Child and Family Agency Bill 2013: Second Stage

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I am pleased to bring the Child and Family Agency Bill 2013 before the House. I look forward to engaging with Deputies in a constructive debate as the Bill proceeds through the various stages.

The Bill I am introducing today represents the legislative element of one of the current Government's largest public service reforms. More importantly, however, it represents the most ambitious and comprehensive reform of child protection, early intervention and family support services ever undertaken in Ireland.

The need for change is undeniable. It can be read in the pages of nearly 20 major reports from the past 30 years on child protection failings in Ireland. It can be evidenced in the stark findings of service dysfunction, fragmentation and lack of inter-agency working contained in last year's report of the Independent Child Death Review Group. It can be seen in the structural and systemic deficits and inconsistencies still there in our services, highlighted both in recent HIQA inspections and in last month's pilot phase report of the National Audit of Neglect.

Across many of these reports, the only consistent theme was inconsistency over the decades. We saw how dedicated staff went above and beyond the call of duty, but we also saw how some fell far short. We saw how some geographic regions were excellent in how they operated, but we also saw how some needed huge improvements. We saw how many legislative and financial supports were robustly in place, but we also saw how some were treated as just purely aspirational.

Worst of all, was the revelation of what we did not know as a result of the lack of basic data on children in care, on referrals and on service provision generally. If these revelations of systemic gaps and failures related to industrial production, or electricity supply, they would have been shameful. They did not relate to wiring and machines, however, they related to the safety, protection and well-being of the nation's children.

Understanding this legacy is critical, because doing things differently means proactively identifying failures, naming them and correcting them. We cannot fix what we cannot see. This is at the heart of this Government's change agenda.

We have introduced new Children First national guidance and we have overseen a Children First implementation framework. Only yesterday, I secured Cabinet approval for the publication of sectoral implementation plans for Children First by a number of Departments on their websites. We will now know what each Department is doing to implement the Children First national guidance.

We have introduced the first ever national standards for child protection services and an independent inspection regime under HIQA, which is very important. This standards-led approach is central to fostering a new culture of transparency, accountability and effectiveness. We have recruited more social workers, have led service reforms to improve capacity and consistency, are designing new models for assessment and referral, and are reorganising care services. In addition, we are implementing new models for data management and performance monitoring.

For all of this, however, there is a greater challenge outstanding - it comprises leadership, focus and accountability. We must emancipate our child protection and welfare services from the monolith of the health services, where for too long in the past they were lost and rudderless. We must also break down the barriers between agencies and services. We must have much more seamless integration of policy and service delivery, not fragmentation, and we must do better for children and families.

In 2011, I established a task force chaired by Ms Maureen Lynott to advise me on establishment of the new agency. I wish to thank Ms Lynott and the advisory group for their work. Their report, which was published 12 months ago, spoke of the "once in a generation opportunity to fundamentally reform children's services in Ireland". The Bill I am presenting today seeks to make that opportunity real. It provides the organisational context, leadership focus and accountability within which real improvements in child and family services can be achieved. It will ensure that the change agenda we have initiated is championed, sustained and built upon into the future. Just as the creation of my Department brought child-related policy out of the shadow of the Department of Health into the direct light of ministerial, Cabinet and public scrutiny, so this legislation will once and for all move the services for children and their families into the light of day. Put simply, we are going to move from a position where child and family welfare was barely a priority, to a position where it will be the sole focus of a single dedicated State agency, overseen by a single dedicated Department. In doing so, we are delivering on a key programme for Government commitment and on what has been an absolute priority for me as Minister.

While today marks the start of the legislative process, much work has already been undertaken on the logistical, organisational and financial management aspects of the establishment and transition to the new agency. This has also included the recruitment of a senior management team led by CEO designate, Mr. Gordon Jeyes, and the appointment of Ms Norah Gibbons as first chairperson. I understand they will be shortly appearing before the Joint Committee on Health and Children.

This Bill seeks to facilitate each of the distinct elements that make up the programme for Government's commitment through the creation of an agency which is solely and exclusively dedicated to children and families; has an improved range of services to meet the needs of children and families; and is subject to best practice in the discharge of its accountability to the Government and the Oireachtas. The need for a dedicated agency recognises that the complex operational management and reform of child welfare and protection services has jostled with many other competing objectives within the large and demanding health and personal social service arena.

This Bill provides the mandate to a dedicated agency to lead the improvement of children's services. It will allow for the development of expertise and support for professionals in delivering some of the most complex interventions the State is charged with undertaking. The Bill provides that the Child and Family Agency assume responsibility for a range of services from establishment day. These services include child welfare and protection services, including family support services; existing family support agency responsibilities; existing National Educational Welfare Board responsibilities; pre-school inspection services; domestic, sexual and gender based violence services; and services related to the psychological welfare of children. Cumulatively, this represents the largest and most ambitious public service reform being undertaken by this Government, involving 4,000 staff across three existing agencies and a budget of nearly €600 million.

The children and family services transferring from the HSE include the full range of family support and child welfare services, child protection, foster care, residential care, after care and adoption services. This includes responsibility for over 6,200 children in care and 1,500 young people in receipt of after-care services as well as responding to nearly 40,000 child protection and welfare referrals every year. The incorporation of pre-school inspection services will further promote a nationally consistent approach to regulation, inspection and enforcement - all of which are key elements of my Department's ongoing pre-school quality agenda.

The transfer of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence services from the HSE is important in equipping the agency to provide an integrated service to vulnerable families. Support to victims and groups working with those experiencing such violence, including rape crisis centres and refuges, will in future be the responsibility of the Child and Family Agency. The HSE will retain responsibility for sexual assault treatment units, which are located in acute hospitals, and other medical services.

While improving child protection has rightly been an issue of much focus in recent times, and will be a key objective of the new agency, prevention, early intervention and family support are equally, if not more important goals for the agency. The task force recommended that the design of services within the agency must be based upon the needs of children and families, rather than existing professional or organisational boundaries. This is about services for children and families. It said comprehensive, early and multi-disciplinary responses are required to meet the needs of children and families.

Factors such as poverty and deprivation, early-school leaving, mental health and substance misuse are very real for families and can impact significantly on children's well-being. The pilot phase report of the National Audit of Neglect Cases, published recently, highlighted what it referred to as the "harsh reality of neglect".

The audit found that parental alcohol misuse was a factor in 62% of families in the overall sample and states that family dysfunction was often associated with chronic alcohol and drug misuse. Too often, it is the interplay of such trends and risk factors that act to expose children to serious risk. Therefore, it is important that universal, easily accessible services within the community work to promote children's outcomes, including child welfare, and have a clear role to support child development and family functioning while always being vigilant and responsive to child protection issues. This requires strong linkages between universal and targeted or more specialist children's services. Therefore, the new agency will have a strong role in prevention and early intervention and in supporting families and communities.

Much work is under way and at an advanced stage in child and family services on the development of new models of case intake, assessment and referral to include both a greater differentiation between child protection and welfare referrals and a greater focus on early intervention and community-based family support interventions. One of the lessons we have learned, in particular from the child death report, is the need for this differentiation and clear risk assessment to ensure children get the precise services they need. Building on this work, the Bill provides for a much expanded range of services as compared with those currently delivered within HSE child welfare and protection services. In line with the agency's commitment to early intervention and family support, the Bill provides for it providing psychological services to children and families. Such services could, for example, deal with emotional and behavioural problems, attachment difficulties, relationship difficulties or poor parenting. These services relate to any family in the community experiencing such difficulties. In addition, psychological services would form part of the specialist supports available to children who have experienced abuse or who are in the care of the State. These children need these services as much, if not more, as anyone else.

The new agency will build on the excellent work undertaken by the Family Support Agency over the past decade. The nationwide network of 106 family resource centres will play a centrally important role in the new agency and its continuum of community supports. I want to make that very clear because it is an important part of the new agency. The Family Support Agency funds more than 600 voluntary and community organisations in providing counselling services to couples and families. This Bill provides that all of the functions and staff of the Family Support Agency will transfer to the child and family agency on establishment. Inclusion of these services will assist in ensuring the ethos of the child and family agency is based upon partnership with communities. Deputies will see how clearly this is spelled out in the Bill.

Earlier this week, I launched the Family Support Agency commissioned study, Families Living at Risk of Poverty in Ireland. This study found that in those families at risk of poverty, the majority of mothers and fathers had not continued education past lower secondary school level. This is a finding which far too often echoes through research on disadvantage, particularly cyclical deprivation. In addition, many recent reports, including last year's child deaths report and the national audit of neglect cases, have highlighted non-school attendance as a factor of and pointer to more serious child welfare concerns. Against this backdrop, I firmly believe that the inclusion of educational welfare services and school completion in the new child and family agency will lead to a greater collaborative approach in addressing issues of school completion, family support and child welfare. The nexus between school completion, family support and child welfare is critical.

This Bill provides that all the functions and staff of the National Educational Welfare Board will transfer to the child and family agency on establishment. The merger will maintain a strong focus on educational welfare and providing support for schools in addressing educational welfare issues. The transfer of the NEWB will broaden the focus of the agency and its resources and tackle educational welfare as a key outcome for children in its own right and as a positive contributor to other outcomes. It will also assist in building very strong collaborative relationships between the agency and the education sector, in particular schools. I believe it is very important that the agency is a good partner to the schools who have so much contact with children.

I am committed to ensuring the agency's educational welfare responsibilities, as set out in statute, have high visibility within the overall structure and that the close relationships with the education sector are maintained and strengthened. I have agreed with Government colleagues to explore the scope for further extending the child and family agency's responsibilities after it successfully commences operations. In any event, given the breadth of services provided to children, there will be an ongoing requirement for the agency to develop very strong partnerships with key agencies in the education, health, justice, local government and other sectors. Strong multi-agency working to promote children's outcomes is a challenge in all countries, the difficulty of which cannot be underestimated. My Department and the child and family agency will be to the fore in maintaining and improving linkages at operational and policy levels.

I wish to comment on performance, accountability and transparency in relation to the new agency. The programme for Government commits to improving accountability. This reflects concern regarding the transparency and openness of the child welfare and protection services. The reform programme under way in HSE children and family services has already taken important initial steps to addressing this issue and bringing about the necessary cultural shift within these services. This programme is seeking to ensure greater service delivery consistency, role clarity and performance management, stronger partnerships with communities and voluntary agencies, and commitment to learning and openness, including through the review and public reporting of serious incidents. The recent introduction of Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, standards and inspection of child welfare and protection services also supports greater accountability and transparency.

Considerable attention has been paid in the drafting of this Bill to achieving further improvement in accountability. The Bill will ensure there is a dedicated agency responsible for children's services reporting to the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. It clarifies that the policy objectives for the agency will be set by the Minister, supported by the Department, and that the agency is responsible to the Minister for its performance. The task force on the child and family agency undertook a comprehensive review of governance models nationally and internationally and devised recommendations to assist in achieving good governance and accountability in the particular context applying to children's services and this agency. We have looked to that report for guidance. The proposed sections of this Bill reflect these recommendations, and a range of specific legislative proposals have been included to introduce a new model of public accountability and responsiveness on the part of the agency. This model includes control of the allocation of funding to the agency through the Vote of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs in order that financial allocations are used to underpin Government priorities, performance targets and monitoring; the Minister specifying a multi-annual performance framework for the agency, which will set out key policy, resource and governance considerations, and the Minister issuing a performance statement to the agency each year, outlining for the coming year the priorities, resources and key Government targets applying.

The multi-annual performance framework and the annual performance statement will trigger a structured performance dialogue between the agency and the Department before submission by the agency of its multi-annual corporate plan and annual business plan. In other words, the agency will not set its own performance goals and objectives with the Minister a passive recipient. The Minister will articulate proactively the Government's requirements and enter into dialogue with the agency on how these can be achieved. These and other provisions of the Bill address the objectives identified in the programme for Government and the previous recommendations of the OECD to strengthen agency governance, performance accountability and transparency. They will also bring clarity to the roles, responsibilities and relationships between the Minister, the board and the executive. There has been much criticism in the past of this not being present in other agencies.

I wish to draw attention to the provisions in the Bill related to the best interests and views of the child. These provisions fully meet the wording put before the people last year in the referendum on children's rights and, I am happy to say, go beyond it in important respects. The specific requirements for the agency to perform its functions with regard to the Child Care Act 1991 and the Adoption Act 2010 accord with the provisions set out in the referendum on children's rights. The Bill contains additional requirements that cut across a broader range of functions relating to children and families. The agency will have regard to the best interests of the child in all matters and will ensure consideration is given to the views of children as part of any consultation process.

I am happy that the Bill advances these important principles, which are at the core of how we deal with children and families.

I propose to outline to the House the key provisions of the Bill, which consists of 93 sections contained in 12 Parts and three Schedules. Part 1, consisting of sections 1 to 5, inclusive, provides for standard provisions grounding the legislation. Part 2, consisting of sections 6 to 18, inclusive, provides for the establishment of the Child and Family Agency and certain provisions relating to the furnishing of information and documentation. Part 3, consisting of sections 19 to 27, inclusive, provides for the composition, role and meetings of the board of the agency. Part 4, consisting of sections 28 to 35, inclusive, provides for the appointment, functions and obligations of the chief executive officer of the agency and the delegation of the functions of the CEO to employees and for their sub-delegation to or by other employees. Part 5, consisting of sections 36 to 40, inclusive, provides for the maintenance of proper standards of integrity, conduct and concern for the public interest and relevant codes of conduct.

Part 6, consisting of sections 41 to 53, inclusive, relates to the theme of accountability to which I referred. Section 41 is to provide for the development of a performance framework by the Minister at specific times to inform the agency's corporate planning processes. It will provide the agency with policy guidance, direction and prioritisation parameters. Section 42 obliges the agency to prepare and submit to the Minister for approval a corporate plan which has regard to the performance framework provided by the Minister. Section 44 is to provide for the development of an annual performance statement. Section 46 provides for the submission of a business plan, an issue to which I have alluded. The other sections in this Part relate to financial matters, governance, reporting and the issuing of ministerial directions and guidelines.

Part 7, consisting of sections 53 to 55, inclusive, provides for the appointment of staff, advisers and consultants and matters relating to superannuation. Part 8, consisting of sections 56 to 59, inclusive, provides for the provision of services on behalf of the agency through arrangements with statutory and voluntary bodies. This will effectively guide the relationship the agency has with the voluntary providers it funds and which provide services to children and families. I expect there will be significant scope for greater co-operation and sharing of priorities with these voluntary bodies.

Part 9, consisting of sections 60 to 70, inclusive, provides for a complaints mechanism. Part 10 provides for the dissolution of the Family Support Agency and National Educational Welfare Board on establishment day. Section 72 is to provide for the transfer of specified functions from the Family Support Agency and the functions of the National Educational Welfare Board on establishment day to the Child and Family Agency. The remaining sections in this Part provide for the transfer of staff; the preservation of the terms and conditions of staff on establishment day; the transfer of property; the transfer of rights and liabilities entered into before establishment day pursuant to a contract, agreement or arrangement; the continuation in force of contracts, agreements or arrangements; the transfer of records; and the preparation of final accounts.

Part 11, consisting of sections 82 to 90, inclusive, provides for the transfer of certain staff and functions from the Health Service Executive to the new agency. Section 83 provides for the designation by the Minister for Health, following consultation with the Minister, of staff to transfer to the agency on a day as may be specified by the Minister. It preserves, on that day, the terms and conditions of staff transferring, including tenure of office and remuneration and provides for the reckoning of previous service as service for the purpose of certain specified enactments. The remaining sections of this Part provide for the transfer of rights and liabilities entered into before establishment day pursuant to a contract, agreement or arrangement and the continuance in force of contracts, agreements or arrangements and transfer of records. Part 12, consisting of sections 91 to 93, inclusive, provides for standard miscellaneous legislative provisions.

Schedule 1 sets out the enactments under which functions are to transfer to the agency. Schedule 2 provides for matters related to consequential amendments. Schedule 3 provides for matters related to enactments being repealed.

I thank Deputies who have signalled their support in principle for the new Child and Family Agency and look forward to our debate on the detailed legislation. I commend the Bill to the House.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the Second Stage debate on the Child and Family Agency Bill 2013. I am pleased to speak to the legislation and welcome its publication, which is long overdue. Having harassed the Minister for the past 12 months, its introduction to the House is welcome. As she is aware, it was due to be published before Christmas 2012 following the publication of the expert group report in July of that year. With Committee, Report and Final Stages to be completed and the Bill still to go before the Seanad, it is likely that it will not be enacted until later this year at the earliest. That said, I welcome its publication.

The Minister regularly refers to the renewed emphasis and focus on children and their welfare and protection. It is true that attitudes to children have changed considerably. There was an old saying that children should be seen and not heard. Thankfully, society has changed in the past decade and members of the public and previous Governments have come to focus on children and child related issues. This change in focus has been incremental and substantial, not only in recent years, as the Minister would have us believe, but also in the past decade.

I will briefly refer to some of the important reforms of the previous decade. In 2000, the Government published the first national children's strategy. In 2004, the Office of Ombudsman for Children was established and the first Ombudsman for Children, Ms Emily Logan, appointed. Ms Logan has since been reappointed by the Government. Unfortunately, the Ombudsman for Children is before the Joint Committee on Health and Children as we speak for a discussion on the new juvenile detention centre in Oberstown. I accept this clash of business is not the Minister's fault.

In 2006-07, the Government appointed the first independent Special Rapporteur on Child Protection, Dr. Geoffrey Shannon. This, too, was an important development. I read in newspaper reports over the weekend that Dr. Shannon has been reappointed to the position of rapporteur, which is an acknowledgement by the Minister of the significance of the original appointment by the previous Administration.

The previous Government also established the first Office of the Minister of State for Children and Youth Affairs. While I accept the office was not a full Department, it was none the less a significant improvement at the time and an acknowledgement of the role of children. It was from this office that the Minister's Department was formed, which was a positive development that my party welcomed and supported.

Much of the groundwork for the referendum on children's rights was done by the previous Administration. I compliment the Minister on her drive and determination to ensure this work was not lost by continuing the work done by the former Minister of State, Mr. Barry Andrews. She ensured a referendum was put to the country and the result was a significant achievement which ensures the rights of children are enshrined in our Constitution. I am pleased with the role my party and many others played in this regard. It should also be noted that the CEO designate of the Child and Family Agency, Mr. Gordon Jeyes, was appointed by the previous Administration.

The Minister referred to the neglect and gross abuse perpetrated on children while in the care of the State and in their parental homes. The Ryan and Murphy reports and the report of the review group on child deaths were compiled to shine a light on these grave injustices. Their findings identified the deficiencies in services and enabled corrective action and reform to be undertaken. As the Minister correctly noted, doing things differently requires us to proactively identify failures. One cannot fix what one cannot see.

I have provided some brief background details to demonstrate that reforms and a change in attitude were not confined to the past two years. This incremental and substantial process has been ongoing for the past decade.

I now propose to address the provisions of the Bill.

I wish to speak on two critical sections, section 8 on the functions of the agency and section 9 on the agency having the best interests and views of the child in the performance of its functions. I am surprised that section 8 does not place a greater emphasis on supporting families. During the campaign on the children's rights referendum, the State's default position was that intervention was always the very last measure. During the course of that debate, the Minister, other Ministers and I often spoke of the need for enhanced family supports. Given recent comments on this I would have imagined this Bill would have placed greater emphasis - possibly even a separate section - on detailing how the Government would deal with the effective functioning of families.

Section 8(3) refers to "supporting and encouraging the effective functioning of families". We all agree that the very best place for children to grow up is within a family. Yet, it is not clear how this Bill envisages the effective functioning of families. I am concerned over the absence of reference to parents and the fundamental role they play in children's lives. The Bill seems to predominately focus on State interventions with little practical reference to family support and early intervention, which take second place in the Bill.

The child death report refers to the lack of availability of robust early intervention mechanisms. The Bill has little regard to the early intervention strategies which are critical to ensuring the long-term well-being of the children. I am disappointed with the lack of detailed description of how the new agency will deal with the effective functioning of families. I am disappointed with the scant nature of the reference to families, given the pivotal role they play in the welfare of children.

Given that the lack of a framework of interagency co-operation has featured in so many reports, such as the Ryan report and the Murphy report, I would have thought it would warrant its own section. Section 8(8) of the Bill states: "The Agency shall promote enhanced inter-agency co-operation to ensure that services for children are co-ordinated and provide an integrated response to the needs of children and their families." That is bland waffle. It does not give a detailed framework of how the various agencies will deal with one another. On Monday night while driving home, I heard a repeat of the Newstalk lunchtime show on which the Minister spoke. She reiterated the importance of multidisciplinary teams and the need for a co-ordinated interagency approach. It is extremely disappointing to see the bland, undetailed, non-specific subsection on interagency co-operation. I remind the Minister of some of the horrific reports on the malpractices, deficiencies and the inadequacies of State care over the years, all of which highlighted the consequences of failing to have robust interagency co-operation. This legislation does not alleviate that when it clearly fails to define exactly interagency co-operation and how agencies will share information.

Given the relevance of the Children First legislation to the establishment of this agency, I would have expected the Minister to have fulfilled her promise and published this legislation so that they could be considered in tandem. Even though it is not published, I am surprised that there is no reference in this legislation to interagency co-operation and the implementation of the Children First legislation.

I turn to areas not under the remit of this legislation but which are critical to child welfare and well-being for which a detailed interagency agreement is also important. It is regrettable that the child and adolescent mental health services will not be under the remit of the new agency, despite the fact that the expert task force the Minister established recommended it should be. On publication of this expert report, the Minister acknowledged the need for this area to come under the remit of this legislation. Children end up in care as a result of mental health issues, alcohol abuse or poverty, as the Minister mentioned in her contribution. However, mental health remains outside the scope of the legislation. Why has the Minister departed from the recommendations of the expert group that she established? Failure to address mental health issues at an early stage can have a profound impact on children. The child death report highlighted the devastating consequences for many children who failed to be identified as having mental health issues.

While I accept the Minister's desire to have this critical area brought under the remit of the new agency, is there some sort of turf war going on between her and the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch? It should not be Department fighting Department. It is about finding the best solutions for children and families. In her interview on Monday the Minister spoke about the Government needing to lead and it should do so. However, I am concerned that this area has not come under the remit of this new agency and not only because of the lack of detailed framework for interagency co-operation. Yesterday's edition of The Irish Times reported that €35 million ring-fenced for community mental health services in 2013 might be gobbled up into the overall HSE budget. That comes on top of the failure to spend the entire €35 million allocation for 2012. I would have much more confidence if this area was addressed in this legislation. Why has this not happened despite the fact that there has been a delay in publication of the legislation? Timing should not have been an issue. In her reply I ask the Minister to outline why this did not happen.

I take the opportunity to say that public health nurses are doing outstanding work. They provide a key role in child protection. They are often the first people to pick up on the early indicators of neglect and yet they are not coming under the remit of this agency. While I can accept there is a divergence of opinion on whether they should come under its remit, legislation should contain a detailed definition of the role they will play within this new agency. The important role they play should be recognised in this legislation.

While the Bill focuses on the operational aspects of this new agency, it lacks vision. This is not and nor should it be about simply changing the name and joining together a number of agencies - or rationalisation of services as the Government likes to call it. This should be about changing the culture and formulating a vision. The Bill should clearly state what the new agency stands for. As I mentioned already, there is no reference to parents and there is scant reference to children, despite these two being the pillars of what the legislation is all about. Section 9 refers to the best interests of the child. However, it merely refers to the best interests of the child in child care and adoption proceedings. In last November's constitutional referendum, the people decided children's views should be visible in all matters as per Article 42A.1.

This view is shared by the Children's Rights Alliance. I only received its analysis of the legislation recently but from reading through it quickly this point stuck out. People from the alliance are concerned about the best interests of the child in the context of this legislation.

I wish to raise the issue of governance and governance structures and, in particular, the role of the Minister, the board and the chief executive. Part 3 deals with the functions of the board and Part 4 deals with the functions of the chief executive. I raised this matter during the briefing session but I am none the wiser now and no explanatory note has made its way to my office. It appears that there is no direct line of accountability. What happens when a future crisis arises within the sector? Who will be held accountable? Will it be the board, the Minister or the Executive?

Section 47 gives the Minister of the day the power to issue directions and guidelines to the agency. What happens if the board fails to implement these directions and guidelines? As the democratically elected person, the Minister of the day, regardless of who he or she is, must have a mechanism to ensure implementation but I see nothing of that in the Bill. People wish to see clear lines of accountability and transparency. Such measures can bring about confidence.

I wish to discuss the composition of the board. No one will question the qualification, suitability or expertise of the new chairperson of the board, Norah Gibbons. However, people question why there was no advertisement for the position. If the Government is serious about openness and transparency, there must be advertisements for future positions on the board. The board should have a mixed composition of professional personnel, including psychologists and people with a family support background as well as people with relevant work experience. These positions should be advertised and expressions of interest should be sought from the public. All of this is in the interests of confidence, openness and transparency. Appointments should not be seen purely as rewards for political supporters.

Section 59 deals with assistance for voluntary bodies. I compliment the work voluntary bodies do in the area of child protection and advocating children's rights. The carry out superb work and they played a pivotal role in ensuring the passage of the children's rights referendum last year. Non-governmental organisations, including the Children's Right Alliance, the ISPCC, Barnardos, Focus Ireland, Empowering Young People in Care, EPIC, and others play pivotal roles in the provision of child protection services and in advocating children's rights. While Section 9 envisages the assistance of voluntary bodies in the delivery of child protection services it does not stipulate by what means exactly and how they will assist. There are in excess of 90 agencies working in the area of child protection and welfare. Therefore, we should have an open and transparent mechanism for selecting a particular agency for the delivery of a service. I understand that in Australia one third of child protection work is dealt with by NGOs. Earlier, I referred to the need for a clear framework to deal with the agencies. Equally, there should be a clear framework for dealing with NGOs. Such a framework would instill confidence and remove any suspicion that one NGO could be favoured over another.

Section 64 deals with complaints and review procedures. Now is the time, when we are formulating this new agency, to extend the remit of HIQA. HIQA should be responsible for dealing with all child-related services. There is a need for an independent watchdog and I believe HIQA would instill public confidence in this regard.

Unfortunately, only recently we saw the consequences of poor inspections. This was despite the fact that in 2009 the previous Government amended regulations to include section 5 to ensure the well-being of children. Despite this amendment, several months ago we witnessed horrific scenes of blatant neglect and physical and emotional abuse of children in our crèches. It is horrific to think that one of the crèches identified in the programme had passed an inspection in the previous weeks.

Unfortunately this is not a legacy issue, as the Minister has said previously, but a contemporary issue of here and now. Now, in the aspect of formulating this legislation for the new agency, is an ideal opportunity to ensure that we expand the remit of HIQA and put in place an independent watchdog that will instill and renew public confidence in our crèches and child care facilities. The parents of Ireland deserve that much but so do the many good quality loving and caring people who work in these facilities. They too deserve to have the air of suspicion surrounding their sector removed. The establishment of an independent quality watchdog such as HIQA would ensure that much.

The budget deficit is a matter of concern. Will the Minister confirm whether the new agency will carry over the legacy budget? I acknowledge that the Minister has succeeded in securing a slight reduction in the overall deficit. However, what a statement of seriousness it would represent if the Minister could declare that the agency would start off from a fresh sheet with no overhang or budget deficit. That would send out a magnificent statement of confidence and seriousness in the agency. Unless the agency is adequately resourced then it will not function properly.

The Minister has alluded to the 4,000 staff who are moving across and who will become part of the staff in the agency. I have asked about it before, but is the Minister confident that we will have the required number of competent staff working in front-line services to ensure the provision of critical child welfare, child protection and supports? Is the Minister confident that we will have the full complement of staff?

At the time of the children's rights referendum I said that the amendment would only be an aspiration if it was not backed up with the necessary reserves. We are keen for the agency to succeed and we are supporting the Minister in its establishment but it will not succeed unless it is backed up with the necessary resources and supports and staffed with the appropriate competent people on the front line. I realise the Minister has secured permission from her colleague, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, to hire the people in the leadership roles. Leadership roles are important but so too are the people who will be on the ground working and serving the people they are meant to serve.

We should reflect on how the National Educational Welfare Board has functioned in the past and its shortcomings before it is assumed into the new agency. We need to ask why truancy is a consistent problem and what initiatives are being taken to promote school attendance. The Bill fails to link education with the outcomes for children. Truancy happens for various reasons and we need to examine these reasons. One reason is a failure to identify special needs within children until it is too late or until children have fallen out or dropped out of school. For example, dyslexia is going undiagnosed and there is nothing in the Bill to ensure that this is not tackled. There is nothing in the Bill to ensure adequate training is provided to the new people who will be responsible for ensuring that our children remain in education. The Bill merely transfers the National Educational Welfare Board without any amendment to reflect deficiencies in the system as it stands.

This is wrong and is a matter Members might consider at a later stage.

In conclusion, I again thank the Minister for bringing this long-overdue legislation before the Dáil. It is complex legislation and while it was only published last Friday, I look forward to studying it over the summer with a view to ascertaining how improvements might be tabled and made on later Stages. This legislation is 76 pages in length and is comprised of 96 sections and considering its length and level of detail, I am disappointed with the lack of emphasis on children and parents and the strong emphasis the Minister has chosen to place on technical issues. This legislation and the establishment of this agency must be about the best possible outcomes for children. This Bill must ensure there are clear and definitive lines of accountability. This legislation provides a unique opportunity to correct and improve those areas and deficiencies that have been identified by various reports in recent years. Moreover, this agency offers a unique opportunity to ensure Ireland has a family support system, a child welfare system and a child protection system that are not merely among the best in the world but are world leaders. I pledge to work constructively with the Minister on this Bill to ensure this objective is realised. In recent months, I have produced three draft legislative items to try to help the Minister to build that world-class service of which we all can be proud. I look forward to coming back to the debate on subsequent Stages to ensure Members capitalise on this unique opportunity and embrace the challenges that lie ahead. As the Minister noted in her contribution on Newstalk on Monday and earlier today, the Government and political representatives must lead from the front to ensure the best interests and welfare of children and families are of paramount concern and that is what this Bill should address.

I call Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin, who has 30 minutes but who I understand is sharing with Deputy Sandra McLellan.

Yes, I am sharing time with Deputy McLellan. I apologise to the Minister for missing the opening lines of her contribution. The Second Stage was reached much quicker than I had anticipated this afternoon. I was not only finalising my own contribution but was preparing for the Joint Committee on Health and Children and, as Deputy Troy already has noted, a discussion with the Ombudsman for Children in respect of child detention centres. I send my apologies for being unable to attend to Deputy Buttimer and the other members of the Joint Committee on Health and Children, as well as to Ms Logan.

I welcome this Bill and the establishment of the child and family agency. Sinn Féin Members have long campaigned and called for it here in the Oireachtas over recent years. Sinn Féin welcomed the appointment of a Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, in the form of Deputy Fitzgerald, and the establishment of the new Department. It was an important decision of the new Government early in its term and was something for which Sinn Féin also had long called and advocated. In a referendum last year, the people endorsed a constitutional amendment strengthening the rights of children. At the time, I stated it must be followed up by robust legislation and by the allocation of the resources needed to vindicate children’s rights. This Bill is a step forward although I believe there is a very long way to go.

While the appointment of the Minister and the establishment of the Department arguably came at the worst possible time economically, it also could be argued that in economically harsh times, greater protection and enhanced representation for children is needed more than ever. I take that latter view and precisely the same point applies to the agency established by this Bill. In that context, the allocation of a budget of €439 million to the Office of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs in 2013 is modest to say the least, albeit an increase on 2012. As one continues to consider the implications of the Anglo Irish Bank tapes, one contrasts the tens of billions of euro of public money shovelled into that cesspit with the less than half a billion euro allocated this year to the Department responsible for the children of Ireland. One of the smallest allocations in the Revised Estimates for the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, which was dealt with at the select sub-committee last week, is a €2.5 million State contribution for the area-based response to child poverty. I note the Minister stated the bulk of the funding for this programme, €29 million, comes from Atlantic Philanthropies. This covers just three disadvantaged areas in this State and the Minister hopes another three will be added next year. It must be stated there is a bitter irony in this, as one has the Government topping up a grant from an international charity to address child poverty in this State, while the Government itself, through its futile austerity policies, is increasing child poverty. This is an indisputable fact, as I need only point to the cut to child benefit, which represents the single worst assault in many years on the incomes of families with children and which hits low to middle-income families worst of all. Moreover, this was in the wake of the children’s referendum. While a total of €2.5 million is going to a handful of areas to address child poverty, in budget 2013 a full-year cut of €142 million was made to child benefit and Members should stop to think about the contrast between these two figures. This was a reduction in child benefit, which is the most direct and beneficial payment to families and children in poverty or in danger of poverty. This is what child benefit has been and has meant to so many struggling families, both in present times and in years past. I have no doubt that this single cut has pushed many more families into poverty.

Although the Minister’s Department is not directly responsible for that particular cut, she is part of the Government that imposed it and that cut, regrettably, together with all the other cuts affecting families and children, is undermining the positive work, which I unhesitatingly acknowledge, and the future plans of her Department, including the plans for the child and family agency. While the explanatory memorandum states that the new agency on its establishment will assume responsibility for child welfare and protection, including the services relating to the psychological welfare of children and must consult with children and “hear and take into account” the child’s views in certain matters, it does not require that the new agency listen to and take into account the views of children in all matters pertaining to their lives and welfare. This is something I had understood to have been established clearly, certainly in the spirit if not the letter on foot of the children's referendum. I believe the Minister should strengthen the commitment in this legislation on Committee Stage.

The new child and family agency was of course initially intended to be called the child and family support agency. I have raised the matter of the dropping of the word "support" from the title of the new body previously but the Minister has not adequately replied to my questions as to the reason the word "support" has been dropped. I am in no way assured there is not an ulterior reason for so doing. In replying to Second Stage contributions, will the Minister care to expand on whatever she already has said on this matter? The Family Support Agency has heretofore been a key player in addressing and providing for the address of a range of challenges that present in the lives of families and whole communities. It had a board that included representation from the Family Resource Centre National Forum and again, despite repeated questioning by this Deputy, the Minister has avoided clarity on the make-up of the interim or transition board and the board of the new child and family agency.

Will the Minister explain the reasons for the disbandment of the Family Support Agency board and why she has not appointed an interim board in the time since then, although she has appointed Ms Norah Gibbons chairperson designate, a welcome appointment? How fewer will its number be, as opposed to the previous Family Support Agency board? Again, will the Family Resource Centre National Forum have direct representation on the new child and family agency board and if not, why not? Whether the Minister is fully aware of it, there is considerable concern among those involved across the network of family resource centres that without that critical representation, their character, ethos and long-established focus will be placed at risk. Surely the access that has served the sector so well heretofore should be maintained. The Family Resource Centre National Forum should have board representation on the new agency.

There is also serious concern regarding current child protection services and the real position relating to social worker numbers. The Minister was at pains over several months last year and earlier this year to assure the House that the promised recruitment had been progressed and, if not complete, was nearly completed. However, we learn from the recently published report, prepared last year by Lynne Peyton and which addressed the child protection services in Roscommon, Waterford and south-east Dublin, that in 96 cases brought to the attention of the HSE child protection services, less than half were adequately addressed. As the report states: "There were many families in which the circumstances for children did not improve despite the involvement of statutory services." It also states that "parental resistance to change and non compliance with child protection plans was not adequately challenged" in a number of cases.

The incredible bottom line is that inclusion on the child protection notification system did not necessarily mean that the child's circumstances had or would improve. Does that position still hold? The report states that this appears to be due to "a lack of understanding of the harsh reality of everyday life for children, the cumulative long-term consequences of neglect, a cultural commitment to keeping families together at all costs and a perceived reticence by the Courts to grant Care Orders in neglect scenarios". In responding to the report's findings, the HSE said there was a need to be alert to the systemic and ongoing impact of neglect. It said that reform of child and family services was ongoing and that it included enhanced governance systems, improved workforce development and the standardisation of practice.

I would never hold the Minister solely responsible in the area of child protection services and for provision in the interests of the rights of children, so how can we collectively address the serious lack of public confidence in our child protection services, which I encounter occasionally, when such reports and such inadequate responses are the order of the day? This is not a historical matter but is more contemporary than we would wish. Surely the child protection services in transition and under the oversight of the designated chief executive of the new child and family agency would, on foot of all that has been revealed in a succession of reports and exposés over recent years, be advanced to a better and more fit for purpose status. It is understandable that, sadly, some have concluded that nothing has changed and little will change in reality. I hope that will not be the case.

Despite the fact that I am supportive of the establishment of the new agency and remain supportive of the Minister's programme of work, which I acknowledge and for which I admire her, I am hugely concerned that without the necessary funding and resourcing, including the required human resources, the new agency will continue to fail some children, families and communities. Without the required funding and staffing provision, the new agency will fail to meet the Minister's hopes and my hopes for it and will fail the many people who really need it to be a success.

I will support the passing of the Bill and I will address some aspects of it on Committee and Report Stages. I invite the Minister also to give it her further consideration to ensure what we finally arrive at, when we will hopefully see its successful passage through this House, will indeed be everything we would wish.

The debate on the way children are treated in society has moved to centre stage in recent times, which is a welcome development. I believe we have become increasingly conscious of the fact that many children in our society were neglected, abused and forgotten. The evidence placed before us in the Ryan, Monageer, Ferns and Roscommon child care inquiry reports as well as the report of the child death independent review group underlines the fact that this is not a misplaced concern.

The stories from the various reports, which all had different although overlapping subject matters, shocked the nation and caused us to ask how it happened and how it was allowed to happen. No mother or father could help but think of their own child as we heard of the dreadful physical, sexual and emotional abuse so many young people suffered at the hands of clerical orders and others. None of us could help but be horrified as we heard how the State was made aware of threats to the health, welfare and lives of children but failed to do anything. It is truly heartbreaking to think of the lonely and tragic way in which a number of young people lost their lives while in care, as highlighted by the child death independent review group. It is clear that the way many children were treated in this country, and in particular the way in which the State safeguarded and protected the welfare of these children, was extremely deficient. There was clearly a need for action.

It is against that background and that failure that this legislation is being brought forward, and we will be pleased to give the Bill our support. It marks a significant step forward in terms of the protection of the health and welfare of children. The Child and Family Agency Bill will establish, for the first time, a dedicated support agency for children and families under the remit of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. The agency will bring together the HSE children and family services, the Family Support Agency, the National Educational Welfare Board and services relating to the psychological welfare of children as well as domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. The need for such an agency has been clear for some time.

This has come about on foot of considerable campaigning work from a wide variety of bodies and organisations. Most political parties have been supportive of it for some time, including Sinn Féin. There has long been concern about the lack of co-ordination between the various agencies responsible for children's welfare, and that this was leading to a deficit in information sharing and a lack of joined-up approaches to issues or cases that may have required a cross-departmental or cross-agency response. The need for a single authority with responsibility for this area was flagged as early as 1993 in the report on the Kilkenny incest case. Barnardos put it well when it said:

Services for children and families in Ireland have long been divided across political departmental lines, particularly at the national level. On the ground, services have developed in an ad hoc manner, responding to local needs without a comprehensive national framework that helps to join the dots between the myriad services children and families engage with across Ireland. The division of services which often target many of the same children and families has led to fragmented service provision which fails to put the child at the centre of its work.

There was an obvious need to establish an agency of this kind to ensure there will be a very clear line of responsibility in respect of these matters. I, therefore, commend the Minister on establishing this new agency and on this legislation, both of which constitute a welcome and important step forward. The Minister has made progress on a number of important issues and I also commend her on that. There is a new Department and Ministry and the referendum on children's rights has been passed. All of these are extremely important developments. However, considerable shortfalls remain in this area and these must be addressed.

The most obvious and outstanding concern that is held across the youth care sector relates to resources. While this matter has been discussed on numerous occasions in the House, the conversation relating to it must be repeated until such time as it registers with the Government. The best structures and policies and the finest social and youth workers in the world will not have the impact envisaged if adequate staff and other resources are not put in place. If there is too great a workload on too few people, it will result in mistakes being made, oversights and children being failed. I recognise that some new social workers have been appointed. However, the numbers taken on are nowhere near sufficient. Ireland has relatively few child protection workers per head of population and in the context of the total number of children in care. Many of the reports compiled in respect of this matter have highlighted that levels of staffing are not adequate. In July 2013, a review of the management of neglect cases in three areas of the country found that in Roscommon, the social work team was, at times, "dangerously understaffed". There were also very long delays for access to psychology services relating to child protection assessments, with 180 children obliged to wait one to two years to be assessed.

We can expect an increase in demand. The HSE's figures show that demand for its children and family services is increasing due to the increase in the number of children in the State, the economic climate and the consequent increase in reporting. When the Children First guidelines are placed on a statutory footing, we can expect further increases. Notwithstanding the increased staffing levels, both IMPACT and the Irish Association for Social Workers have expressed concerns about the level of vacancies, including those created by maternity leave, in this female-dominated profession.

It is clear that the recruitment embargo is still having a detrimental effect on staffing levels. I am greatly concerned with regard to how this will impact on the implementation of this legislation. As well as matters relating to staffing, the issue of finance also arises. The Children's Rights Alliance has argued that for the agency to be successful, it must start life without the deficit - approximately €20 million - currently carried by the HSE child and family services. The new agency will take over the responsibilities of the National Educational Welfare Board, which is extremely appropriate, particularly as it is germane to and tied in with wider issues of child protection and welfare. Ensuring a child obtains a good education and has access to the same educational opportunities as his or her peers is the best way to ensure he or she can live well, be happy and achieve his or her full potential. This is a key duty the new agency will be taking on. The National Educational Welfare Board has been criticised in recent times for its failure to take action and ensure children are attending school. Behaviour such as avoiding or missing school can often go hand in hand with other welfare difficulties. It is essential, therefore, that a joined-up approach is taken. We hope the new agency will have a different focus on welfare than the National Educational Welfare Board. It is vital that it should place a high priority on this matter.

One area which must be addressed in terms of children's welfare is that which relates to children in direct provision. I have just left a meeting of the Joint Committee on Health and Children at which the Ombudsman for Children, Ms Emily Logan, discussed detention in the context of St Patrick's Institution and other institutions. As far as I am concerned, however, direct provision is merely another form of detention. The Ombudsman, Ms Emily O'Reilly, recently warned that Ireland's treatment of asylum seekers "may well be in breach of not just our own Constitution but also international human rights conventions". She referred to a case with which her office dealt and which "showed the failure of State agencies to uphold their own obligations in relation to an asylum-seeking mother and her two young daughters". She said that what happened "effectively sundered that family unit". Under the current asylum process, an entire early childhood can be spent in direct provision accommodation. Almost a third of asylum seekers are children. They have no autonomy or liberty and in my opinion they could certainly be considered to be in detention. These places are not remotely suitable for children. Progress has been very slow on the legislation to reform the area. I hope the new agency and the Minister will take responsibility for safeguarding these children and ensuring their welfare - as they would in the case of other children - and take whatever steps are necessary to vindicate their rights.

I welcome this positive Bill and I commend the Minister on introducing it. However, I again emphasise that structures and policies are only able to deliver in light of the number of staff and level of resources available to them. I hope the Minister will take that fact on board.

I welcome the Bill and I congratulate the Minister on the work she has done in respect of getting it to this point. Everyone believes it is long overdue. In principle, I support the Bill but I am aware that amendments will be tabled on Committee Stage. I hope these will be accepted in the spirit in which they will be advanced and that they may result in some changes being made to the legislation.

The purpose of the Bill is to amalgamate a number of existing agencies, namely, the HSE child protection and welfare services, the Family Support Agency and the National Educational Welfare Board. The new agency that will result will have quite a large staff of some 4,000 and a budget of €500 million. However, these are not new staff and this is not new money. Both are being transferred. It is important the new agency should begin life debt free. It would be a wrong signal to send if that were not the case. In such circumstances, the deficit should not be transferred.

I was a member of the Commission on the Family which was established in the wake of the successful referendum on divorce and which sat for a couple of years. At that time, the Department of Social Protection was known as the Department of Social and Family Affairs. I was very upset when the family affairs aspect was lost because the Department to which I refer was the only one which had any kind of focus on family over the years. The Commission on the Family examined the position of families in which problems might arise but it also considered developing good policy around supports for families. I hope the new agency will have a similar dual function and that it will consider the type of policy we should be adopting as best practice.

The purpose of the agency will be to support and encourage the effective functioning of families, provide psychological services for children and families - a very welcome development - and offer care and protection to the victims of domestic, sexual or gender-based violence. A new refuge - it will be the only one in the area - is due to open in south Kildare quite soon. A great deal of money was spent on developing this refuge, which is an extremely good facility. I wonder about the kind of supports which are put in place in facilities of that nature in the context of how children are treated. I am concerned that the refuge will be seen as a temporary place in which to put people while they are at risk, rather than being perceived in a much more holistic way. It must be recognised and understood that the women and children who end up in such refuges are very traumatised.

It is a very good example of design and the ethos is very good but it must also be resourced.

An overriding principle of the Bill places the best interests and views of the child at the centre of decision making. An annual report on the agency's functioning will be required and it will be presented to the Minister and laid before the Oireachtas. Is it intended that this will be one step removed from oversight here? Will it be laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas or will the Minister be directly responsible for the agency in terms responding to parliamentary questions, or will there be a separation as applies in respect of the HSE, which I consider to be a big negative?

The agency will be obliged to furnish the relevant policy information to the Minister. I presume, if that is in the public interest, there will be a role for the Oireachtas committee in that respect also. If we are to believe what we are being told, the committees will be examined as a vehicle for generating legislation, and that would be an important development.

The agency will be governed by a nine-person board. I like the idea of the term limits that will apply. That will allow for bringing in fresh ideas and at the same time there will not be a loss of experience. I note that expressions of interest have already been sought for candidates. I welcome the involvement of Norah Gibbons. I do not think anyone could doubt that she is incredibly expert in this area and has done some extremely good work in very difficult situations.

It is important that there will be a facility for complaints to be lodged to the agency. For too long as a State when a child needed care or refuge we handed that provision over to someone else. It might be something that stems from colonialism, namely, we have a difficulty with power, taking power and using it but we did so right from the formation of the State. We have seen some disastrous results as a consequence. What is welcome about this Bill is that it is the State taking responsibility. There may well be flaws in it and it comes down, as has been said, to having the resources to back it up, but at least that is the intent. The intent to act in the child's best interest is incredibly important.

We all agree that most families function well and many will never need to have recourse to an agency such as this, apart from the policy formation side of it. Other families do not function well and require intervention. As a public representative I have found it incredibly frustrating over the years to try to find solutions where I know that a more co-ordinated solution is required. Having all the services available under one roof is important.

In many ways we have abrogated our responsibility to children. We have approached child care services in a piecemeal, ad hoc and fragmented way and, as a result, children have suffered. I need point no further than to the report of the Independent Child Death Review Group for a harrowing example of our collective failure of children. If one has a bad process, one will get a bad outcome. It is important that we get the process right and the legislation sets that down.

In that context, I welcome the Bill and what it aims to achieve. I recognise it as the biggest and probably the first real attempt to restructure children's services in the history of the State. It is not that many decades ago that the view prevailed that little children should be seen but not heard. That was a terribly dangerous approach to child welfare.

I have a few comments to make on some of the proposals in the Bill. I wish to comment on the type of institutional culture that will be needed if the child and family agency is to succeed in its aims. This is a vital element. The new agency must put the child at the centre of all decision-making and operations. That is a key element that has been missing in our existing fractured approach. We have to get that right from the start. That should dominate the thinking of the new agency.

The Children's Rights Alliance submitted a very useful contribution, as has Barnardos. The Children's Rights Alliance requires that not only the views of the child be ascertained but that they are given due weight. That is important. It is not only a question of listening but of listening and acting. Barnardos agrees that the existing wording should be strengthened. This could be achieved to copperfasten the type of ethos that we want. The Children's Rights Alliance also recommends a specific subsection guaranteeing the principle of non-discrimination in the operation of the agency. Deputy McLellan drew attention to the need for that. That would be a very worthwhile amendment to the Bill.

Provision of the necessary resources and inter-agency co-operation are critical. That principle does not apply only to the ethos of the new agency. Laws are fairly useless unless provision to implement them is adequately resourced, particularly when the delivering of a service is involved. We must make them a reality and one does that by having people with the right ethos and the right range of resources.

The Minister will agree that we need to see concrete resources and support offered to the new body, a task that will be difficult given the current state of our public finances. There is a mismatch in the staffing and in terms of the 4,000 staff the Minister mentioned, their distribution can be variable throughout the country and the expertise within the new agency may not be based in the right location. I would like to hear the Minister's view on the way that can be remedied. Is the Minister having discussions with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform regarding that?

Section 8 lays out specific requirements on the new agencies to promote inter-agency co-operation, which is critical to the successful functioning of the new agency. We need to see how the new agency will co-operate and the way it will do so in the best interests of a child. Has a regulatory impact assessment been done, for example, in regard to this legislation? There is not a Member who does not know of individual cases to which we can draw attention on which three, four or five different actions are required. We need to know the way that co-operation will function before the new agency commences its work. I never want to see this State having to make more apologies. We must anticipate that to ensure we do not end up doing that. We do not want to find ourselves in that position 20 years from now. We have got to get this right.

As a Deputy I am very familiar with parents contacting me having reached the end of their tether in trying to access State services for their children. It is often a child with a special need and not something that will necessarily be part of the remit of this agency. They often come to me with a big folder under their arm. Such parents find themselves in a situation where they have to be the advocate for the child on a daily basis to try to eke out the services and supports that should be in place for them. Our clientelist political system would not function if we had functioning public institutions. That is the reason it is important to get this right.

In this regard I certainly do not want to be a middle woman. We know about the role played by the middle man and the middle woman in the operation of this kind of politics. I think people should be able to access the services they need for themselves. I know the Minister, like me, will have seen the stress endured by families. I do not know if the new body will have a function beyond where there are special needs. I would welcome what the Minister has to say in this regard.

Barnardos has made the point that parents should be active agents rather than passive recipients of services. Their role needs to be recognised. Parents are trying to do their best for their children. I have had parents in my constituency office telling me that their ten, 11 or 12 year old is going to end up in prison. It is not the case that the parents in question have not tried their best to do something. They are struggling to access interventions to assist children who are out of control, have serious behavioural problems and have not received the early interventions they need.

Barnardos has recommended that a definition of "the child" should be included in the legislation. I think this is a sensible approach. During the Second Stage debate on the Bill that was introduced last year to provide for the children's rights referendum, there were calls to define what is meant by "the child". I did not support the definition that was proposed at the time because I thought it was overly narrow and I did not think it would be correctly positioned if it were included in the Constitution. It could be argued that this legislation is the correct place in which to include such a definition. I would welcome the inclusion of a definition to remedy this omission from the Bill. I am aware that this point has been made by Barnardos and the Children's Rights Alliance as well.

The referendum obviously placed the best interests of the child at the core of our approach in this area. Section 9 goes a long way towards enshrining that principle in law. However, it has been argued by Barnardos and the Children's Rights Alliance that this could be strengthened. I would like to hear the views of the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, in this regard.

I believe there could be a greater focus on early intervention, about which I have spoken previously. We all know that better outcomes are achieved when intervention takes place at an early stage. Early intervention is good for the child, the families and the State. The cost over a person's lifetime of locking him or her up when he or she is young and trying to undo that damage at a later stage is far greater than the cost of the kind of investment in early intervention that we would all like. There is no reference in the Bill to the remit of the agency with regard to early intervention. I would like to know what is planned in that regard.

The new agency will have a large staff complement. I believe the 4,000 workers in question are unfairly distributed around the country. In many cases, it is a case of lottery by postcode. It depends on who was there at the time. I would like to hear what the Minister has to say on this critically important matter. The area I represent has one of the highest birth rates in the country. Some €20 million was supposed to be allocated last year for the provision of therapy services, but that did not happen and it was pushed into this year. We are a good way into the year, but most of the services have not yet been provided. It is likely that the entire €20 million will not be spent - some of it will be sucked back into the HSE budget. We are postponing the provision of critical services that children need. We will pay a price for that.

There is no mention in the Bill of an express entitlement to aftercare services. Barnardos has pointed out that such services are vital if children are to make a successful transition to the adult world. We owe it to children who have been in this framework for most if not all of their lives to help them to make this transition. I would like to know where this element of the service fits into the new structure. What is the Minister thinking in this respect? I do not doubt that many amendments will be tabled on Committee Stage. Although I am not a member of the relevant committee, I might propose a few amendments in due course. We can all say we have an investment in families and in child welfare because we all function in such environments. I would be surprised if amendments are not tabled from many quarters, including those who are not on the committee.

I would like to share time with Deputy Carey.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Child and Family Agency Bill 2013. Having been present for most of the debate so far, I believe we have had a constructive engagement to date. I want to begin by commending and congratulating the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, on getting to this point after undertaking a large body of work. We are finally at the point where we can establish a stand-alone agency that is concerned with the welfare of children and families. As Deputies on all sides of the House have recognised, this is a major step forward. Up to this point, we have had 4,000 staff scattered across the sector, but now we will have an interagency approach. This is the first time, with the exception of section 20 of the Child Care Act 2007, that we are taking an interagency approach and mentioning the word "interagency" in our Statute Book. That is a positive reflection on the work that has been done by the Minister.

Under this Bill, child welfare and child protection will no longer have to play second fiddle to hospital trolley counts. It will be more than a small cog in the large and complex wheel that is the Irish health service. This change is right and proper. It is badly needed. The needs of children are complex, as are the needs of families. In fact, life is complex. Having a stand-alone agency to deal with child-related services recognises these complexities. It will allow for the delivery of effective services, a much more thorough and focused analysis and a more accountable delivery of services. Irish children deserve no less.

As we take this step forward, it is important for us to remember how we arrived at this point. It can be uncomfortable for people in politics, in civic society and in religious institutions to do so, but it is vital that we do not forget what happened in previous years. The Kilkenny incest report was published in 1993. The report of the review panel on the west of Ireland farmer case was published in 1998. The Ferns report was published in 2005. The Monageer inquiry report was published in 2008. The report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse was published in 2009. The Roscommon child care inquiry report was published in 2010. Most recently, the report of the Independent Child Death Review Group 2012 was published in 2012. That is where we are coming from. These reports and reviews, independently and collectively, read as a litany of failure, silence and, at times, cover-up. They are a reflection of an Irish society that valued authority and establishment more than children, and preferred living a quiet life to taking action. Until this Ireland is confined to history, as it must be, our Republic will not have come of age. All of us in this House and in civic society - leaders in all walks of life - are responsible for achieving this.

It is worth noting during this debate that many of those who have used their pulpit to condemn and decry elected representatives of this House in recent weeks, in the context of the protection of life legislation, failed to use that same medium to anything like the same degree to condemn and denounce a society that failed to protect children, to speak out and to safeguard the innocence and vulnerability of a child's life. In recent days, we have seen these failures continue, with religious orders playing the poor mouth and refusing to put their hands in the pockets of their institutions in order to support the victims and, in so doing, acknowledge the failings of the past and show dignity to the women who saw their youth curtailed, damaged and effectively ended.

The State, sadly, is also approaching the issue of child welfare with a long and shameful legacy of letting children down. The Government is determined to right that wrong. That is why we have a new Department of Children and Youth Affairs. Huge work has been done. The Minister successfully steered last year's children's rights referendum, which enshrined those rights on our Constitution for the first time. The legislation that is being introduced in this Chamber today will establish a stand-alone agency for children and families. This target-driven and child-focused agency will be built on accountability. The Bill is so significant that stakeholders have correctly described it as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to fundamentally change and improve services for children.

As the Minister pointed out, this is part of a much broader suite of developments relating to child welfare. I note that Deputy Troy is no longer in the House. He is an individual I respect but I find it rather amusing that every time the Minister tries to do something, it is delayed or long overdue in the eyes of Deputy Troy. It has only become long overdue since we came into office and since the previous Government left. These are issues that have been hanging around for years. The only thing the Minister's critics could possibly accuse her of being is overly ambitious. Another point worth making is that as we shine a light on this area, which has been left in darkness and ignored in large part by the Government and by civic society, it is understandable that we will uncover more things that make us uncomfortable but that is a sign of the Minister's success.

In respect of the points made by Deputy Ó Caoláin, he is very committed to this area but I would hate to see this issue boiled down to resources. We saw how during the Celtic tiger, money was thrown around like snuff at a wake but these issues were still not dealt with. Resources are important but there is a need for structural reform and to ensure that money is allocated within a structure that will deliver.

I wish to add my voice to Deputy Catherine Murphy's question about parliamentary questions. The way the establishment of the HSE removed political accountability and debate from our health service has been an unmitigated disaster. I am not sure whether it is the case but I ask for it to be made clear that the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs will continue to take parliamentary questions concerning issues under the agency's new remit. If that is not the case, it should be looked at.

The Minister has already outlined the provisions of this Bill and has obviously established how it is a framework for future development. I wish to put on the record of the House that some of the observations of the task force concern areas the Bill does not include. I know these areas go beyond the Minister's brief and must be looked at by all of Government when this agency is established. I am quite worried by the task force report's opinion that the implications of not including the child and adolescent mental health services in the agency is that "mental health services will fail to meet the holistic needs of children and young people". We then look at the situation of public health nursing which we are told will continue to take a back seat to other demands. A failure to include speech and language therapy means that it will remain an issue, particularly for vulnerable children. The task force report states that there is a risk of follow-through work not happening if hospital social workers are not linked to the child and family agency.

The Minister cannot do everything overnight and she is taking the correct approach in establishing this agency. However, what this highlights is the need for the Government to look at the configuration of Ministries and departmental responsibilities. For example, it is ridiculous that we have a Minister of State with responsibility for mental health and disability who is not linked to the Departments of Children and Youth Affairs and Education and Skills in a formal way. Ministers and Ministers of State are doing wonderful work but that is not the issue. We need to look at how their Ministries are configured. I know the establishment of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs has really brought this issue to the fore and that it is an issue at which we continue to look but matters like mental health, disability and special needs education are issues of child welfare. They affect children and families, including vulnerable children and families.

I also want to put on the record of the House the comments of the Children's Rights Alliance. It is important to say that in its comments it acknowledges the "sterling work of the Minister" and describes this new agency as a powerful vehicle for delivery for children. That is a very positive response but the alliance has a number of queries which I hope we can address as this Bill progresses through the House. One concerns intra-agency relations. Will different professionals within the agency who are working under separate statutes be mandated to work together on cases and to share information on those cases? Will a social worker be entitled to share details with an educational welfare officer where both are working with the same child? How will the Bill interact with the provisions in the forthcoming Children First legislation? Will there be a mandated duty on professionals to co-operate? In respect of management, while the Bill sets out the lines of governance at the more senior level, it is not clear what arrangements will be at the organisational level given that bodies which previously had their own management and governance arrangements are being subsumed into the agency. Is a new system being created or will the existing systems of management and governance within the child and family agency and the NEWB continue to operate within the agency? These are detailed and, in many cases, technical questions that we can address as the Bill progresses but it is important to flag them at this early stage.

It is very important to welcome the fact that we have reached this point and will have an inter-agency approach to delivering child welfare services. People can debate the semantics and technical detail and we are here to tease out these issues, but the establishment of this agency is a major step forward. It was a step that was not taken in the good times but one that the Minister has managed to do in difficult times. I commend her and the Bill.

I welcome this legislation and the opportunity to make a contribution on Second Stage. The appointment of Deputy Frances Fitzgerald as the first full Minister for Children and Youth Affairs signalled this Government's intention to prioritise children and young people. The new Department of Children and Youth Affairs consolidates a range of functions which were previously the responsibility of other Ministers in areas such as health, justice, education, community and rural and Gaeltacht affairs. The new Department has managed to bring together a number of key areas of policy and provisions for children and young people, including the NEWB, the child and family agency and, since January 2012, the detention schools operated by the Irish Youth Justice Service.

The programme for Government states the intention of the Government is to "fundamentally reform the delivery of child protection services by removing child welfare and protection from the HSE and creating a dedicated Child Welfare and Protection Agency, reforming the model of service delivery and improving accountability to the Dáil". That is exactly what this Bill does. It provides for the establishment of Ireland's first dedicated child and family agency, with a primary focus of delivering a single dedicated agency with its own dedicated management team and board reporting to the Department of Children and Youth Affairs.

The Bill has rightly been described as a milestone in the effective development of child protection services. The new agency will bring together key services which play a role in the welfare of children and families, including children and family services currently operated by the HSE, the child and family agency and the NEWB. The creation of the agency is being viewed as one of the largest and most ambitious public sector reforms undertaken by the Government. It involves the bringing together of over 4,000 staff and brings with it a budget of over €500 million from three existing bodies. It is my understanding that significant work has already taken place at an operational and logistical level to prepare for the establishment of the agency, including the recruitment of a senior management team and the breaking up of budgets into constituent parts.

The Child and Family Agency Bill 2013 is a comprehensive piece of legislation which provides for the subsuming of functions from three separate agencies. The Bill reassigns, under law, the sensitive and complex legal responsibilities which arise in respect of the care and protection of children and the promotion of their welfare. This important legislation will provide for the delivery of a caring, effective and efficient service for children in a consistent manner with clear standards and accountability. The new agency will seek to work with families and communities to identify early where additional support is required in order to improve outcomes for children. Sadly, we have had decades of failure in the field of child protection. The development of this new agency represents a key element in changing that legacy in the interest of children.

It is a sad indictment that it has been 20 years since the Kilkenny incest case report of inquiry led by Mrs. Justice Catherine McGuinness recommended that those who have responsibility for the support and safeguarding of children be brought together under one roof. We have had a litany of failures right up to the report last year by Geoffrey Shannon and Norah Gibbons on the deaths of children in State care. The commitment in the programme for Government to establish the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and the appointment of a full Cabinet Minister marked the first step towards real change in the area of children and their welfare, care and rights.

It is obvious that placing full responsibility with one Ministry is fundamental to any reform. For too long, the issue has been batted about between Departments where it was always regarded as at best, an add-on and at worst, something to immediately pass on. The children's rights constitutional referendum of last year was another important event as we seek to put children first.

The development of the child and family agency through this legislation marks a significant step forward in the complete restructuring of services for children and families and best represents what Mrs. Justice McGuinness outlined so long ago. It represents part of the essential response to recent reports on child protection failings. In my view there was a common theme in many of these distressing reports, namely fragmentation in service provision, which in turn led to inconsistency, abdication of responsibility and, worst of all, hurt and damaged children.
I must admit to having personal reservations about the State being regarded as the exclusive patron of child protection and welfare. The protection of children has to be viewed as a community or societal concern and not just that of social workers and the new child and family agency provided for in this legislation. All of us must think more about the part we can play in supporting and safeguarding children. I read with interest the reaction of agencies such as Barnardos and the Children's Rights Alliance to the legislation. They have been acutely involved in advocating for such legislation for many years. Their initial reactions were positive but they now outline what they see as weaknesses in sections 8 and 9, and I ask the Minister to have regard to their considered views as the legislation moves through the Houses of the Oireachtas. They have expressed specific concerns with regard to prevention and early intervention work and the definition of the role of parents and family. Their reasoning is sound and merits more attention on Committee Stage.
In the previous Dáil, I was Fine Gael spokesperson on juvenile justice and I am glad to note some of the functions of the Irish Youth Justice Service will come under the remit of the new agency. Something which always struck me about the excellent work being done quietly by the Youth Justice Service was the return which came from preventative and early intervention actions.
I welcome the legislation and look forward to the establishment of a single dedicated agency focused on the well-being of the children of the State.

I welcome the Bill and this opportunity to speak on it. We support the principle of this long-delayed and much-promised Bill which formally establishes the child and family agency. I noticed when reading the Bill only two sections deal with the interests of children while six or eight sections deal with the role of the agency's chief executive officer, which surprises me.

The Bill will establish once and for all a unified approach to dealing with children's services. Up to now we have had a fragmented approach. During my time in the House we have had the introduction of the free preschool year, the establishment of the Office of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs and the Ombudsman for Children, a children's services policy, legislation introduced in 2001 and 2009, a review of the Children First guidelines, an independent review group on child deaths, and the Ryan report, the Monageer report and the Kilkenny incest report. While we have had all of these it is still true to say a very fragmented service has been provided, in particular by the HSE.

Will the Minister clarify the situation regarding weekend services for child welfare? Child welfare issues do not conclude on Friday evening. In Wexford we have had the Dunne and Grace cases, which were terrible situations where young children died unnecessarily. From dealing on a day-to-day basis with cases, I am of the view it is very difficult to access services at the weekend. How does the agency intend to deal with this issue? Will the Minister outline her position on this area when she replies?

With regard to child welfare, I am greatly concerned about court services because in my opinion they are a total disaster. Families tell me they spend days in court as many cases are not heard but adjourned. Families sit there all day for one or two days, with no communication from legal people, the judge or his or her support services, and more often than not coming towards the end of the evening the cases are adjourned for a month or two. Families feel such delays are not good enough and more priority should be given to dealing with a case on the day it comes before the court. With the Minister seriously consider this?

When I hear about a child welfare concern the first person with whom I make contact is the public health nurse, who usually takes on the case at that point. Why are public health nurses excluded? I ask the Minister to re-examine this before Committee Stage. The public health nurse is a very important person with regard to child welfare, and I am sure the Acting Chairman, Deputy Liam Twomey, would agree. On many occasions I have contacted local GPs when confronted with concerns about child welfare. It is very difficult to access HSE services after hours and I hope this will change. I am concerned about the exclusion of public health nurses.

Speech and language therapies are also not included and concern has been expressed about this. This needs to be dealt with and all Deputies would agree the speech and language services available in most counties are practically nil or there is a two or three year delay. Concern has been expressed to me that hospital social workers are not included either. They are very important because in some cases children end up in hospital and the social worker there becomes involved. I am concerned about their exclusion and I ask the Minister to examine this. I am particularly concerned about the exclusion of public health nurses and hospital social workers because they are very important components in dealing with child welfare issues.

I welcome the fact the new agency will take over the inspection of child care services. The scenes in the "Prime Time" programme on RTE were very disturbing. We believe the inspection regime must be stepped up to ensure compliance with the regulations to be put in place. The current inspection regime is clearly inadequate. We also believe there must be renewed emphasis on staff quality in the sector. Parents need to know their children will be treated respectfully and that staff have the required training and capability to deal with children. We also want to see the introduction of fines where regulations are breached. Calls have been made on all sides of the House that the Government should consider withdrawing any grants paid to child care facilities which were completely flouting the law. In recent weeks we have heard approximately 22 child care providers in Mayo were not up to the standards required by the HSE. Many providers fail to provide rest areas for children and also fall down when it comes to hand-washing standards by providing cotton towels which can spread disease as opposed to disposable paper towels. The agency needs to deal with such issues.

The agency itself has an important role to play in the future. I hope that when the agency is set up it will be broadly based, representative and composed of people with experience in the relevant areas and that we will not have political appointments of people without the required experience to run the agency. I am confident the Minister will ensure that will happen.

The 4,000 staff are very important. The Acting Chairman, Deputy Twomey, would agree that they must be spread adequately around the country because there seems to be a lack of staff in certain areas while there are more than adequate staff in other areas dealing with child welfare. The Minister must ensure that staff and finances are spread evenly and that every constituency and area gets an adequate allocation of both.

Could the Minister indicate what role the agency will have in progressing disability services for children? Services for children with disabilities are very important and they must be delivered evenly across the board. There are excellent disability services in some counties. In Wexford there is the St. John of God House, Florence House, St. Patrick's special school and community workshops which provide facilities for people with disabilities. In other parts of the country there is a distinct lack of services for people with disabilities. What role will the agency have in providing services and facilities for children with disabilities and ensuring that the welfare of children with disabilities is adequately addressed? At present that is not the case in some parts of the country and it is important that every child would have proper facilities. I am sure the Minister comes across inadequate services for people with disabilities.

I welcome the setting up of the agency. I am confident the Minister will ensure that the agency is capable of working adequately. I support other Deputies who have referred to agencies and bodies set up by previous Governments. When the HSE, the National Roads Authority and other bodies were set up by the previous Government one could not get a response to a parliamentary question about them. The Minister always replied that it was a matter for the agency concerned. I hope that when Members have concerns they will be able to table a question to the Minister and get an adequate response-----

-----and that we will not be fobbed off with a response to the effect that she has no say in the operation of the agency. The Minister will be responsible for setting policy and it is important that she would see it through and that we will get an adequate response when we have concerns.

I welcome the Child and Family Agency Bill. I welcome the Title in particular, which sums up the ethos of the Bill.

I congratulate the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, on the introduction of the legislation, which is a continuation of the outstanding work she has done in this newly created Cabinet position in this Administration in a relatively short period. Not only has she ensured that the rights of children are constitutionally protected and enshrined for the first time following the recent referendum, but she has made other incredibly important reforms in her Department. For the first time HIQA is inspecting child protection services. The first reports have already been published, for example, in Carlow-Kilkenny. Those reports are very helpful and necessary.

The Bill involves a significant reorganisation of services. It will introduce a dedicated management team for children’s services, which is critical, and it will reduce the number of managers in the area from 32 to 17. That merits emphasis in the House. It can only be good from every perspective.

The Minister has issued revised and strengthened guidelines on Children First and got relevant Departments to publish their plans for the implementation of Children First in order that children can be better protected. This cross-departmental approach is an important initiative.

The Minister has retained universal funding for the ECCE free early education year for young children. That is critically important. A successful example of such a crèche is located next door to where I live. The children are so happy they go running in there in the morning. Such a service is important for young children. The maintenance of the funding is a significant achievement in the current climate. A total of €14 million over three years has been secured by the Minister for funding of various initiatives.

In recent years various reports were published on child care, family life and child protection. Almost all of the reports highlighted the pressing need to address the many deficiencies that are present within the system. The Children's Research Network report, which was recently published, outlined many ways in which we could improve on the current delivery of services to children and families. One of the key recommendations of the report is the improvement in the co-ordination of services between the various agencies and individuals who work with vulnerable children and their families. Now we will have a single dedicated agency overseen by a single dedicated Department. That is what is exciting, novel and radical about the legislation.

The need for greater harmonisation and communication between the relevant agencies is a common theme running through almost every report on child protection over a long period. The Minister said, "Protecting children and supporting families are simply two sides of the same coin". That is why I welcome the Title of the Bill. I fully agree with that sentiment. One of the main themes of this legislation is to set up a child and family agency which will strengthen our policy on child protection, as outlined in the programme for Government. Part 2, section 8 reiterates that by stating that the new agency will “strengthen and encourage effective functioning of families”.

In recent years, statistics have shown that the demand for child and family services has increased. The recent national audit on neglect highlighted alcohol as an issue in 62% of cases. Lack of educational achievement – as alluded to by the Minister in her Second Stage speech – and truancy, are an indication of neglect. It is important that those issues will come under the remit of the agency because truancy is indicative of many other problems and should ring alarm bells. It is important that a joined-up approach is taken. In many ways, problems can be attributed to the financial strain that many families find themselves under as a result of the economic crisis. That is a factor as well in the context of difficulty. There has been a 10.5% increase among young people up to the age of 17 having difficulty. The indicative factors that led to the problem and need to be addressed are a combination of alcohol, under-achievement in education and lack of education among parents, and truancy. In light of that, there is all the more reason to ensure we not only have a strong service, but that we have a socially responsible service.

While we must face up to the fact that there are many families who may be fractured emotionally and physically, nevertheless we cannot deny that many families are genuinely doing the best for their children. That must be recognised and supported where possible. As the Minister herself noted, the family is the natural and fundamental unit in society and what affects the parent affects the child.

Barnardos, the excellent supportive agency for children, has expressed concern about the level of emphasis on prevention and early intervention. I would be grateful if the Minister addressed this concern and reassured people when replying, as we want to ensure the emphasis is on the earliest intervention and support with a view to maintaining the family unit and keeping children where they should be.

However, we cannot shy away from the fact that the best interests of the child must always be our main concern, yet may not always be best met within the family unit. Section 9 enshrines this fact in law. It ensures that, when the new agency is making large or small decisions, regard will always be had of the best interests and views of the child.

The Minister stated that the family resource centres would continue to play an important role in the new child and family support agency and in the development of integrated community-based models for early intervention and family support, as envisaged in the children's referendum. I welcome this important provision. The service that the local family resource centres play within our communities is invaluable and I am glad to hear their role will not be diminished.

The new child and family agency will employ up to 4,000 staff and, despite concerns expressed on the Opposition benches, will have a budget of €600 million. It will remove responsibility for child protection from the HSE, ensuring we have a separate agency solely dedicated to children at risk and their families. It will bring together a myriad of services, housing them under one roof. This will ensure a clear line of sight for the delivery of child protection and the Minister will have responsibility. I am heartened to know that she will be actively involved in setting targets and guidelines and in framing policy before the agency devises corporate strategies and annual business plans. The HSE became a scapegoat for all ills and a decoy for political responsibility. The Minister will ensure this situation will not be replicated.

The agency will cover areas like child welfare, protection services, existing family support agencies and domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. Importantly, it will be responsible for preschool inspections, for the 6,200 children in care, for the 1,500 young people in receipt of after-care and for the 40,000 in difficulty who are referred annually.

Accountability is important. It should be enshrined in the legislation. Political accountability will still rest with the Minister, who will be answerable to the House. Every year, she will set targets and there will be a policy perspective. I am confident the agency will work and that this is the correct approach. Together with the constitutional amendment last year, the very establishment of the agency gives a primacy to children's rights and to the care of children and families that did not previously obtain. The agency's very existence sends a signal, as does the line of responsibility all the way to the Minister. Her accountability to the House and the people will be critical. The agency will bring all of the services together in a sharper and more focused way, making for a better service for children.

Ultimately, this is a question of the welfare of children and their families, of trying to keep family units together and of trying to maintain a quality of life for all. I congratulate the Minister on this welcome legislation and I hope we will all be proud of its outputs.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute on this important legislation. I acknowledge the Minister's presence in the House. I also acknowledge her commitment to the sector, particularly in my county of Donegal. If I am not mistaken, she has made the trip to Donegal five times. That is appreciated by the people involved in the various family resource centres and in the child care sector.

I commend the Minister on meeting the representative groups from the family resource centres in Donegal. There was a meeting with groups from as far away as Moville, Na Dúnaibh, St. Johnston and Donegal town, including Cara House in Letterkenny. At that meeting, the participants welcomed the fact that the partnership model would be the way forward. The Bill will work towards that end. The model involves training, the vocational education committees, VECs, and various agencies while protecting the bottom-up nature of family resource centres. Although we refer to mainstreaming within community development, be it in the youth work sector or at a community development level, we must hold on to the philosophy of volunteerism and ensure a welcoming, accessible front to these groups. This type of philosophy must be protected as much as possible.

The Minister's investment in preschools in my county has been positive. She has put her money where her mouth is in terms of the infrastructure of many of the preschools. Thirty projects are being funded this year. This follows on from a substantial allocation last year. While this is welcome, progressing the training element will be the next step. As the Minister is aware, there are a number of constraints. Although there are extant preschools and everyone involved who I have met wants to upskill and retrain, timetabling is a challenge. If someone works all day Monday to Friday all year, attaining full-time university qualifications in normal programmes is becoming a particular challenge. We must be conscious of this issue in terms of upskilling.

Deputies have referred to the positives of early intervention. One cannot put enough value on what the preschool sector does for children as they progress into primary education. The more we can invest, the more we can empower many of the groups involved, be they community preschools or private preschools. If we can retrain and upskill people, it will benefit the groups.

I wish to suggest a synergy between the Minister's Department and - believe it or not - the Tánaiste's Department. Every year, the Tánaiste focuses on reconciliation funding for groups on a cross-Border basis. There is an interesting project in Newtowncunningham. As succinctly as I can, I will reference what is happening there. As a result of the pressure of population expansion in Derry city, many families have moved into places like Killea and Newtowncunningham. Those parents had been sending their children to schools back in Derry, which is traditionally where they went to school. This sucked the lifeblood out of communities. Interestingly, those families are now sending their children to the preschool in Newtowncunningham. I understand that there are 38 such children from Newtowncunningham and as far away as Killea, if not quite Carrigans. An interesting progression trend is emerging whereby the preschool children of families originally from Derry are starting to attend Newtowncunningham's primary schools. Obviously, the families are building local relations in the preschool setting. Such a project advances reconciliation, pulls people together who would otherwise stay apart, leads to integration and breaks down prejudices and barriers on a cross-Border basis.

The Minister's Department could liaise on this matter with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, under the Tánaiste, Deputy Eamon Gilmore. We should assist this great, exciting opportunity in cross-Border reconciliation in a preschool setting, which will progress into primary schools as well.

I sincerely thank the Technical Group for allowing me to avail of some of its speaking time. It is only right and proper to compliment the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, and her excellent staff on this momentous job of work. It has taken considerable resources to bring the Bill to fruition.

The Bill provides for the establishment of a body to be known as the child and family agency, the dissolution of the Family Support Agency and the National Educational Welfare Board and the transfer of the functions of those bodies to the child and family agency, and the transfer of certain functions of the Health Service Executive to the child and family agency. The establishment of the new agency is one of the largest and most ambitious public sector reforms being undertaken by the Government. It will involve bringing together 4,000 staff and a budget of more than €500 million from the three existing bodies.

I compliment the agencies that have done excellent work over the years, such as Barnardos and the Children's Rights Alliance. As the Minister knows, a multitude of agencies do this excellent work. Much of that work may be remunerated, but a lot of it is unpaid work undertaken by people with jobs who work above and beyond the call of duty. They include child care workers and voluntary staff who put in long hours, including at weekends, for which they may never be paid. They do it, however, because they are interested in the health, welfare and protection of children.

Ms Maria Corbett, acting chief executive of the Children's Rights Alliance, says that this Bill is critical. It provides the legal foundation stone upon which the child and family agency will be built. Ms Corbett also stated: "We know our system is broken. This Bill must begin to fix this dysfunctional system." On a first reading, the Children's Rights Alliance welcomed many aspects of the Bill but it is concerned that it has not gone far enough to firmly ground the new agency in children's rights.

The Bill requires that the agency will have regard to the best interests of the child in all matters. While this provision is welcome, the alliance believes it should go further in order that the best interests of the child will be of paramount consideration in all aspects of the agency's work. This would better mirror the sentiments of the people who passed a referendum last November enshrining in law the principles of the best interests of children.

Under the terms of the Bill, the new agency is required to consult children when planning and reviewing its services. Its functions relate to two specific pieces of legislation: the Child Care Act 1991 and the Adoption Act 2010. The agency is required to hear and take into account the views of the child, but these provisions are not new. They already exist in law.

The Children's Rights Alliance believes that the Bill does not go far enough, because the new agency must listen to children on all matters affecting their lives. A child's right to have his or her views heard and taken on board must be clearly enshrined in the Bill. Within each damning report on child protection, the common thread has been that the child's view was invisible. This theme was central to the children's referendum.

Everyone knows the excellent work that has been done for a long period by Barnardos. In that organisation's submission on this Bill, it was stated that services for children and families in Ireland have long been divided across departmental lines, particularly at national level. On the ground, services have developed in an ad hoc manner responding to local needs without a comprehensive national framework that helps to join the dots. Children and families engage with a myriad of services across Ireland, but the division of such services, which often target many of the same children and families, has led to their fragmented provision. That fails to put the child at the centre of such work.

We have all heard horror stories where different agencies were contacted by children who were in danger or living in an unhealthy environment. For one reason or another, those families slipped between the cracks and, thus, children were left in unsafe and unhealthy places. Those cases only came to light after many years. I will not go into specific cases but they were all national news when they came out. It would not be proper to name them here, however.

We must ensure that in future those types of cases never recur. Children today and in future must be assured that their health, happiness, opinions and rights are of paramount importance to every politician in the land. The Minister deserves support for her work in introducing the Bill before us, which will help to protect children in future. I support what she is trying to achieve. I appreciate that agencies might have differing views on certain aspects of the legislation but, overall, people have broadly welcomed its provisions.

In discussing the well-being of schoolchildren, however, there are other aspects of Government policy that I would not agree with. These include bigger class sizes and the reduction in careers guidance counsellors. Such matters leave children vulnerable because their education and welfare may be neglected as a result. In the past, we could always rely on careers guidance councillors to spot a young person who was off form. They would take them under their wing and perhaps find out what was wrong at home. Unfortunately, such counsellors are now engaged in full-time classes due to the cuts. Those cuts were dangerous and it would be a horrible thing if we were to lose one child due to such cutbacks. None of us would want to condone such cuts.

I was not being political previously when I raised the reduction in the number of careers guidance counsellors. Many people might think that such counsellors are only trying to steer children towards certain careers and advise them on third level courses. They did such work but they also used their time intelligently to nurture the welfare of young students.

People might say that in some ways children today are better off than we were, but I do not think so because they are facing a multitude of problems that we did not have to cope with.

Children are being abused and bullied online via computers and other devices, which we did not have when we were young, and drugs are now freely available to them. They are living in a completely different time and are faced with problems which did not arise even a few short years ago. It is of paramount importance that everything is done to put the child at the centre of everything.

I support the Minister in terms of the important work she is doing in this area. While I am quick to criticise anything with which I am not happy, I am always willing to compliment good work. The Minister and her staff have the best interests of young people at heart. Pulling everything together can only lead to the better delivery of services for young people.

I again thank the Technical Group for sharing time with me.

I, too, thank the Technical Group for sharing time with me.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on this important Bill. At the outset, I would like to comment on the publication of this legislation. As the Minister will be aware, a large number of groups, organisations and individuals have a keen interest in this area and have been working with her and her Department in recent years on the preparation of this legislation. Concern has been expressed to me by a number of those organisations that the heads of the Bill were not circulated to them in advance of finalisation of the Bill, thereby giving them an opportunity to engage on the legislation and to add to it based on their experience, which could only have improved the legislation. It is regrettable that this did not happen. I hope that during the passage of this Bill the Minister will be open to engagement with the various organisations working in this area and to the amendments they propose to table to the Bill in the coming weeks and months.

It is protocol that when a Bill is published, a period of two weeks is allowed to elapse before it comes before the House. It is a basic courtesy and an indication of respect for this House that Members are given an opportunity to consider legislation prior to the commencement of the debate on it. It is regrettable that this Bill was published last Friday and that it is now before the House, with Members expected to have considered it in detail. Given this is a particularly busy time of the year, it is unfortunate that the protocol was not respected and Members were not given sufficient time to consider the Bill.

It is true to say that when it comes to children's services successive Governments have a sorry record in terms of the attention, or lack of it, which they have given to vulnerable children in particular. It is evident from the litany of scandals relating to the serious abuse and neglect of children, and often families, that this has not been a priority area for successive Governments. There has been serious neglect of responsibility at political level in terms of adequately resourcing and prioritising issues relating to children. While many high profile cases have come into the public domain and received a great deal of media and public attention, they have died down in a matter of weeks. It has then been a case of business as usual. Unfortunately, this has been the history down through the decades in terms of issues that affect children.

Children's services have in many ways been the Cinderella services of our health and social services. They have displayed a distinct lack of responsiveness to the needs of children. Whatever about the attention that has been focused on cases of sexual and physical abuse, cases of neglect have been ignored. These cases are usually the starting point in relation to a life of misery for many young people, with many ending up in care, getting into trouble with the law, becoming addicted to various substances, having a difficult life or dying young. There have been too many examples of where this has been the case. This happened because of a complete lack of accountability in terms of responsibility for children's services and a lack of resources, leading to lengthy waiting lists for services.

While the big scandals have grabbed the attention of the public and media, there has been ongoing neglect of early intervention and prevention work. If one deals only with high profile, hard end cases, what one ends up with are cases which start off not particularly serious but which, because of neglect, then develop into serious ones. The principle of prevention and early intervention has never been accepted by the services. Another area of concern has been the lack of equity of access to services. We have not been good at identifying the level of need and providing services that are commensurate with that need. For this reason, areas of socio-economic disadvantage have lost out and been neglected and, in many ways, still are.

The question that must be asked is if this Bill addresses all of those issues. One of the biggest problems currently facing children's services is a lack of resources. Social workers with whom I spoke recently expressed serious concern about the current under-resourcing of services. We are almost past the mid-way point of the year and there is already enormous pressure on budgets. Social workers are expressing serious concerns about the lack of private placements for children who, when all other strategies have failed, they believe require a professional placement or to be taken into care and those placements not being available. In some cases, placements are only available if one child is removed from a placement to make room for another child. It is intolerable that this should be the case.

A serious problem also arises as a result of the high level of social worker vacancies. This is resulting in many social workers having heavy caseloads, inadequate supervision of their work and their being at their wits end in terms of being able to respond to the serious cases which arise on a daily basis. Such is the level of concern of social workers and the Irish Association of Social Workers about the current situation they are raising it with Deputies and Senators this week. This matter requires urgent attention. It concerns me that often when we are speaking in theoretical terms about services for children in the real world many children are at serious risk in home situations from which they should be removed and placed in professional care and children who are already in the care system who are not being supported by social workers because of inadequate resources. This situation cannot be defended at any level. The fact that the country is in recession is no excuse for continuing to ignore the needs of the most vulnerable children in our society.

I welcome that children's rights and needs will be the focus of one agency.

We should not fool ourselves that this will solve the problems as there are pitfalls in having a single focus agency. Two generally accepted principles apply to health and social services. First, services should, to the greatest extent possible, be provided at local, community or primary care level. This has become an established principle because the local, community and primary care levels are considered to be the first line of defence and most effective safety net. The second generally accepted principle in the health service is that services must be integrated. My concern in respect of the new agency is that the approach taken to its establishment flies in the face of the principles that local community care services should be provided through the primary care system and services should be integrated.

In the past decade or thereabouts, the health service has undergone three different major upheavals arising from reconfiguration. I am concerned that we are yet again throwing things up in the air and waiting to see where they will fall, this time in respect of children's services. It is not social workers who generally detect the early indications of difficulties in a family. It is much more likely that a public health nurse, general practitioner or family support worker will identify a problem where children are concerned. While reform of the Health Service Executive is a major undertaking and understandably off-putting for a new Minister, establishing a new organisation in splendid isolation is not a solution either. Services should be integrated. From the point of view of service users, namely, children at risk and their families, the first port of call should be the primary care team, which should then be able to refer on as necessary.

In my constituency, we have a wonderful primary care centre in Ballymun, with multidisciplinary teams that were fully staffed and responding to people's needs. As a result of the establishment of this agency, however, the social workers have been pulled out of the community and removed from the primary care teams. They are now working in a separate building and will work for a separate agency.

That had nothing to do with the new agency.

This approach will not deliver continuity of service, integration or the local first line of defence we should be working towards.

I have set out some of the pitfalls in the approach being taken to the new agency. It is important that the Minister is open and serious about addressing these potential pitfalls during the passage of the legislation. The Children's Rights Alliance has also raised a number of issues in respect of governance, the exchange of information and inter-agency working which have not been fully thought out. I hope the Minister will be open to considering amendments to the legislation which can only strengthen the agency and services for young people.

I thank Deputy Ciara Conway for sharing time and allowing me to speak first.

It is with enthusiasm that I address the proposed restructuring of children's services through the establishment of the country's first child and family agency. I have been present in the Chamber on many occasions when the Fianna Fáil Party asked the Minister to publish this Bill. I genuinely thank her for bringing the legislation before the House, although I regret to note that no Fianna Fáil Deputies are present.

As a former primary school teacher who worked in education for 31 years, I have learned that the well-being of children and their education are of vital importance. The services that will be offered by the child and family agency will create a stronger unit. Under the umbrella of the new agency, education, mental health, domestic violence support, general practitioner services and social work support will be brought together to ensure children receive better care. I fully support the creation of the new agency. Only the highest quality services and environments should be provided for our children.

From her work as Minister with responsibility for children and her experience as a professional social worker, the Minister will be aware that the care provided to children must be of the highest quality. High quality care has many valuable aspects. A nurturing and friendly environment in which children are well cared for is essential. It is also vital that schedules and curricula in pre-school facilities and crèches are planned with careful thought and are age appropriate. Furthermore, systems in which communities and families communicate on a regular basis pave the way for excellent child protection and education.

For too long, we have failed our children dismally. The prevailing view reflected the mantra that children should be seen and not heard, although matters have fortunately improved in recent times. The media, for example, have correctly focused on the shortcomings of child care and child protection. I have shown my support for victims of child abuse many times and retain a strong interest in and dedication to improving the child care and education systems. Our children must get the very best.

The devastating and horrifying conditions of crèches that were exposed in a recent "Prime Time" programme sparked interest in a sector that should have been examined and monitored many years ago. My heart goes out to the victims of the 3,230 disclosures of direct child abuse which were presented in the 2012 Women's Aid annual report. Children need our help and cannot do without us.

I have visited numerous crèches and Montessori schools in Dún Laoghaire and its environs and have found high quality services on offer. I have seen small children with smiles on their faces being well minded. They were certainly not strapped into seats, treated poorly or neglected. On the contrary, they were engaged and interested in everything around them and I could sense their happiness and noted the interaction of staff. The environments I observed were nurturing, caring and child centred. I expect the child and family agency will work hard to promote and implement such an environment in every child care facility and crèche. I would fully support all such efforts.

Happy children are the reason I am here today. Children have shaped my career and nothing makes me smile like the smile on a child's face. However, the good conditions I saw in Dún Laoghaire cannot be a reality for all child care services unless the services strive to achieve them. Child care services need to be supported. I thank the Minister for engaging with the relevant agencies. For too long, the child care issue has been fluffed around and ignored. The highest child care standards must be adopted in all crèches.

The measures proposed by the Minister will raise standards in our child care services to the levels expected and desperately needed. This is one of the biggest public sector reforms undertaken by this Government and funding will be of the utmost importance. In the context of child care services, funding makes a substantial difference.

It takes great courage for parents to drop their children into crèches and leave them in the care of another adult in a place that is not their home. The trust and respect required is immense. We must do what we can to promote care, training and child care resources that are of the highest standard to incentivise parents to continue using such facilities.

Furthermore, the 4,000 proposed staff should have the highest education possible and be highly qualified to take on the major responsibility of minding young children. These educators and carers need support and funding in order to do their very best. Qualifications need to be standardised across the board and the importance of the job recognised. Many crèches and child care systems already demonstrate these high standards. I have faith in the Bill, in the Irish system and in the Government that this issue will not be disregarded or forgotten in a few years. The importance of quality child care provided by qualified staff cannot be undermined. These young children are our future and children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see.

As I previously stated, in my career I advocate for victims of domestic violence, particularly women and children. I have faith that the child and family agency will provide a better and stronger support for children who are victims of such horrifying situations. Bringing key services such as HSE children and family services, the National Education Welfare Board and the Family Support Agency together can only provide stronger support services for children who find themselves in these terrible and emotionally scarring situations.

I fully support the Minister in her excellent work. Ministers have flapped around in the past on this issue, but fundamental change was fluffed. While some money was thrown at the problem, we need to ensure our children get the best quality care so that the world is their oyster.

I thank the Minister for bringing the legislation before the House this evening. From our involvement in the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children, she will know this is an area of huge interest and the Bill represents a significant step forward in the area. In recent years we have had up to 17 major reports on child protection, mainly chronicling the period from 2000 to 2010. Although I am slow to make a political football out of it, I have seen other politicians make a political football out of the issue. Given that Fianna Fáil Members were jumping up and down about the pace of this legislation coming before the House, I find it very disappointing that there is nobody from Fianna Fáil in the House now. During the period from 2000 to 2010 when they were in government, they failed to act.

Today represents a very significant step forward for children in this country. I have listened very closely to the debate. While resources are very important, they do not reflect the full story. Real reform is about practice and how we do things differently. Over a number of years in reaction to the various scandalous reports of how children's needs were neglected, money was thrown at it, but things did not change. I am very hopeful that things have changed in the run-up to the establishment of this agency. Up to now there was no standard model for risk assessment or referral; very limited interagency working; a shocking deficit in information and data management; poor budgeting and cost management; and an absence of accountability. What do those things mean? They mean it is very difficult for social workers - I was one before my election to this House - who often have to manage up to 25 or 30 cases.

In the research carried out prior to the establishment of this agency, the national audit of neglect cases has shown the harsh reality of neglect. Up to 62% of families had family dysfunction associated with chronic alcohol or drug misuse, which is a very significant figure. As other speakers have mentioned, neglect is a very difficult thing to challenge. For example, a child may present in school, at a youth club or in a GP's surgery looking very unkempt, hungry and with poor colour. It may be a once-off incident and one may decide to give it another chance. However, the second time it happens, the person makes the referral. The social worker then goes out to visit and may discover the mother might be having a difficult time managing the household budget or have other stresses in her life. She might get some support, allowing the case to be closed. However, at times such cases have not been documented properly or there was not a proper filing system. As a result the child may subsequently present with signs of physical or emotional neglect, but the pieces of the jigsaw are not put together and it may result in a really serious case, such as we saw in County Roscommon.

The establishment of the agency will result in increased supervision of staff, being able to measure the kind of pressure people are under, while putting into place the overall systems regarding appropriate assessment, referral and paperwork. I have come across incomplete reports because people failed to keep records. As a social worker I was always very aware of the importance of keeping my notes as if somebody from the family was looking over my shoulder. Social workers should write the truth and write reports honestly because they are building up a picture of how these children are being affected. Sometimes without all the information it is very difficult to target the correct service to that family or child to ensure a better outcome.

The HSE carried out an audit in my area, Waterford. The pilot phase of the audit led to a substantive structural alteration of the deployment and governance of child protection services in Waterford. There needs to be a full review of what was learned from the audit carried out to provide assurances that children are being adequately protected. In addition new internal quality assurance arrangements have been introduced, including an increase in the frequency of staff supervision. It can be very trying for social workers who are faced with these very difficult situations in people's homes and also very difficult for the families. There is a very high staff turnover in child protection for a number of reasons, including the gender and age profile of staff, who may be on maternity leave more than other cohorts in the HSE. In my class of 90 people there were two men and the rest were women. It is a predominantly female workforce. It is also a very difficult job and if management are not looking after the staff appropriately and providing with them the kind of supervision they require to ensure they are meeting their professional standards, it can be a very difficult and trying situation for any worker.

Deputy Shortall spoke about primary care. I refute the points she made about there being no joined-up thinking. If we are still thinking that everybody needs to be in the same building sitting at a desk across from one another to interact and share information on children and families appropriately, we are in a much worse situation than I thought. Not having people sitting in the same building or sharing an office does not prevent the high-quality interagency work going ahead. I have every faith that primary care centres will continue to work and liaise with the child and family agency to ensure we get in early and are able to deal particularly with cases of neglect that have serious and long-lasting consequences for children and families.

I refer again to the national audit of neglect cases carried out. In 62% of such families the biggest issue was alcohol misuse.

Despite this we have seen a debate unravel outside the Chamber relating to people's hesitancy to take on alcohol advertising in the country. Some 62% of children in families in neglect cases are paying a high price because of alcohol. If we are to be serious about tackling the issues and harsh realities that exist for children and families in this country, then it is not only the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Fitzgerald, who has responsibility. Other Ministers have a responsibility to deal with the problem of alcohol. There are myriad suggestions before the Government and these should be pursued to ensure we can improve the harsh reality of life for 62% of children in this country suffering because of the negative consequences of alcohol. People should think about that when they are debating other issues relating to taking on alcohol advertising.

I am pleased to be able to speak on the Child and Family Agency Bill. I have welcomed the Minister since her appointment to her job and I have wished her well.

Up to 4,000 staff will be transferred to the new child and family agency which is being established following the long-standing criticism of the handling of child protection and social services by the HSE. The new child and family agency will be one of the largest public bodies in the State. It will require a major cultural shift. It will have an estimated budget of €500 million. The new agency has been formed as an alternative to the old HSE child and family services area. It is envisaged that by creating an independent agency, children's rights, child protection, child welfare and family support would be given additional priority and resources from within the vastness of the old HSE structures.

Child protection and children's rights were not prioritised previously, a fact admitted by Brendan Drumm when he was departing as chief executive of that organisation. However, the creation of the new agency should be done carefully and strategically. There is a risk that the practices and culture of the HSE could transfer to the new agency, especially given that almost all of the staff who will be working in the new agency are currently working within the HSE. That is a serious concern because there are some appalling practices and poor management issues within the HSE. Obviously, it is too big and it is literally out of control and has been for many years. I stood on the other side of the floor as a backbencher for many years begging the Taoiseach of the day and the then Minister, Ms Harney, to disband the HSE because it was dysfunctional as far as I was concerned.

We have heard all manner of promises from the Minister for Health, Deputy Reilly, to the effect that he would but he has not done so. He said he would. I believe he has set up a new board and he has made an interesting choice as chief executive, Mr. Tony O'Brien, following a Bill that was passed last week. We know his chequered history, where he came from, the views he held and the organisations he chaired. One of these has been under investigation for the past 18 months. There has been an abject failure by the Department to bring that investigation to fruition. It related to family planning institutions giving out dangerous, highly illegal and, in my view, criminal information to the most vulnerable people. There has been no investigation. First, we were told there would be an investigation. Then, when I asked the Tánaiste about it in the House two weeks ago, it was demoted to an audit. I suppose now that they have got what they wanted, they will abandon it altogether and that is where it will be left.

Some would say these child care professionals are coming from an organisation where the main focus has been on responding to emergencies and emerging scandals. That is not an environment conducive to a focus on children's rights. For these professionals the change is an opportunity to work in an organisation that is true to the ethos of how they were trained and is in line with international best practice. The reality is that front-line social care workers care deeply about the safety and outcomes for our children. Staffing has been reduced by up to 20% and yet they continue to fight to keep Irish children safe. I salute the many social workers and child care professionals who work tirelessly and go above and beyond the call of duty, but the system is simply not functional. Some have expressed concern that key professionals such as child psychologists and public health nurses may not end up transferring to the agency. Government sources have said that discussions are ongoing with some of these groupings.

I have met some of these groupings and staff. They have major concerns about the services they have to try to deal with. If these staff are transferred then these services will be rendered inoperable. That is the major concern they have. I hope that it will be sorted out because these things seem to happen and then the Minister tries to line up the situation afterwards but it is difficult to do it then.

Documents obtained by The Irish Times show that there has been serious internal opposition within the health service to the proposed changes as they apply to clinical psychologists. We all know that and it is on the record. I hope the Minister is aware of it and is dealing with it. I hope the Minister will find it easier to deal with her colleague than the former Minister of State did with her senior Minister. Critics have said that a failure to bring key professionals under the umbrella of the agency could lead to the same weakness that characterised the handling by the HSE of child protection issues. That weakness is well documented with many flaws.

The former Barnardos director of advocacy, Norah Gibbons, has been appointed as the first chairwoman of the board of the new child and family agency. I believe that being a boss in Barnardos does not give one the right to be chairperson of one of these organisations. We know who the chief executive of Barnardos was, a certain Mr. Finlay. When he was unable to go for the role of President he fell back into this job there. He was on radio in RTE for approximately two years as a columnist every evening using air time to promote himself for the presidency. He was supposed to be in charge of Barnardos. I have questions over the likes of the carry-on in Barnardos and its behaviour in the recent children's rights referendum as well. Ms Gibbons served as a member of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, chaired the Roscommon child care inquiry and co-chaired the independent child death review group. I do not know anything about the lady but all that should give her ample experience and example to deal with serious situations.

The creation of the new agency needs to be done carefully and strategically. The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs has acknowledged that there are 30,000 referrals to the child and family services every year. There are 1,500 cases of abuse and neglect confirmed every year as well. There are vulnerable children in cases where there is alcohol and drug addiction in families. There are young children in day care centres who are not getting enough food. We have seen some of that.

I have been involved with several crèches in south Tipperary and I am chairperson of one of them. The vast majority of them are good. It was said on a programme by a Member of one of the Government parties, Deputy Durkan, that the workers did not have the vocation anymore. I do not know what way he described it but the vast majority of them have indeed. There will be abuses but there have been checks recently. I have seen that and I am pleased they have taken place. In any event, the people I am talking about are committed.

Do we need a totally new agency? Will it be another quango? I know we have a new Minister and I am pleased about that, but must we have another agency with a vast budget and 4,000 staff? Will we be able to siphon the staff from the HSE? Will they be let go? Will it become another quango that the Minister will be unable to control? I certainly hope not, because I am sick and tired of quangos throughout the country, many of which are self-appointed. The Government promised that it would get rid of them and instead it has increased them and they are not accountable to anyone. I accept the bona fides of the Minister and I know she will do her best, but some of these people become more powerful than the quango they act for.

We cannot forget the many foster families who, long before child agencies were set up in the HSE, were taking in children. We cannot forget the many convents and other groups. We are dealing with Magdalen laundries and so on now. However, we cannot forget the good work done by all of the sisters and brothers in looking after children. We can never say that it is totally the fault of the convents or the orders. The State also has a major responsibility, as do the families who put these people in the laundries as young children.

That is why everyone needs to shoulder their share.

Of course. I did not interrupt Deputy Doherty. I am not saying that. They have given a good deal and-----


If I could continue, I would appreciate it. They are still offering to give many supports but they cannot be allowed to be labelled with the whole mess. There is a suggestion that it was all their fault, but it was not. I know some of the families involved - Deputy Doherty might know some of them as well - who banished their youngsters into these places. I did not know they existed until they came back to mind loved ones in later years. That is what went on in Ireland.

While it now is fine to pick on the church, the laity and some of the religious orders and to blame them for everything, the State also had responsibility, as had the families. As I stated, one cannot forget the outstanding families who have given voluntary and gallant service, in many cases without assistance from the Health Service Executive, HSE. Such families did not get a shilling from the HSE, were not approved by the HSE and now are not being recognised for pension rights or anything else - the Minister is aware of some issues I brought to her attention previously - but have given sterling service over decades when there was no agency and no HSE staff to mind or look after them. Their great work must not be forgotten or banished in the rush to set up this new agency and Members must make sure those people get recognition.

As for the 4,000 people involved, what impact will this have on the HSE? Members have seen the impact the loss of staff has had on foot of the redundancy packages, as in many areas, the HSE cannot cope. For example, hospitals in my own locality cannot cope as they have insufficient staff. If one takes 4,000 staff members from the HSE, what gaps will be left behind? As I have stated previously, the HSE has a disgraceful culture in many areas with deplorable waste and pathetic management. Many of its senior managers previously were ordinary clerical officers who worked up the line. Many of them never got any experience of managing so much as a chicken coop and have no experience of management but now have landed, because of promotion and other issues, in senior management positions for which they have no experience or understanding. They could not manage people because they were never trained to so do and this is the reason the abject failures exist but no one wants to wake up and acknowledge that. Moreover, the trade unions that represent such people also do not wish to acknowledge these abject failures on the part of people who have no qualifications, understanding or experience and no wish to have proper management. This issue must be dealt with and the Minister should not allow any of this culture to enter the new agency through these same people, who in many cases are career public servants who seek to be chief executive officers, if they can. At present, it is a case of having too much management. In the hospitals and everywhere else, one finds every kind of manager one could think of from the strategic manager to the bed manager to the floor manager to the ward manager to the God knows what kind of manager. When matrons ran the hospitals, there were no managers but there were clean hospitals without any infections and without the frightening situation that now obtains, with many cases of chronic overcrowding and inadequacies within the system. As a result, many hospitals are unable to attract the staff, medical and otherwise, that are needed. This is mainly because of poor management.

In addition, the quality of foster parents was and remains poor to this day. I refer to some recent reports drawn up by people regarding standards in Dublin, the north east and other areas and I reiterate there are poor foster carers. I do not know how they obtained Garda vetting clearance or how they got and continue to get children in spite of the families concerned being involved in violence, drugs, alcohol and other issues and this beggars belief. I acknowledge they are a minority but I personally know of them. I am not speaking anecdotally but am aware of them myself as they have been brought to my attention as a public representative over the years. I have complained to the Garda and to the health services but nothing was done about it. It is frightening to think that vulnerable children would be placed in such situations. I reiterate it concerns a tiny minority but even if it only affects one child, it is too much and I speak from personal experience. Consequently, Members must ensure this cannot happen and I personally do not believe that establishing a new quango, with all the aforementioned staff members and a budget of €500 million, will make it good simply because big is wonderful.

I have to hand a press release from the Children’s Rights Alliance in response to the publication of the Child and Family Agency Bill 2013. While the alliance has given it a guarded welcome, the headline to the release states "Alliance Responds to Child and Family Agency Bill 2013 - The legal foundation for fixing a broken system", which is an admirable heading for any press release. However, as it is a broken system, the question is whether it will be new or different. Can the Minister appoint people from without the system, rather than all of them being drawn from within the system, because the system literally has admonished itself and has grown to be unmanageable? Can people also be brought in from external sources, particularly those with management techniques and people management skills, as well as expertise in staff and employment legislation and so on? The acting chief executive of the alliance states:

This Bill is critically important. It provides the legal foundation stone upon which the Child and Family Agency will be built. We know our system is broken: this Bill must begin to fix this dysfunctional system. On a first reading we welcome many aspects of the Bill, but are concerned that it has not gone far enough to firmly ground the Agency in children’s rights.

She continues by stating:

We believe the Bill does not go far enough. The Agency must listen to children on all matters affecting their lives. The child's right to have his or her views heard and taken on board must be clearly enshrined in the Bill. Within each damning report on child protection, the common thread was that the child’s views were invisible. This theme was central to the Children’s Referendum.

It certainly was, but why then did the Government abuse the children's referendum?

The Minister knows what I am about to say because I have raised this matter in the Chamber more than 20 times. A certain gentleman took a case to the High Court and the Supreme Court and I note Members have been listening for several months to debates on legislation regarding the protection of family and life because of a Supreme Court case and a judgment made 20 years ago, which now is even being queried by one of the judges concerned. However, time has moved on, as have science and law. The case to which I refer is more recent and pertains to the fact that Members of this House, including me, voted €3 million to be expended on the children's referendum but the Government could not do that and leave the commission to be set up. Instead, it had to put its hand into the till and steal €1.1 million of the money that was passed. These are not my words but €1.1 million of the money was stolen out of the-----

As the Deputy is aware, this matter is before the courts.

It is finished in the courts. The Supreme Court decided.

It is before the courts at present.

There certainly is a case being taken again with a lay litigant and it could be overturned. However, the Government should have left it alone. I do not blame the Minister personally but I blame the Government that made the decision. The Supreme Court was obliged to find that the Government erred, there was misinformation, the Government spent the money and misappropriated the money, which is outrageous. A total of €1.1 million out of the sum of €3 million that Members of this Oireachtas voted.

There was no finding that it was misappropriated.

The Deputy should not use the word, "misappropriated".

It was misappropriated. These are not my words. These are the words of the-----

Deputy, as this matter is before the courts, it is not advisable to comment on it.

The Government acted in good faith.

We are not going to hide behind that any longer. I have asked-----

No, I am simply pointing this out to the Deputy.

I accept that. I have asked several times for a debate in this Chamber on the matter but cannot even get a debate on the judgment.

It is before the courts.

It will not always be before the courts. A lay litigant is taking a case before the courts to try to overturn the decision. However, the matter to which I refer has been dealt with in the courts, namely, the misappropriation of funds. Five judges unanimously gave that decision.

The word "misappropriation" was not used.

That matter is not before the courts. The five-judge decision is completed-----

The word "misappropriation" was not used.

----- and €1.1 million of the money was misappropriated. The Minister can call that what she likes but I call it stealing. It was robbing the public money that was passed by the people and voted by me personally in this Oireachtas.

As the matter is before the court, the Deputy should be careful.

Deputy, you should be careful.

Yes, I called it stealing. One can call it what one likes but €1.1 million was taken and spent wrongly. What else is it?

That is a different issue.

The matter is before the courts now.

Were a lady or man to enter a shop and steal a sliced pan, they would be prosecuted for it. That was public-----

I repeat again, the matter is before the court.

It is not advisable to be-----

No, that aspect is finished before the court. The McCrystal case is finished.

It was decided by the High Court and further decided by the Supreme Court. It is finished, finito, críochnaithe and the decision delivered. The Government refused to acknowledge it. The Minister, Deputy Shatter, when he appeared on the "Six One News" on the evening of the Supreme Court decision, kept referring back to the High Court. However, the Supreme Court decided and the judgment is there for everyone to read. They are not my words but in a five-judge judgment, the Supreme Court gave a damning indictment on what the Government did.

Two minutes remain to the Deputy.

I repeat I do not blame the Minister personally but through collective responsibility she had a hand in it and should have ensured the money was spent as it was meant to be spent.

Consequently, what faith can people have? It now is proposed to set up another Oireachtas inquiry, five years later, to look into the banks. This is a politically-expedient decision by the present Administration to try to blame the previous Government. All I have been listening to since I came in here has been people criticising.

The Deputy is moving away from the Bill.

No, it is all relevant because I heard Deputies criticising the absence of Fianna Fáil Members from the Chamber. While they can answer for themselves and I will not do so, it simply is a case of blaming the previous Government for everything and stating the present Government is great because of what it intends to do.

Will you stick to this Bill please?

The Minister should set about doing the work, rather than talking about it or talking about what was not done. She should ensure, as I noted, that the bad practices in the HSE are left behind. Moreover, perhaps Deputy Conway, who has left the Chamber, should not criticise Deputy Shortall, who has a lot of experience in the House, considerably more than either me or indeed Deputy Conway. Deputy Shortall had the experience and the insight within the Department of Health to see what was going on in there. There is no faster education than being put into the thick of it to find out what is going on and she should be listened to, because she has valuable views and it is not for any other Member here to denigrate them. When Deputy Conway has been in the House for as long as has Deputy Shortall and when she has that experience, she can talk then. Deputy Shortall has that experience in the Department of Health, as well as considerable experience in this area over many years.

I repeat that I am concerned about the siphoning off of 4,000 jobs from the HSE. It should be disbanded and reactivated and perhaps it should all be done together but 4,000 jobs are being taken from the HSE.

How are they being struck off? They are being moved from here to there.

I do not know what is wrong with the Deputy. I cannot hear her so I do not know what she is saying.

It does not matter.

It does matter. I was loud so I do not know what the Deputy is muttering. However, she will have time to speak.

Making the establishment of a new agency with €500 million the headline of the Minister's speech will not make it manna from heaven. It will have 4,000 staff and a budget of roughly €500 million. That does not make it right. There are many bad practices in the HSE, as the Minister is well aware, and I outlined some of them that took place under several Governments.

This is a new structure.

Yes, but it must be done properly. We do not want the bad practices to come with it. People from outside must come in and decontaminate the system, because it is badly contaminated in many areas and, above all, in the HSE.

Aside from that, I look forward to working with the Minister. I know she will listen to the comments in this debate and understand them. She will make her mark on this in the future.

The next speakers are Deputies Patrick O'Donovan and Regina Doherty.

Before I speak to the Bill, I seek your guidance, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle, about some of the comments made by the previous speaker. Will your office or the Office of the Ceann Comhairle have the speech just made examined by the Committee on Procedure and Privileges? People have been named in the Chamber and they are not here to defend themselves. It is the worst abuse of parliamentary privilege I have witnessed. Two, if not three, people who are not Members of this House and cannot defend themselves had their names thrown around in the course of the previous speech in an absolutely shocking fashion. I do not know the people concerned and I am not familiar with the issues that were mentioned, but people outside of this House are entitled to their good name. When a Member of this House openly attacks them in the fashion we have just seen, it is incumbent on this House to ensure their names and reputations are restored. I am formally complaining to you, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle-----

There is a system for that.

I am formally complaining-----

On a point of order, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle.

Can I make a point of order?

When Deputy O'Donovan concludes, I will let you speak.

Can I make a point of order?

I have been here for ten minutes but obviously Deputy Mattie McGrath was speaking before I took the Chair. Of course, there is a system in place to bring those matters to the attention of the Committee on Procedure and Privileges. Was that your point, Deputy McGrath?

It was. I do not have to be lectured to by Deputy O'Donovan on anything. He should go back and look after his neighbours at home, but he refuses to do that.

I will speak through the Chair, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle, and the ignorance of foreign channels trying to break through will not deflect from what I am saying. It is the worst abuse-----

In the Deputy's opinion.

-----of parliamentary privilege to name people in here who are defenceless-----

The Deputy might be getting too much of the heat.

-----and have their professional reputations tarnished, attacked and besmirched in such a cowardly way.

I will not take any lectures from a muinteoir scoile.

They will not repeat it outside the gates of this institution.

I will meet the Deputy anywhere and any time. He can organise a few more pizzas at the Dáil bar.

The foreign channel can throw all the abuse he wishes at me-----

---but if the same foreign channel-----

The Deputy has a degree in balderdash.

It is balderdash.

If the same foreign channel wishes to repeat those accusations, I suggest he repeat them outside the House.

Go back to the Department with Mr. Sherlock and your neighbours, whom you referred to me.

I wish to have it recorded that I intend to complain to the Ceann Comhairle-----

-----about what has happened here this evening.

Let him see your speech.

I ask the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, who is representing the Government, to do likewise. It is absolutely intolerable that somebody's professional and personal reputation would be attacked in such a way that they cannot defend themselves.

The Deputy has no script with him tonight. He is stuck for a script.

I do not get €50,000 per year to come in here to call myself independent either.

The Deputy gets more than he earns.

The Deputy has made his point. He should speak to the Bill.

On a point of order, regarding the leader's allowance.

I did not mention the leader's allowance.

The Deputy's party gets more than €90,000 per year. He might not know that but it is something he should know.

Can we get back to the Bill? There is very limited time, Deputy O'Donovan.

I also wish to note that at no stage did I interrupt the previous speaker.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. The establishment of the child and family agency is one of the hallmarks of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. For too long the protection of children has been the poor relation in this State. The litany of reports that have been commissioned show that children at all levels have been neglected, and in some cases that neglect has been covered up and institutionalised. The Minister is the first Minister at Cabinet level to have responsibility for children, and I compliment her on taking this initiative forward. It follows the very successful children's referendum.

The people who signed the Proclamation in 1916 signed a commitment to cherish the children of the nation equally, so it is a shame and an indictment of our country that in 2013 we are establishing this agency but until now children's issues and the protection of children were farmed out to a multitude of different agencies. This is a first step. I hope that in the debate on this and later Stages of the Bill the Minister will look at other issues that are not currently covered by the Bill and perhaps consider if there might be room to include them. I am speaking in my capacity as a former teacher, albeit for a short but very important period in my life. I am sure other Members have had the same experience as me, where parents come to them with regard to orthodontic care, speech and language therapy, physiotherapy or occupational therapy. From the time children come into this world there are too many different agencies dealing with the problems they encounter in life.

All too often, it falls back on the teacher, particularly at primary school level, to try to sort out the problems, be they social, health, educational, physical, disability or even income within the family home. For the first time we have an opportunity to examine children's care, the neglect of children and the protection of children in a more holistic way. There is often a temptation to farm the issue of children to the Department of Education and Skills, because we expect our children to be minded, for want of a better word, inside the primary school classroom. However, that should not be the case. All the reports that have been produced in the last number of years have shown there has been a catalogue of failures. In many cases, teachers and the National Educational Welfare Board are powerless. Children are missing from school for many days more than what would be considered the norm and they are powerless to do anything. There are even situations where truancy in some schools is almost accepted, because that is the way it has always been.

I do not wish to see this agency become a type of modern HSE stooge but an agency that is stand alone, independent and, most importantly, accountable. We should not be here two or three years hence putting parliamentary questions to this or another Minister and receiving replies like those we get at present from the Department of Health - although I am aware that this is due to change - stating that it is a matter for the HSE, which will revert to the Deputy. We must have real accountability, because children cannot speak for themselves. In many cases these are the most marginalised children, as 99% of the children in this State will probably never need the child and family support agency. However, for the children that do, the Members of the Oireachtas, who are elected on behalf of the people, and the members of the committee on health and children must know they will be able to ask the pertinent questions and get real answers from the people ultimately charged with delivering services to children. One of my concerns, and it is something that should be included in the legislation, is that there be a reporting mechanism whereby Members of the Oireachtas can hold the agency, the board, the chief executive and others to account. This should be done not through a committee once every couple of months but through us being able to hold the Minister accountable on a weekly or daily basis by parliamentary questions, Topical Issues or whatever means are available in the House.

Often it is far too easy to compartmentalise this issue as an issue of education, and I am concerned about that. I agree with what Deputy Conway said. Reports have been published recently, including in my own constituency, and it is important to point out that the vast majority of early child care, preschool and child care providers are doing a fantastic job. Undoubtedly, however, there is room for improvement. As previous speakers have said, I hope there will be a continuation in the establishment of standards and in setting a curriculum and that preschool will be built into the educational curriculum with minimum standards, proper training and, ultimately, a desired outcome, which is, as is contained in the Proclamation hanging in the lobby of these Houses, that we cherish all the children of this State equally.

That must be our guiding principle. In the context of all the sideshows and name-calling that occurred earlier, the people in the Visitors Gallery are probably disgusted by the fact that parliamentary privilege has been so badly abused. I ask the Minister, as a representative of the Cabinet, take this issue very seriously. Two people have been defamed during this debate and they have a right to have their good names restored.

I commend the Minister on the work she is doing. She and her staff are very accommodating and many of her Cabinet and junior ministerial colleagues could do worse than to consider the work they are doing. I commend the Bill to the House.

The clear message being sent out by the recently formed Department of Children and Youth Affairs and its Minister has received a major boost today. The new child and family agency, which will initially incorporate the Family Support Agency and the National Education Welfare Board, will create a child-centred system whose services will respond to the needs of children where they arise as opposed to those children and their families being obliged to adapt to that system. We have been informed that local multidisciplinary teams will bring local services under one manager, with direct lines of communication to a centralised office under the jurisdiction of Mr. Gordon Jeyes. Mr. Jeyes, whom I have come to know during the past six to nine months, is a superb catch for this country. There will be clear lines of accountability and the provision of child and family services will be the exclusive job of every senior executive.

What Deputy Mattie McGrath stated about people from the HSE joining the new agency and bringing a culture with them was absolutely outrageous. These people care about children and about ensuring that a single functioning agency with clear lines of responsibility and accountability will provide the services they require. A total of 17 major strategy reports on child protection failings in Ireland have been compiled since 1980. The most recent of these, the Gibbons-Shannon report into the death of children in care, which was published last year, shows that at one point 15 different agencies were involved with one young person who died. The Bill is very welcome because it will reform our fragmented child protection system by increasing accountability, providing early services and - for once - applying joined-up thinking. The most shocking aspect of the report on the deaths of children in care is not really the neglect and abuse detailed but rather the systematic chaos caused by an overabundance of agencies and institutions being involved in dealing with such children. The children in question were vulnerable and they had extensive contact with so many public services designed to protect them. However, each of those services failed at different stages.

The child and family agency represents a fresh start. It is clear from the legislation that family services will be prioritised. The latter was not the case in the past. Under the Bill, we will move from a position where child and family welfare was barely a priority to one where it will be the sole focus of a single dedicated State agency overseen by a single Government Department and an extremely dedicated Minister. This new agency is arguably the most significant development for child and family services in the past 20 years.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on this Bill and to acknowledge the very fundamental shift in emphasis it represents for the Legislature, the Government and, most importantly, the children of Ireland. I also welcome the renewed attention and focus on the welfare of children who are born in this country. Everyone on this island shares the view that children are our greatest asset.

There has been a great deal of debate regarding the unborn child and women who experience crisis pregnancies in recent months. It is now time to reflect on the very positive role foster families have played in providing real options for women who find themselves pregnant and unable to care for their children. Unlike the minority of persons who believed themselves to be in possession of the high moral ground and who engaged in a level of pontificating engaged during that debate, foster families have quietly continued to quietly offer real solutions by increasing the range of options open to women experiencing crisis pregnancies. I hope many more families will consider becoming foster carers and will be willing to provide care for children in their own homes from birth onwards.

There is room for improvement in the Bill and, as is the case with most other legislation, it could go further. The reality is, however, that it represents a significant step forward into the light and away from the very dark days of our past. In recent years we have all been convulsed with shame and anger at the appalling treatment meted out to our most precious resource, namely, our children. The low standards which obtained in high places horrified society to its very core. Legislation and Governments can only go so far in providing a better and brighter future for our children. The key dominant factor in the context of the opposition to the recent referendum on children's rights was an objection to interference by Government in the family unit. Neglect and abuse of children are all too often associated with the State and with church institutions. The reality is far more difficult and uncomfortable, with much serious abuse taking place in family homes.

The reports into recent horrific episodes of child abuse highlight the difficulties and challenges posed in the area of child protection by disjointed and fragmented responsibility shared across a range of Government Departments. The onus is clearly on this Parliament to create a coherent and streamlined organisation which will dedicate all of its resources and attention to developing a comprehensive range of services for children who are vulnerable and at risk. I welcome the Government's commitment to children since entering office. I am particularly proud to be a member of the Government which, for the first time in the history of the State, deemed children worthy of a senior Ministry. Its commitment and focus in this regard were followed up by a referendum aimed at firmly enshrining the rights of children in our Constitution, to give children a voice and to recognise that their views and needs are equal to those of their parents. I await the implementation of the relevant legislation required in the aftermath of that referendum because it will allow thousands of children in State care to exit the current legal limbo in which they find themselves. It will also bestow on these children the same right enjoyed by the remainder of the citizenry of Ireland, namely, to belong to and to be part of a loving and caring family. I am aware that a court challenge has delayed the introduction of the legislation to which I refer. I hope the courts will adjudicate on this issue without further ado in order that we might grant these children access to one of the most basic rights of all - the right to belong.

I wholeheartedly welcome the legislation and commend the Minister for addressing the need for cohesive and collective organisation and delivery of services for vulnerable children. I also welcome the establishment of the child and family agency and the renewed emphasis on the provision of services for children. One of the more necessary aspects of the legislation is the fact that the agency will be answerable to the Houses of the Oireachtas and the Minister. It has long been believed that when a job is everyone's job, it quickly becomes no one's job. I commend the Bill to the House and I look forward to the speedy and successful establishment of the agency, which will hopefully allow us to begin to put our darkest days behind us and which will lead us to a brighter tomorrow.

I thank all Deputies for their contributions and for their support for the child and family agency. There were some very thoughtful and thought-provoking contributions on the development of the new agency. I listened with interest to the valuable input of Deputies on all sides. The various issues raised will be considered further by my Department as the Bill makes its way through the Houses. I was particularly interested in the representations Deputies indicated had been made to them by a number of outside agencies. I will examine the points those agencies have made.

I wish to reassure the House that early intervention will very much be part of the work of the new agency. I reaffirm my commitment in this regard. The Bill makes explicit provision for the inclusion of a range of services - beyond just those relating to child protection - which are considered critical in delivering a sustainable and comprehensive continuum of supports aimed at prevention, early intervention and assisting families. The supports to which I refer include family resource centres, education and welfare services and psychology services. I wish to reassure the many Deputies who raised the issue of resources that we are recruiting social workers.

Many speakers referred to the issue of accountability to the House. Section 47 imposes an unambiguous statutory obligation on the agency to comply with a direction of the Minister. In the context of the specific questions regarding accountability to the Oireachtas, I will continue to answer parliamentary questions in respect of the agency. This is clearly laid out in the accountability and governance sections relating to the agency.

I thank all Deputies for the care they have taken in respect of this debate. I also thank them for the quality of their contributions and their clear passion for and interest in this matter in the context of providing the very best services for children. I welcome their support for the reorganisation of those services, which, as so many reports have shown, have been fragmented up to now. The child and family agency is an essential response to dealing with the issues that have been highlighted over the years in many reports.

This Bill has been introduced in the context of a wide-ranging reform process regarding children services and should be recognised, as many Deputies have recognised it, as a key component in the change process. I am committed to addressing significant efficiencies that have been identified in the State's care and protection of vulnerable children and all workable initiatives to deliver this reform effectively will be considered by the agency and by myself with an open mind. I thank everybody for their contributions. I look forward to dealing with the remaining Stages and to enacting this legislation as soon as possible.

Question put and agreed to.