Adoption (Amendment) Bill 2016: Second Stage (Resumed)

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

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for giving me the opportunity to speak to this important Bill. The Adoption (Amendment) Bill 2016 updates the law on adoption in a progressive manner in Ireland. We face a daunting task as legislators in this regard. We are trying to provide a legislative framework that will ensure the best outcomes and fairness for all children adopted in Ireland. The vast majority of children who are adopted in Ireland come from abroad.

As Deputies, we have to be reminded of our responsibilities to legislate correctly for this most vulnerable group in society, our children. A child without a parent who can care for him or her is especially in need of care and love. Such children need legislation and an Adoption Authority that responds to their needs and is in step with a society that is constantly changing. Youth holds the promise of the future. With all the energy and challenges of childhood and adolescence, it is a vital time that leaves its mark on us all. Children who are to be adopted in Ireland require adoptive parents who will love them and who can care for them. Where they are of an age where they can express themselves, the requirement that their views be considered and that all decisions be made in their best interests is of paramount consideration.

As a family lawyer, I have seen great changes in the law on adoption and welcome the Bill as a responsible and progressive updating of adoption law in Ireland, as required by the will of the people who passed the children's rights referendum in 2012 and the marriage equality referendum in 2015. It was in the reforming era of the 1960s that the legal concept of the best interests of the child became the cornerstone of family law in Ireland with the passing of the Guardianship of Infants Act 1964. This Act has been significantly amended by the Children and Family Relationships Act 2015, which recognised that children had a right to be heard when of an appropriate age. The Act also accepted that children are raised in all sorts of circumstances, primarily by married parents but also by relations, step-parents, civil partners and parents who are straight and gay. In a similar vein, this Bill updates the law on adoption to give children of an appropriate age, a voice in the proceedings and to respond to ever-changing more complex family situations.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Ireland ratified in 1992, acknowledges the family as the fundamental unit of society. It stresses the role of parents as primary care givers with responsibility for the upbringing of their children and obliges governments to support parents in fulfilling their roles. In addition, the convention provided that children's views must be considered in all matters affecting them.

Ireland has signed up to the Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption. The Adoption Act 2010 strengthened the regulatory framework governing adoption to ensure the best interests of children are protected in the adoption process. Ireland permits international adoptions only with countries which have signed the Hague convention on intercountry adoption or with which Ireland has a bilateral adoption agreement. This protects the best interests of the children involved.

The 31st amendment of the Constitution on the rights of children obligates this House to legislate to allow a child the opportunity to be adopted where the parents have met a high threshold of failure towards the child, where it is in the best interests of the child and where all other options have been explored and failed. I am very relieved that section 23 of the Bill provides a robust provision whereby, after three years, a child can be adopted where the parents have failed in their duty towards the child to such an extent that the safety or welfare of the child is likely to be prejudicially affected, where there is no reasonable prospect that the parents will be able to care for the child and where this failure constitutes abandonment.

The proposed Bill is strict, as it should be, in considering what limited circumstances permit a child to be adopted when abandoned and where the parent cannot provide care. This is in step with our policy, which is aimed at doing everything that is reasonable and in the best interests of the child, to keep a child with his or her parents. However, I have seen some clear cases in which children in care have been abandoned and where the parents do not have a capacity to parent. Many of these children remain in care all their lives when adoption should also be an option. This Bill makes it increasingly possible that such children could be adopted either by relatives or foster parents.

For children in care who have been abandoned and where there is no parental capacity to parent, adoption would be a more secure and emotionally rewarding experience than remaining in foster care all their lives. For these children, adoption should be a real alternative. I believe passionately that these options need to be examined by foster parents who wish to adopt.

Article 42A of the Constitution commits the Oireachtas to introduce legislation that allows parents, either married or unmarried, to voluntarily place their child for adoption and to consent to the adoption of their child. The Bill also provides that where the child is of an appropriate age their own particular views are considered and taken into account.

The Bill will also allow civil partners and cohabiting couples to adopt. It contains a new provision for cohabiting couples who have been cohabiting for a continuous period of three years to jointly adopt. Under section 18, the Bill further allows a step-parent who has a home with the child's parent for a continuous period of two years or, in exceptional circumstances, less than two years to adopt the child of their partner. The Bill allows for a change to step-parent adoption by removing the requirement for the other parent to adopt their own child, making this option more feasible and more realistic.

The Bill will allow civil partners to adopt. Married couples, which include same-sex couples, can adopt. I welcome the support of Barnardos and its guardian ad litem service for this Bill. Those guardians ad litem, who represent the voice and best wishes of the child in child care proceedings, have years of experience dealing with children in care. Barnardos described this Bill as another crucial piece of legislation prioritising children, and I welcome that. I also welcome the support of Children's Right Alliance for it.

Our current law prohibits married parents from placing a child for adoption and this has left many children in long-term foster care who could have been adopted but whose parents were married. The Bill removes that outdated provision. It provides for adoption where the parents, married or unmarried, have abandoned the child and have failed for a continuous period for three years in their duty to that child.

It is correct to broaden eligibility for adoption which the Bill proposes. Our adoption law would then be updated to best international practice regarding the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Hague Convention on inter-country adoption. The Bill updates the law on adoption, taking into consideration the already expressed wishes of the Irish people in two referenda and that in itself is a unique situation where the Parliament is responding to an issue where every citizen was given a voice. As a practitioner of family law, a mother and a citizen, I very much welcome the Bill.

Fáiltím roimh an deis labhartha ar an ábhar tábhachtach seo sa lá atá inniu ann. I welcome the opportunity to speak to this important legislation that has been finally and thankfully brought before the House. It is the first legislation to be brought before the House in the Thirty-second Dáil, which is fitting. One of the first jobs done in the Thirty-first Dáil was to provide for the putting of the referendum of children's rights before the people. There were a number of delays that were beyond people's control and legal challenges to the outcome of that referendum, which delayed this legislation coming to the House. I welcome its introduction to the House on behalf of those people who do not have voice in here, those people who will be impacted most by it.

I congratulate the Minister on her appointment to this important portfolio of children and youth affairs. It was interesting and welcome that the previous Government in its wisdom, led by the Taoiseach, promoted this portfolio to a senior Department and to a senior ministry. That development was long overdue. Any society can be judged by how we care for people such as children. It was a sad reflection that it took until that day for that to happen. Perhaps we were blinded by some of the silliness of the economics in the Celtic tiger years but, thankfully, common sense has prevailed and this responsibility has been elevated to a senior ministry. I am delighted for the Minister, Deputy Katherine Zappone, and congratulate her on her appointment. I wish her every good will in this very important endeavour for the years ahead. It is a top priority. I always promote option politics where we as Members of a House or members of the party identify our top priority. The care of children and how we deal with them and face the challenges and issues presenting is the top priority for this society at this time, and this being the first legislation before the new Dáil is very telling in that regard.

I have been asked, on occasion, what was my proudest achievement during the past five years of the previous Dáil and without missing a heartbeat I can state, without fear or favour, that my single greatest and proudest achievement was the role I got to play in the passing of the referendum on children's rights and in convincing people to support it. I do not believe there was a radio station in the country on which that I did not end up debating this matter. It was a personal privilege and honour to be in a position to do that and to get the referendum result over the line. I remember some critics, people like Kathy Sinnott and John Waters, trying to put across the image that the referendum would result in the big bad State prowling around in the dead of night taking children from the family home and putting them into an awful place, that of State care, and conjuring up frightening images of the State care that they alleged could do so much damage to these children. Thankfully, today, when we talk about children in the care of the State we are speaking, for the most part, about children who are living with ordinary families throughout the country who have decided, for whatever reason, to share their home with children who cannot be in their own home. I happen to be one of those fortunate and privileged people who get to share my family home with children who, for whatever reason, cannot live in their own home or stay with their own birth mother or father. That is an honour in itself. It is also an incredible education. One of the bigger challenges during the referendum campaign was to explain to people that State care means children in the care of ordinary families who are delighted and honoured to share their home with children who are not so fortunate as to be born in their own home.

I recall a well known and high profile television presenter who said that this referendum would only impact on a tiny number of children and asking what was the importance of it. That completely missed the point because those 5,000 or 6,000 children in this State who cannot live in their own homes are the most special, the most vulnerable and the most important children in the State. There is an obligation, an onus and moral responsibility on all of us to rise to that challenge and ensure we do everything for those people who do not have the good fortune the vast majority have, which is to be cared for and loved in our own home.

Some 73 years ago Abraham Maslow identified a hierarchy of needs in his paper entitled, A Theory of Human Motivation. He identified the top need as the physiological need for food and water, the second need as one's personal safety and to be in an environment where one is safe and secure and the third need, which is particularly relevant in childhood, as being the need to belong, or as he called it "belongingness". It is a powerful driver in all of us and we probably do not take enough time to stop and think about it because we all have the good fortune of being reared in our own families and having that sense of identity, having our surname which gives us a connection to it and which, as we grow, extends beyond our family to our community and the clubs to which we belong. It is a powerful driver for children to have such an identity and that sense of belonging.

Children who come into the care of the State and cannot be with their own birth mother and father, for whatever reasons, end up dealing with that challenge of the need and desire to belong. Prior to the passing of the referendum the reality was that those 5,000 or 6,000 children who were in the care of the State, in foster care living with foster families, could not have been adopted by those families until they reached the age of 18 because it had to be proved beyond a reasonable doubt that up until the age of 18 they had been abandoned by their own parents. The only real possibility of that was letting them arrive at the age of 18. For the first 18 years of their lives they were denied a sense of belonging, which we all take for granted, being part of a family unit and sharing in the love, joy, challenges and drama that goes with being part and parcel of one's siblings and family. It was vital for those children that this referendum got over the line. Children in the care of the State, many of whom have come to families from maternity wards, are reared and grow up with the family but they cannot be fully part of that family in that they cannot share the family surname. When they go to school they have a different surname from their siblings but they want to be part of the family and to have that identity but the State denied them that. Therefore, it was crucial that we got the referendum over the line.

We are now discussing the legislative implications of the referendum and, finally, giving effect to it so that children can be adopted by these families and achieve the sense of belonging they seek to satisfy that all-powerful third sense identified by Maslow 73 years ago.

I listened with interest to much of the debate yesterday. Many of the specifics of the Bill have been well addressed in the Chamber and I do not intend to go through it piece by piece or repeat many of the points made. I noted the tone of the debate yesterday and the caring contributions from all sides of the House. There was a unity of purpose there and everybody acknowledged that this was a good news story and a positive development for our society. We are all as one in seeing that develop and grow. Certain other issues were referred to such as the challenges for tracing, which the former Tánaiste, Deputy Joan Burton, mentioned yesterday. She said she would like to see an amendment on that added to the Bill, which is a very worthy proposal. We should give tracing much more consideration. It is difficult to balance the rights of the parent who wants to remain anonymous, give up a child and have no more to do with him or her and the rights of the child to know who he or she is. It goes back to that driving sense, which is the third strongest, of belonging, identity and knowing who one is. That is a challenge the Minister is going to lead and I look forward to assisting and playing my part in that in any way I can.

I always preach solution-led politics. We can all identify the problems and criticise and complain but coming up with solutions is the really challenging bit. The onus is on all of us in that regard. If we are to identify a new type of politics in the House, I promote that politics where we all put our heads together. None of us on any side of the House has a monopoly on wisdom but we all have a story to tell, an experience to share and knowledge to bring to the topic. Society has a need - we have to lead on it and drive the change - to look at the reasons children are coming into the care of the State. There has been an increase of almost 25% in the number of children who have come into the care of the State since 2007. The figures are probably close to 7,000 at this stage. It may not be a bad thing that the numbers are increasing. There is a variety of reasons the numbers are increasing and not all of them are negative. There are issues and challenges there to do with poverty, deprivation, education, health and well-being as well as a variety of cultural and other challenges in this day and age. People are realising they do not have the wherewithal to raise the children they have brought into the world. While they might have the physical capacity to do it, they do not have the wherewithal afterwards. As parents, we all understand the challenge involved in rearing children and the responsibility that goes with it. We must have a more sincere debate on those reasons. There is a great deal more awareness today. To be fair to school authorities, communities, relations and family members, a great deal of what went on in homes before was hidden behind closed doors and people did not talk about it. People are now more willing to embrace the challenges and recognise where people are failing as parents and being more proactive about getting involved. That may be one of the reasons for the increase in numbers of children in care.

I am conscious of the time available. One other issue I want to debate and flag with the Minister today involves post-adoption services. While we very much welcome the ability of parents to adopt and foster children and while the Bill addresses longing and belonging, it does not address a lot of other issues. A big problem for people who have been able to adopt children has been the lack of post-adoption services in Ireland, in particular outside the greater Dublin area. If one lives in the greater Dublin area, one has access to a range of services through the wonderful work Barnardos does. If one lives outside the greater Dublin area, however, there really are no services. If one looks at England, one sees Family Futures, a powerful organisation doing wonderful work dealing with children who experienced early trauma in their lives. As those children hit their adolescent and teen years, it becomes very difficult to deal with the challenges that arise. Adoptive and foster parents and those of all hues need to get support for themselves and, more importantly, the children. The range of post-adoption supports is really lacking here however. Those intervention services constitute one of the most pressing issues which requires to be addressed at this point in time. We all know the argument about investing today and reaping tomorrow. Directing our focus, energy and minds towards that and addressing those issues today can lead to savings, not only economic, but of heartbreak, and benefits in terms of quality of life and all that goes with it, including for society. It is not easy to wake up one day and realise that one is not in one's own home and that the person one thought was one's Dad for however long is not one's Dad and that one's Mum is not one's Mum. There are also issues that come up from one's childhood and trauma. It is an area I look forward to discussing further with the Minister. I again wish her well in her term of office.

This is not my first time speaking in the House but it is my first time to speak on a Bill and it is an honour to do so. I begin by congratulating the Minister on her appointment. I am not sure if she is aware that she is a constituency neighbour of mine as the steps of Killinarden run up to the hills of Kilteel as Kildare North and Dublin South-West border each other. As such, I extend my best wishes to her on her appointment and wish her continued success in the role.

In terms of the matter before us, Fianna Fáil as an opposition party will freely oppose the Government on issues when merited but equally, as a constructive party and mindful of the minority Government framework which can only work when all sides play their part, agree on areas of common ground. Accordingly, we will be constructive and supportive of issues and legislation arising when we feel it is in interest of the common good to do so. Thankfully, family law and the rights and well-being of children are issues which cross party political lines and in which all of us in this House have a common purpose, wishing to see progress for the greater public good.

The subject matter of the Bill is a matter of sensitivity to many people, not least those who have been involved in adoptions previously or currently but also the many children who have been denied that possibility. Some of them currently languish in a legal half life in foster care, institutions or other arrangements in which they enjoy no legitimate expectation of being adopted in the foreseeable future. It seems hard to believe with the welcome focus in recent years on the area that adoption in this country was at one time barely subject to any regulation. The enactment of the Adoption Act 1952 was the first measure to put in place a legal framework for adoptions in Ireland. Prior to that adoption was on a custom and practice basis, privately arranged and subject, I am sure, to many anomalies. More recently, Fianna Fáil when last in office put in place the Adoption Act 2010 and initiated the process leading to the children's referendum in 2012. I remember that referendum well because I campaigned in it. Many of the provisions being enacted in the Bill stem from that referendum, which was passed by the Irish people, and indeed are mandated by it. All parties in the House supported the referendum and a positive campaign ensued. The wording of the constitutional amendment was formulated following an extensive and constructive all-party consultation leading to the design of the new Article 42A.

This being a complex and technical area it has taken a little time to bring provisions before the House. While many of the amendments in the Bill are technical and miscellaneous in their nature, there are some important provisions which will have a major impact on the fabric of many lives. My experience in campaigning for the referendum, as well as from many meetings and interactions as a public representative, makes me aware that there are aspects of this that people fear. People fear constitutional change at the best of times but as family law is a sensitive area, there are some schools of thought, misperception and concerns about what may arise. Family law is always a sensitive matter and must be dealt with accordingly. In some quarters, there is a concern that a move to strengthen rights of a child may in some way diminish rights of the parent or the family. This does not have to be so and, in fact, the correct balance has been struck in Irish law to date.

I want to address two provisions of the Bill in some detail. These are section 12 which revises section 23 of the principal Act and section 23, which updates section 54 of the principal Act. These sections deal principally with the adoption of a child born within the marital family and the difficult issue of involuntary adoption where the parents have not consented, typically on foot of abandonment or a failure of care within the family, be it marital or otherwise. There is a presumption in law that the child's best interests are served within its natural family but the presumption is rebuttable. The presumption has been recognised both by the Supreme Court and by the European Court of Human Rights. In 1994 in Keegan v. Ireland, the European Court of Human Rights noted that the family unit need not be confined to the marital relationship to enjoy protection but that a de facto family existed and enjoyed protection as well as rights, regardless of its marital status.

As an aside, the facts of that case were traumatic. It involved a father who saw his child being sent for adoption by the mother of the child and who was at the time powerless in law to do anything about it. The couple had met in England and had been residing there, but the mother later moved back to Ireland where she gave her child up for adoption. The father followed her here but was unable to intervene, not having a right to be heard on the matter. While the law has advanced and such a scenario would not recur, as the father's rights are now recognised, there is still much work to be done regarding father's rights. I hope that the Dáil can consider this matter on other occasions.

A landmark Supreme Court ruling in adoption law is what is known as the Baby Ann case, or N & anor v. Health Service Executive & ors, in 2006. The facts of this case were traumatic for the parties involved. A young couple met at university, had a child together, gave the child up for adoption and within 18 months became regretful of that decision and sought to reverse it. They had married in the meantime, meaning that their marital family enjoyed constitutional protection at the time. A difficult train of events followed. Some of the judgments in the case are worth quoting, in particular that of Mr. Justice Hardiman, who is no longer with us. As it was a lengthy judgment, I will read a short extract. He summarised succinctly the balance that the Constitution and Irish law had attempted to strike between the rights of the family, the rights of the child and the best interests of all. He stated:

There are certain misapprehensions on which repeated and unchallenged public airings have conferred undeserved currency. One of these relates to the position of children in the Constitution. It would be quite untrue to say that the Constitution puts the rights of parents first and those of children second. It fully acknowledges the "natural and imprescriptible rights" and the human dignity, of children, but equally recognises the inescapable fact that a young child cannot exercise his or her own rights. The Constitution does not prefer parents to children. The preference the Constitution gives is this: it prefers parents to third parties, official or private, priest or social worker, as the enablers and guardians of the child's rights. This preference has its limitations: parents cannot, for example, ignore the responsibility of educating their child. More fundamentally, the Constitution provides for the wholly exceptional situation where, for physical or moral reasons, parents fail in their duty towards their child. Then, indeed, the State must intervene and endeavour to supply the place of the parents, always with due regard to the rights of the child.

It is an excellent judgment that not only applies to the facts of that case, but also to the locus of family law and the constitutional position. It was a pre-referendum judgment, but it still applies, perhaps even more so.

It is against this context that section 12 of the Bill must be set and any concern raised about the marital family and the adoptions from within that are enabled in the Bill must be considered. These protections continue, but in parallel the Bill addresses the limbo in which children may linger for years with no hope or expectation of being adopted or moved to a situation in which care, love and affection can be put upon them. That the Bill advances and begins to enable this aspect is to be welcomed.

It is also noteworthy that, in the Supreme Court's decision, Mrs. Justice McGuinness, who was perhaps less of Mr. Justice Hardiman's view, stated that, even were she minded not to reach the decision of her colleagues, she would have had no option but to do so because it was impossible at the time, even if she felt it was the right thing to do or there was a need to do so, to place the child up for adoption, being the child of marital parents. As such, it is recognised that there are scenarios in which the natural family is not the safe, correct or appropriate environment for the child to remain within. In those circumstances, the State must intervene to prevent the limbo of children remaining in institutions for many years and give them better lives, obstacles that adoption enables them to tackle.

The constitutional amendment requires the Legislature to revisit and approve this scenario and that a "failure in duty must be provided for in law". Section 23 inserts a new test into the legislation that will need to be robust, multifaceted and likely more amenable to judicial exercise. The Children's Rights Alliance has stated that the current "threshold of complete and permanent parental failure is set so high that in practice it is unachievable". This creates a situation in which children lie in limbo for many years because judges simply refuse to decide that the threshold has been met. We cannot legislate for judicial discretion. We as legislators can enable legislation, but we cannot second-guess the Judiciary. The new test that replaces the threshold is more robust and multi-stranded and should lend weight to better decision making.

The Bill meets the parameters, addresses the concerns raised and progresses the situation. An important point that has received less commentary is that a child over the age of seven years can now be adopted. There are many children between the ages of seven and 18 years who require intervention. The provision enabling such adoptions is much needed and welcome.

The Bill contains a number of other miscellaneous, but important, provisions, but I do not propose to discuss those now, as I wanted to focus on the ones that I raised. I commend the Bill and welcome its progress. I thank the Minister for her observations.

I join others in congratulating the Minister on her appointment. I have a great interest in the work of her Department, in particular relating to child care, and I look forward to working with her constructively on the resources needed by early childhood years service providers and to seeing their agenda and that of parents progressed during the lifetime of this Dáil.

I listened to the Minister's remarks on the Bill yesterday. She referred to how basic human rights issues went to the core of who she was as a person. She wore her heart on her sleeve yesterday, for which she is to be admired. I also listened to Deputy Joan Burton's remarks on this matter, in particular about the failure of the Bill to address problems with adoption information and tracing.

I wish to quote some lines:

It was great to see this year, Ireland celebrating its past with her people's search for connection to it, stronger than ever. Indeed, the month of March 2016 saw the online release of thousands of Irish Catholic Parish records for public access and genealogy websites gifting a month's free access to users. The interest in identity remains a booming business yet the significance of it can be felt very deeply within people's lives.

These lines came from a lady in London who wrote to me on behalf of her aunt who is now in her 80s and comes from Castlepollard in my constituency of Meath West. She was born at the Castlepollard mother and baby home in the 1930s and was separated from her mother, whom she never saw again, at birth. Following a lifetime of complicit silence, she asked her niece six months ago to find something out about her biological family. She made a request for information and tracing via Tusla, but it is inundated with requests and the task of processing retrospective and current cases is a major undertaking for its staff. The lady and her aunt have received minimal information to date. As the lady said, time is against them after eight decades. They need action.

With regard to the wider aspects of the Bill, it brings greater clarity to adoption legislation and removes a number of outdated legal anomalies, in particular that of adoptions by step-parents. It facilitates married parents in placing their children up for adoption on a voluntary basis where both parents consent to the making of the adoption order. I agree with the Minister's assertion that the legislation provides for significant improvements in the rights of children and that she is focused on putting the best interests of the child at the centre of any discussion regarding adoption.

In that regard, I will touch on a matter that our spokesperson, Deputy Robert Troy, raised yesterday and that can be emotive for people, namely, the provision that gives greater legislative clarity to adoption proceedings in the case of parental failure. Parental failure happens. It is an unpleasant fact, one that people often do not like to admit or discuss. Some important sections of our society do not even acknowledge that it exists. The mantra that a child is always best served by being with his or her biological parents is not accurate. I have seen scenarios in which nothing could have been further from the truth. The provision in the amended section allowing the High Court to authorise the adoption authorities to make an adoption order on behalf of applicants, for example, foster parents or relatives, if the court is satisfied that such an authorisation is in the best interests of the child, and that the child's parents have failed in their duty towards him or her, is a positive one. It provides a welcome clarity and puts the rights of the child to the fore, not the defence of parents whose main act was one of love making rather than of providing the love, care and support needed for a happy and stable childhood.

In tandem, there is a real need to consider the resources for those who provide support systems for children in care and support for children’s services generally. Having listened to the Minister’s words yesterday, I hope and have a great sense that she will champion that cause and demand and seek more resources for children.

The most substantive provision in the Bill is obviously to give legislative effect to the new article, Article 42A, on the rights of the child. That provision is to be made in law to enable the views of children who are the subject of child care, custody or adoption proceedings to be ascertained. Most important, that the court is to give them due weight is very welcome.

I commend the Bill for addressing so many legal anomalies. It is positive to see the rights of children being progressed in this Dáil.

I congratulate Deputy Katherine Zappone on her appointment as Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. I listened with great interest to her opening remarks and welcome the opportunity to speak to the Adoption (Amendment) Bill 2016. The Bill is extremely complex and sensitive but for many adoptive parents and children who are adopted, it provides clarity on their legal rights.

Every one of us has heard stories about children being taken from their birth mothers without consent. This sad practice has been highlighted in many documentaries and films during the years. I am thankful that this practice has ceased, but, sadly, there are still many adults, some of whom I know from my community, who have never been able to reunite with their birth mothers. In the long run we should do as much as we can to help them.

The reaction to the Adoption (Amendment) Bill 2016 has been positive. Following its publication, two major children’s charities - Barnardos and the Children’s Rights Alliance - issued press releases welcoming it. Barnardos described it as "another crucial piece of legislation prioritising children". We all agree with this. The Bill was long awaited, yet it is now before us and I hope it will be passed soon. Both charities particularly welcomed the amendment on married parents and adoption. Under current law, married parents are prohibited from placing a child for adoption. This has created obstacles for many children whose parents are married but who are living in long-term foster or institutional care. The Bill removes this ban. It will ensure a child’s best wishes are central to each and every adoption case. That is important because we sometimes forget children do have a voice. The Bill is very clear in establishing that they will have a voice.

With the introduction of the Bill, a parent will continue to be the parent and the step-parent will be an adoptive parent. This will remove the requirement for parents to adopt their own child. This is a most welcome amendment addressing a bizarre set of circumstances that has been allowed to continue.

The Bill will allow civil partners and cohabitees the opportunity to adopt if they so wish. This is one aspect of the Bill that I most welcome. I really believe it is a step in the right direction. In my humble opinion, when one can give a child love, care and protection, one should be able to do so if one is a cohabitee or civil partner.

Another principal provision in the Bill includes allowing for a change of criteria under which the High Court can make an adoption order without parental consent in the case of parental failure. Many have spoken about parents who are just not able to rear their children. It is most essential that the provision in this regard be included in the Bill. It will allow us to act where parents are not able to really look after their children and where there is parental failure.

A family support model underpins the child protection and welfare system favoured in Ireland. A family, by definition, should meet a child’s emotional, intellectual, social, cultural and material needs. Where families, for whatever reason, cannot meet these needs, they are encouraged to seek help from the many support services available. Many such services are doing a wonderful job in communities and with families throughout the country. I commend them for the work they do.

Early interventions and long-term preventive action are recommended as the best ways to promote children’s welfare and protection. However, the interests and well-being of the child are of most importance. I spent a lot of time working with young children in voluntary organisations, youth clubs and community groups and was always aware when a child was in difficulty, or from a background in which the parents just might not have been able to manage. I was always inspired by the people who came to their assistance, be they from a voluntary or State agency. They still continue to do a great job in this regard.

Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures: the National Policy Framework for Children & Young People is the principal policy document for shaping the formation and delivery of State services for children across Departments. There are a number of goals identified in the framework, some of which are relevant to the Adoption (Amendment) Bill. First, the framework aims to assist and support parents in raising their families, fulfilling their role as primary carers, helping to achieve the best possible outcomes for their children and overcoming challenges or difficulties they may encounter. It makes specific reference to the role of the State in supporting children and young people in care.

Another goal is to listen to and involve children. The document recognises the importance of children. It gives due weight to their opinions and concerns. In the past, this was not the case. Many a time when children did speak out, whether in school or an institution, we did not listen. This is an opportunity to do so.

What we now need to do is to enact the Bill as soon as possible to give birth parents, adoptive parents and especially children a real opportunity to get on with their lives, such that children can continue to live in a family environment where there is love and care and emotional help when needed. I thank the Minister for introducing the Bill which I hope we will be able to enact as soon as possible.

I congratulate the Minister on her appointment and wish her well and many long and happy years in her Department. Hers is an important role that has been well underlined in society in recent years.

The shortcomings in legislation to protect children have been blatantly obvious for many years. Therefore, this is crucial legislation. It follows in the wake of the amendment to the Constitution that provided for it. It is something on which the Minister can put her stamp in the years ahead. She has an opportunity, in particular, to set down the protection children need and recognise their position in society. She also has an opportunity to recognise the need to ensure that in years to come those who look back will be able to say legislation was put in place and that a Minister took control in continuation of the work carried out by her predecessor. The legislation will be of tremendous benefit to society.

One can only but be impressed by the comments of my colleagues to which I listened today and last evening. We must put ourselves in the position of a child to fully appreciate and recognise the extent to which a child is governed by events around him or her and over which he or she has little or no control. It is entirely appropriate that the State be in a position to guarantee the rights of the child.

Like my colleague, we were all subject to a certain amount of criticism and suspicion in the run-up to the referendum, at which time it was inferred that the intention was to extract children from their natural parents and the family home against the will of the parents and so on. Of course, that was not the intention of the referendum, nor is it the intention of the legislation. If one studies the world in which children reside, one notes that they are governed by what happens around them, what they see around them and what they see as affecting them in their own little way. Their lives are shaped by their formative years and the way they are treated, in addition to their feeling of being part of, cared for and loved in a family unit and of belonging to it. In other words, they require security and rely on those around them.

However, in some cases, such security is not available to them.

I would always be reluctant to remove a child from its natural parents, particularly its mother, because separation causes serious trauma to both mother and child. Deputies will have watched various television programmes featuring cases involving children who traced their birth parents or vice versa after many years of separation. In many cases, the mother and child have spent years wondering how the other has traversed through life and whether he or she has been successful. We must recognise that the bond between mother and child persists throughout life by ensuring the legislation pays due regard to this sensitive parental bond, or perhaps I should say "maternal bond".

We have all dealt with difficult cases involving families. Some involve a tug of love over a child and children will become vulnerable as a result of marital breakdown. Acrimonious separation cases in the courts may result in children becoming the subject matter of major legal battles. In the first instance, I feel sorry for the children affected, as we all should, but I also feel sorry for the parents who may or may not feel genuine sorrow. The problem may have escalated to such an extent that neither parent is willing to give way to the other. In such cases, concerns about the child or the life he or she will lead following the separation become secondary to the battle taking place in the courts, with various experts called to give their opinion.

In the final analysis, we must come down to the level of the child and ask what he or she wants. The Bill makes provision to do precisely that, which is good. In some circumstances, it may be difficult to identify precisely what the child wants. For example, in a tug of love case, the child may be influenced by one or other party to such an extent that he or she is confused and cannot reach a decision. We must be mindful of this.

As previous speakers noted, addiction can result in neglect, whether wilful or as a result of an inability to cope, leading to children becoming vulnerable. Some observers will argue that children are better off in their natural environment with their parents. On the other hand, we must ask whether it is in the best interests of a child to remain in such an environment. To what extent will a child be psychologically damaged by being allowed or forced to remain in a setting in which it believes it is not wanted or loved and does not feel a sense of belonging? It is vital for small children that they have a sense that they are secure, safe and belong. Children do not know the ways of the world and are in a learning curve. What they see happening around them informs their later lives and they adopt the attitudes that are displayed towards them in their formative years. We must take account of all the nuances in a child's life in these sensitive and important years. Irrespective of the reasons a child finds itself subjected to neglect, abuse or deprivation - the circumstances are beyond the child's control and may be the result of a parent's addiction problems or because they are poor and find themselves unable to cope by virtue of their poverty - society has a responsibility to act. However, the State must intervene in a positive and supportive manner, in the first instance taking care to ensure it does not interfere unnecessarily or in a provocative or challenging manner. It must intervene in a supportive manner that is in the interests of the child and takes account of the particular circumstances of the case.

All Deputies will have encountered cases involving a poor, unfortunate child who is in a difficult position which may worsen. In the past 30 years, we have had ample evidence of cases involving deliberate and sustained abuse of children with no action taken to address the matter. While we are quick to point out that the perpetrators were horrible people, which is true, we must also recognise that society at the time was not as caring as it should have been. I hope that when people look back on this period, they will conclude that society was caring, assumed responsibility and intervened in a supportive manner that reflected the interests of vulnerable children and did so with a view to ensuring the children concerned were able to grow up in a less challenging environment to make a normal contribution to society. If we fail to adopt this approach, the circumstances I have described will be revisited on society and we will have further recriminations as people ask why such cases were permitted to take place. Let us not forget the many things that happened here in the not too distant past over many years. We now ask why and how they happened but the simple reason was that no one did anything about them. Many people were aware of various abuses and there were plenty of avenues available to challenge and address them but people did not act.

How does an adolescent who has experienced abuse feel? In countless instances of abuse, deprivation and hostility, it has been suggested the child was at fault. This may be an astonishing conclusion to reach but it is the way society operated at the time. We still have a tendency to look away and pretend that certain things are not happening, society has evolved and this type of abuse no longer occurs. That is a dangerous position to be in.

Last night, in a moving speech, Deputy Joan Burton referred to the rights of adopted persons to know about their past and to be able to relate to their natural parents and inquire into and obtain information on the circumstances surrounding how they came to be adopted. In a modern, transparent society, we must make provision to vindicate these rights. I am aware that separate legislation has been introduced to address this issue. I hope it can be implemented with this legislation in the shortest possible timeframe.

I believe this legislation is hugely important and that it will make a major contribution towards stabilising society in the future. It will give us an opportunity to recognise the children of the nation, as referred to in the Constitution. We have a responsibility towards them and must accept and deal with that responsibility in their best interests.

I do not have time nor is it appropriate to go through the various sections of the Bill now, but I hope it satisfactorily addresses the issues that have been prominent in recent years and that the protection it proposes to give children will be manifest in time to come.

I congratulate the Minister, Deputy Katherine Zappone, on her appointment and wish her well in the task that lies ahead.

The Bill deals with the sensitive and difficult issues of adoption proceedings, adoption orders and adoption eligibility, but we all agree that the paramount concern must be the best interests of the child. Every child has an inalienable and now, constitutionally, enshrined right to be assured his or her best interests will always be the fundamental and sole concern in adoption cases. Furthermore, children's own wishes, desires and views on their best interest should be valued and, as far as possible, have a significant bearing on any court decision made.

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

The Bill brings clarity to adoption legislation and removes many outdated legal anomalies. In particular, it removes the condition that married parents may not voluntarily place their child for adoption and that a step-parent cannot adopt his or her partner's child without the requirement being met that the biological parent has to apply to adopt his or her own child. The Bill also contains provisions giving legislative effect to the Family and Children Relationships Bill which provides for the adoption of a child by non-married couples, including civil partners and cohabiting couples.

The make-up of Irish family life has changed enormously and the Bill recognises these changes and allows for a wealth of diversity in Irish families. Census 2011 indicated that Irish families were increasingly diverse and that an increasing percentage of children were living in family types other than those headed by married parents. This change in the make-up of family life has occurred in every county in Ireland. Census data from 2011 showed that there were over 7,000 lone-parent households in County Kildare. The data also display 3,000 cohabiting couples with 11,114 children. The number of children living in households headed by cohabiting couples increased by 41% between 2006 and 2011. The Central Statistics Office's vital statistics data also indicate that in 2011 some 25,190 children were born outside marriage or civil partnerships. This number continues to increase year on year.

Fianna Fáil welcomes and fully supports this long overdue adoption legislation which gives legislative effect to the constitutional change which requires that the views of the child be heard and given due weight in adoption cases. Many children in long-term foster care have for many years held a strong desire to be adopted by their foster families, but they could not be adopted owing to the archaic provisions contained in adoption legislation which was more relevant to the 19th century than 21st century Ireland. Many thousands of children - close to 2,000 per year - have gone through the care system in the interim owing to this decision and have lost the benefit of being part of a family in the eyes of the law. One can only imagine the potentially harmful consequences this has had on their sense of belonging and home, their identity and rights to succession and inheritance. Up to 2,000 children could become eligible for adoption as a result of the change proposed in the legislation. However, the level of resources in place in the adoption system can only support a handful of children in progressing through the system on an annual basis. It is worrying that there is no resourcing plan in place to accompany this legislation. Unless resources are put in place in the adoption system, I worry that backlogs will impose another painful delay on the families involved and prevent children in foster care from progressing swiftly through the adoption process. If we consider the current long delays in the family courts, it is deeply worrying to think how they will be severely exacerbated by possibly thousands of new adoption cases. The absence of an aspiration on the part of the Government to establish new family courts is worrying. Without some reform in this area, there is little hope of alleviating the long delays in family law cases.

Another concern expressed relates to children's rights to information and to trace. It is strange that in Parts 2 and 3 of the recently commenced Children and Family Relationship Act 2015 there are explicit rights to access information and identity tracing for children conceived through donor-assisted human reproduction, yet adopted children are still waiting for a Bill to be published to provide a similar right in the context of adoption. This is lamentable, given all of the public attention this issue has received in the past few years and the tragic stories that have been uncovered. We must ensure in practice that children's views are heard and their best interests ascertained during adoption proceedings.

Currently, married couples cannot place their child for adoption. The Bill provides that married parents may place a child for adoption on a voluntary basis, where both parents place him or her for adoption and consent to the making of the adoption order. As Geoffrey Shannon, the Government's special rapporteur on child protection, said during the children's rights referendum, removing this archaic ban will help to stop children from drifting rudderless in the child protection system and allow many children in long-term foster care to be adopted. He said the amendment would give all children equal rights, no matter the status of their parents. Allowing for the adoption of marital children will end the legal limbo in which a significant number of children find themselves and which more would face in the future if this provision was to remain unchanged. It is important to stress that this will not in any way lead to more children entering the care system. Instead, it will lead to the right children entering the care system, which is what matters most.

The Bill provides for a change in the criteria under which the High Court may, in a case involving parental failure, make an order authorising, without parental consent, the adoption of a child who has been in the custody of and had a home with applicants such as foster parents or relatives for a period of at least 18 months. This amendment is not about removing children from their families and placing them in care. It is about ensuring those children in the care system will no longer be left to drift and will be given a second chance. The revised criteria are that the child must be in the custody of and have had a home with the applicants for a continuous period of not less than 18 months, that 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 they will be able to care for him or her in a manner that will not prejudicially affect his or her safety or welfare.

In recent months I have met families living in south Kildare where the children are caught up in complicated legal proceedings. These children have already had to endure very tough times and are still in a legal limbo, where after each court appearance they may be moved to a different address. I had the privilege to hear in depth about two cases where children had been fostered and with their foster families for a number of years. In both cases there is a desire on the part of the foster parents to adopt the children and on the part of the children to be legally part of the family.

It is fabulous to see the love and opportunities these children are now experiencing after the turbulent early years they have had to endure. The Bill will allow adoptions such as these to take place and ensure a brighter future for these children.

Most significantly, the Bill provides that the best interests of the child are the paramount consideration in any application or proceedings under the Adoption Act 2010 and that the views of the child shall be ascertained by the Adoption Authority of Ireland or the court, as the case may be, and given due weight having regard to the age and maturity of the child. Surely this is what we strive for in every aspect of life and every piece of legislation before this House. The best interests of all children lie in ensuring every citizen is assured of safe, affordable housing and receives the best education, irrespective of his or her background. It is a fundamental duty of an elected representative to ensure that we always act in the best interests of all citizens and, in particular, invest in the future of generations to come.

The Bill provides for the adoption of a child by his or her step-parent without the requirement for the birth parent to adopt his or her own child. Previously, if a step-parent wanted to adopt, both the child's birth parent and step-parent had to apply to adopt. The birth parent became an adopting parent, but it is good that, under the Bill, the birth parent will continue to be the child's parent and the step-parent will be the adoptive parent. The Coalition for Mother and Baby Home Survivors, CMABS, referred to this anomalous law as ridiculous and woefully outdated. The Bill corrects this anomaly, introducing an amendment whereby the birth parent will continue to be the child's parent and the step-parent will be the adoptive parent.

Many elements of the Bill bring greater clarity to adoption legislation. It provides security for children and strengthens families. It strengthens our laws which have been out of step to deal with the realities of modern life. These changes which clear the way for non-married couples and civil partners to adopt jointly are long overdue and welcome. I fully support and commend the Bill, especially in alleviating the legal limbo in which families and children in long-term foster care have found themselves for too long.

First, I congratulate the Minister, Deputy Katherine Zappone, on her appointment and wish her well in this portfolio. She has many years of experience dealing with it in her own work and I have no doubt that she will bring her experience to bear in her work in this term.

I welcome the content, the intent and consequence of the Bill. It is progressive and ambitious legislation which pushes the boundaries of our very traditional society. It met with quite a lot of resistance, particularly coming up to the referendum and even since. Adoption, particularly in the past, has left many families reeling because of what they have been through. It has scarred individuals and some might see it as a black mark on our society because of the way we have handled it to date. There has been a failure on the part of the State to adequately take into account the views of the child and put him or her at the centre of any adoption, as should always be the case.

The Bill recognises the changing nature of Irish society and family life. It shows respect for the varying family arrangements that are now common throughout Ireland and recognises that not every family is headed up by a heterosexual couple. It moves us towards a more modern adoption service, one which focuses, first and foremost, on the child. This is exceptionally positive and long overdue.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child which Ireland ratified in 1992 acknowledges the family as the fundamental unit of society. It stresses the role of parents as primary care givers with responsibility for the upbringing of their children and obliges governments to support them in fulfilling their roles. While there is an obligation on the State to support parents in fulfilling their role while parenting their child or children, there is also a responsibility on parents to look after their children, rear them properly and look after their well-being. It is a two-way street and the obligation does not rest solely on the State. It is a very privileged position to be a parent and with that privilege comes great responsibility.

The main principles of the convention are that the best interests of the child must be the primary consideration in all actions concerning him or her and that the child's views must be considered in all matters affecting him or her. This can bring difficulties in how we ascertain the child's views, particularly where there may be communication difficulties and taking into account the age of the child and his or her maturity. Furthermore, every child is unique and special. That challenges us to vindicate the rights of the child, but these are challenges we must meet and face head on.

Contrary to the views of certain groups, this legislation is not an attack on families. It continues to recognise the role of the family, but it puts before all else the well-being of the child and ensures children are given an opportunity to be heard and listened to in matters affecting them. There are conflicting rights and a balance needs to be struck. There are the rights of parents and the family unit and these rights are enshrined in the Constitution, but there are also the rights of the child. I have experience of working in the family courts and there is often a very difficult balance to be struck. This places a lot of responsibility on the shoulders of judges and members of the legal profession, guardians ad litem, parents and the counsel involved in these cases to ensure the family unit is not unnecessarily upset while we vindicate the rights of the child and ensure he or she is heard.

There are dissenting views on this legislation and it is important to recognise the concerns of those who do not support it. However, I ask them to recognise the many years of research on this issue that has led us to this point, as well as the legislative changes that have taken place before this, namely, in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Thirty-first Amendment of the Constitution Act 2012 which was passed following the children's rights referendum in November 2012 and allowed for the insertion of a new Article 42A into the Constitution. This article provides for the rights and protection of all children but specifically the rights and protection of children at risk who are in need of child protection services and-or involved in adoption proceedings. The intention of the amendment was to deal with children in need in difficult situations and at risk. It is difficult to balance the very important role the family unit plays in Irish society with a recognition of the many hundreds and thousands of children at risk who are in need of protection services and may at some point need adoption services. Without this legislation, the adoption services are not fit for purpose.

It is important to note also that Barnardos and the Children's Rights Alliance have welcomed the Bill. These organisations are at the forefront of child protection and deal on a daily basis with children and families in difficult situations. It is important that they are on board with this legislation. They were involved in the consultation process and welcome the contents of the Bill. Barnardos described it as another crucial piece of legislation in prioritising children. That is the key and goes to the very heart of why we are making these legislative changes; we are putting children's needs at the heart of adoption. That must always be our priority.

The provisions of the Bill broaden eligibility for adoption to all children. For example, children who have been reared by foster parents by reason of the failure of their own parents to look after them will be eligible for adoption in more circumstances than at present and the Bill will allow for the voluntary placement for adoption of any child, including a child whose parents are married. This is probably the key part of the legislation because many children are caught up in the protection services or living in foster care for a long time but whose parents, while married, may never be in a position to take them back into their care. There is now the possibility for a child to continue with the family who are fostering him or her and to have a fresh start in life. Children were left in limbo to the point where they were in long-term foster care and, no matter how unlikely it was that they would ever return to their biological parents, they could never be considered for adoption, even where it was in their best interests. This clearly was an anomaly in our law and did not reflect the best interests of the child or allow common sense to prevail.

I welcome the section of the Bill which deals with civil partners and cohabitees. It is very positive and reflects the diverse nature of the country and the different types of family who can provide very good care for children. It reflects the different living arrangements, wherein parents may or may not be married, heterosexual or straight, cohabiting or otherwise. Whatever the scenario, that should not be the basis on which a person is judged fit to take care of a child.

This allows far more scope for these couples to come forward whatever their circumstances when they believe they can offer a good home to a child.

The new Bill will allow civil partners and cohabitees the opportunity to adopt, should they so wish, giving legislative effect to the Children and Family Relationships Act. This is an extremely positive step forward in our laws in this area, recognising the diverse nature of family life in Ireland and the many good couples who can provide a good home for a child.

One of the key areas that still needs to be addressed is improving the efficiency and cost of the adoption process. Any person who has been through the process of adopting a child will say it quite arduous, draining, emotionally stressful and costly. These are areas in which we can make changes to make it easier to come through the process. Obviously, there will be proper checks and balances and proper scrutiny of those who come forward. However, it should not be cumbersome and costly for couples to come through the process.

We must ensure there is proper guidance in assessing parental failure and what exactly this means. In the assessment of any such term - I am going on my own experience - my interpretation of parental failure could be very different from that of the person sitting beside me. That is the difficulty in the interpretation of such a term. It can be quite objective. As it is an objective interpretation, guidance is required to provide a workable definition of parental failure and on how it might work in practice. I appreciate that this may require review at a later stage when we see how it operates in practice, but to arrive at a situation where one can say for definite that there is parental failure in a particular case, the threshold should not be so high as to preclude anybody from ever reaching it. That is an important factor. I understand the concerns raised by individuals and groups that one could arbitrarily decide that there is parental failure and remove a child, whereas another individual might say the threshold had not been reached. Clarity in that regard is crucial for the operation of the legislation.

The guardian ad litem system needs to be reformed. My experience of it is that it can be unnecessarily costly for those involved. We can look at making it more efficient and still maintain a good service and ensure a child is properly represented. Obviously, the guardian ad litem is the representative of the child in a court scenario, but it is important that taxpayers' money is not wasted. The system must be properly run and streamlined to make it better.

We must ensure proper guidelines are in place for how we go about gaining the child's views on a particular issue. This is something I have seen, although not quite in this sensitive scenario, but, for example, if I was to work on a case where there might have been an injury to a child and he or she was asked to come forward to describe to the judge that injury or its effect on him or her, it could be very stressful for him or her and often there is a requirement to go into the judge's chambers in order that the judge can have a confidential conversation with the child. There is a need for guidance in that regard because not every child will have the confidence to articulate his or her views in a way that will assist the judge to the level at which he or she needs to be assisted. We need to work on how we can gather the views of a child who may also have communication difficulties. He or she may have the mental capacity to form his or her own views, but he or she may not have the capacity to articulate these views in the necessary manner. This will be a difficult issue for us to get to grips with to form the guidelines that are necessary, but it is one on which we need to focus. It will come to bear quite soon in certain cases and the guidelines required will be very important.

In this legislation, all of the guidelines and the Dáil debates it is important not to lose sight of the fact that at the centre of this issue are real children and real families who are going through the system. It is easy to comment as an observer, as somebody who is not going through the process and experiencing the stress involved, but at the heart of everything we do we should always remember that there are real people involved.

The legislation is sensible. It is much needed and common sense seems to have prevailed. I, therefore, welcome it. It is both progressive and ambitious. It was difficult at times to progress it, but I am delighted that so many stakeholders are on board with it. Clearly, a very good consultation process was entered into. In performing her duties in this role I ask the Minister to take on board a couple of the issues I have outlined, on which I would like to see further work done. I assure her of my full support and will be happy to give any assistance I can in that regard. I welcome the Bill. I am delighted to have been given the opportunity to speak to it as it is important legislation. In years to come we will look back at this point and see that we made a very good change in our adoption legislation, a change that will positively affect children.

I thank Deputies for their support for the Adoption (Amendment) Bill 2016 and their constructive, often passionate, contributions to the debate yesterday and today. I also thank them for their expressed willingness to work in a constructive fashion with me, as I lead the legislative and policy agenda for children and young people. In doing so I am aware that they come with a great diversity of identities and experience on which they draw as they contribute to the law-making process. Some of the Deputies who spoke were adopted; many of them are champions of children; some have been psychologists or lawyers or worked at the coalface with children and families who have not had the same opportunities as the majority of us have had owing to social and economic backgrounds, health, including mental health, challenges, or other varied circumstances. It is that diversity of experience that will enable us to work together to create the best law for children.

As I said yesterday, the Bill will have real and significant consequences for children. While the number of adoptions taking place is lower than in previous years - I have heard some Deputies refer to the potential for a significant increase in the light of this legislation - each single adoption is a hugely significant event in the life of the child concerned and, of course, that of his or her parents or guardians.

It is timely that the Bill is before the House. It will be another important critical ingredient placed on the Statute Book under the canopy of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, as Deputy Jan O'Sullivan and others correctly mentioned, to give legal effect to the children's rights referendum. As I said yesterday, this will send a message to future generations that the protection and welfare of children are among the highest values of our society. Deputy Catherine Connolly, among her very helpful and constructive remarks, referred to that part of my speech as rhetoric - lovely rhetoric. Yes, it was. I believe in using rhetoric in the best sense of the political, philosophic meaning of the term. I know from my human rights and social change work that there is a place for rhetoric in the fight for significant social and economic change because it can touch our hearts and spirits on the very long journey towards a fair and equal society that supports children, families and communities in cherishing all children equally. Rhetoric can lift our hope, sharpen our vision and set a context for us in dealing with the historical contradictions that form the context for our debates in this Chamber. It is true that the rhetoric in this and others places can be very different from what is happening on the ground. I know some of that ground, too, not all of it but some of it in my work over many years. Therefore, I welcome and will continue to embrace heartily Deputies' references to what is happening on the ground as we make law together.

Before I talk about particular issues dealt with in the Bill, let me comment on two additional items which were referred to in Deputies' speeches. The first refers to the wider ground and the arena in which the Bill has emerged. I acknowledge the very insightful, logical and helpful contribution made by Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett, particularly, although not only, his remarks about section 23 of the Bill which provides for revised criteria under which the High Court will authorise the making of an adoption order without parental consent. The Deputy asked what would happen if the State was responsible for creating the conditions wherein parents ended up neglecting their children and the State was party to the process that had led to parental failure? That is a brilliant question. The Deputy also referred to the increase in homelessness and, in particular, how many children found themselves in emergency accommodation owing to the State's failure to deal with the housing and homelessness crisis. Perhaps that might be one of the conditions. Two responses occurred to me immediately. First, I am deeply concerned about the increase in homelessness among children and commit that its reduction is and will continue to be a priority of mine for as long as I hold this ministry. It was one of the reasons one of my first visits as Minister was to the Focus Point centre in Tallaght where this issue was at the core of our discussions and its contributions to solutions to this problem. Second, let us think about whether amendments to the Bill are required or possible in the light of this much wider concern and whether safeguards are required.

The second item referred to by several Deputies was the concern about a section within the programme for Government that linked child benefit with data systems to monitor school attendance. Deputies, rightly, raised concerns about this measure and I share their concerns. The Ministers, Deputies Leo Varadkar and Richard Bruton, and I have, subsequent to requesting the views of our various Departments, discussed the matter and I confirm that we will most certainly not pursue any stick approach. Reducing income supports for families is not an effective means to support them in their efforts to keep their children in school. We will, however, ask our Departments to review the best way to ensure the collection and linking of data in order that children's attendance and participation in school will be supported by the State.

I turn now to other matters relating to the Bill specifically, as well as to matters raised by Deputies, including possible amendments and the issue of information and tracing. I am aware of the work done by the last Government on this issue. As Deputies will be aware, in July 2015 it referred the heads and general scheme of the Adoption (Information and Tracing) Bill to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children for pre-legislative scrutiny and that committee produced its report in November. The report was considered by my Department and a number of amendments to the heads and general scheme of the Bill were approved by my predecessor, former Deputy James Reilly. On that basis the last Government approved the drafting of the Adoption (Information and Tracing) Bill in December. The drafting of the Bill is under way and I can assure the House of my commitment to progressing the Bill and having it published as soon as possible this year. It is one of my priorities. The Bill will provide, for the first time, a statutory entitlement to identity information for adopted persons and for structured and regulated access to information and tracing services. It will provide that an adopted person aged 18 years or over who was adopted prior to commencement of the Bill will be provided with the information required to apply for his or her birth certificate, subject to certain conditions. It will also provide that those who were the subject of incorrect birth registrations - imagine what that must be like for the persons concerned - and those who were in long-term informal care arrangements may avail of an information and tracing service.

Some Deputies asked how adopted persons accessed their records today. There is a concern in that the adoption and information and tracing services are currently provided by Tusla, the Adoption Authority of Ireland or an accredited agency, depending on who holds the records. An improvement plan has been introduced to address the significant and unacceptable waiting times and the waiting lists and waiting times are reducing as a result, although not fast enough, I am sure, for those participating in the process. Furthermore, a system of prioritisation has been introduced that ensures the assessment focuses on those in greater need such as applicants who are over 70 years of age or those who have a serious medical illness. Deputy Joan Burton indicated in her comments yesterday the possibility of bringing forward an amendment to the Bill to incorporate attention to information and tracing and the concerns about the right of an adopted child to his or her identity. I would be very interested in exploring that potential and discussing the possibilities in that regard.

There is widespread recognition and acceptance by stakeholder interests, including my Department, that the guardian ad litem service arrangements need to be significantly reformed. My Department is working to address the significant shortcomings in the existing arrangements, with a view to making them fit for purpose and having a nationally organised, high quality and sustainable service in place. To inform the development of the policy proposals, my Department recently consulted many stakeholders on key areas of reform. Consultation is integral to our getting the law right and correct. My Department is examining significant policy issues and possible legal issues arising from the consultation process and working to resolve them. I can assure Deputies that consultation in this regard is not just about them telling us what they think and then us doing whatever we want to do. It is listened to deeply and the possibilities arising from it are considered, particularly in the examination of the legal possibilities. My Department is working towards the preparation of a general scheme of a Bill to radically reform the provisions for the appointment of guardians ad litem under the Child Care Act 1991 and at the earliest possible date.

I note the concerns raised by Deputies about section 23 of the Bill which provides for an amendment to section 54 of the Adoption Act 2010. In Ireland the vast majority of children live in loving, caring families and never require the assistance of the State's child protection and welfare services. However, some families may need help and support in parenting their children. The range of responses of the State to support and protect a child is vast and incorporates much of what Tusla is engaged in. In the more serious cases children may be received into care, either at the request of the parent or by a court order, removed from the family and cared for by people other than their parents. In this scenario, all options for the care of children are considered, including supervision orders, care orders, guardianship and adoption. As Deputies are aware, currently the High Court may authorise the Adoption Authority of Ireland to make an adoption order and dispense with the consent of any person whose consent is necessary to the making of the adoption order where it is satisfied on certain criteria which include the likelihood that parental failure will continue without interruption until the child attains the age of 18 years. The proposed amendment in section 23 of the Bill will not change the belief that, where possible, the best place for children is with their families. However, the Bill now provides that the High Court can dispense with consent only where it is satisfied that the parental failure has been for a continuous period of not less than three years preceding the time of making the application; that the parents have, unfortunately and for whatever reasons, failed in their duty to the extent that the welfare of the child is prejudicially affected; that there is no reasonable prospect that the parents will be able to care for the child and that the failure constitutes abandonment - this is a strong and difficult word to hear but it is the reality in some cases; that adoption is a proportionate measure; and that the child has been in the custody of and has had a home with the applicants for a continuous period of not less than 18 months.

The revised criteria will provide that adoption is an option for more children who are currently in long-term foster care, once the criteria set out in section 23 are met. This option may represent a second chance for those children of a stable and secure family life.

Many Deputies referred in many ways to the question of resources, whether within the adoption process itself or with regard to the care process or the work that is now undertaken by Tusla. I am happy to say that, in 2016, the allocation to Tusla has been increased by some €38 million over last year's provision to address the immediate priorities identified by Tusla for its attention in 2016. This will bring the agency's current funding to €662.4 million and there will be a total capital provision of €13.5 million. That increased provision for Tusla in 2016 strengthens its overall base funding position to ensure the agency has the capacity to respond to both areas of unmet need and anticipated demand during 2016.

I thank all Deputies who were present for the debate today and yesterday and who welcome and support the Bill. I believe the debate has been very insightful and constructive. I look forward to further debate on Committee Stage. If Deputies or parties wish to raise, bring forward or discuss amendments they may propose prior to that time, I will be delighted to discuss them and my door is open to them. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.
Sitting suspended at 6.30 p.m. and resumed at 7 p.m.