Children First is no longer a national aspiration but a constitutional reality with the enactment of this legislation. Within decades of children in this country having been demonised, brutalised and criminalised for their audacity to be poor, different, abandoned, orphaned, troubled or just plain neglected, with Children First they are recognised and constitutionally protected as citizens of the Republic in their own right. For this Government it was, and remains, a first but important step in creating an Ireland where the ideas and experiences of childhood are recognised, respected and protected. As a country we have a lot to be proud of but we also have a lot to be ashamed of and a lot to be sorry for. It remains in our psyche as a nation.
When this Government was elected in 2011, I was determined to undo some of the wrongs done to our children and other fragile members of our society. We have introduced the National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act, the Criminal Justice (Withholding of Information on Offences Against Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act, the Child and Family Agency Act, the Children and Family Relationships Act and the Gender Recognition Act of 2015. Children First is not a political amulet to hang around Ireland's neck to protect us from the misdeeds of past generations. Rather, it is truly reforming legislation that recognises our children and protects their position under the Constitution, Bunreacht na hÉireann. It establishes them as individuals with their own separate rights and their own discrete needs in terms of respect, dignity and protection. We were determined to make Children First something that Ireland could and would be proud of, both in legislation and in practice. At the same time, we were adamant that in our determination to forge a new and proper child protection reality in this country, we would move with all speed to protect a child in danger but would not commit the critical error of making up for past shortcomings and major lapses towards our children, catalogued in report after report, by taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut. We had to make sure that no institution, regardless of its origin, would ever again trump the best interests of the individual child and his or her needs, rights and dignity. That is why under Children First, in any cases of competing interests, it is the child's best interests alone that take precedence.
Children First is not a child protection panacea nor a social or national salve. Rather, it is comprehensive legislation that protects the child and actively promotes his or her best interests at all times. The family, in all its modern and compassionate forms, is the basis of society. Whenever possible, it is better for a child to remain within its family unit. Sometimes, however, this is simply not possible. The cases publicised by the child care law reporting project show the significant need for intervention and protection and for family and individual support. These and other cases show that across Ireland there are children marooned not in lives, but in an existence of neglect, violence or abuse, with no functioning adult in the family to provide not just practical things like meals, hygiene and protection, but also the love, respect and dignity that can make a child and determine his or her future.
As I have said before on many occasions, I am anxious to reassure families that Children First is not and will not become a charter for trespass by the State and its agencies into their lives and the lives of their children. In fact, the Government resolved that Children First would clearly set out and demand that any actions taken be first and always in the best interests of the child and that they be judicious, timely and proportionate. Of course, accountability is the way to guarantee the public responsibility commensurate with such public power in what are intensely private and personal circumstances. I pay tribute to the social workers and care workers who do such a magnificent job with our children and families. They deserve our highest respect. We all depend on them to make the legislation work.
The Government did not draft this legislation in a vacuum. It is integral to our commitment and our plan to do more for our children and to do better for our families. Even at the height of the economic crisis, we put all our children first by creating a Department of Children and Youth Affairs with its own designated senior Minister. It is clear in many cases that when we are intervening, we are already too late. We must catch children and families before they fall. We must support families from day one if we are to give them the future and opportunity they deserve. Good and proportionate intervention is not interference, be it parenting programmes, family support services or the chance of an early education. It is how we truly support all our children and every family, in terms of health, nutrition, learning and social opportunities, now and into the future. That is good for our children, families, economy and society. We know that the rate of economic return on good early years investment is significantly higher than for any other stage in a child's life, so if not then, when? It is the way to a secure home life, access to education and later a good job and a place in society. This is our idiom of care as a government.
Finally, I pay tribute to the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Reilly, and his Department for delivering on this legislation today. I also pay tribute to the Members of this House and of Seanad Éireann, particularly Senator Jillian van Turnhout, for their support, guidance and good counsel. I am delighted to have had the opportunity to say these few words on the passing of this legislation. May it keep our society, families and children, now and into a prosperous future, rich in opportunity, compassion, safety, respect and dignity.