Topical Issue Debate

Services for People with Disabilities

I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House this evening to take this matter in person. I have no doubt she is aware of the circumstances in which we find ourselves once again. It is now the end of June but those who will be leaving school with significant disabilities do not yet know where they will get a service in the autumn. I raised this issue with the Minister before and I have raised it in various forums over the years, both in and out of government. When the Minister for Finance announced the package of €4 million in the budget, I was hoping this issue would not arise again. I recognise that there are challenges in the system but contend that, notwithstanding any reasons given, it is totally unsatisfactory and unfair that the most vulnerable are once again left uncertain as to where and what services will be available next autumn. In her reply, I hope the Minister of State will confirm that the issue will be dealt with this year. I understand the reality is that the sum of €4 million is totally inadequate.

I was given some figures for HSE west that implied that the share of money in Galway will be €200,000, despite the fact that €800,000 is required. There are seven school leavers this year who need one-to-one or two-to-one services. It is important that we do not square the circle by taking services away or diminishing services for other service users by spreading the cake more thinly and giving little slices to everybody while not giving anybody a comprehensive service. This is a considerable issue.

Can anybody imagine a parent at the end of June and, more important, the service user not knowing what will happen next September? Some of the people are able to advocate for themselves while others are not but the notion of them getting up without any service or support, with nowhere to go and no opportunity to develop and having to sit at home every day while their parents and other family members have no support is beyond comprehension. It is important that we discuss the provision of full services, which must include therapy, development and respite care.

This issue does not involve significant numbers. The problem is when the issue is addressed one year, a new group of school leavers come along the following year and have to campaign. That reduces the impact of how horrendous is the situation. It is important that we do not only resolve the issue now but that we also resolve to ensure people know early in the year what service is available to them and ensure transition plans are not put in place to help people and service users to adjust as they move from school to disability services over time. All of us need time in life to adjust but it is important to recognise that the people we are discussing have more need for time to adjust and acclimatise and that is also a major issue.

I hope the Minister of State has good news that the issue will be resolved over the next week. However, can she resolve to put this issue before a committee in the autumn in order that it can be thrashed out before Christmas? A sum of €55 million is being spent this year. Can we agree that, no matter how much money is available, the issue of disability services will be given priority?

I am pleased to take this opportunity to outline on behalf of the Minister for Health the position on the matter raised by the Deputy. I recognise the importance of life skills training and day services to people with disabilities who are leaving the education system and every effort is being made within available resources to provide services to all 2013 school leavers. Day services for adults with disabilities provide a network of support for more than 25,000 people who have a wide spectrum of need, ranging from those with severe and profound disabilities who may need long-term specialist service provision to people with lower support needs and greater potential for community participation and inclusion. The HSE, through its occupational guidance service, works with schools, service providers, service users and families to identify the needs of young people with disabilities who are due to complete their second level education. The aim is to address the needs of individuals in the following ways, through health funded rehabilitative or life skills training, health funded day services, FÁS funded vocational training or the extension to education placement for a specified time, to which the Deputy referred in the context of transition.

The demand for services for young people with disabilities completing their education or life skills training continues to increase. The HSE is currently finalising their figures for 2013 but expects that more than 700 new places will be required. Service providers and the HSE are working closely together to identify how these needs can be met within available resources. This year, despite a 1.2% cut in the disability budget, an additional €4 million has been ring-fenced in the HSE's national service plan for new places. This funding is being allocated to each HSE region based on its percentage of population, which is important.

Even with the additional funding, the provision of the required level of new services will be challenging in the context of the overall budgetary position and the moratorium on staff recruitment, something to which we may be able to return. In addition, the physical capacity to provide further services may not be present in all agencies. While the HSE makes every effort to provide day services or training places to school leavers with special needs, this has always been dependent on the availability and location of appropriate places coupled with the needs of the individual school leaver. However, both the voluntary sector and the HSE are committed to the best use of available resources in a creative and flexible manner to be as responsive as possible to the needs of this cohort. I have asked to be kept informed of progress on an ongoing basis and I recently met representatives of the National Federation of Voluntary Bodies and the HSE on this issue. I have also asked the HSE to ensure a plan is put in place immediately to communicate with families and give them certainty about the placements or supports which will be available to their children in September. I agree with the Deputy regarding the communication piece.

On a personal level, the Minister of State is probably embarrassed reading that reply.

I am disappointed because she is telling me on 27 June that the HSE hopes to solve his problem. She used the phrase "creative and flexible". What I am told is simple and stark. As she said, the money is given out proportionate to the population in each region. I am told by people within the system, not by voluntary organisations, that the amount being offered is a quarter of the money needed. At the end of the day, the creative solution will probably be to diminish services to existing users and spread the funding among the new people coming into the system.

The Minister of State did not give a firm commitment that in the next week they will either be offered a continuation of service where they are, if appropriate, or an alternative service. Will it be possible to inform the users and their families through me or directly what exactly will happen? Unfortunately, this reply does not outline what will happen. All families can read into it is that something might happen and a loaves and fishes trick might be performed to cut the funding for other people and redistribute it. There is no certainty that anything will happen and parents and service users will be unable to go to bed tonight knowing they will have a service in September. I beg the Minister of State to do something in the next few days to bring much more clarity to this issue.

I am in regular contact with both the service providers through the Disability Federation of Ireland, which is a good organisation that represents its members well, and the HSE. The executive has been instructed to keep me informed on a weekly basis, which is happening. We do not have the completed plan yet. We need to be careful about what we say, as I have been both in opposition and in government, because families are wondering what will happen to their children in the future and I am conscious of that. Last year, we managed to deal with the issue. We secured €4 million in additional funding this year. It is not as if we have endless budgets but we are about to enter talks with the Department of Education and Skills, which spends €1.3 billion a year on special needs education.

My Department allocates €1.4 billion per year to disability services, the area for which I have responsibility. Between us, we should be able to provide a service that does not induce the type of anxiety some people are currently experiencing, but both Departments need to work together to devise a realistic plan. The existing level of funding is sufficient to provide a service on which people can rely.

Garda Vetting Applications

I thank the Ceann Comhairle's office for affording me the opportunity to raise this matter and the Minister, Deputy Alan Shatter, for taking it. Delays in the processing of Garda vetting applications are causing great concern in my county of Carlow. It is, of course, very important that we have a thorough vetting process for all candidates seeking to work with children and vulnerable adults. However, the organisations being affected by the processing delays are care organisations which depend on Tús and community employment schemes to make up for the funding they received from the Health Service Executive in the past.

Several months ago, the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton, made the very welcome announcement that an additional 2,500 positions would be created on community employment schemes. The difficulty, however, is that these schemes are being hindered because staff have not yet been vetted by the Garda. As I said, such vetting is vital in situations in which staff are working with people who are very vulnerable. However, suitable and qualified candidates who have applied for the positions cannot take them up in the absence of Garda clearance. Vetting applications are supposed to take no longer than eight to 12 weeks to process but that does not seem to be happening in practice. I have spoken to an individual who, having submitted her application to the vetting unit on 11 March, has received no communication in regard to it. The person in question is hoping to take up a position in a disability centre in Carlow town, a centre which depends on community employment, FÁS and Tús schemes for its survival. Without that support, it will not be able to keep going.

It is vital that the vetting process is speeded up as much as possible. In response to a query I submitted in this regard earlier in the year, I received a letter from the Garda Commissioner's office on 8 March indicating that 25 staff were to be redeployed from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to the vetting unit in order to alleviate the backlog of applications. The letter further indicated that these staff would undergo training for three months before assuming their roles. Will the Minister indicate what progress has been made in that regard? Is it now standard practice for people to have to wait between 15 and 16 weeks to be vetted in order to take up positions they are offered? These lengthy delays are having a detrimental effect on organisations that look after vulnerable members of our society.

I thank my colleague for raising this important matter. The Garda Commissioner is responsible for the detailed allocation of resources, including personnel, throughout the organisation. The Garda central vetting unit, GCVU, provides employment vetting for approximately 20,000 organisations that are registered with the unit for this purpose and that employ personnel to work in a full-time, part-time, voluntary or student capacity with children or vulnerable adults. Garda vetting is conducted only on behalf of registered organisations and not for individual persons on a personal basis. Organisations registered with the unit are entitled to receive Garda vetting services in respect of their employees.

A Garda vetting disclosure is made in response to a written request and with the permission of the person who is the subject of that request. Disclosures are issued to specified organisations registered with the GCVU for that purpose in respect of a particular post or employment. The unit processed approximately 328,000 vetting applications on behalf of these organisations in 2012. New and forthcoming legislation will result in a significant increase in the workload of the GCVU.

The current average processing time for applications is approximately 12 to 14 weeks from the date of receipt. However, seasonal fluctuations and the necessity to seek additional information in respect of particular applications can result in this average being exceeded on occasion. All organisations registered for Garda vetting are aware of the processing timeframes for the receipt of disclosures and have been advised to factor this into their recruitment and selection process. In order to observe equity and fairness in respect of all applicants for Garda vetting, standard procedure is such that applications are processed in chronological order from date of receipt at the vetting unit. Each time a new vetting application is received, a full vetting check is conducted to ensure the most recent available data are taken into account. The non-transferability and contemporaneous nature of the certificate protects against the risk of fraud or forgery and is a guarantee of the integrity of the vetting service. It also affords the registered organisation the facility to assess suitability based on the most up-to-date information available on the applicant.

I remain in ongoing contact with the Garda Commissioner as to how best the service can continue to be delivered and improved upon while at all times protecting the integrity of the process. Clearly, the protection of children and vulnerable adults is the primary objective of the GCVU and this must remain the case. An e-vetting system is currently being developed and will be completed as quickly as possible.

The Commissioner has informed me that one superintendent, three sergeants and approximately 136 civilian personnel are assigned to the vetting unit at this time. The civilian complement includes 23 staff recently transferred from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. In addition, a further 31 have been assigned to the vetting service from various other locations in the public service. These staff members are currently undergoing training, with the first cohort due to complete that process by 15 July and the last by mid-September. I expect there will be a positive effect on vetting times once they have been fully trained. The employment of temporary staff in the vetting unit previously resulted in a reduction in the time taken to complete most vetting applications to between three and four weeks. It is my hope that we can return to that type of timeframe very soon. My Department is also examining the scope for redeployment of additional personnel from within the public service to the unit and is engaged in ongoing discussions with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform in this regard. This is a very good example of the value of redeployment within the public service and the contribution it can make to the more effective use of resources. I am further informed by the Garda Commissioner that sufficient accommodation and equipment have been provided to facilitate all of these additional personnel in carrying out their work when they complete their training.

I thank the Minister for his detailed reply and acknowledge the positive developments he outlined. The e-vetting proposal is a particularly welcome and progressive initiative. The main difficulty with the vetting process, as I have outlined, is the impact the delays are having on organisations that look after very vulnerable people and are reliant on the support of Tús and community employment schemes. They are under severe manpower pressure as a consequence of the time it is taking to have candidates vetted. The redeployment of additional staff to the vetting service, as indicated by the Minister, is a very positive development, which I hope will help to speed up the process. I am raising this issue from the perspective of the situation in Carlow, but I know from speaking to colleagues that it is an issue throughout the country. I welcome the information the Minister has given and encourage him, in whatever communication he may have with the Commissioner, to make progress on the matter as quickly as possible.

I am conscious of the need to have as efficient a system as possible. I appreciate, moreover, that the vetting process may be seen by some as a hindrance. However, I cannot stress enough that our primary concern must at all times be the protection of children and vulnerable adults. That is the essential focus of what we are doing. I hope the additional personnel who are currently being trained, together with the further additional staff we intend to redeploy, will bring about a reduction in waiting times. We got those times down to between three and four weeks by employing temporary staff up to May 2012. Unfortunately, those staff could not be retained. I am optimistic that we can substantially reduce the waiting period via the provision of additional staff. In addition, the e-vetting system, when it comes on stream, will have a dramatic impact.

It is anticipated that the main portion of the system will be in operation in approximately 12 months' time. Together with the additional personnel that will bring about a very important change and ensure that we have in place an updated modern system that guarantees the integrity of the process but which is fit to respond more quickly when vetting applications are received and fit to process them more quickly. This is an innovation that has been considered for some time and I am happy that we are now proceeding with it and I look forward to it getting up and running.

Magdalen Laundries Issues

I welcome the announcement of the compensation scheme for the victims of the Magdalen laundries. I thank Mr. Justice Quirke and his staff for the very good work they did on this difficult issue. It has hounded this country for decades and particularly this institution which in the past did nothing about it. I thank the Minister and his colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, for keeping the promise he made before coming into this House and after all these years bringing the matter to final closure. He is to be congratulated on that. It is a harrowing episode of hidden Ireland that no one wanted to touch. Different governments ran away from the issue. The present Minister did not run from it. That should be recognised.

Having read the scheme prepared by Mr. Justice Quirke I note the sensitive way in which he dealt with it. While it may offend some people I cannot, having read the McAleese report, which the Minister initiated, refer to these people as victims. They were slaves. I am even more of that opinion having read the report. They were slaves of the religious orders, having been imprisoned or semi-imprisoned in these laundries. The State has finally stepped up to the plate, not only by its apology but also with the scheme that has just been announced following the initiative of the Minister's Department.

There is, however, one gap in all of these reports. The slaves who were incarcerated in these laundries were in the care of the church, not of the State. The McAleese report argues that they did not make money. I refute this. They did make money and the proof of that is in the fact that they put other commercial operators out of business not only in Dublin but elsewhere. The church is remiss. It is not good enough to offer an apology to these people. There is the question of the church compensating these people. They deserve that. The State has addressed their welfare. It is my firm belief - I believe the taxpayers share it - that if it has any humanity the church owes compensation to these people. The church should move towards recognising that and the suffering that these people went through and make some contribution to their welfare at this late stage in their lives.

I thank the Deputy for raising this very important issue. The publication of the report of Mr. Justice Quirke and the Government's acceptance in full of all of the recommendations contained in it marks the culmination of a process I initiated, together with Minister of State Kathleen Lynch, in March 2011 following my taking office as Minister for Justice, Equality and Defence. It reflects my promise to the women who resided and worked in the Magdalen laundries to see justice done.

The process we initiated resulted in an unprecedented trawl of papers and records held by the State and State agencies to assist in establishing the facts about the Magdalen laundries and gave everyone a unique opportunity to detail what they knew. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to former Senator, Dr. Martin McAleese, for the work he has done. His report provided the platform for the apology made by the Taoiseach on 19 February 2013 in Dáil Éireann and for the Government's decision to ask Mr. Justice Quirke to devise an ex gratia scheme for the benefit of the women who were admitted to, and worked in, the Magdalen laundries.

The most immediately significant recommendation in Mr. Justice Quirke's report is that the women in question should all receive payments in the range €11,500, where there was a duration of stay of three months or less in one of the Magdalen institutions, to €100,000 where the duration of stay is of 10 years or more. If the payment due is above €50,000, Mr. Justice Quirke recommends that it should paid in the form of a lump sum of €50,000 plus an annual amount related to the notional remaining lump sum to be paid weekly. The amount to be paid depends on the duration of stay of a resident in a Magdalen laundry or in St Mary's Training Centre, Stanhope Street, or in House of Mercy, Summerhill, Wexford. As regards income payments in particular Mr. Justice Quirke has stated:

The Commission is concerned to protect, for the benefit of those vulnerable women, the resources which they will acquire when they receive monetary payments arising out of the proposed Scheme.

It has been necessary for the Commission to seek to balance the needs and interests of those elderly vulnerable women with the needs and interests of the many other Magdalen women who are younger, healthier, more energetic and more independent. In order to achieve that balance the Commission has taken the view that the needs and interests of the Magdalen women would be best addressed by making any ex gratia payments in excess of €50,000 payable to the women as tax free weekly income for the remainder of their lives.

The judge's other recommendations cover a range of issues including, each Magdalen woman should have access to the full range of services currently enjoyed by holders of the Health (Amendment) Act 1996 card, an enhanced medical card; each Magdalen woman of State pensionable age should receive a weekly amount from the State equivalent to the State contributory pension but taking into account any other State payments already being made; each Magdalen woman under State pensionable age should receive a minimum weekly amount of €100 per week from the State but taking into account any other State payments already being made; all monetary payments should be exempt from income and other taxes and should be exempt from any means testing.

Once again I thank Mr Justice Quirke for taking on this task. He and the people who assisted him did an excellent job in devising a scheme that meets the particular needs of the women who were former residents of the designated institutions and which the Government had no hesitation in approving.

I very much welcome the statement of Sally Mulready, Chairperson of the Irish Women Survivors Support Network following yesterday's announcement in which she says:

This Irish Government have honoured a commitment the coalition made on coming into office and they did so in just 27 months. Due to the inaction of successive governments, we lost many years and many of the women who were locked away in these Laundries, passed away and never experienced justice.

I was somewhat surprised yesterday to be made aware that, during our press conference, some negative comments had already been made by a small number of former Magdalen residents, at a time when those commenting could not have read, fully considered and reflected on the content of Mr. Justice Quirke's report. I urge people to take the time to do so.

I am informed that the first completed application form, together with relevant records has already been received in my Department, just one day after the announcement of the scheme. I pay tribute to my officials for the extraordinary work they did in this regard when on Tuesday evening they posted out in excess of 600 copies of the report with application forms and explanatory letters to ensure as best we could that most of the women would receive them by Wednesday. Those that are stuck in the post will certainly arrive by Thursday. They were posted out on Tuesday after the Cabinet decision.

Of vital assistance in processing applications received will be the co-operation of the religious congregations in providing a copy of records or documents to individual applicants.

I thank the religious congregations for undertaking this work and doing it in an efficient way. I also thank them for the assistance they gave to the former Senator, Dr. Martin McAleese, in his work to produce a report.

Yesterday, I stated the estimated cost of the ex gratia payment scheme will be between €34.5 million up to €58 million. The approach taken by Mr. Justice Quirke, and endorsed by the Government, is one of restorative justice. I, as well as my Cabinet colleagues, Members of this House, the wider public and the women involved, expect the religious congregations will contribute to the funds required. I note Deputy Maloney’s comments in this regard. It is my hope that they do so as part of the restorative justice and reconciliation process. I, along with the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, discussed this issue with the congregations on Tuesday of last week. I hope they are continuing to reflect on that discussion and, after a reasonable time, we will have a positive response.

On the basis of the contents of the McAleese report and the manner in which the people in the laundries were treated, there is an indisputable case for the Catholic Church not only to apologise to them but to make some contribution to the welfare of those still alive. I am not suggesting that those who represent the Catholic Church have not read the McAleese report but it would be difficult for any human being not to be touched by its contents.

There is a strong case for the church, now that it has made its apology, to address the question of the surviving women’s welfare. As the laundries made money for the religious orders and the church is also probably the largest landlord in the country, it can well afford to compensate the small number of surviving people from the laundries.

Like other Members, I have been getting letters and e-mails about examining my conscience on the protection of life Bill. As we live in a democracy, we must take these points on board and listen to what others have to say. I am prepared to examine my conscience before voting on the protection of life Bill. Even at this late stage, will the church examine its conscience on the treatment of and lack of provision of welfare for the people in question in their laundries and provide some form of financial redress to them?

I thank Deputy Maloney for his careful and considered contribution. I want to be fair to the religious congregations. They did make all the records they had available to Dr. Martin McAleese for his excellent report. The depth of that report could not have been achieved without their co-operation and assistance. They also met with and discussed issues relating to the women in the laundries with Mr. Justice Quirke. I know he felt that meeting was of help. I am also conscious of the congregations providing care for in excess of 100 women who were in the laundries. It is fair we acknowledge that.

The scheme announced yesterday requires the congregations’ assistance and co-operation in verifying records. I very much welcome their co-operation in that regard as well. However, I make no secret of the fact that when I, along with the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, met with the congregations last Tuesday week, we brought a message that we, along with the general public, expected the congregations to contribute to the fund that is necessary. We knew the women themselves saw that as an important element of the restorative justice process. We also made it clear that the Cabinet asked us about this issue when we brought the Quirke report before it.

I very much hope the congregations do see fit to make a contribution. PricewaterhouseCoopers voluntarily reviewed the books of five of the Magdalen laundries for the McAleese report and found there was no real financial profit made by them. There is no doubt that the women resident in laundries were impacted by their experience, many of them for the rest of their lives. The women do not see themselves as victims. Many of them have got on with their lives with great courage, commitment and have campaigned with great resolution for justice. I hope the majority of them feel we have shown respect for their concerns, that we have addressed them in a reasonable way and that the restorative justice schemes being put in place will be of help to them. I believe the Government is bringing closure to this matter as best it can. However, for the religious congregations to bring closure, it is important they are seen to contribute financially to the provisions being implemented.

Inter-Country Adoptions

I appreciate the fact the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs cannot attend the Chamber for this matter but I welcome the fact the Minister for Justice and Equality will take it.

I am not an expert on international adoption law and all it entails. However, I subscribe to the principle that it needs to be international standards based and child centred. Everyone engaged in the process would also subscribe to those principles.

I am hoping the Minister will be able to update us on the conclusion of a bilateral adoption agreement with Russia. I also want to raise the issue of the pre-Haguers, namely those who, before Ireland's ratification of the Hague Convention on inter-country adoptions, had approval to pursue an adoption but which expires on 31 October 2013. The process by which a couple are approved by the adoption authority, in conjunction with the Health Service Executive, is rigorous and can take up to several years with courses, studies, medical examinations and financial commitment. There is also a significant emotional commitment on the part of these couples. I have several constituents who would be termed pre-Haguers and have been in the adoption process for over 11 years. Can one imagine the roller coaster that this has been? Now, on the cusp of effecting an adoption in Russia, they face a trauma if they do not complete it by 31 October.

The Minister will be aware that the adoption process involves registration with the country in which a couple is trying to effect an adoption, a referral process and engagement with that country's court system to secure a decree, which effectively gives a couple the right to subsequently approach the Irish Embassy to secure a passport for the child being adopted. All the pre-Hague Convention couples who have invested significantly - not least emotionally - in this process over a long period are now faced with an arbitrary cut-off date of 31 October.

My request to the Minister is twofold. I urge him to do everything possible, in conjunction with his Government colleagues and the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, to effect a bilateral adoption agreement with the Russian authorities as quickly as possible. More importantly, for those who are currently engaged in the process, there needs to be an in-process grace period for those who can prove, to an acceptable standard, that they are engaged in the process and have a referral and that a child has been identified for them for adoption, but who are now victims of the torturous administrative and court processes in these countries through which they must go to effect an adoption. These people need an in-process grace period to facilitate them in completing adoptions. My request is twofold: first, I ask for an update on the bilateral negotiations and, second, from a humanitarian perspective, I ask the Minister to put in place an interim arrangement for the pre-Hague Convention couples who are engaged in the process of adoption and who face, after several years and after enormous investment in that process, the rug being pulled from underneath their feet in trying to effect an adoption in these countries for which they have a referral.

I thank Deputy Creed for raising this very important issue, which I am taking on behalf of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Fitzgerald.

The Adoption Act 2010 provides for inter-country adoption between countries that have ratified the Hague Convention or between countries with which Ireland has a bilateral agreement. Section 63 of the Act, which allows applicants who held valid declarations prior to the commencement of the 2010 Act to proceed with adoption in a non-Hague Convention country, refers to "a state that, in the opinion of the [adoption] Authority, applied standards regarding the adoption concerned that accord with those in the Hague Convention". This measure will have been in place for three years when it expires at the end of October. I am advised that the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, has no plans to extend the provisions any further than that.

Russia became a signatory to the Hague Convention on inter-country adoption on 1 September 2000 but, unfortunately, to date it has not ratified the convention. Therefore, for inter-country adoptions with Russia to continue after 31 October 2013, when the transitional arrangements for prospective adoptive parents holding declarations of eligibility and suitability to adopt issued prior to the commencement of the Adoption Act 2010 come to an end, it would be necessary to negotiate a bilateral agreement under Article 73 of the Adoption Act 2010.

In March of this year, the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, travelled to Moscow, accompanied by Dr. Geoffrey Shannon, chair of the Adoption Authority of Ireland, in order to discuss at a diplomatic level the potential for a bilateral agreement with Russia. During her visit she met her counterpart Dmitry Livanov, the Minister of Education and Science of the Russian Federation. This meeting was productive and allowed for an exchange of views on the possibility of Ireland's entering into a bilateral agreement on inter-country adoption with Russia. The Russian authorities acknowledged the satisfactory outcomes for the 1,300 or more Russian children adopted in Ireland since 2002 and expressed a willingness to conclude an agreement which would be subject to the approval of the Russian Parliament. The Minister stated that many Irish families were hopeful of completing future adoptions of Russian children.

During these meetings the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, reiterated to the Russian authorities that the Irish Constitution protects the integrity of family life and that once adopted in Ireland the child is treated in the same way as all other Irish children. This means that the ability of the State to intervene in a family when a child's welfare and protection is not compromised is limited. The Minister highlighted the implications of this constitutional imperative in instances in which families who have given commitments to the Russian authorities in regard to the provision of post-placement reports - that is, reports to the Russian authorities subsequent to the completion of an adoption - fail to adhere to those commitments. In these instances the State has no legislative power to enforce compliance with the commitments given by Irish families, legal or otherwise, to provide post-placement reports. In saying this, she emphasised the high standards of child protection that exist in Ireland for all children and the legislative basis under which these standards are enforced. The Minister also emphasised the commitment of the State to intervene in instances in which the safety or welfare of any child, adopted or otherwise, is in any way compromised and outlined the total commitment of the Irish Government to child protection and welfare.

The Department of Children and Youth Affairs has undertaken an examination of the draft bilateral agreement on inter-country adoption proposed by the Russian Federation. The Department has focused in particular on the issue of post-placement reporting for Russian children adopted in Ireland, which the Russian authorities have indicated will be a necessary component of any bilateral agreement. To this end, a draft wording of the sections of the draft bilateral agreement that relate to post-placement reporting is being developed. Departmental officials are in active discussions with officials in the Office of the Attorney General and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade on advancing a draft agreement for consideration by the Russian authorities. The Minister has invited the Russian authorities to visit Ireland in September with a view to finalising consideration of this aspect of the draft bilateral agreement.

I thank the Minister for his reply. I welcome the progress that is being made on the ongoing negotiations on the bilateral agreement and I hope the concerns of the Russian authorities about post-placement reports can be resolved in the context of the constitutional provisions on the family and so on. I believe that if there is a willingness on both sides, an agreement can be successfully concluded. However, I must place on record my deep dissatisfaction with the comment in the reply that the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, has no plans to extend the provision any further for those pre-Hague Convention couples who have up to 31 October to effect an adoption. Some couples have been engaged in this process for many years - in some cases, for more than a decade - and, leaving aside everything else, they have invested an enormous amount emotionally in this roller coaster. They have been tossed from Russia to China and back in circumstances in which where they were not always in control of events and they are now on the cusp of effecting legal adoptions, but the process may not be concluded by 31 October. In order words, a couple that have literally seen, held and bonded with a child may now find the child taken from their grasp. My request in respect of them is a simple proposal. Surely it is within the capacity of the Department to effect an in-process grace period for them if they can prove they have a referral and have registered in the courts for the necessary legal steps to be completed. Surely it is within the capacity of the Department to deal with those circumstances. There are a handful of these couples in the country. This would not be a dangerous legal precedent and it is the humanitarian thing to do.

I am very conscious of the emotional roller coaster experienced by couples who first go through the process of being assessed as suitable for adoption, along with all the details and timeframes, and then face uncertainty in the outcome, which causes a great deal of worry and concern. It is a cause for celebration when a couple gets a declaration of eligibility and suitability. I am also conscious that the changes effected not only in our adoption legislation but globally in this area by a number of states in terms of the nature of the compliance procedures that must be met, and the uncertainty in international relations that on occasion gives rise to delays in concluding bilateral agreements, add to the stress of the process.

I listened carefully to what my colleague, Deputy Michael Creed, had to say and will convey his views to the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. I am conscious that if individuals have been through this process, are on the verge of adopting a child or have been introduced to a child, or even if they are not in that position but have a declaration of eligibility and suitability based on an assumption that they will adopt in a particular state and have spent some time learning all they need to know about the background matters of importance in effecting an adoption in that state, it is a cause of great disruption and emotional stress if it ultimately does not prove possible to effect an adoption. I will relay to the Minister what the Deputy had to say. I hope the conversations she plans to hold in September with the Russian delegation prove productive and that it will be possible to arrange a meeting and that there will be a satisfactory outcome. In the absence of Russia's implementation of the Hague Convention in its domestic legislation, as opposed to merely being a signatory to the convention, the only way to facilitate Irish couples or individual applicants in adopting in Russia is through a bilateral agreement. As I am familiar with the area, I am conscious that there are certain difficulties with regard to post-placement reports. I hope it will proves possible for the Minister to resolve these difficulties in a manner which the Russian Federation regards as suitable and appropriate, as well as in a manner that is compatible with our domestic law.