I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children, Deputy Hanafin, to the House.
Ombudsman for Children Bill, 2002: Second Stage.
Tá an-áthas orm an Bille seo a chur os comhair an tSeanaid, Bille an-thábhachtach é do dhaoine óga na tíre. Toisc go raibh díospóireacht againn sa Teach seo an tseachtain seo caite ar an straitéis náisiúnta do leanaí, tá sé an-oiriúnach go dtosóidh an Bille seo os comhair an tSeanaid agus molaim é.
The purpose of the Bill is to provide for the establishment of an Ombudsman for Children. The main functions proposed for the ombudsman are to promote the rights and welfare of children and to investigate individual complaints made by or on behalf of children arising in the course of the administration of public bodies, schools or public hospitals. In introducing the Bill, I am aware of the need to safeguard the rights of children. Put simply, children matter. Their status and well-being speak volumes about the values and quality of life within our society.
Attitudes to and perceptions of the role and place for children in our society have changed in recent years and this has led to many policy developments in child care services. We have seen the introduction of new legislation and the publication of many strategic policy documents and expert reports over the past decade and the introduction of an Ombudsman for Children must be seen in this context. The commitment to the establishment of an Ombudsman for Children is also contained in the Government's key social policy document, An Action Programme for the Millennium. The Government has invested an additional €160 million for child welfare and protection services since 1997 and a further €45 million is being invested in 2002. This level of additional funding continues to provide and support a wide range of developments in this area and emphasises the Government's determination to put in place effective strategies and services to promote and protect the welfare of children.
The Government is committed to developing all aspects of child welfare and protection services and over recent years significant reforms have taken place in terms of legislation, policies and services to promote the protection and welfare of children. For example, we brought forward the Protection for Persons Reporting Child Abuse Act, 1998, which provides protection for any person who acting "reasonably and in good faith" reports suspicion of abuse of a child. In 1999 we published Children First – National Guidelines for the Protection and Welfare of Children, which sets out to improve the identification, reporting, assessment, treatment and management of child abuse.
The standardised framework for inter-country adoption aims to improve co-ordination and delivery of inter-country adoption services and the national children strategy seeks to provide a clear direction to all those concerned with advancing the status and quality of life of children. The Children Act, 2001, will bring about a major reform in the law relating to juvenile justice and vulnerable children in need of care and protection and the Report of the Working Group on Foster Care, 2001, sets out clear objectives for the development of our foster care service. The Government has also published a detailed strategy document to tackle youth homelessness.
However, one of the many problems in children's policy development has been the challenge of co-ordination and delivery of services for children. Meeting this challenge will involve a cross-sectoral approach which is emphasised in the national children's strategy and will be led by the national children's office. The introduction of an Ombudsman for Children will assist this process and provide an independent mechanism to vindicate the rights of children. The establishment of such an office is in recognition of the need for an independent person to act as a powerful advocate for children and promote the welfare and rights of the child. The introduction of an Ombudsman for Children is a further step along the road to providing our children with quality services and allowing their voice to be heard. Many countries have an ombudsman for children, sometimes called a commissioner for children, and, therefore, the establishment of the Office of the Ombudsman for Children will bring Ireland into line with best practice internationally.
The most important role of the Ombudsman for Children is that of promoting the rights and welfare of children. This function is different from that of the existing Ombudsman, whose focus is solely on dealing with complaints. It is, however, a common feature of other ombudsmen for children internationally and it is crucial that the Ombudsman for Children has the ability to advocate independently for children. The Ombudsman for Children has been given a range of roles and functions to achieve this, including highlighting issues of concern to children; encouraging the development of appropriate policies, practices and procedures which affect children; advising the Government on the development and co-ordination of policy relating to children; monitoring and reviewing the operation of legislation; and establishing structures to consult regularly with children.
Until recently, little thought was given to the views of children, even on issues which affected them directly. The first major consultation with children probably took place during the development of the national children's strategy. The results of that consultation fed directly into the strategy document. Learning from that process, we have since had the first meeting of Dáil na nÓg and local councils are in the process of being established throughout the country. The Ombudsman for Children will find, as I have, that the views of children and young people are valuable and well informed.
There have been accusations of delays in bringing forward this Bill. I was anxious to ensure that complaints could be made to the Ombudsman for Children in regard to the action of a wide range of bodies, both public and private. In the event, considerable work in conjunction with the Attorney General's office was required to frame the legislation so that schools and voluntary hospitals were included and it has not proved possible to extend the remit beyond these new categories for the present. I am pleased, however, that the proposed jurisdiction of the Ombudsman for Children is wider even than that of the current Ombudsman. In particular, I am delighted that we have been able to provide that schools can be included in the complaints procedures. The only State institution that directly affects the vast majority of our children is the education system and I was anxious to ensure that schools would be included in the Bill.
The concern has been to ensure that the Bill is workable, that it will operate practically over time and that the rights of the child and their parents are maintained. However, I assure the House that I believe the legislation should be seen as a first step. Over time, as legal difficulties are addressed, other organisations in the voluntary and private sectors will be brought within the aegis of the Ombudsman for Children.
In recent times the involvement of the State in the lives of our children has increased and decisions taken within public bodies have a significant bearing on our children. Problems can arise in balancing the needs of organisations and the just and fair treatment of a child. It is inevitable that difficulties or mistakes will give rise to wrong or unfair decisions or a child may feel he or she is being deprived of something to which he or she is entitled. There is no way of guaranteeing that this will not occur but a method is being provided under which the grievance can be re-examined independently.
There are some arrangements in place which allow decisions to be queried. There is provision for appeals to be made in respect of State examinations under the Education Act, 1998. However, mechanisms such as this are designed to address specific situations and they do not cover the entire area of the State's interaction with children.
The Ombudsman for Children will affect the operation of a myriad of institutions by providing an opportunity to seek redress by or for a child without having recourse to adults or professionals in the first instance. It needs to be ensured that when a child complains an examination of the situation can be started quickly without becoming entangled in an ever-increasing web, which could confuse and alienate our children from the public institutions.
The Ombudsman for Children is intended to be an independent and easily reached mediator. One of his or her roles will be purely to investigate and report. The importance lies in the power to investigate the actions of those affecting children and to report these to the Oireachtas. This ombudsman will be an important advocate for our children, providing both informality and accessibility in resolving the issues they consider important.
The Bill provides for the establishment of an Ombudsman for Children who can investigate, either on his initiative or on the basis of a complaint from a child, family member or a professional, actions taken by a body listed in the First Schedule of the Act. The remit extends to Departments, schools and public voluntary hospitals. Certain areas, notably the courts, security matters, military activities and decisions made on asylum will be exempt from scrutiny. It is not intended to go into detail on the specific provisions of the Bill but I propose to comment on some of its noteworthy features.
It is proposed in this Bill that the Ombudsman for Children shall be appointed by the President on the resolution of Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann. This is in line with the appointment of the current Ombudsman. Indeed, the acceptability of the Ombudsman for Children will be enhanced by the fact that the holder is acceptable to all sides of this House.
The terms of employment of the Ombudsman for Children are set out in section 4 of the Bill. The independence of the office is of vital importance as our children must see that this is an independent authority. The Bill sets out that the Ombudsman for Children shall be independent in the performance of his duties. The six year term of office, in line with that of the current Ombudsman, underlines the independence of the office from any Government.
The ombudsman may undertake an investigation either on his own initiative or arising from a complaint made by a child, a family member or someone who has a professional relationship with the child. However, if a parent is not the complainant, one of the parents must be informed that a complaint has been made. This is to ensure that the constitutional rights of the parent are not diminished in any way.
Certain areas, including prisons, will not be subject to scrutiny. However, children's detention centres are covered, as are services provided by health boards, such as residential centres. In line with the Ombudsman Act, 1980, the Ombudsman for Children may not investigate an action if it is trivial or vexatious, if the complainant has insufficient interest in the matter or has not already used reasonable means to remedy his grievance. However, the ombudsman will give the complainant reason for his refusal.
Certain other matters are excluded from the ombudsman's remit. The ombudsman will not investigate where legal proceedings have been initiated, where there is a statutory right of appeal to a court or where there is right of appeal to independent tribunals or referees drawn from outside the Civil Service. It is not intended that the ombudsman should replace existing appeals procedures or interfere with the judicial process. Defence matters have been excluded on the grounds that they do not directly affect the lives of our children. Public personnel matters are also excluded because it is felt that the Ombudsman for Children is intended to be concerned with grievances arising out of the dealings with public bodies and not with the relationships between employer and employee.
All investigations will be carried out in private and the body or person against whom the complaint is being made will have an opportunity to comment. The ombudsman may require persons to furnish documents and information for investigation, but has no power to compel the disclosure of any document or information relating to decisions by Government. Any publication or utterance by the ombudsman in the course of his investigations is privileged. These provisions are to provide protection for the privacy of the complainant and those complained about.
Mar a dúirt mé ar dtús, tá mé lán taobh thiar den mBille seo. This Government is totally committed to this Bill atá os comhair an tSeanaid inniu. Ceapaim gur céim an-thábhachtach í chun stádas leanaí na tíre seo a chur chun cinn agus tá mé ag iarraidh go dtosóidh sé seo i ngach aon slí sa tír seo. This Bill is an important step in improving the lives of our children and ensuring that their voice is heard.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Hanafin, to the House. I am glad that in the dying days of this Administration she has pushed to have this Ombudsman for Children legislated for.
During the period in office of the rainbow coalition, the then Minister of State with responsibility for children's rights, Deputy Currie, announced at the end of 1996 his commitment to establishing an office of the Ombudsman for Children. His proposals were very similar to those being proposed by the Minister of State. Proposals for the promotion and protection of children's rights as well as the investigative aspect of the Bill were brought forward by Deputy Currie, who worked within a consultative process.
One issue that still needs to be addressed by the Government relates to mandatory reporting of child abuse and I hope that in future Administrations, if not this one, it will be addressed. Deputy Currie decided in April 1997, just before that Administration left office, that he himself would chair an interdepartmental group because he wanted to draw together the various Departments that would be involved in investigations. The list of Departments included Finance, Health, Justice, Education, Foreign Affairs, Social Welfare, Equality and Law Reform and Enterprise and Employment. The names have changed under this Administration but it is important to note that that committee went a long way towards the establishment of the office. Deputy Currie knew, as does the Minister of State, that the position would have implications for many Government Departments, particularly in the promotion of children's rights.
At that time Deputy Currie considered what would be the most appropriate model for an ombudsman in the Irish context and the mechanisms to provide for its independence – an important issue that I will return to. In the promotion of children's rights and their protection, the most important aspect will be the costing of the measures. We have much legislation on the Statute Book but it is the implementation of it that counts. The Minister of State makes no reference as to whether she will have the resources to ensure that, where there are areas highlighted by the ombudsman, he will be in a position to ensure the cost effectiveness of those proposals.
I have no problem with the provisions outlined in the Bill, including the fact that the President will appoint the ombudsman and the conditions attached or the ombudsman's independence in performing the functions assigned. In the context of speaking about ombudsmen, I must pay tribute to Kevin Murphy for his independence as well as the way he has addressed so many issues with such a tremendous workload. I cannot remember how many issues he highlighted in his annual report but more and more people are seeking redress by going to the ombudsman directly. There is a huge raft of complaints from people who are not getting what they think they should from local authorities and they have gone to Kevin Murphy.
Is the Minister of State satisfied that there will be sufficient staffing in the office to deal with what will be a huge backlog of complaints in relation the position of children in society? I ask the Minister of State to address the issues of funding, the implementation of the legislation and the practicalities surrounding the working of the office.
The examination and investigative role of the Ombudsman for Children described in Chapter 4 is extremely important. I appreciate that the Minister of State has extended the Bill to include public bodies, schools and voluntary hospitals because many people thought she would not. There is one voluntary hospital in the Limerick area – St. John's – which is included as well as the Mercy Hospital in Cork and the South Infirmary-Victoria Hospital. I am glad it has been expanded to include the regions as well as the Dublin area.
It is practical that complaints may be made by a child, parent of a child or person who has a professional relationship with the child concerned and is deemed a suitable person by the Ombudsman for Children, but the parent of the child must be informed before investigation and the action complained about must be one which is taken in the performance of an administrative function.
The Children's Rights Alliance, representing some 86 bodies, has queried the exclusions in the Bill and I ask that the Minister of State take this on board. Why are there exclusions that will constrain the board from investigations into various areas? Some of these exclusions are understandable but others seem to relegate children to a lower status and for all practical purposes they are denied access to the ombudsman.
Under section 11, despite our multicultural society, children who are immigrants, refugees or asylum seekers would not be able to turn to the ombudsman for help in relation to any actions taken regarding "the administration of the law relating to asylum, immigration, naturalisation or citizenship". That covers a huge amount of ground in regard to refugees. It goes beyond excluding complaints about official decisions regarding their status or citizenship claims. Perhaps the Minister of State will explain why she chose to exclude that particular group. In recent days we have become aware of controversial issues regarding attacks on that community and although it does not come under the remit of the Minister of State, children of asylum seekers and refugees live in our society and they should have access to the ombudsman. They are under enormous pressure and they should have redress to the Ombudsman for Children.
The Minister of State also chose not to take into account children in detention. They are marginalised and need access, but they are denied it. The Minister of State is indicating that is not the case, but the ombudsman would be unable to undertake any investigations of actions taken in the administration of the prisons or other places for the custody and detention of children other than reformatory schools or industrial schools.
Section 11 also states that, although the ombudsman is to be independent of the Government and report directly to the Oireachtas, it provides Ministers with an effective veto over investigations and actions taken by public bodies. I read through it again last night and there is definitely a problem with regard to ministerial veto. If a Minister sends a written request to the ombudsman concerning actions taken by a Department, or a public body under the authority of the Minister, the Ombudsman for Children shall not investigate, or shall cease to investigate, an action specified in the request. The only conditions attached are that the request must be in writing and be accompanied by a written explanation setting out in full the reasons for the request. Why does the Minister have such sweeping authority to stop an investigation and why deny the ombudsman the right to exercise his or her judgment on the request? That will not promote the best interests of children.
I welcome the Bill, although it is minimalist. I had hoped the Minister would have gone full circle. When a Bill is put on the Statute Book, it takes a long time for the issue to come up again. Hopefully we will have a change of Administration after the next election. The Minister of State is shaking her head but we are living in that hope. We also hope that this area will not have to be revisited. Perhaps the Minister of State will take these points into consideration on Committee Stage and copperfasten what is, in essence, a good Bill.
The pressure for the establishment of an ombudsman for children relates to issues that have emerged in the courts in recent years in regard to children. I pay tribute to Mr. Justice Peter Kelly who has raised the issue of children's rights time and again. He recently had to be silenced because there was no redress in regard to the Kim O'Donovan case. He has been the greatest advocate of an ombudsman for children because he has been hamstrung in regard to what could be done in terms of the rights of children. In another recent case, Mr. Justice Kelly expressed fears for the life of a 14 year old boy. He said that he did not want another dead child on his hands and that three in one year was enough. He was the greatest advocate of the fact that society was not taking heed of the fact that children were at risk.
All those children came from unfortunate backgrounds, where their parents died in tragic circumstances or they were drug addicts. Social workers and teachers were concerned that these children were at risk and had no place to go. Within that context a number of cases will come before the Minister of State in the short time after the passage of the Bill, if she succeeds in having it passed in the lifetime of this Administration.
It takes so much time for action, especially when one thinks of where we are in terms of having an ombudsman for children. In Sweden, from where the term ombudsman comes, there has been an ombudsman since 1809 – perhaps that should be 1909. There may be an error in the source I used. We emulate the Scandinavian people in their championing of the need to protect children. Finland had an ombudsman in 1919, Denmark in 1955 and Norway in 1962. The 1993 conference on world human rights affirmed the importance of institutions to protect rights and advised governments to address violations as well as raise awareness of the need for an ombudsman for children.
While I am, by and large, happy with the Bill, it will be necessary to table amendments on the issues I raised. I am sure I will have an opportunity to tease them out in greater detail. I hope I get a firm commitment today that Committee Stage will be taken soon so we can get this Bill through before the election and ensure it is there to protect children in the way that they should be protected. In many ways Ireland is not a children friendly society.
Will the Minister of State encourage the commission to publish more research into children's rights and to provide information and statistics on children? It should also be encouraged to provide information and advice to children, their families and the wider public. The fact that they have avenues of redress needs to be known. The Oireachtas will get reports from the ombudsman in regard to what is happening. It will be necessary to guarantee the independence of the office and to provide sufficient resources in terms of staff and finance so it can carry out its functions effectively and correctly.
Another major catalyst in getting this Bill drawn up, apart from the work of Deputy Currie during his time as Minister of State, was the Children's Rights Alliance. That group is a coalition of 86 NGOs concerned with meeting the needs of children and promoting their rights. It will be very happy if the Minister of State takes on board many of the recommendations I included in my presentation.
I welcome the Minster of State to the House and also her Second Stage speech which leaves very little for me to say on the subject. She referred to the role of the ombudsman highlighting issues of concern to children, encouraging the development of appropriate policies and practices and procedures which affect children, advising the Government on the development of policy relating to children, monitoring and reviewing the operation of legislation and establishing structures to consult regularly with children.
To that I add my own thoughts. It is not clear that the ombudsman will have an inspectorial role with regard to establishments that deal with children, such as schools, hospitals and places of detention. The office in public life analogous to that of this ombudsman, though without the same powers, is that of the inspector of hospitals. That inspector can inspect mental hospitals and publishes an annual report on the quality of the clinical treatment of patients and the quality of the environment in which they are treated. The inspector makes recommendations to the Government and the Oireachtas based on how he feels psychiatric treatment should be developed and many of his recommendations over the years have been incorporated in law.
Another role I see for the ombudsman is an educational one. It follows naturally and does not have to be spelt out. The educational aspect of the ombudsman's report will be required reading for anybody dealing with children. Sometimes, as politicians and people in public life we tend to look only at the reports in which we are interested, but if those reports are widely disseminated they have an effect on public consciousness. In this case the report would affect public thinking on the place of children in society. That is something I would like to see highlighted in the Bill.
This Bill will go through, but as the Minister of State indicated, she or her successor will have to return to this matter in a few years' time. As the ombudsman gets to grips with the problems facing children and how they are dealt with, he or she will seek more powers of a financial, legal and administrative nature. This ombudsman will represent children who come up against officialdom and in many cases those children will be troubled. Troubled children, as we all know, nearly always come from troubled family backgrounds. Perhaps the Minister of State will tell us if the ombudsman will have a role in terms of family problems, or if the role will relate purely to the interface between the child and the agencies of the State.
Senator Jackman made a very worthy contribution and I look forward to Committee Stage when we can tease out the nuts and bolts of this legislation. It is on Committee Stage that much good work is done in this Chamber. Senator Jackman quite rightly lauded Mr. Justice Peter Kelly for his labours in bringing to public notice the problems with which he deals daily. Coming here this morning, I read in the paper that a judge in Cork could find no place to put a teenager caught speeding at 90 miles an hour, causing serious damage and placing life and limb at risk. There are two others to mention, one of whom is Fr. Peter McVerry who has done outstanding work in my own area with severely troubled children.
Going back 30 years or more, Judge Eileen Kennedy wrote a seminal work on children in care. It is only now that the effect of such official publications is beginning to seep into the public consciousness. The work of these people over the years is one of the reasons we are sitting here today. They have given official Ireland a jolt and asked it to get on with looking after the needs of troubled children. I commend the Bill to the House and wish the Minister of State every success with her work.
I am happy to welcome the Minister of State to the House and I compliment her on the production of this Bill. I remember that well before she took her current job she was very much involved with the National Youth Council of Ireland, so this is not something that has come as a surprise to her. She has been consistently interested in this area as her track record clearly shows.
At the very start of her speech the Minister said, "Put simply, children matter," and that is absolutely true. She also said something else, which from the perspective of someone my age is absolutely correct and that is, "Attitudes and perceptions to the role and the place of children in our society have changed in recent years". To that I would add "And how". When I was growing up children were not consulted and it was not assumed that they had an intelligent view on anything. They were be put in their place, to be seen and not heard, and the idea of consulting children and listening to them on the basis that they had a rational view would have been regarded as completely absurd. It is very good that we have moved in the direction the Minister of State describes.
In her opening comments she also spoke about the various Bills brought forward, including the Protection of Persons Reporting Child Abuse Act, 1998, which I remember quite well. The one hesitation I had about it was that I thought there was insufficient protection for adults incorrectly accused. That can happen and it has certainly happened in other jurisdictions. There have been some recent complex and sad cases in this area and it is something we need to be aware of.
I notice that the Minister of State refers to the particular inclusion of schools and that is a good thing. She talks of the independence of the office and to a large extent that has been established in this legislation. Senator Fitzpatrick feels this ombudsman will deal only with the interface of children with official Ireland and I hope that is not so. I hope the remit of the office is broader and that, if it is not, the Minister of State will broaden it.
The relationship between employer and employee is excluded. There should be something done there because young people are not just vulnerable in schools, especially in the case of bullying. There has been a significant number of cases involving factories and garages where bullying reached such a level that serious physical damage was done. If we decide that children are people who are under the age of 18 years, we are obliged to protect them from harm in this area too. It may well be that it was not possible to make these provisions in this Bill, but I would like to think that we will make them in the future.
At the beginning of the Bill we see the usual rehearsal regarding the coming into operation of the Act and I have no problem with that because certain sections may be introduced sequentially. However, it would be useful if provision were made to ensure that such sections were introduced within a year of the passing of the Act. If it is left as vague as it is, it may be that nothing will ever happen. I will consider putting down an amendment to avoid that.
Another issue is the definition of "child". How to define what a child is has always intrigued me. There are some real curiosities in the Bill and perhaps the Minister of State will comment on that. The Bill defines a child as a person under the age of 18 years, other than a person who is or has been married. Does marriage remove childhood? I am not sure that it does. There is a real question mark over that and there is something of a tangle here. It is related to another matter I want to query later, that is, the question of the exclusion of the Army. I feel quite strongly about that. In other words, children are children if they are persons in the State under the age of 18 years, unless they are or have been married or unless they are associated with the Defence Forces.
The exclusion of those associated with the Defence Forces seems extraordinary. Trócaire and various other agencies are campaigning to prevent what they call child soldiers. It is obvious that in a state like Ireland we do not have what would be regarded as child soldiers in the ordinary meaning of that term, that is, such as those in places like Somalia, Sierra Leone, etc, and I thank God we do not. At the same time it seems extraordinary that we define children as everybody under the age of 18, but we exclude the Army.
There could be a strong case for including the military services because young people being inducted into the Army can be subjected to initiations which in America are called "hazing rituals", and good old-fashioned bullying. I would like to think that an ombudsman would be able to get involved there. Psychologically I suppose it would be true to say that somebody involved in any of the military aspects of the State would not perhaps feel flattered by describing himself or herself as a child from the point of view of making a complaint, but I still believe that they should be included in this.
I note the provision for the appointment of the ombudsman by the President on foot of a resolution by both Houses. This is a good idea as it helps to guarantee his or her independence.
The reasons for removal from office seem to be perfectly reasonable and valid with the exception of one. It seems rather odd that we protect citizens of the State at one end of the age spectrum and then discriminate against those at the other end. Section 4(3)(c) states that the person appointed “shall in any case vacate the office on attaining the age of 67 years.” The Bill further states, “A person shall not be more than 61 years of age upon first being appointed to the office of Ombudsman for Children.” Why is this so? I do not understand that. I am a person who has respect for older people. I will respect young people but I will also respect older people.
The Chinese have a point here. We all remember the time of the old-fashioned family when the grandmother and grandfather were regarded as founts of wisdom. I really do not see any reason for excluding older people, particularly when people are living longer because of significant advances in society, in diet and in medical treatment. In other debates in this House we have learnt that it is useful and good to keep people employed for a longer period and to give them that opportunity. Obviously somebody who is ailing, who is clearly subject to the ageing process in a damaging way would not be appointed, but I can imagine many people in their 60s and 70s who would be absolutely ideal. Therefore, I do not understand the need for this restriction.
I remember that in the old days in Trinity, for example, the visitor to the college who was a kind of ombudsman was the Honourable Mr. Justice Kingsmill-Moore. He was excellent. He was absolutely outstanding. He was well into his 80s but he was well able to do the job. There is a kind of ageism involved here which I deprecate. That is a point on which I would ask the Minister of State to reflect.
The Bill includes a schedule of the activities, and they are all wonderful and worthy, until we get to the point where members of the Defence Forces, who shall not be regarded as children in any case where they are subject to military law under the Defence Forces Acts, are excluded. There is a possibility, of which I am sure the Minister of State will inform the House, that this is a technical matter, that military law supersedes this, but it seems odd to me.
There is the function of examining and investigating complaints against public bodies. The Bill contains a list of seven instances, and I have no difficulty with that whatsoever. I want to ask about the Statute of Limitations. The Statute of Limitations seems to be implicit in some of the sections, that after a passage of a certain number of years no complaint can be taken. I am not sure about that. It seems to be in the background of a number of sections and I wonder if the Minister of State will give us some indication on that. If people have been treated viciously, it seems they should have recourse to the ombudsman, simply, if for no other reason, for the sake of healing and resolving their difficulties.
The Bill rules out investigation if the ombudsman is of the opinion that, "the child making the complaint, or on whose behalf the complaint is made, has an insufficient interest in the matter". I take it that is "interest" in the legal sense, in other words, their angle, and that it does not mean that they are lacking in interest. I assume this is a legal term.
The Bill then states that the ombudsman shall not investigate where he or she becomes of the opinion that, "the child making the complaint, or on whose behalf the complaint is made, has not taken reasonable steps to seek redress in respect of the subject matter of the complaint or, if she or he has, has not been refused redress". Can one reasonably expect a child to have taken action in this matter? I do not know that one can. The Minister of State is ruling out investigation where the child has not taken reasonable steps to get redress. If the child is alone when making the complaint, that is quite a heavy test to impose on him or her. I would like the Minister to State to address this in her reply. Perhaps there is a good explanation for this but it seems worth asking about.
I agree with Senator Jackman that it is a pity to exclude the operation of the immigration and asylum laws. Children are vulnerable, and among the most vulnerable are the children of asylum seekers and refugees. They have clear human rights and their human rights are clearly capable of being violated. A good deal of concern has been expressed about this area in the public arena and it is a pity to remove it entirely. In one sense, children are an international concern. Raising legal points about citizenship is not a good idea. If damage happens to them in this jurisdiction, it should be mended in this jurisdiction.
The Bill, in section 11(1)(e)(iii), states that the ombudsman will not investigate if the action is one taken in the administration of the prisons or other places for the custody or detention of children committed to custody or detention of the courts other than reformatory schools or industrial schools, etc. That part should be deleted. It seems the Minister of State is isolating a particularly vulnerable group of children. I am glad reference was made to Mr. Justice Peter Kelly, Judge Eileen Kennedy and various other people who have worked in this area. It is consistently said that there are cases where children are detained in inappropriate places. Such detention seems to be a violation of their rights. If I am reading this section correctly, the ombudsman would not be in a position to investigate this.
This seems to be a cardinal area where he or she should have the power to investigate given that it is an area to which our decent judges have drawn the attention of both Houses because they are concerned about the welfare of children. Therefore, I would ask the Minister of State to reconsider this with a view to removing or altering this section so that children placed in this position of vulnerability can have their situation examined by the ombudsman. It may be that the Minister of State will be able to indicate that this is dealt with elsewhere, but I do not see it from my reading of the Bill.
In Chapter 5, the ombudsman is required to give to the complainant a statement in writing of his or her decisions. This is an excellent and democratic idea which I fully endorse. It is very different from the way in which the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions works. The operation of that office has caused problems. I understand there are technical reasons the DPP has an awkwardness about answering complaints from a person who gives the office information or puts a case before it only to find nothing is done about it. It is very frustrating for a complainant who feels he or she has a strong case to find no action is taken and no explanation is given for this. In the case of the Ombudsman for Children, I am glad there is a requirement to give written information.
I compliment the Minister of State and commend the Bill to the House. I am glad the Houses of the Oireachtas are following in the footsteps of people such as Father Peter McVerry, Sister Stanislaus Kennedy, Mr. Justice Peter Kelly and Judge Eileen Kennedy. We are fortunate to have had these courageous individuals who blazed a path for acknowledging the rights of children. We are also fortunate to have a caring Minister of State who has introduced the appropriate legislation. I have indicated some small concerns which are legitimate. However, it may be that the Minister of State has a satisfactory answer for all of them. If not, I am confident she will return to the House with appropriate amendments having examined the position.
Cuirim fíorchaoin fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit agus roimh an reachtaíocht. In presenting the Bill, I am pleased the Minister of State is following through on the good work she has done since she took office in advancing the rights of children and providing better services and protection for them. I am impressed with the coherence with which she has developed her work and the determination with which she has pursued the agenda of the protection of children. We are fortunate to have someone of her integrity and concern in the post at this time. I look forward to the stage when there will be a full Cabinet Minister with responsibility for children. If we were fortunate to have someone such as the Minister of State or someone of her calibre in the post, it would augur well for the future of children in this country.
These are troubled times for young people. There are many troubled children who, in many cases, come from troubled homes. They are very vulnerable and often their first contact with official Ireland causes irreversible damage to their life prospects. This is something which has come to light in an alarming and disturbing way recently. Many of us who grew up in different days and in traditional homes where there were clear guidelines as to what was the right and wrong thing to do and where we had a framework which, whether it was good or bad, certainly worked for us had a type of innocent or naive assumption that all other children grew up in similar circumstances. It is beginning to emerge with ravaging truth that this was not the case.
Times have changed greatly for young people and children. Where there was certainty before – whether it was good or bad, it existed and it worked – there is confusion now. We live in an age of confusion. That is one of the factors which makes life very challenging and, in many cases, very difficult for young people growing up. There are a number of single parent homes where it is not physically possible for one parent to do the work of two. That makes life more challenging for the children from such homes. There are also homes where two parents are clearly unable to provide a functioning family. This inevitably creates huge challenges and difficulties for young people. We must make the effort to come to the assistance of such people so that we can make up for the apparent lack of support in other areas.
This is part of the motivation that has led the Minister of State to put in place the additional services, to seek additional money and to develop legislation. What she is doing today is, in one way, a culmination of that effort. There is little point putting rights on paper unless there is a mechanism whereby people can vindicate them. That is what the creation of the Office of Ombudsman for Children is about. It creates the mechanism whereby young people can vindicate their rights.
I am glad the Minister of State has broadened the role of the ombudsman to someone who not only has the role of vindicating rights, but also promoting the rights and welfare of children. I hope that from the annual report of the ombudsman we will gain a new insight into and an idea of the position of different children in different circumstances and also a better insight into what needs to be done to tackle their problems. The annual report of the ombudsman will be very helpful to policymakers and service providers. This is one of the many benefits of the appointment of this person.
The manner in which the appointment is to be made is highly commendable in that it will not be political. This is very good because the belief, whether deserved, is that there is a need to have someone who is independent. If this is the way people feel, so be it. I would like to disabuse them of it, but it is not always possible to do so. It is good that there will be someone in this position who is appointed in the manner outlined by the Minister of State and who can command trust. Unless the ombudsman has the trust of people who will use his or her services, he or she will not be in a position to fulfil the role envisaged. It is important that the person is able to command trust. The manner in which the appointment is to be made caters for that and ensures people will trust the office. This is important.
One of my concerns is that I know from my experience as a teacher of dealing with children that the people most in need of help are often the last to seek it. This will be very difficult to address. In terms of the personality and quality of the ombudsman, he or she will need to have the wisdom of Solomon, hugely developed communication skills, insight and understanding. It will take a unique person to fulfil the role properly. It is very important that a great deal of thought is put into the personal qualities, character and personality of the ombudsman.
Accessibility is something which concerns me. Where a young person makes contact with and avails of the service of the ombudsman and is accompanied by a parent, it should be straightforward enough to work out any difficulties. However, some children may have problems with their parents or may have problems in school or other areas for which they do not receive the support of their parents to seek the services of the ombudsman. They are most in need of access to the service. This concerns me and I do not have the solution. I do not know how we can provide for this in law or in practice. If I did, I would share my wisdom with the Minister of State. It is something which is critically important because it often happens that the people most in need of a service do not have the self-confidence, know-how or wherewithal to access it.
I hope the ombudsman will travel throughout the provinces to meet the people so that we can bring the service to the people as much as bringing the people to the service, as far as is practicable. I recommend this approach to the Minister of State because I sometimes fear for children who do not have the support of an adult when they wish to make contact with a service of this nature. It is very important that we reach out to these children.
I am concerned that the children of asylum seekers are not included and I ask the Minister of State to look again at this aspect. Whatever about the issue of citizenship, which must be worked out and is a matter for another day and another Minister, we are talking here about extending proper care. I believe it would be the will and wish of every right-minded person that care should be extended to every child living on the island irrespective of their citizenship status. I ask the Minister of State to look again at this crucial aspect in the context of what we are doing here today without in any way trying to cut across other possible legislation. Apart from all the other implications, it would send all the wrong signals that we are creating a two-tier system whereby one group of children is less deserving of the service than another group of children. I do not think that is the intention of the Minister of State or any Member of this House. I ask her to look again at this issue because I fear it would have unintended results, which I do not want to happen.
This is such a welcome and long overdue Bill that we are all in favour of making it happen as soon as possible. We will consider it in greater depth on Committee Stage. As it is such an essential provision, I am pleased it will be in place before the Government goes to the country. I know the Minister of State will not want the Government to go out of office without having this legislation in place.
The principle of putting in place an ombudsman is a very good one. One lesson, more than any other, we are beginning to learn is the high cost of bringing cases before the courts, cases that could be settled in other ways. For example, if one unravels the settlement made in the case of Kathryn Sinnott, who lives close to the city where I live, the major beneficiaries were the lawyers, not Mrs. Sinnott. They were the people who took the high fees. Money that ought to be spent on deserving cases in the community is going to lawyers. This is happening at an alarming rate. We must take this matter into account to establish if anyone other than the lawyers is getting value for money. The community or people who have the grievance are not getting value, and the young child on whose behalf the case is taken is certainly not getting value. Money that ought to be spent on developing proper schooling for people in that situation is not being used for that purpose. It is important, where appropriate, to promote an ombudsman-type approach for settling grievances because, apart from all the other benefits, it is cost-effective.
I am particularly pleased that the ombudsman will draw up a report in respect of every case brought to her or his attention. The report will be a learning experience for the person who brings the complaint. To settle a grievance is one thing but to learn, benefit, grow and develop from it must be our objective. The report will be a very valuable part of the process.
I repeat what I said at the outset and commend the Minister of State for bringing this Bill before the House. I look forward to Committee Stage when we can consider issues raised here this morning. I look forward also to the Bill becoming law sooner rather than later. I hope it will be one more step towards making life better for children.
I welcome the Bill and I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I advised her less than two weeks ago that one thing she should do before coming to the general election campaign was to introduce the Ombudsman for Children Bill and I congratulate her on taking my advice.
This is very important legislation because the word "ombudsman" is bandied about in this country with too much ease. The Minister of State has ensured the children's ombudsman will be an independent person, therefore it is extremely important for her to fight for the resources for the ombudsman and his or her office. I am sure she will have the support of both Houses of the Oireachtas in this regard.
Senator Jackman referred to the current general Ombudsman, Kevin Murphy. To begin with, Michael Mills was a star in that office. This is an area where we have been extremely well served to date by those who have taken on these positions. I am sure the President will find someone who is eminently suitable to take on this position. The method of appointment is very good because the President is held in great respect by the people, as all our Presidents have been.
It is important for this ombudsman to be independent because the banking ombudsman is supported by the banking industry, which is hardly an independent person, and the insurance ombudsman is supported by the insurance industry. We all recall the trouble two independent insurance ombudsmen got into a few years ago when one had to resign from her position. It is extremely important that the Minister of State has ensured the independence of the ombudsman in this instance, on which I congratulate her.
I welcome the Bill in general. Some of the complaints made about it are similar to my own. However, there is one complaint which has not been made, even though Senator Quill touched on it. I am somewhat concerned that if a parent does not accompany a child to make a complaint, one parent will have to be informed of the complaint. This goes to the root of the problem for many children because it means they have no rights under the Constitution. Senator Quill rightly referred to a child who is in a totally dysfunctional family and is, in fact, in dispute with both parents. The fact that the parent must be informed of the complaint may lead to the complaint being withdrawn. The life of a child living at home could be made unbearable because of the fact they made a complaint. I am sure the Minister of State has a good reason for including this proposal but could we allow for exceptional circumstances whereby the parent would not have to be told the child has made the complaint? The dysfunctional family rather than the child is the problem in the case of many children who come before the courts. I hope something can be done about this aspect on Committee Stage.
I am concerned about the length of time which is allowed for one to bring forward a complaint on behalf of a child. Twelve months is not very long. Until the office is well publicised, as I am sure it will be – Senator Quill's idea of the person travelling around the country is a good one – complaints may not be brought forward until they are over the time limit. Perhaps we could look at that too.
Apparently, all parents have to go through all the investigations that can be made at departmental level and all possible judicial processes, which may take years. What happens to the child's complaint then? Is this period too long from the child's perspective? Is it time-barred if the child has not brought forward a complaint by that time? This is important.
It is very unfortunate that section 11(3) provides that a Minister can request that the Ombudsman for Children shall not investigate or shall cease to investigate an action against a Department or public body. I cannot understand why that is included because it stymies the effect of the Bill. A Minister can easily make representations about these matters. It seems that the issue does not even have to go before both Houses of the Oireachtas for consideration to see if the Minister has a reasonable point. I ask that that section of the legislation be removed.
I understand from the Bill that places of detention, apart from prisons, are being included. I presume Senator Jackman's worry is that children under 18 will be detained in prisons. I am extremely glad residential institutions for children who have been neglected or otherwise had to be taken into care are included because I have been extremely critical about the fact that there is not the same amount of inspection in the Ombudsman for Children Bill for residential institutions as there is for places of detention. That is a serious mistake in the Ombudsman for Children Bill. As Members will know, I objected to that. Children do not have a statutory right to be shown the rules of the institution, as have children in a place of detention, nor is corporal punishment statutorily banned in these residential institutions, while it is in places of detention. I very much welcome the fact that the ombudsman will have a role in this regard because it is extremely important.
The question of hospitals naturally concerns me very much. I am very concerned that private hospitals will not be included. I have been in contact with the Minister of State's officials, who have explained to me that there are difficulties in that regard. Should we not include private hospitals and let the institutions fight the difficulties? The complaints I have had, in general, have been from private institutions rather than public ones. In the past, I have had complaints from children, who are now young adults, who were detained in psychiatric institutions which were built to cater for adults and were full of adults. There were very few children in them and they felt that they had been seriously abused within those institutions.
If these institutions are private institutions, I do not believe that these children will be covered by the Bill, and that is very unfortunate. One person in particular, who had been in both private and public institutions of a psychiatric type, said that she felt better protected when she was in a public institution. That is only one case, but to hear of it from anyone is very distressing, particularly when one hears of it from people who were in dispute with their parents as well. This Bill will do very little for cases like that. We should try to make sure that these kinds of cases are covered. I suggest that we do a bit more about the voluntary hospitals when we get to that issue.
Like other Senators, I am concerned that the children of asylum seekers are not included. The Minister of State will probably be able to explain why, but we should try to include them if at all possible. This is particularly important if they are unaccompanied children. A very large number of them have entered the country in recent years, many more than one would have expected. There is a case before the courts at present in which a woman is accused of trafficking a child into this country. This area is important and perhaps we could manage to have it included in the Bill.
When the protection of human life in pregnancy Bill was passing through this House, I tried to bring in an amendment that would divide the category of "female person" who could become pregnant into "female person" and "female child". Even if we make no difference in how they are treated, it is always important when legislating to make the point that there is a difference between adults and children. That is what many people have said here today. I regret very much that that amendment was not accepted. Even if we were not to make any difference in terms of how we treated both categories, at least we would have recognised that there is a difference between a female person over 18 and a female child.
I commend the Minister for bringing this Bill before the House and I am quite sure we will all try to expedite it here because it would be splendid if it could be brought into law before the general election.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House and I welcome the Bill. It is a tribute to the amount of work she has done and the amount of energy she has expended since taking over as Minister of State with responsibility for children.
I pay tribute to the many thousands of good parents. There are about 1,072,000 children in this country. Fewer than 200 need secure care, and that is a great tribute to the many parents of children in our society. However, we have to make sure that small percentage is cared for. The Government has spent €160 million on child care since 1997 and €45 million extra was allocated this year, which is a clear indication of the amount of work it is doing in this regard.
It is highly important that we concentrate more on families and address children's problems at a young age. If a child reaches the age of 12, or even ten, and he or she is out of hand, it is very difficult to deal with him or her. There should be better assessment of children of four and five years of age when they start school. It is important that every child goes to school. I regret sometimes that the old system whereby the local garda went to the school three or four times per year to check the roll books is no longer in operation. Nobody knows if children are attending now. I have been critical of this in the past. The two-teacher school was very important in rural Ireland because it was a home away from home. Maybe the rod was not always used sparingly in some schools. Thank God, I had very good teachers and did not have a problem. The teachers knew the children and the parents.
Society is becoming very impersonal. People do not know who lives three doors down the street from them in the cities and they do not know who lives half a mile from them in the country. If one travels around Ireland and stops to ask anyone under the age of 50 for directions, they do not know their next door neighbour and they do not know the road to the next village. It is sad that this is happening. Lack of communication is causing many of the problems with dysfunctional children.
I am critical of the modern way of rearing children. Instead of taking small children on their knees, giving them a cuddle, talking to them and telling them stories, parents are giving them €5 to get a video to watch. Some parents are not spending time with their children. I have already said that the majority of parents are doing a great job, but a small minority are not giving their children the care that is necessary. Sometimes the absence of an extended family poses a problem. The grandparents had more time to tell children about what happened in their youth as well as telling them fairytales and stories. However, this no longer happens.
In years gone by, when we walked to school, not only did we learn reading, writing and arithmetic but we also did a public relations exercise by talking to the neighbours along the road. We saw farmers ploughing and moving their cattle. There was communication. In the summer we counted birds' nests and got an education in nature. We met some great old philosophers herding a couple of cattle along the road, who might tell us stories. However, all that is gone. In the cities and towns, there were smaller schools and the corner shop where children went to buy a lollipop or ice cream. The shopkeeper and the children knew each other and there was an intimacy and communication. Now they get on a bus and they are gone.
Unfortunately, the leader commands the troops and if the leader is going down the wrong road, he brings the troops down the wrong road. When they were taking different roads from school, there was no big leader because only three or four children took each road. There was more communication.
We must spend more money. I read the papers and the law cases. Unfortunately we are now living in a society where there seem to be barrister fattening exercises. The amount of money the legal profession takes from each case seems to be astronomical. However, that is another day's work.
What is a dysfunctional home? Years ago it used to be one where there was unemployment. There is no unemployment now and there is plenty of work for everyone, thank God. The dysfunctional home is one where there are considerable amounts of drink and drugs or where there is infidelity in marriage. Those are the kinds of homes where trouble arises. Maybe the institutional system was the right idea, but handled badly. However, there should be smaller high support units, containing not more than four or five children with a caring family or a couple running the house to keep those children together. If they are in a dysfunctional home they must be taken out of that environment. There is no point in having them in a day centre for three or four hours if they are to return home and find no dinner ready.
Those of us who grew up in rural Ireland years ago may not have had much more than a small bit of bacon, the few spuds and a bit of cabbage, but there was a mother there to meet us when we came home. As a father and now as a grandfather, I recognise the importance of the mother. As any parent knows, a child who got within 50 yards of home would run to tell his mother something. If his mother was not there, then that story was never told. Many mothers miss many good stories that way. If I were ever in the house when the mother was in town shopping, immediately after coming in the child would ask where his mother was.
The mother is so important in the house that we must get a system whereby no woman should have to work out of necessity. If they want to work for career reasons, that is their choice. No mother should have to work because a second wage is needed to pay a mortgage.
We must also come to grips with the huge drink and drugs problem here. I have said to my son that I do not know how he will manage to rear his family. Although I never drank, I was reared beside a pub and I saw fighting and rowing. I spent my young days going to the local brewery every Saturday to bring beer back to the local pub for half a crown. I saw so much of it that I decided I would never drink and I never did. At a recent meeting in Sligo, the superintendent stated he never had to arrest a sober person. It is because the abuse of alcohol and drugs that so many children are in dysfunctional homes and we must get to the root of those problems.
There are many disruptive young people at discos and dances. In years gone by, there were bigger crowds in the ballrooms, but anybody with a sign of drink was not allowed in. They were properly manned and supervised all night. If some fellow caused trouble two or three bouncers would move in and he would be gone immediately. Now there is terrible fighting and rowing. Young people no longer go to a dance to enjoy the entertainment; they seem to go to enjoy drinking, taking drugs and fighting afterwards. I do not know how we can come to grips with this.
I notice a proposal in the newspapers that we should introduce a law to prohibit the use of mobile phones while driving a car. It is believed there were two deaths in road traffic accidents as a result of using mobile phones. Hundreds of people are killed as a result of drink and drugs, yet nobody says we should do anything about it. When will people realise? Guinness will spend €10 million on an advertisement to promote drink.
The abuse of drink and drugs has caused many children to be homeless. Children today are homeless for two reasons. They either leave the home because they are disillusioned with their parents messing about, drinking and taking drugs, or their parents put them out because they cannot stay with them. That is very foolish and I appeal to parents not to throw their children out on the road no matter what they might have done. Regardless of what is said within the house or any advice parents might give, they should not throw them out because, if their parents do not have time for them, they cannot expect anyone else to have time for them. They will go down deeper into the mire. Parents should try to be patient, if their children appear to be wayward, try to get them back on the rails again but do not throw them out. It is sad there are so many young people homeless.
I welcome the Bill to establish an ombudsman. I do not mind if the post is filled by a man or a woman, but I want to see the best person. Whether a person is male or female should not be a factor in getting a job today. Women and men should all be equal and the best is picked, not because they wear trousers or a skirt. That should be our priority for getting people for those jobs.
Having an ombudsman is a good idea, but will he have any control over the people who give the service? Some decisions were made by eminent professional people that resulted in children being taken from their homes. The parents were accused of abusing their children when this was not the case. I was always fond of meeting a child in a shop and buying a few sweets. I was recently in a shop where a child wanted to buy something and was a couple of pence short and I offered to make up the difference. The child looked at me and asked what I wanted of him because I was giving him money. I backed off and decided I would never again do that.
In the past when travelling down to Sligo, I never used to pass anyone on the road. I would offer a lift to people, including children, and would talk to them. I love children. However, we are living in a society where one cannot do that and it is sad. Children need care and loving. I want to ensure that whoever looks after children gives them love and attention. Children sometimes do not get individual care if they are put into a big institution. Every child is different. They are not born bad; it is how we rear them and what advice we give them. We need high support hostels which can cater for four or five children from dysfunctional homes and which have house fathers and mothers to care for them like a family and give them a good example. There should be some means, perhaps in the Army, whereby older children who steal cars and go joyriding can be trained. They could be great motor car racers and winners of the Grand Prix or great mechanics. Anyone who can steal a car is intelligent. We could harness their energy by training them and giving them a job to get them on the right road.
I welcome this important Bill. I pay tribute to the Minister of State for the amount of work she is doing and for meeting many various bodies. Many things went wrong in the past because we did not have a proper inspectorate. If the Department had done its duty in the past, the abuse of people in institutions would not have happened. However, individuals did not do the job they were paid to do. They took the easy way out. I am glad the ombudsman will be independent and I hope he or she will do a good job. There are 1.072 million children in Ireland, yet fewer than 200 are disruptive. Many parents are doing a great job. Only a small number of parents and children must be put on the right road. I congratulate the Minister of State on what she is doing.
I wish to share my time with Senator Costello.
Acting Chairman (Mr. Costello): Is that agreed? Agreed.
I welcome the legislation and I am pleased it is being initiated in the House, as have other important pieces of legislation during the lifetime of the Government. I hope the Minister of State agrees we have given them a thorough examination and that the views expressed here on Second and Committee Stages were use ful and added to the general intent and spirit of the legislation. I hope the same will be the case for this legislation.
The idea of a children's champion has been around for some time. I commend the Government for bringing forward the legislation. The principle is supported across the political spectrum and outside the House by groups such as the Children's Rights Alliance. Unfortunately, the need for a children's champion has never been stronger due to a range of unfortunate incidents of which we are now aware, such as the abuse and neglect of children. Senator Farrell referred to the fact that community and family life has changed. Families need support in the community.
Senator Farrell harked back to an idyllic era when children went home to their mammies. Occasionally I crossed the fields on my way home from school in the summer time and it was wonderful to grow up with a full-time parent in the home. Unfortunately or otherwise, that is not the case any longer. It is great for children to go home to their mammies and to tell their stories. My children rarely get the opportunity to tell their mammy their stories. There are a number of mammies in the House and I hope they are always welcome in the Upper House and in the Houses of the Oireachtas.
Ireland and society have changed and we must move with that. Children are not necessarily less well cared for if both parents work. I agree that parents should not feel they must work outside the home. We have a long way to go in terms of flexible working hours and recognising the needs of parents, particularly during their children's development and education. We have more work to do in relation to term time working. There are some excellent initiatives in the public service which have not yet been taken up to any great extent in the private sector, despite the labour shortages. We still have a long way to go in terms of providing good quality accessible child care in the community. These issues are important for the welfare of children, although they do not specifically relate to the legislation.
As regards the appointment of an ombudsman for children, we have only accepted in recent years that children have rights and their own place in society and the community. I welcome the appointment of an ombudsman for children which strongly underlines that point. I hope it heralds a new era in recognising the rights of children and respecting them in their own right in the community rather than as appendages of their parents. The view in the past was that children were the property of their parents and family and did not have rights. I am glad that view and other things have changed. I hope the appointment of the ombudsman will put the issue of respect for children at the centre of the agenda.
One cannot ignore a number of incidents in our recent history which indicate that we still have much work to do in terms of protecting children. The death of young people, some of whom were parents, points to the need for a stronger framework for child protection. I know the Minister of State has done much work in this area and that improvements have been made, but we still do not have enough secure places for children.
We must continue to put resources and effort into ensuring that the services provided for children, particularly those who come from dysfunctional family backgrounds, are available as and when they need them. We still have a long way to go in this respect. As Senator Farrell quite rightly pointed out, if children experience problems at a young age, early intervention is crucial. Such intervention must be appropriate to the needs of the child and should have a positive role in reversing the negative impact of the difficulties that they face.
The issue of child homelessness and the fact that some families experience a level of pressure that has a negative effect on children are factors that deny many children the opportunity to grow up to become fully functioning adult members of the community. I commend the Minister on her work in this area, but I am sure that she would agree that a lot must be done to improve these situations.
There are some questions regarding the Ombudsman for Children Bill, 2002, that I would like the Minister to address. While I welcome the section of the Bill that allows for the ombudsman to investigate specific activities of hospitals and other bodies charged with caring for children, I am concerned that he or she could not equally investigate bodies who are guilty of a lack of action that could be seen to constitute neglect. For example, could the ombudsman investigate and report on the failure of an agency to provide a suitable place of education for a child? Would he or she be permitted to investigate the fact that the physical infrastructure of a particular school does not meet the needs of those children who attend it? I am not necessarily talking about special needs schools. There are schools throughout the country which have a substandard physical infrastructure, and this is a problem which the State has so far failed to address adequately. Could the ombudsman investigate the absence of the provision of a service by the State?
I would like the Minister to clarify whether this legislation will give the ombudsman the power to intervene in a child welfare case before it reaches crisis point. My initial reading of the Bill suggests that this will not be the case and I would like the Minister to address this issue on Committee Stage. As the Minister knows, the Children's Rights Alliance has welcomed the publication of the Bill. However, it has issued a list of powers that it would like the ombudsman to have under this legislation, such as the power to enter and inspect an institution in connection with an investigation. Would the ombudsman have the power to send a special report to the Houses if he or she considered a response to an investigation or recommendation to be unsatisfactory? Within the context of the Bill's provision for the promotion of the welfare of children and the section covering investigations, would he or she be permitted to take a legal action, or assist an individual in taking a legal action in relation to issues of concern to children? It is important to involve the parent of the child at the centre of any investigation. For a number of troubled children, the main difficulties that they experience arise directly from their home environment, rather than from the actions of a public body.
My understanding is that the Ombudsman for Children will be entirely independent. I am interested to note that it is the President who will make the appointment, on the recommendation of the Houses. I stress the importance of providing sufficient resources to the office of the ombudsman. Given the high profile and efficiency of the general Ombudsman, there will be a high level of expectation regarding the work of the Ombudsman for Children, whose effectiveness will be governed by the resources allocated to his office. I welcome the legislation and I look forward to Committee Stage.
Thank you, a Leas-Chathaoirligh, for relieving me of my duties in the Chair and giving me time to speak. I also thank my colleague, Senator O'Meara, for agreeing to share her time with me. I almost had a tear in my eye listening to Senator O'Farrell as he remembered Sligo in the good old rustic days; he brought to mind a very attractive bucolic setting.
I welcome the Ombudsman for Children Bill, 2002. It is a natural progression from the development of the office of Minister of State with special responsibility for children. It furthers the recognition of children as citizens of this country, entitled to be treated in a fashion that acknowledges their rights.
I wish to inquire about a number of matters. I am disappointed that the terms of reference of the ombudsman have not been extended to cover the prisons. I do not see how, on one hand, it can be stated that the age of a child, for the purposes of the legislation, is up to the age of 18 while, on the other, stated that children who may end up in institutional accommodation in respect of which complaints might arise will be exempt from the legislation. We are not merely discussing reformatories and industrial schools. We are concerned also with St. Patrick's juvenile institution which can hold children between the ages of 16 and 21 years. In my opinion, the exemption to which I refer should not be allowed. If the ombudsman is to play a role in terms of dealing with complaints about any public institution or voluntary or public body, it seems appropriate that this role should extend to this area where, effectively, children are removed from their homes and placed involuntarily in the care of the State. Will the Minister of State indicate why the prisons are exempt from the provision which outlines the functions of the ombudsman?
The purpose of the legislation is to provide the ombudsman with powers to investigate complaints, etc. Very often, however, this problem arises in terms of the welfare of young people and on many occasions this neglect is institutional in nature. This leads to questions about whether schools are substandard, whether they have adequate resources, how we deal with pupils in disadvantaged areas and how local authorities deal with families which cannot provide for themselves. The level of homelessness has trebled during the Government's term of office. In many cases families and single parents with children are living in completely inadequate accommodation. Some children who attend school live in bed and breakfast accommodation or hostels. One could put forward the argument that this is State neglect because resources have not been put in place to provide either adequate shelter or accommodation, regardless of whether the latter is in the school or in the home. It could also be argued that this is transparent negligence.
I do not know if the ombudsman will have a proactive role in this area as distinct from merely investigating how an institution is operating within the narrower context and constraints of existing mechanisms. That is the real challenge. We must remember that many of the difficulties and scandals that occurred in the past in homes and institutions, provided by the State but largely run by voluntary and religious bodies, often arose as a result of a shortage of resources. The State was getting this service on the cheap. It made provision for children's detention or education, of one form or another, and relied too heavily on the voluntary approach. Resources were not put in place and, therefore, monitoring systems were inadequate. A number of weeks ago, the Minister for Education and Science made an apology for the State's lack of provision in this regard.
Those are the two major areas about which I am concerned. We must extend the terms of reference of the ombudsman to cover the prisons. In addition, a proactive approach must be taken in relation to public bodies which have a duty to provide care for young people on behalf of the State, but which are not able to do so through no fault of their own because of a lack of resources provided by the State.
I wish to make a number of specific points. As usual, I listened with interest to the contribution of Senator Farrell. I probably come from a background similar to his; I was born into a large family and I now have a large family of my own. I find it disturbing, and, as the Minister of State indicated, it is a sad reflection on society, that there is a need to provide an ombudsman to protect children.
The definition of children is extremely important. Even though I have a large number of children, I would not define a 17 or 18 year old as a child. The Minister of State indicated that the Government has published a detailed strategy document to tackle youth homelessness. There are many young people who, for a variety of reasons, have left home and live on the streets.
In my opinion we should not use the term "ombudsman"; we should refer to the "ombudsperson". There are already a number of ombudsmen in place in this country. One of them deals with pensions and his or her office will prove to be of great use to ordinary PAYE workers who are paying into pension funds. The Ombudsman for Children will have a major job to do and will have a high level of authority and responsibility. We are concerned here with children's lives and those of their families. This House and the Lower House have a responsibility to ensure that the legislation operates in such a way that will ensure that any person, a child or otherwise, is not wronged.
I wish to return to the definition of children. The upper age limit in this regard, for the purposes of the legislation, will be 18 years of age. However, people are allowed to marry at 16 years of age in this country. The ombudsman will have to tread carefully in this area.
The issue of referrals from the courts to the ombudsman is not dealt with in the Bill. Will the courts have the right to refer matters to the ombudsman? I was not aware, until Senator Costello raised it, that the terms of reference of the ombudsman will not extend to prisons. This is a matter of serious concern because children are being brought before the courts and judges are stating that there is no place to put them. An impression is being given that we can provide for them in some way, shape or form, but that is not really the case. I refer here to problem children. It is a sad reflection on us that for many years problem children were placed in some unit or another run by Christian authorities or groups. We handled matters very badly and, as a result, our difficulties mounted up. The State now has a responsibility to be more open with regard to the way it deals with children.
How can we modify the system, simplify matters or create a situation where there is less need to place children in care? Senator Farrell is right that every possible step must be taken to ensure that children, regardless of the cost, are always well cared for. The State is paying a high price now because it did not take adequate action in this area or did not have the funding necessary to put in place the requisite facilities. Some of our children have gone wildly astray or suffered major abuse. I live in Cork city near a school for orphans and people in the area did not realise what was happening there. That is a sad reflection on our society. We must take every possible action to ensure that there is no recurrence of what happened in the past.
We must do everything within our power to ensure that mothers are always there for their children. I accept that fathers want to be there for their children. When my children were growing up, I was obliged to go out to work, but their mother was always there for them. I quite understand what Senator O'Meara and other Senators have said. The interests of the child, the mother and the father must be taken into account. All possible assistance must be given.
When credits systems were discussed in 1982, I and my party, under the leadership of Dr. Garret FitzGerald, promoted that concept but it was not properly understood at the time. Now that the credit system is in operation, people can see more clearly what it involves. Proper child care is very costly to a family. On a national level, it would be much cheaper to provide all possible assistance to ensure that children are with their mothers for most of the time or, ideally, all the time. We can do that by providing adequate financial assistance. I am not suggesting that all mothers should stay at home and that is not the impression I wish to convey. However, there should be a strong emphasis on the role of the woman in the home – she is the backbone of Irish society. She is the boss, whether one likes that or not, and there is no point pretending otherwise. That is the real foundation of family life and it is a sad reflection on society that we are not putting enough emphasis on it.
It is only right and proper that the ombudsperson, whether a man or a woman, would ensure that each person is properly treated. For far too long, the impression was given that there was no problem, even though there were massive problems and people within the legislative system were well aware of it. The courts now feature prominently on our television screens every night. That is a sad reality. I recall a time when the District Court in Cork sat on Tuesdays and Fridays only, whereas there are three District Court sittings per day. We have to look at the direction society has taken. How can a person who is defined as a child, within the age group of 15 to 17 years, be allowed to roam the streets? We have not really dealt effectively with the problems of drink and drugs, to which Senator Farrell referred. On a recent television programme, it was reported that there are 13,000 heroin addicts in Dublin city. I had no idea the situation was so serious. We have a duty to make sure that the person who brings a child into the world has direct control and responsibility for him or her. That is unquestionably true, no matter what experts may say. The family unit is vitally important.
I fully support the Bill and the appointment of an ombudsman, although I would prefer if that position was described as "commissioner". The first Ombudsman, Mr. Michael Mills, was a great choice and the current Ombudsman, Mr. Kevin Murphy, is an excellent person. Has the Ombudsman the authority to question court rulings? Will the Ombudsman for Children have that authority? Who appoints the ombudsman? Is it the Government or the President? Once the Bill has passed through the Houses of the Oireachtas, how is the appointment of the best person for the job to be carried out? Should a commission be set up to carry out that function? It is a very important appointment. It is not a matter of money or wrongs – it is about people. Specifically, it concerns the rights of a child and its mother and father. We can only imagine how a mother and father must feel if they are accused of having wronged their own child. While we know that children have been wronged, it is also true that wrong allegations have been made, as was so well illustrated by a recent RTE "Late Late Show" programme.
We must be very careful in this matter as it is a major responsibility. I put it to the Minister of State that it is vitally important that this appointment is made only after a thorough assessment process. It is not a matter of appointing the person whom one likes and, in saying that, I intend no criticism of Mr. Michael Mills or his successor as Ombudsman, Mr. Kevin Murphy, both of whom have been excellent in that position. I hope the person appointed to the position of Ombudsman for Children will be equally competent.
I am concerned about the definition of the word "child". How can a person who is married at 16 years of age not be defined as a child in view of the fact that a child is defined as a person under 18 years? If such a person is wronged, what role will the Ombudsman for Children have in that situation? Will the courts have authority to refer cases to the ombudsman? That should be provided for in the Bill, if that situation is not already covered. The courts must have the right to refer back to the ombudsman. I fully appreciate the sincerity of the Minister of State's approach in this matter. I simply wish to ensure that there is sufficient emphasis on the role of parents with regard to their children. They should be given all possible assistance. Our current tax system is not satisfactory in that regard in that the person who stays at home to mind children gets less tax benefit than the person who works outside the home. It would be much better to give people an incentive to mind their children at home, rather than having to incur the substantial cost of child care.
In general terms, the scheme which the Minister of State outlined is excellent. The selection and appointment process for the Ombudsman for Children is a key element of that scheme. While I am not suggesting any political implications, I urge the Minister of State and the Government to give very careful consideration to this important appointment.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House for this very important debate which concerns the rights of children and the establishment of an ombudsman for children. Perhaps people of my generation should apologise to those children who suffered abuse in institutions during our lifetime. Children who were abused in two schools in my parish went to school with my children. It was suggested at the time that those children were difficult when they had attended other schools. Some of them were difficult children but, nevertheless, we never looked at the underlying denial of those kids' human rights. They were physically, mentally and sexually abused in my parish. While I knew those children, I never knew why they were disturbed. Some of them visited my house and played with my children and they have now emerged as the victims of the paedophilia that occurred in two institutions in my parish. Some of them have had traumatic lives and some have been able to control their lives but, nevertheless, I have always felt that we neglected them. We did not listen and we did not ask the questions which were necessary. They were victims of people of my generation and they will never get over the trauma they suffered.
I have had the experience of seeing a man of 34 years of age crying when he spoke of what had happened to him as a child. One would feel like crying after a few minutes because we were as responsible as those who run the institutions where these children were supposedly cared for. Society did not look after them and the church and State colluded in this. Religious orders ran institutions as if they were orphanages and received funding from the State. However, some of the children were referred to the institutions by the courts and those running the institutions were not informed whether the parents of the children were alive. The children suffered under horrific regimes and society forgot about them. We, as neighbours, also forgot about them. We sent our clothes to be laundered in these institutions where slave labour was used. The children were undernourished and not cared for properly. If they ran away the Garda was called and the children were caught and returned to the place of "care". They had no rights and they were not believed when they said they were being abused.
The physical, mental and sexual abuse that took place in these institutions, which were places of incarceration not care, was horrific. We now live in a society which is more careful about what happens to children who are put into care. I was sorry to hear Senator Dino Cregan refer to problem children. There is no such thing as a problem child. Children have problems that are created by the environment or society in which they live. If they have problems, they should be cared for and we should address the way society creates these problems and does not look after them.
Money will not solve the problems of deprived children and children who are abused. I hope the Ombudsman for Children will not find himself or herself in the same position as the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children which felt its role was more about protecting society than protecting the child. I say that guardedly because there are people who suggest I might be wrong but over the years the ISPCC did not help children at risk and children who suffered abuse.
The Ombudsman for Children will have a very difficult job to differentiate between spurious and serious claims. Every claim will have to be taken seriously because if somebody falls through the net that will beget a bigger problem, which will beget another problem and the cycle will go on and on. The Minister of State said the ombudsman would encourage the development of appropriate policies, practices and procedures which affect children. No single person will be able to address this area on his or her own and, therefore, a board will have to be established to develop policies which will help the ombudsman to address issues relating to vulnerable children. Such children do not come from a specific class or creed and their domestic or social environments create problems.
I regularly meet young men and women who endured horrific experiences in my parish and we all should be ashamed of ourselves for allowing this abuse to take place. State bodies, including the Departments of Health, Education and Justice, were responsible for not looking after children who were placed in care. This should not happen again. I hope the Minister of State will ensure policies are co-ordinated between all the agencies involved so that vulnerable children are protected, which is the aim of the legislation.
The Ombudsman for Children cannot advise the Government in isolation. He or she must consult child care agencies under the aegis of various Departments and take their views into account when co-ordinating the development of policy. That will involve a major effort. I have no doubt that the Minister of State has the capacity, capability and energy to implement the Bill fully. She stated there is no point in the Ombudsman for Children only focusing on complaints because policy will not be developed to eliminate the problems in society. However, we must do the best we can to ensure vulnerable children, for whom we have responsibility, are looked after properly. I hope the appointment of an Ombudsman for Children is the first step in a co-ordinated effort to ensure children have more hope for the future than they had in the past. I have had personal contact with a number of people who were abused as children and all I can say to them is sorry.
I congratulate the Minister of State and the Department on bringing forward this legislation. Whatever reservations people may have and whatever proposals they have to amend the Bill, it should have been introduced a long time ago. As far back as the turbulent early 1980s I suggested in my election manifestos that a Minister for children and a Department of children should be established. Over the past ten years I have regularly raised the importance of appointing an ombudsman to look after the interests of children. The Bill represents a monumental step forward.
The legislation raises a major issue. While it is useful, it will not be possible to implement it because it contains too many provisions, although I am very supportive of them. I am thinking particularly of the section in Chapter 3 on the rights and welfare of children and all the requirements under section 7. I support all of them and acknowledge their importance. It is part of what I have been about for many years in my representative capacity in the Irish National Teachers' Organisation.
However, it is too much to take on. It is great to have objectives, and I will support them, but I wonder if the ombudsman will be able to do all that is required of him or her. Is it too much for one office? However, I agree with the Minister of State's emphasis on the point that this office should not be negative and focus solely on complaints. It is important to have the positive aspect articulated and set down as an objective, which gives flesh to the proposals. In that context, they are to be welcomed. It is a model set of objectives and I agree that, on the one hand, it can deal with the objectives and, on the other, deal with complaints.
I ask the Minister of State to clarify one aspect of the Bill that I am not clear about regarding the level of authority the Office of the Ombudsman for Children will have. In the event of complaints being sustained, does the ombudsman have the power to insist or ensure that redress is implemented? Can he or she, as well as make findings, make recommendations for redress that can be implemented? Does the Bill give the ombudsman authority to go to court, if that is what is required, or to insist, ensure or guarantee that redress is implemented? It would create, as the Minister of State will accept, a huge level of frustration if someone went through the entire system and arrived at a positive finding only to discover that the ombudsman was unable to implement it. For example, if a public body makes a wrong decision, it should be possible to reverse it.
Having the objectives so well laid out in the legislation puts a huge responsibility on us all to be aware and to raise public awareness in general. I would like to hear the Minister of State's ideas – I acknowledge it is not in the legislation and may be previous – on how those issues and objectives will be realised in practical terms. I will not hold her to it but I am interested to know what views she has on how it will move forward.
The huge problem in dealing with children in society is illustrated by what I call the "maternity hospital test". A sad reflection on our society is that if one goes to the nurseries of the Coombe, Holles Street or Rotunda maternity hospitals and looks at all the babies lying in their cribs, indistinguishable from one another under the same coloured blankets, and looks at their addresses, one can make a fair guess about the profile of their lives – their chances of finishing up in prison as opposed to university or of ending up unemployed as opposed to a captain of industry. This is the problem we are trying to address and the gap we are trying to bridge. The aim is to ensure that children have equality of access, participation and opportunity. That means that we, as a society, have to put in place structures that will support them.
Is the legislation amenable to a complaint that a child is not getting adequate levels of education in the context of his or her constitutional rights to education? Other Members referred to the Sinnott case but, leaving high profile cases aside, if the level of education a child with or without special needs is receiving is not adequate under the terms of the Constitution, could a case be taken to the ombudsman? I note the exclusions in terms of civil actions but I am not sure how that would relate to a constitutional action. If someone went to the ombudsman with a complaint that his or her child was attending a school and was not receiving the minimum levels of education required under the Constitution, could the case be investigated by the Ombudsman? If the person says the problem is due to the fact that the school is a substandard building or an inappropriate place for education or the teachers are not qualified, would the office stretch to dealing with a constitutional point of that dimension? I ask the Minister of State to clarify this aspect.
I support the parameters in the Bill regarding the complaints process. It provides that, following a prima facie or preliminary investigation, if a complaint is found to be vexatious or trivial, it can be disregarded. That is a great comfort to people who might be the object of complaints and ensures that a mischievous, trivial or vexatious complaint is disregarded. I ask that the term “malicious” be included as a minor amendment. Generally in complaints processes, the words “vexatious” or “malicious” are used as reasons for exclusion. I do not think malice is covered under the headings of trivial or vexatious. It would not create difficulty for the Minister of State to include it and it would keep the Bill in line with models of best practice in that area.
Determination of matters will be on the basis of authority, relevance or negligence or on the basis that decisions were made in error or that something was improperly discriminatory. I congratulate the parliamentary counsel on including the qualifying and modifying word "properly" before "discriminatory" because positive discrimination would not be excluded.
Perhaps the Minister of State could expand in her reply on the question of absolute privilege. In the Houses of the Oireachtas, Members have privilege so that we can say what needs to be said without being subject to the laws of libel and defamation. The Minister of State has provided for absolute privilege in the Bill. Are there particular parameters in that regard? Are there aspects of that which we need to be careful about and is it open to any abuse? Could someone put something in writing on the basis that it could be discovered? I acknowledge that there is a confidentiality section which may cover it, but I would like to hear the Minister of State's reply on that point because I am not sure that they balance one another. Is there any danger that giving absolute privilege takes the brakes off and allows people to go beyond themselves?
The parliamentary counsel has drafted the Bill partly in traditional sections and partly in chapters which is rare in legislation. I always look at the technicalities of Bills and how one directs people by reference to sections, subsections, paragraphs, clauses and sub-clauses. Why was there a need to use chapters that cover bundles of legislation? It is not unique or without precedent, but it is rare. Normally one sees a number of sections in a part and I would like to hear the view of the Minister of State on that.
There is one thing that has not been in an Irish constitution and it is one of the few things that can be blamed on the great founder of the Minister of State's party. This would be perfectly in line with the points made by Senator Farrell. Since the foundation of the State, we have been guilty of not including in any constitution or legislation the words of the 1916 Proclamation, which promised on the foundation of the State to cherish all the children of the nation equally. The Minister of State will have done a great service if those words are incorporated into legislation. If the Department of Finance could be rendered powerless and we could insert into legislation, or even better in the Constitution by way of an amendment which would be more pro-life than anything we have seen in the past 20 years, the words those people in 1916 put to the forefront of their proclamation, that we would cherish all the children of the nation equally, that would lay the real foundation for what is in the legislation and would create fairness and equity.
I suspect that the cost factor involved is the reason we have not looked at this, as matters such as those raised by the Jamie Sinnott case would be the norm. Now that the courts have undertaken to ensure that rights are vindicated, or at least that there is compensation for lack of rights, it might be a good time to look at how we treat all the children of the nation and ensure they are treated equally. That should be the basis of how we approach our children and should inform all legislation relating to them.
I have always liked to think that was what informed the establishment of the national school system 80 years prior to the 1916 Proclamation. It is important to recognise that those words are the ones that set the parameters. If we want a basis for doing something or want to point to something in our history that influenced us, that is it, yet we have not taken it into account in legislation. The motivation behind this Bill is the same motivation that led somebody in 1916 to write that we should cherish all the children of our nation equally, but it cannot have the same impact as if those words were put in the Constitution.
I have sought the appointment of an ombudsman for children for many years. I welcome the Bill as a positive step. However churlish we might be about complaints that the Government and Ministers are not doing this, that and the other, and complaining in future, when the Bill is enacted, that it is not being implemented fully, it is good legislation.
A question was raised earlier about commencement dates. If we cannot immediately cherish all the children of the State equally, at least this bridging legislation should come into operation as soon as possible. In some legislation the traditional "day or days" was used but on a number of occasions in this House we managed to ensure that legislation came into operation by specifying a period of time. I would not be too pushed about the period of time but I would like to have a date inserted. Would the Minister of State be prepared to accept in section 1(2) a very simple amendment so that the Act would come into operation on such day or days as the Minister may appoint by order, etc, to be implemented within a period of a year or even two years? The period was two years in the Education Act and it was to everybody's benefit that we could come back after two years to ask where is such a committee that was promised. I am sure the Minister of State did so.
Similarly, with other statutory requirements such as the committee on disadvantage, there is a need to have a policy on these issues and to have a complaints procedure in place in regard to schools. The Minister should take no other advice on this but should insert "within two years" to ensure the legislation is implemented. That is not an unreasonable suggestion. It will take two years to get it up and running and, if there is an argument that some part or parts may take longer than that, it can be dealt with then. To do justice to the Minister of State and the people who have worked on the Bill, the draftsmen who put it together and the children on whom it focuses, it would be invaluable to have that timeframe in the legislation.
I support the legislation with some minor amendments and I congratulate the Minister of State on bringing it forward.
Gabhaim buíochas leis na Seanadóirí uilig as an tacaíocht a thug siad don mBille seo ar maidin and the very positive response and the detailed consideration given by the Senators on Second Stage of the Bill.
It is important to clarify that there are many things the Ombudsman for Children will not do. This office will not solve every family problem. It will not protect every child inside or outside his or her own home. The Ombudsman for Children is not an inspector, a counsellor or a teacher.
The Ombudsman for Children will be an additional voice for children, one to add to the many individuals who over the years have highlighted the rights and welfare of children. This office will add to the many voluntary and statutory organisations which have worked for children and, indeed, to many people in this House and the Dáil who have highlighted issues in regard to children. The ombudsman will have strong authority to investigate and initiate change and demand a response.
It is those two things that make the office special but it should be seen in the overall context of the changes that are taking place for children in regard to legislation, investment, new programmes and the national children's strategy. The strategy sets out as its first goal that children shall have a voice and the Ombudsman for Children, in conjunction with the Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children with special responsibility for children, Dáil na nÓg and all the other structures that have been put in place for children, will ensure that children have a direct voice and that they will be understood.
Questions were raised by Senators today in regard to the need for more research. We identified that in our preparation of the strategy and that is why it is the second goal. We are actively looking at the final stages of preparation of a longitudinal study, something that has not taken place in this country, to advise our preparation of policies for children. The National Children's Office has funded research scholarships at a doctoral level and we are setting up a research dissemination unit so we can learn about children's lives and how we can plan and prepare policies for them. The third goal is to put in place the services and supports for them.
The vision we have is one where children are recognised and respected in their own right as citizens of this country, getting the support of their families and their communities and getting an opportunity to enjoy their childhood with the supports to enable them to grow to be mature adults.
Many Senators referred to families and family support and we all share that philosophy. Senators Farrell, Fitzpatrick, O'Meara and Dino Cregan particularly focused on this element. Early intervention and family support has to be the direction of future Government policies because children want to remain within their own families and need to be protected in that context, but where that cannot happen it should be in the love, care and support of a foster family so they can have the value of a family life. Only as a last resort, should residential care be used for our children.
In recent years we have seen investment in springboard projects, family support projects and child benefit in order to support those children and their families while recognising that, of course, there are serious problems in families. Those problems need to be tackled in a wide variety of ways, by looking at domestic violence, alcoholism, drugs and family breakdown. We are looking at myriad things to find out what is causing the problems of children and their families. In that respect the promotional role of the Ombudsman for Children will be crucial and I do not share Senator O'Toole's view that it is too widely defined and not implementable. It is set out with regard to – and coupled with – the work already being done.
There are models of ombudsman throughout the world that can be examined. His or her work will complement very closely that of the National Children's Office, the social services inspectorate and other national organisations. I want the ombudsman to listen directly to children and to give them their voice. The Norwegian ombudsman has been in office for a number of years in a country that is much larger, geographically, than this one. By use of e-mail and other electronic means, he is able to consult directly with children and that is something that can be done here. The calibre of person chosen to fill this office will be very important. It will be a proactive, energetic and visible office.
Senators Henry and O'Meara raised the possibility of children making a complaint when they do not get on with their parents. It is important to clarify that a child will not be making a complaint about their parents. This is about public bodies, schools and voluntary hospitals. Of course, the constitutional rights of parents mean they have to be notified if a complaint has been made, but the parent does not have the power of veto over the complaint being investigated, which will allow the ombudsman to continue to work.
The question of time lapse was also raised. This is mirrored in the Ombudsman Act, 1980. I will be anxious to prevent the non-investigation of a complaint simply because there have been delays at other levels, such as in the case of a health board or public authority investigation. I will look at that on Report Stage.
Senators Cregan and Costello asked about the right of the courts to refer to the ombudsman. The courts are totally separate and would not have that right, but they could draw the ombudsman's attention to an issue, which he might address in his promotional role. The ombudsman's work could complement, rather than directly relate to, the work of the courts.
Education is obviously a crucial issue and Senator O'Toole has a particular interest in it. It is because of the length of time children under the age of 18 spend in school that I was so anxious to include schools in this process. If a school is not fulfilling any of its functions under the 1998 Act, the ombudsman can investigate, which is how this Bill links to that Act. He probably could not set out a specific constitutional complaint, but people have access to the courts in terms of constitutional rights. He could certainly draw attention to his concerns about issues in the wider sense.
Quite a number of Senators asked if refugees and asylum seekers were being excluded. Children seeking refugee status or asylum can go to the Ombudsman for Children in relation to that process. It is only the decisions that are excluded, as they are in the case of the existing ombudsman legislation. That is equally true in the case of the children of asylum seekers. If they have difficulty in relation to schools or voluntary hospitals, they can go to the Ombudsman for Children if the complaint specifically relates to the decision on their process. If there are matters that need to be clarified in that regard, I will certainly take them up on Report Stage.
A number of other questions arose in relation to the exclusions. Senator Costello mentioned prisons. Senator Jackman may have misread the Bill at the beginning. The detention centres for children are all included, as are the secure care centres. They are all under the aegis of the Department of Education and Science, the health boards or the Department of Health and Children and are, therefore, included anyway. Under the Children Act, it will be illegal for children to be held in prisons and it will be illegal for a child with health or special care needs to be held in an inappropriate place, such as a detention unit. It will allow the ombudsman to look at the process by which the child ended up there and to look at the administration of the health board in whose care the child was, to ensure that they did not fail in their functions. The prisons are excluded generally, but I take the point Senator Costello made about St. Patrick's Institution and I will go back to the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform in relation to it.
The ombudsman is the last point of appeal in relation to employment. There are the Labour Court, the Equality Authority and various other channels through which employment issues can be dealt with. That is why it is not included here. The power to restrain the investigation of the Minister is a provision which also applies in the Ombudsman Act, 1980, and is made to exclude points of judgment for which a Minister is answerable to the Dáil, but it has never been used. It ensures that a Minister remains answerable to the Dáil.
Senators Fitzpatrick and Lanigan mentioned an inspection role for the ombudsman. The inspection of children's centres and residential centres is in the capable hands of the social services inspectorate, which we set up in the last couple of years and which will be established on a statutory basis. The Department of Education and Science also has an inspector of schools, so the matter is covered in that way. Senator O'Meara asked if the ombudsman could intervene in a child welfare case, which he or she could not. The ombudsman could not investigate a clinical judgment or intervene in the handling of a particular case. What he or she could do is investigate why it took so long for a child to be allocated a social worker or for action to be taken. He or she will not be able to intervene in the decisions taken in relation to a child. It will be possible for the Ombudsman for Children to investigate actions not taken. The current ombudsman also has that power, but that assumes that the action not taken is a function of the body investigated and which they are expected to carry out under legislation.
I am as anxious as any Senator to ensure that the office of the ombudsman is established quickly. Questions have been raised about the name "ombudsman" and the alternative "commissioner" has been suggested. In the national children's strategy we highlighted the fact that "ombudsman" is one of those funny little words because, of course, the person could be a man or a woman. We could have changed the name to "commissioner", but the expectation is for an ombudsman for children and it would not be helpful to change the name at this stage.
The good news is that I have secured funding in the Estimates for the office to be established and staffed this year. There will obviously be some transitional arrangements and an overlap with the role of the current ombudsman, though that functionary had very little dealing with children's issues or with children themselves.
The calibre of the person will be crucial. It has to be someone who will garner respect and authority, who will be able to implement their decisions and demand a response. It will, particularly, have to be someone who can deal directly with children. The person must be able to listen to them and gain their respect and we will have to select such a person to be recommended to the President with care. The person will fulfil the role for a six year term. It is true to say that in the past we did not listen to our children and we can see the repercussions of that now.
Senator O'Toole talked about de Valera's failure in the Constitution. There was no hope in the 1930s that children would have been given constitutional rights of their own. I would equally say that they would not have got constitutional rights of their own in the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. It is only in the past few years that we have started to recognise children as citizens in their own right, as people who have rights of their own. That has come about through good news and bad news, but public opinion is changing to such an extent that we are now recognising children in their own right. Personally, I would like to see a constitutional referendum on guaranteeing the rights of the child and I believe that in future years it will be held. However, we must set the context, the policies and the philosophy in which that can take place. That is what is happening through our policies, our national children's strategy and the taking of Second Stage of this Bill to establish the Office of the Ombudsman for Children.
Ba mhaith liom buíochas a gabháil leis na Seanadóirí as ucht a gcabhair agus beidh mé ag súil le teacht ar ais chun na leasaithe a phlé.
When is it proposed to sit again?
Next Wednesday at 2.30 p.m.