Adoption (Amendment) Bill 2016: Second Stage

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

I am very pleased to bring forward the Adoption (Amendment) Bill 2016. The Bill was published earlier this month by my predecessor as Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Dr. James Reilly, and I would like to acknowledge his important contribution in bringing the Bill to this Stage. The Bill contains a number of very important changes to adoption legislation arising from the children referendum which was held in 2012.

As an independent Member and a human rights advocate, I welcome the fact the first piece of legislation to be brought before the new Dáil relates to significant improvements to the rights of children. Most important, this Bill will give a voice to the child and we will finally put the best interests of the child at the centre of any decision regarding adoption. The views of the child will be given due weight, taking account of his or her age and maturity. We will probably require a learning curve in order to do this and we should let our children help us learn how to do it. Let them be our teachers and let us ensure we listen to the diverse voices of our children, especially as they grow to embrace who they are in their identity as they move from birth and background to who they imagine themselves to be in their heart, body, mind and soul.

Adoption was first legislated for in this country in the early 1950s. The regulatory framework has been strengthened over many years in an attempt to ensure that the best interests of children are protected at every step throughout the adoption process. The Adoption Act 1952 was the principal Act in force until the enactment of the Adoption Act 2010, which updated and restated the 1952 Act and all subsequent amending legislation into a single Adoption Act. The 2010 Act gave force of law to the Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-Operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption.

The 2010 Act also provided for the establishment of the Adoption Authority of Ireland. The Adoption (Amendment) Bill 2016, which is on Second Stage today, will amend the 2010 Act to give effect to the children referendum of 2012 and will also set out new provisions for step-parents wishing to adopt a child.

Adoption is a hugely significant event in the life of a child. It has lifelong implications for the child concerned, for the parents who place that child for adoption and for the parents who adopt that child. As legislators, we have a responsibility to ensure that the legislation supports and safeguards the child and his or her parents or guardians throughout the process. Adoption is a way of providing a new family for a child who cannot be cared for by his or her parents. It is a legal procedure which transfers parental rights and duties from parents or guardians to adoptive parents. The decision of the people in the children referendum of November 2012 endorsed the proposition of the Government of the day to move the position of children on to a new plane as regards recognition of the unique qualities, as well as vulnerabilities, of childhood and adolescence. It gave effect to the opportunity for this generation to author an enduring positive message to future generations that we place the protection and welfare of children amongst the highest values of our society. It is a great credit to the Irish people that, through Article 42A of the Constitution, clear expression has been given to the imperative that children are to have the full rights and protections of all citizens under the law on the basis of equality, including as regards adoption.

The insertion of Article 42A into the Constitution gave children rights which have not, heretofore, been enunciated in the Constitution. For the first time, the Constitution contains an express statement of children's rights. The Bill I am bringing forward today gives legislative effect to the constitutional amendment as it relates to adoption, including providing that, in the resolution of any matter, application or proceedings under the 2010 Act, the Adoption Authority or the court, as the case may be, shall regard the best interests of the child as the paramount consideration.

Changes which arise from the children referendum are part of this Bill. To give effect to the constitutional amendment, the Bill provides for several changes, as follows: first, the right of any child to be adopted, irrespective of the marital status of his or her parents, where both parents consent to the placing of the child and to the making of an adoption order; second, the best interest of the child to be the paramount consideration in regard to any matter, application or proceedings under the Adoption Act 2010, and, in that regard, for the views of the child to be ascertained by the Adoption Authority or by the court and for those views to be given due weight, having regard to the age and maturity of the child; and, third, a change in the criteria under which the High Court may, in a case of parental failure, make an order authorising the adoption of a child without parental consent.

The Bill deals with an issue which has caused concern for some parents over the years, namely, the adoption of a child by a step-parent. Step-parent adoption was not specifically provided for in the Adoption Act 2010. Currently, a step-parent may apply to adopt the child jointly with the child's parent. In those circumstances, the child's parent is also required to adopt his or her own child, and both the step-parent and the parent both become adoptive parents. I do not consider this to be acceptable.

To address this, the Bill provides for the adoption of a child by his or her step-parent without the requirement for the child's other parent to adopt his or her own child, where that other parent is the spouse, civil partner or cohabitant of the proposed adopter. The step-parent will be the sole adopter and will have parental rights and duties in respect of that child as a result of the adoption being effected. Under this Bill, the parent will continue to be a parent and the step-parent will be an adoptive parent.

In addition, the Bill repeals Part 11 of the Children and Family Relationships Act 2015 which, I am sure Deputies will agree, is a substantial and progressive Act with wide-ranging implications for child and family law in this country. Part 11 of that Act amended the Adoption Act 2010 to provide for civil partners and cohabiting couples to be eligible to apply to adopt a child. Certain provisions of Part 11 require amendment in order to clarify that the 2010 Act adequately protects the rights of those persons whose consent to an adoption is required and generally to ensure a robust legislative basis for adoption. The repeal of Part 11 allows for the sections providing for the adoption of a child by civil partners and cohabiting couples to be inserted into the Adoption (Amendment) Bill. This will assist in achieving clarity and coherence in our adoption legislation, with the added benefit of providing for adoption law in adoption Acts.

I will now address the specific provisions of the Bill. The primary purpose of the Bill is to give legislative effect to the Thirty-first Amendment of the Constitution following on from the children referendum.

Section 1 provides that "Principal Act" means the Adoption Act 2010. Section 2 provides for the repeal of sections 24 and 45 of the Adoption Act 2010 and for the repeal of Part 11 of the Children and Family Relationships Act 2015. The repeal of section 24 is consequential on the amendment of section 23 of the 2010 Act, which is provided for in section 12 of the Bill. The repeal of section 45 is to clarify that a previously adopted child is eligible for adoption in the same way as any other child. The repeal of Part 11 of the Children and Family Relationships Act 2015, and the bringing forward of relevant sections from that Act into the Adoption (Amendment) Bill, ensure that provisions allowing for the adoption of a child by civil partners or cohabiting couples are encompassed in primary adoption legislation.

Section 3 of the 2010 Act provides for definitions. Section 4 amends section 4 of the 2010 Act to provide that the term "birth parents" is replaced by "parents". Section 5 provides for the inclusion of "mother" and "father" in the definition of "guardian" in section 12 of the 2010 Act.

Section 6 amends section 16 of the 2010 Act and replaces the term "father" with "relevant non-guardian" in order that each person who is included in the definition of "relevant non-guardian", as set out in section 3 of the Bill, may give notice of his or her wish to be consulted in regard to an application for an adoption order by a mother, step-parent or relative of a child. Section 7 of the Bill replaces the term "father" with "relevant non-guardian" in section 17 of the 2010 Act in order that each person who is included in the definition of "relevant non-guardian", as set out in section 3 of the Bill, is included in the category of persons with whom consultation is required prior to the placement of a child for adoption.

Section 8 of the Bill inserts a new section 18 into the 2010 Act to replace the term "father" with "relevant non-guardian", as defined in section 3, in order that each person who is included in the definition of "relevant non-guardian" is included in this section. This section sets out the circumstances wherein the authority may, with the approval of the High Court, authorise the placing of a child for adoption and dispense with the requirement for consultation with the child's "relevant non-guardian".

Section 9 of the Bill amends section 19 of the 2010 Act by substituting a new section 19 to reflect Article 42A of the Constitution and to provide that in any matter, application or proceedings under the 2010 Act before the Adoption Authority or any court, the authority or the court, as the case may be, shall regard the best interest of the child as the paramount consideration in the resolution of such matter, application or proceedings. The section also provides that in the resolution of any matter, application or proceedings referred to in the section, the authority or court, as the case may be, shall, in respect of any child who is capable of forming his or her own views, ascertain the child's views and such views shall be given due weight, having regard to the age and maturity of the child.

Section 10 of the Bill amends section 20 of the 2010 Act to enable the Adoption Authority to make an adoption order in respect of civil partners or a couple who have been cohabiting for over three years, if they have been assessed as eligible and suitable to adopt. It also provides for an intercountry adoption undertaken outside the State to be recognised where the adopting couple are civil partners or cohabitants who have cohabited together for over three years.

Section 11 amends section 21 of the 2010 Act by substituting a new subsection (2) to provide that the Child and Family Agency shall give notice of discontinuance of adoption proceedings to the authority, any adoption committee concerned, the mother or guardian and every relevant non-guardian of a child.

Section 12 amends section 23 of the 2010 Act to provide for eligibility for adoption of any child residing in the State who is under the age of 18 years and has been in the care of the applicants for the prescribed period, if any such period has been prescribed. The section also deletes the reference to eligibility for adoption of a child who is an orphan or born to parents not married to each other. The section also provides that a step-parent may adopt a child where that child has had a home with his or her parent and step-parent for a continuous period of not less than two years at the date of application for the adoption order.

Section 13 amends section 30 of the 2010 Act to replace the term "father" with "relevant non-guardian" in order that all persons included in the definition of "relevant non-guardian" are persons with whom consultation is required under the section.

Section 14 amends section 31 of the 2010 Act by substituting a new section 31 to provide that in circumstances where a child has been placed with prospective adopters and, where prior to the final adoption order being made, a person whose consent to the making of the adoption order is necessary fails or refuses to give consent or withdraws a consent already given, the applicant or applicants may apply to the High Court for an order giving custody of the child to the applicant or applicants for such period as the court may determine and authorising the authority to dispense with the consent to the making of an adoption order in favour of the applicants. In these circumstances the section provides that the High Court shall have regard to the relationship between the child and the applicants and the relationship between the child and his or her mother or guardian, the efforts made by any of these persons to develop or maintain such a relationship and any proposed arrangement of either the applicants and the mother or guardian for the future care of the child. The section also provides that the High Court shall, in so far as is practicable, give due weight to the views of the child, having regard to his or her age and maturity.

Section 15 amends section 32 of the 2010 Act to provide that the authority shall not make an adoption order in circumstances where the child, the applicant or applicants for an adoption order and every person whose consent to the adoption is required under section 26 of the 2010 Act are not all of the same religion, if of any religion, unless every person whose consent is required to the adoption knows, when so consenting, the religion, if any, of the applicant or applicants.

Section 16 amends section 33 of the 2010 Act to provide that a couple who are civil partners of each other, a cohabiting couple and a step-parent of a child are included in the categories of persons eligible to apply for an adoption order or the recognition of an adoption order effected outside the State.

Section 17 amends section 34 of the 2010 Act to bring forward the provisions of section 115 of the Children and Family Relationships Act 2015 into the Bill to provide that a couple who are civil partners of each other and a cohabiting couple are included in the categories of persons whose suitability for an adoption order or the recognition of an adoption order effected outside the State must be satisfactory to the Adoption Authority prior to the making by it of an adoption order or the recognition of an adoption order effected outside the State.

Section 18 amends section 37 of the 2010 Act to provide that a couple who are civil partners of each other, a cohabiting couple and a step-parent are included in the categories of persons who may apply to the Child and Family Agency for an assessment of eligibility and suitability and the issuance by the Adoption Authority of a declaration of eligibility and suitability in accordance with that assessment.

Section 19 amends section 38 of the 2010 Act by providing that the Child and Family Agency shall give notice of the discontinuance of an application for assessment under section 37(1) to the Adoption Authority, the adoption committee concerned, the mother or guardian of the child and every relevant non-guardian of the child.

Section 20 amends section 40 of the 2010 Act by providing that a couple who are civil partners of each other and a cohabiting couple are included in the categories of persons in whose favour the Adoption Authority may issue a declaration of eligibility and suitability.

Section 21 brings forward the provisions of section 119 of the Children and Family Relationships Act 2015 into section 41 of the 2010 Act to provide that a couple who are civil partners of each other and a cohabiting couple are included in the categories of persons in whose favour the Adoption Authority may extend the time period of the declaration of eligibility and suitability and from whom the authority may hear on new information or a change in relevant circumstances in this regard.

Section 22 amends section 43 of the 2010 Act to provide that a "relevant non-guardian" is included in the category of persons entitled to be heard by the Adoption Authority on the application for an adoption order.

Section 23 amends section 54 of the 2010 Act to provide for revised criteria under which the High Court may authorise the making of an adoption order without parental consent where, unfortunately, a child’s parents have failed in their duty towards him or her. Under the revised criteria, the child must be in the custody of and have a home with the applicants for a continuous period of not less than 18 months and the High Court shall be satisfied that the parents of the child have failed in their duty towards him or her for a period of 36 months and that there is no reasonable prospect that the parents will be able to care for the child in a manner that will not prejudicially affect his or her safety or welfare.

Section 24 amends section 58 of the 2010 Act to provide that an adopted child shall be considered, with regard to the rights and duties of parents and children in relation to each other, as the child of the adopter or adopters and that the child’s mother, guardian or relevant non-guardian shall lose all parental rights and be freed from parental duties in respect of him or her.

Section 25 inserts a new section 58A into the 2010 Act to provide that a child’s mother or guardian shall not lose all parental rights in respect of his or her child when that child is adopted by a step-parent. The section provides that a child who is adopted by his or her step-parent shall, on the making of an adoption order, be regarded as the child of that step-parent and the step-parent’s spouse, civil partner or cohabitant shall retain all parental rights in respect of him or her.

Section 26 amends section 59 of the 2010 Act to replace the term "birth parents" with "parents" and to clarify that the reference to "parents" in section 59 is a reference to a child’s "birth parents" only.

Section 27 provides that for the purposes of section 60 of the 2010 Act, an adopted person is to be regarded as the child of his or her adopter, not the child of his or her pre-adoption parents. The section provides that references to adopters who are a couple also include adopters who were married to each other, civil partners of each other or a cohabiting couple at the time the adoption order concerned was made but who are no longer married to each other, civil partners of each other or living together as a cohabiting couple, as the case may be at the time of the disposition of the property concerned.

Section 28 amends section 61 of the 2010 Act to provide that, subject to section 58A of the 2010 Act, for the purposes of stamp duty chargeable on conveyances or transfers of land, an adopted person is regarded as the child of his or her adopter or adopters, not the child of any other person.

Section 29 amends section 62 of the 2010 Act to provide that the term "birth parent" is replaced with "parent" in each place where it occurs.

Sections 30 to 33, inclusive, amend sections 68, 69,78 and 79 of the 2010 Act to provide that the term "birth parent" is replaced with "person" to provide for circumstances where a person other than a "birth parent" may be required to consent to the making of an adoption order.

Section 34 amends section 84 of the 2010 Act to provide that the entry of particulars in the adopted children register are appropriate particulars in respect of the type of adoption concerned. Section 35 amends section 85 of the 2010 Act to provide that in the case of a subsequent adoption any reference to a previous adoption will be excluded in a copy or extract of the entry. Section 36 amends section 97 of the 2010 Act to provide that the "father" is again replaced with "relevant non-guardian" in order that the Adoption Authority, when making rules regarding its procedures and governing the consultation required with a person, shall include each person who is included in the definition of "relevant non-guardian" as defined in section 2 of the Bill.

Section 37 amends section 125 of the Adoption Act 2010 to provide that a civil partner of a parent of a child and a cohabitant of a parent of a child, where the cohabitant and parent are a cohabiting couple, are included in the categories of persons who are not precluded from giving or receiving a child for adoption. Sections 38 and 39 amend sections 144 and 145 of the 2010 Act to clarify that the reference to a "guardian" in those sections is a reference to a "guardian" as defined in the Guardianship of Infants Act 1964.

Section 40 amends Schedule 3 of the Adoption Act 2010 to provide that the term "marital status" is replaced in the section with the term "civil status" and that the Schedule includes the required particulars for all adoptions. Section 41 is a standard provision setting out that the Bill shall come into operation on such day or days as the Minster for Children and Youth Affairs may appoint by order or orders, either generally or with reference to any particular purpose or provision, and different days may be appointed for different purposes or different provisions, and also provides for the repeal of Part 11 of the Children and Family Relationships Act 2015.

I look forward to hearing the views of Deputies on these important issues. I am also very grateful to Deputy Kathleen Funchion for attending a briefing with me and my officials yesterday. It is very important to me to consult with all political parties, independents and any others who wish to be briefed on Bills prior to coming to the Dáil. I express my genuine openness to Deputies' views to assist me in making this the best legislation for our children. I commend the Bill to the House.

At the outset let me, on her first day as a Minister in the Dáil Chamber, congratulate Deputy Zappone on her appointment and wish her the very best of luck in her role. I have no doubt that she comes with a wealth of experience in this area and that she will bring very positive and meaningful contributions to her Department. I also thank her for her kind words to me last week at the Children's Rights Alliance AGM. I very much appreciate them. I apologise that, unfortunately, due to the short notice of the briefing yesterday-----

I appreciate that.

-----I had prior commitments in my constituency and could not be there. I agree with her that it is very welcome that this is one of the first pieces of legislation to be debated in this Dáil term. One of the most significant developments in child protection in recent years has been the constitutional change approved by the people of Ireland in November 2012.

Article 42A "affirms the natural and imprescriptible rights of all children" and places children's views and their best interests at the centre of court proceedings regarding care, adoption, guardianship, custody and access. Fianna Fáil welcomes and is fully supportive of this long-overdue adoption legislation, which gives legislative effect to this constitutional change, requiring that the views of the child shall be heard and given due weight in adoption cases.

We must begin by acknowledging that the Bill deals with a sensitive and extremely difficult area, namely, that of adoption proceedings, adoption orders and adoption eligibility. However, it is an area in which, if nothing else, we can all agree that the paramount concern must be the best interests of the child. The child has an inalienable, and now constitutionally enshrined right to ensure that his or her best interests are always the fundamental and sole concern in adoption cases. The Bill further provides that children's own wishes, desires and views regarding their best interests are valued and should, as far as practicable, have a significant bearing on court decisions made.

Few matters can be of such importance to a child's welfare and well-being as cases involving custody, guardianship and adoption. It is a sign of how much our society has developed that we recognise in our Constitution, and in legislation giving effect to these constitutional provisions, that in fundamental matters of importance, children have a right to form a view, have their view heard and that that view be given due weight in cases that affect them.

While the amendments in this Bill giving effect to both Article 42A.4.1°, that "the best interests of the child shall be the paramount consideration", and Article 42A.4.2°, that "the views of the child shall be ascertained and given due weight", are to be welcomed, I believe that further scrutiny may be required in this area to ensure that the views of the child are ascertained in all adoption cases. In particular, there is a strong argument to be made that guidelines or even further legislation may be required to give full effect to Article 42A, in particular the provisions that the best interests and the views of the child are heard and considered in adoption proceedings. I intend to return to this point in my concluding remarks.

I welcome the other elements of this Bill, which will bring greater clarity to adoption legislation in the context of non-married couples and civil partners. Adoption provides security to children and strengthens families, but our laws have unfortunately been out of step with the reality of modern life for a long time. These changes, which clear the way for non-married couples and civil partners to jointly adopt, are long overdue and welcome.

I also welcome the removal of the anomaly regarding step-parents. Step-parent adoption usually refers to the adoption of a child by a birth mother and her spouse, who is not the birth father of the child. At present, under current adoption legislation, there is a senseless legal anomaly whereby if only the birth parent's spouse adopts the child, the birth parent would lose her rights and responsibilities regarding the child and would no longer be the child's guardian. The Coalition of Mother and Baby Home Survivors referred to this anomalous law as "ridiculous and woefully outdated". This Bill corrects this anomaly, introducing an amendment whereby the parent will continue to be the parent and the step-parent will be an adoptive parent.

This Bill also includes provisions that will give greater legislative clarity to adoption proceedings in the case of parental failure. The amended section provides for the High Court to authorise the Adoption Authority to make an adoption order on behalf of applicants, that is, foster parents or relatives, if the court is satisfied that such an authorisation would be in the best interests of the child and if it has been shown to the satisfaction of the High Court that the parents of the child have failed in their duty towards the child. It is important to point out that this amendment is not about removing children from their families, but rather about putting them into care. It is about ensuring that children who are in the care system are no longer left to drift and are given a second chance.

As I said at the outset, this Bill has been a long time overdue. The reason for this is that prior to the children's referendum, a decision was taken by the previous Government to produce material which was deemed to be impartial. In view of that and directly as a consequence of a decision taken by one of the Minister's predecessors or by someone at a very senior level in her Department, this legislation is almost four years overdue. Thankfully, both the High Court and the Supreme Court rejected the challenge to the vote and upheld the referendum result.

We must think of the number of children who have gone through the care system in the past four years and who have had to wait far too long for the outcome of the referendum to be given legislative effect. I expect somebody to take responsibility for that decision. Nobody ever has. In the previous Government, I questioned the Tánaiste, who was then Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, as to what happened and the answer given was always that we could not debate the issue because it was before the courts. It is no longer before the courts. Somebody needs to come out to take responsibility, but also to apologise to the thousands of children who are were deprived their right of getting the opportunity to have their social families recognised as their legal families. Close on 2,000 children per year have gone through the care system in the past four years and have lost the benefit of these new legislative changes. I need not remind the House of the potentially harmful consequences this has on these children's sense of belonging, sense of home and sense of identity, as well as on their rights to succession and inheritance.

As I stated, up to 2,000 children could become eligible for adoption as a result of this change. However, the level of resources in place in the adoption system supports only a small number of children progressing through the system on an annual basis. In 2014, there were 112 domestic orders and 34 inter-country adoption orders. It is a real and worrying issue, one which I hope the Minister will acknowledge and respond to in her concluding remarks, that there does not seem to be a resourcing plan to accompany this legislation, given that there is a potential to dramatically increase the number of adoptions that will go through the Adoption Authority.

The previous Government imposed an agonising long delay on children in long-term foster care by not acting on this legislation. Unless resources are put in place in the adoption system, I worry that backlogs in the system will impose another painful delay on these families by preventing children in foster care from progressing swiftly through the adoption process. It is not enough to give these children the legal right to adoption. They also must be able to exercise this right to become legally part of their foster families. I would like to know what level of resources will the Minister be putting in place to ensure that these children will not have to wait even longer to exercise this right to a family.

In the context of this Bill, it is equally worrying that there is no commitment in the programme for Government for the establishment of family courts. Considering the current long delays in family courts, it is deeply worrying to think of how these will be severely exacerbated as a result of possibly thousands of new adoption cases. I would point out that it being a commitment in the programme for Government does not necessarily mean that will happen. It was a commitment in the previous programme for Government, the previous Government lasted its full five-year term yet we still do not have a dedicated family courts system. That is something that is urgently needed. I am speaking about it in the context of this legislation because this will only add to the pressure on the family legal system. It is something that the Minister needs to address with her colleague, the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality. Without some reform in this area, there is little hope of alleviating the long delays in family law cases.

I believe it is incumbent on us all in this House, to ensure these children and families are given the opportunity which they are owed by the State, to deal with this Bill in as prompt and efficient a manner as possible. However, I am apprehensive about the Government's decision to bypass the pre-legislative scrutiny stage, which stage was promised by the previous Minister. I believe that pre-legislative scrutiny is not a time-consuming indulgence but provides an essential proofing stage for complex Bills such as this. I worry that the decision to skip this stage may hold back some of the later Stages if difficulties, whether technical or substantive, are uncovered. In her response, perhaps the Minister can outline why the pre-legislative stage was skipped.

There are a number of section 45 Adoption Act 2010 difficulties, which I can discern at this Stage and which I would like the Minister to respond to. One such concern is the complete repeal of section 45 of the 2010 Adoption Act. Section 45 limited the circumstances in which a child could be re-adopted. With complete removal of this section, it seems possible that a child could technically be adopted by two adoptive families. Surely the more prudent approach would have been to amend section 45 rather than completely remove it. My party intends bringing forward an amendment in line with international best practice on Committee Stage.

Another concern is that this legislation fails to deal with how the Adoption Authority will consult with birth fathers in cases of donor-assisted human reproduction. For example, does the Adoption Authority have to consult with sperm donors, as is required under section 18 of Adoption Act 2010 which requires the authority to consult with birth fathers? This is a difficult, complex question. Perhaps the Minister can respond in due course.

Another concern which has been expressed to me is the apparent incongruity in children's rights to information and tracing. It is an anomalous situation where in Parts 2 and 3 of the recently commenced Children and Family Relationships Act 2015, there are explicit rights to access to information and identity tracing for children who are conceived from donor-assisted human reproduction. Yet, adoptive children are still awaiting the information and tracing Bill to be published for a similar right in the context of adoption. This is not the Minister's fault, but I want to use the opportunity to remind the House that on the formation of the previous Government, both the then Minister for Justice and Equality, Mr. Shatter, and then Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Fitzgerald, held a press conference stating that their first priority in terms of legislation was to give what every child is entitled to, that is, the right to identity.

In that context and in the context of the tens of thousands of children who, through either forced adoptions or illegal adoptions, do not know their true identity, there was a solemn promise made that such legislation would be top priority for that Government. Unfortunately, five years later, the legislation has yet to be published. It is something that the Minister needs to take on board. From meeting so many of the organisations prior to the establishment of the mother and baby home commission, as I did, I am sure the Minister heard, engaged and dealt with these same brave men and women who have come forward and shared the most deeply personal stories with us as public representatives in the hope that we can use our position within the Oireachtas to afford them their basic human right to an identity. At the time of the publication of the biography Philomena, everyone was outraged and acknowledged the bravery of that lady in terms of what she did to highlight the issue. I urge the Minister, as she starts in her position in this Department, to get the Department into gear and ensure that action is taken to bring forward the information and tracing Bill as soon as possible.

The most substantive provision in the Bill is to give legislative effect to the new Article 42A on the rights on the child. However, we must ensure, in practice, that during adoption proceedings children's views are heard and their best interests ascertained.

I will conclude by discussing potential reforms that are required to ensure Article 42A on the best interests and views of the child can be better upheld in courts and private legal proceedings. An important point to consider in this regard is that the new Article 42A.4.2° will extend the right to be heard in adoption proceedings to all children with the capacity to form views, not just those capable of expressing them. Ensuring adherence to the spirit of this new right may require some changes in approach to be applied by those tasked with assessing a child’s decision-making ability during adoption, custody or guardianship proceedings. For example, the new article on the right of the child to be heard may require the provision of further supports for a child during adoption proceedings to enable him or her to form a view, for example, in the form of child-friendly information or a trusted representative who is capable of explaining matters to him or her.

One of the most worrying omissions from the Bill is the absence of a provision on the right to have a guardian ad litem appointed in adoption cases, even though there is such a provision in Northern Ireland. This omission is despite the fact that many experts in this area, chiefly Dr. Geoffrey Shannon, the Government's special rapporteur on child protection, has stated there is inadequate statutory regulation and a lack of guidance on how a guardian ad litem should be appointed. Legislative provisions do not specify the requisite qualifications an expert must possess in order to be qualified to carry out a report which seeks to express the views and capture the best interests of the child in these cases.

The appointment of a guardian ad litem is too fundamental a matter to be left unregulated and the guardian ad litem system should be placed on a statutory footing as a matter of priority. Although there have been repeated Government promises to reform the area, including measures to tackle the often excessive payments on legal and guardian ad litem fees, nothing has been done. In the last Dáil Fianna Fáil brought forward legislation to reform the guardian ad litem system, which we intend to reintroduce in the coming term. I urge the Minister to accept the forthcoming Bill which we will to bring before the House shortly. I would welcome an opportunity to discuss it with her and her officials.

The primary method used to ascertain the wishes of a child is by allowing him or her to speak to the judge privately in his or her chambers. However, it has been suggested reform may be required in this area. Guidelines on private meetings between children and judges should be issued to ensure best practice is followed when ascertaining the views of children in adoption cases. Dr. Shannon suggests guidelines are required in this area, including on the importance of observing the principle of a fair trial and preferably guaranteeing confidentiality to a child, unless the parents in the case object to this on reasonable grounds.

I fully support and commend the Bill, especially for its effect in alleviating the legal limbo which families and children in long-term foster care have been in for too long. It is deeply regrettable that the legislation could not have been implemented sooner after the children’s rights referendum. However, I fear these and other families will have to wait even longer to exercise their constitutional right to become legal families, unless the Minister puts in place a coherent plan to properly resource the adoption system and clear the backlogs in the family court. I urge her to take seriously many of the concerns I have raised about the Bill, as well as the reforms I have suggested of the wider legal procedures for ascertaining the views of children and what is in their best interests in family cases in accordance with Article 42.

I congratulate the Minister on her elevation to the portfolio of Minister for Children and Youth Affairs and wish her the best of luck in her role.

Guím gach rath uirthi sa ról tábhachtach, suntasach seo. Tá níos mó aird tugtha le cúpla bliain anuas ar ghnóthaí a bhaineann le leanaí, cúram leanaí agus cúrsaí óige i measc páirtithe polaitiúla agus i measc na meáin. Is cóir é go bhfuil Roinn agus Aire faoi leith ag déileáil leis na hábhair sin. Tá súil agam go mbeidh torthaí dearfacha ar obair an Aire agus go mbainfidh leanaí, teaghlaigh agus daoine óga na tíre leas astu.

The Minister's track record and commitment to children's rights are well known and well regarded. While we have considerable reservations about the direction of the Government and the programme for Government which has already seen some controversy regarding the proposed measure on child benefit, we hope to work with the Minister in a constructive and progressive manner to ensure the best outcomes, with the best interests of children, young people and families at their centre. I thank the Minister for the briefing yesterday. Although I was unable to attend, a representative of my office attended and it was very useful to have a number of questions about the legislation answered. It was a very welcome move and I hope it will continue during the lifetime of this Dáil.

The legislation is welcome and we will support it, given that we deem it to be progressive, owing to the removal of some extremely restrictive and arbitrary barriers in adoption law for far too long. To some extent, it brings adoption law into the 21st century. It has been recognised for some time that there is a requirement for the remit of adoption system to be extended beyond traditional marriage. In his remarks on the Adoption Act 2010 my colleague Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin said, "Finally, I also note the Bill fails to recognise the widening reality of what constitutes a family in Ireland today."

A particularly notable measure in the Bill is the removal of barriers which require a birth parent to adopt alongside a step-parent who wants to adopt his or her spouse's child. Archaic laws such as this led to the unfair and bizarre situation where a birth parent had to follow a convoluted and unfair process whereby he or she adopted his or her own child. Adoption, with proper safeguards and adequate oversight, can ensure children are safeguarded and brought up in a loving family environment that results in their physical, intellectual, emotional and social needs being met in a way that allows them to develop.

We also welcome and support the change in criteria whereby the High Court may dispense with parental consent in situations where it is required and in the interests of the child. We welcome the extending of the grounds on which people can adopt. It opens up many avenues to loving families, in whatever shape or form they may take, to have the opportunity to display their ability to look after a child and raise him or her to become an adult with the high esteem and value he or she may not always have received and with his or her best interests kept at heart.

It is particularly good that the rights of cohabitees and civil partners which were advanced in the 2015 Act are being consolidated in this legislation. There is a degree of legislative tidying up and consolidation in the Bill, which is welcome.

The headline issue is that the Bill is a follow-up to the children's right referendum in 2012 on the thirty-first amendment of the Constitution, in which the rights of the child became part of the fabric of our society and the Constitution. The referendum and this legislation require that the best interests of the child be considered and paramount. Is cinnte gur reifreann tábhachtach a bhí ann, os rud é gur chuir sé é ar bhonn bunreachtúil go raibh gá tuairim an pháiste a thógáil san áireamh. It meant children were viewed with the respect they deserved rather than being treated as though they were somehow irrelevant in the proceedings.

I refer, for example, to such simple things as being able to have a valued opinion on their own future and fate, with the age of maturity taken into consideration. I welcome sections 9 and 14 and the other provisions of this legislation that require the views of the child to be given due weight. This is appropriate and very proper.

The State's record of protecting vulnerable children has many blemishes. When Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin spoke on the Adoption Act 2010, he said, "In Ireland at present, there clearly is more inward adoption, if one can use that term, than outward adoption." It is possible that we may see a spike in "outward" applications and perhaps "outward" adoptions in the years to come because so many families in our society are seeking to regularise their situations. I echo the sentiments of Deputy Robert Troy in that regard. If there is to be an increase in applications, there is certainly a need for sufficient resources to be put in place. While I accept Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin's suggestion that there was "more inward adoption ... than outward adoption" in 2010, that was certainly not always the case. I doubt that many people need to be reminded of what happened at the mother and baby homes. Such scandals continue to trundle on today. Some outstanding matters remain unresolved, or have not been resolved in an adequate way. Babies were found in mass graves in Tuam and in similar facilities. The sad reality is that many young women had their children taken from them and placed with adoptive families against their will. Many families, including many marginalised mothers in difficult situations, had children taken out of their care even though this should not have happened. Many injustices were done. Is mór an scannal é. Caithfimid i gcónaí bheith airdeallach i dtaobh an leatrom a déanadh ar na máithreacha agus na leanaí sin.

The Hague Convention is very important in this context. We must ensure no child who is adopted into Ireland has been separated from his or her mother in the same way that children were separated from Irish mothers over so many years. Strong human rights safeguards, backed up by legislation like this, are essential. The record of this State is worth remembering. I hope this Bill helps to ensure history does not repeat itself. We must make sure we have learned from our mistakes and failures. This country's ratification in 2010 of the 1993 Hague Convention on the Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption was seen as a very positive move at the time. It remains so. Although the provisions and aspirations of the convention represent a high ideal for which we continue to aim, I note that many families that wish to adopt, including many people who would be ideal candidates as adoptive parents, have found it difficult and expensive to complete adoptions in the post-Hague Convention environment. I understand that few children have been adopted with post-Hague declarations. It seems that the process remains difficult, slow and expensive. If steps can be taken to rectify this without undermining the crucial protections offered by the Hague Convention, they should be explored. I look forward to working with the Minister in that regard. It is of grave importance that we maintain high standards. This is why we signed up to the Hague Convention in the first place, just as it was the main reasoning behind the 2012 referendum. The paramount importance of the best interests of the child should always be at the front and at the centre when intercountry adoptions are being explored. The same rights and esteem should be applied to all children, regardless of their origin.

I would like to mention a policy option that needs to be considered but has not been dealt with in this Bill or in previous legislation. Adoption, like many other legal processes in Ireland, is a very costly procedure. It often costs families many thousands of euro - amounts of €10,000 or €15,000 or perhaps additional amounts - to adopt children. Many able people with the potential to be superb, loving parents would be immediately excluded from the possibility of adoption because of such costs. Once again, the best interests of the child need to be maintained at the heart of this process and as the first priority. Sílim gur chóir go mbeadh na deiseanna céanna i dtaobh uchtaithe ag daoine sna grúpaí ísealioncaim agus meánioncaim agus atá ag daoine sa ghrúpa ardioncaim. People should not be excluded from the adoption process in a way that is dictated purely by their socioeconomic status and their ability to pay substantial amounts of money. I am not sure this issue can necessarily be dealt with in the Bill before the House but if there is an opportunity to do so, I hope the Minister will take on board the point I have made and give it some time and consideration. I emphasise that this should not involve any diminution of the key safeguards involved in this Bill, in the Children and Family Relationships Act 2015 or the Adoption Act 2010.

I welcome the extension of the consultation process to those deemed by legislation to be "non-guardian adults". I anticipate that this is an attempt to ensure those who have played the most significant and foremost role in the upbringing of a child are listened to. Even though a non-guardian might not be the legal guardian of the child in question - there are many such cases - he or she may have had a very prominent role in the life and general upbringing of the child. In some cases, he or she may have been the primary caregiver behind the scenes. This legislation opens the door to considerable possibilities in that regard. In theory, any child can now be adopted at one stage or another, depending on his or her circumstances. This is a welcome measure because it gives children a safety net that prevents them from falling through the cracks in so far as that is possible. We must endeavour to ensure no child falls through the cracks. This measure is also welcome because it allows for the adoption of children who may be in long-term foster placements. This will alleviate some of the pressure on our social work service, which is already over-burdened. I emphasise the need to ensure resources and strategies are in place to deal with any increase or spike in applications.

I look forward to the introduction of the adoption tracing Bill, which will give every child the right to identity. I understand following yesterday's briefing that this important Bill will be brought to the House in the not so distant future. I hope this happens because every child should have this right. As others have already said, the Bill has been promised for quite some time. I hope progress is made with it as soon as possible. I look forward to seeing that happen. On the face of it, the adoption tracing Bill will further strengthen the strong and rigorous legislation that is before the House today. I look forward to examining how this Bill might be improved on Committee Stage. I think the legislation proposed in this area will shore up many issues for people, including issues of identity and peace of mind.

This is a technical Bill in some respects because it seeks to amalgamate or consolidate certain sections of the Children and Family Relationships Act 2015 and the Adoption Acts in a sort of parent Act and to reform and give clarity to various sections of the Adoption Act 2010. We will be considering technical and policy-related amendments to this complex legislation to see how it can be strengthened. As I have said, this Bill has the full support of Sinn Féin as the best interests of the child are at its heart. I hope the progressive nature of this Bill sets down a marker for other Bills that will be presented to the House. We need legislation in this area that reflects a modern Ireland rather than leaves us trying to catch up to our European counterparts. For some time, this country's adoption legislation has left us seeking to catch up.

During the public debate of recent weeks, Sinn Féin has regularly emphasised its desire to see the Government taking positive and progressive action, in a general sense. We are keen to support the Government when it takes action and proposes legislation in a positive and progressive way. We are not interested in opposing legislation for the sake of it, although we will hold the Government to account when it makes mistakes and errors and pursues policies with which we disagree. We are happy to support good-quality legislation that improves the rights of children, advances Irish society and gives further support to Irish families. It is valuable and welcome that the first Bill to be introduced by the Government is one we are happy to support. I believe the people voted for a forward-thinking Parliament. Regardless of the composition of the Government that has been formed, the opportunity exists for us to work as the forward-thinking Parliament for which people voted. Nobody wants the politics of old. It will be interesting to see whether such a change takes place. Beidh sé sin le feiceáil. Táimid breá sásta tacú leis an bpíosa reachtaíochta seo agus cabhrú leis an Aire agus an Dáil ag obair chun feabhas a chur ar an mBille seo.

I congratulate the Minister on her appointment and wish her every success in her new role in the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. I look forward to working constructively with her. I thought yesterday's briefing was excellent. I was happy to attend it. It was very useful. I hope similar briefings will be organised in the future. I hope the appointment of the Minister, Deputy Katherine Zappone, will allow us to make advances in the areas of child care and youth affairs. Priority and respect need to be given to the voices of young people and children. Their opinions must be valued and carry weight.

I wholeheartedly welcome the Adoption (Amendment) Bill 2016, which puts the best interests of the child at the front and the centre. I hope the progressive nature of this Bill, which eradicates many of the barriers regarding the adoption of children at present, sets a precedent for future legislation that will be introduced by the Minister. Given that the referendum to enshrine children's rights in the Constitution was held in 2012, it is clear that this Bill is not before its time.

However, I acknowledge this was through no fault of the Minister but rather that of her predecessors. I also commend the Minister on seizing the first opportunity to bring this legislation before the House. As my colleagues said, we will not be opposing the Bill or its overarching aims but we will bring forward some minor amendments on Committee Stage in an attempt to further strengthen it.

I want to refer to section 6 in particular and I welcome the introduction of such a measure. It is good that the opinions of non-guardians will be taken into account and that provides safeguards that the best interests of the child shall be met. Many children have an array of role models and guidance from those who are non-guardians of the child. This may be in the form of a grandmother, an uncle or a close family friend. Many of these non-guardians may have played a huge role in the child's life from a very early age, particularly where the birth parents may have found themselves in very challenging situations that limited their ability to bond and possibly care for the child on a full-time basis. The views of those non-guardians are therefore invaluable as a result and they offer an invaluable insight as to what may be in the best interests of the child in the longer term, an opinion which, in the past, has unfortunately gone unheard and was overlooked.

Adoption can be a very positive and welcome development for a child but it can also be very difficult for a family, particularly perhaps a grandmother who sees her son or daughter struggling with her grandchild and whose views may not have been taken into consideration in the past. If grandparents were not in a position to care full-time for their child but had strong views and played a positive role in that child's life, it is good that they will get an opportunity to be heard and have their views expressed, not only from their point of view because they have to come to terms with the adoption process, but from the point of view of promoting the child's positive mental health. That measure is particularly welcome.

I also welcome the removal of some of the red tape that has been in place for far too long. I refer to the provisions made in the Bill that allow for a step-parent to adopt a child without having to jump through multiple hoops in what was a long and arduous process. Although not the legal birth parent, many people who find themselves in this situation have fulfilled this role with the utmost diligence for many years of the respective child's life. They have picked up the role of mam or dad in an admirable way and I am glad that these step-parents will no longer be treated as second-class or sub-standard parents in future by way of lengthy application processes.

Furthermore, and in keeping with the theme of cutting the red tape, the extension of the adoption age from the age of seven to 18 and the removal of criteria that only allowed for adoption in exceptional circumstance are to be praised. This allows more children to be granted parents in the form of a legal title. This can only be a positive move as such cases will provide not only stability but a sense of fulfilled identity and the dispelling of any ambiguity that may have arisen before such time that their so-called foster parents were made parents by definition. We have heard much debate on promoting children's positive mental health in recent years and it is important that children have that sense of identity.

A welcome provision is the revised criteria where an application to adopt a child is made in respect of a child who is in the custody of and who has had a home with the applicants for a period of at least 18 months, and where that child's parents have failed in their parental duty towards that child for a continuous period of not less than 36 months. In such circumstances the High Court may dispense with parental consent and authorise the Adoption Authority to make an adoption order in respect of that child. The implementation of this measure could potentially result in a much larger number of transitions from foster care placements to a child being fully adopted. This would then free up social workers and guardian ad litems whose caseloads are at a substantial number above the recommended number of cases that would be seen as beneficial to good practice. This is a welcome unintended consequence, particularly with the current deficiencies in the staffing of social workers and the under-resourcing of Tusla. We need to ensure that social workers and people working in Tusla are properly resourced and supported and this part of the Act is a welcome development for them.

With respect to the 2012 referendum on the rights of the child being of paramount importance, this Bill is in line with the constitutional amendment that was rightly voted for by the people. The voice of children has gone unheard for far too long. It was always a quiet voice in the background. We remember the old phrase that children should be seen and not heard. Unfortunately, we have had that culture in Irish society for far too long, a culture which previous generations grew up with and to which they became accustomed. This section of the Bill is the most progressive part of it, and that is the reason I am very happy to support it. If we reflect on the history of children in care in this State and the way they were treated, not too many years ago many children were sent to institutional care homes by court order of the State. Now, under this legislation at least their voices will be heard and their opinions will be taken on board.

This legislation definitely addresses that culture and knocks it on the head. It has given a right to a child that should have been there long before now and one which we all would take for granted as adults. With due consideration to the age and maturity of a child, a child knows what he or she wants. As a mother, I think children are very good at letting you know what they want. Similarly, and once again with due consideration, many children in this State are in a position to articulate who they would like to call their parents. It will always be the parents that show most love and compassion to that child, and that is why the child would be drawn to them. I understand that a certain amount of this was down to the legislation requiring the child to be under seven years of age, an age that one would have assumed a child may not have the cognitive ability to indicate what he or she feels is best for himself or herself, but this was never the reality, and this legislation goes a long way in attempting to rectify both the age limit of the child, and the say he or she has in the process.

I welcome this Bill and I am happy to support it but we will bring forward some amendments on Committee Stage. I echo the concerns raised by my colleague about resources and ensuring adequate resources are provided, and that this legislative measure will not be one that merely sounds good and that we have on paper but does not work in practice or that we are not able to implement. That is an important point to raise, but overall we welcome this Bill.

The next timeslot will be shared by Deputies Joan Burton and Jan O'Sullivan.

We would like to share time.

I wish the Minister well in her new responsibilities. I know she is somebody who has expressed views and has been involved in work in the area concerned with children and children's development. I wish her well.

I am deeply disappointed that another adoption Bill fails to address the right of adopted people to trace their origins. This is a major failure in this legislation and one that I believe the Dáil should remedy. Adoption in Ireland is regulated by the Adoption Acts of 1952 and 2010, which do not provide any statutory rights to information or records. Instead an ad hoc system exists whereby adopted people can make requests to their adoption agency or the Adoption Authority of Ireland. The process is slow and cumbersome with people often having to wait years to even meet a social worker to start the process. It is often extremely difficult to get any access to records unless a natural mother expressly consents, or is deceased, meaning that an adopted person has no rights to basic information about their origin.

Speaking as somebody who was adopted, it took me years of slow and painstaking work to find out simple information about where I came from and who my parents were. I could not have done so without the help of then Adopted People's Association but it should not have been so difficult. I do not know what is wrong with this country that we talk about rights for almost everybody except adopted people. We are talking about other countries with the same legal structure as Ireland which have had tracing rights and legislation in law for 50 years or more. The approach in Ireland seems to be linked to promises made by Catholic adoption agents to single women, to unmarried mothers as they were described long ago, that they would maintain their privacy. I have had members of religious orders and nuns and priests tell me when seeking information for other people that on the Bible and on the far side of the grave promises were made that no information would ever be divulged.

This is done on behalf of mothers who had to give up their children, often in the most distressing of circumstances. We have enough testimony from people who gave up children that much of it was through coercion. However, it is rarely asked whether the mothers ever wanted such promises to be made or whether these promises should outweigh the rights of the adopted person. By contrast, in England and Wales an adopted person has a legal guarantee of access to his or her original birth certificate on reaching 18 years of age.

It is time to lift the veil of secrecy, another part of the hidden Ireland, that has been cast over this part of Irish history. The last Government, of which I was honoured to be a member, sought to shine a light into dark corners of other aspects of Irish history to do with the Magdalen laundries and people in institutions. The history of adoption is intimately linked with all of this, both for adopted children and their birth parents. The time has come for the same to happen to shine a light on the role of adoption in Irish history.

A right to know one's own origins has been recognised by the European Court of Human Rights and the Supreme Court. It may not be an absolute right, but it is for the Oireachtas - this House and the Seanad - to determine the balance required between it and any right to privacy a natural mother or father may wish to invoke. Other societies and legislatures have been able to deal with this. The recognition of a right to privacy for the natural mother should not act as an automatic veto on the right of an adopted person to information. The priority should always be to ensure an adopted person is able to obtain information on his or her origins, including access to the adoption files, where he or she wishes to do so, because not everybody who has been adopted wishes to trace.

As Tánaiste, I worked closely with the Attorney General and the previous Ministers for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Charles Flanagan and former Deputy James Reilly, to make progress on the publication of the general scheme of the Adoption (Information and Tracing) Bill 2015. It made progress in key areas, but it was not perfect. It was far from being so. In the last Dáil the Joint Committee on Health and Children heard testimony from experts in this area and made some important recommendations for changes to the legislation. Its report was published in November 2015. I really cannot understand why the changes to the draft legislation cannot be made at this point. I do not understand why we are in a position where new adoption legislation is being brought through the House and it does not deal with the issue of information and tracing. It is not good enough for the Minister to say the Bill deals with different issues and that another Bill which is going to arrive mañana, mañana, mañana will deal with it.

The Deputy had five years in which to do it.

Let us be honest about it - it is not satisfactory. There is no reason reforms of adoption law should be introduced that do not include the right to information and to trace. The Bill arises from the passage of the children's rights referendum in 2012. However, there was the issue of the right to information and to trace long before the referendum was passed, but it now seems to be the plan to pass over it again. Who are the vested interests who are preventing us from having a modern regime that will allow people access to information? It seems there are rights for everybody in Ireland except for adopted persons. The issue is passed over again and again.

The piecemeal reform of adoption law should end now. The Bill should be expanded to also deal with the rights to information and to trace. Adopted persons have waited long enough. That is why the Labour Party will be moving amendments to the legislation on Committee Stage to introduce a right to information for all adopted persons, including those who were informally adopted and those whose births were not properly registered. This may be where the worry lies. We know from a huge number of individual stories that there were informal adoptions and changes in data. There are many people who will never be able to obtain their records because, unfortunately, the institutions involved, the organisations or nursing homes from which they were adopted do not seem to have maintained records. I hope the Minister will accept the amendments and not make adopted persons wait any longer for a very basic fundamental human right.

I welcome the Bill in its role in implementing the changes brought about by the children's rights referendum, which will ensure a child's best wishes will be central to each and every adoption case. The Minister's own statement speaks for itself.

The Bill also addresses the bizarre situation where, if a child's step-parent wishes to adopt him or her, the other parent - the birth parent - must also adopt. When this has happened up to now, it has been a source of bewilderment for the adults and the families involved and it has often been deeply upsetting to the children involved owing to the connotations it carries. I am glad to see that issue finally being addressed. It is welcome that it is now being remedied. With the passage of the Bill, the birth parent will continue to be the parent and the step-parent will become the adoptive parent.

Another welcome aspect of the new Bill will allow civil partners and cohabitees the opportunity to adopt should they wish to do so. I welcome the removal of the archaic ban in current law which prohibits married parents from placing a child for adoption. In the past this has created obstacles for many children whose parents are married but who are in long-term foster placements or institutional care.

There is a wide range of views on adoption and its appropriateness and there are discussions on what is a very intimate, personal matter. To me, it is almost always better if, in a good adoption system, a child who might otherwise spend his or her life in an institutional setting has the opportunity to be adopted by a loving family who will incorporate him or her into the family and, in many cases, give meaning to his or her life. That is preferable to leaving a child in an institution or successive foster placements. For many children a long-term foster care family is their family, but as we know, when children leave at 18 years of age, sometimes they have to start life again on their own.

There have been approximately 50,000 adoptions since the passage of the original adoption Act in the early 1950s. As I said, not everybody wishes to trace. That is a personal choice people make and I respect it. Prior to the 1950s, there were many long-term foster care and informal arrangements. I recall people like Maureen O'Carroll, the first female Labour Party Deputy, speaking eloquently in this House about adoption, the need for proper regulation and the introduction of the adoption Acts in the early 1950s. When one looks at the three parties in the adoption triangle - the person who has been adopted, the birth parents and their extended families and relations and the adoptive parents and their extended families and relations - one can easily see how at least 500,000 people in Ireland are in some way affected or have somebody in their family or wider family circle who have either given up a child, have themselves been adopted or adopted a child. As a society, we placed extraordinary numbers of people in institutions for adoption, as well as in mental health institutions.

I do not know if it was the impact of the Great Irish Famine that made this such an extraordinary legacy feature of Irish life during the 20th century.

We need the denial of human rights in relation to adoption tracing to be addressed now. We need not put it on the long finger. As this is the first Bill the Minister has introduced, I point out to her that the legislative programme is very long. When she gets a Bill, it will be a long time before she gets another one because there is a queue ahead of her. Deputy Jan O'Sullivan and I are very familiar with this. It is why I ask the Minister and the House to agree that we sort out this issue within the confines of the Bill rather than look for separate legislation. Given the likely three-year lifespan of this Dáil, we are unlikely ever to see it.

I join other Members in congratulating the Minister, Deputy Katherine Zappone, on her appointment. I very much look forward to working with her. I expect she will be a progressive influence on the Government, which needs one. Certainly, her record and the interest she has shown in a number of issues give me hope that will be the case.

I reiterate what has been said that all of us in opposition will be co-operative in regard to the Bill and in working with the Minister generally and will not oppose the content of the Bill. However, I support what Deputy Joan Burton said on the amendments we will table, particularly on information and tracing. I hope the Minister will give serious consideration to the point Deputy Joan Burton has just made. I know from experience that it can take a long time to find the space in the Dáil calendar to bring another Bill forward where some of the issues in an area have largely been dealt with. I urge the Minister to consider seriously the amendments we intend to table. There was discussion in the committee last year in advance of some of the issues that will be raised in our amendments and that represents groundwork for consideration of these issues, as does the work of Geoffrey Shannon, Barnardos, the Adopted and Fostered Person's Association of Ireland, to which Deputy Joan Burton referred, and the Adoption Rights Alliance. Many organisations have done considerable work in the area already and there is quite a lot of material which can be used. We also have the experience of people who have tried to trace. While there is assistance out there, it is not on a statutory basis and there is most definitely a need to address this issue. In the past, we have made slow and incremental progress in many of these areas. There are still many issues to be addressed and we should address them in the time we have available for the Bill. I welcome what is in the Bill, however.

Everyone has made the point that the basis of the Bill is in the Thirty-first Amendment of the Constitution Act 2012, which amends Article 42. I stress that the best interests of the child must be paramount in all of this. With that as the basis for everything we do with regard to children, we cannot go wrong in how we act and legislate. In particular, I welcome the proposal that married parents will be able to place children for adoption. There are many children, some of whom I know, who have been in long-term, loving fostering situations. We know it is in the best interests of those children that they should be eligible for adoption. It is important to stress that the legislation provides that both parents must consent. Certainly, I know of situations where the parents of the child know it is in the best interests of that child to be eligible for adoption rather than to continue in a long-term fostering situation. This measure is very welcome because it addresses real situations of real children right now who will have a more secure future because of this legislation. I welcome this.

It is also welcome that civil partners and cohabiting couples will become eligible. There is no reason they should not be. The other measure that has been referred to by many addresses the quite bizarre situation where a person ends up adopting his or her own child because of the requirement in the current legislation where a step-parent wishes to adopt for the natural parent to adopt the child also. That is also very welcome. It has never made sense that a person must adopt his or her own child if his or her spouse or partner is adopting the child. That measure is also very welcome.

As well as the constitutional amendment, the further basis or background to the Bill includes the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Ireland ratified a number of years ago, and the national policy framework for children and young people 2014-2020, which is the policy basis in an Irish context. The policy area also includes the concept of a family support model which aims to ensure, in the best interests of the child, that vulnerable families get the support they need. That is why I support what was said by previous speakers in relation to the suggestion which came out last week in the proposed programme for Government that child benefit could be taken from families where children are not attending school. That is absolutely wrong and I hope the Minister can assure us that it will not be part of the action of the Government. Certainly, we need assurance on that as it would go against the concept of the family support model and the best interests of the child. I hope the Minister will not support any such measure.

I was on the committee before 2011 which dealt with the Adoption Act 2010 and the Hague Convention in particular. While that legislation was limited, it was necessary at the time. There were some very concerning issues at the time around inter-country adoption which absolutely needed to be addressed on an international basis. As a member of the committee, I supported the then Government's introduction of the legislation. It made some incremental progress in terms of protecting children in the context of international adoptions. However, it was limited legislation and there is no doubt that it is important to progress matters in the way that is happening. The fact that the last Government created a senior Minister for Children and Youth Affairs has been really important in progressing the rights of children. It is welcome that the Department continues in the current Government.

I turn in the rest of the time available to me to what still needs to be done. Previous speakers referred to the briefing yesterday at which it was indicated that there would be legislation on information and tracing rights. I do not know if a timescale was suggested but perhaps the Minister could indicate it to us. I support my colleague, Deputy Joan Burton, in suggesting that information and tracing should be dealt with in this Bill. There is no reason it should not be.

I say this because of the point that we have already made, namely, that it may take some time before one has the opportunity to introduce further legislation but also because there is a great deal of information and much work has been done on this matter already.

As Deputy Joan Burton stated, while in theory one has a right to know about one's origins under European and national law, that right is not in statute and has not been established in the way required of the House. When I entered the House in 1998, we were in the midst of trying to deal with the legacy of young children who were put in institutions. The State apologised and there was a series of amending legislative measures. I was involved in amending the Statute of Limitations. As equality spokesperson in opposition, I tabled legislation that was incorporated into Government legislation. That seems quite a long time ago now but it is not. Children were locked up with no concern for their rights. In many cases, it was about how people searched for their birth origins. It was also about how society frowned on certain issues. It was an Ireland that we are all glad to see the back of. There has been progress in many respects, including on the Magdalen laundries, residential institutions legislation and all that followed from the latter, but we have not dealt with everything yet. The children's referendum was a major and important step and we need to build on it. Deputy Robert Troy referred to a number of complex issues concerning sperm donation and I would like to address the guardian ad litem matter, but the Bill is progress overall, for which reason I welcome it. I urge the Minister to give serious consideration to the amendments that we will table on behalf of the Labour Party.

I call Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett who has 30 minutes.

I may not use all of them which the Acting Chairman will probably be glad to know.

I congratulate the Minister, Deputy Katherine Zappone, on her new post. She is taking on an important portfolio, that of children and youth affairs. While I may have my doubts about the capacity of her allies to deliver for children and youth, I wish her the best of luck in trying to do so. I must apologise, as I will not be able to stay for the full duration of the debate. I must speak at a public meeting about James Connolly that I committed to a number of weeks ago.

Mentioning Connolly makes me think about one of the lines in the 1916 Proclamation that was almost certainly inputted by Connolly and his cohort in the movement that led the Rising, namely, the imperative that we cherish all of the children equally. Connolly would approve of the general thrust of this Bill in so far as it is trying to modernise the law to move us a little closer to equality on a number of fronts and towards placing the rights of children centre stage. That is to be welcomed, as it is long overdue, but we will still have a long way to go after passing the Bill if we are to vindicate the rights of children truly.

Without point scoring too much, we should say that the last Government failed pitifully to protect children. Children fared particularly badly even with the passing of the children's referendum, the most obvious example of that being the number of children who must now endure emergency homeless accommodation, which is an appalling indictment of the last Government and the entire political system. This point will be relevant to something that I want to say later in questioning aspects of the Bill.

I will start with the positives. It is undoubtedly a good move that married parents can place a child up for adoption as long as both consent. It is positive that civil partners and cohabiting couples will be treated equally and have the same rights to adopt as anyone else. This is a very progressive measure and is to be welcomed. Step-parents being able to adopt is important. The removal of the anomaly whereby the biological parent must give up the child for adoption in order for the step-parent to become a parent through adoption is a positive move. I welcome these steps.

Then we come to the passing of the Bill, the constitutional amendment on the rights of children and the right of the State to decide on whether to allow for the adoption of children without the consent of their parents. In any situation where children are being abused or neglected or where their parents are unable or unwilling to look after them properly, the rights of the child must take precedence. There is no question about that and the State has an obligation to protect children from abuse and neglect. The imperative alluded to in the legislation to listen to children in so far as they are able to articulate their views on these matters is important. The imprescriptible rights of the child as the constitutional amendment suggests are proper.

While all of this is to be welcomed, I wish to sound a few notes of concern. For whatever reason, parents may sometimes let their children down through neglect, abuse or whatever. In that situation, it is right that the State should step in but what if the State is guilty of neglect and abuse? What if the State is responsible for creating the conditions wherein parents end up neglecting their children? This is an anomaly in the objective that we are trying to achieve, namely, to protect the rights of children. Consider what is happening in Irish society and the issues that I have mentioned: homelessness, major housing problems and addiction problems that arise from deprivation, the State's neglect of particular areas, its failure to deal with poverty and inequality and its responsibility in many cases for exacerbating homelessness, poverty and deprivation to the point that they break people mentally, emotionally and physically.

How often has this arisen because of the failure of the State or the political system to intervene, as it must, to prevent the emergence of the conditions that lead parents to fail? I suggest it has happened in many cases, although not all.

A colleague has already mentioned the suggestion made by the incoming Government that it would link child benefit with school attendance. This is a really shocking proposal and Deputy Bríd Smith was the first to mention it in the House. She did so in her opening speech on the day the Government was formed because it was the point that had jumped out at her when she read the programme for Government. It is an absolutely shocking proposal that shows a complete failure to understand the difficulties some families have in getting their kids to school. Difficulties arise not because they do not want to get them to school but because of all sorts of obstacle associated with poverty and deprivation and issues concerning homelessness. One should consider the psychological and emotional impact on the children living in emergency accommodation or whose parents are pushed from pillar to post and who, on being evicted from one unsuitable, private short-term unit of rental accommodation, must move into another. They experience squalid living conditions, as is the case in much private rental accommodation, and are then evicted, whereupon they must move into emergency homeless accommodation. There are people who have been on the housing list in Dún Laoghaire for 18 years and who have, therefore, never had a sense of permanence and security of residence. What effect does this have on children? It is absolutely disastrous. How can we expect children to respect any authority of the State or a school when they must live in such intolerable conditions? This is not to mention the same effects on the parents.

The overlap between mental breakdown and homelessness is huge. I know this from those who come to my clinic who are in desperate circumstances and on the point of breakdown in many cases. They are on the point of breakdown because of their housing circumstances. It is the most basic factor.

I remind the Deputy that the debate is on the Adoption (Amendment) Bill. He may make a passing reference only.

Absolutely, but I am making the point that it is precisely children like those whom I have mentioned in respect of whom the State might conclude, given the effects on parents-----

That is fine, but I again remind the Deputy that the Adoption (Amendment) Bill is the subject matter before the House. There are various passing references that are acceptable, but the Deputy may not make a speech on housing.

That is a bizarre intervention by the Chair, but let me-----

It is bizarre only on the basis of the perspective from which one views it.

Indeed, it is. It depends on whether one looks at it from a Fine Gael or an holistic perspective.

Or from the perspective demanded by the legislation before the House.

I am making the point that legislation that empowers the State to take children from their parents without their consent and to have them adopted is very problematic if the reason the parents have failed their children is the State has failed to provide them with the basic things they need to look after their children such as a house. It is not very easy to look after one’s children if one does not have a house. It is very easy-----

I am sorry, but there is no use in going on with this nonsense any longer. I again remind the Deputy that we are dealing with the Adoption (Amendment) Bill.

I am going to protest formally.

No, the Deputy should hold on.

I am going to protest formally to the Ceann Comhairle tomorrow because of the Acting Chairman’s intervention. There is no one in the House who believes that is unsuitable.

If the Deputy wants to go off on a tangent, he may, by all means, make a passing reference to housing as a contributory factor which affects children, but he is not to-----

I will decide how much of a contributory factor I believe it is.

No, the Deputy will not decide.

I certainly will. The Acting Chairman is not going to tell me what I think; I can absolutely assure him of that.

The Deputy is an experienced Member of the House and knows full well what the rules are.

That is why I believe the Acting Chairman’s intervention is bizarre.

It may well be bizarre, but the Deputy must continue on the Adoption (Amendment) Bill. He may make a passing reference to another matter, as he has already done. As someone who has himself been called to order on this subject on many occasions in the House-----

Has the Acting Chairman read the legislation?

-----I want to tell the Deputy that he is moving outside the remit of the Bill.

Has the Acting Chairman read it?

I want to tell the Deputy-----

About what section am I talking then?

A passing reference is allowed.

I do not believe the Acting Chairman has read the legislation because, if he had, he could not possibly have intervened.

If the Deputy wishes to challenge the Chair, he should take up the matter somewhere else.

By all means, the Deputy may do so.

I will. The point is that if the Acting Chairman examines the Bill, he will see that one of the most important things it does is give the State the right to take children from their parents and put them up for adoption if it considers that the parents have failed their children. That is a very serious point. Does the Acting Chairman understand how serious it is?

Right. It is absolutely logical to go on to discuss, in the context of the Bill, the reasons parents might fail their children or the State might consider they have failed their children.

I can tell the Deputy all about that. First, if that were the case, it would be included in the Bill, but it is not.

This is unbelievable. It is absolutely unbelievable what the Acting Chairman is now doing.

The Deputy may cover the issue of housing and many others in the context of the Bill by way of a passing reference, which is allowed. That has always been the tradition of the House. Otherwise, one comprehensive Bill to cover everything would be the order of the day, but it is not that way. Therefore, the Deputy should not continue with this nonsense.

Then the Deputy is out of order. I am sorry, but I do not want to rule him out of order because I would have to move on to the next speaker.

I am not out of order.

If the Deputy persists, I will have to move on to the next speaker. His behaviour is not allowed. Everybody else is entitled to fair play also.

No. On a point of order, I am perfectly entitled to point out that provisions included in the Bill could be problematic and, therefore, must be considered, that amendments may be required and that the legislation should be passed only if there is also a commitment to deal with the other circumstances which affect children or any contributory factor that might lead parents to fail their children in so far as the State has responsibility for this. That is an absolutely valid and relevant point to make on this legislation. Frankly, the Acting Chairman is out of order for questioning me on it.

I remind the Deputy that it is not in order to challenge the Chair; it never has been. Unless he changes Standing Orders – he may, by all means, do so, bearing in mind that they are being revised and considered – he is not in order to challenge the Chair. He may continue on the Adoption (Amendment) Bill if he wishes to speak to it.

I consider the issue to be far more important than the Acting Chairman’s concerns about the rules of the Chair.

The Deputy’s consideration of the issue must still be within the scope of the Bill. He knows this as a long-standing Member of the House and I am sure he has learned all about it in the past five years or more. He should, please, refrain from straying outside the scope of the Bill. He has made his passing reference.

The Deputy persistently zooms in on the housing issue, which would be fine but only on a housing Bill.

While the Acting Chairman must manage the House and prevent Deputies from speaking about irrelevant issues, I take very seriously the point I made which I consider to be very relevant. As such, his intervention is out of order.

What he has done is-----

-----the matter will be referred to the Ceann Comhairle who will bring to his attention what is and is not in order. I have other things to do and do not wish to sit here any longer than necessary. However, for as long as I am in the Chair, the Deputy will abide by the rules of the House.

On a point of order-----

No, I am sorry; if Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett remains in order, he may continue, but if he does not, he will not continue.

I know that the Acting Chairman is the most experienced parliamentarian in the House, but Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett is speaking to section 14, which is such a powerful section that he-----

Having read the Bill, I am aware of that. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett has made references to section 14, but the entire debate is not about that section.

I can spend half an hour talking about it if I want.

The entire debate is not about section 14.

The Deputy can speak to one section for 30 minutes, if he so wishes.

I can; this is Second Stage.

The Acting Chairman is being unfair.

On the Adoption (Amendment) Bill, does Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett wish to proceed?

Does the Deputy wish to proceed on it?

Of course, I want to proceed.

I also want to proceed without intervention by the Acting Chairman.

The Deputy may proceed on the Bill, if he wishes do so. If not, I will call the next speaker.

On a point of order, is it a ruling of the Chair that I am not allowed to spend as long as I like discussing a particular section?

Does that mean I am not allowed to discuss-----

On Second Stage Deputies speak to the principle of a Bill. They may speak about what is or could be included in the Bill, but they cannot dwell all day on one section. We are not on Committee Stage.

The Acting Chairman is not being fair.

Does Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett wish to speak-----

On a point of order, the Acting Chairman is not being fair-----

-----because the previous speaker spent 15 minutes discussing the adoption (information and tracing) Bill, which is not connected with the Bill before us, yet the Acting Chairman did not correct her once.

The Deputy must resume his seat.

I ask the Chair to show fairness to all Deputies.

The Deputy must resume his seat. He is eroding Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett's time. I ask Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett to proceed on the Adoption (Amendment) Bill.

I will do so. I will also continue with the argument I was making, which is my main argument.

If the Deputy persists in pursuing an argument with the Chair, there is only one conclusion to which I can come. If he wishes to proceed, he should do so and, if not, I will call the next speaker.

The Acting Chairman should let the Deputy speak.

He may do so, if he is in order.

He is in order. He is speaking to section 23.

I am sorry for repeating myself, but I have brought to the Deputy's attention the need to proceed in a particular direction. If he wishes to do otherwise, let it be on his own head.

I will continue my contribution and if the Acting Chairman continues to interrupt me, people can judge the matter for themselves.

The Chair does not interrupt; the Chair intervenes.

Yes, intervene or interrupt.

He has been doing it all afternoon.

As Deputy Catherine Connolly pointed out, section 23 addresses the specifics of the issue. It provides a timeline of 36 months in which the State can make an adjudication that parents have neglected or failed their children. If I understand the Bill correctly, the child may have been fostered for 18 months of this 36 month period. Potentially, this means that he or she may have been with his or her parents for only 18 months and the State could decide, based on that period, that the parents had failed him or her. Let us take the example of a person who has experienced a mental breakdown because he or she went through a particularly bad period such as being homeless. As Deputies are aware, homelessness can last for years and in many cases those affected have no idea where they will live. This can have serious psychological effects and impact in many ways on their capacity to look after their children. Are adequate safeguards in place to address such circumstances? This issue must be given serious consideration.

Mental health problems and homelessness are frequently not fixed. A person who goes through a bad period may come out the other side as a different person and may be in a position to look after his or her children. Perhaps the parent secured a home and his or her mental health improved as a result. A person with drug or other addiction problems who is housed will be in a better position to obtain treatment, achieve rehabilitation and so forth. However, an adoption may already have taken place. In such circumstances, the State, the judge who made the ruling and the foster parents who subsequently adopted the child may have been acting in good faith and trying to do the right thing by the child. However, the circumstances will have changed. We need to consider complexities such as these, particularly where the children are very young because adoption may appear to them to be the best possible option. For example, a young child who is homeless may believe the best possible option is to tell a judge that he or she wishes to go somewhere where he or she will have a roof over his or her head and a proposed adoption is, therefore, okay. However, the child may feel differently a few years later, at which point the legal relationship with the parents will have changed. We must take these factors seriously.

As the next issue I propose to raise genuinely goes beyond the scope of the Bill, I will make only a passing reference to it. In parallel with implementing this legislation, steps must be taken to fully implement the Children First guidelines to ensure the State will provide all necessary supports to prevent family breakdown in the first instance. The provisions of the Bill should then apply at the point where family breakdown, neglect or abuse means the position is irretrievable, nothing can be done and adoption is the best way forward.

Serious, difficult and sensitive issues arise. Deputy Joan Burton spoke about the adoption triangle and there is a complicated triangle at work. I am not sure if the Deputy has seen the Ken Loach film, "Ladybird Ladybird", which is about a poor and deprived young woman who is experiencing problems and has several children taken from her. It is an appalling case, but the film is certainly worth watching. It provides a particular take on these cases and highlights some of the points I have made, for example, the belief on the part of the State that it is acting in the best interests of the child when that is not necessarily the case. It also leaves open the question as to who is monitoring or overseeing the State to make sure it is not guilty of neglect and abuse. As Deputies are aware from our history, both recent and further back, the State failed miserably in many cases and cannot be trusted to be the best body or institution to protect the interests of children, unless considerable safeguards are first put in place.

I say all of this in the genuine belief the objectives of the Bill and most of the measures provided for in it are absolutely correct. However, we need to think carefully about the issues I have raised. I am not sure how one would amend the provisions, but one possible change the Minister should consider is to the timeline provided for in section 23. There is a legal quagmire in respect of what should be done once a legal adoption has occurred and an adopted child decides he or she does not want to be adopted and may wish to reverse it. What right does the child have to a legal relationship with his or her birth parents?

He or she still has a right to trace his or her parents, but what if he or she wants a legal relationship with his or her parents because he or she now feels the position has changed? These are serious considerations.

Deputy Thomas P. Broughan is sharing his time with Deputy Clare Daly.

As Deputy Clare Daly is not present, I will share my time with Deputy Catherine Connolly.

I am delighted to have the opportunity to make some brief remarks about this important Bill. First, I take the opportunity to wish the new Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the best in her role and urge her to work closely with her colleague, the new Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Simon Coveney. I know that she will try to hit the ground running, but the Government has a huge task to try to end the practice whereby thousands of children are living in highly inappropriate hotel rooms, guesthouses and bed and breakfast accommodation. The Minister may remember that I brought the issue of the living conditions of these vulnerable homeless children to the attention of the Children's Ombudsman approximately one year ago and also to that of the Children's Rights Alliance. I hope speedy action will be taken on the issue by the Government.

I welcome the Adoption (Amendment) Bill 2016 which seeks to increase eligibility for adoption by updating the previous adoption laws. The Bill seeks to amend the Adoption Act 2010 by providing for the repeal of sections 24 and 25, as well as of Part 11 of the Children and Family Relationships Act 2015. Under this comprehensive Bill, married parents will be able to place a child for adoption and definitions will be inserted to encompass the broadened scope of families in Ireland, with civil partnerships and cohabiting couples being included. We have been working towards such a Bill for over 20 years, as the rights of the child have, thankfully, become paramount to policy design and development than in the earlier history of the State. The State belatedly began to make progress towards this Bill by ratifying the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1992, which meant that children's views had to be taken into consideration in dealing with issues affecting them. Subsequently the Government developed a number of strategies for children. The establishment of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs in 2011 was a key turning point. We ratified the Hague Convention in 2010 to provide for standards for inter-country adoptions and in 2011 published Children First: National Guidance for the Protection and Welfare of Children, which was adopted through the Children First Act 2015. The referendum on children's rights at the end of 2012 resulted in the insertion of Article 42A into Bunreacht na hÉireann, which provides for "the rights and protection of all children". Regrettably, the turnout of voters in the referendum was very poor, given the litany of revelations about the abuse of children in State, religious and civic society institutions. The insertion of the article in the Constitution required legislation. This Bill seeks to address the provisions on adoption and provides for implementation of the referendum decision.

I welcome the amendments to the principal Act, whereby definitions will be updated to more accurately reflect the landscape of families in Ireland. Section 10 of the Bill provides for the amendment of section 20 of the principal Act, substituting the term "a married couple" with "a married couple, a couple who are civil partners of each other or a cohabiting couple". I particularly welcome section 12 which amends section 23 of the principal Act through the insertion of section 23(1)(a)(ii), increasing the maximum age at which a child can be adopted from seven years of age to 18. I also welcome the provisions on same sex couples to enable them to adopt. This further strengthens our acceptance and understanding of families headed by same-sex couples following that historic day, almost exactly one year ago, when the country overwhelmingly voted in favour of marriage equality.

Section 25 also rectifies the situation where, when a step-parent wants to adopt a child, the birth parent also has to adopt his or her own child, by amending section 58 of the principal Act. The previous section 58 created a ridiculous anomaly, where partners of step-parents who wished to adopt their child lost their parental rights and then had to adopt their own child to regain their parental rights.

I note that there does not seem to be any provision in the Bill to address the issue of "closed" adoption. Have we not learned from mistakes of the past that people need access to their identity and medical records? Without addressing the issue of "closed" adoption and replacing it with best practice "open" adoption, we are merely continuing the mistakes of the past which involved secrecy. This aspect of the Bill needs to be examined and clarified.

When Deputy Frances Fitzgerald was the first Minister in the Department, I questioned her many times about appropriate adoption information and tracing services in place for citizens who wished to seek to trace their relatives. She made several commitments to place adoption information and tracing provisions on a statutory footing. The adoption (information and tracing) Bill was on the clár in the last session of the 31st Dáil and the new Minister now has responsibility for bringing it forward and its implementation.

On a number of occasions the former Minister, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, detailed for me the work of the National Adoption Contact Preference Register, NACPR, run by the Adoption Authority of Ireland. She informed me that large volumes of files on adoptions that had been transferred to the HSE had not been processed up to the end of 2013. This led to many adopted persons experiencing huge difficulties in obtaining any information on their natural relatives. I indicated my concern at the time at the low level of resources committed to the Adoption Information and Tracing Service. Perhaps this is something the new Minister might address in the context of this legislation.

I draw the Minister's attention to some concerns my colleagues and I have about section 14 which provides that the "High Court may give custody of a child to prospective adopters and authorise dispensing with consent to adoption". The section substitutes section 31 of the principal Act and relates to cases where consent for adoption has not been given or has been given and subsequently withdrawn. Under the Bill, should such circumstances arise, applicants for adoption could apply for an order to the High Court. I assume the section will be examined and, perhaps, amended on Committee Stage to strengthen the provisions to ensure social workers and other relevant professionals give their input, with, of course, that of the child. This relates to section 23 which amends section 54(2) of the principal Act which, again, relates to so-called "parental failure". The previous speaker also referred to this section, whereby the State acts as guardian of the common good. These concerns will probably give rise to amendments from colleagues on Committee Stage.

I am sure the Minister is aware of the historic, valuable and positive research launched today in the Mansion House by the Preparing for Life programme of the Northside Partnership, in conjunction with the Geary Institute for Public Policy at UCD. The research shows dramatic improvements in children's IQ, obesity levels and social skills resulting from the parent and family intervention programme carried out in Dublin 5 and 17 by the Preparing for Life programme under its manager Mr. Noel Kelly. This intervention programme follows many similar initiatives led by him and his Northside Partnership colleagues in the past 15 years. This proven intervention which was costed at a modest €2,000 per family per year to deliver could be a model for many other communities in both urban and rural Ireland.

On my own behalf and that of my colleagues, I welcome the Bill.

Gabhaim comhghairdeachas leis an Aire nua. Ní bheidh drogall ar bith orm obair léi agus as lámh a chéile ar son daoine óga agus gasúir na tíre seo.

I congratulate the Minister and assure her that I will have no reluctance in working with her if it is for the benefit of young people and children. I would like to say I am overwhelmed by the gender representation in the new Cabinet, but that would be stretching it, given that there is no difference in the numbers between this and the previous Government.

I welcome the Bill, the first piece of legislation before the House for me as a new Deputy. It is good that we are starting with such a positive Bill to improve adoption rights. I welcome the Bill because of the rights it gives to cohabitees, civil partners and married people who consent to give up their children for adoption. It is also welcome that it ends the bizarre situation where a birth father or birth mother had to adopt his or her own child to enable a step-parent to become an adoptive parent. I share the concerns expressed by Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett, despite the ruling of the Acting Chairman. The points he made were valid.

I thank the Minister for her detailed and comprehensive statement on the Bill. If she continues in this manner, she will have no problem with me when it comes to the provision of information under the new political regime. She referred to the children's rights referendum in 2012 and said it sent a message to future generations that the protection and welfare of children were among the highest values of our society.

That is rhetoric. It is lovely rhetoric but rhetoric nonetheless. However, the position on the ground is far from the rhetoric. At the time of the children's rights referendum I had the greatest of concerns, notwithstanding the fact that I worked in the area of law and had previously worked as a psychologist. I was concerned about the agenda behind the referendum when I knew what the position on the ground was - it was that, as a nation, we were utterly failing to protect children. While in theory the referendum was good, like the other legislation referred to, in practice we are utterly failing children. As the number of children living in poverty has been quoted many times in this Chamber, I will not quote it again.

Specifically I wish to refer to sections 14 and 23 of the Bill which deal with where the High Court steps in. The Minister might look at section 23, in particular, and come back to me on it. I am concerned about the period of time given - 36 months. It must be shown that, for a period of not less than 36 months immediately preceding the making of the application to the court, the parents have failed in their duty to such an extent that the section applies. Section 23(1)(b) and (2A)(e)(ii) states the child must be in the custody of the prospective adoptive parents for 18 months. We are not looking at a test of 36 months where the natural parents have abandoned their children but a period of 18 months because the period of 36 months includes the 18 months spent with the prospective adoptive parents. Perhaps I am misreading the section, but 36 months is very short in the first instance in the context of the concerns raised by Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett, with which I agree. It is only an 18-month period for the birth parents because in the other 18-month period the children are not with their parents.

I will return to the subject of the children's rights referendum. My experience is that social workers apply for care orders on a much more frequent basis than for supervision orders. At the time of the children's rights referendum, I asked for figures for the numbers of supervision orders for which the various health boards had applied, but they were not available. That shocked and surprised me at the time and I still do not have them. My experience tells me that they are not applied for because they are resource driven. If a health board does not have the resources, it will not apply for a supervision order because it involves somebody going into a house to do it. It seems to be the most practical way to support families and ensure parents receive help when they need it in various crises, but it is not happening. While we have very good legislation in place and had good legislation in place prior to the referendum with the rights of children enshrined in all children's legislation, the resources were and still are lacking on the ground to ensure the rhetoric is turned into reality. I will table a parliamentary question on supervision orders in the new set-up in the Dáil. If we had that information, we would be able to see if we are moving as a society to help families in trouble or whether it is the policy to move in and take a child when there is a better solution.

I look forward to working with the Minister to address my concerns. I may well table some amendments to the Bill.

The next slot has been allocated to Social Democrats Members, but they are not present in the House. The Green Party Members are also not present. Next in line is an Independent Member. The Independent Members are also not present. I, therefore, call Deputy Denise Mitchell of Sinn Féin.

I am happy to speak in support of the Adoption (Amendment) Bill. The legislation is very welcome as it is progressive in its extension of the grounds for adoption. Like any legislation dealing with children, it is important that the Bill have the child at its core.

A sign that legislation is needed and supported is that it has the backing of stakeholders. Therefore, it is important that the Bill has the backing of relevant stakeholders. While I agree with the stakeholders that this legislation is long overdue, it is great to see it finally begin its journey towards being passed into law. There are many children in long-term foster care who could not be adopted before the change to the Constitution following the children's rights referendum. It is great that the Bill will work towards removing these obstacles if adoption is in the best interests of a child. Thankfully, the legislation also removes some of the barriers when it comes to adopting a child. The rights of the child seem to be prioritised, with the best interests of children at heart, meaning that they will have the opportunity to be adopted and given a sense of long-term stability. As many people know, adoption provides security for children and families. For far too long, our laws have been out of step with the needs of the modern family. I hope the legislation will address this.

In the context of the history of how children were treated, the legislation is an important step, certainly one in the right direction in learning from past mistakes and the failings of the State. I do not want to overuse a phrase, but in this centenary year the legislation moves somewhat towards cherishing all children equally. The challenge for us, from here on, is to work even harder to address the other issues, of which there are many, that create inequality among children, as well as all other issues that give rise to inequality in our society.

The next speaker is a Labour Party Member who will be followed by Deputy Shane Cassells of Fianna Fáil. As there is only one minute remaining before the commencement of Private Members' business, it might be best to suspend the sitting until then. Is that agreed? Agreed.

Debate adjourned.
Sitting suspended at 6.58 p.m. and resumed at 7 p.m.