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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 11 Apr 1934

Vol. 18 No. 14

Children Bill, 1934—Second Stage.


I give permission for the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Local Government and Public Health to attend and be heard in regard to this Bill and in regard to the two remaining Bills on the Order Paper, of which he is in charge.

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

Briefly, the purpose of the Bill is to strengthen the law relating to children to whom Part I of the Children Act, 1908, applies. Part I of that Act was intended for the protection of children who were nursed and maintained for reward by persons other than their parents. It is administered in this country by the local poor law authorities and the experience of its working has revealed many defects which it is desirable to remedy.

The provisions of the Bill could be classified under different headings, namely, those relating respectively to (a) the protection of the child; (b) the powers of the local authority, and (c) the functions of the Minister.

Generally speaking, all the provisions of the Bill are intended for the protection of the child, but there is one to which it might be well to make particular reference. Where the nursing and maintenance of a child is accepted for reward, apart from its parents or having no parents, Part I of the Act of 1908 gives the local authority certain powers in relation to the child until it reaches the age of seven years. After that age the child is not protected by Part I. This appears to be a rather tender age to release the child from the protective provisions of the Act, and the Bill proposes to raise the age to nine years.

It will be observed that one of the first provisions of the Bill is that which requires a person who undertakes the nursing and maintenance of an infant to whom the Act applies to give to the local authority at least 48 hours' previous notice of the proposed reception. This will enable the visitors of the local authority to visit and inspect the proposed home before the child is actually received in it. Hitherto the notice was required to be given within 48 hours of the reception of the infant. The child was actually placed in the home before the local authority became aware of the fact.

Another important provision of the Bill from the point of view of the local authority is that relating to the institution of legal proceedings for failure to give the requisite notice to the local authority. The Bill provides that this offence shall be deemed to continue so long as the infant remains in the care of the person by whom the notice should have been given and has not been given. Some years ago a court of law decided that the offence of failing to give notice took place at the expiration of 48 hours from the time at which the child was accepted for reward by the foster parent, and that the time for taking legal proceedings expired at the end of a period of six months from the commission of the offence. This decision created a new difficulty for local authorities who might be unable to institute proceedings within the six months, or who did not become aware of the commission of the offence within that period. The proposed amendment will enable the local authority to take proceedings at any time while the offence continues and within a period of six months after the end of the period during which the offence continued.

In connection with legal proceedings, another provision of the Bill worth noting is that contained in Clause 3 (9), which provides that an illegitimate child shall be deemed to have been accepted for reward until the contrary is proved. This is intended to meet the difficulty which is sometimes experienced in proving to the satisfaction of a court that a child has been received for reward. In the case of an illegitimate child the onus of proving that it was not received for reward will now rest with the foster parent.

New powers conferred by the Bill on the local authority, and to which it might be well to call attention, are those which empower them (a) with the approval of the Minister to terminate the employment of infant protection visitors, and persons authorised to discharge the duties of visitors; (b) to withdraw with the approval of the Minister an exemption from visitation granted by them in the case of any premises to which the Act applies; (c) when they fix the number of children to be kept in any dwelling to impose any conditions which they think proper in relation to those infants.

The Bill proposes to bring the local authorities under the general regulation and control of the Minister in the administratiton of Part I of the Act of 1908. Hitherto the Minister had no functions in the matter and no power to direct or control the local authorities.

The Minister is also given specified powers in relation to the appointment of infant protection visitors and their removal from office, the authorisation of persons to act as visitors and the withdrawal of any such authorisation, and the exemption from visitation of premises to which the Act applies. All these matters are to be subject to the approval of the Minister.

The Minister is to be given power (a) to remove infant protection visitors from office; (b) to withdraw the authorisation in the case of persons authorised to perform the functions of visitors; (c) to withdraw exemptions from visitation granted by the local authority in the case of any premises to which Part I of the Act of 1908 applies, and (d) to authorise any of his officers to exercise the powers of infant protection visitors.

It might be well also to refer to the new power proposed to be conferred by Clause 7 (2) on District Justices to make an order for the removal of a child from unsuitable premises or from the care of an unsuitable foster parent. Section 5 of the Principal Act empowered an infant protection visitor to apply to a justice or to the local authority for an order for the removal of a child kept in certain classes of premises or by certain classes of persons specified in the section. Formerly Part I of the Act was administered by the boards of guardians. Those boards, as a rule, met once a week and there was not much delay between one meeting and another. Most of the new poor law authorities meet only once a month and there is room for much delay between the meetings. It is considered desirable to give power to the District Justice to make an order for removal at any time or place in view of the possible danger of delay in waiting for the next court day or for the next meeting of the local authority.

Another important proposal is that contained in Clause 12, which prohibits the publication of advertisement indicating that any person will undertake or arrange for the nursing and maintenance of an infant under the age of nine years, unless the name and residence of that person are correctly stated in the advertisement. This provision is intended to prevent the practice of disposing of infants through anonymous agents. It is understood that this practice does not always operate in the best interests of the children.

I might mention that the reforms contemplated by the Bill have been strongly advocated by social welfare societies and by local authorities, particularly those functioning in the neighbourhood of Dublin. The Commission on the Relief of the Sick and Destitute Poor also recommended the amendment of the law for the protection of nurse children, particularly illegitimate children, amongst whom the death rate was appallingly high.

I support the Second Reading of this Bill. It is only people closely in touch with the problems contained in the Bill that know the urgency of the amendments proposed. This Bill deals with boarded-out children, not by public bodies but by parents or relatives. I think if an analysis of the statistics were made it would be found that the class of children affected in the majority of cases would be the unwanted child. The mother comes to Dublin, and her great desire is to get rid of the child on payment of a certain sum. There has been little inspection of the place in which these children were boarded in the past. A good deal of that was due to the fact that registration was not necessary before the child was given out to nurse. Under this Bill notice of registration must be given 48 hours before the child is placed in the house of the nurse. That will give time for inspection of the house, and as to the qualification of the person who undertakes the care of the child. The Bill, although it deals with children up to nine years of age, gives attention to babies, a number of whom at four or five years of age are often shipped off to industrial schools. The Bill amends several sections of the Children Act formerly passed, and which it has been found necessary to amend. In large cities like Dublin I expect the necessity for this Bill is much greater than in the country. The majority of the children come from the country. The mother goes back, and the child is left to a person who is paid to take care of it. We know the results of many inquests that have been held with their verdicts of death from malnutrition and so on. That is the reason why this Bill has been introduced. Its provisions will have to be faithfully carried out by those who take charge of the child. They will be very strictly looked after. I think, in the main, this Bill will do a great deal in the interests of the unfortunate children and I hope it will go through all its stages quickly and become law.

This Bill should greatly strengthen legislation in regard to the protection of infants and children. To my mind the whole success of the administration of this Bill when it becomes an Act will depend on the Prevention officer. If the Prevention officer is properly selected not only to look after the physical welfare of the child that is boarded out, but to look after its comforts, its food and its housing, it will lead to the avoidance of very great cruelty. A great deal will depend, as I say, upon the selection of the Prevention officer. I am glad to see that the Bill strengthens the hands of the Minister in the supervision of the Prevention officer. The Bill extends the age from seven to nine years; that is also a move in the right direction. I think the Bill may reduce very materially the death rate of illegitimate children. These children are not wanted; they are boarded out, and if they die so much the better. I think from every point of view the Bill is a good one and I have great pleasure in supporting it.

I also have great pleasure in supporting this measure, which, I think, is an extremely useful one. Its aim is to provide against some defects contained in the original Act and I think it ought to be passed as quickly as possible. It seems to me it will not be necessary to make any great amendments on this Bill after it becomes an Act because it appears to have taken note of imper-sections generally and contains very many useful provisions. The requirement of the service of notice is very essential and will be found, I am sure, very useful. It is, of course, perfectly right that non-compliance with that requirement should be regarded as a continuing offence. Also it is very desirable that control should be exercised in regard, not merely to the premises in which the child is kept, but after the child is allowed to go there, and that that control should be continuing. Consequently, I think the power that is given to order the removal of children from unsuitable premises is very desirable. On the whole, looking through this Bill, I think it has been drafted with great care and great knowledge and with proper feeling for the poor children mostly, as Senator Mrs. Wyse Power has stated, illegitimate children who will come under its operations. In this and in all matters relating to the welfare of children we have always found that Senators Mrs. Wyse Power and Sir E. Coey Bigger have taken the keenest and most intelligent interest. I hope this Bill will be passed as quickly as possible.

I wish to support the motion for the Second Reading of this Bill. I believe it will do something which should have been done years ago. I think it is time that we concentrated more upon human beings than on dumb animals. While supporting this measure I hope I shall be excused for drawing attention to the fact that while we have the Opposition Benches crowded when it is a question of cruelty to animals, their benches are empty when it is a question of preventing cruelty to human beings. It is also strange to find that people who are so enthusiastic about the League of Youth, and so terribly interested in human beings, when they can be brought to the aid of their political organisation, have no interest whatever in human beings when they are at a stage that they are not able to look after themselves and have nobody to look after them.

I did not intend to speak and possibly would not have done so but for the speech we have just heard. The only excuse for that speech is the fact that the Senator is not long in this House and, therefore, a child so far as experience is concerned. If the Senator were here for any length of time he would realise that there is one thing which is never a Party issue and never will be, and that is the question of dealing with children. Members in all Parties, ever since this House commenced, at every opportunity that has arisen, have given their time to the question of the welfare of the children. The Senator has spoken as he has because of a small grievance he has about the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Bill, passed here a short time ago. That is no reason why he should make a general attack upon a subject which has never been a Party question. If he was really getting in what he thought was a cheap jibe at absent Senators I have no objection to his political views. But if his object was to cause the impression outside that matters such as this Bill have been the subject of Party politics, I wish to assure him that they never have been such.

It is because the members of the Senator's Party could not make any political capital out of these debates that they are absent.

If the Senator is happier after that remark, I leave him to his happiness, though I believe it does not do him any great credit. There is only one possible criticism that I would offer on this Bill. I hope that some day we will get a Government that, when they present legislation by reference, will not go back beyond 1922, and that when they wish to make amendments of British Acts it will be done in detail. While this is not an attack upon this Bill, I think the suggestion I have made would lead to greater efficiency. Unless one can afford, as I cannot, to get a full supply of British Statutes, one would have to come up here and look them up to find the meaning of references contained in this Bill. Where a reference goes back only as far as the date I mentioned, it is not very difficult for any person who keeps a file to look it up; but few people can find the time to come up here, especially Senators from the country, to look up these references, and find out exactly what the Bill is all about. And although you know generally and approve of what the Bill contains you cannot make any really intelligent criticism unless you look up all these details.

The original Children Bill was passed in 1908. It is in existence ever since, not only here but in England and Scotland, up to 1932. An amending English Act was then passed and this Bill is practically a copy of the English Act.

That does not quite meet my point. When you go back prior to 1922 the complete sections should be put in.

I would like to express my approval of this Bill. I acted for a number of years on a committee for the prevention of cruelty to children, and I also acted as secretary for some time on a ladies' committee dealing with boarded-out children, so I think I have some knowledge of the necessity for amending the present law in regard to these matters. These committees of ladies in the country, of course, dealt with children boarded-out by public authorities. That is a different matter. But at any rate I have worked on these committees and spent a considerable amount of time visiting homes where these children were kept and nursed, so that I know something about this matter. I have had the opinion of many people in the country to the effect that I should give my approval to this Bill.

There is not much criticism to be met. The only criticism was not of the Bill but of the method of presenting our proposals as legislation by reference. Personally I am not keen on legislation by reference. I can well understand how confusing it is to anybody who tries to acquaint himself with the actual meaning of such a Bill. But, on the other hand, most of the amendments introduced in this Bill are matters of urgency. If we were to present the House with the Principal Act and the amendments of it embodied, and open up all the sections to discussion, we could not get the points we are so anxious to get legislation upon through in such a short period. Legislation by reference is objectionable from many points of view. As soon as we get the time in the Local Government Department we hope to codify a whole lot of our legislation, including legislation in reference to children.

That is a very valuable statement.

Question put and agreed to.
Committee Stage ordered for Wednesday, 18th April.