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.