Child Care (Amendment) Bill 2006: Committee Stage.

Section 1 agreed to.

If amendment No. 1 is agreed, amendment No. 2 cannot be moved. Amendments Nos. 1 and 2 overlap and are addressed to the same part of the Bill. If they are not discussed together, amendment No. 2 will fall after a decision is made on amendment No. 1. In such circumstances, there would not be any opportunity to debate amendment No. 2. As amendment No. 2, which is a technical amendment, is an alternative to amendment No. 1, and amendment No. 3 is related to amendments Nos. 1 and 2, amendments Nos. 1 to 3, inclusive, may be discussed together, by agreement. Is that agreed? Agreed.

I move amendment No. 1:

In page 3, line 30, to delete "five" and substitute "3".

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Lenihan, and his officials to the House. Before I speak about amendment No. 1, I would like the Minister of State to clarify something. He indicated on Second Stage that he would consult with the Office of the Attorney General about the possibility of introducing amendments to this legislation on foot of the Ferns Report.

We will deal with that.

No Government amendments have been tabled.

We will deal with that when we come to the relevant section of the Bill.

If the Senator speaks on amendment No. 1, I will deal with the matter he has raised in my response to him.

I ask the Minister of State to clarify whether he will introduce the amendments in question on Report Stage in this House, or in the Dáil.

I will deal with that.

I thank the Cathaoirleach for allowing me to refer to the matter now. The amendment I have proposed seeks to replace the reference to "five years" with a reference to "3 years". While five years is a short time, it is also a long time if one thinks about it as the full length of one's secondary school education. Senator Henry's amendment proposes that the relevant amount of time be reduced to "four years". I suggest that if foster parents have been taking care of a child for three years, they should be entitled to benefit from increased freedom and autonomy, separate to the Health Service Executive, in that regard. The Bill currently refers to five years out of the 18 years of a child's life, which is a huge percentage of that life. Three years would be a more suitable timeframe. If someone fosters a child who is aged 14, five full years would have to pass — the child would be 19 by that time — before the foster parent would have a full say in decisions about medical and other matters relating to the foster child. The foster child would be an adult by that stage, of course, having passed the age of 18. I am trying to be helpful by suggesting that we provide for a period of three, rather than five, years.

Like Senator Browne, I feel that five years is a long time in the life of a child. Five years go by in a flash for an adult, but five years can be one third of a child's life, by the time he or she is fostered. I had hoped to get on the side of the angels by proposing a reasonable reduction, whereby the relevant period would be four years. At the same time, I recognise the Minister of State's concerns about being sure the child is in a stable position. I have proposed in amendment No. 3 that we should provide for a period of five years in cases of placements which have been interrupted. When children are placed in foster care, one always hopes the time will come when they can be returned to the care of their parents. They sometimes go back to the care of their parents. I am aware of cases of children going into the care of other relatives. It does not always work out, unfortunately, which means the children have to go back into foster care a few months later. I would not like people to feel that cannot happen because a five-year period has to be adhered to before anything can happen. The Bill takes into account the fact that the wishes of the child must be considered, which is welcome. I was interested in the figures the Minister of State gave last week about the length of time for which children have been fostered. A significant number of children have been fostered for a considerable length of time. People think that fostering lasts for a short duration, but many cases of fostering last more than one or even three years. I suggest that many children would be covered by this proposal. We need to ensure children, in whom we are interested here, can feel they are in as stable a position as possible. Therefore, I hope the Minister of State will accept my amendments.

I have considered carefully the amendments which have been tabled by Senators Browne and Henry, which propose to reduce the period of time for which a child should be in the continuous care of a foster parent or relative before a court order can be sought. The requirement in the Bill that a child be in the care of a foster parent or relative for a continuous period of five years is appropriate. After five years have elapsed, foster parents, or relative foster carers, will be experienced and will have a sufficient level of understanding of the needs of the foster children. If there are instances of instability or interruption in the placement, it is not appropriate for foster carers to have increased autonomy in respect of the child. When an order is granted under this Bill in respect of a child, that means the State delegates its responsibilities for that child to a foster carer. Under the terms of the legislation, all of the current rights and obligations of the State in respect of that child can be transferred to the parent. That is not something that can be done lightly. The State has to be satisfied there is an unblemished history of care on the part of the foster parent or relative in respect of the child.

I am satisfied that, on balance, five years is the right period of time to provide for. I have listened to the views of Senators. I note that a period of three years has been proposed — I would not entertain such a short period, in the context of such a far-reaching delegation. I will take note of what has been said in this House and I will reflect on it when matters proceed elsewhere. I will listen to what is said in the other House and take account of the views of the national organisations. I am not disposed to depart from the period of time that is currently provided for. I accept the principle underlying Senator Henry's amendment No. 3, which relates to interrupted placements. I am willing to consider introducing an amendment on Report Stage which would allow a short interruption in the placement of a child, with the same foster parent or relative, to be disregarded in calculating the continuous period. I would concede that, but making that concession strengthens the argument for allowing a relatively long period of time.

The Minister of State's post is a difficult one because it could be divided into three sections. The infants' section could cover from birth to four years, four to 12 year olds could be classified as children and 12 to 18 year olds as adolescents. Five years is a short time in terms of an infant being fostered but it could be of far greater significance for those fostered later in life. Could we consider an amendment whereby, instead of a five-year rule for all foster children, allowances are made for teenagers or children over ten years of age who could wait a shorter period of, perhaps, three to four years? Will the Minister of State consider my proposal that the older the child, the less time a foster parent should be compelled to wait to apply for a court order giving more autonomy?

I am not well disposed to that suggestion. One of the great difficulties regarding foster placements is that difficulties tend to arise in the categories with older children. That a person aged 13 to 16, for example, was in a stable relationship with a foster parent or relative carer does not guarantee they will remain so at age 17. Unfortunately there are many examples of this in the system.

I thank the Minister of State for stating he will reconsider amendment No. 3 for Report Stage. Did the Minister of State and his officials consider the Medical Council's ethical guidelines on medical practice? They advise extreme care in getting the consent of older children and I do not wish to see a situation where the consent of everyone else is considered because much of this relates to medical consent. We must be very careful regarding how the child feels about the procedure that is to be undertaken. It is important that the treatment be explained carefully. We have discussed child and adolescent psychiatric disease previously in this House and I hope the Minister of State can consider the Medical Council's points on this along with ancillary advice he might receive.

I am worried that there might be a conflict of interest in this area. Foster parents may be well able to listen to the child and at the same time the medical practitioner is advised to take cognisance of what the child says. Everyone can do their best for a child and try to return him or her to the family unit from which he or she came, but a month later that child may be back with his or her relatives or unrelated foster parents.

Surely this Bill has two purposes, to protect the foster child and also make life easier on the foster parents on routine issues such as visits to the doctor, school tours and so on. This is straightforward for infants but as children get older they have more needs. My proposal to allow for the age of a child would make daily activities less of a burden for foster parents.

I accept the spirit in which Senator Browne tabled this amendment, but the children in question are in the care of the State. The State has accepted responsibility for these children; the State, not the parents, has gone to the District Court to obtain an order. The children are in the care of the State, through the Health Service Executive, which we all know and love so well. We cannot lose sight of this in devising the appropriate balance in this legislation.

Senator Browne is correct from the point of view of convenience, but the State has assumed responsibility for these children. Therefore, it can only delegate its powers when there is a well-founded presumption that it is safe to do so. The State's point of view is that a substantial period of time must elapse for this to happen. A parent does not apply to have a child taken into care, though a relative carer may voluntarily surrender a child into care. Under this legislation the foster parent will have the right, for the first time, to go to court and obtain these rights over the child, notwithstanding the fact that the original parent does not agree. The original parent must be put on notice of the application unless untraceable.

Under this legislation foster parents will be able to obtain a court order giving rights in respect of a child taken into care. This is a fundamental change to the existing arrangement and this is how the period of five years was arrived at. The figure was not simply plucked from the air. I appreciate the practical problem outlined by Senator Browne but we cannot legislate only for that; if we did, we would give every foster parent the power to make these decisions all the time. We are going a step further by giving the foster parents real powers through delegation by the State. I have mentioned children taken into care, but in the case of those voluntarily surrendered into care the parent must have a veto.

Senator Henry raised the issues of medical treatment and ethics. We have been careful in this regard and if the Senator looks at section 2(8) she will see that the issue is addressed. Nothing in this legislation puts a foster child in a position different to any other child. Subsection (8) states:

Nothing in this section or section 18 shall be construed as making ineffective any consent that, by virtue of section 23 of the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act 1997, would otherwise be an effective consent.

That section provides that in the case of a 16 or 17 year old, a medical practitioner can, of his or her own volition, treat the patient. That provision is also transposed to foster children, so nothing in this Bill will compromise the law as it applies. As Senator Henry knows, parental consent is always a difficult issue when it arises regarding children under 16 years of age and it will be addressed for these children as it would be for any other child.

I thank the Minister of State for his explanation because it is important that foster children be granted the same position as other children and if this is achieved then I am satisfied.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Amendments Nos. 2 and 3 not moved.

Amendments Nos. 4, 5 and 10 are cognate and may be discussed together by agreement.

I move amendment No. 4:

In page 4, lines 8 to 10, to delete all words from and including "a" in line 8 down to and including "time" in line 10 and substitute "the parents of the child".

On Second Stage I raised the issue of how we define parents in this legislation. The legislation, as it stands, refers to the consent of the parent having custody of the child at the relevant time.

The Minister of State refers to equality in other legislation, but this provision is discriminatory. It starts from the premise that the person with custody of the child is the mother. It does not specifically state that but it is obvious from the text. Our system discriminates against fathers. The housing and social welfare systems act to keep unmarried couples apart and often the people involved are vulnerable. There could be many reasons for a father not having custody at the time, such as housing, the mother living with her parents because the whole family cannot be accommodated or other reasons. Why should that father not be consulted? This legislation makes a judgment on fathers' roles with the wording "a parent having custody of the child".

The wording of the Bill is also a problem if the mother does not have custody. If she does not have custody but is guardian by law, she should be consulted. If we presume the parent without custody might be awkward or missing and it is not possible to get his or her consent, that is addressed in section 2(3)(a) and (b) because there the court can be satisfied that a non-custodial parent or custodial parent is missing and cannot be found and can make the decision anyway having regard to the child’s welfare. There is no reason not to include both parents in the section. The same point can be made for amendment No. 5.

Amendment No. 10 is slightly different because it deals with going back to court and bearing or discharging an order. Under this legislation the people who can apply include a parent having custody of the child concerned at the relevant time. What about the father? What if he can go back to court to say he has accommodation and a job? If he can become active in the child's life, why should he not be able to say that equally with the mother? Perhaps the father has the custody of the child and is the person allowed under the legislation as it stands. What about the mother who is not custodian but is a guardian of the child by law? Why can she not go to the court to ask for the discharge of an order?

This legislation is discriminatory. As there are many safety nets to ensure a child's welfare is looked after, why should a parent be excluded because he or she does not have custody of the child? If a father is excluded it is bias and if a mother is excluded it is a breach of her legal rights as a guardian. I ask the Minister of State to consider the three amendments.

I listened to Senator Tuffy and the more we talk about this issue the happier I am that the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform has appointed someone to report on the family courts. Senator Tuffy as a solicitor has more access to them than the rest of us. We have had to go on anecdotal evidence for so long on custody cases that we are in a situation of great ignorance. If the father's name appears on the birth certificate it might be possible for both parents to have rights, as Senator Tuffy suggested.

I am prepared to revisit this issue. There are sections in the 1991 legislation which use the same formula as this legislation, where a person having custody or actingin loco parentis for the child is the person who is put on notice. That, however, is in the context of interim and emergency applications. I am not prepared to stand over this section and I see merit in the points that have been raised. If it is the case that the primary care application is made to other parties then this application should be also on notice to other parties. I will examine this and respond to the legitimate concerns raised by Senators. The position of the natural father in the context of care proceedings is not clear from the 1991 Act. Clearly this legislation is derived from the 1991 Act and anything we do must conform with its spirit. I will check this issue.

I thank the Minister of State. Even in the case of the mother who does not have custody, there is an issue because she would be the legal guardian. We should take that into account.

We should be aware of a circumstance where a child is abandoned and taken into foster care. There are circumstances where it is impracticable in any context to contact the original parent. I will examine the issue and come back to Senators about it.

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

I move amendment No. 6:

In page 5, between lines 18 and 19, to insert the following:

"(7) Where a consent is given under subsection (6), the foster parent or relative of the child shall inform the Health Service Executive as soon as may be reasonable.".

In this Bill we are giving foster parents more autonomy. They do not have to report to the HSE that medical or psychiatric assessments or examinations have been carried out. There should still be an onus on the foster parents to inform the relevant authority that an examination of a serious nature is to be carried out. It would do no harm to keep a record on their behalf. It would be dangerous to go from the scenario where the HSE must be informed about everything to not informing it about anything at all. The foster parent, depending on the examination, should inform the HSE that it took place.

I understand the spirit of the amendment because it makes sense but it is not addressed in a practical way. Each foster child has a care plan and that continues in force after the order is made. The issue raised by the Senator is, therefore, addressed through the care plan, which ensures a level of contact between the foster parents and the social workers.

If I accepted the amendment this would be written in as a legal requirement, undermining the purpose of the legislation, which is to do away with that requirement when the parent is found to be sufficiently trustworthy. In effect the legislation states that after the designated period of years the parent can be trusted to make these decisions but that does not mean a care plan is not in place. That is why the HSE has the power to come back and revoke the parent's powers if necessary. We must, however, recognise the trust we repose in parents under this legislation by virtue of the length of time they have looked after a child.

I appreciate the Minister of State's point but I am still concerned. The unlikely event could arise where a foster parent had a child who received unnecessary psychiatric or medical treatment. The purpose of my amendment is to ensure all matters are in order and reduce the potential for abuse taking place. I recall a recent case in Britain where a foster parent was charged with involvement in the murder of a foster child. I hope such an extreme case will never occur here. It is important to introduce checks and balances and to ensure that, in the event of a foster parent deciding not to record a medical examination or psychiatric treatment, the relevant authorities become aware of it before it is too late.

While I understand the Minister of State's position that the amendment would alter the status of the care plan, there have been examples, at least in Great Britain although I am not aware of examples in this country, of care plans falling down badly. Social workers are increasingly overburdened with their caseload. I ask the Minister of State to consider the amendment because I can understand Senator Browne's anxiety to introduce the provision given that the children in question will still be in the care of the State.

Senators are making my argument as to the reason I settled on the period of five years in the first instance, namely, that parents are being extended trust and there was a demonstrated capacity to make decisions. People think of the annual visit to Torremolinos but there is no more important decision than a medical decision and it takes time for a parent to demonstrate a capacity to make that type of decision.

I would be concerned if the provision were inserted in the legislation as a legal formulation and separate matter from the care plan. After all, the position on consent is clear-cut in the Bill and we would muddy the waters if we inserted a provision under which parents could have consent but such consent would have to be notified to the Health Service Executive and social worker. Would this mean the doctor would have to inform the parent that he or she would have to notify the HSE? Would the doctor then not be at fault? The insertion of this provision would create a significant difficulty. The five year period — or four year period if that were to be so decided at a later stage — addresses the issue raised in the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

I move amendment No. 7:

In page 5, line 30, to delete "Any" and substitute the following:

"Section 37 applies to any child who is the subject of an order under this section and in particular any".

The purpose of the amendment is to make clear that in addition to existing orders to the child continuing, new access applications, for example, by the natural parents, can be made after the making of an order under the legislation. While I am substantiallyad idem with the Minister of State on this matter, I seek to ensure it will still be possible for an order to be made subsequent to the making of the order provided for in this section.

Section 37 of the Child Care Act 1991 relates to access to children in care. It provides that where a child is in the care of the Health Service Executive, either under a care order or otherwise, the executive will facilitate reasonable access to the child by the parents, any person actingin loco parentis or any person with a bona fide interest. It provides that a person who is dissatisfied with the arrangements made by the executive may apply to the court and the court may make an order on access and vary or discharge this order. The HSE can also apply to the court for an order authorising the executive to refuse a named person access to a child. These provisions are already in the 1991 legislation.

This Bill provides that any arrangement in place under section 37 at the time of the making of an order under this section will remain in place until the court orders otherwise. Having examined the precise wording in the Bill and notwithstanding the fact that it contains a provision that the new sections are without prejudice to any other provisions of the Act which assign functions to the Health Service Executive, I am prepared to consider this issue further and make explicit what is implicit in the legislation with a view to introducing an amendment on Report Stage. Any such amendment would make a specific provision for new access arrangements to be made or existing access arrangements to be altered after an order under this section has been made. In short, the Senator raises a fair point which I will address.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

I move amendment No. 8:

In page 6, line 2, to delete "section," and substitute "section or otherwise,".

The purpose of the amendment is to recognise that in circumstances where a child is fostered by a grandparent or other member of his or her family, as opposed to being formally placed in care, it may not be possible to determine an exact commencement date for the fostering arrangement. For example, if the parents of a child divorce and one or other parent remarries, the child may not like the parent's new partner and may decide to live with his or her grandparents. In such circumstances, there may not be a formal date at which the child began staying with his or her grandparents. The insertion of the words "or otherwise" would give the authorities latitude when applying the five-year rule currently envisaged by the Minister of State. The grandparents in the case I outlined would have some degree of flexibility in demonstrating that a child has been in their care for a five-year period because the provision makes an allowance for scenarios in which children stay with family members and the commencement date of the arrangement may be difficult to prove.

I am not being kind to the Senator because I cannot find an amendment in his name which I am prepared to accept. The insertion of the expression "or otherwise" would not be appropriate because the Bill makes a fundamental distinction between the conditions which apply to the granting of an order under this section in respect of a child in voluntary care and a child in care under a care order. This distinction relates to the consent of the parent or person in loco parentis being sought by the Health Service Executive in relation to the granting of the order where the child is in voluntary care and the parent or person in loco parentis being given notice by the Health Service Executive when the child is in care under a care order made by the court.

Section 4 of the primary Act provides for a child to be taken into care if he or she requires care and protection. Such a child cannot be taken into care against the wishes of the parent having custody of him or her or persons actingin loco parentis. Children taken into care under section 4 are in voluntary care. As such, one must make specific provision regarding the granting of an order under this section in respect of such children because they are in a unique position, whereby they are placed in care voluntarily by a parent or person acting in loco parentis. However, where a child is in care under section 18 and the subject of a care order, the court and Health Service Executive have autonomy in the case. I do not know if my reply addresses the question raised by the Senator.

I ask the Minister of State to clarify whether, in the event that a child opts to live with his or her grandparents, the grandparents are obliged to inform the authorities that they have care of their grandchild.

As I understand the position, the case the Senator outlines would be a private arrangement which stands outside the care system. This system relates to two categories, namely, persons taken into care or persons surrendered into care. The circumstances described by the Senator relate to a third category, one on which he touched in his Second Stage contribution. While there is a third category of persons who are minded informally by someone else, there is no suggestion of any risk or requirement that a child in such circumstances would have care and protection. A person would simply have custody of the child in question and would not fall within the scope of the legislation.

Initially, in such circumstances, the child may enter into an informal, private arrangement and thereafter the grandparents may apply for fostering rights. The purpose of the amendment is to make allowance for cases in which grandparents or other persons, primarily family members, foster a child informally for a period, perhaps of a year, prior to the formal commencement of a fostering arrangement.

While I accept the Senator's point, special consideration would not be given to a pre-existing period of voluntary custody in the event that a child became problematical. The reason is that if the child has become difficult, the State must measure the parent's capacity against the period of time the parent parented a difficult child. Therefore, we stick to the five-year period.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

I move amendment No. 9:

In page 6, between lines 5 and 6, to insert the following:

"(12) In this section, "missing", in respect of a parent, means a parent who has had no contact whatsoever with either the child or the Health Service Executive for a continuous period of at least 1 year.".

This amendment seeks to clarify what "missing" means. That provision of the Bill should be tightened. Does missing mean they did not reply to a text message, answer the door or reply to a letter? In respect of a parent it should mean the parent had no contact with either the child or the Health Service Executive for a continuous period of at least one year.

Senator Browne has raised an interesting question. It is normal in legislation not to address this issue. Whether a person is missing is a matter for the courts, not for primary legislation. If the proceedings are served on the relevant parties and they are missing, they will not show up at the court. We must give some guidance to the courts because it is a fact that quite a few foster parents are missing and it will put a huge burden on applicants if the court insists on the full rigours of the law in tracing a missing person for every application. That is the reason the word "missing" has been included.

The courts are used to dealing with these matters and it is best left to them at that stage. Section 43A provides that the court will have to be satisfied that the parent or other person is missing and cannot be found by the Health Service Executive. It will then be a matter for the court to decide, based on the information provided to it by the executive on the efforts made to contact the person, whether it is satisfied that the parent or other person is missing and cannot be found. We have relaxed the system somewhat for the applicant under this legislation. However, it would reduce the power of the court too much to provide for the specificity Senator Browne suggests. That would be telling the court that the person is missing. It is better for the court to be empowered to conduct a complete review of the HSE file because the court might have a reservation about this.

We are dealing with the rights of parents. Senator Tuffy pointed out this earlier and it is a matter I will return to in terms of rights. It is important the courts be left with discretion to decide whether somebody is missing and not simply be told the HSE has not heard from the person for a year or two and, therefore, he or she is missing. We must be a little more protective of the rights of the parties. That is the thinking behind the provision. I welcome the amendment because it highlights an issue that caused difficulty during the drafting.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Amendment No. 10 not moved.

I move amendment No. 11:

In page 6, between lines 18 and 19, to insert the following:

"(e) a person who, in the opinion of the court, has a bona fide interest in the child.”.

This amendment is suggested because the section is far more limited than section 37(1) which allows a broader category of interested persons, for example, relatives, if they are not the natural parents to apply for conditions to be added to the order under the Bill. There should be similar flexibility in this section. An obvious relative is the grandparent.

Given how society has developed, grandparents are playing a greater role in children's lives. There are many reasons for this. It can occur in different circumstances, including when there are problems in the relationship between the children and the parents. Often the grandparents are there for the children. This could include grandparents on the non-custodial parent's side. One cannot make a judgment on why a parent is or is not the custodial parent because there can be many reasons for it. Again, the grandparents fit into that picture. Non-custodial grandparents could play a large role in the child's upbringing and might have an interest in seeking an order under this section.

I do not know the extent to which one should legislate with regard to grandparents but this issue is being examined in other jurisdictions and it should be considered here. When families break down or, for some reason, a parent is not available, it is often the grandparents who step in to look after the child. We must provide in the legislation for where they might undertake a role.

It will be probably necessary to re-examine the definitions relating to parents. What if the parents are married and the father is the guardian by law but is not the custodial parent? Where do his guardianship rights stand if he is not included in this legislation? This relates to what I said on Second Stage. Senator Henry is correct that we will have to do what other countries have done and re-examine all these areas. Australia, for example, has conducted studies and consultations and produced White Papers and subsequent legislation dealing with these matters. Society is changing and is very different from what it was ten or 15 years ago. We must respond to that.

I agree with the suggestion regarding unmarried fathers, that we introduce the legislation that is due to be introduced in Britain whereby if a father is named on the birth certificate, and he must get the mother's consent to be so named, he should have automatic guardianship rights. Fathers automatically have guardianship if they are married.

I am always fascinated when people describe a breakdown in a marriage or relationship as "amicable" because I have not yet encountered it. Frequently, children are the big losers in these situations. Grandparents have no rights but they might be the only stability left for the child or children. The Minister and Senator Tuffy will have seen instances in the courts where visiting and access rights for children are really used as weapons, while grandparents have no rights. Perhaps the Minister will consider SenatorTuffy's suggestion because these might be the people who have the best interests of the child at heart at that time.

I have already undertaken to address the issue of the parties who should be served with notice of the application. I note the wording relating to the discharge of the order follows the wording in the application. The amendment refers to persons who have a bona fide interest in the child's welfare. That is a vague formulation. I will take it into account in my review but I prefer to be more precise in a categorical list of individuals who should be served with the proceedings.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Section 2 agreed to.
Question proposed: "That section 3 stand part of the Bill."

Like Senator Browne, I was disappointed that following the Minister's speech on Second Stage, in which he said he would put down amendments on Committee Stage regarding the Ferns Report, the amendments were not dealt with here. They will be dealt with on Committee Stage in the Lower House and when the Bill returns to the Seanad we will be only able to pull our forelocks and agree to them. We have no power to do anything unless something appalling is included. The Seanad addresses Bills such as this very seriously and it is a great disappointment that we did not have the opportunity to discuss those amendments today.

I should have dealt with that. Senator Browne raised it earlier and I would like to address it now. The amendments are very complex and they relate to the whole question under consideration. The Ferns amendments relate to two particular recommendations in the Ferns Report about which much work has been done by my own office and that of the Attorney General. The first recommendation deals with the interagency groups that have substantial dealings with vulnerable children or have unsupervised access to children. The recommendation outlines the legal scaffolding that should be erected to give them protection from libel, freedom of information legislation, data protection legislation and all other immunities they enjoy when assessing the necessary soft information. We are working on a draft and it seemed that this would be a convenient vehicle for it, but I regret the fact that it is not yet available for Senators.

The second recommendation made by the Ferns Report was to examine if it is possible to give power to the High Court to make an injunction restraining a person from having access to children, following an application by the Health Service Executive. That also raises complex issues because it represents a civil remedy to injunct the person from dealing with children in the absence of a criminal conviction. There is some precedent for this in the resolution of matrimonial disputes and the exclusion of parties from the matrimonial home. In the context of the Bill, it is a new power to be conferred on the HSE and one that must be formulated with great care and in a way which continues the responsibilities of organisations for their own staff in regard to the care of children.

I am not sure when Report Stage is to be taken, but I would like it to be deferred until those amendments are ready. It is not ideal that they go before the Dáil for scrutiny and then come before this House to be rubber-stamped. The issues raised in the Ferns Report are very complex and it would be better if both Houses scrutinised them fully.

I appreciate the point but the Senator must appreciate that in the last year of the current Dáil, the Seanad will have considerably more time to consider this Bill than the Dáil. I understand the Seanad has 90 days to consider it. I am anxious to get on with this and I will give the Seanad ample time to consider the Bill. I do not consider the revising function of this House to be a rubber stamp.

With all due respect, we can stand up and speak only once. That is the rule of the House. It is not the Minister of State's fault it is the Standing Order of the House.

If an amendment were to be changed on Report Stage in this House, the Bill would have to go back before the Dáil. The Minister of State hit the nail on the head when he pointed out that the Dáil has less time to consider the Bill. It is an election year and the Minister of State could be promoted next year.

I hope the Senator is not throwing in the towel on the next general election.

All I know is that we are guaranteed much uncertainty in the next few months.

We have plenty time available to deal with this Bill.

Question put and agreed to.
Title agreed to.
Bill reported without amendment.

Acting Chairman

When is it proposed to take Report Stage?

Next Wednesday.

Report Stage ordered for Wednesday, 8 November 2006.

Acting Chairman

When is it proposed to sit again?

Next Wednesday at 11 a.m..