Order of Business. - Ombudsman for Children Bill, 2002 [ Seanad Bill amended by the Dáil ]: Report and Final Stages.

This is a Seanad Bill which has been amended by the Dáil. In accordance with Standing Order 103, it is deemed to have passed its First, Second and Third Stages in the Seanad and is placed on the Order Paper for Report Stage. On the question, "That the Bill be received for final consideration", the Minister may explain the purpose of the amendments made by the Dáil. This is looked upon as the report of the Dáil amendments to the Seanad. The only matters, therefore, which may be discussed are the amendments made by the Dáil. For Senators' convenience, I have arranged for the printing and circulation of the amendments. Senators may speak only once on Report Stage.

Question proposed: "That the Bill be received for final consideration."

Tá áthas orm bheith ar ais sa tSeanad leis an mBille tábhactach seo. It is appropriate that the final legislation to pass through the 28th Dáil is the establishment of the office of Ombudsman for Children. That the Dáil passed this legislation is a sign of our commitment to improving the situation for children and our desire to build on the work which has been done over the last number of years. Following substantial debate on this Bill in the Seanad, just two amendments were made by the Dáil. Amendment No. 1 removes the following provision:

A person shall not be more than 61 years of age upon first being appointed to the Office of Ombudsman for Children.

It is important that there should be no discrimination of grounds of age. We must recognise that the ability to understand the needs of children is not dependent on age. It is important to ensure that while we are safeguarding the rights of children we do not dilute the rights of anybody else.

Amendment No. 2 deals with the question of bringing young people who are in prison under the remit of the ombudsman. There was much debate on this issue in the Seanad. This amendment provides for the removal of any exclusion of young people in prison. Under the current legislation, such young people are specifically excluded and this amendment allows the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to bring that exclusion to an end. The use of the word "shall" in this amendment represents the Government's commitment to effect this change. The change will not take place immediately because the Ombudsman for Children is meant to be the final port of call, when all other avenues have been exhausted. Specific groups have their own methods for investigating complaints.

The office of Independent Inspector of Prisons has just been set up. Mr. Justice Kinlan has been appointed to this role and has recently taken up his position. It is important that this new inspectorate be allowed to establish itself and that there is no overlap between this new office and that of the ombudsman. I am satisfied that this amendment will ensure there are no gaps in the system. It also ensures that young people in prison will not be excluded from this legislation.

The Ombudsman for Children is a very important office. Its creation represents a significant step in the right direction for children. The funding for the ombudsman has already been made available and I envisage an immediate move in terms of the setting-up of the office. We must ensure that the person who is selected for this role is of a very high calibre. It must be somebody who commands respect and authority and will ensure that public bodies act on his or her recommendations. This person must also have the skills necessary to listen to children, to deal with them and be able to put forward their views. It will be a challenging role. I anticipate that children will be involved in the recruitment process for the Ombudsman for Children. Molaim an Bille don Teach.

I congratulate the Minister on this Bill. It comes at an appropriate time. The creation of the office of Ombudsman for Children is long overdue but it is a welcome development. I wish the person who is appointed well in their task. They will not have an easy job.

I am privileged to have been able to contribute to this legislation. All children, including those involved with the prison services, must be protected. The evidence of recent weeks indicates that for a long time our children have not been protected by the State. I congratulate the Minister of State, who will have come to appreciate the importance of that in recent weeks with regard to children who are not well protected. Health boards and all relevant bodies throughout the country have a great deal to answer for. Voluntary groups are not prepared to become overly involved because they believe that the statutory bodies are not doing enough. With the appointment of the ombudsman or "ombudsperson", I hope young children will be able to live in a more secure environment. Regardless of whether these children are wild or otherwise, it is important that they are well protected.

The Bill is long overdue and it is appropriate that it is being passed on the last sitting day of this Seanad's five year lifetime. I am thrilled that we can at long last say to the general public that a person will be appointed who will be solely responsible for the well-being of our children.

I compliment the Minister of State on bringing forward this important Bill, I con gratulate the officials involved in its drafting and I welcome the amendments being made to it. The ombudsperson, whoever that may be, will have an important role and an extremely difficult job to do.

When a Bill of this nature is in process, we must recognise the huge contribution that has been made by many voluntary organisations that deal with young people and ensure they are properly trained and disciplined from an early age. I do not believe adequate credit has been given to those, parents and others, who have worked in a voluntary capacity for many years. In some instances, these people have lost out on huge amounts of earnings in order to devote their time to looking after young people.

I thank the Minister of State for bringing forward this important Bill. I compliment her on the excellent work she has done in her Department during her term of office and I wish her well.

I wish to comment on the two amendments made in the Dáil, the second of which relates to the prison service. That amendment was debated in this House on the previous occasion on which we dealt with the Bill and the Minister of State promised to consider the position. She has done exactly that and it is obvious that she took on board what was stated because the use of the word "shall" makes the requirements definitive.

I must admit that I did not identify the need for the first amendment when we dealt with the Bill previously. I recall reading an article from an American publication ten years ago which stated that if one wants to identify trends, one should look at local newspapers, not their national counterparts, and see what words are being used. The article in question identified that fact that discrimination on the basis of age was becoming a trend at that stage. In the 1960s, discrimination was identified in terms of the use of words relating race, colour, etc. Age discrimination began to become apparent in American newspapers in the late 1980s and early 1990s. We did not realise at that point that age discrimination could mean what it has come to mean.

I am amazed by the fact that, under the Bill, it appeared we were excluding a person over the age of 61 – that used to seem quite an old age to me and I am sure it still does to the Minister of State – from being appointed. This House will have to closely monitor the position regarding age discrimination in the future in order to ensure that it does not happen. Such discrimination against older people should not be allowed because we are going to need their assistance, advice and skills which will be in short supply in the future. It would not be acceptable to ban anybody of a certain age from being appointed.

I congratulate the Minister of State on introducing the amendments. I am delighted the Bill was passed before the Dáil was dissolved. I am sure many people in the future will look back with appreciation on the work the Minister of State has invested in the Bill.

I hope the word "ombudsperson" never enters common usage. I recall one occasion in the House when, by mistake, a Member referred to Senator Jackman as Senator "Jackperson". There is a danger that on every occasion on which we use the word "man" we feel the need to substitute the word "person". Let us hope that the term "ombudsman" is retained.

This is an extremely important Bill because children are the most vulnerable members of society. It is incumbent on us, as Members of the House, to play our part in ensuring that the legislation comes on stream. Revelations in today's newspapers, regardless of whether they are true, have given rise to great concerns.

There is no point in repeating what has already been said other than to congratulate the Minister of State on bringing forward the Bill. As other Members have stated, this is extremely important legislation. I compliment the Minister of State on the two amendments that have been brought forward.

I again thank Senators for their support and encouragement in putting through this important legislation which, in my opinion, will make a real difference. As always, it is important to recognise that the ombudsman will not solve every problem. The ombudsman will not protect every child or family because he or she will not be able to visit every home or walk down every street. However, the ombudsman will provide additional protection for children. He or she will protect and advance their rights and interests and will work with public bodies to ensure they are provided with the services they require. It is important that all of us who, in whatever role, have responsibility for children meet that responsibility.

I dislike the term "ombudsperson" and I would never usually use it. In my opinion we should perhaps, as is the case with the Cathaoirleach, use the Irish version of the word and remove the gender considerations. The ombudsman's job will only be made easy when everyone else faces up to their responsibility for children.

I hope that the Seanad will sit on another day because my father, the father of the House, is anxious to make a contribution. Ba mhaith liom "Go n-éirí libh" a rá leis na Seanadóirí uilig. I wish the Cathaoirleach well.

Question put and agreed to.
Bill passed.