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Seanad Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 11 Dec 2001

Vol. 168 No. 22

Family Support Agency Bill, 2001: Second Stage.

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

Ba mhaith leithscéal a gabháil ar son an Aire. Tá Ceisteanna na Dála ag dul ar aghaidh ag an am gcéanna agus cé go bhfuil muid inár bpoiliteoir, nílimid in ann a bheith in dhá áit ag an am chéanna.

I am delighted to present the Bill to the House on behalf of the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs. It provides for the establishment of a new statutory body to be known as the Family Support Agency which will bring together the main programmes and pro-family services introduced by the Government in recent years to support families, promote continuity and stability in family life and prevent marital breakdown, and to foster a supportive community environment for families at local level. The Bill delivers on commitments in An Action Programme for the Millennium to protect the family through political, economic, social and other measures which will support the stability of the family and through a "families first" policy focus designed to make families central to policymaking.

The legislation marks a significant step forward in providing a comprehensive and coherent response for families in need of support services and for families generally. The Family Support Agency will: provide a family mediation service; support, promote and develop the provision of marriage and relationships counselling services, and family support services; and support, promote and develop the Family and Community Services Resource Centre programme. The legislation provides for the transfer of responsibility for the administration of these programmes from within the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs to the new agency which will report to the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs.

The agency will also have functions in providing information about these services as well as promoting knowledge about parenting responsibilities and family issues. It will undertake research and have an advisory role to the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs in family matters.

The new agency will be overseen by a board with expertise and experience in matters related to its responsibilities and will be accountable for Government investment in the development of family services and programmes which, following a substantial additional investment announced in the budget, amounts to almost £13.5 million next year.

The Family Support Agency will be a dedicated agency and a resource for voluntary and community groups which work with families at national and local level and all those involved in promoting family well-being, in particular, family resource centres.

I will now outline the principal features of the Bill. The Family Support Agency will carry out its function, set out in section 4, to provide family mediation through the family mediation service which the Government has expanded nationwide in the past four years. The service is free, professional and confidential which assists couples, who have decided to separate, to reach agreement on all issues related to their separation. It is important when a couple have decided to separate that they have a service which allows them to deal with the issues which arise at the breakdown in a non-adversarial manner where this is possible. This approach is particularly helpful where children are concerned. It is a feature of the mediation process that parenting arrangements focus on children having ongoing supportive relationships with both parents into the future.

The family mediation service was established on a pilot basis in 1985. In 1997, it was available in two centres in Dublin and Limerick. Since the Government has taken office, new services have been established in Athlone, Castlebar, Cork, Dundalk, Galway, Tralee and Wexford. The Dublin service has been expanded and relocated to larger premises to deal with more clients and new services have been established in Tallaght and Marino.

The Bill provides the statutory framework to secure the future development of these activities. An important goal for the Family Support Agency will be that family mediation is recognised and promoted as an alternative to more adversarial approaches to resolving issues that arise on marital breakdown and that more people throughout the country have access to this very valuable professional family support service.

Section 4(1)(c) provides that the Family Support Agency will support, promote and develop the provision of marriage and relationship counselling and family support services. A new service for Blanchardstown and surrounding areas is planned for early in the new year. In line with the nationwide expansion, the number of couples assisted by the service has increased significantly from 484 in 1997 to 1,225 this year. In addition to its services to clients, the family mediation service each year provides a small number of training places for people who wish to specialise in family mediation, thereby contributing to the growth and development of a vibrant profession of family mediators.

Government grant aid for the provision of these services in the voluntary sector has increased from £900,000 in 1997 to £5.2 million in 2002. There are now over 400 voluntary and community groups throughout the country providing marriage and relationship counselling, marriage preparation programmes, child counselling for children whose parents have separated, and bereavement counselling and support services. A key objective for the Family Support Agency will be the development of a strong regional network of accessible counselling services for families as recommended by the commission on the family and envisaged in the Government programme.

Government investment has enabled the first steps to be taken with key providers of services towards this long-term strategic objective. The agency will build on this start. As a dedicated agency, with its own budget and expertise, it will be well placed to assist the voluntary counselling services in meeting new challenges such as the sector's growing professionalisation, the increasing emphasis on high standards of training and qualification, and the need for the development of models of best practice.

The Family Support Agency is being given in section 4(1)(e) a specific responsibility to support, promote and develop the family and community services resource centre programme, currently being administered by the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs. This programme has been singled out by the Government in recent years for radical improvement and expansion. In 1997 there were ten centres, while in the review of An Action Programme for the Millennium the Government is committed to establishing 100 centres. To date, 80 centres are either up and running or have been approved for inclusion in this programme. The additional investment of £0.83 million, provided in the budget, brings the overall allocation for the programme's development in 2002 to over £4.1 million. The aim is to help combat disadvantage by strengthening the capacity of families to carry out their caring responsibilities.

Services for lone parent families, young mothers and others in need of extra support can be provided. Initiatives to enhance the role of young fathers in the lives of their children, improve parenting skills and promote the greater involvement of young men in the life of the community are also part of the programme in some centres. Family and community services resource centres build on local neighbourhood solidarity, promote informal support networks and have links with schools and services in their locality. The Family Support Agency will be an important resource for their work by enhancing the role and capacity of these local community initiatives in responding to families at neighbourhood level. The agency will work with the centres by fostering their individuality and helping them to promote and develop their own ways of working within their communities.

The agency will undertake research to better inform the development of policy and services to promote family well-being in the future. It is being given responsibility to provide information to the public about issues relating to marriage and relationships education, family mediation, parenting issues and family responsibilities to better support parents in the ordinary day to day challenge of rearing their children. Furthermore, it will co-operate with other public authorities in providing information to assist families in balancing their work commitments with their family responsibilities. The research and information functions will underpin the agency's role in providing advice to the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs on family matters. The Bill provides that in carrying out its responsibilities the agency will have regard to Government policy, and, in particular, to social inclusion objectives.

Section 10 provides for that membership of the agency will comprise 12 members including the chairperson. These will include an officer of the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs, an elected member of the staff and persons who have relevant experience or expertise in matters relating to the agency's functions and responsibilities. In particular, the Minister considers it necessary for the agency to include members with a special interest or expertise in areas such as family mediation, counselling, the work of family and community services resource centres, and parenting matters.

The Governments' legislative proposals for the Family Support Agency are designed to provide the comprehensive and coherent response that families today need. It will provide national and local voluntary organisations working with families with the back-up and support they need in a dedicated new body. It will increase our knowledge and understanding of the issues facing families so that Government and all those with a shared interest in family well-being are better equipped to respond to the needs of families as we enter the new century.

It is particularly vital that the State, the community and families work together in the way envisaged in this agency so that better outcomes are achieved for families in today's changing world. The agency will be both an agent and a symbol of what is needed if we are to have a real "families first" approach. Molaim an Bille seo don Teach.

I assure the Minister of State that she is more than welcome to this House while the Minister is detained in the other House.

All sides of the House support this Bill. To oppose it would be akin to opposing motherhood and apple pie. Notwithstanding that, there are issues which must be explored, particularly as this is a proposal which is bringing the voluntary agencies along.

I acknowledge the role of the Department's family unit and its work over the years in which it has displayed dedication and understanding. This Bill is the culmination of that work. We must also applaud all the voluntary agencies that run the country's family and community centres. There is no end to the dedication of many volunteers to our society. It is ironic that the Taoiseach acknowledged that recently. Without them, we could not run many of our services and it is good that we have people who are concerned about the community as it enriches us as a society. Anything which makes the system more effective is welcome. I support the idea of the Government services working hand in hand with voluntary agencies.

It is important to put this agency on a statutory basis. It has various functions which raise certain issues. The Minister's conclusion is that it will provide the comprehensive and coherent response that families today need, yet there is no longer a set definition of what a family is. The cosy idea of the nuclear family does not exist in many circumstances. We need to acknowledge that there are many different facets to family life today. There are lone parents living on the poverty line who need high support. There are a myriad of difficulties and pressures on family life. This was widely acknowledged in the debate in the other House. There are huge divisions in our society and anything that helps bring about true equality in society must be pursued avidly.

Education, the support of agencies such as this and the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs all have a part to play. We must acknowledge the huge issues that exist such as child poverty and the drugs problem. Despite the fact that the OECD report shows our children are performing well within the education system, there are unfortunately huge numbers who drop out far too early. As servants of the public, we must dedicate ourselves to people such as these and ensure that they receive the best possible support.

The Bill proposes a family mediation service. The Law Society of Ireland has written a submission on the topic of mediation. I propose that we examine this topic more closely on Committee Stage. The Law Society also welcomes the spirit of this Bill but it is concerned about the absence of detail in some sections. This submission is dated 28 November 2001 and I am sure the Minister is aware of it. The society states:

. . . the absence of such a definition [of family mediation] dilutes the previous stated purpose of setting up a statutory agency dealing with family mediation. The definition should include, inter alia, that mediation is available for both married and unmarried couples and for a variety of family issues.

Section 4 (b) (i) of the 2001 Bill alludes to mediation through such persons as it considers appropriate. The Committee believes that the standards of practice and training established by the Family Mediation Service (FMS) should be an essential requirement for any non FMS mediator. Accordingly, reference to standards of practice and training in this Bill is essential to maintain high standards in this most vital of services.

I do not think there is any quarrel about this but it should be underlined. The submission continues:

Section 4(2)(a) of the Bill refers to the need to assist, in particular, couples involved in the process of separation or divorce to reach agreement where possible, especially in disputes involving children.

Obviously we all agree on this point.

The Committee is concerned that this may act to limit the existing statutory provision, where there is no attempt to limit mediation provision to child issues alone. Indeed, research suggest that in all issues mediation results in more positive outcomes.

Under the existing statutory framework, communications between the parties to mediation and a third party (mediator) are inadmissible in evidence. We propose that a similar section be inserted in the Family Support Agency Bill, 2001, to ensure confidentiality.

That is a very important point. The committee expresses its concern at the significant shortage of available mediators. I remember making this point in the other House when we were talking about family breakdown. It is absolutely necessary to have trained mediators available. It goes on:

This shortage significantly impacts on the statutory requirement imposed upon solicitors to discuss with their clients the possibility of engaging in mediation to help effect a separation on an agreed basis. This is a requirement under the Judicial Separation and Family Law Reform Act, 1989, the Family Law (Divorce) Act, 1996, and the Children Act, 1997.

We would all agree that a separation on an agreed basis without all of the trauma that is consequent on a divisive and adversarial situation is preferable. No matter how friendly or agreed the basis for separation is, it is still traumatic. A lack of availability of mediation services makes the whole situation impossible. I stress to the Minister the need for resources for mediation ser vices. This cannot happen overnight. We are aware of enormous gaps in the system and the personnel are not available to develop the services. There are huge gaps in the area of child care. If we wish to protect children we must have the trained personnel available.

One of the functions of the agency will be to provide financial assistance to voluntary bodies. I have been involved in the voluntary sector for many years. I was involved in the marriage counselling services many years ago. Voluntary services are never sure of their funding. Is it proposed that this agency will be able to provide multi-annual funding? I am chair of the Well Woman Centres. We are part of the GMS service and also provide counselling services. We are funded through the Eastern Regional Health Authority. We never know when the money will be made available. The amount of funding is agreed on a year to year basis. It is very difficult to make plans and provide service without knowing what funding will be provided and whether it will be paid on time. Cash flow is essential to any organisation or service. No cash flow means no service. People have to eat and have to be paid. That is true for the voluntary sector where professionals are providing a much-needed service and must be paid promptly. Will the agency allow multi-annual funding and will that be the relationship between the agency and the Department?

The promotion and dissemination of information about issues relating to family mediation, marriage and relationships, education, parenting and family responsibilities is very critical. Tomorrow we will be discussing the Twenty-fifth Amendment of the Constitution (Protection of Human Life in Pregnancy) Bill, 2001. We get our priorities wrong in this country. Why do we not put our resources, time and effort into education?

The family and community services resource centres build on neighbourhood solidarity, promote informal support networks and have links with schools and services in their locality. That probably works well in some circumstances. However, the agency should be developing good relationships with the Department of Health and Children and the Department of Education and Science. There should be an acknowledgement of the type of information needed by children to develop responsible attitudes. To ensure we avoid children having children, they must be properly educated in sexuality and relationships. I acknowledge that resources are required to support such children, but we should give them the ability to make the most of their own lives and make choices when they are responsible enough to do so.

A number of family and community centres were very concerned about the lack of consultation. They suddenly found this agency was going ahead. Having worked as voluntary agen cies, they fear they will be taken over by bureaucracy. The Minister and officials in the family unit appear to be willing to thrash this out, but it needs to be done as a matter of urgency. It is important we consider the views of people who have been working on these issues day after day and understand them well.

I welcome the establishment of this agency. I will have some amendments on Committee Stage and I look forward to hearing more from the Minister about approaches that will be made to the existing voluntary services.

I join other Senators in welcoming the Minister of State, Deputy Coughlan, to the House. I welcome this Bill, which establishes the Family Support Agency as a statutory body. This is another part of the Government's family first policy which goes right back to the renaming of the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs. As Senator Keogh rightly said, the family is the cornerstone of our society and regardless of its make-up or break-up there is a responsibility on Government to formulate policies designed to protect the family and provide the services and support structures needed by families.

In recent years there has been a remarkable change in family structures. The family regarded as traditional by most of us is rarer and may be in danger of extinction. The family make-up is now more varied, complex and transient and we need to deal with all the problems this creates. Whereas we may appear very affluent when compared to 40 or 50 years ago, that affluence has brought many problems and pressures for families. The family structure we all knew and loved so well was made up of the grandparents and the extended family as a whole. The support from the extended family was not only financial, but also social and emotional. This Bill is aimed at providing some of that support in promoting the continuity and stability of the family. It is aimed at preventing marital breakdown and making it easier when breakdown occurs.

There are two aspects to this Bill. There is the family mediation service with the services for the family directly. The other relates to the community support structures, which have been in place through the family and community resource centres. We must ensure the ideologies of both are maintained under the new agency.

The family mediation service has been invaluable to the community. This service allows a couple who have decided to separate to deal with issues in a non-adversarial manner. However, while it has extended almost nationwide, among the public there is a lack of awareness that this service exists and that it is free and confidential. Many people who are going through difficulties in their families feel they have nobody to whom they can turn because they do not know about these services. We must raise awareness of them. I know information is available through citizen information centres, various social welfare offices etc., but there can be difficulties for people who do not go to those offices.

This service reduces the cost to people and more importantly prevents some of the emotional trauma, referred to by Senator Keogh. Regardless of how friendly a break-up may be, there will always be serious anger and hurt experienced by both parties. There should be an emphasis on making it easier at that difficult time. One of the main objectives of the family mediation service is to focus on the needs of the children when a family breaks up.

I pay tribute to the family affairs unit in the Department and to the family mediation service for the professionalism in their work in recent years. They have made it easier for a large number of couples who have decided to go their separate ways. Their work, on behalf of their customers, will be a major asset to the new agency.

I pay tribute to the voluntary bodies and community groups throughout the country which provide services. One would be unable to list all the services they provide, but the principal ones relate to marriage preparation and counselling. It would be impossible to quantify the value of such services to the community. Regardless of how affluent we think we are, the work of voluntary groups will continue into the future and probably be more necessary in our busy lives.

The establishment of the new agency and the implementation of its plans, objectives and programmes are important. It will be involved in a wide range of programmes. However, we must ensure that in establishing such an agency a strong network system is established between it and regional and local services. It is clear from the establishment of other statutory bodies that it is possible to get lost in the layers of bureaucracy and for funding to be used for administrative purposes rather than for those who need it. My gripe is with the health boards. I know it is a debate for a different day, but I am concerned that when the support agency is established, which I wholeheartedly welcome, and services are amalgamated there will be so many co-ordinators, facilitators and managers it will be possible to get lost in the layers of bureaucracy and that resources will not be directed towards those who need them. I do not have any doubt that when the work of the family unit is transferred to the agency the same professionalism will be shown and the resources directed towards those who need them.

As the service expands, the plans and objectives will be outlined for the next number of years. Like the family mediation service which started with two centres, it is required that family and community services resource centres are established on a nationwide basis. If we are here in ten years, we will probably be talking about expanding the service. I do not have any doubt it will work.

We all recognise the difficulties faced by family and community services resource centres. It is justifiable that they are afraid of change because when a system is in place and working, whether it is community or voluntary based, there is always a fear about changing it. However, it is necessary to bring them under the one umbrella. Part of their fear is that resources will be directed towards the family mediation service rather than community development structures. When existing bodies are amalgamated into one unit there is always the fear that one will be overtaken by the other. I hope the ethos and identity of the family mediation service and the family and community services resource centres are recognised and valued in the new agency.

The family and community services resource centres have provided great benefits for the communities in which they are involved. One centre in the most disadvantaged part of my county provides basic services for local people, such as courses on parenting skills for lone parents, cookery, assertiveness and local community development. It also has a good visual impact on the locality. For the first time residents associations have been established, not as a lobby group, but to help in the development and enhancement of their environment. The community and individuals will benefit from everyone working together to develop their area. The commitment of those involved in the family and community services resource centres is second to none. I understand their fears that resources will be directed towards family mediation and counselling services. However, there is not any doubt that community development and support structures are of equal value to the individual needs of the family mediation service.

Senator Keogh mentioned the difficulty involved in getting sufficient counsellors and mediators, not only for the family mediation service, but for all aspects of counselling, such as that for bereaved children. I do not know how we can ensure we have sufficient numbers, but that matter must be addressed. As the service develops and grows, there will be a greater need for such counsellors.

I do not want to reiterate what the Minister of State said about what we want to achieve through the Bill. The family and community services resource centres should be treated the same as the family mediation service because they are both of equal importance. The Minister of State said the agency will work towards fostering the individuality of the centres and helping them to promote and develop their own ways of working within the communities. That is important because the requirements in a large urban area may not be the same as those in a smaller town. It is important to identify the individuality of centres and support them.

A statement by the Commission on the Family sums up the Bill's objectives. It stated the experience of family living is the single greatest influence on an individual's life. It is in the family context that a person's basic emotional need for security, belonging, support and intimacy is satisfied. The Family Support Agency has the ability to provide that support.

I welcome the Bill. I praise the staff of the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs because the change in attitude from what it was years ago is amazing. Years ago I came face to face with patients who had problems and used to get many complaints about the treatment they received from the Department. However, I have not received any such complaints in years. It is not because they have given up on me doing anything for them, but because they believe they are getting a better service from the Department. I compliment all the staff there, from the top to the bottom. They seem to have made a very great effort. I was told it was one of the first Departments to provide extra training to staff on the management of their jobs and it appears to have paid off.

Family breakdown is very sad and we must do whatever we can to prevent it. Like Senator Leonard, I hope that the family and community services resource centre programme will not be dropped by the mediation service. The mediation service is extraordinarily important and has gone from strength to strength since it was begun in 1985. As the Minister of State pointed out in her speech, there are now centres all over the country. However, I would like to see centres as locally based as possible because of what Senator Leonard said about them being individual to localities. There is not a typical mediation centre that is suitable for everywhere. Every place has different needs and it is most important that we ensure those needs are met.

The scope of the Bill is good. It is good that "family" has not been defined. As both Senators who spoke before me have said, the family is a much looser arrangement than it was in the past. Things are now as they are in the spiritual tenet, which is that we are all God's family. The concept is understood in the broadest possible sense. While I am glad "family" is not defined, perhaps we should do more about defining "family mediation". Senator Keogh brought up the difficulties she felt were occasioned by the lack of definition of that and I too am concerned that less than professional people could describe themselves as mediators of family issues. That should be looked at in the Bill.

I am very glad no distinction is drawn between couples who are married and those who are not. A very large number of children are now born to parents who are not married. All of us are inclined to think it is better to have two parents than one, but we do not want to see a child deprived of two parents because of some social mores we all have. Therefore, I am delighted to see that provided for in the Bill. The word "grandparents" is not mentioned, but grandparents are part of the broader family and it is important to remember that they bring up many children nowadays. They may be the ones who are in need of mediation and it is important that they not be excluded. Maureen Gaffney, who chairs the national social and economic forum, produced a very good report recently on lone parents in which she pointed out how extremely important it is that lone fathers are kept in contact with their children. We have legislation regarding the single mother's allowance.

Senator Keogh said she gets fed up of announcing herself as the chairman of Well Woman centres. I am the president of Cherish and I announce myself as such frequently. It is important to note that voluntary organisations play an important role in our society and it is good to see them included in the Bill. From the point of view of Cherish, this family legislation is welcome.

One of the main reasons I welcome the extension of the mediation service is that it is going well. People can endure dreadful trauma in the Family Court where there is an entirely unsuitable adversarial system. That system can be very damaging in stressful circumstances which are already bad. Men and women have been in contact with me to say they found themselves in an even worse predicament having gone to court. The strict application of the in camera rule in the Family Court is a problem. I have a motion on the Order Paper which states:

That Seanad Éireann, concerned that some of those involved in child custody cases before the Family Courts feel aggrieved about their treatment, asks the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to consider allowing some reporting from these courts, on an anonymous basis, so that the public may have a better knowledge of the workings of the Courts.

I am not the only one who has suggested that is a good idea. Judges have asked for it. Mr. Justice Paul Carney said, in a paper he presented to the Law School at Trinity College, Dublin, that he felt the media could be trusted to responsibly report family law. He compared the issue to his experience in rape cases saying, "It seems to me that the complete absence of reporting of family law cases is damaging to our understanding of the nature of our society." It is significant that we have little idea of what is going on in terms of the break up of marriages and families in our society. We do not comprehend how extraordinarily stressful it is. No case is without tears and grief.

When he was speaking in Mallow at a family law association conference, Dr. Gerry Byrne, a child psychiatrist who regularly gives evidence in family law cases, said he felt the secrecy surrounding family law cases should be modified for the protection of children, the maintenance of professional standards and for the common good. The Minister of State might bring that issue to the fore again. A Supreme Court judge, Mrs. Justice Susan Denham, included a substantial chapter on family law in the final report of the Denham working group on a courts commission. In it she examined the in camera rule and noted, “Criticism of the undiluted operation of the in camera rule is becoming more and more widespread.”

A barrister was appointed by the Courts Commission to the family law courts early this year and it was hoped that she could sit in on cases and report on them with regard to anonymity. I am sure that would have been possible. Unfortunately, she has not been able to take up her appointment and do any reporting because it was decided the in camera rule is too strict to allow a barrister to report on cases even while preserving anonymity. I suggest the Minister of State asks the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to look at this important issue.

Rather than having more people coming out of courts feeling aggrieved, I am glad to see the promotion of the mediation service. People come through it feeling more satisfied than they do from the courts. It may be the cases in which there is less conflict that go to the mediation service, but I am not sure that is the case. There appears to be a very fine line between people deciding to go to mediation or to the family courts. I hope the more widespread availability and publicity of the family mediation centres will make resort to them more likely. I praise, as did Senator Keogh, the voluntary services. They are absolutely splendid and most of the initiatives in family counselling and mediation came from voluntary agencies. They were there long before we in the Houses of the Oireachtas got the idea to bring forward a family support agency.

Like Senator Keogh, I have been at the fuzzy end of the lollipop in getting money for various voluntary agencies. I hope the finances in this case will be clearly outlined and not decided from year to year. I have been warned repeatedly that we are entering a difficult time financially, no matter what may have happened in the budget of the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy. I do not know if the Minister of State has heard the joke which goes: "What will we have to show for the Celtic tiger? Nothing." The reply is: "Nonsense, we will have Farmleigh." I hope there will be plenty of money for this agency because it is most worthwhile. I would not like those involved in its running finding out that, while they have the bones of extremely good legislation, they do not have the money to run the agency which we hope will be established.

It is very important the Bill is before the House. It co-ordinates and brings into focus the need to amalgamate all the services provided. I agree with what has been said about the voluntary aspect of the services. The voluntary sector has done a great job during the years. Regarding Senator Henry's concluding remarks, it is only fair when talking about driving forward all aspects of the Bill to point out that the Minister of State has made it clear that this is done in two ways. First, the structures are provided, and second, they are funded. An additional £13.5 million to be provided in 2002 shows the Minister is serious in this regard.

It is very difficult to contribute at this stage of the debate because most of what I would like to say has already been said. If I repeat something which has been said, it is merely to underpin or underline its importance. The family mediation service is of the utmost importance. As a member of a very large family and the youngest of 15 whose father died when I was only weeks old, I know better than most what it means to be part of a family and for the family to be the cornerstone of society. The concept of society and its continued existence as we know it depend in the main on the family. That is recognised by the Government and the purpose of the Bill.

The family mediation service has a pivotal role because, unfortunately, irrespective of whether we like it, marriage breakdown is a feature of society today. That the service is free and confidential underpins further the importance of the service to ensure it is available to all sections of the community. The approach is helpful where children are concerned. This should prevent the usual post-separation situation, otherwise known as the tug of love, between both parents where children are pulled like a rope in a tug of war. That is welcome.

The service began in 1985 on a pilot basis and, by 1997, there were two centres in Dublin and Limerick. Since then, an additional seven centres have been provided in Athlone, Castlebar, Cork, Dundalk, Galway, Tralee and Wexford. An expanded service in Dublin has been extended to Tallaght and Marino. The numbers dealt with have increased from 484 couples in 1997 to the respectable number of 1,225 in 2000. This indicates there is an appreciation of the service available and that it is being availed of.

Previous speakers referred to voluntary groups and their relevance. They have provided marriage and relationship counselling and are the unsung heroes in this. The fact that the agency will adopt a co-ordinating role towards all the services provided means the voluntary sector will have a pivotal role to play.

The family and community services resource centre programme was singled out by the Government in recent years for radical improvement and expansion. There were ten centres in 1997. In the review of An Action Programme for the Millennium the Government committed itself to the establishment of 100 centres. To indicate it was not just lip-service that was paid, some 80 centres are up and running and a commitment has been given to establish the remainder. We are well on target in this regard.

Services for lone parents, young mothers and others in need of extra support have been established. I always thought there were two parts to the equation in marriage, namely, the mother and father. Initiatives to enhance the role of young fathers in the eyes of their children, to enhance parenting skills and promote the greater involvement of young men in the community are an integral part of this programme. That is as it should be. It should have been done before now.

Family and community services resource centres build on local neighbourhood solidarity, promote informal support networks and have links with schools and services in their locality. That is the way they should proceed. In bringing these services under the umbrella of one agency it is important we do not forget what already exists. It is important to co-ordinate what is new and what already exists.

I support the Bill. The family has a pivotal role to play in society. Everything that can be done to keep the family unit together should be done because it has and will continue to play a pivotal role in society. Everything should be done to conserve the family unit as we know it.

It is lovely to come to the Seanad when we are all agreed on the value and importance of a topic, especially family support agencies. Senator Henry concluded by telling a story about the Celtic tiger. One thing for which it will have been responsible is a greater focus on family rather than Farmleigh, whether it is through the trebling of child benefit, the extension of family support schemes or the Family Support Agency which brings together the pro-family services introduced by the Government in recent years. It is evident that the Government adopts a family first policy approach, something which we see coming across in a number of Departments and which I hope will continue.

What is important about the Bill is that it is not a programme, grant or payment, but legislation which will underpin our support for families and the services available to them. We want to see continuity and stability in family life. We want to foster communities and a sense of community for families at local level. We want to be able to support families. That is the reason the agency is set out in the way it is with its main responsibilities of the mediation service, the counselling services and the resource centre programme incorporating both professionals and volunteers. Having such well trained professionals will be central to its success and that of the mediation programme.

Senators mentioned their concern about court cases and the struggles which take place in custody cases. As Minister of State with responsibility for children, I am seriously concerned about the absence of the child's voice in these cases and how there is an undoubted increase in the number of children being used as pawns in court cases, often not in their best interests. In my role I hope to see the development of mediation centres helping to avoid this and that the world and voice of the child can be heard and considered.

There has been another gap in our understanding of the family and children, namely, research. The responsibility the agency will have for undertaking research will strengthen its role in giving us a better understanding of families and also enabling us to move forward in our policies. On Thursday next I will launch two pieces of research relevant to the debate. One is the evaluation of the springboard family support projects, which was hugely successfully, and the other is the research on fathers and families. That is something that needs to be examined closely and we can move forward by ensuring that all the relevant Departments work together. The family affairs unit in the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs will continue its role of working closely with the Minister to develop further services and policies.

The Minister will retain responsibility for the development of family policy which links in with other sections, including in particular the national children's office. That office has shared objectives with my Department concerning the well-being of children and families in general. Together, the Department and the national children's office can promote an awareness of the challenges families are facing as well as developing appropriate and effective responses to those challenges.

In devising the family support agency's mediation centres the views of young people were considered, as they were for the national children's strategy. Their views made it clear that the most important people to them are their immediate family members. The family support agency will play an important role in helping children to have a safe, secure and stable future.

The family support agency will work with State agencies and non-governmental organisations. Senators have mentioned the role of voluntary groups that are essential to the proper running of any structure dealing with family issues. To meet our priorities, aims and objectives for social inclusion, such voluntary bodies must work in unison with Departments and other State bodies.

As public representatives, we are well aware of the problems faced by diverse family units. One speaker asked whether there is a definition of a family, but of course there is not. The family support agency will work with families in the broadest sense to ensure that its remit is inclusive and child-focused. That is the aim of the Bill. Mediators will have a particular role in dealing with joint and shared parenting, thus keeping both parents involved with their children because that is what children want.

During consultation on the children's strategy, a child wrote that her father was the most important person in her life. It is unusual to see the father being referred to alone because, in general, children refer to their mothers. I said to the child in question, "Isn't that lovely, why is your father the most important person in your life?" She replied, "I don't know my father, that's why he's important to me". That type of message from a child makes us realise that family support is a complex area requiring support from all Departments and State agencies with regard to policy- making, funding and co-operation with voluntary groups. In that way we can ensure that we are working for the best interests of the child and its relationship with the family. That has been the general thrust of the contributions to this debate. The Bill's objective is to achieve a consensus whereby we can create a supportive environment for families. I thank Senators for supporting the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.
Committee Stage ordered for Thursday, 13 December 2001.

When is it proposed to sit again?

At 10.30 a.m. tomorrow.

The Seanad adjourned at 5.05 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 12 December 2001.