Topical Issue Debate

School Enrolments

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this matter for discussion. I ask the Minister for Education and Skills to recognise the special position of primary schools on our offshore islands by extending the qualifying date for minimum enrolment from 30 September 2012 to 30 April 2013 so that some unique factors in island communities can be taken into account fully. I am not sure if the special position of national schools on the islands off our coast has been factored into the staff allocations the Minister's announced in recent months.

As the Minister is aware the population of our islands is in decline and has also varied considerably throughout the years. Those islands have unique challenges. I ask the Minister to consider the impact enrolment assessments have on island life. By allowing a second enrolment count to take place on 30 April - which by coincidence is today - where an island school is in danger of losing a second teacher and becoming a single-teacher school the Minister would ensure that these variable factors are fully taken into account in determining the number of teachers allowed in our island schools. This refers to the recent Department of Education and Skills circular 13/2013 on staffing arrangements in primary schools, specifically section 3.5 on island schools.

I have been made aware of the drastic consequences which could negatively impact our island schools if their numbers were below eight students on 30 September last, as they would lose their second teacher forever. The numbers would have to rise above 20 before a second teacher would be reinstated. This figure would raise the barrier too high and would make maintaining a national school on most of our islands unsustainable. If we cannot continue to keep national school children living and going to school on an island we will make our islands uninhabitable for anyone with children aged younger than 12 years. Nobody here wants to see our island populations decline further. They are a resource and not a millstone and it would be great if they could be treated as such. The children of the islands are the future of the islands. I call for tolerant flexibility in considering teacher numbers in island schools. Not only would the schools close but ultimately the islands would shut down.

These schools do not have the option of a merger as schools on the mainland do. I take the point that options exist for national schools in rural and remote areas where student numbers are falling, and schools have always closed in rural Ireland because of a lack of children. It is different on the islands where the option of a merger or an amalgamation does not exist, and it is quite a serious issue. If a school was reduced to a single teacher and this teacher fell ill I do not need to explain to the Minister of State the consequences this would have in a national school in a remote area would be particularly exacerbated on an island. Getting a substitute teacher to an island is more difficult than getting one to a remote mainland area. I would like to think this would be considered in the execution of these staffing arrangements.

The circular was issued long after the day the enrolment count was taken. I ask for a recount to be taken to ensure a fair figure is arrived at so the special position of our island schools is maintained and they can be given every opportunity to continue to educate our young islanders on the islands. I have a particular example in mind of how this issue will possibly impact an island. It is appropriate to enlarge the debate and broaden it out to offshore islands. There are seven inhabited offshore islands off the coast of my constituency of Cork South-West. There are also islands off the coast of Galway, Donegal and Mayo which will be particularly hard hit by this issue.

I thank Deputy Harrington for giving me the opportunity to outline to the House the position regarding staffing in primary schools, and in particular in our island primary schools. The Department treats schools fairly and objectively in allocating resources to them. This is done in a transparent manner using published criteria. Teaching resources are allocated to schools on a school-year basis.

The criteria used for the allocation of teachers to schools is published annually on the Department's website. The key factor for determining the level of staffing resources provided at individual school level is the national staffing schedule for the relevant school year and the specific pupil enrolments in the school in question on the previous 30 September. The staffing schedule sets out in a fair and transparent manner the pupil thresholds for the allocation of mainstream classroom posts for all schools. These arrangements include the provision whereby schools experiencing rapid increases in enrolment can apply for additional permanent mainstream posts on developing grounds, using projected enrolment based on 30 September of the coming school year.

Special provisions are in place for island schools which take account of the circumstances that arise, as the Deputy has outlined, in providing education in an island setting. This means that, unlike the generality of schools, in the event a reduction in the pupil numbers of an island school will result in the loss of the second or third classroom teaching post in the school, the post may be retained subject to certain pupil retention levels. In the case of the second mainstream post the total number of pupils must be at eight or above and the school must be the only primary school remaining on the island. In all other two teacher schools the number of pupils required to retain a second teacher is far higher, at 17. This shows how favourable the staffing arrangements in place are for primary schools which are the only school on an island.

The enrolment date of 30 September is the date used for allocating resources to all schools. I do not see any need to introduce a system of allocating resources based on a later date in the school year for certain schools such as that suggested by the Deputy. This is not practical and would impact negatively on the allocation and redeployment process and timeframes.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. Scoil Náisiúnta Inis Arcáin was below the designated number of eight for the retention of its second teacher on 30 September last, but this number has now increased to ten. This is why I ask the Minister of State to allow the enrolment figure on 30 April to be taken into account before the school would lose its second teacher. It is unfair to write the rules in a circular issued after the qualifying date. The most up to date figures could be used before the circular has a very drastic and negative impact on life on Sherkin Island.

Typically islanders have been dealt with favourably, and the Minister of State is aware of this, with regard to social protection and payments from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, in an effort to progress, promote and incentivise local people contributing to island life. In this regard I appeal to the Minister of State to consider the negative impact this would have. I would not expect the Minister of State to allow a school with four, five for six pupils to benefit because I know the line must be drawn somewhere. Schools which dropped to such numbers would not be sustainable and would be detrimental to the students themselves. In this particular case the school is making an effort to bring in students and it is doing so. If it loses a teacher it will never get that second teacher back. The island has a population of 114 so the idea of coming up with 20 national school students is a bridge too far. It will remain cut off and it will have a very negative effect for the school and the general population of the island as it will suck the life from the island. It is not like the mainland where there are options. I agree with the Minister of State that some options, such as amalgamation, are not available. I thank the Minister of State for his response.

As the Deputy is aware, we are at a time of great strain on our public resources. The significant concessions made to island populations in terms of the numbers they need to retain a second teacher are very significant and favourable, as they should be, to try to retain a strong presence and community structure on these islands. The Deputy suggests in this one instance to change the date for determining the teacher allocation for a particular school in a particular location, but the system of teacher allocation does not allow for this process. Allocating teaching resources throughout the entire school system is very complex and time-consuming. The cut-off point of 30 September was chosen with this particular challenge in mind. If the Deputy wishes to raise this issue with me afterwards I will discuss it further and in more detail with him, and work with him in trying to alleviate his concerns to a certain extent. I must point out the criteria applying to the case are quite rigid and this is for a good reason.

School Accommodation

It is with great regret I am compelled to raise this matter. I have sought to do so in this forum and in this manner for the past three weeks and I am glad to have this opportunity to elicit answers from the Minister of State. I thought the Minister, Deputy Quinn, might make himself available, but I expect the reply the Minister of State will give is based on consultation with him. I hope his reply will address the disappointment, frustration and despair evident among the staff, pupils and parents and the extended community of Edenderry with regard to Scoil Bhríde and Gaelscoil Éadan Doire. Such emotions result from recent contact made by the Department to the two principals concerned. They were asked by the Department to apply for increased temporary accommodation to meet their enrolment needs in September 2013.

Such requests are normally sought and made in January of the preceding year, at the latest. Even more alarming and galling, however, is that these schools had been included in the rapid delivery programme in December 2011. In the first instance, they followed applications highlighting the request for their establishment to meet the demand arising from population growth in Edenderry. Subsequently, Scoil Bhríde was established in 2007 and located on temporary accommodation in the grounds of Edenderry GAA club. The school's pupil numbers have grown annually to a current total of 333, with 70 new pupils enrolled for September 2013.

In addition to the mainstream school, there are four autistic spectrum disorder, or ASD, special classes. The new school was designed to accommodate two more ASD classes with waiting lists already in place for them.

Gaelscoil Éadan Doire was founded in 2008 and operates in an old factory which is both dangerous and unhealthy. Many classrooms have no windows and no yard outside. The space available cannot be further partitioned. The staff are struggling on a daily basis to keep the school open.

The beauty of these projects was, and is, that they are to be built on one site. The site was purchased by the State and appropriately zoned by Offaly County Council. It was to be serviced by a new link road, which was agreed in conjunction with the locality and the local authority. The schools were designed by the relevant section in the Department of Education and Skills. School accommodation was agreed, while planning was sought and granted. Tenders were sought and agreed, while contracts and schedules were agreed by the OPW in conjunction and co-operation with the schools and their boards of management. This was before the bombshell decision which I mentioned earlier.

The rapid delivery programme was developed in 2007. It was an innovative response to the need to deliver schools quickly in areas of population growth and where existing provisions could not meet demand. In a press release last September, the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn, celebrated a number of projects under this scheme. For example, the 2012 programme involved four new Dublin schools in Mulhuddart, Balbriggan, Swords and Lucan, as well as two new extensions in Swords and Portarlington. They delivered 1,700 additional places with pupils benefiting from modern, efficient buildings with an improved learning environment. I have seen this at first hand in Tullamore where an Educate Together facility was built in this format.

The Minister of State and his Government colleagues know the costs and benefits involved. They also know the strains concerning increased school numbers, as evidenced by today's CSO report. Last September, the Minister, Deputy Quinn, stated that rapid delivery programmes provide fantastic, modern school accommodation. If that is so, why have the Minister and the Minister of State turned their backs on these schools, given the commitments, temporary rental accommodation costs, poor conditions and bona fide efforts by school management?

I am asking for this situation to be resolved forthwith. The Department should re-engage with the commitment that was given for September 2013. Even at this stage, if the agreed contracts and tenders were put in place, we could have that facility by October or November. I ask the Minister of State to respond positively considering that he has had three weeks' notice of my intention to raise this matter concerning the current situation in Edenderry.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter as it gives me an opportunity to outline to the House my Department's position regarding the construction of new accommodation for Scoil Bhríde, Edenderry and Gaelscoil Éadan Doire.

My priority is to ensure that there is sufficient school accommodation to meet projected pupil enrolment increases into the future. The five-year capital investment programme announced in March 2012 outlines all the major school projects that will commence construction over the duration of that plan. The investment in that programme is of the order of €2 billion.

My Department is endeavouring to maximise the efficient use of all available capacity in the public sector to assist in the delivery of the schools programme. In that context, the Edenderry projects referred to by the Deputy are two out of 15 schools where responsibility for the delivery of these projects was devolved to the Office of Public Works.

A service level agreement is in place between my Department and the Office of Public Works which outlines the roles and responsibilities of each of the parties in the delivery of education projects. It is a central tenet of devolution that responsibility for the delivery of these projects, within certain agreed parameters as laid down in the service level agreement, rests with the Office of Public Works.

The Edenderry school projects were tendered by the OPW in early 2013. The OPW recently forwarded a tender report for these two school projects to my Department together with two other schools. My Department, in consultation with the OPW, is currently considering these documents. These projects are categorised on the five-year capital programme as projects due to go to construction in 2013.

There will be some delay in the projects going to construction, but I can assure the Deputy that they are being progressed so that the accommodation required for the two schools will be provided at the earliest possible date within the five-year construction programme. I also want to assure the Deputy that my Department is in contact with the schools concerned to ensure that there is sufficient accommodation for September 2013.

I thank the Deputy again for giving me the opportunity to outline the current position to the House.

I thank the Minister of State for his response, but I know it was in the five-year building programme. The students, staff and local community also know this. That is why the council designated the site and why planning was agreed. That is also why the local authority made a commitment to a contract to provide a link road. The Minister of State should not tell me what I already know. I know those two schools were among the 15 approved. I also know there was a service level agreement between the Department and the OPW. I know the OPW agreed a tender document and sent it to the Department.

What I cannot understand, however, is why all of a sudden the Minister of State is saying it will be built within the five-year programme. It is far removed from the commitments that he, his party and the Government made to the people of that town when they said it would be up and running in September this year. That is far removed from the commitments the principals made to the staff, the community and parents when they referred to the enrolment prospects for September 2013. What about the people who enrolled their children for ASD classes? The Minister of State should explain the delay. Is there a problem with funding? Did the Department not provide adequately for these schools which were given commitments? I want straight answers. I do not want to hear that they will be built within the five-year programme. Everybody knew that. The Minister of State was glad to announce that they would be built by September 2013. He asked the principals, boards of management, the local authority and the community to live up to his expectations. They did so but the Minister of State should now live up to theirs. He should take the responsibility he has been given by the Taoiseach and live up to the commitments he has made. God knows, he has made enough U-turns in the last two years. He should be honest and tell me what is causing the delay. If we know what the delay is, let us deal with it and put the facility in place this year rather than within the next four years.

As the Deputy is aware, the OPW entered into a service level agreement with my Department to deliver these and a number of other schools nationally. The reason the expertise and capacity within the OPW for the delivery of buildings of this kind was exercised and used was because we wanted to ensure that all schools outlined in the five-year capital programme would be delivered within that five-year timeframe. The Minister and his officials in the building unit in Tullamore were innovative in bringing in the expertise, knowledge and capacity to deliver from the OPW to assist in this ambitious five-year building programme.

As regards the Edenderry issue, the OPW has submitted the outcome of that tender process to my Department. It is being actively considered currently by the Department. It is untrue, as the Deputy said, that the Department has turned its back on this community. It most certainly has not. The Department is actively engaging with the OPW and it is more than confident that the schools will be delivered to this community. It is acknowledged that the community badly needs this investment.

Drug Crime

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to raise this important issue. I also thank the Minister of State, Deputy McGinley, for his attendance, as I understand the Minister, Deputy Shatter, is otherwise disposed at a Cabinet meeting. I am greatly concerned by the significant number of murders, attempted murders, robberies and severe assaults on people that have taken place recently and particularly in my Dáil constituency of Dublin Mid-West. I believe there should be an appropriate response at particular times. I note the availability of an armed response unit, and included in that unit's name is the word "response". It is appropriate that the aforementioned unit should respond in particular circumstances. It should be assigned in particular cases, including in my Dáil constituency, which encompasses Clondalkin and Lucan, in which events have taken place that require such a response. I am concerned for the welfare of the gardaí and for the welfare, safety and protection of local residents.

In recent months, a number of people have been arrested because of their so-called terrorist activity and I acknowledge they are before the courts. There also has been a significant and increased number of drug raids in both Clondalkin and Lucan, involving substantial volumes of illegal drugs being seized by the Garda that were ready for production and circulation. This is a good news story for the Garda and I note there have been a significant number of such stories. However, that threat continues, as does such activity. There have been a number of shootings in Dublin Mid-West, including attempted murders, murder and an increased number of gun crimes. I acknowledge we live in changing times and in the course of an earlier debate I had some time ago with the Minister for Justice and Equality, he announced there has been substantial investment in the purchase of new equipment, including Garda patrol cars. While this is welcome, I believe there is a growing problem, for which evidence exists within my constituency. My concern is that innocent life will be put at risk more in the future.

I am speaking on behalf of the Minister for Justice and Equality, who is unable to be present, as Deputy Keating has noted, due to Cabinet business this evening. The Minister wishes to thank the Deputy for raising this matter.

Tackling the issue of drug misuse in society remains one of the most complex challenges the Government faces. The national response to the problem is set out in the national drugs strategy for the period 2009 to 2016. The strategy provides a co-ordinated and comprehensive response to the drugs problem and is founded on a partnership approach. The roles of the Department of Justice and Equality and An Garda Síochána under the strategy are primarily, although not solely, concerned with the drug supply pillar. The Government's drugs law enforcement response in targeting those involved in drug-trafficking remains a fundamental feature of its overall approach and continues to be a key priority area. This is reflected in An Garda Síochána's policing plan for 2013, which highlights a strong focus on combating serious crime in all its forms, in particular organised crime and its close links with drug trafficking. Work in this area is led by the Garda national drugs unit which, in working with dedicated drug units across the country and other national units, including the organised crime unit and the Criminal Assets Bureau, targets those involved in the illicit sale and supply of drugs.

The specific strategies put in place by An Garda Síochána to address the sale, supply, importation and distribution of illegal drugs include the establishment of targeted intelligence-led operations focused on specific facets of the drugs trade. A further feature of the Garda response is the continued and close co-operation with the Revenue Commissioners' customs service, as well as with other national drug law enforcement agencies, such as the Irish Medicines Board, in tackling drug supply. The Minister wishes to assure Members that this approach is yielding significant results. An Garda Síochána advises that drug seizures for 2012 are valued at approximately €115 million, with seizures totalling an estimated €20 million also being recorded for the first quarter of 2013. In addition, there have been some highly significant drugs seizures and related arrests being made by Garda authorities this month including, for example, a major heroin seizure with an estimated value of €750,000 made in Virginia, County Cavan. There also have been ongoing large-scale cannabis seizures achieved in recent days and weeks through targeted operations, some of which are ongoing, conducted in the Kells, Tuam, Ballyvourney and Lucan areas.

The Minister would like me this evening on his behalf to acknowledge publicly and to commend the law enforcement agencies on continuing to achieve such results. These seizures are, in effect, preventing considerable volumes of drugs from ending up for sale in our communities, drugs which invariably bring with them a wide range of associated destructive consequences. The Minister also advises that such law enforcement measures are, in practice, subject to ongoing review. The illicit drugs market is a dynamic phenomenon that is constantly adjusting to market influences, including drug availability, consumer preferences and so on. New trends emerge from time to time, with users often trying different combinations of drugs, which sometimes involves the mixing of legal and illegal drugs, as well as various modes of consumption. In meeting the challenge posed by the changing drugs landscape, the Government's legislative controls and law enforcement approach remain under continual review to achieve optimum results. The State's comprehensive response to the recent headshop phenomenon is a case in point.

The recent emergence of large-scale cannabis cultivation sites in the State, a previously unseen phenomenon in the drug supply environment in this jurisdiction, similarly has seen a highly determined response by An Garda Síochána. Operation Nitrogen, which is an intelligence-led Garda Síochána operation targeting cannabis cultivation, continues to be highly successful in identifying and dismantling cannabis cultivation sites across all areas of the country. Given the global nature of the drugs trade, international law enforcement co-operation remains a key element of the overall response. An Garda Síochána has strong and strategic partnerships in place at international level targeting drug-trafficking. An Garda Síochána works closely with relevant law enforcement agencies such as Interpol and Europol in monitoring and responding to the illicit drugs market. In addition, An Garda Síochána participates in the work of the Maritime Analysis and Operations Centre for Narcotics based in Lisbon. Those involved in drug law enforcement efforts appreciate fully that the nature and scale of drug-trafficking is such that one must constantly be vigilant to emerging trends and must adjust one's responses accordingly. In conclusion, the Minister would like to assure Members of the continued commitment of An Garda Síochána, in co-operation with law enforcement colleagues, to tackling the illegal trade in drugs and that they may be assured of the full support of the Government in this regard.

I thank the Minister of State and join him and the Minister in acknowledging and congratulating the Garda on the many successes, some of which have been outlined in this extensive report. I have had the opportunity recently in a number of different fora to comment on some of the report's aspects, including what the Minister of State has referred to as the "recent emergence of large-scale cannabis cultivation sites" in Ireland, which is a matter of great concern because those with whom I work perceive cannabis now to be the drug of choice, whereas heroin now is perceived to be an ageing drug.

I wish to make a couple of points in conclusion and ask the Minister of State to take them back to the Minister, who perhaps could follow up at a more convenient time. As I noted at the outset, I am concerned about the growing number of elements in the community who operate under a so-called republicanism and the threat they pose to that community. They also are engaged in serious crime which puts people's lives at risk through drug trafficking, terrorising and robbery. I have two questions for the Minister. First, I refer to my original question pertaining to an appropriate response from the armed response unit, that is, that measured response I believe to be appropriate in some cases. Second, I reiterate a question I previously posed to the Minister, which is whether he is satisfied the Garda Commissioner has adequate resources to deal with the rising outbreak of gun crime, serious crime and drug crime in the streets and neighbourhoods.

I would be grateful if the Minister of State would follow that up with the Minister for Justice, who might in due course supply me with the answer.

I will certainly convey the Deputy's concerns and queries to both the Minister and the Department. Since his appearance on television last Friday night we are all aware of the Deputy's personal interest in this scourge in our community. We watched with great interest, and I commend the Deputy, without being patronising in any way. He is at the coal face, knows the problem and has a great understanding of it. We will continue to pursue those involved in drug trafficking vigorously but we must also be conscious that there remains a demand for drugs in our society. This is a problem we cannot solve by law enforcement alone. However, we can all act together at community level, whether in the forces or otherwise and even as concerned citizens. We need to muster a wide range of interests to counteract this scourge.

Again, I thank the Deputy for raising the issue. His queries will be conveyed to the Minister, who unfortunately could not be present.

I thank the Minister of State.

Inter-Country Adoptions

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy McGinley, for coming to the Chamber to address the issue I raise concerning Irish couples who seek international adoptions and the difficulties present in the existing system. To begin, I offer some background. Irish people who wish to become adoptive parents rightly must go through a rigorous approval programme as part of an international commitment Ireland made as a signatory to international agreements on this issue. As part of the criteria required, such couples must complete forms in order to get Garda clearance and medical and financial approval. They are also required to attend an adoptive preparation course because the children they adopt may be from a different jurisdiction and there are certain requirements with regard to cultural necessities which must also be addressed. Garda and other clearances are valid for a year only but may be repeated. Applicants must select a single country from which they wish to adopt. I will return to the particular problem of the singe country approach. If the couple are deemed eligible and suitable, they are given a declaration of eligibility and suitability and go on a waiting list. The declaration of eligibility and suitability is valid for two years only, although in exceptional circumstances a one year extension may be granted. However, if a suitable adoption cannot be completed within this time, the whole cycle must be restarted and the adoptive parents must go through the process again from the beginning.

I offer some examples of the current situation in Ireland among couples waiting to adopt a child. The information given to me indicates that five couples are awaiting Indian adoptions since 2010, in Bulgaria there is a waiting time of more than three years, and in the Philippines 21 Irish couples are on a waiting list, a number for more than two years. One couple currently going through an assessment process has no country available to them although they have had a declaration since 2011.

I have something to propose today for the Minister of State to take on board, although I do not ask him to give me a determinate and substantive reply today, and I acknowledge that some of the information I may give him is new to his ears. I would be grateful, however, if he would return to the Ministers for Health and Children and Youth Affairs with this issue. Further detail can be supplied if required. I propose that the validity period of the declaration of eligibility and suitability be increased to four years, with the possibility of a one year extension, or to allow for a reduced assessment if such must be repeated. Rather than have the period of two years end with the couple obliged to commence the cycle again, there might be a system of minor adjustment or assessment that would continue for another two years. The reason I ask this is that the waiting time for inter-country adoptions has increased to more than three years and most applicants expect to be assessed twice as standard practice under the existing regime.

There is a second issue involved. The adoptive parent is rightly required to demonstrate sensitivity to the culture and ethos of a child's birth country, because of the international context. However, applicants must choose a single country. If a child is being adopted from India or parents wish to adopt an Indian child, there is a single application whereby the cultural focus is on India. The difficulty is that the declaration is also valid for only one country. It is not the case that a couple can hope to adopt a child from India, Bulgaria or wherever. They are locked into one country, which limits their options, especially if a difficulty arises. This has been indicated at present in the case of Russia, where certain civil and human rights issues have been raised and President Putin has indicated he will cut off adoption ties to countries that have signed the signatory process.

I request two changes. First, that applicants be permitted to choose more than one country at a time or to be able to move between countries. Sometimes countries suspend adoptions, even for valid reasons. Second, recognition should be given to candidates who are capable of appreciating more than one country at a time and who would be most likely to succeed with a valid declaration if they were given a greater choice.

I am taking this issue on behalf of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald. The adoption process, in Ireland and worldwide, has undergone a great deal of change recently. The primary catalyst for this change has been worldwide efforts to adhere to the principles of the Hague Convention on adoption. In Ireland, this change can be attributed to comprehensive amendment of our adoption legislation that was initiated not only in an effort to prepare for Ireland's 2010 ratification of the Hague Convention but also in an effort to consolidate the existing legislation and to reflect social change that had taken place since the implementation of the original 1952 Adoption Act.

The rigours of the Hague Convention, and the Adoption Authority of Ireland's compliance with that convention have been demonstrated, as membership of the convention is a mechanism for improving standards in inter-country adoption. All players in the adoption process now have a responsibility to ensure that child-centred adoption is the core of all the elements of the adoption process. This will change the adoption landscape and will also require Irish adopters and, possibly, prospective adopters in our neighbouring European countries to adjust and, perhaps, change their expectations.

The implementation of the Hague Convention by sending countries has inevitably led to a change in the timescale for adoption and also to the age and needs of children available for adoption. If the core Hague principles such as informed and considered parental consent and subsidiarity in the adoption processes are adhered to, the timescale for adoption and the age and needs profile of children who become eligible for adoption must also change.

The expiration of declarations of eligibility and suitability, DES, is covered under section 41(1) of the Adoption Act 2010. The section provides that a DES expires after 24 months from the date of issuance of the declaration, or after a further period of not more than 12 months that the Adoption Authority may specify. The Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, understands that at the time of drafting of the legislation, it was felt that this provided an adequate period, following the initial assessment of applicants, to complete an adoption. Given the changing landscape of inter-country adoption, this may no longer be the case.

The Minister is examining a number of proposals in respect of amendments to the Adoption Act 2010, and intends to bring forward any changes to the legislation in conjunction with the draft adoption (information and tracing) Bill 2013 which it is proposed to bring before the Oireachtas in the coming months. However, any change to the length of validity of a declaration must be weighed up against the necessity to ensure that an applicant's current situation in regard to suitability to adopt is taken into account in the adoption process.

In regard to choice of country, the Minister is aware of the difficulty this issue causes for potential adoptive parents. The Minister has visited Vietnam, with which Ireland has an administrative arrangement, and it is anticipated that adoptions will commence from Vietnam in the coming months. In mid-March the Minister also visited India and gained clarification on a number of issues to allow for inter-country adoption between Ireland and India to commence. The Adoption Authority of Ireland will also finalise administrative arrangements in the coming weeks with the USA.

As part of the assessment process in respect of an application for a declaration of eligibility and suitability to adopt, applicants are required to select a country from which they would like to adopt. They must research the country and the specific needs in regard to adopting a child from this country.

The social worker assesses applicants with reference to the known needs of children from different countries and the specific capacities of these particular applicants to meet the needs of a child adopted from this area. Following the issuance of a declaration to adopt, should applicants wish to change to another country, they may contact their social worker for an updated assessment in this regard.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. What I am proposing is not in conflict with the Hague Convention. In fact it would enhance the measures that Ireland has signed up to in the convention. I agree that the convention has moved toward a more child-centred adoption policy in which the child's interest is central both at the beginning and the end of the process. However, the difficulty we face in Ireland is that the single country adoption process is causing problems for parents who are seeking to adopt and give a good home to children. As they are dealing with one country, the timeframe sometimes expires or is exhausted and the prospective parents have to commence the entire process anew. Furthermore, the country from which they are seeking to adopt may close its adoption options for a period of time and the prospective parents are thereby locked out of the adoption process.

I welcome that the Minister, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, is preparing to examine the way in which the structures are being operated out of Ireland, but I ask that the Minister of State bring the points I have raised to her attention. I would be most grateful if I could get a response to them.

I assure the Deputy that the points he has raised will be brought to the attention of the Minister, who is familiar with the difficulties he outlined. I hope some of the problems arising will be addressed in the adoption (information and tracing) Bill 2013, which the Minister intends to introduce in the coming months. I cannot be more accurate than that at this stage.