Skip to main content
Normal View

Seanad Éireann debate -
Thursday, 13 Dec 2001

Vol. 168 No. 24

Family Support Agency Bill, 2001: Committee and Remaining Stages.

Sections 1 to 3, inclusive, agreed to.

I move amendment No. 1:

In page 5, subsection (1), between lines 16 and 17, to insert the following new paragraph:

"(f) to support and develop Family Resource Centres according to principles of community development and to promote social inclusion,”.

As I said on Second Stage, I do not wish to oppose the Bill, but those working in family resource centres have serious concerns arising from a lack of consultation about how they will operate under the new structures. We all know that the heavy hand of bureaucracy often has a deadening effect on the work of agencies. They need reassurance on this.

I acknowledge that this amendment was proposed in the other House. However, the Minister now has a greater understanding of the concerns of those involved. Is he minded, therefore, to accept the amendment? Will he address the anxieties of those working in family resource centres?

Whenever there is change or bodies are amalgamated, there is always a fear of what it will entail. I understand the fears of those involved in family resource centres and acknowledge that they have done outstanding work. However, I listened to the Minister's contribution to the debate in the other House and accept that their position will not be undermined. At the same time, the new agency must respect the identity and ethos of the centres.

I thank the Senators for their remarks. Section 4 (1)(e) provides for the Family Support Agency's role in supporting, developing and promoting family resource centres which are included because in the Government's previous budgets significant funding was given to the family support area. We increased the number of mediation centres from two to 11 and quadrupled the money available to the mediation service. Also, grants, such as those for marriage counselling were extended to include bereavement, child, marriage preparation and suicide counselling. In all, funding for voluntary groups has increased fivefold. The programme for Government contained a commitment to increase the number of family resource centres, of which there were ten in 1997. There are now about 80 either operating or in preparation.

The Government thinks it is preferable to provide for family resource centres within the remit of the new agency rather than the Department. I hope Senator Keogh was not referring to my Department in applying the dead hand of bureaucracy.

No, far from it.

The centres do not wish to leave behind my Department's helping hand. However, the Government considers it ludicrous that they should be outside the remit of the agency. Having committed all the extra resources to which I referred, more expertise is needed than that available within the Department or the Minister's office. The board will consist of those with expertise in various areas and can study international experience. We have come a long way in the last five years.

I assured the recently established forum, which represents about half of the family resource centres, that their role would not change and that they would not be required to provide family mediation or marriage counselling. This does not mean that they cannot contract in such services if they so wish. However, for some reason, those involved in the centres fear that the agency will force them to provide these services. Their role will not change and their distinct characteristics will be respected.

Speaking on this amendment in the Dáil I explained that my advice was that it was not possible to include this laudable sentiment in the Bill because it might restrict the future development of the centres. There is already a strong statement in section 4(2)(c) that the agency must have regard to the Government's social inclusion policy, which means that family resource centres will continue in their present role and develop with the help of the agency and the Department.

I accept fully what the Minister said. Those involved in family resource centres were seeking reassurance and it was helpful for the Minister to declare how he sees the agency developing in relation to the centres and that their ethos will be respected. Therefore, I withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Amendment No. 2 not moved.
Section 4 agreed to.
Sections 5 and 6 agreed to.

I move amendment No. 3:

In page 6, between lines 29 and 30, to insert the following new subsection:

"(2) No action of the Agency under subsection (1) shall amend, change or otherwise alter the existing criteria for the operation of Family Resource Centres without the full, informed and prior consent of the centres concerned.”.

We are back to the need for reassurance. There was very intensive lobbying on behalf of family resource centres in which those involved prefer to be fully informed and consulted. I have always found that within the voluntary sector there are different levels of expertise and experience and that those involved have to be reassured continuously. At all stages they wish to be up to speed and fully informed about what may happen. The amendment would give them further reassurance. It may seem like a belt and braces approach, but I have a long association with voluntary bodies and know that the more reassurance they get the more open they are to accepting change. Many voluntary agencies are very professional in their work and it is important that they are encouraged to participate as much as possible.

We need voluntary bodies which play an important part in society. To a certain extent I agree with Senator Keogh that in the marrying of statutory and voluntary bodies there is always a fear that the layers of bureaucracy involved will lead to a breakdown in communications. Those working on the ground in voluntary agencies may feel they are not included. We have been reassured that there will not be extra layers of bureaucracy. Given these reassurances the amendment is probably not necessary.

Section 7 requires the agency to establish criteria in order to avail of financial assistance under section 4(1)(h). The criteria are subject to the approval of the Minister and the agency. The agency is required in subsection (3) to comply with directives. This provision is intended to enable the agency to establish the most appropriate criteria. The legislation requires a strong level of accountability in the matters of establishing criteria for funding and the provision and disbursement of financial assistance. It would be totally inappropriate to make the exercise of the agency's function to set criteria for financial assistance subject to the consent or approval of any one beneficiary or sector of the groups as suggested in the amendment. I wish to reassure the Senator about the position on the centres which will continue to receive funding as before. There will be no change in the funding commitment made to them or in the conditions set out in the three year contracts for funding which they hold with the Department as a result of the transfer.

My Department successfully reached agreement with the Department of Finance to allow multi-annual budgeting. The Department of Finance would generally be of the view that the financial operations of agencies under its remit should run from year to year. The criteria already laid down for marriage and bereavement counselling grants and family resource centres have worked pretty well and it is anticipated that the agency will continue to review them. Obviously, it will have to be responsive to new and emerging needs in family support. It will take into account the views expressed by the membership.

The amendment would lead to more bureaucracy and could cause difficulties. The type of operation which has worked fairly well up to now will continue and will, I hope, be strengthened by the new agency.

I appreciate the Minister's reply. I apologise for my ignorance on the subject, but does he mean it will be possible to provide for multi-annual budgeting?

For family resource centres.

I ask the Minister to extend this enlightened attitude to other areas. It is a very welcome model. It is essential for any voluntary agency to provide for multi-annual budgeting. I would like to see this enlightened attitude extended to other bodies such as those in which I am involved.

There will be multi-annual budgeting in regard to family resources centres and community development projects core funded by my Department. They are funded on a three year contract basis. This would not include the many voluntary groups also funded by my Department which are funded year to year based on their applications for grant aid. There is a huge desire on the part of groups to enter into core funding arrangements on a three year contract basis. The White Paper on voluntary activity which the Taoiseach and I launched in September 2000 contains a strong commitment to extend multi-annual budgeting to voluntary and community groups.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Section 7 agreed to.
Section 8 agreed to.

Amendments Nos. 4 and 5 may be discussed together.

I move amendment No. 4:

In page 7, subsection (1), line 7, to delete "6 months" and substitute "12 months".

The Bill states:

As soon as may be, but not later than 6 months after the establishment day, and thereafter not later than 6 months after each period of 3 years that falls after the establishment day, the Agency shall prepare and submit to the Minister, for approval with or without amendment by the Minister a strategic plan.

I note that a period of twelve months has been requested by some, but I am in two minds. While a realistic deadline is needed, when dealing with voluntary bodies it is often difficult to keep to such a short period of time. Voluntary agencies are becoming very professional in their activities. Will the Minister reassure me that the agency will be confident about having a strategic plan available within the specified time period?

In a nutshell, if we were to agree to the amendment, the agency would be operating without a strategic plan in its first year of operation. There would also be an inordinate delay of up to one year before the second and subsequent strategic plans would be available. Work is under way in the family mediation service in consultation with officials of the family affairs unit in order to chart the possible further development of the service in the context of the new agency. Similarly the first steps of developing the counselling service have been initiated by my Department in partnership with the voluntary providers of the service. Similar suggestions have been made by officials to the family resource centre programme. I believe this can be operational in the first six months so I suggest what is in the section is better than the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Amendment No. 5 not moved.

I move amendment No. 6:

In page 7, subsection (2), between lines 15 and 16, to insert the following new paragraph:

"(b) be prepared in full and open consultation with Family Resource Centres and other voluntary and community organisations which fall within the remit of the work of the Agency,”.

This is to ensure the plan is prepared in an open way. It will give reassurance that those who have been involved are consulted fully on the development of strategic plans. This would give reassurance about the type of consultation that some of the resource centres felt was absent earlier. I know that the Minister, with his officials, embarked on a considerable period of consultation, which was very welcome. Having this in the Bill would be very beneficial to the agency, particularly in planning for the future.

The agency will draw up its strategic plans taking account of the needs of families in the local communities that form the focus of its activities. It will work in co-operation with other public bodies that have a shared interest in family matters as provided in section 4(2)(b). It will work in partnership with the voluntary community groups for which it is responsible as envisaged in the White Paper Supporting Voluntary Activity.

Section 4(2)(c) provides that the Family Support Agency will have regard to Government policy. It would be normal practice for stakeholders to be consulted in the development of a strategy statement and I expect the views of the family resource centres as well as the counselling services and the family mediation service will be included. There are fairly extensive discussions going on with the mediation service on strategic planning. The providers of marriage and relationship counselling have also been involved in discussions with my Department in relation to the development of the grant aid scheme, the establishment of best practice, the issue of professional standards, which is something I am particularly keen to see go ahead, and the further development of marriage counselling services.

In recent discussions with family resource centres, officials of my Department have broached the possibility of preparatory work being undertaken to consider how best the work of the centres can be advanced under the new agency. This preliminary work will be important to the agency on its establishment. Obviously the agency will follow the template of other agencies in this regard. I assure the Senators this amendment is not necessary. The agency will be consulting with the various bodies in this area.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Section 9 agreed to.

I move amendment No. 7:

In page 7, subsection (5), after line 43, to insert the following new paragraph:

"(d) three members elected by the Family Resource Centres Forum following consultative procedures agreed between the centres and the Agency with the agreement of the Minister,”.

I may sound like a broken record, but this amendment is once again an attempt to be inclusive. During the debate in the other House, the Minister was not particularly prescriptive and indicated he wanted the expertise to be as wide as possible. However, we should be more specific in relation to the forum mentioned earlier by the Minister.

It could cause difficulties if all sections were represented in the membership of this agency. Each counselling section has its own views. There would be requests from bereavement counselling, marriage counselling, parents groups, etc. The people chosen for this committee must take into account the views of those from the community sector in the family resource centres and from the mediation service. The ethos of the family resource centres must be maintained so that one body is not dwarfed by the other.

I thank the Senators for their views. We gave this matter great consideration. I want to set up an agency that individually and collectively will have skills, talents and expertise in family policy. I am confident the conditions laid down in the legislation will fulfil that. I and future Ministers should appoint members with experience in counselling, family mediation and work in the resource centres. However, I cannot be prescriptive because of the different components of the sector.

The family resource centres have indicated their willingness to suggest, through the forum, a number of individuals who might have experience and expertise in the working of family resource centres. They are reasonably happy with that. I wanted to have representation from the staff, which is catered for in section 10(5).

I have restricted the number of persons to be nominated by Ministers and Departments to three. There was much discussion on this. In a family support agency, there could be at least five Departments which would want representation. The point made by Senator Leonard about the other sectors is very valid and I suggest to Senator Keogh that the Minister should have flexibility in appointing people in that respect. If someone who was too closely aligned to one sector were appointed to the agency, he or she might believe that his or her remit was to represent just that sector and to a certain extent forget about everything else. We want to keep it as broad as we can while having some people on the board who have come from family resource centres, family mediation, marriage counselling and all the other components.

Restricting nominees from Departments to three is very wise. I am pleased to hear the forum is open to this approach to representation. Perhaps the same attitude may be taken by the other disciplines in relation to that. We do not want it overloaded with representatives from one discipline. That would not be appropriate. We need the widest range of expertise and the best representation possible. The Minister has been open on this issue. I accept his bona fides in this regard and I am happy with his response.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Section 10 agreed to.
Sections 11 to 32, inclusive, agreed to.
Title agreed to.
Bill reported without amendment and received for final consideration.
Question proposed: "That the Bill do now pass."

I thank the Members for their support. I thank the Members on my side of the House for their contributions both here and in the other House. I thank the Opposition for the speed with which it allowed the Bill to go through the House. It is important legislation which I want to get on the Statute Book before Christmas to enable work to proceed on the setting up of the agency. I thank the officials of my Department who have done excellent work to bring us to where we are today. They are voting themselves out of a job because they are voting to transfer many responsibilities they have built up in the past four or five years since the family affairs unit was set up in my Department. There will still be a family affairs unit in my Department when the agency is set up.

I thank the Parliamentary Counsel for being expeditious in bringing forward the legislation. When I brought it to Government in the not too distant past, I did not think I would succeed in getting it passed before Christmas. I am delighted it will now go to the President for her signature. I hope we will be able to get the agency up and running early in the new year.

I thank the Minister and acknowledge his role in this area. We are all glad the agency has been established on a statutory basis. The fears expressed by many centres and volunteers have been allayed. The Minister understands that they needed to be expressed. I acknowledge the work of the family affairs unit in the Department. I am glad we have been able to facilitate the passage of the Bill through the House, although that might be due to the fact that we had a long night last night. It is always good to discuss something relatively non-contentious, although there may be aspects of it which deserve scrutiny. I commend and support the Bill.

I thank the Minister for being with us today on Committee and Final Stages. It is extremely important legislation. It is unfortunate that family mediation has become such an important part of life. I welcome the establishment of the agency on a statutory basis. I join other Members in thanking the staff of the family affairs unit and of the Department in general. Reports over the years suggested it was not always the most friendly place with which to deal. That has improved in recent years, as others who are here longer than I know.

Question put and agreed to.