I wish to address the Child Care Bill briefly. My brevity is partly due to the fact that I am a teacher myself, if I may address the Minister through the Chair, and my obligations are to instruct the hungry little minds down in Trinity between the hours of 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. I also believe that quite a lot of groundwork for this Bill has already been laid in many of the speeches and I do not wish to be tedious. However, I have been extensively lobbied by constituents, because as the Minister will understand my constituents being graduates many of them are involved or interested in this area of child care.
I have received briefings from the National Children's Nurseries Association, from Dr. Barnardos, from St. Nicholas Montessori College in Ireland and from a number of other groups. First of all, I would have to say that there is a universal welcome for this Bill and I want everything I say to be placed in that context. It is generally regarded as progressive, forward-looking legislation, overdue perhaps, but now very definitely to be welcomed. I also understand that the Minister did accept a number of amendments in the Dáil and I hope that it may be possible for some further amendment to the Bill to be made in the Seanad. That is important because the Seanad is, after all, constitutionally the place where refinements should be made to legislation.
I have only two or three areas of concern to which I would like to alert the Minister, and he may in fact know that I have placed amendments to this legislation already. There are about three amendments and they deal generally in the areas on which I am going to concentrate. I am not going to engage in generalised comment upon the Bill apart from giving it a welcome and expressing some degree of concern which has been made known to me by competent authorities in this area.
First, there is the question of notification and the distinction that is drawn between notification and registration. It has been represented to me that notification only requires the child care facility to notify a health board or other Government authority that they are in operation, and this naturally leads to some concern on behalf of the responsible bodies in this area. There seems to be very little control and adequate supervision implicit in this idea of notification — in other words, people can just set up and notify the relevant authority without passing any degree of test or being examined in any way. For this reason registration seems to be a preferable option. A number of us will be urging this in the form of amendments to the Minister. Registration is essential for such pre-school services precisely because it imposes standards before the facility can be registered. A list of registered facilities would then be available to the public and parents on the understanding that they were fit to operate. Any child from any background, advantaged for disadvantaged, has the right to care that is of a fit standard, whether in a creche, playgroup, nursery, pre-school at or near the workplace or at any childminding centre.
Another point which has been made to me by virtually all the people who either spoke to me or transmitted documents to me is that there is a distinction which is not fully respected by the wording of this Bill: the distinction between the location, the physical plant and equipment, on the one hand, and, on the other, the competence of the personnel involved in it. It seems to me, having read through the Bill and having been advised by these competent professionals, that it is a pity that so much concentration is in the area that I would regard generally as being appropriate for by-law supervision — fire regulations, hygiene regulations and so on.
Of course, an appropriate environment is necessary, but I am a little concerned that the Bill does not really address the problem of the competence or qualifications of the personnel involved. For a service like this to be fully professional and for the Bill to work properly there would have to be some degree of evaluation of the competence of the personnel involved. In the Bill the emphasis is almost entirely on the physical environment. There is no concept of the kind of care and the quality of experience required. Hygiene and safety must of course be met, but under health it is essential to consider as well as the physical health the psychological and emotional needs of the child that is influenced by the environment. A child in a crêche, playgroup, nursery or at any child minding centre will spent the greatest part of his or her early life in that environment. The Bill, we believe, should be amended to ensure that those undertaking supervision and inspection are trained in child care, child psychology and child development and this will enable the health boards or the Department of Education to second staff to do this training or to contract in these skills from outside.
I have also had it suggested and recommended to me, and I think is very practical, that there should be some provision made whereby the costs of any inspections involved should be waived or met by the health board for playgroups and so on in disadvantaged areas. I am sure the Minister will agree with this. Play-schools in Foxrock and Blackrock are one thing and the parents can afford a great deal more, but we must consider the disadvantaged areas. I speak with a degree of feeling on this because I live in an area where there is 80 per cent unemployment. It is a great privilege for me to live in a beautiful house in an area where I have extremely good neighbours from a variety of different backgrounds; but the income, by and large, of the people in that area, if I exclude the people I have helped to suck into the area to restore houses, is very low indeed. Many of these people are disadvantaged, but that does not mean that they do not care for their children. It does not mean that they do not wish the very best possible provision for them. Therefore, I feel that the cost of some of this could be borne by the health board, particularly because they may need to be more supervised in areas where there is already a level of disadvantage. I would ask the Minister to look at this problem.
That is the general outline. I will not delay the House I have to go teaching myself and also I know that other people want to get in. I will deal with these matters specifically when we come to the amendments we have placed. I would like to take up two other items very briefly. One is that I understand on hearsay evidence, which is not always the best, that a question was raised this morning by Senator Ryan, which I am glad was raised. That is the question of child molestation. It may very well have been raised by other Senators, but I did not hear them, and I understood him to be attempting to lay a particular kind of rumour and that is that people of the homosexual orientation are particularly prone to this kind of activity. I would like through you a Leas-Chathaoirligh, to place on the record — not for the benefit of the Minister because I am sure he is aware of this information — that all the scientific studies demonstrate quite clearly that children are at risk not from people of homosexual orientation. That is not just an arithmetical situation; it is a pro rata thing. They are much more at risk from heterosexual people. It is a very tiny group of people who engage in this who would claim any kind of homosexual orientation.
I take the example of the famous Kincora scandal in the North of Ireland. That was a very regrettable situation from the point of view of somebody like myself because the newspapers — unfortunately, including many of the responsible newspapers — realising that they were dealing with a very sensitive area and one with which all decent people are concerned, the wellbeing and protection of the young, children, sensationalised it and described it as a homosexual vice ring. As I am sure the Minister will recall, those who were ultimately convicted of these offences were married men with several children, whereas on the other hand at least one of the children involved emerged from this traumatic adolescence to be a gay adult. The headlines were utterly and totally wrong. They were maladjusted people, whose primary orientation was heterosexual, victimising people, including some who turned out to have a homosexual adjustment ultimately. I regret having to place this matter on the record of the House but I think it is appropriate that I should.
I would like to deal with one further subject. I am not sure that it has been dealt with. I hope that it may be something new. It is the question of guardians ad litem. I have been approached to put to the Minister the proposition that there should be some provision for this mechanism in the Bill. This was made clear to me by a group called the Professional Coalition on Child Care who asked me to propose a system for the appointments of guardian ad litem; a description of which would be as follows:
Guardians ad litem are court appointed professionals who have a very specific and independent role in relation to children that are the subject of court hearings. The main job of the guardian ad litem is to focus very specifically on the interests of the child and report to the court for the purposes of the court hearings. It is not intended that the relationship is an ongoing or therapeutic one. It is contemplated solely with regard to the court and comes into play where the parent is absent through illness, death or incompetence of various kinds or is a party to contentious proceedings. The role is particularly valuable in an adver-sarial legal system where the interests of the adult tend to be competing, whether these adults are the parents of the children in question or professionals working for agencies. Guardians are appointed by the court and operate independently with the right to work with children individually, meet all relevant parties to the case, including professionals and relatives of the child, have access to relevant information and reports so as to get the fullest picture possible of the child's situation.
The other countries' guardians ad litem usually, but not exclusively, are social workers who are very experienced and have particular skills in relation to child care and working with children. A guardian must be a skilled professional who can assess the needs of the child and, more importantly, communicate to the court what is in the best interests of the child.
This system first came to prominence in the United Kingdom, which is a jurisdiction — the Minister knows this, and it is something I have sometimes deplored — we tend to copy, even when this is not in my opinion in the best interests of the development of an independent jurisprudence in this country. In this instance I think this is a good idea.
The role of guardian ad litem was extended following the famour Maria Colwell case, which the Minister will, I am sure, remember. I certainly remember it; it was in the mid-seventies. In this case the girl was the subject of court action and there was obviously a problem with regard to child battering or child abuse. This was drawn to the attention of the local authorities, but the local authorities subsequently returned her to her natural parents, who murdered her. This was a clear case which indicated the need for this form of guardian ad litem.
It emerged in the case that no one had been specifically advocating the child's interests because of the agreement between parents and local authorities. In other words, there is a third party — not just the parents on the one hand, the local authorities on the other, but also the interests of the child. I think this is important, because this is a Bill which so many people welcomed since it places the interests of the child as a primary concern. This case led to the enlargement of the role of guardians ad litem and they have now become predominantly social workers.
The role of the guardian was further extended in the United Kingdom by, in particular, the new Children Act, 1989. In Ireland we do not have a tradition of the use of guardians ad litem. Under the 1948 District Court Rules Act, amended by a 1955 statutory instrument, there is a provision whereby a judge can appoint a solicitor to act as guardian for children in very limited circumstances. This could arise, for example, in the case of a road accident where a sum of money was awarded to a child and the parents were not able to act on his or her behalf for various reasons. This very limited power, even if extended by tinkering with other laws, would not be adequate to meet the complex series of family law cases that might be involved.
There is a burden of other information that I want amplified in this case, but I think it is sufficiently strongly made and I hope that the Minister may bear this in mind. It seems to me to be a very reasonable point and I think it fits in very well with the Bill. It may very well be that it is not possible to extend this Bill by amendment to take on board the concept of the guardian ad litem. I would like to feel that it could be, but I have not fashioned any such amendment, so it would in a sense be a little bit redundant for me to castigate the Minister for not doing so. I do think however that it is appropriate on the Second Stage of this Bill to draw to the Minister's attention the existence of something that could very well be valuable for a child and to appeal to him to consider this for this legislation. However, if for a variety of reasons this is not possible at the moment, at least to bear it in mind as a mark of some way in which we could improve the wellbeing of children.
I have to say from my experience of court that it is not just children who are marginalised in a court. This is inevitable because legal practice is such a machine. Any vulnerable person or group will find their rights limited simply by virtue of the legal process. If we can reinforce the rights and wellbeing of a vulnerable group — for example, children — by having them actually represented then I think this would be a very good thing.
Finally, I would just like to commend the Minister for this very useful Bill. I am sure it will have support from right across the House. I do hope that he may find it possible to take on board at least some of the recommendations that have been made, particularly with regard to the question of registration as opposed to notification and the question of the general supervision not only of the facilities but of the personnel.