I welcome the Bill, which will enable us to ratify the Hague Convention of 1996 on jurisdiction, applicable law, recognition, enforcement and co-operation in respect of parental responsibility and measures for the protection of children. Why has there been a time lapse of two years in introducing the Bill in the Seanad? Is this due to the volume of legislation which has had to be processed before it?
The purpose of the convention is to provide better protection for children under easily identifiable rules of private international law. The Bill will give the convention the force of law and will give effect to its provisions in their application in the State. The Bill and the convention do not apply to persons over the age of 18 years, paternity, adoption decisions, social security, general public welfare measures, criminal matters or asylum and emigration. The convention states that it will deal with rights of custody, relocation and visitation in so far as they are international. It does not deal with guardianship, fostering placement and matters relating to children's property.
One of the most important aspects of the treaty is that it gives jurisdiction over custody to the country of the child's habitual residence. If the habitual residence changes, jurisdiction changes. For children such as refugees who have no habitual residence, the country in which they are located will have jurisdiction. All this is laudable.
The treaty allows countries to transfer jurisdiction to other signatory countries and suggests that such countries might be those where the child has nationality – this is very acceptable – where a divorce case is pending between the child's parents and with which the child has a substantial connection. The most important aspect is that before accepting jurisdiction the new country is required to consider whether accepting the child would be in his or her best interests.
Mary Banotti is rapporteur in the push by the French Presidency towards a particular regulation aimed at ensuring right of access for non-custodial parents. This matter is a source of some concern in a number of states, particularly France and Germany. Parents seem to be running into problems in this area. Justice Ministers may not agree on the issue. There is a meeting scheduled for 8 December in Nice. There is also a need for ministerial attention at the Council of Ministers in March to further develop the convention. I ask the Minister to attend and support the convention.
Parental alienation syndrome, the alienation of one parent from the child, has come to the fore in the United States of America. It is given a high status in court in cases where there is a denial or change of custody. In some states this is a criminal offence.
For some time we have had a central authority dealing specifically with all issues relating to child abduction. I have the figures up to and including 1998. The total number of cases dealt with under the Child Abduction and Enforcement of Custody Orders Act, 1991, was 1,016, of which 584 were the subject of application to the central authority. Many of the cases related to abductions between the United Kingdom and Ireland, nine related to other EU member states and 9% to the United States. I am glad Ireland was one of the first countries to deal with the issue and is to the fore in handling such cases, many of which are referred to the High Court, the judges of which areau fait with the procedure involved. This is not always the case in other countries where cases are dealt with by a more minor magistrate who would not be au fait with the procedure involved in what is a very delicate and sensitive area.
The national children's strategy was launched recently on which I laud the Minister of State, Deputy Hanafin. I would prefer the establishment of a full ministry for children to the establishment of a Cabinet sub-committee of relevant Ministers chaired by the Taoiseach to ensure its implementation. While I appreciate that this is a justice issue and that there is an overlap – this is reflected in the fact that I am speaking as my party's spokesperson on health and children, was preceded by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy O'Donoghue, and will be followed by the Minister of State – fragmentation could be avoided by the establishment of a ministry for children. I accept there is a need for an ombudsman for children.
Because this is such a positive Bill I am very anxious that it proceed. We are already two years behind. I hope it will have a swift and speedy passage.