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

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

I welcome the opportunity to make a relatively short contribution on this lengthy and complicated legislation. The Bill, as published, comprises 106 pages and the explanatory memorandum comprises approximately 32 pages. It has had a lengthy gestation through pre-legislative scrutiny and hearings in committee with interested parties. I hope this inclusive approach to the finer detail of the Bill will continue on Committee Stage because this is extremely complicated legislation. None the less, it is necessary legislation and is, I believe, primarily child-centred legislation. I hope that for this reason there will be no undue rush during the remaining legislative Stages to have it passed through the Houses of the Oireachtas.

In the minds of some people this legislation is inextricably linked with the marriage equality referendum to be held later this year and there is an anxiety to have it out of the way before then. As I said earlier, it is child-centred legislation. We should never lose sight of this. There are people who are using this legislation and, in a way exploiting children, to make political points about the marriage equality referendum. The primary purpose of this legislation is to reflect the changing circumstances in which children find themselves. We would all like it to be the case that a family comprises a mother, a father and their children in a happy home. However, the reality is far different. What is important is that children are in the best possible environment for their development and growth.

Recent census statistics provide a snap-shot of the complexity of family relationships in Ireland. According to the 2011 census, there were 215,315 lone parent households in Ireland; 17,378 lone parents living in multi-family households; 4,042 same-sex couples living together; 66% of the 115,046 divorced or separated women were living with their children and there were 49,005 households of cohabiting couples with children under 15. The number of children living in households headed by cohabiting couples increased by 41% between 2006 and 2011. In 2011, there were 25,190 children born outside of marriage or civil partnership and in 2012 there were 25,344 children born outside of marriage or civil partnership.

The name of one of the groups campaigning against this legislation is Mothers and Fathers Matter. Of course, mothers matter and, of course, fathers matter but it is my view, and I believe the consensus generally, that children are the primary concern of this legislation. When one reflects on the statistics of 25,000 plus children being born outside of marriage and of there being 215,000 plus lone parent households in Ireland the question that needs to be asked of the people who campaign under the banner headline "Mothers and Fathers Matter" is what is the subliminal message they are sending to people who find themselves in lone parent circumstances or in crisis pregnancies. Many of the people who campaign on particular issues reinvent themselves in other circumstances and take up a pro-life position, as was the case in the context of the passage through the Houses of the protection of life during pregnancy legislation. Most people in this House do likewise but grapple with a complex issue. The critical question which these people need to answer is: What is the subliminal message they are sending to girls who find themselves in crisis pregnancies when they say that mothers and fathers matter? I agree that mothers and fathers matter but being a mammy or a daddy is much more complicated than being a biological father or mother because the former reflects commitment.

This legislation is about is putting committed people around children and reflecting the legal complexity and myriad of family relationships in which children currently find themselves. While the majority of children are in loving homes, a substantial minority are not. A substantial minority of children are not living in a unitary family of mother, father and children: they are in single parent families, homes where parents have divorced and, in a significant minority of circumstances, they are being reared by same-sex couples. What is critical is that the interests of the child remain central in any decisions that are made regarding custody, access, guardianship and so on.

For me, the missing chapter in this legislation is address of the maintenance issue. We have made some progress in recent years in terms of the birth certificates of children now having to include the names of the mother and father. In the United States, there is a register of deadbeat dads and deadbeat mothers, namely, people who have children but abscond from their duties financially and otherwise to those children. Perhaps in terms of the progress we are making, including putting in place all of the necessary supports for children in the myriad of circumstances in which they find themselves, we should be more aggressive in pursuing parents who abscond from their financial obligations to their children. In particular, should we be contemplating a register similar to that in the United States of deadbeat fathers and deadbeat mothers? We know the identity of all of these people because on the birth of a baby their details have to be entered on the birth certificate. It is no longer acceptable that in these matters the State should be obliged to pick up the tab.

A provision of this legislation which I particularly welcome is that providing recognition of the extended family, particularly grandparents. All of us know from our own family experiences the absolute joy that grandchildren bring to grandparents. There is no more traumatic circumstance imaginable than a breakdown in a relationship which cuts off access by grandparents to their grandchildren. It is regrettable that under this legislation the only way out of this access issue for grandparents is via the courts.

I accept that it short circuits what was previously a much more complicated matter. I commend the Minister's constituency colleague, Deputy Derek Keating, who published a Private Members' Bill some time ago on access for grandparents to their grandchildren. I welcome in particular the provisions in the legislation to deal with the matter, albeit that one must still go through the courts with their attendant complications and expense. Perhaps with the knowledge that there is a legal provision to vindicate that right of access, it might dawn on the warring parties, so to speak, that perhaps generosity towards the grandparents in terms of access to their grandchildren is something they should consider granting without the necessity to go to the courts.

This is extremely complicated but, none the less, necessary legislation, which has the interests of children at heart. It is regrettable that some people will use the legislation for ulterior motives that have nothing to do with the content of the Bill, which is progressive and recognises the reality of this country in 2015. That is reflected in the myriad composition of households in which children find themselves. All of those individual circumstances can be loving and supportive of children. The requirement of any legislation should be to foster an environment that supports children. I commend the Minister and her officials on their endeavour. I urge that there be no undue haste in going through the content of the Bill, which is complex and complicated and needs to be teased out in great detail.

The next speaking slot is shared by Deputies Shane Ross and Mattie McGrath.

I welcome the Bill, which has been welcomed by nearly all Members of the House. It has been a very long time coming but the end product is something which reflects the changes that have taken place in society, in particular in the family. The Bill reflects the complex nature of the word “family” in this country and is a genuine effort to accommodate the changes which have taken place.

I welcome in particular not just the cliché of putting the child first but the clause which provides for children themselves to have a say in their own future, in particular in cases of guardianship and adoption. The provision to appoint an expert who will ascertain the views of the child on whether the guardianship or adoption is suitable is an enlightened and very sensible innovation. Undoubtedly, children are the first people who should make the decision rather than parents or other outsiders. Their input is very important. I recognise the Government has made a great effort in this regard. Successive Governments have done that.

I echo the words of the previous speaker, Deputy Creed, who referred to the rights of grandparents. That is a new recognition of something which is happening more frequently in Ireland in that grandparents, partly because of economic circumstances and partly for other reasons such as relationship breakdown, are playing a larger part in the rearing of children. That should also be recognised in terms of access and the ability of grandparents to play a really economical and useful part in the rearing of children.

I have very little time but I wish to raise one particular issue in which I am deeply disappointed, namely, step-parents and cohabiting couples adopting children. I was under the distinct impression that the matter would be addressed in the Bill. I raised the issue with the Minister, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, on 10 October 2013 when she was Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. I do not question her bona fides but I wish to pin her to the wall in this regard. She said in the debate that she appreciated the difficulties and frustration the anomalies relating to step-parent adoption pose for many families. She went on to say that she had been advised some months before that – we are probably talking about two years ago – when she sought constitutional advice on the matter and whether there was a constitutional impediment to relieving natural parents in this case of the obligation to adopt their own children in certain circumstances. In most cases it is mothers who are affected and they find it deeply insulting and somewhat offensive. The matter was to be addressed. The Minister said:

However, I am now confident - on the basis of legal advice I sought and received - that there are no constitutional barriers to legislative change in this area. Many people will welcome that fact. I accept that some complex legal and policy issues remain and that these need to be resolved within the broader framework of the family law relating to parentage and guardianship. Where the natural father is still alive and where there may be ongoing contact or whatever, guardianship - if the position relating to it were to be made more flexible - might be the more appropriate legal option for step-parents ... I am working with the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, [that shows how long ago this was] who will be bringing forward a Bill in the near future.

One would be forgiven for being somewhat sceptical about words such as “near future” when they come from various Departments. The Minister then said, “Some of the issues I have just outlined will be addressed in that legislation.” That is the Bill before us and it is not there. The Minister also said, “I am preparing adoption legislation which arises on foot of the result in the referendum on children's rights.”

That is a great disappointment to many of those who are affected and who have been in contact with me. Prior to the publication of the Bill they asked me what would happen in this regard. I told them I was assured by the Minister that the matter would be addressed. That was what was said 18 months ago. I raised the matter again in October 2014 with the Minister’s successor, who gave me a similar assurance. That assurance has just been broken. This morning I asked the Department why the provision was not included and the reply I received is that the relevant provisions were not ready in time for inclusion in the Children and Family Relationships Bill. That is not good enough. The Minister and others have had fair warning of what she herself and her successor called an injustice. They gave assurances on it but it has not been addressed in a Bill where it should have been addressed. It is not good enough for the Department to say the issues will be addressed in due course. “In due course” means there are no plans or deadlines for introducing them. The same people are in the same limbo and lacuna and that is not acceptable.

I am delighted to speak to this Bill today. The Bill provides for, among other things, a parent, spouse or partner to acquire guardianship, meaning that, on a practical level, those who care for children will have the legal authority to take decisions on their upbringing. Similarly, the Bill enables a relative to apply for custody of a child in certain circumstances and grandparents – I am delighted with the provision in that regard – and other relatives will be able to secure access to children more easily where the parental relationship has broken down. Deputy Ross has just referred to the matter. I have met very sad grandparents who do not get any access at all.

They are all good measures in themselves but the fact that the Minister for Health spoke yesterday morning on the radio about the introduction of entirely new areas of legislation that were originally intended to be covered by the Bill demonstrates the complexity and overly ambitious nature of the legislation before us. The interview with the Minister for Health, Deputy Varadkar, was unprecedented. I believe he was attempting to stave off what he expected to come later yesterday from the former Minister, Deputy Shatter, a member of the Fine Gael Party in government. He ridiculed the Bill. Deputy Shatter has taken to the airwaves all over the country today to ridicule the Bill. He is a Government backbencher and former Minister who said he did 90% of the work on the Bill. The Minister and the previous Minister are not even together on that. One of the most disturbing elements of the Bill is that it is being continually touted as child-centred, when in many cases that is very far from the truth.

According to the Department, donor-conceived children were not consulted on their experience at any time during the process. They were excluded. Their views were not important. The same happened with regard to the legislation which went through last year. People who wanted to speak were not allowed to appear before committees. This makes a mockery of the claim we are learning from other jurisdictions where experience of assisted human reproduction has descended almost entirely and operates with few ethical matters. We need to hear the voices of those warning the Bill is not child-centred and caters more for adult-centred wishes. This is a view born of the hard experience of monitoring other jurisdictions where similar legislation was attempted with safeguards which proved utterly dissatisfactory. In the UK, the authority regulating practices has stated it wants to make sperm and egg donation as common as blood donation. This is completely farcical and misunderstands the gravity of what is occurring, which is the creation of a new human life.

I have a number of concerns about the Bill. While the Government has been at pains to state the Bill and the referendum are completely separate, I do not believe it to be true. I received the Bill last Thursday. Normally a Bill does not come to the House until two weeks after it is published. Other Deputies have referred to this, as has a former Minister of State. This time allows us to take advice and read and study the Bill. The Bill has 172 sections. When the previous Government was in office, the then Minister, Deputy Ó Cuív, introduced an animal welfare Bill with 40 sections which took a full year to pass through the Houses. I was very involved in it and I know the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Coveney, was meticulous when in opposition, and rightly so. The rush on this is inexplicable and dangerous. Rushed legislation is bad legislation.

Deputy Ó Cuív referred to Mothers and Fathers Matter. We must listen to this organisation. I do not accept the comments he made about it. The people involved are genuine people with genuinely-held views. We must accept all sides in the debate because if we do not, we will start with the wrong premise. Keith Mills is a gay activist who is totally opposed to the Bill. I have heard him on radio and television and I have met him and others.

The Bill is being rushed with indecent haste which is very dangerous. The former Minister, Deputy Shatter, states he was the main architect of the Bill. One would think he was still in government the way he is dealing with it. He is on the warpath and is not happy at all with the Bill. The Minister knows this better than I do, as she was here yesterday when he literally savaged her.

The timing of the Bill and the referendum does not help the situation. The Government has once again decided it wants to railroad a Bill through the Dáil with very little time. This is dangerous. No doubt it will use the Whip if it has to and it will use its large majority. This has been a disaster with regard to Irish Water and many other issues.

I am concerned about other elements of the Bill, and the majority of people who have contacted me have done so on these issues. The rights of the child are paramount. A child has a right to a mother and father as far as practically possible. We know there are circumstances in which this cannot happen, such as accidents and other diverse reasons. The State has a responsibility to vindicate this right as far as practically possible. It is an onus on the State but it is not doing so. I fundamentally believe that all other things being equal, children should not intentionally be denied a mother and father. In my view this is what the legislation will do.

In anticipation of a "Yes" vote in the referendum, the Bill will remove the preference for an actual family comprising a mother, father and child, and this is of most concern. Why not postpone the referendum? The Government states we are confusing both issues but we are not. We need reasonable time to discuss the Bill. We had been promised it for months but it did not come. Deputy Ross spoke about the promise he received. The issues will be conflated and this is the way the Government wants it.

In my role as a public representative I meet groups on all sides and I am open to meeting anyone else who wishes to meet me to discuss these issues. Genuine concerns are held by a large number of people and it would be wrong of me to deny these issues exist or fail to raise them on behalf of my constituents who have expressed these concerns to me. I hope these issues will be fully addressed during the debate on the Bill, but time will be a problem. The Government has chosen to race the Bill through the Dáil prior to the referendum, with the result these very serious issues are not being given sufficient time to be debated. Those who are concerned will have no option but to use the referendum for the wrong reason and vote "No". The Minister is making her bed and she will lie on it. She is making a very bad bed because she is rushing this legislation which is six or eight months late, and the former Minister, Deputy Shatter, will probably go on tour around the country to savage the Bill.

I had suggested the referendum be delayed to allow these issues be fully addressed so the legislation and the referendum would not be intertwined, but the Government decided to railroad the Bill through the Dáil. This is despicable, disgraceful and sad. The Bill was only published last Thursday and we are debating it this week. Normally there are two weeks between each Stage of a Bill being taken but the Government wants it all - hallelujah, done and dusted.

I warn the Minister other issues have been raised about the rights of fathers which are also of concern but do not relate to the same-sex issue. I am totally opposed to the idea of the Bill being rammed through without sufficient time. I intend to table amendments and I hope we will have time to discuss them and that they will not be pushed over.

I contest any suggestion these views are due to being homophobic or a bigot. We need calm and reasonable debate on this. Such comments help no one and certainly do not help to sway those with genuine concerns. I welcome the good parts of the Bill, and some of its provisions do not go far enough with regard to grandparents and fathers' rights of access. We must listen to all sides and have a reasonable debate. Thankfully, we live in a democracy and all sides should be allowed to debate the issues openly and freely without fear of being abused or threatened. I am open to meeting anyone who wishes to discuss these matters. My office is always open.

I hate to contrast the two, but when Deputy Ó Cuív introduced a Bill on animal welfare which comprised 40 sections, it took 12 months to pass through the Houses. Other Bills with fewer sections take a long time. How will we deal with the 172 sections of the Bill? I believe 20 of them are technical but the others are very serious. I am sure several amendments will be tabled to all of the sections. I believe the deadline is St. Patrick's Day. It is being done in indecent haste and I have major concerns. I do not like when people here attack groups such as Mothers and Fathers Matter. It is a group of individuals, some of whom are gay activists who are not happy with the Bill and do not want segments of it. We must have a reasonable and calm debate and we must have time. We are often accused of making bad decisions, and often we have done so, but how will we discuss a Bill this size, understand its sections and receive advice?

I welcome the fact that I received a briefing on the Bill, but I was whisked out of the office with indecent haste after approximately 12 minutes. The questions I asked could not be answered and the official, whose name I do not have and I thank him for meeting me, was called out twice and then we were told the office was needed. I was brought to the Minister's side office, where I thought I would have half an hour. The three people with me and I were whisked out with indecent haste. We would not have been whisked through an airport as fast if the plane was on the tarmac and about to leave. This is not good. I do not know who gave those instructions or who said the office was needed. Surely we had been booked in for at least 30 minutes as the Bill has 172 sections, but we were whisked out after 12 minutes following three interruptions by another official.

Is that any way to treat a public representative who is trying his best to understand the Bill, or trying to address, welcome and support the good provisions, although I have problems with other provisions? That is not good. Let us contrast this with most legislation debated in the House. This happened in the United Kingdom as well. People there spent 930 hours discussing a rural pursuits Bill but only 30 hours discussing a Bill similar to this. We are copying what they did over there. Why? We are meant to be a democracy. We are elected by the people to debate and scrutinise legislation. We are expected to do that to the best of our ability. We need a little space and a small window to understand the Bill and to try to put forward amendments and have them submitted correctly to the Bills office. I thank the staff of the Bills office for their co-operation as well. I am not blaming the officials in the Department for the fast ending of my briefing last week. Someone gave instructions. They were only doing what they were told. They were courteous and helpful, but it was the fastest briefing that I have ever received in my seven years here. We were hardly in the door when we were out again. That is not a briefing.

People who have been affected by sperm donation and the children in those situations were not consulted. Why? We are meant to have a consultation with the people who matter and the people who have been affected by these situations.

The former Minister, Deputy Shatter, has spectacularly undermined and attacked the Bill. I am no fan of his and I was not a fan when he was in government, but he is quite embarrassing. This is a mess the Government has created for itself. I wish the Minister for Justice and Equality no ill will, but I am unsure who is going to control Deputy Shatter. It is not the only issue, but he wants more stuff in the Bill. The Minister for Health came out yesterday morning to confuse matters deliberately. He has enough issues to deal with in the health area, telling us that he is exercised by the trolley situation and that it will get worse before it gets better, besides making this strange intervention. It was bizarre. He must have known from the Fine Gael Parliamentary Party meeting that there was trouble coming from the renowned former Minister, Deputy Shatter. Deputy Varadkar tried to run the gauntlet and disarm him by speaking out, but he was only confusing the situation and disturbing more people. The people out there have to be consulted.

Will the Minister for Justice and Equality give a commitment that the process will be unlike that for the children's rights referendum? We voted in the House to give the independent Referendum Commission a sum of €3 million to run the referendum, but those in the Government interfered. They put their hand in the till, took out €1.1 million and misspent it. I am not saying that; the High Court and the Supreme Court made a unanimous decision that money was misappropriated. Yet the referendum still went ahead. There was no debate in this House. I have called for it a hundred times. I have asked the previous Minister and the current Minister for it. Are they going to shamefully interfere again with the so-called independent commission? We will have to vote money for the commission if it is to run the referendum. That is important. The commission has a job to do and it should be left to do it. A citizen took the case and the case was vindicated in the Supreme Court by unanimous decision. That was not even discussed in the House. No one was charged or arrested for that. That was daylight robbery, the same as robbing the bank. They had their hand in the till and they took the money. They were found with their hand in the till.

You should conclude, please.

I want assurances that this will not happen again in our democracy. We will be celebrating the centenary of the 1916 Rising next year, but this is the kind of treatment the Government gives to money voted by the Oireachtas for an independent commission. They clearly robbed it and stole it. There are no simpler words. While the Supreme Court did not put that description on it, that was the import of their decision. No one acknowledged that or dealt with it.

You must conclude now, please.

No one was sacked or questioned on it or anything else.

Deputy McGrath spent more time wasting time and talking about time than anything else. If he had come up with some good analysis of the Bill I would have something different to say, but he has spent the past 15 minutes talking about nothing and only trying to fill up time. I was disappointed with his contribution.

This is a democracy.

This is an important Bill. I commend the Minister on her introduction of the legislation. As most previous speakers have said, it is complex, challenging and lengthy. One thing about this legislation is that it is a watershed in the development of Irish family law, and that is to be welcomed.

We must all accept that the family unit, as we traditionally know it, has changed dramatically in the country in the past 50 years. The constitutional definition of the family no longer reflects the diverse family units that exist in the country today. The reality is that one in three families in Ireland has departed from the traditional model of the nuclear family, which defined a family group as consisting of a pair of adults and their children.

In my research for the debate I read about the Households and Family Structures in Ireland survey, carried out by the Family Support Agency and produced by the ERSI and UCD, which was published in December 2012. It reported that one in three families no longer belongs to the traditional model. The statistics speak for themselves. The survey findings are reflected throughout the world in respect of the family unit. In the United Kingdom, the number of nuclear families fell from 39% of all households in 1968 to 28% in 1992, while in the United States in 2000 the number of nuclear families had fallen to 24.1%, down from 40.3% in 1970.

These are the challenges and changes in society. One in three children in Ireland is now born to parents who are not married to each other, and one in five children lives in one-parent families. Thus, one in three families does not conform to the traditional model which I spoke of earlier. We cannot legislate for every eventuality in this House, but as legislators we must recognise the changes in the social fabric of our society. We cannot ignore what is happening. There is an onus on us to legislate to protect the parental rights of children living in these diverse family units. I commend the Minister on bringing forward this legislation.

The Bill before the House aims to address the needs of children living with married parents, unmarried parents or a parent and partner, as well as children living with grandparents or other relatives who have taken on a parenting role. The Bill is in the interests of the child and that is its primary consideration. It is centred on the family unit in all its forms in the Ireland of 2015. I imagine the Minister would agree that the Bill in no way threatens the rights of children who continue to live in the traditional family unit. This is something we need to reinforce all the way along when we are bringing the legislation through the House.

Part 3 of the Bill sets out the procedures for accessing information from the national donor-conceived person register. A donor-conceived child, once he reaches 18 years of age, will be able to seek personal details held on the register. In time, this proposal will encourage parents to tell their children about their donor origins. Laws in other jurisdictions have been introduced precisely for this reason. In 2010, a law passed in Victoria, Australia, which required that donor-conceived children born after 1 January 2010 who apply for their birth certificate as an adult receive an addendum stating that additional information is available about their donor origins. I have listened to the arguments from several speakers to the effect that the disclosure of this information can have a devastating effect on the donor-conceived child, and that the problems he may face in his efforts to trace the donor may have a psychological effect on the child and affect his relationship with his parents. However, on balance, I believe that the pre-eminent right is for such children to have this information once they are 18 years old.

The ability to access information is important for people. This is an issue that several adopted adults have raised with me on numerous occasions. During the debate on the Adoption (Identity and Information) Bill in the Seanad, this matter was raised. The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs is currently drafting legislation to address it. I am aware that there are many complex constitutional issues to be addressed, but I hope that the legislation can be finalised as soon as possible.

I look forward to debating it when it comes before the House.

As others have said, it is a lengthy Bill and there are many areas to be considered. Part 4 introduces reforms to guardianship. The legislation confers automatic guardianship on unmarried fathers if they cohabit with the mother of their child for 12 months. The Bill also provides a cohabiting partner who is not the child's guardian to apply to the courts for guardianship once they are living with the parent for three years or more. A similar provision will apply to a grandparent, aunt or uncle who is looking after the child.

The issue of guardianship is one that is causing many anomalies for cohabiting couples in the practicalities of everyday life. Let us take the example of an application for a third level grant. If a cohabiting couple applies for a top-up grant for their child, their reckonable income must include an eligible long-term social welfare payment. If the social welfare payment for that entire family unit is in the partner's name and that partner is not the legal guardian, then, because the payment is not actually in the name of the parent with whom the partner and child resides, they will not qualify for the top-up grant. I have had an example of this in my own constituency office in Ennis. While this is an issue for the Department of Education and Skills, it highlights the problems this type of family unit faces day to day, and there are other examples. Addressing the guardianship issue for cohabiting couples is important in order that we can bring an end to anomalies which penalise the children involved.

We have a history in this country of referendum debates being dominated by issues which are about everything under the sun except the referendum itself. While this Bill is not directly related to the upcoming referendum on marriage equality on 22 May, which it is hoped will be the day it will be held, it is important to have these matters dealt with before the referendum in order that there is no confusion and people do not bring up issues which have nothing at all to do with the referendum. This can frighten people, as we saw in previous referendums such as the Lisbon treaty referendum. It is important that we focus solely on the referendum and it will help if this Bill has gone through both Houses and is passed.

This is lengthy but timely and marvellous legislation. Obviously, we would have liked to have seen it brought through sooner but it is now being debated in the House. I support its passage through the House today.

I welcome this very substantial legislation. There is a huge amount of work for any Department in preparing legislation of this magnitude and credit is due to the Department officials, to Deputy Alan Shatter in his period as Minister for Justice and Equality, and to the Minister, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald.

Unfortunately, since the recent publication of the Bill, I have had not the opportunity to spend as much time studying the legislation or the supporting documentation and briefing notes we received from various interest groups and stakeholders as I would like. I am sure that is the position with many other colleagues in the House. Our daily routine, whether through the normal working week or at weekends, gives us very little time to do substantial work on researching important legislation such as the Bill before us. I regret the Bill was not published earlier. As colleagues on all sides of the House have said, legislation of this magnitude needs to have very detailed consideration in the House.

Regardless of that, I hope the Minister will be able to ensure that adequate and detailed consideration is given to amendments that may be put forward by Opposition parties, such as those our party spokesperson, Deputy Niall Collins, will be putting forward on our behalf. I am sure this legislation will be impacting on many families for many decades to come. In that respect, both Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann must be able to give these proposed legislative measures the detailed consideration they merit. As Deputy Niall Collins and other Fianna Fáil Party colleagues have stated in their contributions, it is a Bill our party is supporting. Putting the interests of the child as the central consideration in family law is essential. It must be incumbent on society and on all of us as individuals to ensure children are treated equally, no matter what their family background.

There are many good reasons to implement the measures in this legislation. I think it is readily acknowledged that families are far more complex today than existing legislation recognises. There is an imperative to change legislation in that respect and, indeed, many non-traditional, loving family units are not protected or supported by current laws. I sincerely hope the enactment of this legislation, with some considered amendments, will provide that support and protection for all family units.

The most recent census carried out in 2011 provides a massive wealth of material on the changed household composition in our State. That census clearly indicates that families are increasingly diverse and that an increasing percentage of children are living in family units other than those headed traditionally by married parents. We should consider the following data from that census. There were 215,315 lone parent households in 2011 and 17,378 lone parents were living in multi-family households. There were 4,042 same-sex couples living together in 2011. Some 66% of the 115,046 divorced or separated women were living with their children. There were 49,005 households of cohabiting couples with children under 15 years of age. The number of children living in households headed by cohabiting couples increased by 41% between 2006 and 2011. The vital statistics data of the Central Statistics Office confirm that the number of children being born outside of marriage or civil partnership was 25,190 in 2011 and 25,344 in 2012, and I presume there is little variance in the 2013 and 2014 statistics for births.

We in the Oireachtas had the opportunity in 2010 to support the Adoption Bill, which was other important and reforming legislation. Again, the statistics are interesting in respect of adoption, and they show that, from 1953 to date, 44,158 adoptions have been granted in this State. I understand that last year, 112 domestic adoptions orders were granted by the Adoption Authority of Ireland and an additional 34 inter-country adoptions also took place last year.

I believe the proposed legislation, in seeking to put children at the heart of family law, will provide legal clarity around various family types and address discrimination faced by children in non-marital families. Such discrimination is not tolerable and the State must ensure every support through its legislation and regulations to deal with such issues. It is expected that the new measures will contribute significantly to a reduction in the number of cases going before the courts. We are all well aware of the extra pressures on families and individuals when cases are before the courts and of the very contentious manner in which many cases conclude.

We can see this is a very complex issue when we consider all the areas to be addressed, including guardianship, access, custody, maintenance, adoption and parentage. I heard some of my colleagues refer to the need for amendments in regard to vindicating the rights of unmarried fathers, and Deputy Niall Collins will be bringing forward amendments in that respect which I believe will improve the legislation as published.

We have one of the longest-serving written constitutions, Bunreacht na hÉireann, which was enacted by the people in 1937. I believe it was the first written constitution in a democracy that was put to a referendum of the people and enacted by the people through a popular vote.

Bunreacht na hÉireann places great importance on the family and defines it as "[T]he natural, primary and fundamental unit group of Society" in Article 41. This was interpreted by the courts as meaning marital families only. By that interpretation grandparents, unmarried fathers, lone parents, civil partners and cohabiting couple are all excluded from this definition.

We all know that an increasing number of children are being cared for in non-marital settings and the statistics, to which Deputies Mattie McGrath and Pat Breen referred, are indisputable. Some one in four children lives with a lone mother and almost one in five lives with an unmarried cohabiting couple. Within our current legislative framework, there is no mechanism whereby the unmarried parents' relationship with the child is recognised. This can have a very serious and negative impact on day-to-day parenting. We often hear of instances where difficulties arise in regard to the necessary consent being given for a child for medical treatment or participation in extra-curricular school activities that take him or her away from his or her immediate school environment.

The importance of this Bill and the need to get it right is very evident when one considers the number of important Acts which will be amended. I note the repeal of one Act in its entirety, namely, the Guardianship of Infants Act 1964. The other Acts that will be amended were milestone legislative measures at the time of their enactment and include the Family Law (Maintenance of Spouses and Children) Act 1976, the Status of Children Act 1987, the Family Law Act 1995, the Children Act 1987, the Adoption Act 2010 and the Civil Partnership and Certain Rights and Obligations of Cohabitants Act 2010.

I am glad that the further implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in our State will be advanced. Protecting a child's right to family life and the children of unmarried families from discrimination based on their parents' marital status, providing that the best interests of the child will be the paramount consideration in decisions involving guardianship, custody and access and providing children with the right to have their voices heard as part of the best interests determination regarding guardianship, custody and access cases are important developments. Not alone that, they are necessary.

Progress on these issues is very much a follow-on to the constitutional amendment which was approved in November 2012. I was very glad to be able to conduct a substantial canvass in my constituency of Cavan-Monaghan in support of the amendment in autumn 2012. Work on the amendment commenced in 2006. The late Brian Lenihan, as former Minister for Children and Minister for Justice and Equality, and the late Rory Brady, who was a former Attorney General, did very important work in initiating that process. In autumn 2007 the all-party Oireachtas committee was established to deal with this issue. I was glad at that time, on behalf of the Government, to put through the Oireachtas the proposal to establish that committee. People of all parties and none were on it, did exceptionally good and thorough work and dealt in a comprehensive manner with very difficult issues. I remember the contribution of the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, at that time to the work of the committee, along with many other Oireachtas colleagues from across all parties.

The committee's work took longer than expected, but its detailed deliberations and hearings were necessary and very worthwhile. The Government, in granting the extra time for the committee to carry out its work, made the right decision. It is very important that we give adequate time to a full consideration of and detailed debate on this important Bill. I hope the Bill is not rushed in any way because we all know that rushed legislation can often turn out to have very negative unintended consequences.

I welcome the introduction of the Bill to the House. I would like to join with my party in indicating that it and I will support the Bill. The Bill makes the best interests of the child a central consideration in Irish family law and will ensure that decisions regarding children are, first and foremost, in their best interests. It will also ensure that all children are treated fairly regardless of their family background.

Our party acknowledges that Irish families are much more complex than they ever were in the past and it is very important that legislation is modernised and fairly reflects this. We now have many non-traditional loving families and they are not protected or given appropriate supports through the current laws. It is important, as the Minister has acknowledged, that this changes. We do however, have a concern which has been expressed by many in the House over the course of the debate, namely, the delay in the Bill coming forward and ensuring that it is given appropriate time to be considered and debated.

The first general scheme of the Bill was published on 30 January 2014 by the then Minister, Deputy Shatter. We were all waiting on the final draft to be presented to the Dáil a week before Second Stage commenced, despite commitments that the Bill would be passed well before the marriage equality referendum due on 22 May. On a point of principle, it is our party's position that legislation of this importance should not be published so close to when it is due to be debated. Instead, it should be given the priority and consideration it deserves by publishing it well in advance, thereby giving Members of the House time to ensure it is considered appropriately and to give the many people outside of the House it will affect time to engage with Oireachtas Members to ensure that during the deliberation on the Bill all appropriate points are made and properly teased out. That would ensure that the final legislation is appropriate and robust.

On the background in which this Bill is framed, my colleague, Deputy Brendan Smith, referred to the Constitution and how it places significant importance on the family. It defines it as "[T]he natural, primary and fundamental group of Society" in Article 41. As we know, the courts have given a very narrow interpretation of what the constitutional family means and it defines it as only including married couples. That means cohabiting couples, lone parents, civil partners, unmarried fathers and grandparents are excluded from the definition of the courts.

Increasing numbers of children are being cared for in non-marital settings and, as Deputy Smith pointed out, one in four children now live with a lone mother and up to 10% of children are living with unmarried cohabiting couples. The law until now, unfortunately, has not provided a mechanism whereby these family groups receive the appropriate recognition in law and their relationships with children properly recognised. It is welcome that this Bill is coming forward and that the Minister has put effort into ensuring that it is brought before the House, albeit more belatedly than might have been the case.

One area to which I would like to refer is the treatment of unmarried fathers in the Bill. As a party, we believe that the Bill falls short in how unmarried fathers are treated.

Treoir has argued there is nothing in this Bill for unmarried fathers unless they have cohabited with a mother for at least 12 months, a minimum of three months of which must have been after the child's birth. That means unmarried fathers continue to be in a position where they may have to resort to court if the mother is not in a position to agree to statutory declarations ensuring that the father can have joint guardianship. That currently has to be witnessed either by a commissioner of oaths or a peace commissioner. This is a lost opportunity, given how significant this Bill is for family legislation.

Treoir has indicated that this is groundbreaking legislation but there is disappointment that it is failing to address existing discriminatory issues with regard to unmarried fathers. Treoir's position is that we should pass legislation in line with other countries such as Britain, some other European countries and Australia, where unmarried fathers are provided with automatic rights to children if there is joint registration at the time of the child's birth. One of the interesting examples provided by Treoir indicates that the majority of parents and professionals mistakenly believe that having a father's name on a birth certificate for a child gives the father guardianship rights. Treoir has indicated such misinformation has had many major adverse consequences for children. I know the Minister is well aware of Treoir's recommendations, which are that, at the very least, the Children and Family Relationships Bill should make it mandatory to provide information to all unmarried parents when a child is born and at the point of registration. It indicates that information should state the legal position of unmarried families, with particular reference to the lack of rights for non-cohabiting and unmarried fathers. I know the Minister is also aware that Treoir has suggested that the provision of mandatory information should be aligned with the existing changes being brought about through the Civil Registration (Amendment) Act 2014.

Other points raised by Treoir involve a scenario where a statutory declaration for joint guardianship is signed and subsequently mislaid, resulting in no evidence of a parent's guardianship rights of a child. This can have real and lasting implications for fathers, such as losing contact with a child, particularly in cases where the mother of a child leaves the country. It also means a father could find himself in a position where he is unable to consent to medical treatment. Treoir has asked that the Bill make provision for the establishment of a central register for joint guardianship agreements, which would keep a record of statutory declarations agreeing guardianship rights. The Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality and the Law Reform Commission have recommended that a central register would be established.

I ask the Minister to address the issues, which have been outlined coherently and clearly by Treoir. It appears quite unfair that at a time when there is so much fundamental change to family law, the rights of unmarried fathers are still being denied. This is a real and worthwhile opportunity to address the issue. We would appreciate it if the Minister could examine it and take time to engage with the people who have raised these issues and amend the Bill in this regard. Overall, our party is generally supportive of the Bill and we welcome its introduction to the Dáil. We will engage productively with the Minister in its passage.

Deputies Clare Daly and Mick Wallace will be sharing 20 minutes. Is that being shared equally?

There is no equality in this world. The Minister must be bored senseless listening to everybody telling her this is great and it might be a bit more interesting when there is division. She is probably missing her lunch because she has to listen to all of this. I will support the Bill, which is long overdue. Although I may not agree with everything in it, I will certainly vote for it.

The Bill before us represents an opportunity to update the laws in this country in respect of children, some of which have not been revised since the 1960s, when the idea of family was synonymous with marriage and when divorce and homosexuality were illegal, unmarried cohabitation was extremely rare and only 3% of children were born out of wedlock. If we fast-forward half a century to 2014, in the second quarter of the year, 36.1% of births registered were outside of marriage. There were 25,000 children born outside of marriage in 2011; there were 143,600 cohabiting couples in Ireland, of which 60,269 had children. These days, almost one third of Irish families do not belong to the so called "traditional" family unit, yet the existing legislation still assumes this as a given. Today's Bill is a step towards modernising our legislation in order to allow it to better reflect the society that it seeks to protect, which is an underlying principle of all law reform.

The Bill will to some degree improve the lot of unmarried fathers by allowing for automatic guardianship to be granted in cases where the father has lived for 12 consecutive months with the mother, of which three of these months were after the birth of the child. In 2012, some 35% of births in Ireland took place outside marriage, meaning that in one year alone there were up to 25,200 men who became fathers but potentially had no rights as regards the day-to-day care or the upbringing of their child. Despite the fact that the European Court of Human Rights recognises "family" as existing in many diverse forms, Irish law still focuses on marriage as the basis of the family, which is not only anachronistic but discriminates against many groups in society, such as unmarried fathers. Marriage is a wonderful institution, provided one wants to live in an institution.

Unfortunately, instead of rectifying this issue, the Bill still discriminates against some unmarried fathers, and in particular those who have not cohabited with the mother of the child. Perhaps a couple cannot afford to rent and are living separately with their respective parents. This Bill could introduce measures to meaningfully enhance the rights of unmarried fathers, for example, through establishing a mechanism which confers joint guardianship on the parents of a child by linking it to compulsory joint registration of the birth of the child, as recommended by the Law Reform Commission of Ireland. Furthermore, this Bill provides for the establishment of a national donor register, aimed at ensuring respect for the child's right to identity. Why is there no provision made for a central guardianship register? Along with improving the position of unmarried fathers, this would help the child to have, where possible, a meaningful relationship with both parents.

A concern I have regarding this Bill is that it does very little to alleviate the ongoing larger problems of our backlogged family court system, in which delays, long waiting lists, brief hearings, inadequate facilities and overly hasty settlements are often the order of the day. Whereas new legislation should be capable of providing enough legal clarity so as to reduce traffic through the courts, this Bill will continue to push people unnecessarily into the courts system.

A welcome addition in the Bill is that particular attention is paid to dealing with "family violence", but the definition as laid out in Part V of the general scheme is confined to "physical harm, including sexual abuse, or causing a child or member of the household to fear for his/her safety". Domestic abuse is not confined just to violence but can involve neglect, maltreatment, or the deliberate long-term use of coercion to control every aspect of someone's life. A recent study detailed in yesterday's The Guardian and carried out by a domestic abuse charity group in the UK called SafeLives highlighted the long-lasting impact of living in a family coping with domestic violence. Although it is an English study, parallels with Ireland are never too far off.

According to the survey, in approximately a quarter of the cases on the domestic violence database the victim had a child under the age of three, and children are directly harmed in 62% of cases. These are frightening figures. The definition of family violence in the Bill should be expanded in line with the position of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in its general comment on the protection of children from all forms of violence, which covers all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment and maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse.

I support the points made by my good friend, Deputy Shatter, yesterday and share his strong concerns about the watering down of some provisions in this newest version of the legislation. The exclusion of surrogacy from the Bill does not make sense. It appears to be the only area relating to assisted reproduction and parentage that is omitted from the Bill. If the Bill intends to uphold the best interests of the child as regards their rights and legal relationships with their families, why does it purposely exclude children born, and yet to be born, through surrogacy in Ireland, leaving them and their parents in a legal limbo? Rather than the people actually parenting them, the women who carried them and agreed not to act as parents will still be regarded as their mothers under the law. The Government's proposed way forward on this issue is to kick the can down the road through a separate Bill, which realistically has no chance of being completed during this Dáil.

While the legislation covers many issues and is designed to provide greater legal support for children and those parenting them, regardless of their marital status or living arrangements, what appears to have given rise to a large amount of controversy in the media is the issue of same-sex adoption. This has been opposed by a number of individuals and groups allegedly in the interests of the family, despite the largest ever peer-reviewed study on gay parenting carried out by Colombia Law School finding that of 75 studies on gay parenting, 71 concluded that children of gay parents fare no worse than others. Many of those who oppose same-sex adoption assume that it is always in the best interests of the child to stay with their biological parents, but in many situations this is not true. The law as it stands is so heavily, and perhaps disproportionately, weighted in favour of natural parents, that when a court is trying to determine whether a child should be taken into care, a very high level of neglect or abuse must be proven for the child to be taken away from the natural parents.

The anti-same-sex adoption voices are shouting loudly in the name, allegedly, of children's rights. When different groups from the Christian fundamentalist-financed right wing in America send me e-mails, I am always comforted that the Government must be up to something positive. It is always a good sign. Why are these people not focusing instead on the real issues affecting children's rights, such as the escalation in child poverty, the rise in deprivation rates or the ongoing social work crisis in which 8,000 children deemed at risk of neglect or abuse have not been assigned a social worker? Where were all these outraged voices when children were being illegally adopted and forcibly snatched from unmarried mothers? The hypocrisy is tough going.

I feel sorry for the Minister having had to endure this process over recent days. It is not that the issues are not important, because they are critically important, but that the nature of how this debate is structured probably shows the inadequacy of the Chamber as a vehicle to discuss them adequately. People standing to speak and repeating points is not a positive way forward for dealing with the complex and critically important issues in the real lives of people.

To refer to the last point made by Deputy Wallace, the frenzy with which some people rushed to voice their opposition to the Bill, even before it was published, and to all the things it would and would not do was absolutely laughable. It is true that this Bill is an important body of work which, it is hoped, will dramatically improve the legal situation for modern families. Those families are no longer solely based on the notion of the nuclear family of Mammy, Daddy and children. Modern Ireland is clearly different from that. As the Bill is a substantial body of work, we must have the time to discuss it properly and comprehensively.

In that sense Deputy Shatter's contribution yesterday was very interesting. It was incredibly comprehensive and he made some seriously compelling arguments as to why issues around surrogacy should be dealt with. On the surface these are complex concerns, balancing rights and so forth, but other jurisdictions managed to do it so clearly we can do it in a balanced way as well. He revealed that much of this work has been done already, that it is nearly ready to go and that it is backed by international research and assessment. That is a compelling argument. The points he made about distinguishing between the health issues, which must be addressed afterwards, and the legal parentage issues were quite clear.

I am seriously concerned that this is the second instance where the Government appears to be relying on the input of the Attorney General, or suggested input in this case, not to proceed with something. Instead, we are given the promise of the Government dealing with it through a separate legislative measure. The reality is that no action will be taken for the small number of people in this situation. It will not be done in the lifetime of this Government. It is exactly the same approach as was taken with the fatal foetal abnormalities Bill. It appears to be becoming something of a hallmark. On the one hand the Government agrees that it must do something about an issue, because it affects people in an intimate, private and important way, but then says it will not do it but will let somebody else do it. That is not good enough. Members of this Parliament are paid to deal with complex issues. It appears that we can deal with the issue in this Bill, so I hope we will do that.

One of the important points about this is the child-centred approach and the child's right to identity, which is obviously one of the most basic human rights. One would expect it to be granted automatically. Sadly, however, it is not, despite the history of this country and the damage done to people where that right was denied. We have heard the horrendous stories of the forced adoptions, illegal adoptions, the registrations of births where people wrote that the adoptive parents were the biological parents when they were not, and all of the complex tragedy that flows from those situations and the air of secrecy that goes with it. It is an absolute disgrace. In that context, I welcome the fact that we are recognising the right to an identity in a more far-reaching way than previously.

The correspondence we received yesterday from the Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists was really ironic. On the one hand the institute appeared to be suggesting that more time for debate is required. That is accurate, in a sense, and probably fair, given the lack of openness in Irish history and so forth. However, everything else said by the institute sought to back up the culture that existed in the past, as far as I am concerned. It gives an insight into some of the issues with which we are grappling. The correspondence says, with regard to the area of assisted human reproduction, that we have a duty of care to the would-be parents in such cases. That is fair enough. It then goes on to state that the institute is alarmed at the suggestion that a donor-conceived person applying for a birth certificate at the age of 18 will be informed that there is extra information, saying it would be a traumatic experience for somebody to realise this. Of course it would. It states that there could be legitimate reasons that the parents withheld the information. No, there could not. One either believes in a person's right to their identity or one does not. One cannot elevate the interests of those who are parenting, regardless of the circumstances. If we are seeking to have a child-centred approach, that correspondence went to the heart of what we are grappling with. If that is the hierarchy for the Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, it is not too far away from some of the things that happened in the past.

Regardless of the parents' interests, it is about the child.

This is a huge step forward. Recognising the voice of the child, with the assistance of an expert who is able to evaluate and work with that child, is critical. It is ironic that, at the age of 12, children must account for their criminal activities in certain instances, yet they are not consulted on certain life-changing decisions. We are dealing, in the main, with relationship breakdown and acrimony. Sadly, bad behaviour is not confined to one gender. Some people use their children as bargaining chips in what is an ongoing toxic battle when a relationship breaks down. This is reprehensible. Legislation alone will not change this fact. In many ways, the bigger battle is to create a society in which people will not do this. We need to discuss and highlight these issues in addressing that fact.

The only way to legitimately deal with the situation is to ask what it is the child wants and to hear the child's voice. This is not straightforward and will depend on the child's development and age, but working with professionals can achieve this. All studies show that when the child is involved in the process, the tension between the warring parents is de-escalated and rationality and normality is introduced to the situation. This is the scenario we are trying to achieve.

We have all heard heartbreaking stories of people in non-traditional families. I have heard from a non-biological lesbian mother who had a great relationship with her daughter. When she split from her partner, she was given no access to her daughter and had no rights. After being bereaved of their own child, grandparents are being denied access to their grandchildren and face a huge uphill battle. Fathers are being kept away from their children and denied the right to see them grow up or have any contact with them. There are other instances. People split up and the courts award maintenance to a mother who is struggling to raise her children on her own, but the maintenance order is flagrantly breached by the mother's former partner. These things occur. The law will not stop them from happening, but we can make the situation easier. We cannot legislate for bad behaviour, but we can make it easy for people to get their rights and entitlements when they need intervention and help from the courts.

Many good points have been expressed. I echo them. It is important that we say that there is no such thing as "normal". Everyone has a right to be heard. Everyone has a responsibility to behave maturely and to take into account the children in these circumstances. The child should be the starting point. If we did this, we would de-escalate things considerably and make things better for all concerned. I welcome the fact that the Minister has brought the Bill to the House, and I look forward to dissecting it further later on.

There are elements of this Bill that I welcome and that I believe are long overdue. In a spirit of co-operation, it is important to mention this fact. While the Bill affords greater rights to fathers, it also by extension places greater responsibility on them. This is welcome, although I would like to see the Bill go further. Enshrining and supporting the rights and connections between children and their grandparents is a very positive step forward as well. This is something I strongly and wholeheartedly support, particularly at a time when families are splintered in our society. Children are often having their own children and bringing up their families in urban areas, perhaps away from where they grew up. The link can become severed or, at least, weakened. It is important to acknowledge that the link is enhanced in this Bill.

The rights of children must supersede all others when it comes to issues surrounding human reproduction, adoption and child safety and protection. It is all about the children. I do not believe the interests, desires or wishes of adults particularly come into play. That is my starting point. That is why I was happy to support the children's rights referendum in 2012. Its stated objective was to place children's needs and rights at the heart of our Constitution and, by extension, at the heart of our justice system. This was welcome and I was happy to support it. We have yet to see the fruits of the referendum because a lot of the legislation that was required has not yet been implemented, nor have many of the needed resources been put in place. We live in hope, and I hope that the passing of the children's rights referendum in 2012 will lead to greater and much enhanced rights, supports and protections for children.

I am concerned that elements of this Bill do the opposite. I am concerned that this Bill breaks or purports to break the link between natural, biological parents and their children in certain circumstances, in particular via the so-called donor-assisted human reproduction provisions. I have concerns about these provisions, and I know from speaking to members of the public that there is a very significant cohort of Irish people who feel the same way. Many of those concerns are not being represented in this debate. It is a very one-dimensional debate, as we unfortunately have come to expect in this Chamber in the past number of years.

Assisted human reproduction, particularly IVF, has massive benefits for society, parents who have difficulty conceiving and the children who are born as a result. We all know couples who have benefitted from this assistance and children who have been born into happy and healthy environments. This is to be welcomed. However, I fear that what is proposed in this Bill will sever the link between children and their natural, biological parents. Children will only have the right to find out about their natural mother or father at the age of 18. My view, when it comes to children's rights, is that children's rights kick in from the moment they are born or even before they are born, and not at the age of 18 when they reach the age of maturity. Their whole childhood has passed at that stage without their knowing or having any right to know who their biological parent is. This is a massive departure, which is being played down by the Government as inconsequential. It is not; it is a huge departure. It goes way beyond what most European countries are doing in the area of assisted human reproduction. I have concerns about it and I would like to hear the Minister address those concerns in her remarks. How does the Minister intend to safeguard against the risk of commodification of children through the abuse or potential abuse of assisted human reproduction and some of the clauses in this legislation? I do not have time to go into it in any great detail. However, I will participate on Committee Stage if I have the opportunity.

When it comes to the proposed changes to adoption laws, my starting position is that I support flexibility. There is no perfect model. We all know and hear endlessly from the Minister and others on the Government benches about the need to reflect reality and society. This is true, within reason. We need to protect the interests of children. This is true, without reservation. I spoke in this Chamber on the civil partnership Bill in 2010. The reality of children being raised by same-sex couples was ignored. This was wrong, and I said at the time that this needed to be addressed in order to protect the rights of children in those circumstances. Rather than a blunt instrument, I would love to see a recognition of the fact that individual circumstances apply.

Although the Minister does not agree with me, unfortunately, it is reasonable for me to state it is desirable in most instances for a child to be raised by its mother and father, where reasonable and practicable. There are many examples of where this is not the case. When it comes to adoption and recognising the rights of children, it must be noted children have a right to a mother and father in most instances, but there are exceptions. I am certainly familiar with exceptional circumstances. I know of a case in which a father has disappeared and has no interest or involvement in raising his child with the mother and, therefore, is not concerned with access or guardianship. The mother is in a relationship with another woman or man but that person has no right in respect of the child. Moreover, the child has no right in respect of that parent. In such circumstances, there has to be flexibility and I absolutely believe the legislation should reflect that.

Let me read a response to a parliamentary question asked a few weeks ago. The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs stated:

[I]t can be taken that the number of sole applicants adopting non-related children is extremely low and would occur only in exceptional circumstances, e.g. where a foster family intended to adopt a foster child and one of the couple died and the other proceeded with the adoption. The reasons for the exceptional nature of these adoptions are that birth mothers giving their children for adoption typically choose a couple and also that sole applicants are not automatically eligible to adopt but must satisfy the Authority that in the particular circumstances the adoption is desirable...

That is a reasonable standard and it has served us pretty well in this State. Essentially, what the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs is telling us is that the authority examines the circumstances and best interest of the child and tries to ensure the child will have a mother and father figure in its life, but not in every circumstance. In exceptional circumstances, that reality can be reflected. That is reasonable and it should continue to be the case. I fear that the Minister for Justice and Equality is moving far beyond that, which would be unfortunate.

I wish to touch very briefly on fathers' rights and, more important, the right of children to have a relationship with their father. This is reflected in the Bill and that is proper. We are all aware fathers have been discriminated against in family law, and will probably continue to be discriminated against for decades to come. This Bill perpetuates the injustice from the point of view of children. Deputy Shatter referred to this in some way yesterday. It is of concern that the rights of natural fathers can now be undermined by a third party who, because of a relationship with the mother, can become a third legal guardian. This will potentially discriminate against the relationship between the child and his or her natural father. Fathers already struggle in many instances to have proper access and a proper relationship with their natural child. The provision is wrong and I have concerns about it. I would like to hear the Minister address this.

I am deeply concerned over the fact that surrogacy is excluded from this legislation. It should be included, as was originally intended. Let me draw attention to a quotation from the Taoiseach in the Dáil on 30 September 2014: "I am concerned that if this [surrogacy] is dealt with in the context of the Children and Family Relationships Bill, the process would be delayed and it would not be possible to ask a clear question in the context of the marriage equality referendum." What I deduce from that is that the Taoiseach is saying that, since he wants the referendum to pass, he will therefore muddy the waters and leave the surrogacy issue until a later date. That is very dishonest. As a supporter of the marriage equality referendum — I have said I intend to vote in favour of marriage equality — I do not believe any couple should be discriminated against. People have a right to be treated equally before the law. Hiding the surrogacy issue until a later date to ensure the passage of the referendum is entirely dishonest. That the Taoiseach has essentially put that on record already leaves us without any doubt. That is unfortunate.

I very much welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate. I welcome the fact the Bill modernises family law and reflects the fact that not every child is born into a traditional marital family. As legislators in this Dáil, we have a duty and responsibility to ensure all types of families are reflected in our legislation. We all want to ensure the Bill is 100% correct. It touches on many issues affecting families, children and adults and their legal relationships with one another over many years. We do not want to see this legislation challenged in court, where various constitutional points could be argued. It is important that every section be fully teased out to ensure there will be no unintended consequences as a result of not debating every part fully.

As other speakers have stated, the legislation is very complex. It is a long Bill, with 172 sections in total. It really has not been possible for many Members to read it from beginning to end. As with some colleagues, I have concerns about some sections of the Bill. I am a little concerned that we seem to be rushing it through the Dáil. Committee Stage has already been scheduled for next week. Why can Members not be accommodated by having Committee Stage here in the Chamber rather than in committee rooms? We all know that rushed legislation is bad legislation. How much time will be allocated to deal with each section on Committee Stage?

As other Deputies have stated, the issue of surrogacy is not covered in this legislation. I would like the background on that. Since the Minister has decided to deal with it in separate legislation, why have issues such as guardianship, adoption and donor-assisted human reproduction not been dealt with through a stand-alone Bill? Why was it decided to deal with surrogacy in a stand-alone Bill?

Like other Deputies, I agree there are some positive elements in the Bill, particularly Parts 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 10 and 12, which all seem good. They could be considered in more detail and amendments might be tabled on them in due course. I am worried, however, that certain parts do not seem to be child-centred. I refer to the changes to the adoption law and donor-assisted human reproduction provisions. Deliberately depriving a child of two legal parents is wrong. What we are doing in this Bill is legally stipulating motherless or fatherless homes are acceptable. I strongly do not agree with that.

We know from the Bill that children of sperm or egg donors will not know the identity of their genetic parents until they are 18. Dr. Joanna Rose, a campaigner for the rights of donor-conceived people, feels the State is obliged to write to all those who are donor conceived by letter when they reach 18. Not every parent would necessarily have the relevant conversation with the child when he or she reaches 18 because it would be very difficult to explain how he or she was conceived. The child would not necessarily apply for a birth certificate to know fully the identity of his or her parents.

With regard to the donor's right to veto access to identifying information for the donor offspring if the donor's welfare requires it, what does the Minister mean by the "donor's welfare"? We all know people who have been adopted. A significant amount of legislation has passed through this House so people can discover who their parents are in the first instance. However, we are deliberately not allowing people to find natural-parent information.

As people grow older they become more curious about their origin and identity and about putting together their family tree, which happens frequently these days. We need to learn from the mistakes made in the United Kingdom in the area of donor-assisted human reproduction and heed the warnings about it.

Regarding access orders, why is that provision being dropped from the Bill when it was originally included in it? Deputy Alan Shatter said yesterday in the Dáil that sanctions would be imposed on parents who breached access orders. Obviously, that works for both mothers and fathers. Children should not be used as pawns at any stage, and making a parent in breach of an access order do community service would put a halt to that. The Minister might indicate why that has been dropped from the Bill when it makes perfect sense.

The provision regarding grandparents and their rights is very welcome. As a result of breakdowns in relationships, grandparents are left effectively to become parents to a certain degree, particularly if both parents work because of a huge mortgage or whatever. Grandparents are left to do a lot of the work, and it is only right that they should be recognised in this legislation.

We all know that reform of the family courts is badly needed. I would have preferred to see a bigger push towards alternative dispute resolution and mediation with the aim of keeping cases out of court, because it is a costly and traumatic experience for both parents to deal with a court system that we all know is backlogged. Courts should not be a final resort. Mediation and alternative dispute resolution should be used much more. The Minister might comment on that.

Children's voices are not being fully heard in this legislation. We had the children's rights referendum in 2012. However, this Bill will do very little in terms of allowing a child to have his or her say. The right of a child to express its views to the court should be included in all legislation. Currently, the court can appoint an external body to listen to the child's views, but this appointment of an external body is at the discretion of the courts. There is no automatic right to that. It is very important that children's voices be heard.

Regarding guardianship, a huge number of children are born every year who have no legal relationship with their fathers. That leads to major but unnecessary difficulties. Why has the Minister introduced the test in the legislation that the child must live with the mother in order for the father to gain access? Would it not be easier to make that an automatic right, which would keep it simple and fair? Obviously, there cannot be an automatic right in exceptional circumstances such as rape and incest, but in terms of guardianship, it should be considered further.

Regarding custody cases, where a parent is the biological mother or father and the other person has been raising the child with the biological parent, if they separate there is currently a presumption in favour of giving custody to the mother. Will this Bill address the issue of custody? Will the Minister indicate whether the biological parent's genetic connection will be considered as a positive factor when deciding custody?

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate. I have had mixed responses to the Bill but I hope the issues will be fully teased out on Committee Stage. As I am not a member of the select committee I will not have an opportunity to table amendments, but other Members might table amendments on Committee and Report Stages. I hope that people's genuine concerns will be dealt with and that there will be sufficient time to deal with all the sections and address questions that Members may have on the Bill.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Children and Family Relationships Bill. There are many good sections in the Bill, but I have some concerns about it. In order to get this right, we must make sure that children are the paramount consideration and that what we decide here for the future of children is done in the proper way.

I have concerns about unmarried fathers, who in my opinion are not recognised, and we need to address that issue by way of amendments or whatever.

I am aware from talking to people in my constituency that there is a view that when marriages or partnerships get into trouble and there are children involved, the man should automatically leave the home. There seems to be the view also that men are treated as second-class citizens in the courts. I do not condone anyone being abusive or not being a good father, but the view expressed to me on several occasions is that men are not listened to when they go to court. I hope that as a Parliament we address that issue, and that we give equal rights to men. I would be the first to say that women were not treated properly in the past, but we seem to have gone to the other side of the fence on that. I have come across some harrowing cases in which people were suffering major distress as a result of what was going on. Some common sense would resolve many of those issues.

The types of family in Ireland are changing. There are approximately 200,000 single mothers, and we have to recognise all of that. A fear I have would be if a relationship broke up and one of the couple found a new partner, the original father might lose the right to make decisions. The natural father or mother must be recognised in this Bill.

Deputy Shatter said in his contribution that parts of the Bill he had put together have been left out. Why did that happen? I know the passage of Bills through these Houses takes time but we must make sure that in doing that we get it right once and for all, even if it requires extra time.

We talk about looking after children, but we have not even built the national children's hospital to care for children from all parts of the country. We have also had cuts in schools and so on. We may be legislating for this one area now, but as a State we have decided to be good at paperwork on the one hand, while on the other hand failing children as they are growing up.

I am not against the Bill, but I want to highlight some reservations.

There is a general perception, and I am of that view myself, that one-parent families may find things difficult. I lost my mother when I was ten years old. In talking to my father later on, he said he had found it difficult in that he had to bring in someone to talk to my older sisters about the different phases of life. It should be recognised that it is not all just black and white, and that not everyone can go through the different parts of life on their own.

I will not say I am against the Bill, but I would ask a question about two gentlemen, especially, bringing up a young girl. There is difficulty involved, so there should be some flexibility if they need help in talking to their children when they are growing up. One could bring in an aunt or whatever, but all of these matters should be accommodated, because it is not as simple as a, b and c. I am not living in the old world, but these are things one goes through as one grows up. This is something we should take on board as we discuss the legislation.

Children are paramount in this Bill, so their views should be taken on board. Last week, I was told about two children, aged ten and 14, who wanted to live with one of their parents but were frustrated because their voices were not being heard. The Supreme Court has ruled that the voice of any child over eight should be listened to. It is important to do so in order to ensure that children are happy in their future lives. That is basically the most important thing of all. Children have a right to know who their parents are.

There are some very good measures in the Bill, which is a complex piece of legislation, although I know we cannot solve all problems all the time. I intend to table some amendments on Committee Stage to address a number of concerns I have about the legislation.

As there are no other speakers, I call on the Minister to reply to the debate.

I would like to begin by thanking the many Deputies, approximately 60, who contributed to this Second Stage debate on the Bill. I welcome the broad support that has been expressed here for what I believe is landmark legislation for children and families.

Most Deputies who have spoken recognise that the legislation deals with the diversity of family situations in which children live. From a legal perspective, the Bill seeks to ensure that these children and their families will be valued, nurtured and recognised. In addition, the Bill deals with issues including access, guardianship, custody and maintenance, which will be decided with the best interests of the child at heart. There is absolutely no question but that this reform is child-centred and family-centred. The Bill protects and clarifies diverse family relationships, as well as providing a legal bedrock on which such diversity will be recognised in the courts when they are faced with making decisions on that range of issues.

I thank all who have been involved in producing this legislation. My predecessor, Deputy Alan Shatter, has done so much for family law reform both in this House and outside it. He has ensured that we will have the very best legislation in this regard.

I want to thank the Attorney General and her staff, as well as drafters in the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel. An enormous amount of work has been involved in bringing this Bill to fruition. I pay tribute to the staff of my Department who have been dedicated in developing this legislation, including Conan McKenna, Carol Baxter and Dara Breathnach.

As many Deputies have said, this is a complex piece of legislation. It amends much previous legislation but it also has a number of core principles at its heart. In the course of the debate, the majority of Deputies welcomed those core principles and, in fact, there has been very little disagreement about them.

It took time to devise legislative solutions to what are profoundly complex issues. Many Deputies who spoke recognised the innovative pre-legislative scrutiny of the draft Bill which took place at the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality. That pre-legislative scrutiny process was introduced by this Government. The joint committee, which is chaired by Deputy David Stanton, invited submissions from everybody interested in the legislation. They had an opportunity to make an input, and some 38 submissions were received from a wide range of stakeholders. The public consultation heard from individuals, interest groups, Members of the Oireachtas, various clinics involved in AHR, lawyers and women's groups, as well as youth and equality organisations.

I thank the committee members for their consideration of all the submissions. They took care in producing a summary document and in the recommendations they made arising from those submissions and the subsequent discussions. I have taken on board many of the recommendations of the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality. They include, for example, changing the cohabitation requirement for guardianship for non-marital fathers. I note that many Deputies spoke about that matter today and I will return to it shortly.

Some of the committee's recommendations will be dealt with by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, particularly the issue of step-parent adoption. In the course of discussions on the preparation of the Bill, it emerged that that issue, while appearing simple at the outset, when discussed in detail in that Department and with the Adoption Authority, involved other complex aspects of adoption. It was decided that it would be better to deal with it in the context of adoption legislation itself. That is why it is not in this Bill.

Likewise, as regards assisted human reproduction, it was felt that the Department of Health was doing a huge amount of work in that area, and that is why certain other decisions were taken. I will return to those also.

The provisions on identity for donor-conceived children, which were so strongly advocated by the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality, and by the Ombudsman for Children in particular, required the development of an entirely new Part 3 of the Bill. Part 3 provides for the national donor-conceived person register, underpinned by robust enforcement mechanisms. Contrary to what has been said here, this is an extremely child-centred provision. It reinforces what many Deputies have said not just in this debate but also in many debates on adoption - that the child's access to identity is critical.

We have moved from a situation where AHR is almost completely unregulated to a situation where, in regard to the parentage provisions, we are insisting that access to information on the genetic identity of the child should be provided for in legislation. That is child-centred and represents a shift away from anonymous donation. There are many issues to be discussed in that regard, and no doubt we will have an opportunity to discuss them.

A number of Deputies have commented on whether the information can be given to the child before the age of 18. Of course the information can be given to the child before the age of 18 if the parents so decide and they have discussed it with their child, as I would expect many parents will have done. The veto is there in very exceptional circumstances where there may be a question over the safety of the child and the donor. The legislation is built on the premise and assumption that the child should have access to his or her identity and the right to that information. That was recommended by the committee.

We also received many submissions from people who were concerned about the issue of retrospective parentage of donor-conceived children, which I can understand. We have introduced a number of provisions to allow a birth person's partner to become the parent of a donor-conceived child retrospectively through a court-based procedure if certain conditions are fulfilled. The legal advice I got was that a court-based process was necessary in order to do this if we were awarding parentage retrospectively. Deputy Shatter raised this point. We would not have been able to rely on the presumptions of parentage included in the first draft of the general scheme. I have taken legal advice throughout the process on these provisions.

I wish to deal with some of the most common issues Deputies raised during the debate. Many Deputies expressed concern about the guardianship rights of unmarried fathers. I reiterate that many unmarried fathers will benefit greatly from the provisions, allowing them to become guardians of their children automatically. Many unmarried fathers obviously live with the mothers of their children. All of these parents will now have automatic guardianship. That is a strong change from the current situation. In the legislation, a father who cohabits with the child's mother for 12 months, including three months with the child following the child's birth, will be a guardian automatically. The cohabitation can take place any time before the child turns 18.

The option of becoming a guardian by statutory declaration or court order remains open to unmarried fathers. There is a major information gap for many fathers who do not realise that they can become the guardian simply by signing a statutory declaration before a peace commissioner or commissioner for oaths. I accept the points that have been made both in the House and by organisations that we need to take action and we need do more to ensure this option is more widely known.

The provisions in the Bill will enable a much wider group of unmarried fathers to be guardians of their children automatically. However, I am conscious of the issues that have been raised about non-marital fathers who are not in a position to live with the mother and child. Deputies have given a variety of examples related to housing and working abroad.

Some Deputies also suggested that the time is right to give automatic guardianship to all parents. Guardianship is obviously a very serious responsibility which gives a person extensive rights and responsibilities regarding a child. As I have said, my policy approach for the Bill has been to base its provisions on the best interests of the child.

Over the years many Deputies and organisations have highlighted concerns about the possibility that a father who is not prepared to be involved in a child's life still has a veto on key decisions. People have raised concerns about whether the mother in such a situation would have to go to court to dispense with a father's consent where there are very difficult issues of domestic violence, pregnancy as a result of rape or other situations. It could be very difficult for a family where those issues are prevalent. Of course, I recognise that these issues can arise in a marital family; I do not suggest that they are unique to cohabiting couples.

The majority of court applications for guardianship are granted. This confirms that, even where a mother does not agree to guardianship, it is relatively straightforward for a non-marital father to secure guardianship of his child. However, the court rejects some applications because they are not in a child's best interests. While the vast majority are granted, a significant percentage are refused because the court, having heard all the facts, does not believe it would be in the child's best interests for that parent to be a guardian.

There is no clear consensus on the approach. Many argued that guardianship should be automatic for unmarried fathers. However, many Deputies suggested there should be exceptions. I have referred to issues of domestic violence, rape and absent fathers. I am open to other suggestions as to how we can make guardianship automatic for those fathers who are involved with their families and are committed fathers, as the vast majority of fathers would be. I will consider this further on Committee Stage. However, excluding on the basis of exceptional circumstances could be extremely difficult to define legally. I have read the case made by Treoir and others, supported by many Deputies. I will examine it further on Committee Stage.

I will further examine the question of having a guardianship register. We should certainly be moving towards having a database of guardianship. There are complexities in this regard, but now that we have the Civil Registration Act provisions with regard to the father being named on the birth certificate, it may be possible to move in this direction more quickly than had been anticipated. The regulations are being developed in that regard. I will co-ordinate with the Department of Social Protection, which has already indicated that it would be open to making more information available at the point at which the birth registration is taking place.

Some Deputies asked whether a parent with addiction issues, for example, could continue to be a guardian if a grandparent also had guardianship. The provisions enabling a relative to become a guardian will not displace the rights of parents to continue to exercise guardianship.

The question of adoption assessment remains precisely as it is. Adoption assessment needs to take into account a range of factors, particularly what is in the best interests of the child. The entire assessment is based on the consideration of what is best for the child. Adoption is a child welfare mechanism and the child is at the centre. It would not be acceptable to me to define in this legislation a hierarchy of family types which would discriminate against particular types of family. The key requirement is to address the needs of the child in all situations. We began the process of dismantling discrimination against particular family types when we abolished the concept of illegitimacy in 1987. I will not turn back the clock in this legislation.

A number of Deputies raised the question of surrogacy. The decision to exclude surrogacy from the Bill was taken in consultation with the Department of Health. Assisted reproduction is in the policy remit of the Department of Health, which is separately working on comprehensive regulation of AHR, which we need. The commission reported in 2005 and no other government has taken any action on the issue. This legislation deals with certain parentage issues.

Surrogacy is a complex ethical issue. The rights of the birth mother and the surrogate are significantly more engaged than those of a donor in donor-assisted reproduction. Issues around international commercial surrogacy are particularly difficult. We have not had the kind of consultation with the public on assisted human reproduction in this country that the Minister for Health now envisages will happen following the Government agreeing to legislation and permission to draft the heads of that legislation. There will be now an opportunity to have consultation. We need careful consideration regarding how to devise an effective ban on commercial surrogacy, which is the intention. Let me make the point that it is not yet in legislation and not yet a Government decision in terms of legislation that is in the heads of a Bill. It is the intention of the Minister but there is no decision relating to it. These are the reasons it is better for surrogacy to be dealt with in the broader scope of the assisted human reproduction legislation which has been initiated by the Department of Health. I understand there are individual cases where the parentage issues are not dealt with in legislation at present but it is extremely important that we deal with the many broader policy issues surrounding this. There are additional issues relating to the identity of a child born through surrogacy. For example, to what extent should the details of each person involved, potentially the gamete donor and the gestational mother, be recorded? This is a simple example of the kind of issue that needs further consideration. At the time the heads of Bill were being republished in September 2014, the judgment was still awaited in the Supreme Court. I acknowledge that we now have the judgment but I make the point that this case has major implications for the law relating to surrogacy and further work will be necessary to fully implement it.

I wish to clarify that it will not be necessary for a person to go through a court procedure to be recognised as the second parent of a child. A lesbian couple, for example, will be able to register their child's birth directly once both parents have completed a statutory declaration. They will also need to supply evidence from the donor-assisted human reproduction facility confirming that the assisted human reproduction took place at the facility and that the consents, including that of the donor, are in order. These areas are the responsibility of the Department of Health but clearly, once the broader work is done on assisted human reproduction, there needs to be an independent authority, as recommended by the commission, which examined this area.

I have listened to some concerns that have been expressed by Deputies about the need for transitional arrangements on the donor-assisted human reproduction provisions and I will respond to these concerns. These provisions do not have to commence on enactment and I am open to delaying them to allow couples to continue the treatment they are undertaking to enable clinics to make the necessary preparations to comply with the Act. It will also allow for the orderly preparation of regulations to underpin these provisions.

A question arose about the commodification of children. I reject that entirely. What is effectively being done in this Bill is that we are moving from a situation where there was no regulation to one where we are protecting the rights and best interests of the child when it comes to assisted human reproduction and parentage.

It was decided to amend rather than to repeal the Guardianship of Infants Act 1964. Deputies will appreciate that there are risks associated with repealing a long-standing and complex piece of legislation like the 1964 Act, the main risk being that something that is not intended to be lost might in fact be lost in the repeal.

This Bill is part of a wider suite of reforms being advanced by the Government. My Department is currently at an advanced stage in preparing heads of legislation to provide for a specific family court. Many Deputies raised concerns about the way family law cases are dealt with in the District Court and I will bring proposals to Government on this in the immediate future. I intend that the heads of this Bill will be published for consultation before the summer and that the necessary legislation can then be brought forward later in 2015. The establishment of a family courts infrastructure will equip the courts with the specialist skills needed to address sensitive and difficult issues in the best way. I note the issues raised by Deputies with regard to the need for resourcing of the courts system, supports for families going through that system and family contact centres. We have had two pilot projects relating to that and I believe they can help families, particularly where there is a high level of conflict relating to children, custody and access. With an improving economic situation, I hope that we will be able to make further investment in these areas. Certainly, the improvements in the economy make it feasible for us to think again about investment in these important areas. Points were also made about the availability of free legal aid.

The Bill makes provision for a child's voice to be heard in proceedings on parentage, guardianship, custody and access. The child's voice can be heard directly by the judge, as appropriate. I have also provided for an expert who will have the role of explicitly finding out the child's views and of reporting them to the court where that is considered necessary. The most detailed guidelines that have been ever in a Bill regarding the definition of the best interests of a child will help the court greatly in making sure that the views of the child and all of the factors that should be taken into consideration are considered during the course of the case. I will draft regulations that will set the fees that will apply as I wish this option to be affordable for families.

Deputies also raised the issue of mediation. The mediation Bill is at an advanced stage of drafting and I hope that the Bill can be published and brought before the House in the coming months. I have a particular interest in this area having done some training as a mediator. I see the value of using mediation and think it is a far better alternative for many families if it can be made available. The Family Mediation Service plays a very extensive role which I want to see developed and the mediation Bill will ensure this happens.

On the issue of maintenance recovery, which was also raised, I will bring proposals before this House this year relating to maintenance recovery in the forthcoming international recovery of child support (Hague Convention) Bill, the heads of which are being finalised in my Department. On the issue of lump sum payments and provision for accommodation to be made for a child, section 49 of this Bill clarifies that a maintenance payment can be awarded against a parent regardless of whether that parent is a guardian. Sections 85 and 86 provide for lump sum payments. Section 86 enables the court when making a lump sum order to specify how the payment is to be applied. This can include providing suitable accommodation for the child so that is dealt with in the legislation. We have had some detailed discussions with the Department of Finance and the Revenue Commissioners relating to some of the technical adjustments that will be needed once this legislation is enacted, in much the same way as when we had those discussions when the Civil Partnership Bill was passed.

I look forward to engaging with Deputies on the detail of the Bill on Committee Stage and I thank the House for responding so positively to this legislation. The recognition on all sides of the House of the need to move forward with this legislation has been a striking feature of the debate and the contribution of Members. Many Deputies recognised the opportunity that has been there to engage in pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill. I welcome the support expressed for this Bill and hope we can work together constructively to bring the Bill through the enactment process.

Question put and agreed to.