the case in question was no more than an inappropriate attachment between them. He did not accept, understand or realise paedophilia was completely different and that there was a depravity in the mind of the priest in question. If society had been better able to put the necessary protections in place, it would have enabled parents, teachers and others involved in the care and protection of children to use the Constitution as an appropriate means of taking action against people in certain protected sectors. In such circumstances, we would not have needed as many of the reports that have become a feature of the child sex abuse issue.

It is important that we do not lose sight of the neglect of children. When the need for this approach to the elevation of the status of the child is debated, it is often the subject of a lazy analysis driven by the child sex abuse events that have taken place. I do not believe society fully understands the abuse of children through neglect. The effects of the culmination of this are seen on a daily basis. We have certainly seen these effects in the last fortnight, when a number of people have been killed on our streets in broad daylight. Most of those who were shot at point-blank range were young family men. When one talks to people who understand child psychology, they trace these events back to neglect in people's lives when they were three, four or five years of age. Teachers will say they can see the potential for this to happen in the eyes of a child ten years before it happens. All children have a desire to feel wanted and embraced - to be part of something - but if that is not available at home or within the family structure, they will often look for it on the street, unfortunately. Children of seven, eight, nine or ten years of age have a desire to feel part of something, but they cannot feel part of a family if such a structure is non-existent, under the definition of the family in the Constitution. In such circumstances, they often fall under the control of older children and teenagers. That is how the cycle of participation in gang structures develops and evolves. Society is failing to recognise that the culmination of the neglect that has been allowed to develop is evident when young men in their early 20s shoot each other at point-blank range. What does that say to the next generation? Without getting into specifics, what does it say to children on the South Circular Road, or those in Portarlington who saw their father gunned down in front of them? If we do not protect those children and others like them, we will continue the cycle of children falling victim to the inability of the State to intervene at the most appropriate time.

The proposed amendment seeks to do a couple of important things. It seeks to treat all children in an equal manner, regardless of the marital status of their parents. It recognises the importance of giving a child from a marriage a second chance to be part of a family by allowing such children to be adopted. These two aspects of what the measure seeks to do are hugely important. Equally, it is right that we are providing for the voice of the child to be heard in court proceedings. That is probably the most important recognition of all in the Bill which elevates the status of the child. Society needs to understand the impact of neglect. As I said, we have to understand these issues extend beyond the child sex abuse that took place in various institutions, by various elements of the clergy and certain other elements of society. The enshrining of these provisions in the Constitution will not solve the problems about which we are talking until we come to grips with the neglect issue. However, I accept that it is an important backstop. As a number of speakers have said, these teams must be able to intervene in an unfettered and unconstricted way and must have the resources to do so. The continuum of neglect that leads to the lawlessness we have seen on the streets in recent weeks will not be halted until that happens.

The Minister's hand will be strengthened when the Bill has been passed and subsequently when the Constitution has been amended. She will have improved capacity to fight for scarce resources and ensure an appropriate number of social workers are available to make the interventions needed on a daily and weekly basis. When we reflect on the work of social workers, we should not under-estimate the difficult challenges they face on a daily basis as they try to balance various risks. When a child in the care of the HSE dies in tragic circumstances, there is a rush to blame the HSE and, ultimately, the social worker or other worker who had made a judgment call on that child. If one speaks to social workers, they will tell one they have to make judgment calls every hour of every day. They cannot take every child into care. Their job involves having to have to balance various risks. They have to decide whether it is better to leave a child in a semi-dysfunctional family or to take him or her out. It is a hugely difficult job. Other countries do things slightly differently. The authorities across the water are much quicker to take children out. As a result, many more childrenper capita are taken into care. That does not always ensure the best outcome for the child. If an episode in the life of the family has created a complication for the child, it might not be a long-term issue and might resolve itself with the appropriate level of intervention. That is why we need to ensure social workers are not over-stretched or over-burdened. They must be able to manage risk in the most appropriate way. An integral part of this will involve ensuring the new child and family welfare agency has the appropriate level of resources.

While it is easy for someone like me on the Opposition side of the House to suggest throwing more money at the problem, as if that was the solution to everything, which it is not, there are priorities which the Minister has identified. I know her heart is in this task, but she has a job of work to do at the Cabinet table to ensure others will be equally as resilient and resigned to the fact that the only solution is the provision of an appropriate level of resources. I believe the Minister can fight the case on the basis of dealing with the neglect issue and the impact it has had on the society, as well as the question of what kind of society we want in the future. Any value for money analysis will show that the need to address the negative impact of the cycle of criminality, particularly the emergence of gangland criminality, strengthens the Minister's hand in that regard.

Although I am not suggesting it as a soft solution, it must be recognised at a time when further pressures are being put on teachers, whether it be in terms of the entry grade and the reduction of their salaries and so on, that we need to encourage the brightest and best to enter the education sector to be the teachers of the future. This is the case for many reasons but, in particular, to ensure they have the broadest level of skills possible in order that they have the time to identify and assist children from neglected backgrounds.

A number of speakers referred to the mechanics of the referendum. I also welcome the fact that the referendum will be held on a Saturday.

Several speakers referred to how one will debate the issues involved in the light of the various judgments, on which there is confusion. To the best of my knowledge - I am not a legal expert - there is no specific judgment that states RTE or anyone else has to allocate 50% of the time to each side. As I understand it, this is an interpretation, in the first instance, of the Coughlan judgment in 2000 which had more to do with party political broadcasts and the allocation of an equal amount of time to political parties. Then came the McKenna judgment which was about the spending of public money on the promotion of a campaign by the State. These two judgments have allowed an interpretation by the BCI and the national broadcaster that the simplest way out, in order to ensure one does not encroach on anybody's toes, is to give a fair hearing to both sides. That probably worked in previous referendum campaigns because there was a body of people on the other side of the debate and, whether there might have a difference of opinion, it was believed that although they sometimes brought forward extraneous arguments, they were coherent and, at least, one could debate with them. The difficulty now is that, with the exception of a couple of individuals, there does not seem to be a campaign on the other side of the debate. This raises an important question that should not be left to the national broadcaster to resolve. There is a requirement for the commission which will be established, the BCI and perhaps the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Pat Rabbitte, to make a judgment call on the issue. I hope some formula can be found. I have great faith in the editorial capacity of the national broadcaster. There are some very talented and bright individuals there whose judgment people would trust, whether one disagrees with them on some issues. It has to be left to the editorial judgment of those who work in the various media organisations to decide what is fair and reasonable in terms of the allocation of time. I worry that if this encumbrance is placed on broadcasters, they will end up not discussing the subject at all. While I will not comment on those on the other side of the debate, they are thin on the ground and one could argue there is a lack of coherence in what they are saying and what some have sought to suggest is a lot of nonsense. If broadcasters must ensure a 50:50 balance, it is possible they will decide, for the avoidance of doubt and as it is not considered to be a big issue, to move on. However, that would be a failure in terms of what the Minister has tried to do.

As I said, the solution does not lie in the passage of the Bill but in elevating the status of the child in the mind of every citizen of the State to ensure we focus in every respect on the protection of the child. This is a great opportunity to do this, to have a national debate in the coming weeks to get people discussing the issue, whether in the media or outside. It is only when it is debated on the national airwaves that it will be debated in the family home, outside the church, in the pub, at the post office and wherever people meet, greet and talk. I would be disappointed if the interpretation of the various judgments had the cumulative effect of preventing the initiation of that debate by various broadcasting organisations. I hope that, perhaps through the Minister's presence in the Cabinet and with her Cabinet colleague, the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, an appropriate mechanism will be put in place at the earliest time to ensure this happens. There is only a certain number of weeks to get this issue onto the political agenda. It would be well worth the effort on the Minister's behalf, but it is vital that this exercise is carried through in order that, when the appropriate legislation is enacted thereafter, we will ultimately have a joined-up approach across all Departments to the protection of the child. This task does not just fall to the Department of Children and Youth Affairs; it cannot be seen as if it is in a silo. It crosses the delivery of services and the enactment of legislation. That is why there is a specific role for the Department of Education and Skills, the Department of Health and all other Departments which must be mindful from now on of the visibility and interests of the child. That is also why it is wide of the mark to only talk about rights and responsibilities. The interests of the child are probably the most important aspect.

I wish the Minister well. She will, as our spokesperson on children, Deputy Robert Troy, indicated, receive the full support of the House. We will be campaigning to ensure the message gets out about the importance of the passage of the referendum and providing for the needs of children.

I wish to share time with Deputies Harrington and Farrell.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

Like previous speakers, I, too, wish to congratulate the Government on the publication of the Bill. I particularly congratulate the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs on bringing forward this most important Bill which proposes to insert a new stand-alone article, Article 42A, entitled "Children", into the Constitution. This will result in a question being put to the people in a referendum on 10 November. We know that the Bill will change the Constitution in order that the rights of all children will be ingrained in it. There will be a strengthening of protections for children where parents fail in their duties towards them, a removal of all inequalities in adoption between children on the basis of the marital status of their parents and a strengthening of the principles of best interests, the consideration of the views and the voice of the child in child care, adoption and family law proceedings.

I am delighted that the House is very much united in supporting the campaign for a "Yes" vote and ensuring children are protected. I congratulate the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, her Department and staff on the work they have done in making the referendum a reality.

The Bill is one of a number to be introduced by the Government to strengthen child protection. They include the Children First legislation, the Criminal Justice (Withholding Information on Crimes Against Children and Vulnerable Adults) Bill, the Criminal Justice (Spent Convictions) Bill and the National Vetting Bureau Bill which will protect children and vulnerable persons.

That particular Bill is very welcome. It will make vetting compulsory for all employees or volunteers working with children or vulnerable adults. It will provide for criminal penalties to be introduced for employers who fail to undergo the vetting process.

The Government is determined to put children's welfare and rights to the forefront of the agenda. This is evident from the establishment of Department of Children and Youth Affairs, which is unprecedented in the history of this State. The upcoming referendum will strengthen children's rights under the Constitution and the National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Persons) Bill will ensure that all those who are working with children have been vetted by the Garda and do not pose any risk to young people. National standards for the welfare and protection of children have also been developed. The Minister is currently working on establishing the child and family support agency.

Garda vetting is vitally important as it ensures that those convicted of serious crimes are not offered a position where they could cause any harm to children. At present, the Garda central vetting office has access to information on convictions for criminal activity or so-called "hard" information. With the enactment of the National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Persons) Bill, the office will also have access to "soft" or relevant information, such as details about people who have undergone criminal investigation but have not been convicted. Obviously, convictions for all offences will be disclosed so that the potential employer is fully aware of a person's background and can reach an informed decision as to whether he or she is suitable for working with children or vulnerable people. At present there are a number of sectors where staff working with children and vulnerable people are not being fully checked or vetted, for example, the private elderly home care area. The Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, is ensuring that an adequate number of staff is employed to ensure that all vetting applications are processed in a timely fashion. In 2010 the vetting process was taking up to 12 weeks to complete. That has now been reduced to approximately three weeks, which is very welcome.

We have all heard appalling stories of abuse of children and elderly people in this country. We must do all that we can to ensure that children are protected, which is what the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs is doing with the introduction of this referendum. The protection measures introduced by the Government will help to prevent further cases of elder and child abuse.

In 2006 the ISPCC launched a campaign entitled ‘How can we be sure that they are safe?', which emphasised the importance of introducing vetting legislation and of making "soft" information available in the vetting process. At that time, 100,000 signatures were collected, indicating the level of public support for Garda vetting. Barnardos published statistics indicating that over 3,500 crimes against children are reported to the Garda every year. It is estimated that 12% of survivors of child sexual violence were abused by those in authority. That is why, as well as the Bill before us, other legislation is being introduced to try to ensure abuse does not take place.

As previous speakers have said, 17 major reports have been published in this area and action is long overdue. We do not want to see a repeat of the abuses that went on in the past. I commend the Government and the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs on the progress that has been made in this area. It is obvious that children are to the forefront of this Government's agenda. We want to learn from international best practice, do the right thing and put children at the centre of the equation. The introduction of this Bill and the referendum on 10 November will give everyone an opportunity to ensure that the dreadful abuse that happened in the past will not be repeated.

I welcome this Bill and congratulate the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Fitzgerald, on introducing it to the House. The purpose of the Bill is to hold a referendum to allow us to include in our Constitution an amendment to recognise children in their own right and to allow their interests to be considered. The amendment proposes constitutional change based on the key objectives of protecting children, supporting families, removing inequalities in adoption and recognising children in their own right.

Last year in Ireland there were 1,500 cases of physical, sexual and emotional abuse against children. We must ensure that this figure, in so far as it can be done, is reduced to zero. It must be seen as completely wrong and illegal to abuse a child in any way or in any circumstance. We must ensure that every person who has contact or influence with children behaves in the best interests of the child. We have all heard the phrase too many times that "children should be seen and not heard". I am confident that the passing of this referendum will mean that children will now be heard as well as seen.

We have discovered over the past 50 years a litany of crimes perpetrated on children by the State, by State authorities, by groups and individuals working on behalf of the State and agencies working on its behalf, as well as other organisations. We must also realise that crimes of abuse were perpetrated by parents, siblings and other family members, as well as those living in close proximity. It is very sad that the environment where one would expect children to be offered the greatest protection is, too often, the one in which they are in greatest danger. That is an issue that this referendum must address, delicately and sensitively. During this period we have transformed many of our laws, particularly those that discriminated against women and children. Our membership of the European Union can be seen as a positive influence in terms of removing inequalities in our society and delivering a lot of social legislation that has allowed us to move on. In that context, I would mention the removal of the marriage bar on female civil servants, equal pay, the abolition of the concept of illegitimacy, social welfare payments for lone parents, the creation of special needs assistants and much more besides.

In the context of equality legislation, one of the challenges we must also face is how we deal with words. To be treated equally, for example, does not mean being treated the same. These are two different concepts. In the same vein, being treated equally does not mean being treated with fairness. We have seen, for example, that with regard to motor insurance, female drivers are now dealt with in the same way as male drivers, despite the fact that they are safer drivers. They are paying more in insurance premiums because of equality legislation. That is not fair. These are words that can have significant consequences and we must be very careful in our legislative practices.

We have made tremendous improvements in the lives of our children over the past 50 years in providing education and care for all of them. We have also taken most children with physical and mental disabilities out of institutions and brought them home to attend local schools. I hope that these improvements can be built on by the decision by the Taoiseach to create a full Minister for Children and Youth Affairs in this Government. Once again, I commend the Minister on the level and quality of work she has undertaken over the past 18 months.

We must recognise the main factors in raising children are the influence of their parents, their teachers and their extended family, as well as the environment they grow up in. If one of these influences is lacking or not behaving in the most appropriate manner then we have a problem that cannot, and should not, be ignored. Other influences have also emerged in recent decades, about which we must be extra vigilant, such as drugs and other illegal substances, our alcohol culture, negative influences coming through peer pressure and inappropriate role models portrayed in the media, including the Internet. We face enormous challenges in protecting children, not just in the family and the physical environment, but at a subliminal level too.

We now have a much better understanding of the needs of children with intellectual disabilities, special needs, mental health problems and behavioural issues. We must be conscious of the pressures that our children come under and be able to support them and their families every step of the way.

We have achieved a remarkable turnaround in our record on road safety, for example, in reducing road casualties by the implementation of a ten-year strategy. We must be prepared to undertake a similar strategy for children to ensure their safety, education, health, self-esteem and all the other factors in their complicated lives are improved. We must start a debate on creating a ten-year strategy to improve the lives of children. We are successful in asking people in their 30s, 40s, and 50s to give up smoking but, regrettably, cigarette companies are happy to put pressure on children to take up smoking so that the conveyer belt keeps going. We must do something to tackle the issue.

As part of this legislative package there will be subsequent changes to adoption law. In drafting the legislation I urge the Minister to also consider those who have gone through the adoption process many years ago. I accept there are many delicate and sensitive issues involved but there is a gap in many of the records of adoptions in the past and even in a difficult time of restricted resources I ask that extra effort be put into bringing those persons together if they so wish.

It is our primary duty as legislators to protect the weakest groups and individuals in society. It is correct that we should consider the rights of children in the Constitution but we should also consider how children can be protected and the impact on them of other legislative measures that we debate in this House. It is in our interest to look after the rights of children as it is our children who eventually will look after us as we grow older and need their attention. In passing the referendum we will build a better Republic. To quote an extract from the Proclamation:

The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all the children of the nation equally.

I congratulate the Minister on introducing the referendum and wish her well. I look forward to the support not just of the House but of all the groups concerned in debating the referendum.

I thank the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, for her presence and the opportunity to have such a lengthy and thorough debate on what is an extremely important issue. Since the appointment of a senior Minister for children - an historic event in Irish political history - on 9 March 2011, we have spent a great deal of time and effort and employed considerable resources on children's rights, adoption and child protection issues across the Departments of Children and Youth Affairs, Health and Justice and Equality. We have spent a considerable amount of time debating such legislation. I echo the sentiments of a number of colleagues on both sides in complimenting the Government in that regard.

I am pleased the Minister has managed to achieve a unique feat in recent history in that we have full support in this House for the children's referendum and what it hopes to achieve. I hope that will be reflected in society when the referendum is put to the people in November.

The Bill and the actions the Government has taken on child protection and rights in society will most likely inspire confidence in the future of child protection law in this country and in the many civil society organisations and individuals which have campaigned for greater children's rights and protection for the past 20 to 30 years. It is important that the support the House has given the Bill and the referendum that will follow is mirrored by the public who will ultimately sign off on the Bill.

In 1996, the Constitution Review Group called for constitutional protection of children after such instances as the Kilkenny incest case in 1993. Similar calls were heard in 2006 by the All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution and again in 2010, four years later, by the Joint Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children. The programme for Government, written in 2011, specifically outlined the strengthening of children's rights through constitutional amendment as a priority.

On the Government's first day in office, 9 March 2011, An Taoiseach appointed a senior Minister to the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. That was a significant event. While there has been widespread support for the referendum, we would be foolish to take its result for granted. For this reason I have two points to make, first, we must ensure that the maximum number of people engage in the debate and, second, that the public are clear about not only what the amendment will do, but also what it will not do.

My first point relates to the date for the referendum - 10 November, which is a Saturday. That is a significant day to choose for the children's referendum in that it is a Saturday and 1,162 primary schools were closed in May of this year for the previous referendum. That will not occur on this occasion as the referendum will be held on a Saturday. I commend the Cabinet, and the Minister in particular, on accepting a Bill I published in the previous term on Saturday voting. I hope the Bill will become an Act in the future. Saturday voting allows for less disruption of children's education, which is fitting in the circumstance given that the referendum is about children's rights and protection within the Constitution.

A Saturday vote also encourages the involvement of more younger people in the debate and the vote such as college students who are living away from home. Student groups have been calling for weekend and rest day voting for as long as I can remember. Statistically, students do not vote in large numbers and this will be an opportunity for them to take ownership of this important constitutional amendment, debate it and use it as an opportunity to further the cause of children's rights in the Constitution and ensure they become a force to be reckoned with politically. I see no reason young people should not have as significant an impact on politics as the so-called grey vote. Students should recognise that.

I wish to refer to those who are challenging the amendment. We have heard one or two of them on the radio and read about them in the newspapers in recent days. This is a democracy and it is every person's right to debate and challenge the decisions we make in this Chamber and in the Seanad. When putting a referendum such as this to the people it should not be rubber-stamped automatically but it should be debated. We should go through such measures carefully, line by line and ensure they do what we want them to do and that they does not impact adversely on anyone else. Opposition to the amendment should not be based on an anti-Government, anti-State or an anti-Judiciary agenda, nor should it be based on fear.

I wish to focus for a moment on what the amendment does. There is no change to Article 41 of the Constitution which recognises the family as the natural and fundamental unit of society. It does not abolish rights belonging to any individual, regardless of their age. It merely ensures that children are afforded equal rights under the Constitution regardless of the marital status of their parents.

I repeat the commendation of the Minister and her team for the extraordinary work the Department has achieved in the past year. We have never as a State seen this level of commitment and work carried out on behalf of children or on behalf of families. This amendment, along with a suite of legislation that the Department, along with the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, and the Minister for Health, Deputy Reilly, have introduced to strengthen child protection laws brings with it a new responsibility. Much work has been carried out within the Department to match necessary services with scarce resources. I again thank the Minister and the Cabinet for bringing forward the legislation.

I wish to share time with Deputy Higgins.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

We all recognise there has been an appalling historical failure by the State to cherish all of the children equally in this country There has been an appalling record of abuse both in religious and State institutions. We had a detailed debate last night about Magdalene laundries and we are aware that children in industrial schools and other institutions were systematically abused and practically enslaved. We must put what this amendment can do into that context to see what it can bring to our society.

There is an important aspect here: the voice of the child. Both the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights give a high priority to this voice and place children's rights at the heart of legislation. There is a difference between the proposed amendment as currently worded and the wording that was recommended by the Oireachtas committee, which called for the right for the child's voice to be heard in any judicial or administrative proceedings affecting the child. This amendment, in the text proposed by the Minister, appears to take a narrower approach. Article 42A.4.2° mentions the right for the child's voice to be heard in proceedings brought by the State. Will the Minister clarify this? If, for example, a child is in foster care and one of his or her parents, believing there are indications of either physical or mental danger, brings the foster parents to court, will the child have a voice in a case taken against the State? I would like clarification of this because it is an important point. I support the amendment but seek clarification in this regard. I realise the Minister has tried to achieve a wording that is as robust as possible, and I would like to hear her opinion on this.

There is general support for the proposed constitutional amendment. It brings necessary clarification to a number of issues relating to children's rights, particularly in the area of adoption and in its removal of discrimination between children born within and without marriage. The use of the word "shall" gives robustness to the amendment, which is important. However, even if the amendment is passed, there are and will be real questions regarding equality for all children. There is a contradiction between these aspirations and lofty aims and the reality, which consists of brutal cuts to social spending and programmes aimed at lessening disadvantage. I will highlight one aspect of this to show a glaring contradiction between what is stated in the Constitution and the reality on the ground. There is a constitutional right to free primary education, but things are certainly different on the ground. A survey by Barnardos in 2012 stated that, on average, the cost of sending a child to primary school was €355. This is mainly for books and uniforms and does not take into account the cost of school transport, trips and so-called voluntary contributions. The cost of sending a first-year pupil to secondary school, which under the Constitution is also supposed to be free, is €770. The simple fact is that the education system in Ireland favours and maintains privilege and is weighted against working-class and Traveller children and children with disabilities. Some 25% of school-leavers with few or no qualifications are from unskilled or manual-worker working-class families. These children are three to four times more likely to be unemployed and have poorer health or mental health issues.

According to the OECD, Ireland is bottom of the league in education investment, taking into account economic wealth. The early years programme is completely underfunded. The key point is that the policies of this and previous Governments and the troika have increased and will continue to increase poverty. It is now estimated that 200,000 children are living in poverty, an increase of 30,000 in the past two years. One in five households with children are experiencing poverty and one in four children between the ages of 12 and 17 years are either at risk of poverty or are living in poverty. That is based on a CSO study on child poverty from September 2012.

Every day I witness - I am sure I am not the only Deputy or public representative to do so - the isolation many families experience in regard to access to education, housing and help. For example, I recently met a woman whose child had behavioural disorders. She could not access a child psychologist and we ended up having to get an adult psychologist to assist the child. Women speak of cuts made to their rent allowance and the fact that they cannot afford to go into private accommodation because landlords still charge high rents, leaving them unable to make up the difference. There are people living in local authority housing in Dublin where damp conditions are so bad that moss is growing on the walls. According to Dublin City Council, this means there is a need for more ventilation. I was in one house which had so many vents that if one more were put in the house would have fallen down. This is what people are experiencing because of cuts in local authority budgets. Dublin City Council is not willing to insulate homes for that reason.

There are many issues facing ordinary people and their children because of cuts, and further cuts are coming down the road. We are now facing a budget for next year in which the Government proposes to introduce a property tax. This will hit poorer families most severely. There will be more than €2 billion in cuts which, again, will hit the most vulnerable and poorest families. The result of the austerity programmes is that the gap between rich and poor is at its highest in 20 years and is still widening. The bottom 10% have experienced cuts of 18% while the top 10%, which has 14 times more disposable income, have experienced of a rise of 4%. Let us put what we want into the Constitution, but this Government is directly responsible for the great level of inequality in our society and this is not being addressed.

I offer some points on children in care, particularly with regard to the lack of aftercare services for those aged over 18. In 2010 only €1 million was allocated for after-care services. The number of after-care workers to cater for the needs of the children in question is entirely insufficient. The services are patchy and underfunded. The Child Care Act 1991 raises another matter we would like to see robustly dealt with in the Constitution, given what is happening on the ground. That Act states that the HSE "may" provide after-care services for those aged up to 21 years. In the Child Care (Amendment) Act 2011 the Government refused to change the word "may" to "shall", which would have given these young people a statutory right to after-care services. In spite of promises there are still no out-of-hours multidisciplinary services to meet the needs of these often troubled teenagers.

I support the good work that has been done to bring about the children's rights amendment, but there are so many things for which the Government is responsible. I will support the amendment but will hold the Government, the troika, the banks and Europe to account for any measures in the coming budget that will have an impact on children and their economic, health, education and home requirements. The right to have a roof over one's head is paramount and must be part and parcel of rights for children.

I welcome any parliamentary or Government initiative that highlights the welfare and well-being of children in our society and any attempts to move in a direction that would improve their situation. With regard to the welfare of children and their care on this island, the institutions that preceded the State or were established since it was founded have generally been very good when it comes to fine words and worthy sentiments. However, realising what the words mean or aspire to is a different matter. We can go back to the Proclamation of the Provisional Government of the Irish Republic, issued in Easter week 1916, which famously stated that the Republic "declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation ... cherishing all the children of the nation equally". Unfortunately, the seven signatories to that proclamation were all murdered within weeks of its publication. I have no doubt they were sincere in believing that this should be the case but those who subsequently ruled the Irish State betrayed that aspiration in many ways.

The 1937 Constitution of Ireland falls far short of the aspirations of the Proclamation. The Constitution refers to the natural and imprescriptible rights of the child in the crucial area of education, for example, but when one reads what it states, namely, that the State guarantees to respect the inalienable right and duty of parents to provide according to their means for the religious, moral, intellectual, physical and social education of their children, the words that leap out are "according to their means". Far from cherishing the children of the nation equally, this enshrines an acceptance of the reality in capitalist society that there are and will be massive differences in the way children are treated by and within the education system because the means of working class and poor parents are different from those of the wealthier echelons of society and it is this wealth that determined the quality of education their offspring received through the many decades before and after the 1937 Constitution was written. It follows from what is in the Constitution, therefore, that there is gross inequality in education, as has been evident. The Catholic Church was very much at the heart of institutionalised inequality in the State. The religious orders operated the most privileged fee-paying schools which educated the betters of society, as they saw it, to take their rightful place in all the crucial areas of life such as law, medicine and many others. The church had a grip on education for the poorer sections also, but there was a grotesque inequality between the two. The horror of child sexual abuse at the hands of some individuals of the religious is a somewhat different issue in that obviously it was criminal and outside the scope of any constitution, but there were other aspects of institutionalisation such as reform schools, etc. which combined church and State.

The question that arises for us and the Government is: what are the prospects for the children's rights referendum? Will it make a transformational difference in the lives of hundreds of thousands of children in the State? The majority will welcome any measure that enhances the rights and welfare of children. They will agree that the State should step in where children are suffering neglect or abuse at the hands of a parent and that anomalies in the adoption law should be corrected. We welcome these provisions and I have no doubt they will be prescribed in law, but it is a narrow remit. The reality is that the amendment repeats, in a different way, the broader rights in terms of real equality, adequate comfort, adequate provision, etc. It repeats the affirmation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of all children, but the caveat is that the State shall, as far as is practicable, by its laws, protect and vindicate these rights. The words "as far as is practicable" come screaming off the page at me because in the State up to 96,000 children are living in consistent poverty, which is the grim reality. Their households account for less than 60% of national median income. They are enduring a number of negatives which include going without food or living in cold conditions, while a further 200,000 are at risk of poverty. The austerity agenda on the shoulders of Irish working class people that is part of the bailout programme for billionaire bankers and bondholders is intensifying that level of poverty and the suffering of those trapped in this position. The many other ill-effects on children such as the reduction in the numbers of special needs assistants and the lack of adequate provision for children with special needs are all part of that process and made worse by the ongoing programme of austerity. The Government will say it is not practicable, therefore, to provide for economic rights for children that would guarantee a different life and lifestyle of having plenty for every human being because capitalism, in its current crisis, the money market system of Europe, in its current crisis, and the imperative that has been accepted by two Governments to bail out the super rich at the expense of the poor and working people will not allow it. In that sense I am afraid, therefore, that this provision will be similar to the fine words in the Proclamation and the 1937 Constitution. By all means, let us pass the constitutional amendment on children's rights, but for socialists on the left who are representatives of working class communities, it will only have meaning if the words contained therein are given effect and we fight for a society where wealth and resources would be in democratic ownership for the benefit of the great majority and used to cherish, in a real way, all the children of the nation equally.

Mar fhocal scoir, ba mhaith liom a rá cé go bhfuilimid chun tacaíocht a thabhairt don leasú seo agus don reifreann, táimid ag rá go bhfuil an-chuid polasaithe níos doimhne ag teastáil chun athrú cinnte a dhéanamh maidir le saol leanaí sa tír seo. Deireann Bunreacht na bliana 1937 gur foláir don Stát:

ós é an Stát caomhnóir leasa an phobail, iarracht a dhéanamh le beart oiriúnach chun ionad na dtuistí a ghlacadh, ag féachaint go cuí i gcónaí, áfach, do chearta nádúrtha dochloíte an linbh.

Creidimid i gcearta nádúrtha agus dochloíte an linbh, ach an pointe atá á dhéanamh agam ná nár cuireadh na cearta siúd i bhfeidhm sa tír seo ag gach Rialtas agus gur fágadh an-chuid leanaí i riocht bochtanais agus deacrachta.

Má tá aon bhrí le leasú nua a thabhairt isteach don Bhunreacht anseo, ní bheidh brí ann go dtí go mbeidh beart déanta chomh maith an infheistíocht a chur isteach i dtreo agus nach mbeidh aon bhochtanas i measc leanaí sa tír seo agus go dtí go mbeidh na hacmhainní ann chun go mbeidh saol le dínit, le hoideachas, le sláinte agus gach seirbhís eile ar aon leibhéal i measc leanaí go hiomlán sa tír seo.

I call Deputy Maloney who, I understand, is sharing time with Deputies Nash and Anne Ferris. Deputy Maloney has ten minutes.

I will not require ten minutes in which to make my contribution. My colleagues may share my remaining time if they so wish.

I compliment the Minister and the officials in her Department on the work they have done in expediting matters in respect of this very important issue. In 12 months the Minister has done more with regard to the protection of children than was done by hundreds of Members of the previous 30 Dáil. I commend her on that. As a supporter of the Government, I must admit there are occasions on which I am not terribly proud of some of the things I am obliged to do or support. However, there are other occasions on which we are proud of such things. I am proud to support the proposed new article the Minister is seeking to include in the Constitution, which is designed to protect children who heretofore had no protection. This article does not relate to all of the children of this nation because, fortunately, the vast majority of children in Ireland are reared in reasonably or, in some cases, very happy families. The new article refers to those who, historically, never had anyone to speak on their behalf and who were abandoned by the State. When I refer to the State, I do not do so in the very insular way in which others refer to it. The State is its citizens and this includes its politicians.

Deputy Higgins referred earlier to the unfortunate role played by the church in the society in which we live. When she published the legislation, the Minister highlighted the fact that the legacy in respect of vulnerable children is pretty dark and shameful. Politicians of all parties - including that which I represent - and none who were Members of these Houses in the past are more guilty than anyone else in respect of what happened during the past 90 years. I have been reading some of the transcripts and I could not believe it when I discovered that there have been 17 reports in respect of this issue. Some of the utterances made in this House by individuals who are still Members and by others who are still around in the outside world in respect of children who were abandoned represent the depth of hypocrisy. No one took action in respect of the children to whom I refer and some of them ultimately died. That is extraordinary but it reflects the way we were and the way some of us still are.

I hope the referendum is passed. Some of the contributions from those on the Opposition benches were opportunistic in nature. From the outset, the Minister has stated that the proposed new article will not solve every problem for every child in this country. However, it will do what she and I want it to do, namely, safeguard those in certain families who are vulnerable. I do not care who their parents are because, as legislators, we should be there to protect these children and give them a voice. We must ensure that the children of this State will not be obliged to endure what some of their predecessors were obliged to go through during the past 90 or so years. This is the wrong the Minister is trying to rectify and I support what she is doing.

I am glad to have this opportunity to wholeheartedly welcome the forthcoming referendum to enshrine the rights of children in our Constitution. As many speakers indicated, we have waited too long for this day. The Minister is to be congratulated on taking the bit between her teeth and delivering the wording contained in the proposed new article so soon into the Government's term of office. Some individuals have questioned the need for the referendum and have claimed that children's rights are adequately catered for. I would simply advise those people to recall our history. No one in the House needs to be reminded of the appalling sagas that have been recounted in respect of the child abuse which took place throughout our country. At best the State responded with incompetence to that abuse, at worst it did so with systemic, cold-hearted indifference. Those who claim that the days of abuse being perpetrated are in the past should talk to social workers, teachers, health care officials and ordinary, decent families and parents throughout the country. We are all aware of cases where children are vulnerable and in trouble. At present, our laws do not allow us to protect children in the way in which they are entitled to be protected.

If the referendum is passed, the State will be allowed to intervene in all cases where child safety and welfare are seriously at risk. This does not - and will never - constitute interference in the lives of ordinary families. Intervention will only take place in exceptional circumstances where there has been a clear and consistent failure of duty on the part of a child's natural parents. Had the rights of children been properly recognised in the Constitution in the first instance, we would not have witnessed the dreadful crimes which were perpetrated in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s and which were recounted in this House in recent days. During the period to which I refer, children were effectively snatched from their parents on the most spurious of grounds. Very often those children were taken from single parents and families that were struggling with grinding poverty. As we are aware, the children in question were literally cash cows for, in many cases, religious organisations. The latter were paid by the State for the children's keep and we know that much of the money involved was never spent on them. That is a scandal which, to this day, has not been addressed and which remains largely unresolved.

The referendum and the legislation alone will not protect our children. As a nation, our actions must speak louder than dry ink on paper. There must be no more horror stories with regard to State indifference or neglect. The excuse given for past failings, namely, "We didn't know", is quite feeble and usually falls apart under the slightest of examinations. We are all aware of the threats facing children and we know what must be done to protect them. Future generations will not forgive us if we get it wrong and repeat the sins of the past. It is time we delivered on the words which were most likely inserted into the 1916 Proclamation by James Connolly and cherished "all the children of the nation equally".

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on the Bill. The matter of a referendum on children's rights has been on the cards for many years and I am delighted that the Government and the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs in particular have seized the opportunity to proceed with it. I am pleased by the fact that the referendum will be held on a Saturday and I hope this will increase voter turnout, especially among students. After all, this referendum relates to the younger generation. It is about giving them rights and hearing their voices. For too long in our State's history, the best interests of the child have been disregarded, denied and debased. I know that every Member of this House read with horror report after report documenting the seemingly endless abuse by the church and the State of children whose interests they were supposed to protect.

I wish to pay tribute to those souls who bravely came forward to tell their stories. I also want to acknowledge those who have passed away and who will never now have the opportunity to tell theirs. It is important, too, to pay tribute to those journalists who helped bring these stories to light. Mary Raftery was one such individual and I am happy that her memory is being honoured by a fund established in her name. I hope that the Mary Raftery journalism fund will be availed of by journalists intent on bringing the same kind of depth and clarity displayed by Ms Raftery when asking difficult questions of a society which did not want to answer them.

A comprehensive response is going to be required from this and future Governments in order to ensure that there will be no recurrence of what happened in the past. In this regard, the recommendations made by the statutory inquiries must be followed through upon to the nth degree. I fully support the legislative progress that has been made in this regard. As matters stand, the Criminal Justice (Withholding of Information Concerning Offences Against Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act is on the Statute Book and the National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Persons) Bill 2012, which will place the Children First national guidelines on a statutory footing, is making its way through the Dáil. While these are welcome legal instruments, the opportunity to put the interests of children at the very heart of our Constitution should not be missed. The proposed 31st amendment of the Constitution is that opportunity.

The proposed amendment seeks to do five things: first, it sets out that children have rights and that all children will be made equal; second, it allows the State to intervene in circumstances where children are deemed to be in danger; third, it will enable the children of married parents to be adopted if they have been abandoned for three years or more; fourth, it obliges any court to be guided by the best interests of children; and, fifth, it obliges courts to hear the views of children. Last year some 8,000 cases involving children came before the courts. In fewer than 2,000 of these cases did the children involved have representatives. The points I have raised are well made and important and they must form part of an overarching governance scheme that will meet the needs of children. The Adoption (Amendment) Bill 2012 will give legislative effect to the wording of the constitutional amendment and will be enacted shortly thereafter. Having been adopted myself, this Bill is very close to my heart. I cannot imagine allowing a situation where parents who are unable to provide or to resume care for a child would still have rights over a child who had been fostered. This, in my view, is grossly unfair and untenable. I was fortunate to have a very loving and caring family who brought me up. My parents gave me the support and care I needed and I am very grateful that they were there for me. However, I know that thousands of others were not so fortunate. I want to see that potential realised for every child and I welcome the broad support for the referendum.

It is telling that the Opposition parties support the referendum because a united political front is essential in redressing the wrongs done to children in the past. This political support is welcome, as is the support of the civil society groups such as the Yes to Children umbrella group. However, as the Minister for Finance noted, I, too, would like the churches to come out in support of the proposal. Their silence on this issue is disturbing, in my view. As a Catholic and as a person who was adopted, I would like them to take the steps to demonstrate their support.

I wish to share my time with Deputy Pádraig Mac Lochlainn. I welcome the publication of the Bill which has been long-awaited and is universally welcomed, certainly by everyone in this House and by the vast majority of groups advocating on behalf of children. I also wish to pay tribute to the Minister's own determination in pressing ahead with this legislation. It shows a great commitment on her behalf and a sense of her understanding of the urgent need to deal with this matter as soon as possible. I also acknowledge the work done by previous Ministers and the work of the joint committee. Many people have worked to bring us to this point. It is now incumbent on all of us to ensure that the referendum is passed. The last thing we want is that all this work would be in vain.

All too often we hear about the neglect, abuse and exploitation of children. I refer to the Private Members' motion on the Magdalen laundries and the Bethany home. That debate brought home to many of us - who may not have been very aware - the reality of what life was like in those institutions. After that debate nobody can be under any illusion about the type of neglect and abuse suffered by children in those institutions and the failure of the State to address it. As I said in my contribution to that debate, it is a stain on the history of this State, something for which we as legislators must all take responsibility and do our best to rectify. If we do not do so, there could be further abuse, neglect and exploitation of children. The most important work is to ensure that children have a voice. There must never again be a situation where the voices of children continue to be silenced.

I refer to the contribution of Deputy Ó Caoláin to the debate on the Private Members' motion last night. He outlined that Sinn Féin will support this referendum and we will campaign actively in support of a "Yes" vote. As Deputy Ferris said, all the political parties will be supporting the campaign and this sends out a clear message that this legislation is of paramount importance and must be supported.

The key principle of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child must be enshrined in Irish law but it is also in the best interests of children to ensure that this referendum is passed. We must campaign to deliver the message that this referendum is of paramount importance for the welfare of children. The key beneficiaries of a "Yes" vote will be children.

In the opinion of Sinn Féin this amendment does not do everything we would like it to do but there is no doubt that it has the potential to address some of the legal barriers which have prevented the State from intervening in the past in situations where children have been at risk and it is a welcome measure.

The amendment will readjust the threshold for State intervention and it will place an onus on the State to support children and to adopt a proportionate response to parental failures. It will also ensure that in exceptional circumstances where children have been failed by their birth parents and where they have formed loving connections with their foster parents, it will now be possible for them to be adopted and to become the legal children of those foster parents. That is to be welcomed.

While the State must do everything within its power to help to keep families together and to ensure that adequate resources are in place, this will not be possible in some hard cases. Children must be given the opportunity of a second chance to experience a loving family relationship.

Some will argue that there is no need for this amendment of the Constitution. They will argue that this amendment will impose unnecessary levels of State intervention in families but I do not agree. Deputy Ó Caoláin stated that this proposal will not weaken the constitutional position of the family which is protected under Article 41. The proposed amendment will not affect Article 41. This is a point we will need to argue very forcefully during the referendum campaign because that argument will be promoted by others and we will need to rebut it with the facts.

I am my party spokesperson on education. The knowledge-based economy is a well-used term by successive Governments. As we debate the place of children in society, we need to be mindful that education is a critical phase in a child's upbringing. It has the potential to expand a child's opportunities in life. However, inequality exists in education and it must be addressed by both the Government and the Opposition. The Government could use the budgetary process to protect education and to prioritise it and those of us in opposition need to put forward credible costed alternatives. Studies have shown the link between education and child development. I refer to young people who leave school early and who come from disadvantaged backgrounds and who do not have the same opportunities to access education as other children. While it is not true in all cases, a certain number of children who drop out of the education system will inevitably end up with addictions and involved in petty crime. It is incumbent on us all, as we discuss this proposal to place the rights of the child into the Constitution, to ensure it is not merely a case of words and no action. If we are to do justice to what the Minister is seeking to achieve on behalf of children, we must ensure there are adequate resources in place. I hope the Minister's Cabinet colleagues, as they partake in the upcoming budgetary process, will recognise the important role that education can play in helping children to grow into successful adults, regardless of the opportunities, or lack thereof, arising from their family background.

I look forward to the forthcoming campaign to ratify the referendum proposal. It is important that we do not take it as a foregone conclusion that there will be a "Yes" vote. That would be a serious mistake. We all have a responsibility to argue the merits of the referendum and to ensure, once and for all, that the rights of children are enshrined in the Constitution. I look forward to playing my part in that effort.

I commend the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, on her achievement in bringing the proposed constitutional amendment on children's rights before the House. It is astonishing that it has taken so long to reach this point. I echo the sentiments expressed by my colleague, Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin, who stated in his opening remarks that although Sinn Féin will support the proposal, it does not nearly go far enough in terms of incorporating children's rights into the Constitution.

The amendment seeks to resolve child protection issues and the ongoing issues around adoption which have prevented marital children in very long-term care from being adopted, even where there is no chance that their parents will ever be able to provide the requisite care. However, the provision may be open to legal challenge, given that Article 41, which provides for the elevated position of the constitutional family based on marriage, will remain unchanged. The amendment will allow children to have their say in guardianship matters and will ensure their best interests are the paramount consideration in guardianship and adoption proceedings brought by the State. In terms of what the amendment seeks to achieve, that much is clear. What is also clear, however, is that it goes no further. The proposal is, by design, very limited. It was specifically framed as such by a Government which knew it was obliged to address child protection and adoption issues and that there was massive public support for enshrining the rights of children in the Constitution. There was simply no way it could further delay taking some action. The proposal was designed in such a way that the Government could be seen to act by providing the window dressing of a new constitutional article enshrining unspecified "natural and imprescriptible" rights for children, but without making actual provision for any such rights.

Let us be under no illusion about the impact of what is proposed here. The amendment will make life better for a very small number of children who are at risk, in respect of whom the State will now have a legal power to intervene. It will also make life better for those children who would otherwise languish in long-term foster care for years on end. It will, however, make no difference to children with disabilities who do not have access to the services they need. It will make no difference to children who live in poverty and go to school hungry on a daily basis. It will make no difference to the lives of children with mental health difficulties who are regularly packed off to adult wards because the State will not invest in the necessary services. The proposal establishes no right to health care, no right to make a child's best interests the paramount concern in all matters concerning them, no right to special needs assistants, and no right to be schooled in adequate accommodation instead of prefabricated buildings. There will still be homeless children sleeping on Dawson Street and Grafton Street after the amendment is passed because they will still have no right to shelter. The State will continue to fail all of these children. To the vast majority of children in this country, the amendment will be meaningless and devoid of any tangible benefit.

The crux of the matter, of course, is that rights cost money, and Fine Gael and the Labour Party do not believe in investing in children's rights. If they had any interest in doing so, the annual Estimates for each Department would look very different. If they had a real commitment to children's rights, the formula of words for the constitutional amendment would incorporate the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child into domestic law. Enshrining rights and implementing them costs money, however, and would require a wholesale overhaul of how we tax and spend at Government level. In other words, it would require a radical shift in thinking, which, as we know, will not happen. Instead, the Government will keep cutting expenditure until people are forced to give up everything. Sinn Féin has questioned the Government before on the number of children who have been voluntarily placed in the care of the State because their parents can no longer financially cope with raising them. We are told repeatedly that no child is ever taken into care because of poverty, but that simply is not true.

Notwithstanding these deficiencies and the narrowness of its remit, the constitutional amendment deserves support because it will make some children's lives better, and that is worth it. It represents a beginning on the long road to incorporating the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child into Irish law and ensuring children have rights to health, housing and education and to have their best interests the paramount concern in all decisions that involve them. While it is not sufficient in itself to address the issue of children's rights, it does acknowledge the potential for children to have rights. After the referendum, when the Labour Party and Fine Gael have washed their hands of these issues, we will continue to call for a guarantee of children's rights to shelter, an adequate living standard and health care. We will work to ensure children are given rights to education, play, leisure and access to information. We will maintain our commitment to ensure, above all, that children are protected from all forms of abuse, neglect and exploitation, including special care for refugee children, safeguards for children in the criminal justice system, protection for children in employment, and protection and rehabilitation for children who have suffered exploitation or abuse of any kind. Those are the genuine safeguards towards which we will continue to strive.

I propose to share time with Deputies Michael Conaghan and Ann Phelan.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate. It is heartening to observe the support that is forthcoming from all sides of the House for the proposal that is before us. The universal approval that greeted the publication of the proposed wording of the referendum is a testament to the determination of the Minister, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, since she took office 18 months ago. The compliments she has received from Members of all parties and none are well deserved.

The need for constitutional change to enshrine the rights of children was first voiced by the former Supreme Court judge Mrs. Justice Catherine McGuinness in 1993. However, it has taken until now and the appointment of the Minister to bring proposals in this regard to fruition. In July 2011, just four months into her term, work was already under way between her Department and the Office of the Attorney General to devise a wording for the constitutional amendment. I concur with the Minister's observation in the House last Tuesday that this referendum is one of the most important in the history of the State. Article 42 of the Constitution promises to cherish all of the children of the State equally. Given the various reports and revelations in the years since the Constitution was first adopted, it is right and proper at this stage in our history that the Irish people have an opportunity to update its provisions in order to ensure the rights of every child are protected, thereby ending any ambiguity that may persist.

I welcome the announcement that polling will take place on a Saturday. A weekend ballot will prevent disruption to schools, many of which have had to close on previous occasions to facilitate voting. A Saturday vote will also facilitate students and people who work away from home from Monday to Friday. It will be interesting for all of us in the House to see what effect this will have on voter turnout. Traditionally, turnout in referendums has been low, averaging 50% or less and as low as 28% on more than one occasion. Given the importance of this referendum, it is to be hoped that large numbers of people will come out to cast their votes. In this regard, I welcome the commitment from Members opposite to canvass for the ratification of the referendum proposal. It is extremely important, in the interests of democracy, to encourage people to vote.

I note the concerns regarding the media debate on the referendum and fears that it could lack balance arising from the Coughlan and McKenna judgments. It is important that there be a full debate. Notwithstanding universal support for the referendum among parties in and organisations outside the House, we must not be complacent. The Minister is conscious of this issue and I urge the Referendum Commission, in conjunction with the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland, to determine how these concerns can be overcome. The media must be given guidance to ensure we have full debates in order that people will have all the information they need before voting.

It is sad indictment of this country that 17 major reports on child protection failings have been published since 1980. Without these reports, the true extent of child abuse and neglect inflicted on children who were in the care of the church and State institutions may not have come to light. We must never forget the victims who displayed such courage in speaking out and making these reports possible.

The referendum is only one of a range of measures the Government is introducing to afford greater legislative protection for children. As I stated last week, the National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Persons) Bill, Criminal Justice (Withholding of Information on Offences Against Children and Vulnerable Persons) Bill and Children First Bill will contribute to strengthening our child protection laws. The constitutional amendment will not only provide protection for children but will support families and, of equal importance, remove the inequalities in the adoption system.

On the issue of adoption, I compliment the Minister on the work she has done in rebuilding our bilateral relationship with Vietnam. I was pleased to note the Vietnamese justice Minister visited Ireland during the week to sign a new bilateral agreement which will pave the way for the resumption of adoptions between Ireland and Vietnam. I was glad to play a small role in assisting the Minister when I met the justice Minister, Mr. Ha Hung Cuong, during a visit to Vietnam last year. Adoptions from Vietnam have been on hold since 2010, which has left many families in limbo. From speaking to these families, many of whom I have been working with for years, they are grateful to the Minister for prioritising the need to bring this matter to a successful conclusion.

While the majority of children are fortunate to be born into homes where they are loved and cared for all of their lives, a number of children have not been so fortunate. It is estimated that up to 900 teenagers are homeless in Dublin, with the problem of homelessness also prevalent in other cities. The Simon Community in Cork, for example, reported that of the 621 people who were homeless on the streets of the city last year, 19% were under 26 years. I do not know how many Deputies had the opportunity to watch "The Secret Millionaire", which was broadcast on RTE on Monday night. The programme featured Dublin businessman, Richard Mulcahy, going under cover in Limerick. I was struck by the number of young people who are surviving on the streets of the city. It is important to acknowledge and support the work many volunteers and organisations, including the Simon Community and Focus Ireland, do with young homeless persons.

Although children end up on the streets for many and varied reasons, in most cases the children in question do not get the start in life that many of us take for granted. Recently, I picked up a Focus Ireland leaflet which featured the slogan, "Without your home, your life develops differently." This sums up the reason children who have been failed deserve to be adopted into loving families who will take care of them. According to the Health Service Executive performance monitoring report for quarter two, which was published in June, more than 6,000 children are in the care of the State, of whom approximately 91% are in foster care. The majority of children in foster care have a highly positive experience. Sometimes a child may remain in foster care for a longer period because it may not be possible for various reasons for him or her to return to his or her birth parents. In some cases, the child and foster parents wish to formalise the arrangement and move to adoption. This has not been possible in a number of cases because children of married parents could not be adopted. The draft adoption Bill, which the Minister published in tandem with this referendum, will change this position and is an important and positive step by a Minister who has only been in office for 18 months.

If the referendum is passed, the High Court will be able to consider the relationship between the child, the natural parents and the prospective adoptive parents and its overriding concern will be best interest of the child. Since the draft adoption legislation was published on Monday last, I have received a number of inquiries from families who are in the process of adopting from abroad seeking to ascertain whether this legislation will have any implications for them. Perhaps the Minister will clarify this matter.

The passage of the referendum will be another major step in ensuring our legislative structure supports and protects our children. I support the proposed constitutional amendment and will campaign vigorously for a "Yes" vote in the coming weeks.

I am delighted to support the Bill which proposes a constitutional amendment to recognise and enshrine the rights and voices of children in Bunreacht na hÉireann. I thank the Minister, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, and her staff for their work and commitment to date. A constitutional amendment of any nature is no small matter. Each word must be carefully chosen and each sentence carefully constructed. Given that there is no doubt the wording will be tested again and again in our courts, it is essential that it does not create any anomalies, loopholes or circumstances in which the intended rights of the child cannot be fully vindicated. I commend the Minister, her staff, the Attorney General and those who offered their advice in this matter on their efforts to date. As a Labour Party Deputy, I am also proud to support the delivery of another commitment made by the Labour Party in its manifesto and reaffirmed in the programme for Government.

The proposed amendment will expressly recognise children in their own right in the Constitution and strengthen the protection of children from abuse and neglect by putting their best interests on a constitutional footing and at the heart of decision-making processes. The need for this constitutional amendment has been apparent for some time and has been called for by various bodies and expert reports for nearly 20 years, dating back to the publication of a report by Judge Catherine McGuinness on the Kilkenny incest case. The judge's report, which was submitted to then Minister for Health, Deputy Brendan Howlin, in 1993, included the following recommendation: "We believe that the Constitution should contain a specific and overt declaration of the rights of born children." Nineteen years later, we are finally delivering.

As I indicated, I am pleased to note the proposed amendment has gained almost unanimous support and is being backed by every party in the House. The amendment builds on the extensive work of the all-party Joint Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children, chaired by former Deputy Mary O'Rourke, which reported in 2010. I am glad cross-party support on this matter has been maintained as the referendum approaches.

The need for action has been starkly highlighted by Ireland's sad history of protecting our children. The reports of the Ryan commission and Cloyne inquiry, the Roscommon incest case, the report of the independent review into the deaths of children in care and many other reports highlight a damning litany of abuse, neglect and failure to protect our children. As the Children's Rights Alliance states in its submission, the referendum will allow us to set out "how we, as a country, now view and value children, and move beyond the damning history of child abuse in Ireland." With this referendum, we have the opportunity to create a new legacy for Ireland and our children.

Some 20 years after Ireland ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1992, we are putting some of its general principles into effect. These include the protection of the best interests of the child, the right of the child to be heard and the non-discrimination principle. According to the wording of the proposed amendment, in proceedings "brought by the State, ... for the purpose of preventing the safety and welfare of any child from being prejudicially affected, or concerning the adoption, guardianship or custody of, or access to, any child, the interests of the child shall be the paramount consideration." The Constitution will now take a child-centred approach to the protection of children. Adoption, guardianship, custody and access decisions will be based on the best interests of the child. This referendum does not amend Article 41 of the Constitution and will do nothing to undermine the constitutional role of the family. What it will do is give constitutional standing to the interests of the child and allow a judge to consider them properly.

I am particularly glad to see the proposed amendment will see the right of the child to have their views heard enshrined in the Constitution. The views of the child will be given due weighting by a judge, alongside their best interests in cases of safety and welfare, adoption, guardianship and other areas.

I welcome the fact this amendment will allow for full and proper equality among children, regardless of their background. It provides that the rights and protections enjoyed by children are to be enjoyed by all children, irrespective of their parents' marital status. This will be particularly important in the area of adoption where, for example, the Supreme Court has found the Constitution as it stands puts barriers in the way of the adoption of children of married parents. This referendum, along with the Adoption (Amendment) Bill now published, will level that playing field.

The issue of equality is a core principle for all Members. This constitutional amendment will help further enshrine this commitment in the law on children. In this regard, I also commend the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn, on his work in the Department of Education and Skills to create a proper level playing field in access to and quality of our children's education. I hope this will continue in budget 2013.

I look forward to taking to the doorsteps of Ballyfermot, Inchicore and beyond in support of this referendum. While the response to date has been most positive, my party colleagues and I will continue to work to ensure this most important referendum will be carried so the rights of the child can be fully and properly enshrined in our Constitution in perpetuity.

I congratulate the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs once again for bringing this Bill before the House and her continued efforts to fulfil the programme for Government. Much praise has been given to the Minister over the past several days. I hope the praise I give now does not sound so hollow. I must commend the way the Minister has gone about her business diligently and has presented this long-awaited legislation in such a short time.

For over 80 years, Bunreacht na hÉireann has defined this country. It identifies us as a sovereign, independent, democratic State, one which at both a local and national government levels gives expression to the declared wishes of its people. It gives a voice to the people and now, through the implementation of this amendment, a voice to its children. For some time now, I have respected the dedicated work of Supreme Court Judge and former member of Seanad Éireann, Mrs. Catherine McGuinness, and what she has contributed to the children's rights campaigns. She first called for constitutional change to children's rights in 1993 during the Kilkenny incest inquiry. Like her, I share the sentiments this Bill will be good for our children's future and improve the legal rights of children with married and unmarried parents.

This referendum allows us the opportunity to create fundamental change in how we treat children. It provides for all children but, in particular, for the protection of the most vulnerable and those most at risk. The Minister stated earlier how the choice of words is extremely important. The words used, "exceptional" and "proportionate" in this amendment are clear, robust and to be welcomed.

While thousands of families never need the aid or intervention of our child protection or welfare services, there are many which do. The family is the most important unit of society and plays a critical role in children's development. For a family to succeed, it does not necessarily need to be a nuclear family. What really matters is how families are supported in their efforts to protect and nourish their children. That is why I must commend the Minister on the proposed wording of this amendment in recognising that parents are the most important carers in their children's lives, as well as ensuring the referendum will endorse the State's continuing efforts in early intervention and family support services to protect children in their homes from abuse and neglect. It will also ensure all children are treated equally under adoption legislation, irrespective of the marital status of their parents.

We live in a country which prides itself on the dignified way it looks after its people. However, this can be challenged if we are to look at the 17 reports published over the past several years such as the Cloyne report, the Roscommon incest report, the Ryan report and the Kilkenny incest case. All detailed the failures of the State and the heinous way the welfare of children and adolescents was placed in the hands of unscrupulous, and I would go so far as to say evil, perpetrators who abused positions of power in our State institutions and church-run organisations.

The Constitution in its present format is somewhat antiquated. Society has progressed and Ireland no longer shuns its young people. Most of us remember the old sayings such as, "Spare the rod and spoil the child" and "Children should be seen and not heard." We have come a long way from this kind of archaic and coarse mentality. Through this amendment, we will give a voice to our children and give a second chance of happiness to children who have been failed previously. We all deserve a second chance.

It is indeed fitting this week marks the twentieth anniversary of Ireland's ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. By ratifying this agreement, the State committed itself to promote, protect and fulfil the rights of children as outlined in the convention's articles. What we aim to achieve with the thirty-first amendment of the Constitution is reflective of our agreement with the UN to propel the rights of children and family.

It is critical that everyone who has a right to vote exercises that right in the forthcoming referendum to aid the future protection and maintenance of children's rights. I thank the Minister for holding the referendum on a Saturday which will make best use of time. I also thank her for her recent announcement to establish an agency, following the upcoming referendum, for children and families which will bring child and family welfare under a single dedicated body. This will vastly improve matters and bring clarity to this area, perhaps as a one-stop shop for the needs of children. I look forward to the upcoming campaign.

I am delighted to speak on this important legislation. I compliment and congratulate the Minister for bringing it forward in such a short time that she has been in office. I also thank the former children affairs Ministers, Mr. Barry Andrews, who worked tirelessly on this referendum with his staff, and the late Mr. Brian Lenihan, as well as the work of the all-party committee on the amendment chaired by former Deputy, Ms Mary O'Rourke. It is correct we are all focused on the rights and safeguarding of children. We have the sad experience of many cases of child neglect and abuse that have occurred in institutions and family homes over the decades. These were very dark decades in our history.

Anything we can do to rectify any of these wrongs or injustices should be done. Some were heinous and are too terrible to speak about. We must make haste to try to rectify them and ensure they never happen again. However, there is a referendum timetable. As part of the process a judge is to be appointed as head of the Referendum Commission whose name will be announced at a press conference. The Bill will go through the various stages, progressing through the Dáil with late sittings. It will then progress to the Seanad next week, from 1 October. It is important that we be seen to do this.

I am pleased that the proposal does not interfere with Article 41 of the Constitution in any shape or form because it is an important underpinning of the status of the family. In the main, it has served us well and we should try to support, recognise and give credence to families. We should support traditional family units. I am in favour of supporting all family units, but my preference is to try to have the family unit as we knew it, that is, of a man and a woman, a mother and a father, and children and siblings. It is also important to recognise the rights of all children in Article 42A.1. The proposed wording of Article 42A.2 is stronger than that proposed by the all-party committee, which is important. The committee undertook research, carried out investigations and deliberated on the issues involved. It is the Minister's job and that of her advisers to take from the work of the committee, to add to or delete from it. The wording proposed by the committee referred to a physical or moral failure, which was too broad. The wording proposed in this case is more specific and child-centred. It refers to where parents "fail in their duty towards their children to such extent that the safety or welfare of any of their children is likely to be prejudicially affected". That is a clean wording and the Attorney General had to assess it. There will not be interference for the sake of it. There were fears expressed by various organisations that there would be interference willy-nilly with families.

Article 42A.3 is important, too. It allows for the adoption of any child and thereby addresses the child of marriage issue, which is a significant one. I compliment the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs and thank the former Minister of State with responsibility for children, Mr. Barry Andrews, for their work on adoptions from Vietnam. I know many couples throughout the country were pulling their hair out and had given up hope. I realise this was not an easy issue because the previous Minister of State had explained to us that it was both complex and serious. I compliment the Minister on having the arrangement reopened. There are many wonderful couples who, for whatever reason, were not able to have their own children naturally and are keen to adopt. The source of the problem was the Hague Convention, but, thankfully, we appear to have overcome it, which is wonderful news. There is nothing more harrowing than meeting and talking to the couples involved who were traumatised and distressed because they were getting older and various things were happening. Some had one child but wanted another, while some had none.

Article 42A.4.1° refers to the best interests of the child as being paramount and does so strongly by emphasising that this "shall" rather than "may" be the case. The word "may" can be loose. "Shall" is stronger and a better word. That is good advice. Article 42A.4.2° provides that the views of the child shall be taken into account in certain circumstances.

Amendments have been tabled for discussion this evening when we hope to have passed all Stages of the legislation. There has been a brouhaha about it, rightly so, but after it is passed here, it will go before the Seanad and then be brought back here before finally being read into law.

I compliment the Minister on deciding to hold the referendum on a Saturday. All votes should take place on a Saturday or Sunday to allow the greatest number of people to cast their votes, including those who are working or in college. We need a strong vote. As such, it is important that elections are held on a Saturday. It is time we broke the mould. The cosy cartels have held elections on a Thursday or Friday to suit themselves. However, democracy is for the people and should not be the bastion of any one grouping, although this is what it has become. It is right to hold the referendum on a Saturday. This will be only the second time this has taken place, but I hope referendums and elections in the future will be held on a Saturday or Sunday. Many are off on Sunday, when they go to church. They could easily cast their votes on that day. We should encourage those responsible to do this.

Half an hour before I came to the Chamber I received a telephone call from a concerned teacher. It was about a five year old who was waiting to be seen by a speech therapist. He was assessed last January. His parents were told that because of the Croke Park agreement and the taking of maternity leave there was no sign of an appointment being made. The child finds himself in an embarrassing situation in school, as he has a severe problem with his speech. As a parent, I have seen what can be done through speech therapy. Some children might need such a service to help them with a few vowels or syllables, but the service is important. I realise we are in stringent economic times, but there is not much point in having the Statute Book full of legislation if we do not have the will or find the way to ensure resources are made available.

I imagine the Minister will be interested in the motion relating to the Jack and Jill Children's Foundation which was debated in the Seanad last night. The Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, replied to the debate which covered the special needs of sick children and children with disabilities in need of home care packages. Senators Mary Ann O'Brien and Jillian van Turnhout did not put it to a vote because the Minister of State assured them that the Minister for Health, Deputy James Reilly, would meet them next week to discuss the matter. They were not looking for one extra cent but simply a transfer of funds. They are seeking to have these children moved from hospitals, where they are not happy. This is distressing for the families involved. It costs nine times more to keep them there than what it would to keep them at home. We, therefore, need a seismic shift in the way the HSE and the Department of Health work. These figures have not been verified independently; however, the Minister was asked to have them verified. How much could be saved in the HSE budget if the proposed changes were made? I referred to the case of a particular child. Thousands of children are waiting for orthodontic treatment, to see eye specialists and so on. There will be greater problems if they are not seen to now. The system is choked. We can pass legislation on a weekly basis, but if we do not have the proper systems in place to support, regulate, stimulate and encourage, we are going nowhere. I realise the Minister inherited the system, but we must consider what can be done to rectify the position. Some dreadful cases have been brought to my attention at my clinic. One would have to be made of stone not to be distressed at the way some children are being neglected and the circumstances in which some are living. It is appalling.

We cannot continue to operate the social services system in the way it is being operated. However, I commend front-line staff and social workers who make tremendous efforts, but one cannot operate from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday to Friday. The people concerned are at their wits' end and overstretched. There must be a seismic change of emphasis in the way funding is divvied out. There is nothing worse than children being traumatised in the home or unable to gain access to the social workers they need. We need to remedy this because there are predators who want to abuse children and they are not operating from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday to Friday. They are like vermin waiting for their prey. They bide their time and know when the least pressure is applied.

The gardaí would tell me regularly that they have serious issues all the time, especially at night time and on weekend nights when awful situations occur. They are called in to deal with such situations and they have no one to telephone and no place to put these people other than a cell or, where they can get them in, a hospital. That is totally unsatisfactory. There needs to be specialised services within the Garda Síochána to deal with these issues. The Government must look at that. As I stated at the outset, we have the experience of Cloyne, the appalling case in Roscommon where the services were involved, the Ryan report etc.

Garda vetting, a Bill on which was in the House last week, is only as good as the officers handling it. There was no better Garda vetting than when the local Garda sergeant or garda knew everybody in the community and could give a reference at any time. There is now a central bureau. I do not know how they think it is so good. I do not believe it is. If gardaí do not have local knowledge and knowledge of a person, they will not get proper references and make proper recommendations. In addition, the delays in the bureau are considerable.

Getting back to the Bill, if the Government does not put those services in place - as I stated, I am not looking for extra funding - there is no point in passing this constitutional amendment. That is not looking for extra resources; it is looking for a change of resources. I do not want to refer to the disputes in the Department between the senior Minister and his former junior Minister, but there must be clear lines of divison. I am told, although I am not certain of this, that the Minister never signed off on the delegated powers to the former Minister of State. There must be clear divisions. Deputy Fitzgerald, as a first ever Cabinet Minister in this area, has the powers, and I wish her well on that, but she must follow the money in the Department, cut out half the bureaucracy, red tape and administration, let the services flourish out to where they are needed and take on enough social workers. The Department must take on sufficient specialist child psychologists. I am not saying to flood the area, or that we have such funding because we have not, but the Minister should ensure the resources are at the front line where they are needed, not in administration, back room offices and whatever else. I am not criticising all the public servants either, but I am saying that there must be a seismic change across Departments. They are there to service the people, not to be self-serving or anything else. Particularly in the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, the Minister must ensure that all children are cherished equally.

With families, second chance programmes can be given for whatever reason. One can give them to the parents as well. If there is a small issue of neglect, carelessness or whatever, there are the practicalities to consider as well where a social worker, garda or whoever else will have to sit down and have a chat with those concerned. Even in the courts, they have to do it. One should give them a second chance because, unfortunately, due to the changes in life as we know it, and the amount of pornography and whatever else is coming in on the Internet, there are considerable challenges for young children, teenagers and older people. There are significant issues that did not exist when I was a young fellow when it was different altogether. Those pressures are there as well. It is shocking to note that, according to Department figures, Childline received 1,240 calls on Christmas Day last. One wonders how many children are not properly literate or properly able to communicate and who do not even know that Childline exists.

There are significant issues to deal with and this is an honest effort to deal with them, but the resources must follow and services must be streamlined. There must be a balanced ongoing assessment of how this legislation is bedding in, without having overzealous staff interfering, as I stated earlier, for any minor reason. I honestly believe that legislation is only as good as the follow through. One can have the best team there but if they do not get the support and if they are not trained properly, they will not deliver the goods.

There are groups which, while they might be quite small, have concerns about this Bill and they should be listened to. They cannot be dismissed as fanatics, cranks or anything else. They are out there and in touch with people, and have concerns or fears, and there must be proper discussion. I hope the Referendum Commission keeps it simple and does not confuse the public. The timescale is quite tight but it can be done. As I said, it must be done. We do not want to confuse anybody.

As I stated, the Garda vetting must be checked out. The bureau must be understanding and the only way to understand the matter is to have the knowledge.

The key objectives in this Bill are good. The reference to "no discrimination" is important also. As I stated, it is now a different Ireland. There are multiple nationalities and they all must be welcomed. I call them "newcomers". There are multiple disciplines of religion, ethnic beliefs and whatever, and they all must be understood and dealt with by the law in an understanding, fair and meaningful way. There are all kinds of barriers, for instance, language. I could visit a school with the tidy schools competition 15 years ago and there would be only one nationality but now one could find 12 or 15.

I am delighted that the fundamental Article 41 was not interfered with because in my opinion that is sacrosanct. I am delighted with the fairly straightforward articles here and the capable use of wording. I am no barrister or adviser on words, but I think this is a fairly sensible wording that provides the latitude to take whatever action is needed. I am delighted that the word "exceptional" is included because it applies only in exceptional circumstances. Where there are such exceptional circumstances, there must be swift action, the matter must be dealt with, and the Department cannot allow ongoing sagas such as arose in the Roscommon case and others. I commend the Bill to the House.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to speak on this Bill.

Few Bills that go through the Oireachtas have the potential to have the impact of this Bill. Essentially, it elevates the rights of a significant section of the Irish population, those under 18, and seeks to give them stronger protection under the Constitution.

The only negative aspect of this Bill is that it took the revelation of unimaginable misery endured by Irish children over decades to prompt today's action. The scenes of this misery were myriad - homes throughout the country, industrial schools, churches, mainstream schools, sporting venues and many others. The past two decades have seen a spotlight shone into dark corners of Irish life, illuminating incredible neglect and abuse of children, including neglect on the part of the State, which handed over responsibility for the care of vulnerable children to church-run institutions and then failed to follow up on its responsibilities by properly monitoring those institutions.

Such neglect and abuse is not a thing of the past. We must keep to the fore in our minds that cases will always arise where children are being neglected or abused and it is absolutely necessary that all authorities are acutely aware of the signs and symptoms of such neglect or abuse, that proper safeguarding procedures are in place and that this is backed up by legislation which at all times places a premium on the safety of all Irish children.

Two cases in particular highlighted weaknesses in the current legislation and prompted the legislation - the Kilkenny incest case and the Roscommon abuse case. A report on the Kilkenny incest case of 1993 noted that the high emphasis placed on the rights of the family in the Constitution may be interpreted as giving a higher value to the rights of parents than to the rights of children. The Roscommon abuse case also provided an example of the inadequacies of the current legislative framework. The 2010 report which followed this case investigated the circumstances surrounding the conviction of a mother for incest, neglect and ill treatment of her six children. An attempt had been made by the health authorities to take the children into care but that had been thwarted using the existing legislation, which gives primacy to the family over the State in terms of caring for children.

Last year the Government committed to holding a referendum to strengthen children's rights in the Constitution. I welcome the swift action that followed and the fact that this legislation is now before the Oireachtas. The law as it stands certainly requires changing and I welcome that the referendum will take place as this will result in a wider discussion on children's rights in our society and a greater awareness of the necessity of this Bill.

There are four elements to the Government's intent in bringing forward this Bill and all four are to be welcomed. The first is to give children their own rights within the Constitution and to give recognition to the views of the child and support enhanced child protection through the State's ability to respond proportionately to concerns. The second policy intent is to give children special protection under the Constitution, recognising their potential vulnerability and offering greater protection. The Bill also removes obstacles for married parents to place their children for adoption voluntarily. Another key element is the ending of the constitutional situation where children may be treated differently on the basis of their parent's marital status when it comes to issues such as adoption.

All of this is done while respecting and preserving the rights of the family as set out in the Constitution. Supporting families is key to the success of the legislation, in particular, providing appropriate responses where children are living in particularly vulnerable situations, up to and including situations where the circumstances require intensive long-term support, including out-of-home care for children at risk. This is a key element with regard to anything that happens from now on. Some people have suggested this amendment will give authorities an easy right to remove a child from its parents or family. This is off the wall.

I worked in this area for four years and during my time and in abuse cases I came across, the idea was never to split up the family, but to discover the issue and provide a programme, through the HSE, youth services or whatever, and try to find a resolution. The last thing any social worker or HSE staff member ever wants to do is break up a family. However, there were cases where due to alcohol abuse in a family, the child's life was at risk. Such cases are exceptional, but that is where the State and Government should become involved to help protect the child. It is important to understand that where parents are struggling with parenthood, there are many programmes available, such as Incredible Years and Strengthening Families. All of these need to be used to help strengthen family units and to ensure children are brought up in a safe and happy environment.

Ireland signed up to many of the provisions of this Bill when it ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1992. Underlying provisions in the convention included the rights of the child to be heard and the non-discrimination principle. At all stages, this Bill seeks proportionality in terms of action and we must concede that in certain exceptional cases, it is necessary that the State as guardian of the common good, shall take action. A key provision of the Bill is the ability of the State to supply the place of parents in exceptional circumstances. The emphasis on "exceptional circumstances" is crucial here. While the new article omits the reasons for the failure in parental duty, it notes that the failure must be to an extent where the safety or welfare of any of the children is likely to be prejudicially affected.

The change to adoption law as proposed in the Bill is also very important. Under current Irish adoption law, the child of married parents cannot be voluntarily placed for adoption. Members on all sides of the House will agree that this is antiquated and needs to be changed to give a proper opportunity to children of married parents currently in foster care to be adopted. The situation as it currently stands deprives such children of a caring and loving family. It is also worth noting that the proposed legislation requires that before such an adoption takes place, consent must be informed and freely given and the children in question must have received counselling.

I urge Members on all sides of the House to do their utmost to ensure this Bill is properly communicated in their local communities and to ensure that the electorate fully appreciates the need for it and the provisions it contains when it comes to polling day. This Bill really will make a difference for some of the most vulnerable children in Irish society, both now and in the future.

I thank colleagues for their contributions and fulsome support for the Thirty-First Amendment of the Constitution (Children) Bill which we have been debating over the past couple of days. Deputy Connaughton is correct that the issue is now about communicating it properly to the public. This is extremely important. It has been interesting to see the cross-party support for the amendment and I welcome that.

When I introduced the Bill, I began by saying I wanted to thank everyone across the political divide who contributed so much to the development of the amendment now proposed. I pay tribute to the all-party committee which was chaired by former Deputy, Mary O'Rourke and the huge amount of work done by it. I also pay tribute to colleagues like the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Alan Shatter, who have spoken about this issue and highlighted the need for change for 20 years. I also pay tribute to the former Ministers or Ministers of State, Brian Lenihan, Barry Andrews and Mary Hanafin. So many people have contributed to the development and thinking around putting children at the centre and about the need for change. So many of those who have suffered directly have spoken out and by their courageous testimony have impacted on the debate we have had.

I have been struck by the contributions made in this House and by the personal stories of many people and Deputies who have had experience of adoption and fostering and have had direct contact with families who are suffering or who have seen abuse in families that have come to them and have dealt with very complex issues in care proceedings. The debate has reflected a changed reality in Ireland and a change in society's understanding of children. We have seen debates like this before, when homosexuality was decriminalised and when the second commission reported in 1992 and we had a debate in the House. What Members across the House are clearly saying is that this change must be reflected in our Constitution and they are offering strong support to the kind of change proposed. I thank all Members for the care they have taken with regard to this debate and for the detail and quality of their contributions.

When I introduced this Bill the other day, I said that constitutional change gives us a rare opportunity to look at ourselves as a nation and to ask whether we are truly espousing correct values. It gives us the opportunity to assess what we stand for. Ultimately, constitutional change allows us to consider future generations and to ask what kind of Ireland they should live in. Those questions have been comprehensively answered by Deputies here. Equally, Deputies have been very clear that when we look at the record on our most vulnerable children, we have been found lacking. We have been lacking also at constitutional level. When I put the question the other night as to whether we believe the way children are treated in this State represents what we believe to be the values, morals and ethics of the Irish people, the answer was a resounding "No". We need to change that.

A range of issues have been raised by Deputies and I want to address some of these. A number of Deputies raised questions relating to the language used in the amendment. As the Attorney General who has done so much work on this amendment - along with her staff - has said, every word that is put into the Constitution has a meaning and that meaning will be interpreted. We do not know and cannot be sure how the courts will interpret this language, but the balances we are trying to achieve are important. These concern the balance between the family, the child, getting the correct balance for children in need of protection and ensuring the State can intervene when it needs to.

We use the word "imprescriptible". In the context of rights, imprescriptible means rights which cannot be lost by the passage of time or abandoned by non-exercise. "Natural rights" are personal rights that we enjoy by virtue of our humanity under natural law. In a 1980 case, Gv. An Bord Uchtála, the Supreme Court considered the natural rights that are enjoyed by the child. Of course, we do not know precisely how the Supreme Court will interpret the new Article 42A.1 in the future, but undoubtedly it will be interpreted. We are seeking to give strength to children’s rights by including the new article in the Constitution.

The best interests principle is already well established in Irish statute law in the Guardianship of Infants Act 1964, the Child Care Act 1991 and the Adoption Act 2010. This referendum seeks to give constitutional strength to this principle, as provided for in these Acts. The amendment, as drafted, mandates the Oireachtas to legislate for the attainment of "the best interests of the child". This means that the best interests test may be further prescribed in law by the Oireachtas. If the referendum is passed, it will carry constitutional strength. That will give it a greater counter-balance than heretofore as against other expressed rights in the Constitution. By specifically and specially recognising the best interests principle within this article, we are bringing an important balance to Article 41. Therefore, the new article will be a powerful tool in the hands of the Oireachtas when it sets out to legislate for children's best interests and to balance them appropriately with the rights of families under Article 41 and the rights of birth parents under Article 43.

I want to draw attention to the use of the words "any" and "all" with respect to children. In each place where this formulation is used, the intention is that all children of marital and non-marital families will be treated equally when it comes to protecting their safety or welfare, their access to adoption and the consideration of their best interests and views in key proceedings.

I have been asked about the legislative changes that follow this amendment if the people support it. Clearly, there is a need for legislation in a number of areas. I have already published the general scheme of a Bill in relation to adoption. I decided to publish that draft Bill because it proposes a significant and highly sensitive change and deals specifically with the constitutional rights of a number of parties in those proceedings. Additionally, I want to inform Deputies that I intend to ensure the best interests and views of the child elements that are reflected in this amendment are brought fully into the new adoption legislation.

It has already been pointed out that the best interests and views of the child elements are already provided for in a number of other specified areas of law. While they are set out in a number of different legal formulations, they have the same impact and intent. The explicit inclusion in the amending Bill of a reference to these matters puts it beyond doubt that this House has the capacity to legislate for such matters. I will also introduce legislation in relation to the child and family support agency. Following that, I will further examine the Child Care Act in its entirety to ensure it reflects to the fullest degree possible the reforms in practices and processes that are part of a modern and integrated child and family delivery system. I will also ensure it reflects fully, in all of the relevant areas, the principle that the best interests of children should be the paramount consideration in child care proceedings. I will also look at the guardianad litem services under the Child Care Act 1991 with a view to ensuring the service is better structured and regulated and provides improved value into the future.

The programme for Government contains a commitment to reform and modernise aspects of family law. In this context, the detailed recommendations of the Law Reform Commission's report on the legal aspects of family relationships and guardianship rights are under consideration in the Department of Justice and Equality with a view to preparing legislative proposals. The question of whether existing provisions under the family law code should be amended to better reflect the proposed new constitutional provisions on the rights of the child, including those relating to the best interests of the child and the hearing of the child's views, is also under consideration. Other areas of legislation might arise following this amendment.

It is clear from the debate that the issue of adoption strikes a chord with many Deputies and many people outside the House. I want to make it clear that the intention is not to support or advocate the wholesale adoption of children from care - far from it. I am clear in my mind that this provision will benefit some children in care, but clearly not all children in care. The legislation we have drafted reflects that position. Many children come into care for very short periods before going back to their families. Care is used as a family support for such families. Of course that will continue. Improving assessment, the planning of care and the matching of children with stable care placements has to be a key priority for us. When one examines the child deaths report and reads about the kind of movement in and out of care that is experienced by many children, one appreciates the need for improved assessment, better permanency planning, better care planning and better placements for those children who are most at risk. We have to make sure they benefit from the stability of care, even when adoption is not the preferred option. This is very important. As I have said, adoption is not for all children in care. This is an extremely important amendment for some children in care who are eligible for adoption. Deputies on all sides of the House have understood that and addressed that issue.

The carefully balanced changes that are set out in the draft Bill reflect not only the changes to the Constitution which are proposed, but also the existing rights of all parties in adoption proceedings under Articles 40, 41 and 42 of the Constitution. Very detailed notes on this are available. I want to be completely clear on the process that is involved in a child being adopted from care. The details are contained in the draft Bill. The process and the sequencing, the specific tests to be met and - critically - the safeguards for the child and the parents that apply and will continue to apply in the area of adoption are well explained in the material I have made available publicly. I hope that will become further known around the country as people get closer to voting on 10 November.

A number of Deputies asked specific questions about counselling for adults who propose to place a child for adoption. I assure Deputies that under section 14 of the Adoption Act 2010, a mother or a guardian who agrees to place a child for adoption must be counselled and given full information about the adoption process before the child is placed for adoption. An authorised person is specially appointed by the Adoption Authority of Ireland to ensure the parent's consent is full, free and informed. The exact same process is used in intercountry adoptions. Without consent to the placement of a child for adoption, a voluntary adoption cannot proceed under any circumstances. This process will be retained following the proposed amendment to the 2010 Act.

Deputy Troy and other speakers asked about whether the foster care payment will continue to be made when a child is adopted by his or her foster parents. The Child Care Act 1991 provides that when a child is adopted from foster care, the HSE may contribute to the maintenance of the child as if he or she were still in foster care. This provision gives some scope and a limited number of circumstances for the HSE to acknowledge the financial burden that might arise for some families if the foster care allowance were discontinued from the moment of adoption. It is an exceptional provision, but it is available for those situations where the continuation of some financial support might be required in the short to medium term due to the particular circumstances of the situation.

I was also asked if the general scheme of the draft Bill represents the final draft I expect to bring to the House if this amendment to the Constitution is accepted by the people. The draft Bill sets out the policy of the Government. Perhaps technical amendments will emerge as being required to bring greater clarity to the legislation. Changes might be required to strengthen the draft Bill further in the manner I have suggested, with particular regard to the general provisions in adoption law regarding the best interests principle, the views of the child and the various proceedings under the Adoption Act 2010. I do not envisage any change in policy from that set out in the draft Bill and the information and explanatory notes that have already been made available.

There was a great deal of discussion on how services for children are being delivered at present, on the services that are available and on the future of such services in this country. I agree that the referendum is not a panacea - it is one aspect of our approach to strengthening child protection and children's services in this country. Of course a much bigger picture needs to be addressed. That is why we have an ambitious programme of child protection legislation and why we are changing the way we deliver services. The Deputies present in this House had an opportunity to discuss the development of those reforms in detail yesterday. I certainly take the point that there is ongoing work to do in regard to the organisation of services for children and families and the development of services. Of course, we are doing that at a time of limited resources whereas, in the past ten years, huge resources were available but we did not deal with some of these challenges. We need to examine how we are delivering these services and we need to take a reforming approach to them. Deputies will know the work we are doing in that area. Of course, resourcing is an issue across Departments and there are difficult choices to be made. However, I remain committed to ensuring we make real improvements for children in the lifetime of this Government. I am also determined that the new agency is significantly different both in terms of political accountability and delivery of services to what has gone before and that it is sufficiently resourced to achieve the improvements that are essential.

I want to finish by reiterating my thanks to the House for the support I have received in respect of the Bill. I was struck by the sentiments expressed by so many in this House during the course of the debate. Deputy Troy spoke about every child in this State getting what he or she deserves, namely, a loving and meaningful childhood. Deputy Ó Caoláin spoke very movingly in regard to this constitutional amendment giving all voting citizens the opportunity to say "stop" to the abuse and neglect which has characterised some of our past and which has been so horrifically detailed in the reports with which we are all familiar. There is no room for complacency. There is no doubt that eternal vigilance is the price of ensuring that children are not abused in current times as well.

I welcome the cross-party support which I have received. As I said, we all have a very big job to do in terms of ensuring that the kind of debate which we heard in the House over the past few days, and the kind of detailed information and understanding which was shared, is communicated to the citizens who will have the opportunity to vote in the referendum in November. I thank all Deputies for their contribution during the course of the debate.

Cuireadh agus aontaíodh an cheist.

Question put and agreed to.