Children and Family Relationships Bill 2015: Second Stage (Resumed)

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

Prior to the adjournment of the debate I was speaking about the issue of sibling treatment and was commending to the Minister a revisitation of the arrangements that would allow for treatment resulting in a sibling child from an anonymous donor for a period of three years from enactment, which is what the legislation as currently drafted allows for. However, if the patient has recently become or is about to become pregnant, she would have a particularly small window of opportunity for an attempt at a second child. Having a second child would be the wish of many who are taking any of the options we have already addressed. I am suggesting that it would be reasonable to allow for three years from the birth of the first child or three years from the date of enactment of this legislation, whichever of the two periods is longer. I think that is reasonable. I hope that the Minister will give consideration to this suggestion in advance of Committee Stage and to the other suggestions I made earlier. Provision for a second child in these circumstances would allow patients a longer timeframe to make an attempt at a second child, with up to approximately 3.5 years between births rather than having to make the decision either to have two children within a three-year window, which in the circumstances is very narrow, or, as the case may be, not to have a sibling child at all.

I have been made aware of a couple who performed a DIY donor-assisted reproduction, DAHR, with sperm from a friend. They are disappointed that the spouse of the natural birth mother will not be automatically covered by the legislation. That is to say, the spouse of the birth mother will not qualify for guardianship of the child because the procedure did not take place in a designated DAHR facility. This is despite the fact that the spouse might be to all intents and purposes a live-in dad throughout the lifetime of the child's domicile with the mother and, in this case, the dad. If couples in cases like this go about the procurement in an ethical and informed manner, acquiring signed affidavits that show that the donor consents to the treatment and that all parties understand parenting roles, why should they be excluded? In my view, this is a further matter that merits being addressed. I am sure we would be surprised by the number of people in this situation. Again, I encourage the most inclusive approach before finalisation of this legislation and its enactment. I appreciate that DAHR facilities have robust methods to get fully informed consent and to ensure all parties are kept up to date. However, is there any reason this could not occur outside such a facility in cases where the aid, assistance and support of a clinician and appropriate legal advice is sought? The Minister might address that question in her concluding remarks.

Some commentators have criticised the fact that this Bill allows for egg and sperm donation, which is their right. Aside from the concerns I have outlined above and the others mentioned yesterday by my colleagues, Deputies Mac Lochlainn and McLellan, I think this Bill is an important change in the recognition of families throughout the State. I believe it will go a long way in furthering the rights of members of families who are currently anonymous before the law. More important, it protects the rights of an individual conceived as a result of DAHR to knowledge of their genetic lineage.

Ar an iomlán, cuirim fáilte roimh an Bhille seo. Is gá soiléiriú a fháil ar roinnt pointí le cinntiú nach sáraíonn an Bille seo cearta daoine agus teaghlaigh mar atá. Anuas ar sin, is gá dúinn cuimhneamh nach leor an Bille seo amháin chun cearta leanaí agus teaghlaigh a chosaint. Is gá seirbhísí a bheith maoinithe mar is ceart le cinntiú go bhfuil an chosaint is fearr ar fáil do leanaí agus do theaghlaigh.

I commend the Minister on the introduction of this legislation and hope that she will take on board some of the suggestions I have made. I wish the legislation a speedy passage.

I welcome the Bill, which is one that has been some time in the making. It is exceptionally positive. Much of the time, people who occasionally glance into the political world in the Dáil Chamber might ask about the relevance of some of the Bills passed through the House. Although we might know how relevant each Bill is that becomes law, the Children and Family Relationships Bill is one to which everyone can relate because of its vast, positive impact on society and how we view the diverse types of family life that exist.

One could ask what is the purpose of a law. For me it is about protecting citizens, reflecting the society in which we live and enhancing the quality of life of everyone in society. In themselves, laws should never intend to displace citizens or create a hierarchy of citizenship. In essence, the Children and Family Relationships Bill, of which we are debating the technicalities, is really about the vast, collective human story of Irish people – families, Mams and Dads, and children. It is about recalibrating the legal perspective of how we view family life and the lives of children in this country in terms of the legal protection offered to them.

I wish to keep the debate straightforward. Most speakers will focus on the technicalities of the Bill. The thrust of the Bill is about creating better family law that represents the type of society in which we live. Let us be honest: whether it is good, bad or indifferent, a one-size-fits-all law is not a good way for a progressive, inclusive society to do business. Previous family law, especially in the early days of the State, did create a hierarchy. It excluded people rather than including them. Perhaps that was unintentional, or perhaps it was intended to create a particular type of society or values, but the knock-on effect was that it relegated many people to the shadows of society. When we do that and the law does not recognise people, the effects include stigma and the creation of cultural norms. A hierarchy develops in terms of who we view as important. In the past, the fact that one lived with one's granny, through no fault of one's own, was something of which one might have felt ashamed. Questions were asked about the reason a person did not live with his or her mother or father or why someone’s parents were not married. In the past, the legislative solution to people who did not fit the norm was to send unmarried women with children to mother and baby homes. That was the type of law that was created in the past, which had the knock-on effect of creating a stigma against some types of family that existed. It was not acceptable to do that back then and it certainly is not acceptable now. Thankfully, we have addressed the issue. The Bill before us will create a new platform, one that tries to right the wrongs that have always existed in family law and to include the excluded who were never even acknowledged in family law but exist none the less.

Unfortunately, as legislators we can get caught up much of the time in the legislation. I remind the House that behind the Bill is the human story of the reality of life. Life is not what advertisements try to sell us on the front page of a travel brochure - the perfect family with two children in the swimming pool and Mammy and Daddy passing the beach ball to them. We must recognise that families exist in many forms. That is exactly what the Bill aims to do. It is trying to get rid of the stigma that has often been attached to hundreds and perhaps thousands of families. Particularly in the 1970s, when I was growing up, it took a brave single parent to rear a child because it was not culturally accepted. In previous times, when girls got pregnant at a very young age they could be forced to get married because it was the thing to do. The effect of this was a very unhappy relationship for the adults involved and sometimes traumatised relationships for children in such situations. That was not right.

Overall, I wholeheartedly commend what the Bill seeks to do. Its purpose is to create a modern platform to put every child and his or her family circumstances on an equal footing and to get rid of the cultural stigma that was previously attached to families. I hope it will create a gateway into the future whereby we will view families for who they are and accept that while they are all different, importantly, they have equal protection under the State. As a secondary school teacher for 13 years I am all too familiar with the diverse families who presented in schools. I have encountered teenagers who lived with their grandparents due to very tragic family circumstances, some who did not know one of their parents, and others who were living with a parent and his or her new partner. Laws are only good if we reflect the people who live in society. That is what the Bill seeks to do.

I was very disappointed with the approach taken by some elements of the media, including those whom I hold in high regard. I accept that they have bosses who pay their wages. It is very disappointing that a Bill with 170 sections was described on the front page of one of the leading broadsheets as the gay adoption Bill, given that the vast majority of those who will benefit from the Bill are heterosexual families. One of my colleagues mentioned this morning that 36% of children are currently born out of marriage, which is approximately one in three. Currently, there are approximately 230 families involving same-sex couples. It is very disappointing and misleading to give a title to a Bill which is much more far-reaching than its effect on gay and lesbian people, as if that was what the Bill was about. There is a very important connection between the Bill and future events, but the Bill should not be seen in that way because it is about recognising families that were not previously allowed to exist under the law in this country and that were essentially airbrushed out of society.

I thought I had more time, but as I do not, I will bring my contribution to a conclusion. The ancient philosopher Aristotle developed a concept known as "human flourishing". It subsequently became known by others through the centuries as "the good life". Essentially, his concept was that every human being is good and decent in his or her own right, and in the right circumstances each person can thrive and reach his or her full potential. He believed we should always ensure that the right environment is created in order for people to flourish or to lead the good life. For far too long in society we have prevented people and sectors of society from leading the good life. When we eventually create laws that allow every individual - be it through gender recognition, gay and lesbian rights or children who are raised by diverse or blended families, which is the term used today - to reach his or her full potential, society as a whole benefits. If I am correct, when Martin Luther King marched on Washington he spoke about the white people who turned up at the march. He said they were there not because of the lack of rights afforded to their black fellow citizens, but because, by not giving black citizens full rights, white citizens in America were denied access to a better society. That comes back to the concept of human flourishing. We create a two-tier society if we continue to allow people to live in the shadows of society. The Bill is long overdue. I commend the previous Minister, Deputy Alan Shatter, the current Minister, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, and the officials in the Department, as I am aware that the preparation of the legislation has been exceptionally tricky.

The real impact of this will be felt by the people we all know who are single parents, parents who have chosen not to get married, which they are entitled to do, children who live with their grandparents and same-sex loving couples who have children from a previous relationship. They should all be entitled to equal protection under the law. Families de facto are unusual. If one asks two people living next door to each other about the traditional family, both of them will say that every family is a little bit diverse, even the one in the picture on the front of the brochure with two parents playing ball with two children on their summer holidays.

The next speaker is Deputy Thomas Pringle, who will share time the Deputies Paul Murphy and Seamus Healy. Is that agreed? Agreed.

I agree with everything said by Deputy Lyons. We should look at human flourishing as a way of organising society, as it would be much better. The family unit, as it was once known, has changed significantly and it is still changing. In one generation, and in one family alone, the unit can go through several changes as it adjusts to different circumstances. According to the 2011 CSO figures, one third of families do not belong to a traditional family unit, 186,284 single mothers care for their children and 29,031 lone fathers care for theirs. The number of cohabiting couples with children amount to 60,269 people. This means that more than 275,000 adults and children fall outside the traditional family unit. Significantly, the Bill reflects this change and respects the many different definitions of family throughout Ireland, making them equal under the law.

Overall, the Bill improves equality in society. It allows same-sex couples to adopt a child jointly, subject to the requirement that they be suitable adopters. Nobody would have a problem with this. The Bill sets out various provisions by which a wider circle of people will be able to apply for guardianship, custody of, or access to a child, including grandparents. There are provisions in the Bill to support joint parenting after relationship breakdown, and mediation between estranged parents is encouraged to resolve disputes about their children. Various provisions are set out with the aim of helping people to make parenting work.

The law relating to child maintenance is amended so that all children will be treated equally, regardless of their circumstances of conception and birth, when child support or lump sum orders are made. Most importantly, the Bill provides a new definition of the best interests of the child in Irish law, meaning that courts will have to consider the physical, emotional, psychological, educational and social needs of the child, including his or her need for stability having regard to age and stage of development. The best interests of the child are indicated in Part V, which safeguards children's voices in the court system. It takes into account the best interests of the child in all court proceedings and indicates a comprehensive list of what the courts must take into account when making a decision that could affect the child in question. However, attention needs to be paid to the application of this Bill in the courts, and the court procedures need to be child-friendly. Dr. Geoffrey Shannon, the special rapporteur for children, suggested that, in tandem with this welcome legislative development, structural reform should also take place. The establishment of a specific family court system was promised in the programme for Government and is a necessary development for a fair and effective forum to vindicate the rights of children and families.

There are some provisions in the Bill which do not contribute to the development of a more equal society, and which foster a sense of inequality within the family structure itself. This is regrettable, given that the Bill generally sets out to make family relationships more equal, no matter what type of family is involved. At present, a father only has full guardianship rights if he co-signs a statutory declaration paper with the mother of the child in front of a peace commissioner, commissioner for oaths or solicitor. This is despite the fact that the father may have signed the child's birth certificate. The Bill improves this situation by automatically granting rights to fathers, but only if they have cohabited with the mother for 12 months in total, three months of which are after the baby is born. Here the law presumes the father is guilty of not being responsible until he is proven innocent.

The Minister stated that the 12-month provision was put into the Bill to give the father an opportunity to show responsibility through cohabitation. There is a presumption that mothers have responsibility from the very start, which is unfair to fathers. Many men show responsibility even without cohabiting. Some couples parent a child without cohabiting for many reasons, such as housing issues or a requirement for a parent to work away from home. Why should these fathers not have automatic rights to their children? Some men can live with the mother of the child but demonstrate no responsibility, and we probably all know many of them. There are also mothers who, for different reasons, are not responsible either. The consequence of a father not being given automatic rights to the child means that if the mother is away and the child falls ill, the father cannot authorise medical treatment. If the relationship breaks down and the partner decides to move abroad with the child, the father has little power to prevent this. The father still has no automatic right to custody or access to the child by virtue of being the father. By law, the mother is entitled to sole custody of the child if the father has not been made a guardian.

The three-month rule, whereby the father must be living with the mother after the birth of the child for this length of time to quality for automatic rights, is controversial in cases where the mother is in difficulty after the birth of a child or the child is sick after being born. The father cannot make decisions on behalf of the mother or for the child. Many mothers are also concerned about this issue. Expectant mothers who want to prepare effectively for the arrival of the child are anxious about the legal entitlement of the father in this situation. If we granted fathers automatic rights at the time of registration of birth, these rights could then be challenged in court if a mother or the State is concerned about the welfare of the child. We should have higher expectations of men in this country. Other jurisdictions grant automatic rights to the father who signs a birth certificate, such as Northern Ireland, Britain, other European countries and Australia.

Critically, there is no central registration system for the documents signed by fathers. The signed document is not protected by a particular Department and is not logged or acknowledged. The onus is on the father to retain the document and keep it safe in case he ever has to assert his rights and use it. The loss of documents can be devastating for a father trying to prove guardianship.

While the Bill focuses on the child's specific relationships in the family, we must take into account what Dr. Geoffrey Shannon stated: that the Bill should be taken in tandem with structural reform. It is important to make the courts more accessible and child-friendly. While the Bill recognises the changing structure of families and gives a legal definition with regard to the best interests of the child, there is an onus on the Government to look at the wider elements of its powers to ensure children are supported. The Government must examine the maintenance of welfare supports, including supporting one-parent families even after the youngest child reaches the age of seven. When measured against the Bill, this could potentially have a negative impact on families. We must also ensure that there are proper antenatal care services. Services for pregnant women in Donegal are being withdrawn from outreach clinics. This has an impact on family life and the equal treatment of families throughout the country. We need to protect the lives of adults who look after children. These are all wider societal issues. If we are going to build a society which allows human flourishing we need to examine these systems also.

The Bill is very welcome. It recognises that the concept of the family has changed and is fluid. If we go back far enough, the traditional nuclear family was probably not what was envisaged for evolving animals. There has been a change and we must recognise it.

I broadly welcome the thrust of the Bill. It is about recognising the reality of family life as it exists today and as it has always existed, contrary to the propaganda and ideology. The reality is more than one third of births in Ireland are outside marriage. Three hundred thousand children live with lone mothers, 100,000 children live with unmarried cohabiting couples and more than 40,000 children live with lone fathers, while more than 200 same-sex couples have children. The Bill states that these children should not be discriminated against because they are in non-marital families, and they have a right to a legal relationship with the people who play the role of parents in their lives. They should not be discriminated against in this sense. In particular, I welcome the provision whereby unmarried couples, be they heterosexual or homosexual, have the right to adopt children together and be parents together.

It is already clear from the debate that those on the religious right in this country are going to attempt to use this provision to try to whip up opposition to the referendum on same-sex marriage. The only argument they have is to claim that people will lose their mother if these two things go through. On this basis, they will try to stop a referendum which, I believe, the vast majority in society favour.

Those of us who support same-sex marriage and are opposed to discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people should consider how we respond to that argument. We should be upfront about it and make the point that the overwhelming weight of the evidence suggests that two gay parents are as capable of being good, loving, caring parents as heterosexual couples. We should defend absolutely the right and ability of gay couples to rear children. There is no evidence to suggest any problems whatsoever with that. To be honest, any belief that there is an issue is rooted, I believe, in a homophobic outlook which views this as problematic. It is simply looking for problems in this situation.

I welcome in particular the commitment and centrality of children's interests and rights. However, the Government must match this in terms of policy provision. Separately, we have seen an explosion in child poverty. A recent UNICEF report stated that child poverty rose from 10% to almost 30% between the years 2008 and 2012. Similar figures have been produced by Barnardos. We know that tens of thousands of parents will be cut off from the one-parent family payment. The Government can have a rhetorical and legal commitment to the rights of children but these must be matched by action and funding.

I welcome the provisions relating to assisted human reproduction. However, the reality is that for vast swathes of society the option is simply beyond them. It is very expensive and is not covered by the public health service. At a minimum, one go at in vitro fertilisation costs approximately €5,000, although in most cases the costs are significantly more. In reality, these vast costs put the right of people to try for a family beyond many working class people, be they gay or straight. As part of the process of recognising the rights of people, we should hold that all couples, including gay couples, should have the right to assisted human reproduction, provided free through a public health service.

Another point relates to making all of this real and the necessity for legal and financial resources behind the legislation. This is complicated and rather court-focused legislation. It could result in a significant increase in court cases. The reality now is that there is a year-long waiting list for people to get access to free legal aid for family law cases and a significant backlog of family law cases in the District Court. If these rights are to be accessible to people, we need investment in resources in legal aid, including the expansion of legal aid in order that people can get access to the type of expertise that, at the moment, is mostly not available to people availing of legal aid. We also need assistance for low-income families who do not qualify for legal aid.

I support the calls for reform in two areas from the Children's Rights Alliance. The alliance has called for a central register for statutory declarations for joint guardianship because, at the moment, the situation is similar to that of wills in that they can be lost and there is no central repository. The alliance has also called for the establishment of a comprehensive court welfare service to support the roll-out of this legislation. This must be backed by the resources necessary to give people access to the rights legally given through this Bill.

There are further particular legal points and questions. None of the provisions will come into force until a ministerial order is commenced. This is rather unusual. Will the Minister explain why this is the case? Is it because the Government or the State will not have the resources to implement it? Is it for political reasons?

Reference has been made to recognition of the father and the 12 months requirement. I do not imagine it was the Government's intention but, as it is currently drafted, the provision seems to have retrospective impact. This could be seriously complicating and could create a minefield. I presume that is not the Government's intention. Clarity could be provided, perhaps with the introduction of amendments. There are other related difficulties not covered in the Bill in terms of where the burden of proof lies in the case of a conflict between a mother and a father. What kind of evidence can be adduced to back up a claim that someone has been cohabiting for a period of 12 months?

Section 51 allows for applications for access by a relative of a child. It was previously the case that a relative had to have leave of the court to make an application. As it currently stands in the Bill, this has been withdrawn. Why is that the case? This could potentially create complicated situations whereby estranged relatives could apply for access without having leave from either the courts or the parents.

I broadly welcome the Children and Family Relationships Bill. It is a positive contribution to the law in this area. It updates and improves the legislation. I suppose it reflects the changes in society over the years and takes account of the many different family types currently in existence. Some areas within the Bill could be improved or amended and I will refer to those shortly.

This is probably the most significant change in guardianship legislation since the 1960s. At that time, approximately 3% of children were born to unmarried women. Given the situation in 2014, when over one third or 36.1% of children were born to unmarried women, this represents a significant change. Obviously the structure of Irish family life changed significantly between the 1960s and today. The Bill recognises that reality and the diverse types of family involved.

Currently, approximately 24,000 children are born every year in circumstances where the father has no legal relationship with the child. This is not acceptable and needs to be changed. The 2011 census painted a picture of the significant changes that have taken place in society over the years. The figures include approximately 308,000 children living with 186,000 lone mothers, 104,000 children living with 60,000 unmarried cohabiting couples, 43,800 children living with 29,000 lone fathers and 230 same-sex couples with children. Of course we have no idea how many children are being cared for by grandparents and other family members. The figures are simply not available but we all know the number is considerable.

The Bill represents an important reform of child and family law and puts children at the heart of family law. It addresses various issues, including guardianship, custody, access, maintenance, adoption and parentage. The Bill will provide legal clarity around various family types and addresses the discrimination faced by children in non-marital families. I hope it will significantly reduce the number of cases that go to court due to the current legal vacuum.

The whole question of the definition of the best interests of the child is particularly significant and this is the first legislation which defines that interest. There is the whole question of the participation of children in judicial decision making and having the voice of the child heard is particularly important.

The Bill may not go far enough, however, and is still discretionary, so perhaps it needs to be changed. Professor Ursula Kilkelly of the UCC Law School has indicated that such discretion should be changed to make this mandatory. There are a number of other amendments which I believe are necessary, many of which have been referred to already. In particular, there is the question of a central registrar for statutory declarations for joint guardianship, the question of a comprehensive court welfare service and its funding and resourcing to ensure that all families, irrespective of means, will be able to avail of those services and, again, the question of joint guardianship for unmarried fathers. Of course, the Law Reform Commission as long ago as 1982 and again in 2010 said that non-marital fathers should have automatic joint guardianship, so that is another aspect of the Bill that may require amendment.

Generally, I welcome the Bill. It is a positive contribution to the law in this area and reflects the current societal situation and the changes that have taken place in recent years.

This is an important reforming legislation and as Tánaiste and leader of the Labour Party I have no hesitation in commending it to the House. As an independent State, our record in Ireland in dealing with children and in using the law to protect and enhance the lives and the rights of children has been patchy at best. There have been important pieces of progressive legislation, such as the Guardianship of Infants Act 1964 or the succession provisions of the Succession Act 1965, which imposed an obligation on parents to have regard to the needs of their children when drafting a will. However, there were many dark moments and, indeed, dark decades too, when the State wilfully ignored the rights of children and often connived with others, most frequently religious orders, to deal with what were regarded as “problem children” in ways that most of us in this House would regard as unacceptable at best.

Until 1952, adoption was illegal in Ireland. Instead, we had an informal system of adoption or fostering which operated outside the law. Extra-marital children were often regarded as a problem, something to be swept under the carpet. Even as the law changed in the 1960s and 1970s, social attitudes were slow in changing. It was only in the 1970s that the then Government, and my predecessor as Labour leader, Frank Cluskey, put in place support for single parents and their children in the form of what was then called the unmarried mother’s allowance.

There is one consistent thread which runs throughout society’s view of families and children over this period, and it is a view which is still much in evidence today. It is denial. We so wanted everybody to be living in happy nuclear families that we were very slow to see that many people were not living in "traditional families" at all. As a result, we ignored the family arrangements of hundreds of thousands of our citizens and left countless children in a sort of legal limbo.

In terms of my own experience, I was adopted formally in the 1950s, so I had birth parents. As a baby, I had several sets of foster parents. I was then adopted by my adoptive parents, Bridie and John. When my mum died and my father remarried, I had a stepmother. I had various aunts and uncles who, after my mother died, as they were all single, helped to look after myself and my brother. That is just one story.

While some people suggest they are in some way fearful of this legislation, I do not think they see life's rich tapestry or that not everybody fits into one single structure, as some people undoubtedly would like in order to give certainty to what they see as being the most desirable. At the end of the day, it has always been my conviction that what matters is that children have people - the parents primarily - who nurture them, love them, care for them and commit to them. That is what really matters in the end for any child.

When we look at the conservative definition of the family in the Constitution, we can argue it made it difficult for the Oireachtas to act. However, since the people passed the children’s amendment to the Constitution in 2012, that argument is no longer available, if it ever was. It is now time for us to open our eyes to what is really happening in our society. The traditional family of one man married to one woman, having children without any need for medical intervention prior to conception, is the norm for most people, and we know that. While it will never be what happens for everybody, which is one of the things we must acknowledge in the discussion around this legislation, it is obviously the preferred option for many people. That is a choice to which they are entitled, but it is not everybody’s choice. Some will choose to bring up children as single parents, some will choose to cohabit and not to marry and some will have children with more than one partner. Some people find their life partner, get married and 60 years later they are celebrating a long, successful and happy marriage with children and grandchildren. We need to look at the circumstances, which can be dictated by the vagaries of life, such as illness, the death of a partner, estrangement, divorce or infertility.

In a small number of cases, the law intervenes to stop people living the lives they would like to live. Gay couples cannot adopt, nor can unmarried heterosexual couples. However, it is unusual for the law to prohibit people from doing things. I remember a conversation I had with a doctor years ago. He was well off and his wife also had a job, but as one of them was a Catholic and one a Protestant, they could not adopt, much and all as they loved children and desired to do it. We need to be conscious of where we have come from and how our society has evolved.

The role of the State is to ensure that, whatever choices adults may make, the rights and well-being of their children are protected and improved, and the children are brought up in an environment of love, support and nurturing. However, the current position is that some children live in something of a legal limbo: take the child whose father has died and whose mother is now living with another partner; the child of a gay mother who is now living with her gay partner; the child who is being looked after by her grandparents because her parents cannot cope; or a child born as a result of donor-assisted human reproduction.

In fairness, we have made some progress on some of these issues in recent years, but not enough. This Bill represents the first real effort in decades to deal with all of these related issues in a comprehensive way. As of today, the only adults who have automatic rights in regard to children are the natural mother and her husband, if he is the father of the child. It is important to say that this will remain the case if and when the Oireachtas passes this legislation, with one important exception which I will come to later. It is true that a variety of other people such as those I described earlier – grandparents, step-parents, gay partners and unmarried couples – will have the right to apply for adoption, guardianship or custody. However, and this is important, in each and every instance they will have to make the case in court that this is in the best interests of the child.

A judge will be required to grant or refuse an application with the best interests of the child at the centre of the decision-making process. In fact, this is the first Bill that has attempted to define the concept of the best interests of the child and it does so in quite some detail.

The Bill sets out several dozen questions, criteria and circumstances which should be taken into account when a decision is being made on the future of a child. These criteria include a requirement to gauge the views and preferences of the child, something I very much welcome. There is absolutely no question of unsuitable people getting automatic rights in regard to children. We have broadened the scope for people acting in loco parentis to apply for adoption, custody or guardianship and we have made it easier for them to make such an application. Any application must be decided by a judge and she or he must make the decision in the best interests of the child. This principle, namely, that the interests of the child are paramount, is at the centre of our law on children, and this Bill reinforces and strengthens it by spelling out in plain English and in great detail what this means.

The exception to which I referred earlier concerns the rights of unmarried fathers. Until now, unmarried fathers were obliged to apply to a court to assert any right to guardianship of their children. This will no longer be necessary, provided the father has cohabited with the mother for at least one year. This is a difficult issue. Some unmarried fathers have argued that they should have equal rights with the mother, but as a matter of fact, however uncomfortable it may be, some unmarried fathers do not commit in terms of interest in their children and often lose contact with the mother before the child is born.

The Government is settled on the view that any unmarried father who is acting in loco parentis at the time the child is born and for a period after that should be entitled to act as guardian to the child without the need for an application to court. Those who are not part of the child's life at that stage will have to apply to court at a later stage if they want to act as guardian. In all the circumstances, this is a fair balance. I know many men who have had a child in a non-marital relationship and who love the child to bits. The most difficult issue is their estrangement or removal from the child because the relationship, which may have started with great hope and love, has withered. This provides a balance which has long been missing in our legislation.

Another important area addressed in the Bill is donor-assisted human reproduction and IVF, which I welcome. This is a difficult and sensitive area of legislation, but I welcome the fact that, as a Legislature, we are now addressing it.

Before the Tánaiste spoke, I should have alluded to the fact that she is sharing time with Deputies Kenny and Costello. Is that agreed? Agreed.

I am very pleased to speak on what is a very important Bill which will overhaul family law in Ireland. It is perhaps the most important and far-reaching Bill to come before the House during the lifetime of the Government. It is a large Bill and I can only refer to a small amount of it in the time available to me. The Children and Family Relationships Bill 2015 represents the most important reform of child and family law for a generation. It seeks to put children at the heart of family law, to provide legal clarity on various family types and address the discrimination faced by children in non-marital families.

The Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality, of which I am a member, was invited to review and consider the proposed legislation and report back to the Minister with any observations arising from the consultation process. The committee held a public consultation and its report was published in May 2014. I was glad to be able to participate in this valuable process. It is hoped that the Bill will significantly reduce the number of cases going to court due to the current legal vacuum. The Bill addresses key issues related to guardianship, custody, access, maintenance, adoption, parentage, assisted human reproduction and surrogacy.

The Bill will amend a number of existing pieces of legislation, including the Guardianship of Infants Act 1964, which will be repealed in its entirety. The Family Law (Maintenance of Spouses and Children) Act 1976, the Status of Children Act 1987, the Family Law Act 1995 and the Adoption Act 2010 will also be addressed. The Civil Partnership and Certain Rights and Obligations of Cohabitants Act 2010 will also be amended.

The Bill will see further implementation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child in Ireland by protecting the child's right to family life and protecting the children of unmarried parents from discrimination based on their parents' marital status. The best interests of the child will be of paramount consideration in decisions involving guardianship, custody and access, and children will be provided with the right to have their voices heard as part of the best interests determination in guardianship, custody and access cases.

The Irish Constitution places great importance on the family, defining it as "the natural primary and fundamental unit group of Society". However, the courts have narrowly interpreted the constitutional family as only including marital families. Cohabiting couples, civil partners, lone parents, unmarried fathers and grandparents are all excluded from this definition. An increasing number of children are being cared for in non-marital settings. For example, one in four children live with a lone mother and almost one in ten live with unmarried cohabiting couples. However, the law does not provide for the recognition of the unmarried parents' relationship with the child. This can have an impact on matters that are part of the day-to-day parenting role, such as giving consent to medical treatment or granting permission for a school trip. This lack of legal clarity can be particularly detrimental to a child in the context of a marital breakdown.

I would like to speak briefly about my experience. My father died when I was two and a half years old. I had a younger sister and my mother became a widow. Having grown up in a one-parent family gives me some insight into the experience of lone parents.

The Bill aims to provide greater legal certainty and recognition of the relationship between the child and the person or persons responsible for his or her everyday care and upbringing. The explicit focus on the best interests of the child is extremely welcome. However, I have concerns about how the courts can be systematically and professionally resourced with the relevant background information to determine the best interests of the child. I have heard too many stories of our courts being under-resourced with the relevant information, in particular when parents are not in co-operation or agreement about plans for the child's care.

The provisions of the Bill on family violence and domestic abuse are welcome. I strongly urge courts to examine all issues relating to a family in the round, preferably in one sitting by the same judge, to ensure consistency and that decisions are made in the best interests of the child. Family violence is not limited to physical harm, sexual abuse or fearing for one's safety. This must also be taken into account.

I am very proud to support this pioneering, modernising and overdue Bill. I commend it to the House.

I welcome the Minister to the House and I welcome the Children and Family Relationships Bill. It is, as she said, a very far-reaching Bill which puts children at the very heart of Irish family law. It is about time that happened. It reflects the reality of life in Ireland today. In the past there was a belief in an idealised version of the family. In reality, even if on the outside a family appears to be traditional and perfect, made up of a mother, father and children, every family has its difficulties, problems and foibles.

Ireland has been a very cold place for the non-traditional family relationship.

We have been dealing with much of the fallout from that perception of what a family was and how it should be dealt with in society. We have had to deal with the Magdalen laundry cases and the women who were pretty much incarcerated there. We have had to deal with children in industrial schools, reformatories and orphanages. All of that has been part and parcel of what we have been doing during this Government's term and in those of previous Governments. It has taken a very long time for us to come to grips with and address the wrongs we have visited upon children over the years and the manner in which society has treated children with regard to the family relationship.

It is about time we put children first and, in doing so, we should recognise the centrality of children in the family relationship, no matter what the nature of the relationship. We must define the new parameters of that relationship in a legal context as we cannot leave such issues to the courts all the time. This must take in the matters of responsibility, guardianship, protective orders, affidavits for access to children and the pantheon of issues that can cause enormous difficulties in the court and in family scenarios that should be simpler, more comforting, certain and more receptive to the needs of children.

I compliment the Minister on the work she has done in this respect and the previous Minister, Deputy Shatter, who took this matter very seriously and began the initial work for the Bill that the Minister has built on so strongly. The majority of children live in marriage-based families with biological parents, but that is not the reality for a large number of children who live with other family types. The 2011 census indicates that more than 215,000 families were headed by lone parents and the number of children living in cohabiting households increased by 41% between 2006 and 2011. These are quite stark figures which indicate a move from the traditional family relationship that would have been recognised very much in the Constitution and would have been perceived in previous decades to have been the norm. It is the norm today but it must be recognised that other relationships are not by any means an exception, as they are quite common as well.

I can see it in my constituency of Dublin Central, in Cabra and the north inner city. Almost half of families are headed by a lone parent, and there are also many households where a grandparent is the main carer. The 2011 census indicates that there are areas in Dublin Central with no traditional households consisting of a husband, wife and child at all. This development has occurred over decades and it is high time we recognised it and incorporated it in legislation to give certainty to the children who need support.

It is clear that a significant number of children are living in households other than those headed by married parents and it is most welcome that the Bill will tackle some of the complex issues around parentage, guardianship, custody and access across a range of family positions that are not addressed adequately in current law. This Bill reflects the diverse family types in which people live and updates the current legislation in respect of who, other than a child's parents, can apply for guardianship in respect of a child. The area of assisted human reproduction and donor-conceived children must be clarified in order that we do not have to deal with such issues in the courts on an ongoing or piecemeal basis when there is no direction in law. It is high time that clear legislation was put in place in this respect.

This will also enable a wider range of unmarried fathers automatically to become guardians of their children and it is important that we support unmarried fathers who want to be involved in the care of their children. There is, of course, an increasing number of fathers who wish to be involved and are more than willing to build the relationship.

My final point concerns grandparents, whose role has been completely unrecognised. I remember during the divorce referendum campaign holding a meeting at Barry's Hotel with Mr. Mervyn Taylor and there was a row of seven elderly women there. They were part of an organisation called "GPO". I had never heard of this and thought it referred to the GPO down the street. The name referred to "grandparents obliterated" and these women were concerned that with the advent of divorce proceedings, grandparents might end up with no access to children. I am glad this Bill will consider the role of grandparents in the lives of children.

Deputy Naughten is sharing time with Deputy Timmins.

I welcome the opportunity to speak to the Bill. I also acknowledge that the Minister is present to hear the debate, which is important. This is important and far-reaching legislation which is long overdue. Nevertheless, I have concerns that we are rushing the legislation. It is a complex Bill and some of its unintended implications have not been thought through. I am afraid we may have to revisit this with amending legislation because of unintended consequences arising from our rushing this. The Bill was published last week, for example, and we are dealing with Second Stage today. It is an extremely complex Bill that is amending other primary legislation, which makes it very difficult for anybody, even those with parliamentary skills, to read the legislation. I will return to this later. With the issue of guardianship, for example, it would have been far better to repeal current law and incorporate all the provisions of guardianship into this legislation. We could then have had one clear and distinct piece of legislation dealing with the issue of guardianship rather than having amending legislation.

I grew up in a typical family and I am raising my own children in a typical family. There are many other types of family, including those with single parents and widows and those involving same-sex marriage or adopted children. Approximately one in three births in this country is registered outside marriage, with approximately a quarter of children in the country outside the typical definition of the family as interpreted by the Supreme Court. These families and the children involved attend our local crèches and sit beside my children in their school and every other school in the country. It is wrong that they have been ignored, pretty much across the board, under legislation as it stands. This Bill is long overdue but it will give children the type of protection and rights they deserve and should have had for a long time in this country. It is important that we acknowledge the practical reality of family life in Ireland today and this legislation catches up with that reality.

A child needs a parent or parents who love him or her and who are prepared to care for that child properly. That has to be the primary objective behind legislation such as this, and it must ensure that it can protect those types of parents. I was very taken by a story I heard here before Christmas. A young man called Stephen met his current wife in 2010 and the couple subsequently married. She had a son from a previous relationship and Stephen had never been married prior to that. He did something very unusual in that he took his wife's name after getting married. That surprised me but one can understand the logic, as this would guarantee that all his children would have the same surname.

There are not many people who think that far ahead, but he did.

The biological father of his son has been involved to a certain extent with the boy. Stephen and his wife have encouraged that and sought to develop it. However, the biological father never showed any interest in gaining guardianship of his son. Everything appeared to be going well until Stephen and his wife broached the possibility of Stephen adopting their son. The biological father immediately objected, believing it would infringe and undermine his rights and his access to his son. Stephen subsequently had two other children, a boy and a girl. He is in the unenviable situation that if some of them are involved in a medical emergency or an accident, he can make decisions for his wife and for two of his three children, but he cannot do so for the first son due to the law as it stands. This legislation will enshrine in law the basic rights Stephen will have in respect of all of his children, and all of them will be treated equally. All of them have the same surname. He ensured that in a particular and determined way and I am glad this legislation is catching up with Stephen's forward thinking at the time he got married.

We must look at all of these cases from a child's perspective, not just the legislative perspective. A child grows up in a family unit. To them, it is their family and their home. However, everything is turned on its head when something happens with regard to the child's legal guardian. It is interesting to recall the case of baby Ann that came before the Supreme Court some time ago. The two year old baby girl was returned to the custody of her birth mother following the decision of the Supreme Court. The mother was unmarried at the time the original adoption papers were signed. She later married the father of the baby and withdrew her consent. That two year old baby was taken from what she understood to be her parents. It must have been heart wrenching for all of the people involved, both the birth mother and the adoptive parents, to see the two year old girl being taken from what she perceived to be her home. I happen to have a two year old daughter. To contemplate that she would be taken from our home and moved somewhere else would not sit well with anybody. However, that is the law at present.

The legislation is in place since the 1960s and is completely outdated. The most significant element of this legislation is not those legal aspects but, more importantly, that it enshrines the principle of the best interests of the child. That must be sacrosanct in both this legislation and any other legislation brought before the House in future. I commend the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, and the former Minister, Deputy Shatter, for bringing that through in the children's referendum and enshrining it in our Constitution. It is paramount in respect of decisions on guardianship, custody and access, which is what this legislation provides for. The current law is seriously lacking in that area.

It is also relevant to other issues, including cases we have discussed previously in the House such as the Kelly Fitzgerald case. The report on the death of Kelly Fitzgerald raised the issue of the lack of consideration of the views of the child, which were not taken into account at that time. Those same issues were raised again in the Roscommon neglect case, where the views of the child were not taken into account. In those two cases there was a family, as defined and interpreted by the Supreme Court, involved. I have no doubt that if the issues in those two specific cases had arisen outside of that clear definition, the authorities would have taken a very different approach at the time. We must put the focus back on children.

It is also important that children have the right of access to their father. This is where the legislation is weak and must be strengthened. Fathers will not have rights to guardianship unless they have been cohabiting with the mother for 12 months, with a minimum of three months after the birth of the baby. In other jurisdictions such as Northern Ireland, Britain, other European countries and Australia unmarried fathers have an automatic right to guardianship when they jointly register the birth with the mother. This legislation must be amended in that regard. The vast majority of parents and, indeed, of professionals believe that once the father's name is on the birth certificate, it automatically confers on him rights in respect of guardianship. That is not the case. Whether it is consent for medical treatment or something as simple as permission for school trips, guardianship is not automatically enshrined on foot of having one's name on the birth certificate.

Deputy Stanton argued last night that one could not give automatic rights to the birth father because of matters such as domestic violence and rape. However, these matters also arise in other family types, not just in one parent and unmarried families. A more practical approach has been taken by the Civil Registration (Amendment) Act that was passed by the House last year. Under that Act it is compulsory to have the father's name on the birth certificate, except where the father cannot be traced or it poses a risk to the mother to make contact with the father. It should be the case that a father would have automatic rights to guardianship, except in particular circumstances where there are issues with domestic violence or rape. Such rights should be automatic and let the courts stop somebody who should not have such guardianship, rather than a father being forced to go before the courts to secure the right to guardianship.

As I said earlier, the Minister should have repealed the Guardianship of Infants Act and introduced new primary legislation. The Guardianship of Infants Act has been amended on two occasions prior to this and there are significant amendments to it in this legislation. That will cause more confusion. It will make the information less, rather than more, accessible. I believe the original intention was to repeal that Act, and it should be repealed during the passage of this legislation.

Another issue has arisen in respect of guardianship. There is a need to have the joint guardianship declaration that is signed by both parties registered and recorded on an official database which is accessible to those who require that information. One cannot expect a father to carry his guardianship declaration with him 24/7 in case one of his children is caught in an emergency and the mother is not available to deal with it at the time.

A national database needs to be put in place. Legislation to establish a national register of wills was proposed by my colleague, Senator Terry Leyden, in the Seanad a number of years ago. It is surely not too difficult to use the expertise and skills available in the General Register Office in County Roscommon to put this register in place.

Part 6 of the Bill amends the law on maintenance of spouses and children. This area also needs to be re-examined. Fathers should have an automatic right to guardianship except in particular circumstances, that is, where it is not in the best interests of the child. Fathers also have a responsibility to maintain their children. A contribution relative to their capacity to earn or to their income, no matter how small, should be made by all parents. I questioned the Tánaiste on the figures on maintenance recovery within her Department. The figures were interesting. Last year, the Department examined more than 8,000 cases and of those, it determined some 2,500 relatives were liable to make a maintenance payment. Only 54% of them did. We need to be far more active in ensuring the recovery of maintenance and in ensuring that fathers are responsible and provide maintenance for their own children.

We need to properly resource the courts system. I welcome the introduction of penalties where access is denied to the other parent. We also need to look at the issue of maintenance and how we can ensure proper maintenance is provided. This legislation is positive and is a welcome development. It does, however, need to be strengthened before it is enacted.

I thank Deputy Naughten for giving me three minutes of his time. Having sat in this House listening to him, I am sure he could have spoken for another three hours, let alone three minutes. This brings me to the kernel of the point I wish to make on this legislation. I was not going to speak until tomorrow but, due to work pressures, I may not be able to do so then. Normally when people speak on legislation in this House, they have a good knowledge of the area. However, there is very little expertise in this House with respect to this Bill. I do not doubt that the legislation seeks to create a framework for the complexities and changes in the family unit and to ensure certainty, security and equality in that family unit. The Bill was published last Thursday. It is some 100 pages long and has 172 sections. It would, in its own right, fill a module in a third level course.

Will the Minister consider having Committee Stage held in this Chamber rather than in the committee rooms? The kernel of this legislation will arise from various amendments put forward or proposals made. While the legislation seeks to put a framework on the complexities which exist at the moment, legislation can also facilitate, enhance, increase or stymie social changes. This may or may not be good for society. Just before I came into the Chamber, I saw that I had received an e-mail from the Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists on the issue of donor assisted human reproduction, DAHR. The institute may have had a legitimate point. I do not know. It expressed concern, however, about a submission it made during the pre-legislative scrutiny period last November. It urged that certain issues should be taken on board. I do not know the merits or otherwise of the arguments it made. However, it is important that we take our time with this legislation. It is too important to rush. As politicians in this House, many of us have become cowards. We are a house of cowards because we do not deal with the issues. In the past, we were in the shadow of the church. People may have been afraid to say certain things. Now we have the commentariat and we appear not to have the courage of our convictions.

I may be quite supportive of everything in this legislation. From a glance, I am in support of most of it. However, I would like an opportunity to go through it in detail to ensure, if I am supporting it, that it is for the common good and the security of the child and the family unit. I do not doubt that every politician in this House wants to make things better for society. We should, therefore, not be afraid to come into this House and to articulate various views. I lost the Fine Gael Whip over a social issue. I am now in the Reform Alliance group. One day I heard a renowned commentator say that we must be against same-sex marriage because we follow the teachings of the Catholic Church on the abortion issue. This is complete and utter rubbish. We should not allow things such as this to stymie us if we have concerns or if we want to give approval to things.

I commend the Minister on bringing forward the legislation. I do not envy anyone the task of having to sit down and put this together. It is very complex. There are many views in this area. It is important, however, that we get it right. We should come into this House as mature politicians, irrespective of who is banging on our door or otherwise - I would like to say that no one is banging on my door - and go through the minutiae of it on Committee Stage in this Chamber. We should not do it down in the dungeon in the hope that it will not cut across the marriage equality referendum. This legislation has to be taken on its own merits and dealt with separately.

I welcome the fact that this Bill is in this House and that it is being progressed through the Chamber. It is to be hoped that it will be enacted as soon as is possible. I accept and endorse what other Deputies have said, which is that it is important that the legislation is not enacted with undue haste. I am, of course, very familiar with the provisions of the Bill. It was some considerable time ago when I, in a personal capacity, commenced drafting this legislation. I was determined that this area, which had been ignored for far too long, would be fully addressed. There was a need to update and modernise our laws on guardianship, custody of and access to children, parentage, using DNA fingerprinting to assess parentage and a whole range of other issues, including dealing with an area that had for too long been ignored, namely, assisted reproduction and surrogacy.

This Bill has gone through various phases. I drafted it as a Bill but discovered as Minister that the Attorney General's office would be very unhappy to be provided with a Bill. The very good and professional officials within the Department of Justice and Equality then turned it back into heads of a Bill and annotated it. I wish to mention, in particular, Conan McKenna, Carol Baxter and Dara Breathnach-----

-----in the Department of Justice and Equality, without whose support, enthusiasm, commitment and expertise the heads of the Bill which were published on 31 January 2014 would not have been published. They did sterling work when confronted by a Minister who furnished them with a draft Bill. Like I had done, they went on a virtual global tour of various jurisdictions, both within Europe and outside, including Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States and examined their legislation with a view to identifying the best legal architecture to address the various issues with which the Bill deals.

There is much in the Bill about which I am enthusiastic and fully support. The central issue in all of this is the best interests of children. One of the central tenets in the drafting of this legislation when I was Minister was to ensure that the terminology and the rights of children contained in the constitutional amendment which was accepted by the people were reflected in the philosophy and wording of the legislation.

There are differences, however, between the Bill as now published and the scheme of the Bill or draft Bill published in January 2014. It was always anticipated that there would be differences. The Bill published initially was published for a consultative process, and it was subject to this process for many months. The Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality held hearings. I am familiar with many of the submissions on the Bill received up to my time as Minister and with those seen by members of the committee.

I want to be unequivocal in welcoming the fact that the Bill is before the House. However, I have some concerns over the manner in which it has evolved, how some issues that should be included in it are now not covered and about the turnaround in the architecture, which has no doubt resulted from the engagement of the Office of the Attorney General. I agree with other speakers that the legislation originally drafted envisaged that the Guardianship of Infants Act 1964 would be replaced and that all the law relating to guardianship and custody of, and access to, children would be contained in this Bill. The Bill is unnecessarily complex. The 1964 Act, amended not just by this Bill but in other legislation, is being left in place. For the life of me, I do not understand why we are retaining in law arcane provisions incorporated into the 1964 Act by the Houses of the Oireachtas that simply reflect provisions that were in the Guardianship of Infants Act 1886, enacted by the UK Parliament, and that have long since ceased to have any relevance in this Parliament.

I am also concerned about the update of what are known as the presumptions. We have presumptions of paternity in our law. I changed those in the draft legislation to presumptions of parentage, and they had a number of purposes. There is no unique way of reforming legislation. There are always alternative ways of achieving the same outcome. However, by removing the new parentage presumptions, it seems a situation is being created whereby all parents or couples in this State who conceived and had children born as a result of assisted reproduction by donor prior to the enactment of this legislation would, in order to secure their parentage rights, be required to make a court application. That is my reading of the Bill but I am open to correction on that. As originally framed, the legislation created certain presumptions. It certainly allowed for a court application where a dispute as to parentage arose. Where there is no dispute, the presumptions would have applied and the formula adopted was one that had worked successfully in a series of other common law jurisdictions. It was not unique; it was looking at what had worked in practice elsewhere.

I want to say something in particular about the area of assisted reproduction. The legislation is essentially concerned with assisted reproduction provisions where there is third-party donation. I refer to where an embryo is created by a couple's sperm and ova but where they need the assistance of what I would describe as assisted reproduction. The Bill does not appear to address the particular circumstances where the reproductive material derives from the couple themselves, the husband and wife or the cohabiting couple. It is confined to dealing with assisted reproduction by donor. Indeed, there are 36 sections in the Bill dealing with assisted reproduction and many of them comprise a very important step forward. I welcome many of them. I would be interested in knowing, in relation to the issue of the register that is to be established, what research has been done that will ensure there will not be a future difficulty for couples who wish to use assisted reproductive methods to have children in accessing, for example, sperm or ova by donor. A substantial portion of the sperm used in Ireland is imported from Denmark, for some reason. What engagement has there been with fertility clinics? This was an important issue. I know all the reasons we should have a register. I envisaged when this legislation was being prepared that this issue would be dealt with by the Minister for Health. During the lead-in to the publication of the heads of the Bill in January last, it was the intention. It was intended that many of the medical issues relating to assisted reproduction and surrogacy would be dealt with by the Minister for Health or Department of Health and Children and that the parentage issues would be dealt with by the Department of Justice and Equality.

Regarding the way in which the legislation has evolved, I found some of the public comment and today's press release by the Minister for Health, Deputy Varadkar, very confusing. He seems to be telling the media, who do not have the time to examine the detail of a Bill of this size, that assisted reproduction will be dealt with solely in his legislation when there are 36 sections in this Bill dealing with assisted reproduction. It is right that this Bill deals with assisted reproduction with regard to the issue of identifying parents dealing with issues of how one establishes relationships within a family. All these are extremely important matters. For some reason, however, the subject seems to have become very unnecessarily confused. It seems the only area of parentage related to assisted reproduction that is excluded from the Bill is that of surrogacy. We deal with assisted reproduction by donor with regard to couples, with regard to women residing together, and with regard to single women who use a sperm donor to become pregnant. However, what we exclude from the Bill are heterosexual couples, married or not, who commission a surrogate to give birth to a child. We exclude from the Bill gay men who may wish to have children through surrogacy.

I acknowledge these issues can be controversial. The issue of surrogacy caused a shudder within the echelons of some advisers behind the scenes when I produced the Bill for publication in January last. Indeed, it took some weeks before I could get it through the Cabinet. I predicted that there would be no major outcry or difficulty. There was none and what was in that Bill was widely welcomed.

I have a series of concerns. First, it is in the best interests of children that we address all these issues in relation to parentage. It is entirely wrong that there is a small group of children now in this State or who may be conceived in coming months through surrogacy who will in effect have their relationship to the people who are parenting them daily undetailed and unspecified, such that they will be left in some sort of legal limbo where the surrogate who gave birth and agreed she would not act as a parent to child will maintain a legal relationship as mother, and the person who is actually acting as mother, who may have donated her ova for the conception of the child, will be excluded from being the mother. I do not understand why this is not covered in the Bill and I am enormously confused by much of what the Minister for Health is saying. Today, he was asked why these issues have not been addressed and he said he did not know why it has taken so long, that it might not have been prioritised and there might have been a fear of controversy. I do not know whether that was a sideswipe at the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, but I do not know of any controversy that arose out of the January legislation.

The Minister stated on "Morning Ireland" this morning, echoing to some degree what he said in an interview on "Prime Time" a few days ago, that all this was very complicated but that he now had permission to draft heads of a Bill. He said we may see these sometime next autumn and that there is little chance legislation will be enacted this side of the general election. He said he would provide for a legal mechanism to transfer parentage with a simple court procedure and that detailed consents would be required at all stages. He stated the welfare of the child would be paramount, that there would be no commercial surrogacy and that the birth certificate would name the birth mother until parentage transfer. He stated commercial surrogacy would be outlawed, that there would be age limitations in the area and that, if somebody entered into a surrogacy contract, they could not be forced to transfer the child if they did not wish to do so.

What I found very curious was that although the Minister has commenced a consultative process, all the issues he says will be dealt with in the heads of the Bill he hopes to publish next autumn were dealt with in the heads of the Bill I published in January of last year, which have gone through a 12 month consultative process and on which the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality reported. I do not understand this.

There are many other issues that the Minister for Health has said he will address, and I agree with him that they should be addressed. They fall uniquely within the health brief. They are not concerned with determining the legal relationship between parents and children. They are not concerned directly with legal contracts or with court procedures. There is a range of other issues that should be dealt with and, indeed, it was my understanding that those issues would be developed during the preceding 12 months. I have no idea why they are so undeveloped.

I believe that, as there is no possibility that the issue of surrogacy and parentage will be dealt with during the lifetime of this Government, the provisions contained in the draft Bill I published, together with some appropriate amendments arising out of the consultative process, which I think was very helpful, be incorporated in this Bill on Committee Stage. It is not in the interests of children that we fail any longer to address this issue. The excuse given for not addressing it, which I heard some months ago, was because there was a Supreme Court judgment pending in proceedings relating to a matter of surrogacy with which I am familiar. I am sure other Members of the House are familiar with it also; I do not have the time to go into the detail of it. Those proceedings existed when we published the Bill last January. They were in a place whereby the High Court had made a decision, the Supreme Court's hearing was about to take place, and it was anticipated the Supreme Court would ultimately produce judgment, as it did in November of last year.

The heads of the Bill, as drafted, anticipated the outcome of the Supreme Court decision absolutely correctly. When it commenced hearing those proceedings, the Supreme Court was informed that the Government, in the context of the Children and Family Relationships Bill, intended to address this issue. The fact that the scheme of the Bill had been published, and I am open to correction that a copy of it might have been handed into court, although I may be wrong about that, could not influence the outcome of an appeal the Supreme Court was determining. It merely brought to the court's notice that the Government intended, in the Children and Family Relationships Bill, to address this issue.

By the time the Supreme Court produced its decision on 7 November 2014, it had become known that the Government was not going to address the issue in the Children and Family Relationships Bill. All the judges in the Supreme Court urged that legislation be enacted in regard to surrogacy so that no individuals should again have to go through the difficulties the husband and wife, and the wife's sister, went through in the context of the High Court and the Supreme Court proceedings that were necessary.

I want to give one quote from Mr. Justice Hardiman. He was referencing legislation in this area. He stated:

There is, at present, a serious disconnect between what developments in science and medicine have rendered possible on the one hand, and the state of the law on the other. It is as if Road Traffic Law had failed to reflect the advent of the motor car. The failure to adapt the law in relation to developments in Embryology of course, affects far fewer people, but it affects them in a peculiar and intimate fashion which makes statutory law reform in this area more than urgent.

There is no more I can say about that. I believe this Bill should be amended on Committee Stage to address parentage issues in regard to surrogacy and the court procedures that are necessary to provide protection for children and the welfare of children, and to ensure that we address the issue of commercial surrogacy. All the other issues can properly be dealt with by the Minister for Health, but I wish he would stop pretending that he is presenting some new crusade to address an issue that no one, before he came along, was interested in addressing. It is misleading, and it is unfair to members of the media and those interviewing him who do not have the intimacy of knowledge of both the Bill that was published last January and of this legislation.

I want to rapidly touch on some other issues. I have a concern about the change in the definition of "embryo", and in particular with reference to fertilisation of a human egg. The January 2014 heads had a different approach to it, and there was a reference to part of an ova. Without getting too much into medical science, in circumstances where a husband and wife want to have a child but the wife who provides the ova has a mitochondrial deficiency in her DNA, at the frontier of DNA medical science or embryology there is now possibly available a mechanism whereby a donation of 0.1% of someone else's DNA from her ova can correct that difficulty. The manner in which this legislation is now framed will create a barrier to that. The manner in which the draft Bill was framed in January last year did not create a difficulty in that regard.

We should not enact legislation which creates a difficulty in regard to a major issue of health that could impact not just on the child who might be born, but future generations derived from that child when that child grows up, and we should not create a barrier simultaneously with the House of Commons and the House of Lords passing legislation to remove a barrier that exists in their own legislation in the context of this area. I am concerned that what we are doing is copying a formula from the United Kingdom that is now proved to be out of date. That needs to be addressed.

On the issue of child maintenance, there is a provision in section 86 of the 2015 Bill which seeks to amend the law with regard to the provision of lump sums for the benefit of children. I have stated previously in this House that there was a case quite a number of years ago, preceding my time as Minister, when a High Court judge deigned to determine that the mother of a child born outside marriage could not, for the benefit of a child, seek from the courts the same lump sum payment to provide for the child's support and accommodation as a married mother could for a child born within marriage. I was outraged, as a lawyer, with that judgment. It stopped at the High Court. It could not go any further. The unmarried mother had been successful in the Circuit Court. The case was reversed in the High Court. We took a case in the European court, and the State settled the case in the European court on the basis that the law would be adequately changed.

The provision in this legislation does not reflect in full what was in the draft Bill in January last. It is inadequate, and it does not deal with the situation that could arise where, in the case of a child born outside marriage, there is a very wealthy father and funding could be provided, for example, to purchase a house in which the child could reside with the mother, and to deal in future with the ownership of that house. I am asking the Minister to revisit that particular issue.

I am conscious I have run out of time and I will not get to all the matters I wish to raise, but perhaps the House would give me one more minute to raise three issues.

The legislation in January last gave specific definitions to the concepts of access, custody and guardianship. Those definitions reflected global best practice. I do not understand why they are not in this particular Bill. The definition of best interests of child and what we should have regard to directly reflects what was in the January legislation. I can only assume it is not in it because there is some reluctance in the Attorney General's office to change provisions in the Guardianship of Infants Act 1964 which are completely inadequate. I urge that that detail be included in the Bill. It is in the best interests of children that it be included.

The final matter I want to mention is the enforcement provisions. Although I am not a member of the Oireachtas committee dealing with this, I hope to have an opportunity to say something more about it. The enforcement provisions have been seriously watered down. There is an enormous problem, where people are estranged, of the primary custodial parent, who most often is the mother, deliberately obstructing fathers from accessing children. They are using children as pawns, going to war with fathers, causing some fathers to have nervous breakdowns, and destroying relationships deliberately between children and fathers.

The provisions in this Bill about counselling and sending people to mediation, all of which were in the draft Bill, are absolutely right, but the courts have nothing of practical use they can do where we have the obstinate, obstructive, venomous, hate-filled parent who is determined to destroy the other parent, and the other parent's relationship. The heads of the Bill published last January had within them provisions, for example, to require the completely recalcitrant parent in certain circumstances to pay some form of financial compensation or to perhaps undertake community service. There were some meaningful sanctions available to the courts, which fall short of imprisoning a parent. I do not know why those provisions have been removed from the Bill.

I welcome the publication of this Bill. As other speakers have said, it is a substantial, detailed and intricate piece of legislation. It would take some time for any Member of the House to fully digest it. The legislation will be a fundamental building block in how we acknowledge family formation in the years ahead and the diverse make-up of families in modern Irish society. The Bill was published last week and we are now on Second Stage, so the pressure is on to rush it through the Houses of the Oireachtas and ensure that it is not running into or being confused with the marriage equality referendum. That, however, is doing a disservice not only to this legislation but also to the debate on the marriage equality referendum.

It was unfortunate that it was delayed, because we have had just one week since its publication to assess, adjudicate, engage with various stakeholders, take our own soundings and advice, and make an informed contribution to it in this debate.

I listened with interest to Deputy Shatter's contribution. Even if I had not been speaking after him I would have come in to listen to him, given his intimate knowledge of the Bill. He made some very valid points about the delay in the Bill and the need for us to have an informed debate. There are a few issues, however, that will need to be teased out further. That is why I hope that on Committee Stage ownership will not be taken by any one side. I also hope that the constructive views of both Opposition and Government Deputies will be examined impartially. As the Minister knows, Opposition amendments are often ignored or reasons are found to block their passage through Committee and later Stages. As much as possible, this Bill should be handled in a non-partisan way. We are not talking about Opposition views on Government legislation; we are talking about how we form society in the years ahead. That debate should be as consensual as possible in the time available. I know the timeframe will put the Minister under pressure, but we should allow as much debate as possible in order to have a consensus in amending any parts of the legislation where there may be deficiencies.

Reference has been made to the Guardianship of Infants Act 1964 and the fact that it is quite an archaic law based on legislation prior to Independence. In drafting the Bill before us, I wonder why there was not a full repeal of those Acts. In that way they could have been subsumed into one substantial piece of legislation that reflects modern Ireland and the changes in our society over the years.

We have unearthed much evidence of sadness in society in the past because of our view of what a family had to be. Lone parenthood, for example, put huge pressure on women to hide their shame by going to England or giving up their babies at an early stage. We now have a more modern, caring and compassionate view of what a family is. It does not have to be the traditional nuclear family of one plus one and children flowing from that. There are many circumstances and reasons why families are formed in different ways. We have to be able to accommodate that and ensure that children's rights are at the centre. Children's interests must be best served by the legislation which underpins their rights and entitlements concerning guardianship, custody and access to parental lines. All those things are positive but they do need to be fleshed out a lot more.

Deputy Shatter referred to stem cell research and hereditary diseases, and I would like the Minister to clarify those points. In addition, deficiencies can now be identified in the ovum and rectified with third-party DNA. Thanks to major scientific advances, hereditary diseases can be identified and treated with interventions by medical science using third-party DNA. There are now great opportunities for parents to avoid the transfer of a hereditary gene that may cause disease or illness. I am not an expert in this area and, unfortunately, I have not had time to delve into it detail. Hopefully, however, we can revisit it on Committee Stage. In the meantime, the Minister may wish to examine that area of stem cell research and embryology, whereby third-party DNA is required to prevent the transfer of hereditary diseases. It may be covered in the Bill, but at a cursory glance I think there could be deficiencies in that regard.

It has been said that children are at the centre of this legislation, which is correct. I assume that is the reason behind the Bill, but there is a deficiency in the area of a father's right of access to children. As a society we have not faced up to this issue. There is a strong body of opinion that fathers who want to have access and play a meaningful role in rearing their children are sometimes unable to do so. There is not much in this legislation to address that particular issue, which is of fundamental importance. Week after week we can see the difficult, confrontational attitudes that are adopted when fathers try to gain access to their children. As Deputy Shatter said, children can almost be used as pawns or battering-rams to try to inflict damage on the other parent. That matter has to be addressed.

The family law courts are doing their best but they need to be underpinned with modern, progressive legislation to give the Judiciary a steer on what we believe is the right and entitlement of fathers to access their children. We can see that problem arising week in and week out. It is a major deficiency in this legislation. If a father is being denied access, that is certainly not in the child's best interests. Access and bonding are good things, as is knowing one's parentage. However, there is a lacuna which is sometimes being abused and exploited. With the best will in the world, our family law courts are still adversarial. On many occasions it is a winner-takes-all approach, but that is not inherently in the child's best interests, so we have a lot of work to do in that area. Many organisations have been actively campaigning, and often with a lot of pain, to try to get this issue remedied.

I do not believe we have gone the full distance with this legislation. I say this having had a cursory glance at the Bill, as it was only published last week. The Minister has an intimate knowledge of the legislation, as has her predecessor. Most Deputies, however, are trying to peruse the Bill, which was only published last Thursday. It comprises more than 100 pages of detailed, intricate data whose language is technical in nature.

It is critical that we be given adequate time on Committee Stage to discuss the Bill's proposals which some Deputies may have concerns about. Deputy Timmins said that this debate should be held in plenary session in this Chamber, which is an idea.

I would like this legislation to go through the Houses of the Oireachtas, head off to the President and find that it has consistent support in defining what we view now as guardianship, custody, modern family, access, etc. For that purpose, it would be important.

Surrogacy is not addressed in the Bill. There has been reference to a Supreme Court case at the time it was being drafted. The Bill went over and back between the Office of the Attorney General and the Department, as is normally the case. The provision in question was taken out for that reason and it will stand alone. However, it is critical that there be no further prevarication or delay in addressing the issue of surrogacy. I am concerned that when this legislation is passed it will bring down a very arbitrary line in one way. Many people who have availed of assisted human reproduction will still need to go through the courts process to get clarity about guardianship, parentage, custody and all of that. I hope we can deal with the Bill in a timely manner, but that the issue of surrogacy will not be allowed to drift on for one, two or three years.

I do not see how there can be much that is confrontational or divisive in the issue of surrogacy. Most people in this House accept that, with advances in technology and science, we should facilitate people who cannot have a child naturally in doing so through surrogacy and assisted human reproduction. Of course, the questions of commercialisation, anonymous sperm donation and other such issues can be teased out. However, the broad principle of surrogacy is accepted across the House. We should not prevaricate and delay. Many people who will be availing of this in the meantime will find themselves in no man's land when this legislation is passed.

Fianna Fáil welcomes the Bill, which has been a long time coming. That is not casting any aspersion on the Minister. It is something that needed to be done. Many of our custody and guardianship laws are archaic. They are based on previous times in a different world where there were different attitudes and different views of a simplistic family make-up. We now find ourselves in a very changed society where family breakdown may result from difficulties in a family, or, simply, family formation may be different from what we traditionally assumed. At the centre of all that, the child's best interests must be served.

This brings me back to the issue of parents who have just become completely irresponsible in the area of parenting, where there is child neglect or possibly abuse, including severe physical abuse. We still have a problem in that area. This goes back to the broader issue of just not giving support to families but considering cases of complete dereliction of parental duties. I do not believe the State has fully addressed how it will intervene in those cases. I know this is a broader issue that goes beyond the Bill.

There has been the most appalling abuse of children in this country in recent times, with cases in which it would have been obvious to a passive observer that there were difficulties in a home. Yet it seems the State was incapable of dealing with that. We have had some tragic cases in very recent times. This is not something that happened in the 1940s, 1950s or 1960s, but very recently. Of course, the debate always centres on when the State is infringing on the rights and entitlements of parents.

Equally, one must ask if the State is disavowing its obligation to act in the best interests of children. That balance needs a long discussion in society and in the Dáil. We have a Constitution and the very narrow interpretation placed by the courts on the make-up of the family, giving sanctity and protection to the family, which are all very welcome. However, at times the State can be reluctant to enter a home to assess potential abuse of children. That is something that needs to be addressed. For instance, the State dealt very badly with a recent case involving Roma children in the midlands and this has had a devastating impact. There may be other cases in that context. To take it more broadly, if the State intervenes and it is found that there was no abuse, then we castigate the officers, the social workers and the system. Equally, we then expect the same system to respond on every occasion where there is potential neglect or abuse. I believe we are putting social workers, members of An Garda Síochána and many other people in an invidious position. They must ask whether they should act and, if they act, what the sanction might be. There can be very serious vilification.

I have come across cases in Cork in which neighbours were very concerned about particular children - they saw children with lice in their hair, who were scruffily dressed, badly turned out or absent from school. While there were major concerns, it was unclear whom they should approach. Should it be the social workers or the school attendance officers? Where does the system take us in terms of making an assessment and acting upon the perceived best interests of a child at that time? They may get it wrong from time to time, but I always believe it is better to err on the side of caution and intervene if there is a suspicion.

It is inappropriate to turn our backs on vulnerable children because we are unsure in legislative terms, and in terms of basic logistics, supports and services, whether to intervene. That is another critical area we have to address. The Bill addresses many matters, but there needs to be a more formalised approach to the support and assistance provided to care and social workers, school attendance officers, medical professionals, front-line gardaí and teachers who may observe cases of neglect or abuse. We need to ensure that we do not have professionals saying, "Look, if I don't intervene the worst that can happen is that I could be called incompetent, but if I intervene and I am wrong then there could be very serious sanction and vilification." I do not want or expect the State to confer powers on individuals to break down doors and check to see whether a baby's bottle of milk is warm. However, we need some understanding of what can happen. Abuse has happened behind the doors of houses over many years and is probably happening today. Where there is suspicion of abuse or neglect of children, or there is a very obvious pointer that it is happening, the State is often reluctant to get involved for many reasons. That is something that must be dealt with. It is as important as any other area in the context of putting children first, which is the key focus in all of this.

We need to ensure that children's rights are vindicated, that they have knowledge of their parentage and that there are proper discussions on custody and guardianship. We have had referendums to ensure that the rights of the child are vindicated if there is neglect or abuse, or if one parent is denying the other parent access.

All these things must be dealt with, not only in the context of legislation but in terms of a fundamental mind shift regarding how we protect our children. I commend the Bill to the House but I hope the Minister takes on board the broad discussion and tries to facilitate as much debate as possible here in order that we can all leave this Chamber knowing we have done a good day's work in ensuring our children are first in this legislation.

I congratulate the Minister on bringing forward this Bill. It is legislation that once adopted will not necessarily change the world we know but more accurately reflect it. The traditional concept of the family evolved a long time ago and it is great that politicians are finally catching up to that fact. I am proud to be part of a Government that is doing this important work to reflect what Ireland is today and what modern Ireland looks like.

I want to touch upon an issue we spoke about previously, namely, fathers' rights. The Bill does not give automatic rights to unmarried fathers and tells them that if they want these rights, they must earn them. They must prove their commitment to the child but also to the mother, and they do this by living with the mother and child for a 12-month period. I am concerned about the natural rights of the father and about recognising the father's natural rights in the guardianship and raising of the child. If there is no recognition of such natural rights, does this not then undermine the notion of an automatic natural responsibility which needs to be encouraged where sometimes it is, unfortunately, lacking?

If we look at the practicalities of achieving guardianship for the father, we can see that the test to achieve such rights and responsibilities, if we can call it a test, seems to contradict the kinds of modern family arrangements we see today and which the rest of the Bill so nobly attempts to address. I wonder whether 12 months living together, of which three must be after the child's birth, is the best test to prove that a father is interested in his child. In the absence of recognising a natural or automatic right to guardianship, is this really the best standard by which we would then confer guardianship on the unmarried father? I have a concern about this area and it is a concern voiced to me by others as well. I look forward to fleshing it out in more detail on Committee Stage. Perhaps it is a point of policy on which the Minister and I disagree and will not agree, which is understandable. Every piece of legislation that goes through the Dáil is about compromise and sometimes it will be possible to amend legislation in the way one wants and sometimes that will not be possible and it is hoped to do it again in the future. I believe there should be automatic rights to guardianship for the unmarried father and that is something I would like to pursue with this legislation and, if not with this legislation, at a later date.

I will touch on another related area, which is the idea of a central register for joint guardianship agreements. I note that there is a request that the Government would amend the Bill to include the establishment of a central register for joint guardianship agreements to keep a record of statutory declarations agreeing guardianship rights. That seems very sensible to me. I know that in its pre-legislative scrutiny, the Oireachtas committee recommended something similar, as did the Law Reform Commission, so I hope this is something that could at least be considered as we move through to Committee Stage.

I commend the Minister on bringing forward this legislation and all the many aspects of it. I foresee some difficult times when it goes through the House and people opposing it for different reasons, but it is important that we try to build as much consensus as we can around this law because of the impact it will have on society. I welcome all the time that has been afforded to the debate so far. A full week on Second Stage and more if we need it is very welcome, and anything we can do to have a meaningful and constructive Committee Stage debate where we give the necessary time to flesh out every issue before we adopt this Bill would also be very welcome in terms of making sure that as this legislation leaves the House and becomes law, it has the support of most, if not all, politicians and that people recognise that we are trying to act in the best interests of the modern family we see today. I commend the legislation to the House and congratulate the Minister.

I also commend the Minister on bringing this extremely important and progressive legislation to the Chamber. I also commend her predecessor, Deputy Shatter, whom I listened to previously and who I know was and still is extremely invested in this. It is important to state at this stage that this Government has placed more emphasis on and done more to protect the rights of the child than any other Government. Following the general election in 2011, a specific Department of Children and Youth Affairs was set up by Fine Gael and Labour and I acknowledge the work that the Minister did when she started the Department and during her period as Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, work that has been taken up by the current Minister, Deputy Reilly. Although the turnout in the children's rights referendum, which was held on 10 November 2012, was disappointingly low, the majority of people voted in favour of the proposal and it was a proposal that undoubtedly put children first.

The purpose of this Bill is to reform and update family law and safeguard the welfare, safety and best interests of our children so, again, it is about putting our children first. The last legislation regarding guardianship of children living in diverse families was the Guardianship of Infants Act 1964, so we are talking about legislation that was created 50 years ago. As we all know, a lot has changed in 50 years, particularly when we are talking about the make-up of a family. We need to modernise the law relating to children living in diverse family forms and I am happy this Bill will address and provide not just for guardianship but also for parentage, custody and access across a range of family situations which are currently not being addressed by older regulations or legislation.

I am also pleased that the Bill caters for children being parented by same-sex couples or those who have been born through donor-assisted reproduction. At the same time, I do not think this Bill is trying to change the fact that, where possible, a child should be brought up by their birth mother and father. However, life is not so black and white and the sooner we realise that and can cater for different families, the better. There are children who are being brought up by a mother and father who are husband and wife but there are also children who are being brought up by single parents, grandparents or other family members, and we need to make sure that regardless of the make-up of the family, the child is in a caring and safe environment and all their needs are met.

The Bill clearly sets out who can apply for guardianship in respect of a child. It obviously enables a relative to apply for custody and, when relationships break down, it enables grandparents and other relatives to have easier access to children. This is extremely important because I have seen how when a relationship breaks down, there are often side effects that the parents often do not see. I am glad the Bill addresses that.

The issue of maintenance is addressed in respect of the child and a civil partner or a parent's cohabiting partner where that person is a guardian. While the legislation cannot compel a person to pay - when it gets to that stage, it goes to court - it forces us to take on this issue of liability in a much stronger manner.

The Bill also enables a wider range of unmarried fathers to become guardians, but I must say that I agree with Deputy Eoghan Murphy in respect of requiring the father to live with a partner for 12 months, three of which must be after the child's birth. If a person does not show any interest in their child and does not care for them or support them, they should definitely not be given guardianship, but I would question requiring fathers to live with a partner. Perhaps this could be looked at.

The face of adoption has changed in recent years. Last year, fewer than 100 children were adopted in Ireland. Twenty or 30 years ago, that number would have been drastically higher. The reason for that is because society has changed its attitudes to young mothers and unmarried couples. There are far more supports in place and religion does not have the same hold on people as it would have had then. Even with that change, however, I know many people seem to have reservations about one aspect of the Bill, namely, the amendment to the Adoption Act 2010. This would allow for the extension of its provisions to civil partners and cohabiting couples. There has been a lot of debate recently about whether gay couples should be allowed to adopt. Nobody has an automatic right to adopt. There are many families which on the outside look like typical conventional families where the parents are married, have children and live in a nice house, but that does not automatically mean they live in a happy household. It does not automatically mean that the children are being looked after in the manner they should be looked after but because of how the world works and because a man and a woman can create a baby, the situation is sometimes challenged. I think we need to challenge that more. People who want to adopt, regardless of whether they are gay or straight, in a couple or single, must sometimes go through years of interviews and background checks.

They have to jump through all sorts of hoops to show that they are good parents and will provide for the child. When speaking about adoption we are speaking about the best environment for a child and so sexuality should not be an issue.

There are many aspects of this Bill that could be touched on. It is extremely complex legislation. The interests of the child are paramount and the welfare of the child is a necessity. It is important we are all in agreement when this Bill passes through the Dáil.

Like other speakers, I congratulate the Minister on the introduction of this Bill. I also commend her predecessor, Deputy Shatter, for his previous work on the compilation of this Bill. Colleagues on all sides of the House also need to be congratulated for their input and observations on this extremely complex and detailed legislation which attempts to cater for almost all of the eventualities of which we are aware, and many of which we are not aware. Regardless of what one does as a legislator something will always be missed.

I compliment Deputy Kelleher on his references to child abuse and the experiences we have had in this regard in this country over the past number of years. This Bill proposes to put in place protections for children in a way that heretofore has not been done. It also attempts to put in place a necessary back-up system in this regard. I hope this will happen. Deputy Kelleher posed the question, "When is the right time to intervene on behalf of the child?" Given that this legislation is built around the child and protection of the child it is important there is clarity around the right time for that intervention. I have previously posed questions such as: "When should one intervene?"; "How does one know if one is doing the right thing?"; "Is one interfering in another person's business?"; "Is one taking adequate precautions?", or whatever the case may be. Invariably, it is a matter of judgment. The professionals involved need to be able to make a judgment call. All of us have dealt down through the years with situations in respect of which judgment calls were not made in time and as a result there were consequences of an undesirable nature. Usually in this situation the child became the victim. That should not be the case. I am currently dealing with a case in respect of which it is clear serious abuse is taking place within a family. No action is being taken in this case, other than to victimise the mother and the children, because of a lack of willingness to become involved.

This Bill deals with a number of other issues, including assisted human reproduction. The issue of donors and the need for a register of same is hugely important. I note there are a number of exceptions in this regard. Lawyers are going to have the greatest time in the world in terms of the likelihood of their being called upon to determine which law is applicable in this area. I am aware of only one instance of the law being applied retrospectively in this country. In the case of a donation made ten years ago which becomes active at this point in time will the legislation enacted ten years ago apply or will this legislation, when enacted, apply? A case relating to this issue was before the courts a number of years ago. It is inevitable that case law in this area will be established over a period of time. The amount of case law required to set the basis for the interpretation of this legislation will be huge. The tendency in this country is to challenge.

Deputies Eoghan Murphy and Helen McEntee referenced the provision regarding the commitment of a father to a child in particular circumstances. It should not be sufficient for a father only to have resided with the child for a couple of weeks or months. There is need for a stronger commitment in this regard. It is not necessarily the case that the mother will object out of peevishness. It should not be forgotten that the maternal bond is very strong. It has been contested in court on numerous occasions that the maternal and paternal bonds are equal. I do not agree. I believe the maternal bond is the strongest. Any attempt to break this bond can have serious consequences for a family and the health of the mother and so on. We are all aware of court cases involving assertions to the effect that one or other parent is an unfit parent, particularly in the context of separation disputes between parents, whether cohabiting or married. I wonder whether address of this issue will be as simple as it now appears. Invariably, when a case reaches the courts it becomes a battle between two sets of legal advisers who will do everything in their power to win their case. Neither set of legal advisers is going to hold up their hands and, in the interests of fair play, concede the case. That never happens. I ask that the Minister bear in mind the likely process that will take place in those circumstances. Many speakers referenced single fathers being deprived of their rights. I believe that the rights of the mother of the child need to be borne in mind in a particular way until such time as men can give birth, which will be some time into the future.

The Bill also deals with guardianship. I note that responsibility for this legislation is divided between several Departments, including the Departments of Health and Social Protection. To what extent will social welfare law have to be amended accordingly? We have all dealt with cases involving a grandparent, relative or non-relative who is acting as guardian of a child in respect of whom no decision on guardianship has been made and the guardian gets no allowance. If they do, it is against the run of play. It some cases a mother may have abandoned her child to be maintained by, for example, her mother. In such cases, when the mother is interviewed by social services and asked if she is maintaining her child the mother will always say she is doing so, in which case the grandparent, relative or non-relative will never get a payment. We have all dealt with such cases. I ask that this too be borne in mind at the appropriate time. It should not be the case that when guardianship of a child is being determined the word of the mother or father in regard to whether he or she is maintaining the child is accepted. They should be required to prove that is the case. We have all dealt with cases in respect of which the natural parent has not seen his or her child for ten or 12 years. It is important that the guardian of a child in such cases is recognised.

I regret that it is not possible in the time available to me to speak to the many issues covered in this Bill. I hope I will have ample opportunity to address these issues on Committee Stage. This is complex legislation. I agree with those speakers who said that we need thoroughly to discuss, analyse and debate it at each Stage of its passage through the Houses to ensure as much as possible protection of the child and all relationships and to ensure that their responsibilities and entitlements are recognised.

The next slot is a Sinn Féin one. Time is being shared between Deputy Martin Ferris and Deputy Michael Colreavy. Is it agreed that they will have ten minutes each? Agreed.

Sinn Féin supports this Bill, as it seeks to reflect the social change that has taken place in Ireland in recent decades in terms of family relationships and the children within them. Every Deputy in their constituency clinic sees the manifestation of those changes every day and it is correct that our laws should reflect them. The long wait for this legislation has left many people in legal limbo regarding various aspects of their family lives and it is a good thing that those matters will now be sorted out without having to go through expensive and lengthy legal processes.

Single parenthood and families which mix the children of two former families are common and there are all sorts of issues to do with guardianship, custody, adoption and cohabitation in the many new forms of family life which exist now in Ireland. All of the people involved in these families have rights and responsibilities and it is proper that the law moves to protect all of them. Most particularly, the rights of children must be protected by legislation and the obligations of parents and guardians too must be enshrined in law.

The Bill contains provisions which will challenge our traditional view of the family but it is time to move on in that regard. In many instances the traditional view of family has failed children as well as parents. This legislation in itself will help to change the attitude of those who hanker for the day when the nuclear family as we knew it was the only family recognised in law. The Bill will allow couples who have been together for three years to apply jointly to adopt. That is a good provision to replace the current situation where just one of the couple can be an adoptive parent. There have been sad and tragic circumstances where one half of a loving couple of parents dies and grandparents have stepped in to prevent the surviving parent from having access to the child and in cases where the person in question was not legally an adoptive parent, he or she had no rights despite a long-term relationship with the child. It is to be welcomed that children living in non-marital and non-traditional families will be in a position to enjoy a legal relationship with the person who provides them with day-to-day parental care, whoever that person may be.

Single persons who are gay or lesbian have been allowed to adopt children before now. The Children and Family Relationships Bill just ensures that in the case of same-sex relationships, both parents are guardians and the child has the same rights as any other child. It is unfortunate that some people who want to live in the past and who do not support the Bill have been calling it the gay adoption Bill, as if gay people could not already adopt.

I am pleased to note provision for fathers' rights in the Bill, because it was a serious omission and led to a lot of unmarried fathers having restricted or no access to their children. All of us as elected representatives have encountered that in our clinics in the past. The Bill could have gone further, as there is still no option for an unmarried father if the mother of his child will not sign the statutory declaration for joint guardianship, except cohabitation for the requisite length of time. The new provision for someone who has lived with a parent for three years and looked after a child for two years being able to apply for guardianship or custody is also a good provision.

There have been countless sad and even tragic stories in this country in the past about people who could not find their families due to illegal and irregular adoption practices. I welcome the provision where all children who are born via assisted human reproduction will be able to trace their donors. There is hardly an extended family in this island that has not encountered restrictions being put in their way when trying to find birth parents or their children who were given up for adoption.

There are some provisions which we will try to amend on Committee Stage, but in general this is good legislation and I congratulate the Minister on it. Now, the question is whether the framework around the legislation is fit for purpose. Will there be a court welfare service to back up the provisions of the Bill? There is a lack of appropriate mechanisms to assess a child's welfare and best interests. Will there be mechanisms in place to allow older children to express their views on the situation and to have those views impartially assessed? Will mediation, counselling and welfare services be able to deal with the proper implementation of the legislation? Is there any plan to train the Judiciary to deal adequately with complex family law cases? Will family law courts have the services of properly trained free legal aid solicitors? Family law cases can genuinely be life-changing for all those involved and every measure must be taken to ensure that decisions about a family are well informed and backed by the best possible training and knowledge.

It must be made very clear that the Bill and the forthcoming referendum on marriage equality are totally separate. The referendum on 22 May is about marriage and has nothing to do with children. The sole question which people will be asked is whether gay and lesbian couples can marry. That is all. Those against marriage equality will try to confuse the issue, but it must be made clear that children are not involved in the question being put on 22 May. Meanwhile, although there may be some amendments from Sinn Féin on Committee Stage, we generally support the broad thrust of the Bill and we congratulate the Minister.

The purpose of the Bill appears to be to bring legislation in line with how people live their lives today. There are some who seem to be of the view that if we do not change the legislation, somehow people will live the kind of lives we had at the foundation of the State, and that they will live different lives that fit in with the views of some people on the world and the State. However, that will not happen. The Bill is catching up with life as it is today.

The make-up of families has changed substantially since the foundation of the State and the drafting of the Constitution. The laws which were enacted and introduced by the fledgling State reflected the reality of the time. From today's perspective, Ireland would probably be viewed as far more conservative and narrow minded in terms of the prevailing view of what constituted a family. I make the point without any intended criticism that to the people of that time, any family that did not consist of a father, mother and children was considered strange. It was not quite a family. Men who were widowed were expected to marry again, because it was considered to be somehow perverse to have men rearing children on their own. Single mothers came under the scrutiny of the State, and it was often the children of families where the father was no longer present who were shipped off to industrial schools to face the horrors we have come to learn about.

The far different make-up of families today is accepted by the vast majority in society. There are two-parent families, one-parent families, step-parents and a whole multitude of different varieties that make up modern Ireland. Therefore, I welcome the long anticipated Children and Family Relationships Bill. This legislation will hopefully reflect the different make-up of families which now exist in Ireland and ensure security and peace of mind for all families in this State.

I echo what Deputy Ferris said in commending the Minister on her introduction of the Bill.

The Children and Family Relationships Bill is much more than a piece of legislation for same-sex couples. Some people are putting across a point that this is all about same-sex couples, but it is about much more than that. Some elements are making scurrilous accusations that this piece of legislation will somehow give same-sex couples more rights than heterosexual couples. This lie must be put to bed. The Bill in fact recognises the fundamental diversity that exists in Irish family life. It gives a legislative voice to an existing reality. Day-to-day tasks such as medical examinations and school trips can prove difficult for some families if there is no clear legislative guideline as to who can be considered a parent or guardian. It has a big impact on how people can live their lives. This is an important step towards recognition of equality for all. It would be disappointing if those voices which only wish to spread lies and half-truths were allowed to be the loudest in this debate.

There are of course some issues with the Bill which I believe need to be addressed. The section regarding cohabitation needs to be examined, whereby a father living with the child's mother for 12 consecutive months, including at least three months with the mother and the child following the child's birth, will automatically become a guardian. It is not always possible for the father to live with the child's mother for 12 consecutive months or for three months following the birth. There are many reasons a father may not be cohabiting with the mother of his child. For example, the mother might be living with her parents, or the father might be living in another part of the country or another country due to work commitments. There is nothing substantial for unmarried fathers outside the cohabiting clause. Everyone else will be obliged to resort to the courts if the mother does not agree to sign a statutory declaration of joint guardianship. These issues need to be addressed by the Minister.

The courts and the legal system must be equipped to deal with the changes that the Bill will introduce. The Bill is possibly one of the most significant pieces of legislation that will impact on how the legal system will view the make-up of the family structure. There has to be a degree of specialist knowledge in this area, and the court system must be adequately equipped to deal with these cases coming before the courts. The days when children and parents are dealt with in the same way as other civil cases must end. An adequate family law court system must be established, backed up by a comprehensive court welfare system. Access to this must also be addressed, especially for low-income families who are unable to access free legal aid. The court system must be open and available to all, not just those who can afford it.

The Minister should work to ensure that as many people as possible are aware of what the outcomes of the legislation will mean so that those putting forward the nightmare scenarios are silenced. This will be useful to counteract many of the lies being spread by a small but vociferous section of society who seem bent on misinforming the public. Also, the more information that is given to the public, the more families in future will be aware of the legal situation in which they find themselves. For example, many people believe that putting a father's name on a birth certificate automatically guarantees a father's guardianship rights. As we know, it does not.

Overall, the Children and Family Relationships Bill is a progressive step on the road to creating an Ireland that better recognises its diversity. I welcome the fact that the legislation has been brought before the House and I look forward to working with all Deputies to ensure we get this right. The Minister's office needs to work very closely with Opposition spokespersons to ensure the final enacted legislation is as good as it can be. I sometimes get the impression that amendments put forward by the Opposition are regarded as a comment on the ability of the Government, the Minister's office or the legal draughtsmen. Conversely, Opposition spokespersons putting forward amendments may not fully realise that there might be unintended consequences to the amendments being tabled. We need to look on this as a collaborative job of work, because by working more closely together, listening to each other and deepening our understanding of the complexities of today's lives, we will surely come up with the best possible piece of legislation to reflect them.

The next speaker is Deputy Catherine Byrne, who is sharing time with Deputies Seán Kyne and James Bannon.

I warmly welcome the Bill, which is a crucial element of child-centred reform that will amend laws regarding children's rights and child protection. It is about modernising family law and addressing the particular needs of children in the areas of parentage, guardianship, adoption and custody access. I commend the Minister, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, on her publication of the Bill and I commend the former Minister, Deputy Alan Shatter, on his work on it. I welcome the cross-party support for the Bill, which is a testament to its content and what it sets out to do. The Bill has been in the pipeline for many years and I am proud that the Government has stepped up and delivered on its commitment to children. It will afford all children, including those living in difficult and challenging situations, the support and security they need and deserve.

Children in this country are cared for and protected in a range of family types, but the law does not recognise this. The Bill will ensure that the courts have much greater flexibility to grant guardianship where they have been prevented from doing so. At present, awarding guardianship can be problematic if parents fall ill, pass away or cannot care for their children for a variety of reasons. The Bill offers legal support and protection to the children of married and unmarried parents, the parents' partners, the children's grandparents and other relatives. The Bill enables grandparents and other relatives to have easier access to children in cases of relationship breakdown and to apply for custody if a parent is unwilling or unable to take responsibility for caring for the child. I welcome this aspect of the Bill, as for many years grandparents have not been able to intervene where people have fallen ill and in situations of substance abuse.

The legislation reflects changing modern society and the various types of family that exist. We all know families whose setup is not seen to be traditional. The Bill protects and clarifies relationships for children living in such families. I welcome the clarity the Bill brings to cases in which children are parented by same-sex couples or have been born through donor-assisted human reproduction. This is a complex area which has until now been unregulated. The Commission on Assisted Human Reproduction first reported to the Government in 2005, but it has taken until now for action to be taken to give legal certainly to children and families in this situation. The Bill also provides for the establishment of a register of donor-conceived persons, which is important to provide clarity on parentage.

This means once a donor-conceived child turn 18 years of age she will be able to seek information about her donor. Many people were adopted and never knew who their real parents were and are still struggling to find out today.

I was disappointed to see that surrogacy was not included, but I heard today that the Minister for Health, Deputy Leo Varadkar, has stated that his Department is working on a Bill to address the many complexities surrounding surrogacy. I urge the Minister to bring that legislation before the House as soon as possible. The possibility of transferring parentage from a surrogate to a genetic mother where there is agreement is a bold and brave move to address the difficult situation whereby the birth mother is deemed to be the mother and the genetic parents must adopt their own child. The Bill will enable civil partners and cohabiting couples who have lived together for more than three years to be enabled to apply to adopt jointly, provided they have been assessed as suitable adoptive parents.

I have heard the arguments against the Bill and comments from those who have intentionally confused the legislation with the forthcoming referendum on marriage equality. I do not support their point that this legislation will intentionally deny a child either a mother or a father.

This is a comprehensive and progressive Bill. It will provide much-needed support to families of all shapes and sizes. I thank the Minister for bringing the Bill to the House. I believe it is important legislation.

I welcome the publication of this Bill, exactly four years since the general election. With 172 sections, this is one of the most complex Bills to come before the House in that time. It has implications and consequences for several substantial high-profile Acts of the Oireachtas, including the Guardianship of Infants Act 1964, the Succession Act 1965, the Family Law (Maintenance of Spouses and Children Act) 1976, the Status of Children Act 1987, the Adoption Act 2010 and the Civil Partnership and Certain Rights and Obligations of Cohabitants Act 2010. It can be asked why these Acts were so high profile and significant. It was because they impacted directly on the lives of hundreds of thousands of individuals and families in the State.

This Bill will join the catalogue of landmark legislation in this area. Like others, I am proud that a Fine Gael Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, is pursuing the Bill. I congratulate her predecessor, Deputy Alan Shatter, on introducing and leading this Bill in the initial stages as well. Although the statement is sometimes disputed, Fine Gael is a party of the progressive centre. We believe in equality, fairness, upholding the law and vindicating rights. The Bill seeks to emulate all of these aims.

The Bill is made up of 172 sections. We should keep in mind the recent past and the institutional State-sanctioned inequality and unfairness that existed in our country. In recent times we have seen numerous reports and apologies, and rightly so, relating to what went on in our past. People, especially those of my age and younger, should recall that the ridiculous arcane concept of illegitimacy was only abolished with the Status of Children Act 1987. Prior to that Act, children born of parents who were not married were legally illegitimate. In case anyone was unaware of this, the State issued a different colour birth certificate to remind them and everyone else. Looking back, it seems absolutely ridiculous and completely crazy that such a situation existed, but it did. Unfortunately, it exists today in a different way. Today, some children and de facto parents do not enjoy the same rights or protections of the law, and this is wrong. In the same way as the Status of Children Act moved to address these shortcomings and failings, so too will the Children and Family Relationships Bill. The Bill modernises the law and, in effect, represents the law catching up with the reality of everyday life in this country. Above all, the Bill is child-centred and addresses a range of areas, including parentage rights and responsibilities, guardianship, custody and access, donor-assisted reproduction and maintenance. The Bill represents the culmination of a long process of research, reform and consultation.

As part of the pre-legislative scrutiny process introduced by this Government, the Joint Committee on Health and Children held important hearings last April and produced a report on the proposed Bill. The Minister published the general scheme last September and facilitated further consultation and comment on the Bill's contents and aims.

Opponents of the legislation are seeking to link it to the marriage equality referendum, which is equally important but separate. Opponents of this legislation are also seeking to confuse matters by focusing on families headed by same-sex couples. I have been dismayed, as have other Deputies, by the narrow focus some media outlets are putting on the Bill as well. While it is true that some of the families positively impacted are families headed by persons who happen to be gay or lesbian, the Bill impacts positively on hundreds of thousands of other families as well. These families include married parents, unmarried parents and grandparents or other relatives in a parenting role.

Section 40 enables a wider range of unmarried fathers to become guardians of their child automatically. A father who has lived with the child's mother for 12 consecutive months, including at least three months with the mother and the child following the child's birth, will automatically become a guardian. It will enable a parent's spouse, civil partner or cohabitant of not less than three years' duration to apply to the court to become a guardian where he or she has co-parented the child for two years. These provisions cover day-to-day issues in the best interests of the child.

Section 45 includes a new section 6E for the Guardianship of Infants Act 1964. This is welcome and shows that this Bill is child-centred. It enables a guardian or parent to appoint a temporary guardian for his or her child, through a court-based process, where the parent is suffering from serious illness or injury that prevents him or her from exercising his or her guardianship responsibilities.

Section 51 amends section 11B of the 1964 Act and will enable grandparents and other relatives to have easier access to children in the context of relationship breakdown. They will be able to apply directly to the court for access rather than having to go through the current two-stage process of applying to the court for leave to make the application for access. I welcome this provision.

Section 56 amends section 18A of the 1964 Act to ensure that the child in question can make his or her views known in proceedings relating to guardianship in custody and access cases, where possible and given the child's age and understanding. It is welcome that where the child is of an age that he can make his views known, those views will be taken into account and listened to. I welcome this move.

Sections 66 to 73, inclusive, contain amendments to the Family Law (Maintenance of Spouses and Children Act) 1976. This landmark Act provided protection to spouses - in the main, wives - and children. It ensured that other spouses, mainly husbands, could not sell the family home to the detriment of the wife and children, among other protections. The amendments extend protections in a way that reflects the fact that couples may be of the same gender, though they may not be married or civil partners.

Section 75 deletes section 35(4) of the Status of Children Act. This means a child will now be able to make an application to a court for a declaration of parentage. This is being introduced because it is in the best interests of a person to know his or her identity.

Opponents of section 108 maintain it confers the right to adopt on same-sex couples. Let us be clear that no legislation, this Bill included, confers a right on anyone to adopt. A person has the right to apply to adopt and be rigorously assessed by the adoption authority. Section 108 extends the right to apply to adopt to cohabiting couples, whether same-sex or different-sex couples. The Bill duly recognises that a person's parenting ability is not connected in any way to sexual orientation. Rather, it is about stability and the ability to provide a safe environment for the child.

Overall, I welcome the Bill. It is reflective of modern life. It recognises that a child has a right to and need for security and stability and has the right to know that someone has a legal duty to look after him or her. It modernises the law by encompassing a wide area, including parentage, custody, maintenance and adoption. I welcome the Bill and I hope it has swift passage through the Dáil.

I am pleased to contribute to the debate on this reforming legislation. Like much legislation coming from the Government in recent months, it is a forward-thinking Bill designed to bring the Statute Book up to date with society in 2015. The Minister rightly summed it up when she said that this reform of family law was a "substantial and detailed response to the reality of family life in Ireland today".

It is a modernising Bill because, for the first time ever, we are addressing the needs of children living in diverse families.

The National Women's Council of Ireland recently described this Bill as a "milestone in the protection of children's rights in Ireland" and it was absolutely right. We are putting children at the heart of family law, where they always should have been. The reason we are only doing this now is that Irish families have broadened and changed in recent decades and are much more diverse than the type of family settings my own generation would have been familiar with. There are numerous types of family in Irish society today, including unmarried parents with children, parents and their partners with children and civil partnerships with children. We need only look at the most recent census data from 2011 to see that diverse families exist in substantial numbers.

I would like to quote a few figures from the census of 2011 as they highlight the varied nature of Irish families today. At that time there were 215,000 lone-parent households, and 17,000 lone parents were living in multi-family households. Some 66% of the 155,000 divorced or separated women were living with their children. Approximately 25,000 children were born outside marriage or civil partnership. There were 49,000 households of cohabiting couples with children under 15. Indeed, the number of children in households headed by cohabiting couples increased by a substantial 41% between 2006 and 2011. Looking at these statistics, it is as clear as night follows day why this legislation is needed. Essentially, we are addressing a number of key issues in regard to diverse families and their rights to access, maintenance, adoption, custody and guardianship. By addressing these key issues, we are placing a solid framework around the rights of the child.

There are a few particular aspects of this legislation that I am particularly pleased with. For example, I believe it is an important move to ensure that unmarried fathers become guardians of their children automatically. The Bill provides a clear timeframe whereby the father must have lived with the child's mother for 12 months, including at least three months after the birth of their child, in order to automatically obtain guardianship. In my view, this places a much greater responsibility on the father, and I am glad to see it happening.

The emphasis placed on grandparents in this legislation is also important. I have no doubt that we have all come across cases of grandparents being blocked from seeing a child due to a breakdown in family relationships. Unfortunately, hostile family break-ups can be a common occurrence, and it is not unusual for the grandparents of a child to perhaps lose contact or find it very difficult to see the child. What we are now doing is providing grandparents and other relatives with greater access to children when a relationship breaks down. Previously, grandparents and other relatives would have to go through a two-stage process whereby they would have to apply to the court for leave to make an application for access. Instead, we are now allowing them to apply directly to the court for access.

In conclusion, this legislation provides critical legal support and protection for children who may grow up in a range of different family settings. It also provides greater clarity on rights of parents and other family members. It is very comprehensive legislation and it quite rightly recognises the rights of children and families in 21st century Ireland. I compliment the Minister, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, on all her work in this area since she took over as Minister for Justice and Equality. I am delighted the Minister has sat through the entire debate. I watched from my office the Minister's presence here in the Chamber during the course of the debate. I believe it is very much appreciated by all the Members and, I am sure, by the public at large.

I call Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan, who is sharing time with Deputies Ruth Coppinger and Joan Collins.

There is no doubt this is a major piece of work and it has been welcomed by many groups and organisations that work with children. One aspect I want to acknowledge is the way in which this Bill acknowledges the changes and diversities in family life in Ireland. The traditional married mother and father in the family home with children has been added to by quite a range of family scenarios. The Central Statistics Office gives us very interesting figures on this. In the second quarter of 2014, some 36.1% of births were registered as being outside marriage. There are also figures on children living with lone mothers, with lone fathers, with unmarried cohabiting couples or with same-sex couples, families where a parent has divorced and remarried and families where children are being cared for by grandparents. That is the diversity in Irish life today.

That is not to undermine or denigrate in any way the traditional family but it is acknowledging the new reality. That reality needs legislation because children in these non-traditional families have to be provided for so they are not discriminated against. Irish law needs to reflect these social changes.

I very much welcome the point about grandparents. In the north inner city, for many children of parents in addiction, the grandparents have been the unsung heroes and heroines at times in their lives when their own children were adults and they should have been looking forward to some respite. However, because they did not want to see their grandchildren being taken into foster care, they became the parents. They had long battles with the authorities relating to children's allowance and so on, but most of those issues have been resolved.

Parents separate and, unfortunately, many separations are fraught. It is the grandparents who often provide stability and comfort. It has been heartbreaking for many grandparents when one of the parents, usually not their son or daughter, moves into a new relationship because the children's relationship with the grandparents can be a casualty. Grandparents do not want to lose contact with their grandchildren, regardless of the status of the parental relationship. They certainly did not need the onerous two-stage procedure they had under the previous legislation, so what is planned here is much more manageable.

I want to spend some time dealing with the issue of unmarried fathers. We were told that the Bill would enable a wider range of unmarried fathers to become guardians of their children automatically, but I have been meeting unmarried fathers who are very concerned. Provided he has lived with the child's mother for 12 consecutive months, including at least three with the mother and child following the child's birth, the father will automatically become a guardian. The difficulty is that a father is a father regardless of how many months or days he spends with the mother, and regardless of the type of relationship he has with the mother. It has been extremely difficult for many unmarried fathers to play a real fatherly role in the lives of their children because the mother is the ultimate authority. We know there are fathers who have long, bitter and expensive battles in order to be fathers.

Organisations that work with men in these situations will show that men today tend to be victims of a system that solely benefits the mother. How can it be in the best interest of the child to deprive it of its father? Our court system has been guilty of contributing further heartbreak to families. Fathers can and should play an equal role in raising their children. The part of the Bill dealing with fathers, especially unmarried fathers, does not go far enough on the issue of equality of parenting.

In Northern Ireland, once the father's name is on the birth certificate, he is then the automatic guardian of his child, but the Republic has denied unmarried fathers this right. In what is proposed here, the father does not have an automatic right but an earned right, depending on his relationship with the mother. With this legislation, the partner of the mother, after three years living with her, can become the guardian of the child, regardless of the father's position. Surely the support should be for the father of the child to be the child's guardian, unless, of course, there are circumstances like violence, abuse or addiction.

There are one-night stands were women become pregnant; they are most unfortunate, but they happen. That child has the same right to be cared for by both parents as a child born to a married or a cohabiting couple, whereas, with the one-night stand, the mother has automatic custody when she becomes pregnant and the father could face years of legal wrangling to have any say in the life of the child. Surely we want to see the father playing an active and responsible role in parenting, and I am not sure the Bill addresses this point. I believe it could worsen the situation of the unmarried father in that particular scenario. We need laws that ensure fathers act as fathers, rather than laws that prevent them from doing so.

The child has a right to be raised by both parents but often, unfortunately, when separation occurs, there is acrimony and the children can be used like pawns.

It is usually the father who is told he will never see his child again, which is a horrible sentence. If both parents had equal rights we could prevent that.

I was made aware of a very distressing situation in which the parents of a child were not married, but were separated. The mother had a new partner. She sadly died, but her partner has custody of the child despite the fact that the father also has a fatherly role in the child's life. He cannot make any decisions for his child. The guardian could find a new partner who could then have more of a say in the life of the child than the father would.

That brings me to passport issues for the father and others where another man is a guardian. The father may have to ask permission from the guardian to take his son or daughter on a holiday abroad. We know that a mother's new partner can refuse this and restrict access for the father. Equally, there are questions regarding education. The Bill seems to cover residence and religious and cultural upbringing where the existing guardian's permission is required. The Bill is extensive, but education is an important aspect in which the father should have a say.

There is also a fear factor for separating couples, who may stay together in an unhealthy and negative relationship so that the father does not lose contact or a role in the child's life. I am not saying all fathers are perfect and want to be involved in their children's lives, but the majority do, and separated fathers have been very badly treated in Irish society. A mother's new partner, who could be an almost total stranger to a child, could have more rights than a child's father. We need rigorous background checks on the suitability of partners to be guardians. A father can end up being a father to another man's son or daughter without being a father to his own son or daughter.

Continuity and stability are very important in children's lives. This has to be central to the aspects of the Bill relating to unmarried fathers. The length of the mother's relationship seems to be the deciding factor, and three years is the magic number. It takes almost four years to divorce but three years to be the guardian of a child.

There are issues with regard to the provisions of the Bill relating to lone parents. If a mother is in receipt of rent allowance, there are regulations covering overnight stays by a father or boyfriend. A married father acts jointly with his wife as a legal guardian, but if they divorce or separate he can be undermined by a third party who forms a relationship with his former wife. The third party can become a third legal guardian, and if decisions have to be made, the mother, together with the new partner, will always outnumber the father. It is another area where fathers' rights are being ignored. There are concerns for fathers who are unmarried and separated from the mothers of their children.

I note the point on the best interests of the child being paramount, and nobody would disagree with that. When it comes to deciding that, we need more information. I was a teacher and a guidance counsellor and the Minister was a social worker. Both of us were in situations in which we made decisions about the best interests of the child. I know I could disagree with my colleagues on what I felt were the best interests of a child in my school. The Minister may have been in that situation.

I do not know that one can legally define the best interests of the child, but it is a grey area. Where is the accountability for the person who makes the decision? Where is the follow-up on the outcomes of those decisions? The best interests of a child have to be based on fact rather than opinion. I would hate to see a child put in a situation in which he or she has to choose between parents, unless there is abuse or violence.

One of the other positive measures is that dealing with fractious and difficult situations in which parents who have separated obstruct or prevent contact between the child and the other parent. It is very good that this is being addressed. There are many positives in this Bill, and that has to be acknowledged. I again refer to the issues I raised relating to unmarried fathers.

I, too, welcome the recognition within the Bill of the diverse range of families we have in this country. Let us be clear. It is not that forward-thinking, because for decades there has been diversity in family types in this country. The Bill is recognising that reality. For example, there are 308,000 children being raised by lone mothers and about 44,000 children being raised by single fathers. Almost 400,000 children in the country are being raised outside the idealised scenario that is painted by some of the critics of this Bill and the marriage equality legislation. Many children are being brought up without a father or a mother in their home. I welcome the fact that the Bill recognises cohabiting couples, step-parents, grandparents and relations, foster parents and lesbian and gay parents.

The anti-marriage-equality lobby is attacking this Bill and linking it with the upcoming referendum. According to some in the Iona Institute, we could have mothers marrying their daughters if the likes of this Bill is passed. These family formations already exist, and the idea that putting a law in place would prevent such families from forming is not correct. In the past, Ireland, because of its unique history, has had matriarchal families, children raised by relatives and all sorts of family setups due to emigration and the poverty that blighted this country. The biggest threat to the family in Ireland is the ongoing austerity and poverty which is hitting families and making it extremely difficult for them to exist in a happy and safe place with a roof over their heads.

While I welcome the Bill, I have some concerns. Unlike a couple of previous speakers, I would raise a question about automatic guardianship for a father who has lived with a woman for 12 months from the point of view of women in situations of domestic violence. Women's Aid has highlighted that one in five women in this country are victims of domestic violence, which is quite a lot of women. Men who are violent and not good fathers could have control that they do not currently have because of this provision on automatic guardianship. They could be in a position to prevent women from getting passports and so on for their children. I would like people who raise this matter to demonstrate that there is a problem. Today I spoke to a family solicitor who assured me that any father who applies for guardianship in the courts gets it unless there is a serious reason he or she should not. If people are saying otherwise, I would like them to demonstrate that this is the case. I have a genuine concern about this.

Some 30% of women who experience domestic violence experience it for the first time when they are pregnant. It is the most dangerous time to be in a such a relationship. A woman could be with somebody when she is pregnant and leave him after three months. He would have played no role in the child's life, but would have automatic guardianship because of that short experience. Many women are single parents for a very good reason, namely, because the birth father is not a good father. Unfortunately, that is a reality. I am not for one moment saying that men should not play a role in children's lives; they should. I do not think any woman would prevent somebody who is a positive influence on a child from playing that role, and no court would do so. However, I have a concern about automatic custody. I understand that in Britain one applies at birth for custody.

There is a danger that women could be brought into the orbit of controlling or violent men from whom they are trying to escape, using the children, as they do in such situations. They would then have to go to court to get a father de-selected as a guardian. I welcome the idea of a child-centred approach.

It is quite interesting that the other day in this House a case was raised and a school was cited. For example, the Stay Safe programme was argued to be quite dangerous as it was child-centred and not in line with Catholic ethos. There was a conflict in the past when too much emphasis was given to families staying together over a child's interest. I welcome this progress. I raise a concern regarding women in violent relationships. Their safety must also be considered, along with that of children, and there can be conflicts in this respect. I ask that this be taken into account in the Bill.

I spoke to some family solicitors and their daily work is in the family courts. They raised quite a number of criticisms of the way the Bill was written and did not think it was clear. They argue that there are many difficulties with it. One which is well known is that courts are not in a position now to deal with all the processes proposed in the Bill. There would have to be serious levels of investment but there would still be an unbelievable backlog in free legal aid. If people did not have the means to pay for legal representation and get the best advice, there would be a serious problem.

This is a very large Bill and it is not possible to deal with all the elements in five minutes. I welcome that assisted reproduction is being brought into the equation. The Bill only deals with offspring created in a clinical setting. That can raise issues, as many people cannot afford in vitro fertilisation and may look at other means to this end. Such an exclusion might mean a partner would not be entitled to guardianship, which should be considered.

I welcome the Bill in general, and this has been a feature of contributions today and yesterday. Such an attitude arises from the fact that something needed to be done and we have waited far too long for this to come through. That was as a result of issues outside of the control even of the Minister and her predecessor, but it is important legislation. The fact that so many umbrella groups of family and child-centred organisations are supporting it, despite some areas of concern, is an indication that we would be left in limbo, as we have been for the past almost 40 years in the State, without the Bill.

It is complex legislation with 172 sections. I am not a solicitor or barrister and would not even pretend to say I understand the Bill. One would almost need somebody to work through all the aspects of the Bill. It will need serious scrutiny on Committee Stage and examining it with the participation of all Members is very important. There may be unintended consequences, as mentioned by other Deputies.

I welcome the main thrust of the Bill in placing the interests of children centre-stage and recognising diversity of family life in modern society. As I indicated, the Bill is long overdue. Those who oppose it and the same-sex marriage referendum are attempting to propose a narrow, religiously based view of the family which no longer corresponds to the reality of the family unit today. It does not reflect the family unit of 30, 40, 50 or 60 years ago either. How many of us have sat down with family members only to find that an aunt was really somebody else or had to go to Britain to have a child, or that there was a cousin or uncle in Britain, America or Australia? Children who thought they were reared by their mother have been reared by grandmothers, sisters or aunts. Family life has always been as complex in Ireland as in any society, because no society in reality has realised the rose-tinted vision of every family being a nuclear family with a married mother and father. This legislation is required to get us past the first and second steps on the road of putting children's interests first.

There is a requirement for a register of assisted human reproduction donors, and the automatic right of children conceived through that process to access information on the identity of the donor when they are 18 is important. As others have noted, the Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists has concerns in this respect, so perhaps the Minister will address this when summing up. Will she take these points on board? The fact that people cannot get this information until the child turns 18 is a concern.

Although I generally welcome the Bill, I note the concerns that have been raised by various groups about costs for families going through the courts. Will resources be made available to enable courts to put the interests of children first? There is also the question of child advocates. Will they be registered and what level of qualification will be required? Who will pay them and how will they advocate for children who cannot speak, have not reached speaking age or have disabilities? How will this link with the family courts, which already have large backlogs of cases? Much resourcing will have to be provided to family courts to deal with this. Should we have a children and family court advisory support service, as there is in England and Wales? What is the Minister's opinion on such an initiative? Would this be independent of the courts, the social services, education and health authorities?

I am also concerned about some issues related to birth fathers. I am not convinced of the arguments I have heard and the matter must be teased out. Everybody deals with complicated family issues each day of the week and each of these can leave grandparents, stepmothers and stepfathers or gay and lesbian people in limbo. There can be cases of family break-up with no acrimony but other cases may be very acrimonious. We must take everything into account.

I listened carefully to Deputy Shatter's comments. I am sure they will be examined with regard to what the Minister is putting in the Bill and if the ideas merge. As I have indicated, the Bill is welcome but needs serious scrutiny on Committee Stage.

We have waited a long time to speak on this Bill in the House, as it is a policy issue that has been discussed at length since this Government was formed four years ago. There has been divided opinion about the merits of the legislation, because there is divided opinion in the country as a whole as to what this legislation will mean for family life in Ireland. The Bill recognises the reality of Irish family life as it currently stands. It takes the cases of families across the island and attempts to put the best interests of children at the heart of the legislation. It might suit some people to forget that one in four families in Ireland do not consist of a married mother and father with children; they are a blend of all family types. We cannot ignore such families, and I know the Minister knows that. I agree with her comments that the best interest of the child is the golden thread running through this Bill. This holds the Bill together.

Ministers and their civil servants have drafted very forward-looking and comprehensive legislation. Many of the speeches from the Opposition have centred not on the merits or demerits of the legislation but on the amount of time we expect to spend debating the legislation. That is just shadow boxing because, over the past four years, we have introduced reforms in how we deal with legislation. For example, the heads of this Bill went through a public consultation process with the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality, which held in-depth hearings that were far-reaching and thorough. There were 38 submissions received by the committee from various interest groups and individuals and, as a result, a report was submitted to the Department in order that the conclusions could be included in the final text of the Bill.

The legislative reform we introduced helps to produce better-quality legislation due to the time and effort a committee can put into teasing out the issues in a legislative measure.

The Bill recognises lone-parent families, blended families and same-sex couple households, or households headed up by grandparents or other relatives. This is very positive and reflects the Ireland of today. It tells children in non-traditional families that they are in households in which they have the same right to be cared for, listened to and nurtured as children in any other family. That is also positive.

Concerns have been expressed about adoption and what this Bill will mean for that process. The adoption process is about what is best for the child and nothing else. Politicians are not social workers. It is not for us to make the best call in cases in which children are being placed into foster or adoptive homes. That is the work of social services, and that is where the experts are. These people are trained to deal with those decisions, and they are best left to them.

One of the other provisions of the Bill allows for cohabitant partners, one of whom is not the biological parent of a child, to be officially recognised as parents by the State. The legislation sets a minimum period of three years of cohabitation with the partner and child for that to happen. It is very likely that after three years the child would be calling the parent "Mum" or "Dad" anyway, so it is fitting that the State should recognise this. There is no issue with that.

Undoubtedly, there will be time to tease out the issues relating to this legislation on Committee Stage. I commend the Minister's work on this and we all support her in it. We hope to see the legislation passed as soon as possible.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Children and Family Relationships Bill. In the programme for Government we made a commitment to modernise and reform outdated elements of family law. As the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, stated, when enacted, the Bill will be a watershed in the development of Irish family law and will align it with the realities of modern Irish family life. It is clear that the current law does not adequately address the many diverse family situations that exist in Ireland today.

The Bill is centred on the child and will address the needs of children who are living in diverse family situations. It also clear that the Bill will ensure that the child's best interests are served, regardless of the family type. It acknowledges that children, regardless of family type, have a fundamental right to security and stability in their lives. Children have a right to clarity and transparency on the rules of parentage, guardianship and access. I wholeheartedly agree with the Minister's comment that children need to know that there is someone who has a legal duty to care for them.

As Members know from their daily constituency work, family life in Ireland has changed dramatically since the Guardianship of Infants Act was enacted in 1964, over 51 years ago. The census of 2011 confirmed that the traditional fabric of family life in Ireland is changing. Over 215,000 families are headed by lone parents and 44% of parents have never married. There are more than 49,000 households of cohabiting couples with children under 15 years of age, and this figure has risen by over 40% since 2006 and is continuing to rise. It is clear from the census that a significant number of children are living in household types other than those headed by married parents.

The Bill will address a wide range of family situations in Ireland today, including situations in which children are reared within married families, in lone-parent households, by same-sex couples or by grandparents or other relatives, and children who have been born through assisted human reproduction. It will have a positive impact on Irish family life, not only for the children but also for people who have a legal responsibility in the care of children. Features of the Bill which I support and welcome include the provision enabling a larger range of unmarried fathers to become guardians of their children automatically. A father who has lived with the child's mother for 12 consecutive months, including at least three months with the mother and child following the child's birth, will automatically become a guardian.

The Bill will enable grandparents and other relatives to have access more easily in the event of a relationship breakdown and will allow them to apply directly to the court for access, unlike the current system which requires a two-stage process whereby they must apply to the courts for leave to make an application for access. As a grandparent, and like many thousands of grandparents throughout the country, I am delighted that access to grandchildren will now be more straightforward. The Bill will also enable a relative to apply for custody of a child. In addition, a parent's spouse, civil partner or cohabitant of not less than three years can also apply for custody where he or she has shared the parenting of a child for two years.

The Bill allows a person to apply for custody if he or she has parented a child for a year and if there is no parent or guardian willing or able to exercise the powers and responsibilities of guardianship. It will enable the birth mother and the partner to register the birth of the child jointly, rather than requiring them to undertake court proceedings to establish parentage. It will also enable civil partners and cohabiting couples who have lived together for three years to be eligible to apply jointly to adopt.

To conclude, I fully support the Bill and commend the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, on her introduction of the Bill to the House.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this far-reaching and reforming legislation. It is necessary to update our family law based on the social reality of modern family life. We are simply ensuring that our legislation catches up with the modern composition of families. Ultimately, our job is to legislate and provide clarity and certainty, as far as practically possible, for all families regardless of their composition.

The Children's Rights Alliance has provided statistics relating to the composition of modern families. They show the number of children living in diverse family types. There are 308,000 children living with 186,284 lone parents, 104,665 children living with 60,269 unmarried cohabiting couples and 43,887 children living with 29,031 lone fathers. In addition, there are 230 same-sex couples living with children. However, if one were to listen to and heed the media coverage of this legislation, one would swear that it sought to deal only with same-sex couples with children. There are 42,960 people who have divorced and remarried, and of these, 66% of remarried women and 22% of remarried men live in a household with children. It is not known how many children are being cared for by grandparents or other family members, as this is currently not recorded. The figures convey the stark reality of how diverse family composition is now.

While I welcome the Bill, it is disappointing that it has taken so long to be debated in the House, considering the fact that the general scheme was published in January 2014. It is probably understandable, given the turbulence in the Department of Justice and Equality for the last 12 months, that it has taken this length of time.

The Deputy's party had 12 years.

In fairness, I am acknowledging that it is a positive development.

I will outline what the Bill covers. While much of the debate today has dealt with and focused on the adoption provision for same-sex couples, the reality of the existing adoption law and current practice is that a sole applicant can be considered for an adoption order. That has been the case since the Adoption Act 1991. In that Act there is no reference to the sexual orientation of the applicant, so a sole applicant in a same-sex relationship has been eligible to apply for an adoption order for the past two decades, subject to his or her having the capacity to parent a child into adulthood. This Bill is reflecting in law what is currently happening in practice.

Listening to comment in the media, however, one would not think that was the case.

The most reforming provisions and the most substantive content of the Bill are in the area of guardianship. It is important that clarity be brought to the assignment of parentage in different types of family. The reality is that there has been a lack of clarity on the status of children and parents who do not fall within the traditional family setup. The most significant innovation is the provision for a court-appointed guardian. This Bill will ensure that children in non-marital and non-traditional families will be in a position to enjoy a legal relationship with the person who provides them with day-to-day parental care. The new guardianship provisions extend parenting rights to four categories of person: step-parents, civil partners, cohabitees living with a biological parent for three years and co-parenting the child for two years, and people in loco parentis for a period of 12 months where no other guardian is able to act. For cohabiting parents, the requirement is that they must have been living together for three years and co-parenting for two years. I understand that guardianship is automatic for civil partners. Will the Minister clarify this? The provision relating to people acting in loco parentis for 12 months benefits grandparents and aunts and uncles who are providing care. These are family members who step in when there is a derogation of duties or the care is substandard or not provided at all. It would be helpful if the Minister were to provide clarity on the parameters of this relief.

What happens to a grandparent who provides care for 12 months and successfully applies for guardianship if, after a number of years, the original or biological parent, an alcoholic or drug addict dealing with substance abuse who could not provide care, is rehabilitated? This parent is now in a position to resume care of the child and wishes to provide that care. The parent wishes to exercise his or her constitutional rights. Will the Minister confirm what happens in terms of guardianship in such an instance?

The provision dealing with temporary guardianship is also interesting. This will occur where a parent is incapacitated for a period of time - for example, as a result of serious injuries sustained in a car crash - and is unable to parent the child. My understanding is that a temporary guardian can be appointed where it is proved to the court that the parent is incapacitated and that the applicant for temporary guardianship is a fit and proper person to parent a child. I imagine that this will eliminate the need for certain children to enter the care system. If a sibling of a parent were to make an application for temporary guardianship, it would alleviate the need for State intervention. If this is the case, it is to be welcomed. At the moment, there is a chronic shortage of social workers. Further, State intervention should only occur in family life where there is a genuine need for child protection services. I have always stated that it should be a last resort. Will the Minister confirm whether my thinking on temporary guardianship is correct?

The legislation provides for the voice of the child to be heard in all legal proceedings and places the best interests of the child at the centre of such proceedings. These are provisions on which we voted two years ago in the children's rights referendum. I welcome the elaboration of the best interests test set out in the Bill. This should lead to greater transparency in judicial proceedings. The current level of inconsistency in judicial proceedings is a major concern. Although the in camera rule may have been relaxed, we need greater reform of our court system and, in particular, of our family courts. This promise was made in the programme for Government, and a Bill on court reform is in the Government's legislative programme. While I welcome this legislation, its full implementation may not be possible without broader family court reform. The Minister might address the need to reform the family court system in her concluding remarks. I am sure the Minister agrees that there is a need to reform the family courts, and I hope that such reform will be prioritised.

The Bill provides for a child expert who will reflect the views of the child in all court proceedings. I am concerned that the appointment of such an expert is left at the discretion of the courts. Further, the cost of the expert must be paid by the parties to the proceedings. Does this mean that children whose parents cannot afford a child expert may be excluded from the decision making process? This is my reading of the provision. This Bill seems to favour those with financial resources and potentially discriminates against low-income families. It is, arguably, in breach of a constitutional requirement on which we voted in November 2012 when we enshrined the rights of all children in our Constitution. These rights should apply regardless of means.

I am surprised that there is no reference to the "GALs". This would have been an opportunity to streamline the system of guardians ad litem. The costs to the State of guardians ad litem are excessive. This would have been an opportunity to bring in comprehensive reforms to ensure an effective and efficient service which would genuinely serve the interests of the child. This needs to be addressed urgently.

The Bill also amends the Family Law (Maintenance of Spouses and Children) Act. I am delighted to see the provision ensuring that a guardian is liable to provide maintenance, because with rights come responsibilities. This is very important.

The Bill also includes far-reaching provisions to make parenting orders work. At the moment, a parent who breaches a court order cannot be sanctioned other than through criminal law. This introduces a compensatory time provision requiring a parent who breaches the access order to compensate the parent whose rights have been infringed with additional time. This should help eliminate unnecessary litigation and is a welcome provision.

I welcome the fact that a national register of donor-conceived persons is included in the provisions dealing with assisted human reproduction. I have constantly underlined the importance of a child's right to his or her identity.

The Minister will know this from her previous role as Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. I have spoken about the Adoption (Information and Tracing) Bill and a child’s right to his or her identity. It is very important and this provision is welcome.

The basic rights of children conceived through assisted human reproduction are consistent with Ireland’s obligations under Articles 7 and 8 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

I am somewhat disappointed by the manner in which unmarried fathers’ rights are addressed in this Bill. The Bill does not comprehensively address the right of a child to know and have a relationship with the biological father. The provision of automatic guardianship applies where the biological father has been living with the mother for 12 consecutive months, three of which must be after the birth of the child. There are a number of problems with this provision. The first concerns the definition of "cohabiting". Does it involve a couple who share a room or house for three or four nights per week? Will it be specified that a couple needs to be sharing a house for seven nights a week? Is that cohabiting? Must the couple be joint owners of a property or hold a joint lease? What exactly is cohabiting? I do not know, and I stand to be corrected, but it does not appear to be defined in the legislation. The lack of a definition is a weakness and there could be court cases unless this is addressed.

The legislation seems to revolve around the father’s relationship with the mother rather than with the child. Surely, when talking about legislation that pioneers the best interest of the child, the focus should be on the relationship between the father and the child. I know, and am sure the Minister knows, many cases in which a father and mother have an outrageous, unbelievably bad relationship, but that does not make either a bad person. The legislation concentrates excessively on the relationship between the father and mother.

Under the current legislation, on the birth of the child the unmarried father and mother can agree the appointment of the father as a guardian. Unfortunately, there is no central register of such declarations. I support the call from Treoir for the establishment of such a register. Given the significance of guardianship, it is imperative that there be a central register to ensure such declarations are maintained.

The legislation should go further, as suggested by the Law Reform Commission, by providing automatic guardianship rights to all biological fathers, except in exceptional circumstances, having regard to the relationship and circumstances of the birth. I refer to phenomena such as rape. We can all agree that a father should not have an automatic right in the case of rape, for example. Beyond that, however, there should be an automatic entitlement to guardianship.

The presumption should be in favour of granting a right of guardianship to all fathers, but this should be retractable in cases of rape and other such cases. For the legislation to be effective, and as suggested by the Law Reform Commission in its consultation paper on this issue, there should be a compulsory requirement to name a father on the birth certificate. This would ensure that rights given are commensurate with responsibilities. The Minister for Social Protection alluded previously to the fact that it would be a requirement to name a father on the birth certificate.

That is welcome. I was not sure whether there was such a requirement and was actually advised there was not.

This legislation is very significant. For the most part, it is most welcome. There are a number of issues to be addressed, particularly regarding unmarried fathers. With regard to acting in loco parentis, there may be a need for further clarification. The Minister might point out what happens where guardianship has been approved, perhaps for a grandparent, aunt or uncle, because of an addiction problem experienced by a biological parent. If the biological parent wants to resume custody and guardianship, what is the position?

Let me refer to the timeline for the commencement of this legislation. National vetting legislation was passed by the Houses a number of years ago but the commencement order has yet to be signed. While we can debate the Bill in this Chamber and in the Seanad, it is ultimately the responsibility of the Government to sign it. We need a commitment that it will be signed very quickly after it has been debated here in the Houses. We will be proposing amendments to do with unmarried biological fathers. For the most part, the Minister seems to be genuinely interested and she is usually very forthcoming and takes on board suggestions from this side of the House. I ask her to take mine on board. The focus should not be on the relationship between the father and mother. There are exceptionally good fathers who just may not have a good relationship with the mother. All support should be given in such circumstances.

The Minister is to be commended on the tremendous achievement of bringing the Children and Family Relationships Bill to the House. I compliment her and also her departmental staff, Conan McKenna, Carol Baxter and Dara Breathnach, on their tremendous work and the courtesy they have extended to many Members of the House when seeking information on the Bill. I pay tribute to the former Minister, Deputy Shatter, on his role and work in the preparation of this legislation.

I do not want to strike a discordant or adversarial note at the beginning of my speech, but I must contend that, although the party of Deputy Troy and other speakers opposite was in government for 12 years, I do not know what it did.

Fourteen years.

It was in power for 14 years but I do not know what it did, except wreck the country.

We have had, as part of the pre-legislative scrutiny and consultative process for this Bill, 15 presentations and 38 submissions to the justice committee. Therefore, those who say the Bill is rushed and there is not enough time should acknowledge that there has been ample opportunity for involvement, the making of submissions and the airing of opinions on the Bill. Could they please desist from the political footballing of trying to talk down this Bill and the forthcoming referendum, and from linking the two together? They are not in any way associated or connected. Members do a disservice to the referendum and this Bill by claiming the contrary. I am not saying Deputy Troy made this claim, but he knows who I mean. Obfuscation leads to confusion, and that is what we should try to avoid.

This Bill is about giving legal clarity to the parentage, guardianship and custody of children living in a range of family situations. It is about putting in place legal protections and supports for the reality that faces many families across the State today. Deputy Troy and other speakers stated that in Ireland, according to the latest census, there were 49,005 households of cohabiting couples with children in 2011. Some 36% of children are born outside marriage. The figures are worth putting in context. Almost 352,000 children live with lone parents, 104,665 children live with unmarried cohabiting parents, and there are 230 same-sex couples with children.

Families in today's Ireland are diverse. The traditional model of married parents and children, under which many of us grew up, is still the most common form of family life in the State, but it is not the only one.

The reality of family life today is that children are parented by biological parents, non-biological parents, other family members and partners, and parents' civil partners. Under our laws currently, there is inadequate provision for the needs of all those children and their families, and we all agree that must change.

Our outdated legal structure and archaic family law provisions must be modernised, reformed and updated to take account of the reality. It is no longer tenable to assert that Irish law should continue to ignore the various family forms that we now know are a reality in society. Our modern laws should be about protecting families and protecting and safeguarding children. That is the purpose of this Bill.

This Government had the first Minister with responsibility for children at Cabinet, a children's rights referendum, and this legislation. That is why it is important that we continue that work. The Bill is child-centred, and we all want to protect and safeguard the child. It continues the constitutional preference for families based on marriage, but at the same time it is providing essential legal certainty for all families, whatever their official status. That is a welcome reform, and a radical overhaul. It will create new rights for parents, both biological and social, grandparents, anyone in loco parentis to children and, most critically, children themselves. This Bill is about safeguarding the rights of all families, just as should be provided for in a modern, caring society.

There has been much debate and scaremongering about this legislation, which is unfounded. Let us be clear from the very start. This Bill does not commodify children. It does not undermine the right of a child to a mother and father, and it does not interrupt the natural ties between parents and children. The Bill does not do anything to reduce or limit the rights of natural parents. It is putting in context a new framework.

It is important to note at the outset that there is no right, under domestic or international law, for a person to adopt a child. A person may adopt as a sole applicant in a process of consideration. In determining the application of a sole applicant, it is not permissible to discriminate on the basis of the potential adopter's sexual orientation. It must be pointed out, also, that every application is assessed based on the best interests of the child. None of us can adopt automatically. It must be in the best interests of the child, not the person or persons seeking to adopt. That point has been lost in the debate.

What is the story with adoption in Ireland today? In the ten years between 2004 and 2013 there were 3,832 applications for declarations of eligibility and suitability. Of those, 94% were from married couples, only 6% were from sole or single applicants, and only two of those single applicants were men. When it comes to inter-country adoptions, over the period 2003 to 2014, 3,460 of these were registered in Ireland. Of those, 3,286 adoptions were to married couples and 179 were to single applicants. Of those 179 single applicants, 178 were women. Despite the fact that under Irish law as it stands today, gay and lesbian people are eligible to apply to adopt on their own, just like any adult in this country, the number of single applicants is very small.

There is an opportunity as this Bill progresses to raise awareness about what already happens under Irish law. In Ireland currently, lesbian and gay people can apply to be considered for adoption on the same grounds as any other person in the State. Lesbian and gay couples are fostering successfully, and they are playing a pivotal role in that regard. We sometimes see young children from challenging backgrounds being fostered in a caring and loving home and being made feel very welcome. Lesbian and gay couples are raising their children in Ireland today. That is the reality. It did not just happen yesterday or last week. It is happening in every village and town across our country. Those lesbian and gay men and women who are parents will still be parents regardless of this Bill, but the Bill will ensure that the children in these families have equal legal rights.

Currently, a lesbian or gay person can apply to be considered for adoption but a lesbian and gay couple are not allowed to apply jointly, even if they are in a civil partnership. That is a gap in the law which has not caught up with the passing of civil partnership legislation, and which this Bill will address. This law ensures that the guiding principle of the adoption process is what is in the best interest of the child. No matter who is allowed to apply to be considered for adoption, this principle will remain. The main point will be what is in the best interests of the child. I worry when I hear some opponents of the Bill talking about watering down that principle and inserting preferred options, regardless of what is in the best interest of the child. Those proposals are leading to scaremongering tactics, which are not helping this debate. The proposals by opponents of the Bill are profoundly worrying and would lead to outcomes that are not in the best interests of the child. For example, if a lesbian or gay couple have fostered a child long-term and that child becomes eligible for adoption, surely it would be in the best interests of the child for that couple to be allowed to apply to adopt him or her.

In 2012, a Northern Ireland High Court judge held that an outright ban on adoption by civil partners and unmarried couples in Northern Ireland infringed the European Convention on Human Rights, and that while single gay people could potentially adopt, a civil partner could not adopt jointly or even as an individual. He concluded that this was contrary to the convention.

Under the Bill, civil partners are to be permitted to adopt children jointly, and it is proposed that the same criteria be applied to them as to married couples. While the Adoption Act 2010 allows adoption by a sole applicant, joint adoption is only possible where the adopters are married to each other. While in principle there is nothing to prevent a person who is a civil partner or a person who is gay or lesbian from adopting as a sole applicant, it is not possible for civil partners to adopt jointly.

If adoption is about the best interests of the child, we should place that above the marital status or sexual orientation of the potential adoptive parents. We must continue to ensure that the primary and overriding consideration in determining whether an adoption should be facilitated is whether the adoption serves to advance the welfare of the child. This is about providing a loving, caring home for a child. It is about providing a place where children can grow and prosper, be equipped with the necessary skills and be taught values to allow them reach their potential in a world that can pose many challenges. The changes that are being introduced will allow children to be adopted into homes and families that are founded upon committed, loving and stable relationships. To me, that is always a positive thing.

Assisted human reproduction, AHR, is an advance of our modern world that has allowed a great many families in this area to enjoy and celebrate the gift of a child or children, but sometimes that simple and extraordinary fact is lost when people publicly debate the issue. It is regrettable that Ireland is one of the few countries that has not yet legislated and regulated for the reality of AHR. Every year approximately 3,000 babies are born in Ireland as a result of IVF and other high-tech interventions. That is a reality, and it is occurring every day without a proper legal framework. While the medical aspect of AHR is covered by medical ethics and practices, the legal aspects have been ignored. As a Legislature and as a society, we have failed to openly face up to and address that reality.

It is more than a decade since the then Government set up a Commission on Assisted Human Reproduction. That commission was to advise on how the area could be regulated. It is now over six years since that group reported but since then, despite promises, nothing has happened.

This was a failure of politics to address the desires of so many families, men and women, citizens of our State. It was a failure to support them in their quest to have children.

In this Bill the Minister is proposing to put an end to anonymous donation for AHR. The idea behind this is that every child should have access to his or her genetic identity. Ideally this should be the case, but there are related issues that we should take into account. We must look at how our laws interact with those of other countries. How do our laws affect what is already happening here or what has already happened? How will our laws affect access by people who want to be mothers and fathers to the benefits of technology in helping them to have a family?

In Ireland today there is virtually no embryo donation using sperm or eggs donated in Ireland. I understand that it occurs in a handful of cases, usually involving family members or friends. Sperm and egg donations are mostly from Denmark and Ukraine, where donation is or can be anonymous. People who travel for egg donation go to Spain or the Czech Republic, where donation is anonymous. I ask the Minister and her officials to examine this as we progress the Bill through the House. As Chairman of the Joint Committee on Health and Children, I received correspondence from and had meetings with members of the Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists who have raised this issue with me. I am not in a position to make their evaluation, but I hope we can examine their concerns and address them on either Committee Stage or Report Stage. The last thing we want to have is unwanted or unintended consequences. There are also concerns about the impact of these changes on women and families who have already commenced the process of using AHR. We should carefully consider the timelines in facilitating people to continue with something that has already started.

Concerns have been raised with me about how different couples might be treated under the changes proposed by this Bill, and the retrospective application of presumptions regarding parentage. It has been suggested to me that, for example, a lesbian couple using AHR would have to apply to court for both women to be named as parents, but for a heterosexual couple this would be facilitated automatically. Perhaps this is something the Minister might clarify in her reply to this debate. The Bill is about creating families, and I hope that arbitrary distinctions between couples can be avoided. The legal structures we are putting in place concerning AHR are long overdue. All people, whatever their views on AHR, should welcome the fact that regulations are finally being put in place.

This Bill does not undermine the traditional marital family. It is putting in place legal structures to support and protect the various forms of family and the blended families that are part of today's Ireland. It is not about taking away rights or supports. It is about ensuring that these supports are available to all families. The Bill is not about replacing or usurping biological parents. It is about putting in place custody and guardianship arrangements that take account of the diverse family arrangements that exist in Irish society today. It is not taking away the company and care given to children by biological parents. It is putting in place structures so that in situations in which children are cared for, loved and supported by someone other than, or in addition to, a genetic parent, that person and the child's dependence on and relationship with that person are legally supported and protected.

Children have the right to an identity in terms of culture and family, and also genetically. This Bill is safeguarding all of those aspects. In cases of assisted human reproduction, it is explicitly providing that in this country every child will have access to information about who their genetic parents are. This is not about hiding from anything or about sweeping reality under the carpet. It is about facing reality and providing structure for what is already happening.

I will briefly refer to the marriage equality referendum which will be held in May. I am doing this to explicitly state that it is distinct and separate from this Bill. Whatever one's views on the referendum, I appeal to those commenting on or opposing this legislation to remember that the Bill before us is important and requires and merits our separate attention.

We need to address the issues of identity, parenting and assisted human reproduction, as well as putting in place legal structures to support all forms of family. The issues we are debating today are important to those outside the House who are listening to the debate and watching how we vote. The Bill is one of the most important pieces of legislation we will pass in the lifetime of this Dáil. These issues have a much wider implication; they do not just pertain to same-sex couples. They are equally, if not more, relevant to opposite-sex, heterosexual couples. Primarily, this is about catering for relationships between men and women. These relationships form the vast majority of relationships that exist outside our current definition of marriage. After this Bill is passed and after the referendum, the provisions of this Bill will affect every heterosexual couple. It is they who make up the majority, and they want to see this Bill enacted.

I feel privileged to be able to support this legislation. Without wishing to sound patronising, I am proud that the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, was the first Minister with responsibility for children at Cabinet. She has brought this Bill before us, and it cannot be undermined in any shape or form by those who try to oppose, obfuscate and confuse. This is about affording protection to children under our laws, and that is why the legislation is so important. If we are to take Maslow's hierarchy of needs, whereby we all begin by seeking safety and move towards finally reaching self-actualisation, this Bill fits those criteria.

I hope every citizen will be proud of the Oireachtas for enacting this Bill. It is long overdue and absolutely necessary. The lives of our citizens are complex, but this child-centred Bill will give certainty in dealing with the lives of those in many different forms of family. I commend the Bill to the House.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an mBille tábhachtach seo.

It is the case, and has been for quite some time, that the family as understood by those who framed our Constitution and those who were at the helm of the State for decades is a faulty, outdated and ultimately useless idea which betrays more about the social conservatism of those who espouse it than it promotes healthy family relationships and good law.

Irish social policy has been profoundly damaging in its approach to families, including children, women and even men, particularly some fathers. This Bill is a major moment for reform of these wrongs but, like all steps in the right direction, it is not without its flaws and limitations. One disappointing thing about the Bill is that we have had to wait so long for something so basically fair, which simply allows people to live their lives and be a family with fair recognition in law. It is particularly shocking that it has taken this long when one considers that the shortcomings of the State in this regard have touched every family in the Twenty-six Counties. We have all been victims to a greater or lesser degree of this prevailing ideology of denial and repression of our humanity when expressed outside the clearly defined lines handed to us by those who were often better at acting piously than living thus.

However, we cannot blame this Government for the failings of previous ones, and so we welcome this Bill. Certainly, it is better late than never to have these reforms. It is unfortunate that the Bill has been introduced so close to the campaign for equal marriage rights for same-sex couples. It has given those who wish to muddy the waters, confuse the public and sow misinformation an opportunity that they have leapt upon. If one only listened to some commentators who are invited on TV and radio to trot out antiquated notions of how men and women should live, one would easily be led to believe that this Bill was seeking to deny children parents, to remove rights from people, and to cast Ireland into some kind of immoral mire on which the sky would surely fall.

The reality is that there always have been and always will be same-sex couples in Ireland. They are no different, by and large, from any other couples and for some time they have been able to adopt, although not formally as a couple. This legislation will formalise their ability to be a parental unit to their adopted children and so provide children with a recognised two-parent family under law.

This is not an insignificant piece of legislation in what it seeks to achieve or the depth into which it goes on these topics, and I understand these things cannot be rushed. With more than 170 sections, it provides an extension of guardianship, custody and adoption rights to different types of family. Couples who live together, regardless of their gender or sexual orientation, will now be able to provide a loving home for a child. That is what family means in 2015. It is not about laws, genes, religious rites or strict ideas of how people should live. It is primarily about a loving home, especially where a child is involved.

The Bill and the ideas behind it are not about gay rights, but about all our rights as equals to have and to be part of a loving family, and to have that recognised and respected rather than denied and vilified for not meeting someone else's code. I also welcome that the Bill deals with leave for parents in cases where leave would previously have been unavailable or difficult to obtain.

Despite all these positives, the Bill fails to go far enough in ensuring fair and equal treatment of fathers in disputes over custody. While adopted children's rights must be protected and enhanced, most of the children who have been affected by Ireland's failure to update family law have been children born to unmarried parents. The problem has not been that their parents were not married but that the State was ill prepared to deal with the legal outworkings of these relationships with regard to custody.

Even when the State had stopped locking up unmarried pregnant girls, it still fell woefully short of treating them fairly and with compassion or including the fathers, their rights and their responsibilities. The birth of children outside marriage is ten times more common today than the last time these issues where dealt with in Irish law in the 1960s. The result of this is a lack of any rights for unmarried fathers. While women in nearly every case in our society are structurally disadvantaged compared with men, in the case of family law, guardianship and custody, men can get first-hand experience of gender discrimination. I believe this is a result of a society that saw child-rearing as women's work, and this attitude has not been updated in our law despite the emergence of divorce and separation rights as well as the increasing number of children born outside marriage. Fathers are now very real victims of this discrimination and so are their children. Conservatives, who said divorce would mean "Bye Bye Daddy," did not know how right they were, but it was their own outdated notions of family, of men and women, and of mothers and fathers that allowed this problem to develop. The law simply ignored how society was changing and the new challenges that it needed to deal with. Governments and the political elite ignored it, as they were also wedded to these conservative notions.

Colette Brown yesterday wrote an excellent article dealing with the issue of fathers' rights. She perfectly described how, on a daily basis, this lack of rights impinges on a father's ability to care for his child and damages the child. She wrote:

It means that if your partner is away and your child falls ill, you cannot authorise medical treatment. It means that if your relationship breaks up and your partner decides to move abroad with your child, you are powerless to stop her. It also means that you have no automatic right to custody or access to your child. By law, the mother is entitled to sole custody of the child if the father has not been made a guardian. Imagine a worst-case scenario in which your partner dies and you are left alone to care for your child. You would have to mount a court battle just to be entitled to care for your own child.

This is not a new story. We have all heard of these battles by fathers over the years to have the right to be a parent to their child, but it has taken a very long time and still we have not concluded the matter. I welcome that the Bill seeks to address this issue. Unmarried fathers will be now given automatic guardianship rights if they have lived with their child's mother continuously for a year, including three months after the birth, but why should we have such a specific cohabitation requirement that would seem to rule out many fathers who should have that right? In 1982 the Law Reform Commission advised that there should be an automatic right to guardianship, yet 33 years later we still cannot even do that. This is not equality and perpetuates discrimination against unmarried fathers. The Minister describes this as a test of responsibility, but in some cases, for a father to have his own place separate from the mother in order to keep their child from the difficulties they may have is often the most responsible thing he can do. An unmarried father's rights should not hinge on his ability to live with the mother of his child. In other cases it is simply not a possibility. The Bill operates in a reality completely separate from the one in which we live - in the midst of a housing crisis where young people cannot find housing for any reasonable price or quality in most cases. Should the conditions of the home suffer so that a father can cohabit in order to get his right to guardianship? This requirement has the potential to cause much familial strife and strain. Fathers, whom this Bill will not help, can supposedly be given rights through a statutory declaration, but there is no register of these documents in place and no plans to have such a register. Resources, as always, are to blame. Sinn Féin has been clear on this issue. We need a register to provide protection for the statutory declaration documents that grant guardianship rights to unmarried fathers in respect of their children.

Sinn Féin has raised other issues with this Bill which we will seek to correct on further Stages. The family law courts are in need of serious reform and modernisation as well as better resourcing. At present they are not equipped to deal with the increasing number of family law cases that arise. Low-income families also must be provided with better access to the courts in cases in which they do not fall into the bracket to qualify for free legal aid.

We also want to see the establishment of a comprehensive court welfare service. This would organise the carrying out of assessments of a child's welfare and best interests and ascertain his or her views, while also carrying out family risk assessments. It would also ensure, where appropriate, that supports and services are available to the child and family, such as mediation services and child contact centres.

What is considered to be the family in modern Ireland is very different from how it was traditionally viewed when I was growing up. We need radical and inclusive legislation to reflect this new reality.

In the main, Sinn Féin welcomes the Bill and recognises that it will finally modernise Irish law regarding children living in diverse family norms. We have concerns about some of the provisions within the Bill and we will seek to amend them in an effort to enhance and make this legislation more inclusive to those who have previously been excluded.

This is not simple or straightforward legislation. It has more than 170 sections and it mainly focuses on extending guardianship, custody and adoption rights to different types of family, which is welcome and positive. It is unfortunate that the Bill has taken so long to get here and is passing through the Oireachtas during this timeframe. I think we all accept that the timing is particularly bad.

As this particular Children and Family Relationships Bill has now become synonymous with a same-sex couples adoption Bill, it means that some of those campaigning for a "No" vote in the marriage equality referendum will attempt to confuse, obfuscate and bewilder people when speaking about the right of same-sex couples to adopt.

The reality is that this already happens in Ireland except that just one parent in a same-sex relationship currently has a legal relationship with the child. This Bill quite simply extends the right of lesbian and gay couples jointly to adopt a child. It is always worth qualifying that the upcoming referendum has nothing to do with adoption or parental laws. I support the sections of the Bill which enable civil partners and cohabiting couples who have lived together for three years to apply jointly to adopt. This is something they can only do on an individual basis currently. Thankfully, this Bill means that children living in non-marital and non-traditional families will now be in a position to enjoy a legal relationship with the person who provides them with day-to-day parental care, whoever that may be. We all know of those types of family units. This is extremely important. The Proclamation of the Irish Republic in 1916 promised to "cherish all the children of the nation equally". No doubt, we will celebrating that process. It was about freedom but it was also about an inclusive Ireland. For far too long, we have discriminated against children from so-called non-traditional families and have not afforded them their full rights because of the supposed sexual orientation or marital status of their parents.

Many of us in this House will have major concerns with this Bill. All of us have been lobbied by groups representing unmarried fathers and since my time in office, many unmarried fathers and the Tallaght Unmarried Fathers group have consistently visited my constituency office. I know there is a group in Dundalk and other groups around the country. They are talking about how they want to be included in their child's lives but many of them are excluded. This Bill opened up a golden opportunity created to rectify some of the grossly unfair treatment faced by many unmarried fathers in the law. Sadly, that issue has been sidelined, brushed aside, ignored and left out. Sinn Féin would like to see the establishment of a central register for statutory declarations for joint guardianship to provide protection for the statutory declaration documents which grant guardianship rights to unmarried fathers in respect of their children. Currently, around 24,000 children are born every year with no legal or statutory relationship with their birth fathers. In my experience, many parents initially but mistakenly believe that having a father's name on a birth certificate gives him guardianship rights. This misinformation and misguided belief has had major adverse consequences for many children and their fathers.

One particular worry I have is the cohabitation section, which was mentioned by my colleague. A father living with the child's mother for 12 consecutive months, including at least three months with the mother and the child following the child's birth, will automatically become a guardian, but in many cases this is simply not possible and this section does not reflect reality, especially considering our current housing crisis and high emigration figures. Sometimes mothers are still living with their parents. It depends on age and other circumstances. It is not always appropriate or indeed possible for the father to live there as well. This is often the case with teenage or unplanned pregnancies. It does not always mean that the father is in any way shirking his responsibilities or not stepping up to the plate when it comes to rearing the child. In many cases, the circumstances are just not in his favour. Additionally, an increasing amount of fathers are being forced to work away from home and abroad in order to provide for the children yet this provision acts against them. There is nothing in the Bill for unmarried fathers aside from this provision regarding cohabiting for the requisite amount of time. Everyone else will continue to have to resort to the courts if the mother does not agree to sign a statutory declaration for joint guardianship. When I was growing up, I was in the lucky position of having a mother and father who were married but for many years in the early years of my life, my father worked abroad because there was no work in Ireland at the time. That did not mean that he loved me less. He still had that huge involvement in my life and is one of the people in my life I will never forget. In line with other jurisdictions such as Northern Ireland, Great Britain, many European countries and Australia, unmarried fathers should have automatic rights to their children when registering the birth. This is an area that Sinn Féin will certainly seek to strengthen.

We also would support the establishment of a comprehensive court welfare service to support the roll-out of this legislation. This service would provide an appropriate mechanism to carry out assessments of the child's welfare and best interests and ascertain his or her views while also carrying out family risk assessments. It would also ensure, where appropriate, that supports and services are available to the child and family such as mediation services and child contact centres.

The Bill will be judged by many on who it includes and excludes. Sadly, many will feel let down, left out and left behind. I think an opportunity was missed. I empathise with the Minister. If she tried to include many things, would we be pushing it nearer the referendum? If it is possible, we should look at the anomalies and gaps in this Bill at some stage in this House. It is like dealing with any issue. If you leave someone or a group behind, it is unfair. We are including people in this Bill but by not legislating for those we have left out, we are leaving them behind. It was a missed opportunity. Perhaps the Minister might address some of the issues we raised in her reply.

I am sharing time with Deputy Boyd Barrett. I warmly welcome this new, radical legislation and will be strongly supporting it. It is a major and historic Bill that is child-centred and addresses the needs of children in diverse families. That is the direction we should go in this country. It will provide for access to parentage, guardianship, custody and access across a range of family situations that are not covered in current law. This is the important thing in this legislation and what is important when we talk about the rights of children and the new situations in which families find themselves in Ireland in 2015.

We must emphasise the importance of putting children and families first. It is appropriate for us to look at the situations in which some families and children live. When we talk about putting children's rights at the heart of legislation, we must also point out that the number of children living in poverty must be dealt with. The rate has increased from 7.7% in 2012 to 8.2%, which is a national scandal. A total of 1.4 million people or 31% of the population are unable to afford basic items. There are 135,000 children in poverty. A total of 25% of the population are unable to afford to heat their homes. Again, I emphasise that these are families. Problems are most acute among the unemployed and people with disabilities. I will deal with this situation later. Ireland ranks 37 out of 41 OECD countries in terms of child poverty. Supporting these families is important. When we talk about the rights of children, we should not forget the 8,000 cases of child abuse, neglect and welfare concerns over children at risk waiting to be allocated a social worker. This makes a mockery of any children's referendum because this is blatant neglect. We need to up our game in respect of protecting the rights of children.

Earlier today the issue of undocumented migrant families in Ireland was discussed by the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality. There are between 20,000 and 26,000 undocumented migrants in this country, many of whom entered Ireland legally and have been living and working here for many years. Some 87% of these people are in employment and 81% have been living in Ireland for over five years. During the meeting I took the opportunity to stand up for these families and asked that the committee appoint a rapporteur to compile a report and recommendations for the introduction of a regularisation scheme and to report to the Minister for Justice and Equality in this regard in the next couple of months. I take this opportunity to call on the Minister for Justice and Equality to introduce during the lifetime of this Government a once-off time-bound regularisation scheme with transparent criteria. I raise these issues on behalf of the families concerned. The following is a quotation from one of the people who attended the committee meeting today on behalf of the Justice for the Undocumented Campaign:

My name is Jason. I am from the Philippines and am living and working in Ireland for 11 years. I am undocumented.

He also said:

When I first left, my youngest was five. He kept asking when I was coming back. He's seventeen now and has not stopped asking.

I raise this issue in the context of the severe damage being done to the relationships of these people. I ask the Minister to be brave and support the regularisation of undocumented migrants in this country. It is important to look at the cost implications in this regard. A regularisation scheme would bring in annual income of in excess of €7.5 million through direct taxation. A once-off fee would generate in the region of €11.5 million. Income generated through employer PRSI contributions would generate €20 million per annum. In total, the scheme proposed by the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland, of which I am supportive, has the potential to generate €185 million over five years. This would offset any resource implications arising from the introduction of the scheme and would contribute significantly to the tax purse. I raise this issue in the context of the legislation before us.

I commend the Minister on the introduction of this Bill. It is important we modernise Irish law in regard to the parental rights of children living in diverse families. This Bill addresses the needs of children living with married parents, unmarried parents, a parent and the parent's partner and a grandparent or other relative who is parenting the child. It also includes provisions for children born through assisted human reproduction and being parented by same-sex couples. I have met many such couples in my clinics over the last number of years. I know of many same-sex couples who are doing an excellent job raising young children and teenagers. They are making a massive contribution to our society. This should be recognised in the context of this debate and any future debate on the forthcoming referendum, which I will be supporting. One either believes in equality, or one does not. One either believes in the rights of our citizens, or one does not. There can be no fudge on these issues. Regardless of opinion polls and commentary around soft under-currents we must stand up for equality and our friends, neighbours, children, distant relatives and family members who are demanding equality. Likewise, in this legislation. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the many foster parents who, in terms of the help they are providing for young children from dysfunctional and poor families, are doing an excellent job. We need to support them more.

It is imperative that this Bill is passed. If enacted it will impact significantly and positively on many families and children. However, I am concerned that there is nothing in this Bill for unmarried fathers unless they have cohabited with the mother of the child for 12 months, including three months minimum post-birth. Fathers who do not meet this criteria will continue to have to resort to the courts if the mother does not agree to sign a statutory declaration for joint guardianship witnessed by the Peace Commissioner or Commissioner for Oaths. While, as I said earlier, this legislation is historic and ground-breaking, sadly it fails to address the current discriminatory situation of unmarried fathers. In line with other jurisdictions such as Northern Ireland, the UK and many European countries unmarried fathers should have automatic rights to their children when jointly registering the birth. In my experience the majority of parents and professionals mistakenly believe that inclusion of the father's name on a birth certificate gives him guardianship rights. This misinformation has major adverse consequences for children. At the very least the Children and Family Relationships Bill should make mandatory the provision of information to all unmarried parents at the time of birth registration. The information provided should state the legal position of unmarried couples, in particular the lack of rights for non-cohabiting, unmarried fathers. The provision of mandatory information could be aligned with the current changes being brought about by the Civil Registration (Amendment) Act 2014.

Where a statutory declaration for joint guardianship is signed and subsequently mislaid or destroyed there is no evidence that the father has guardianship rights to his child. This can have dire consequences, such as a father losing contact with his child, particularly where the mother moves residence or country, or his not being able to consent to medical treatment for his child. The Bill should make provision for the establishment of a central register for joint guardianship agreements to ensure retention of a record of statutory declarations agreeing guardianship rights. The Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality and the Law Reform Commission have both recommended the establishment of a central register for joint guardianship agreements. However, it appears this will not be provided for in this legislation.

I welcome this legislation and will be supporting it. I again compliment the Minister on the manner in which she has presented it to the House. As I said earlier, it is historic, child-focused legislation.

I thank the Minister's officials for their briefing on the Bill. I have no doubt they put a great deal of work into this very detailed and progressive legislation, which I welcome. The Bill seeks to acknowledge the reality of family life in Ireland today and, in that sense, is long overdue. We have moved a long way from the conception of certain people of what a family is supposed to be. It is good that we are finally acknowledging the diversity of family life in Irish society, be that families comprising same-sex couples, lone parents, new relationships following break-ups and the often complex interaction of new and old relationships in terms of children. The Bill also deals with the issue of assisted human reproduction and how advances in this regard have helped people who otherwise would not be able to have children to have them; adoption issues and the rights of the children in situations of adoption in terms of parentage and the right to know their biological parents and so on. Things have gotten complicated but, to my mind, in a good way. Our society is better for it. Ancient Irish society is often romanticised a little too much. Family relationships in ancient Ireland were very different. At that time we had more tribal extended families and multiple people bore responsibility for children. The nuclear family comprising a mother and a father and their children, which some institutions in this State believe is eternal, is not eternal at all.

It never was. In fact, for most of human existence on this planet, human relations were much more diverse and they have changed dramatically throughout history in various historical epochs. Some people in this country and elsewhere, as we are not unique in this matter, had a single notion of what a family looked like and everything that was outside the conception of the nuclear family was considered abnormal or defective. It was perceived as a lesser relationship.

There was the appalling, obnoxious concept of illegitimacy. It was awful. Certain words were used to refer to children who were supposedly illegitimate, that I will not mention in the Chamber, which became curse words. Some of that was not so long ago. I am old enough to remember the incredible stigmatisation of lone parents in the 1980s and how awful it was. That emanated at the time from some in the political establishment. It has not gone away, although I am pleased to say such a blinkered, utterly conservative view of family life still exists to some extent but thankfully it is no longer dominant. We can almost laugh at it now. Some of the headlines have been bordering on the hilarious in terms of the attitude of some religious institutions. One headline in The Irish Times referred to a bishop saying there was no obstacle to gays marrying, just not to each other. That is brilliant. It is the sort of view which I will not call prehistoric because in those times there were far more enlightened conceptions of human relationships, and gay and lesbian relationships were par for the course.

A particular mentality developed, largely in the latter half of the 19th century, spearheaded by some of the worst and most reactionary elements in British society and, sadly, adopted by the Catholic Church in this country. Some of the early victims of that mentality were people such as Oscar Wilde. People tried to create a particular notion of family relations and set that up as the norm and anyone who stood out from that was literally persecuted. Their reason for doing that was often very crudely about social control and cost efficiencies. Rather than providing decent child care for people they essentially forced the cost onto the nuclear family, often with pretty awful consequences in terms of the pressures that were subsequently put on families which contributed to domestic violence. This is a very welcome and progressive attempt to move the situation on, acknowledge the reality and, as speakers have repeated throughout the debate, put the child and the interests of the child at the centre but also to try to be fair and reasonable to all the parties involved.

Some concern has been expressed, some of which I suspect has been disingenuous on the part of opponents of the legislation - people who oppose it on principle and fundamentally - but they try to cloud the issue by saying we should not rush the legislation. There is probably a legitimate concern and we must be careful in terms of something so complex that there are not unintended consequences, anomalies or problems. Other speakers have alluded to issues we must consider but that should not stop the passage of the legislation. I hope the Minister will be open to genuine, well-intentioned amendments on Committee Stage and Report Stage. I hope she will say that the Bill is a work in progress and that we can always come back to aspects of it if there are any particular difficulties further down the road. That would also help to dispel some of the red herring arguments. Almost inevitably, issues will arise.

Assisted human reproduction is an anomalous area. It is a very good thing that we can help couples, or individuals for that matter, to have children who might not otherwise be able to do it, but it does create new dynamics, the consequences of which we might not fully know. That is not a reason to be fearful of it, but it is a recognition that things might subsequently happen for which we had not provided. For example, the offspring arising from assisted human reproduction might decide he or she wants to have a relationship with the original donor. The question is what we would do then, and how such a situation would be managed. Situations will emerge but we should not be afraid of them. We must put the interests of the child first and be fair to all the parties involved.

In the short time remaining I wish to make one point by way of defence of the legislation. I am shocked and bedazzled by the hypocrisy of certain of the opponents of the Bill and of the forthcoming marriage equality referendum when they say they must defend the right of children to have a mother and father. The institutions that are shouting loudest in opposition to the legislation and to the proposed marriage equality legislation are the very institutions that separated more children from their parents, often by force, than any other institution in the State. The hypocrisy is unbelievable. It is stunning. They forced mothers to give up their children. They imprisoned the mothers of those children because they were not married. They forced adoptions. They put every obstacle in the way of those children and their mothers to make contact with each other and then they have the effrontery to say they are championing the rights of children to have both parents. Give me a flipping break. It is unbelievable stuff. I am completely onside. The point has not been made strongly enough in some of the debates and it is just beyond belief.

I very much support the Minister. A couple of issues arise, however. The stipulation providing for guardianship rights is problematic in terms of 12 months cohabitation prior to a child’s birth and three months after the baby is born. There are so many reasons why a father who might want to play a very serious role in bringing up his child might not fulfil those criteria. Fathers should still have the automatic right to be a guardian and not have to jump through extra hoops others do not have to go through. We must examine the matter. The Minister will respond that a declaration can be made but the provision is somewhat discriminatory and a little unfair and should be re-examined. Broadly, I very much support the Bill and I hope it passes through the House but we will obviously have to examine the details in the coming Stages. Finally, Ireland is moving into the 21st century.

I might take more time to speak tomorrow but I will move the adjournment of the debate in two minutes. I commend the Minister on bringing the legislation before the House, not before time I suppose. Critics of the legislation are very worried about the effect it will have on the family or what they envisage a family to be. It is quite clear at this stage that what they envisage a family to be is quite different to what a family is in the society in which we now live.

As Deputy Boyd Barrett pointed out in his contribution, it is not that long ago that the status of illegitimacy was removed from Irish law. I suppose there were people at the time who forecast that the sky would fall in but that has not happened in any way. Now, one third of children in the State are not born within a married family.

The history of the Irish Constitution and the State has been based on a family founded on marriage and the concept of a Christian marriage. The very concept of a Christian marriage is not static. It was developed in the middle ages and for historical reasons drew quite heavily on Roman law.

Debate adjourned.